Monday, October 10, 2016

Trois Familia Review: Does French Technique Work With Mexican Flavors?

This review originally appeared in the Los Feliz Ledger.

When French chef Ludo Lefebvre first started doing innovative pop-ups around town and then opened the tasting menu-focused Trois Mec and its little sister Petit Trois, he probably wasn’t thinking Mexican-French fusion.

But the perpetually forward-thinking Frenchman and longtime Los Angeles resident doesn’t slow down for long, and so when the former Alegria location in a Silver Lake mini-mall came up for lease, he decided to honor the space’s roots in his own European way, with help from partners Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Animal.

Trois Familia serves only breakfast/brunch/lunch in a much more casual atmosphere than their other restaurants, with colorfully painted walls, picnic table seating and no reservations.

Silver Lake residents probably never knew they wanted French burritos or chorizo crepes, but now that they’ve got it, they’re plenty happy to put their name on a list and wait for a spot on the communal benches on the mini-mall sidewalk. Boho decor touches include succulent pots lining the walls and a turntable and records on a corner shelf. When a baby starts bouncing to a vintage punk song by the Slits, it’s hard not to be caught up in the festive ambiance.

These are Mexican dishes filtered through Lefebvre’s lens of French technique, and they’re unlikely to be like any you’ve seen before. A beet “tartare” tostada is only nominally Mexican, though it rests on a perfectly crunchy and tender tortilla round and is topped with a delicate avocado creama that could be the snooty cousin to guacamole. It’s more akin to a Russian salad, with a light creamy dressing…and then, a hint of heat creeps up on you towards the end, gently nudging you to remember that you are in some kind of imaginary Mexican territory.

That breakfast crepe filled with salty chorizo custom-blended by their meat supplier is topped with a perfectly-cooked egg and striped with more of the luscious avocado crema; the flavors somehow simultaneously evoke a creperie in Brittany and a quesadilla from the streets of Mexico City.

If there’s a signature dish, it’s the hash brown chilaquiles. Crispy potatoes stand in for the traditional tortilla chips, while “salsa macho” gives the dish an acid jolt. There’s very little resemblance to the dish it’s named for, but it has its own terrific flavor. The only issue is that at $9.95, you’ll really want two, and then you’ve spent $20 for two eggs -- before even ordering the $5 cup of Heart coffee.

I’ve never made it as far as the churro French toast, because as much as I love Salt & Straw ice cream, who needs it for breakfast? The menu changes frequently, so if anything made with the creamy, cheesy Anson Mills grits makes an appearance, snap it up. The only dish that slightly underwhelmed was the burrito, which didn’t quite add up to enough flavor as rustic beans overshadowed the delicate garlic brown butter. For something more filling, try the double decker potato tacos or chicken Milanesa.

Fans of homey desserts will go wild for the tres leches birthday cake.There’s no alcohol, but there are a few decadent drinks like the house-made horchata, Nutella malted “iced hot chocolate” and an Abita root beer float.

It’s pure Silver Lake of the moment -- so how much you will like Trois Familia will depend on how much you’re willing pay for breakfast, whether you miss Alegria and how happy you are to be eating in one of Ludo’s restaurants right in Silver Lake.

Three and a half forks

Trois Familia, 3510 Sunset Blvd., 323-725-7800

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Salazar: First Impressions of the Eastside's Stellar Summer Spot

Belly up to the covered bar if it ever if!

Many of us have been imagining a restaurant like Salazar practically forever. A place where kids are welcome, that takes advantages of L.A.'s temperate climate, where you can sip a good margarita while eating some equally good Mexican food. A place kind of like Birba in Palm Springs. We didn't imagine it would spring up in the shell of a former car repair shop hard by the freeway where Atwater peters out and Frogtown industrially begins, but that's L.A. for you, always full of surprises.
Plenty of heat lamps just in case. Love the old school chairs.
And Salazar, conceived by Billy Silverman and Mexicali Tacos' founder Esdras Ochoa, turned out practically identical to that vision many of us many, in fact, that's it's been packed since day one, and the bike-parking area in front has become a de facto playground for waiting families.

So many people already biking to dinner
Who knows what it will be like when the heaters have to come out -- the restaurant is almost completely outdoors, except for a small bar area, but for now, the long, shaded tables are one of the best places in the city to enjoy a summer evening.

Checking out the tortilla-making station
The spot-on Sonoran-style wood-grilled meats and much-more-than-margaritas cocktail menu from Aaron Melendrez makes it the rare spot that's more than just a pleasant patio. The menu promises "full menu coming soon," so it will be interesting to see what gets added to the simple list of tacos, grilled meats and fishes, and a few sides. I would recommend heating the plates so the tacos stay warmer when cooled by evening breezes, and adding chips for the guacamole. The tostada-style crisps are nice, but people do like their chips.

This crazy cocktail has mescal, brown-butter washed corn whiskey, ancho chile, huitlacoche and Mexican fernet

Lots of pretty elixirs behind the bar

Esquites - charred corn with crema 

Terrific housemade tortillas complement the grilled meats

One Yelp commenter said that Salazar can't really be part of Frogtown because the prices are too high for the locals. It's certainly true that dinner here will set two people back $60 or more. But that's the price you pay these days to build out an entire restaurant, pay the large staff, get a liquor license  and generally offer full service. Of course the tacos are more than at Tacos Leos truck -- if it's too expensive, you can get the same style of tacos at Mexicali, but without the patio and cocktails.
But if you can afford it, Salazar was definitely worth the wait. And don't miss the ridiculously retro website.

2490 Fletcher Blvd.
Los Angeles

Monday, May 23, 2016

Silver Lake's 365 by Whole Foods: Here's What You Will and Won't Find

The old Ralph's parking lot has been slightly reconfigured and cleaned up

Will you shop at a Whole Foods without a butcher or fish counter? Will you miss the giant wheels of cheese and the organic yoga clothes? That's what you'll need to weigh when deciding how much you'll embrace the first-ever 365 by Whole Foods, which opens on Glendale Blvd. Wednesday at 9 a.m. The focus is on grab and go items or prepared to order items like pizzas and hot dogs (including a roast carrot dog!), with a healthy dose of technology to speed things up.

The store has an open feel with many of the items in low glass cases

What you won't find:
Beauty products (there are some supplements however)
Butchers and fishmongers
A cheese counter
A bakery counter
Any vestiges of old-school crunchy health-food store aesthetics
A juice bar? I don't think there's a juice bar

This is a teabot. It's a bot, that makes tea.
What you will find: 
A coffee bar that also serves beer.
A teabot
Most of the familiar packaged foods from Whole Foods
A decent selection of spirits and wine and a solid beer selection
A stripped-down industrial look that's more reminiscent of Fresh 'n Easy
A lot of touchscreens, including one in the wine area that offers tasting notes
Lots of food you won't have to actually cook

I got a sneak peek tonight, and though many of the items are stocked, most of the prepared foods won't be out until Wednesday. The LCD price displays weren't activated yet, so I couldn't get an idea of the pricing. Here are some early pics.

Stable produce is stacked in boxes out in the main store, while more delicate items and salads will be behind the glassed-in, air-conditioned area at the rear

The bulk selection is more modest than at Whole Foods

The Allegro coffee bar also serves beer and wine

Order pizzas, bahn mi dogs and sandwiches at this kiosk, and they'll deliver to one of the tables in the eating area

As in some European markets, you weigh your produce before checking out

There are several self-serve checkout kiosks to speed your exit

Vegan cafe By Chloe opens next week next to 365

Do you think you'll be able to do much of your shopping at 365? Or would you have preferred a real Whole Foods or a regular supermarket?

Friday, May 06, 2016

Ozu East is Stylish and Cute, But How's the Ramen?

crispy rice cakes
Almost overnight, Atwater has become the kind of neighborhood where restaurant patrons have a pretty good chance of recognizing the name of the great Japanese director Ozu. But you don't have to be a foreign film connoisseur to appreciate the minimalist style and modernized fusion menu at Ozu.

Owner Paul Yi has worked as a film producer and executive, and shows his appreciation with a variety of visuals playing on one wall, from Ozu classic Tokyo Story to E.T. to basketball games.

The fusion dishes lean towards Japanese, but with a healthy influence from Yi's Korean heritage. Crispy Rice cakes combine the chewy Korean noodles slicked with chili viniagrette and topped with an egg, is one of Ozu's best dishes. Spicy tuna omisubi is a tasty square version of spicy tuna roll. Everyone wants to try the avocado toast, which uses crispy rice where the bread usually sits, and it's a clever variation. The fusion version of a Cobb salad includes Kurobata ham, egg and edamame, but has neither the substance or flavor of the real thing.

Chicken-fried tofu is decadent and fun, but like many of the other dishes the mayo, soy and jalapeno create a rich, spicy and salt flavor profile that easily ends up overwhelming, especially in the creamy mayo area. Fried rice topped with a fried egg is another greasy but satisfying dish.

chicken ramen with black garlic oil

The trouble is with the ramen – but since the ramen is the centerpiece of the fairly brief menu, it's kind of a major problem. The addition of black garlic oil in the chicken ramen gives the broth an unpalatable bitterness that left us unable to finish it. Pork ramen also proved unfinishable, due to way-too-salty broth, and the noodles themselves are average. We also tried kimchi udon noodles with shrimp, but the kimchi cream sauce was cloying and way too rich.

 It's early days yet, so for now order a glass of Acorn Saison and some chicken-fried tofu and avocado toast to snack on. Perhaps Yi can bring in a ramen consultant, because the neighborhood is rooting for Ozu to become a great casual neighborhood spot. An ice cream annex is slated to open soon.

Ozu East Kitchen, 3224 Glendale Blvd., Atwater

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Taste of the Eastside: Like Walking From Los Feliz to Downtown, But With Beer, and All in One Place

The annual Taste of the Eastside festival and benefit for local organizations happens Sunday, May 1 at the L.A. River Center, and there are still tickets available at this link. Rose Scharlin preschool and Friends of the L.A. River are among the organizations that will be helped by you stuffing your face with tastes from all over Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Atwater, Downtown, Highland Park, Frogtown and Echo Park.

To eat, there will be tastes from Momed, Madcapra, Jeni's Ice Cream, Pazzo Gelato, Lemon Poppy, Ozu East, Donut Farm, Madcapra, Kitchen Mouse, Malo, Spitz and many more.

Drinks are supplied by Highland Park Brewery, Greenbar Distillery, Mohawk Bend, Silver Lake Wine, Strand Brewing and more.

There's also live music, and dj-ing by Garth Trinidad and Anthony Valadez, so if you haven't gotten tickets yet, now's the time to get them and save on the same-day surcharge. Do it for the river!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

You've Got Until Sunday to Celebrate Thai Restaurant Week

Chef Nooror, center, her daughter Sandra, and an enthusiastic garlic pounder
There's still time to get in on Thai Restaurant Week, a promotion tied to Songkran, the Thai New Year, that features special dishes at many of the city's best Thai restaurants. I brushed up on my Thai cooking skills Wednesday at a class at the New School of Cooking taught by chef Nooror, owner of Blue Elephant Cooking School in Thailand. We learned how to make Thai curry paste from scratch, used in the red curry beef in the photo, as well as lacy egg baskets for minced chicken and shrimp and a refreshing shrimp salad topped with a poached egg, reflecting chef Nooror's time living in Europe.
red curry beef tenderloin 

I wish I was in Phuket cooking with Blue Elephant right now, but until I can get there, here are some places to sample amazing special Songkran dishes. Among the restaurants participating in Thai restaurant week:

Luv2Eat Thai: My current favorite offers a special shrimp and mackerel vermicelli salad
Lacha Somtum: Another one of my favorites has two special dishes: Steak Lao and Thai rice vermicelli with crab curry
Night Market: Scallop Tostada
Jitlada: Phuket curry noodles
Ayara: The hard to find dish khao kluk kapi of rice with a variety of toppings
Wat Dong Moon Lek: Issan set with fried chicken and papaya salad
The Original Hoy-Ka: Issan set with fried chicken and papaya salad
Pa Ord Noodles: Spicy basil crispy pork, crispy catfish, doo dee noodle soup, seafood salad with green apple, drunken noodle

There's also one more day to win a trip to Thailand in the #SongkranStories promotion -- go to this link for details.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

'City of Gold:' Jonathan Gold Documentary is the Opposite of an Anthony Bourdain Show

I was a little worried about seeing the Jonathan Gold documentary "City of Gold." There's something about making a whole movie about a writer that seems suspect to me, unless it's "Capote" or something equally lofty. And surely we've seen enough about the L.A. food scene by now -- us local writers are pretty jaded. We've been all over the Southland, to the taco stands in South Gate, the Thai temple and farther afield, and seen every episode of the food TV shows that have come to town, so as much as we may enjoy reading Gold's writing, it's not like we really need to go there again.

But it turns out I was totally misguided in my apprehension. Director and Mt. Washington resident Laura Gabbert, who previously made "No Impact Man" as well as another look at a distinctive slice of  L.A. in "Sunset Story," has woven together more aspects of the city than any half-hour TV travelogue can ever touch on. And the insider view of the city's varied cultures as seen through its restaurants is interwoven with getting to know the singular Gold himself as he drives the freeways in his pickup truck, eats with an array of local writer friends, meets with editors at the L.A. Times, tours a museum with his family and muses about his influences.

Of course it's always a treat to see familiar L.A. figures like Jazz and Tui at Jitlada and Bricia Lopez at Guelaguetza, some of whom credit Gold with helping stimulate business at their restaurants.

But for me, the revelation of the film was how you could immerse yourself in all 96 minutes of it and feel like you too were cruising along with Gold past endless mini-malls, along rows of tall palm trees, watching ribbons of traffic flow by during a fuchsia sunset. Gabbert is able to capture the beauty of the sometimes-ugly streets of L.A. in a way that's so cinematic that it demands to be seen on the big screen.

In this regard, watching "City of Gold" is 180 degrees away from watching Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" or "No Reservations" or an Andrew Zimmern-type show. Those are all fun too, but it's a much richer and more rewarding experience to relax into the flow of the film without the frenetic editing, commercial break recaps and all the other trappings of reality shows.

"City of Gold" is also valuable as a snapshot of a certain time in the L.A. food world, circa 2014 or so. Grand Central Market is starting to transform; the produce vendors are still there, but other stands are shrouded under wraps, just before Wexler's and the like are about to open. It's a time when the Guerrilla Taco truck is at the pinnacle of L.A.'s endless wave of baroque taco experiments, when Trois Mec is the red-hot target du jour of aspirational eaters.

It's an eminently satisfying portrait of a person who, like all of us, is quirky and sometimes cranky but who, unlike all of us, can write the hell out of an essay about burritos or hagfish utilizing his exhaustive knowledge of anything we put in our mouths. In this way, it resembles "Bill Cunningham New York," another portrait of a fascinating artist that's also a love letter to his city and his subject matter.

Gold and I both spent our childhoods eating around the Westside at places like Senor Pico and our young adult years going to UCLA and punk rock shows, so we have a certain amount in common. While his family frequented Junior's Deli, ours was more partial to Nate 'n Al (When I reveal this at a press lunch, he says, "Ooh, classy"). Near the end of the film Gold says, "I can't tell you how much I love Los Angeles." That's something else we have in common.

"City of Gold" opens Friday, March 11, at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A. And no, it's not on Netflix yet. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Laurent Quenioux Cooks at Home: You Will Eat Cardoons and Fiddleheads and You Will Love Them

Mezcal cured wild salmon with horseradish espuma
Chef Laurent Quenioux can be hard to pin down, but once you find him and buckle in for his Ma Maison tasting menu, you will not be sorry. After his elegant and imaginative Bistro LQ closed on Beverly, he cooked at Vertical Wine Bistro off and on for several years while doing a series of over-the-top dinners involving marijuana, massive quantities of white truffle and pretty much the most impressive cheese cart in town. He still does pop-up dinners in restaurants like Sangers & Joe in Pasadena, but the real action these days is in his Garvanza living room (or on his patio), depending on the season. Hence the Ma Maison name -- there's no relation to the 1980s L.A. restaurant.

Artichokes Barigoule with bottarga crumbs & bone marrow, & a genius wine pairing with Chateau de Trinquvedel's Tavel Rose
We were invited to try the "First Spring Series" dinner heralding the products of the season, sharing a 10 course tasting menu with 10 other people and one adorable and exceedingly well-behaved toddler. The menus change radically from season to season, with very few dishes repeating. His style is heavily informed by his classic French training, but he's been in L.A. for decades now, delving into the local Latin American and Asian food scenes. It's not unusual to find ingredients like masa or pandan in his dishes, though the Ma Maison dinners skew a little more French than some of his other gigs.

Free range hen, wild spring onions
Around the dinner table was a great mix of people -- including an extremely knowledgeable San Marino woman who has been following Quenioux since his days at pioneering hidden foodie temple Bistro K, the baby's parents and their friend who were all well-versed on every morsel of the L.A. dining scene, and a couple from Brentwood who were bemused but impressed to find themselves in deepest Highland Park after randomly Googling "cheese dinner."

Alaskan king crab waits for clam chowder to be added
Quenioux is meticulous about sourcing, looking for local products like Chino's Label Rouge hen and polenta from Grist and Toll. He forages some ingredients, uses arugula from his garden and even shot two ducks in Paso Robles for a wild duck ballotine whose earthiness was tempered by tart pickled kumquats. Here are five of my favorite things from the indulgent dinner.

Octopus with cardoons & lemon air
 1) Cardoons. For some reason I'm not sure I've ever tried the celery-like vegetable that is said to have a hint of artichoke flavor. But cooked as a base for supple Spanish octopus with plenty of lemon butter, its flesh became soft, creamy and altogether captivating.

Fiddlehead ferns, morels, polenta
2) Fiddlehead ferns. Combined with the first morel mushrooms of the season and coarsely-textured polenta, the dish was like the first trip to a warm spring forest after the winter chill.

Quenioux explains the cheeses, including "social cheeses"

3) The cheese cart, of course. Many unpasteurized varieties, some of them smuggled into the country, make this a spectacular finish to an already-elaborate dinner. One of my favorites was the bright orange Mimolette, a French cheese similar to aged gouda. Various fruity condiments and homemade truffle honey put this cheese cart up there with the best.

foie gras with rye bread poridge and civet jus
4) Foie gras with with a savory, not sweet, orientation: Frankly, coming at the end of the meal and wanting to save room for the cheese course, the foie risked being de trop. But cooked rare, the Hudson Valley liver quivered under a warm blanket of rye bread porridge in a pool of wild-tasting civet jus (no, not the ringtailed racoon-like animal, but the rabbit stew). Without the usual fruity accompaniment, it was another foray into the spring wilderness that paid off with big flavor.

coconut cheesecake, green tea tuile, pandan ice cream, pineapple with galabe sugar

5) The pandan ice cream -- How many French dinners have you been to where most of the guests were already familiar with pandan? This was one food-friendly crowd. But we all loved the pale green delicately-scented ice cream with coconut cheesecake and pineapple candied with fancy Galabe raw sugar.

The wine pairings were all terrific, with an all-French list befitting the Sologne-born chef. A great mix of china, friendly, expert service and a fascinating mix of diners in addition to the imaginative and expertly-executed menu make this one of the most compelling dining experiences in town at the moment. Even without the ant eggs, cockscomb or 420, Quenioux is cooking up some beautiful modern French tastes. The suggested price for the underground Ma Maison dinners is $120 with $45 for wine pairing; make reservations on

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Shake Shack Gets Ready for a Spring Opening in West Hollywood

The signature Shackburger: cheese, tomato, lettuce and Shacksauce
Angelenos are highly faithful to their In 'n Out Burgers, but they're also accepting of burger innovation like Umami Burger. So hopefully we won't feel too competitive when New York's Shake Shack opens in West Hollywood in a couple of months, because they make a darn good burger. We had a preview last weekend, including a screening of the original "Star Wars," in the lot next door to the Santa Monica Blvd. at La Cienega location (the former site of the famous Koo Koo Roo), though the actual building won't be finished until about March.
Burger fans enjoy a winter outdoor screening of "Star Wars" on the site of the eventual patio and parking lot
A double cheeseburger, which will cost around $8, is twice as much as a similar In 'n Out Burger. But Shake Shack, which started as a hot dog cart to benefit Madison Square Park in Manhattan 15 years ago and has grown into more than 50 locations worldwide, is a step up in the burger heirarchy. The menu includes burgers, a chicken sandwich, hot dogs and also shakes and concretes -- made with frozen custard that's basically soft serve ice cream, but better. We tried the dense and lightly salty buttered popcorn flavor -- an ode to Hollywood, perhaps?
The Roadside Double with Swiss cheese, onions, Dijon mustard

The all-natural, 100% Angus beef burger is flat and flavorful - its meaty distinctiveness stands out even when folded into a potato roll with cheese and Shacksauce. If that's too basic, they'll also have a Smokeshack and a Shroom burger. The first California location will also get a special L.A. burger that pays homage to the French dips pioneered by Philippe's and Cole's.

The Roadside double adds Swiss cheese and Dijon mustard to bacon-simmered onions. Very beefy and substantial, it was perhaps a little too macho for my taste but Matt was a big fan. I preferred the classic, which seemed to subtly improve on a typical burger stand sandwich without crossing over into pricey gourmet burger territory. Shake Shack will also have locations Downtown, and later this year on Brand Blvd. across from the Americana, close enough to In 'n Out for an easy burger taste-off.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Casbah Cafe and Alma Closings: It's Not the Media's Fault

(Casbah Cafe photo courtesy of Harriet's Tomato)
There was a time when the Casbah Cafe seemed like the kind of place I might stop in every day on the way to work and find a crowd of regulars. Local artist Jon Huck was usually hanging out there with a few friends, and at the time it was about the best Silver Lake had to offer, especially if you weren't a fan of the Coffee Table or Backdoor Bakery. The sad truth was that all three had pretty terrible coffee. It was the early 2000s and Intelligentsia, Lamill and all that followed were still several years off, and L.A.'s standard for cappuccino was fairly low. I never quite became the regular I imagined, since I find it hard to give up my home-brewed coffee, and after all, I had a job to get to and would never be the kind of flâneur for whom Casbah seemed made to order.

But like everyone in the neighborhood I appreciated its funkiness, its quirky selection of Moroccan textiles and South American teas. It was a place you could meet up with a friend to chat and not feel rushed, the kind of place you thought would be there forever until suddenly it wasn't. The management posted a statement Thursday making now-familiar accusations of gentrification, landlord troubles, rising rents and increasingly corporate environments. Read the full statement on EaterLA. I'm not sure what the answer is to those problems. I dislike boutiques where I can't afford anything, but I like good coffee and good cheese. I don't think landlords should use any illegal tactics to get businesses out and I think every effort should be made to help beloved community businesses survive, but it's also hard to understand why they wouldn't need to charge the market rate to survive as property owners.

But what I do understand is that it's not the media's fault for not supporting Casbah, as the cafe's statement said. That's the nature of restaurant coverage and most news and content -- there has to be a news hook, or a reason to write about the place. Casbah got plenty of coverage when Sunset Junction first became hip, but inevitably it was upstaged by the massive wave of new businesses that have opened since then. Would it have gotten more media attention if a quality coffee program was offered, or a better menu? Quite possibly, if it was promoted in the right way, though maybe not, if the economics of the place still rested on regulars hanging out for hours after buying just a cappuccino.

Strangely, the media and the expectations it creates was also at least partly to blame for the recent closure of Alma, according to chef Ari Taymor -- but for the exact opposite reason: It brought too much attention to the tasting menu-focused Downtown restaurant that started as a pop-up.

Damned if we do, damned if we don't? We get it, running a restaurant is extremely challenging, whether it's for two years like Alma or 20 years like Casbah -- which by the way, pretty damn good run, right? Sure, it's the media's responsibility to treat restaurants fairly, not to jump in with early negative reviews and to try to have just a little compassion for hard-working chefs and entrepreneurs. But it's not our job to help you revitalize a restaurant that never got a menu update or served a memorable dish, and it's definitely not our job to NOT let readers know about a place we think they should know about. Unless, of course, we want to save it for ourselves, and then you won't hear about it.

So restaurants, blame greedy landlords or fickle investors or changing tastes -- but please don't blame the very people who would love to help you spread the word if you're doing good work. We're on your team, really. Now Yelpers, they're another story altogether.