Loving Lukshon

Restaurant: Lukshon

Location: 3239 Helms Ave, Culver City, CA 90034. 310.202.6808

Date: October 20, 2011

Cuisine: New Asian

Rating: Pretty damn tasty

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A couple of years ago my office was in Culver City, and the restaurant revolution there was already well under way. But the trend continues apace with Lukshon, a sort of re-imagined southern Asian (vaguely Chinese — sort of) joint opened by the same owners as adjacent Father’s Office. I’ve been itching to try it for better on six months and we finally got the Foodie Club together for an impromptu meeting.


The modern interior space. There is also a generous and attractive patio.


The menu. We ordered about two thirds of it, for eight people, all family style.


“atlantic fluke  pickled watermelon, black sesame, cucumber, kinh gioi.” Light flavored, but tasty. The black sesame lent it a pleasant gritty texture.


Lukshon does not allow corkage. I didn’t know that and Foodie Club co-president EP and I hauled four bottles to the table. I was skeptical at first of the small wine list too, as it’s devoid of big name offerings. But with some help from the Sommelier we put together what turned out to be a very enjoyable trio.


We had the 2010, but the 2009 got 92 from parker, “Ollivier’s 2009 Muscadet de Sevre et Maine Sur Lie Clos des Briords is as perfumed and lusciously-fruited a wine of its genre as you are likely to encounter, though that by no means precludes depth of mineral character. Scents of pear, clover, Persian melon, and fennel inform the nose and migrate to a buoyant yet expansive, mouthwateringly juicy palate tinged with a shimmering crystalline sense of minerality characteristic for this cuvee. This sensational value finishes with an uncanny combination of soothing refreshment and vibrancy. It is apt to be even more ravishing in another year or so and be worth following for at least 3-4.”


“shrimp toast  rock shrimp, cilantro, chiles, tiny croutons.” These are little fried balls with a sweet and spicy sauce. They tasted pretty fried, with an understated flavor.


“baby monterey squid!! chiang mai pork sausage, candlenut, mint, rau ram.” Really tasty. The fried tentacles in the center were pretty straight up calimari. The bodies were stuffed with the yummy sausage.


“duck popiah.  cilantro stems, pickled jicama, hoisin chile sauce.” With the texture of a Saigon Roll, these duck rolls were packed with meaty flavor inside. Plus, being a sauce guy, I love hoison. One of my favorite dishes.


“spicy chicken pops!! shelton farms’ drumettes, garlic, kecap manis, spicy sichuan salt.” Nice little “wings” with a lot of flavor and a bit of heat. A kind of BBQ sweet heat.


This was a very interesting wine. Old fashioned — like 2,000 years old fashioned. Evidently, it’s kept in amphorae, large greek/roman style terra-cotta vessels. While a white, it was so unfiltered as to be almost cloudy. But damn good.


“kurobuta pork ribs.  spicy chicory coffee bbq sauce.” The meat just fell of the bones. A bit of char. Seriously good ribs, what cheap Chinese restaurant ribs aspire to be.


“rib eye steak yam neua. gem lettuce, radish, carrot, tomato, herbs, spicy lime vinaigrette.” This was fine, but just kinda beefy.


“foie gras ganache!! carob, ceylon cinnamon, tamarind gastrique, almond, puffed rice.” These were more a dessert than a savory. The creamy foie texture and richness leant them the character of some kind of ultra rich mousse.


“lamb belly roti. canai  chana dal, cumin, mint, raita, pickled cauliflower.” Another of my favorite dishes. A kind of vaguely middle eastern, vaguely Asian pizza. The little sour marinated crunchy cauliflower was good too.


“garlic pork belly  do ban jian, rice cakes, cabbage, garlic chives.” Probably my favorite dish. This had some good heat and that rich fermented bean paste flavor. The meat was rich, but not too fatty, and under the sauce you could only tell it from the rice cakes by texture. They added a chewiness to complement the some pork.


“short rib rendang!! malay spices, red chile lemongrass rempah, coconut cream.” More meat. I liked the sauce better on this one.


Parker gives this very solid Riesling 90 points. “Pepper-laced pears and apples are found in the nose of the zesty, vivacious 2002 Riesling Eiswein Oberemmeler Hutte. This molasses, brown sugar and white fruit-flavored offering sports eye-popping acidity, loads of depth, and a long, sweet finish. Anticipated maturity: 2007-2025.”

“heirloom black rice  lap cheong, onion, roasted garlic, lilly’s farm fried egg.”


Mixed up. This was pleasant, rich, sweet, and ricey.


“gai lan aged ham, shaoxing wine, garlic.” Nice stir fried greens. But I wanted more ham flavor.


“chiang mai curry noodles  chile, tumeric, lemongrass, chicken, prawn, yu choy, rice noodles.” A curry with noodles. Nothing wrong with that, as I love curry.


“dandan noodles!! kurobuta pork, sesame, preserved mustard greens, sichuan peppercorns, peanuts.” I really liked this too. Noodles with a pretty spicy Chinese pork ragu. I had a better version in western China, but this was pretty damn good. Decently hot, but not nearly real Szechuan hot. I guess the sauce isn’t so different than Pocked Marked Old Ladies Tofu (yes, that is a real dish).


Dessert is “free” (as Matt Groning said, “at no additional perceivable cost”). They bring out one per person, but three types. I would’ve liked to try each, but I had the leftmost, which was a delicious form of deconstructed pina colada. Some kind of pana cotta with coconut and pineapple. The middle was chocolate, the rightmost more fruity.

For more LA dining reviews click here.

For other Foodie Club meals (all crazy great) see here.

Bouchon Beverly Hills

Restaurant: Bouchon Beverly Hills

Location: 11712 San Vicente Blvd.Brentwood, CA 90049 310.826.9222

Date: October 15, 2011

Cuisine: French Bistro

Rating: Good, but expensive

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In the last three-four years there’s been a bit of a French Food revival in Southern California, but the emphasis has been on Bistro fare. Of course this is consistent with the post-recession trend toward less formal restaurants anyway. Bouchon is the small-chain spawn for Thomas Keller, the highly acclaimed chef of The French Laundry.


Here is the brunch menu. My snapshot is still at the doctors (Canon service center) so this is a test run for the new iPhone4S camera. Better than its predecessor, but no match for either of my real cameras. The Photostream sync to the desktop is however, pretty sweet.


My obligatory cappuccino.


The Beverly Hills space is very pretty. Check out the bar (both raw and booze). Lobsters oversee the diners.


The elegant dining room has a very spacious, even Parisian feel.


The have good bread here, as well as amusements for the three-year-old set.


Pain Perdu” (i.e. french toast). Brioche toast with macerated strawberries, creme Chantilly & vermont maple syrup. I’m slightly confused about the strawberries, as these sure looked and tasted like apple. But it was good nonetheless.


“Chicken & Waffles. roasted chicken on a bacon & chive waffle with Tahitian vanilla bean butter and sauce chasseur.” The chicken was a nice bit of roast chicken. If the waffles had bacon and chive in them, I couldn’t tell.


It came with the butter, the gravy, and good maple syrup. I ended up shredding the chicken, cutting the waffles, and adding syrup. It was good, but not quite Roscoes.


Downstairs is the much anticipated takeout bakery.


Not a huge space.


Serving various classic pastries and some salads and sandwiches.


Salads, sandwiches, macarons, cookies, etc.


The breakfast pastries, like croissant and coffee cake. The chocolate croissant was good. The coffee cake and banana nut muffin were a bit dry. Really I expected more. I’ll have to try a lemon tart at some point.


A closeup of the macarons. I had one (passionfruit) and while large, and pretty good, it wasn’t as good as the divine Paulette Macarons (reviewed here).


Good luck trying to read this blurry iPhone photo.

Overall, while Bouchon and bakery were fine, they are very expensive and failed to wow me. The chicken and waffles was $27! This is almost triple Roscoes! I would have forgiven the prices if the food were superlative, but it was just good. Sorry Mr. Keller, you’re rep sets a higher bar.

For more LA dining reviews click here.

Foodie Photography 101

As is fairly obvious from my umpteen food reviews, I take a lot of pictures of food. For such a static target, for a number of reasons, the plate isn’t so easy to photograph. Mostly this comes down to light and distance. Restaurants are often dark and food is fairly small and right in front of you. This distance factor throws it into the realm of macro photography (subjects at very near distances).

I use three different cameras. I’ll go over them all here, in ascending order of size, weight, and quality. As a general rule of thumb the bigger and more expensive a camera is, the better the pictures. It’s also worth noting that all food photos below were processed in Adobe Lightroom and are not “as shot”. I’ll discuss this at the bottom of the post.

The cellphone camera is ubiquitous these days, but for me only an option of last resort.


This sushi pic is about as decent as a good (iphone 4) camera will take, and even with post-processing, that isn’t very good.


And in a dark restaurant, you’re stuck with these hideous flash shots. The flash on these tiny camera has a range of about a foot and an ugly falloff. If you have to use the cellphone, try and hold it very steady, and home it’s lunch time and the window is behind you (keep the light behind the lens).


Next up, and pretty acceptable, is a snapshot camera that is good at macro photography. I use a Canon S90. This is older and has been replaced by the S95 and S100. Any of the three are good, the newer ones are better. They are among the only small cameras to shoot in RAW mode and to focus well at short distances. The S90 is small enough to pocket and I use it for casual meals.


A typical flash shot from the S90. It’s not bad. The camera has a small aperture and hence a very large depth of field which makes for easy focusing (but a flat look). It’s very useful to zoom the camera in and pull physically back so the flash doesn’t get too close to the food and easily blow out the image (overexpose).


My third camera is my “real” camera, the amazing Canon EOS 5D Mark II. But any Canon or Nikon DLSR should do fairly well. While the DSLR is much larger and heavier, it takes a MUCH better picture. Not only is the resolution higher but it handles low light far better. Still, shooting food with a SLR isn’t easy.


This is a typical bad result. A normal lens can’t focus on something less than two feet away and so you have to step way back. Without a flash (and a normal flash doesn’t work well on food) you can easily end up with a soft image like above.


The solution to this distance problem is a macro lens. I usually use the Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro. This is a very sharp prime lens (on a full frame camera 50mm is good for food, it might be even better on the more common crop sensor cameras, but you might have to pull back a bit). This lens is even cheap for a macro at $284, as many of Canon’s macro lens are two or four times that. It’s only problem is the non-USM focusing that’s slow as a dog. Food, fortunately doesn’t move.


But in a very dark restaurant (and despite the appearance of this color and exposure corrected photo, Pizzeria Mozza is very dark) one ends up at f2.5 and a high ISO. Combine that with the very short distance to the plate and you get an incredibly small depth of field. Hence, crust in focus, pizza blurry.


This and the light problem are nicely solved by the bulky Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring. Ideally, you’d want a light box (a big soft glowing box) but this is not practical in restaurants :-), but the white LED light from the flash ring is less directed than a regular flash (which will also do in a pinch).


It makes for a honking big rig, but with the macro lens and the TTL flash exposure adjustment it takes great close up pictures in a pitch black room (the flash can be used as a focus light too).


Hence this lovely photo, with just enough depth of field to give the dish some character and depth. Still, you have to watch the distance and f-stop, even with the flash, but you don’t have to pump the ISO up as high as without it.

Which finally brings me to Lightroom. Significant discussion of post processing is outside the scope of this post. Photoshop and many other products can allow you to clean up your images, but none do it as easily and quickly as Lightroom. Going through a 60 photo meal can be tedious, but with Lightroom you can do a decent job in five minutes, then quickly batch upload via a vast array of plugins.


To give you an idea how important this is. Check out this image right out of the camera, taken using the 5D and the macro lens, but no flash.


With light three clicks I fix the white balance, the exposure, and correct for lens aberrations. I see so many food bloggers uploading dim orange photos. There’s just no need.

Hopefully this quick little tutorial helps you get the most out of your food photos. Even if you don’t have a big fancy camera, the trick of pulling back and zooming in with a snapshot flash helps both exposure and dealing with the “too close to focus” problem.

Find all of my food reviews here.

Weekend Draft

I just finished the rough cut of the third major draft of my new novel, Untimed. Just in time too to get out of town.

This weekend will be quiet and post free. I’m off to Vegas with the Foodie Club for some more high end gluttony. Namely Twist by Pierre Gagnaire and  É by José Andrés (my review of the comparable Saam here).  You can expect detailed coverage when I get back.

For more on the revision process, see this recent post.

Or for more posts on writing, click here.

Friday Night Heights – Shabbat Dinner

On Friday, September 2, we hosted a small Shabbat dinner party. This was a non-dairy (meat) kosher meal, which can be well done if you care (and most kosher restaurants don’t). As usual with our events everything was homemade. Almost all produce came from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market.


For appetizers we served fruits and nuts. There was also some homemade humus and eggplant dip (that one of our guests generously brought), but I forgot to snap a photo.


Wine is one area where we go normal. Kosher wines are uniformly awful. Hideous. Wretched.

Parker gives this silky Rosso 90. “The 2009 Rosso di Montalcino is totally beautiful and elegant in its expressive bouquet, silky fruit and understated, harmonious personality. This is a wonderful, impeccable Rosso from Le Potazzine. Anticipated maturity: 2011-2017.” I’d rate it perhaps 91-92, with a little boost for understated style.


And the sweet option. Parker 91. “Donnhoff‘s 2009 Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett – ultra-delicate at only 9% alcohol and with considerably more overt sweetness than its Krotenpfuhl counterpart – is scented with buddleia, white peach, toasted almond, and a fusil note of crushed stone, and offers subtle creaminess, lusciously juicy refreshment, and minerally interactive persistence. This illustrates slate as a sort of sounding board as well as support structure for fruit such as one also encounters in the best residually sweet Mosel Rieslings. Donnhoff routinely expresses acute awareness of a duty to make something truly special out of the cooler ‘wrong-side-of-the-river’ Oberhauser vineyards that until the latter part of his father’s era constituted almost the entirety of his family’s acreage. That duty has here once again been deliciously discharged.”


What would Shabbat be without Challah. Raison Challah to be exact.

After going to Spain last year I’ve been on a bit of a Gazpacho kick, despite my general aversion to raw tomatoes (which I’ve been overcoming). And then about 5-6 weeks ago we went to Jose Andres’ Tres for brunch where they have a wonderful Gazpacho bar. So afterward I dug up his recipe on the internet and we tried it.

When I get into cooking certain dishes I like to perfect them. I’ve been working on this with my Ultimate Pizzas, my Spanish Eggs, and my Margaritas. This is our second stab at Gazpacho. It tasted great the first time but the texture was too chunky, so in this instance we whipped the living bleep out of it in the ever-reliable Blendtec. This batch is made with heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers from the SMFM and premium Spanish extra-virgin olive oil.


But first the garnish. This is a bowl prepped. The basic approach is to do this, and then to ladle in the soup itself table side, then dress it with a bit of premium Spanish olive oil. This garnish is croutons, cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, spring onions, and chives.


The olive oil is on the left. On the right are homemade croutons. These are rustic bread fried (by hand) in olive oil and garlic, and seasoned with a bit of parsley.


Some of the gorgeous tomatoes used as garnish. Other cool looking ones are in the soup itself.


Chopped chives.


I’m kicking myself, but I forgot to photo a finished bowl with the soup. This one is three-quarters eaten :-( It was darn good though.


For the main course we made a homemade Morrocan Basteeya. This is prior to baking. This is a savory pie of chicken and spices, slightly sweet.


Out of the oven.


You can see into it here.


One of our guests brought this lovely salad.


We also made this baked Israeli-style eggplant, with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers (all from the SMFM too).


Here it is baked.


And my mother’s amazing fruit crumble. This one had SMFM peaches, blackberries, and apples. With a sweet crust and pecan topping. Due to the fact that my mother was on the other side of the country, and the written recipe a tad cryptic, the crust turned out a bit “different” than her more crumbly variant.


Still, it tasted great after baking!


And some farmer’s market fruit to finish.

For more home cooked meals look at the bottom of the food page.

Joan’s on Third for Breakfast

Restaurant: Joan’s on Third

Location: 8350 West Third Street. 323.655.2285

Date: August 20, 2011

Cuisine: American

Rating: Fantastic gourmet shop & cafe

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Another father/son morning rolled around and after a most enjoyable trip to the Peterson Automotive Museum (excellent boy fun) we headed over to Joan’s on Third.

The busy Third Street shop front is pretty much an institution. This is a combined cafe, gourmet shop, and bakery.

 You can pretty much bet on seeing celbrities, or at the very least lots of the beautiful people.

There is a good amount of outside seating.

Cappuccino of course.

My son went for the pancakes.


I had this grown up egg mcmuffin type sandwich. Buttered bread, egg, cheese, and of course, bacon!


Joan’s has some of the best cupcakes around and these are two of my favorites. Coconut and snickers!


It’s worth showing the interior spaces. We have all sorts of really good (but overpriced) gourmet products.


Fresh baked goods.


Cheeses!


Meats!


And even more baked goods. I only photoed a small sampling. Joan has really good taste. There may be a mark up, but there is some serious yummy going on here. That’s what impresses me the most, the general extremely high level of culinary quality of most stuff. The prices can be a shock though.

We’ve used them for catering too. They have all sorts of delicious salads, quiches, and whatnots.

For more LA dining reviews click here.

Quick Eats – Wilshire

Restaurant: Wilshire

Location: 2454 Wilshire Boulevard Santa Monica, CA 90403-5823. (310) 586-1707

Date: July 23, 2011

Cuisine: New Californian

Rating: Solid

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Wilshire is a New American in the heart of inland Santa Monica. They belong to the approachable ingredient driven California style popular in recent years (the older LA styles being “asian fusion” and “80s eclectic”).


The unassuming frontage (really sideage) conceals a rather extensive interior with a big bar space and a lovely outside patio. Their website has an up to to date menu.


“Art basil. kanon organic vodka, muddled grapes, basil, lime, ginger ale.” Pretty tasty.


A beet, burrata, and tomato salad with a bit of pesto and balsamic.


“Bacon and eggs. speck, housemade ricotta, poached egg, frisee.” This was a tasty combo, although the egg was just a touch underdone. This is a tricky balance as I like the yolk totally liquid but the white pretty well cooked.


“Scottish salmon. salsify, sprouting broccolini, king trumpet mushrooms, meyer lemon.”


“Braised shortrib. mascarpone polenta, swiss chard, romesco.” A classic short rib combo, as this kind of heavy meat is usually paired with a starch like mashed potatoes, polenta, or risotto. In this case it was the beef gravy that made the polenta, as it often does.


Part of the patio.


The patio bar.

One of the two interior rooms.

I haven’t sampled Wilshire in enough depth to form a really solid opinion. I like the patio area and the food I had was quite tasty, although it didn’t blow me away. Perhaps it seems just a tad too typical New Cal Cuisine. It’s also a hair over priced, but we certainly had a good meal here.

My index of LA Restaurants here.