Archive | January, 2012

LA’s Best Museum Also Has the Best Museum Restaurant: Ray’s and Stark Bar

30 Jan

cocktail-round2

Stark Bar: A necessary LACMA stop

Reason #291 why I love Los Angeles: we are spoiled with great museums. Many of my recent Saturdays have been spent exploring  a selection of the 69 Pacific Standard Time exhibitions that celebrate the LA art scene between 1945 and 1980. My favorite thing to do after immersing myself in a museum exhibition? Grabbing a drink with a friend and unpacking what we just experienced.

jalapeno

Kanpachi with pineapple, guava, serrano chiles, and mint

After reading every single didactic at the Norton Simon’s Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California exhibit, I made my way to the excellent cocktail bar 1886 in Pasadena’s Raymond restaurant. After MOCA’s unfocused and  disappointing Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974 – 1981, I was able to armchair quarterback with a flight of beers at Little Tokyo’s Far Bar.

amuse

Purple cauliflower with caper, raisin puree, Italian flat leaf parsley

I don’t think it’s controversial to call LACMA our city’s best museum. And it’s definitely not controversial to call Ray’s the best museum restaurant in LA. Hadley Tomicki of Grub Street, Jeff Miller of Thrillist, Lindsay William-Ross of LAist, Lonny Pugh of Urban Daddy, and Kat Odell of Eater all gave shout-outs to Ray’s as one of the best newcomers of 2011.

steak

Dry Aged Hanger Steak, forest mushrooms, black vinegar sauce and cream of leek

Four reasons why I love Ray’s and Stark Bar:
1. Location
2. Atmosphere
3. Cocktails
4. Kris Morningstar knows what he is doing

fish

Wild Salmon, elephant mushrooms, roasted beet puree

1. Location

The area surrounding LACMA is not exactly restaurant paradise. After working up an appetite exploring the seven-building, 20-acre complex, there are few places worth walking to for a bite. With Ray’s, not only is it unnecessary to leave the campus, but it’s a place you’d want to come for dinner even if you don’t care about Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the US. How many museum restaurants can you say that about?

chantrelles-2

Sweet Corn Agnolotti, hen of the woods mushrooms, and pine nuts

2. Atmosphere

The Renzo Piano-designed restaurant and bar is smartly located in the central BP Pavilion near Chris Burden’s Urban Light piece (you know the one – 10% of your Facebook friends have a profile picture of them standing among the streetlamps). Ray’s features subtle but delightful design embellishments, such as your silverware being hidden in a drawer in your table.

The adjacent Stark Bar currently tops my list of best atmosphere for a cocktail. Sitting outside at dusk (my favorite part of day), a cold drink in my hand, people watching (I talked to Jesus while he enjoying a tea on one visit), periodically catching people doing silly poses in front of the Ai Wei-Wei zodiac sculpture – it’s a little zen oasis in the center of a part of town I’m not particularly fond of.

salad2

Foie Gras and Pheasant Terrine with apple and onion compote, frisee, roasted pecan, and sunchoke salad

3. Cocktails

The cocktail menu was created by Sommelier Paul Sanguinetti and despite being fairly extensive, it’s one of those places that I’d be happy to close my eyes and simply point at the menu. The current cocktail menu is conveniently split up into sections: On the rocks, collins, stirred up, shaken up, champagne, and seasonal – which currently features a selection of hot cocktails. They also have an impressive list of cordials and bottled beer.

While I’ve been pleased with my drinks so far, it’s not a place I’d suggest asking for off-menu cocktails. The couple bartenders I’ve talked to didn’t have the experience necessary to riff on sudden cravings, but with a menu that has something for everyone, it’s not really necessary. Plus, these cocktails will kick your ass a little.

cocktails1

My Cocktail Oasis

4. Kris Morningstar

Chef Kris Morningstar knows his way around the kitchen. He’s been honing his skill’s all around Los Angeles: AOC, Patina, Grace, Meson G, Blue Velvet, District and Mercantile. My experience with the chef’s tasting menu was everything you’d expect (and hope for) from an acclaimed Patina kitchen: fresh and seasonal ingredients, interesting but not necessarily bold choices, and able execution. Since the “Taste of Ray’s” features items not on the constantly changing menu – “The chef will cook for the whole table a menu of our freshest ideas” - it’s not very helpful if I point out which dishes stood out. Instead, what’s important to note is that the food doesn’t disappoint.

dessert4

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Every time I visit a museum, I try to leave time to stop by the café for a cappuccino and a pastry. Next time you plan a trip to LACMA, be sure to leave plenty of time to soak up some sun and atmosphere while sipping on a stiff drink at Stark Bar. As for Ray’s, that is worth a visit whether or not you are planning to enjoy a hot-wheel recreation of a bustling city.

dessert1

Chocolate Mousse

Ray’s and Stark Bar
Closed Wednesdays
LACMA
5905  Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Note: This meal was hosted

The South Bay Gets Classy at Baleen

23 Jan

holeinone

"Hole in One" ($13)

I wouldn’t be surprised if by December, we were talking about how 2012 was the year of the South Bay. The South Bay has long been known for charming neighborhood spots and a scattered gems like Musha in Torrance and Jonathan Gold-recommended Pakistani tandoori spots Al Watan and Al Noor.

But 2011 was the year that our neighborhood to the South finally earned a spot on the foodie map. Chef Neal Fraser of BLD designed a menu for Strand House in Manhattan Beach, and David LeFevre of Water Grill fame opened MB Post to almost universal acclaim. Just last month, Umami Burger landed in the South Bay with an opening in Hermosa Beach. The success of these restaurants show that even travel-adverse Eastsiders will jump in their cars and head down south for the right restaurant.

salad

Asian Pear & Arugula Salad

When I was invited to try Baleen at the Portofino Hotel & Yacht Club (owned by Seattle-based Noble House Hotels and Resorts) I decided to see what else was cooking in an area I normally overlook. I made the drive down to King Harbor in Redondo Beach, took advantage of the free valet, and was immediately impressed by the restaurant’s ambiance. Warm fireplace, menus that light-up, and other nautical-inspired details that I won’t ruin for you. Business dinners and taking out the in-laws immediately come to mind, but that shouldn’t be surprising considering it’s situated inside a “Yacht Club.”

fish

Seared Irish Salmon ($15 half portion)

The night started off with the lovely “Hole in One” starter. Brioche, over-easy egg, asparagus, mushrooms, reggiano, truffle vinaigrette – I’d be happy starting every meal with an umami bomb like this.

Knowing that a steak was in my near future, I decided to keep things a little lighter with a simple arugula salad with Asian pear in a mustard shallot vinaigrette, along with point reyes blue cheese and candied walnuts.

meat

Roquefort-Crusted Filet of Beef ($38)

For main courses, I went with a half-order of seared Irish salmon & Roquefort-crusted filet of beef. Chef Jesse Souza prefers the flavor of the farmed salmon from Ireland, and it sits on a bed of lemon/parmesan risotto, marinated tomato, and arugula pesto. Like most of the dishes on the menu, it’s a combination of flavors you’ve seen before, but well-executed.

The filet of beef was prepared with short rib ragout, whipped potato, asparagus, and natural jus. There was nothing especially memorable about the dish, but it was flavorful and cooked medium-rare as requested – pretty much all I ask for when it comes to a steak.

dessert2

Apple Pie

The meal started strong with the “Hole in One” and ended with a bang: apple pie. It’s a lot harder than it should be to find a great pie in this city, and I just destroyed this flaky bundle of deliciousness.

dessert

Mmmm....pie

Baleen is an elegant spot in the South Bay that does the traditional steak and seafood fine dining thing well. It is not going to surprise and excite like an MB Post, but will satisfy more than most hotel restaurants in this city. Baleen is a solid option if you are looking to class it up in the South Bay or impress that Yachting enthusiast in your life.

Baleen
260 Portofino Way
Redondo Beach, CA

Note: This meal was hosted

Tom Mueller & Laurent Halasz On The Grave Future of Olive Oil Industry

19 Jan

This article originally appeared on LAist

Zucchini Carpaccio

Zucchini Carpaccio

A welcome trend in the Los Angeles dining scene is the pride in which restaurants advertise using local, seasonal, and organic product. From high-end restaurants to your neighborhood gastropub, you’ll see mentions of “Weiser Family Farm carrots” and “Pork chops sourced from Lindy & Grundy.” Home chefs will even tell you which booth at the farmer’s market they got those plump dates they are so excited about. Yet many of the same chefs and home cooks will mindlessly reach for that bottle of grocery store olive oil to cook those carefully sourced meats and vegetables, never stopping to think about where the oil came from or its questionable quality.

Fig & Olive founder Laurent Halasz wants to change that. In December, Laurent and Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil author Tom Mueller teamed up for a 4-course olive oil and wine pairing. But the night was about more than just good food and wine. It was about spreading awareness about the significance of olive oil and how great olive oil will disappear if we don’t quickly learn to appreciate it.

The dinner began with Mueller and Laurent leading a olive oil tasting. If you’ve never done a proper olive oil tasting: use your hand to heat the glass of olive oil, sip, slurp, and don’t be afraid to stick your nose in there – an oily and peppery nose is a small price to pay for picking up the nuances of a good extra virgin olive oil. Don’t forget to cleanse that palate between oils – we used apple slices.

The night continued with a cultural history of olive oil. The classic definition of civilized includes olive oil, figs, bread, and wine. Drink beer and cook with butter instead? Welcome to the uncivilized camp, you barbarian. Mueller explained how olive oil has played an important symbol throughout history: babies used to be slathered in olive oil during baptisms, and it was olive oil that would  in baths and gymnasiums.

Olive oil has played a significant role in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. ”In Israel it is obvious that Hanukkah is connected with olive oil,” said David Eitam, director of the Olive Oil Industry Museum in Haifa, Israel. ”The famous miracle in 165 B.C., when Judah Maccabee and his brothers found a drop of oil to light the candelabra in the Temple in Jerusalem, was not soy or vegetable oil. It was olive oil, common in Israel from the time of Adam and Eve.” In addition to lighting, olive oil was used for fuel, medicine, cooking, and ablutions on priests during the biblical period. In the Qu’ran, Prophet Mohammed also drenched himself in olive oil. Other uses of olive oil throughout history includes cosmetics, preservatives, weaving, aphrodisiacs, and contraceptives.

Today of course, we are more familiar with olive oil in the kitchen. There are 200 active ingredients in olive oil, offering important health and nutrition benefits. There are also 700 different kinds of olives, giving chef’s like Laurent a great array of options. Diners at Fig & Olive were told, however, that “the clock is ticking.” Fresh olive oil should be ideally be handpicked and pressed within four hours of harvest, but no more than 12 hours. Sadly, many of the industrial olive oils we are familiar with are made with olives that have been on the ground for months. Star, a popular industrial brand of olive oil, was including in the olive oil tasting, and diners could really tell the difference. Star had an unpleasant metallic quality, but  slips by home cooks that haven’t taken the time to understand olive oil like other ingredients in regular use.

Striped Bass Papillote

Striped Bass Papillote

The first course of the night was zucchini carpaccio, a signature dish from the chef’s mother. The buttery Chemlali olive oil from Tunisia was really able to shine in this dish.

On my last visit to Fig & Olive, I was jealous when the waiter brought steamed striped bass filet in papillote not to me, but to the table next to me. Fortunately, the dish was an option on the olive oil tasting menu.

Striped Bass Papillote

Striped Bass Papillote

Zucchini, tomato, chickpeas, fennel, verdial olive, fresh oregano, garlic, and lemon – all my favorite things sealed in a parchment package. It was paired with the peppery Spanish Picual olive oil.

Rosemary Lamb Chops

Rosemary Lamb Chops

The rosemary lamb chops were a popular choice this evening. The lamb was nice, and the smokiness of the eggplant was just right, but the excessive honey overpowered it. Green apple sorbet with citrus, Nocellara olive oil syrup, and fresh mint served as a lovely end to the meal.

Laurent praised Tom Mueller for being the first one to really articulate the problems the olive oil industry is facing. The UC Davis Olive Center  has also done wonderful work uncovering false advertising among olive oil producers. Fortunately, Mueller does more than just expose the problems. He offers resources for people wanting to find quality olive oil. He has a list of great olive oils of the world, many of them from California and tips on olive oil buying. Of course the best way to choose an olive oil is to taste it yourself, whether it is at a restaurant like Fig & Olive, at the farmers market, or if you’re lucky, you’ll find an olive oil festival – I stocked up at one event recently in Paso Robles.

Fig & Olive
8490 Melrose Place
Los Angeles, CA 90069

Note: This meal was hosted

Destination Vegas: 48 Hours in Sin City

4 Jan

Performers in Spiegelworld's "Absinthe" at Caesar's Palace

This article originally appeared on LAist

There are countless ways to enjoy Vegas. You can go to Sin City to escape — party hard for two days straight and get caught up in the intoxicating rush of the neon city. But after a few raging trips that test your youthful stamina, it comes time to try Vegas another way: an eclectic Vegas trip where you seek a series of fleeting moments and strive to be mindful of every unique experience.

Spiegelworld's "Absinthe" at Caesar's Palace


After you settle into your Strip-view hotel, open a few beers and savor them as you journey on foot to the Cosmopolitan hotel. Stop and appreciate the elegance of the Chandelier Bar in the Cosmo, but continue your journey to Vesper Bar by the Cosmo’s front desk. Peruse the impressive specialty cocktail menu, perhaps enjoy a Black Widow made with Fernet Branca, Deschutes black butte porter, and bourbon cream.

Your next quest is to scour the Cosmo for Secret Pizza. If you find the correct unmarked hallway, you’ll be rewarded with stellar pizza and red plastic cups of beer. Scarf down a couple slices of white pizza and finish your beer on the inexplicable log in the Cosmo lobby.

Now you’re ready for some burlesque, comedy and world-class acrobats. Spiegelworld’s “Absinthe” at Caesar’s Palace is exactly what your night requires. The beautiful women are talented, the comedy is two notches above what you’d expect in a circus tent and the awe-inspiring acrobatics will remind you that if you treat your body right, it can do anything. And if you have a thing for grandma’s motorboating and kissing young “drunk sluts,” the audience participation portion won’t disappoint. Absinthe is currently the must-see show in Vegas.

Border Grill

In case you sobered up in the alien world of Absinthe, get a taste of home at the Border Grill in the Mandalay Bay. Start at the bar where you’ll be greeted with $5 margaritas and the familiar chips and salsa of home. Be sure to save room for chocolate mousse — four types of milk blend to form a cold, creamy, mouse bursting with chunks of chocolate. Pair it with the delicious cincuenta y dos cocktail, made with horchata and orange & cafe liqueurs.

Plantains

Plantains at Border Grill

Fed and fuzzy? Good. Now it’s time to call up the Spearmint Rhino and get a free limo and free cover for your group. Regardless of your views on strip clubs, a “proper” Vegas adventure requires at least a quick visit. Topless-only Spearmint Rhino keeps it clean and classy, a great stop for first-timers.

cupcakes-closeup

The Cupcakery

Assuming you were smart and paced yourself on night one, why not treat yourself to cupcakes for breakfast? The Cupcakery is worth a visit just to see how out of place the innocent sweetness and cheery employees are compared to the rest of Vegas.

Bosa 1

Bun Bo Hue at Bosa 1

Continue your journey off-Strip to Bosa 1 in Chinatown for a dirt-cheap Vietnamese feast. Before you even have a chance to sit down, the waiter will inform you that they do not serve pho. That’s okay, the real reason you’re here is a bowl of bun bo hue, generously filled with pigs blood and blood jelly. Add in stellar nuong cuon spring rolls, a shrimp combo, and a glass of homemade hot soy milk, and you’ll be eating like a king for a pittance.

bbq spring rolls at Bosa 1

nuong cuon spring rolls at Bosa 1

Before the night’s festivities begin, consider spending a couple hours at your hotel’s spa. Day passes run around $25 and your body will thank you after a long soak and some time in the steam room. Use the time to reflect on the previous night’s fun, maybe have a friend help fill in a few blanks and think about what you want out of your remaining visit. Lose yourself in the zen before the storm.

Blue Man Group

Let the Blue Man Group jolt your final night into high gear. If the closest thing you’ve come to seeing the Blue Man Group is when Tobias attempted to join in Arrested Development, you owe it to yourself to see why the show has continued to delight audiences since 1987.

meatloaf simon

Signature Meatloaf at Simon

Unless you gambled all of your money away, now’s the time to treat yourself to one more great meal and hit the clubs. If money is tight, try checking if Travelzoo is offering any entertainment deals. One recent deal offered a 4-course dinner at Simon, a drink, and a VIP pass to the four Palms Clubs for only $50. I was able to leisurely enjoy Simon’s signature meatloaf, mac and cheese and the famous junk food platter, and skip the lines at Rain, Moon, and the Playboy Lounge. The only thing you’ll have to worry about is at what point do you need to step in and tell your friend that the lovely lady he’s talking to is a prostitute?

calamari

Calamari at Simon

It’s easy to try to ignore the seedier aspects of Vegas — quickly bypass the men asking if you want titties in your face before you can even get your morning coffee. Or you can try to appreciate the hustle. Interact with the city’s unique personalities. Wonder how jolly Tony ended up on that corner, spending all day and night trying to interest passers-by into going to Treasures strip club. Talk to people. Always try to stay mindful as the sun goes down. Let yourself go as the night drifts.