Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Los Balcones del Peru (Los Angeles, CA)

Los Balcones del Peru
1360 Vine St, Los Angeles, CA 90028
www.fooddigger.com/2956/restaurant/ca/los-angeles/hollywood/los-balcones-del-peru (FoodDigger, restaurant has no web site)
Tue 03/30/2010, 08:00p-09:35p

Los Balcones del Peru Exterior Los Balcones del Peru Exterior
It seems like I've been going on a Peruvian binge as of late--during the past year, I've eaten more Peruvian than I'd had in all my 26 years prior. It all started with Mo-Chica, then Mario's Peruvian, and now here I was at Los Balcones del Peru with Andrew and Jenae, two readers whom I'd met previously at La Casita Mexicana. Located nary a mile north of the more well-known original outpost of Mario's Peruvian, Los Balcones del Peru is seemingly named after the numerous balcones of the buildings surrounding Lima's Plaza de Armas, and was famously picked by Jonathan Gold as one of his 99 Essential LA Restaurants.

Los Balcones del Peru Interior
Inside, things are about what you'd expect. Of note are the balcones perched along the walls, doubling as lighting fixtures.

Los Balcones del Peru Menu Los Balcones del Peru Menu
Los Balcones' menu has most all of your Peruvian favorites, along with a few interesting items, such as Mr. Gold's beloved camarones a la piedra. Note that the balcony on the menu's cover appears to be modeled after that of the Archbishop's Palace. Click for larger versions.

Cristal, Cusqueña
Two Peruvian beers were on offer, both of which I'd had recently at Mario's: Cristal [$4] and Cusqueña [$4]. We asked our server which he preferred, and as was the case at Mario's, Cusqueña was the response. It was a darker, more complex brew, while the Cristal was lighter, brighter, and easier-drinking.

Pescado a lo Macho
Pescado a lo Macho [$15.75]
We began with the pescado a lo macho, comprised of a olive oil-seared filet of fish in a lightly spicy wine and aji panca (purple chilli pepper) sauce, topped with shrimp, squid, and octopus, and served with steamed rice. We all agreed that the filet, drowning in that sea of tangy, slightly boozy sauce, was the best part of the dish. The other bits of seafood didn't quite live up to the quality of the fish, and the squid was particularly troublesome due to its rubberiness.

Chaufa de Pollo
Chaufa de Pollo [$10.95]
Peruvian cuisine is often noted for its Chinese influence, and this was a great example of such. It looked like your typical Chinese preparation, and indeed, the taste was somewhat reminiscent of such a thing, but there was a beautiful Peruvian twist, an indecipherable wrinkle that really set this dish apart from the rest. Delish.

Lomo Saltado
Lomo Saltado [$11.95]
Lomo saltado is sort of the de facto must-order dish at any Peruvian restaurant, but interestingly, that may not be the case here, as Los Balcones is not known for its saltados. Another chifa-influence course, this was simply beef, sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and french fries, served with more steamed rice. Flavor-wise, the dish was indeed very "Chinese-y," and quite delicious in that regard. The problem was that the beef was overly tough, distracting from the overall eating experience.

Ceviche Mixto
Ceviche Mixto [$13.50]
They saved the best for last. Los Balcones del Peru may not be known for the saltados, but it is known, very much so, for the ceviches. Since this was our first time here, we ordered the mixed variety, composed of fish, shrimp, squid, and octopus, marinated in lime juice and Peruvian spices, served with boiled potato, sweet potato, Peruvian corn (choclo), and red onions. This tart, tangy mélange was easily my favorite course of the night, and quite possibly my favorite ceviche ever. I loved how the zestiness imparted by the acidic marinade played with the various cuts of seafood, while the trio of starches served admirably in tempering the dish. Very nice!

Count Los Balcones as another notch in my Peruvian belt. Indeed, the omnipresent lomo saltado was a touch disappointing here, but if you stick to more of the seafood, you'll do just fine. I'd love to return and give the menu a more thorough workout (and maybe even try Gold's camarones)--if only the place weren't so far away!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Marché Moderne (Costa Mesa, CA) [2]

Marché Moderne
3333 Bristol St, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Mon 03/29/2010, 07:30p-10:10p

Ever since debuting in 2006, Florent and Amelia Marneau's modern French bistro has garnered its share of accolades, and has firmly been entrenched as one of the top dining destination in Orange County. I'd had a very satisfying meal here back in 2008, but lured by the glitz and glamour of French eateries in LA, I'd not made it back since. Thus, I jumped on the chance to return when I was asked to go by readers Oanh of It's More Than Just Eating and Jin of Love Me...Hate Me...Feed Me.... In addition to being bloggers and all 'round foodists, the duo are also members of volunteer-run national non-profit organization Project by Project. Jin is the Director of Events for the SoCal region, and Oanh is in charge of recruiting local restaurants to participate in Plate by Plate, the group's annual tasting benefit featuring some of the Southland's most notable chefs and restaurants. The event is slated for August 14th this year, and past participants have included: Bashan, Bastide, The Bazaar, Fraiche, Grace, Joe's, Melisse, Mo-Chica, Sona, Spago, Valentino, and Water Grill!

Marché Moderne Interior
Amazingly, I was seated at the exact same corner table as last time!

Marché Moderne Menu Marché Moderne Menu
Marché's menu has always been large and varied, expanding well beyond your typical "bistro" fare. Click for larger versions.

Marché Moderne Drink List
The cocktail list is short but sweet (literally). Click for a larger version.

To start, I went with the Thai Vent (say vahn--French baby!) [$14], with mint, cilantro & Thai basil chiffonade, lime juice, vanilla scented rum, coconut milk, and ginger beer. I likened it to a mojito (Oanh was thinking more piña colada), with an unabashedly sweet attack leading to a lingering finish of vanilla-tinged heat. Jin ordered the Yuzu & Charred Rosemary Gin Tonic [$15], made from fresh yuzu, rosemary, and gin. It was a sour drink, with the gin nicely countered by the tang of the yuzu, and I really appreciated the use of the bitter rosemary.

Tomato Bisque, Pastis Ice Cream, Shrimp
Amuse Bouche
Our amuse bouche consisted of a tomato bisque with pastis ice cream and rock shrimp. I loved the sweet/sour interplay from the bisque, which was a perfect complement to the shrimp, while the pastis lent a hint of astringency on the close. Very good.

Baguette, Whole Wheat, Butter
Bread service consisted of baguette and whole wheat, served with salted butter.

ROCK SALT TUMBLED OCTOPUS SALAD [$15.00] | potato, asparagus, citron, chorizo, herbs, lemon oil, paprika
We began with what turned out to be my favorite course of the night. The spice of the paprika and the salty chorizo formed a superb complement to the beautifully tender, slightly sweet octopus, while the lemon added just the right amount of zestiness. The potato, meanwhile, moderated the flavors, and also added an excellent textural element. One of the best preparations of octopus I've had.

A TRIBUTE TO GUSTAF ANDERS [$11.00] | North Sea herring, coriander, Nantes carrots, potatoes, horseradish
Gustaf Anders was a Swedish restaurant formerly housed at South Coast Plaza, and, in my opinion, it was one of the best in all of OC. In fact, in my formative foodie years, it was one of the first places where I really learned to appreciate the simple pleasures of a well-prepared steak. As such, this dish was a must-order for me, and beautifully captured the essence of the restaurant. The herring, expectedly, was suitably briny, but was tempered deftly by the crisp carrots and onions, creamy horseradish, and mild potato especially. The whole hodgepodge of flavors actually reminded me of the great Salade d'Hargens that I had not too long ago at Church & State.

TAGINE OF MERGUEZ / NOUVELLE CALEDONIE SHRIMP / ROCK SHRIMP [$14.00] | chermoula, raisins, lemon confit, almonds, harissa, mint emulsion, apricot, medjool dates, ras el hanout spice
This was a fascinatingly complex course, with a positively intriguing interaction between sweet and savory. I really appreciated the meatiness, the substantialness of the two kinds of shrimp, while the mint really helped uplift this very aggressively flavored dish. In fact, the whole amalgamation had an almost chili-like character to it! Very nice.

For our second round of drinks, Jin and I again went with cocktails, while Oanh stubbornly held on to her bubbly. I chose the Meyer Lemon & Griotte Cherry Sidecar [$13], comprised of Hennessy, Cointreau, griottine liquor, and Meyer lemon. It's a twist on the classic cocktail that adds balancing notes of sour cherry into the mix--nice! Jin had the Nigori Blossom [$15], a combination of lychee, Tozai Show Maiden nigori sake, elderflower, Hendricks gin, and a lemongrass-lychee popsicle. Think very strong, saccharine flavors of lychee, hiding most of the gin character.

CRISPY PIG TROTTER SAUSAGE [$18.00] | braised beluga lentils, ham hocks, agridulce vinegar jus, poached egg, frisée salad
As regularly readers might know, I'm somewhat of a sausage fiend, so this was a must-have dish (especially with those trotters!). It didn't, however, turn out the way I expected--not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. The sausage, naturally, was immensely flavorful (I wanted more), as was the ham, while the poached egg contributed an enveloping luxuriousness to the whole dish. The power of all this was lightened by the frisée, while the agridulce provided a nicely piquant counterpoint. My favorite part, though, was the great earthiness imparted by the lentils.

LA QUERCIA FARM TARTE [$15.00] | fennel pollen, speck ham, coppa salami, guanciale, lardo, Di Stefano burrata, wild roquette, huile d'olive d'Espagne
La Quercia is one of the most respected names in cured meats here in the US, so how could I resist this tart, made with no less than four types of pork? We're talking about speck (smoked ham), coppa (shoulder/neck cold cut), guanciale (unsmoked jowl bacon), and lardo (cured backfat). I loved the way the salty, savory salume was complemented by the mild, creamy burrata and bitter rocket. Great crust, too.

PAIN D'EPICE FOIE GRAS TERRINE [$20.00] | roasted pineapple, chutney d'ananas au Sauterne, baguette
Both Jin and I prefer cold foie gras, so we chose this over the sautéed variety. The foie itself was textbook, with a strong liver-y smack balanced by the sweet-spicy flavors of its pain d'épices treatment--very nice with the baguette. The included pineapple and pineapple chutney, however, rendered the foie overly sugary for my tastes, and were superfluous for me.

SCALLOPS BONE MARROW [$15.00] | sauce Bordelaise, orange zest, beurre d'anchois
This was definitely one of the more interesting preparations of scallops I've seen. The bivalves are usually fairly delicate in flavor, so I was surprised to see them paired here with three very powerful accoutrements: bone marrow, Bordelaise, and anchovy butter. The marrow did add a considerable gravity to the otherwise tame scallops, but the Bordelaise was a bit strong for my liking, somewhat masking the scallops' inherent flavor.

CURED TERIKYAKI CONFIT PORK BELLY [$14.00] | Chinese long beans, jus a l'orange & star anis jus
Pork belly is all the rage these days, so I suppose it was fitting to have it as our final savory course of the evening. The pork alone demonstrated its typical tender, fatty, oleaginous character--that I had no problem with. However, the paired teriyaki sauce was far, far too saccharine, completely overwhelming the belly's natural porcine savor. I wasn't sold on those long beans, either. Fortunately, the greens did helped simmer things down, but even they weren't enough to save the dish.

I decided to move on to beer at this point, and ordered up a Blanche De Bruxelles [$9] from Belgium's Brasserie Lefèbvre, the most interesting beer on an unfortunately short list. Done in the witbier, or white beer, style, the Blanche is spiced with coriander and orange peel, giving it a crisp, spicy, fresh and fruity flavor that we absolutely adored.

Marché Moderne Dessert Menu
Though we were quite sated by this point, dessert was still a must. Click for a larger version.

CANNELÉ DE BORDEAUX [$11.00] | cassis berry ice cream, vanilla scented whipped mascarpone, fresh strawberries
Ever since dining at Canelé in Atwater Village, I've been somewhat intrigued by its namesake Bordelaise pastry. Here, I appreciated the canelé's soft, creamy insides, but the exterior could've been a touch more caramelized. In any case, the relatively heavy, rum-tinged flavor of the pastry was nicely balanced by the use of tart fruit.

Looking at dessert menus, I usually eschew ordering the "House-made sorbet and ice cream," but I'm glad we did this time, as this was truly some of the best ice cream I've had in a long while. Its sophisticated, sweet but not too sweet flavor, augmented by the use of macadamia, really spoke to me, and the tuile added a wonderful textural counterpoint. Delish.

Despite some missteps, I enjoyed this meal even more than my last experience here. Sure, the food is firmly rooted in French tradition, but the modern flourishes are really what set the place apart: classic flavors, juxtaposed with the Marneau's global, California-inspired influences. Once again, a meal that reinforces in my mind why Marché Moderne is considered one of the top spots in OC.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Jaleo (Washington, DC)

480 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004
Thu 03/18/2010, 08:35p-10:45p

After dining at Oyamel and Zaytinya over the past few months, I figured that it was time to try out Jaleo (named after the John Singer Sargent painting), the restaurant that started it all for José Andrés. Following his graduation from the Escola de Restauracio I Hostalatge de Barcelona in 1990, Andrés moved to the US to work at the Barcelona-based Eldorado Petit. His tenure there didn't last long however, and in 1993, the Chef relocated to Washington DC, becoming head chef and partner at Jaleo, marking the beginning of Andrés' culinary empire building. Shortly thereafter, in 1995, he became the executive chef at Roberto Alvarez's nearby Café Atlantico, and in 2001, Andrés opened another Jaleo in Bethesda. 2002 saw the founding of Zaytinya, while Minibar was added to Café Atlantico the following year. The original Crystal City location of Andrés' Mexican eatery Oyamel came to fruition in 2004, as did the third installment of Jaleo, in Crystal City. Oyamel eventually shuttered in 2006, only to reopen in Washington proper in 2007. Then, of course, in 2008, we Angelenos were blessed with Saam/The Bazaar, Andrés' first venture outside of the DC metro.

To head the kitchens at Jaleo, Andrés has tapped Bolivian native Rodolfo Guzman. After working in the Bolivian Navy, Guzman emigrated to the US in 1992 at age 23, settling in Washington DC. It was at this time where he began his culinary career, working his way up from the bottom as a busboy, food runner, waiter, bartender, pastry chef, and line cook at a variety of restaurants including Maggiano’s Little Italy, the casual Tex-Mex eatery Austin Grill, Brazilian restaurant Coco Loco, Cashion’s Eat Place, Sam & Harry’s steakhouse, and Café Atlantico. The Chef's formal training took place at L'Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, and in 1998, Guzman even travelled to Spain to work at the legendary elBulli. Afterwards, he became Sous Chef at Jaleo, under Wayne Combs, and in 2001, he was made Executive Chef. In 2005, Guzman temporarily relocated to the Crystal City Jaleo, where he oversaw the restaurant's opening before moving back to Downtown in January 2007.

Jaleo Interior
The term jaleo means merriment, revelry, gaiety, and also refers to a gypsy dance called the Jaleo de Jerez, so it's no surprise that Jaleo's decor aims to reflect that verve, vigor, and vitality.

Jaleo's menu offers up a wide array of tapas, mostly traditional, but with a few modern ones mixed in as well for good measure. Paellas might also be worth considering. Click for larger versions.

Yuengling Lager
Our table wasn't quite ready when we arrived, so we headed over to the bar, where I ordered up a Yuengling [$5.50], a lager from Pennsylvania that I don't see all that often here on the West coast. Interestingly, it's also one of Barack Obama's preferred brews, and the President recently delivered a case of it to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the American hockey team lost to the Canucks in the 2010 Winter Olympics final!

Bread & Olive Oil
Bread was accompanied by olive oil with rosemary and garlic.

Embutidos [$16.00]
We began with a duo of cured meats. First up was the Jamón Ibérico 'Fermin,' from Embutidos y Jamones Fermín, the first producer approved to export the ham to the US. As expected, the meat was soft, delicate, almost buttery in consistency, with an intense, rich, smooth yet savory flavor and a hint of sweetness. We also had the lomo embuchado 'Palacios,' a type of herb-seasoned, dry-cured pork loin (analogous to cecina). More in-your-face than the Ibérico, it possessed a delightfully smoky sapor, with lovely spicy notes as well; I actually preffered it to the ham.

Salpicón de cangrejo
Salpicón de cangrejo [$10.50] | Jumbo lump crabmeat with cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower and sherry dressing
I was a bit wary of this dish at first, but it turned out to be one of the stars of the meal. The mélange of vegetables, with their disparate tastes and textures all bound together by the tart sherry dressing, was a surprisingly fitting complement to the supple, slightly sweet crab, and I especially appreciated the textural element contributed by the cauliflower.

Croquetas de jamón Ibérico
Croquetas de jamón Ibérico [$9.00] | Traditional béchamel and Spanish cured ham fritters
By this point, Andrés' chicken croquettes are old hat to me, so I was positively intrigued when I saw this jamón Ibérico version. As expected, the croquetas were suitably creamy, as well as slightly fibruous, with a flavor that was imbued with the very essence of the salty, savory ham.

Estrella Damm Lager
With my Yuengling dispensed with, I went with another beer, this time the Estrella Damm Lager [$6.50] from Spain. It was a light, easy-drinking brew--nothing offensive, nothing particularly memorable either.

Espinacas a la Catalana
Espinacas a la Catalana [$6.00] | Sautéed spinach, pine nuts, raisins and apples
I'm quite a fan of the spinach, so I was looking forward to this one. The vegetable's signature astringency was present, but rather than taking center stage as it normally does, the bitterness was more of a backdrop for the sugariness of the fruit. The flavors here were slightly discordant, but strangely satisfying.

Papas arrugas
Papas arrugas [$6.00] | Canary Island-style wrinkled baby potatoes served with mojo verde (cilantro, cumin, garlic, Sherry vinegar and olive oil sauce)
Here we had some "wrinkled potatoes," basically tiny taters cooked in salt water and served whole. The papas were wonderfully salty alone, but they were perfectly paired with the included mojo verde sauce. The interplay between the relatively tame potato and zesty mojo was simply stupendous.

Croquetas de pollo
Croquetas de pollo [$6.50] | Traditional chicken fritters
Once a staple of José Andrés' childhood, these croquetas de pollo are now a staple at his restaurants. I'd had them before at The Bazaar, so I knew exactly what to expect from these fritters: beautifully crisp, golden brown exteriors leading to luscious, oozing centers of béchamel and chicken, chockablock with the rich flavor of the bird.

Tortilla de patatas al momento
Tortilla de patatas al momento [$6.50] | Spanish omelet with potatoes and onions
You can't go wrong with a tortilla de patatas, perhaps the most famous tapa of them all--basically a pancake of fried egg, onions, and potato. The ingredients may be elementary, but the end result is oh so pleasing: a creamy, soft amalgam of fluffy egg, crisp onion, and savory sautéed potato--fantastically eggy, delightfully salty. Jaleo's version, apparently, was inspired by the late Jean-Louis Palladin, one of the pioneers of French cooking in the US.

Chistorra envuleta en patata frita
Chistorra envuleta en patata frita [$7.00] | Slightly spicy chorizo wrapped in a crispy potato
Chistorra refers to a variety of spicy Basque sausage, typically made with minced pork. Quite delicious on their own, the sausages also went nicely with the relative mildness of the potato crisps, which also provided a great textural element.

Pulpo a la Gallega 'Maestro Alfonso'
Pulpo a la Gallega 'Maestro Alfonso' [$8.00] | Boiled octopus with fingerling potatoes, pimentón and olive oil
I appreciate a tender octopus, but the example here was too tender for me--I would've appreciated a bit more bite. Flavor-wise, the cephalopod showed plenty of its characteristic briny sweetness, countered here by the spicy-smoky nature of the pimentón and weight of the olive oil. The fingerlings, meanwhile, provided a much needed temper.

Buñuelos de bacalao
Buñuelos de bacalao [$8.50] | Fried salt cod fritters with honey alioli
Ever since having bacalao at The Bazaar, I've become somewhat enamored with these salty balls of cod. The examples here were good, but not great; I could've used more brine, and would've liked a lighter, fluffier consistency. The main issue for me, though, was the paired alioli, which was far too saccharine, completely overwhelming the fish's natural sapor.

Cordero a la brasa con salsa de romero
Cordero a la brasa con salsa de romero [$11.50] | Grilled lamp chops with rosemary sauce
Done medium rare, this was simply a beautifully cooked piece of meat: tender, succulent, and brimming with ovine sapor, with the slight gaminess of the meat perfectly balanced by the rosemary. One of my dining companions, who was previously not a fan of lamb, even commented on how much he liked this dish.

José Andrés Gin & Tonic
For my final libation, I chose the José Andrés Gin & Tonic [$14], scented with lemon and juniper. It was a refreshing twist on the standard G&T, with the use of juniper berry heightening the sharp, citrus-y character of the gin.

Pastel Vasco con helado de leche merengada
Pastel Vasco con helado de leche merengada [$7.50] | Basque cake with semolina ice cream, cinnamon-vanilla sauce & ice milk
Pastel Vasco typically refers to a Basque "poundcake," usually with some sort of berry component. The version here, however, was stuffed with a lovely, not-too-sweet semolina ice cream, and the whole amalgam was paired with the contrasting character of the ice milk and cinnamon-vanilla.

Compota de manzana al pan perdido con Pedro Ximénez
Compota de manzana al pan perdido con Pedro Ximénez [$7.50] | Apple charlotte with Pedro Ximénez & vanilla ice cream
We ended with a variation on the ever-popular pain perdu. Made with applesauce, the cake was quite sugary, heavy even, and so the comparatively light vanilla ice cream was absolutely key. A classic combination, really.

The food at Jaleo doesn't possess the playfulness, vagary, or whimsy of that at The Bazaar, but I'm still convinced that this is a fine place to get your tapas fix in the DC area. A couple of the dishes needed work I thought, but for straightforward Spanish, a visit to José's original just might be in order--I wouldn't mind coming back for more.