Monday, April 28, 2008

Santouka Ramen

Ok...Stella's got her groove back on. I'm not so dissapointed anymore. Time to explore the inner pangs of my gastrointestinal self. I'm still smarting a little, but I do feel better. What better way to raise my comfort level than to have some comfort food? What's comfortable to me? Well, what's comfortable to you? Do you grab a bowl of chicken noodle soup when you need that feeling of security and home? Do you order a plate of roast turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes, like Thanksgiving with mom? Me? I want a bowl of noodles. The steaming bowl of liquids with the familiar Asian flavors and hot, flavorful noodles, overcoming my soul...overtaking any anxiety I might feel.
Unfortunately, not every noodle place is ideal for a feeling of home. I'm not saying that Santouka's vibe shouts out home, considering it's in the Mitsuwa Market Place. But their ramen is amazing. The pork bone based broth is swimming with feelings of comfort and home. Quite honestly, before coming here, I was quite uneducated about ramen and what it could be, or should be. I'd been to a number of places that were good, but this ramen took it to another level. I want to give props to the Rameniac. I would have never imagined that ramen could ever be much better than the instant noodles I make at home. I would love to go on and on about this ramen, but only the Rameniac can truly do justice. He also has a number of other places he speaks highly of...I'll definitely have to try.
Santouka does not do to go orders, so go there ready to eat. They have different variations of ramen, from soy sauce to salt ramen...everything is delicious.

John O'Groat's

My trip to FO Helms really dampened my spirits. That was my supposed to be a great kickoff to my little journey. The grand opening of the new location of an LA institution. A great introduction to a great novel. I took a bite of that lucious apple, only to realize it was wax.

Early, but I felt it was time to regroup. I decided to go to O'Groat's...a place I'd been consistently going to ever since I moved into the neighborhood. O'Groat's has been serving the West LA area for years. Since that first day I walked in, Paul has been greeting me, and everyone else, with the same genuineness that has endeared me to the place. From celebrities to families, everyone gets treated the same.

O'Groat's, to those who have not been, serves a menu primarily catered to breakfast, and they do lunch as well. After eight years, I've only been for breakfast, at least twice a month. They have the typical breakfast fare, like bacon and eggs, pancakes, oatmeal, etc. They also have specialty dishes like the Huevo's O'Groat's, which is a tortilla made out of buttermilk biscuit dough, topped with a medley of sauteed veggies, which is topped with a couple of over easy eggs(or any other way you prefer), which are topped with cheese and salsa. They also have a variety of pancakes, whether with different ingredients incorporated into the batter, or with amazing toppings, like the lemon curd.

With breakfast, I try to keep it simple. I generally order over easy eggs with homefries, bacon and biscuits. The bacon is thick cut, and probably the best bacon I've ever had. The biscuits are freshly baked buttermilk biscuits, that are heavenly, especially with the two different types of fruit spread they provide. Over the years, I've had the crabcake eggs benedict, the Huevo's O'Groat's, the steel cut Irish oatmeal, different pancakes and the corned beef hash. They also have amazing smoothies and a great yogurt parfait.

I love breakfast places, and will always try other places, but O'Groat's really is consistently good. With the friendly, neighborhood vibe, it's a total winner. This comes close to the perfect breakfast option for me, with it's varied menu and family atmosphere. The prices are a bit high, but quality costs money. And sometimes, it's just worth spending the extra money for a nice breakfast experience.

Lines tend to be long, especially on a weekend. One of the things I learned from Paul's mom, Mrs. Jacoby is, call ahead of time and put your name on the list. That way, you won't have to wait nearly as long, and you can enjoy your Saturday or Sunday breakfast that much more.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Father's Office Culver City

Off into the LA dining world I go. I've been to so many places...guess that happens after 18 years here. I'm starting new, though. I want to begin this little journey with a pretty clean slate. I'd like to go to each place like it's my first time, whether it actually is, or not. In this case, though, I will refer to the original location on Montana.

The new FO on Helms was pretty gorgeous. We got there at 6:00 pm Wednesday, right at the opening. We had to sit outside on the patio, as the lengthy bar area was quickly filled. The menu was the same as FO Montana, the huge and delicious variety of beers was there. It was everything the FO Montana was, and was not. The food was the same; the crappy setup of ordering all food and drinks at the bar and taking your drinks back to your table was the same. Having some lame 'waiter' in a tight, black FO tshirt he shouldn't be wearing because of his gut deliver your food to your table was the same. What wasn't the same was what was strange. I disliked the FO Montana because I thought it was too small and crowded. The vibe was funky, too, because everyone was trying to ace each other out of the next available table. Tables were packed so close, I could eat off the next table's plates.

When I heard that a new FO was opening, I was excited. It would be much larger, and newer, and better. Well, FO Helms is larger and newer. Better? Not really. Worse, actually. I found myself missing the intimacy of the crowded FO Montana. The vibe at the gastropub in Montana was young, hip and almost unpretentious, I thought. The FO Helms was not so young, still hip, and definitely pretentious.

Thing is, the food is the same. However, it tasted better in the old location, because expectations were low. In the new location, I expected better. The food, I realized, was nowhere near as good as I had thought. The gorgeous new space essentially exposed the food as not very good. There were some highlights, of course. The FO Burger is still one of the best burgers in LA, and the sweet potato fries were really crispy and delicious. But, quite frankly, everything else was not very good at all. We had the lamb skewers that were too salty. We had a steak salad that left my tastebuds confused. And that steak frittes pictured up top? Looks good, huh? Well, it was really wasn't. My jaw is still sore two days later from chewing on that piece of shoe leather.

So I'm left pondering what went wrong. Is the new location too commercialized? Or did it just expose all of the weaknesses of the original FO? All I know is, I won't be going back to FO Helms. If I ever get the inclination to have that gorgeous burger with a great beer, I'll just go to FO Montana. That's FO sho'.

Father's Office on Fooddigger

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ludo Bites

To move forward, we must explore the past. As I delve into my memories of great food, certain memories stand out. I can remember a meal from Chinese New Year, at my uncle's restaurant from when I was 13. I remember every dish, in exact order, and the textures and flavors. That meal included a whole braised shark's fin per person. The texture of the gelatinous strands of shark's fin in the slightly thickened braising liquid was heavenly. Every bite was a culinary adventure, as different aspects of the dish came crashing memories of when I was eight, in Canton, China are flooding my thoughts. An uncle, from my dad's home village, came to visit us at our hotel. With him, he carried a trap full of crabs, freshly caught. They were blue in color, but every other aspect of them reminded me of dungeness crabs. There were at least 30 crabs in that trap, with each crab at least three pounds. We drove around in this beat up van, looking for a restaurant that would cook the crabs for us. On the third try, we found a taker. They steamed up the bunch, and served us. That night, I ate five crabs, brains and all. The meat was sweet and tender, and I left not a strand of meat per my grandma's teachings of never wasting. On that same trip, we also ate Shanghai River crabs, famously known for their eggs. To this day, I crave those river crabs. The succulent, rich roe provided flavors that danced in my mouth. I can't explain the flavors, but yet, I long for it. These memories flood my thoughts, memories from long ago.

In the recent past, I most remember my experience at Breadbar in Hollywood. Breadbar, you ask? I still wonder what the hell we were thinking. But then I remember how we were sitting around, wondering where to go for our Thursday night dinner. We discovered that Ludovic Lefevre, formerly of Bastide, was doing a guest stint at Breadbar. After picking up a few bottles of wine, we headed over and sat outside on the patio. On the menu that night was a cornucopia of tapas-like dishes that Chef Ludo created based on the fresh ingredients he was able to find that morning. We decided on Proscuitto Di Parma with marscapone and honey, a salumi sopressata, foie gras tart with maple syrup, chicken liver mousse tartine with green apple gelee, sauteed scallop and spinach in curry-yogurt soup, rice veloute, beef tenderloin with herb sabayon and aligot puree and a cherry tomato aigre-doux with rigatoncini pasta and poached lobster in tamarind butter. A couple of cheese plates were squeezed in between. We finished with a couple orders of the Red Fire Chocolate Mousse soup and a couple of belle-helene pear milkshakes.

Every dish that came out inspired conversation regarding the combinations of flavors that Chef Ludo put together. For instance, the rice veloute contained grilled mushrooms with garlic soubise, egg mollet and Christmas tree oil. The flavors were initially strange, but then as we thought about it and talked about it and ate more of it, we realized just how inspiring it was.

Eventually, the plates stopped coming out. We were stuffed, but that dissapointment that we were done still lingers in my mind. We went on to discuss why a chef of Ludo's caliber would be cooking in a bakery. We asked that he come out so that we could thank him and chat. When he finally came out, he looked ragged and his apron was dirty. We thanked him and asked him why he was here, and for such a short stint. He went on and on about wanting to be able to cook more affordable meals without sacrificing quality. He wanted more people to be able to eat fine cuisine without having to spend an arm and a leg. It felt like he yearned to connect more with the average joe. He came up with the idea of creating the 'Ludo Bites' menu as a way to keep prices lower, and he chose Breadbar because a friend of his owned it. Considering he was used to commanding close to a score of sous chefs, I thought it was admirable that Chef Ludo went back to his roots and crammed himself into a tiny kitchen and prepared every dish personally.

The food, the company, the wine and the chef made this a memory that I will remember forever. the end, that's all we really have. Like that first kiss, or the first time you held her hand, or that look when she smiled, that moment is over quickly. It's the memory that stays forever. It's been months since Chef Ludo finished his stint, and the hints of red jalapeno in those chocolate mousse canales still linger. Merci, Monsieur Lefevre.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Hunt begins

LA eating is an interesting beast in itself. Do we compare to other great cities in the culinary sense? New York has it's romantic vibe stemming from Sinatra to the immigrants coming through Ellis Island. They have their Little Italy, which apparently is second only to Italy herself, with the famous pizzas and pastas. Chicago's got Oprah. If she says that particular McDonald's on South Halsted Street serves the best nuggets, then that McDonald's on South Halsted Street serves the best nuggets. Plus, they have the Chicago style deep dish pizza as a notch on their belt. Philadelphia has the cheesesteak. Boston has lobsters. Seattle's got coffee. What does LA have? Well, that's what I want to find out.

I believe Los Angeles is a dining mecca. I'm not just talking about high pub places like Lucques, Providence, Urasawa or Bastide. I'm also talking about lesser known places, like Yuta in Studio City. Or Al Gelato on Robertson. Or even that taco truck I'm chasing down before it drives away. My goal is to attack LA food in a primal way. I'm going hunting and gathering like my ancestors. I'm on a hunt. My wallet is my spear, and my atm card is my North Star. I want to find the perfect meal for every different ethnic niche. I will bring down that wooly mammoth. Moby Dick is mine. Even Shamu isn't safe. I'll eat anything, anywhere, anytime.