Test Kitchen: Rocco DiSpirito (Los Angeles, CA)

Return of Test Kitchen: Rocco DiSpirito
9575 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Dining date: 10/1/12

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It’s been almost two years since Test Kitchen ended its run, something that I thought was one of the most interesting things to happen to the LA dining scene in recent years. Quite frankly, I’ve kinda missed it. A rotating cast of notable chefs spent a few days each in the kitchen, cooking whatever they wanted. The ever-changing menu continually kept things fresh and no two meals were alike. It revolutionized the pop-up restaurant in a way, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been fully duplicated since. However, the Test Kitchen legacy has lived on through its derivative restaurants such as Sotto, Picca, Playa and Short Order.

After years of rumors that Test Kitchen would eventually return, it finally seems to have come to fruition with another stint from 10/16-11/11 at upcoming Bestia restaurant in downtown LA. While I will be out of the country during its entire run, I was able to attend the launch and baton-passing from the former space (now Sotto) to the new space. For this occasion Test Kitchen hosted Rocco DiSpirito to cook his version of comfortable (and healthy) Italian fare. Joining DiSpirito in the kitchen were alumni from NYC’s Union Pacific, a restaurant DiSpirito opened in 1997, including Josh Dechellis, Neal Fraser (Grace), and Quinn Hatfield (Hatfield’s).

DiSpirito was promoting and cooking out of his latest cookbook Now Eat This! Italian: Favorite Dishes from the Real Mamas of Italy–All Under 350 Calories, the title of which is a mouthful, pun intended. He was on hand to chat and sign cookbooks for everyone.

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Crudo of Tuna, Meatballs, Kale Chips, Grilled Pane Carasau with Rosemary & Super Olive Oil

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We started with a quartet of antipasti. Tuna was bathed in a cool citrusy bath, while meatballs were smothered in a rich marinara. Thin bread chips and kale-parmiggiano chips (which I’m guessing were baked, not fried) provided the texture; I found the latter to be rather chewy…pretty much like undercooked kale. “Super olive oil,” a blend of olive oil and white wine, was a lighter and less fruity substitution for real olive oil, kind of defeating the purpose.

Lasagna Bolognese

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The main flavor profiles in the lasagna were the sweet tomato sauce and strong basil. With a little bit of shaved mushrooms and meat, I found it to be a hearty dish without being too rich…I’m guessing exactly what Rocco was going for.

Black Cod Puttanesca, Contorni of Polenta, Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta

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Next up was a silky smooth piece of black cod; I’m accustomed to the denser, richer fillets so I think this may have been a different breed. I liked it! Earthy olives and capers grounded out the flavors, while the sweetness of tomatoes brightened everything up. The polenta wasn’t particularly memorable, but the Brussels sprouts were better, getting a lot of flavor from the charred bits at the edges.

Cheesecake, Panna Cotta, Instant Strawberry Italian Ice

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Lastly, we were served a disappointing trio of desserts. The strawberry Italian ice was creamy, fruity and refreshing. However, the cheesecake (middle) was gritty, chalky and lacking in the flavor department. Lastly, the panna cotta was a little denser than I would’ve liked, and the subtle caramel flavor couldn’t hold up to the tart dessert.

Pine Nut Cookies

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To take home, we received a batch of pine nut cookies. These weren’t very good either, but I guess they were only 49 calories..

I thought the black cod was excellent, but I found the rest of the meal to be rather ordinary or mediocre. However, given DiSpirito was going the ‘healthy’ route I thought he actually did a pretty decent job for the most part. If the calorie count was correct, this was one of the few sub-1200 calorie meals I haven’t been able to finish (it was a lot of food!). Having said that, Test Kitchen is all about trying out new things and I’m excited for its return…just sad that I will miss its entire run.

Previous Test Kitchen posts:
Test Kitchen Dinners (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)
Closing Night – 12/13/10
Reunion – 9/19/11

Sous Vide Pork Ribs

Dining date: 9/5/12

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One of the things I’ve wanted to mimic using sous vide is barbecue. Cooking-wise, I could easily duplicate the low-and-slow practice with even more precision; the challenge would be imparting the smoky flavor. I remembered seeing an episode of America’s Test Kitchen where they prepared pulled pork in the oven using liquid smoke in the brine. After dismissing the thought of using mezcal in a brine (a waste!), I was inspired to use liquid smoke as the key ingredient to imbue the smoky flavor. Realistically, I did not expect it to duplicate the natural smoke flavor perfectly, but thought it’d be a fun experiment nonetheless.

Unlike synthetically manufactured truffle oil (most of which never involve actual truffles in its production), liquid smoke is a natural product formed with the condensation of smoke similar to how water is distilled. It definitely smells like smoke.

I first started by brining my baby back ribs in an herb-infused brine. I don’t know if brining makes much of a difference when cooking sous vide (especially for extended periods), but I often do it anyways.

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The ribs were patted dry and rubbed with my trusty Ad Hoc BBQ rub. The sauce would come from another notable place, San Diego’s Phil’s BBQ. I was convinced that I had all the ingredients for a delicious dish.

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The liquid smoke I used recommended 1/2 teaspoon per pound of meat; I had no reason to do any different and ended up using a full two tablespoons for the 6-pound rack. Instead of applying it in the brine stage, I opted to seal it with the pork for optimum smokiness!

The temperature was something I debated about a while. I’d seen as high as 80C for 8-12 hours, but I decided to go even lower and slower with 68C for 24 hours. I figured this would be high enough to break down any collagen and connective tissue, while potentially keeping the meat more moist.

I set my bag into the water bath and waited. After cooking something for as long as 72 hours, 24 really didn’t seem that bad. As with most foods prepared sous vide, the cooked product didn’t look very impressive.

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Brushing on a little bit of the BBQ sauce and caramelizing with a torch made the ribs look a bit more appetizing!

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Lastly, I sliced the ribs and drizzled with more sauce. Voila!

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I thought the end product was good, but nothing exceptional (definitely didn’t compare to the sous vide beef short ribs).  The meat was very tender, though not fall-off-the-bone tender, and moist but not exceedingly so. I definitely wouldn’t have called them dry, but I totally expected them to be more moist. I thought the pork flavor came through with the rub, but most of the flavor came from the accompanying sauce. Only a hint of smoke flavor could be tasted, so maybe I’ll have to use more liquid smoke next time? It was a fun experiment and I’ll probably play with it a bit in the future…but I’ll be sticking with beef short ribs for the time being.

5×5 Chefs Collaborative @ ink. (Los Angeles, CA)

5×5 Chefs Collaborative Dinner
ink.

8360 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Dining date: 9/16/12

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This past weekend was the final 5×5 Collaborative Dinner of the season. I was lucky enough to attend 3 of the 5 dinners, which were some of my most anticipated dinners in LA this year. For this final dinner at Michael Voltaggio’s ink., the guest chef was scheduled to be Chris Cosentino (Incanto, Pigg). However, a late-game change of plans called for a couple of substitutes – Michael’s equally talented brother Bryan and Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food. Given I’ve been wanting to try Bryan’s food and have followed Ideas in Food for some time, I considered this a more than suitable substitution!

Similar to the rest of the dinners, 7 courses were served: 5 from the main chefs and 2 from the guests for $150 a plate.

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ink. snacks tiny bouqet, bbq mushroom, cool ranch ‘doritos’, pho
Michael Voltaggio, ink.

ink. snacks tiny bouqet, bbq mushroom, cool ranch 'doritos', pho

ink. snacks tiny bouqet, bbq mushroom, cool ranch 'doritos', pho

ink. snacks tiny bouqet, bbq mushroom, cool ranch 'doritos', pho

The first thing to come out of the kitchen was this quartet of amuse bouches. A tiny bouqet of something was unmemorable, but it got more exciting with fresh radishes dipped into a BBQ mushroom sauce. Kind of odd – I enjoyed the deep savory flavor. Voltaggio’s homemade cool ranch doritos were very close to the real thing, while fried beef tendon “chips” (a play on the flavors of pho) were the highlight with Southeast Asian notes and a spritz of lime.

avocado gazpacho hokkaido scallop, king crab, oyster, mariscos cocktail granite
Josiah Citrin, Melisse

avocado gazpacho hokkaido scallop, king crab, oyster, mariscos cocktail granite

Our first proper course was this seafood-centric avocado gazpacho. An assortment of fresh shellfish and vegetables were scattered at the bottom of the bowl with a creamy, cool gazpacho soup. I found each of the individual components enjoyable, but I’m not sure the dish as a whole came together as well as anticipated.

hawaiian hearts of peach palm heirloom beets, young fennel, candied macadamia nut & beet vinaigrette
Rory Herrmann, Bouchon

hawaiian hearts of peach palm heirloom beets, young fennel, candied macadamia nut & beet vinaigrette

Next up, this dish was centered around a pureed hearts of palm in the shape of a terrine. Crunchy macadamia nuts and a subtle fennel flavor sought not to overwhelm the delicate hearts of palm flavor.

wild monkfish blood sausage, weiser farms piquillo peppers, pickled celery
Michael Cimarusti, Providence

wild monkfish blood sausage, weiser farms piquillo peppers, pickled celery

I think this may have been the best dish of the night. Predictably, the monkfish was cooked to perfection, a moist and flavorful chunk of meat. The accompanying salad had just the right amount of acidity to balance the richness of the fish, while rye-tasting breadcrumbs provided an earthy texture. The blood sausage flavor was lost in this dish, though.

maltagliati di polenta lobster amatriciana sauce
Gino Angelini, Angelini Osteria

maltagliati di polenta lobster amatriciana sauce

Throughout this dinner series, Angelini has consistently prepared a dish near or at the top of our favorites. The simple, homey cooking was right in line with what our stomachs wanted, and this was no exception. The polenta-based flat pasta still had a slightly chewy texture, smothered in a rich shellfish-based sauce. Small chunks of lobster of fava beans completed the bites.

lambcetta trail mix, smoked almond, cocoa, raisins
Bryan Voltaggio, VOLT & Range

lambcetta trail mix, smoked almond, cocoa, raisins

Bryan Voltaggio’s lamb was cooked perfectly; I’m not sure what cuts were used, but the meat was rolled up in the style of a pancetta. He opted to pair the game with flavors of trail mix – smoky almond here, chocolate there, and the sweetness of raisins there.

blueberry pancakes
Alex Talbot, Ideas in Food

blueberry pancakes

We finished with simple sounding blueberry pancakes. Of course, these weren’t ordinary blueberry pancakes; instead pieces of a light and airy sponge cake were topped with a vanilla/caramel (and buttermilk?) ice cream, fresh blueberries and blueberry boba. How interesting. I thought the flavors of the pancakes did come through quite well, though not sure how the boba fit in. Plus, some were undercooked yielding a sort of chewy, gritty texture.

After dinner at ink., we decided to sneak in one more course at nearby Tacos Leo, notable for their tacos al pastor.

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tacos al pastor

I’ve had the tacos al pastor once and found them on the dry side. These were better, though I can’t say I’d go out of my way for them. For a buck apiece, I can’t complain.

If I had to rank this evening’s food among the three 5×5 dinners I attended this season, I’d place this one in between the Melisse and Bouchon meals. There were some good dishes, sure, but nothing extraordinary given the caliber of chefs cooking on this night. On the opposite end, nothing was particularly bad either. These are still some of the most interesting and exciting dinners in LA, so I’ll be coming back next season.

Lunasia (Alhambra, CA)

Lunasia
500 W Main St
Alhambra, CA 91801
Dining date: 8/27/12

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Dim sum is something that I often enjoy as a weekend lunch. It’s a very ‘social’ meal always involving the sharing of a variety of small plates. The multitude of flavors and textures is something that’s pretty unique, and it has become a sort of comfort food even though I didn’t eat it all that often growing up.

I’ve been going to the Lunasia spot for a few years now, the first time being when it was Triumphal Palace. Ownership/management changes have resulted in some name and chef changes, but I’ve enjoyed meals here pretty consistently. Long lines on the weekends tell me I’m not the only one.

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Lunasia’s ordering is menu-based; you order off a menu and the plates come directly from the kitchen. It’s not quite as playful or curiosity-inducing as the cart-based places, but I find the food to come to the table much fresher. Turnover is usually pretty quick at popular joints with the carts, but you never know how long it takes a dish to get from the kitchen to the table. My favorite “delivery model” is actually a combination of both; some places are menu-based with a handful of carts coming around – the best of both worlds.

Pictures of each dish and English descriptions is key in choosing what to order!

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Scallop Taro Cake

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A crispy exterior hid a hot filling of taro, scallop and what I think was ground pork. The sweet-salty combination was a good one, and it was fried just right.

Steamed Chicken Feet

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Hong Kong Roasted Duck

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I thought this was a well-executed roast duck with a crispy skin and succulent, moist meat. A sweet soy glaze provided extra depth in flavor.

Crispy Shrimp Roll

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This was a different one for me; small chunks of shrimp, complemented by parsley, were fried in a light batter. Loved the textures, and the shrimp and parsley were balanced well.

Shrimp Har-Gow

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A dim sum standby, I found these to be a good example. The noodle had a nice sticky chew and was packed with plump shrimp.

Pork Siu-Mai

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Another dim sum staple, these came out piping hot. I thought these were very flavorful, though a bit heavy on the fat-pork ratio.

Shanghai Dumplings

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The next thing to come out of the kitchen were these dumplings, which I found to be on the doughy side and devoid of the characteristic juicy filling. Not sure what happened here.

Pan-fried Potstickers

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I thought these simple potstickers were a disappointment too. The dough was sort of soggy and easily broke apart, not to mention being kind of oily too.

Shrimp Rice Noodle

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We rebounded with one of my dim sum favorites. Soft, glutinous noodles were wrapped around individual shrimp and drenched in soy – this simple dish was done well.

Egg-roll Rice Noodle

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This was another new item for me – shrimp paste was fried in a dough, covered in rice noodle. I liked the crispy texture that the fried dough provided, while the shrimp/rice noodle/soy combination had already proven to be a winner.

Located in the same plaza, milk tea from Tea Station was an ideal cap to the meal – always a plus when dining at Lunasia!

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There were a few misses, but due to vast menus, it’s hard to find a spot that does everything well. I found the food to come out fresh and hot from the kitchen, and the ‘highs’ greatly outnumbered the ‘lows.’ In my opinion, Lunasia remains a strong bet for dim sum in LA.

Sous Vide Short Ribs

Dining date: 7/6/12

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Sous vide cooking seems to have a countless number of possible applications, but I think it has the most profound effect on things that need to cooked for extended periods of time. Sure, it can produce a perfect medium-rare steak, but a grill/stovetop/oven can do a pretty good job too. For tougher beef cuts such as short ribs or chuck, sous vide cooking provides the ability to break down muscle fibers over a prolonged period of time at a precise temperature. Short ribs are a perfect example of this; traditionally these are simmered for a couple of hours in a rich braising liquid. The effect is a tender piece of meat, albeit overcooked. The accompanying braising liquid imparts a lot of the flavor and moisture back into the meat. When cooking in a vacuum at a controlled temperature, the muscle fibers can be broken down with much less heat, yielding tender meat that’s perfectly cooked and juicy. Of course, since it’s a lower heat, it also takes a lot longer to cook too. Between the two methods, it’s hard to say one is better than the other; they’re just different.

There are a number of recipes out there for sous vide short ribs – David Chang has a popular one for 48-hour short ribs in an Asian braising liquid. However, Thomas Keller cooks his a whole day longer – 72 hours. It’s something I’ve been wanting to make ever since I got my sous vide machine. However, it took me a while to get comfortable enough to leave the machine on for a straight 72 hours…something that sounds kind of ridiculous.

Given that it would take so long to prepare, I figured I’d cook a large batch. I found 6 pounds of bone-in short ribs at my local market. For some reason, the bone-in short ribs at the market always appear to have better marbling than the boneless, so I went with those.

raw short ribs

raw short ribs

I experimented a little bit with flavors; for half of the short ribs, I seasoned with simple salt and pepper. For the other half, I sauteed a mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery and reduced red wine. After freezing this mixture, I added this to the other bags with the short ribs in order to mimic a more traditional braise. After the bags were vacuum sealed, they were put into the 57.0C (134.6F) water bath for a full three days.

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Seriously, patience was probably the hardest ingredient in this recipe.

After 72 hours I was ready to dig in. The bags were full of juice, and the first thing I noticed about the short ribs was that they hadn’t shrunk much at all. When braised on the stovetop or oven, they always shrink quite a bit, but I could see there was relatively little shrinkage when compared to the bone size.

cooked, bagged short ribs

de-bagged short ribs

seared whole short ribs

I sliced off the bottom bones and seared the exterior with a torch. They were finally ready to eat!

seared short ribs

Sous vide short ribs

These were fantastic. Luscious, tender and very juicy, these were some of the best short ribs I’ve had. Much of the muscle fiber and collagen had broken down, leaving the meat easily fork-tender, but not at all mushy.  Pretty much as good as they looked. As for the two different types, I didn’t notice a significant difference between the salt & pepper short ribs and the celery/onion/carrots/red wine variation. Not sure why.

The next step for me is making a sauce out of the juices…I’ve had difficulty with this. When heated, most of the juices coagulated into a gross-looking, brown form; I believe I need to heat the juices then strain to get a ‘clean’ final product for sauce-making. Any tips on this would be appreciated!

The Taste: Flavors of LA (Los Angeles, CA)

The Taste 2012: Flavors of LA
Paramount Pictures Studios
5555 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Dining date: 9/2/12

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Day 2 of The Taste brought two more events: ‘Flavors of LA’ during the day and ‘Dinner & Drinks’ at night. I went to the daytime session, featuring an eclectic mix of LA’s food scene. Some of the main highlights, to me, were the cooking demonstrations on this day. A very strong lineup of chefs would be showcasing their talent including Ludo Lefebvre (LudoBites), Kris Yenbamroong (Night + Market), and Ricardo Zarate (Mo-Chica, Picca).

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Like the rest of the weekend’s events, all food, drink and seminars/demos were included in the price of admission ($65 in advance, $75 at the door, $50 via LivingSocial promo).

The Glendon Bar & Kitchen bourbon buffalo wings

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Valerie Confections brown derby grapefruit cake; blum’s coffee crunch cake

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valerie confections coffee crunch2

valerie confections coffee crunch

Ombra Ristorante vitello tonnato

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Wurstküche mango jalapeno sausage, caramelized onions; rattlesnake and rabbit sausage, sweet peppers

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Saffron Spot tutti frutti and saffron ice creams

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Schulzies Bread Pudding assorted bread puddings (salted caramel and earl grey pictured)

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Tamarind of London tangy semolina shells; mango-passion lassi

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Mayura butter chicken, aloo palak, garlic naan

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Bulgarini assorted gelati

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Sam’s By the Beach artichoke souffle, roquefort cheese, chives

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Susan Fenniger’s STREET paani puri

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Waffles de Liege liege waffle

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Coupa Café beef empanaditas; arepas

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Locando del Lago farro ai funghi

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CHAYA watermelon mojito; tuna burger

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Gottsui okonomiyaki

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Lukshon sichuan pig ear terrine; kimchi bloody maria

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Picca/Mo-Chica unagi causa roll

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La Casita Mexicana mole poblano chicken

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bashi/Terranea caramelized shrimp, green papaya salad

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Plan Check smokey fried chicken, smoked milk gravy, yam preserves, spicy pickled okra

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Farmshop heirloom melon gazpacho, sweet corn, la quercia speck ham, opal basil, za’atar

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Sushi Roku halibut, yuzu vinaigrette

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The Cake Mamas chocolate salted caramel, good witch, churro cupcakes

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Carvel 90210 custom dipped ice cream cones

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Coolhaus assorted ice cream sandwiches

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Of course, alcohol was plentiful at the event (as well as some non-alcoholic options!).

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I also caught a glimpse of Jonathan Gold, Sang Yoon, Gustavo Arellano and Evan Kleinman discussing the state of the LA food scene.

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And Ricardo Zarate talking about and preparing his highly regarded Peruvian ceviche.

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I thought this was another successful event. Similar to the prior day, I didn’t find too much of the food to particularly stand out, but the overall variety of events was more than enough to pique my interest. Food-wise, perhaps my favorite bite of the weekend was Valerie Confections’ coffee crunch cake. Moist and light, it had just the right amount of coffee flavor and textural crunch, reminding me of the cake I had so many times growing up in San Francisco. Plan Check served a generous portion of their smokey fried chicken, a dish that’s quickly becoming a notable one around town. Exceedingly juicy, the chicken had a nice crust and paired well with the smokey milk gravy. Waffles de Liege served their namesake liege waffles hot off the iron – delicately crispy yet fluffy with just the right amount of sweetness. Lastly, Bulgarini served up some excellent gelato, including a refreshing jasmine flavor.

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Note: This event was hosted.