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2010 los angeles travelogue

The kids in the Hall

[windows]The Gorbals – Lacking any good way to describe this funky little hangout – that’s the vibe here, much more than “restaurant” – the chef has, on occasion, fallen back on “Kosher Scottish.” Well, it works as well as anything, I suppose, since there’s both haggis and bacon-wrapped matzo balls on the menu. The latter, much-hyped on the internets, are OK and amusing, but I have to say that pretty much everything else we try is better. The confit beef tongue, especially, is so luxuriant one wants to lick it from the plate in a misguided dalliance with bovine Frenching.

I will note several caveats. First, the wine list (such as it is, and there isn’t much) is absolutely abysmal. Have a cocktail or two from the daily board – they’re clever and very good here – but bring your own wine. Second, while I do successfully navigate a satisfying-to-all meal despite a vegan dining companion, it would be hard to argue that this isn’t a place aimed primarily at carnivores. Having an interest in alternative cuts and “parts” helps, too. It’s not Incanto- or St. John-like in terms of offal worship, though there are certainly organs on the menu, but if minor departures like beef cheeks or sweetbreads seem intimidating and weird, this is probably not the venue for you.

Caveats aside, this is a really fun place, built for grazing and conversation (though I suspect it can get rather noisy at peak times), rather than sitting down and tucking in. It’s casual, quite laid-back, and the sense of comfort and low-key whimsy carries though to the plate. I don’t know if this restaurant could succeed everywhere, just because the vibe is so anti-restaurant, but it certainly works here.

Dettori 2007 Romangia Bianco Badde Nigolosu (Sardinia) – 100% vermentino. Looks, tastes, and feels like an orange wine, though the maceration isn’t all that long (ten days). It’s perhaps that it’s unfiltered and un-everything-else that leads to an orange sort of palate impression, though there is evident tannin. The luxuriant yet not overly polished texture is the wine’s primary highlight (among rather a sea thereof). Dried white flowers, some fresher buds, grasses, herbs, dried citrus, leaves, minerality to spare, and gravity without weight, density without concentration. Brilliant wine. Absolutely brilliant. (11/10)

Dettori 2006 Romangia Rosso Badde Nigolosu (Sardinia) – 100% cannonau (grenache). Subtle, seeming to rise from its lotus position with a slow unfolding of limbs. The subtlety never really goes away, though, and those expecting a more standard Sardinian cannonau – that is, one with a big and fruity palate impact – might be disappointed. Well, their loss. This requires attention to its graceful swirls of dusty berry and rich, semi-volcanic earth. The finish is so quiet that the inattentive will consider it to have departed long before it actually does. Not as showily brilliant as the white, this has more peaceful charms, and they’re more than OK. (11/10)

6.02 * 10^23

[mural]Monte Alban (11927 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles) – Sleepy, despite the widespread acclaim it has received from friends and sources. Though I guess there’s no shortage of Mexican food in LA. As is somewhat typical for the better restaurants of this genre (and to be specific, I believe this restaurant tends towards Oaxacan cuisine), the opening nachos and their salsa are so amazing that much restraint is required, lest the heartily-portioned dishes to follow become impossible to finish. There’s molten cheese, ever-succulent huitlacoche, an Oaxacan mole with chicken…all of it excellent. But where are all the customers? They’re missing out, wherever they are.

Tasting the limits

[historic urn]The Tasting Kitchen – One of a number of restaurants I’ll encounter in LA whose menus are decidedly not designed for the typical course-by-course procedural, but rather for random sampling and plate-sharing. There are some dishes that look like “main courses” just based on their price, but frankly the very form of this sort of menu dissuades putting so many of one’s consumptive eggs in a single basket. I’m not sure if this is the intent or not, but it seems hard to understand what they’re doing here otherwise.

Some plates are a single idea (charcuterie, cheese, oyster), others a brief, tapa-like notion, and still others (mostly the aforementioned expensive items) are a more standard sort of composed dish. It’s a really fun way to eat, especially as – with a few exceptions – rigid adherence to completion while ordering is not required; one can order, eat, order, eat, order again, and so forth, pending the restaurant’s tolerance for table-hoarding.

Despite a clientele that tends upscale hipster and a deceptively simple yet “design-y” interior, the room has as relaxed a vibe as the food, which is very well-executed and yet really all about taste rather than preparation. (Given the fundamental simplicity of most plates, it kind of has to be.) I like this place..

Carballo 2008 Lanzarote Negramoll (Canary Islands) – Diffident. Never gets around to developing. It may be mild TCA that’s below my threshold, it may just be a muted or otherwise damaged wine, but there’s nothing on which to base a note here. (11/10)

Masters of their Domaine

[elements]Domaine LA – I’m here to visit a friend, but end up invited to sit through a few visits from bottle-toting sales reps who, if they mind my presence, don’t make a fuss about it. This plus auxiliary chat means that I don’t see as much of what’s on the shelves as I might like. What I do see, however, is impressive in its pointedness. I don’t mean the point-score kind of pointedness, I mean that there’s a point of view. Since I share it, that’s all to the good. But if you’re looking for wines to provide immediate public validation while drinking with those for whom such things are crucial to their enjoyment of same, you’re in the wrong place. This is a store where both the employees and the wines themselves would prefer to have a conversation with you before you start indulging.

(Given the above, it’s worth stressing: the wines notated below don’t necessarily reflect the offerings at Domaine LA. They’re what I tasted while I was there, but they were brought in by sales guys, not opened from in-store stock.)

Pietratorcia 2009 Ischia Bianco Superiore (Campania) – Sour lime, green apple, and saline solution. Gets right to the point, but then there isn’t any sort of coda. (11/10)

Pietratorcia 2009 Ischia Bianco Biancolella (Campania) – Papery. Grape skins. Not very interesting. (11/10)

Pietratorcia 2008 Ischia Bianco Superiore Vigne del Cuotto (Campania) – A softened version of the previous two wines, and bringing a lot more interest along with its mellow: ash, chalk, and dried lemon rind. Quite long, in stark contrast to its younger brethren. Interesting. (11/10)

La Grotta del Sole 2009 Gragnano della Penisola Sorrentina (Campania) – Strawberry soda pop with a little bite of tannin. Finishes green and somewhat dirty. This is not my favorite from the ever-more-frequently-imported rose-colored froth category. (11/10)

Kopke Dry White Porto (Douro) – Almond, hazelnut, chestnut. A bit hot. (11/10)

Kopke 10 Years Old Tawny Porto (Douro) – Bitter wood with maltiness (that’s a first, for me, in a wine) and raw cane sugar. Weird. (11/10)

Kopke 20 Years Old Tawny Porto (Douro) – Cherry skin, cough syrup, and ash. No thank you. (11/10)

Kopke 30 Years Old Tawny Porto (Douro) – Lush fruit, silken-textured and appealing except for the minor inferno on the nose. (11/10)

Kopke 1997 Colheita Porto (Douro) – Blueberry jelly. Really, this has an exceptionally gelatinous texture, more akin to a Mollydooker than any port of my experience. And while that’s interesting all by itself, it’s a very simple wine. (11/10)

Kopke 1987 Colheita Porto (Douro) – White pepper, raspberry, apple skin, and blood orange. Beautifully acidic, though I should caution that the acidity probably won’t be to everyone’s liking. Me, I love it. This is the most complete wine I’ll taste from this lineup, though for “best” it has some competition. (11/10)

Kopke 1980 Colheita Porto (Douro) – Balsamic-textured raspberry and red cherry, with sweet orange candy the lingering impression. Very, very, very sweet orange candy. High fructose colheita? (11/10)

Kopke 1978 Colheita Porto (Douro) – Mixed pepper dusts, coal-like minerality. Poised. Delicate throughout, and turns very shy at the end. Has the organoleptic appeal of a colheita at a good balance point of maturity, but the physical presence of one many decades past that point. Frankly, it confuses me. (11/10)

Kopke 1966 Colheita Porto (Douro) – One long crescendo of tangy fruit, then there’s some sort of accident due to clumsiness, and the finish dries out to decidedly unappealing wet ash. (This is, I should say, not at all an unusual impression for me to draw from colheitas that are past my preferred drinking age.) (11/10)

Kopke 1957 Colheita Porto (Douro) – Thinning, balding, starting to get a little skeletal, and yet extremely elegant. Brilliant acidity. Long and floral. Despite the fade, there’s a lot here to like. I suspect the price would not, for me, reflect my interest in the wine, but those with more of a taste for this sort of thing should give this a look, because the appeal is undeniable. (11/10)

Kopke 2007 Vintage Porto (Douro) – Black cherry coffee (just typing the words gives me a shudder), alternately sticky and powdery, with smooth tannin up front, then dusty tannin out back. Sort of like a port’s version of a tannin mullet? (11/10)

Kopke Fine Ruby Porto (Douro) – Simple, dark fruit with a touch of green sugar. (Not food-coloring green, underripe green.). An otherwise fine tannic counterpoint collapses into a pile of gormless powder as it finishes. Odd. (11/10)

Kopke Rosé Porto (Douro) – Eww. I say again: eww. Strawberry lime Rickey, ginger, and layer upon layer of makeup that someone in a sleazy off-strip Vegas mall beauty parlor though looked “hott.” Um, no. A world of no. (11/10)

Kimchee whiz

[womens’ commode]Park’s BBQ – Confident, even swaggering. That’s not just the design, nor the wallpapering of awards and press coverage in the entrance, but also the firm assurance of the proprietor that “you’ve come to the best place” as you sit. Well, I can’t adjudicate that, but it’s pretty awesome. Nor can I eat like this every day; I’m completely gorged when I leave. Meat over fire is the thing here, of course, both beef (heavy on the wagyu options, by the way, which is appealing in print but perhaps not best-suited to this particular presentation) and pork. As is traditional for this style of dining, the meat soon becomes almost lost in a vast ocean of accompaniments and accoutrements, many of them decidedly fiery. The meat is excellent, but it’s all the ways to mess with it once it’s on the plate that make Korean barbecue so incredibly delicious (and why I question the utility of Wagyu, which one is almost certainly going to overcook in this environment). Do bring your heat tolerance, because you’ll need it.

Lou, sir

[bar sign]Lou – I have to say this right up front: the aforementioned Lou (a fellow Minnesota escapee, by the way) provides on this night a silly quantity of wine and grossly undercharges me for it.

Anyhoo, this is a little wine bar/restaurant tucked into in one of those corner strip malls that, in any east coast city, would mean culinary disaster…a bad take on the sub/hoagie/grinder genre, mediocre pizza, or horrid MSG-instead-of-flavor Chinese takeout. Here in LA, it very often means something awesome, though that awesomeness is more typically confined to non-western foodstuffs. In any case, I doubt many people are casually driving down Vine, see the sign out front, and opine, “hey, honey, there’s a sign says ‘Lou’…let’s stop there and see about dinner.” Or, I dunno, maybe in LA people do exactly this sort of thing. But I suspect that, to be here, one has to want to be here. Well: I do.

I glance at the menu, which looks interesting, but I’m here on a Monday and so the fixed-price “Monday supper” is offered in its stead. Not in the mood for dessert and such, I fail to partake. Given the amount of wine I’m about to encounter, this is an exceedingly regrettable error of judgment, though I won’t necessarily realize this until the next morning’s head-throb. Instead, I snack my way through the menu’s grazing options: candied bacon, a light and delicious chanterelle and goat cheese tart, salad, bread (both natural and garlic-toasted), cheese, and so forth. Everything is fine to better-than-fine, and serves the wine well…and since wine is most definitely the focus here, that’s OK. Pretty much everything liquid is offered in two tasting sizes and by the bottle. As for what’s on the list: natural, “natural,” alternative, interesting. Not fully-described in most cases, so to know exactly what you’re drinking you’ll either need to see the bottle or have a conversation with one of the staff, and given how often aromas and tastes roam afield from the norm, I would highly recommend the latter. I suspect they would, too.

Laroche “Domaine aux Moines” 2001 Savennières-Roche aux Moines (Loire) – Layers of oxidation. Fulsome with a barky, drying palate. Snow globe-like with its swirling tartrates (and my pour is far from the bottom of the bottle). Copper-jacketed and starting to preserve itself in amber. I spend a good twenty minutes trying to decide if I like this, and never quite come to a conclusion. (11/10)

Bornard 2007 Arbois Pupillin Ploussard “La Chamade” (Jura) – Delicate and sweetly pretty, like a country girl in gingham and braids, or perhaps a Norman Rockwell portrait of same. Succulent. (11/10)

Tedeschi 2007 Monteviglio “Spungola Bellaria” Pignoletto (Emilia Romagna) – Pine and tarragon with a slight prickle, though the latter doesn’t rise to a fully tactile sensation, preferring to remain a background shade. Seems to sweeten or dry as each accompanying food requires, which is a neat trick, and a small glass taken an hour later has grown in both aroma and richness. Fabulous wine. (11/10)

Causses Marines 2008 Gaillac “Les Greilles” (Southwest France) – Lemon and ripe apple, but there’s more going on here than just a few fruit descriptors. It’s a kind of ineffable complexity, though, which is why my note stops where it does. There’s a sheen and a fairly deep core, but I couldn’t put a name or specific descriptor to either. Very good. (11/10)

Giard “Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil” Cidre Pays d’Auge “Cambremer” (Normandy) – Absolutely opaque and luridly aromatic; the Islay Scotch of ciders. There’s more pear than apple, at least to my palate, but the apples are something fabulous and iconic (perhaps reine des reinettes), and there’s a heavy hand with the white pepper grinder as the finish develops. Extraordinary. (11/10)

La Casaccia 2007 Barbera del Monferrato (Piedmont) – Presents itself with a smooth slickness, but soon gives its true self away: vibrant acidity, dark and rough-necked minerality, and a fair bit of churn and motion. It finishes as pristine and poised as it started. Experience suggests that this is a wine that rewards aging, and it is quite primary right now. (11/10)

Los Bermejos 2008 Lanzarote Tinto (Canary Islands) – I’ve never tasted this much spice in a red wine, not even a lavishly-oaked one. If Penzeys released a wine, it might taste like this. The dominant spices include nutmeg and mace, coriander, white pepper, and turmeric. So, so, so exotic. And – pardon the expletive, but it’s needed here – fucking delicious. This is the first quarter-glass that, by the end of the night, turns into a fully-drained bottle. (11/10)

Gramenon 2009 Côtes-du-Rhône “l’Élémentaire de Gramenon” (Rhône) – Firm tannin leftover from creating the leather sofa on which this wine lounges. Blackberry fruit-leather as well, plus an herbal stew. This tastes as much like a chinato as it does a Côtes-du-Rhône, and that’s an interesting conflation of styles. Challenging. (11/10)

Bebame 2009 Red (El Dorado County) – It takes me a long time to move past an active dislike for this wine into a wary tolerance, but ultimately I’m happy when my glass is empty of it. Tart, puckery fruit (not overly acidic, though there’s plenty of that, but without enough generosity to support the acid that’s there), underripe melon, sour greenness, green sourness. I feel like I should like this more, given that my favorite California winemaker is involved, but I just don’t. (11/10)

Barral 2007 Faugères Valinière (Languedoc) – Spicy mixed berries and cumin seeds. Quite tannic, but it’s a beautifully ripe tannin, and everything is both concentrated and in flawless balance. This is terrific now, but the question is whether or not anyone will wait long enough for it to be the even better wine it should become, many years from now. Masterful. (11/10)

Domaine de la Tour Vieille Banyuls “Vin de Meditation” (Roussillon) – Rancio, plum, and caramel. The first sip is enticing, the second tiresome…and that, unfortunately, is too often my reaction to this house’s various takes on Banyuls. So drink it in single-shot quantities, I guess. (11/10)

Primitivo Quiles “Fondillon” Alicante “Gran Reserva” (Levant) – “The best sherry I’ve had all year,” I joke. I’m not even sure if the joke’s true, but it’s a pretty extraordinary wine in that style, volatile, pointing and gesturing at oxidation, and mold-influenced (in a stylistically authentic way). It’s really big, though, and there’s not much subtlety to it at the moment. Maybe that will emerge and maybe it won’t, but it’s hard to ignore, and eventually the din is very slightly wearisome. Another wine for small-quantity consumption. (11/10)

Vin d’Autan de Robert Plageoles & Fils 2001 Gaillac Doux (Southwest France) – Silkily-sweet bronzed apples and syrup-cured citrus. Extremely appealing. (11/10)

Overnoy 2005 Arbois Pupillin (Jura) – Loaded with bretty stench (or maybe it’s reductive; frankly, I’m thirteen jibs to the sheet by this point in the evening and could be drinking stealth Franzia for all that I know, yet my notes indicate surety that there’s brettanomyces, and I probably shouldn’t second-guess). One will either be able to get past that or not. The wine underneath the assreek has the sort of breezy power that lovers of syrupy wines don’t think something this light can actually have. Well, they’re wrong. Potentially fabulous, if one is not sensitive to whatever’s stinking up the joint, or if there’s bottle variation…which isn’t exactly unheard of at this house. (11/10)

His noodly appendage

[cacti]Santuoka Ramen (655 Paularino Ave.) – Anthony Bourdain often laments the pathetic state of food courts in the U.S. (as compared to those in Asia and elsewhere), but he probably doesn’t have places like this in mind. There’s a large handful of dining options clustered within this Japanese grocery, but the favorite is clear by both the line at its ordering counter and the identical bowls a few inches beneath pretty much everyone’s nose. I go mostly basic, adding a little bit of extra pork belly, and am rewarded with a pretty special bowl of noodle soup. Is that all it is, though? No. That’s the point. I have neither the experience nor the locality to argue whether or not this is among the best in LA, as many do, but it’s extremely good by any standard.


[candle at aoc]AOC – Surprisingly big and quite a bit more formal-feeling than I’d have suspected based on concept; it self-advertises as a wine bar, and while it is that, I think pretty much everyone I can see – including us – is treating it as a restaurant. The clientele is dressier than I’d have expected, too, and I suspect there might be a slight tension between how this place was conceived and how it is being utilized. Well, one rolls the dice one is given.

Small plates are the thing here, and everything is pretty good. Yet I wouldn’t call anything inspired, and there are a few trips and stumbles – dry duck confit (which takes some effort to ruin), undersalted clams (which I actually enjoy, usually finding this particular prep to be grossly oversalted) – and some haphazard plating. Vegetarians are well-served, and dairy is used in such a way that vegans can pretty successfully reconstitute most vegetarian dishes to their preferences (yes, I am here with a vegan friend).

Service is fine and friendly when we enter a half-empty restaurant. By the time we leave a packed-to-the-gills upstairs room (a quarter what the equally gill-packed first floor offers), the service is clearly overwhelmed; plates are cleared with efficiency, but I never do get to order the glass of dessert wine on which I’ve my eye, and even getting the bill is a bit of a hand-waving chore. I think they’re about one person short on the floor, and since for all I know that might actually be the case this evening, I can’t be overly critical.

The wine list is really good, and I have to say this despite a fair – but not unreasonable – portion of it not being in my palate wheelhouse. The non-wheelhouse swaths make up the majority of the high-ticket entries, so noting that the list isn’t exactly priced to fly only really affects those with different tastes than mine. But this also needs mentioning: it is a persistent peeve when places labeling themselves wine bars offer a spectacular list of bottles and yet an anemic, uninspired handful of by-the-glass options. I can’t conceive of how a place can call itself a wine bar and do that, yet I find it happens again and again. Here, the opposite is very nearly true: the glass (and carafe) list is long and much more inspired and inventive than much of the bottle list. I find that commendable.

Graillot 2008 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (Rhône) – Really quite reticent, but the bones, shells, and raw almonds have a clean appeal. I find myself wishing for more, but the wine is unwilling. (11/10)

Swan 2008 Pinot Noir “Cuvée des Trois” (Russian River Valley) – Absolutely gorgeous, bringing lush New World fruit into a fine simulacrum of maturity even at this very young age; while past experience suggests that the wine will endure and morph for a while, this specific bottle gives me cause to question that norm. In any case, I see absolutely no reason not to drink this right now, because it’s delicious. Soil, baked plums, fall leaves, rich morels, and soft golden memories of old-growth forest and well-tilled earth. I could drink a case of this, and still be on my feet…Joni Metaphorically-speaking. (11/10)

Fèipu dei Massaretti 2009 Riviera Ligure di Ponente Rossese (Liguria) – Light, airy, saline, and somewhat insubstantial in the midpalate. The fruit that’s there is light in the fashion of, say, a Sancerre or Alsace rosé, but with less acidity and a softer expression. I almost like this, and in a less critical context I probably would, but the wine needs to exert more of an effort towards my affections. (11/10)

Tenuta Luisa 2008 Refosco dal Peduncolo (Friuli Venezia-Giulia) – Very, very, very restrained, almost to the point where I suspect TCA (but after long airing, I’m convinced it’s just the wine). Lots of structure (which is muted) and some black raspberry, as if there’s fruit-weight and firmness pressing against an impenetrable barrier, and I’m tasting the wine on the other side of that barrier. Just OK. (11/10)

24, 24 hours to go

[lamp, palm, moon]WP24 – All presentation, no content. In a hotel that’s an absolute masterpiece of glittery urban architecture, I can’t say that I expect more than spectacular views. Those we get, for sure, and the bar’s interior has a playful imagery to it as well. Our waitress tries her best to be helpful, but a complete lack of cocktail skill behind the bar isn’t her fault. They don’t appear to know any of the more tasteful classics (really, now: what bartender in this cocktail-resurgent era has never even heard of a Sazerac?), and the “signature” cocktails are…pardon the characterization…exceedingly “girlish” concoctions. So, I’m forced into a choice between boring standard cocktails or a glass of wine. But taking another glance at those signature mixes, I’m not sure I want to see how much damage they can do to a martini, so I choose wine instead. My mistake. Anyway, I don’t want to be overly negative about this space; it is what it purports to be, and what any sensible person would suspect it to be: a showy hangout atop a showy hotel, more about scene than substance. It’d be nice if they’d offer more, but I doubt they’ll ever lack for patronage.

Sforzando 2009 Gewürztraminer Alisios (Santa Barbara County) – Bland, characterless, massively insipid. (11/10)

Sapping strength

[coffee sign]Sapp Coffee Shop (5183 Hollywood Blvd.) – In a stretch of LA absolutely littered with tiny Thai establishments (it is Thai Town, after all), some sporting nary an English letter on their signage, it’s unlikely I would ever be otherwise compelled to enter a door bearing this name, nor frankly even suspect it was actually a restaurant at all. Lay the blame a certain foodster TV show. Or, in this case, thank that show (which, if I understand correctly, drew its own inspiration from a noodle-obsessed Angeleno blogger), because this is awesomely good. My boat noodles with beef, tendon, and tripe are as terrific as advertised, and the resultant broth is dense, impenetrable magic, increasingly spicy and increasingly wonderful as I drain it to its dregs. Just as interesting are the dry jade noodles with peanuts, barbecued pork, and chiles.

So the food’s terrific and the prices are almost laughably insignificant. But here’s what else I love. We’re here with a vegan friend, and even in diet-obsessed LA I’d be wary of the conversation necessary to eliminate certain ingredients from dishes (it helps that she’s not particularly militant and probably won’t throw a fit if a dollop of unmentioned fish sauce shows up in something). But our waitress, who has already talked me out of a simpler preparation of my boat noodle dish and into a more complex, “native” version, while talking another fellow diner out of the soupy version of jade noodles and into the delicious dry variation, enters into a long dialogue with our friend about exactly what she does and does not want, constructing a satisfactory dish (of vegetables, rice, and very spicy tofu) in that conversation. Later, another employee arrives with a little chile-infused dipping sauce, pauses after a glance our friend’s plate, and asks, “do you eat fish sauce?” When the answer’s no, I expect this to be the last we’ll see of the sauce. But no…another one arrives, this time with soy. Not everyone would do that, because not everyone would care; many would be annoyed at the very idea of substitution, others at the potential waste. This restaurant knows it’s good, wants you to know it, and wants you to love it. It’s hard to see how one couldn’t.

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