Let me take this first post in almost one month to deliver some pertinent upcoming event news. It’s now summer and thus, event season, here in sunny Southern California. Now that I’ve somewhat psychologically recovered from a huge picture-data dump from spilling a homemade cocktail all over my non-backed-up laptop, I’m finally ready to move into this crazy part of the year.
So here’s a rebirth of sorts; it’s an intentional start to the summer by tallying up the essential food events continuing into the fall (L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade is in September). One focuses on cocktails. One focuses on tacos. One focuses on ribs. Three are on the same day; thus, yes – I do wish that these were spread out, more. But practically all of them feature world-class chefs. So without further adieu, here’s where you need to be this summer:
It’s not enough, these days, to simply give a pass to vegetarian and vegan food. Going past crunchy, granola stereotypes often attached to a plant-based diet, I imagine, has to be a welcome option for those having adopted conscientious lifestyles.
Good thing there’s Dr. J’s Vibrant Cafe, a place you’ll want to visit for their teas and shakes but also their food – no matter what your diet. Because even if you’re an omnivore in Los Angeles, you’ll still eat out with some friends you might oblige with a more than the couple options than, say, what you might find on a menu at a BBQ place. (I know. The sacrifices you make.)
As Fiona and I finished our small plates and resumed breathing – but realized we were breathing fire – we weren’t quite sure, exactly, where we were, anymore. We cajoled, “Is this restaurant called, ‘The Spicy Table’?”
The Little Tokyo spot has a shrewdly stylish, if still minimal, ambiance with bird cage accents surrounding light bulbs incandescent. The front bar area seems like the perfect place at which to perch around the central wood-fired oven and enjoy a dish or two with the desired size pour of beer or glass of wine. I did wonder if the faces of those who sat at the bar, directly in front of the oven, were burning off or not (I caught a good amount of heat simply from walking by); then again, Downtown LA benefits from any spot proffering warmth to their customers, no matter how literal. Just choose your proximity, I guess, and they’ll just make sure to leave some brick exposedÂ so you’re reminded that you’re downtown and cozy.
Though cost and variety was the reason were the reasons I chose suds (4 oz. beer pours are available for $2; glasses of wine are upwards of $14), light, cold and carbonated was, in retrospect, the perfect thing to wash down all those bold flavors. My Craftsman Hef was a great choice, and you’ll be glad to know that The Bruery’s Orchard White, Abita’s Amber Lager and North Coast’s La Merle Saison – and, true-to-form, the Singaporean Tiger Beer – are all available in 12- and 16-oz. pours as well.
The starting lamb belly skewersÂ ($10), or satay, were singed perfectly while revealing fully flavorful, slightly gelatinousÂ centers. The piquant yet indulgent spread in the Black Pepper Crab Toast didn’t have me thinking that one piece of bread between the two of us wasn’t enough; I simply piled that crab paste onto my toasted triangle about an inch thick.
We were almost to theÂ noodles, by then, but not before the squidÂ special came out. And though we sat in the dining room, this was where I fully appreciated that oven situated behind the bar. The deliciously charred, squid shell was not rubbery but as tender as its sticky rice center, with bits of familiarly rich Chinese sausage and just-as-meaty black mushrooms filling out the tubular vessels. The vinaigrette we spooned on top added the bitter-sweet note we didn’t even know was missing. You may end up wishing that this was a regular menu item.
But then came our fiery hot noodles. The first, the Kon Loh Mee, featured springy, thin egg noodles topped with ground pork, char siu (because one kind of pork is never enough), sambal and choy sum – the lattest of which were, I realized later, the only vegetables short of the garnishes we had consumed the entire night. The egg noodles were superbly cooked; I’m wondering if they were made in-house and regret that I didn’t ask. The entire dish, however, were some of the most punishingly delicious dry noodles I’ve had in some time.
The Laksa, a coconut curry broth enveloping rice flour noodles, mussels and fish cakes and topped with coriander and a slice of soft-boiled egg, was almost as punishing. The creaminess of the coconut recanted some of that direct sting. It was enough of a break to entice us to press on, breathing in and out, while admiring that the restaurant didn’t pull any punches for The Stereotypicallly WeakÂ White Man’s Palate. (Or, gave our Stereotypically Tough AsianÂ Woman’s PalatesÂ their fair treatment – either way.) It even came with a hefty portion of sambal, which is allegedly traditional but something we had no intention of actually adding! The soup was thankfully delicious as it stood. I loved all the textures of the rice noodles and fish cakes while the mussels – let’s face it, I love shellfish – were that extra kick in the flavor pants.
If they brought out the spicy dishes last for a reason, I have an inkling on what that reason is: Dessert.
It worked. Well done. (Okay, and, there’s always a valid argument for palate fatigue, right? Anyway.)
Our Kaffir Lime Custard wasÂ a refreshing, fluffyÂ yet tart reprieve. The perfect, thematicÂ ending to an adventurous meal by a former Mozza chef featuring Vietnamese and Singaporean flavors in a Japanese district calledÂ Little TokyoÂ in DowntownÂ Los Angeles. That is all.
I have always loved a good stack of spring rolls to start off my Asian, Asian fusion, Asian-influenced, AsianÂ what-have-you meal. That love, however,Â has just transcended to a whole new level of appreciationÂ thanks to Lukshon’s Duck Popiah.
Since you can’t have a good burrito or taco without a good tortilla; the same applies to their Asianfied counterparts.Â The overall quality is owedÂ in no small part to the wrapper – the freshness of which was apparent from the moment my dining companion and I observed the Chef de partie rolling the skinnyÂ scrolls from our seats at the bar of Lukson’s beautiful, open kitchen. The balmy textureÂ of the wrap made it undeniable thatÂ the skinsÂ were battered and rolled in-house. It made me yearn for the makers of even the best Chinese beef rolls I’ve had in San GabrielÂ to trade in their often dry, flourÂ wraps for these.
And theÂ freshÂ cilantro, the pickled jicama,Â all those vibrant flavors coming together with the rich bird that isÂ duck, and altogether dressed in aÂ house-made hoisin chile sauce. So delicious. The collapse of that soft shell revealed the crunch of bright, pickledÂ flavors paired with tender duck meat, all of which is dressed in sweetÂ and spicy. The popiahÂ were pretty much my favorite thing at Lukshon during my first and only visit thus far. I enjoyed my other dishes (and also loved the cocktails), but I still feel unqualified to say what they were until I visit a few more times. But the duck popiah and its refined execution on all levels…I already know this one is a wash. A favorite. Rinse, repeat.Â
I’ll be back for more, dear Lukshon. As for you, go – and report back on what your favorites are.
Mon – Sat
5:30 PM – 10:30 PM
Lukshon 3239 Helms Ave. Culver City, CA 90034 310.202.6808
In the case of the downtown hot spot (and once-underground) Starry Kitchen, it would be useless to do a dish-by-dish, plate-by-plate review as is protocol for food blogging, these days. Thank God. Because I would pick a constantly-changing (evolving, if you will) menu that focuses on a few dishes at a time over a huge menu just to leave me indecisively frustrated at all the options, any day. I am a simple girl, after all, having grown up on over-rice dishes interspersed with the occasional Midwest casserole and bratwurst-in-a-bun. Starry Kitchen gives me homespun, Pan-Asian flavors – and done well. It’s what my mother’s cooking would taste like if she were … Pan-Asian, and not just Taiwanese.
If only I worked downtown, I could have more of these flavors to look forward to on a weekly basis.
But no – instead I sit envious in my cubicle as I read tweets from fellow tweeting counterparts about how they’re having Braised Coconut Jackfruit, Crispy Tofu Balls, Lime Vinaigrette- and Ginger Peanut-dressed chopped salad, or Japchae. Oh nice. I’ve actually had that last one.
The hugely ironic thing about it all is that Starry Kitchen is one of the best lunch deals in all of town – while being located downtown. Everything costs less than $10 – and what’s more, try parking for $2 anywhere in Los Angeles, much less right in the heart of the business district. And now – the best news: Starry Kitchen will be open for dinner on Thursdays and Fridays starting this week. No one has to hear me whine about lunch, anymore. And I won’t risk getting in trouble with the boss for taking extended lunches because I drove downtown to eat.
East is not the kind of place that, upon drive-by, would make me turn my head while noting to come back or even to simply do more research. If it’s a Japanese Pan-Asian place on Hollywood Blvd., I’ve basically assumed it’s Geisha House or the recently-shuttered Club DSushi (which is actually on Sunset Blvd but pretty darned close). I have a stock montage that I play in my head – slow motion close-ups of collapsing hand cut spicy tuna rolls being shoved into lipsticked mouths as low-frequency four-on-the-floors pulsate through the venue. Having to shout over trance lasers to hear the person immediately next to you. Sake bombs. Blech. Saketinis. Blech. You know the place. The place where renditions of Miyagi’s go.
I get it – it’s hard to imagine Hollywood Blvd. as a culinary destination. I wouldn’t argue with you there. But then, I think, it would be unwise to completely extract that scene from the identity of a restaurant like East. During my visit, I sat across from Rob Dyrdek (for all you extreme sports fans). Celebrity or not, the guy was on to something, here – the restaurant actually doesn’t rest upon its Hollywood Blvd. laurels and serves up reliable seafood on the half – and will even impress you with its minimal, classy interior.
Let me stress again: Don’t come here looking for a bargain. Bring your date here because while you may want to throw her off with the exterior and location of yet another typical Hollywood spot, East will surprise her with classy, minimalÂ decor and some amazingly good dishes. Keven Alan Lee heads the kitchen, hails from Vegas’ LutÃ¨ce and let’s face it – there are some you want to impress outside of business and East is the place to take him or her. Even the starting spinach salad with arugula and duck confit was very good – a good amuse to precede the seafood to come.
And do concentrate on the shellfish – not so much the sashimi (“We do sashimi, not sushi” I was told).