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los angeles

Ox, gored

huntington chinese garden stone tileLazy Ox Canteen – This is one of the loudest concerts I’ve ever been to.

The food? Small plates, like everywhere else, and really quite good; at a table full of choices running the gamut from vegan to organ, it’s only the latter (in the guise of liver) that disappoints through overcooking. A Robuchon-style purée of butter thickened with a little potato and black truffle is a decadent standout, but shishito peppers, lemon-laced broccolini (a dish that highlights Gjelina’s failure with a similarly sour preparation)…everything else is delicious. The one exception to small platedom is a fabulous, thunderously-sized burger with Cantal and green peppercorn mustard.

Alas, the wine list isn’t so special. Instead, it’s a jumble of largely unappealing yet quirky names without any apparent cohesion or philosophy.

Raventós i Blanc 2010 Penedès “Silencis” (Cataluña) – Very liquid, with white peppercorn and nut spices in an applewood broth. Starts off better than it finishes. (11/11)

Hendry “HRW” 2008 Zinfandel (Napa Valley) – 15.3%. I’m normally a big fan of Hendry, but I kind of hate this. Stenchy dark fruit with a twisted-off finish, like drinking wire one picked up off a dirty floor. (11/11)

But back to the elephant in the room…the one that’s trumpeting directly into my ear. Please, Lazy Ox: turn the music down. Way, way down. I don’t object to deafening music, I just don’t particularly want to dine with it. And it’s not just that I can’t hear my dinner companions, I can’t even see them because the pressure waves have numbed the vision center of my brain and are probably responsible for tectonic activity hundreds of miles away. I have made a certain peace with the modern restaurant fetish for assaultive noise, but this is purely elective, and thus particularly unnecessary. I’d go here again, but I’d wear noise-canceling headphones. I’m not entirely kidding…because yes, it is that bad.

Yuca’s on Hollowood – A micro-chain (of two) counter-service-with-seating restaurants, this one with a tiny patio and very good food executed with just a little bit more swagger than most similarly-operated Mexican joints. I can’t find anything bad to say about this place. The swagger may cover for a bit of non-traditional north-of-the-border exploration, but if not everything is authentic in form, it’s authentic enough in flavor.

Stool pigeons

huntington garden cactusPizzeria Mozza – One fewer barstool. That’s all I ask, Pizzeria Mozza. I know you’re busy, I know it’s the lunch rush, but please: one fewer barstool. Especially as the guy next to me eats pizza like a fifties running back, all stiff-arms and flying elbows.

What? I’m supposed to talk about the food? Um, why? So they can do more business?

Oh, hell. The pizza’s good. Not “the best,” whatever that could possibly mean, but only the very stingy would fail to praise it in some measure. As is my tradition, I go for the strangest-sounding one: stinging nettles, finocchiona, and cacio di roma. It’s not a combo for the salt-averse, but other than brief punctuations of grumpy old man elbow it’s a pleasure to wolf down.

The wine list is all Italian, and written by someone who actually knows Italian wine; the “best” (there’s that awful word again) are rarely present, but the “very good” – no doubt cheaper and thus more appealing for this concept – are, in quantity. I want to give special praise to the pitchered portion of the list, perfect for a solo diner for whom one glass just isn’t going to be enough.

And one fewer barstool. I beg you. Really. You won’t go out of business.

Brovia 2010 Roero Arneis (Piedmont) – I’d say that this wine serves as a constant counterpoint to those who insist that the Piedmont doesn’t produce interesting white wines, but of course a handful of fine arneis (and the very occasional nascetta) do not a robust counterargument make. Dense, with just enough light and space to let the apple blossom and honey (dry, dry honey) through, as they ooze with white powdered minerality. (11/11)


huntington library terraceCole’s – The originators of the French dip, are they? Well, whatever. I’m not here to eat, I’m here to drink. And the bar looks very promising.

I think many visitors to LA (and I’d number myself among them) think only of flashy surface ephemeralism and sprawling Mexican-influenced architecture when they picture the city. But any actual resident will correct this: that’s not the city, that’s the greater metro area. Downtown, where the high-rises are, there’s plenty of American Dream classicism, though sometimes you have to look around for it.

That architectural style I just invented out of thin air is the bold mélange of classic European borrowings, Art Deco stylings, and our-horizons-are-limitless triumphalism that can be seen all over the industrial heartland, but which reached its absolute pinnacle (and continues to this day) in Chicago.

Of course, Chicago aside, the “Dream” is mostly in decay and ruins all over said industrial heartland (feel free to insert your own analogy here; I try to avoid politics on this blog), and that’s mostly true in Los Angeles as well. Still, there’s an obvious attempt at revitalization, and one of the unexpected benefits thereof is that some really cool spaces are once more being trafficked by eyes that can enjoy them.

Such is Cole’s bar – we finally get around to the purpose of my little digression – which looks like a Smithsonian version of what it must have been a long, long time ago. The place I really want to go is The Varnish, the restaurant’s craft cocktail enclave, but it opens too late for my purposes. And I’m assured by Those Who Know that the cocktails here are excellent, which assurance seems more likely when I see the progenitors – Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Martinez, etc. –given menu prominence before one gets to the usual diversions and extrapolations.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out quite that way. Some of the cocktails (mostly the diversions and extrapolations) are quite fine. Others…not so much. My Old Fashioned is watery. A companion’s Martinez contains something that’s gone horribly stale (the obvious culprit is the maraschino liqueur, because one would think they’d go through vermouth rather quickly at a bar like this). It turns out that preservation is a mixed…perhaps that should mixologized…blessing.


malibu coastMalibu Seafood – Whenever I travel to a place in which one of my many winegeek friends live, I ask them for restaurant recommendations. Because if we’re going to get together to share a glass or ten, we’re going to need a venue, right? Usually, this request leads to a fairly detailed and diverse list of excellent places.

Not so Malibu, in which one of my longest-term fellow imbibers has lived for a good while now. His responses, each and every time, have been the consultative equivalent of a resigned sigh, followed by a suggestion that we meet somewhere else.

But today he’s on a tight schedule, with just enough time to squeeze in a quick lunch, and so Malibu it must be. A takeout seafood shack, with picnic tables and a pretty unbeatable oceanfront view on a fine, sunny day? How bad could it be?

It turns out: not bad at all. In fact, the squid – which comes in fried and sandwich form – is [choose your preferred expletive] delicious. A little cup of pre-squid ceviche is decent, but really: just get the squid. If you’re still hungry, get more squid.

Raveneau 2005 Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre (Chablis) – As a non-owner of much white Burgundy of any genre, the whole premature oxidation disaster hasn’t much affected my cellar. But if I’d owned a bunch that needed disposal and then had chosen to hold on to any, it would have been mostly Chablis from this and one or two other producers, and so I’d be eyeing their trajectories with a fear. Or, alternatively, I’d drink them early-ish, because at their best they can be pretty spectacular drinks even in adolescence, given the right coaxing. Like this bottle, which shows every one of the qualities for which Raveneau is known…minus, of course, those only shown by the onset of a fuller maturity. Intensity with restraint, power wielded with a whisper, a nearly-unique textural experience of brocaded silks and burnished shields, and a sense of duration that extends beyond the temporal. It becomes difficult to take a next sip when the one that’s lingering still has so much to say. (11/11)


huntington chinese gardenLou – The hotel at which I tend to stay while in Los Angeles, far too scene-y for my tastes and rather unfortunately situated in the midst of Hollywood at its most dissipated, is within walking distance of this incredibly welcoming wine bar-ish restaurant. This is a dangerous thing.

The greater danger, however, comes from proprietor Lou Amdur’s enthusiasms, which – vinously speaking – run towards the natural, the eclectic, the weird, the statement-making, the paradigmatic, the temporally notional, and the because-it-was-amusing-at-the-time-(ic). But enthusiasms they are, and the unfortunate result is that patrons with similar enthusiasms soon find themselves in a rapidly rising river of delicious “here, try this” splashes that, added together, turn out to be rather more wine than was on the initial agenda.

Thank goodness for taxis.

I’m here with fellow Barberagate conspirator Whitney Adams, one of the very few serious wine geeks who should ever be allowed on camera, and amidst some of the usual tale-telling and casual noshing there is, indeed, the periodicism provided by Lou toting another likely bottle for us to try. And another. And another…

Staldmann 2010 Gelber Muskateller Kapellenweg (Thermenregion) – Open four days, and showing itt: lightish floral elements with a barely-oxidizing structure starting to fall apart around it. I don’t think the wine was ever much more physically powerful than this, but I suspect the aromatics have suffered since opening. There’s minerality – stony, rocky – but it, too, is beginning to decline. A fresh bottle would have more to say. (11/11)

Saumon 2010 Vin de France Romorantin (Loire) – Open two days, and I don’t know whether to credit or blame that time for the wine’s current performance, which is jumbled and uninviting. Shrouded and closed in on itself, this is a wine that doesn’t invite introspection, but wishes to conduct same on its own terms. (11/11)

Texier 2010 Côtes-du-Rhône Roussanne (Rhône) – When I was first introduced to Texier’s wines, back in the late 90s, his CdR blanc was a regular hit-it-out-of-the-park surprise for Rhône aficionados, especially at its ridiculously low price. And then, due to vagaries of the market or whatever, it disappeared from my life. Well, it hasn’t gotten much more expensive, but it has gotten even better. Rolling spiced stone fruit, with much more life and verve than is typical for the genre, and a pretty twist of flowers as it finishes. Delicious. (11/11)

Schnaitmann 2010 “Evoé!” Rosé 018 11 (Württemberg) – 80% pinot (I assume noir, but the label doesn’t specify), 20% trolllinger. Growls and yips, but behind a locked door through which all I can perceive is a muted din. What’s left is a countervailing soft strawberryishness and a powdery texture that really doesn’t do a whole lot for me, though there’s a bit of a nip at the end to remind me that this little dog’s unhappy about something. (11/11)

de Conciliis 2009 Fiano “Antece” (Campania) – There’s a real presence to this wine that surpasses the usual ash-and-bones structure of Campanian fiano, something that hums and beats in a texturally persistent way. Also present are waxy memories of lemon and a bit of salt at the finish. As tannic as it is acidic (though not all that much of either), and much of its story seems as-yet untold. (11/11)

Janvier 2010 Coteaux du Loir “Cuvée du Rosier” (Loire) – Pineau d’aunis, which means it’s likely that I’ll hate it. Which I do. It tastes like an ash-dusted vinyl fetish suit. (Well, I mean, so I hear.) Look, I fully agree with anyone’s objection that this is my personal issue with the grape rather than some external truism, but an issue it is, and unfortunately this is the exact opposite of pleasurable for me. If pineau d’aunis was the last grape on earth, well…I’d be a very sober man. (11/11)

Cambon 2010 Beaujolais (Beaujolais) – Yum. I mean, I could say a lot more about this wine – its brittle cohesiveness, its chewy and somewhat surprisingly dark fruit, its vivid life – but really, “yum” gets across the essentials in a much more succinct manner. (11/11)

de Conciliis “Donnaluna” 2008 Cilento Aglianico (Campania) – Spicy, rocky, coal-dusted darkness with a fair bit of unintegrated acidity. I want to like this more than I do, but there’s an insubstantiality to the wine that becomes apparent with greater attention. (11/11)

Rare Wine Company “Historic Series” Madeira Malmsey “New York Special Reserve” (Madeira) – Sweet, heavy, liquefied nuts. I have to admit that I’m not an enormous fan of Madeira due to its ever-present volatile acidity, which I’m unusually sensitive to, but this is pretty nice. I’d really only want to drink a tiny bit of it, though. (11/11)

Rare Wine Company “Historic Series” Madeira “New Orleans Special Reserve” (Madeira) – Sweet, heavy, liquefied nuts. Spicy? If this note seems awfully similar to the previous one, it’s because my attention is flagging at the end of a long night of tasting and socialization, and my lack of true interest in Madeira is starting to reveal itself. This and the previous are pretty pathetic notes for wines on which someone spent a good deal of time and attention, not least the guy who opened and served them to me. Apologies to all involved. Really. These wines deserve better than what I’m giving them here. (11/11)

de Bartoli Marsala Vecchio Samperi “Ventennale” (Sicily) – On the other hand, this is one way to grab my attention, hard, and wrench it back to the wine in front of me. That no one in his region makes wine like de Bartoli is well known, that no one in his region makes wine as well as de Bartoli is pretty widely acknowledged, and yet he achieves something beyond mere iconoclasm and superiority. I’m not sure these are the right words, but there’s a palpably different sort of life to them, as if they’re existing simultaneously on this plane and another that can’t quite be perceived with straight sight. Some might point out that the previous is really just another way of describing complexity, and they’d be somewhat right, but I think it’s necessary to specify that the complexity is not of the usual, three-times-the-descriptors, type. It’s something else. Though the wine doesn’t suggest electric guitar to me at all, this particular quality puts me in mind of Jimi Hendrix as he was first perceived, channeling a muse that was so far afield from that of his peers that it was often clear he was working in a different language, that whatever he was hearing inside his head (which didn’t always translate to his hands) was something that others weren’t going to be capable of hearing for a long time, if ever.

I note, at this point, that I haven’t actually described the wine in any useful fashion. Well, it’s dry, complex in both the usual way and [see above], incredibly persistent, and monumentally compelling. I suppose my lack of enthusiasm for actual descriptors here is more or less a suggestion that you should go out and try this yourself rather than listening to me ramble on about it. One action is much more rewarding than the other. (11/11)

Antoine Arena 2010 Muscat de Cap Corse (Corsica) – Like drinking sweet, sweet sunlight from a glass of freshly-crushed ice in a field of blossoming white flowers. In Corsica. (11/11)

This tally does not, by the way, include all the wines tasted on this evening. At several points, quantity and conviviality intervened to prevent me from even noting a wine’s identity, much less its qualities. See? I said Lou was dangerous.

Disclaimer: I have absolutely no way of discerning a relationship between what I was offered and what I was charged for it, but in the absence of details and based on previous experience at Lou, I think it’s likely to assume that I was at least undercharged for, if not outright gifted, some percentage of this evening’s beverages.

The terror of Colorado Boulevard

huntington gardensLa Taco Estrella (502 N Fair Oaks, Pasadena) – I’m in Pasadena. Where are the little old ladies I was promised?

Well, nothing to be done about it. It’s time for tongue to meet tongue (not, by the way, the latest title from the fine industry folks just over the hill) and stomach to meet stomach. From a takeaway counter, sitting on a picnic bench, come a sextuplet of delicious little tacos in which no bells, talking Chihuahuas, or offensive references to borders are involved.

The stomach version is not my favorite, as the cubes have taken a slightly gum-like texture with a deficit of counterbalancing flavor, which for me is the fulcrum of this ingredient. The tongue, however, is luscious. I’d call it lip-smacking, but that would lead to even worse wordplay, and I’d rather talk about the tacos. There are also nachos, the perfect kind one gets in any competent Mexican(-American) restaurant, and that make one weep for those served everywhere else.

A massive horchata, sweet and…well, sweet…provides enough nervous energy for the day ahead. The price for all this madness? Pocket change, at best.


huntington gardensGjelina – The reputation exceeds the hype, but the hype exceeds the execution.

Let me back up a bit. This restaurant has long been known for its very – perhaps excessively – firm “no substitutions” policy. As both an omnivore and someone who generally prefers to be fed at the discretion of the chef rather than engage in a ridiculous triplicate game of upsmanship with the menu, the waitstaff, and the kitchen, this is all just spiffy with me. There’s the eminently sensible argument that the chef understands the dishes better than you (the diner) do, and then there’s arbitrariness just for the sake of it. Some of what one reads – admittedly with a semi-frequent frission of Schadenfreude at the identity of the “victims,” like Victoria Beckham and Gordon Ramsay – is a little ridiculous.

Nonetheless, one knows the rules going in. And certainly a restaurant so supremely confident in its vision and its work is going to be great, right?

The restaurant is deafening (one might as well wear earplugs as it’s impossible to hear dining companions unless they lean in and yell) and it’s dark (they bring additional candles so we can read the menus), but in that it’s hardly alone. Service is fine, though a late-meal error in bringing a dish is met not with an apology, but with a bald-faced lie about a backed-up oven despite everything else having arrived exactly when it should have. Dude, seriously, just admit you forgot to put in the order and apologize. It’s no big deal.

And the food? Just…eh. Much use is made of fire and extreme ambient heat, but it’s not always used well…one vegetable is scorched, another underdone. One is dressed with balance, another is puckering. Pizzas, sure to be the stars of any such oven, are inconsistent; one has a beautiful crust, the other is mushy and rather doughy. And how does a pizza with guanciale, green olive, Fresno chile, and buffalo mozzarella (the doughy one) end up being bland? That’s an accomplishment. Probably the worst of all, there’s the by-now requisite polygon of pork belly that’s almost tragically mushy, lacks any sort of caramelized flavor, and is accompanied by ingredients far too bland to make up for those faults. Pig tummy deserves better.

There’s not a single plate that stands out in memory as surpassing, but there are rather too many that linger as vague disappointments. Nothing bad, nothing great, just a lot of shrugging and indifference. The Tasting Kitchen, just down the block, is equally dim and ear-damaging, but the food’s better.

As for the wine list at Gjelina, it’s relatively interesting, with a few fun surprises and a general lack of “safe harbors.” Though in that context I have to say I’m bemused by my waiter’s ego-stroking reaction to my choices, which are neither particularly offbeat nor particularly interesting. Or maybe that’s just an LA thing…in which case they probably should have tried it on Posh and The Screamer.

San Francesco 2009 Cirò Rosso Classico (Calabria) – 100% gaglioppo. Big and sun-drenched, of course, but the heavy shoulders are rounded as they support leathery black-strap fruit and a roughened cashmere structure, giving the whole thing a surprising amount of symmetry.  (11/11)

Faury 2010 Indication Géographique Protégée Collines Rhodaniennes Syrah (Rhône) – Seems to exist on two planes at once; the first earthy, herbal, a little porcine, and the second a high-toned, edgier, sort of nervous black fruit that’s not all that fruity. I suspect the twain will integrate in time, but it’s still appealing now. It just takes a little more energy to corral its dualism in the glass. (11/11)

Venturini 2007 Recioto della Valpolicella (Veneto) – Concentrated berry residue, sticky and just a bit plastic, with in-control volatile acidity and the requisite tension between light residual sweetness and shriveled-prune tannin. You know, reading back over this note, I should say that I liked the wine more than the descriptors might indicate. It’s no great recioto, but it’s decent enough. (11/11)

Because the Night

huntington chinese gardenNight + Market – Location breeds identity. This is especially true for restaurants, in that one expects to find the most authentic Korean barbecue in a Korean enclave, or the best slow-cooked Texas brisket in, well, Texas. There are occasional exceptions, and a few concepts have proved generally translatable across geographies – Italian, French, Irish, Tex-Mex – but even then, the suspicion that the quality is a little better, the character a little more originalist, closer to the source culture is well-supported by the evidence.

So if one wants to open a restaurant concentrating on Thai street food and extrapolations thereof, and one lives in Los Angeles – which has an eminently comestible Thai neighborhood – where’s the most logical of all places to put it?

Obviously, the Sunset Strip.

I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that Night + Market isn’t street food, exactly. It’s a restaurant that serves some street food and a fair bit of whimsy that should be street food, but likely isn’t, in a space that rather strongly suggests “pop-up restaurant that hasn’t actually popped up anywhere but here.” Maybe that’s unfair, but a mix of small and communal tables and movies projected onto one wall do not a multi-million dollar décor budget reflect. Moreover, eaters who would be suspicious of any Thai menu with English on it would probably – and justifiably – consider the vibe here to be just as consciously foodie/hipster as Thai.

Well, whatever. My apathy for these objections stems exclusively from the fact that this place is awesome. A word I do not dish out lightly, or in fact – in most contexts – at all, finding it grossly overused and rarely applicable. But what’s not to like? The food is vibrant, there’s a tiny but brilliant beverage list, it’s relatively cheap, and the entire experience is pure, edible fun.

Isn’t there anything actually wrong with Night + Market? Sure: bringing a vegetarian here would be an utterly pointless exercise. Since LA doesn’t exactly lack for vegetarian options, this isn’t much of a complaint, but it’s probably worth noting. For this is a restaurant in which the primary, core, foundational ingredient of just about everything seems to be pig. The whole pig.

Another reason to love it.

In fact, I’m not sure I get very far past the exterior of said pig. First there’s fried pig tail, as delectable a snack as I have ever tasted (well, not “tasted” so much as vacuumed in a rapid-fire orgy of increasingly eager consumption). Then pig ear in chile and garlic, with decadent coconut rice as counterpoint. And pork “toro,” as unwise-yet-incredible as it sounds (it’s fried fatty hog collar). Oh, and larb gai, a sort of richly-aromatized hash that’s called a “salad” on more than a few Thai menus, but only barely more salad-like than cassoulet. Everything is vivid with flavor, full of appealing heat (manageable, but the timid will want to order carefully), and – this is important to note, because the previous two qualities often cover for a lack of the crucial third – cooked with skill and precision.

OK, here’s another “complaint”: perhaps appreciating my enthusiasm, but more likely because there are friends in common (see my disclaimer, below), free food starts to emerge from the kitchen, small yet still in quantities well beyond my ability to consume it all. I remember Issan-style sour sausage, in a very different form than that served at Lotus of Siam (probably the only other place that most non-Thais have had it), but there’s more, and it soon starts to blur in a haze of intense flavors, engorgement, and jetlag. So I take some and sundry back to the hotel for breakfast…and let me tell you, that hotel room will smell amazing the next morning.

There’s drink, too. Most interesting, to me, is the compact wine list, mostly natural but overtly enthusiast; most folks will probably have a better chance of identifying the fairly uncommon dishes on the menu than the extremely uncommon wines.

Saumon 2010 Montlouis “Minérale +” (Loire) – A textural masterpiece, as if the terroir has been melted down into vinous form. The fruit’s not bad either, though as indicated it’s rather subsumed by its metal-jacketing and the iron-flecked liquid chalk flowing around it. Recognizably chenin blanc? Perhaps, but it’s a distant familial relationship; the genetic markers are there, but environment and upbringing have exerted the greater influence. (11/11)

Lemasson 2010 Vin de Table “Le P’tit Rouquin” (Loire) – Gamay, spiky and “natural”…by which, of course, I mean to indicate textural spritz and that carbonic touch of frothy proto-brett that marks the genre across grapes and sites. It’s extremely tasty, gluggable, fresh-faced stuff that should be drawn from taps into pitchers rather than carefully measured into crystal goblets. (11/11)

Disclaimer: after a conversation in which we discuss several mutual friends (who happen to sell wine to the restaurant), several complimentary dishes and one non-wine beverage are offered.

On every Street

mixed flowersStreet – I think Susan Feniger was a pixilated Tamale before I cared about cooking enough to, well, care. And after as well, but at the time I lived in Boston and the idea of cooking -Mex, Tex-, or any form of border cuisine seemed remote, at best. I’m sure I watched a few times, but that’s about all of which I’m sure. In any case, the point is that she’s been around a while. Not having much memory of her show other than its existence, I didn’t have much of an opinion of her as a chef.

But that changed not by eating in her long-known restaurants (which I’ve done in the past, to mixed effect), but by seeing her on Top Chef: Masters. For the fun of this show isn’t the competition, as it is with the original, it’s the opportunity to see the comfortable be discomfited and, better, how they react to that discomfort. In that context, I gained great respect for both Feniger and her business partner, not just because their skills proved more robust and reliable than many more-reputed competitors’, but because they seemed like nice people that would be fun to hang out with…which is not something one can say about all celebrity chefs.

Especially Feniger, who seemed like she’d brighten any room just by walking into it. And so it is, as I lunch here fresh off a transcontinental flight and scant minutes before end-of-lunch closure (they are most kind to seat me anyway), that when she in fact walks through the front door, I can’t help but smile. We chat for a bit, and she’s every bit as pleasant and lively as expected, but she has things to do and I let her go to do them. Thankfully, she doesn’t ask about the food.

It’s not that it’s bad. Some of it is very good, and the worst that could be said about the rest is that it’s competent. The problem, I think, is not the execution (though that’s the problem as manifested on the plate), it’s the concept. The spanning-the-globe street food concept is a fun one, but much as there are no musicians who excel at blues, jazz, rock, and classical, there probably aren’t any (or at least many) chefs that can master the world’s various cuisines – even their street-vendor versions – well enough to cook all of them brilliantly. And if those chefs existed, they probably wouldn’t be working at Street. Maybe Feniger, were she able to be in the kitchen at all times, would be closer to this multicultural ideal. But she has brand Feniger to manage, and many restaurants, and someone else needs to be able to helm the concept on a day-to-day basis.

This is a restaurant I want to like, but it’s more or less a hyperextended demonstration of why pan-whatever concepts don’t pan out. There’s just too much to wrestle in the kitchen, and even the best-laid concepts can be birthed in odd ways. I’d also like a more interesting beverage list, and maybe one that reflects the ethos a little better – street beverages, so to speak – might be preferable to the somewhat wan wine list, though the beer and cocktail lists are of more interest. (I should say that it’s possible that this option exists and I just don’t notice it amidst my semi-jetlagged haze.)

Malaysian-influenced angry eggs, with hot chile relish and green sriracha, are, at most, mildly piqued; good breakfast food (perhaps that’s what they are), but lacking the seethe a reading of the menu seems to promise. My banh mi is better, getting the balance much more correct than many semi-Americanized versions that are afraid of the sour and vegetal elements so crucial to the sandwich. The most enjoyable treats are, perhaps, the complimentary appetizers of…well, I don’t remember what they are. Agglomerated puffed grains of some kind, mildly spiced, studded with tasty intruders, and eminently addictive.

Street’s reputation as a “well, it’s OK, but…” sort of restaurant precedes it, but I had to find out for myself. Perhaps the issue isn’t that it’s not a great idea – it is – but that it’s a lot of great ideas that just aren’t collectible. I’d go again with an interested group, because it’s casual, fun, and not particularly expensive, and there are dishes that succeed. And were it located somewhere more culinarily conservative it’d be a revelation. But it’s in Los Angeles, and I suspect that for just about each dish there’s a corner strip mall dive somewhere in the sprawl doing it with greater authenticity and, more importantly, better. There’s value in centralized concepts – driving all over Los Angeles in search of this stuff is a temporal pursuit even culinary dilettantes can ill-afford, except over the very long term – and Feniger is every bit the joyful presence her reputation suggests. But this Street needs some utility work.

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)

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