Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Citrin = Lemon, Lunetta = Moon.

Nestled in the concrete bosom of an industrial park is the unlikely home of the latest creation from the dynamic duo Josiah Citrin and Raphael Lunetta. Not ones to play Robin to anyone else's Batman, they are equally partnered caped crusaders bringing good food to our sunny anti-Gotham by the sea.

Together, Citrin and Lunetta have created three acclaimed restaurants. They opened JiRaffe in 1996, until Citrin left to start Melisse with his wife and business partner. And now they're back to form Lemon Moon. It's a departure from their more traditional French cooking, but it's done with flair and ease. Inspired by their surfing tendencies, it's a casual place to get a hearty lunch, and the portions reflect the healthy appetite you would have after a morning in the water.

First of note is their signature lemonade. Always fresh, with unique flavors, their lemonade is cravable and delicious. The first time I came to Lemon Moon I tasted their plum lemonade, and every time I've gone back I've hoped to find plum lemonade chalked up on the board just for me. With a yummy, purpley plum flavor in every sip, it really tastes like plums. Sweet, perfectly ripe plums. And lemonade. How novel! I have also enjoyed their orange lemonade, with freshly squeezed orange juice, and the watermelon lemonade pictured above. While beautiful, the watermelon lemonade was my least favorite of their flavor creations, but that is only because I am defectively picky, and I felt it was a scooch too sweet and didn't taste enough like the lemonade part of the beverage. But if you like watermelon, you'll be in heaven.

Unlike their French restaurant counterparts, Lemon Moon is a gourmet cafeteria, with a few fancy restaurant flairs. The silverware is sturdy and substantial, and it comes wrapped nicely in large cloth napkins. After ordering at the long glass counter, you take a number and seat yourself inside or outside in the lovely courtyard or along Olympic. I rarely sit out there because the din of the traffic overwhelms the peaceful eating experience I desire. The courtyard is my location of choice. It's so peaceful and comfortable, like a fancy backyard party on expensive teak furniture.

Minutes after ordering, they bring your food. On this visit I ordered the two salad combo, with a skirt steak, cucumber, shitake mushroom, and tomato salad with an Asian vinegrette. I think I tasted rice vinegar and sesame oil in the dressing, among other flavors. My second salad was the broccoli tofu combination, that comes in a sweet brown sauce. My dad thought there was fish sauce in there, and I think he was right. Both salads were great. The skirt steak is my favorite of all their salads, with flavorful meat and fresh, light veggies to compliment the dish. It is consistently great. The broccoli tofu salad is also delicious, but they were a little heavy on the sauce this time, which overpowered the dish. The last time I tried it, it was a little lighter which suited my palette better.

My dad chose the quiche and the citrus beet salad proving that real men do eat quiche. Both were excellent. The roasted beets and oranges go perfectly together, with a sprinkling of golden raisins to sweeten the dish. The eggplant, caramelized onion, and mushroom quiche was light and flavorful, with a very smooth and creamy custard texture. I was impressed.

On other trips, I have enjoyed the grilled chicken sandwich (yum!), the mushroom polenta salad, the soba noodle salad, the cannellini bean and tuna salad, the bowtie noodle, blue cheese and candied pecan salad, and more. I recommend almost anything they serve, but I was disappointed by the bean and tuna salad, since I thought it was bland and easily made at home. The bowtie salad was also strongly overpowered by the candied pecans, making it taste more like a dessert than a main dish, which I found odd and disappointing. But I always err towards the savory side of life, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt, if you will.

Lemon Moon is one of my favorite restaurants to take friends, out of towners, and other folks who happen to be available for lunch (or breakfast, tho I haven't yet gone that early) on the Westside during the week. It's only open Monday through Friday from 8am until 3pm, so get while the getting is good. I recommend going before 2pm, since the salad selection dwindles as the clock ticks towards closing time.

Lemon Moon
Westside Media Center (Think office park meets Death Star)
12200 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Monday, June 20, 2005

Sugar Coated

I keep trying to figure out a way to start this entry, and the only thing I can think of is, "Wow, my mom died 16 years ago today. That's a damn long time ago." It's okay though. I've had 16 years to prepare for it, so I'm coping pretty well.

Today I finally went shopping after weeks of dwindling food, souring milk, and creative cooking with cupboard-stale "staples." Which is to say, I've been eating out mostly. This behavior is bad for my wallet and bad for my waist, but good for the soul sometimes. Especially with good company. So today's trip to Trader Joe's was exciting, even despite the ever-present crowds. I needed eggs. And milk. And chocolate. And apparently a few other impulse buys that I would pick up on my way out. Including chocolate-covered sunflower seeds.

Look at them, all cute and colorful. Tiny chocolate teardrops, sweet on the outside, salty on the inside. I didn't know what to expect. Would they taste like Peanut M&Ms or something completely different? Could I taste the distinct sunflower seed favor? Would I taste the chocolate? The answer is yes. A bit of chocolate, a bit of sunflower saltiness—a tiny cousin of the Peanut M&M. I ate them by the pinch, then by the palmful. I wasn't even hungry for them, but I ate them anyway. Somehow they seemed like the perfect food today. Sugar-coated tears.

You might be wondering why 16 years is significant. Well, today marks the official moment when I have lived longer without my mom than with her. It seems silly to think of it that way, since every moment without her has been difficult, or at least different than it was with her, but today feels momentous. I'm getting older and I can feel it. Not that I mind per se, but I'm starting to notice.

I'm heading to the gym soon. I like my gym, the YMCA, because it takes all kinds. Kids to Seniors, they're all there. The doddering old folks are the best to watch. They move slowly, and with care. They inspire me to keep going, so that one day I too might visit the local Y for my daily swim. Hopefully by then I'll have my own kids to make fun of me and my outdated clothing. My wrinkled brow. My turtle pace. My mom once told me not to worry about things so much. She asked me never to complain about a bad hair day or gaining weight, since she'd lost her hair and too much weight from her illness, and she didn't want me to waste time thinking about those kinds of things as she had, only to be foiled in the end. I know she would have told me to stop thinking about getting older, especially since I can't change it even if I try. Better to age gracefully than fight it the whole way, she'd say, wishing for the priviledge herself. But I think it's okay to take note. To fold down the corners on certain pages of our lives, like mental bookmarks to flip back to. Today was the day that I remembered to relax, it says.

Consider today bookmarked. Corner folded, mental noted. With tiny little sugared-coated salty sweet treats as ellipses at the end of a To be continued... for my life, and a full-stop for hers.

Friday, June 17, 2005

I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a Hamburger Today.

A hamburger haiku.

Burger, you I love.
Bun. Meat. Cheese. Burger meet mouth.
Delicious you are.

If it sounds like I'm channeling Yoda, well, poet I am not. But Monday night I had a mighty fine burger worthy of a haiku.

LA is a burger town. You'd never expect it, with all the skinny blonde fake plastic tan people walking around. Sometimes I imagine they eat air sandwiches, with hope instead of bread, and lettuce and celery on the side. Oh, and a Diet Coke. But seriously, Los Angelinos know how to make and eat a delicious burger, even if the women serving them look malnourished.

Right now, I'm making my way through a list of places that are always recommended when a person says, You know, I'm craving a burger. The responses vary, but each name is always followed by an impassioned rant on the meat and cheese sandwich grilled to perfection, and why this place is superior to all others. Since I prefer to keep my options open, and there's plenty of room for more than one "best burger" in my mind, I like to sample all the different best of places so I have my own opinion to draw from when I'm satisfying my burger craving.

Here is my list:
Amuse Cafe. Check.
Apple Pan.
The Arsenal. Check.
The Counter. Check.
Fatburger. Check.
Father's Office.
In'n'Out. Check.

You can see from my list, I have only three more places to try before I will have successfully sampled my way through many of the burger havens of Los Angeles. So far, I don't have a favorite, since each has its different style. Prices are approximate.
  • Amuse makes an amazing gourmet burger served with artisan cheese, free-range meat, top notch produce, and a side of fantastic homemade potato chips or salad. $10.
  • The Arsenal boasts a killer basic burger, with the same high-end meat, choice toppings, potato or sweet potato fries, and a great atmosphere, complete with full bar selection. $8.
  • I'll get to The Counter in a sec, since that's the subject of this post.
  • Fatburger offers a very good fast burger, (note I didn't say fast food burger, this ain't Micky D's), with a slew of toppings, including the ever popular fried egg. $3.
  • In'n'Out tops the list of fast food burgers, with a fresh, basic burger that came from only one cow, plastic cheese (sorry folks, I have a weak spot for the American slices), fresh tomato and lettuce, onions grilled or not if you want them, and a special sauce. There's also a secret menu with things like an animal style burger and the 4-by-4. $1.65 and up.

So on Monday night, I finally went to The Counter. It's nestled in the corner of an ever-present mini-mall on Ocean Park Blvd., which goes, as you might expect, all the way out to the ocean. There's free parking in the back, which is a nice touch, and the mall has some trees, differentiating it a bit from the regular mini mall. Once inside, The Counter's atmosphere is clean, hip, a bit industrial, and overall very cool. For lunch I'm told you simply check off what you want from the paper checklist menu on the mini clip boards on the counter, and hand it to the folks behind the counter. And voila, your ideal burger is born. It's not much different at night, except there's table service, so it feels a bit more like a sit down restaurant.

I'm a creature of habit. I don't mean to be, but I am. So when I got the big checklist with all the crazy choices of topping for my burger, like cranberry this and horseradish that, I politely declined. I like cheese on my burger, usually cheddar, and grilled onions. I can do without the onions, but I do enjoy them. Lettuce, tomato, and pickle are also welcome. And I like a variety of special sauces, but usually opt for something from the Russian Dressing/Thousand Island family. And the result is this towering gastronomic inferno. Yum.

One of my compatriots ordered the 2/3 pound burger. I chose the 1/3 pound. And you could also get a 1 pound burger I believe, but I'll leave that to the professionals. His ginormous burger looked like this, with a dallop of ranch dressing.

Another of the ingenious options at The Counter is their choice of fries. You can get potato fries, sweet potato fries, onion strings, and a combo of both. This is best for those of us who cannot make up their minds when it comes to food, particularly the greasy comfort food. I swing both ways between the fries and onion ring camps, so I opted for both. I enjoyed their onion string deviation. They're thinner and crispier than regular onion rings, with all the onion flavor you crave. And the garlicky ranch dressing they serve with it is delish. I'm not a ranch person, but it went perfectly with the onion strings. I didn't even pour a drop of catsup.

To sum up, The Counter makes a mighty fine burger with any fixin you can dream up. So if it is a burger you crave, they'll do you right.

The Counter
2901 Ocean Park Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90405

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Café Bizou. No thank you.

Multiple people, whose food opinions I trust implicitly, have recommended Café Bizou in Santa Monica as a midpriced, delicious, French bistro restaurant, perfect for all kinds of occasions. It even gets number one billing in Zagats as the most popular restaurant in Los Angeles, sharing space with other such gems as Joe's, JiRaffe, and Lucques (and Cheesecake Factory and Baja Fresh, which probably should have tipped me off). Their website is cute enough, and their menu fit the needs of the people I would be dining with, so we decided to try it on Friday night.

On their site it said that the Santa Monica location had changed management recently, but that the staff and menu remained the same. Figuring that the staff (does this include kitchen staff?) and menu were the key to the restaurant, I figured how different could it be? Unfortunately, the answer is very different, at least compared to the recommendations I'd received.

Our first problem was finding it. Tucked away in the ground floor of a giant cement office structure, we drove by once without even so much as seeing a sign for it. After circling the block, we finally spotted it, and then once more around we managed to find the parking entrance. Fortunately, the expensive garage below validates for the restaurant for three hours, so that was nice, although they don't have any signs telling you that, so you have to ask and cause a bit of a stir at the parking entrance and exit. But everyone was accomodating of my bad driving etiquette, so it was okay.

Once inside, we started at the bar, and there I have nothing to complain about, except the atmosphere. It felt like a hotel bar, with older couples from out of town visiting and having drinks. It was pleasant enough, and the cosmopolitan I had was actually very well done, citrusy and sweet, without tasting like cough medicine, and it came in a cute little chilled glass thingy (exact name unknown, same as the thingies at Bar Marmont) so I could pour as much or as little of my drink in the precarious martini glass and not spill a drop if that's what I prefered.

Soon, they readied our table, and we were escorted into the main dining room. It was festive and big, with every table filled, but the tables were well-spaced so we didn't feel crowded. Our waiter was friendly, cordial, and reasonably attentive. He took our orders, drinks and all, and after a few minutes, our $1 salads arrived. That's a nice touch, actually. With every entree you can add a soup or salad to your meal for only a buck. It was a simple Romaine lettuce salad with diced tomato, but the dressing was good, a mustardy vinagrette, and I was satisfied. Then came the entrees.

I ordered the roast chicken breast with mashed potatoes because I was craving comfort food that night, and I figured a French bistro would be the perfect place to get a juicy bit of chicken with some buttery mashed taters. I was wrong. The chicken was bland beyond belief, it was almost flavorless actually, except for that "tastes like chicken" flavor that lends itself to so many other foods. It was also tough and dry, two words I loathe to use because they depress me when talking about food. The balsamic sauce that came with should have perked it up, but alas, it was wholly underwhelming and equally bland. I marvel at how one can achieve a bland balsamic reduction, but I now have proof that it's possible. My mashed potatoes had a bit of a crust, probably from being put into a hot oven to kiln fire the dish before plating the chicken, but the crust had no color, no crunchy brown flavor, so it just seemed like it had been sitting out for a while, which I assume it had. Waiters often tell you to beware of the hot plate, but this time they weren't kidding, and I kept my fingers away from the plate that felt like it had been to hell and back. I ate my meal, drank my second cosmo, and chatted with my friends, all while a running commentary streamed through my head about how the food could be so bad, when the friends who recommended it have such good taste.

When we were finished, we finally flagged down our waiter, who was probably chatting in the back because the place had nearly cleared out, and he delivered our check. Actually it was the check from the table next to us, so we had to wait until a different server took it back to our waiter since he had disappeared again. It seems the other folks had paid our bill, but since theirs had been more expensive, I insisted that we pay for ours. We did, leaving a decent tip because we are nice people, and we left.

I can think of twenty other places in LA that serve delicious food at similar prices, so I know that I won't revisit Café Bizou again. In fact, knowing that I would have enjoyed my meal a lot better had I eaten at Cheesecake Factory says a lot, because I so dislike patronizing the chain restaurants, when there are so many little places worth trying. Maybe it's the Sherman Oaks location that is deserving of praise. Too bad I didn't start there.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Chumus, Hummus, or however you spell it.

Chumus is a delicious blend of chick peas, tahini, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and various other seasonings and spices. I've tried recipes for it, and bought a variety of different brands of chumus, but I am rarely moved to recommend them to anyone. So it's a pleasure to find a chumus that I truly enjoy.

In my opinion, The Sabra brand of chumus tops the list. It's creamy, nutty, and tastes of tahini and a bit of garlic, without any of the flavors dominating. I also enjoy Trader Joe's brand of hummus, but it is the penultimate hummus, since it isn't quite as smooth as Sabra, but the flavors are still very good.

I recently met a new Israeli friend who told me that sabra is the Arabic word for thorny cactus, and is a colloquial name given to Israeli people since they are prickly on the outside, but sweet within. I must say this follows completely with my experience of the Israeli people that I've met in LA. Even when I go to the kosher market, where the Sabra brand products are sold, I feel the prickles, but know that it's just the wall that they've built up from years of living in a constant state of war. And even in the U.S., where there isn't constant fighting, at least not the kind experienced in the Middle East, it's still hard for them to let their guard down. Fair enough.

Pita is the natural accompaniment to chumus, and I'm a big fan. I also love fresh veggies, such as cherry tomatoes and cauliflower. I know, eating raw cauliflower sounded weird to me at first, even though it's a staple on the raw veg and dip platters, but it's so fantastic with chumus. Normally it's what's left after the carrots and cucumbers are gobbled up, so I'm always in luck. I prefer the Sabra chumus as a dip, but it's great spread thick on sandwiches piled high with veggies on toasted whole wheat bread. Or eaten with falafel or a chicken pita sandwich.

I have only tried one of the other Sabra salads, and that one I do not recommend. Their baba ganoush tastes of mayonaise, which I find revolting. I like mayonaise normally, but not in a grilled eggplant salad. So avoid that one, unless you like the mayo. And by all means try the other salads and let me know what you think.

Banana bread addendum

I thought it might be useful to note that the banana bread recipe that I posted about recently can be made without the nuts, for the banana bread purists, and makes two gorgeous mini loaves instead of one big one if you'd like to share with others and don't feel like cutting your big loaf in half.

Since there were some nuts and some non nuts in the group, I opted instead to make a maple pecan brown sugar butter to go with a nutfree bread, thereby pleasing both camps. The butter was a bit of a throw together, but here's an approximation of the recipe. Definitely mix it all up to taste, erring on the side of less sugar and maple syrup first, and adding until it suits your style.

1/4 cup toasted pecans
6 Tb butter, room temp
2 tsp maple syrup
2 tsp brown sugar

If you have a Cuisinart mini chopper, that's perfect for this recipe. If not, a blender or regular Cuisinart will do, but you might have to increase the quantities a bit to get it all blended. Place the nuts and butter in the chopper and mix until combined. Add syrup and brown sugar. Mix until smooth, adding more sugar and/or syrup to taste. The mixture will be soft, with tiny bits of nuts throughout. Refridgerate until firm. Serve with warm banana bread, pancakes, or biscuits.

Chow Revision

Okay, I spoke too soon. There are some moderately and even reasonably priced gifts in the latest issue of Chow. It's mainly that the ones that I want are expensive. Such as Laura Zindel's new line of tableware with amazing shots of bugs on them, like beetles, grasshoppers, etc. I can't find a photo of the tableware online, but here's a serving platter that gives you the right idea. The set of four tumblers is $265. Again, I am lamenting my lack of trust fund. Sigh.

And while I think the photography is strange, they do some great things that most of the other food mags don't do when they're listing recipes. They give you a shot of underdone, perfect, and overdone so that you can see what the food should look like at the right stage. While I am very comfortable with things in the kitchen, it never hurts to have a visual of what something is supposed to look like. Especially for their lemon meringue pie recipe. Getting a meringue whipped up just right can be challenging.

And last, but certainly not least, I award them huge props for their lack of advertisements!! Ads are annoying, and it's what I do for a living as a copywriter. So I guess I should say, ugly ads are annoying. The reason I stopped subscribing to Gourmet was the enormous ad section in the back of every issue. I felt cheated everytime I got it. Each issue seemed thick and full of lovely recipes and photos, but it was all a fascade. As I flipped through page after page of horrid adverts wishing that I could rip out the whole section, I realized I could stop subscribing and solve the problem entirely. And so it was. So major kudos to Chow for selecting a minimum number of unobtrusive, topical ads for their new magazine. That's a huge achievement.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Chow Magazine. Food. Drink. Fun.

There are so many food mags out there. Gourmet. Saveur. Food & Wine. It seemed like they'd covered it all, and there was no room for something new. At least not something new and different. And then there was Chow.

Chow got off to a rocky start. They released their premiere issue around the holidays, and I just received my second issue yesterday. There was a little filler issue in between—a tiny one the size of Everyday Food, but only about a dozen pages. That was cute, but not nearly the same as a real issue.

Yesterday when I checked my mail, I was pleasantly surprised to see Chow peeking out from behind the slurry of junk that I seem to get daily. It has brass, bold, and odd art direction (see picture), but it does grab your attention. I wouldn't say I'm a big fan of the look, but I can't stop thinking about it, so perhaps they're onto something. I suppose I would call it ugly sexy. Their articles are short, usually no longer than a two page spread, and most of their gift suggestions are way too expensive. And yet I find myself curling up with it on the couch and reading it cover to cover because they're actually talking about things that interest me. Yes, that's right. I think there's finally a food mag for the 20 to 30-something set. Even in her thirties Martha never got it, though I do love her mag, and so many of the others make me feel like I should be jetting off to unnamed islands to try local cuisine. Where's that darn trust fund when I need it? So welcome, Chow. I will be your early adopter, your trial audience, your willing victim. I'll try your recipes and share you with friends. Because you're a hell of a lot more fun than those other magazines, and I can always use more fun in my life. Especially if it lets me play with my food.


Friday, June 03, 2005

Jin Patisserie

I do believe it's possible to build up something in your head so completely that it can't possibly live up to the hype. I know I'm guilty of this, I have done it many times before. I do it most often with movies, but restaurants hold a close second. So it really didn't surprise me that my experience would be a tad underwhelming when I finally set foot in Jin Patisserie, a place I'd been looking forward to for months.

I worship at the alter of the chocolate shop. Beautiful and luscious dessert creations top my list of favorite foods. So when I heard about Jin Patisserie, a zen garden of dessert heaven, I was instantly intrigued. Stepping through the gate into the outdoor garden at Jin feels like you're entering a private party in someone's yard. Once you realize you're not trespassing, this is a welcome feeling. On the day I arrived, there were many children joining their parents for afternoon tea. The ruckus caused by small people can be rather loud, and given that I was expected a more zen-like garden, I was surprised.

We made our way into the inner sanctum to look at the dessert gallery and buy something to taste. The desserts were everything that I expected: gorgeous, precious, delicate, and beautifully arranged in a glass case that encircled the shop. The glass counter at the register contained the truffle offerings and a few packages of chocolates to go. Two customers preceeded me in line, and after an inordinately long wait, I was finally helped. Had I been in a hurry, I might have been peeved. As it was, I noticed, but I went with the flow.

After a brief deliberation, I decided on four truffles in the cute little gift box. I love the contrasting orange ribbon and the beautiful logo. (You can see the logo much better on their website, which I will share at the end of my post.) I believe that I chose Earl Grey, Lavender, Cinnamon, and Black Roasted Sesame. I might have selected Ginger instead of Cinnamon, but I don't remember. And therein lies the problem. None of the truffles tasted enough like the flower or tea or spice that they were said to contain for me to differentiate much between them. I had this same issue with the truffles I bought at Jacques Torres for a Mother's Day gift for my Aunt (that we collectively devoured. Sorry, Aunt Lil). With the exception of the ancho chili truffle, they all pretty much tasted like dark chocolate with a hint of something unidentifiable in the center. They were all delicious and chocolately, but I was hoping for that little something extra, just like chocolate apricot caramel bar I'd enjoyed from Chocolat Moderne. That chili truffle was exquisite though. Sweet, smooth, and spicy, with a smoky finish that changed a bit each time. I was left wishing that they'd all been like that one. Too bad it was the first one we tried and not the last.

So I walked away from Jin with a moderate reaction. Not quite as zen or as exceptional as I'd been led to believe by the legions of praise in all the magazines, but it was certainly pleasant. One visit hardly makes a full experience however, especially considering I haven't tried the cakes or sandwiches on the menu. And for the price, I certainly hope they live up to the hype. So I'll be back to Jin, mind wiped clean, ready to experience it fresh once again. I'm rooting for them. I really am.

Jin Patisserie

1202 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291
t 310.399.8801

Tuesday to Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Closed Monday