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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Riva - Jason Travi's New Restaurant in Santa Monica, CA

312 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA

On October 28, Riva opened it's doors for the first time. Hours are 11:30 am to midnight, 7 days a week. However, the first two weeks will have a special schedule of 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm from Mon-Thur, and open til midnight on Fri-Sat.

Jason Travi's newest Italian restaurant features a decor that's a bit more upscale than that of his first child, Fraiche. On one side, there's a bar that seems a bit less approachable than the lively and welcoming bar at Fraiche; on the other, a pizza bar.

We stopped by a few days ago simply because of our love of Fraiche. We first got wind of Riva's impending opening 6 months ago during a conversation with Chef Travi. He was apparently having difficulty getting served at his bar one night, so he sat and talked to us for 45 minutes.

Upon seating, we decided on the following:

Geoduck, orange, watercress, mint, basil seeds

The raw geoduck slices were really tender and sweet, and the orange royales and basil seeds really worked well.

House made head cheese

Simply amazing with the fattiness cut by the radish slices.

Roasted quail, farrow, butternut squash, pistachio pesto

Tender roasted quail on farro...beautifully tender and flavorful.

Pignoli pizza made with pine nut, tomato, smoked pancetta and reggiano

Interesting pizza. Couldn't taste the pine nuts, but the pancetta was great.

Tradicionale pizza made with proscuitto, arugula, and pecorino romano

Best pizza of the night. The proscuitto and arugala were fantastic. Also noteworthy, the three pizzas we did have had inconsistency in the dough. The crust for this pizza was close to perfection, but the others were chewy.

Bianca pizza with spinach, ricotta and pecorino romano

House made ricotta with spinach. Slightly browned ricotta was delicious, but the spinach left something to be desired. The crust on this pizza was lacking...too chewy.

Considering there were only three of us, and none of us were hungry, I think we did a good job.

Riva did a good job too, I would say. New restaurant jitters and the need for some time to get things down were evident, but not glaring deficiencies. Service was decent and food just a tad under great. Like a fine wine from Chef Travi's list...a little time and it'll be great.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Food Event: From the Vine, Oct. 26, 2008

Here's a quick post about a food event this weekend.

The Facts:

Presented by: The Los Angeles Magazine
When: Sunday, October 26th 1 - 5 pm.
Where: Saddlerock Ranch, 31727 Mulholland Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265
Restrictions: Must be 21 and over (sorry parents, this means no kids) and no pets.
Tickets: Advance Tickets:$60, Day of Tickets:$75. Tickets can be purchased here. Type in foodevent08 for a $10 discount when purchasing the tickets online - tip courtesy of HC of L.A. and O.C. Foodventures. Thanks HC!
Charities benefited: $20 of each ticket will be shared between two non-profits - Los Angeles Regional Foodbank and Concern Foundation

Who should go:

Anyone interested in celebrity cooking demonstrations with highlights to include the likes of the two dudes of Animal, Nancy Silverton of Mozza, and Top Chef Season 3 Chris "CJ" Jacobson.

Anyone who wants to sample cuisine from restaurants such as Café Rodeo at Luxe Hotel, Chaya, Dakota Steakhouse, The Foundry on Melrose, Four Seasons Westlake Village, Frida Restaurant, Joss, La Cachette, La Provence Patisserie, Luxe Hotel Sunset Blvd, Saddle Peak Lodge, Tra de Noi, and Paperfish.

Anyone who wants to taste wine from 337 Cellars, Gnarly Head Cellars, HammerSky Vineyards, Irony Napa Valley, Kenwood Vineyards, Lake Sonoma Winery, Loredona, Peju Province Winery, Raymond Vineyards, Saddlerock, Semler, Valley of the Moon Winery, Vina Robles and more.

Anyone who wants to talk to experts about cheese and wine pairing, selecting beer and wines and other food trends.

More information can be found on the LA Magazine website and press release.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How to Eat Pho

This post is intended for those who have wanted to try this popular dish but may have been a bit intimidated by all the garnishments and meat choices encountered at pho restaurants in the U.S. To the rest, who already know it well, you can keep me in check.

Pho is one of the most beloved Vietnamese dishes. Pho (pronounced "fuh") to most Americans means Vietnamese beef noodle soup but that is technically beef pho or pho bo. There is also chicken pho and lesser known pork pho. Beef pho is the bridge for many Americans when it comes to trying Vietnamese food as numerous pho houses have popped up in cities across the nation. I am always pleasantly surprised when someone tells me they’ve become addicted to this traditional dish. To me the pho broth has magical, restorative benefits - it is the first meal I want after a weary trip, the cure for a hangover, and the perfect meal on a cold night.

Pho gets its distinctly sweet, savory flavors from hours of stewing beef bones with charred onion and ginger and a cheesecloth of spices ranging from cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and black cardamom - in combinations that vary from chef to chef. Each person's broth is different and distinguishes one pho house from another.

Trying pho for the first time in Vietnam might actually be simplest. When I was back in Hanoi recently there wasn’t a list of five meats and twenty combinations to figure out. You simply ordered pho and then a bowl appears before you as you sit on a small stool and eat in an open restaurant. However, in the U.S. some pho menus are a full page long with several permutations of the various meat combinations for each bowl.

If you’ve decided to try pho and have now found your way to a small neighborhood restaurant, you’ll most likely open the menu and see words and meat combinations you don’t understand. Well let’s walk through it now.

The Meats - Here are all the different meat options:

Tai- rare eye of round steak (served rare but cooked by the broth)
Chin – well done lean meat
Nam – well done flank
Gau – fat brisket
Gan – soft tendon
Sach – tripe
Ve Don –skirt flank
Bo vien – beef meatballs

To the beginner I suggest starting with pho tai, the simplest pho with rare beef. It is the most approachable. Pho tai is made by assembling cuts of rare beef on top of rice noodles in a bowl. The rare beef is cooked when the boiling broth is ladled into the bowl. (Some folks request the rare beef on the side so that they can add it to their bowl themselves – ensuring that the meat remains barely cooked). Pho tai nam or tai chin is the next suggestion giving a bit more variation to simple pho tai with the addition of well done lean meat or flank. I prefer the tai nam to the tai chin because the chin meat tends to be more dry. If you want to dive in and try them all, then the pho dac biet (literally, special pho) order generally includes all the different cuts of meat. The bo vien is chewy and fun to eat. Sometimes you can specify plain bo vien or bo vien gan (meatballs with bits of tendon for extra texture). Also you should know that you can request any combination of the available meats at a pho restaurant, even if they are not among the enumerated No. 1 through No. 20 combinations provided for you on the menu. This is usually fine and accepted as each bowl is made to order. At the end of the day what you choose to include depends on your personal taste.

The Broth – You can actually specify the kind of broth you want for your pho. The broth is referred to simply as nuoc pho (literally, pho water). For the nuoc pho, you can request nuoc beo (fatty broth) or nuco cham (clear broth).

The Noodles – Pho is eaten with rice noodles called banh pho. Banh pho can vary in width from a thin 5mm noodle to a toothier 1cm or more. Generally a pho restaurant offers one kind of banh pho and it is not something you can specify. However, there are some that offer fresh banh pho which tends to be of the wider variety. I prefer the fresh banh pho and recommend trying it if you are at a restaurant that offers it.

The Accoutrements – Before I get to the many things you can do to customize your pho experience, you will find that a bowl of pho already comes garnished with scallions, sliced onions, and cilantro. I mention this only because some people have an aversion to cilantro (although, I personally think it is one of most wonderful herbs on the planet). You will find this sensitivity recognized at many Korean pho restaurants, where they will “warn” customers that pho has cilantro and allow you to order it without.

Now onto the garnishments and condiments. After you’ve ordered your bowl, a plate is brought to the table containing: bean sprouts, Thai basil, sliced chili peppers, lime wedges and sometimes saw herb.

On the table you’ll also find: hot chili sauce (typically Sriracha sauce), Hoisin sauce, black pepper, and fish sauce.

Before you start putting things in I suggest trying the broth first. See what it tastes like and note how it changes with what you add.

Now what to add? Here’s where a bit of history helps. Pho originated in Northern Vietnam and there the people tend to be purists. The only thing they add to pho is lime, chili sauce, and sometimes Thai basil. Their philosophy is that the broth is the focus of this dish and less is more when it comes to messing with it. As someone who is Northern Vietnamese, I try not to wince when someone adds Hoisin sauce or bean sprouts into their bowl as those will completely overpower the broth’s beefy flavor. That said, do what you like.

When adding the herbs it is nice to shred them to release their flavors. A dash of black pepper will provide some spice. I add sliced chili peppers instead of the Sriracha to give spiciness without altering too much of the broth. However, either is fine. A squeeze of lime is a must as the tanginess is a nice balance to the richness of the broth. If the broth is too salty, more lime can mellow it further. I like the flavor of Hoisin sauce and Sriracha but I don’t like the way it overpowers the broth. So I use one of the small dipping plates and squirt a bit of each onto it for dipping my meats. This way the broth remains as pure as possible.

For the Advanced - Never on the menu but always ordered by my parents is a side dish of hang giam (sliced onions soaked in vinegar) or hang tran (green onion bulbs blanched in pho broth). I’ve only eaten pho with hang giam and find that it is a nice way to cut the fattiness of the beef broth. If you order it, you can add a bit of sugar and lime juice to the onions to temper the flavors and then mix in some hot chili sauce.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ryugin-Michelin 2 star in Japan better than 3 star in California?

Roppongi 7-17-24
Roppongi Building 1F

6 pm- 2 am daily, closed Sundays

On my recent visit to Tokyo, I had the task of choosing one great meal. Initially, my intention was to explore the finest dining Tokyo had to offer over three nights and three amazing dinners. However, my plans changed and I felt it best to cut it down to just one. I still took advantage of Tokyo's great cuisine...I just wasn't able to fully utilize the list of Michelin rated restaurants I received from Kevin, of kevineats.com.

After a bit of soul searching, I decided on Ryugin. Per my research(and a generous helping hand from Thi), I found that Chef Seiji Yamamoto presented a non traditional kaiseke meal. I secured a 6:00 pm reservation and showed up on Ryugin's doorstep on my second night in Tokyo.

Upon seating, I was presented with two different meal options. The first, for about 21,000 yen, looked quite good. The second, for 27,650 yen, looked quite similar, with the main difference being an offering of Ryugin's House Special Soft-Shelled Turtle Soup. My waiter, Takeo, was extremely responsible and immediately relayed his concerns that Americans usually didn't like the soup. So...I opted for the meal with the turtle soup.

I proceeded to go over the sake menu, and Takeo came up with two great sakes to go with my food.

We started with an Ichiaban Dashi Soup with puree of Maitake mushrooms and conger eel.

The soup was slightly tangy and a fantastic start to the meal. Hidden in the soup was a nice piece of conger eel that gave a textural parade in my mouth. I was then presented with a deep fried sea urchin wrapped in seaweed.

The uni was accompanied by slightly seasoned sliced of Matsutake mushrooms and spinach. Lightly battered, it was rich and smooth. Next, we had Aichi figs with port flavored foie gras terrine and sesame cream.

This picture doesn't do it justice. The terrine was silky smooth and delicately flavored. The figs were tender and a bit sweet. The combination, with the sesame cream, was absolute heaven.

Each bite melted in my mouth and I began to realize the depth of the Chef's skills and culinary knowledge.

After this bit of heaven, the dish I'd been waiting for all night came. Blue japanese swimming crab meat and Shanghai River crab eggs, on top of tender abalone. The crab was topped with apple vinager gelee.

The last time I had Shanghai River crab eggs was 25 years ago in China. I remember begging my parents to bring back some crabs each time they went back for 4 or 5 years after that. The chef added the Japanese Blue Swimmer crabmeat because the meat of the Shanghai River crab lacks in flavor. With the tender and sweet abalone, I felt like I could have died and been happy. This dish was everything I could have ever wanted in a last meal. I contemplated begging for one more serving, but refrained.

The next dish was the infamous soft-shelled turtle soup. Meat from the turtle was minced and wrapped in napa cabbage, making meatballs in the soup. A piece of turtle skin topped it all.

The soup was encapsulated with the flavor imparted by fried leeks. Overall, this was thought provoking and...weird. Good, but strange. I've been trying to figure out how to describe the flavors, but I can't. I'm just happy I was able to try something so different.
The next dish was an assortment of sashimi.

We had saury, Japanese bluefin toro, slightly seared lobster claw meat from the English Channel, and Japanese squid topped with incredible Beluga caviar. Each offering was the best I'd ever had. The chef came out and poured the house made soy himself. This is where I learned he was only the tender age of 38. I praised him on his grasp of food, secretly hoping he would hook me up.

The next dish was Japanese ankimo with house made tofu.

Never have I had ankimo that had no hint of fishiness, and such a pleasant sweetness. At this point, I truly felt like I was on a journey. Next was a chargrilled seaperch.

The fish was encrusted with rice that was crisped. The image of the fish was actually sauce that I was instructed to rub the fish into. Freeze dried tofu and lotus root rounded out the flavors of the dish.

The next dish was Japanese pigeon.

The rare pigeon meat, with its slight game-like taste, was thought provoking and, quite frankly, close to being the best dish of the night. If it wasn't for memories of Shanghai crab eggs, this would be the deal maker. Paired with soy mash topped with seasonal white truffle shavings, this gorgeous dish made me rethink life. The generous portion of white truffle shavings completely engulfed its aroma into the soy mash. I immediately promised myself to shop for white truffles as soon as I returned($250 a truffle on the internet. I'm rethinking my posture on the issue)

The last savory dish served was a chargrilled Pacific Saury and shaved chestnut form Kyoto, on rice, with miso soup.

The saury was a bit fishy, but paired with the charred skin and the salty miso, this dish was quite good. I'd like to think this dish was better than I remembered, but every single dish prior to this was awe inspiring, and this dish fell a bit short of that.

Now we had the finishing touches, to cleanse the palate and to enrichen the tongue.

Ginger gelee made with six degrees pressure with fresh Asian pears. The ginger gelee bubbled from the CO2. The flavor was overwhelmingly strong of ginger, but was tempered nicely by the pear.

Caramel ice cream with 'Wasnbon Sugar'. Served with grated milk curd and a genmai tea on the side(not pictured). The caramel ice cream, topped with what was essentially dried condensed milk shavings, was familiar, yet new. The shavings melted on my tongue along with the ice cream, and left a slightly burnt sugar flavor.

Baked yuzu and orange cake, served on a red maple leaf presentation. The cake, slightly tangy, slightly sweet, was an amazing finish to this culinary journey. Slight hints of orange peel, with the tartness of yuzu, balanced well on the palate, and left me refreshed.

Overall, this was a thought provoking meal that took me on a journey I'd never been on before. This was an excercise on the use of the best ingredients available, not only in Japan, but in the world. It was a meeting of old world kaiseke with new world ingredients that included the implementation of state of the art tactics and new world flavor combinations, along with classic pairings.

So the question comes to mind...is a Michelin 2 star in Japan better than a Michelin 3 star in California? My answer is juvenile, at best, as I've only been to one 3 star in California, and one 2 star in Japan. But based on my minimal experience, I would give a resounding yes. Maybe my tastes have something to do with it...I've grown up with many of these Asian flavors. To pair them with my favorite non-Asian flavors, and to do it successfully, makes me think so. Ryugin was an eye opener, and 8 days later, I'm still smiling at the memories of that crabmeat on my tongue.