Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hwa Sun Ji Traditional Korean Tea House, Koreatown

We stepped into the teahouse ready to collapse from the heat and traffic on Wilshire Blvd. As the only non-Korean patrons in the shop, we shared the tea house with a few other parties: a couple of monks, a well heeled trio of middle aged women, a group of teenagers sitting on cushions at one of the floor tables, a family, and a group of young men. Thanks to the hanging transparent bamboo screens, it felt as though each group had their own private alcove.

The menu is divided into several categories of Korean tea: green, medicinal (vegetarians beware: some have animal ingredients such as deer antler), ginseng, loose leaf, adlay, citrus, fruit, root, flower, and traditional drinks (dessert drinks and juices). A few snacks are also available: shaved ice, sweets, ice cream, and cheesecake. Although the sign on the street advertises tea and coffee, coffee appears only in the snack section of the menu and only in two forms: “coffee” and “iced coffee.” For a $10 reservation fee, the teahouse offers a traditional tea ceremony featuring their finest quality green tea.

We wanted to avoid caffeine or anything heating so we ordered a Mo-gwah Cha made of slices of Chinese quince fermented in sugar along with the traditional dessert drink Su Jun Gwa (described on the menu as Korean punch) made with dried persimmons and cinnamon. The latter was served in a bowl with a wooden spoon to scoop out the floating crushed ice and re-hydrated persimmons. It was cold, sweet and pleasantly spicy – the perfect refreshment.

When I inquired about the consistency of the Shik-heh, another dessert beverage, the waitress offered to bring me a sample, a full sized bowl of a sweet (less so than the persimmon punch) icy liquid with cooked rice grains marinating on the bottom. Shikheh is made by steeping cooked rice in malt water, boiling the strained liquid with sugar and cooling. All three beverages were garnished with a sprinkle of pine nuts that added a round fullness to each brew.

Had we known we would be served a plate of complimentary rice cakes and puffed rice squares, we probably would not have ordered the Ho-du Gwa-Ja, a walnut shaped cake filled with sweet red beans. While these “cookies” are widely available at Asian markets, coffee and sweet shops, they were particularly delicious served warm, not overly sweet and imparted a nutty flavor that is not always detectable. They tasted best in combination with a sip of the quince tea.

I’ve never been to Korea other than the 8 hours spent in the Seoul airport where I was mesmerized by candy makers spinning thousands of fine threads of sugar that they rolled as a blanket around minced nuts.

The house rice cakes reminded me of those delicate confections and it was here that I think I’ve found my newest vice. Looking like edible white cat’s paws, the slightly chewy crispy mochi exterior gave way to a cloudlike hollow interior. As light as they were, the hint of oil betrayed the fact that only deep-frying could elicit such perfect puffiness.

The waitress was extremely hospitable and yet discreetly allowed us to enjoy our little retreat. Like summoning a flight attendant, each table was equipped with a button to connect us at any time to our server. When she saw that we enjoyed eating the persimmon in the Sun Jun Gwa, she brought us a complimentary plate of Kkot-Gam-Mal-E, dried persimmons rolled around walnuts. After clearing our table, we were presented with complimentary cups of warm barley tea.

The soundtrack of Korean lute music, the homey and clean décor, and artistic elements throughout the room created a peaceful and pleasing atmosphere. All drinks and snacks were presented on lovely ceramic cups, mugs and bowls (tea pots, bowls and cups were also for sale). We emerged onto Wilshire Blvd. feeling calm and refreshed as though for the price of $15 we had just returned from a vacation in a foreign country.

3960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Maroccino @ Caffe Luxxe, Santa Monica

Guest entry submitted by the Coffee Correspondent

While extremely kawaii, the maroccino (mini cappuccino) a sort of overblown macchiato takes away from the psychedelic intensity of the luxxe espresso standard double shot while not providing the down comforter quality of a well crafted cappuccino or the cloud nine sweetness of a con panna. But maybe I'm just a stick in the mud traditionalist. The maroccino still beats every other coffee I've had in town because it contains the aforementioned shot.

925 Montana Ave (310) 394-2222
Open: Monday to Friday 6:30am-6pm, Saturday & Sunday 7am-5pm

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Smoked Tofu

Unlike many smoky tofu products out there that are coated in a liquid smoke enhanced marinade, Pete's Soyganic Smoked Tofu has actually been smoked. The smoke flavor infuses the brick of tofu throughout. The water has been pressed out of this firm meaty square of bean curd. I found it for $3.99 at the Wild Oats Market in Santa Monica.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Milk, Beverly Blvd.

The milkies (ice cream bon bons) are 50 cents a pop.

Mint ice cream dipped in good dark chocolate rolled in crispies
Coffee Ice cream dipped in same chocolate with toffee chunks

Perhaps the perfect treat, the ice cream bar:

My new favorite flavor, creamy Banana ice cream scattered with pockets of dulce de leche is dipped in a thick, crisp butterscotch shell with roasted almonds. Need I say more?

7290 Beverly Blvd (at Poinsettia) 323-939-6455
Closed Mondays

Friday, August 24, 2007

Osteria Mozza, Hollywood

Our dinner at Mozza was a last minute detour and we weren’t prepared for photography so unfortunately I have no accompanying pics (they would have been beautiful but you’ll have to use your imagination). We had ringside seats at the mozzarella bar directly in front of Nancy Silverton’s station and involuntary eavesdropping on her unabashed food fondling proved an entertaining distraction to our conversation. From poking her thumb into the center of an artichoke heart, tossing salads with both hands, or plumping a freshly sliced slab of mozzarella, she left her stamp on all food leaving the bar. I watched as she inspected a plated salad and the unused portion of the fennel bulb, instructed the salad chef on how to ascertain the quality of fennel, tasted the tossed salad and throw the less than perfect dish in the trash while selecting a more suitable specimen. Indeed, everything coming out of her station was a celebration of high quality ingredients.

Our palate was whet with a taste of things to come with the complimentary rollatini, pinwheels of capers, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and olives rolled in a sheet of mozzarella.

There were three choices for the house bread: white, whole wheat, and whole grain. The whole grain was nutty and sweet, the white was chewy and light, but the sour hearty wheat was my favorite. The bread and water kept coming. The service was attentive, friendly and not at all pushy.

The menu is divided into antipasti, mozzarella dishes, pastas, entrees, and sides. Unfortunately I didn’t see the cheese tasting menu until after the meal and although I had been eying the cheese selection displayed on cake plates at the bar all night, there was no room by the time the dessert menu arrived. Not that I needed anymore cheese. As a vegetarian, there were plenty of options but almost all included cheese. It was not a light meal and this restaurant has little to offer vegans who would only be able to eat a few of the side dishes.

The antipasti and entrees had no vegetarian offerings for which I was actually grateful to help me to narrow my choices. With the prospect of watching our dishes constructed before our eyes, we opted for three dishes from the mozzarella menu, all of which celebrated the freshness and ripeness of the cheese with generous portions of cheese in each serving.

The sheep’s milk ricotta with lemon zest and hazelnuts was like a whipped cloud of cream drizzled with honey. The cheese, fresh and very mild, would have satisfied as a dessert. The Buffala mozzarella with pesto, salsa romesco, tapenade, and caperberry relish was everything one could hope for in an appetizer. The soft blooming cheese arrived unadorned in the middle of the plate surrounded by 4 small cups of sauces and three pieces of grilled bread. The red romesco made with breadcrumbs, almonds, and tomatoes was perfect. The spread of pickled caperberries tossed with minced onion tasted like the kind of relish you always hope the green sweet goop would taste like (if it did, you’d be eating a lot more fast food). There were enough flavors dancing on my plate in three thimbles of paste that I didn’t even miss the black olive tapenade (prepared with a heavy dose of anchovy) that I avoided.

My favorite of the three appetizers was probably the burricotti with braised artichokes, pine nuts, currants and mint pesto on grilled bread. I must admit that I was never excited about mozzarella as the centerpiece of a dish until I tasted the burricotti on a mozzarella Monday at Jar.

We decided on the bavette cacio e pepe (linguine with Pecorino Romano and black pepper) for our entrée. The house made pasta was served conspicuously al dente and absorbed the round smooth film of a sauce that hinted of cheese and shouted pepper. There are two types of recipes that intimidate me into not making them at home, those that are too complicated and those that are too simplistic. Ordering either in a restaurant is a treat and this instance was no exception. The pasta with cheese and black pepper validated the marriage of three simple and yet perfect ingredients.

The side of cannellini beans dressed in lemon and olive oil served with Italian parsley and sweet grape tomatoes was a palate cleanser between all of the wheat and cheese. We were discussing with a woman at the bar sitting next to us, a restaurant owner from D.C., the ideal hour to nab a table prior to the L.A. dinner crowd. I remarked on the irony of the fact that restaurants don’t get crowded until 7:30/8pm but are empty by 11pm. Our neighbor lamented missing the opportunity to sample the pizza next door on her last night in town when Nancy Silverton chimed in that Pizza is served at Mozza until midnight and recommended that she should return later in the evening. Hey, why wait until later, we thought; we can go around the corner and finish off our meal with a pizza now. But alas, we were having too much fun and decided that we had to order another dish, goat cheese ravioli with 5 lilies (onions). The buttery onion, leek, garlic sauté atop the mild ravioli was the perfect sweet rich finishing touch; it was our dessert.

One thing I appreciate about Nancy Silverton’s cooking is that she knows how to use salt to tease the flavor from everything. While she employs it liberally at every layer to brighten each ingredient, the salt is present, but never cloying as it rides at the edge of efficacy. The crust on her pizza is a seasoned element that nobody dares discard once the toppings disappear.

Osteria Mozza
Corner of Melrose & Highland (310) 297-0100
Menu posted at:

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

101 Noodle Express, Alhambra

The search for the perfect vegetable dumpling continues

My idea of heaven was a plate of Mandarin Deli’s steamed vegetable dumplings prepared only at their Little Tokyo branch. The delicate skins containing a steamy bomb of fluffy tofu, scallion, vermicelli, something substantial that I suspect was egg, shot through with the essence of ginger. The texture had bite and the flavor was so complete that it didn’t require dipping sauce. Just when I finished lamenting the closing of the Little Tokyo branch, I discovered the steamed vegetable dumplings at 101 Noodle Express.

The dumpling skins are thick and durable, not the refined wrapper designed for careful handling at Mandarin Deli. But the filling, although a bit scant and lacking the body of MD's dumplings, has the same flavor profile – most importantly the perfume of ginger penetrating each bite. This dumpling can handle a little dipping sauce, if not just to coat the meaty noodle wrapper. Next to the canisters of chili sauce on each table is the wonderful house made cilantro sauce/spread that is a cross between Indian green chutney and pesto; it could alone, sauce a plate of fresh noodles.

I haven’t had much luck ordering other vegetarian items on the menu. The servers always try to recommend “vegetarian” dishes containing fish or shrimp and once convinced me to order the leek and egg omelet, which was full of some sort of ground meat. They do however have some vegetarian pre-packaged cold appetizers. On my most recent visit, I picked up the soybean, green vegetable, bean curd salad which was deliciously spicy, dressed with a hint of Szechwan pepper oil. While you may not want to make an entire meal of dumplings, 101 Noodle Express is in the same mini mall as a vegetarian Chinese restaurant, Mighty Vege House.

If you’ve discovered other vegetable dumplings of note, please share. The search continues.

101 Noodle Express
1408 E. Valley Blvd (626) 300-8654
Open: Mon–Fri 10am–3pm, 5–10pm Sat–Sun 10am–11pm

Monday, August 20, 2007

Tofu Festival, Little Tokyo


Man, was it hot in downton this weekend! The heat did not deter thousands of people from flocking to the tofu festival in Little Tokyo though. It may be my imagination but having not attended the festival in probably 5 years, it seems the crowd has more than doubled and the space has diminished.

Other than the non-vegetarian dishes, the majority of the festival food offerings were mundane. Where I had hoped to find creative uses for and transformations of tofu, I saw the usual substitution of tofu for pick your protein choice in Pad Thai and fried rice and deep fried skewers (often wrongly defined as tofu Satay when served with peanut sauce). Tofu, after all is the perfect flavorless sponge that can simulate meat, dairy or pasta or can be elevated in its simplest, freshest form through artisinal production. Garlic ice cream and other revelations (not all of them worked) at the Garlic Festival years ago come to mind.

The culinary highlight was the tofu okonomiyaki. Advertised as a Japanese pizza, it is more like a Japanese pancake. I've eaten it in restaurants devoted to okonomiyaki (do it yourself at your table's built-in griddle) but it is fraught with vegetarian land mines. Just about anything in the fridge can go into the batter and finding one free of some type of meat, bonito or suspicious sauce is a feat. Common ingredients are: flour, grated yam (air potato), dashi, cabbage, egg, pork, shrimp, squid, octopus, cheese, noodles, etc.

As was evidenced by the long lines formed At the Otafuku Foods booth, the Kansai style okonomiyaki full of veggies (carrots, corn, fresh soy beans) and of course tofu was one of the most promising offerings at the festival. After being grilled on both sides, the pancake was topped with the standard accompaniments, okonomiyaki sauce (kind of like barbecue sauce) and mayonnaise. I was assured by the servers at the booth (and in the festival program) that the okonomiyaki was vegetarian but upon subsequent reserach, I found that Otafuku Foods produces bottled sauces, all of which except for the vinegar have some of sort of animal extract. The okonomiyaki sauce has oyster extract. I ate it unkowingly and would have never suspected- not a hint of the sea.

Vegetarians beware, the tofu festival tries to cater to vegetarians but vegetarianism isn't as clearly defined in Japanese culture as in some other Buddhist or Hindu nations. The Tokyo Table restaurant's booth sold chicken terriyaki pizza and "tofu hamburgers." These burgers were constructed relegating tofu to be employed as a kind of Hamburger Helper mixed into ground beef.

The green curry tofu with Thai eggplant at the Thai Tofu Nirvana booth was spicy and creamy over perfectly textured grains of soft yet chewey rice.

LL Bakery sold their bread and pasta made with tofu.

The Gamma Epsilon Omega fraternity at USC sold Dangos (fried donut balls on a skewer) with soymilk.

I was disappointed to find that Sawees Gourment Food (company that sells Malaysian Peanut sauce) had sold out of the Laksa tofu bowl (spicy noodle soup usually with curry) since vegetarian Laksa is rare. The Korean BCD Tofu booth sold vegetarian tofu sushi and Bibimbap.

The Curry House booth offered tofu keema curry rice which substituted the usual meat in Japanese curry with ground soy meat, a nice vegetarian twist on a kind of curry bolognese. I don't know if they offer this vegetarin option at their restaurant but I'm not such a fan of the brown thick sweet Japanese version of curry. The Japanese curry mixes sold in grocery stores usually have some sort of non-vegetarian ingredient in the curry powder.

The church of Perfect Liberty, a Japan based religion formed post WWII which emphasizes life as art (can't find fault with that) sold tofu tostadas, which looked refreshing with tofu, tomatoes, cilantro and onions piled on top of a crispy tortilla and yet not unique enough for me to get.

I cooled off with a $1 non-alchoholic tofu margarita which was essentially limeade blended with tofu to give a milky appearance and texture.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bulan, Melrose Ave.


I actually ate here the day they opened, then a few times in the following weeks, then they were written up in the L.A. Times, then they changed names (threatened to be sued by a restaurant with the same name in London) and now I’ve returned to find the menu is the same but the flavors seem to have leaned towards the non-Thai palate (more sugar, less spice). The offerings are still more authentic than those on plate at the empire of vegan Thai restaurants (spawned by the same family?) mushrooming across L.A. from Santa Monica to Echo Park to Reseda. I wish that clan of restaurants were all identified with the same name but I’m usually tipped off when I see pancakes and “Cowboy wrap” on the menu.

Bulan is not a vegan restaurant although all but a few of the dishes on the menu are vegan. The items that are lacto-ovo vegetarian are clearly identified on the menu and can be prepared vegan upon request.

I have tasted soy flesh in many forms on several continents and although it has been over 20 years since I’ve eaten the real thing, I know my mock meats and Bulan’s “chicken” is good. The "chicken" is chewy, meaty, and moist with a salty poultry flavor without being deep fried as is the case with the best versions in most Chinese vegetarian restaurants. A good format in which to appreciate their "chicken" is the sate appetizer. The pepper steak however, tastes like dehydrated sheets of TVP (available at any 7th Day Adventist supply store) and the soy shrimp is the typical rubbery product available in Asian grocery stores, with slightly less of the unpleasant fishy flavor.

For this dinner, we ordered the glass noodle salad, Pad Kee Mao (drunken noodles), and Broccoli with dried chili and soy chicken. The contrast of the warm glass noodles on the crisp salad of lettuce, red onion slices and scallions was refreshing. The practically oil-free lime dressing was a bit one-note though, lacking the funk of fermentation that fish sauce would normally impart. The toasted cashews however rounded out the tart citrus and sharpness of the onion.

Both the Pad Kee Mao (wide rice noodles) and broccoli “chicken” dish were too sweet with the noodles tasting more like your average West Los Angeles Pad Thai than the promised spicy noodles. We requested that both dishes be prepared spicy but other than gnawing on the few dried chilis on the plate, no heat could be detected. I could consider that perhaps these dishes aren't meant to be spicy, but having been addicted to spicy food since childhood, the only place where I've met my chili match (could only get in a couple of bites) was in Thailand so I know that when there is a chili asterisk next to a menu item in a Thai restaurant, the dish is meant to sear.

The selection of rices to accompany the dishes are nice: pumpkin rice, coconut rice (same as is used in the rice mango dessert), sticky rice, and plain jasmine or brown rice. We ordered the sticky rice which indeed stuck so well that it behaved more like a rice cake. I was able to tear off a glutinous ball and use it as a scarpetta (little spoon) to mop up the extra sauce much as I use bread to clean the remnants of marinara from my empty pasta plate.

The table next to us ordered the green curry spaghetti which looked worth trying. Would I eat here again? Yes, for the peace of mind in knowing that no meat, broth or fish sauce had touched my food, for the better than average soy chicken, and the yet to be explored interesting menu items.

Bulan Thai Vegetarian Kitchen
7168 Melrose Avenue (323) 857-1882
Hours: 11am - 10pm daily