Monday, April 26, 2010

Croquer: Mercantile

A perfect brunch is the quickest way to my heart. Despite my intense love for Los Angeles, there has always been a fallow pocket in said heart awaiting its unrequited. Many have come close, but after living in Portland where brunch is quite literally sanctified, I will be the first to admit how high my standards are. Enter the modest and saintly Mercantile. Quietly it entered the scene some months ago tucked in an offbeat stretch of Sunset not used to the weekend brunch crowd. Which immediately made me like it. Still rarely overcrowded, Mercantile offers an extremely level-headed, approachable, and knowledgeable staff, a casual no-frills setting, yet incredibly high end food. It is something this city has been begging for, and I'm praying it continues to deliver.
Serving double as a marketplace, Mercantile has a stocked cheese case, shelves of condiments, affordable hard-to-find house-packed spices, Dolin Vermouth (the best), imported oils and vinegars, and a sinful display of daily homemade doughnuts, 'oreos', canneles, other breakfast goodies and gorgeous desserts.
Once seated in the main market space, lofted dining room, patio or bar, a clipboard displays their brunch menu and all its country comfort glory. If it's a hair of the dog morning, Mercantile makes a mean housemade bloody mary served in a frosty mason jar. Of course there's always a mimosa, but for a twist try their French 75, gin blended with lemon, lime, and orange zest, a splash of juice from each, and topped with sparkling wine.
My first bite at Mercantile was the Chilaquiles (always a defining breakfast dish), theirs made with a pumpkin seed chile sauce, topped with cotija and a sunny side up eggs. A robust, crispy take on the dish, perfectly cooked eggs bolstering a thumbs up.
To share at the table, the Ginger Snap Pancakes with vanilla soaked prunes, mascarpone & almonds. What sounds saccharine is actually quite spicy and refined, a trace of syrup on the plate the only truly sweet component. Recommended for those tempted by breakfast's sweet side, but easily overwhelmed by sugar.
The winner of the first visit was the genius Southern Benedict, poached eggs atop corn meal cakes, a hearty crab-tasso ham ragout, mustard greens, and a purely evil Tabasco hollandaise! Spicy, crabby and decadent.. a veritable Louisiana hangover helper.

Other winners I've had since (oh yes, I've been back) include the Duck Confit Hash with sunny-side up egg, sweet potato, wild arugula, candied black walnut, caramelized onion and mustard. But my favorite dish to date is the Maple Glazed Pork Belly. Quite the "it" dish lately, this pork belly stands apart as probably the best I've ever had, tender and smoky with a kiss of woody sweetness, served over white grits, topped with scallions, and sunny side up egg, and drizzled with a fine maple reduction. Magnifique!

Do yourself a favor this weekend and enter Mercantile's warm embrace.

6600 West Sunset Blvd. Hollywood; 323.962.8202
The Mercantile on Urbanspoon

Carnish Culture: Food Party & Dinner With the Band Debut

I've long been a big fan and supporter of Food Party, a fantastical, food-centric handmade wonderland turned IFC Original Comedy series created and hosted by Brooklyn fringe artist Thu Tran and her motley mix of unruly puppets. The comedy’s hallucinatory hijinks will be served in 20 all-new 15-minute episodes, two episodes airing back-to-back during IFC’s Tuesday night AUTOMAT programming block, followed by new episodes of Dinner with the Band.

Some of my college mates have also struck success at IFC with their original series Dinner with the Band, combining culinary delights, musical performances and conversations with select acclaimed indie music artists. In each of the 30-minute episodes, celebrated NYC rock-n-roll chef Sam Mason (Tailor, WD-50), invites a band over to his Brooklyn loft where he teaches them how to add his signature culinary spin to their favorite “on-tour” food.

Food Party and Dinner with the Band debut tomorrow, April 27 at 10:00 pm ET/PT on IFC
Thu Tran of Food Party will be chatting with fans LIVE online during the premiere.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Voyager Bien: Ace Hotel & Swim Club Palm Springs

You shouldn't be a stranger to the Ace Hotel dynasty... But if you are, you have some homework to do. The mindful, smartly designed and accessible American hotel group has changed the reality of urban travel for Seattle, Portland, and New York - and with the addition of Palm Springs, the get-away vacation.
Located on East Palm Canyon Drive just south of downtown Palm Springs, The Ace Hotel & Swim Club occupies a sprawling 1965 Howard Johnson motor hotel and resurrects its late mid-century vintage spirit as a stylistic springboard. Combining desert chic, modern simplicity, and a sense of adventure and rustic luxury, the Ace is immediately comfortable and challengingly familiar.
Housed in a former Denny's at the hotel's helm, the King's Highway restaurant evokes roadside diner mainly in aesthetic, replacing greasy, fried, and processed with local, seasonal, and organic. With an eclectic menu, Portland's infamous Stumptown coffee (a unicorn find for CA), a handy to-go counter for in-room dining, and poolside service, your snacking needs are well accounted for.
For your thirst, the quaint and charming Amigo Room is enlisted with a flight of extremely accommodating bartenders mixing up classics and zesty Latin-inspired cocktails.
Fresh squeezed fruit juices and house-made mixers take the agave-kissed Amigo Margarita and herbaceous Desert Facial (muddled cucumber and mint, vodka, pineapple) to a class level hard to match on the Palm Springs strip of yesteryear tourist watering holes.
My favorite, the Daiquiri Perfecto, made with 8 year aged golden rum, brown sugar and lime truly is the perfect nightcap after a scorcher in the desert sun.
The Swim Club includes a snaking pool, geometric hot tub, day spa, gym, towel & cocktail service, poolside hammocks, and of course a tamale cart. DJs and bands round out the weekend poolside experience, with refreshments of boozy sno cones (blackberry/vodka, mango/rum) and a flaming walk-up cash barbecue. Guests wanting to do-it-themselves can order a BBQ kit to be delivered to the room for "VIP" patio parties.
We opted to finish the afternoon with lunch from King's Highway delivered on the poolside patio. A.L.T. sandwiches and fish tacos gave us energy to wrap up our towels and totes and get back on the road. Palm Springs... it may only be a hop from LA, but sadly weekends don't last forever. At least there's always something to look forward to, an oasis waiting lazily in the desert sun.

Ace Hotel & Swim Club
701 East Palm Canyon Dr. Palm Springs, CA 92264; 760.325.9900

Gala Parfait: Babycakes' Sweet Paradise Cake

J. Marie's birthday called for something seriously special. We had already found the perfect piñata, but for the sweetest vegan around I wanted to bake the seriously best cake ever.
No brainer. Babycakes makes the best all-natural, organic and delicious common-allergen-free treats - and it was time to break in my Babycakes cookbook.
I won't lie, finding all of the ingredients for the Sweet Paradise Cake took several stops at natural food shops around town, but the reaction to the cake was worth the fuss. Like a super-charged guilt-free DECADENT strawberry shortcake, our fiesta was capped with a seriously focused silence during dessert. Thanks Babycakes!
For this recipe and many other delectables, pick up the awesome cookbook!

Carnish Culture: In Focus: Tasteful Pictures

Opening tomorrow at the J. Paul Getty Museum, In Focus: Tasteful Pictures.
Photographers have been enticed by the subject of food since the earliest years of the medium. Drawn exclusively from the Museum's collection, this selection of more than twenty works highlights important technological and aesthetic developments, including bountiful still life compositions, innovative close-ups and photograms, and documentary studies. Among the photographers featured are Roger Fenton, Adolphe Braun, Edward Weston, Bill Owens, Martin Parr, and Taryn Simon.
Show runs April 6, 2010 - August 22, 2010

J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Dr. LA, 90049; 310.440.7300

Photo by Roger Fenton

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Recettes Secrètes: Pashka

Pashka - or "pasha" - is a sweetened fresh cheese mold made for Russian Orthodox Easter. Tasting something like cheesecake, contemporary Pashka recipes often combine cream cheese and farmer's cheese (the driest form of cottage cheese).Pashka is properly packed into a special mold that shapes it into a pyramid embossed with the letters "XB," which stands for Khristos voskres ("Christ has risen"). A clay flowerpot has become the modern stand-in for the metal mold.
Pashka is generally eaten spread on a very lightly sweet yeast cake called kulich. If you can't find kulich (or babka), the Pashka is delicious spread on other eggy yeast breads, such as challah and brioche. But you can't beat a good dollop on a fresh strawberry.

After reviewing many varying recipes, I decided on this one below which seemed equally authentic and relatively easy to make. I was not disappointed! (Although if I did it again I would use a heavier weight and chill longer then 24 hours - my Pashka lost its flower pot shape within an hour. It hardly mattered though, it tasted delicious!)


2 pounds homemade cottage cheese or farmer's cheese
1 1/2 cups sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature, cut into pieces
6 large hard-cooked egg yolks, crumbled
1 1/2 cups heavy or whipping cream
3/4 cups ground almonds
1/2 lemon, zest grated
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 cup golden raisins
Chopped candied fruits, for decoration

In a large bowl, combine the cottage cheese or farmer's cheese, sugar, cream cheese, and egg yolks, stirring to mix.
In batches, process the mixture in a food processor, adding an equal amount of cream to each batch, until completely smooth. Transfer back to the bowl.
Stir in the ground almonds, lemon zest, lemon extract, and vanilla extract. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add them to the cheese mixture along with the raisins. Mix thoroughly.
Line a clean, unused 8-cup flower pot (7x7) with a double layer of rinsed and squeezed-dry cheesecloth. Spoon the cheese mixture into the lined pan, then fold the ends of the cheesecloth neatly over the top.
Place a saucer on the cheesecloth, then a 2-pound weight, such as a can, on the saucer. Put the flower pot in a bowl for any liquid to drain into. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
Empty the bowl. Unmold the pashka onto a serving plate and carefully remove the cheesecloth. Decorate with candied fruit, pressing some of the fruit into the pashka to form the letters XB, which stands for Khristos voskres ("Christ has risen").
Serve with strawberries and/or challah bread.

Pashka will hold up chilled in the refrigerator, well wrapped, for up to two weeks. But it is best enjoyed at a temperature closer to room temperature.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Gala Parfait: Downtown LA's Piñata District

Sometimes the perfect party just isn't complete without some good ol' fashioned piñata action. Thanks to Mary and losanjealous, I know exactly where to go in LA to get the cream of the crop for a fraction of the price -- And shocker, there's a whole district downtown for it!
Congregating near the intersection of Olympic and Central, a flurry of crepe paper and taco stand smoke make clear the destination. We parked on 10th and passed rows of closed warehouses before being greeted by the hugest, most colorful party warehouse store I've ever seen.
Piñatas aside, endless rows of affordable catering supplies filled a majority of the room; tamale cookers, table-top burners, clay serving bowls, agua fresca dispensers, pastel plastic tongs... It took everything in me not to buy IT ALL. Above, rows of paper ponies and princesses hung, fixed grins begging to be taken home and beaten! But boy, SO many choices!!! It was overwhelming. Mermaids, beach balls, beer cans, luchadores... And we hadn't even reached the main drag yet.
Once on Olympic, billowing street food steam, dense crowds, fruit stands and more aggressive piñata salespeople pitched the insanity level to high. Next to some pretty jellies and a pupusa dealer, a man sat with plastic aquariums of tiny turtles, cages of canaries and baby bunnies for sale (yikes!). Dwarf pineapples, prickly pear cactus pads, nuts of all varieties, and tropical fruits fronted the cramped open air storefronts. Jumbo bags of wrapped candies, cotton candy and popcorn lined the aisles inside, ceilinged with even more creative/exotic piñatas (turtles, scary sharks, giant flowers, lady bugs, the Hulk). The glee on our faces was palpable. CHOICES!
We finallly made our selection (a GORGEOUS sprinkled cupcake with sculptural strawberry on top).. for $12! I of course had to also get a bag of colorful mini ice cream cones filled with Peep-like color-sugared marshmallows (so good, so bad).
Already excited to go back, I also no longer have an excuse to put off throwing my epic tamale party...

S Central Ave & E Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90021