Sunday, January 26, 2014


For the past few years, perhaps the biggest buzz, and the most difficult and coveted reservation, in the Los Angeles food scene has been around Craig Thornton's Wolvesmouth underground dinner series. To get in you have to sign up on the email list and then wait for notification that there will be dinners this weekend. You then request the times you want and hope that you get a invitation. After about six months and numerous attempts, I finally was able to attend a dinner.

Thornton's unofficial mantra is "if you are led like cattle, you will be fed like cattle." When entering the venue, the address of which you will only receive the morning of the dinner and are admonished as to its secrecy, you are immediately struck by the decor.

The night's menu is posted on the refrigerator in the large open kitchen. Guests are invited to take a seat at the communal table.

Tonight, we were in for nine courses.

ribeye cap, broccoli tempura, broccoli stalk slaw, piquillo, pink lady, broccoli cheddar puree

In keeping with the theme of carnage, Thornton defies tradition and begins with a meat course. This was a great start. I especially loves the broccoli tempura. Also, I'm not sure what he did to the pink lady apples but they were just about the flavorful apples I can remember. As you would expect, the ribeye was perfectly cooked.

skate, crab, delicata, candied lemon glee, carrot, carrot parsley, turnip, persimmon

The fish course was fantastic giving us bright flavors and wonderful textural interplay between the skate wing, crab, and squash. Carrot was present in both juice and raw forms. The parsley oil added just the right highlight.

yellowfin tuna, ponzu-yuzu, shiso creme fraiche, yuzu kosho wasabi pea crunch, snap pea, avocado

This was my least favorite of the savories, but still nothing I would turn down by any means. The ponzu had a very deep smokiness, a feature of which I am generally not a huge fan. The wasabi pea crunch was my favorite part of the dish.

rabbit croquette, jicama remoulade, dried cherry, pineapple,johnny cake, jerk soubise, plantain

The rabbit croquette was all meat with no unnecessary filler. Great, especially with pineapple.

pork belly, lobster, yam, green apple, green apple gelee, squid ink pork lobster sabayon, sweet potato lakte

This was my favorite course of the night. The texture of the lobster against the pork was absolutely divine. The sabayon and the green apple gelee provided perfect flavor balance.

celery root, brussels, hazelnut, apple, cabbage, cider, cocoa coffee, 
And now a vegetarian course. Great presentation. Thornton really seems to have a talent with apples, which I think showed up more than any other ingredient throughout the meal.

quail, baby kale, creamed spinach puree, date, almond, haricot verts, cipollini

Our final savory course brought fried quail. The meat was succulent and went very well with the spinach puree. A highlight of the dish was the orange blossom soaked date.

milk chocolate peanut butter pretzel crunch, mustard parfait, pretzel, cajeta, banana

The first of two desserts won almost universal accolades from guests. Not being a fan of peanut butter, I cannot personally comment too much on this dish. Mustard was an interesting addition. 

mandarin orange, mandarin vanilla lime ice sorbet, green tea, yogurt steam cake, pistachio

The second dessert was much more to my liking, and probably one of my favorite desserts ever. Light flavors, but in perfect balance and very refreshing.

A great feature of Wolvesmouth is that guests are encouraged to bring drinks and share. We were not lacking in good wine, beer, whiskey, and cognac. Some of the highlights:

The icewine and the Municipal Winemakers Syrah were our contributions. Municipal Winemakers has a tasting room in Santa Barbara we visited during a recent wine tasting trip. Highly recommended if in the area. I am very glad I brought the Pacific Rim icewine since it paired absolutely perfectly with the final dessert. Everyone was very willing to share their drinks.

Between courses we were invited to mingle and watch the action in the kitchen.

At the end of the meal you are given an envelope and are asked to pay whatever you want.

This was certainly one of the best dining experiences I have ever had. Many chefs would not be able to pull off dishes with so elements so successfully. The menu constantly changes based on what are the best ingredients available. The inventive food along with the setting and the communal atmosphere make for a wonderful night. I highly recommend signing up the mailing list and starting to request dinners. It seems most people had been trying for a few months before getting an invite, so do not give up. It is well worth the effort.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Chengdu Taste

Last year for my now fiance's birthday, we went to Beijing Duck House. This year we continued our exploration of regional Chinese cooking. Six of us visited Chengdu Taste in Alhambra for Sichuan cuisine. Chengdu Taste is a relatively new restaurant which has become quickly popular, thanks in large part to Johnathan Gold's review in the Los Angeles Times. This is my second experience with Sichuan cooking. The first was at a restaurant in Northern California several years ago. I don't remember many of the details of that meal, just that at the time I thought it was the best Chinese Food I had had.

Note that this was the take out version of the menu. In the rendition given to us at our table had a few variations.

Sichuan cooking is known for one attribute above all others: Spice. Many of the dishes involve Sichuan peppercorns, which present their own unique brand of spice. They actually make your mouth go slightly numb.In addition, several different kinds of chilies in fresh, dried, and fermented forms are used.

Our first dish was the ubiquitously named diced rabbit with younger sister's secret recipe. This involved sauteed rabbit bits, green onions, peanuts, and sesame seeds in a deeply flavored sauce. The rabbit was diced small and filled with bones, but I did not mind the labor required to eat the dish too much. I am also not usually a fan of peanuts, but found they nicely balanced this dish.

Next was twice cooked pork. This was bar far the least interesting, and the mos typical, dish of the evening. I liked the vegetables (mostly leeks) , but found the meet rather plain.

Here we have tan tan noodles, also known as dan dan mien on many menus. This is probably the most prototypical Sichuan dish. I've previously had this dish at Lukshon  in Culver City, but that version paled in comparison to this. The noodles were perfectly textured and the elements of the dish meshed impeccably.

To break up the spice present in all of the other dishes, we ordered this dish of sauteed potato threads and onion. I liked it a lot, and it certainly served its purpose between bites from other plates.

Most exotic plate of the night goes to this dish intestine and chicken in a spicy broth. It was interesting, but not my favorite, which was generally the table's consensus. The pieces of intestine did not have much flavor on their own, but a chewy texture.

Flour cooked shipped was universally enjoyed by the table. The shrimp were large and flavorful with a good kick of spice.

Here we have the best dish of the night, boiled fish with green pepper sauce. Notice the huge amount of diced Serrano peppers, dried chilies, and Sichuan pepper corns floating atop the broth. This was also an immense serving. The fish was very delicate, but not at all overwhelmed by the flavorful broth. This is a must order. 

By the end of the meal, the Sichuan peppercorns had certainly had their effect. My tongue and lips were tingling. The food may not be for every palate, but spice lovers should give Chengdu taste a try. It was interesting that everyone at the table disagreed which dish was spiciest. I thought it was the fish, but others thought it was the shrimp, the rabbit, or the noodles.

I certainly want to go back and try a few more dishes, notably the toothpick mutton and the wonton with pepper sauce (complimented by a special note on the menu stating numb-taste). 

After dinner, it was back to our place for drinks and birthday cake.

Chengdu Taste on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ray's and Stark Bar

Ray's and Stark Bar has been open for about two years at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This post encompasses two meals at the establishment, one of their regular menu and one during the most recent Dine LA Restaurant Week.

We began our second visit here with a trio of cocktails, all of which were very constructed.

Seeing a drink named for the greatest filmmaker ever, I didn't have much of a choice but to begin with the Kubrick Fashioned (Elijah Craig 12yr Bourbon, spiced simple syrup, Toasted Pecan Bitters, Forbidden Bitters, lemon peel). It was a great play on the typical Old Fashioned. 

The Rose Wishes and Lavender Dreams (Gin, Château L’Afrique Côtes de Provence Rosé, St. Germain, lavender syrup, freshly squeezed lemon juice, sage) was perhaps the most interesting cocktail. Very refreshing. 

Third was the Gansta Green Point (Jameson Gold Reserve Irish Whiskey, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, 
Yellow Chartreuse, lemon peel). Good, but much more typical than the other drinks.

The amuse on our first visit was a trout mouse topped with caviar. It was a great little bite, with the salty caviar working wonderfully against the soft mouse. 

The amuse on our second visit was even better. This was a cold zucchini soup spiced with cinnamon and topped with a squash blossom. We all agreed that we could have done with a bigger bowl. 

This duck liver mouse with bing cherries, herb salad, and pistachio was one of the Dine LA appetizers. It was good, but mostly made me miss foie gras. 

Little gem lettuce salad with summer squash, pine nuts, ricotta salata, and red wine-mustard vinaigrette. Great salad. The ingredients were all very fresh and there was just enough dressing to coat everything without overpowering the flavors.

We had octopus dishes on both visits. The first rendition was served with burrata cheese, broccoli di cicco, and Fresno chili sauce. The Dine LA version came with heirloom tomatoes, olives, feta cheese, cucumber, and squid ink skordhalia. I preferred the first version. I thought the flavors played off each other better than did the typically Greek ingredients found in the second. 

To go with the appetizers during our second visit, we also ordered a bowl of shishito peppers, prepared simply with olive oil and maldon salt. 

Agnolotti on both visits as well. The fist rendition had a truffled rice filing with Hen of the Wood mushrooms, hazelnuts, wild arugula, and porcini sauce. The Dine LA version had a corn-mascarpone filling with hazelnuts, pea tendrils, and lime brown butter sauce. The pasta was well cooked and of the flavors worked in both versions. 

Guinea hen with preserved orange puree, bacon, winter savory, Anson Mills polenta, romanesco, garlic, and chard. This was my first time trying guinea hen. The flavor is much deeper than chicken, but it lacked the fattiness of duck. 

Manila clams with sweet vermouth, basil, shallots, garlic, and grilled bread. This was my entree for Dine LA. I was a little disappointed in it. The broth and bread were great, but the clams were one note. This could have used another element, perhaps something to had a little spice. 

Pork belly was also represented on both trips, and with good reason. First with parsnip puree, farro, forest mushrooms, cippolini onions, and black vinegar. Second with farro, santa rosa plums, apricot mostarda, charred broccoli, toasted almonds, and black vinegar. I highly recommend ordering the pork belly. Both versions were cooked wonderfully and properly crispy skin and a good amount of fat. I really loved the parsnip puree in the first version. 

Skirt steak with charred onion puree, mojo rojo, wood grilled scallions, sungold tomatoes. I did not try this one. My dining companion who ordered it said it was well cooked, but she did not like the charred flavor from the puree. Our server was gracious enough to replace the dish with another entree.

Dessert on the first visit was various forms of chocolate, including brownie, chocolate tuile, and chocolate covered marshmallows in a passion fruit sauce. Overall, it was too sweet for me. 

The Dine LA menu included two dessert choices First was a buttermilk panna cotta with stone fruits, bitter almond, and riseling consomme. Nothing revolutionary, but good flavord and not too sweet. 

the alternate choice was a spiced chocolate cake with rum, dulce de leche, chcolate crumble, and salted pumpkin seed ice cream. Of the five at our table, everyone ordered this except for me. They all enjoyed the dish. 

One the best features of Ray's has to be free corkage, a rare feature in the Los Angeles dining scene. I had recently returned from a trip to Romania and brought this bottle of Merlot, part of the Curtea Regala line from Crama Dobregenea Winery. This was not the typical Merlet which we usually hold in such low esteem in California. It was intensely fruity with an underlying minerality that was very food friendly. We shared a taste with our waiter, a trained sommelier, who agreed that the wine was a great choice. 

So often restaurants at places such as museums are an afterthought, present style over substance, or are designed to appeal to the masses. This is not the case with Ray'a and Stark Bar. I highly recommend a meal here if visiting LACMA (and there is always plenty of reason to visit LACMA). Also, many restaurants cheap out during Dine LA and serve substandard ingrediantes and downsized portions. This was note the case for Ray's, which is a great value during restaurant week or not. 

Ray's Restaurant and Stark Bar on Urbanspoon