Sunday, October 19, 2014

Quick Bite: Plan Check Downtown Revs Up on Wilshire

Clockwise: Plan Check's crab dip, Chef's favorite burger, fried chicken, cinnamon banana donut
What: Plan Check's new Wilshire Blvd. location in a recently-opened apartment building just west of the 110 is the third location in the budding mini-empire with Ernesto Uchimura as executive chef. Who would have thought that what's basically another gastropub, of which we already have so many, would do so well? But Uchimura picks busy locations, puts fun Asian twists on the dishes and cocktails and stocks the bars with a good selection of craft beers and Japanese whiskeys. Voila, a recipe for success in the elevated bar food game.
Where: 1111 Wilshire Blvd. -- not quite actually Downtown, but a short hop away
The space: Bigger than the Sawtelle location but smaller than the cavernous Fairfax one, this Plan Check has a long bar, some inside tables and a unique indoor-outdoor table with windows that close it off right down the middle once nights get chillier.
The food:  Uchimura was part of the team that invented the Umami burger, so some of the decadent burgers come with cheese crisps in the Umami way. I like the original Plan Check burger, but the Downtown location adds the Korean bbq burger with pork belly blended into the beef. Fried chicken, available in a sandwich or a main dish, is boneless and finger-friendly with an exceedingly crunchy coating and very moist chicken. If your arteries can take it, don't miss the baked crab dip, which marries mayonnaise-intensive Japanese dynamite sauce with large chunks of crab, topped with nori and spooned on toast.
The menu may be adorned with trendy touches like Uchimura's signature ketchup leather, pig candy and pimento cheese, but make no mistake, this is salty, rich drinking food that shares the DNA of places like Beer Belly and A-Frame. While everything I've had is well-calibrated, it's easy to overdo it on the overall richness of the menu. Fortunately, a salmon kale salad and tuna salad have been added at the new location. But a few more vegetables or lighter dishes might be nice.
The drinks: My favorite is the Little Osaka sour with bourbon, lemon and plum wine, but the Ginger Grant, with Pisco, sake, Aperol, blood orange and ginger is also refreshing and won't knock you out.

(this is written on the basis of a soft opening/press preview)

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Haché Burger: A Much-Needed Burger Specialist for Silver Lake

The Roaring Forties at Haché Burger

Here's a quick first look at a new neighborhood spot, Haché Burger, in the former Tarascos location on Sunset Blvd. It sounds French but the fries, at least, lean Dutch at this very casual spot which for now serves burgers, fries, beer and that's about it. But the prices are reasonable for the area and it's a solid burger that with very small tweaks could be a great one.
The food: Four burgers are on the menu all around $6. They're crafted from Angus sirloin that's always ground within the past four hours. The Karma has American cheese and Karma sauce; the Habanero has chiles and queso fresco; Swiss Onion and the Roaring Forties with mushrooms, horseradish and blue cheese. It's a loosely-formed patty that the owner (who also has Mick's Karma Bar in Irvine) calls ground steak instead of hamburger (haché means ground in French). Triple-fried French fries come with a variety of sauces including satay and garlic.
The drinks: Draft craft beers are just $5; there's also two wines, soft drinks, strawberry basil lemonade.

The space: A large outdoor patio is surrounded by plants to soften the Sunset streetscape. It's great for kids, as long as they like burgers.The soundtrack, unfortunately, is made up of loud generic oldies that fight the neighborhood's indie style.
The verdict: It's a juicy, flavorful burger with a good-quality brioche bun and the right amount of toppings. If Haché seasoned the patty with salt and pepper before cooking, it might be even better. Fries were solid but a coleslaw or pickles option would be nice too. We'll definitely return -- after all, we need to find out the difference between Karma sauce and Monkey sauce -- but we'll ask for our burgers to be seasoned first. This area could always use well-priced options since many of the other new places aren't very affordable for the young Sunset Junction crowd.
Haché LA
3319 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

All-Star Chefs Cook Up a Feast at L.A. Loves Alex's Lemonade

Jimmy Kimmel with Phoenix's Chris Bianco
L.A. Loves Alex's Lemonade is not only one of the city's best food festivals, it's a good place to spot a few stars (last year Lena Dunham was there; this year, Connie Britton and Laura Dern will likely attend). And best of all it raises considerable funds for Alex's Lemonade Stand, an organization that helps childhood cancer victims.
This year's event is moving to a bigger space at UCLA's Royce Quad where the Los Angeles festival of books used to be held, and as usual it will feature a very impressive group of chefs, bartenders and winemakers, some of whom come from  as far away as New Orleans, Miami, Seattle and Cleveland. Tickets are available here.
Here's a few of the L.A. chefs you can expect:

Roy Choi – Kogi BBQ
Michael Cimarusti – Connie & Ted’s, Providence
Benjamin Ford – Ford's Filling Station
Jeremy Fox – Rustic Canyon
Neal Fraser & Greg Hozinsky – The Strand House, Redbird
Suzanne Goin – a.o.c., Lucques, Tavern
Bruce Kalman – Union
Ludo Lefebvre – Trois Mec, Petit Trois
David LeFevre – Manhattan Beach Post, Fishing with Dynamite
David Lentz – The Hungry Cat
Matt Molina – Mozza
Mary Sue Milliken – Border Grill
Zoe Nathan – Huckleberry, Milo & Olive
Zach Pollack – Alimento, Sotto
Steve Samson – Sotto
Michael Voltaggio – Ink
Jonathan Whitener - Animal
Kris Yenbamroong – NIGHT + MARKET

Monday, September 15, 2014

Quick Bite: Wood Firms Up Silver Lake Pizza Competition

What: Wood Handcrafted Pizza
Where: 2861 W. Sunset Blvd. at Parkman -- you can't miss it if you look for the giant Tom's Burgers sign
The Goods: Wood was launched a few months ago by Erik Martirosyan, whose family started Big Mama and Papa's Pizza in Hollywood and famously delivered to the Dolby theater while the Oscars were in progress. Wood is a higher-end artisan pizza place with a larger menu of appetizers and salads, and beer and wine coming in a few weeks.
wood-burning oven behind the prep counter

The Neapolitan-style pizzas range from basic margarita ($12) to arugula and prosciutto ($17) to the Ellen special with vegan cheese, avocados, balsamic glaze, etc. ($21). At a recent tasting, I found the tender, stretchy crust quite appealing, dotted with crispy spots from the wood-burning oven. The lamb sausage-topped pizza is a savory nod to the owner's Middle Eastern heritage. I didn't try too many appetizers but I liked the grilled broccolini. Overall this is a very competent Neapolitan-style pie.
Lamb sausage pizza
 The Look: Very spare. Though no traces of the burger joint remain, the room could use some art or homey touches.
What to Order: lamb sausage pizza, mushroom pizza, prosciutto pizza, broccolini. Here's a link to the menu.
Would I Return: Perhaps. There's no delivery, plus we're still pretty jazzed about De Sano. But that crust was pretty compelling. There is a small parking lot in the rear.

(I was invited to try this restaurant.)

Sunday, September 07, 2014

El Condor: The Mexican Restaurant -- And Margarita -- We've Been Waiting For

El Condor is brightened up now, with some cool lighting fixtures

Change is hard for some people. Particularly for the faithful customers of gaudy, goofy, El Conquistador, who apparently loved their neon-green margaritas, paper decoration-festooned ceilings and ho-hum Mexican fare. Those former customers might not warm to El Condor, the completely new restaurant in the same Sunset Junction spot.
But they would be very shortsighted. El Condor comes from the owners of Bar Covell and L&E Oyster Bar, who have done much to bring better food and drink to Silver Lake and Los Feliz.
Pambazo sandwich with chorizo
El Condor is just what a neighborhood Mexican restaurant should be: a place to get a killer margarita, some delicious chips and maybe something more, with a cool ambiance. The restaurant attracts a crowd as stylish as at the owners’ other spots, and it’s not unusual to see a well-known actor or two. But it’s still easy to drop in for a lazy Sunday happy hour drink (4 p.m.-6 p.m. nightly) or family dinner after the Tuesday farmer’s market.
The whole restaurant has been opened up, stripped down and cleaned up, and the decor is now a groovy — but not kitschy — mix of colorful Mexican tiles, carved-wood window frames and a distinctive brass and frosted glass chandelier.
Carnitas taco plate
The Mexican dishes have a California sensibility, and while they're a far cry from gloppy old-school beans and rice plates, the menu is fairly small and not terribly adventurous. Tortas, quesadillas, tacos and enchiladas are the centerpieces, but there’s also a few main dishes, like a carne asada or chicken plate ($18) and a pricier fish plate. Salads include a fine chopped combo of grilled corn, peppers, avocado, beans and queso fresco, and kale with pepitas ($12), because Silver Lake.

Start with a bowl of crispy, just-fried chips and salsa. If you’ve already ordered the tart and potent house margarita, you may have a hard time ever leaving. Or try La Llorona, a super-refreshing and unexpected combination of mezcal, hibiscus, ginger beer and pineapple, or the spicy Amor y Chile cocktail that packs a dual mescal and tequila punch. Guacamole is also first-rate and if you add a gooey pot of Queso Flameado (baked Oaxacan cheese) with savory mushrooms or chorizo on top, you might be tempted to stop right there. The torta sandwiches ($13 to $14) are messy but fun, especially the Milanesa — just the thing to pair with a Michelada. Soft tacos ($12 to $13) are served three to a plate on homemade, organic tortillas with quality meats with tangy pickled vegetables. Flavors can be a bit restrained, but adding some of the housemade salsa should fix that.
Prices may seem a bit high but are on par with other neighborhood Mexican restaurants that have full bars. The difference here is that not only is the food fresher and prepared with more care, the terrific cocktails blow away most of the others. Sure, it’s the new Silver Lake, but it’s one we can get behind.

This review first appeared in the Los Feliz Ledger. Click through to see how many forks El Condor received.

El Condor
3701 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 660-4500
El Condor on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Quick Bite: Momed Puts a New Spin on Middle Eastern in Atwater

What: Momed
Where: 3245 Casitas Ave., Atwater (Atwater Crossing), 323.522.3488The challenge: Get diners to remember that the hidden-away art/industrial complex is a worthy lunch and dinner destination and compete with nearby Glendale old-school Middle Eastern spots.
Soujouk flatbread and lamb burger
The goods: Momed started out with a modern take on Mediterranean dishes from Lebanon, Israel and the like several years ago in Beverly Hills. Now it needs to convince Eastsiders that Middle Eastern doesn't just mean Zankou. Using the oven that turned out flatbreads in the space's previous incarnation, Momed puts a Levantine spin on flatbreads (called pide) and makes puffy homemade mini-pita bread.Traditional dishes like shwarma are updated into duck shwarma sliders, while tabbouleh turns into a quinoa and kale version and hummus adds avocado. Plus, there's Lebanese and craft beer and wine.
crispy squash blossoms with falafel
The look: Atwater Crossing has always looked a bit improvised, but Momed has spiffed up the space with Moroccan tiles and an  indoor dining area to complement the huge, breezy patio that's a favorite with families.
What to order: Lamb burger, eggplant ikra, soujouk flatbread
Would I return? Definitely for a beer and flatbread on the patio on warm summer evening; in winter, the restaurant plans to add curtains and heaters. I'll have to try more dishes to decide whether updated Mediterranean is just as satisfying as the dishes at Carousel, Marouch and Elena's.

(I was invited to try this restaurant)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

There's Still Time to Get a Taste of L.A. on Labor Day Weekend

A preview of L.A. Times' The Taste brunch event included Loteria chilequiles and citrus bloody marys

August is a busy month for food festivals in L.A with L.A. Food and Wine coming up this weekend with a sprawling array of events from Santa Monica to Downtown.
Noelle Carter of the L.A. Times test kitchen's bacon cinnamon rolls
Labor Day weekend brings L.A. Times' The Taste festival, with five events that all take place at Paramount Studios. This one's got Jonathan Gold and other L.A. Times food writing folk like Russ Parsons, Betty Hallock and Noelle Carter hosting tasting sessions based around brunch, cocktails, fresh produce and the varied flavors of L.A. All events are discounted for L.A. Times members.
Here's what to expect:
Friday, Aug. 29: Opening night showcases restaurants like Jitlada, De Sano Pizza, Alma, Hinoki & the Bird and the Church Key, along with the awesome alternative cover band Black Crystal Wolf Kids.
Sat. afternoon, Aug. 30: Field to Fork is hosted by Parsons and Nancy Silverton, with lots of cooking demonstrations, wine, beer and cocktail tastings and restaurants including Canele, Coni' Seafood, Ammo and Pine & Crane.
Farmshop's flaky strawberry croissants
Saturday evening's Dinner with a Twist is a cocktail focused evening with demonstrations and tastes from numerous restaurants, hosted by Gold, Hallock and John Sedlar and Julian Cox.
Sunday Aug. 31 is a brunch extravaganza hosted by Carter and Thomas Keller, with pastries, brunch dishes and cocktails from Auntie Em's, Farmshop, Loteria, Bouchon and more. A 1 p.m. talk features Parsons interviewing Keller on 20 Years of the French Laundry.
Sunday evening is Tastes of L.A., hosted by Gold and Michael Cimarusti, including a foraging presentation and sardine cookoff. Restaurants including Fishing with Dynamite, Osteria Mozza, Cliff's Edge, smoke.oil.salt, Lum Ka Naad and Saint Martha.
Now go forth, and eat L.A.! Get tickets here. (And here's a hint: Alo check around sites like Goldstar since some food festivals are discounted close to the event.)

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Hero Shop, a Great Banh Mi By Any Other Name

The spread of banh mi across the land has been a mixed blessing for the humble Vietnamese sandwich. I was a relative latecomer to the Southeast Asian hoagie, but after my first taste in 2004 or so at a long-gone shop on Valley Blvd., I was hooked on the perfect interplay of crispy yet soft baguette, creamy pate, spicy jalapeno, crunchy daikon, savory sauce and sweet barbecue pork or smooth cold cuts. The rest of the world discovered them just a few years later, and suddenly there were banh mi trucks and gourmet banh mi, with varying degrees of success.

The Hero Shop, in downtown L.A. next to Cole's French Dip, does the gourmet banh mi thing much better than any others I've tasted, in a squeaky-clean modern storefront with tables for sidewalk dining out front. Run by the same folks as Silver Lake's Black Hogg, which just re-opened with a retooled menu, the Hero Shop takes the important components of the sandwich and improves on the ingredients without screwing up the balance like other places often do. Their sandwiches range from $7 to $11, so let's get this out of the way right off the bat: yes, you could drive 15 minutes east and get three or four for the same price. But they wouldn't be made of heritage pork or Spanish blood sausage or sambal-roasted broccoli for the vegans who are probably tired of tasteless tofu banh mi.
We tried the BBQ pork and the head cheese; other varieties include sardine, spice and sour chicken, blood sausage and peppers for the real hero lovers, fatty brisket and lemongrass tofu, if you must. In contrast to a traditional banh mi, these sandwiches are huge and yet the bread doesn't overwhelm the meat. The BBQ pork was delicious but almost too intense in its meatiness; I was full after just a few bites and snagged my son's headcheese to try. The thin, cool slices of headcheese marinated in lime juice and layered with pate and all the usual trimmings added up to a platonic balance of banh mi fillings. The bbq pork half made a great lunch the next day. 
This is a great sandwich, at a better prices than most sandwiches these days. The bread-averse can have their fillings over coconut rice in a bowl instead.
I was invited to try Hero Shop, but I would be back on my own dime in a flash -- in fact, my son has already been back for the fatty brisket.
Hero Shop
130 E. 6th St.
Downtown L.A.

Hero Shop on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tink's House: All Pop-Ups Should Be This Creative

Tink's house is located in a small unused office building on First St.
Is it an art gallery? A pop-up restaurant? An interactive progressive dinner? Tink's House, installed near Downtown L.A. from July 31 until Aug. 16, is all of the above. The entire project was planned by chef Jon Sewitz, who started the "culinary troupe" Samacon as a young teenager and cooked at places like Wolvesmouth and Noma, and 20-year old RISD art student Kelsey Isaacs. Now he's all of 19, and ready to head off to NYU in the fall to do "something non-food related." But this summer, they didn't want to just hang out, so they created Tink's House.
The kitchen room emphasizes the textures of materials and ingredients

Each room of the former small office building has been turned into an environment representing a room of the house, with its own sensory experiences -- music, textures, lighting -- and flavors to match with each of seven or so courses. Though they don't have a Twitter account and there hasn't been much publicity, all the dinners are already booked, and there's not much chance of extending the installation since everyone has to get back to school. So why am I telling you about our fun preview dinner? Well, for one thing, there's no reason other places -- or even your own dinner party -- couldn't incorporate some of the sensory ideas to enhance the eating experience. Plus, it's just great to see the kind of creativity that comes when chefs hang out with artists and start spinning ideas.
The Den has a sand-covered floor with the feel of a beach at night. Appetizers included lamb croquettes, with crunchy breading that echoed the sand.
The dining room is covered in orange netting. Even your bare feet feel caught in the netting, making you at one with the perfectly-fried pompano fish served on fine china with pompano tartare in the middle. 
Kelsey Isaacs explains The Kitchen, with foot-massaging balls, Astroturf, live plants to garnish rice bowls, and a wall of toppings for the rice..
Rice bowls could be topped with many ingredients including seaweed, shrimp chips, onion sprouts and just-picked herbs
In the bedroom: a roasted carrot with seaweed "hair" and oyster cream was a tad suggestive

The bedroom was all pale blue sheet-covered walls, benches and table, with lots of padding and dimmish lighting. We ate with our hands to enhance the sensual aspects of eating things like carrots with a lusty oyster cream sauce and spicy andouille sausages.

Sewitz's brother serves grilled sausages and vegetables on the plastic-covered, padded, bed-like table
Sewitz's cooking was very assured, so don't be surprised to see him cooking again in-between or after he explores other areas at NYU. All the courses flowed well, and the organization of the whole operation was extremely impressive. Now I want a padded room and a sand area for beachy dinners.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Quick Bite: Beelman's Pub is the Latest Downtown Drinking Option

Beelman's on Spring St. joins Downtown's buzzy bar scene

What: Beelman's Pub
Where: 600 S. Spring St., Downtown, 213.622.1022
Why: You want a nice after-work cocktail Downtown, but you also want something better to nosh on than just fried bar snacks, and you'd like to watch the street life unroll as you drink.
The goods: From the Acme Hospitality Group folks that run Sixth St. Tavern, Laurel Tavern and the King Eddy Saloon, Beelman's is named after the building's architect. It's a straightforward pub with a well thought-out cocktail list and a good-sized patio along up-and-coming Spring St. Order both food and drinks at the bar, and servers will deliver the order. The menu is elevated bar food, with trout, hangar steak, roast chicken, green beans and roast carrots joining pub staples like a burger, cheese board and charcuterie plate.
The look: Wood-paneled walls and long leatherette booths hint at a vintage look; a wall of taps for both beer and cocktails puts the focus on drinks. Outdoors, bright yellow-legged picnic style tables give the space a beer garden feel.
roasted carrots are spiced up with cheese, shallots and more
What to order: To eat: Oysters, roasted carrots, green beans, chicken liver spread on mini English muffins. To drink: English or Spanish-style gin and tonics, House of Jealous Lovers draft cocktail

(I was invited to try this restaurant.)