Friday, November 30, 2007

Walking Echo Park

When my mother Mary was in town this month, we filled up the hours between drinking wine, eating food and sleeping with a walking tour of Echo Park. In true Los Angeleno style, the walking tour started at a location you had to drive to, and were strongly advised to drive between the 4-5 different sub-neighborhoods as opposed to walking between them. I laughed. Then I got in my car.

This particular walking tour was a tour looking at houses built on the intricate stairway system in Echo Park that gave early Angelenos access back and forth from houses on the hill to the streetcars running down below. Houses were built on these hills prior to the time when automobiles became the prevalent form of transportation in Los Angeles. The irony of the "walking tour" does not escape me.

The steps were built originally in wood, and slowly since late in the 19th century the wood has been replaced by concrete. Most stairs were built in partnership between the city and private interests including the street car providers. The thing that endlessly fascinates is the constant nagging thought of not just traveling up and down these steps every time one wants to come and go from their house, but also the fact that the materials and machines that built the structures had to be carted up and down the stairs as well. Even house #1 on the tour. It was just built in 2005, and despite all the mod cons we enjoy, all the materials had to be carted by hand up the hillside. There is just no other way to do it. There is literally no access to these homes by car. Some of the hills have small parking areas down at the bottom of the stairs. People who live here must do their shopping in small bits daily as opposed to the suburbanite custom of one massive haul per week. This is the view from the porch that hangs off the back of that brand new house.

We walked four main sets of stairs, the tallest being the Baxter stairs with close to 250 steps. Off most of the stairways were two or more houses open to the walking tour to come in, view the architecture and marvel at someone's housekeeping and decorating skills. I was told off early on during the tour for taking pics, so I don't have many of the interiors. And due to the small size of the real estate lots it was hard in some cases to get a great pic of outdoor spaces. House #2 (taken before the tell off) did afford me some good photo opportunities. I love their decorating style. 1960's yuppy bohemian meets African safari. Beautiful!

Another stairway....i love bougainvillea anywhere, but especially in surprising little places where it pops out its beautiful head and says hello.

One of the things all the houses we saw had in common was their remarkable use of outdoor space. Every single house had used the outdoors to create an extra living room for the inhabitants. This example is especially lovely because the corner of the concrete banquette looks out over an amazing view off the hillside. I can envision people enjoying that view throughout all two seasons one experiences during the trajectory of a year in Los Angeles.

Our last stop of the afternoon was a visit to the bar at Edendale, one of our favorite watering holes. Mixville Bar in Edendale Restaurant is housed in a historic firehouse sandwiched in between Echo Park and Silverlake. It was built in 1924, and it still retains beautiful pressed tin ceilings, hardwood floors and glass and wood truck bay doors at the front and back. Edendale, named after the original name of the neighborhood it stands in, was home to the first movie studio in Los Angeles, built in 1909. The bar at Edendale is named after cinematic cowboy Tom Mix's studio western "town" that stood just a few blocks away in the 1920's. Tom Mix was a big enough star at the time to warrant his own studio lot. That lot was called Mixville, and so is the bar at Edendale.

I love my neighborhood, and I love even more that it is steeped in the history and origins of the modern cultural production of this country. What a great experience to see and learn so much about the hills that surround us in Echo Park.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pot Luck and a Winning Team

~That that pure sanguine complexion of yours may never be famisht with pot lucke.
Thomas Nashe, 1592

The term pot luck has many different interpretations, including the native American potlatch, the old English portmanteau, and the common United States suburban potluck dinner in which all invited guests bring a covered dish to share with the gathering. Common wisdom guides me to believe that the origin of the term comes from the idea of making food to feed your guests from whatever happens to be laying around. And this is what happened last Tuesday evening when John joined us to watch the our Lakers beat Indiana.

Having just returned from one of many weekends out of town, and looking at a fridge full of little else excepting some cornmeal, slightly puckered cherry tomatoes, turkey bacon and a freezer full of random nonsense including some Trader Joe's sea scallops, I put two and two together and made grub.

I wanted to piggyback on my mom's delicious polenta from two weeks ago and make something a little lighter in calories and fat and marry this with the sea scallops. In the cupboard I found some roasted beets and lentils, both in shrink wrap packaging, and some pine nuts.

First, I cut the bacon into small pieces and threw it in the pan. Here my sous-chef assists me in assessing the freshness of the bacon.

Next, I started the chicken-broth-from-a-box boiling for the polenta, next to the bacon simmering with a little olive oil and red pepper flakes. I added some olive oil to the turkey bacon because it produces so little fat in the pan, and I want to make good use of the leftover bacon essence for the scallops...bacon = meat candy.

After whisking the polenta into the broth, I added most of the bacon and some fresh-ish thyme. Did you know it takes 5 cups of liquid to cook one cup of polenta? I like a nice creamy polenta, but not soupy. So I reduced this polenta within an inch of its life and serve it steaming hot.

When the polenta was nearly done I sliced the slightly insipid tomatoes in half, tossed them with some olive oil and the pine nuts and threw the mess under the broiler for roasting.

After the roasting, I lay the tomatoes and nuts on a bed of lentils tossed lightly with a vinaigrette, and drizzled a little white truffle oil over the top.

Next I thoroughly rinsed the sea scallops which were surprisingly beautiful...I will surely use these again. A handy thing to have in the freezer, no doubt. I tossed them in the bacon-ed pan and seared them well done, just like D likes them. The bacon essence, olive oil and red pepper flakes in the pan cooked to an almost caramelized consistency, leaving the scallops with a lovely brown and slightly crispy finish.

All in all, the meal was really tasty. I would have ideally liked a better mix of textures, both dishes had kind of a mushy, comfort food texture. The only really crunchy participants were the bacon bits and the roasted pine nuts. But it all tasted good and I completely avoided a trip to the grocery store or a phone call out for pizza!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Perfecting the Arts of Chicken & Food Photography

One of my favorite bloggers has a small site dedicated to furthering one's skill at food photography. I have been reading her suggestions and taking them to heart. It is challenging, however, when one gets a new camera, to figure out where everything is located, how everything works and what are the great and unique special features. I thought to stave this off by buying another Canon, but this one really is almost nothing like my last one. And for some reason I refuse to both read the instruction manual or bring it along with me on my travels. I liken this to a man's refusal to ask for directions when hopelessly lost and driving around Beverlywood in circles. We will find our way eventually, and no one is in a hurry. Customizing the white balance for a particular location will make these shots look better? I will figure out where the controls for the white balance are eventually, and who cares if the lighting in some of my shots is orange. I am not in a hurry, and this is all for the sheer joy of it. If this was my full time job, I would call it a job not a blog. So, I am plodding along, with the furthering of my digital photography expertise advancing slowly. Very slowly.

My mother Mary is visiting, and she is an amazing cook. I know everyone says their mother is a great cook, and everyone means it. But my mother really is a great cook. It's her art form. She has even constructed a cookbook of her most infamous and well loved recipes from years gone by. Oxtails, French onion soup, carrot cake (the brown kind, not the orange kind) with cream cheese frosting, sun dried tomato & goat cheese kreatopetes, Chez Panisse's brined Thanksgiving turkey, three different kinds of watercress salad, pork in lime cream sauce, pasta primavera, peach melba, Yorkshire pudding and eggs mornay. Etc. Everything is made from scratch and her attention to the details of a recipe would impress chemists the world over. Luckily for me, part of her mission in life is to cook for others wherever and whenever she is, and this weekend she was at my house.

On the menu this weekend was chicken stuffed with Lucy & Ethel's homemade pesto, creamy polenta and roasted mushrooms stuffed with feta and bacon.

Her capable hands stuff one massive portion of the homemade pesto (made at Sue's using home grown basil, hand grated parmesan, 2 quarts of olive oil and then packaged into pint size zip locks bags and distributed among several lucky offspring) into and under the skin of one 4.5 lb organic free range chicken.

The smell....the smelll...the sssssmmmmmmmeeeeeeelllllllll.......

Creamy polenta (cornmeal) on the stove. On our way home from shopping and drinking on the westside we stopped into a Von's for a few items and they did not have polenta. Wth? It's the WESTSIDE. Isn't every grocery store on the westside a gourmet mecca? I have some seriously misinformed misconceptions about life on the westside. There was no polenta, and it was too close to nap time to visit one of my favorite grocery stores on the eastside, so we settled for cornmeal. Add fontina and asiago to anything and it is worthy of consumption, in my opinion.

I tossed together some leafy greens and watercress (natch) with dried cranberries, pine nuts and bleu cheese crumbles, with some balsamic vinaigrette (NOT vingarette, just saying).

And, we supped.

This is what we drank, a Carver Sutro 2004 Petit Syrah, courtesy of was delicious!

But wait!!!! What about the mushrooms? After extended naps and wine tasting at Rosso, we felt it was too late for appetizers AND mains, so we (she) made the mushrooms for breakfast Sunday morning.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Year of Losing Dangerously

Dear 2007,

I have enjoyed you immensely, your ups and downs, wins and losses, the bittersweet and the downright sour and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, I have dubbed thee "The Year of Losing Dangerously".

As an adult, I am not one to lose things. Quite the opposite. Things are drawn to me like metal shavings to a magnet. However, during the last 10 months I have lost important belongings at an alarming rate.

June: at a company retreat I lost track of my massive blanket sized pink pashmina wrap my mother gave me for Christmas years ago that is/was my travel staple. I have not been able to find anything close to that big since. It has been to Europe multiple times, Mexico, Vegas, New York city and all over California in all seasons.

July: brand new sunglasses (a gift from D)-shoe department Macy's South Coast Plaza.

September: favorite brown purse containing wallet, makeup and Canon a640 camera-back of run-away taxi, Los Feliz Blvd in the unanticipated pouring rain.

October: one diamond and platinum hoop-Los Angeles, CA somewhere between Echo Park and Monrovia.

I was writing this in the hopes that, as some people say, bad things happen in threes. (Counting the Chloe bag as one "incident" rather than several items out of sheer optimism.) However with the addition of the remembered forgotten pink pashmina I know this spate of losing things is simply part of the character of the year. I need to further add to the list the following:

November: concussion teddy-bear left wrapped in the blankets and sheets of a hotel room in Sacramento, and my favorite black cardigan left wrapped in the sheets and blankets of same chain hotel room one week later in San Diego. Le sigh.

So, dear 2007, I knock on wood in anticipation of the possibility that this spate of losing important and valuable things is now over. And I prepare to kiss you good-bye as you head out the door at the end of next month.


Saturday, November 3, 2007

Third Time's the Charm at Ortolan

One lovely Friday evening, when the air was just starting to turn crisp, we left the house directionless and hungry. We ended up at Ortolan on Third. We had been there previously twice, both times enamored of the decor but less so with the food. The decor really draws me, it is like dining in Marie Antoinette's private apartments. And the food, appropriately, is French. This is a modern style French that really appeals to my California sensibility. Chef Christopher Eme has cooked in Los Angeles at L'Orangerie and alongside Joel Rubichon with Philippe Braun and at famous French restaurants Taillevent and Auberge de l’Eridan. We dined at Ortolan when it first opened out of curiosity about the remodel of the Lynq space, then again about a year later for our wedding anniversary and haven't been since. It is definitely a special occasion atmosphere, which worries me for the longevity of the restaurant. Wildly successful restaurants in Los Angeles tend to be more casual and easily adaptable for any occasion, like a Lucques or a Jar where you are as easily comfortable in jeans as a suit. And I feel even more concerned at this writing because our food Friday was phenomenal. The third time was the charm, everything was beyond delicious, flavorful and presented with whimsy. What a joy.

The service was also stellar. Every person who approached our table seemed genuinely interested in our comfort and pleasure and they all seemed like they were enjoying being there, something I love to see in a wait staff. The sommelier even chose a wine by the glass appropriate for our orders, and did so in a professional manner 100% unconcerned that we were not going to order an entire bottle. I have no clue what he chose for either of us, save that each was French and utterly sublime. White for me, red for him. I should call him and see if he remembers because I would love to try and dig up a couple of bottles. Chef Eme came out toward the end of the meal and we had a lovely conversation about upcoming events, the obligatory beaujolais nouveau coming November 15th, and the unfortunately missed white truffle menu of mid-October. Le sigh.

We ate in the bar area/lounge which feels a little more casual. I love this bar area. Above the room is a massive skylight, which makes for no particular impression in the evening, but during the daytime provides them with enough sunlight to host a gorgeous tiered herb garden hanging from the west wall. It looks so beautifully striking in the candle light and runs the entire length of the room.

To start, the chef sent out a lovely autumnal amuse-bouche. There were two soups to share in these funky little test tubes he loves to use. One was a pumpkin and the other was a roasted red bell pepper, both soups were so intense and infused with evggie richness. Both were also topped with a trace of the omnipresent foam that all contemporary French restaurants use prodigiously. A lovely mix of textures.

Also served was a little dish of eggplant caviar surrounded by pesto. Eggplant caviar is one of my favorite things, although I rarely see it on a menu these days and have only made it myself a few times. The pesto gave it a nice kick.

To start, we ordered one course of Heirloom Tomato Five Ways. What amazing tomatoey goodness. Let me count the ways: a small mound of tomato ratatouille, two small lumps of tomato puree encased in a light aspic, one part of the plate looked like a small cigar with something vaguely pink but delicious in the middle, another was akin to a tomato mousse thinly wrapped in cooked kale, and the fifth seemed to be a tomato puree that we swirled around the plate and used for dipping. It was truly lovely.

The second starter was a ceviche of bay scallops with osetra caviar. These were wrapped in thin little sheets of browned sugar so they would keep the shape of a neat little circle. I loved that Chef Eme is so dedicated to presentation. I am always happy with anything that tastes good and I am not a stickler for presentation. But how fun to eat the food of someone who is. It is an art form to be reckoned with. I love watching the French food competitions like the Bocuse d'Or, where the presentation is clearly more than half the battle.

For main courses we tried poached turbot with lemongrass and ginger with pumpkin gnocci, and there were also lovely chunks of okra, red grapes and red bell pepper on the plate.

The second main course was a cod wrapped thinly in cooked kale. This seems to be a theme. I like it because it gives shape and color to the food using something slightly uncommon on most restaurant menus. In my memory, I have only seen this done in one other restaurant, Monet in Ashland, Oregon. This dish was strongly suggested by the server (Chef Pierre Verger's wife) and it was basically a melange of veggies overcooked into a slightly mushy but dry texture and then wrapped in kale. I was not overly pleased with that dish, but I loved my cod at Ortolan. The cod was accompanied by clams in their shell, julienned potatoes, and a lovely light sauce lightly flavored with truffle. Honestly, you could put truffle on the most horrifically prepared and conceived crap on Earth and I would gobble it down. I love the truffle. This dish would have been delicious even without.

We declined dessert and dove into the little plate of petite fours they sent around with the bill. These are always cute and fun. Two of them looked like little sugar hamburgers, two of them were simply homemade marshmallows, one was a little chocolate football and the sixth was mysterious. I always love these little plates because I am not a huge dessert fan and these fill the need for just a taste of sweet.


Thursday, November 1, 2007

My Recent Photos Suck Because.........

I left my camera in my purse in the back of a taxi one rainy night in Atwater Village. And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell ya. I should be getting a brand new Canon G9 any day now, and my mouth is watering not at the thought of another meal, but at the thought of pics even better than my Canon a640 Powershot.

Halloween @ Blue Velvet

There is nothing not cool about Blue Velvet Restaurant in Los Angeles. Everyone on staff is not only friendly and accomodating, they also offer, in my opinion, above par service. The atmosphere is fun and young yet sophisticated. The location is great, close to Silver Lake, Echo Park, downtown and just a short drive on the 101 from Hollywood. They even have a co-ed bathroom.

The chef, Kris Morningstar, studied at the Cal School of Culinary Arts and has cooked at Los Angeles restaurants A.O.C., Grace, Patina and Meson G. I have enjoyed eating at all of these restaurants (Patina the least, surprisingly) multiple times so it is not surprising that I enjoy the food at Blue Velvet.

We went in on Halloween evening for their special Harvest prix-fixe supper, entertainment and DJ'ing to start on the patio at 9. We didn't love the look of the prix-fixe menu, so we stuck with the regular menu happily, and we drank a bottle of David Bruce 2005 Pinot Noir from the Russian River. I would definitely order this up again. After a 15 minutes breathing session it opened into a surpringly full bodied pinot with a nice depth of flavor. It was pretty great.

The kitchen always sends out an amuse-bouche, which I always find an unnecessary bit of fun and joy. Tonight's amuse-bouche was a chilled cream of parsnip soup. I think it would have been better off not chilled. Because it was 101 degrees in Los Angeles county last week, a chilled soup still seems appropriate, but I think the flavor of the parsnip would have been richer if the soup had been warm. Whatever. This was the least lovely thing I put in my mouth last night, so I think we did pretty good.

To start, I was served the fig salad with burrata & raddiccio in a lovely sweet and savory vinaigrette. Surprisingly, the portion size of the salad was quite large. Blue Velvet is notorious for small portions. This was pretty delicious. I loved the texture of the burrata with the figs, and the dressing ensured that the dish was not lacking in intense flavor due to the subtle nature of the figs and cheese.

My personal song writer ordered linguine with clams to start, and I cannot remember having has a better bite of was al dente, house made (I think) and the clams were fresh, in the shell. It was a lovely little dish, and perfect for a starter. I think it would have been too rich for a main course.

As an entree, (Why do they call it an entree? It is not the start of the meal. Whatever.) I had the wild boar. I love wild boar because it is both gamier and more lean than regular pig. I love it. Love love love it. This time it came served rare over a small bed of what I think was creamed spinach, with a couple of nice swooches of pureed sweet potato on the sides of the plate. Nom nom nom!!!

The composer ordered the dayboat scallops, as usual. These were, well I have no idea what these were served with. I looked at them and they were purdy. But really, I have no clue.

We skipped out on dessert, being full as ticks. We had come as much for the food as for the promised entertainment, but said entertainment never materialized. We had been promised a fire eater, a glass walker, and other circus acts on the gorgeous patio between the fire and the pool. The outdoor space of the restaurant is a HUGE selling point, it is nothing short of remarkable. There is a large pool, an outdoor firepit with banquette, and a beautiful view of downtown Los Angeles and requisite palm trees.

We didn't leave until close to ten, and there was nothing more amusing outside than merry makers in various forms of Halloween costume. Sigh. It's just as well. I fell asleep in the car, as usual.