Saturday, September 30, 2006

A cathartic apple?

I'm not sure it reached the emotional level of the written-on-the-box description, but I did enjoy munching my snappy, mild cinnamon spice apple from The Apple Farm stand as I wandered around the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco this morning.

Crixa Cakes: Berkeley, CA

plum and raspberry pie

Looking for a cozy corner to indulge for an afternoon? Crixa Cakes in the East Bay is your spot. This bakery, run by Elizabeth Kloian, specializes in Russian and Hungarian pastries, as well as fruit pies and intricate cakes. Nothing is overly sweet, everything's made with real butter and sugar, and a lovely dollop of whipped cream comes with most treats.

The daily specials change (check the website for updates), but my favorite is almost always on the menu: a moist ginger cake strung with fresh, spicy ginger. With a cup of strong Crixa coffee, it brightens the grayest East Bay afternoon.

Crixa Cakes
2748 Adeline Street
Berkeley, CA 94703
closed Mondays

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Food Blog-LA-Sphere

Need even more blogs to distract you at the office? Here are some new-to-me fellow LA food nuts:
Triplecreme: A private chef who haunts my old office hood, Triplecreme provides the latest updates on the burgeoning Culver City restaurant scene and other spots on the Westside. I only wish I had read her review of Cafe Nagomi before my lunches moved east.

Mattbites: Any foodblogger who's inaugural post details his efforts to raise snails from his garden and cook them--wowza--it's gonna be good. Plus, his photos rock.

Potatomato: Short, pithy restaurant reviews, with plenty of pictures. Great design and ridiculously prolific.

Your Favorite Weekend: Now With Kids

Every Thursday, skip the C-list celebrities and C-list recommendations in the LA Times column, My Favorite Weekend, and check out what real Angelenos have to say on Erin's Kitchen instead. Want to share your favorite weekend? Email erinskitchen [at] gmail [dot] com.

Kelly, Aaron and Everett Campbell's Favorite Weekend

Kelly Vogt Campbell is a PR whiz, tasty fondue-maker and all-around fab gal. Her husband Aaron manages life as a full time student, dad, and my co-conspiritor at work. Their son Everett is cute enough to make your ovaries explode within 5 minutes of meeting him. They live in Sherman Oaks.

As a big-time food lover and a new mom of a 15 month old toddler, I have been faced with several dilemmas regarding food. How do you go out to dinner when your kid is in bed by 7:30 pm? How does one gracefully pick up bits of chicken off of a restaurant floor? And who has time to cook while either working all day or running after an active, adorable and already mischievous little guy whose idea of a good time is pulling the 14 oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes off the pantry shelves and seeing how close he can get to breaking all the little bones in his feet?

Alas, I haven’t found the answers to these questions, but this is supposed to be a perfect weekend, not a typical one, so here are my favorite kid-friendly but still cool places to go in LA, as well as a couple recipes that have stood the test of time.

Friday night: At the end of a busy week, Fridays are our time to reconnect and have a “date” – even if that means ordering take out and watching a DVD. My new favorite place is Bamboo Village in Sherman Oaks. I’m ½ Chinese and a total Chinese food snob, having grown up going to banquets and all the super-authentic places in Monterey Park and Chinatown. Bamboo Village actually comes close, and they deliver! Especially good are the Hot Braised Fish Fillet and their chow mein – not greasy, lots of meat, and the right kind of noodles. Yum.

Saturday: Occasionally we do venture out of the Valley, usually to Santa Monica or Silver Lake. Saturday mornings at Millie’s on Sunset are usually packed but so worth it. What fun to sit on the sidewalk and watch people way cooler than you could ever be walk by. The main reason I keep going back is the biscuits, and the rosemary potatoes. Oh, and their high chairs are rainbow.

Lunch in Silver Lake = El 7 Mares, the outdoor stand not the restaurant. They have the best fish tacos and they’re cheap. More adventurous types order ceviche, which they are famous for, but I can’t eat raw fish in a parking lot.

Sunday: One of the things I really missed when we moved from West L.A. to Sherman Oaks was the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, so on Sunday we head down for a day at the beach. The market on Ocean Park and Main is great with kids – there’s a band, pony rides and WAFFLES! Everett loves waffles, especially when he gets to dip them in maple syrup. Can’t blame him. I however am partial to the crepe stand and almost always get the same thing – nutella and banana. Heaven all wrapped up in a tasty package. We sit on the grass and chow with half the city. It actually feels like you’re part of a community, and in L.A. that’s not something to sneeze at. After we fill up we peruse the fruit and vegetable stands and pick out some gorgeous produce.

After the Market we drive down to the beach at Temescal Canyon and play with Everett for a while, then head back home to BBQ up some dinner!

We're BBQ'ing halibut steaks, which I season with salt, pepper, lime juice and long strips of jalapeno, and wrap them in banana leaves, which you can find in Asian supermarkets. Throw the packets on the grill for 30 minutes or so – because they’re steaming in the banana leaf it’s best to use a low heat and longer cooking time. The serve with some homemade mango salsa, rice, a veg and you’re all set!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Let's Go Pronto to Porto's

Entering Porto's Bakery, you'll get a twinge and wish you still had a 7th birthday to celebrate. Would you want the cake with the palm trees and tropical fish? Howabout the one with an all-girl rock band firmly planted in dense buttercream? Or maybe you'd like to pretend your cake was a pinneapple under the sea with Spongebob Sqaure Pants?

I was too excited about the potato balls (left) to take a good picture of the napoleon (right)

The sandwich-side of this bakery in Glendale usually has a long, but fast moving line for ordering sandwiches and individual desserts, so you have some time to watch the families bustling about on the other side of the room picking up their cakes. Just as I start to wonder how on earth they transport the behemoths home, it's my turn to order at the counter and I'm presented with a dilemma: what kind of pork sandwich do I want today? Most often, I go for the basic sandwich cubano which includes not one, but two kinds of pig (ham and roasted pork), plus Swiss cheese, mayo, mustard, and pickles. Served with a side of mediocre plantain chips, this glorious sandwich will only set you back a little over $3.

Of course, since this is a bakery, a dessert is a must. This Saturday, J and I shared a Dulce de Leche Napoleon, the type of dessert I normally shy away from. My post-meal sweets motto is the simpler, the better. This fancy-schmancy napoleon, however, is an exception to the rule. Alternating layers of crispy pastry and creamy, carmelized, milkyness combined into a sublime treat--not too heavy, not too sweet. J barely got a bite!

Porto's Bakery
315 North Brand Blvd.
Glendale, CA 91203

Monday, September 25, 2006

Roast Aubergine and White Bean Salad

Aubergine, the French word for eggplant, derives from the Arabic al-bādinjān, and sounds more fitting for this regal, mediterranean-spiced salad than the hard consonants of the English word. Hearty enough for a main course, I adapted this recipe from a recent Gourmet magazine that included lovely illustrations of this deep purple gem.

Roast Aubergine and White Bean Salad

Despite a somewhat lengthy list of ingredients, this salad comes together quickly, perfect for a healthy weeknight dinner.

1 medium eggplant, cut into small cubes
1 small zucchini, cut into small cubes
olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup chopped scallion
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 can white kidney beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 medium heirloom tomatoes, chopped
fresh ricotta

Preheat oven to 425.

Toss eggplant and zucchini cubes with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread on lightly oiled rimmed cookie sheet and place in oven. Roast, stirring frequently, until veggies are golden brown and tender, about 20-25 minutes.

While the veggies are roasting, heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add scallions and cook, stirring frequently, 3-4 minutes. Add cumin, coriander and cayenne, stir for about a minute. Add beans and stir, cooking for 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Remove eggplant and zucchini from oven when cooked through and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together lemon juice, sugar, and 4 tbsp. olive oil. Add eggplant, zucchini, beans and chopped tomatos to bowl. Mix gently and serve with a dollop of fresh ricotta if you happen to have some.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Oh My, Opus!

Rarely does attentive service, delicious, creative food, reasonable prices, and a beautiful space converge as they do at Opus. J and I felt like VIPs during our recent dinner at this restaurant near the corner of Wilshire and Western, and it wasn't because we were throwing $100 bills around or have any particular claims to fame.

After reading some rave reviews of the new chef, Josef Centeno, we ordered the modest 3 course tasting menu ($30) and the accompanying wines ($15!!). What we got was a fun, fall amuse bouche, 5 substantial courses and 5 glasses of wine, many courses presented by the chef himself, and very friendly service. I have no clue how the restaurant is making any money, but it's certainly winning some loyal and adoring customers.

We began with pumpkin poppers, small squares of fried dough filled with a fall-spiced pumpkin soup. Heeding the warning of our waitress, we made sure our lips were sealed as we ate them, but neither of us could hide a smile of delight as we tasted the creamy insides.

Next up, salmon sashimi with avocado cream and salmon roe, followed by a kodai skewer and beef tartar with a tiny quail egg. The kodai, a fish also known as porgy, was battered and fried, tasted mildly sweet, working well with a white soy dipping sauce. This was followed by grilled king fish served over romaine hearts with a tomatillo sauce, then a confit of baby pig with crispy skin. Y'all know how much I love pork, so this was my favorite course, also because the tender pig came with a side of fresh garbanzos and sauteed mushrooms.

At this point, we were whispering across the table to each other, "We only ordered 3 courses, right?? Should we say something? Did they mishear us??" When the waitress came by with new silverware for us, I said, "More??" and she replied that the chef always turns the three course into 5 or 6, and we had to have dessert, didn't we? Well, who were we to complain? Dessert was a tapioca brulee with tart cherries. Not something I would ever pick off a menu on my own as I'm anti-tapioca, but that's what tasting menus are good for--getting you out of your comfort zone and discovering new tastes. And guess what? Tapioca ain't that bad, especially when covered in cherries.

So, get on over to Opus ASAP for a fantastic evening. Even the valet parking's a deal (comparatively) at only $3.00.

3760 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90010

PS--We had some fab wines as well, but I didn't write them down and can't remember the names. The New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc served with the kodai and tartar was especially delightful, full of melon and grass.

Picture from Opus Restaurant website.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Your Favorite Weekend: Foodie Universe

Every Thursday, skip the C-list celebrities and C-list recommendations in the LA Times column, My Favorite Weekend, and check out what real Angelenos have to say on Erin's Kitchen instead. Want to share your favorite weekend? Email erinskitchen [at] gmail [dot] com.

Foodie Universe's Favorite Weekend

Foodie Universe has eaten at around 200 restaurants in Los Angeles (and blogged about many of them), which makes picking the top five quite a challenge. It also means that you'd be hard-pressed to go wrong with these choices. Definitely check out the site for comprehensive reviews of your neighborhood pho spot, taco trucks, and beyond.

Shishito peppers, shiitake mushrooms and shaved bonito at Kiriko

Friday dinner: I've eaten many a meal at Kiriko, and the food and service have never let me down. This cozy, quiet Sawtelle sushi joint is one of my favorite places to enjoy sake, sushi, and homemade ice cream.

Saturday lunch: Head over to India's Sweets and Spices for cheap, filling, delicious Indian food and a seemingly endless selection of desserts.

Saturday dinner: My ideal (but unlikely) Saturday night meal would be an all-out, four hour meal-to-remember at Melisse. It's so cost prohibitive that I've only been once, but their flawless French cuisine is some of the best food in the city. In addition to the food, an unpretentious staff, excellent wine pairings, and a relaxed atmosphere make this the perfect upscale restaurant.

Sunday lunch: I like my weekends to be as stress-free as possible, so for Sunday lunch I'd choose a meal that's cheap, filling, and delicious in a restaurant where I won't have to deal with reservations, parking hassles, or tables that are too close together. Mi Casita Salvadorena fits the bill (and my wallet, after a night at Melisse). For around $10 I can fill up on sweet corn tamales and beef empanadas.

Carnitas tacos from Taqueria Emanuel

Sunday dinner: I like to stay home on Sundays, so I'd grab some tacos to go at Taqueria Emanuel and chow down on the couch while watching That 70's Show reruns.

Previous Favorite Weekends
September 14, 2006: Atwater Village Newbie (eastside)
September 6, 2006: Jill and Gavin (Pasadena/downtown)

Pinkberry, Schminkberry

Frozen yogurt's all the rage in LA, but I'll take a small full-fat gelato over a strangely tangy, ice-crystal-filled tub of FroYo any day.

While Fiore and Pinkberry may smother their yogurts with yummy fresh fruits, Mi Amici actually uses the fresh fruit in the gelato. This new spot means danger for me; it just opened on Wilshire Blvd in Koreatown, mere blocks from my office. So far I've sampled the Donatella (chocolate hazelnut) and pear--both richly, creamily, decadently delightful.

According to the girl behind the counter (who says "have a gelato day" to every customer as they leave, then giggles uncontrollably), all of the gelato is made fresh on the premises each morning. They must be very busy as they have over 20 flavors on display.

Mi Amici also serves coffee and specialty teas, has free wifi and limited seating. Prices seem comparable to both the yogurt spots and other gelato places around town--a whopping $3 for a small. Hopefully due to the price and the fact that my gym is two blocks in the other direction, I can manage to limit my visits....but pink grapefruit is next on my "to try" list.

Mi Amici
3375 Wilshire Blvd #102A (cross street Alexandria)
Los Angeles, CA

PS-Wonder if the opening of this spot means the LA Weekly thinks Koreatown is gentrifying?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sweet Frites

When I first sliced open my sweet potatos last night, I was surprised to find white flesh. A little googling informed me that, no, I hadn't discovered a new species, but sweet potato insides vary in color from white to yellow to orange.

Sweet potato fries have become ubiquitous at restaurants around town, and I'm happy to indulge the trend--they're delicious and full of healthy anti-oxidants. However, I can't pretend that these restaurants don't deep fry them, so for real health benefits, I've begun making them at home.

Sweet Potato Fries

Turn your oven up to 375.

Peel as many sweet potatos as you'd like. Cut them into thin slices, as uniformly as possible. Toss slices with olive oil, kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.

Place on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Stir occasionally and check doneness by poking with a fork.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with the herb or spice mix of your choice. I used a mix of garlic, fresh rosemary, fresh oregano and fresh thyme. I also like them with cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and allspice.

Just Because You Can...Doesn't Mean You Should

According to the Joy of Cooking, you can microwave beets. I was running late for a BBQ on Sunday, and was planning to make a beet salad to bring. I didn't have an hour to roast 'em in the oven, so just this once I thought I'd try the microwave. Well. Not only do you end up with a disatrous mess, you also create wobbly, soft, tasteless beets. Now I know.

Monday, September 18, 2006

How to Cut Up a Chicken

Earlier this year, I took an expensive class at the New School of Cooking and I thought I was going to learn how to cut up a chicken into 8 pieces. I was wrong. Instead, I could have just watched this very useful video on CHOW's new website--for free!

image by protohiro used under a Creative Commons license

Sunday, September 17, 2006

BCD Tofu House: Koreatown

bibimbap: carrots, cukes, bean sprouts, mushrooms, egg all covering some ground beef

Put a pair of chopsticks in my hand and I suddenly have the hand-eye coordination of a 2 year old. Despite J's numerous patient tutorials, I cannot master this tool. Stab, stab, stab. Pick-up. Oohh, yeah, almost to the mouth. Drop. Arrrghh...hand cramp. Can I have a fork please??

This doesn't mean I stop trying, but the thin, metal chopsticks at BCD Tofu House? That's not playing fair. These are ten times more difficult to use than the cheapo wood ones I'm used to. Despite the challenge, I have soldiered on through two meals at this Korean spot and it's well worth the effort.

Multiple, small dishes delight me. I'm still learning about the glut of condiments at BCD, and on my last trip, surreptious glances at other tables revealed that I should have cracked my raw egg into the tofu pot when it was set on the table in all its boiling, bubbling glory. Next time.

J raved about bibimbap when he returned from South Korea earlier this year, so that's my go-to dish. Similar to my love of all the small dishes, I'm also enamored with bowls full of multiple, chopped ingredients--the more the merrier. Bibimbap is a bowl of mixed vegetables and ground beef, into which you mix in gochujang, a hot paste made from soy. It's comfortingly delicious and a contrasting mix of textures and flavors. J brought me a jar of gochujang from Korea so next time I'll have to try this at home.

BCD is open 24 hours, and was very busy both times I went--once for a late-ish dinner and once for lunch. It is part of a small chain, but of the kind that prove how fab LA can be--the other spots include locations in Torrance, downtown LA, and --yeah, that's right--Japan and South Korea.

BCD Tofu House
3575 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010
Tel 213.382.6677

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Peach Passionfruit Jammy Syrup

Growing up, I had no idea jam was sold in stores. I assumed everyone's grandma made them strawberry freezer jam and that was that. When I first tasted store-bought jam? Yuck. Of course, now there's not just Smuckers; even your local Safeway carries Sarah Elizabeth Katherine's Homemade Black Raspberry Lime Plum Pepper Preserves or some other fancy-schmancy spread for the low, low price of $7.99.

I still subsist off my grandma's jams and jellies--every Christmas my sister and I get our stock for the year. However, with all the glorious summer fruit we have in California, I figured I should give it a shot on my own. Plus, having a sweet reminder of summer in the cupboard will help us get through the harsh Los Angeles winter. Oh, wait....

The more wrinkly the passionfruit, the better. You don't want the smooth skinned ones.

My first batch was small--I wanted to see how boiling the jars and waiting for the lids to pop would work before devoting a full afternoon to the task. It's a bit stressful, but not too difficult. Definitely get everything laid out ahead of time and start with a clean, empty kitchen. Also, I found that tongs work well as jar removers--no need for a fancy canning rack. The satisfying "pop" of the lids will let you know whether or not you'll kill anyone.

As you can see from the runnyness of my end product, I either didn't let the jam cook down long enough for the pectin in the fruit to appear fully, or perhaps I needed to add some pectin because peaches and passionfruit are low in it? I'm not sure. It still worked well on my morning english muffin and I am saving the other jar for an over ice cream treat later this year.

Peach Passionfruit Jammy Syrup
(makes approx. 1 1/2 8 oz. jars)

2 peaches, peeled and diced
juice from 5 passionfruits, seeds strained
3/4 of a cup of sugar

Mix your ingredients together in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and cook until jam-like (obviously, I don't really know what I'm doing). One way to tell is to take a small spoonful and place in the freezer for 30 seconds or so. If it's "set" when you take it out, the jam is ready for canning. Now go follow someone elses instructions on canning, because I don't want to poison you. (The Joy of Cooking is great, as is The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest).

Friday, September 15, 2006

What You Learn When You're a Wimp

I've written about my love of Trader Joe's pizza dough before. The roll-it-yourself, herby dough makes its way into our weeknight rotation about once or twice a month.

This week, I learned a valuable lesson about another of TJ's products, however. If, try as you might, your wimpy upper arms can't provide enough strength to open a jar of pasta sauce (I often use TJ's basic marinara on my quickie pizzas), leftover Trader Joe's roasted vegetable tapenade works wonders. Robust flavors, just saucy enough, with a hint of basil.

Now, back to the weight lifting.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Your Favorite Weekend:
Atwater Village Newbie

Every Thursday, skip the C-list celebrities and C-list recommendations in the LA Times column, My Favorite Weekend, and check out what real Angelenos have to say on Erin's Kitchen instead. Want to share your favorite weekend? Email erinskitchen [at] gmail [dot] com. See the first column in this series here.

Atwater Village Newbie's (and Mrs. Newbie's) Favorite Weekend

Atwater Village Newbie loves to try new food. Mrs. Newbie loves to try good food. Six months ago they moved from Colorado to northeast Los Angeles. It's their best decision since getting married.

Our perfect weekend starts Friday, dinner at Puran's Hillhurst. With luck we've reserved the far corner, the coziest indoor table in Los Feliz. We order filet mignon skewers - not on menu, but often on special.

Dessert tastes like pistachio and espresso at Silver Lake's Pazzo Gelato. Yes, even after it became LA Weekly's poster child for gentrification. And NPR's poster child for ice cream.

Saturday lunch is another historia. We speak little Spanish but we often speak El Gallo Giro. Find this Mexican kitchen's 10 tourist-unfriendly locations for kettle-cooked carnitas, chased with aguas frescas. At 115 degrees in Panorama City, no other fruit drink will do.

Saturday night: Edendale Grill, at the coziest outdoor table in Silver Lake. People-watching makes up for entree prices beyond $20, but so do the filet medallions. Our default hotspot for out-of-towners.

Sunday brunch: Fairfax High eggs and salmon at Fred 62, the first place we ate together in LA, the day after we unpacked.

Sunday night we steel ourselves for the workweek, cooking at home. Believe it or not, we always craved something like Trader Joe's packaged foods: all natural, no preservatives, no blandness. Mrs. Newbie's final gourmet touches have us dining happily on the porch with the hum of I-5, the buzz of helicopters and the purr of our transplanted cats.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

From the Blogs:
Moroccan and Middle Eastern Cuisine

Potter making tagines in Safi, Morocco. Photo by Claude Renault.

Heather John, senior editor of Bon Appetit, blogs about her first attempt at roasting a whole fish, following a Suzanne Goin recipe that appeared in the magazine. She has some tips on finding Moroccan ingredients in LA, and highlights a fish monger I've been meaning to try (but...westside...arrgh).

Sean at Hedonia puts his tagine to good use, and writes up a basic formula to follow when using this elegant cooking instrument.

For dessert, Stone Soup recently concocted a lovely pistachio-rosewater cake served with a side of frozen yoghurt. And that's not all--she provides recipes for other yoghurt-based dishes as well.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


I've added za'atar to my ever-growing Middle Eastern/North African food vocabulary (see previous entries on harissa, charmoula, and muhammara). I'm discovering this cuisine to be all about the condiments!

Recipes for this simple spice mix vary--I used sumac, thyme, toasted sesame seeds and a pinch of kosher salt. Lemony, sweet sumac contrasts with the smoky sesame seeds, and definitely stands at the heart of the mix. Rusty red sumac derives from the berries of the plant with the same name. Essential to Middle Eastern cooking, it was also used by the Romans before lemons were available to them. You can buy it online from Penzey's.

Most often the spices are mixed with a bit of olive oil and used as a dip for pita bread. I sprinkled mine over sauteed zucchini one night, mixed it in a couscous salad the next.

I came across recipes that added cumin, marjoram and paprika, so feel free to experiment
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
1 tbsp. ground sumac
1 tsp. sesame seeds, toasted
pinch of salt

Mix ingredients together. If you want a bit more integration, you can crush gently in a mortar and pestle like I did. Some recipes recommend blitzing the mix in a spice or coffee grinder, but I wanted to preserve the shape of the sesame seeds.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Taste Los Feliz for a Good Cause

Hope-Net operates 14 local food pantries in Los Angeles serving over 400,000 meals a year. This group is the beneficiary of the first ever Taste of Los Feliz event, which will feature drinks and food from area restaurants, including: Alcove, Café Los Feliz, Dresden, Electric Lotus, Figaro Café, Greenleaf Vegan, Hollywood Gelato Co., Home Restaurant, Il Capriccio, La Bellle Époque, Machos Tacos, Niko Niko Sushi, Starbucks Coffee, Tiger Lily, Tony’s Bakery, Vermont Restaurant, and Yuca's.

Taste of Los Feliz
October 8, 2006
Vermont Ave between Prospect and Franklin
$35 a person/$15 for kids under 12

To purchase tickets, send a check to Hope-Net to 760 S. Westmoreland Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90005 or call 213.389.9949.

Behind the Curtain: A Restaurant Opening

My fabulous mom recently had the opportunity to dine at a soon-to-open restaurant for a test-run. I thought it was an intriguing look into the obsessive attention that goes into every detail of the dining experience. Here's her report on Lola, in La Crosse, WI:

mushroom tart on bed of sauteed leeks

The menu trial Wednesday night in La Crosse at the soon-to- open "Lola" was a real treat. I was invited by Janet, sister of the owner, ostensibly to try a couple of wines they were considering for the house, and maybe have an appetizer or two.

We did try one wine they are considering for the house red (Fourteen Hands Cab) and had truly melt- in your -mouth scallops w/ a very nice soy-based sauce as we chatted at the bar. Soon, however, we were invited into the newly decorated dining room and began with the first of five courses, each more wonderful than the last. We started with a salad of greens, beets and pears. My favorite course was a mushroom tart, flavored with red wine and served on a bed of sautéed leeks. The entree consisted of extra-large shrimp, golden battered and lightly fried, served with a caramelized orange sauce. Roasted vegetables on pesto, and a tomato bisque were also perfectly prepared. Each course was accompanied by a different white wine; none I recognized, all I enjoyed. A light Riesling (not at all sweet) several Sav Blancs (compared head to head) and one white Burgundy.

The service was also on trial. For seven of us dining, there were four wait staff. They were designing a service plan, and it was a lot like watching a dance develop. Silver was placed with the course. Plates were all placed in unison; delivered from the left, removed from the right (or was it the other way 'round?) Should the sommelier kneel (so as to be eye- to-eye and talk more directly with the head of the table) or should he stand, to show his confidence, wisdom, etc. I thought the service was great, because I didn't notice it much.

creamy tomato bisque

We all tried a much as possible to mimic a real table on a real night, tho' there was spontaneous evaluation. "The crust on the tart is a bit too thick." "Yes, but it is really flaky and light." "There really needs to be some bread (What kind?) with the bisque."

We talked a lot about the wines. Will La Crosse support a fixed-price menu with accompanying wine courses? Should wines be paired with food on the menu (the thought at this point is "no"). Which Sav Blanc did we like the best and why? How much should a glass cost? No other restaurant in this area has a strong wine program (except Olive Garden and we all agreed we refused to count that), but several wine shops and one very nice wine bar have popped up in the last year and that was seen as a lead-in.

All in all a very pleasant evening. I look forward to the opening, and want to try to make several of the dishes myself.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Galco's Soda Pop Shop Hits the Big Time

The beloved Galco's Soda Pop Shop highlighted in The New York Times.

Read my review here.

It's all Greek to Me: LA GreekFest 2006

After work on Friday, J and I headed down Normandie Ave to St. Sophia's Cathedral for the annual Los Angeles GreekFest. The Fest takes place at the center of the Byzantine-Latino Quarter of Los Angeles, one of those interesting neighborhood mash-ups you find in this city where layers of immigrant groups and history have merged into an curious mix.

Our first stop was the wine tasting booth, manned by some guys who had perhaps sampled a significant portion of the goods already. We opted for two random Greek red wines at $5/each, then noticed the sign hawking a 3 glasses for $10 deal. When we asked about a third glass, however, the server shook his head, waved his hand and said, "Oh that's too complicated," and went on to serve the next guest. We were in no mood for arguing and as our first sips of the wine were settling in our brains, we realized we weren't really missing much.

Dinner consisteed of a shared moussaka, a baked, layered dish with ground beef, eggplant and a creamy, cheesy (eggy?) topping. New to us was the tiropita, a cheesy, lemony, nutmegy mixture encased in flaky filo dough, often served as a breakfast dish.

For dessert we shared a heaping plate of loukomathes--fried dough balls drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon.

We capped our night not with ouzo but by watching the Zorba the Greek dance contest. It was the first (and probably the last time) I will ever see someone do the robot--and a really freaking good robot--to Zorba the Greek. Good times.

The festival continues through Sunday, and costs $3 to attend (there's a $1 off coupon on the website). Since this is LA, there's $10 valet parking, but we found a spot on the street just a few blocks away.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Your Favorite Weekend

Every Thursday in the Weekend Calendar section, the Los Angeles Times runs a column: My Favorite Weekend. It features the dining, shopping and entertainment recommendations of a local celebrity, usually C-list or below. The recommendations usually run to the C-list variety as well--The Grove often has a starring role, as do overpriced, tired cliches like Dan Tana's. BORING!

Since I love the column's concept, but hate the execution, I figured I'd call on some real Angelenos with interesting ideas and eclectic tastes to share their favorite weekends (focused on food of course). Until I run out of people to ask, every Thursday I'll highlight a different favorite weekend. If you'd like to share yours, email me at erinskitchen [at] gmail [dot] com.

Jill and Gavin's Favorite Weekend

Jill blogs at Jill's Notebook, and has a knack for delish homemade pizzas. Gavin is her partner in crime, and mixes a mean Gin and Tonic. They live in Pasadena.

We would start our favorite weekend with a visit to Peet’s (where we met) here in Pasadena for a rustic cherry tart (made by La Brea Bakery) and a cup of coffee. Since the line would likely be long, we would go to the bean counter and buy a pound of Major Dickason’s beans, too, because we would likely be needing coffee beans and because they will serve you coffee and pastries from the much shorter bean counter line as long as you are actually buying beans as well.

We might stop at Wild Oats right by Peet’s before we left for some of the good cheese (or a similarly good cheese) and some fruit and a loaf of La Brea Bakery rosemary olive oil bread for lunchtime grazing.

For dinner, I would take a vegetarian vacation and we would go to Nozawa in Studio City where the wall behind the sushi chef is covered with signs that say “Trust Me” and where you eat what the sushi chef gives you. I've only been once, but it was quite a memorable meal. (Note: the Citysearch page says Nozawa is closed on the weekends, so this may be more of a dream weekend than an feasible weekend. Perhaps we should imagine this as a Friday night dinner instead.)

On Sunday we would wake up at four in the morning and go to the Pantry downtown for breakfast. An unspecified period of time later, we would head to Bean Town in Sierra Madre with our laptops for more good coffeeshop fare and for the free wireless. Then we’d head over to Madeleine’s for a late, slow lunch and then have drinks while we played Quoridor on the patio.

Rhubarb-Raspberry Grunt

J said: you're making what? A grunt. A what? A grunt--you know, like a slump. He replies: Ohhhh-kaaayy, with a skeptical look--who is this crazy woman and why did I marry her?

A close cousin of the cobbler, buckle, slump, and pandowdy, the grunt is a traditional New England fruit dessert. Reports vary, but the name is either due to the sound the fruit makes as it cooks and the air escapes or the sound people make when they eat the dish. Hmmm...I'm not above the occasional moan over a delectable dessert--but a grunt? I really hope not--at least not in polite company.

The reason I went the grunt route (other than the ridiculous name)? You cook it on top of the stove. As the oppressive heat continues here in LA--and I remain without air-conditioning--I couldn't bear the thought of turning on the oven. I was skeptical of the dumpling topping at first (fearing stovetop sliminess for some reason), but I needn't have feared. They were densely buttery and held up to the fruit quite well, and due to a large amount of baking powder, they puffed impressively.

Rhubarb and raspberries pair quite nicely, with the latter providing a sweet balance for the former. By the way--anyone have rhubarb procuring tips? I've looked for it at the market all summer and this Sunday was the first time I found it.

Rhubarb-Raspberry Grunt

for the fruit:
4 c. chopped rhubarb, in 1/2 inch pieces
A pint or so of raspberries
3/4-1 c. sugar, depending on your sweet tooth
squeeze of lemon juice
sprinkle of cinnamon
pinch of salt

for the dumplings:
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1/3 c. 2% milk (or whole)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Mix all of the fruit ingredients in a large bowl and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, stir together the milk and butter. Gently stir the milk-butter mixture into the flour mixture. Set aside.

Pour the fruit into a largish cast-iron skillet (or similar skillet with straight sides). Cover, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce to simmer, and let cook for approx. 8 minutes.

Drop 6-8 dollops of batter on top of fruit mixture, spacing them evenly. It may not look like a lot, but trust me--it works. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook until dumplings are cooked through--about 15 minutes. Serve warm, though your leftovers will taste great right out of the fridge.

For more history on old-fashioned American fruit desserts, as well as some thoroughly modern recipes, check out this article in Grit magazine

Monday, September 04, 2006

Aperitif: Pernod and Tapenade

Pernod with water, fig and walnut tapenade and extras

Oh, the civilized world. In America, we have "Happy Hour"--aka cheap and copious high-alcohol drinks, high-fat foods, and high-likelihood of drunken debauchery. In France? There they have aperitifs--low-alcohol, appetite-piquing drinks with small snacks, designed as a social prelude to the meal, not a replacement.**

Earlier this summer I picked up the book Aperitif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style by Georgeanne Brennan, a laudatory and useful guide to this tradition. So far, the drinks section has held my attention and I plan to try my hand at some vins maison later this fall. But first, I'm learning to love pastis, anise-flavored alcohol, created through the maceration of herbs and spices (Pernod is not technically pastis due to its distillation, but I didn't realize that when I bought it).

Pastis is basically the wormwood-free version of absinthe, the scourge of early 20th century teetolaters. Hence, no Toulouse Lautrec-type hallucinations, but the flavor is similar. Pastis is usually served with water, at a ratio of 5 (water) to 1 (pastis). As a martini-swilling American, the, well, watery-ness takes a bit of getting used to, but with some snacks, it's a pleasant way to begin the evening.

The book recommends a dish of small green olives with your pastis, but the only olives I had were in some leftover walnut and fig tapenade. This has been an easy favorite of mine for ages--a food processor and quality ingredients are all you need. Plus some goat cheese and bread to serve it on!

Walnut and Fig Tapenade
Based on this recipe from Bon Appetit, which I use when feeling less lazy

Can of black olives, drained
1/2-3/4 c. of chopped walnuts
1 c. dried figs, roughly chopped (Trader Joe's has 'em)
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 tbsp. olive oil

Whir the first 5 ingredients in your food processor. Taste and adjust accordingly, adding more of any ingredient you wish. With the processor running, add olive oil in a steady stream through the open top thingy. When tapenade reaches your preferred consistency, stop, even if it's before 3 full tablespoons. Remove from processor to serving dish, and spread on baguette rounds that're already spread with some goat cheese.

**don't get me wrong--I've enjoyed plenty of happy hours in my day and have the pictures (unfortunately!) to prove it.

Plouf, Belden Alley, San Francisco

Quite fantastic, isn't it? Even if the food were horrible, dining in this discreet San Francisco alley would be more than tolerable. Home to a handful of Europe-centric restaurants (Italian, French, Spanish), Belden Alley brings a smile to my face as soon as I turn into it from Bush Street.

The only restaurant here I can vouch for is Plouf, a mussels mecca. On a recent solo visit, I abandoned my usual commitment to moules mariniere (garlic, white wine, parsley) for the moules pastis (shallots, garlic, cream, Ricard, chili flakes, fine herbs). My infidelity was richly rewarded--the subtle licorice flavor from the pastis (Ricard) married well with the smooth cream and punchy garlic and shallots. No moules are complete without the frites of course, and Plouf serves a heaping dish (though I was disappointed that my pile o'fries had more than the average number of stumpy specimens).

A Kronenbourg on tap rounded out my meal, though the restaurant offers a decent list of seafood-friendly wines by the glass. The menu expands well beyond mussels to other fish and seafood dishes, as well as some landed entrees--lamb, chicken and beef. A lovely mixed green salad is available as well, if you feel the need to start with something healthy.

Though Belden Alley lends itself to celebration and larger groups, I can recommend eating alone as well. It offers a perfect locale for people-watching, from the table of two distinguished French couples grilling the waiter for over 15 minutes to the first date awkwardly chatting, to the coworkers out together, getting progressively drunker and more friendly with one another. Relax, sip your drink, and enjoy!

40 Belden Place
Belden Place lies between Bush and Pine and between Kearny and Montgomery
San Francisco, CA

Other Recent Reviews of Plouf:
Rose Cantine

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Food Destinations: The Wilshire Center Market

Maki, of I Was Just Really Very Hungry, has asked bloggers to highlight a favorite greenmarket (aka farmers' market). Though the Hollywood market remains my culinary favorite, the Wilshire Center market outside my office wins my heart with its community vibe and friendly vendors.

It runs from 11 am to 3 pm, but a clutch of Korean grandmas arrives around 9 am to crowd their favorite vendor and snatch up the best produce early. Closer to lunch time, office workers from the surrounding buildings saunter through the market, picking up food for the weekend and some lunch. There's a large trailer that doubles as a chicken rotisserie at one end of the market, sending fragrant smoke wafting across the street, making your mouth water. I also like the Happy Inka, serving up Peruvian food (sauteed rice with veggies or spiced meat).

the grill at the Happy Inka

the rotisserie trailer

The produce is fairly basic, though there's a stone fruit stand that has more varieties of plums than I've seen anywhere else. There's also an Asian veggie stand with lots of curvy, slim eggplants and bunches of purple, Thai basil.

at the Asian market stand: I don't know what this is

A visit to this market gets me excited about cooking for the weekend and feels very neighborhood-y--a rare sensation in Los Angeles!

Wilshire Center Farmers' Market

Mariposa between Wilshire and 6th
11 am-3 pm, Fridays
Take the red line metro to Normandie

Eventually, you'll be able to see all of the reports here

Friday, September 01, 2006

Bar Crudo, San Francisco

I think I'm in love. Cozy zinc bar where you can watch the chef shuck oysters and prepare fish? Tom Waits on the playlist? Ethereal jellyfish lamps in the back of the bar? And more importantly: food so far from the ordinary, with a comfy price tag and sparkling flavors.

halibut with watermelon, cucumber, orange, tangerine oil, mint and sezhuan pepper (whew!)

crudo sampler platter: yellowfin tuna with ginger, soy and srichacha; barramundi with lemon, lime and radish; arctic char cubes with creamy horseradish, tobiko, and dill; scallop with orange, fennel, olives and mint

I've done sushi, ceviche and tuna carpaccio but never crudo--Italian raw fish. Bar Crudo, a relatively new spot in San Francisco, serves--duh--crudo as well as a full raw bar and a few cooked pescatory plates. I found it via the San Francisco Chronicle's list of Top 100 Restaurants (with a handy neighborhood search feature), and after checking the opinion of prolific Bay Area foodblogger Sam of Becks and Posh (she's currently loving it) I knew I was good to go.

the tuna confit, my favorite

Bar Crudo's a great place to go as a single diner--grab a seat at the bar and watch the action in the kitchen or chat up your neighbor. Every dish I tried had a long list of adjectives/ingredients on the menu and most lived up to the description--though I'm not sure I picked out every flavor in every bite. My favorite was the San Sebastian--tuna confit with white asparagus, olives, caperberries, manchego, tomato bread and 1/2 a soft boiled egg. To confit is to preserve meat in fat--in this case the tuna was preserved in olive oil, creating a rich and tender texture. With a bit of the egg yolk dabbed on the fish, each bite was heaven.

The service is a bit slow (it's a small, popular space with a tiny staff)--a minor, minor glitch in an otherwise delightful evening, especially when you've got a great Spanish verdejo wine to savor.

Bar Crudo
603 Bush St
San Francisco