Dolce Gelato : Green Gold Rush

By Tsz on June 18, 2011

I’ve struck green gold. Tasty pistachio gold.

There’s a little trade secret amongst gelato connoisseurs to gauge the caliber of gelato shops and that’s by the quality of the shop’s pistachio flavor. The reason is that pistachio is one of the most expensive flavoring and hardest flavor to get right, making it the perfect benchmark.

There are two ways for a shop to create this flavor. The artisanal (arguably the right and only way) is to grind toasted pistachio into pistachio butter or use pre-made pistachio butter in their gelato base. The second method is to skimp on using actual pistachios, opting instead to cut it with cheaper alternatives such as almond butter or worse yet, solely employ artificial flavors and colors. Unfortunately, this happens more often than not. A telltale sign of an interior pistachio gelato is that unnatural pastel green you can find in subpar shops and an overly sweet, marzipan flavor.

However, when it’s done correctly, the result is sublime. A wonderfully creamy experience with a subtle sweetness and nuttiness that you can’t get with any other flavor—a little slice of heaven in a cup or cone. If you can’t tell, I’m a little obsessed with pistachio gelato!

Yesterday, after a fail grunion run at Laguna Beach, I was in need of a serious pick-me-up. Fortunately, my friend and fellow gelato enthusiast (so much so that he used to own his own shop!) recommended Dolce Gelato, a little shop off the beaten path.

While I trust his taste, I had some reservations after seeing the shop’s signage. Being a graphic designer, I must admit I judge many a place by their appearances and the usage of the font Curlz doesn’t exactly convey an unforgettable gelato experience to me.

Fortunately, it’s the insides that matter and their gelato was exactly that. Dolce offers a rotating roster of 24 flavors, most of which are classics, (such as vanilla bean, coffee and chocolate) and some are more adventurous with Margarita, brown butter (amazing!) and habanero chocolate. All are made daily in house.

My friend orders the PB and chocolate chip at once. As for me, being highly intolerant to lactose, I arranged for a tasting of all 24 flavors. As proof, here are all my spoons! While all their flavors were top notch, there were 3 that were extraordinary:

The first was of course pistachio. Creamy, full-bodied, yet delicate at the same time, it was one of the best specimens of pistachio gelato I’ve ever eaten. The secret (not-so secret now) to Dolce’s recipe is that they use 50% California pistachios for the creaminess and 50% Sicilian pistachios for their intense flavor.

Second flavor is their non-dairy chocolate, mostly because I couldn’t tell it was non-dairy! They were able to get the richness by using quality dark chocolate, rum for the extra kick and bananas to get the creaminess just right.

Third flavor is banana cream as it was just like eating banana pudding. By using a ratio of unripe bananas and ripen bananas, they were able to get spot on with the desired texture and peak flavor.

My friend and I left with our spirits renewed and stomachs fully satisfied. The only critique I have is they should have opened in Los Angeles instead, preferably next door to where I live.


Ruxbin : Rethinking Chicago Cuisine

By Tsz on June 1, 2011

I half-dreaded visiting Chicago. 

My first trip happened years ago when I met my arch nemesis: snow. While pretty to look at for a few minutes, I subsequently spent the next few hours shivering in a fetal position under covers in full winter regalia and with the hotel heater at full blast. Needless to say, I was not made for the cold. 

Also, Chicago cuisine is not my cup of tea. Deep dish pizza, Chicago hot dog and popcorn was not something to write home about. So, when my friend invited me to the NRA (not the gun-totting kind), National Restaurant Association Convention, I was weighing the cons and pros for a few days.

Fortunately, my curiosity won out and I am so glad it did because this trip changed my perception of Chi-town’s foodscape. Of course, I made it a point to avoid all tourist traps, so no Yelp and instead, I only consulted friends with a strong penchant for eating well.

One such recommendation was Ruxbin. It’s an almost brand spankin’ new restaurant near Wicker Park that’s creating a buzz in the community for its renditions of American comfort food fused with Korean flavors—and doing it well. Not to mention it is a dream project of the brother-sister duo of Ed (formerly of Per Se) and Vicki Kim (USC alumna, a fellow Trojan literally—my friend was in the same student organization with her!). With a story like that, how can I not visit? 

So after a red eye flight and a full day of work and exploring, we made our way to Ashland. In an unassuming building on a sketchier block, Ruxbin was quite a sight to behold in all its reclaimed and steampunk glory. What was not good though was that it was already a full house when it was only 6 pm.

My fears were confirmed when we were turned away as there was a 2+ hour waitlist, merde! Fortunately, the hostess (who was actually Vicki herself as I later learned 2 courses down the road) sensed that we were travel weary and agreed to seat us upstairs in the communal wine table for appetizers—let the feasting begin!

First up, bread service. Instead of the usual bread and butter routine, we were treated to a fluffy bowl of popcorn treated with toasted seaweed. So addicting that we scarfed down three bowls of this within minutes of getting situated.

It was a good thing the garlic fries soon arrived as we would packed away their entire popcorn supply! Thinly cut, expertly fried and sprinkled with just enough garlic, these fries made for a top class appetizer, especially when dipped (and doubled dipped) in their housemade smoky chipotle aioli.

We also ordered the Ruxbin’s Croque Monsieur. Normally it’s leaden with cheese and quite deadly, but this rendition was given major lippo and makeover with the use of fresh tomatoes, olive tapenade and a sprinkling of herbs.

For libations, we let our server (who was also the in house mixologist) take care of us. His special of the night was a homemade ginger soda with lemongrass, cucumber and Thai chili. It started out refreshing and cool and slowly grew spicier as the meal progressed. Lovely!

By then, a table opened up and we were ushered downstairs. It was a feast for the eyes being fully immersed in the dining room. With Vicki as our guide, she pointed out the reclaimed elements, which was basically every piece in the room! Here are some highlights: the glass wall was salvaged from a DJ booth, the lights made from old chandeliers and school chairs, seats created from old Eames chairs and seatbelts and the ceiling were decoupage with vintage cookbook pages.

Finally, our mains arrived. Mussels bathed in a savory mixture of sake, tomatoes, orange and fennel was textbook good, but the hanger steak stole the show.

The humble cut of beef was elevated to prima dona status as it was perfectly grilled and adorned with a single caramelized yolk (made by poaching it in a solution of melted sugar and fat). When pierced, the yolk coated the slices of steak luxuriously… I am salivating just thinking about it. And it only gets better from there with the strong support cast of crispy kale and kimchi fried potatoes. It was hands down the best dish from the trip.

By then, we were ready to throw in the towel but Vicki encouraged us all to push through by sending out desserts. The first was a refreshing lime panna cotta with lychee and toasted coconut, almost like a pina colada!

The other was a grown up strawberry shortcake, was macerated berries, chantilly creme, crispy biscuit and a balsamic drizzle. The only regret I had was wishing I didn’t eat as much during the meal so I could have enjoyed it more fully.

My friends and I stumbled back the car afterwards fully sated and with grins all around. We were definitely in a state of gastrophoria.

I couldn’t have asked for a better first night in Chicago. Thank you Vicki for taking care of us and showing me Chi-town is so much more than deep dish pizza!