Monday, January 04, 2010

Miscellaneous Food: Los Angeles Part 1


We are in LA for a wedding and New Years and have been eating well, though there are no pictures, since Colin is not around and I don't really like taking food pictures on vacation. I was really looking to get inspired though, given the recent openings in Singapore haven't been much to talk about and I had reached a point of being quite tired, of food.

Shortly after landing, we started the drive to Big Bear Lake, east of LA for a couple days of skiing. What started as a 2 hour mapped route became 4 hours in the traffic and by the time we reached there, we were hungry for a good meal. The Gold Mountain Manor bed and breakfast cheerfully sent us to Madlons, a small restaurant helmed by a sister and brother duo, tucked into the mountain higways. Chelsie and Robert Orr graduated from Cordon Bleu school in Minneapolis and Pasedena, having left their previous lines of work in business and accounting.

The food was best described as modern Californian, the amuse bouche was actually the most interesting, a slice of creamy goat's cheese on a lightly salted cracker, topped with honey and a raspberry. The combination of sweet, salty and savoury was complex, yet the construction of the dish was so very simple. A good combination to try at home, a fresh raspberry on strong cheese and drizzled with some truffle honey. Maybe even with a sprinkling of dill.

The salad was figs, goat's cheese, mixed leaves and raspberries again, with a balsamic vinegrette and caramelized walnuts, light and refreshing. We shared a seafood pasta, Shrimp, Clams and Lobster in a White Wine and Lemon Sauce and I eyed the duck on the menu but unfortunately was just too tired to continue. Dessert was a creme brulee, awful American-style, thick custard set in a deep ramekin (no, no, no!). Dinner was $65 for two, largely shared dishes of two appetizers, one pasta and one dessert, not particularly cheap.

The amazing thing about Madlons is that it is set, literally, in the middle of nowhere. I'm not sure that perhaps this doesn't work to their advantage, given the captive audience of overweight Orange Country second-marriage mid-lifers who escape to the mountains to hike and find their mojo, maybe they really are the best joint in the county but I was nonetheless impressed by this family, who obviously tend their little restaurant-house with pride and charm.

After two days of bad American food, like diner spaghetti and In-and-Out burgers, I was pleased to get back to downtown LA where we went to dinner at Mi Piace, in the gentrified Old Town Pasedena. All the restaurants in LA have mood, they are all generally moody with dim lighting and polished furniture (and yes, beautiful people but not as many as I would have thought) and also serve as lounges. That's right, lounges, I guess that's what every restaurant wants to be known as- it's a bit like Prive in Singapore but with all-Mexican staffers.

Mi Piace is one of the more commercial, popular restaurants in Old Town, right next to the two storey, glass-fronted Pottery Barn. The food was gratitously warm, comforting and stylish, we had a bruschetta starter, a generous number of crostini bread with sweet, tart tomatoes. There is nothing worse then bruschetta with grainy, Asian tomatoes as some of the Italian restaurants try to gyp with you back home, these were infused with basil and juicy. The pastas were a saffron risotto with a pound of Maine lobster and a home-made egg fettucine with bolognese ragu. Although there wasn't a pound of lobster on the dish, the risotto had perfect consistency and the fettucine was fragrant and bouncy-sweet.

The good, knowledgable service and the trendy surroundings, a mute green wall, tall red bauble christmas trees fashioned from bare branches and screens of mirrors, helped lull us into a complacent appreciation for the convival food and atmosphere. The letdown was dessert, the famed espresso bread and butter pudding turned up like a slice of banana bread and the lemon raspberry tart had stiff lemon mix with a rock-hard crust. The desserts clearly look better than they taste and are probably bought in but other than that, this was a welcoming, hearty meal and the plate prices were actually cheaper than Madlons. In fact, the generous pastas dishes were $18, which led me to wonder how they sustained such a sizeable restaurant on $18, while in Singapore, we have to pay $28 for a similar ambience and finishings and really second-rate pasta, at times!

LA was a windwhirl of the LA farmers market, Rodeo Drive and the Getty Musuem at sunset. The wedding was sited at the iconic and historical Langham Huntington courtyard in Pasedena, where Michelin Star-winning Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio has his kitchen. On the night before the wedding, a group of us adjourned to JAR, a modern chophouse in the heart of Los Angeles, helmed by another chef from Top Chef (see what American network television does to you) Suzanne Tracht.

This restaurant had an entrance blocked off from the deserted, seedy street outside it, by a solid wood oak door. Once inside, it was like falling down the rabbit hole. The restaurant was large and stylish, a cigar bar in front led through to a low-ceilinged plush corporate-style dining room studded with black UFO lights and beautiful upholstered leather chairs. The lighting nonetheless, was so dark that no photos would really have done the food justice.

The menu was promising, it was short, presented on a single page and had small sections of "Braises", "Broilers and Roasts". The side dishes of garlicky parsley fries and creamed spinach sounded well-proportioned and divine and indeed, they were. The fries were in fact, so well coated and fried, that they tasted like they still had their skins on, a bit like curly fries, if you know what I mean. The service was impeccable, the sourdough bread, a crispy hunk sliced neatly and served with excellent butter, even more so.

I considered the rib eye before being convinced into their specialty, the pot roast with caramalized onions and horseradish. Within our party, we had two appetizers, the tempura squash flowers (courgettes) which were stuffed with meat and a little overfried but still delicious and a lobster bisque, laced with the tanginess of tomatoes, spiciness of capsicums and sweet creaminess of sour cream which had us all cleaning the soup plate. We also ordered the sea bass and the braised lamb shank which was gigantic- I've made veal shanks smaller than that!

The pot roast and I think even the lamb shank were quite a revelation. Crispy and striated on the outside, the meat was soft and falling apart on the inside. The juicy fullness of the meat contrasted with the sharp lightness of the horseradish, which had been blended into a cream, almost an etheral ice-cream. Served with some vegetables and the braising liquid, the square of short-rib was so large that I could not finish it but regretfully had to push away the last corners of the meat.

The desserts were the only slightly disappointing part of the meal, we only had space for one dessert between the four of us and the apple bread and butter pudding came out like an exploded cupcake, still with the ridges of the cupcake paper they must have baked it in. By then though, the impression was already set and we barrelled out of there, impressed, full and determined to serve the next roast I make (made from shortribs) with horseradish ice-cream sauce. A meal for two would come up to $94, without wine, which suddenly made Madlons look very poor value!

How do they serve such large portions of braised short-ribs for $29? Dollar for dollar, that is a great-value meal into which had gone a lot of effort, timing and consistency, something you can't really find for that price in upscale Singaporean restaurants. JAR has been the winner of numerous Diner Choice awards and I would definitely make a reservation here if you are headed to LA.

After the wedding, we moved into downtown LA, right next to Little Tokyo. I had made a reservation at Josie's in Santa Monica but the traffic and our full bellies made it difficult to contemplate getting there by their early closing time of 8pm. Instead, we spotted a huge line at the ramen shop opposite the hotel and our Asianess won out. There is nothing like a line and a good ramen deal to get Asians excited.

To their credit, Daikokuya Ramen did have non-Asians in it but on the other hand, it also means Little Black House and had really good Too Fast Too Furious type customer-watching. (Yes, that's me, I look at other tables when I eat, so do we all). It was exactly like stepping into a hole-in-the-wall ramen shop in Tokyo. The heat, oil, pork bones and chives hit you like a wave and there's no point putting any pictures up, just imagine a dive ramen bar of particularly good quality and authenticity and there you'll have it. There was a huge red lanturn hanging in the window and even large steel pots of steaming broth behind the bar, with furious tossing, chopping and frying producing great sets of ramen plus one other dish of your choice, ikura don, fried rice, unagi don and other reasons to be glad you didn't drive needlessly out for hours on a crowded, stuck highway.

In reality, the ikura was not that fresh and the fried rice was not as fragrant as say, Sushi Yoshida's garlic fried rice and I saw the chef pinch something that looked suspiciously like white MSG powder but the sets are so mispriced ($18 for all the dishes as opposed to $12 each for a ramen and rice dish), that this place is packed for hours and has numerous locations that all stay open past midnight. We put our names on the list, walked around the very dodgy Little Tokyo for 45 minutes, bought green tea mochi and royal milk tea and slurped up the rich broth and springy noodles. The pork was very fatty, like streaky bacon, but the overall taste was excellent, it had the broth of Tampopo ramen with the noodles of Marutama.

We then weren't that full on New Year's Day, which was a good thing because we went to the LA Farmers Market for lunch and had crepe and black-bean tortillas. Note to anyone interested, the LA Farmers Market is not a farmers market, it is merely a covered market though yes, it has locally grown produced and slaughtered chickens and things like that. Many cute coffee shops and crudely-made pastries. Anyway, that night, we geared up for a 10.15pm dinner at Osteria Mozza, which is the Mario Batali restaurant where we would spend New Years.

I had heard much about Osteria Mozza and was looking forward to it and their Mozerella cheese bar but I wasn't expecting a super-crowded, low ceilinged, baby-blue walled eatery. Straight off, it seemed off-kilter, the waitstaff kept pushing the drinks, sparking wine to celebrate New Year's, are you having some champagne? They also refused to seat us in a complete table of 8, then came round to tell us twice that they were making an special exception since it was New Years, before stuffing us in a round table for 5 and proceeding to sell away the two rectangular tables of 4 each. Next to us, was, surprise, a table of 9.

Undaunted, we ordered off the antipasti and cheese selection, a Burrata with leeks and a Scamorza panino with Armandino’s mole salame & pickled cherry peppers. At $16-$18 a plate, you would think that these would be large bags of creamy burrata but it was more like a little fondant cake of burrata and a smear of scamorza. We had ordered these with the Grilled Octopus with potatoes, celery & lemon and the Testa with green olives & oregano, thinking we would share but it amounted to a laughably small and unfulfilling portion at $16 apiece.

The waitstaff pushed recommendations, like the Testa, told us that half the pastas were unavailable and that he didn't think we had enough food. We wound up sharing three pastas, the Gnocchi with Duck Ragu, Goat Cheese Ravioli with five lilies, the Linguine with clams, pancetta & spicy Fresno chiles and the Grilled Quail wrapped in pancetta with sage & honey ($34) between four people.

The dishes were not bad and in retrospect, not as expensive as the appetizers but they were not memorable either, the gnocchi was a little too doughy, the linguine was not made in-house and overwhelmingly spicy and the quail, which some websites promised would be life-changing, was rather dry, though it improved in the center with the meat stuffing. For dessert, we had a pretty sad, thin cheese plate and a chocolate cake, or tart really, rich with a small square of honeycomb and nougat. I usually don't look forward to dessert at Italian restaurants, finding them often more rough and limited than French or modern American restaurants but here, where 5 of the 7 desserts were gelato and the other was pine nuts and honey, we really did find ourselves short of choice. This was not our favourite experience or destination but it was fitting for the occasion, the restaurant did provide strings of helium balloons and ribboned bells to ring in the New Year!

Madlons
829 W Big Bear Blvd
Big Bear City, CA 92314
909-585-3762
www.madlonsrestaurant.com

Mi Piace
25 East Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91105
(626) 795-3131
www.mipiace.com

JAR
8225 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 655-6566
Dinner: Monday - Sunday: 5:30pm - 10:00pm
Brunch: Sunday: 10:00am - 2:00pm
www.thejar.com

Daikokuya Ramen
327 E 1st Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-1680
www.daikoku-ten.com

Osteria Mozza
6602 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 297-0100
www.mozza-la.com