Tasting Japanese delicacies at Kiriko- Los Angeles

Flamingo tongues and peacock breasts were once highly prized dishes in ancient Rome, praised for their exotic and rare quality and served at extravagant banquets for royalty.  If that sounds weird to you, think of what people all over the world are eating today or were eating until recently: bird’s nest soup and shark fin in China, ant larvae in Mexico, fried tarantulas in Cambodia, casu marzu (live maggot cheese) in Sardinia, puffin hearts in Iceland, and little birds in France called ortolan drowned in Armagnac and eaten whole, crunchy bones and all, many of which are now illegal (and you thought that foie gras, caviar and truffles were haute!).

Japan also joins that list with poisonous puffer fish, horse sashimi and whale meat, all of which I have had and are delicious.  Of the many unique foods that Japan is known for, there are 3 that are considered to be the 三大珍味, or the ‘three delicacies’- uni (sea urchin), karasumi (bottarga or mullet roe) and konowata (sea cucumber intestines).

I love all three delicacies, and often bring karasumi and konowata back from my annual trips to Japan.  Both usually hold up in the fridge for a couple of weeks at most, so I make a beeline for Kiriko, my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles where I only entrust head chef Ken Namba to prepare my prized products.  Kiriko is my special go-to restaurant in Los Angeles for its delicious food, amazing service and consistency of high quality dishes.  For the last 12 years this has been my culinary haven and Chef Namba, who grew up in Tsukiji, understands exactly what to do with these delicacies.

Konowata, sea cucumber intestines, come in a small glass jar.  Amber colored with a slimy consistency resembling snot and an intense saline pungency that some may characterize as putrid, these lovely aquatic treats are incredibly difficult to make. Only a small amount of intestines can be extracted per sea cucumber, and a small jar worth the equivalent of 50 intestines can fetch a high price, especially the longer the intestines.  Chef Namba chopped up the konowata and tossed them with cubed yamaimo (Japanese mountain yams) for added gooey and slimy texture.  Julienned fresh wasabi with a mild kick mellowed out the brininess of the intestines to compose a well balanced appetizer that went extremely well with chilled Hakkaisan.

Baby baigai, also called ivory shells or babylonia spirata, are sea snails that at Kiriko, were stewed in a soy sauce and sugar broth for a nibitashi dish.  Toothpicks were used to wiggle its flesh out of its corkscrew shell and eat whole, a process which can be technically challenging, tedious, and ‘high work- low yield’ as my friend Josh mourned, although each small bite of these slippery little critters were worth it.

Another jarred delicacy that I recently brought back from Japan was shuto, made with pickled entrails (mostly stomach) of skipjack tuna (katsuo).  The pink entrails are brined for 6 months in sake, honey and mirin and have a characteristic salty and musty flavor that sake drinkers love.  In fact, shuto 酒盗 literally means ’to steal sake’, as its unique saltiness and taste make one want to drink more sake.  The one I brought was a low sodium version although still quite intense in fishiness; it was prepared with grated daikon radish, squid sashimi, yuzu kosho and a sprinkling of chopped scallions.

Sea cucumber ovaries, which are called konoko or kuchiko in Japanese, are even more of a rare delicacy than the intestines because only a minute amount can be extracted per animal.  A dried version called hoshiko that I brought to Chef Namba was simply heated for a few seconds over an open flame and torn into bite sized pieces.  These small pieces are meant to be chewed slowly for as long as possible to extract its intense brininess and release its ocean aromas all throughout the palate.

A wet version of sea cucumber ovaries sold in a jar that I recently brought back from Japan had a beautiful bright saffron hue and a more delicate and sweet flavor compared to the dried version.  These were beautifully draped over pickled cucumbers at Kiriko, a delectable preparation of balanced flavors and wonderful aromas that perfectly complemented a light floral sake.

Chef Namba served the wet sea cucumber ovaries with uni gohan, a comforting bowl of warm rice infused with the rich buttery flavors of sea urchin.

Karasumi, made from salted and dried mullet roe, is well known by Italians as bottarga where it makes frequent appearances in pasta dishes.  The Japanese version is moist and meaty, for we like to slice it thin and eat it straight, while I find the Italian version to be more salty, flat, dry and brittle, making it ideal for grating. It is easy to find these prized delicacies in select markets and department stores, although they are very expensive.  Such delicious ocean treasures are best enjoyed with a glass of cold sake and a little magic from Chef Namba, like the sliced daikon radish and mizuna salad tossed with generous karasumi crumbles, bursting with crisp textures and refreshing flavors.

On another plate Chef Namba coated warm tender satoimo (Japanese taro) with grated karasumi, a simple and delicious preparation served alongside slices of toasted karasumi.

Earlier this year I brought back freshly made karasumi from Kyubei sushi in Ginza, Tokyo, a soft and tender mound of orange colored heaven that took them 10 days to make through a painstaking process of repeated drying, sake soaking, pressing and salt curing.  Homemade karasumi, especially from a renowned restaurant like Kyubei, is distinctly different from store bought types- fresh, evenly moist all throughout with no brittle dryness, outer membrane still fully intact and easily peelable, and every single egg in the roe sac glistening, perfectly round and ready to pop inside your mouth.

In one preparation, Chef Namba grated the karasumi over a warm bowl of hakusai (napa cabbage) braised in garlic, dashi and anchovies.  The warmth of the broth softened the mullet roe shavings ever so gently, releasing its appetizing aromas with every stir of my chopsticks.

The karasumi mochi sandwich toasted to a nice sear and drizzled with soy sauce was simple yet satisfying and comforting.  Warm gooey rice cakes as soft as down feather pillows, gently encasing the thick slices of salty savory fish roe- this was something that would make for a decadent yet delicious late night snack.

I loved all of Chef Namba’s innovative creations, but with something so precious and perfect, sometimes you don’t need to do anything at all.  Homemade Kyubei karasumi was, in the end, best enjoyed slightly toasted and mostly raw, simply sliced and paired with a good bottle of Japan’s finest sake.  Simple is best, with such supreme delicacies as this.

Tasting dinners like these are unlikely to happen even in Japan, where these ocean delicacies are not easily accessible, not mainstream and not even widely appreciated.  Many people scowl at the mere thought of sea cucumber intestines and ovaries, and understandably so, sticking instead to more familiar and easily recognizable foods.  Is it the rarity that makes these items so special?  Absolutely.  But in my case I salivate at the first hint of brininess that hits my nose and permeates my palate, for I truly love how they taste.  I cannot wait for my next trip to Japan when I can secure more delicacies to bring back to Kiriko.  Will you be joining me for the next tasting?

Kiriko sushi

11301 West Olympic Blvd # 102
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 478-7769

Random trivia: Did you know that the digestive enzymes in konowata (sea cucumber intestines) break down its own proteins, producing amino acids like glutamic acid which create its umami flavor?

Kiriko- Los Angeles

In a fickle city like Los Angeles where restaurants turn over as quickly as the tides, and chefs shuffle in the blink of an eye, nothing is more valuable than a reliable restaurant where you have a long standing relationship with the staff.  Hype, celebrity status and good PR may fill the tables on opening night, but only quality, character and consistency will keep them coming for years to come.  Consistency, in particular, is a virtue that even the best restaurants in the city fall short of.  How many times have you returned in hopes of reliving the splendor of a certain delicious dish, only to find that it didn’t taste quite as good the second or third time around?  Such disappointments are bound to halt reservations and make that restaurant a thing of the past.

Consistency, quality and most of all respect for the chefs and the respect with which they treat their products, are what has kept me coming back to Kiriko for 12 years since their opening in 1999.  For me Kiriko fulfills my need for いつもの味、いつもの笑顔, which translates to ‘the same flavor, the same smile’, again a tribute to how important consistency is from a diner’s perspective.  I may have cheated on Kiriko a few times over the years to try other sushi restaurants, but I always come back home to Kiriko where I know that I can count on the best food.

Executive chef Ken Namba grew up in Tsukiji, the most famous fish market in the world, while getting inspiration from his parents who run a restaurant there. The sushi here is spectacular, and what I consider to be one of the best in Los Angeles.  At Kiriko you can get it all- traditional dishes are perfectly executed, while modern preparations with a drizzle of truffle oil or a hint of pepper demonstrate his playfulness and creativity.

There is a comfort in being a regular and having your usual chair, your usual spot, the same friendly welcome and the same flawless dishes that become a part of your repertoire.  Red snapper sushi with sprinklings of sea salt and a dash of yuzu rinds is how I always commence my meal, with uni topped with freshly grated wasabi, tender mirugai sashimi, house smoked king salmon, engawa (halibut fin) and seared fatty toro following soon after.  Sushi doesn’t get any better than this even in most places in Japan.

Kiriko has an extensive daily specials menu in both English and Japanese, but many items don’t make it onto the English menu simply because they aren’t translatable.  A winter delicacy called shirako, for one, surely doesn’t sound appetizing in English- cod sperm sac.  Yet Kiriko’s version is elegant, the pearly white sacs of warm milky cream mingling with the tartness of ponzu.

Mekabu salad with okra and grated yamaimo/Japanese yam is also difficult to translate both in concept and in texture.  Mekabu, which are the flowering sprouts of wakame seaweed, have a distinct gooey slimy texture.  At Kiriko these greens get mixed with even slimier companions, sliced okra and grated yamaimo, and spooned over generous chunks of tender tuna.

A traditional Taiwanese dish of century eggs on tofu gets a Kiriko twist when the dark preserved eggs get chopped up and mixed with silken tofu and accented with house made la-yu chili oil.  The preserved duck eggs are also known as 1000 year old eggs, or pitan in Japanese, something that a diner looking for spicy tuna rolls may not necessarily be inclined to order.

Ankimo, or monkfish liver, comes with chopped asatsuki chives, spiced grated daikon radish and the most delightful ponzu gelée.  Jiggly little minced cubes of dark brown gelée, unlike drizzled liquid ponzu, stay put on the succulent slices of savory liver and pack some powerful tartness and concentrated flavor.

Ankimo sautéed with garlic and soy sauce on a recent visit was smokey, buttery and delicious, making the sake flow ever so freely.

Hama hama oysters, when in season, are garnished with a dash of ponzu and a dollop of chili daikon radish to accent the natural brininess of the meaty treasures while Kusshi from British Columbia are best enjoyed with a simple squeeze of citrus.

While Chef Ken, Chef Tomo and Chef Shinji work the front of the house making sushi, sashimi and cold appetizers, Chef Kiyoshi (and sometimes Ken) works wonders in the back kitchen, churning out splendid hot dishes and entrées like crispy deep fried gobo (burdock root) stacked like logs, shrimp stuffed eggplant in daikon radish sauce, soft shell crab tempura and daily specials like kajiki maguro (swordfish) yuan yaki which comes out buttery, tender and divine.

Sushi is the main attraction at Kiriko, but the vegetable platter is not to be missed.  Through the delicately prepared assortment of 5 fresh vegetables that change with the seasons, one can get a taste of traditional Japanese flavors.  Japanese pumpkin amani, sweet and tender like a freshly churned block of butter, spinach and shiitake mushroom ohitashi garnished with shaved bonito flakes, green beans tossed with white sesame dressing in a classic ingen no goma-ae preparation, thinly sliced lotus roots kinpira style and a refreshing salad of mizuna greens and daikon radish in a pickled plum ume vinaigrette are beautiful and delicious.

As if the food isn’t good enough, the desserts at Kiriko are even better.  Everything is made from scratch with the freshest ingredients, like Chef Ken’s tomato gelée, the most dainty cube of delicate fruity savor, bursting with the sweetness and subtle acidity of heirloom tomatoes at its summer peak, served with a drizzle of olive oil and basil ribbons.  I’ve only had the pleasure of having this once, but it left a lasting impression on my palate.

House made ice creams and sorbets are delectable- the green tea ice cream reflects the true bitterness of Japanese matcha, the black sesame ice cream a creamy earthy dark delight, the ginger brown sugar ice cream not skimping on the characteristic medicinal zing of ginger, and the black truffle ice cream, if you’re so lucky to be dining at Kiriko on a day that it’s served, packed full of that unique prized earthiness that we so love.

Unlike certain other sushi restaurants in Los Angeles that scowl at customers who want spicy tuna rolls and California rolls, Kiriko doesn’t discriminate against such diners.  They’re too nice to impose judgement on anybody that walks through their doors.  They will happily make these rolls for you, although you would be missing out on the real delicacies that they’ve flown in from Tsukiji market, like hiramasa, shimaaji, kinmedai, kamasu, kampachi, bincho and tako no sakurani.  Sound unfamiliar to you?  That’s exactly why you have to trust these talented chefs and discover a whole new way to enjoy sushi in the best sushi restaurant in Los Angeles.

Kiriko Sushi

11301 W Olympic Blvd # 102
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 478-7769

Random trivia:  Did you know that according to myth, century eggs were once prepared by soaking eggs in horse urine?   The myth probably comes from the pungent odor of ammonia which is reminiscent of urine.

Kikouchi soba workshop

Soba noodles are a daily staple in the Japanese diet, eaten at all times of the day and night, hot and cold.  Convenience stores stock dried instant soba noodles, and supermarkets sell machine made versions, but there is nothing that will ever come close to artisanal soba made by experienced hands.  It takes years of apprenticeship and many more of professional experience to master the art of soba making.  When one is in the presence of a crafted plate of handmade soba, demonstrating a light delicate flavor, with refined texture and a sweet buckwheat aroma, it renders the diner incapable of doing anything other than fervently slurping away.

Wanting to learn more about this Japanese soul food that I grew up on, last year I took a soba making class with Akila Inouye, Master Chef and Founder of the Tsukiji Soba Academy and Sonoko Sakai, Japanese cookbook author and food writer.  A beginning introduction class teaching the classic Nihachi soba barely grazed the surface of this Japanese tradition.  With only 2 ingredients- flour and water- soba making proved to be much more difficult than I had imagined, and a testimony to soba artisans who for many years have practiced precision, technique and finesse.  Shortly after I took the class through their mazumizu website, I got to taste a variety of soba preparations at their week long soba pop-up restaurant last summer.  It was here that I got inspired to take another class with them to learn Kikouchi soba making, made with 100% buckwheat flour using shin-soba, the first crop of buckwheat from Kitawase in Japan’s Gunma prefecture.

Mazumizu, the name of their website, means ‘first, water (and everything else will follow)’, reflecting the principle of simplicity and fluidity in soba making.  As usual, classes were conducted at Sonoko’s beautiful home in Los Angeles, and for my second round of soba classes I recruited my buddy Chef Ludo Lefebvre to join along with me.

Master artisan Akila went through a step by step demonstration on how to make these delicate gluten-free buckwheat noodles, while describing the history and culture of soba.  Unlike the classic Nihachi soba which uses an 8:2 ratio of buckwheat to wheat flour, 100% buckwheat Kikouchi soba is more fragile and difficult to make.  After sifting the flour using a special Japanese fine sieve, add a carefully measured portion of water, about 40% of the total weight of flour.  Minor adjustments must be made depending on the humidity and temperature of that day, which comes with experience.

Once water is added to the sifted flour, use your hands to gently yet swiftly mix it up in a rotating motion.  Once the mixture is moist yet crumbly, gather it all to one side and gently compress it into a solid oblong roll.  Then repeat the process of folding and kneading using the heel of your palms as you lean forward into the bowl with feet shoulder width apart to apply gentle yet firm and slow pressure.  After reaching the desired texture, shape the dough into a ball and using your palm, flatten the ball into a disc.

Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough in diagonal directions until the dough is evenly 1.5 mm thick and rectangular shaped.  Fold the dough in four, sprinkling a generous amount of uchiko flour for dusting in between to prevent sticking.

If you can get to this stage without making holes in the thinly rolled out dough, the real challenge comes in the cutting.  Using a special soba kiri cleaver that has a long and perfectly straight and even edge, cut the soba in even 1.3mm widths in a relaxed posture.

Rhythmic clicks of the knife hitting the cutting board, if done right, sound like horses galloping in the distance, and only experience can yield perfectly even thin long strands of buckwheat soba.

The grand finale of dusting off freshly cut bunches of soba gives a huge sense of accomplishment and peace…

…and the delicate strands of soba are laid to rest in a lacquer box until it is time to boil and serve.

After the demonstration, it came time for the students to get their hands dirty, and it wasn’t until then that everybody realized that Akila only made it look easy.  Given the small class size, every student got one-on-one attention and guidance from both Akila and Sonoko.  We measured, we mixed, we kneaded, we molded, we pressed, we rolled and cut, cut, cut.

Chef Ludo was a natural, and only required guidance when it came time for cutting.  Cutting soba with the soba cleaver is a completely different skill requiring different body muscles and pressure distribution, but he got used to it fairly quickly and within minutes presented a beautiful sample of thick hearty inaka-style (country style) soba.

Second time around was a little easier for me, but getting every strand of soba to be exactly the same width is nearly impossible.

No part of the soba making process goes to waste, and as we finished up our soba workshop, Akila emerged from the kitchen with a batch of freshly fried soba chips.  The uneven ends of folded soba sheets that are left over after cutting were deep fried and salted to make crunchy aromatic chips that made for a great otsumami snack.

Sonoko made kabocha amani, slowly cooked Japanese pumpkin with just a small amount of sugar and salt to retain the natural sweetness, flavors and vibrant colors of the vegetables.

For lunch, the soba teachers also boiled a batch of Kikouchi soba that they made, served with homemade bonito based dipping sauce, chopped scallions and wasabi.  The delicate pure buckwheat flour noodles had a faint nutty fragrance and a wholesome rustic flavor with just the right amount of elasticity and chewiness, or koshi.

Freshly grated wasabi from Japan was mild and flavorful.

As we enjoyed a light, nutritious and delicious Kikouchi soba lunch together under the warm Los Angeles sun in Sonoko’s courtyard, we all chatted about the little blunders that we made during our soba making, and how we’re going to enjoy our homemade soba for dinner that evening.  A little swig of cold sake from a small distillery in Japan helped the conversation roll along on this lazy Sunday morning where we learned the beauty and allure of a delicious centuries old culinary tradition.

Mazumizu

Keep checking back with the mazumizu website for upcoming soba events and classes by Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai.

***March 15,2011 soba event: Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai will be doing a soba demonstration in conjunction with Chef Jonathan Sundstrom from Lark restaurant in Seattle at Surfas Cafe LA.  They will be showing classic and modern interpretations of soba for local chefs.  The event is FREE for all chefs and people in the food and beverage industry, but space is limited!  Click HERE for a link to the event. 

Petrossian Paris Restaurant & Boutique

‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’, Marilyn Monroe crooned in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as she strutted down the red staircase in a bright pink dress, lavishing in the sparkly jewels that her male suitors threw in her direction.  ‘Tiffany’s, Cartier, talk to me Harry Winston!’ she exclaimed, pleading her case that diamonds will never betray us the way men will.  In my case, I went to the one man and the one jewel that wouldn’t betray me for my birthday, Chef Benjamin Bailly and the little black pearl called caviar.  Ben Bailly has been a good friend of mine since his days as sous chef at Ortolan, before which he was globetrotting with the infamous Joël Robuchon through Monaco, Paris, Macau and Las Vegas.  While I happily cooked for my friends last year for my birthday, I decided to sit back and be pampered for the joyous occasion this time, allowing the French chef to shower me with his best caviar interpretations in his final week as Executive Chef at Petrossian Paris Boutique and Restaurant.  He flourished at Petrossian for over a year, but it was time for him to move on to a different project to challenge his skills and take his creativity to a new level- he now helms the kitchen of Fraiche restaurant in Culver City.

Aristotle first described caviar as a prized delicacy in the 4th century B.C., and Ghengis Kahn’s grandson wrote about it in his journals in the 1240’s.  These sturgeon eggs have been praised as one of the greatest delicacies on the planet, celebrated by Roman emperors, Russian Czars, Saudi sheiks and English kings for thousands of years.  During the Roman empire, a jar of sturgeon roe was said to have been valued at 100 sheep.  At one point in history, caviar was a privilege and the greatest culinary luxury reserved only for royalty.  Many centuries later, its supplies became so abundant and accessible that it was served during free lunches in American saloons to boost beer sales.   However, after years of overfishing to the point of near extinction, we are back to the era of treating caviar as a rare and expensive treat.  These coveted jewels, under the spell of Ben Bailly, were transformed into one of the most decadent birthday dinners that I have ever experienced, making me feel like royalty for that one special night.

Blinis with crème fraiche and three kind of roes (salmon, trout and sturgeon) were the perfect starter, the eggs becoming more intense and briny as we moved from large to small.  The Transmontanus caviar was the table favorite, its delicate little membranes popping inside our mouths as a rush of ocean breeze permeated into our nasal cavities.

Bailly is a master of mason jar delights, and one of my favorites, which he has thankfully continued to serve at Fraiche, is the luscious chicken liver mousse, whipped light and airy to a silky finish and topped with green apple gelée.

Another signature mason jar of Bailly’s is a rustic eggplant paté studded with raisins and Marcona almonds- creamy and smooth, with a hint of smokiness.

Cauliflower panna cotta, with its gentle flavors and perfect creaminess, served as the perfect textural and gustatory base upon which the incomprehensibly generous mound of glorious black caviar could shine.  Spoonful after spoonful, the sweet vegetable custard proved to be a stellar pairing to complement the saltiness of the caviar.

My hands trembled at the thought of disrupting the picture perfect layer of tightly packed caviar in the dish called ‘caviar surprise’, served in a signature Petrossian caviar tin.  A reluctant but thrilling first scoop into the tin revealed a hidden bottom layer of king crab meat suspended in apple cider gelée with a touch of crème fraîche, enjoyed on crispy toast wedges.


An assortment of saucisson, chorizo and salamis made the champagne and wine flow more freely than ever.

I have loved Ben’s foie gras crème brûlée since the first time that I ever laid my palate on it.  A surprisingly light and airy rendition of foie gras, its gameyness so subdued and its flavor so elegant that it could easily pass for dessert, tucked under a warm layer of caramelized sugar and a dollop of sweet fig jam.

Salmon tartare topped with a thick layer of caviar and a sunny side up quail egg melted like butter in my mouth, the tender fattiness of the fish mingling with the salty caviar and runny egg yolk for consecutively fantastic bites that I never tired of.

‘Please make sure that you make me your Napoleon Tartare’, I had asked Ben, for his excellent steak tartare with caviar was the epitome of decadence, and the chef’s last week at Petrossian, coupled with my birthday, meant no holding back on either part.  Hand chopped beef tenderloin with just the right balance of acidity and spices, layered with caviar in between and garnished with more caviar on top.  Heap after heap on toasted crostini, I savored every long bite and let the flavors linger on my palate, patiently, slowly and deliberately, to make the moment last as long as humanly possible.

The little black pearls kept coming, plate after plate, even making an appearance on a pizza with crème fraîche, chopped eggs, red onions, capers and chives.  I could hear Marilyn Monroe singing her song, ‘I prefer a man who lives and gives expensive jewels,’ as I bit into the crispy pizza and allowed the caviar to work its charm.

Smoked salmon pizza with crème fraîche, red onions and chives was no exception to the grand feast, with generous lumps of black caviar studding the bright pink surface.

Bailly’s version of Frisée aux Lardons featured a deep fried poached egg, warm yolk oozing like molten lava once cracked open, intermingling with crispy bacon, fourme d’Ambert cheese and spiny greens.

The panko crusted poached egg made another appearance on a bed of cippolini onion soubise in a dish called ‘Crispy Egg’, this time wearing a flashy black caviar top hat.  The saltiness of the caviar gave the heavy cream sauce a nice lift.

Strawberries added a nice sweet touch to the seared foie gras dish served with red wine vinegar reduction sauce, one of the most successful foie gras dishes I have had in a long time.  A relatively strong presence of acidity in the sauce coupled with the freshness of sweet strawberries and tossed greens kept the delicious foie gras dish light enough for our satiated appetites to finish it off completely.

A trio of desserts rounded out the caviar feast- rich and thick Gianduja parfait drizzled with caramel, Sicilian pistachio crème brûlée which has become a mainstay Petrossian classic, and a vanilla bean panna cotta with mango and mango pop rocks that titillated and excited my tongue.

‘A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamond’s are a girl’s best friend…’

Stuffed to the brim with amazing food and satisfied beyond belief at the evening’s caviar consumption, I pictured myself as Marilyn, descending the red carpeted staircase being showered with spoonful after spoonful of Beluga caviar, perfectly tressed and impeccably dressed male suitors feeding me with endless bites of those delectable salty black pearls.  Such a decadent feast may likely never happen again, but my ultimate dream was made a reality thanks to the talented French gentleman who, like the caviar he served, was this girl’s best friend.

** Note: all of the caviar used in this feast was the Royal Transmontanus Caviar, extracted from California grown sustainable white sturgeon **

Petrossian Restaurant & Boutique

321 North Robertson Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90048-2415
(310) 271-6300

Chef Benjamin Bailly is now at

Fraiche LA

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

Random trivia:  Did you know that all sturgeon caught in British waters are the property of the Queen of England?  If such sturgeon are not declared to the Buckingham Palace, one could face 6 months in prison and a £5,000 fine.

 

Test Kitchen- Dominique Crenn

Test Kitchen was one of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles in 2010, revolutionizing the culinary scene with its unique restaurant concept.  Every night was a pop-up night where different chefs took center stage for 1 to 3-night engagements to experiment with upcoming restaurant projects and new menus, while renowned mixologists paired the revolving menus with creative cocktails.   This new style of dining captivated flighty Angelenos, especially with its line up of celebrity chefs like Michael Voltaggio and Marcel Vigneron, and local darlings like Walter Manzke and TiGeorges.

Like many enthusiastic diners, I was hooked on Test Kitchen- who will be cooking next, and what exciting dish can I sample?  During its 3 month run I enjoyed 14 unique dinners, representing all facets of the culinary rainbow- from Vietnamese green papaya salad, Peruvian anticuchos, Haitian goat fricassee, Baja Mexico’s chocolate clams and Japanese pickled vegetables to microwaved spongecake with berry spherification.  It was a joy to see all of these talented chefs pour their hearts and souls into beautifully plated dishes, and there was one dinner that topped them all, one of the final dinners by Chef Dominique Crenn.

I was excited to meet this Michelin starred French female chef who has built quite a reputation, as Esquire Magazine’s 2008 Chef of the Year, as Indonesia’s first female executive chef, as the winner of a Michelin star for 2 consecutive years as executive chef of San Francisco’s Luce, and mostly recently, as the sensation that dominated Michael Symon on Iron Chef America in Battle Yogurt.  A stunning beauty with deep brown eyes and a fierce passion for her craft, Crenn is one of those extraordinary people that you only meet once in a blue moon.  She is not only charismatic and friendly, and undeniably talented in what she does, but also dedicated to supporting the delicate balance of our environment by fostering locally sourced seasonal food sources.

In a recent TEDx event, she preached what she practiced when she shared her vision of using food and art to honor nature as our ultimate nurturer, and her dedication to serve as an ambassador for the sustainable food movement.  In her preview dinner for her new restaurant Atelier Crenn, her poetic tribute to our beautiful earth proved to be the most memorable and delicious dinner at Test Kitchen for me.

After an amuse bouche of baby beets, radishes and turnips served raw with a hint of pesto, a duo of Kumamoto oysters arrived on a bed of sea salt, flash poached and topped with uni foam and Meyer lemon ‘cloud’.

The second course was a delicious marriage of eggs and truffle, a perfectly poached egg nestled comfortably in the arms of a decadent truffle emulsion and dressed with micro greens.  Their holy union was celebrated with a sprinkling of pure white truffle snow and a showering of dehydrated wild rice that added a wonderful contrast of textures to the creamy dish.  ‘Eggs and truffle’ was such an amazing dish, that we special ordered another round.  I couldn’t imagine anything being better than this, until the next course came.

Crenn’s food doesn’t try too hard- it doesn’t have to.  With her command of flavors and ingredients, she understands that good food is about preserving the inherent natural flavors of the ingredient, without overwhelming it with condiments or accessories.  Many chefs forget the ‘simple is better’ concept, overutilizing foams, dots, sauces and a variety of other components to impress diners with colors, 3 dimensionality and flair.  For the first time in my life, I felt as though I tasted real venison, lightly flamed, rare, tender and pure, like it was always supposed to taste, and it melted in my mouth.  Pickled pea shoots, cauliflower shoots and baby radishes had just the right amount of oil and vinaigrette coating, the rye sauce was perfectly tart and creamy, and a blanket of buckwheat imparted a sensational texture to the dish.  It was refreshing to have this simple and delicate venison dish without the overwhelming sweetness of berries with which it is usually paired.  I was confident that this was the single most successful and delicious dish in Test Kitchen history, until the next course came.

Veal sweetbreads, creamy and rich, were served with bone marrow discs, hickory smoked then breaded and fried.  Both sat in an oxtail bouillon with garnishes of micro celery, leeks and turnips.  This rustic meat dish surprised us all, as it was even more delicious than the previous dish, and the reason was simple- everything tasted like nature intended it to taste like.  Vegetables had the sweetness and bitterness of dark brown mineral rich soil, and bone marrow was cut to the perfect size with just the exact amount of breading to augment, not weigh down, its flavors.  The key element was the bouillon, a comforting broth with a touch of acidity, an understated presence and an intense flavor.  Crenn’s food was simple, graceful and honest, and I couldn’t imagine the final dessert course being better than this dish of perfection, but I was wrong.

The winter grain porridge, a completely new type of dessert, was the creation of Crenn’s pastry chef Juan Contreras.  Red Peruvian quinoa cooked in chamomile tea, tossed with poached quince braised with Tahitian vanilla, hazelnut milk, nougatine, kumquats, micro chamomile and hibiscus flowers, were arranged at a slant as a soft bed of earthy colors, evoking an image of a sloping hillside garden in spring. A hint of honey ice lay hidden underneath the soft mound of sweetness, each bite introducing a new combination of warm, cold, chewy, crunchy, light, sweet and fluffy.  I felt like I was digging my spoon right into the ground and enjoying the fruits of mother earth’s labor, and I couldn’t feel happier at that moment.

Inventive and modern, yet at the same time familiar and comforting, Dominique Crenn’s preview dinner for Atelier Crenn kept getting better with each course.  It had been a long time since a meal filled me with so much joy.  With food tasting like it was supposed to, and light simple ingredients, my body felt healthy and happy at the end of the meal, unlike others that drive me into a debilitating state of food coma fatigue.  This was one of the best meals that I have had in my life, and it made it even more perfect to know that it was prepared by a woman who takes an active stand in fulfilling her social responsibility as a chef.  At Atelier Crenn, which opened last month in San Francisco, we will no doubt see her grace and elegance breathe life into each plate to create beautiful ‘poetic culinaria’.

Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore st
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 440-0460

Random trivia:  Did you know that chamomile, the national flower of Russia, was used by ancient Egyptians as an important ingredient of embalming oil for mummification?

Test Kitchen- Brian Redzikowski

First, we feast with our eyes.  Vibrant colors of garden and sea, 3 dimensional textures of foods both familiar and unfamiliar, linear shapes juxtaposed against round edges, and beautiful arrangements worthy of a gallery piece.  Then we taste, exploring through our gustatory senses whether the flavors presented to us reciprocate our visual expectations.  Sound, smell and touch come somewhere in between, but our appetites become ignited the moment we lay eyes on our food. In Chef Brian Redzikowski’s dinner at Test Kitchen in Los Angeles, this concept was taken to its purest form.  He deliberately withheld the evening’s menu from diners until the very end of the meal, wanting for each course’s experience to start the moment a dish arrived at the table.  Not knowing what to expect, each dish was a real surprise, over and over again, fresh, exciting and new.

As Executive Chef of Bond St at the Thompson Hotel, Chef Redzikowski understands the intricate mastery of food aesthetics, utilizing his training in French and Japanese cuisine to create beautiful pieces of edible art.  The Test Kitchen preview dinner for his upcoming restaurant project Claustro was a culmination of his delicate and refined style of cuisine, executed with the help of his chef sibling Frank.  Redzikowski started the dinner off with a shot of passion fruit blueberry granité and prosecco foam, in a playful arrangement of dry ice and colorful glass marbles- bubbly, fruity and flirtatious.

A ‘Marco Pierre White’ terrine of baby leeks and lobster, pressed for 16 hours and congealed with natural pectins from the vegetable, was served with caviar.  The simple and light dish was an ode to the infamous 3 Michelin starred bad boy chef who first made this dish for one of his mentors.  On this YouTube video, not only can you see the step-by-step process of this wonderful terrine, but also a young fledgling Gordon Ramsay learning how to curse in the kitchen.

My favorite dish of the night was a potato cube pierced through the center with a bouquet of rosemary twigs, nestled in a sea of luscious potato and chorizo foams.  Amazing aromas from the twigs whetted my appetite, and the orange chorizo foam delivered an incredible savor that I still yearn to relive. As the only course that didn’t require utensils, feeling the weighted twigs in our hands as we bit into the potato tapped into our tactile senses, heightening the experience.

A generous wedge of King crab dressed in an aromatic foam arrived at our table in a dainty black ceramic bowl, balanced on a saucer with a crab exoskeleton tangled in fishing net.  The moment it arrived, I felt a powerful splash of cold ocean wave, delivering with it a waft of buttery crustacean scent.  Refreshing flavors of preserved Meyer lemon balanced out the fabulous richness of lobster butter in this delightful dish that was served with small carrot, zucchini and celery balls.

Arnold Palmer served with a bottom layer of ice cold lemonade and a top layer of warm tea was interesting…if not baffling.

Halibut was served with chanterelles, rutabaga balls (a cross between a cabbage and a turnip), generous slices of black truffles and interestingly, crisp Romaine leaves that gave the dish an interesting textural variation.

Foie gras foam and parmesan cheese added too much saltiness to this dish, but the liquid foie gras-filled raviolis were quite magnificent in concept, flavor and texture.  Lettuce leaves were again added to this entrée, a surprisingly clever and fresh new way of incorporating greens.

The plating of the sous vide lamb loin and tongue dish was distinctly Redzikowski, showcasing a playful arrangement of color and geometry.  Little brown buttons of chanterelles, a leaning solitary asparagus spear, squiggles of onion demi glace, the gentle curl of transparent mint paper and a rectangular cut of leathery dehydrated onion crisp with precise right angles- a delicious composition of abstract expressionism.

My hopes were fulfilled when the Asahi float dessert arrived at our table, my favorite dish from Redzikowski’s Breadbar Hatchi dinner last year.  Vanilla ice cream with acacia honey gel, showered with a tableside pour of Asahi Super Dry beer, was again a sensational and unforgettably delicious combination.

The ‘half baked’ dessert was a glass terrarium of sweet delights with caramel panna cotta, liquid nitrogen frozen raw cookie dough, kaffir lime foam, soft brownie sponge, ground pistachios, ice cream and an egg yolk chip- another playful culinary concept with delicious results.

Look forward to Chef Redzikowski’s new restaurant project, Claustro, which will hopefully keep the Asahi float and potato on the menu while introducing new artistic and avant-garde creations.  It will surely be a feast for the eyes, and a delicious banquet for all other senses.

Chef Brian Redzikowski’s website:

www.brianredzikowski.com

Random trivia:  Did you know that the bitterness of watercress, mustard greens, turnip and rutabaga is perceived through the influence of a gene affecting a bitter receptor?  Some people are born with a stronger expression of this gene, making them perceive these vegetables infinitely more stronger than others who don’t.

Test Kitchen- Marcel Vigneron

For those of you who have been tuning in to this season’s Top Chef All-Stars, it’s been an exciting season full of drama and high energy competition.  The star-studded cast from all of the past seasons have been neck and neck through the quickfire challenges and gruesome elimination rounds, proving each step of the way that even a small oversight or a momentary careless falter can cost the big one.  Last week saw the unfortunate fall of my competition favorite and top contender, the notorious Marcel Vigneron, who got a strong kick start on the opening episode and seemed to be gliding through to the top.  But alas, ‘Restaurant Wars’, as usual, was the killer.  As I tearfully watched him pack his knives on TV, I thought back to the amazing dinner that he had a few months ago at the recently closed Test Kitchen in Los Angeles where he demonstrated his unique sense of creativity, artistry and chefsmanship.

I went on the final night of a 3 night stint at the Test Kitchen, completely packed, as expected, with enthusiastic fans who came to see what this now freelance chef was showcasing.  While it seemed that Marcel suppressed his wacky eclectic tendencies to favor a more simple approach to this dinner, there was still an abundance of creativity and originality in many of the beautiful dishes, all autographed with little sprinklings of Marcel’s signature style.  Sautéed shishito peppers dressed with kabayaki sauce and bonito flakes were especially spicy this time of the year, and almost every pepper was a strong hit.

A welcome encore from the chef’s days as sous chef at The Bazaar, the wonderfully salty and velvety papas canarias with chlorophyll mayo was familiar and comforting.

For a chef who is famous for incorporating the discipline of molecular gastronomy in his cuisine, the kombu cured hamachi dish was as molecular as he got in this dinner.  Like a relaxing summer picnic on a blanket, deliciously fatty slices of hamachi laid out on a bright yellow pineapple sheet, cooling off from the heat of serrano chiles with a light foam of dashi and dots of avocado purée.  Crispy kernels of puffed wild rice added a delightful texture to the dish that incorporated hints of Asian flavors through garnishes of seaweed, shiso leaves and ponzu gel.

An off-the-menu hamachi collar with kabayaki sauce and bonito flakes that Marcel kindly sent out to us, was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.  Perfectly cooked, full of flavor, juicy, fatty and simply delicious.

Somewhere between the melting clocks of Salvador Dalí’s ‘The Persistence of Memory‘ and the mythological figures of ‘The Endless Enigma‘ was Marcel’s scallop dish, its combination of tall erect shapes and soft liquescent outlines representing a bizarre dream vaporizing into a haunting memory.  Dayboat scallops sousvided in smoked paprika oil were mounted alongside an artichoke marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and served with a caramelized cipollini onion, crispy capers, marinated anchovy, crostini, dots of parsley purée and cherry tomato confit on a bed of garlic purée.  The medley of Mediterranean flavors illustrated his ode to the Italian puttanesca, with splashes of kalamata olive dust that screamed Marcel.

A 65 degree poached egg, coated with panko and fried, was perched on a pillow of bean purée to complement the tender slices of sous vide Wagyu beef tongue, which were delicately strewn in a colorful garden of pickled radish, arugula, red beets and yellow beet fluid gel.

One of many highlights of the evening came in a superbly grilled piece of Vadouvan rubbed lamb chop, the cauliflower couscous with golden raisins, almonds and pomegranate seeds another flashback to his days at The Bazaar.  The foam loving chef won’t let a main entrée go without a touch of foam, and indeed a lovely feta cheese foam with just the right amount of saltiness elevated the savoriness of the dish.  In addition to foams and Mediterranean flavors, puffed grains are his thing, and little pearly beads of puffed amaranth were sprinkled for texture, but the real moment came courtesy of a drizzle of sweet honey that really made this dish superb.

A dainty half-slice of green momochan decorated a preserved lemon and vanilla bean panna cotta, served with a ricotta fritter and some agave syrup.

The final delicious surprise of the Test Kitchen experience was a tall cylinder of macadamia sponge cake, soft, airy, spongy and amazing, thanks to the powerful electromagnetic properties of a conventional microwave.  The strawberry foam and carbonated berry spherification didn’t quite do it for me, but the pairing of black pepper and celery leaves in this dessert dish was quite an ingenious revelation.

As always, the surrealist artistry, vibrant color displays and savory flavors of Marcel Vigneron’s cuisine were an absolute joy to experience.  After a long stint at The Bazaar, followed by a shorter one as Executive Chef at Bar 210, he is now on his own to explore his direction in the culinary industry.  Although he was booted off of Top Chef last week, no other chef in the competition can boast what he’s got going for him- his own TV show, called Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, coming this spring on the SyFy Network.  It’s guaranteed to be fun, entertaining, whimsical and magical, just like the chef himself.

Random trivia:  Did you know that the pineapple is not a single fruit, but a cluster of 100-200 tiny fruitlets?