Saturday, June 28, 2008

HFF Quickie: That Superfluous "S"

Why the fuck do people add an "S" to the end of so many goddamn restaurants' names? In Berkeley, you went to "Cesar's," "Fonda's," or "Zuni's."

And yet, strangely one of the few restaurants that actually had a possessive "S" in the name, Lalime's was often called simply "Lalime."

In LA, it's "Ugo's," "Bastide's," and "Pintxo's."

Why can't we just call something what it's named? There is no Cesar or Bastide to own the restaurant. It's not Pintxo's Bar, it's Bar Pintxo. It's not Humperdinck Fonda's Solana, it's Fonda Solana.

It's okay to end a word on a vowel or soft consonant. Really, I promise.

Changing the name of an establishment for your own linguistic convenience is on par with calling somebody by a name they don't want to go by. It's sort of an unintentionally asshole-y East Coast/Midwest habit that masquerades as friendly or quaint.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

HFF Tells You: How to Dress for Going Out to Dinner

There was a time when getting dressed for dinner meant putting on your dinner jacket or evening gown and sitting down at a tastefully appointed table to be served grey meat and table-side Caesar salad by closeted homosexuals.

Thankfully times have changed, especially in California where the line between "fine" and "casual" dining is very very blurry and where one's appearance is judged on fashion and style rather than "appropriateness" and formality.

And where our waiters are out and proud.

There are some basic rules for what to wear when going out to dinner, and I now set them forth thusly for posterity.

I'll be speaking mostly about what men should wear, since I don't really know too much about women's fashion and men, generally speaking, need the most help in dressing for dinner. A couple basic rules for women:

1. When in doubt, wear a dress. I don't care if it's a gown or a cute little retro hipster thing, you'll always look good in a dress that fits you.

2. Strappy tops, skinny jeans, and stiletto heals are for the club and/or going out for cosmos with your girlfriends after seeing Sex and the City, not for dinner. Seriously, you don't look like Miranda, you look like a tramp.

On to the men:

1. A well-made solid colored t-shirt, stylish jeans, nice shoes, and a sweater or sport coat will work in 99% of instances.

2. Shoes are key. If you're going to wear sneakers they need to be distinctive and scuff-free. No jogging shoes or hiking boots (unless you're a lesbian). And don't wear black leather oxfords to dinner. Save those for the office.

3. If you're going to wear a sport coat and jeans, make sure you're wearing a true sport coat, not a suit jacket. It looks terrible. If you're to wear a t-shirt and sport coat, wear a very casual sport coat. Something made from cotton with patch pockets or vaguely safari-style is good. You can also opt for something nice but unconventional like a workman's jacket, Eisenhower jacket, or unadorned leather jacket. Wool jackets should pretty much always be worn with a collared shirt.

4. Unless you want to look like a 70 year-old man, never under any circumstances tuck any shirt other than your undershirt into your jeans. There are many nice collared shirts available that are darted and square-cut for this purpose. Do not wear a belt with your jeans if you can avoid it. Conversely, always tuck your shirt in (and wear a belt) if you're wearing slacks to dinner.

5. If you wear a jacket to dinner, leave your jacket on at the table. Especially if you are dining with a lady.

6. Do your research. If you're going out to dinner at night in the city at a restaurant with white tablecloths where you think you'll be spending $50+ a person on dinner, you can never go wrong with a jacket and tie. Period. Nobody's going to think you're cool because you went to the French Laundry in your True Religion jeans and English Laundry shirt you freakin' douche bag (see Women's Rule #2)! At any nice restaurant after dark you'll never be out of place in a jacket and tie. And you can always take off your tie and unbutton your shirt a couple buttons if you really do feel overdressed.

7. No shorts, no short-sleeved button-up shirts (just roll up your sleeves man!), no sweatpants, no athletic gear/sports team/designer logo t-shirts (go either solid/pattern or hipster ironic), no Velcro (ever), no sandals with socks, no white socks, no parkas/ski jackets/any coat you'd buy at REI or the North Face, no $5 digital watches (unless chosen very deliberately as part of a campy/ironic ensemble or featuring a calculator), no baseball/trucker hats , and no hats in general worn at the table.

Most importantly...

8. Dress consistently! Just because you're wearing slacks and a collared shirt doesn't mean you're "dressed up" and just because you're wearing jeans and a t-shirt doesn't mean you don't look "nice." These are standards that have been set for people under the age of fourteen and should remain such. Don't wear your dirty scuffed Rockports with a jacket and tie and don't wear Allen Edmonds bluchers with jeans and a t-shirt. Don't wear a long-tailed dress shirt untucked with jeans and don't tuck a pastel "South Lake Tahoe, California" t-shirt into your khakis.

But if you must tuck your novelty t-shirt into slacks, at least have the decency to complete the ensemble with an appropriate woven leather belt, and Tevas worn with white gym socks.

Going out to dinner is just that, going out. You're leaving the house to have fun, enjoy yourself, and be civilized. Dressing right (I don't mean fancy, I just mean with some thought and care) shows respect for yourself and, more importantly, respect for those around you.

Sorry to say, but being around nice-looking people is nice.

Friday, June 20, 2008

And now for something completely different

Kenny Bloggerly's Internet Life, Episode 5: Guest from kennybloggerly on Vimeo.

The Cheese Store of Silverlake

I'm skeptical of "gourmet food" markets. Especially in this day and age (and place) of California where most most large urban areas have some sort of full-service grocery store where you can find a dozen different kinds of marinated olives and where Trader Joe's has a selection of fine cheeses from all over the world that rivals even Wicked Entertainment's contract girls.

Most "gourmet food" markets are just slightly oversized delis selling expensive sandwiches, salty Spanish ham, and the shelf-stable imports that inevitably become coated with a delightful layer of dust as they sit so stably on the shelf.

My disdain makes me all the more pleased to say that the Cheese Store of Silverlake freakin' rocks. Where most stores like this fill their shelves with tuna packed in oil and a dozen different kinds of creepy Spanish cookies made with beef fat, CSSL has a selection of packaged goods the likes of which I've ne'er seen in all my years of poking through specialty food marts looking for salt-packed anchovies. Rice-a-Roni-esque packaged paellas from Spain (including octopus)? Check. Impossibly enormous and colorful dried pastas? Check. Locally made cookies and compotes? Indeed. Bottles of thick and sickeningly sweet coffee and strawberry flavored syrups from Rhode Island (the proprietor's home state)? Abso-freakin-lutely with a pickle on a stick!

When I browsed through the selection I got a sense that every product had a purpose and that whoever decided on the selection had a passion for every product sold, no matter how weird or obscure.

And of course the cheese, the selection of which towers throughout the well-chilled store. Cheese Store of Silverlake puts even the Cheese Board in Berkeley to shame with its selection. There's also the added bonus that the Cheese Store of Silver Lake is run by a former tour manager for Pat Benatar and Van Halen and staffed by a team of cute hipster girls and not by surly middle-aged Berkeley housewives looking to find "meaning" in their lives. The cheese selection is incredibly comprehensive but the Store has none of the California Cuisine and "I vacationed to Europe once" pretentiousness and self-importance that usually accompanies such establishments.

As an aside, while I was there a punk rock girl with short hair done up in a fauxhawk, tiny despite being close to eight months pregnant (with gorgeous milk-laden breasts), bought a couple cheeses and some fregola. It was without question the second the hottest thing I've ever seen.

CSSL also has a nice small selection of domestic and imported charcuterie, boquerones, olive oils (including "fill your own" from two large dispensers), dressings, locally-made candies and chocolates, and a small but global selection of hard-to-find small production wines (even some from Rhode Island).

I like parentheses.

The sandwich I had was excellent. Selection changes daily and most of the sandwiches are served hot, panini style, showcasing the well-selected cheese, pairing it simply with one or two meats and some sort of chutney, tapenade, or other semi-preserved vegetable.

I'll report on the octopus paella as soon as I bust open the box.

I know I'm probably very late to the game since the Cheese Store's been open for close to six years now, but it's new to me.

The Cheese Store of Silverlake
3926-28 West Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, Ca 90029

Monday, June 09, 2008

Seriously, Can We Stop This Already?

For those handful of regular HFF readers out there, most of my points that I'm about to expand upon in vitriolic rant form you're probably already familiar with.

However, as I've learned from careful study of my Google Analytics, most of my search engine hits have come from people searching "Yelp Sucks" or "I Hate Yelp" or a couple other anti-Yelp! combinations. This means that many people find my blog as a result of being pissed off and annoyed about SOMETHING, and usually those people like to read someone else being pissed off and annoyed.

I will not be ranting about Yelp! this time. Sorry.

Relatedly, if you happen to be the one person who stumbled across Horny For Food by searching for "Rachel Ray's Ass" on Google, please do leave a comment. You are my hero.

So, what can we please stop talking about already?

1. "Gourmet" hamburgers. This really has supplanted "gourmet" pizza as the go-to gimmick food of choice. Pretty much every restaurant of any sort where it wouldn't be remotely out of place serves a burger. And while there are the higher-end places like Spago, Boulevard, Zuni, Comme Ca, and Saddle Peak Lodge serving some version of a burger, what is more noticeable is the proliferation of the "gastropub" and "burger bar" style restaurants where (in theory) celebrity chefs have pissing contests with each other as to who can make the best burger and then charge $12-$16 (or more if made from Wagyu or foie gras is added).

So what's the problem? The problem is it's a goddamn freakin' burger! That's what the problem is. Burgers came out of a need to utilize and extend small quantities of meat of a middling quality. The poor discovered that, hey, I can chop up this meat and mix it with some bread crumbs, egg, and spices and form it into a steak-like patty and this ain't so bad. And I can make a pound of food out of a half-pound of meat. I would argue that perhaps the oft-touted McDonald's "100% Beef Burger" is more of a misnomer than it was before, as what we now consume are ground beef sandwiches and not hamburgers.

Fatty ground beef, cooked appropriately, and served on a roll with whatever assortment of condiments, is going to be delicious. Period. Making a burger out of Prime tenderloin is ridiculous. Making a burger out of Kobe-style beef is also ridiculous. In fact, eating Kobe-style beef in any form other than in seared-to-raw steak form is ridiculous. You want a Kobe-style beef burger? Add some butter to your ground grocery store chuck when you make the patties.

Let's look at the great scaling effect of prices.... I can get a 10 oz. prime rib at Sizzler for $9.99. I can get a 10 oz. prime rib at Epic Roasthouse for $33. Will the Epic prime rib be at least three times better than the grey gristly Sizzler prime rib? Hell yes. Will my whole $38 roast chicken at Zuni be four times better than the $9.99 one from Boston Market? Good freakin' lord yes.

But is the $14 burger from Father's Office three times better than a 4x4 animal style ($4.75) from In-N-Out?

I mean, REALLY think about it. Is the beef better quality? Well, yes but it's also ALL GROUND UP so what's really the point? In-N-Out always has respectably fresh produce for the price. And I'll take the soft sponge bread at In-N-Out over the weird fresh-from-Costco looking roll that Father's Office uses.

And for that $4.75 you get a fully customizable half-pound burger, not a take-it-or-leave-it prima donna burger.

Is the Father's Office burger "better"? Sure. Is it an equal (or even 1/3 equal) value? Hell no. Hell no with a cherry on top.

"Gourmet" burgers cater to people with limited taste who still want to indulge in fanciness. It's the "I drive an Escalade and wear a Rolex but I'm scared of food shaped with a timbale" crowd. It's the "I want to go to a fancy restaurant and spend $50 on lunch, but I want a steak and a caesar salad" crowd. It's a cousin of the "look at me I'm drinking Charles Shaw and that's just as classy as drinking something for $20 a bottle" crowd.

And of course restaurants are more than happy to oblige, as they make a pretty decent margin on their $14 burger, even if it is made from supermagichappybeef from beyond the moon.

That being said, everything I've had from Father's Office has been interesting, innovative, well-priced, and pretty damn good. I'm glad they sell hundreds of burgers a night to help subsidize the smoked eel and softshell crab.

I would even posit that the "who has the best burger" debate is more absurd than the "who has the best pizza" debate, since it's pretty clear to my mind that the $14 scarole pizza from Pizzeria Delfina is without any hesitation three times better than a $5 pepperoni pizza from Domino's (which in and of itself is probably better than most $10 pizzas offered at the scores of characterless "Trattoria" that populate the world).

2. Sweet Potato Fries. This is weird because I really like sweet potato fries. But they're everywhere now! At least in Los Angeles. It's like we all woke up one day and said "Hey, let's like sweet potato fries instead of regular potato fries. They're orange!" I think this is perhaps based on the incorrect reasoning that the sweet potato is better for you than the potato. The sweet potato is richer in certain nutrients than the potato, but the potato is a more well-rounded source of nutrients. I'm going to say that Mariah Carey started this trend because that makes the most sense. And anyone who has seen her cameo in Don't Mess With The Zohan knows that she makes excellent career and nutritional decisions.

3. Complaining About Food Being Overpriced. Dining out is inherently overpriced. Get over it. If you really care about it that much, then cook at home or eat at Del Taco. Most of the time, these people only complain about really expensive restaurants being overpriced. I find the bowl of mediocre dried pasta with a quarter-cup of bad vegetables passed off as "gourmet" pasta by Cafe Ugo for $9.99 to be way more overpriced than any $30 entree I've had out.

These people also have no understanding of the elaborate equations that go into pricing food at a restaurant, so they really can't speak to something being overpriced. They can speak to it being "not worth their money," but that's pretty much it.

4. Complaining About A Restaurant Being Overrated/Underrated. Of course it is! Anything that's rated is going to be overrated or underrated. That's the way it goes. I don't think Father's Office burger is overrated. I don't care. I just think it's a rip-off.

As an aside, I do enjoy all my dining companions who say that the Father's Office burger is "Good, but not worth the hype." Of course it's not, because (everyone now, all together) IT'S A MOTHERFUCKING BURGER! You're surprised?

That's a dig at the concept, not my friends. I adore my friends. I promise.

5. Bitching About "Incorrect" Ethnicities Cooking Food At Ethnic Restaurants. "Please, any sushi prepared my Mexicans isn't sushi." I've seen that on Yelp! innumerable times. How can that possibly be true? We don't say "any French food prepared by Mexicans isn't French food." Anthony Bourdain will tell you that of anybody he's ever worked with, the Mexicans from Puebla are the most talented cooks he's ever encountered. The current chef at Les Halles hails from Puebla.

It really smacks of racism. And it's the worst kind of racism: the racism from people who would be shocked and appalled to be called racist because they're worldly, liberal, support amnesty for illegal immigrants, and voted Green. So why don't you want brown people making your sushi? Why can it only be magical Asians?

After having worked in restaurants for so long, I'm skeptical of any skinny white kid wearing a "Le Cordon Bleu" culinary school jacket than I am of a Latin American, regardless of cuisine.

Yeah sure there's a cultural mystique around sushi, but unless you're going to one of those hallowed bastions of traditional Japanese dining and spending $100 a person you're not going to be getting an "authentic" Japanese experience anyway. Hell, when I went to Sebo I was served by the Japanese sushi chef, but it sure as hell looked like the white sushi chef serving the couples at the other end of the bar was quicker, more intense, and had better presentation skills. People are people, some are more talented, experienced, and better trained than others. Little if any of that has to do with race, culture, or gender.

And can we really trust all the rules of a culinary culture whose de facto prohibition of female sushi chefs was supported by the assertion that a woman's hands are too warm and would "cook" the fish in preparation?

I'm going to piggyback on this rant a rant against people who make a personal cultural identification claim to support their dismissal of a restaurant. Things like "My Tia Maria made me tamales growing up and these are NOT authentic tamales" or "My grandma is from Ireland and this was NOT real Irish soda bread" or "I dated a Korean chick once and this Bi Bim Bap sucks worse than she did." Why the fuck should I care? I don't know your Tia Maria. Maybe she sucked at making tamales. Maybe your Irish grandma used too much baking soda. And maybe that Korean chick had herpes.

Unless your assertion is "I've been a working food critic in Mexico City for ten years and have eaten at a broad assortment of that nation's finest restaurants and this American restaurant that makes a claim to provide that same type of cuisine falls far short of that aim," I don't care.

And a Subset-A piggyback on that piggyback point point, can we stop with this myth that "In Mexico, they don't actually eat spicy food." In Mexico they probably don't use the pure capsicum extract hot sauces that are popular among a certain American "let's see who has the bigger dick based on our ability to tolerate spiciness" culture, but they do use a lot of chili peppers. And every staff meal the guys in the kitchen made at the restaurants I've worked have been close to face-meltingly spicy. Do some people in Mexico not eat spicy food? I imagine so. Some people in America don't eat spicy food too.

You see, not everyone in Mexico is a tequila-drinking, sombrero-wearing, jalapeno-chomping stereotype.

Just as not every American is an obese, sandal-and-gym sock wearing, xenophobic, unworldly ignoramus.

I'd wager it's probably a helluvalot easier to find the latter before the former though.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

HFF Has Lunch: Govinda's - Los Angeles Ca

I never had Thai Temple brunch.

That's right, I admit it. For some reason I never had the urge to drag my ass out of bed early on a Sunday to then drive way out into West Berkeley to then circle for parking for twenty minutes to then stand in a long line around really really really (really) ugly Berkeleyans, so I could THEN get what I can only assume will be competent home-cooked Thai food for a relatively low price.

After reading some Yelp! reviews of the Thai Temple, I can assume that my experience at Govinda's here in LA was pretty much exactly the same, only with vegetarian Indian food in the place of Thai cuisine.

When I moved to LA, I moved to an area called "Palms." Palms is considered the last "ungentrified" area of the Westside, though admittedly it looks pretty g-d gentrified to me. I suppose that the the fact that 92% of Palms residents live in apartment buildings prevents the inevitable influx of Persian Palaces and McMansions. Still, I do like it here because there is a nice diversity, it's very close to trendy downtown Culver City, and it lets me take surface streets or I-10 to most of my necessary destinations, eliminating the dreaded 405 and 101 commutes.

The other exciting part? I live about a block from the biggest International Society for Krishna Consciousness center (read "Hare Krishna Temple") in California. When I go for my morning (okay, late morning) jog, I dart past innumerable saffron-robed white men with shaved heads and the, surprisingly enough, occasional Indian woman.

It's kinda nice. The Society also owns several of the apartment buildings on my block and everything is kept pretty neat and tidy. And the temple has a restaurant serving up lunch and dinner in buffet form every day of the week.

Once-a-week Thai Brunch can suck it.

For $6 I get either a dine-in plate or a to-go box loaded with Indian food from a buffet. I'm told that during the week they also operate a takeout stand with sandwiches and roti wraps. This stand was closed when I went.

After entering the temple, I stood in a relatively short line behind a woman who looked a lot like what dirty middle-aged white collar hippy douchebags in Berkeley would look like if they actually exercised, wore make-up, and cared how they dressed. But looking presentable can only go so far as I had to listen to her attempt to make friends with every person who served her and had to watch her as she stuck her hand underneath the sneeze guard and pointed with her finger at every item she wanted.

There are only, like, six things, so I don't see the need for such an invasive examination.

Anyway, I was greeted by a surly Indian gentleman (the only one--everyone else working behind the counter were earnest young European-Americans). He scooped some Jasmine rice on my plate, added some Dal, a couple pakora, some stewed cauliflower, a potato and cabbage dish, and some other very yellowish green vegetable items.

It's a well known fact that religious cults (and prisons) keep their members (prisoners) in thrall partly through sensory deprivation.

I can see how after eating Govinda's food for any period of time, even the mindless chanting of "hare krsna hare krsna krsna krsna hare hare hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare" might be exciting.

Where's the fucking flavor people? We're talking Indian food here! Up there with Ethiopian in terms of spice per square inch! Unfortunately the Krsna folks don't believe in onions, garlic, and (one would presume) salt, three ingredients which have done more for providing pleasure to the masses than the Dolphin Vibrator, Hitachi Magic Wand, and me combined.

I'm not going to say the food was bad. It wasn't. It was decent. It was the type of food that I'd expect a modestly skilled family in India to prepare on a daily basis. And it was only $6, so who am I to complain?

I wouldn't be complaining were it not for the glowing reviews of this place on Yelp! and other sites. This just reinforces my opinion that the Powers That Be on the Internet (middle class and wealthier whites and east Asians) find things produced by those not in the Powers That Be on the Internet (poor whites and other minorities) absolutely fascinating and worthy of praise when in fact they're probably no different than yourselves, except that their moms can't afford to grab takeout or Costco lasagna for every meal and instead have to, you know, cook a meal with cheap staples instead.

My food from Govinda's was strikingly lacking in, well, flavor. It just tasted like potatoes, cabbage, chickpeas, et al. These things are really really bland by themselves. They take great to spices, which is why Indian food is able to create magic from these bland components, but if you're unwilling to saturate them in spices and ghee, well, then they just taste like "meh."

The dal was respectably okay, the caulflower and zucchini dish was very bitter, the cabbage and potato dish was pleasantly wholesome, the pakora weren't crisp, and the roti was decent.

I'm not saying it was a bad meal! I'm not!

I'm saying it was a mediocre meal, worthy of it's $6 price tag, but not worthy of its innumerable praise on Yelp! by any means. I can toss a bunch of vegetables in a pot with spices and create a reasonable approximation of the food at Govinda's, devotion to God or not.

And it should be mentioned that Indian buffets in the $10 range offer a marked step up in quality, variety, and complexity.

That being said, I'm glad Govinda's is there and I imagine I'll make a return trip. I mean, you can't fault the place for producing a cheap product of respectable quality. I can only fault the innumerable douche bags who vaunt this meal as somehow better than their local fine dining restaurants, or even on par with a modest for-profit Indian buffet.

It's mediocre and inexpensive. That's it.

3764 Watseka Avenue
Los Angeles, Ca • 90034