It would be a forgivable mistake to dismiss Silicon Valley’s Psycho Donuts as a novelty store – the windows and glass doors on the otherwise normal-looking storefront in a tiny Campbell, California strip mall are plastered with vinyl decals depicting a white van full of grinning cracker-factory orderlies chasing a frightened doughnut (“Donut Guy”). During normal business hours, a smaller version of the crazed confection on the run advertises that Psycho Donuts is “OPEN FOR INSANITY”; stepping inside the “asylum for wayward doughnuts”, your eyes are immediately drawn to a padded booth in the middle of a wall of original psycho art, while the basketball-sized eyes hanging in the window appear to be drawn to you. Before you can scan the glass case for the product of the dough-nuthouse’s cheerful insanity, one of the attendants hands you a small square of bubble wrap to occupy your time in lieu of weaving baskets or sculpting clay bunnies – if you still can’t make up your mind, a handy vertical doughnut roulette wheel stands at the ready to help you make that crucial decision regarding your loved ones.
The incomparable Monte Crist-Doh
While this all this bedlam might seem like diversionary doughnut disquietude employed to distract from baked goods noteworthy in appearance and name only, Psycho Donuts delivers the goods. With names like “Glazed and Confused”, “Cereal Killer”, “Headbanger”, and “Comfortably Numb” (a sad-faced straight-jacketed confection) once might dismiss the doughnuts as being of the same quality as novelty items available by mail-order from the Johnson-Smith catalog, but self-appointed Doctor of Donut Derangement Chef Ron Levi puts careful thought and culinary skill into each menu item. Although Levi is of imposing stature and could easily take down a raging lunatic, once he opens up about his creations you realize how much joy creating each doughnut brings him. Originally born in Israel, Levi’s family emigrated to Canada where he learned the trade, eventually bringing his skills to California. Opened as collaboration between Jordan Zweigororn and Web Granger in 2009, Psycho Donuts is a pastry palate colored by Levi’s limitless imagination. While lesser doughnutiers would cater to the expectation of providing holiday-themed doughnuts, Levi is uncomfortable with that kind of pressure; most of his more imaginative creations are the result of writing down the three or four ideas he gets stepping out of the shower. This past Easter saw Bunny Ballz (doughnut “holes” rolled in coconut), Rabbit Roadkill (a hand-size raised doughnut with the face of a lagomorph traffic fatality), and Peep Show (a raised doughnut with maple icing and a marshmallow Peep attempting to hatch tiny Cadbury eggs sitting on a nest of shaved coconut).
Yes, those are crickets and bacon atop the Chirp Derp
Levi’s talent has garnered recognition internationally – he recently competed on Episode 6 of Food Network Canada’s “Donut Showdown” featuring a doughnut that rose over the bar set by Swirls in Omaha, Nebraska with the breakfast of champions – the Malted Waffle Bacon Donut (Psycho Donut actually has several doughnuts employing maple and bacon in the recipe). If a Monte Cristo is more your speed, Psycho Donut has a plump disc stuffed with ham and cheese and dusted with powdered sugar. One customer came back in the store to report a confectionary error in the parking lot – as his wife bit into her Monte Cristo in the car, she was greeted with a spurt of jam, at which point Levi explained that it’s supposed to be in there. He enjoys concocting “boozy doughnuts” – for this past St. Patrick’s Day his doughnut with Irish whiskey glaze was a big hit both in front of and behind the counter (according to Levi, there was much spoon-licking going down in the busy kitchen). Initially the offerings appear similar to the bizarre sinkers found at Portland’s Voodoo Doughnut with shapes, toppings and decorations befitting of a doughnut shop with “Psycho” in their name, such as the Crazy Face, but the difference lurks below the surface – the flavors are overwhelmingly delicious. In the boozy category, the Strawberry Margarita is a regular menu item featuring tequila pastry cream, and strawberry icing with a spiral of lime, capped off with a freeze-dried strawberry and a pinch of Margarita salt; the colossal Sticky Monkey is a massive raised fritter rife with fresh bananas, cinnamon, rum, and caramel made with sea salt.
The Worm Hole, complete with mealworm
For National Doughnut Day in June of 2012, Levi went full-bore lunatic and devised a duo of dunkers that raised many an eyebrow of even the most seasoned doughnut aficionados – the insect-themed Chirp Derp and Worm Hole. The Chirp Derp is a chocolate cake doughnut blended with chipotle powder and vanilla; after cooking, it is glazed in dark chocolate icing with an artistic lacing of milk chocolate. Each doughnut gets an application of crumbled bacon and three strategically-placed bacon cheddar-flavored crickets. While the adventurous foodie might see themselves ordering a box of the Crickettes from Hot Lix and stopping for a dozen Krispy Kremes to attempt this insectavorian adventure at home, it will be lacking in Levi’s visionary skills as a master in the doughnut arts. The first thing that grabs you is the aroma – rich and sweet, like a hot mug of Mexican coffee. Be sure to engineer at least one Jiminy in the first bite; with the other prominent flavors of the doughnut cutting through, the crisp and smoky cricket is more for texture than taste. The first sensation is the chocolaty sweetness, but then the bite finishes with the mellow chipotle burn – the best way to describe it is like an exotic Oaxacan pastry complete with chapulines accents.
Sticky Monkey, about as big as your head
The insect presence in the Worm Hole is more subdued – only a single meal worm stands at attention atop the doughnut in a loving tribute to the maguey worm that lies pickled at the bottom of a bottle of mescal. The light tequila-infused cake doughnut has freeze-dried jalapenos mixed into the batter (after several rounds of experimentation, Levi found that freeze-drying and then reconstituting the jalapenos prevents the doughnut from turning to mush in the cooking process). The ring is glazed with a lime icing and a cross-hatching of key lime and then lightly sprinkled with margarita salt with a Mexican-spiced Larvette rising to the occasion on the light green frosted landscape. The kick from the jalapeno is more pronounced than with the Chirp Derp’s chipotle, but it gets tamed by the frosting (whose citrus tang is perfectly accented by the hint of salinity). Both the Chirp Derp and Worm Hole are available on special occasions (such as Halloween or National Doughnut Day), but they are a special treat not to be missed and a unique experience and delicious entry point into the world of entomophagy.
There are currently two stores in the San Jose area, but with Psycho Donut’s rise in popularity they may find themselves having to expand to meet the demand. In Silicon Valley, to miss a visit to Psycho Donuts would be just plain crazy.
The rattlesnake mille-feuille as made on Extreme Chef
I was unfamiliar with the Food Network’s show Extreme Chef until I received an invitation to a viewing party of the episode featuring Chef Kevin Meehan, the Executive Chef at L.A.’s Café Pinot. Since the viewing was to be held at Meehan’s restaurant of residence and the menu was reported to have special items suggested by what the contestants were required to make on the show, I thought it would be up my alley – after all, the word “extreme” figured prominently in the show’s title. My imagination was working overtime trying to guess the menu – soft-shell tarantula sandwich? Emu balut? Walrus fries? We had a chance to look at the special item menu prior to the airing of the show, and although it didn’t look like the commissary list for Fear Factor, there were some otherwise exotic items that we thought may be featured on the program. We started with a round of drinks, and I opted for the Firewater (featuring top-shelf tequila, and lime rimmed and spiced with paprika). There seemed to be some aromatic unlisted ingredients as the drink was fragrant as it was tasty. We were introduced to Chef Meehan prior to ordering food and he mentioned that three of the menu items were influenced by his performance in the show, with one being as close a replica as he could recall of the first challenge.
The 3 competing chefs (Kevin Meehan at left)
Meehan was going up against Malibu Seaside chef Gina Clarke and Executive Chef Paul Menta of Amigo’s Tortilla Bar in Key West, Florida and they were told that their fist dish required that they use a “special ingredient” located in a wooden crate. When the crate was opened, each contained several large, writhing boa constrictors and pythons seething around a burlap sack containing the first ingredient – a skinned and gutted rattlesnake. I confided to Chef Meehan that had I been on the show I would have assumed the live serpents were the first ingredient and quickly dispatched and cleaned one of them for cooking, but that’s why he is an accomplished chef and I’m just a strange man that likes to eat unusual things. The show took place in a small Old West-themed, dirt street town near Twenty-nine Palms, California and before they could start, they had to fill wooden barrels with antique utensils and cookware and roll them half a mile to the cooking stations. I’ll leave Meehan’s opponent’s creations for your TiVo viewing pleasure, but he deftly whipped up a rattlesnake mille-feuille, a breakfast item featuring a snake burger served on French toast and topped with a fried egg. Meehan’s entry (as with the best dishes in any homespun International cuisine) featured a crest of fried hen fruit (think Korean bibimbap or Colombian bandeja paisa), and the dish was lovingly recreated on the special menu.
While watching Chef Meehan perform his frontier artistry, we sat in the balmy, shaded patio of Café Pinot enjoying his creation – “You’ve seen the show, now eat the snake”. The rattlerburger had the consistency and taste of coarsely ground sausage and when combined with the rich, runny yolk of the egg and the “French toast” ends sopping up the mess I can clearly see why he left the competition in the dust.
Buffalo short rib with roasted potatoes and cactus salad
The second dish required the use of one of three western animals – bison brisket, quail or wild turkey (the avian, not the drink). Meehan chose the buffalo, and although the dish he concocted for the show was different then the special menu item, we were treated with a balsamic-braised buffalo short rib surrounded by roasted potatoes and topped lightly with a cactus salad. The buffalo was tender and pulled of the bone with little force and the meat lacked the wild taste that sometime accompanies the animal. Chef Meehan obviously knew how the show turned out, but he was as closed-lipped about the outcome as I was with my lips closed around the buffalo ribs. Other western-themed menu items included an outstanding “cowboy” burger adorned with thick slices of bacon and a pile of grilled onions. I was disappointed to discover that the patty was made of aged beef rather than cowboy but it was hot, juicy and worthy competition to most high-end burgers in Los Angeles. The chuck wagon meatballs in chili were a little odd; the chili (which appeared to be augmented with young pinto beans) was savory and delicious, but it almost was begging for the meat to be in chunks rather than the familiar Italian globes. Layers of smoked trout sitting on creamy (but not mayo-heavy) potato salad rested on bed of greens as a contrast to the “dude ranch cuisine” theme and although simple and flavorful a gazpacho seemed to be asking, “¿Qué estoy haciendo aquí?”.
A blue corn ice cream sandwich
After the second challenge, one of the chefs was sent packing (obviously it wasn’t Chef Meehan, or that would have made for a short and somber event); the last challenge required the contestants to prepare a single bit of food using chicken, watermelon, dandelion and pickled eggs. The only chicken dish that appeared on the Extreme Menu at Café Pinot was a mildly incendiary batch of boneless chicken wings (which explains why they’re flightless birds); they were tangy and hot but I was wondering what the yardbird amuse-bouche might have tasted like, augmented with the dust of a western town. For dessert, Meehan had designed an ice cream dish similar to that which he made on the show (during the second challenge he was required to make ice cream in a churn with unusual ingredients and a 50-pound chunk of ice and a railroad spike). The Café Pinot dessert employed blue corn, which was utilized in the sandwich material. Visualize ice cream and a crumbly corn bread and you can almost taste what the dessert was like – funky, but not unappealing.
By now you’ve deduced that Chef Meehan aced the $10,000 challenge, and the Extreme Menu at Café Pinot is an extra feather in his cap. Café Pinot is a nice place to chill in the evening whether seated indoors or in the sunset of the Old West, and the menu prices for the viewing party were ridiculous – most items were around $8. Congratulations to Chef Meehan on both wins, and fortunately the only thing extreme we experienced while trying the show-based menu items was finding parking in downtown Los Angeles.
In mid-2010, celebrity chef Rick Bayless decided to expand his empire past Chicago and offer Mexican fine dining at Red O in the city just north of where they simply call Mexican food “food” – Los Angeles. Bayless is neither the owner nor chef-in-residence at Red O, but as the food consultant, the menu is uniquely his. The restaurant itself is spectacularly furnished with much of the decor and furniture hand crafted, much of it in Mexico; over the past year, the restaurant has been the hot dinner dining experience where the fortunate few had been able to sample Bayless’ adaptation of tradional Mexican dishes with a twist. Since just before Mothers’ Day of this year, Red O has been open on weekends for brunch with familiar named dishes prepared with fresh ingredients in the inovative and artistic space bathed in copious natural light. I was recently invited to try items from the brunch menu with the added benefit of having the meal coincide with a kitchen visit from the grandmaster himself.
Red O's Mixologist Steve Calabro
Since it was already noon, a cocktail or two or three were in order; Red O’s mixologist Steve Calabro offered me an experiment that he was concocting which he labeled watermelon agua fresca. The slightly sweet, refreshing beverage featured watermelon, basil, lemon juice, an undisclosed spirit and fresh “chocolate mint” leaves straight from Calabro’s garden (his bar is stocked with a variety of herbs grown at home). The menu featured your standard brunch libations such as the mimosa and Bloody Mary, but Red O’s entry in the latter category (enticingly called the “Roasted Bloody Mary”) sounded intriguing enough to try. Lest we forget that the menu at Red O is borne of and inspired by Rick Bayless’ years of culinary adventures in Mexico, the iced-down drink was more Michelada than Bloody Mary – in addition to vodka and tomato juice (made from roasted red and yellow tomatoes) the concoction featured Worcestershire, Tabasco, chipotle and Mexican beer with lime, olive and celery garnish. During the meal, Steve Calabro also brought out a flight of 1 2 3 Tequila (pronounced “uno, dos, tres tequila”) featuring their blanco, reposado and añejo tequilas, each with its own character. Calabro mentioned that most women prefer the reposado, a statement confirmed by the female brunch guests – his astute assessment of what drinks partons will enjoy is a result of his years bartending, starting with his unexpected promotion from bouncer at the Hard Rock Cafe back in 1987, although he modestly eschews his given title of mixologist, calling himself a “drink slinger”.
The bright front dining area at Red O
One of the members of our dining party (writer Kelly Carter) had arranged an interview with Rick Bayless which was conducted at our table while we ate. Out of journalistic respect I opted not to use much of what was discussed, but it was impossible to ignore Bayless’ mention of his crack-like addiction to Garrett’s carmel popcorn; in fact he stated that when he attends culinary events he routinely sends the hosting restaurant tins of the snack. After the interview, Bayless sat for awhile and spoke with the group and then disappeared back into the mysterious realm of Red O’s kicthen. The dishes we ordered were straight off the menu, although in consideration for two of our party’s vegetarian sensibilities, several of the plates were prepared with egg whites and without meat. Some of the items brought out were not drastic culinary departures, but fresh and well presented – a guacamole bridge arched over a pool of tortilla chips, with the guac strategically placed on a banana leaf carpet and garnished with radishes; at the end of the meal churros were brought out swaddled in a cloth napkin and accompanied by a shallow dish of chocolate dipping sauce – they were crispy, perfectly sweetened and seasoned, but let’s face facts – they were still churros.
Red O's take on chilaquiles al Guajillo
The breakfast dishes were substantial and artistically presented as our server brought out a holy trinity of new takes on tradional favorites: Huevos a la Mexicana (featuring the aforementioned egg whites and the addition of grilled shrimp); chilaquiles al Guajillo that looked more like a breakfast Mexican lasagne than the familiar melange of tortilla and eggs; and huevos Montulenos sans pork and again with egg whites. Of the three dishes, I favored the chilaquiles for the texture and warm, mild spiciness and the richness of the golden yolk cascading over the dish after being released from its fried egg perch atop the mound. The huevous Montulenos tasted a little lean with just the egg whites, but the fried plantain pontoons the tostada was mounted on added an unusual sweetness that made up for the absence of egginess and the vegetation and tender grilled shrimp on the huevos a la Mexicana gave it a fresh and wholesome taste.
Steamed Mexican shrimp and calamares
A tangy dish featuring steamed shrimp and squid treated with orange and mixed with cucumber, jicama, avocado, strawberries and cilantro was outstanding; this and a scoop of fresh dungeness crab dressed with tomatillo, avocado, grilled pineapple and onion salsa were served over long strips of crunchy fried plantains. The plates weren’t enormous but it was substantial enough to satisfy the five of us dining. Dessert was still in order, which mercifully arrived in bite sized portions – this included the aforementioned churros and a sweet, melty goat cheese cheesecake bite with a green root beer-based sauce and topped with what suspiciously looked like Garrett’s carmel popcorn. Accompanying the dessert was Chef Bayless who presented us with the product of his latest collaboration with Milk and Honey – a pouch of Mexican granola. Granola hardly seems like a Mexican dish, but Bayless states that he noticed that at Mexican resorts the locals were producing a granola featuring toasted kernels of amaranth that is typically served with yogurt and he decided to recreate it for American consumption; the granola is slated top be carried at Whole Foods in the near future. I fought the urge to tear open the bag at the table, but have since tried it and prefer it to the gritty, over-sweetened boxed variety that I formerly considered “high-end”.
Goat cheese cheesecake with root beer sauce
The brunch offerings at Red O reflect Bayless’ research (he routinely takes the entire staff from his Chicago ventures on exploratory trips throughout Mexico) and love of Mexican cuisine; although some purists may scoff at his innovative and flavorful takes on Mexican food, there’s no denying the quality and sensory enjoyment of the fare which stands on its own. Bayless and the owners and staff of Red O have vindicated Hester Prynne by bringing prestige and respect to their own scarlet letter.
If you’re having difficulty finding Santa Monica’s Upper West restaurant, chances are you’re in the wrong part of town; the restaurant’s name pays homage to Manhattan’s Upper West Side but is located away from the madness of 3rd Street Promenade in the upwardly-mobile eastern fringe of Santa Monica. Upper West is located in the sleek shell of what were formerly Santa Monica Bar & Grill and 310 Lounge & Bistro, having transformed the space into a modern yet comfortable place to kick back and enjoy great food and cocktails. The restaurant is capped with the original domed wooden beam roof and features full-height glass walls that fill the space with light; movies (with subtitles and no sound) and sporting events are frequently projected on the white wall of the glassed in area. The restaurant features colorful canvases by local artists that rotate with approximately the same frequency as the menu, which itself reflects a flair for the artistic.
The bizarre pepperoncini martini and sweet lychee martini
On my recent visit with friend Eddie Lin as guests of the restaurant, I was faced with the joyful dilemma of trying to decide what to try off the menu. The decision called for careful consideration and nerves of steel, so I decided to order a cocktail, in this case the trippy and delightful Pepperoncini Martini. This wild concoction married the essence of a brewery with a Mexican Bloody Mary – the drink was inebriated with Belgian white beer and Hornitos Reposado tequila with a pepperoncini floating face down in a pool of its own tomato and capsaicin-laden blood. Fortified by the drink’s spicy kick, we ordered a couple of appetizers and what amounted to an unusual ‘surf-and-turf”.
Lamb crepes and PEI mussels at Upper West
The appetizers alone were a main event – we started with PEI mussels cooked in a garlic saffron broth with chunks of ham and finished with ciabatta croutons made in-house. The aroma of the dish permeated the air around the table, and the smell was intoxicating. The mussels were perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful, but the broth was like ambrosia – when the mussels were gone I began using one of the shells as a spoon to ladle it into my face. I had tried using the ciabatta bread brought to the table in a basket to sop up the nectar, but unfortunately the ultra-porous bread was not up to the task. I considered putting the dish on the floor and lapping it up “doggy style”, but I somehow managed to keep what little dignity I have and stick with the mussel shell spoon. Our other appetizer selection was the wonderfully deceptive lamb crepes, tasty lambs in a blanket disguised as a breakfast dish. The pancakes looked thick and spongy, but while being sturdy enough to ensnare the moist, curried meat they melted away to nothing on the tongue. The lamb was accentuated with just the right amount of wilted spinach and a sprinkling of feta cheese.
Tender lamb shank that doubles as a club
I could have died satisfied after having finished the appetizers, but welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends – we were now staring down the entrees. A slightly spicy roasted fillet of black cod nested on a bed of snap peas, butter beans, yellow bell pepper and cherry heirloom tomatoes and was finished with roasted shitake mushrooms and fresh cilantro. The taste was clean and oddly terrestrial – a few forkfuls in I forgot I was eating fish. As flavorful as the cod was, nothing could have prepared me for the lamb shank. This dish came to the table looking like a meat weapon with the lamb’s leg bone sticking out a good 6 inches from the braised chunk of flesh. The meat was wading in a shallow puddle of its own juices next to a mound of polenta (which oddly tasted more like grits, but still complemented the meat well). Perched atop this meat axe was a scoop of apricot habanero relish, a formidable and foreboding orange mound that bore the cautionary orange habanero color, but to the palate proved to be largely apricot. The condiment was sweet and tangy, with just a slight burn from the habanero, adding flavor without overpowering the lamb. And what of the lamb itself? The meat was braised to where it melted off the bone like butter, every bite a delight. You could have fed the meat to a baby, but only if you really and truly loved that baby.
Maple bacon ice cream with basil coconut and cucumber sorbet
Although I don’t consider myself a desert person, I was fascinated with the concept of the bacon maple ice cream and ended up ordering a sampling of the creamy pork confection as well as a scoop of the basil coconut and cucumber sorbet. The bacon maple was infused with the essence of bacon, but didn’t have crumbly chunks of the meat suspended in it; it was smooth and creamy, with the pork flavor taking a back seat to the maple. The basil coconut sorbet was more coconut than basil, and the cucumber sorbet was subtly flavored, but both were cool and refreshing.
Executive Chef Nick Shipp (proudly hailing from the home of three of the largest grain elevators in the world) served time at a ripe young age under Wolfgang Puck and is bringing his A-game to Upper West with a menu that features creative dishes using local, fresh ingredients (many gathered weekly at the local Santa Monica Farmers Market). There’s a place for us, and whether you’re a Shark or a Jet, you’re sure to find Upper West to be… cool.
The Hollywood Stage inside B Tank at Paramount backlot
If you’ve been reading Los Angeles food blogs, you’ve already heard what the recent inaugural LA Times Celebration of Food and Wine was not. What it was not was a free lunch, as your $55 General Admission ticket got you onto the historic Paramount Pictures Studios backlot, some free sample tidbits, a seat at the cooking demonstrations and panels with chefs, food truck owners and foodies and concert performances by Angela McKluskey and She and Him. The complaint was that you were still required to purchase food from some of the vendors providing more substantial food (as well as the offerings of the fleet of food trucks parked along the fake streets). Well, as the old saying goes, you gotta make your own fun, and if you put in a little effort you could walk away from the event satisfied. The wine flowed like wine for those with drink tickets and there were a plethora of vendors of a wide variety of other spirits including custom rum, sake, vodka and tequila but under the blistering Southern California sun I was sticking to the free bottles of water being handed out by Fiji. Stages were set up in various locations on the backlot; the Downtown Stage was used for cooking demonstrations, Westside Stage provided a forum for panel discussions, the LA Times Stage was used for question-and-answer sessions, a Wine Chat was held in the shell of one of the fake New York buildings and the Hollywood Stage was reserved for cooking demonstrations by Food Network and Cooking Channel rock stars and the concert performances. The staged events overlapped, meaning that if you aggressively planned to take in all demonstrations, panel discussions and concerts, you were going to miss something but it also meant that there was always something exciting going on. From a nostalgic standpoint, my favorite hangout was B Tank, a graduated pool holding close to a million gallons of water and used for aquatic scenes (such as the boat escape sequence in The Truman Show). Naturally, the pool was drained to make room for the Hollywood Stage, a dining area, and the food trucks participating in the Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race. Los Angeles was represented by the Ragin Cajun truck (complete with rented creole fiddling courtesy of Lisa Haley), Crepes Bonaparte, the Vietnamese-themed Nom Nom truck and Nana Queen’s Puddin’ and Wings.
The giant raspberry-adorned Cooking Channel truck was anchored at the end of the pool and was doling out free cups of salted caramel or strawberry buttermilk ice cream. It seemed odd that the Cooking Channel would have a food truck, but the way it works is that contest winners in various cities where the truck appears have the privilege of using the truck to provide samples of their products. In this case, the fresh, old-fashioned ice cream was made by Carmela, an ice cream manufacturer that normally sells at local farmers’ markets. Co-founded by Jessica Mortarotti in 2006 and named after her grandmother, Carmela takes fresh local ingredients and concocts well-loved flavors as well as the unusual (such as their heirloom tomato gelato or cucumber sorbet). The garden fruit flavors are not every day items, but I asked Jessica to let me know when the tomato dessert is available. TV chefs such as Darrel Smith, Roger Mooking and Aida Mollenkamp did basic cooking demonstrations on the big Hollywood Stage, but it was more fun to watch the demonstrations at the smaller Downtown Stage and queue up after the performance in hopes of getting to the food samples before the supply ran out. LA Times food editor Russ Parson hosted a discussion and demonstration of farm-to-table cooking featuring Campanile/The Tar Pit’s Mark Peel and Suzanne Goin of AOC, Lucques and Tavern; LaVarenne’s Anne Willan showed the crowd how to cook with peppers; and Easy Thai Cooking’s Tommy Tang presented easy Thai cooking (to the surprise of no one). My personal favorite was Noelle Carter (manager of the LA Times Test Kitchen) who grilled shrimp to perfection in a quick and easy performance that culminated in getting to sample the sweet and savory crustaceans on a stick.
Tracey Broderick of Coolhaus hands me foie gras ice cream
While Carmela dished out free ice cream, Coolhaus’ ice cream truck was on hand with their signature ice cream sandwiches for sale. Natasha Case started what has turned into a mini-fleet with co-founder Freya Estreller in April of 2009. For her vehicle of choice she chose a small US Postal Service mail van and had it retrofitted for keeping the dairy confections cold by a place she referred to as “Junior’s” in nearby City of Industry. Coolhaus currently has 2 trucks, but by November they will have 4 (with one giving Amy’s Ice Cream a run for their money in Austin, Texas). The concept is simple – select an ice cream flavor and your choice of cookie to sandwich it. The concoction is then handed to you in a potato starch wrapper with Coolhaus’ logo that Willy Wonka would be proud of, as it is also edible (Catholics will appreciate that the taste and texture of the wrapper is similar to communion wafer). I debated between the Guinness chip, the balsamic fig and mascarpone, the pistachio black truffle and the brown butter and candied bacon, but ultimately the victor was the trippiest flavor I’d ever come across – foie gras. There was no way this was getting surrounded by a chocolate chip cookie; fortunately they offered a moist, rich brioche that complemented the goose liver well. As with garlic ice cream, the initial flavor is sweet cream, but once the aroma sneaks up the back of your nose and hits the olfactory sensors, the ultra-rich taste of the foie gras creeps in and is held at bay with the bready brioche. Instead of wiping my mouth with the wrapper, I found a perverse sense of satisfaction by stuffing it in.
Leena Deneroff, owner of the Dosa Truck
Another food truck that fascinated me, yet I admittedly had not encountered before was the Dosa Truck. Think vegetarian crepe, moo shu or burrito and you get an idea of the Indian street food offered on self-titled dosa waller Leena Deneroff’s truck is like. Everything is made from scratch, including the urad dal (the labor-intensive batter used for “throwing” the dosa). The dosa is the thin, pancake-like wrap used to contain all that vegetarian goodness; the batter can take up to several days to make as it involves soaking, grinding and fermenting black-shelled urad beans. The timing has to be perfect, and in order to ensure enough batter each day batches are staggered days in advanced. I asked Leena what would prompt someone to specialize in a food that requires so much time and effort to produce, and she simply stated, “I love it!”; Deneroff has been enjoying dosa for over 20 years and wanted to share her love of the food with others. The truck has been on the streets since July of 2009 and business is steadily improving. The most popular item is the Slumdog (a dosa coated with a pesto-like paste and stuffed with paneer, fresh spinach and curried potatoes), but I wanted to try the most traditional item, the Mumbai Madness. This is the closest thing the dosa you would get directly off of a street cart in Mumbai, filled with nothing but warm, tender curried potato. The dosa has a slightly pungent taste, but inoffensive; while still somewhat doughy it gets crispy along the end which adds wonderful texture to the dish, and the potatoes were not too mushy or too firm. Deneroff participated in a panel discussion with Natasha Case and Jennifer Green from the Nom Nom Truck, which to me was one of the highlights of the festival. Other panels included bloggers Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) and Aarti Sequeira (Aarti Paarti) who encouraged would-be food bloggers; Life After Top Chef featuring former contestants Betty Fraser, Chris Jacobsen and Alex Reznik; Re-inventing Latin Cuisine with Jimmy Shaw (Loteria Grill), Ricardo Zarate (Mo-Chica) and John Sedlar (Rivera); and, a panel titled “L.A.’s New Star Chefs” featuring Michael Voltaggio and John Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal. The last panel was like attending a rock concert; the chef groupies would erupt into maddening applause for their local heroes, but the chefs themselves seemed relatively down-to-earth. One thing that particularly impressed me about Chef Voltaggio was when he related a story of a schoolteacher that told him she and her husband saved up for 6 months to enjoy his cooking. This touched him in a way that made him vow to make fine cuisine accessible to everyone in a laid-back environment, and I hope he follows through on his goal and inspires others to do likewise.
Chef Brendan Collins of Waterloo and City
My press credentials were a slightly more restrictive version of the general admission ticket, although I was granted access to the VIP area by escort. The VIP area was in a cordoned-off section of the main plaza across from Tank B and featured vendors providing free samples that weren’t represented at the rest of the festival; in addition there was a separate large tent where exclusive demonstrations and tastings were held. I was afraid my press pass was going to prove to be a detriment moving through the VIP area, but I discovered that as soon as the vendors saw the badge hanging from the lanyard I was dragged into booths to faster than a prospective john at Boy’s Town in Nuevo Laredo. My first “voulez vous mangez avec moi?” experience was at Water Grill’s booth. Executive Chef David LeFevre led a gang of oyster knife-wielding bad mothershuckers who were popping open Rappahannock River and Kumamoto oysters like nobody’s business. LeFevre explained that there are 5 main species of oysters (all of which he naturally could recite the scientific name for), with dozens, if not hundreds of sub-species. Water Grill features 8 of these sub-species at a time, meaning you could find two or three varieties from the same family that taste radically different. There are a number of factors that contribute to the distinctive flavor of an oyster, including water temperature, whether the oysters are exposed to air via tides, etc.; Chef LeFevre could describe to you what flavors would be present just by naming the oyster. I had never met anyone so well-versed in oysterology; he could tell a good oyster from a bad oyster by the look, sound and smell; mentioned the best places to source oysters and the worst (shockingly the Gulf Coast falls in the latter category due to susceptibility to red tide and other contaminants); demonstrated the way to perfectly and quickly shuck an oyster; and, explained how to keep oysters fresh and properly prepare and serve them. I tried one of the Rappahannocks that was freshly shucked; there were a variety of disguises available for the oysters (including lemon, horseradish, etc.) but I simply poured the mollusk into my mouth. The oyster was firm and briny without being overly salty – it tasted like the ocean and I could have easily eaten a dozen or more. One attendee tried an oyster for the first time in his life and grinned ear-to-ear when he found out how good they taste. Chef LeFevre mentioned that Water Grill features all kinds of seafood, prompting me to ask about New England seafood. Although they don’t do steamers (they don’t have an appreciative clientele), they do a lobster roll that doesn’t miss a step, right down to the squared-off hotdog bun.
Salts Cure serves up smoked yellow tail snapper
Salt’s Cure also had a booth in the VIP area – they’ve only been opened 2 weeks, but are onboard the “nose-to-tail” train that seems to ensure popularity in the Los Angeles area. They shun the gastropub label, but pride themselves on making absolutely everything (right down to their in-house mayonnaise and ketchup). Everything is fresh and locally sourced; at the festival they were slicing pieces of smoked yellowtail snapper on toast with cucumbers and their own mayonnaise and each was a tiny explosion of flavor. Brendan Collins of Waterloo and City manned their booth which featured a chicken liver foie gras parfait with Madeira jelly in little plastic shot glasses. The foie gras was creamy with a whipped consistency with a thin layer of gelatin on top. W&C provided little round toast slices to scoop up the livery goo and a single taste was all that it took to slap me into shut-uppiness. The foie gras had a sharp and muted, earthy taste, but then the Madeira reduction kicked in and added a bold sweetness that offset yet complemented the flavor. I actually found myself breaking the cup apart and wresting the remaining dollops out with my tongue, an act I’m not particularly proud of yet offer no apology. They also presented a duck and walnut pate with orange marmalade, and it would appear that there isn’t an aspect of charcuterie Chef Collins hasn’t mastered. The man is like an offal pusher; he gets you hooked with your first little bites until you’re up at 4 AM wondering how long you’ll have to wait in Waterloo and City’s parking lot until they open.
Yvette Garfield, Handstand Kids Cookbook Company
One vendor in the general area that particularly impressed me was The Handstand Kids Cookbook Company. Yvette Garfield started the company in 2007 with the idea that children should be given options for expanding their food experience at an early age so that we don’t end up with a generation who consider Nissin Cup Noodles, Spaghetti-Os and Taco Bell smart ethnic food choices. Garfield has a target age of 6 to 10 years, although the cookbooks are accessible to kindergarten age kids up through young teens. There are three main cookbooks currently: Mexican (in a plastic “tortilla bag”), Italian (in a pizza box) and Chinese (in a big, red take-out box). The books introduce children to food terms in the language of the cuisine’s country of origin and then use the terms in the native tongue throughout. In addition to recipes with clear instruction, the books feature snippets of cultural stories and experiences as told from a kid’s point of view. In addition to the cookbooks, The Handstand Kids Cookbook Company also conducts Picky Eater Classes in single-day, hour-long segments and summer programs that range from 1 day per week to week-long workshops. Another booth listed as the Korean Cultural Center was handing out little samples of Noak Doo (a mung bean pancake) with a soy-based sauce for topping the tiny bites. The pancakes had a strong taste of fresh cabbage and onion, and although there was a grain-like quality to them they were made primarily from mung bean flour. To the left in the same booth sat a fleet of bottles of bokbunjajoo (black raspberry wine) and makegeolli rice beer for sale, but I couldn’t imagine when I’d have the opportunity to pair either of them with my meal.
David LeFevre (then with Water Grill) shucks imaginary oysters
Angela McCkuskey’s set sounded canned with live vocals, but it was slightly soulful and all pop; She & Him (featuring Zooey Deschanel & M. Ward) offered a folksy-pop set that was surprisingly good given the history of actors-turned-musicians we’ve been forced to endure. Unfortunately the terms of my media pass prohibited me from photographing She and Him’s performance, although it didn’t stop the audience from grabbing shots on their phones. From a standpoint of being a celebration of food and wine where you could experience, learn and participate in the culinary activities it was successful; hopefully they’ll work out a few of the logistics bugs before launching the second annual event. It would be nice to see a regular event that isn’t a celebration of food and whine.
For the unusual, exotic and unique, visit Exotic Meat Market at http://www.exoticmeatmarkets.com
Visit them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Exotic-Meat-Market-Inc/156936877702974?ref=ts&fref=ts
Trippy Food Sites
L.A. Weekly’s Food Blog editor’s own site – not updated lately but some magnificent writing
Share Your Taste – a wide variety of global reader contributed menu items
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