Thursday, December 29, 2005

"Pour me another scotch, Smitty."

Stoney Point Bar & Grill, Pasadena

We moved into our house about five years ago, and since we live very close to Old Town Pasadena, we usually venture there for dinner. Other favorite areas include Silverlake, Los Feliz and Downtown. Eagle Rock is another good choice for some decent eating. We'd noticed this restaurant called Stoney Point right up the street from our house about a month after we arrived in the area, but paid little attention. It looked so old-school, and sat on the stretch of Colorado Blvd that was right next to the strip of the 134 freeway that turns into the 210. There was (and still is) nothing in that area.

After a couple of years of eating at practically every place in the Eastside, we were having one of those nights where we were too lazy to cook and too lazy to drive anywhere far. We were also feeling entirely too lazy (see a theme here?) to deal with the hustle and bustle of the parking structures and crowds of Old Town. "What about that Stoney place?" said my husband. The proximity of the restaurant to our house (about 1 mile) made it a clear winner for the evening. We were quite surprised to see that the inside was quite cozy, lots of dark wood and well dressed waiters. There was a piano player and quite a few patrons eating at the mahogany bar. The main thing I remember about that night was the salmon. It was like a chunk of butter- rich, beautifully cooked and oh-so-delicious. Whoda thunkit??

The other night, we were faced with a similar dilemma- where to eat, somewhere close, somewhere nice that my in-laws would like. Again, Stoney Point came to mind and five of us went. We were greeted warmly by the host who sat us at a nice round table (I love round tables so everyone can talk to everyone). The restaurant was decorated festively and the same, well-dressed waiter came and asked us what we'd like to drink. I could feel the chill coming out of my hands (I know I know - you're thinking what chill? It's friggin Los Angeles! but it was cold last night!) and the place was just so cozy and inviting.

The waiter brought our wine and a plate of bruschetta- they give everyone a plate of those instead of a bread basket. Ripe tomatoes, pungent garlic and fresh basil just exploded on the crunchy, toasted baguette slices. I started with the mixed greens- nice level of dressing topped with some tomatoes and toasted pine nut- very good. My husband had the black bean soup- also very good. More ham-hock-style bean soup rather than Latin black bean soup. Next came my swordfish special- a luciously moist swordfish steak coated in tomtaoes, basil and garlic accompanied by brocolli, potatoes and carrots. I was wary of ordering a fish that often comes out dry at many places, but man- was I glad I did. SO good. My husband's salmon was a buttery and delicious as the last time we'd tried it, and my aunt's pasta w/ chicken and red peppers was creamy, smoky and perfectly seasoned. My in-laws were more than pleased with their dishes- Cannelloni alla Fiorentina (filled with spinach and ricotta) and a Red Snapper sauteed in butter and capers topped with shrimp and scallops.

For dessert, I was so excited to see Tartufo Ice Cream on the menu- I hadn't had one of those since I was a kid at Bona Corso's (now closed). It's just a scoop of ice cream coated in hard chocolate. SO good. I was wondering whether to get the cappucino or white chocolate flavor when the waiter informed us that tonight was the only night in his 18 years of working there that they were out of the Tartufo Ice Cream. Rats! At least I know I can get it again. We settled on the hazelnut and vanilla gelatos and both were excellent.

My in-laws paid so I don't know the exact cost, but at a glance it looked like $220. That's 1 soup, 2 salads, 5 entrees and 3 desserts + 2 bottles of Acacia Pinot Noir. Not bad. The service is old-school impeccable, and the atmopshere warm and relaxing. I could do without the piano player but otherwise, I truly enjoyed myself.

This is my last blog entry of 2005, so I hope you all have a very happy New Year's!!! Here's to another great year of wonderful food, wine and blogging!!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Citizen of the Year: Citizen Cake

What, do you ask, am I doing blogging on Christmas Eve? Not to worry- as I type this, I am in the middle of that roughly 2 hour period between being totally ready to go and when everyone finally comes over. I am at my husband's parents house, all dressed, but no one else gets here for another couple of hours. So my husband, in-laws and I are noshing on some foie gras and drinking some mildly sweet French wine. Basically, I'm in heaven. I think the only person who loves foie gras more than I do is my father-in-law, and sharing the experience together is always a joy.

But I HAVE to blog now while the memory of my brunch is still fresh. My favorite all-time breakfast/bakery place on this earth is in San Francisco so I only get to visit it once in awhile when I visit family. Citizen Cake. Even the name is clever. I've loved it for years and often crave what I consider to be the best almond croissants this side of Paris. I'd ask my sister to bring some back to Los Angeles when she still lived the in Bay Area and practically grab anyone who was visiting SF by the neck and demand they try the flaky pastries. If I could mail order them to arrive every Sunday morning, I would. If I hadn't met my husband first, I would have married it. Wait, I think I did meet the Citizen Cake Almond Criossant, you get the idea. The reason why I love them so is because, unlike many average almond criossants, they are crispy on the outside and NOT soggy on the inside. The almond paste is completely evenly distributed throughout the entire criossant. How many times have you bitten into the end of an almond croissant, only to bite into pastry? Then to find that all of the almond paste is in the middle, formed in a massively unappetizing ball? The pastry around has turned soggy and gummy and you lose all of the flakiness that you're supposed to get? Not with the CC version. I finally figured out why. They take a perfectly crisp criossant and cut it in half horizontally, THEN spread an even layer of almond paste and carefully sandwich it back together. So carefully that you cannot see the cut, nor realize (until after the 50th time you've had one) that it was done. Then there is some of the same almond paste spread on top of the criossant, topped with crunchy toasted almond slices. It may be baked a second time to allow the top to crispen a bit- I'm still not sure about that one.

All the way into the city (from Marin) I thought about my beloved CC Almond Criossant. Would I order something in addition to it? Just enjoy it with a cup of strong coffee? I could practically feel the flakes of buttery pastry crumbling down my chin. We found a parking spot right in front and strolled into the cozy loft-like space. Yes, a cozy loft. I can't tell you why it has both urban hipness and warmth, but it does. Sat down, ordered an almond croissant to start as we perused the menu. The waitress then broke the awful news. They were all sold out of almond criossants, they only made 4 today. FOUR?! The place had only opened 30 minutes before our arrival! But I could not get angry- after all, I understand that San Franciscans must adore them as much as I so I could only admire their speed in getting to them before I did.

By the end of the meal, I was actually a bit glad I hadn't been able to have it. Because I ordered something off the menu which turned into my Citizen Cake Love #2. The minute I saw "Pulled Pork Sandwich" I knew I had to have it- it's one of those things that I see on TV or read about often but rarely have a chance to eat. I figured the CC version must be great, and boy- I was not disappointed. A pile of tender, vinegary sweet pork on a homemade bun, accompanied by fennel-seed pickeled vegetables and coleslaw appeared at our table. I piled the coleslaw on top of the meat and took a bite. YUM. Not overpoweringly sauced, the pork flavor was what stood out the most. To me, the taste of the MEAT is what is important- the sauces and accompaniments should enhance but not overpower, and this was the perfect example. I know that a pulled pork sandwich is a strange thing to have for brunch, but I knew Elizabeth Faulkner (the owner/chef) could pull off a version that would be perfect any time of the day and it was. And hey - what better to start off a day of crazy eating than with a pork sandwich? (I think I'll live to regret it but oh well!) So thanks, Citzen Cake, for denying me of my almond criossants so I had a chance to try your divine sandwich. I wonder if I can get that Fed Ex'd to me every Saturday for lunch........

I've included tons of photos of the other goodies at Citzen Cake. I know I went overboard with the camera but Citizen Cake truly inspires me- it's the perfect combination of style and substance, comfort and beauty, art and skill, heart and perfection. I am thrilled to see Ms. Faulker featured in cooking magazines and on the Food Network- although I do not know her personally, I have always admired her ingenuity, passion and ability to execute her vision into true quality.

If you are ever in the San Francisco area, I highly recommend going there for a bite to eat.

And to all of the food bloggers (and readers!) out there, HAPPY HOLIDAYS. I can't wait to read about all of your holiday culinary adventures.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

An open challenge to all food bloggers:

Can you help me re-create a dessert? Last weekend, C, J and I went to Firefly Bistro in South Pasadena for an innocent brunch. I say innocent because none of us were prepared to fall in absolute lust with a dessert...but it happened, hard and fast. It started off innocently enough- J was content with his Green Goddess Omelet, C was noshing on her Hand Cut Beef Hash and I was unimpressed with my rather bland Turkey Benedict. I know- I should have never fallen for the notion that turkey could tickle my taste buds as much as a nice round of Canadian bacon, but hey- it's Los Angeles and we fall for that kind of faux-healthy thing. I say faux because we all know what hollandaise is made of. And it ain't tofu.

After our plates were cleared away and the waitress had to practically rip the bread basket out of our hands (they make this ammmmmaaaaazzzzzing white toast. Yes- white toast. It must contain a narcotic because it's simply addictive) before asking if we wanted to order dessert. Since we are all huge fans of their key lime pie, we didn't even bother to look at the menu just ordered it.

To our disappointment, the waitress said that there would be no key lime pie today....actually, not for awhile since it'd been replaced with a pink grapefruit pie. Same idea as key lime pie, just made with pink grapefruit. She insisted it was even better than they key lime, so we gave in and ordered it. It came, all pretty and peachy-pink in a perfect round, sitting on a crunchy cookie/nut crust and topped with a nice dollop of whipped cream. It had brûléed grapefruit segments and candied grapefruit peel scattered around it. There it sat, a vision in pink.

We then attacked- C from one side, J from another and me going straight for the top. One bite and we were asking for a fifth date. AMAZING. Creamy, tangy, sweet crunchy crust and undeniably, in-your-face grapefruitty. We tried a bite without cream, with cream, combined with a bite of the brûléed grapefruit, topped off with candied peel- every single version was simply transcendent. "Key Lime who??" we all asked, as we drooled over our deliciously decadent new friend.

Of course, the whole experience sent me on a mission. I must have another encounter with the luscious luxury, but I wanted it to be in the privacy of my own home. Since I'd never made key lime pie before, I printed out multiple recipes - although I soon discovered that 99% of key lime pie recipes are simply sweetened condensed milk, key lime juice and eggs. I knew that I couldn't get the beautiful pink color from simply using grapefruit juice diluted in all that condensed milk, so I pureed some rind in for good measure. I created a cookie crust by using shortbread studded with chopped walnuts- that part came out great. But the filling never achieved the flamingo hue that the Firefly version had. I am guessing that food coloring was the culprit in getting such a blazing glow.

The actual flavor was good, but again- not as intensely grapefruitty as the Firefly one. I wished I would have taken a photo of the one at the restaurant but alas- it never stood a chance once we took one bite. I did, however, take a photo of the Tuna Toast version.

If anyone has a great recipe for this type of Grapefruit Pie, please let me know. It almost seems like a combination of Key Lime Pie ingredients (minus the lime, add grapefruit) and a grapefruit curd.

Anyone up for the challenge?

The Tuna Toast version of Pink Grapefruit Pie.....

Monday, December 19, 2005

I'll never bake again

Cranberry & Pisatchio Biscotti before they get dunked in white chocolate

Every year I dream about giving out the perfect little package of holiday cookies to my coworkers and friends. Every year I pick three recipes, buy some cute bag to put them all in and anticipate spending some quality time in the kitchen. Every year, about three hours into the creaming of the butter, the rolling of the dough, the chopping up the chocolate and the trying-to-remove-the-cookies-from-the-sheet-without-breaking-any, I start to get a bit irritated. Five hours into the washing-the-mixer-for-the-sixth-time-in-order-to-start-yet-another-batch and divvying up the cookies into even packages, I start to get downright pissed. By 11:00 PM when I am still tying little ribbons to enclose each set of cookies, I just want to kill myself. OK, maybe suicide isn't in order but you get the idea. "WHY OH WHY do I even bother?" There is no "Baker Of The Month" award at work. I doubt I'll get promoted thanks to the time and effort put into creating little packets of cookies.

I guess, at the end of the day, no matter how frustrated and tired I am after the baking frenzy, I soon forget the bad feelings and just look forward to baking like a madwoman again 12 months later. It's the holidays- when else do you have an excuse to share so much baking with so many people? The reward of seeing a cubicled coworker receiving homemade presents (from their fellow cubicled coworker) makes all the work totally worth it.

The final package: Brown Butter Crisps, Chocolate Sparkle Cookies, Pisatchio/Cranberry Biscotti w/ White Chocolate

Just remind me that I was swearing at the bag of sugar and sticks of butter as if they were people before I start my baking whirlwind next year.

Friday, December 09, 2005

La Maschera Ristorante & Enoteca
Old Town Pasadena

My friend Steve and I wanted to try a new place in our old hood for dinner. Old Town is an easy drive from both our homes, but it's also filled with lots of mediocre restaurants. My personal favorites are Parkway Grill which is consistently all gracious service and good food, Saldang (not Song) for good Thai in a nice atmosphere; and Akbar for smokin' Indian food (hellllllo Tandoori Chilean Sea Bass!). Other than those + a couple more, Old Town has a lot of good looking places that just don't have much substance. Kind of like Kelso on That 70's Show.....but not as funny.

I was perusing Citysearch under Pasadena and saw an ad for La Maschera. "Where on earth did that pop up from?" I wondered. I spend a lot of time in Pasadena and had never once heard of this place. Intrigued, I called and made a 7:30 pm reservation for Saturday night. It isn't on the main drag, but just north of it on Fair Oaks. I was eager with anticipation.

We arrived promptly at 7:30 pm and were seated immediately. The place was about 1/2 full- not bad for a new place, I thought. The tables and chairs are dark, rustic wood and the walls had various wrought iron designs on them. The lounge next door has a much cooler vibe, but the dining room is nice and cozy.

We were given water and a bread basket containing flat breads and regular French bread. The accompaniments were a tomato/basil/garlic bruschetta topping which was very good, and a thin, pink creamy-mayonnaisy looking thing. I tasted it with my flatbread and it just, well, didn't taste of anything in particular. When I asked the waiter what it was, he said it was pureed cannelloni beans, "no dairy at all." Apparently no seasoning at all, either. But I digress. After all, I didn't order it so who am I to complain?

After having a bottle of zinfandel opened, we decided to split three dishes to really get a taste of what they had going on at La Maschera. We started with the Gambaretti- a plate of sauteed Black Tiger Shrimp topped with a salsa of avacado and honey melon. We were presented with six large shrimp- quite a bargain considering that it was less than $9.00 and off the bar menu. The shrimp were good but something was strange- they were still slightly translucent. Steve and I ate them and they tasted good, but agreed afterward that we'd prefer the shrimp a bit more done. The chef probably tried a little too hard not to overcook shrimp- which no one likes! Overall, good flavors.

We got the next two dishes at the same time- Insalata Di Cesare, an "eggless" Ceasar salad w/ Croutons. We got the added grilled chicken. My friend doesn't like anchovies so in addition to the dressing being eggless, my little sea friends were missing as well. It was surprisingly good, but I missed the strong tang that anchovies bring to a Ceasar salad. It was served wedge style with slices of very tender chicken and a few croutons.

The last dish we got was the Pizza Al Prosciutto, a white pizza with mozzarella and sliced parma prosciutto. The crust was very, very thin, just the way I like it. It was topped with a conservative amount of cheese and thin slices of prosciutto. I loved this - it was almost like eating a snack. No gooey heavy pizza here. You could probably eat slices of this while walking on a treadmill or mopping the floor with one hand. Make sense? My only wish was that it could have been hotter. But again, overall flavor was good.

After dinner, we moved into the lounge area and had a couple of drinks. My friend ordered a cosmotini made with shoju since they have no hard liqour license. It was very tasty. The lounge is really the great space here- beautiful sconces line the walls and old black & white movies are projected onto a screen. Dim lighting and an enormous wine wall complete the mood. Would be great for a private party.

The verdict? With the prices being as reasonable as they are (bottle of wine, 3 plates = $60) I would go back for the pizza or to have a drink but it wouldn't be my destination restaurant for Italian food. I'd like to see how their pastas are next time.

La Maschera Ristorante & Enoteca
82 N Fair Oaks Ave
Pasadena, CA
(626) 304-0004

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Dine & Dish #5- Asian Persuasion
A day late and an unagi short

First off, apologies to the fabulous Sarah of The Delicious Life for my tardiness in submitting my entry! I really do have a good excuse- I got a fun little visit from Mr. Flu yesterday but I've fought him off with multiple doses of various drugs. So better late than never, here is a tale of a girl, her husband and some sushi at Izaoyoi in downtown Los Angeles.

IZAYOI is a fairly new sushi/izakaya place opened by the former owner/chef of Sushi Ryo in Hollywood. We'd always been fans of Sushi Ryo's tradional-yet-open-to-new-things form of sushi and other items. Once I had some anago tempura there that was almost life changing. Anyway, we've been to Izayoi a few times and always enjoyed it just as much, but our last visit wasn't quite as satisfying.

I love the blonde wood sushi bar, the peaceful atomsphere and the staff- service is usually great. However, it took us about 15 minutes to get our hot sake (we're usually cold sake people but it was so coooolllld outside! We're wimpy LA people, remember?) and I had to ask for it twice. Once it arrived, it was so boiling hot that it made me think of that woman who sued McDonald's and won for the coffee being so hot it burned her lip or something. Not that I would ever sue for such a ludicrous reason, but damn, was it hot.

We started off with salmon sushi, which was good. The aji (spanish mackeral) was good but the texture was on the crunchy side- a theme that would permeate most of the sushi tonight. Even though the hamachi looked buttery and laden with belly fat, we got that same crunchy texture that just wasn't so....pleasing. It tasted fine, but you'd expect that texture from ika (squid) or tako (octopus), not hamachi (yellowtail).

The kitchen items were better- we had the ginadara (black cod marinated in sake/miso) which was melt-in-your-mouth good. When I saw seafood cream coroquette on the menu, I almost shouted out an order- they are my favorite and I hardly ever see them on any menu here in the states. I had found it at another Little Tokyo place about a year ago, but their version was awful. So, I was excited. When four, perfectly golden brown balls came to our counter with some tonkastu dipping sauce, I was thrilled. I bit into one and the crunchy panko-encrusted outside broke to reveal a creamy and hot center containing a good amount of real, shredded crabmeat. I was in love. It's the ultimate Japanese comfort food.

Our last kitchen item was not so great- shrimp shumai. They were oversteamed (in the microwave) so the skins became tough and chewy. I could tell they were homemade shumai and would have been so good had they been steamed properly. We finished off with a salmon skin roll which tasted ok....but mostly of overly charred skin.

I must admit- I was really surprised that Izayoi seemed so off. I am sure it was an off night, and I simply can't forget all of the wonderful experienes I have had at both Sushi Ryo and Izayoi in the past. I will definitely be back, and am pretty confident that they will find themselves back in my happy place!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Weekend Cat Blogging

Even though I don't really think that indoor cats need baths, I had to give my little Cory (ok, she isn't so little but she'll always seem that way to me!) one. I made the preparations: closed all of the bedroom doors upstairs, got the towels on the bathroom floor, made sure the water would run warm from the start, and then went downstairs to grab my poor, unsuspecting cat. Earlier in the day, she plopped down next to me as usual, and I got a nice, big whiff of something that I'll only describe as being not-so-fresh smelling. It didn't take much investigating to figure out that the odor was coming from my cat. Since it'd been about, oh.....5 years since her last bath, I figured it was time. I felt so bad but hey- you can't have a stinky cat rubbing up against all of your furniture. And besides, everyone wants to feel squeaky clean and smell nice, right?

Let's just say that it was very traumatic for poor Cory. She hollered and made such frightening sounds that I had to close my bathroom windows for fear that my neighbors would think I was killing a boar or something. At least now she has another 5 years before the next bath!