Thursday, March 18, 2010

Buvare: Amer Picon

Cocktail trends can circulate quicker than a swizzle stick, but my bet for this summer's boom is on Amari. Once relegated to a full bar's highest hard-to-reach shelf, those dusty bottles (with the most beautiful labels) held the secret to modern mixology - one of the key elements to a perfect cocktail - the bitter.
Nowadays these Italian herbal digestifs are within the barman's reach, and prominently featured in many neoclassic cocktails. One I had never heard of that the good Chuck Taggart at Gumbo Pages got me in a tizzy to try is Amer Picon. Originally a French apertif based on bitter oranges, gentian and cinchona, it has over the years evolved through the hands of the Italians and also the Euskadi, who revere it.
Of course actually finding a bottle of Amer Picon is now near impossible in the States, but interestingly enough the Torani brand (yes, of the syrups) has taken up producing a rather faithful similar tasting, same proof, and more common knockoff. And Silverlake Wine sells it now - for 12 bucks a bottle!

Here's the traditional Amer Picon cocktail preparation via The Gumbo Pages (which essentially is an easy recipe to find, it's right on the bottle's front label!)

"The National Drink of the Basques"

2 ounces Amer Picon (substitute Amer Boudreau or Torani Amer)
2 barspoons (1 teaspoon) of grenadine
Soda water
Lemon peel
1/2 to 1 ounce brandy (optional)

To do it Italian-style, coat the inside of a tumbler with grenadine. Add the Amer and ice, top with about 4 ounces soda and stir. Twist the lemon peel over the drink and garnish. If you feel the cockles of your heart need further warming, float a tablespoon or two of brandy on top.

Also, thanks to Tasting Table LA for bringing my attention to the Roger Room's Pecan Millionaire cocktail--a classy update combining Torani Amer with pomegranate syrup, vodka and Punt e Mes vermouth (get the recipe here).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Croquer: Dim Sum

It was Sunday. I don't even think I was hungover, I think I was still drunk. The night prior, wine had turned into vodka had turned into beer had turned into this headache. Phone buzzed, it was Cat. Dim sum @ 12 for Norm's bday it said. I replied that I was hungover. She replied me too, it will help. An hour later I was battling the chirpy Sunday tourists in Chinatown for parking, squinting into the sun. Not feeling like a fighter today, I pulled into the first lot I saw and dug for dollars. Angry rainclouds rolled over the hills and I frowned down at my pristine white canvas shoes as I skipped toward Ocean Seafood, running late of course.
I had never done Chinatown dim sum, only Monterey Park, but had heard Ocean Seafood was the way to go for these parts. With a nod to the hostess and up the red carpeted stairs, massive tanks of live sea critters waved their pincers at me. Across the expansive room of roving carts I finally spotted my friends. I collapsed with a sigh and snagged a shrimp, poured some tea, ordered a beer, and said hello...

Gosh. I love dim sum. And I don't go out for it nearly enough. Perhaps because it took a while to return after my traumatic introduction back in Portland many years ago. A very traditional sampling with my Chinese friend's family sent a then-vegetarian me running for the hills. Thankfully I have been turned around, and now crave it regularly - especially BBQ pork buns! On the Lazy Susan when I sat down were some crispy crab-stuffed mushroom caps and oh-so-bad-but-oh-so-good walnut shrimp, with tangy mayonnaisey sauce and candied walnuts. Next we got a few orders of Gao (dumplings) - some rich vegetable dumplings and shrimp and pork shumai. Some piping hot baby bok choy with hoisin rounded out the selection. Before long I was scouting for my BBQ pork Bau.. A nice lady produced an order of the baked buns, which I accepted graciously (though steamed are my favorite - not a fighter today). So good. A few more friends meant a few more orders of shumai. And certain stuffness. It ended up about 20 bucks per person, which seems more than fair for the feast, not to mention enjoyable people-watching, colorful ambiance, and a great view of the roiling clouds over the city. I waved goodbye to the lobsters and somehow managed a craving for a boba tea on the way to the car. Oh, and picked up a $7 Chinatown version of the trendy Japanese donabe clay pot (more to come on that).

747 North Broadway, Chinatown; 213.687.3088

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Buvare: the Aviation Cocktail

Just when it seemed like winter may never end... I hope you found yourself like me the past couple of nights opening the windows to let the sublime spring evening air in. The craving for summer has stirred, and with it a taste for a crisp warm weather cocktail. While a fresh gin gimlet always seems the natural choice, it's a new year and I always like to have a new seasonal signature. Recalling a delicious dry Aviation I had a few weeks ago at Church & State, I made my way to the store to pick up some maraschino liqueur (finally, the excuse!).
Luxardo is probably best known of the maraschino liqueurs, but Maraska is quite nice and a bit drier (and less expensive at that). I was also shocked to find it in the liquor section of my neighborhood Jon's market... Another point for Ghetto Von's!
Though the original Aviation recipe calls for Crème de Violette, this has largely fallen away over the years due to its scarcity. Now back in production and available at fine liquor merchants it's definitely on my list. In the interim, I have to say I still quite enjoy the less floral and crisp Aviation of the past several decades. Of the varying recipes, I found Gary Regan's adaptation to have the best balance.

2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce Maraska maraschino liqueur
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with a cherry (optional).

Distinguished. Palatable. Perfection.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Croquer: Soot Bull Jeep

I flipped the car around while attempting to call Lisa, still unable to find the restaurant's signage amongst the congested Korean strip mall mélange. I was scouring the wrong intersection of course, and made my way back to 8th, Lisa illegally aiding me. The black and white sign was actually hard to miss once on the right street, even with a small parking lot next door. I was excited. Soot Bull Jeep is one of the old school granddaddies of the Korean BBQ set, and it was my first time.

What immediately distinguishes SBJ from the rest of the class is the use of charcoal in their tabletop grills. This means SMOKE. Unlike most of the streamline modern KBBQ joints, SBJ is also of a more... modest decor. Frankly, I loved it. It was early yet, so the room was only mildly smoky, the smell of which which only added to my excitement.

As soon as we sat, a server brought us menus and started setting out the banchan. These traditional side dishes included kimchi and other brined vegetables, noodles, garlic, lettuce leaves for wrapping, and various condiments for dipping.
We ordered a couple OB lagers and were each brought a hot starchy soup and small salad before we even ordered. We decided on two proteins to share - the kalbi (marinated beef short ribs) and marinated shrimp.

Not used to a hot flaming charcoal grill inches from my arms/face, I couldn't help but wonder how many incidents at KBBQ per year result in a hospital visit. Still, the warm glow on my face reminded me of camping and tending to the crackling short ribs was a novel conversation piece. Lisa showed me how to cook it just right and how to best use the lettuce wraps, first dipping the grilled meat in the soy/vinegar sauce then adding along with den jang (bean paste), kimchi and the various spiced salads all wrapped up taco-style in a romaine leaf. For extra awesomeness, a freshly grilled garlic clove.
When things got spicy, the bland warm soup suddenly had an understandable purpose, the starchy smooth texture a small break between awesomely flavorful bites of BBQ.
I know SBJ is sometimes criticized for it's price and not being All You Can Eat, but by the end of our supply, I was stuffed. The price ran about $20 per plate/person including all the fixings, and was more than pleasing. Can't say I'd complain, but surely in the future may dabble a bit among the different KBBQ joints to understand the differences. I have trouble imagining it without the smokey char-broiled flavor however.

I decided ultimately that the ambiance of the loud bustling room charmed me, from the vinyl brick paneling to the King-Arthur-chic shields to the Victorian bathroom placards. The service was at times brusque, but overall attendant and sufficient. The food was phenomenal. Another quirky gem tucked quietly away in the bowels of the city, left to be forgotten, or forever treasured, depending on who you talk to.

Soot Bull Jeep
3136 W 8th St. Koreatown; 213.387.3865
Soot Bull Jeep on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Croquer: Trails

My first two years in Los Angeles were spent living in west Los Feliz at the base of the Hollywood Hills, a stone skip from Griffith Park. The shame is that I can probably count on my hands how many times in those years I made it up into the park. I read once about a gourmet snack shack nestled up there in the trees, but that quickly evaporated into the cloud of LA to-dos. Years later, now situated a few more stone skips south, I have finally embraced Griffith Park, hiking as many Sundays as I can with Julia up to the Observatory and back down. Our meeting place is Trails Café, that "snack shack" I had always meant to check out. Truly a rustic little walk-up snack bar of yore, surrounded by lazy trees, picnic tables and trail heads, Trails wouldn't attract much attention on its own. But reputation plays a big part here, and word of mouth. The scene consists of a good number of hikers sure, but largely in-the-know east-siders spending their leisurely mornings somewhere a little more pleasant than a crowded coffee shop. It also doesn't hurt that Trails was opened by societal music producer Mickey Petralia (Flight of the Conchords, Beck). A glance at the Trails menu immediately lets you know this is not your typical state park snack bar. The food is largely of a sustainable vegetarian and vegan slant with a French bakery flair. The tarts, galettes, pies, scones and shortbread might make the post-exercise set uncomfortable - but the Lavendar Shortbread is worth the sin, you've earned it. The apple pie is a sight to behold.The menu's savories include an infamous vegan chili with blue cornbread, a sprouty avocado and veggie-bacon sandwich, quiche du jour, and "snake dogs" (pastry-wrapped hot dogs on a stick).While everything I've had at Trails has been lovely, the portions are on the small side and tend to leave my post-workout hunger unsated. Especially at the price point (a small snack and beverage will likely run you more than $10). Yet I return, perhaps for the ambiance, or the convenient locale for an exercise reward. Or because, despite these things, I just love to be there. Besides, where else in LA can you sit in the sun, in the forest, and have free wi-fi?Open Tuesday - Sunday, 8am - 6pm

2333 Fern Dell Drive, Griffith Park; 323.871.2102
The Trails Outdoor Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Croquer: Café Poca Cosa

Probably the first time truly stunning inventive cuisine really bowled over the young Mr. Hazard was many years ago during one of my first college break visits back to my hometown of Tucson at Suzana Davila's uniquely Tucsonan Café Poca Cosa. I was awestruck by its power, a satiating fulfillment for the hunger pangs anyone who's ever read or seen Like Water For Chocolate has endured. I discovered new taste buds at Poca Cosa.. To this day, it remains my favorite.
Originally opened in a tiny space (hence the name) downtown on Scott Street more than two decades ago by Davila and her father, Poca Cosa later expanded with another larger location adjacent in the bottom floor of the historic Santa Rita Hotel (which opened in 1904 as Tucson’s most elegant hotel - and was totally haunted). 17 years later, the hotel's closure and demolition plans forced Poca Cosa to move.
Now housed a few blocks away in a shiny new building on East Pennington Street, the dark jungley candlelit cave-like charm of the Santa Rita dining room is replaced with floor-to ceiling windows to the street outside and a streamlined modernity, but luckily keeping local artist Daniel Martin Diaz's signature artwork and Santo-VS-Diablo Mexican folk art decor.Location adjustments aside, the winning element of Poca Cosa that has never changed is the ritual. Davila believes in experience; you are not sitting down for a meal, you are patron for Davila to graciously share her passion with. Upon arrival you can expect a friendly introduction from a nicely dressed server (no uniform, aprons, order pads, or pencils behind the ear here) checking to see if it's your first time and/or welcoming you back. Next order of business is always making sure a pitcher of margaritas is in line (the only way to go) as their addictive chips and salsa are dropped. Served up and salty, pleasantly potent and chockfull of chopped citrus, Poca Cosa's are certainly of the best margaritas anywhere.By now rookies may be wondering why there is still no menu in front of them. Poca Cosa's menu changes twice daily and is scrawled in Spanish on a chalkboard that your server brings by once the table is settled, drink in hand to explain dish-by-dish in detail. Spontaneity is another crucial element of Davila's style. The last item on the menu is the Plato Poca Cosa - Davila's hand-picked selection of any three menu items arranged on one plate. You can not choose them, it is always random, and if there are several Platos ordered at the table, every one will be different.
Besides an obviously upscale and fresh take on Mexican, the specific cuisine is hard to pin down. Moving far beyond the local Sonoran flavor, with definite Oaxacan odes (she is known for having some 26 moles) Davila, like many Mexico City chefs, cooks in the alta cocina Mexicana tradition (preserved by the Conservatory of Mexican Gastronomic Culture), looking to indigenous dishes dating back to Aztec times. Sauce reigns supreme in Davila's dishes, and comprising of countless ingredients lock in her distinct talent.The Plato Poca Cosa presentation usually consists of two proteins and a Pastel de Elote ("tamale pie"), piled high with greens, tropical fruits and vegetables. A vinaigrette, warm tortillas and pinto beans are served communally. On my last visit, as is customary, our entire table ordered Platos, and I was quite happy with mine: Pollo Oaxaqueño, Carne Asada en Mesquite, and Pastel de Elote en Manzanas al Horno. The carne asada is ALWAYS good here, grilled to perfection and bursting with vibrant flavor (my very first Poca Cosa experience was just after coming out of the vegetarian closet and BOY did the carne asada reward me for the decision!). The pastels can be either savory or sweet, and mine, made with canela, baked apples and cheese was a little of both, but completely delicious. Best was the pollo in a complex Oaxacan sauce.. beyond description really. The Japanese may have coined Umami, but there was something magical here that similarly transcended.My mother enjoyed her selection of Pescado en Tomatillo con Aguacate (fish cooked in foil with a tangy tomatillo and avocado dressing), Carne Deshebrada en Salsa de Chipotle (shredded chipotle beef), and Pastel de Elote con Calabacitas Mexicana (savory tamale pie with squash, corn and cheese).My father scored my favorite dish - the Pollo en Mole Negro. In the roulette game of the Plato you can never get everything you want though, and settled for a bite. Easily the best mole I've ever tasted to date, and in large part my introduction, Poca Cosa basically set me up to fail as a mole connesuir (until I can make it to the source, that is). This dish is a must for a Poca Cosa novice.

For this last visit we did lunch, which is a more affordable way to experience Café Poca Cosa (same portions, big difference in price). But even more friendly on the pocketbook, down the street is the Little Poca Cosa (151 N. Stone Ave.) - the sister café is now run (suitably) by Davila's sisters Sandra and Marcella. This "little restaurant with a big heart" expands upons Davila's passion for her homeland and collects thousands of dollars each year to help the needy in Mexico, and decorates the restaurant's walls with pictures of children receiving food, medicine, and gifts. The vibe here is more casual, the service more lax, the music unapologetically loud, and the food is still great. Little Poca Cosa however is cash-only, open Monday through Friday for breakfast-lunch only.

Café Poca Cosa
110 East Pennington Street, Tucson, AZ; 520.622.6400‎
Café Poca Cosa on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Recettes Secrètes: Street's Kaya Toast

Thank you LATimes for this gift - I just discovered the recipe for one of my favorite dishes in LA posted on Culinary SOS... You may recall my blathering last year over Susan Feniger's exquiste "uniquely Singapore" Kaya Toast. Consisting of lightly toasted Malaysian white bread slices sandwiching slivers of butter and a thick spread of coconut jam, what makes Kaya Toast so magical is its pairing with a soft-fried egg drizzled with dark soy and a dash of white pepper. Breaking the egg yolk with the toasty sweet mini coconut sandwich and melding the soy, pepper, buttery yolk and tropical creamy flavors is, in a word, divine. Definitely make it to Street to sample the dish if you haven't, then use this recipe to tirelessly emulate it at home every weekend morning for the rest of your life.

Street's Kaya toast plate
Total time: 50 minutes
Servings: 1

Note: Adapted from Street. Coconut milk will separate; stir well before measuring. Pandan leaves can be found at Thai and many general Asian markets. Dark soy sauce is a slightly thicker soy sauce and is available at Asian markets.

Coconut jam:

1 cup coconut milk
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
8 pandan leaves, washed and tied into a knot
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
3 eggs
3 egg yolks

1. In a small sauce pot, mix together the coconut milk and one-half cup sugar. Stir in the pandan leaves and salt and bring to a boil over high heat, keeping the pandan submerged in the milk as the leaves cook and soften. When the milk has come to a boil, remove from heat and let the mixture steep for 10 minutes.

2. Remove the pandan leaves from the milk, squeezing any excess liquid from the leaves into the milk. Discard the leaves.

3. In a medium stainless steel mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolks and remaining one-half cup sugar. Whisk in the coconut milk mixture to form a custard base.

4. Place the stainless steel bowl over a medium pot of lightly simmering water. Gently cook the custard, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until the mixture thickens, 15 to 20 minutes. The final texture should have a thick custard consistency (a trail of the spatula should remain on the surface of the custard for more than 10 seconds).

5. Immediately remove from heat and strain into a medium bowl set over a larger bowl of ice water. Stir until the custard cools, then cover and refrigerate until needed. This makes about 2 cups coconut jam, more than is needed for the remainder of the recipe; the jam will keep for 1 week, refrigerated.

Kaya toast plate assembly:

2 tablespoons coconut jam
2 slices dense white bread, such as pain de mie or pullman, toasted on 1 side
1 1/2 tablespoons shaved salted butter
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
Dash ground white pepper
1 soft boiled egg, peeled

1. Spread the coconut jam evenly over both slices of bread on the untoasted side, then place a layer of shaved butter over the jam. Place one slice of bread over the other to form a sandwich.

2. Halve the sandwich, then cut each half into thirds to form 6 even wedges.

3. Pour the dark soy sauce over the egg and dash with the pepper. Serve the egg alongside the sandwich wedges.

Each serving: 443 calories; 13 grams protein; 51 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 282 mg. cholesterol; 1,055 mg. sodium.