Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

As I end my extended holiday stay in LA with a few months in Paris under belt, I realize I have fallen in love with two cities that are the yin to the other’s yang.   Paris and LA couldn’t be on more opposite ends of the city spectrum.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel returning to LA after having spent the last 3+ months in Paris.  Would I hate LA?  Would I love LA and not want to return to Paris?  What I did find was some pretty major differences, made more pronounced when returning to the west coast.

Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a classic black and white movie when I’m walking through Paris.  You can almost hear an old soundtrack playing as you pass one architectural wonder after the next.  It’s such a beautiful city, full of history, stories and a real romance.  LA feels freshly created from a modern rom-com Hollywood movie set, and in some ways, it actually is.  It’s hard to even use the word architecture when describing anything in Los Angeles as it seems like the paint is barely dry in some places, but then there’s the beach backdrop that produces its own allure and serenity that is often lacking in a big, bustling city.  The beach also attracts a certain type of person and lifestyle, which bring me to…
Woman grocery shopping at Bristol Farms

Paris is a formal city.  Perhaps the stunning architecture has led to the people wanting to look as nice as their city’s backdrop.  People are very well put together when they leave the house.  You won’t find anyone in sneakers and SPAM T-shirts walking around town trying to be ironic.  Outfits are well thought out from scarves to their designer shoes.  LA’s beach attire is swimsuits and flip flops, so that carries onto the streets around, as well as into the heads of the residents who often don’t think it’s necessary to change out of their pajamas when going to the grocery store.  I will admit to missing throwing on my yoga pants to run errands sometimes, but I much prefer seeing men in suits - business, not bathing, at least off the beach.

In Paris you never walk into or out of store without a proper Bonjour Monsieur and an Au Revoir, Bon Journée.  Again, it’s formal and there’s rarely small talk while you’re in the store.  In LA, you’ll get a, “hey there, how’s it going, love your top – is that hemp?” I do realize I live in the hippy, happy capital of the world where people are medicated or on a newly changing 7 day road to bliss regimen, but after experiencing the opposite, I realized I missed the warmth and laid back attitude of the loopy locals.

This also extends to restaurant service.  In Paris, it’s polite and polished.  They take your order, bring it, and are never to be seen again.  They don’t want to intrude, which can be nice if you want to sit in a café for a few hours and only drink one cup of coffee while writing your next screenplay as 1 in 10 are doing in LA.  They encourage the linger in Paris, but if you want a check or the correct order, be prepared to get out of your seat to do some hands on hunting.  In LA, you get a lot of attention and , “how’s everything tasting? Don’t you love the tartare. The tuna is sung to as a child to make the best tasting fish.”

Tres Grand
Then there are the portions.  Leave it to the US to invent the words, “Super Size.”  I’ve ordered a few salads this month, and they were about 3 times the size of a salad in Paris.   


The grocery stores in the US have snack AISLES.  There is an entire aisle, with shelves 6 stories high dedicated to the fried, salted, and processed snack.  In Paris, you’re lucky to get 3 ill tasting BAGS of chips in a grocery store, with 3 boxes of crackers that unfortunately include hard, cardboard like melba.  Because of this and the fact that I love the salty snack, I did end up coming home having lost weight, much to the shock of those around me who read about my each and every foie gras laden meal I consumed.

I think the French are a petit people because of the fact that they’re not big snackers, because who really wants to eat dry melba anyway.  Let’s see what happens if I introduce the Cheeto after a Parisian wine tasting.  There just isn’t a lot of processed food available.  They thrive on the open markets where you can find the farmers selling their freshly picked produce nearly every day on a street somewhere in Paris.  They shop daily, visiting their butcher, the fish monger, and yes the fabulous fromagerere, but they’re also walking to all of these places, and yes, perhaps smoking too, but all of this leads to a pretty healthy lifestyle, minus some bad nicotine habits.

I love being able to experience these two totally different cities and cultures.  They feed different parts of me, and I feel different in each one.  I do feel more at home in LA, but with family, friends and an ability to talk about hemp made T-shirts in my native tongue, I think that’s understandable.  I will say that I’m looking forward to going back to Paris and diving deeper into the city, the architecture and the culture that makes the City of Light, but I will miss the sand and soul of LA.

Monday, January 30, 2012

LA Restaurant Round Up

For all my local LA friends who are tired of hearing me talk about restaurants in Paris that they may never go to, here's an equal opportunity overview of some of the new restaurants, and old familiar favorites, where I enjoyed dining in LA this past month.

Lazy Ox
I had never been to this Little Tokyo find during the daylight hours, but I highly recommend coming for lunch or brunch, as I did.  The ricotta fritters lightly drizzled with honey were a crunchy - sweet sensation.  The asparagus with shaved manchego on a bed of romesco was purely delicious, and the signature Lazy Ox burger wears the name proudly.

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
This quasi pop up restaurant on Abbot Kinney in Venice is temporarily taking over the old Capri digs through February with some very inventive food.  Mismatched chairs and brown paper cover a variety of multi-colored tablecloths, giving the place a more relaxed, kick back feel. 

Who doesn't love a well cooked biscuit, but add in apple butter and pimento cheese and life is good.  As Paris is a kale free zone, I will take a Kale salad any day, and this one did not disappoint with apples, cheese, nuts and a light walnut vinaigrette.

The big winner was the hanger steak with anchovy butter cooked to perfection and simply dissolving on the tongue.  You had to work too hard on the sand dabs to avoid the bones, but end on the chocolate, maple, pecan pie and all will be right with the world again.

They're only open a few more weeks, so get it while you can, and save me a slice of steak and pie.  They  don't take reservations, so try and get there early so you don't have to wait.

I hesitate to even mention this totally random, authentic Italian gem as it's in Gardena, and I know most of you won't even go east of Lincoln, so your car may not be capable of heading that far south, though you will be rewarded for the drive.  The owner comes from a tiny village in Ventosa, Italy, and he set out to make out cheese and bread for local restaurants in this solitary shop in a former textile factory.  By request he ended up setting out a table or two to see if people would want to eat there, and next thing you know, Eatalian is born.

They make everything by hand there - pizzas, pastas, bread, gelato; it's like an Italian Disneyland.  They could use a dimmer switch in there as it's lit up like a basketball court, but there is much action to watch around you at the various stations.  No reservations, and no booze, but I know how creative my friends are, so that shouldn't stop you from having a good time.

Of course you have to start with one of their uber thin, crisp pizzas like the simple, but perfect mozzarella and mushroom.

Next try a homemade pasta such as the spinach and ricotta ravioli with butter sage sauce, but save room for the gelatto bar.  With so many flavors, be happy you can mix and match.  It's cheap and cheerful, and worth a drive out of the comfort zone for a little taste of Italy.

For those that play the Top Chef game, the heavily tattooed winner of season 6, Michael Voltaggio, opened up Ink on Melrose to much fanfare late last year, and hard to get reservations.  The night we went, Voltaggio was there in the kitchen window, so I got to watch him, but not in a stalker way.  After 3 hours, I never saw him look up once.  That guy was in the zone.  He never yelled at anyone, and honestly, I never even saw him talk to any of his kitchen staff.  He was definitely focused, but just not sure if he's all smoke and nitrogen, or something more.

I reluctantly started with the waitress' recommendation of the carrot appetizer, which was described as, "carrots, coconut ice, cardamom soil, carrot juice curry."  I definitely raised an eyebrow with the cool coconut bits reached my mouth, but it was offset by an ethereal carrot taste.  This was not something I had ever eaten before.

The beef tartare was not one like I had seen on many a menu in Paris.  The horseradish and chimchurri lent a unique pop to the beautifully presented plate.

There was crab and avocado with a whipped fish sauce, a salty squid ink spaghetti, pork tenderloin in a caramelized cider vinegar, and deconstructed apple and chocolate desserts.  Everything was good, but nothing was that memorable.  I think you can wait on this reservation.

Sunny Spot
Roy Choi of Kogi food truck and A Frame fame is slowly taking over the westside with his newest creation n the old Beechwood spot at the end of Abbot Kinney.  He's brought in high top, first come, first served tables for the bar and outdoor area, along with a long, social, communal table.  There's still a dining room in back that takes reservations, but the action is up front.

He's brought a fun, Caribbean vibe to the place, and some unique food for beachgoers.  Our over enthusiastic waitress loved everything on the menu and steered us to the diablo prawns with a rum glaze and hot kick in the pants.  It paired well with the yellow salty rice, and Fleur-de-Lis gin, hibiscus, honey, chartreuse, lemon concoction that was very refreshing.  They're in on the cocktail craze like everyone else, and they make their own syrups for drinks that are displayed on the bar.

I loved, but can't pronounce the, Muh-F*K*N Mofongo with overripe plantains, bacon, garlic and black pepper.  Again, something I have never eaten before.  We were convinced to get the day long, slow roasted goat, served with lettuce and pickled mango.  It was good, but not mandatory.

This is a fun spot to come with a group and sit out by the fire pit and share some Caribbean food and drink.

Batch is giving it a go in the cursed restaurant location in Culver City formerly housing Sublime and Wilson.  If I were a gambling girl, I'd put my money on these guys sticking around for a while.  While the space isn't the warmest with its marble bar, concrete floor, and floor to ceiling windows, the food and drinks will defrost you quickly.

They had me at the amuse bouche, which was a creamy, meaty gravy, and a homemade biscuit stopped me from drinking the gravy like a soup.  That warmed me right up and prepared me for a great meal starting with a perfectly cooked squid, and a quinoa squash salad - both excellent.

We had a side of brussel sprouts with chorizo that were a great accompaniment to our entrees.  My friend's scallops were expertly prepared, but it was the hanger steak with mushroom bread pudding that won my heart.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food, and hope these guys are here to stay.

There were many other dinners filled with great friends, authentic Mexican food, fresh sushi, a whole lotta wine, and many dirty martinis.  I'm carrying it all back with me to Paris - quite literally, as some of it is sitting like a 10 pound brick in my belly.  Thanks to all for sharing meals, drinks and great memories with me during my holiday stay in LA!

Brussel sprout, bacon pizza - I will miss you

Sunday, January 29, 2012

An Afternoon with Jeffrey Saad

If you don’t know Jeffrey Saad, you will and you should.  He was runner up on “The Next Food Network’s Star” (totally should’ve won), he’s a partner and chef of The Grove Restaurants in San Fran, and he’s now hosting “The United Tastes of America” on Cooking Channel, which is a fun show where he runs around tasting similar dishes in different cities.  When he tires of that, I will happily jump in to replace him.

No, I’m not working for him, yet, but I did have the good fortune of spending an afternoon with him and his lovely wife in their home in LA cooking, eating and well, throwing back a little tequila.  Accompanying me were my dad (the mastermind of this culinary experience) and 4 of my girlfriends, who are not a shy or quiet bunch, so we tried to return a little in the entertainment department.

Jeffrey started us off with a little pan y tomate so our stomachs wouldn’t growl and probably to get us all to shut up for a second.  The true blue way of making it is just by rubbing a little garlic and sliced tomato directly on toasted bread, and voila, a delicious side.

He then moved into egg land, a land we all know and love, and thanks to Jeffrey, will love even more now.  There are some basic, but impactful little tricks like adding water to scrambled eggs which causes some steam, leading to fluffier eggs.  You can juice them up even more by sautéing a little bacon, because everything is better with bacon, with some radicchio, and a splash of lemon, fold it into the eggs for a fabulous fresh and salty combo, livening up your day to day eggs.

We made a spice filled chicken masala sandwich, and when I say we, I mean Jeffrey did, and we ooed and ahhed and tried to make sure his shirt didn’t catch on fire with his multiple pans going and multiple stories to our multiple questions.  He’s an entertainer for sure, but he’s so passionate about what he’s doing that he sucks you in.  If he was selling a line of Tupperware, we would have all bought the set.  He did give us some of his new spice creations and a cookbook is on the way, so you too can get in on some of the Jeffrey action in your home soon.
The afternoon flew by, and next thing we know tequila is open, except of course this was no ordinary tequila.  He put a habanero pepper in overnight, giving it a fabulous kick that hits the back of your throat, but in a very loving way.  We could have emptied about 3 of those bottles, but luckily Jeffrey (or actually I think it might be his wife, who appears to have an appropriate leash on the never say no host) knew better that one glass was more than enough for this crowd, or we’d be staying for dinner.

We ended the day by making crepes, a nice nod to my new home.  We each made our own and spread Nutella on it like it was the last ingredient on earth.  

It was delicious, and a fun afternoon with a chef and true “personality” whose star I hope continues to rise like the perfect egg souffle.