Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mari Vanna - 07/26/2013

8475 Melrose Pl
West Hollywood, CA 90069
(323) 655-1977

I'll be the first to admit that my selection in restaurants tends to gravitate towards certain types of cooking. That said I am always up for something new; so when one of my friends suggested that we pop our Russian cherry the newly opened Mari Vanna, I was more than game. Run by the Ginza Project, Mari Vanna's LA outpost is the group's sixth restaurant overall and third in the United States. Russian food doesn't enjoy the popularity of some other cultures, but Tatiana Brunetti, one of the partners involved with the project, hopes that the chain can help redefine Russian cuisine in the US, a lofty goal, to be sure.

Housed in the same space that once played host to Bastide, the restaurant has undergone a drastic facelift. Designed to mimic homey warmth of a traditional Russian home, the restaurant is filled with various Russian tchotchkes and knick knacks; a far cry from its days when it stood as one of the last bastion's of fine dining in Los Angeles.

Olivier Salad - Melange of Roasted Vegetables, Pickles, Hard Boiled Eggs, and a Touch of Mayonnaise
The Olivier Salad is one of Mari Vanna's signature dishes, a gentrified take on potato salad, the creamy mixture of vegetables has a very satisfying feel coupled with a slight smoky-sweet flavor. Though a bit simple, this was my favorite of the cold appetizers.

Herring under a Fur Coat (Shuba) - Layers of herring, Potatoes, Carrots, Beets and Onions Topped with Egg with a touch of mayonnaise
We were originally going to order the pickled herring but this sounded so much more interesting. The herring immediately makes its presence felt with a pungent fishiness on the attack but the "fur coat" quickly moderates the fish thanks to the sweetness of the carrots and beets.

Chicken Kholodetz - Chicken Aspic served with Horseradish, pickles and spicy Russian Mustard
This dish looks like a bunch of shredded chicken sandwiched between two slices of jello. The chicken was decent if a bit simple, but the aspic doesn't have much flavor to speak of making the bites of flavorless goo a bit tedious. The Russian mustard certainly lives up to its billing, and while it packs plenty of flavor the sheer intensity obliterates any taste of chicken.

Homemade Assorted Meat Plate - Roasted Pork Loin, Chicken Roulette, and Beef Filet
The chicken was my favorite of the trio thanks to its keen peppery bite. The pork and beef both needed a bit more flavor, though the filet did remind me of the sliced beef served with the cold cut plate at Chinese banquets.

Fish Plate - House Cured Salmon, Cold Smoked Paddlefish and House Smoked Sturgeon
A complete 180 from the meat plate, the cured fishes were chock full of smoky goodness. I started with the cured salmon, supple and lithe, the cure resonates when taken with a light squeeze of lemon juice. The paddle fish has a denser texture than the salmon and its oily heft was reminiscent of a Amberjack though the woody savor marks the fish as something else entirely.. The sturgeon was my favorite of the trio, drier and more substantial than the salmon or paddlefish; the meat had a tautness to it combined with a concentrated smokey flavor reminded me of a fish bacon.

Rosolnic Soup - Chicken Barley soup with Potatoes, Onions, Carrots, Pickles, Garnished with fresh dill, sour cream on the side
Traditional Rosolnic soup is made from a broth of pickled cucumbers. Mari Vanna's preparation seems to fall more in line with a homemade chicken noodle soup; hearty, warm, and satisfying with a tinge of sour herbaceousness from the dill. Taken with some sour cream the soup picks up a bit more body as well as a ephemeral but enjoyable twang. Though we initially found the sour cream a bit odd, all of us agreed that the dish was better with it.

Roasted Cornish Hen - Topped with garlic and served with pickled cabbage
The hen was one of the surprises of the night. Beneath the slightly dry looking skin lurked a deceptively succulent bird just waiting to be devoured. The meat wasn't just tender and juicy, but laden with flavor more akin to quail or squab then mere chicken. Meanwhile, the crunch and tang of the pickled cabbage provided a wonderful counterpoint to the rich bird

Sunny - Seaberry Martini | House Infused Seaberry Vodka, St. Germain Elder Flower, Fresh Lime Juice, Fresh Orange Juice
Klubnichka - Strawberry Martini | House Infused Strawberry Vodka, Strawberry Puree, Fragoli, Fresh Lime Juice
Grusha - Pear Martini | House Infused Pear Vodka, St. Germain Elder Flower, Pear Puree, Fresh Lime Juice, Splash of Sparkling Wine
There was some confusion with our drink order which resulted in a bit of delay before we received our initial cocktails. I was expecting the martinis to be on the stiff side but aside from the Seaberry Martini, we could barely taste the alcohol. The seaberry martini looked and tasted like a bitter orange martini; apparently seaberry is naturally astringent and has 15 times the Vitamin C of an orange. The strawberry and pear varieties both tasted like intensely ripe versions of their respective fruits and even the non-drinker at the table enjoyed both these cocktails.

Handmade Veal Pelmeni - Russian Dumplings, Topped with Herbs, Butter and served with Sour Cream
The veal dumplings were a gift from the kitchen though we would have ordered them in due time. Wrapped in a lissome wrapper, the veal has a rich gamey tang; the resulting combination reminded me of xiao long bao only without the soup. As with the Rosolnic soup, the sour cream adds an extra layer of complexity to the dish. I have to say Russian cuisine has opened my eyes to the utility of sour cream.

Ukranian Borscht with Pompushka
I ordered this despite my avowed dislike for beets, because surely no foray into Russian cuisine would be complete without a bowl of borscht. The soup comes in two main varieties, hot and cold that share little in common besides the use of beets. Mari Vanna offers a faithful rendition of the more popular hot variety made from a rich beef broth filled with chopped potatoes, beets, carrots and other vegetables. The result is a hearty mixture we likened to a bowl of Campbell's vegetable soup laced with a touch of fresh dill. The soup came with two pieces of pompushka or garlic bread; buttered and topped with fresh garlic, I wanted a whole bowl of these babies.

Blini with Red Caviar - 50 grams
If there is anything synonymous with luxury in Russian cuisine its caviar. The red caviar looks and feels similar to salmon roe commonly found at sushi restaurants, but has a much deeper brine similar to Sujiko, the less common marinated salmon roe. The blinis were less like the typical potato cakes and more akin to crepes with a simultaneously yeasty and sweet flavor that lingered long after the caviar.

House Infused Vodka - Pepper, Olive, Pineapple, Lingberry, Seaberry, Apricot
In true Russian fashion, vodka is featured prominently on the drink menu with 18 flavors all made from Russian Standard Vodka. We were planning to order a few but our server brought out complimentary sextet for us to try. The pepper proved to be my favorite with a vegetal jalepeno-like spice to mask the burn of the vodka. The Olive was like a very dirty martini bursting with earthy brine. After the earlier cocktails I was expecting the fruit infused vodkas to be on the sweet side but they all had a fair amount of boozy warmth tinged with a variety of moderating fruit.

Kalinka - Malinka Martini - House Infused Raspberry Vodka, White Peach Puree, Fresh Lime Juice, Fresh Raspberries
Moscow Mojito - House Infused Honey and Oats Vodka, Mint, Fresh Lime Juice, Aged Dark Rum, Splash of Sprite
Lolita Apricot - Martini - House Infused Apricot Vodka, Vanilla Black Tea Syrup and Fresh Lemon Juice
Our second round of drinks brought more syrupy sweet cocktails. The Kalinka-Malinka starts with ripe peach then transitions to tart raspberries and finishes with a boozy heat. The Mojito tasted of fresh lime and mint; classic, but I was hoping for the honey and oat vodka to show through. The Lolita Apricot was the table favorite, as sweet as its namesake but with a streak of adult sophistication from the vanilla black tea syrup.

Chicken Kotletki - Pan Seared Chicken Patties Served with Potato Puree
My friends dubbed the kotletki: gourmet chicken nuggets. Though not breaded and deep fried, the ground chicken conveyed a deep umami savor while the potatoes provided a nice starchy compliment to the meat.

Beef Stroganoff - Thinly Sliced Filet Mignon in a Light Sour Cream Sauce, Fresh Thyme, Pickles and Potato Puree
My previous experience with Beef Stroganoff was limited to frozen dinners like Lean Cuisine and its ilk. This was a refreshing change of pace, the beef was tender but a bit overcooked still quite nice with the sour cream sauce to heighten the meaty twang of the filet. While the meat was enjoyable, I actually preferred the potatoes with their fluffy consistency and buttery heft.

Assorted Pirozjki - Beef, Cabbage, or Rice, Egg and Scallion
We finished the dinner with a trio of Piroziki. Each bun had a different filling but for me the best part was the bread, sweet, yeasty and fragrant the various fillings were enjoyable but not particularly distinctive.

Birds Milk - Traditional Russian Dessert, very light sponge cake covered in melted dark chocolate
Our server described Bird's Milk (Ptasie mleczo), a classic Russian dessert, as a combination of sponge cake and marshmallow. The confection had a flavor akin to nougat with the spongy consistency and a decadent bitterness from the melted chocolate.

Medovic - Traditional Russian Honey Cake
Though I tend to shun heavy desserts this was quite enjoyable. Spongy and thick, the cake was redolent of honey tinged with ripe fruit.

House Infused Vodka - Pear
I have to say our server knows what hes doing. The previous vodkas tended towards the savory but this was ripe and sweet, the perfect finish to my first Russian dinner.

I was a bit concerned that the blunt flavors would be a bit much for a palate honed on a steady diet of Japanese and French cuisine, but instead I found the simplicity enjoyable. The food was heavy at times but with plenty of familiar analogues it was more approachable than I expected. With no previous frame of reference, I can't compare Mari Vanna to the city's other Russian restaurants, but if this is what Russian cuisine has to offer it certainly deserves more prominence than it currently receives.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lukshon - 07/10/2013

3239 Helms Ave
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 202-6808

I visited Lukshon shortly after it first opened. I remember going in with low expectations, but came away thinking that it was one of the stronger haute Asian restaurants in the city. Given that visit was almost two and a half years ago another trip was definitely in order.

lukshon sour - old overholt rye, kalamansi, tamarind, lemon
yokohama romance - prunier vsop cognac, cherry heering, kaffir lime, lemongrass, shaoxing wine
hot & sour gimlet - monopolowa vodka, dragon chile, lime, thai basil, kinh gioi
As is our wont we began the meal by working our way down the cocktail list. The Lukshon sour was a riff on the classic whiskey sour; the frothy libation had a pronounced acidity tinged with a ripe funk from the tamarind. The Yokohama Romance was the strongest of the three cocktails with a cool boozy kick shaded with a light grape-y aftertastes. The Gimlet was my favorite of the trio, an urgent blend of heat and acid overlayed with the soothing fragrance of fresh basil.

hawaiian butterfish - pickled watermelon radish, daikon, nahm jim, rau ram
The meal started with a sashimi of Hawaiian Butterfish. The fleshy texture of the fish stands is stark contrast to the crisp duo of radishes; likewise the fatty savor of the fish is amplified by the tang and astringency of the pickles.

pig ear terrine - edamame, pickles, ma-la vinaigrette
The pig ear terrine tasted like it would be right at home on a ping pan, cool jellied bits offered a mix of offal and porcine essences while a smattering of pickles brought some levity to the dish. For me the highlight was the fried pig ears; their rich oily savor served to augment the more subdued character of the terrine.

tea leaf salad - cabbage, crispy chana dal, marcona almonds, peanuts, sesame, blue prawn
I enjoyed this salad far more than I thought I would. The multifaceted crunch of the cabbage, legumes, and nuts is tinged with bitter vegetal and warm toasty notes while the sliver of prawn adds a satisfying accent of shellfish and butter.

steamed cod - spicy citrus broth, lily flower, tatsoi
The steamed cod was one of the few letdowns of the night for me. I found the fish a touch mealy, with a whiff of earthy and fishy notes though my companions seemed not to notice anything amiss. Despite my issues with the cod, the broth offered a deep spicy twang that I found quite enjoyable.

singapore sling - plymouth gin, cherry heering, benedictine, combier orange, pineapple, bitters
fujian cure - isle of skye 8yr scotch, lemon, galangal, lapsang souchong black tea
Continuing down the cocktail list we have the Singapore Sling, built around an aromatic backbone of gin and benedictine, the drink has a restrained bitterness coupled with the muted essence of pineapple. The Fujian Cure was my favorite cocktail of the night, blending citrus and fragrant tea beneath an overarching essence of whiskey smoke.

cantonese chicken soup - cellophane noodles, petite bok choy, 63° egg
I'm a sucker for poached eggs so this was definitely a must order for me. The combination of precisely cooked chicken, noodles, and bok choi is satisfying but the inclusion of the egg brings this dish to another level. Mixing the runny egg into the broth gives it a silky mouth feel while simultaneously adding a touch of hearty weight to the soup's simple clean savor.

green papaya salad - cherry tomatoes, long beans, peanuts, crispy shallot, nam pla, lime
The green papaya salad was a nice change of pace from the previous dishes. Cool, crunchy, and quite refreshing, the melange of vegetables exude a tightly coupled fusion of acid, spice, and a bit of funk for good measure.

bhutanese red rice - lamb bacon, maitake mushroom, egg, scallion, chinese celery
The green papaya salad was a nice change of pace from the previous dishes. Cool, crunchy, and quite refreshing, the melange of vegetables exude a tightly coupled fusion of acid, spice, and a bit of funk for good measure.

maryland soft shell crab - coconut "creamed corn", shishito peppers, pickled okra, spring onion, peanuts
I've never been a huge fan of soft shell crab; while the shell is edible, the plasticky feel is a bit disconcerting. Fortunately the shell was barely noticeable in this preparation, making it easy to fully appreciate the crunchy batter and brine-soaked flesh of the crab. The accompaniments were equally enjoyable, with the bold tropical sweetness of the "creamed corn" and piquancy of the pickled okra and assorted vegetables equal to the task of balancing the crab.

formosa - ethereal gin, lillet blanc, atomized mizhiu tou, ginger pearl onions
five-spice mai tai - rhum j.m. agricole blanc, zafra 21yr rum, plantation ’00 rum, five-spice orgeat, lime
The Formosa was effectively a gin martini with a bit of Taiwanese rice wine thrown in, a bit stiff for my tastes. The final cocktail had the easy-drinking sweetness typically associated with Mai-Tais muddled with a bit of savor from the five spice.

manila clams - glass noodles, pork belly, cloud ear, hijiki, thai basil
This was one of my favorite dishes of the night even though the clams played a relatively small part despite being the headlining ingredient. Instead it was the fragrant broth, reminiscent of pho, coupled with the fried pork belly (glorious bits of rendered fat wrapped in a crispy exterior) that stood out.

crab fried rice - blue crab, jasmine rice, egg, pea tendrils, serrano chile
A very well done fried rice with well integrated flavors. The rice is imbued with an overarching salinity from the crab coupled with the classic wok-fired savor. The pea tendrils provide a touch of contrasting verdance while the serranos add a touch of heat to the mix

green on green - romano beans, english peas, fava beans, haricot verts, spring onion
I had an image of how this dish would play out in my mind and the implementation was pretty much spot on. Built around stir-fried haricot vert, the green beans offer savor and heat with a pleasing crunch to boot. Moving deeper through the bowl, the favas offer a nutty warmth while the base of English Pea puree has a nice cool grassiness .

shishito peppers - maitake mushrooms, house made xo sauce
We would have probably skipped this course were it not provided as a gift from the kitchen. The peppers were classically prepared and would have been forgettable but for the woody charm of the maitakes and the umami bite of the XO.

beef and broccoli - prime hanger steak, grilled gai lan, black bean ghee, puffed tendon
Though Lukshon primarily focuses on small share plates they do have a couple larger dishes namely the whole fish and the beef and broccoli. A re-imagined take on the Chinese staple, the beef and broccoli pairs a beautifully tender hanger steak with crisp stalks of Chinese broccoli or gai lan. I found the black bean ghee a bit heavy-handed but the earthy funk worked well in small doses.

chiang mai curry noodles - chile, tumeric, lemongrass, chicken, yu choy, rice noodles
The second of the noodle dishes drew its inspiration from Thailand. The spicy-sweet curry was reminiscent of of Kao Soy but with rice noodles in place of the typical egg noodles.

grilled squid salad - chili sambal vinaigrette, cucumbers, chinese celery, mint
This is typically a lunch dish, I appreciate the chef taking the extra effort to make this dish for us. I was hoping for something more akin to the stuffed squid from my first visit, but this was a much lighter affair with emphasis on the salad. The squid is largely a textural element, a solidly dense contrast to the succulent roughage.

chinese black mushrooms - maitake, woodear, shitake, mustard greens, lap cheong

This was pretty much what I was expecting, an earthy mix of mushrooms augmented with dou ban jiang. The greens and Chinese sausage are are largely sidelined by the pungency of the fungi.

dandan noodles - kurobuta pork, sesame, preserved mustard greens, sichuan peppercorns, peanuts
The dan dan noodles remain largely unchanged from my previous visit. Naturally, the most obvious aspect of the dish Sichuan peppercorns thanks to the creeping numbness they induce on the tongue. Despite the distraction of the peppercorns, I appreciated the bright pops of piquancy from the preserved greens.

barley pudding - coffee streusel, caramelized banana, mandarin banana sorbet, puffed barley
Lukshon has augmented its dessert menu since my last visit. Instead of a complementary taster of simple desserts, the restaurant now has full blown composed offerings that all proved to be quite good. With the bitterness of the streusel, and the toasty notes of the puffed barley this dessert had almost a savory vibe but the caramelized banana and sorbet provide enough countervailing sweetness.

chicory chocolate cake - sesame brittle, thai chili caramel, chocolate pudding, sesame ice cream
This was my favorite of the three desserts. The chocolate cake was moist and light but still full of rich chocolate goodness while the sesame brittle offered a lovely crunch filled with burnt sugar and nuttiness. The Thai chili in the caramel could have been a bit more apparent but all in all a fantastic dessert.

p.y.p - compressed peaches, frozen beijing yogurt, ginger streusel, passion fruit, pop rocks
The compressed peaches offered an intensely concentrated flavor of ripe stone fruit which was further heightened by the floral sweetness of the passion fruit. The yogurt offers a bracingly tart counterpoint while the streusel adds little pinpricks of ginger-laced spice

mignardises - lychee pâte de fruit, palm sugar brownie, coffee ice cream cone with chocolate glaze and toasted coconut
Rounding out the meal were three little treats. The lychee pâte de fruit was the simplest of the trio tasting like a fresh ripe lychee. The palm sugar brownie was my favorite of the trio, lighter than a typical brownie the palm sugar flavor was reminiscent of the fantastic blondie I had recently at Connie and Ted's. The ice cream cone worked quite well with a bitter core of coffee ice cream softened by the sugary sweetness of the cone.

I'm happy to say Lukshon is just as good as I remember it. While some of the dishes have remained since the inception, the menu as a whole feels a bit more focused and approachable. One thing to note: there are a lot of commonalities between dishes so towards the end of our meal things started to feel a bit repetitive. In the restaurant's defense, we had all but three items on the menu; so this shouldn't be a problem for people ordering normally.

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