Sunday, November 29, 2009

HFF Re-Returns (again): Maverick

There are very very few restaurants that I return to regularly, or at least at the premium dining level (places that'll set you back at least a hundred bucks for two). They were uncommon in SF and are currently rare (non-existent?) in LA. But a holiday weekend stumble back up to the Bay took me to one of my favorites for the nth time: Maverick.

So what brings me back to a restaurant time and again? It's worth a musing or five....

1. Value. This is essential. It's not a matter of inexpensiveness (good inexpensive places I'll go to weekly in some cases), but rather a sense of satisfaction with my dining experience combined with a feeling of not only not being robbed but that I got a good, solid deal. I've had fabulous meals at restaurants I'll never return to. This isn't because of sticker shock (I knew what I was getting in to) but because the fabulousness was matched by restaurants at half the price. Maverick delivers on that count, with prices 10-20% less than comparable restaurants.

2. Variety. If there's a restaurant I enjoy but it's a place where I can essentially eat through most of the menu in a couple visits with friends, I'm not going back regularly, except in the rare instance there's something truly indispensable (i.e. Zuni's chicken). Maverick tweaks its menu daily and makes wholesale changes frequently, making each trip a chance to try something new.

3. Atmosphere. A restaurant's a place to hang out. I'm more than competent in the home kitchen to prepare interesting food, so going out to eat is as much about enjoying the space and service as the food (provided the quality hits a certain benchmark). And that's tough to pull off. I'm turned off by overly attentive service and overly stuffy spaces, no matter how elegant (cf Aureole in Las Vegas) but something a place too cheap and brightly lit has the same effect. And once again Maverick--simple, uncomplicated space that's perfectly lit, dark, and welcoming--succeeds. Service has been the one inconsistency, ranging from friendly but inattentive to quiet and withdrawn.

4. Consistency. Otherwise good restaurants have been dragged done by consistent inconsistencies. For instance Bendean never had good desserts, Chez Panisse Cafe's entrees were always heavily outshined by its appetizers, and Zuni never seemed to pull anything out of its hat that was ever as retardedly great as its chicken. Maverick has had a few individual duds here and there but nothing categorical, nothing reliably problematic.

5. Wine. Wine has proved to be more of a problem in LA than SF, where most high quality independent restaurants have a nice diversity of wines from small producers and boutique importers. But in LA I've encountered restaurants with killer food that have wine lists that don't go beyond a Whole Foods selection. But then there are lists that can diverge into total wine geekery (Hotel Biron, A Cote), which is great for me but is not, I imagine, for everyone. Maverick has an approachable list with plenty of noble options from small producers coupled with a nice cluster of esoteric oddballs.

So on to this meal.... We hit Maverick up with a five-top and tasted through basically half of the small menu.

First round: we started with a couple salads. The grilled persimmon salad was fresh and fall-y, though the featured persimmons were second-fiddle to the Little Gems lettuce, so billing the salad as "grilled persimmon" was kinda bogus. The second salad, chioggia beets, was delicious and beet-laden. We also finished up with a baked cheese and apple dish, tasty but unmemorable.

After the salads we had chicken liver pate--rich, creamy, and only slightly livery, pretty fabulous--and the salt-cured sardines. The sardines kicked ass, like giant meaty (and less salty) anchovies.

The entrees shown spectacularly. The buttermilk fried chicken was as good as ever. My pork shoulder was rich, tender, and perfectly paired with the braised cabbage and cippolini onions. The braised lamb brisket was one of the best pieces of lamb I've had and reports on the winter squash ravioli in leek broth and grilled hanger steak with fries & turnip/radish/pea sprouts were strongly positive. I didn't try the last two.

Desserts hit the brakes though, in the form of an odd sweet cheese-y profiterole dish that was neither sweet enough nor savory enough to really make sense. It was just kinda unpleasant. Our other dessert, something chocolatey that I don't quite remember, was very good, as was the cheese preparation.

Wine-wise we did it up with a couple bottles of our own (an 03 Mendocino Zin and an 05 South African Pinot Noir) along with a nice toasty Cava and a brisk Georgian (the country) white that was round and fruity, in stark contrast to the often bitter, underripe selections I've had from that country.

If you're in the Bay Area and still haven't hit up Maverick, please do. It's a great, locally-owned eatery that's doing everything right. Plus, it won't break the bank when compared to other dinner options in the neighborhood.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Wherein the Protagonist Reflects Upon His Time as a Food Blogger and What the Future of Web-Based Food Writing Should Hold

I've been doing this a long fucking time. I've been blogging since 2001 and food blogging since 2006, longer than most of these other fuckers out there.

I'll admit that those early posts do look a lot like current food blogs. Course by course critiques with photos, vital details about the business, an overll evaluation, and a cost recap. Reasonably well written but dull.

I quickly moved away from that because an attempt at critical evaluation of restaurants is pointless. It's also steeped in exoticism and mysticism, of the bizarre otherness of food and dining. It reinforces the notion of restaurant dining as a bingo adventure, marking off cuisines and chefs like they're merit badges for your Boy Scout sash. But no amount of merit badges can hide the fact that you were diddled by your scoutmaster.

So I changed my approach. I decided to write about extremes, loves and hates. Anything I like, I love. Anything i dislike I hate. Mild annoyances I portray as inexcusable affronts, simple pleasures are worthy accomplishments. And crucially i try not to write about the in betwen or when I do I attempt to put it on its ear. I fuck it up at least half the time, but I think when things click it's pretty entertaining.

So I spent a night out a little while ago eating my through late night LA on a semi-organized junket that included foodies, bloggers, Yelp!ers and a bunch of other annoying people.

We bounced around town and I quickly found myself needing to fight the urge to gouge my eyes out with a chopstick. From the orgasmic fawning over the pork belly slider (good sure, but it's fucking pork belly in sweet barbecue sauce--not exactly a tricky feat of tastymaking. Like being an Asian woman with clear skin. It's easy) to the delighted squeals over the raw wriggling octopus, I was engulfed in a cloud of self-congratulatory ether.

The octopus squeals were the worst. I'm all for adventurous eating but eating sliced, raw, convulsing octopus isn't that. It's Fear Factor. It's a food dare. I've had octopus countless times and like it. This dish tasted like chewy nothing and chewy nothing is not good food.

At it's heart, eating is about fulfilling that basic human need. Ideally that act should be as pleasant and stimulating as possible but you aren't a special person for enjoying it. You're just a living thing. You aren't a great guy because you spent $300 on dinner at Bouchon. In fact you're kinda retarded. And I've been that retard numerous times.

Enjoy your food. Go out and have a good time and experience your meal for the simple transitory pleasure that it is--nothing more than that. Don't go out collecting Michelin stars and throwing up point scores and star ratings. Start being part of the solution and let's change how we talk about food and dining.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Salt Your Crust Motherfuckers!

I like pizza a lot. I've posted about pizza before. I like simple sleazy pizzas (Lanesplitter, Gioia) and classy roccola-topped wood-fired pizzas (A16, Pizzeria Delfina).

In LA I was underwhelmed by Two Boots but had a good experience with LaRocco's in Culver City and now Purgatory Pizza in LA's Boyle Heights. Well balanced, nice toppings, good sauce. But what I've encountered at all of the above (except Lanesplitter & Gioia) is way-the-fuck undersalted crusts.

A16 and Delfina are able to squeak by because their crusts are well-made, yeasty, razor thin, and cooked at blistering heat. But when you don't have those luxuries, undersalted pizza dough tastes like, well, dough.

The motive to undersaltiness makes sense on a superficial level. You're topping your pie with a whole shit-tonne of salty ingredients: cheese, pepperoni, tomato sauce (which is also often undersalted), so why blow all your salt load on the crust? Logical, if your comprehension of logic goes as far as "the more firefighters sent to a fire, the more damage the fire causes--therefore we should send fewer firefighters to fires." You're not throwing the pizza in a blender before you eat it. You have to eat the crust so you need salt in the crust too.

Salt salt salt salt! Put it in the crust! The crust is 1/3 of the pizza, it's not ancillary. It's what makes a pizza a pizza, show it some respect.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adventures on Larchmont Blvd.

Larchmont Boulevard sucks. It really really sucks. There's all of one good business on Larchmont: Larchmont Village Wine Spirits & Cheese. It's great that the more-money-than-sense Hancock Park crowd likes to think of Larchmont as "LA's Main Street," but if that's the case then LA's about as interesting as Diamond Bar or West Covina.

Although it is one of the few places where you can enjoy Starbucks, Peet's, Coffee Bean, Jamba Juice, AND Blockbuster, all in one fantastically dull little block. Main Street Pleasanton looks like a fucking Normal Rockwell painting compared to Larchmont.

(Main Street Pleasanton kinda does look like a Norman Rockwell painting.)

"Oh wow look at me, I'm going to go out of my five million dollar mansion and walk over to Larchmont Boulevard to enjoy spending my money that I earned the hard way--by being the child of a wealthy parents. What's a better way to spend money in a classy tasteful way than with a Pumpkin Spice Latte and some Jamba Breads while I go and patronize a video rental store for some inexplicable reason?"

Why are you still going to a video store?

"But we are so lucky to have this street with all these great amenities that CAN ONLY BE FOUND RIGHT HERE and not IN EVERY SUBURBAN STRIP MALL IN CALIFORNIA."

Which makes all this hullabaloo over Larchmont Bungalow kinda quaint.

On one side: Albert Mizrahi, Larchmont real estate investor who appears to value nothing but getting his buildings rented out to the highest bidder.

On the other: I Love Larchmont Blvd., a group of neighborhood residents who for some reason see Larchmont as a Blvd worth saving.

And you know what? Larchmont is worth saving, but preserving the shitty boutiques and coffee shops isn't the answer. There's no reason Larchmont can't be something simultaneously local and a destination, like Venice's Abbot Kinney Blvd. I blame the out-of-date tastes and NIMBYism of Larchmont's residents.

In the middle (or actually on the Mizrahi side) is Larchmont Bungalow, a newcomer to the block that, despite signing documents with the city stipulating it would be retail/take-out only, threw up tables and chairs and prepared a menu that's pretty clearly not meant for a primarily takeaway establishment.

So the Bungalow, which is Mizrahi-backed, is facing stiff protest from I Love Larchmont Blvd. And ILLB has a powerful ally in local councilmember Tom LaBonge.

So what's my analysis? Larchmont DESPERATELY needs an actually good restaurant, so allowing for the Larchmont Bungalow property (which would make a beautiful restaurant spot) to be rezoned should happen. All reports from the food at Larchmont Bungalow would suggest that this is not going to be that "actually good restaurant."

So ILLB needs to calm down and get with the times. Good restaurants can be the anchor that revitalizes a neighborhood. Holding on to a long-gone ideal of a "main street" is pointless. Other than a pharmacy and, if you're a wine drinker, Larchmont Village Wine, Spirits & Cheese, there's no business on Larchmont Blvd that a resident would ever need to patonize on a weekly basis. If you want your street to stay local, actually shop at your local businesses so they can stay in business.

But if Mizrahi thinks he can turn Larchmont into a Robertson Blvd or a Third Street Promenade, he's also delusional. Hancock Park is too old and too rich to submit to the usual bully real estate tactics. (Though it is strange that they even let Mizrahi get hold of that many buildings--couldn't the neighborhood pool together $23M pretty readily? Buy their own neighborhood!) Robertson Blvd was a sleepy street on the middle-class fringes of Beverly Hills and West LA ripe for the picking, not an established retail district in LA's oldest millionaire 'hood.

But hell, I'm tired of talking about it.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Yelp! Attack

Not food related, but Yelp! related.

Some breaking (ish) news from the SF Weekly Blog. Apparently a disgruntled book store owner tracked down a customer who had written a negative review of her shop, Ocean Avenue Books. She allegedly harassed him via Yelp! and email (Yelp! took down two of her accounts) before showing up at his front door and assaulting him movie passes.

But let's be realistic here, writing a negative review of a neighborhood book store is like selling your own meth in prime Hells Angels territory. It's a death wish. Book store owners, by their very nature, are mentally unstable, especially when you refer to their no doubt disorganized store as "a total mess."

Those boxes of books are stacked that way to prevent the Pope from getting herpes. Duh.

Plus, their website's straight out of 1999: