"It's.. across from Baller Hardware.. somewhere.." I squinted for a sign whilst scanning the street for parking. I felt pretty silly, I know this stretch of riverwinding Hyperion like the ceiling above my bed, yet could not visualize which structure must house newest Silver Lake hot spot Barbrix. We parked easily on this quiet curve before the final congested drag down toward Trader Joe's, and after passing a tall hedge found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a packed parking lot neither of us could recall existing, leading to a set-back cottage, a bustling front patio strewn with strings of white bulbs.
This was a scene. Or rather a strange amalgamation of one. Admittedly not exactly the Silver Lake I am used to, but also very much what Silver Lake is becoming. Neither good or bad, just different. We were led past the packed bar and back outside to a tiny two-top at the corner of the small patio, beside a table of sunglass-wearing (at 8:30pm) angular-hair-styled rocker types downing glasses of red wine. On the other side of the patio, a pair of elder couples laughed over dessert. In between these tables, two suited men sat with bulbous over-sized Bordeaux glasses, staring intently into the beyond, wine lists twitching in their hands.
Claudio Blotta just upped the anty, and as wonky as Silver Lake's sea legs looked tonight, the undying crowd and waiting list were also proving to be game. A managing partner at Campanile for 11 years, previous Vice President of La Brea Bakery, and co-founder (and wine director) of La Terza, Blotta is no stranger to the 'scenes' of Los Angeles. With chef Don Dickman (formerly of Rocca) writing the ever-changing menu of Mediterranean-inspired small plates and hefty cheese/charcuterie list, Barbrix enters the race way ahead of the game.So it comes as little surprise that the wine list is just short of jaw-dropping. "Brix" after all refers to sugar measurements in wine, so goes without saying Blotta means business. The initial impressive aspect is the entire first page of glass-pours. My date was stuck on the cool beer list of small-batch American, Belgian and English ales (even carrying an ale from my favorite Canadian brewery Unibroue) complete with tasting notes - So I knew wine by the glass was my road tonight, and a welcomed one with this list. Feeling the spirit of Barbrix start to sink in, now officially entering my [dangerous] mode bon vivant, I ordered the '06 Feraud-Brunel Châteauneuf du Pape (a steal at $10 - which is also the most expensive pour on the list). Generally of my favorite Rhône wines, this Châteauneuf du Pape -though chock full of berry fruit and subtle spice- was less structured than I had anticipated. Keep in mind while tasting this my eyes were skimming the robust and luscious sounding meat entrees. I knew I would need a glass of something bigger a little later, especially once I read about the duck confit and prime skirt steak tagliata. My date opted for the Abita Andygator helles doppelbock from Louisiana, a fragrant and rich malty lager which was very tasty.
Now there is something up front that needs to be said about this menu - It can be extremely affordable for such fare - A winning detail that Blotta earns high marks for. Everything is served in small portions, but at $5-12 and pop for most, it becomes up to the diner to decide whether to splurge or simply enjoy a light inexpensive meal. Well, this particular Friday night after a long week, my date and decided to pull out the stops and enjoy it right.We ordered three cheeses ($12) from the interesting list, settling on the Gorroxta (Catalonia, Spain) natural rind goat's milk, the Piave (Veneto, Italy) hard cow's milk, and the Epoisses (Bourgogne, France) marc-washed cow's milk, served with sliced baguette, dried figs, quince paste, and marcona almonds. Gorroxta is semi-firm and was the mildest in flavor - smooth with a hint of nuttiness. The Piave is a hard cheese with a little more full-bodied flavor, reminiscent of Parmigiano Reggiano - delicious with the sweet quince. The Epoisses won the medal though. A soft and incredibly pungent tart 'stinky cheese' that puckered our mouths into smiles. We ordered the Rosette de Lyon from the charcuterie list, a French dry sausage flavored with spices and wine, but we didn't realize until days later that it never came! Sadly even worse, looking back at the receipt, we were charged for it.
Neither of us had planned on this early summer evening in LA to get cold, but a crisp breeze was weaving through the hills and right past our corner table. A gas heater was even on behind my date, but so low it didn't seem to be emanating heat. A server (though not our own) came next with our vegetable course. When he set the plates down we asked if there was any way he could maybe just turn the knob up a tidbit. The server looked irritated with the request(!) and said no(!), scurrying quickly away. I looked at my date, smiling in awe "Well, I guess he's the food runner then!" Within minutes however a busser came to turn up the heat. Attention was turned immediately to the dishes in front of us.The first was the Farmers Plate ($6), a small sampling of simple roasted beets sweetened with saba (a syrupy grape must), roasted carrots with honey & mint, eggplant moussaka and pickled ramps. Each small and tender bite was loaded with bursting sweet flavors, the complexity of the moussaka and delightful ramp perhaps my favorites. The crispy grilled polenta with oyster & shitake mushrooms and creamy gorgonzola fonduta ($5) was another "crowd"-pleaser. Creamy smooth, with delicate mushrooms and that gorgonzola tang, I could have eaten five!The next dish to arrive (at this point everything started coming out as the kitchen produced them, not formal courses) was the Roasted Niman Ranch Pork Belly ($11) stuffed alla 'porchetta' and topped with salsa verde. I was looking forward to this dish perhaps most of all, but it was the disappointment of the evening. The thick slice was largely inedible, with a blubbery core and a rock hard skin (literally - we couldn't cut through it with our knives). We dissected out the soft flesh which was tender and flavor-rich, but with a gamey funk that we simultaneously admitted turned both of us off.
As I could see our final two plates coming toward us, I looked around unable to locate our server, the near-empty wine glass in front of me on my mind. The one thing about the continuous courses that I found - well, really more difficult for the servers than anything, who often weren't running the food - was the lack of regular contact with their customers. Sure, we constantly had food in front of us so were more or less "set", and she would check in occassionally at random to see if we were enjoying everything (which we were), but 90% of the time, if a diner needs something, they will realize it just after a course is dropped. Another drink, a condiment, a missing utensil. And we learned pretty quickly how helpful the food runners were... For myself, when a waiter, the 30 second rule was always in full effect - Checking in no more than 30 seconds after a course is dropped. To our obviously overwhelmed server this Friday night, I understand constant courses makes that near-impossible, but I did notice that whenever we did need the love, she wasn't available. Call me particular about service (I am), and I'm not one of those diners that let's little things like this ruin and experience (for it did not), and I am always gracious, but boy, looking down at the several bites of succulent prime steak and an empty wine glass.. Oy!
It was about halfway through our entrées when our server did come by (slightly out of breath it even seemed), and for a larger wine to enjoy with my steak she suggested the '05 Raices de Aza Tempranillo ($7), to which I thanked her. I normally may have been slightly more grumpy at that point in the situation, but I began to notice our very sweet server was dealing with an extremely needy [read: rude] table of diners who I overheard were very late being seated (and by the glinting of all those jewels the type you know doesn't often have to wait). Hopelessly empathetic (GOD have I been there), the wine ceased to matter. Plus our spectacular entrées were a lovely distraction.The prime skirt steak "tagliata" ($12) was seared and sliced, served over wild arugula with parmegiano-reggiano and balsamico. We ordered medium-rare and boy did we get it, juicy and red, only the very outside seared dark and crispy. This was good steak, people. But my favorite of the whole night may actually be the duck leg confit with pommes sardalaise and fig vin cotto ($10). Wow. This was when Blotta came by, delivering the wine. I shook his hand, thanking him for the incredible meal. He saw we had the duck and whispered that the secret is the potatoes, "they're cooked in the duck fat!" he glanced over both shoulders to make sure no one had eavesdropped. I have had duck confit before, small legs of somewhat greasy meat that have never exceeded expectations. Until now, I suppose. The duck leg at Barbrix was actually quite large, incredibly moist but nowhere near greasy, lightly savory and clean, the earthy sweet fig glaze a perfect foil... And Blotta wasn't wrong, the buttery, garlicky crisp potatoes with succulent sweet onions were like comfort food of the gods. When the busser came by to remove some plates, my date's hand shot protectively over the duck "oh we will pick at this one for a while, thank you!"
Feeling incredibly stuffed, and more than anything happy, I doubted dessert was in the plan. But I am the type who is easily convinced. So when our server stole a moment to come by (the gripey table just received a round of prosecco and appetizers on the house), I was surprised to hear my date's "so what's good for dessert here?" Our server smiled, as if in on a secret. What I liked about her was that throughout the entire evening, she was very honest. Meaning, if we were debating between a couple of items, her disposition subtly guided us what to choose. By dessert though we had developed a trust, and she told us exactly what to get! (Note: I will always respect a server who is honest and wants you to actually ENJOY what you order).Two glasses of '08 Oddero Moscato D'Asti were delivered (though I love moscato, it is the only dessert wine offered by the glass, a strong revision suggestion I have for a conscious enoteca like Barbrix). The moscato was crisp and elegant, a perfect match for what came next, Adria’s Favorite Ginger Shortcakes ($6). The lightly crunchy shortcakes are baked with both fresh and candied ginger (pow! zing!) and come loaded with fresh whipped cream and tart-sweet berry compote. We loved this! Our server also brought a red velvet item new to the menu that night, which was actually local bakeshop Cakemonkey's Raspberry Red Velvet Cakewich ($6) served with a drizzle of creme anglaise. Initially slightly disappointed it wasn't house-made, the layered red velvet cake filled with a raspberry vanilla creme layer and coated in Bittersweet Chocolate was pretty darn tasty. Like a super fancy red velvet Ding Dong.
I left Barbrix beyond satisfied. Sure there were a few loose bricks in the road, but only weeks out from opening things could go much worse. The tweaks I see needed are MINOR, the foundation of this little schoolhouse-turned-bistro pretty solid. Plus I can't recall the last time I enjoyed a three hour meal this much! The bar is officially raised for this sleepy little neighborhood, but most importantly, the price is right.
2442 Hyperion Ave, Silver Lake; 323.662.2442
Friday, May 29, 2009
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Before landing in St. Petersburg, Russia, I really only had two main culinary expectations: Borscht and Blinis. In fact, Russian cuisine is so misunderstood in America that I hardly anticipated the most important part of my travels - EATING.
Luckily Mother Russia proved me quite inept. Weeks after my return, and I still craved the meals I ate there, desperately trying to recreate even the simplest recipes my host had made. The main difference I noticed right away is ingredients. They didn't need to boast Organic, free-range, hormone-free or grass-fed -- This food was straight from the source. Fresh handpicked forest mushrooms, plump farm chicken, savory garden dill, sweet watermelon.. Rudimentary flavors punched by their authenticity. "It doesn't taste like this at home.." I found myself murmuring throughout various meals in Russia. Even their version of cottage cheese, the creamy large curds packed with a side of fruit compote kept me poking in the fridge each morning for more.
What I am most grateful for though is the opportunity to stay in a Russian home versus a tourist hotel. From the moment I stepped inside the long, narrow, 12 ft tall checkered hallway of our host's somewhat decrepit pre-WWI greystone apartment I felt like "OK.. now THIS is real Russia."
Cloudy glass-paned french doors lining the North side of the hall led to various rooms and hidden spaces, from around the crook at the end of the dark hall came the aroma of cooking food. Ksenya and I obediently slipped off our shoes at the entryway and tiptoed with our luggage down the icy hall, our host gliding ahead of us in her robe begging pardon for appearances. Our room had an enormously high moulded ceiling and broad double-paned oriel windows, baroque china cabinets and dark wardrobes filling most of the space. As soon as we'd set our things down, we were lead through an unseen doorway to a large room that served as office, dining room, (and as we later deduced) bedroom to our host. We were sat at the table and immediately served wine in antique crystal goblets. Though we had feasted on Georgian food a mere hour or so before, Katya was just finishing preparing dinner, which I immediately understood was not optional. Katya's son and daughter-in-law appeared then, from another door somewhere in the hall and joined us around a pedestal bowl of golden pears and red grapes on the octagonal wooden table. All three of them knew bits of english, but conversation tended to carry out in Russian, which added to the otherness of my delerium. A hefty chicken breast was placed on my plate, followed by a heaping spoonful of the largest-grain rice I've ever seen. Battered and fried green squash appeared next and more wine filled my glass. I gave in and unfolded my napkin. It was the most tender, moist and flavorful chicken I've had in years, and merely panfried along with the rice according to Katya. My stomach hardly minded it was already full. I was going to be okay with 'the Russian way' I realized, and let my mind slip away, focusing instead on my comforted tastebuds.
Mornings were met casually around the table, Katya emptying the cupboard and fridge in a continental breakfast style.. Loose black tea was first served in brittle china teacups, followed by an array of items: rye toast with herbed cream spreads, salami and sliced gouda, the aforementioned cottage cheese and preserves, Stolle cheese pie, морст (a cloudy red fruit juice in lingonberry, cranberry or cherry), and of course fresh oranges, yellow pears and grapes. We learned quickly that even though this seemed like on-the-go morning fare, it was rarely treated as such. One morning in our coats ready to attack a full day (and even after professing our rush), we clocked our quick little breakfast in at 2 hours. Conversation, guide books, family photos, online searches.. Katya loved the company. What could we do? Drink more tea and eat more food!
After -or in addition to- most meals at Katya's, boxes of sweets were brought out, even with breakfast. Chocolate covered wafers, truffles, and wrapped candies.. My favorite of these (a TOTAL "Super Bon!" item) came in a modest small square box under folds of thin waxed paper. Called клюква в сахарной пудре, they are simply fresh cranberries coated with powdered sugar. The tart blast of the cranberry juice upon biting through the sweet shell is shocking and incredible - and addictive.
One chilly evening Ksenya and I returned to the apartment and stepped out of our boots, immediately to be motioned by Katya to the table. She served us a home made Forest mushroom soup topped with chopped fresh dill and sour cream, piles of sliced rye bread and of course wine. It was honestly the best soup I have tasted in ages. The mushrooms were massive and meaty, and elegantly flavored unlike any I've had. Somewhere between a chantrelle, a porcini and a shitake. I asked Katya what kind of mushroom and her response was that she picked them in the forest herself but days before our arrival. Ksenya tried to ask their type in Russian, but Katya just shook her head. "You don't have mushrooms like this in America, so it does not matter."
On our last day, we took a drive into the countryside with Katya and her friend. We were on our way to Vyborg, a little medeival town on the border of Finland, by way of Katya's summer home near the Nevskaya Guba Bay. Every several miles along the highway's shoulder an old woman was sitting in a folding chair, a stack of jars containing pickled vegetables or bunches of hanging dried herbs by her side. There also sat scattered tribes of parked empty cars, an occasional person stepping into the thick woods, gathering basket in hand. This reminded me, I had been wanting to talk to Katya about getting her mushroom soup recipe to post on my blog. I asked her if that was something she would be interested in, and was met with a reaction of befuddlement. "It's not the RECIPE.. It.. just won't taste the same," she said, swishing her hand in dismissal.
I smiled stiffly in defeat and turned back toward the passing woods outside, watching a couple of gatherers returning from the forest depths with heaping baskets, knowing she was right.
Next up: Dining out in the city!
Vintage images from from a Soviet cookbook printed in the USSR, 1952. Title loosely translated is ‘Book Of Tasty And Healthy Food’.