Sunday, January 30, 2011

AnQi - 01/29/2011

3333 S Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-5679

Molecular Gastronomy in Orange County? I could hardly believe it when Gayot included AnQi on its list of Top 10 Molecular Gastronomy Restaurants in the US. Not to slight Orange County but the area isn't known for being on the forefront of culinary innovation and to find such a meal, at a trendy mall-based fusion noodle house no less, simply beggars belief.

AnQi is part of the An Family restaurants which includes Crustacean in Beverly Hills as well as Thanh Long, purportedly San Francisco's first Vietnamese restaurant. Much has been written over the years about the An family's journey from Vietnam to the States and whatever one thinks of their food, it is hard not to admire the family's determination. Forced to flee their life of privilege after the Fall of Saigon, the An Family went from bona fide royalty to displaced refugees. Today the An women own a growing collection of six restaurants in San Francisco and the LA/OC area. Daughter Elizabeth manages both Crustacean in Beverly Hills and AnQi. "Mamma" Helene still remains active in the "secret kitchen" preparing the An family signature Garlic Noodles and Roasted Garlic Crab, but with so many establishments she delegates much of the day to day responsibilities.

The the man behind the magic at AnQi is Chef de Cuisine Ryan Carson. I had hoped to find out more about Chef Carson, but apart from heading the kitchen at Ambrosia Restaurant there is little information available online about Chef Carson's pedigree. Fortunately a brief pre-dinner chat helped to settle many of my concerns. Chef Carson trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and his resume includes stints at Gary Danko, Jardinière, as well as Napa Rose. I was less concerned that he developed his molecular gastronomy techniques through experimentation once I saw that he had a solid foundation from which to build on.

01: Champagne & Caviar - nicolas feuillatte champagne gelee, american sturgeon caviar, white chocolate fizzy
Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne
Chef leads off with this because it encapsulates everything the meal is supposed to be: playful, elegant, and exciting. Leading off with the bold salinity of the caviar, the dish quickly evolves as the vinous flavor of the champagne coupled with the sweet chocolate takes over. The fizzy makes itself apparent on the finish leaving a soft lingering effervescence on the tongue.

02: AnQi Beet - sweet & sour salt
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
The next course is supposed to be a play on the AnQi logo and looks eerily like the Beet Tumbleweed at Bazaar and Minibar. Both preparations have a similar potato chip like savor but this had a markedly denser more satisfying texture and the sour salt provided a very welcome added wrinkle.

03: Kumamoto Oyster - soy mignonette, yuzu lemonade 'cloud', citrus pop rocks
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
Conceptually brilliant but I recommend adding a fork when serving this course as I had a bit of difficulty getting the oyster out of the shell. As a result I got the sweetness of the cloud and pop rocks without the oyster's brine for balance. On my second try I was able to enjoy the dish more fully, the vibrant oyster is elevated by the acidity of the citrus elements and the gentle sweetness of the mirin mignonette.

04: Hiramasa Crudo - avocado silk, sweet & sour tangerine veil, jalapeno-cucumber emulsion, frozen beet
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
Chef Carson considers the Hiramasa his signature dish, the first dish he created that incorporates molecular techniques. I've found with crudo too often the fish gets lost among the other elements here the integrity and flavor of the fish are apparent throughout. The dish flows gracefully between the disparate flavors though I thought the jalapeno-cucumber was the most impressive accompaniment, vegetal refreshing with the barest hint of burn.

05: Lobster Summer Roll - compressed mango, vietnamese herbs, elderflower gelee, pickled rose petal
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
Despite the lobster being lost, the dish is superb, exuding a graceful freshness and levity balanced by the creamy heft of the sauce. The inclusion of a completely aromatic element drew immediate comparisons to Alinea. Pouring the hot rose water onto the petals heightened the soft floral fragrance that tied together nicely with the herbs.

06: Ahi Tuna Nicoise - white anchovy romesco, crispy haricot vert, 64C quail egg, olive 'gushers'
Summerland Viognier
Full marks on the deconstructed Nicoise. I thought Carson took a risk going with well-done tuna but he pulled it off; the sous vided fish was beautifully moist with a ham like smokiness, a very strong core for the other elements. The romesco provides a rustic piquancy while the dense gelled egg and haricot vert tempura give the dish a textural twist. The olive spheres and smoked tomato added a lushness, potent and brash, but still true to the classic Nicoise.

07: "Looks Like Tartare" - compressed watermelon, mango 'egg yolk', dehydrated capers
Summerland Viognier
Chef's whimsical side was on full display here. The mango being especially impressive mimicking the runny texture of an egg perfectly. With melon out of season, the flavor of the melon was subdued which paired nicely with the nuanced ginger and mint in the broth as well as the savory counterpoint of the capers.

08: Kurabota Pork Belly - kimchi consommé, freeze dried banana, wasabi peanut butter powder, yuzu-truffle
Summerland Viognier
This is the restaurant's take on salt and pepper pork. The belly is firmer than I expected but true to its salt and pepper origins rather than a more tender braised style pork. The kimchi consommé is utterly sublime, its light tangy funk cuts through the heft of the pork. The wasabi peanut butter added a pleasing stickiness and sweet nuttiness to the finish.

09: Foie Gras Torchon - cherry-yuzu gel, 'instant' ginger-pineapple brioche, bacon dust, chinese celery
Summerland Viognier
The best foie gras since the Torchon at The French Laundry buttery smooth and creamy but not overwhelming even on its own. The accompaniments were superb as well, fantastically savory bacon dust, tangy cherry-yuzu, and crisp celery. Though I would have liked a dryer bread, the microwaved instant brioche provided a spongy base for the liver.

10: Misoyaki Black Cod - furikake rice cake, pickled garden vegetables, encapsulated foie gras miso soup
Foxen Santa Maria Pinot Noir
As played out as Black Cod is, I've always enjoyed the fish. This is one of the best preparations ever, flaky yet supple and oleaginous without being overly heavy. The sphere of foie gras miso adds an umami richness that helps balance the sweetness of the fish while the tart pickled vegetables are a perfect palate cleanser for such a weighty dish.

Intermezzo - concord grape sorbet with thyme jelly and lemonade foam
Superbly refreshing the sorbet and foam are tangy, tart, and bracing coupled with a savory exclamation from the thyme.

11: Jidori Chicken Roulade - himalayan black truffles, oyster mushrooms, ginger, chinese mustard jus, hazelnut brittle
Foxen Santa Maria Pinot Noir
The sous vided chicken was in a word: faultless. The meat is utterly moist and tender steeped with the aroma of rich truffle butter and finished with a subtle multifaceted herbaceousness from the ginger and mustard. The hazelnut brittle added a sugary crunch reminiscent of a roasted chicken glaze.

12: Filet Mignon Confit - burnt carrot, shiitake mushroom demi-glaze, savoy cabbage, wasabi 'tater tots'
Hall Cabernet Sauvignon
The beef was a bit firmer than I expected but with an extremely fine grain, the mild flavor of the filet lent itself extremely well to the dark musk of the shiitake. While the fried wasabi gnocchi was delicious, it didn't fit quite right with the filet mignon.

13: Heirloom Melon Gazpacho - compressed heirloom melons, orange 'soup', yuzu salted mango sherbet
Chateau de Malle Sauternes
Light fruity and vibrant, the melon soup was the first in a line of dessert courses from Chef David Rossi. Countering the fresh soup is the yuzu salted mango giving the dessert a savory mango lassi like weight.

14: Elderflower Parfait - pink rose meringue, flowering thyme gel, pomegranate 'caviar', jasmine frozen yogurt
Chateau de Malle Sauternes
Chef Rossi described the dish as "floral" and he was dead on. The airy parfait tasted of pure elderflower which the thyme and pomegranate built upon. The concentrated herbal aroma of the jasmine was the perfect finish to the brightly floral medley.

15: "Not Your Average" Carrot Cake - raisin coulis, curry crème anglaise, saffron meringue, cream cheese ice cream
Smith Woodhouse 'Madalena' Vintage Port
This was one of the best carrot cakes I've ever had, easily on par with the Commis' Carrot Cake in a Jar. The cake is thoroughly spiced but lacks the cloying sweetness I so detest in carrot cake. The raisin coulis adds a ripeness and weight while the cream cheese ice cream provides a nice light counterpoint.

16: Chocolate Twist - hazelnut praline, star anise-orange gel, popcorn ice cream
Smith Woodhouse 'Madalena' Vintage Port
The final dessert consisted of two strands of flexible chocolate ganache. In keeping with the molecular theme of the meal I think it should be renamed Chocolate double helix but twist sums things up nicely. What drives this course is the way the chocolate and popcorn play off each other, the lightly salted ice cream brings out the nuanced complexity in the ganache.

Molecular Gastronomy in Orange County? Yes it does exist and it is absolutely scintillating; without hesitation or reservation, the best meal I've had in Orange County. Rather than get caught up in using molecular techniques for their own sake, Chefs Carson and Rossi thoughtfully construct a slate of dishes that dazzle and amaze; each and every dish offering a symphony of sensation without compromising flavor or integrity of the food.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Aburiya Toranoko - 01/24/2011

243 S San Pedro Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 621-9500

A little over a year ago I first visited Lazy Ox Canteen. Here we are a year later just next door at Aburiya Toranoko, the new izakaya by Michael Cardenas, the same man responsible for Lazy Ox. Lazy Ox quickly gained a reputation for its innovative menu and nose to tail approach, it would be interesting to see what Cardenas had in mind for Toranoko. Thanks to KevinEats who gave me a seat at his table at the pre-opening dinner.

Despite the unadorned exterior, the space is noticably sexier than your typical izakaya, with chandeliers running along the large communal table. A sushi bar along the back, black leather booths along one wall and a long bar against the other complete the dining room.

Coedo Beniaka
Coedo is a reddish brown ale, fairly unremarkable but for a slight nutty sweetness.

Iwate Kura Bakushu Oyster Stout
Shame about this beer, there are elements of dark roasted malt as well as some coffee and chocolate as well as a pervasive fishiness that I can only describe as disconcerting.

White fish sashimi with pomegranate
An absolutely stellar start to the meal, the fish is seasoned with a blend of tart fruit and spice. A tuft of leafy greens adds a crisp vegetal accent that completes the dish.

Colorado black pork kakuni braised
We didn't waste time getting into the heavier courses, the pork belly is almost rendered liquid fat, braised to tender succulent perfection. As impressive as the pork belly was were the two chunks of daikon, cooked to a supersaturated consistency, the radish exuded the concentrated umami savor of the braising stock.

Yanagita seafarms uni goma tofu
I only wish the uni was more integral to the dish, instead the incredibly dense tofu overwhelms the urchin with a mild nuttiness, but at least there was enough soy to give the dish an edge.

Pork and vegetable okonomiyaki pancake
The hostess mentioned that this was one of her favorite dishes on the menu, think bacon and pancakes with a Japanese flair. The pancake has a dense doughy texture the perfect base to sop up the thick salty sweet syrup. Bits of bacon added a smoky porcine accent.

Negima chicken and green onions
This course exhibits all the best features of yakitori, tender juicy chicken with expressive bold flavor.

House made shiokara marinated intestines
Fermented fish guts sounds like something you'd use to degrease an engine rather than a delicacy. Unabashedly fishy with a slightly curdled funk, the guts are definitely not for the faint of heart. The shiokara is used as a sauce for ika "noodles" reminiscent of the way uni is used at Sushi Zo.

Crunchy salty with a lightly bitter char on the finish, it would be all to easy to eat skewer after skewer of this

Mochi kinchaku rice cake
Mochi and tofu skin, neither is known for being immensely flavorful. The only flavor came from the lightly seasoned broth and spicy mustard which made for a discordant jumbled dish.

Natto kinchaku
Never a fan of natto I had hoped to steer clear of this dish, but the rest of the table overruled me. In the end this proved to be one of the most palatable natto dishes I've tasted with the characteristic pungency tempered somehow.

Takana croquette of mashed potato and mustard leaf
These immaculately fried spheres were enjoyable if a bit plain, making the rich creamy sauce a must.

Simple, reserved, and refreshing this was a nice change from the meat heavy focus of the meal.

Kikusui Aged Funaguchi Ginjo Nama Genshu
Full-bodied and sweet, with sake this immensely drinkable these single serving cans could get dangerous.

Toranoko french mountain potato fries with plum aioli
Typically yama imo is served grated giving it a sticky viscous texture. Frying dries the potato strips away that texture making this a moister denser french fry that is unique in its own way.

Cherry tomato in bacon
Grilling seemed to evaporate some of the tomato's juice, concentrating the acidity into a potent contrast to the smoky bacon

Tender beef
Something of a misnomer, the beef looked nicely cooked but was a tough grainy cut. Flavored with a peppercorn sauce this lacked the woody char of the other sumiyaki.

Kinoko zosui porridge of rice and egg
I was a bit dubious about ordering this course, I mean why fill up on rice when you have all these random chicken parts left to try. But this proved to be one of the strongest courses of the night. Soulful, hearty, the umami-tinged broth is heightened by mushrooms and herbs.

Typical of chicken heart the texture is muscular and snappy with a livery metallic tinge on the finish.

Tsukune meatballs
Toothsome dense the meatball was enjoyable on its own but the coating of raw egg was a unique extra touch that added depth to the chicken.

New Union farms sizzling mushroom with red cheddar cheese tobanyaki
Mushroom tobanyaki was an old standby during my halcyon days out of college. The flavor here blends the rustic woodiness of the mushroom with an enveloping warm aroma of butter.

The daily whitefish selection was a fluke, clean and mild it lacked the enticing accompaniments of the whitefish sashimi from earlier.

Live freshwater eel
Of particular note was the evening's eel nigiri. Served without the ubiquitous sauce, the flavor of the eel came to the fore, fishy with a bitterly crisp skin and finished with a spicy dollop of yuzu kocho this was a pleasant change of pace.

The delicately patterned silver skin covers a fine grained morsel that is brazenly fishy.

Next up was an organic Junmai Ginjo from Fukushima. More tempered and complex this blended soft floral and fruity aromas with the flavor of sweet grain and alcohol.

Tiger shrimp tempura with curry aioli
I loved the curry aioli, creamy sweet with a lightly spiced Japanese curry, too bad the shrimp itself was overcooked to the point of being rubbery.

Sauce yakisoba with pork
I've never been a huge fan of yakisoba and the sweet sauce here didn't help matters. I could see this being a very approachable dish but just not to my liking.

Jidori fried chicken with oroshi sesame
The meal ended on a high note with these golden battered nuggets of goodness. The meat is tender and juicy, no seasoning necessary just the delicious flavor of hot artery-clogging grease.

Green tea pudding
As I've noted before tea should be used more often in desserts, the aromatic flavor forming a natural foil for the sweetness. The pudding was quite enjoyable, soft and creamy with a trace of herbal bitterness.

With some truly impressive courses like the whitefish sashimi, porridge, and mushroom tobanyaki Toranoko clearly shows promise. However unlike Lazy Ox, it doesn't break such new ground with Aburiya Toranoko which leads me to wonder if the restaurant can wrest business from the area's more established izakayas like Honda-ya. Then again Cardenas has a proven track record that includes Katana, Sushi Roku, Boa, and Robata Bar, which makes it hard to question his judgement. Though I don't forsee Toranoko garnering a hardcore cult following like its next door neighbor, I suspect it will remain a fixture of the downtown dining scene in the years to come.
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