Thursday, May 27, 2010

Post 24: Sleepless without Seattle

Eagerly awaiting my first big trip of the year, I have been suffering from a mild case of... of... err... I've been so sleep-deprived that I've forgotten the term for not being able to fall asleep! (And just when I finished typing the last sentence, the word INSOMNIA came screeching to a halt at my fingertips...) I've been suffering from insomnia. My solution has neither been to count sheep nor has it been to drink a glass of warm milk. Considering that I lack the lactase enzyme to process dairy, I think milk (warm or cold) just might continue keeping me awake... but for a much different reason. By the way, does anyone know why people count sheep to fall asleep?

My solution for my insomnia has been to play this song on repeat.  It was passed along to me from oolong-milktea (thank you, sir) to jumpstart the excitement for our trip to Seattle this weekend.  Eek.  I think the excitement from watching the music video is what is keeping me from sleeping.  Yet it's also the calm from the same video that is caressing me into slumber.  Funny how life works, huh?

Two days left until Seattle... whoo hoo! The last time I visited Seattle was on an Asian tour bus en route to Vancouver after graduating high school... I'm not sure if I remember much from that trip, honestly.  I'm just expecting some really crisp, clean, fresh air.  And rain? Maybe I'm too used to the sun here in So Cal, but I can't imagine the rain in Seattle just yet.  I'm excited for Pike's Place Market, the Space Needle, and maybe a possible ferry ride or two.  I'm going to try this concept of packing lightly for the first time (3 bags in Chicago, 2 bags in NYC, maybe 1 bag to Seattle?)... we'll see if I can actually cram everything into one carry-on.  Until our return from the rainy city, let's go S.O.F.A.T.
ML - 20100602

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Post 23: Kate Mantilini (LA-SFV: Woodland Hills)

While working at Miller I never actually got around to having a "nice" meal for lunch.  What would I call a 'nice' meal? Well, for starters, it definitely wouldn't be the leftovers (typically meat and vegetables over rice) that I re-heat in a microwave three to four times a week (sometimes five) at the office lunch room.  It definitely wouldn't be McDonald's... or any fast food... or any of the food court options across the street at the mall (Promenade, not Topanga).  A "nice" meal would be a meal that I could eat without feeling pressure from the professional time constraints of society.  In other words... I'd be able to eat without the constant reminder than my lunch break was just 30 minutes.

The enemy.  A mountain of tax returns.

So absolutely fed up with getting paper cuts from assembling tax returns, I decided to go somewhere where I could hold a cloth napkin rather than a Band-Aid.  How convenient... Kate Mantilini was right downstairs.

Gloomy, no? Coffee was my only pick-me-up.

Now I don't think anyone would ever call Kate Mantilini a swanky place, but it's definitely one of those places that the boss would put on his expense account (having handled a few expenses accounts while interning at... ahem.  I digress.)  

Kate Mantilini.  Simple meals, done well.  Nice.

I wanted to eat something with a spoon... and when I was done eating whatever I was eating with a spoon, I could use the spoon to dig myself out from under the millions of tax returns I was preparing.  Oh, and then I could replace my index finger with this versatile spoon so that I wouldn't get anymore paper cuts! (What a genius plan I had.)

Tasty tortilla.
The soup's texture was unlike those that I had tasted before.

I ordered the tortilla soup first, the seared ahi tuna, and the sauteed spinach.  (Did I already mention the simple meals?) Although it was simple, the tortilla soup wasn't just any old, lukewarm, watered-down tortilla soup that's served at chain family restaurants.  The tortilla soup was rich, and it had texture to it.  Kate's version (done right) gave me hope that there was life outside of tax returns.  I'm glad I ordered the tortilla soup.

Successfully seared.
There were eight gorgeous pieces of radiantly red fish.

When the ahi had arrived, I completely ignored the tortilla soup as if it had never been there.  Kate seemed to have seared the outside of the ahi for an extra length of time.  And although that's less raw tuna to eat, it also helped provide color contrast to the portion of the raw tuna.  The ruby red flesh really stood out next to the tan seared portion.  They almost looked like gemstones, glimmering against a backdrop of white and tan... and almost too good to eat.  Almost.

Simple saute.
Popeye would have traded his can for this for damned sure.

If you can call spinach elegant, this would be some elegant spinach.  Other than Din Tai Fung, there are very few establishments that can saute a vegetable so delicately that the vegetable still retains its original shape, color, and taste.  Kate did just that.  There was not a single overcooked leaf... nothing brown.  Every bite still crunched with a soft vigor... every fork full was green like the spinach was still alive.  It was like melting into a spoonful of Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream.  There's nothing on the spoon but single-flavor ice cream, but it's just so damned good.

How time flew! My simple meal took... 90 minutes?! My lunch hour was definitely over.  But thank you, Kate, for taking my mind off of those 1040s.  Until next time, let's get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100623/20100309

Monday, May 17, 2010

Post 22: Moove Over for Moo Dae Po! (LA: Koreatown)

On my last romp through Koreatown up and down Vermont (filled to the brim with Beverly Soon Tofu), Rose pointed Moo Dae Po out to me and mentioned that it was one of the better Korean barbeque places in LA.  That mere statement jump-started my salivary glands and kicked my anxious nerves into overdrive.  The shakes.  I got the shakes.  I had to have a taste of some grilled meats at Moo Dae Po.

Joe was in town for a business project recently, and he got a craving for all-you-can-eat KBBQ. (I wasn't the one with the Korean food craving... what a shocker.) So to Moo Dae Po we went.  I was starving like mad... partly because it was dinner time and partly because I was put through some very intense reverse crunches (which I haven't done since this first time) at the gym earlier in the day.  Perfect time for KBBQ!

Okay, so official announcement: I fell in love at Moo Dae Po... with the kimchi.  At first, it looked like any ordinary restaurant kimchi... but after one bite, I knew this kimchi was different.  The gleaming red chili sauce retained a strong oyster essence.  It was almost as if the oysters had just been pulled out of the kimchi jar.  (Korean culinary conoisseurs tell me that the essence of oyster is a sign of authentic kimchi.)  The cabbage leaves made me fall even deeper in love with the kimchi.  The leaves were whole and in tact... far from being bite-sized, which means each bite of the kimchi made me feel like I was folding oceanwaves in my mouth.  This kimchi was the one.  It was love at first bite.

Completely enamored with the kimchi, I had almost forgotten about the rest of the banchan.  In stark contrast to the spiciness of the kimchi was this glowing yellow ball of yam mashed potato.  Although it looked like a sulfuric meteor of minute proportions that Venus perhaps tossed over to Earth, the taste was far from poisonous.  This mashed yam ball captured an unexpected sweet taste with a hint of ginger.  (This might be something I want to try making at home.)  I just couldn't get over its sulfuric look.

Another favorite is this gonyak (CN: konjac, JP: konnyaku) salad with bits of sesame and shredded cucumber.  The rest of the banchan were pretty typical of Korean restaurants (bean sprouts and the like), but this gonyak salad captured my attention because it was prepared differently from the gonyak I've had at other restaurants.  This dish provided another contrasting flavor and texture to the kimchi and mashed yam.  It was so light and refreshing and almost acted as a neutral palate cleanser in between the meats and heavier flavors.

While the grilled meats and spicy kimchi were more savage to the taste, the steamed egg was more mild and comforting.  (I think I've found a new favorite dish to eat with a spoon.)  Watching the amount of steam rising from the stone pot was like watching love evaporate into the air.  (Did I just compare steam to love? I think I've officially gone crazy.)  Maybe it stems from my childhood, but whenever my parents, aunts, or Ah Ma made me a big bowl of chawanmushi, the warmth of the steam made me feel loved.  I can see my married life now... my wife says, "I love you," and I reply with, "here, honey, have some steamed egg." (Potential miscommunication and slap in the face? Boy, I hope my future wife reads this post...)

By the end of the full-fledged consumption of steamed egg, the meats and lettuce (no rice paper here!) had arrived.  The server placed a garden of lettuces before us.  Hidden amongst the romaine and the butter leaves were a few sesame seed leaves (shiso).  Shiso is so ridiculously aromatic and fragrant.  The smell of shiso casts a spell on me the same way that jasmine, lavender, or freshly brewed coffee mesmerizes others.  Mmmmm...

As I began to create my lettuce wrap, I dropped a large spoonful of the fermented bean paste onto my lettuce to hold everything in place.  (Has anyone noticed that Taco Bell smears a bit of refried beans on the wax paper wrapper to hold the taco in place?) The bean paste is chock full of garlic, green onions, and red chilies, and it has a strong, pungent smell.  Funny how a simple, fermented soybean can create this pungent paste and oh-so-tantalizing taste. 

After a plop of the bean paste, I dropped two cubes of beef onto the mat of kimchi.  The beef looked like it was chillin' in a lettuce hammock.  Too bad I was about to tear it apart with my teeth.  Muahahaha... good food brings out the predator in me.

I was so busy building wraps and engrossed in conversing about how wonderful the kimchi was that I failed to take more pictures of the meat.  Super fail.  Buuutt... the Cheju pork belly is awesome; the beef tongue is tender; and the shrimp is fresh and flavorful from the olive oil marinade.  And if you're up for a bit of excitement, order the baby octopus and you can watch their bodies burst when the grill gets super hot.  (I recently came back with oolong-milktea and co. after a 10K race, and the bursting baby octopi were definitely a source of amusement.)  Oh, but the best part? They're quite delicious too.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100608/20100427+0516

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Post 21: Salad with Strawberries and Basil

Ahhh... I've received an invitation to the first potluck of the summer season! (What a great idea, Meesh!) Since the weather has been warming up, I thought that I something light and refreshing would help everyone acclimate to the heat.  A simple salad with strawberry and basil sounded like a good idea.  Strawberries would provide a nice sweetness to the salad and reflect the summer season at the same time.  And basil would help refresh the palate so that the guests at the potluck don't feel like they have been eating a heavy meal.  Here we go!


1.  mixed greens

2.  strawberries

3.  basil

4.  balsamic vinegar
5.  lemon
6.  olive oil
7.  salt & pepper

Some serious strawberry.
The egg (XL size) dwarfs in comparison.


Does this recipe need instructions? Ah... do I even call this a recipe? 

1.  Slice the strawberries, and chop the basil.
2.  Toss the strawberries and basil in with the mixed greens.
3.  Drizzle with olive oil, the fresh juice of a lemon, salt and pepper.
4.  Taste to make sure the leaves are seasoned to your liking.
5.  Dash the balsamic vinegar (not vinaigrette) on for a bit of sweet and a bit of tang.

Savor the sweet.
Strawberries signal the start of summer.

The basil and lemon juice cooperated in a light tap dance on top of the tongue, and the surprise from the basil and the sour (just enough) from the lemon juice really helped open our appetites for the other dishes at the potluck.  (Meesh, you make a mean chive mashed potatoes.  And those enchiladas were nothing short of addicting.)  The tang from the balsamic vinegar really helped bring the flavor out from the strawberries.  Try it out.  Let me know what y'all think! Until the next potluck, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100621/20100501

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Post 20.2: Flashback - San Francisco, Part 2 (May 2009)

I experienced a whirlwind of international flavors while on my short weekend trip in San Francisco last May... from breakfast at one of the city's many casual cafes to dinner at finer Vietnamese fare... to saliva-inducing spicy Szechuan Chinese to milder Mediterranean munchies... here's a look at the many marvelous meals from that weekend.

Breakfast @ Cafe Capriccio (San Francisco: North Beach)

I had an open-faced bagel piled high with turkey, fresh tomatoes, red onions, mozzarella, basil.  Yum! I really liked that Capriccio packed the tomatoes high.  One stingy slice of tomato in my sandwiches just doesn't do it for me.  And I liked that the mozzarella topped off the sandwich rather than congealing to the bottom slice of the bagel.  It sorta Saran-wrapped the tomatoes and onions together, preventing the pagoda pile from toppling over.  Call it my love for organizations, but I like! And some fragrant basil and a bit of coarsely ground black pepper for minor oomph? Like, like, like!

Dinner @ Out the Door (San Francisco: Union Square)

While we ordered quite a few dishes from the menu, there were two that caught the attention of my taste buds.  The first was the green papaya salad.  I don't normally like the papaya smell or flavor, but the combination of sweet, spicy, and sour was strangely addicting.  I kept telling myself to save my appetite for the forthcoming courses, but while waiting for the dishes to arrive, I began to pick out the peanuts.  One thing led to another, and of course my chopsticks picked up strand after strand of the green papaya.  

The other dish that quickly became a favorite was the crispy duck.  Oh, how I couldn't (and still can't) resist beautifully, golden, crispy skin of pork or poultry.  The meat under the wonderfully crispy skin was tender, moist, and juicy.  Wow, it was like the double trifecta of poultry perfection: skin x (beautiful, golden, crispy) + meat x (tender, moist, juicy).  I honestly couldn't ask for more.  Well, I could... another order please?

Dinner @ Spices (San Francisco: Inner Richmond)

What a fitting name: Spices! The only way the restaurant's name could be any more fitting is if it's changed to Spicy-as-hell.  One dish at this restaurant had officially caused a near-death experience for me.  The mini spicy tofu cubes had a bite that created a psychotic spiciness in my ears.  As beads of sweat rolled down and around my eyebrows, my ears rang with panicked alarm.  Some seeds from the Szechuan chili pepper must have slipped into my mouth somehow, and one off-bite must have caused the seed's juice to explode.  Not water, not tea, not yogurt smoothies (I know understand why those drinks are on the menu) could prevent the forest fire from spreading across the prairie of tastebuds.  Sorry, Smokey.  Call me crazy, but I'd chomp down on these little tofu bombs again.  I'd be crazy not to.

Lunch @ Oasis Grill (San Francisco: Financial District)

I met up with Grace while during her lunch break.  She frequently called me during her lunch breaks to describe what she was having.  Ugh, although it's nice to hear her voice, it's not so nice to hear the delicious meal she was having.  So when I finally made it up to SF on a weekday, Grace grabbed the chance to introduce me to one of her usual lunch spots.

Grace ordered the chicken shawarma.  And while I was pondering over all the menu options (and irritating the on-the-go bankers with my turtle-like decision-making process), Grace instructed, "Get the chicken shawarma.  It's good."  I obliged.  After all, it's the first item on the menu

We grabbed our shawarmas and hopped on over to the area across from the Ferry Building for our Greek grub.  On this beautiful day in the San Francisco, those who spent 8+ hours a day in the Embarcadero buildings enjoyed their lunch while basking in the sun.  Ah, shit like that makes me happy.

The super enormous chicken shawarma made me happy too.  It was almost the length of my forearm.  The simple wrap was filled with rotisserie chicken, lettuce, tomato, and a gastronomically gourmet garlic sauce.  The garlic sauce, although typically thought of as a mere condiment, was absolute gold in my eyes.  The sauce added a flavorful bite to the lettuce and tomato and was a mediator of moisture for the chicken.

I suddenly envied all those who worked at the Embarcadero buildings.  Suit and tie to work for this? No problem! If I worked in the city, I'd be a regular at Oasis Grill for sure.  I peeled more of the alumnimum foil off, and nom, nom, nommed away.

Halfway through the wrap, I was absolutely full.  That shawarma was BIG.  And upon annoucning that I couldn't eat another bite, I heard an exclamation of, "WEAK SAAAAAUUUCCE."  I stared.  I blinked.  I thought, "this girl just called me weak sauce.  Must.  continue.  eating."  I wasn't about to let a girl beat me at eating forearm-lengthed shawarmas. No failing.

I finished.  "Oooh...," I thought, "San Francisco, you've done me good."  I spotted a portion of the shawarma pushing out from inside my belly... "I shall return."

Until the next trip to San Francisco, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100706/20090516-20

Friday, May 7, 2010

Post 20.1: Flashback - San Francisco, Part 1 (May 2009)

S.O.F.A.T. is supposed to stand for Stories of Food and Travel, but so far the proportion of food to travel is way off! Since I haven't been traveling too much during the first half of the year (first non-Vegas trip this year will be Memorial Day weekend), I've decided to do a little flashback to May of last year.  Coincidentally, May is when I took my first non-Vegas trip last year too.

In the beginning months of 2009, I was studying for my Series 7 exam in order to be fully licensed to sell investment products.  (Wow, what an elevator pitch.)  My career path (and my travel plans) seemed so easily laid out.  I would get my Series 7, then my Series 66, insurance, etc.  I would quickly make bank, buy tables for my friends, pour Dom, and flash my cufflinks out the window of my Lexus.  Ah, and my tie would be Burberry, and my briefcase would be LV.  Ha! I was officially laid off on May 1, 2009.  All my dreams were shattered.

I had booked a trip to San Francisco on May 15 to celebrate the completion of my Series 7 exam.  And since the exam was to be held in Irvine, I booked the flight from Orange County's John Wayne Airport.  SNA-SFO was a new route for Virgin America at the time, so they offered a $39 one-way deal. (Sweet deal.) But since I had been laid off by the bank, there was no need to take the exam in the OC or fly out from SNA.  But alas, change fees are change fees, which meant I was going to fly out of SNA no matter what.

I had already traveled from home (626) to an interview (310) to Karin's (909) to SNA airport (949)... 415 seemed like a nice place to unwind.  (Thanks Karin for the ride!) Upon arriving at the VX check-in counter (way, way, way early), the agent asked if I would like to upgrade to first class for $50.  While I idled in my response, she quickly added, "you'd already be paying $15 to check in your bag..."

"Sure, is MasterCard okay?"

So my first flight with Virgin America was going to be in First Class.  I didn't have any problem with that!

Pre-flight ritual.
Browsing (and purchasing) a magazine at the stands and a small snack.

Loving the leather.  I like that the bottle of water is already there.

Footloose! There was more legroom than I knew what to do with.

Pre-departure drink.  Gin and tonic to start the trip.

Are you on the list?
Virgin's famed mood lighting keeps the cabin nightclub-esque.

The SNA runway.  A Delta jet sits at the gate.

A neighbor arrives.  
This was one of my last looks at an NWA plane before the liveries changed.

A gift box.
VX provides a complimentary box of appetizers for first class passengers.

Incriminating, no? 
3 appetizers, 1 drink, and 2... it was just a commercial.

We're just friends!
Thumbs up for personal screens and TV on-demand.

Appetizer no. 2.  The only non-shaky picture I managed to take.
I think a combo of the high altitude and the third drink was getting to my head.

One more. 
I was fully taking advantage of the all-you-can-drink offer.

Authentic American Absinthe.
Nope, this wasn't the original French one that caused people to hallucinate or to see fairies.

Getting close.
A look out of the window provides a glimpse to the South Bay area.

The friendly female Marine sitting next to me (she was CUT... I think her thighs could pop beer bottles open) taught me a trick for flying with Virgin.  She suggested to always get to the VX check-in counter early to score the $50 upgrade to first class.  It totally beats paying the full price ($200+) for the hour-or-so trip from the Southland to the Bay Area.  

Our very pleasant (and slightly inebriated) hour-long chat even produced a few pictures, which she exclaimed were going directly on Facebook.  Ohhh.. remind me not to take intoxicated pictures with strangers ever again, please.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the cabin crew would like to welcome you to San Francisco..." 

Time to stumble off the plane... more posts while in the city to come! Until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100623/20100515

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Post 19: Shabu-Shabu House (LA: Little Tokyo)

Shabu-Shabu House in Little Tokyo is somewhat of a spectacle.  There always seems to be a mass of hungry shabu-shabuers gathered by the storefront.  These hungry shabu-shabuers wait ever-so-patiently for the chance to swish-swish tender slices of beef in their personal Japanese savory fondue hot pot.  

The house that beef built.
One horseshoe-shaped counter serves all guests.

For those who are lucky enough (or tall enough) to peer over the heads of the waiting customers, the large, transparent window offers a glimpse of what's inside the shabu-shabu-ya... tender beef being sliced to order on a professional meat cutter.  Slice after slice, fresh beef folds ever-so-gently into the palms of a waiting hand.  Now that is the spectacle, and that is the reason why people wait outside en masse.

Sliced to order.  
In ten swift motions of the blade, fresh beef awaits impending doom.

If it's the beef that keeps people waiting outside, it's also the beef that keeps people sitting inside.  The marbling throughout the thinly sliced pink tenderness simply called beef ensures that the meat will taste soft and tender.  The right amount of swishing in the pot takes only a few seconds.  As soon as the pink diminishes, the meat is ready to be snatched up and eaten.

Marble on marble.   
The more marbling a slice of meat has the higher its fat content.

Japanese food experts claim that the best Japanese restaurants are ones that do not require patrons to flip or turn the page of the menu... the simpler the menu, the better the quality of food.  Well, that's good to know because the menu at Shabu-Shabu House is written on a chalkboard.  Choice A offers 10 slices of beef, and choice B offers 15 slices of beef.  It can't get any simpler than that.

The frou-frou platter.
Tofu, fresh vegetables and udon noodles are traditional accompaniments.

While admiring my pot of boiling denatured beef enzymes, I noticed the shabu-shabuer sitting to my left.  Before she had even begun to place vegetables in the water, she had doused the boiling base with shoyu (soy sauce) and unnecessarily drenched the uncooked beef with oil.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is lesson one in 'How Not to Shabu-Shabu.'

A quick swish.
The roaring boil of the water cooks the meat within seconds.

While the base of Chinese hot pot may be made from the simplest of chicken stocks to the spiciest of Szechwan peppercorns, the Japanese shabu base is just water and one enchanted piece of seaweed.  The base is pure because it is the all-important beef that is meant to be tasted.  The base that later encapsulates the enzymatic remnants of the beef is not meant for consumption.  Taste the beef, not the soy sauce.  Seeing the Kikkoman pollute the shabu pot was like seeing thick, black smoke engulf a burning house.  Eek.

The pool of ponzu.
Soy sauce may overpower the natural beef flavor.  Ponzu works better.

So how exactly does one shabu? It's simple! When the water comes to a boil, add vegetables, not soy sauce.  When the base comes back to a boiling degree, swish, swish, swish the meat around until the pink fades.  Do not add soy sauce.  Season the ponzu sauce and the peanut sauce with garlic, green onions, and fragrant oil to your liking.  Do not add soy sauce.  (Alright, maybe just a little bit if you really need a bit of that saltiness... but it's the Shabu-Shabu House not the Shoyu-Shoyu house.) Dip the slice of beef in your preferred sauce (ponzu or peanut)... and savor all beef in all its glory.  Repeat 9 or 14 more times to fulfill satisfaction.  Not too hard, right?

Paired with peanut.  
The sauce is like a tangy liquid peanut butter and goes great with the beef.

Lesson one... keep the beef tender.  Lesson two... don't ruin the soup base! Lesson three... class dismissed! Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100517/20100428