Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Post 107: GReat BurGeR by Gordon Ramsay BurGR (Las Vegas: The Strip)

On December 12 of last year (12/12/12), jetBlue held a flash sale for short haul flights to help open the newly remodeled terminal at Long Beach Airport.  Flights from LGB to LAS, SFO, OAK, SAC, PDX, and SEA were only $12 each way with taxes included.  It was cheap enough (less than $24 total for a RT with taxes) to fly to Vegas for dinner and return in time for work the next morning.  Looks like quite a few spontaneous jetsetters had the same idea because the flights to Portland and Seattle sold out instantly... and that is how I ended up in Vegas in the middle of the week.

I met up with Vegas local Amber-Rose Kawewehi, writer of the blog Cheer Up With Food to try out the new Gordon Ramsay BurGR at Planet Hollywood.  Chef Ramsay's new burger joint strives to make the classic American burger and shake combination into a classed up version of comfort food in a casual environment.  Amber-Rose (yes, you can call her Amber for short) brought a friend with her, and I brought my roommate.  The four of us ordered just about everything on the menu.

We started off with the Roasted Jalapeño Poppers.  The outside was breaded with panko, and the interior was stuffed with applewood smoked bacon and English cheddar.  They were dunked into a shot glass of English cheddar ranch with chili oil.  In case you can't handle spicy, you're in luck because out of the half dozen poppers, five of them have had their seeds removed.  One of them, described on the menu as the "fiery surprise," still contained the vein of seeds within.  The odds are that you won't be the one to end up with the fiery surprise, but if you didn't have the best of luck with the roulette wheel on the casino floor, I wouldn't take my chances on this one.  After all, this is Vegas.

Next up we ordered a platter of the Fury Chicken Wings, which were a combination of four tangy hellfire bleu cheese wings and four honey wasabi wings.  The hellfire wings definitely had a bit of heat... maybe even more so than the honey wasabi wings.  The second set of wings had a obvious wasabi bite, but the restaurant was careful not to have the volatile condiment overpower the flavor of the wings.  The Deschutes Chainbreaker White IPA that I was drinking tasted even better with the spicy fried food.  By the way, we ordered our drinks off a portable iPad that our server whisked to us each time we wanted to quench our thirst.  Very cool.

There were only two salads on the menu, and thankfully neither of them were the typical house or classic Caesar salad.  Amber made a great call by ordering the Kale Granny-Apple Caesar Salad.  I love that the salad section actually had a vegetable that was substantial in nutrients without coming across as way too healthy.  The kale was a smart move on Chef Ramsay's part.  And even smarter was the addition of the crispy and slightly tart Granny Smith apple slices.  The apples added a light and fresh touch to a salad that becomes quite heavy with its eponymous dressing.

Although there were other items on the menu we wanted to try such as the Honey-Pig Bao Buns and the Devil Dawgs, we stuck to the classic burgers and fries combo.  Our highly attentive server Charlie expertly explained that the meat used in the burgers were 100% beef, a blend of beef brisket, chuck, and short rib.  They are all grilled with an English Devonshire butter, but no other seasonings or sauces were added.  Two types of wood were used for creating the fire under the grill... applewood, which created a smoky flavor, and alderwood, which created a sweeter flavor.  After the detailed description, we knew that ordering burgers was the way to go.

I ordered the Farm Burger from under the Stacked section of the menu.  It came with a sizable portion of duck breast bacon and a runny fried egg, which ended up dripping into the sharp English cheddar cheese.  The duck bacon was more tender, more crispy, and even more decadent than the typical breakfast pork bacon.  The bun was more than just buttery.  Biting into the crispy yet pillowy bun was like biting into a soft, buttery crouton.  Absolutely delicious.

Amber ordered the Britannia Burger, which was made with mango chutney, sharp English cheddar and a layer of arugula.  I wasn't quite sure what was so Britannia about this burger... not that it needed a Union Jack to scream Britain or anything.  It could have been the mango chutney, which would have been a nod to the heavy influence of Indian cuisine on English cooking.  The mango chutney was a nice touch, especially since its sweetness contrasted the peppery arugula leaves.  But really, it was simply creative.  When was the last time you had mango in your burger?

Amber's friend Byron ordered the Uber Cheese Burger.  Just from its profile we could tell that it was loaded with cheese.  This cheeseburger had a trifecta of fontina, reclette and goat cheese all melted between the patty and the bun.  It oozed out and covered the circumference of the patty to give it enough more moisture and juiciness.

We couldn't leave without ordering the Hell's Kitchen Burger.  It had a good amount of asadero cheese melted over the patty along with roasted jalapeño peppers, oven roasted tomato, and freshly sliced avocado.  Needless to say, this burger was stacked.  I appreciated the oven roasted tomato, and I liked the creaminess of the Mexican asadero cheese... but what really made this burger good was the spiciness from the peppers.  Angela, by the way, was the lucky one that picked the popper with the seeds still inside it.  Looks like heat followed her in burger form this time.

The four of us split an order of the Just Fries, an order of the Truffle Parmesan Fries and an order of the Sweet Potato Fries.  The truffle fries looked as if it were covered with Parmesan snow.  The truffle salt and truffle aioli made the cheesy fries extra salty and finger licking good.  The sweet potato fries were surprising in that the two accompaniments provided completely different tastes.  One was a vanilla powdered sugar, which made the naturally sweet fries even more sweet.  The other was a honey jalapeño mayo, which was both sweet and spicy at the same time.  The orders of fries were so big that the four of us couldn't finish, so we took them home for the next day to eat.  Usually that isn't a very smart idea, especially for fried foods, but the sweet potato fries held up well and were still tasty the following day.

We could barely finish the big burgers and phenomenal fries, so we chose to pass up on the milkshakes.  The milkshakes, though, looked absolutely intense.  Each of them were served with a pudding (choices included caramel, coconut, butterscot, banana, and chocolate hazlenut) and topped off with a cookie (choices included toffee, chocolate, snicker-doodle, gingersnap, and praline).  What we could eat though were the Sticky Toffee Pudding Push Up Pops.  The interactive dessert was made with layers of sticky toffee pudding, salted peanut ice cream and dusted with cocoa powder.  It brought a sense of nostalgia to those of us who grew up eating Push-Up ice cream pops.  These things were not easy to eat, but that may have been the point... to create the sticky mess that we made as children perhaps brought the nostalgia closer to home.

But mess or no mess, Gordon Ramsay made some great burgers.  They may not have been the best burgers I have ever eaten (what burger can top In-N-Out, really?), but the burgers were definitely worthy of at least one visit... at least.  Thank you to all the local Vegas bloggers that I was in contact with.  But a huge thank you goes out to Amber-Rose for meeting me at PH.  Cheers to more blog collaborations this year, and to meeting many more food bloggers out there.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Cheer up with Amber-Rose's post on Gordon Ramsay BurGR here.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Post 106: ScotsFest at the Queen Mary (LA: Long Beach)

Awrite! This past weekend the Queen Mary in Long Beach hosted the 20th anniversary of ScotsFest, a weekend celebration of Scottish cuisine and culture.  In regards to the culture, the festival featured a bag piping competition, Highland athletic games, dancing, a Rock Yer Kilt concert, and other live entertainment.  In the culinary realm, there was much food to be had... the highlights of which included beer and whiskey tastings.  There was, of course, an obligatory parade and... sheep herding! Whit? Whaur?

Thanks to Johanna Felix of the PR firm Freeman/McCue, I was invited to attend the exclusive media event "A Taste of ScotsFest" before the weekend festivities began.  On board the R.M.S. Queen Mary, Head Chef Todd Henderson presented us with some traditional Scottish fare.  We were also treated to bag pipe performances and sword dancing. 

The shining star of the meal may also be described as the black sheep by some.  It was haggis.  In a sense, it is literally black sheep.  Considered a savory pudding, it is really a combination of minced sheep heart, liver and lungs.  Mixed in with onion, oatmeal, fat (suet) and other spices, it is encased in a stomach lining and then cooked through.  The color of it is slightly darker than sepia, and the look of it reminds me of the outside of a dirty conch shell.  But once it is opened it just looks like fully cooked ground beef... if you can get past the idea that haggis contains heart, liver and lungs, that is.

Well, good thing internal organs don't phase me.  The minced meat was quite flavorful.  Chef Henderson served the haggis with the traditional accompaniments of neeps and tatties, which is the Scots way of having mashed turnip and potatoes.  It was my first time having this traditional Scottish food, and it was delicious.  Who doesn't like meat and potatoes?

Other complements included Scotch pie, biscuits and smoked salmon.  The Scotch pie and biscuits were on par with the haggis, neeps and tatties... really comforting and flavorful.  Scotch pie is basically a meat pie, a flaky pastry filled with meat and baked to golden perfection.  The biscuits were moist and easy to break apart.  They had the slight peanut butter stickiness, which is a sign of a well made biscuit.  At the end we had a dessert made with cream and berries called cranachan.

The beverage of choice while eating haggis is whiskey, which we had plenty of.  The media guests tasted five different whiskeys, from a blended and smokey The Black Grouse to a 10 and intense 15 year Macallan to the special 12 and 18 year Highland Park.  The whiskeys, and many beers, were also in attendance at the weekend's ScotsFest.  Thanks to John King of Rémy Cointreau USA for the tasting.

I invited a true blooded Scotsman and his fiancé to partake in the festivities this past weekend.  They noted that the line for the Scotch pies was long (rightfully so) and that the shortbread was "really good."  The Strongbow cider quenched the Mulholland thirst from the unusually hot winter weather.  After 20 solid years in Long Beach, next year's festivities are bound to be bigger and even better.  I am looking forward to another culinary celebration of Scottish culture.  The next ScotsFest will be held over Memorial Day weekend in Orange County.  See ye efter! Until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

At the end of the media event, Captain Will Kayne led us on a full tour of the majestic ship.  Many thanks for the very informative and exciting tour, Captain.

An interview with Chef Todd Henderson in OC Weekly by Orange County food writer Anne Marie Panoringan can be read here. The Scotch meat pies were seriously good.  Good job, Chef.

This post features photography by Kieran Mulholland and Catherine Tung.  Hope you guys had a fun taste of home this past weekend!

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Post 105: dineLA - A Top Chef's Hospitality - Stefan's at LA Farm (LA: Santa Monica)

From San Diego Restaurant Week, we move back up to the City of Angels for our own restaurant showcase called dineLA.  At Ken's suggestion we selected Stefan's at LA Farm for its six course dineLA menu.  Chef Stefan Richter from the fifth season of Top Chef prepared the only six course menu.  That made for some easy decision making.

At the end of a long Monday in the office, the only thing I wanted to do was sit at the bar and have a drink.  So sit at the bar we did... except that was all we did because the bartender did not notice my desperate plea for alcohol.  No matter.  Chef Richter saw my frustration and jumped behind the counter to pour a glass of whiskey for me.  He recommended a super smokey Laphroaig 10 year Scotch whiskey.  Chef dropped two ice cubes in the whiskey glass and suggested to take one sip right at that moment and then again only after the ice melted.  It was seriously smokey... like a chimney during Christmas kind of smokey.

The strain of corporate America eased up, and the tension of another manic Monday melted away.  Here is our six course meal.

Michael's starter course: Cali crudo with thinly sliced hamachi and lime yuzu vinaigrette.  I always enjoy starting a meal off with raw or fresh ingredients.  It is a smart way to ease the palette into multiple courses with lighter flavors and relatively cooler temperatures.

Ken's starter course: Roasted acorn squash salad with burrata and walnuts.  Continuing with raw ingredients we were served more fresh farm fare.  The burrata cheese had a bit of acidity that worked to bring out the earthy sweetness of the squash.

Michael's pasta course: Pumpkin raviolo with brown butter and pecorino.  The brown butter combined with a fresh pasta made for a classic flavor.  I was glad that Chef did not use butternut squash in the ravioli... it is used entirely too often.

Ken's pasta course: Mushroom risotto with hen of the woods fungus and bleu cheese.  It was creamy and al dente, savory and earthy.  Mushrooms, as opposed to meats, always provide suitable flavor without making risotto or pasta dishes too greasy.

Michael's soup course: Acorn squash soup.  I was so surprised by the flavors in the soup.  It was so intense because there was a sweetness from the squash, but I also tasted hints of cinnamon and nutmeg in it.  It was reminiscent of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.  I love that the creme fraiche was there to balance out the intensity of the flavors.

Ken's soup course: Smoked leek & potato soup.  The soup was not bad, but it tasted much milder after having spoonfuls of the intense acorn squash soup first.  Ken started with this one, so he was able to taste the leek and potato more.

Michael's fish course: West Coast halibut cooked with brik dough, zatar spice, edamame, chanterelle & shimeiji.  There was a good sear on the exterior, and the fish itself was soft and almost fluffy. 

Ken's fish course: Crispy white fish with chipotle butter, black beans, cilantro, corn, green beans.  I liked the abundance of vegetables because it prevented the dish from feeling heavy from the butter.  The crisp fish skin was a plus.

Michael's meat course: Beef tenderloin.  Celery root mash, hollandaise sauce.  Slightly raw meat... good.  Hollandaise sauce... good.  Celery root mash to sub for potato mash... good too.  This dish had warmth, which I think is very important for the diner to feel full toward the end of the meal.

Ken's meat course: Duck breast.  The braised red cabbage and lingonberry sauce had a slight sourness that contrasted the savory flavor of the duck breast.  The pretzel galette with the herbs and spices tasted like a bread stuffing that usually goes with turkey during the holidays.  This dish was a creative way to pair poultry and starch.  The duck was so tender.  So good.

Michael's dessert course: Apple beignet.  A different take on classic American apple pie a la mode? Hell yeah.  The crunchy crumbles and chocolate curls are always welcome on my dessert plate.  And ice cream? Bring it on.

Ken's dessert course: Coffee & vanilla panna cotta.  Panna cotta is a favorite of both mine and Ken's.  I have only ever had a uniform flavor of panna cotta, so to see the swirl of coffee and vanilla together sparked more than just curiosity.  I preferred some sort of whipped cream to tie the final course together, but it was good nonetheless.

Ken and I thoroughly enjoyed our experience at Stefan's, especially because Chef made a full fledged effort to introduce himself and immerse in conversation.  We also appreciated that Chef and his staff complied with my troublesome request to walk into the kitchen after each dish was prepared to take photographs.  Thank you very much Chef Richter for the hospitable welcome and delicious meal.  And we will definitely take you up on the chance to have a meal in the kitchen while you run your "shit show."  I can't wait.

The event celebrating Chef Stefan's 15th anniversary in America is upcoming and will feature a three course preset menu for 15 per person.  Until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Post 104: San Diego Restaurant Week - Marina Kitchen (SD: Marina/Harbor)

San Diego Restaurant Week, an increasingly popular showcase of the best restaurant menus in the Whale's Vagina, came around once again this past January.  The week long event has been so frequented by both locals and tourists that it now happens twice a year.  The last time I dined at a SDRW restaurant, I was a recent Triton graduate.  Needless to say, it has been quite a while.  It was due time for a visit.

Fellow Triton alum Angela and I decided to try out the menu at Marina Kitchen, which is located inside  the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina right by the water.  Marina Kitchen stood out the most because its menu was one of the few that did not feature roasted beets or miso marinated fish, both of which seemed to be on every other SDRW menu.  For just 40 per person, we could piece together our own three course dinner.  And for an additional 25, the sommelier put together wine pairings to complement each course.  This is what we ordered.

Pre-course: Charcuterie.  Bresaola, coppa la quercia, la quercia speck, shaft's bleu, truffle gouda.
This was not on the Restaurant Week dinner menu, but Angela and I have been looking for a meat and cheese platter that bests the charctuerie from Bow & Truss that we had last fall.  Of the meats and cheeses available, the clear standout was the truffle gouda.  It was so smooth, creamy, and buttery that we wanted to take some home.  No joke.

Michael's first course: Sesame crusted seared ahi tuna.  Uni sauce, chili oil, micro arugula.
Wine pairing: Paul Goerg Champagne Blanc de Blanc Brut.  Champagne, France.

The crust was crisp.  The tuna was tender.  And the uni sauce was rich, creamy, and delicious.  I was glad that there was such a disproportionately large pool of uni sauce on the plate because it was just begging to be lathered up.

Angela's first course: Bresiola carpaccio.  Arugula, shaved toma, truffle oil.
Wine pairing: 2008 Biondi Etna Rosso Outis.  Mt. Etna, Sicily, Italy.

Michael's second course: Jidori chicken & black truffle pot pie.  Leek and Yukon gold potatoes.
Wine pairing: 2010 Equis St. Joseph Syrah.  Northern Rhone Valley, France.

I have loved pot pies since childhood, albeit it was usually the Marie Callender's pot pie that I loved until I came across the handmade pies from The Pie Hole, but I have cherished the compact little baked comfort food for quite some time.  Seeing that Jidori chicken was being used only heightened my curiosity for what was inside the pie's crust.  The black truffle was not as apparent in flavor, so perhaps a drizzle of warm truffle oil would have enhanced the taste.  But I still really like the fresh leeks and earthy potatoes in the pot pie.  The chef did a superb job at conveying a warm sense of comfort with the pie.

Angela's second course: Local seared diver scallops.  Stinging nettle sauce, Jerusalem artichokes, crosnes.
Wine pairing: 2009 Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay Prelude.  Margaret River, Western Australia.

When we were eating this I had no idea what nettles and crosnes were or what the difference was between a Jerusalem artichoke and the kind that is usually in my spinach dip.  But whatever the chef used to make the sauce and to top off the scallops was delicious.  Nettles, so I later found out, are those little screw like twists that somewhat resemble a mutilated escargot.  The scallops were cooked perfectly too... seared but still rare in the center.  It was an elaborate dish with a beautiful presentation... and it ended up being one of our favorite dishes of the meal.

Third course: Valrhona milk chocolate caramel candy bar.  Guanduaja chocolate center, white chocolate ice cream.
Wine pairing: Ramos Pinto 10 year Tawny Port.  Douro, Portugal.

Third course: Meyer lemon chiboust.  Blood orange, milk chocolate.
Wine pairing: 2009 Donnafugata Ben Rye Late Harvest.  Sicily, Italy.

We liked the white chocolate ice cream in the flower petal shaped cookie shell, and we liked the drops of blood orange too.  The carpaccio was not bad, but it would have been better if there was more meat to shaved cheese ratio.  At the end of the meal we still wanted to take the truffle gouda home.  It was that good.  The seared scallops and ahi tuna with uni sauce were definitely the highlights of the meal.

The next San Diego Restaurant Week will begin September 15 and will feature 180 restaurants.  Without a doubt I will head back down to Daygo to try out some more restaurants.  And I know food fanatic Angela will too.  Until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Post 103: Year in Review - 2012

2012 was a year full of memories, discoveries, adventures, lessons learned, and experiences that will be carried on with me for forever.  It was a tremendous year for food and travel.  I returned to the Big Apple twice and the Windy City twice.  There were also countless trips to San Francisco, San Diego and Las Vegas.


It was the first time in ten years that I did not do any international travel.  Not Taiwan, not Canada, not even Mexico.  But I did visit some great American cities for the first time... Niagara Falls and Downtown Buffalo (NY), Washington (DC), and Portland (OR), all of which have awesome food and require more visits in the near future.


Thank you to all those that traveled with me in 2012.  Since I did not get to visit Taiwan this year, a special thank you goes out to all those that brought my favorite pineapple cakes from Sunny Hills and Chia Te back from Taiwan for me.  Bonus brownie points for you.


2012 was the year that saw the demise of foie gras in California.  I never thought the ban would go through, but alas, all good things must come to an end.  I will admit I did panic just a little bit, which resulted in an eight course gorge on the fatty goose liver.  Never. doing. that. again. ever.


It was the same year that I had uncontrollable cravings for fried chicken, pork belly, bacon.  It did not matter how it was prepared, which restaurant made it, or whether I made it at home... I just could not get enough of those three things.  Some of the most satisfying fried chicken came in a brown paper box from Honey's Kettle Fried Chicken in Culver City.


It was also the year that I found myself searching for contemporary American fare... restaurants that used farm-to-table, local, sustainable ingredients... and celebrity chef dining.  Yes, Anthony Bourdain, David Chang, Gordon Ramsay, Rick Bayless, Stefan Richter, and Thomas Keller... gentlemen, you did well.  Sir, did you drop that? Let me help you pick up all those names you dropped just now.  Ha.  I also found myself returning to my favorite Michelin starred restaurants on the two coasts: Providence in LA and Jean-Georges in NY.  The most unforgettable was most definitely Dave Chang's $200 succulent pork shoulder at Momofuku Ssam Bar.  What a beast.  My friends and family absolutely annihilated Miss Piggy.  No kidding.


For me, 2012 was all about carpaccio, ceviche, crudo, and charcuterie.  Quartino in Chicago served up an awesome duck proscuitto, and Olympic Provisions in Portland had the best quality and selection overall.  But the charcuterie from Bow & Truss in North Hollywood was tops.  It was fun and whimsical and brought delight throughout the entire meal.  These meals confirmed for me that the age old tradition of curing and salting a quality, fresh cut of meat is the way to go.


There were so many food and travel adventures in 2012 that I did not have enough time to blog about all of them.  Some of the year's best culinary discoveries and most memorable meals were simply unblogged.  For example, at the beginning of the year my eyes were opened to khanom bueang, also known as Thai tacos, on a Six Taste food tour of Thai Town in Hollywood.  They were found in the back corner of Silom Supermarket. The crisp, little crepe-like wafers of skin curl around a layer of coconut cream.  They are then topped with salted coconut or sweet shavings of egg yolk.  Thanks to Lalita and Wanda for taking us on tour.  These little things were irresistible.


Later in the year I was introduced to Vietnamese bun bo hue, a homey beef noodle soup that comes from Central Vietnam.  Instead of rice noodles (pho), bun bo hue uses actual noodle noodles (if that makes any sense), and it is drowned in a beef broth with thicker cuts of beef, beef tendon, pigs feet, and pork blood.  Right before diving into the bowl of noodles, cabbage, banana peel, soy bean sprouts, mint, and a fermented chili paste are added.  Whether I had it for the first time at Bun Bo Hue An Nam in San Jose or at Nha Trang in San Gabriel (twice also), my face dripped with sweat.  Thanks Vickee and Connie for taking me.  Every time was exhilarating.  Really.  If you sweat like me, Nha Trang is probably a more comfortable space for you to indulge in this big bowl of noodle soup.


Some of the best meals, such as the multi-course one I shared with Ken and Tiffany from The Royce at The Langham in Pasadena, were not mentioned a single time on S.O.F.A.T. Blog.  Too much food, too little time to write.


With all these delicious meals and adventures during 2012, I reconfirmed three things that I may have already known.

No. 1.  Breakfast is still my favorite meal of the day.  Huckleberry in Santa Monica has some great breakfast selections.  I love that they can make healthy breakfast dishes without sacrificing taste.  The poached eggs with fresh vegetables and pesto are a personal favorite.


No. 2.  I love Taiwanese food, and Taiwanese people make some damned good Taiwanese food.  Was that enough Taiwanese in one sentence for ya? A bowl of braised pork over rice from Why Thirsty (滷肉飯 or lu rou fan in Mandarin) is Taiwanese simplicity at its best.


No. 3.  Nothing can beat home cooking.  Whether it's mom's beef noodle soup, dad's stir-fried udon or my own pasta dishes, the food that comes from a familiar kitchen is the best.  Familial comforts, parental love, and childhood nostalgia are ingredients that no restaurant has in its pantry.


That is it for this 2012 post.  There are still some food and travel posts that will just have to wait to be blogged.  I just realized I have never posted about any of the delicious food I had in Portland or any of the food in the last five trips to New York.  Insane.  But until the next post, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.