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.

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