Saturday, October 31, 2009

Musha (Santa Monica, CA)

424 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Sat 10/31/2009, 06:00p-07:15p

What do food bloggers do for Halloween? Go out to eat, of course! For All Hallow's Eve this year, Christine of Folie à Choisauce organized a small get-together at Musha, an izakaya in Santa Monica helmed by general manager/chef extraordinaire Taku Suzuki (there's also a sister location in Torrance). For the uninitiated, izakayas are basically Japanese-style pubs, featuring small, savory plates of food meant to be paired with beer and/or sake. The atmosphere inside an izakaya is usually fun, festive, flirty, lubricated by the omnipresent flow of booze--the ideal vibe for a Halloween dinner. And if you're wondering about the name, in Japanese, musha musha is the sound effect for eating, basically the onomatopoeic counterpart of the English echoism nom nom (which was itself first popularized by Cookie Monster, and subsequently by LOLcats).

Also in attendance for the dinner portion of the evening were Danny of Kung Food Panda, Nathan of Binary Tastebuds, Sonja of The Active Foodie, as well as Christine's oppa, John.

Musha Exterior
Musha is located in the heart of Santa Monica, sandwiched between Wahoo's Fish Tacos and a Chevron gas station. Parking can be tricky on the street, so I'd recommend one of the many public parking structures in the area, which command a flat rate of $3 after 6:00. The nearest one is on the southwest corner of 4th and Wilshire.

Musha Interior
We were pretty much the first party to arrive, so the place was nearly empty to begin with, but would later teem with throngs of revelers and roisterers (the rotund-ish man in the doorway, dressed in a UPS uniform, is none other than Taku-san). Being early did allow us, however, to commandeer the private tatami room in the back, which accommodates up to 10 people (minimum charge of $200).

Musha Menu Musha Menu Musha Menu Musha Menu
Musha Menu Musha Menu Musha Menu Musha Menu
Musha's menu, full of colorful descriptions and endearing grammatical errors (such as the seemingly nonsensical "Chiller Santa Monica! Yes, we need this!!"), is a joy just to read; click for larger versions. In Japan, sushi and sashimi aren't considered popular izakaya fare, and though the versions in Los Angeles tend to offer raw fish items, I'd stick with the grilled, fried, and otherwise cooked courses.

Musha Drink Menu Musha Drink Menu Musha Drink Menu
Since izakayas are, at their heart, drinking establishments, the drink menu must be considered as well. A selection of beer, wine, shochu, and sake is on offer, but no liquor; click for larger versions. We ordered up two pitchers of Sapporo Draft [$12], as well as three decanters of sake: first the Yoshi No Gawa [$18] from Niigata, then the Hananomai [$18] from Shizuoka, and finally the premium Hakkaisan [$28] from Niigata.

Spicy Tuna Dip
Spicy Tuna Dip [$8.95]
We started with one of Musha's most famous dishes. Everybody's had a spicy tuna roll at some point, but here it's served as a dip, paired with crispy rice crackers. As expected, it was a quite tasty, a gorgeous amalgam of rich tuna and spicy sauce, heightened by a fantastic crunch from the rice, with a bit of lingering heat. Nice.

Aburi Saba Aburi Saba Aburi Saba
Aburi Saba [$11.00]
Christine insisted that we just had to order this, so we did: a dish of vinegar-marinated mackerel filet, sliced and torched tableside, garnished with gari, wasabi, and karashi. The searing really brought out the oiliness of the saba, but fortunately, its fishiness was relatively tame. It was pretty good by itself, but positively superb when paired with the acerbic, biting tang of the ginger. Note: our server was a guy, in drag (remember, it was Halloween); some of us, though, did have to do a double take!

Lobster Roll
Lobster Roll [$7.95]
As regular readers will know, I usually eschew rolls, but somehow agreed to this. It was lobster, avocado, cucumber, masago roe, and mayo, rolled up in seaweed and soy paper, sans rice. It certainly wasn't offensive, but the essence of lobster was really lost here, and the flavors in general seemed muddled, indistinct.

Tofu French Fries
Tofu French Fries [$5.95]
How do you get uptight Americans to eat tofu? Cut it up into parallelepiped form, deep fry the suckers, and call 'em French fries. Seriously though, this wasn't bad at all. The "fries" were pretty mild flavor-wise, so really the sauce was the key here. Creamy wasabi and sweet chili condiments were provided; the latter was a bit too sweet for my tastes, but the tofu was superb with the former.

Negitoro Tuna Croquette
Negitoro Tuna Croquette [$6.95]
Next was negi (green onion) and toro (tuna), minced into a slurry along with garlic, pepper, and hijiki seaweed, breaded, and tossed into the deep fryer. Though my croquette was perhaps a touch dry, I rather enjoyed it, a nice admixture of savory tuna, tarted up by the tang of scallion. Even better with the paired grated daikon-mayo dip.

M.F.C [$7.95]
No, M.F.C doesn't stand for Most Fobbiest Chicken; rather, it's Musha Fried Chicken, or soy sauce/sake/ginger/garlic-marinated chicken filet, breaded with cornstarch, deep fried, and served with two kinds of grated daikon, as well as ponzu. It certainly was tasty enough, albeit a bit blunt, and could've been a touch tenderer. Good, but not at the level of a truly sublime fried chicken (for sublime, refer to Ludo's duck fat fried chicken, the buttermilk fried chicken at Ad Hoc, or Ira's Javanese-style ayam goreng).

Takotama [$6.95]
The menu advertised this as Musha's signature dish, so it was a must try for us. It was basically a two-layer noodle omelet, with octopus (tako), leeks, red ginger, and bonito broth (katsuobushi dashi), smothered in a dark, viscous sauce--think of it as an unholy marriage between takoyaki and okonomiyaki. There was a real multitude of tastes, with the octopus itself acting as more of a textural component. The initial flavor sensation was vaguely reminiscent of Indian-style curry, with the umami-rich flavor of the bonito coming in later.

Tanshio [$8.95]
And now, for a little yakiniku action. Here we have thinly-sliced beef tongue (tan), topped with salt (shio) and pepper, and grilled. Now normally, the grilling is performed by the diners, but given that the tatami room can't accommodate the shichirin charcoal grills normally used, the kitchen had to grill the meat for us. I'm not complaining, as the tongue turned out quite delicious--unctuous, super saporous, imbued with an immensely beefy flavor. Even better when dipped in the provided lemon-sesame oil sauce.

Musha's Risotto Musha's Risotto
Musha's Risotto [$8.80]
This was another dish that Christine insisted upon, but unfortunately, it didn't turn out quite as well as the Aburi Saba. It was basically a Japanese interpretation of classic Italian risotto: brown rice cooked with chicken broth, then pan-fried with Prosciutto, onion, and soy milk. The whole concoction was then mixed tableside in a block of cheese by our lovely "waitress." Great concept, but the execution left me wanting. There was a distinct lack of flavor, like the kitchen forgot to add any salt or seasoning!

Butakim [$7.80]
Next was one of my favorite items of the night: thinly-sliced pork, stir-fried with napa cabbage (baechu) kimchi and mushrooms, doused with soy sauce. The key was the kimchi, which was a superb temper to the savory pork. Great with beer.

Char-Han [$6.95]
Our last savory course was a spicy fried rice with ground pork, Thai chili, bamboo shoot, ginger, garlic, leek, and egg, finished with fish sauce, cilantro, and red ginger. It wasn't very spicy sadly, and the flavor in general was rather muted--I didn't get much of the pork, fish sauce, bamboo, or ginger really. The cilantro was a great touch, though.

Musha Dessert Menu
Interestingly, izakayas in Japan often do not offer dessert. However, Taku-san is a fan of the sweet stuff, so he does push them at Musha. Click for a larger version.

Ume Tea
Before dessert was served, we were given cups of tea, filled with what I believe was umeboshi, or pickled ume fruit.

Maple Crème Brûlée Maple Crème Brûlée
Maple Crème Brûlée [$5.80]
Continuing on with the he-she blowtorch action, we started off with a crème brûlée, caramelized tableside. It was about what you'd expect, with a somewhat heavier, richer flavor from the use of maple syrup flavoring.

Chocolate Souffle
Chocolate Soufflé [$6.00]
Next was the chocolate soufflé cake, basically a chocolate cake with a liquid chocolate interior, served with vanilla gelato. It was certainly tasty enough, the gelato proving a nice counter to the decadence of the chocolate, but variations of the molten chocolate cake are almost clichéd at this point I think.

Apple Tartin Apple Tartin
Apple Tartin [$6.00]
Finally, we have Musha's take on the classic apple tarte tatin, torched tableside, served with the same vanilla gelato as above, along with a sprig of rosemary. It was a fairly standard presentation except for the rosemary, which provided an astringent, herbal counterbalance to the dish.

Conclusively, complementary cuts of cantaloupe to close.

Musha Group Photo with Cross-Dressing Server
And finally, the requisite group photo, minus Nathan (who left to attend a Cirque du Soleil show with Connie of Hey Hey Scenesters), with our lovely server; note "her" use of double fob "V" signs.

Third Street Promenade Third Street Promenade
The night was still young, so we made our way down Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, looking for a nearby bar to wet our whistles...

Copa d'Oro
...Finally settling upon Copa d'Oro, where we were joined by Twitterer and famed cupcake-maker Remil, as well as Dave. We took a seat at the bar...

Sagatiba Cursed Caipirinha
...And ordered up a round of the Halloween night special, the Sagatiba Cursed Caipirinha [$10], a delightful cocktail combining the sweetness of blood orange with the alcoholic bite of cachaça. As we were finishing up our drinks, we moved from the bar to a table...

Sagatiba Shots
...Where we were tempted by the shot girl, who was pushing shots of the aforementioned Sagatiba cachaça [$5], to be chased by small slices of blood orange dipped in a sugar/cinnamon mixture. We succumbed to her charms and accent and ordered a round. The cachaça itself was surprisingly smooth, given its potency, and the chaser was perfect, leaving a lingering sweet spiciness in our mouths. More booze was necessary...

Rhode Island Red & Custom Gin and Ginger
...So Christine decided to ask owner/bartender Vincenzo Marianella for a custom cocktail, utilizing ginger as well as her favorite liquor, gin. The resultant concoction, shown above with the John's Rhode Island Red (sorry for the subpar photo), was absolutely profound in its gingeriness--in the words of the eternally sage Ralph Wiggum: it tastes like burning. Once we polished off the drinks...

Off to Noraebang? Off to Noraebang?
...We made our way outside, to decide where we were going next. But there wasn't much deliberating to be done; there was only one option really: noraebang (Korean-style karaoke). Thus, we wandered back to our cars, and made the trek over to K-Town, stopping at Palmtree LA, supposedly the poshest karaoke joint around (Nathan would join us later on). There won't be any more photos from here on (wisely left my camera in the car), though apparently, there might be a video floating around of me doing a pretty mean rendition of Taylor Swift's Love Story...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gyenari (Culver City, CA)

9540 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
Wed 10/21/2009, 07:00p-10:45p

Opened in August 2008, Gyenari is the brainchild of two Korean partners, Danny Kim and William Shin, as well as Robert Benson, a veteran Los Angeles restaurateur and owner of Creperie by Jack n' Jill's (Benson was also a general manager at Claim Jumper earlier in his career). The idea for Gyenari came to Shin while he was eating at Gyu-Kaku, a higher-end yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) chain, where he noted the similarities between Gyu-Kaku's food and Korean cuisine. The goal of the trio, thus, is to present an authentic Korean dining experience with a fusion twist, all in an upscale setting.

I'd been familiar with Gyenari for a while, but this dinner was a result of the efforts of Meghan Patke, an Account Supervisor at PR firm Wagstaff Worldwide. Now, as a blogger, I get numerous emails from PR people every day, most of which only receive a cursory glance. Meghan's email, however, caught my attention because it featured Debbie Lee, a caterer turned restaurant consultant who's best known as a finalist on The Next Food Network Star. On the show, Lee showcased her signature cuisine, dubbed "Seoul to Soul," a blend of the Korean cookery she learned through her grandmother, and the American Southern style inherited through her mother. Contrary to popular belief, Lee herself was raised in Arizona and later Southern California, not in the American South; her parents, however, did emigrate to Mississippi from the Pyongyang area.

So how did Lee get tied up with Gyenari? Well, it turns out that Lee and co-owner Will Shin were actually cousins who'd lost touch for 20 years! The two met earlier this year at a Next Food Network Star viewing party held at Gyenari, and Shin subsequently asked Lee to consult at the restaurant for a few months, adding her own touches and flourishes to the menu. Some may recall that on June 25, Lee kicked off the Hatchi series of dinners of Breadbar, wherein a chef would prepare eight courses at $8 each, one night only. I was curious about trying Lee's unique brand of fusion (Mandu Sliders with Sweet Brioche anyone?), but didn't manage to make it out. I was thus hoping that this dinner would represent a chance to experience some of what I'd missed out on.

Meghan had organized a rather large group of bloggers. Joining me were Anjali of Delicious Coma, Bill of Street Gourmet LA, Cathy of Gastronomy Blog, Christine of Folie à Choisauce, Danny of Kung Food Panda, Diana of Diana Takes a Bite, Evelina/Wesley of Two Hungry Pandas, Fiona of Gourmet Pigs, Ila of I Nom Things, Sonja of The Active Foodie, Tony of SinoSoul, and Wandering Chopsticks.

Gyenari Exterior
Gyenari is situated in the heart of Downtown Culver City, right next to Rush Street and opposite Akasha, Ford's Filling Station, and Tender Greens; meanwhile, Bottle Rock, Fraiche, and K-Zo are a stone throw's away. Cheap and easy parking is available across the street on Cardiff.

Gyenari Patio
A relatively new addition to Gyenari is the outdoor patio, which features its own menu of Korean beer tavern-inspired eats, with Debbie Lee's touches, of course. This is where I met up with Meghan and the rest of the blogger party (we would end up occupying the entire space pictured above).

Soju Caipirinha
Upon being seated, a Soju Caipirinha (lots of fresh limes, raspberries, muddled lychee, soju, splash of soda) was quickly thrust in front of me. It was a nice way to kick things off--sweet and fruity, with the soju appearing just on the finish.

Assorted Skewers
1: Assorted Skewers
Once everyone arrived (surprisingly on-time, according to Meghan), plates of assorted skewers began to come out (tip: labeling a course as "assorted" doesn't bode well with bloggers). Ginger soy beef/onion and eggplant/mushroom skewers were tolerable, with the standout being the spicy pork with bell pepper.

Duk Boki
2: Duk Boki | Pan Fried Rice Cylinders in Onions and Korean Chile Paste
Next was duk boki (more usually tteokbokki), a common Korean street food. The version here consisted of garaetteok (cylinder-shaped glutinous rice flour cake) in a gochujang sauce, served with onions and hard-boiled eggs. A very straightforward presentation, I think many of us were surprised by its heat, which was fortunately tempered by the tteok and the creaminess of the egg.

Gyenari Bar
At this point, we were ushered out of the patio, through the bar/lounge area...

Gyenari Dining Room
...Into the main dining room, replete with 32 grill-tables (smokeless, so you don't walk out reeking of samgyeopsal). The room is a bright, vibrant space, sort of an industrial-chic, with exposed ductwork and rustic red brick walls, anchored by a yellow, 350 square-foot mural depicting the restaurant's eponymous blossom. A private dining room is also available.

Blogger's Dinner Menu
The menu for the night is shown above; click for a larger version. The first thing that we noticed was that it seemed surprisingly traditional. We were all expecting a "bulgogi 'n' biscuits" experience (the fusion aspect of Gyenari had been highlighted in previous communiqués), so this left us understandably flummoxed.

Cocktail Menu Drink List Wine List
As far as booze goes, Gyenari offers up a selection of wine, beer, soju, and sake, but all of us were far more interested in the appealing-sounding cocktail selection. Click for larger versions.

Jimmy Jang
After a few words, Meghan left us to ourselves, and Gyenari's Event Coordinator Jimmy Jang gave us a quick introduction of the restaurant before the parade of food began to arrive.

Pumpkin Porridge
3: Pumpkin Porridge | Toasted Pine Nuts, Soju Sautéed Dates
I believe the proper name for this is hobakjuk, basically a cold porridge (juk) made with pumpkin and glutinous rice flour. It was expectedly saccharine, with a sugariness heightened by the application of the dates; however, the savory pine nuts did help temper the dish.

Assorted Jeon Plate Ginger Soy Vinegar & Gochujang
4: Assorted Jeon Plate | Mung Bean, Shrimp, Fresh Vegetables
One of my favorite Korean foods is jeon, a broad category of egg- or flour-coated fried pancake-like items. We had three types here, served with a ginger soy vinegar and a spicy gochujang-based dip. The eggplant (gajijeon) and squash (hobakjeon) versions were passable, while the mung bean variant (bindaetteok) was much more interesting. My favorite, however, was the saewoojeon, with the scallion deftly accenting the savor of the shrimp.

Pear and Shiso Salad
5: Pear and Shiso Salad | Flashed Rib Eye, Shabu Sesame Dressing
Though the salad was seemingly less traditional than most of the other dishes, I did rather enjoy it. The meat itself was nice enough, thinly sliced and immaculately tender. It was complemented by the sweetness of the pear and the subtly contrasting tang of the "shiso" (kkaennip, I imagine), while the dressing did tie everything together (though it was perhaps a bit strong).

Watermelon Soju Spritzer Pomegranate Pearl Cucumber Gingerita
It was time for more cocktails. I went with the Watermelon Soju Spritzer (fresh watermelon, soju, sprite, and a salted rim), which we all agreed tasted exactly like a watermelon Jolly Rancher! Danny, meanwhile, chose the Pomegranate Pearl (veev acai, pearl plum vodka, pomegranate rice wine, cranberry splash); sweet with a ricey tinge, it was my favorite of the group. Christine decided on the Cucumber Gingerita (a refreshing meld of cucumber, ginger, vodka, sour splash), which was quite delish as well, with a cool cucumber attack leading to a subtle ginger finish.

Potato Salad
Baechu Kimchi Sukju Namul
Cucumber Kimchi Broccoli
At this point, five plates of banchan were brought out, so we knew that the barbequing was about to commence. The banchan were: potato salad (would've liked a more substantial texture), baechu kimchi (nice), sukju namul, cucumber kimchi (good heat, but could've been crisper), and broccoli.

Server Cooking Meat Server's Meat
Once the meat came out, our server, with a spring in his step, enthusiastically piled the various cuts atop the grill...

Christine Cooking Meat Christine's Meat
...However, Christine quickly took charge, asserting her dominance, and I eagerly entrusted my meat to her willing and capable hands.

G1 G1 Sauces
6: G1 | Gyenari Galbee, Bulgogi, Aged Pork Belly, Gyenari Flower Chicken and Japchae
We were given the "G1" combo, which consists of four types of meat--garnished with Japanese eggplant, onion, Korean peppers, mushroom, and garlic--and served with three condiments: ssamjang, a "beef dipping sauce" (soy-based I imagine), and a miso aioli. I first tried the bulgogi, or thinly-sliced marinated beef prime rib, which I found rather sweet, perhaps due to an overallotment of sugar in the marinade. The galbi (ganjang-marinated beef short rib) was better--flavorful, with a pleasing, pliant consistency. Next was the dahk gui-esque "flower chicken," made from free range chicken with a citrus-soy glaze. It was my favorite of the quartet, suitably tender, with the nice citrus tang, deftly complemented by the aioli dip. We ended with the aged pork belly, basically Kurobuta samgyeopsal flash marinated in a soju-infused sauce. It was expectedly fatty, and flavorful, but a tad sweet. It went best with the ssamjang, which effectively cut its unctuousness.

The "G1" includes japchae, which is a dish of cold cellophane noodles (dangmyeon) with carrots, mushrooms, onions, peppers, and sirloin beef, stir-fried in sesame oil, and finished with sugar and soy. Though some thought the japchae too sweet, I rather liked it, finding the dish to be a nice interplay of flavors and textures, with the sweetness proving a fitting contrast to the savory element of the beef.

Kimchee Chigae
7: Kimchee Chigae | Traditional Korean Kimchee Stew
Our final savory course was the kimchi jjigae, basically a spicy stew of kimchi, tofu, and scallions. It was a hearty, and heartwarming, way to end the meal.

Will Shin Will Shin
Near the end of the meal, owner Will Shin came out to talk to us about the story, concept, and philosophy behind Gyenari. In case you're wondering, aside from the restaurant, Shin is President of Crown Edition LLC, an electronics importer and luggage manufacturer.

Spicy Chocolate Creme Brulee & Green Tea Beignets
8: Spicy Chocolate Creme Brulee | Bacon Shortbread, Almond Cream
9: Green Tea Beignets | Chocolate Mint Drizzle
Finally, we were presented with a duo of dessert. The crème brûlée was nice enough, with the almond cream tempering the sweetness of the custard, and the bacon shortbread adding a tasty savory contrast. The beignets, meanwhile, were quite delectable, and, taken with the mint drizzle, reminded me of eating mint chocolate chip ice cream. They were even better when used to scoop up the remaining bits of crème brûlée.

Hite Tower
Now this definitely lends authenticity to Gyenari: for only $21, you can get a 100oz Hite Tower, just like at Crazy Hook in K-Town! I believe Crazy Hook charges $35 for 5 liters (169oz), so this is a pretty great deal.

So in the end, what do we have here at Gyenari? Well, the food we had was surprisingly authentic (even by the standards of Christine, our resident Korean food expert), and for the most part pretty good, albeit a bit sweet overall. Certainly, there's more to be had at the top places in Koreatown, but Gyenari does a respectable job, especially considering the location; I don't think that there's anything more compelling in terms of Korean within five miles.

But traditional Korean fare is only half the equation at Gyenari. What about the Korean-American Southern fusion? What about Debbie Lee? What about Seoulfood? Will and Meghan have stated that another dinner will be planned in the near future, in order to show off the fusion side of the menu--I want my galbi 'n' grits.