Archive for the Restaurant Category

No More Coupons!

I have had a love/hate relationship with the Groupons and LivingSocials and Amazon Locals and everything else. I think I’ve finally gotten over buying coupons to restaurants that I wouldn’t go to without the coupon. But I still can’t help myself from buying coupons for restaurants that I already visit. And, it seems, I need to stop that also.

A few months ago, I bought coupons to AOC on OpenTable – $25 for a $50 credit. I bought three. I read the terms, and knew we couldn’t use them for the Monday night specials, which is when we’ve usually gone recently. But I figured I’d use three anyway. Six months for three coupons? Didn’t seem so wrong, but considering we couldn’t go on Mondays, it was a little much. Five months in, and now I’ve used one.

But that one wasn’t easy. We had a good night to go, so we planned it out, made a reservation, etc. This was a busy night, the day before we were leaving for a trip. But we thought it would be relaxing to have a slow dinner and get a break from our week and set the tone for a trip.

We had a pretty rushed evening, and just made it to the restaurant on time. But five minutes after we sat down I realized, I didn’t have the coupon! Essentially the whole reason for the dinner was to use the coupon. I made the quick decision to run home (literally) grab the coupon, and run back. And I did – it took me about 15 minutes round-trip.

OK – here’s the best part: our waitress, seeing me flushed and sweaty all of a sudden, hinted about whatever I had just done. I explained. And she told me that she could have just looked me up in the computer and given me the credit. Amazing.

Well, I got a good run in, and I reinforced the problems with the coupons. I’m hoping I’ll finally resist the urge, once and for all!

Tokyo Restaurant Roundup

Who’s got time to blog anymore?

Anyway, I did want to get a list down of the restaurants that we thought were worth recommending. Really, pretty much everything we ate was good, at the very least. So that means we didn’t try Yoshinoya, but we did even go to some pretty down and dirty noodle shops for quick meals, and that food was certainly passable.

But here’s the good stuff:


Very hard to say, but this might have been my favorite of the trip. This was an old-school noodle house featuring tsukemen, which is a noodle I didn’t really know about until this meal. They’re thicker and saltier than soba, made from white flour (I think) and nice and al dente. I found this place on Chowhound.

The noodles were great. They come served with pork belly (not really as fatty as US pork belly, so maybe it’s a different cut) or sliced pork. Of course, we got both. Then they come with bowls of broth with veggies. They have shoyu or miso. You can guess which we got (both). You dunk the noodles in and load up the soup, eat them with veggies and pork. Heaven.

And there are two other great items: the aged egg (liked it, but pretty mild) and the negi-wonton, as in, scallion-wonton. It’s a plate of pork dumplings, with homemade wrappers, clearly, in a nice soy-based sauce, covered with scallions. Loved it.

The noodle plate with pork belly, and the negi-wantons

Important note here: pretty much no English is spoken at Suzuran. We ran into some Americans there who tried to help, a bit, but they were kinda lost, too. And it was our first morning, so we didn’t really know how to deal yet. The menu has some pictures, but we figured out, after we ordered, that the more complete pictures are inside the restaurant on the wall above the front window. You might try ordering by pointing at these if you go.

Finally, a line forms. We got there a few minutes before they opened for lunch (11:30?) so we got right in.

Next up:


Another find on Chowhound. We were looking for something good and close to our hotel after a long day walking the streets and riding the subways. We really weren’t expecting much; I guess that’s the best mood for being surprised.

Yuian is located on the 52nd floor of the Sumitomo building in Nishi-Shinjuku, so it was basically across the street from the hotel, which was the main selling point to us. I don’t think I’ve dined on top of a skyscraper since Windows on the World. If you remember that restaurant, you know how long ago that would have to be.

Anyway, this was our first shoeless experience, which was definitely fun. The place had a gorgeous sushi bar and waiting area, and then, when we were taken to our table we were shocked to find out that we were sitting on the floor (with a foot well) right at the floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows looking out over Tokyo. I guess, considering the number of skyscrapers in Tokyo, this isn’t such a rare situation, but it was spell-binding nevertheless to us lowly Angelenos.

Bad pic, but you can get a hint of the view out the windows

OK – the order of the day here is Izakaya. So we ordered some sake and a ton of appetizers and went to town. They do also have a set menu, but we didn’t go that route. We went fried, pickled, steamed, etc.

Salad and pickles and veggies

Fried gluten things with pork

In addition, we had sushi and sashimi (both great) and my favorite item of the night was a tofu skin (yuba?) in tofu milk, or something like that. The English translation was “sleeky tofu” which would seem about right, if only sleeky were a word. Maybe they meant slimy? Silky? It was both of those. Also mucousy. And great!

Third up, was another noodle place. At home, I don’t think I’m that crazy for noodles, but here, I couldn’t get enough. And we never did find excellent soba, but that’s another story.

Chuka Soba Inoue

Apparently, ramen was once called “chuka soba.” So this old-school ramen hut uses the old terminology. Confusing, but fine.

We found this place listed in a few spots on the web – one being the New York Times, actually. And we knew we’d be walking by it on the way to Tsukiji, so we figured we ought to pay a visit.

There’s only one order of business here on the “menu,” and that’s a bowl of ramen. Granted, no English was happening, but I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing to say, other than the number of bowls you want. Then they boil your noodles, make your broth, add the MSG, assemble, and lay pork slices and bamboo shoots on top, with some scallions. Done.

The chef is shaking in some special ingredient (MSG)

You take the bowl, and walk over to one of the bar tables nearby, and slurp away.

Here’s Leo doing just that:

I was a little scared to step away and snap the pic because I thought he might suck the whole bowl down before I had a chance to dig in.

So that’s the roundup of the great meals. We also had many, many others that were both delicious and memorable, including shabu shabu, a nine course tofu meal, grilled eel, all-you-can-eat deep fry, tonkatsu style, tons of street food (mochi, roasted sweet potatoes, and plenty of other things that we can’t name, still), gyoza (yes, a whole meal of it), tempura (not as good as I was hoping for, actually) and, of course, sushi. I would say the one letdown was the tempura – we need to try again on that. And the soba we had was at fast-food-ish type places, so next time, we need to find a handmade, 100% buckwheat soba place.

I can’t wait to go back!

Well, after years of drinking tea with boba, I’ve come to learn that Hong Kong claims to be the birthplace of milk tea, which is basically the tea you drink with boba. Now, I’m not really sure how milk tea differs from the old English tea with cream and sugar, but there’s some whole story about straining it through pantyhose for some reason – anyway, they claim it.

And there are quite a few shops around town that serve it. We tried one in Mong Kok in Kowloon called Gong Cha where I got a crazy version with this strange thick frothy sweet milk on top that you sample first, then mix in to the rest of the drink.

It was definitely unusual, so it was interesting, but I’m not sure it was my cup of tea.

Next we got into the witty-names place. We went to Easy Drink, Easy Go.

Yes, that’s Eric there behind the umbrella. Sometimes I really have a way with the camera.

This did go easy – into the trash. We both got citron (or citon) and it was pretty nasty – sweet rind bits amid the boba. Essentially, undrinkable.

Finally, we got to ComeBuy. Blatant.

And that was the best one – straight up sweet milky tea, with boba.

For lunch, we went to an old dim sum house, in place since 1926. This was a bit of a challenge, and would have been even harder for a group larger than two. You basically have to jostle to find your own place at a communal table of 8 to 10 people, and the hustle to get food. But it’s worth it.

The restaurant was Lin Heung Tea House. You actually enter through the bakery and roast meats area (they smell so good! more on that later) and go up a flight of stairs into a madhouse. A man who presumably worked there was nice enough to roughly guide us to some places opening up after we milled about with the others looking for tables for about 10 minutes.

We were in a location that was a bit out of the way of the main cart route (which is probably why we got seats at all) so a woman with a cart took a little pity on us and brought us over some char siu bao and other goodies to get started. One was an egg dumpling, basically a boiled egg yolk on top of a mound of ground pork and shrimp, in a casing like a har gow skin. Really good. After not making much more headway, I took the charge sheet and went in search of more items. Here’s a picture of one woman about to hand me some plates from her cart – she was a little surprised when I snapped it:

I can’t remember exactly what it was, but something wrapped in a big goopy cabbage leaf was probably my favorite. I also liked the veggies and pork wrapped in bean curd skin. Really, it was all good. And we were out of there, full and greasy (no napkins!) in probably half an hour. Total cost, $120HK, or about $15US.

There was clearly a whole culture going on in this place that we didn’t understand. To start, the woman who brought us plates brought us a little serving bowl of hot water, and put a tea cup in it. I can only guess that she meant to warm the tea cup before pouring tea in it. Then she put a spoon in there – we tried to play along, but we didn’t really get it. I kept meaning to watch someone else go through the ritual when they first sat down, but I never caught it.

Then there was the tea. These places are called, after all, tea houses, so the tea is central. We just got a standard pot of Chinese green tea, but many others had a bowl of leaves, with a plate on top, that kept getting refilled with hot water. I’m not sure if, again, we were doing something wrong, or if these were just one-person versions of our pot, that had been rehydrated so many times that the leaves grew huge. Anyway, clearly a lot was going on here that was over our heads.

Dinner at Yellow Door Kitchen

Friends had mentioned this place before I left, and then I also saw it online in a few places, so I figured it was either a tourist trap, or pretty good. And the concept sounded intriguing. Bottom line – VERY good. And while there were definitely out-of-towners in there, that’s no reason at all to stay away.

The place is on the sixth floor of a nondescript building at the beginning of a market street near Central. This is the way of many restaurants. They aren’t on the ground floor since that real estate is so expensive. What amazes is me is how anyone finds them, and, further, the lack of decoration for the “lobby” in these buildings. Essentially, you go in a narrow hallway, past mailboxes recessed into the wall, to a tiny elevator – all pretty rundown, like an apartment building in Queens. And nothing seems commercial about it. But once you’re in the restaurant, it’s all very business-like again. Anyway, then concept makes sense – avoid the expensive ground level space. But I feel like I’m missing (again) a lot of what’s really going on, since it’s in these anonymous buildings, and not at ground level where I’m walking.

The restaurant has a set menu – just one. Here’s a picture:

The descriptions are really pretty simple and, in most cases, each dish was also, in a way that the right flavor really shone through.

First you get all of the entrees at once. Each portion is pretty small, but each one is rich:

Sorry for the bad lighting on that one.

Several of these dishes were notable. The spicy beef (back left) was definitely spicy (perfect with TsingTao) and oily and rich. The pickled cucumbers contrasted nicely with that. The bean curd skin was in a garlic chili oil that had some amazing flavor that I can’t quite put my finger on. That was probably my favorite. The edamame in “liquor dregs” was pretty good, if simple. I was remarking to Eric that if we didn’t have edamame at home, we’d likely try to eat the whole thing here.

The one really unusual item was the roast pork. It was almost like a molecular gastronomy item from a different style of restaurant – diaphanous sheets of pork, but ones that held together, with a sauce that evoked what Eric coined “the smell of Hong Kong.” It was like that smell, the smell of roasted meats, was reduced down to this little bit of sauce on the pork. This is the middle item in the picture – not sure if it was served in that position on purpose.

Eric and I are now craving the Hong Kong smell, and even now at 5 AM, kinda tired and definitely jet lagged, I’d like to get my hands on some roast goose or duck or pork – or all three. Walking the streets, the smell just pops out for a moment here and there. You look around, looking for what my brother-in-law calls “duck in window,” but it’s never there. I guess it’s at that eighth floor restaurant that I’ll never see.

OK – back to Yellow Door Kitchen. I was a little worried that the mains would come out all at once also, and we’d be overwhelmed, then done, but they came out one at a time, and each was a bit larger.

Next came a soup which was just a broth with a mushroom. Not bad, but nothing special. Maybe it was a sort of palate cleanser?

Then came my favorite dish of the night: the chicken. And I’m not really a chicken lover. But this was pretty perfect. The chicken must have been roasted, then it sat on a bed of shredded leeks, with roasted garlic and spicy oil all over it. Man, that was good. Spicy and oily and salty and even sweet from the garlic. Really good.

The pork rib tasted like a western-style dish to me – almost short rib, with the onions.

The squid was pretty good with the potential to be a belly bomb – deep fried, with a little mayo or something, and some grapes and other fruit. Different and not bad. The cabbage was great because of the broth, and it made a nice break after the heaviness of the preceding dishes. The the duck was also very good, but I was getting very, very stuffed.

Squid Salad

Then came the dan dan noodles. I had always assumed this was some Americanized dish for kids – noodles in a thin peanut butter sauce. But I guess that’s just the American version – this sauce was MUCH better – richer with sesame and no peanut. I can’t say the noodles themselves were extraordinary, but I did eat them all.

I wasn’t a big fan of the soup for dessert. The snow fungus had a nice crunch, but the warm papaya didn’t really do it for me.

Anyway, I hope I have another meal like this one, but I can’t imagine I will. This place was great!

French Laundry and Yountville

There are lots of restaurants in lots of cities that I love going to, but there are only a few restaurants that I think of going to in the future, for years. One is Chez L’ami Louis in Paris. I’ve been to Paris twice, and even tried to go once, but I haven’t crossed the threshold.

Another is the French Laundry in Yountville. And I finally went, for my birthday.


So here I am on the other side, and it’s a curious thing. Were the years of anticipation more enjoyable than the event itself? Maybe, but probably not. But it is a bit strange to not have this dinner to look forward to anymore. I can yearn for another, but that can’t have the same place in my imagination, since so much of it is now concrete. And I’m confronted with the big question: would I go back? Hard to say. It certainly was excellent, but it was not cheap, or even just expensive, and it’s also a trip.

As far as the evening itself, more than anything, I was amazed and put at ease by the service. To me, service can’t make or break a restaurant. If the food’s good, I’ll put up with a lot. But if the food isn’t, even great service can’t rescue a meal. So take great food and pair that with excellent service, and you get the French Laundry.

I had always assumed that the menu was set, no questions asked. But there were a limited list of choices to make, and for my wife, who eats fish but not meat, the waiter nicely interspersed vegetarian items and extra seafood items in for meats on the regular menu. This isn’t a “no substitutions” type of place. This place is built for extreme enjoyment and comfort and ease.

I think the aspect of the service that most confronted and dissolved my anxiety was the wine question. We brought two bottles of wine – a cabernet from a friend’s winery, and a dessert wine. I wanted to bring some wine so that I wouldn’t end up paying $1000 just for three bottles from the list. But it wasn’t that simple. I learned a lot in planning the wines to bring – among other things that you can’t bring a wine that is on the wine list, and that you should order a bottle off the list for each bottle you bring. Thought through, these niceties make good sense. But they were a little fresh to me. Thus began probably too much thought devoted to this issue. While I assumed the menu was set, I assumed the wine list was a minefield I’d have to expertly navigate.

So the host relieved me of my two carry-ins immediately, and at our table, I was presented with the wine list – or wine book. And here’s where the suavity began. The waiter sized me up quickly and accurately, and gently took over. When I say he sized me up, this included both the extent of my ability to relinquish control, and my price range. When I spoke about starting with champagne, and vaguely gestured toward the recommended bottle, he nicely guided me to one for half the price, promising we would enjoy it as much. When we discussed what we’d like in a white for a bit, he recommended two half bottles as a way to progress and match the courses where he would serve them.

Then, he made two more moves that really sealed the deal. One was that he asked if we’d like some of the sauternes we’d brought for dessert to be served earlier, with our pate. He suggested that just a sip would pair nicely. More work for him, and on a bottle we brought in, but he suggested it, and he was right on.

Next, I mentioned to my friend that Brooklyn Brewery makes a special ale just for the Thomas Keller restaurants. My friend and I both revere good beer, so I said this in a bittersweet way, figuring it just didn’t fit into this meal. The waiter overheard and suggested that we share a bottle during the cheese course. Perfect!

So at this point, service-wise, we were completely set. I’m pretty sure he could have scalded me with hot coffee and I would have smiled. And this was all in addition to the casual food banter about the origins of ingredients and the methods of preparations that came and went, never lasting too long to become tiresome.

On to the food. With a restaurant this perfect, for some reason, what sticks in my mind was the one dish I had that had no flavor: the eel. The freshwater eel was tempura battered and fried and while it had a great texture, it had no flavor. But that was one of maybe 12 courses (they claim to serve nine) and so I need to let it go, especially because at least two other dishes were basically perfect, and two more were outright amazing.

The cornet (not sure if that’s the word they used – it sounded like that, but with food nouns these days, you can never tell a neige from an emulsion) of salmon with creme fraiche was pretty transcendent. At Spago in LA, they serve something along these lines with tuna in a miso cone, but I’m thinking that the French Laundry interpretation is maybe the original, and done perfectly. I can still taste it.

Another item that sounds like it never leaves the French Laundry repertoire is the ‘oysters and pearls.’ I’d heard plenty about this from friends who’d had it. It’s pretty hard to oversell. Somehow, you’re eating warm, raw oysters, in a smooth, silky sauce, with a mound of caviar (from Sacramento, no less). It looks gorgeous, and it’s luxuriant to eat, but not over the top.


So one small level down from there I’d put the pate and the lobster. The pate was of foie gras, served with salts (yes! plural!) and brioche. Except, by the time we dug in, someone decided that our brioche was probably cool, so as we reached for it, they asked us to wait, and in seconds replaced it with just-toasted pieces. OK – maybe a little over the top.

The lobster was poached perfectly in two butters (yup – plural again). As great as that was, it came with fried potato disc, and some kind of otherworldly leek compote. I wouldn’t even try to recreate this because I’m sure I can’t, but if I did, I’d have to figure out how to cram a cup of cream into two tablespoons of leek compote. Is it even possible? And without the heavy feeling of just eating pure fat? I’ve got no clue, but someone there is really doing many things right.

This was definitely a meal I’ll never forget. But this was in the wine country – home of lots of good restaurants. We ate in two other restaurants while we were there, both great. One was Ubuntu, a vegetarian restaurant in Napa. Unfortunately, I had just downed a hamburger and onion rings at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher about two hours before our reservation, so I was a little full for this meal, but it was great. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

The other was one that I’ll seek out again: Ad Hoc, another Thomas Keller restaurant in Yountville with a very different aesthetic. Here, the restaurant is casual and busy and loud, and there is no choice on the menu at all. It’s family style, you get what you get. We were lucky enough to have a reservation on fried chicken night, which we’d heard was very popular. In fact, the hosts were turning away people in droves as we waited for our reserved table.

The chicken in question is battered in an herb-buttermilk paste and fried. It must be brined ahead of time to be so juicy. and the herbs (rosemary, clearly, and maybe sage) really shine with the frying. They started us with a three bean salad, and served the chicken with a corn and tomato salad, and some mac and cheese that has its own reputation, which it deserves. Fresh, local, in-season ingredients, presented simply. This how I strive to cook, and what I love.

OK – here comes the comparison between the French Laundry, and Ad Hoc,. Does it say anything that in the four days we spent in Keller-ville, the only time we saw him was at Ad Hoc, eating dinner with his friends? Maybe he can’t afford Bouchon or get a reservation at the French Laundry, but Ad Hoc was turning away walk-ins without reservations in droves, the night we were there, yet he kept a table for his group.

Maybe he’s had enough of the formality of the French Laundry (coat required) and he likes the simplicity of Ad Hoc – but, in any event, I do.

The menu was as varied, we only drank one bottle of wine, and restaurant wasn’t as luxurious, and we weren’t with friends, but in many ways, that’s the meal I’d recreate, at home or at a restaurant. And Ad Hoc is, most likely, the restaurant I’ll be back to first.

We went to the LA Weekly/Jonathan Gold food festival at Smashbox studios in West Hollywood. Had a great time.

The preliminary info: We tried to buy tickets on Goldstar ($36) as soon as we heard about the event, but they were sold out. We found them at the full-priced supplier, TicketWeb, at $60. Since Goldstar had sold out, we made the purchase quickly on TicketWeb. Those were gone soon, too. We got two adults, and two kids ($10 – great deal). We opted for will-call rather than pay the $16 (I think) for them to be sent.

We rode our bikes over to the studios since it was a great day and we didn’t want to have to drive home after too much wine. We got there about 2:30 to get our tickets, but the didn’t open the gates, even for will-call, until 3:15. Then, we weren’t on the list, but fortunately I had brought a printout of my tickets so they just put bracelets on us and waived us through. The ticket area really had no idea of what was going on.

So the first area was an outdoor parking lot with maybe five stands and a Japanese beer stand. We had sausage slices from Wurstkuche (nothing special, but fine) and a good shrimp with habanero sauce from Babita Mexicuisine. But the real action was inside.

The first room was the largest, with a cash bar in the middle. That didn’t make a ton of sense to me, and they weren’t doing a lot of business there or at the other cash bar. With decent free wine and beer at the same level of the beer at the bar, who would pay? For the record, there were generally pretty good wines, and two great champagne vendors (Schramsberg and Piper-Heidsiek) but the beers (Singha, and, I think, Kirin) and the beers at the cash bar were all pretty low-end. I was surprised some better beer didn’t make an appearance.

In that first room, La Mill was serving cookies. I was a little let down that they didn’t have something better, and same at Beacon that had a simple snow pea and cheese salad. Then Providence has desserts only (which I came back for – not really my cup of tea). But then I hit Angeli and they had beet gnocchi over their insalate forte which are my two favorite menu items there. In addition, we met Evan Kleinman so it was nice to finally meet the woman who owns the place. That’s a regular haunt for us.

In that first room was also Renu Nakorn, who probably wins the prize for being most ready for the crowds. The food was good – the spicy, cold beef salad was fragrant and full of herbs. Definitely a winner.

Probably the second longest line of the festival was here, and I waited in it, and was rewarded. It was for Animal, and they were serving their pork belly with peanuts, scallions, kimchee (gone by the time I got there) and an asian sauce. I still don’t know how they do it, but it’s crispy and still falling-apart. They’ve got this down. I spoke to one of the owner/chefs – he had on the t-shirt from Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal, which has a very similar menu and vibe.

Then you go into a lounge with the other cash bar and the bottles of Fiji water and all the Pom drinks. I think they’re owned by the same woman (Linda Resnick?) and she really knows how to market. These have to have the cheapest ingredients on the planet, but a good story, and she makes a fortune off them.

OK – the next room has the longest line: Mozza, with Nancy Silverton dishing out burratta with pesto and roasted tomatoes (still on the vine). No question, excellent. The pesto wasn’t so strong as to overwhelm the cheese. And, maybe because we go there early, but the portion was really generous.

Next door was Clementine full of great desserts. Then, there was a restaurant called Alcazar that I hadn’t heard of. Of all the new places I found (not too many, really) this was hands-down the best. I’m linking to their site, but be careful. It’s loud. They’re in the valley but the owner said a new location was coming soon to Westwood. His muhamarrah was amazing, and the babagahnoush was smoky and the hummus was great, too. The falafel was crispy and light. The one thing I didn’t love was the spinach pie thing, but the rest was really, really good and I’ll definitely be a customer when I don’t have to go to the valley for it. I’m glad I found this place.

Next door was Lou, which I haven’t been to, but I had a good pulled pork on polenta concoction there.

At the big room in the back there were several restaurants I love. The first one was Loteria Grill, which is another place we frequent (both locations). They were serving potato and meat tacos, but also a new fried cheese taco with, I think, cactus, that was great. This place was swamped, but they were keeping up pretty well. They had some good drinks including a cucumber water that I liked.

Then there was Sona which had a complicated dish with salmon, salmon caviar, a gel of maybe ponzu, seaweed, and a radish from Chino farms. I probably had four of these. This was one of my top dishes. They also had a ginger and blood orange drink that even my kids liked.

More great restaurants in this room: Anisette, complete with Alain Giraud serving. I haven’t been there (yet) but now I surely will go. They served duck a l’orange on a stick with a peel, duck, and a piece of bread. My son dug it. But also, they had a frisee salad that was a real twist. It was a u-shaped toast with pancetta, frisee, and a lightly poached quail egg inside. It looked gorgeous (to me) and it spurted yolk in my mouth. Pretty perfect.

Hungry Cat had a great smoked salmon plate. They wrapped it around tandoori yogurt with dates. The tastes and textures worked really well together.

Lastly, Jitlada had their good spicy air dried beef and rice salad. As delicious as both were, I only went once. I found that and Renu Nakorn a little hard to deal with amid all of the European flavors. And I was concerned that the spiciness would numb me to the rest of the tastes.

I’m sure I left out some good items (Drago comes to mind, and there are more). I didn’t try Meals by Genet, but my wife loved it and the line was huge.

If I find any decent pictures in my camera, I’ll upload them.

Next year, we’re back, no problem. Just maybe some good beer? Maybe Craftsman even?

OK – this isn’t the greatest pic, but I think you can see what’s up. This is from the dinner I had at Rustic Canyon that I’m still dreaming about.

The descriptions are pretty much right on.

Last night, we ate at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. We don’t generally like to go out on Monday nights, but this was the night Rustic Canyon was having their seasonal beer pairing dinner. And it was worth it.

The dinner pairs six beers with four savory courses and a dessert. Here’s the set menu.

The first beer was basically a lambic, but brewed in the US, and without fruit: Jolly Pumpkin from Oro de Calabasa. Despite the name of the beer and the brewery, there was, thankfully, no squash involved. It was light, and served alone. This was pretty good – nice and fresh, and, as described by the beer sommelier, Christina, a good palate cleanser.

Then the food started. The bacon en croute looked very small and unassuming. But biting in made all the difference. Imagine a juicy chunk of soft bacon surrounded with flaky, moist dough, with rough salt on top. My friend Joe likened it to a high-end pig in a blanket. It was basically a juicy bite of bacon goodness. I’m sorry I didn’t get a picture.

The bacon en croute was served with Black Orchard Wit from The Bruery. This was a dark wheat beer apparently, brewed in Upland. Frankly, although I like other beers from The Bruery, this one didn’t really do anything for me. It did a nice job of standing up to the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon without competing, but I’m not sure I’d go out of my way for it. I’d had the Orchard White before (at Father’s Office) and I liked it a lot, so I’m game for more from the Bruery – I might need to take a field trip down there.

The second food course was the persimmon, fig and fennel salad. I’m just recently starting to like persimmon, but this wasn’t like anything I’d had before. It was sliced thin and it was crunchy, almost like a green papaya salad at a Thai restaurant. In any event, the salad was very unexpected and delicious. But even better, the beer with this was from Browerij Bosteels in Belgium. It was their Tripel Karmeliet, and the information from Rustic Canyon said it was voted the best ale in some London tasting recently. It was amazing. I had three glasses. Monks don’t brew it anymore, apparently, but the recipe is 400 years old. This was the best beer of the bunch – similar to a Chimay Tripel (which seems to be part of the same brewery, maybe?) but better.

Then came the pumpkin ravioli, bathed in a brown butter sage sauce. Heavenly. And pretty good with the beer, even though the beer was, frankly, a little one dimensional. The Green Flash Nut Brown Ale was better than, say, Newcastle, but in the same ballpark. For this course, it was all about the pasta. For homemade dough, it was surprisingly rigid and really kept its form and had a nice bite. And it’s hard to not like pasta swimming in good butter.

So then came the main course – the duck confit. Crispy skin, juicy, fatty meat. Really incredible. I had a duck confit over at Comme Ca recently and it didn’t hold a candle to this. The veggies with it were fine, but the duck itself here was sensational. And the beer with this course was a winner also: Reserve, from Abbaye Binchoise (can’t find a link for the brewery). So maybe I have a weakness for Belgian beer, but this was another great one.

OK, so how do you finish a beer pairing menu with a dessert beer? You might think a chocolate beer would be the ticket, but Rustic Canyon went a different direction and finished with a chocolate cake, a plate of cookies (really good ones – gingerbread, shortbread, and lemon squares) and a beer that was finished in Jim Beam casks to give it a whisky-like flavor. That worked surprisingly well – and I had doubles of this one. The beer was Curieux from a brewery in Maine called Allagash.

I’m trying to figure out where to buy some of these beers in LA. The three I’m interested in are the two Belgians and the Allagash. They really floored me.

So after eating lots of wine pairing menus over the years, I finally found a beer menu. As much as I like wine, I’m not generally bowled over by how well it pairs with certain foods, nor am I really able to identify flavors as carefully as many. It’s not that I don’t like wine with food – quite the contrary – it’s just that I don’t usually recognize as much of a symbiosis between wine and food as I did last night with beer and food. And I feel like the range of wines typical in pairings like this just doesn’t go nearly as far as this went. Usually, you get some white, some red, and some sparkling wine. The breadth of different flavors in these beers just went further – and clearly, there are a lot more possibilities out there. And one of my least favorite types of beer – IPA – was totally absent.

I’ll definitely be going back to Rustic Canyon for another beer pairing menu. It sounds like they have one each season, but the winter one might be a bit late since the woman in charge, Christina, has a book coming out, and that’s taking up her time. But, if I can get four of these a year, one in each season, I’ll be there.


We spent the first week of our summer vacation in Sitges, a beach town just south of Barcelona. We rented a large condo with our friends, the Koetters. 

The condo (Residencia La Granja) was on Vilanova about four blocks north of the beach, an easy an pretty walk. The condo had a central pool, and, after a start, WiFi, which meant we could use Skype and Truphone to call home and research trips.

Sitges is a fairly large town with an old neighborhood with an old church at one end, and a newer town stretching west from there. For the first several days we were in town, we didn’t realize just how much there was in town – it wasn’t until our last day that we found the doner kabob shop.

After a few meals at local places that we happened upon (including two pizza places on the street at the beach that were fine, but nothing special) we decided to try to do some research and eat at less touristy and more compelling restaurants. Our Cadogan guide led us to La Masia, which was a complete mistake (and the guide was therefore left at the condo, and was pretty much never re-opened). To compound the problems with the restaurant, we used our Garmin, that we loaded with maps of Europe, to find the place. It led us in exactly the wrong direction, right to downtown Sitges, instead of the relatively easy walk the other way down Vilanova to the restaurant. In any event, the sausage tree was pretty unusual and did have some good meats hanging from it, but from there, everything was mediocre, or even bad. The place was only populated with English-speaking tourists, and it was only about 10% full at that. We agreed that it may be a tour bus stop. So, clearly, don’t waste your time here. Avoid La Masia!

More research on Sitges led us this website of restaurants in Sitges, with a little commentary.

That helped a bit, and it did lead us to Izarra, near the top of Carrer del Taco on Carrer Major. This is a fairly typical tapas bar with a pretty large selection for such a small place. The specials were 3.50€ which made those items a steal. We ordered all four (only got three) and the pimientos de padron and the patatas con cabrales were great. The other memorable items were, especially, the rice dish (sort of like paella, but with mushrooms and meats) and a great lentil and potato stew with sausage. That one was my favorite. The Mediterranean salad was also very good – I think it had the local Cabra cheese on it, which is a bit like Boucheron to me, with a chalky part and a creamy edge before the rind.


The other good restaurant we ate at was El Rato de Carreta around the corner from Izarra on Carreta. This was more or a typical restaurant and they had a speciality of ‘cocos’ which seem to basically be take-offs on the idea of the Pan Amb Tomaquet that you can get everywhere in Catalunya (and that’s usually a really solid way to start a meal). The cocos here had other toppings – mine had eggplant, onion confit, and roasted tomatoes, in three sections, divided by anchovies. This restaurant also had good salads – mine had Cabra, again. Leo had a rich, meaty lasagna, and Christina had an eggplant dish with cheese that was just too much food, but also good. I will say that, as is often the case here, the service was pretty slow, but nice and accurate. The one guy who likely owns the place is the waiter for the whole restaurant, and once it gets full, that’s the end. When we left, at about 10:30, there was a line out the door. Of course, we could have left 45 minutes earlier and made space for these people (and money for the guy) with a little more attentiveness, but that’s just not the way it works in Europe, so it seems. It almost makes me like the way we have tips in America – at least there’s some reward for efficiency, and it aligns the interests of the waitstaff with that of the owners and customers.

The other restaurant where we ate once, and the Koetters, twice, is Bar Panchito. It’s a Mexican place, just south of the traffic circle in the middle of town. It’s fairly quick, actually pretty tasty, and not at all accurate in its descriptions. If you have any knowledge of Mexican or CalMex food names, just ignore them for purposes of ordering here.

Trips outside Sitges

Twice, we went into Barcelona. Once was by slow train, and once by car, which, having given the Garmin GPS another shot, was really pretty easy. Even parking wasn’t too bad, and I’d do it again by car considering the experience.

We ate lunch at Cacao Sampaka, the chocolate store and cafe that we went to last trip and found stunning. This time, it was less so, maybe due to the sour attitude of our server. That really put a damper on things. But the chocolate was good – both what we ate there, and what we brought with us for later snacks. The chocolate covered orange rinds are really the best.

From there we walked around to see some Gaudi houses include Casa Battlo and Casa Mila (La Perdera) and some other notable architectural buildings, then to the church.

The first time we went to the Sagrada Familia which is just amazing. I hope I’m alive to see it when it’s finished. We saw it a few years ago, and I can’t really tell at all what’s different, but it’s really just stunning. This trip, I was especially taken with the angular art on the front of the church, outside, but a local, living artist, whose name I forget.

Next trip into Barcelona we planned out a bit more and Klara found us a great tapas restaurant on Chowhound. We had all wanted to go to Cal Pep, but they’re closed for the month, so we went to Paco Meralgo. This is in a totally different part of town, but with the metro and the easy parking, we all met up there easily and got to our reserved table. Quick note: if you’ve got nine people, or even fewer, make reservations at these places when you can. They seem happy to help, and I think that without this reservation, we wouldn’t have had a chance at a table for all of us. 

It was hard to order the wrong thing here, but top picks included the steak tartare, the padron peppers, the razor clams, and, maybe the raw sea snails. I didn’t expect those to be raw, so that was a new one for me, but they were really tasty, and had that great chewy texture, and they were a little chilled. As Joe noted, dipping almost anything in drawn butter with garlic helps, and it didn’t hurt these one bit. The tuna carpaccio that was so highlighted on Chowhound was nothing special (but then, coming from LA, it’s hard to get raw fish that impresses) and even the desserts were great – I liked the french toast the most, and thought the Catalan cream (basically, creme brulee, but a bit more rustic) and homemade cheese were great also. Others like the cork in mocha sauce that didn’t really do it for me.

That day we also went to Parc Guell (incredible – hallucinatory) and the Miro museum (which I like, but I found better the first time). We hit the Boqueria for a bit, then ate back in Sitges.

We also went on a trip to Montserrat. This is on a crazy geological formation that you see rising up from miles and miles away. Eventually, after what seems like lots of back and forth driving, you wind up to the site of the monastery and town, high up in the jagged peaks. Most of the church is relatively new, having been destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in the early 1800s. But the sculpture of the virgin from the 9th century is still there, healing people. We took a hike up to the highest peak. The place reminds me of Ayers Rock since it’s just totally alone out in the countryside, with nothing even remotely similar around.

This guy really nailed it – you’ve gotta check out his post (and the pictures are pretty good too). I don’t think I’ll be able to keep from laughing next time I’m there . . .