Saturday, January 30, 2010

HFF Quickie: Umami Burger Part 2

After enjoying an Umami Burger from their food truck a few weeks ago, I can say that I was more than intrigued by their product. So a few days ago when I had an appointment with a friend in Los Feliz I suggested that rather than the douchebaggery of Fred's or the pretentiousness of Psychobabble, we hit up the Umami Burger around the corner from Vermont Ave. on Hollywood Blvd.

Strangely, that is their "Hollywood" location, despite being in Los Feliz, and the location on Cahuenga in the heart of Hollywood is called the "Urban" location. One can presume that should an Umami Burger open Downtown it will be called the "Venice" location.

This Umami Burger was an overnight turnkey redo of the old Cobras & Matadors, retaining virtually all of the original design, embellishing it only with Kanji painted and/or carved on the walls and shelves full of wood Japanese dolls that look like crosses between bowling pins and Hello Kitty vibrators. It's the most elaborate of the three locations and has the most extensive beer selection: in addition to the well-curated line of draughts, the Hollywood Umami Burger also has a bottle bar of Japanese beers.

I had the Maple Bacon Pork Burger. I'd had my eye on that since I first read their menu a few months ago. It was fucking amazing. A well-balanced mix of ground pork and smokey chopped bacon that was impressively juicy. The burger's topped with a slightly sweet cranberry aioli, roasted & diced apples, and bits of crispy fried chard which provided an extra textural dimension that made the dish. Perhaps the best burger I've ever had.

The side of tempura onion rings was nice too--the fluffy tempura batter was still a bit greasier than the best tempura I've had at Japanese restaurants, but a fuck tonne lighter than the doughy messes that pass for "tempura" at most gastropubs and fusion joints. They're sprinkled with what appeared to be ground sea salt, which helped to unobtrusively salt the rings.

As a last note, the staff was friendly, attentive, and well-trained.

So Umami Burger, I think, has me hooked. Prices are reasonable ($10-$14 for good sized top-notch burgers) and the selection is dynamic and innovative without being over-elaborate or pretentious. It's that rare LA beast: a restaurant with a strong concept and big ambitions but where the food quality still, unequivocally, comes first.

Umami Burger (Hollywood)
4655 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, Ca 90027

Monday, January 18, 2010

HFF On The Road: Pleasanton, Ca

It's late January now, so it's time to assess all the fabulous dining I did in the corridors of suburbia while seeing friends and family over the holidays.


There are two kinds of suburbs: the Berkeleys, Napas, Albanys, Los Gatoses, and Healdsburgs of the world which cultivate their own indigenous culinary flowerbeds; and the Concords, Fremonts, San Ramons, and Livermores where chain casual dining is the name of the game and the locally owned businesses aren't much better. I spent most of my holiday in Pleasanton, which is largely the domaine of the latter.

A brief discussion of the I-680 corridor. The freeway runs the length of Contra Costa and Alameda counties in the eastern part of the East Bay--over the hills that separate Berkeley/Oakland/El Cerrito/Richmond from Concord/Orinda/Lafayette/Pleasant Hill. It continues all the way south into Santa Clara County, ending when it turns into I-280 and spins around back north through Downtown San Jose and up the Peninsula into SF. While the northernmost reaches of the freeway are in decidedly blue collar East Bay, most of the corridor, from Pleasant Hill through Fremont, cuts through one of the wealthiest swaths of cities in the country. Walnut Creek, Danville, San Ramon, Alamo, Blackhawk, Pleasanton, Sunol, and much of Fremont is home to million dollar homes, SUVs, and country clubs. Pleasanton is the wealthiest mid-sized city in the country according to the last census, Blackhawk is the originator of the zero-property-line McMansion, and Walnut Creek is the East Bay hub of luxury retailers. And yet....

I can count the restaurants of distinction on the back of one hand and still be able to pick my nose AND suck my thumb.

But here's the thing, I can't really fault the restaurants. I fault the uninquisitive audience they're cooking for. The fact is, why would you bother getting anything better than Sysco foodstuffs if your audience will: A, not know the difference and B, object to the nominal increase in price.

So where did I go?

Redcoats - A perfectly serviceable British-themed brewpub in Downtown Pleasanton. Astonishingly cheap, especially by LA standards: my happy hour 20 oz. pint of Guinness was $3. Pretty tasty fried green beans, shitty frozen wholesale french fries with a middling curry sauce, decent fried zucchini, and well-prepared fried fish with the same shitty fries. But given the prices, the good cheap drink selection, nice atmosphere, and late hours, it's one of the better places to eat in town.

Amakara - Across the freeway is Dublin, Pleasanton's autistic younger brother. Though autistic in the same way that one brother works hard and becomes a modestly successful lawyer while the other brother drinks and fucks his way through college and becomes a billionaire investment banker. Dublin, despite being half Pleasanton's size, is home to a million fast food restaurants and every big box retailer known, driven beyond the overpass by Pleasanton's "planned progress" requirements. Amakara was pretty damn good overall. My mackerel was overcooked, but the grilled edamame, jalapeno hamachi, and grilled oysters were quite delicious. Additionally, Amakara prepares an array of sushi rolls that rival anything out there and that are largely cheaper than its rivals. In particular the "Klondike Experience--" a massive presentation of crab, tempura shrimp, scallops, and three flavors of tobiko roe.

Oasis - Oddly masquerading as an Afghan Restaurant, which is a particularly strange pose to take in a relatively conservative part of California, and a Wine Bar, Oasis is really neither. It's a quasi pan-Mediterranean joint, which primarily means a bunch of mezze stuff interchangeable with any eastern Mediterranean/Central Asian restaurant, and a few actual Aghan things like borani. On the wine bar front, it was a wine bar inasmuch as anyplace that pours Rombauer btg can be a wine bar. The space is pretty and the location right on Main Street is quite nice.

My Parents' House - Killer food as always. Great adventurous cooking, paired with good wine, and the lack of a need to drive in this traffic cop-happy town means that the parents' house is always the best place to eat. Dining highlights included grilled mackerel with fresh pasta, poached salmon with capers, a version of cochinita pibil, and, as a more-than-honorable mention, a killer prime rib cooked by grandma.

And really the point of going home isn't to go out to eat, it's about about seeing friends and family, relaxing, and falling asleep on the couch after drinking a couple bottles of the wine.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On the De-Mythification of the Re-Mythification of Wine

Wine is the simplest alcoholic beverage to produce. At its most basic, wine is squished grapes sitting in a bucket, naturally fermented by wild yeasts. Unlike beer, grape juice doesn't need to be brewed (cooked) to make wine, it really is the beverage of the people. Anyone can make it in their garage rather quickly. There's a reason that the major beer producing countries of Europe like Britain, Germany, and the Czech Republic exist at the northernmost fringe of where wine grapes can grow. If they were further south, they would've just made wine.

America never got into the wine thing early on. It couldn't. The phylloxera aphid damaged the rootstocks of European vitis vinifera grapes, forcing winemakers to use indigenous vitis labrusca grapes which produced a sweet musky (aka "foxy") wine that was serviceable for home winemakers but lacked the refinement necessary to convert connoisseurs of European wines made with vinifera grapes.

On the other side of the country however, European grapes flourished. Phylloxera hadn't yet crossed the Rockies so the vinifera vines brought over by the Spanish produced quality wines throughout California and the Southwest. When that region became part of the US, winemaking was carried on and advanced primarily by Italian and Eastern European immigrants (take a look at the names of the oldest California vineyards). The United States finally began producing quality wine from European grapes on a consistent basis.

But that delay came at a price. The population centers of the country weren't interested in wine, preferring beer and whiskey. And the serious wine drinkers, centered in the Atlantic metropolises, were inclined to keep drinking the same French wines they always had.

And then there was Prohibition and any progress that had been made in American winemaking was destroyed.

All of this is a long way of explaining the process by which wine, a simple simple beverage, became the bastion of the American elite. A jealously protected symbol of wealth and refinement--for a long time "good wine" was expensive, rare, and cerebral. That perception persisted as we became reaccultured to wine and the availability of wine increased, helped by the fact that there really weren't a lot of "in between wines" available until the 1980s, wines that were neither ultrapremium nor jugged rotgut.

But as good and relatively affordable wines began multiplying, the desire to compare, categorize, score, and rank increased as well so that we could still find out which wines the discerning elite should be drinking, even as that wine-drinking elite began to number in the tens of millions.

When Robert Parker helped make wine scores a big business, a certain vocabulary for discussing wine materialized, based on nothing but the consensus of a fairly small clique of wine writers. Why "cocoa" versus "chocolate?" Why "framboise" instead of "raspberry?"

I'm not saying these aren't valid descriptors, but the homogenization of wine descriptors in the wine press has created a wine vocabulary hegemony. It facilitates the perception that wine tasting is something to only be enjoyed by the inaugurated few, who can perceive cedar and tobacco in Cabernet or leather and bacon in Syrah. Couple to that is the belief that to describe wine in a way that is more personal, using a vocabulary that is familiar and intimate to themselves, is invalid.

Fuck that.

I've had wines that taste like Jolly Ranchers, wines that taste like banana Now & Laters mixed with dirty guava. I've had wines that smell like sweaty gym socks, wines that smell like sweet musky pussy. Could I have described these using accepted wine terminology? I suppose. But I don't have any personal connection to most of the conventional wine lexicon. Maybe if I grew up amongst cedar trees or on a farm with drying tobacco I would.

Our senses of smell and taste are inimately tied to memories--who hasn't been transported back in time from the smell of a fresh fruit that used to grow in the backyard of your childhood house? From the aroma of a flower that reminds you of your high school sweetheart's shampoo? The taste of a papaya with a squeeze of lime that reminds you of.... ?

I ask.

I argue that the enjoyment from food and wine (beyond the basic survival needs) is in its ability to transport. And it can transport you one of two places: a place from your past, or a place you've never been. Either way, an impersonal lexicon of rote descriptors serves neither purpose. A bunch of words that sound good to a cabal of overweight white men in their 60s carries about as much meaning to a 23 year old Japanese woman as well, the inverse of Robert Parker's attraction to young Japanese women.

Not a lot.

The idea that you can objectively describe a wine's taste to somebody else and have that adequately reflect the next individual's tasting experience is as bizarre of an assertion as being able to describe sex with a specific partner and expect the next person's night in bed with your past lay to be exactly the same. Everyone has their own tastes and chemistry and that taste and chemistry changes not just day to day, but minute to minute.

You + your mind & body + your partner = More than the sum of those three.

You + your mind & body + your food and/or wine = More than the sum of those three.

The next time you taste wine, think back into your mental library of tastes and smells--those sips and aromas from your childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, that are memorable or meaningful, good or bad. I love the smell of toasted peanuts because of my grandma's peanut pie, I come close to vomiting whenever I smell sweet artifical cinnamon flavor because of an unfortunate incident involving Goldschlager when I was eighteen.

Can you tie those memories to what you're tasting and smelling?

It's a transformative experience, the involuntary Proustian memory, full of nostalgic sadness and bittersweet remembraces, often half-formed in the brain but fully-formed to the nth in the body, casued by applying adult understanding and adult regret to the lovingly beautiful memories of a time when everything was simple, honest, and intense: sucking on a watermelon Jolly Rancher while playing pickle with the neighbor kids on a hot summer night; eagerly and clumsily finding your way between a girl's thighs with your tongue for the very first time.

Despite the facts, nothing can ever taste as sweet and new again, but keep tasting wine with an open mind--you'll get close.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

HFF Quickie: Umami Burger

I was highly skeptical of Umami Burger when it first opened. Here's why:

First, shops that sell eight dollar burgers are up there with twelve dollar sandwiches on my list of businesses we don't need any more of.

Second, Adam Fleischman, Umami Burger's principal, has a questionable past in terms of sticking with his projects, having left both Bottle Rock and Vinoteque shortly after their respective openings.

Third, and most important, with the original location open for only a few months expansion plans were already underway. Premature expansion is one of the hallmarks of restaurant hubris that can rapidly contract or even demolish a once-mighty empire (cf. Gordon Ramsay, Steven Arroyo, SBE, Gaucho Grille, et al). With three locations and a food truck open after a mere year or so in business, that move looked like a hallmark case of overextension.

So while the jury's still out on how shrewd a move this Umami Burger saturation of LA is, I can't deny that the burger is really fucking good.

I hit up their food truck location since I happened to be in the area where it had parked. I ordered the basic "smashburger," a mobile take on their basic Umami Burger--about a third pound beef patty with sauce, sweet and tangy pickles, lettuce, tomato, and a killer soft roll--maybe a potato roll? Hard to tell. The burger was densely flavorful and, despite being cooked medium well/well, still chin-glisteningly juicy.

With decent fast-casual burgers consistently pushing past the six dollar mark, Umami Burger's rich, fresh burger that actually taste like meat (especially in the $8 food truck version) is a serious bargain.

Locations in Hollywood, Los Feliz, La Brea/Mid-Wilshire, and mobile throughout LA.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Meat on Meat: French Dip Fest '09

Arguing about French Dips is like arguing about pizza, burgers, or blowjobs--in the end, even the bad ones are pretty good. But I live in Downtown LA so I figured I should tackle the great Cole's v. Philippe's debate. Since this isn't a queer pretentious food blog I won't pretend to standardize my tasting. I didn't get the same dips at both locations, didn't go at similar times, or with the same people, or even in the same state of intoxication. Despite all that I think I can unequivocally say that, crappy service aside, Cole's knocks Philippe's out of the water.

And I say that with grave hesitation because there's a lot to like about Philippe's: it's family-owned and has been staffed by some of the same people for years. The sandwiches are a step cheaper than Cole's (though Cole's has just dropped its prices) and the casual cafeteria layout, despite its limitations, is better in a lot of ways than the dour inattentiveness of Cole's staff. But Philippe's meat is mediocre and the bread isn't any better. Cole's has good bread and rich, densely flavored meats. Time to break this down:

The Dip: Turkey
The Side: Potato Salad
Pros: Home-y atmosphere, more traditional pre-dipped sandwiches, cheap, (usually) quick, huge array of sides and non-dip entrees, good pie, dirt-cheap drinks (9 cent coffee, 60 cent iced tea)
Cons: Stale bread, bland meat, sometimes long lines, just overall meh

The Dip: Lamb
The Side: Spicy garlic fries & atomic pickles
Pros: Great meat, decent bread, good fries, tasty spicy pickles, classier vibe, jus on the side for self-administration of jus
Cons: Inattentive service, expensive drinks, limited selection,

(Also, what's the point of the spicy pickles? Spears on the side? Why not slices to put on the dip?)

With Cole's dips now $6.38 versus Philippe's $5.55, the price difference isn't as significant as before but you'll still have to contend with mixologist-priced drinks to jack up your tab.

In the end? Definitely don't stay away from Philippe's, but if you're only going to do one DTLA dip, do Cole's.