Market by Jean-Georges, Vancouver, BC Canada

What does an accomplished 3 Michelin star chef do after opening 9 successful restaurants in the US and just as many around the world?  Why, continue expanding of course.  Jean-Georges Vongerichten is unstoppable in every way, enlarging his empire beyond French fine dining and casual cafés, and boldly venturing into Asian restaurants and even Japanese soba.  For this internationally acclaimed chef and world renowned restaurateur, who began his training with Chef Paul Haeberlin in Alsace (Hubert Keller also trained with him) and subsequently Paul Bocuse and Louis Outhier, global domination comes easy.  His namesake restaurant, Jean-Georges, in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan, remains one of New York’s 3 Michelin star restaurants while others nearby like Spice Market and Matsugen offer more casual ethnic fare.  Although half of his ventures involve partnerships with hotels, he is very much involved with the other half, taking a direct hands-on approach in the kitchen to prove that he’s not just a celebrity name.  Shanghai, London, Paris, Istanbul and even Bora Bora have been graced with the magical touch of Jean-Georges. His next stop?  Canada.

Market by Jean-Georges opened in the Shangri-La Hotel in downtown Vancouver in January 2009 as his first Canadian and West Coast outpost.  Similar to Market in Paris and in the W Hotel in Boston, the menu is a collection of his ‘best hits’ items from his other restaurants, using locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.  Prices are kept reasonably low to match the casual and relaxed vibe, although it’s apparent that they didn’t skimp on the gorgeous interior.  Market in Vancouver has 4 dining areas to match your mood and purpose- a casual café with a fireplace, a heated outdoor terrace with breathtaking city views, a chic bar made of black marble, and a minimalist dining room with 2 private rooms.

The retro-chic dining room with geometric patterned carpets, white leather banquettes and large cylindrical ceiling lights evoked Eames architecture.  The private rooms, with floor to ceiling windows that beautifully framed the bustling streetcorner of Thurlow and Alberni, were breathtaking.  For a grand dining experience in an alluring restaurant housed in a world class hotel, prix fixe lunch for $29 seemed too good to be true.  For a bargain price, this lunch came with 1 first course, 1 entrée and 1 dessert.  Choices for the first course included raw items like beef carpaccio pizza with mushroom, parmesan & arugula, and hamachi sashimi with muscat grapes & buttermilk dressing.  Also available were soups like clam chowder, salads like roasted beets with goat cheese & crystallized wasabi and appetizer choices like asparagus risotto, smoked salmon pizza and seared scallops with caramelized cauliflower.  We enjoyed the most amazing glasses of cherry yuzu soda and jasmine lemonade while we narrowed down our choices.

The tuna tartare with avocado, spicy radish and ginger dressing was a great starter.  Tuna and avocado is always a great combination, each playing off of the other’s rich fatty buttery flavors.  The tender tartare was pleasantly contrasted by the distinct spiciness of the radishes and the prominent presence of grated ginger.  Spicy chile oil was used liberally in this dish, its piquant properties lingering on my tongue for a good stretch while the nuttiness of the underlying sesame oil flavors slowly infused into my taste buds.

Black truffle and fontina cheese pizza immediately caught my eye, but I was quick to initially dismiss it as an option as I couldn’t imagine it truly delivering truffle flavors in a reasonably priced prix fixe lunch menu.  Our server encouraged us to get it, in fact insisted, saying that it was the best selling and most popular item at Market.  Thank you to our wise server, for I may have missed one of the most incredible truffle pizzas to ever take plate on this earth.  The dough, so soft and pillowy, the cheese, a most fitting partner for the earthy flavors of black truffle, and the frisée greens, a delightful augmentation of texture.  They didn’t skimp on the truffles, its flavor and essence fully infused into every molecule of this pizza to where it was more powerful than an actual fresh truffle.  Its distinct seductive aromas wafted through the air, attracting envious stares from all directions.

‘Like attracts like’ when it comes to good food and discerning palates, and friendships can blossom from the most unexpected culinary moments.  The diner sitting at the table next to us presented her spring pea soup with parmesan foam to me for a photo opportunity, and with a click and an ‘Ahh’ an instant connection was formed.  This wonderful nurse from Oregon already had me at pea soup, and continued to wow me with her stories from Per Se.  She joined us for subsequent meals in Vancouver and we bonded over ostrich at Chambar and chicken feet at Kirin.  Such is the joy of eating and sharing- new encounters and lasting friendships.

For the second course, we had choices of fish and meat entrées.  Nut & seed crusted red snapper and slowly cooked Arctic char sounded appetizing, but my dining partner chose Pacific Halibut with sautéed spinach and sweet garlic lemon broth.  The herb crusted halibut was moist and cooked perfectly, going well with the Asian flavors infused in the chile oil and szechuan peppercorn like flavors within the spinach.  Jean-Georges’ long history of working and traveling through Asia can frequently be seen in hints of sauces and garnishes.

Soy glazed short ribs with apple-jalapeño purée, seared BC hanger steak with gingered mushrooms & soy caramel sauce, and the Market burger with Russian dressing & onion rings sounded mighty enticing for this hungry carnivore, but in an odd twist of events, I ordered the grilled tuna burger with miso mayonnaise and shiso instead, simply because I am a sucker for anything shiso.  The miso mayo was creamy and salty, adding a deep level of flavor to the juicy tuna patty.  The pickles were mild and its signature tartness was subdued so that the whole shiso leaves could play their part.  It was a delightful and satisfying burger, strong on sharp flavors but light on the stomach.  Their fried potatoes were pretty amazing too.

For dessert I was too full and content to stuff myself even more, and settled for a simple fruit plate that was refreshing and simple.  My dining companion got the rhubarb and strawberry crisp with honey ice cream, an adorable bowl of wholesome flavors and thick doughy textures that oozed with just the right sweetness.

The Shangri-La Hotel provides a gorgeous backdrop for this restaurant where the service and ambiance match its sophisticated world class level.  The menu honors seasonal and local ingredients by keeping concepts relatively simple, yet remaining solid in its execution, presentation and flavor.  With a Jean-Georges ‘best dishes’ amalgamation, the menu at Market is practically fool proof.  Another satisfying and delicious meal for me, another restaurant destination crossed off the list for Jean-Georges.  He recently opened Market and Spice Market in Doha, Qatar.  Where will this culinary tycoon set foot next?

Market by Jean-Georges

Shangri-La Hotel

1128 West Georgia Street
Vancouver, B.C. V6E 0A8
Canada
T: 1 (604) 689 1120

Random trivia:  Did you know that rhubarb was so immensely popular for its wide variety of medicinal uses that in the mid 1600′s it sold for twice the price of opium?

Bar 210- Los Angeles

Imagine yourself in the middle of the vast landscapes of Burgundy where rows and rows of lush green grape vines in the middle of summer extend far beyond your visual field, interrupted only by quaint farm houses and rolling hills.  You pop open a 1971 Romanée-Conti, swirl it around in your glass, and savor it in your mouth as you bask in the warm sunlight.  You make love to every molecule of this elegant vintage wine with your palate and appreciate life for getting you to this moment.  Now imagine dumping that same bottle of wine into a styrofoam cup and drinking it at a rowdy state fair where screaming kids in overdrive terrorize their parents.  Does it still taste as good?

High quality ingredients, excellent seasoning, exciting flavor combinations and proper preparation define good food, but ambiance and atmosphere can make or break it.  Oceanfront views, romantic candlelight, crackling fireplaces, water fountains, perfectly dressed servers and gorgeous interior decor attract diners who want a relaxing and pleasant dining experience.  Patrons are more likely to revisit a restaurant with mediocre food but beautiful atmosphere and professional service, than one with the opposite combination.  When your sense of sound, sight and smell are pleasantly stimulated, your food will naturally taste that much better.

Chef Marcel Vigneron is no newcomer to the culinary scene- we know and lovingly hate him from his notorious Top Chef days when he shined on screen as the nation’s new villain with knives.  He seemed to have found the perfect home in The Bazaar where his molecular gastronomy skills were given an extra coat of polish.  His solo venture at the Hatchi Breadbar dinner sold out to satisfied diners who swooned over his adventurous and delicious creations.  This classically trained chef’s latest gig comes as a surprise to me, a rowdy and pretentious bar called Bar 210 in the former Trader Vic’s space in the Beverly Hilton Hotel.  The 7,000 square foot space also houses Plush lounge where young party-goers can dance the night away in stilettos and boots.  Hanging gold chains against a background of more gold add extra bling to the dimly lit Bar 210 space where the scantily clad (but beautiful) waitresses in one shoulder minis try their best to hear your order over the loud music.  It’s a sexy establishment, but hardly the right venue for Vigneron’s innovative culinary art.

Marcel, as always, was a gracious host, welcoming us to his new crib and coming out to present each plate to us.  But even this bigger-than-life chef seemed painfully out of place at Bar 210 where the other patrons in flashy garb and here-to-be-seen attitude were more interested in the overpriced cocktails.  The Global Tastings concept that we saw in his Hatchi dinner back in December 2009 where he married international spices with modern interpretations is continued in the small bites menu at the bar.  We settled into our uncomfortable bar stools for our tasting dinner that kicked off with a momochan amuse with mint and saffron yogurt powder.

The Ahi tuna tartare plate was a breathtaking bouquet of vibrant colors and sensational flavors.  Tender chunks of meaty tuna over crunchy biscuits topped with an artistic palette of ponzu gel, pineapple, jicama, nasturtium flowers, avocado cream and wasabi tobiko excited my palate with each successive bite that introduced a new medley of textures and flavors.  As I desperately tried to block out the annoying music from my aching head, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better the tartare would have tasted in a proper restaurant environment.

Compact but meaty Kusshi oysters were served on a salt bed with grains of paradise seasoning and citrus dashi air.  As always,  Chef Marcel’s presentation demonstrated elegant beauty with a touch of playfulness- these pearls of the sea looked like they had been swept up by the ocean breeze and miraculously washed up onto a white sandy beach.

Speared tails of plump succulent shrimp with Thai tom kha flavoring were curled up over a carpet of white coconut milk powder and covered with a blanket of basil seeds, crispy ginger and Thai herbs.  It was a wonderful dish of tantalizing textures and fragrant aromas, but I much preferred the more intricate version of langoustine ravioli with tom kha foam and avocado wrapped mango that he presented at the Hatchi dinner- but the theme at Bar 210 wasn’t elegant cuisine, it was simplified bar food.

Yogurt, caramelized walnuts, celery and microgreens stayed afloat in Wally boats of purple endive while a walnut shipmate shouted ahoy from an apple raft nearby.

Leave it to Vigneron to interpret and twist classic concepts, like the Cobb 2010 which offered a modern presentation on a traditional salad dish.  Cobb salad ingredients were mixed together in bite-sized rolls and topped with small portions of the individual ingredients- bacon bits, avocado cream, tomato caviar, quail egg and blue cheese.  Just picturing the mischievous look on his face as he invented this dish made me smile, and it left me longing to see how far he could stretch the potential of this concept.

A familiar face from The Bazaar came by to say hello- boneless chicken wings brined for 24 hours, then confited, deboned, breaded and fried.  Only this time, instead of a green olive purée, they got a face lift with micro celery and a butt job with blue cheese injection.  Although the cheese was a bit overpowering, the incredibly tender chicken, barely able to contain its savory and rich juices, was electrifying.  Knowing the unbelievable amount of painstaking preparation and thought that went into this chicken, it bothered me even more to see it underappreciated in this bar environment.

Tuscan style potato cubes were deep fried to a perfect crisp exterior and steamy moist interior, going well with the creamy chlorophyll mayo.

In an unexpected potato stand-off, I preferred the velvety wrinkled skin of the Canary island potatoes with chlorophyll mayo, a joyous encore dish from The Bazaar.

Yogurt seems to be his thing right now, as it appeared in numerous dishes including the gravlax on toasted bread with kalamata olive dust, pickled ramps and dill.  The fatty and luscious cut of salmon practically melted in my mouth, but a boost of acidity or salt to counteract the mellow yogurt would have perfected this dish.

Modernized banh mi sandwiches came in the form of pork belly sliders with red onion, shaved carrots, green beans and daikon slivers.  This was the perfect bar food that made you want to reach for a glass of ice cold beer.

There were too many salty components in the short rib sliders with tomato confit, arugula, black olive aioli, brie cheese and caramelized onion purée but the meat was juicy and tender, making for a satisfying bite.

I was ecstatic to see another encore from his fantastic Hatchi dinner which also happened to be my favorite dish from that event, Vadouvan lamb with tzatziki, lavosh, za’atar, mint, cucumbers and preserved lemon.  It’s obvious that sliced meat would never taste as good as meat served on the bone, but given that the original lamb chop made such an impression on me, I was even more saddened to see this less inspiring rendition at Bar 210.

The chef finished our tasting with a dessert plate of liquid brownie sticks, chocolate covered strawberries, blueberry tarts and macaroons.  The cold ice cream brownie sticks with crunchy rice puffs made me feel like a kid again.

Although I appreciated the beauty of each dish and how much preparation went into them, it was difficult to live in the moment and savor each bite with the loud music and atmosphere obstructing my dinner.  It also bothered me that no matter how good the food was, the crowd that this bar attracted would never fully appreciate it, as they were less likely to be interested in his work and more likely to be keen on their waitress’ hourglass figure.  But it’s a bar, after all, and people don’t come here for the food- they come here for the scene and the scenery.  Considering that Chef Vigneron had to simplify his dishes from fine cuisine to finger food in order to cater to this younger bar crowd, he maintained his style and flair as best as he could.  Still, the usual explosion of creativity and vivacity that I’m used to seeing in this chef’s work was regretfully muffled.   Just like a good bottle of wine deserves to fall upon the lips of an appreciative gourmand, Chef Vigneron’s food deserves an environment which is more fitting and worthy.  It’s a good thing that he’s pursuing his passion in his upcoming SyFy network show, as his personality and stage presence is too perfect for TV, but the real next step is to open his own restaurant where we can see, smell and taste the true soul of this outstanding chef.

Bar 210

9876 Wilshire Blvd

Beverly Hills, CA 90210

(310) 887-6060

Random trivia: Did you know that chlorophyll, a green pigment found in plants that aids in photosynthesis, acts as a deodorizer that eliminates bad odor, and is therefore routinely added to chewing gum?


Rincón San Román- Baja, Mexico

Tijuana, Mexico a.k.a. TJ- what images come to your mind?  Raging drunks, partying college kids, tequila funnels, street drugs, car theft and kidnappings?  That was partly my perception too, before I headed down to Baja California for a life-changing culinary tour with a lovely group of gourmets a few months ago, led by my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA.  With expectations of eating fish tacos and clams from street stalls all weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by the fine dining experience we had at Restaurant Rincón San Román, headed by one of Mexico’s highly acclaimed celebrity chefs Martín San Román.  He’s one of the faces of Mexican cuisine, having appeared on weekly TV cooking shows and competed in the 1995 Bocuse d’Or competition for Team Mexico.  Raised in Mexico City and of Basque ancestry, San Román’s classical French training and continued membership in the prestigious Academie Culinaire de France provides a solid foundation for his Mexican-French style of cuisine where he incorporates fresh ingredients unique to the Baja waters and land with elegant French concepts and flair.

Driving just a few kilometers south of the bustling streets of Tijuana, we found ourselves gliding along the beautiful coast of Real del Mar where the deep blue sea and the vast open skies melded on the distant horizon.  Going up the hill into the Real del Mar golf complex through a security gate, we parked near the terracotta courtyard flanked by magenta bouganvillea vines.  The sounds of chirping birds and soft winds greeted us into this remote haven that seemed far removed from the city.  It felt like we accidentally stepped into a warp zone that whisked us away to Tenerife, or perhaps somewhere on Santorini. On that particular cloudy afternoon, our cheerful and friendly host Chef San Román greeted us in his beautiful 2 story restaurant that he emptied out for a private lunch just for us.

After going through the casual cafe and bar area, we stopped at the foot of the stairway to examine Chef San Román’s many achievements proudly framed on the walls.  A team photo from the Bocuse d’Or competition, many plaques of recognition for his fine cuisine, numerous awards and accolades from all over the world- and of course, the infamous LA Times article from 2002 on Chef San Román and his unique Baja cuisine written by one of our culinary tour members, Barbara Hansen.  Our table was set with pristine silverware and wine glasses, and we had an unobstructed grand view of the Pacific Ocean from the second floor.   On clear days, one can see the Coronado Islands floating in the distance.  In this heavenly and serene environment, we were treated to a wonderful cuisine d’auteur tasting lunch created by this accomplished auteur, or artist.

He started us with a plate of tuna tartare with apples, onions, pine nuts and pumpkin seed oil topped with a layer of wine jelly and garnished with freshly ground black pepper and microgreens.  The honey-like sweetness of the wine jelly brought out the flavors of the fresh tender tuna while diced onions and pine nuts added fun textural crunch.  The earthy mellowness of the pumpkin seed oil rounded out each bite with a smooth finish only to be followed by an unexpected jolt of cactus needles tickling my tongue from ancho chile slivers on the crisp bread.  Our elegant tuna dish was paired with a 2008 Concha y Toro Sauvignon Blanc.

The vibrant colors of the New Zealand mussel dish popped out against the black slate dish.  Fresh corn mixed with its nemesis, huitlacoche, added an earthy and smokey layer of flavor while pico de gallo and fresh marjoram danced in fresh celebration on my tongue, all brought together through the creaminess and richness of lobster reduction and panela cheese.

A salad made with crisp hydroponic lettuce and cherry tomatoes from San Román’s garden in the Guadalupe Valley came dressed with a sweet syrupy hibiscus vinaigrette and bacon bits.  We actually had a vase of live hydroponic lettuce on our table on display.

Our seafood course was a rolled fillet of locally caught sole stuffed with graped leaves and smoked marlin, standing tall atop a bed of savory smoked scallop and fish jus sauce.  What looked like a cylinder of classic gratin dauphinois with potatoes and cream, given the chef’s classical French training background, was actually a Baja twist of chayote lasagna.  This delicious vegetable side, along with the amazing sauce and the smoked marlin, or ‘jamón of the sea’, brought a wonderful level of savoriness and richness to this creation.

An artistic plate of Mexicali beef tenderloin with salsa de pimenta verde was plated with abstract expressionism under the skillful hands of the restaurant’s auteur. A yellow circle of seared guava with crunchy round seeds lay still next to a twig of fresh rosemary from the garden that released pungent freshness into the air to entice our olfactory senses.  Crunchy flakes of chicharrones sparkled on a painted landscape of browned sauce, inviting us to savor its seductive crackles with every bite.  Perfectly paired with a bottle of 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Jardín Secreto, this dish demonstrated the sensitivity and sensuality of Chef San Román.

The most memorable and striking of all dishes that afternoon was the Tijuana crepe cake, copied by many throughout Baja but never equaled by its original creator, Chef Martín San Román himself, who created this delightful dessert back in 1989.  I fell in love with the crepe cake when I had it for the first time at Chef Yaguës’ La Querencia, but the one and only original here at Rincón San Román was beyond perfection.  Fine layers of crepe interspersed with feathery soft and light creme simply melted in my mouth along with thin shavings of white chocolate, as I licked the strawberry and raspberry sauce squeaky clean off the plate.

Tijuana was the last place that I ever imagined sitting down for an elegant meal with paired wines and white tablecloth fine dining, but here I was, enjoying an amazing meal prepared especially for us by a distinguished and notable chef.  My preconceived notions of Tijuana and Baja Mexico were slowly but surely changing through this eye opening culinary trip.  Baja is no longer a place that’s solely famous for fish tacos, spring break partying and sleepy fishing villages.  It’s emerging, much to my delight, as one of the most fascinating locations in the world with a contemporary and sophisticated style of cuisine that cannot be mimicked by others.  Many talented and motivated chefs are flocking to this peninsula to test their skills with the local seafood that is unique to the 2 bodies of water that sandwich this rich land.  Notable wines are being produced in the Valle de Guadalupe that are as good as the wines in Europe.  Organic farming and hydroponic cultivation are creating sensational produce that are rich in nutrients and flavor.  Beautiful Baja California is now a food lover’s paradise.

Restaurant Rincón San Román

Km. 19.5 Tijuana – Rosarito toll road
Blvd. Real del Mar 1074 – 21 Real del Mar Golf Resort
Zip Code 22565

Random trivia:  Did you know that mussels secrete a highly adhesive protein through their hairy ‘beard’ that makes them stick to rocks in turbulent waters, a substance so adhesive that it can even make a mussel stick to Teflon?  Due to the highly sticky nature of this unique mussel glue that remains adhesive even in wet environments, research is being done to see if this substance can be used for ophthalmologic and orthopedic surgeries.

Si Laa Thai Restaurant

Once in a while I meet a very special person who lives life with a philosophy and style that I strive to achieve, one so pure and passionate that I cannot help but be drawn to it like a moth to a flame.  We meet many people in life, but there is always that occasional one that stands out from the rest because of an irresistibly strong and radiant aura that glows beautifully with all of the colors of the rainbow.  These people come into our lives for a reason- sometimes that reason is evident from the beginning, and sometimes that realization doesn’t come until much later when you least expect it.  I found not only one but two such special individuals at Si Laa restaurant in Los Angeles, a quaint but pristine restaurant in the quieter southern stretch of Robertson Boulevard.

I was recently introduced to Ben Yenbamroong through a mutual friend who told me how much she adored Ben’s spirit.  The first time that I met Ben in her new restaurant of almost 1 year, her glowing smile and gentle laughter immediately put me at ease and I felt like we knew each other for years.  She became my instant Thai mother, so nurturing with her loving hugs and caring with her hospitality.  But despite her gentle voice and petite frame, there was a strong sense of discipline and determination that came through, one that demands great respect.  After all, she’s been in the business for over 25 years and she knows what she’s doing.

Ben is part of the renowned Yenbamroong family, the family behind Talesai in West Hollywood and Cafe Talesai in Beverly Hills.  She used to run the kitchen at Cafe Talesai but has now passed that torch on to her nephew in order to open Si Laa.  She brought along one of her daughters to work the front of the house and her mother to help create wonderful and authentic Thai food in the kitchen.  The other special individual that I was referring to is Grandmama, the holy matriarch of this restaurant.  She doesn’t speak a lot of English, but we didn’t really need words to feel that instant personal bond.  I can see where Ben gets her lovely smile- is there anything cuter than Grandmama’s smile?  Don’t let that friendliness and cuteness fool you though- this woman is a serious chef.

One of the reasons why I love Si Laa is because it’s a combination of all of the things that I love about a restaurant.  It’s a family run ‘mom and pop’ place, the kind of neighborhood joint that you will always feel welcome in.  You can drop in any time and know that you’ll get attentive personal service from the same beloved owner who will become part of your family.  You know who’s cooking your food, and you can feel confident that it will always be consistently good.  It’s a comforting feeling to know that you’re in very good hands with people you trust.  At the same time, it’s elegant fine dining in a beautiful restaurant setting with white tablecloths, polished silverware and wine glasses.  There’s contemporary artwork on the walls that give it an art gallery feel.  The private dining room is dazzling and spacious.  The wine list is unique and intriguing.  Whether it’s for a casual weeknight dinner or a momentous event, Si Laa will create that perfect experience and meal for you.

Si Laa was hosting a birthday party for a longtime customer one evening, and Ben told me to come in to try some of her specialty dishes that she was making for the party.  Everything that I had already tried at Si Laa was excellent, so I knew that these special items, not on the regular menu, would be amazing.  The private dining room was beautifully set up for this party of 18 guests, and my friends and I could hear happy laughter and clinking wine glass toasts all night long from the adjacent dining room.  I was happy to be benefiting from this soirée as I sunk my teeth into the first party item, shrimp toasts with microgreens. These succulent little bite-sized morsels were heavenly, with the kind of pleasant crunchiness that goes K-K-Krunch.

Chicken and vegetable dumplings, which are on the regular Si Laa menu, were amazing.  The best word that I can think of to describe the wonderful texture is ‘puri puri’, a Japanese phenomimetic word to express the bouncy soft springy texture of the tender and juicy dumplings.

My favorite dish of the party menu was the tuna tartare, one of Ben’s specials that is unfortunately not on the regular menu.  I don’t normally get excited about tuna tartare, and I surely never order it off a restaurant menu because it’s usually some sad heap of mutilated tuna bits that have been drowned in sesame oil or mayonnaise.  These were different.  Si Laa’s tuna tartare was a sensational blend of vibrant flavors, colors and textures.  I could really taste and appreciate the large tender chunks of tuna, in juxtaposition to the tangy bites and assorted textures of lemongrass, peanuts, cilantro, onion, peppers, toasted coconut and kaffir lime.  Just looking at these photos takes me back to that evening and makes me drool with excitement.  This ‘drier’ version of Thai tuna tartare was, in my opinion, far superior to any rendition that I’ve tasted at any establishment in the world.

Crab cakes with mango chutney on fresh green tomatoes was a joy.  Large meaty chunks of crab were seasoned very simply so as not to overwhelm its inherent flavors.  Again, I really appreciated that Ben didn’t overwhelm these delicate cakes with mayonnaise like others do.  The harmonious blend of the sweet mango chutney with the refreshing and juicy tomatoes was perfect with the crab.  This dish belongs in a Michelin star establishment.

Golden triangles, crab and shrimp encased in wonton, came straight out of the deep fryer to our table, perfectly crisp, hot and steaming.  These small dainty treats made soft crunching sounds in our mouths until we all ended on a simultaneous and satisfying gulp.  Ben paired our seafood appetizers with a divine and elegant bottle of 2008 Gewürztraminer called G3 from Resonance in Oregon.  We were all pleasantly surprised by this wine- it was astonishingly light and easy to drink, and we ended up ordering more and more.  I’m now on the hunt to buy a case of this.

‘Hidden treasures’ revealed flavorful bites of succulent shrimp and crab in a seductive and spicy chili coconut sauce topped with slivers of kaffir lime.

Deep fried tempura battered soft shell crab was another delight that we enjoyed, full of texture and flavor.

New Zealand lamb chops with Thai curry spices was a fantastic dish.  The meat was perfectly grilled to a medium rare, and we were all gnawing on the bones in a 5 minute run of complete silence.  For the second half of our meal, she paired a 2007 Oregon Pinot Noir by Penner-Ash from Willamette Valley, whose dark berry undertones complimented the lamb and beef dishes well.

One of the most popular items at Si Laa is the short rib green coconut curry dish, served with a side of buttery roti flatbread.  I can see what drives its popularity- I too fell instantly in love with the tender and juicy pieces of braised short rib that melted in my mouth.  After sampling this dish, I don’t think that I can ever go back to ordinary beef curries at other Thai restaurants.

Crab noodles with scallions, bean sprouts, egg, thai chili and garlic were wonderful.  This dish confirmed my observation about Si Laa- that they don’t skimp on good quality products.  When a dish contains crab, it means that you get generous portions of large meaty chunks of real crab, not just a few flakes.

Spicy Devil Noodles with chili garlic and thai basil were stir fried with carrots, peppers and a generous helping of tender braised short ribs.  Again, the succulent cuts of beef were the shining star in this delicious plate served with wide flat rice noodles.

Ben buys her produce several times a week at the Farmer’s Market, and frequently she will serve seasonal farm fresh ingredients.  On this particular evening she had komatsuna, Japanese spinach, which was stir fried with spring garlic in a special soy based sauce.

By the end of our meal we had become friendly with the diners at the adjacent table, who have been Si Laa fans for a long time.  They drive all the way up from their home in San Diego several times a month just to eat here.  This time they brought their friends, owners of several delis and restaurants in New York and Connecticut, to have their last dinner in Los Angeles before they went back east.  They were having such an amazing dinner experience that they even sent over their crispy duck dish to share with us (they must have noticed us staring at their food with drool coming out of our mouths.  Bad table manners…).  They even treated us to a mango with sticky rice dessert plate that was to die for.  The juicy mangos, at the peak of their season right now, were bursting with spring sweetness.

This is the type of restaurant that Si Laa is, where despite the upscale decor and fine food, diners can bond over their mutual love of Ben and her family and become instant friends.  Where Ben and her mother periodically come out from the kitchen to give you a hug and chat with you.  Where you can feel like you’re relaxing at home.  Where mingling and laughter is encouraged.  Where you can count on excellent and satisfying food, whether for a date, a casual night out with friends or a private party.

It’s been a long time since I met a chef and a restaurant that I enjoyed this much.  The food, authentic in flavor and concept, is served with elegance, grace and beauty, just like the 3 generations of women who work here.  If you want to try the excellent tuna tartare and crab cakes, just call ahead of time and Ben will be more than happy to prepare these for you.

I mentioned in the beginning that certain special people come into our lives for a reason.  I already know the immediate benefits of my new friendship with Ben on my end- my photos are enough proof of that.  There must be a deeper meaning to my fated encounter with her.  Only time will tell, and I’m excited to see what life has in store for us.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep enjoying the fantastic food and company at Si Laa.

Si Laa Restaurant

1128 S. Robertson Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Tel: 310-858-7738

Random trivia: Do you know anybody who is allergic to mango peels?  I bet you do, because it’s quite common.  The contact dermatitis that certain people get (they’ll usually give you a history of breaking out in a red itchy rash around the mouth after consuming mango) is due to the chemical urushiol, which is also present in poison ivy and poison sumac.


Spago

The one and only Spago in Beverly Hills by Wolfgang Puck, his flagship restaurant that put him on the map. It’s still standing strong after all these years.  It had been at least 5 years since the last time that I ate there, but it was still as crowded as ever and as delicious as ever. Spago is 1 of only 3 restaurants in Los Angeles to win a 2 Michelin star rating in 2008.  I had a wonderful meal in their outdoor terrace by the water fountain on a sunny Los Angeles day.

Beautiful dainty canapés with a glass of bubblies for starters:

Tuna tartare with bubblies

Tuna tartare with bubblies

The first canapé we had was spicy tuna tartare in a sweet sesame tuille with daikon radish sprouts and bonito flakes.  The tuille was a little too sweet for my liking, but it was nice to experience the different textures of crunchy, moist, flaky and crisp in one bite.

Hamachi and smoked sturgeon

Hamachi and smoked sturgeon

Next we had Japanese hamachi (yellow tail) marinated in a soy-yuzu dressing with pumpkin seed oil, with shiso leaf and marinated mountain burdock root garnish.  A very tangy spoonful with a strong citrus kick.  Personally, I wasn’t too crazy about this.  The soy yuzu dressing overpowered the hamachi, and I couldn’t taste that wonderful fattiness that I love about hamachi.  I think the dish would have gone better with a less fatty white fish like halibut.

My favorite canapé was the house smoked sturgeon on lemon herb blini with sweet onions, chives, dill crème fraiche and salmon caviar.  I love anything that is smoked, but this sturgeon was absolutely delicious.  A perfect smokiness that was subtle enough to still allow the sturgeon flavors to shine through.  The lemon herb blini added the perfect amount of citrus acidity paired with the rich crème fraiche to bring everything together.  I would go back to Spago just to have another bite of that.

Anchovy and quail canapé

Anchovy and quail canapé

Our last canapé was a dried baby anchovy ring with soft boiled quail egg, microgreens, dill, anchovies and olives.  A wonderful fusion of different textures, saltiness and flavors in one bite.  Canapés are such a delight, aren’t they?

I had to order the oysters, since they are one of my favorite foods.  We had Fanny Bay and Kumamoto oysters on a beautifully decorated and garnished cold plate.  I loved the vibrant colors on this dish- a feast for the eyes.  Spring is here!

Oysters, oysters, oysters!

Oysters, oysters, oysters!

One of Wolfgang Puck’s favorite childhood recipes, the Austrian chicken bouillon with julienned vegetables.  Chicken buillon seems like a boring dish, but it’s one of the most difficult to execute well.  Because of its simplicity, it’s very easy to tell how good or bad the chef’s techniques are.   This one was comforting, the kind that makes you sigh with relief.

Chicken bouillon

Chicken bouillon

Bouillon

Bouillon

Next was a small tasting of a seasonal pasta dish.  Fresh spring green pea ravioli with parmesan cheese. I love seasonal dishes where you can taste the full potential of the ingredient.  I loved the combination of the sweet pea purée inside the raviolis and the fresh firm peas that burst inside my mouth.

Pea ravioli

Pea ravioli

Finally for the main courses.

Flounder

Flounder

Steamed ‘Hong Kong style’ flounder with baby bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, snap peas and green onions in a Hoisin sauce.  The flounder was perfectly moist and sweet, and the dish was as good as anything you could get in a top rated Hong Kong restaurant.

I had the Snake River Farm’s Kobe ‘Szechuan’ Steak with stir fried bok choy, choy sum and shiitake mushrooms.

Snake River Farm's steak

Snake River Farm's steak

The wagyu beef from Snake River Farm is one of the best that you can get domestically, and is very close to the Japanese wagyu beef.  The steak that I had was wonderfully marbled and dripping with flavor.  I could have easily mistaked it for Japanese beef in a blind taste test.  Absolutely tender, perfectly smokey, and marvelously fatty.  Every bite of meat melted in my mouth with ease.  Delicious!

http://www.snakeriverfarms.com/

Finally, for dessert, we had blackberry granita with lemon cake.

blackberry granita with lemon cake

blackberry granita with lemon cake

and 12 layer chocolate cake with Tahitian vanilla gelato….

chocolate cake

chocolate cake

We were way too full to finish either dessert.  The blackberry granita with lemon cake was too sweet for me, as well as the chocolate cake, but the Tahitian vanilla gelato was wonderful.

After all these years, I can see why Spago is still immensely popular and manages to fill their tables.  The ambience and service are top notch, and the food really pleases all 5 senses.  Spago is a classic establishment that can always be counted on for fine dining and an excellent experience.

http://www.wolfgangpuck.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that the swimbladder of Beluga sturgeon is used to clarify certain wines and beers?  Therefore, many vegetarians don’t consider these particular brands of alcoholic beverages to be truly vegetarian.