This was my first year attending Taste of the Nation, and it definitely will not be my last. I was impressed. The event was so well organized--there was no scramble for food, definitely no scarcity of food, and the whole atmosphere resembled that of a communal picnic of epic proportions under sunny blue skies. My kind of scene. Sitting underneath a tree in the grassy shade with a frisbee plate full of food prepared by some of the best chefs in L.A. is my kind of paradise.
I tried my best to pace myself, but I could hardly contain my excitement from the minute I entered the grounds to the very last bite I ate. Needless to say, I spent the entire three hours grabbing and trying every thing I could, eagerly moving from one booth to the next. I also tried to save desserts for last so that I would at least have some kind of order to my consumption--it worked except as a result, I missed out on certain things...such as Mercantile's homemade oreos. I will be ditching this technique next year. Who says dessert has to come last?
I had a hard time 1) picking out the pictures to use in this post because I took SO MANY that day and 2) deciding how to organize the whole thing. Do I present the restaurants and dishes in alphabetical order? From favorite to least favorite? In order of consumption? In the end, I went with the last option, namely because it allows me to relive the day, bite by bite, as I write this post. I figure, my appreciation of each dish was also affected by how late or early in the day I had it. Obviously as the day went on, I went from hungry to being ridiculously full. So here we go :)
Taste of the Nation: Los Angeles 2010
@Media Park in Culver City
braised and grilled Piedmontese beef cheeks, lime hoisin glaze, summer corn foam, micro cilantro
These were my first bites of the day, and they didn't disappoint. The beef cheek was tender and the hamachi dish was the best variation of raw fish I had all day. Both had an asian flair and they began the trend of a piece of braised meat on some kind of creamy base and that of overly sweet preparations.
duck & fennel sausage with foie gras, pink muscat grape/apple slaw
Public Kitchen & Bar is a new gastropub taking over what used to be Dakota in the Roosevelt Hotel and what they offered at TOTNLA was a preview of what's to come. At first I thought the creme fraiche was burrata, but sadly it wasn't. The watermelon itself was refreshing but, I'm not sure I loved this. The other dish was a duck sausage that tasted like italian sausage--probably because of the fennel. I didn't really get much foie gras in it, but the grape apple slaw was a nice touch.
spicy tuna tartar
Not a fan of this--for an event like TOTNLA, stomach space is precious real estate and this tasted too much like something I could get at any fusion sushi place. It seemed to be a lot of people's favorite. The tuna was indeed very fresh, but the seaweed salad overpowered the fish just like it does everything else. There wasn't really anything all that exciting about it, other than the wasabi creme that burned all the way up my nose.
The Foundry on Melrose
I finally got to try some of Chef Greenspan's famous grilled cheese. We hovered over this booth for a while, eagerly anticipating the gooey cheesiness frying up in butter. It didn't disappoint. The cheese was wonderfully melty and the bread was perfectly crusted. I'm not sure what kind of cheese it was but it reminded us of brie, and the bread had slightly sweet raisins and some nuts. I piece I ate only amounted to a quarter of an actual sandwich but it was rich enough to be satisfying...not sure I could finish an entire one.
short rib with caramelized onion, horseradish creme fraiche
Westside Tavern's offering was so good it surprised us. It didn't look or sound like much, but it was so well prepared. Sitting on top of a crispy crostini, the unassuming piece of short rib was melt-in-your mouth tender, the caramelized onions so amazingly sweet, while the horseradish balanced the whole bite.
Napa Valley Grill
Sweet Corn Agnolotti with La Quercia Pancetta
I didn't eat these two...my friend had an odd expression on after trying the tomato gelée so I figured I'd pass on it. Apparently the corn agnolotti was pretty standard. They were visually appealing though...
heirloom tomato, watermelon & feta salad
The torchon foie gras was my first favorite bite of the day. I loved how airy and crispy the little round of bread was, how seductively creamy the foie gras was, and how together, with the crunchy bits of almond brittle and sweet drizzle of apple gastrique, the whole thing made me swoon. I think I ate at least four of these throughout the day. I would've had more but they might've looked at me funny. The poor tomato, watermelon, feta salad couldn't to live up to the foie gras torchon. I think if it hadn't been sitting next to that little piece of perfection, it would've gotten a lot more attention from me. Even still, I thought the salad was a nice refreshing combination, and it's something I'm planning on repeating in my own kitchen this summer.
miso marinated black cod with butter lettuce
I don't understand all the hype about Nobu's miso black cod. Sure, maybe he's the one that made it popular here in the U.S. but heck, that doesn't make his the best. And to be honest, miso marinated fish is not difficult to prepare. I thought it was too sweet. My mom does it better ;)
pork belly, pickled watermelon rind, grits
I think out of all the restaurants at TOTNLA, Mercantile had the most offerings. Other than the octopus and pork belly, they had a passionfruit sangria, some kind of beer, a homemade oreo, and some other sweet dish. I only got to try the octopus and pork belly. Both were actually pretty good. The octopus was very tender, though slightly overwhelmed by the heavily seasoned potato salad underneath. The pork belly was deliciously fatty and the grits were nice and creamy. Again, a meat and creaminess combo.
tortillas flor de calabaza
Rivera's tortillas were a revelation. I never used to be a fan of corn tortillas, but that's because I never knew they could be SO GOOD! They were amazing. Another favorite bite of the day. They were not only delicious, but also incredibly gorgeous. I love pressed flowers, and they're even better when they're edible :) If you've never had Rivera's tortillas get your ass downtown and try them NOW. Don't wait like I did. That green guacamole butter smear on top was also very tasty--creamy and spicy.
grilled market vegetable salad
I had heard that the best thing at Akasha was the pulled pork sliders. Sadly, they were dry and completely unremarkable. Grace/BLD was offering a similar pulled pork sandwich and theirs was much juicier. I took a picture of the salad just because. I didn't have any of it. Salad just really wasn't on my list of must-eats.
burrata with peperonata and Manni estra virgin olive oil "Toscano"
I grabbed this without thinking and it turned out to be a delight. I think it may just be because I love burrata.
FIG dog with bacon habanero marmalde, cheesy comte fondue and fritos
Taco dog with all-beef weiner, slow-braised carnitas, guacamole, creamed rajas, homemade escabeche, thinly-sliced radish, sesame seed bun
So basically, I got bullied into taking a hot dog at the FIG booth. I wanted one of the FIG frisbees to use as a plate--ingenious, I know--but they wouldn't give me one without taking a hot dog. In retrospect, I'm glad the dog was forced upon me because later on in the day, they ran out of the taco dog. It was actually very good. It was just...a WHOLE hot dog. Where am I going to get the stomach space for that? How much food did I already consume? How much MORE am I going to eat? One day, I will visit the FIG hot dog cart just for a hot dog and enjoy it on an empty stomach. But really, the flavor combination of carnitas, guac, and the awkwardly large slice of sweet and spicy pickled carrot actually worked pretty well on top of a hot dog instead of a taco shell.
albacore tuna tartar, harissa aioli, potato chips
Tasted like potato chip with some creamy dip...honestly, could not really tell it was tuna.
chilled porcini soup, mirabelle coulis, foie gras chantilly/espuma
I wasn't a big fan of Bistro LQ's offering at The Gold Standard and really didn't enjoy the similar tapioca-like dish they at had TOTNLA. Their sweets, on the other hand (namely the macarons) I loved. The minute I saw the macarons out of the corner of my eye, I made a beeline for them. The miniature sized macarons were pleasant in texture and not too cloyingly sweet. The salted caramel macaron, especially, was delectable. Luckily, I got the last one :) The pistachio were also very good. I didn't get to try the chocolate but considering how the other ones were, I'm willing to bet the chocolate ones were great as well. Bistro LQ also had a little cone of white chocolate ice cream with caviar. It sounds like a great idea, but I really didn't end up getting much from the caviar. The little cone it came in tasted like a buttery langue de chat. It could potentially be a great flavor combination--if only it had been more forceful.
I love the Border Grill truck--it's only the only food trucks I get excited for. The bite-sized tostaditas were tasty but nothing too special. The best part was being offered a tostadita by Susan Feniger herself. Love her! The second offering was apparently a yellowtail ceviche, but I didn't eat very much of it. I was excited to see the bits of pig's ear but the whole thing just had a weird taste that didn't agree with me.
tomato gazpacho with strawberry sorbet and shaved foie gras
Shaving foie gras seems to be getting more and more popular nowadays. My friend Andrew informed me that it was actually David Chang of Momofuku who started doing it. Although Comme Ça's gazpacho looked like it just experienced a foie gras blizzard, I didn't get much foie gras flavor out of it. It was, however, interesting and I enjoyed the combination of the sweet strawberry sorbet with the acidic tomato gazpacho.
horseradish dusted braised short rib on smoked potatoes
creme fraiche cheesecake with blueberry compote
I finally got to try some Quinn and Karen Hatfield's creations, and they were nothing short of amazing. Hatfield's short rib was one of the best preparations of short rib I've ever had. Definitely one of my favorite bites. From what I understand, this is a dish that is currently on their tasting menu. They meat was perfectly cooked--just look at that beautiful pink color! The potatoes also added a nice smokey layer to the entire dish. And the dessert! This cross between a delicate cheesecake and smooth panna cotta, sitting on top of a sugary graham cracker, and finished with a blueberry compote was the best variation of cheesecake I've ever had. I know, I've already announced quite a few favorites but this is another one of my honest-to-god favorite bites!
thai shrimp skewer
"grown-up" snow cone
The POM spherification literally popped and started fizzing in my mouth. I appreciate that the carbonation made it different from all the other spherifications I've had. It was in one word, fun. The "grown-up" snow cone had vodka, cucumber, and something else and was interesting. However, I can't say I'd want an entire cone of it. The cool smoke from the liquid nitrogen billowing out from the stand mixer definitely helped me cool down though. It was hot that day! The thai skewer I also wasn't very fond of. The shrimp was only okay.
barbequed beef bahn mi with house pickled vegetables and chili aioli
California avocado salad, fresh hearts of pal, persian cucumber, yogurt, lemon and dill
I wasn't interested in this bahn mi and from what I heard, it wasn't all that great...
Osteria Mozza/Pizzeria Mozza
vanilla panna cotta with mized berry compote and biscotti
I wanted to love Mozza's panna cotta, but I really didn't. The flavors were kind of bland and the nutty biscotti didn't help it. I wish they'd brought some kind of cheese...maybe mozzarella?
vanilla, black and white, red velvet
I can't resist Sprinkles cupcakes as it is...bake them miniature size and I'm even more in love. They were so cute! Of course, I got the red velvet and ate it in two bites even though at this point, I was already stuffed. I think I actually prefer them miniature sized. The frosting to cake proportion was perfect for me.
marinated hamachi, cucumber vinegar, avocado, granny smith apple
crispy chocolate hazelnut, chocolate mousse
I took one look at the chocolate-colored square and just knew it would be a chocolate hazelnut concoction. I was right. It was basically just a square of chocolate hazelnut mousse on top of a crispy feuilletine. Good but nothing mind-blowing. The marinated hamachi, however, was served on this adorable wooden spoon. Yes, I kept the spoon :) it was too cute. I also love when they break out the tweezers haha. The hamachi itself was good and all the announced flavors were there but they were just a little disparate. I don't think they were working together harmoniously.
charred beef, grated radish
We walked by Eva's booth and Mark Gold was munching on a Riviera tortilla topped with his charred beef. So what do we do? Do the same thing of course! It was the best improvisation we did all day. So good. Eva's beef wasn't fussy at all--hibachi grilled instead of, for example, cooked sous vide--but still wonderfully tender while maintaining the integrity of the meat itself. It was a very good piece of unadulterated beef.
Ford's Filling Station
lamb burger with wild arugula, spicy tomato chutney and melted Wisconsin hook's baby blue
I was already too full by this point so I only had a bite of this. Fairly good. I thought the blue cheese complimented the lamb very well, but I'm not sure I'd want an entire burger.
shortrib tortelli "caramelles," sweet corn, chantrelles, summer truffle
This was good, but I wasn't gushing over it. I actually had the tortelli with some of Kerry Simon's grilled skirt steak and I think that added a little more flavor to the whole bite. Sadly, I didn't get a picture of Simon LA's offering. First fail of the day.
housemade parmesan gelato with market grape tomatoes "caprese-style" and 12-year balsamic vinegar
By this time, we were getting close to 4 o'clock and most of the restaurants were either out of food or just starting to pack up. Despite the melted gelato, Lago's offering was actually pretty interesting. It was very much like a caprese salad dressed in a cool, cheesy soup.
olive oil cake with citrus and pistachio aillade
Initially, I wasn't in love with this olive oil cake. However, after a few bites, I realized I actually liked it a lot. The texture reminded me of cornbread, probably as a result of the use of semolina flour, and it was soaked in a fragrant olive oil. The pistachio that topped the little cake was probably the best part of the whole thing. The fresh tangerine segments added a burst of citrus.
We ended the day with a cup of coffee from Intelligentsia. It was not only beautifully poured, but also simply one of the best cappuccinos I've ever had. Smooth and dreamy, not harsh at all, I wish I could have a cup of cappuccino like this every day.
It was a great food-filled day, and I can't wait until next year's TOTNLA!