Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thai Nakorn (Stanton, CA)

Thai Nakorn
11951 Beach Blvd, Stanton, CA 90680
www.yelp.com/biz/thai-nakorn-restaurant-stanton (Yelp, restaurant has no web site)
Tue 02/24/2009, 07:55p-08:05p

In my post on Phuket Thai, I wrote that Thai Nakorn is the spot for Thai food in Orange County. The place is almost an institution, having been around for 20 years--a lifetime in the restaurant business. Thai Nakorn (fyi: "Nakorn" means "city") specializes in Northern and Northeastern Thai, or Isan, cuisine. Influenced by neighboring Laos, the food is characterized by its heavy use of chilies, sticky rice, garlic, and lime. Prototypical dishes from the region include larb (meat salad), som tam (spicy papaya salad), and gai yang (grilled chicken).

I'd first eaten at Thai Nakorn many years ago, when it was still at its original location at 8674 Stanton Ave in Buena Park (by Knott's Berry Farm). In 2003, another Thai Nakorn opened up at 12532 Garden Grove Blvd in Garden Grove (by The Block); apparently, there was some family feud and most all the staff left the original Thai Nakorn for this new location. The Buena Park location was eventually shut down in 2005, as the building's landlord wanted to raze the structure in order to clear the way for condos. As for the new Garden Grove location, I actually paid a visit in late 2006 with a Thai colleague of mine--I recall the food being very good. All was going well until January 8, 2007, when the building burned to the ground. I never found out what caused the fire, but I've heard uncorroborated allegations of arson.

I believe the plan by the owners, Wanida Sreewarom and family, is to rebuild in Garden Grove (a quick check on Google Maps confirms this, showing the building under construction). On April 23, 2007, they opened a new Thai Nakorn in Stanton as an interim solution--the subject of this post. At one time, there was also a Thai Nakorn located in Mission Viejo. From what I understand, that restaurant was also the result of some family infighting, and was never up to par food-wise. The family has since rid itself of ownership, and the place is now called Glass Door.

Thai Nakorn's new location is definitely a step down from its former dig in Garden Grove. The restaurant is sandwiched between a Kragen auto parts store and The Lounge, the Thuy Li-owned bikini sports bar-cum-pool hall.

The interior also lacks the glamour of the previous locale, and seems cold, clinical in comparison.

The menu is slightly more interesting than that of your typical Thai place. Note also how the address of the Garden Grove location is still listed along with the Stanton one. Click for larger versions.

To wash down the famously spicy food, we first popped a bottle of Canals & Nubiola Cava Brut from Cataluña, Spain. Cava is, of course, Spain's answer to Champagne, and this was a nice example of it--clean, crisp, refreshing, with loads of citrus, a bit of stone fruit, and some yeast on the finish. Great for staving off the heat.

We then went with a duo of India Pale Ales from Stone Brewing Company in Escondido, CA. IPAs are generally bitter, hoppy beers. The standard Stone IPA was a pretty prototypical example of the style, with loads of hop balanced by the richness of malt and a bit of citrus tang. Kicking things up a notch, the Stone Ruination is a double IPA, meaning more hops, and more malt. Compared to the standard IPA, this was definitely hoppier and more bitter, but also spicier, more floral, and more complex.

Chicken with Green Chili and Mint Over Rice [$8.45]
We wanted a rice-based dish, but something more interesting than the typical Thai fried rice, so we decided to go with this. The chili and basil really came to the fore on the palate, backed by just a hint of mint. The initial sensation then gave way to the comparatively mild savoriness of the rice. It had just the right amount of spiciness, so pouring on the small container of chili sauce pushed things over the top.

Pahd Thai [$8.00]
Pan fried Thai noodles with pork and shrimp. Pad Thai is just about the most prototypical Thai dish out there, so it's a bit surprising that the dish is actually of Vietnamese and Chinese origin, and only became well-known in Thailand in the past century. I'm actually not a huge fan of the dish (give me a pad kee mao any day), but my dining companion wanted to order it. The noodles came with bean sprouts, nuts, and pepper flakes on the side, and we eagerly dumped every last bit of it on. The result was a pad Thai that was a bit too sweet for me, thought this was somewhat tempered by the nutty and spicy components of the dish. I quite liked the crunch provided by the fresh bean sprouts, but overall, I've had better.

Beef Panang [$8.45]
Beef panang is basically a curried beef dish, flavored with coconut, kaffir lime, sugar, and of course, fish sauce (nam pla). The beef itself was almost like a braised preparation, quite tender, and actually reminiscent of the beef in Chinese niu ro mein, or beef noodle soup. Panang typically contains less coconut milk than other curries, and as a result, it was quite spicy indeed, though the bell peppers did offset some of the heat. Very nice. This would be superb over rice.

Thai Nakorn serves up some tasty (and spicy!) food, though at the same time, it wasn't necessarily head and shoulders above other Thai places I've tried. I recall my previous meals at Thai Nakorn being much more interesting, but I really think it comes down to what you get; it definitely helps to come with Thai people who know what to order. Nevertheless, I know I'll be back--hopefully at the newly finished Garden Grove location.

Monday, February 23, 2009

XIV (Los Angeles, CA) [2]

8117 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046
Mon 02/23/2009, 08:00p-12:15a

I was one of the first bloggers to cover XIV ("fourteen"), having dined here on opening night in October 2008. As a result, I was invited back for a complementary tasting of restaurant's new Spring menu. I was actually supposed to have dinner in Downtown that night with a colleague of mine (likely at Drago Centro or Rivera), but we changed plans and made our way to XIV, as this was an offer I couldn't pass up.

Note the addition of "A Michael Mina Restaurant" signage, presumably there to capitalize on Mina's brand name. An added bonus: valet is now only $11, instead of $14.

The Philippe Starck-designed interior was as fanciful as always. This time, we were seated toward the back of the room, with an unobstructed view of the kitchen and newly-finished covered Terrace. Unfortunately, the lighting was noticeably dimmer than on my first visit, resulting in me having to poach two candles from a nearby table in order to adequately light the food.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of XIV is its menu. The idea behind the "social dining experiment" was to have a "family-style" tasting menu--basically the same series of small plates for everyone at the table. The concept was met with some resistance (e.g. "sometimes you just want to have a steak"), and as a result, XIV now offers the choice of à la carte selections as well. Early reports from Chowballa falsely stated that the original concept was to be "chucked" altogether; rather, the new menu comes in addition to what's already available. Diners can still construct their own tasting menus, or choose from the 8/11/14/35-course options. The 35-course "Gamut" (they were also considering calling it the "Gauntlet" I'm told--an apt description) was what I had on my first visit, and naturally, I had to go for it again. The menu was about 75% new, so I was eager to try out the new dishes. The signatures on the menu are of Executive Chef Steven Fretz and Pastry Chef Jordan Kahn; click for a larger version.

Upon being seated, we were brought two glasses of the Chartogne-Taillet Brut Cuvée Michael Mina. It was surprisingly good for a "house" sparkler, showing flavors of apple, lemon, and quite a bit of yeast. Even my dining companion, who's not huge on Champagne, enjoyed it.

The naan was as good as ever, and now comes with a dipping sauce (something akin to tzatziki or raita), giving the bread a refreshingly cool tang. We were told that the idea for naan originally came from Seablue, Mina's Mediterranean restaurant. Later on in the night, we were brought into the kitchen, shown the 500-degree tandoor, and introduced to the dedicated naan chef, reportedly lured away from a top Indian restaurant.

1: Michael's Caviar Parfait
Once again, there was no amuse bouche course, but once again, we started with the wonderful Caviar Parfait. There are a few choices for the roe here, with this example topped with American Osetra sturgeon caviar. The potato croquette was what hit me first, followed by the creamy amalgam of egg, salmon and crème fraîche, finally ending with the briny zest of the caviar. I loved the interplay between the different tastes and textures here, making this multilayered affair a great way to start things off.

Since my dining companion isn't a huge wine drinker, we decided to eschew wine in favor of cocktails. Creative cocktails seem to be all the rage these days, and I'd been very impressed with XIV's selection on my prior visit. My dining companion is a fan of rum, so I recommended a Caipirinha (Weber Haus, Muddled Lime, Demerara Sugar) [$14]. It's Brazil's national cocktail, made here with Weber Haus premium cachaça (a rum-like liquor distilled from sugarcane juice). I had a sip and loved it--it was like a mojito, but not as blunt, with less tartness and a more refined sweetness (perhaps due to the use of Demerara raw cane sugar).

For myself, I ordered a Pineapple Pimm's (Pimm's No. 1, Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva, Pineapple Juice, Angostura Bitters, Bay Leaf) [$15]. This had an intensely pineapple nose that was hardly discernable from pineapple juice, but the taste was fortunately much more complex, with the herbal-tinged spice of the gin-based Pimm's No. 1, the bittersweet flavor of the Matusalem rum, and the bitterness of the Angostura and bay leaf adding complexity over the backdrop of pineapple.

2: Ice Cold Shellfish
White Shrimp Panna Cotta, Kushi Oyster, King Crab. This was almost exactly the same trio as before, save for the inclusion of king crab for steamed clams. The sweet shrimp seemed to be a bit sweeter this time, but this was nicely countered by a sharp, tangy saltiness. The crab, meanwhile, had a great texture and the preparation really allowed the natural flavor of the crustacean to shine through; it went well with the included sauce, but could've stood on its own. Finally, we have the Champagne foam-topped oyster; because I tried it last time, I let my dining companion have at it in its entirety.

3: Ahi Tuna Tartare
Ancho Chile, Pears, Mint, Pine Nuts, Sesame Oil. Tuna tartares are almost clichéd in haute cuisine these days, so it's nice to find one that breaks away from the mold. The anchos (dried poblanos) gave the otherwise mild a tuna a spicy kick, while the use of sesame oil imparted richness to the fish. The pine nuts and pears added contrasting nutty and sweet flavors, while adding a great crunch to the dish.

4: Hamachi Sashimi
Clementine, Radish, Spanish Brandy Gelée. We have here a crudo-esque preparation of yellowtail. The hamachi was a fairly unctuous fish, with a strong flavor and rich body. As such, the pairing of clementine worked very well, tempering the heavy nature of the fish while adding a bit of sweetness. I was fairly pleased with the end result, while my dining companion thought that the flavor was "interesting."

5: Heirloom Beets
Burrata, Wild Arugula, Aged Balsamic, New Olive Oil. Beets seem to have gained popularity in recent years, but I'm still not sold on them. The sweetness of the beets here was intensified by the balsamic, foiling to some extent the savoriness contributed by the burrata and olive oil. Not a huge fan, but the dish worked out reasonably well given my preferences.

6: Baby Frisée & Gem Lettuce
Persimmon, Pomegranate, Pumpkin Seed, Apple. I'm usually not huge on salad, but I really enjoyed this one. The use of pumpkin seed was key, as it added a fantastic lingering nuttiness to the dish, contrasting perfectly with the tart tang of pomegranate. Both elements, along with the apple, made the salad extremely texturally pleasing as well, with the lettuce and frisée tying everything together. Superb.

7: XIV Caesar Salad
Classic Dressing, Shaved Parmesan Reggiano. This was actually a pretty traditional preparation of the classic salad, with the Parmesan cheese adding a rather intense flavor to go along with the tangy Caesar dressing and fishiness of the anchovy. Unexciting, but definitely one of the better versions I've had of this staple.

8: Beef Carpaccio
Hearts of Romaine, Cherry Tomatoes, Horseradish. Another holdover from the previous menu. The beef was mildly flavored, so the tang of horseradish was the focus here flavor-wise. Again, the lettuce was key, adding a light contrast to the rest of the dish. Quite nice.

9: Dungeness Crab Crêpe
Basil, Capers, Scampi Hollandaise. In my last post, I'd complained about the nondescript nature of the Dungeness crab spring roll previously on the menu. That item has been seemingly replaced by this crab crêpe. The crab in the spring rolls was basically indiscernible, but the crustacean's signature sweetness was apparent in spades here, tempered by the rich tartness of the hollandaise and capers.

10: Sea Scallops Tempura
Cauliflower, Passion Fruit, Almonds. Though this dish was exactly the same as before, I liked it a bit better this time around. The natural sweetness of the scallops was very apparent, highlighted by their caramelized exteriors. This was complemented by the nuttiness of the almonds and finally the fruity finish of passion fruit. Very nice.

Once we dispensed with our first round of cocktails, it was time for another. My dining companion ordered a Yuzu "Rickey" (Plymouth, Yuzu, Fresh Lemon, Regan's Orange Bitters #6, Pastis-Rinsed Glass, Crushed Ice, Soda) [$13]. This was basically a variation on the classic Lime Rickey, with yuzu substituted for lime. The overall result was a fanciful interplay between the forces of tart and sweet, over the herbal/spicy backdrop of gin, orange bitters, and pastis (an anise-flavored liqueur--basically absinthe without the wormwood).

As for me, I had the Diablo (Herradura Reposado, Crème de Cassis, Fresh Lime, Ginger Ale) [$15]. Crème de cassis is a black currant-flavored liqueur, and is what I tasted initially in the cocktail. Its flavor is sickly sweet when taken alone, so it was nicely balanced by the sourness of the lime, as well as the subtle vanilla, grass, and honey flavors of the Herradura tequila. Even my tequila-averse dining companion liked this.

11: Salt & Pepper Big Fin Squid
Glass Noodles, Carrots, Sprouts, Ginger. The squid itself wasn't particularly interesting. What was interesting was the contrast between the peppery and sweet components of the course, leading to an Asian-like essence to the whole dish. Better than the first time, though I'm still not enamored with it.

12: Foie Gras Terrine
Cranberry, Cardamom, Greek Yogurt, Flatbread. This was one of the best dishes on my last visit here, and once again, it did not disappoint. The terrine showed off the delicate, yet rich, flavors of the foie gras, while the cranberry gelée built upon that base with a lovely sweetness. Amazingly, my dining companion, who nearly vomited upon having foie gras at TRU in Chicago, actually liked it. A standout.

13: Spring Garlic Soup
Preserved Meyer Lemon, Parsley, Country Bread. The essence of garlic pervaded this surprisingly rich and hearty soup, punctuated by the acidity of lemon and the crispness of the vegetables. The bread was pleasant but pretty much unnecessary.

14: White Asparagus Risotto
Porcini, Chervil, Castelmagno Cheese. I quite liked the flavor of the risotto, with the asparagus and mushroom present but well integrated into the dish. The Castelmagno, meanwhile, added weight and gravity, but too much so in my opinion, muddling a bit of the flavor.

15: Tai Snapper
Tapioca-Crusted, Broccoli Rabe, White Soy Vinaigrette. Upon tasting this, both my dining companion and I instantly noted a distinct Chinese influence, with the accoutrements almost giving it a somewhat "sweet & sour" flavor. The texture, meanwhile, was also akin to Chinese-style fried fish, with a firm yet yielding consistency. Overall very nice--a welcomed addition to the menu.

16: Black Cod
Spaghetti Squash, Bluefoot Mushrooms, Foie Gras Dashi. We had a very similar dish last time, but with matsutake mushrooms instead of blue foot. The combination of mushroom, foie gras, and dashi gave the dish a decidedly "funky" flavor, which dominated whatever flavor was left from the cod. Not a fan of this one.

17: Maine Lobster Pot Pie
Brandied Lobster Cream, Baby Vegetables. The lobster itself was rich, buttery, sweet, with a texture that was tender yet with a nice bite, while the veggies added some color and variety to the course. I especially enjoyed the light, fluffy pie crust in relation to the rest of the dish. Not the most inventive dish, but delicious.

18: Jidori Chicken
Truffled Mac & Cheese, Caramelized Onion Sauce. I'm a fan of mac & cheese, so the truffled, super-cheesy version here suited me well. However, it overpowered the chicken somewhat, which by itself was tender, delicate, and juicy. My dining companion, meanwhile, absolutely loved the onion rings (which I likened to Funyuns).

19: Berkshire Pork
Crispy Pork Belly and Leg, Pea Leaves, Salted Cashew. Basically a duo of pork. I first tried the leg, which was smoky and savory, lean but still moist. The belly was a holdover from before, and was extraordinarily rich and fatty as expected--too much so by itself, but excellent with the pea leaves. The lemon sauce, which was overpowering last time, was fortunately toned down a bit.

At this point, my dining companion was finished with regard to booze, but I continued on with the cocktails, this time a Hylo Swizzle (Mount Gay Eclipse, Velvet Falernum, Parfait Amour, Fresh Lemon, "Swizzled") [$14]. The drink is variation on the famous rum swizzle, "Bermuda's national drink," which is traditionally made with dark rum, fruit juice, and falernum (a sweet syrup used in Caribbean cocktails). This version also included Parfait Amour, a curaçao-based liqueur. The end result was quite pleasing; the base was definitely rum, but it was layered with floral, fruity, tart, and spicy notes.

20: Kobe Burger
French Fries, Farmhouse Cheddar. This was a scaled down version of the standard Kobe burger, so it was more akin to a slider--all the rage these days. In any case, it was one of the most decadent burgers I've had. The meat was nearly ridiculously unctuous, with an almost foie gras-esque flavor. Its richness was aptly cut by the tang of the veggies and sauce. The fries were also a force to be reckoned with. Cooked in duck fat, they were wonderfully crisp, with an herbal zest that was complemented nicely by the surprisingly tart "ketchup."

21: Liberty Duck Breast
Seared Foie Gras, Leg Confit, Pineapple, Star Anise. The duck was quite flavorful on its own, with a taste that was accented by the use of anise. I felt though that the pineapple added a bit too much sweetness to the dish, distracting me from the duck. As for the foie, it was a fairly typical seared presentation; my dining companion didn't enjoy this one quite as much as the terrine (nor did I).

22: Prime Rib Eye
Potato Trio, Roasted Beet Diane Sauce. A nicely done piece of meat, with a great charred exterior and flavorful interior, fatty enough but not overwhelmingly so. The sauce gave the beef just a hint of sweetness without drawing attention away from the meat.

23: Angus Filet Mignon
Short Rib Tortellini, Baby Root Vegetables. A lean but flavorful presentation of beef--I wouldn't mind eating a full size portion of this. The veggies actually went a long way to counter the richness of the meat, and the tortellini, filled with braised short rib, was superb, and could really be a standalone dish.

24: California Lamb Skewer
Loin, Merguez Sausage, Chickpea, Raita. Alternating bits of lamb loin and Merguez sausage (a spicy sausage from North Africa) made up the skewer. The result was phenomenal, a combination of the succulent flavor of lamb commingled with the spiciness of the Merguez. This intensity was moderated and complemented by the cool raita and mild chickpea purée. Easily the most exciting of the meat dishes, and one of the few (unfortunately) that give a peek into Mina's middle-eastern heritage.

For some reason, the final meat course, the strip loin, was skipped. Not a huge loss, but a bit perplexing. Thus, with the savories dispensed with, it was now time for just about the most creative presentations of cheese and dessert this side of Alinea.

My final cocktail was the New York Sour (Bulleit, Fresh Lemon, Egg White, "Claret") [$13]. A sour is a cocktail with a whiskey base, lemon or lime juice, and a sweetener. The whiskey here was Bulleit, a straight American bourbon characterized by its high rye content and long aging. It gave the drink a woody, spicy, smoky flavor that was tempered by the other ingredients. I was especially intrigued by the use of "claret," a term that typically refers to Bordeaux-style wine.

25: Abbaye de Belloc
Quince, Candied Mustard Seed, Sorrel. Things got off to a great start with the Abbaye de Belloc, an unpasteurized semi-hard sheep's milk cheese from the Basque region of France. It had a mild, creamy, subtly sweet flavor that was matched perfectly with the apple-like sweetness of the quince, while the mustards seeds added a crunchy textural contrast.

26: 5 Year Gouda
Hoisin, Roasted Peanuts. Gouda is a cow's milk cheese originating from Holland. The cheese is fairly salty, but can age for several years, developing a sweetness in the process. That sweetness was paired up nicely with the home-made hoisin and its savory/sweet flavor. Finally, the use of peanuts gave the whole commixture a nutty finish.

27: Delice d'Argental
Preserved Plum, Juniper Shortbread. Delice d'Argental is a semi-soft triple-creme pasteurized cow's milk cheese from Bourgogne; it contains crème fraîche, giving it a bit of a tang along with added richness. The cheese pairs well with sweet items, and the plum and honey fit that role deftly, adding depth to the otherwise mild cheese.

28: Fourme d'Ambert
Royal Tokaji, Celery, Black Walnuts. The Fourme d'Ambert is a semi-hard pasteurized cow's milk blue cheese from the Auvergne region of France. The cheese was strong, salty, and nutty on its own, but was expertly tempered by the sweetness of the Royal Tokaji gelée, while the celery provided a refreshing element to the dish.

29: Selles-sur-Cher
Jackfruit, Pistachio, Mimosa Flower. Selles-sur-Cher is a French goat's milk cheese, one that I actually had just days earlier at Mélisse. I must say that I preferred this presentation. The jackfruit provided a delicate sweetness that drew out the mild flavor of the cheese, while the pistachio gave the dish a nutty flavor and wonderful, crunchy finish.

30: Brandied Bananas
Jasmine Ice Cream, Cashew Shortbread, English Toffee. The presence of banana in the dessert was pervasive, but there was so much more going on. Its flavor was countered by the rich caramel smokiness of the toffee and the cool tang of the jasmine ice cream, while the finish was awash with the salty nuttiness of cashew.

31: Grapefruit Sorbet
Greek Yogurt, Kaffir Lime Meringue. An absolutely fanciful looking dessert, this managed to turn an otherwise pedestrian ingredient (grapefruit sorbet) into something truly special. The sorbet itself was infused with the sweet essence of grapefruit, which was mitigated by the light tartness of the yogurt and meringues. At the same time, the meringues provided a fascinating texture to the dessert--light, fluffy, hard, almost like Styrofoam.

32: Macallan Butterscotch
Winter Squash Cake, Toasted Milk Ice Cream, Malt. The overt sweetness of the butterscotch really formed the base of this "shake," heightened and accentuated by the use of woody, smoky, Macallan Scotch. The malt proved to be the perfect accent to this combination, recalling the various malted shakes of my childhood. Very good.

33: Opéra Torte
Almond Milk Ice Cream, Apricot Purée. An opera torte is a multilayered cake, typically made with alternating layers of cream, chocolate, and sponge cake. The torte would've been good on its own, but here it was further elevated by the interplay between the mild, nutty ice cream and tart apricot purée.

34: Dark Chocolate Cake
Spearmint Ganache, Coconut Sorbet. A mere "chocolate cake" might seem boring, but Kahn manages to spice things up here as well, using the mintiness of the ganache and cool tang of the sorbet as foils to the rich bitterness of the dark chocolate. I really liked the somewhat "organic" presentation here as well. A fitting end to our meal.

At the end of the dinner, Chef Fretz gave us a tour of the kitchen, where we were also able to meet Jordan Kahn.

Last time, I wrote that XIV was "surprisingly good." I'm happy to report that the restaurant seems to have been able to keep up this positive momentum, a few weak courses notwithstanding. My desire is that they keep refining and rationalizing the menu, getting rid of ineffectual dishes (as they did with the dreadful Pumpkin Dumplings), introducing new ones, revamping older ones, and bringing back some of the classics (White Chocolate Cube anyone?). The food is as serious and as strong as before, but I sincerely hope that Mina and company can keep it at this level in the face of economic turmoil and persistent Hollywood douche bag crowds--I don't want XIV turning into another Apple.