Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Two Visits To Majordomo

Though David Chang's Majordomo opened roughly five years ago, I never had a chance to eat there.  First of all, until the pandemic, reservations were nearly impossible to obtain, and I'm not one to wait in line for food, be it an hour's wait at a restaurant, or having to fight to get a reservation to eat at the restaurant two months later.  And that aside, I would have preferred to share the meal there with the entire family, but I believe the maximum group they would accommodate was six persons.

However I recently noticed that post-pandemic reopening, there have been no problems getting reservations at Majordomo, so on just a few days notice I was able to get a reservation for two just days before my birthday in August, so why not?  Although Majordomo is located in what is technically Chinatown, it's in the far northern portion on a street I never heard of and obviously had never been, just a short ways from Lincoln Heights, with no signage visible from the street, so I wasn't absolutely sure that I was there until I made the last turn into the patio.  We got the latest available reservation at 6:30pm, but were delayed by traffic and other matters and arrived a half hour late.  When we called ahead about our dilemma they said there would be no problem, except that we would have to vacate by 8:30pm, which was fine with us.  Strangely, however, when we arrived at 7pm the restaurant was still half empty, even though there were no 7pm slots open when I made my original reservation.

The food was excellent from the get go.  The bing with eggplant and pine nuts was terriffic.

The heirloom tomato salad was out of this world.  Never thought something so basic could be so good.

I hate mushrooms, but the buzz about the mushroom crispy rice was so good that I ordered it anyway.  And it was as good as advertised.

The grilled striped bass was actually not as good as the first three dishes, but it was still quite good.

And the cocktail.

Interestingly, there were still some empty tables even when we finished.  Afterwards we took a peek at what the surrounding buildings looked like.  Certainly an area in transition.

The August meal was so enjoyable that we returned three months later for Mrs. Chandavkl's birthday.


This time we had the beef shank bing.  The beef was a little too spicy for us but the bing was great.


The little gem salad with panko, bonito flakes, trout roe, anchovies and miso dressing was a crunchy delight.


The innocuous sounding boiled chicken was a true delight.  A whole chicken was slow boiled and served two ways.  First was the white meat served with chicken flavored rice, sort of a spicy version of Hainan chicken.  


The rest of of the chicken was rendered into chicken noodle soup with a hand cut Korean noodle that was very reminiscent of biang biang noodles.


Thanks to the friendly people at the table next to ours, we also were able to sample the short rib fried rice, a derivative dish of the whole plate short rib.

And as a birthday surprise, they also ordered the coconut rice pudding for us.  Such nice people!

Once again, the restaurant never did fill up completely.


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

A Night At The Bonaventure

Since the early 2000s, perhaps the premiere venues for Chinese banquets, particularly wedding banquets have been two Hilton hotels, the Universal City Hilton and the San Gabriel Hilton. The San Gabriel Hilton as a Chinese banquet site is logical given its location in the San Gabriel Valley.  The Universal City Hilton is less intuitive but can be traced to the ownership of the hotel by Taiwanese interests, plus a history of Chinese wedding and other banquets dating back to the 1980s at the fancy Fung Lum Restaurant in Universal City.  

Of course, if you are going to host Chinese banquets on a regular basis, it makes sense to have a Chinese kitchen in-house.  And if you have a Chinese kitchen, it's probably also a good idea to have to have a regularly operating Chinese restaurant in the hotel, which both the Universal City Hilton (Cafe Sierra) and the San Gabriel Hilton (Trinity Restaurant) have on premises.  So it is against this backdrop that I encountered the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles as a Chinese banquet venue.

I first learned of the Bonaventure's Chinese banquet facilities five years ago when I was invited to the annual dinner of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers' Association, at which there was a nice quality Chinese banquet.  I had wondered whether the banquet had been produced in-house or via an outside provider, but got nowhere with my inquiry.   So when I was invited to this year's SCCLA banquet at the same venue, I decided to dig a little bit deeper.  This time I found a one line blurb on the hotel’s wedding facilities website that says a traditional Chinese banquet is available.  Interestingly the website also noted to capability for Kosher, Indian and Persian wedding banquets, with the qualification that these are outside catered, giving the implication that Chinese banquets were prepared in-house.

Consequently, I was looking forward to a nice meal comparable to that at the 2017 SCCLA banquet.   We arrived late, so there were just scraps left from the appetizer plate.  Then came the beef with vegetables, which was a tasty dish.


However, things quickly went south.  The honey walnut shrimp was gruesome.

Here's the Chinese fried chicken with shrimp chips.  It would seem impossible to wreck shrimp chips, but these were soggy and bland.

The vegetable plate was a delicious as it looks.

And the grand prize went to the salt and pepper fish, which was like eating cardboard.


At this point I stopped taking pictures.  This was an absolutely laughable, terrible Chinese banquet.  My son did clear one thing up.  He spoke with a Chinese bartender who has worked Bonaventure Chinese banquets for many years and confirmed that the food is catered externally. (I do remember in the 1990s that the Bonaventure was Taiwanese owned at the time, and there was a nice Chinese restaurant there called Mandarin Cove, which was succeeded by Mandarin West, so there was once a Chinese kitchen in the hotel, which would explain the continuing banquets.)   But if one wondered how a Chinese kitchen could turn out such an awful meal, the answer is that it didn't.  Of course, now the question is how a professional caterer could put together a disaster like this.  And in any event, the Chinese banquet availability at the Bonaventure has been the best kept secret in town, and clearly needs to stay that way.

Friday, October 14, 2022

How One Small Chinese Restaurant Changed The Geographical Face Of Chinese Food in Los Angeles

I don’t give a Los Angeles Chinese restaurant heroes award (maybe I should), but if I did one would surely go to Northern Cafe for spreading authentic Chinese food to areas that have been a wasteland of Chinese food. The most obvious part of town is the Westside, where for decades Westsiders bemoaned the lack of San Gabriel Valley quality food and confidently predicted that if an established SGV Chinese restaurant took a chance on the Westside, they would be a wild success. As far back as the 80s this kind of talk floated around the Westside, even with rumors that the big SGV dog of the day, Harbor Village, was going to open up on Pico Blvd. But they didn’t, which was a smart business decision as the next 3 decades would reveal. It wasn’t until the late 90s that a SGV giant would bite, when Monterey Park’s Ocean Star opened up Royal Star in eastern Santa Monica. While having an initial period of success, they were out of business by 2004. While a small number of decent Chinese restaurants did begin to survive, the Westside didn’t catch another SGV whale until the 2014 opening of powerhouse New Port Seafood in Beverly Hills. Ominously, outside of a busy opening few weeks, New Port Seafood struggled badly and closed in 2018. 

Against this backdrop came the stunning (actually puzzling was a better description) news item in 2016 that a San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant called Northern Cafe was going to open up in prime Westwood Village, replacing a legendary Americanized Chinese restaurant called Mongols, known for letting their UCLA student customers tightly pack their takeout boxes. The thing is that while Northern Cafe was indeed a good Chinese restaurant that I personally liked, few people in the San Gabriel Valley had heard of it, as it was an upstart that had been open for only a couple of years, and was located in Hacienda Heights in the eastern part of the San Gabriel Valley where many Chinese living in West San Gabriel Valley communities like Monterey Park, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Alhambra and Rosemead seldom visit. But Northern Cafe identified and caught the wave that would transform Westside Chinese dining—the growing Mainland Chinese student population at UCLA. Quickly Northern Cafe opened up three more locations in Westwood Village and locations in Brentwood and Beverly Center, and paving the way for other San Gabriel Valley mainstays like Din Tai Fung, Hai Di Lao, 85 Degrees, Capital Seafood and Sichuan Impression  to open on the Westside.

But Northern Cafe continues to pioneer into more wasteland territory. They opened up in Hollywood, by the corner of Hollywood and Vine no less. And now they’ve opened in El Segundo near LAX. Who would have dreamed of eating beef bing and beef rolls in El Segundo in a large “Northern Cafe” building?  Not me, but I did.




Friday, September 16, 2022

What We Ate In New Orleans

While this was my fourth visit to New Orleans, it was longer than my previous trips and gave me the best chance to sample a variety of the famed cuisine.  Landing in New Orleans on a Wednesday night, we checked into the Hotel Monteleone and quickly headed to the nearby Broussard's Restaurant, a century old restaurant just off of Bourbon Street.  Arriving at 8pm, the restaurant was ominously  nearly empty.   Nevertheless the food was slow to arrive.

Mrs. Chandavkl awaited her gumbo.  With memories of all the great gumbo from prior visits to New Orleans, she could hardly wait.

The gumbo turned out not to be very good.  And the rice was stale!  Even though they apologized with a new bowl with supposedly fresh rice, it wasn't much better.

A bit better was the crab cake, though at $18 it was overpriced.


Here's the Creole moules frites, mussels with alligator sausage.   While the flavor of the sauce was very good, since I don't eat potatoes I didn't have much to eat for the $30 charge.

Combined with the slow service, none of us were at all happy with this meal.

Thursday's lunch was at Commander's Palace, one of the best rated restaurants in New Orleans, both by reputation as well as personal experience of some of our group.  First came the kiddie plate, chicken nuggets with fries.  Certainly the most intriguing looking kids plate I have ever seen in a restaurant.

The asparagus vichyssoise was excellent.


But sadly it was all downhill from there.  Both the gumbo and the Caesar salad were unbearably salty.  Meanwhile, the cast iron seared redfish with eggplant was so so. 

Finally, the bananas Foster sorbet was decent.

With a meal lasting nearly two hours (not that there was a worker shortage as their were servers and helpers standing around the whole time) at a cost of $50 per person, this was one of the most disappointing meals I have ever had.


Of course, there's always time for a snack of beignets at Cafe Du Monde.  What's not to like about fried dough smothered in powdered sugar?


Stunningly our first satisfying meal of the trip came at a Chinese restaurant.  Given that New Orleans has no history of Chinese food, and in three previous trips to New Orleans I had only eaten Chinese food once, at an Americanized Chinese restaurant on Canal Street, who would have thought that we would have a Chinese meal better than two legacy, 4 Yelp star or higher New Orleans restaurants?   In three prior trips to New Orleans I determined that there were zero Chinese restaurants in the French Quarter.  Since it had been seven years since our last visit, I decided to survey the current situation and was pleasantly surprised to find two Chinese restaurants in the French Quarter, Dian Xin and Zhang Bistro, a half block apart.  And in fact, Dian Xin had a menu that clearly threw it into the authentic category of Chinese food.  Originally, I planned a quick curiosity based visit just to try one dish, but as luck would have it, we ended up close to Dian Xin at dinner time without any specific dinner plans, so why not have a whole meal here? 


The first thing that caught my eye was the crawfish and crab xiaolongbao.  What could be more New Orleans/Chinese than this dish?  And it was very good, as was the regular pork XLB.

But wait!  There's more authenticity here with the chicken jian bing.  Frankly, the wrapper wasn't very good, more like a tortilla than the normal pancake.  However, that's a very minor consideration compared to finding this dish in the French Quarter.

Mongolian beef sounds like an Americanized dish, but really this version should have been called sesame beef and it wasn't bad.   


Dian Xin had a number of other interesting dishes including varieties of dim sum, dumplings, and non-Cantonese noodle dishes.  One surprise was that the clientele was largely non-Asian, but I had no complaints about the food.  Not surprisingly, prices at Dian Xin were higher than what we were used to seeing, but even so the cost was less than half of most of our other dinners and lunches.  Across the street, Zhang's Bistro is certainly more geared to Americanized tastes, with no apparent Asian diners.  Still, I wish I had the chance to check out their crawfish fried rice.

Friday was a family luncheon gathering at Mother's Restaurant, a forerunner of the modern day fast casual restaurant.  Hooray!  Finally a good bowl of gumbo, as well as crab etoufee.


Meanwhile the Ferdi Po' Boy sandwich of roast beef and ham was also a winner.


Just as much thought went into some of our restaurant choices that backfired, sometimes the opposite occurs.  This was the case of our Friday night dinner at Maypop, which was largely scheduled due to its proximity less than a block away from a family function later in the evening, but which turned out to be a gem of a meal from start to finish.  Maypop is best described as Southeast Asian fusion, but like many of today's restaurants, does not fit into neat classifications.  

The meal started off with complimentary savory tom yum cream cheese with Thai curry beignets, the first of an evening of winners.


Bibb lettuce with crispy cashew.



Yummy crispy catfish nuggets.

Crispy fried oysters.

This dish is described as wok fried tapioca noodles with gulf shrimp.  But really it was a hollow egg noodle that was almost a foot long.  The waiter said they had to rename the dish, which was originally called egg noodles with gulf shrimp, because the local clientele was expecting to find eggs in the dish.  D'oh!

Hand pulled lamian noodles with Louisiana blue crab.  As presented the dish didn't look particularly Chinese, but when you mixed it up you could tell.

Maypop certainly made up for our previous name brand disappointments.

Saturday we had a late breakfast at Brennan's on Royal St., and finally we had the New Orleans meal that we had been anticipating, with an excellent meal from start to finish.

Things started looking up immediately with the complimentary lobster soup.

Finally great gumbo!


Turtle soup was delicious, but it was hard to say what the turtle taste was, as the flavor of the soup dominated.  Sort of like shellfish, I guess.


The fanciful wall pictures were extremely amusing and interesting.


Tomato and melon gazpacho was great and refreshing.

Paneed Louisiana rabbit--tastes like chicken.  The sauce made the dish.

Pan roasted gulf fish was excellent.

Tasty omelette with truffles.

And Oysters j'aime.


And a special birthday cake made of cotton candy, with a small cupcake and a little ice cream on the plate at the bottom.

Clearly these last three meals really made the trip!

Saturday night was the family wedding that drew us to New Orleans, and while it was a totally fantastic event, the less said about the dinner at Capulet the better.  Not that it was bad, and the regular restaurant menu showed some interesting ethnic and even Asian influences.  But the dinner of salad, brussel sprouts, skirt steak and red fish was pedestrian, and the self-serve at your table format was a bit annoying.  And beignets which you had to get yourself, instead of wedding cake.


One final meal Sunday morning as at Cafe Beignet was totally reminiscent of our meal earlier this year at Paia in Honolulu, in that there was this long line of people out to the entrance of the restaurant waiting to place their order at the counter with tables throughout the rest of the restaurant, and you wondered where everyone was going to sit, and yet somehow everybody found a seat after they ordered.   This is the muffaletta sandwich of round bread, salami and cheese.  It's the New Orleans equivalent to cioppino, not that the two dishes are anything alike, but they are Italian type dishes which were formulated in the United States,the muffaletta in New Orleans and cioppino in San Francisco.


And here is the breakfast sandwich of eggs and bacon.  I really like breakfast sandwiches because they are so tasty, but I almost never eat them (probably fewer than 10 in my lifetime) because they are so unhealthy.

And the final meal of the trip was empanadas at New Orleans airport.  I know they were made from frozen, but they were really good.

One last trip food note is that I spotted a restaurant called Yummy House in Kenner LA while on the Uber ride on the way to the New Orleans airport.  


As soon I saw the restaurant name as we drove by, I immediately suspected it was an authentic Chinese restaurant. And as it turns out in the unlikely location of Kenner, it is one of the very few dim sum options in New Orleans. So how did I know this was probably authentic? From the name Yummy. Historically, while there has been a lot of overlap, there are certain restaurants names more likely to be geared to Americanized Chinese restaurants and others that tend more to be authentic Chinese restaurants.  And of the 30 or so Chinese restaurants I've eaten at with Yummy in the name, all have been authentic with a largely, if not nearly exclusively Chinese clientele.  In fact, in perusing the Yummy House website it’s obvious that they aren’t a plain vanilla dim sum restaurant, which is really all you could expect in a city like New Orleans, but has an advanced menu which I would love to try.  And one of my Instagram followers went to Yummy House after seeing my post and reported back that they even have a Chinese language blackboard menu.  That's my first stop next time in New Orleans!