Monday, October 20, 2014

Sushi Tsujita: from Ramen to Riches of the Sea

To ramen fans, Tsujita (and its subsequent Annex) represents a pilgrimage-worthy temple of tsukemen, worth any amount of time spent in line any day of the week.  It's been so successful with its signature super rich pork broth and dip-in noodles, that the announcement of the latest in their restaurant ventures would be that ubiquitous (in LA anyway) sushi - it was met with much skepticism.  What would ramen masters know about sushi?

The space is a very conscious, extreme departure from the lunchtime hotspot from the outset.  An exquisite chandelier presides over Sushi Tsujita's chic and orchid-adorned outdoor patio, boldly stating in no uncertain terms: "upscale". 

And then I enter the serene, jewelry-puzzle-box interior, intimate yet expansive feeling at the same time, and realize that it is instantly one of my favorite restaurant designs in LA.





I had read about the special lunch deal at $15, another reason to love the place - but I knew that at the limited supply of 15 lunches at that price, first come first served, that I would not be able to make it out of work in time.  But, looking at the lunch menu got me excited again - there were various rice bowls topped with fish for the still affordable $18-$35 range.  And one of them involved my favs uni & salmon (I read things in order of personal importance...)!
To get a better sampling of their sea creature offerings though, on this first visit I opted for the Special Assorted Bowl ($35).  It's a set lunch that started with chawanmushi (steamed egg) presented in a lovely tea cup.  As a pleasant surprise, the silky smooth, melt in your mouth egg was served chilled - and punctuated with generous bites of seafood and mushrooms.  On the side: deep fried fish with pickled veggies, and fresh ginger to cleanse your palate.
The attention to detail was evident in the miso soup, which tasted like they made it from scratch to order, and was carefully served at a pleasingly hot temperature - you'd be amazed how big of a difference this makes to your experience of the soup, that I wonder why others don't take the care with this (you can still see the steam rising in the photo!).
The main attraction: Special Assorted Bowl, was also artfully presented - and contained lovely, fresh and unexpectedly generous pieces of sea urchin (4 pieces to be exact!), salmon roe, eel (thankfully not drowned in sauce), shrimp (total of 1 but cut up into pieces and spread throughout), and various pieces of tuna, yellowtail, mackerel and the always lovely savory-sweet, chilled tamago (grilled omelette).  A pretty good deal for $35 given the quality and quantity of food you get.  (Though I have to note that the iced green tea is made of matcha - and while refreshing, delicious and markedly higher quality than other iced teas you can get in the area, cost $7 - so don't make assumptions on price when you place your drink order!)

While not the most exciting fish I've had in LA for lunch (I am possibly a Shunji fan for life, for being introduced to new cuts of fish at lunch for their $40 13 piece special!!)  - Sushi Tsujita definitely exceeded my expectations, the quality of fish is excellent (I've read that it's cut and cured the traditional way, though all but the shrimp tasted deliciously fresh to me) for the $35 set, and I can't think of a more gorgeous space for sushi lunch in West LA! 

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 7 stars
Service - 6.5 stars
Overall experience - 6.5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 
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Sushi Tsujita

2006 Sawtelle Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90025
Ph: 310.231.1177

Website: sushitsujita.com

Look for reservations, and OpenTable points, here





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Sushi Tsujita on Urbanspoon     

Monday, September 15, 2014

Al Bacio Ristorante: La Loggia Room: Old World Italy, Modern Style in WeHo

As far as I know, it's not often that a chef reaches out directly to invite bloggers to their restaurant.

So when I received an email from Chef Christian Simionato of Al Bacio, I was definitely curious.

It was for a tasting to be held in the La Loggia Room in the restaurant.  Reading that “Al Bacio” means detail, care, and experience, tradition, respect, and passion, and seeing the personal effort that the chef put in just on the outreach, I knew I would be in for an experience.

Chef Christian was raised on his family farm in Villanova, a small town bordering Venice, where growing food, making wine, and curing meats - everything done with respect, and tradition - was a way of life that passed down through the generations.

Chef Christian is passionate about sharing lesser known dishes and ways of cooking from Italy, that would take LA's food lovers beyond the tried and true but all too familiar pastas and antipasti, was clear - and now he has a nook of a platform to do it with, in a front room called La Loggia.  It's a cozy event / private dining space where he gets to showcase and share, with more curious diners, the dishes that he loves in a tasting menu format.

Our experience of this new front room started with a bountiful spread of charcuterie and antipasto served personally by the chef.

There was a gorgeous leg of prosciutto, and cutting boards piled with salami, sopressa...
But of all the charcuterie the one that made the biggest impression on me was the Heart & Liver Salsiccia.  Its rich, intense flavor, density and pleasing fattiness reminded me of the Chinese version I used to love growing up: yun cheong (preserved liver sausage).  I haven't seen these in other Italian restaurants in LA - so many are focused on fresh, housemade - and cured meats tend towards salami and sopressata.  I couldn't stop eating these lovely little preserved sausages.
Then there was the Focassia di Recco with mozzarella and tomato, and fun appetizers like salted cod in a mason jar with crostini, and oysters in tomato sauce - all beautifully presented but less memorable in texture / taste.

For the formal start of the meal, we were seated at one large communal table for 10, the better for encouraging conversation, and sense of shared experience by design.

Our first course was Tortellini al Parmigiano - Parmesan Cheese Tortellini, Chicken Consomme.  The tortellinis arrived first, then chef ladled roiling hot chicken broth over it, which released strong fresh dough fragrance on contact.  

Some of chef's plates come with interesting notes about its history: Maccheroni Ragu alla Barese - pasta topped w/ a roll of beef neck, pecorino, pancetta and herbs was the 'legal' version that could be served in the US.  In Italy, apparently they would make this with horse meat.

Loved the light touch with the tomato sauce, over the fresh made al dente pasta, topped by the flavor bomb roll.
The first meat course was Coniglio alla Siciliana - Sicilian rabbit with pine nuts, black olives, roasted fennel & carrots.  Though tasty, nothing really stood out for me on this one.

It was the next course that I still dream of: Quaglia e Piccione Cotti alla Spiedo - spit roasted quail & squab, with glazed cipollini, roasted potatoes.  Perfectly cooked to delicious succulence, it made me work hard to try to tear every last piece of meat off the tiny wings.






 After dinner, a selection of Italian cheeses were served at the banquet tables to the side.  There was the photogenic large wheel of super creamy, spreadable Bontazola gorgonzola cheese, Maccagno raw cow's milk cheese, and other luscious wedges.  But it was the accompaniment that were intriguing: one such was a red wine soaked rhubarb (?) preserve that somehow tasted like beets, and went perfectly with the gorgonzola.  There was the truffle honey, which I can never resist.

To finish, chef served us a Neopolitan Rum Cake and chocolate almond cake with gelato (sorry no pics as it got too dark by then to take good ones!).

The menu will change seasonally at La Loggia.  Can't wait to see what Chef Christian does for Fall!  To book a tasting at the La Loggia Room, contact the restaurant (see below).


*Disclaimer: This meal was hosted.

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Al Bacio Ristorante La Loggia Room
8741 W Sunset Boulevard West Hollywood, CA 90069
Ph: 310.657.1182

Website: albacioristorante.com  

Parking: public open air lot across the street (except Thursday nights when it is taken over by a farmers market), or limited parking behind restaurant

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Al Bacio Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Salt & Straw: Plus One for Farm-to-Cone Small Batch Ice Cream in LA

With a loyal following in Portland, and buzz that had been building in Los Angeles via pop-ups in Joan's on Third, the grand opening of Salt & Straw's first standalone location in Los Angeles was one of the most highly anticipated among the good food loving community in the city.

Nestled among the tree and small business lined Larchmont Blvd, the little Salt & Straw storefront still stood out on opening day due to the long line of enthusiastic foodies from the moment they opened.

During my 30 minute wait in line, we heard many passersby, puzzled by the crowds in the scorching September heat wave, ask: "Are they handing out free ice cream or something?"  And the response I heard from people in line was consistently some variation of "No, you have to pay, but this ice cream is amazing, we're so excited to try it, it's worth the time in line!"

While Salt & Straw is offering some of their signature classics, like Sea Salt and Caramel Ribbons rooted in their Portland store, they've very smartly not just replicated their Oregon offerings -  but taking the core of their philosophy of featuring local ingredients and supporting local businesses, really making their new LA location feel like a community gathering place that is of and for California.

This is apparent in all the lovely details of the store, designed to highlight local purveyors and ingredients used in the ice cream.

There were the bars from local chocolatier Compartes, including my addiction favorite Love Nuts, used in a newly created ice cream flavor (more on this later); brittle from LA artisan Morning Glory; olive oil from Ojai; jams and preserves from Sqirl for their (PB&J) sundaes.

And the element that I really loved on top of it all: they go to the effort and expense of printing up signs that tell the story of those ingredients, so that you can understand where, how and why.  Be connected to what you consume.

And it truly was tough to choose from among the bounty on their menu: Classic flavors, Seasonal, "whole pint" milkshakes, sundaes, floats and drinks...all sounded delicious.

And then I noticed in smallish print under the seasonal flavors section: "Tasting Flight, $10".

That's when co-owner Kim, busy scooping but still clearly enjoying the sight of her own enthusiasm reflected in customers' faces - stopped to explain the flight: you get four tasting scoops, your choice from ANY flavor on the menu, for $10.  It really lets you sample more of the flavors without committing to full scoops (which, I was seriously about to do, because I had such a hard time deciding - calories be damned!)

Here is what I went with, with friendly server Ian's help as it was hard to narrow down:

*Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese
*Tomato Water & Ojai Olive Oil Sorbet
*Stumptown Coffee with Compartes Love Nuts
*California Peaches with Lemon Crumble

I had been immediately drawn to the creativity of the Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese flavor, but in the back of my mind did have some reservations about how it would taste: goat cheese can be pretty pungent and dense in texture.  It turned out to be a favorite that I will definitely return for soon: the olive brittle had a lovely, perfectly balanced mix of briny flavor with that distinct caramel/candied crunch, in super smooth, ever so slightly denser creamy texture with the goat cheese almost coming through as an after thought.  So uniquely delicious - who would have ever thought to put these ingredients together, and in ice cream form?

As I worked my way down the sample bowls, I found myself calling every single flavor my favorite.  The (almost blood orange sorbet hued) Tomato Water & Ojai Olive Oil Sorbet was sweeter than expected, as if it was made with heirloom tomatoes picked fresh from the farm, late season so that the sugars were even more concentrated. 

Stumptown Coffee with Compartes Love Nuts could easily be the mascot flavor of Salt & Straw and their marriage of Portland (coffee) with LA (chocolate) - and the blend of fragrant roast bean with hand roasted nuts that are caramelized with Tahitian Vanilla, sprinkled with sea salt, then layered in chocolate blend and topped off with raw cacao powder (best invention ever) was irresistible.  I bought a pint to go.

Last but not least was the California Peaches and Lemon Crumble: peaches are of course in season and a must-get on every farmers market trip recently, so I loved that they featured this in a seasonal ice cream flavor and paired it with citrus (!) and crumble, so that it was like the essence of a gorgeous height-of-the-season peach pie in the smoothest, creamiest ice cream form.

The Tasting Flight is a great option for newbies or those who want variety: a single full sized scoop is normally $4.25 and double $6.25.

I almost licked every bowl clean, and were it not for limits of biology and social decorum, I would have ate my way through the entire menu the first day.

Also, beyond the clear love and care S&S puts into their products, the service is amazing as well.  Despite neverending lines and customers demanding attention on opening day, Kim and Ian still took the time to really try to connect with each customer.   Kim came by several times to ensure I had my tasting and was enjoying it on what I called the 'flight deck' - the little counter to the back side of the cash register where I snuck to do the tasting, since the few counter seats along the window were already taken.  Between the great ice cream and personal service, I was sold.

Can't wait to go back, to try their milkshakes as well (especially another taste of Portland / tease to local outpost PokPok: Pomegranate PokPok Drinking Vinegar Shake).

Beyond what they're scooping / churning: I've also got to go back and check out all the fun gourmet goodies in their cubby shelves: from "chocolate vermicelli" to "hand crafted bourbon barrel matured maple syrup"!

See you again soon, Salt & Straw!

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Salt & Straw
240 N Larchmont Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90004

Website:  saltandstraw.com

Parking: Larchmont Village Plaza structure

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Salt & Straw on Urbanspoon

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