Wednesday, June 27, 2012

n/naka - 06/27/2012

3455 S Overland Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 836-6252

Sushi is traditionally a man's game but nobody told Niki Nakayama that.  The California native got her start at Takao in Brentwood before spending three years in Japan learning a variety of regional techniques, most notably the art of Kaiseki.  After returning to California Niki opened Azami Sushi Cafe a popular sushi restaurant known for Niki's omakase and the roster of all female sushi chefs.  I first met Niki Nakayama at her second venture Inaka, a comfortable but unassuming take out place by day that offered an intimate chefs table service by night, and was thoroughly impressed with the breadth of techniques and creativity of Niki's cooking.  In 2011 Niki opened n/naka, a tasting menu only restaurant, where she she has elevated her cooking even further.

Given how much I adore her cooking, I was exceedingly pleased to hear she would be doing an all foie gras menu ahead of the ban.  Naturally most of the foie gras meals that we've had have heavy French influences so Niki's Japanese based menu was a welcome change.

Sakizuke (A Pairing of Something Common and Something Unique) - Tamago Dofu, Unagi, Shaved & Seared Foie Gras, Balsamic Foie Gras Jus
Domaine Rossier 'Cuve Jean Philippe' Brut, Blanquette de Limoux, France
The meal kicked off with an egg tofu infused with foie gras.  The pillowy tofu conveyed a weighty profundity and even smoky savor with an eggy sweetness on the finish.  Accompanying the liver tinged puck was even more foie gras both shaved and seared; the former contributing a lush mouthfeel while and the later augmenting the tofu's inherent sapor.  The accompanying wine was a French sparkler made with traditional Champagne grapes and using the traditional method, but the result was a bit more fruit driven and sweeter than the typical champagne.

Zensai (Main Seasonal Ingredient Presented as an Appetizer) - Hudson Valley Foie Gras Torchon, Bittersweet Chocolate,Roasted Unagi, Black Mission Figs, Brioche, Cabernet Reduction, Roasted Bing Cherries
Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, Maldonado Family Vineyards, Napa Valley
A dish composed of highly seasonal ingredients is one of the core elements of any Kaiseki menu.  Certainly the torchon of foie gras headlines the dish, but the other elements on the plate don't lack for flavor either from the fishy punch of the eel to the dynamic tang of the citrus gelee or the vivid bitterness of the greens.  Every bite was different yet delicious, which is especially impressive considering the number of disparate elements on the plate.  The torchon definitely needed the weight of the late harvest, despite its honeyed nose, a lively acidity on the midpalate keeps the wine from feeling too heavy while the finish of raisins paired well with the figs on the plate.

Modern Zukuri (Modern Interpretation of Sashimi) - Hokkaido Diver Scallop, Foie Gras Crumbles, Ponzu Reduction
Pinot Blanc, Domaine Pfister, Alsace, France
The thin fleshy slices of sweet Hokkaido diver scallop came topped with a ponzu reduction and foie gras crumbles as well as more traditional accompaniments of yuzu and daikon sprouts.  An absolutely brilliant use of foie gras to add texture, the crumbles melt and coat the scallop in a slick oily sheen, but the vivacious savory twang of the ponzu effortlessly keeps the richness of the foie in check.  Given the minimal role the foie plays on the flavor, a crisp lighter wine was definitely in order and the citrus levity of the Pfister fit the bill nicely.

Otsukuri (Traditional Sashimi) - Live Halibut, Chives, Ponzu, Foie Gras Jus
Shichida Junmai Ginjo, Tenzen Brewery, Saga, Japan
This was probably the most unconventional and creative utilization of foie in the entire meal.  Starting with a traditional sashimi of live halibut from Korea, the thin slices of mild tender fish came topped with sprigs of chive and a dipping sauce of ponzu and foie gras jus.  Once again, the ponzu provides most of the flavor, but the renderings of foie have an exquisite savor that makes the fish almost feel cooked.  Our server described the Shichida as a "sexy" sake with delicate flavors of pear and anise I can definitely see where he is coming from.

Su-zakana (Palate Cleanser) - Kumamoto Oyster, Uni, Ponzu
The intermezzo consisting of a single Kumamoto oyster topped with uni in a bath of ponzu served as a break between the raw and cooked dishes.  The aroma of brine here is absolutely stupefying, akin to being hit in the face by a splash of fresh seawater.

Mushimono (Steamed Dish) - Foie Gras, Black Abalone, Root Vegetable Dashi, Black Truffles, Scallion
Kerner Valle Isarco, Abbazia di Novacella, Alto Adige, Italy
There was a time when poached foie gras was my favorite preparation and this course reminded me why.  The semi-liquid fatty liver is saturated with a root vegetable dashi that simultaneously moderated the offal's richness and infused the liver with a deep umami essence.  The poached black abalone had a dense yet yielding consistency and subdued toothsome brine.  Savings of black truffle perfume the broth with an earthy fragrance and the entire mix is finished with a zesty élan from a few judicious sprigs of fresh scallion.

Shiizakana (Not Bound by Tradition, The Chef's Choice Dish to be Paired with Wine) - Lobster and Hokkaido Scallop Ravioli, Sage Brown Butter Sauce, Chives
Greco de Tufo, Villa Matilde, Campania, Italy
The three ravioli came filled with a combination of snappy lobster and sweet diver scallop encapsulated in rendered foie gras.  A gentle touch of brown butter and sage sauce exudes a heady warmth while minced chives and a touch of yuzu impart the perfect amount of levity on the pasta.

Niku (Meat Dish) - American Wagyu Rib Eye, Seared Foie Gras, Red Miso Paste, Magnolia Leaf
Pinot Noir, Au Bon Climat "La Bauge Au-dessus", Santa Maria Valley Ca
Without a doubt the heaviest course of the night, the last cooked dish consisted of an American Wagyu Rib Eye steak topped with foie gras in a sweet miso paste.  The sugary attack of the miso is immediately apparent with the foie adding a creeping steely tang that slowly morphs into the rich beefy goodness of the Wagyu.  I was a bit surprised at the decision to pair a pinot with Wagyu but the leather and smoke in the wine worked wonders with the meat.

Sunomono (Vinegared Salad) - Wild Aji, Cucumber, Miyoga, Shiso, Yuzu Omoi
Signifying the transition to sushi, our second palate cleanser consisted of wild Aji with miyoga, shiso, and ponzu.  Though the oily character of the fish was a touch lost, the potent acidic savor of the ponzu and fragrance of the shiso certainly did their job.  The sweet burn of the Yuzu Omoi left me smacking my lips and wishing for more.

Shokuji One (Rice Dish - Sushi) - Madai
Shichida Yamahai Karakuchi Jumai, Tenzen Brewery, Saga, Japan
Our first nigiri was a piece of tender fleshy Madai.  Niki adds a deft touch of lemon and salt, giving the fish a much needed scintilla of flavor without completely overwhelming it.  I've always heard sake with sushi puts too much emphasis on the rice, but our server explained something like the Yamahai Karakuchi, an aged sake with a dryer flavor profile, can still work.

Shokuji One (Rice Dish - Sushi) - Toro
Shichida Yamahai Karakuchi Jumai, Tenzen Brewery, Saga, Japan
The toro was probably my favorite piece of the night; utterly tender and decadent, the essence of fat and oil linger on the palate long after the fish is gone.

Shokuji One (Rice Dish - Sushi) - Shima Aji
Shichida Yamahai Karakuchi Jumai, Tenzen Brewery, Saga, Japan
I'm always happy to see Shima Aji at more restaurants.  The supple fish has a lavish richness that is enhanced rather than masked by Niki's sparing use of yuzu kosho.

Shokuji One (Rice Dish - Sushi) - Amaebi
Shichida Yamahai Karakuchi Jumai, Tenzen Brewery, Saga, Japan
The shrimp was also excellent, with a satisfying succulent snap and surprising tingle of spice.  I could have done with a bigger piece though.

Shokuji One (Rice Dish - Sushi) - Aoyagi
Shichida Yamahai Karakuchi Jumai, Tenzen Brewery, Saga, Japan
This textbook Surf Clam exhibited a wet vigorous snap coupled with a wonderful salty tang that gave way to a bit of sweetness on the finish.

Shokuji One (Rice Dish - Sushi) - Foie Gras
Shichida Yamahai Karakuchi Jumai, Tenzen Brewery, Saga, Japan
Naturally a Japanese foie gras dinner wouldn't be complete with out foie gras nigiri.  Personally, I think a few of the fishes could have used a touch of shaved foie, but its hard to argue with the decision to finish the meal with the simple yet direct combination of foie on rice.

Shokuji Two (Rice Dish) - Soba with Foie Gras Dashi Broth
After the nigiri we were presented with a bowl of soba with dashi broth, a very traditional preparation but for the infusion of foie gras.  The liver is subtle here and if not for the oily sheen and overarching savor, this would have been a textbook preparation of soba.

Intermezzo: Lemon Sorbet - with Lemon Zest
Our first dessert consisted of a bracing shot of lemon sorbet with a bit of zest.  Nothing subtle here, just the refreshing chill and vigorous acidity of fresh citrus.

Mizumono (seasonal dessert) - Flourless White Chocolate and Green Tea Cake, Red Azuki Bean Ice Cream
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Delas, Rhone Valley, France
For our final course, Niki draws upon two staples of Asian desserts, green tea and read bean, to make a flourless cake and ice cream respectively.  The duet pair seamlessly, a sweet and graceful flourish to end a spectacular meal.

Simply put, this was the best foie gras dinner yet, though given Niki's track record her success comes as no surprise.  Niki brings her characteristic blend of finesse and creativity; effectively using the foie as an accent as often as it was the star of the dish.  I was also quite impressed with the wines our somellier selected, its a rarity to see such thoughtful and diverse pairings with Japanese cuisine.  As an aside, I was surprised how difficult it was to secure reservations though I suppose a positive review from Jonathan Gold tends to do that.  At this point it is likely impossible to get a reservation at n/naka before the foie gras ban takes effect, that being said, the regular menus are equally impressive and certainly well worth a try.

Read more.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Mo-Chica - 06/07/2012

514 W 7th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 622-3744

Located in the food court of mercado in South LA, Ricardo Zarate's initial Mo-Chica languished in obscurity until a review from Johnathan Gold made the restaurant a veritable dining destination. Building on his success, Zarate opened Picca in June 2011 to near-instant acclaim and a star on the rise became a star ascendant. As one of the hottest chefs in the city Zarate finally had the means to create the Mo-Chica of his dreams and he certainly wasted no time in doing so. Like Picca, the new Mo-Chica brings a modern touch to traditional Peruvian food.

 OAXACALIFORNIA LOVE - mezcal, tequila, fresh lime juice, pineapple rocoto gomme
The first cocktail was easily the best, the petrol and smoke of the mezcal blends seamlessly with the spicy bite of the rocoto while the flavor smoothly shifts from savory to sweetly tropical.

THA DOGGFATHER aka PISCO SOUR - pisco porton, egg white, fresh lime juice, fresh lemon juice, cane syrup sugar, angostura bitter
The national Peruvian cocktail, Tha Doggfather is incredibly well balanced with a multifarious flavor porfile and thick creamy froth from the egg white.

SANTA CLAUS IS BACK IN TOWN - atlantico reserva rum, elizabeth all spice, fresh lime juice
Our server called this a "man's drink" and I can see how the woody bite gives that impression.

I'M GRAPEY AND I KNOW IT... (wiggle, wiggle) - green grape & cardamom reduction, fresh ginger juice, orgeat syrup, oro italia pisco, soda, lime wheel
This drink certainly lives up to its name, with a sweet vinuous flavor though the pungency on the finish was a pleasant surprise.

PAPA DON'T PEACH - banks rum, fresh peaches infused with calvados, peach bitters, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice
Kind of a bi-polar cocktail, the soft fruity flavor of the peaches is readily apparent, but so is a distinctly boozy heat.

TEA-NAGE DREAM - Oro quebranta pisco, pitta & brendan's tea
The final cocktail was the most approachable of the bunch with the pisco barely noticable under the sweetness of the tea.

CHORITOS A LA CHALACA - Grilled chopped mussels, prawns, squid, tomato choclo salsa
The meal started with a mixture of fresh seafood with salsa and corn thrown in for good measure. The large kernels of corn add a dense texture contrast to the slick snappy shellfish while the salsa's acidity conveys a delightful sense of levity.

CAUSA DE CANGREJO - Aji amarillo mashed potatoes, fresh crab, avocado
Zarate's causa was one of my favorites at the original Mo-Chica and not much has changed. The starchy heft of the potato is infused with a spicy piquant tang that highlights the luxuriously sweet crab meat.

PAN CON TUNA - Grilled bread, spicy tuna, rocoto sauce, yuzu mayo
Next up was a tuna roll on bread. The interaction of the tuna and yuzu mayo was classic while the rocoto sauce gave the dish a Peruvian relish. I wasn't too enthused about this course initially fearing that the bread would be overly starchy, but Zarate pulled it off quite nicely.

vega barcelona, cava, spain NV
After the cocktails were done with, we opted for a sparkling white. This was a pretty straightforward cava, plenty of stonefruit on the nose with a pleasing yeasty counterpoint on the palate.

ALCACHOFA - artichoke, huacatay butter, rocoto sauce
One of the specials for the evening, the grilled artichoke had a lovely char tempered by the herbal sweetness of the huacatay butter, a nice twist on a simple grilled artichoke. The rocoto dipping sauce supplies the dish with a distinctly Peruvian bite.

CEVICHE CARRETILLERO - Seabass, rocoto, red onion, leche de tigre, choclo, yuyo
This was the first of two ceviches for the night. I appreciated the snap of the raw seabass as well as the piquant spicy bite of the leche de tigre. The onion and seaweed complimented the fish nicely add some much needed textural contrast as did the choclo.

ANTICUCHO DE PULPO - Grilled octopus, roasted potatoes, jalapeno sauce
Though not the most visually pleasing dish, the tender smoky octopus pairs beautifully with the spicy kick of the creamy potatoes.

PAPA RELLENA - Stuffed potato, eggplant stew, Peruvian olive oil
Papa rellena is a classic Peruvian dish dating back to the 19th century that consists of a potato stuffed with a mixture of meat, onion, olive and eggs then deep fried. Zarate went for an earthier preparation with eggplant and olives and though I found the olive a touch oppressive but I quite enjoyed the Japanese flourish of the yuzu.

TIRADITO DE JUREL - Spanish mackerel tiradito, ginger amarillo sauce, garlic chips, sesame oil
A superb tiradito, arguably one of the best that I've ever had. The oily smack of the mackerel stood up beautifully to the chili sauce. The ginger and sesame oil give the dish a distinctly Asian feel while the garlic chips added an outsized savor to the fish.

CEVICHE MIXTO - Halibut, prawns, scallops, squid, red onion, rocoto leche de tigre, camote
Ay Peruvian restaurant worth its salt should have some variation of the prototypical ceviche on offer. Zarate's incarnation is pretty classic, a textural melange of fresh seafood with spice, acid, and a touch of sweetness all mixed in.

LOMO SALTADO - Sautéed beef filet, roma tomatoes, red onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, banyuls vinegar, Kennebec fries
Next up we have one of the most popular Peruvian dishes. The stir fried beef marinated in vinegar and soy and seasoned with garlic, ginger, and onions feels distinctly Chinese but the potatoes give the dish a Western aesthetic.

CARAPULCRA - Peruvian sun dried potato stew, crispy pork belly, chimichurri
On its own the belly was faultless, tender with a nice balance of lean and fat. But I just couldn't get behind the stew with its odd mixture of sweet and herbaceous flavors.

QUINOTTO - Quinoa risotto, wild mushrooms, parmesan, parsley infused oil
I've always found quinoa a poor substitute for rice when it comes to risotto. Though that was still the case, I enjoyed the grainy texture coupled with the earthy heft of the mushrooms.

TALLARINES VERDES CON CAMARONES - Grilled black tiger prawns, tagliatelle, peanuts, Peruvian black mint pesto
The aroma of butter and brine promised such wonders and the praws certainly delivered on flavor though I thought the texture was a bit rubbery. The accompaniments were also somewhat muted though the noodles did add a slickness that helped balance out the prawn.

HAMBURGESA - Alpaca & lamb patty, pickled cucumbers, aji amarillo yogurt dressing
Upscale burgers might seem passé but the mix of alpaca and lamb sets this one apart from the masses. The patty has a leaner texture and explodes with game-tinged meaty savor. The tart accompaniments are key in balancing the meat's weight.

PAICHE - Amazonian fish from Peru, ajiaco de arroz, cherry tomato escabeche
This was my first experience with Paiche, an air breathing freshwater fish that can grow up to 500 pounds and is considered by scientists to be a living fossil from the Jurassic period. After surviving millions of years it was almost undone by its flavor. The fish is immensely prized and has been compared to Chilean Sea Bass due to its high levels of collagen. Though I didn't find the fish as tender as sea bass, the flaky texture and subtle grilled élan were nothing short of wondrous; perfect with the contrasting acidic verve from the tomato escabeche.

SANGRECITA - Morcilla crostini, fried egg, jalapeno salsa
I'm not normally a fan of blood sausage on account of its off-putting metallic flavor; however this preparation was absolutely stellar, all savor no metal. The dish has a decidely a breakfast-y feel with the crostini and fried egg accompanied by the delightful heat of the salsa.

casa lapostolle, cuvee alexandre, carmenere, colchagua valley, chile 2010
Our second wine of the night was a Carmenere, a signature grape of Chile that has long since disappeared from European vineyards. The wine had a soft rounded fruitness that reminded me heavily of Merlot.

CAU CAU - Tripe stew, peruvian potatoes, grilled bread, cumin yogurt, mint chimichurri
I can't honestly review this dish as all the tripe was gone by the time it got around to me and as full as I was, mouthful after mouthful of potatoes was the last thing I wanted. The rest of my party seemed to enjoy it so I'll just take their word for it.

ESTOFADO DE ALPACA - Alpaca stew estofado, tagliatelle, aji amarillo sauce, fried organic fertile egg
Alpaca is a popular meat in South America but far less common here. This was my second experience with alpaca (the first being the hamburgesa above) and without the lamb I was able to better appreciate the alpaca on its own. The meat is immensely flavorful though the texture was a bit tougher than I was expecting. This toughness seems to be intrinsic to the meat rather than any fault of the kitchen. So while I can appreciate alpaca meat I doubt it'll be replacing beef in my diet anytime soon.

COLITA DE REZ - Oxtail, trigo de mote, huancaina salsa criolla
In contrast to the previous course the braised oxtail was almost like eating molten meat. The generously fatty oxtail falls off the bone and suffuses the senses with a ponderous meaty heft. The salsa criolla is absolutely essential while the boiled meat also helps leech some of the gravitas from the oxtail.

AJI DE GALLINA - Chicken stew, aji amarillo bread sauce, boiled quail egg, confit pee-wee potatoes, walnuts, parmesan
Again I was unable to get much of this course. From what I did taste, the dish was on point, an adroitly executed expression of a timeless Peruvian classic.

SECO DE CORDERO - Lamb shank, canario beans, cilantro beer sauce
In terms of flavor and texture, the lamb fell somewhere in betwee the austerity of the alpaca and the brio of the oxtail. Again the criolla's lushness buffered the palate from the full force of the meat's dark savor. I'm not normally a fan of beans but I loved the starchy heft they brought to the dish.

ARROZ CON MARISCOS - Peruvian seafood paella, salsa criolla
Even though I had Zarate's seafood fried rice at Picca, this was one of my most anticipated courses of the night. The rice abounds with the essence of shellfish while the topping of onions, citrus, and pepper once again does its job brightening up everything else on the plate.

BETERRAGA - Roasted beet salad, burrata, candied corn, orange aji amarillo dressing
Beets just aren't my thing and eating a mouthful of the dense cloying tuber this late in a meal is never going to find favor with me. In all fairness, the aji amarillo dressing makes a valiant effort but the creamy texture of the burrata with the beets is just too much.

CAESARIN - Peruvian ceasar salad, grilled baby romaine, parmesan, huacatay anchovie dressing
I was surprised to see this on the menu, but after tasting it I can see why it is. The beautifully crisp lettuce conveys a smoky sapor that forms the foundation of this dish while the anchovie dressing has this delightful tart fishy smack that left me wanting more.

CHICHARRON DE POLLO - marinated crispy chicken, rocoto sauce
Though I was fairly stuffed by this point, and I had already tried this dish at Picca, I couldn't stop myself from having a generous helping. These tender morsels were basically everything you could want from popcorn chicken, the perfect balance of savory batter and juicy white meat with an addictive dipping sauce to boot.

ALMEJAS - steamed clams, pancetta, aji amarillo butter
This reminded me of a similar dish at Playa. The salty meatiness of the pancetta augments the inherent brine of the clams while the chili sauce adds a lip smacking tang that ties the entire dish together.

SOLTERITO - Southern style peruvian salad, lima beans, choclo, feta, olives, english peas, queso fresco, rocoto vinaigrette
Like the Caesarin this was another sleeper dish. The salad combines the freshness of pea sprouts with the astringent game of the feta, and a subtle undercurrent of olives. As always the sour-spicy essence of the rocoto tempers and binds everything.

PAPA A LA HUANCAINA TERRINE - Peruvian potato terrine, bacon, fried quail egg, huancaina sauce
Potato, bacon, and eggs, this dish might read like your typical breakfast but it was actually more like a refined potato gratin. The potato "terrine" consisted of thin strips lightly fried on the outside but pliant and tender on the inside. Smothered in a creamy sauce and seasoned with the candy of meats, I adored this dish despite being absolutely stuffed.

ALFAJORES - Peruvian cookies, dulce de leche & rocoto chocolate ganache
The first dessert was a pair of crumbly cookies, one with a sugary dulce de leche and the other with a darkly savory chocolate ganache. At this point, I preferred the unabashed sweetness of the former to the more nuanced flavor of the later.

PICARONES - sweet potato, kabocha peruvian beignets, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, chancaca sauce
Finally a kobocha preparation that I really liked, the potato's inherent sweetness is augmented by a sticky glaze while the deep fried treat displayed a texture that was simultaneously dense yet airy.

SOL Y SOMBRA - purple corn, pineapple, granny smith apples, apricots, raisins & kiwicha creme brulee
The final dessert was one of my favorites things all night. The custard is made from amaranth, a high protein grain also cultivated in the Andes. The thick caramelized crust gives alternating flavors of bitterness and sugar while the fruit adds acidity and succulence to balance the custards' creamy weight.

Weighing in with 31 dishes, the revamped Mo-Chica doesn't quite match Picca in terms of number of courses but food definitely feels heartier and more rustic. While I enjoyed Mo-Chica's homey warmth, I'd have to give the nod to Picca, the heavily Japanese-influenced menu is more in line with my tastes. Still the new Mo-Chica, with its contemporary Peruvian comfort food, cements Zarate's place as the last word for gourmet Peruvian food in LA.

Read more.