Zengo – Macro Mall Medley

Restaurant: Zengo [1, 2, 3]

Location: 395 Santa Monica PlaceSanta Monica, CA 90401. Tel. 310.899.1000

Date: May 20, 2011

Cuisine: Latin-Asian Fusion

Rating: Color me confused — It’s in a mall, and it’s pretty good.

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As I discussed previously, this is a slightly commercialized but pretty tasty mall restaurant whose appearence has accompanied the rooflift of Santa Monica Place. This one is Latin-Asian fusion. Sort of Asia de Cuba meets Rivera.


The roof terrace is pretty awesome. I wish more places in LA had great outdoor spaces.


“Hot & sour egg drop soupfoie gras-pork dumplings / enoki / green onion.” This is one of two repeats from last time. It had a very inserting note to the sour, from tamarind I think. The richness of the dumplings too is very nice as is the texture of the enoki.


“Crunchy calamari salad, Lemongrass / Mixed greens / Orange-coriander sauce.” This was a tasty salad, mixing a nice dressing with tasty calamari. The batter was very good, with something sweet in it. The fry was a little strong, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good.


“Thai chicken empanadas. Chile poblano / Oaxaca cheese / mango-curry salsa.” These were heavy little fellows, and I mean literally. They weighed about twice what I would’ve expected. They tasted good too, but weren’t exactly light.

Achiote-hoisin pork arepas, corn masa / avocado / crema fresca.” These are serious flavor bombs. The meat tastes a bit like a good short rib, and goes perfectly with the typical pairing of avocado and crema fresca. There is just a bit of heat from the chilies. This is one of my favorite dishes.


Chicken Tandoori. Masala-achiote roasted chicken / black bean dal / cilantro & mango salsa.” The chicken itself was so soft it felt (and looked) a bit like shrimp. Tasty too, but not one of my absolute favorites.


“Chipotle-miso glazed black cod. Daikon radish / pea sprots lemon-togarashi aioli.” This is a reinterpreted version of the Nobu Matsuhisa classic. It’s a tad overdone.


“Beef short rib udon noodles. Shitake / Asparagus / Basil / Cilantro / Ginger-hoisin broth.” It’s hard in this picture to see the beef and the noodles underneath, but they’re there. This and the calamari were probably my favorites of the new dishes we tried this time.


Another view of the roof deck.

While this was still a tasty (and reasonably priced) meal, we did better with our selections the previous time. Perhaps that is because we forced ourselves to order some new things when some of the other ones (that we’d tried before) sounded better. I guess we know our own taste because they did!

The Lobster claws at the pier

Restaurant: The Lobster

Location:  1602 Ocean Ave. Santa Monica, California 90401.  310.458.9294

Date: April 29, 2011

Cuisine: Seafood

Rating: Great view, decent food.

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Every couple months we go to the Lobster. It’s located right at the top of Santa Monica Pier and has a tremendous view of the pier and the ocean, lots of seafood, and a lively scene. It is a little overpriced, but view spots tend to be.


The top of the pier.


The main room inside, with views of the ocean.


The menu.


Typical sour-dour seafood resteraunt bread.


A kind of chimichuri dipping sauce for the bread.


The wine list. I got a couple glasses of the ever reliable J.J. Prum Kabinet Riesling.


“Organic Country Fresh Farms Baby Greens. Fennel, Cherry Tomatoes & Shaved Parmesan with Red Wine Vinaigrette.”


“Manila Clam Chowder. Applewood Smoked Bacon & Weiser Farms Fingerling Potatoes.” This was a slightly different take on the New England clam chowder. I liked the clams in the shell factor, certainly makes it pretty. The broth had a nice flavor, but without the thick creamy whiteness of the totally traditional variant. It was a bit more like a corn chowder, or certain types of traditional Irish soups.


“Grilled Wild Columbian River King Salmon. Coleman Farms Baby Broccoli, Caramelized Onion, Weiser Farms Fingerling Potatoes & Tart Cherry Gastrique.” This would have been good except for the fact that while it was ordered medium well, it was medium-rare, and the pink inside didn’t have the firmness it should, but had turned into that kind of salmon mush. We actually sent it back. Cooked right it would have been fine.


“Butter Poached Lobster. Tutti Fruitti Farms Sweet English Peas, Wild Mushroom Ragout & Lobster Mash.” I usually get this, and there’s a reason. I love lobster. I love buttery bisque-style lobster sauces. I love pees, and mash potatoes go well with all of the above. Really, what’s not to like.

The hopping bar scene. It was even more crowded outside on the patio.

The Lobster is fairly typical of mid-high end ocean-view American places. The food is better than Gladstones (see below), and if you order right can be very good, but it certainly isn’t a stellar kitchen. Still, it can be a fun place and a very enjoyable meal, particularly if you enjoy our favorite North Atlantic crustacean.

For two reviews of Gladstones, check HERE and HERE.

Taking back Little Saigon

Restaurant: Little Saigon

Location: 6218 Wilson Blvd, Falls Church, VA 22044-3210 (703) 536-2633

Date: April 22, 2011

Cuisine: Vietnamese

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One of my favorite places back “home” (Washington D.C.) is Little Saigon, a local hole in the wall Vietnamese place with absolutely stellar food. I reviewed it once before, but I’m back again for more.

This is just a page of the 6 page menu, for the whole thing look at the older review.

A nice sparkling wine goes well with Vietnamese.

My dad also brought this old cab. But it was corked, and probably not the worlds best wine to begin with :-).

Table condiments.

This is marinated raw beef, soaked in fish sauce, with onions, chilies, and basil. Not a typical American flavor, but amazing nonetheless.

These are an interestingly different take on these classic soft Vietnamese rolls. Besides some of the usual veggies (lettuce, mint, bean sprouts, vermicelli, shrimp, etc) they also have a bit of spicy pork sausage.

With the crucial dipping sauce. These are really tasty.

This is a four person portion of the rice noodle pork soup with some kind of dumpling. There’s also cilantro, scallions, peanuts and who knows what else. But it’s certainly delicious with one of those complex flavor and texture profiles that is typical of good Vietnamese.

The individual bowl (approximately a quarter of the first bigger bowl).

Chicken wings sauteed in butter and garlic. Basically Vietnamese fried chicken. Sweeter and crunchier than the American equivalent and way strong on the garlic. Very good for sure.

Crispy orange duck. This must be Chinese inspired, but it’s amazing, totally amazing. The duck is perfect, and the sweet/bitter tang of real orange peels (not to mention the schechuan peppers) delectable.

Mixed seafood (all the S’s – shrimp, scallops, squid) in lemongrass sauce. Nice tasty subtle flavor to the sauce. This is a fairly exotic taste, but really good.

Little Saigon never disappoints. And this whole meal was like $80 for four!

Upstairs 2 – Modern Tapas, Lots of Wine

Restaurant: Upstairs 2

Location:  2311 Cotner Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90064 Tel. 310-231-0316

Date: October 10, 2010 & April 15, 2011

Cuisine: Modern Tapas

Rating: Bright flavors and a lot of options.

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Upstairs 2 is located just above the Wine House on Cotner. This is one of the two great wine stores on this road, the other being Twenty Twenty Wine Merchants which is even more erudite (and closer allied to my taste in wine). Upstairs offers not only a big wine list and extensive by-the-glass offers (in multiple sizes) but a rich and varied menu of modern American tapas. As you know, I love tapas style dining because of the ability to try more than 2-3 flavors and the much more flexible composition of dinner menus.

This review is a composite of two different dinners. I show both a small set menu and a variety of “regular” tapas off the menu.

The menu.

The bread and olive oil.

Tonight there’s a little tasting menu with wine pairings. It appealed to me so I gave it a try.

This riesling was to my taste.

The cold cucumber soup, creme fraiche, and dill, not as much. I was hoping for something a little closer to middle eastern yogurt salad. This was very cucumber and dill. I enjoy those flavors but the thin texture of the soup (almost watery: the texture not the flavor) put me off somehow.

I funky powerful white.

“Half lobster tail, spinach polenta, black truffle butter.” This was the best dish of the three. The green stuff was rich and creamy and went very nicely with the firm lobster meat.

A pleasant barolo.

The osso bucco itself was tasty. The meat was firmer than a traditional osso bucco, and tasted almost like lamb. The succotash was okay.

I should have ordered ala carte. The dishes were okay, but I could have done better picking myself.

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And so, here is a collection of modern tapas designed to be shared by the whole table.

“Blood Orange Caesar Salad, Pumpernickel Croutons, Shaved Parmesan.” Very close to a traditional caesar, just with a little extra sweetness thrown in.

“Grilled Mahi Mahi, Crispy Corn Pancake, Black Bean Hummus, Avocado Mousse.” Sort of a modern fish taco!

“Medjool dates wrapped in serrano ham, stuffed with asiago cheese.” These are always yum central. The sweetness of the dates, the savory of the cheese, and the salty bite of the ham blend wonderfully.

“Lobster BLT on brioche, bacon, frisse, roma tomato, housemade mayo.” Another winner. I didn’t even mind the tomatoes here.

“Tandoori chicken salad, artisan greens, grape tomatos, raita, meyer lemon dressing.” This was great too. Somehow tandoori chicken does okay on salad.

“Crispened eggplant, fresh mozzarella, ricotta, marscapone cheese, chunky tomato and basil.” Mini pizza-like in flavor.

“Mixed heirloom tomatos, rainbow microgreens, citrus vinaigrette.”

“Lamb sausage flatbread, Moroccan red sauce, asiago cheese.” Not so mini pizza!

“Grilled Local Sea Bass, Purple Potato Ravioli, Ginger Beur Blanc, Black Sea Salt.”

“King crab ravioli, veronique sauce.” I love these butter sauces on delicate pastas.

“Grilled bison hanger steak, yukon smashed potatoes, red wine sauce.”

“Slow Roasted Kurobuta Pork, Sticky Rice, Oregano and Citrus.” This was really tasty, with a sweet asian pork thing going on.

“Moroccan Roast Chicken, Plums, Olives, Capers, Couscous.” Lots of flavor here as well.

“lamb meatballs, ouzo and mint.”

“Pappardelle Pasta, Veal ragu, Fresh Basil, Asiago Cheese.”

Dessert menu.

“Valrhona Chocolate Chip Gelato.”

“Sticky Toffee Pudding, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.” This was good, not amazing, but good, particularly with the ice cream. I wanted even MORE toffee flavor, but I’m an extremist.

Overall Upstairs 2 is a good place, particularly in that it offers a lot of variety and really strong flavors. It’s particularly good with a part of 4 or 6 and people willing to just order up a storm and share it around. The good, extensive, and flexible wine options are great too. Also if you buy a wine downstairs, there’s no corkage.

Dinner and Drinks at Tavern

Restaurant: Tavern [12, 3, 4]

Location: 11648 San Vicente Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90049. (310) 806-6464

Date: March 10, 2011

Cuisine: Market driven Californian

Rating: Good for dinner too!

 

Every couple of months I get together with a group of friends who all have kids the same age for a “Dad’s night out.” Last time we went to Father’s Office, this time we chose Tavern in Brentwood. I’m generally there either for Brunch or for an early dinner so I was pleasantly surprised to see how jammed the bar was.

The cocktail menu. The bar was hopping big time at 8-9pm on a thursday. Mostly 30 something women too. A pack of cougars were on the prowl too.

“WildRover, Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, Fresh Basil & Tangerine.” This was a hell of a good cocktail. Like a whiskey sour with basil.

We pounded through 2 bottles of this pleasant CnDP, which Parker gives a 93. “The finest tradition cuvee yet made, the 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape (70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 10% Mourvedre aged in foudre and concrete tanks) possesses a deep ruby/purple-tinged color as well as a bouquet of black currants, black cherries, garrigue, pepper, and lavender. It is a full-bodied, ripe, exceptionally elegant, pure wine to drink now or cellar for 12-15 years.”

Tonight’s dinner menu. Never exactly the same twice.

“Salmon crudo with cerignola olives, cucumber, and meyer lemon.”

“Endive salad with Schaner farm’s citrus, green olives and fennel.”

“Cauliflower soup with truffle butter and marcona almonds.” This was a bit blander than I had hoped. Maybe it didn’t have enough creme, or salt. Still pleasant enough.

“Wild mushroom and leek tart with aged goat cheese and herb salad.”

“The devil’s chicken with braised leeks, onionsand mustard breadcrumbs.” Captain Picard, owner of L’Idiot says, “you can’t afford the duck, you’ll have the chicken!”

“Braised lamb shank with saffron rice, merguez, peppers and pinenuts.” This was a damn good dish. The meat fell off the bone (which could be gnawed viking style at leisure). The rice is Persian, and the whole dish had a vaguely Persian thing going on.

“Niman ranch rib-eye with potato-bacon gratin,red wine butter and arugula.”

The desserts du jour.

“Chocolate and coconut coupe, chocolate ice cream, coconut sherbet and graham crackers.” This tasted like its component ingredients, and that wasn’t a bad thing. Rich and refreshing at the same time.

““Snickers Bar, salted peanut caramel and vanilla ice cream.” Very nice dessert. Inside the hard dark chocolate shell was a kind of peanut and carmel mouse.”

As you can see Tavern ain’t no slouch at dinner time either. The dishes are inventive, rich, made with good ingredients, and tasty. You can find some of my brunch reviews HERE, HERE, or HERE.

Akbar – Curry not so Hurry

Restaurant: Akbar

Location: 2627 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, Ca 90403. 310-586-7469

Date: January 21 and May 22, 2011

Cuisine: Indian

Rating: My favorite CTM (Chicken Tikka Masala).

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For 13 or so years Akbar has been one of my favorite Indian restaurants. Too many Indian places focus on low cost buffets of very over cooked food, but Akbar cooks everything to order — even baking their own Naan when you place the order. They are more focused on the cuisine of the Punjab (Northern India), with very good curries and kormas. You can get anything from extremely mild to blow the top of your head off. Once I had the “pepper lamb” on 5 (max heat) and my scalp sweat for hours.

The Menu can be found here.

Today they have us these spoonfuls of mushroom creme soup as an “amuse.” Much like any mushroom creme soup, but with a hint of spice — and spices.


Spinach soup, a similar but slightly different amuse on a different day.

As I was still hung over from the previous night’s massive Truffle Fest (SEE HERE), I had only a mango lassi. I love these, basically mango ice creme without the ice.


Riesling always goes well with Indian.

“Samosas. Crisp potato patty stuffed with spiced peas, served with Tamarind chutney.” These are stuffed with potato, peas, onion, flavored with curry and turmeric.  As always the sauce makes the dish — sweet and sour.

“Chicken Kati Roll. Whole wheat roti stuffed with highly spiced  diced chicken , onions and tomatoes.” These little burrito-like fellows are actually from a different meal (lunch on January 28), but I put them in because they’re damn good. Stuffed with something akin to the Chicken Tikka Masala (see below), and then coated in sweet mango sauce and a bit of Coriandrum (Latin for Cilantro) they have a sweet/spicy/tangy vibe that I love.

Akbar has an array of “pickles/chutneys” that come free. Coconut, mint, tangy, and the back one — my favorite — the pickled succotash in deadly hot oil.  I love the stuff, so much that if I ate as much as I would like, I’d feel the burn for days.

“Bhartha, tandoor roasted eggplant sautéed with tomatoes and peas.” This  is like an eggplant korma or something. It’s salty savory, with a very pleasant texture.


Cauliflower sauteed with onions and spices.

This is why I come here, and why for years we made at least one pilgrimage per week. The “
Chicken Tikka Masala.” Chunks of tandoor grilled chicken breast in butter tomato curry. This is the best CTM I’ve had — and I’ve certainly had plenty. Not every time you come, it’s always good, but sometimes it’s great. You can tell the spices have been fresh ground, and often big chunks of cinnamon can be found. Tonight we had it mild, but I would have liked it up a notch or two.

Basmati rice, Aromatic rice infused with saffron.

“Chilean Sea bass marinated in herbs and grilled in the tandoor.” This is a relatively unusual dish, and delicious. The fish is buttery soft, and pleasantly spiced without being spicy.

Classic Naan, baked to order. Perfect to dip in the CTM sauce, or to slather with the spicy pickles.

I’ll be back.

Foreign Flavors: Panjshir

Restaurant: Panjshir

Location: 924 West Broad St.Falls Church, VA 22046703-536-4566

Date: Dec 01, 2010

Cuisine: Afghan

 

Washington has a good size population of Afghans as a legacy of our involvement after the Russian invasion. We started coming to this restaurant when it opened in the mid 80s. This is a family run place and they are extremely hospitable, as well as serving up a very yummy glimpse at this infrequently found palette of flavors.


The menu.

We ordered this very reasonable Beaujolais.

There is a consistant palette of tomato, yogourt, garlic, and onion typified by this bowl of “Aush” soup. A bit of mint seasons up the exotic concoction. It might not be your typical American soup, but it is delicious.

They happily made up a vegetarian variant of these “Aushak” scallion filled dumplings. The pasta has a wonderful soft texture, not unlike a good Hungarian or Polish dumpling.

Afghan bread.

Which is best with this very spicy “green death” sauce. I love the stuff.

A nice salad comes with every entree. The dressing seems to be youghurt based, with some lemon and pepper. It’s really zingy.

What central Asian place wouldn’t have lamb kabob!

Or chicken.

This is “Seib Chalow,” or apples baked with tomato sauce, seeded Afghan prunes, walnuts, split peas, and spices. Really, really tasty. I don’t know how to describe it, but when eaten with the rice it forms a wonderful sweet and savory stew — with amazing texture too.

“Kadu Chalow,” sauteed pumpkin topped with seasoned yogurt and tomato sauce. Also a bit sweet (in a good way), but wonderful.

My personal favorite, the “Muntoo,” dumplings stuffed with ground beef and the omnipresent yogurt and meat sauce. The pasta is perfect and the whole thing very savory.

But, to properly appreciate, I apply a very liberal dose of the green death. Yum!

“Firnee,” This has the flavor palette of Indian Rice Pudding, but the texture of Italian Panna Cotta. It’s very light and pleasant. I love the cardamon and pistachio thing.

You have to love the bar.

And the even cooler antique muskets. These were probably still in use when the Russians invaded — and the Afghans won! Even Alexander the Great learned not to get into a land war in Asia. We should just leave them to their business and the cooking.