Friday, April 30, 2010

WP24 - Los Angeles, Ca

I had the rather fortuitous opportunity to go dine at WP24, the ass-slappingly new Wolfgang Puck restaurant on the 24th floor of the ass-slappingly new Ritz-Carlton at LA Live. I had the even more fortuitous opportunity of having someone else pay. Bonus. Despite being in LA for a couple years now, I don't believe I'd ever experienced a Wolfgang Puck-branded enterprise, other than his delightful canned soups, frozen pizzas and that one hooker in Salzburg.

It was pretty fucking good. The restaurant. The hooker was meh.

I'm a skeptic, especially when it comes to restaurants and especially when it comes to celebrity chef restaurants taking up an entire floor at a brand new swank hotel in a city known for beautiful, expensive restaurants with terrible food and shittier service. Despite only being in its third week of operation, WP24 is rocking out pretty hard.

Make sure when you enter the hotel you ask for directions, even if you know how to get to the restaurant. Since it's the Ritz-Carlton you'll be escorted by an impeccably groomed and friendly employee all the way from wherever you shambled in off the street all the way to the host station at the restaurant. The restaurant takes up the entire 24th floor, starting with a relaxed and spacious lounge--I believe the lounge serves the full dining room menu as well as its own menu of bar bites. An army of thin, beautiful hostesses escort you through the lounge to the dining room itself, past a bamboo forest of wine racks, each of which carries exactly 36 bottles of wine which, as far as I learned, have no intention of being opened any time soon. Then you are delivered to the army of thin, beautiful hostesses who handle the dining room proper.

The dining room is sumptuous, modern, and only ever-so-slightly overwrought. That's a compliment in LA. We were sat in a very cool booth/table hybrid with snooze-inducingly comfortable chairs. Three separate staff members simultaneously placed the napkins in each of our laps. It was a beautifully clear day so were able to enjoy a 270-degree view of LA at sundown. Gorgeous.

Already my experience was worth the (hypothetical) money. The space is beautiful, the atmosphere is welcoming, and the staff is very well trained--Klaus Puck (Wolfgang's brother and his front-of-house admiral) left the now-defunct Vert Brasserie to oversee the team at WP24 as well as the Bar & Grille on the ground floor of LA Live. Some of the younger staff members were visibly nervous, which is to be expected in a new restaurant with such grand expectations, but the waiters and managers were placid yet affable. I didn't really care how the food was, as long as it didn't shit the bed, as my sainted grandmother used to say.

But in the end the food was pretty damn good. The menu shares the Asian-Continental fusion style of many of the Puck restaurants--this skewed more heavily to the Asian (primarily Chinese, but also Indian and Thai) side. We had the kitchen send out a few of their signature appetizers. The prawn toasts (from the lounge menu) were warm, buttery and perfectly seasoned. Ditto the lobster and prawn spring rolls--fried crisp without a drop of excess oil. WP24 makes liberal use of pork belly--the pork belly bao was fatty and meaty without being overly sweet. That was followed by the sauteed duck liver and ume bao which was my favorite of the first course: sweet, tart and rich without being unctuous.

The wine list is excellent--originally assembled by Spago sommelier Chris Miller and now overseen by Klaus--with a beautiful selection of aromatic whites, ranging from the bone-dry to the semi-sweet, and a great selection of medium-bodied reds; perfectly selected for the cuisine. Mark-ups were not unreasonable, hovering right around 4-4.5 times wholesale, which is on the lower end for a fine-dining restaurant of this caliber. WP24 wine prices are in line with a slew of much more casual and poorly programmed restaurants in LA. We had an excellent Alsace Riesling before drinking our own wine with the main courses.

I had the Assam Prawns--five or six good sized shrimp simmered in a garlic-cardamom curry and served over rice. The curry was amazing--deep, concentrated slow-cooked flavors with a healthy but not overpowering spiciness; well-balanced and not overly salty. The prawns were plump and meaty though there was a barely perceivable "old" flavor on the finish of the meat that made me think that they had either been thawed and refrozen or had been ever-so-slightly freezer-burned.

I tasted my two companions' entrees as well. The Kobe steak, seared rare, was meaty and tender with an excellent sweet peppery sauce. The Angry Lobster was delicious. A whole two-pound Maine lobster, quartered live and rubbed with cayenne, salt and flour and then pan-seared before being finished in the oven. The spicy heat permeated the flesh and is complimented perfectly by the garlic-lime sauce. We shared a side of fried rice with Lap Cheung sausage and the best fresh peas I've had in a while. We also had a side of sauteed Chinese greens (a personal favorite of mine from my Daimo days) which were tasty.

Despite our better judgment we shared two desserts--I can't remember exactly what they were since we didn't order them and the dessert menu's not on the website. They were chocolate-oriented and well-executed. The stand out was the "Thai Ovaltine" which was a malted milk chocolate mousse on a chocolate crust with a chili-lime dusting. I think. It was a long night.

The restaurant is expensive to be sure but it's not overpriced. It might even be on the lower-end of restaurants of its type in Los Angeles. Appetizers are mostly in the mid to upper teens and the main courses start in the low 30s. Sides and desserts are in the $10-$15 range. Couple those prices with a wine list that features some excellent selections for under $50, and you can have an honestly elegant night in Downtown LA that isn't obscenely expensive.

My only significant complaint with the whole experience was that the menu was very safe. It was the same Asian Fusion cuisine that California's been churning out pretty reliably since Wolfgang Puck helped introduce the style three decades ago. It was probably the best-executed example of that style I've ever had, sure, but I always appreciate when even established successful chefs continue to challenge their diners.

But that's a minor complaint overall. Check out WP24. Great restaurant.

900 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, Ca 90015

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Double Down

Despite what many think, I”m really not too pretentious about food. I sneak a Del Taco burrito when I need a quick bite that’s easy to eat while driving. I’ve eaten at least one Lunchable in the last year. I eagerly and excitedly ate a McRib.

So as a naturally curious person who has a deep sense of irony, I was pretty damn excited about the Double Down.

For those uninitiated, the Double Down is Kentucky Fried Chicken’s new “sandwich.” It consists of bacon, cheese and special sauce sandwiched between two signature fried chicken breasts. No bread. Fried chicken replaces the bread.

(I will note that you can get the Double Down with “grilled” chicken, but that would be moronic. The calorie and fat difference is negligible and the KFC grilled chicken contains powdered beef. That’s as unnecessary as condoms at an open-carry rally.)

Unlike with the McRib, which I consider to be the spiritual cousin of the Double Down in its culinary fuck you absurdity, I found absolutely no pleasure whatsoever in the Double Down. The chicken breasts were dry and not crispy. The bacon and cheese were impossible to taste. The spicy sauce was pretty nice, I’ll admit. The McRib was meaty and pleasant, albeit fairly flavorless and too sweet. The Double Down is a fuck you salt fest that tea bags your taste buds and leaves your esophagus slightly mummified.

And can we talk about MSG? Now I am by no means averse to MSG. It’s a seasoning that’s been used for centuries. But KFC both seasons the chicken itself with MSG and adds copious MSG to the chicken breading. I think that the Colonel’s secret 11 herbs and spices are just 11 different varieties of MSG.

The sandwich has a lot of salt. It has something like 1400mg of sodium. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s almost 75% of your RDA on a 2000 calorie diet. It’s highly unnecessary. The Double Down could’ve had half the salt and still been too salty.

But I appreciate KFC’s take-no-prisoners approach, I just wish the sandwich was better. I mean, fuck it, I don’t get the uproar. There are a whole fuck tonne of sandwiches that are one chicken breast with bacon, cheese and sauce between a bun. I think that the subtraction of the bun and the addition of another chicken patty is a net nutritional gain.

Unlike the McRib, which I will recommend as a one-time indulgence, I see nothing redeeming in the Double Down, especially given its $5.49 price tag. Several thumbs down.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Alcohol in Wine

So here's a really fucking stupid article in the Wall Street Journal:

Wines That Pack A Little Extra Kick

First of all, the Wall Street Journal is about as progressive on wine matters as Michelle Bachman on a backwards running train into the Spanish Inquisition. Anybody looking at the Wall Street Journal, Wine Spectator, Robert M. Parker Jr., or, well, I could go on, for any kind of taste-making wine journalism could be more productive by hand trimming their front lawn with rubber scissors. Seriously, these guys wouldn't know what's actually going on in the cutting edge wine world if the cutting edge wine world sodomized them with a broken beer bottle. Second of all, the article conflates several points.

1. It conflates the belief that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir shouldn't be over 14% alcohol with the contention that no wine should be over 14% alcohol. I know the author really wants to defend the wines that he loves but one should not induce a journalistic article based on an opinion that is contrary to the facts presented. Objecting to a 14.5% pinot noir is not the same as objecting to a 14.5% zinfandel. 14.5% zinfandel is standard, 14.5% pinot noir is an abomination unto god and your children.

2. It suggests that such dogmatic opposition to wines based upon a specific alcohol percentage is widespread. It's not. Like all blanket disqualifications it's the rhetorical tool of the desperate poseurs, faded authorities attempting to reclaim lost glory, or an arbitrary distinguishing marker for those chronically desperate for attention. Most sane wine folks have tastes and preferences but fully acknowledge that there are blurred borders, not hard and fast thresholds. And it neglects the fact that there is a grey area in terms of the TTB that can be as much as 0.5% each way so really a 14% (reported) alcohol wine could be 13.5% to 14.5%. And so if you set a specific alcohol threshold, well, the arbitrary closed mindedness of that is self-evident.

3. And the selling point of the article, that "alcohol delivers flavor," is asinine. Alcohol is a by-product of ripeness. Ripeness produces immediately pleasurable sweet, full-fruited flavors. Alcohol has nothing to do with it. If anything, alcohol deadens or interferes with the other flavors of wine--alcohol's a necessary byproduct of quality wine production and all wines have plenty of alcohol, but it has nothing to do with actual quality of the wine.

4. It references this dubious idea that wine over 14% is classified as "dessert wine." It's not. It might sound good, but so do the Rolling Stones and the Rolling Stones suck buffalo cock. I know it's fun to think that we have these magical outdated alcohol rules that classify things in comically outdated ways, but the real world is actually (usually) more logical than we hope. Wine is taxed the same way from 0.5%-14% and then it's taxed 50 cents/gallon higher from 14.1%-21%. It's not called "dessert wine" it's just a higher percentage wine and taxed accordingly. Plus, lest we get too excited about such a HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE increase in taxes, that equals all of an additional 10 cents a bottle in taxes. It's really not particularly significant to wine pricing on any wine more than, well, two bucks.

Wine grapes are different. Some get riper than others, some ripen earlier than others. There's a huge range of styles of wine. Some wines can be 12% alcohol and suck, but some wines at 16% can be really good (you heard me!). What it comes down to is appropriateness for the varietal and quality of the wine-making. That's it. I've had 16% wines that taste like 13% wines and I've had shitty 13% wines that taste like equal parts Concord grape juice and rubbing alcohol.

Like the wine that you like and don't make apologies for it. But also don't attack the haters of your wine style with dubious statistics and misinformation. While that has become the American way, it shouldn't be. It's not adversarial, it's a matter of taste. Have enough balls to like what you like and not feel assaulted by provincial douche bags who need to add significance to their lives by ensconcing them in arbitrary rules. What they don't know is that it won't fix their impotency, but it will let them pretend they aren't impotent for another year or so.

But, in the end, please don't overly manipulate wine in pursuit of scores or the bullshit mainstream wine zeitgeist. Good honest wine will prevail over all pretenders. If we just drink the wine that is appropriate--i.e. the wine that produces naturally from a region's grapes, soil, climate, and tradition--then we'll have a world of unique, distinctive wine and not a world of dark, inky, high-alcohol bullshit that all tastes the fucking same: like butter and candied Grenache.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Double Down

Just as I did with the McRib, I will make a full report on the bun-less fried chicken & bacon sandwich that is KFC's Double Down ASAP.

It debuts on Monday.

Stay tuned.

Monday, April 05, 2010

More Pulled Pork in the Mix

I've already written about my love of pulled pork sandwiches here, but I figured I should throw out a couple new ones I've tried recently.

The York: I finally got out to this fabled gastropub tucked away in a secluded corner of Highland Park. Really damn good Carolina-ish sandwich. I say Carolina-ish because, although the meat was moist and vinegar-y, it also had a healthy dose of a sweet barbecue sauce--something very un-Carolinian. But the meat quality was excellent and the fresh slaw was a nice complement.

Spring Street Smokehouse: Meaty pulled pork with nice chunks of pork and good residual fat. The smokiest of all the pulled pork I've tried, but the smoke was that intense but cheap quality. Really sweet sauce--Kansas City in style. Decent slaw and well priced at $9.95 (including a side).

Do these affect my conclusions from the previous post? Not really. My favorite for the price is still probably the Oinkster (plus those fries!) and both Lou and T-Rex use the best damn pork you can get. But the York is pretty good and their beer selection rocks. Spring Street won't win any awards, but its earnest sluttiness is appreciated and the traditional bbq-house style sides is another plus.

Still to try? Sketch in Culver City and Zeke's Smokehouse in WeHo.

The York

Spring Street Smokehouse