Restaurant Review #101: Phoreign, Sawtelle, West LA - CLOSED

Pho tai (rare beef)

Phoreign. My first thought was, "god, what a horrible name for a restaurant. There is no way this place is going to last with a name like that!" Then I realized that it might be a Vietnamese place--and it is--which makes the name slightly less painful.

So is this the reincarnation of Hanoi Cafe? I'm not positive, but I think so. When they closed, the sign said that they were moving down the street. I wasn't expecting the name change, though. I never ate at Hanoi Cafe--in fact, the first time I tried to eat there, I discovered that they'd closed--so I can't tell you if the menu or the flavors are the same. I went to Phoreign with low expectations though, due to 1) the cheesy name 2) the Westside Vietnamese curse 3) the possibility that it was a reincarnation of Hanoi Cafe, which no one seemed enthused about and 4) the gaudy, bright, oversized photos on a large sign outside the restaurant.

Bun with unfried tofu

My low expectations were pretty much fulfilled. The restaurant wasn't bad, but it was somewhere between average and mediocre (average for Westside Vietnamese, that is).

The first problem was that the water tasted funny. To be specific, it tasted like the way swimming pool water tastes when you're right next to a pool float (this spot-on observation brought to you by one of my fellow diners). It was so bad that I didn't drink it at all, in fact, and I'm no water snob. I ordered a cafe sua da instead. I ordered it hot, but it came lukewarm. There's no excuse for not being able to boil water before pouring it over my coffee.

The waiter nicely explained that I needed to wait for the water to drain through the coffee and stir it well so it would mix with the sweetened condensed milk. Yes, I am a white girl, but that doesn't mean that I have never seen a Vietnamese iced coffee before. Sigh. I have sort of noticed, though, that the Sawtelle scene really is almost entirely young 20-something Asians, so I guess I do stand out like a sore thumb. I'm so used to being surrounded by minorities, though, that I tend to think I am one. Actually, when you're surrounded by people who are different than you, that does make you a minority. The white minority. I prefer it that way, actually.

As pho is always a logical measuring stick for a Vietnamese place, that's what I ordered. It was interestingly presented, with the rare beef balled up in a rose shape, but it wasn't served hot enough, the noodles were difficult to tease away from their original clump, and the broth didn't have the complexity of flavor that one expects from a good bowl of pho.

Bun with charbroiled beef

The bun with charbroiled beef (and normally shrimp, but I ordered it sans shellfish) had flavors of lemongrass, and I could definitely taste the fishiness in the accompanying sauce. The imperial rolls had lots of ginger, which was an excellent decision. It wasn't as good as Thanh My, but it was the best dish on the table.

My other friend's dish was a tofu bun dish. She ordered the tofu not fried, which they happily accomodated, but I was a bit horrified to see that they had partially burned her imperial rolls and put them in the dish anyway. It had a different sauce than the other bun, probably because fish sauce isn't vegetarian, so I think it's safe to say that they do have a vegetarian dish on the menu, and that the pho with tofu might actually be made with vegetarian broth as well.

We ate at one of the two patio tables, adjacent to the none-too-scenic parking lot. Our orders were taken quickly and arrived promptly, but after that, we were long-forgotten. The staff was friendly, in that invisible sort of way. The interior looks nice, though narrow and small-there are only 4 or five tables, and the rest of the seats are at a long bar. The dominant color is dark wood, and they have bamboo shades in the windows. The lunch menu is abbreviated, but they do offer a couple of lunch specials that come with imperial rolls, rice, and salad for $10.95. Pho costs about $7.00, and other things are slightly cheaper. Coffee is $3.

Verdict? The only reason I will eat here again is because the location is convenient for me. Pho 99 is probably your best option for Westside Vietnamese.

2123 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025


Restaurant Review #100: Chameau, Fairfax

View from our table

Note: Chameau has changed since this review was written. It has been remodeled and is now a delibar open daily from 11am.

Chameau's decor is funky, yet gorgeous. Every aspect of the restaurant's design seems carefully considered. When you first walk in, you're immediately bathed in glowing blue light. You might wonder what happened to the elegant restaurant you thought you were walking into. The tiles on the wall look like industrial bathroom tiles. And everything is, well, blue. What?

Pomegranate champagne, water, and Morroccan sangria with an apple slice

Fortunately, the restaurant itself is more of a warm red, though one wall is multicolored with green undertones. With all this funky decor, how does Chameau avoid being painfully hip? I suppose it's the traditional white linen tablecloths and the friendly, helpful, unpretentious service.

To drink, we skipped the wine list altogether in favor of two of Chameau's signature drinks: pomegranate champagne and Morroccan sangria. The champagne itself didn't have the most amazing flavor, and really didn't taste like pomegranate, but what was so well-conceived about it was that pomegranate seeds pop between your teeth in much the same way (but on a larger scale) that champagne bubbles pop. The only problem is actually getting a pomegranate seed in your mouth along with the champagne. I know this sounds unheard of, but I wonder if serving it in wine glasses would help? For those of you who don't know, I recently learned that champagne glasses have that tall, thin design to help maintain bubbliness, which means that ordinary wine glasses would make your champagne go flat faster. I have a solution: drink up!

The sangria was good, but the tiniest bit watery in spite of a lack of ice, which seems to be a problem with all restaurant sangria in this country. Maybe it was the orange juice? The sangria contained about 15 ingredients, all of which our waiter could recite by heart. What made it Morroccan? The spices, and perhaps the apple slice.

Bread, olives, lemon dipping oil, and invisible eggplant dip

These marinated olives were incredible! They were some of the most richly flavored olives I've ever eaten, and really put the olive bar at Whole Foods to shame. Too bad I didn't know until a day later that they sell their olives, as well as their harissa, dipping oil, and eggplant dip. I guess they were out of eggplant dip, because we didn't get any. It didn't feel like anything was missing, though--the bread and olives were plenty, and so much tastier than the usual blah hunk of French bread that some restaurants serve.

None of the appetizers sounded that exciting to me, and we both have small appetites, so we opted for side dishes instead: I got a baby romaine salad with marinated eggplant and red pepper (which were mysteriously absent, once again, but the salad was very good), and my friend got the fingerling potatoes, which were also quite good, and this is coming from someone who doesn't care for potatoes much. Herbs and butter gave the skins a lot of flavor, and the assorted tiny potatoes were so small that they didn't taste dry and overly starchy.

One side of the dining room

Chameau seats 54, in four large booths along one wall, four tables for four down the center, and about seven smaller tables along the far wall. I'm not a fan of the common LA practice of cramming a bunch of tables together, but on a Wednesday night, it was empty enough that it wasn't affecting anyone. We didn't have reservations, and had no problems getting seated (we arrived around 8:00, and only four other tables were full) but our waiter said that it would be hard to get in without a reservation on a weekend.

Wild (not) rouget with charmoula sauce and leek fondue

They were out of rouget, but since I didn't know what that was anyway, I really didn't care. The menu is a bit indecipherable to those of use not too familiar with classical French cooking and all its associated vocabulary, but the staff wasn't stuck up about explaining things. One woman was so friendly about it, in fact, that I was worried she might fall into our table. Maybe she was bartending that night.

The fish was on the salty side, but based on my extensive fish-eating experience in other Mediterranean regions, I would say that salty fish is true to the cuisine. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to eat the skin or not, but I did, as it had a rich, fishy flavor. I didn't think the leeks did much for the dish, and apparently fondue doesn't mean melted cheese sauce, because there was none of that, but what was really a standout was the charmoula sauce--an intensely garlicky tomato relish that actually used high-quality tomatoes. I can't believe how many restaurants use those mealy pink things that some places try to pass off as tomatoes, often to people who don't know better.

Our other entree was the lamb shank with figs, almonds, and scallions (and orange zest!). Unlike the lamb I've had at Indian restaurants, which is a bit grainy in texture, this lamb was silky smooth and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers or tease away from the bone with your fork. Not being much of a meat eater, I left this dish to my friend, but stole most of the figs, which were fresh and soaked in the same sweet, slightly tangy sauce that the lamb was bathed in. According to the same waitress I mentioned earlier, this is one of their most popular dishes.

The menu consists of mostly beef and lamb dishes, with a couple of chicken and fish dishes, and one vegetarian dish. Six of the entrees stand alone (including the two we ordered) and the other eight or so are somehow heavily involved with couscous. Why? I have never liked couscous. It's dry and flavorless. The lamb came with a small side of couscous, which I will admit is the best couscous I've ever had--it wasn't dry--but it still didn't convert me. Maybe if it had been flavored with something (say, charmoula sauce) I would have enjoyed it more.

I couldn't resist dessert at a place where everything else had been pretty spectacular. The apple almond tart tatin with apple cinnamon ice cream was amaaaaazing, and I don't even like apples! The marzipan-like flavor of the almonds took center stage. The ice cream failed to win me over, though.

Rose petal ice cream

The rose petal ice cream was really the only disappointing thing of the night. It tasted too much like cream, and not enough like sugar or rose, and I don't think it actually contained any rose petals. Guess I'll have to go back to Mexico for some real rose petal ice cream. Also, the berries, while quite good, seemed a very odd accompaniment to the ice cream.

Another side of the dining room

Overall, this was one of the best dining experiences I've had in a long time. Chameau has that extremely rare combination of all five things I'm looking for when I evaluate a restaurant: service, atmosphere, presentation, flavor, and value. Yes, it's a bit on the pricey side--all entrees cost $22-24, so by the time you add a glass of wine, dessert (only $5-6), and possibly another $10 for an appetizer, you can end up forking over about $60. But for an experience that's somewhat upscale, and for reliably good food (I liked some dishes better than others, but everything was good), it really is a lot cheaper than other restaurants that offer a similar experience. I spent about half of my meal eating, and the other half oohing and ahhing. I haven't felt so good since Melisse.

339 N. Fairfax
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Dinner, 6-10pm, Tue-Sat (closed Sun. and Mon.)
Reservations recommended, especially on weekends

Restaurant Review #99: Krua Thai, North Hollywood

Pad Thai Krua Thai

I chose Krua Thai because it's one of Jonathan Gold's 99 Essential LA Restaurants, and because I'm trying to expand my foodie universe beyond the Westside orbit.

The restaurant's name means Thai Kitchen, which, though not very inventive, is a fitting name given that the dishes here are more authentic than they are at the plethora of Thai restaurants I am accustomed to eating at on the Westside.

The restaurant is known for its noodles, and in fact the front cover of the menu quotes Jonathan Gold as proclaiming that Krua Thai serves the best pad Thai in Los Angeles.

Finally, an excuse to order my favorite dish without being mocked for being unoriginal.

The menu offers both pad Thai and pad Thai Krua Thai, so I chose the latter, what with it being a signature dish and all. The difference between the two is that the pad Thai Krua Thai is spicy. I always thought pad Thai was supposed to be spicy, though I'm not sure what I based that assumption on, given that I'd never been served spicy pad Thai before.

Much to my relief, the restaurant was happy to accomodate my request to leave out the dried shrimp, and the dish already comes with tofu. You can add chicken, beef, or pork for no extra charge, or regular shrimp for another $1.50. The chicken was ground, so I assume the other meat would be, too. Since it's hard to impart chicken strips with the flavor of pad Thai, I think grinding the meat was a good choice.

Krua Thai's recipe is the (perhaps) more authentic version that uses tamarind paste, not ketchup, as a base for the sauce. Sadly, I've actually gotten really used to the bright reddish orange version of the dish (I like to think that it's not made with ketchup though, especially since I don't even like ketchup) and now I actually prefer this version. As far as authenticity goes, from what I understand, there is no one right way to make pad Thai, and what with globalization, for all I know there are street vendors making pad Thai with kethcup over in Thailand. Also, I think it's better without the heat. Although there's generally nothing wrong with mixing sweet and spicy, something about the sweetness of this sauce doesn't mix with chilies, according to my taste buds. I still prefer the pad Thai at Cholada Beach Thai.

The noodles were indeed nice and chewy, though I don't see how that sets Krua Thai apart from any other place that knows how to cook noodles. Rice noodles are easy to mess up, I can attest to that, but for a restaurant that knows it's stuff, this is a basic, basic thing that no one should get extra credit for.

Dining room

The dining room was decked out with Christmas lights and tinsel, and neon lights and brightly colored walls mean that it must look festive year-round. In spite of the decor, the place doesn't exactly have atmosphere--it isn't a place I wanted to linger after my meal was done, or a place I would take a date. A lot of the tables are very large, which leaves me wondering if, at busier times, you end up sharing these large tables with strangers, a la Palms Restaurant. Fortunately, at lunch time, we secured our own table. It was kind of greasy and didn't look like it had been wiped down very well, but alas, I suppose that is part of the authentic ethnic experience. Actually, no, I don't think "dirty table" is anywhere in the definition of "ethnic."

Our server was friendly and took our order promptly, though she disappeared for a while near the end when we were ready to pay and get our leftovers boxed up. Krua Thai gets points for being environmentally friendly because they use Chinese-style paperboard takeout containers. Why must so many restaurants use styrofoam?

To drink, we ordered palm juice, which came in a bottle accompanied by a large cup brimming with crushed ice. We also blindly ordered a whole young coconut (pictured above). The palm juice wasn't that exciting, which was disappointing because drinking whatever brand they serve at Palms Restaurant is simply a heavenly experience reminiscent of liquid sugar cookies, if such a thing existed.

The whole young coconut was, in fact, a whole young coconut, with a little door cut into the top so I could poke my straw in and suck out the clear, sweet liquid whose consistency was much like water. It also came with a spoon, which I assumed was for scraping bits of coconut from the insides.

I would recommend getting a sweet drink to go with your meal. As I sit here eating my leftovers accompanied by only a glass of water, I'm finding myself really craving something sweet. Yes, Thai food is sweet, but the flavor it leaves behind in your mouth is salty and spicy.

Pad Kee Mao

The other dish we ordered was also a noodle dish called pad kee mao which I have never tried before. The dish consisted of wide, flat noodles, ground beef, tomatoes, onions, and mint leaves. This dish was just okay. It's main selling point for me was the noodles, but the overall flavor was a bit lackluster, and the noodles were very greasy. Also, I really have no desire to eat entire strips of onion, large chunks of cooked tomato with the skin on, or mint leaves, so I had to pick around those things to get to the noodles and beef. Finally, while this was listed under noodle dishes, the noodle to meat ratio didn't seem right--there was much more meat than there were noodles.

Fish cakes

As usual, I couldn't resist ordering an appetizer of fish cakes. These were chock-full of tiny, fresh, sliced green chilies, but that didn't mean they were too spicy. The real heat was in the dipping sauce, though if you don't eat a bunch of sauce straight out of the spoon like I did, you shouldn't find your throat catching on fire. It isn't really a spicy sauce, more of a sweet sauce, it just happens to have a a few pepper bits in it. It's that red sauce with cucumbers and crushed peanuts that fish cakes always come with.

Here's something useful I figured out when I was getting my leftovers packaged up. You know how they never package the sauce in with your leftovers? Well, if you dump the remaining sauce all over your food while it's still on the plate, they have to package your sauce. This only works with foods that won't become soggy, of course, but I've eaten the leftover fish cakes and the sauce dumping trick worked nicely.

By the way, we had plenty of leftovers even though we came in famished. I'm also starting to think that Jonathan and I don't have similar tastes, and that his reviews really don't tell me everything I need to know about a restaurant.

In addition to noodles, Krua Thai serves 21 appetizers (fried tofu, fried taro, nam-thai sour sausage); 10 soups (wonton soup, tom yum koong, spicy beef tripe soup); 19 salads (papaya salad, larb, salted blue crab salad); 21 rice dishes (roasted duck over rice, catfish with chili sauce over rice, pineapple fried rice); 37 entrees (fried salted turnip with egg, clams with chili paste in oil, tilapia with Thai herbs); and several drinks and desserts. As you can see, there is something for everyone, and enough variety to keep you interested for many, many visits. They also have a special vegetarian menu!

Total cost of this meal for two, including tax and tip: about $30

Krua Thai
13130 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA
Open daily 11:30am-3:30am

Second location (not reviewed):
Hong Kong Market Plaza
935 S. Glendora Ave.
West Covina


Restaurant Review #98: Jinky's Cafe, Santa Monica

Table for two

At 7:15 in the morning, there aren't a lot of breakfast options around downtown Santa Monica, it seems. The crepe place on Arizona isn't open yet. Panera doesn't count, because I used to work there. Blueberry has closed and transformed into a place called Jack and Jill's, which doesn't open until 8:00. Coffee shops don't count, because I want a hot breakfast, not a mere muffin, to make up for the fact that the doctor appointment I woke up an hour and a half early for got cancelled at the last minute. I could have gone to Buon Giorno Caffe, but I wanted to try something new.

My custom omelette

Jinky's menu is quite extensive, consisting of quite a few omelettes, myriad ingredients from which to create your own omelette, cornflake battered french toast (yum!) and other standard breakfast fare. I ordered decaf coffee and a portabella and swiss cheese omelette. Happily, the waitress delivered an entire carafe of coffee to my table. Unhappily, it was watery, like most restaurant coffee. Damn Americans! When will the rest of you learn to drink real, strong coffee? Europe has spoiled me! And by strong, I don't mean heavily caffeinated (it makes me feel crazy and sick to my stomach) but boldly flavored. Dense. Not watery.

My omelette was also lacking something--salt. Just like Broadway Deli, the cooks at Jinky's seem to leave the salt out of the omelette. Why? Salt is a crucial ingredient in any cooked egg dish! Adding it on top isn't the same--that leaves me with salt crunchies (yuck). I like my salt cooked in. Guess I'll have to stick to homemade if I want a good omelette.

Most dishes come with a side of potatoes and bread of your choice--sourdough, white, or wheat toast, or an English muffin, or a bagel, or...gosh, why dont' you just pick for me? Honestly, I think this is much more food than almost anyone except a football player could consume in one sitting, especially breakfast. I realize that I'm suppposed to be breaking a 9-12 hour fast, but honestly, I'm not that hungry in the morning. I ate about 1/4 of a piece of toast, 2 squares of potato, and a third of an omelette.

Partial view of the dining room

The service was just okay--it took us a while to flag down someone who would bring us a bill, and that someone was not our waitress. Since I'm not a morning person, I don't really expect anyone else to be totally awake and on top of things at 8am either, but alas, some of us must go to work at that ungodly hour and need to pay for our food and leave.

Overall, Jinky's is a decent option for breakfast, given the limited options in the area and given my faith in the french toast I have yet to order. There is also something pleasantly not-LA about the decor and the vibe, though I can't pinpoint what that is. It's not southern, it's not midwestern, it's not LA, and yet it's not generic, either. I would go back, but hopefully I won't have the opportunity, because I'd rather be asleep!

Jinky's Cafe
1447 Second St.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Website (warning, plays music!)

Restaurant Review #97: The OtherRoom, Venice

A somewhat new place on hipper-by-the-minute Abbot Kinney, I was excited about the OtherRoom because there are very few wine bars in the area, and I love wine. They're also a microbrewery, and offer over 60 different kinds of beer. They don't have a liquor license though, so don't get your heart set on that martini.

I'm not excited anymore, though. The OtherRoom is exactly the kind of place I try to avoid, because it's too loud to hear the person you're talking to. If they cut the volume of the music in half, and played a type of music that could fade into the background (may I suggest deep house?), this venue could be exactly what I'm looking for. The interior is dimly but warmly lit, there are a decent number of comfy places to sit, and the wine list is very extensive. But the place is so dimly lit and the wine list so extensive and high up on the wall behind the crowded bar that it's impossible to read. I hope they have menu-style wine lists that I just didn't see.

Since I couldn't read the list, I asked for a sweet white, and was presented with a blah viogner. Hey bartender--just because I didn't make a specific request doesn't mean I can't appreciate decent wine that doesn't taste like the metal barrel it was produced in.

I went on a Wednesday night around 10:30, and it was quite busy. The floorspace was still walkable, but almost all of the seating was taken. I imagine it just gets more crowded as the week goes on. It was pretty easy to park on the street, but I suspect that isn't true on weekends.

I appreciate the idea of trying to create a hip venue for enjoying a glass of wine or some real beer, but with the overly loud music and large crowds, I'll still have to stay home or stick to a restaurant if I want to share wine and conversation with my friends. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who are happy with the hip and loud scene, so places like this will likely continue to flourish, and the rest of us will continue to stay home.

The OtherRoom
1201 Abbot Kinney
Venice, CA 90292


Restaurant Review #96: Blue Marlin, Sawtelle, West LA

Chicken and organic vegetables in sweet and spicy miso sauce

Update: Blue Marlin has permanently closed.

Blue Marlin has received a lot of bad press on Yelp, and I'm not sure why. It's one of my favorite restaurants, especially for the croquette curry, the risottos, and the tranquil atmosphere.

I wasn't thrilled with the organic dish because of the quality of the chicken. On the front page of the menu, Blue Marlin devotes a couple of paragraphs to how they use Jidori chickens and their eggs, saying that they are free range and organic and of far superior quality. But the chicken didn't taste special, and the cuts of meat they chose contained large chunks of fat--a big turn-off. My favorite things about this dish were the roasted acorn squash, the presentation, and the committment to organic ingredients.

Side salad with sweet and tangy miso dressing

I don't think my meal was supposed to come with a side salad and miso soup, but I got it anyway. In this case, the shredded carrot, purple cabbage, and slivers of red onion really made the flavor of the salad perfect. The dressing, though it's yellowy-orange color was a bit off-putting, was fantastic. I finished my salad and ate half of my friend's. I saw other tables getting bread baskets, but we didn't. I didn't care about this oversight though, since the salad and soup arrived within a few minutes of ordering, and I had plenty of food on the way. I'd award this dish "best non-albacore salad at a Japanese restaurant." Incidentally, albacore salad is also on the menu (I resisted the urge though, in favor of trying something new).

Scallop, wild mushroom and curry risotto

I normally don't like risotto, and I was skeptical of Japanese curry after being underwhelmed by Hurry Curry of Tokyo. However, by process of elimination and because I had a hankering for scallops, I ended up ordering this dish. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this curry was richly spiced and a bit hot. The scallops were tender, but the mushrooms seemed more of an afterthought, rather than a main component.

Croquette curry

The menu consists of risotto dishes, chicken dishes, hamburg steak dishes, curries, and a page and a half of spagetti. Maybe one day I'll try Japanese spaghetti, but it doesn't appeal to me for any reason beyond its bizarreness. There are quite a few desserts, including fried ice cream and a chocolate souffle.

Chocolate souffle

The dining room is casual, yet ambient

The dining room's decor seems carefully considered--the entire ceiling is skillfully painted with an aquatic theme, reflecting the restaurant's name while somehow avoiding kitch. Maybe that's because the wooden tables and bamboo blinds are so down-to-earth. There are about ten tables, and the restaurant is quiet and moderately popular, a good alternative to immensely crowded places like Hide Sushi and Asahi Ramen if you're not in the mood to wait at 6:30 pm on a Sunday. The service was friendly, prompt, and very smiley.

Cost of this meal for two including tax, tip, and a lemonade: About $30

Blue Marlin

2121 Sawtelle
Los Angeles, CA 90025


Restaurant Review #95: Merkato, Little Ethiopia, Fairfax

Merkato is the first Ethiopian place I tried in Los Angeles. They distinguish themselves from the many other restaurants in Little Ethiopia in that the prices are lower, they are attached to a an Ethiopian groceries and miscellany store, and you can eat your meal while sitting on a stool with a saddle on top.

I didn't try the saddles on this visit or the previous one--they looked mighty uncomfortable. Some patrons seemed quite happy on them, and others moved to a regular table after a few minutes. The best tables are the dimly lit ones in the back, away from the glare of the adjoining store and the glow of the neon lights in the window.

As always, you can try several dishes by ordering the vegetarian sampler, which consists of the five dishes in the outer ring of dishes in the photo above (the menu inaccurately lists four dishes, and only three of those four are included in the above). The sampler consists of the usual: lentils, more lentils, something that might also be lentils, collard greens, and cabbage with potatoes and carrots. The meat dishes in the middle were a lamb stew and a beef stew. Plenty of extra injera for grabbing up the food came folded and stacked on a separate plate.

I didn't care much for the meat dishes, as they had a very meaty flavor, and I'm not the biggest carnivore. The veggie dishes were all good, but they weren't served hot, only warm, and the red lentil dish didn't live up to my memory of what it ought to taste like. I think I would have liked it had it been more heavily spiced. On both visits, service was slightly slow and indifferent, though there was a marked improvement in speed on my second visit.

In spite of my faint praise, I wouldn't damn Merkato. I think Rosalind's is better, but it also has a higher price tag. If you are less picky than I, sit at one of the tables in the back, and aren't in a hurry, Merkato is one of the best values in town. And if you want to try your hand at home Ethiopian cooking, you can stock up on injera at the store on your way out.

Total cost for two, including tax and tip: $18.00

1036 Fairfax
Los Angeles, CA 90019


Restaurant Review #94: Sushi Masu, Westwood

Cold sake and miso soup

Zagat did not lead me astray (take that, Chowhound!) when it led me to Sushi Masu. On my first visit, my friend and I asked for the best fish of the day and a couple of rolls. We were treated to generous portions of the best toro I have ever eaten, as well as yellowtail, albacore, and salmon. My friend had a shrimp tempura avocado roll wrapped in eel, and I had a delightfully orange-colored roll with salmon, salmon roe, sauce, and cucumber wrapped in rice paper. Both were unique and excellent. Our sushi chef was very proud of his work, and rightfully so. I wouldn't ask for the salmon roll again, but that's mainly because I burned out on salmon about a year ago.

The chef took a liking to us for whatever reason, perhaps because none of the other diners had chosen to sit at his sushi bar, and he made our post-dinner orange extra special by putting it in a martini glass, draping curled orange peel down the rim, and serving it with a single strawberry, sliced in half and held together with a dollop of cream.

Our generic request for hot sake resulted in a sake that was surprisingly smooth, and I was also pleased by the creative use of a single leaf placed between the tips of the chopsticks to hold them off the table, rather than the usual flat stone.

The restaurant only has about 6 tables and maybe 8 more seats at the sushi bar. We had no trouble getting a table on a Tuesday night at 9:00, but that was to be expected. The service was very friendly and at this time of day, street parking abounded. I know that Westwood can be much harder to park on during the afternoon, though.

Hamachi, yellowtail scallion roll, shrimp tempura roll, and saltwater eel cucumber roll

My second visit to Sushi Masu came after a very failed attempt to have a lovely evening at Matsuhisa, the over-hyped (but does anyone hype it anymore?) Beverly Hills outpost of Nobu Matsuhisa's sushi empire.

We called Sushu Masu at 8:00 on a Sunday and they gave us a reservation for 8:30. When we arrived a bit early, we were greeted with a big smile and a promise that our table would be ready soon. While we were waiting, another server asked if we had been taken care of. Already things were looking good. The restaurant was small, quiet, and only about half full. The lighting was somewhat dim, but sleek, attractive lamps hanging above each table provided the perfect lighting for food photography. The tables have white tablecloths, fresh for each customer.

Seaweed salad

We ate everything you see pictured. The butterfish (a speical, below) and the scallop nigiri (also a special) lived up to their promotional placement. The scallops were delicate and unbelievably smooth, and the fish was so richly flavored that I actually couldn't eat the whole thing, even though it wasn't very big. The seaweed salad was reminiscent of the one I had at Nobu Malibu, with the addition of cucumbers and tomatoes. The soy/sesame dressing was tasty, but I didn't care for the chewy texture of the varieties of seaweed used in the salad, nor did I see any purpose in adding tasteless enoki mushrooms (which are best sauteed, I think) or overshadowing the seaweed with large pieces of other vegetables. The seaweed also got soggy under the dressing, so I couldn't revisit it after enjoying some of my other dishes. The kind of seaweed salad I like is the bright green with red flecks and sesame seeds kind, like they sell at Nijaya market. It's more crunchy than chewy, and has a rich, salty, and slightly spicy flavor.

Miso-marinated butterfish

The service continued to be friendly and attentive throughout our meal. The restaurant cleared out by about 9:30 (they closed at 10:00) but the sushi chef encouraged us (twice) to take our time, which I really appreciated. I ordered more food than I could finish, unfortunately. We ordered the $13.50 cold sake on the waitress's recommendation, and I was pleased by its smoothness. As for the other fish, the yellowtail was good, but not the best, due to some chewy spots; the yellowtail scallion roll was mysteriously skimpy on the fish; and the eel cucumber roll was my favorite. It was nice to see a roll made with saltwater eel, which I much prefer and much recommend over freshwater eel.

Overall, it was a great experience (and very reasonably priced, to boot). You should definitely pay this restaurant a visit.

Sushi Masu
1911 Westwood
Los Angeles, CA 90025


Restaurant Review #93: Matsuhisa, Restaurant Row, Beverly Hills

I am sad to report that I have a very negative review of this restaurant, and I didn't even get to eat there. My friend made reservations several days in advance and asked for a quiet table. The person who took the reservation promised him that we would get a quiet table against the wall (apparently these tables are called dining 5 and dining 6, if anyone else is interested, and may actually need to be reserved a month in advance).

When we arrived, staff first didn't bother to ask for a last name and had us confused with another party of the same first name. We were upset that they said we could only sit on the patio or at the sushi bar. Sitting on the patio, it seemed like we might end up sharing our table with strangers. Plus, if I wanted to eat dinner in a plastic tent, I would have gone camping, not to a nice restaurant. Sitting at the sushi bar is fine for a lot of people, but it's just not my cup of tea, especially when I want to have private conversation over dinner.

Once staff realized that we were not the party we thought they were (that there were two of us, not three, should have been a big hint), they said that they did indeed have a table indoors for us. However, it was not against the wall--it was in the middle of the room, and we were probably six inches from the tables on either side of us. Yes, I am sad to report that Matsuhisa is yet another restaurant that tries to cram too many tables into too little space, effectively creating cafeteria-style dining in what is supposed to be a fine restaurant. Also, there was a crying baby in the dining room, and the restaurant's decor was not interesting or impressive at all. Overall, the dining room was noisy, crowded, and chaotic. They also were selling Nobu's cookbook and bottled sauces at the hostess stand, which I thought was tacky (I started wondering if I was at Cracker Barrel).

On top of that, the service left a lot to be desired. They botched our reservation, weren't accomodating or helpful about fixing it, and threw a wrench into what was supposed to be a lovely, relaxing evening. Since I couldn't hear my friend from 18 inches away, and had no faith in the restaurant to not screw up our meal as well, we left without even taking a sip of water.

The moral of the story is, if you want to eat Nobu's food, go to Nobu Malibu.

So how did the night turn out? Sushi Masu, an old favorite, saved the day. The restaurant was peaceful, quiet, and not overcrowded; staff was very friendly and attentive, and the food was delicious--and much cheaper to boot.

129 N La Cienega Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
(310) 659-9639