Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bao Dim Sum House - getting your fix west of the 110

Please, before you rip me into shreds and lose all confidence in my restaurant choices, I want to preface this post by saying that I don't dispute that there aren't any good dim sum places west of the 110. And I do know that paying around $5 or more for a plate of dim sum is highway robbery. But I don't live east of the 110. I don't like driving out of the way for food. And I'd really rather just pay a couple more bucks to feed my dim sum craving, f the restaurant is located fairly close from home. Even if it isn't the cheapest or the most authentic.

But newly opened Bao Dim Sum House on Beverly Blvd in Mid-City isn't trying to be that authentic Chinese restaurant. In fact, you won't see the curt Cantonese women wheeling their carts. And you won't find chicken feet here. But if you're looking for the popular dim sum dishes (har gow, siew mai, BBQ pork buns and the like), Bao Dim Sum House will meet your needs.

The restaurant used to be an Americanized Korean BBQ joint and much of the decor remains the same. I know because I've been there. I guess the Korean BBQ restaurant didn't work so well because one would only need to drive a few more miles east to get the real thing. Luckily for Bao, Chinatown is much further.

There's a decent selection of dumplings and buns. It's a pity I didn't study the menu more intently because I didn't notice the beef tripe.

Bao also offers rice and noodles for a more filling option. This would be a better choice for dinner.

Mimosas and dim sum do mix. I promise.

Crispy Scallion Pancake ($4.25)
The pancakes were thick and doughy. Apart from the scallion topping, you couldn't really taste the scallions that were mixed in with the dough. But who am I kidding? It was fried, so I finished every piece.

Spare Ribs with Black Bean Sauce ($5.75)
People can complain about the price of this dish but I thought there was quite a fair amount of pieces and they weren't measly. In fact, I was glad that they didn't Americanize the dish by excluding the pieces with cartilage (my favorite part). The spare ribs were delicious and served with cubes of taro. There was however an overkill of cilantro topping.

Sticky Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaf ($5.25)

Surprisingly, I thought this tasted very authentic. The rice was moist and sticky, and filled with well seasoned Chinese mushrooms, Chinese sausage and ground meat. Unfortunately it was missing a salted duck yolk which can be found in some versions.

Spicy Shrimp Dumpling ($4.95)
When they first brought this over, I thought they had mistakenly served us regular har gow but the dumplings indeed packed a punch. The shrimp was quite large and plump. Unfortunately the wrapper was too thick.

Crispy Shrimp Stuffed Eggplant ($4.95)
This dish sounded good in theory since I love eggplants, but it was smothered with too much sweet chili sauce and the eggplant alone was very oily. In addition, it was hard to eat this large piece of eggplant with only chopsticks.

Radish Cake ($4.50)
This is my favorite dim sum dish and I was pleased with Bao's version. The radish cakes were soft and freshly pan fried with a crispy exterior. The cake had chunks of radish, onions and mushrooms.

The food's decent but definitely pricier than most Asians would expect to pay. Even though the dumpling skin was rather thick, I enjoyed the sticky rice and turnip cake. Unfortunately they are missing the aesthetics of the dim sum carts. But Bao knows who its target demographic is. Someone that isn't looking for the most authentic dim sum meal. Someone that's willing to pay a bit more for convenience. Someone that doesn't want to drive in the opposite direction from home. Someone just like me.

Hits: turnip cake, sticky rice, spare ribs, not too far east
Misses: prices are higher, no chicken feet
Rating: **1/2

Bao Dim Sum House
8256 Beverly Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 655-6556

Friday, December 24, 2010

L'Epicerie Market, Culver City: for your French dining, shopping and drinking needs

Thierry Perez really wants to set up roots in Culver City. He first opened Fraiche with Jason Travi in 2007. Then left abruptly. Next there was word that he would open his own restaurant in the area. But it never happened. Then it was discovered that he was involved with gastropub Waterloo & City a short drive away. But he dropped out. Shortly after, word broke that he was opening up a French Cafe & Market, a few blocks from Fraiche and across the street from Sony Pictures Studio. This last venture finally opened a month ago. L'Epicerie is more than a Cafe & Market. It's a wine shop and wine bar as well.

The space is rather large with an open kitchen. My issue was that despite the large exposed ducts, the ventilation was rather poor. It was smokey while we were dining in the restaurant, and my hair and clothes reek when I left.

You can purchase jars of duck confit but they ain't cheap.

Fresh cheese and preserves are great takeout options for a picnic.

The wine bar is a great place to grab a drink and a few bites from their tapas menu.

L'Epicerie serves breakfast, lunch and dinner which include crepe, salad and sandwich options.

Their wine is very reasonably priced at less than $10 for most glasses.

Their French inspired tapas menu is served from 5-9pm, where small plates are priced at $5 and large plates at $8.

Perez brought by a complimentary glasses of champagne while we were waiting for our friend to arrive.

We also ordered a bottle of Esca Red Zinfindel which was rather smooth and balanced.

Terrine de Campagne, cumberland sauce
The terrine was harder that usual pate, the pork seemed almost confit with meat mixed in with a bit of congealed fat. It wasn't the most spreadable terrine but that meant you could eat it as is, without crostini, if you choose. The preserve tasted like kumquat and paired well with the fatty, heavy terrine.

Field Mushrooms, garlic and parsley, country bread
Perez recommended this plate and brought one over on the house. I liked the selection of mushrooms which were fresh and woodsy. Although I think the mushrooms needed a bit more salt.

Chicken wings confit
The chicken drummettes was tender and fell off the bone. It was salty but had a unique flavoring that almost seemed like a smattering of Latin spices.

Ceviche de corvine, cilantro, jalepenos, lemon juice
This ceviche was made of seabass and prepared basque style. The dish was topped with pop corn which added a crunch and texture. The ceviche lacked the lime flavor of Mexican ceviche and perhaps needed a bit more salt. I also thought the seabass needed more seasoning. This was probably my least favorite dish of the night.

On to the larger plates.

Cassoulet, duck confit, pork belly, Toulouse sausage
I was hoping this cassoulet would have been served in a pot for aesthetic purposes. But thankfully, the flavors were still there. The bean was stewed to a soft texture and the sausage was meaty and felt like comfort food.

Pork Belly Confit, garlic and herb
I liked the simplicity of this dish. Often times, pork belly is stewed in a heavy sauce. This preparation really allowed you to taste the pork. Unfortunately the pork belly wasn't the easiest to split between four people.

Chicken Basquaise, freshly made tagliatelle
The chicken was cooked well and was moist but the skin could have been crisped up a bit. I did like the spice seasoning on the chicken skin. It's interesting that the menu called for tagliatelle but the chicken was served on a bed of mashed potatoes of some sort, which I thought was a tad under seasoned.

Beef Bourguignon, mashed potatoes
The beef bourguignon was cooked in a rich sauce that had a taste of caramel. The mashed potatoes were creamy and rich. Once again, the meat wasn't too tough but neither was it not fork tender.

Tete de Veau, Polenta and egg

Do not be fooled. This isn't a vegetarian dish. The polenta was topped with crumbled veal brains. If you don't know French, "Tete" is head, and "Veau" is veal. Some may be turned away by this dish but it was my favorite. There were so many rich component to this dish. Runny egg yolk bound each bite together. The polenta was buttery and creamy. And the veal brain was well seasoned and with a delightful taste which was a cross between a mild liver and sweetbread.

Rocky Road Ice Cream sandwich
The ice cream cake was sourced from Milk. It was made of a chocolate Macaron sandwich, chocolate ice cream with marshmallow filling. I'm not really a Rocky Road fan but I really enjoyed this dessert.

Nutella and banana crepe
The crepe was made to order. I liked the crispier ends of the crepe but some parts were a bit too thick for my liking. The nutty chocolate with banana was a nice combination.

L'Epicerie is a nice addition to the town. I liked that it's a casual joint with a small plates menu, instead of a more formal restaurant. I also thought the prices were really reasonable, and the menu items were a nice representation of French cuisine in less hearty portions. The polenta with veal brains really made the meal for me. It was bold. Overall the food was tasty and the whole French market/cafe/tapas concept is kind of refreshing. And in a town where we're driving to multiple places to fulfill our needs, it's nice to be able to pick up a bottle of wine, grab a drink, order a few bites and end the night with a ice cream macaron sandwich, all in one night, in one place.

Hit: polenta, nice concept
Misses: ceviche, some of the meats could have been more tender
Rating ***

L'Epicerie Market
9900 Culver Blvd.,
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 815-1600

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Piccolo: Italian, in the heart of Venice (beach)

When BBE issued a special (free bottle of wine or dessert) for Piccolo Restaurant, I was game. I've been wanting to try their sea urchin pasta and I've heard many good things about the restaurant. Located just steps from the Venice Beach boardwalk in the old location of 5 Dudley Restaurant, Piccolo is a cozy Italian restaurant. It's quite an odd spot really. Piccolo is a bit pricey for the Venice boardwalk demographic.

It's relatively small and intimate inside, and filled up rather quickly. As it turned out, the BBE special was only available if each diner ordered an entree. So even though we decided on three pastas and an entree (which when summed up, the cost per person averaged over the price of an entree). It's interesting that a neighborhood restaurant was not even willing to bend on that.

Bread basket included a few options, but nothing special. Don't bother asking for balsamic vinegar. They don't offer it here. But they do serve the bread with a good quality olive oil.

Our waitress selected a reasonably priced bottle of Rosso Nottola which was smooth and light.

I was very pleased that without us asking, the kitchen had brought by our dishes in individual portions.

Garganelli Neri ai Ricci, squid ink garganelli, fresh sea urchin emulsion
I know the proper way to cook pasta is to al dente. I know what al dente is. This garganelli pasta was grossly undercooked. When we asked the waitress if this undercooked texture was normal, she said yes. It hard to believe that this is the case, the pasta tasted like cardboard and was very crunchy. Also, I was very disappointed with the sauce because I could barely taste the flavor of uni. This dish was a disappointment given that this was the reason why I wanted to dine at Piccolo in the first place.

Carbonara di Quaglia, truffle-tagliolini, roasted quail carbonara, with quail eggs, parmesan
Thankfully this pasta dish made up for the last. I really enjoyed the tagliolini which taste very fresh and homemade. The crumbles of quail were salty and gave the dish a lot of flavor. The carbonara had the right amount of egg mixture so that it wasn't overly creamy and heavy. I also liked the parmesan which added a nuttiness to the sauce.

Tortelli Zucca, ravioli with pumpkin filling, parmesan-butter and sage
Unfortunately the last pasta dish was a rather unappealing. There were parts of the pasta that were too thick and perhaps needed to be rolled out a bit more. I felt like I was eating a chunk of dough. The butter sauce also really tasted like butter, sans sage. I think it needed to be cooked down and browned a bit because it was lacking a nutty flavor.

Agnello al Porto, Risotto al Melone, boneless, natural lamb shank slow-braised in port; Tuscan melon-foie grĂ s risotto
As if this meal was a roller coaster, the last dish came back strong. Although the lamb preparation was a bit inconsistent- my two friends commented that one piece of the shank was drier than the other, the piece that was moist was exceptional. I liked the sweet richness of the rhubarb sauce. The best part of the dish was the foie gras risotto which was formed into a cake. The foie essence was obvious but not overpowering.

I thought dinner at Piccolo was decent. There were better parts of the meal (lamb shank, quail carbonara, wine) but there were also some fails (overly al dente and thick pasta). Also, I wished they had been more flexible on the BBE rules. I understand that they do not want diners coming in and split an entree or appetizer, but if you did the math, we spent just as much as anyone else that had ordered an entree each. I just don't think we should be penalized if we decided that the pasta dishes were more intriguing over the entrees. Despite that, I would have to say that I preferred the pasta here over Scarpetta. *gasp* I also liked that Piccolo had served our dishes in individual portions. That was a nice touch. I'm glad that I finally got to check out Piccolo, but next time, I think I'll save my Venice Beach excursions for the surf.

Hits: lamb, wine, quail pasta
Misses: cardboard pasta, not flexible on BBE discount
Rating: **1/2

Piccolo Venice
5 Dudley Ave.,
Los Angeles, CA 90291
(310) 314-3222

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chaya: (not really a) Happy Hour

I always knew that Chaya had a great happy hour. From what I remembered, food and drink options were pretty good and prices were very reasonable. When I heard that new chef Harutaka Kishi (London West Hollywood) was on board and had revamped the menu, I called up the restaurant to ask if they still had a happy hour. The hostess said Yes, and that happy hour ran till close. I was excited. What a great deal this must be, I so foolishly thought.

The fact is, Chaya doesn't really have a happy hour. They do have a separate menu (called La Petit Chaya) that they serve at the bar and patio. But there are no discounts on the menu during happy hour. That means you don't pay lower prices for that glass of wine if you sit at the bar at 6pm vs. having dinner in the dining room. Additionally, the prices don't really feel like happy hour prices (cobb salad at $13, meatballs at $12). I definitely don't feel like I'm getting a discount.

The dinner menu is no longer ala carte. Instead, Chef Kishi only offers two tasting menus- 3 courses ($39) and 5 courses ($65).

Aside from the non-discounted happy hour prices, the La Petit Chaya menu isn't too shabby. It's really an upscale bar menu with a few sushi options, small plates and a limited selection of entrees.

If there aren't any deep discounts on drinks, I might as well splurge on a glass of Champagne. They also have a strong beer list which includes Chimay, Duvel, Fat Fire, Guinness, Red Seal and La Fin du Monde.

Foie Gras and Chicken Parfait with Yuzu Jelly
This isn't your everyday bar grub but this is definitely right up my alley. The foie gras and chicken parfait was silky and light. It also had a rather mild liver flavor so most people would probably appreciate it. The brioche was buttery and toasted to a nice crispiness. I thought this was worth the $11.

Crunchy Shrimp Roll
This was probably the "best deal" on the menu at $5. The sushi was standard and didn't stray from what you would find at a Japanese joint. I appreciated that the tempura shrimp was cooked to order so it was warm and crispy when served.

Pommes Frite with fried shallot, garlic ($7)
I thought the portion was generous and the fries were crisp and well seasoned.

So yes, it's not the most ideal happy hour place if you are looking for a discounted deal. Most dishes were around $10 except for a couple rolls at around $5-6. It's not the most expensive bar food I've had, but it definitely isn't happy hour pricing. I only wished the hostess had been upfront when I called. She should have said that there is no Happy Hour per se, but that they do serve a bar menu. In a town where bars are offering great happy hour deals, some even offering two happy hours a night, I don't think I'll be back for apres work drinks. On the flip side, the foie gras ravioli with king crab risotto offered on their five course tasting menu might be reason enough for a return trip.

Hits: foie parfait, cheap roll
Misses: pricey for "happy hour"
Rating: **

Chaya Brasserie
8741 Alden Dr.,
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 859-8833