Restaurant Review #122: Sawtelle Kitchen, Sawtelle, West LA

Update: Sawtelle Kitchen has permanently closed.

According to Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, people remember an experience as negative or positive depending on two things: how good or bad the experience was at its peak, and how they felt at the end. This theory does a good job of explaining why I do not have fond memories of my experience at Sawtelle Kitchen, even though it's pretty good at what it does.

The restaurant has one of the nicest atmospheres of any restaurant on Sawtelle. The faux finished peachy beige walls look a bit quaint, but not antique store cheesy. Wooden tables with copper accents contribute further to the warm atmosphere, and the low lighting makes the place conducive to a casual but romantic date. On a serious date, you'd probably want to go to a place where the tables are further apart and the service and food are more consistent.

We arrived around 8:00 on a Saturday, and were surprised to get a table inside right away. Unfortunately, that table was right by the small entrance to the kitchen, second only to the bathroom as far as undesirable locations go. The hungry can't be choosy, though. The restaurant is so small that you can't help but think you're eating in what was once someone's living room, and the layout is a bit puzzling at first. If you want to sit on the patio, you have to go inside and then through another door--you can't just walk up and sit down. It's a bit awkward, but at least you know you'll get served. Patio seating is pretty tight, and if all that body heat isn't enough to keep you warm, there are heaters. Translucent plastic tent flaps lend a bit of privacy to patio diners. Indoors, there is also a nook in the back with what I imagine are better tables.

I love Japanese curry--the recipe seems to have taken my southern favorite, chicken fried steak, and improved it with better gravy and better batter. (I don't know the true origins of the Japanese dish.) The top sirloin curry was hit and miss--within the same dish. Some pieces of meat were tender, while others were tough and quite impossible to chew. I absolutely hate the inconsistency of bad meat. The curry sauce was rich and spicy, and the deep fried breading was flaky and cooked to a perfect brownness, so it was too bad they couldn't get the meat right. I don't know about you, but when I read the term "top sirloin," I expect a really good cut of meat. What I learned at Epicurious, though, is that top sirloin is not the most tender cut. A cut of short loin comes from the most tender part of the muscle. Round is the toughest cut. Sirloin falls in the middle. Within sirloin, there are more divisions, with tenderloin being the most tender, and sirloin falling somewhere in the middle.

Does that mean I shouldn't be complaining about the quality of the meat? Of course not. Who wants to eat chewy meat?

Chilean sea bass

I wasn't in the mood for fish, but for some reason I ordered the Chilean seabass anyway, even though I read that it is going extinct. The bad karma I generated by ordering an endangered species surfaced in the fish's topping, which may have been daikon and tasted like the way a Japanese supermarket smells. I didn't enjoy it at all, even though the fish underneath was flaky, smooth, buttery, and perfectly cooked. The other problem was that the menu description had me anticipating a cream sauce, which was not the case. I was so blinded by hunger while I was ordering that I couldn't tell you if this blunder was the menu's fault or my own.

The spicy potatoes that came on the side were indeed spicy--I would have liked more than three of them, and letting fried potatoes rest in the same very liquidy sauce as the fish was a bad idea. Fortunately, you can order the potatoes as a side dish. I can't really speak for the carrots, since I hate carrots, but my friend thought they were great. The green beans were perfectly cooked--they were bright green and still crunchy (the photo is somewhat deceiving).

So at the peak, the experience was just okay, but at the end, it was bad. We waited forever for our check to come. This seems to be a common practice in LA restaurants, and one that I don't really understand. Shouldn't the place want to get us out so they can turn more tables? I guess that wasn't the case here, since by 9:00 the dinner crowd was dwindling down. My friend and I got so antsy that we were tempted to walk into the kitchen or leave a cash approximation on the table and go. The thing is, Japanese waitresses are almost always so friendly and smiley that you can't be mad at them. That kind of self-presentation really takes talent (or lots of hard work and practice).

I also ordered a side salad and miso soup for an extra $2.50. The salad was excellent--I love miso-based dressings. The miso soup tasted like all other miso soup. My meal also came with a really underwhelming airy roll that was too brown on the outside and got stale rather quickly as it cooled off, leading me to think that it might have been stale to start with. I could have chosen rice, and next time, I will.

Wait, will there be a next time? It's hard to say. The atmosphere is really nice, and if I ordered different dishes and paid more attention to what I was in the mood for, I might end up with something better than what I had on this visit. And we were able to snag a seat inside at 8:00 on a Saturday night, no reservation needed, though the place seemed pretty busy and the patio was half full. Somewhat bad weather may have contributed to our luck.

There are so many other restaurants out there, though.

Entrees: $10-15
Short wine list

Sawtelle Kitchen
2024 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025


Restaurant Review #121: Sanamluang Cafe, North Hollywood

Indian curry noodles with beef

If you're never been to Sanamluang Cafe before, you may be thoroughly confused when you walk in. Do I seat myself? Do I order at the counter? Is there a real menu with words, or do I have to pick one of those numbered photos and hope for the best?

I read good things about Sanamluang Cafe on Chowhound. Anyone who maligns the Valley for not having good food has clearly never been to North Hollywood, the third mecca of Thai food (after Thailand and Thai Town, of course).

I was really confused when I first walked into this restaurant. There was no sign of a hostess, and behind the counter, instead of a regular menu, there were rows and rows of backlit (lightbox-style) photos of food. My plan was to just order vegetarian pad Thai and fish cakes like I always do, especially because with a purely pictorial menu there was no way I'd be able to safely pick something new. Fortunately, they do have real menus. Just walk up to the counter and get a menu, and if you're staying, someone will point you to a table. The photos aren't the best, but they are a nice complement to the menu descriptions and a good way to avoid stupid patron questions about what a dish is like.

It was a cold, rainy day, and the metallic tables and chairs were freezing. In spite of that, my friend couldn't resist ordering a cold drink. Neither of us understood the waiter's heavily accented description of the pink drink photographed but not named on the menu. He ordered it anyway, which was a very proud moment for me. I love it when my adventurousness rubs off on formerly conservative eaters! Our waiter was friendly and very accomodating of our non-Thainess. The hostess made me mad though when she seated a large party with several children right behind our table, when there were many other empty tables available.

Mystery drink with boba

The drink was pretty sweet, then sort of sour but not puckery while still retaining its sweetness. I understood that it was some sort of fruit drink, though I couldn't identify the flavor (or what fruit was supposed to be represented by the very late 80's pink food coloring).

Pad Thai with tofu

I didn't order fish cakes because they only had shrimp cakes. Did you know that you can often tell how authentic a Thai restaurant is by the prevalence of both fresh and dried shrimp on the menu? If you're allergic, note that there is an extra charge for shrimp in most dishes at Sanamluang Cafe, which means you'll be safe if you order the basic plate. If you're really allergic though, you probably don't belong in a Thai restaurant (and I'm very sorry).

I did get my pad Thai, though. In general, my chief complaint about pad Thai is that the noodles are never chewy enough (except at Krua Thai and Cholada), and this was no exception. The tofu, however, was the real star of the dish. Instead of the usual dense squares, the dish came with big hunks of fantastically spongy bean curd. I'm getting hungry again just thinking about it. Where can I buy this stuff, I wonder? The dish was pretty saucy, but there really isn't a right way to make pad Thai--every cook has his own version, and part of the fun is that it tastes different everywhere. It's also a great comeback when people make fun of you for ordering it--just make up something about how you're on a mission to find the best rendition of pad Thai in Los Angeles, and make sure to cite my previous sentence. There is a reason why pad Thai is so popular--it's good! Maybe I do come across as a stereotypical foreigner every time I order it, but at least I enjoy my meal.

Barbecued pork with rice

I'll admit that I don't like pork to start with, but the main reason I didn't like the barbecued pork dish was because the sickeningly sweet sauce tasted like gingerbread cookies. There were also some pieces of something sort of spongy and salty that I couldn't identify. Could it have been deep fried pork fat?

To try something new, I ordered Indian curry noodles with beef. Once and for all, I was forced to concede that I don't like coconut milk based curries anymore. Panang curries used to be my favorite--I even learned how to make a mean one at home (thanks, Mae Ploy), and now I can't stand them. Sigh. That aside, the dish still wasn't great, since the noodles were clumped together and I kept splashing my clothes with broth each time I tried to pull them out. The flavor of the beef reminded me of beef stroganoff. The dishes here are super-cheap though (about $6-8), so anyone but the poorest college student can afford to take a chance on a second dish.

Dining room

Sanamluang Cafe is located in a strip mall with very tight parking (a parking attendent helps direct traffic, though). It looked like a nightmare when we pulled up, but we somehow got a spot right away. Of all the authentic Thai restaurants I've been to in LA, almost all of them have the same horrendous parking situation. Why is that?

The interior was funky with lots of neon. It reminded me of Toi, or maybe even Krua Thai, but significantly sleeker thanks to the metallic tables. Incidentally, eating off of a metal table gives the impession that things are extra clean. Most restaurants that are this cheap don't pay much attention to decor. I wouldn't take a date here or anything, but it's far from a hole in the wall.

Try to avoid sitting in the far corner by the drink coolers--it's noisy. Make sure to check out the bathrooms though, which are consistent with the restaurant's decor, and quite a trip.

They also have insane hours. They're open until 4:00 AM!

Sanamluang Cafe
12980 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605
10:00 AM-4:00 AM

Restaurant Instincts

You walk into a restaurant you've never eaten at before. You don't like the decor, and the hostess seems standoffish, but someone recommended the place to you. Do you stay, or do you leave?

After a few bad meals, I now unapologetically err on the side of leaving. The most recent example of this was my trip to the Hare Krishna temple's restaurant on Venice in Culver City. I'd heard that they served really good Indian food. I walked inside and saw people with plates of what looked like potato salad (which I hate). I got a tray, a paper plate, and plastic silverware anyway, and made my way down the buffet line. When I got to the food, it was mostly a salad bar, with a few possibly Indian dishes at the end that didn't smell like anything and weren't emitting steam. I thought, "you know what? This isn't going to be good, and this isn't what I want to eat. I want a real Indian buffet with hot, fragrant food." I put back my tray and walked straight out the door.

In the past, I always erred on the side of staying (at Asuka, for example), but in the last few months I've gotten good about walking out when things either don't seem right or are blatantly wrong, like they were at Matsuhisa.

This lesson about listening to your instincts doesn't just apply to restaurants, of course. Intuition is very powerful, and if you are aware of it, it may one day save your life, or allow you to protect someone you love. Developing your restaurant instincts will not only spare you from crappy food, but will help you develop your ability to listen to your inner voice and get out of any situation that doesn't seem like it will end well.


Restaurant Review #120: Joie Luck Kitchen, North Hollywood

Orange peel chicken

In Van Nuys, there are really only two kinds of food you can get delivered: Chinese and pizza. Given these two options, I'll generally choose Chinese. The grocery store can supply me with cheap, decent pizza, but the same doesn't hold true for Chinese.

Joie Luck Kitchen is not the best Chinese food I've ever had, but I still like it.

The orange chicken is a bit on the gooey side, but that's how orange chicken seems to be pretty much everywhere except at Siam Chan.

Fried wontons

I didn't like the fried wontons, which were skimpy on the meat filling. I wasn't big on the meat filling, either. The wontons came with the standard neon red sweet and sour sauce--also not my favorite, but I didn't have higher expectations than that.

Chicken Hunan-Style

The chicken Hunan-style was kind of like kung pao chicken minus the peanuts. It had lots chicken, and enough peppers to make me feel like I was eating a somewhat healthy meal. The peppers were cooked, but still crispy enough to convince me that they had retained their nutrients. The meat was of good quality, with no tough or fatty pieces.

Hot and Sour Soup

The hot and sour soup was the best I'd had in a long time. With plenty of tofu and egg, I could have made a light meal out of the soup alone. My long love affair with this dish dates back to the days when I worked at a store in the mall and hot and sour soup was one of the few things I could buy in the food court without blowing an entire hour's pay (the others were warm flour tortillas for 25 cents each, and McDonald's ice cream cones and apple pies--the only things from that chain that ever pass my lips).

It took close to an hour for our food to arrive, but we placed our order around 6:45 on Saturday evening, so I don't really hold that against them. On less hectic days, they are a lot faster (if they say 30 minutes, your food will be there in 30 minutes). My friend has ordered from here numerous times, and says his order has never been wrong, and both the delivery people and the people who answer the phone are always friendly and polite.

Joie Luck Kitchen
12510 Burbank Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 91607
(818) 508-4702


Food Photography Tips

Here are some things I've learned from experience about taking better photos of food.

1. Don't use a flash. In a restaurant setting, it's distracting to other diners. It will also generally make your food look garish.
2. Don't shoot from a bird's eye view. Get down and dirty with your food.
3. In low lighting, a miniature tripod, beanbag, or perhaps something on the table can be used to steady your camera and get a crisp shot.
4. Find something white to include in the shot, be it a plate, table cloth, or piece of paper that you hold up. Make sure your camera includes the white in its metering, and you'll often end up with a brighter, clearer shot.
5. Try to sit at a well-lit table, or visit restaurants at lunchtime or in the early evening when you can take advantage of natural light (depending on the restaurant's setup, of course).
6. Compose your shot carefully. Usually, you're trying to fit a round plate into a rectangular frame--you start out with a challenge every time. Pay attention to the things that sneak in around the edges of the plate.
7. Zoom in (either with your entire camera or just the lens) to keep the focus on the food and away from the silverware, candles, and your friends in the background.
8. Sometimes a friend's solid-colored shirt can make a great backdrop.
9. Take 3-5 (or more!) photos of each subject.
10. If your camera has a setting that you can adjust depending on what kind of light you're in, use it! It will make a huge difference.


Restaurant Review #119: Siam Chan, West LA

Japanese food abounds in the West LA neighborhood just west of the 405, but Thai food is scarce. Choose between the always empty Talay Thai on Santa Monica Blvd. near Corinth (on my to-dine list in spite of its emptiness) or the kind of sketchy looking pink hut behind the 20/20 Video.

The pink hut is Siam Chan, easily identifiable by the jocular red letters spelling out "Thai Food" across the front of the building. Inside, you are amazed that tables fit in this place. There are about ten, each with a tablecloth made from simple floral fabric that hasn't even been hemmed but is straight off the bolt and a glass (or nice plastic) table top. The tables are close together, the dining room is not much larger than an apartment living room, and the restaurant is 60% full on a Tuesday evening, with more people constantly coming and going with take-out food. And yet, it is quiet enough that you can hear the cheesy soft pop music coming from speakers mounted in a far corner. The hostess jots down orders and runs credit cards with a speed that is seen only in the busiest of restaurants, and yet the scene remains completely calm.

As newcomers, we walked in off the street, thinking we could get a to-go order in our hands within 10 minutes. We were wrong. About five people who knew better had already called in their orders, and we waited about thirty minutes for our food. I wasn't bothered, since I had good company and an empty table to sit at, but my less patient friend was irritated. After many jobs in the retail and service industries, I tend to be very forgiving of others in these fields, as long as they don't exhibit a blatant lack of concern for their clientele. If I had been at a highfalutin place like Melisse though, I would have expected more, and probably would have been less forgiving.

Despite the signage, Siam Chan actually serves both Thai and Chinese food, which is great for two picky eaters. I got my usual pad Thai and fish cakes, which I feel no remorse about ordering in spite of how generic they are because I've tried plenty of other Thai dishes in my time and just don't enjoy them as much. As a nice bonus, eating the same dish at multiple restaurants gives me a better basis of comparison. My friend ordered his Chinese favorite (and mine), orange chicken--also something I'm able to compare across the board.

When we got home, I was delighted to discover that they had sliced off the corners of the containers for the fish cakes and the orange chicken. As I learned from Daily Gluttony, a closed Styrofoam container full of crispy, hot, fried food soon becomes mushy if the steam can't escape.

The trick worked--the chicken was still crispy. It was deep fried in a light, airy batter and covered in a liquidy sauce quite different from the goopy, cornstarchy sauce that most restaurants use. It was orange in color, but not particularly orange in flavor, and there was no trace of orange or orange peel. It also wasn't spicy, though after we ate we discovered the little containers of hot sauce that must have been meant for us to adjust the spiciness according to our preference. In spite of these shortcomings, the chicken was actually very good. The quality of the meat was excellent--no wierd fat globs or toughness to send me back into the throes of vegetarianism. It's a great dish that I will order again--just maybe not quite what you're expecting when you order orange chicken.

The fish cakes were easy to cut with a fork and all the flavors worked well together, in contrast to the fish cakes I had not long ago at Krua Thai, which were quite heavy on the green chiles. The dipping sauce looked different from the usual runny sweet and sour sauce with crushed peanuts and cucumbers, and was described on the menu as being a curry sauce, but it tasted just like fish cake sauce always does--that's a good thing. I'll order these again too.

The pad Thai alarmed me at first because it was pink. That's right, pink. Not reddish orange, not brownish, but more like a diluted sweet and sour sauce slightly electric kind of pink. (I realize it's hard to tell in this photo.) With such a forboding color, I was expecting a nightmare in my mouth, but surprisingly the dish tasted fine. It was loaded with more vegetables than I would have cared for, including snow peas, carrots, black mushrooms, and brocolli, which seemed more Chinese than Thai to me. I did order it vegetarian to avoid dealing with any shrimp, so that might have increased the vegetable count, and the tofu I expected wasn't there (the restaurant serves a deep fried tofu appetizer, so I know they have it, but you know what they say about assuming things). The dish was also short on crushed peanuts, and the noodles weren't al dente, though they weren't mushy, either. The dish tasted good overall, but it isn't my favorite pad Thai, and I probably won't order it again.

Appetizers are about $5, large soups around $6, and generously sized entrees also around $6--quite a steal for freshly prepared, good quality, flavorful food. And according to the menu, they deliver with only an $8 minimum (you must spend $10 to use your credit card, though). I'll definitely eat here again.

Siam Chan
Thai-Chinese Cuisine
1611 Colby Ave (at Santa Monica Blvd. behind 20/20 Video)
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Siam Chan website
Siam Chan menu
11:30 am to 10 pm
11:30 am to 11 pm
12 pm to 9 pm

Restaurant Review #118: Sushi Mon, Santa Monica

What's that in my yellowtail roll?

Dining options in downtown Santa Monica are limited. Not that restaurants aren't plentiful, but good restaurants? Good restaurants that are open for lunch? Well, that's another story. So we decided on Sushi Mon, formerly known as Shige, formerly known as Shabu 2. That's a big warning right there, I know, but I like the space, and I like sushi. There have to be limits on how bad sushi can be when the nearest ocean is within walking distance. However, the board in the window lists such blasphemies as the Rolls Royce Roll, which includes tomato. Who puts tomato in sushi? I went in skeptical, but hopeful.

The light yellow walls weren't the greatest idea, but otherwise the space is great--bright and airy during the day, slightly hip at night, with plenty of room to space out the tables. You can sit at the square sushi bar in the center of the room, at a table next floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, or in a dark booth off to the side. Small, shimmery mother-of-pearl tiles decorate much of the area around the bar. The floor's perimeter is lined with smooth oval stones and green plants between the tables and the windows.

Didn't I order scallop nigiri?

I used to really like this kind of sushi. I loved creative rolls oozing with cream cheese and mayonnaise (hopefully not at the same time). I remember being thrilled with something called a firecracker roll at the defunct Mon Sushi at 6th and Wilshire. It was so huge I could barely fit it in my mouth, let alone chew it. Yes, the similarity in the names of these two restaurants is suspicious, though since "mon" means "gate" in Japanese, maybe it's not that suspicious. If I were opening a restaurant, I wouldn't name it gate of anything, but a quick Google search will show that restaurant gates to India, China, dragons, and even London are quite common.

Sushi Mon quickly showed me how much my tastes have changed--an experiment I've been meaning to try for a while now. I think that something happens as you eat more sushi. You get more used to the concept and texture of raw fish. Your mouth transforms its perceptions from "eew, I can't believe I'm chewing this" to "mmm, what's next?". And that's when you stop being able to enjoy, or even tolerate, the presence of mayonnaise or spiciness in your sushi.

Suspecting that my mouth had undergone this transformation a while back, I ordered conservatively--yellowtail roll, scallop nigiri, albacore nigiri. But at Sushi Mon, there's no such thing as ordering conservatively. With few exceptions, the fish is doused or mixed with something, even when it shouldn't be.

First of all, I've gotten really accustomed to yellowtail rolls containing nothing but yellowtail. Most places specify if they add even scallion to your roll. I'm okay with scallions, but what was the reddish-orange stuff in my roll, and why did the chef think he could add that (and scallions) without my permission? Thankfully, the roll tasted fine, though the rice was too sticky, making it hard to swallow.

The scallop "nigiri" was truly alarming though, and I would have sent it back if not for the knowledge that I would be able to make a spectacle of it in my review. First of all, what the hell? I didn't order a boba fish roll. Where is my slice of smooth, succulent scallop? Secondly, you can't give a person with a shellfish allergy something with unexpected ingredients without setting off serious alarms in her head. The waitress confirmed that it didn't have any crab, and I picked off a tiny scallop with my chopsticks. The taste took me back to the salad bar at Foley's (out here it's Robinson's May), where I used to eat occasionally as a child. Remember when department stores had restaurants? The sweet mayonnaise flavor made Sushi Mon's scallop mess taste exactly like salad bar seafood salad. Scary. I left most of this on my plate.

The albacore was almost good. There was nothing wrong with the fish--at least, not that I could taste after it was smothered in condiments. Everyone knows that a brush of ponzu and a dash of the orange stuff (probably what was in my yellowtail roll, someone please tell me what this stuff is) is a great complement to albacore, but the rice shouldn't be soaked and sitting in a small puddle on the plate. And onions? I didn't order a salad, man. With so many toppings and so much sauce, it was impossible to eat the albacore properly--with my fingers, fish side down-- and not make a mess.

Finally, there's the issue of the lemon garnish. Can you imagine going to Sasabune and being given a wedge of lemon to use indiscriminately?

Free fish

I didn't take advantage of the marvelously priced lunch specials because all of them came with the above five pieces of nigiri: white tuna, pepper-seared tuna, albacore, regular tuna, and salmon. Since I don't like tuna (except albacore) or salmon (I ate too much last year), the combo was out. The specials are a great deal though: you pick your price range, from about $10-15, then pick one of the roll concoctions from that category--and there are plenty of choices no matter what price suits you.

Rolls Royce Roll

If you think this is ridiculously huge, you should have seen some of the rolls I saw served to other tables--rolls that occupied an entire round plate. The Rolls Royce Roll, one of about 70 crazy sushi experiments you can choose from, is an eight-piece California roll topped with a formidable mound of seared albacore and tomatoes tossed in spicy orange mayo. Is it the size that is supposed to be reminiscent of a Rolls? Because it wasn't the quality of the ingredients (or the price!). It was better than my salad bar scallop roll, but as much as I love tomatoes, I don't think they should ever cohabitate with my sushi. Some of the pieces of seared albacore consisted only of the seared part, which seems thoughtless and which my friend wasn't fond of. The presentation was kind of sloppy and unappetizing.

The service was attentive at the beginning, but nonexistent once our food came, and it took a long time for the bill to arrive. There wasn't even anyone in sight that we could have flagged down. I've noticed in the last couple of months that this is a problem at many restaurants. The busboy refilled our water regularly, though.

The website I found through Google lists only a Las Vegas location, but has too much in common with the Santa Monica location to not be related. The Sushi Mon website for the Santa Monica location though has a .net address though--don't get the two confused.

If you're a sushi novice or a fan of mayonnaisey American concoctions, you probably won't find much fault with Sushi Mon, and the lunch special prices are killer--the Rolls Royce Roll plus five pieces of nigiri were only $10, and the quality of fish was perfectly acceptable. If you have been eating at top-notch places like Nobu and Kiriko though, do yourself a favor and keep eating there.

Sushi Mon
401 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401


Restaurant Review #117: Electric Lotus, Los Feliz

Tables for two are pretty small, but romantic

I'd been wanting to go to Electric Lotus for a long time--and at the same time, I had been wanting to not go. I was attracted by the idea of Indian food in a hip setting. Based on the Zagat Guide's description (this is the part where I incur Jim Leff's wrath) , I envisioned myself sitting on swanky, shimmery blue cushions on the floor while I listened to throbbing deep house music and ate sub-par Indian food while unsuccessfully yelling across the table to whoever ended up accompanying me. Loud, trendy, and sub-par aren't really things that entice me to eat at a restaurant. At the same time, it kind of sounded like fun, and even sub-par Indian food usually isn't too terrible. So a friend and I went, finally, because the other immediate choices were to go home or eat at a chain.

Vegetable samosas

Street parking is pretty much impossible at Electric Lotus--you will have to deal with the crappy valet service. By crappy, I mean that when you pull up, no one is there to take your car. When someone comes to take your car, they don't open the door for you or your passenger. Like many valets, they park the cars with such arrogance and excessive speed that you can't help but tense every muscle in your body and pray that your car won't come back with its bumper and side mirrors missing. When you come back for your car after your meal, you'll have to wait at least five minutes (or in this case, shiver unhappily in the rain). And for such stellar service, you have to pay them $3.50. We tipped fifty cents.

We ordered one of the dinners for two--they were a great deal, at about $35 for two people to eat samosas, naan, three entrees, and two desserts (supersize supersize the American way. . .). None of the vegetarian entrees I would have chosen were options with the dinner for two plan, which annoyed me. I ended up ordering mattar paneer, aloo gobi, and chicken tikka masala. The waitress, who was very friendly, didn't seem to know much about Indian food, as she was impressed that I knew all the Indian names for the dishes. She redeemed herself in every other way though by being so darn nice that I actually left a note on our receipt about how much I appreciated the service. It's just so rare to get competent, friendly service, especially at trendy places where snobbery often seems to be the unfortunate modus operandi.

Dark+ red=hip is an unoriginal formula, but I like it anyway

The main dining room seemed quite noisy and unbearably crowded, but we got seated in a small room off to the side which was quite peaceful, although a bit chilly. Our room was also considerably darker than the main room--bad for food photography, but not so bad if you're feeling romantic or hip (not being able to see your food is cool). While we waited for our table, we succumbed to the temptation of the bar, but at least the drinks were reasonably priced and the bartender didn't skimp on the alcohol. On a Saturday night without reservations, we only had to wait a reasonable fifteen minutes.

The food didn't take long to come once we ordered. True to reputation, the dishes were indeed subpar--the spices were not bold enough and not quite right, and nothing was served hot enough. The texture of the naan was wierd--it wasn't quite chewy enough, and at the same time it seemed a bit undercooked. The rice was overcooked and mushy, but I only cared slightly since I don't eat much rice. Mango chutney was included, which is very unusual--at most places it's about $2.50 extra--though since I don't like mango chutney (too sugary and gooey, like jam) I didn't really care. The aloo gobi had an odd taste though and the potatoes weren't cooked all the way. I ate most of this dish as leftovers when I was too famished to care. The meat in the chicken tikka masala was nice and moist, at least.

The desserts were significantly better--after all, it's hard to mess up things with lots of sugar in them. We didn't get to choose the desserts, which were gulab jamun (the dark brown syrup-soaked balls that are supposedly made of cheese but don't resemble it at all) and kheer (rice pudding). Unlike the rest of the meal, the gulab jamun was served pleasantly warm.

Fun with low lighting

Overall, I wasn't that hungry, and my expectations were fairly low, so I wasn't disappointed. Unless the food improves, Electric Lotus will remain a place for those who are more interested in scene than cuisine.

Electric Lotus
4656 Franklin Ave (at Vermont)
Los Angeles, CA 90027 (Los Feliz)


Restaurant Review #116: Gr/eats, Sawtelle, West LA

Seafood paella

UPDATE: Gr/eats has permanently closed.

I really want to like this restaurant. It's quiet. Charming. Peaceful. There are fresh, colorful flowers on every table. The service is attentive, and so polite and friendly that you'll think you've been transported to the midwest. The not-too-loud, not-too-soft music is the Cranberries, David Bowie, and other American artists imitated very convincingly in what is probably Japanese, mixed in with some other upbeat but not cheesy stuff that I didn't recognize but enjoyed. The menu is an eclectic mix of El Salvadoran, American, and Japanese. The food took long enough to prepare that it had to have been made-to-order.

The food falls short, though, and I tried four different dishes, which I feel is enough to provide a fair judgement. I also heard a microwave door close at some point while I was waiting for my food--were they microwaving my food?

Mixed fries

The mixed fries, which I'd read were good on Chowhound's board, were--well, I probably couldn't have done much better myself, but this is a restaurant. The dish was described as a "lightly fried mix of shoestring potatoes, yams, and bananas." The shoestring potatoes were not shoestrings, and just like ordinary French fries, but they were kind of tough and seemed over-fried. There were very few yams, and even fewer bananas (maybe four slices on the entire plate). The yams were a bit undercooked, and seemed too wet and too heavy in contrast to the potatoes. The bananas had been sucked dry--they were like the banana chips you find in trail mix, but without the banana flavor.

Miso nasubi, fresh eggplant dish served with tasty miso sauce

The next dish I tried was significantly better, and raised my hopes for the rest of the meal. The eggplant was tender but not mushy, retaining just enough bite. The sauce was sweet and had a bit of heft to it, and was a perfect match for the eggplant. I thought. After I had been eating it for a while, I realized that the dish tasted like yams. Was I going crazy? No. I ate a yam fry to confirm. I think that much like Pepsi in the Pepsi challenge, the dish tasted good at first because it started off sweet. The problem is that it stayed sweet--too sweet (thank you Malcolm Gladwell). Also, the sesame seeds could have been roasted to bring out their flavor. The radish sprout garnish was a nice touch.

Mayan Chicken

The Mayan chicken promised to be an "extra-tender El Salvadoran dish with a mole-style sauce." I don't know a lot about mole, to be honest, but I the sauce didn't live up to my expectations of what mole is. I think it had more tomato than I would have expected. The chicken was indeed extra-tender and came easily off the bone. It was also dark meat, which I like because it has more flavor and moisture, but I think these days most people expect a white chicken breast when they order chicken unless the menu says otherwise. The sauce was a little bland, and I'm not sure what it was trying to taste like. The waitress brought a bottle of hot sauce with it in case we wanted to make it spicier, which showed nice foresight on her part.

What I stared at during dinner

Finally, I tried the paella. Apparently the folks down in El Salvador have their own version of paella, at least, according to Gr/eats, whose paella is "loaded with fresh vegetables, calamari, green mussels, and baby clams." It would have also had shrimp, but shrimp and I are not friends. The rice was overcooked and mushy, and something about the flavor just kind of rubbed me the wrong way. The presentation of the dish was well-conceived, at least--purple potatoes really brightened it up. The baby squid were very tender, and so were the calamari rings. But why the kalamata olives? And, worse, the Spanish olives with the dreaded pimento in the middle? (In what part of Spain do they defile their olives with soggy peppers?)

At the end of our meal, the waitress brought us almond jello on the house (was it because she saw me snapping photos earlier?) and encouraged us to stay as long as we wanted and enjoy ourselves. How often does that happen? Most places want to get you in and out as quickly as possible so they can turn another table. We were the only people in the entire restaurant, though (I'll admit that it was a Tuesday, but it was slow even for a Tuesday). Clearly, there are advantages to eating at restaurants that aren't in high demand. The almond jello (also known as dofu) was excellent and I could have eaten plenty more. If I had paid for it though, the portion would have seemed small for the price. Maybe they serve more when you actually order it. None of the other portions were skimpy, after all. Maybe I should have tried the blueberry ice cream.

I might go to Gr/eats again in spite of their culinary shortcomings, simply because everything else was so pleasant. If you've had a bad day and just want someone to be nice to you, go to Gr/eats and enjoy the peace and quiet, try something that I didn't eat (perhaps a burger or one of the specials), and let me know how it is. Or just get dessert.

Most entrees $7.50
Most appetizers and sides $4.00
Assorted sodas, coffee, and tea $1.00-2.00

Chef: Nelson Magana

2050 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025


Restaurant Review #115: La Bottega, West LA

Insalata Ravella

I did takeout at La Bottega, so I didn't get the full restaurant experience. You can usually tell a decent amount about a restaurant without actually eating your meal there--after all, you can still see what the place looks like, time how fast they can put a meal together, interact with at least one staff member, get a feel for the pricing, and taste the food.

From my brief time on the inside, the restaurant seems to be a friendly neighborhood corner joint, an unpretentious combination of hole-in-the-wall, market, and nice restaurant. The woman who rang up our meal had the professional demeanor of a career waitress, or someone with an admirable amount of composure and self-respect. Take-out menus are everywhere, so the restaurant must do a fair amount of business this way, and an array of desserts beckon from a display case next to the register. La Bottega describes itself as “the kind of deli-cafe you’d find only in Italy.” I'm fairly amused by this statement, since it’s located at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Purdue (two blocks east of Federal), which is decidedly not Italy. The menu insists on using the proper Italian names for all its dishes--polpette al sugo, tagliata di manzo, burrata e carciofi grigliati. This is a nice, authentic touch, though it may be a bit daunting for those who don't know Italian. Descriptions follow each name, though, so you will know what you're ordering, even if you can't pronounce it.

Since I've been trying to eat more fruits and veggies, I ordered a $10 salad to start my meal. I couldn't resist the promise of shaved fennel, arugula, mushrooms, parmesan, and tomatoes. The tomatoes were bland, but the button mushrooms were surprisingly tasty. The fennel was not well-distributed throughout the salad, and there wasn't quite enough of it, and the cheese suffered the same fate, but both were very good. It was rather bold of them to dress my to-go salad: most places give you a side of dressing so that your salad isn't soggy by the time you get home. Of course, using as little dressing as possible seems to have the same effect. I'm not the kind of person who likes my salad swimming--I understand that in a properly made salad, each leaf of lettuce should be only lightly dressed. The dressing here was really too minimalist.

I also ordered a 16” medium six slice pizza (as described on the menu). I focused on the 6 slices, not the 16 inches, and ended up with a pizza that will continue feeding me for the next three days--a good thing too, for $15. Any normal restaurant would call this a 12 slice pizza. But the important thing, of course, is how the pizza tasted.

The vegetarian pizza I ordered had mozarella, tomato sauce (they do have a couple of sauceless pizzas), fresh tomato, mushrooms, onion, eggplant, olives, bell peppers, and tomato sauce. Yes, that’s right, the menu lists tomato sauce twice! In case you couldn’t tell, I’m one of those people who just can’t stand to see something in print that wasn’t proofread carefully (this explains the probable number of typos on my own site, of course). Not only did my pizza not have double tomato sauce, it also didn’t have any eggplant (but I think they tried to make up for it with double onions--everyone’s least favorite topping). Ranting aside though, it was a good pizza, and worth the extra money over a fast-food pizza chain to enjoy fresh toppings and real crust. The crust was pretty thin, which I like because it means I can eat more cheese and toppings before I get full, but as a result, the crust got soggy pretty quickly, which seems to be a common ailment of veggie pizzas. I also don't think it is necessary to call a pizza "vegetarian" just because it doesn't have meat. I think it would have sufficed to call it a vegetable pizza.

Overall, I enjoyed my meal, but I wouldn't order a $10 salad from them again, and I'd probably prefer to look for a pizza whose crust wasn't going soggy. I might return to try their pasta dishes and desserts, though.

Total cost: $27, including tax

Vegetarian Pizza

La Bottega
11363 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
M-F 10-10
Sat. 8:30-10
Sun. 10-9
Also located in Larchmont Village


Restaurant Review #114: Kinchan's, Sawtelle, West LA

Shiitake ramen

Update: Kinchan's has permanently closed.

Everyone has their favorite ramen house on Sawtelle. Non-grocery store ramen is new to me, so I've been on a mission to try them all--a mission that coincides nicely with my mission to eat at just about every restaurant on Sawtelle.

Ramenya is closed on Wednesdays, so I ended up at Kinchan's. It made no difference to me, really, since I hadn't tried either before.

I got the shiitake ramen to go. My order was ready very quickly, and the service was friendly. The restaurant looked a bit cramped and didn't have a whole lot of atmosphere. The ramen was good at first, and they sure didn't skimp on the mushrooms, but the flavor quickly became one-dimensional, with the dominant flavor being salt. The noodles were better than Chabuya, but not nearly as good as Asahi, but it depends on the texture you like. I'm an al dente kind of gal, but Kinchan's noodles were fully cooked (though not overcooked). I was pleased by the abundance of shiitakes, but the snow peas were soggy.

The soup also contained tofu and beef in small quantities. There wasn't a lot of broth in this ramen, and I'm not sure if that had something to do with getting my order to go or if Kinchan's just isn't big on broth. Eating the ramen out of the styrofoam it came in proved to be a surefire way to repeatedly burn my tongue (styrofoam really does keep the heat in) so I had to transfer my food to a bowl (dishes, boo!). As far as portion sizes go, I could have made two meals out of this (of course, wet noodles don't keep well at all), but I could probably feed three or four of me with a bowl from Asahi.

The soup came with a side of what may have been daikon pickles. They were an almost mustardy yellow and had a flavor that can only be described as "why white people eat at P.F. Chang's." I've liked daikon pickles at other places, like Yakitoria, but these had a sweet, musty flavor that made me wince.

Verdict: I'd rather wait in line at Asahi. Only one more ramen house to go! I have a feeling Asahi will win, though.

2119 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025



I intentionally don't write reviews when I'm out of town. I want to keep my site tightly focused, and when I'm on vacation, I don't want to work! However, I just can't stand letting these good restaurants go unmentioned, so this post will be an ever-expanding list of my favorite non-LA restaurants.

In California

Santa Barbara
1. The Palace - You'll wait in line outside, but the line moves fast and live zydeco music will keep you entertained while heaters keep you toasty. The food is excellent, the staff is happy to accomodate allergies and preferences, and you have to save room to eat a chocolate souffle with bourbon sauce for dessert. Come super-hungry because you'll also want to try every flavor of corn muffin they serve before your meal. The food can't compete with real southern cajun food, but it's still very good food, and we are starved for any cajun at all in these parts. At some point during your meal, the entire restaurant will sing songs while the staff comes around to clink glasses with you. In spite of being cheesy, even I manage to enjoy this ritual.

1. Skates on the Bay - The waitress actually brought me a free drink for no other reason than that the bartender had accidentally made an extra cosmo (either that or she was hitting on me!). More importantly, I loved my scallops and the cheesy potato entree. Sit by the window and enjoy the view of San Francisco--especially lovely at night. Dateworthy.

Santa Cruz
1. Costa Brava - The quality of food, portion size, menu variety, wine list, dessert menu, noise level, interior design, prices, and service are all nearly perfect. I wish this restaurant were in Los Angeles. Of course, if it were, the hostesses probably wouldn't have been nearly as friendly or accomodating, and the place probably would have been loud and obnoxiously trendy. But in Santa Cruz, it was perfect. It was even easy to get reservations for 7:30 on a Saturday--and we made them only 2 hours in advance. Dateworthy.

The Black Cat