y4pcT1JaIwGptQJPO6l_mZmgv34 tiffin unboxed: 2010

Six Taste x 2 = Happy Tummy

Recently, after many positive reviews from friends, I attended not 1 but 2 Six Taste L.A. culinary tours. This company was founded by two entrepreneurial L.A. non-natives to highlight culinary gems in our great city. Even for someone who has been raised in L.A. each tour unearthed some new great spots in a fun manner. Let me recap highlights of each tour.

Tour #1 - Santa Monica Food Tour

I selected this tour to start things off because I've lived in Santa Monica for over 5  years and it was a good excuse to revisit this charming town. The morning tour goes through the abundant Santa Monica Farmer's Market as well as some local spots. I opted for the afternoon tour covering 7-8 Santa Monica finds.

Our first stop was Rockenwagner Bakery, where we sampled some Austrian Coffee along with the baked treats below. I am not a black coffee drinker (which I chalk up to cultural tastes) but this was an ultra-smooth black coffee without the usual acidic bite. I did not miss the cream at all.

Rockenwagner's tri-berry scone and croissant pretzel

The coffee tasted even better accompanied with the buttery yet light croissant pretzel and tri-berry scone. Both were moist and did not need any additions. The berry compote sandwiched within the scone kept it moist unlike most scones I've tried.

Therese - our tour guide extraordinaire

Therese began the tour with an introduction about herself and Six Taste. I did not expect a PhD as a tour guide, but she explained that this fun job helps pay off her grad school debt. She was instantly likable, informative, smart, adorable. She also explained the theme of her tour which was how the establishments we visited were staying 'green'. Along the way she also pointed out architectural treasures and interesting stores in the area. She was chock full of information, answering all questions with grace.

After her intro we shared our names, where we live and our 'last meal on earth' (aka 'death row') meals. That immediately warmed me up because it's something foodies often discuss and think about. Judging from the crowds' responses, everyone had sophisticated palates. Many of us swapped dining suggestions along the way.

Border Grill's Amarilla Ceviche Tostadita

Border Grill was one of our next stops. They prepared for us a taste of 4 bocadillos (small bites) from their menu. My favorite was the Amarillo Ceviche Tostadita topped with a ceviche made from mahi mahi fish, aji amarillo chile, ginger and lime. In addition some of us ordered margaritas. The also gave us a Mexican sugar cookie packed to go with a 'free margarita' card for a return visit. The trip was a mini multi-course sit down meal.

Santa Monica Pier - Bay Cites Deli picnic

Moving on with our tour, we sampled two types of pasties, British crescent shaped meat pies, at the Tudor House - creamy chicken and mushroom, spinach and sharp cheddar cheese. Since the sun was setting Therese guided us to Ocean Street for a lovely ocean sunset view along the pier. And to make the view even better, she brought along Bay Cities Italian Deli's famous Godmother sandwiches. These sandwiches, full of Boar's Head meats and cheese, are all about the fresh, soft and chewy bread. Therese made sure we enjoyed them fully by letting the bread marinate in the sandwich juices for 2 hours before serving them to us. This is the recommended way to eat them and I can see why.

Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar - Pinot Wars

One of our stops was at Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar, which had wines grouped into themes. They gave us a loaded up card which we could use to get a couple of 1 ounce tastings of our own choice. They also offered snacks for the group. The wines and themes keep changing. In addition to the great Pinot Wars, which I never left for my tastings, they had a terroir them among other interesting ones.

We ended the tour at Angelato, serving 100 different flavors of gelato. We all had 3 tastes and chose 3 flavors to enjoy. Their flavors range from black sesame to cola float to durian to green apple to Italian plum cake to spumoni. Therese recommended the Blood Orange gelato (also comes as a sorbetto), which was sublime.

All in all there was a fair amount of walking which helped balance the frequent noshing. Therese collected feedback from the group at the end of the tour and we parted ways.

The next weekend, with a Pleasure Palate group, I tried:

Tour #2 - Delicious Dumpling Tour

This tour covered a much smaller physical space, centered around a popular Taiwanese strip mall in Arcadia. On the day of the tour it was raining heavily and a parade took place right on Baldwin Avenue, blocking access to the parking lots. Many members of the group arrived late and drenched. Our guide Michael was extremely flexible and patient, offering us coffee while we waited.

J & J Bakery - green tea red bean rolls, mochi cakes

We began at J & J Bakery which was not as crowded as usual, so we had full reign of the store and were able to take many photos with ease. Michael explained the Taiwanese delicacies including a ham sandwich with French toast bread and "Taiwanese sushi", a seaweed roll with ham as the protein. We each chose an item to sample later and most of us bought a bag or two of items to go as well.

Din Tai Fung - Left: Michael explaining the proper way to eat the soup dumplings. Right: The elusive soup dumplings special.
The group went across the street to the first U.S. location of Din Tai Fung a famous Taiwanese dumpling house. Din Tai Fung is known for its juicy pork soup dumpling, filled with meat and broth. Michael had us do introductions including our 'last meal' and gave us a lesson in how to properly enjoy the dumpling with its accompaniments of fresh, shredded ginger and Chinese black balsamic vinegar. He also ordered several other dishes to try.

I've been to Din Tai Fung over a dozen times but Michael taught me even more about the business, the culture and the tradition of the place. Also, I finally got to try the elusive soup dumpling which usually sells out within the first hour that they open. The soup consists of the miniature soup dumplings submerged in a soup broth. Having tasted it, I prefer the original size dumpling since it contains more soup within the dumpling.

SinBala - Chinese sausage with raw garlic
Our next stop was SinBala, a cafe that serves Taiwanese night market street food. I had been to this strip mall so many times, but was not hip to the culinary scene at this fantastic spot. Michael's insider knowledge of the food, history and culture really shone here. Our table was full end to end with countless dishes including oyster pancakes and other specialties. The menu has a sub-section of Taiwanese sausage with various toppings, ranging from crushed garlic to passion fruit sauce. We tried the it with sliced raw garlic.

SinBala - chicken rolls and chicken nuggets

Other highlights at SinBala were the chicken rolls, stuffed with meat and water chestnuts then deep fried, and the tender 5-Spice chicken nuggets which is by far the most exciting and flavorful chicken nugget I've ever had. Both are served with a sweet garlic chili dipping sauce.

SinBala - dry wontons
What really stole the show for me at SinBala were these dry wontons. They arrive in a steaming hot bowl with layers of chili oil, roasted chilies, garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, scallions and perhaps other magical ingredients. The diner then stirs up the bowl releasing intoxicating aromatics scents. And the dumplings taste as good as they smell. It's a dish you almost do not want to share.

Hanny's - Michael explaining the snack shop
We walked across the way to Hanny's, in a shared space with a Lollicup's drink shop, to try some of the snack foods in large bins, sold by weight.

Hanny's - sampling jerkies and Taiwanese dried mangoes
Michael doled out several unusual flavors of jerky as well as dried Taiwanese mangoes. We were then given plastic bags, scoops and tongs to roam about and try and buy what we'd like, with Michael pointing out some good options along the way.

Hanny's - pumpkin chips, mushroom chips
Among my favorites (and I have been back twice to refill on these items) are the pumpkin, what looks like Kabocha squash, chips seasoned with olive oil and salt. They are crisp with a clean and refreshing taste. The mushrooms look like fresh mushrooms, but are dehydrated into chips that have a pleasant earthy and slightly sweet taste. It's a surprise when one bites into them to hear a big crunch.

After our tasting and shopping, Michael pulled out our J & J Bakery picks for us to all taste and share.

Six Tastes Tour Guide Michael - showing Taiwanese flash cards
By this time most of us were in a food coma, but we had one last stop at Bin Bin Konjac, a shaved ice shop. Michael ordered us a large Eight Treasures shaved ice family-style bowl with authentic toppings like konjac root, grass jelly, taro, beans. It was a bit savory vs. sweet for the Western palate but once again something brand new to try. While we ate Michael shared even more aspects of his Taiwanese heritage which he was so knowledgeable and proud of that his enthusiasm was contagious.

We ended the tour with some group pictures that he kindly emailed to all of us along with a kind greeting and even more information. Overall it was a brilliant tour. I look forward to my next Six Taste adventure!

Recent Finds: Round Comfort Food

During the past two months, with the cool autumn-winter weather, there were a few soulful dishes I had and the common theme is that they all had round shapes in them.

gnocchi with morel mushrooms + champagne cream

A friend kindly invited me to Nic's Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills for a full night out - cocktails, dinner, dessert and finally donning leopard spotted fur coats to experience their unique Vodbox. It was an extravagant evening of feasting for all senses. There were quite a few solid dishes. My favorites were: roasted beets in papilotte with feta and zinfandel vinaigrette, Nic's famous oysters sauteed with herbs, walnuts and garlic and placed back on the half shell with the pan sauces on top. 

Yet, the most comforting of the dishes was the above gnocchi with morel mushrooms and champagne cream. It's made up of round disks of carmelized gnocchi that resemble scallops. The fluffy, cloudy gnocchi melts in your mouth. As if that's not enough, the plate is generously sprinkled with morel mushrooms. The whole thing sits in the creamy, decadent sauce which the textured morels and porous gnocchi soak up like sponges.

The other two dishes were from Ludo Bites 6.0 @ Max. This meal was probably my 12th+ time at Ludo Bites, to give you an idea of how exciting the food is to me. 

marinated mackerel, leche del tigre, baby leeks, verdologas leaves

During this last round with that particular evening's menu, there were many memorable dishes on the table. What I look for with Chef Ludo Lefebvre's dishes is something that challenges my tastebuds. The marinated mackerel, leche del tigre, baby leeks and verdologas (aka purslane) made a statement from its looks to its flavors. Mackerel is one of the oilier, fishier fishes and the fact that the skin was sugary and torched to a crisp really brought on a vivid contrast of tastes and textures. The greens were baby leeks and verdologas, which both added balance and an earthy to fresh and crunchy texture. The Tiger's Milk sauce is used to cure the fish in a ceviche dish. The citrus tang beautifully complemented and brought together all the complex flavors. The dish tasted best with a bite containing every component together.

marinated Korean steak, crispy kimchi, radish, bone marrow, shiso

Another standout was the marinated Korean steak, crispy kimchi, radish, bone marrow and shiso dish. The beef was superbly tender and well seasoned. In this case the round part was the marrow which was out of the bone and caramelized. It's delightful for a marrow lover to not have to dig inside the bone. Once again the marrow pieces resembled scallops. Due to their exposed perch on top of the steak on the plate, one had to eat the marrow very quickly before they cooled off and congealed. This hearty dish was nicely counter-balanced with a subtle dried kimchi flavor, shaved cauliflower, shiso leaves and pickled radishes. Once again the symphony of flavors and textures really worked.

So whether it was the gnocchi, the purslane leaves or the marrow, each comforting dish contained beautiful round shapes presented in unique ways that heightened the eating experience. Would you also find these dishes comforting?

Maui Series: Island Foods

Today is the 1-month anniversary for Tiffin unBoxed. So in order to round out the month, here is the last in my Maui Series and it is, of course, about the food. As much as I adore Hawaii, it hasn't been the most exciting food destination for me. In any case, I tend to focus on some of the food items unique to the islands, and in doing so, found some exciting options.
Papaya with lilikoi (passion fruit) in center
The Hawaiian papaya is native to the American tropics. When they are ripe they feel like a ripe avocado and are orange to pink in flesh. There was a little craft market in Kihei from where we bought fruits and fresh coconut water. This papaya was served with the seeds removed and a scoop of fresh lilikoi (Hawaiian passion fruit) in the center. Papaya is often served in tropical countries with a squeeze of lime, which enhances its tropical flavor. This tart lilikoi provided the same flavor enhancer, but tasted and looked better.

fresh, organic jackfruit at the Maui Swap Meet Farmer's Market
On Saturday I drove to the weekly Maui Swap Meet, hosted at the Maui Community College. Within the market one can find all kinds of local fruits and vegetables such as this rarely seen jackfruit. They also had Cuban bananas (they are red!), coconut, rambutan, green mangos, bitter melon, Hawaiian avocados, several varietes of eggplants and plenty of other produce and fresh plants.

poke at Lulu's
During the trip, my former college roommate and I had a reunion after more than a decade. We went to a popular restaurant in Kihei called LuLu's. It has a full bar, game room and ocean view with open air seating. She chose this great Hawaiian specialty dish called Ahi Poke. It is cubed raw Ahi fish marinated in soy sauce, onions and other seasonings. It was served atop a bed of wasabi edameme spread with wonton crisps.

Mahi Plate at Paia Fish Market
In our group, the consensus on best meal was this grilled, blackened Mahi served with cole slaw and potato salad or rice. It was juicy, flavorful and flaky. The dark sauce towards the front of the plate is the sweet and vinegary bottled Tiger Sauce, which goes well with seafood. The Paia Fish Market always has a line and limited, communal bench seating. We came and enjoyed this meal more than once during the trip.

roadside rotisserie chicken
While driving home from the swap meet, I was looking for lunch to pick up and take back to the condo. On Kihei Road I found this roadside stall cooking rotiserrie chicken over coals. This chicken made a great lunch along with corn and rice. Of course they had Sriracha hot sauce on the side.

sushi counter at Star Market
Los Angeles is a big sushi town. It's available almost anywhere and is incredibly popular. The Star supermarket in Maui not only had multiple varieties of fresh poke, but had very interesting and colorful packaged sushi along with coordinating side dishes and beverages.

jellies and jams
Many stores in town had these wonderful assortments of jams and jellies, including lilikoi butter, guava butter, Kula strawberry jam, mango chutney, papaya jelly, pineapple jelly, pineapple-coconut jam. We also found coconut syrup for pancakes. Many stores also sell Hawaiin finishing salts, honey and an irresistable coconut candy made with fresh coconuts cooked in sugar cane and water

banana cream pie at Stillwell's Bakery
Banana cream pie is my favorite pie, when made well. Anyone who loves banana and/or pie should high tail it to Kahului and visit Stillwell's Bakery. They are famous for their cream horns and of course, this unforgettable pie. It is served chilled and made of the most delicous cream, layer of custard, slightly tart and sweet Hawaiian bananas and a crispy, buttery crust. It was one of the few things I ate in the car right after buying it (normally my need for tidiness prevents me from doing that).

shaved ice with lychee and guava flavors
Another classic local treat is the ubiquitous Hawaiian shaved ice, which is so refreshing in the island heat and humidity. For mine I chose lychee and guava flavors. These ices are served with tropical fruit syrups. For me it was a bit too sweet. My taste buds have been spoiled by the L.A. Chinese shaved ices served with sweetened, condensed milk and fresh fruits! Nevertheless, it's worth a try at least once.

What's worth more than 1 try is what the rest of this write-up will be devoted to - Ono Gelato. My sweet tooth is not too strong, except for ice cream and gelato. And this unique gelato is made fresh daily from drug-free cow milk, organic fresh fruits and they also use bio-degradable packaging and utensils.

Ono Gelato's sorbettos - dairy free
This photo shows a sampling of Ono Gelato's dairy free sorbettos - dark chocolate, guava, pineapple and Seamist, which is a magical concoction of organic tea, lime, lemongrass and mint. Have you ever seen gelato with fresh lillies, herbs and orchids on top? Lovely.

Ono Gelato's milk-based gelatos
I'm a dairy afficionado. Although I loved the sorbettos, the gelatos really drew me in. Although each one outdid the other, there are a couple of exceptional flavors I gleefully settled on.

Ono Gelato's very popular Lilikoi Quark gelato
Lilikoi Quark - made with Surfing Goat Dairy's award winning goat cheese and passion fruit. For those that love tart and slightly sweet fruit flavors with a rich creaminess, this is IT. It tasted like passion fruit with sour cream with a hint of cheesecake, all rolled into one. Intense flavor. Just look at it!

Ono Gelato's Sandy Beach gelato
Sandy Beach - made from peanut butter, coconut candy (the best) and sea salt. With gelato I am a sucker for textures as well as sweet and salty. This flavor balanced the tart Lilikoi Quark very well. Creamy, sweet, salty, crunchy, peanuty. A winner for sure.

Ono Gelato's packaged gelatos
The S.P.A.M. gelato idea is genius. I believe it stood for strawberry, papaya, apple banana and mango. Another fruity delight.

And with that, we are done with the Maui series, inspired by a great vacation 2 months ago. Aloha and Mahalo!

Maui Series: Unforgettable Sights & Scenery

So far in this series I've covered Maui's plant life, sunsets, and beaches. Those are things that immediately come to mind when one thinks of Hawaii. Today I'd like to share with you some of the beautiful scenery we encountered during our daily drives through the island. 
Kula Highway - view of road from the car
This wonderful, twisty Kula Highway captures the sense of adventure one feels when traveling through this rural East Maui district. It is largely a residential area where many full-time local residents prefer to live, as opposed to the warmer, busier tourist areas near sea level. There are hardly any commercial development here with the exception of a botanical garden and a couple of charming wineries that dot a portion of the up-country highway.

View of the isthmus from Upper Kula
The weather is cooler, although many micro-climates exist. With these lovely bi-coastal views, one can see why new homes are starting to dot the area.

Chickens and bikes at Sunrise Protea Farm
No trip to Maui is complete without a visit to Haleakala National Park. On the way there, we stopped at this protea farm and along with the flowers, found a great mix of colorful chickens.

Haleakala Summit
The East Maui Volcano forms more than 75% of the island of Maui. The tallest peak is at 10,023 feet. The thin air requires slow movement. During our visit it was approximately 40
Haleakala Summit
The early Hawaiians gave the name Haleakala, meaning "house of the sun" to this massive mountain. The slopes are lined with rare, fragile species of plants. Even the views look other-worldly.
Haleakala - earth

Haleakala - Nene

Botero's  Woman Smoking a Cigarette at the Grand Wailea Resort
Besides the natural beauty of the landscapes, Maui's luxury hotels also harmoniously integrate original artwork by internationally renowned artists. Each time I've been to Maui, I've made a special trip to visit Colombian artist Fernando Botero's human figure sculptures with exagerrated proportions. This beautiful bronze sculpture found in the lobby's atrium, Woman Smoking a Cigarette, is exhibited to allow viewing from all sides. All nine of the Botero sculputures are placed among beautiful flowers with the ocean view as a backdrop.

View from Maui Botanical Garden

View from Maui Botanical Garden
These last two photos were taken at one of Maui's many gorgeous botanical gardens. Even with a huge selection of lush flowers and trees, these incredible shots from the heart of the valley caught my eye. They are merely the setting for the garden and not the main event.

Food find: Ube Milkshake at Oinkster

the satisfying, decadent ube milkshake at Oinkster
Andre Guerero's Oinkster is a great place to have in the neighborhood. As the "Slow fast food" sign indicates, it's great chef quality comfort food. It has a great mid-century diner vibe and it is just as easy to pick up a takeout order. 

While Oinkster is known for its pulled pork, burgers, rotisserie chicken, pastrami, Belgian fries and house-made ketchup, each time I've been there there seems to be even more discoveries. I really appreciate its happy hour menu and drink specials and have ordered a side of plantains to go on days that required warm, carmilized, steamy plantains. 

More recently I got to try the decadent ube milkshake. As soon as a I got my shake I set it down beside the horsetail planters around the shop to take this picture. The purplish color barely shows in this shot, but trust me, the shake is pure purple.

This shake has been covered extensively online yet when it was handed to me in its glorious, natural lavender hue, it deserved another shout out. The shakes are made with Fosselman's ice cream and fresh ube. They are rich, thick with a slight bite from the bits of ube in there. You feel a little better about yourself because there are 'veges' in your drink....

Oinkster on Urbanspoon

'Avec Eric', Chef Ripert

I've lived in L.A. most of my life and have encountered a lot of celebrities in various places in town. So I don't get starstruck too often.

When I heard celebrity Chef Eric Ripert was going to appear at my local Whole Foods Arroyo store, I was as excited in a way that surprised even myself, reminding me of my high school and college days of chasing Bono and U2 wherever they would show up!

Not much would get me out on the streets in winter, before dinner, waiting for someone to show up.  But I waited over an hour outside without an RSVP hoping to get in to meet him in person! Much to my delight, the RSVP people showed up and were seated, the 'standing rsvp' people were admitted, a large group of Le Cordon Bleu California School of Culinary Arts were seated, and finally everyone standing in the waiting list line entered, with a good 12-14 seats to spare!

Eric Ripert, host of the PBS TV show Avec Eric entered the room and my nervous excitement turned to ease. He was extremely charismatic, intelligent, witty and just smooth. Impossible not to like, and might I add, even more handsome than he appears on TV. Yes his hair is perfect and his French accent does not hurt. Many have seen him in No Reservations, Top Chef, and other shows besides his namesake of Avec Eric.

The event consisted of a screening of the new season of his show, complete with Jose Andres and David Chang appearances. After the screening, he held a Q & A session in which many questions focused on his No Reservations appearances, his lifestyle and inspirations. I even got to ask my own, based on his defense of fine dining in the Anthony Bourdain No Reservations recent Paris episode in which Chef Ripert appears.

Whole Foods conveniently sold a limited amount of his cookbook Avec Eric and DVD of season 1 of the show, which he then signed for his fans. Even those without books were given flyers with recipes for him to sign as well.

As of yet, I have not had a chance to visit the famous chef's NYC 3 Michelin star restaurant Le Bernadin, but all attendees got to taste one of his delicious recipes from the book, a vegetable fried rice. It was another added treat to this well planned, intimate event.

I wish I could have extended my one-on-one time with him, but it was still great. He pronounced my unique name perfectly, posed for a photo, signed my copy ofh is cookbook and made wonderful eye contact. It was a lovely evening!