Monday, February 28, 2011

I Fizzled, SobaPop Sizzled @ BreadBar (Mid-City)

One of my recent rant was about how I wished there were more pop-up places that can be more accessible and viable for diners to try out new dishes from the creations of upstart chefs. That particular wish was somewhat granted by the same people who brought us the Hatchi series. 

This new series was called the SOBAPOP...get it? in "Sodapop" for the introduction of soba noodles for the good people of L.A. This limited engagement was held in the BreadBar restaurant on Third Street that was the same location for the first two LudoBites series.

Cold Artisanal Tofu with Japanese Herbs and Grated Ginger - $8

I was somewhat skeptical on how inventive or how experimental soba noodles can be. More poignantly, I was more interested in what groundbreaking new ways for people who already can grabbed a bowl in anywhere else in east part of Los Angeles and south bay area of Los Angeles county where plenty restaurants can served this noodle in every way possible from traditional to cross-cuisines dishes.

For the limited engagement, the team of Sonoko Sakai and Akila Inouye introduced the healthy buckwheat flour of noodles that can be served stone cold dip in a sauce or served in hot broth soup. For those of the uninitiated, please check out my other post that dealt with soba in my reviews of popular establishments of Inchimian or Otafuku in the south bay area.

Summer Pickles with Cucumber and Japanese Turnip with Yuzu, Asazuke Style - $7

Will the people that are not familiar with the traditional soba noodles appreciated this type of traditional Asian cuisine? One big selling point to the uninitiated, they will appreciate the fact in that the noodles are originated from the stone-milled, organic wheat crops from the Gunma Prefecture in Japan. The noodles are served hand-made fresh daily in the restaurant. The only obstacle in the health conscious mind will be the fact that it is still consider cabs in the carb-free diet world.

Marinated Soft Boiled Egg, Tokyo Style with Garnishes served in a cold soy-bonito broth - $6

The appetizers are fine, but not really out of ordinary either. Pretty much of a safe play for these non-decrepit starters. You can't really screw the pooch on a boiled egg or seasoned pickles. At the same time, the tofu is pretty much very easy as long as you don't add too much sauce of a flavor to taint the soft tofu taste. Those can easily avoid a disaster, but also can't really go beyond either.

Tender Pork Belly, Kakuni Style with Greens - $15

As in for the pork belly, that I can give much more kudos because of different preparations with different style of seasoning and added greens for different savory taste of the simple pork and fat.

I was glad our table ordered a lot more appetizers than it needed to because the soba noodle dishes does take some time to be ready. In fact, the menu did put a warning on the bottom stating that it would take 20 minutes for each to be prepared.

Toro Toro Pork Soba - Tanemono Style, Braised Pork Belly, mushrooms, scallions, mitsuba, yuzu - $24

When the bowls of hot soba noodles does come, I felt a sense of a relief on that the dishes have arrived.

Honestly, I can tell a lot of work was put into it with many of the ingredients being imported from various prefecture regions in Japan was put into the bowl. At the end, I think it feel like the braised pork belly we just ordered was placed into that bowl of soba with soup broth. The soup taste fine with different elements of Japanese ingredients until I get a good bite out of the noodles.

Instantly my cold pessimism had gave way. Never had I felt the quiet moment to myself and just enjoying a simple bowl of noodle. The noodles just melt in my mouth with me taking a huge amount of slurp gobbling down whatever that was put into the bowl. Never mind the fact that my dining companions were sharing their cold soba with tsuyu sauce or they had a Kari-Kari Shrimp soba in their disposal. I just didn't have the care in the world to pay attention or share until it was too late.

I knew I was in trouble because I got a mean stare and a couple cracks of me not sharing the rest of the night, but thank goodness it was so good that I didn't mind at all. I was mean, but I don't think anyone would remembered after a day (Incredibly, I was so wrong when the same person brought it up again a few months later).

Broken Plum Wine Jelly and Dattan Soba Kanten Jelly - $7 each

For the desserts, we have two types of jelly.  One was a plum wine with Okinawan brown syrup and soba grannules (Left on the picture) with the other bowl having a clearer Umeshu Jelly with seasonal fruit. Both served well to cleanse our palate for the night and continue the trend of healthy eating for the night.

On the back of the menu, I noticed that both Sakai and Inouye were teaching classes on how to make hand-made soba noodles. It was only later that I discovered that I found out on that Inoyue had trained many Japanese soba chefs that went on to open their own restaurants and eateries around Japan. He has his own teaching academy in Tokyo, Japan where many of the aspiring soba chefs have gotten start. Sakai had written many cookbooks and is a film producer that was trained under Inouye at this said academy.

Here's the kicker, if I wanted to experience their soba adventures again, where can I find them again? I can ponied up a pretty penny to attend one of their soba making class for one day if they happen to be in town. If not, here is what I hope....Sakai resides part time in L.A. Hopefully Sakai can come back to do one more limited engagement in L.A. and bring Inoyue, the master chef and teacher to do this event.

Boy, do I kick myself for not going more often. I only tried one dish and that was not enough. This is why sometimes we do need more of these pop-ups to get one of these chef(s) to these events more often. Even if it's for one day, it's well worth it.

@ BreadBar
8718 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 205-0124

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Revealing the Best French Dip Sandwich in L.A. @ Nate N' Al (Beverly Hills)

A few years ago, I made a promise on this blog that I would reveal my favorite place for French Dip sandwiches after I did a review on for both Cole's and Philippe The Original . It was a battle for supremacy on who was the inventor of the French Dip sandwich as both have stories on how they come up with au jus sauce and the way the sandwich was dipped in to invent that unique way of eating that sandwich.

Somehow I could care less on who invented, but rather on who has the best in town. My answer to this debate is Larry King's favorite breakfast joint in his neck of the woods.

Surprisingly, my favorite French Dip sandwich is at "Nate 'n Al".

The Front Counter at the deli section

My initial reaction coming here was that I hoped I didn't have to bump into Larry King or some old foggy pseudo celebrity because I wanted to take a few picture without them thinking I was part of TMZ snapparrizi that is usually outside stalking at Wolfgang's Steakhouse or Spago's. The charming thing about the place was that it looked as if they kept the place the same since they had opened in the mid 40's. The booth seats looked it belong on the set of the restaurant scene in the movie "L.A. Confidential" where many of the area depicts a vintage Hollywood set. The place doesn't feel old, it just gave the feeling of prestige...the older kind.

They still have a big selections of deli meat on board for take outs. I could had swore that every bald husky guy looked like Rob Reiner coming in and ordering various deli meat for their midnight snack. The selections of meat on display in the refrigerated counters can probably rivaled "Canter's" for their pick of the deli.

French Dip and potato salad - $14.25

Without further ado, we got to see the sandwich on hand and really debate about the selection I had made. The au jus sauce was not as sweet like Cole's or Phillipe's. What's so remarkable about the sandwich was the sesame bun. It was not very thick or harden like the other two because dipping into the sauce will obviously make the bread more soggy. Here's another benefit, you noticed the sauce is put on the side and not pre-dip.

That was a big plus in this humble reviewer's eyes. The bread itself is firm, but also fluffy enough to withstand the post dipping carnage of not disintegrating into smooshy texture like the potato salad that accompanied it. The beef also get a textbook grade of A for excellence from me for being flavorable before the dip in the sauce and an added component of the sauce enhanced the taste even more.

Sweet Pickles

The other big cool thing about coming here are the pickles that are served here. I think they can bottled it and sell it in the chain of supermarkets. Very fresh and crunchy. After you snapped this, the sweet taste reminded me of the pickled cucumber I had when I was a kid. Definitely wishing I could take some of these pickles back home if it was made available.

Noodle Pudding - $4.50

My big discovery of the day was something that elevated my horizon a bit when I saw the noodle pudding that was served. I knew with my curiousity, I got to order that. I later figured it out that it was also called "Kugel". As you can observed, it's baked like a sliced of an apple pie with layers of egg noodles that resembles a cut of pastas.  If you are asking me if I ever had a Jewish or Middle Eastern dessert such as this, I would be pleading as though I was a newbie and would have wrongfully guessed it looked like the popular Latin dessert of Tres Leches. The dessert was absolutely fantastic as I could not stopped eating this delicious food as I though I had never encountered before.

Since then, I had tried other Noodle pudding or noodle kugel, but alas not one of those places can match Nate n' Al's version of this traditional dessert. The pretender's version tend to either be too soggy like a Tres Leches or just had too bitter of a taste with too much of different different flavor taste. Can't figure it out if they had some secret milk ingredient they had where the other places are missing such component in this dish.

After the delicous meal, I wasn't going to leave empty handed and order another batch of French Dip sandwich.  Nope, they didn't pre-dip either. That's what I love about this place as they have kept the au jus sauce on the side. I also took home an order of hot pastrami sandwich as well since I want to compare that sandwich against "Johnny's" and "The Hat". Again, no comparison. Hands down I would give the nod to Nate n' Al's over the other two as well.

Hot Pastrami Sandwich - $13.50

The pastrami was much more flavorable and much tastier than the oversteamed versions that was served at the other two establishments. The rye bread and sweet pickles alone would smash the other two if a comparison battle needed to be done, but I spared the other two for further punishments as their sandwiches paled in comparison.

Before we all jumped in, considered this...there is a reason why Larry King can afford to eat like this day in and day out. The sticker shock will probably scared off most casual diners, but I do think the quality itself on all of the sandwiches and deli items are worth it. Plus they are catering to a certain crowd in one of most recognized zip code in all over the world. Regardless of the price, they are still packing them in, which is no longer a marvel to me because I can attest to why they are popular.

They still have the best French Dip sandwich in town and now I can add hot pastrami sandwich to the list as well.

Nate 'n Al Delicatessen & Restaurant
414 N Beverly Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 274-0101

Nate 'n Al on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hatchi by Roberto Cortez @ BreadBar (Century City)


If you think you are a creative culinary chef and starting to starting to get an itch to in wanting to be the head chef in a kitchen. You probably will get the followings popped in your mind kitchen: you have work the grind of the industry in thinking you have paid their dues, wanting to be one that get noticed for the dishes that are created on the menu each and every night, and most of all you felt the "need to move on to new challenges".

Of course those are fair assertions and assessments that are being thought out loud, but how can those chefs go about in showcasing their talents? It's not as easy like the other jobs in uploading resumes to .

HERB STAINED SALMON - whipped jasmine rice, pickled cucumber paste, passionfruit chili noodles
HERB STAINED SALMON - whipped jasmine rice, pickled cucumber paste, passion fruit chili noodles

You can tried to open a new restaurant, which required a lot of money and closure rate will work against you in a short amount of time. Probably send out audition tapes of yourself to join a reality TV show in a cooking competition. Be warned... you will need to sell yourself just to get to the contestant row on "Price is Right". They don't always look for the most talented chef, but also looking for ones that are "good" for TV. If you can cook and bring drama with your egotistical personality, you might be considered (so I'm told).
VEAL SHORT RIB - cauliflower cocoa butter, vadouvan, grape edamame shallot confiture
VEAL SHORT RIB - cauliflower cocoa butter, vadouvan, grape edamame shallot confiture

However, there is a better way these days. One of the few phenomenon that was happening in Los Angeles the past few years for the up and coming chefs to showcase their talent is through the pop-up channels. Which for one day or maybe a limited time engagements, a chef will come to a kitchen of a restaurant space to showcase their dishes.

LEMON LAQUERED CHICKEN - hot aerated potato, soy gelée, almond corianders oatmeal
LEMON LACQUERED CHICKEN - hot aerated potato, soy gelée, almond corianders oatmeal

One of the earliest pop-ups I ever attended was the Hatchi series that was presented at The Bread Bar in Century City. On day time, it's a full restaurant like anywhere else, but at night time of the said event, the Bread Bar's kitchen will gave way to the featured chef of the night. This was one of my favorite only because it's not full tasting menu where you can choose the numbers of dishes you wanted at a cost of $8 for each plate. At this monthly event, it usually featured an upstart, maybe a seasoned veteran in the industry that is letting people know he is available, or even a recent celeb chef that wanted to go in a different course and wanted to test out his new cuisine for his/her fans.

At this particular dinner, we were treated to dishes created by a former personal chef to the stars, Roberto Cortez. This international cuisine chef has very impressive lists of clients he had catered to and also had a very extensive culinary training background in five different countries. If you googled his name with the word "chef", you'll probably be impressed by the name of the celebrities he had served to.

SMOKED SHITAKE TERRINE - white corn velouté, Indonesian cinnamon butter, arugula
SMOKED SHITAKE TERRINE - white corn velouté, Indonesian cinnamon butter, arugula

The theme of the dinner prepared by Chef Cortez this particular evening was called "Unfamiliar Conflict". It was aptly named for the combination of different flavor profile that is served in each of the course. For instance, the above Smoked Shitake Terrine was an interesting contrast to this lively tasting. The white corn velouté is in sweet richer flavor profile while the terrine is in a bitter savory taste that is giving a tug and war pull of flavor contest.

Many of the dishes presented were offering a beyond the boundary approach considering the training background of the chef who has European and Latin cuisines in his repertoire. Asian components with Latin flavors mixed with European influences are some of the discoveries that were made. The dish that exposes that type of techniques were evident in the "Veal Short Ribs" and "Lemon Lacquered Chicken." Both dishes offered succulent take on otherwise familiar dishes that served in many upscale restaurants. Chef Cortez's unfamiliar conflict can be considered in the realms of avant garde in the culinary field for its bold take on unconventional flavors matching.

SPARKLING LEMONCURD MOUSSE - strawberry water caramel, mint oil, crêpe crunch
SPARKLING LEMON CURD MOUSSE - strawberry water caramel, mint oil, crêpe crunch

At the night, I think the desserts were probably the ones that get the most applause in our table even though I think the main courses were the ones that are the hardest to prepare and get my approvals. I think the Manjari Chocolate Cream dessert bowl with tiny pearls and cherries was probably the highlight for any of the desserts we ever had in any of the Hatchi series. The Valrhona chocolate that served in the bowl was divine and absolutely decadent.

8C MANJARI CHOCOLATE CREAM - thai spice cherries, frozen malt, guinness pearls
8C MANJARI CHOCOLATE CREAM - thai spice cherries, frozen malt, guinness

I think overall that if this was an audition for chef Cortez to impress his future scouts or gather new fans, he would have passed with flying colors. It's too bad on that they haven't continued the Hatchi series in a long time. Considering I had been out for a while, this event had taken place over a year ago, but yet still etched in my mind on what creativity it can bestowed upon if an up-and-coming chefs get to display his craft like Roberto Cortez had once did.

Alas the series is not active at this moment nor do Bread Bar is having a schedule event since middle of last season. There are few other pop-up series that are spreading around various part of Los Angeles. If there is ever a good route to go for a chef that is looking to make a name for themselves, these type of events would be a good "instant" course of action.

Hatchi at BreadBar by Roberto Cortez
10250 Santa Monica Blvd
Century City, CA 90067
(310) 277-3770

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Eat!, Not Be a Pig Head @ Gorbals (Downtown L.A.)

There are only a few places in L.A. would captivated me to write a review for one dish.

Gorbals would be one of those places that steered me from my unbroken rule. Usually, restaurants would have to have more than 1 dish in their repertoire on their overall balance in their menu to stand up for themselves. Hence, I rarely would have just write about one dish for any restaurant.

If you are a fan of a reality show on Bravo called "Top Chef", then you may have probably know that the owner and head chef of Gorbals was Top Chef Season 2 winner Ilan Hall. The second season of the show was my favorite because of well crafted editing of the show, the personalities of each of the main contestants, and the creativity of the dishes that was put forward by many of the contestants including Ilan Hall.

Honestly, when I heard he was opening up a restaurant in downtown LA, I was thinking more of the line of Spanish cuisine because of his previous employment in New York would dictated that. I was pleasantly surprised by his bold daring move of opening up a Jewish fare borderline with other International influenced cuisines.

The cooking at Gorbal is more geared towards rustic home cooking which many of the diners and fans came to love at this place. Some of chef Hall's popular dish were his "bacon wrapped Matzo balls" and his "banh mi poutine".

Roasted Half Pig Head (Gorbals - Downtown L.A.)/span>

On this particular night, we were going to experience a new dish he presented last fall...his roasted half of pig's head.

Needless to say, growing up in a Chinese household, I have only gotten taste of boiled pig's feet or snout that was poured with massive amount of soy sauce. I might even have steamed liver, tongues, or pig's ear, but never the entire head (well, we're getting half of the entire head). You can only imagine how nonplus I am about wanting to try this dish. I just figured it will not cost me that much because I'm sharing the head with 5 other diners that night.

Let me start off by saying I was so surprised how well cook the pig's head was. The roasted pig's head was very crispy on the outside, but very tender on the inside. Giving you a perspective, the skin is like the Peking duck, while the meat was moist and tendered like a broilered chicken.

There were some seasoning to make the meat more enjoyable because I was definitely expecting a bland pig meat. Our table deconstructed the head from the ear to the snout, with the pig's teeth and eyeball being collected as souvenir.

As pointed out earlier, the plate of half of a head was more than enough for a dining group of 6 as all of was stuffed that night. Make sure to order ahead because it will take about 45 minutes for the dish to be prepare.

After 4 visits at The Gorbals, I have to put the pig's head dinner as one of more satisfied meal in recent memory. I definitely would go back for the "banh mi poutine" as well and "bacon wrapped matzo balls" have won me over recently.

Now, the only question I have for Ilan Hall was that if he was serious about starting a food truck business. If so, will the "banh mi poutine" be on the menu? I doubt the roasted pig's head can be prepared adequately, so I'm hoping for at least one of the two popular dish to survive the food truck venture.

One dish doesn't make or break a dinner. However, just for this one unique dish, it can complete a meal.

The Gorbals
501 S. Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
(213) 488-3408

The Gorbals on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lesson Learned: Don't Wait Too Long

Seriously, I think I had been out of the game way too long.

The feeling I can't really be put into words until I was told there was a new place opened up called "Red O" or did I tried "Toranko". Huh and huh? Followed by a sound of "hmmm" with a quick reflex to google up in my smart phone. I can't even fathom on how I can keep with these new places.

It was also brought to my attention that a few of my favorite places have closed down since last my post in the summer of '10. Felt a bitter cold wrenched in my heart and a little bewilderment clouding my thoughts because I always thought places that served good food will last forever.

Won Ton Noodle Soup (Won Ton Forest - City of Industry)

The closure hit me the most was a won ton noodle shop called Won Ton Forest in City of Industry. This hurts me badly because it was only a minor walking distance from my work. A won ton noodle shop that would have made a great lunch choice for me instead of Jack in the Box nearby most of the week have now come and gone. Somehow I didn't even know about it until a comrade Go Ramen (who is pursuing his dream of being a top Ramen maestro in Japan) introduced this place to me and had championed it for as long as I had remembered.

The big heart break?... I didn't visit this place until a month before it decided to shut down.

The won ton as anyone can tell you is not a small dumpling in a soup, but a well crafted combination of meat wrapped beautifully in either a flour skin or deep fried variety. Personally, I loved the soup version of the dumpling served here in a generous portion with an inviting bok choy that accompanies it. If I had to turn back time, it would be skipping the lunches at Subway (right next door) and all those crappy lunches at Jack in the Box, and come here instead.

Boy, did I ever regretted this.

Pho Bac (Pho Minh - South El Monte)

If I need another gut punch, this blow would floored me for sure. I was really bummed when I discovered that Pho Minh closed down in November of '10. I treated this place like my secret hideaway. Never really wanted to give an acknowledgement on how good their broth with its unique subtle and very light taste. Most of the time, the oily backtaste that is on the broth soup leaves me clamoring for water. Not at Pho Minh, which I'm sad to learn they never really caught on.

I wasn't suprised because I'm usually the only person on most week nights and no other customers to speak of. It has to be very discouraging because it never got a fair shake as it had a rough start and never recover.

The sad part is that both establishment were run by young and enthusiastic owners who are hoping they can make a go at the unforgiving world of restaurant business where the rate closure is less than 3 months. It is going to be brutual and both started at a not so great foot traffic area for their business. I really hope both young owners give it another go at this restaurant jungle, but I would understand if they felt discouraged.

It's tough to see these places go in a quick flash. It only serves me as a reminder that these new places that are popping up are replacing the old establishment that didn't made it. Of course after looking up where Red O and Toranko are located, I can only surmise that both have a fighting chance with much more buzz going for them.

Lesson Learned for me. I let this things passed by and only had a faint memories of these two places.

Shoot....*sigh*. Let's take a look at the menu for the new place that had just opened up. What's it called again?... Playa Rivera?

Former Location:

Won Ton Forest18230 Gale Ave
City of Industry, CA 91748

Pho Minh9646 Garvey Ave
South El Monte, CA 91733

Pho Minh on Urbanspoon