Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney Venice - A Portal to Portland, Oregon

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

If there's one place that warms both Jeni's and my soul, it's a place called Portland, Oregon. I love New York City for its fast-paced, aggressive culinary scene and multi-faceted culinary offerings due in part to large populations of ethnic minorities. I love Chicago for its hearty, savory food that strikes the chords and memories for many Americans. But there's something about Portland that has created waves for us. If you have not been to Portland, I'm sure you have visions of the Jailblazers, flannel-wearing lumberjacks and genius, marijuana-smoking pupils of Reed College. Sure you are correct but you don't know Portland until you step foot there. In a quadrant-divided city tucked neatly inside a lush green patch of land, progression is happening very fast. When we were there, we encountered the nicest people. Most were locals but many were transplants from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and Austin. Whether it is for the music or art scene, a lot can be said about the food and cocktails that, in my book, put Portland on the map. Coupled with some perfect strangers named Ron, Kevin and Matt, they welcomed us to their quaint little city and began to engorge us with some of PDX's best.

A lot of the food we ate was braised meat and farm fresh vegetables – nothing any different from the Los Angeles fare, but there was a difference. The food was bold, but never showy. It was daring, yet modest. It was soulful, but never heavy. No dish really cost over $20 and no cocktail was over $9, which is the price for a cocktail served at one of Portland's most expensive, Ten 01 Lounge. Portland to me was everything I looked for in food – simple, warm and modest. And a lot can be said about the cocktails stirred and shaken there as well. There's Ten 01, an attempt at feeling very West Hollywood, but not at all tacky. There's Clyde Common, the restaurant right next door to the Ace Hotel that serves lovely $5 cocktails during happy hour that should really be $10. And my favorite, The Secret Society – a one room hidden gem above the town-favorite Toro Bravo. It was there that Jeni and I began an appreciation for ginger-based drinks and copper and tin julep cups. I still remember the taste of my first Kentucky Mule – Bourbon, muddled lime and Bundaburg Ginger Beer. Fantastic.

A year later, we still have the stretch marks to prove our thumbs up for Portland. Ron, after 2 years of exploring Portland, moved back down to Los Angeles with an even bigger passion for food and drink. One night, he told us to meet him up at a place called The Tasting Kitchen on Abbot Kinney. Abbot Kinney? The Westside hipster's boulevard of boutique shops, dispensaries, bookstores, cafes and random eateries. Back in the day, this was my old ad agency's weekly happy hour hangout. We'd get pizza at Abbot's, which by the way, is still one of my faves (try the wild mushroom & olive pesto - god). Then we'd head over to the Other Room for some beer and finish off the night at The Brig. Those were good times but besides the 1-Star Michelin awarded Joe's, I wasn't familiar with the Abbot Kinney restaurant scene.

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

But had I known that The Tasting Kitchen was the brainchild of a bunch of Portlanders, I would've been here on day one. The captain of the ship is Casey Lane, of ClarkLewis, and offers basically a portal into Portland. But according to Ron, his main reason for coming to TTK is for the cocktails. After an engagement shoot right in the Abbot Kinney area, a drink would suit us right.

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

We walked into the dimly-lit room that screamed out Dwell magazine more than Portland. Large windows, wooden tables and Mid-Century-esque furniture filled the candle-lit room. We saw Ron at the bar of course and took a seat.

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

We took a seat at the bar and were greeted by a friendly gentleman that would at the end of the night, would remind us of the good times in Portland. Bartender Justin Pike hails from Clyde Common and most recently, Chef Lane's ClarkLewis. Dressed in modern "vintage" bartender gear, he passed out menus and clapped his hands together: "What kind of drink can I make for you?" We already knew where this was headed. Behind him was a beautiful artillery of spirits. I asked him how fun it must have been to create your dream bar wish list. I took a look at the cocktail menu with drinks named "Fanny Pack", "Sophisticated" and "United Nations". If you're heavily into the cocktail scene, you'll immediately sense a difference in style. There seemed to be heavy emphasis on making a cocktail that relied on the natural taste of a spirit, flavoring liquer and super fresh herbs – not so much simple syrup which can be a little much after a while. For me, looking at the menu was like looking at Russian writing – the ingredients were obscure to me and I really had no idea what was going on. It looked like this: bourbon, sajdfjkl;ajsdkl & sjkljklsdfasl. And whether or not you recognize those ingredients, you're in for some clever chemistry.

But the best part of the menu was not the one we were holding, but a secondary, almost secret menu that Justin Pike offered to you if you knew what you were talking about. Hint: aviator sunglasses, a silver chain, freshly dry-cleaned Ed Hardy silk shirt and sequined, white jeans will win you an Apple Martini. But if you're dressed like that, that's probably what you want anyway. He told us that for the first few months, his top cocktail seller was a Cosmopolitan. I'd imagine Pike was pretty frustrated with that. We chose a few drinks off the regular menu but I think the real fun was on the "secret menu" which had even more Russian writing.

Does a cocktail with Zaya 12, Luli Chinato and Nocino make you thirsty?
Or how about a cocktail made from Lairds, Fernet and Hubertus?
Why not finish the night with Noilly Pratt, Torani and Maraschino?

Dizzying right? I can assure you that Pike's cocktails are outstanding. I learned from cocktail guru, Daniel Djang of Thirsty in LA, that Pike's craftsmanship has won the approval from some of Los Angeles's best bartenders – Julian Cox of Rivera and Las Perlas and Eric Alperin of The Varnish and New York's Milk & Honey. I need to get in the habit of writing down the names of cocktails because literally, things do become blurry. In a delicious way.

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

My god these were delicious drinks. At about the third drink, we remembered that there was actually food on the menu. Yeah, really. I had no idea that TTK was even an "Italian" restaurant. Or at least a Portland take on pasta which seemed like an usual pairing to begin with. Here's what we had.

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

Prosciutto
The bread served here is from La Brea bakery and it is served nice and hot. What would taste better than paper-thin slices of Prosciutto that seem to dissolve over the hot bread and butter. I usually find Prosciutto salty and boring, but this was pleasant.

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

Tesa Tagliatelle and Hedgehog Mushrooms
In this dish were two things I had never eaten. Tesa is a style of un-smoked pancetta. Hedgehog mushrooms have a sweet and nutty taste to it. One stab of the fork into this freshly-made tagliatelle pasta, and I knew that there was something different. The tagliatelle I usually have is quite thin but this was thick and the texture was awesome. The morsels of pancetta and mushrooms went so well with the pasta and light sprinkling of shaved cheese. I still cannot stop thinking about this pasta and I am putting this up there with Osteria Mozza's pasta. Until I try Osteria Mamma's pasta, I'm writing creepy love letters to TTK.

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

Bucatini Alla Amatriciana
To stop Jeni and I from fighting over the last few bites of the awesome tesa tagliatelle, we made peace and ordered another pasta. I'm not familiar with the 7,418 shapes of pasta, but this one looked to me like long, rubbery drinking straws. Think straight macaroni that has not been cut. These "laces" of pasta caught the sauce nicely. I forgot to mention that this was actually the spiciest pasta I've ever eaten. It was heavier on the sauce but nonetheless addicting.

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

Pork Steak with Polenta & Green Garlic
You don't usually hear the word "steak" associated with pork, but this was really treated like a steak. Seared off in a pan and thrown in the oven, this is a trans-specie thing going on. A pig that really wants to be a cow. For that reason, you'll find yourself really enjoying this juicy piece of meat. I liked it, but would stick with what Chef Lane is known for, the pastas.

The Tasting Kitchen, Abbot Kinney, Venice

After 3 hours of food and cocktails, Jeni and I went home talking about it still. What I liked about the food was that it didn't try to be authentic Italian. It was Portland food with an Italian accent. The pasta acted as a bonding for ingredients you would normally see in Portland-style cuisine. I really can't explain what it is about the pasta that makes me want to go back already. For me, this restaurant is the cool kid that does his own thing. Confident, yet cordial and humble. He's definitely not the trend-follower. For whatever reason, this place may be something not to be analyzed but an experience that is to be absorbed. If you've never been to Portland, then may the food of Chef Lane and cocktails by Justin Pike convince you that there is more to where they came from. Thanks for reading.

The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 392-6644
www.thetastingkitchen.com
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Friday, April 23, 2010

A Dramatic Video of Jeni, Beef Noodle Soup, Cocktails and Me

Place To Be from Joel Kuwahara on Vimeo.

Our friend JK shot this one evening while we made Chinese beef noodle soup and cocktails. Random combo I know - but this is how we do it. Video shot on a Canon 7d with 50 mm 1.4 lens. Thanks JK, you made us look very dramatic. Read more!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra - The Chongqing Sichuan Sauce Lady

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra

I saw this place a while back and was immediately attracted to the word "noodle town". I don't know why, but I have an affinity towards establishments that incorporate "town", "village", "city" and even catchy names like Pizza Pit, Burger Barn and especially, my dream restaurant... Taco Town. "Pizza, now that's what I call a Taco," says Adam Samberg.

So with "Noodle Town" in the name I had a feeling it would be worth checking out. This restaurant was previously Dai Ho, not to be confused with the Taiwanese Noodle Nazi in Temple City, and it served some really solid beef noodle soup before it closed down. Bad location/feng shui obscurity due to too much focus on an unknown Chinese cuisine... who knows. Contrary to the name, this place is literally a shack. I was greeted by a very sweet woman. Mrs. Ho is the chef and it seemed as though she was the only person working in the whole restaurant that seats no more than 20 people. Small restaurant, glass display case filled with Chinese deli snacks, pictures of their food adorning the wall and a one-person operation - this is my kind of restaurant.

I've never been to the Sichuan province but for any one into Chinese cuisine, know that they along with the Hunan and Yunnan provinces are notorious for using copious amounts of chili and red peppercorns in their dishes - like they were trying to rid the world of it. The red peppercorns, also known in powder form as prickly ash powder, when cooked with chilis and garlic, produce a numbing taste (ma la) that is delicious with virtually all meats and fish. It was so aromatic that it was said to have drug-like effects. I have a harder time eating spicy Thai and Korean food, but for some reason, I can handle Sichuan food just fine. I love this food and if you haven't tried it, now is a good time to try all the Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan restaurants popping up all over the San Gabriel Valley. I don't even call that area SGV anymore, to me it's simply China.

Mrs. Ho comes from the city of Chongqing, which according to Wikipedia, has separated from the province of Sichuan. It is now a municipality under Beijing and roughly the size of Austria with 30 million people. Chongqing is also written as "Chung King" for Westernization and you may know of the dearly loved Chung King Szechuan restaurant in San Gabriel Valley. I also learned that Chinese hot pot is originally from the city of Chongqing. But with the influx of Mainlander immigrants to Los Angeles, there's so much to choose from now. As neighbors, it is obvious that there will be major similarities in both Chongqing and Sichuan cuisine. But with all that red peppercorn usage, I have a hard time identifying the provenance of their dishes. Here's what I had - I asked for smaller portions so I could try more food.

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra

Sichuan Goulash Soup Noodles (Sichuan Hong Sao Niu Rou Mian)
Goulash? That is the first time I've ever seen the word "goulash" used in describing Chinese food. But then again, I'm also puzzled by the people that do or don't do the proofreading for many of the restaurants menus in SGV. It's often hilarious and basically "engrish". In SGV, there is beef noodle soup everywhere and I've given up trying to find the perfect beef noodle soup outside of Taiwan or China. I just make it at home instead. At a Mexican restaurant that serves tacos, you can gauge the quality and experience of the chef by the popular items, like carne asada. I sometimes apply the same test on the beef noodle soup, which is one of the most common, peasant foods of China. Because of that, some restaurants just put little effort into it and make it to have it on the menu but others really take pride in their champion bowl. And I wasn't disappointed by Chef Ho's bowl at all - I really enjoyed it. Since it is Sichuan-style, there was a heavy aroma of red peppercorns. Contrary to Taiwan, the Sichuanese do not use as much of the hot chili bean paste, tomatoes or sometimes papaya to form the soup base. The soup was slightly salty but I fixed that simply by adding some hot water. I'm not like a lot of people that will run around kicking and screaming because something isn't done right so just try adding water. The chef asked me if it was too salty and I told her the truth. Also, if you like cloves, there's a heavy dosage of it in here and I found it be very aromatic. The addition of roasted peanuts and bamboo shoots maybe unfamiliar to most but it didn't bother me at all. I'd eat this again because the aroma and taste is there.

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra

Steam Pork Belly with Ground Sticky Rice
I asked Mrs. Ho for some recommendations and she showed me a lot of dishes I wasn't familiar with. And I knew that the beef noodle soup probably wasn't her bread and butter. She pointed me in the direction of this dish which is basically pork belly slices sauteed with a very heavy meat/rice sauce. This was definitely heavy and more than I expected but I thought it tasted pretty good with the peppercorn chili sauce. I would share this if you're a fan of pork belly.

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra

Pork Stomach & Beef Shank Chili Oil Mix
Another thing to look for in Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan restaurants is their cold deli dishes. A true chef has to make those dishes good because like Korean food, you eat your main courses with small side dishes. I loved this. Great texture, tasty meat and a great chili oil sauce.

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra

Chongqing Spicy and Sour Stick (Chuan Bei Liang Fen)
The Koreans have their cold noodles (naeng myun), the Mainland Chinese have their own cold noodle dish for hot summers. "Liang fen" literally means "cold powder" and it's made with a starch jelly much like the Korean acorn jelly used for mook. This is served cold with a standard chili sauce. But I have to say, Mrs. Ho sauce on here is awesome. This dish is flavorful, spicy and fun to eat.

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra

Hot Sauce Cross Bridge Wontons (Hong You Guo Chiao Chao Shou)
You may be familiar with the Shanghai-style chili oil wontons in which wontons are boiled and served with chili oil sauce. But this goes backwards. Chef Ho says that the Chongqing/Sichuan style entails serving the wontons in soup with the chili oil sauce on the side. She explains that you dip the wontons in the sauce rather than adding sauce on top. But I threw in sauce into the bowl for purposes of shooting the food. This was delicious, and by far, my favorite dish here. She offers the ubiquitous soupy pork dumplings (xiao long bao), but I think this is probably her most popular. The filling consists of ground pork, dried shrimp, scallops, chives and grated ginger. In addition the sauce is awesome too... chili oil, sesame paste, chicken bouillon powder and soy sauce. Add some vinegar in here or in the soup to take this dish to another level. She also sells frozen wontons at 50 for $12. I'm going to get some next time for sure. Facking derishus.

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra

Chuan Yu Noodle Town, Alhambra

I was amazed that she did all this cooking on her own. I have to say she is definitely a sauce master and a very warm person. You would be too if this is what you started doing when you were 16, the age she started cooking. I asked her to show me her chili sauce and she brought the bowl up to me. My god. There were so many things going on. Chili, sesame oil, peppercorns, salt, soy sauce, pickled vegetables, dried shrimp to name a few. And here's the best thing, you can buy this sauce to go for only $5 for a plastic container. I'll be using that for my beef noodle soup and will report back with it soon. There are at least 8 other things that seem like they are worth trying and I can't wait to come back for more.

Aside from the aforementioned, I would recommend the following:
- #7 Steamed Juicy Dumplings (xiao long bao)
- #19 Sliced Boiled Pork Belly with Tasty Garlic Sauce
- #20 Sliced Tender Beef in Chili Oil Sauce
- #25 Twice Cooked Pork (Basically it's fried slices of smoked? pork belly)
- #26 Stew Beef in Sichhuan Garlic & Chili Sauce (MUST)
- #27 Fish & Jellied Tofu in Sichuan Garlic & Chili Sauce (Sounds good)

Thanks for reading.


Chuan Yu Noodle Town
525 W. Valley Blvd. #B
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 289-8966
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Friday, April 16, 2010

Smoked Ham Hock & Rosemary Leek Hash

Smoked Ham Hock Hash

The other day at McCall's Meat & Fish Company, which was probably the third time in a week I was there, I saw that Nathan and Karen started offering smoked ham hocks. Oh joy. This reminds me of a particular ham that the Chinese, particularly Hong Kong, use in their stir fries. It's called "Virginia ham" and it's absolutely delicious. Think of it as an Asian version of spam-on-a-bone. The Chinese use the bone primarily for flavoring soups and can be treated like bacon. According to Wikipedia, "Virginia ham" is reminiscent of Jinhua ham from Mainland China. This is all new to me. At a few bucks a pound, I bought one smokey hock.

Smoked Ham Hock Hash

Instead of using it to flavor a split pea soup as Nathan suggested, I decided to make a "hash". I cut the meat off the bone, including my favorite parts, tendon and connective tissue. The meat is completely smoked through so you can start sampling the tasty meat. It really is tasty.

Smoked Ham Hock Hash

Since a hash taste best when cooked in a skillet, I busted out my favorite pan by Lodge. For $35, this thing will live longer than me. A note to Jeni, please include this in my coffin - along with my knives, whiskey and my iPod. My underground party has to continue right? Have the pan on low heat for at least 10 minutes to really load up the skillet and sauté the ham cubes till they are nice and brown. Thanks to the White on Rice Couple for their super helpful video on shooting food with the flash. Check out their work, it's solid.

Smoked Ham Hock Hash

Once the ham hocks are browned, take them out. Don't even think about washing that skillet. Sharing is caring, so you're going to share that ham hock fat with the potatoes. I halved these baby yellow potatoes for easier chewing as well as making it easier to cook through. Fry the potatoes with a few sprigs of rosemary and add salt & pepper to taste, maybe even some cayenne pepper for a kick. Or you can Asian-ize this dish with the lovely Maggi. Because we were in a rush to check out the Thirsty Crow bourbon bar in Silver Lake, I threw in some chicken broth and covered the skillet with a baking sheet to do some hot sauna action. In a few minutes, your potatoes are now cooked through.

Smoked Ham Hock Hash

Add your choice of veggies. I love leeks and chopped them into 'rings'. Sauté for 3-4 minutes and then add the ham hock cubes back in. Do a final taste test for seasoning and you're good to go. A very simple dish that took less than 20 minutes to cook.

Smoked Ham Hock Hash

The smokiness of the ham hock with fresh leeks and rosemary potatoes is nice. If you've cooked with ham hocks before, would love to hear your recipe. Thanks for reading.
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Monday, April 12, 2010

McCall's Meat & Fish Company - A Return to Cooking

McCall's Main

Right before our amazing trip to Southeast Asia, Jeni and I were burdened with some drama that almost caused us to cancel our trip - I was going through a separation with my employer. Besides feeling confused and down, we were now in a situation that many people feared - financial hardship in this economy. We had also spent a good sum of money on the flights and lodging and had no way of really turning back. The thought of trying to enjoy delicious food in another country with no job was difficult. But I always try my best to be optimistic. I said to her... look, this is inevitable and we'll be alright. We can't let something like this hold us back. We love to travel and we will make this happen.

In addition to the layoff, we were also dealing with a bad living situation. My landlord had really destroyed the joy in living in Silver Lake. We would both come home from work and feel this negative energy. We were very unhappy with her management and it got to the point where we actually felt suffocated and took out our frustrations on each other. The landlord had horns, fangs, hooves and claws and we resided in her compartmentalized hell. So you can see the combination of not having a job, financial hardship and life in a jail cell was really too much to handle at one time. We were in a huge rut.

But on New Year's eve, as we waited for the countdown in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I turned to her and promised her that we would have a great year. That I would find a job immediately and we would move to a better place. And she smiled in accordance.

Within a few weeks after we got back from Southeast Asia, I was able to explore the freelance lifestyle and I have vowed to never go back to full-time ever again. I think this was the work style that I had always been looking for. It takes a lot of hard work and determination to make it as a freelancer but the rewards are solid. The pay is better, the hours are great, I could work on and off-site and I am essentially my own Creative Director. I also have more time to focus on our photography business. I felt like a huge block had been lifted off my chest and I was once again, happy to be back in the workforce.

If it weren't for Jeni's frequent searches on Craigslist, we wouldn't have found our dream place... a Silver Lake duplex with the coolest landlords and neighbors. Finally, a landlord that didn't have four legs and a tail. This place had everything going for us... an extra bedroom to set up our photo studio, a backyard with market lights, a large kitchen with chalkboard paint on the walls and most importantly... a FREAKING washer & dryer. Long gone are the days of running down to use the coin-op washer and dryers. I can't tell you how many times I've been a quarter short on drying my red silk boxers and had to drive over to get change and come back - ugh. For a married couple, moving from an apartment to something that resembles a house is a huge step. I think for a month straight, Jeni told me everyday how much she liked the place like a broken record. I was very happy as well.

And this brings me to the last event that is really making this a great year for us. This may sound strange because of its relation to food... but I believe that even a small business can really change a community. There's Ricky Piña of Ricky's Fish Tacos, Peter Bahlawanian of Spice Station, Jason Kim of Forage LA and of course, Nathan McCall's and Karen Yoo's McCall's Meat & Fish Company. I can't express the wonders McCall's has done for us, and I'm sure, for the many patrons that live in the Silver Lake/Echo Park/Los Feliz area.

The kitchen at our last place was way too tiny. Jeni and I have ran into each other many times and you can imagine how bad it would be if we were both irritated, wielding sharp objects. I eventually started cooking less because I couldn't stand the kitchen. It was small, dimly lit and at one time, our cabinets were breeding grounds for creatures that made even the Orkin guy say, "That's gross". We ended up eating a lot of crap for dinner and it just wasn't healthy.

But when I walked into McCall's for the first time, I saw the rays of the sun beam down on me. I suddenly missed being in the kitchen. This was awesome. I could get virtually ANY meat that was served in our favorite restaurants. We bought smaller portions and had the ability to control the butter intake which is so overdone in haute cuisine. The fact that they were chefs and willing to tell you how to cook their products was indeed a blessing. In one month, I had visited at least 15 times. I'm now on their meat stalker list and under constant supervision by the police. At times, I've thought about asking Nathan and Karen if I could just bring a frying pan, portable burner and some tongs to cook right on the spot. I'd get the boot for sure.

When you have access to better ingredients and cook at home, you can make food that is not only tasty but also healthier. When I worked in a restaurant, I was shocked by the amount of butter used in the food. The food I cook usually has no butter and although it is necessary in some dishes to bring out flavor, fresh ingredients go a long way with good salt, freshly cracked peppercorns and citrus juice.

So here are a few things that I've cooked using McCall's meat and fish, fresh vegetables from the Hollywood Farmer's Market and spices from the Spice Station. My return to cooking couldn't happen without them, a little downfall in life and of course, my supportive wife. I thank all of the aforementioned for re-inspiring something I really enjoy doing.

McCall's Slider

McCall's House Burger Blend Sliders with Fried Quail Egg & Gruyere Cheese
It is rare that I'll eat a hamburger. Before the rise of gastropub burgers, you had Fatburger, In & Out and the fast food chains. I love Fatburger, but sometimes, it's just a lot of meat to eat. So that's why I opt for a diet version of the classic hamburger. McCall's offers a nice house blend. I marinated the meat with kosher salt, fresh black pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, Worcestershire Sauce and my secret lover, Maggi. The longer you let the meat marry with the flavorings, the better it'll be. Pack the ground meat tightly to hold in the fat, and using your palms, roll the meat into a 'handball'. Then lightly squash the patty to get a nice burger shape. I recommend cooking thicker patties versus thin patties because you can have more control with the done-ness of your patty. Thin patties cook way too fast. The key to making this taste good is how long you cook the quail egg. Over medium heat, it should take no longer than 3 mins to cook a quail egg. You want the yolk to break as you bite into the slider. Add a thin slice of gruyere cheese and your favorite toppings and you're good to go. I served this with an heirloom tomato and arugula salad. Delicious AND light.

McCall's Scallops

Seared Scallops with Sauteed Maitake Mushrooms and English Shelling Peas
McCall's never runs out of their scallop supply, and if they did, I would go insane. They are better than any place I've bought them - better than Whole Foods and Fish King. But the key is to know how long to cook them. A dried out scallop gives you a nice FAIL stamp. One of my favorite cooking utensils is my 12" Lodge cast iron skillet that I got at Surfas for around $35. This thing is the shit. You can cook anything on it and it heats evenly. For scallops, it adds a beautiful brownish sear like the restaurants. I sear scallops with just salt and pepper on low-medium heat, never high, because excessive heat will make the water in the scallop evaporate, causing the scallop to 'crack open'. Because you're using a skillet, the heat stays longer in the skillet even after turning down the heat. And before I've seared my first scallop, I've already got the skillet turned on low heat for at least 10 minutes. I served these with delicious Maitake mushrooms from a new mushroom vendor at the Hollywood Farmer's Market. He has over 20 types of mushrooms to offer and even has a worker guarding the Chanterelle section... which if you don't know, costs nearly $25 a POUND. If you haven't had English shelling peas, these are like Nature's Skittles - so sweet and crunchy.

McCall's Manila Clams

Manila Clams with Chorizo de Pomplano and Smoked Paprika Wine Sauce
When I first saw these clams at McCall's, I didn't think much of it due to its larger size. For me, larger clam means more of a stronger taste that can be off-putting. But these were so sweet and better than Manila clams I've purchased at Asian grocery stores. I love serving steamed clams with some sort of cured meat and I found my favorite chorizo (Chorizo de Pomplano from Spain) this time at the Silver Lake Cheese Store. It has a nice amount of fat and a nice sustaining spice kick. I simply sauteed the chorizo cubes with some Cipollini onions, garlic and chives, and steamed them in a white wine and butter sauce. My in-laws sop-mopped all the sauce with bread. Delicious!

McCall's Corned Beef

Corned Beef Brisket with Boiled Vegetables
With a few days before St. Patrick's Day, we didn't have enough time to cure anything. We called McCall's to see if had any beef brisket and told us about a purveyor he works with in Burbank. Because he's a chef, I trusted him on this and ended up buying 6 lbs... spending over $50 on something I was accustomed to paying $1/lb before when I was a poor college student. Along with the in-laws, we destroyed the 6 lbs. of meat in one night. It was SO GOOD. You could actually taste the flavor of the beef. This is further evidence that McCall's does their research with purveyors.

McCall's Skatewing

Rosemary-Battered Skate Wing Fillets
I came in as I usually do and checked out the fish. They usually have the usual suspects like Scottish Salmon, Black Cod, Halibut and Monkfish. Then I saw skatewing and immediately remembered the time I ate a Korean-version of it at Deep End Dining's place. It was ok and nothing to write home about. So I said no to that. Then Chef Karen Yoo basically called me out on it and gave me guilt trip. I smelled the fish and there was an interesting odor to it... almost like bleach or lye. I was a bit hesitant and went ahead and prepped it at home. And this is where I knew that Nathan loved what he did. While I was prepping the skate wing in some lemon juice, I received a call from Nathan. He told me that because I was concerned with the odor, he went ahead and did his own taste-test and recommended soaking it in lemon juice prior to cooking. I thought it was great of him to take his own time and tend to customer needs. He also recommended cooking the skate wing with the brown butter-swirl technique, where you basically melted butter until it foamed up and swished the pan around so that the butter would lightly 'poach' the skate wing. This technique is difficult because if you get the pan too hot, the butter will blacken. You want the butter to become a light brown foam, but not blackened. The texture of the fish was simply awesome but I had a difficulty getting used to the taste of the fish. I would try poaching this in olive oil and herbs next time I cook with it.

McCall's Arctic Char

Pan-Roasted Arctic Char and Farmer's Market Medley with Mint Soy Sauce Sambal Oelek Creme Fraiche
What the hell is going on in that picture? I have no idea, but it was delicious. The first time I had Arctic Char was at San Francisco's Bar Crudo, one of my fave SF restaurants. It was served raw and a bit more complex than salmon. That's because the Arctic Char is a hybrid salmon-trout found in the most northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. This fish can handle extremely cold water due and when you cook this fish, understand why it's so moist and tender. I have to say that this and the black cod at McCall's are truly high-grade. Even if you overcook either of these fish, the fish will still be very moist and edible. I marinated this fish with smoked paprika, cumin, coriander Seeds, chili de arbol, bay leaves and expensive-ass olive oil. The green, grassy kind, not EVOO. Using the Lodge cast iron skillet, i sear the Arctic Char on medium, careful not to overcook the skin since it is one of the best things about eating this dish. The skin is crisp like a chip if cooked correctly. I sear the fish skin-side down first for about 5 minutes and finish it in the oven at 350. Always take out the fish earlier than expected because even when it's out of the oven, the stored heat will continue to cook the fish through. I served this with some veggies I bought earlier in the morning and lightly tossed them in one of my fave sauces. I LOVE mixing creme fraiche with spices. This time, I mixed in some soy sauce, sambale oelek for kick and chiffonaded mint leaves. We both ate this dish in under 7 mins because it was so light and fresh.

McCalls Meat and Fish Company

Seared Kurobuta Pork Chops with Curried Cauliflower and Swiss Chard
I really don't know where else you can find Snake River Farm's pork aside from Snake River Farm. This purveyor puts out some really tasty American style kurobuta pork. If you've never eaten kurobuta pork, it's best to describe it as kobe pork. This meat is a bit more rich and fatty but the taste and tenderness are simply amazing. One of these chops is good enough for the both of us. I served these with sauteed Swiss chard and cauliflower that has been roasted in the oven with curry powder, salt and olive oil.

Because of McCall's, Spice Station and the Hollywood Farmer's Market, we've changed a lot of our bad habits. We buy groceries as we need and cut down on food waste. We buy better proteins and eat smaller portions. We're supporting local businesses. And ultimately, we're doing better for our bodies. We are of course spending more money, but we believe it's important you know what goes into your stomach. If you haven't seen Food Inc., you'll understand where all of this is coming from. Thanks for reading and I hope that you find your inner cook once you visit McCall's.

McCall's Meat & Fish Company
2117 Hillhurst Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 667-0674
www.mccallsmeatandfish.com

Spice Station
3819 W. Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(323) 660-2565
www.spicestationsilverlake.com

Silver Lake Cheese Store
3926 W. Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(323) 644-7511
www.cheesestoresl.com

Hollywood Farmer's Market
Ivar & Selma Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90028
Sundays 8am - 1pm
www.farmernet.com
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Monday, April 05, 2010

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles - Mark Peel Keeping It Real

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, the restaurant scene is indeed one that is competitive and dynamic. Aside from the chefs native to the city, there are a good number of chefs that will arrive from places like Chicago or New York to expand their cooking empire. Some make it, some don't. In the new school of chefs, names like Michael Voltaggio, Ludo Lefebvre and Jose Andrés seem to be catching the spotlight with their exquisite techniques and plating, and of course, the eventual Foam Party. Although the food they cook is amazing, I still have an affinity for chefs like Centeno, Becerra and the 2 Dudes Catering. They cook food that for me seems to be soulful and less about bells and whistles. They don't really follow the mainstream trends and you could taste it in their food. These guys are all definitely in the New School of Los Angeles chefs. With all the attention on the New School, it's definitely hard to regain attention especially if you're a veteran of the Los Angeles dining scene. But talent usually never goes unnoticed and it will always draw a crowd. When talking about Los Angeles, it would be a sin not to mention Chef Mark Peel of Campanile. If you have not eaten at Campanile, one look at the menu and you would know that he enjoys cooking traditional food that is comforting and delicious. A lot of the food is pan-roasted or grilled, like his Grilled Prime Rib. When's the last time you ate a prime rib at an haute cuisine?

Naturally, young people will always be bolder and wilder than their seniors, trying out different techniques. But for Mark Peel, I think he is moving at the pace of well, himself... by doing as he pleases. Instead of moving forward, Peel took a ride in the time machine to a New York supper club in the 1930s and 1940s. And he took along with him, a pillar in the New York cocktail scene named Audrey Saunders of the original Pegu Club. I had never heard of her before until hearing many of the 213 Downtown LA bartenders talk about her like she was a deity.

One of the first people Jeni and I met when we first started blogging about food was none other than Yoony of Immaeatchu, who is a solid and curious cook. Over the years, we had become catering associates and of course good friends, and tonight, she was turning one year older. Birthday troupe, cocktails by Saunders and food by Peel. Enter the NYC time machine known as the Tar Pit.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Walking in, you know that they've really nailed the NYC ambiance back then. You've seen it in old movies. Authentic or not, this was something "fresh" for us and definitely interesting. Right off the bat, I think we might have brought down the median age of the clientele. I saw more white hair and shiny heads than those with hair - an indication of loyal Peel followers and more mature demographic. The overall lighting is dim, with small candles all over the tables. There are curtains everywhere and if I remember correctly, the booths seats are high. It is quite comfortable here and easy to doze off if you've had too many Old-Fashioned's and Manhattan's.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

As you can imagine, the name Tar Pit is a reference to the La Brea tar pits and there are quite a few paintings of dinosaur fossils. Or is the name a reference to dinosaurs like me eating in the restaurant?

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

In addition to the restaurant decor, the servers and bartenders have a nice look. The bartenders wear these black jackets that might confuse them for valet tenants and the waitresses with their 30s style outfits and tied-back hair.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

First and foremost, we started out we Saunders' cocktail menu. With a stocked bar like that, you would be hard-pressed to find a cocktail they didn't know how to make.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

And Saunders did not disappoint, the cocktails were SOLID. My favorites were the Little Italy and the Gin Gin Mule. It was easy to have 1, 3... 5 cocktails.

With a group of eight, this was a good opportunity to share and try a big chunk of Peel's throwback menu.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Calamari with Lemon Wheels, Shallot Rings and Rouille
Easily one of the best calamari dishes I've had. Great batter, great texture and great sauce. I've noticed that Peel has a good deep-frying touch in previous dining experiences.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Pickled Deviled Eggs with Shaved Smithfield Ham
I love eggs and this is probably how Deviled Eggs tasted back then. Not that scary, 50s suburban housewife version you see too often on TV.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Clams Casino with Herbs, Butter and Bacon
I loved these for the time and delicate hands required to make this dish. The herbs, butter and bacon went so well with the clams - not even overpowering it. I think we all could have done a few dozens of these. This wen well with the Little Italy cocktail.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Tuna Tartare with Mustard & Cucumbers
I've never eaten tartare with cucumbers and this wasn't bad. I think we're all too accustomed to having a crispy texture to go with the soft, flesh of tuna.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Lobster Bisque Scented with Cognac
Easily the best Lobster Bisque I've eaten. This was DELICIOUS. Chef Peel does not cheat you on the 'lobster' part as you tell by the taste and color of the soup from using a lot of lobster shells. I had to ask for more bread to sop-mop the bowl. I still think about this dish all the time, as it was my favorite at Tar Pit.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Duck Sliders with Orange Gastrique
I found this to be a little rich but this was a favorite amongst the diners. Buns were baked beautifully and the duck was moist though.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Macaroni & Cheese with Porcini Mushrooms & Three Cheeses
Classic dish after classic dish, the night didn't end without having Peel's simple and rustic version of M&C. I don't like most of the M&Cs I eat at restaurants because they are either (A) dry and overdone with bread crumbs, (B) confuse the palate with X, Y and Z cheeses and (C) way too rich. Here, the pasta is super al-dente and even slightly crisped up under the Salamander oven. This can be rich, so share this!

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Chilled Veal "Vitello Tonnato" with Tuna Sauce
This was my first time having a classic Italian dish... chilled veal with tuna sauce. I loved how the egg yolks and cornichons were chopped and plated that way. The veal was cooked perfectly but I would probably like this more if it was hot.

I have to admit that after leaving Tar Pit I was indifferent about Peel's food. But the more and more I thought about the concept behind Tar Pit, I liked it a lot more. Sure the food is simple but that's what Peel seems to be known for. I'm always up for Chefs that don't follow trends. And the cocktails are surely enjoyable. I would go here more for the classic drinks, like the Little Italy, that are mixed purely with other types of alcohol. I love cocktails that don't use simple syrup such as the Negroni or Manhattan. I'll be back here for sure. Thanks for reading.
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