Saturday, January 29, 2011

Molecular Menu at AnQi (Costa Mesa, CA)

Molecular Menu at AnQi
3333 S Bristol St, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Sat 01/29/2011, 07:00p-01:10a

AnQi Exterior

I don't know how it happened, but one day, I stumbled across Gayot's list of the Top 10 Molecular Gastronomy Restaurants in the US. It was a curious selection of places. The usual suspects--Alinea, Moto, wd~50--were all there, as were some restaurants that I wouldn't necessarily consider molecular, notably The French Laundry and Providence. There were also some serious omissions in the form of Minibar, Saam, Schwa, and Table 21. However, the most striking entry in the list was Costa Mesa's AnQi. AnQi is the OC outpost of the famed Crustacean in Beverly Hills, and interestingly enough, features a completely separate "molecular menu" apart from its typical Euro-Asian fusion fare. This discovery, in conjunction with a mention by Epicuryan and a rave review by The Foodie Traveler, quickly made AnQi a must try for me.

A brief history of the An family: The story began in 1971, when family matriarch Diana An visited San Francisco and purchased a small 20-seat diner, naming it Thang Long ("ascending dragon," the former name of Hanoi). Her son Danny, daughter Helene, and granddaughters Hannah, Elizabeth, and Monique fled Saigon in 1975 following the Vietnam War, eventually settling in the Bay Area. The An family was considered royalty back in Vietnam, and as a result, Helene had spent much of her youth entertaining, learning the recipes of her family's Chinese, French, and Vietnamese chefs. Helene soon took over the kitchens at Thang Long, and introduced San Francisco to its first taste of Vietnamese cuisine. It was here where the famous Garlic Noodles and Roasted Garlic Crab first made their appearance, prepared, to protect their recipes, in a "Secret Kitchen" off limits to everyone except family members. Thang Long became an instant success for the An family, and launched a restaurant empire.

The original Nob Hill Crustacean debuted in 1991 under the watch of daughter Monique, becoming San Francisco's first Vietnamese fusion restaurant. 1997 saw the opening of Crustacean Beverly Hills, which quickly established itself as a hot spot for the celebrity set. Meanwhile, the youngest An daughter Catherine launched An Catering in 2006, which has since become a mainstay of the Hollywood crowd. Building upon the success of their business, the An women soon launched a line of food products (sauces and frozen apps), as well as a selection of home decor items (which included a $142 pair of chopsticks). Spearheaded by Elizabeth An, AnQi debuted in December 2009 at South Coast Plaza, while June 2010 brought us Catherine An's Tiato (named after Vietnamese perilla, Helene's favorite ingredient), a casual eatery-cum-market located in Santa Monica.

AnQi Chef's Table

Getting back to AnQi, the molecular menu here isn't available to normal diners. Rather, it's treated as a private party--with a private dining room (shown above), separate servers, and dedicated kitchen staff--and must be planned weeks in advance. A party of eight is required at a minimum, and a contract, replete with a $500 cancellation fee, must be signed. In charge of the kitchen is a young chef by the name of Ryan Carson. A Southern California native, Carson began his culinary career at age 14, toiling as a dishwasher for Disney. He eventually made his way to the Robert Mondavi Food and Wine Center in Costa Mesa, then relocated to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy.

Following his stint there, Carson worked at a number of noted Bay Area establishments, including Gary Danko, Jardinière, and Aqua. The Chef then moved back down to SoCal, finding work at Napa Rose. It was here where Carson met chef Michael Rossi and his brother, pastry chef David Rossi, and in 2006, the trio would take over the kitchens at OC Pavilion's ill-fated Ambrosia. Following the departure of Michael in late 2009, Carson stepped up to the role of head chef, and imbued the restaurant's classic French fare with surprisingly molecular flourishes. Once Ambrosia shuttered, Carson and David Rossi found a new home at AnQi (replacing outgoing chef Jacob Kear, who's now at Lukshon), where they're now free to wow the palates of OC's denizens with their progressive cookery.

AnQi Molecular Menu
The night's menu: 16 courses priced at $160. Note that wine pairings are available for an additional $80, $120, or $200; we chose the first option. Click for a larger version.

Champagne & Caviar
1: Champagne & Caviar | nicolas feuillatte champagne gelee, american sturgeon caviar, white chocolate fizzy
Champagne and caviar, a classic beginning to a meal, reimagined. Popping the cuboid into my mouth, I first noted the intense brine of the caviar, which then gave way to the soft, supple flavor of the gelée. Finishing things off was the chocolate "fizzy," which contributed an effervescence to the dish that simulated the bubbles in bubbly. A fitting way to start the night--just make sure to thoroughly chew everything together!

AnQi Beet
2: AnQi Beet | sweet & sour salt
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
Looking at this next course, which is, by the way, modeled after the twisty AnQi logo, I was instantly reminded of the "Beet Jewelry" that I had not too long ago at José Andrés' "é" in Las Vegas. The eating experience, however, was markedly different. The version here broke apart instantly upon mastication, and showed off an interplay of sweet, sour, and salty flavors that was only subtly beet-y on the close.

Kumamoto Oyster
3: Kumamoto Oyster | soy mignonette, yuzu lemonade 'cloud', citrus pop rocks
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
A very strong presentation of oyster. I appreciated how the inherent brine of the oyster played with the subtle sugariness of the soy-mirin combination, while the yuzu added a touch of citric tang to the fray. Perhaps my favorite part of the dish was the lingering fizziness imparted by the pop rocks on the sweetish finish.

Hiramasa Crudo
4: Hiramasa Crudo | avocado silk, sweet & sour tangerine veil, jalapeno-cucumber emulsion, frozen beet
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
Next up was Carson's signature course, the first truly "molecular" dish that he created. I first tasted the fish (yellowtail amberjack) alone, which I found fresh, mild, supple in consistency, with a nicely briny finish. The hiramasa managed to pair beautifully with pretty much everything on the plate, and I especially liked the slight bit of spice imparted by the jalapeño fluid gel, the piquancy of the yuzu salt, as well as the savoriness of the avocado. Despite all the components here, I appreciated the fact that the fish was still the star of the dish.

Lobster Summer Roll
5: Lobster Summer Roll | compressed mango, vietnamese herbs, elderflower gelee, pickled rose petal
Itsas Mendi, Txakoli
There were definitely some Achatz-esque aromatics coming into play here. We were each provided a cup of hot water, which we subsequently poured into a bowl containing rose petals. I really enjoyed how the floral essence of the petals linked up to the dill and tiato in the rolls, as well as the spice contributed by the chili-rose emulsion dipping sauce. The pickled rose petal, meanwhile, served as a sort of palate cleanser in between pieces. Overall, there were lovely, light, bright flavors here; I just wish that the lobster (Maine, sous vide) was more apparent.

Ahi Tuna Nicoise
6: Ahi Tuna Nicoise | white anchovy romesco, crispy haricot vert, 64*C quail egg, olive 'gushers'
Summerland Viognier
Here was Carson's deconstructed Niçoise salad, which traditionally comprises tomato, potato, green beans, hard-boiled egg, tuna, olives, and anchovy. All of the aforementioned components were presented here in new ways, and the overall effect really did recall the essence of a classical Niçoise. I especially appreciated the tuna, which, despite being fully cooked, had a rich, heady flavor that was beautifully accented by the hearty salt of the duck fat fried potato. The piquancy of the olive spherifications was also tremendous, as was the mesquite smokiness of the tomato. Everything just came together gorgeously.

'Looks Like Tartare'
7: "Looks Like Tartare" | compressed watermelon, mango 'egg yolk', dehydrated capers
Summerland Viognier
Upon seeing this course, I immediately recalled Michael Voltaggio's "Japanese Tomato Tartare." This dish, however, was actually completely different. I found it almost dessert-like, with a sweet, slightly herbaceous nature deftly offset by the tangy capers and pepperiness of the microgreens.

Kurabota Pork Belly
8: Kurabota Pork Belly | kimchi consommé, freeze dried banana, wasabi peanut butter powder, yuzu-truffle
Summerland Viognier
This was supposed to be a riff on salt & pepper pork, but with the added complexity of banana thrown into the mix. The sweetness of the fruit actually went surprisingly well with the heavy, hearty character of the pork (just wish it were a touch more tender), and I loved the countervailing zestiness provided by the kimchi liquid. The nut butter, meanwhile, added an interesting close to the dish, but wasn't absolutely necessary for me.

Foie Gras Torchon
9: Foie Gras Torchon | cherry-yuzu gel, 'instant' ginger-pineapple brioche, bacon dust, chinese celery
Summerland Viognier
Regular readers will know that I'm no fan of celery, but even I will admit that here, the vegetable worked absolutely perfectly--it was simply superb in balancing out the sheer lusciousness of the foie gras. At the same time, the bacon powder contributed an intense saltiness to the dish that I adored, while the brioche (à la Andrés or Voltaggio) did a great job in tempering the dish. Really appreciated the sweetness imparted by the cherry-yuzu gel as well. Just a great mélange of tastes and textures.

Misoyaki Black Cod
10: Misoyaki Black Cod | furikake rice cake, pickled garden vegetables, encapsulated foie gras miso soup
Foxen Santa Maria Pinot Noir
By this point, we've all seen Nobu Matsuhisa's famed black cod with miso dish, which has become a mainstay on the menus of seemingly ever Japanese-y restaurant around. Thus, it wasn't surprising that I was quite wary of this dish. My fears were unfounded, however, as Carson managed to turn out the best version of the cod that I'd ever tasted. The fish itself was firm, flaky, just sweet enough, and went wonderfully with the tangy pickles and paired umami-tinged furikake "risotto" cake, which was itself heightened by the application of a foie gras-infused miso soup spherification (made from the leftovers from the previous course). This was definitely an elevated version of an otherwise clichéd dish. As one of my dining companions put it: "I wanna just suck the whole thing."

Our intermezzo course consisted of a Concord grape sorbet with thyme jelly and lemonade foam. This was a light, airy admixture that showed off just a touch of salt to go along with the sugar.

Jidori Chicken Roulade
11: Jidori Chicken Roulade | himalayan black truffles, oyster mushrooms, ginger, chinese mustard jus, hazelnut brittle
Foxen Santa Maria Pinot Noir
Chicken arrived sous vide'd with truffle butter, and was suitably tender, succulent, and drenched in buttery, truffle-y goodness. I had no problem consuming the bird by itself, but I did really appreciate the pairing of cabbage and mushroom with the dish. I wasn't quite as keen on the butternut squash, however, which took on an almost curry-like character that I felt was a bit too strong for the chicken.

Filet Mignon Confit
12: Filet Mignon Confit | burnt carrot, shiitake mushroom demi-glaze, savoy cabbage, wasabi 'tater tots'
Hall Cabernet Sauvignon
Filet mignon was cooked sous vide with butter and thyme, then seared. The beef had a pleasant, toothsome texture, but I wanted a touch more seasoning on it. Meanwhile, I quite liked the dark, earthy flavors imparted by the shiitake, and loved how the savoy cabbage countered the gravity of the meat. Finally we have the "tater tots," which were actually wasabi-infused gnocchi breaded and deep-fried--tasty as expected.

Heirloom Melon Gazpacho
13: Heirloom Melon Gazpacho | compressed heirloom melons, orange 'soup', yuzu salted mango sherbet
Chateau de Malle Sauternes
Time for dessert, courtesy of AnQi Pastry Chef David Rossi. Our first item was a light, fruity melon soup, deftly accented by a touch of salt from the sherbet. Lovely zestiness from the greenery as well.

Elderflower Parfait
14: Elderflower Parfait | pink rose meringue, flowering thyme gel, pomegranate 'caviar', jasmine frozen yogurt
Chateau de Malle Sauternes
During the meal, I described our next dessert as "like eating a flower." The elderflower semifreddo itself had a strong lactic tang that was expertly complemented by floral essence of the rose meringue and superb jasmine froyo, while the pomegranate spheres provided pricks of tangy sweetness. Nice.

'Not Your Average' Carrot Cake
15: "Not Your Average" Carrot Cake | raisin coulis, curry crème anglaise, saffron meringue, cream cheese ice cream
Smith Woodhouse 'Madalena' Vintage Port
This was, without a doubt, one of the best carrot cakes I've ever had. The cake itself was nothing to sneeze at, and quite tasty even on its own with a cinnamon-y spiciness. However, the crux of the dish was clearly the wonderful cream cheese ice cream, and the raisin coulis was tremendous as well, adding a superb grape-y sugariness to the dessert. Add in the candied walnuts, pineapple, et cetera, and you're left with a perfectly reimagined carrot cake.

Chocolate Twist
16: Chocolate Twist | hazelnut praline, star anise-orange gel, popcorn ice cream
Smith Woodhouse 'Madalena' Vintage Port
We closed with a dish featuring flexible chocolate ganache, a technique first developed by Alex Stupak over at Alinea. Rossi's interpretation was wonderfully complemented by more of that 30-second microwave brioche, and the combination of popcorn ice cream, popcorn powder, and hazelnut praline made for a nicely balanced dessert.

Well color me impressed. I was a bit skeptical when I came in, but Carson and Rossi are on point with their flavors. They've managed to give us avant garde techniques and presentations without veering too far off into the realms of the overly esoteric or cerebral--it's just "molecular enough," to speak. I do not hesitate in calling this the best meal that I've had in Orange County, and if you can get a group together, just go.

David Rossi, Ryan Carson

Friday, January 28, 2011

Orris (Los Angeles, CA)

Orris Restaurant
2006 Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025
Fri 01/28/2011, 06:45p-09:20p

Orris Exterior
Set in a stretch of Sawtelle dominated by Japanese businesses, Orris (named after the root of an iris plant) is Chef Hideo Yamashiro's Franco-Japanese small plates concept that he launched in 2004. Shiro, of course, was one of the first chefs in LA to blend influences from both Japanese and French culinary traditions, and I'd initially visited Orris in 2005, shortly after it'd opened. This was during my pre-blogging years, so details are hazy, but I remember the meal fondly. Given that it'd been at least five years since I last ate here, I was long overdue for a revisit. A dinner with an old college roommate of mine (whom I went to Alinea with) provided the perfect opportunity.

About the Chef: Shiro was born in Okinawa, where he grew up keenly interested in food and cooking. Like many Japanese chefs, Yamashiro began his culinary career as a dishwasher, at age 17. He eventually moved on to the actual cooking of food, and became trained in European cuisine, French fare in particular. The Chef eventually moved Stateside, taking up a job at Benihana of all places. He then landed a gig at the legendary Ma Maison, working under an up-and-coming chef named Wolfgang Puck. Yamashiro also toqued at Puck's Chinois, where he first cooked his famed catfish, and worked with Patrick Jamon at Santa Monica's Les Anges as well. In 1984, Shiro became head chef at Cafe Jacoulet in Pasadena, but would leave in 1986 to open his first restaurant, Shiro in South Pasadena. The eponymous eatery was a smash success, allowing Yamashiro to travel extensively around the globe. Inspired by his travels, he opened Orris in 2004 as a testament to the small plates concept of eating.

Orris Menu Orris Winter Specials Menu
Orris' menu comprises a standard carte of favorites, as well as a changing seasonal selection of dishes. Note that Shiro doesn't like to refer to his Cal-Euro-Asian small plates as tapas, but "little dishes." Click for larger versions.

flash fried ASPARAGUS with CRISPY PROSCIUTTO and parmesan
flash fried ASPARAGUS with CRISPY PROSCIUTTO and parmesan [$8.00]
We began with one of Orris' better known dishes. Thick stalks of asparagus showed off the vegetable's green astringency beautifully, and were deftly complemented by the weight of the paired Parmesan. At the same time, I appreciated the sharp saltiness imparted by the prosciutto, as well as their superb crunch.

Quail was stupendous, one of the best preparations that I've had in a while in fact. The bird arrived tender, succulent, and bursting with a deep, heady flavor that was irresistible. The beans, meanwhile, did an admirable job in grounding the dish.

sauté of seasonal MUSHROOMS
sauté of seasonal MUSHROOMS [$8.00]
Mushrooms arrived perfectly sautéed, with an undeniably enjoyable, slightly spongy consistency and a buttery, yet still earthy flavor. Absolutely lovely.

prime FILET MIGNON SKEWER with roquefort butter
prime FILET MIGNON SKEWER with roquefort butter [$14.50]
Juicy and teeming with a restrained beefiness, filet mignon showed off a tenderness befitting its name. The meat was certainly enjoyable by itself, though I did appreciate the luscious, tangy, salty accoutrement of blue cheese butter.

SNAPPER CARPACCIO with shallot green apple ponzu and almonds
SNAPPER CARPACCIO with shallot green apple ponzu and almonds [$10.50]
Snapper carpaccio was a standout for me. The fish itself was commendable, and I enjoyed the sharp tang of the apple ponzu, but the crux of the course was clearly the almonds, which added an overarching nuttiness to things that made the dish for me. Just a great mélange of flavors--one of the best, most creative carpaccios that I've had.

DUNGENESS CRAB SALAD 'Nest' with cucumber in ginger dressing
DUNGENESS CRAB SALAD "Nest" with cucumber in ginger dressing [$4.00]
Crab salad, unfortunately, was a bit of a letdown. The crab was certainly serviceable, but was marred by errant bits of shell. Meanwhile, the cucumber was rather one-note, making for a somewhat stilted eating experience.

I'm generally not a huge fan of eggplant, but this was definitely one of the tastier preparations that I've eaten in a while. The slight bitterness of the eggplant was present, but expertly countered by the combined luxuriousness of the two cheeses. You could almost think of this as a sort of reimagined eggplant parmigiana.

trio of SMOKED SALMON CROQUETTES with salmon caviar
trio of SMOKED SALMON CROQUETTES with salmon caviar [$9.00]
Croquettes were tasty little bites. The mash-up of potato and salmon definitely tempered the essence of the fish, while the salmon roe added a definite brininess to the fray.

curry-infused SHRIMP TEMPURA with okinawan sea salt
curry-infused SHRIMP TEMPURA with okinawan sea salt [$9.50]
Tempura can often be disappointing, but this version most certainly was not. The shrimp were perfectly cooked--crispy on the outside, but still supple inside. I thoroughly enjoyed the subtle flavor imparted by Orris' housemade curry, and appreciated how it didn't completely overwhelm the shrimp's inherent character.

POTATO DAUPHINOIS in casserole [$6.00]
What we have here is basically an au gratin preparation of potatoes, named after the Dauphiné region of France. As expected, the dish was a joy to eat, the mild essence of potato beautifully paired with the sheer lusciousness of cream and butter.

assorted four CHEESE PLATE, chef's choice with Zabbia Late Harvest wine jelly
assorted four CHEESE PLATE, chef's choice with Zabbia Late Harvest wine jelly [$10.50]
Chef Yamashiro is a noted fan of cheese, and his selection of fromage was a testament to such. Unfortunately, I didn't get the names or descriptions of the cheeses, but all four were a treat, demonstrating a great combination of salty, sweet, and herbaceous flavors in a study of contrasting tastes and textures.

Orris Dessert Menu
Of course, we saved room for the sweet stuff. Click for a larger version.

Flourless Valrhona Chocolate Soufflé Cake with coffee gelato
Flourless Valrhona Chocolate Soufflé Cake with coffee gelato [$7.50]
Sadly, Orris' desserts aren't nearly as creative as the savories. I found the chocolate cake rather pedestrian--tasty enough, but somewhat tired.

Apple Tart with tahitian vanilla gelato and caramel sauce
Apple Tart with tahitian vanilla gelato and caramel sauce [$7.50]
The apple tart, fortunately, was a huge step up from the cake. The pastry itself had a lovely texture, dense yet supple, with a nice layering of crisp apple slices. The vanilla gelato, meanwhile, was an expected, but effective accompaniment.

Fresh Berry Wonton with poached pear and yuzu custard
Fresh Berry Wonton with poached pear and yuzu custard [$7.50]
We ended with Shiro's signature dessert, a holdover from his original restaurant. I wasn't in love with it, finding the yuzu a bit too sour. It just didn't come together for me.

I was a bit wary going into this meal (especially given my subpar experience at Shiro), but I can safely say that Orris exceeded my expectations. Save for a few missteps and some trite desserts, preparations were totally on point--just complex enough--with great, bold flavors and the perfect amount of fusion-y spin. Hopefully it won't be five years until my next visit!

Orris Interior

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Bruery Provisions (Orange, CA)

The Bruery Provisions
143 N Glassell St, Orange, CA 92866
Tue 01/25/2011, 06:15p-07:15p

The Bruery Provisions Tasting Room
Started in 2007 by one Patrick Rue (hence the name), The Bruery has quickly established itself as a major player in the California microbrew scene. The Bruery Provisions, meanwhile, originally served as an adjunct to the Placentia brewery, focusing on the sale of homebrew wares. However, the shop eventually closed, only to be reborn in Old Towne Orange in September last year. Intended to appeal to a wider audience, Provisions now focuses its energies on education and retail sales of beer, wine, cheese, and other gourmet products. At any given time, 30 beers and eight wines are on tap, and a number of beer, wine, cheese, and charcuterie tasting flights are available in Provisions' tasting room (pictured above).

Marian The Foodie, Jarred Dooley
I'd been curious about Bruery Provisions for a few months now, and a special tasting event organized by OC food blogger Marian the Foodie gave me the perfect excuse to pay them a visit. For the very reasonable price of $10, we were provided a flight of five Bruery beers, paired with a trio of appropriate cheeses (and one killer toffee). After a short introduction by Marian, it was time to get started:

The Awesome Beer
Our flight of five Bruery beers, beautifully presented and tasted left to right:
  • Orchard White: Belgian-style witbier. This hazy, straw yellow wheat ale is spiced with coriander, citrus peel and lavender added to the boil and whirlpool. A spicy, fruity yeast strain is used to add complexity, and rolled oats are added for a silky texture. 5.7% ABV. This was intensely grassy and herbaceous on the nose. The flavor, meanwhile, was surprisingly restrained at first, with the essence of the coriander and lavender creeping up later and then subsiding.
  • Saison De Lente: Our Spring Saison is light blonde in color with a fresh hoppiness and a wild and rustic Brettanomyces character. Lighter in color and alcohol than our Saison Rue, yet equally complex in its own way. Perfect for warmer weather and Spring celebrations. 6.5% ABV. A light, refreshing brew, with subtle notes of citrus and clove-y spice bound by a medium hoppiness.
  • Loakal Red: The first beer we've ever brewed with California ale yeast (rather than our usual Belgian strain), Loakal Red is a blend of two versions of the same red ale; one aged for about a month in NEW American oak barrels and the other dry-hopped. An OC only beer for The Bruery! 6.9% ABV. Not unusual for the red ale style, with an apparent, citric hop character balanced by a nice toasty malt sweetness, all under subtle overtones of oak.
  • Rugbrød: Julebryg-style strong brown ale. We took our inspiration for this beer from the traditional Danish dark, whole-grain rye bread. Instead of the caraway flavor found in American-style rye bread, the Danes allow the spicy, slightly bitter character of the rye to shine through. We do the same with this robust ale, adding bready, nutty malts with a hint of roast to complement. And don't worry, we can't pronounce it either. 8% ABV. Upon tasting, my first thought was "liquid bread!" Think earthy/sour/spicy flavors of rye, and not much hoppiness, all accented by a sweet-ish touch of malt.
  • Old Richland: Old Richland - Our spin on a barley wine and by "our spin" we mean incredibly hoppy. Dry hopped with Simcoe, Centennial and Sterling hops this American-style barley wine exhibits piney and citrusy flavors that shine through the dark, caramelly malt backbone. Some may think of it as more of a double IPA than a barley wine, we just think it's delicious. 9% ABV. Loads of green pine flavors on the nose, which grow and linger on the palate, where they're joined by delicious amounts of citrus hop. A decent amount of caramel malt to balance things out.
Enjoying Ourselves Enjoying Ourselves

Bring Out the Cheese

The Awesomer Cheese
And now for the cheese:
  • Ibores: This delicious goat cheese from Spain has been rubbed with olive oil and paprika creating a unique and spicy cheese that we've paired with Orchard White and Saison De Lente. I found the Ibores very mild and approachable overall, with just a touch of spiciness. A killer complement to the Orchard White!
  • St. Agur: A lusciously creamy bleu cheese choc full of wonderful citrus and grassy notes. We've paired this with Saison De Lente and Loakal Red. A superb blue, creamy and very refined with a fantastic sweetness; my favorite cheese of the trio. I loved how it took the bite off of the Saison, while accenting the Loakal's inherent flavor.
  • Geitost: Geitost is a caramel lovers' dream cheese! This Scandinavian goat cheese is made by caramelizing the whey to give this cheese its caramel color and flavor. It's a perfect match for Rugbrod and Old Richland. Now this was interesting. The cheese showed off a dense, palate-coating consistency with a very apparent caramel character. It heightened the smokiness of the Rugbrod, while accenting the green flavors of the Old Richland.
  • Pop Candy Pistachio Fire: We make this spicy butter crunch with Fiddyment Farms' amazing Fiddy Fire Pistachios. You mildly taste FF's own chile blend in the candy with every bite, and then the perfectly seasoned nuts themselves surprise you with a fun kick of heat and the end. Devilishly good with Old Richland. And now for something completely different, Marian had brought along some toffee for us to pair. The candy was delightful, demonstrating a wonderfully nutty sweetness tinged by a bit of lingering spice. It actually did a great job in tempering the pine-y nature of the Old Richland.
Jarred Dooley

This was my first time pairing beer with cheese, and it was definitely a fun experience. The beers, of course, were unique and delicious in their own right, but it was perhaps even more interesting to see how their flavors were enhanced, tempered, and complemented by the paired cheeses. Thanks again to Marian for setting up the event!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Aburiya Toranoko (Los Angeles, CA)

Aburiya Toranoko
243 S San Pedro St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Mon 01/24/2011, 08:00p-11:35p

Aburiya Toranoko Exterior
Without a doubt, Lazy Ox Canteen was one of the most acclaimed additions to the Downtown dining scene within the past year or so. The man behind Lazy Ox is one Michael Hide Cardenas, head of Innovative Dining Group. Over the years, IDG has introduced Angelenos to such "hip" places as Sushi Roku, BOA, Robata Bar, Katana, and Delphine, so it's nice to see that Cardenas is now focusing more on the food than the scene. Cardenas' latest project is Aburiya Toranoko (grill house of the tiger--yes, we're still technically in the year of the tiger), a foray into the world of Japanese izakaya cuisine (he himself is half-Japanese, and used to work as a teppan chef) formed in partnership with auto parts mogul Eugene Inose, head of Pro-Motion Distributing. The restaurant officially opens on January 26th, but I was invited to a complementary pre-opening preview on Monday (following a grand opening party on Sunday, which I did not attend).

Cardenas once served as the GM of Matsuhisa, so it's no surprise that Toranoko is helmed by a couple Nobu protégés. The Executive Chef/Partner is Hisaharu Kawabe, a 15-year veteran of the Matsuhisa empire. He's aided by Kitchen Chef Manuel Taku Sugawara and "Sushi Sous Chef" Koji-san. The General Manager is another Nobu-ite, Mikio "Tommy" Tomioka, while Kurtis Wells (ex-Hatfield's) takes charge of the beverages. Overall, the staff aims to instill a Lazy Ox-esque vibe to the place: casual, no frills, affordable, and non-sceney (unless you consider hipster a scene).

Aburiya Toranoko Interior
Toranoko sits literally right next door to Lazy Ox. The space maintains a similar atmosphere, with an über-long communal table, leather banquets on one wall (beneath a huge Murakami-inspired mural on brick, painted by graffiti artist Prime), a bar along another, and the sushi station in the back. Total capacity is around 100.

Aburiya Toranoko Menu Aburiya Toranoko Beverage Menu
The izakaya menu is vast, broken down into seven distinct sections. There's something for everyone here, from your California Roll- and edamame-eaters to the more adventurous types who prefer fermented squid guts (shiokara), pig's feet (tonsoku), or stewed beef tripe (motsu nikomi). To imbibe, we're talking about plenty of sake, wine (red/white/sparkling/plum), beer, and Japanese-y type cocktails. Click for larger versions.

Orion Draft Lager Coedo Premium Lager Iwate Kura Bakushu Oyster Stout
We chose to start with some biru: the Orion Draft Lager [$9], sort of an archetypal Japanese rice lager; the Coedo Premium Lager [$8], a happoshu made from sweet potatoes; and Iwate Kura Bakushu Oyster Stout [$8], the most interesting of the bunch, with prototypical stout flavors of chocolate and coffee, finished with an intriguing tang (oyster?) on the close.

White fish sashimi with pomegranate
White fish sashimi with pomegranate [$12.00]
The meal got off to a strong start with a superb presentation of sashimi. The whitefish's fresh, delicate flavor played well with the sweetness of the pomegranate seeds, and I appreciated the slight astringent component contributed from the greens. What was even better, though, was the dish's subtle bit of creeping heat.

Colorado black pork kakuni braised
Colorado black pork kakuni braised [$8.00]
Kakuni refers to a dish of braised pork belly, similar in nature to a Chinese hong shao ro. As expected, you had rich, dark, sweet, and umami-tinged flavors paired with a melt-in-your-mouth tender consistency. Disks of daikon, meanwhile, came prepared in a similar manner, while the smudge of mustard and topping of scallion helped temper the substantial weight of the meat.

Yanagita seafarms uni goma tofu
Yanagita seafarms uni goma tofu [$8.00]
Goma dofu is a dish that I first tasted at Urasawa, and basically consists of a mix of water, sesame paste, and kudzu powder. The tofu was mild and dense, with soft overtones of sesame finished by subtle hints of uni and soy. One of my dining companions even described this as "like a poem," though I wanted a more forceful presence from the sea urchin.

Pork and vegetable okonomiyaki pancake
Pork and vegetable okonomiyaki pancake [$8.00]
Okonomiyaki arrived in a tasty, textbook preparation, a fitting version of the ubiquitous "Japanese pancake" teeming with sweet, savory, and smoky flavors. A multifaceted affair, deftly balanced by the inclusion of beni shoga pickle.

Negima chicken and green onions
Negima chicken and green onions [$4.00]
Negima specifically refers to a yakitori dish made with chicken and negi (leek). The bird here was soft, rich, and heavily flavored, an amalgam of sweet and soy flavors to pair with the leek.

House made shiokara marinated intestines
House made shiokara marinated intestines [$5.00]
Shiokara is a delicacy made from fermented seafood internals, and not surprisingly, it was one of the more adventurous dishes of the night. As you'd expect, the shiokara was very salty, very briny, with a strong lingering fishiness. I believe the version here at Toranoko was made from ika, so it had a somewhat chewy texture typical of the squid.

Mochi kinchaku rice cake
Mochi kinchaku rice cake [$5.00]
Next up was a mochi glutinous rice cake enrobed with a deep-fried soybean curd sheet. The mochi itself had almost no taste, and thus most of the flavor here came from the tofu essence of its wrapper.

Skin [$3.00]
Chicken skin, or torikawa, was next. Crisp and savory, with a slight bitter char, just like you'd expect.

Takana croquette of mashed potato and mustard leaf
Takana croquette of mashed potato and mustard leaf [$8.00]
Korokke (croquettes) of mashed potato were tasty, with a very pure, mild potato flavor nicely complemented by the heavy savor of its accompanying dipping sauce.

Natto kinchaku
Natto kinchaku [$4.00]
Natto is a dish of fermented soybean, and was, for me, easily the most challenging dish of the evening. This was actually my first time having natto, and I wasn't a huge fan, finding the flavor extremely pungent, way stronger than any cheese I've had, and quite unlike anything else that I've ever eaten. Definitely an acquired taste.

Kikusui Aged Funaguchi Ginjo Nama Genshu, Niigata
Sake out of a can, now this was a first for me. The Kikusui Aged Funaguchi Ginjo Nama Genshu [$13] is a one-year aged namazake genshu, or unpasteurized, undiluted sake. It actually wasn't bad, a viscous, sweet, eminently drinkable sake perfect for quaffing.

Vegetable [$8.00]
Vegetable rolls were appropriately light and bright, with the crisp flavor of the veggies playing nicely with the seaweed. Nice crunch here, too.

Toranoko french mountain potato fries with plum aioli
Toranoko french mountain potato fries with plum aioli [$7.00]
Here were some frites made from yamaimo, or Japanese mountain yam. The fries yielded an intriguing texture--slightly crunchy, gritty, and mucilaginous all at the same time. They didn't have much flavor of their own, so the included aioli was a necessary accoutrement.

Cherry tomato in bacon
Cherry tomato in bacon [$4.00]
Tomato and bacon, grilled--hard to go wrong here. Indeed, I quite liked the globules, with their sweet, juicy succulence paired with the sharp saltiness of bacon. Yum.

Tender beef
Tender beef [$5.00]
Tender beef, ironically, could've been more tender. I also wanted more seasoning, more kick, more beefiness from the dish, though I did like the bit of overarching citric tang.

Kinoko zosui porridge of rice and egg
Kinoko zosui porridge of rice and egg [$8.00]
Zosui is basically a rice soup, prepared here with egg and kinoko (mushroom). It was arguably my favorite course of the night, a hearty, heartwarming concoction of mild rice and earthy, savory mushroom, heightened by the tang of the included greenery. This was something that I could just eat a whole big bowl of.

Heart [$3.00]
Hatsu, or chicken heart yakitori was up next. The meat was appropriately flavorsome, with a snappy, slightly chewy consistency to boot.

Hisa Kawabe, Tommy Tomioka, Josie Mora
Chef/Partner Hisa Kawabe, General Manager Tommy Tomioka, Josie Mora.

Tsukune meatballs
Tsukune meatballs [$6.00]
Tsukune is a yakitori skewer of ground chicken. The flavors here were particularly deep and heady, and the bird went wonderfully with its accompaniment of raw egg yolk.

New Union farms sizzling mushroom with red cheddar cheese tobanyaki
New Union farms sizzling mushroom with red cheddar cheese tobanyaki [$9.00]
It's been years since I've had a mushroom tobanyaki, so I particularly relished this dish. The shrooms--oysters, enokis, and shiitakes--were unabashedly decadent, dripping with buttery goodness, yet still showing off characteristic mushroom flavor.

Live freshwater eel / Kohada / Shiromi Shiromi / Kohada / Live freshwater eel
Live freshwater eel [$13.00]
Kohada [$8.00]
Shiromi [$6.00]
Sushi time! We ordered the day's specials, unagi (eel) and kohada (gizzard shad), as well as the shiromi, or whitefish (fluke on this night). The eel was the standout of the trio. It was perhaps the most unique presentation of the fish that I've ever had, with a pure, exquisite flavor unadorned by the application of the typical sweet sauce. I also appreciated its crisp, delicate skin and subtle yuzu notes. The shad, meanwhile, was archetypical of the style, with a firm flesh and delightfully fishy essence. Finally, we had the hirame, very soft in texture, with a mild flavor--quite nice.

Rin 'Organic', Fukushima
Our final libation of the evening was the Rin "Organic" sake from Fukushima [$25]. This was a more balanced sake compared to the Kikusui above, with more acidic and alcoholic notes to complement the sake's rice-y sweetness.

Tiger shrimp tempura with curry aioli
Tiger shrimp tempura with curry aioli [$12.00]
Shrimp, unfortunately, arrived overcooked, making for a tough, rather than supple, consistency that I took issue with. I did, however, enjoy the paired curry aioli.

Sauce yakisoba with pork
Sauce yakisoba with pork [$9.00]
Here was sosu yakisoba, or the Japanese riff on Chinese chow mein. I enjoyed the noodles and pork, but found the topping of yakisoba sauce too saccharine for my tastes. The beni shoga pickles, though, did do a nice job in countervailing some of that sweetness.

Jidori fried chicken with oroshi sesame
Jidori fried chicken with oroshi sesame [$9.00]
Karaage of Jidori chicken was expectedly delicious. I found the bird tender, succulent, and laced with hearty umami-tinged flavor. I could've eaten an entire bucket.

Green tea pudding
Green tea pudding [$6.00]
Our sole dessert consisted of a green tea pudding topped with various berries. I rather enjoyed it, finding the slightly astringent nature of the green tea a fitting complement to the sweetness of the fruit. A nice way to cap off the evening.

Based on this early preview, it looks like Toranoko is off to an encouraging start. The place has a cool-casual vibe, a promising menu, and some lovely flavors to work with: deep, lusty, and rustic--down home Japanese. As for what's next for Cardenas, apparently he's still working on two more restaurant projects for LA, including a tapas-focused Spanish concept with BLVD's former chef, Perfecto Rocher. Keep an eye out for those in the coming months.

Hisaharu Kawabe, Michael Cardenas
Hisaharu Kawabe, Michael Cardenas