Mystery Meat Dinner at Picca- Los Angeles

Done are the days of murder mystery dinners where diners sit through complex plots of set-ups, betrayals and killings woven through appetizers and entrees, and sift through side dishes of problem solving hints for an entertaining evening of detective work.  We’re not so interested in the whodunit anymore- the question being asked at Picca this season is ‘What is it’?   To kick off Picca’s new Sunday dinner hours, LA’s most beloved Chef Ricardo Zarate hosted a Mystery Meat Dinner, a 6 course meal of mystery animal parts served in his signature Peruvian style.  ‘What is it?’ was the only question that the normally kind and helpful Picca staff were refusing to answer that evening, tight-lipped and dismissive until the very end of the meal when the menu was revealed only to those adventurous diners who came to sate their curious appetites.

Course 1

Hint: Bite sized portions of white meat, moist and tender inside with a bold spicy char on its crust, revealing little tiny edible bones inside, leading me to believe that it was rattlesnake, and for another diner guinea pig.  It was a juicy cut of meat, very light with no gaminess or heaviness- like chicken, perhaps alligator- paired with Zarate’s aji amarillo salsa, a creamy huancaina rustica so full of flavor and vigor, paired with a brightly acidic beet salad.

What is it?

Culito de pollo a la brasa (chicken butt)

Course 2

Hint: Dark rich braised meat with an intense bold flavor, a hint of iron within the tender fibers that succumbed effortlessly to the fork, its intensity balanced by the tart onion and cilantro topping, perched on a creamy barley risotto that had a distinct delightful give to its texture.  It tasted and felt like braised oxtail but that would’ve make it too easy for a mystery meat dinner.  On the other side of the plate, Zarate served a crostini of similar dark moist meat mixed with spicy chorizo and topped with scallions.  Were they different cuts of the same animal, or two completely different mystery meats?  The servers would only smirk and shrug their shoulders to such inquiries, refusing to spill the beans until the menu reveal.

What is it?

Alpaca two ways: alpaca stew with barley risotto, alpaca and chorizo crostini

Course 3

Hint: Finally, a recognizable form of tubular connective tissue, cuts of obvious intestine braised to exquisite tenderness, marinated in anticucho sauce and seared ever so slightly to seal in those wonderful spicy and acidic flavors into each bite.  The surprising showstopper of this course was the potatoes, a juxtaposition of crispy crunchy thick potato skin to the soft, moist and buttery flesh within, dressed with a rocoto sauce so spicy that it brought me to tears- tears of joy.

What is it?

Choncholin: braised intestine marinated in anticucho sauce

Course 4

Hint: There is no mistaking a good cut of offal, and the distinct pentagonal lattice of honeycomb tripe in the homey stew was an easily solved mystery for this detective.  A touch of turmeric gave this hearty potato and tripe stew a beautiful golden hue and an earthy aroma, warming every cell in my body with each satisfying bite.  Zarate must have braised the tripe all day, for each cut was as tender as the potatoes, simply melting in my mouth with the ease of butter.  That evening’s cau-cau was dressed with jalapeño salsa and cumin yogurt, but I much prefer the traditional preparation of piquant chimichurri that Zarate has done before.

What is it?

Cau-cau: Peruvian potato and tripe stew

Course 5

Hint: As an offal aficionado, course 5 was another easy mystery for this private investigator to solve.  Spongy dark iron-rich cuts of meat with small hollow airways couldn’t be anything other than beef lung, prepared in a comforting stew with tender potatoes and giant kernels of Peruvian mote (corn).  On this particularly chilly evening, this nourishing and wholesome stew was a most welcome dish to savor, down to the very last morsel of lung.

What is it?

Chanfainita: beef lung stew

Course 6

Hint: Although Zarate is famous for his anticuchos, ceviches and arroz con pollo, I have always loved his desserts, and this was no exception.  Thick tender cuts of stewed apples and quince in a vivid purple glaze were spooned over a creamy rice pudding with a heavy dusting of cinnamon on top.  It tasted like chica morada, a beverage staple on Mo-Chica’s menu made from purple corn (maiz morada), and we soon discovered that this mazamorra morada dessert was made from the same ingredient.  Just as I was relishing this beautiful dessert, something bitter, intensely sour and splintery got caught between my teeth.  It was an inch long sliver of fine dark brown fibers.  It was an insect leg.

What is it?

Chapulines (Oaxacan grasshoppers), mazzamora morada

A mystery meat dinner themed around exotic animal meats and unorthodox cuts of offal may be off-putting for some, but with Chef Zarate as its chef and host, it was exactly the reason why I rearranged my work schedule on that Sunday evening to make it a priority.  Zarate is an experienced chef with these proteins and knows how to work his magic with these exotic flavor profiles, using bold Peruvian spices and salsas to brighten each dish.  The huancaina rustica that augmented the chicken, the rustic anticucho sauce seared onto the choncholin and the satisfying liquid of stewed cau-cau at this Mystery Meat Dinner made for my favorite meal by Chef Zarate to date.  The choncholin, in particular, swept me off my feet with its smokey flavors and beautifully prepared potatoes.

Now, suddenly, I was plagued with a bigger mystery- ‘Will I ever see these dishes again?’ You must put these on the menu at Picca, I demanded, to which Zarate hinted, with a knowing smile, that these may make a regular appearance on the menu at his upcoming new restaurant, Mo-Chica on Seven.  With that final mystery solved, all was well again in the land of Picca.

Picca

9575 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035.

Tel: 310 277 0133

Random trivia: According to local myth, once you try chapulines in Oaxaca, you will never leave.  This probably means that once you sample Oaxaca’s extraordinary cuisine, then you take a piece of Oaxaca with you and you will return again.

Rogue Upstairs with Chef Tien Ho- Los Angeles

Underground supper clubs.  Secretive, exclusive privileges granted only to those who are lucky enough to know somebody who knows somebody, or to those diligent food-obsessed detectives whose persistence will eventually pay off in the form of an invitation to an incognito world of food and wine.  It may take you to a warehouse or lead you into a private mansion, sometimes even through the attic of a furniture factory (I have done all three)- but at the end of the road there is always a special meal, one that will never repeat itself except in the memories of those who experience it.  New to the world of LA supper clubs is Rogue Upstairs, with its very first dinner featuring a wonderful collaboration of Momofuku alums.

The dinner was set in a beautiful apartment upstairs from Silverlake’s Intelligentsia, where attendees were welcomed with champagne and canapés to a breathtaking balcony view of the hip neighborhood.  The real charm of the space, however, was inside, a home turned art gallery where each piece of art had a story that the host, Stella Café owner Gareth Kantner, was more than happy to share- mostly of starving artists whom he discovered, sculptures that he commissioned or acquisitions made during his extensive travels.  He has exceptional taste in art- this man who seems to know everybody in LA, and whom everybody in LA seems to know- and as we were about to see, an extraordinary gift for throwing an amazing dinner party.

The first guest chef to start off the Rogue Upstairs series was Chef Tien Ho, Vietnamese born and Houston raised chef who, after working as sous chef for Café Boulud, quickly rose to Momofuku fame.  He ran the kitchen at Momofuku Ssäm Bar for 4 years before opening Momofuku Má Pêche where his modern interpretation of Beef 7 Ways (Bò 7 món) broke new ground in contemporary Vietnamese cuisine.  Having just left his position at Má Pêche, Rogue Upstairs was graced with his presence and his food for 2 special nights in collaboration with another Momofuku alum, former GM and beverage director Cory Lane who oversaw the wine pairings.

California Uni/Peach/Scallion

Generous heaps of succulent Santa Barbara uni topped with diced peaches and scallion slivers made for a most phenomenal amuse, paired with 2007 Domaine Rolet Crémant du Jura sparkling wine.  There were multiple servings for all 14 guests who swooned and swirled with every sweet spoonful.

Chicken Liver Toast/Pickled Daikon/Cilantro

Warm canapés of chicken liver toast topped with pickled daikon, pickled carrots, cilantro and red chile sauce were the best rendition of bánh mì in a bite, the tangy acidity of the vegetables working well with the luscious liver pâté.

Part of the charm of underground supper clubs is to meet interesting people and make new friends through a common love of food and wine, and this predominantly Silverlake and Los Feliz crowd was no exception.  There were photographers, dancers and yoga instructors at the table, of all nationalities and backgrounds, all enjoying Chef Ho’s special meal and free flowing glasses of wine to a backdrop of contemporary art.

There were bottomless bowls of crispy shrimp chips and deep fried black sesame chips, light airy crackers of rice and tapioca flour that were augmented with Chef Ho’s special cashew butter- a nutty spread of toasted cashews infused with the most subtle hint of fish sauce and garlic that made it simply irresistible.

Scallop Crudo/Cucumbers/Dragon Fruit/Kaffir

Cucumbers, diced pears and little black dragon fruit seeds added delightful crunchy textures and subtle sweet nuances to the tender scallop crudo, a plate of elegant flavors but for a bold spike of vibrant Kaffir lime oil drizzled with restraint.  The wine pairing with a 2007 Dr. H. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett, a beautiful Riesling with bright citrus notes, was particularly fantastic and memorable.

Roasted Prawns/Spinach/Chanterelle/Sauce Choron

The meatiest of roasted prawns, its taut flesh bursting with juicy sweetness, sat atop a bed of sautéed chanterelles and spinach, brought together with a creamy and pleasantly acidic Choron sauce and paired with a 2010 Matthiasson Sauvignon Blanc/Ribolla Gialla blend from Napa Valley.  Simple and classic, yet superbly executed and incredibly delicious, this was the dish that amplified the crowd’s level of excitement to a festive frenzy.

Rice Noodles/Chicken/Lemongrass/Chinese Broccoli

There was comfort and love in the bouncy rice noodles curled into garganelli, chewy little tubes of pasta tossed in a bowl of ground lemongrass chicken, Chinese broccoli and crispy fried shallots.  It was a long time Má Pêche classic that many of us Angelenos were happy to experience for the first time, a satisfying plate of heart and soul paired with a 2010 Scholium Project La Severita di Bruto Sauvignon Blanc.

Hanger Steak/Eggplant/Tomato/Thai Basil

A majestic tower of eggplant caponata and tomato Thai basil bruschetta stood tall behind two seemingly innocent beef medallions, which upon close inspection revealed themselves as cuts of hanger steak molded with meat glue.  It was a clever disguise, one that would have easily gone unnoticed if not for the chef’s confession, but one which we would promptly appreciate after the first bite into the most tender and flavorful piece of meat.  The meat course was paired with a bottle of 2009 Frith Grenache from Napa Valley, a personal wine project of Cory Lane’s that showed tremendous potential.

Grapes/Rosemary/Honey/Cinnamon Ice Cream

Velvety cinnamon gelato from Il Laboratorio del Gelato in New York was served with wedges of oatmeal crumble and plump grapes sautéed in butter, honey and rosemary, the refreshing notes of rosemary filling our palates with each successive bite.  There were endless refills of cinnamon gelato for the table along with generous pours of 2007 Rieussec Sauternes to conclude the meal.

With amazing food from a celebrated and loved chef, unique wines to explore and a beautiful venue in a hidden location that added to the mystery and allure, the first dinner at Rogue Upstairs had all the makings of a successful underground supper club, but there was so much more to this one.  There was a genuine joie de vivre shared by all who entered through the door, a contagious spirit emanating from the Rogue Upstairs hosts who treated newcomers with as much familiarity and love as their close friends.  By the end of the dessert course the crowd had tripled and the music amped, and it had become a hub of wine, conversation and even more food- a home away from home.  Keep your antennae raised for news on Chef Tien Ho’s upcoming ventures and future Rogue Upstairs dinners.  Come for the food and stay for the fun.

Rogue Upstairs

Random trivia: Did you know that a hanger steak is a cut from the diaphragm of a steer? The diaphragm is one large muscle, cut into two parts- the hanger steak and the outside skirt steak.

Roberto Cortez- CR8 dinner- Los Angeles

One often speaks of food as art, as edible masterpieces that inspire and excite- temporary creative installations that within minutes, at times seconds, disappear into the bellies of its admirers.  First and foremost we feast with our eyes, and intricately layered vegetable kaleidoscopes and puffs of liquid nitrogen whimsies make us coo and swoon.  Science has given chefs more avenues through which to realize their culinary visions, expanding the possibilities for achieving the perfect texture, consistency and color to components that build both abstract and lifelike landscapes on plates.  Food today is looking and tasting better than ever before.  But if food is art, it should also make us feel and move us in ways that are unexpected.  Art is a sensory experience directly synched with our emotions, our values, our memories, our thoughts, and everything else that makes us human.

I remember standing in front of Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘New York with Moon’ at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum as a teenager, a canvas of muted colors and simple shapes in contrast to the dramatic Dalí’s and Picasso’s that hung adjacent to it.  The composition too is straightforward, the artist’s perspective of the moon and a lamppost on a deserted street corner in New York.  Yet I stood, mesmerized, for hours, having an intimate conversation with the painting, feeling solitude, sadness and tranquility.  “One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt“, O’Keefe said of this painting, and I felt it- her, me, everything- so powerfully that it moved me to tears.  Without the intensely charged emotional reactions that I am able to have with paintings and photographs, I hesitate to call food as art.  Until now.

I don’t even recall how I found out about Chef Roberto Cortez’s CR8 (‘create’) dinners- let’s just call it fate, an encounter that was meant to be- private dinner experiences for small groups of up to 10 by this Texan chef who, after years of working as a private chef, had just returned from Europe with a clearer vision for his craft.  His vision is one of intimacy and sensuality, of experiencing food with complete vulnerability and humility, where chef and diners engage for an immersive journey created by food, sound, design and landscape; a concept which naturally keeps him away from a traditional restaurant model and explains why I ended up in a beautiful Bel Air estate, overlooking the Los Angeles skyline with an eclectic group of musicians, restaurateurs and artists.

The first step in Cortez’s vision is to create a space, a unique environment that balances beauty, fantasy and magic.  This particular Bel Air home, courtesy of a lovely couple who are both friends and fans of Cortez, is one such dream location, fitted with pinball machines, bright contemporary furniture, a warm blazing fireplace and a panoramic view of Los Angeles behind a pristine pool.  It is somewhere between a Hockney and a Lichtenstein, and we have unknowingly become its central subjects.

Guests arrive to a welcome of hickory perfumed smoke swirling out of a smoking gun with Cortez at the bar muddling poblano peppers for the Frida Ahumada, the Smoked Frida.  It is a magnificent cocktail of mezcal, coriander, cumin, apple and agave, full of the mystery, sexiness and power that the iconoclastic artist represents.  The smoke is trapped under the custom-made coaster, just long enough for its aroma to permeate into the ice cubes until it is released, with a dramatic puff, for its debut.  There are complexities of sweet, smokey and spicy, so wondrous that I order another glass of this seductive potion.

In ‘Farewell BBQ Summer’ Cortez takes us on our first culinary journey to the backyard, an amuse bouche of warm chicken consommé layered with frothy potato salad, homemade pickle strips and chive flowers.  It takes me by surprise- it is one of the most delicious gulps that I have had all year, and it is only the amuse.  I roll the red BBQ sauce sphere into my mouth and let its sweet tangy juices explode and dribble within, mingling with the residual chicken and potato flavors.  It is edible nostalgia in a shot, and a decade of childhood memories come flooding back in one heavenly swig.

‘Enchanted paella’ is a study in textures, Cortez says, with bright saffron ice cream and bomba rice mousse whipped to a soft silky sheen, but it proves to be much more than that.  There are peas 3 ways- plump round peas, a smear of pea pureé and crispy pea shoots that squiggle at the end- a bright acidic cherry tomato confit, a dollop of smokey red pepper gel, dehydrated chorizo matchsticks and a warm roasted prawn bouillon poured tableside into the small porcelain vessel.  There are textures, colors, shapes and temperatures, and of course, most importantly, a wealth of flavors.  There are gasps at the table, 10 to be exact, for each diner who discovers that the sum of all parts tastes just like paella.  Cortez has captured the very essence and soul of paella, each gracefully executed and carefully selected component merging for that climactic union.  It is, for me, one of the few successful deconstructed dishes I have ever had- one whose detailed efforts have nothing to do with ego or pride, and everything to do with sincerity.

I walk over to the open kitchen, curious to observe the artist in motion, and Cortez begins plating the fish course.  It is a beautiful specimen of Arctic char, brined in salt and 3 citruses, sliced paper thin and gently, ever so gently, draped on each plate.  He garnishes the fish with shallots confited with Indian black peppercorns, crispy wedges of puffed bamboo rice and tiny drizzles of lemon balm oil of a vivid green hue for the finish.  He is engaging, inviting and friendly as he shares his vision for this dinner- for it to be a fully immersed sensory experience like no other, where every aspect of the evening, from food to atmosphere, evokes beauty, style and thought.  It is felt in his music soundtrack which he pairs with the food, and it is translated through each uniquely constructed tableware, from the wine glasses to the silverware which he has designed in collaboration with artists. The Thai coconut mojito cream and spearmint dots, for one, are easier scooped off the plate with his wide 2 prong fork while the tender fish cuts like butter with the contemporary rectangular knife.  I ponder, for the first time, how form, function and design of silverware can really change how we enjoy eating.

Buttermilk poached Santa Barbara chicken is pan roasted to perfection, juicy and moist, adorned with roasted hazelnuts, diced pears and a white wine, tarragon, vinegar and champagne sauce.  There is something distinctly creamy and robust about the cauliflower pureé, and we find out that cocoa butter is the secret ingredient.  By this course we have learned to let go and be fully present in the moment, letting each bite lead us further into Cortez’s world.  His expression through his food is honest and pure- there is no attitude or vain- and it makes us believe that nothing else matters but for the company we are in, the food on our table and how it makes us feel.  This chicken dish, for one, makes me happy.

A creamy risotto is served with a sweet Syrah reduction, a deep ruby sap that is also painted, in one fluid brushstroke, along the curve of the plate with a little dusting of smoked bacon powder at its crest.  Finely ground coffee beans hiding in the Syrah sauce create a pleasant surprise of crunch and grind which, subsequently, releases a powerful surge of robust caramel aromas.  Within milliseconds my palate, my nose and my thoughts are filled with the memories of one particular autumn in Paris- the smokey cafés where I lingered over his every word, how we toasted all night long with bottles of Burgundy, then walked aimlessly, hand in hand, through the desolate cobblestone streets of Paris until sunrise, avoiding conversation about our imminent farewell.

Cortez serves a shiitake mushroom cappuccino inside a custom-made ‘big spoon’, a wine glass and spoon hybrid which, by design, forces me to hold the handle by both hands and stick my face deep into the vessel, nose first.  It creates a tight vacuum of earthy bouquets that brings me face to face with the food, giving me no alternative but to surrender and accept.  It draws out my vulnerability in the best possible way, and I get another flood of memories of that same autumn in Paris, this time with an infusion of sadness, yearning and desire that I cannot hold back.

I am still consumed with emotion during the Mangalitsa pork dish, moist short ribs glazed in a rich bone sauce with ginger lacquered grilled peaches that shine bright with end-of-summer sweetness.  There is a silky ecru corn cob velouté that tastes just like corn cob, a perplexing delight of sweetness and earthiness that blossoms in the company of puffed black quinoa and hearty farro.

The ‘big spoon’ reemerges for the first of the desserts, a motion for us to enter yet again into a very intimate and personal experience.  There is silence for a few long seconds as we bury our faces into the mouth of the spoon and bask in the chilly mist that languidly caresses our cheeks.  The icy mist dissipates and the spoonfuls of Douglas fir and tangy greek yogurt granités begin to slowly melt and shift, and we gulp them down together with the sweet Charlynn melon broth.

The CR8 finale is a breathtaking study in design, form and architecture, a surreal yet controlled landscape of abstract expressionism that has the makings of a magnificent Miró.  ‘Bollywood explosion’, it is called, a precise composition of coconut marshmallows, black vanilla paper, milk ice cream, chai gel, fennel fronds and liqueur de cerise marinated Rainier cherries on a carpet of dark vanilla bean paint.  There is jewelry- honey golden pistachio dust and a delicate 24K gold flake- to authenticate the lavishness of this Bollywood portrait which, Cortez explains, is a conceptualized inverted chai latte.

I leave the dinner that evening, still intoxicated with the beautiful flavors that have kissed my palate.  Every taste, smell, sound and sight of the dinner experience has a cumulative effect of creating an enchanted vortex of raw emotions, one so intense that would take me days to escape.  Whether that is the intention of Cortez, I am unsure of, but in such an intimate setting where chef and diner coexist, it is inevitable to become involved in the creative process, and what begins as his artistic interpretation ultimately becomes my own private, and quite visceral, experience.

My mind trudges through a plethora of memories that evening, wandering aimlessly through the desolate cobblestone streets and back to the smokey cafés, and I toss and turn in my bed until sunrise, consumed with the memories of that autumn in Paris.  I remember feeling simultaneous joy, sorrow and everything in between, for that is what love does, and love I did, that autumn in Paris, with fierce passion and reckless abandon.  I feel a tightness deep in my chest, just as I felt back then, standing on that dark street corner in Paris, looking up at the moon and a lamppost like O’Keefe in New York.

Roberto Cortez

Next dinner series on November 15, 16, 17

Random trivia- Did you know that freshly harvested vanilla beans have no flavor or aroma?  To develop their signature flavor, the beans must be cured and sun-dried for several months.

A private dinner at Wolvesden, Los Angeles

Wispy black clouds draw its shady curtains over the silver moon.  A lonely wind drags a broken beer bottle through the vacant streets of industrial downtown LA, its hollow echo resonating and disappearing into the urban abyss.  A howl echoes in the distance.  A macabre panorama on this frigid evening brings hungry pack mates together for a feast at the Wolvesden, a secret supper club revealed only to those who dare to step in.  The pack has convened at the den for a private dinner organized by the evening’s host and alpha male, Chuckeats.  It is a special occasion slightly different from the usual workings of the Wolvesden, where lucky strangers from a year long waiting list are brought together for one of Chef Craig Thornton’s dinners at his downtown loft.

It takes days for Thornton to prepare for these feasts, foraging the vast flat plains of Los Angeles for seasonal ingredients and hunting, patiently, for the ultimate fresh catch.  He works alone, diligently, wisely- taking no sous chefs nor brick and mortars that would constrain his independence- a lone wolf whose culinary creations are as wild and raw as his nature.  Live Santa Barbara spot prawns and fresh scallops large enough to eclipse the moon adorn the countertop of Thornton’s kitchen, ready for a sacrificial offering for the pack members who, one by one, gather around the fire on the stove top with bottles of wine and voracious appetites in tow.  The pups and vixens slowly circle the kitchen, admiring the hunt, panting breaths clouding the air, lips curled back to reveal their teeth and paws trembling with excitement as they hold back their instincts to pounce on their prey.

Thornton gives the signal and the sacrificial ritual begins.  For this special evening he has specifically hunted for impregnated female spot prawns, all the better to appease the  predators who have come for the Wolvesden festivities.  The prawns scurry across the hotel pans, making tiny scratching noises with their spiny little feet in a desperate attempt to escape their fate.  Their thin whiskers sway left and right, their black beaded eyes without expression.

One by one we take our turn at the cutting board to sink the knife into the occiput of the crustaceans, killing them as humanely as possible in one precise swift blow.  ‘Let me, let me!’ we all cry, amidst a crescendo of excitement, as we each experience the satisfaction of the catch and the kill.  The strike of the knife, a gush of green liquid, and soon we have a tray of butterflied prawns engorged with bright orange eggs and vivid green tomalley.  They are flash baked in the oven with a sprinkle of sea salt, just enough to sweeten the flesh and concentrate the bitterness of the innards.  After a twist of lime and a dash of coffee powder, we simultaneously rip the flesh out of the shells and sink our teeth into this delicious first course to start the feast.

Thornton pries open the live scallops, removing the white adductor muscles and slicing them horizontally in half.  The motion is so quick that the scallops don’t even realize that they have been severed- they are still fasciculating, twitching and undulating like calm ocean waves, unperturbed.  Wedges of frozen and fresh Oro Blanco draw out the sweetness of the scallops with a splash of white soy, black sesame and chili for extra flavor.

Tortilla is used unconventionally as a purée in a deconstructed fish taco dish, smeared across the plate as a background accent to complement the vivid hues and bright flavors of lime, avocado, cilantro and pickled red onions in the black sea bass dish.

Thornton is a master of uni, at times juxtaposing its sweet butteriness against the crisp bitterness of celery, and in other dinners immersing it in the brininess of black squid ink for a deep ocean adventure.  Here he balances sweet and bitter for the slick little orange sea urchin that are plated with intensely sugary beets- dehydrated yellow beets sliced thin like fruit leather and salt roasted red baby beets- green tea shortbread crumbs, pea shoots, nasturtium and a splash of yuzu kosho vinaigrette.

A whole filet of John Dory is gutted with Thornton’s razor sharp knives, stuffed with thyme and citrus wedges and slathered, quite liberally, with butter.  Into the oven it goes, this glorious specimen of succulent fish, as the butter infuses into the flesh and fine beads of sweat form on the surface of the skin.

In one swift move the chef skins the fish and divides the flesh into equal pieces for each hungry member of the clan.  Razor thin celery slices impart just enough bitterness to temper the buttery clam juice broth that the meaty clams and Asian pears have soaked up.

This time a sputtering of melting fat on the hot skillet draws the pack to the kitchen- it is time for the meat courses, and Thornton is preparing what wolves love best- offals.  The smell of meat drives the wild pack into sympathetic overdrive- we whine, we yelp, we sniff and we bark as we impatiently wait for that golden crust to form on the sweetbreads.  The meaty nuggets are presented as an open faced sandwich on fried green tomatoes with raw cheddar cheese, crème fraîche, chives and a trio of peppers-cayenne, pimento and piquillo.

A refreshing palate cleanser made with freeze dried blueberries, verjus and mandarins tames the excited pack into submission for a quick break before more meat appears on the dining table.

Thornton has broken down a whole wild pheasant earlier that evening- oh how we would have loved to hunt and kill that bird ourselves, the pups secretly think, their tails wagging at the thought of such an adventure.  The roasted bird is tossed in a parmesan hazelnut rosemary cream sauce that lovingly clings to the fresh pappardelle, a little too salty for many but the crispy skin cracklings loved by all.

For the final savory course Thornton pulls out a loaf of 48 day aged beef from the oven, slicing them in perfect little medium-rare pink toasts that he plates with watermelon radish, chives, dill, and sautéed wild mushrooms- yellow foots and black trumpets.  The vixens watch from a distance, leaned back in crouched positions, ready for the ambush, while the impatient pups trot and pace around the kitchen, salivating at the veal tongue and pork cheek pelmenis (dumplings) which, once served, swiftly disappear between their sharp incisors.

Dessert begins with a playful tribute to the Whopper, Thornton’s nod to our dinner host Chuck who, despite his reputation for having a refined palate for the finer things in life, is quite the closet junk food addict.  A steel spoon delivers a swift blow to the chocolate capsule, causing it to crack and massively hemorrhage a miso and malt liquid.  It bleeds briskly like an aneurysm into the fluffy carpet of salted Valrhona chocolate purée (mixed with homemade tofu for that light airiness- how brilliant) and gets soaked up by the roasted barley malt cake, a satisfying and delicious interpretation of America’s finest snack.

Thornton hones in on sweet nostalgia with an unmistakable flavor that makes us smile.  He has turned cereal milk, those last few remaining spoonfuls and satisfying gulps of sweetened milk at the bottom of the breakfast bowl, into an ice cream with chewy nuggets of rice krispies and sliced bananas.

The feeding frenzy ends on a sweet and playful note as the wolves rub their muzzles on their napkins and lick their chops.  It was quite a feast, beginning with an interactive catch and kill that instantly awakened the ravenous nature of the pack and whetted rapacious appetites.  There was a lot of meat- too much for even these wild animals to clean up, an issue of portion control that Thornton is aware of (‘I don’t want anybody to leave hungry, and I just get too excited about the food!’) but the smells, the sights and the tastes kept us curious and amazed from course to course.  There is something really special about this chef, who is immensely passionate about what he does, yet is as humble, unassuming and generous as they get in this industry.

At the end of the evening we salute this wonderful chef, rolling to the floor on our backs in a food coma, satiated bellies facing up in the ultimate sign of respect and submission.  Thornton responds to this gesture by removing his hat, revealing his wild long mane that he thrashes back and forth- a true pack leader, a majestic wolf.  The pack howls in unison.

A dinner at the Wolvesden is a special treat, and a private dinner with friends makes for an even better experience.  Book your feast with this talented chef and get ready to Strike. Tear. Chew.                                                                                                                     ……at the Wolvesden

Random trivia: Did you know that scallops have up to 100 simple eyes around the edges of their mantles?

LA Gastronauts dinner at Elite Restaurant- Los Angeles

They had me at frog fallopian tubes.  Then they sucked me in with duck tongues. Now they sealed the deal with beaver.  I’m talking about the intriguing menu items that are offered through the Los Angeles Gastronauts dinners, unique dining experiences that bring like-palated adventurous diners together.  What started out as a huge success in New York has now traveled to Los Angeles, with Helen Springut as our LA chapter guide who sniffs out interesting international fare with unusual themes.

“You have to try to try to eat what’s in front of you” is their motto, with previous Los Angeles Gastronauts dinners featuring silkworms, crickets, freshwater eel and agave worm for a first hand experience into your very own episode of Bizarre Foods.  The Gastronauts guides work with local restaurants to devise a most interesting tasting menu, often featuring off-menu specialty items that otherwise would never be available to the non-Gastronaut.  The July dinner delved deep into adventurous Chinese fare at Elite Restaurant, a Cantonese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley popular for weekend dim sum.  The main attraction of this dinner was live drunken shrimp, but I was there for the frog fallopian tubes, the only thing on the menu that day that was new to me.

An assortment of appetizers featured 4 delicacies starting with jellyfish salad, long golden noodles of jiggly slippery jellyfish flavored with sesame oil and a hint of red chile.  Slivers of sliced pig ears tossed in sesame oil and seasoned soy sauce, its crunchy cartilagenous center sandwiched between gelatinous outer layers, were a textural delight.  Then the duck tongues, little torpedo shaped morsels of deep fried spongy muscle with its awkward bone running through the center- not an easy or graceful eating experience but delicious nonetheless.

Strong notes of soy sauce and anise made the chicken livers and gizzards an enjoyable bite and a delightful companion to our free flowing bottles of beer and stimulating conversation with our new found Gastronaut friends.

The main course of live drunken shrimp arrived, a course where I was hoping to relive a fond childhood memory of weekend family dinners at our local Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles.  Live drunken shrimp was the highlight of these dinners, a fascinating ritual where fresh tiger shrimp would literally be drowned in Shaoxing rice wine, the gruesome process on public display in a lidded glass bowl placed in the center of the table for all to see.  The process of death was a slow one, a very long 5 minutes of agonal seizure-like activity that I watched, as a little girl, with sadistic interest.

The experience that day at Elite didn’t quite live up to my expectations, as they used Santa Barbara spot prawns instead of tiger shrimp, and sweet plum wine instead of Shaoxing wine.  In addition, the prawns were already slumped over in complete inebriation, its nervous system too wasted to put up a fight as we swiftly decapitated and peeled our catch all too easily.  The sweet succulent meaty flesh was delicious, and the experience was still worth it.

The best part of the drunken shrimp experience came quickly afterward, a plateful of freshly deep fried crispy shrimp heads tossed with garlic, green onions, salt and pepper that created a feeding frenzy at the table.

Then there were the sea cucumbers stir fried with green onions, ginger and garlic, a delightful plate with generous servings of tender gelatinous pieces of sea cucumber that kept slipping out of my plastic chopstick grip.  Luscious, bouncy and soft with a light flavor that took on the essence of its simple seasonings, these sea cucumbers were my favorite course of the evening.

Frogs- limbs, abdomen and all other stray parts- stir fried with a Chinese tea glaze, were like a bucket of wings and drumsticks, its light white flesh resembling the texture and flavor of chicken.  Little tiny bones meant more work for our reward, but the rewards, coupled with a swig of complementary cold beer, were tremendous in this fantastic frog dish.

The Gastronauts, including myself, all slowed down on the pig stomach course, a clay pot soup with unapologetically large cuts of stomach that outlined the anatomical structure and mucosal foldings of this digestive organ all too vividly.  Gingko nuts, tofu skin and whole peppercorns did little to temper the intense mustiness of the stomach, and for the first time that evening the enthusiastic Nauts showed signs of hesitance.

After a slurry of offals and proteins, the stir fried Chinese broccoli dish came as a welcome palate cleanser, although in Gastronaut style, it contained bits of deep fried fish fins that added a different layer of crunchiness.

Coming down on the home stretch, fried rice with salty fish, eggs and green onions finished the savory portion of the tasting dinner, a delicious and satisfying bowl of warm salty goodness.

We finally arrived at the dessert course, the course that I was looking forward to the most as I had never had frog fallopian tubes before.  I was imagining long gelatinous noodles of a more grotesque nature, but what arrived in front of me was a bowl of sweet white almond milk with plump nuggets of wrinkled gelatin resembling morels.  Asiatic Grass Frog fallopian tubes, also known as hasma, are typically sold dried, then rehydrated and double boiled in rock sugar to achieve that unique opaque glutinous quality.  The dainty pieces floating in the milky soup were slippery and slightly chewy like tapioca, making for an enjoyable dessert.

The next LA Gastronauts dinner is on August 7th at Starry Kitchen, with talented French chef Laurent Quenioux preparing bear tenderloin, duck hearts, veal feet, beaver leg and a cockscomb dessert. Sign up to become an LA Gastronauts club member and join us on our ongoing culinary adventures, where you’ll expand your mind, train your palate and make new friends.

Gastronauts

Random trivia: Did you know that young children are not recommended to eat frog fallopian tubes as the high contents of hormones may cause puberty to begin early?

LQ@SK- Los Angeles

An f-bomb bellowing lad in a yellow banana suit hardly seems like a fitting partner for a classically trained French chef, but when the stars aligned for the unlikely duo that is Starry Kitchen’s Nguyen Tran and Chef Laurent Quenioux, a delicious culinary project was born.  Los Angeles diners were saddened with the news of Quenioux’s Bistro LQ closing earlier this year, one of the few restaurants in the city that offered a wonderfully stocked cheese cart and a vivid menu of non-traditional fare like calves’ tongue, duck neck and goat tripe, proteins perhaps too adventurous and ambitious for the local audience. While Quenioux has since kept busy in the kitchens of Vertical Wine Bistro as Executive Chef, his enthusiasm and creativity needed an extra outlet, and a pop-up project called LQ@SK (Laurent Quenioux at Starry Kitchen) was born.

What started out as an underground food operation out of Nguyen and Thi Tran’s apartment has now become a famous joint called Starry Kitchen where downtowners nosh on lemongrass chicken bánh mì and crispy green tofu balls for lunch, and spicy Korean black pork belly for dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings.  Starry Kitchen has a loyal following, a spacious dining room, an energetic staff, a large kitchen, an available venue for dinners most nights of the week, and a signature mascot/owner whose banana suit has become just as famous as his radiant smile and dirty mouth- it’s a near perfect location for a pop-up.  Near perfect, that is, as there is no gas stove- only an induction cooker that may scare off most chefs, but not our French renegade whose LQ@SK ‘Fooding Around in LA’ pop-up dinner shows no sign of such kitchen shortcomings in his dynamic food. The first successful run of LQ@SK last month showcased delectable whimsies of global delicacies like escamoles tacos and teriyaki rabbit albondigas. This year, he started his tasting menu with another Mexican delicacy in his amuse bouche, huitlacoche.

Amuse  – Little neck clam, huitlacoche, epazote, sauerkraut sushi

Poached and chopped little neck clams were neatly tucked into a bite sized sushi with huitlacoche, sauerkraut and epazote flavoring for a light and crunchy amuse.  The earthy seduction of huitlacoche, dark maize fungus also known as corn smut (and raven’s excrement in Nahuatl), came through very slowly through each successive bite.

Warm veal feet, “ravigote”, anchovy, piquillo varnish, “gargouillou” of summer vegetables

One of my favorite courses of the evening was the warm veal feet, a delightfully gelatinous and tender serving of buttery meat, classically paired with an acidic ravigote sauce and an anchovy fillet that added a whole new dimension of flavors to the dish.  That alone would have sufficed to make for a satisfying course, but the addition of bright orange piquillo varnish with an assortment of summer vegetables (cucumber, tomato, radish, carrot and beets) transformed each bite into a memorable marriage of bright festive flavors.

Scallops 2 Ways, (tartar and sautéed), beet ribbons, zucchini smear, vermouth demi glace

Minced scallops perfumed with yuzu and a sprig of dill glided across a carpet of red and yellow beet sauce while a meaty scallop, perfectly pan seared to exquisite tenderness, soaked up the flavorful juices of the vermouth demi glace and zucchini smear.

Lemongrass galanga Consommé, Sautéed Foie Gras, Dungeness crab, roasted nectarine

The other memorable success of the evening was the Dungeness crab and roasted nectarine dish, not only for the complex flavors and light seductive aromas of the beautifully done broth, but for the surprising fact that the foie gras, which would normally take center stage, was outshined by the summer nectarines.  The foie was transformed into a docile and subtle accent under the sweet spell of the fruits and soup, making for an unexpectedly light dish that was easy to eat and enjoy.

Lamb loin, lamb kidney, lamb sweetbreads, chipotle, sweet peas

The lamb trio, reminiscent of Chef Quenioux’s Bistro LQ days, presented a trio of lamb loin with peas and tarragon, lamb kidney with a spicy chipotle sauce and lamb sweetbreads with Meyer lemon and thyme. Each told a completely different story, and the one that lured me in the strongest with its unique texture and lingering spiciness was the lamb kidney with chipotle.

Pandan pana cotta, grenadine, prickly pears, cherry apricot sorbet

Colorful Crayola hues and playful contemporary plating popped against the white background, each component with a strong personality that delighted my palate.   Bright magenta prickly pear smear, grenadine Thai basil seeds with a quiet crunch and a quenelle of cherry apricot sorbet were fun components to this dessert plate, but the Kaffir lime and pandan panna cotta, with an unusual lime green color, was the most memorable, for it lingered for almost half an hour on my palate.

Techno music, friendly staff and a laid back vibe created an atmosphere that made it seem like a casual gathering of friends more than a restaurant pop-up, a refreshing experience in this phase of LA dining where guest chef stints and pop-ups are becoming all too common.  $45 for 5 solid delicious courses was also appealing, reminding me that great food and a fun dining experience can still be had for an affordable price and not exclude budget conscious diners.  This second round of LQ@SK will only be around for a few more weeks, and we can only hope that there will be more to come.

*August 7th at 7pm, LQ@SK will be doing a special 1 night-only dinner event for LA Gastronauts. Fancy some duck hearts, bear tenderloin, cockscombs, sea cucumbers and…..beaver? Sign up for this unique dining experience before it sells out!

LQ@SK

Starry Kitchen                                                                                                                 350 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90071                                                                                                   (213) 617-3474

Random trivia:  Did you know that epazote, a pungent Mexican herb, is frequently used to season beans as it is believed to help relieve abdominal discomfort and gassiness from eating beans?

Rustic Mondays at Fraiche Restaurant

When the 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook Japan on March 11, 2011, and massive tsunamis engulfed the northeast coast of the country, the world watched with sadness and grief at the immense loss of life.  In the midst of this devastation, many have stood up to make a difference by donating their time, money and services for Japan.  Chefs and restaurateurs in Los Angeles have also done their part in raising awareness for relief efforts by hosting dinners where a portion of the proceeds go to charitable funds.  One such fun and delicious event was hosted by Chef Benjamin Bailly and Chef Ricardo Zarate at Fraiche Restaurant in Culver City, where proceeds from the dinner went to Operation USA.

The dinner was the first to kick off a weekly series called Rustic Mondays, featuring a guest chef and his or her prix fixe 3 course dinner in conjunction with Chef Bailly’s 3 course offerings. For a mere $35, diners can choose from either Chef Bailly’s dish or the guest chef’s dish for each of the 3 courses.  Rustic Mondays are not meant to be a competition of chef vs chef, but more of a collaboration and celebration of culinary diversity.

Chef Bailly, who now oversees the kitchens at both Fraiche locations (Culver City and Santa Monica), represented his French heritage while Chef Ricardo Zarate, who was recently crowned Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2011, came strong with his signature Peruvian delights.

Chef Bailly started off the first course with a Salade Gourmande, a large filling plate of baby greens, haricot verts, sautéed mushrooms, sweet candied tomatoes and goat cheese croquettes tossed with hazelnuts and a very subtle truffle vinaigrette.  A perfectly poached egg bled its thick bright yellow sap onto this salad while the warm goat cheese croquettes proved to be the highlight.

Chef Zarate’s Ceviche Mixto with tender squid, large meaty succulent shrimp, scallops and covina tossed in a Leche de Tigre sauce was the most successful and delicious dish of the evening.  His famous signature dish, a delicately flavored bowl of fresh seafood with bold contrasting textures from crunchy fried corn kernels, diced red onions and airy camote, reminded me through every successive bite why he won the prestigious Food & Wine award this year- unpretentious, simple, humble and delicious.

The seared Scottish salmon in Bailly’s Saumon Aux Lentilles was perfectly cooked, a sweet moist piece of fatty fish that paired wonderfully with the creamy country mustard sauce.  The Puy lentils ragout, while blissfully injected with bacon essence, would have fared better with less cooking time and cleaner textures.

Zarate’s Pachamanca was a double fisting meat lovers paradise, a simple yet satisfying entrée of braised lamb that melted in my mouth, next to a generous serving of equally tender pork belly cooked with a crispy crackling layer of skin.  Meat and potatoes, and in this case Peruvian potatoes with fava beans and baby carrots, were elevated to sophistication with Zarate’s divine sauce.

The French sure know how to please a woman, and they always strike where it counts.  Bailly’s beautiful Paris-Brest hit the spot with its soft airy buttery pâte à choux and its glorious praliné crème studded with cocoa nibs.  2 servings of this beautiful pastry still left me longing for more.

Sol y Sombra, a refreshing cold dessert by Zarate, contained fun delightful textures from its mixture of dried plums and almonds on quinoa con leche with a drizzle of purple corn syrup.

Rustic Mondays, a global celebration of Los Angeles chefs, was off to a wonderful start at Fraiche Restaurant with our beloved Chef Zarate as its first guest.  Future guest chefs will include an amazing line up of some of our most famous and cherished talents.  In addition, Deysi Alvarez and Jody Barton will be creating unique cocktails to pair with these dinners, such as the Algorrobina made with egg yolk, carob syrup, cream and pisco, my favorite drink of the evening.  Thank you to Chef Bailly and Chef Zarate for contributing a portion of the dinner proceeds for Japan earthquake and tsunami relief.

Fraiche Restaurant

9411 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 839-6800

Random trivia: Did you know that pâte à choux, made from butter, flour, eggs and water, refers to the light airy pastry dough that is the basic template for many other dishes that we love to eat?  Flavored with cheese they become gougères, mixed with potato purée and fried they become pommes dauphine, shaped into elongated tubes and filled with cream they are éclairs, and they are also what make croquembouches, profiteroles, beignets and crullers.