Monday, April 30, 2007

HFF On The Road: West Hollywood, Ca

It's the middle of the day. A and I are speeding down I-5 somewhere in the nothing between there and here. Gadgets are going--iPod run through the Alpine stereo deck. Checking email on cell phones. GPS comically informing us that we're on I-5 for some 200 more miles or so--the map on the display showing a road straighter than khakis on a minister. But where we're headed is far from straight--we're headed for the orgy of sights and sounds that is California's soulless heart, Los Angeles.

We're both excited. Months of California Cuisine and pudgy foodies with unkempt beards and stringy grey-brown hair have left us weak. We're hungry. We're hungry for old-school cooking. Places where seasonality is second to presentation and flavor. Where you eat a $10 burger on a $200 plate inside a million dollar restaurant in a 30 million dollar hotel that has silver bean bag chairs in the bedrooms for reasons that nobody knows and nobody cares to. It's just cool.

Hollywood's not our first stop--we pick up J in Marina del Rey and head out for Mexican food. This is where I'll disagree with my SoCal friends. Admittedly LA has good Mexican food, but they claim there's no good Mexican in the Bay Area. I tell them there's just no good Mexican in Berkeley, Oakland, or San Francisco. Head to San Jose. Parts of Fremont and Hayward (Salvadorean food too!). Or get your ass out to farm country or up to the Anderson Valley. I will admit that a trip to LA without some Mexican food would be like a trip to Mexico without vomiting on a donkey painted like a zebra.

Where did we go? We went to El Cholo. Something of an institution it seems--it was "the first" Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, so we can thank it for introducing California-ized Mexican on an unsuspecting population. They claim to have invented nachos. They claim to have introduced the "premium" Margarita. With all this self-promotion I wasn't expecting much. But honestly? It was pretty fucking good. Tender carnitas, black beans, and grilled veggies--a generous portion without overdoing it. One odd note? The tortilla chips were stale and seemed like they came from a bag--heresy when even the smallest taquerias in the Mission fry their own chips.

The evening continued in Santa Monica at the lounge at the World Cafe on Main Street. Dark stylish bar area with a lot of cushy chairs, large milf-y clientele eating tapas and drinking enormous cocktails. We got a bottle of wine (LA has terrible wine lists, fyi), drank, and chatted up our waitress (who I think was a frequent user of something that rhymes with lo-caine).

It was late, so we crashed early--preparing ourselves for what we knew would be a day and a night to remember.

We left J's early the next morning and headed into Hollywood. Shopping on Melrose first of course. There is no better place for buying cheap(ish) boutique-y men's clothes than Melrose Ave around Fairfax or so. I bought pointy blue shoes with faux snakeskin accents. They're pretty rad. Bartering for designer clothes with sketchy Eastern Europeans is the best thing ever.

We stopped for breakfast/lunch a BluJam cafe, a new-ish spot on Melrose run by a Czech-immigrant who brings a vague Eastern Bloc sensibility to conventional breakfast fair. Everything was well-made and fresh. The Wrap on Fire (essentially a veggie-heavy chipotle breakfast burrito) was great, though barely spicy. Of particular note was the fruit plate side--the fruit included at most cheap brunch spots is watery cantaloupe and bitter strawberries. BluJam's was a generous bowl of fresh berries and surprisingly not watery cantaloupe. Nice touch.

After spending far too long contemplating the purchase of a t-shirt with a venetian blind print complete with a pull cord, we headed further down Melrose into West Hollywood where we checked into The Standard (flip over) Hotel.

We were greeted at the front desk and politely informed that we had been upgraded to the suite. I have no idea why, but we were. Probably because I used my Gold Card. That must be it. A and I could barely contain our laughter as we walked down the hall and into the elevator, getting off at the third floor. We then laughed out loud as we realized we were walking to the very last room on the corner.

You know that episode of Entourage where Drama is held over the balcony at The Standard by Saigon's new manager? Yeah, we were in that room. Three balconies. Two rooms. A twenty square foot shower with three (three) shower heads and no door. It was pretty much the most ridiculous thing ever--though not ridiculous enough to warrant the $500/night rate for the room. But a steal at the rate we were paying.

A had to leave to go buy an undershirt so I grabbed my computer and headed down poolside to check my email along with all the other beautiful people. I was the only one without an iBook. Hrm.

Got some sake, french fries, and shrimp cocktail from the hotel's 24-hour cafe to enjoy. I charged it to my room. That's fun to do. A little bit too fun.

J met up with me for a bit before heading to his martial arts class. He pointed out that Shaun White was playing ping pong across the pool from us. That was cool. Unfortunately excess breeziness prevented too much bikini-age poolside, but that was alright. I wasn't in town for that.

The french fries were nice. The shrimp cocktail was okay, but the horseradish-y cocktail sauce was tasty (particularly with the french fries). Sake was nice.

Here's the secret to drinking in LA.... DRINK WINE! Every place I drank, even The Standard with its $12 cocktails had a simple, reasonably priced wine list. Glasses were generous too. You're not going to get anything ridiculous or unusual, but you're going to get pleasant wines at competitive prices. LA seems to be the town that wine forgot. I recognized pretty much every single wine on every wine list I found. Basic Napa and French heavy-hitters and then mid to higher-end supermarket wines. You're getting the crowd that's looking to conspicuously consume so you offer labels that people know. It's odd.

8:30 rolled around and A and I had the concierge get us a cab to take us to the French Laundry of Japanese-fusion cuisine, Matsuhisa.

Nobu's flagship restaurant is located in a fairly nondescript storefront near Beverly Center in Beverly Hills. Once inside we were ushered to two spots at the private sushi bar (once again, we're not sure why). Basically, we avoid the main dining room and the big main sushi bar and get to sit at an eight person bar with our own chef and two cooks preparing every dish right in front of us. I'm not talking teppanyaki style, I'm talking sushi bar style.

I ordered a nice pouilly-fuisse (but even Matsuhisa had a middling wine list by my standards) and we got the seven course menu.

First up was the signature amuse--yellowtail tartare with caviar and maui onion soy sauce. Fucking amazing. Honestly. Texture was gorgeous, flavors were intense without being overbearing.

Next came a pair of appetizers, the Maine lobster ceviche (another signature dish) and a little plate of raw red snapper that had hot olive oil poured over it. The ceviche was tart without overpowering the lobster flavor and the lobster popped like it had been cooked. The hot oil mostly cooks the red snapper and aromatizes a lot of the flavors while tempering snapper's fishiness.

Next, the sashimi course. The various douche bags who post on Yelp! had one consistent criticism of Matsuhisa--that the cooked food was great, but in terms of sushi and sashimi you could get better for cheaper at any number of places in LA. I've been to a couple of those places and I've eaten some of the freshest fish in the Bay Area and Hawaii and Matsuhisa's quality was unparallelled. The freshest tasting tuna, salmon, kampachi, halibut, and hirage that I've had. Katsu-ya in Studio City was pretty damn good, but Matsuhisa had the edge in terms of fish quality. The hearts of palm salad with the sashimi was also pretty fucking great too.

Next up, Santa Barbara Spot Prawns two-ways. One was wrapped in kataifi and deep-fried, the other was grilled whole and halved. The fried prawn was the best shrimp-type-thing I've ever had. The grilled one was decent though unremarkable. Perhaps appealing in its exoticism to those dining at Matsuhisa, but come on! Who in Berkeley hasn't had a grilled-in-the-shell prawn before?

On to the meat, or rather more fish and meat. Mushrooms and onions sauteed in cast iron skillets and then one topped with a generous chunk of bluefin toro, the other with a generous chunk of kobe beef. They were virtually indistinguishable as the perfectly integrated fat popped out in each bite, the toro and the beef literally melting away in our mouths. The onions were as good as onions get and the mushrooms cooked to near crispness in broth and fat.

The final savory course was the sushi course. At our request we got octopus as well as shrimp, more tuna, and some sort of clam. The rice is kept warm and just enough real wasabi is added to each piece to pique the freshness of what was some pretty damn fresh fish. The octopus was incredibly tender.

Before dessert we ordered a few a la carte items--clean, fresh abalone and slightly fishy saba (the only misstep). And just to see how it was, we got the ankimo. It was absolutely retarded. Not the slightest bit fishy, mild and creamy. The closest to foie gras that I've ever tasted from monkfish liver.

Though the dessert options were pretty standard fare (something you'd see on the menu at say Cheesecake Factory), the banana spring roll and chocolate souffle cakes were perfectly executed. Not too sweet or cloying. Just good.

We finished up our meal with a small bottle of sake that was aged for ten years while music is played (that's all we know, it's what the menu said). Good stuff.

I'll admit it was the most expensive meal of my life by a hefty margin, but I'd have to say that it was pretty damn close to the best meal I've ever had (if not the best). And loyal readers will remember that I'm not one to equate cost with quality. Service was attentive without being invasive, the chef was engaging, and the food was executed virtually flawlessly. Was it seasonal? Not particularly. Was it local (or even Californian)? Not entirely. But who cares? It was delicious.

We caught a cab back to the hotel and met up with friends poolside for more drinks. And then back in the room for more drinks. Then out on Sunset for more drinks.

Good times.

Next morning we relaxed at the hotel until the generous checkout time of 2PM. Had breakfast poolside. I had really tasty housemade granola and A had the brioche french toast. We charged it to our room.

We had the valet bring the car around and headed out to Westwood where we picked up K for a trip to the Getty. Not much to say about the Getty. There were paintings and sculptures. Good coffee at one of the kiosks. Some nice German expressionist paintings.

Headed back down into Westwood and grabbed K's fiancee L and met up with R over at Versailles, a SoCal mini-chain of Cuban restaurants. What does that mean? Pork and plantains and a lot of it. For the price it was pretty damn good. I had what was sort of the Cuban take on carnitas. The meat was tender and flavorful, well spiced with a garlic marinade. The fried plantains were suprisingly sweet and accompanied with some nice spicy black beans. Just solid tasty inexpensive stuff from a cuisine other than Mexican or Chinese.

Hung out in Westwood with the other high school kids for a while, grabbing some frozen yogurt at Pinkberry, a new hip spot. My companions couldn't get over how tart the yogurt was. I kept trying to point out that it was frozen yogurt, and thus should be tart instead of the usual over-sugared ersatzicecream that is most establishments' take on frozen yogurt.

We finished with bowling in Venice and a stop off at Johnnie's Pastrami. Didn't have anything to eat because we were still stuffed, but the massive hot pastrami sandwiches looked pretty fucking great.

We hit the road early because, well, we had places to be and things to do back north that evening but I was left strikingly satisfied with my dining in LA. Everything was cooked nicely and it was all tasty and home-y. Perhaps LA's over-concern about style and appearances can be a good thing with food. Instead of getting all academic and cerebral with cardoon and late-season heirloom tomatoes, the food just puts its tits and ass on display and gives you the culinary lap dance that we all secretly crave.

Bay Area food is a long night of enriching, stimulating conversation. Los Angeles food is a hot cloakroom fuck between parties. Both serve their own unique purpose.

You should enjoy both in moderation.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

HFF Has Lunch: A16

A16 has been a restaurant I've been wanting to try for a very long time. Southern Italian food, what I'm told is the best pizza in town, and a great wine list. I found myself in the Marina early for a meeting and was pleasantly suprised to find that it's open for lunch Wednesday-Friday. I dropped in, sat at the kitchen counter, and had lunch.

Great space, though with an awkward entry--you head in and the bar's on the right but there's no discernible host station which was initially problematic as I waded through the restaurant trying to find out what to do. I was greeted finally by a friendly hostess and I took a seat at the kitchen counter. Nice Italian wine list with some big name California wines thrown in to placate Marina blue hairs. Had an excellent glass of Sagana Nero d'Avola bright and fruity but with a warm dryness that was excellent.

First up was ravioli of beet greens and sausage with braised rabbit. Fucking great. Unlike other ravioli incarnations that have a drop of filling ungulfed by thin floppy pasta, these ravioli were stuffed with bright red filling and the pasta was nice, thick and al dente. The light broth and tender rabbit was great. Simple and elegant but still packed a lot of flavor.

Next I had the quattro formaggio pizza with wild arugula. Probably the best pizza I've had. I still say Pizzeria Delfina has a better crust, but the combination of cheeses and the fresh wild arugula thrown on the pizza right out of the oven was fantastic--once again, simple and elegant but with a lot of flavor. The delightful pasta cook in the kitchen offered me some fried calabrian chiles to put on the pizza, those added a nice earthiness and kick that bumped the pizza up from interesting to awesome.

As a side note, A16's entirely open kitchen meant that a cook threw a whole cleaned and skinned lamb up on the prep counter to butcher, in full view of the dining room. Pretty awesome.

The limited lunch menu was so good I need to get back for dinner where more than just a few primi and pizzas are offered.

Friendly low-key staff too--in fact one of the more pleasant solo dining experiences I've had.

Not particularly cheap, but I left stuffed to the gills.

Chestnut at Divisadero
Reservations: 415-771-2216 or

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Diner Etiquette: Those First Moments

Ever wondered what your servers are thinking when you sit down to eat? How they size you up? What they hope you do or don't do?

When you come into a restaurant everyone there is making a quick initial assessment. How you behave when you walk into a restaurant until you place your order will affect the entire rest of your evening.

So.... what should you do?

First: DO NOT SEAT YOURSELF! Unless the restaurant has a sign that says "please seat yourself." This includes directing the host to the table at which you would like to sit. This is one of the biggest pet peeves in the business. A restaurant needs to maximize its usable space, which means that seats can't be wasted. There are reservations coming in as well as server loads to consider (you can't seat 5 tables at once in one server's section). I know it may look like the restaurant is empty now, but it'll probably fill up while you're dining. Plus if one couple takes up a table for four, all of a sudden you have to let every couple take up a large table.

Honestly folks, a table for two is enough room for two people. If the size of a table really concerns you to the point of consternation, go see a fucking psychiatrist. And if a restaurant honeslty doesn't have big enough tables, mention it to management. Enough complaints, things will change.

As a side note, before you bitch about a table you're seated at, take a quick look around and make sure there actually are other open tables. I can't tell you how many times I've seated somebody at the only open table (usually one of the worst in the restaurant) and been asked if we have something else. No, we don't have anything else. See?

Second: Sit down, read your menu, and be patient. Bread and water will come. As an aside, don't ask for water with no ice. If ice causes you pain and disomfort to the point of consternation, just give up and get some dentures. Just wait the ten minutes for the ice to melt and move on with your life. Anyway, remember: your waiter will come. I promise. So Take this time to READ THE GODDAMN MENU. Read everything, make note of questions or curiosities. Look at both sides of the menu. Find the wine list. Read the wine list. Decide what you want to do for wine (glasses, bottle, cocktails). Make note of beverage questions. Reading the menu is very important (think of it like reading all the answers to a test question before responding). I've had people order smoked salmon that clearly said "smoked salmon" on the menu and then send it back because they didn't realize it was smoked. Seriously.

Third: When your waiter arrives, just remember that he's just there to check in. A good waiter will usually arrive at your table about five minutes after you're seated (if it's not overly busy). He's not there to take your order (though if you're ready, great), he's there to find out any immediate issues and questions, and to get a drink order. If you're not ready, fine and dandy. A polite "oh, no questions yet we just need some more time" is all you need say. Don't flustered and flighty. This will indicate you as a crazy. But do ask questions if you have them, just make sure, once again, you've read the menu. Don't ask what kind of fish is in the stew if it SAYS ON THE FUCKING MENU WHAT KIND OF FISH IS IN THE STEW. Don't ask if you can substitute chicken if there's no chicken on the menu.

Fourth: Once your questions are answered and your wine is poured, order quickly and concisely. Don't call your server over because you're ready to order and then hem and haw through the menu for five minutes. Don't declare that you're ready to order if half of your party isn't. Order when you're ready to order, ask questions and deliberate until then. This makes you feel less rushed and your server has a chance to do something than just stand at the side of your table eyeing your wife, which means better service for everyone else in the restaurant. Also, order everything when you know what you want. Inform your server if you'd like to "take it slow" or inform your server if you're in a hurry. He can pace your meal appropriately. But there's nothing more annoying than a table that insists on sitting on their menus and order course by course (even though they know what they want) just so they can "pace" their own dinner. A good waiter will be able to do it for you and if he has your whole order it makes it easier for him to coordinate everything on a busy night.

If you follow these basic steps, your server will assess that you're a friendly and savvy diner. The waiter's going to care about you more and make you a higher priority on a busy night.

One last side note. Here are the signs that a waiter looks for to determine if you're ready to order (don't do these things if you're not):
1. Your menus are on the table, off to the side.
2. You're no longer looking at the menus after having looked at them.
3. You're looking up and around the restaurant.

There you have it. Take a deep breath, read your menu, and prepare to enjoy your evening.