Saturday, February 23, 2013

Lunasia - 02/21/2013

500 West Main St
Alhambra, CA 91801
(626) 308-3222

Having finally tried Lunasia's Dim Sum late last year, I left pleased by the food but turned off by the wait. When my uncle decided to have his birthday dinner I was eager if Lunasia's banquet service would match the quality of their lunch.

House Special Combination Platter
On the whole the meats were overly dry and tough with the chicken being nigh inedible. The thinly sliced roast pork was the best of the lot thanks to its fat and sliver of crispy skin though by far the best thing on the plate was the seaweed with its dense crunch and easy sweet salinity.

Crispy Taro Scallops
This dish started with such promise but beneath the airy exterior lurked a mix of thick starchy taro paste and a thin rubbery scallop. A bowl of thick mushroom gravy accompanied the scallops but even with that the dish remained bland.

Stir Fried Prawns w/Veggies
Despite being small for prawns the shellfish was sweet and crisp; pairing nicely with the lightly fried vegetables. This dish while utterly pedestrian was one of the better courses of the night since it actually had some semblance of flavor.

Braised Supreme Swallow-Next w/Sliced Chicken
With the state ban on shark's fin soup having taken effect at the start of the year Chinese restaurants have been replacing the delicacy with swallow's nest another highly prized ingredient. The soup base remains largely unchanged with the same umami savor though perhaps a touch less briny than I remember. The chicken was an absolutely horrendous addition to the dish, gnarled bits of dry meat that overwhelmed the delicate texture of the nest while adding nothing of value in return.

Braised Age-Dry Abalone
The abalone was tender enough but stunningly bland despite being covered with a dark gravy. I found myself heaping plenty of XO sauce to get some essence of shellfish. Sadly XO sauce was arguably the meal's highlight; made from finely chopped dried scallops and chili oil the sauce had plenty of heat and savoriness.

Pan-Fried Lobster w/Supreme Soup Stock
Classically prepared Chinese lobster, though a bit tough for my liking, the meat tasted of ginger and onion along with a sense of sweet shellfish. The bed of noodles beneath were a bit overcooked limp and mealy with little flavor to speak of.

Peking Duck
The duck came still warm and surrounded by plenty of steamed bao buns along with hoisin and scallions. Personally preferred the duck on its own where it was easy to appreciate the skin's crackling crunch and the meat's heady unctuousness.

Steamed Fresh Live Fish
Steamed fish is commonly the penultimate course in traditional Chinese banquets. Since the fish was plated prior to being brought to the table I wasn't able to determine the exact type of fish we were served but the meat had a loose mealy quality to it that suggested it was none too fresh.

House Special Fried Rice
The final course of the night was an unconventional fried rice laden with shrimp, scallops, and dark gravy. The sauce gave the rice a disconcerting wetness and despite the abundance of seafood and gravy the rice still tasted inexplicably plain.

House Pastries
Rather than the tired red bean soup or tapioca, the meal ended with Almond Milk Souffle and Sou Tao. The "Souffle' isn't really a souffle in the traditional sense but a puff pastry on top of a bowl of warm almond milk. Sou Tou or Longevity peach is the name used for a steamed bun filled with mung bean that is supposed to represent long life.

I've noticed that dinner service at top dim sum restaurants is lackluster at best. To their credit Lunasia gets some things right, but the consistent lack of flavor cast a pall over the entire meal.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Allumette - 02/08/2013

1320 Echo Park Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(213) 481-0454

I first encountered Chef Miles Thompson at Vagrancy Project, his summer pop-up at the Allston Yacht Club. I was impressed by the young actor turned chef's creativity and his sense for flavor and it seems like I wasn't alone in that opinion. Bill DiDonna and Charles Kelly, the owners of the yacht club, were so taken with Thompson that they decided to turn their restaurant over to him on a permanent basis.

Along with a slight updating of the decor, the space has picked up a new name: Allumette which refers to a matchstick sized cut. With Allumette, Thompson has chosen to eschew share plates in favor of having diners create their own tasting menu experience selecting a handful of courses from the 10-15 options. In fact Kevin and I were advised against sharing as we might not be able to enjoy the dishes as Thompson envisioned them.

Gentleman’s Breakfast | The Famous Grouse-Egg White - Lemon - Ginger Honey Syrup - Topped with Atomized Candy Cap Bitters and Islay Scotch
You Live Only Twice | Sake - Beefeater Gin - Velvet Falernum - Tangerine - Szechuan Peppercorn - Fresh Lime
The Gentleman's Breakfast was my style of cocktail with a base of ginger saturated whiskey, the drink gains a pleasing textural nuance from the egg white as well as an intense peatiness from the Islay topping. You Only Live Twice was the complete opposite with a delicate fragrance of juniper and citrus the cocktail was certainly enjoyable but I wish the peppercorns played a bigger part.

Bread 01 | Grilled Housemade Foccacia - Butterball Potato - Thyme - Salt
It's been a while since I've written about bread service but I thought Thompson's composed bread presentation deserved the recognition. The grilled Foccacia is and potato are both delicious on their own but the combination has a starchy heft and fragrant herby smack that left me craving more.

Shimaaji Sashimi | Mustard Miso - Rice Crackers - Blood Orange - Kiwi
With a supple fatty texture and oily flavor, Shima Aji has rapidly become one of my favorite sushi fishes. The miso and savory rice crackers give the impression of a modern nigiri and while the fruit was a touch sweet at times, the fish had enough complexity to compensate.

Ocean Trout Crudo | Yuzu Ponzu - Brussels Sprout - Pickled Grapes
The trout itself was fairly conventional; fatty, mild and very reminiscent of salmon. The focused flavors of sugar, heat and bitterness that augmented the fish made this most well executed courses of the night.

Red Letter Day | Cocchi di Torino - Rhum J.M. - Orgeat - Fresh Lemon - Soda - Yuzu Bitters
Last Ango | Angostura Bitters - Smith & Cross - Orgeat - Pineapple Gomme - Fresh Lime
For our second round we went with the two rum based cocktails. The Red Letter Day was the lighter of the two with a gentle easy drinking character reminiscent of a hard ice tea. The Last Ango had a candied nose that reminded me of an Otter Pop with a grippy mouth puckering bitterness and tropical boozy character on the finish.

Fried Oyster | Kimchi Ranch Dressing - Asian Pear Mignonette - Sea Spinach
Most of the times that I've had fried oysters they have come in a Po'Boy. Chef Thompson eschews convention in favor of a more elaborate composed presentation. The funk of the dressing plays beautifully with the oyster's briny essence and the its creamy texture tempers the dense crunchy batter surrounding the oyster. The pear and greens provide a succulent textural contrast as well as moderating notes of acid and bitterness.

Bread 02 | Baby Shrimp - Angostura Remoulade - Okra
While I enjoyed the emphatic salinity of the shrimp and the creamy tang of the remoulade and pickles the abundance of flavors made this less a bread course and more of dish served on bread.

Herbed Sturgeon | Squashes - Poached Huckleberries - Artichokes Barigoule
The sturgeon is definitely one of the meatier fishes and Thompson's preparation was almost reminiscent of a very moist chicken breast. I was a bit wary of the squash and huckleberry mixture but the heartiness of the fish kept their sweetness in check.

Grilled Octopus | Sour Apple Syrup - Cardamom Butterscotch Potato - Sorrel
I wasn't sure how to feel about the dish. The octopus itself is solid but not especially noteworthy. Instead it is the apple syrup with its penetrating tang that stands out clearest on the palate. On the one hand I enjoyed the pungent sour heat, but on the other the intensity is completely out of line with the rest of the dish.

Negroni Sbagliato #2 | Punt E Mes - Aperol - Graham Beck Brut - Fresh Sage
Smoking Gun | Vida Mezcal - Cynar - Calisaya
The Scotch Cocktail | The Famous Grouse - Amaro Averna - Angostura Bitters - Orange
I've never cared much for Negronis thanks to its singularly bitter flavor, but the effervescence of the brut gave the drink some much-needed levity. Despite being made with Mezcal The Smoking Gun had an almost whiskey-like flavor. Cynar and Calisaya helped strip away the Mezcal's petrol-y notes leaving behind a smokiness reminiscent of an Islay Scotch. The third cocktail was a gift from Chef Thompson and not part of the normal drink menu. Despite being made almost entirely of various liquors the cocktail was quite smooth with notes of cherry and bitter herbs.

Szechuan Pork Dumpling | Cured Salmon Roe - Spicy Black Vinegar - Tarragon
On their own the dumplings reminded me of red oil dumplings with their mouth numbing heat and rich porcine savor. The addition of tarragon gave the dish a brilliantly unconventional licorice flavor that interacted beautifully with the muted salinity of the cured salmon roe.

Cavatelli | Uni Ragù - English Pea Purée - Poached Mushrooms - Fromage Noir
With a perfectly al dente texture, the cavatelli was my favorite of the three pastas. The creamy cheese saturated pasta is tempered by the verdance of the pea pure é as well as a healthy dose of citrus zest. I only wish the uni was a bit more apparent, though the pasta still had enough flavor without it.

Raviolo of Liquified Blood Pudding | Scallop Carpaccio - Caramelized Anchovy
This was by far the most intriguing yet difficult of the three pastas. The dark brown filling has an overarching iron tang of blood pudding. Fortunately the scallops and vegetables are there to provide a measure of relief from the dark earthiness.

Lamb Neck | Kimchi Crab - Star Anise - Cinnamon - Apricot Harissa
Another gift from the chef, this was a preview of a new course that he was working on. The tender neck meat has a rich meaty sapor lightly shaded with game that went perfectly with the spicy apricot harissa. With everything taken together, the dish can feel a bit busy and hard to follow.

Le Système Solaire | Oloroso Sherry - Dolin Blanc Vermouth - Bergamot Bitters
We ordered the last cocktail for sake of completeness. I expected the sweeter Oloroso to dominate this cocktail but the vinous character of vermouth wound up being the most recognizable characteristic with just a hint of the oxidative character of the sherry.

Squab Breast | Date Soubise - Baharat - Cinnamon Labne - Grapefruit
Moving onto the meat dishes we started with a delicate squab breast that I found slightly overcooked though still quite moist and tender. Though I enjoyed the earthy blend of middle eastern spices used to season the bird, the inclusion of of date and cinnamon made the overall flavor a touch sweet for me.

Bitter Lettuces | Tangerine - Avocado - Smoked Soy Cream Macadamia
After so many elaborately crafted dishes this feels almost laughably simple but as with many of the earlier courses, everything has a role to play. The tangerine provides a bit of juicy sweetness while the avocado and macadamia provide fatty textural contrasts to the astringent crunch of the lettuce. The dressing of smoked soy was a great idea but needed to have a bit more oomph to it.

Carrot Salad | Sunchokes - Radishes - Pickled Turnips - Black Carrot Syrup
The multifaceted carrot salad ended up being much better than I expected with the soft sweet cooked version balanced by thin shreds of raw carrot and the bitter tang of the turnips and radishes.

Pork Shoulder | Bacon - Crosnes - Caramelized Onions - Feuille de Brick
Thompson called this his homage to the danger dog. The succulent tender pork shoulder is wrapped with a thin layer of crisp bacon. The smorgasbord of porcine goodness is moderated lightly by gentrified pickles and onions all in a creamy mayo based sauce.

Citrus Curd | Rhubarb-Lime Gelée - Sumac - Poppy - Rose Geranium
This dish was part dessert part flavor study. To one side was a sweet curd made from fruit juice and on the other a jarringly bitter curd made from citrus peels. In small doses the duo provides an effective palate cleanser but I would want something more substantial for my main dessert.

Cheesecake Mousse | Frozen Cookie Dough - Red Walnuts - Maple Syrup
I've never been a huge fan of cheesecake but the replacing the cheese with frozen cookie dough made this absolutely incredible. The creamy tang of the cheese is still noticeable, but complimented with a buttery sweetness from the dough and the crumbled crust.

Red Velvet Cake | Port Syrup - Coffee Milk Mascarpone - Colombier
This was a grown-up take on Red Velvet with notes of concentrated bitter coffee and boozy ripe fruit from the port.

With Allumette, Thompson has picked up right where he left with Vagrancy Project. Each of the courses believing that there is a "perfect bite" when each element on the plate is in balance. With some courses the ideal bite is easy to achieve, but with the more intricate dishes this almost becomes a mental exercise which distracts from the simple enjoyment of the food. Still with an inventive flavor driven menu as well as a strong cocktail program, Allumette rewards you for trying even if you don't reach Nirvana.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Providence - 02/07/2013

5955 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 460-4170

My first visit to Providence back in 2007 was one of my earliest fine dining experiences. Since then I've had a fairly checkered relationship with the restaurant but my most recent trip to Providence left me wishing that I'd gone with the 16-course chef's menu so when Kevin suggested we get a group together to tackle the 16-course chef's menu I quickly jumped on the opportunity.

Though spherifications may not carry the same panache they once did the greyhound's racing grapefruit tang was a fun way to start the meal.

scallop nasturtium
crémant d'alsace, hubert meyer m.v.
This bite may not look like much, but filled with a raw scallop tartare and puffed rice; this delicate leaf packs quite the punch both savory and vegetal.

squid and chorizo
abalone and miso
crémant d'alsace, hubert meyer m.v.
The skewers have been part of the canapes for a couple of years now. Grilled over binchotan charcoal these tasty bites carry a powerful smoky savor but that's where their similarity ends. The squid and chorizo is brashly salty while the abalone has a simple purity of flavor.

uni canapé
crémant d'alsace, hubert meyer m.v.
A relatively new addition to the lineup the sweet salinity of the fresh uni is augmented by a sliver of luxurious black truffle. Paired with the savor and rough crunch of the buttered Focaccia the canapé was reminiscent of a deep fried uni.

grilled kumamoto oyster - american caviar, smoked butter
crémant d'alsace, hubert meyer m.v.
Our final amuse paired oysters with a generous dollop of caviar. The oysters were presented still cooking on a hot stone grill. The butter provided a richness that tempered the Kumamoto's minerality but left the salinity of the duo intact.

goma saba - cucumber, spring onion, nantes carrot, coriander seed, young ginger
moschofilero, tselepos 2011
Mackerel can be one of the tougher fishes to appreciate thanks to it's intensely fishy flavor. Soaked in a pickling brine, Cimarusti's preparation deftly tempers the oiliness while adding a marvelous tangy nuance. Likewise the vegetables add a further layer of moderation and textural contrast.

soy milk panna cotta - uni, geoduck, ikura, flowers and herbs
junmai dai ginjyo, kanchiku
I first had this course at the Ibaraki Benefit Dinner and it still ranks as one of the best things that I've ever eaten. Providence's regular menu features a version that uses crème fraîche panna cotta that I found a bit heavy handed but for this dinner we requested the original. The panna cotta acts like a creamy subdued soy sauce which dovetails seamlessly with the pristine seafood.

spot prawn - hot rock, yuzu
sauvignon blanc, craggy range 2011
Providence's spot prawns have come a long way since the unbalanced salt baked preparation that I first had in 2008. The prawns were seared tableside then finished with the zing of fresh yuzu to highlight the shrimp's natural salinity. The head and roe are a bit more direct, similar in the meat but with less citrus to act as a check on the salty-sweetness.

there's one born every minute - cabacerra ham, octopus, manila clam
chardonnay, "golden slope" liquid farm 2011
Not so sure about the name but I absolutely loved everything else about this dish. The fatty savor of the Cabacerra ham is deftly balanced by a countervailing herbaceousness from the celery leaf. The octopus provides a nice snappy contrast to the al dente rice as well as a subtle oceany undertone.

live scallops - lemon and salted butter
macon chardonnay, clos de la crochette, les héritiers du comte lafon 2008
Another minimalist course, the classic accompaniments of lemon and butter work brilliantly; highlighting the saline sweetness of the scallops. A quick char provides a light sear on the exterior as well as a satisfying savor but leaves the jellied texture of the ultra-fresh scallop intact.

turbot - peas, black truffle, fumet
trousseau, le clousot, michel gahier 2011
The whole turbot stuffed with truffles drew some much deserved oohs and aahs from the table but in my opinion, the peas with thier aggressively taut snappiness and fiercely vegetal flavor embellished with the luxurious musk of the shaved truffle actually overshadowed the fish, .

japanese wagyu beef - crushed butterball potatoes, baby carrots, spring onion, charred onion vinaigrette
cabernet sauvignon, heitz cellars 2007
I have to say that Providence has some of the most consistent high-quality Wagyu that I've ever had. The meat is chock full of oily goodness but never feels overly heavy. Though I enjoyed the toasty savor of the bread, I thought the meat was easily good enough to stand on its own.

cheese selection
madeira verdelho, "historic series" rare wine co. m.v.
The cheeses were selected by the staff who went with a relatively safe quartet, though with a party of 15 that was probably the smart choice.

tangerine - kalamansi, avocado yogurt, white chocolate feuilletine
This was easily the most interesting of our three desserts. The dainty quinelle of tangarine sorbet packs an intense tang while the avocado gives the dish an ever so slight nutty savor.

crème fraîche, sablé breton - almond financier, chestnut jam, vanilla mousse
moscatel málaga, "victoria #2" jorge ordoñez & co 2008
More than one person was wondering where the rest of the dish was. Interesting presentation aside this dessert had was a bit one-dimensional with a simple sweetness that reminded me of cupcake frosting.

caramélia mousse - manjari cream, milk ice cream, cocoa nib dentelle
amoroso sherry, el maestro sierra
Blending chocolate, caramel, and milk this dish didn't take many chances but its hard to argue with the classic combination of flavors.

petit fours
No meal at Providence would be complete without their classic troika of mignardises: pate de fruit, caramel, and macaron.

Simply put this is some of the best work I've seen from Cimarusti. With a number of the courses he seemed to take a less is more approach pairing a piece of pristine seafood with thoughtfully selected accompaniments that enhanced and celebrated the main ingredient. More importantly, the elaborate courses like the risotto demonstrated a high level of complexity and balance and a finesse that was occasionally lacking from some of my earlier meals here.

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