Restaurant Review #174: Maker Nights at Cube

Lamb shanks with port wine reduction and crispy pan-seared Wisconsin Sheep Dairy mona polenta

Cube is part gourmet shop and part restaurant. In addition to an extensive cheese collection, they also sell all sorts of gourmet honeys, crackers, olive oils, and other delicacies, as well as the full line of Divine Pasta Company products (which you may have seen at Whole Foods). Cube's mission is to actively support artisan-crafted products and the makers themselves, as well as to host regular community-driven events showcasing these products.

On November 9th & 10th, Cube hosted what they hope will be the first of many "Maker Nights" celebrating artisanal cuisine. Four of America's top artisanal cheese makers participated in this event, which featured an 8-course menu showcasing their cheeses.

What should you expect if you attend an event like this at Cube? Expect that most people will be dressed nicely (think work attire). Cube's tables seat four people, so if there are less than four in your party, expect to dine with strangers (which can be either awkward or fun, depending on your mood and who you're seated next to). Expect the meal to last a long time -- since everyone needs to eat the same dish at the same time and finish that dish before the next one arrives, things don't exactly move swiftly (on the other hand, this might be a wrinkle that smooths out as Cube gains more experience in hosting these events). Expect to BYOB, since Cube doesn't have a liquor license (they did serve us plenty of flat and sparkling water though, as well as a prosecco which I suppose someone had "brought" enough of for everyone to try). Parking was a snap--there was plenty of street parking nearby since most of the businesses near Cube are not open at night. Also, the event may have a photographer, which may cause you to conspicuously duck behind menus every 10 minutes throughout the evening if you hate being photographed by strangers.

Maker's flight

Here are the makers who attended:

Brent Wasser's Sprout Creek Farm is located in Poughkeepsie, New York. They feed their cows and goats grass and make their cheeses using traditional farmstead methods. They are actually a non-profit organization with a mission to teach both children and adults a greater connectedness to the earth. They accomplish this by using their farm setting to show people how to care for animals and land through hands-on programs.

Bob Stetson's Westfield Farm has been making all-natural goat and cow's milk cheeses since the 1970's. Their award-winning cheeses include a wasabi goat's milk cheese, chocolate goat's milk cheese, several blue cheeses, and plain or herbed goat's milk cheese. I didn't know it going in, but they are one of my favorite cheesemakers! I especially love their wasabi cheese, and I got to thank the cheesemaker for creating it.

Joshua Beck of MouCo Cheese Company produces soft ripened cheeses in Fort Collins, Colorado using pasteurized, antibiotic-free milk from Holstein and Jersey cows. Since the cheeses are only ripened for two weeks, the USDA does not permit MouCo to use raw milk (the minimum ripening time for a raw milk cheese in the US is three weeks). MouCo also employs sustainable agricultural practices and uses recycled packaging.

Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Co-op's Dane Huebner runs the country's largest source of quality sheep milk for cheeses. Cube loves their 100% sheep's milk Dante and 50% sheep's milk Mona.

Flight of fatted calf artisan plate

The meal started with a flight of cheeses, followed by a flight of pate maison, guinea hen pate, and duck pate. I can honestly say that I loved every one of the cheeses, which ranged from hard and dry to runny and soft. Like I've said before, cheese store cheese just tastes better. The pate was interesting because it looked like sausage, but was much lighter and more loosely packed. I had never had pate before, and while it's not something I would order on my own or care to consume in large quantities, it was surprisingly appetizing and I was glad to have the experience to expand my palate.

Velvet tomato soup with chive oil & mini Sprout Creek Farm ouray grilled cheese

The sandwich was nearly weightless and crumbled softly in the mouth, like a handful of freshly fallen snow. I easily mistook the rich punch of chive oil for a very good olive oil, and the soup tasted homemade. The ouray cheese has a firm texture, a mildly sweet flavor, and is meant to showcase the quality of the farm's milk. Unfortunately, there was so little of it in the grilled cheese that I could barely taste it. If the dish hadn't been meant to showcase the cheese, it would have been very successful.

MouCo colorouge, proscuitto langhirano & baby arugula pizza

The marriage of bread and cheese was more successful in the pizza, and perfect wisps of proscuitto and lightly spicy arugula allowed the colorouge to shine. MouCo describes their colorouge as "creamy, nutty and subtly sour," which I'd say is pretty accurate. I believe it is a type of muenster. Raaaar.

Roasted kabocha squash ravioli with brown butter, guanciale, Wisconsin Sheep Dairy dante and farmers' market herbs

Cube's kabocha squash ravioli was the best thing I have eaten in weeks (and this is coming from someone who normally dislikes squash ravioli). The brown butter made it so rich that I had to stop after two pieces! Again, however, the cheese was barely present in this dish. Maybe the restaurant didn't order enough to accomodate the large turnout?

Fatted calf fegatelli with cicerchie, Sprout Creek Farm toussaint & crispy sage

This dish could have been called "Rich Man's Pork and Beans." The cicerchie (a type of bean) reminded me of lentils. The sauce had meaty undertones and salty overtones. I didn't think it made sense to serve such a large piece of fegatelli (pork liver) as an entree when we'd already had several pates as an appetizer (but maybe that's because I'm a closeted vegetarian). Though many of the dishes contained meat, Cube managed to accomodate the vegetarians at the event (telling the restaurant in advance helps). Sprout Creek Farm describes their toussaint cheese as being sharp in taste and having a lasting finish. The cheese had to have been in the sauce, but it wasn't noticeable.

White wine poached D'anjou pears filled with Westfield Farm classic blue and mascarpone mousse, toasted pistachios and fresh cranberry puree

Westfield Farm's classic blue is a smooth goat cheese injected with Roquefort mold. Mixed with mascarpone, its flavor becomes very delicate. The cranberry sauce wasn't as tart as one might expect, but had a sweetness more like raspberry. The cheese seemed out of place because I'm not accustomed to eating unsweetened cheeses in desserts.

Fresh Westfield Farm goat cheese & Valrhona chocolate pudding & raspberries

Two desserts! We got two desserts!

The use of cheese in the velvety pudding was subtle, imparting a slight tang while making the dish weightier and smoother than a typical pudding. This dessert was one of the highlights of the evening.

Overall, what most impressed me about Cube's food was their attention to texture. All food has texture, of course, but very rarely does food have a texture so joyously unexpected as Cube's weightless grilled cheese, delicate pates, and flawless pudding. The sweet corn ravioli at Melisse that bursts the moment it hits your tongue is the only other dish I can think of that compares.

Both nights benefitted Slow Food in Schools, a project designed to help children develop an appreciation for real, wholesome food and an understanding of sustainable food practices. The program provides enjoyable hands-on food experiences for kids while teaching them a healthy and delicious way to eat. Cecily Upton, National Program Coordinator for Slow Food in Schools, attended and spoke about the program. The event raised over $3,000 for this program.

Overall, I enjoyed this event. I always want to learn about the food I eat, and I rarely get the chance to do so while I'm consuming it. The cheese wasn't always as dominant in the dishes as I was expecting given the evening's theme, but I found myself fantasizing about my next visit to Cube even before I left the restaurant -- my next flight of cheese, plate of squash ravioli, and cup of chocolate pudding. While I don't really possess the patience or social skills required for events like Maker Nights, it was a worthwhile experience that I would recommend to others.

615 North La Brea
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Cube Website
Cube on Urbanspoon


Writing More Professional Restaurant Reviews

I took a food writing class recently and picked up these tips from Brad Johnson, editor of Modern Luxury Magazines. I know that many of us are not aspiring professional restaurant reviewers and are perfectly happy with our blogs, but it doesn't hurt to at least know what kind of guidelines the professionals follow so that you have the option of using them.

1. Restaurant reviews and ratings are based on the entire experience of dining out, the holy trinity of food, service and ambience. The review should always be first and foremost about the food (not how bad the traffic was on the way to the restaurant). Make sure to somehow mention what kind of food the restaurant serves in the first 200 words or you will lose the reader.

2. Above all else, tell a great story rather than providing chronological commentary on the meal. Let the story be a vehicle for conveying your impressions of the food and the experience. (Personally, this is one of my pet peeves about published restaurant reviews, which is why I don't do this on my site. Fluffy food stories are generally a waste of my time.) Convey your passion for food and dining and always provide the reader with a sense of discovery and new information.

3. Allow the food to come alive. Fish should wiggle. Pasta should swirl. Buns should sigh. Don't just list what you ate, because that's boring.

4. Always remain authoritative and enlightening. Be frank and critical without being negative or mean-spirited.


Restaurant Review #173: Punch Grill, Santa Monica - CLOSED

Filet mignon in pinot noir sauce

This review is a little different from my others in that I was invited to try Punch Grill by their PR firm and they paid for my meal. Despite this, you can still count on Foodie Universe to stand by our policy of providing unbiased reviews.

Punch Grill opened in June 2006 with the mission of offering "the finest American cuisine on the Westside." They bill themselves as "trendy meets casual," which for a non-scenester like myself brings on a lot of skepticism. When is trendy ever truly casual in LA? Surprisingly, the restaurant pulls off this promise quite well. While the decor is upscale, neither the staff, the patrons, nor the food are pretentious. Both the restaurant and its food feel very comfortable and aren't overly hip in any way.

Executive Chef Peter Sang's food mostly caters to an audience who takes comfort in the familiarity of foods like steak and mashed potatoes, but it also presents diners with accessible twists on common foods--take the braised short rib ravioli, for example.

Braised short rib ravioli in a fume horseradish cream sauce

The braised short rib ravioli was unlike any other ravioli I've eaten. First of all, I actually knew what kind of meat was on the inside--real, quality meat, not some manufactured meat mush. The horseradish sauce was not a cream sauce like I was expecting, but that would have been too heavy. Instead, the sauce was light and pleasantly tangy while still allowing the meat to shine.

Tuna avocado tartare with a soy ginger dressing and crispy wontons

I know that I missed the beginning of the tuna tartare fad (at least, it seems like a fad), but if Melisse's Josiah Citrin it still serving it, it can't be too passe. I really don't care if my food is fashionable or not though; I just want it to taste good. The tuna was surprisingly good for a restaurant that doesn't specialize in raw fish, and any less-than-perfect bits were unnoticeable with the crunch of the wontons. Again, Chef Sang allowed the ingredients to speak for themselves, but added a delicate drizzle of soy ginger dressing to enhance their flavor.

Lake Superior white fish in a lemon caper sauce with orzo and fresh veggies

The fish didn't actually come in a sauce as the menu suggested and as I would have preferred, but it was perfectly flavored with lemon, salt, and pepper. These condiments are a classic way to season a fish for a good reason, even if they aren't the most innovative. Rather than the fish being a vehicle to sop up sauce, the seasoning allowed the fish to speak for itself. Overall, this dish is a good example of a basic item done well--not every dish needs to be adventurous to be good, and many people prefer to eat what's familiar.

The accompanying carrot puree was a welcome variation on the more traditional side of steamed baby carrots. While carrots are a heavy, dense root, the puree's texture was as light as whipped cream.

I'm really not a steak person, to be honest, but how could I not order the filet mignon when it was free? We ordered it rare, which would have scared me had I not recently eaten nearly raw beef carpaccio. Though I grew up eating burnt steak, I've finally learned that perfect cuts of meat like this one were meant to be eaten while still pulsatingly pink. Any Texan would be proud of Punch Grill's filet mignon (though it might take an ex-pat like myself to prefer a subtle pinot noir sauce over a douse of A-1).

Our waiter was kind enough to let us know about the souffle as we were finishing up our entrees so that it would be ready when we were ready for dessert. Would we be interested? Um, yes! The souffle was very hot, very light, and just a little bit sweet--I wouldn't have changed a thing about it. For those who like their desserts sweeter, a small pot of chocolate accompanies the dish.

There were a couple of foreign words on the dessert menu that I didn't understand and hadn't seen before, which was surprising since the rest of the menu was so easy to read. I was impressed by the length and variety of the list, though.

Lemon cello gelato

If Punch Grill sold their lemon cello gelato by the pint, I would buy it! Limoncello is a very powerful Italian liqueur (if you've ever been to Italy, you know that in tourist areas, bottles of the creamy yellow liquid are as prevalent as postcards). I was curious to test the chef on this dish. Would it taste overwhelmingly like alcohol? Would the gelato really be gelato? Yes, it really was gelato--denser, creamier, and less icy than ice cream. The limoncello flavor whispered to my tongue -- it didn't smack me in the forehead like it's drinkable counterpart.

The key lime tart and a weak cappucino were the only things I tasted all night that I didn't like. It's possible that part of the problem with the tart came from eating it alongside the lemon cello gelato. I expected these two desserts to have compatible flavors since they were both citrus-flavored, but compared to the fresh, homemade flavor of the gelato, the key lime tart seemed heavy handed. I could taste the shortening in the crust (or maybe it was the unnecessary icing on top), and the filling was a few squeezes short of limey.

The dining room

One thing I must say is that I can't speak to what kind of service the average diner will get at Punch Grill on an average night -- I've only observed them on their best behavior. While I was there, both the owner and the manager stopped by not only our table but by other tables as well to introduce themselves. The hostess and our waiter clearly knew that we were special guests, but our waiter was just as friendly to nearby diners as he was to us. When another guest didn't like her soup, her server apologized and quickly whisked the dish back to the kitchen, no questions asked. Clearly, the staff's best behavior is friendly, down-to-earth, and helpful: in short, excellent. Hopefully, this level of service is standard at Punch Grill.

A complete meal including appetizer, entree, glass of wine, and dessert will run you about $50 before tax and tip. Even the most expensive item on the menu, the filet mignon, is reasonably priced at $28. If you're on a budget, you can still enjoy a nice meal here: the entree and water option will run you as little as $11 if you order a sandwich or pasta. You can make reservations online through their website, or go directly to Open Table. They also have a patio, and private rooms are available for events such as business meetings and parties.

Even on a street as busy as Wilshire, Punch Grill is easy to spot. It's directly on the street in a large white building -- you'll notice the old-school maroon awning with the restaurant's name. Valet parking is $3.75, but we easily found free street parking at night since most of the surrounding businesses were closed.

Overall, I'd recommend Punch Grill to diners who enjoy classic American food that tastes the way they're expecting it to taste. It's also perfect for business meetings and groups with diverse tastes: even a gaggle of picky eaters (like my family) will all be able to find something they like here. There are several trendier and more innovative dishes that will satisfy the more adventurous, but most of the dishes are timeless.

Punch Grill
3001 Wilshire Blvd. (cross street - Stanford)
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Open Daily
Lunch 11am - 4pm
Dinner 4pm - close
Punch Grill Website

Punch Grill also hosts a lounge with plenty of large television screens where you can enjoy signature cocktails and appetizers, happy hours Monday through Friday from 4-7, and watch your favorite sporting event.
Punch Grill on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #172: Lotous Boba & Tonic, Northridge - CLOSED

Ah, suburbia. Nothing but a bunch of big boxes to shop and eat at, and nothing better for a teenager to do than hang out at the local coffee or boba shop. Accordingly, Northridge's Lotous is filled with ebullient teens, a few of whom are studying but most of whom are flirting, laughing, shrieking, and mocking each other. If you're over 18 or so, you'll probably feel compelled grab your drink and bolt.

What sets Lotous apart from other boba chains is the tremendous amount of sugar in their drinks. This can be good or bad, depending on what you and your teeth are in the mood for. As always, my favorite is the glowing green honeydew, but Lotous's version alternates between tasting heavenly and chemically. Really, it can't help but be both.

In addition to (fake) fruity drinks, they also sell a variety of teas and ballpark food. This isn't the most appetizing combination, but it makes sense given the clientele--kids can satisfy their junk food cravings while their parents sip on something more health-conscious and less intense.

Lotous Boba & Tonic
19500 Plummer St. #F6 (near Northridge Fashion Center)
Northridge, CA 91324
Lotous Website
Boba & Tonic on Urbanspoon


The Artisan Cheese Gallery, Studio City

Going to a cheese store for the first time can be intimidating, but getting over your trepidation is worth the effort. Whole Foods wraps their cheeses in a plastic whose flavor seeps into the cheese, ruining all the outer edges of pretty much anything you purchase. Plus, their cheeses are expensive and you can't try before you buy, which results in lots of wasted money (and cheese!). Trader Joe's uses a different plastic, and has a few above average cheeses, but their selection is limited and doesn't contain anything that is likely to blow you away.

Cheese store cheese just tastes different. Not only is it cut fresh and wrapped in paper to preserve its flavor, but you're also likely to end up with cheeses that are totally new to your tastebuds.

The Artisan Cheese Gallery is a small store that sells all kinds of cheese, about ten different made-to-order sandwiches featuring various cheeses and Breadbar bread, and a multitude of gourmet products ranging from olive oil to truffles to flavored peanut butter (with samples!) to tortas de aceite (a famous old-recipe cookie from Spain). They do cheese platters for parties if you give them advance notice, and once a month for $35 they have limited-seating cheese tasting events which sometimes involve wine and/or chocolate (purchase tickets in advance or they might be sold out).

Artisan Cheese Gallery sells around 300 cheeses, so try to go in with a few hints about what kind of cheeses you do and don't like, or even what textures you do and don't like. The employees will take it from there, feeding you slivers of scrumptious cheeses until you find ones you like enough to take home. They'll even make a maybe pile if you're not sure. This is also a great time to ask all your cheesy questions, like "How do I know when to eat the rind?" or "How do I prevent my cheese from getting moldy?" Make sure to give them a ballpark figure for what you're looking to spend, or you may find yourself at the register with multiple hunks of $17 cheese (this has never happened to me, of course).

To give you an idea of the kind of variety you'll find in a cheese store, here are some examples of cheeses they sell that I have tried:

Wasabi goat cheese-a bit odd on it's own, but great with sourdough bread
Chocolate goat cheese - The true definition of a dessert cheese, this one contains walnuts and raisins and is sort of like cheesecake without the crust
Monte Irebo-a goat cheese from Spain with a very pungent rind. The cheese's texture and flavor is similar to brie.
Prima Donna - a cow's milk cheese from Holland. I believe it's a gouda. I like this one a lot.
Balarina Goat Gouda - a very hard cheese from Holland that reminds me of parmesan in its texture and nuttiness. Inexpensive and durable--great for traveling on a budget.
Tore de Bordeaux - a goat cheese whose rind is coated in herbs de provence. Pricey, but worth it.
Capo del Montalban - A Spanish cheese that looks like manchego, but tastes better.

As you can probably tell, I'm a big fan of goat cheese. But if you think goat cheese is only that crumblyish stuff that comes in logs, think again! There are many other cheeses out there made from the same tangy milk.

Artisan Cheese Gallery sells a variety of generously-sized sandwiches for around $9 each. I love their grilled cheese: thick, pillowy bread and warm, gooey cheese. All sandwiches come with thick slices of sweet pickles and a fantastic truffle. They even have a few tables so you can eat your food there.

It's a bit hard to spot and hard to park at--just keep this in mind the first time you go, and don't give up if you can't find it or park right away.

The Artisan Cheese Gallery
12023 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604
Mon. - Sat. 10:30 AM - 7 PM
Sun. 8AM - 4PM (that doesn't sound right to me)

As of October 2006, their website has buggy popups so I don't recommend it.
Artisan Cheese Gallery on Urbanspoon