Monday, May 30, 2005

Eat 'em & Smile, Read 'em and Weep: Memorial Day Picnic In My Kitchen

Very few things leave me at a loss for words. Here's one that did--my lunch today:

Egg sandwich:
2 slices La Brea Bakery rosemary-olive oil bread
2 medium-cooked (6 min.) eggs, sliced width-wise
about a dozen small capers
drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
drizzle of blood-orange balsamic vinegar
jam all ingredients together and Bob's your uncle

Roasted Marrow Bones:
3 pounds marrow bones from Whole Paycheck Market
a little baggie of coarse sea salt
roast bones in oven-proof frying pan at 450 for 20 minutes
cut a few small lengths of bread
scoop out thumb-sized hunks of marrow and slop onto bread
sprinkle salt on top and try not to eat all 3 pounds worth

1 Asahi Super-Dry tallboy (otokonoko takai?)
one church-key
open bottle and pour down throat
hope that beer does something that makes you less likely to die from eating too much bone marrow

That's it. I have nothing smart to say about it. Happy Memorial Day, everyone.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Review: Food Poisoning

You know those books and movies you're embarrassed not to have read or seen? So embarrassed that you lie about it? Think Anna Karenina or The Good Soldier. Well, among a certain circle, food experiences rise to that level. Haven't been to Nobu? Lie. Peter Luger's? Lie. Nozawa? Lie.

Until now, I had to resort to this kind of ignoble but not totally damning behavior when it came to food poisoning. No more! The night before last, I finally got my act together and paid a visit, and you, lucky readers, are the beneficiaries.

You'll notice, if you're careful, a discrepancy in the above two paragraphs. First I say I've never had food poisoning, and then I call Monday's visit "my most recent." Let me put you at ease. I would not feel qualified to write up a restaurant having only stuck my head in, or, say, sat at the bar for just a drink. Comparing any of my past, admittedly mild, food-borne maladies to this one is like that. So let's just say this was my first visit: the decisive one. Without further ado, then, and with complete, transparent honesty, here is my review of my most recent bout of food poisoning.

From the moment you get the nod that you will be attending a bout of F.P., it's a wild ride that leaves you gasping at every turn. Imagine my giddiness when I got the call! Me! I'm not even a real food writer! My head was spinning, and not just from the surprise.

My first complaint is that the service, while quite snappy at first, kind of tailed off after the first course of dizziness and cramps (neither of which disappointed, mind you). It's strange how quick service up-front followed by a long lag can sometimes be worse than slowness all through, and this was one of those times. I really wanted things to move along after the initial offerings, but I was made to sit there for more than an hour, wondering what to do with myself, with only a glass of water to keep me company.

But then. Oh, then. F.P. really came through after that. We've all had friends lucky enough to have been there in the past, and as savvy consumers, we're all aware of the potentially disappointing effect of too much advance notice. Well, fear not. It's all different when you're the recipient. Violent, projectile vomiting, so powerful that it makes you yell at full volume? You've heard about it, but that does nothing to dampen its effect on you when it's your own voice waking the neighbors. Fever that makes you put on two sets of sweats and get under every blanket in the house while it's 80 degrees outside? Not cheapened a bit by having heard about it first. In fact, you almost feel like "It's about time! I've heard so much about this, and now it's my turn!" It's like visting the Mona Lisa--kind of an experience and a meta-experience, both at once. Really awesome.

I could complain again about the lag following that course. I mean, why the constant hurry-up-and-wait? And with such impressive courses, why make me sit around and twiddle my thumbs in between? Well, this time I can't even complain about that. The service did indeed slow to a crawl after the second course, but the crawling was mine, because I couldn't walk. Nor, I realized, could I twiddle anything at all, because I couldn't feel my hands or feet (a truly brilliant touch that I had never heard of before!). If it hadn't been for the involuntary thrashing about, I would have been worried that I'd been paralyzed, but thankfully the management saw ahead and provided me with a tween-course set of convulsions to put my mind at rest. They really do think of everything, even if at the time you're not convinced. It's like dinner at El Bulli--you need time to think it all over after to realize the true and complete genius at work.

Next course! More of the same? Yes! Disappointing in its repetitiveness? Strangely, not at all. In fact, quite the opposite--you welcome the sameness, as it signals progress through this difficult-to-navigate experience. And for me, the end of this course--which was executed with even more gusto than the last--really did mark the beginning of this feast's denouement. But I don't want to short-shrift the description. If the second course (remember, we started with apps) was a prime rib, then this was a bone-in kobe rib-eye: both bigger and more impressive, with tons more nuance and substance. A tour-de-force in every way. Louder, more painful, longer by at least 10 minutes, and introduced by a delirious and lovely set of hallucinations that were completely free! More kudos to the management--this was one of the most memorable half-hours of my entire life. What a surprise that it would happen on my bathroom floor with me dressed like some crazy, homeless, software engineer!

Like I said, that was pretty much that. But how could you follow up such a performance with anything but an anticlimax? Of course, F.P. knows how. Shambling back to bed after being turned into a human cannon for the second time, I knew I was on the mend, and that feeling was one of the sweetest of my entire life. It's this blend of Hieronymus Bosch awfulness and final tranquility that truly defines food poisoning, but to sum it up with some saw like "it feels good when you stop banging your head against the wall" really cheapens the whole experience. This is just something you'll have to enjoy for yourself, if you're lucky enough.

All in all, this was a chance in a lifetime. It seems odd to say that a food experience changed how I look at myself, my life, the world, but this one really did. It's like everything I took for granted--being able to pick up a shoe without my hand hurting, having the motor functions to tie that shoe, knowing what the temperature in the room really is--has been re-given to me, and I have food poisoning to thank. I'd also like to thank the good people at either All-American Burger on Sunset or Yabu on La Cienega. One of those two establishments is responsible for my opportunity to visit F.P., and for that, I owe them much as well.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Quick Note

Read Nick Paumgarten's "Tables for Two" column in this week's New Yorker. Now that's how to blurb a restaurant.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Cliche Project: Words and Phrases Food Writers Should Stop Using (an ongoing project)

You know how every movie that comes out is either "Wickedly Funny!" or "A Taut Psychological Thriller!"? I suppose movie critics can be excused a little--their job has been around for quite a while, and there are a lot of movies, and they have to review them all, and most don't even deserve their own adverb-adjective combination. But food writers? Food writing as recognized genre is a recent phenomenon. What's more, food writers can, at least to some degree, choose their subjects--when you're a film critic, you're largely limited to what's out and what's coming out, with an occasional foray back into the classics. Food writers can write about cooking at home, restaurants old and new, entire cities, countries, cuisines, ethnicities, baking, ingredients, laws governing importation of szechuan peppercorns...and so on. A meal prepared at home using Thanksgiving leftovers can give rise to a 40-page treatise on immigration and land-use for chrissakes. The short version: there's a lot of material, and not a lot of stricture. Argue if you want, but that's what I think.

So why, why, WHY must I continue to read the same 7 descriptions of dishes, no matter whether I'm reading a blog entry, a review of a new restaurant or a cookbook-memoir? Writers: if you are at all passionate about what you do--and not just about the meals themselves, but about your written product--here is the somewhat-annotated list of words and phrases to avoid. I hope you find it rich and flavorful.

1. "Rich and flavorful," or any combination of these two words. The only exception is the use of "rich" alone as a negative (e.g., "The soup was almost too rich--like a chicken custard.") Saying a food is "flavorful" is like saying that a painting is "full of different colors"--it tells me nothing, except that the thing was not bland. Even if that's what you mean it to do, find a better word. I'm not telling you any; go find them. The dictionary is your friend.

2. "Mouth feel." Do I need to explain this one? It's the worst phrase ever invented, not to mention one of the most over-used in food writing. It evokes the most disgusting imagery to me and at the same time makes me giggle. It sounds like what a dentist gives you when he probes around. porn. Mouth feel, indeed. If you must use it, for g-d's sake at least add the proper hyphen.

3. "Unctuous." Just in case you thought I wasn't going to include anything on this list that I actually use--here's my own sacrifice. Man, I like this word. I like it a lot. It's onomatopoetic, it's a little obscure, it's fun to say...and it's USED IN EVERY PIECE I READ ABOUT A FRENCH RESTAURANT. Sushi, too. I'm not saying that "unctuous" can't make a comeback after some much-needed downtime, but for now, give it up. I know: it's going to be hard to avoid both "unctuous" and "rich," but I have faith in you.

4. "Spiked." With this one, I'm not calling for a global cut-back. No, this one is personal. Perhaps personal to two writers, but still cabined fairly tightly. For some reason, this word gets used most often in connection with Asian foods--something Thai is "spiked with chili and lime," for example. Like number 3, I do like this one. But if you think it might be your personal crutch, please try to get off it. Save some good words for the rest of us.

5. "Flavor profile." What the !$%#! is a "flavor profile"?! Is it not just the thing's taste? "This steak's flavor profile is cowwy, with more than hint of char." Pardon? We "profile" foods now? "All right--all you foods who fit the flavor profile, over here against this wall and spread 'em!" This phrase is like legalese for food writers: unnecessarily high-flung and distancing for the reader. Lose it.

6. "Wafting."

7. "To die for." Reader babette sent this one, and I agree. With the 1980's behind most of us, we can afford to let this gem go, can't we? I'm willing to let it in on a limited basis, and only when used in really clever ways, but then that goes for everything on this list. Unless you're reviewing the first sushi restaurant in Sidney, Nebraska, in which case use liberally. In a similar vein, lucille writes in to request that "yummy" be limited to use by those aged 3 years and under. Seems fair to me. It's phrases like these two that, if you think about it, give rise to places like The Cheesecake Factory, that trade on the idea of decadence ("Yummy chocolate cheesecake to die for!") and deliver the mediocrest of mediocre food. Shame people for using these words and you'll be doing your part to close The Cheesecake Factory. Think about it.

8. "The bar scene" a/k/a "The scene at the bar." In L.A., this is going to be a hard one to avoid. I'm not saying you can't refer to what goes on at the bar when you're reviewing a place, nor that you can't say that the vibe in a place is more bar than restaurant. What you cannot do is use this shortcut that makes you sounds like someone hopelessly out of touch, whether you mean it in a positive or negative sense. You may very well be that far-removed from the folks at the bar, but you shouldn't let your readers know it.

9. "Melts in your mouth" or "melt-in-your-mouth." That's right--more phrases implying yummy decadence to die for that I'm taking away from you! Be strong. Unless something actually does melt in your mouth, I don't want to hear that it does.

10. "Bursting with..." Similar to #9: unless we're talking about roe or a very few other foods that actually burst when one bites them (ok, or when they're cooked or prepared), please leave this description for the kids. They're too young to know any better; we aren't.

Feel free to write in and suggest additions. If they ring true to me, in they'll go. Like the title says, this is an ongoing project.

If this writing thing ever goes anywhere, I have a feeling I'm going to regret this list.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Who Knows Their ABC's? L.A.'s Letter-Rating System Discussed

Well, it started out with the paragraph below.

"In pursuit of this post, I am soliciting from you, readers, any verifiable sighting of a 'D' or an 'F.' I do not believe these to exist, but will pay handsomely if you show me otherwise. And the cabinet in the cops' lounge on 'The Shield' absolutely does not count."

Then, came this:

"[UPDATE] Oh, man. The comments on this intro are better by far than whatever i was going to write on this topic. Go to the comments and read the exchange between 'c' and 'anonymous' (If they're ever going to succeed in the world of wrestling, they'll both need better stage-names). Others should feel free to write in, too, although i can't guarantee your safety.

And here's the angle I was going to work, if people need more prodding to write in: how much does a letter grade affect where you eat? Does the same letter mean something different if you see it at Oki Dog than it does festooning the front door of Dolce, especially if it's a low grade? Do you really feel like the letters accurately represent your risk of food-borne illness (bear in mind that, at one point, All-American Burger on Sunset had an 'A' while Luna Park sported a bright-red 'C,' which, if the system is to be believed, would mean that you run a greater risk of being felled by a grilled artichoke at LP than a teriyaki 'steak' burrito at AAB)? "

I'm not sure if I got lazy or if I realized this would be more interesting as a straight discussion than as another collection of my own snarky comments. Whichever, even in a short time I've gotten to where it was I wanted to go in the first place, and 90% through a few readers' comments. My points, basically, were going to be: (1) Very few people know how the grading system works, which is odd for a measure that's supposed to protect the public's health through instantly recognizable signage. On the other hand, ER visits for food-borne illness have declined by something like 13% since the advent of this system, so there may very well be something to it (I've also seen data correlating stork population with birth rate, though, so I'm a skeptic). (2) Whether or not anyone knows what the letters mean, many will weigh the grades differently, depending on the restaurant sporting them. For example, on reader wrote in and told me he specifically chose a Palmdale Salvadoran joint based solely on its "D" rating (others have written in debating whether such a grade can exist, or if anywhere that scores below a "C" has to exhibit its admittedly-a-bit-frightening numerical score). Would that anonymous commentator have made the same choice had he driven past Bastide and seen the same letter (all prices being equal)? "Honey, let's check out this $200-a-head-before-drinks cutting-edge French place: it's FILTHY!" Yeah, it doesn't sounds likely to me, either. On the other hand, I'm betting if you had a res at Bastide and when you showed up you saw a low grade, you might not turn away because of it. It's a tough table to get, and the scarlet letter would be explained away if you asked (surly inspector, nonsense infractions, here's some free aperitifs while you decide if you want to stay). Would you really vote down what you'd been led to believe was one of the best high-end meals in town based on a paper sign with a block letter on it?

So in the end, do the letters tell us anything useful? Do we ignore them at our peril? The same folks who pop into the run-down greasy-spoon on the highway (me, for one--and my favorite is still the Liberty Diner which was on my drive from Upstate to Manhattan) because it very often has the best food will most likely use the letters in reverse, at least in certain cases--I wonder if food poisoning is up among that group, since they have easier access to something they used to have to rely on instinct for.

Frankly, the letters are ridiculous. In New York, places with too many violations get a warning and then get shut down until they clean up. It's nice and binary there. Here, you're made to think you're in possession of better intelligence, but really you're just being given a measurement of how fast the staff can run to throw away the tuna that's next to the space heater, or of the inspector's mood. Or maybe of the overall cleanliness and healthiness of the prepping-and-serving environment, but no one know what infractions are embedded in, say, a "B" that lasts a single week. A rat? Peanuts in a bowl on the bar (Luna Park claimed this was the source of their "C")? Anthrax spores that turned out to be $200-an-ounce salt distilled from the armpits of a Moroccan 12-year-old? I mean, it's impossible to know.

But they obviously make people feel safer, and isn't that really the point? Authentic Cafe--the place that many consider to be the epicenter of the whole thing (a prep cook there was secretly filmed while tossing a salad and licking his fingers and the film was played on the local news) is open for business and has even opened a lounge next to their dining room. Briefly avoided, Authentic is now thriving again. Now that people can walk up to the door and inspect the comforting-blue "A" posted front and center, telling everyone it's okay, the seared tuna salad has not been licked by anyone until it's served to your table. Just watch your finger-licking friends. Hey--maybe that's what we need: letter grades we all carry around that tell everyone what kind of eaters we are. Now that's a system I could get behind.

Ok, now read the comments, and add yours.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Sushi Without Adjectives

We all know by now that sea urchin is "unctuous" and squid is "clean-tasting with a hint of sweet," don't we? Well, for those who don't, it's time to catch up on the classics. For the rest--or for all of you who laugh like hyenas when you read about an oyster tasting "like my summer fling on the Cape" or wine having "hints of tar and burnt animal fur"--here you go.

The Best of Little Little Tokyo: Sushi Sasabune. 11300 Nebraska Ave, West LA.

Usually when I hear people describe Sasabune, they lead with something like "it's a total dump" or "it has zero atmosphere." Granted it's unlovely, but does it really have zero atmosphere? I don't think so, and I don't think so for the same reason I disagree with the 11-for-decor that Zagat gives the Apple Pan: both places are pretty much platonic ideals of what they are. The Apple Pan is a perfect rendition of LA Burger Stand. How else should it be decorated? With muted tones and indirect lighting? Ditto Sasabune's "decor"--it really captures a certain kind of LA-specific phenomenon: the stripped down (and usually strip-mall), all-omakase, phenomenal sushi joint. Think about the best sushi you've had in LA. It's not at Blowfish, or Koi, or Matsuhisa or any other place with shiny minimalist decor and electronic music. It's always at a place that looks to some degree like Sasabune--some tables and chairs, a bar that accomodates only a lucky few every night, maybe some faded poster-art on the walls. Sasabune actually beats most of the others in the category of swank, with its outdoor "patio"--a plastic table and a few plastic chairs in what must have been some family's paved front yard in a past life. I've sat there drinking sake while waiting to sit, and I never mind. The scene at Sasabune is familiar, but it's not a Scene. You're there for the fish.

And the fish at Sasabune is excellent. I have received varying stories about the relationship of Sasabune-san to Nozawa-san, master sushi chef at his eponymous place in the Valley (to be discussed shortly), but one thing that's clear is that Sasabune gets a good spot at the fish markets. Everything is fresh, no end cuts, top quality. What they do with that excellent fish, though, is worth discussing. Sasabune, like most places of its ilk, shun the california roll, spicy tuna, and other mixtures that can now be found in supermarkets in Kansas. BUT, well, they do this thing with ponzu, and the thing is that they put it all over everything. Like, really almost everything. Skipjack? Ponzu. Halibut? Ponzu. Salmon? Ponzu. Albacore? You get the picture. And it's not just a little ponzu, either--whatever they put it on, you know it (these are also the fishes they tell you not to use soy on). Someone needs to explain this to me. You're a sushi chef. You get a monster of a spot at the fish market. You get truly excellent fish. And you drown it in tart sauce. As some folks I email with would say: WTF?

I will return to Sasabune. I will return there a lot, in fact. I really like the place. The fish is great, the staff is super-friendly, but someone should snatch that bottle of ponzu from behind the counter and hide it. I mean, they don't pour ponzu on their signature blue-crab roll that finishes every omakase dinner, and look how great that is.

World-famous in the Valley: Sushi Nozawa. 11288 Ventura Blvd., Sushi Row, Studio City.

Everyone I know knows Nozawa. My friends from LA who have expatriated sometimes drive there for lunch straight from LAX on return, or stop there on their way down from San Francisco and make me come meet them. Great sushi is, of course, more important than unpacking, or that shower you crave after a flight, or really than almost anything. And Nozawa does serve great sushi.

I won't bore you with the fish itself. It's impeccable. If Sasabune has a great spot at the market, Nozawa has one better. Not that most of us can tell that kind of difference of course, but it is there. This is some of the best fish you will ever get a chance to eat, if you get a chance to eat it. You see, Nozawa has a following, and that means no reservations and a snaky line outside in the parking lot. Do not come here hungry and in a hurry--you will not last until you're seated, and will likely dash off to another spot on "Sushi Row," where Nozawa is located (and you may not even do badly if you do this--the proliferation of good and even great sushi places in this area is singular and amazing). One good thing: you're allowed to start drinking while you wait in line. One time I drank three bottles of sake before I got to the door. That was fun.

So you're inside, and you sit wherever they tell you, and this is another omakase-only joint, so you don't bother, you know ordering or anything. You sit in the fluorescent lighting, either at cheap tables on the cheap linoleum or at the short bar, and wait for what you're offered. And what you're offered is damned good. Everything is good. But you know I'm going to focus on what's not perfect, and here it is: the fish at Nozawa is served too cold. I'm not completely sold on Sasabune's warm-rice-cool-fish thing (although I didn't mention this above because, unlike some, I don't really care about it), but the overall too-coolness of Nozawa's fish (and I've been there enough to be satisfied that I'm not imagining things) detracts from the flavor of what (I'll say it again) is really excellent stuff. I suppose better too cool than too warm (although I've been to places where the fish is frozen, and I might prefer being poisoned to that) but when you're shelling out a hundred ducks a person for omakase, we shouldn't be dealing in the realms of the too-anythings, right? Relax, Nozawa-san--nothing's going to spoil. You sell everything you have every night you're open. Un-chill.

It may be the temperature thing, or maybe just the kind of over-reverence with which people treat Nozawa, but the whole experience just leaves me cold and I really don't mean the pun--it lacks a certain something, like soul. Maybe the too-cool spartan thing appeals to the same folks who wield a lot of power during the day so feel like they deserve to be spanked, but man, that's not why I go out to eat, I don't know about you. Nozawa? I'll go there again, too, and won't complain about it at all--it's damned good sushi. But there's always room for improvement, although Nozawa-sensei would likely flay me for saying so. I just hope that when he does, he serves me room temp.

Nozawa-Adjacent, and my pick of the litter: Asanebo. 11941 Ventura Blvd., Sushi Row, Studio City.

When looking for Asanebo's address, I came across a review that called this place "a poor man's Matsuhisa." Now, it's one thing to write about a restaurant in terms that some may disagree with on an educated basis. I think I do it pretty much all the time. But this--this--man, I just got apoplectic when I read this. Matsuhisa serves the same tired few dishes to 90% of its crowd, and I'm sure trots out good stuff for Ben and Bobby and the guy at my firm who buys all the waitresses massages for Christmas, but since I'm in the 90%, Matsuhisa bores me to death and charges a lot to do it. Not so Asanebo.

First of all, it looks a little nicer than Sasabune and Nozawa. Kind of even looks like a Japanese restaurant, when you get down to it. There's some wood present, and the tables don't look like they were snatched from the Mel's Diner set when "Alice" went off the air. So immediately you're suspicious--can this be? If they spend more than $10 on the decor, do they really get the incomparable sushi I have grown to imagine I am entitled to? Yes. Yes, man, it does. Asanebo's is the best sushi in Los Angeles.

Scandale?! Not really. Asanebo is on the sushi-ratii's short list, and has been for years, but it doesn't get the same attention as the above two. Why? I can't tell you. Maybe it's that they treat you nicer, and those-who-want-spanking-with-dinner just can't abide by that. Somewhere along the line, being mal-treated at dinner has translated into the food actually being better. Asanebo does not fill that bill. In fact, when my wife went to Tokyo for the weekend, I went to Asanebo for consolation, and I got it.

Here's something else: the menu changes. So when you order omakase, you will not receive the pat "chef's special" items that you admittedly do at Sasabune and Nozawa. If you had a great set of dishes last time you came here, you will get a different set the next time, sometimes with no overlap at all (although toro will probably make an appearance). I know this should go without saying, but what comes with your omakase is what is the best available that day. My first visit there was for lunch, and I had three fishes--japanese mackerel, snapper, and fresh ikura (they marinate their own) that made me feel like I had never had those particular fishes before, ever, anywhere. THAT is what top-shelf sushi is supposed to be like. When I returned a few weeks later for dinner, only one of these three items appeared (a goblet of the singular ikura, served this time with a side of amazing slithery pickled seaweed), and I was treated instead to kotaru (whole, raw baby squid that I still dream about), mirugai (giant clam, served with orange essence and a wasabi jolt) and a bunch of other new things I didn't think to write down. With the exception of the seared toro (talk about gilding the lily) everything was perfect.

Asanebo isn't all omakase to begin with (Mon Dieu! I can order what I want?) although omakase is definitely the way to go. Check this out: you can also discuss what's coming next for you if you sit at the bar--ask for things you want, nix things you don't. I know: it's incredible. In addition, you can order an omakase that mixes raw and cooked, sushi and sashimi, pretty much whatever you want. It's like the chefs at Asanebo are there to please you, which may take some getting used to, but--and to use the words of the other two places: TRUST ME--it is worth whatever adjustment period you may have to weather. It is also worth the price, which is as high or higher than Sasabune's and Nozawa's. And worth the trip. Just go. Go and thank me later. This is the sushi you've been waiting for. In fact, it's the sushi you've been telling everyone you've been getting elsewhere, except that you haven't because it's here.

There are other places I really like, and way more that warrant discussion, but I want to get this piece out, and the "big three" are really what I wanted to talk about. And here goes a rare, softening disclaimer: please don't think I'm running down Sasabune or Nozawa. I mean, I am, but that doesn't mean that they're not still some of the best purveyors of raw fish I've encountered. They're just not quite Asanebo. Now don't everybody run there at once--I still call the corner seat at the bar.

Let the comments begin.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Coming Soon: Your Suggestions

Seriously: I can't think of everything. Give me some ideas. LA-centric is better, but general-food is fine, too. Things you're gnashing over? Recipes you want destroyed? Send 'em on. I'll take care of it.