Gastropubs in Los Angeles

“Who cares how time advances?  I’m drinking ale today” – Edgar Allen Poe

Pub grub has come a long way from pork scratchings and pickled eggs when pubs, or public houses, functioned as drinking establishments and inns for the working class in Great Britain.  It wasn’t until the 1950’s that pub owners started offering hearty food with their ales, with what’s now considered to be quintessential pub food items like fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and pasties.  Pubs are still casual establishments for friends who want to socialize over a few pints and bites, but more interest is being placed on quality meals to chow down on.  Now we have a quickly flourishing movement of gastropubs, a term coined in 1991 by the owners of The Eagle Pub in London that combines the essence of pubs and gastronomy to emphasize gourmet delicacies.  While pub purists argue that gastropubs kill the distinct rustic character of traditional pubs, the majority of Angelenos are welcoming this movement with open arms and empty bellies- and how ironic, given that this is a city where drinking usually means drinking and driving.

Gastropubs have a characteristic cozy and comfortable vibe with simple furnishings of banquettes, tables and stools so that the food and brews can take center stage.  For those who love beer, it’s a dream come true as gastropubs offer obscure selections with unique names that will even pique the interest of non-drinking patrons.  Siamese Twin, Damnation, Arrogant Bastard, Snake Bite, Hair of the Dog, Dead Guy and Raging Bitch?  They sound like the latest up and coming bands to debut at the Viper Room, but they’re all local and foreign beers that can only be found at these specialty establishments.  I for one tend to gravitate toward these outrageously named brews for the fun factor, as I’m not well versed in the genre of ales and stouts.

There are many gastropubs in Los Angeles now, from Santa Monica to Downtown, and up north in Hollywood down to the South Bay.  The Village Idiot has remained strong since it opened in early 2007, still drawing in a full crowd at its beautiful open space on a desirable stretch of Melrose Avenue.  Like most gastropubs, they offer wine and non-alcoholic beverages, but there’s nothing better than a cold brewsky to wash down classic British fare like fish and chips and steak and potato pie.  The menu breaks down their food in comical genres like ‘no face’ for vegetables, ‘2 legs’ for poultry, ‘4 legs’ for red meats and ‘no legs’ for fish, perhaps so that even a true village idiot can understand the menu.   Healthy salads, tarts and tartare are on the menu, but it’s predominantly hearty fare like roasted chicken, cornmeal crusted catfish, grilled hanger steak, and crispy pork belly.  The classic fish and chips with malt vinegar dipping sauce is excellent here, with crispy fries and tender white fish with thick batter.

The Village Idiot is open at 9am for breakfast on the weekends, so hungry village blokes can indulge in a full English breakfast of bangers and ham with beans on toast, roasted tomato, mushrooms, and fried egg.

Even though it’s a gastropub, it’s a gastropub in America after all, so American classics with a twist like the juicy pub burger with a marvelous balsamic onion relish can be paired with your pint of hefeweizen.

On my last visit to this gastropub, I had one of the daily specials, a house cured pastrami sandwich on toasted white bread with whole grain mustard that was to die for.  The succulent pastrami sliced paper thin was bursting with fatty juices and peppery spices, and it ranked right up there with my favorites from Clementine‘s and Langer’s.

The most uncharacteristically gastropub feature of this establishment is their fairly impressive dessert menu.  Pumpkin pie crème brûlée, chocolate cinnamon bread pudding, and banana treacle tart at a pub?  It’s a wonderful deviation from tradition, and if purists want to scorn at me for patronizing and calling this place a gastropub, then I’ll just shrug my shoulders and enjoy my peach rhubarb tart with cinnamon ice cream.

A notable contender on the gastropub scene is Wurstküche, housed in a large warehouse in a dark and quiet area of Downtown LA near Little Tokyo.  For those who aren’t familiar with the area, it may be difficult to find this spot, but once you open the small entrance door, you’ll be hit with a sonic boom from the lively crowds that squeeze into the long communal tables and benches.  In a smart and delicious move, Wurstküche has carved out a niche for itself by specializing in sausages and wursts to accompany their predominantly Belgian and German beer selections.  With intriguing drinks like sarsaparilla soda, elderflower soda, and botanical brew of dandelion and burdock, even the curious non-drinker gourmands will want to flock here.

If you can first nab a seat at this perpetually packed place, then the next step is to go around to the back to order any one of their sausages, divided into Classics, Gourmet, and Exotic.  Classics include bratwurst, bockwurst and hot Italian, with 3 vegetarian options of Italian, smoked apple sage and Mexican chipotle.  The classic bratwurst, a pork based sausage with hints of nutmeg and coriander, is a must try before you venture into the gourmets and exotics.  The chicken and turkey based Mango Jalapeño with a generous heap of caramelized onions offers an adventure into the sweet and spicy.

Other gourmet selections include Chicken Apple & Spices, Sun Dried Tomato & Mozzarella, Green Chillies & Cilantro, Filipino Marharlika and Kielbasa.  All are served on their freshly baked buns and can be garnished with sauerkraut, onions, sweet peppers or spicy peppers.  The exotics delve into rare meats like buffalo, duck and rabbit, but my absolute favorite at Wurstküche is the rattlesnake and rabbit with jalapeño peppers.  This peppery sausage is surprisingly juicy and tender, pairing well with a glass of Echt Kriekenbier.  The smoked alligator and pork andouille sausage is smokey like a kielbasa but a little too lean and crumbly for my taste.  Double dipped Belgian fries with white truffle oil is a mandatory side order here, though you can choose other dipping sauces like chipotle ketchup, blue cheese walnut and bacon, pesto mayo or thai peanut.

Venturing down south beyond the 105 Freeway is unheard of these days for Angelenos who live on the west side, but venturing even further south below the 91 Freeway and Artesia Boulevard?  Not possible, you’d think, but I heard of a certain gastropub in Redondo Beach that was opened last year by Beechwood owners Nick Roberts and his wife Brooke Williamson, and I made the trek down to check it out.  The glowing pink sign stands out on the otherwise dead and shady neighborhood, and this joint is clearly a local favorite.  Hudson House offers a fairly interesting selection of beers, including the oddities with eccentric names, and the menu is anything but traditional pub food- it centers around the concept of comfort food but with a gourmet twist:  lamb skewers with honey yogurt harissa sauce, chicken meatball sandwich, beer battered cauliflower fritters, brown sugar pork ribs, a pretzel burger and tilapia tacos.

Wheat beer steamed clams with lemon, Thai basil and garlic are actually great, and dipping their toasted bread into the garlic perfumed sauce is highly encouraged.

Dungeness crab deviled eggs flop, much to my disappointment, with absolutely nothing special or tasty about them.

Romaine salad with grilled shrimp is tossed with a light ginger Caesar dressing which almost borders on a Chinese salad flavoring.

Fortunately the juicy and perfectly grilled marinated skirt steak with garlic and truffle cheese fries bring the gastronomy level up a notch to back up Chef Williamson’s impressive bio.  These shoestring fries with the perfect hint of black truffles is quite delectable, and almost worth the whole trip down to the South Bay.

Hudson House represents one end of the extreme on the gastropub spectrum with their non-traditional pub food, and the crispy beer battered Twinkies really says it all.  It’s wonderful that the gastropub movement is permeating into different parts of the city, and that residents of the South Bay have their own new local joints to enjoy, but for now, I’ll stick to my side of the town for pub grub.

Which brings me back to my neighborhood on the west side where I frequent the lovely outdoor patio of Father’s Office, one of the first and perhaps most famous of all gastropubs in Los Angeles, where you can enjoy 36 brews on tap and nosh down on the prizewinning Office Burger.  The dry aged beef patty cooked medium rare and served on a fluffy French roll with caramelized onions, maytag blue and gruyere cheese, applewood smoked bacon tomato compote and arugula is really all that, and it’s honestly one of my favorite burgers in LA.  With the slightest pressure of my finger pads on the bread as I take a gratifying bite, warm meat juices come pouring out of the tender meat and run down my forearms, but I can’t even be bothered to drop the burger to clean myself up, as the next moment comes too quickly, the moment when the saltiness of the cheese comes rushing in, followed by the sweetness of the caramelized onions and a rapid finish of arugula bitterness.  Even though I’ve eaten about 50 Office Burgers in my lifetime, I don’t have a single photo of it.  From the moment it arrives on the table, it completely bewitches and consumes me.

Father’s Office is famous for their gastronomy, at times offering daily specials of oysters, grilled rabbit or diver scallops.  Beet salad with walnuts, shaved curly beets and garden greens with vinaigrette is a staple on their menu.

Roasted beef bone marrow with a tangy and salty parsley caper garnish is one of the best in the city, alongside Church and State, Mozza and Caché.  Most everything on the food menu at this lively and energetic joint is pretty good, and most of all you just can’t beat al fresco drinking and grubbing on a warm LA evening.

From classical British style to contemporary American twists, gastropubs are popping up everywhere in Los Angeles, consistently brimming with customers as if there still weren’t enough gastropubs around town.  In this past year new places like District, The Lab, Waterloo and City, Laurel Tavern and Boho have opened up in addition to the Gastrobus food truck to join the ranks of Ford’s Filling Station and Westside Tavern.  The secret to their popularity is perhaps the accessibility and informality in this city that’s equally inundated with fine dining establishments where reservations may be difficult to land and a dinner outing means a 3 hour commitment with jacket and tie.  Sometimes you just want to pop in for a quick drink with friends sans reservations, but you don’t want to compromise on savory food.  These are the times when the familiarity of beer and sausages at a gastropub present the perfect combination of gourmet and comfort.

Random trivia:  Did you know that a beer bottle collector is called a labeorphilist?  A beer mat collector is a tegestologist.

Summer baby shower

Summertime, outdoor BBQ, sunshine, cool breeze, champagne, friends, laughter, gifts, food, laying out on the grass…

IMG_4314

All of these wonderful elements came together for my friend Emi’s baby shower that I co-hosted this summer.  I was genuinely excited to throw this bash and make it a special day for her.  Emi, wife of the chef and owner of The Curious Palate, has been my good friend since the 6th grade.  I brainstormed for weeks about the food spread for the joyous occasion.  I wanted to keep things simple and fresh, and I wanted to use farmers market ingredients that were at their summer peak. I also needed to simplify the preparation, garnishing and plating, in order to minimize my time in the kitchen and maximize my time having fun at the party.

For starters, I made a watermelon gazpacho.  I used plump heirloom tomatoes to deepen the flavors, blanched almonds to add texture, Spanish Jerez Reserva sherry vinegar to add a subtle kick, and a nutty French extra virgin olive oil to bring it all together.  Garlic and red peppers were thrown in for some underlying zest.  Garnished with edible flower petals, chopped chives and drops of basil oil that I made the night before, it was the perfect cool concoction for a hot summer day.

IMG_0869

Roasted red and yellow beets were flavored with Jerez Reserva sherry vinegar, olive oil, ginger and slivers, zest and juice of Valencia oranges.  The snapping ginger and citrus flavors balanced out the deep sweetness of the beets, and the vibrant colors of the edible flower garnish really popped out against the crimson background.

GetAttachment-1

For the main course, we decided to do the obligatory BBQ.  What’s an outdoor summer party without slapping some meat on the hot grill?  I marinated kalbi short ribs in my own secret recipe, and let it absorb the flavors overnight.  Italian zucchini and eggplants cut lengthwise were brushed with olive oil and flavored with fleur de sel.  What a sight to see 3 chicks (the 3 hosts) running the hot smoking grill in heels and summer dresses!  Sorry, no photos of the meat, it went too quickly.  They were tender, succulent, juicy and delicious.

I wanted to do something special, original and cute for dessert.  A store ordered cake with a messy ‘Congratulations’ in chocolate inscription?  Boring.  Cupcakes from Sprinkles?  Been there, done that.  After numerous revisions, I decided to make a playful plate that featured ripe summer white peaches.

I found this interesting fruit called a honeyloupe at the farmers market in Santa Monica.  As you can guess by the name, it’s a cross between a honeydew melon and a cantaloupe.  I used cookie cutters to cut the flesh into star, leaf and flower shapes, and marinated it for a few hours in lemongrass syrup.  Lemongrass syrup is easy to make- boil equal parts water and sugar in a pot with bruised lemongrass stalks for a few minutes.  You can drizzle it over ice cream or yogurt, and it marinates fruits really well.  It also keeps in the fridge for a long time.

I made a chocolate fudge sauce that I painted onto the plate with a pastry brush, and sprinkled the honeyloupe pieces along with edible flower petals and mint leaves to create a shooting star effect.  Using a cardboard stencil that took me only a few minutes to cut out with an exacto knife, I sprinkled a Valrhona chocolate powder teddy bear onto each plate.

I poached the white peaches the evening before in water and sugar with: cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorns, vanilla beans, honey, star anise, ginger and lemon zest.  To make the peach foam, I puréed some of those peaches with the poaching syrup, then added bloomed silver gelatin sheets before pouring it into my Espuma gun.  For those of you who don’t own an Espuma gun, I highly recommend getting one.  You can turn anything into foam or cream, and it’s so fun to use.  Load it with a couple of CO2 cartridges, and you’re ready to foam away.

GetAttachment-2_2

It all came together nicely for a colorful and cute summer dessert plate.

GetAttachment-3

My friend Emi had a healthy and beautiful baby boy, and I’m already thinking of the desserts that Auntie Tomo can spoil him with.

Random trivia:  Did you know that lemongrass oil enhances milk production in breast-feeding mothers?  It’s also believed that babies who drink this milk will have a better immune system, making them less prone to infections.

The Hidden Kitchen – Paris

Through a twist of fate and good luck, my last dinner in Paris turned out to be an exclusive and memorable experience.  The Hidden Kitchen is a secret IMG_5968underground supper club held on weekends in a lovely apartment in the posh 1st arrondissement.  The gracious hosts who live in the apartment are a lovely young American couple who moved from Seattle to Paris a few years ago.  Braden Perkins, the chef, and his girlfriend Laura Adrian cook a 7 course meal with wine pairings for 16 guests who are lucky enough not only to know about this club, but also to make it onto the list.  Although my friend e-mailed a dinner request several weeks before our Paris trip, it was only the day before that we got confirmation that we were in.

I remember the moment we received the confirmation.  I told my friend excitedly “Yes yes!  Hurry and call them back before we lose our spot!”  It was tIMG_5991oo good to be true- the trouble of securing reservations at this special dinner in itself heightens the whole experience.  Then we got information on the secret location.  I will only tell you that it’s in a lovely part of Paris, oh about a 10 minute walk from the Louvre.  As we entered the building that evening and took the tiny elevator up to the designated floor, I remember feeling a bit nervous.  What is the meal going to be like?  What are the other guests going to be like?  Are we dressed appropriately?  The hallway was quiet and we didn’t hear a sound.  Were we even in the right place?  We knocked on the door, and the moment those large doors swung open, we were greeted by the sounds of laughter and rolling conversation, the smell of food wafting from the kitchen, a friendly handshake from Laura, and a glass of Gratien and Meyer mimosa.

IMG_5984

The apartment was beautiful.  Pristine wooden floors, crown moldings, ceiling to floor window drapes framing the beautiful view of the city, a marble fireplace, a perfectly set long table for 16 under a shimmering chandelier, and warm glowing candlelight everywhere.  The icing on the cake was their adorable Boston terrier Tattie who shared his love with every guest.

The guests were mostly American, and we also had a fun group of 4 Aussies and Kiwis.  Amazingly no French, even though we were in the middle of Paris.  It was strange to be in this lovely Parisian apartment speaking only English and talking about American culture and news.

IMG_5997

As we settled into our seats and perused the neatly presented dinner menu, Braden gave us a warm welcome and explained the amuse bouche- pickled onions and queso fresco on a squid ink cracker.  Braden came out before each course to introduce and describe the dish that he prepared in the tiny kitchen.

The first course was a fava bean ravioli with sweet peas in a green garlic spring onion sauce, garnished with dehydrated carrots, parsley and toasted crostini.  A nourishing ravioli dish with nice added crisp textures from the carrots and crostini.  This was paired with a Sancerre 2005 from Domaine de L’Estang Ligers, a light white that left a lingering sweetness on my tongue.

IMG_6021

The second course was a poached egg served with a chilled white asparagus marinated in white truffle oil and lemon, with a parmigiano mornay sauce and garnished with a hat of marinated leeks.  Contrary to its hearty appearance, this dish was a bit on the bland side and could have used a little more acidity.  Although the asparagus was a tad undercooked, it was nice to be eating fresh seasonal foods.  This was paired with a beautiful 2007 Chateau La Bertrande Bordeaux which was my one of my favorite wines of the evening.  It had a fine interplay of dry and sweet flavors.

IMG_6035

The third course was seared Atlantic salmon seasoned with salt and white pepper in a rhubarb bay leaf sauce, served with kohlrabi lime and nigella seed coleslaw, and a flaxseed cracker.  The salmon was perfectly cooked and went beautifully with the delicate rhubarb sauce.  It was paired with a 2005 Chateau de L’Aulée from Touraine Azay Le Rideau of the Loire valley, which had a sweet caramel flavor.

IMG_6037

The next course was a pan fried mackerel battered in buckwheat flour, served with chive feta, a poppyseed cracker, cucumbers and a red pepper sauce.  The crispy texture and light flavor of the cucumber complemented the superb mackerel that was incredibly fresh and delicious.  I wasn’t a fan of the red pepper sauce which tasted like Chinese sweet and sour sauce.  The dish was paired with an Aquilon 2007 Grenache-Syrah blend from Roussillon, which is close to the Spanish border.  I loved this wine which was deep and rich, and not too sweet for a rosé.

IMG_6041

The palate cleanser was a playful take on an American classic.  Called ‘The Derby’, it was a bourbon jello with lime sorbet and mint garnish.  The jello had a nice strong bourbon kick and the lime sorbet was refreshing.  This would be perfect for a balmy summer evening.  A simple, lovely and revitalizing culinary delight.

IMG_6045

The meat dish was a lemon zest and garlic stuffed pork roulade with a brown sugar crust.  It was served with white bean, fennel and frisée salad on a bed of basil pesto, an asparagus spear, a deep fried artichoke heart and lemon aioli dot.  Although I initially felt like the dish was too busy with so many different flavors and components, it all worked well and I really enjoyed it.  The overall balance of flavors was refreshing, although the meat was on the dry side.  It was paired with a Côtes du Rhone 2006 from Domaine La Millière.

IMG_6048

I loved the beautiful and unique presentation of the beet salad.  Wild arugula speared through a tart cherry looked like a miniature beet, though the real beet in this dish was a rectangular piece of tender roasted beet flavored with balsamic vinegar and a dollop of goat cheese on tart cherry purée.  A simple but well thought-out dish with strong bold flavors.  This was paired with a Mas Du Notaire 2007 Costieres de Nimes from Rhone Valley which was tart and still young.

IMG_6054

For dessert we had rhubarb mint sorbet with shortbread cake and macerated strawberries.  The strawberries were sweet and delicious and the sorbet was light and refreshing.  The shortbread cake was a bit of a disappointment- it was rock hard, unbreakable and inedible.

IMG_6059

The petits fours prepared by Laura from the top going clockwise: honey salted peanut caramel, rice krispy treat, blueberry pâte de fruit and tonka bean dark chocolate truffle.  I didn’t taste any since I’m not a petits fours type of person, but everybody else seemed to enjoy them.

IMG_6069

It’s truly amazing that Chef Braden whipped out a beautiful 7 course meal for 16 people all by himself from a tiny closet sized kitchen, all the while maintaining a perfect flow of service and also managing to come out to chat with everybody before presenting each dish.  IMG_6011Laura was a perfect and professional hostess, never ceasing to smile and always staying cool and calm as she effortlessly functioned as sommelier and server to a table of 16.  Even though we were all tourists in this beautiful city of lights, for those few magical hours that night it felt like we were hanging out with close friends back home.  It’s a special feeling to be welcomed into somebody’s home, to be invited into their sacred space as guests of honor, to be fed with food cooked from the heart and straight from the oven, and to be able to say goodbye to new friends with a warm hug and a ‘let’s keep in touch!’ at the end of the night.  This exclusive experience was worth every 80 Euros, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The Hidden Kitchen

Random trivia:  Did you know that in Islam, the nigella seed is regarded as one of the greatest forms of healing medicine available?   The prophet Muhammad once said that the black seed can heal every disease—except death.