Tuesday, April 28, 2009

5x5 Chef's Collaborative (Los Angeles, CA) [3]

5x5 Chef's Collaborative
5955 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90038
Thu 04/28/2009, 09:30p-12:35a

Once again, Providence kicked off the annual 5x5 Chef's Collaborative dinner series. Now in their third year, these dinners were started in order to foster a stronger community among chefs and restaurateurs in Los Angeles. In addition to providing the chefs with a chance to network and cook some great meals, a portion of the proceeds from the dinners benefit the Southern California Special Olympics. Here's the complete 2009 schedule:

• Tuesday, April 28 at Providence (guest chef Alessandro Stratta of Alex, Las Vegas, NV)
• Sunday, May 17 at Mélisse (guest chef Gabriel Kreuther of The Modern, New York, NY)
• Monday, June 15 at Grace (guest chef Sean McClain of Spring, Chicago, IL)
• Sunday, August 23 at Water Grill (guest chef Curtis Duffy of The Avenues, Chicago, IL)
• Monday, September 21 at Angelini Osteria (guest chef Paul Bartolotta of Bartolotta, Las Vegas, NV)

In each dinner, each of the five "core" chefs and one guest chef prepare one dish in a multi-course meal; in addition, the host restaurant's pastry chef is responsible for dessert. This year's fab five are: Gino Angelini (Angelini Osteria, Minestraio Trattoria), Michael Cimarusti (Providence), Josiah Citrin (Mélisse), Neal Fraser (Grace), and David LeFevre (Water Grill). Fraser replaces Walter Manzke, who was let go from Bastide last year prior to the beginning of the 2008 dinner series; Manzke is currently heading the kitchen over at Church & State. And just in case you were wondering, the inaugural group consisted of: Cimarusti, Citrin, and LeFevre, along with Angelo Auriana (Valentino) and Christophe Emé (Ortolan).

Also present at this dinner were Brian and Will of FoodDigger, Danny of Kung Food Panda, Mike of Right Way to Eat, and Ryan of Only Eat What Feeds Your Soul. My original intent was to attend all five dinners this year, but unfortunately that won't be possible. On May 17th, I plan on returning to Alinea in Chicago--the restaurant that started it all. And on June 15th, I should be enjoying a 14-course "kaiseki" meal at Bar Charlie in Las Vegas. The last two 5x5 dinners are still open, however.

Providence 5x5 Menu Providence 5x5 Menu Providence 5x5 Menu
The seven-course 5x5 menu [$150] was the only menu option naturally, but we did have the choice of going with either a standard wine pairing [$65] or a premium version [$150]. One of the things I look forward to is securing a menu signed by all seven chefs (FYI: in the photo, the chefs are at the base of the Angels Flight funicular railway near Bunker Hill in Downtown LA). Click for larger versions.

Olive Focaccia and Plain Roll Butter and Salt
The two types of bread on offer were an olive focaccia and a plain roll. As always, in addition to lovely, subtly sweet pats of butter, salt was duly provided.

Hokkaido Scallop Uni
Greyhound Cocktail Sea Trout
Amuse Bouche: quartet of amuse bouche [by Michael Cimarusti of Providence]
We started with a selection of amuse bouches from Cimarusti. First was a sliver of Hokkaido scallop over a bed of Sriracha and mayonnaise, topped with crispy puffed rice. What made this bite was the rice, which had an almost popcorn-like savor. It complemented the sweetness of the scallop, and added a great textural contrast to the creamy mollusk as well. Next up, we had a dollop of uni over tomato. The sea urchin roe was subtly sweet and creamy as expected, but was deftly foiled by the tart, tangy tomato--quite nice. Third was a Greyhound cocktail spherification. A Greyhound is a vodka or gin based cocktail enhanced with grapefruit juice. I think that the essence of the drink was captured nicely here, with the sphere exploding in my mouth with an intensely grapefruit-y burst; very fun and refreshing. Finally, we were presented with Tasmanian sea trout over salmon skin, with soy sauce crème fraîche. The crisp, salty salmon skin was an excellent contrast to the mild, creamy trout--absolutely lovely. Overall, this was a superb way to kick things off.

Hamachi Sashimi Hamachi Sashimi
1: hamachi sashimi | ton buri, asian pear, red radish and fennel [by David LeFevre of Water Grill]
taittinger, cuvée prestige m.v.
Sashimi is always a fitting start to a meal. The hamachi here had a great texture: tender, not too fatty, with a mild, slightly savory flavor. It came topped with tonburi, the dried seed of the cypress tree, which gave the fish a lovely, salty zing; the yellowtail was further heightened by the tart crème fraîche and radish sauce. The hamachi was paired with a Dungeness crab and shiso tempura, over Asian pear. The crab's natural sweetness was a great counterpart to the mintiness of the shiso, while that sweetness was further accentuated by the pear. Interestingly, the wine pairing, the Taittinger, was the exactly same wine we started off with last year. Really a quintessential expression of the style, its crisp, dry flavor was a superb complement to the sashimi.

Shellfish 'Printanière'
2: shellfish "printanière" | santa barbara prawns, abalone, japanese sword squid, clams, lemongrass-shellfish emulsion [by Josiah Citrin of Mélisse]
riesling kabinett, "serrig würtzberg" bert simon 1998
The idea behind this dish was to celebrate the arrival of spring--a lofty goal, but I think Citrin did an admirable job. Rather than simply melding into a homogeneous mélange of sorts, every element here made its unique presence felt. I was able to experience different tastes and textures in each bite, and the briny, ocean-y smack of the seafood was elevated even further by the tangy emulsion of lemongrass, as well as the subtly sour sorrel panna cotta. The course was paired with a Riesling Kabinett, which was actually less fruity and grassier than I'd anticipated. It also had a blunt acidity that actually went well with the food; a sharp acidity would've overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the shellfish.

Sautéed Wild Striped Bass Sautéed Wild Striped Bass
3: sautéed wild striped bass | white carrot purée, nettles, fava beans, fennel pollen [by Neal Fraser of Grace]
chardonnay, hartford court "four hearts vineyards" 2005
Here, I really enjoyed the fish's soft, flaky texture in concert with its rich, fatty flavor, intensified by the savory skin (which could've been a touch crisper). The bass would've been too monolithic on its own, so fortunately it was paired with the nettle, which provided a slightly bitter flavor contrast. The favas, meanwhile, gave the dish a fantastic crunch. Although I wasn't a huge fan of the Chardonnay initially, at first finding its grassy minerality overpowering, the fish really tempered it, bringing out the fruit flavors I was looking for, providing for a better, more multifaceted wine.

Barley Timbale
4: barley timbale | peas, artichokes, foie gras, mushroom sauce [by Gino Angelini of Angelini Osteria]
pino nero, "meczan" j. hofstätter 2007
When eating this, I immediately thought of the sault farrow dish (L'Epeautre) I had at Joël Robuchon. It was really the texture that stood out here: slightly hard, chewy, yet yielding. Think of it as barley risotto wrapped in spinach and topped with foie gras, tomato, and porcini sauce. The barley had a rich, heavy flavor with a touch of sweetness; had it not been for the astringency of the spinach and tartness of the tomato, it would've been too overwhelming. The foie gras was interesting as well; it started out very mild, but its flavor got progressively stronger on the finish; in any case, it was one of the best hot preparations of foie I'd had in a while. The wine here, an Italian Pinot Noir basically, showed nice dark berry flavors with a bit of spice and acidity--it was light, but powerful enough to stand up to the dish.

Roasted Duck 'Apicius' Roasted Duck 'Apicius'
5: roasted duck "apicius" | spiced pineapple, rhubarb and celery root [by Alex Stratta of Alex]
grenache, domaine de la pertuisane 2005
Our final savory, this course pays homage to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a legendary Roman gourmand. Apicius is known for his use of seasonings made with wine, vinegar, honey, and spices, hence this roasted duck with shellfish glaze, herbs, and red wine vinegar reduction. While the bird itself was tasty, somewhat like a Chinese roast duck, its accoutrements resulted in the whole amalgam being a bit too sweet and spicy, overpowering the natural flavor of the duck. The pineapple especially was too severe, though I really enjoyed the celeriac. This intense bird needed an equally intense wine, and the Grenache was well up to the task. Apparently made from the fruit of 98-year old vines, the Pertuisane put forth a spicy, herbal, fruity profile that really stood up to the duck.

Un Café à Bordeaux Un Café à Bordeaux
6: un café à bordeaux | canelé ice cream, coffee parfait and toasted hazelnuts [by Adrian Vasquez of Providence]
vin santo, antinori 2005
A Bordeaux specialty, the canelé is a type of small French pastry traditionally made from egg, milk, and flour. Now, instead of just a mere canelé, Vasquez fills his "canelé" cake with a cold liquid café au lait center, and moves the canelé's rum-vanilla flavor to the ice cream. To top it off, he tosses in hazelnuts and barley, giving the dessert a wonderfully nutty finish. The interplay of textures and tastes was simply fantastic, and I wasn't surprised to hear that the dish had become part of Providence's regular dessert menu. The wine we had here was a Vin Santo, a type of Italian dessert wine from Tuscany made with Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. Its flavor was not unlike that of sherry, with a dryness and nuttiness that balanced the sweetness of the dessert.

There is a restaurant in Los Angeles called Canelé, and as an aside, I asked Chef Cimarusti, who was at the table during dessert, what he thought of the place. He responded that he visited when the restaurant first opened, and thought that it provided good, simple food. Apparently, Canelé is also the favorite restaurant of blogger Mattatouille.

With the meal nearly over with, we were brought a two small plates of house-made candies. Left to right, they were: white chocolate with kalamansi and mint (a nice interaction between sweet, sour, and minty); milk chocolate with coconut green tea (my favorite); and dark chocolate with coffee and erfah (a typical coffee and chocolate pairing).

Lollipop Mignardises
Mignardises 2
After the first serving of candies, we asked for Providence's infamous lollipops. Unfortunately, they only had three left. Since I'd never had one before, I was allowed one of the milk chocolate lollys topped with cardamom. It wasn't what I expected; I was picturing an ice cream-like center (à la Michael Mina), but instead, upon mastication, I got a bracing burst of passion fruit liquid that coated my mouth! One of my dining companions found the sensation rather disconcerting. To compensate those that didn't get the lollipop experience, another plate of chocolates were given, this time: dark chocolate with coffee and erfah once again; white chocolate with hazelnut and jelly; and apricot and saffron.

The 5x5's just keep getting better. Compared to last year's event at Providence, the dishes seemed to be stronger on average, and the meal as a whole was more balanced, more cohesive. However, at the same time, the dishes still showed off the differences in style, flair, and approach among the chefs. I'm already looking forward to next year!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Brodard (Garden Grove, CA)

9892 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92844
Sat 04/25/2009, 07:25p-09:00p

If there is any dining establishment in Little Saigon that deserves to be christened iconic, Brodard would be it. The restaurant's legendary reputation was build almost solely on the back of its nem nuong cuon, or grilled pork spring rolls, and it's these rolls that customers flock to the restaurant for, time and time again. Brodard was started many years ago in South Central Vietnam (near Ninh Hoa, where nem nuong was created), not as a restaurant, but as a French bakery. The owners moved Brodard to Little Saigon eventually, where it was transformed into the mainstream Vietnamese restaurant it is today.

I've been going to Brodard for years, yet this is the first time I've blogged about it (though I have written about its higher-end sister restaurant, Brodard Chateau). After Wandering Chopsticks' Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 dinner at Binh Dan, we were all feeling a bit unsated, and decided to hit up Brodard. Joining WC and I were Aaron of Food Destination, Danny of Kung Food Panda, and Mike of Right Way to Eat.

Brodard Exterior Brodard Exterior
Brodard is situated in the Mall of Fortune. In the first photo, we see the mall's front entrance; enter here, and you'll have navigate yourself toward the rear of the structure to find Brodard. The preferred mode of entry, thus, is to go around the mall and enter through the rear (second photo).

Interestingly, this is actually Brodard's second location in Little Saigon. It was previously housed in Frank Jao's $3 million New Saigon Mall, an enclosed single-story bazaar situated at the rear of Asian Village Mall. Constructed in 1997, the mall was meant to draw in young, savvy shoppers but failed miserably; its location, set far back from Bolsa behind a 99 Ranch supermarket, didn't help either. The mall was subsequently demolished, and by 2002, new tract homes had been built on its former site. The only thing that remains of New Saigon is the Cultural Court and its lonesome white statues.

Brodard Interior Brodard Interior
The interior is comprised of one large dining room, typically brimming with energy. It's a light, fun space filled with people from all walks of life.

Brodard Menu Brodard Menu
Brodard Menu Brodard Menu Brodard Menu
Brodard Menu Brodard Menu Brodard Menu
The menu is large, but most every table will start off with at least one order of the signature nem nuong cuon. The rest of the menu can be hit-or-miss. Click for larger versions.

'33' Beer
Ah, "33" beer, otherwise known as Ba Moui Ba. Though regarded as a Vietnamese beer, "33" was actually created by the French, for use in their colonial markets. "33" is now brewed by Heineken in France and under license by BGI Tien Giang/Fosters in Vietnam. And as for the name "33," it apparently comes from the beer having been available in 330mL bottles at a time when the 650mL format was prevalent. Flavor-wise, it's typical of the style--light, subtly ricey and floral, refreshing, and quite good with Vietnamese fare.

House Special Sauce
Nem Nuong Cuon Nem Nuong Cuon
Nem Nuong Cuon [$7.50 for 5]
Pork Spring Rolls - grilled pork paste wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, cucumber, carrot, daikon and mint served with house special sauce. I've had the nem nuong cuon on every visit to Brodard, and they never fail to deliver. The marinated pork provides most of the flavor base for the roll, but it's perfectly accented by the various veggies involved, the mint especially; the end result is a sweet/savory contrast, leading to a slightly sweet finish. Texturally, the crisp cucumber, carrot, and daikon give the rolls a delightful crunch, a fantastic snap that is heightened even further with the addition of a crispy egg roll shell wrapper (a South Central Vietnamese touch). However, nem nuong cuon are as much about the roll as they are about the dipping sauce. The sauce is really an integral part of the whole experience, providing contrasting, complex flavors of sweet, sour, and savory, simultaneously. The sauce is light, yet meaty, pungent, yet delicate; it integrates, and punctuates the rolls. I'm a bit surprised that no one's been able to duplicate it yet.

Chao Tom Cuon Chao Tom Cuon
Chao Tom Cuon [$10.00 for 5]
Shrimp Spring Rolls - grilled shrimp paste wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, carrot, daikon, mint and cucumber served with house special sauce. Besides, the nem nuong cuon, I usually order the chao tom cuon as well. Basically, it's the former with the substitution of shrimp paste for pork. This results in a similar, though subtly different experience. I find that the shrimp is slightly sweeter in flavor, and also has a crunchier consistency. They're delicious, and just as satisfying.

Binh Tom Co Ngu Lime Chili Fish Sauce
Binh Tom Co Ngu [$6.95]
Shrimp and sweet potato tempura served with Asian greens and lime chili fish sauce. A Northern Vietnamese dish, the way to eat this is to break off pieces of the shrimp and potato, wrap them in lettuce and herbs, and apply fish sauce. Both major elements here, the potato and the shrimp, had sweet undertones, so the tangy sauce was an excellent complement, as was the addition of turmeric spice. Furthermore, the veggies were absolutely instrumental in balancing the weight of the dish. And though I'm not usually a fan of sweet potato fries, the preparation here was much to my liking, better than any version I've had at places such as The Counter.

Banh Khot
Banh Khot [$6.95]
Luna rice cake - seven crispy rice cakes filled with whole shrimp, mung bean and scallion flavor with a dash of turmeric powder served with Asian greens and lime chili fish sauce. A Southern specialty, these had an intensely coconut attack, one that was emphasized by the included fish sauce. It was actually too sweet for me initially. However, the sweetness was tempered significiantly when eaten with the included vegetables and tangy, crunchy pickles. Not bad.

About all I can say is that, if you're in the area and haven't experienced Brodard's nem nuong cuon, please, go ahead and give it a try; it'll be part of your foodie cred, and you probably won't be disappointed!

Binh Dan (Westminster, CA)

Binh Dan
10040 McFadden Ave, Westminster, CA 92683
www.yelp.com/biz/binh-dan-restaurant-westminster (Yelp, restaurant has no web site)
Sat 04/25/2009, 06:05p-07:10p

Most of us are familiar with bo 7 mon, the famous seven courses of Vietnamese beef. Start with that, replace the beef with goat, move a few notches down on the classiness scale, and you're left with what we have here: de 7 mon (seven courses of goat) at Binh Dan in Westminster. The restaurant is well known for its goat dishes; Binh Dan sources its meat from the owner's father's goat farm in Riverside, and the kitchen is adept at mitigating goat's signature gamey flavor. The name of the restaurant, binh dan, means "commoner," and that nomenclature is glaringly evident here, from the ambiance to the people to the cuisine. Binh Dan features mon nhau, or "alcohol food," that is, food meant to be eaten with booze. In fact, goat is not typically consumed in Vietnamese cuisine, save for mon nhau-style dishes.

So...this obviously isn't the type of place I usually frequent. The impetus for my meal here was Wandering Chopsticks, who had organized her Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 meal at Binh Dan (Foodbuzz's "24 Meals, 24 Hours, 24 Blogs" concept showcases posts from 24 Featured Publishers over a 24-hour period, with Foodbuzz picking up the tab). In addition to me, WC also invited Aaron of Food Destination, Danny of Kung Food Panda, and Mike of Right Way to Eat.

Binh Dan Exterior Binh Dan Exterior
Binh Dan is located in a rather nondescript strip mall on the southern edge of Little Saigon. The place looks decent from the outside...

Binh Dan Interior Binh Dan Interior
Wandering Chopsticks had chosen Binh Dan in part to mark the Fall of Saigon, which took place on April 30, 1975, effectively ending the Vietnam War. Stepping inside Binh Dan, I could imagine myself stepping inside a quan nhau drinking establishment in 70's era Saigon; the Nixon-era fixtures and furnishings were belied only by the presence of a computer and LCD monitor. I was the first one of my party to arrive, and as an "outsider," I did not feel welcomed.

Binh Dan Menu Binh Dan Menu Binh Dan Menu
Binh Dan's surprisingly comprehensive menu is shown above; click for larger versions. The de 7 mon is listed right up top at $16.50 per person; we ordered two servings and also a couple of specials (posted on the wall). Underneath the de 7 mon are the mon nhau dishes, followed by some more typical Vietnamese fare. Note that only certain items are subtitled in English; my guess is that those are meant to be the less intimidating dishes.

Paulaner Hefe-Weizen Maredsous Tripel Iced Beer Mug
Since we were having mon nhau, beer was definitely in order. Not impressed with Binh Dan's pedestrian selection of Bud, Corona, and "Lite," I took the initiative to provide our own libations. Wandering Chopsticks had worked out a $1 corkage arrangement with the restaurant beforehand, but said agreement was tossed out the window once we were actually there. Fortunately, though we were warned never to bring outside beer again, they did let it slip this time. We ended up attaching the "corkage" fee in the tip. We first had the Paulaner Hefe-Weizen, really a prototypical example of the style, with notes of lemon, spice, and banana, all balanced by a nice hoppy bitterness. The other beer was the Maredsous Tripel from Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat. It was a more distinctive brew than the hef, with a fruity nose, loads of apple and stone fruit on the palate, and a bit of heat on the finish. Both went well enough with the food. What was fascinating was my beer mug, which had a puck of ice lodged on the bottom. What they do is fill a mug with water, and stick it in the freezer; I'm not sure if that's ghetto or genius, maybe both?

Thai Basil, Sawtooth, Cilantro, Mint, Lemon
The first plate to appear on our table was filled with Thai basil, sawtooth (ngo gai, or Eryngium foetidum), cilantro, mint, and lemon.

Nuoc Mam and Soy Sauce Peanut Sauce
We were given the standard nuoc mam fish sauce as well as soy sauce. In addition, what I believe was peanut sauce was provided.

Tiet Canh De Banh Trang Me
1: Tiet Canh De
The first course of the meal was also the most menacing. What we have here is goat blood pudding, basically a mixture of congealed blood and minced meat, topped with liver slices, peanuts, and cilantro. You eat this by scooping up the amalgam with the included banh trang me (toasted sesame rice cracker). The flavor of the tiet canh de wasn't particularly appealing, though it wasn't offensive either; instead, it was rather nondescript, but with a somewhat disconcerting finish.

De Xao Lan Rice Noodles
2: De Xao Lan
The de xao lan was goat, stir fried with curry, served with rice noodles. The meat itself was surprisingly tender, and flavor-wise, was nicely complemented by the curry. The veggies (onion, bell pepper, and ngo om--rice paddy herb) provided a nice contrast, balancing the power of the meat.

De Vu Nuong
Supplement: De Vu Nuong [$8.50]
Our first special of the meal was a dish of grilled goat udder, de vu nuong. I believe this was seasoned with the same curry used in the stir fry dish above, though the udder was noticeably stronger in flavor. It was balanced with a light spiciness, and well as the peanuts and scallion. Texture-wise, some pieces were indeed quite chewy, as you might expect from udder, but overall, this was actually quite innocuous.

De Luc Lac Salt, Pepper, Lemon
Supplement: De Luc Lac [$8.50]
You should be familiar with bo luc lac or "shaking beef," basically cubed beef sautéed with vegetables. Substitute goat for beef, and you get this, de luc lac. This was easily the most non-threatening dish of the night, and I had a hard time identifying this as uniquely goat, save for the rather tough texture. It had a mild, subtly sweet flavor that went beautifully with the included pepper and lemon. I also quite enjoyed the refreshing selection of vegetable accompaniments.

De Nuong and De Nuong La Lot Mo Chai Mam Ruoc
3 & 4: De Nuong & De Nuong La Lot Mo Chai
Next, we have two courses on one plate: Grilled goat (de nuong) and grilled ground goat with wild betel leaves encased in caul fat (de nuong la lot mo chai), served with mam ruoc (fermented shrimp paste). The simply grilled goat had a nice sweet/spicy flavor contrast going, and I appreciated the light sapor of the sesame seed topping. The ground goat was more interesting, with the wild betel adding a bit of vegetal sweetness to the meat (it reminded me of grape leaves). I enjoyed both preparations.

De Ca Ri
5: De Ca Ri
De ca ri is a goat curry stew, made with Indian-influenced Madras curry powder (the only type used in Vietnamese cuisine, apparently). The goat was tender enough, but flavor-wise, it was completely dominated by the curry.

De Nhua Man
6: De Nhua Man
This was a goat stew, though even Wandering Chopsticks was unsure as to exactly what kind. According to one of her commenters, it might have been stew prepared in the style of dog meat. In any case, the dish had a distinctly tangy flavor, with cuts of rather tendinous pieces of goat. This didn't go over too well with me.

De Tiem Thuoc Bac
7: De Tiem Thuoc Bac
Another goat stew, this time with Chinese medicinal herbs. Unfortunately, the herbs pretty much obliterated any other flavors in the dish. Not a huge fan of this.

So...though I certainly didn't love everything I ate here, it was a unique experience to be sure. Binh Dan might be worth a visit if you're in the mood for something adventurous, a bit off the beaten path, and $2 for beers ain't a bad price either! Thanks again to Wandering Chopsticks for organizing the event, and for helping me with the proper names and descriptions of the dishes.