Hong Kong Trip – Flight on Cathay LAX-HKG

I’m onboard now, in my “suite,” and it’s definitely over the top. Before takeoff, I had a glass of Krug Champagne. Eric and I sat and talked, both in his suite and in mine (since each has two seats, naturally).
The captain, Dave, came back to say hi, and spoke about the flight. I talked to him about the flight to Hong Kong from New York that goes over the North Pole, and he had flown that once a month for a while. He said on that flight, the winds can get up to 250 miles per hour, so the plane can hit 700 miles per hour ground speed. Amazing. Also amazing that I had a five minute conversation with the pilot before takeoff.
So takeoff is also an interesting situation. Bottom line is that I’ve never been this far up in a plane before, so taxiing around on the tarmac, and then taking off – the motion is noticeably different. And the noise is another story. So far in front of the engines! OK, it’s not silent, but any means. But slip on the noise-canceling headphones, turn on your entertainment center, put your feet up on the ottoman, and you could really be in your den at home.
Overwhelming feeling: I can’t believe I’m on a plane. I’m watching a movie on my huge personal TV, drinking a Merseult that was opened just for me, eating warm cashews, and awaiting caviar. On a plane. Some comedian (Louis CK maybe?) talks about how incensed he is when people complain about air travel, yet they’re sitting on a seat, 36,000 feet in the air, watching a movie! How about doing that in bed, in pajamas?
Just got out of bed to go to the bathroom. Problem. I was buckled in. Still have to wear a seatbelt.
So I’m two movies and almost nine hours into my flight. I hope that means I slept for five hours, but sadly, I don’t think so. On the flip side, if I can’t sleep in this bed on a plane, maybe I should fly coach from now on, right?
We’ve been flying hard all night, but I know the sun will still beat us there.

Quick Dumpling Station Review

I can’t figure out where to review food trucks (Yelp?, FourSquare?) and so I’m posting a quick review here.

Reading Dumpling Station’s Twitter feed, I saw that they were finally making the trek back west from their typical haunts in the Pasadena area. My kids and I have been wanting to try these out, and the time and place worked, so we tooled over to Melrose.

The menu is pretty spare – it’s basically all online. We ordered the chicken, the pork with kimchi, and the veggie.

All three came with the same two sauces: a dipping sauce largely made of soy sauce and probably peanut oil, and a hot sauce that I think was sriracha.

And the verdict it: wouldn’t bother going back, sorry to say.

The veggie was just a mess. I’ve really only had great veggie dumplings a few times (best were in New York at Excellent Dumpling). These were just kind of a mush, with no real character, and way, WAY too much garlic. Not just garlic, but jarred garlic – the kind that has that funky taste from whatever they do to it that robs it of its delicious fresh flavor. Why bother? Fresh garlic is great! Jarred, chopped garlic is just a totally different animal.

Chicken: fine. Nothing special. Not great, not awful. That’s kind of how chicken is, I guess.

Pork and kimchi: Not too bad, but just too ground up; too mealy. I thought I’d get recognizable pork with chunks of cabbage. But this was a homogenous goo inside. No great pork flavor. And no great kimchi flavor either. This was just not like Mandu. Maybe I should have tried the beef and kimchi?

And we also got an order of the garlic wasabi fries. The fries weren’t bad – and fries are easy to mess up. And the wasabi mayo was actually pretty good. But the garlic was the above-mentioned *jarred* garlic, so that was almost all I tasted. Next time, if there is one, I’d get wasabi fries please, hold the garlic.

Granted, I’ve had a lot of dumplings, and my family is particularly enamored of Din Tai Fung, which is a pretty different genre certainly. But we had been looking forward to the Dumpling Station – maybe some good dumplings on the Westside for a change (beyond Mandarette) but it was not to be, I’m afraid. So many food trucks have been simply great (Kogi and EatPhamish being two favorites so far) that I was expecting a little more here.

Leo in Prague

Walking in front of the American Embassy on the way to dinner.

Leo Prague

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.

Dinner at Ad Hoc last night

Stupid iPhone camera!

Anyway, that’s the buttermilk herb fried chicken with mac and cheese and a corn salad. Prior was a four bean salad with arugula and after was a cheese course and a roasted peach with ice cream and caramel. Very comfort foodie.

Had a delicious Zinfandel from Brown. And Keller was eating a couple tables away.

I posted a gallery of my best pics of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood at the Hollywood Bowl, June 30, 2009.


Amazing show!

Went a little crazy at Bev-mo

Should make for several nights of good drinking.


Quick New Orleans Food Recap

Just before I forget, I wanted to get down some food notes:

-Coops for lunch: classic old-time NOLA place. Liked it, especially the po boy (oyster) and the fried crayfish. Also, good gumbo and mint juleps. The waitress insisted that I try a cold Jagermeister shot on the way out and that basically knocked me out. Great kitchen in the back, by the way.

-Herbsaint for dinner: best restaurant of the trip. The egg on pasta floored us, as did the mushrooms and asparagus roasted with lardo. Amazing place.

-Butcher for lunch: great, all around. Great sandwiches, great sides, great drinks. Very casual, but heavenly. Related to Cochon and Herbsaint.

-Lillette for dinner: Also excellent, but if I had one place for dinner, I’d choose Herbsaint.

-Central Grocery Muffaletta – the classic, really pretty good.

-Napoleon House – fun place, but I guess I not a huge fan of a Pimm’s cup.


Working on my latte art

I’m finally making some progress on my latte art. I’m not ready for some cool coffeehouse in Telluride or anything, by I did learn that I was putting too much milk in my pitcher so I didn’t have enough space for good foam.

More work to do, still.

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?