Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Grilled Cheese Invitational

Los Angeles is a city full of diet conscious people. We have our vegans, our raw foodies, our macro-biotics (I'm not judging, as I have enjoyed the cuisine of all three.) But couple that with the fact that so many of our residents are as tanned and toned as the cast of 90210, and you may start to think there's little full fat, purely indulgent gastro-fun in the City of Angles. Enter: The Grilled Cheese Invitational.

By the time the gates opened at noon the line stretched all the way around the park and back! This is probably because the first 1700 people got to JUDGE the contest. As we waited in line, my friend N and I signed waivers giving them the right to kill us, steal from us, and basically do anything they wished without us holding them accountable. Then the nice folks at Kraft handed out little triangles of Kraft Singles Grilled Cheese. Now you know I'm not one to turn down free food, but I could only hope the quality level would skyrocket after that.

As we judges began milling around the fenced in park, the excitement level was so high I overheard one girl exclaim, "This is going to be the best day of my life!" And indeed it would seem so. Many competitors upped their cheesiness factor with kooky costumes such as robes and berets, balloon hats, cheese heads, etc. Most spirit points has to go to the Challah team, who sported sweat bands and kept inciting the crowd to "Challah!!!"

Then came the organizers, clearly kings of cheesiness. There was a Mayor of Cheese to welcome us all, an Irreverent Reverend to give the benediction, and the organizer of the whole shebang, Mr. Tim Walker, sporting a bright red fez. He spoke of "A sea of cheese that longs to melt, butter that yearns to fry, and bread that cries out to be grilled!" The Reverend actually went so far as to suggest that the answer to all of our nations woes might be found in a Grilled Cheese Sammich, reminding us that we were presently surrounded by 1.75 batrillion slices of hope. We can only hope dear Reverend, we can only hope.

The day had four heats: Missionary (just bread, cheese, and butter, nothing else), Kama Sutra - Vegetarian (Anything goes as long as it also includes the above three and no meat), Kama Sutra - Meat (self explanatory), and Honey Pot (Desserts!). Now here is the sad part: Each judge gets only TWO samples. Yes, of the hundreds of options, you could only try two. N and I of course decided to split our samples, but still four bites of different grilled cheeses does not exactly a feast make. Each sample came with a ballot on which you could rate the grilled cheese. Now, I understand that you can not ask competitors to make 1700 samples, but this still strikes me as a highly arbitrary way to judge. Especially considering the fact that in order to get a sample, you had to enter a crush of people, wave your ticket madly, and hope that the "runner" would take your ticket and give you a sample. You didn't even have any way of knowing exactly what was in each sammich. N and I just tried to spot a few ingredients we liked and then go for that.

This strategy produced mixed results throughout the day. Next year, I wouldn't waste any tickets on the "Missionary" heat as it was just too simple. The sample we procured there was a huge disappointment, just a step or two up from the Kraft samples. But the samples vastly improved with the Kama Sutra round. The best one we tried there had goat cheese, thinly sliced apple, some sort of spread, and a beet cut out in a star on top. Very tasty.

But the most delicious aspect of the day had to be the demonstration I attended by Chef Eric Greenspan of The Foundry. As last year's winner, he was serving up a decadent creation made of creamy and sharp Tallegio, oven dried tomatoes, arugula, braised beef, and an apricot caper puree with white wine, all of which was served up on a nutty bread that had been grilled in about a pound of butter. AMAZING! This sammich is apparently a fixture on his bar menu at The Foundry, so you may just see a review of that coming soon!

N. and I left the competition having been entertained and heartened by this show of a community in support of cheese, and we are now determined to enter next year! So be on the lookout, we're thinking we'll wear cheesy ballgowns as our costumes!:)

The Grilled Cheese Invitational takes place once a year and costs $5 (Certainly a deal considering they had free Kraft Singles Grilled Cheese and Izze Soda in addition to the competitor's samples).

For more information, you can go to:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Happy Hour at Cafe La Boheme - Ohh La La What A Deal!

I wanted to take my friend, M, out to a nice place in order to celebrate her birthday. From the second we arrived, I knew La Boheme would fit the bill perfectly. We were greeted out front by twinkling white lights wound through the wrought iron fence, inviting us to a world of whimsy. We stepped in to find soaring ceilings, funky chandeliers, large statues, and a huge fireplace. Both of us are east coasters, and the sight of a roaring fire warmed our little snow starved hearts! The whole place reminded me of nothing so much as Beast's castle in Beauty and the Beast. Luckily, the plates did not start singing:)

We walked in to the bar area. With it's dangling red lights and plush chairs it has the feel of an intimate and classy lounge. However, La Boheme is the only place I know that offers Happy Hour from 5-8pm, and when we arrived at 7:15 it was packed!! Hurrah for late Happy Hours - let's hope this is a trend! Not a problem at all though, the very friendly manager escorted us to a table in the main dining room.

We began to study the menu of small bites and sandwiches. The prices ranged from $6-$22 which struck us as reasonable for such a nice place. But no, it's actually an additional half off those prices!! Phenomenal!! We decided to go all out and order five dishes - at these prices, you can't go wrong!

We began with the $4 Grilled Lamb Skewers served with a Cucumber Mint Tzatziki Sauce. The lamb itself was slightly overdone, but it still had a very strong flavor, almost gamy. The sauce had a perfectly cool tang, although I can't say I detected much mint in there. Individually, neither element was stellar, but taken together the two complimented each other nicely.

The rest of our order came all at once after that. I was still busy taking notes on the lamb, but I positively could not resist the aroma of the $4 Four Cheese Mac and Cheese wafting toward me, it smelled like I had died and gone to cheese heaven. This is probably one of the least goopy Mac and Cheeses I have ever had. It feels more like they just tossed the noddles in a bunch of cheese and cooked it, which is perfectly fine by me! The four cheeses played well together, starting out with a creamy mildness and then gradually growing sharper the more you chewed. This was M's favorite dish of the night!

The $4 Veggie Spring Rolls definitely win the award for loveliest presentation (at least until we get to dessert). They were light and crispy, but not altogether different from what you'd get at your local Chinese restaurant. What did set them apart was the House Plum Sauce and the Chinese Mustard. The plum sauce was sweet and pungent, nicely setting off the savory spring rolls.

Next we had what as billed as Japanese Fried Chicken for $4. The all white meat was tender and moist, and the soy based dipping sauce had a hint of heat, but I could have dealt with a little more crunch on the breading.

Finally we come to my favorite of the night: $3 Bacon Wrapped Dates with a Blue Cheese and Pecan Stuffing. In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that bacon wrapped dates are one of my favorite things in this world, and the addition of blue cheese and pecan stuffing is a stroke of genius. These little bites contain everything a mouth could wish for: salty, sweet, crunchy, smooth, pungent, and mild. Amazing!! While these were not the juiciest dates I have ever had, they were still out of this world DE-LICI-OUS!!!

We ended our meal with the Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding with Caramelized Bananas and Cinnamon Ice Cream. Normally this dish goes for $8, but we were charged the Happy Hour Price of $4. (In all honesty, I'm not sure if that was a mistake since it didn't say desserts were included in the half off special, but it was certainly a happy accident!). Regardless, this dish is certainly worth full price! The bread pudding was warm, soft, and so comforting it might as well be giving you a hug. The chocolate chips tasted like they had a high concentration of cocoa, almost like the bars you can get that are 60-70% chocolate. But, the cinnamon ice cream and accompanying sauces were sweet enough that it all balanced out. And I must mention the Caramelized Bananas - what an ingenious combination of creamy raw bananas with their crisply caramelized tops. Fantastic!

Overall, we very much enjoyed our experience at La Boheme - it is certainly a FANTASTIC deal - probably the best I've found yet! The two of us ate our fill of tasty food for under $25, and had plenty of leftovers to bring home! This gets four belt notches out of five, for overall value.

Cafe La Boheme has Happy Hour from 5-8pm Daily!

8400 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069

La Bohème on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 18, 2009

$2 Taco Tuesdays at The Spanish Kitchen

The first thing that hits you when you walk into the Spanish Kitchen is the wall of sound. Granted, I went on a very crowded night (apparently, everyone was as excited about $2 tacos as I was), but I actually feared that I must be doing significant damage to my ears just by sitting inside. And it's not that they had music blasting, it was just the sheer acoustics of the place. So, my husband, P, and I settled in for a night of yelling at each other (lovingly, of course - it was just out of necessity!).

We didn't have a reservation, so we had to wait fifteen minutes at the bar. Despite the acoustics, the decor of the place is lovely. The large, wrought iron bar takes up the main wall, surrounded by soft tortilla colored walls. The other wall is painted with a mural of what I can only assume is Spain, with it's fertile crops and flower boxed windows.

The hostess came and found us and brought us up to our table. While I waited for P to settle up the bar tab, I noticed the napkins smelled funny. To be sure, I smelled his too. Yup, definitely a funky odor. I don't know what they use to wash them, but it is not pleasant. Oh dear, I'm supposed to wipe my mouth with this??

Then came the chips and salsa. The chips were still warm (which I love!), but they were lacking salt - and there was none on the table. The dark red sauce had a slight kick, but otherwise wasn't too flavorful.

Oh well, we're here for the tacos! All tacos are served "with your choice of salsa" and in a hard or soft shell. Or at least, that's what the menu said. So, I chose three tacos from a selection of fourteen, and three sauces (out of twelve) that I thought would compliment them nicely. However, when the waitress finally made it to our table, she informed me that, no, you don't get to choose your salsa. They will just bring you some. Even though that's in direct contrast to what the menu says. I asked her what kind they would bring and she had no idea. All right then.

The best thing I can say is that the tacos came out very quickly. Granted, they came out without any salsa, so I had to flag someone down to bring us some. Then when it came, it was like pulling teeth to get a description of the four salsas. Looking around I couldn't help but notice that other tables had different looking salsas. So, essentially, they just randomly decide for you and have taken all choice out of the matter, thus making the description of twelve salsas on the menu into one big tease.

The tacos are about as small as you would expect $2 tacos to be, no more then four inches in length. I apologize that I wasn't able to take any pictures of them. (Who knew digital cameras don't charge when they're plugged in to your computer?? What's that? Oh, everyone knows cameras don't work like ipods? Oh, ok, I guess I'm just an idiot:)

The first one I tried was the Mexican BBQ Pulled Pork Taco. This turned out to be the best of the three, which is kind of like saying that "Wonderland" is Paris Hilton's best movie. Possibly true...but still, not an impressive feat. The pork was tender but too fatty, and the bbq had a slight hint of cinnamon. All of the tacos came with a sprinkling of chopped lettuce and tomatoes. These added texture, but were lacking the bright flavor I have come to expect when eating vegetables in California. Mostly, I think they just make the tacos look a little more full.

Next I tried the Char Grilled Veggies Taco. The restaurant must make a tidy profit on this little number, because there is practically nothing in it. Just a few grilled peppers in varying colors, some onions, and the aforementioned lettuce and tomatoes. There may have been a little carrot square too - there was something crunchy, but it didn't have any flavor and it was hard to tell in the dark restaurant. Mostly, I tasted tortilla.

Finally I went for the Seasoned Ground Beef Taco. Talk about a dud. The name leads me to believe it must have been cooked with some seasoning, but I certainly couldn't taste any. It was mostly just overcooked and flavorless.

Now, you know I love dessert, but P and I were so disheartened by the quality of our meal, we just wanted to go home (Where, I must admit, we had leftover homemade Texas Sheet Cake:).

So we got out bill, which wrongly charged us for an extra taco. Perfect ending.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Your meal was $6 lady, what do you expect?" But, as P pointed out, "You can get a much better meal at In and Out for $6." So save your money and your stomach, and skip the Spanish Kitchen. This gets 1 belt notch out of 5.

If for some reason you still want to go (don't!), here's the info:

Tacos are $2 all night on Tuesday Nights

826 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Phone: 310-659-4794

Spanish Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Hour at Wilshire Restaurant

Saturday night I made plans to meet up with my friend C for dinner. Having just learned that she would have to pay way more in taxes then originally planned, she was in need of some good food at some even better prices. So, we decided to try out the happy hour at Wilshire Restaurant. (A big HURRAY for places that have happy hour menus on the weekends!)We left behind the bright Santa Monica sunshine for the dimly lit bar. A brick wall covered in tea lights, dark leather furniture, and a wood paneled ceiling gave the place an intimate, trendy vibe. We scorned the comfy couches in favor of the bar stools, reasoning that it would be easier to eat that way. The bar area was half empty, mostly consisting of a crowd in their mid thirties to mid forties. (Then again, it was about 6:30 pm - that all may change after 9).

The happy hour menu was full of delectable sounding dishes, all between $8-$16 dollars. For a restaurant where just an appetizer will run you between $13-$20, this struck us as a pretty good deal. I would describe the cuisine as classic American all dressed up for a fancy night on the town. We decided to get two smaller plates and one larger and split everything.

C's call was the $8 Pizza with Burrata, Oak Roasted Tomato, Basil and Chili Flakes. The chili flakes packed a definite punch which contrasted nicely with the smooth burrata. The crust was thin and crispy and the whole pie was absolutely littered with fresh basil. (Yay - I love when chefs are generous with the fresh herbs!) I can't honestly say the tomatoes tasted particularly oak-y to me, but it was certainly a very flavorful pizza and I enjoyed every bite.
I have enjoyed a love of artichokes dating back to when my mom used to make them for us as kids. I thought that anything you could eat with your hands and dunk in butter had to be a great thing. So I was excited to try Wilshire's $8 Grilled Artichoke with Meyer Lemon Yogurt. Sadly, this did not live up to my childhood memories. The artichoke was served room temperature, and I wonder how long it sat around in the back waiting for the other dishes to be prepared. The meyer lemon yogurt was a great idea that didn't live up to it's potential. The tang of the yogurt contrasted nicely with the creamy artichoke heart, but I could barely detect any lemon in there. I may have to have a go at this in my own kitchen, because (now that I no longer have my teenage metabolism) it might be a good idea to start dunking artichokes in yogurt rather then butter.
The bartender told us his favorite dish was the $13 Chimay Ale Marinated Skirt Steak with Fries, so, of course, we had to give it a try. Let me take this opportunity to say: bartenders are incredibly wise people! The dish was far and away my favorite of the three. What a brilliant preparation of a not so spectacular cut of meat. Although the bartender neglected to ask us how we would like it prepared, it still emerged a perfect medium rare, surprisingly tender on the inside with a nice char on the outside. The ale did wonders, giving each bite a rich and meaty burst. And the fries, oh the fries!! Served beneath the steak, they had an opportunity to soak up all the delicious drippings. Paired with just a little salt and fried parsley, they rendered ketchup obsolete and became the sort of delectable little bites you keep eating long after you are full. I'm starting to crave them....Huh? Oh...yes...right...back to meal!

A word from your blogger here - I adore dessert. I may actually be addicted to it. No meal feels complete without dessert (this includes lunch and sometimes even breakfast). Not a day goes by without my consuming at least one sweet treat...generally many. But, I am definitely a bit of a dessert snob - I will not be happy with candy bars from 7-11 or chocolate chip cookies from a package. So, when dining out, I am always eager to see what sugary visions the pastry chef has concocted. Therefore, although desserts are seldom found on Happy Hour menus, I will still be reviewing them:)

From the many tempting treats, C and I decided to go for the $10 Roasted Apple Fritter with Caramel Sauce and Cinnamon Ice Cream. WOW!! Although LA has a doughnut store on just about every corner, there is still something very special about apple fritters served raging hot just out of the fryer. The smell of dough and cinnamon wafted over us as the plate was set down, and all thoughts of taxes or heavy life decisions immediately vanished. First I tried all the elements separately. The fritter was crusty and crunchy on the outside, with the apples inside practically melting in your mouth. The whipped cream was heavy and fresh, the caramel sauce almost liquor like, and the cinnamon ice cream as flavorful as one could wish for. Taken all together in one spoonful it was heaven. The cinnamon ice cream brought out the spice on the fritters and the whipped cream wrapped it all up in a creamy hug. Amazing - go and try these fritters!!

All in all, I would give this Happy Hour three and a half out of five belt notches. Definitely worth trying!

Happy Hour is served Monday-Saturday from 5-7pm. (They even give you a ten minute warning before it ends which I thought was very kind of them - and they have their happy hour menu available online!)

Wilshire Restaurant is located at:
2454 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90403

Wilshire on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Dining on Spring: Josie's $35 Farmer's Market Menu

For my first post, I wanted to stack the deck for a delicious meal, so I decided to splurge on a "deal" that is about as expensive as I plan to go on this blog: the $35 prix fixe farmer's market menu at Josie Restaurant.

Some gourmands (and certainly many carb conscious Angelenos) may dismiss the bread basket as a waste of precious stomach space. Personally, I have always had a special place in my heart for the doughy stuff. This is a love affair further fueled by the fact that I have a tendency to show up at restaurants starving, and look to the bread basket to offer me that first morsel of satisfaction! Josie served two types of bread: A thin slice of toasted bread that was more of a crouton, and an airy white rustic bread. The breads themselves were servicable, but the butter was wonderful: creamy and rich with just a slight tang of salt. It seems the breads were choosen merely as frames for the artistry of the butter, and they worked very well together.

Then came the amuse bouche. One of the wonderful customs of high end dining, it is where the chef sends out a little bite to literally "amuse the mouth." I adore this tradition, as it gives the chef a chance to showcase his or her talents, unfettered by the customer's demands.

The amuse turned out to be my favorite part of the meal: The Mushroom Gruyere Tartlet. The texture of the soft and silky quiche contrasted beautifully with the thick ropes of Gruyere woven throughout, all of it contained in a crust so flaky it seemed to be made of pure butter. The flavor of the sharp cheese exploded in my mouth, then mellowed into the creamy richness of the eggy batter. If I were to improve two things about this, I would serve it hotter (it came out luke warm) and add more mushrooms. I don't think I had more then two or three thin slivers of mushroom in mine, I couldn't identify what type they were. But, it was still a delicious meeting of taste and texture. And, served with a little fork! I must admit, I am the slowest eater I know, taking small bites and savoring everything. I love when the size of the utensil matches the size of my bite, and have been known to eat an entire cup of ice cream with my sample spoon. So the little fork was definitely a bonus:)

Next came the appetizer, a Farmer's Market salad with shaved fennel and artichoke, topped with parmesan crisps, and served on a bed of thinly sliced salami. The greens were soft and tender, the vegetables cool and fresh, and the dressing so light the whole salad truly seemed the embodiement of the farmer's market. The parmesan crisps provided a tasty crunch, though I do wish there had been more of them. And the bed of salami provided a nice meaty contrast to the lighter greens (though personally I found it a little too peppery). But, overall, the dish was filled with the crisp clean flavors of spring. It was, as James Lipton would say, a delight!

Then came the entree: Seared Scallops on a bed of Beets, Leeks, Spinach and Peas served atop Grilled Polenta. The scallops were perfectly cooked and deliciously flavorful, with just a dusting of salt and pepper on top for flavor. All of the vegetables seemed to have bathed in that fabulous butter, only this time, they stood out as the works of art rather then the frames. The green sauce seemed to be made of fresh peas and butter, a sweet richness to compliment the scallops. The grilled polenta was crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside. Taken all together in one forkful, it was thoroughly enjoyable!

We ended the night with the Flourless Chocolate Tart served with Mint Chip Ice Cream. Mint has never been my favorite flavor, but this ice cream was fantastic. I normally think of mint ice cream as a sickly green concotion that endeavors to eradicate everything else on your palate and overwhelm you with it's minty flavor. This ice cream, however, was like biting into a fresh mint leaf dipped in cream. Not overwhelming or showy, just basking in the natural glory of the mint. The cake tasted like you were eating spoonfuls of milk chocolate ganache, rich and creamy, but nothing to elevate it to the level of extraordinary. And the crust was an unfortunately sandy affair that didn't impart much flavor and crumbled upon contact. This is definitely the first time I preferred the mint portion of the dessert to the chocolate.

Overall, we had a thoroughly enjoyable meal! The portions are so generous, I think it would be easy to split one meal between two people. (I went with three other friends, we had two prix fixe meals and two entrees and were all stuffed by the end, even though I was bringing home leftovers). Considering a single entree at Josie costs between $27-$44 dollars, this meal is an incredible value!! And given that the chef changes the menu every week based on what they find at the farmer's market, you can come back again and again without getting bored! I would love to hear about anyone else's experiences at the farmer's market dinner.

My beautiful friend "H" wore a very stylish outfit to dinner with a belt cinched around her tiny waist. By the end of the evening, she was forced to let that belt out a few notches to allow everything to digest! Thus began the Dining on Deals rating system:
I would give this restaurant 4 out of 5 notches!

Josie Restaurant is located at:
2424 Pico Blvd.
Santa Monica CA, 90405

Their Farmer's Market Menu is served every Wednesday night - Three courses for $35.

Josie on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


There are two things in my life that I have always been passionate about: Food and Saving Money. Welcome to the marriage of the two!

I adore food in just about all shapes and forms. I love the ritual of going out to a fabulous meal, reveling in the thoughtful surprise of an amuse bouche, savoring the marriage of unusual textures and tastes in the appetizer, letting the meal truly blossom into the entree, and then discovering that, yes, of course I have room for dessert! There are precious few things in this world that make me as happy as a truly delicious meal, and I would rather spend my money on food then anything else.

That being said, I have always been thrifty and damn proud of it! I am the girl who will happily tell you that my sweet little sundress was purchased at Target and my trendy sneakers are from Payless. I clip coupons and seek out sales. In these economic times, there is no shame in holding out for the best deal and then sharing it with the world.

And so Los Angeles, I am on a mission. I need to find the best food at the best price and start dining on those deals! I'm looking for Happy Hour Steals, Prix Fixe Deals, and Everyday Value Meals. So many good restaurants are struggling to bring in customers that they are offering some amazing food at totally managable prices. I intend to seek them out and let you know which ones are worth your time!

Don't worry, I won't be reviewing any McDonald's $1.00 menus on here. (Is it McDonalds that has that? I dunno, I really don't do fast food except for the occasional In and Out. Mmmmm, fries well done) This is a blog for quality restaurants, gastropubs, and lounges that offer delicious food at delicious prices.

Let the Dining on Deals begin!