Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Nobu's Omakase on a Budget


Upscale dining at an elegant restaurant like Nobu West Hollywood may seem unrealistic for some of us, especially these days. But as we have learned, the frugal diner's secrets for eating beyond their reach is to arrive for lunch and/or to eat from the bar menu. Nobu's new "Chef's Tasting Tapas Menu," or Omakase, for those of us who like to sound cool, allows us a taste of pure heaven for only $40 a person. We are talking about pure heaven. Your palate will grow little wings and fly around the room in ecstacy.

The "Chef's Tasting" offers six courses following the traditional Omakase structure. First a cold plate arrives with three small dishes, then a hot selection of two items, and finally a single dessert.

The cocktail bar is stylish but welcoming. The room is rather dark, with the stark contrast of red and black lightened by the use of natural materials like woven branches and wood. The room and the menu are both well-suited to either an informal business meeting or a romantic tryst.

Last week LAist was invited to try the "Chef's Tasting" menu. The server first asks about preferences and allergies. After I finished pointing out menu items, asking questions and talking about ceviche and foie gras, the waiter gave me a look like, "This person clearly does not understand the meaning of chef's choice."

We started off with cocktails, for me the Matsuhisa Martini made with vodka, Hokusetsu sake, and ginger garnished with cucumbers. It was a nice clean drink that wasn't too sweet. My dining partner tried the Cucumber Martini. It was sweeter than the other martini, but the sugar was not overwhelming. It was a nice pairing for the food and refreshing with the spicy and salty complimentary bar snacks - tempura edamame, nuts, homemade corn nuts, and peppers.

The cold plates that arrived were identical.

The first bite was Whitefish Tiradito, sushi chef Matsuhisa's take on a Japanese-influenced Peruvian ceviche. The thin gossamer slices float in a light marinade that tastes of lemon and mirin.

The next dish is composed of two pieces of Yellowfin Tuna Tataki with Cilantro dressing. The fish is so pure it barely even tastes of the sea. Cilantro, yuzu and ponzu dress the fish but don't overwhelm the purity. Being used to raw tuna served tartare or thinly sliced, the big chunks seem more beefy, and yet the texture isn't that of beef either ...surprisingly, it is almost the texture of a stone fruit, like a fresh peach.

Last on the cold plate is Nobu's signature Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno. The thinly sliced fish is wrapped around cilantro and draped as delicately as a kimono.

We tried two more cocktails for the round of hot tapas. The Champagne 95, though much sweeter than the other drinks, was delicious, mixing Grand Marnier, Creme de Peche, Pineapple juice and Domaine Chandon. The Japanese caiprihanha was made with muddled shiso leaves instead of mint. The taste was not too different, as the plants are in the same family, but it was less intense and a bit more herbal-tasting than mint.

For our "Hot Tapas" we each received a different pairing. I was lucky enough to receive the Gyoza filled with wagyu beef and foie gras. Well, maybe not lucky so much; maybe I hynotized the server by repeatedly pointing at the gyoza on the menu. The dumpling wrapper was as perfect as could be. I savored the meatiness, the umami, the richness of the dumpling. My server asked which dipping sauce I had liked better, but I hadn't even dipped the gyoza. I wanted to taste it in its naked purity.

The Ginger Panko Encrusted Scallop was also too delicious on its own for me to bother with the sauces. That scallop was so good it made me want to punch someone in the face. Somehow it felt unfair that such delicious tastes exist in the world and only a select few get to taste them. I felt extremely fortunate to be dining at Nobu that night.

Speaking of only a few people getting to taste things, my dinner companion received a Wagyu Taco with a thin crisp yet delicate shell filled with a slightly sweet chopped wagyu beef. It was gone before I could even get the teensiest taste and when I asked him what it was like, he would only say, "F-ing amaaazing."

 The Miso Cod arrived on a single butter lettuce leaf that fanned out like a Dale Chihuly glass-blown scallop shell. The sear around the edges intensified the fish's natural flavor, making it one of the strongest flavors of the night.

Some diners would be ready for dessert at this point, but the addition of one or two items from the "Hot Tapas" menu to share makes it a more satisfying meal ("Tapas" are priced between $7 - $12 each). At this point we are veering off of the Omakase menu for a little detour. Some items come with two or three pieces, so consult with the server before deciding how many plates you would like to add.

We chose to add on the Foie Gras and Crispy Soba. The soba was formed into a little cracker, like a gourmet rice cake. But the star of the plate was the seared foie gras. It was adorable, like a little Barbie foie gras, but afforded two or three bites. The teriyaki-style sauce was unusual, but provided the same sweet balance of foie's natural fruit accompaniment.

In spite of the Ted Nugent reference we also tried Wagyu Dango in a pool of wasabi and saffron aioli. It was a dumpling, a wagyu meatball enveloped by a crisp rice shell. Sticking out from the top of the dumpling like a mohawk was a deep-fried shiso leaf, transluscent as spun sugar, fragile as a butterfly wing, and thin as parchment. It melted on the tongue with a whisper of salt in the blink of an eye.

Our final dish was Suntory Whiskey Iced Cappucino. It was multilayered like a parfait. Layers consisted of a light chocolate mousse, chocolate espresso rice krispies, and whipped cream infused with the crisp, clean Japanese whiskey.

When I close my eyes and remember the meal at Nobu, I begin to think of calligraphy and fine brush strokes, watercolors and color washes. There is a subtle beauty to each dish. They exemplify perfection in simplicity, the serenity of the subtle. When something is simple it must be done exactly right. The flavors must be balanced with the precision of the sushi knife -- salt, acidity, umami, coolness and heat, sweet and sour, it was all there in the citrus and the soy, the yuzu and the shiso. But above all there was respect for the main ingredient, whether it was the folding of the Yellowtail or the dusting of the perfect scallop. $40 is a small price to pay to surrender yourself to the chef and allow him to show you the sublime.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Laurel Tavern

Why is lunch on Ventura Boulevard always cause for so much shouting? "It's up on the right. No, further down...wait...wait...you passed it!" Laurel Tavern, which only started serving lunch last month, is helpfully painted black to stand out from the neighboring businesses. It is your standard gastropub, perhaps one of our best imports from England since the Beatles ...well, maybe Radiohead. The ceiling is high, and large windows that open out to the less-than-bucolic street still give the room an open feel that makes you feel less guilty about sitting in a bar drinking beer at noon.

The menu is a mix of small plates for the people who came to drink and more substantial offerings for those who came to eat. You have to discuss portion sizes with the bartender since descriptions on the large chalkboard menu don't offer hints. Some salads are big, some salads are small, and some salads are just right. Like Father's Office, you order at the bar and the food is brought to the table. Unlike Father's Office, you are greeted with a smile and an explanation of protocol at the door.

Unfortunately the lunch menu is limited, so there are no roast marrow bones or pork belly skewers. Fortunately, what is on the menu is still pretty good. The goat cheese salad is comprised of fresh mixed greens topped with a baked pear and a bright vinagrette.

The giant Laurel burger is topped with gouda and served in a cake pan so you can bake your own dessert if you really need one. The french fries do stay hot and crisp in the unusual pan.

The mussels even passed our East coast transplant's strict seafood test. The artichoke is charred black. A well of intense lemon vinagrette rests in each half. But be prepared for black fingers from the artichoke's char (and if you park on Ventura, don't forget to feed the meter).

Saturday, July 24, 2010


You can find the Oinkster on Colorado in Eagle Rock by keeping an eye out for the giant red A. That's A for umm, Angster? Bravo to them for keeping the same landmark building and sign as the previous occupant, Jim's.

Everyone seems to love Oinkster. They slow-roast their pork and cure their own pastrami. The french bread is tightly stuffed with massive amounts of meat until it is as round as a burrito. The giant sandwiches must be eaten with caution, as they are ready to burst at any moment. Not first date food. For the pulled pork, we highly recommend their killer barbecue sauce It comes on the side and sometimes you have to ask for it.
The hamburgers are also gigantic, with thick, meaty patties. The onion is sharp, the tomato is Farmer's market fresh, and the housemade ketchup has a bite. Best of all, the burger is topped with a rich Gruyere.

In the crazy fries department, the Oinkster fries come topped with grilled onions, cheddar cheese and their own Thousand Island dressing. It is just as interesting, but not as horrible as it sounds. Our only suggestion is that the cheese should be sprinkled on the bottom instead of the top so that they melt into the hot fries.

If you have a sweet tooth, Oinkster's serves up hand scooped shakes made with Fosselman's ice cream and specialty cupcakes, especially their famous peanut butter and jelly cupcakes.

Service is above and beyond friendly. Employees are downright chatty -- they make everyone feel like a regular. No matter how hip this place is, there is no nasty hipster vibe. Sometimes the line is kind of long, but as in any establishment with food this good and a positive staff, the patrons are happy to wait. The customers are happy, the servers are happy, I'm happy. I suspect you'll be happy too.

Keep an eye open, according to Squid Ink, Andre Guerrero may be opening "a second Oinkster, possibly in Culver City or downtown."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tonys Darts away

When friends come to visit my Magnolia Park neighborhood, they sometimes ask where my "local" is. I'm left blank, because we don't have a local here like we did in Los Feliz. Other than Tinhorn Flats and the standing bar at a few restaurants, this hood has been devoid of a comfortable watering hole.

That is, until Tony Yanow came to town and renovated a little hole-in-the-wall to create the first draft-only "bottle-less bar" in Burbank. All of the bartenders at Tony's Darts Away are experts and can help you choose from the 30-plus rotating beers on tap.

The bar serves only the best locally sourced craft beers available. In keeping with his green philosophy, Tony's goal is to narrow the geographical gap between the brewer and the customer. By keeping the "beer miles" low, it decreases the carbon footprint. The menu is heavy on IPAs because IPAs are a true California innovation.

Beers are served by the glass, "honest pint" or in some cases, in a tulip glass. The best way to get a feel for the beers is by buying a "flight" or sampler of four. Ask the knowledgeable barkeep for your preference, be it sweeter beers, IPAs, a combination, or even something "hoppy" and they will come through for you. You can also pick and choose your own flight from the menu.

In addition to craft beers, Tony's brought in sommelier Andy Lynch to select wines from California red and white varietals, all served on tap (as well as a few sodas for the teetotalers).

Another interesting difference is Tony's bar food. Whereas a token vegan dog is usually hidden down near the bottom of the menu, Tony's displays them front and center. Four kinds of vegan sausages join the other locally sourced artisanal sausages.

So far our favorite has been the bratwurst. There are a number of vegan toppings, including a vegan cheese and a garlic aioli. For the carnivores, we recommend straight-up mustard and peppers as being the best match for the sausages.

Surprisingly for bar fare, the salads are actually at the top of our list. The beet salad is a definite winner.

The hand-cut chips and curly onion strings don't hold a candle to the sweet potato fries. They come covered in a sweet glaze, but if you ask real nice they might make you a special batch of naked sweet potato fries to dip in that garlic aioli.

The one wrench in the works is the size of the game area. It is so small that the pool table, dart board and satellite jukebox are all crammed up against each other. It is virtually impossible for people to play both darts and pool at the same time. And if you want to put another dime in the jukebox, baby, be careful you don't get a dart in the forehead.

We just returned again tonight and they had moved the jukebox to avoid dart accidents. It was perfect for our crowd of college-aged visitors.

The service and vibe are friendly with just a touch of dive still hanging in the air. A marijuana leaf sticker and the occasional broken glass keep the place from being too hip for its own good. So pull up a barstool, because we finally have a place to call our "local". Oh, and don't play pool with George. You can't beat him.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Popcycle Rolls In

 LA's newest traveling food recently made its debut near the Silverlake Farmers Market. With flavor combos like Salty Cucumber Lime, Lemon Mint Blueberry and Cantaloupe with Anise, these are not your standard frozen fruit bars. And at $3 a pop they are an affordable splurge.

The custom-made bike and freezer box created by owner John Cassidy are based on a Dutch design to ride on two wheels instead of the standard three-wheeled bike. There is no truck or a hitch, so sales are limited by leg work. They can only go as far as John can pedal.

Paletas were one of the inspirations for the frozen treats. Michelle Sallah, a professional chef, was excited to discover the paleterias when she moved to LA and eventually married her love for playing with flavors and partner John Cassidy's love for bikes to create Popcycle treats. Michelle comes from a diner family, and has worked at the Spotted Pig in New York and Bar Marmount in LA. She knows from experience that owning a restaurant is a 24-7 job. She and John wanted to work together, but in a project that would still allow them freedom. They worked and developed their idea throughout the last year.

Michelle is playing with mixes of savory herbs and juices as well as other innovative recipes. For example, the "Arnold Palmer" is Raspberry Iced Tea and Lemon. The produce is purchased at the local farmer's market and they use organic ingredients. Michelle is careful to use only as much sugar as the treat needs. The flavors are intense, but not so strong or unusual that children won't enjoy them too. The bike only had 2 treats left when we arrived. They had saved them for me after I tweeted, begging them to wait while I zoomed over. So we only tested out the Lemon Mint Blueberry, which was an explosion of flavors, like a frozen lemon bomb.

The bike can hold up to 200 frozen treats at a time, but will usually roll with around 100. Michelle wants it to be non-stressful for them, and a special experience for customers. There is a modern-day treasure hunt element to chasing food trucks and bikes, and she hopes there will be an exciting element to rotating flavors. Keep it small, keep it local, and you can maintain a personal vibe with customers as well as quality.