Friday, June 29, 2007

Did You See Me on Good Morning America This Morning?

I'm not even sure if the spot ran or not, but I was interviewed outside my local Albertsons about the recall of Veggie Booty. I told them I haven't eaten Veggie Booty in years, so it looks like I dodged the salmonella bullet again. I did express growing concern (that's news talk) about the number of food recalls. I also asked why Americans eat so much processed food. Then I took my bacon home to eat. No, I wasn't being interviewed because I am a food blogger of high regard (who posts as many as two times a week!), they just grabbed me leaving the store. I was wearing flip-flops. I meant to watch the show this morning, but then I slept in, and when I turned it on, they were doing one of those awful concert in the park type things with Bon Jovi or Seal or some other musical act I can't stand, so I turned it off.

On a related note, no more Chinese farm-raised shrimp, catfish, eel, basa, or dace for you!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Village Idiot

For my father-in-law's birthday, Edan and I took him to one of the newer restaurants in his neighborhood, The Village Idiot. The Village Idiot serves pub food -- bangers and mash, fish and chips, etc. -- along with pints of Boddingtons and some local brew from the Craftsman Brewing Company, a local Pasadena microbrewery. I'd heard good chatter on the food blogs ever since the VI opened in the old Chianti space last January. As if I needed further encouragement to try it, Jonathan Gold recently named it one of his 99 Essential Los Angeles restaurants.

The VI is spacious, with high ceilings, dark, black wood, and exposed beams. The south side of the restaurant features large windows that open to the street, giving diners a view of the sort of people who frequent Melrose Avenue. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, but it does give the rest of the place a lot of natural light and a pleasant breeze -- nothing to scoff at in a place that has a partially exposed kitchen. I called on Saturday afternoon to book a table, but was turned away, as the VI doesn't accept reservations. Because I am a professional worrier, I was certain we'd have to stand at the bar for an hour Sunday night. Not so. We didn't get a coveted window booth, but we were seated at a table right away. On a Saturday night, I could see waiting a while for a table, but there's always the bar.

The menu is pretty upscale for bar food -- butter lettuce salads and ale-steamed mussels -- but most of the items are some variation on what you'd find at a typical pub. We ordered a romaine salad with caramelized red onions and a parmesan crisp, as well as the aforementioned butter lettuce salad, which included granny smith apples, walnuts and bleu cheese. Both salads were good, but the romaine was clearly superior. Edan can't stop thinking about it. We also ordered the ale-steamed mussels (regular readers should know that Edan can't pass up a good mussel dish, despite Anthony Bourdain's warnings). Aside from the large serving (there were more than enough mussels for the three of us) and the tasty sourdough "mops" (croƻtons), the dish was forgettable. Not as tasty as the mussels we make at home, but not bad, either.

For entrees, Bob got the cornmeal-crusted catfish, served with black eyed peas and greens. Edan got the burger (with a slice of Gruyeres) and fries, and I got pork sausages over mashed potatoes. My dish was good. Very reminiscent of the sausages and wine I like to make in the wintertime. The sausages themselves were nothing special (Again, why is it so hard to get really good sausage?), but the red wine sauce was quite good. I tried Edan's burger, and I thought it was great. Very tender meat, cooked exactly as she ordered, and a light, fluffy bun. The fries were fries -- nothing more, nothing less (well, maybe a little less). They were a bit like In-N-Out fries -- very airy, but sort of hollow at the same time. The catfish, which came with a spicy andouille sausage and tomato sauce on the side, looked great. Both Bob and Edan thought it was good.

Since we were celebrating, I demanded we get dessert. The best thing on the menu seemed to be the chocolate chip cookie with a scoop of almond-fig gelato. The cookie was as big as a plate, and served warm. Other than the romaine salad, it was the best thing I tasted all night. The cookie was so rich that the gelato was very much a necessity to temper it a bit.

The Village Idiot would be a great place to grab lunch or an afternoon beer while you're out looking for vintage sneakers or a pair of spiked, black leather thigh-high boots on Melrose. Grab a booth by the windows, if you can, and enjoy a pint of something cold. I'm not sure I'd recommend it as a dinner destination, per se. The atmosphere was pleasantly casual, but as we were leaving it was filling up with folks at the bar, and getting pretty loud. For a casual dinner, though, it was great.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Upstate New York doesn't exactly have a signature dish. Unless you count salt potatoes, which, for those who don't know, are small potatoes cooked in enough salt to pickle a horse. They are quite good, but if eaten too often they will burn the taste buds off your tongue. I didn't have any salt potatoes on my return trip to Upstate. Growing up, I ate a lot of Italian sausage. Good, spicy sausage, packed with fennel. I figured this type of sausage was common everywhere. It wasn't until I moved to the Midwest that I discovered that we in Upstate had something special on our hands. The night Edan and I arrived we had grilled sausage and peppers. It was the perfect welcome home, even though my father's twenty year old grill has only one hot spot left, and it's roughly the temperature of the sun.

For our second dinner, we drove into the big city -- Syracuse. Another long-standing Brown family tradition is the trip to Cosmos Pizzeria on Marshall Street. A popular campus pizza place for about as long as Syracuse University has existed, Cosmos serves something like New York style pizza. The crust is fairly thin, but not crisp, and the sauce is sweet, with a fair amount of oregano. It's the best sauce I've ever tasted, and other than getting our wings at the same time as our pizzas, I had no complaints about the meal.

After two days of lounging about, doing laundry, and walking my parents' dog, Talulah, Saturday arrived, and we all headed to the Finger Lakes for a little wine tasting. I know what you're saying, Wine tasting? In Upstate New York? Well, yes. Despite what must be the shortest growing season of any wine region (unless there's some Siberian Sauternes being produced that I don't know about), the Finger Lakes turns out some very fine wine. Almost all of it is white (they make some reds, but the weather really prohibits much in the way of good reds), but it's not bad.

For lunch, we met my friend Lucia, who happens to live on the coast of Seneca Lake. She knew of a little cafe a few miles from her house. I wish I could remember the name (I'm almost certain it was Full Moon Cafe, or maybe Blue Moon Cafe), but it was very quaint and very tasty. I had a hot roast beef sandwich with grilled onions, and we all split some cookies afterwards. If you ever find yourself on the East coast of Seneca Lake, I highly recommend it.

With our bellies full, we were ready to do some serious tasting of wine. The first winery we stopped at was called Lakewood Vineyards. We had a free tasting of some good dry wines, some white and some red. The highlights were definitely the Pinot Gris, which was a perfect summer afternoon wine, and the longstem red. We tried their Pinot Noir, which was bad. It tasted a little like wood, and not in a good way.

The second stop on our wine extravaganza was Glenora Wine Cellars, a bigger winery that initially reminded me of Frass Canyon, from Sideways. Thankfully, their wine was up to snuff. We went on a tour of the winery, where they showed us the oak barrels in which the wine ages, and the expensive and complicated piece of Italian machinery they use to bottle the wine. After the tour, we sampled a good selection of wines, including two Chardonays, one aged exclusively in oak and the other aged in stainless steel then finished in oak. I preferred the oakier Chardonay, which probably means I'm a heathen. Also at Glenora we saw a bachelorette party, most of whom looked fairly sauced. One of the girls was wearing a dress so tight I could see her digesting the wine after she drank it. Just thought I'd share.

In Syracuse, we ate dinner at a tapas place called Dante's. The atmosphere was cozy, lots of exposed brick, and a little basement area that reminded me of a European restaurant. The tapas was mostly good, although too many dishes were served in one large piece, making sharing them difficult. At dinner, we talked about a lot of things, including Syracuse food critic Yolanda Wright, who once reviewed the Olive Garden.

I probably gained five pounds on this trip, despite all the walking I did in New York. We lucked out with the weather, we didn't miss any of our flights or trains (despite Amtrak and American Airlines best efforts), and I'd say we lucked out on the food, too. Except for Les Halles.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New York, and other things

I haven't posted here in quite a while. I'd like to say I was phenomenally busy, but that wouldn't be true. The truth is that I went into semi-electronic isolation. I checked my email, and that was it. No more blogs, no more message boards (except the baseball related is the season after all), no more anything, really. You know what? It was kind of refreshing to not see Britney Spears' genitalia for a few weeks. I think I'm going to keep it up. But that doesn't mean I haven't been cooking and eating.

Edan and I went to New York City for a few days, and then up to visit my folks upstate. In the city, we stayed at my sisters' place in Brooklyn. It was very cute, and quite comfortable, and a good spot to jump off to all the things we wanted to see and do and eat. The first order of business for me was to get a bagel, a real New York bagel. Science has put a man on the moon, but it hasn't figured out how to make a New York bagel in Los Angeles. I guess it's the water. At any rate, I wanted a bagel. With the nearest Ess-a-Bagel several trains away, my Brooklyn tour guide, Doug, suggested I try a place called La Bagel Delight. I ordered my usual--an everything with plain cream cheese--and I was impressed. I would rank La Bagel Delight behind Ess-a-Bagel, but a little ahead of H&H, another bagel shop by which many a New Yorker swears. La Bagel Delight features large bagels, with the perfectly fluffy insides that are so hard to get right (it's a popular misconception that bagels should be chewy), and plenty of cream cheese. All in all, it was a perfect way to start my New York vacation, especially because I remembered to order my coffee black (many times I've forgotten to specify and gotten a cup full of cream and sugar).

After a day of shopping and walking around Brooklyn, Edan, Doug, my sister, and I headed to Manhattan for dinner at Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles. Now, you know I'm a Bourdain guy. I love his writing, he's great when he's on "Top Chef," and his cookbook is really well designed. So it pains me to say the meal I had at Les Halles sucked. We went to the one on Park Avenue. Maybe the other one is better. Our reservation was for 7pm, and the place was more or less empty. It's a big place, which is OK, but as Edan said, it feels a little like a restaurant at Disneyland. It's like a French TGIFridays, playing loud American pop music to tourists in shorts and golf shirts. Of course, we were tourists, too, but I never wear shorts, and I told Doug he couldn't wear his golf shirt. I know this is what the old-time brasseries of France were like -- working men at the end of their shifts sitting next to artists, etc. -- but I think I wanted a slightly more intimate environment...and maybe some damn accordion music. Despite the lousy ambiance, I was still willing to give the food a chance. Edan and I split the pate de champagne, while Doug had French onion soup (I tried a bite, and it was good, but frankly, I think it was better when I made Bourdain's recipe at home...this would be a theme for the night). The pate was pate, good but unspectacular. I wanted steak au poivre, while Edan and Stephanie both got onglette with shallot sauce. Doug got a chicken dish that I didn't try. I thought Edan's steak was terrific -- flavorful, tender, and with a very tasty sauce--but she felt it was undercooked (the waiter may have had trouble hearing her over the Ashlee Simpson song blaring from the speakers). My steak was another story entirely. It was cooked correctly and the sauce was good enough, but it was so damn tough that I burned more calories cutting it and chewing it than I gained through eating it. Seriously. Should I have sent it back? Probably, but I'm no good with confrontations. The fries -- which the cookbook touts as possibly the best in New York -- were not sensational. Another of life's tiny tragedies. Was it the worst meal I've ever had? No. Was it disappointing? Of course. There are few things in life worse than eating at a restaurant you've been dying to try, and then wishing you'd gone someplace else, but that's what happened.

The next day, I woke determined to put eat better than the day before. After another morning in Park Slope (and a decent pain au chocolate at a little bakery), Edan and I set out for some shopping in Soho. I wanted to get a pair of jeans, so I could finally be the sort of person who owns two pairs of jeans at one time. Instead, Edan got a pair of jeans. This always happens. But I digress. After buying a new pair of Converse and wandering aimlessly for an hour or so, Edan and I stumbled onto something truly wonderful -- the Vosges chocolate shop. For those who don't know, Vosges makes all sorts of incredible chocolate bars. Infused with things like ancho chilies, sweet curry powder, and wasabi, Vosges bars are the only chocolate bars I've had that approach gourmet status. Moments after we entered the store -- a sleek, boutique style shop where chocolates sat in a display case like jewels -- an intense thunderstorm broke over the city. It couldn't have been better timing. Edan and I ordered a hot chocolate with cinnamon and chili, and sat and watched people huddle under the scaffolding in front of the Burberry store. Since the rain didn't let up for some time, we got a few truffles as well -- one with sweet curry and coconut, and one with anise seed. Wow.

After our chocolate lunch, we road the subway up to Artisanal, a mecca of sorts for cheese lovers. Edan scoped out the selection of cheeses, and we sat at the bar and enjoyed a very young raw Camembert (so young, in fact, that it may have been illegal), an excellent Benedictine bleu, and a goat cheese called Valencay. I had a glass of Rioja. It was perfect.

For dinner, we met an old college friend of mine, Roscoe, and his girlfriend Susan at a place in Brooklyn called Melt. Roscoe chose the place, and he chose well. Melt features a Tuesday tasting menu for only $20 (in LA, it would've been twice as much). To start, we all shared a few orders of duck confit spring rolls, which were every bit as good as crack. The first course was a sugar snap pea soup, which was light and foamy, and absolutely perfect for a hot summer night. The second course, I thought, was even better than the first. A seared scallop next to a little frisee salad. The only disappointment was the final course, a pork cutlet served in a sauce I thought was a touch too salty. Otherwise, a terrific meal, and one that featured great conversation about everything from sustainable farming to Scientology. Roscoe made sure they kept the wine flowing, which didn't hurt, and we all had a great time.

Tomorrow, I will write a little bit about the second half of our trip, and some of the terrific things we ate in Upstate. Right now, I have to start dinner (salmon in a citrus sauce, with baby carrots roasted in honey and orange juice).