Thursday, July 31, 2008

4th Street Bistro - Reno, NV

I'm going to say I've never thought to write about a restaurant in Nevada before. I still don't think to write about it, because let's face it Nevada is about as shitty of a shitfest that a Supreme Being or Science ever shat out onto this planet. And I've driven through the whole crappy state.

That does include Las Vegas. Just because every muscular celebrity chef rock star has stuck his dick in it doesn't make it a good place to be (c.f. Pamela Anderson). Las Vegas is a culinary destination in the same way that Heidi Klum is attractive.

It's (she's) not. It (she) just offers a creepy and overly made-up version of something you can find on any street corner in a major metropolis. Especially the corner of Highland & Santa Monica.

That being said, every now and then you'll catch Heidi on a good day and you'll actually remember why you briefly masturbated to her in the late 90's.

Point being, there might actually be a good restaurant in Nevada. And that restaurant is 4th Street Bistro in Reno.

In this instance, a restaurant might actually be benefiting from its pissbucket location in the armpit outskirts of Reno. In another part of the country its fresh, seasonal, and expertly cooked cuisine would blend in on the block with the various contenders and pretenders to the Cal-Cuisine throne. But in Reno, a city known best for bunny ranches and second-rate casinos (I mean really, the Silver Legacy?), 4th Street Bistro stands out as sharply and distinctly as Klum's prominently augmented breasts.

I was picked up at the Reno Airport by the extended family for a sojourn in South Lake Tahoe. Not wanting to have driven all over to the lame side of the lake for no reason, we decided to enjoy what fine dining Washoe County has to offer.

Was 4th Street Bistro great? Hardly. Was it good? Absolutely. Really freakin' tasty actually. A survey of the menu and a survey of the farmhouse-chic dining room and you just might think you're in Rivoli or Chez Panisse Cafe. 4th Street Bistro features all the heavy hitters, including "Liberty" duck, Niman Ranch beef, pork, and lamb, and "Heavenly Organics" mushrooms. The wine list is predictable but solid and the service is amateurish and overly-trained, but very friendly.

I started with an appetizer of pork belly on a bed of caramelized peaches and some vegetables or something. It was tasty, but the piece of pork belly was about the size of my thumb. And my thumbs are pretty small. Still, it was good.

Entree was a duck confit salad. This was also solid. The confit leg was as well prepared as any I've had. Crisp skin, juicy fat, and moist meat. The accompanying wilted salad was tasty and complimentary. The only fault was too much of an overly-vinegary dressing. And that's not really a fault, just a matter of taste.

Good, solid, tasty food. It's very well made and uses some of the best ingredients around. Without knowing too much, I'd say it's the last really good restaurant before you hit Denver (with the notable exception of Sweet Melissa's Vegetarian Cafe in Laramie).

Check it out when you're up in the mountains. Or, rather, when you leave the beautiful majesty of the mountains for the barren, sprawling, empty empty desert plain that is the great state of Nevada.

4th Street Bistro
3065 West 4th St.
Reno, NV 89523

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Downtown Culver City: The Good, the Bad, and the Sterile

When I moved to Palms I didn't realize that I'd be moving two blocks away from the giant Disneyland of restaurants that is downtown Culver City.

After exploring quite a few of them I've found a couple gems and a couple duds, but mostly I'm left with the impression of general sterility all around.

Some thoughts on "the Good:"

Ford's Filling Station - I think this is the best of the bunch. Ford's has innovative pork-centric cuisine with a nice clear theme. The space is well done without feeling too over-conceived. Avoid the pricier entrees and share a bunch of smaller plates, charcuterie, and flatbreads with your friends.

Bottle Rock - Stellar wine selection and good simple food makes up for high by the glass prices and friendly but inattentive service.

Ugo Wine Bar - A new direction and a committed young wine buyer have kept things moving here at this Enomatic-driven wine bar. Great happy hour with complimentary salumi. Call me old-fashioned but I still prefer sitting at the bar and having a glass of wine over machine-dispensed one ounce tastes, but it's a good spot to take friends.

S&W Country Diner - Heavy, hearty, and harried service. Great farm-style breakfasts in the heart of studio country. Pretty damn inexpensive too.

And on to "the Bad:"

Akasha - The epitome of over conceived. Nice space but too much going on and the food, while good, doesn't live up to the competition at that price range. Sit at the bar, have an organic pilsner, and enjoy a beautiful space.

Starbucks - I don't have anything against it (except for that guy in shorts, torn white t-shirt, and headphones mumbling to himself while rocking back and forth in a chair for a half-hour) and in fact go here a whole lot. I just don't like that it's the only coffee shop in downtown, unless you want to be trampled by toddlers out with mommy at Akasha's attached cafe. They're screaming for a Peet's.

Pacifico's Mariscos - I'm not one to pay much attention to health inspector letters, but Pacifico's definitely earned its "B." Besides shitty produce and bizarrely executed dishes, they also do that weird "hey let's have a sushi bar too even though we're ostensibly a Mexican place" thing. Bad service. Bad food (except for the fish tacos, which were great). Just bad.

Taqueria La Ballona - You know, maybe I just wasn't in the right mindset, but I was left feeling dirty and violated after eating my chimichanga.

My big complaint with Downtown Culver City overall is every place (except for Pacifico's and La Ballona) feels very clean, sterile, and high-concept. I sort of feel like every restaurant is a Cheesecake Factory or something in Downtown Disney or the Universal City Walk. This is unfortunate because they are largely independent restaurants with excellent food and excellent chefs. I just don't really feel welcomed or at home in any of these restaurants and they all lack any distinctive character.

I don't think this is a Los Angeles-wide problem. Lucques is warm and inviting. So are Grace and BLD. I like Father's Office quite a bit, also Vinoteque and Bar Pintxo. Even Robata Grill, part of the Sushi Roku family, has more character than most of the restaurants in Downtown Culver City.

I know this is entirely subjective and probably largely unfair of me. I'm just trying to figure this out.

Maybe it's because this is an entire strip of restaurants that largely date from after the explosion of the Celebrity Chef era? A time where selling a concept was more important than selling a product, even at the highest echelon of restaurant? It's not one or two spots in a neighborhood with many older restaurants, it's a place where new restaurants are popping up monthly and there are still empty storefronts.

I associate being sold a bill-of-goods with chain restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe, not quality independent ingredient-driven restaurants, so it's an odd juxtaposition.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Not About Food - A Digression Wherein the Protagonist Ruminates on Life

My room is frequently darkened. The reason for this is threefold:

1. I'm usually at my computer in the morning and that coupled with a south-facing window allows for only modest direct sunlight seeping between the uniquely Los Angeleno slat-blinds.

2. Despite the very prominent presence of a light switch on my wall it does not actually activate any outlets and my lighting is provided by three smaller lamps spread out throughout my room. And I don't like desk lamps during the day time.

3. I'm usually at my computer sparsely dressed and this area being dense with multi-family housing a couple buildings look directly into my room. At best I'm an ambivalent exhibitionist inasmuch as I don't particularly care if I am seen in moderately compromising states, but I don't want to actively solicit onlookers.

A darkened room, I'm shirtless in gym shorts, and I'm listening to the most recent Two Gallants album (it's called "Two Gallants). This album has been growing on me with repeated listens. I wasn't too keen on it at first as it's rather mellow and lo-fi and lacks much of the harder punk-y edge of "What the Toll Tells." But the emotions are honest, the stories are pathos-riddled, and they put out a shit tonne of quality sound for a couple skinny white guys from San Francisco.

And Pitchfork and Prefix deserve cockslaps for their missing-the-point reviews of "What the Toll Tells" in which they're critical of the song "Long Summer's Day" for "borrowing otherness" because it's told from the perspective of a black sharecropper. This is what happens when you let cultural anthropologists become music critics.

Helluva live show too.

I've been called an asshole numerous times. I've been called mean. Arrogant. A dick. Sarcastic. I've been criticized for not caring about the feelings of others (unfair, I think). People who care about their feelings being cared for are rather selfish people, no? I'm told I don't admit when I'm wrong. This might be true, but could it be that I'm just not wrong very often?

I've made a lot of mistakes and I have been uncharitable to a lot of people. I think that that part of my personality has mellowed with age, as all things should, in the same way that we move from ketchup to mustard on our hot dogs and we begin embracing more complex flavors like the bitter fresh spiciness of wild arugula or the gooey stink of a nice ripe cheese.

As most long-time wine tasters eventually leave behind big and spicy reds and rediscover the elegance and nuance of whites. This is a clear indicator that Robert Parker (and most of the wine establishment) have palates that are still stuck in late adolescence.

I'm still as passionate, opinionated, and driven as I was before. I'm just more intelligent and (hopefully) nicer about it.

But back to the point. It's dark. I'm shirtless. There's indie lo-fi folk rock on the Altec Lansing inMotion. And I have a profound sadness deep in my chest. That sort of cosmic sob that never quite wells into tears but really should.

I don't know if this is that "fear and loathing" I've heard so much about. It might be angst. It's not existential ennui since it moves me to action instead of inaction. Maybe it's nausea. In the Jean-Paul Sartre sense.

Why am I being brought to near-tears by Wikipedia accounts of the 1992 L.A. riots? The unnamed black reverend who stopped rioters from cutting off the (rest of the) ear of a Guatemalan immigrant and drove him to the hospital is a more important hero than the man who stood in front of tanks in Tienanmen. He didn't care about making a statement or swapping symbolic acts. He cared about saving one stranger's life.

Why do I feel a profound sadness when I hear a woman talking seriously about why she prefers Pepsi to Coke?

Why do we latch on to insignificant loyalties like to which diabetes purveyor we throw our money?

My entire body aches whenever I hear somebody say "I don't know anything about that" in that smug or just dismissive way as if there are somehow things worth knowing about and things nor worth knowing about. That knowing about the falling out between Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov is more valuable than knowing about the feud between Eazy-E and Dr. Dre. That sitting in a room and reading Hegel in the original German is a more worthwhile pursuit than playing CounterStrike. It's all equally valuable and by that I mean all equally meaningless.

If you can find something to commit yourself to and be passionate about, that's the most beautiful and most human thing in the world. Anything that allows you to challenge yourself and drive your curiosity.

I don't like not knowing about things. If I don't know about something I try to find out as much as I can about it. Even if it's things that I'll never be able to do, like solve theoretical math equations or have a g-spot orgasm, I still like to know how they work. It's useful. It lets you talk to scientists or women and not sound like a clueless dweeb.

I experience vitriolic anger when I hear somebody say "the internet's going social." These are mostly paunchy middle-aged men who will never get it since they weren't the ones sharing info across the world on Usenet boards in the 80's or organizing their entire life via IM as soon as their parents bought a modem.

As if we haven't always been discovering new ways to interact with each other since nomadic human tribes first settled down into towns and cities.

And the work of art that has inspired my strongest emotional reaction that I can think of in recent memory? WALL-E. Until the humans got involved, then it got a little bit Disney-ish for my tastes.

WALL-E is curiosity robo-personified. And it's his simple curiosity about a tiny plant and a sexy collection robot that ultimately saves Earth.

I suppose I should have said "spoiler alert" before that.

The scene of the "deranged" penguin running off into the interior of Antarctica to die instead of to the sea or to the colony in Werner Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World" was also rather heartrending. He just wants to know what else is out there. Isn't discovery, even in the face of death, preferable to doing the same thing you've always done? He might've been eaten by a seal on that very trip to get fish had he not gone running alone into the hills.

I become very sad when I see people living in fear of the array of information, opportunity, and experience that is available. I'm sad when I see the powers that be in the entertainment industry keep banging their heads against the same wall trying to make a business model work that hasn't worked well since we first got cable television and VCRs.

I like the term "don't try to reinvent the wheel" as if we haven't been coming out with new and better wheels all the time for thousands of years. Sure the basic function is the same, but a 22-inch alloy rim with spinners is markedly different from a solid disc of wood hewn from an oak tree.

I'm upset at knowing that we go from the intellectual, emotional, and physical orgy that is college and into a life where most of us will be increasingly obsolete desk functionaries doing tasks that we haven't yet found a way to automate.

I try to live my life as actively as possible. If you don't try it's amazing how passive it can get. It's very easy to let hour after hour of television or Wikipedia or meaningless long-term relationship or meaningless one-night stand wash over you instead of making your life into something meaningful, as small and insignificant as that meaning might seem to others.

Grow some tomatoes. Write an essay. Bake bread. Bake it again. Travel to a country where you aren't the dominant paradigm. Don't just eat a steak and drink a glass of wine--find out where that steak came from and how that wine was made. Try one of the many kinds of sausage that aren't breakfast links and one of the many kinds of coffees that come whole-bean roasted fresh from a local roaster and not ground in a can for $1.99 at Vons.

Pancakes made from scratch are better than Bisquick and take about one extra minute.

All that we are is the sum of our experiences, so if you stop experiencing you've ceased to exist.

And now I'll go back to being pissed off about restaurants.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bacaro L.A. - Los Angeles, Ca

"Shit, I'm in South-Central, mackin' on bitches in them bike shorts, smokin' 'dro, and cravin' some serious dessert panini and Slovenian wine flights. Where can I go?"

If you're like me, you ask yourself that question pretty much every day of your life. And twice on Sunday.

Thankfully there's now an answer. South-Central has their own wine bar: Bacaro L.A. And it is pretty much the best place ever. I dropped in here with Girlfriend Charlie after picking her up from LAX.

I should say that Bacaro is actually on Union Street just off of Hoover, about a mile north of USC and a half-mile south of I-10. The neighborhood is pretty okay. It's no more stabby than 51st & Telegraph in Oakland or most of Echo Park. But as far as Wikipedia is concerned, that's South-Central, or the more politically correct "South Los Angeles."

Started by a pair of USC grads who combined their mutual loves for wine, drinking, and Venetian wine bars into a chic little faux-dive on a quiet block in an unjustly maligned LA neighborhood.

Co-owner and wine director Santos Uy, who cut his teeth on wine tastings at Silverlake Wine and as a sommelier at AOC, presents an eclectic and ever-changing wine list featuring wines from all over the world including Slovenia, Hungary, and Portugal. Bacaro also has draft beer including Peroni and Chimay White Label.

The interior is fun and casual, with an entire chalkboard wall being devoted to the by-the-glass list and the cheese menu. Bacaro also features a nice selection of assemble-and-serve small plates of both the hot and cold variety. Highlights include white bean and heirloom tomato bruschette, polenta squares with roasted eggplant and tomato tapenade, and a dessert panino of chocolate and fresh strawberries. Small-plates are priced at $7 each or three for $19.

They've begun to build a name for themselves with their monthly "Beefsteak" dinners where $25 buys you all-you-can-eat roast beef, bread, butter, seasonal veggies, beer, and red wine. Dinners sell-out quickly so book well in advance.

I'm always excited about locations and events that move the enjoyment of wine out of that pretentious and rarefied realm of sleazy fat executives and withered rail-thin ex-trophy wives and into the world of the young, earnest, and hip while still maintaining a commitment to quality, value, and globally-focused wines. Bacaro is as honest as it gets. Check it out, drink heavily, and tip well. It's a treasure.

Bacaro L.A.
2308 S. Union Ave.
Los Angeles, Ca 90007

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares

Thanks to a very slow holiday weekend I've taken some time to get caught up on a show I'd never watched before: Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

While "Diamonds on my fish, diamonds diamonds on my fish" from the American version of the show has entered my casual reference lexicon, I haven't become a fan of the Fox version in my limited viewing because it really does focus on anger, incompetence, and Ramsay berating mental midgets. That's uninteresting. I can watch VH1 for that.

I was rather pleasantly surprised to discover that the original BBC show is everything great about a restaurant program.

The restaurants on the show are failing, to be sure. But they're failing primarily as a result of ignorance, ego, and overambition, not inherent incompetence. As a result Ramsay's presence is actually (usually) beneficial. Sure he plays his mean shouting chef character but he honestly seems to care about the restaurant. And it's mostly in instances where the owners themselves don't care about their business' success that the restaurants go on to fail. If the staff commits to what Ramsay proposes they're usually able to staunch the bleeding and move forward.

It's a testament to Ramsay's intuitive understanding of restaurants as well as the magic of BBC's editing.

The Fox version, in the grand tradition of American television misunderstanding the intent of BBC programming, doesn't seem to care whether the restaurant succeeds or not, instead hoping for shouting, screaming, and fights.

Some basic rules about restaurants gleaned from Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares:

1. The customer comes first. You have to make a restaurant that people want to go to. Most of the problems come from a chef and owner who put their own egos ahead of what people want. They stubbornly stick to their concept, menu, or "master plan," even when they face empty restaurants and mounting debts.

2. Customers want value. That's not to say they want cheap, but they want a sense of quality for their money. People will pay more for a quality product but will not come back if they feel they've been ripped off, abused, or treated like idiots.

3. Know your audience. If you're a pub, don't try to be a hotel dining room. If you're in the Midlands, don't pretend that you're in the City. If you're in Brighton, serve food that tourists and homosexuals love.

4. Keep it simple. Flourish, grandeur, and pretentious ingredients will lead to failure if the fundamentals are flawed. It's better to serve fresh, local fish, meat, game, and produce simply, inexpensively and well then to fuck up or freeze expensive imported ingredients.

In my own experience these rules hold true. I worked at a neighborhood restaurant with an outstanding chef that went bust after one year because, despite a nice dining room and warm service, we served old frozen food garnished with spirals of bean sprouts and plantain spirals.

Where some of the even most esteemed California Cuisine restaurants fail is that they treat their customers like they're children, being rewarded with exquisitely fresh produce because they drive a Prius and live in Berkeley. Fresh quality ingredients are a given! It's not magic, it's what should be served. Let's move on from there. That's why, despite some wonderful meals, I don't really want to go back to Chez Panisse Cafe. I don't like being treated like I'm blessed to pay $25 for undercooked mackerel and treated like I'm retarded for suggesting that perhaps it needed to be cooked through.

The Oceanic Dinner at Oliveto pissed me off because I had had better meals with better prepared and better quality ingredients for a third the price.

Conversely, Redd was awesome because despite a similar price tag I felt I had tasted simple, fresh, and innovative food, enough of it, and smartly-paired wines.

Seeing the unpretentious, warm, and home-y British pubs serving fresh, exquisitely cooked game at strikingly reasonable prices (for Britain) was inspiring. So far the gastropub movement in the United States has meant either over-priced bar food or over-elaborate Cal cuisine served in an under-elaborate dining room.

Next on my agenda? Hitting up the somewhat critically maligned Gordon Ramsay's at the London West Hollywood to see if his restaurant practices what he preaches, even when the chef is thousands of miles away.