Monday, July 30, 2007

Restaurant Review: Gonpachi

Take a good look at these photos. The serene gardens, trickling water fall, gorgeous Japanese architecture. Did I take a quick weekend trip to Kyoto, you ask? Perhaps a little 48-hour excursion to Kamakura? Unfortunately, I don't have a private jet nor the means to take spur-of-the-moment vacations to such far away places, but for a moment this past weekend, I could have sworn I was in Japan.

Where was this transforming place? Gonpachi, the new, gigantic robata yaki, sushi and soba restaurant on La Cienega. Much had been written of the struggles the multi-million dollar restaurant experienced after it first opened, so I didn't want to go until the bumpy period ended. Last Friday, I was at my best friend M's new apartment when she suggested we try it out. Since so many of our best Japan memories involve eating at izakayas and yakitoriyas, we hoped Gonpachi would be a little blast to the past. After all, J was in Japan this past weekend so M and I wanted to get in on the action by at least pretending we were there!

Upon driving up to the behemoth restaurant, I was instantly transported by the gorgeous shoji doors that lined the restaurant. What an absolutely stunning building!!! Honestly- I can see why it cost so much to build- every detail is meticulous and the scent of the wood reminded me so much of Japan. We both got pretty excited as we were led upstairs to one of the booths overlooking the entire restaurant. M and I had been to Gonpachi in Shibuya twice when were in Japan last November and had fallen in love with the place. When we spotted the long bar seating in front of the robata yaki chefs, however, we asked to be seated there. I love sitting at the bar, chatting up the chefs and being able to order one item at a time, just like at sushi. Since we arrived early, there were only a couple of customers in the giant space and no one else at the counter.

I'll be honest- when I realized that the two robata yaki chefs who greeted us weren't Japanese, I was disappointed. There's something about being able to converse in Japanese with the chefs that, for me personally, just makes me feel at home. M and I checked out the menu and decided to start with a few appetizers- the soba salad being one of them. I had read a lot about the hand made soba and had seen the soba maker on my way in, so we were excited to try it. We also decided on the korokke (fried potato coroquettes) and the unagi gohan (eel rice). We toasted with my cold sake and M's super tall glass of Sapporo and sat back, completely in awe of the amazingly long wooden bar, hanging lanterns and the general vastness of the place.

Our soba salad arrived and I couldn't see a bit of....soba. After a bit of poking around with my ohashi, I could see the small pile of it resting underneath a bird's nest of shredded daikon and carrot. The soba was also cut into short strands.....I suppose convenient for a salad but really difficult to get a decent chopstick full of. The barely-there dressing was bland and it really should have been marketed as a daikon salad with a hint of soba. The korokke were better- nice, crunchy balls of ground meat, potatoes and cheese (?) which I found a bit strange as Japanese korokke doesn't usually have cheese. They were dressed like takoyaki usually are, doused with tonkastu sauce (standard) and bonito flakes- again, an odd pairing for korokke which is usually just served with the tonkatsu sauce. The unagi rice was quite good, albeit slightly bland again- a small bowl of sticky seasoned rice topped with unagi slices and served with Japanese pickles.

Soba (?) salad.........


Unagi rice with Japanese pickles

When we started eyeing the robata yaki, a Japanese chef did come up to us and started speaking Japanese, which was nice. We opted for the chicken/negi, the shiitake stuffed with ground chicken, shishito peppers, asparagus bacon and ground chicken (tsukune) skewers with the optional "onsen tamago" which is a very lightly poached egg. All of the skewers were very good, I'd say- especially the shiitake mushrooms with the ground chicken. Smoky, slightly sweet and tender, the flavor of the shiitake was very pronounced and a good match for the soft meat.

Chicken and negi and tsukune skewers

Shiitake stuffed with tsukune

Asapargus wrapped in bacon

We saw quite a few people ordering dessert, so we decided to share two- the homemade vanilla pudding with macha shortbread and the pumpkin zenzai. The pudding/custard was delicious- creamy and not-too-sweet, and the accompanying cookies were just barely sweet with a very pronounced macha flavor. The real winner, however, was the zenzai - vanilla ice cream topped with sweet anko, pumpkin sauce and mochi balls........WOW. I mean, this dish would (and WILL) make me return just to get another chance to eat it. The creamy ice cream, sweet red beans and pumpkin sauce blended perfectly, and the chewy mochi balls were toothsome and delicious. Next to the butterscotch budino at Mozza, I'd have to say this is probably one of the best desserts I've had in a long time.

We noticed a lone, stern-looking Japanese man sitting at the end of the counter, keeping a very close eye on the robata-yaki chefs and motioning for one to come over and inspect some of the skewers he had on his plate. We wondered it he was the manager, and upon further investigation, we found out that he was Kozo Hasegawa, the CEO of Global Dining, Inc, the company that owns Gonpachi and a number of other restaurants both here and in Japan. He had flown in from Japan to check out operations, and boy- was he crackin' the whip. We saw him walking around after we were finished eating, so we took our chance to speak with him and even snap a photo. He seemed genuinely interested in knowing whether or not we had enjoyed our meal so we told him that yes, we did, but we'd love to see a few more Japanese tapas like items on the an assortment of Japanese pickles (tsukemono no moriyawase) or kastuo no tataki (seared bonito). He said yes, in the beginning they did have more, but that American customers generally didn't order some things so they took them off the menu. He said he had noticed that we both ordered the optional onsen tamago (slightly poached egg) with our ground chicken skewers, but that hardly anyone ever did so- a super runny egg isn't really a popular item here in the States. In Japan, the ground chicken skewer is traditionally served with a raw egg yolk, but even the slightly cooked version doesn't sell here. We did take the chance to tell him how wonderful the desserts were, and how much we enjoyed our experiences at both Monsoon and Gonpachi in Tokyo.

Hasegawa-san and M

Overall, I think Gonpachi is a gorgeous restaurant whose food is good, but nothing exceptional. The robata yaki and desserts are definitely worth going back for, but the price adds up since the skewers are priced per skewer, not per pair. One will run anywhere from $3.50 for something basic like a veggie, to $18 (!!!) for something more exotic like toro or kobe beef. I guess I just have to get it out of my head that I'll ever experience the same kind of vibe that I did at restaurants in Tokyo- even if it looks exactly the same as the Gonpachi in Shibuya, we're not in Tokyo anymore so the Gonpachi here will be decidedly different. M and I agreed that next time, we may just go sit in the open-air bar overlooking the Japanese garden, have a couple of skewers, some sake and that fabulous zenzai and call it a night.

134 N La Cienega Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90211

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

No, I Didn't Fall Off The Ends of the Earth.......

Things have been absolutely bonkers at work, thanks to the drunken escapades of some people I wouldn't mind never hearing about again. One night you go to bed with the knowledge that things are good, then you wake up to breaking news on your Crackberry about some young starlet boozing and driving. Great, I think. There goes my week.

One does have to eat, however, no matter what nutty thing is happening in the media. Unfortunately working late doesn't really give a girl a lot of time to make elaborate meals (or proper meals, for that matter) and I didn't think you'd want to see photos of a tuna sandwich or crackers with cheese.

I did manage to make a semi-decent meal the other night, thanks in large part to the art of rubbing down a large piece of meat with garlic, herbs and olive oil and promptly tossing it in the fridge for a day, and my trusty propane grill which cooks everything in no time flat. The lamb came out nice and just pink in the center, and, served with a couscous salad and green salad (hey- I like my salad ok?!) it made for a nice dinner on the patio.

I definitely need to get back in the kitchen since I start to feel a sort of emptiness when I don't cook enough, so I am hoping to have some better posts for you all soon! A company bbq on Friday may prove to be an interesting entry, depending on good the food is.

Let's hope nothing drastic happens overnight!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Restaurant Review: Passionfish, Pacific Grove, CA

Monterey......highway to paradise!!!

Monterey has got to be one of the most beautiful places here on the West Coast. We had the pleasure of going since my college roommate got married there last weekend (congrats Katie and Carey!!) and I pretty much fell in love with the beachside community. I mean, what's not to love? Blue skies, clean ocean and the greenest of trees all meet to form a magical place. I could do without some of the seagulls who have a knack for pooing on your car in just the right way so your ENTIRE CAR is covered with their, er, stuff, after ONE shot. How they manage that is beyond me, but otherwise Monterey is absolutely enchanting.

We drove up last Friday and arrived just before 4:00 PM. I had done a bit of research on where to have dinner that night, and after checking a few websites I came to the conclusion that Passionfish was the place to eat. When we arrived a bit early for our 7:00 PM reservation, the place was already filled with people- both in the dining room and the waiting area. We sat in front of the enormous wine case while we waited a few extra minutes to be seated.

The hostess called my name and we were walked to the far end of the restaurant....which would have been fine if the fan hadn't been broken. You see, Friday was unusually hot for Monterey and the place has no air conditioning, so it was taking some time to cool off the back room and the fan not working wasn't helping. They did have a window and the back door opened but I have to admit, I was beginning to get ansty. You know when you spend the time to find the perfect place, you want it to be, well...perfect. There was also a large party seated right behind us, and one of them was having some sort of hissyfit over a menu item that was apparently no longer on the menu. All I could hear him say was "Well they'd better make it coz when I called they said they had it and that is what I wanted!" all bratty and whiny. Ugh. I was getting a sinking feeling that my much-anticipated dinner was not going to go well.

Luckily our waitress was very nice and said she could get us another table if we could wait a few minutes- she also explained that the other areas in the restaurant were likely to be on the warm side as well since they didn't have A/C. Her good mood, in addition to the fact that Loud Whiny Guy had finally shut up put us in a good mood too, and we decided to stay at our table. The open door started to cool the room down, and I got back to my happy place. J marveled at the well-priced wine list and read off the wine pricing philosophy of the restaurant- they don't spend money on Riedels or expensive decanters so they only mark up the wine slightly. If you'd like to come armed with your best crystal stemware, please do so at no charge but they are more concerned with serving great wine at reasonable prices- an idea I can definitely jump on board for! J decided to start with a half bottle of the Lake Chalice Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough (we love NZ sauvis!) and placed our orders.

Fried oyster salad......

My Fried Oyster Salad with Citrus Soy Glazed Arugula was a perfect combo of crunchy oysters and the peppery leaves. I'm a big fan of deep fried elements in a salad since it's never overpowering and such a good balance with fresh, raw veggies. J's Dungeness Crab Cake with Spicy Tomato and Onion Relish was a ball of crab- no filler- and the fresh sauce had just enough kick to balance out the richness of the crab. Both dishes went so well with the green-apple-juicy-fruity-tangy sauvignon blanc. My mouth is watering just thinking about that crisp wine with the crunchy oysters.

Crab cake with fresh tomato sauce

We ordered a bottle of the Dutton Goldfield Pinot Noir after our first choice was sold out and a call to his J's winemaker brother resulted in that choice (Carl, if you're reading this, we have to say thanks for recommending one of the best pinots we've ever had!!!). Now- I'll say that the photos our main dishes do not do them justice. J's salmon with cucumbers (don't know the official name) was fresh, clean and dolloped with roasted garlic aioli which the light cucumbers tempered to make just the right combination. My grilled sturgeon with sweet corn, bacon, banana potatoes and tomato salsa (also not the official name) was, in a word, divine. Corn, bacon and potatoes with white fish is the classic chowder combo and this dish had all of the comfort but none of the heaviness of that. The sturgeon was beautifully grilled and the sweet corn and salty bacon was meant to surround that gorgeous piece of fish. Yum.

Dessert wasn't as perfect as our meal- J ordered the peach cobbler (his favorite dessert besides bread pudding) and for once, we both agreed that it wasn't sweet enough. Strange, coming from two people who prefer our sweets to be, well, less sweet. I think cobbler is one of those desserts that need sugar since the fruit will be varying degrees of sweetness depending on the season and the kind of fruit, and the cobbler topping was just barely sweet. The vanilla ice cream, however, was creamy and just sweet enough.

Passionfish is one of those perfect restaurants that does rustic yet elegant food and does it extremely well....with a wine list that just cannot be beat. I love the fact that getting the customers the best wine and food possible without breaking their banks is the top priority. They also serve only sustainable seafood and provide a list of all sustainable seafood for you to take home.

High quality, fresh seafood and organic produce combined with the skill of a good chef is all you need for a great meal and Passionfish is a great example of that.

We'll definitely be back!

701 Lighthouse Ave
Pacific Grove, CA
831 655 3311

Monday, July 09, 2007

Meeting a Top Chef

As most frequent readers (all three of you) of this blog know, I work in television. It isn't super glamorous but I do see my share of celebrities or TV personalities. I mean, I don't have tea with Brad Pitt or anything, but I do have the opportunity to glance at a decent amount of people who would be considered somewhat famous. Honestly, it doesn't really affect me either way- I don't dislike it but I don't live for it either. The funny thing is, when it comes down to you and a famous person standing face-to-face, you're just two people who have nothing to say to each other anyway, right? It's just as awkward as staring at a stranger, which is basically what the famous person is to you anyway. A stranger you've seen on TV, I guess, but it doesn't make the meeting any easier.

Farro, corn and bacon salad

I have to admit, however, that there are a few people I'd freak out over meeting, and most come from the culinary world. If I ever ran into Tom Colicchio, I'd probably just be a blubbering mess. I'm also a pretty big Bobby Flay fan (I know, you all hate him, he's cocky as hell, he uses honey in everything.....but I still like him) as well as an Anthony Bourdain groupie. TV chefs are not only in my living room on a regular basis (on the television) but make regular appearances in the cookbooks I buy and the magazines I subscribe to. They permeate a good portion of my life, since I spend so much time thinking about, talking about, blogging about and dreaming about food and cooking. What can I say, I guess I'm a food 'ho. 'Nuff said.

Shaved zucchini w/ parmesan

So imagine my delight (polite way to say FREAK OUT) when my friend invited me to a bbq where all the food would be cooked by Lee Ann Wong of Top Chef fame. You know- the Wong Way on She was one of my favorite contestants on season one of the show and I'm still furious that she didn't make the top three (especially since that backstabbing Tiffany did!). I was told not to bring any food since she liked to make everything herself, so we went armed with a few bottles of wine in hand and a few butterflies in my tummy.


We showed up early and the table was already filled with tons of great looking food. There was Lee Ann (TINY in person, may I add) manning the grill which was emitting some amazing smells. We were introduced, then she went back to grilling everything from shishito peppers to enormous rib eye steaks. I poured myself a glass of bubbly and hung back, acting as casual as I could.

Grilled shishito peppers

Since no one seemed to want to be the first to dig into the food, I finally just stepped up and took a plate, at which time Lee Ann told everyone to start eating already! We didn't have to be told twice- I piled on the farro, corn and bacon salad, pickled veggies, watermelon and feta salad, grilled pork chops with peaches, the INSANE rib eye, J's favorite shishitos, some bulgogi-like steak and shaved zucchini and parmesan salad. There was also a great big bowl of some cheese popcorn which she had doctored with some sweet glaze- what a combo. Everything was delicious- particularly all of the meat. That girl knows how to grill em, I gotta say. For dessert she whipped up (by hand, of course) a huge bowl of vanilla bean whipped cream which we ate along with some fresh berries. Yum.

Watermelon and feta salad

I was still pretty nervous to really talk to Lee Ann, so I did what any self-respecting person in my situation would do. I loaded up on liquid confidence, of course! Luckily my friend T was there as my partner in crime, so we just sipped one glass of wine after another until I worked up the nerve to shoot little friendly (or annoying?) comments to Lee Ann here and there. She'd smile politely, but I'm sure she probably thought I was some buzzy fool. Oh well. I think I even did that lame-ass thing where I said she should have made the top three over Tiffany.....which I'm sure Lee Ann is losing sleep over considering it was TWO years ago and she'd certainly moved past anything Tiffany ever did! Ugh.......sometimes the combination of nerves and wine is a killer eh? I'm sure she probably wished it would have killed my mouth.

Fresh radishes with lime zest

Anyway, it was a good time and thankfully I only spent about 3% of my time trying to find something meaningful to say to Lee Ann. I can only hope she didn't think of me as a complete moron. Next time, I think I'll stop trying to react to her as a "food personality" and converse with her like the normal person she is.

Lee Ann and yours truly

Of course, unless she gets a restraining order against me or something!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Final Zihuatanejo Images........

Here's the last Mexico post- just a collection of a bunch of photos taken in Zihuatanejo. Looking at them now, it seems so long ago that we were there.....and we can't wait to get back! If you're ever looking for a quick getaway (from Los Angeles, at least!) it's a short, 3 1/2 hour flight and United has nonstops from LAX. Although the flight doesn't take long, you feel like you're a world away.

Here's some of our favorite things about Zihuatanejo!

The famous shrimp tacos at La Sirena Gorda- so good we ate them two days in a row!!

The colorful plates at the local shops

Chunky fish tacos with pickled onions

The mariachi who climbed onto our boat to go to a neighboring beach

The lobster and shrimp with green curry sauce at Kau but delicious

Club Intrawest Hotel- huge, gorgeous rooms, fantastic service, beautiful pools and beaches....highly recommended!

We miss you already!!!