Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Umami Burger - Yum-a-Yumi!!

So I'm adding a new section to the blog called: "Everyday Deals."  These are the places where you can get absolutely fabulous food for under $10 an entree everyday.  No waiting for Tuesday nights or Happy Hours (though I'm more then happy to wait for those as well:)  So, what better way to start of this section, then with a place people have been raving about: Umami Burger.

It's easy to miss the restaurant, as it is a nondescript store front on La Brea, wedged between such non epicurean delights as a donut shop and a car wash.  But find it we did.  Normally, I try and avoid valet parking (what's the point of $3 chicken when you've paid $10 for valet?), but for a mere $2, Umami gets the prize for the cheapest valet parking around.

H and I walked in to be greeted by our dear friend J.  It's really a very small restaurant, but they've made delightful use of the space, using warm woods and neutral colors, as well as leaving one wall entirely open to windows so that light pours in.  We settled in to to the simple table with a paper table cloth and small succulent plant. 

The menu is simple: one narrow page of burgers with the reverse of the page detailing sides, drinks, and desserts.  But I say, if you do one thing and do it well, then that's all you need.  I'm sick of the cheese cake factories of the world doing a mediocre job on EVERYTHING.  I hope this micro-specialization continues.  
And speaking of micro-specialization, these guys specialize in Cola!  They don't have a liquor license, but they will happily send you across the street if you want to bring in your own booze.  But... should you be less alcohol inclined, they have a wonderful assortment of unusual sodas.  I opted for a Chai Cola.  The first sweet sip is filled with the complex spices of chai tea, although it does have a bitter aftertaste.  Think next time I'll opt for a different unusual option. 
Then came the house specialty: The $9 Umami Burger.  Umami is that fifth elusive taste.  When it's not sweet, spicy, sour, or bitter, it's: Umami.  And this burger has it in spades.  Juicy, perfectly cooked beef, earthy complex mushrooms, a crispy parmesan cracker, a sharp, melted cheese that I'm guessing is gruyere, and an oven roasted tomato, all encased in a meltingly soft bun.  They warn you that you will crave this one, and they are indeed correct.  Be prepared to get hooked into a lifetime of deliciousness.  
Being a SoCal kinda girl, my beautiful friend H opted for the $9 SoCal Burger.  This lovely patty is topped with butter lettuce, caramelized onions, oven roasted tomato, and what they call: house made processed cheese.  Do not be put off by visions of kraft singles dancing in your head.  This is more akin to a manchego: creamy and flavorful.  This burger is sweeter then the Umami, but still cravably delicious.  

J opted for the $10 Turkey Confit Burger, which, while tasty, simply wasn't in the same league as the other two.  I would skip this one if I were you.

We ordered the $3 triple cooked hand cut fries.  While they had a crisp exterior and a nice dusting of salt, they were so thick that it almost seemed more like eating a potato then eating a french fry.  Of course, the house made ketchup made anything utterly palatable.

Far superior in the realm of sides is the $2.5 malt liquor tempura onion rings.  The light tempura coating and the complex hint of the malt flavor elevate these onion rings far above their normally greasy, soggy counterparts.  (Oh, these are greasy too, it's just a different, yummier kind of grease:)  I think I'd eat just about anything in that malt liquor tempura batter.
We ended with Cake Monkey's $3.75 Raspberry Red Velvet Ding Dong.  The red velvet cake is light and spongey, and the chocolate coating actually tastes like chocolate.  I imagine this is what ding dongs used to taste like before all the chemicals came rushing in to make things taste like plastic.  Oh, and then there's the delectable tang of the raspberry filling all mushed together in your mouth.  Perfectly sweet!

Overall, we had a wonderfully delicious evening at Umami Burger and will certainly be back for more.  Four and a half belt notches!!

One Caveat: get there early!  We arrived at 7pm and sat down in a mostly empty restaurant.  By the time we left at 8:30, hordes of hungry diners stared longingly through the glass at our table.  This is not a restaurant to linger in!!  Get in, eat scrumptious burgers, and then move on before ravenous diners start swiping food off your plate.  

Umami Burger is located at:
850 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90036

Umami Burger on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Happy Hour at Cafe Rodeo - No Thrills in Beverly Hills

Walking down Rodeo drive past all the designer clothing stores, one can't help but feel posh.  (Even if one happens to be wearing a T shirt and is feeling smug for having found free street parking.)  So I was excited for my Friday night date with P at Cafe Rodeo in Hotel Luxe.

The outdoor patio was bustling with people when I arrived at 6:45, but I had requested indoor seating (given that I normally freeze whenever I'm outside unless it's 100 degrees.)   So I walked down a perfumed hall curtained in white and arrived at the actual Cafe.  It was smaller then expected and, as there was no hostess, I had to just grab a passing waiter to tell him I had a reservation (wanted to make sure I got credit on my opentable.com account!).  

The interior can't quite make up it's mind as to the look it's going for.  The large skylight, creamy neutral palette, and aerodynamic silverware suggest something airy and modern, but the uptempo continental music, the servers all in black, and the recessed lighting seemed to suggest they are going for more of a loungey feel.  The crowd was mostly in their late thirties and forties.  If I had to guess...I'd say 80% tourists.  Hmmm...not a good sign.  

We began with what was listed on the menu as $7 Pork Tacos.  However, our server informed us that they were out of pork, so instead they brought us Braised Beef Tacos.  The meat was tender, moist, and full of flavor.  The natural sweetness of braised beef was accented by the bits of pineapple, cut with a fiery chipotle sauce.  Add to this the crisp bite of the iceberg lettuce and you get one textured and complex mouthful!  This was by far the best thing we had all night, it's a shame it's not on their regular menu.   

Next I dived into their $3.60 Fried Chicken Skewers.  For that price, how could you go wrong?  Well, I wouldn't say they went wrong - but they certainly didn't go right.  The chicken itself was moist and tasty, but the coating was bland and lacked the crunch I expect from "fried" chicken.  And forget about the sauces.  We might as well have gone to McDonalds for the BBQ sauce and grabbed some little packets from our Chinese Takeout place for the Duck Sauce.  Nothing exciting there.    
My least favorite of the night was the $9 Filet Mignon Sliders with Blue Cheese and Grilled Onions.  I expect Filet Mignon to be melt in your mouth tender, but these little nubbins were filled with sinew and fat (and not the marbled, tasty kind, more the clumpy, hard to chew kind).  The dusting of blue cheese and three or four strands of onion were barely present enough to give much flavor.  The "buns" were little circles cut out of English Muffins that were not toasted.  They pretty much just served to remind you how small and sad the whole dish was.

We also got the $3.60 Parmesan Fries.  While I do wish they had been dusted with a little more parm, they were piping hot, crunchy on the outside, and soft of the inside.  Plus, they were presented in a sweet little pot.  

Having found the food adequate but not at all special, P and I decided to skip dessert, since we imagined it wouldn't be anything special.  After waiting forever for the over worked waiter to pick up the check, we headed off in search of tastier desserts.  Sadly, we forgot that it's Beverly Hills and most places are closed by eight.  Foiled Again!  Overall, I give this 2 belt notches out of five - not worth your time.    But, should you still wish to go..

Cafe Rodeo has Happy Hour Monday-Saturday from 4-7:30pm.  They are located in Hotel Luxe at:
360 N. Rodeo Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA  90210

Cafe Rodeo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 10, 2009

LA Barbeque Festival - Finger Lickin' Good

As my friend C and I stepped out of the car parked three blocks away, the heady scent of wood, smoke, and meat filled our nostrils. BBQ powerful enough to traverse three city blocks? This was going to be a good day. Anticipation only mounted as we crossed the bridge over the PCH and saw the rows of white tents waiting for us, each containing their own secret ingredents, believed to hold the key to the very best barbecue.

Stepping inside, we were surrounded by barbecue enthusiasts of every age, race, color and creed. There were the hipsters, the aging hippies, the frat boys, the beach bums, the families, all of them gathered in joyous celebration of grilled meat. Perhaps the UN should start holding more 'ques.

We decided to scope out all the options before commiting to any plates. After all $10 got you quite a hunk of meat in addition to a side, so we knew going in that we would probably only be able to sample about three different kinds. **Note to organizers: it would be amazing if next year each booth had small plates (a rib or two) for just a few bucks so that attendees could sample more varieties.** We immediately eliminated all LA based vendors, vowing instead to actually go and try out those restaurants at some later date. So then it was all about deciding which regions looked the most scrumptious.
C has eaten her way across the country multiple times, and she said those Missourians knew their 'que. So we opted to get the Kansas City Spare Ribs and Baked Beans from L.C.'s BBQ. They use a wet rub, which leads to the meat being incredibly moist with a flavor that invades your mouth with the force of a hurricane. The ribs had a nice warmth without being overly spicy, as well as a crunchy crust. If only they'd had just a pinch less salt they would have been perfect. But the baked beans, rife with pork fat, were phenomenal! Sweet and spicy, they literally melted in my mouth.

Having procured our wet ribs, we also wanted to try a dry rub, so we purchased Memphis Championship BBQ's Ribs and Coleslaw. (A disclaimer, I don't like coleslaw, so I won't be reviewing it). I'll be honest, the main reason I insisted on these ribs was that this recipe was named the Champion at the 1902 World's Fair. Are you kidding me? I had to try any recipe older then anyone I know. The ribs were tasty and the spices well balanced, but the flavor was not nearly as powerful as I would have liked.
For our third dish, we went with the Pulled Pork Sandwich from Butch's Smack Your Lips BBQ in New Jersey. This was my favorite of all three! The pork was as tender as a dream, and the extra sauce that I slathered on was delicious, complex, sharp, sweet, tangy and so much more. The sauce and pork juices were all soaked up by the bottom bun, transforming an overwhelmingly ordinary piece of bread into a pillowy burst of flavor. (Note to BBQers - your meat is fantastic, but it might be time to investigate some better bread!). My one quibble was that the meat was not as hot as I would have liked, but I partly attribute that to the massive amount of sauce I used to smother the meat. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, this was C's least favorite dish. A Boston girl at heart, she's enjoyed the best "BBQ sandwich" out of a shack somewhere in the middle of Mississippi, and, for her, there's just no going back (certainly not to Jersey!). But for my money, these Jersey Boys can do the 'que.

Thoroughly stuffed, we nonetheless made room for $3 Polkatots Cupcakes! These cupcakes are smaller then most, but still pack plenty of flavor. Their Vanilla cupcake is good, with a sweet, smooth frosting and moist vanilla cake contrasting with the crunchy "blue sparkles" on top. But it's their Dulce de Leche cupcake that is a revelation!! They have somehow figured out a way to pack enormous Dulce flavor into the creamy softness of frosting. Add to that the extra punch of actual Dulce de Leche squiggled on top and you have one of the most phenomenal cupcakes I've ever tasted (and trust me, I have tasted my fair share...someday I may write an entire essay on cupcakes in LA). If you ever find yourself anywhere NEAR Pasadena, go get these cupcakes!
Author's note: Lost in my Dulce de Leche rapture, I suddenly looked up to discover that C had dissapeared. Apparently, despite her full stomach, the lure of a Texas Sausage proved irresistable and she went back for fourths. And, man, she was glad she did (as was I, as it left more of the cupcakes for me!)
Overall, we had a wonderful day at the festival. Good people, delicious aromas, and a stomach full of pork and cupcakes. What more could a girl want?
More information on the Barbeque Festival can be found here: www.labbqfest.com
More information on Polkatots Cupcakes can be found here: www.polkatotscupcakes.com

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Two Exciting Announcements!

Hello dear readers. This isn't an actual review - just two exciting bits of news that I wanted to share with you!
The first is that there is a BBQ festival in Santa Monica this weekend. Admission is $10 for a regular pass or $50 for a VIP pass. After that, $10 can get you a plate of award winning bbq from such far flung places as Texas or Missouri (plus, of course, the best that LA has to offer). Oh, and they have dessert too!! I will definitely be in attendence, so look for a review some time next week. You can check out all the details here:

The second announcement is that I have started cooking school! I figured if I'm going to be writing about cooking every week, I should understand what goes into the whole process. Hurrah, I am so excited! We meet once a week for twenty four weeks, so probably not enough time to become a top chef, but I'm hoping to get a good handle on the basics and be able to throw amazing dinner parties by the time I'm through! Wish me luck!

Friday, May 1, 2009

50% off Tuesdays at Bella - Brava!

At lunch with a friend the other day, she happened to mention that the Dolce group (Dolce, Bella, Ketchup, etc.) has 50% off nights at their different restaurants. Amazing! I called and had secured reservations for the following Tuesday. But, dear readers be aware, you must mention it to your server! They do not promote this special at all (on the menu, on the Bella website) - it's only mentioned on the Dolce website. So make sure you ask for your half off, or they will charge you full price!!

I stepped out of the hustle and bustle of Hollywood Blvd. and into this dimly lit little haven. It's a small but efficiently designed space, with a bar taking up one long wall and booths under slender windows taking up the other. My friends J, H, and I lounged in a roomy booth in the back. High ceilings, black glass chandeliers, and black and white photos of celebrities give the place a trendy, almost masculine vibe. The Dolce group has clearly perfected the art of cool.

My first bite of the focaccia bread made me think that perhaps it was a little past it's prime. The flavor was still fine, but it was a little dried out, like day old bread. Luckily, it is served with a tangy, vinegary, tomato dip. This lovely sauce helped to moisten the bread and had a fantastic flavor.

We decided to start by splitting the $3.50 Gnocchi in a Basil Pesto Sauce. The gnocchi was silky smooth, as soft and pliant as you could wish for. The sauce was creamy and packed a garlicky basil-y punch. A scrumptious combination - I could have ordered two and happily called it a meal.

Since it was 50% off Tuesday, I decided to go all out and get the Rack of Lamb for a mere $13! Although the meat was a little overcooked, it was still mouth-wateringly delicious, thanks in large part to a crunchy pistachio crust and a heady blackberry demi-glaze. The sweet and tart sauce was so generously portioned I decided to try it on everything, including the medley of fresh steamed vegetables - an experiment that payed off richly. The plate also came with a heaping mound of parmesan mashed potatoes. The sharpness of the cheese complimented the creaminess of the potatoes wonderfully. And thanks to the ample portion size, I was able to enjoy the whole meal again for lunch the next day. Altogether, a steal for $13!!

We ended the night with the $4 Molten Chocolate Cake. Typically, it is served with vanilla ice cream, but since they were out we opted for the strawberry sorbet. The cake was indeed dense and chocolaty, though not as meltingly molten as advertised. I think it could have used another minute or two in the oven as the very center was even a little cool. The sorbet, on the other hand was light and rich at the same time with a potent strawberry flavor.

All in all, my friends and I enjoyed a wonderful night on the town with good food in a trendy atmosphere for not a lot of cash. Go check it out!

Bella offers 50% off all food all night on Tuesday Nights (Drinks are still full price.)

Bella Cucina Italiana
1708 N. Las Palmas Ave.
Hollywood, CA 90028

Bella on Urbanspoon