Tsujita LA (Los Angeles, CA)

Tsujita LA
2057 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Dining date: 11/11/11

sign

Tsujita is one of the latest high-profile ramen shops to open in LA this year. As far as I know, this is the first American location for Japan-based Tsujita, which serves its own version of a tonkotsu ramen. The restaurant opened in August, only serving its Japanese fusion dinner menu to guests…which did not include ramen. Why? Because the restaurant wanted to make sure its ramen was just right before serving it for lunch hours only. Sounded like they were serious about their “artisan” noodles and it quickly became somewhere I wanted to try as soon as possible.

The lunch menu is as simple as it gets; ramen and tsukemen (noodles are brought out separately and dipped into the broth upon eating) are both available, with a few ramen add-ins and rice bowl combos. While ramen is clearly a draw, the restaurant seems to be even more notable for its tsukemen. I was excited to try both.

tsujita line

Having the Veteran’s Day holiday off, I wanted to make it count. After lunch #1 at Baco Mercat in downtown, we rushed across town to Tsujita to find an impressive line out the door. Apparently, others on holiday had the same idea. Dammit. While in line, they ran out of tsukemen (and many of the sides). Dammit again. We came all the way over here to try the restaurant, so we decided to stick around and try the ramen.

kitchen1kitchen2kitchen3

A number of table-side toppings were available to add into our soups. The server recommended the hot leaf mustard with the ramen.

accompaniments

Negi Ramen green onion ramen

green onion ramen

Char-Siu Ramen extra char-siu

chashu ramen

The bowl of ramen looked beautiful, carefully and deliberately put together. The soup clearly had a lot of depth with a nice porky flavor and a milky consistency. The noodles were very good too; I forgot to order ‘hard’ noodles but they still displayed a chewy consistency. The chashu was good too, tender and meaty…not too fatty. It’s really hard to compare to old standbys like Daikokuya, Shin Sen Gumi and Santouka.  They’re all similar, yet very different. Tsujita seemed to be a bit more refined (and more expensive), and I thought the flavors may have been a bit cleaner. Personally though, I still prefer Daikokuya for the noodles, the in-your-face fatty broth, and all the oft-overlooked side dishes.

Kaedama (Extra Noodle)

kaedama

I opted for extra noodles, which included extra soup too for $1.50. I’m not sure what happened here; the noodles were in one large clumpy ball, and individual strands were virtually inseparable. What was left was rather mushy. For a restaurant so deliberate in its actions, I wondered if this was intentional, but it seemed the noodles just weren’t stirred at all while cooking. Major disappointment.

In all, I had a very good bowl of ramen (aside from the refill). Not exactly a bowl I’d drive cross-town for again, but very satisfying if in the area. I was pretty disappointed that they ran out of tsukemen so I guess I have to return for that. Will wait for the crowds to die down a bit, though.

Baco Mercat (Los Angeles, CA)

Bäco Mercat
408 S Main St
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Dining date: 11/11/11

exterior

Bäco Mercat is the latest offering from Josef Centeno (Lazy Ox Canteen), a casual spot in the up-and-coming Arts District serving up a menu based on something called the baco, as well as savory flatbreads and some small plates. The bäco is Centeno’s own creation, a sandwich made up of various meat and sauce combinations rolled up into a tortilla-like flatbread (advertised as a “sandwich-taco-pizza hybrid”). To me, they resemble a loosely-wrapped burrito or gyro.

baco interior2

baco interior

I’ve heard great things about these baco, which occasionally popped up wherever Centeno was cooking. So when it was announced there would be a restaurant dedicated to this sandwich (walking distance from the office and where I live), I was excited. I dropped by for lunch during their soft opening – the grand opening is planned for Monday the 14th.

Prices are very reasonable, with the bazole soup being the most expensive thing on the menu at $10. However, one item (i.e. one baco) probably isn’t enough food for a meal.

bazole bäco soup house made egg noodle, pork-chile broth, fried egg

bazole

We started with this interesting soup. The soup was based on a traditional pozole, spruced up with noodles, a fried egg and chunks of meat. The soup was very flavorful and hearty, quite spicy too. I think these are the same meats as seen in “the original bäco” (which were delicious), and the noodles and egg were both good too. Kind of an odd mix of ingredients, but I think the soup came together well. A heavy starter, for sure.

the egg coca salsa verde, farm egg & ricotta cheese

egg flatbread

We tried one of the flatbreads – here, one topped with salsa verde, cheese and a fried egg. The flatbread was pretty thin and very crispy. Hard to go wrong when combined with salsa verde, fried egg, and cheese. Nothing special really, but tasty.

We tried four of the baco sandwiches.

the original bäco pork belly & beef carnitas, smoked aioli, salbitxada

original baco

I liked the crispy, meaty pork belly and beef, and the smoky aioli sauce really bulked up the flavors. Leafy greens (I noticed spinach) helped to balance out the flavors. I could easily have mistaken the flatbread for a regular tortilla.

pesco bäco crispy shrimp, cabbage, sriracha & chive dressing

shrimp baco

A solid sandwich, the crispy shrimp was paired with a cabbage coleslaw. The sriracha-based sauce was almost overpowering, but it did add some heat and extra flavor. At $8 a pop, it won’t be displacing the fish/shrimp taco anytime soon.

porchetta bäco eggplant, apple & sahawep

porchetta

We were expecting warm, thick chunks of porchetta but this was actually made up of cold, thin slices of the pork. And no skin. Not my favorite, it didn’t feature much of the pork flavor I was expecting.

fava bean fritter bäco poblano-feta, chickpea & salmorejo

fava bean fritter baco

Didn’t get a lot of flavor in this one either, I thought the slightly spicy sauce was the main flavor profile amidst the earthy tones.

I had high expectations for Bäco Mercat, and my experience fell short of those. Maybe I just didn’t understand it, but conceptually I didn’t think the bäco were that interesting. All four had a very similar orange sauce that became monotonous when trying a variety, and I didn’t think the flavors of each baco stood out on their own. The flatbread itself resembled a thick tortilla, served lukewarm – it was fine.

The restaurant is convenient to me so it’s hard to say I won’t return, but I don’t have any desire to at the moment.

Carmela Ice Cream (Pasadena, CA)

Carmela Ice Cream
2495 E Washington Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91104
Dining date: 9/27/11 and 10/23/11

signage

Carmela makes my favorite ice cream in LA. I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but I do have a soft spot for ice cream. Occasionally, I crave the stuff.  I once made a round trip from downtown LA just to get ice cream here. In all, I’m not sure how many times I’ve been here…six? seven? Not enough.

Located in northeastern Pasadena, near Altadena, its location isn’t exactly convenient to most of LA. As a result, I’ve never seen it too busy – sure, there have been a couple instances where the line was (barely) out the door, but there’s also been a number of visits when only a couple of guests are there. I’m pretty confident that if this was in mid-city LA, long lines would be a frequent occurrence.

pastries

interior

The shop is minimal. Outside of ice cream, they sell only a few items – some baked goods, Intelligentsia espresso (for an affogato), and a couple other miscellaneous sweets. There are no tables or chairs (there is a bench outside though), so it’s not an ideal place to lounge around and slowly enjoy a scoop or two. It doesn’t matter though. I’m here solely for the ice cream, and it’s damn good.

There’s usually about a dozen flavors available at any time. About half are constants on the menu, while the others change frequently.

menu

Dark Chocolate, Fresh Mint w/ Cacao Nibs, Intelligentsia Espresso

dark choc, fresh mint, espresso

Lavender Honey, Waffle Cup

lavender honey in waffle

Earl Grey, Brown Butter Sage
Intelligentsia Espresso and Salted Caramel

earl grey and brown butter sage, espresso and salted caramel

I’ve been able to try just about every flavor throughout my visits. I can’t say I have a favorite (it seems to change often), but seriously just about every flavor has been good. The Intelligentsia espresso has a bold, deep coffee flavor…just as expected. I really enjoy the fresh mint flavor, especially with the small bits of cacao scattered throughout. Lavender honey and salted caramel are two of my favorite ice cream flavors in general; they’re excellent here. And, while the flavors are obviously integral, I think the consistency and mouth-feel of the ice creams are just as important. Carmela’s has a wonderful richness and creaminess that coats the mouth, with a slightly yielding bite (I bite my ice creams, not lick). So good. It’s not my favorite ice cream shop ever (Bi-Rite), but it’s definitely up there.

Often, I bring a cooler to take a couple pints home. If I can enjoy the ice cream for a few days, it makes the drive that much easier to justify.

to go case

Drago Centro (Los Angeles, CA)

Drago Centro
525 S Flower St
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Dining date: 10/20/11

exterior

Given that I work in walking distance of Drago Centro, I visit semi-regularly. Most often it’s for happy hour, but occasionally I’ll drop in for lunch too. Drago Centro was one of the DineLA participants that extended their special for an extra week; given that I had a new coworker that wanted to try lunch here, it was an opportune time to drop by.

I’ve almost always had excellent food at Drago Centro (the pastas are some of my favorite in the city); as good as the food’s been, the service often has been equally as lackluster. Since this was a workday lunch, I was just hoping for a relatively smooth meal.

bar area

interior1

interior2

Bread service consisted of bread rolls and a delicious olive oil. With bread, I think I actually prefer olive oil over butter.

bread

crispy salt cod croquettes lemon aioli, radish arugula

salt cod

I liked the salt cod, fluffy and sort of creamy on the inside and delicately crispy on the outside. The lemon aioli provided a nice acidic counter to the richness of the croquette. The dish was a bit heavy-handed with the salt though.

bocconcini mozzarella salad spinach, olives tomatoes

salad

My coworkers opted for this mozzarella salad and enjoyed it.

sausage and rapini pizza mozzarella cheese

pizza

pizza2

My coworkers also went for this pizza, generously sized. The meat and vegetable flavors were well-balanced and worked well in tandem. Not particularly a memorable pizza as a whole, but a good one.

swordfish spaghetti spicy tomato sauce, pinenuts, capers, raisins

spaghetti

I went for this spaghetti. Expectantly, the pasta was cooked perfectly with chunks of swordfish scattered throughout. I thought the fish was a little bit more fishy than I had expected. The tomato sauce wasn’t too spicy at all (which I liked), and some capers and raisins added a little bit of a salty/sweet dimension to the bites.

chocolate and olive oil terrine red currants, almonds

chocolate olive oil

This was an interesting dessert – layers of a different chocolates made up the layers of the dessert. I enjoyed the chocolate, though I couldn’t really tell how the olive oil came into play. Was it one of the layers? I didn’t taste it. Still, a tasty dessert.

toasted bread pudding caramel, salted cream

bread pudding

This bread pudding was pretty well-executed. The caramel and salted cream combined to add a “salted caramel” flavor, while adding extra richness to the dessert.

Not the best meal I’ve had here, but Drago Centro’s food was pretty good, as usual. Service was attentive and plates came out of the kitchen at a good pace – a definite plus. I also liked that the DineLA menu didn’t seem to skimp on portion size – this was a ton of food in three courses. Given its proximity to the office, I will surely be back but I think it’s a worthwhile visit for anyone looking for a good Italian meal in LA.

Black Market Liquor Bar (Studio City, CA)

Black Market Liquor Bar
11915 Ventura Blvd
Studio City, CA 91604
Dining date: 10/30/11

interior1

Black Market Liquor Bar opened in June, a gastropub seeking to find a balance between great cocktails and delicious small plates. The main draw behind Black Market is the pedigree of its bartender and chef. Cocktails are masterminded by Pablo Moix and Steve Livigni (La Descarga, Harvard & Stone), while the food is the creation of Antonia Lofaso (Top Chef). I thought Lofaso cooked some pretty strong food during her run on Top Chef All-Stars, so I was very keen on trying what she had to offer here.

interior2

The food is meant for sharing – all of the dishes are on the smaller side, allowing the ability to try a variety. The menu presents quite a variety – everything from tiny bites like  housemade potato chips and deviled eggs to larger, richer plates such as a pasta with oxtail ragu.

Deviled quail eggs, ahi tuna, dill

deviled eggs

These little guys were a promising start. Subtle fish and dill flavors both came through with the egg.

Duck rillette, bourbon sweet raisin

duck rillette

I thought the richness of the duck was complemented well with the sweet raisins while the buttery, toasted bread provided much of the body and texture.

Dill potato chips, sea salt, malt vinegar aioli

chips

Loved these potato chips, cut just a little thicker than usual. Well-salted with some of the herbal dill flavor coming through, I could eat a bag of this. Not being a big fan of vinegar, I couldn’t get into the dipping sauce, but I know everyone else in the party did.

Charcuterie, pickled veg, bread

charcuterie

I can’t recall what everything on this board was. The charcuterie was good, while the warm toasty bread again was a comforting pairing. A small quenelle of lardo was a fun addition to the offering, as well, reminding me a little bit of Sotto.

Lamb meatball, sunchoke, caponata, prune, pine nuts, brussels sprout

meatballs

These were tasty. A slight gaminess reminded me that it was lamb, while the herbs packed a good punch. Pretty moist, pretty good.

Crispy collard greens, benton’s ham, cheese grits, soft egg

collard greens

The collard greens, ham and fried egg were all individually delicious. Eaten together, the centerpiece collard greens took a backseat to the rich, flavorful ham and eggs though.

Peel and eat lemon pepper shrimp, oranges, crystal’s aioli

peel eat shrimp

I tend to dislike having to peel my shrimp at the table, but these were worth it. The exterior shell of the shrimp offered strong lemon and peppers up front, while the shrimp itself was cooked well, leaving them plump and moist.

Escarole, white bean, anchovy, parmigiano reggiano, sherry, olive oil

escarole salad

I tend not to be a lover of salads, and this one didn’t convert me to the other side. There was a strong tart acidity (presumably from the sherry vinegar) that was overwhelming for me.

Chicken bao, pickled shiitake mushroom, kohlrabi, carrot, savoy cabbage

chicken bao

Perhaps the largest bao I’ve ever seen, this was difficult to share (one bao per order). The flavors were rather monotonous, with the earthy cabbage and mushroom flavors primarily coming through; the chicken was overshadowed. Again, there was something rather tart and acidic in here that I didn’t care for.

Ricotta gnudi, brown butter, pistachio

gnudi

Good gnudi.  They were light and pillowy, while the brown butter sauce added a welcome nuttiness to the mix. The pistachios added some texture, but I didn’t really think it was necessary with the delicate gnudi.

Seared scallops, romesco, cavolo nero, chorizo, pumpkin seed

scallops

These scallops were beautifully cooked. The romesco added some extra complementary flavor to round out some delicious bites. Enjoyed the greens too.

Oxtail ragu, perciatelli, pecorino

oxtail ragu

Maybe my favorite dish of the night, I just wished it was bigger at $14. I will always have high expectations for an oxtail ragu, and the tender and rich meat went really well with the thick al dente pasta. The ragu was pretty beefy with a hearty depth of flavor.

Mussels, fennel, chili, garlic baguette

mussels

These mussels were tiny but plentiful. I thought the mussels and broth were good, though the caramelized onions provided a very strong (almost too much) sweetness. Toasted garlic baguette provided the bulk of the substance in this dish.

BBQ shortrib, raisin, jalapeno, heirloom confit tomato, brioche

bbq shortib

A pretty good slider. I thought there was a nice balance between the richness of the beefy short rib, countered by the lettuce and tomato confit. The brioche made a nice bun too.

As for the cocktails, I only ordered one this night but was able to try a few others.

Vodka Buck vodka, house-made ginger syrup, lime, angostura

vodka buck

Red Hot and Bothered jalapeno infused vodka, strawberry, blood orange, agave, ginger beer

hot bothered

Smokin’ Monk mezcal, yellow chartreuse, lemon, oj

smokin monk

Amber and Embers ardbeg scotch, clement canne syrup, angostura, orange bitters

amber and embers

I had no qualms with the cocktails, but didn’t find one I loved either.

Overall, the food was hit-or-miss. The small bites, as well as the shrimp, gnudi and oxtail ragu were strong efforts. Given my expectations from Lofaso’s Top Chef run, I’d say this was a disappointment. Maybe my expectations were just too high, but I thought there were misses in both the conception and execution of many plates. Not sure I’ll be back.

Oxtail Pho

Dining date: 10/23/11

oxtail pho2

I love a bowl of soup noodles. Whether a wonton noodle soup, ramen, or pho, its one of my favorite things to eat any time of the year. I will admit, I hadn’t had a “real” bowl of pho until I was in my late teens. Not sure why, but I just never came across it in San Francisco. Now, it’s a go-to whenever something warm and comforting is needed, especially on a cold day.

I recently had oxtail pho for the first time, at Pho Lu in Garden Grove. It was delicious; both the meat and broth offered a depth of flavor I didn’t get in a more typical raw beef pho (pho tai). I was inspired to make something similar at home.

I loosely followed a recipe from Serious Eats (here). I have no idea as to how authentic it is, but it looked legitimate enough. The recipe calls for oxtails to simmer for 8 hours (from start-to-finish, the preparation would be over 24 hours)…seriously, this had better be good.

I started with about 5 pounds of oxtails from my local 99 Ranch market. They weren’t as cheap as I thought they’d be at $5 per pound. Not sure how this dish is so reasonably priced at restaurants.

I began by soaking these tails overnight, changing the water often, to remove any blood and impurities. Further, I blanched them quickly before starting my simmer.

I didn’t really measure much of anything, but I dropped in toasted spices (cinnamon and star anise), roasted onion and ginger, as well as carrots, daikon and lemon peel. Combined with the blanched oxtails, water, fish sauce and sugar, I was ready to let my broth simmer for a good 8 hours.

oxtails cooking

I’ll admit I tried the broth after the 8 hours and felt skeptical. It tasted off, really unbalanced with a strong anise flavor. Dammit. I drained the soup and let it sit in the refrigerator to cool so that I could scoop out the globs of fat settling at the top. Hopefully the flavors would mix together better after they cooled.

The next day I was ready to assemble the final product. I started by reheating some of the oxtails in the soup. While doing that, I cooked some dried pho noodle (I prefer the thicker one) and dropped them into a bowl with some thinly-sliced raw onion, scallions, cilantro and thai basil.

plating1

Finally, I placed the oxtails on top and poured in the broth.

plating2

plating3

All stirred up.

oxtail pho

How was it? It was good. Not great, but good. I thought the soup needed better balance (thankfully, the flavors mellowed out and it wasn’t as bad as my first taste) – maybe I should’ve measured a few things out. Too much star anise. Shouldn’t have substituted lemon peel for lime. However, the oxtails were delicious, just as I expected them to be. Tender and just about falling off the bone, they had just the right amount of meat, connective tissue and fat. Overall, I was proud of this bowl, especially for a first time.

Will I make it again? Maybe, but it will be a while. I think the cost of my raw ingredients were higher than if I just ordered it at a restaurant, not even including the significant labor. Still, there was something comforting and satisfying about making something like this at home, so I suspect I will do it at some point.