Book and Movie Review: The English Patient

The English PatientTitle: The English Patient

Author: Michael Ondaatje

Genre: Literary Historical Drama

Length: 82,000 words, 300 pages, 162 min

Read: Spring, 2010

Summary: Lyrical.

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I had seen the film when it came out (and several times after) and it’s long been one of my absolute favorites. So to that effect the novel has been sitting on my shelf for over ten years waiting to be read and this spring I finally got around to it. In some ways I’m glad I waited because I wouldn’t have appreciated the prose as much years ago. The voice, told in lightweight third person present, and lacking nearly all mechanical constructs (like dialog quoting or tagging, preamble explanations of scene transitions, etc.) has a breezy lyrical quality to it. It can only be described as delectable. There is a feel of watching a beautiful but flickery film, a series of stuccato images flash through your head as you read it. It’s worth quoting to illustrate:

“She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill towards the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.”

The plot — such as it is — involves a war battered Canadian nurse lingering in Italy at the close of WWII. She has isolated herself in a half destroyed villa and cares for a mysterious burn patient who is dying and too fragile to move. The book focuses on the nurse as its protagonist, concentrating on her relationship with an Indian (via the British army) bomb disposal tech and her efforts to come to terms with the war and loss. The patient slowly unravels his own tale to her. It is his story, set mostly in Egypt before and during the start of the war, which is the primary focus of the movie. In the book it serves more to offset and focus the nurse’s point of view.

I am blown away by the effort of translating this book for the screen. Frankly, although I loved the novel, I like the film better — this is rare. Anthony Minghella managed the near impossible, translating this gorgeous prose into an equally lyrical visual style. It’s less stuccato, more “lush and languid.” Film is a more linear medium, and Minghella focuses the story to create grander more visual arcs. To do this, he expanded the patient’s epic story of love and loss in pre-war Egypt. I’m a sucker for Egypt, the exotic, the British Empire in decay, and worlds that no longer exist. This story feels bigger than the nurse’s, being as it is more tied in with history and international events. But in both you have a powerful sense of people fighting for their passions, both interpersonal and intellectual, despite the baggage of past choices and the buffeting blows delivered by the unstoppable forces of history.

Both variants of this story are inherently complex, ambiguous, and emotional works. Look for no answers here, just gorgeously rendered questions.

The Name of the Wind

Title: The Name of the Wind

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: High Fantasy

Length: 255,000 words, 720 pages

Read: May 2008 & Feb 28-Mar 2, 2011

Summary: Best new fantasy of recent years.

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In 2008, I read this 722 page novel in Xian China during a single sleepless night, and I reread it just now for the second time in preparation for the sequel (released this week): The Wise Man’s Fear. NOTW is a beautiful book. Of all the Fantasy I’ve read in the last 15 or so years, this is perhaps second best after The Song of Ice and Fire. But that’s not to say that they have much in common, other than both being good Fantasy. George R. Martin‘s books are full of characters, POVs, violence, politics, and a darkly realistic sensibility. NOTW is much more focused and relies on more traditional Fantasy tropes. How focused can a 700 page novel be? Not very, but it is good, and it concentrates on a small number of characters and a single (albiet meandering) storyline.

Kvothe is the protagonist. He’s a young man of many many talents, of no means whatsoever, who winds his way from the actor’s troupe to the mean streets to the magical University and to (implied) great and terrible things.

If I have any beef with the book, it’s that the meta premise of the tired hero telling his story is too drawn out. This volume opens in the “present day,” where very little happens except to set us up for the life story of the hero, which is brilliant. Much like Lord of the Rings or Hyperion, the reader must slog for a bit to get to the gold. In this case about 50 pages in. But the slogging isn’t exactly painful because Rothfuss’s prose is lyrical and masterful. Seriously, it’s a wonder given the tangents, bloated conversations (the dialog is great but not efficient), and the like that this book is so easy to read — but it is. Damn easy, even the second time.

The world and the hero juggle uniqueness and heavy — but delicious — borrowing from classic Fantasy of the best sort. I sniffed out a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin (think Wizard of Earthsea), Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), and who knows how many others. The world is extremely well developed, and feels big, but it doesn’t doesn’t have the camp and cheese of Wheel of Time (although it does pay homage). I love origin stories and I very much enjoyed Kvothe’s journey. He’s a great character: humble, proud, skilled, lucky, unlucky all at once, but in a fairly believable way. Perhaps the most important relationship in the book (and there are actually relatively few) is the romance, and it has a tragic quality that feels very refreshing, and slightly reminiscent of the best of Orson Scott Card (think his old stuff like Song Master) or Dan Simmons.

The magic is very unique and interesting, and we focus on it quite a bit, as this is a story that spends a lot of time in the Arcane Academy. This ain’t no Hogwarts either, it feels altogether more mysterious and dangerous. There are several different magic systems interwoven in what is a world overall fairly light on magic. But this is also a world that feels a bit more technological than most Fantasy, with larger cities, a little more like antiquity than the Middle Ages. The “magical bad guys” have a nice character and bit of mystery to them. I don’t like all my mystery explained. There is a lot of music and theatre in here too, and that just helps heighten the lyricism.

But what exactly makes this book so good?

Proving my geek-cred, swapping some Crash Bandicoots for signatures with Patrick Rothfuss

Fundamentally I think Rothfus is just a great writer, and a very good world builder. I don’t think he’s a great plotter. The story drifts along, relies a bit on coincidence and circumstance, and the end fizzles then pops back out of the interior story and waits for the sequel. But that doesn’t really matter, because the prose, world, and characters keep you enjoying every page.

CLICK HERE for my review of the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear.

Machete – The best B-movie ever?

Title: Machete

Director/Stars: Danny Trejo (Actor), Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, etc.  Robert Rodriguez (Director)

Genre: Exploitationist Action

Watched: February 27, 2011

Summary: Pure action and camp fun.

 

Derived from a fake preview in Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature, this film is just rollicking camp fun. The premise: that ex-federale Danny Trejo (the ugliest guy to grace the silver screen since The Elephant Man) is lured into a crazy scheme by various right wing racist nut-jobs and has to kick (and get some) ass in various escapes, revenge, etc.

One of the best things is the roster of amusing casting. These aren’t just cameos either: Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Linsay Lohan and more.

The plot, as such, is thin, and gratuitously cheesy. The characters however, live large, and the action is fun and inventive and sometimes delightfully nasty.

Before the opening credits, Trejo manages to use his trademark weapon to amputate at least a dozen limbs, leading him to rescue a stark naked girl whose cel phone and weapons are stored where the sun don’t shine. Before this scene ends a fat-ass Steven Seagal uses a katana to behead Trejos wife (standard revenge setup). This pretty much sets the tone for the entire film. My favorite gross-out bit is a bad guy whose intestines (still connected) are used by Machete as a rope to swing out the window and onto the floor below.

Nothing about the movie is realistic. The villains are deliciously over the top, and their crazy scheme to raise drug prices by building an electrified fence between Mexico and Texas purely amusing. People get shot in the head and live. Everything resolves in one of those typical Rodriguez giant shootouts.

What makes the film so fun — besides the crazy action — is the unadulterated camp factor of each of the characters. From Cheech’s merlot-drinking shotgun wielding priest to Robert DeNiro’s evil racist state senator (there are a few of those in real life too!).

Rodriguez just should have gone as over the top with his nudity as with his violence. Too much cutting for a work this gratuitous!

Book Review: The Road to Tyburn

Title: The Road to Tyburn

Author: Christopher Hibbert

Genre: Biography / History

Read: Feb 18, 2011

Summary: Really fun glimpse into a sordid little world.

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In the last 2-3 weeks I’ve read at least 8-10 books on 18th century London, many on the criminal element of said city. Lest one think I’ve got an unnatural fascination with antique crime this is research for my new novel (more on that here). This book, however, was a standout, and despite being long out of print is well worth mentioning.

It’s short (160 pages), and very lively, reading as fast as a novel. It does a very good job characterizing the bizarre underworld of 1720s London, pretty much that which is depicted in the engravings of William Hogarth. London of this time was a city unique on earth, transitioning out of the 17th century’s religious zealousy and into the head long rush toward industrialization. It was a place of great freedom, great crime, great industry, and an infrastructure and society nearly overwhelmed by change. Pretty damn fun, and why I chose it for my novel.

Jack Sheppard — not to be confused with the protagonist of Lost — is a colorful character I hadn’t previously encountered. More or less just a charismatic young house burglar, he entered the public eye in a huge way — foreshadowing today’s media fascination with crime and criminals — by being a prison breaker of staggering talent. Nothing could keep the guy down, tied, barred, locked, or whatever. He broke out of the notorious Newgate prison no less than three times! (and several others as well).

As a working class, non-violent, handsome, achem… thief, seemingly able to escape punishment at will, he captured the hearts and minds of his fellow Londoners. For me, one of the book’s great moments is the description of his insanely daring and audacious fourth escape, known even then as the “Great Escape.” The guy used only a single bent and rusty nail to extract himself from a huge pile of irons, fetters, and chains, broke open a masonry chimney, climbed up, picked and opened five heavily fortified prison doors, leapt across rooftops, and descended great distances on a rope made of bedding. If anyone ever earned an escape, it was this guy!

Too bad they hung him when they caught him the last time. But he seemed to enjoy the attention and show.

The book does a great job telling Jack’s life story intermixed with really vivid and quick background sketches. The story of the the infamous Jonathan Wild, self proclaimed “Thief-taker General of Great Britain and Ireland” is also an eye-opener as to the origins and history of organized crime. As the book states, no other criminal mastermind in 300 years has ever had London crime (a pretty notorious city) so well organized!

Truly Deeply Sick and Twisted

Title: Human Centipede

Director/Stars: Ashley C. Williams (Actor), Dieter Laser (Actor), Tom Six (Director)

Genre: Gross-out Horror

Watched: February 17, 2011

Summary: Repulsive premise coupled with startlingly matter-of-fact delivery.

 

Just so you don’t think I always review good films, here comes a doozy. My brother knows the guy who stars as the head of the titular Human Centipede in this film, and he brought it to my attention (although he hadn’t seen the film). We looked it up and the premise was so horrifically nasty, so out-and-out repulsive and dark, that I couldn’t help but watch the film.

Now, in the interest of protecting my dear and tender readers, I’m not going to actually tell you the premise. If you are so inclined, you may watch the trailer and decide for yourself. Be warned. Let’s just say it’s terrifying, gross, and of totally dubious possibility.

But having conceived this idea, the writer/director pursues it with gusto. This is actually not a badly made film, considering it’s genre and budget. But there is no attempt to craft a clever plot or characters. It charges headlong into the ramifications of the disturbing by use of straightforward Horror tropes and coincidence, and replies on sheer dread to deliver. The villain, a twisted German surgeon which a penchant for illegal and immoral procedures, is played to hammy perfection by Dieter Laser. His emotionless delivery as to the nature of his plan is as disturbing as it’s intended to be.

For all the film’s unabashed directness. It actually isn’t that graphic, although the ramifications of the premise are rather nasty. I’m also not sure I’ve seen another movie with so much moaning/pathetic-whimpering in it, I felt compelled to keep turning down the volume. And for all it’s true horror, the deadpan delivery lends it to the almost darkly comic. NOTE: On that note, Robert Ebert (my favorite film reviewer) has an an absolutely hilarious review of it here (WARNING, he reveals the premise). There are also some odd choices, like the fact that in the second half their is almost no English dialog as the Doctor often speaks in German, the “head” babbles in subtitled Japanese, and the two female leads can only moan.

And it isn’t the best paced film (particularly the first half), so was an excellent candidate for the Playstation 3‘s most appreciated 1.5x speed viewing feature. This not only speeds up the film smoothly, but does a pretty good job of time based correction on the audio so it doesn’t sound too funny. Many slightly dull films are eminently watchable in this format. For example, silent films from the early 20th century, with their 1-2 minute title cards. It rendered the Human Centipede in an even hour which was just about perfect.

In any case, if you are a fan of Horror, or the truly deeply sick and twisted, crawl on board.

January in Paradise Cove

Restaurant: Paradise Cove

Location: 28128 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, California 90265. 310-457-2503

Date: Jan 16, 2011

Cuisine: American

Summary: Great place to spend the day. Food is fine but hardly inspired.

 

Sunday morning rolled around, January 16, and the temperature was in the 80s. The hardships of Southern California — so what to do?  Go to the beach!

We headed up the Malibu coast to Paradise Cove. This joint isn’t my usual fare food wise, but they are superbly located in a quant beachy cove in Malibu, and they have tables on the beach and public chaises on the sand. A word of warning: if you go on a nice day, be prepared to wait. Sometimes as much as two hours for an outside table!

“Pineapple, Tequila, Mojito.” Gimmicky, yes. Tasty yes. I did wish the “glass” was bigger, really not that much volume had been hollowed out.

New England Clam Chowder.” I was a sucker for Clam Chowder long before I went to Boston for grad school, and I still am. This was a respectable contender in the arena. Not amazing, but lots of cream and butter.

Fish and Chips,” for the boy (2 years old). He was highly preferential to the chips.

Veggie Burger and fries.”

“Iced Seafood Sampler.” This was me. The concept is good, the execution wasn’t perfect. Certainly edible, and the fish was fresh. It was soaked fairly liberally in what seemed to be Italian dressing — not sure what I thought of that — and it isn’t the most exciting specimens. Small scallops, frozen king crab, octopus. Still, I enjoyed it.

Cocktail sauce and louis dressing.

Strawberry ice-cream,” came with the kid’s fish and chips. My son was much appreciative.

This is what you really come for. Umbrellaed and available chaise chairs.

On a gorgeous beach!

Book Review: The First American

Title: The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

Author: H. W. Brands

Genre: Biography

Read: Jan 25-Feb 10, 2011

Summary: Big solid Bio of a VERY interesting man

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While I’m waiting for the last bits of line editing on my almost-finished novel, The Darkening Dream, I’ve been researching and outlining the  next. Given that it’s me, the new novel features both the historical and the fantastic. As to the historical: enter Ben Franklin. Who was one cool dude.

There’s a reason why he’s on the hundred dollar bill.

Now to reviewing this biography (I’ll call it TFA). It’s very well written, and easy enough to read. It’s also LONG (800 dense pages). Now, Ben lived 84 years, from 1706 to 1790, and he was perhaps the best known and most highly diversified American of his era. So there’s a lot to cover. As a printer/writer Ben left us a lot of his thoughts, and the book does a tremendous job capturing these, with long tracks of his writing embedded in the text. Lest you think this might be dry, he’s a surprisingly witty and modern voice. Eerily so. The book could have used a little bit of trimming here and there — but no more than 5-10%. It marches along steadily from Ben’s parents to his death and legacy, covering everything in between. This is not a history of the Revolutionary War, but covers more Ben’s role than the conflict itself. Good thing since that would’ve doubled the size. TFA does a good job characterizing the era, and particularly the politics of both Pennsylvania and London, and to a lesser extent Paris. It does a great job characterizing Ben.

Overall, I would give the book a 8/10 on the biography scale. That’s independent of it being Ben, but just in managing the job of conveying an important life in a different era. It’s not quite as good as Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Alexander of Macedon, or the Rise/Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, but it’s pretty close.

But it’s worth talking about Ben. He was a pretty amazing guy, as influential in his own wry was as those three aforementioned titans. And he didn’t kill thousands or conquer nations doing it. Ben was a man of rare genius. Observant as to causes and effects, be it weather, electricity, ocean currents, politics, or business. And he’s depicted here with all his very human faults. But fundamentally he was a spirit of curiosity, optimism, energy, and general good intentions. He wasn’t the best husband or general, but he sures seems to have been one hell of a human being.

Food as Art – Takao

Restaurant: Takao [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Location: 11656 San Vicente Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90049. (310) 207-8636

Date: March 9, 2010 and February 12, 2011

Cuisine: Japanese / Sushi

Rating: 9/10 creative “new style” sushi

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Takao is my local outlet for high-end “new style sushi.” While my last sushi review, Sushi Sushi, is an example of a fairly traditional sushi bar Takao is more based on the model created by pioneer Nobu Matsuhisa at his eponymous restaurant (REVIEW HERE). In fact, Takao himself worked with Nubu at said restaurant in the early 90s. But he spun out in 1995 and started his own place, Takao. This however is no total “neo new style” joint like Sushi House Unico, but instead, like the late Hump (REVIEW HERE), marries Nobu-style sushi with a more traditional Japanese restaurant format. In fact, in homage to that tradition, Takao looks more like an old-school Japanese restaurant, and its menu includes the various set dinners like chicken teriyaki etc.  Nevertheless, this is some really good stuff if you take advantage of what they have to offer. One of the nice things about this place is that you can take people who just aren’t that into sushi. Takao is also the biggest beneficiary (in our family) of the Hump’s death, as we used to split our family Japanese outings between Takao and the Hump — now Takao gets them all.

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Storefront in Brentwood, conveniently located for us westsiders.

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Big Menu! Click parts to embiggen.

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I’m going to review a bunch of different takes on eating here, derived from two actual meals and several people. One option, for the more timid, but also an excellent deal, is to get the “set dinners.” They come with soup, salad, appetizer, entree, and dessert. This is the salad. If you ask you can get sunomono or possibly some other optons instead.

If you are an advanced eater you might find these next 8 or so pics boring, keep going, the good stuff is below!

Miso soup. I think if you ask they have a couple different types. This is the basic scallion and tofu.

Vegetable tempura. Again, there are some typical options in the set meal.

This is a basic “sushi dinner” plate. There are lots of other options like miso glazed cod or terriyaki salmon. You can ask for more or less whatever sushi you want (but perhaps not a whole plate of Uni and Toro). In the center, Ikura (salmon egg), cut tuna roll.

In the front, left to right. Halibut, albacore belly, Tamago (sweet egg omelet).

In the back, left to right. Maguro (Tuna), salmon.

In the back after the salmon, hamachi (yellowtail) and regular albacore.

Vanilla and mango mochi is one of the many dessert options.

This next “meal” is a custom high end meal with a sashimi/sushi focus.

House cold sake. Masumi “Okuden-Kanzukuri” Nagano prefecture.

Tai (red snapper), with garlic, salt, red peppercorn, onions, olive oil. A very bright flavor, and the peppercorns, not spicy at all, add a nice textural component.

Toro tartar and caviar. Chopped tuna Toro, onions and wasabi mixed with light soy sauce topped with caviar. The classic found at Matsuhisa (you can even see it in my last meal there). It’s still good, a big blog of succulent Toro!

Kampachi (young yellowtail), jalepeno, cilantro, and ponzu. Another Nubu classic, but for a reason.

Main lobster tempura (1/2). Takao has a lot of interesting tempuras. Uni (my second favorite), sardine, crab, unusual seafood pancake with shiso, and more. This is a decadent favorite of mine, and in a half portion is pretty reasonable.

Japanese scallop sushi. With yuzu and salt on the left, and with shiso on the right. I LOVE good scallop. I couldn’t decide which was was better. The yuzu/salt has a gorgeous tang, bringing out the delicate flavor and texture of the scallop. The shiso also pairs wonderfully, although it’s flavor dominates to a larger degree.

Aji, Spanish mackerel. Very solid mackerel in the traditional preparation. Soft, with only a hint of fishiness.

Blue fin tuna, special soy sauce. Straight up tuna at its best.

Taco (octopus) with shiso on the left, and sweet soy and wasabi on the right. Again, tough to choose, but I think perhaps I prefer the shiso by a small margin.

Chu-toro with sweet sauce. Pretty melt in your mouth.

Sweet shrimp, as sushi and with the head fried. The shrimp itself is sweet and soft, sort of the essence of fresh crustacean. The head (you do eat it, the whole thing), is crunchy, fried, sweet. Very tasty too, but watch out not to get stabbed by the legs as you munch it down.

Uni (sea urchin) with sweet sauce on the left, and yuzu on the right. Some top Santa Barbara Uni. The sweet one is good, but I think I prefer the yuzu as it shows off the uni itself to perfection.

Unagi (fresh water eel). Typical version of the BBQ eel, and good. Not quite as good as the eel at Sushi Sushi (HERE).

Tamago. Solid, with a nice sweetness, but the texture is just a tiny bit heavy, and feels less “handmade” than the superlative Sushi Sushi version.

This next meal represents the $90 Omakase, allowing the chefs to put together a full meal. They do an excellent job of this, and you can customize it fully. It’s actually considerably cheaper to do an Omakase then to assemble a big custom sushi meal like above.

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White burgundy is always a good choice with sushi.

91-92 points. “Similar to prior notes, though this time the oak is joined by a noticeably sweet perfume on both nose and palate, particularly immediately on opening. A hint of nuttiness comes as the wine evolves the glass. I really enjoy this style, and most of the wines I’ve had from Girardin.”

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Wine in the glass.

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Halibut carpaccio. Thinly sliced halibut sashimi with salt, black pepper, chives, garlic, and pink peppercorn topped with yuzu and olive oil. Very nice and light, emphasizing the flavors of the condiments and the texture of the fish.

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Toro sashimi, black truffles, sweet sauce, wasabi. How can you go wrong with this?

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Tai (red snapper), sea salt. The lemon and salt dominate, but I find myself very much enjoying that as they don’t overwhelm the very subtle fish.

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New style salmon sashimi with truffle. Thinly sliced sashimi with truffles, chives and ginger topped with hot olive oil. This is much richer, and the pairing of the warm oil always throws me a bit, but it does taste good.

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Santa barbara prawn, ponzu. Emphasizes the sweet meatiness of the prawn, as the sauce is fairly light and citrusy.

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Miso glazed snapper. Scallop dynamite. The fish is pretty close to the Nobu classic cod. It’s fine, but not really my thing, and the cod might be better. The dynamite, with it’s mix of flying fish roe, scallops, and whatever eggy rich thing dynamite actually is — is quite wonderful. I love to suck on the marinated ginger shoot at the end too.

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Fish tempura. One of the above mentioned “interesting” tempuras. Not unlike something one might get in Spain. They fry a lot of small fish there. I guess the Portugese did too, as they brought Tempura to Japan.

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The Omakase comes with some sushi. If I’m at the bar I will steer it more interesting, but I wasn’t. Left to right.  Blue fin toro, yellow tail, Spanish mackerel, ika (squid), sardines (?). All are good examples of type.

The Omakase also includes miso soup (of your choice — there are mushroom and clam versions) and desert. I didn’t picture them however.

The chefs at work. Takao himself on the left.

Overall, Takao is a great place. It’s perhaps 90-95% as good as Matsuhisa or the late Hump which it resembles. And it’s cheaper and much more approachable. We go here more often. There is/was a “mise au point” (sharp) quality to the above places that isn’t totally honed here — but it’s still fantastic — and bear in mind that I’m a pretty damn snobby and experienced sushi eater. Been doing so (a lot) since 1978 plus over 20 trips to Japan and many Japanese friends. There is certainly better straight sushi in LA, but I still go here more often because there is an enormous variety of very well made food, and they are extraordinarily friendly and welcoming. Our two year-old has even eaten here!

For a second Takao review, click here.

For my LA Sushi index, click here.

Son of Saam – Actually more Bazaar

Restaurant: Saam [1, 2]

Location: 465 S La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90048. 310.246.5555

Date: February 10, 2011

Cuisine: Spanish influenced Molecular Gastronomy

Rating: Awesome, even better than The Bazaar.

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I’ve been to The Bazaar (REVIEW HERE) about 8-10 times. For the last four or so of these I’ve been trying to get into Saam, which is their “secret” prix fixe only room. Mostly because it’s only open Thurs-Sat it took me a while to manage it. So made it the destination of our fifth official Foodie Club outing.

For those who don’t know, Saam and the Bazaar are the children of Jose Andres, perhaps America’s leading practitioner of  my favorite culinary style: Spanish Molecular Gastronomy. This school of cooking, a radical interpretation of the preparation of food, was begun at El Bulli outside of Barcellona. Jose Andres cooked and studied there with master chef Ferran Adrià. I first encountered Jose’s cooking in Washington DC at Cafe Atlantico, and it’s own restaurant within a restaurant, Minibar.

I’ve eaten molecular a number of times in Spain, for example at Calima and La Terraza. The Bazaar and Saam brought molecular style to LA, and now Jose also has a new and very tempting pair of restaurants in Vegas. My colleague at Kevin Eats was lucky enough to make that pilgrimage.

Saam is a separate room, offering only a single continuously evolving prix fixe. They do however adapt very adeptly to dietary restrictions, as we shall see in a moment. But like most molecular prix fixes it begins with a specialty cocktail. In this case a champagne sherry concoction.

The sherry.

Some of our fellows kicking off the evening.

“The Golden Boy.” If you zoom in you can see the little golden speckles. It tasted like sherry and champagne.

Tonight’s menu. Click to embiggen.

“Lotus Root Chip.” Star Anise dusting. Like a very salty potato chip with a slight licorice flavor.


The first of my wines. The only beef I had with this otherwise perfect restaurant is extremely steep $50 corkage! Very displeasing. And they have a 3-4 bottle max, plus the Bazaar recently raised it’s corkage from $20 to $35. Contrast that with the Bistro LQ FREE corkage where we opened 8 bottles! I really despise these steep corkages.

Parker 97, “The 2004 Reserva, according to Remirez is “a great vintage, a lot of nerve, like 1994, that needed a long aging period”. Opaque purple in color, it offers up a splendid bouquet of sandalwood, incense, Asian spices, balsamic, and black cherry. Layered, opulent, and impeccably balanced, it is a monumental effort.”

“Tuna Handroll 2009.” Like the typical tuna tartar on a potato crisp — but a cooler shape.

“Bagel & Lox Steam Bun.” The dim sum style steam bun topped with salmon roe. Inside must have been some cream cheese or similar. Very interesting interplays of texture and taste.

“Olive Oil Bonbon.” Spanish extra virgin olive oil, coated in sugar and dusted with sumac and Maldon sea salt. Pretty amazing, a bit of candied crunch and pure olive oil is released. Very candy like.

“Black Olives Ferran Adria.” Instructions on how to make these can be found here. The pureed juice of the olives is coated in a thin gel. They are colored black with squid ink.

The olive bursts easily in the mouth, exploding intense oliveness into the mouth.

Spherified green olives. The “olives” are after spherizing marinated with olive oil, garlic, rosemary, and orange. This is the first of many Vegetarian Substitutions (VS), as the squid ink in the black olives isn’t exactly veggie.

“Jose’s Combination.” Jamón Ibérico de Bellota with a blob of real caviar. This ham is regarded as the best in Spain, and among the best in the world. They are fed on acorns. Salt on salt here. A very savory combination.


“Jicama wrapped Guacamole.” Micro cilantro, corn chips. The VS for above.

“Pastrami Saul.” Crunchy potato taquito filled with veal “pastrami.” Crunchy, salty, meaty.


“Tortilla de Patatas ‘New Way’.” Potato foam, egg 63, caramelized onions. The VS for above. This is a fairly radical reinterpretation of the classic Spanish Torilla de Patatas (what we might think of as a potato omelet). Egg is mixed with a potato foam and micro chives and caramelized onions.

“Buffalo Wing.” Looks like fried chicken (and it is), but Wow. Boneless, with a dab of spicy sauce and a blue cheese aioli. An explosion of flavor.

Just like it’s more plebeian cousin, it leaves a good grease stain.

“Ottoman Carrot fritter.” Apricots, pistachio sauce. VS for the chicken. A deep fried ball of flavor, with a very exotic taste.

“Not Your Everyday Caprese.” The mozzarella has been through the same sphere process as the olives above, then we have a peeled cherry tomato, tomato seeds, a bit of basil, sea salt, little crackers, and a very fine house made pesto genovese (with extra virgin olive oil). I’m not even a raw tomato fan and this is delectable. The pesto cheese combo really makes it. This pesto is as good as mine (recipe here).

“Crispy Nigiri.” A bit of red snapper on a blob of crispy Spanish rice.

“Chipirones en su Tinta.” More or less a classic Spanish dish, octopus in it’s own ink. Plus some squid ink chips. Very soft and tender meat, complemented by the sweetness of the ink.

Ink art. A tradition with me.

“Zucchini with Zucchini air.” VS for the octopus.


Parker 94. “The 2007 Laurel, a blend of 65% Garnacha and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, is deep purple-colored with a bouquet of wet stone, Asian spices, black cherry compote, and incense. Dense and sweet on the palate with tons of spice, it is super-concentrated, rich, and smooth-textured. Give this lengthy effort 2-3 years of additional cellaring and drink it from 2013 to 2027.”

This is an amazing wine, deep grape.

“Hot and Cold Foie Soup with Corn.” The top is a delicious foam that tastes like sweet corn soup, underneath is the salty rich foie soup. I first had a variant of this dish at Cafe Atlantico. I’m very fond of these rich little soups.

“Traditional Gazpacho.” Not only is it pretty, but it’s a nice example of the classic.

“Banh Mi.” A brioche bun with wagyu beef, tofu, cilantro, pickles, pickled carrots, and a kind of mayo. Tasty tasty sandwich. A mix of soft and crunchy too, but the pickles give it a very distinct tang.

“Banh Mi, vegetarian.” VS, same as above, no meat.

“Linguini and Clams.” Another reinterpreted dish. A very sweet and sour, dishy and salty thing going on. Soft textures.

“Cauliflower ‘cous cous’.” VS for clams.

“Kurobuta Pork Belly.” Massively flavorful bacon chunk, with a spanish cheese infused turnip mouse and little carrots. Yum yum, heart stop heart stop.

“Brussel Sprout Leaves.” Lemon purée, apricots, grapes, lemon air. No hint of bitterness, and the fruit tangs nicely zest up the sprouts.

“Black truffle risotto.” This was an optional supplemental dish. Instead of the normal Italian risotto rice it used a premium Spanish one, calasparra bomba, and extra virgin olive oil instead of butter. Very tasty, but as the first truffle dish I’d had since our crazy 27 course Truffle Night, it gave me funny flashbacks.

“Philly Cheese Steak.” Air bread, cheddar, Wagyu beef. This is on the Bazaar menu, but it’s so damn good. The crispy bread is filled with liquid cheddar goodness.

“Hilly Cheese Steak.” Air bread, cheddar, mushrooms. The VS version of above. Monkey man will get you!


We move on to a sweet wine as we approach the end of the savory courses.

Parker 94. “The auction lot of Prum 2009 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese A.P. #22 differs from the “regular” Auslese in a manner analogous to the relationship between the two corresponding Spatlesen, the most striking aspect of the present cuvee being its uncanny sense of near-weightless delicacy. “This came from a good but not absolutely top-class parcel,” notes Manfred Prum, “but one that got quite a bit of botrytis which we permitted to develop and then selected-out very late.” Given that description, one has to say this was the noblest of rot, so subtle and positive was the flavor concentration and creamy textural allure it engendered, while in no way freighting the wine or lending a taste of botrytis per se. Indeed, this strikes me as the finer of the two non-gold capsule Sonnenuhr Auslesen I tasted, incorporating underlying nut paste richness and a cloud-like sense of wafting sweet floral perfume. Furthermore, this introduces a salinity that renders the finish saliva-inducing and compulsively swallow-able. It should dazzle for 30-40 years.”

“Japanese Baby Peaches.” Burrata, hazelnuts, arugula.Really interesting. The peaches were so tart off the trees that they were soaked in simple syrup. Paired with the blobs of burrata (a favorite of mine), the nuts, and arugala it was pretty divine.

“Dragon’s breath popcorn.” The pre dessert. A gimmick, but neat.

Carmel corn “boiled” in liquid nitrogen.

It tastes like… carmel corn, but you can exhale it through your nose for a dragon-like effect.

Mutant lamp in the room.

“Rose Clementine.” Clementine ice cream, shards of extruded sugar, and rose water ice cream and foam. I really like the exotic taste of rosewater, reminding me as it does of Istanbul and Persian weddings.

“Chocolate Eucalyptus.” Extruded chocolate ganache with a peppermint meringue and eucalyptus ice cream. Very nice and creamy chocolate band, with a soft mouse-like texture. The ice cream is the eucalyptus, which went well but makes me think of spa steam rooms.

Video of one of us breathing the dragon.

“Birthday spun sugar.” Tastes… sweet.

“Sexy Little Sweets.” Passion fruit and raspberry pate-fruits. Mint white chocolate, regular chocolate, and various bonbons. The passion fruit pate was my favorite.

“Crown of Sugar.”

The room itself.
The Bazaar is great, and Saam is even greater. The presentation is nicer, and it has more experimental dishes. I’d wish they’d go even wilder. This is exciting food with strong combinations of flavors and unexpected textures.
As I said earlier my only beef is with their agressive corkage policy. I know restaurants make a good share of profit on their wines, but I like to pick my own.

Mall Eclectic – Zengo

Restaurant: Zengo [1, 2, 3]

Location: 395 Santa Monica Place, b/w Broadway & Colorado, Santa Monica, CA 90401. Tel. 310.899.1000

Date: February 4, 2011

Cuisine: Latin-Asian Fusion

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

ANY CHARACTER HERE

With the Santa Monica place facelift — actually more of a rooflift — the powers that be have installed 4-5 new restaurants on the top floor. Now, I’m not much for mall restaurants, but I’ve tried two and they were pretty good. These places live in a kind of hybrid space between chain and “one off restaurant.” I’m not a big fan of chains either, but I guess those big mall landlords don’t like to risk their profitable leases on companies that can go belly up on the drop of a plate.

Second, the locations are pretty sweet. The new mall is basically the old mall (3 stories) with the lid ripped off, and it’s pretty cool given the proximity of the Pacific and the scenic view down the 3rd Street Promenade. These are big places and they have cool heated patios with great views.

The concepts are also hybrids, Americanized fusions of popular international styles. Zengo bills itself as Asian-Latin fusion. Which I guess it is. I also have a review of the Modern Chinese / Dim sum, Xino.

Zengo seemed a trendy spot, and the warm February night put me in a cocktail mode, the drink menu above. Official version.

“Pomelo Mezcal Margarita, mezcal / fresh pomelo / citrus / grapefruit bitters.” Tasty, a bit bitter though.

Tamarind-Togarashi Margarita, silver tequila / tamarind / citrus / togarashi salt.” Very interesting drink, tangy, and a tad spicy — but good.

Above is the special Dine LA menu, but the regular one can be found here. Another nice thing about this place is it’s more or less all tapas-style, small dishes for everyone to share. This is one of my favorite formats because I’m a flavor whore, the more the better.

“VEGETARIANO ROLL.” Sort of a california roll minus the crab.

“Hot & Sour Egg Drop Soup, Foie Gras Pork Dumplings, Enoki, Green Onion.” Also tasty. Sort of like classic hot and sour with meaty livery wontons.

“Thai Shrimp Lettuce Wraps, Chorizo, Peanut, Cilantro, Tamarind Chutney.” Another hybrid Americanized dish — but again good. The shrimp were nicely stir fried with that crispy crunch of good chinese fry. Strong zesty flavors, with a lot of tang in the sauce.

“Chipotle Miso Glazed Black Cod, Daikon Radish, Lemon-Togarashi Aioli.” A variant of the Miso Black Cod pioneered at Matsuhisa (REVIEW HERE). This one has a lot more flavors going on. Not only the sweet, but tangy and the richness of aioli.

“Grilled Beef Short Ribs, Manchego Cheese Potato Puree, Hoisin Adobo Sauce, Huitlacoche.” Rich dark short ribs, the polenta like potato, with a bit of cheesiness, and the sweetness of the Hoisin Adobo. Not bad.

“Mexican Chocolate Tart, Cocoa Nibs, Cinnamon, Whipped Cream, Chili Ancho Anglaise.” A nice blend of dry chocolate and cinnamon, the chili anglaise was good too. Combined it did make one think of spiced frothy Aztec drink.

This is not a subtle cuisine, but I’m not complaining  either. The nuevo latino vibe is very strong, owing a lot to something like Rivera downtown (I have a meal worth of photos I need to write up one of these days). But more commercial. The Asian part borrows from every conceivable international pan-Asian dish. It’s not totally ground breaking food — and as I said very commercial — but what I tasted was very well done, and the patio and view really didn’t suck. So given the caveat of my distaste of malls and corporate restaurants, I deliver a tentative thumbs up.