Restaurant Trends Rehash

2014_trendy_restaurant_menu-thumbIt has been a steady three years since my palate first encountered the Los Angeles restaurant scene on a regular basis; long enough that I have steadily been out to eat at least 100 times, qualifying me for bona fide foodie status in the area. From highbrow white tablecloth dinners at the (sadly missed) Royce to down and dirty, oozing cheese taco truck mulitas, I have seen and tried a lot. So when Eater LA came up with the above graphic spoofing Every Trendy Restaurant Menu, I had to laugh with a semi-uncomfortable familiarity while also lauding myself for not completely being a slave to the status quo.

Trendiness is a weird thing. It is sort of like a stereotype. You don’t want to be a person who believes in stereotypes but you know deep inside that they sometimes exist for good reason so you are leery of discounting them completely. But then you feel really bad for giving into a stereotype when it bites you in the butt and you realize you were actually far off in left field from the truth. No one wants to jump on the trendy bandwagon, but nobody wants to be left out of a good experience either. You should not shun something based on its trendiness but you should not jump head first into it either just because it is popular. So I have broken the menu down below to reflect things that are in my life for a reason, season or a lifetime –the psychological way to gauge personal relationships, because we all know that food is one of my lifelong love affairs.

IMG_8875The Cute Gardener’s Hash is the trendiest item in my own home, and I don’t see it losing its allure anytime soon. Sometimes trends are followed for a reason.

1. The good stuff (aka in my life for a reason):

Housemade potato chips – the last time I ordered them, I was sitting at the Traxx Bar at Union Station with the Cute Gardener and a big fat martini. The chips were thick and starchy, slightly chewy in the middle, crisp on the edges and obviously an emotional purchase due to my love affair with the idea of eating things at bars where trains mass transit people from point A to B. Yes, you can buy cheap potatoes and make them at home, but who wants to go through all the effort?

Tarted up pork belly – I am firmly convinced that there will NEVER be a portion of pork belly on this planet that I don’t want to eat. In ramens (best done at Silverlake Ramen), on top of blue cheese mashed potatoes, or caramelized and fork tender all by itself.

Two bones with enough marrow to spread on a single piece of toast – When this dish is done well, it makes me happy. Especially when it’s done creatively like at Scratch Bar where the marrow bones are made out of sourdough bread.

What a weird uni dish – yes, uni is an extremely popular trend with no signs of slowing, but just like the most absolutely perfect, charming, and beautiful homecoming girl at school, you can’t help but hate and love it simultaneously. Plus, I fell in love with the CG over a plate of cold, black squid ink pasta with uni at Osteria Mozza so it’s stuck in my heart.

Gnarly looking whole fish with half a charred lemon – the last time I cooked a whole fish at home, I forgot to have the butcher remove the scales. In other words, I am still learning this one. So in the meantime, there’s still something exciting about getting a creature plopped in front of you at a high-class restaurant while everyone around you, less adventurous, becomes freaked out. This was super fun at Lukshon and Girasol.

Business class carrots – Odd inclusion to this meat heavy category of mine, but the Moroccan carrot dish (yes, in cute little crock) enhanced with harissa and a cool cucumber sauce at Pizzeria Mozza is my favorite vegetable dish in recent history.

2. The “I Wish It Would End Already” item (aka in my life for a season).

Newfangled deviled eggs – The CG is an egg whore and can hardly resist this delicacy. I am an egg whore too but my mom made the best deviled eggs this side of Iowa and my curried version is pretty darn good and I have a problem spending five bucks for two halves of egg.

City slicker fried chicken – the CG makes a superior version to any I have tried in restaurants of late. I always find that if the breading works, the chicken’s too dry. If the breading falls off, the chicken is too weak and flavorless. I can’t stand when there are grease spots next to hard spots. I am so picky about the dish I am hard pressed to ever try it. Although, I did have a few bites of the CG’s chicken at MB Post with honey drizzled over it alongside a cheddar biscuit that inched a little close to my soul.

Kale anything – kale grows in my yard and is thrown into smoothies and made into salads when I am feeling a certain lack of greens in my life. It is a vitamin. It is not something to be savored at dinner or paid for; that just seems so wrong and way too healthy for a night on the town.

Burger that’s crazier than it needs to be with fries – too big to put your mouth around, too many imbalanced ingredients, overcooked when asked for rare, or an aggressive single vegetable or piece of cheese –there are too many ways these burgers can go so wrong. I’ll take the balanced, meaty, messy and juicy alternatives at Comme Ca, Plan Check, Short Order, 25 Degrees, or Stout any day.

An unconventional riff on Brussels sprouts – at Tin Roof Bistro they char the living daylights out of these veggies and everywhere else they seem to halve and roast them in some bitter, acidic caramelization. Each time I have had them out, I become more nostalgic for the way my mother used to make them—steamed like tiny cabbages with butter, salt and pepper.

Fussy fries with truffle oil – I agree with Chef Aaron Sanchez, who said on an episode of Chopped to a contestant who was so darn proud of his dish spiked with truffle oil, “I wish they would ban that product from the marketplace.” If I want truffle I will eat a real one.

3. The “Purposefully Refused to Try Thus Far Based on Principle” additions (aka already in my life for life):

Tiny stuff you’re supposed to share. No, we don’t want eight olives in a ramekin that are already chilling at home in a half pound container from the Armenian grocer; nor nuts and herbs from the communal bin. We refuse to pay for toast unless it accompanies a pot of pork rillettes and the next generation of pickles is already brining in a jar in our fridge at home via the free cucumbers in our yard. We will make exceptions, though, for Littlefork where we can’t resist choosing a jar of spicy watermelon radishes from the pickle wall.

The CG has a saying that you shouldn’t eat things out that you could easily cook at home, that when you are in a restaurant, you want to be surprised and delighted. This usually applies to all salads and egg dishes but for the purposes of this menu, it means:

Shishito Peppers – throwing peppers into a hot oven until they blister is great but not for $14.

Painterly plate of beets and goat cheese – This got real boring after the 100th time I ate it when it first became trendy in the early 2000s.

Fish slivers doused in citrus juice – This can be bought at the grocery store. It’s called sardines in a can. Then squeeze lemon over the contents on a plate. Enough said. (I will however never forego a good plate of fried smelt on a menu.)

Amish chicken in the big city – I cook perfect roasted chicken in many forms. I don’t need any competition.

Wild salmon strikes back – see chicken.

Of course, whenever the palate tires from the same old thing, we learn to appreciate the unique dishes we make together at home or pull out the recipe books for a little adventure. I have been reviving my saffron risotto of late and the CG has been searing tomatoes in cumin for some extra spice in our life. We are looking forward to a new food season this fall with new menu items. Of particular note is our anticipation of Chef Bernhard Mairinger’s new spot Imbiss.




Dessert’s Fickle Diatribe

IMG_0844Gusto’s Heavenly Coconut Gelato Pie

I have been banned from ordering dessert at restaurants for a while.

This is mainly because the same thing always happens.

The Cute Gardener and I will go out and eat a stellar meal. In my sweet tooth of a brain, I will naturally assume that the restaurant’s desserts will live up to the preceding entrees so I will want to try a bite. I will be so full though, that when the item arrives, I end up taking a nip and leaving the rest the responsibility on the Cute Gardener’s gullet. Not being a sweet tooth kind of guy, he will end up spooning it in regardless—both of us leaving full and trying to recall the savory bites of a meal that came prior to the sugar onslaught.

I’ve come to realize that deep down this impetus for something sweet at the end of a meal signifies something in me I have completely outgrown. When I was a kid my cravings for sugar were wild and unfettered-completely immature and unsophisticated. It didn’t matter if they were sated at the bottom of a bowl of M&Ms the morning after my parents’ parties; through a grocery store candy bar or a la-dee-da scoop of Haagen Dazs … I was an emotional eater who used sweets as a way to feel fill a hole inside of me that was hankering for love and warmth.

In my twenties, after realizing this through years of expensive therapy, I went through a complete backlash towards sugar and became the ultimate sugar snob choosing to only eat bitter dark chocolates and Chinese mochi confections, assuaging myself with the knowledge that the red and mung bean paste delicacies were actually holistic forms of ancient Asian medicine. I would let down my guard once a month though while raising my daughter when we would have our mutual “women’s issues” that called for a slice of chocolate cake with fudgy frosting and lots of almond milk to soak it up or a pint of old fashioned Thrifty’s mint chip or cotton candy ice cream. But other than that, Tofutti cuties were about the only dessert-esque thing you’d ever find in my freezer.

When I met the CG my sweet tooth was reignited due to his pure butter-soaked thumb when it comes to baking. After tasting his sinful cocoa cookies, the best chocolate chip ever, and a barrage of cakes from lowbrow to highbrow whipped up in his kitchen, I found myself a willing slave to the dessert cart again. But now here I sit almost three years of dating later and realize I need to evaluate my ideas about sugar yet again. Somehow I feel like this will be a constant relationship of revision throughout my lifetime.

My Sugar Rules As Of This Minute
(perpetually subject to change)

  1. Never eat candy from the supermarket, period…
  2. Dark chocolate is the only chocolate. Unless it’s butterscotch Blondie chocolate. Or caramel Valrhona chocolate. Maybe, Valrhona is the only kind of chocolate. No, that’s not true.
  3. The next time I eat a macaron it will be in France.
  4. Anything white with coconut is fair game.
  5. Leave the cake making to the Cute Gardener.
  6. Only eat pastries if buying from the baker who baked them within the last 24 hours.
  7. Ice cream is over rated after age 12 unless made fresh with more eggs and cream and less artificial flavoring.
  8. Pies are only good when they are filled with roasted root vegetables or fresh, sustainable meat.
  9. Fact: fresh whipped cream and a spoon constitutes dessert, nothing else needed.
  10. Truffles from boxes will always taste like wax.
  11. Dessert IS allowed at restaurants if chosen from the savory, dinner menu like the CG and I once did with broad beans and white truffles when The Royce still lived prior to its takeover by a boring steakhouse.

Of course there are those rare moments that can’t be forsaken-when you find something that defies its “course” categorization and transcends definition because it just tastes that good. This is a rare classification though, at the moment meriting only the butterscotch pot de crème at Gjelina in Venice Beach and the butterscotch budino at Mozza in Los Angeles. Butterscotch lust is something I have not outgrown but I also know from experience that these two dishes can never be copied although a dozen restaurants across the Southern California scene are currently trying, and failing. (We tried to copy and failed too.)

And then there are the surprises—those things you have to try just because you have never heard of them and may never have the opportunity to taste them again. This was truly the case this past year at Gusto when I had a slice of pie that tasted like the moon. A heightened triangle of fluffy white topped with toasted coconut and a curl of chocolate fonduta arrived on a bed of Graham cracker crust to my delight at the end of a nice Italian artisan pasta and meatballs dinner. In today’s contemporary sea of cardboard-crusted chocolate and fruit tarts, tangy ganaches and variations on trendy ice cream flavors like crème fraiche and cinnamon, it came floating to my table like it had been carved from a cloud. Had I been banned at that time, I never would have discovered the unique piece of heaven that is coconut gelato pie.

There are always exceptions to the dessert rule, I think …

… as I sit contemplating another slice of the five-minute brownie pie I begged the CG to whip up last night for a Roberto Rossellini film.