First Anniversary: Top 5 Meals of the Blog Year – 11/28/10

Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog (I can’t believe it went by so fast). For the longest time, my friends had been telling me I should start a blog, and I’m glad I finally gave in. I’ve met a lot of people and have had a lot of great experiences (dining and other). One year and 103 posts later, I wanted to recap with some of my best meals of the past year. This list is not necessarily the most delicious…nor necessarily the most memorable…but a mix of those that I haven’t really defined.

So here goes my top 5 meals of the last year:

5. Sushi Zo, 9/10/10

This was kind of a distant fifth, as I felt pretty strongly with my top 4 – but my fifth place took some thinking. My Sushi Zo meal was very good, but its memory is somewhat overshadowed by my Urasawa meal the next day. This meal was better than my last time at the ‘Zo, so much that I remembered thinking to myself “whoa, this was really good…was Urasawa this good?” That thought lasted for all of approx. 20 hours, but the fact that it challenged my memory of my previous of Urasawa dinners spoke volumes.

albacore

4. Scarpetta, 10/25/10

This probably isn’t in my top four delicious meals of the year, but it was up there. This dinner was memorable for being on opening night and having Chef Scott Conant personally serving up each dish while we were seated on the kitchen counter. That, plus the sheer decadence of having a bunch of courses with shaved black & white truffles. I still vividly remember that spaghetti.

duck

3. LudoBites 5.0, 9/2/10

I don’t know how I was lucky enough to manage 7 trips to LudoBites in the past year, but this was my favorite. Ludo’s menu changes so often and is so eclectic in its variety, sometimes the dishes align with your personal tastebuds and sometimes not so much. Everyone has a different reaction to each meal. For me, this is the one that had the most highlights. Some of the more memorable dishes were the raw wagyu over somen noodles, poached egg and potato mousseline, john dory and the caramel souffle with fleur de sel ice cream. Sigh.

souffle

2. The French Laundry, 12/23/09

This was one of the main meals that inspired this blog. Given the difficulty of a reservation and the countless praise heaped on the restaurant, there may not be another restaurant in America where a diner’s expectations are higher. Although I had been here before, it was everything I had hoped for and more. Most memorable, however, for the white truffle risotto.

1. Urasawa, 9/11/10

Lastly, number one. I remember walking out of Urasawa happy and immediately wondering when I would be back. Of all the restaurants I’ve been to, Urasawa most clearly displays an utmost commitment to quality. The restaurant does not open unless Hiro Urasawa is present, and it’s evident that Hiro-san painstakingly scrutinizes every step of the process from when he gets the ingredients to when it enters a diner’s mouth. The results are worth it. Hands down my favorite restaurant in LA, and one of the best meals I’ve had.

toro

Honorable mention, in chronological order:
The Restaurant at Meadowood, 12/26/09
Providence 5/14/09
Totoraku, 8/7/10
Test Kitchen with Walter Manzke, 8/25/10
WP24, 9/1/10

Thanksgiving 2010 – 11/25/10

For Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s been customary for my family to do two meals: lunch at my aunt’s (mom’s side) and dinner at my grandmother’s (dad’s side). This year was no exception. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to prepare anything myself since I flew up to the Bay Area in the morning. Regardless, there was more than enough food; almost all of it homemade.

First, a buffet-style lunch:

Turkey

BBQ Pork Ribs

Chinese Sticky Rice

Chow Mein

Country-Style Potatoes

Egg Rolls

Fried Wontons

There were also a variety of desserts.

Mango Pudding

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Pumpkin Pie

Here we had a cake from LA-based SusieCakes (which opened a San Francisco location this year).

Coconut Cake

I try to pace myself during lunch, which is very difficult. It’s easy to continue snacking on foods throughout the day. After lunch, we went to dinner at my grandmother’s house.

Turkey

While turkey is a mainstay in our Thanksgiving meals for obvious reasons, arguably the main meat highlight is the New York roast.

Roast New York Strip Loin

Chinese Bean Curd Soup

Asparagus

Chinese Sticky Rice

Yams

Mashed Potatoes

Gravy

Stuffing

Chocolate Fudge Pie

Next we had a cake from Sweet Stop, where my parents purchase virtually all of their cakes from. They’re most famous for their Coffee Crunch cake, but we opted for this vanilla-chocolate layered cake.

Dream Cake

And so ended a…dare I say “fulfilling” Thanksgiving. We didn’t take home too much in leftovers, which I like. I don’t like having an overwhelming amount of leftovers, even from Thanksgiving. Plus, I had a lineup of restaurants to try during my stay in San Francisco.

Pork Belly Confit – 11/3/10

This was my first time cooking pork belly, and also my first time cooking anything confit. I found myself with a four-pound slab of pork belly and a dizzying array of options in how to cook it. Looking through a number of recipes, I finally decided on Thomas Keller’s pork belly confit recipe in Ad Hoc at Home. It would take a long time from start to finish (over 36 hours, see below), but his pictures and description of crispy, yet tender pieces of pork were enough inspiration to give it a try.

There were four “stages” to this process: brining the pork, cooking it in its fat, resting the pork in the refrigerator, and reheating the pork in smaller pieces. It was fun to see that each stage had its own purpose. The brine imparted flavor and kept the meat juicy, the long confit process slowly broke the meat down, and the rest in the fridge helped remove much of the excess fat. Finally, pan-frying the individual pieces gave the meat a crispy exterior. Since it was my first time confiting anything, I tried to stay true to the original recipe without taking shortcuts.

pork belly2

pork belly3

pork belly4

The results really surprised me. I was worried, given all the steps, that my pork wouldn’t come close to TK’s version, but it actually ended up being a pretty good replica. The exterior was nice and crispy, and the meat was really tender and flavorful. Yay!

Recipe in its entirety (from Ad Hoc at Home, Thomas Keller):

Ingredients
For the confit:
Pork Brine (recipe follows), cold
One 2 1/2-pound slab pork belly, with skin
About 6 cups (3 pounds) lard

For serving:
Canola oil
Gray salt or coarse sea salt

Directions
Confit the pork belly
1. Pour the brine into a container large enough to hold the pork belly and add the pork. Refrigerate for 10 hours (no longer, or the pork may become too salty).

2. Remove the pork belly (discard the brine) and rinse under cold water. Pat it dry with paper towels or let air dry.

3. Preheat the oven to 200°F. Choose an ovenproof pot that is only slightly larger than the pork belly and has a lid, such as a 12-quart Dutch oven. Place the belly in the pot and cover with the lard. The lard should cover the pork by 1/2 to 3/4 inch.

4. Heat the pot over low heat until the lard registers 190°F. Cover, transfer to the oven, and cook until the pork belly is meltingly tender. This will probably take 5 1/2 to 6 hours, but start checking after 4 hours. As the belly cooks, it will lose fat and shrink. It is best to transfer the pork and fat to a smaller pot, always keeping the belly covered by fat. Remove the pot from the oven and let the pork belly cool to room temperature.

5. The pork belly can simply be refrigerated in its fat for up to 1 week. We prefer to first press it to compress the internal layers to force out some of the excess fat. This results in a better texture and appearance. To press the pork belly, transfer it to a baking dish and pour just enough lard into the dish to barely cover it. Cover the pork belly loosely with plastic wrap, place a smaller baking dish on top of it and weight it with a brick, a large can, a cast-iron skillet, or something of similar weight. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours. Cover and refrigerate the reserved lard. After it’s been pressed, the pork belly can be covered with some of the reserved lard and refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Serve the pork belly
1. Remove the pot from the refrigerator and let it sit in a warm spot for 2 to 3 hours. You want the lard to soften enough so you can scrape it from the pork belly and the pork to remain as cold as possible so it will be easier to slice.

2. Remove the pork belly from the lard, and wipe off any lard that clings to the meat. The lard can be reused to cook additional pork belly as long as it does not taste too salty. (To reserve the lard, pour it into a pot and heat gently to liquefy, then strain through a fine-mesh conical strainer into a storage container. Refrigerate for up to 2 months or freeze for up to 6 months.)

3. Using a sharp knife, remove the skin from the pork belly. Score the fat on the pork belly in a crosshatch pattern. Slice the pork belly or cut it into squares (actually, the belly can be cut into any shape) and let sit at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes.

4. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

5. Heat some canola oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat just until smoking. Put the pieces of pork belly, fat-side-down, in the skillet. Do not crowd the pan. (You may need to work in batches.) Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the excess fat is rendered and the fatty side is browned, about 18 minutes. You will need to pour off any excess fat about halfway through cooking. When the pork is browned, transfer the skillet to the oven until the pork belly is heated through, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the gray salt, and serve.

Pork Brine Ingredients
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
12 bay leaves
3 large rosemary sprigs
1/2 bunch thyme
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup garlic cloves, crushed, skin left on
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 cup (5 ounces) kosher salt, preferably Diamond Crystal
8 cups water

Directions
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Heat for 1 minute, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and cool completely. Chill before using. The brine can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Related: Sous Vide Pork Belly Confit

Drago Centro – 11/18/10

Drago Centro
525 S Flower St
Los Angeles, CA 90071

Given my proximity to the restaurant and my love of their food, I come back to Drago Centro every so often; however, this has recently been only for lunch.I have a love-hate relationship with Drago Centro. I love the food, but the service (especially at dinner) can be…in a word, bad.  My last dinner review again pointed out my often-negative experiences with the service here. My frustrations did not go unnoticed by the restaurant; I was invited back to give dinner another go.

Myself and my dining companion from the last dinner visit, Diana, put our faith in the chef to create a custom tasting menu for us.

Amuse – Fresh Mozzarella with Butternut Squash Puree


The mozzarella is always solid here, and it was accompanied by a little bit of butternut squash puree. I thought it could’ve used more of the puree as the cheese slightly overwhelmed it, but I still got a nice sweetness to go with the creamy cheese.

Langoustine Carpaccio, Bartlett Pears, Yuzu Vinaigrette


We had this same dish during our last visit. The langoustine, pounded thin, was tender and flavorful. The pears imparted a good sweetness, and the citrus and acidity from the vinaigrette was a welcome addition.

Scallops with Ricotta Agnolotti, Cioppino Foam and Brown Butter


This was probably our favorite dish of the night. Drago Centro is my favorite place for an Italian pasta, and this dish only reinforced that. The agnolotti was al dente and the scallop had a great seared crust and moist flesh. There was a little bit of a citrus flavor here too. So good!

Sweetbreads with Garlic Polenta, Veal Jus


The polenta was light and creamy, but the sweetbreads were the star here. Perfectly cooked with a nice seared crust and really tender interior, this was excellent. The richness of the sweetbreads and polenta was complemented by the sweet gastrique.

Venison Loin, Wild Mushroom Risotto, Shaved Black Truffles


The venison was steak-like and meaty and had good flavor that wasn’t overly gamey. The risotto was wonderful; combined with the shaved black truffles, these added a nice earthiness to the dish.

Pastry Chef Jashmine Corpuz presented the next course – a trio of desserts (can’t go wrong with a trio, can you?).

Bombolini, Strawberries, Mascarpone Gelato

Autumnal Cake, Brown Butter Gelato

Tiramisu Cannoli

These were all very good. The bombolini were warm, light and fluffy mini-doughnuts covered in sugar. The strawberries and marscapone gelato were excellent with it. The cake was very moist with good flavors, and I loved the brown butter ice cream pairing. Finally, the cannoli had a light tiramisu cream, which exhibited a rich coffee flavor.

My dining companion had recently seen a dessert that Javier of Teenage Glutster experienced at Drago Centro. It was a spiced hot chocolate with black truffle foam. This looked so interesting, we wanted to try it!

Unfortunately, no black truffle foam was on hand, but we did get a variation of the hot chocolate with our petits fours. Given this wasn’t on the menu, we were grateful that something similar could be put together on the spot.  This was a really rich hot chocolate with some spice and definite ginger notes. I liked that it wasn’t too sweet at all, and at times…almost a little bitter, reminiscent of dark chocolate. I enjoyed it – perfect for the holidays and a great way to end the meal.

In its complete package, this was the best meal I’ve had here. There were numerous highlights from the food, which is always a strong point (the agnolotti, sweetbreads, veal loin and dessert dishes stuck out most).  Service was excellent this time, expectantly so. It remains to be seen if the service can be consistently good going forward, when a special meal is not set up. Having said that, I was pretty happy with my experience this night and look forward to my next meal at Drago Centro.

Note: This was a sponsored dinner.

Test Kitchen: Haru Kishi – 11/16/10

Test Kitchen: Haru Kishi
9575 West Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Haru Kishi is the new Executive Chef of the Beverly Hills location of Chaya Brasserie. What I find far more interesting is his culinary background. He was a part of the Joel Robuchon empire before coming to LA to be the head chef of Gordon Ramsay at the London WeHo. He has since moved on to the Chaya role, where he’ll be able to demonstrate his specialty – combining Japanese and French influences. This was definitely on display in this meal.

We tried a couple of the bar bites offered.

HAMACHI MOLE PRESSED SUSHI jalapeno mayo

This was an interesting starter. Pressed sushi rice was topped with slices of hamachi that were crusted with mole and seared with hot oil. For me, the rice, densely packed, was too much. The fish was good, though each bite was overwhelmingly rice.

MOROMISO WINGS

There was a miso-based marinade and a miso aioli to accompany the chicken. Subtly sweet and definitely savory, these were good chicken wings.

I typically don’t take pictures of all the drinks consumed throughout the meal, but I thought this drink was especially notable.

Matcha Whiskey Sour whiskey, lemon, matcha syrup, egg white

Check this one off under the “Japanese influences” category. Notice the warm green color, which is characteristic of matcha.

AMUSE apple onion velouté, applewood smoked bacon

The sweetness of the onions and the smokiness of the bacon worked well together in this rich soup. Small strips of onions and chunks of bacon sat at the bottom, making this one extra hearty and flavorful.

SHRIMP AND GRITS confit blu angel shrimp, quinoa grits, lobster vinaigrette

Loved Chef Kishi’s interpretation of this classic Southern dish. The quinoa was a perfect substitute for the grits, having a similar mouthfeel – though more earthy. I wasn’t a fan of how the shrimp was prepared though. Cooked sous vide, I found it rather mealy. Not really sure what happened here. The lobster vinaigrette added a little acidity to round out the dish.

CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP foie gras ravioli, chicken cubes, shishito, micro cress

Beautiful soup. To me, this was pretty similar to a haute wonton soup. Maybe something I’d expect to find at WP24. The ravioli were delicate and filled with melt-in-mouth, rich foie gras. Add these with chunks of flavorful marinated chicken into a rich and hearty chicken soup, and you’ve really got something here.

POT ROAST wagyu cheeks, fondant potatoes, gingered carrots, beer sauce, onion crisps

Why not make a pot roast out of wagyu beef? Australian wagyu beef cheeks, that is. Rich and exceedingly tender, the beef was excellent. The onion crisps added some texture, while the fondant potatoes completed the meat-and-potatoes pairing. I could have used some type of greens here to lighten up the dish, though.

POACHED PEARS poached pears, chestnut cream, chocolate beignets, cardamom sugar

Lastly we had dessert which consisted of two parts: poached pears topped with a red wine foam and chocolate raviolis topped with cardamom sugar. The pears were somewhat unmemorable, though I loved the chocolate raviolis. The menu called them beignets, while the server described them as raviolis – I think they’re much closer to the latter. The dough was light and crisp, with a smooth chocolate filling. Delish!

I was pretty satisfied with this meal. While there were a couple of things I didn’t like (pressed sushi, texture of the shrimp), the bright spots outweighed them. Chef Kishi clearly demonstrated an ability to mix Japanese and French technique and ingredients, so it’ll be interesting to see what type of menu he develops at Chaya. I hope that he’s given a little bit of creative free rein and not overly confined to the overall concept of the Chaya chain, as I find their menus to be relatively similar across locations.

Previous Test Kitchen posts:
Jordan Kahn (Red Medicine)
Walter Manzke
Adam Horton (Saddle Peak Lodge)
Marcel Vigneron
Ricardo Zarate
Alain Giraud

Hatfield’s – 11/11/10

Hatfield’s
6703 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038

Hatfield’s was one of the longest tenured restaurants on my mental list of restaurants to go to in 2010. Others with an extended stay on that list were The Dining Room at the Langham, Animal, and Petrossian – all of which I had an opportunity to try before Hatfield’s. On this day though, a holiday was the perfect excuse to come try Hatfield’s; hopefully this was just a preview of a dinner visit in the near future.

I’m not a complete stranger to the restaurant – I had dinner once before at their old location, where the restaurant earned a Michelin star. This new space is very different – much larger, and with an open kitchen. However, the food remains a strong constant.

Today’s Piping Hot Soup – Butternut Squash


“Piping hot” was not a misnomer, I almost burned my mouth on the first sip. Once it cooled down a bit, I was able to taste its mild sweetness and good butternut squash flavor. Not too sweet, not too thick…just right.

Butter Lettuce Salad toasted walnuts, fresh goat cheese, strawberry vinaigrette

I’m not a huge salad person so I didn’t try this, but I heard it was good.

Pan Roasted Flank Steak braised radish, fingerling potato, balsamic jus

Nom nom nom. Flank steak is a relatively underrated cut of meat in my opinion. It was cooked to medium rare perfection here. The potatoes were soft and tender, and I liked the leafy spinach for its lighter flavor. Finally, the jus really brought everything together.

Pan Roasted Salmon caramelized fennel, oven-dried tomato, Kalamata olives, sauteed pea tendrils

This was one of the best salmon preparations I’ve had in recent memory. So moist. Flavorful. Crispy skin.

Caramelized Goat’s Milk Cheesecake hazelnut shortbread, citrus compote, grapefruit lillet sorbet

This appeared to be a relatively straightforward cheesecake. It was made of goat cheese though, which isn’t so typical. Loved the hazelnut shortbread crust and the rich caramel topping. The tart grapefruit sorbet and slices of citrus were perfect for cutting through the richness and sweetness of the cheesecake and caramel.

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Truffle Cake vanilla ice cream, baked to order

Wow. I loved this dessert! This was a well executed chocolate cake with a molten center of, not chocolate, but peanut butter! Very warm and oozing chocolate and peanut butter, the flavors were great together. The vanilla ice cream was the perfect accompaniment since I love both the hot/cold and vanilla/chocolate combinations.

Hatfield’s was even better than I expected. The meal was delicious from start to end…especially the chocolate-peanut butter cake, which was probably my favorite dish of the night. And best yet, lunch at Hatfield’s is pretty reasonable: two three-course pre-fixe menus are offered daily, one at $19 and one at $29. Not too shabby at all.  I wouldn’t mind coming again for lunch, and I still hope to make a return trip for dinner soon!