Monday, August 27, 2007

In Case You're Bored with Me...

Our old friend, Ryan, who wrote about the many herring-based dishes of Russian cuisine for this blog, has started a new blog called Middled. Join him as he acclimates himself to life in the Midwest. Ryan is also looking for work, so help a brother out.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

I Promise to be Better

I haven't posted anything since June (fabulous guest posters aside). I can't really say why. Could it be the distractions of baseball season? Maybe. Soul-crushing depression? Possibly. The fact that my computer died and it took me a few weeks to convince myself that buying a laptop was an absolute necessity? Perhaps. For whatever reason, I stopped writing. And I don't mean just this blog. I stopped writing everything. Screenplays, notes to friends, emails, grocery lists. Nothing. This must change. I will make it change. Thank you, Blogger, for not deleting my blog. Thank you, good reader, for occasionally checking here to see if I've returned. I hope this post finds you well. As an apology for my months of absence, I give you several flash reviews of restaurants I've been to recently:

Intelligentsia Coffee: Located in the Sunset Junction, near the fabulous Cheese Store of Silverlake, this is the first LA outpost of the Chicago-based coffee chain. I went to the kickoff party the night before Sunset Junction (What's that? No, no, I didn't go to Sunset Junction. Why? Because it's a huge, expensive, hot, waste of time.). The joint was packed, and the coffee was free. Each cup of roasted coffee is brewed fresh as you wait (It does take a minute), and it is good. They have different roasts or beans or what have you, and they treat coffee more or less like wine, talking about "hints of blueberry on the nose." The design of the shop itself is very hip, and there's plenty of outdoor seating. Try the Iced Angeleno, which Edan has been raving about ever since the opening.

Edendale Grill: My father-in-law took me there last Monday night, after four different restaurants were either closed or deemed unacceptable. Expensive drinks, but a pleasant patio, and good enough food. I wasn't floored by the beat salad or by my Shrimp, Asparagus, Artichoke Couscous. The calamari was good, and the atmosphere and pleasant ambiance will probably bring me back again, but it was far from a home run.

Cobras & Matadors (Los Feliz location): Just as good as the one on Beverly, with more seating and wine by the glass and bottle. I'm never leaving Los Feliz again.

: Bizzarro ice cream flavors abound at this cute little shop in a very weird area off Melrose Avenue. I had Vanilla Jim Beam (yum) and Brown Bread, which was exactly what it sounds like -- like eating a loaf of pumpernickel, yet strangely good. Edan had Spiced Cheddar, which was very good as a sample but cloying after a few bites, and Vegan Cinnamon Tiramisu, which was good.

Best Fish Taco in Ensenada
: Strange fish taco stand operating out of a storefront on Hillhurst. They have three items on the menu: fish taco, shrimp taco, and drinks. Cheap and yummy, on all accounts. I got the spicy mango salsa, which tasted good, but which my body greeted roughly as it would a shot of petrol. The pleasant woman running the register waited a very long time before accepting our payment. She was seriously focused on her knitting. I can see myself eating many a lunch at this place.

Alegria on Sunset
: Gourmet Mexican food, with many vegetarian options dished out in a cute, but unassuming location in a strip mall with a Baskin Robbins (Somebody really ought to write about how many totally ass-kicking strip mall restaurants there are in Los Angeles. Off the top of my head, I can think of Alegria, Cafe Suanomaluong, Carousel, and Zankou Chicken. Seriously, somebody get on this already). Our group shared potato tacos, which were good, and I had a steak dish, whose name I cannot recall. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't cheap, and as we were leaving, there seemed to be a substantial wait for tables. On a Monday night.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Russia, A Real Place -- Homecoming

Ryan is back again with the (perhaps?) final post in his series on Russian cuisine. Perhaps in the future he will enthrall us with tales from that other gastronomic hot-spot, Missouri:

Having supped new flavors from a southern sea, we weren’t sure how well we’d reacclimate to mayo-based salads and pickled herring. Russian cuisine is better suited to winter months when you need something that’ll stick with you, like a devoted friend. Once the te
mperature climbs or piddles upward, as it turns out this summer, there are a few standbys that offer relief. Though it’s no gazpacho, cold borsch can help a northern body through a hot day. The recipe is a play of raw vegetables, such as cucumbers and radishes, onions, carrots and enough beets to put some pink in your socks. It’s usually garnished with a boiled egg, parsley, dill and sour cream. Another popular chilled soup is okroshka, but its story begins with a beverage that wants description.

With the sun lingering past midnight, every other corner in St. Petersburg is now occupied by a woman dispensing drinks out of a yellow fuel tank or a great barrel that is meant to look old-timey. The presumably ancient beverage, kvass, is also bottled and sold in supermarkets, but the keg version is superior. Made from fermented bread, this summertime refreshment has a polarizing affect. Many Russians are sentinmentally bound to the sweet, soda-rye flavor, but even among their lot, some would rather dip their head in the Neva than take their bread in a glass. I enjoy it on rare occasions, but find the quality inconsistent. Bliny Domik on Kalakolnaya Street, whose staff appears almost natural in its village dress, serves a decent glass. Nonetheless, it seems a stretch to pour such a beverage into a bowl, add some cucumbers, spring onions, radishes, boiled potatoes, eggs and maybe even ham and call it soup. I admire the audacity of such a recipe, but the magic is lost on me.

As August approaches, another summer novelty appears in proximity to the enduring drink sellers in the form of onion-shaped tiger cages. Each of them is painted green, perhaps to stifle the sense of alarm they naturally inspire amongst the pedestrians. For two weeks they stand empty, during which time last summer my mother remarked, “I hope those aren’t for people.” Actually, they’re for watermelons as well as some other kind of melon that looks like a torpedo-shaped cantaloupe. So, there are alternatives to cola soup.

Having just holidayed in a region where the temperature was flirting with the thirty-five-degree mark (that’s centrigrade, so multiply by 1.8 and add 32), Natasha and I were less than overwhelmed by St. Peterburg’s tepid conditions. We decide, therefore, to whip up a heavy-hitting off-season favorite. I’m not going to get into the debate about the national origin of the cabbage roll. When I ate it in Poland, they called it gwombki (apparently translating to “little pigeons”) and it’s also rumored to be a source of pride amongst the Ukranians, who know it as holubtsi. In Russia they refer to these precious pillows as golubtsy, and I’m willing to wager that it’s their simplicity that has made them enduring. Ingredients: pork, rice, onion, and a big head of cabbage.

Once the cabbage leaves are steamed and supple and the pork has been processed in the electric meat grinder (you’ve got to pick one of those up for yourself), you mingle the rice and meat along with any other surprises your loved ones might appreciate and pretend your putting together what could be construed a low-carb dumpling.

It helps to flash fry the bottom of each kitten-sized package, ensuring a proper seal, then delicately arrange them in an oven pan for a good long bake.

The Poles often accompany this dish with a tomato-based sauce, but in our kitchen we eat golubtsy with Russia’s favorite food lubricant, sour cream. It’s best to keep two hands on each plate when serving, as these babies are quite weighty, and to breathe between bites.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Russia, A Real Place -- Hinterlands

I have no way of proving this, but I think that if you asked the majority of Americans to describe Serbia and Montenegro, they would describe a gray, dreary industrial landscape. Kind of like Utica, with a Central European accent. And of course they would be wrong. Ryan and Natasha recently took a holiday in Montenegro:

Apparently the youngest independent republics in the world are Montenegro and Serbia, having been born on the same day in June 2006, indicating, perhaps, that a conjunction can’t hold a nation together. I’ve never been to Serbia, but having now visited its former other-half, I pity its citizens for the loss of their Adriatic coast, though they retained the more interesting capital. Tourism in the neon-lit town of Budva had a refreshingly local feel with most people carrying themselves as natives or once-natives, though I resided with the Russians. Natasha and I also enjoyed a high level of linguistic comfort, speaking both Russian and English with the hotel staff, waiters and hawkers of beach inflatables. Serbian itself often comes across like Russian with an Italian swagger.

Though we did find one restaurant serving what any Russian would identify as a “business lunch” (pronounced, beezniece lanch), meaning chicken soup, shredded cabbage salad, a meat and starch combination, and a beverage for three euro, Montenegrin cuisine happily failed to resemble the things we eat back “home.”

Once you travel beyond the sickly luminance of Budva’s strip and the hum of its blown out club speakers, your attention can play between the very blue sea and the arid mountains, beyond which diligent people are running vineyards and harvesting the honey that the locals dab on their donuts. We stayed in a dinky town called Rafaelovich, something like Budva’s half-corrupted, but still honest cousin. In the mornings I jogged along the water past stacked beach chairs and umbrellas and more than one cafĂ© advertising pizza dressed with ketchup. The final outpost was a little bar being built by an old man with a hammer and an axe. After that, the beach got rockier and the ruins of some early-twentieth century resort (cement slabs and a few aquamarine tiles) peeked out amongst the shrubs. On the second morning, I noticed a doorway set in the foliage and a sign that read, “Zoff’s Fish Bar.” Natasha and I returned that evening, armed for hunger and disappointment.

The set up was simple with no more than four tables under a palm-leaf roof and an open kitchen. A cement patio went right to the water where an old woman, who turned out to be Zoff’s mother, was lounging in topless repose. Our waiter (a guy in swim trunks) helped us through the menu and we ended up with calamari and some kind of white fish that was never translated. The seafood was seasoned simply with garlic and served with eggplant, all of which were grilled by Zoff himself, who stood in his unbuttoned tropical shirt, blowing kisses to Natasha throughout most of our meal.

We came back twice after that, treating ourselves to the lobster and the sea bass, with the latter winning Natasha’s vote for best meal of trip. At the end of our final visit, Zoff joined our table and provided his abridged life story in labored English and some homemade wine that must’ve scored an alcohol content of around twenty percent. Though he was openly cozy with Natasha, I liked Zoff. For eleven years, he’s only been serving fish that he or the two Bosnian refugees that he employs have caught themselves. He believes a good dinner should span several hours and considers all of his customers personal friends. I’ve never been to a better restaurant.