Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pine & Crane: Silver Lake's First Good Chinese Restaurant, Like, Ever

Let us thank the restaurant gods that the space on Griffith Park Blvd. formerly occupied by Cru has been taken over by Pine & Crane, a restaurant that believes in actually applying heat to their food. Whenever the raw restaurant Cru was mentioned, the conversation always went like this: "I tried Cru. It's really not that bad. The salads were good." Well, aren't salads normally raw anyway? And isn't kind of fishy when "not that bad" is all most people have to say?
beef noodle soup

Fortunately Pine & Crane has arrived and remodeled the space with clean pale wood ceilings, modern furniture and vintage photos of the owner's grandfather at Taiwan's Pine Crane Noodles. Still in a soft opening stage, Pine & Crane has a short and simple Taiwanese menu that concentrates on dumplings, noodles and a few main dishes and sides.
Don't be put off by the line

Prices are quite reasonable and there are even six taps of draft craft beer and several bottled selections from Taiwan and California as well as wine and sake.
There's a line to order at the counter but it moves fairly fast and we were able to grab a table. With the street in front closed off anyway, I'm sure there will be tables outside as it gets warmer too.
Mapo tofu with pork

Soon our Taiwanese cabbage, scallion pancake, Taiwanese sausage, beef noodle soup and mapo tofu dishes started to arrive. The noodles in the soup were nice and chewy and it had a clean flavored broth with a hint of anise that wasn't quite as deeply funky as some SGV soups, but was still nice. Mapo tofu had a hint of heat and there were plenty of condiments to doctor everything up to your taste.

This is Taiwan-style comfort food -- no crazy amped-up flavors or bacon this and that, just fresh, well-priced regional food in an exceedingly pleasant room. And that's a big plus for Silver Lake. I'm looking forward to popping in again for some dan-dan noodles or potstickers, the beef roll and Jidori chicken. Plus, you can pick up some baby bok choy or pea shoots to take home from the restaurant's garden.
And don't forget, just like the places in the San Gabriel Valley, they're closed on the unusual-for-this-side-of-town day of Tuesday.

Pine & Crane
1521 Griffith Park Blvd.
Silver Lake

Pine & Crane on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Night + Market Song Spices Up Silver Lake

beaded curtains and flowered tablecloths at Night + Market Song

Night + Market Song is the second outpost (Song means two) from chef/owner Kris Yembamroong, who about five years ago started adding spicier and more authentic northern and Isaan Thai street food dishes, first at his parents' Talesai on the Sunset Strip and then at his own Night + Market next door. The Strip was always sort of an odd place for such an interesting restaurant, so it makes sense that Yembamroong has finally come east, opening Night + Market Song in a small Sunset Blvd. storefront just east of Sunset Junction.
Open just two weeks, Song is still in somewhat of a soft opening stage, so there's no beer or wine yet, and when we went, it was cash only. Also, check the website, as the restaurant will close to be at Coachella both weekends.
crispy rice salad (nam khao tod)
The room: Much funkier and louder than its Sunset Strip cousin, Song is meant to look like a cafe you'd stumble on in Bangkok, with a bright pink exterior, folding wooden chairs, flowered oilcloth table coverings, kitschy posters on the wall and bright fluorescent lights. It's a fun room but not the place for a leisurely talkative dinner with friends.
Thai sour sausage
The pros: All three dishes we tried were total mouth fiestas. Isaan sour sausage was the highlight, and the tender, juicy balls of pork had the slightly fermented flavor that makes Thai sausage so wonderfully different. Crispy rice salad is one of the best in the city, bursting with ginger, peanuts, cilantro and chile with just the right amount of burn. Chinese broccoli rose above the usual version with a hefty dose of garlic and chili, making it actually the spiciest of the dishes we tasted. I'm also looking forward to trying the market pad thai, chicken larb and startled pig, to name just a few.

The cons: I get that this is really good Thai food, featuring some unusual dishes that aren't that common even in Thai town. But nearly $60 for a smallish dinner for two with just water to drink seems a high price indeed, especially with the cash only policy. Also, there's no reservations, no takeout or delivery, no BYOB, few substitutions and just a few vegetarian dishes.
Verdict: If you're into big and authentic Thai flavors, spicy food, checking out the latest buzz spot, or pretending you're at a Bangkok hole-in-the-wall, you'll probably like Song, if you can afford it and don't mind lining up for a table.
But if you prefer cushy booths, menus with lots of different choices and spice levels, mild food for the kids, reservations or low Thai Town prices, it's probably not going to be the spot for you.

Night + Market Song
3322 W. Sunset Blvd.
Silver Lake

Night + Market Song on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 30, 2014

6 Reasons to Eat and Drink in San Diego Right Now

The patio at Carnitas Snack Shack on San Diego's University Ave.

"What food is San Diego known for?" asked Matt as we arrived at our AirBnB accomodation in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. "Besides beer, that is," he qualified. I was kind of stumped. There's all kinds of amazing taco and seafood artistry going on just south  of San Diego in Tijuana and Ensenada, but we were just in San Diego for a chill weekend and didn't want to bother with the border formalities just to have lunch in Tijuana.
"Um, fish tacos?" I ventured, not really knowing if there actually were any renowned fish taco places in the city. After perusing Chowhound and various blogs, I and came up with short list of places to try, though the general opinion seemed to be that Mexican food isn't as impressive there as one might expect. Don't let the haters dissuade you: In addition to being probably one of the best beer towns anywhere, San Diego has lots of fun places to eat as well as a flourishing cocktail scene. Here are a few:
smoked turkey, left; carnitas taco, right at Carnitas Snack Shack
1) Carnitas Snack Shack. There's nothing quite like it in L.A., which is one excellent reason to check out the little building that really does look like a small snack bar from the front (with a long line down the sidewalk at peak hours). The other, of course, is the food: monstrous, meaty carnitas tacos made from sustainably-raised pork, an insane smoked turkey/blue cheese/apple sandwich made with local poultry, Niman Ranch burgers and more. In back, there's a spacious patio with vegetables and herbs growing and a separate beer bar that's open at night. It's the perfect spot for a sunny lunch in a city that's been proven to have the country's most pleasant weather. It's not taco truck-cheap, but then, why would it be for this quality of ingredients? Also, if you can actually consume two of those tacos, you'll likely not eat again for around 24 hours.

Cocktails on tap at Polite Provisions
2) Soda and Swine/Polite Provisions: When dinner time rolled around, we looked at the fun menu at the small and lively Soda and Swine, which specializes in beef, pork, chicken, chorizo or vegetarian meatballs and pie, but we were still too stuffed for meatballs. Instead we grabbed a spot next door at Polite Provisions, an old-timey pharmacy-themed cocktail spot that's about as hipster as San Diego gets. That means that the mixologists wear bowler hats but the friendly drinkers are still in t-shirts and flip flops, happily tucking into meatballs delivered from Soda & Swine along with communal punchbowls and cocktails on tap. Don't miss the Misty Mountain Buck, with homemade ginger beer, rye and lime juice.
3) 24-hour taco shops: By midnight or so, we were finally hungry again, and found out that San Diego has a wealth of drive-through 24-hour taco shops. We stopped for fish tacos at Los Panchos, which is probably not the most amazing Mexican food ever, but it's cheap and probably way better than what you can get at midnight in most of the country.
Mariscos El Pescador truck, Chula Vista
4) Mariscos El Pescador: The real Mexican seafood action was to take place the next day. After wandering around Coronado Island, we headed south on the 5 for a few miles to Chula Vista. I'm not sure if dining in a Toys 'r Us parking lot is high on every tourist's list, but when I hear fresh octopus tacos, I'm there, even if a curb is the only seating at Mariscos El Pescador. Actually we snared two of the few plastic chairs, the better to enjoy some terrific spicy shrimp and buttery octopus tacos and a citrus-y fresh scallop tostada. The menu is above, just so you can see the wide variety of super-fresh seafood available at this popular truck just a few minutes from the Mexican border.
After all that buttery, garlicky, spicy seafood, we needed to cool it down with some Mexican-style ice cream. Others may have Spidey sense; I have paleta-sense, and I knew that so close to the border, there would be sure to be a neveria featuring Mexican-style ice cream treats.
Mangoneada -- mango sorbet topped with fresh mango and chamoy sauce at Neveria Tocumbo

5) Neveria Tocumbo: A quick Yelp search led to Chula Vista's Neveria Tocumbo, which hit the spot with mango-topped mangoneada sorbet sundaes and ice cream in flavors including queso and mamey; other concoctions included numerous varieties of paletas and Tostilocos.
Modern Times tasting flight of Fortunate Islands, Black House, Lomaland and Blazing World
Of course, no trip to San Diego would be complete without visiting at least one brewery. Since we had already tried quite a few local beers at Toronado, Local Habit and the hunting lodge-themed cocktail lounge Sycamore Den, we only made it to one actual brewery on this trip
happy beer drinkers at Modern Times Brewery in San Diego
6) Modern Times: One of San Diego's newest breweries is a cool and cavernous space in the warehouse district near the Sports Arena. One huge wall is covered in pages from vintage comicbooks, while another features a mural made from thousands of colored Post-it notes. We had a tasting flight of all four beers being poured, and loved both the Black House coffee stout and the Fortunate Islands hoppy wheat.
Next time, we'll have those meatballs for sure with a house made almond soda at Soda & Swine, try homestyle Mexican at Super Cocina and finally get to Alesmith Brewing, among others. What are your San Diego favorites?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Quick Bite: East Borough for Stylish Vietnamese and Cocktails in Culver City

East Borough is compact with a colorful glass enclosed bar area
What: East Borough Fraiche Vietnamese

Where: 9810 Washington Blvd., Culver City, 310-596-8266

Why: For a lunch date near Sony, drinks and snacks before a show at the Kirk Douglas Theater or a patio dinner on a warm night
The Goods: Chef Chloe Tran runs an East Borough in Costa Mesa, but here she's collaborating with Superba's Jason Neroni for a slightly different approach to her Vietnamese-with-a-twist menu. While some items skew close to a traditional Vietnamese interpretation, others lean towards the fusion side.Either way, the addition of fun cocktails and a location smack in the middle of Culver City action make it handy for lunch, dinner or drinks.

The Look: Tres cool, tres casz: Schoolroom chairs in the dining room harmonize with colorful mid-century bucket bar stools, while glass panes dividing the bar and the kitchen add a somewhat Bauhaus feel.In front, a bright yellow cinderblock wall defines the patio with a mid-century meets rustic vibe.

What to Order: Definitely the cauliflower and long bean (at right), a giant vegetable party in your mouth. Also good: Banh Xeo, a fairly traditional dish with crab and shitake mushrooms and Imperial Rolls with pork and taro.
One of their signature dishes, the Phocatini rice noodles with oxtail, didn't work quite as well for me -- as is often the case in fusion-type spots, the hoisin sauce made the whole dish too sweet.
My cocktail called "In Eastern Fashion" with bourbon, pomelo and chocolate chili bitters also had a notable anise flavor, which came as a bit of a surprise, but with flavors like tamarindo and kiwi vinegar, there are certainly some interesting choices.

(I was invited to try this restaurant.)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

De Sano Pizza Bakery: So Italian, East Hollywood Might Need a New Little Italy Sign

East Hollywood is already divided into Little Armenia and Thai Town, but now it may be time to carve out a Little Italy neighborhood on desolate eastern Santa Monica Blvd. near Normandie. The brand-new DeSano Pizza Bakery is so Italian, the Nashville-based pizzeria has a .it web domain, normally reserved for websites based in Italy. It's so Italian that not only are tomatoes, flour and oregano are brought in from the boot, but large bags of Italian sea salt line the hallway of the giant pizza bakery.
It's so Italian that one of the owners, Marino Monferrato, was previously general manager at Cecconi's in West Hollywood, while the main pizza-maker is named Massimiliano Di Lascio and some of the pizza-makers are conversing in Italian while they toss around the dough. It's so Italian that the TV plays soccer instead of football.

Not for locals only: In these days of all-local everything, bringing in nearly everything from another continent sounds almost counter-intuitive, but the proof is in the pie, which is very good indeed.
More tender and giving than the crust at Mother Dough, yet more substantial than Pasadena's Settebello, it's a true Neapolitan pizza with just the right heft. (Lago di Argento, take a note: this crust has just the right amount of salt.)

How-to: The staff is so friendly that they're already waving you in as you step one foot out the car door that you've parked in the spacious adjoining parking lot. You order at the counter in the front room of the former auto shop. Of course you can get it to go, but there's plenty of picnic-style seating in the large baking room. If you've ordered a spinach or caprese salad to start, it arrives right away, and the staff solicitously tears off pieces of paper towels from the roll on the table for napkins and offers cups for water from a fountain. (There are soft drinks and Pellegrino to drink; no wine or beer.) The pizzas cook quickly in four wood-burning ovens and are brought to your table in 10 or 15 minutes at most.

Pizzas are available in medium and large, and two fairly hungry people can easily polish off a large. The buffalo mozzarella cheese was milder and more chewy than I'm used to, but worked well with the broccoli rabe and sausage topping we chose. Next time, I would try a Margherita, which comes with sauce and can be topped with sausage, peppers, proscuitto or mushrooms. Most of the specialty pizzas don't have tomato sauce, so ask if it's important to you. There's also calzones and cannoli or gelato for dessert.
The verdict: DeSano Pizza instantly shoots near the top of the list of L.A.'s best pizzas, ranking right up there with Vito's and Mother Dough. (I'm not counting Mozza or Sotto because fancy restaurant pizzas are in kind of a different category.) And the best thing is that getting a solid 'za in L.A. is no longer a difficult quest, with so many good recent additions to a city that only 10 years ago didn't serve up many decent pies.

DeSano Pizza Bakery
4959 Santa Monica Blvd. (at Alexandria)
323-913-7000 (open 11:30 am to about 10 pm every day)

DeSano Pizza on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 31, 2014

La Brea Bakery Bigger and Breadier With Pizza, Foccacia and Paninis

Nancy Silverton is L.A.'s first lady of bread

When Nancy Silverton opened La Brea Bakery opened in 1989, it was the only place in town to find French-style bread for a very long time. Before that, it was Pioneer Boulangerie or nothing, and it was a very welcome addition to the city. Although Silverton sold the commercial baking operation in 2001, she remains involved even though Mozza now takes much of her attention.
Now that Republique has taken over the former Campanile and La Brea Bakery space, La Brea Bakery has moved into a bigger spot down the street where Rita Flora Cafe used to be, with actual tables and booths (no more sitting on the bench outside with a baguette sandwich!) and a full menu of sandwiches, salads, pizzas and even a few entrees.

Prosciutto pear pizza was light and crisp
On opening day, customers surged in to view the long counter displaying croissants, foccacia, pain au chocolat, scones and cinnamon rolls while Silverton received congratulations from councilman Tom LaBonge and many happy breadlovers.
ham and cheese panini gets a grilled sage garnish

Silverton is still supervising recipes and quality control, with chef pastry chef Hourie Sahakian overseeing the daily operations. It's a very welcome expansion, especially considering that 25 years later, L.A. is still not quite the bread town it should be. The bakery and cafe is open until 6 pm every day.

La Brea Bakery
624 S. LaBrea
(323) 939-6813

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Speranza: Why Do People Love Silver Lake's Secret Italian Spot So Much?

Speranza's discreet exterior  
Speranza isn't really secret -- it's been around for several years and has a smattering of reviews on Yelp, but it flies pretty far under the radar. Maybe it's the industry crowd that would prefer not to have the word get out, but the Hyperion Ave. spot definitely keeps things on the down-low. EatingLA doesn't have a problem with that -- but this place doesn't wow me the way it does many other locals. Here's an excerpt  from the Los Feliz Ledger review:
 Everyone loves the tangy sourdough bread served with a spicy dipping sauce in small bowls. Start with a salads like fennel with pears and pine nuts or caprese, or an Italian classic like prosciutto and melon, carpaccio or burrata.
Fresh pasta is the main draw—in dishes like fettucine al pesto and linguini with clams—though dried pasta works well too in dishes like Bucatini amatriciana, with a smoky bacon flavor and a hint of spice. Spaghetti with bottarga (dried cod roe) and anchovies sounds intriguing but is oddly bland, considering its strongly flavored ingredients. Also popular are squid ink pasta and squid ink risotto and lobster risotto. Gluten-free pasta is available on request.
Basic but properly-cooked swordfish comes on a large bed of arugula, a good choice for carb avoiders, while the branzino is served deboned. Though many choose pasta or risotto for the main course, several other proteins include grilled lamb chops, veal chops, shrimp and crab legs.

Speranza, 2547 Hyperion Ave., (323) 644-1918

Friday, December 27, 2013

Food Lover's Guide to Los Angeles Helps Eaters Uncover the Area's Ethnic Gems

There aren't very many up to date guidebooks to L.A. restaurants. The Zagat Guide covers but a small swath of the area's bounty, concentrating on the most popular as decided by readers, while I contributed to the locally-published Eat: Los Angeles, which had a good run until 2011 as a yearly-updated, compact guide that covered hundreds of standbys and lesser-known spots. And that's pretty much it -- everything else is either way older or woefully incomplete.
So Cathy Chaplin's Food Lover's Guide to Los Angeles, from Globe Pequot's Food Lovers series, is a welcome snapshot of the area's best fine dining, bakeries, ethnic spots and specialty markets. It covers the trendy places, of course, from Picca to Trois Mec. But Chaplin, a respected L.A. food blogger (GastronomyBlog), crisscrossed just about every corner of the L.A. area to research this guide, and she includes finds in places like Rowland Heights and Huntington Park that may be on local foodbloggers' radar but will be new to many readers.
Chaplin (née Danh) has lived in Vietnam and traveled widely, and the book is particularly strong in Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean entries and in its coverage of the San Gabriel Valley. Mexican entries are also solid (no doubt due to some consultation with Bill Esparza), and if you'd like to try out food from Nicaragua, Cambodia or Jamaica, you'll find those too. As a bonus, a few recipes at the end include ones for A-Frame's Sriracha ganache, Huckleberry Cafe's salted caramel bars and Kogi's kimchi quesadilla.
With Chaplin as a guide, there's no excuse for not venturing to Bell, Carson or Inglewood to taste some of L.A.'s staggering diversity of flavors.                            

Monday, December 23, 2013

Bourbon.Pomegranate.Cinnamon: Christmas in a Glass, a cocktail or punch

Christmas in a Glass can be made as a sour or as a punch
This cocktail is an hommage to Julian Cox's Sherry Manilow cocktail at Picca, but a simpler version that packs a lot of the same flavors can be created at home with just a bit of preparation. Cox's version expertly combines Oloroso sherry, pomegranate molasses, cinnamon syrup, lemon and brandy. I don't usually have sherry in the house, so I decided to base mine on bourbon, usually my favorite spirit besides tequila. Someone at work gave me a bunch of pomegranates from their tree, so I decided to juice some of them (blend seeds briefly, then strain), since pomegranate molasses on their own are sometimes bitter or overly sour. Now, cinnamon syrup? I had some cinnamon sticks from Nicole's Gourmet purchased for some forgotten recipe, so I made simple syrup and simmered some sticks in it for a while. It made extra, which keeps in the refrigerator and can be used in coffee, cocktails, mixed with pancake syrup, in mulled wine, etc.

So here's the recipe. I just made up these proportions based on what tasted right to me, so adjust to suit your taste:

Christmas in a Glass pomegranate bourbon sour

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 oz. bourbon
4 oz. unsweetened pomegranate juice, preferably fresh
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses (it's probably just as good if you don't have these)
1 tablespoon cinnamon-infused simple syrup
dash of cranberry bitters
Stir together, shake with ice, strain and serve in a Manhattan or martini glass. Garnish with a touch of freshly-grated nutmeg. Makes 2.

And here's another version using cranberry juice that can be easily made into a punch to serve several people: 

Christmas in a Glass cranberry-bourbon-lime punch

1 cup bourbon 
3 cups cranberry juice
1/4 cup sweet vermouth
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup cinnamon syrup
3 cups club soda
Serve over ice. Makes 6-8 glasses.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

India's Restaurant: A New Delivery Option for Silver Lake and Los Feliz

India's Restaurant, at the corner of Fountain and Hoover

It's safe to say that few were upset at the demise of Point Dume, one of many local mini-mall Chinese restaurants that infuriated in its inability to offer better-than-mediocre Chinese food. Though one might have hoped for actually good Chinese or possibly updated, creative Indian in the Wat Dong Moon Lek mold, India's Restaurant sticks with the familiar Indian restaurant formula. So far, we're happy  just to have another delivery/takeout option in the neighborhood, and our first takeout experience gets a B+.
India's Restaurant is owned by the same folks who own India's Tandoori on Wilshire near La Brea, as well as restaurants in Manhattan Beach and Torrance. The menu is nearly identical (and in fact similar to pretty much every other Indian restaurant in these parts) but adds Balti dishes to the familiar biryanis, tandooris and curries. Balti, which are also a specialty at nearby Agra, are "rich and hearty stews" with tomato and ginger and come in chicken, lamb, shrimp, fish and mixed varieties. Actually, the menu and prices are near carbon copies of Agra, so perhaps a taste comparison is in order.

We tried green coconut chicken ($10.95), a mild and creamy curry in which the chicken takes on a slightly alarming shade of green, hopefully from the herbs and not from a bottle. There's plenty of vegetarian selections of course, and we asked for Alu Gobhi ($8.95) - cauliflower with potatoes - to be medium-spiced. We sopped up the flavorful, mildly spicy sauce with garlic naan, and I appreciated that brown rice is available. There's an entire lamb and goat section of the menu, so someone please let me know if Goat Vindaloo, described as a specialty of the chef, is worth a try.
The interior is textbook old-school Indian, complete with white tablecloths and fussy gold brocade curtains. I don't really care what a restaurant looks like if the food is good, but aren't places like this missing an opportunity to update the look and diversify the menu a bit?
There's also a lunch buffet for $10.95 on weekdays, $12.50 on weekends, and a $7.95 lunch special, and free delivery in the area.
India's Restaurant
4366 Fountain Ave.
(323) 912-9320