Filipino Umami at Rice Bar

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Chef Charles Olalia of Rice Bar in downtown Los Angeles has managed to do what many Patina-trained chefs do, which is to elevate the cuisine most special to them to its utmost level, then introduce it to the world. Olalia has done this with the Filipino food of his youth—specifically humbly, comforting rice and grain bowls—which one would be hard pressed to find elsewhere with his caliber of flavor. There are grain and rice bowls everywhere these days, it seems, yet none come even close to the quality or deliciousness found here.

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The restaurant is really a tiny box with a counter and a few chairs spread out with a view directly into the kitchen commandeered by three massive rice pots. You pick your bowl and then which rice you want of three specially imported choices: a brown, a garlic fried or a jasmine, although they might change from time to time. On a Saturday at noon, we chose the pork longanisa and fried anchovy bowls. Olalia is a hands-on chef and we watched him oversee the line cook and then add his personal touches to the dishes like sprinkling scallions, strands of pickled vegetable atchara and crushed up nuts over the soft and delicious, richly pink, house-made pepper and garlic pork sausage. Or, the way he made sure the anchovies bowl had perfectly distributed ratios of julienned radish, tiny fried fishes, fresh avocado and cured tomatoes before pulling out a bowl of tender bits of squid and asking my Cute Gardener if he would like some on the dish too because he wanted feedback on its potential in the dish. While we ate, we heard Olalia say he was done with kale for the season. I got the impression that this chef was constantly playing, experimenting, having fun, and evolving his creations. It made me want to come back and try everything else on the menu.

When I was in junior high, I had a large number of Filipino friends and couldn’t wait to spend the nights at their houses on the weekends because the food was so interesting to my American girl tongue. I recalled loving the unexpected sweetness of the dishes, the combinations of odd ingredients like fish sauce and sugar, the starchy rice and noodles so far removed from my mother’s Uncle Ben grains and boiled pasta. Olalia’s kitchen was much the same, with lively music playing on the radio, umami in my belly, and a smiling chef transporting us to his island heritage with elan.

Best Dishes of 2017 – #3

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TACOS AL PASTOR at EL FARO TACOS in Sylmar, California

You park out front on the curb and enter the tiny restaurant where two men never stop working the meats on the grill. For $1.24 a pop, you order as many of these succulent and divine no frills, street style, tacos as you think you might eat. Two tortillas topped with perfectly marinated pork and pineapple chunks. Perhaps a smattering of cilantro and a dot of salsa from the condiment bar on top. Unpretentious perfection.

Viva Les Fusion

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I have a slew of favorite chefs who I look up to, not for their celebrity status or sex appeal, but rather, for their truly inspired notions of cooking and the philosophies around eating. Within that canon is a quintet of Asian chefs: Filipino Paul Qui, a past Top Chef winner who brings a Zen minimalist’s flair to the manly food scene of Austin, Texas; Edward Lee, a Korean-American form of the hearty Marlboro Man delivering up a Southern hybrid of Asian spice in Kentucky; also Korean, Kwang Uh with his exciting vegetarian fermentation lab in Los Angeles; David Chang whose latchkey kid, stoner skater food creations border on the brilliant with their everyday cabinet ingredients elevated to gourmet plateaus, and my very own Cute Gardener who brings the most Japanese refinement to everything he touches even if that means country fried chicken, Austrian noodles, Italian pastas, or Michelin-star status macaroni and cheese. What I specifically love, though, about these five chefs, is the way they have taken the techniques and cuisines of their nationalities and expanded upon them via exploration and practice into defining their own versions of what it means to eat American.

On the latest season of Mind of a Chef, Lee is profiled as saying that one of the greatest things about the contemporary American food scene is the proliferation of fare inspired by the multitudes of dishes from all over the world being made on this vast continent that so many different ethnicities call home. Fusion is no longer a tres chic restaurant description but a true method of cooking for today’s national palate teethed on so much more than mere hot dogs and hamburgers.

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Take the taco for instance. There aren’t many neighborhoods in the states where you can’t find a simple strip mall counter serving up standard street tacos. Simple pastor, carne, pollo and even lengua meat on tiny disks of authentic masa are par for the course and whether fifty cents or five bucks a pop, rather guaranteed to always be good. What’s exciting though, are the myriad ways chefs and home cooks are co-opting the concept of taco and making it their own. Think of the tortilla as a blank canvas; strip away the typical Mexican connotations, and the possibilities become endless.

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The Cute Gardener recently served up a fusion style taco of Italian Milanese-style, breadcrumb coated and fried skirt steak with a smattering of sliced red cabbage, pickled shallots and cotija cheese on warm corn tortillas. Recently, I have been having a blast with tostada shells, discovering all the various ways I can fit my health food-bent lunch palate onto their crisp, corn crunchiness. My favorite so far has been a topping of turmeric and olive oil roasted sweet potato, melted Monterey Jack cheese, purslane from the garden, strips of basil and cherry tomatoes, dotted with Vietnamese chili garlic sauce. No origin story, no historical precedent, no label of identifying cuisine—just pure yummy goodness.

There’s been lots of debate recently about cultural appropriation and whether it is right or not for people to dabble in identifications non-indigenous to their own. Thank goodness the food world is absent of these arrows because, to me, one of the most beautiful things about being human (and eating!) is being able to discover for one’s self the things that most lick our fancies and then creating a world of our own not relegated to such a narrow act as the pigeonhole. In my eyes, today’s American cuisine is a broad field not confined by definition and boundless in its ever-expanding permutations.

Best Dishes of 2017 – #2

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BRAISED DAIKON by the Cute Gardener

A subtle, al dente rendering of an iconic Japanese root vegetable in a surprisingly simple broth that carries the tiniest hint of dark caramel to counteract softened briny kombu. The daikon acts like a tofu, soaking up its surrounding flavors. A perfect appetizer that goes down like a whisper, barely audible yet entirely complex.

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Insanely simple recipe

Slice one daikon radish into 1/2-inch rounds.  In about 3 cups of water, place daikon, 3 small strips of kombu, 1 tablespoon mirin, and 1 tablespoon Japanese soy in a pot.  Cover and gently simmer until daikon is soft, but not mushy. 

Baroo Brings It

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Long gone are the days when the term “health food” meant bland textures, weird grainy fake meat tastes, funky faux cheeses or a million variations on the veggie and sprout sandwich on cardboard stiff wheat bread. Thanks to the resurgence of macrobiotic concepts, the superfoods explosion, the contemporary plant-based and whole foods movements, and our general continuing enlightenment surrounding the importance of tending to that internal stove inside our guts that is our digestive system, health food has slowly crept up the culinary ladder as a viable competitor in the foodie world. Not only are many noted chefs exploring vegetarian dishes to co-star on menus alongside meat dishes, but some chefs are making a mark by focusing totally on more healthy fare that’s elevated for a sophisticated foodie audience. Matthew Kenney is a prime example of a chef who has turned raw food principles into some of the best tasting gourmet dishes I’ve ever eaten. When I lived in Venice Beach, I made it a point to walk to his Santa Monica restaurant (sadly now defunct) weekly for a plate of exquisitely stacked raw lasagna, or kelp pad Thai, which carried so much of a flavor punch that I was certain I could give up the fattier, meatier, carb-heavy alternatives if I were forced to make a choice. It has been exciting for me to search for and discover food of this sort and it has been sadly too few times that I have succeeded.

The Cute Gardener, who is not as big of a fan of this type of cuisine as I am, did a very sweet thing for my birthday this year. He took me to Baroo, a relatively new restaurant in Los Angeles that has been getting rave reviews for its largely vegetarian menu (of under ten dishes at any given time) and use of fermentation. Their most unusual dish Noorook even boasts the use of the latest trendy Koji (a steamed rice with koji-kin mold spores cultivated into it), which I was dying to try because of its reputation for being an authentic source of umami.

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I was also interested in a Chef who would name his restaurant after a bowl that Buddhist monks are allowed to possess and use for their meals until their last breaths. It brought to mind the time I sat sesshin with a group of Buddhists for three days straight in my twenties, during which we kept completely silent and did nothing but meditate for eight hours a day, only breaking every couple hours to run in a circle around the room to get some circulation, or at noon and night to eat. I had to learn a complex ritual of eating called Oryoki that required setting out my bowl, and a precise way to receive food, eat and wash my implements that emphasized presence, respect for the sacred and grace. I thought about this as we drove to the tiny, stark white space located within a minimalist and ordinary strip mall and bellied up to the tiny, unpretentious counter to taste five dishes lovingly prepared in front of us by Chef Kwang Uh and his team. I wanted to give each taste that same respect.

Respect was indeed due, for the meal was not only extremely creative and satisfyingly healthy, each dish was jam packed with so many layers of complex ingredients and juxtaposing textures that I realized with each bite that there was no way I would be able to find, or even make at home, food like this. I had my own little religious experience while sitting there.

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An example of what I mean:

Celeriac pasta: Handmade pasta with celery roots, celery crudité with pickled mustard seeds, celery ash and crispy celeriac chips.

Asian fever salad with a sous vide egg: Basmati rice, lemongrass and coconut foam, Asian-inspired veg mix, crispy shrimp chip, heirloom cherry tomatoes and line supreme.

Noorook (Koji): Job’s tears, kamut and faro, roasted koji beet crème, concentrated kombu dashi, toasted seeds, macadamia nut, finger lime and rose onion pickle.

Bibim salad: Grains with oat, quinoa & bulgur, vegetable crudité w/fennel, celery, asparagus, baby radish, heirloom carrot, toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, gochujang, san marzano tomato dressing, herb coulis, passion fruit powder, baby kale and Asian pear.

To wash it all down? A gloriously housemade Tepache with fermented cherry juice.

Of course, after the heavenly birthday meal, we drove to a burger joint to feed the CG who considered Baroo’s lighter portion sizes and fare mere appetizers.

Just Another Friday Night (aka, This is How We Roll)

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When I met the Cute Gardener (oh, going on about six years ago now), one of the most delightful things about him was the fact that he didn’t like to celebrate birthdays or Valentine’s Day or other so-called “special” occasions. He felt that every day should be great, and why should we designate certain days to take a break out of our lives to revel in happiness when we could just live happy? Well, that fit my M.O. to a tee, which is why we are super compatible. I am the girl who forgets your anniversary but will buy you a souvenir on a whim in Mexico because it reminds me of you for no reason at all, other than I love you!

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So, this means that pretty much every night is a reason to celebrate existence. Most nights, the CG cooks for me, as readers of my blog diligently know. But the one time a week that I cook, I go all out. Complex recipe… Multiple store shopping…. ¼ of one month’s budget in one day expended. That’s traditional. The only thing that gives me a little grief in those instances is that I have to plan a whole meal around one item that originally grabbed me. Sometimes I see a starter I want to make, or a dessert, and then I have to go through the mental machinations of figuring all the rest of the components out. As an artist, that kind of strategy isn’t exactly something that flows.

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So, I was delighted this week when I could just say to the CG that I wanted to make a salad and he could say to me in return, “Fine, I would be happy to stay outside and smoke some meat without having to worry about side dishes in the kitchen.”

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We may have found our groove. Because what resulted was an incredible night of my favorite kind of funky, fatty grilled lamb alongside a superfood-esque, co-opted panzanella salad and our equally beloved petite sirah from Santa Barbara’s Jaffurs winery.

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Panzanella Salad with Asparagus Instead of Tomatoes for Two
(adapted from a Food and Wine recipe)

Ingredients:

  • 2 large eggs
  • Four thin slices of peasant bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 1/8 cup red wine vinegar
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup packed young mustard greens (ours were vibrant right from our garden!)
  • 1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/8 lb. pecorino romano, crumbled
  • 3 small radishes, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 350. Put the eggs in a saucepan of water and bring to a simmer over moderately high heat. Simmer for 6 minutes. Drain the saucepan and fill it with cold water. Crack the eggs all over and let stand in the water for 1 minute. Peel and thickly slice the eggs; the yolks will be barely cooked but not runny.

Spread the bread pieces on a baking sheet and brush lightly with olive oil. Bake for about 12 minutes, until crisp.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the asparagus until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, cool and cut the asparagus in half lengthwise.

In a small bowl, combine the 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoons of oil with the vinegar; season with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, toss the asparagus, toasted bread, greens, onion and cheese. Drizzle with the dressing and toss. Garnish with the eggs and radish and serve.

Best Dishes of 2017 #1

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PORK POSOLE at the KITCHENETTE in Templeton, California

An elegant interpretation of the homey, yet often muddled, Mexican stew. Tender shredded pork and sliced linguica sausage with a subtle kick mingled with tangy feta cheese, the counteracting coolness of ripe, sliced avocado, crunchy cabbage slaw and hearty large kernels of white hominy. The richness was further tied together by the creamy yolk oozing from the pretty center of a stunning breaded and fried soft boiled egg, all afloat in a luscious Verde sauce. Perfect breakfast to soak up a weekend of wine tasting in nearby Paso Robles.

Asian at Home

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One great thing about the American melting pot is the way our immigrants and our refugees have introduced us to the cuisines of other cultures. In cities like Los Angeles you can find within any random sampling of urban blocks anything from Syrian to Mexican to Vietnamese to Israeli to African food. We have unbelievable choices in the things we eat and better yet, ethnic markets are now commonplace so that we can try to make those savory Lebanese labne kabobs or that tangy Thai Thom Ka Gai soup at home. Also, we don’t need to adopt the American diet we grew up with just because it was what was served to us growing up in the childhood home. My kitchen cupboards are an interesting fusion—one peek into them and you might think I was a third East Indian spice, a third Planetary Herbalism and a third Armenian.

One of my favorite things to enjoy is Asian at home, (and no, I’m not talking about the Japanese Cute Gardener). In the old days before my palate was properly aged, I was a big fan of onion pancakes cooked in Chinese restaurants. Over the past year, spurred by an L.A. Times article touting seven places in the San Gabriel Valley with the best versions of those, the CG and I began an onion pancake hunt. After a few unsuccessful tries (yes, at one of the article’s restaurants) we came to the conclusion that they just weren’t all that good. In concept, yes, but in orchestration they tended to be too hard, too thin, too dense, too absent of green onion, or too oily for our liking. Which brings to mind one of the recurring conversations in our household about the difference between authentic and good. Something might very well be authentic but if you can make it better by stepping a wee bit off tradition than why not do just that? We often wonder why chefs in various cuisines aren’t that compelled to improve on old standards.

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In any case, I was still craving the kind of onion pancake I used to love so I bought a pack of frozen, raw onion pancakes from the Chinese market and decided to experiment on a simple lunch time wrap. Not only were these pancakes a one hundred percent improvement over the restaurant ones, they were simple to make. You simply take the flattened disk from between the fruit roll-up reminiscent cellophane and put it into a hot pan for two minutes per side. It fluffs up in a nice, flaky, and soft buttery (!) fashion. I like to grab some bitter greens from the garden for a one-minute sauté in the same pan, and sometimes if there is left over ground meat in the fridge like pork, I will throw that in the pan too. Then I squeeze a zigzag of hoisin sauce on the pancake and spoon the filling in and fold it in half to look like a Chinese taco. This dish goes wonderfully well with fragrant oolong tea.

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These pancakes are good all by themselves as well. So good that I had been making regular trips to the Chinese market just to buy them. Imagine my surprise when I found them in the frozen aisle of Ralph’s last week in a new large section of foreign foods. At least in the food sphere, we know how to be properly grateful for the richness our immigrants bring.

A RETURN TO JOY AFTER BEING LOST AT SEA

 

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Blue prawn crudo and cauliflower panna cotta

One of the biggest sources of joy in my life is eating, making and exploring cuisine with the Cute Gardener. Another is listening to live music – from an extremely varied musical palate we share between the two of us. For that reason, Papilles Bistro (taglined: Art is to Refuse Mediocrity by Balthus) in Los Angeles has had a very special place in my heart. The tiny restaurant in a strip mall, reigned over by Chef Tim Carey in his ever present L.A. Dodgers cap, where you never know which few fabulous things are going to be on the menu yet everything is stellar, has been our pre-eat spot for nights filled with Stanley Clarke’s jazz at the Catalina Club, Da Camera Society’s chamber music at an estate of magnificent architecture in the ritzy hills, and good ole Neil Diamond at the Greek. Something about the combination of fine food, a Southern California evening and cocktails on the town along to the beat of great tunes fills me with sparkling joy and I have shared that often here on this blog.

 

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Octopus mole

Recently however, my posts have dwindled, and I am embarrassed to admit it has been because I have been leery of expressing joy. For multiple reasons. One, I have been in a state of dread leading up to and since our Presidential election. Two, because of the outcome of the Presidential election I have been chagrined (by friends and foes alike) for sharing my natural outpourings of joy. For example, on the night of the election, the Cute Gardener and I were at a steakhouse and after the meal, I was brought a large pink tuft of cotton candy. I took a photo of myself with that puff and put it on Instagram and noted that now, more than ever, we needed to try and personally experience joy, because our small little lives are really all we have. I wasn’t trying to say that my experience of joy would automatically bar any knowledge of the reality of many suffering on our planet. I wasn’t saying that my joy was something that I wanted to cloud other parts of me, like the activist woman with a writer’s mouth, geared for a life of written word service. I wasn’t putting my fingers in my ears and screaming “la la la la la la,” as if I wanted to become blissfully ignorant. I was merely stating that if we are in positions to experience joy, we should, because many aren’t and we are really lucky to have that opportunity.

I received a backlash. And it had everything to do with the Presidential election. And it threw me into a state of dread. And I wrote about my postpartum blues after the election for a literary magazine and I spoke about how many of us now feel frozen – frozen between enjoying our lives that we knew and being scared of whatever damage may come, not particularly to our lives, but to the lives of many others.

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Snapper

But … yesterday I read a quote in the Los Angeles Times by a writer named Jade Chang whose “Wangs Vs. The World” is becoming a bestseller. She spoke about being at a writer’s conference recently and how all of the panelists and audience members were kind of in the same frozen daze. They were asking, “Why even write?” She said, “We started talking about how joy itself is a rebellion, how living unapologetically is an act of defiance.”

It was enough to put some happiness back into my strut, giving me the confidence to share that strut here, where now I have come home to experience joy unapologetically. And it is entirely synchronistic that my first post back is about my experience last week at Lost At Sea, a new seafood restaurant in Pasadena, reigned over by none other than that favorite L.A. Dodger hat-wearing chef of mine Tim Carey.

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Butter poached lobster

The best artists in life know to move from project to project, passion to passion, without growing stale. They take their surroundings, the materials they’ve been given, and they mingle that with themselves to find inspiration. We see this happening now in Los Angeles a lot. Chefs will open multiple places, or pop up here and there, or float, giving their talents and their muse a large field to choose from. Carey’s food at Papilles is still exquisite and supreme but Lost at Sea is his outlet for channeling a deft and creative touch onto the Southern California fresh seafood scene. The niche is exemplary in his hands. Think tangy raw blue prawns aloft in a sauce of passion fruit, orange, guava and aguachile; octopus mole with sweet potato, Satsuma and sesame tuile; snapper with baby turnip, fingerling potato, spigarello, tarragon fumet and duck; butter poached lobster with black trumpet mushroom, celery root velouté, (the CG says any chef, like Carey, who is an alum of Patina-training knows how to make a superior velouté) fresno chile and parsley; or my favorite dish of all, (and perhaps #1 yet for 2017), a rich and decadent cauliflower panna cotta (which coats the tongue wickedly more like a mousse) topped with luscious uni, pop-in-your-mouth trout roe, sexy brown butter and the sprightly spritz of citrus. Yum.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring but I am happy that I can continue to find joy in food through my relationship with the CG while it lasts. And I shall.

Forgive me for being (at) Lost at Sea.