Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alright, so, okay, and...or am I just crazy?

So I've been blogging for a long time--like eight years which in internet years is basically longer than the universe has existed, which is roughly 6000 years.

I've never made an assertion of being anything other than a knowledgeable person with a decent amount of experience and some opinions. That's it. I don't deny that experts exist, but I do believe that 99% of people who claim to be experts are charlatans. They're not deliberate charlatans, they probably do think that they're experts. They're just deluded.

Either that or I'm an expert, and I really can't believe that to be true. I forget my wallet and go the whole day with my undershirt on backwards way too often for that to be the case. We're all just people who can be knowledgeable and opinionated in certain areas and maybe we like to share our knowledge and opinions with others. Hopefully we can do this in a way that entertains and engages.

The problem with "experts" is that it creates a one-sided non-dialogue. The expert creates, by definition, an inequal relationship except in cases where there are two experts on the same topic talking with teach other. And that's often boring. The expert is talking, the sea of non-experts is listening. This would be fine except that almost all experts are, as I said, Charlatans.

And not the Charlatans U.K.

I much prefer two (or more) curious knowledgeable people talking to each other about something they're passionate about and, in so doing, move toward a dialectical truth.

As skeptical as I am of self-professed experts, I'm even more dubious of institutions that seek to certify expert-dom. The reason? These institutions are never free. An organization that truly seeks to acknowledge experts would be free, independent, and anonymously peer-reviewed. It should not be an organization of questionable provenance into which applicants pay large amounts of money to attempt to become inducted into an alleged elite.

This is why the Court of Master Sommeliers can suck my cork.

Every single thing that is "learned" in the program can be learned by reading approximately two books, tasting a whole fuck tonne of wine, and learning how to tie a necktie. That's it. If the CMS was legit, it would let applicants test into whatever tier was appropriate. But that wouldn't work, because it needs the hundreds of people failing the $400 basic test to run its dubious operation. In college I didn't have to take Introduction to College Writing because I scored high enough on my high school AP test. I was none the worse for it. This makes sense since it saves time, money, and sanity.

And I can't tell you how many fucking people I've met who've passed multiple levels of the CMS programs who haven't known wine from a flaming bag of Jancis Robinson's feces.

(Which I think is a wine. Or at least should be.)

This means that either:

1. The CMS program is horribly flawed and allows for ignorant and unaccomplished people to pass its exams--in the same way that kids who go to private college graduate in four years but public school kids don't (I did).

2. The CMS doesn't care who the fuck it passes in its first tier or two as long as it can collect its $$$$ so that the handful of actual Master Sommeliers can enjoy their platinum codpieces and vajazzled pudenda.

If it's the former, it should be done away with. If it's the latter, it's shrewd but cynical. I'm okay with that (the free market after all is about taking ignorant peoples' money by making them think that they aren't), but I don't respect it.

Because the fact is, wine is a lifestyle--it's something that is lived, not just learned. And no examination and no one hour seminar is going to make up for that. No intense study for a year is going to make up for that. So why flush your money down the toilet when all you need to do is just keep doing and keep learning for the rest of your life?

Don't spend money for someone else to tell you what you already know or can quickly learn from reading Wikipedia, Wine Grape Glossary, and tasting dozens and dozens of wine. It's 2010, the need for instant recall of arcane knowledge no longer exists.

We have iPhones. There's an app for that.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This Shit's the Bomb: Saam, Los Angeles, CA

I'll admit that despite my foodie blog pretensions, I haven't been to all that many crazy destination restaurants. Matsuhitsa, Chez Panisse Cafe (maybe), Redd (barely)....that's pretty much it. It's hard to justify the price but I have found that once you hit a serious price threshold on food, the quality is almost invariably superb.

So when my friend invited me to dinner at Saam, Jose Andres' private tasting room at The Bazaar in the SLS Hotel I said, "Sure, what the fuck?" I'd eaten at Bar Centro at the Bazaar a couple of times and I'd been reasonably impressed.

But Saam was pretty fucking ridiculously amazing. An added bonus? Jose Andres was in the kitchen that day--I believe he's in town for the next several weeks, so take note cult-of-personality followers. And Andres is probably the most important and innovative chef currently working out of the USA. And that's what he was doing at The Bazaar too, expediting in the kitchen, not out gladhanding the crowd.

So even if you don't live in LA and you don't particularly care about food, you'll care about my course-by-course review of the twenty-two course tasting menu at Saam.

As a quick pre-cursor, Jose Andres is the sort of pioneer of what is rather incorrectly called "molecular gastronomy" by the food press. At its core it's the use of chemistry to explore new ways to experience food and drink. When it's great, you taste something like, say, a margarita in a whole new way while it stays at its core a margarita. When it's bad, it's a superfluity of salty air and seaweed foam.

Saam was great.

Course 1: The Golden Boy. Sherry and Cava with orange bitters and 14kt gold dust. A delicious drink. The gold powder suspended in the cava carbonation was hypnotizing in the same way that a ventriloquist's dummy is hypnotizing to homosexual hypnotists.

Course 2: Beet Tumbleweed. Shaved beets stuffed into a ball and then deep fried. It tasted like deep fried beets--sweet, earthy. I wanted a basketful.

Course 3: Olive Oil Bonbon. Thin lightly sweet candy shell filled with some of the most awesome extra virgin olive oil of all time. Very clean, fresh and grassy. This was the first "molecularly gastronomical dish of the night." Great.

Course 4: Bagel & Lox Steam Bun. Crazy interesting. Bagel dough stuffed with dill sour cream topped with smoked salmon. The first exceptionally innovative dish of the night. The dough tasted profoundly of bagel and the combination of flavors resulted in a perfect deconstruction of the classic lox bagel.

Course 5: Tuna Handroll 2009. Mini tuna handroll with top shelf chopped tuna, liquified nori, avocado puree, in a crispy cone. Fabulous

Course 6: Black Olives Ferran Adria. Adria, the crazy chef-dictator of El Bulli, is the inspiration behind this dish, olive juice spherified in a sodium alginate suspension. It burst with fresh olive saltiness.

Course 7: Jose's Combination. Perhaps the best dish of the night, a slice of Jamon Iberico loaded with Spanish sturgeon caviar. The meatiness of the delicious almond-fed ham bounced fabulously off of the salty zip of the caviar.

Course 8: Boneless Coconut Thai Chicken Wing. One of the few seafood-less dishes on the menu, this was great as well, even if the flavor was very TGI Fridays. The chicken was impeccably tender and the flavors of the Thai seasoning were well composed.

Course 9: Sea Urchin Ceviche. Sea urchin is delicious. Except when it sucks, which is often, and then sea urchin tastes like dirty sea water. But at Saam, the sea urchin was poppin' fresh. It was not dirty and Jersey-shore tasting. It was also topped with a hibiscus air which was quite complimentary.

Course 10: Chipirones en su Tinta. Squid braised in its own ink. Boring but tasty. One of the few dull dishes of the night. Not bad, just dull. The sauce (made from squid ink and shellfish stock) was tasty.

Course 11: Japanese Baby Peaches & Persimmons. Of the purely vegetarian dishes of the night, this was da bomb-ingest of da bomb. The persimmon was in the form of seeds and persimmon foam. Tasty cakes.

Course 12: Guacamole New Way. Here was a molecular gastronomy dish that was done without spherification or flavored air. Thin sliced avocado wrapped around tomato sorbet with onion foam and micro-cilantro. It was an incredibly complicated way to make guacamole, but it made me experience the flavors in a new way.

Course 13: Hot & Cold Foie Gras Soup with Corn. Melty foie gras and retarded good chicken broth topped with some whippity whip cream. Oh yeah, and corn nuts. Good. Straightforward.

Course 14: Norwegian Cigalas. I'm going to pretend this means Norwegian Cigar because that is awesome. Its a small Norwegian lobster that looks like, well, a shrimp-toned cigar. The meat was sweet and tender.

Course 15: Smoked Arctic Char with Tzatziki. This might've been the best dish of the night. The tzatziki was suspended in spherified awesomeness and the char was a fabulously tender piece of smokey fish goodness.

Course 16: Not Your Everyday Caprese. Tomato sorbet with a cherry tomato stuffed with sherry vinegar and paired with a spurty balloon of buffalo mozzarella whey.

Course 17: Wagyu Beef Cheeks. Finally another non-fish dish. The beef cheeks seared medium rare were served with some baby mandarins and caramelized cipollini onions. Great.

Course 18: Philly Cheesesteak. All good things in life are served by a monkey. Saam's cheesesteak is no exception. Nor is a cliche referring to something as being no exception a cliche. Except when it is. Which it is in this case. But yeah, there's a little brass monkey (that funky monkey) carrying a tray with a bit of air bread (like a football shaped cracker) inflated with creamy cheese and topped with seared slices of Wagyu beef.

Course X: The special supplement course. Mushroom risotto with piles of shaved black Italian truffles. Rich and earthy truffles to make James Spader spooge in his trousers complement some seriously stanky mushroom risotto. Really good and literally covered in shaved truffles.

Course 19: Dragon's Breath Popcorn. A signature dish that all the ladies love because it means you can breath smoke out of your face. A bit of praline popcorn frozen in liquid nitrogen that you eat with your mouth shut so that the liquid nitrogen smoke comes out your nose. For some reason. This was the most mediocre dish of the evening, though it did get me kinda high.

Course 20: Thai Dessert. Chocolate mousse with curried peanut dust and coconut sorbet. Tasty despite the peanut dust that clogged up my lungs like a Mississippi lung clogger.

Course 21: Hot Chocolate Pear. Poached pear with hot milk chocolate, some hazelnut shit, and pear sorbet. I liked this dish quite a bit, though it was really similar to the Thai Dessert in its basic composition. I guess in Spain they don't know about dark chocolate.

Course 22: Petit Fours. Totally innocuous chocolate tablets and candy bonbons. Nothing to really say. Pleasant.

I didn't have much booze since my dining partner wasn't a drinker, but the two glasses of tasty white wine were enough--a Cava Rosado and a great small-production Gruner Veltliner.

So at the end of the day a 22 course tasting menu for $95 (plus service) is probably the best deal in global fine dining, especially when Jose Andres is working in the kitchen. I mean seriously the regular tasting menu, without any supplements, is TWENTY-TWO COURSES for just NINETY-FIVE DOLLARS! Where is there a deal that fantastic in ultra fine-dining?

Plus the service is stellar, well-trained without being ponderous. You're even ushered to your table individually by a hostess--they never seat two tables at the same time at Saam. I think they leave at least fifteen minutes between seating people. The small dining room is attended by three waiters, plus the hostess.

23 courses! w00t!

Saam at the SLS Hotel
465 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, Ca 90048

Monday, February 22, 2010

Umami Burger Part 3: Umami Burger FAIL!

So if you've read this and this you know that I am a huge Umami Burger fan. I'm such a fan and I think so highly of their product that I was very excited to take a couple chef friends who were in town from Berkeley to try what I considered to be one of the best burgers I've ever had. It would figure that on this one occasion where I really needed Umami Burger to shine it would fall flat on its big, juicy, ground beef face.

To be fair, we were going to the heretofore unvisited original La Brea location--a spot known for its tiny-ness and lack of a liquor license, but it was a fairly inexcusable performance.

First, they only serve their burgers one temperature, medium-rare. That is not inherently a bad thing--it facilitates speed and efficiency to serve all your meat at one temperature since you can just crank the burgers off the grill regardless of particular orders. But here's the thing, it's pretty much the POINT of a hamburger to use meats you wouldn't necessarily serve medium rare to make the ground beef. I don't mean bad meat, I just mean meat from that 90% of the cow that isn't really suitable to be served dripping.

But fine, I'm with you, you do a medium rare burger, cool. I respect that. I don't recall the other Umami Burger locations being so temperature-specific, but I could be wrong--I will say that my burgers had been right around medium. But at the end of the day if you're going to serve a requisite medium rare burger, make sure it's medium rare. At our table, all of the beef burgers were dripping red rare. They were so rare that none of the patties even held together, this was in contrast to the previous burgers I've had which retained shape and firmness admirably while still being plenty juicy. The rare burgers soaked the bottom bun to the point of destruction, basically they were impossible to eat without a fork. And Umami Burger La Brea doesn't provide forks. This was again in contrast to the previous burgers I'd had which all toed that crucial line--always on the verge of juicy destruction, always succeeding in not going all the way over the top into sloppy burger wreckage.

Another oddity were the thrice-fried French fries, which were not very good. Thick, potato-y, and bland, they had the flavor and texture of undercooked elementary school lunch oven fries. The onion rings were a hit, however, as was my perfectly prepared turkey burger.

So what happened at Umami La Brea? I think they were busy and had very little oversight in the kitchen. When you're throwing up burgers all day you want to keep things simple and quick. Simple is fine, hence the uniform temperature burgers, but quick rapidly becomes too quick and you end up serving barely cooked burgers for the sake of, well, nothing really. Our burgers came out in a matter of minutes despite the dining room being packed. That's entirely unnecessary. I'm happy to wait another ten minutes for an appropriately cooked burger.

I'm going to chalk this up to an off day and I'll give the Umami Burger La Brea location another go-round. Everything else has been too damn good for me to assume this last experience to be anything but an outlier.

Umami Burger
850 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, Ca 90036

Thursday, February 11, 2010

HFF Quickie: The Lazy Ox Canteen

There's a certain category of restaurant that is under-appreciated. It's a restaurant where you can go for any purpose: on a date to have a fun time trying a bunch of different menu items; with your parents for a nice dinner where you leave sated; or alone at the bar for a late night snack and a glass of wine without shelling out too much $$.

I like restaurants where you can basically decide for yourself how much you want to pay, where portions are generally commensurate with price, where you can spend $25 on a late night bite for one or spend $150 on a splurge for two.

Little Tokyo's Lazy Ox Canteen, the newest addition to my 'hood, is just that place. The menu's an eclectic mix of Asian-tinged Cal-Med divided into three categories that can be roughly translated into "small appetizers," "large appetizers," and "small entrees," but that would be a very 2009 way of thinking about the menu. In reality it's a gently sloping curve of diverse deliciousness starting at $4 for a plate of house-made pickles on up to $25 for steak frites (or $42 for the steak for two on the specials menu). Which brings up the extensive chalkboard specials menu (easily visible in the hip but modest dining room) which serves to effectively double the size of the printed menu with a broad assortment of limited and seasonal selections.

The food has all been good to great, particular highlights were cauliflower gratin, slow-cooked pork shoulder, creamy farro, hand-torn egg pasta with egg & brown butter, and an awesomely retardedly good rice pudding with burnt caramel for dessert.

On the beverage front, Lazy Ox has a big well-priced wine list that is as eclectic as the menu, featuring that most endangered of all species, the $6 glass of wine at an upscale LA restaurant. In terms of beer Lazy Ox has a very nice selection of drafts and bottles, with a particular emphasis on Japanese beers and California micro-brews.

With a broad mixed-price menu, good fairly priced drinks (wines by the bottle are half-price on Mondays) and all day hours (11AM-3PM for lunch, 5PM-12AM for dinner), is Lazy Ox the perfect place for a nice but casual dinner in Downtown?

Pretty damn close.

The Lazy Ox Canteen
241 S. San Pedro St.
Los Angeles, Ca 90012

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Food Porn?

There's this term, "Food Porn," that some of you've no doubt heard of. It has two definitions--the more common definition is used to describe close-up, graphic pictures of food preparations often done in a manner to make the food look as intensely desirable as possible. In this age of ubiquitous low-res internet pornography, a more apt phrase perhaps would be "Food Erotica" for such pictures and not food porn.

The term Food Porn is also used to describe haute cuisine dining experiences, exotic cooking shows like Iron Chef, and technical ambitious cookbooks--things that showcase the most elaborate and extreme kitchen achievements. In this context the word is usually used derisively or at the very least dismissively--that just as pornography showcases unattainably built people performing unachievable acts, so too does food porn show impossibly talented people preparing impossible dishes.

This is a bullshit, thought-terminating cliche because:

1. Both pornography and Iron Chef show actual people doing actual things and

2. With the exception of hard to obtain and/or expensive ingredients and hard to physically achieve positions and/or expensive plastic surgery, the vast majority of what is done on Iron Chef and in most pornography is achievable by the average person in the average home. Just because you aren't John Elway doesn't mean that throwing a football around isn't pleasurable.

3. The participants in both pornography and on Iron Chef do enjoy most of their activities, both the product(s) of their labors and the process by which it is obtained. Objectors would have you believe that is not the case.

So if you don't want to try and make trout ice cream with foie gras chantilly because you don't think you'll like it, that's fine, and if you don't want to try out froggy style for fear of penile fracture, that's fine too. But to deny the validity of either on the premise that there can not be anything aspirational for the average person is ludicrous and regressive. Food porn can undoubtedly provide positive inspiration for the kitchen and porn porn can provide positive inspiration for the bedroom, den, conservatory, Volkswagen backseat, or BART station bathroom--whether or not you successfully execute that which you're trying to imitate.

So be adventurous or else you'll just eat meat and potatoes the rest of your life. And hell, meat and potatoes do hit the spot every now and then--but it can never hurt to try new things, at least not very much.