A Smokin’ Hot birthday feast

What’s a party without a theme?  Little girls delight in princess-themed tea parties and Hello Kitty fetes.  Boys go crazy acting out pirates and cowboys.  Adolescents cast spells with a flick of their wand while pretending to battle the dark lord with Harry Potter.  College coeds rage at toga parties and Hawaiian luaus to spice up the social scene.  No matter what age, themed parties are always fun and set the backdrop for an entertaining and memorable time with friends and family.  For my birthday this year, a few of my very close friends threw a dinner party for me.  I knew that they had been planning, shopping, prepping and cooking for many days to pamper me with a spectacular feast, but I didn’t know until that evening that there was a surprise twist to it all-  a Smokin’ Hot theme.  Why?  Because at my age, I am still, supposedly, smokin’ hot.  (As Bernard Meltzer said, ‘A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked.’)

The two chefs for the evening revealed that the entire menu was constructed around this smokin’ hot theme, incorporating smoked items and spicy hot condiments.  Every dish was well thought out to reflect the theme, taste amazing and still maintain a cohesive flow with the rest of the menu.  I was already touched that they took time out of their busy lives to create this themed dinner for me, and I wasn’t prepared for the delicious 7 course meal that was about to blow me away.  The evening officially commenced when somebody popped the cork of a bottle of Piper Heidsieck champagne, donned in a red hot label.

Octopus legs were boiled with a wine cork, in Mario Batali style, to tenderize the meat before charring it in the broiler.  (Of note, after much research, I have found no scientific evidence or studies out there to prove or disprove this method of tenderizing cork- only that Mario Batali swears by it, and when a jolly orange croc-wearing Iron Chef says so, who can argue?)  The resulting octopus was mixed with fingerling potatoes, sliced red onions, parsley and dill, and tossed together in a garlic infused olive oil sauce made with smoked paprika powder.

For the second course, Chef Emi made an ancho chile paste by rehydrating dried ancho chiles, carefully seeding and peeling them, and finally blending it all with butter.

Tossed together with boiled then pan seared brussels sprouts, this made for a delicious vegetable starter with a mild but very much present hot ancho chile kick.

A most delightful ceviche was made with tender morsels of bay scallops, tuna and shrimp, in a quick marinade of chopped tomatoes, red onions, garlic, fresh orange juice, lime juice and cilantro.  The secret ingredient in the seafood cocktail was Emi’s father’s homemade bombero chile sauce, a fiery hot liquid made with tender love and care from chiles in their backyard garden.

There’s a lot of work that goes into broiling eggplants over an open hot flame to a smokey char and peeling off the skin to make a savory homemade baba ghanoush with tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt, and with that extra accent of smoked paprika powder, it was worth every bite.  Smokey, creamy, rich and simply delicious, the chefs created a perfect dish.

Thick cuts of applewood smoked bacon from the Curious Palate were wrapped around goat cheese and cashew stuffed dates, and baked in the oven for tantalizing bites of porcine delight.  Warm liquid pork fat mixed with melting cheese, encased in a rich pillowcase of sweetness and a finish of subtle crunchy texture- these perfectly packaged skewers from Chef Hana were the ultimate complement to her refreshing homemade red sangria.

Green, red and yellow bell peppers were charred over a hot open flame and carefully peeled in preparation for the main course, a paella.

An impressive seafood paella made with littleneck clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and Santa Barbara spot prawns was served piping hot in a large wide paellera.  Saffron infused bomba rice was perfectly al dente, and with just a sprinkling of garlic and hot chile infused olive oil that the chef made, this final smokin’ hot savory dish was the catalyst that really brought everybody’s hearts together that evening.

The climax of the evening, as with any birthday feast, was the birthday cake presented with a birthday song.

Chef Emi made the most wonderful, beautiful and delicious caramel cake with vanilla bean crème fraîche frosting and poached quince.  Crème fraîche was made from scratch with buttermilk, and fresh farmers market quince was poached for hours and hours to render it sweet and tender.  With a sprinkling of fleur de sel to season, this caramel cake was one of the best desserts that I have ever tasted, not only for its genuinely professional execution, but also for the intense amount of love that I could taste in each mouthwatering bite.

The smokin’ hot-themed birthday feast was more than I could have asked for- surrounded by loved ones, eating to our heart’s content, toasting to our futures and laughing together.  Every part of the feast and every minute of that precious evening was memorable for me, and more valuable than any restaurant experience that I could ever imagine.  What was more smokin’ hot that night?  The crackling fireplace that set the mood, the hot spiciness of the food, or the warm fuzzy feeling that I got in my heart?  The answer was in my smile.

Random trivia:  Did you know that eggplants are called ‘aubergine’ in many countries outside of the US?  Aubergine derives from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to cure wind-disorder’, since eggplants were once thought to alleviate flatulence.

The Lazy Ox Canteen

I still remember quite vividly the excitement that I felt in my tiny little chest when my parents would take me to Little Tokyo back in the 70’s and 80’s.  As a Japanese girl growing up in Los Angeles, weekend excursions to this area of downtown LA were precious.  I have fond memories of slurping ramen noodles, buying Doraemon stickers, perusing through Japanese manga and stuffing myself silly with freshly baked imagawa yaki.  I used to scream at the top of my lungs as my brother terrorized me in a frantic chase around the fountain in the center of the Japanese Village Plaza until my dad’s stern look would put an abrupt end to the rampage.  Elderly store owners used to greet me with a pat on the head and ask me how I was doing in school.  The iconic red Yagura tower, the symbol of Little Tokyo, seemed majestic and grand.  I cherished this magical town full of interesting people who spoke my language and breathed my culture.  Now, decades later, something has happened and the lively spirit of Little Tokyo has vanished.  My beloved childhood playground is now a deserted ghost town.  What happened?  My sad and heavy heart weeps at this tragic transformation.

Fortunately there’s 1 new reason to put Little Tokyo back on the map.   Michael Cardenas, a Japanese-Mexican chef who has revolutionized the LA movement of hip rock ‘n’ roll fine dining by opening Sushi Roku, Katana and Boa, has teamed up with Chef Josef Centeno to bring a new type of restaurant to the heart of Little Tokyo.  It’s a tapas bar, gastropub and izakaya all blended together in a small space on the ground floor of a condominium complex.  I was skeptical when I first approached the restaurant.  There was no restaurant sign, and although the patio seats were all full, it was quiet and dark.   Once I stepped inside though, the intense energy and power of the restaurant almost blew the hair right off my scalp.  The bar to the left, the communal table in the center, tables in every corner and banquettes against the wall were all filled with laughing and smiling diners who were undoubtedly having the time of their lives.  I loved the large bare filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling that lit up the faces of the eclectic and mixed crowd.  The vibe was hip and cool, but the friendly demeanor of the incredible staff also made it cozy and warm.

There was a regular menu, but the daily specials written on the blackboard were more diverse.  Pork parts and offals stood out in the colorful menu, while family style specials for 2 were listed for every day of the week.  The day I visited was a Sunday, and the big plate special was a brick roasted 1/2 duck.  Everything on the menu sounded enticing, but alas there were only 4 of us and our gastric walls were not able to accommodate all of the dishes.  I marveled at the fact that the tiny kitchen, which was smaller than my own kitchen, was turning out this extensive menu at an efficient speed with precision and grace.  Such is the power of a talented and capable chef like Centeno who has worked at numerous places including Meson G, Opus, Lot 1, Aubergine and Bar Celona.  For years I held a bit of a grudge against Centeno who served an appalling dish of sea urchin and moyashi soybean sprouts at Meson G back in 2005, but I was ready to let go of those bad memories and call a truce.  Go figure that the one evening that I chose to visit The Lazy Ox Canteen was the first day off for Centeno since the restaurant opened in December 2009.

We started our fantastic meal with a refreshing salad of pickled beets and wild arugula.  The cubes of tender beets were marinated to a perfect tartness and paired elegantly with the sweetness of the succulent mandarin orange wedges.  The mellow flavors of the yogurt dressing tempered the acidity of the vegetables, while crunchy purple radicchio leaves in the bottom layer peered through the green arugula trellis to impart more vibrant colors to this lively dish.

Pig’s ear chicharrones…*gulp*. With the explosion of pig’s ear dishes in restaurants all over town this year, I’ve been conditioned to excessively salivate at the mere sight of the words “pig’s ear” on a menu like a naive Pavlovian dog.  The one here at Lazy Ox Canteen was super crispy bordering on chewy, cooked in such a way as to transform the fatty dermis into a light biscuit while maintaining the inherent crunchy toughness of the thin cartilage layer.  With a squeeze of fresh lime, a dip in luscious aioli and a chaser of piquant pickled radishes, I’m now dreaming of a utopia where large bowls of fried pig’s ears may someday replace chips & salsa at Super Bowl parties.

Deep fried anchovies delighted all gourmands at the table with their crisp and puffy shells.  The delicate fish were so incredibly fresh and tender that they practically evaporated into a savory breeze of aquatic essence in the mouth.  This dish rivaled some of the best boquerones that I’ve had in Barcelona tapas bars.

Braised lamb cheeks nestled on a bed of creamy semolina and collard greens were rich and tender, and the acidity of the pickled red onions imparted a perfect degree of tart and zing that kept the forks moving and the glasses flowing.  Our bottle of 2008 Chilean Leyda Pinot Noir kept us very happy that night.

No matter how good a restaurant is, there is bound to be at least 1 dish that doesn’t quite make the cut.  Charred octopus tossed with pickled shallots, fava beans, pomelo grapefruit and escarole was that dish for me.  It’s wasn’t bad by any means, but compared to the rest of the spectacular dishes that knocked my socks off, the combination of ingredients seemed discordant.  As the title implied, I was hoping for a robust and masculine piece of charred octopus with crisp and smoky skin, rather than the spongy mass that had been allowed to soak up too much of the vinegar sauce.

‘Eggs and ham‘ Lazy ox style… am I a fan of eggs and ham?  Why yes I am, of eggs and ham a fan I am.  Heck, damn I am!  The women at the table all cooed over this adorable plate of fried quail eggs and deep fried pork belly with harissa.  The pork was pleasantly fatty and crispy, and the fiery bite of the harissa sauce added character and flair.

Hand-torn egg pasta with sunny-side egg, brown butter and fines herbs was excellent.  A fresh spring herb bouquet of dill, tarragon and parsley brought a perfect level of snap to the otherwise rich dish oozing with runny egg yolk and brown butter.  All of the simple yet delicious ingredients came together harmoniously to accentuate the marvelous texture of the flat pasta.

Chicken livers…*gulp*.  Another Pavlovian response.  Chicken liver crostini with whole grain mustard was almost too good to share.  The creamy chunks of liver featured in this dish were a little on the gamey side but the saltiness of the pancetta crisps balanced it out well.

We had a splendid dish of dashi marinated yellowtail cubes mixed with thin radish slices, avocado, crème fraîche, tobiko caviar and puffed rice that went surprisingly well with triangles of freshly cooked potato hash browns.  It was an unlikely combination of ‘East meets West’, but the flavors melded perfectly and stirred much excitement from the gallery.

A deep fried butterflied fillet of baby pompano almost looked amphibious with its flattened back and deep eye sockets, ready to leap off the bed of leafy greens onto my lap, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable dishes for me.  The crispy skin and crunchy bones made for some of the best otsumami beer snacks that I’ve had in a long time, but the showstopper was the smoked pepper aioli with its amazing rich flavor and silky cream consistency.

Pig trotters….yum….Pavlovian response revisited.  Pig trotters, along with various other pig parts, have been one of the most welcome food trends for me in Los Angeles this past year.  Los Angeles cuisine is finally catching up to the rest of the world.  These braised trotters were served burger style as minced meat patties on a bed of lentil purée with a dash of pickled onion slices and a drizzle of rich jus.  The trotter dish was incredibly succulent, perfectly fatty and just a perfect serving of heaven.

The tapioca pudding brûlée had that characteristic enjoyable squishy texture of bouncy tapioca with a nice smokey caramelized layer of burnt sugar on top.  It was served with a sweet pineapple sauce that had a faint hint of szechuan peppercorn that fortunately didn’t overpower the fruit flavor.

I had a genuinely fun and delicious experience at The Lazy Ox Canteen, and even though Centeno wasn’t there that night the crew did an amazing job.  I peered over to the tiny kitchen and recognized the handsome face of sous chef Mario from Mo-Chica who never lost his cool.  Hats off to the rest of the floor staff who made our experience pleasurable with their positive energy and generosity.  The service was beyond excellent, and for a packed house and a miniature kitchen, I couldn’t believe the perfect flow of service and the absence of delay in time from order to table.  If I had more stomach space, I would have loved to try the lengua ravioli, Lazy Ox burger, Merguez sausage and crispy quail.  But alas, we were at full capacity and any more food would have caused reflux.  I would love to revisit the restaurant to try their daily big plate specials too- pan seared 19 oz pork porterhouse on Friday and a 24 oz black pepper crusted cote de boeuf on Saturday are beckoning me.   The alcohol menu is also an eclectic mix of global drinks, from Okinawan awamori to Belgian ales, and South African Shiraz to Hungarian Furmint.  At stunningly affordable prices, there’s no longer an excuse not to go to Little Tokyo.

Call The Lazy Ox Canteen and a sweet and bubbly voice on the other side will greet you with a “How can I make your day better?”  Your day will unquestionably be made better with a visit to this outstanding restaurant.

The Lazy Ox Canteen

241 S San Pedro St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-5299

Random trivia:  Did you know that various pig parts can be found in common household items that we all have?  Bones, cartilage, fat, skin and hair are used in manufacturing items like photographic film, corks, shampoo, medicine capsules and crayons.