Thursday, January 28, 2010

2009 without a whisk, part II

Church&State - Los Angeles

Approaching this modern French bistro deep in Downtown Los Angeles, I felt like I was discovering a diamond in the rough. I had parked right at that corner 4 years prior, and at that time, it was absolutely a safety concern for a young girl by herself in the darkness of night, purse clutched and discreetly looking left, right, behind, and repeat. This time, I hardly recognized the intersection of Industrial and Mateo with the strung bulbs at Church & State illuminating it like a beacon and drawing me in like a moth to a flame.

I was meeting my sister again (funny how she shows up at so many memorable meals, isn't it?) who had just been picked from LAX by our friend, James, and our most avid dining partner-in-crime, Christina. It had been a week of instant messaging exchanges deliberating the menu and linking to food porn shots from various bloggers' visits, oohing, ahhing, and ogling until, finally, it was our time.

We wasted no time ordering up a storm and soon the bone marrow, salt cod fritters, French onion soup, and escargot crowded the table, followed by the hamachi, duck confit, steak frites, braised short rib, and Epoisse mac 'n cheese. Among my favorites were the bread pork trotter fritter on vinegary lentils with frisée and a poached egg, and the pig's ears. I could eat anything dipped in their Béarnaise, but the oreilles were particularly comforting -- like fries with the condiment of my dreams. Pigs' ears prepared in the Taiwanese way have never appealed to me, but I think about them deep fried and dipped in Béarnaise weekly.

The succulent escargot were baked individually with puff pastry hats, so buttery that I can't imagine having more than one, but what a good one it was!

The tarte flambée was another favorite and though a somewhat different breed than pizza, I would probably routinely choose the union of the sweet caramelized onion, savory lardons, Gruyère, and flatbread over its Italian brethren.

We savored dish after dish of well-executed French classics (along with some inspired creations) and lingered over the modern soundtrack and snapshot-of-Paris ambiance, mostly because we were too full to move. We were envious no more.

Egg - Brooklyn

Brunch is arguably my favorite meal of the day. I mean, I love them all, but there's something about getting together with people in the daytime, sometimes over mimosas or Bloody Marys, and sharing plates of eggs, pancakes, or salty pork products that brings a smile to my face and a glimmer to my eye. After over an hour long wait on a particularly warm April day, we were finally seated on the small patio out front at Egg. Naturally, we had been analyzing the menu during our entire wait and I immediately ordered the biscuit with Colonel Bill Newsom's ham, fig jam and Grafton cheddar along with Anson mills grits and an additional side of fennel sausage. The cheddar and lardons grits at Square One in Los Angeles were my introduction to how sinfully delicious doctored up grits could be, and Anson Mills at Egg cemented how simply delicious unadorned grits are. Ana and Lynn, both ex-Angelenos that had moved eastward ordered Eggs Rothko with bacon and candied bacon, respectively, to round out or four food groups of swine and an ideal brunch was born. My dish wasn't quite as fulfilling during my second trip out to New York in November and the wait was horrendous [they're sticklers about having the entire party present before seating (even if you're just walking up the street) and won't hesitate to skip your party over, so remember to stay put], but the food was so soul satisfying in April that I am more than wiling to give it a third, fourth, and fifth attempt at redeeming itself. It was just that good.

Piccolo - Venice, CA

Over the year, Piccolo has become the neighborhood restaurant that is neither in my neighborhood, nor in my budget to make a regular indulgence, but as soon as I step inside, I feel like I'm coming home. The establishment (pre-expansion) is small enough that the heads of the entire staff turn whenever someone walks in door. Pietro, the sommelier, is usually the first to greet me due to his proximity to the door, followed by a warm exchange with Vittorio, the owner, and finally, cheek kisses with Roberto in the kitchen.

My eldest sister, Kat, visited right before her birthday this year and because it has such a lovely setting for a party of two, I decided to take her to Piccolo, where everyone knows your name (after a few visits). I couldn't help but feel like I was living within a vignette of Italy when presented with a plate of seared scallops sitting atop parmesan fondue or one of their reliably satisfying fish specials.

We had a fantastic time on this summer's evening and didn't have a care in the world in those couple of hours, having rich risotto for one course, and a light tortelli in broth for another. Truffles adorn many dishes here and though I wasn't allowed to touch them during my first visit of the year, at this meal I was given the privilege of shaving my own atop my risotto -- and you can believe I took advantage of this opportunity. The monkfish over black rice was a perfect secondi and so good as a break between the creamy risotto and dessert, and then they were even kind enough to plate the pistachio-lemon curd cake that I had made for my sister and again top off our glasses with prosecco. The meal began with one of my favorite dishes and ended with something I created out of love just for that occasion which would have made the meal enjoyable enough, but the warmth of the staff made our night feel like a catch-up session with old friends. It doesn't even feel right to describe their manner and interaction as "service".

L'as du Fallafel - Paris

I had bookmarked this place long before I had actually booked a ticket to Paris after reading about it from David Lebovitz and Dorie Greenspan. How could so many people be wrong? Lenny Kravitz loves it! My first experience with falafel was not too long ago and probably mediocre, but I really liked it and though I still have never tried Arax in Los Angeles, visiting L'as du Fallafel was an absolute necessity. There would be enough sit-down meals on this trip, and flavorful ethnic food for cheap was right up my alley. By my luck, I had happened upon the storefront in my first 2 hours in Paris, it being right down the street from the apartment I was staying at in Le Marais. I decided to wait until my travel companions flew in before I joined the crowds in line for perfectly fried balls of chickpeas not knowing that Liberty doesn't like falafel, but at first bite, she was converted. "Okay, maybe I do."

We joined the rest of the crowd on the cobblestone lane not waiting a minute to dig into our piccante falafel and shawarma with cabbage, eggplant, and tzatziki. It wasn't the cleanest snack that we shamelessly passed around with sauce dripping down our fingers , but we knew we'd be back before we left Paris -- and we were.

Elite - Monterey Park

Right next to Yi Mei on the same stretch of Atlantic Boulevard is Elite Restaurant. I had gone for dim sum a few years ago and was quite pleased with the quality of their check-to-order dim sum, but it wasn't until a few months ago that I returned (although there seemed to be far more servers peddling their dishes from trays than before). The zha liang - rice noodle wrapped around a Chinese doughnut and drizzled with soy sauce and sesame seeds - was so fresh that the doughnut was still crispy at first bite, a rarity when it comes to this seldom seen dish. The doughnut was also filled with shrimp cake, which I had never encountered but made for the most delicious iteration I've ever had. Their pu shi dan ta - egg custard baked in a flaky, buttery, tart shell with a burnished, caramelized top - was also among the best I've had stateside. Normally I'm not a fan of the Macau-style tarts as they typically come with shortcrust pastry, but this two-bite wonder, the custard still warm and coconut scented, contained within a crust so flaky -- I forgot it was Macau-style at all. It had all the merits of a Portuguese nata with its brulee'd top and deep, yolky color, cradled in the crust I love most.

A couple weeks later when my sisters, Katherine and Jessica, were in town, I decided I had to drag them here to at least try these two dishes. We started the morning off volunteering at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and were famished by the time we sorted the last kiwi. After a satisfying meal at Mo-chica at Mercado la Paloma, I made the executive decision to detour to Monterey Park so as to pick up Cousin Alb's "many" flank steak shao bing, and to have them try the two dim sum dishes I had relished so much.

Having had a full lunch already and with a crowd still waiting for tables outside Elite, we ordered the zha liang and dan ta for takeout and as soon as it was ready, we laid claim to a couple spots on the bench outside, tore open the plastic bag and dug into the goods. This really isn't a sight you see too often -- at least not for dim sum. You either enjoy the food at your table, or maybe bring it home, although I think that's pretty unusual as well. The elders were probably frowning upon our devouring of the vittles like heathens, but I have to believe we sold a few orders of each dish to the parties still waiting for tables to open up with the enthusiasm with which we consumed the greasy goodness. People would only come to dim sum and order takeout, digging into it right then and there if it were fantastic -- and it was. We made friends on their own food marathon between mouthfuls, so in these mere fifteen minutes, it became clear that food absolutely unites us all.

LudoBites - Los Angeles

My office moved from Melrose to West Third Street in April and upon hearing the news that LudoBites would be setting up shop across the street at Breadbar for their second incarnation and having missed a meal at the original, I resolved I would be having at least three meals there during their stay. It wasn't really an active goal to achieve -- more like a passing thought in the excitement of knowing some amazing dishes would be turned out nightly just across the way and only for a limited time -- but by the end of their engagement, that forecast had been realized. With an ever-changing menu posted daily on their website, it only took a skim of the new offerings for insane people like myself to decide, "Yeah, okay. Why not?!" I had no intention of missing out any work of true genius.

Seared duck breast with carrot cake coulis? You had me at carrot cake.

Foie gras croque monsieur on squid ink bread? I'll be there.

Chocolate cupcake with foie gras chantilly and candied bacon-almonds? I'll have two. (And I did over the course of a few visits.)
And so it happened again this past December. LudoBites re-emerged at Royal/T, a Japanese cosplay gallery and cafe in Culver City, and again, all rational thought went out the window as I paid them a few visits. With the Twitterverse up in arms over how transcendental the new version of the fried chicken was, how could I not go back having missed it on my previous visit??

LudoBites (being the blood, sweat, and tears of Chef Ludovic Lefebvre and his gracious wife, Krissy) was responsible for countless moments of bliss for me this year, and it was the product of all the elements that, for me, make up an evening for the books. At the first taste of the chorizo-cantaloupe soup with cornichon granita on my inaugural visit, I was hooked. From a blank face, not knowing what to expect, I felt the corners of my mouth slowly upturn into a smile in disbelief of how well its individual components worked together, but completely sated by the result. It's what whimsical food does - peaks curiosity, encourages risk, boggles the mind - and when it works, you feel like you did when you realized that you do like sushi -- a lot!!

The caliber of the food has been well-documented on the internet, and I probably can't dissect any dish more than what's already been said, but it's the entire experience of LudoBites that has resonated with me enough to return more times than would be normal. Sitting on the patio of Breadbar on a mild August evening, three and a half hours passed in the blink of an eye savoring veal tartare, cantal polenta with oxtail and truffle, and crème fraîche panna cotta between sips of wine, fits of laughter, and then maybe another order of pork belly??

There were bloggers aplenty running around between table and chef, the air electrified, it being the last night of 2.0. Conversation flowed among my dining companions (some of my best friends) as well as with neighboring tables and before I knew it, it was midnight. I don't know if it was the inspired food, the outdoor setting, the effortlessly warm service, the charmingly French chef, or a combination thereof, but as I've described to friends before, it was as if time stood still. After the meal, it was back to reality -- only now with the recollection of an incomparably good time.

And there we have it, my most beloved meals of 2009. Perhaps I romanticize an experience more often than I should, but I can't and don't want to help it. The light gleams through a window just so, or I hear a crescendo in a Radiohead song just as the waitstaff comes purposefully toward our table with our entrees, and in that moment I am utterly contented. And to be completely content in any moment -- well, I think I'll just collect as many of those as I can, and know that 2010 offers many, many more.

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