Sunday, January 31, 2016

Broken Spanish: Moawwrrr, Por Favor!

Some restaurants and dishes are so good, dining there could be considered 'feeding your soul': it inspires you so much you still dream of it days, weeks after, and want to return at every available opportunity.  One place that, at under 1 year old, passes this test is Broken Spanish: serving up modern Mexican, influenced by the diversity of the city, as only a talented chef born and raised in LA and trained in classical cooking like Chef Ray Garcia (who helmed the Belvedere, FIG, and was champion of Cochon 555 twice over) could bring to life.

Broken Spanish brings together a trifecta of Chef Garcia, with restaurateur Bill Chait (with a crazy high batting average for home runs in the restaurant space) and fantastic beverage director Mike Lay, whose bar program at another downtown favorite Faith & Flower has impressed us so much we're stalking following him wherever he goes.

Our first visit happened to fall on Mexico Independence Day. In honor of this, Mike Lay had created an off menu Horchata-Spiced Clarified Milk Punch with Anejo tequila, jamaican rum, cognac, toasted barley, pineapple, piloncillo, canela.

If you've ever tried Mike's inventive take on English Milk Punch at Faith & Flower (which took three days to make, was so easy to drink, and instantly became one of our favorite cocktails in the city): you'd be as excited as we were to check out this Mexican inspired take on the punch.  And it delivered: well balanced, lots of depth and flavor while going down clean, smooth and refreshing.

And yes, I had to Google piloncillo too.  It's an unrefined Mexican sugar made from boiling down cane juice, and molding it into shape (usually a cone shape, which provides the origins for the name).  I haven't tasted it on its own, but it's described as caramel-like in flavor, but with some smokey-ness that adds depth.
 


We loved it in the drink, and was pleased to see it again on the food menu, used in the Rebenada ($12) pan dulce, foie gras butter, piloncillo. So foie and butter of course are not normally associated with Mexican food - but here is where Chef Garcia's creative crucible of LA flavors is put to work - french ingredients meets mexican in a slice to haunt my dreams.  It's at once savory, earthy, sweet, creamy rich and decadent with the delicate crunch of salt crystals and caramelized sugar layer that is so thin it's not even visible (like the top of the most skillfully executed creme brulee), and soft sweet pillowy bread below.

This is one of the best bites of foie I've had in the city, and I've had a lot.  We ordered a second plate before we'd even finished the first - it was great as dessert as well, a perfect way to bookend the meal.
Then onto the most recognizably Mexican sections of the menu, there were a few options under Tamales, and we chose the Lamb neck, king oyster mushrooms, queso Oaxaca ($16).  Again Chef Garcia takes a very traditional dish and gives it an unexpected spin with an ingredient not normally found in Mexican cooking, but perhaps so prolific in Southern California's amazing farmers markets: the king oyster mushrooms added luscious earthy, umami flavor and juiciness to the humble tamale and balanced the bold flavored braised lamb neck.





Under the Tortillas section, we were drawn immediately to the Whipped Carnitas Fat ($7) - who can refuse pork fat with fresh beautiful blue corn tortillas?  Unfortunately though, for us, this turned out to be our least favorite, only because we are not big fans of spiciness, and the whipped carnitas fat packed an unexpected punch - we really wanted to love this but our scorched taste buds hadn't recovered enough after several glasses of fire extinguishing water to give it another try. 
For our main, we had to get the show stopping Cabeza ($28): a full, uncensored lamb's head, served with pickled onion and cabbage.  Yep, full on skull with jaw, eye sockets, teeth etc. on display.  This is the most literal embodiment of the LA culinary world's support of farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, sustainable approach to food, but the presentation was a little macabre even for these self-professed adventurous foodies.  However, once we got a few nervous laughs out of the way, and with a quick spin of the dish to keep the teeth out of line of sight, a carnivorous treasure hunt was on to uncover fatty cheek meat to dip into the addictive tomato-based sauce, which was the perfect level of spice for us.

As our 'chaser' we ordered the Cazuela ($20) a cocktail intended to serve two, made with mezcal, Blanco tequila, Mandarin Napoleon, lime, fresh jicama, pineapple, fresno chili.  It's named for the dish it's served in, like a mini punch bowl that we scooped out into smaller cups to imbibe.  This one was much stronger that the punch we kicked off the meal with, but probably the appropriate thing to follow the lamb head.







On a return visit, I also tried the Green Garden cocktail ($14) with Chinaco Blanco tequila, Belle de Brillet, lemon, ginger, green juice medley, fennel flower, served over ice.  Regular readers know how much I love cold pressed juice, and this tasted like that, but with the added 'benefit' of booze for buzz.  And it was beautiful.  From the 'Refreshing, With Citrus, Not Too Sweet' part of the drink menu (love that they divide the craft cocktails into sections by the characteristics of a drink that a bar guest would potentially be looking for)

And then there was the Chicharron ($39).  This was not the fried pork rinds I'd come to know and love from Mexican markets - but an elevated, artful take with a giant round of pork belly fried on the outside for a crisp fragrant crust that yields to fatty porky goodness within. Flavored with elephant garlic mojo, topped with radish sprout, prickled herbs.  Definitely portioned to serve two people.

That Chef Garcia is skilled at handling pork is verified by his two-time crowning as 'King of Porc' at Cochon 555, the nationwide competition dedicated to the better white meat - and it's also evident with this dish.
Just when we were feeling very happily 'foodie-wasted' from all the deliciousness, we were presented with a dessert menu we couldn't refuse: the Chile Mango ($11) looked too incredible.  The freshest mango panna cotta was topped by juicy squares of perfectly ripe mango, passion fruit curd, habanero caramel and bricks of cayenne meringue for bit of heat and airy crunchiness to balance the decadent creamy sweet-tart below.  Easily and instantly one of my favorite desserts in the city.


All in all, Broken Spanish has become one of my favorite restaurants in LA, a place that I'd be proud and eager to recommend both to locals, and introduce to out-of-town visitors looking for an inventive introduction to taste of the city of dreams and possibilities.


On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

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Broken Spanish
1050 S Flower St, Los Angeles, CA 90015
Ph:  213.749.1460

Website: brokenspanish.com  
Parking: Street (meters in front of restaurant)

Look for reservations (and points) at OpenTable.


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Broken Spanish Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, January 25, 2016

1MB On Film: NOMA: My Perfect Storm

NOMA: My Perfect Storm is a portrait of groundbreaking chef Rene Redzepi:  his cooking as his love letter to mother nature, built with an alphabet of local and foraged ingredients.  From his start as the target of derision in the culinary world, to head of the best restaurant in the world many times over, to the brink of possible ruin with a norovirus outbreak, to his climb back to the top, this film charts the tempestuous career and mind of Rene Redzepi as a force of nature that you can’t help but root for.


Official movie synopsis:

With automatic access to genius, René Redzepi plays with wilderness and interprets a forgotten edible world into a language we all understand. A modern ugly duckling, bullied by his peers, Redzepi found his home in the no man’s land and transformed into swan. Noma, My Perfect Storm is a creative journey into the mind of René Redzepi. How did he manage to revolutionise the entire world of gastronomy, inventing the alphabet and vocabulary that would infuse newfound pedigree to Nordic cuisine and establish a new edible world while radically changing the image of the modern chef? His story has the feel of a classic fairy tale: the ugly duckling transformed into a majestic swan, who now reigns over the realm of modern gourmet cuisine. But beneath the polished surface, cracks appear in the form of old wounds. 2013 stands as the worst year in René Redzepi’s career. We follow him as he fights his way back to the top, reinventing NOMA and reclaiming the title of best restaurant in the world in 2014 for the fourth time.

[Synopsis from noma-myperfectstorm.com]

 


There are many ways a documentary can approach its subject, when that subject centers around food: the easy tropes are hero overcoming adversity, or retracing career milestones embellished with a smattering of foodporn. Noma: My Perfect Storm doesn't break the mold, but writer-director Pierre Deschamps crafts its delivery in a way that is familiar yet balanced in its portrayal of Redzepi as genius and perfectionist-bully, and shining in its (counter?)structural mirroring of the analogy of Chef Redzepi's life as the perfect storm (from a Norwegian fisherman's tale) throughout the film: imperfect but powerful poetry, hewn from the same raw nature the chef embodies.

The film opens on an icy landscape, and Chef Redzepi ponders via voiceover, dining as philosophy, tied to time and place.  Humans are inseparable from their environment, and so are ingredients: "they belong to the seasons, they have a ripening process, they have their own temporal dimension".  Harvest and enjoying ingredients from the right place at the right time, results in not only a great dining experience (we all know the buzzwords that appear everywhere these days like "seasonal" and "farm to table') but truly gives diners a sense of where they are in the world, and to celebrate what they are eating as a way to understand that environment and culture at that specific point in time (and hopefully in doing so, also to think about how to consume in a responsible way).  Where Chef Redzepi trailblazed is in choosing to showcase Scandinavia, despite its terroir - known for being harsh and not produce friendly -  against all expectations to establish, in mentor Ferran Adria's words: "national culinary identity which they never had before."

We get a glimpse of eccentric local forager Roland Rittman, whose passion is to discover new ingredients in the wilderness of Denmark.  Chef Redzepi is clearly inspired, and passes this on to his team in the kitchen: he sees them as explorers of an edible planet. 


"As a cook, you’re creating a language….if that’s the case, then we need vocabulary, an alphabet to build sentences and paragraphs, and the ingredients are our letters.  The more letters we have, the more beautiful the prose." - Rene Redzepi

He encourages his staff to think about ingredients in new ways: and we hear the joy and wonder in his creative process: "omigod, it’s a cabbage...a vegetable...no, it’s a drink!"  Although, the film would have done better to offer deeper insights into a few highlighted dishes to better showcase this, especially since Redzepi moves on to use ingredients most people have never heard of, or that most chefs would never consider serving (like moss, or ants).  The 'why' and 'how' would be burning questions any viewer would have about Redzepi's specific creations / methods.

On balance, Deschamps does offer a glimpse at another side of Redzepi: one who drives his team to the brink, with the unreserved severity of a perfectionist who relentlessly and impatiently demands flawlessness from not only himself but everyone around him.  He also rips into traditions he finds objectionable, with vitriol: in his view, diners should focus on food and their connection to it, rather than the trappings of fine dining which do nothing in service of that (the requirement that waiters wear bowties, for example, was the target of expletive laden tirades).

But the intellectual paired with tradition-bucking approach was not well received in the beginning: back in 2003 when Noma first opened (with then 25-year old Redzepi at its helm), the gastronomic community did not understand nor accept his grandiose thinking, and particularly harsh critics branded his team with crushing monikers like "Seal-Fuckers".

Redzepi persisted.  He knew what it felt like to be an outsider, growing up as the son of a Macedonian muslim and Danish mother in Denmark.  He held firmly onto his vision to revolutionize Nordic cuisine, drawn from the land onto diners' plates: and success finally crossed the frozen tundra in 2010: when Noma won the prestigious #1 spot in the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards. 

And Noma won again, in 2011 and 2012.  Only for a norovirus to hit the restaurant the very next year, causing 60 diners to fall ill - and bringing chef Redzepi from the height of his career to a low from which they were not sure they would recover.  Would people be too afraid to continue to follow him along on the local, foraged food journey?  Or would they have to abandon the concept altogether?

In the moment of truth in 2014, the film aptly immerses viewers into the emotional whirlwind of the moments leading up to Noma's triumph: from Redzepi telling his team to "Go there, be good sports...I'm not expecting anything to happen" to first person style footage shot on cell phone as Rene and staff huddled anxiously together like an Olympic sports team to listen to award announcement countdowns, to the burst of pure joy and excitement as #2 was named...and the team realized that Noma will again take top honor.  

In his moment of triumphant redemption, Redzepi cannot forget his humble beginnings, and the cynics' words that stung so deeply but ultimately fueled so intensely his fire to succeed: 

"Guys, we did it! ...do you remember the opening years of Noma, how few people believed in us?...  They gave us funny names. We all remember the “seal fucker” but that didn’t bother us, it fucking killed us.  and look at us now...celebrated for all the experience.  Wood sorrel conquered caviar...You have to remember, that everything we’ve achieved today is by failing, or by how we handle the failures we stumble over daily.  We have to stay there, on the edge, right there, looking for our next move, playing like we have nothing, and nothing, to lose. The road is not paved in front of us...we want to be the ones laying the bricks... My dear Seal-Fuckers, thank you again, and let’s keep failing, together."

It is only in the final moments of the film, that we get to hear the perfect storm tale directly from Redzepi himself:

"A Perfect Storm is a storm in which the sky and the sea seems to flow together, and Ragnarök or the end of the world is around the corner.  Everything goes wrong, you’re about to give up, but you still continue even though your strength is almost exhausted.  The thing that keeps you going is that everything will calm down at one point.  All your instincts telling you, calm down, everything will be ok. That there is control in spite of everything...perfect analogy of my life at Noma"

It is an elegant close to this chapter in Redzepi's narrative: the film may not have any revelatory insights to offer, but what you come away with is more than a glimpse of one chef's path to success, but inspiration to persist in the face of forces that have every probability to deter / destroy.   To believe, and to persist - to keep moving and weather it through.

Outside of the documentary, news had been circulating that Noma will shutdown at the end of 2016, for a new incarnation with a new menu and an urban farm on property.  I for one hope to be fortunate enough to get to experience Noma in its current form, to capture this point in space and time, before it moves on with gale force.


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Noma: My Perfect Storm
Run time: 95 mins
1MB Rating: 3 bites (out of 5)
Available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and video On Demand (check cable provider listings here)
And playing in select theaters: magpictures.com/noma
Likelihood of 2nd Helping?: 80%
 
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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Baroo: Pure Imagination in World of Chef Kwang Uh's Creation

The feeling you get when you first pull into the non-descript strip mall where Baroo holds ground, and when you first step into the quaint yet pleasantly unsettling nook, is a version of what I would imagine the kids who won Golden Tickets felt when they first set foot in Wonka's factory.

Except that Baroo is tiny, where Wonka's factory was gargantuan, and Baroo is obsessive with natural ingredients, fermentation and locavorism, as Wonka was about sugar spun confections produced en masse...but it's that core feeling of wonder, and being unsettled in a simultaneously fantastic and unnerving way.  Unsettled, because you are greeted by things you may not ever have thought to think of.

When you first step into the 'free-style experimental kitchen', you see a big wooden communal table, barstools by the counters, and a back wall with shelves packed with every-color science-lab-like jars of things quietly fermenting.




You don't see any staff for a while (because the hardworking staff of two are busy in the kitchen whipping up dishes for hungry diners), so you take the time to peruse the jars.  (Yes, most of what Baroo will feed you has to do with mold and foods in various stages of breaking down.  And you'll love it.)

You wander to the fridge, packed with housemade kombucha in flavors from elderflower to rose & passionfruit to yuzu to lemon verbena.  (And tepache (fermented pineapple juice))  Healthy and tasty - though a menu of fermented foods, those not into that intense fermented taste of kombucha may not want to double up.

You read up on the chef, who after spending time in the kitchens of Daniel in NYC, Nobu Bahamas, Noma, Quique Dacosta and Piazza Duomo, and in the halls of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in northern Italy, earning a masters degree in Food Culture and Communication: Food, Place and Identity, that he has decided to pour his passion into Baroo, a place where he can combine natural ingredients and fermentation and let his creativity flow.

But you would never know about his fine dining background, on meeting the owner/chef, as he seems to embody the humble philosophy behind the name of his restaurant: Baroo means "a bowl that Buddhist monks are allowed to possess and use for their meals until their last breath," which also seems to symbolize the minimalist approach to life in order to focus on what's really important: respect, trust in and love to nature and people.  This he channels through food, using local, sustainable and organic ingredients.  He is not a big talker either, but lets his creative dishes speak for themselves.

My favorite seat is at the counter, where you can glance over the collection of cookbooks, dry ingredients, and peek into the kitchen.  Homey, like being invited over to a friend's house for dinner, and checking out their life as a collection of knick knacks on their shelves, while waiting for the party to commence.

And when the food arrives, it's understated but very simply spectacular.  Some dishes are composed of ingredients you'd never heard of, which you excitedly Google.  Some are twists on more familiar favorites.

Though Chef Uh loves all his dishes, when pressed, one standout he and partner Matthew Kim would recommend is Noorook (Koji) ($12) Job's tears, kamut & farro, roasted koji beet creme, concentrated kombu dashi, toasted seeds (sunflower & pumpkin), macadamia nuts, finger lime, and rose onion pickle.  Every grain makes its presence known here, perfectly cooked and clean, distinct, made cohesive with the beet creme and dusted with super finely grated cheese (?).  It has risotto qualities, but is at the same time unlike anything you'd ever tasted, especially with the umami and subtle tartness of koji (edible mold) kombu dashi, crunch of seeds, nuts and exquisite tiny bursts of brightness via finger limes cutting through the grains which are rich yet light at the same time. Confounding in the best way.  The only thing I knew was that a few forkfuls in, I was hooked, and had already decided this was my favorite and I needed to come back for more.

 Gim (Seaweed) ($12) has a similar mix of grains but with different 'toppings' / 'mix-ins': Job's tears, kamut & farro grains with amaju, assorted seaweed compte with shiitake, tofu, spirulina, nasturtium, nori chip, mixed berries, wasabi daikon, lime onion jalapeno, pickle.  I didn't think that berries would go with warm grains (the only time I'd encountered the two together would be in some kind of cold salad) - but the earthiness of the mushrooms, grains and tofu were well balanced by the vibrant juicy sweet/tart of the berries, punctuated by the slight heat of wasabi, jalapeno, and acidity of pickle and lime, and the crisp crunch of the nori chip.


Then there were new takes on dishes familiar to LA food lovers: my favorite is the Kimchi Fried Rice ($9) pineapple fermented kimchi, amira basmati rice, 63 degree sous vide egg, gremolata, pineapple jalapeno salsa, purple potato chips, roasted seaweed, toasted buckwheat & quinoa, and micro greens (option to add slab bacon for $2)

Changing up the rice to basmati apparently makes a huge difference! Again, many ingredients and tastes you wouldn't think to combine, come together to blow your mind.  This one, like Chef Uh's other dishes, also pay amazingly detailed attention to balance of levity and density, juicy, crunchy, crisp, sweet, sour, spicy, savory all in harmony - and again every grain of rice is clean and distinct.  Chef Uh's Kimchi Fried Rice is the new crack.



Then there is Baroo's Ragu Style ($15) spicy oxtail faux ragu, tendon puff, gochujang gremolata with cherry tomatoes, krout powder, three years aged parmigiano reggiano with handmade pasta.  With mostly recognizable ingredients, this dish may seem the least exciting of Chef Uh's limited menu, but you'd be remiss to skip it - it may be one of the most flavorful, and again shockingly rich AND light at the same time of any pasta dish you've had.


And then will also make you realize that most of the other dishes don't have any meat in them: and you never even missed it, because the flavors and textures are so amazing.  And when you get up from a meal at Baroo, you are fully satiated, but not lethargic like you might be at a gluttonous meal at many other restaurants in town.  I love that the taste is amazing first, and that the 'health' aspect makes it even better (and there is no 'sacrifice' or forced abstinence of any sort).

Baroo's dessert menu consists of baked goods and one fancier option.  Don't overlook the goodies under the glass dome on the side counter - they are incredible, like the savories.

The Classic Shortbread ($2) 84% butter cacao nibs and citrus bursts is probably the best, most clean crumbly piece of shortbread I've had in recent memory.

The Caramel Pearl Chocolate & Oat Cookie ($2) 70% Valrhona chocolate, nocciola is delicious and fun to eat with the chocolate and white 'pearls' sprinkled throughout.

The fanciest dessert on the menu is the Passion Fruit Tart ($7) vanilla bean tart, macha yuzu chiffon, passion fruit curd, elderflower meringue.  Elegant and decadent.  Definitely do not leave without trying this tart.


Jonathan Gold referred to Baroo's cooking as "a taste of the future".  When looking ahead, and considering mass nutrition needs of the species, and moving to vegetable/grain-based diets, some people choose to reduce the things that inhibit efficient energy use and food production, and in doing so remove the human element (Soylent for example seriously makes me think of the slop they funnel through feeding tubes to human incubators/battery farms in The Matrix).  Others, like Chef Uh, choose to celebrate the beauty of nature and pushes in all their efforts with their vision to sustain it.  For the sake of humanity, I hope that Chef Uh's way is the winner.  Please 'vote' for that future by supporting his restaurant :)  Thank you!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 7 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 7 bites
Ambience -  5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6.5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


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Baroo
5706 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038
Ph: 323.819.4344

Website: baroola.strikingly.com  
Parking: free, in attached strip mall open air parking


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Baroo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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