Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Escape to L.A., rev. ed.

L.A. by night fig. a: L.A. by night

It took about 18 hours, but, suddenly, there I was, in Downtown L.A.

crossing the Rockies fig. b: continental divide

I'd had a particularly scenic transcontinental flight, one that provided stunning views of the Rockies, and an equally stunning sunset descent over L.A. county and into LAX.

Standing Rib fig. c: Standing Rib, 1962

I didn't fully realize it at the time, but a print by Roy Lichtenstein that I saw in the Museum of Contemporary Art's 30-year retrospective on my first day in L.A. proved to be emblematic, as you'll see.

Cole's at night fig. d: Cole's by night

For my very first meal, I walked from my hotel on South Grand to Cole's on 6th to have my very first authentic L.A. French Dip sandwich. Cole's is one of the two Downtown L.A. establishments that claims to have invented the French Dip sandwich over a century ago now, back in 1908.

fig. e: Cole's by Cole's

Cole's is definitely the hipper of the two, and the joint was jumping when I arrived: the stereo was cranked up, the drinks were flowing, and the crowd was young and happening. Despite their insistence that the City of Los Angeles authenticated their claim to being the "originators of the French dip" back in the 1970s, Cole's definitely comes across as the challenger at the moment. This isn't a bad thing. It's made them hungrier to assert themselves. So the place was given a loving restoration a few years ago. And they also picked up an executive chef. But, more importantly, it's made them very assertive with their menu. Their house mustard is a potent, horseradish-laced, "Atomic" concoction. Their pickles are homemade, half-sour, and chili-laced--not for the faint of heart. They, too, have been given the (well-deserved) "Atomic" moniker. Their beef French dip sandwich is a hefty, freshly carved number that comes with the jus served demurely on the side. In other words, here you dip the sandwich yourself, according to your whims. Beer selection is good, with three Germans (Bitburger, Spaten, and Franziskaner) and Anchor Steam (on tap) being among the highlights. The bar is an early-20th-century classic and it's fully loaded to boot.

Grand Central Market fig. f: neon market

The Grand Central Market has been a Downtown L.A. institution for roughly 90 years now. My camera might have been attracted to the China Cafe and its iconic, Edward Hopper-esque


sign, but I was on the prowl for tacos--fish tacos, quite specifically--so I made a beeline to Maria's Fresh Seafood. The majority of my compadres were having seafood caldos, and they looked and smelled delicious, but I went with the fish taco special: two fish tacos, salad, salsa, crema, beans, and rice, all for a fiver. So simple, so satisfying, so good.

Pacific Dining Car fig. g: all aboard!

Later that day was the splurge of the trip: dinner for three at the Pacific Dining Car. At 89 years old, the Pacific Dining Car is another venerable L.A. institution. The Pacific Dining Car has a reputation for being one of the city's finest steakhouses, but it's also known for its main dining room, which simulates the interior of an early-20th-century railway dining car, as well as its associations with the writer James Ellroy. The Pacific Dining Car is something of an anomaly among high-class restaurants: it's open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it has a special late-night menu that's made it popular with the city's nighthawks. Dinner consisting of a 16-ounce ribeye (cooked a perfect medium-rare), creamed spinach, a salad, a nice bottle of wine, and some impeccable service was pricey, but, man, did it ever hit the spot. The only disappointment: no sign of the "demon dog of American crime fiction."

mini Tabasco fig. h: the big and the small 1

Bottega Louie is an oddly named restaurant with a choice Downtown location, a fancy Italian pizza oven, a full-size, open-format kitchen, an open-format pastry kitchen, a bar/café area, a massive, sprawling floor plan, towering 50-foot ceilings, and a veritable army of waitstaff. How they've managed to survive the Great Recession, I have no idea. Must have something to do with their appealing menu, because Bottega Louie is packing 'em in. I was so overwhelmed by the immensity of the operation, that the only photograph I took was of the miniature Tabasco sauce bottle that came with my brunch.

The brunch menu had so many tantalizing options that I actually had a hard time making a selection. I ended up settling on the scrambled eggs with burrata, pancetta, caramelized cippolini onions, and oyster mushrooms, and I was happy I did.

lemon macaron fig. i: étude en jaune

Bottega Louie's pastry division specializes in macarons. Our favorite was the lemon, which also made for a good photograph.

fig. j: Park's by Park's

Between Saveur's Los Angeles issue and my friend MS's 411, I had more Koreatown tips than I knew what to do with. Never did get around for going for KFC (Korean fried chicken), but I did make it out for Korean BBQ with a gang of fellow travelers. We could see and smell all kinds of delicacies as we waited to be seated. (Actually, the wonderful aromas began from the moment we got out of our taxi.) But Park's marbled short ribs looked particularly tantalizing and came highly recommended. In addition to the short ribs, we ordered marinated shrimp and bulgogi. Later, I was kicking myself for not ordering the pork belly, which got raves in Saveur. There was a moment there, right after we ordered, when we panicked, thinking we needed to order some vegetables to go along with all that meat. Then I realized, this is a Korean BBQ restaurant--the condiments are coming. In fact, the folks at Park's covered our table with more condiments than I've ever seen. And seconds later the first of our mains--the short ribs--were sizzling away on our tables built-in grill. From the moment we wrapped our first lettuce leaves and rice wrappers around those tender morsels of meat smothered in Korean pickles of all sorts, we were hooked.

Hollywood Farmers Market fig. k: orange, bowl

Coming from the relative deprivation of Canada in late-winter, the Hollywood Farmers' Market was a vision of plenitude that I found a bit overwhelming. Just the citrus alone was more than I could handle. All those varieties of oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, and lemons, all ripe and sweet and bursting with flavor. The daisy tangerines, in particular, tasted like nectar. Then there were the nuts--pistachios and almonds, in particular. And the dried fruit, including Mission figs the likes of which I'd never had before. And then there was all the stuff I couldn't even bear to look at--fruits, vegetables, herbs, cheeses, etc.--seeing as I was going to be back on a plane 12 hours later. What I did take advantage of were the tamales with green chiles, ricotta, and queso, and a rich, expertly made macchiato from Cafécito Organico, who have a shop in Silver Lake, but who go to the trouble of setting up an espresso machine on wheels, as it were, at the market. Ah, California!

LA Marathon 2010 fig. l: showtime!

Buzzing with vitamin C and high on caffeine, I made my way into Hollywood. The L.A. Marathon was on and the tail end of the pack was making its way down Hollywood Boulevard, so the streets were closed off to anything but pedestrian traffic.

Grauman's Chinese fig. m: transference

I checked out a few Hollywood pilgrimage points, like the Egyptian/American Cinémathèque and Musso & Frank's Grill, and when I got to Grauman's Chinese Theater I witnessed a peculiar act of transference: a man was posing for a photograph in the Forecourt of the Stars, his hand placed carefully in Al Pacino's handprint.

Umami Burger's Hatch Burger fig. n: burger by Umami Burger

A couple of hours later, I'd made my way back to Space 15Twenty, adjacent to the Hollywood Farmer's Market, so that I could experience my very first Umami Burger. I considered having the signature Umami Burger, with its famed "umami x 6" flavor explosion, and I contemplated the SoCal Burger, with butter lettuce, oven-dried tomato spread, house-made American cheese, and caramelized, but ultimately I went with the Hatch Burger, which marries 4 different types of roasted green chiles with UB's house cheese. I'm happy to say that Umami Burger's Hatch Burger lived up to all expectations (and with all the hype surrounding UB these days, expectations were high). The patty was gigantic, tender, barely holding together, nice and rare, and juicy as all get-out. The bun was simple, but fresh, toasted, and tasty, and perfectly capable of holding the contents together. The toppings were dreamy. I ate the whole thing in about 32.3 seconds, and that was only because I made a conscious effort to "take my time." I had to restrain myself from ordering a second burger for dessert.

Philippe fig. o: the big and the small 2

Just when you thought I couldn't possibly eat any more beef on a 3-day furlough, I closed out my all-too-brief culinary tour of Los Angeles with a trip to Philippe's to try out their interpretation of the French Dip sandwich. Yes, Philippe's is the other Downtown L.A. establishment that claims to have invented the French Dip or French-dipped sandwich back in 1908, the place the folks at Cole's refer to as "that other downtown sandwich shop." Philippe's functions counter-style, they have sawdust on the floor, they house a satellite exhibit of the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation in their back room, and they serve their sandwiches pre-dipped (to order). The vibe is both more family-friendly and more old-school than Cole's; it's not nearly as hip. Philippe's mustard may not be "atomic," but, by God, it too is "hot... but good!" And their French-dipped beef sandwich was delicious--a little messier than their competitor's, perhaps, but it didn't last long enough to become an issue. I'm not one to waffle when it comes to these kinds of debates--I tend to have strong opinions about such things--but, I have to say: I liked them both, they both had their charms. And, to be honest, I don't really care who the true originator is. I'm not an Angeleno, so I'm not all that invested in the issue. I'm just glad they're both still around, still a vital part of L.A.'s downtown dining scene over 100 years after they first opened their doors.

I really didn't intend for my Escape to L.A. to turn into a 3-day beef binge (with just a couple brief interludes), but sometimes you just gotta go with the flow. Plus, maybe this is could be the beginning of a themed series on L.A. Here's hoping. Think of the possibilities: L.A. Pork, L.A. Fish, L.A. Vegetables, L.A. Bread...


chocolate room fig. p: chocoholics, report!

If you're in Los Angeles in the next little while, do make a point of visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art's phenomenally rich and varied "Collection: MOCA's First 30 Years." Not only will you get to see Lichtenstein's Standing Rib, alongside works by Warhol, Arbus, Frank, Stella, Levitt, Rauschenberg, Matta-Clark, Goldin, Judd, Smithson, Baltz, Berman, and many, many others, but you'll have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the considerable sensorial pleasures of Ed Ruscha's Chocolate Room (yes, that's actual chocolate lining the walls).

the gang's all here fig. q: the gang's all here!

And if you're already Downtown, and you're something of a film buff, you might want to pop in to the Biltmore Hotel to visit their gallery of photographs documenting the many Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards ceremonies that were held there between the early 1930s and the early 1940s.

Cole's, 118 East 6th Street, Los Angeles (Downtown), (213) 622-4090

Maria's Fresh Seafood, Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles (Downtown), (213) 624-2378

Pacific Dining Car, 1310 West 6th Street, Los Angeles (Downtown), (213) 483-6000

Bottega Louie, 700 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles (Downtown), (213) 802-1470

Park's BBQ, 955 South Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles (Koreatown), (213) 380-1717

Hollywood Farmers' Market, Ivar & Selma Avenue, Los Angeles (Hollywood), (323) 463-3171

Umami Burger, 1520 North Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles (Hollywood), (323) 469-3100 [with other locations on South LaBrea and on Hollywood Blvd.]

Philippe's, a.k.a. Philippe The Original, 1001 North Alameda St., Los Angeles (Downtown), (213) 628-3781


Saturday, March 27, 2010

New York Winterlude 3

Sadly, day 3 of New York Winterlude 2009 was only a half day. For a good reason, though. We had plans to make it to the Catskills by mid-afternoon, so that we could relax and have dinner and an overnight with friends in the country. So we got up early, picked up our car, and made our way down to Greenwich Village.

There we paid quick visits to two Greenwich Village classics for the very first time. Both had been part of our constellation of New York pilgrimage destinations for years, but "our constellation of New York pilgrimage destinations" looks a little like the Milky Way--it could keep us busy for years. Plus, it's always changing.

ottomanelli & sons fig. a: two little birds

Anyway, first on our itinerary was the legendary O. Ottomanelli & Sons on Bleecker Street, a true neighborhood butcher famed for their meat-cutting prowess and the superior quality of their meats (including free-range, organic, and pastured). We were on the lookout for osso buco, and osso buco was what we found. They weren't cheap, but these were big, meaty shanks, and our butcher was all too happy to talk technique with us. We gazed longingly at O. Ottomanelli & Sons' famous aged steaks, but the only cooler we'd brought along was our Igloo Playmate, so we had to limit ourselves to those shanks.

murray's fig. b: we know cheese!

Next stop: Murray's. We'd visited Murray's Grand Central location, but this was our very first time visiting the flagship store, and it was just as mind-blowing as we expected. The selection was unreal--including dozens of artisanal American cheeses from the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast that we'd never heard of--but even better was the service. These people knew their cheeses. These people were passionate. They also knew their pairings. And they were generous. We sampled so many cheeses, and so many wonderfully complex cheeses, that our tongues were positively tingling afterwards. We picked out a couple of New York cheeses and a heady Basque number, scribbled down some wine notes, and somehow we managed to pull ourselves away... Brooklyn. There we'd decided to finish our pizza tour with a visit to a (then) recently opened pizzeria that had been highly recommended to us by some of our readers (you know who you are). Now, Motorino has since climbed to the upper echelons of New York's pizza world--hell, they even took over Una Pizza Napoletana's fabled East Village location when Anthony Mangieri decided to leave New York for sunnier climes--but at the time they were still relatively under the radar (i.e., all the hardcore NY pizzaheads had at least heard about them, Pete Wells had written a "dining brief" about them for the New York Times, but Frank Bruni had yet to put them at the top of his list of New York's best "New-Generation Pizzerias," and Sam Sifton's review was still a year away).

motorino 1 fig. c: mmmmotorino

We had two stunning pizzas there, including the Margherita DOC you see pictured above, and we couldn't believe our eyes when we saw their insanely generous lunchtime prix fixe menu, but what really impressed us was the single-minded determination of Motorino's chef and chief pizzaiolo, Mathieu Palombino. He was busy training a couple of new hires that day and all I'm going to say is that he knew exactly what characterized a Motorino pizza and he was absolutely unwilling to accept anything less. No wonder our pies were so damn perfect.

motorino 2 fig. d: sage advice

We left Brooklyn totally satisfied and utterly convinced that, if anything, New York's Pizza Revival was picking up steam, and we made our way onto the Palisades Parkway and headed north.

winter wonderland fig. e: winterlude's end

O. Ottomanelli & Sons, 285 Bleecker Street, New York, (212) 675-4217

Murray's Cheese, 254 Bleecker St., New York, 888.MY.CHEEZ or (212) 243-3289

Motorino, 319 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn, (718) 599-8899 & 349 East 12th Street, East Village, Manhattan, (212) 777-2644

Saturday, March 06, 2010

New York Winterlude 2, rev. ed.

Day 2 of our Winterlude began with us roughing it on breakfast (we packed a makeshift Schaller & Weber sausage special), and hitting the pavement. I had some business to attend to, so I dragged Michelle on an architectural tour of Lower Manhattan that began with us emerging from the subway underneath the Municipal Building,

municipal bldg. fig. a: up from the underground

and focused on an area around the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street.

cloud-scrapers fig. b: cloud-scrapers of New York

It also involved me posing Michelle in front of locations from old films and tempting her with hot dog carts.

wall st. 1
wall st. 2 figs. c & d: Wall Street

By lunchtime, we'd made our way back to Midtown and had the time to check out Raymond Hood's News Building en route to a lunch date Michelle had arranged for us.

encounters at the end of the world fig. e: under the Hood

I'd read a fair bit about Tudor City over the years, but I'd never seen it up close until this visit, in February 2009.

tudor city fig. f: cloud-scrapers of Midtown

It took a reservation at Michael White's Convivio to finally get up close and personal with Fred C. French's strange Tudor Modern (Early Modern Modern?).

convivio 3 fig. g: Early Modern Mod

New York magazine described White as "the Mario of Midtown." As much as we may be big fans of Mario Batali's cookbooks, we wouldn't know. One visit to Batali's Otto hardly seems like enough of a measuring stick. What we can tell you, however, is that Convivio is a true jewel.

convivio 2 fig. h: the writing is on the wall

In fact, it's quite likely the finest Italian restaurant either of us has ever visited. Expert antipasti featuring house salumi, a supernaturally plump, juicy grilled quail appetizer, homemade pasta with crab and a truly luscious sea urchin-based sauce, and a utterly superior grilled bistecca were just some of the pleasures of one of our absolute top meals of 2010.

The lowdown:

sfizi: marinated shitaakes, mellow pickled cucumbers, spicy olives w/ spicy salami, burrata with tomatoes and herbed oil w/ toasts

antipasto: grilled quail skewer, bacon, onions, shitakes, chives, vin cotto

primi: cod-stuffed ravioli, many egg-yolk pasta, sausage, rapini, herbed oil; saffron gnocchetti, crab, sea urchin, breadcrumbs

secondo: bistecca, grilled, w/ winter vegetables (carrots, brussels sprouts leaves, etc.) and a peppery wine sauce

dessert: lemon semifreddo, pistachio sablé, candied pistachios, acacia honey wafer, candied citrus peel, acacia honey ring with vanilla bean

convivio 1 fig. i: Convivio dreaming

And while on this particular occasion we'd decided to cut loose and splurge a little, we realized that lunch at Convivio had the potential to be very affordable indeed. Portions were surprisingly generous, and we pictured ourselves returning and having a (transcendental) pasta lunch at Convivio's bar.

bonnie slotnick 1 fig. j: exterior, Bonnie Slotnick

As you know, we've scoured other New York bastions of culinary arts & letters before, but, oddly, this was the first time we'd visited Bonnie Slotnick. Not for lack of trying, though. We'd tried to visit on two or three occasions, but had always managed to swing by on days where the store happened to be closed (in spite of its well-deserved notoriety, Bonnie Slotnick remains a very small operation, so hours can be irregular).

bonnie slotnick 2 fig. k: interior, Bonnie Slotnick

Anyway, we were happy to finally get a chance to explore Bonnie Slotnick. Not surprisingly, we found plenty of material to keep us occupied and broaden our horizons, so we ended up spending about two hours there. We also had a long conversation with the chatty, gracious clerk (Bonnie passed through at one point to drop off her latest haul of books, but otherwise she was on the hunt). We could have easily spent another two hours. It felt like a home away from home.

company fig. l: electric Company

That night we met R & M at Jim “Our pies are not always round" Lahey's (then) newly opened Company (a.k.a. Co., but not to be confused with David Chang's Ko). We'd heard great things, our Sullivan Street slices the day before had gotten us good and primed, and Co. didn't let us down in the least. Okay, so the pies weren't always round, but we found them perfectly cooked with great structure and just the right amount of blistering, with a tomato sauce that was tangy and bright, and toppings that were novel without being too "fusion." As is so often the case with top-notch pizza (and the pies we had that night were definitely top-notch), the simplest pies are often the most satisfying. So, for instance, as much as we appreciated Co.'s Flambé, with béchamel, lardons, and caramelized onions, it was their Margherita that really stood out for us. In fact, Co.'s margherita was so lovely, so perfect, we opted for a second one "for dessert." We loved the space, the service, and the buzz of the place too.

The lowdown:

appetizers: pizza bianca; toasts, e.g. with lemony chicken liver paté; butter lettuce salad w/ roasted squash, pumpkin seeds, lemon, olive oil

mains: 2 x margherita; 1 pie w/ anchovies, green olives, olive oil, tomatoes; 1 "santo" w/ shaved radicchio, parmesan, taleggio, mozzarella; 1 special w/ bechamel, leek, spicy sausage

desert: homemade blood orange gelato; homemade chocolate gelato; a generous banana split w/ homemade ice cream and candied walnuts

We haven't to spend a lot of time on this stretch of 9th Avenue when we visit New York, but, here too, we swore we'd be back.

Convivio, 5 Tudor City Pl., New York, NY, (212) 599-5045

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, 163 W 10th St # Ge, New York, NY, (212) 989-8962

Company, a.k.a. Co., 230 9th Ave., New York, NY (212) 243-1105