Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Flavors of Los Angeles: Cafe Dulce, N/Naka, Night+Market & The Bazaar

From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody's very happy
'Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day
I love L.A. (We love it)
--Randy Newman, I Love L.A.

As I wandered around the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics of Randy Newman's paean to L.A. echoed through my mind, and visions of its music video accompanied those lyrics. I spent several days in Los Angeles attending the Design Bloggers Conference, a fun and fascinating event that would not seem my usual interest. However, I was there to make a presentation, How to Differentiate Yourself In a Crowded Online Marketplace, which entailed speaking about Sake and Blogging.

At its most elemental, all of the design bloggers and I are lovers of beauty, just in different areas, so we have much more in common than what it might seem on the surface. That shared aesthetic sense binds us on a deeper level than our mutual use of the same tool, blogging. As I spent time chatting with a number of the attendees, it was clear that we did share much, and that they were eager to learn and share their own passions with me.

While I was in L.A., I enjoyed some delicious meals, snacks and drinks. It was my first time in that city but I would like to return again to check out more of its culinary scene. I only checked out there merest fraction of what the city has to offer. During my culinary experiences, I did not take my usual detailed notes and photographs, desirous more of experiencing the meal and socializing with my dining companions. However, these spots are all worthy of mention.

Adam Japko, the founder of the Design Bloggers Conference, and I wandered around Little Tokyo one afternoon, checking out the sights. This is a great neighborhood with a myriad of Japanese shops, restaurants, and attractions, including the Kinokuniya book store (one of my favorite book shops), Mitsuwa Marketplace and Koyasan Buddhist Temple. One of my favorite finds was the Cafe Dulce, situated in the Japanese Village Plaza. 

Cafe Dulce is a coffee shop and bakery that creates a wide variety of baked goods and sandwiches, from roti buns to donuts, cakes to breads. It was a small, clean shop and you could watch them baking numerous items. Service was also very friendly and helpful. A very cool, independent shop. Adam raved about the Vietnamese Style Iced Coffee while I enjoyed some unsweetened iced tea. We tried a couple roti buns (which seem to have a Malaysian origin), including a basic roti and a green tea one. Lightly sweet, they had a slightly crisp outer crust with a softer interior and a very pleasant flavor. They were also very fresh. Think of it as a mildly sweet and flavored bread roll.

What really excited me though were the Bacon Donuts! This was a yeast donut, topped by a sweet glaze and plenty of bacon crumbles. A perfect combination of sweet and salty, atop a soft, fresh donut. Even without the bacon, this would have been an excellent donut. I found them very addictive and bought some to take back to the hotel. I have previously eaten the Maple & Bacon donut at Voodoo Donuts in Portland, OR, but I much prefer this bacon donut. I have never been a big fan of maple, and the lightness of this donut was compelling. They sell other donuts too, some covered with breakfast cereals, green tea donuts, cream filled and more. They looked as good as the bacon donut and I wish I had more time to explore all of the flavors. If you visit or live in L.A., then you must check out Cafe Dulce.

For my first evening in Los Angeles, Adam and I chose a special place to dine, N/Naka, a kaiseki inspired Japanese restaurant which has earned many raves. Adam also ran a contest on Twitter, giving the opportunity for a couple design bloggers to join us for dinner. The winners were Amy, of House of Wentworth, and Kelley, of The Hidden List, both who are from Dallas, Texas. It was a superb evening, with incredible food, great Sake and wine, and very pleasant conversation.

Chef/Owner Niki Nakayama, a Los Angeles native, has trained in Japan, including under Chef Masa Sato in the art of kaiseki. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese practice, involving a multi-course meal that emphasizes presentation, taste, seasonality, local ingredients and balance. Each dish is a work of beauty, from its presentation to the complexity and balance of its taste. Chef Nakayama's first two restaurants, Azami Sushi Cafe and Inaka, did very well and N/Naka is the natural extension of those two endeavors. Their website states that "..., Chef Niki Nakayama is committed to creating a meal that will engage your attention — it's about enjoying the moment, the current offerings of the season, and ultimately, the food in front of you."

The restaurant is very unassuming from the outside and we drove right by it initially. Inside, it has a more spartan decor, yet provides a warm ambiance. It is a relatively small place, with a limited amount of seating, yet the tables are spaced far enough apart to give some element of privacy. In one room, there is a glass wall showing their wine cellar area and I was excited to see all the Sakes mixed in with the wines. For dinner, you basically have the choice of a nine, ten (vegetarian), thirteen or sixteen course meal, so you need to plan for a 3.5 to 5 hour dining experience. It is well worth your time.

Our server, who actually had only been working for four days, did a very good job, acting very courteously and professionally. The entire service lacked pretension and we were made to feel very welcome by all of the staff. We opted for the 9 course meal and you can check out this menu for more detail of what that can entail. The menus change regularly, especially considering what is seasonally available. Everything was amazing and I cannot recommend N/Naka enough. Enjoy the photos of many of the dishes we savored.

What colors! And love that Uni.

A piece of art.

Very fresh fish, from Big Eye Tuna to Hamachi.

Maybe my favorite dish of the evening, with abalone and garlic.

Incredible Nigiri.

A compelling version of Chawanmushi.

A simple but delicious dessert.

Our drink choices well accompanied the food. We selected a single wine, the 2009 Bodegas Paso Robles "Dona Blanca" ($28), a Grenache Blanc/Malvasia Bianca blend from one of my favorite Paso Robles producers. I previously tasted the 2008 vintage and the 2009 was equally as compelling, with lots of complexity, great flavors and a satisfying finish. Everyone very much enjoyed this wine. And as the wine retails for about $18, the restaurant is offering it at a low markup. Highly recommended!

We started our Sake enjoyment with a glass of the Sawa Sawa Junmai Nigori, a Sparkling Sake, that was lightly sweet, effervescent and fruity. Next, we ordered a bottle of Shichida Yamahai Junmai Karakuchi, a dry, umami rich Sake with elements of anise and licorice on the finish. This would be excellent with mushrooms, beef or other umami-rich dishes.

We ended with a killer Sake which impressed everyone. The Denshin Natsu Daiginjo Nama is a rare Sake, with only 420 bottles made each year. It is produced by the Ippongi Kubo Honten brewery, which was founded in 1902, in the Chubu region of the Fukui prefecture. The brewery sits at the base of Mt. Haku, deep in Echizen, which is known for its crystal clear water. It was made from the famed Yamada Nishiki rice, which was polished to 50%. Incredibly complex, great fruit flavors, crisp, clean and smooth. A "Wow!" Sake, sure to impress, and which all of us loved very deeply. It receives my highest recommendation though it may be difficult to locate.

The next night, a group of about ten of us, went to Night+Market, a Thai street food place. Their website describes the type of food they create: "In Thai, it's called 'aharn klam lao' which roughly translates to 'food to facilitate drinking.' That's at the heart of what we do. We make food for drunkards." Unfortunately, we arrived at the restaurant past 9pm, on a Sunday, and didn't know that the place closed at 10pm. So we were a bit rushed, though the restaurant allowed us to stay a bit past 10pm.

The basic menu includes about 25 different items, from small plates to heartier entrees, and there was a Specials menu with 6 additional items. We selected some dishes and also asked our server to bring us a bunch of his own recommendations. In the end, we received a nonstop parade of dishes, which probably constituted at least 80% of the menu. Overall, the food was quite tasty with only a couple dishes which were merely average. We received a great variety, including many spicy dishes, seafood, pork, beef & vegetables. Be wary as several of the dishes are very spicy and you may need something to mellow the heat in your mouth.

My favorite dishes were the Fried Pig Tails, Beef Grapow and Whole Fish Sam-Rod (with a delectable cripsy skin). Everyone who tried the fried pig tails loved them, though a few people refused to even tast them. Other delicious dishes included the Koi Pla (salmon ceviche), Tendon Panang with Roti, Pad Kee Mao (drunken noodles with short ribs), the Pork Toro (grilled fatty hog collar), and Kar Moo Parlow (braised pork hock). The most disappointing dish was the Nuoc Mam Chicken Wings, which were very ordinary, especially when compared to the wings from Pok Pok in Portland, another Thai street food place.

Service was very good and it is a cool place to grab a bite and a drink. Most of the dishes are very well prepared, with an intriguing blend of spices, and none of the dishes were bad. They were merely ordinary. Night+Market earned my recommendation.

My final dinner of my trip was another small plates restaurant, The Bazaar by Jose Andres, which serves incredible Spanish Tapas. There were about twenty of us, including singer Patti Austin (who was a down to earth and fascinating person). Located in Beverly Hills, the restaurant decor is extremely compelling, chic without being ostentatious.

A tasting menu was prepared for us, with eighteen courses, and we ordered our own wines. Overall, the meal was delicious and certain dishes even brought my mind back to Spain. I liked their creativity as well in the nontraditional tapas. Everyone I spoke to at our table was very pleased with our dinner.

The menu included:
American Caviar Cone (like a salty ice cream cone)
Sweet Potato Chips (excellent!)
Jamon Iberico with Pa'amb Tomaquet (bread topped by rubbed tomato with silky ham)
King Crab Can (served in an actual can, tasty sweet crab meat)
Mussel Can (also served in a can)
Market Fish Ceviche & Avocado Roll
Not Your Everyday Caprese (cherry tomatoes & little balls of mozzarella that squirt in your mouth, so tasty)
Ensaladilla Rusa (potatoes, carrots, tuna belly and mayo)
Bunuelos (codfish fritters, very good)
Papas Canarias (salty wrinkled potatoes with mojo verde, quite addictive snack)
Seared Mary's Farm Chicken (meaty, tender, juicy, cripsy skin, quite compelling)
Catalan Spinach
Wild Mushroom Rice with Idiazabal cheese (creamy, umami rich and also addictive)
Braised Wagyu Beef Cheeks (tender, meaty and tasty)
Philly Cheesesteak (very interesting, nontraditional dish)
Pan con Chocolate
Traditional Spanish Flan
Special Chef's Selection Dessert (a mousse-like pudding of some type)

With my meal, I primarily drank Sherry, introducing the rest of our group to some excellent selections. Our first two choices were both from Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, one of my favorite Sherry bodegas. We had the Manzanilla La Gitana and the Amontillado Napoleón, both different in taste yet good choices for the tapas dishes. We also had the E. Lustau Palo Cortado Almacenistas Vides, a superb Sherry with a great depth of flavor which was the favorite of a number of people at dinner. Palo Cortado is one of my favorite types of Sherry and the Almacenista was very well made.

We had excellent service and I was thoroughly impressed with the restaurant. It too receives my highest recommendation.

I left Los Angeles, with a full and satisfied belly, singing "I love L.A."

1 comment:

TreasureMA said...

Glad you enjoyed your time in LA! Jealous of N/naka. Would always drive by that place, but never saved up the cash to try it.