Monday, February 27, 2006

Garbage Pail Food #1: Yokohama Ramen, Los Angeles

It seems like there are accolades for virtually everything. In high school, it was the “Best ________” awards. In college, students with 6.0 GPA’s were recognized and hooked up with some scholarship money to continue proper schooling. In the workplace, ass-kissing employees will get some kind of “Team Leader/Brown-noser” award. There are even awards for porn stars. How proud must the parents of those ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ be? So the same goes with the food blogosphere. There’s the recently completed, 2005 Food Blog and Urb Awards in which some of my friends over at the site were nominated. Well, I’ve decided to create my own category. Not really an award, but more of an ongoing category commemorating some of the worst piece of shit places I’ve eaten at. Introducing…

The Garbage Pail Food Accolade

This highly coveted award is derived from those notoriously gross and humorous trading cards that were banned from schools – Garbage Pail Kids. For those that may disagree with my selections, this is all in fun and probably a huge financial loss for the unlucky eateries. But who am i anyway? It's just one person's opinion.

The first recipient of the GPF award goes to Yokohama Ramen in West Los Angeles. On Saturday, before driving off to Hollywood Hills for a catering event, I wanted to get a bowl of ramen. I drove down Sawtelle Blvd. for my usual Kinchan’s ramen. On this day, it happened to be way crowded. I didn’t have time to scour for parking, so I just took off. My friend had told me about another ramen shop over on Barrington/Gateway called Yokohama. I drove down Barrington, excited that I’d be eating at a ramen place besides the Sawtelle Trio – Asahi, Kinchan’s and Ramenya (Olympic Blvd.)

Yokohama sits at the end of an old strip mall. Looks really depressing. It’s very easy to drive by this because Gateway isn’t really that busy of an intersection. I walked in and saw about 6 out of the 12 tables occupied. Ok, not bad. Should be good. The waitress handed me an sticky and oily laminated menu – a common sign of restaurants that prefer to focus on the food rather than a clean eating environment. Wow. I perused the menu to find 21 types of ramen! Nice.

Yokohama Ramen
Kyushu Ramen
Tokyo Nori Ramen
Shio Ramen
Shoyu Ramen
Shio Ramen
Spicy Miso Ramen
Chashu Ramen…

And the prices were reasonable - $5.50 to 7 for a big bowl of noodles. So I ordered the Shoyu ramen. The waitress tried to convince me to try the #1 Yokohama special, which was ramen topped with seafood, pork and veggies. Naw. Anytime I go into a ramen shop, I wanna try the popular stuff – either shoyu or miso. You don’t go to a Vietnamese Pho restaurant and order a Banh Mi sandwich – you gotta try the pho. I also ordered some gyoza. Also on the menu, was Korean and Chinese food. Odd. Could this be one of those fake Japanese restaurants – like Kabuki, which is Korean-owned? I like Kabuki though.

10 minutes later, my food arrived. I happily rubbed my hands together and attempted to split the wooden chopsticks perfectly. Never happens. So with my retarded chopsticks and spoon, I dove into the bowl and fished out the broth. Uh oh. This wasn’t good at all. It really tasted like they added soy sauce to hot water. Did they even make their own pork stock? I then tried the noodles, which were soggy and similar in taste to Nissin packaged noodles. I then tried the cuts of spinach – they had been precooked and maybe even frozen. I could still taste old water in it. The bamboo shoots looked tasty, but had this weird smell – like it had been kept in a metal container for a long time. And finally, with one last attempt at redeeming itself as a decent bowl of ramen, I grabbed the Chashu pork slices. Ok it was tender, but there was this weird liver-like smell to the meat. Could it be somewhat rotten? I didn’t even finish this bowl of noodles. I pushed it aside and waited for my gyoza.

Before I even reached for the gyoza, I could tell they were frozen just by looking at the soggy skin. They looked like they had been sitting out under a heat lamp for a good hour before they were microwaved and dished out to the Chinese guy who just ate some really bad Shoyu ramen. Even Todai’s dumplings looked better than this. That should tell you a lot since Todai is the Asian cousin of Hometown Buffet.

There you have it. The first recipient of the GPF award. For anyone else that’s been there, I’d really like to know what you thought of their food. Again, this is all IMO.

Thanks for reading.
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Friday, February 24, 2006

SF Good Eats #3.5 - Meeting the Passionate Eater of SF

It was now 6 pm, and I found myself driving alone back from Napa Valley. Well, there were two other bodies in the car, but DY and Mei had passed the hell out after going to four wineries. Or wait, was it five? *shrug* On the last run, they didn’t even bother going in with me for the tasting. Anyway, I had to drive with the windows rolled down, iPod singing and cigarettes lit – anything to keep me up because I was still buzzed. I was falling asleep too and not about to pull over for a napster. I don’t know too many people that actually become more energetic after drinking wine. Beer is what does it for me.

We got back to the Mission around 6:30 and I had about an hour to get ready, because tonight I was meeting up with a fellow blogger for the first time. Being a daily reader of her blog, I had to meet the woman behind the honest, detailed and smartly written reviews about her food, and how it was involved in her life.

Me: “Hello?”
PE: “Yes, Hi. May I speak with Dylan?”
Me: “Speaking?”
PE: “Hello, Dylan. Am I calling at a bad time? This is ________, and you may also know me as the Passionate Eater.”
Me: “Oh hey. Jesus, why are you speaking so formally? I thought you were a telemarketer ready to sell me something? I was this close to hanging up haha.”
PE: “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Me: “So what are we eating tonight?”
PE: “I like Indian food.”
Me: “Likewise, you pick.”
PE: “See you at the Indian Oven at 7:30.”
Me; “I’m there.”

I jumped in the shower, buzzed. Ever take a shower when you’re buzzed? It feels great haha. After the shower, I was completely sober. Amazing. Anyway, I mapquested the Indian Oven Restaurant and headed out. Before we got off the phone, she asked what I was wearing. I was gonna tell her, “leopard skin mini skirt with white pumps and a blonde wig”, but she might’ve flaked out on me – thinking I was a complete freak.

7:25 pm. I got to the Indian Oven, and no sign of PE and her bf. I didn't expect her to hold up a sign with “Passionate Eater” on it or anything. I’ve never really met anyone on the Internet, so a million things ran through my head. Your brain automatically attempts to process the things you’ve read about a person, and develop somewhat of an image. When Best of LA and I met Daily Gluttony for the first time, she probably did the same. Every single person that walked by, I tried to fit them into my mental mold. People must’ve thought I had a staring problem.

But then a few minutes later, a young lady and a young man approached me quickly. And I knew it was her because she carried a cheery disposition that was reflective of her writing style, and well it was 7:30 pm. Put those two clues together, voila… Passionate Eater.

From the moment the three of us sat down, we talked and talked and talked. I think the waiter came to us twice to take our order and we waved him off. By the third time, we were ‘obligated’ to order. Lamb, tiki masala, naan, whatever, just order anything PE haha. “Ok, back to what I was saying about… “

I’m really glad that I’ve gotten into this food blogging hobby. I mean it’s really great to be a part of a community with common and SPECIFIC interests, like food. And I think we surprised each other with just how much we remembered and knew about each other through writings on food.

PE: "How's your finger?"
Me: "No, no. How's your finger?"

Me: "Were you exhausted after that Super Bowl Party you catered?"
PE: "Yeah, weren't you after your catering gig?"

We talked about other sites that we enjoyed reading. Talked about things we were going to cook next. Blah blah blah and more blah, blah, blah. I looked over at PE’s boyfriend and couldn’t help but think that he was bored to tears. It was now 9:30 pm and it was time to go. Otherwise, I would’ve had to carry PE’s boyfriend into the car.

Oh yeah, was the food good? Yeah it was good. I don’t have any pictures because I charged the batteries but forgot to put them in the camera. Genius. Luckily, PE’s boyfriend had one of those all-in-one phones and took a snapshot of the delicious Samosas and one of PE & me. Regardless, even if the food tasted like ass, it was still a great night of conversation and wine.

Here are some of her postings that I like:

Valentine's Day
Super Bowl Sunday

PE and PE’s boyfriend, nice meeting you.

If there’s a blogger you frequently read about, I’d encourage meeting up with him or her sometime. It’s fun, different and nice to meet the person behind the black, 8-pt text that you stare at all day long. If I'm ever in Singapore, I'm knocking on Jocelyn of Kuiadore's door for haute dining. J, is that okay?

Pam, Kirk, Yoony, Jeni and OC people (Elmo, Prof. Salt and MealCentric), name the date and time!

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

San Francisco Good Eats #3: Where's Thomas Keller? - Bouchon, Yountville, Napa Valley

To eat at Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry” requires a two-month reservation and an hour drive from San Francisco to the small town of Yountville. For $210, you’re entitled to a fabulous 9-course meal with complementary dishes from Chef Keller. Since my trip to San Francisco was planned with such short notice, I wasn’t able to reserve in time. But, I had to at least see what the place looked like since I was going up to Napa Valley anyway. As I drove up with DY and her friend Mei, I was anxious and excited. Fingers and feet tapping, I wondered if I’d be able to see Thomas Keller at his restaurant. After an hour, we reached the Yountville exit, and my anticipation grew from a slight finger-tapping on the steering wheel, to an accelerated heart-rate. I started to count down the address numbers…

6650… 6648… 6646… 6644… 6642…

and finally, 6640. I stopped the car, made a U-turn and parked the car along the roadside.

Me: “I’ll be right back.”
DY and Mei rolled their eyes.

I approached the complex slowly like a ninja. The gold-plated “French Laundry” sign was tucked neatly on the bottom of the building – quite easy to miss. Being careful not to be spotted as another tourist, itching for a peak into the French Laundry. I tried to take a peek inside the restaurant. Negative. The windows were blocked by shutters. Tightly. I then crept along the left side of the restaurant, and saw two cooks unloading goods. Probably $500 caviar and cases of foie gras fresh from France. Still no sign of my target. I went back around to the backyard of the restaurant. Keep in mind, before Chef Keller took over the house, it was a French Laundromat. I tippy-toed to look over the fence and I saw two young Asian cooks, probably stagiers (interns), chatting away. I wanted to go up the stairs to what I thought was the entrance, but people were guarding the door. And all of a sudden, I felt somewhat disappointed. My glimmer of hope had suddenly dissipated into oblivion and I walked back to my car. DY and Mei gave me puzzled looks.

DY: “Well did you see him?”
Me: “Naw.”
DY: “Who cares. Let’s go eat then.”

She didn’t understand how badly I wanted to meet him. But then again, what would I do if I did see him? Ask him to take a photo with me? Autograph his own cookbooks that I didn’t even own yet? Give me leftovers from last night’s $210 dinner? I then decided, one day before I die, I will forget that I’m Chinese, and actually give Thomas Keller my $210 without gripping onto the dollar bills.

By now, we were hungry from the long drive. I figured the next best thing to do was eat at Thomas Keller’s ‘cheaper’ restaurant, Bouchon, which is also located in the town of Yountville – three blocks away. I think the girls knew that I really wanted to eat at The French Laundry and agreed to eat an expensive lunch to make up for it.

Walking up to Bouchon, I didn’t see any large signs screaming its name. Instead, I found myself stepping on a large Willy-Wonka like rug on the ground that said “Bouchon”. Well not that big. I’m only exaggerating because I’m so fascinated with Thomas Keller. In a sense, it was like the Willy Wonka story. People flock to eat Thomas Keller's food, but do they really ever see him? Upon entering, I saw two cooks working behind the seafood bar. Bouchon was known for its many varieties of oysters and oceanic delicacies. I, of course, would try it some.

Seriously, Bouchon wasn’t as large and elegant as I imagined it to be. A few palm trees were placed inside. The floors wore a black & white checkered look. The walls painted with a French style. The patrons eating there? I think the average age was 103. After 10 minutes, we were brought menus, bread and water. Here’s what we had:

A. Oysters From the Bar
At $15 for 1/2 a dozen, these are quite pricey. Were they good? Yes. I couldn't remember the name of the oysters, but I know that the small and sweet, Kumamotos, were included along with three types of sauces.

B. Crab Salad with Watercress
I didn't get to try this, but the girls seemed to enjoy it. $9.75

C. French Onion Soup
This dish was very good, probably one of the better french onion soups i've tasted. The crust is actually not made of dough, it's ALL CHEESE, with maybe a few croutons in the soup itself. The soup had a balanced taste of sweetness and saltiness. $8.50

D. Roasted Leg of Lamb with Thyme Jus
This was my entree and I enjoyed every bit of it. Although a small portion, the lamb was cooked to a perfect medium doneness and al dente'd beans. I thought that they could use less Thyme Jus because my beans were drowning within. Very good though. $24.50

E. Croque Madame
This was basically a ham and cheese sandwich with a baked egg on top, served with fries. The girls split this and really enjoyed it. The egg cooked perfectly, and beautiful waterfalls of cheese oozing over the side of the sandwich. The fries sucked though - too salty and probably purchased from Sysco Foods.

Overall, I enjoyed the Bouchon, bistro-experience. I don't think I would come back though, because $45 for a lunch is a bit exorbitant. If you're gonna spy on the French Laundry like I have, you should just try this once. Or at least go to the Bouchon Bakery next door.

6534 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-8037

After this, we spent the next 4 hours driving up and down the highway, stopping at a few of the 250 wineries in Napa Valley. I wish I can remember the good ones that we went to... but you can imagine after about 3 hours of drinking, it's quite tough.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

San Francisco Good Eats #2: Sticking Out Like A Sore Thumb - Winterland, San Francisco

Today, DY and I, again, ended up driving her Aunt all over San Francisco in preparation for her Chinese New Years ‘party’ at the City Hall. When we got to the City Hall, we were immediately assigned projects. I was assigned to “Project: Hang really tacky red banners with random Chinese characters on the second floor wall”. Using fishing line, I had to strategically tie and center the banners over the second floor railing of the humongous City Hall. DY’s “Project: Place as many apples and oranges on tacky Chinese platters without them falling over” seemed a bit monumental compared to mine. I think her Aunt was looking for something along the lines of a Egyptian pyramid of fruit. After about 30 visibly-failed attempts in about an hour, the eighth wonder of the world was erected. Whew, we’re done. Yeah right. I then had to bring in about 40 cases of wine and hard alcohol with a single dolly from the delivery dock. DY and I then tended to “Project: Pick up catered food from craphole Chinese restaurants”. Before all that, her Aunt insisted that we attend the ‘party’. After picking up the food, we devised our plan to avoid the lame party. I ended up telling her Aunt that she was too sick to go out. If any of you have seen the Asian American lesbian film, Saving Face, you can get a picture of what kind of party this would turn out to be. Basically, lame. Why the hell would they need 40+ cases of alcohol? If everyone at that party drank, it would’ve looked like a red sea.

Relieved that we were able to ditch the party, we took a nap and got ready for a delectable dinner at the wonderfully, experimental Winterland restaurant. DY had raved about this place months before, and I knew it had to be good. I was treating DY and her roommate JP tonight for their hospitality. Located off the ultra-sceny Haight Street, this was a break from the many bars and cafes that line the street. It stuck out like a sore-thumb with its bright orange awning over the front entrance. We walked in, and to my surprise, Interpol was playing. The ultra-posh restaurant seemed like it would have the usual jazz buzzing thru the room, but aimed for a younger crowd that had a palate for haute cuisine. Although Winterland was somewhat empty, most of the customers sat at the watering hole with martinis and well drinks.

The waiter came by to take our drink orders and served some warm Olive bread. One of my favorite types of bread. DY told me that the menu changed frequently here at Winterland, and that the Chef loved to experiment. Looking at the menu, she was definitely right. Here’s what we had.

A. Bay Scallop & Crispy Duck Tongue/Espresso Tapioca Pearls/Sea Urchin Emulsion
Whoa. Sounds frightening right? This was excellent. Sweet scallops, nicely battered duck tongue, boba and sea foam all layed out on a nice platter of goodness. For a minute, I thought it would be a buzzkill, but took the palate for a nice rollercoaster ride.

B. Duck Confit/Black Truffle Lentils/Chanterelles/Brussel Sprouts
This was my entree, and loved it. The crispy duck confit meshed well with the savory lentils, earthy chanterelles and bitter b-sprouts. I'm going to make this one very soon.

C. Squab Breast & Foie Gras Terrine/Sour Cherry Chutney
Although the squab was slightly tough and overcooked, the combination of gelatinous Foie Gras and Sour Cherry Chutney revived the dish as a whole. I would've been happy with just the Foie Gras terrine by itself.

D. Berkshire Pork Duo
A crispy pork belly which perfectly fried skin was covered in a smooth wave of almond praline foam. The texture of this dish was excellent.

E. Lamb Shank Braised with Vanilla Bean
This dish won the "Food Envy" award. DY and I eyed JP as he happily devoured this tender dish.

Also on the menu for the Anthony Bourdains out there - live Sea Urchin with Razor clam Ceviche, cucumber miso and Yuzu granita. I wasn't buzzed enough to try this. No reservations next time I'm here at Winterland. Like I said, with a menu like this, Winterland sticks out like a sore thumb, in a good way.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Happy Hallmark Day. Beacon: An Asian Cafe - Los Angeles

Pam from Daily Gluttony said it best. Valentine’s Day, aka Hallmark Day, is a commercialized ploy to make money off tacky paraphernalia and make the single scurry around for a date like lions in Africa. Am I bitter? Not even. I remember V-Day being a fun day during my elementary school years. I used to sift through the candy heart boxes, saving all the “I love you’s” for the “special girls”. Yes, I have 8 “I love you” hearts, which means I can give them to 8 different girls. Even though those hearts tasted like peppermint-infused chalk, it was nice to give and receive. I also remember spending a lot of time writing on those Warner Bros. cards like with Pepe Le Pieu. Carefully writing messages of ‘love’ in illegible, mispelled cursive handwriting – stuff like “Your my valentine”. As I grew older, Valentines gift-giving evolved into nasty chocolate hearts and hideous white bears holding red hearts. I never fell into that because it was just plain tacky. Now it’s all about wining and dining – taking your ‘love’ to the nicest restaurant to impress. Which is what I did. No not with a new ‘fling’, but with a fellow foodie friend.

BR works part time at Beacon, an Asian Café in downtown Culver City. I had never eaten at Beacon and this was the perfect time to try out one of LA’s up and coming restaurants. Voted by Los Angeles Magazine as one of LA’s top 25 restaurant and headed by Chef Kazuto Matsusaka, I was in for a good treat. Matsusaka, has worked under Hideo Yamashiro (Yamashiro’s) and Wolfgang Puck (Spago’s). Like all restaurants in LA, they offered a prix fixed menu for Hallmark Day.

We got to the restaurant at 8 and were quickly seated at the bar. Beacon was smaller than I thought - holding no more than 30-40 people inside and 20 outside. It was cozy and lit with candles. Downtempo music echoed from hidden speakers, creating a nice urban ambiance. This was the perfect place with the perfect volume. Ever been to places like Yardhouse? That place is deafening, to the point where you practically have to yell just to be heard. I was amused by the mountainous cabinet filled with Sake and wine that towered over us. I tilted my head back and wondered how mad the employees would be if I ordered the Sake bottle on the very top shelf. Without even looking at the menu, we ordered the 6-course Prix Fixed menu with wine pairing. A great deal for only $59. Plus we’d get the employee discount – so we really scored. Fortunately, there were 2 choices for each course – perfect for both of us. We would simply switch off dishes.

As we waited for our dinner, BR and I checked out all the couples in love. What were they possibly talking about.

“Remember when we first met online? Was it on or eHarmony?”
“If I didn’t get so wasted that night, we would’ve never met each other…”
"No restraining order will ever keep me away from you, my dear."
“I still remember the time you held me as I threw up in the alley…”
“I was tired of dating 13 guys at a time. I was ready once I met you.”

The couple next to us at the bar were completely wasted and *ahem, hot and bothered. Being Asian didn’t help them because they were as red as the Kool-Aid man. Something told me that they were more interested in having each other for dessert instead of the Crème Brulee.

We started off with a deliciously sweet glass of cold sake. I looked at the menu and wondered what the positive and negative numbers meant. I was like “Is this gonna be my BAC level after I drink this”? BR explained to me that the numbers were indications of how sweet or dry a particular Sake was. Known as the Nihonshu-do rating system, the higher the number, the lower the sugar content – thus a drier taste. +3.0 is the ‘neutral’ point. The range of Fruity to Dry is -20 to +10. The sake we tried was a +10. Soon after, the food arrived. Here’s what we had.

A. Trio of Small Bites
Edamame Hummus, Olive Tapenade
Crispy Shrimpcake with Ginger Aioli
Shitake Mushroom Tartlette with Pecorino

The Edamame Hummus was somewhat bland. I’ve had it with White Truffle Oil and prefer that. The Crispy Shrimpcake was awesome. These came out piping hot and burned my tongue. I can eat a whole basket of these. The Shitake Tartlettes were BR’s favorites. As tiny as they were, the shitake and buttery flavors really packed a punch.

B. Baby Arugula, Endive and Radicchio Salad
This is what I call a perfect salad. Served with a beautifully browned ball of warm Goat cheese, this salad hit all the checkpoints in my palate. Sweet, hot, tangy, warm and crisp. I’m gonna try this out for my next catering gig.

C. Smoked Sturgeon with Fennel-Carrot Salad, Wakame and Créme Frâiche
This was so so. I appreciated the time they took to smoke the fish. It was my first time eating Sturgeon fish, but I would imagine that it’s as fishy as salmon. It was a good thing that they served this with Avocado Créme Frâiche.

D. Kaki Fry Oyster
This is so dangerously good. Like the Crispy Shrimpcake, I can eat a whole basket of these. They were fried lightly with a nice panko crust and full of flavor. There was no ‘fishiness” in the taste of the oyster and the texture actually tasted resembled a Portobello mushroom. This was another BR favorite.

E. Vegetable Dumpling
This bowl of Mushroom-herb broth came with 2 delectable dumplings. With the essence of truffles infused in the broth, I think we could’ve done another 5 bowls. I’d like to try adding some Pho noodles in this broth. Mmmmm. I loved this one.

F. Miso Marinated Black Cod with Miso Puree Sauce
This is a typical entrée in any Japanese restaurant, but I’d have to say this ranks #2 in my books. #1 goes to Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s version, in which he pours hot oil mixed with soy sauce, sake and green onions OVER the broiled black cod. Oh man. If you ever eat at Beacon, I highly recommend this dish. The miso adds a salty, yet sweet taste to the perfectly cooked fish. See that pink rice ball – it was shaped into a heart. BR and I quickly ‘broke’ it and laughed.

G. Star Anise Braised Veal Shortribs
This was my first time eating Veal shortribs. The overall taste of the dish was very light. I expected to taste more Star Anise, which I love. I think they could’ve added a little bit more salt because it was bland. This got a thumbs down from BR and me.

After all the wine and food we had, we walked away with a steal of a deal. I didn’t bother photographing the THREE plates of dessert we had, because I hate dessert. It came out to $52 each, excluding tip. I’m definitely coming back here.

Beacon: An Asian Café
3280 Helms Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 838-7500 Read more!

Monday, February 13, 2006

San Francisco Good Eats #1 - Grease and Organs

After a few months of job hunting, I finally landed something at a bigger and better ad agency. I decided to give myself a week buffer before the mice in my head started rolling the wheels again. My friend DY had moved up to San Francisco to attend art school and her time up there was ending this month. Both of us being foodies, I had to experience the San Francisco restaurant scene, which I had heard so much about. It would be my first taste of delectable food and her last. I love road trips. It’s just you and the iPod. And of course, the Parliament lights. The open road is truly a launch pad for free thinking. Course the only thing on my mind was: What was I going to eat? I left early in the morning and got to San Francisco in 5 hours. How fast? 95ish.

As soon as I arrived, DY and I talked about the places we’d be eating at. Our first stop was Tartine Bakery, a cozy café that sits on a corner of the Mission district, known for their pressed sandwiches and decadent desserts. San Franciscans, occupied by their PowerBooks and pets, filled up the outdoor seats and enjoyed the fresh food and serene environment. A line was formed inside and most of the people were gazing at the sweet treats inside the glass display. We all looked like children in a fish store. DY recommended that we order the Pecorino & Almond Pressed Sandwich filled with stuffed cheese and crushed almonds with olive oil, lemon and sage. I’ve never eaten Croque Monsieur and just liked the sound of it. We paid the cashier and took a number. About 10 minutes later, the food arrived. The Pecorino & Almond sandwich ($7.75) resembled a panini, only way greasier. The outside was coated with butter and olive oil. I swore that I could taste the oil oozing out of the bread as I bit into it. But, boy was it good. All the robust herbs and richness of the Pecorino made this one tasty sandwich. DY and I had to split that one. Next we tried the Ham & Cheese Croque Monsieur ($7.25). This came on a crispy bread stuffed with warm ham and melted cheese. Loved this better than the pressed sandwich because I’m weak when it comes to anything with ham. I definitely recommend this to anyone looking to sit outside on a nice day and enjoy the city. Warning: it gets PACKED on weekends in the morning.

DY’s aunt was an active figure in the SF Asian community. She was responsible for organizing a Chinese New Year party at the City Hall. So we ended up driving her all over SF for FIVE HOURS. I was exhausted. Remember, I just spent 5 hours driving up here in the morning. More hungry, than tired, we were ready to hit our next joint.

DY, her roommate JP and I headed over to Walzwerk for dinner. Also situated in the Mission district, Walzwerk serves some authentic East German cuisine. Sausages, schnitzel, you name it. And of course, a great assortment of beer. Before, my only experience with German food was at the Red Lion Tavern in Silver Lake – which I love. I’ll walk in their sober and end up having a friend drive me home. That’s what friends are for.

Walking in, we were greeted by girls with German accents. Fake? I think not. It was a sure sign of authenticity. As we sat on the table, we noticed a small picture frame showcasing the many German beers they served. I felt like something dark, and not my usual Hefeweizen. I can’t remember the name though. Compared to the Red Lion Tavern, the food here was much lighter and crisp tasting. Here’s what we had:

A. Fried Veal Chop with Brussel Sprouts and Sauerkraut - Oh man this was sooooo good. The sweetness of the crisp veal chop was balanced out by the wasabi-like bitterness of the brussel sprouts.
B. Pork Chops with Red Wine Sauce - excellent. Didn't care for the sauerkraut because it had a sweet, cinnamon taste to it. Not what I'm used to.
C. Lamb Shanks with Red Wine Sauce - also excellent. I actually envied DY's friend who ordered this. Grrrr.

After Walzwerk, DY and I hit up the Skyy Vodka with some orange juice for a night cap. Turns out that one drink led to another, and we got the munchies. I felt like Mexican food and she knew just the place. We drove down to what I thought resembled Santa Ana. As soon as I got out of the car, I recognized the delicious smell of an outdoor Mexican grill. A man stood behind a sneeze-guarded cart with his bovine delights. Carne asada. Check. Pollo. Check. Carnitas. Check. Brain (sesos) and beef cheek (cachete) tacos. Wait – what? I looked over at DY, who insisted that those were her favorites. All of a sudden I visualized Anthony Bourdain with a nasty smerk on his face. C’mon you little prick. Alright, let’s do it. Ok now, maybe this was easier to digest because I was somewhat buzzed. But seriously, they were damn good. The brain tacos had a light grey color and tasted fatty. The beef cheeks had black lining on some of the pieces of meat, which tasted like thin rubber. I was thinking that they could’ve been part of the lips. The funniest part of the night was actually finding an antique from my younger days - an actual working Street Fighter machine. I couldn't play it of course, because of my careless finger incident.

After a long, but quick drive up north and another five hours of bussing DY’s aunt around SF, I’d say my first day of finding good eats in SF was a very successful one. Day 2 next. Read more!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Kitchen Confidential #4 - Everything's Gonna Be Alright

After last weekend’s eye-opening experience in Montecito, I felt a little bit more confident facing my first career obstacle as an aspiring caterer. My friend GW was throwing a bridal shower for her good friend at her house on a Sunday afternoon. One night, while on the phone…

GW: “So I’m the Maid of Honor for my friend’s wedding.”
Me: “That sucks. Why is she getting married so early?”
GW: “She found the one. So now I’m throwing a party for her at my house.”
Me: “………….”
GW: “You should cater it haha.”
Me: “I’m down.”
GW: “I’m just kidding, you don’t have to –“
Me: “I’m serious.”
GW: “Well then…”

After about two weeks of planning, we (GW and the Bride) decided on a menu. As we got closer to the date, I started to get a little bit nervous. I started to question myself and put myself in the hot seat. It was like I was in a dark interrogation room answering the questions of faceless voices with a hot beaming light from Ikea over my head. Will they like the food? What if there are vegetarians? Will the food run out? And more importantly, where would I find the room to do all of this? Certainly not at my West LA shack. For 5 days, these questions were like protons and neutrons bouncing inside my head like a nuclear reaction. I was going crazy. But that’s what parents are for. I called them and knighted them as my Sous Chefs - they gladly accepted. They weren’t happy about working for $0/hr though haha.

GW and I met on Saturday afternoon to do all of our grocery shopping. The night before, I had packed all of my weapons (cookware, utensils, herbs and sauces) and written out the ingredient list. Everything was going well, until I forgot that I had left my notebook on a shopping cart at our first destination. With only an hour left before I had to get to The Restaurant, there was no way I could’ve gone back to find the notebook. So we sat there and went thru every single item, and after 15 minutes, we were good to go with the ingredients. Done. Only half a day before judgment day.

I woke up at 7:30 am the next day. The night before, I clocked in 11 hours at The Restaurant. I could not move. I could barely keep my eyes open. I was this close to calling it quits because I was completely exhausted. I debated another 30 minutes of sleep but we all know what happens... 30 minutes becomes an hour and a half. Waking up at the moment was critical - it was the difference between having a fun, fulfilling career as a caterer or being out on the streets or working at Initech like Milton. But I couldn’t let GW down. I woke up the Sous Chefs and immediately wrote up the menu on a sheet of paper. Here’s what I served:

A. Bosc Pear, Candied Walnut & Goat cheese salad with Lemon/Honey Vinaigrette
B. Smoked Salmon and Dill/Sour Cream on Crispy Wonton Skins
C. Vietnamese Glass Rolls with Sweet Pork and Thai Basil (Sweet n’ Sour sauce)
D. Chinese Chicken Lettuce Wraps with Hoisin glaze
E. Crispy Prosciutto Roasted Asparagus with Lemon
F. Wild Mushroom Risotto with White Truffle Oil
G. Baby Spinach & Three-Cheese Lasagna

From 7:30 am to 11:30 am, it was complete madness. This is the best part about working in a restaurant on the line. The ticket machine is spitting out orders one after another. Sometimes 6-7 tickets in a row. It’s total action and it’s emotional. For four hours, we yelled at each other, we slipped all over the place like my kitchen was built on a giant Slip n’ Slide, pots and pans flew into the sink with thundering noise, apologies were made, people were told to shut the hell up and hurry the fuck up, blenders screamed, and worst of all, fingers were cut. Badly. Without my worrisome parents not knowing what I just did to myself, I ran into the bathroom to tend to the wound. If I had told them, the food would not have been finished and my first attempt at catering would've been a disaster. I gauzed my finger up and ran back on the line. The whole time, I was hiding my bandaged fingers up so my mom wouldn’t see it. We finished at exactly 11:20, giving me 10 minutes to get to the Bridal shower.

I sped down the road and checked my phone. 8 missed calls from GW. Uh oh, she was freaking out. Luckily when I showed up, the guests were just rolling in and entertaining themselves with Mimosas. I unloaded the food and laid everything out on the table. I really wanted to get out of there. There was just way too much estrogen flowing thru that house. My finger was throbbing. And I had 30 minutes to get to The Restaurant. Talk about hell. One of the guests saw my finger and asked to check it out. Turns out her husband is a doctor.

Guest: “Let me see it.”
Me: “Are you sure?” (while drinking a glass of wine to alleviate the pain. So alchy haha.)
Guest: “Take it off.”
I slowly unraveled it.
Guest: “Uh, that’s bad. You can’t be here right now. You gotta to the hospital and get stitches.”
Me: “And stitch what?”
Guest: “Whatever they can.”

I downed my glass of wine and headed back on the road to a hospital. GW came running out with my reward: 24 bottles of Stella Artois beer. Yes! Suddenly I got a call from my mom.

Mom: “How’d they like the food?”
Me: “I think they like it. I didn’t see anyone throwing up.”
Mom: “I saw your trail. What happened to you?”
Me: “I’m going to the hospital.”
Mom: “Ai-yah.” (That’s Cantonese for ‘you stupid fool’)
Me: “Thanks for your help, you kicked ass.”

I sat there in the waiting room of the ER and looked over to my dad who had a worried look on his face. I told him I was fine, that it was all my fault, but we got the job done. In that four hours, it was nice to be with the family and work towards a common goal. That’s all that mattered. I now know what and what not to do next time around. For sure, I will be more than ready. GW called me to see how I was and tell me that the food was enjoyed by everyone. As my fingers throbbed, I leaned my head on the wall and sat back in the greasy, vinyl ER chairs, and gave a tired smile.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Kitchen Confidential #3: An Evening of Elegance, Affluence and Taste

Anyone who has ever thought about making a profession out of culinary arts, will at one point, fathom the idea of owning his own restaurant. At times, I would sit on my dining table and wonder where I’d like to open mine. Will it be in Santa Monica, Silver Lake or Pasadena? Anywhere would be nice. Daniel Boulud, author of the wonderful book, Letters To A Young Chef, once said that when a Chef pours his heart out into his own cooking, the people will find the food – no matter where it’s located. Perfect example – Thomas Keller, chef and owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, is located in Napa Valley. People will endure the two-month long reservation and tread up to wine country for a $210 prix-fixe menu. But there’s a high risk of failure in the restaurant business . Trends come and go, competition flares up with the arrival of a hot-shot chef and most importantly – location, location, location is ever so important.

I’m over the restaurant idea because in Los Angeles, you can find any type of cuisine out there. Take a drive down Valley Blvd. in the San Gabriel Valley and you’ll know what’s the hot commodity. Korean/tofu houses, Vietnamese Sandwich shops and most recently, Hawaiian fast food. I give it another three years before these tame down. What’ll be next? A Euro-Asian fusion restaurant sounds mighty clear. Some place that’ll serve Cha Shu pork, Osso Buco-style over some linguini.

With all that said, I’ve been focusing on a career as a professional caterer. And I got my first opportunity through a friend of mine recently. A grandeur opportunity. MH invited me to help cook for a 9-course tasting that was to be held in Montecito, a town outside of Santa Barbara with a capped population of 10,000. The clients for tonight are proud owners of an NBA team in the Mid-West and the largest shopping centers, also in the Mid-West. Who else lives here? Oprah Winfrey, who just spent $50 million dollars on her 42-acre, 20,000-square foot estate in Montecito. Know what I mean by grandeur, now?

With my iPod fully charged, two packs of Parliament Lights, black Dickies pants, oil/slip resistant shoes from Payless and chef coat neatly ironed, I drove down the 101 towards Santa Barbara. I’ve never felt such anticipation and anxiety for a long drive, but this could prove to be a twist of fate. I was dying to find out. After about two hours, I finally arrived in Montecito. On the way, I noticed a sign that clearly indicated that I was no longer in Kansas. When driving through BFE, I’m used to seeing a deer crossing sign. I thought I was exposed to the bizarre after seeing this freeway sign on the way to San Diego – but this was truly a ‘what-the-fuck’ moment. How many times have you seen a crossing sign with a golf cart on it? Anybody?

I pulled up to the estate and pressed the button for the intercom. A guard granted me access onto a pebbled road that led into the ten-acre estate. I parked my white Camry next to a Bentley, a BMW and two Mercedez’. The BMW probably belonged to the youngest child. An assistant to the family greeted me and re-directed me to the ‘proper’ place to park - the lot for the ‘under-six-figures’ people. I didn’t think my Camry really ‘fit’ in anyway.

MH then came out of the house and greeted me. I, along with five other employees, unloaded the supplies and went towards the house. I walked through a small patch of grass and was greeted by three weird looking bunnies, gobbling at nothing. I stepped into the house and looked like a kid discovering his first porno video. Jesus Christ. Why would anyone need THIS MUCH ROOM? Never mind the 20-foot ceilings, fine upholstery and antiques, I was drooling over the kitchen. Two huge sub-zero refrigerators disguised with wooden cabinet panels. A huge island with faucet, plus three long side counters for ‘prepping’ food. And of course, a Viking stove with six-burners, griddle and two conventional ovens. That stove alone is worth $10,000. If this whole kitchen setup took up my whole apartment, I would sleep on the floor.

MH showed me the menu card. In addition to hors d’oeuvres, there were nine courses with a $300 bottle of wine for each course. Nice. We then began prepping away. I had never felt so happy mincing parsley or brunoising mire poix. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as hectic as line cooking because we only had twelve people to cook for, plus we had prepped the day before at MH’s house. She actually said that she was nervous about this because she was used to doing three course meals for 300-400 people. It was usually something boring like chicken or grilled salmon. At the estate, there was a higher chance of receiving negative criticism because of the high profile clientele – people who normally experience haute dining. I made sure that each and every thing I prepped was perfect. The day before, I had cleaned off the bone lining on four racks of lambs. That alone, took one hour and fifteen minutes. I thought making mayonnaise from scratch was tough – this was excruciating. My arms were tired from the constant scraping with only the aid of a paring knife, but I knew this was the difference between a fine caterer and catering by Hometown Buffet.

Halfway through prepping, MH called the whole staff over to practice the ‘placing’ and ‘clearing’ of courses. I stood in the lavish dining room and watched as MH stood in the kitchen, with five servers dressed nicely in prom gear, minus the jacket. Each one held two plates and approached the table in ‘snake’ formation. One by one, they circled the table and stopped between two chairs. MH nodded and all at once, they placed the plates neatly on the table in unison. Smooth. The ‘snake’ then circled the table and exited through a separate door.

MH: “Ok, I need you to cook the fish, scallops and lamb. Do not overcook them. We only have one chance. You screw up, we’re done.”
Me: “Uh. You want me to cook?”
MH: “You bet. I gotta do other stuff.”
Me: “Yes, Chef.”

I’ve been at The Restaurant for nearly three months and I still have not touched a sauté pan. Nor will I get to unless I endure another nine. In the corporate world, you start out as a coordinator and make your eventual climb in the ladder. From coordinator, you become an assistant whatever. Then a senior whatever. Then a vice whatever. And so on. In the kitchen, you are placed in the pantry. You aspire to work the grill so that you can stand in front of the fry-a-lator for $8/hr. Next, you work hard for another few months so that you can sauté old, fish. After a few more months, you become the senior partner – which consists of cooking meat. Add another 4-5 years and you can become a sous chef. So on and so on. In two days, I was given the opportunity to cook meats for the client. This was gold to me and I had no problem cooking the food. I was already liking this catering vs. restaurant ordeal.

6pm. The bell struck and Cinderella’s Ball was about to begin. As soon as the guests arrived, the camera’s started rolling. Here’s what was served.

A. Edamame and White Truffle Puree on Croccatini - Tasty and crispy
B. Triple Citrus Tiger Prawns - A delicious MH signature appetizer
C. Three Cheese Plate
D. Lettuce Wraps
E. Miso Cured Hapu 'Upu' U on Sautéed Baby Bok Choy - Hawaiian Seabass
F. Lamb With Black Caviar Lentils
G. Arugula with White Truffle oil, Marcona Almonds and Parmesan
H. Black Truffle Cheese - best cheese in the world
I. Lemon and Mango Sorbet
J. Citrus Tuilles with Fresh Berries and Crême Fraiche

How did I know how these dishes tasted? Because there were tons of leftovers. I ate for about 4 hours straight and got a chance to try the $300 wine. My favorites of the night were the Triple Citrus Prawns, Diver Scallops with Beurre Blanc (not pictured) and of course, the truffled cheese. I made myself a small grilled cheese using that cheese, and let me tell you, it'll blow your pants off.

The clients really enjoyed the dining experience and came in to thank us all. They liked her food so much that they've already reserved her for two more occasions next month. It was nice knowing that a a family, who also own their own restaurants, appreciated all that we had made for them. I love working at The Restaurant because of the friends I've made and the energetic workflow of the team, but this catering experience was truly eye-opening. MH, is a mother of two, who started out working for her parents bakery in Solvang and eventually moved to Hawaii to work at Roy's and several popular California restaurants. She received all of her culinary experience through many kitchens and here she is, only after three years -- cooking a fabulous nine course meal for people who don't know what else to do with their money. MH thanked me for helping out and sent me home early because I had a long drive to endure.

As I drove, I was still in disbelief over the unfolding of events on this accomplishing day. MH asked me to come back to work for her future events and I gladly accepted. I couldn't wait to get home to write about this and share it with all of you. And now, I am very, very tired.

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