Monday, March 26, 2012

IDGI: Rokuan vs. Ojiya: Sushi in the IE

I bounce around California a lot for work, many days I eat a home packed lunch sitting in an empty classroom or in the driver's seat of my car. Some days I actually eat at a table with knife and fork or chopsticks like a civilized human. This month I played two sushi restaurants in the Inland Empire against each other, one my long time favorite Rokuan and the other Yelp favorite Ojiya. I ordered exactly the same at both restaurants. Here's what I ate and what I thought about it.

14230 Chino Hills Pkwy
Chino Hills, CA 91709

I have been praising the wonders of Rokuan's ramen for a couple years now. I have also eaten sushi here a few times, loving their simplicity and freshness, the deftness of the cuts.

Nothing to disappoint from Rokuan. Crunchy cabbage salad with a dark umami-esque sesame dressing. Hotate and hamachi nigiri, the hamachi generously cut, the hotate looked like the entire scallop (rather than sliced in half) and neither  was over-riced. Spicy salmon handroll. I love how he loosely packs and wraps the seaweed, you can see that it doesn't even come to a point at the back, sort of laying slightly open. I like the balance of fish to rice in this handroll, it makes for easy eating and doesn't overwhelm the beautiful crunchy nori. The service can be a tiny bit on the chilly side at the sushi bar, friendlier if you take a table. I chalk it up to sushi genius behind the bar, because I find the simple sushi perfect in every way.

4183 Chino Hills Parkway
Chino Hills, CA 91709

Same exact lunch order a couple weeks later at Ojiya. An iceberg lettuce salad with ginger dressing that I have to say I was not keen on. The lettuce seemed to have been kept a little too close to freezing in the fridge because it had that slightly limp translucent quality, although it didn't seem not fresh. Iceberg browns so quickly when it's not fresh and this was very green. Very disappointed in the scallop sushi. I didn't look at a menu when I ordered, and the chef gave me no indication this would be a creamy bay scallop nigiri. It wasn't bad, but it's not my style. However, the scallop was generous and succulent. Regarding the hamachi. I know absolutely nothing about cutting fish for sushi and assume there are different schools with regard to the slicing. Ojiya slices theirs much thinner and longer than Rokuan, compare the photos. Ojiya also served the hamachi much colder, and I know I am right in thinking serving it slightly warmer delivers the flavor of the fish more effectively to your taste buds. The spicy salmon handroll was fine, although the generous scoop of fish made the nori a little soggy and messy to eat. Still, it was good.

Ojiya is always packed. I admit I don't 100% get the love for Ojiya. It's good, it's not great. I went by a couple times before getting to eat this lunch. The first time I got there 15 minutes after opening and there was a 20 minute wait. This week, my friend K got there before me to put our name in 5 minutes before they opened. I found the service friendly but on the slow side, and for some reason they seemed surprised we were going to sit at the sushi bar to "eat sushi?" I don't know, maybe I missed something in the translation of our request. Like Ojiya, Rokuan also gets busy as the lunch hour extends itself, and the single time I drove out for the amazing ramen on a Sunday night the joint was packed with Asian folk. We waited for a seat. Nevertheless, Ojiya seems to be a Chino Hills favorite, probably because of their more extensive menu and lunch specials. For me, hands down Rokuan is the favorite. When I go for sushi or ramen, I am not looking for 12 different kinds of rolls nor izakaya style side dishes (although I love these, too). However, there seems to be room for both kinds of restaurants in Chino Hills. I just know which one you will find me dining at on random weekday mornings at 11:35.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Three Tastes: Michael Mina Vegas Spring 2012

Michael Mina has always gotten a lot of love chez FST. I like that his restaurants feel luxurious but not in an over-the-top Roman bingeing and purging kind of a much more approachable "this restaurant could be in your hometown kind of way". Solid food and good service, I can honestly say I don't think I've ever had a sub-par experience. Dinner #1, both Friday and Saturday during New Year's Eve 2012 make-up weekend.

Nob Hill Tavern
MGM Grand

New England Crab & Lobster Rolls

Nob Hill has changed a lot since its early days, not for the worse. Dining is a little more casual and the price point is a little lower (although not much). These sweet little slider-esque baby New England style crab and lobster rolls were lots of fun with micro tarragon and just enough creamy mayo to smooth out the shellfish and sweet roll. Down the hatch.

 Duck Fat Fries

Instead of bread at Stripsteak, your server will start you off with a Mina-typical trio of duck fat French fries, cut narrow, fried crunchy and served with three sauces: ketchup, creamy horseradish and truffle aoili.

Hamachi Sashimi

Hamachi sashimi with white soy, little chips of browned garlic, and citrus greens. Every bite was perfection, and there were a lot of bites. This was generously plated.

Food images courtesy of iPhone and Instagram, Jackson photo courtesy of Masterpiece Me! As the iPhone cameras get better and better, my Nikon stays at home more and more often.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dinner #1 at Playa, Playah

7360 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036

vodka martini (gasp)

We had an impromptu meal at Playa Saturday (dinner #1) and they really delivered. Playa is clearly the more casual but no less elegant sibling to Rivera. The decor has a similar sleekness but is less dark & moody. The interactiveness of the bar seating is enjoyable, great view of the kitchen and entertaining to watch the mixologists go to town. I have a couple negative things to say about the service at the bar, but instead I'll state what was positive: by the end of the meal we were loving our server and the 180° in attitude he showed us...recommending a dish to round out our meal and the perfect nightcap. 

bespoke cocktail: in the 'tenders hands

maize cake breakfast: 63˚ egg, truffle cheese espuma, exotic mushrooms, spinach

This was my favorite, I love a runny egg and I love truffle anything. But a light whipped truffle cheese with runny egg yolk? Mmm'hmm.

octo-palm: grilled octopus, palm hearts, scallions

This light protein salad was great, it has a slightly tart flavor to the dressing. Tiny grilled tomatoes round out the acidity. The octopus is cooked perfectly, no overly chewy bits or otherwise. You know how octopus can be sometimes.

maize cake gambas; grilled shrimps, spinach, nitro mustard ice cream

This one is really fun. I love the flavors of shrimp and spinach with the crumbly nitro ice cream. The ice cream actually tastes like the sharp honey mustard you might find in a deli.

tamale chipotle: wild mushroom duxelle dumpling, filet mignon, chipotle Bearnaise

This dish is stunning. It was rec'd to us by our bartender/server, so I hadn't read the menu descriptor before we ate it. I couldn't figure out what was making the tamale dark, and was betting on black beans. It didn't taste of black beans, though, and the texture wasn't quite right, it was lighter than black been and masa would be mixed together. Mystery unraveled. Wild mushroom duxelle, one of the most heavenly concoctions created by humans. Mushrooms chopped finely and cooked til all the moisture has been cooked down and evaporated. Duxelle is usually used as the layer outside the pate but inside the pastry in a Beef Wellington. The beef was beautiful and cooked perfectly medium-rare, even D liked it, he who typically likes his beef cooked within a minute of jerky. But the star here for me is the chipotle Bearnaise sauce. Amaze.

The entire meal thrilled me, I might prefer the casual setting and service of Playa to Rivera, which to me is sometimes pretty fancy, yo, for a weeknight-no-occasion meal. Choices, it's nice to have Sedlar choices.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ben Bailly at Cliff's Edge

Cliff's Edge
3626 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026

I have been darkening the doorstep of Cliff's Edge since it opened in 2004; birthday parties, Sunset Junction blow outs, cocktails with friends at the bar, I have always enjoyed the space. It's exciting to me that a local restaurant scored James Beard nominated Chef Benjamin Bailly to take over the kitchen and elevate the menu to heights worthy of this inviting inside/outside space. Last week public relations rep Bradley invited two other bloggers and me in for a peek and a nosh. I was duly impressed. I liked what I ate yet also feel like this is still a space I can frequent regularly based on the variety and quality of food and the price point. I like the fact that there are lots of small plate options but it's not a small plates restaurant, per se. The menu is varied, which opens it up as a venue for different occasions.

We started with cocktails, of course. I sipped a cucumber margarita, lovely blend of flavors. D would love the punch of cucumber with the zing of tequila.

Food wise, I was intrigued by the whipped ricotta with lavender blossoms and honey.

Not wrongly, this was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The balance of sweet honey against the herbal lavender was lovely with the whipped ricotta, spread across thin crisp breads. This would make an excellent cheese or dessert course.

I almost always cave on whatever Brussels sprouts dish is on a menu and am a little picky, so many tend to be over salted or over vinegared. This was neither...although there was a creaminess to it that was unexpected and not unpleasant.

I requested the chick pea fritters, stacked like Lincoln logs with a rosemary/lemon aoili.

I resent it when French fries are served this style, but since chick peas can't naturally be formed into perfect "fries", I am more open to playing with their texture. These are delightful. Crispy and hot on the outside, fluffy and light on the inside.

I probably wouldn't have chosen the burrata anchovy bruschetta myself, given the roasted red bell peppers on the bottom. I find bell peppers to be so overwhelming in many dishes. It didn't seem so in this nibble, given the briny strength of the anchovy.

The seared scallops are definitely a D dish.

Two large sea scallops seared perfectly over cauliflower just barely caramelized around the edges, vadouvan, a pureed salsa verde and cooling yogurt sauce. This is entree worthy, but also very shareable. 

Lamb cheeks were another one of my requests.

With celery root puree and rapini, the braise on the cheeks coupled with the rapini reminds me a little of Suzanne Goins' famous short ribs with horseradish cream and broccoli rabe. Comfort food at its best, this is a destination worthy dish.

The only item I was lukewarm on was the sea bream en papillote. I love the healthy preparation (and chances are I will order this again if we swing by when I am "eating healthy"), but I found it a little lacking in flavor.

The desserts? This non-dessert girl stuffed her face.

Lemon creme brulee tart with raspberry coulis. Constructed perfectly with a nice crust. Nothing to complain about here, lemon curd rules.

Pistachio creme brulee. This was very light in texture, the brulee very caramelized almost to burnt but I loved it.

And this kind of unassuming little ramekin of stuff? OMG it's a chocolate budino with gianduja. Chocolate/hazelnut heaven.

Part of what thrills me here is the variety on the menu and the quality of ingredients. I am pleased that Bailly hasn't strayed far from the Mediterranean/Italian roots of Cliff's Edge's earlier menu. It's also just fun to have followed Bailly through the progression from the delicate and precious eats at Petrossian, to the casual French fare at Fraiche, now cooking Mediterranean in my own front yard. In this era of taxis and buses, I am pleased Bailly is so close by for spring and summer al fresco dining at Cliff's Edge. I have my eye on the crispy polenta with a sunny egg, sometime soon.

Disclosure: Meal was hosted with generosity by Cliff's Edge. Images courtesy of iPhone 4S and Instagram. (They kind of suck this time, but that's half the fun...I never know for certain what I am going to get.)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Japanese Spaghetti House: Orris Goes Italian

Spaghetti House by Orris
2006 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

I'm seeing a trend here, or maybe it was already a trend and I just missed it until now (which would usually be the case). First there was Spoon House in Gardena with their One Dollar Salad and 36 item list of Japanese influenced pastas. 

Then there was Fat Spoon in Little Tokyo. They serve giant fresh and deliciously dressed salads with seaweed and lots of veggies, Curry Cheese Fries and Tarako Pasta among many other things. Now there is Spaghetti House by Orris in the old Orris space. Orris was Japanese/French, cheffed by Shiro who also does the shopping and menu planning for Shiro in Pasadena. Our waiter informed us that the original Orris concept had slowly been losing customers throughout the recession and Shiro felt it was time for a change. Turning the high concept Orris into an uber casual noodle shop (the Italian kind) is a major change, and it was packed. Customers were waiting for tables when we left at around 8. Drawn in by the change or the $9-$12 giant plates of pasta? Hard to say. I hope Spaghetti House stays this busy. Stuff we ate:

In addition to the regular menu, there was a fairly long blackboard list. Despite the fact that we were dining early at 6:30, the albacore lettuce cups were sold out mere moments before we ordered them. Audible quadruple sigh from our table. The above was from the blackboard, a beet and cheese salad with a little olive oil, dill and balsamic. It didn't blow me away but it was tasty.

Also on the board, salmon croquettes with smoked salmon and salmon roe. I really enjoyed the balance of smokey and briney flavors in these croquettes. There is Y in the back shooting pics with her phone. D held his phone with a lighting app over the food so we both could get well lit pics. They are fun to dine with because verbally deconstructing food does not annoy D & Y, they do it themselves. They went to the recent Food & Wine Festival in the Cayman Islands, returning with many mouth watering stories to tell about relaxed and happy chefs cooking and socializing with the guests.

A crostini was also offered on the blackboard...cheese on bread with tomatoes. I didn't think this was successful, the bread wasn't toasty nor was the cheese melty.

The pastas were lovely, however. Lightly sauced and dressed and the pasta itself springy. Above, mushrooms and takana mustard greens.

Y ordered the skirt steak with a little pesto and arugula salad cooked medium-well (certain temporary health concerns might lead one to order differently from their norm).

D naturally caved on the Italian sausage and tomato sauce. It had giant chunks of asparagus and lots of green onion. He said it tasted like a Japanese approach to spaghetti, in it's lightness and ingredients, if that made sense. I am not sure it did, without further explanation. Cleaned his plate.

Since my visit to Fat Spoon a few months ago, I have been craving uni pasta. I ordered it from the backboard before it was sold out. Plenty of chunks of fresh uni with a rich uni sauce, that umami of the sea flavor one gets from beautiful sea urchin.

The four of us shared two desserts, a chocolate cake with mocha ice cream and chocolate whip, and an apple tart with caramel. Both solid.

I didn't find the apple tart with caramel overly sweet as I sometimes find desserts.  There was a perfect balance between the lightly salted and sugared pastry crust, simple fruitiness of the apple filling and the sweet caramel with a little vanilla ice cream.

I'm chuffed to be hip to a new/old trend. I have no idea how common Japanese spaghetti houses are, maybe they've been flying under my radar for years. The history of my taste buds tells me Chef Shiro's food is high quality ingredients with classic preps and interesting ethnic combinations. Spaghetti House is low brow compared to original Orris and Pasadena's Shiro, but the price point and the packed room are a sign of the times. Diners are seeking good value for their money, willing to sacrifice pomp and circumstance, and I personally am happy to see great chefs answer this call.