Sensational dishes of 2011

It was the year of craft beers, gastropubs, pop-ups, ramen, foraging, Asian street food, infusions, smoking, duck fat, fried chicken, Peruvian food, Nordic cuisine and pies.  2011, the year of the rabbit, was another exceptional year of fruitful culinary adventures around the world, new friendships that blossomed through memorable meals and gastronomic treasures inspired by passionate chefs who poured heart and soul into their craft.

My year, as usual, started off in Japan where I celebrated the new year with family and friends and enjoyed winter delicacies in the best restaurants in Tokyo.  Then across the globe I went in spring, to New Delhi, India where I sampled Indian street food and ventured down to Kerala for Southern Indian cuisine. It was then that the tragic news of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck, and I took an unexpected and bittersweet return home to Japan for medical volunteer work. It was wonderful to see numerous chefs in the US and Japan stand up for the occasion and donate their time and services to raise money for earthquake and tsunami relief.

Later that spring I took my first step into the South where a casual weekend road trip through the Carolinas and Virginia turned out to be one of the most memorable and fun gastronomic trips of my life.  I never knew that there was such history, such energy and so many beautiful flavors in this region of the US, and I quickly fell in love with Southern food.

The end of the summer was spent in Haiti for a cholera outbreak project, where my biggest impression, from comparing it to a year and a half ago when I first went after the big earthquake, was that there was very little progress.  Millions of dollars worth of donated pledges have not come to form yet in this developing country where many still live in tents with no access to clean water and sanitation.

Then autumn came, the leaves turned yellow and I found myself infatuated with the restaurant scene in San Francisco.  I spent many hours at the Ferry Building eating burgers, drinking coffee, lining up for pastries and buying charcuterie. Where else can one find amazing food right now? Baja California. I took 3 trips south of the border this year with the last one in October for the first Baja Culinary Festival where I was spoiled with fresh sea urchin, octopus, clams and fish from the Pacific.

Then winter came, I made my pilgrimage back to Japan, and just like that- 2011 was over.  Through it all there were some exceptional dishes that left a lasting impression on my palate and my heart- dishes that I can still taste and smell as if it were right in front of me, and will forever be engrained in my life as a delicious memory. Some flavors were new to me while others were familiar and comforting, but all were beautiful and full of life.

Saint-Sever foie gras- Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, Les Créations de Narisawa (Tokyo, Japan)

My first restaurant meal of 2011 was at the acclaimed 2 Michelin star Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan, where Chef Narisawa draws inspiration from nature.  The Saint-Sever foie gras dish was poêléed in red wine vinegar and fond de veau, then finished with balsamic vinegar and strawberries- a perfect balance of acidity, sweetness and the rich savor of foie gras.

Naruto Tai Nitsuke- Chef Kenzo Sato, Shigeyoshi (Tokyo, Japan)

My favorite restaurant in the world is Shigeyoshi in Tokyo, a 2 Michelin star establishment that has maintained the same level of service and excellent food for the last 40 years.  This is what I look forward to the most when visiting Japan- sitting at the counter in front of Chef Sato and watching him prepare each dish as we engage in conversation.  This year a traditional tai no nitsuke, sea bream head from Naruto gently simmered in a soy ginger sake broth, captured my heart.  The flesh was tender and the flavors were comforting- something that I could eat every day of the year and smile after every satisfying bite.

Awabi no kimo- Chef Taira, Kyubei Sushi (Tokyo, Japan)

There are many stellar sushi restaurants in Japan- how does one choose the best?  It’s about finding 1 or 2 favorite places and establishing a long lasting relationship with a sushi shokunin.  I’ve been going to Kyubei in Ginza every year since I was a teenager, and Taira san understands my palate like no other.  He always makes this dish for me- abalone innards simmered in abalone broth with rice, sake and a splash of mitsuba for texture and freshness.  There is something about the bitterness of the abalone innards that I absolutely love and I simply cannot imagine starting off the year without this dish at Kyubei.

Konju tiger prawns- The Backwaters of Alleppey on a Houseboat (Kerala, India)

A visit to Kerala in Southern India is not complete without a relaxing houseboat tour on the backwaters of Alleppey.  The boat slowly traverses through the murky waters of Alleppey, gliding past quaint villages and lush jungle-like vegetation.  We picked up some Konju tiger prawns along the way from a local fisherman, giant prawns the size of my face with impressively long emerald blue claws.  They were marinated in Kerala spices of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric and flash fried in the pan to a crisp.  A lazy afternoon sprawled out on the deck of the houseboat, staring out onto the vast waters of Southern India while noshing on meaty prawns is an experience that I will never forget.

Crispy fried pig ears- Chef Sean Brock, Husk Restaurant (Charleston, SC)

A visit to the South this past spring was an eye opening experience for me.  With Chef Sean Brock as my trusted tour guide at both of his restaurants, my adventure into Southern cuisine was educational, memorable and downright delicious.  My dinner at Husk was my favorite meal of 2011 thanks to many sensational dishes that highlighted Southern ingredients, including crispy fried pig ears, soaked in tangy vinegar and served in a lettuce cup with preserved butter bean chow chow.

Beef cheek with hay-smoked milk- Chef John Shields, Town House (Chilhowie, VA)

Many chefs played around with hay and wood this past year, smoking, charring and burning them to extract unique aromas.  It was John Shields’ Pastoral dish at Town House during my road trip through the South that demonstrated the allure of this trend the most successfully.  Tender beef cheek was drizzled with hay-smoked milk and decorated with edible herbs and flowers, a well thought out dish that was both visually and conceptually inspirational.  The smoked hay lingered on my palate for what seemed like an eternity, perfuming each cell in my body with the beautiful aromas of nature.

Sanda wagyu beef tongue dango- Sanda (Tokyo, Japan)

Only in Japan can a restaurant specializing in beef offals elevate organ meats to Michelin star level.  At Sanda, they char Sanda Wagyu pancreas, poach tendons, steam lungs and braise cheeks.  Sanda is a culinary temple for offal aficionados, and I became enamored with their beef tongue and throat cartilage dango soup, a soft airy meatball made with succulent tongue and crunchy cartilage for added texture.  I experienced a moment of peace and serenity as I sipped the savory broth to its last drop.

Uni, junsai, yuzu- Chef Koji Koizumi, Kohaku (Tokyo, Japan)

A newcomer to the Tokyo restaurant scene but already awarded 2 Michelin stars, my kaiseki meal at Kohaku in Tokyo was a breathtaking demonstration of finesse, understated beauty and harmony.  The first course was a study in textures and flavors- diced cucumbers, slippery junsai, and yuzu gelée that enveloped and highlighted the buttery sweetness of summer uni.  Kohaku is a culinary oasis in the middle of Tokyo where one can experience true Japanese hospitality.

Smoked steelhead roe with French toast- Chef Craig Thornton, Wolvesden (Los Angeles, CA)

Chef Craig Thornton’s Wolvesden is no underground secret anymore, although reservations for his private dinners are still notoriously difficult to score.  At one such dinner this past year, he challenged the traditional and classic concepts of a meal and reversed the order of his dishes. He started with dessert, served meat before fish and even incorporated breakfast inspired courses throughout the dinner.  French toast drizzled with maple syrup and a side of smoked bacon sounds like the perfect morning meal- here Thornton decorated cinnamon ice cream with pearls of bright orange smoked steelhead roe, green apple slices and a side drizzle of maple syrup.  The result? An explosion of climactic flavors- smoky, sweet and savory, all at once.

Heirloom rice porridge- Chef Jordan Kahn, Red Medicine (Los Angeles, CA)

Red Medicine is where I like to take out-of-town food aficionados so I can prove to them that there is something to be said about the Los Angeles dining scene.  Chef Kahn’s desserts are without question some of the best in the city- and the country- demonstrating his unique style of sensibility, beauty and grace.  Although he is a renowned pastry chef by trade, his savory dishes at Red Medicine are quite incredible as well.  I can still remember my first bite into the heirloom rice porridge served with a bright orange ‘Kelley’s mom’s’ farm egg, Santa Barbara red uni, hazelnuts, ginseng, brassicas, liquid ginger, fried shallots and broccoli purée.  I was hesitant about eating rice porridge at a non-Asian establishment, but that first heavenly bite almost brought tears to my eyes.  At once comforting and familiar but also new, interesting and refreshing, this is one dish that everybody should eat.

Earth’s deep perfumes- Chef Roberto Cortez, CR8 dinner (Los Angeles, CA)

My first of 3 meals at Chef Roberto Cortez’s private CR8 dinners was quite an experience.  Textures, flavors, music, aromas and tactile sensations came together for a well orchestrated meal that touched me on a deep emotional level.  Food can evoke memories and make us feel in ways that we haven’t in a long time, and Cortez’s risotto with crunchy ground coffee and Syrah glaze did just that for me.  Shiitake mushroom cappuccino coupled with the bitterness of coffee took me down memory lane to a place of love and sorrow.

32 and 70-day aged pigeon, cherry blossoms- Chef Joshua Skenes, Saison (San Francisco, CA)

One of the most exciting restaurants in the US right now is Saison in San Francisco where Chef Joshua Skenes concentrates flavors through aging and roasts proteins over hot embers to extract its fine essences.  This past autumn I indulged in an astounding tasting menu at the chef’s table inside the kitchen where he presented a 32 day aged pigeon, its cavity salted and roasted over cherry wood, and a 70 day aged pigeon, left unsalted, likewise roasted and served with a glass of rosé infused with salted cherry blossoms.  So much work for just a sliver of pungent breast meat, but worth every delectable bite- the 70 day aged pigeon meat was a surprising sensation for me, dark concentrated crimson meat with a thick waxy texture that tasted just like Epoisse, aka heaven.

Tuetano de Res Rostizado- Chef Javier Plascencia, Mision 19 (Tijuana, Mexico)

When I tell people about my trips down to Tijuana, people always ask why. ‘For the food’, I reply, to which I am met with skeptical and quizzical looks.  There is a budding culinary scene in Baja California with Chef Javier Plascencia at its forefront, and on a recent trip down south of the border for the 1st Baja Culinary Festival, he amazed me again with his innovative and exquisite cuisine.  Roasted bone marrow topped with generous chunks of tender Yellowfin tuna, brightened with the popping textures of tobiko roe, a side of crunchy salicornia and Serrano foam was just brilliant.

Pear, Quince, Sage- Chef Dominique Crenn & Pastry Chef Juan Contreras, Atelier Crenn (San Francisco, CA)

Autumn turns to winter, and soft powdery snow blankets the dying autumn leaves in this outstanding dessert served at the end of an exceptional tasting meal at Atelier Crenn, one of my best and most memorable meals of the year.  While I wish that I could list every single dish of Chef Dominique Crenn’s tasting menu on this ‘best of’ list, I choose this dessert, made by her pastry chef Juan Contreras.  Edible hibiscus leaves mingle with yogurt sage powder, pink quince granité and crunchy phyllo dough around a pear sorbet that is shaped into a perfectly frosted miniature pear.  It is served with a dessert consommé of vanilla beans and spices that are infused into a broth on a tabletop siphon coffee maker- love at first sight and until the last bite.

Peruvian Cau-Cau- Chef Ricardo Zarate, Picca (Los Angeles, CA)

Chef Ricardo Zarate’s new restaurant Picca was a breath of fresh air in the Los Angeles culinary scene this year.  Anticuchos of beef heart and black cod charred over hot Japanese coal and signature ceviches spiked with aji amarillo have become standards in my weekly dining repertoire, but there was one comfort dish that he made during a special themed dinner that captured my attention and my heart.  Peruvian potato and tripe stew, cau-cau, with braised honeycomb tripe that melted in my mouth like butter was a bowl that I would like to eat over and over again.  Earthy hearty flavors with a touch of turmeric, dressed with piquant salsa and a drizzle of cumin yogurt was just what the doctor prescribed, and what this talented and amazing chef provided on that unusually chilly evening.

During 2011 I was introduced to new cuisines, impressed by new flavors and intrigued by new foods.  I met some amazing chefs who inspired me to continue exploring the world and the possibilities of how food can enhance and complement our lives- from Sean Brock to Dominique Crenn to Roberto Cortez, and I am truly thankful for the continued friendships with exceptional chefs like Ricardo Zarate, Craig Thornton, and Javier Plascencia.  2011 was an amazing year, as you can see, but I have a feeling that 2012 will be even better as I write this entry from Tokyo, Japan and plan for some delicious trips to Europe and beyond.  May your 2012, the year of the dragon, be a fulfilling and delicious year!

Roberto Cortez- CR8 dinner- Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberto Cortez

Next dinner series on November 15, 16, 17

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

Gyugin 牛銀本店 – Matsuzaka, Japan

He wakes me every morning with that sweet gentle voice of his, calling my name with even more affection than the day before.  ‘Come outside, it’s a beautiful day,’ he says, and he leads me into the wide serene pastures where we frolic and play.  He strokes my black hair with a soft brush, then proceeds to tickle me all over with his playful touch.  We walk along the beautiful river, drinking the fresh natural spring water to quench our thirst.  We toast to our time together with a bottle of beer which I happily guzzle down.  Mozart playing in the background, a little tipsy, I fall into a state of absolute bliss as he massages me all over with those strong masculine hands.  Life is good…

…very good, for the black-haired wagyu cattle raised in Japan that live a privileged and pampered life. Daily massages, shochu hair and hide treatments, classical music, long walks, a special diet made with homemade okara and grains, and lots of beer sound more like the luxurious life of an A-list Hollywood celebrity, but the extent to which these Japanese farmers go to treating their cows (better than their own wives) culminate in an unrivaled cut of supreme beef.

File:4 Kobe Beef, Kobe Japan.jpgKobe beef is world renowned, but it is only 1 of the trio of ultimate Japanese beef supremacy- the top 3 brands of the ‘Sandai Wagyu’ being Kobe, Matsuzaka and Yonezawa.  All are beautiful works of culinary perfection, their intricately marbled patterns of snow white fat melting easier than butter and bursting with refined flavor.

This past January I made a pilgrimage to the Ise Jingu in Mie prefecture, the most sacred and holiest of Shinto shrines in Japan, to honor my roots and receive blessings for the new year.  On my way back to Tokyo I made a separate pilgrimage to Gyugin restaurant in Matsuzaka city, one of the most highly regarded temples of Matsuzaka beef.

Just as one would expect a plethora of pizzerias in Napoli, there are as many as 30 specialty Matsuzaka beef houses in Matsuzaka city.  All, including the top 3 restaurants called Gyugin, Wadakin and Mimatsu, boast prime cuts of the prized meat and crowd their walls with photos of legendary champion cows to augment the experience.  Gyugin is the locals’ restaurant of choice, including 3 taxi drivers, a train conductor and numerous store owners whom I carefully interviewed that day.  The restaurant is tucked away in an old merchant neighborhood at the foot of the Matsuzaka castle, housed in a 2 story wooden structure that still resonates with Meiji era architecture.

In Japan in the 1800′s, meat was randomly cut up in cubes and used in mixed batches regardless of the muscle cut, thrown into a large pot with scallions and miso.  At the turn of the Meiji era in the late 1800′s, butchering became more of a precise art with a deeper understanding of preparation and aging, with an emphasis on select cuts for use in specialty dishes like amiyaki and sukiyaki.  It was around this time that Ginzo Kobayashi, born as the 3rd son of a field farmer, followed his ambition to make it big in the city.  He got his first job at a butcher shop called Yonehisa.  After learning the craft of butchering and the ins and outs of raising premium cattle, he opened his own butcher shop Gyugin at the tender young age of 22 in the heart of Matsuzaka city.  That was 1902.  Today, almost 110 years later, Gyugin remains a sacred site for Matsuzaka beef and a historical icon of sukiyaki.

As with any Japanese craft or restaurant, Gyugin exemplifies the Japanese philosophy of kodawari- the uncompromising and almost stubborn devotion to excellence and attention to detail in the pursuit of perfection.  In the end, kodawari leads to consistency, a quality that I find most important in a restaurant.  At Gyugin one will find the sukiyaki prepared in exactly the same way as it was 110 years ago- only with soy sauce and sugar- to honor the same flavor, quality and tradition that it was built on.  The beef and its beautiful sashi (marble) speak for itself.

Gyugin offers 2 other ways to enjoy Matsuzaka beef: shiochiri, a lighter sukiyaki using white soy sauce, kombu dashi and white pepper, and mizutaki, essentially a shabu shabu with ponzu and white sesame dipping sauces.  Yet sukiyaki is the shining star here, the taste that made Gyugin history, with 3 grades of beef to choose from.  Our server recommended the middle grade called Take for 8,400 yen per person, not by any means a middle grade price, but the best balance of fat, meat and flavor.

Every meal is prepared by your server to ensure perfect execution and flavor. Large slices of Matsuzaka beef, hand sliced to order by a seasoned butcher who cuts as precisely and evenly as a machine, are gently draped into a cold iron pot with a cube of beef fat that begins to melt like butter once the heat is turned on.  Slowly the meat starts to sing, first a low hum then a gradual fortissimo with sputtering sounds of melting fat.  In goes the sugar, then kijoyu soy sauce, an overly simple concoction for such a grand display, yet its slow caramelization releases a sweet intoxicating aroma that grips you with a visceral pang of hunger.

The white sashi (marbled fat) slowly turns translucent as red turns an appetizing brown.  Meanwhile the most perfect fresh farm egg, its bright orange yolk standing taut and almost a gravity defying vertical, requires a strong puncture of the chopsticks to get through the elasticity of its membranes.  It’s a powerful and vigorous specimen of egg, one that can stand up to the heartiness of the sukiyaki.  We all whisk the egg in silence as our eyes fixate on the simmering pot of meat.

After what seems an eternity, a glistening slab of beef is lowered into my bowl.  I gently toss it around with my chopsticks, coating the large surface area with a light application of whisked egg.  The first bite is phenomenal- an explosion of sweetness quickly followed by the creaminess of egg, then a slow injection of fatty meat that liquifies with each careful bite.  Tender, silky, savory yet light, I now see why so many have dedicated their lives to this wagyu.

Beef, warm white rice, kurazuke daikon pickles, repeat, and within minutes the first course is done.  It’s time for the vegetables now, a palate cleanser before another intense round of Matsuzaka gyu.  Carrots, onions, enoki mushrooms and mitsuba cook briefly in the beef glaze, enjoyed in a simple ponzu kombu dashi dipping sauce.  After another satisfying round of beef sukiyaki that tastes even better than the first, we are served the final savory course of tofu and scallions, then a refreshing yuzu sorbet.

Gyugin Yoshokuya next door serves Westernized Matsuzaka beef dishes like beef cutlet, grilled steak, beef curry, beef katsu and hamburger, a popular joint for families with children. However, to really appreciate the essence and beauty of this glorious wagyu beef in its purist form, an evening of sukiyaki at the original Gyugin restaurant is an experience not to be missed.  The most prized beef in the world, created from tender love, care and years of pampering, is truly one of the most delicious foods that I have ever had the privilege of savoring.

Gyugin-Honten

1618 Uomachi

Matsuzaka city

Mie prefecture, Japan

Tel. 81-0598-21-0404

11am-8pm, closed Mondays

Random trivia: Did you know that the song ‘Sukiyaki’, by Kyu Sakamoto, remains the only Japanese-language song to hit #1 in the US (1963 US Billboard Hot 100)?

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.


LudoBites 4.0 at Gram & Papa’s – Downtown LA

Have you had an ‘A ha!‘ moment recently?

One of those sudden moments of clarity, revelation, realization?  When that light bulb goes off over the top of your head?  These moments may be few and far in between, but I recently had a slew of them while dining at my favorite chef Ludo Lefebvre‘s recent pop-up venture.  Although he was already famous by the time he took over the Los Angeles culinary scene in his L’Orangerie and Bastide days, he’s probably more known now for his innovative and fun pop-up restaurant called LudoBites.  It’s a revolutionary ‘guerrilla-style’ of dining where he rents out a restaurant space for a limited time dinner engagement.  During the previously successful LudoBites 2.0 at the Breadbar, LudoBites 3.0 at Royal/T and a fried chicken truck appearance at the LA Street Food Fest, I witnessed Ludo shine in these settings where he had complete freedom to express his creativity without restaurant bureaucracy.  With nobody breathing down his back, he was free to share his pure untainted vision in an intimate environment with the diners who adore him.

This time he opened up shop in Downtown LA at a small sandwich restaurant called Gram & Papa’s.  All reservations for the 7 week LudoBites 4.0 event sold out in 18 hours, proving once again the power and popularity of this charismatic French chef.  This man has single-handedly managed to capture the attention and mesmerize the minds of the entire Los Angeles dining community- from fussy diners and food critics to food bloggers alike.   I’ve never seen so many blog entries and tweets about a chef before.  He sure knows how to create a lot of buzz, and with that handsome face, heavily tattooed arms, thick French accent and bigger than life personality (and an even bigger heart), he’s become the food paparazzi favorite.

He’s been likened to a rock star, and with recent appearances on Top Chef Masters 1&2, his celebrity status only continues to rise.  All that is sweet and swell, but what initially captured me and continues to engage me is not that ridiculously cute smile (although it sure helps) but his innovative creations that he pulls out of his magic gastronomy hat.  I still remember very vividly that warm summer day in 2009 when I went to LudoBites 2.0 at the Breadbar and took that first sip of chorizo soup.  It was my first ‘A ha!’ moment with Ludo, and it was the drug that proceeded to feed my LudoBites addiction.

There are many definitions of an ‘A ha!’ moment, and it can mean something different for everybody.  For some it may be that moment when a notion strikes you like lightning and your heart starts beating faster with excitement. Like when I sank my teeth into the brie chantilly napoleon with honey comb, frisée and balsamic reduction.  What…what is that delightful soft pillowy cream that is delicately caressing my tongue into a hypnotized state of ecstasy?  That fluffy ooze as light as air that has melted with my body temperature into a molten liquid possessing a familiar stink?  ‘A ha!’ That’s brie cheese, and it’s been whipped for 2 hours into the creamiest and smoothest texture, and what an incredible pairing with the natural sweetness of the honeycomb and the even sweeter dark allure of balsamic reduction.

The same thing happened with the marinated king salmon, served with german butterball potatoes, red wine vinaigrette and crème fraiche.  These incredibly tender and fatty pieces of marinated salmon blanketed by an array of carrot discs and red onion slices were one of my favorite delights.  The cured salmon tasted sweet, and the vinaigrette complemented the fish well.  And what was that white mound over there that looked like a melting piece of birthday cake?  ‘A ha!’, that’s the butterball potato purée coated with crème fraiche, delivering a slightly tart and acidic flavor reminiscent of traditional German potato salad, and how surprising that it goes so well with the salmon! 

An ‘A ha!’ moment can also be a moment of sudden recognition.  Have you ever scratched your head at not being able to remember somebody’s face or name, even though they looked very familiar, only to be hit by that sudden memory surge when that person’s name appears in your brain?  That’s usually followed by the rush of memories of when you last saw that person, what your connection is and other associations you may have.  Like the dish of burgundy escargots at LudoBites 4.0 with garlic flan, green jus and violet flowers.  Déjà vu…I feel a strange but comfortable and warm familiarity with this dish, but I can’t quite place my finger on….’A ha!’ How can I forget that wondrous dish of escargots with yellow ginger curry, brown butter, spinach and purple borage flowers?  That amazing dish from LudoBites 2.0 that I had with my friends on a warm sunny July evening.  Ah yes, these succulent and juicy snails were amazing with the delicate green herb foam and the creamy garlic flan underneath.  How clever of Ludo to take the components of the classic Burgundy escargot dish and deconstruct it in such a beautiful way.

Similar ‘A ha!’ moments occurred while enjoying the white asparagus velouté with mozzarella mousse, shaved fennel, candied olive and salmon roe. Ludo is a master of soups and mousses, and this cold creamy asparagus soup brought back memories of an earthy porcini velouté and a celery root soup with parmesan and black truffle.  I loved the different textures in this soup, with the gelatin feel of the salmon roe, the crispness of the shaved fennel and the creaminess of the cheese mousse.

Have you ever had a moment of revelation, a magical opportunity that opens your eyes to everything around you and makes you feel like there is possibility everywhere?  ‘A ha!’ I found it in 2 beautifully plated dishes that represented Ludo’s sense of aesthetics and beauty.  A carrot salad with saffron anglaise cream, pearl onions, blood orange, and orange powder sang joyous and uplifting spring melodies to my soul, transporting me into a daydream of vivid psychedelic colors and smiley faces.

The snapper ceviche with heirloom tomatoes, jalapeños, red onions, kumquat wedges, cilantro, meyer lemon paste and olive oil was also a dashing display of colors and shapes.  The citrus and cilantro flavors were strong in this dish in true ceviche style, and these beautiful colors awakened my sense of taste, leading to a cascading effect of sharpening my sense of sound, smell and sight.  The sounds of laughter, clinking wine glasses and silverware on plates came rushing into my brain simultaneously as my vision finally adjusted to the dark candlelight, in effect heightening my LudoBites experience.

One of the reasons why I love Ludo’s cuisine is because he takes familiar flavors and ingredients, and creates novel combinations to stimulate my taste buds.  He is the master of reinterpretation and deconstruction, applying fantastic abstract visions to classic dishes. Like the boudin noir terrine, a semi-soft wedge of buttery boudin noir with a drizzle of apple purée and a side of wasabi.  Unlike LudoBites 3.0 where he ventured deep into Asian fusion, I loved that he came back closer to his French roots in this rendition of LudoBites.  I was ecstatic to see escargots and foie gras back on the menu, but in classic Ludo style he still added minute hints of Asian influence in these subtle and clever ways.  I was dumbfounded at how well the wasabi paired with the boudin.  Who knew that these flavors could create beautiful music together?  I learned something valuable to take back home to my kitchen.

Of course an ‘A ha!’ moment doesn’t necessarily have to come like a thunderclap.  It can be a subtle brewing excitement that causes you to have goose bumps, a moment when things fall into place so perfectly that it feels like destiny.  When you feel like you’ve finally found what you were looking for, and it’s time to end the long journey to head back home.  I had exactly that feeling when I was reunited with Ludo’s foie gras black croque monsieur.  This was one of the defining moments for me when I had a love-at-first-bite experience with this sandwich during LudoBites 2.0.  Words cannot describe the pleasure of biting into this crunchy sandwich and having the warm tasty foie, ham and cheese melt right into my mouth.  I couldn’t imagine anything being better than the cherry amaretto sauce that it originally came with, but the lemon turnip chutney in this version was pretty darn amazing.

The beauty and artistry of the seared scallop dish also sent shivers down my spine.  The geometric patterns and bright colors of the pickled grapes, cauliflower slices and caper purée took me back to the breathtaking coral reefs in the Maldives.  Sweet, tart, acidic and mellow flavors danced on my tongue as I incorporated the almond purée, curry oil and cauliflower ice cream into each sumptuous bite.

Perhaps the most classic definition of an ‘A ha!’ moment is that of an epiphany, when one has a moment of clarity.  Like when Newton saw an apple falling from a tree and formulated the theory of gravity.  Or, on a smaller scale, when you suddenly solve an answer to a riddle or a crossword clue.  Take the seared foie gras with ‘Piña Colada’ for example. What is the Piña Colada all about?  That big white mound must be Piña Colada flavored cream, I thought, and I fished around the plate to taste each different substance on the plate.  There was coconut flavored ice cream, and pineapple foam, and it all made sense to me.  But then I took a small bite of the yellow colored jelly that I found hiding on the bottom layer, and my brain jolted from the strangely familiar strong alcoholic flavor that it possessed.  ‘A ha!’, why that’s rum jelly, and darn it Ludo deconstructed a classic cocktail to pair beautifully with the tasty cut of seared foie gras.

Luscious ham soup with generous chunks of bread croutons with melted cheese, sliced cornichons, radishes and Guinness foam was an inspiration.  It didn’t grab my heart as strongly as my all-time Ludo favorite, the chorizo soup, but this was a very close second.  I loved the way that the acidity of the cornichons cut the meaty flavor of the pink ham soup.

I think the whole table had a simultaneous ‘A ha!’ moment when the plate of squid ‘carbonara’ with pancetta and poached egg arrived.  At first we admired and cooed over the beautiful plating of this delicate dish.  It was a romantic dish- a perfectly poached egg, cooked at 63 degrees in an immersion circulator, softly nestled under a blanket of white parmesan snow and accessorized with dainty purple chive flowers.  We all leaned in to take a closer look.  And then our heads snapped back up at the same time to look at each other with dilated pupils and wide smiles.  Squid carbonara,  ‘A ha!’ Small rings of tender squid took the place of pasta in this classic hearty Italian dish.  Now that’s an idea.

So what exactly is going on in our brains during an ‘A ha!’ moment?  What are the makings of this sudden revelation that not only changes our lives but can also change history?  Neurophysiological studies showed that there was a surge of electrical activity in the anterior superior temporal sulcus of the right hemisphere of the brain.  EEG recordings (that machine where they connect electrodes to your head to measure brain wave activity) showed a distinct rise in gamma waves in the right hemisphere a third of a second before the moment of clarity.  This area of the brain is normally active in problem solving and associations.  So as I was casually talking to my friends at the dinner table and enjoying my plate of poached monkfish with vadouvan spices and ‘Jardiniere de Legumes’ (carrots, peas, dill, green onions, turnips and seared caramelized garlic), the neurons in my right brain were firing rapidly.

Studies also showed that immediately before the burst of gamma waves, there was a change in alpha wave intensity in the visual cortex of the brain, which controls how our brain processes visual stimulation.  This suggested that the brain was trying to suppress visual processing in order to work more on problem solving.  Do you ever close your eyes when you concentrate on a thought?  Don’t you feel like you can think harder and better when you shut your eyes?  Sometimes I also even stick my fingers in my ears to shut out external sounds when I concentrate.  At first I unknowingly closed my eyes when I savored the amazing steak au poivre with shallots to mentally dissect the flavors in each component of the dish.  The bone marrow polenta was heavenly, and the black roasted eggplant purée, my favorite item from the entire Ludobites 3.0 menu, had an intense smokiness.  After a while, I think I had my eyes closed because I was simply in too much bliss.

Although all of this data suggests that we need to concentrate really hard in order to arrive at an ‘A ha!’ moment, other studies showed that in fact our brain was more actively engaged when our mind was wandering.  All of the different brain mechanisms involved in problem solving work more efficiently together when we are daydreaming.  Contrary to what people may think, our brains are unusually active when we’re staring off into space, and we are more likely to accomplish insightful problem solving rather than analytical and structured problem solving. I guess that’s why the euphoric state that the succulent lamb chops put me in was conducive to my quiet ‘A ha!’ moment of when I realized the brilliance behind pairing lamb with smoked eel, goat cheese, artichokes and mint.

Researchers also found that one’s state of mind greatly affected whether or not they were likely to solve a problem through insightful thinking.  People in a positive mood were more likely to experience an insight.  By the end of my meal at LudoBites, I wasn’t sure if there were any more revelations and insights that I could have possibly had more of, but I was surely in a very good mood.  The rose macaroon with organic strawberries and lychee made everybody happy.

The perfectly baked dark chocolate soufflé, on the other hand, made everybody jubilant.  We scooped out a hole in the center of the steaming hot pillowy soufflé to make room for the whiskey ice cream and hot chocolate cream, which instantly melted into molten lava inside the chocolate oven.  This was a decadent and delectable finale to our exciting meal at LudoBites 4.0.

As I reflected on all of the different types of ‘A ha!’ moments that Chef Ludo provided me with, I wondered about how he arrived at his own ‘A ha!’ moments in comprising the creative and artistic menu.  Which neurons were firing in his right hemisphere as he brainstormed about all of the unique flavor combinations to present for LudoBites 4.0?  What neural mechanisms led to his breakthrough moments of revelation and inspiration?  Undoubtedly they originated from a solid foundation of years of study and experience, but surely they’re a culmination of pure brilliance and unparalleled talent.

An ‘A ha!’ moment…that special moment of clarity and revelation.  That defining moment when newly discovered wisdom can change your life.  When was the last time that you had such an ‘A ha!’ moment?  If it’s been a while, follow Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s website to see where he’ll pop up next so you can be inspired by his food.

LudoBites 4.0

Gram & Papa’s

227 East 9th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015

*The current LudoBites 4.0 in Downtown LA at Gram & Papa’s is completely sold out until its final day on May 28th.

Random trivia:  Archimedes had a famous ‘A ha!’ moment when he was taking a bath.  When he stepped into the tub, he noticed that the water level rose, and thus formulated a method to measure the volume of a given mass.  He was so excited at his epiphany that he jumped out of his tub and ran naked through the streets, shouting ‘Eureka! (I have found it!)’

Hatchi series at the Breadbar- Saul Cooperstein

The Hatchi series at the Breadbar has had a successful run since it first started in June 2009.  This fantastic dining concept of featuring a different guest chef each month for an evening of 8 dishes for $8 each has been a huge hit in Los Angeles.  ‘Hatchi’ means 8 in Japanese, and this unique event was masterminded by Chef Noriyuki Sugie in collaboration with the Breadbar.  So far I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying delicious creations from notable chefs like Remi Lauvand, Marcel Vigneron, and Ricardo Zarate.  I’ve also enjoyed watching the Hatchi series blossom over this past year- in the beginning it wasn’t unusual to see a couple of empty tables.  Now, not only is it getting harder to score a table, but they’ve also added cocktail pairings, select wines and the occasional live entertainment, not to mention the huge improvement in the quality of service.  I was excited to attend April’s event by Saul Cooperstein (Hatchi event #11) after missing the last 2 events due to my travels.

Saul Cooperstein was an interesting choice for the Hatchi series as he’s not actually a traditional chef.  He comes from a background of investment banking and financial planning.  So what was he doing at the Breadbar?  The Hatchi series featured stellar Bazaar alums Michael Voltaggio, Marcel Vigneron and Waylynn Lucas last year- somehow the Bazaar ball kept its momentum and rolled in the direction of SBE’s Managing Director of Business Development, Cooperstein.  For those of you who have already attended Voltaggio and Vigneron’s Hatchi dinners, the word ‘Saul’s Pastrami’ may ring a bell.  Those juicy marbled succulent cuts of pastrami are undoubtedly ingrained in your gustatory memory bank- at last we can meet the pastrami god himself.

Cooperstein has gathered all of his friends in the food and beverage industry to collaborate with him on this spectacular event named ‘Deli 2010′.  His trusted chefs from the Bazaar have contributed in fine tuning the menu, distinguished sommeliers have chosen the wines and fantastic mixologists, like Devon Espinoza who was in house that evening, created innovative cocktails to pair with the food.  The menu recreated classic deli favorites with a modern and fun twist.

The matzo ball soup was a nice hearty steaming bowl of clarified chicken stock with a smoked matzo ball gently sitting in the center.  Unlike the traditionally ginormous globes of fluff that I’m used to, these matzo balls were dense and compact which I actually didn’t mind.  The robust and fatty soup, filled with adorable miniature turnips and carrots, was balanced perfectly with the tart bite of chopped fresh dill.  Given that Saul Cooperstein hails from the Bazaar family, I expected to see splashes of molecular cuisine in the Hatchi menu, and I saw the first hint in this soup dish.  ‘Chicken Noodles’ floating in the flavorful soup were probably made with agar and pushed through a syringe.

Bagel with lox ‘nigiri’ was a playful and contemporary take on the classic bagels ‘n’ lox.  House cured and smoked wild king salmon was sliced thin into sashimi portions and gently draped over white puffed rice crackers with dill cream cheese, smoked salmon roe and red onion rings.  Like traditional Asian deep fried shrimp crackers, these ‘shari’ rice crackers were crispy, light and airy.  As I dug down into this delectable morsel, I could sense all of the tiny air bubbles in the cracker snap and pop under the pressure of my bite to blend into a heavenly marriage of Jewish-Japanese essence with the fatty salmon.

One of my all time favorite sandwiches, the classic Reuben, was reinterpreted into a tiny bite sized croquette.  Japanese A-5 Wagyu rib cap corned beef, aka Saul’s corned beef, was cooked sous vide into a perfect tender consistency.  Small chunks of corned beef mixed with béchamel sauce, Gruyere cheese, Jarlsberg cheese, sauerkraut and toasted caraway seeds oozed out of the crispy rye bread crumb croquettes like hot molten lava.  The richness of the wondrous Reuben goo was nicely complemented with a dollop of thousand island dressing.  These croquettes were savory, delicious and simply amazing.  I started having greedy thoughts and wished that these tiny bite-sized croquettes would have been made bigger, but they were in fact the perfect size to impart a maximum surface area for crunch.  Instead of hoping for bigger croquettes, we just ordered more.  And more.

My favorite dish of the evening was the lamb pita.  Deboned rack of lamb, cured and smoked with Vadouvan spices, was thinly sliced and served on top of a warm toasted pita round with refreshing cole slaw.  The generous heaps of lamb meat were intensely juicy and luscious, and some of the most tender cuts of lamb that I’ve ever had.  The cabbage cole slaw, flavored tzatziki style with yogurt and lemon, was joyfully refreshing and tart.  I really enjoyed the multiple layers of flavors in each mouthful, from the hints of earthy Vadouvan spices to the sourness of the yogurt.  My palate never tired of this dish, and in fact became more revived and refreshed with each consecutive bite.  The pickled tomato, coupled with a cube of melon on a skewer, was also fantastic.  After we finished Round 1 of the savory dishes, I did not hesitate to request this dish for an encore appearance in Round 2.  Needless to say, Round 2 of the lamb pita was just as good.

‘Sky High Sandwich’ seemed to be the overwhelming favorite at a nearby table of 6 male jocks who looked like their stadium sized appetites were being properly satiated.  Warm veal pastrami, which was a first for me, was stacked nice and high in true Jewish deli style on Pumpernickel bread with a generous slab of sweet & hot mustard.  The veal, in comparison to traditional beef pastrami, was of course more lean and less fatty but still had an astonishing amount of flavor and juice.  The ‘sweet’ portion of the sweet & hot mustard was a bit too strong for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bite of this sandwich.  All of us at the table were more ecstatic about the salt and vinegar potato chips, sliced so thin that we could practically see each other through them, and deep fried to the lightest and daintiest crisp.

And finally the infamous dish that we were all waiting for.  The incredible meat that has already made its debut at the Hatchi dinner through Voltaggio and Vigneron- Saul’s pastrami.  This is perhaps the most extravagant and luxurious pastrami that exists in this country, and to be able to enjoy this for a mere $8 was flabbergasting.  I’m sure the overhead for this dish was far more than that, for it was made with A-5 wagyu rib steak, the top of the line Japanese beef that’s available in the US.  This meat is already so marbled and fatty enough that one cannot go wrong with its preparation, yet Saul takes it even further by cooking it sous vide to a perfect medium rare.  The result is a tender and buttery texture like the beef shabu shabu at Zakuro in Japan, a blanket of fragile cashmere that is soft enough to swaddle a baby in.  This sandwich was truly amazing, an epic dish that will be talked about and referred to for years.  The fatty juices were practically dripping down my arms, and every bite was full of savor.  However, 1 dish was enough for me and any more would have saturated my taste buds to a point where I may not have had the same opinion about the dish anymore.  For this reason, the lamb pita won my vote over the pastrami.  In true playful Bazaar fashion, the sandwich was served with a sour pickle spherification.

Babka, a yeast dough dessert, born out of Eastern European Jewish tradition, was almost like bread pudding.  Cinnamon babka french toast, served with vanilla bourbon maple syrup and orange blossom ice cream, was dense and pleasantly gooey.  I loved the way that the richness of the babka stuck to my ribs.

Rugelach, small crescent shaped dough rolls that reminded me of mini croissants, finished off the wonderful Hatchi dinner.  I wasn’t amazed by the cream cheese rugelachs that were served with crispy passion fruit meringues.  The dots of passion fruit ‘apple sauce’, which reminded me of the ‘cultivated pearl’ in the scallop dish at Tapas Molecular Bar, had a thick consistency that was like unset toffee.  It didn’t matter that this 1 dessert dish didn’t wow me- everything else up to that point had exceeded my expectations and I was grinning from ear to ear with contentment.

Interesting cocktails being offered that night included the ‘Half Sour Gin Pickles’, featuring cucumber spears pickled with Beefeater gin infused with tarragon, salt, dill seed, black pepper, allspice, coriander, mustard seeds and white wine vinegar.  We tried the ‘Cream soda’ with Krol Vodka, lemon juice, vanilla syrup and club soda.  Taking charge of the cocktails was friendly and charismatic Devon Espinoza, mixologist at The Tasting Kitchen who will be kicking off the Hatchi Mixology Series this Thursday May 6th.

My dining party and I had an amazing time at this ‘Deli 2010′ dinner.  The delicious and creative comfort food brought us all together to a deli happy place.  This is what I love about dining out with good friends- when our shared love and passion for food come together to create stimulating conversation, heartfelt storytelling and joyful laughs.  When certain flavors or aromas conjure up interesting stories and powerful memories that can be shared at the table.  When the meal itself then becomes a happy remembrance that will be talked about on the next culinary outing.  The Hatchi event has become a place of gathering for old friends and a meeting hub for new ones.

Breadbar

10250 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067
310 277 3770

Random trivia:  According to the IFOCE (The International Federation of Competitive Eating), Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, a California native, holds the world record for eating matzo balls- he ate 78 matzoh balls in 8 minutes.  Oy vey!

Butagumi 豚組- Tokyo, Japan

こだわり、極める。。。

Kodawari, Kiwameru…  These are 2 principle words which define Japanese artistry and culture, and is especially true of Japanese cuisine.  One must understand the intention behind these 2 words in order to truly appreciate the beauty of Japanese food.

こだわりKodawari means an uncompromising and relentless devotion to pursuing something.  It is when special consideration and attention is given to a particular subject matter.  To some, it can even be interpreted as a serious obsession and a stubborn refusal to compromise.  An artisan may show kodawari by continuing to carve lacquerware bowls by hand rather than by machine, by insisting on applying 50 individual layers of the lacquer rather than cutting corners by applying 30 because the resulting shine is not the same, or by etching intricate designs only with that one particular tool that a certain other artisan makes because the other tools do not have the same feel.  A chef’s kodawari may be that he only uses the natural spring water from a certain mountain for a soup dish because all of the 300 other types of natural spring water that he tried did not achieve the taste that he desired.

極めるKiwameru means to perfect and master a skill to the utmost extremes.  It involves unyielding discipline and practice to perfect an art down to the most minute detail.  It often involves years of practicing a particular skill in order to be the best.  It may also involve numerous sacrifices- money, family, time, reputation- in order to perfect an art to a level that cannot be replicated by any other.  However, the end result is a product that is the finest in the world.

Wikimedia Commons/ Danilo Alfaro

In a previous article, I described the culture of raising exquisite Japanese beef.  For the rest of the world, Kobe beef is regarded as the holy grail of cattle, but Japanese farmers have taken their kodawari to a whole different level.  Many have dedicated their entire lives to kiwameru a certain type of brand name beef which is so ideal and perfect that it can silence any food critic.  There is a similar, if not more competitive field for pork in Japan.  You may have heard of Kurobuta pork, as it is served in many fine dining restaurants in the US.  But Kurobuta pork is only the tip of the iceberg- in Japan it is common to find at least 5-10 different brands being offered at any time in a supermarket.

Chef Oishi is a man with a particular kodawari for fine pork, and he has dedicated his life to kiwameru the quintessential Japanese pork dish- tonkatsu.  Tonkatsu, or deep fried breaded pork cutlet, is the ultimate comfort food.   Hearty cuts of juicy pork meat with a crispy panko crust, drizzled with tonkatsu sauce, are loved by kids, housewives and businessmen alike.  Chef Oishi got his first start in the culinary world in a tonkatsu restaurant, after which he went on to pursue French cuisine.  However, in 2005, he came back to his roots.  After traveling around the world in pursuit of the finest pork and the equally fine ingredients with which to make tonkatsu, he opened a tonkatsu restaurant called Butagumi (which means ‘pig clan’).  In his restaurant, he proudly serves what he calls the 究極のトンカツ, or the ‘ultimate tonkatsu’.

Berkshire boar image by Scott Davis

If you were impressed with Maisen and their selection of 5-6 types of pork on their tonkatsu menu, then you’ll be blown away with the 57 brands of pork that Butagumi may offer at any time on their ever changing menu.  Butagumi’s menu reads like an encyclopedia of pork with detailed descriptions of their breed, diet, farming techniques, living space, evolutionary history and reputation.  Each caption also describes the quality of the meat and the flavor of the fat.  The general breeds of pork are Yorkshire, Duroc, Hampshire, Landrace, Berkshire, Spotted, Chester White and Poland China. Other rarer breeds like the Okinawan Agu, Spanish Iberico and Chinese Meishanton also exist.  Most market pigs are crossbreeds of 2 or more of these main purebred stocks.  When was the last time that you ate pork?  Do you know where that pork came from and what kind of breed it is?  Probably not.  Butagumi believes in ‘traceability’ of food.  The majority of the pork brands featured on the Butagumi menu are Japanese and come from select farms.  Farmers raise their pigs in a very specific way to achieve perfect texture and flavor, reflecting the Japanese kodawari philosophy to kiwameru their craft.

Butagumi is a restaurant in a quaint 2 story timber frame house in the middle of posh Nishi-Azabu that looks like a secret hideaway.  This house has remained standing since 1958 even though all of its surrounding structures have been replaced by modern buildings and high rises.  There are inviting lanterns and a white noren sign at the front entrance inscribed with とんかつ ‘tonkatsu’ to welcome you into this metropolitan museum of fine pork.  There are tables on both floors, but upstairs in the semi-private horigotatsu rooms is the place to be.

Butagumi is a purist restaurant, unlike Maisen which also offers deep fried shrimp, pan fried pork dishes and curries.  However, there are a few non-tonkatsu items on their menu such as braised daikon radish with miso dengaku sauce.

蝦夷鹿の生ハム, or Hokkaido venison carpaccio, seasoned with ground white pepper and garnished with cubes of sweet mango, was tender, light and smokey.

Iberian pork rillettes with a sprinkle of pink peppercorns was the perfect complement to our bottle of 2007 Vincent Gaudry Sancerre with its fresh and fruity flavors and silky tannins.

Mie Oysters gratinée was the daily special, and the plump oysters, nestled in their little beds with a blanket of toasted cheese and cream, were delicious.

Of the several salad and vegetable dishes on their menu, the most popular is their Melimelo salad, a bouquet of fresh salad greens, cherry tomatoes and pork salami in a citrus miso dressing.

In Japan, tonkatsu is served in 2 cuts: ロース ‘rosu’, which is pork loin, and ヒレ’hire’, the leaner fillet.  People choose the cut depending on their personal preference or their mood.  The pork is then dredged in flour, dipped in egg and coated with panko bread crumbs before being deep fried in oil.  The finished product is served on a copper mesh which keeps the tonkatsu shell nice and crisp.  Tonkatsu is traditionally dipped in tonkatsu sauce, a thick vegetable based brown sauce that resembles Worcestershire sauce, and enjoyed with shredded cabbage, rice and miso soup.  Chef Oishi takes his kodawari to the max in all of these ingredients for his ‘ultimate tonkatsu’.  He uses a special blend of Taiyu sesame oil and cottonseed oil to achieve that perfect light and crisp exterior.  The panko bread crumbs are made from a special kind of bread that has a subtle sweetness to complement the pork.  Succulent organic cabbage is sliced to order to maintain its freshness.  The koshihikari rice from Ibaragi prefecture is certified organic and steamed in a special rice pot.  The meat is seasoned with Andes rock salt and organic white pepper from Ponape island in Micronesia.  The tonkatsu sauce is made in-house, and it is recommended to dip the meat in a little bit of sauce with each bite rather than to drizzle the sauce over the meat.  This way the deep fried exterior remains light and crisp during the entire meal.  Chef Oishi also recommends enjoying some of the meat with a little bit of salt to enjoy the true inherent flavors of the pork.  All of these rules are just a part of the chef’s kodawari which he wants to share with everyone.  One would be a fool not to take this pork master’s wise advice.

A lot of the pork that was being offered that night was new to me.  I was familiar with Tokyo X, SGP (Super Golden Pork), Meishanton, and Kenton, but I had never heard of Golden Boar Pork, Amami no Shima pork, Yonezawa Sangen, or Ryukaton.  We started with a loin cut of 白金豚 hakkinton, also known as Platinum Pork, which is a crossbreed of Berkshire, Yorkshire and Landrace.  They are raised in Iwate prefecture, and are exclusively given natural spring water from the local Okubane mountains for drinking.  The meat was superbly sweet, and its fattiness was well balanced.

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I was excited to try the loin cut of Mangalitsa pork.  I’ve been hearing about this prized Hungarian pork all year, and how it’s all the rage in fine dining restaurants around the world.  Unlike traditional pigs, these wooly pigs have thick curly hair which can be yellow, red, grey or black depending on its type.  Although most breeds of pigs are ‘meat-type’ and produce lean meat, the Mangalitsa is an extreme ‘lard-type’ breed which produces marbled juicy meat that is dense in flavorful fat.  They’re primarily raised on pumpkins and acorns.  The Mangalitsa (spelled Mangalica in Hungarian), was first bred in the 1830′s by the Hungarian Royal Archduke Jozsef.  However, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI, coupled with the higher demand for cheaper meat-type pigs, the Mangalitsa almost went into extinction.  Now Mangalitsa production is back on track due to dedicated farmers, and its demand is rising from pork aficionados who have fallen in love with its unique flavor.  Although Mangalitsa pork has more than double the marbling of average pork, it tastes lighter and cleaner due to the fact that the fat is more unsaturated and melts at a lower temperature.  Did you know that the first Mangalitsa pig ever exported to the US was sold to The French Laundry in 2006?  Way to go Chef Keller.

As you can see on the cross section of the Mangalitsa tonkatsu, there’s an overwhelming presence of fat with occasional sections of meat injected within to make a barcode pattern.  Surprisingly, this famed Hungarian treasure, which shares the same DNA as Jamón Ibérico, was light, refreshing and delicate with no heavy aftertaste.

いも豚 imobuta, which literally means ‘potato pork’, is named so because this breed is predominantly raised on starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, tapioca and sugarcane.  Imobuta is a crossbreed of Landlace, Yorkshire and Duroc, and is prized for its light flavor and minimal gaminess.  It is believed that the potato starches, in addition to glutamine and asparagine from the other components of its diet, produce a unique level of umami that renders this lean meat sweet and delicate.

These fillet cuts of imobuta were lean and light, and cooked to maintain a rosy pink color in the center.  With a high protein to fat ratio, these delightful pieces of imobuta tonkatsu almost tasted like veal.

With the extensive list of pork breeds that you can choose from, it’s easy to get lost.  How do you go about choosing what to have for your meal?  The servers can usually guide you depending on whether you’re looking for something light and lean, fatty and dense, or juicy and full of umami.  If you’re still torn, you can order the Butagumi-zen set which will bring you a sampler of small tonkatsu morsels, each made with a different cut of pork.  These end up being more like hitokuchi katsu, small morsels of ‘one-bite cutlets’, which won’t give you the same satisfaction as finishing a whole thick cut of juicy tonkatsu.  Whatever you end up ordering, a visit to the Butagumi pork museum is sure to open your eyes to a whole new world of pigs and the artisans who love them.

Butagumi 豚組

港区西麻布2-24-9

TEL/FAX:03-5466-6775

営業時間 11:30~15:00 (LO 14:00)/18:00~23:00(LO 22:00)
月曜日定休 (※祭日の場合は営業、翌火曜日振替休み)

2-24-9 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku

Tokyo

Closed on Mondays

Open from 11:30- 15:00 for lunch, 18:00- 23:00 for dinner

Random trivia:  Did you know that pig’s ears are notched so that farmers can identify what month they were born and which sow they were born from?  

Rivera Restaurant

Culver City is SO last year.  Downtown LA is the hot culinary mecca of the moment in Los Angeles, as new bars and restaurants are opening just as quickly as the Ritz Carlton tower is going up.  From Liberty Grill to Wurstkuche, Drago Centro to Bottega IMG_9082Louie, there are more reasons to flock to downtown LA now.  Even after the exponential surge of kitchy downtown lofts and swank hotel bars a few years ago, it still seemed like downtown was dead; there never seemed to be a good enough reason to congregate there.  After events at the Staples Center or the Disney concert hall, my friends and I would opt to return to the west side for dinner and drinks.  Now Angelenos are willingly drudging through horrible freeway traffic and paying expensive parking fees in order to indulge in the latest dining adventures there.

IMG_9075The most notable on the scene is Rivera, a Latin-themed restaurant recently opened by chef John Rivera Sedlar.  The impressive menu incorporates Latin flavors from his extensive travels through South America, Mexico and Spain, southwestern comfort from his upbringing in New Mexico, and French techniques from his culinary training.  The large beautiful space is split into many sections, each with a unique theme and design.  IMG_9079A minimalist square communal table stands next to a sushi counter-esque ceviche bar that looks out onto the busy open kitchen.  On the other end is the elegant and dark Sangre room, illuminated in eerie shades of blood red from the large chandelier above and golden yellow through the backdrop of tequila bottles.  Flanked in the middle are specially made tequila tasting chairs, more dining tables with gorgeous leather banquettes, and the classy tequila bar.  They even have outdoor counter seating where you can get an unobstructed view of the majestically lit LA Live complex.  The contemporary space is sexy, dark and mysterious.

We started with the patates xips, Kennebec potato chips with caviar, microgreens and chipotle lime cream.  It was a nice starter to complement our Brut champagne, although one thing I’ve learned about caviar is that ‘more is better’- another heap of caviar would have elevated this dish from great to perfect.

Tortillas florales, housemade Nixtamal tortillas with ‘Indian butter’.  Chef Sedlar explained to us that the maize was freshly ground in the kitchen and handmade the traditional way ‘by our señoras’.  With chives and edible flowers pressed into each warm piece, these adorable earthy tortillas with the smooth and creamy avocado butter brought me one step closer to understanding and appreciating the culinary history of the Americas.


Caballito de sopas dobles- 2 Latin soups with different flavors and different temperatures.  A layer of warm lamb velouté with black beans was layered on top of cold refreshing potato vichyssoise.  It was an interesting and inventive concept, and I especially loved the creaminess and flavor of the potato soup.  Although the lamb velouté tasted more like a sauce than a soup at first, once the 2 soups came together inside my mouth, I realized the delicious intention behind this dish.

At this time the sommelier opened an absolutely delicious bottle of 2006 Alto Moncayo Garnacha, Campo de Borja Spanish wine for us.  It was a good decision to trust him with the wine selection, as their wine list was overwhelmingly extensive.  It was an impressive collection that had selections from Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, and an even more amazing selection of sherries, marsalas and ports.  The Alto Moncayo was one of the best Spanish wines that I have had in a long time.  After my meal at Rivera, I hunted it down at the Woodland Hills Wine Company and bought a half dozen for myself.

Chile pasilla relleno- pickled pasilla chile with burrata cheese, served chilled.  The pasilla chile was marinated for a day in vinegar, salt and sugar, and had a deep smokey flavor with an acid kick.  As Chef Sedlar proudly presented the dish to us, he explained that this was his interpretation of the classic chile relleno.  “People normally think of chile relleno as a big green chile with lots of goopy melted cheese.  You’ll find that this one has an intense flavor” he said, with kind gentle eyes and a friendly smile.  “It’s also a dish with a political statement”, he added with a wink. Indeed, stenciled above the pasilla in brick red chile powder was that street sign that most of us have seen near the Mexican border on the 5 South.

Choros al Vapor- mussels with aji amarillo-pisco broth.  Aji amarillos are yellow Peruvian chiles, and pisco is a South American grape liquor.  This dish to me was a bit too mellow and almost fruity and sweet, lacking in robustness and depth.

Jamón Ibérico de Bellota pata negra- of course, how can we not order this?  An absolute joy, as always, to have this succulent flavorful cut of the finest ham in the world.  Paired with the Alto Moncayo wine, I would have been happy just eating this all evening.

Mole Kurobuta pork chop- an intense mole sauce coating a juicy succulent kurobuta pork chop.  This dark and rich mole sauce was absolutely exquisite.  It was a perfect blend of smokey chile flavors with the slight bitterness of cacao.  I usually don’t like dark mole sauces as they tend to be too sweet for my taste, but this one was polished and flawless.

Carne churrasco prime ‘eye’ of rib-eye steak with cabrales cheese, onion foam, aji amarillo sauce, purple potatoes, yam, carrots and green onions.  It was a well-executed dish, but the fantastic pork chop with mole sauce was a hard act to follow.

Estudio en flan- three different styles of the classic flan with progressing degress of sweetness, with three complementary sauces.  The first flan was light and fresh like a panna cotta, made with vanilla beans and paired with a blackberry curry sauce.  The second flan was like a traditional custard flan with a medium consistency and smoky caramel flavor.  This, paired with a lime mint sauce, was my favorite flan.  The third flan, served with strawberry jus, was thick and dense like a block of cheese.  Overall this was a delightful and innovative dessert that paired wonderfully with a glass of tequila de mujer, a vanilla infused tequila that was a Rivera special.  Tequila with dessert?  I was hesitant at first, but the knowledgable sommelier was right again. This tequila was divine.

Olive oil cake with 2 sorbets (créme fraîche and strawberry), with spanish balsamic sherry vinegar marinated strawberries.  This was another winning dish with an incredibly moist cake and marinated strawberries that had a perfect balance of tart and sweet.

As I finished the fabulous meal, I listened to Chef Sedlar talk about his passion for tequila as he pointed to the beautiful walls of the Sangre room lined with glass bottles of high grade Jalisco tequila.  Each bottle is kept under lock and key, and for a $1200 membership, you can get your name engraved on the side of your bottle.

IMG_9068The dishes at Rivera were bursting with flavor and imagination, and the wine and tequila were amazing.  The ambiance was sexy, and the contemporary decor was avant-garde with a touch of class.  The staff was incredibly warm and attentive, and I fell in love with Chef Sedlar’s grace and charm.  Rivera is a new beacon of culinary radiance in the once lifeless downtown LA.

Rivera

1050 South Flower Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015-5100
(213) 749-1460

Random trivia:   Last year scientists discovered that they can make synthetic diamond crystals from tequila.  Even the cheapest brands of tequila, at $3 a bottle, were good enough to make diamonds.