Friday, March 10, 2017

LADIES WHO LUNCH


Are you watching Feud – the mini-series about the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis?  I thought the first episode was pretty creaky and I just didn’t buy Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford.  But Susan Sarandon seemed to really capture something of Bette Davis – at least as we imagine her to be.


I’m not sure if modern actresses are allowed to drink – all those calories.  But we know that both Joan and Bette liked a tipple.  I found this wonderful, if ludicrous and scary, thing from Joan.  It’s hard not to have affection for a woman who adds a splash of vodka to everything.


It seems that Bette preferred whisky to vodka.  Robert Vaughan’s autobiography contains a wild account of being summoned to Davis’s house for lunch, so she could check him out and see if he was suitable for a project she was doing.  He staggered out at 4 o’ clock drunk, unfed, and barely able to stand or see.  He didn’t get the part, which I think is a great shame.  I’d have liked to see them together.   I think they’d have had more chemistry than Bette and Robert Wagner.


Monday, March 6, 2017

SORROW TEARS AND CEVICHE

You must have read one of those articles that crops up every few years: some university department has researched what music “goes best” with which kind of food.  You know, “Acid jazz really enhances the taste of monkey brains” kind of thing.  Well …

On Saturday, it being my birthday, I went to a restaurant called Los Balcones (1360, Vine Street, Hollywood).  It used to be called Balcones de Peru – but they obviously decided they need something snappier.  It is our mission to share our love for Peruvian culture, cuisine and of course the national spirit pisco.”

I think it’s a pretty reliable place and it always feels just a little bit special, without raising expectations too high.  And I’d been having a jonesing for ceviche, so I ordered some Ceviche Mixto – “striped bass, shrimp, octopus, squid, lime juice, onions, choclo, rocoto pepper” (though to be honest with you I couldn’t spot any octopus in there).  The choclo is the puffed up sweetcorn on the right.

  
There were Platanos Fritos there too:Peruvian plantain fritters, baby greens, goat cheese dressing,” like this:


And Huancaina – “baby potato salad, boiled egg, creamy huancaina sauce. “


Anyway the food was really good – and if you dipped some of the sweetish plantain into the sour marinade of the ceviche you had a very good thing indeed going on.

But OK, so what music would you expect to accompany this Peruvian feast?  Have as many guesses as you like and I think you wouldn’t come up with Fela Kuti – but that was the soundtrack here, and it made me wonderfully, perhaps incomprehensibly, happy. I’ve been trying to find some connection between Fela Kuti and Peru and I’ve failed, so I suppose it was just the personal taste of somebody on the staff.


Looking at his physique when he was healthy (and of course he became extremely sick at the end of his life) it’s hard to hard to imagine him being much of an eater, though I did track down a website with an article from Ovation Magazine by one Mike Osagie which described Fela’s eating habits like this: “Fela was a voracious eater who ate like a lion.  He could pay any amount for a great meal.  For example, among his women only about two or three cooked for him.  The queen of whom was Fehintola ... who was rumoured to be Fela’s favourite because of her cooking talent and sexual prowess.
    “A champion of pastries and different brands of sweets, Fela was also crazy about good snacks like cupcakes and custard.”
     Who’d have guessed?

Friday, March 3, 2017

MOLE AND TANDOOR

I had lunch last week at Loteria (6627 Hollywood Boulevard) – a place I like a lot, and it seems very successful, though I somehow feel it doesn’t quite get as much love as it deserves.  I ordered a couple of enchiladas, one cheese, one chicken, with mole poblano.  It looked like this:


It was so dark and intense it seemed to absorb the Los Angeles daylight - which has much to do with the chocolate it contains, of course – and the result is something Huysman might have approve of.  It was great, if frankly a bit intense for lunchtime.

And then as I was leaving, a fellow from the restaurant asked me casually if I’d enjoyed my lunch, since he’d seen me take the photograph of it.


It was the cheery fellow above, Jimmy Shaw, the begetter of Loteria – born in Mexico City, he renounced a career in advertising to become a chef.  He said he’d seen me in the restaurant before, and I said sure, I come fairly often, and it’s a great place to have in the neighborhood.  He obviously knew what I’d ordered, and he said, and this may not be an exact quotation but something very like, “Mole is to Mexico as curry is to Asia.”

It sounded fair enough but when I got home I realized I wasn’t sure I knew exactly what a mole was, so I did a little digging.  It some ways it seems to be just another word for a sauce, but that doesn’t really say much.   And I found this evocative, if faintly excessive, description in Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen.  “When it’s made from scratch, no matter what regional variation you’re tasting, the sauce will offer the fullness of a 20-piece dance band, the intricacies of a Persian rug and the intensity of a Siqueiros mural.”  Though frankly I’m not sure that any dish could be quite as intense as this  Siqueiros mural, especially not at lunchtime.


And then, life being what it is, I opened my Sunday New York Times Style Magazine yesterday and there's an article titled "Mole In Mexico" and I thought I probably ought to read that.  So I read the opening line, "The word 'mole' doesn't translate into 'infinity,' but it feels like it should."  Seems that mole plays havoc witha man's prose style.
Fortunately I also found a couple of online interviews with Jimmy Shaw.  In a piece on chefsinsight.com he said his mole has 27 ingredients, and then, “Mexican food is truly fusion food of centuries. If you think about today’s mole poblano, you think 'that’s truly a Mexican recipe.' But mole was made originally by Spanish nuns for a viceroy to showcase indigenous and Spanish cuisine together. We’re talking about 500, 600 years ago.”  This story is much repeated in the annals of mole – in some versions an angel is involved.

Well it so happened I went to another restaurant the next night – Animal (435 North Fairfax), which cooks the kind of food I love (sort of post-Fergus Henderson nose-to-tail) without necessarily always cooking it quite as well as I might wish.  With curry on my mind, I ordered the “tandoori octopus – tamarind, yoghurt, kumquat.”  It looked like this:


And when I got home I realized I wasn’t sure I knew exactly what a tandoori is.  I mean, I know it’s a clay oven, but not much more than that, and I’m not sure that Animal actually has one of these:


Still, looking it up in Alan Davidson, he tells us the tandoor is a bread oven originally found in the middle east.  But, and now be prepared to set your face to stunned, “Tandoor meat cookery has been popular since 1948 when a Kashmiri restaurant named Moti Mahal became a fashionable dining spot for politicians in New Delhi.  As a result Indian tandoori restaurants have sprung up all around the world.” 

Only since 1948?  So - tandoori cookery is quite the Johnny-come-lately of Indian cookery, and the man behind Moti Mahal was one Kundan Lal Gujral.  This is him, another cheery fellow, apparently:


Moti Mahal Delux is now a global chain with 120 franchises.  The picture below is from their website – uncaptioned so I can’t really tell you what’s going on, but I'll bet the dialogue was lively.



And I have no idea whatsoever of what's going on in this one:



Tuesday, February 28, 2017

SUCCESSFULLY AVOIDING A COQ JOKE IN THE TITLE


Over the weekend I made coq au vin.  It was OK but it wasn’t great and I don’t really know why.  Did I not use enough wine?  Or was the wine not good enough?  Did I cook it took long or not long enough?  I just don’t know.  And I was even following a recipe, one that had appeared in the New York Times French cookery supplement, by Melissa Clark.  


The recipe seemed pretty straightforward and I followed it pretty closely,  although I was confused by one line.  As expected, the recipe tells you to brown the chicken pieces before you pour in the wine, but the instruction is as follows: “Heat lardon fat over medium heat until it’s just about to smoke.”


But how could you possibly know when fat is “just about to smoke”?  I can tell you when it’s NOT smoking.  I can tell you when it IS smoking.  But unless you have the psychic ability to see into the future how can you tell when it’s about to?  These professional cooks have gifts the rest of us can only dream of.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

DRESSING FOR DINNER

It’s an odd and ambivalent thing isn’t it, that when you go into what appears to be some anonymous little restaurant and you see glowing reviews from major magazines and newspapers that have been framed and mounted on the wall, well you know you’re probably in for some good food, but on the other hand you also know that you haven’t made a “discovery.”  The word is already out about this place and you’re just following the crowd.


And so it proved when I went to Cacao Mexicatessen at 1576 Colorado Blvd, in Eagle Rock - one of those order at the counter, take a number and go sit down places.  It looks invitingly modest, but it has reviews from the LA Times and LA Weekly proudly displayed on the walls.  And why not, although it must be said these reviews weren't exactly hot off the press.



People will tell you that the must-have dish is the Carnitas de Pato – duck confit, avocado, vinegar onion, radishes chile oil.  And they’re right, and really, seeing duck confit tacos on the menu, how could you NOT order them?


Mind you, the menu indicates that they do strange and wonderful-sounding things with sea urchin – that’ll have to be next time.

There are also Mission fig mole fries - “house made French fries, topped with Mission Fig Mole poblano sauce.”  Gotta say I couldn’t honestly taste the figs but French fries in a thick spicy sauce is surely good enough for anybody.


It was all good.  And then, afterwards, taking a little stroll, with the Mexican goodies starting to digest inside me, just across the street and round the corner from CaCao I saw this car wash, closed but still in business, I think, and with this extraordinary sign. 


Shampoo and dressing? Really?  Shampoo I understand, of course, but dressing? What kind of dressing?  Balsamic, thousand island, blue cheese?  Does anybody want that in the interior of their car?  Well, apparently some must.  It’s times like this when I realize I still have a lot to learn about LA eating and driving culture.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A WALK ON MOM'S SIDE


It was Nelson Algren who, in A Walk on the Wild Side, wrote. "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."

I am in the clear with the first of these rules, although if you’d ever played cards with my Uncle Frank, you might well have thought he could and should have been called Doc.  The third rule is a subject for another time, but until last month I could safely say that I’d never eaten at a place called Mom’s.


And then I went to Pahrump, Nevada where Mom’s is regarded by many as the best place in town to have breakfast.  It took a little finding but a local pointed me in the right direction, “It’s up the hill by the jail” and so it was.

The breakfast was good, the place was friendly, and those potatoes you see below were a knockout. 


However it was the men’s bathroom that I’m really going to remember. It looked like this: all custom cars, and a fake (perhaps homage to) Von Dutch. 



I know there’s a widely held opinion that if you don’t like the look of a restaurant’s bathroom, you’d definitely better not see the kitchen.  Sounds reasonable.  But I really liked the bathroom at Mom's, and if there’s as much attention to detail in the kitchen as in the bathroom then I think Mom’s is onto a winner.

Anyway, this Mom’s business has been on my mind recently, partly because I’ve been listening to music by Carl Stone, not least an album of his titled Mom’s, released in 1992.



Carl Stone, should you need bringing up to speed, is an American, avant-garde, electronic composer who uses sampling, looping, musical fragments that go in and out of phase, repetition, and endurance.  The overall effect is amazingly, sometimes mystically, uplifting and transporting.  I gather he divides his time between California and Japan, where he’s on the faculty of the Department of Media Engineering at Chukyo University.

But here’s the psychogourmet part: a lot of his compositions are named after restaurants, many of them from Los Angeles.  The compositions on the album Mom’s are titled Banteay Srey, Gadberry’s, Shing Kee, Chao Nue, and of course Mom’s.

I’ve been trying to research these restaurants, and my research is admittedly patchy, but I’ve not been able to find a Los Angeles restaurant named Shing Kee – though there’s certainly one in San Francisco.  (In fact I discover from Mr Stone himself that the Shing Kee in question was in New York's Chinatown, but the restaurant is gone). And there are a lot of places around the world named Banteay Srey (it being a 10th century Cambodian temple) but again I haven’t been able to track one down in the City of Angels.  Internet know-it-alls may be able to help me out here.

On the other hand I do know that Gadberry’s was a barbecue joint in downtown LA, on Broadway, though it’s long gone.  And Chao Nue was a northern Thai restaurant on West 9th Street, though I can’t find a review later than 1990.

However Mom’s Bar.B.Q is still there on the Imperial Highway in Westminster.  Hurrah! It doesn’t look exactly the same as in the album cover image (which is hardly surprising given the passage of time), but it sure looks like the same place.



I claim no acquaintance with Carl Stone beyond Facebook, but I do find his postings there more interesting most, since they consist largely of photographs of his meals, many of them eaten in Japan.  This kind of thing:



And I also just found on Facebook (and it didn’t take much finding – Stone himself put it there), this quotation from Jonathan Gold:  "Spicy Asian cooking is to Carl Stone what the Immortal Beloved was to Beethoven, what opium was to Berlioz - an eternal source of inspiration."


Carl Stone’s latest album (and I’m not trying to come off like a big shot but I yes, I have it on vinyl, signed by the man himself in both English and Japanese) is Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties.  Thanks to liner notes by Jonathan Gold I now know that at least two of the titles refer to Los Angeles restaurants – Gold also makes a comparison between sampling sounds and sampling food (sounds coherent to me).  

The two restaurants are Dong Il Jang – Korean, and Shibucho – a sushi place, both still very much in business.  Below is chef Shigeru Kudo of Shibucho with Ron Wood.  Music and food make for some strange bedfellows, but I suppose we always knew that.





Monday, February 13, 2017

CLASSIC

Is there any such thing as non-ethnic food?  I’m going to say no.  I’m going to say that any food, however plain and middle of the road, has to be some kind of national, racial or cultural expression.


I’ve been thinking about this since I had lunch last Friday at a rather good diner in Santa Monica named Coogie’s Cafe. (Not to be confused with Googie’s).


Before I lived in Los Angeles, when I used to come as a tourist, I spent a certain amount of time in Santa Monica – and I ate at Coogie’s once in a while.  I even saw David Warner in there, one of my favorite actors, though he was reading the paper and looking grumpy, not that I’d have approached him anyway.  He didn’t look in the least like this:


These days I hardly ever go Santa Monica, much less Coogie’s, but driving past there last Friday it seemed as good a place as any to have lunch.  The first thing I noticed was that most of the clientele was white and old, while the staff appeared to be entirely not white – a mixture of Latino and Asian.  Now this is not very surprising - we know that if you peered into a great many Indian or Italian or even Japanese restaurant kitchens in Los Angeles (I have) you’d find Mexicans running a lot of the stations.  These guys are nothing if not versatile.
        
And so even though the menu at Coogie’s had a few Latino influences – nachos, quesadillas and what not, it was the meatloaf, the open-face turkey sandwich, the patty melt, the grilled three cheese sandwiches that really seemed to define it.


And so I ordered a tuna sandwich (that’s it above) – sourdough bread with lettuce, tomato, Monterey Jack cheese, served with a slice of pickle, a spear of carrot, and coleslaw on the side.  It seemed to me that on that day, in that place and at that hour, nothing could have tasted cleaner, fresher or better, and that nothing could have been more all-American.  We know they serve tuna sandwiches all around the world in one form or another, and yet this was a sandwich that couldn’t have belonged to any other ethnos.


And now I see that the Waitrose supermarket chain in Britain has decided to “rebrand” its range of “British” ready meals.  It turns out that some of them are made with New Zealand lamb.  They’ve decided to call them “Classic” instead.

Now this strikes me as essentially nuts.  If you go into an Indian restaurant in London, you don’t expect the chicken in the curry to have been flown in from the Punjab, do you?  But it still constitutes Indian cuisines as far as I can see.  Maybe it even counts as classic.