Monday, October 22, 2018

Opal In The San Gabriel Sheraton: Less Than Meets The Eye

I have been hearing a lot of buzz about the new high end Cantonese restaurant in the San Gabriel Sheraton, Opal.  Based on newspaper reviews, online reviews, and other brief passing internet references, it sounded like this could be the transcendent high end Cantonese restaurant that has been missing in Los Angeles.   Unfortunately I didn't know anyone who had actually eaten there and made critical comments, so I had to go there with a group so we could see for ourselves.  

Before going any further I need to make one major caveat.  Some of the restaurant's signature dishes require 24 hour advanced notice, and we were essentially walk-ins.  Consequently we missed the $75 Peking duck, the $38 a bowl bird's nest soup, and some other specialties.  So it's quite possible that we missed the dishes that may well distinguish Opal from every other Cantonese place in town.

That having been said, I have to say Opal was a bit of a letdown.  No criticism of the decor or the service, which was top notch.  But the food fell short, putting aside the price tag on some of the items.  Opening dish was double boiled chicken broth, which necessitated a $10 per bowl charge since they probably boil a whole chicken all day to get a bowl of soup.  One reviewer thought this was a highlight dish based on its relatively scarcity on local menus.  But it certainly wasn't any better than the version you can get at Broth, the Taiwanese chicken essence restaurant in Walnut, and you'd expect a better tasting brew at a place like this.

Wildflower honey glazed kurobota pork sounds like something special, but it was just merely a pretty good version of char siu.

The second appetizer, beef shank marinated in Chinese wine, wasn't even particularly good, a little dry and perhaps overcooked.

Moving onto the main dishes, perhaps the biggest internet favorite was the E-fu noodle with lobster.  A nice dish, but certainly not better than Newport Seafood, 626 Lobster or Longo Seafood versions.

Also highly regarded by online reviewers was the seared Chilean sea bass.  Again, a nice dish and very nicely presented, but not even at the level of Koi Palace's honey glazed sea bass.

The surprise of the evening was the garlic chili chicken.  A real winner with a fantastic sauce.  If everything else were this good I'd be a happy camper.

Online reviews were also highly complimentary of the filet mignon steak with snap peas.  Again, quite good but no better than a large number of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.

Last on the menu was the poached snow pea leaves with egg white and crab meat.  Not my favorite preparation of this vegetable, though probably better than I've had elsewhere.

Some commentators went so far as to describe Opal as a world class eatery, comparable to what you would find in Asia.  Again, maybe it is based on their premium dishes.  But if it really were, you'd expect the more mundane dishes to be better than they were.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Return To Fifty One Kitchen

For those of you really keep close track of what I write, the title of this piece is a puzzle since I never wrote about an initial visit to Fifty One Kitchen in Culver City, aside from posting an Instagram/Twitter picture of their xiaolongbao a few weeks ago.  However when you realize that Fifty One Kitchen is the successor to Ooak Kitchen, which was operated at the same location under the same management, then this article will now make sense.

The occasion for this return was the re-grand opening of Fifty One Kitchen which was marked by a reception, red carpet and everything.

Six months ago I wrote about the opening of Ooak Kitchen describing how this Guangzhou based vegetarian restaurant decided to open up in Culver City, instead of the San Gabriel Valley.  This was particularly significant since Ooak Kitchen may well be the first Guangzhou based Chinese restaurant to open up in the Los Angeles area.  A few weeks later, the restaurant added a summertime vegetarian dim sum menu of a handful of items.  However just as quickly they seemed to backpedal as by mid-summer they changed the exclusively vegetarian menu into a mix of vegetarian and regular Chinese dishes, including matching the vegetarian dim sum with real versions of the same item.  And just days later, with the same new menu, they changed the name of the restaurant to Fifty One Kitchen.

Getting a good sample of items at the grand re-opening reception, clearly there is talent in the kitchen.  The spicy shrimp with tea leaves, a new dish not on the menu, was fantastic, and the ha gow was as good as it gets.  With a number of other good items, having an occasional dinner in lieu of driving out to the San Gabriel Valley is a no brainer.  But Fifty One Kitchen continues to face the same dilemma as Ooak Kitchen did--who is their target audience?  Is it the local Chinese American community, which surprised me with their representation in my past visits, or is it Culver City locals?  Not to say that you can't serve both, but the menu is not terribly extensive, and furthermore split among various Chinese regional cuisines, so the choices for any one particular category of diner may be limited.  Then throw in something like their orange chicken, while certainly a well prepared dish, struck me as really being orange flavored rotisserie chicken, and it's hard to figure things out. I certainly hope they do, because having a good Chinese restaurant in Culver City is a really nice thing and there aren't very many Guangzhou based Chinese restaurants operating in this part of the world..

Monday, October 15, 2018

Sidebar to My Menuism Article on Chinese Hotel Dining--Domestic Travel Used To Be A Lot Different

When I submitted this month's article to the editor, I was puzzled by initial comments I received.  I quickly realized that traveling across the US was so different in the 1950s and 1960s, in a way unimaginable to today's generations.

60 years ago travel was incredibly different.  In 1959 when I took my first airplane flight from LA to Houston, travel by air was a high class activity that you had to dress up.  My parents dressed me up as a spiffy little gentleman, and nobody would be caught dead wearings jeans and tennis shoes on an airplane.  (Oh, and that flight made four intermediate stops before we got to Houston.

Meanwhile, in 1960 when we took our first road trip from LA to SF, we had quite a bit of trouble finding a place to stay as we did not want to stay at a standard hotel.  As to chain motels, there were none in San Francisco.  Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn and Howard Johnson were all founded in the 1950s and none had reached San Francisco in 1959.  We were therefore forced to check out the not particularly plentiful single location motels.  We drove across the Bay area for a while.  I remember stopping at this old and run down place called the Mission Bell Motel in Daly City.  Actually it wasn't a motel as we know it, but rather more like a bunch of motor courts.

Desperate as we were for a place to stay, we passed on the Mission Bell motel.

We eventually found a newly built, modern motel in Oakland, called the Palms Motel on McArthur Blvd.    It was perfect and that was our base of operations for that first Bay Area trip.

So almost 60 years later I wonder to myself, do you think the Palms Motel is still there?  Well, a quick internet search showed that indeed it is still at its location, with the one minor difference that that area was now Emeryville, not Oakland.   That seemed so neat until I checked on the reviews of the Palms Motel.  $50 per night per couple.  Motel overrun with prostitutes and the stench of urine permeates the property.  Oh well, at least I have my fond memories of that motel and that trip.  And I was able to explain to the editor why the opening of motels in San Francisco and Los Angeles Chinatowns was such a big deal.

Friday, October 12, 2018

San Diego and Back--Where's The Cantonese?

As I have pointed out the past few years, Cantonese food has been largely eclipsed in the United States by non-Cantonese regional styles of Chinese food.  This was proven true on last week's trip to San Diego and back, which featured barely a hint of Cantonese food.

A nice first stopping point was Lake Forest, where of all things I found a dumpling restaurant, Lee's Bao Zi.  Passed on the dumplings, though and had the chicken noodle soup which was quite good.

Arriving in San Diego I made a beeline for Kroran, a Uyghur restaurant.  It wasn't that long ago that you could hardly find a Uyghur restaurant in the United States, and while that's still true there's more of them, and a thought of one in San Diego isn't completely stunning.  I noticed that there are two categories of Uyghur restaurants in the US, one kind operated by Central Asians, the other operated by other nationalities from the larger region such as the Russian operated Kashkar Cafe in Brooklyn..  Kroran appeared to be Turkish operated, though they do have a pretty good selection of Chinese dishes.  I had the lamb manti, the first time I've seen that dish prepared as something looking like a xioalongbao.

My first visit in a few years to San Diego's Convoy St. "Chinatown" took me to the recently opened Steaming Piggy.  I'm still not sure what the name means, but the beef roll there was decent enough.

The next day I returned to Convoy St. to Shan Xi Magic Kitchen.  The one thing about these newly arrived regional cuisines is that it's not terribly surprising to find restaurants just as good as the San Gabriel Valley.  These Shanxi noodles with tomato and egg were excellent.

And my last stop in San Diego was my only encounter with Cantonese food at Tasty Bakery.  During my trip to Dubai early this year I was fascinated as to how Chinese food with pork ingredients were replaced across the board with chicken.  Just think--everything at Din Tai Fung in Dubai was made with chicken!  Well one of the delicacies I found and loved in Dubai was steamed bbq chicken buns.  Steamed chicken buns are all over the place in the US but nobody thought about doing bbq chicken.  An internet search turned up only one exemplar in the US--at the student dining hall at UCLA.  A lot of good that would do me.  But then I stumbled into Tasty Bakery on Convoy, and what do I spy--bbq  chicken buns.

Sadly these buns were awful, not helped by the fact that I came by at night and they had probably been out all day.  But the buns themselves were tasteless, so I wonder if they would have been much better if fresh.  Of course maybe it's better this way since I wouldn't dream about going back to San Diego and getting more.

Last stop on the trip was Laguna Hills.  It wasn't that long ago that the thought of good authentic Chinese food in Laguna Hills would have unbelievable.  But today there it is, Hai Master Kitchen, specializing in Dongbei and Sichuan style food.  And fittingly they had something on the menu I had never seen before, the innocuous sounding corn pancakes.  Well actually I have had corn pancakes at Dongbei restaurants before.  But never something that looks like this.