Bottega Louie: Heaven on 7th and Grand

By Tsz on November 28, 2009

I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Food heaven that is. My first time walking in Bottega Louie got some getting used to. Walking into its cavernous center, you’re enveloped by white space and a flurry of activity.

On the right, there is the gleaming silver kitchen, inhabited by silent cooks producing plates of technicolor entrees and sides—they’re so close that you can reach out and pick off a roasted tomato garnish. That is, if the clear glass partition wasn’t in the way.

On the left, neatly dressed bartenders mixes up old fashion drinks for an equally well-dressed crowd. And behind, oh my, tidy rows of baked goods and deli items patiently wait for you to give them a new home.

To the front, a stately gold and marble table sits with a single light and a giant book of records, where a calm gatekeeper, I mean, hostess, politely asks for your last name. For the rest of your stay, that is exactly how they will address you. A bit old fashioned, but welcome nevertheless.

I’ve dine at Bottega Louie five times since it opened, and to this day, it still gets some getting used to the grand scale of the restaurant. Other pleasant surprises are their extensive menu, the prices (you’re definitely getting your money’s worth), and their service.

Now, the service is no where near perfect. In fact, there’s almost always a little mishap during my visits—a dish goes missing, or the waiter seems to have disappeared—these are normal for a relatively new restaurant. What is impressive is how they fix the problems promptly and earnestly.

Also, a man in gray (Eric) usually comes around sometime during your meal and ask for your opinion and cater to your whims, which is a bonus. Once, my friend exclaimed how delicious BL’s homemade apple sauce (the accompaniment to the pork chops—must get) was and in a few minutes, he came back to produced 2 gravy pitchers full of the cinnamon goodness for her as a dessert.

Although the decor and the service are both stellar, the true star is the food. Their cuisine is simple and filling, featuring fresh ingredients—you can really taste the difference. Here is my list of must-get dishes:

1. Portabello Fries: Giant strips of the mushroom are lightly battered and fried with a light covering of parsley and grated parmesan. Unbelievable when dipped in their basil aoili.

2. Pork Chops: You get not one, not two, but three juicy and expertly charred chops. The accompanying apple sauce tastes just sweet enough and with the added zing of Christmas cheer (it makes for an awesome dessert).

3. Trenne: Triangular tubes of pasta are pan fried on one side and served with a rich beef stew and saute kale. I’ve never seen this served anywhere else.

4. Peas with prosuitto: Sweet, tender fresh peas that tastes nothing like the frozen starchy stuff served anywhere else, flavored with shallots and good pork.

5. Eggs Benedict: Textbook good. The spinach cuts through the richness of the heavy sauce nicely.

6. Butterscotch Budino: Silky smooth butterscotch pudding, topped with a layer of caramel, a sprinkling of sea salt and freshly whipped cream. You won’t want to share this.

7. Fruit tart and white chocolate baguette: If you still have room, get a tart or any baked goods from their bakery. I usually take them home, mmm.

Writing about Bottega Louie is enough to make my mouth water—how fortunate am I to work just mere blocks away?


Bagna Cauda Mashed Potatoes

By Tsz on November 26, 2009

As my family’s self-designated mashed potato enthusiast, I’ve been tinkering with countless recipes over the years. Garlic, crumbled bacon, herbs, cream cheese—I’ve tried them all.

Lately, I’ve been fascinated with Bagna Cauda (translated as “hot bath”). An Italian (Piedmontese to be specific) staple, it’s a warm dip made with garlic, anchovies and olive oil and is eaten with bread and assorted vegetables. As I was preparing a fresh batch one evening, I thought to myself, “what if I put this in mashed potatoes?”

The rest, as they say, was history.

Bagna Cauda Mashed Potatoes
Serves 8

1 can chicken broth
9 Russet potatoes, peeled and quartered (about 3 1/2 pounds)
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 fillets of anchovy (packed in oil), minced
2 tablespoons anchovy oil from can (olive is fine as well)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt & pepper
1/2 teaspoon 21 Seasonings Salute mix from Trader Joe’s (optional)
1/4 cup sliced green onion

Bring chicken broth, a can of water (use the can from the chicken broth to measure), and 1/4 teaspoon salt to a boil in a large saucepan. Add potatoes and cook, covered, over medium heat until fork tender, about 30 minutes. When done, remove potatoes from the heat. Drain and mash the potatoes.

Meanwhile, Heat oil in a small saucepan over low heat; add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add anchovies and sugar; cook until they dissolve into the garlic, about 2 minutes.

Add milk and heavy cream in garlic mixture and let simmer for 2 minutes. Then add salt and pepper to taste and spice if so desired. Pour the hot cream mixture over the mashed potatoes and mix well. Sprinkle green onions over and enjoy!


Happy Birthday, Sona!

By Tsz on November 21, 2009

I may be a designer by trade, but I am first and foremost a foodie. It’s unclear when exactly I became one, but if you ask my parents, they would say around the time my first tooth sprang up.

The search for the next great meal often leads me to some outrageous stunts, but last year takes the cake: I took the summer to work at at Sona.

Yep, you heard right. A brand new college graduate who wanted to travel to France for a grand food tour, but alas with student loan payments looming over like a storm cloud, the trip will have to wait. Instead, I did the next best thing—I wrote to Sona. And as fate would have it, Pastry Chef Ramon was in need of a prep assistant.

You may think this is the sort of story where I dropped everything to become the next Daniel Boulud, but it was not the case. I realized I loved cooking as a hobby, not as a career, so I went back to design.

However, I’ll never forget my pastry-filled summer in Sona. They taught me much about fine dining, cooking under extreme conditions and most of all, help me gain a better understanding of the work it takes to create an extraordinary dining experience.

I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to dine at Sona on four different occasions within this past year after my brief culinary stint. Each visit there was an out-of-the-world experience, epic to say the very least.

One of the major contributors is the duration of the dinner itself. While most meals usually run for an hour to two, a meal at Sona easily will double the amount. It’s largely due to the pacing and the sheer number of dishes they present. I’ve tried the 3-course dessert tasting, 6 and 9-course dinner tasting menus, yet in the end, they all average upwards of three to four hours.

Next is the space. The dining room is housed in a muted palette of whites and concrete grays, with the main vocal point a seasonal flora arrangement in the center that sits atop a large slab of rough marble. It feels almost somber if not for the warm glow cast from tiny tea lights found on each table.

Admittedly, I thought the dining room was rather cold during my first visit. That is, until I was presented with the amuse bouche. I believe the reason for the immaculate interior space is to allow the food shine, rather than compete with it. The space is like the pristine walls found in art galleries—when the plates are laid out, the food itself becomes the decor, a progression of edible sculptures that effortlessly draw you in with their form.

Now, there are countless restaurants that serve beautiful, yet mediocre food, but Sona is not one of them. Not only is their food aesthetically arresting, their play of flavors and textures are both innovative and has the uncanny ability to transport you to a different place. It’s difficult to describe the experience, as it’s not of the comfort food variety that reminds you of your childhood. Rather, it’s more about exploring new territories in flavor profiles, yet a sense of familiarity remains.

I’ve thought about explaining every single dish I’ve had at Sona since they were all memorable. But in an attempt to avoid being long-winded (which I’m failing already), I’ll restrain myself to my absolute favorite dishes:

1. Hamachi with burrata, cantaloup gazpacho and basil oil. Normally, I dislike raw fish with a passion, but this changed my view. The buttery hamachi was a dream when paired with the creamy cheese. And the slightly sweet melon soup, like a complementary color, took it to the next level by providing contrast and freshness.

2. Torchon of foie gras with black pepper candy, blood orange and arugula. Black pepper brittle was torched on top of chilled foie gras medallions so the melted sugar becomes the sauce. The bitter arugula and blood orange slices kept the dish from being one noted.

3. Salmon with strawberry jam and candied clementine peel. A perfectly seared fillet of fatty salmon was tempered by stewed strawberries and slightly astringent citrus peel. Wonderful.

4. Red wine cranberry bread and Earl Grey tea roll. The names say it all. Notice how the butter have a sprinkling fleur de sel and freshly cracked pepper—it’s all in the details.

5. Shaved foie gras with buckwheat noodles and shiso. A masterpiece by Chef Kuni-san (Chef de Cuisine), the normally heavy foie is perfectly balanced by a fresh shiso salad and buckwheat noodles seasoned traditionally with sweet mirin and soy.

6. Lobster risotto with kaffir lime leaf. A decadent risotto made with mascarpone cheese and topped with lobster.

7. Deconstructed Cosmopolitan. An exercise in molecular gastronomy, an orb of tart cranberry juice floats in a pool of rhubarb juice with vodka jello, and cilantro oil. When you pierce the orb, the different components mix together to form a delicious “Cosmo.”

8. Carrots x 3 (I forgot the actual name). A dessert made entirely out of root vegetables—a moist carrot baked pudding with carrot sorbet and fried carrot chip with a beet and tapioca compote. If moms all over the world can make this, every kid would have a balanced diet.

9. Margarita, deconstructed. Another alcohol inspired palate cleanser—lime sorbet paired with orange pop rocks, candied lemon peel, tequila gel and micro mint.

10. Chocolate panna cotta with orange vanilla “yolk” and squid ink ice cream. An experience within itself—the squid ink ice cream tasted like a briny caramel.

11. Ivoire chocolate pudding with coffee gelee, bacon powder and foie gras ice cream. Everything I ever wanted in a dish together. What’s not to love?

12. Manjari chocolate creme with tobacco ice cream and Hoji cha gel. Another experience. For those who are curious, no, the ice cream did not taste like cigarettes. Instead, it had a subtle herbal taste and a stinging sensation when eaten. The tea gel was a good match for the milky mousse.

13. Stewed Bing cherries, shiso ice cream, Indonesian Pepper Espuma, raspberry tuile, buckwheat ice cream and shiso glass. Spicy, sweet, and fresh.

14. Penicillin. Ok, this is actually a cocktail, but a must-try for ginger lovers.

This month marks Sona’s 7th year anniversary, marked by magnificent cuisine and gracious service—a definite full package. Under the guidance of Chef David Myers, Kuni-san, and Ramon, I wish them many more years of excellence.


French Dipping at Cole’s

By Tsz on November 20, 2009

Sometimes, it’s good to judge a book by its cover. That was how my friend and I found this historic sandwich shop–as we walked along Main street early one night, Cole’s neon sign caught our attention. We walked closer and upon inspection of the lacquered signs and gold leaf window messaging, I was drawn just like a moth to a candlelight–must be the graphic design blood in me.

After the shortest deliberation ever with my friend (literally an exchange of nods), we walked in and grabbed a open booth. While we waited for our waitress, we soaked in the interiors. Felted red wallpaper lined the sides of the dining room, with countless picture frames of black & white photos stuck in a haphazard grid. There was also antique lamps with Cole’s painted on the big glass bulbs. It was a feast for the eyes.

The food was up to par as well, as they should be since according to their menu, Cole’s was the originator of the French dip. I had the pastrami dip while my friend had their original beef dip. Since we placed our orders before 7p, we were able to get the half-sandwich and fries combo for just $5 via their happy hour special.

The combo came in a gold and black wicker basket–a generous serving of shaved pastrami on a toasted french roll, orange tinted spicy-garlic fries and a separate plate that housed a steaming cup of au jus and a single pickle spear.

The sandwich was solid, with tender beef and a crispy roll that was lightly scented by garlic oil. A short dip in the au jus gave the sandwich an extra layer of flavor as the bread soaked up the broth. Although, I must say, Cole’s has nothing on Johnnie’s in Culver City. Side note: According to Cole’s menu, they started serving dip sandwiches to accommodate patrons with bad gums. Not a very appealing story, but interesting nevertheless.

The spicy garlic fries were piping hot from the fryer as they were inadequately drained, but tasted good with the added garlic flavored oil. Now that I think about it, it tasted almost the same as the Japanese shrimp chips.

The big downside of Cole’s was their service. My friend and I suspect our waitress suffers from short-term memory lost because she tried to take our order twice, then proceeded to forget my friend’s beer order. To which he reminded her twice, and then to a different server. He gave up halfway through our meal and asked our waitress to cancel the order, but then she charged us anyways for the missing beer. It was a pity as it marred an otherwise great dinner experience.


Bacon Rhapsody at the Nickel Diner

By Tsz on November 20, 2009

I first read about the Nickel Diner through Potatomato (one of my trusty go-to guides) a few months back, specifically about their maple-bacon donut. While I filed it away in my mental food rolodex, I’ll admit I forgot about its location till early this week, when I had to do some research on nearby restaurants near Club Nokia for dinner before the Royksopp(!) concert. Little did I know the Nickel Diner was mere blocks away from my work.

The reason I’ve never seen it during my commute is because the Diner is tucked away in between several sketch “hotels” and hidden by a strong stench of eau d’urine. Believe me that you don’t want to walk around the area by yourself at night.

But once you bypass the shady looking characters en route to the diner and walk though the Nickel’s welcoming glass doorway, you are instantly transported to the 50s, as the interiors are outfitted with rich burgundy leather booths, old counters and tile floors. Atop the metal counters are tiers of tantalizing desserts (the s’more cake looked extra fetching that night)–the only way you know you’re in the present is the artsy-looking crowd dining in nearby tables.

The food the diner serves are old-timey classics, but with a modern twist. For my dinner, I ordered their Smac & Cheese, which may seem straightforward and even pedestrian to some, but it was surprising how amazing it was. They bathe large elbow macaronis in a creamy mixture of melted cheddar, fontina, mozzarella and a kicker, pepper jack. Then they top it with a big slice of roasted tomato, a sprinkling of paprika, buttered bread crumbs and bake it till it’s a bubbling cheese party.

And what a party it was, you first get the gooey richness of the cheeses, then the slow heat from the pepper jack and paprika. Next is the random crunch from the baked bread crumbs and the freshness of the tomato and chopped parsley which did well to temper the heaviness of the dish. What a pleasant surprise to experience a diner that knows how to create balanced dishes.

My friend had their pulled pork sandwich with onion rings, both of which was aptly prepared as well. I tried a ring, which was perfectly fried with a shatteringly crunchy exterior.

Although it was a tough control my urge to finish my entire dinner, I forced myself to stop so I could make room for their famed donut. If you want to know my honest opinion about it, I say double yes! The maple donut was a dream, a fluffy, yet substantial donut in a thin vanilla glaze and a generous covering of crunchy maple bacon bits. It’s a must-try for all first-timers. In fact, if I was the mayor of LA, I would enact a new public plan that would provide meat lovers with a maple-donut of their very own… weekly.

Until that dream comes true, I guess I’ll be back in the near future to try their other offerings. Bet you a nickel that they’ll be delicious as well.