Monday, May 30, 2011

Munching Around Santa Monica with Six Taste Tours

What better way to explore one area's food than a walking tour with an expert, tasting 4-5 places all in one go? Six Taste Tours, started by two USC alums, aim to do just that with their tours in various regions in LA, including Thai Town, Little Tokyo, Arcadia, and more. Each area's tour is guided by an expert in that particular area/cuisine. I was invited to go on the Santa Monica tour recently with their guide, Therese.

Godmother Sandwich
Godmother sandwich, with on ocean view.
I don't want to spoil all the fun of the tour for you, so I will just go through some of the things we ate and leave you with some surprises if you ever take the tour!

They said they consider the Santa Monica tour to be their international tour, and you will see why. Our first stop was Rockenwagner Bakery.
Rockenwagner Bakery
12835 W Washington Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90066
(310) 578-8171
Röckenwagner Bakery on Urbanspoon

Our guide, Therese

PhotobucketOther than the baked goods, Therese told us that Rockenwagner has a great Austrian coffee. We tasted some and it was indeed pretty smooth.

Apparently Hans Rockenwagner and his pastry chef invented the pretzel croissant by dipping a croissant in caustic acid, so of course we had to try some! Because of the pretzel-like crust, the croissant doesn't leave as much of a buttery mess on your fingers. 
Pretzel Croissant

Sunday, May 29, 2011

True Food Kitchen (Santa Monica, CA)

Vegetable Crudites
Local Vegetable Crudites
True Food Kitchen which recently opened at Santa Monica Place has a mission of serving sustainable, healthy food without sacrificing flavor. They center their menu around Dr. Andrew Weil’s "Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Food Pyramid" (not that I knew about it before coming here).

Before they officially opened to the public, they held tastings and trial runs for friends and some media. I came for a lunch during these test runs. While waiting for my friend I ran into Pleasure Palate and her friend. We ended up joining her table and got to sample many more things.

Do try the Banana, espresso, pistachio, and date muffin ($3)
While I'm usually not a big muffin fan, this one is a must try! The muffin is really moist and loaded with pistachio and other goodies.

They have a pretty big list of cocktails (with fruits with alleged antioxidant properties, of course), wines, and beers, many of them organic. I didn't want to start drinking so early, though so I went with one of their non-alcoholic "elixirs": the "Red Moon" ($4): pink grapefruit, yuzu, agave, and soda.
I also like the Medicine Man ($6) made with olivello juice (more on olivello later), pomegranate juice, cranberry juice, black tea, soda water, and blueberries.

Today's Raw Fish ($12): Yellowtail
A bit heavy on the sauce, but the fish was fresh.

Friday, May 27, 2011

DVD Giveaway! Vanishing of the Bees

Colony Collapse Disorder. That's what they are calling the mysterious disappearance of honey bees all over. No one know why this is happening for sure, but the consequences are quite clear. It's not just about the honey. Honeybees are needed to pollinate vegetable and fruit plants around the world. No honeybees= no apples and peaches. The documentary Vanishing of the Bees, scheduled to release on June 7th, attempts to delve into this mystery and how we can all help protect the bees.

The documentary is directed by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein, and narrated by Ellen Page (the star of JUNO). They interview beekeepers, scientists, and food and environmental experts. It was much more informative than I had expected, explaining precisely what Colony Collapse Disorder is and what scientists and others think might be the cause.

In CCD, the bees do not die but disappear from the hives. No one knows where they went. In the US it started to gain attention in 2006, but apparently a similar phenomenon had happened in France in 1994. While we have yet to have direct evidence of the cause, the beekeepers seem to have a pretty good idea. France banned the use of systemic pesticides since then, but the EPA in the US need a more concrete evidence to follow suit. Holistic beekeepers and Michael Pollan suggest what we need to do to help.

They had sent me two copies to give away, so here's your chance! To win a copy, just comment below with your email address by Thursday, June 2nd.

You can also get extra entries by doing one or more of the following:
1. Tweet: "Learn more about why honeybees r disappearing n how u can help. Win a DVD of Vanishing of the Bees from @gourmetpigs!"
2. "Like" the link to this post on Gourmet Pigs' Facebook page.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bunk Sandwiches (Portland, OR)

Bunk Sandwiches was on the top of my to-do list for Portland. Raves from my friends, Mario Batali's declaration that Tommy Habetz is one of the world's top contemporary chefs (Tommy worked under Batali and Bobby Flay before opening Bunk), appearing in New York Times, and many more. Anyway, I made Wandering Chopsticks drive me there with high expectations.

We waited about 20 minutes in line in the rain. It looks like at other times the lines can be much longer. The music store next door even had a sign up stating that you can't stand in front of the music store for Bunk.

We ordered the much lauded Pork Belly Cubano with ham, swiss, mustard, and pickles ($8)

Pork Belly Cubano
I like the toasted crunchy bread, the silky ham, and of course the juicy, tender pork belly is what distinguishes this Cubano from the others.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How to Blind Date at The Market

You meet for coffee at the newly opened The Market at the Santa Monica Place. It's bright and spacious. Maybe you meet at Groundworks or get some Austrian coffee from Rockenwagner and chat over pretzels and danishes.
Rockenwagner Bakery
You want to spend more time with her so you ask if she wants to have dinner at The Curious Palate. You find out she loves craft beers and has good taste in food and you think it's awesome. After dinner maybe you take her for some ice cream at N'Ice Cream or ice cream sandwiches from Beachy Cream. Maybe you share a chewy chocolate chip cookie right out of the oven from the Cookie Guru.
Sample-bearing girls from Beachy Cream
Fresh chocolate chip cookies from Cookie Guru
You want to impress her so you decide to take cooking classes at the Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories. You buy a bottle of wine at Venokado, some cheese and cured meat (maybe one of those truffled ham?) from Norcino Salumeria Cheese Bar and invite her over for a romantic dinner.
Classroom at Gourmandise
Your anniversary rolls around and you ask her to meet you at the place you first met. You get to The Market 15 minutes early and buy some beautiful flowers at Magical Blooms, some truffles and macarons at L'Artisan du Chocolat and you're all set. It's a one-stop-shop.
Macarons at L'Artisan du Chocolat
Orchids at Magical Blooms

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stones Restaurant at Marriott Marina del Rey

I have been finding myself in Marina del Rey more and more these days. My last visit was to Stones Restaurant at the Marriott Marina del Rey hotel, which recently obtained a new chef and revamped their menu. Instead of ordering a la carte, they sent out a tasting of the dishes they wanted to showcase.

We started with a sampling of two appetizers:
Arugula, grilled peach, pickled red onion, burrata, balsamic glaze

Burrata and Grilled Peach
The burrata was creamy but the flavor was fairly mild and the dish benefits from the crunchy grilled peaches and the sweet and tart pickled onions.

Grilled shrimp, orange marmalade
Grilled Shrimp
This is the chef's riff on shrimp cocktails, where he grills then chills the shrimp. The sweet marmalade is a nice complement, though I'm not sure if I could eat more than two or three pieces of sweet shrimp.

Warm bread

Since all the entrees are accompanied by something creamy and starchy, we got full pretty fast, but we plowed through! This shouldn't be a problem for a regular diner not eating three entrees in a row :)

John Dory, popcorn crust, sweet corn ravioli, vegetable slaw
Popcorn Crusted Chicken
The popcorn crust was rather interesting (and according to the chef, pretty simple to replicate). The flesh of the john dory remains moist and flaky. I thought the sweet corn ravioli filling could be smoother and creamier, though.

Filet Mignon, yukon mash, cauliflower, demi
Stones cooks their proteins well, as exemplified by this tender, juicy steak. The mashed potatoes had the potato skins left in, giving it more body and flavor. The cauliflowers were not only colorful and fresh and crisp. This was a solid steak dish, you can't go wrong in ordering this.

The next dish doesn't lose out: New Zealand lamb, bacon, brussel sprouts, green apple risotto
Even with my full stomach, I thoroughly enjoyed this lamb, cooked a nice medium rare with that trickle of blood in the middle and nicely charred edges.The tart, crisp green apple slices in the risotto helped digest the other rich and heavy items.

We finished with a dessert sampler: Apple cobbler, Key lime tart, Chocolate ganache, Pineapple Upside Down cake.
Dessert Sampler

My favorite was the dark, spongy chocolate ganache, followed by the apple cobbler.

The libations menu need some work for my personal taste as the cocktails were mostly fruity martinis and the wine by the glass selection is limited. The chef seems to have a liking for rich and creamy sides, but if you're staying nearby, you'd be satisfied with having a nice piece of filet mignon or lamb, or perhaps a moist John Dory here.

Stones Restaurant
Marriott Hotel Marina del Rey
4100 Admiralty Way
Marina del Rey, California 90292
(310) 301-3000
Stones on Urbanspoon

Disclosure: this meal was hosted.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Afternoon Tea at Chado Tea Room (Little Tokyo)

A pastime I enjoy but don't get to do quite enough is afternoon tea. I've slowly tried various afternoon tea places around town but have never tried Chado Tea Room before, despite the fact that they have three locations including Pasadena.

The afternoon tea is $18 per person (one of the cheaper options in LA), but I had bought a Groupon for the Little Tokyo location and invited Wandering Chopsticks to come along.

Chado has a pretty extensive list of loose leaf teas, priced by the ounce and some can be quite expensive. One good part about doing the afternoon tea is that for the same price you get to choose any of the teas on their list, some of which are a lot more expensive than others.
I ordered the Chado Afternoon Tea (usually $5.67/oz) which they said was "the most elegant blend of the best gardens from Darjeeling." It was a good cup of Darjeeling, though I ended up enjoying the tea Wandering Chopsticks ordered better, though, the Lavender Earl Grey, as it was more interesting.

Our afternoon tea set, served on the traditional three-tiered trays

Friday, May 20, 2011

Giveaway: MAVEA Premium Water Filtration Pitcher

Everyone should have a water filter instead of buying bottled waters. And while you're at it, why not get one that looks good, too? MAVEA, the US branch of BRITA, launched a premium water filtration pitcher series called Elemaris.

MAVEA's Elemaris water pitchers are made with BPA-free plastic, dishwasher safe, and definitely looks more stylish than many others. The filters are silver treated and supposed to discourage bacteria growth (and it's recyclable). The lid has a pour-through hole that swings open with water pressure, making refilling easy and cleaner. Last but not least, if you ever wonder when you need to change your filter, with this you need to wonder no more. The Elemaris pitchers are built in with Smart Meter indicator which measures water hardness, volume, and time in use and lets you know when you need to change it. For more info on MAVEA products and water-related tips, you can visit their blog.

They're supposed to reduce the buildup of limescale in water heating equipments too. I have to start using filtered instead of tap water in my Zojirushi water kettle, which definitely already started scaling. I've been using this for a week and while this may be a placebo effect, I think the water tastes better than the one filtered using my roommate's old Brita!

If you need a water filter, or want to upgrade yours, this is your chance! MAVEA is giving away one Elemaris XL water pitcher (listed at $39.99 on, with a 4.5 star rating). The Elemaris XL pitcher holds 9 glasses worth of water.
To win one, just do comment below with your email address.

You can also get extra entries by doing one or more of the following:
1. Tweet: "I want to win a @MaveaWater filter pitcher from @gourmetpigs!"
2. "Like" the link to this post on Gourmet Pigs' Facebook page.

You have until midnight of Friday, May 27th to enter. I will then choose a random winner. Good luck!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Salads and Wines at Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop

After multi-course tastings all week, a dinner composed of salads is most definitely a nice change. That's why I happily accepted an invitation for dinner at Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop in Century City. This location usually closes at 4pm and only open on the weekdays, so on a normal day, I would not be able to try it.

Antioxidant Orchard Salad
Antioxidant Orchard Salad
The ones responsible for Greenleaf are owner Jonathan Rollo and Corporate Chef Kristi Ritchey, who met when they were both working for the Patina Group. Chef Kristi's reason for joining Greenleaf is an interesting history. After being hospitalized during her tenure at Patina group, Kristi made a drastic change in eating habits and participated in bootcamps. She lost over 100 lbs but she started having difficulty maintaining her new lifestyle while making risotto fries and cheesecakes at work.
Even though the Beverly Hills location has had alcohol license for a while, the Century City location finally obtained theirs only recently. To celebrate, and also to celebrate the National Salad Month, during the month of May customers can get a free taste of paired wine with their salad purchase (w/ min $10 salad purchase). Want to know what they're pairing with what? Keep reading.
Before starting with the salads, we had the Wild Mushroom and Truffle "Pizza" ($9.95)
Wild Mushroom Truffle "Pizza"
The "pizza" is made using whole wheat tortilla made especially for Greenleaf. They worked with a tortilla maker to get a low calorie whole wheat tortilla that tastes good. The tortilla has 110 calories and the whole pizza is about 400 calories.

Afterwards, we had a sampling of their signature salads. At Greenleaf, you can build your own salads, which starts at $7.95, or you can order one of their signature salads. The signature salads are $10 each. It may at first seem expensive but the portions are big, and filled with meat and various ingredients. Compared to this, I paid $5 for a bit of grilled vegetables at my school's salad bar.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Alan Wong's Restaurant (Honolulu, HI)

As summer nears, I thought I should finish up my Hawaii posts, including one of my visit to Alan Wong's Restaurant in Honolulu. This particular restaurant of his is on the third floor of a nondescript office building in Honolulu and was rather hard to find. Make sure you're looking out for the street number!

Despite being hard to find, Alan Wong is quite famous, so the restaurant was full as expected. Some of the items here may seem passé coming from California, like the tuna tartar with wontons, but some are still rather unique to Alan Wong and the available/local fish is also quite different.

My favorite item was the “Mini Loco Moco”
Mochi Crusted Unagi Meat Loaf, Sunny Side Quail Egg, Wasabi Kabayaki Sauce

Alan Wong's Mini Loco Moco
It is certainly distinct from a standard loco moco, with the sweet flavors of the unagi and the kabayaki (sweet soy-based sauce). I loved the chewy and lightly crispy mochi crust and the quail egg which has deeper flavors than a chicken egg.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Italian Wines and Lunch at Firenze Osteria with Fabio Viviani

Escolar with Puttanesca Sauce
I confess, I actually don't really watch much TV, including Iron Chef, Top Chef and all that, but I do hear about the contestants and winners. Most Angelenos probably know of Fabio Viviani, a Top Chef contestant and now cookbook author and celebrity chef, who then opened up Firenze Osteria in Toluca Lake and Cafe Firenze in Moorpark. I went for the first time for a hosted wine paired lunch with Santa Margherita wines. Fabio was there to prepare our lunch and talk to us, and with his travel schedule, this was a chance hard to pass up.

The reviews seemed mixed. LA Times' SIV went in 2009 and didn't like it, but my friend Weezer Monkey went recently and loved it. My Last Bite also says it's one of her favorites in the area. It turns out based on this lunch I'm loving it too. Now, I can't tell you if S Virbila's dislike of this place came from the fact that she went when they had just opened, or because Fabio is actually here taking care of our meals, or because I rarely agree with her in the first place. All I can tell you is that we had a great lunch and that this is what this restaurant can be.
Fabio Viviani at his restaurant.
Now, a bit of background on how this lunch came to be. Antonio Terlato, founder of Terlato Wines, was the first one to introduce Pinot Grigio to the US. Fabio Viviani's partnership with Terlato (and thus Santa Margherita) began when he won a trip to Napa in one of the Top Chef challenges. He did a tasting with Terlato and they fell in love with him. He says he grew up drinking Chianti and enjoy cooking with them.

The main dining room.
Unexpectedly, this was to be a seven course lunch! And Fabio warned us that the portions will not be small, either. He's Italian, he exclaims. He also says in an Italian home, if a guest doesn't finish his/her food, s/he won't be invited back. Uh oh.

Bracing for the courses ahead, we started with some Crostino di Pancetta (toasted bread, burrata, grilled pancetta, crispy sage, brown butter)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Finding the ROOT at BLVD Bar (Studio City)

The BLVD Hotel in Studio City recently opened up their intimate lobby into a bar called BLVD Bar.

I was invited to their launch party and tasted the drinks they offered. It's a small place so the bar itself is not big, but enough to offer an eclectic menu.
All the drinks are named after boulevards in Los Angeles. Many of them are vodka-based 'tinis, which are appropriate for the target audience. There's even one with layered colors called Santa Monica Blvd, undeniably pretty, but for those who have gotten bored of those, there is still something here for you. The La Cienega Blvd drink is one of the best margaritas I've had in town, made with Don Julio tequila, agave syrup, and lime.

An unusual bottle of spirit caught my eye during the party: ROOT. The label says this 80-proof spirit was a "certified organic neutral spirits with North American herbs and pure cane sugar."
The ingredients listed included birch bark, wintergreen, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and more. They use this in a drink called Ventura Blvd made with Root , Canton ginger liqueur, black rum, grenadine and mango syrup. It was a sweet and balanced drink with an unusual herbal undertone.
I wanted to try the Root by itself so they gave me a shot of it. Upon the first whiff my brain said "root beer." Unmistakably root beer. With the first taste, though, it was most certainly not. It was potent, fairly thick, with strong herbal notes.
I was very happy with this particular spirit discovery, and pleasantly surprised that I found this at BLVD Bar!

10730 Ventura Blvd
Studio City, CA 91604

Friday, May 13, 2011

Brunching in Old Town's New Gastropub, Kings Row (Pasadena)

Bananas Foster Griddle Cakes
When a gastropub opened up in Old Town Pasadena, I admit I didn't pay much attention. That is, until I saw Deep End Dining and Trippy Food rave about the oxtail at Kings Row. They claimed it was fit for a king, and that intrigued me, so when they invited me to try out the new brunch menu, I accepted.

Kings Row opened in the old Neomeze space, which they have completely transformed from the pink and blue-lit lounge to the brick-walled bare space playing country music.
Kings Row, Pasadena
The brunch menu was pretty diverse with dishes ranging from chorizo fajitas to chicken fried steak to fish and chips. And buckwheat waffles a.k.a. the best waffles I've ever had. More on that later.

The fish and chips ($14) featured huge pieces of moist, nicely battered fish. We liked the fries as well, but could've skipped the mushy peas (is that a British thing?)
Fish and Chips
A hint for things to come: the portions are generous.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nespresso Pixie Launch Party with Ted Allen and Pixie Lott

My first exposure to Nespresso was from my former roommate who owned a machine. We would chat over an easily made espresso (pop in capsule, press button, and voila). And they were good! They may not be as good as the ones made by real baristas at, say, Intelligentsia, but they were certainly better than what I could achieve, and at $0.55 per capsule they make espressos a more affordable life style choice.

So, Nespresso recently launched a new model. A much more compact machine dubbed Pixie, which easily fits on small kitchen counters (my Pixie is smaller than my water kettle or my bread box). More about the machine later, let's talk about a party. To get word going about the Pixie, Nespresso held intimate parties around the US and I was invited to the LA one, held in a suite at the W Hotel in Hollywood. There were various reasons to come to this party, one of them was that Ted Allen from Food Network's Chopped was there to host the party.

Ted Allen and Pixie Lott
A propos to the name Pixie, they had a British hit pop singer Pixie Lott perform a few songs for us also! Now, I hadn't heard of her before since I'm pretty unaware of the pop world, much less the British pop world, but apparently she's huge there and was actually named "Hottest Female" by Virgin Media Music Awards.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Chew, Bow, Sip. Watching a Japanese Tea Ceremony (Sado)

I have always wanted to be a part of a Japanese tea ceremony (sado), but I wasn't able to find a place to do so until the Kulov Tea Festival last year. They had a tea ceremony workshop held by Mrs. Soshitsu Nishimura of the Edo Senke school. They have different school/styles of tea ceremony, and unfortunately I have no idea what the differences are. The workshop was held at Royal/T and they had quite a few attendees so we did not sit on tatami mats and participated fully. We sat in chairs and watched and partook in wagashi and the matcha that Nishimura sensei's student prepared.

The tea ceremony is all about purity and hospitality, so the first thing the host does after kneeling (or sitting) down is clean all the utensils and bowls that will be used (after the fire for the water is lit, of course). Afterward, she transfers some water to get it cooled down to the proper temperature.


Before tea, the guests are served a wagashi (traditional Japanese snack).

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Working Into the Night at Tom N Toms (Koreatown). Open til 4 AM!

It's past midnight. You need to get work done, but being in your room puts you to sleep. You need coffee and some snacks, and a change of atmosphere. Is there anyplace you can go? Actually, there is. Coffee houses in Koreatown apparently tends to open late, including Tom N Toms Coffee, which stays open until 4 am (they open at like 6 or 7 am also - who knows when they sleep!).

Apparently Tom N Toms is a big chain in Korea. There's only one location in LA right now but they are planning seven more. Oh, and they're famous for their butter toast (their version of brick toast).


They have different flavors including walnut and caramel, and they also have savory items like pepperoni pretzels.
Did I mention there's free wifi?
I was told that the most unique drink is their walnut Walnut Tomnccino ($3.95/4.50/4.80). It is actually the most expensive of their frozen blended drinks, but it is definitely different. I had expected flavors from a walnut syrup, but instead it had a strong walnut flavor, as if I was eating a Chinese walnut soup!

I tried the Caramel Bread ($5.50). Apparently they have a special toaster for these brick toasts. I actually like these better than the famous brick toast at Half and Half Teahouse in SGV. The one here is thicker yet more moist. I could do without the tall whipped cream, but it didn't really hurt either.  

It's after midnight. You need your laptop and wi-fi handy, plus some caffeine and sugar. K-town is the answer.

Tom N Tom's Coffee
3300 West 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90020-5613
(213) 427-9867

Disclosure: this visit was hosted.

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