Border Grill Downtown – 2/3/11

Border Grill Downtown
445 South Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071

I work in the same building as Border Grill, but I can count the number of times I’ve stepped in on one hand. It just hasn’t been too much of a draw for me and my co-workers; it’s a bit pricey for a casual bite and just not quite as appealing as, say…Drago or Chaya for a more upscale meal.

Formerly Ciudad, it was re-branded a Border Grill in October – honestly, I’ve found it to be pretty much the same restaurant. When dineLA came around, the restaurant offered a $16 3-course lunch with a variety of choices. I figured it was as good a time as any to give it a try.

Every table starts with some warm tortilla chips and a trio of salsas. This is a really nice way to start with fresh tortilla chips, and my favorite salsa is the green tomatillo.

My co-workers ordered the empanada/tamale and soup, while I opted for the ceviche.

Plantain Empanada and Green Corn Tamale roasted plantains, black beans, poblano chile, cotija cheese, sweet corn, sour cream, salsa fresca

Tortilla Soup roasted tomato chipotle, panela cheese, avocado

Baja Ceviche lime marinated sustainable seasonal fish, shrimp, cilantro, jalapeño, crispy handmade corn tortilla, cilantro aioli, avocado

I snuck a taste of the tortilla soup. I didn’t think it had too much flavor, though it was welcome on a cold day. The ceviche, on the other hand, had bright fresh flavors with the lime, cilantro and avocado complementing the fish. A little bit of jalapeno provided the heat, while the fried corn tortilla added some texture.

My co-workers went for the pork taco and enchilada, while I had the Yucatan pork.

Chuleta de Puerco en Pipian Taco shredded baby back ribs, roasted poblano, cactus slaw, pipian sauce

Chicken Poblano Enchiladas slow roasted chicken, handmade corn tortillas, poblano hoja santa cream, grilled corn, wild mushrooms, roasted poblano peppers

Yucatan Pork achiote pork roasted in banana leaf, grilled onion, orange, cinnamon red rice, black beans, plantain orange salsa, handmade corn tortilla

The pork was pretty tender, though not as flavorful as I expected from a piece of pork shoulder. I liked the variety of sides, though, and the guacamole was excellent.

Next was dessert.

Capirotada warm bread pudding, caramelized apples, cream cheese, roasted pecans, vanilla bean ice cream

This bread pudding was lukewarm. A little bit of cinnamon spice was apparent, and it had a good apple flavor. Not bad, but nothing special.

Goat Milk Cajeta Flan caramel sauce

The flan was much richer than I anticipated, with a strong but not overwhelming goat cheese flavor. I liked the caramel, which added a welcome sweetness.

Our meal at Border Grill was okay. Nothing really stood out strongly in the positive or negative, but I think the meal was a pretty good deal at $16. However, with so many stronger dining options in downtown, I’m not sure when I’ll be back. Maybe for happy hour.

Lukshon – 2/4/11

Lukshon
3239 Helms Ave.
Culver City, CA 90232

sign

Father’s Office is my favorite bar in LA. It’s probably best known for having one of the top burgers in the city (by far their most popular item on the menu), but the rest of the gastropub’s menu is pretty strong as well.  Oh, and their craft beer selection is top-notch; it’s been a pioneer in that movement in LA.

Given the popularity of Father’s Office and chef/owner Sang Yoon’s cuisine, I’ve been curious as to why there hasn’t been more rapid expansion – surely, Yoon (who has a fine dining background) would like to step outside of the ‘upscale bar food’ arena. So when Yoon announced he would be opening up an Asian concept almost two years ago, I was all over that. Lukshon finally opened up this week.

interior1interior2

Make no mistake from the pictures (taken at the end of the night), the place was packed.  As a result, we waited an hour past our reservation time of 8:45 to be seated. Not cool – but there’s a lively bar to help with the wait. The drink menu is not nearly as beer-centric as Father’s Office; rather, a variety of wines and handcrafted cocktails are the focal point (Fujian Cure was my favorite). Once we were seated, service was pretty on-point. I expect the kitchen and service staff to continue to improve, however, as the restaurant gets a little more experience under its belt.

The menu is a mix of small plates and large plates, with some noodle, rice and vegetable sides.

malpeque oysters (prince edward island) sudachi long pepper mignonette

oysters

We started with these oysters. There was a nice sweetness to them, and they weren’t fishy at all. The pepper gave just a little bit of heat.

spanish mackerel coconut vinegar, jalapeno, lemongrass, green papaya

mackeral

Next up was this dish. The mackerel had a mild flavor, complemented by the lemongrass and papaya, with a little heat from jalapeno. A good dish, and reminiscent of something one may find at a Japanese kaiseki.

shrimp toast rock shrimp, cilantro, chiles, tiny croutons

shrimp toast

This was a must-order, since it’s one of my favorite items at Thanksgiving and Christmas family gatherings. This had a light, crispy exterior and a moist interior with some good shrimpy flavor. I like.

baby monterey squid chiang mai pork sausage, candlenut, mint, rau ram

squid

This was one of the standout dishes of the night. The squid was tender and full of flavor from the stuffing of pork sausage and herbaceous rau ram.

spicy chicken pops shelton farms drumettes, garlic, kecap manis, spicy sichuan salt

chicken

I thought the flavors here were a little muddled. The chicken flavor didn’t come through, and the texture was a little bit chewy.

whole steamed fish (loup de mer) taiwan spinach, black bean ghee, sambal ijo

whole fish

Next up was the first large plate. A loup de mer (Mediterranean sea bass) is not exactly typical in Asian cooking, but its moist, white flesh fit in well here. The flavors were very southeast Asian with a little bit of chili heat, and I liked the spinach accompaniment, which added some body.

chiang mai curry noodles yellow curry, lemongrass, pork belly, prawn, rice noodles

curry noodles

This was one of the noodle dishes. The curry was kind of rich and a little milky, which I liked. The pork belly lended just a little bit more richness and depth of flavor to it. Great blend of flavors, while the deep fried noodles added a crispy texture.

heirloom black rice lap cheong, onion, roasted garlic, fried egg

black rice

The black rice had a heartiness not present in white rice. A little bit of Chinese sausage added some savory saltiness, while the fried egg provided an oozing yolk that really brought everything together.

x.o. rice jasmine rice, house-made x.o. sauce, long beans, egg

xo rice

This fried rice was a bit typical of a Chinese restaurant. It was a good version, and a little less greasy than what I’m accustomed to.

wok charred baby eggplant panch puran, tomato sambal, mint

eggplant

The eggplant was fairly unmemorable. It was cooked to a nice tender texture, but did not have a lot of flavor.

sonoma lamb chops market spices, herb butter

lamb chops

The lamb had a nice seared crust and was pretty tender. Not too gamey. A good dish, though nothing special.

skirt steak sichuan “au poivre,” shishito peppers

skirt steak

I really enjoyed this dish. The steak was cooked perfectly, leaving it very tender. Skirt steak is a pretty beefy cut, and the peppers (which I didn’t find too hot at all) added a nice savory heat to the dish. Nice colors too.

dandan noodles kurobuta pork, sesame, preserved mustard greens, sichuan peppercorns, peanuts

dan dan

This is a little embarrassing, but I’ve only had dandan noodles once before – at P.F. Chang’s, which means I’ve never really had it before. No one in our table of 7 had any experience with it, so we weren’t expecting the minty-metallic taste and odd, numbing sensation of the sichuan peppers. We didn’t enjoy it. However, I found out soon afterward that’s pretty typical of those peppers. Oh well.

banana cake, mango panna cotta, kiwi soup

desserts

Desserts are always complimentary at Lukshon – I think that’s a nice touch. Here we had three different desserts which were all pretty solid. The mango panna cotta (middle) was my favorite for being light and smooth, with just the right amount of mango flavor.

Overall, Lukshon was a success. Sang Yoon blends traditional flavors from throughout Asia in some familiar and some new preparations. I think the flavors are authentic enough to ring home with traditionalists, while still satisfying Americanized palates as well. Along with Father’s Office and the Spanish concept replacing Beacon, Lukshon adds another good option on Helms and to the plethora of good restaurants in downtown Culver City. Given the buzz around the restaurant and its strong food and drinks, I expect Lukshon to be a popular stop for a while.

First & Hope – 1/26/11

First & Hope
710 West 1st St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

I’m always looking for new and exciting lunch spots downtown. When dineLA came around again, First & Hope struck me as a potential place. I’ve been for dinner, but until now had not realized they were also open for lunch.

First & Hope opened to a lot of fanfare in April of last year. The response, largely, has been somewhat underwhelming for the food, which might be overshadowed by the decor and cocktails. In its short life, it’s gone through two chef changes already – most recently, Yuji Isawa took over kitchen duties in January.

The appetizer options were two salads.

A “Modern” Waldorf Salad with Pt. Reyes Blue Vinaigrette

Scarborough Farms Hearts of Romaine with Caesar “Vinaigrette” & Shaved Parmiggiano

The croutons were nice and crispy, adding a good textural counterpoint to the romaine. The parmiggiano added a richness and nuttiness as well.

Mary’s Chicken Pot Pie with Market Vegetables

I liked the presentation of this pot pie. The crust was light and flaky with a fresh herb topping, but I thought the dill was a little strong. For a lunch entree, I thought this portion was a little light because there just wasn’t a lot of chicken or vegetables. However, it was good.

Hope Burger & Fries with Bacon-Onion “jam” and Montgomery Cheddar

This entree option was much more substantial. Juicy and meaty, the burger was quite good. The onions added a welcome sweetness, and the accompanying fries were good as well, though they were a little bit denser than I would have liked.

Next, we tried a trio of desserts.

“Milk & Cookies”, Baked to order with chilled Clover Farms Cream Top Milk

My first two bites of this cookie were delicious. Warm and soft, with just a little bit of chew – a fresh cookie is hard to beat. However, the center of the cookie was rock solid and inedible. Weird.

TCHO Chocolate Bread Pudding with Caramel & Bourbon Sauce

The pudding had a mild chocolate flavor, but was really moist. The caramel was a nice touch in tandem with the chocolate.

Butterscotch Pudding with Sea Salt Caramel

This was a pretty good butterscotch pudding. The butterscotch was really nice, while the sea salt added just a little bit of saltiness to bring the flavors out. The best of the desserts.

My visit to First & Hope was just okay. There were some hits and more misses. With a lot of other more exciting dining options in the downtown area, I’m not sure when/if I will be back.

Mastro’s Beverly Hills – 1/29/11

Mastro’s Steakhouse
246 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

If I were to make a list of places that I’m most often confronted with “you haven’t been there?!” this would be at the top of the list. I always hear about Mastro’s in the ‘best steak in LA’ debate along with CUT, which is probably one of my favorite restaurants in the city, let alone steakhouse. I do consider myself a bit of a “meat & potatoes” kind of guy, so this visit was long overdue.

This was the darkest restaurant I’ve ever been to, by far. I thought this had a negative effect on the experience (not just due to picture-taking) because you couldn’t see the food very well at all. While eating the steaks, it was hard to distinguish fat/gristle from the meat. Thanks to the iPhone flashlight, I was able to take some passable pictures.

We started with an appetizer.

Ahi Tuna Tartare

This tartare was made up of layers of tuna, avocado, and some kind of really crispy cracker. The tuna was good, but I was looking for more fish. Only about a third of the dish was tuna. I thought the extra-crispy crackers were a little too much texture.

Next came the steaks. All steaks are USDA Prime, 28-day wet-aged and served on 400-degree sizzling plates.

Bone-in Filet, 12 oz.


The bone-in filet is the signature cut at Mastro’s. I don’t come across too many bone-in filets, so I was glad to see one here. Characteristically tender, this was a more flavorful tenderloin cut than I’m accustomed to – presumably because of the bone. Very good as far as filets go.

“Chef’s Cut” Ribeye Chop, 33 oz.

This steak was a little disappointing. It was juicy and tender, but not extraordinarily so. I thought the quality of meat here actually paled in comparison to one of McCall’s dry aged steaks I cooked up a while ago.

Porterhouse, 24 oz.


The porterhouse was a strong effort. I tried the strip loin portion and it was juicy and flavorful.

We ordered a couple of sides, served family style:

Lobster Mashed Potatoes

The sides were served alongside the steaks, so this was what was left. One of the signature sides – the potatoes were creamy, smooth and delicious. However, I found the lobster to be way overcooked. I’ll stick with regular mashed potatoes next time.

Asparagus – Sauteed (pictured with steaks)

We wanted some type of vegetable to make the meal not so meat and carb-centric. The asparagus was simply sauteed in garlic and butter.

Warm Butter Cake


The signature dessert. The interior of the cake was pretty moist, and the vanilla bean ice cream complimented it well. Parts of the exterior of the cake were a little dry though.

Chocolate Cake

We told the server it was someone’s birthday, and they were nice enough to bring out this slice of cake. It was pretty moist with good chocolate flavor. Fairly standard, but not bad.

My assessment of Mastro’s was that it was good but not great. Admittedly, my expectations of Mastro’s were too high. It’s more casual and lounge-y than I had anticipated, and the level of service was unremakable. However, I came for some meat, and the steaks were cooked well – for the most part juicy, tender and flavorful. As chains go, I’d definitely rank it higher than Morton’s or Ruth’s Chris. Will I be back? Probably at some point – I have a lot of friends and co-workers that love this place. But for my money, I’d rather go to the steakhouse down the street, which I think is a “CUT” above (sorry, I had to say it!).

Out the Door – 1/10/10

Out the Door
2232 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

La Boulangerie
2325 Pine Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

For my last lunch meal in San Francisco, my mother and I were very indecisive about where to go. We talked through a number of places but finally picked out this one. Out the Door is the casual sibling of famed Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door. This is their newest outpost in the up-and-coming Fillmore area.

The best way for me to describe Slanted Door/OTD is probably as “Vietnamese cuisine catered to the Americanized palate.” The menu is a mix of some of the typical dishes you’d find at an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, as well as some more modern creations. Chef Charles Phan does focus on using high quality ingredients including a number of local purveyors, so the prices are higher as well.

crispy imperial rolls, shrimp, pork, mint, rice vermicelli, peanuts

I’ve had these rolls before and enjoyed them. Same story here – they were really crispy with a good filling of pork, cabbage, carrots and herbs.

beef phô, prather ranch eye of round, thai basil, thin rice noodles

My mother was feeling like pho, so she got this bowl. I’m pretty confident you won’t find many bowls of pho with such high quality beef (Prather Ranch, in this case). The broth had a nice, deep flavor and the noodles were good as well. Definitely on the pricier side for a simple bowl of pho, but a really good one.

grilled lemongrass pork over vermicelli noodles, crispy imperial rolls

I liked the tender, meaty chunks of pork here – they were grilled and slightly charred, giving them a little bit of smoky flavor as well. I liked the cool noodles, as well as the crispy carrots for some texture. The restaurant’s fish sauce is definitely less pungent than normal, which I liked here. And…more of those imperial rolls! Yum.

chicken porridge, rau ram, crispy shallots, black pepper

This was the last dish we ordered. This was one of the best (okay, and most expensive) rice porridges I’ve had. It’s a pretty simple dish, but there were a number of different flavors within each scoop – the crispy shallots, the rau ram (like cilantro), and the tender chunks of chicken. It had the perfect amount of salt and the consistency was spot on.

For the flight back to LA, I picked up both “dessert” and “breakfast” for the next morning at one of my favorite bakeries in the city – La Boulangerie of the Bay Bread Co.. It’s just a block away from the restaurant.

The breads are great here, but I really like the croissants. I picked up a chocolate and hazelnut chocolate croissant. Eaten fresh or warmed up quickly in the oven, these were delicious.

I was pretty happy with this meal at Out the Door. It definitely met, and probably exceeded expectations a little. The food was comforting, tasty and executed well. Yes, it’s a little more expensive for Vietnamese, but I thought it was worth it.

Masa’s – 12/29/10

Masa’s
648 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA 94108

I posted a little while ago about The House, where my cousins and I took my grandmother for her birthday. My father also organizes a birthday dinner for her (and my aunt), typically at a little bit more of a “special occasion” restaurant. Prior year examples have included The Dining Room, Cyrus, Murray Circle and Quince.

Masa’s has been in San Francisco for over 25 years; as a pioneer in the early fine dining scene, it helped launch the careers of numerous notable chefs. Past chefs have included Julian Serrano for 14 years (Picasso, Julian Serrano in Las Vegas), Ron Siegel (The Dining Room), and Richard Reddington (Redd, Yountville). Gregory Short, a French Laundry alumnus, currently mans the stoves, maintaining the restaurant’s one Michelin-starred rated food.

Masa’s is the only restaurant in the city that requires jackets for men, a dress code I tend to greatly dislike. I understand that they’re trying to set the atmosphere, but the food better be damn good.  The main dining room is pretty nice – fresh pink roses are the centerpiece for each table.

Crispy Escargot and Parmesan Gougeres


We started with this amuse bouche from the kitchen. The escargot had a crispy texture and tender meat, but there wasn’t a whole lot of flavor.  The gougeres, however, had a great cheesy flavor contained in the light, airy dough.

Tuna Tartare lime segments, hearts of palm

We actually had a second amuse here. I thought the lime wasn’t really ripe, and it overwhelmed the dish with its tartness. I couldn’t taste the tuna at all.

Dungeness Crab “Cannelloni” celeriac, tomato fondue, shellfish bisque, parmigiano-reggiano

This was kind of an interesting dish. The ‘cannelloni’ wrapper was actually celery root, cooked to an al dente texture. The crab was sweet and tender, though I thought the parmesan wasn’t necessary.

Sauteed Filet of Pink Snapper fennel ‘cuit sous vide,’ golden chanterelle mushrooms, navel orange emulsion

This snapper was first cooked sous vide then seared to a crisp.  It was moist with good flavor, though the chanterrelles were a little bit strong for the dish. I thought the fennel was a good accompaniment though.

Seared Ahi Tuna hard-poached quail egg, kizami wasabi, black lava salt, tamari pudding, aji amarillo

This wasn’t a visually stunning piece of ahi – it almost looks too cooked. I didn’t order this and did not try it.

We supplemented our meal with a couple orders of this special winter dish.

White Truffle Risotto carnaroli rice, white truffles from Alba

I haven’t had a white truffle risotto since The French Laundry’s amazing version.  This one paled in comparison. The cheese and onions were rather strong in the risotto, which was overly creamy to me. In addition, the white truffles weren’t very apparent in the rich risotto – a big disappointment.

Sauteed Breast of Paine Farms Squab “croquette de saucisse de pigeon,” melted leeks, celery root puree, perigord truffles, confit leg, squab sauce

The squab was very tender, moist and quite delicious. If cooked well, it’s really hard to go wrong with squab.

Roasted Ribeye of Colorado Lamb ras el hanout spiced potato gnocchi, king trumpet mushrooms, roasted sweet turnips, lamb sauce

The lamb was tender, flavorful and perfectly cooked. The sauce was very rich and tasty, and I thought the mushrooms and gnocchi both worked well here.

Pan Roasted Ribeye of American Wagyu Beef green leek and potato confit, vegetables “a la grecque,” aged sherry vinegar

The beef here was surprisingly not too tender. It was fairly unremarkable and I don’t think it was cooked too well. The gray area (which tends to be dry and flavorless) took up too much of the meat and was clearly concentrated on one side (the right of the picture). An inexcusable preparation for such a high quality piece of meat.

Concord Grape Terrine tahitian vanilla panna cotta, grape gelee, golden raisin verjus, peanut butter powder, peanut shortbread

The grape terrine topped a vanilla panna cotta. It was very smooth, and I liked the vanilla-grape combination.

Chocolate-Caramel-Walnut Tart fleur de sel, chocolate-orange sauce, chocolate-walnut crumble, earl grey ice cream

Here we had a chewiness from the caramel, some crunch from walnuts, and decadent, rich chocolate flavor – all in a tart. Hard to go wrong with that. I really enjoyed the earl grey ice cream as well.

Masa’s was fairly disappointing. There were a few very good dishes (lamb, squab) and some pretty good (snapper, crab), but a number of disappointments as well (wagyu and risotto). It was especially disappointing that the risotto wasn’t good because it had so much potential…and were the most expensive things we ordered. I was a little shocked to find the execution of the menu to be so poor – given its Michelin starred status, I thought this would be a strength. I don’t know if this was an off-night, but I likely won’t be back to find out.