Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tasting Tibet Without Airplane Tickets

Compared to the nearly 8,000 miles between here and Kathmandu, it’s merely a stone’s throw to get to Ventura to enjoy the new restaurant Himalaya. Opened last July on West Main Street, this former Taco Bell has been transformed into an entrancing spot to enjoy exotic Eastern cuisine that’s not very available on the Central Coast, particularly the Nepali and Tibetan specialties. “Nepal is right between India and China, so it’s influenced by the foods of both,” explained owned Anup Rimal, a native of Nepal. “Sometimes it’s with the spices, and sometimes it’s with the cooking methods — there are various ways of fusion.”

Want to read the rest then do so at the Indy's site.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

This Carpaccio is F-ing Ridiculo

Presented without comment, either because I'm laughing too hard or it cuts too close to the bone.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hell, I'm Left Hankering for the Sell

Believe it or not, but the Indy doesn't provide me a huge expense budget given that they could quadruple my current one and it will still be the same (hope that wasn't too tricky a word problem). Plus, as you might have noticed of late, the Indy rarely runs food at all--go buy some ads and make that paper fatter for me, will ya? For some reason food gets cut before news, like news is more important (I mean, it's a weekly).

But enough of my problems, what you want to know is how a semi-pro like me saves money eating out as he's plunking down his own. One way is to take advantage of every deal, and therefore Living Social has been one place to save a buck. Now, I'm not a business person (I'm not a bit full of Mitt), but I assume one reason you'd sign up for a loss leader deal is to get a whole bunch of people into your establishment and get them to say, "Yippee! Cool!" Then they share that message with friends who come pay full price, they come back and pay full price, and that original bit where you lost money is a long forgotten memory.

Last night we redeemed a Living Social and ended up saying "Yippee! Too Cool!" but let's discuss the yippee first. We finally got to La Tour Wine Merchants down in the Funk Zone and you have to hand it to them as the place is nothing but ballsy. Focusing on European wines within a spit-bucket distance of the ever-growing Santa Barbara wine industry takes guts (plus, yes, it's clever counter-programming, giving a wine lover more directions to love). Not listing the names of the wines open for tasting is also ballsy simply as it's not what people do, and people in business tend to do only what others have done before. Yet, La Tour is on to something--letting most people see a French wine name generally just makes them flashback to the terrors of high school French rather than the glories of terroir, plus so often the grape or grapes used to make the wine aren't even listed on the label. Instead, a quick descriptor like "fruity, bright" does tell us something, even better, without leading us into a lengthy suggestion game, you know the ones when you, too, can't help but notice the whiff of "Chittidar guava, grown on the shady side of the valley" in the nose after it's been so snootily mentioned.

Beyond the ballsiness, they served fascinating wines in a great batting order, so both the 5-wine white and red tastings were mighty yummy. I'd love to tell you what they all were, but the one big problem was you never got a good reveal--we had to keep reminding our server to give us a glimpse of the labels, and while the subdued lighting (from mighty cool old-timey light fixtures with elements aglow in the bulbs) was the right mood-setter, it wasn't so great for reading labels in foreign languages. How nice it would have been to end the tasting by being presented with a list of all the wines you'd tried, with their names, appellations, grapes, alcohol, and sure, why not, price. (Not knowing the cost is, again, a ballsy if good thing, as you don't get obsessed trying to convince yourself that $50 bottle is better than the $38. But still, at the end of the day, you got to pay, so it's nice to know that, too. Eventually.)

Speaking of paying, perhaps it was because we had the set Living Social deal--a flight each for two followed by a glass each of your favorite--and they labelled us cheap-o visitors, but there was no sense they could have offered us more. Yelp La Tour and they get 12 five-star reviews, many of which mention the glories of the charcuterie from Spare Parts or the cheese plate from C'est Cheese. We heard nothing about either. Yes, they weren't included in our deal, but how hard would it be to go "So, your deal is just for wine, but we also have some great things to munch on if you're interested--care to see the list?" La Tour also shares its space with The Pub, so there's even more food to be had, from salads to flatbreads to handhelds (no, not your phone, but sandwiches). We asked about whether there was food and at first our server just said yes, so we had to ask, "Can we see a menu, just to look?" It was almost as if they were ashamed to begin to try to sell us anything beyond our pre-paid Living Social deal.

All that said, the vibe was mellow, the wines fine, and the actual prices (I think, again, from Yelp and not from what you could see on the blackboards with info) quite good--that 5 wine flight was a mere $10. We will be back. But that hook could have been so much deeper.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Where You Bean, Spring?

So the Vernal Equinox knocks today, just two days after snow dusted our mountains, so either Mother Nature is a crazy joker or global warming has spun us all weather we can't begin to predict. Since it's the first day of spring, let's vote for the former, as a sense of humor is what we all might need. Or we might just need some fava beans. We had our first from the Farmers' Market last week, and more than any calendar, their green, so very hard to work for, means spring to me.

That working for it is necessary, starting with the initial shucking from the extravagantly comfy pod. Tearing into them it's easy to imagine what a human-size cocoon of such cushion might be like (if someone could do it stylishly and not turn it into something ShamWow-zable in infomercials). The return from even a half-a-foot-long bean is often a mere 5 "peas"--it's as if they're all agoraphobic and fear being too close. Once you've turned your pound or two of whole beans into a much smaller bowl of just the fruit, as it were, you still aren't done. For now you need to parboil those, let them cool a bit (but you will get impatient and start before they're easily handled), and slide the waxy coating off, sadly often having the bean split into its two sides and lose its perfection. But this is about taste and not pretty, although the jade of a fava bean is a green to behold.

At this point, you can prepare them as you'd like, but notice you're committed to these beans, so much smaller and so fussed over since you began. Spring takes preparation, patience, often a paring away.

They will reward you simply, now. Butter, any herb you like, perhaps some shallot or leek (they are too delicate for onion or garlic, really), salt and pepper. You can let them get brown and crunchy if you like that, or leave them rich and succulent or do a bit a both. They are a side, fine to mix with pasta (and maybe some pan-fried oyster mushrooms), and of course you can puree them and set all sorts of goodness atop, say a perfect piece of salmon.

Spring has sprung on your plate, yes, but it made you wait. And was worth it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Yellowtail That Doesn't Fail

This isn't about the cocktails, as I've blogged before about those, not that they weren't once again wonderful. This isn't about the brilliant little box that is Ray's, surprisingly warm on a rainy LA day (does too happen!), managing the shift to dusk while never growing dim, or its clever tables with drawers that hide-away the silver service. This isn't about the service, perfectly professional and even better knowing the menu inside out--our waiter seemed able to describe each dish as if he had a hand in cooking it. Very helpful when trying to decide between the sturgeon and the pork belly. But this isn't about that pork belly, either, one of the best I've ever had, taking the dish past its trendiness through execution (that great crispy top) and balance (the sweet fat cut with the acid of a vinegary sauce).

No, this is about the Hamachi, pictured above. Stop to admire it. Even an iPhone can capture much of its beauty, and this is at an art museum, after all, so looks do count for something. (Worse yet, an LA art museum, so looks perhaps count for everything.) Be sure to check the accoutrements, for those teensy mushroom caps, like umbrellas for the black sesame seed crumble, aren't just gorgeous, but pickled just enough that their earthy-shroominess has one more register--how can something that small still taste like what it's supposed to be? And then those tangerines; if the flattened golf-ball-sized ones at farmers' markets are Pixies, what are these, Pixie dust? But again, their size belies their kick.

All that said, there's no denying the plate's star is the hamachi. Perhaps there needs to be a grade higher than sashimi grade for fish this good. I always think such a clean taste, but that's obviously not the right word as clean makes it seem like there's no taste and that's far from the truth. It's a purity, fish denying it could ever get fishy. Set off with the aji amarillo vinaigrette, with the taste equivalent of a mere knee-bend of a kick, it was magnificent. I came close to changing my main order and telling our waiter to keep bringing plates of that till I swam out. Perhaps getting back and forth to LA and Ray's and Stark Bar would be easier if I could swim and not drive.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

All's Well That Eats Well

One of the great attractions/frustrations about writing about food for me is it's all about capturing a moment as it vanishes. You probably know the kind of person who bitches about plunking down too much cash for a meal as it's so temporary a pleasure--they'd rather buy something they can keep around for awhile (and the added pounds of a large meal doesn't count). Obviously this is true for writing about many of the arts--you can brag about but never relive watching Baryshnikov dance Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove at ABT in 1976, and any video is a tragic falling off; you can listen to all the Velvet Underground recordings you want, but nothing will match when Mo Tucker came out and sang "Pale Blue Eyes" as an encore at that Lou Reed/John Cale Songs for 'Drella show at BAM in 1989*--but a photo of a great meal doesn't come close to capturing a plate of food. And somehow I opt to scribble  about food (and note I pick a term I don't even do anymore, since all my composing is at the keyboard, as a way to acknowledge time's passing), hoping to knock some sense out of words.

This desire to capture, hold on, share, only grows when a restaurant closes its doors and the option to at least revisit totally slips away. (As for that revisiting, that's its own tortured issue, for instance, how the usually Platonically perfect burger at Father's Office might seem not enough medium and too rare on one visit, with the grilled onions and arugula piled too high so it all actually becomes, and these are her actual words, the spongy, slimy, greasy thing Irene Virbila laments, admitting she's in the minority. How can that happen? Thank god the fries were still perfection.) Such is the case, recently, with a minor key gem that shut down in January, Kobachi Izakaya, which was in the inauspicious shopping center at the foot of the 154 on State Street. While there were windows, the space always seemed like a basement, and that didn't add to its charm, despite the colorful Japanese-themed murals. But what was good there was the value, and the sweet older woman who tended to run service like you were having a meal at her home, and if you ordered mackerel, she'd ask if you'd had it before, warning you how fishy it was, and how she wouldn't cook it at home as it would stink up the kitchen. But I did order it, every time, a fish proud to be a fish, the skin crisped and adding some crunchy texture, and then so so much flavor. They had great special meals, too, where you seemed to get every possible Japanese food item in one combo for about $15, from miso to California roll to some green salad that featured actual good greens and a sesame dressing that sang.

Our last visit there was a sad one, though, as things had changed. The space was always somewhat a market, but they decided it should now be market first, restaurant second, and that meant all the dining was pushed off to the second room that was even more cellar-like. The menu was cut, too, which made some sense since it originally was huge, especially for a small place, but it was as if a blind person took a cleaver to it. And then the help that night, a poor young man, admitting it was his second night on the job, earnestly fumbling, slow, and apologizing. I felt sorry for him, of course, as he meant well, but a dish of pity isn't my favorite amuse bouche. When I heard they closed, it came as little surprise, as the last visit didn't even seem like the same place.

And sometimes the place is all important, despite what really bright chefs/entrepreneurs say. Such is the case with the recent closing of the Tar Pit in Los Angeles. Here's what the LA Weekly wrote about the closing: "Outfitted with Art Deco stylized palm trees, a Kold-Draft double-stacked ice machine and a pizza oven, The Tar Pit also had lots of fancy restaurant equipment that was already on wheels. Thus, says [owner Mark] Peel, they are simply going to roll out the contents of the place and move it down the street -- or across town or wherever they find someplace that suits them. Literally, a moveable feast, as it were."

I can't be so sure. A huge part of the success of Tar Pit was the way it managed Deco-retro so effortlessly, the room the perfect size, broken up in booths that led to intimacy but they were still low enough you could give the room a full scan, all the way to the elegant bar. Mirrors made everything a bit larger, made the low but not dim light sparkle. You just felt better looking stepping in the door, and not too many rooms do that (at least for me). Sure, you can move the help, if they all don't get snapped up, and they tended to wait effortlessly while dressing the swank part, too--that's one reason to dine in a town full of actors and actresses, after all, as many play te role of server impeccably, especially when they get to dress the part. No doubt the food can be replicated elsewhere, even the delightful ears and ears pun of orrechiette with pig ears (so finally julienned they ended up like porky pasta themselves) and pork cheeks or the clams casino nailed without any quotation marks in sight. But that room, I'll miss that room. And then Peel actually needs to open again somewhere, too. (My ever clever wife jumped on his quote, "I've even thought about the Westside," kidding he meant Santa Barbara's, where we live. Paradise can't get that perfect.)

The good news is one paradise has, as the temporarily shuttered Blue Palms in Hollywood is back open as of yesterday. I've penned my ode to Blue Palms before, so when it got caught in the landlord mess that took the Music Box down, I had to admit I cried a few tears into my beer, saddened for the suds and sausages I now could never have. It's great that they're back, and here's hoping for good.

In the meantime, though, I found a more than reasonable substitute, if one in a neighborhood I don't get too in LA much, but there I go proving my point by calling Burbank LA (I have to admit I'm not sure citizens of which place would feel more offended). That's Tony's Darts Away, another beer and sausage place that's willing to make vegans happy (no surprise as it's part of the Mohawk Bend and Golden Road Brewery empire, and I think you can call something an empire once its canned beer is everywhere at Whole Foods). Laid-back, walls lined with beer books, no darts it seems but a pool table, the place one Monday afternoon was a wonderland of good beer listed as IPA and Not-IPA, so you know it knows Californian brewers all to well. As I tend to IPA out following my Declaration of Independence-promised pursuit of hoppiness, I figured perusing the "not" page of the list couldn't hurt as a way to expand my horizons. A Bruery Humulus Lager made that easy, billed an Imperial Pilsner which just might be the Bruery's way to continue their claim they'll never make an IPA. For this had hops you almost had to beat off with a stick, but it was more convenient and yummy to do so with your tongue and its tastebuds. Still, it was lager-y enough--a bit lighter without being light--that it lured me toward an afternoon of drinking it and only it. And trying to cab back to Santa Barbara from Burbank.

As for the food, that was fine, my Tailgate Dog a smoked pork brat topped with brown mustard, griddled onions, and sauerkraut, very straightforward and unfussy as it should be. Those going for the vegan versions where similarly pleased. The housemade potato chips were crisp; the sweet potato fries in a honey-maple-chipotle glaze 
and crushed almonds were a bit too sweet for my liking (they're sweet potatoes to begin with, after all), but the almonds didn't hurt. Nor did the second beer, a High Water Blind Spot Winter Ale, a bit nutty itself, with caramel and vanilla notes too--no Humulus, but better for dessert anyway.

Now I'm left trying to come up with reasons to get to Burbank (why, the Norton Simon is very nice, especially its contribution to Pacific Standard Time, the show Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California--you've got till April 2).

*Yes, both actual memories of mine, and you can hate me for it, sure.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Penne That Made No Sense

Ever green (sometimes with jealously, sure, but for now with the desire to re-use and recycle in the kitchen), we decided it was finally time to do something with all those sundried tomatoes that kindly rehydrated in vodka for us so we could make killer bloody Marys. That's the one thing I can definitely recommend in this story of kitchen disappointment, if not outright sadness--leave some vodka in a mason jar with sundried tomatoes and your bloodys will have a terrific boost, and a spicy one if you drop in a dried chipotle or two too.

You might need a cocktail or two to accompany the rest of this tale, for it turns out that making penne with vodka sauce from pre-sauced sundrieds isn't as good as you might imagine (assuming you imagined the the delicious delight we did). We got our pasta water a-boil, then in a big pot with some olive oil added onion and garlic chopped till it went soft, then in went the drained, chopped sundried tomatoes, lots of them (we didn't measure, thinking if we were making things up, numbers weren't going to help beyond adding a fake patina of science to the otherwise gut-led project). We let that cook awhile, for those tomatoes were truly vodka-rich, and we hoped some of that might steam off. A bit of dried basil went in, and salt and pepper. This was a thick stew, deeply colored past red to russet. After a good 20 minutes or so, we took it off the heat and went at it with the handheld mixer/motor-boat, but even Kitchen Aid (if this were Top Chef, insert product placement close-up here) wasn't tough enough and barely extruded the solid out the little vents. So we started with the half and half (hoping we didn't need heavy cream, as we certainly don't need anything with heavy as an adjective near us), a splash or two at a time, figuring we'd be saucing soon. More cream. More motorboat. Not so soon. So in went some pasta water, one of the kitchen's greatest re-use tricks from cooks way back. Eventually we got to a pesto-y paste, hoping that would be enough. A bit of fresh chopped basil and some Grana padano got stirred in.

Once the penne cooked, we drained it, and dumped that into the briefly back on the heat sludge, er, sauce, hoping a bit more moisture might lighten things a bit. It certainly stuck to the tubes well.

As for the taste test, of all things the texture wasn't the biggest problem, for it did seem pesto-esque, if made of different ingredients. Somehow all those sundrieds leaked too much of their tomatoeyness into the vodka, for the sauce didn't seem nearly tomatoey enough. Next time, if there is one, some canned tomato might get mixed in, hoping different registers of the nightshade's favorite fruit might get the sauce to sing. Or at least drip a little bit--this one clung to the wooden stirring spoon like cement that had time to settle.

Perhaps the problem itself is trying to create a dish that seems a bit dubious at best, as Eye-talian as Chico Marx, but who are you going to believe, me or your own taste-buds?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Incredible Edible Institute

The Third Annual Edible Institute — and the second straight round in our town — is back March 10-11 at the Hyatt Santa Barbara (formerly the Hotel Mar Monte) to prove something named an institute can be informative, entertaining, and delicious. “This event is really geared toward the food writer, food activist, and anyone who has an interest in the food movement,” explained organizer Krista Harris, editor/publisher of Edible Santa Barbara. “The incredible lineup of speakers that we have coming this year can provide an inspiration to all of us.” Here are three highlights....

If you want to read the rest do so at the Indy's site.