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Pigging out at Cochon

February 22, 2010

If I was to only visit one restaurant in New Orleans, it would be Cochon.

And if I had one regret from my recent trip to NOLA, it would be that we left Cochon to our last night.

You see, New Orleans is a food city. It’s impossible to visit and not eat well and copiously. And that we did. So much so that by our final dinner at Cochon, I was unable to try everything on the menu that I wanted to.

The Angelenos out there will understand when I say Cochon is like the Animal of the south. A celebration of not only the pig, but of all things meat. For the rest of you, Cochon is Chef Donald Link and Chef Stephen Stryjewski’s modern Cajun restaurant that has been the buzz of New Orleans in recent years. Housed in a converted warehouse in the Warehouse District, the contemporary-rustic space is all handcrafted wooden tables and chairs, exposed brick and concrete floors. It boasts an in-house boucherie, Cochon Butcher, that turns whole pigs into boudin, andouille, smoked bacon, and head cheese, and a wood burning oven turning out roasted oysters, beef brisket and suckling pig. Rounding out the produce are locally caught seafood and regional bourbons and beers.

Need more convincing? How about the 2007 James Beard award for Best Chef: South for Donald Link and Best New Restaurant nomination for Cochon? How about oyster and meat pie, fried rabbit livers with pepper jelly toast, wood-fired oyster roast, fried alligator with chili garlic aioli, fried boudin with pickled peppers, spicy grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle, fried pigs ears with cane syrup mustard, paneed pork cheeks with pickled green tomatoes?

Choosing only five plates from the menu is like walking into a brothel with only 50 bucks. An exercise in frustration.

But a mouth watering frustration, nonetheless.

Choose we did. We started with the oyster and meat pie and the arugula salad with pumpkin calas, pecan and tasso bacon. The oyster and meat pie was more what I’d think of as a pasty than a pie but, semantics aside, it was good. The baked shell had a good crunch and the filling, although not strong on the flavor of oyster, was satisfyingly meaty. A great snack with a beer.

Which, luckily, I had on hand. Lazy Magnolia’s Indian Summer Spiced Ale. The orange and coriander notes were pronounced, making it quite a floral beer. I have to look out for this in LA. Delicious.

I conceded one dish to a salad for the girl. The aforementioned arugula salad with pumpkin calas, pecan and tasso bacon. I let her eat the arugula. I ate the deep fried pumpkin fritters. I like to compromise.

Next up was the fried alligator with chili garlic aioli. The last time I had alligator was in a Vietnamese restaurant and it was heavily sauced. I don’t think I’d ever had a true taste of alligator. I can report back that it tastes like chewy pork. Still, it’s hard to go wrong with even deep fried chewy pork with a sweet chili garlic sauce.

We followed that with, unsurprisingly, more deep fried meat. The fried rabbit livers with pepper jelly toast. Now, I’m a big fan of liver, mainly in the form of chicken livers, duck livers and, of course, foie gras. These rabbit livers were far more mild in taste than chicken or duck livers. Dressed with onion and cilantro and served on a thin slice of crispy pastry-like toast with a sweet pepper jelly, this was my favorite plate of the night. Again, a great interplay of fried crunch, gamey flavors and a sweet sauce.

We rounded out our small tasting with the paneed pork cheeks with pickled green tomatoes, apples and peas. Tender, as expected, and lightly breaded and pan fried. The pickled green tomatoes and apples added tartness, the peas and rice the cheeks sat on the starch. The most substantial of the small plates we ordered, and perhaps the most complete dish.

Unfortunately we left no room for dessert but the pineapple upside down cornmeal cake with coconut-lime sorbet and dulce de leche sounded tempting. Next time.

Besides, the night was still young (well, by New Orleans standards) and we had more adventures planned for our final night.

More local delicacies to sample.

Now, where was that 50 bucks?

930 Tchoupitoulas St
New Orleans, LA 70195
(504) 588-2123

Cochon on Urbanspoon


New Year’s Day in (John Besh’s) August

February 15, 2010

There are some lines that divide the South.

Lines we don’t always discuss or acknowledge.

But here in New Orleans, it’s hard to ignore. It’s there, right in your face, and sometimes you have to take sides.

I’m talking about Lagasse versus Besh.

Both started their restaurant empires in New Orleans and still call it home. Post Katrina, they were both instrumental in getting the New Orleans restaurant industry back on its feet. But with so much great food in this city and so little time, I was only ever going to try one chef’s cuisine.

And I’ve always been firmly in the John Besh camp.

Restaurant August is where it all started for him. Housed in a renovated historic French-Creole building, the restaurant strikes an imposing yet warm presence. It’s all high ceilings and sparkling chandeliers, exposed brick and wood floors, mahogany bars and red velvet curtains. It’s hard not to feel a sense of occasion walking in.

And a sense of celebrity too apparently. On this night we were seated, along with one other couple, in a small private dining room with Kim Kardashian and Reggie Bush who, I was informed by A who knows more about these things than I do, are a porn reality TV starlet and a pro-footballer of minor repute.

We did, however, miss the real celebrity, Chef John Besh, in the kitchen by one night. Tonight we were in the initially shaky but ultimately extremely talented hands of Chef de Cuisine Michael Gulotta.

Initially shaky?

Well, the amuse bouche of fritter of black eyed peas topped with a micro salad that I received was a good start. Deep fried carbs. Can’t complain. But A’s came out still frozen in the middle. Fine, it’s an amuse, they probably go through hundreds of them a night, so they prep and freeze them. Not ideal but understandable. But to send it out frozen was a rookie move. I’m sure one of the station chefs got a stern talking to that night. We sent it back, the kitchen was suitably apologetic and they promised to make it up to us.

One point to note on the menu. Although there is a tasting menu offered, you are encouraged to create your own tasting menu if you like. The dishes on the tasting menu are also offered a la carte in tasting sizes, which you can then mix and match with the various appetizers. Which is what we did.

We started with one of John Besh’s signature dishes. Foie gras three ways. Any dish that combines “foie gras” with “three way”, two of life’s most essential indulgences, has already won me over. This one included a foie gras “creme caramel”, a foie gras “baumkuchen” (a German “tree cake” named for its bark-like rings) and a foie gras “pastrami”. Now, I’m no stranger to foie gras as dessert. Chef Ludo’s foie gras cupcake from LudoBites 2.0 stands vividly in my memory. But these riffs on foie gras desserts were more of a savory play.

The foie gras creme caramel was topped with an elderberry reduction and was absolutely delicious. My favorite of the iterations. Not too sweet and maintaining a savory palate. The foie gras tasted surprisingly like a savory creme caramel. The foie gras baumkuchen was a foie gras terrine wrapped in layered sponge cake, accompanied by a champagne gelee and a balsamic reduction. The foie gras was more subtle here, with the sweetness of the cake standing out. The champagne gelee was also memorable. The foie gras pastrami, cured, smoked and rolled into a torchon, was more salty with the distinct taste of salt cod, which was used in its preparation. It was accompanied by a sweet pear chutney. Perhaps my least favorite of the three if I had to choose. The fishy taste threw me. As it would with most three ways.

Next up, the kitchen sent out a crab salad. Not a dish we had ordered, this was to make up for the amuse bouche mishap. The lump crab was served as a napoleon between alternating layers of stewed apple, ringed by a meyer lemon oil and sweet wine reduction, and topped with an apple crisp. The apple nicely tempered the flavor of the crab, adding a subtle sweetness.

The kitchen then generously followed up with another complimentary dish. The La Provence farmed yard egg raviolo with fresh Périgord truffle. Deceptive in its simplicity, this was probably the dish of the night. Not something I’d normally order off a menu full of foie gras, oysters, and game meats, I’m exceptionally happy that the kitchen offered this dish up. Served as a single large raviolo, this was just pasta, mascarpone to hold the egg in place, an egg cracked in sunny side up, and pasta to close the raviolo, served with shaved truffles and brown butter sauce. Perhaps it was the farm fresh egg from Besh’s La Provence farm, or the butter, or probably the truffles. But this was heavenly. Not a word I use lightly with pasta.

Next was another Besh signature dish, P&J Oysters three ways. Any dish that combines “oysters” with… never mind. You really can’t dine in New Orleans without eating your fair share of oysters, and these were some of the best we had in NOLA. Crispy fried with Louisiana caviar “ranch dressing”, pan seared, and horseradish crusted. The classic was the fried oysters with caviar ranch on the bottom for dipping. The pan seared oysters were served with a truffle sauce and submerged beneath a truffle foam. The horseradish crusted oysters were baked in a bechamel sauce and topped with panko bread crumbs and delivered a surprisingly strong horseradish kick. If these weren’t my favorite bites of the night, they were definitely the most craveable now I’m back in Los Angeles. I’ve since been to Mark Peel’s Tar Pit twice for the fried oysters to attempt to recapture the magic of this dish to no avail.

We followed the oysters with the truffle larded sweetbread “picatta” with romaine lettuce and herbed cream. You’d think that with all that truffle and lard this would be a flavor bomb. But after the oysters, it was rather plain. Still good, but not great.

From there, we moved onto our generously sized tasting portion entrees. The “pot-au-feu” of elk loin en crépin with porcini mushrooms, baby root vegetables and oxtail for me. And the pan roasted sable fish in brandade crust with cauliflower and sauce raito for the girl.

The “pot-au-feu” of elk loin en crépin was essentially a loin of elk wrapped in oxtail and wrapped again in caul fat, and served with an elk and veal jus, root vegetables and dried apple slices. I found the elk tough but perhaps that’s the inherent texture of elk. I haven’t eaten enough elk to know. But the oxtail was flaky soft and only held in place by the caul fat, which the waiter described as “meat Glad Wrap”. This was a gamey, meaty, heavy dish. Great in winter but I’m glad I finished with this.

I also tasted the sable fish and honestly didn’t really like it. There was an herbal taste, probably the raito sauce, that overwhelmed the fish for me. Lucky for me, this wasn’t my dish.

The elk loin didn’t leave any room for dessert, especially with the two additional courses the kitchen sent out, so we sadly passed on that.

But by this time it was well past midnight anyway.

Which is early in New Orleans, where liquor licensing laws allow bars to stay open 24 hours, 7 days a week.

With that, we’d seen out January 1 with a meal that set a high bar for 2010.

I guess this year, the year began in August.

Restaurant August
301 Tchoupitoulas St
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 299-9777

Restaurant August on Urbanspoon

Church & State. Where’s Walter?

February 8, 2010

I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state.

But sometimes, when your church is arguably LA’s best French bistro, the state intervenes.

Such as today.

Because today, the day I had planned on a long and leisurely lunch at Church & State, was the day the Department of Public Health chose to inspect the restaurant. On top of that, Chef Walter Manzke was not in the kitchen and, from what I gathered from a subsequent tweet, neither was his sous chef. Evidently the kitchen was a little flustered.

To be fair, I’d eaten at Church & State a couple of months earlier on a night that Chef Manzke was again not in the kitchen and the meal was spot on. One of my top 7 or 8 meals of 2009.

But today things were just a bit off. A couple of dishes came out under seasoned. Not a fatal flaw but a lack of quality control in the kitchen. I put it down to a bad day, knowing the high standards this kitchen can deliver.

But I wasn’t going to let the state (okay, county to be pedantic) spoil what was to be a great lunch with fellow food bloggers FoodforFel, the Foodie EngiNerd and our friend Libby.

I’ve loved the decor, atmosphere and attitude of Church & State ever since I first visited the restaurant. Built in a converted warehouse loading dock, it’s all exposed brick, red painted walls, worn black columns, and subway tile, criss crossed by low hanging strings of Edison bulbs. It’s at once unpretentiously welcoming, magically romantic and of its location in the loft district in Downtown LA. It evokes a time and place I only dream I’ve visited and a menu that brings comfort to the imagined Francophile in me.

As does a cold Affligem Blond.

We started with the steak tartare with mesclun salad and pommes frites. The steak was well prepared, hand cut leaving a pleasantly solid texture. But this was one of the dishes that could have done with more seasoning. I remember reading an interview recently with Chef Walter Manzke where he said his favorite ingredient to cook with was sea salt. Perhaps his kitchen could have been more liberal with it in this dish.

The pommes frites were, however, very good.

We moved on to the terrine de foie gras with port wine gelée and toasted brioche. Here was a dish I’d eat everyday for breakfast if I could. The foie gras terrine was soft and buttery, the port wine gelée pleasantly sweet. Spread on toasted brioche, it was like an adult PB&J. But make that a FG&J.

Next up was an off-menu dish, the sea urchin with olive oil and paprika on baguette. I love sea urchin, usually in the form of uni sushi. I love the sweetness of it. Unfortunately this was masked by the taste of the olive oil in this dish with the delicate sea urchin being an afterthought. I didn’t really think this dish worked. But we ordered it more out of curiosity (being off-menu) than anything else and there was much more deliciousness to come.

Next came the escargots de bourgogne (snails baked in garlic and parsley butter) I had longed for since missing out on them on my first visit to Church & State. I love their presentation in individual ramekins topped with puff pastry. I love the anticipation of pulling the top off and letting the steam escape. Like a little Christmas present of escargot. But, like with so many Christmas presents, I was disappointed. I had hoped for Ferragamos but instead got Steve Maddens. These could have again used more seasoning and more garlic.

The moules mariniere (mussels in white wine) that followed were, however, pretty good. The broth was flavorful, the mussels plentiful and fairly plump. Mollusc to mollusc, I definitely preferred these over the snails. More pommes frites and aioli accompanied.

We also ordered the tarte de saumon fumé (smoked salmon tarte) with leeks and lemon creme fraiche. Not a dish I would have usually ordered but that’s the beauty of dining with others. I loved the simplicity of this dish. Good quality smoked salmon, a good crispy base, seasoned well with herbs and a drizzle of creme fraiche. A lighter counterpoint to some of our other dishes.

Next was one of the must have dishes at Church & State. The moelle de boeuf (roasted bone marrow). I’ve had the bone marrow at Animal, at The Gorbals, and at numerous other restaurants around town. Church & State’s are very good. But what sets them apart is the tart chimichurri sauce they serve with it. Bone marrow is all about texture and fat but top it with the chimichurri and the acid cuts right through it. Spread on toasted brioche, it’s a dish that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

And lastly, we came to the dish that people can’t get enough of. The oreilles de cochon, or crispy pig’s ears served with a bearnaise dipping sauce. Not usually on the lunch menu because they can’t keep up with the demand, ask and you shall receive. What I like about Church & State’s pig’s ears is that they are not cut into thin strips but left as large triangles. Cooked to a tender gelatinousness, coated and deep fried, you can see and taste the actual pig’s ear. This is a dish for people who want to know they’re eating pig’s ears and not disguise it. Dipped into the bearnaise, it’s a dish you pair with beer, not wine.

We had decided to pass on dessert but the kitchen, perhaps sensing that some of the dishes were not quite up to par, sent out a dessert sampler of every dessert on their menu. The cherry and nut tart, the apricot tart, the pot de creme au chocolate, the creme brulée, and the panna cotta with tangerine granita. I loved the freshness of the tangerine granita after the fat of the pig’s ears and I can’t go past a creme brulee. The pot de creme was very rich but had a great caramel sauce on top. Both tarts were also good but perhaps not my preferred choice of desserts.

By this time, it was approaching 3:30pm and the restaurant had emptied out and returned to a relaxed pace. We lingered over the last of our drinks, waiting for the rain outside to subside, and reflected on the meal.

Would I give it an A?

Well, the Department of Public Health apparently did.

Me? I’ll wait for my third visit to pass judgment.

And hopefully the next time Chef Manske will actually be behind the stove.

Church & State
1850 Industrial St
Los Angeles, CA 90021
(213) 405-1434

Church & State Bistro in Los Angeles

Church & State on Urbanspoon

Christmas at Petrossian

January 13, 2010

For us non-breeder, LA transplant types, Christmas eve dinner usually involves making a reservation rather than a ham.

In terms of special occasions, it’s up there with birthday dinners and New Year’s Eve. And don’t even get me started on Valentine’s Day.

But after 12 months of fine dining, where do you go that’s going to excite you? That has an appropriate sense of occasion? That is memorable and is, in some sense, special?

This year we picked Petrossian.

And we felt like Christmas had come early.

Well, slightly early. Say around 9pm on Christmas Eve. So perhaps three hours early.

Stepping into the dining room of Petrossian is like stepping into a classic Hollywood black and white movie. The color palette of the decor is stark. Black banquettes, white walls, blond wood chairs and the tables and lower walls covered in a black textured finish resembling caviar. Black and white prints of Marilyn, Brando, Bette Davis and co decorate the walls. The only concession to color is a single red rose in a black vase on each table.

I happen to like its simplicity. It’s classy more than austere. Romantic yet reverent.

And on this night, very quiet.

We were the only reservation for Christmas Eve.

Not that the kitchen wasn’t busy. Apparently they had been catering several Christmas parties all day.

But tonight we had the whole restaurant to ourselves.

Normally I’d say an empty restaurant was a bad sign but on this night it meant we had the full attention of Chef Ben Bailly. I’d met Ben recently at Marcel Vigneron’s Hatchi tasting and shared a cocktail with him afterwards at the Tar Pit opening. We chatted and I learned that he had worked in the kitchens of Joel Robuchon in Monaco and Paris amongst several others, helping Robuchon open half a dozen restaurants around the world, and was most recently the sous chef at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Vegas. Given that my meal at L’Atelier was my best meal of 2009 and that, somehow, Petrossian had flown under my radar for this long, I knew I had to experience his food.

Ben, on the other hand, learned that I liked to eat.

So when he came to our table to chat, he asked if we’d like to order off the menu or leave it in his hands. Basically the offer of a chef’s tasting. Given that we were the only diners in the restaurant that night, make that a private chef’s tasting. Of course we accepted.

Now bear in mind that there is no tasting menu offered at Petrossian. Their regular menu is set out in appetizer and entree sizes. So really, it was the fact that we were the only diners coupled with the fact that Chef Bailly just loves to cook that allowed him the time to create this menu for us.

And so began a tasting menu of some of Petrossian’s signature dishes and greatest hits.

We started with a hibiscus champagne and a Petrossian roe sampler. The hibiscus champagne was a festive way to kick off Christmas dinner. A rosé champagne with a dried hibiscus flower at the bottom of the flute, adding not just visual interest but a fruity flavor.

The roe sampler was a selection of caviar, trout and salmon roe served with blinis and creme fraiche. For those of you unaware, Petrossian is a producer of fine Russian caviar, with some caviars costing up to $600 per oz. That’s about one serving. The roe sampler was as good as you’d expect from a company of this pedigree. The sampler allowed you to taste the flavor of each roe, which varied from subtle to briny.

Next up was the caviar pizza. Creme fraiche replaces the tomato base, which is topped with chives, capers, red onion and dollops of caviar. One of the most decadent pizzas I’ve had, the caviar was a treat but, for me, the real taste sensation was the creme fraiche base. I don’t know how tomato will ever compete again.

That was followed by a tasting of two soups: a classic cold borsht and a wild mushroom cappuccino with braised chestnut. The wild mushroom cappuccino (or perhaps macchiato in our tasting size) was densely earthy yet frothy. Warm and very satisfying.

The cold borsht served in a shot glass was a revelation. Admittedly not a fan of borsht, I loved this interpretation. The addition of red peppers to the soup gave it a sweetness and crispness on the palate I’ve found lacking in most other borsht I’ve tasted.

Following the soups was the crispy shrimp “papillote”. The “paper” in this “papillote” was a wonton wrapper and the shrimp wrapped and fried crispy, then served with a chili ginger sauce and a passion fruit sauce. This could almost have been an interpretation of a Thai dish but the surprise for me was the passion fruit sauce. Looking like mustard zig zagged across the plate, it was actually sweet and tasted exactly like passion fruit. Dipping the shrimp alternately in the chili ginger and the passion fruit sauces brought a different type of sweetness to each bite.

Next was a dish I had drooled over on many food blogs. The foie gras salad. A thick slice of foie gras terrine over a square bed of chopped haricot verts and toasted walnuts with four streaks of a black truffle vinaigrette reduction. But this time it looked different. The foie gras terrine was itself streaked with veins of black truffles. Not usually on the menu, the foie gras terrine with black truffles is available only by special order. Lucky for us, a high profile customer had ordered a whole terrine ($300) for her Christmas dinner and Chef Bailly had made one for his own Christmas celebration. He was gracious enough to cut a slice from his own Christmas terrine and serve it to us, so in a way we actually shared his Christmas meal with him! What’s not to love about this dish? The foie gras is silky and rich, the haricot verts crunchy, the veins of truffle decadent, and a few flakes of fleur de sel adding an occasional punch. It also looks beautiful on the plate, its square upon a square within a square within a square plating appealing to my most basic OCD tendencies.

By this time I was starting to wonder how many courses Chef Bailly was intending to bring out. We never really discussed that but he knew from our previous conversation that I was no stranger to 8, 12, 15 or more course dinners. But I was starting to hit a serious dining wall here. When he next came to our table, I told him I was surrendering soon. But there was still so much on the menu I wanted to taste. The foie gras creme brulee, the black truffle mac n cheese. Secretly, I think he was waiting for me to tell him when to stop. I have a feeling that if I had kept eating, he would have kept cooking. But he told me he had one more plate I had to try.

And that was the Napoleon tartare. A thick square of hand chopped steak tartare, topped with a layer of black caviar, topped with another thick layer of steak tartare and topped off with yet another large dollop of caviar. The raw meat married with the briny caviar was superb. Truly decadent. And if it was at the beginning of the meal, I would have devoured the whole plate myself. But given that my dining companion had already stopped eating and that I had approached, reached and passed my point of fullness, I did my best and shoveled, picked at and coerced half of that large square of raw meat and fish eggs into my belly.

And then I did what I haven’t done in as long as I can remember. I raised the white flag. Chef Ben Bailly had done what no other chef in recent memory had done. He had defeated me.

But I wasn’t going to get away that easily. After pummeling me into submission with the Napoleon tartare, Ben sent out two desserts. A Sicilian pistachio creme brulee and a vanilla panna cotta with white peach espuma. Now, I haven’t met a creme brulee I haven’t liked so with a second wind, I tackled dessert.

At this point I barely remember the specifics of the desserts. Only impressions. The satisfying crack of the bruleed top, the distinct pistachio flavor, the quality of the vanilla in the panna cotta, the sweetness of the peach espuma. But I do remember that I ate it all.

And with that, I was done.

Ben came out to see how we enjoyed the meal. We talked about his dishes, about his working with Robuchon, about Christmas and New Year plans, about great meals we’d enjoyed in the past year. Then he excused himself. He had to get home and start preparing his own Christmas Day meal. He also had a Christmas present for his girl. And it was fast approaching midnight.

By the time we got home that night, Ben had already tweeted a photo of him shucking oysters in his own kitchen. I guess that’s the life of a chef.

And then it was Christmas. And we’d just had our last great meal of 2009.

This review is for A. My partner in dining, my partner in indulgence and my partner in life. Here’s to many more great meals in 2010.

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

Petrossian Boutique & Cafe in Los Angeles

Petrossian Boutique & Cafe on Urbanspoon

LudoBites 3.0. Rebooted.

December 29, 2009

LudoBites 3.0 was no sequel. It was a reboot.

Come knowing that and you’d leave happy. But come expecting a sequel to LudoBites 2.0 at Breadbar and you might as well have gone to watch JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot expecting to see William Shatner.

All the familiar dishes from LudoBites 2.0 were gone, replaced by a completely new line up. Oxtail polenta? Gone. Foie gras croque monsieur? Gone. Ludo Fried Chicken? Well, that one made a comeback in a different form.

Kinda like Leonard Nimoy as Spock.

In fact, don’t even come expecting to see Kirk in the captain’s chair. LudoBites 3.0 left the confines of Europe to explore Asia and Mexico. Kimchi, udon, dashi, miso and mole took center stage, befitting the pop-up restaurant’s move to Royal/T, a Japanese cosplay cafe. It’s as if Sulu had taken over the bridge and reprogrammed all the food replicators.

But that, really, is the mission statement of LudoBites. It allows Chef Ludo Lefebvre to create and explore cuisines without the normal constraints of running a restaurant. To seek out new tastes and new cultures. To boldly go where no man has gone… okay, perhaps I’m taking this metaphor too far.

On to the food. In the words of Chef Ludo’s famous countryman, Jean-Luc Picard, “Make it so!”

We went on the second night of the limited 13 night engagement.

The menu changed over the course of LB 3.0 but, on this night, Ludo opened with his caramelized curry peanuts. More a snack than a course, these would have been perfect with an Asian beer. A Tiger or a Singha, perhaps. Just something to nibble on before the meal.

Next up was the scallops with brown butter, pineapple and squid ink powder. The scallops were fresh and plump, with the pineapple adding a sweet and tart acidity. I did pick up a bitter element though that no one else at my table seemed to detect. I’m guessing this was a function of the squid ink powder.

This was followed by the bread soup with poached egg and a gruyere marshmallow. The bread soup had a strong, smoky bacon taste. Delicious but I had been expecting more of a toasted bread flavor from what I had previously read. Luckily, I prefer the taste of bacon to bread.

Next was a confit of pork belly with pickled mustard seeds, vadouvan apples and frisee. The pork belly was good. Tender with a firmer skin.

The fifth course was the Monterey squid with chorizo oil, kimchee puree and eggplant “paper”. Talk about Korean-Mexican fusion. But the dish worked. The squid was tender with just enough give and, eaten together with the chorizo oil and kimchee puree, brought a complexity to the dish.

The dish that followed was, surprisingly, my favorite of the night. Veal udon, kombu dashi, mushrooms and sesame seed miso. I say surprisingly because here was a Japanese-inspired dish prepared by a classically trained French chef. But the veal was tender, the broth flavorful and with depth, and the addition of mushrooms, shallots and the sesame seed miso complemented but never interfered with the main flavor palette of veal and dashi. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, this dish probably best exemplified LB 3.0 – a French experimental pop-up in a Japanese neo-pop cafe.

In contrast, the next dish was exactly the kind of dish I’d expect from Chef Ludo. The foie gras beignet with yellow celery root remoulade. I read Ludo’s tweet about this dish on his recent trip to France and knew I’d taste it sometime on his menu. And, after all, what is LudoBites without some foie gras? This dish tasted exactly as I had imagined. The salty, offally, fatty, almost melted foie gras paired with the sweet fried goodness of the beignet. This dish should go into the LudoBites Hall of Fame along with the foie gras croque monsieur, oxtail polenta, Ludo Fried Chicken and caviar panna cotta.

Next up was the wild striped bass, garden vegetables and yuzu aioli. The bass was well cooked and the vegetables certainly colorful but my mind was still on the veal udon and foie gras beignet.

The marinated hanger steak with crunchy escargot, baby corn, bok choy and black olive mole followed. Here was another dish I liked a lot. The hanger steak was nicely pink in the middle and well marinated but it was the mole that Chef Ludo had only learned to make a few weeks ago that stood out for me. Okay, I’m no expert in regional moles but the fact that Teenage Glutster’s mom (who Ludo learned the recipe from) gave it her seal of approval was as good a sign of authenticity as any. Yes, he added his own touches but the slight sweetness of the complex mole was a perfect accompaniment to the hanger steak. The baby corn still in the husk was a nice touch and made for a beautiful plate. The crunchy escargot were more for texture than taste, I think. Honestly, I felt they were extraneous but they did add a nice textural contrast when eaten with the steak in the same bite.

The traditional cheese course was replaced by the Fourme d’Ambert tourte with red pear and a honey-balsamic sauce. One of France’s oldest cheeses, the Fourme d’Ambert had a milder blue cheese taste. Baked in this tourte with a thick bechamel sauce, the result was wonderfully nuanced and yet apparently simple. Definitely greater than the sum of its parts. I’d take this over a cheese course any day.

Onto desserts, the first dessert was a pistachio rice milk, lemon pound cake and coffee chantilly. Honestly, this dessert lost me. Texturally, the pistachio rice milk and the coffee chantilly were similarly soft and mousse-like. It’s like a dessert that could have been good had been pureed into the texture of baby food. This was the only dish that we left partially eaten.

I’ll put it down to bad code in the food replicators.

We finished with the chocolate mousse with coconut sorbet soup and rum bananas. The photo doesn’t do this dessert justice. Yes, it looks like a bowl of melted ice cream but the chocolate mousse had a distinct kick of jalapeno in its tail, which was soothed by the coconut sorbet soup.

So there it was. The end of another LudoBites adventure. It’s hard not to make comparisons with LB 2.0. Sure, there were dishes I missed. But there were also dishes here I’d definitely add to a “best of” LudoBites menu.

But ultimately, LudoBites 3.0 held out the promise of further exploration and experimentation when Ludo returns with version 4.0 and eventually his bricks and mortar dream.

And I’ll be there as eager as I was for this incarnation.

Until then Chef Ludo, live long and prosper.

LudoBites 3.0 at Royal/T
8910 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 559-6300

Ludo Bites at Royal/T in Los Angeles

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Hatchi with Marcel Vigneron

December 21, 2009

Someone explain to me how Marcel Vigneron was, until recently, only the sous chef at The Bazaar?

And while they’re at it, explain to me how Ilan beat him in Season 2 of Top Chef to win the title? I’ve eaten at The Gorbals and there really is no comparison. It’d be like Hosea Rosenberg beating Michael Voltaggio.

Okay, I exaggerate. But only just.

Speaking of Michael Voltaggio, I was at his Hatchi tasting in July and wondered how Marcel’s meal would measure up. After all, Marcel was Michael’s sous chef at The Bazaar until earlier this year.

Last night, Marcel more than held his own. His Hatchi tasting was close to flawless. Imaginative, exceptionally well executed, complex and, ultimately, totally satisfying. As good as, if not better than, meals I’ve had from more celebrated chefs in recent times.

Someone give this man his own restaurant. Or perhaps they already have.

Marcel opened his eight course tasting menu with an amuse bouche of a pomegranate blueberry spherification. Perhaps the most iconic representation of molecular gastronomy, it was a perfect introduction to those unfamiliar with Marcel’s style. A shimmering and mysterious dark blood red sphere served on a Chinese soup spoon. Take it whole into your mouth and pop the sodium alginate polymer skin. Inside, pomegranate juice and a whole blueberry. Perhaps a little vodka and it would have been perfect.

Luckily for me, my Negroni cocktail arrived just in time. Gin, Campari and Antica Formula vermouth, garnished with orange rind. Displaying the bitter herbaceous quality of Campari, this cocktail was very well mixed by Devon Espinosa, mixologist at The Tasting Kitchen in Venice and cocktail alchemist for the night. I also got a lesson in and taste of his Coca Cola spherifications for his Coke in Manhattan cocktail. I imagine this is how they’ll drink Coke in space.

The first course arrived. Hamachi sashimi with espelette, momo chan, kumquat and iceplant. The hamachi was clean and fresh, dressed simply with some sea salt, espelette (those red chili flakes) and, I think, yuzu. The momo chan (the green Japanese baby peaches) added a sweet touch and sat under slices of kumquat, which lent that slight bitterness of citrus rind. The dish was then garnished with iceplant and red seaweed.

Next up was the dayboat scallop with cauliflower couscous and seaweed. I loved this dish. The scallop tasted as good as it looks, with just a bit of crunch of sea salt. The pickled seaweed added a nice dimension, the cauliflower cous cous added texture and the purple, pink and yellow dots of cauliflower puree around the plate added pure whimsy.

Third course was a langoustine ravioli with thom khai foam, avocado wrapped mango, petite basil and coconut milk powder. Another great dish. Our plates also came with an additional piece of crispy fried fish, which I noticed wasn’t included in some diners’ plates, making this almost two dishes in one. The fish was fried crispy with skin on. It was linked across the plate by a delicious thom khai foam to the langoustine ravioli, which was garnished with the petite basil and basil seeds. The langoustine ravioli itself was firm with a generous serving of langoustine on the inside, reminding me more of a Chinese dim sum gow gee than a traditional ravioli. Between the fish and the ravioli was the avocado wrapped mango. Sweet dices of mango wrapped in slices of avocado, this was a great counterpoint to the strong Thai flavor of the thom khai foam. Sweet, refreshing, simple. It was sprinkled with coconut milk powder, which tasted, unsurprisingly, of coconut milk. Combining the fish with the foam, the ravioli with the foam, the ravioli with the mango, and the fish with the mango all brought new dimensions to this dish. Truly a tour through South East Asia on a plate.

Leaving Asia, the fourth course was a Lyonnaise salad of frisee, “nesting” egg, bacon, sherry vinaigrette and endive. The egg, “nested” in crispy wonton strips, was a playful rendition of this classic. The bacon was good, as was the endive and frisee and vinaigrette but after the taste sensations of the previous three courses, this one seemed a bit safe. Safe but still beautifully executed and plated.

Next was the miso honey black cod with nasturtium textures and sesame oil powder. A broth was then poured into the bowl tableside. The honey in the miso glaze lent a sweetness to the fish. A sweetness that may have been overpowering in a larger serving but, for this small serve, was perfect. The sesame oil powder, made with the addition of tapioca maltodextrin, dissolved in the broth adding a nice slick of oil to it. The nasturtium was presented three ways: a flower, a leaf and a peppery puree.

Course five was a vadouvan lamb with flavors of tzatziki, lavosh, pickled onion and sumac. The lamb, looking rare and fatty, was beautifully cooked, the vadouvan crust adding an earthiness and spice. I must admit, there was too much fat for me and I did end up trimming much of it, but the lamb was delicious. The tzatziki, cucumber balls, pickled onion and toasted lavosh were all welcome accompaniments but the lamb was definitely the star.

The final savory course was the grass fed “corned beef” – a sous vide short rib, textures of corn, Saul’s pastrami and black trumpets. The sous vide short rib was thick cut and tender, sauced with a black trumpet mushroom sauce. Corn was prepared in three textures: baby corn, a corn puree and popcorn. I loved the corn puree on this dish. Some of my fellow diners felt it was too sweet but I loved the sweetness it imparted to the short rib when eaten together. The pastrami, named after Saul Cooperstein at SBE, and interestingly also served by Michael Voltaggio in his Hatchi menu with a short rib, was loved by some of my companions but I felt it was extraneous. The dish, for me, was really the combination of the short rib and the corn puree.

Dessert was a green chartreuse souffle with a vanilla bean ice cream. Just prior to this point, I did step away to chat to some friends and returned to a deflated souffle, so the photo doesn’t represent the souffle when served. I did see it come out to other tables and it stood high and proud. It was, however, moist and fluffy with a nice baked crust. As you reached the bottom of the cup, the alcoholic taste of the green chartreuse became increasingly pronounced until the last couple of bites seemed soaked in it.

Dessert was followed by little macarons and cubed marshmallows. In the vein of Marcel’s beautiful and sometimes whimsical plating that evening, I decided to stack these into a small tower. Because I’m old enough to play with my food.

Lastly, we were brought the famed Dragon’s Breath, now only served at The Bazaar’s private dining room, Saam. Small rolls of popcorn dipped in liquid nitrogen. Pop them into your mouth and the warmth causes you to breathe smoke, hence the name. Unfortunately these were not prepared tableside so by the time we ate them, there was no more smoke. But they did bring another serving and instructed us to eat them immediately. We got the requisite smoke, although it was more a wisp than a cloud, but nevertheless still fun and interactive.

That rounded out one of my most memorable meals of the year. Imaginative, playful, beautifully executed and plated, and a gastronomical tour through Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the future of food.

Marcel left The Bazaar just weeks before his Hatchi tasting. I’m looking forward to seeing where he resurfaces.

And I’ll be there with reservations.

Hatchi at Breadbar with Marcel Vigneron
10250 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 277-3770

Hatchi at Breadbar with Marcel Vigneron in Los Angeles

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Simon LA. The Bryan Adams of chefs.

December 10, 2009

Kerry Simon is known as the Rock n’ Roll Chef.

But as far as rock stars go, he’s the culinary equivalent of Bryan Adams. Well crafted, familiar and accessible. A working class dream in a million dollar venue.

Don’t get me wrong. Bryan Adams is more successful than most musicians will ever be. Has more fans, sold more records, played more shows than most. But on the international stage, he’s no Bono.

And I have to admit, the thing that pushed me to try Simon LA was Restaurant Week. Which is basically the culinary equivalent of scoring cheap tix.

The venue itself was kinda sexy. Like a darkened nightclub meets a haunted forest. We sat down to the support act. A glass of prosecco, which got us suitably warmed up for the headline act.

Kerry Simon opened his set with a jumbo lump crab salad with avocado, micro greens and a grapefruit vinaigrette. Maybe not the most innovative dish but very tasty. The crab was chunky and the salad was well dressed. For a reluctant salad eater, I polished this dish off.

Next up was the grilled skirt steak with balsamic roasted root vegetables. The skirt steak was left nicely pink in the middle but with a heavy sear. The marinade was well caramelized. To my palate, it reminded me of Malaysian satay. I loved the sweetness of it. There was ample jus to keep the meat moist and the vegetables were simply cooked but delicious. The dish was comforting, hearty and left me wanting more. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For his encore, Simon broke out some more crowd pleasers. Cheesecake and cotton candy. The cotton candy was a fun element but, obviously, insubstantial. Still, a playful addition. The cheesecake came out looking like a scoop of ice cream on top of a crust. But it was indeed cheesecake. An incredibly smooth and creamy cheesecake. Not what you’d think of as a traditional cheesecake presentation but I loved this dessert.

Looking back over the meal, I can’t say that there was any one dish or component that was particularly outstanding or challenging. It was like a collection of greatest hits. Perhaps safe but very enjoyable. And that’s what Kerry Simon does. Food we know and recognize but executed very well. So well that you can’t help but like it, even if you’re not wowed.

Much like Bryan Adams.

I still find myself singing along to “Summer of ’69” whenever it comes on the radio. I can’t help it.

And I’m willing to bet a lot of you out there do too.

I guess, despite myself, I’m a fan.

Simon LA
Sofitel Los Angeles
8555 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 278-5444

Simon LA at Sofitel in Los Angeles

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