Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Lola Gaspar Duck Fries and Duck confit tacos...Just can't say no.

Shabu Shabu

Ahh the joys of shabu shabu. Dipping thin slices of fatty beef in to boiling hot water then dipping into deliciously savory sauces mixed with condiments of your choice (garlic, ginger, cilantro, hot sauce, ground peanuts, dikon, you name it they've got it) is one of the joys of living. Just talking about it makes my mouth water.
So if you thought you couldn't cook, shabu shabu takes all those doubts away. Some places have communal pots of boiling water over burners while others have individual ones ( I kind of like communal ones better because its a lot more fun when you have a large group of friends).
What a great excuse to round up a group of your best friends and enjoy meat, beer, and sake!


At a place like Cole’s nostalgia permeates the present. It becomes a tourist attraction. To let it all go would just be a shame. Food here in this old brick building has been the same for the past 101 years; an anachronism to the concrete jungle of art galleries that urban hipsters and gangsters fluctuate towards. The city’s hankering for large meat piled sandwiches served with a side of salty, meaty au jus coupled with human inkling for nostalgia, has kept a place like Cole’s running along smoothly like the mass transit system that once roared out of the very same brick building.
An urban tumbleweed in the form of a pink balloon drifted in front of my car as I patiently awaited the blushing stoplight to turn an emerald green. The buildings were the same bland, boxy, dull gray color, nothing chic or posh in this part of town. This was downtown L.A.? A sad combination of lonely streets and warehouse type shops that close before the sun completely sets. All I could think was that this place reminded me of a ghost town version of downtown San Francisco, everything reminiscent of Market Street, sans the hustle and bustle commonly associated with any downtown.
Parking was not much of a hassle. I parked at a meter about a block and a half away from what I was hoping to be the best sandwich I’ll ever have. Of course, I’m assuming that you don’t consider left hand-side parallel parking a hassle. My mouth watered as I maneuvered my car into the snug spot, fantasizing about taking a huge bite out of Cole’s famous French dip.
As I walked down past the indiscriminate L.A. lofts towards Cole’s, I peered into some large windows noticing that the majority of the buildings housed street level art galleries. Across the street from Cole’s was another gallery. Lined up outside were young, hip-hop styled individuals with their baggy pants, baseball caps, and candy color accented shirts. Other than the line outside the gallery, and the handful people sitting in the outside dining part of Cole’s, the streets were deserted.
Cole’s is no stranger to this town. It has been around since 1908. Above Cole’s are nine stories of the Pacific Electric Building which was built in 1905 and was once the tallest building west of the Mississippi. It was built by Henry Huntington, who in 1911, moved out and sold the premises to Southern Pacific. At the peak of Los Angeles’s mass transit period, more than 100,000 passengers would move through the depot. Today, some artifacts from rails can be seen on the second floor of the building.
Designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1989, Cole’s is older than “The Big Red Cars” that used to tunnel through the city; for as long as commuters have been riding the once famed trolleys, they’ve also been eating at Cole’s. Now that the city has turned into a megalopolis of freeways, and The Big Red Cars are part of a “once upon a time”, Cole’s is still hauling on.
Located below street level of the Pacific Electric Building at 118 E. 6th Street in the Historic Core District of downtown Los Angeles, Cole’s has continuously operated from the same location since its founding in 1908 by Henry Cole, the restaurant’s namesake. Cole is not only often credited for the creation of the first French dip, but he also operated Los Angeles’s first check cashing service from the restaurant’s backdoor. On payday, the line of wage-earners waiting to exchange their pay stubs for a beer, a shot of bitters, or slices of meat slapped between a French roll, would extend all the way down the block.
There has been a long-time standing debate on who the actual originator of the French Dip was, Phillippe’s, which also opened its doors in 1908 and Cole’s. As legend has it, one day in 1908 a man who was waiting to exchange his paystub for a sandwich at Cole’s asked the chef to dip the bun of his beef sandwich in the juice of the meat because the bun was too hard for his gums. The news of this savory creation spread like wildfire. It was called, “the French Dip”, taking the name from the type of bread used. And that’s how it all started.
Passer-bys are intercepted by a luminous neon sign sticking out over the sidewalk screams:
SINCE 1908

This was my destination; an old brick building among a bounty of hipster galleries and a failed New York loft make-over. I walked towards the sign as if it were the North Star. I carefully walked down the concrete steps towards the large opened door. Sitting at a tall table next to the door was a very unassuming dirty-blond haired man smoking a cigarette as his black trench-coated body slouched back in his tall chair.

My high heels excitedly clacked their way into the restaurant and I was welcomed by a dark, semi-empty room.

Walking into Cole’s, I am encapsulated by the back drop of a black and white movie; as if I had stepped into a time portal. The restaurant is dimly lit which created a sepia colored atmosphere. The first thing that caught my eye was the large bar to my right. Not much of a crowd was gathered at the sleek mahogany bar counter or in the dining room. The polished bar glistened under the Tiffany lamps tear-dropping from the ceiling. If these lamps could talk, they would tell a story of Cole’s golden age and of a time when Los Angeles was still a fledgling.

A large, red, keg barrel stuck half-way out of the mirrored wall behind the bar. Cleaned stemware huddled around the barrel, and hard liquor bottles lined the walls on either side. The bartender couldn’t have been more than 30 years-old. His black shirt starkly contrasted the gleam that came from the glass as it caught the light whilst he ran a towel along its cleaned rim. He had a friendly smile on his face as he conversed with a lonely customer in a cardboard-colored suit. He sat with impeccable posture. His amber colored beer sat in a frosty glass, as the beer head slowly decrescendo.

A young, dark, curly-haired DJ, who I had not noticed upon entering, began bumping hip hop beats from his silver Mac Book which radiated out of the speakers around the room. Expecting to hear Nat King Cole or Dodge City saloon music, hip hop just didn’t seem to fit the ambiance. Set up at his own little table next to the entry way with wires and cords flowing around him, he converses with a man in black about something the man had done over the weekend, joking and laughing, they turned over to me and smiled as I walked into the dining area and seated myself at a stiff, and under this lighting, what appeared to be a burgundy colored booth.

The floor near my booth was missing a cluster of what were once white honey-comb tiles, revealing a concrete gray base. A few tiles were missing here and there throughout the restaurant, but I guess that just added to the “aged” feel. My waiter; tall, young, medium completion, faux-hawk hair cut, and rather handsome, trekked out of the kitchen wearing a white buttoned-up shirt and black pants (the brightest room in the entire space), making his way across the dirt-stained floor to my booth.

“How are you doing today? Would you like a drink?”

I asked for a glass of water.

Music, which I didn’t recognize, continued to play from the DJ’s Mac Book as I admired the raspberry-colored wall-paper dining room is adorned with framed black and white photos of Los Angeles’s past. Photos of the P.E. Building in its younger years, crowds of men with slicked back hair and fedoras, tall unfinished buildings; all a reminder of how far Los Angeles has come. My stomach grumbled as my eyes brought my attention back to the table.

I grabbed a laminated menu which was hiding behind the horse radish bottle and the napkin dispenser and perused it. The dinner menu was printed on one side with a little more than a dozen food items you could order. What I was here for was the French Dip.

The menu was basic; French Dip with either pork, beef, turkey, pastrami, or lamb and 92 cents extra for Swiss, Cheddar, Goat or Blue Cheese. The menu also featured a handful of side dishes and pies. On the back side was a historical time line of Cole’s, dating from 1908 to 2009. A second menu listed “Cole’s Historic Cocktails”. Stiff, old fashioned bourbon, whisky, and rye drinks jumbled in with the lighter champagne cocktail and Cosmopolitan on one side and draft beers and wines on the other.
My waiter came back with my glass of water.
He pulled out a pad of paper and a pen and asked to take my order—beef French Dip, no cheese, and a side of spicy garlic fries, and to drink, a Lillet with a Twist.
The hip hop beats continued to infiltrate the dim room as more people came in. A family of three with and elementary school aged child sat at the table next to me. The little boy hoisted himself up on to the stool as his father held out a “just in case” arm. The kid pouted his face as he lifted his left knee onto the stool, grabbed the table with both arms and said in a whinny voice, “No Daddy, I can do it myself.” And with that he swung his right knee over and on to the stool, and plopped his behind down proudly.

Diagonally next to this family and adjacent to the well-lit kitchen, were a male and a female couple who appeared to be in their late twenties. She wore a strapless, denim-colored, acid washed dress that hit mid-thigh when she sat down. Her sleeveless dress exposed her heavily tattooed upper arm. She brushed back her bleach blonde bangs on her tar head of hair, securing it with a bobby pin. Her dark red lips smiled excitedly at her companion who was wearing a blue auto-mechanic shirt and dark colored pants. His arms were also tatted. He chuckled looking up at the waiter who placed their massive sandwiches in front of them. They chatted for a few seconds before both picking up half a sandwich with two hands dipping into the au jus and then struggling to take a full bite. He laughs as he wipes the au jus dripping down his goatee.

My waiter brought my drink. Condensation was dripping from the white wine glass as he set the water-color orange drink down in front of me noting that my food would be out shortly. The content was a Lillet Blanc served on the rocks with a twist of orange, thus giving it a most literal name—“Lillet with a Twist”. I took a sip and continued to look around the room. I noticed an old wooden sign hung up on the wall across that room that said, “We do not extend credit to stock brokers”, and another sign that said “Avoid sinful enterprizes” (and yes, it was spelled with a “z”).

This is not what Cole’s used to look like. Once a simple wooden walled eatery with fire engine red booths, old Big Red Car doors as tables, and wood shutters on the windows, Cole’s has officially transformed into a swanky, hip new restaurant. People who knew the old Cole’s feel robbed of a historical past that the restaurant once so dearly represented. Now, it was just a fraud—a romanticized vision of the past made tangible by an entrepreneur with a large wad of money.

My eyes wandered over to the back of the room, where a random door was present. This was Varnish. Cole’s little dirty secret—the speakeasy in the back. A place that sparked my curiosity, but it wasn’t open on this particular day because filming was happen behind that door. (Apparently, they film Hollywood movies in there, and on top of that, Cole’s is closed every Monday for filming or special events—it’s a hard knock life in L.A.)

Out of the corner of my eye I could see my waiter bring over my food. He set small round white plate down along with my basket of spicy garlic fries and condiment cup of ketchup. Two hefty halves of a beef sandwich, a ramekin of deep brown au jus, and a pickle spear left no space for the white of the plate to peep through.

Thick sliced beef brisket was layered high and neatly between the two halves of a dry, French sandwich roll. I picked up half of the sandwich with both hands, secured it in my left hand, grabbed the hot horse radish with my right hand and squeezed a good bit on one corner of the sandwich, dipped it in the au jus, opened my mouth as wide as I possibly could, and took a huge bite.

The meat was moist but tough and without the au jus, the sandwich was incomplete. My jaw was exhausted by the time I finished the first half of my sandwich.

The fries however, were a complete success. They were borderline shoe string fries. The long strands of extra crispy potato covered in chili powder and garlic smelled and tasted of rich butter which left the parchment lining of the basket translucent with grease.

I asked for a parchment paper to wrap the other half of my sandwich with to take home. The waiter brought my check over in a cup along with a neon pink flyer which promoted today’s “All nite happy hour, 10pm – 2am, 2$ off all drinks” and introduced the DJ who was playing –DJ Humberto and DJ El Reyes.

Time stands still at Cole’s. There’s something both reminiscent and representative of a past to which I did not belong to. I was seemingly sucked into a 1908 saloon twilight zone; a dark, noir place where people go to drink their stresses away. However, the silencing of nostalgia and the erasure of a sepia ambiance is brought about by the diverse crowd Cole’s draws, its location, and the anachronistic music that it hosts. Cole’s is both trying to hold on to the past, in a presumably gaudy and romanticized manner, yet still draw a crowd by incorporating modern and young aspects. The bipolarity that Cole’s has given into reflects the constant contractions that surround the city. The business decision to turn Cole’s into a swanky, hip dining spot will determine its further success, or if it will be just another piece of the disappearing Los Angeles.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Chinese Food

So I've recently rediscovered (or discovered rather) my love for Chinese food. I don't mean the take out stuff you order at a Panda Express counter or at Pei Wei's. No, I mean the stuff you get at a sit down restaurant. Granted that the Chinese food I'll be talking about here is probably not a stranger to you, nor is it authentically "hole-in-the-wall" cuisine, but it's the food that I grew up eating when I went out, but never really appreciated it, and I mean REALLY appreciate it.

Here's a general break down of the Chinese food that I really like:
-Stinky tofu (is a must, the name doesn't do it total justice, but hey, it IS stinky)
-Tripe (book trip AND honey comb...cooked in any Chinese style will make me smile from ear to ear)
-Chicken feet (I love the kind that you find at dim sum restaurants with the black bean sauce and it has that unusual red, sometimes radioactive color...yeah...that one)
-Peking Duck (Chinese roast duck is a gem within it self, but when you take a large slice of crispy skin, with NO meat on it, and slap it in a pristine white bun with hoisin sauce and julienne scallions, it REALLY is heaven)
-Wonton noodle soup (ok, so this one is kind of a touchy subject, I've had many a wonton noodle soups in my life, MANY, and this is the general rule of thumb that I go by when judging how many stars I'd give it. Wonton: MUST be plump and have shrimp in the filling. Noodle: MUST be, what I guess Europeans would call Al Dente, but not the same way risotto rice or pasta is al dente. But let me just say, a mushy noodle in this soup is never acceptable!)
-Porridge (i really like 1000 year old eggs in my porridge! Fear Factor BRING IT ON!)
-Steamed Fish (this is something I really never liked growing up, but absolutely LOVE now)

Here's what you have to understand about Chinese food, (as do, I guess, food from all around the world), China is split in to 8 very particular climatic regions, each specializing in their own cuisine culture.

These Eight regions are called: Eight Great Traditions (菜系): Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang.

Each region uses different spices and different ingredients based on what they can farm. For instance, Northern Chinese are noodle eaters, and Southern Chinese are rice eaters because the climate in the North can sustain a bountiful wheat crop, and the damp lands in the Southern regions of China are perfect for rice patties.

In some regions you'll find food with extremely intense flavors. Bold sauces, hot spices, thick gravys. But in other regions you'll find really pure foods like clear soups, thinner sauces. All good in their own way, and all enjoyed differently.

One thing about Chinese food is that, it doesn't always come in a greasy take out box, and although the history of Chinese food in America is WAY to complex to go into right now, just know that you should give everything a try, no matter how strange it looks or sounds, all of it, in its own capacity, tastes good!.

Gary Danko

Located just blocks away from the hustle and bustle of Fisherman’s Warf, Gary Danko is situated on the corner of a quiet neighborhood. Its gray exterior and blacked out windows can be easily missed by the unsuspecting visitor just cruising by.

The large black door opens up to reveal a metal countertop bar sandwiched between two small, but thoughtfully arranged dining areas. Red hues illuminate the dim room of black windows, acting as an escape from the outside world. Here, it is not only the food you are paying for, it is the experience. Candles sit flickering in the centers of the white table clothed tables, contrasting the dark yet chic colors of the walls. Large, fresh flower arrangements in dramatically large glass vases line the walls adding pops of elegance to the chic room. Canvases of modern art complement the entire backdrop.

The 75 seat dining area offers an intimate ambiance.

Having been awarded its sixth Five Star rating from Mobil, a Relais & Chateau designation, and a Michelin Star, Restaurant Gary Danko is nothing short of excellence.

Waiters and waitresses are neatly uniformed in black pant suits, blue collard shirts and purple diamond pattern ties. They graciously and politely step aside when crossing paths with guests, “Pardon me miss/sir”, allowing the guest to pass before continuing on their way.

Guests can choose to either dine at the bar (open seating) or make reservations for the dining room. Reservations are not easy to come by—the restaurant is packed even on a random weekday evening. Here, you’ll find a mixture of business men and women who have just gotten out of work still dressed in work attire, and the solo jeans and t-shirt wearing food aficionado dining at the bar side by side.

The menu offers a generous 2-5 course tasting menu featuring Appetizers, Fish and Seafood, Meat and Game Birds, Cheese, and last but not least Dessert. Each dish is complemented by seasonal vegetables and/ or fruits. For a little bit extra, each course can be paired with a glass of wine. Gary Danko offers 7+ selections under each category. Ranging from sweet, warm Glazed Oysters with Osetra Caviar that just melt in your mouth and taste just like an oyster should and Risotto with Lobster and Rock Shrimp for an appetizer, to sweet and succulent perfectly cooked Roast Maine Lobster and tangy yet savory Mushroom Dusted Sea Scallops seared to a nice golden brown on all sides, to Seared Filet of Beef cooked to a perfect medium rare topped with corn relish and two Quails Stuffed with Foie Gras with a wonderful glaze, to grand selection of cheeses that arrive tableside by cart plated with grapes and other wonderful parings, to Rhubarb-Strawberry tart and decadent Chocolate Soufflé served warm with a Vanilla Crème-Anglaise and Dark Belgium Chocolate Sauce that will have you feeling like you’re eating a luscious chocolate rain cloud.

Each dish, and the process of creating it, is thoughtfully and eloquently described to you as it comes to your table.

The restaurant is surprisingly unpretentious restaurant offers an astonishing 1,500 selections of wine all neatly listed in a hefty black binder, which the bartender will gladly heave over the counter for you to view. The list features wines from fifteen different countries and dozens of vintages are represented at Gary Danko. Some of the rarest vintages and wines can be found in the restaurant’s wine cellar. To add to the surprise, the wine cellar is an ongoing expansion project.

My experience at Gary Danko was spent dining at the bar for three hours. I had made reservations for two earlier that morning and was informed by the hostess that the earliest reservation they had open was 9:30p.m. My date and I arrived at the restaurant at 7:00p.m. after a long day of touring the city to see if there were any cancellations. Unfortunately, there weren’t. The hostess welcomed us to sit at the bar while we waited for our reservations.

We sat sandwiched between a very polished couple who appeared to have just gotten off of work, and another couple who were casually dressed in jeans and t-shirts. Both were dining at the bar.

We were quickly attended to by a bartender with strawberry brown hair that sat just about three inches above her shoulders. She asked to take our order, as she pulled out two thin, white cloth coasters. I asked to see a cocktail menu and a wine list. The recommended cocktail menu was fairly limited but the wine list was astounding. It was in a hefty black binder which contained over 1,500 wines with countless vintages, regions, and flavors. The prices range from low $40s to $200+, per bottle. We each got a cocktail and talked, admiring the décor.

As we sat and admired what each couple ordered. The savory aromas that encircled us forced us to surrender our reservations and dine at the bar. We joked with the bar manager as we informed him that waiting another hour and listening to him describe each dish without being able to enjoy it would just be torturous; we cancelled our reservations and were handed menus at the bar.

My date and I used the three course tasting menu to our advantage. We shared an appetizer, we each ordered a seafood and meat, and then we shared a dessert. The bar manager complemented us choosing this tactic, and asked whose idea it was. We sheepishly admitted that we over heard him suggest it to the couple sitting to our left. His laughed filled the bar area, telling us that he was ready to give me credit.

We shared the Glazed Oysters with Osetra Caviar, Zucchini Pearls and Lettuce cream and the Chocolate Soufflé with Vanilla Crème-Anglaise and Dark Belgium Chocolate Sauce. I ordered the Roast Maine Lobster with Potato Puree, Black trumpet Mushrooms, Edamame Beans and Tarragon and the Quail Stuffed with Foie Gras, Leeks and Quinoa, Farro, Maitake Mushrooms, Zuchinni and Roasted Red Peppers.

The courses are spread out in increments allowing me to not only savor and admire the lingering flavors of the previous dish but to discuss the flavor profiles and textures with the person I was sharing the evening.

The Gazed Oysters were served in a large white dish sitting in a spring grass colored sauce and a sand colored sauce topped with a generous spoonful of caviar. They were slightly warm. It was sweet and had the texture of yogurt that just melted in my mouth. The caviar was a perfect complement—adding a natural ocean air flavor that enhanced the flavor of the oyster.

My next course was the Lobster. The Lobster was cooked to a medium rare. It too melted in my mouth. It was incredibly sweet and though I feel serving seafood with potatoes is a crime, the light airiness of the pureed potatoes in this dish, did not take away from the texture or the flavor of the lobster.

The Quail came on a rectangular, slate colored dish. To my surprise, there were two stuffed quails sitting atop a bed of mushrooms, grains. They had a wonderful caramelized skin. The plump quails were very moist and filled with a healthy portion of mushrooms and infused with a rich flavor from the foie gras.

Finally, the sinful Chocolate Soufflé. The waiter came gliding out with a glass dish holding a white ramekin dwarfed by the pillowing soufflé. He put the soufflé down on the counter, took a spoon and created a small hole in the center—the soufflé deflated a bit. He poured the contents of the first gravy boat into the hole of the soufflé: a Crème-Anglaise. The soufflé appeared to breathe as it expanded with the steady stream of crème seeped though its pores. It deflated slightly once again when the stream stopped. The waiter then poured the contents of the second gravy boat into the same hole of the soufflé: dark Belgium chocolate. The thick stream of glistening rich chocolate once again made the soufflé expand. As I methodically ran my spoon though the center of the soufflé, I was able to get a spoonful of the airy top and the moist bottom which had happily soaked up the duo of sauces. It was like eating a cumulus chocolate cloud; a sweet, light, creamy, pillow that melted in your mouth. Though decadent, was not overly sweet or over-whelming. It was the perfect way to end the meal.

You will not leave restaurant Gary Danko hungry. Though the portions may seem small upon first glance, because of the dramatic dishes, don’t be fooled: the portions are extremely generous.

On this particular night, I did not leave the restaurant empty handed. The bar manager handed me a gift from the restaurant—a banana cream cheese cake to enjoy with my coffee the next morning. As for my date, he jealously eye balled my gift as the bar manager kindly gave him his: the check.

Gary Danko: 800 North Point at Hyde Street, (415) 749-2060. Serving dinner nightly 5:30pm to 10:00pm, Bar hours 5:00pm to 12:00am. Street parking and Valet available for $11. Three courses $66, 4 courses $83, 5 courses $98, wine pairing $65.