Does Provenance Dictate Quality?

On a recent trip up to Northern California for the Concours De Elegance at Pebble Beach, I had the opportunity to observe the lifestyles of the 1%. A place where $10 lattes are the norm and $800 breakfasts are no big deal. It got me thinking does the provenance of a restaurant or Chef make the actual food taste that much better? Or is it all in our head?

I have experienced it time and time again here in Los Angeles, where there is this huge hype for a restaurant run by some big name Chef, that just disappoints both my palate and my bank account. Why do I continue to do this? Why does it even matter? Shouldn’t we be enjoying the ingredients or the flavors of the food rather than let who made it or where we ate it dictate whether or not we liked it?

Since I was up in the Monterrey area for several days I had the chance to eat at several of the restaurants at the Lodge at Pebble Beach; a perfect example of a place where supposed provenance overcomes quality. One of the restaurants, Stillwater, which is supposed to be one of the best in the area, was extremely overpriced and quite a disappointment. Stillwater offers seafood dishes ranging from hamachi and tuna sashimi to olive-oil poached halibut. While the quality of the seafood was in fact quite good, the dishes themselves were boring and poorly executed;certainly not worth the $50 entrée price.

Another example was a few months ago we went to Jose Andres’ restaurant Bazaar ;a restaurant with very high ratings simply because of the fact that the Chef came from El Bulli, another big name restaurant in Spain. Not only was the service appalling, but the food was almost inedible. Nothing was seasoned properly nor really made any sense (Jose Andres is a big molecular gastronomy guy). The only thing worth eating was the Jamon Iberrico, which they don’t even prepare, it is cured ham that is imported from Spain. We walked away from their both poor ($200 meal!) and still hungry.

Contrary to that, there is a little Japanese place close to our apartment called Nabeeya, that is run by a very hardworking husband and wife team that offers great chicken teriyaki and spicy tuna bowls that are both extremely satisfying and very affordable (you can walk away spending less than $10).

Now I am not saying that cheap food is necessarily better than expensive food, I am simply stating that you won’t always get the best meal from the most expensive and popular restaurant. The best meals in my opinion, are the ones that are prepared by really hardworking people that really care about the product and the customer and are not caught up in the hype of who they are or where they work.

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Starry Kitchen-New Downtown Location

Last night, after two glasses of rose at Spring Street Bar (one of the best local bars in LA), Cameron and I decided to go check out Starry Kitchen. We had been before to the location in the Financial District, which sadly closed down, and really enjoyed the meal that we had.

Once we heard that they were doing a sort of “pop up” restaurant at the Tiara Cafe, we decided we had to go eat there. I am a big Asian cuisine fan, everything from Thai to Vietnamese, and especially love what the husband and wife duo at Starry Kitchen do. Fresh ingredients, in your face flavors, and traditional Asian dishes.

The staff were very friendly and attentive, and made us feel like we eating at the owner’s house. We started out with the beef wrapped in sesame leaves which was served with a nice pickled vegetable dipping sauce. The beef was a little under seasoned on its own, but once you dipped it into the sauce it brought out the flavors of the sesame leaves and the beef.

Next we shared the garlic noodles, which looked just like plain noodles with butter, but were surprisingly flavorful and paired nicely with a generous splash of Sriracha.

Lastly we split the Singaporean crab, which to be honest was one of the tastiest things I have eaten in a while. The sauce is made with a homemade chicken stock and tomato base. It is spicy and sweet and has pieces of crab floating around waiting to be soaked up by the bread that is served with it. The crab is sweet and succulent. and is large enough to split between two or three people. Truly a spectacular dish. In fact, the waitress told us that on the weekend they usually sell out of the crab by 7:00. So if you have plans to go there make sure you get there before 7:00 or you will miss out on a sensational experience.

My Croissant Adventure

When I was in culinary school I took some really incredible classes. From learning the basics of breads to understanding the complexity of chocolate, I gained a really solid base for my career in pastry.

One of my absolute favorite classes was what is called viennoiserie, which is the study of laminated doughs (aka croissants, pain au chocolate, danishes, etc.). There is something so completely zen about folding massive amounts of butter into a silky smooth dough.

Viennoiserie is very complicated and time consuming and requires a lot of patience. Yet the result is so gratifying that it makes every painstaking minute worth it.

As some of you read in my post about Renaud’s patisserie, I decided to try to recreate what I believe to be the best croissants in Southern California. Unfortunately because I neither have the ovens, nor the professional kitchen equipment, mine did not come out quite as perfect, but they did come out pretty damn good! I used the recipe from my all time favorite book Baking Illustrated, which if you are passionate about baking I highly recommend you purchase it and use for your go-to baking book.

The key to making croissants is maintaining the proper temperature of the butter. If it is too cold, the butter won’t incorporate as it should and the result will be a dense, nasty croissant. It is is too hot, the butter will melt and also will not incorporate as it should, and the croissants won’t be flaky and airy. The butter has to be cold, yet pliable enough that it can successfully create layers between the dough to create a wonderful and beautiful croissant.

You also have to make sure that you let the croissants proof long enough so that it looks as if they have taken a deep breath of air. This allows for the yeast to create even more air in the croissants. Below is the recipe for the perfect croissants, let me know if you have any questions, I am always happy to help!

Dough:

3 cups ap flour

1 tablespoon yeast

1/4 cup sugar

1 1/4 tsp salt

1 1/4 whole milk, cold

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Butter Square:

24 tablespoons (3 sticks butter), cut into 1 tablespoon pieces, cold!!

2 tablespoons ap flour

For the dough:

Whisk 2 3/4 cups of the flour with the yeast, sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Place the milk in a bowl of a standing mixer with the dough hook. Add the flour mixture and knead at low speed until a dough forms. Cut the butter into small pieces and add them to the dough. Continue to mix until the butter is fully incorporated and the dough is smooth. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

For the butter square:

Using a bench scraper, toss together the butter pieces and flour on a clean surface. Smear the butter and flour back and forth against the work surface until they have combined into a smooth mixture. Wrap the butter mixture in plastic wrap, form into an even 7 inch square. Refrigerate until firm.

To make croissants:

Roll the dough into an 11 inch square. Place the chilled butter diagonally onto the dough. Fold the corners of the dough up over the butter square so that they meet in the middle and pinch the ends on the dough together to seal them.

Using a rolling pin, tap the dough from the center outward until the butter begins to soften and become malleable. Gently roll dough into a 14  inch square. Fold one outside edge of the dough in toward the center and bring the opposite outside edge in over the top, like a business letter. Repeat the process but fold over each end to make a square. These are what are called “turns” which is what creates the layers of air between the butter and the flour. You have now done 2 turns. At this point you have to chill the wrapped dough for at least 2 hours before you can do your next two turns. If at any time your dough becomes sticky, put it back immediately into to the refrigerator.

Once you have chilled the dough for 2 hours repeat the process 2 more times to do a total of 4 turns.

To shape the croissants:

Roll the dough into a 20 inch square, use a pizza cutter to cur the dough into two equal rectangles. Cut each rectangle into thirds width wise and then into triangles to yield 12 triangles. Working one at a time, lift the triangle off the work surface, holding the base in one hand and the tip in the other. Gently stretch into an isosceles triangle with two sides equal in length. With the base closest to you, cut a 1-inch slit into the center of the base of each triangle. Fold the two sides of the slit outward. With both hands roll the triangle from the base, gently stretching the dough as you roll, leaving the lat 1/4 inch of the tip unrolled. Transfer the croissant to a parchment paper lined baking sheet, unrolled tip facing downward. Bring the ends of the croissant toward each other to form a crescent shape.

          

  
To proof and bake:

Cover the croissants loosely with plastic wrap. Let them rise at room temperature until puffy, 45-60 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly brush each croissant with egg to add more color and shine. Bake until they are golden brown about 18-22 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through.

 

Paella

This week was the first in years that my whole immediate family has spent more than 1 or 2 days together. It has been great, lots of laughs, lots of catching up, and lots of great food. One of the things that really brings us all together is eating and cooking. For as long as I can remember we have been spending the majority of our time in the kitchen sharing recipes and tips, and creating wonderful dishes.

One thing that my mom really instilled in us was to make everything (or at least try) from scratch. This has been a wonderful skill and hobby to have because it made us appreciate the fruits of our labor so much more than just going out to eat.

This weekend we decided to make Paella, one of my all time favorite dishes. There is something so comforting about the creamy saffron rice coupled with juicy sweet shrimp and spicy sausages. I have yet to find a restaurant in Los Angeles that can replicate what we can make at home. I gave it an honest try at Artisan House in Downtown LA, but was greatly disappointed by the lackluster amount of seafood and the bland rice. The closest I have come is in a great restaurant in Portland, Oregon called El Toro Bravo. Here the seafood is extremely fresh and there is plenty of it to satisfy at least two people. The rice is nicely seasoned with just the right amount of saffron.

The thing I love about Paella is that you can really add whatever protein you want. You can play around with different types of fish and shellfish, different types of sausages, you can add chicken; the combinations are really endless. For our Paella we chose to use spicy pork sausages, browned chicken legs, and big juicy prawns. We also used homemade chicken broth that made the flavors of the dish much more complicated and rich.

You can also play around with the types of vegetables that you add; you can add bell peppers, onions, peas, and so on. We chose to use roasted red bell peppers and summer peas.

Paella is also a great dish that pairs beautifully with a variety of different wines. Based on which protein you use, you can try it with pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, vino verde and other dry white wines or Rose. We chose to pair it with a grenache rose that we bought from margerum winery in Santa Barbara, very light and crisp, and went great with the dish. Overall a great meal spent with my favorite people; I couldn’t ask for anything better.

Paella (4-6 generous servings)

2 cups arborio rice

4 cups chicken broth

2 generous tablespoons garlic

1 1/2 tsp organic saffron. I suggest you not skimp on this ingredient and splurge on the good stuff.

2 tablespoons sambal

1tbs  salt

2 tsp pepper

1 lb shrimp

1/2 lb chicken, browned but not cooked all the way

2 spicy pork sausages, sliced and browned

1 cup summer peas

1/2 cup roasted bell pepper, sliced

Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a large skillet cook the rice with the garlic and saffron over medium heat for about 5 minutes to help the rice cook faster and the saffron to start developing its flavor. Brown the chicken and the sausages just enough to get some color but not to cook all the way. Place the rice in a large paella pan, or large round pan, and pour the chicken broth over it. Place the chicken, shrimp, sausages, peas, and bell pepper over the rice. Spoon sambal over rice/seafood mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Using your hands or a spatula mix everything together evenly. Cover with aluminum foil and place in the oven for about 70 minutes, check if the rice is cooked all the way (it should be soft like risotto). If it is not, pop it in the oven for another 5-10 minutes.

Summer Bounty

One of the reasons I love summer is all of the beautiful and delicious produce that is available. Watermelons, peaches, tomatoes, plums, etc. There is so much flavor and color that brings food alive that makes cooking fun and enjoyable.

Tonight we decided to make a lovely watermelon and Farro salad, heirloom tomato and mozzarella caprese, and to finish it off fresh strawberry juice. Even though I am not vegetarian by any means, Korean BBQ is one of my all time favorites, I enjoy a good healthy, veggie friendly meal every once in a while.

Farro is perfect for a hearty vegetarian salad because it has tons of protein, a pleasant  nutty flavor and pairs wonderfully with fruits and vegetables. I decided to try it with fresh watermelon, summer peas, cilantro, chives from the garden and parmesan cheese. The result: a delectable and satisfying salad that I would definitely try again.

The caprese is easy to make and is great with heirloom tomatoes. Top it off with a nice grassy olive oil, a sweet balsamic, a little sea salt and pepper and voila! You have a luscious salad that pairs nicely with a glass of grenache rose.

Lastly to make the strawberry juice, cook about 1 pound of strawberries with a cup of sugar on low heat for a couple of hours until the juice starts to separate from the fruit. Strain the juice and serve chilled (or with a shot of tequilla to make strawberry margaritas). Tomorrow I am tackling the final phase of the croissants, I’ll be sure to keep you posted!

Farro Salad:

1 cup watermelon cubed

1 cup cooked Farro

1/4 c cilantro finely diced

1 c cooked summer peas

1 tbsp chives

2 tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

juice from 1 lime

1/4 parmesan cheese

Mix all ingredients in medium bowl, serve and enjoy.

 

Caprese Salad:

1 pound heirloom tomatoes, sliced

1 large ball mozzarella, sliced

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp balsamic vinaigrette

1 tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

2 tbs basil, fine chiffonade

1 tsp chives, very finely cut

Place tomatoes and mozzarella evenly onto plate. Pour oil and balsamic over them. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle basil and chives.

 

Alegrias

This week I have been on a little baking spree. After I made the brownies I was inspired and motivated to start baking again for fun. I wanted to do something that I have never done before so that I could challenge myself and learn something new.

I have tons and tons of baking books and hundreds of recipes, but there is one that has been calling at me for a while, it’s called “My Sweet Mexico” by Fany Gerson. What I like about this book is that it has really authentic recipes for all of my favorite childhood treats. It has beautiful pictures and very detailed instructions. It also gives you lots of information about the different ingredients and where to find them.

I chose to make what are called Alegrias, which are Amaranth “Happiness” Candies (although I would classify them more as a cookie). I remember being young in Mexico and eating these straight from the markets in Downtown Mexico City. They are wonderfully sweet, full of nuts and dried fruit, and have a nice crunchy yet chewy texture.

They are also really easy to make. They only hard part is puffing the amaranth, which is an ancient seed from the Pre-Hispanic times. Make sure you use a hot skillet and do not put oil in the pan, I made this mistake and it was disastrous. Use a wooden spoon to move the seeds around in the skillet and allow them to pop like pop corn. Be careful not to burn your eyes! Also do them in small batches because they tend to burn quite easily.

I adapted the recipe by changing the types of nuts and dried fruit. I would also suggest adding chocolate chips for a nice flavor combination. I used cranberries, roasted almonds that are roasted with Bragg liquid amino, toasted pumpkin seeds and hazelnuts. It had a nice sweet and savory combination that went really well with the sweetened amaranth. Here is the recipe:

1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts

1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds

1/2 cup roasted almonds

1/2 cup cranberries

8 ounces brown sugar

1/2 cup honey

1/2 tsp lemon juice

4 ounces puffed amaranth seeds.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the nuts and fruit onto the prepared pan. Cook the brown sugar, honey and lemon juice in a medium pot over medium heat. Cook until the sugar dissolves and the mixture has thickened a bit. Take off the heat and add the puffed amaranth seeds. Stir well to make sure that everything is evenly mixed. Pour over the nuts and fruits and using your hands (I suggest using gloves) press firmly down to spread evenly. Make sure that the amaranth mixture is very well compacted. You can moisten your hands if it is getting too sticky. Allow to cool completely, at least 40 minutes, and invert onto a cutting board. Using a sharp knife cut into desired shapes and sizes. Wrap whatever you are not going to eat in a tightly sealed container.

Sushi Gen

Ah glorious Sushi Gen.

When I first moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career in food, Cameron would take me to another great Sushi spot in little Tokyo called Hama. This was when I discovered the wonders of real authentic Sushi, not deep-fried and filled with imitation crab, which is what I was used to. One night, when Hama was completely booked we decided to check out Sushi Gen, which thankfully had room for two at the bar. Little did we know, it would soon become one of our favorite spots.

Sushi Gen offers what I think to be the best Sushi . We have been to Nobu in New York, and Sushi Nozawa in LA, both very highly regarded Sushi restaurants, and both agreed that Sushi Gen takes the prize. The fish is extraordinarily fresh and the rice is flawlessly prepared.

The standouts are: the Spanish and Japanese mackerel, both unique in their own flavors and are served with a dash of ponzu sauce and a little sprinkle of scallions. The sweet shrimp, which is raw and takes some time getting used to the texture, is served plain on top of the rice and comes with either the fried head, or a miso soup with the head. The sardine,which has a beautiful phosphorescent color and a mild saltness. The scallop, which literally melts in your mouth and has a unique sweetness to it. The snapper, which is served with a little sliver of lemon and a hint of salt. The salmon skin hand-roll, picture salmon jerky wrapped with warm rice and pickled vegetables, one of my personal favorites. The salmon roe, which pop in your mouth and pair excellently with the rice. The list could go on and on; there are so many different types of sushi and requires that you go in with an open mind.

The service is extraordinary. Once you become a regular, the guys working at the bar will greet you as if you were one of them. They really take care of you and have some of the most skilled hands I have ever seen. I highly, highly recommend you check out Sushi Gen, and if you have to wait for a seat, go have a beer at Bar C, which is just a couple doors down.

Eat, Drink, Americano.

Yes folks, this is the name of the restaurant. Downtown LA has had a huge infestation of “urban-chic” restaurants, Industriel, Urbano, Towne, the list goes on.  As I have mentioned before, I am so happy that downtown is getting more “user-friendly”, honestly I am just sick and tired of the same shit over and over again.

My initial thoughts of Eat, Drink, Americano were that it was going to be the same as all the other mediocre restaurants that claim to be serving “urban farm food”.  However, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t a huge, pretentious restaurant catering to the hipsters. Instead, it is a small restaurant that has cool drawings on the walls and unique family-style picnic tables. It has a great ambiance that is friendly and welcoming and doesn’t make you feel self-conscious about your outfit choice (which might be just a me problem).

The menu is really small and the staff is quite friendly and knowledgeable about the wine selection. One thing that was pretty disappointing was the portion size of the chop board, which we paid  5 for $25. There is literally just enough of each for each person to have one bite and pass it on. This is fine if money is not an issue or if you are not really starving and this is all you order. But for $25 I was expecting  generous amount of meats and cheeses, and boy was I disappointed.

The ceviche is quite good, which says something as you know I am a ceviche connoisseur. The fish is fresh, the marinade is refreshing, and the portion size is perfect.

We also tried the mushroom and egg, which was served warm in a skillet  The egg was a little too underdone for my personal taste, creating an overwhelming eggy flavor that took over the delicacy mushrooms.

Next, we had the halibut tempura and romescu sauce, a nice take on fish and chips. The fish was nicely fried, not too greasy, flavorful batter. The romescu sauce, which is a nut based sauce, reminded me of hummus in consistency and had a pleasant tomato flavor that did not overwhelm the seasoning of the fish.

Lastly, we tried the provolone, mango chutney and arugula flatbread. This was the winner for me. The flatbread was nice and chewy, not thick and dense. The flavor combination of the provolone, mango and arugula made perfect sense; salty,sweet and bitter all balanced with the texture of the flatbread.

Overall, it was a pleasant meal. What I mostly enjoyed was the ambience, a nice place to come have a light meal with a nice glass of wine. I will definitely return to Eat, Drink, Americano to try the rest of the menu and to drink more wine.

Renaud’s Patisserie

After working at Bottega Louie in Los Angeles, which serves classic French pastries and has extraordinarily high standards for perfection, I can truly appreciate the mastership of pastries that Chef Renaud displays in his beautiful yet unassuming patisserie located in Santa Barbara.

For those of you who have gone to Bottega Louie, you know that it is a very typical LA establishment; really loud music, attractive waiters, over-priced cocktails, and so-so food. However, their pastry program is outstanding. The amount of production is overwhelming and quite impressive. They have a full bread program, a massive amount of French Macarons (they make 40,000 a week, I know this because this is what I did while I was there), croissants and other breakfast pastries, and a full case of absolutely stunning dessert pastries.

Renaud’s patisserie is quite different from Bottega in so much as the main clientele are significantly older, the music is calming and french, and the food is simple, yet elegant. The pastries are ornate, and artfully presented. With skillfully cut strawberries placed at just the right angle and raspberries organized in absolute symmetry, Renaud clearly knows and understands French Pastries and the demand for perfection, while also catering to the Santa Barbara crowd.

The best part about Renaud’s, which I can honestly say trumps Bottega Louie, is in the laminated doughs, aka. croissants, pain au chocolate, etc. The croissants have just the right amount of butter; you can taste the quality of the butter in your mouth, and doesn’t feel dense or chewy. There are beautiful pockets of air on the inside, indicating that the dough and the butter were properly mixed together to create that nice crispy and light texture. The chocolate that they use is not too sweet, and not too bitter and melts wonderfully in your mouth. I have tried to find the perfect croissant for awhile and can truthfully say that Renaud’s croissant is a top contender. This week my goal is to recreate the croissants and pain au chocolate; stay tuned for that!

I highly recommend checking out Renaud’s if you are ever in the Santa Barbara area and make sure you get there early because the croissants sell out pretty quickly!

Tcho: So Hot Right Now

I don’t know if any of you have had the pleasure of tasting Tcho Chocolate. Whatever you are doing, stop right now, go to the Tcho website, and do yourself a favor by ordering some chocolate.

Tcho is an American owned company located in San Fransisco who produce some of the most innovative chocolate products today. They are really focused on providing a clean and pure chocolate flavor by doing extensive research and development.

According to the website, “Extraordinary is re-imagining what it means to taste chocolate, as represented by our dark and milk Flavor Wheels. Because chocolate isn’t just one flavor, savoring chocolate is a journey for your intellect and emotions, as well as your senses.” (Tcho.Com)

One of the things I love about their chocolate is that you can taste the richness and the “terroir” of the cocoa beans that they use (all fair-trade of course). In the “fruity”, which is 68% chocolate, you can taste hints of cherries, or cranberries, without them adding flavorings to any of their chocolate. Similarly the “citrus”, which is 67%, has hints of lemon and orange, without being really in your face (again because the flavor comes from the bean itself) The milk chocolate , 39 %, melts in your mouth in such a glorious, delicate way that it almost makes you want to take a nap and dream about it.

The only down side is, if you want to bake with it, you have to make sure that it is a predominantly chocolate dessert, eg. flourless chocolate cake. Because this chocolate is so exquisite, it would be a shame for it to get lost in a dessert or pastry in which chocolate is hardly a side note, rather than the star.