Thursday, November 3, 2011

Burrata with Sungold tomatoes

Sometimes, the only thing that gets me through the week is a Wednesday morning trip to the Santa Monica farmer's market. I'm not normally an early riser AT ALL, (in fact, sleeping in is probably one of my greatest skills) so waking up early enough to make it to the farmer's market before class is not an easy task for me. However, I can't think of a better reason to get out of a warm bed in the mornings than the prospect of beautiful produce. Maybe this is weird but selecting of the perfect piece of fruit of vegetable really gets my adrenaline going. I can stand in front of a pile of apples, picking and choosing, for longer than I care to admit.

Though it's definitely no longer summer, the farmer's market is still overflowing with tomatoes--cute little cherry tomatoes, gnarly heirloom tomatoes, meaty beefsteak tomatoes, you name it. Somehow, even with all these choices, I decided on a basket of bright orange Sungold tomatoes. They turned out to be so perfectly ripe, I could literally peel the skins off like a grape and enjoy a pure, unhindered burst of sweetness from only the flesh.

So after a little inspiration from this beautiful food blog and a few little drawings during a particularly un-stimulating economics lecture, I created this little afternoon snack for myself with this week's goodies from the farmer's market--Sungold tomatoes, frisée, pistachios.

Sungold tomatoes, frisée, pistachio, prosciutto, balsamic caramel

Peel some tomatoes, wash some frisée, shell pistachios, crisp up prosciutto in the oven, reduce balsamic vinegar and honey, plop down a healthy portion of creamy burrata, and finish with a drizzle of extra virgin extra fruity olive oil. Super simple. Barely any cooking involved, but so beautiful to look at. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lukshon (DineLA)

Last Monday, as per a typical weekday night, my man and I turned on the TV for some late night Food Network but this time, we were rewarded with an episode of The Best Thing I Ever Ate (one of the few shows left on that network that I can stand). Within 5 minutes into watching the episode, Sang Yoon's handsome (?) mug showed up on my TV screen, and before the next frame even appeared, I shouted "chicken pops!" Needless to say, Ian was very impressed with my psychic skills when the episode continued with Chef Yoon demonstrating how he makes those spicy balls of chicken on a stick. It also sparked the urge to immediately visit Lukshon the next afternoon and be physically reunited with spicy chicken pops. 

Lukshon happened to be participating in DineLA when we visited for lunch, though I found their version of the DineLA system to be rather convoluted. Instead of choosing your own three courses--like you would from any other restaurant's DineLA set menu--Lukshon forces a party of two to choose only one course from each section to share family style. It gets even more complicated for parties of three or four with some obscure algorithm that involves half-sized dishes, full-sized dishes, and a-little-larger-than-normal sized dishes. All I know is, paying $44 total for 2 people for 1 appetizer, 1 entree, and 1 side is not really a "good deal" at Lukshon for lunch. Luckily, we could improvise and order one set of the DineLA menu (with 1/2 sized portions) and also some individual dishes to be able to try a greater variety of dishes.

3239 Helms Ave.
Culver City, CA 90232
tel: 310-202-6808

spicy chicken pops
shelton farms' drumettes, garlic, kecap manis, spicy sichuan salt

We started, of course, with spicy chicken pops! We love these so much we ordered a regular sized portion in addition to the half-sized DineLA appetizer portion. I sweat and tear up at the tiniest bit of spice like a real wuss, but for these balls, I tough it out. They were just as good as I remembered, with a creeping heat and a sweet and salty glaze that I love so much. 

pork belly lettuce cups
cabbage, crispy pig ear, thai chile, lime, mint, aromatic rice powder

For the entree option in the DineLA set, we got a half-sized order of tender pork belly. To be honest, I don't think I'd be able to handle a full-sized portion of that pork belly. It was delicious and all, but oh so rich! I really needed the light, acidic cabbage slaw in this dish to cut the fattiness of the pork. The slaw was topped with beyond crunchy bits of pig ears which had a nice, almost nutty, flavor. This was Ian's first encounter with pig ears, and he really enjoyed them fried to a crisp, though I tend to like preparations that retain at least some of their gelatinous nature. 

Halfway through our meal, we overheard the table next to us talking about how they just saw the spicy chicken pops on an episode of The Best Thing I Ever Ate. I had a little giggle. Then an elderly couple sitting at the table next to them said, "Hey! We're also here because of that episode!" I had an even bigger giggle.

thai beef salad "deconstructed" 
gem lettuc, radish, carrot, tomato, herbs, spicy lime vinaigrette

We also ordered the thai beef salad off of the regular lunch menu. Though it's advertised as being "deconstructed," I'm not quite sure where the deconstruction occurred. It seemed like a very pedestrian salad, though all the flavors you would expect from a thai beef salad--fish sauce, lime, peppers, garlic--were there. The beef also wasn't particularly memorable. I could easily recreate this in my kitchen. 

bhutanese red rice
lamb bacon, maitake mushroom, egg, scallion, chinese celery 

The side dish on the DineLA menu was the only one that came in it's usual size. The bits of lamb bacon were appropriately smokey and lamb-y, though to me, the most important part of the dish was actually the slivers of celery. They provided a much needed crunch of freshness to the otherwise salty and slightly sour rice dish. Overall, it was enjoyable though we were unable to finish the entire portion and ended up taking the rest home. However, it smelled like sour cream and onions in the car. Odd, no? 

Vietnamese iced coffee
dark palm sugar butterscotch brownie

Dessert at Lukshon is always a complimentary little bite at the end of the meal. I love this concept and so far, every dessert I've had there has been surprisingly refined. This time, we had a little square inch gooey, butterscotch goodness. It was warm out of the oven and was so dense, it seemed more like a caramel candy than a brownie. Rich and sweet, the small square was more than enough to satisfy my need for something sweet after any meal. I also ordered an iced Vietnamese coffee which left me happily caffeinated for the rest of the day. It was a great way to end the meal. 

I really really really want to sit in the corner sofa seat on the outside patio (especially in the beautiful weather we had that day), but every time I've been, some lucky person is already sitting time...


So, do I still love Lukshon? Yes, I do. 
Do you need to visit Lukshon? Yes, you do. 
Does it need to be during DineLA week? No. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

YEN Restaurant

This year, according to the lunar calendar, the Chinese Valentine's Day falls on August 6th. My brother's birthday is on August 7th, and the Chinese Father's Day is always on August 8th. So, what is the easiest solution to having to celebrate 3 holidays in a row? Host a large meal with close family and numerous friends, replete with Chinese delicacies and complete with a spinning Lazy Susan, of course.

Obviously, we'd have to do it in style. And right now, there's no place more stylish in Taipei than the newly opened W hotel with it's YEN restaurant serving Cantonese-style dishes. We'd feast not only our stomachs, but also our eyes as we enjoy an 11 course meal with a bird's eye view of Taipei. I've already visited the restaurant two times prior, but this time, we reserved one of the private rooms for our large party.

It was a monstrously large room, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and it's own private bathroom that also offered a vertigo-inducing view as you did your business (awkward?). The room itself was beautifully decorated, seamlessly interweaving elements of Chinese culture with the W hotel's signature modern style. Needless to say, we lingered long after our meal to take pictures in the room, of the room, with the room. It's okay, we're Asian ;)

Halfway through our meal, the skies cleared after an afternoon shower, and we were treated to pale blue skies, lingering clouds and a rare crystal-clear view of the usually smog-laden city. Gorgeous.

For the private rooms, the restaurant offers table menus, starting with 18,000 NTD per table of 10 people. This comes out to about $550, which I think is rather reasonable for feeding 10 people 11 courses in a beautiful setting with impeccable service. The cherry on top? There's no corkage fee.

YEN Restaurant
@The W Hotel Taipei, 31st floor
10 Zhongxiao East Road, Sec. 5, Xinyi District
Taipei, 110 Taiwan
tel: 02-7703-8768

yen's appetizer
pork spare ribs plum sauce, drunken chicken, vinegar-cured jelly fish, smoked-soy mackerel

While I find a lot of Chinese appetizer platters to be a nightmare, this was quite tasty. The jellyfish was actually edible--not the usual rubbery strands that come in ping pan appetizers. There was a very prominent black vinegar flavor that I loved. The pork ribs fared less well. I found it a little tough so I generously sneaked the second piece on to my brother's plate. The sweet and sour glaze on top was enough to satisfy him. The smoked soy mackerel would have been good with a bowl of steamed rice, but it was a little salty on its own. The best part was the drunken chicken, rolled onto itself into a sort of roulade with solidified collagen-rich juices, pleasantly "Q" skin, and the flavorful, "drunken" thigh/leg meat marinated in shaoxing wine.

fish maw, prawns with almonds, fish cartilage soup

The soup was rich and thick, much like the broth you'd find in a quality bowl of shark's fin soup. Except here, you'd find snappy pieces of sweet shrimp (instead of inhumanely harvested shark fins) and and chewy pieces of fish maw (apparently also called a swim bladder and is what allows a fish to float?). There were also pieces of raw almond halves that have a really concentrated almond flavor. Really nice.

steamed garoupa with fish sauce, crisp bean crumbs

My grandpa had a habit of always ordering whole live fish if we were ever at a Chinese restaurant. Genetics are a scary thing, and my dad has the same tendency. Thus I've eaten quite a few steamed fish, usually topped with curly strands of scallions and doused with a soy-based sauce. I rarely enjoy it. So that was the mentality I had going into this piece of fish that they had portioned off the bones for us. With the first bite, I questioned it's freshness. With the second bite, I questioned the texture. With the third, I loved it. The fish was, without a doubt, fresh and though the meat was a little soft and flaky for me (typical of a garoupa), the topping of crispy bits of fried soy bean was sensational.

crisp fried prawns, wasabi mayo, kumquat

This seemed to be a play off of the more traditional "honey walnut shrimp" with a similar fried texture covered in a mayonnaise based dressing, though this version was infinitely more enjoyable. There was a slight creeping heat from the wasabi in the mayo, though it seemed to add more flavor than spice. The candied kumquats and a fine dice of fresh mango added a touch more sweetness to the perfectly cooked prawn.

classic roast duck, pancakes, condiments

I've had this roast duck 3 times within the past two weeks. No, I'm still not sick of it, and each time I've had it has been even better than the last. This last time, was near perfection. The whole duck was carved tableside into thin slices of crispy skin--not fatty, not chewy, just crispy--and tender slices of meat. One slice of skin, one slice of meat, crunchy sticks of cucumber, and a generous smear of a house made plum sauce inside a thin, "Q" wrapper makes for a truly heavenly bite.

baby abalone braised with sea cucumber, greens

This was an example of how bigger is not always better. This was no rubbery, bland piece of abalone the size of a hockey puck. The abalone was indeed a "baby," no bigger than the size of a petite madeleine, which perhaps is why it was so tender and why the flavors from the braising had penetrated it so well. The same went for the sea cucumber. Usually I'm not a fan, but this preparation was so flavorful, I actually enjoyed it gelatinous texture. Two bites into the dish I stole a glance at my brother's plate, wondering if I could steal a piece of his abalone of his plate. Sadly, by the time I looked over, his piece was already gone.

slow braised pork trotters, peanuts, lotus root

By this point, I was getting full, but I can NEVER say no to pig's feet, and neither can my dad, who couldn't go three consecutive bites of this version before praising, yet again, how well cooked it was. I would've done the same but I was too busy eating. The peanuts which usually accompany a white braised version of pig's feet were also very pleasant here--adding not only a textural contrast, but also a nutty flavor. The braised lotus root served a similar function.

seafood stir-fried with thin rice noodles, sweet basil leaf

This went into a little plastic container, which then went into a little bag that said "to go"...

three dim-sum in a basket

Though I skipped the previous course, I couldn't resist the little bamboo steamer of dim sum. The entire thing was still steaming when it was set down in front of me. Of course I had to eat it. The sui mai and the har gow were both very well done, but my favorite was the one with the green wrapper. I don't know it's name in English, but the green color comes from a kind of dried grass that gives it a slightly herbal flavor. So good and such a good way to end the savory courses.

cream of mango with sago pearls, pomelo, lime sorbet
fresh fruits

Dessert was a little disappointing for me though the fruit was beautifully cut. The cold mango "soup" tasted fresh though a little bland. The only criticism I have of this restaurant is that it's dessert offerings could really use some help. I know it's typical of a Chinese restaurant, but if you can do everything else so well, why not put a little more effort into the desserts? I think how a meal ends is very important.

So, while the food is definitely Cantonese in style, there were also welcomed aspects of creativity that slightly strayed from the traditional. Rather than serving all the dishes family-style, the servers would portion out the large dishes onto individual plates for us. Thus the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table was rendered rather useless, but if you ask me, I preferred this western-style of serving. This way, everyone gets an equal amount, and I don't have to eye that last piece of duck meat, wondering if it would be impolite of me to dart out my chopsticks for it. I would recommend this Chinese restaurant over the ones at the top of Taipei 101 any day. Though you may not be dining as high up in the atmosphere, the view is stunning enough and the food is beyond comparison.

P.S. I have to say, this meal also put the dinner menu at Lung King Heen to shame in terms of just overall taste...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tenkaippin Ramen

After a disappointing bowl of ramen for lunch today in Taipei, I couldn't help but start reminiscing about the ramen my mom and I recently had in Hawaii. An unassuming little hole-in-the-wall shop on Kapahulu Ave. (which seems to be Honolulu's food mecca), Tenkaippin Ramen served me not only the most interesting bowl of ramen I've ever had, but also the most interesting (?) eating experience. Let me elaborate.

But first, a little parking story. With only a small lot behind Tenkaippin to accommodate the entire strip of restaurants and shops, coming by a parking spot during the day seemed liked a game of luck with the most unattractive probabilities. We circled through the one-way lot multiple times, each time with a car backing out just in time for the car behind us to pull in. Then we spotted a Jack in the Box across the street with only a few cars in its lot but numerous signs that said parking was for customers only. We pulled into a spot and considered just parking at Jack in the Box until we noticed a guy wearing dark sunglasses standing on the street corner, observing the lot, making sure no one who wasn't eating potato wedges dared to leave their car there. Hunger-induced paranoia? I think so.

We ended up parking in Tenkaippin's lot anyways after waiting across the street for a spot to open up. When we left the restaurant, the guy wearing sunglasses was gone. He was most likely just waiting for the bus.

Tenkaippin Ramen
617 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
tel: 808-732-1211
dining date: 7/9/11

photo 1
Now, the interesting bowl of ramen. Tenkaippin is a Japanese ramen chain with over 200 restaurants but only one location outside of Japan. They're known for their kotteri broth--a thick, slowly-cooked, collagen-rich chicken broth that they boast to be not only hearty, but also healthy. This broth is seriously so thick, I wouldn't be surprised if it contains collagen to plump up anyone's skin and smooth out those wrinkles. No, maybe not, but it's tasty enough that it doesn't need to replace cosmetic surgery to prove itself. The unique broth combined with perfectly QQ/al dente ramen noodles of the straighter nature (not the curly sort) made for the most interesting bowl of ramen I've ever had. To give a comparison, the concentrated chicken flavor, along with the thickness of the broth, reminded us of the broth in shark fin soup.

photo 2
We also tried a bowl of the paitan ramen with a pork and chicken base soup that is similar to the more familiar tonkotsu ramen. This broth was lighter, not nearly as thick, yet still had the flavor that only comes from hours of stewing bones full of marrow. I actually really enjoyed the slightly spicy presence of white pepper in the paitan broth, and this was the bowl I ended up finishing after yielding the kotteri to my mom.

photo 2-2
And so we get to the interesting eating experience. Apparently, the owners of this particular location of Tenkaippin also happens to be the hosts of a new television show called Ultimate Japan, in which they travel to different parts of Japan and share their experiences. This is fine and dandy, but unfortunately, due to the tragic natural and unnatural disasters that recently occurred in Japan, the episode that they were playing that day (on repeat) was of the hosts visiting and providing relief to those who were left homeless. There was no shortage of heartbreaking footages of the devastation and destruction left behind by the earthquakes and tsunamis. An elderly lady told the story of how she managed to climb up a flight of stairs and save herself, only to watch the tsunami waves wash away her husband who was a few steps behind her. Touching, no doubt, but also understandably upsetting to watch. The women sitting across from me starting uncontrollably shedding tears straight into her bowl of ramen. I had a hard time holding back tears myself. The program left all the customers either unable to tear their eyes away from the overhead TV while crying into their ramen, or hell-bent on keeping their heads down so they could at least swallow. Thus, I can only say this way of eating was very...interesting.

photo 1-2

So while it may have been difficult to consume at times, this ramen was definitely one of the best I've ever had. While the broth is, indeed, very unique, it's also addictive and delicious. The thick broth thoroughly coated the palate in a very pleasant manner with each spoonful and I kept going back for more spoonfuls. I'm sure the other soup options are quite good as well. The pork slices, which I previously forgot to mention, were also very nicely done. We kept trying to return to Tenkaippin during our vacation in Honolulu, but our stay was way too short for us to afford the luxury of repeat visits. Next time!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Pig and the Lady

While sitting in the airport lounge waiting for our flight to Honolulu, my thoughts predictably wandered to thoughts of food and what I planned on eating during our week long vacation on the island of Oahu. I read through, for the second time, the recommendations of a friend whose palate I trusted. In the midst of ramen and plate lunches, a pop-up was mentioned--the first and only pop-up in Hawaii.

Coming from LA, where pop-ups have become so ubiquitous it seems some would do anything to distinguish themselves from being just another pop-up, I viewed the word "pop-up" with wariness. However, a quick Google search revealed that The Pig and the Lady was anything but a mediocre stint by some "homeless" chef. Positive reviews by various local publications indicated that the pop-up had a Vietnamese slant, something that immediately caught my eye. Further research saw that the pop-up was a collaboration between Martha Cheng, a local food writer, and Andrew Le, former sous chef at Chef Mavro, one of the few establishments of fine-dining worth noting in Honolulu. I was intrigued and in the few minutes before my plane took off, I quickly composed an email inquiring how one could come about two spots for one of the already sold-out dinners.

6 hours later, our plane landed on the island, I checked my email, and there it was--an email saying that we could be squeezed in that Friday. I immediately, without a second thought for Mr. Alan Wong, canceled my dinner plans for Friday and penned in The Pig and the Lady instead.

So that Friday night, armed with my iPhone for directions and my mom riding shotgun, we pulled into a questionable looking parking lot behind a Hank's Haute Dogs--the temporary home to The Pig and the Lady. In a Max Mara shopping bag that only hours before held a newly purchased bikini, we brought along two bottles of Big Wave Golden Ale and Wailua Wheat--our answer to the BYOB problem. As we rounded the corner, the bustle and chatter inside the restaurant became more apparent and concerns about the sketchy parking lot evaporated.

The Pig and the Lady
current location: Hank's Haute Dogs
4 days a week for as long as they feel like it
reservations and info:
dining date: 7/8/11

We were greeted warmly and then seated along an outdoor bar directly underneath a window looking into the restaurant. I felt like I was in the sidewalk seats of some busy noodle shop in Asia. A bowl of pickled vegetables and homemade shrimp chips were quickly brought to us, and with our first crispy, savory, moisture-sucking, shrimp chip, we knew they weren't kidding around here. Eaten with the pickled daikon, carrots, and spicy garlic shoots in the accompanying bowl, my mom and I had no choice but to pat ourselves on the back for our beer choices.

asian pear, toasted rice puff, banana blossom salad, kaffir lime sauce

The first course arrived after a brief introduction from Andrew. Though perhaps not familiar to the general population, the name "Kajiki" was one that my mom and I immediately recognized. Kajiki, Japanese for swordfish, was a favorite fish of my grandpa's, and it's a name that I can still hear him saying in my head. Having it in a rare preparation, however, was a first for me. With a texture that I can only describe as similar to any lean, white-fleshed sashimi, the delicately flavored fish benefited from the rest of the elements on the plate. The banana blossom salad was intensely savory, the balls of asian pear refreshingly sweet, and the sauce on the plate was without a doubt, kaffir lime. It was my first time having banana blossom, and thinly sliced, it reminded me of the skin of asian pears. Is it just me?

maitake mushroom, pickled lotus root, green tomatoes, jasmine rice croquettes

The second course appeared to be vegetarian, though its flavors were so bold, we didn't miss the meat at all. Seeing jasmine rice croquettes on the menu, I expected some straightforward, plain jasmine rice, rolled into a ball, with a fried outer layer. This was not the case at all. I have no idea what Andrew did, but the rice croquettes seemed more like arancini, strongly seasoned with what we thought was a hint of shrimp paste or fish sauce. (?) The fresh acidity of the green tomatoes with the pickled acidity of the lotus root countered the pool of curry sauce that was just spicy enough for a little bit of heat at the back of my throat. The bits of fresh watercress on top were a revelation for me. I never knew watercress held so much flavor. This was already the second plate with an amazing balance. Anything your mouth could want in a bite was on this plate--sweet, savory, acidic, spicy.

crispy rice cake, pickled radishes, poached quail eggs

Pork belly--a cut of pig that once held so much delight for me, is unfortunately now one that I avoid at all costs. Too many times I've had fatty, stringy, poor excuses for pork belly. This preparation, however, was damn tasty. My mom and I thought about how delicious it would be in a gua bao--salty, sweet, not too fatty, and just tender enough. Two perfect, little poached quail eggs were perched on little mounds of a chimichurri-like sauce of cilantro, garlic, shallots, ginger, and lime juice. So good. The pickled radishes added the acidity in this dish, which cut the richness of the pork. Again, so well balanced.

fresh noodles, brisket, tendon

And then, for me, la pièce de résistance of the night. What a genius way to end the savory portion of a multi-course menu. Warm, comforting, and decidedly "Asian" in it's placement in the menu (most tasting menus would place a soup near it's start, except perhaps a Japanese style omakase with miso soup at the end), the bowl of pho was the perfect culmination of a series of fantastic dishes.

At this point, the familial aspect of this pop-up became apparent. Turns out the guy who was serving us the dishes was in fact, the chef's brother, Alex, helping out. We had noticed a motherly figure in the kitchen, working behind the scenes, helping with plating, etc. My mom and I speculated that this is probably the chef's mother. We were correct. As people began finishing their bowls of pho, Mama Le began making her rounds, checking up on everyone's progress, making sure they finished it to the last drop. How could we not?

This was Mama Le's recipe, a rich, deep broth, full of spices that had a northern Vietnamese influenced, rather than that of a sweeter version from the south. I didn't even think about touching the sriracha or hoisin. Suspended in this broth was just a handful of hand-cut rice noodles of varying widths, made fresh that morning in Honolulu's chinatown. There was also one piece of brisket, one piece of rare steak, one piece of tendon--each perfection in itself. As she inspected my bowl, she told me about how she had let the broth simmer for close to 8 hours. She told me of her dream of opening her own pho shop, a dream that failed to become reality because she placed her priority in raising her children. Now she's serving her pho recipe at her son's pop-up restaurant. Funny how things turn out.


By the time the bowls were cleared away, Mama Le's endearing personality already made an impression on us all. The already intimate setting of the small pop-up became even more so. As she brought out the tall glass of iced Vietnamese coffee, I told her again how much I enjoyed her pho. Then, she told me in a knowing voice, "dessert is even better."

lychee, basil seeds, thai basil, vanilla ice cream

This dessert, similar to Kaya toast, may have seemed simple in it's construction, but I can't remember the last time I went at a dessert with such zeal and ended with such satisfaction. The vanilla ice cream was topped with coconut powder and resembled a snowcapped mountain of creamy coolness. The basil seeds were mixed with lilikoi, or passionfruit, which added a touch of tanginess to the rich buttery napoleon of toast and homemade Kaya jam. Whole, fragrant lychees with bits of thai basil were the "cherry on top" of this sweet ending.


If you've been reading so far, I hope it's obvious how much enjoyment my mom and I took away from this little pop-up that seated only about 20 people that night. How rare is it, to find such balance in all the courses of a tasting menu? To end one course with satisfaction and to start the next only to realize it's just as good as the last. How often do we get to sit on a seemingly deserted street, with the island breeze at our backs, enjoying the flavors of a first-rate tasting menu? As the meal came to a close, I noticed that at the bottom of the menu, local ingredients used in the market-driven dishes were listed along with the names of the local farms. This is without doubt, a passionate operation--from Andrew's delicious creations, to Alex's enthusiasm in explaining his brother's dishes. Even the name of the pop-up--The Pig and the Lady--is a reference to Andrew and his mother (because of a tattoo of a pig he has, not because he is a pig ;). We were more than lucky to have had this experience during our stay. The Pig and Lady was only it's second week of business when we made our reservations. It was a unique and truly Hawaiian experience, something that you can't get on a different island, on a different continent.