Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Jonathon Gold I Never Knew

More stunning than Jonathan Gold's passing itself has been the outpouring from the entire Los Angeles community itself in reaction to his death.  Yes, it was obvious that Jonathon Gold was widely known and recognized, but I did not expect the reaction which equals or exceeds that accorded to a rock star or other illustrious celebrity or personality.  I was stunned to read Tweets from civic leaders and sports journalists, not just the food community, about Gold's passing.  And the Gold colored light displays all over Los Angeles from downtown to the Los Angeles Airport put an exclamation point on this.

Many of my "imaginary" friends (i.e., people I know only through social media and have never met in person) posted photo-ops with Gold to express their admiration and grief.   Unfortunately I never had the occasion to meet Gold in person, primarily because I'm not a foodie per se, but rather view Chinese-American food in the larger context of Chinese-American culture and history.  Consequently I have never attended a foodie event where I would have had the opportunity to meet him personally.

However, I knew that Jonathan Gold was familiar with me since he followed me on Twitter.  However I am just finding out that he was more familiar than I realized.   Having a celebrity Twitter follower, such as Paula Abdul, doesn't necessarily mean anything, since it often just means that one of the celebrity's assistants does the following, and if they're following thousands of people it is doubtful that the celebrity will see any particular tweet that you post.  However in the case of Jonathan Gold, since he only followed a few hundred people on Twitter, I figured it was likely that he would see at least some of my tweets.  This was confirmed by the fact that he "liked" a couple of my tweets over a period of years, so at least he was paying some attention to me.

Two events earlier this year demonstrated that he was paying more attention to my tweets than I had realized.  First, he mentioned me by name in his Los Angeles Times review of Longo Seafood in Rosemead.  Then when somebody asked him on Twitter about Chinese buffets, he demurred giving an answer and merely told the requester to check with me.

But it was only in the past month that I realized that he was actually following me quite closely.  Just a few weeks before Gold passed away, I stumbled across a tweet he made back in 2013 about Frank Shyong's profile of me in the Los Angeles Times, where Gold specifically referred to me by the Chandavkl handle I use here, on Twitter, and on the food message boards.  Since that was before I had done anything in the way of food writing, that shows that even though he stopped posting on the Chowhound message board, he was monitoring that board closely, where I would frequently post on new Chinese restaurant openings, primarily in the San Gabriel Valley.

And since his death, I read in one of the many tributes written to Gold about how his greatest food passion was eating at hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurants in the San Gabriel, eating at dozens of them that he would never have time to do a written review for.  This reminded me of an incident a couple of years ago where I was talking to the manager of a recently opened Chinese restaurant in Rosemead which had caught my attention and which I had mentioned favorably on the Food Talk Central message board.  She mentioned how Jonathon Gold had eaten at her restaurant, and I was wondering how or why Jonathon Gold would have gone to that restaurant which had received nothing in the way of mainstream publicity.  Now I see that I was helping him scout out Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, even though he already had a regular network of food scouts at the Times.

Finally! You Can Get A High Quality Crispy Baked BBQ Pork Bun in Los Angeles

Clearly my favorite dish in the world is the crispy baked BBQ pork bun, which we ate four years ago during our visit to Hong Kong at Tim Ho Wan, the restaurant which popularized the dish.  Tim Ho Wan was once the most inexpensive Michelin starred restaurant in the world until some Asian street vendor also was awarded a Michelin star.  However, much to my chagrin, the only restaurants serving worthy versions of this dish in the US have all been in the San Francisco Bay Area, at such eateries as Dragon Beaux, Hong Kong Lounge II, Lai Hong Lounge, Koi Palace and Pacific Lighthouse.   In the Los Angeles area, it was offered regularly only by Golden Valley in Industry, but it wasn’t that good and they recently shut down anyway.  Lunasia does a fair version, but it’s not a regular menu item,  China Red recently added a so-so version, and don’t even mention the sorry version at Bao on Beverly Blvd.  

But it’s time to rejoice, as a delicious version of the Tim Ho Wan bun has appeared at Xiang Yuan Gourmet in Temple City.  Xian Yuan Gourmet has had a very checkered record in its year of operation.  When it opened last summer, it showed the potential to climb to the top of the Los Angeles dim sum heap.  But then shortly thereafter, Longo Seafood opened, rightfully grabbing the mantle as the great new dim sum hope in Los Angeles.  To add insult to injury, the owners of Xiang Yuan Gourmet got in a spat with the dim sum chefs, and the chefs walked out, leaving Xiang Yuan Gourmet to suspend its dim sum service altogether.  But then last month I happened to see the Yelp listing for Xiang Yuan Gourmet which indicated that dim sum was back.  But the $64 question was whether the old dim sum chefs were back, or was it a totally new crew?  Breathlessly I went to the restaurant and checked the menu, and many of the distinctive offerings they used to have were on the new menu.

But under the old regime there was not a crispy baked bbq pork bun option on the menu–indeed as I recall there wasn’t even a regular baked bbq pork bun.  I had heard, however, that they sometimes had an off menu, green tea crusted bbq pork bun.  Unfortunately they never had that item available the times I went there before they suspended their dim sum service.  And when I made my first return visit to Xiang Yuan Gourmet last month, there was no crispy baked bbq pork bun on the menu at the time.  However, I later received information that their new menu had the matcha crispy baked bbq pork bun actually listed on the menu, so I immediately headed out for a return trip.  And yes indeed, it was there on the menu, and more importantly, comparable in taste to the versions found at the various Bay Area dim sum houses--not as good as the original Tim Ho Wan or Dragon Beaux in San Francisco, but better than Tim Ho Wan in New York or Lai Hong Lounge in San Francisco.

So now LA really has a great new one/two dim sum punch with Xiang Yuan Gourmet and Longo Seafood, after a decade of nothing new under the dim sum sun here in Los Angeles.      

Sunday, July 29, 2018

An Encounter With Fine Dining At Providence on Melrose

As I have written on many occasions, I'm not a foodie because my interest in food, and obviously more specifically, Chinese food, arose from my interest in the larger topic of the history and culture of Chinese-Americans.  In the United States, Chinese food and fine dining have seldom intersected, at least on a historical basis, with Chinese food being more associated with reasonably priced food, or in the eyes of many, "cheap" food, or perhaps alternatively described as more practical dining from a price point of view.  Consequently, with my goal of maximizing my Chinese eating experiences, fine dining is something which I only occasionally engage in.

On the other hand, when you have Millennial children, it's difficult not to be exposed to some extent to the outside foodie world.  Consequently that's how I found myself at the late Jonathan Gold's #1 restaurant choice Providence, for their $185 tasting menu.  The tasting menu dinner at Providence was not a total shock to us since we had gone to the $100 tasting menu at Chicago's Sepia Restaurant last September.  I'd say that without that experience, dinner at Providence would indeed have been a totally out of body experience.

Dinner started first with appetizers.  The first round came on giant pieces of driftwood which dwarfed the appetizers themselves, making the search for the appetizers like an Easter egg hunt.   Indeed a creative way to make two small appetizers look like something special.

The next pair of appetizers featured a combination of crab and corn, with a crab/corn bisque and a crab and corn tartlet.  (There were other appetizers that I didn't keep track of.)

First plate up was the bigeye tuna with melon balls. in a light chili sauce  I can see why Providence is so highly rated due to the combination of diverse ingredients, that work so well.

An add-on to the tasting menu at $24 was the uni egg, one of the restaurant's signature dishes.  Never thought I'd ever try uni but I'm glad I did., though the egg yolk at the bottom of the real eggshell was meh.   Also the presentation was rather odd, considering how Instagrammable everything else was.

Next up was the spot prawn with Oregon morel.  The morel was one of a number of diversely sourced ingredients.  Somehow the prawn was more reminiscent of lobster than shrimp.  As much as I hate mushrooms, the morel was OK.

The unanimous hit of the night was the Hawaiian farm raised abalone with truffles and avocado.  What an amazing combination of flavors!

Probably the least impressive item of the evening was the rockfish.  Not to say it wasn't good, but comparatively it fell short of the others.

We split two main "entrees".  The wagyu with a drizzle of nori seaweed on the side was richly delicious.  Biting in the beef produced an almost liquid like sensation, which I'm sure isn't terribly great from a health point of view.

The second entree was the duck, which visually looked just like beef and was quite tasty.

Dessert was preceded by a palate cleanser of tomato sorbet with herbs on the side.

And the wonderful meal was capped by strawberry gelato accompanied by a whipped cream replacement of barrata.  Never would have guessed.

But wait!  There's more.  After the meal we were escorted for a peek at the kitchen.  It's incredible how such a signature restaurant can operate with such a small kitchen.  My only thought as to how they pull it off is that their reliance on tasting menus with spaced out dishes permits them to operate in this manner.

Definitely a magical evening of dining.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Attention Culver City--Chinese Eating Is Really Becoming Interesting In Your City

It was just three months ago that I discussed the Culver City opening of Ooak Restaurant, which was highly significant for three reasons. First of all, it appeared to be the first opening of a Guangzhou based Chinese restaurant from Mainland China in the greater Los Angeles area.  Secondly, this opening occurred in Culver City, whose only connection to authentic Chinese food has been the branch of 101 Noodle Express located in the Westfield Culver City Fox Hills Mall.  And that presence has since been tarnished by the fact that 101 Noodle Express took their famed beef rolls off the menu at this Culver City location.  And lastly, its vegetarian/vegan menu in this part of the Los Angeles area appeared to be an outreach to a demographic not typically courted by authentically good Chinese restaurants, in this case vegetarian Westside hipsters. 

However, as it turns out, Ooak Restaurant's original opening may just be the tip of the iceberg in what may be part of a game changing process.  In its first few months of operation, Ooak Restaurant has notched a slow but steady increase in clientele.  But what I have found surprising is that they seem to be drawing as much Chinese clientele for their specialty Chinese vegetarian menu as the local hipster crowd that one might have imagined to be the target audience for this location.  This might just be the manifestation of the surprisingly sudden increase in sources of authentic Chinese food on the Westside in the past two or three years as indicated by multiple openings of Northern Cafe and Tasty Noodle House branches out of the San Gabriel Valley, as well as opening of other authentic Chinese restaurants such as the fabled Din Tai Fung, Popcorn Chicken, Little Highness Bao, Little Fatty, Gu Yi, Flaming Pot and iFood, and the upcoming Westside locations of 85°C Bakery & CafĂ©, Hi Di Lao Hotpot, and Sichuan Impression.  Note too, authentic Sichuan menu items added to longstanding Westside restaurants Hop Woo and Golden China, and the appearance of a significant Chinese clientele at Bao on Beverly Blvd, and you can see that something major is happening. 

But yet, perhaps the biggest event for Westside Chinese dining is yet to come.  In dropping by to check out their new (perhaps seasonal) vegetarian dim sum menu I started chatting with the restaurant manager, who disclosed plans to relocate their Chinese vegetarian operations to a smaller location, and convert the existing Ooak space in Culver City to a dim sum and Chinese seafood restaurant.  My hope is that this would lead to the first full sized Westside Chinese seafood/dim sum operation like we find in the San Gabriel Valley since Royal Star closed down in Santa Monica over a dozen years ago.  And given the Guangzhou based ownership of Ooak Kitchen, might we even hope for the first Guangzhou style dim sum and seafood restaurant in the Los Angeles area?   (The first Guangzhou dim sum restaurant in the US, H.L. Peninsula, just opened up in South San Francisco this year.)  If so, this could be a real game changer in Westside Chinese dining.

In the interim there's more news out of Ooak Restaurant as they have added a summertime vegetarian dim sum menu.  Of course, not all dim sum for vegetarians is necessarily something different from regular dim sum, such as the egg yolk lava bun and egg tarts.  However, the vegetarian versions of non-vegetarian dim sum items are quite interesting.   Unfortunately though the composition of these items remains a mystery to me as our server was not familiar with the ingredients used in the individual items except to mention things like mushrooms, water chestnuts, and vegetarian oyster sauce.

Perhaps the best item is the vegetarian har gow, particularly since the vegetarian har gow had an essence that was very shrimp like.

Another reasonably close cousin to the real thing was the vegetarian bbq pork bun.

However, the vegetarian siu mai was off the mark, plus it fell apart like a house of cards as soon as I started eating it.

At $5 to $8 per dim sum item, Ooak Kitchen's vegetarian dim sum is worth it if you're a Westside vegetarian.

A couple of bonus items were pretty good.  The spicy vegetarian wontons weren't particularly spicy, unless you asked for the chili sauce on the side.

And the pineapple fried rice was visual and unique.

Obviously Ooak Restaurant has already made things very interesting in Culver City.  I hope that things are about to get really more interesting.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Dim Sum Chef Returns to Xiang Yuan Gourmet and I Do, Too.

It was less than a year ago when Xiang Yuan Gourmet opened up in Temple City and as I speculated at the time, it might have been the best dim sum opening in Los Angeles in a decade . Of course a few weeks later Longo Seafood opened up and eclipsed Xiang Yuan Gourmet, but still that gave the San Gabriel Valley a great new one-two dim sum punch.  But then earlier this year, a poster on Yelp reported that the dim sum kitchen got in a spat with the restaurant owners and walked out.  (While I savaged Yelp's Chinese restaurant ratings in my L.A. Weekly article I do admit that Yelpers do provide a good source of peripheral restaurant information.)   I'm not clear whether the restaurant continued dim sum service for a while with replacements, but they did eventually terminate dim sum for conventional lunch service.  However last week, another Yelper reported the return of dim sum to Xiang Yuan Gourmet, so I headed out there.

Of course the $64 question is whether the revived dim sum service would be similar to what they previously served, or whether it's a new bunch of dim sum chefs in the kitchen.  I can't say for sure, but the dim sum is quite similar to the old menu, and the quality is high.

First up was the salty egg yolk bun.   The casing is very similar to the old Xiang Yuan Gourmet crispy bamboo paste balls, which is still on the new menu, and would further indicate that the old crew is back in the kitchen.

Next was the deep fried shrimp rolls.  Just as good as before.

Something different this time, shrimp/cruller cheung fun.  Excellent flavor. even though not especially photogenic.

This is their almond and walnut bun.  A variation of their former almond cream bun.  Better than the almond cream bun at Red 8 at the Wynn in Las Vegas, as the Xiang Yuan version is a mixture of nuts and cream (with less cream) and not overly sweet.

Now the real question is whether their taro bun is the same porcupine shaped bun that used to be on the old menu.  A follow up field trip is warranted.