n/naka (Los Angeles, CA)

3455 S. Overland Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Dining date: 4/6/11

Niki Nakayama is the chef behind n/naka, who previously was preparing omakase menus at Inaka in Arcadia. Unfortunately I never got a chance to make it out there, and Nakayama has since left Inaka to open her own place on the Westside. It’s currently open to the public, but she had a soft-opening for friends and family in late-March to early April. Diana (who was a regular at Inaka) got an invitation to this soft-opening, and graciously invited Kevin, Ryan, Daniel, myself and friend Susannah to join.

Kyoto Carrot “Drop” California Sturgeon Caviar, Creme Fraiche

This first one was an interesting one. The spherification of carrot (from Nakayama’s garden) had a subtle sweetness, which combined with the tart creme fraiche and salty caviar. I didn’t get quite as much caviar flavor (outside of the salt) as I thought I would, though.

Tasmanian Sea Trout Confit White Asparagus Truffle Sauce

The trout was cooked well, leaving it quite tender and moist. The sauce had a very subtle truffle flavor, but added some nice depth to the fish.

Live Sea Scallop Ponzu, Yuzu Kosho

This dish was simple but good. Pretty much as advertised, I did enjoy the yuzu kosho which added just a little bit of heat here.

Sashimi Kumamoto Oyster, Tai, Chutoro, Seared Tuna, Kanpachi

Next was a plate of sashimi. I thought these were all good examples of the fish, with the kanpachi really standing out the most. I definitely would’ve preferred the tuna raw over seared, though.

Kani Koramushi Egg, Shitake, Black Truffle

Likely the most memorable dish of the night – this was a steamed crab head with black truffle, mushrooms and a chicken egg served in-shell. Really savory and full of umami, I really liked the rich sea-tasting broth with the richness of the yolk, as well as the subtle earthiness of the truffle.

Foie Gras and Takenoko Soup Takenoho Gohan

I really liked this dish as well. The foie gras was really good with a melt-in-mouth texture. I dumped the rice into the soup, making for some really comfortable, satisfying bites.

Australian Wagyu Teppan

I forgot to take a picture of this one; picture above is compliments of Diana. The wagyu was cooked well-done, but the marbling allowed it to still be tender and avoid being excessively dry. There were a lot of things going on in the sauce (garlic and soy were strong flavors), but I thought it complemented the meat well.

Toro and Tai

I really liked the tai (halibut) with the citrus of some yuzu. Even better was the luscious toro, fatty with a melt-in-mouth texture.

Masu (Tasmanian Sea Trout) and Aji

Here we had a return of the sea trout – the fish here tasted very similar to the first preparation, though this time showcasing the pure flavor of the fish. The aji (Spanish mackerel) was a good preparation as well, with its oily fishy flesh on clear display.

Hamachi Toro and Amaebi

I wish I was served hamachi belly more often as I really like it. It’s not nearly as fatty as the tuna’s belly, but it presents a richer flavor than regular hamachi while still having a really silky texture. I found the amaebi (sweet shrimp) to be a little bit chewier than expected.

Lobster Linguine Rum Butter, Parmesan Foam

This was a supplemental dish to the tasting – the table next to us was served this so we requested it. I thought this was pretty good, though not exceptional.

Green Tea Souffle with Red Bean, Frozen Chocolate Mousse with Banana Ice Cream

Lastly, we had dessert. The souffle was pretty good with a mild green tea flavor. The chocolate mousse was overly frozen and way too hard though, making it difficult to break with a fork.

I would say the food at n/naka met expectations, though did not exceed. We were presented with a broad array of well-executed traditional Japanese plates, some with some western and modern touches, but at a price point of $115, I may have expected a little more.

Son of a Gun (Los Angeles, CA)

Son of a Gun
8370 W 3rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Dining date: 4/18/11

I had wanted to try Son of a Gun for a while. Rave review after rave review, this restaurant is still one of the most popular in LA since it opened at the end of February. Finally, I had my chance. Diana, Ryan, Daniel and I had an early dinner at the Cafe Boulud pop-up at Animal and were still hungry. What to do? Enter Son of a Gun, the seafood-centric eatery from the guys behind Animal.

We still waited about 20 minutes for a table on Monday night. It’s a pretty small place, but clearly still very popular. Arguably, I was more excited about this meal than the last (okay there was no argument, I was really excited for this one).

lobster roll, celery, lemon aioli

I had read much about this lobster roll. Even though this was the first dish, we ordered one for each person. Good idea. The lobster was perfectly cooked, leaving it sweet and flavorful, with just a little bit of bite. I really liked the addition of the potato chips, adding some welcome saltiness and texture.

shrimp toast sandwich, herbs, sriracha mayo

This was perhaps my most anticipated item of the night. It didn’t disappoint, with the crispy toast melding really well with the sweet shrimp, complimented by a little heat from the sriracha. With the shrimp, the hoisin sauce may have been a little more sweet than I preferred, but the textures and flavors were really on point. Another good idea to order one for each person.

fried chicken sandwich, spicy b&b pickle slaw, rooster aioli

This was another highly anticipated item, though I didn’t like it so much. Contrary to the other items we tried, this was a beast – this sandwich was fitting for one person’s entire lunch. I thought the chicken was good, crispy and rather moist for breast meat; too much mayo and coleslaw was the issue for me.

geoduck sashimi, lemon, olive oil, sea salt

The geoduck was rather mild in flavor, but there was something about it that made me think to myself “oh yeah, this tastes like geoduck.” Really simply prepared with a little bit of citrus and salt.

linguine and clams, uni aglio-olio, chili, breadcrumbs

I had high hopes for this one, but found both the saltiness and the raw garlic flavor be overwhelming. The pasta and clams were both cooked well, but unfortunately were overshadowed by the other ingredients.

cod, pho fumet, herbs, lime, bok choy

I thought this sounded pretty interesting. The broth definitely had some flavors reminiscent of a beefy pho and the fish was cooked well. This tasted pretty much as advertised, though I’m not sure the pho and cod flavors really came together as well as expected.

Hoboken special

Chocolate ice cream and pineapple Fanta. I’ve never been to Hoboken and had no idea what this was, but it was pretty interesting. I thought the sweetness and acidity of the pineapple soda worked well with the rich chocolate, but I was too full to enjoy it at this point.

Son of a Gun was a solid meal. While most of the dishes were pretty good, I wasn’t particularly moved by the meal – maybe I was getting full, or maybe my expectations were too high (or a combination of both). Still, we were only able to try seven dishes, so I’d like to come back to try some of the others. I’m just not in as much of a hurry to do so.

Mo-Chica (Los Angeles, CA)

Mercado La Paloma
3655 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90007
Dining date: 4/23/11

Ricardo Zarate’s star has never been brighter than it is right now. Sure, he’s been a rising star chef in the Los Angeles scene for a couple of years now. However, national attention has come in the form of being named a Food & Wine Best New Chef for 2011.

Mo-Chica is currently the only place you can try Zarate’s food (until Picca opens next month). Here, Zarate brings the flavors from his childhood home of Lima (Peru) to Los Angeles. Although I live in a city full of different cultures, I haven’t sampled a whole lot of Peruvian dishes outside of the occasional lomo saltado and ceviche, but Mo-Chica is as good a place as any to do it.

While the menu has a number of vegetarian-friendly options, Chef Zarate was kind enough to create/modify some dishes for my friend Angela as well.

Each table starts with these “corn nut”-like popped corn.

Causa Del Dia peruvian potato salad of the day

This one was made vegetarian, featuring garbanzo beans and avocado. The garbanzo beans added a nice texture, contrasting the soft potato and avocado.

Ceviche Mixto sea bass, shrimp, octopus, scallops

I always get the ceviche here – it’s one of the best I’ve had in the city. This is the first time I’ve seen a ‘mixed’ seafood one, so it was a must-try. Sea bass, octopus, shrimp and scallops were perfectly ‘cooked’ and paired with seaweed, popped corn, hominy. The generous chunks of fish are clearly the star, but it’s also an interesting study on textures as well. Excellent.

Vegetarian Ceviche

This was a vegetarian rendition of the ceviche here. Interesting. It worked well, with the sweet, juicy tomatillos being a nice touch.

Oxtail Risotto braised oxtail, barley huancaina risotto

This is one of my favorite dishes from past visits, and it did not disappoint here. The oxtail is so tender, rich and flavorful. I really liked the barley prepared risotto-style too. It soaks up some of the oxtail “gravy,” making for some really savory bites. The red onions were a good addition as well, adding some fresh crispness to the dish.

Arroz Con Pollo chicken breast, spring onions, salsa madre, sauteed rice

Another good dish here with a nicely cooked chicken breast. It wasn’t overly moist and juicy, but good. The rice was a star – really flavorful, and cooked to a tender chew. Again, some fresh onions topped off these bites.

Quinotto wild mushroom, quinoa grain risotto, crema fraiche

Here we had a sort of risotto using quinoa. The mushroom flavor was evident, while the creme fraiche aided in getting a creamy finish to this dish. Very comfortable.

Passion Fruit Creme Brulee

A solid creme brulee. Smooth custard with a tropical feel to it from the passion fruit.

This was a very good meal here at Mo-Chica. I’ve been four or five times now, and for the most part, it’s been consistently strong. With entrees in the $10-$13 range, this really can’t be beat. It’s a good chance to try something new; given the fact that Peru is a little bit of a melting pot of cultures, I think one might find that many of the flavor profiles are quite familiar.

Jean Philippe Patisserie (Las Vegas, NV)

Jean Philippe Patisserie
Aria Resort and Casino
3730 Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89115
Dining date: 3/28/11

I first tried Jean Philippe many years ago when the Bellagio was brand new. I remembered the decadent chocolate desserts, made-to-order crepes and great gelato. Oh, and of course the chocolate fountain – the largest in the world. Instantly, it became one of my favorite places for sweets. I don’t have a sweet tooth and rarely crave sweet things. However, whenever I’m in town, I have to stop by here.

Another much larger location opened up in Aria early last year, sans-chocolate fountain.

It’s always difficult trying to figure out what I want. Do I want a crepe or a pastry? Gelato or some chocolates? I opted for a nutella crepe.

Nutella Crepe

My whipped cream melted way too quickly, so I think the cream wasn’t chilled enough. However, I appreciated the light cream in tandem with the rich, warm chocolaty nutella. The crepe was soft and warm with just a little bit of chew to it. Very nice.

There’s a ton of chocolate treats too, and I had to try one.

Triple Chocolate chocolate sponge cake, dark chocolate mousse, milk chocolate mousse, white chocolate mousse

Beautiful. Layers of three different types of chocolate mousse (white, dark, milk) were topped with a chocolate macaron. Seriously, how could I not? Rich and decadent, this was really good. I thought the layers of dark chocolate helped to keep the sweetness in check, while a cookie at the base provided the texture.

I never leave Jean Philippe dissatisfied. Well, except the time I got there as they were closing and they didn’t let me in. But whenever they’re open, I always tend to leave wishing I could try something more. In this case, I couldn’t eat too much; I had to save room for Joel Robuchon.

Bistronomics 2.0 @ Breadbar (Los Angeles, CA)

Bistronomics 2.0
8718 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Dining date: 4/17/11

This is the second iteration of the Bistronomics pop-up (the first occurred in March) featuring Jet Tila (Wazuzu) and Alex Ageneau (The Royce) preparing seasonal, modern bistro fare. For this meal, Ageneau was the main driver behind the food, while Tila served more of a host role. However, I’ve been told the food will be more of a 50/50 collaboration for the next iteration of Bistronomics (July).

The dinner’s set-up was interesting. I found it to be a rather intimate affair, as the chefs had an introduction and clear explanation of the concept at the beginning of the meal, as well as a closing recap at the end. Titled “Play with Your Food,” the meal was utensils optional (and actually discouraged). The hosts sought to foster a sense of playfulness and comfort throughout the dinner. Of course, a no-corkage BYOB policy would help that too.

We started with some sliced baguette and butter.

foie gras / rhubarb / bread raw radishes, foie gras butter, rhubarb marmalade and toasted bread powder

The foie gras here had the texture of a soft butter, and I liked the textural interplay with the crisp, crunchy radish. The foie gras flavor was somewhat subtle, but definitely evident.

We took a peek into the kitchen as the next course was plated.

asparagus / rice / bonito charred green asparagus, asparagus coulis, rice espuma and bonito flakes

I really liked how this dish came together. The asparagus was very good – the light grilling gave it a nice char, complementing the flavor well. The soup, a combination asparagus and risotto flavors, was homey and comforting with just a little bit of lemon zest brightening things up.

brandade / zucchini / mussels croquettes of cod brandade, zucchini puree, mussels ”au four”

The brandade, fried until crispy, was light and fluffy on the inside with the tasty, characteristic salt cod flavor. I loved that it was served nice and hot too. I liked the zucchini puree and mussels as well, but the star for me was definitely the fried brandade.

lamb / kumquat / carrot confit grilled lamb chops marinated with cumin and sumac, kumquat yogurt, carrot confit with ginger and saffron

The lamb was amazing. I liked being able to pick this up and carnivorously bite into the succulent, juicy meat. The yogurt’s tart acidity aided in cutting through some of the meat’s richness, while dehydrated olives added another flavor dimension. Kind of wish I had a whole rack of these.

strawberry / chocolate / chantilly cream marinated strawberries , chocolate cake , and chantilly cream

A rather simple chocolate cake, but done well. I often find chocolate cake to be too sweet for my tastes, but that wasn’t the case here. The light chantilly cream worked well with the chocolate, while fresh strawberries and raspberries helped to balance the richness.

I thought the meal was a success; Bistronomics did exactly what it intended. The food isn’t exactly cutting-edge, and it isn’t trying to be. It was well-executed, tasty and successfully showcased the ingredients. For the most part, each dish only had three or four main components, allowing the produce to show through.

Cafe Boulud @ Animal (Los Angeles, CA)

Gavin Kaysen & Cafe Boulud
435 N Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Dining date: 4/18/11

I had dinner at Cafe Boulud the last time I was in New York. I found the food to be quite good; the core concept is traditional French technique, but with modern American touches. Don’t pay too much attention to the name, it’s easily the most refined “cafe” I’ve ever been to (even garnering a Michelin star). Given that the restaurant carries the Daniel Boulud name, I suppose this isn’t too much of a surprise.

Cafe Boulud’s executive chef is Gavin Kaysen, a young chef who represented the U.S. in the Bocuse d’Or in 2007 and won the James Beard for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008. Surely, the restaurant has some big names attached to it.

A five course tasting menu was the lone option, paired with a surprisingly-reasonable $25 wine pairing.

Sweet Petits Pois Arancini Bed of Pea Shoots, Coleman Farms Radishes
2009 Gruner Veltliner, Obere Steigen, Huber

These arancini came out nice and hot. I thought they were quite good, with a well-cooked rice filling and light, crispy exterior. The radishes were a nice cleanser in between bites, though the parmesan crumbles didn’t add much to the dish.

Hiramasa Crudo Compressed Watermelon, Fried Garlic, Ponzu, Cilantro Flowers
2008 Vouvray, Demi Sec, Foreau

Another solid dish here – the watermelon’s sweetness really paired well with the fish. The fish’s flavor was quite subtle, and the ponzu + garlic actually worked nicely as a complement, while not overpowering. I liked the texture of the fried garlic as well.

Spaghetti Nero Fra Diavlo, Prawns, Squid, Tarragon
2007 Barbaresco, ‘Loretto,’ De Forville

The spaghetti strands were interesting. One side of the pasta seemed to be colored with the squid ink, while the other appeared not to be. Not sure how that worked. Perfectly cooked and slightly chewy, it topped a slightly spicy tomato sauce. Though…not quite a sauce, it resembled a chunky salsa. Pretty interesting and I thought it worked. The seafood was good too, but the pasta was the star.

Caper Crusted Lamb Loin Weiser Carrots, Fava Beans, Pearl Onions, Mint Infused Lamb Jus
2009 Domaine Gramenon, La Sagesse, Cotes de Rhone

Potato Risotto

My lamb here was prepared well, though the pieces may have been a little inconsistent since one person found theirs dry. However, I was pretty happy with mine, tender and cooked a perfect medium rare. I thought the fava beans, chopped into a risotto-like texture, were wonderful. The lamb was served with a side of “potato risotto,” which I thought was also awesome. The potatoes had just a little bit of bite to them in a rich, creamy sauce. Risotto meets potatoes au gratin.

Mousse au Chocolat Hazelnut Gateau, Blood Orange, Lavender Crumble
1999 Riveslates Ambre, Domaine Fontanel

This final course was a pretty good one. The blood oranges were a little tart, but contrasted well with the sweet chocolate mousse. The lavender crumble was a nice touch too, adding some crunchy texture.

I was pleased with this meal. Kaysen showcased some spring produce in a refined, focused manner. The execution was on point, and the flavors melded together well. I wasn’t blown away by any of the individual courses (though the potato risotto was very memorable), but I wasn’t disappointed with any either. The wine pairing was quite good, and a steal at $25.

If there was one issue, it was the portions. The five courses were all on the small side – as a result, we ended up eating the next seven courses at Son of a Gun.