Restaurant Review #89: Real Food Daily, Santa Monica

Club sandwich with Asian slaw

Real Food Daily is very popular and almost always full, though I don't think the food itself is exactly the cause for its popularity so much as the concept behind the food. The food can be a bit hit-or-miss, especially if soy milk and tempeh aren't for you, but the stuff that hits is awfully good, and healthy, too.

A lot of people in LA, and especially in the yuppie-friendly north side of Santa Monica where RFD is located, are very health conscious, and RFD really caters to these people with their menu full of fresh, balanced, organic offerings. And I get it, because I really do like seaweed, tofu, and tofu cheesecake. Really. And I definitely like not putting weird chemicals into my body, be they food chemicals or pretty much anything else except wine and the occasional martini. And I used to be plenty concerned about staying thin. If you're trying to eat healthy, RFD isn't a place where you'll have to ask for a million substitutions to keep the tablespoons of butter away.

RFD is also a completely animal-product-free restaurant, which I think is wonderful. At so many restaurants, vegetarians get stuck ordering whatever the one meatless dish is and vegans often have a hard time going out to eat at all. Here, the entire menu is available to these groups.

RFD's food is also grown locally and organically, which I have become a very staunch advocate of after reading a book called Eat Here. Have you ever noticed how many of the avocados in the grocery store come from Chile? Have you ever wondered why, when we produce plenty of avocados right here in southern California? This book will tell you. It reveals about produce what Fast Food Nation reveals about meat.

The atmosphere at RFD in Santa Monica (there is another location in West Hollywood, which I haven't been to) is cozy, particularly upstairs. Some of the tables are a bit close together, but I still feel like I could sit upstairs by a window and write or read for hours. The restaurant's popularity makes it noisy, but it's the kind of din that makes it easy to block everything out and work. The service has always been very friendly and. . . peaceful. How often do you come across a restaurant employee who is neither weary nor unnaturally perky? The management must be doing something right here.

Here's a rundown of the dishes I've tried:

Nori Maki
Sweet brown rice with tempeh, avocado, carrot, collard greens, scallions and umeboshi rolled in nori served w/ ginger tamari dipping sauce, daikon, wasabi & pickled ginger

Disappointingly dry and refrigerator-cold, a dead giveaway that it wasn't made fresh, which seems contrary to the restaurant's philosophy. Also, does anyone else think that calling it nori maki is really odd?

The Club
Lightly breaded seitan served club-style on toasted sourdough bread with tempeh bacon, lettuce, tomato and vegenaise $10.25

This sandwich could convince anyone that being vegetarian or vegan doesn't mean you're missing out--it's incredibly flavorful. In fact, I fantasize about this sandwich (now you know).

I'd much rather eat breaded seitan than the usual slimy coldcuts and dry turkey breast. By the way, seitan is a meat substitute made from wheat gluten. It tastes better than it sounds--it has a richer, more complex flavor than than tofu and doesn't have the bitterness of tempeh. I think it's the most accessible and effective meat substitute (did you hear that, Boca?).

Create your own dish from a selection of vegetables, grains, and proteins. I've ordered the sea vegetable of the day with tofu and house dressing
(purée of tahini, tamari, lemon and watercress). The seaweed goes very well with the house dressing, but the tofu is lackluster. I think you'll get a better feel of what the restaurant has to offer if you order a real menu item, though I do like this option because it makes life easy for people with dietary restrictions or very limited budgets.

Asian Pear Ginger Kombucha Wonder Drink $4.00
A slightly tart, slightly sweet effervescent wellness drink.

This is a bottled drink that you used to be able to get at Wild Oats (I guess I didn't buy enough to keep it on the inventory list, sigh. Home Grocer carries it though). It's fizzy, but not explosively fizzy like ordinary soda (soda gives me the hiccups instantly!). I'm predisposed to like this drink because it has ginger, but damn, it's good, though $4.00 is pretty expensive for a small bottled drink (to be fair, it is $2 even at the grocery store).

Teeccino Latte
A caffeine-free coffee-like beverage blended from herbs, grains, fruits and nuts capped with steamed soy milk $3.95

Since caffeine makes me batty, I tried this drink. I really didn't like it, which probably is at least partly, if not completely, because I really don't like soy milk--I think it tastes like glue. By the way, don't ask for sugar with your coffee--RFD only has maple crystals. I would like to give this drink another shot without the soy milk.

I've had both the coconut cream pie and the tofu cheesecake. No instant toothache here--I really liked both of these, particularly because RFD only uses natural sweeteners. In fact, if you've never tried an RFD dessert, you might not even realize just how incredibly sweet most desserts are! I love sugar, and have no issues with my waistline, but for some reason I find a little less sugar in my dessert incredibly refreshing. And if you're skeptical of tofu in a dessert, let me just say that you really can't taste the tofu. The best cake I've ever had was actually a homemade tofu chocolate cake--wow, was it moist.

I really respect Real Food Daily's mission and the niche they've both filled and created. As long as you go with an open mind and a recommendation for a good dish, you'll really enjoy your meal, even if you aren't a vegetarian or a health nut.

Wednesday's Soup of the Day: Squash and Apple Bisque

Real Food Daily
514 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 451-7544


Restaurant Review #88: Jaipur Cuisine of India, Westwood/West LA

Garlic naan, tamarind and mint chutneys, mango chutney, and began bartha

A yellow pages ad for Jaipur's delivery service came to my rescue on a Friday night when I was determined to not leave the sanctuary of my new apartment again until Monday morning. Mao's didn't deliver to my new apartment, and the yellow pages didn't have a lot to offer, but I've only had maybe one Indian dish in my life that was truly bad, so I couldn't lose with Jaipur, right?

I ordered an eggplant dish that I've never tried before--began bharta, which was described on the menu as "tandoor roasted eggplant cooked with onions, tomatoes, yogurt, ginger, and spices." I also had garlic naan, sweet mango chutney, and rashmalai, which is a very mild, very soft and slightly crumbly homemade Indian cheese in milk sauce. The eggplant was pleasantly spicy, and good, though eating a plate of just eggplant gets old kind of fast no matter how good it is, in my opinion. The naan was just right, not too chewy, not too crispy. The mango chutney was very thick and sugary, with small chunks of mango and a hint of tang and spice. There was also a lot of it. It was too sweet for my taste, in the same way jams and jellies are too sweet for me. The dessert, on the other hand, wasn't quite as sweet or flavorful was I would have liked, though it was still good.

The best part of the meal was that my quest for the perfect tamarind chutney has ended, ten restaurants and a year and a half later. Jaipur Cuisine of India is the only Indian restaurant in the city that I know of whose red chutney isn't watery. Oh, I am happy. Best of all, the chutney comes with the naan. I always thought that was standard, but I've learned that some places actually want me to buy the chutney separately. To me, this is akin to charging extra for rice. Something that is a part of the dish you are consuming should not cost extra. "Would you like a bun with your burger? Yes? Okay, that will be an extra fifty cents."

All in all, it was a very good meal, and delivered promptly, perhaps even early. There was a small delivery charge of about $2 that I wasn't expecting, but I was too tired to care. I can't say anything about the atmosphere, since I've never been inside the restaurant, but I can definitely vouch for their delivery service. Though I rarely have food delivered, I would go with Jaipur again. I'm actually kind of surprised that I liked it so much, given that their website says that they have adjusted their flavors for California tastes. I was really disappointed by other restaurants that try to do this, like Ambala Dhaba, but Jaipur has pulled it off without my even noticing. Maybe I just got lucky?

Jaipur Cuisine of India
10916 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(just west of Westside Pavilion)
310 470-4994


Restaurant Review #87: Rosti, Santa Monica

I almost never eat at chain restaurants, so I'm always surprised when I walk by one and see how busy it almost always is. But then when I do eat at a place like P.F. Changs or Buca di Beppo's, I can kind of see why. All snobbery and noise level consideratiosn aside, the food is quite good.

Rosti hypes itself as an authentic Tuscan restaurant. To be fair, I haven't eaten much authentic Italian food, but I'm sure that this isn't what everyone raves about when they talk about real Italian food. The food at Rosti is bland and uninspired, with the possible exception of their signature dishes, the roasted chicken and rosemary potatoes, both of which I have not tried because I hate roasted chicken and roasted potatoes.

To elaborate a bit on why Rosti's food is overhyped--mostly by the restaurant itself--I'll tell you about the dishes I've had there. The tomato, basil, and mozarella salad is the first loser. Smack in the middle of August, the tomatoes weren't the greatest quality. When the Santa Monica Farmer's market teems with delicious heirlooms just blocks away, there is no excuse for any restaurant to serve subpar tomatoes, especially in the middle of tomato season, unless they all decide to make a run on the market one week and exhaust the supply. Also, the mozarella wasn't very flavorful. Sadly, most Americans think of mozarella as a very bland cheese with no other purpose than to adhere toppings to pizza, but true mozarella has a deliciously rich, creamy flavor. A salad that highlights tomatoes and mozarella should use nothing less than the highest quality tomatoes and mozarella.

The other dish I've tried was probably doomed from the moment I ordered it since it came from the healthy section of the menu, but still, it's not hard to make a tasty, healthy piece of fish. All you need is some olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, fresh ground black pepper, and an oven--ingredients that any restaurant has on hand. If I, a slightly above average home cook, know this, any restaurant should. Instead, Rosti tries to use butter to flavor the fish, while trying to skimp on the butter in order to be healthy, and serves it up with a side of uninspired vegetables. If this is what's labelled as healthy, it's no wonder so much of our population is overweight.

Rosti gets points for having vegan soups, but I'm going to assume that vegans don't have a terribly difficult time at Italian restaurants anyway. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

In short, if you're on Montana and jonesing for Italian, skip Rosti and go to Spumoni instead.


931 Montana Ave
Santa Monica, CA 90403

Restaurant Review #86: Swingers, Santa Monica

Swingers is a popular late-night dining spot, and by late, I mean post-club late. It's open 24 hours, but it's hipper than Denny's, and probably has better food as well (having thankfully managed to avoid Denny's for the past seven or so years, I couldn't really say).

You've probably been to Swingers, so I'm not entirely sure why I'm writing this review, except to steer you away from the ahi tuna salad. It's not that Swingers is abnormally deficient in this area--it's just that half-raw fish has no place in a diner, even in LA. It bugs me that so many places, in an attempt to incorporate some hipness into their menu, feel the need to serve ahi tuna steaks and ahi tuna salads. You get the worst of several worlds, all at the same time--tastelessness, awful texture, and the knowledge that whoever created the menu thinks it's okay to serve something they don't know how to purchase or prepare.

Other than this, I have no problems with Swingers. I also think the atmosphere strikes an interesting balance between not being an authentic fifties diner (it's not that old, is it?) but also not being one of those shiny, new, contrived "diners." It's not trendy, it's not quite hip, but it's not uncool, either. A place that doesn't try too hard or too little is kind of refreshing in LA, don't you think?

802 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Restaurant Review #85: Sunset Bar and Grill, Santa Monica

Sunset Grill is yet another mediocre stop on the Promenade, serving rather blah traditional American food, including sandwiches, burgers, and salads. The Chinese chicken salad I had was passable. My favorite thing about the restaurant was that from our second floor table, I had a great bird's eye view of the open kitchen. They have a happy hour from 4-7 on weekdays, and are open until 1 am Sunday through Thursday and until 2 am on Friday and Saturday, but keep in mind that the Promenade is owned by the often schizophrenic homeless after midnight.

Sunset Bar and Grill
1240 Third St Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 395-7012

Restaurant Review #84: Yangtze, Santa Monica

One of the great and somewhat undiscovered things about Yangtze is supposed to be their half price sushi bar hidden in the back of the restaurant. Too bad cheap sushi almost always means crunchy, flavorless sushi, and Yangtze is no exception. It's also generally a safe bet that if a restaurant serves Thai and Chinese in addition to sushi, they probably aren't focused enough on the sushi for it to be high quality. However, if you avoid the sushi, you should be okay. Their kung pao chicken is quite good and consists entirely of chicken and not too many bell peppers, which is great for those who don't like a lot of veggies watering down their meat dish. Yangtze delivers, and often sends coupons in the mail, though they aren't worth much (something like $2 off of a $15 minimum order). Yangtze, like most places, has a $10 minimum on delivery orders. I think this is one of the better restaurants on the Promenade, though I still contend that there are no truly good restaurants there because all of these establishments can rely on lost, hungry tourists to get them by even if the food isn't top-notch.

1333 3rd St Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 260-1994

Restaurant Review #83: FuRaiBo, Sawtelle, West LA

The Dining Room

I wanted to go to FuRaiBo because I wanted to try a place on Sawtelle that I hadn't been to before, but I wanted to go somewhere that might have atmosphere (Hide Sushi and Asahi Ramen are just tables and floor and not much else, from the looks of them). Also, there is usually a line out the door at FuRaiBo, so early Wednesday evening, a slow time at most restaurants, seemed like the ideal time to go. The restaurant opens for dinner at 5:30, and at 6:00, we were the first or second party to arrive, but within 20 minutes the restaurant was packed.

The service started out fast, with a server coming several times to ask what we wanted to order before I was ready--the menu was extensive and I tend to order by process of elimination, so it took me a while. Also, the first two pages were entirely in Japanese, which, unfortunately, I don't read (or speak). I don't know if the English pages that followed were a translation or a separate menu. Overall, the service seemed busy and somewhat indifferent.

Japanese Cucumber Salad

Eventually, I decided on a Japanese cucumber salad with barley miso, black cod with miso, sweet and spicy fried chicken, and pan sauteed scallops. The service for the rest of the night was a bit slow and erratic--my scallops came first, then the chicken a few minutes later, then the cod, and when I was almost finished with my food, the cucumber salad. I wish the salad would have come first--cucumbers taste more interesting at the beginning of a meal, I think. The cool presentation of the salad somewhat made up for its lateness, however, and the barley miso was interesting in that I've only had store bought barley miso which does not actually have barley pieces in it. This did--I'm not sure if it was barley miso paste mixed with barley, or an earlier, less fermented and not-yet- ground-up version of barley miso. Hmm. As far as flavor, if I had made this salad, I would have used a bowl rather than a plate, sliced the cucumbers, and put the miso on top, to be tossed by the customer. Putting a dab of miso on each cucumber chunk was somewhat unweildy, and the long strips of cucumber were difficult to eat with the miso, or with chopsticks, for that matter (at least for me-- since I didn't grow up with them, lifting large or heavy things like tempura with chopsticks is a challenge). I also think cucumbers taste better sliced because the skin is less noticeable.


I liked the scallops, but they were chewier than any other scallops I have had. I wasn't sure if it was because they weren't very high quality or because they were a different kind of scallop. I'm kind of leaning towards the latter. I wasn't sure I had been brought the correct scallop dish--there were two, one which was sauteed in butter (which I ordered) and another that was pan-fried. These had some breading on them, but also came in a sauce, that tasted more like miso than butter. Hmm. I'm confused, but the dish was pretty good.

Sweet and spicy fried chicken pieces

This chicken was quite good. It kind of reminded me of orange chicken, but it had a different spicy kick, and wasn't as saucy. I highly recommend this dish and wish we'd ordered two plates.

Black cod with miso

Tied with the chicken for my favorite dish was the cod, which was simply excellent, and exactly what I needed to satisfy my several days' worth of cravings for cooked fish. It was sweet, served very hot, and very flakey. Bad or poorly cooked cod can easily be rubbery, but this wasn't at all.

Most of the dishes are small and inexpensive--probably the most expensive things were $9, but many were $5 or under. The dishes we ordered, including tax and tip, came to about $28. They fed two people with small appetites--the average person could easily spend $28 on themselves, I imagine (with water to drink). Though most of the menu consists of meat and fish dishes, there are quite a few tofu dishes and salads.

The restaurant had a couple of major shortcomings, in my opinion. The tables are crammed together and the chairs were hard and uncomfortable, plus the table has this wierd little shelf under it that kept hitting me in the knees. It's also very crowded and somewhat noisy, and the music is slightly dated and a tad too loud. The food arrived haphazardly and out of order, and it took forever for us to pay our bill. The food was good and cheap though, so I'd be willing to give the restaurant another chance, or better yet, get takeout.

2068 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 444-1432
Cross Street: Mississippi


Restaurant Review #82: Josie, Santa Monica

Ostrich with baby turnips, baby carrots, brussel sprouts, shitake mushrooms, and truffle mashed potatoes

I rarely go out to nice restaurants, the kind of places where they pull out your chair for you and have sommeliers, but every once in a while, I get lucky. Last time it was Melisse, and this time it was Josie. Jonathan Gold recommended it. He put it in his 99 Essential Restaurants list. It had to be good. And I wouldn't have to sit in traffic for an hour to get there. Plus, I could finally pay tribute to one of the women-run restaurants in LA. Josie's kitchen is run by not one, but three women: Josie Le Balch, Jonna Jensen, and Jill Davie. It sounded perfect.

The Dining Room

Valet whisked our car away, and the hostess greeted us enthusiastically-so enthusiastically that I wondered if she thought she knew me and was expecting me to strike up a conversation. Hmm. Later I realized that she had a terribly lonely job and was probably dying for someone to talk to. The only hostess, she had no job but to stand there and seat people--and there were only about fifteen tables, so there weren't that many people to greet.

Someone brought us a wine list, which was presented like a large menu except the outside was made of cork. I put that aside for later. How do I know what I want to drink before I know what I want to eat? I guess the assumption is that I want to drink something before my meal even comes. Too bad I'm such a lightweight.

The menu is pretty short, consisting of about 10 appetizers and 10 entrees. There wasn't a tasting menu, but there were quite a few specials. We were still able to order all the specials we wanted at about 8:15, but by 8:30 they were returning apologetically to some tables, and by 9:00 they seemed to be out of too many of the specials. The specials we ordered were the escargot appetizer and the ostrich entree. From the regular menu, we ordered the fig tart appetizer and the buffalo burger entree. Our waitress commented that I had ordered well, and she seemed surprised, since it was my first visit to Josie, but pleased.

Once I decided what to order, the sommelier helped me pick out one glass of red and one glass of white. The wine menu was extensive, but almost everything had to be ordered by the bottle. There were a few half-bottles, but we wanted to try more than one thing without breaking the bank. So I settled on a chardonnay and a 1995 margaux. I can only think of one red I've ever enjoyed, which was something at Orris, so chardonnay was the best choice to go with our meaty dishes, and I picked the red because apparently it is rare for a 95 to be poured by the glass. Just tell me something is rare or unusual, and I'll want to try it immediately! By the way, our sommelier, I believe, was Frank Delzio, the general manager and Josie's husband (we're on a first name basis).

Le amuse bouche-something with cheese, egg, and a pie crust

I always appreciate an amuse bouche. This was good, but failed to impress me and was a bit heavy. I think an amuse bouche should be something incredibly impressive and light that will get me excited about the meal to come.

Fig and goat cheese tart
a savory tart layered with herbed goat cheese, figs, sweet-and-sour red onions, Oregon hazelnuts, and arugula
The first few bites didn't impress me that much, but once I got to the crusty tart, I was quite happy. I generally don't like pie crusts or any other kind of crust, but his one was buttery and crisp, not dry, mushy, or cardboardy (yes, I grew up on frozen pies). The goat cheese was very creamy and not grainy at all. The figs tasted like dried figs--I would have preferred more moist figs, though I realize that fig season has passed and there may not be much you can do to perk up a dried fig. I think there was a bit too much arugula, and the onions complemented the other flavors well, but didn't seem any different from ordinary carmelized red onions. I don't like nuts, so I won't judge those.

By the way, Josie gets a lot of its fresh produce from the Santa Monica Farmer's Market, which I think is fantastic.

This is escargot, I swear

I'd had escargot once before at a sushi restaurant in Newport Beach called Abe, where the sushi chef was mentored by Nobu. As much as I love sushi, I never would have tried snails (yes, they were cooked) had they not been on the house (we knew the waiter). They came in an odd dish that reminded me of the dialer part of a rotary phone, with each snail in its own miniature bath of garlic butter sauce. They were incredibly tender and completely amazing. Because of this experience, Josie's escargot had a lot to live up to, and unfortunately, I wasn't impressed. There were only 4 snails, along with a few mushrooms, a lot of mashed potatoes and a huge garnish. Of the three snails I ate, one was pretty good, one was okay, and one had an odd consistency as if there were some guts or waste product inside the snail (okay, I know nothing about snail anatomy or escargot preparation, but it was gross). The mashed potatoes were underwhelming and, I thought, a bit dry.

Buffalo foie burger with truffle fries

sirloin of buffalo, ground and stuffed with Gruyere cheese, topped with foie gras, and served on a brioche bun
My first encounter with foie gras. It has a very rich taste and a smooth texture, and I can see why some people like it, but to me, it just tasted like something I wasn't meant to eat. Maybe I just couldn't overcome the mental hurdle of eating duck liver, especially with all the semi-recent controversey, but I didn't enjoy it. Buffalo was new to me and has an interesting texture--it's much smoother than ground beef. It took me a while to get used to the idea, but I ended up liking it a lot, especially with the cheesy insides.

The truffle fries were my favorite part of the meal (incidentally, they can also be ordered separately). They were addictively good and had a salty kick due to some white mystery ingredient that was sprinkled on top. Also, one of the dipping sauces was muhummara, a Middle Eastern dip made of red pepper, pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and a few other ingredients. I love muhummara and it's particularly rare to stumble across it at an American restaurant with French and Italian influences. The mustard sauce was very heavy and tasted mayonaissey; I didn't care for it. Ketchup is ketchup.

Fry dipping sauces-ketchup, mustard, and muhummara!

The restaurant felt like being in someone's living room--cozy--but it was a bit too cozy. Some of the tables were much too close together, especially ours, which was positioned right next to a booth in an odd way that made it very difficult for my friend and I to hear each other. The restaurant was a bit noisy on a Friday night at 8:00. Also, the booth we sat at had a very narrow bench and a very upright back. The restaurant had tried to make up for this by providing a pillow, but since the bench was so narrow, I couldn't use the pillow and still have enough room to sit (and I am not a large person). I was uncomfortable the whole time.

View of the semi-open kitchen

The ginger pear upside down cake was joyously moist and something I would like to be able to make myself. I didn't love the brown sugar ice cream, and thought it would have been better as brown sugar ginger ice cream, a la Kiriko. But I'm also somewhat biased because I don't like ice cream with my dessert--I like to eat it alone. The ice wine was very sweet, so the tiny portion was okay, though it was somewhat alarming to get something the size of a shot for about $8. I'm used to budget dining, what can I say.

Ice wine and a ginger pear upside down cake with brown sugar ice cream

Overall, I felt sort of eh about the experience. I really liked the truffle fries, the buffalo burger, and the dessert. The service was pretty good, but the noise and discomfort of my seat really distracted me. American/French is not my favorite kind of food, so I'm not too inclined to go out for it often. If I go back, it will be for the fries, and I'll go on a quiet night of the week, like Wednesday.

2424 Pico
Santa Monica, CA 90405


Restaurant Review #81: Toi, Santa Monica

Toi is unusual in that while it is a Thai restaurant, it is decorated in rock and roll memorabilia. It is also open from 11 am to 3 am daily. Yes, you read that right. Perhaps the long hours explain the empty tables. Or perhaps it's the food.

Toi has two locations, and I've only been to the Wilshire location in Santa Monica (the other is on Sunset). Both times I was underwhelmed by, if not downright unhappy with, their food. I went with a different group of friends each time, and other people seemed to like their food, but then, they're not as picky as I.

On my first visit, I ordered pad Thai. I'm such a sucker, I know. It's hard to mess up pad Thai, unless you're using the red box from the grocery store, but Toi managed to do it. On my second visit, I ordered the crispy duck. It wasn't well-described on the menu, and perhaps it's my fault for not asking for more detail, but I definitely wasn't expecting a plate of fried duck pieces still on the bone. My vegetarian inclinations don't like eating meat off the bone, but even pushing that detail aside, the meat was overcooked and it took a lot of work to even find the meat. There weren't any vegetables on the plate, and I didn't order rice (extra charge, sigh) so after a lot of work picking around bones for meat, I was still hungry, and I'd ordered the most expensive dish of the group. I went home and ate a salad and cookies for my real dinner.

Based on my two experiences and the reviews elsewhere on the web, I'd recommended avoiding Toi unless it's late at night and you're looking for an alternative to the usual diner food.

1120 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 394-7804


Restaurant Review #80: Tofu-ya, Sawtelle, West LA

Soon tofu with mushrooms

I had only had Korean food once before, when I was 15 and had not yet discovered my love of food due to my upbringing of PBJ and Campbell's minestrone soup. One of my friends had a birthday party at a Korean restaurant, and apparently I insulted his family by not eating the barbecue. I wasn't eating meat at the time, and didn't see how it would have been any less insulting for them to expect me to change my values for them. Maybe it's a Korean thing that I don't understand. Maybe his family was just easily offended.

I remembered nothing about the food, only the controversey surrounding it, so I was more than eager to finally re-try Korean food. One of my friends often bemoans the absence of not just a good Korean restaurant, but any Korean restaurant, on the Westside. He used to frequent a tofu house in Westwood, and there was once a full-service Korean restaurant in Santa Monica. He also enjoyed a great tofu house on Pico across from Santa Monica College which was run by a woman single-handedly. All of these places closed, leaving behind only small a la carte stops in the food courts of Santa Monica Place and the mall in Century City.

So when I spotted Tofu-ya on Sawtelle, we went as soon as we could.

The small restaurant is casual, but the dark wood tables make it an elegant casual. Though there are only about fifteen tables, acoustics seemingly weren't considered in the restaurant's design, and it was quite noisy. On a Wednesday around 6:30, the restaurant was a little over half-full, whereas most of the restaurants I've been to at this day and time usually have somewhere between an almost empty to one-third full dining room.

I was slightly skeptical when we were seated near the door, as I don't consider that a great table location, but I soon realized that our hostess meant no ill-will when she asked me if I was cold, which indicated to me that she was considering moving us to a potentially warmer table (I was wearing an unseasonably heavy jacket). She also told me what a pretty face I had, and told my friend what a pretty friend he had. Hmm. It's not often that another woman compliments my appearance--it's usually just skeezy men on the street. She started speaking Korean to my friend, who is Korean but claims that his knowledge of Spanish is better than his knowledge of Korean. We learned that the owners were Korean and also own Asahi Ramen (next door), the restaurant just opened on August 10, and it's been doing very well.

I can see why. The food is inexpensive (according to my friend, less expensive than other Korean restaurants), the service is extremely friendly and unpretentious, and the food is quite good. A simple menu offers not much more than variations on the same tofu dish--you can get your tofu with clam, oyster, beef, shrimp, chicken, pork, mushrooms, or a couple of combinations of the above. They also serve a few kinds of barbecue (barbecued beef, beef ribs, or pork), bibim-bap, and a couple of other things that I can't recall.

Having never eaten Korean tofu before, I wasn't expecting soup. It's served bubbling hot, with an egg cracked into it at your table as it's served, in a black kettle-like bowl (is it a clay pot?) that does an amazing job of keeping the soup steaming hot for as long as it's sitting in front of you. Hot silken tofu, with all its water content, is merciless: In my overzealousness to try the new dish in front of me, I actually managed to burn the back of my throat in an attempt to not burn my tongue. Neither my friend nor I know what the soup base is made of, but it may be made from a meat stock because I think I encountered a couple of tiny pieces of meat in my soup (or were they meaty mushrooms?) I was skeptical of the egg, since they aren't my favorite, but I've definitey been sold, as the texture of the soup-cooked egg white was a nice addition to the soup and was kind of like a cross between the soft, smooth texture of the tofu and the chewier texture of the mushrooms. There were several kinds of mushrooms, though aside from the enokis, I couldn't identify them. I ordered my soup medium spicy, and it wasn't too spicy at all, but I'd be reluctant to order it hot out of fear that the heat would obscure the other flavors of the soup.

Note that some of the soups have shellfish in them, so if you're allergic, make sure to point this out when you order. On my second visit to Tofu-ya, I found out the hard way that the soup that somes with the barbecue has a whole shrimp, beady eyes and all, along with clams (which I can eat). They wouldn't replace my soup, which really made me mad, but I think the problem may have been a language barrier, as our server didn't speak very good English. Still, I'd really appreciate it if they would point out on the menu that poison will be swimming in my soup unless I request otherwise.

I learned that Korean meals tend to come with side dishes. In this case, there were four, but if you're at a restaurant eating family style, you're likely to get around twenty. Tofu-ya served bean sprouts, which weren't that exciting; seaweed, which was good because I really like seaweed, but otherwise nothing special; kimchee, which was good but not as spicy as I was expecting, and thankfully did not contain and shrimp paste (some do, at least at the grocery store); and something we couldn't identify but which seemed like fried tofu skins but turned out to be fish cake (free of shellfish) served with chunks of bell pepper. The latter was my favorite--it had a sweet, rich, fried flavor that I could have enjoyed an entire plate of.

The rice that came with the meal (wow, no extra charge?) came in a clay pot similar to the soup pot and the server spooned it into bowls for us. She then poured hot water into the pots and let them sit at the edge of the table while we ate. When we were almost done with our soup, she came back and pushed them towards us to indicate that they were ready. I tried it plain, and it just tasted like watery burnt rice. I tried adding some kimchee to it, but that didn't help much. Maybe it's just because I'm a gaijin, but I didn't get any pleasure from this part of the meal.

On my second visit, I ventured into the world of Korean barbecue. The meat came out on a plate much like a fajita plate at a Mexican restaurant--a pile of meat and onion slices, garnished with slivers of scallion. The meat looked plain, so I was surprised when it had a delicious, sweet flavor. I, the former vegetarian with the small appetite, ate the entire pile of meat.

Overall on my first visit, I liked my food very much. I also liked the service and the new (to me) dishes and flavors. On my second visit, I still liked the food, but of the two servers I dealt with, one was rather rude (maybe she was having a bad day), and the other wouldn't replace or comp my shellfishy soup. So now I have mixed feelings about Tofu-ya, but I'll probably still return, making sure to order my soup sans-shellfish, and making sure my server understands my order.

Next to Asahi Ramen on Sawtelle
Open 11:30-9:00 daily, closed Thursdays
Other Los Angeles Area Korean Restaurants


Restaurant Review #79: India's Tandoori, West LA

Malai kofta, garlic naan, and neon chutney

Located in--you guessed it--the second story of a strip mall on Wilshire near Granville, India's Tandoori has the kind of extensive menu that makes life quite difficult for indecisive gals like me. I probably should have gone to the lunch buffet, except that I can't get to the restaurant and back and still have time to eat in the span of my hour lunch break (can I?) and the buffet is only offered on weekdays. They also offer free delivery and take out, so I had takeout last Sunday night when Pho 99 was already closed at 9:00 (why do Vietnamese restaurants close so early?).

While my friend waited for our food, the extremely friendly service seated him and gave him a glass of water. They said the food would be ready in ten minutes, and it was. He observed that the restaurant is nice, but a little gaudy as it is decorated with neon. The tables have white linen tablecloths, which are simple, yet still nicer than many other places. There is a TV in the main room above the register, but the sound was down so it wasn’t obnoxious. He caught a glimpse of another room that perhaps affords a bit more elegance. The place was dead at 9:30 on a Sunday, but at least they were open.

The menu has many sections: soups, appetizers, seafood, tandoor se mulakat (clay oven gourmet specialties), curries, vegetarian specialties, combination bargain dinners, rotis, biryanis, mithe ka lutf (traditional Indian desserts), lunch specials, and beverages. Each section has an ample selection, and there are a full 17--yes, seventeen--vegetarian dishes. That makes me happy. The food is quite cheap, with vegetarian entrees at $6.95-7.95, meat entrees ranging from $7.95 to 14.95 (for rack of lamb), and most seafood entrees $11.95 or 12.95.

The malai kofta was a new dish for me, so I have nothing to compare it to, but I thought the deep fried vegetable balls were too salty and tasted almost like miniature falafel. I liked the sauce though, a creamy tomato and onion sauce that was shockingly spicy--not too spicy, mind you, just that my friend had wisely asked for the food to be prepared hot, and it actually was, and at first, I was shocked. Though I suspect it was still toned down a bit since he's not Indian, the level of spicyness was much better than the white girl special I usually get (and like to whine about-well, not really).

The naan was pretty standard, though there was something I didn't quite like about the flavor that I can't really pinpoint. Maybe the garlic wasn't very good? Maybe I'm crazy? What blew my mind though was the glowing green color of the mint chutney. I've never seen such an unapologetically artificial-colored chutney before. And the non-liquid part of it appeared to either be clear and tinted green by the liquid part, or translucent bright green. What was perhaps even stranger was that it tasted right.

Food chemistry scares me.

For dessert I had the rasmalai, "our own freshly made soft cheese patties drenched in thick, sweet milk laced with grated pistachios and served chilled." It's really difficult to photograph a white hunk of cheese completely covered by white liquid in a white styrofoam cup, so I didn't (hmm, why didn't I take it out and put it on a plate? Silly me). The liquid was creamy and mildly sweet, the cheese patty crumbly and the tiniest bit sour. As an eleventh generation American, I tend to like my desserts sweeter than this, and there were no pistachios to speak of. I think the recipe would benefit from a bit of cardamom and/or star anise. It was very similar to the same dessert at
Jaipur Cuisine of India, though I liked Jaipur's better.

India's Tandoori

11819 Wilshire Blvd
West Los Angeles, 90025


Restaurant Review #78: Orris, Sawtelle, West LA

Seafood salad with scallops, octupus, and (no) shrimp in a citrus herb dressing

Update: Orris has permanently closed.

I have been to Orris two times now, and I do believe it is my new favorite restaurant. First of all, I feel confident that I can order anything from the wine list and it will be somewhere between decent and quite good in quality--nothing that tastes like metal. Second, it's small and quiet enough to have an intimate conversation. Finally, the food is interesting and tasty, and the small portions mean that I get to try multiple dishes, or that if I'm just not that hungry, I don't have to pay for a bunch of food I can't eat.

Orris is a small restaurant with a small menu that includes salads, hot dishes, cold dishes, several daily specials, a few desserts and ice creams, and a page-long wine list. The restaurant is rectangularly shaped and consists of small tables placed too close together, so if there are only two of you, the undercrowded bar is a quieter and more intimate place to sit, and also affords you an enjoyable view of the open kitchen. There are several tables outside, but I have yet to find a place in LA where dining next to a busy street seems like a pleasant proposition. The lighting inside is low, and the music is loungey and trendy but played at an appropriate volume. The interior is sleek and the atmosphere borders on trendy, but it doesn't feel pretentious or uncomfortable, probably in part because of it's Sawtelle location.

On my most recent trip, I tried the dishes you see photographed here. The seafood salad, above, ordinarily comes with shrimp, but they were happy to leave the shrimp out and replace it with extra scallops for me. Before eating this dish, I did not realize that scallops came in any color other than white, but apparently there are also salmon-colored scallops. The octopus in this dish was the best octopus I have ever had. My previous encounters with octopus at sushi restaurants and at Nanbankan only presented me with something very chewy and rather tasteless. Here, the salad dressing actually enhanced the flavor of the octopus, and the tentacles were also more tender than I've come to expect. The flavors of the salad blended well and it was an enjoyable light beginning to my meal.

Thinly sliced beets with Basque sheep's milk cheese

Beets are often maligned, but I truly do not understand why, unless the beets that most people have eaten were the canned and salted variety. There is nothing wrong with canned beets, in my opinion, but adding salt to canned beets is indeed a crime. This dish of thinly sliced beets and sheep's milk cheese was perhaps the best thing I had eaten all month. I normally think of sheep's milk cheese as being intense, and was surprised to find that this particular cheese not only did not overpower the flavor of the beets, but complemented it extremely well. Of course, there are many varieties of sheep's milk cheeses, so just because one is strong in flavor doesn't mean that they all are, but most people only have a vague notion of what a sheep's milk cheese is and would probably not be aided by a more specific description. The dill garnish further enhanced the flavor, but I was glad that it was only a part of a few bites and not a part of every bite. I am not, however, certain what the purpose was of that oily/soy saucy stuff you see on top of the cheese. It was scarcely used and didn't taste like much. Overall though, this was an excellent dish, one I'd like to try to recreate at home.

Grilled hearts of romaine with parmesan

I had read raves of the grilled hearts of romaine in other reviews, so I decided to give them a shot, although I was very skeptical of the idea of grilling lettuce, and didn't at all care for a hearts of romaine salad I once had at Ocean Avenue Seafood. Who wants to eat all that lettuce stem? The dish definitely tasted grilled, and I have to say that grilled, as a flavor, does not do much for me and really tastes more like burnt or charred. However, grilling lettuce has the interesting effect of making it seem like a hearty dish, and since I get full easily, I liked being able to eat a dish that tasted very filling yet did not feel heavy at all. The parmesan, of course, really kind of made the dish, as I doubt anyone would enjoy plain grilled lettuce. Shaved parmesan has a strong enough flavor to not be overpowered by the flavor of grilling, so it was a good choice, if not particularly inventive.

Lamb carpaccio

We all know that I'm not much of a meat eater, but if I did like meat, I probably would have said that this lamb was prepared very well. I'm basing this judgement almost entirely on the opinion of my friend, who often does not even eat the food that he takes me out for. However, he ate this entire dish, so that must be saying something. Since I already had my grilled hearts of romaine with parmesan, the lettuce and cheese part of his dish had nothing to offer me.

To drink, we ordered a viogner and a pinot noir. On our first visit, we'd had an excellent pinot noir which we attempted to re-order, but apparently we didn't correctly remember which one we'd ordered. Oh well. Both wines were still better than average, and I particularly enjoyed the viogner. Most of their wines are about $9 a glass, but unlike many places, are actually worth it. Often when I got out to eat, I find myself sipping a $7 glass that is inferior to the quality of a $7 bottle from Trader Joe's. At Orris, I've never had that problem. Keep in mind that my knowledge of wine is fairly limited--I think I have a good idea of what is quality and what is not, but I can't talk the wine talk.

On our previous visit, my friend and I enjoyed the shishito peppers and the shrimp mousse ravioli. However, the albacore tuna cups weren't such a winner, as the raddacio cups they were served in were too overpowering. Also, the bread that came with our meal was nothing special and could have easily been Safeway bread heated in a toaster over. On this visit, they completely forgot to bring us any bread at all, not that I really cared. Overall though, the service is pretty good--not amazing, and they don't stop by your table very often, but they do at least get things right, make good wine suggestions, refill water regularly, and treat you with respect.

2006 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025


Restaurant Review #77: Buon Giorno Caffe, Santa Monica

The first time I went here, I was so hungry I thought I was going to pass out and had to get food from the nearest available place. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a lovely little Italian cafe. The small, rectangular interior had a dark green nicely tiled floor and a just few small tables, maybe about 8, and another 3 tables outside. It was very clean and bright, and somehow has a bit of atmosphere and tranquility in spite of its location on busy Santa Monica Boulevard. It's not enough atmosphere to impress any date, unless you've got a quick breakfast date (but who does that?) who would be impressed by your ability to choose a non-chain, but the atmosphere is definitely better than you-know-where. The back wall has lots of framed artwork. Metered street parking was very easy to find at 8:15 AM.

I did not want to spend my money on a full blown meal, so I got an orange cranberry muffin. The muffin was exceptionally good, and this is coming from a person who does not like muffins. And it wasn't just because I was starving that I thought it was tasty. Though it was because I was starving that I actually ate a muffin. Why don't I like muffins? I don't know. I don't like breakfast food much, except for pancakes and French toast. I can often be found eating pizza for breakfast. However, this muffin was exceptional, and even used real fresh cranberries, not dried ones! The service was friendly and respectful and offered to heat up my muffin for me. Fortunately, they did not ask if I wanted my muffin buttered.

In addition to breakfast pastry type items and coffee, the cafe has panini and a pretty extensive menu of other Italian stuff. They also have various desserts and other breakfast items, like eggs. I'm pretty sure they had some hot pasta dishes. I wouldn't mind eating here for real sometime, but we all know how often I eat Italian when I go out.

This morning, I tried Buon Giorno again, because I wanted coffee but wanted to give my money to someplace more unique than the Coffee Bean. I ordered a blueberry muffin and a medium decaf coffee. The total for these two items was a reasonable $4. My decaf coffee was excellent. It tasted fresh and rich-- not old, watered-down, dull, or burnt. The muffin was good as well, though I liked my previous cranberry muffin better. It seems these muffins don't have preservatives--it took me a couple of hours to eat mine since it was a busy morning at the office, and it started to dry out and get stale quite quickly. As I prefer to not eat preservatives, I consider this a good thing.

If you're looking for a potentially good undiscovered hole in the wall Italian cafe, you may want to check this place out.

Oh, and they actually said "thank you" when I put my change in the tip jar!

Buon Giorno Caffe
1431 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90404

Restaurant Review #76: Lago, Santa Monica Farmer's Market

Parma Panini: Mozarella, tomato, and proscuitto

Lago, an Italian restaurant located on the Promenade, has a panini stand diagonally in front of their restaurant during the Santa Monica Farmer's Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They sell mostly panini, but also lasagne, polenta pancakes, and minestrone soup. All but one of the panini had meat, I believe. One may have been vegan, if the pesto spread did not contain cheese. They also sell $2 Italian bottled soft drinks, and less expensive cans of Coke, Diet Coke, and Sprite.

The stand has a short line most of the time, and a short wait for your food, which is all pre-made but needs to be heated and/or boxed. Unfortunately, they use large styrofoam boxes for everything. I wish more places would use Juliano's Raw/Real Food Daily style cardboard boxes. The service was smiley and appeared to speak Italian as a first language, rattling it off between customers and wishing me "buon apetito" when they handed me my food. Panini are $5-6 each for two medium sized triangles--about the perfect lunch portion to be full but not stuffed.

It took me about 15 minutes to get the panini from the stand back to my office where I ate it. By that time, it was only vaguely warm, so I popped it back into the toaster oven. The sandwich as a whole didn't taste like much and was a little too salty, and in my opinion, would have benefitted from some freshly ground black pepper and a basil spread. Cheese is not enough to moisten bread properly for a sandwich. The bread was very crunchy and covered me with crumbs, but this may have been due to its stint in the toaster oven. I prefer chewier, moister bread in general (a la Panera Bread, though I'm not a huge fan of the foccacia they use for their panini) and think that all sandwiches benefit from some sort of spread--just enough to moisten the bread without making it soggy.

I decided to take apart the second half of my sandwich and eat the ingredients individually. The tomatoes had a rich heirloom tomato flavor, but were ruined by a mealy consistency. The proscuitto was very thinly sliced and soft, not tough, and didn't have too strong of a flavor. I'd say the quality of it was pretty high, though I'm no expert, and my inner vegetarian couldn't eat all of it. The proscuitto had the effect of making the tomatoes and mozarella taste extra salty (or maybe they added salt to the sandwich?). The mozzarella was on the more flavorful side--not the best I've had (that was in Italy), but definitely above average. The proportions of ingredients were well-balanced, except that there was a bit too much bread.

The sandwich wasn't good enough to finish, and I doubt I'll return to try any of their other food. In generally, I'm not too quick to forgive a restaurant for a sub-par dish. Instead, I'll try the not-yet-opened Panini Grille on Wilshire at 6th in the old Mon Sushi spot (which, according to Tony Bourdain, means it's already destined to fail).