Girasol Reignites My Foraging Fire

IMG_1480Marinated and grilled pork satay with caramelized onion puree,
California olive oil, grilled lemon and fennel pollen

The Cute Gardener and I enjoy seeking out and trying the food of Top Chef contestants whenever we get a chance. Not only are we avid fans of the show, we tend to come away each season with favorites like Paul Qui (whose food we have yet to taste) and Stefan Richter (whose food we tasted and liked but whose restaurant service was highly dissatisfactory). I liked CJ Jacobsen when he appeared on the show but not as much as others so when I saw us slated to dine at his Studio City restaurant Girasol recently, I was only mildly anticipating the meal. After all, the menu seemed rich with dishes I’ve seen an overabundance of lately on the California cuisine landscape. Was I wrong.

IMG_1483Rabbit rillettes with moist roasted carrot, root veggies, green almonds and sweet buckwheat tuile

What I learned very swiftly after receiving our first dish was that CJ’s artistry comes not so much in orchestrating the wildly creative entree or the ground-breaking and new appetizer, but in treating common dishes with such whimsy and foraging fervor that you are introduced to delightful flavor combinations and gleeful mouthfuls that you were not expecting in the least. Each plate was articulated in what is clearly the chef’s own voice—an earthy and casual simplicity built through completely complex and extraordinary ingredients found in the Angeles National Forest and our own backyards.

IMG_1481Dried fava bean puree with house chorizo, cherry tomato, parsley and grilled flatbread

Everyone who knows me knows how much I am fond of foragers. I constantly make the CG pull over whenever we encounter wild food along the road. It was very cool to see the fruits of Jacobsen’s own treks into the woods on our table such as a slight dusting of citrus yellow fennel pollen on succulent, light pork or the slivered, tart green almonds that spiked and livened our chunks of tender rabbit. A buckwheat tuile immediately had me wanting to think of other ways to use the slightly sweet ingredient in other applications back home like crepes, crusts and spreads. It didn’t surprise me to learn that CJ spent time working for one of my favorites—acclaimed Chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma Restaurant—a hero in the soulful, foraging department.

IMG_1482 Whole fried snapper, crispy greens, fermented Fresno chili,
sauce of kumquat, sorrel and citrus

A highlight of the evening was the whole fried snapper, which arrived with a curved tail as if plucked mid-swish from the lake. Atop a pile of bitter fried greens and alongside a mild sweet sauce, it was a refreshing departure from my fried fish oeuvre of late at Asian restaurants that seem to favor too hot sauces and heavy oils, all of which typically compete with the flakiness of the fish. I would order this one again.

IMG_8222Cute Gardener-grown arugula flowers

After dining at Girasol I spent a Saturday afternoon chomping on arugula flowers in our garden, suddenly seized with the propensity to look at every specimen as a potential ingredient. Much like the leaves, the flowers were peppery but had sweetness mingled with bitterness and smelled slightly like peanut butter.

IMG_8225 My kale, swiss chard, arugula flower, arugula, and mushroom salad with
walnut oil and foraged grapefruit vinaigrette.

That joyous discovery landed in our salad bowls later at dinnertime. CJ’s passion for finding in the field has definitely infected our household in the most positive of ways. It also made me realize that you can find new things constantly, even if you think you are looking in all of the same old places.

 

A Trifle Yummy, a Trifle Strange, and Tator Tots Aplenty at the Tripel

IMG_5612Sweet Potato Tots With Horseradish Honey Mustard & Spiced Aioli
The tator tot textures were imitated perfectly.

I know how it is to be a self-taught human. Although I have been painting and writing since age ten, I’ve never taken a class in either. Sometimes this drives editors crazy yet I continue to get published because literature is simply in my blood. I admire others who are self-taught and excel because I know how it is to forge forward on your own, faltering on colt legs yet led by a passion that knows no bounds as you gather up information and learn as you go. I know that if you follow the road with severity, that passion will find a successful home.

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Black Lentil Soup, Rock Shrimp, Watercress, Lemon
Lentils with cream and brightly saturated citrus overtones bequeathed an eccentric marriage of Thai and Morrocan.

This is one of the reasons I enjoyed watching Brooke Williamson compete on last season’s Top Chef up to the very last minute when my other favorite chef Kristin Kish swooped in to swipe the crown. Even though she’s gone on to gain much experience in the kitchen through privileged internships, a stint as the youngest chef ever to cook in the James Beard House and today as the proud owner of her own restaurants, her culinary wizardry continues to stem from that original and authentic practice of making things up as she goes. What was refreshing about Brooke is what is refreshing about a lot of self-taught people in that they oftentimes don’t play by the rules because they don’t know the rules. What results are bold choices and risky combinations that would be considered taboo by anyone else. In these taboos brilliance often springs forth unexpectedly. That happened a lot over the season, emphasized perhaps most remarkably in her wildly wacky yet widely extolled dish of frog legs and mussels.

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Red Kuri Squash Dumplings Brussels Sprouts, Tangy Mushrooms, Chimay Cheese Sauce
Mushrooms and cheese and a foreign squash – do they mix? In some bites I thought yes, in some bites I thought no. Loved the Brussels sprouts and the hen of the woods fungi. Little freaked out by the beer cheese sauce. Bizarre comfort food or drunken mash to soak up alcohol when the taste buds have gone? Couldn’t stop eating it but still not sure.

This past weekend the Cute Gardener and I took a trip down to Playa Del Rey to try out her restaurant The Tripel. We were hoping to find some of her creative combinations and both hankering over the idea of the sweet potato tater tot appetizer. What we found was a tiny little joint, concrete grey with lots of cool alphabet carved wood, and only a few communal tables around a miniscule bar crisp with the bustle of beach dwellers in the spring. Although very early in the evening, it filled up moments after we scored the end of an eight-person tallboy table.

A nice selection of wine was available by the glass and we enjoyed the following:
2008 Mas Grand Plagniol Syrah-Grenache Blend, Rhone, France
2009 Berger Zweigelt, Niederosterreich, Austria
2010 Broc Carignane, Alexander Valley, California
2006 Rozak Syrah, Sta. Rita Hills, California

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Charred Quail, Wilted Pea Greens, Vine Ripe Olives, Pomegranate, Saba
TWO birds on one plate! LOVED the pomegranate infused pea greens in both creativity and taste – something I want to steal and make at home although am baffled as to how.

The prices were noticeably miniscule in context to the very large portions of food not normally found in a bar setting. The dishes, although verging on the strange, were indeed extremely innovative. I left wondering about Brooke’s self taught palate, where the origins of it formed, where the inspirations for her peculiar combinations were born, and whether she was truly materializing strategic concepts or whether an “all in the kitchen sink” approach was more of the norm – sometimes hitting gold and sometimes hitting dirt. And, if in her seemingly chaotic, inspired world, her paying customers really should be the guinea pigs dabbing their forks into her culinary Petri dish?

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Chicken Waterzooi Heirloom Carrots, Leeks, Kale, Potato Latka, Fenugreek, Gremolata
Super delicious pot of multicultural yum. This is what I wish all those people trying to deconstruct a chicken tagine would end up with. My favorite of the evening.

The verdict is still out for me. I look forward to watching what she does next and if she will continue to refine her process towards gaining that other crucial trait the self-taught eventually need to learn as they mature – the ability to edit and curate.