Monday, August 27, 2012
Los Angeles 2012 - Day 3
Day 3 dawned a little earlier than the first two so that we could make the 90-minute drive up through the high desert, then back down to the Central Valley for our river rafting excursion on the Kern River near Bakersfield (for the record, doing a non-food activity was not my idea; however, I felt the need to humor my hosts seeing as they'd unflaggingly tolerated my culinary excesses up to this point). Upon arrival, our river guides were happy to share that, not only did we choose the hottest day of the season for our sojourn (forecasted high in Bakersfield: 109F), but the river was at very low flow levels (less than 500 cubic feet per second), meaning we'd encounter lots of rocks that would normally be below the water surface. In spite of these hardships, the river trip went well, with no loss of life or limbs, a small, yet feisty amount of whitewater, and some cool dips in the water to boot. My mates and I did manage to work up a good appetite following all that paddling, so for lunch we hit the first In-N-Out Burger we could find on the road to LA. For those of you unaware, In-N-Out is a celebrated burger franchise in California (and mostly just California, with locations only recently branching out eastward as far as Texas), primarily known for its streamlined food offerings (burgers, fries, and shakes - that's it) that are freshly made to order and its not-so-secret menu (actually described as such on its website). Wikipedia has a fantastic writeup on all of the known secret menu options (you can see it here - it's actually more comprehensive than the version on the company's own website), which Jaime helpfully printed out for me before I arrived so I could research my options.
What you are looking at in the photo above is a single-patty burger and an order of fries served "animal style" (yes, I really said this to the server when ordering - allegedly, she has a button on the register dedicated to each secret menu preparation). For the burger, this meant the addition of lettuce, pickle, and tomato, plus extra sauce (similar to Thousand Island dressing), chopped grilled onions, and a mustard-grilled patty. The "animal" fries are topped with two slices of American cheese (which melted evenly atop the potatoes and wasn't gloppy like the cheese whiz stuff you would normally see on cheese fries), plus the sauce and chopped grilled onions. In addition to being a brilliant marketing strategy (everyone likes to feel like they have some sort of "inside information"), this variation was actually pretty fabulous on both the burger and fries (especially the fries - I'm not normally fond of fries with toppings, but this combo was definitely greater than the sum of its parts). I find myself quite looking forward to my next batch of animal style fast food and hope for an eventual In-N-Out franchise to pop up around here.
Towards the end of our drive back into the LA Basin, Jaime and Lydia suggested we stop for a shaved Mexican ice (called raspado in Spanish, very similar to a snow cone), a welcome antidote to the blistering heat still afflicting the Valley. When we parked at the curb in a fairly-downtrodden residential neighborhood, however, I was confused - where was the store? If you weren't looking for it as you passed by, you definitely wouldn't have noticed the small construction horse with a handwritten sign discreetly pointing to a backyard raspaderia (this was probably not an accident as I suspect the proprietors were not officially registered with the local health department/tax bureau). Behind the house, a man and his wife had set up tables and equipment to prepare raspados, shaving ice cubes to the proper consistency and forming them into a cup-held cone, then topping them with one of 15 or so homemade fruit syrups (plus condensed milk if you so desire). I picked tamarind (see photo above, taken as generically as possible so as not to ruffle any feathers regarding anonymity), which was sweet and a bit earthy. After Jaime showed me how to properly scrape down the ice cone, the whole concoction quickly melted into a refreshing slurry of tamarind syrup and pulp, condensed milk, and ice shavings, as good of a frozen treat as I can ever remember enjoying on a hot summer afternoon.
The three of us needed some serious scrubbing after our time in the murky river and dusty valley, especially given our dinner destination that evening: The Bazaar in the swanky Beverly Hills SLS Hotel. I was pretty excited about what was to be my first experience dining in a Jose Andres restaurant, most of which are located in the Washington D.C. area (you might recall that Mrs. Hackknife and I met Chef Andres earlier this year at the Cayman Cookout). A disciple of avant-garde cooking pioneers Albert and Ferran Adria, Chef Andres's cuisine reflects a marriage between old world dishes (many from his home region of Catalonia, Spain) and cutting-edge techniques, often producing whimsical results, the likes of which were celebrated by diners at el Bulli, the now-shuttered gastronomic temple run by the Brothers Adria. Having been wowed myself by over 30 el Bulli creations from the associated Next tribute menu in Chicago this past February, I hoped that my friends would get an opportunity to see a little of this culinary magic in action at The Bazaar.
Jaime, Lydia, and I pulled up to the valet stand at the hotel and were immediately immersed in the jetset culture of modern LA. Our hostess led us through the first of two main dining rooms (this one referred to as "blanca" for its elegant white decor) to a table in the ultra-hip and much darker "rojo" room (see photo above), where we joined several groups of uber-attractive, under-30 diners (of course, it was painfully evident that I did not fit in either of these categories). Although I was a little nervous about just how trendy the restaurant was, the waitstaff was very friendly and helpful, getting us started with drinks and reviewing the tapas-based menu with us. The tapas offerings were divided into "traditional" and "modern" categories and our party opted to try a few of each. First up was a platter of modern and traditional olives (see photo below).
The tasty traditional olives were stuffed with anchovy and placed in a tin as a homage to the high-quality canned goods that are produced in Spain (no joke - the Spanish are known for this). Right next to them on the black slate were the encapsulated modern olives on shiny metal spoons, the very same version I'd eaten back in February during the Next el Bulli tribute dinner. These "olives" (actually olive oil and juices contained in an alginate coating, a dish lifted from the el Bulli kitchen) are designed to explode in the mouth with a burst of pure olive flavor (which they did, impressing, if not weirding out a little, my dining companions). Next up came two more conventional plates, a platter of cured meats (in this case, chorizo, pork loin, and salami) followed by a selection of Spanish cheeses (Murcia al Vino, Garrotxa, and Idiazabal, two goat and one sheep) served with Marcona almonds and quince jam. Before the more substantial courses arrived, our waiter brought over a platter with addictive Catalan-style toasted bread with tomato/garlic/oil spread on top (this rustic specialty was being continuously churned out at a dedicated bar with dedicated chefs in another part of the dining room - they must go through a lot of it).
At this point, one of the managers was kind enough to bring me over to the kitchen so I could take a close-up picture (apparently, he had noticed me snapping away at plates earlier):
Our next dish was picked by Jaime, who had heard about it from someone else in town, the house's interpretation of a "Philly cheesesteak". Listed on the modern tapas portion of the menu under "Some Little Sandwiches", this sandwich was actually turned inside-out, with the meat on top of the bread. Inside the little roll (what they refer to as "air bread", essentially a hollow baguette nearly identical to one we had with ham around it at Next, most probably another el Bulli original) was a dollop of melted cheddar cheese, when taken together with the meat and roll produced a pretty accurate rendition of cheesesteak in my book (see photo below).
Going back to traditional tapas, we tried out some "papas canarias", or Canarian wrinkled potatoes, a popular dish from the Spanish Canary Islands. The potatoes (which apparently have to be small in order for the dish to work) were served with a green pepper sauce, or "mojo". These were fine, but were somewhat overshadowed by most of our other choices (hey, something has to be last). The potatoes were proceeded by two modern vegetable tapas plates, fabulous and airy blocks of eggplant tempura served with a honey-buttermilk dipping foam and flower-like bundles of guacamole (with micro cilantro and corn chips mixed in) daintily wrapped in jicama (see both below).
For dessert, our server led us over to a separate, secluded area of the hotel lobby, decked out more like a club. This "dessert lounge" was quieter and more intimate, a welcome break from the din of the main dining rooms. I really liked this idea of distinct seating at the end of the meal, which probably also allows the restaurant to serve more patrons by clearing table space. The lounge harbored a number of glass cases (see photo below), seemingly filled with precious objects (artifacts? art?), but actually containing items for sale like jewelry (a concept I found a little tacky).
The dessert lounge had its own kitchen for the pastry staff at the back of the room (see photo below). Gift boxes of many goodies from the "Patisserie" (as they called it) could also be purchased, albeit at a Beverly Hills-level price.
As with dinner, the three of us collaborated on dessert choices, having to consider a wide range of mostly-smaller bites. We picked two larger plates, an apples "Carlota" (bread pudding with a saffron sauce) and a blueberry dark chocolate lavender tart (see photo below), along with 3 squares of chocolate mini-tablettes (a dark cocoa nibs, green tea, and raspberry cardamon).
The group all agreed that the sweets were a little underwhelming. The chocolate blueberry tart certainly looked decadent, but I thought the crust seemed too thick and heavy-handed. The bread pudding and chocolate squares weren't bad; however, I'm sure we'd have been just as happy with another helping of backyard raspado (at a fraction of the price and pretense). The Bazaar is definitely a great dining experience with outstanding tapas creations (lots of which we didn't get to try this time) and would be even better if the pastry staff could step up quality just a notch.
By the time Sunday morning rolled around, I felt that I had fully satisfied my craving for LA cuisine (at least for one trip). For breakfast, Jaime, Lydia, and I returned to Los Equipales for my farewell meal, a hot bowl of menudo (tripe soup, reputedly the best cure out there for overindulgence - see photo below) washed down with a hibiscus agua fresca.
The cooks put an awful lot of tripe in one bowl of menudo, so much that I wasn't able to finish it all. Whatever its medicinal properties might be, I certainly felt good on the plane ride home in spite of the weekend's dining dalliances. Next time out in SoCal, I think I'd like to focus a little more on regional Asian dishes, but I wouldn't be disappointed with any of the items encountered on this go-round. Thanks again to Jaime and Lydia for being gracious and enthusiastic hosts....