Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cozumel to Playa Del Carmen, the real taco

When in Mexico, one expects to find the streets littered with taco stands and homemade salsa lined up like battalions in impromptu plastic canisters. One does not expect to find swanky Italian pizzerias and suave steakhouses that reek of tourist traps. And nachos aren't true Mexican food. Tex-Mex to be exact. Entirely submersed in the Latino culture, I had more tortillas and guacamole in the past week than any Mexican in LA, I can swear by it. The reason for this obsessive mania is my soft spot for authentic tacos. I consider myself to be somewhat of a taco aficionado, and condemn all Taco Bell's to bloody hell. By no means, should one ever find lettuce in its taco. To add more insult to injury, taco shells are soft. Yes, I'm still talking to you Taco Bell.

Desperately trying to find some good ol' tacos in, yes, Mexico, the land of tacos, the birth place of it all; I failed. Alas, there's no one to blame but myself. Menus in English should've raised a red flag. I did not heed the internal warning that went off in my head like Christmas lights, but brushed it aside carelessly and as a result ended up with flour tortillas and dry bits of shredded beef. Did I taste cream cheese on my quesadilla? Or had my tastes buds gone awry with all the battery of spicy salsas. Although my taco quest ended with dismal results, I found consolation in a plate of divine pillow-y gnocchi from Antica Osteria. With the way things are going, maybe the ultimate taco is sitting in an alfresco taqueria somewhere in Florence.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Zo not omakase

Sushi Zo, sushi-nazism at its finest.

"Chef Keizo say no soy sauce."

"Chef Keizo say you can put soy sauce now."

"Chef Keizo say no photos. Or you will get kicked out."

And these are the orders that are commanded of us from Keizo's army while each dish is placed in front of us. As I sheepishly stuff my camera back into my bag, I think to myself: Aren't I a patron? Sure as hell doesn't feel like it. But I had it coming. Clearly printed in bold ink, on the menu in font 32, lists Keizo's "10 Commandments" of sushi doctrine. Need I say more?

Even with these strict rules, Sushi Zo has its share of die hard fans. Many go as far as to claim that Zo lies next in line to Urasawa! And truth be told, it is probably one of the finer, if not the finest sushi joints I've experienced. Not only are the morsels of fish fresh, but fresh to a point where I even forget that I'm eating expired fish. This may be an oxymoron, but I didn't note the slightest fishy-ness. Keizo has a dizzying array of sushi; some specials are imported from Japan. So you will be able get your hands on exotic, bite-sized pieces of Baby Tuna - tuna in its adolescent stage, thus "baby", creamier than its older counterparts, and very good -

and maybe some Skipjack Tuna which is also a rare but delicious find.

Even the Spanish Mackerel, which I usually shy away from because of its intimidating glistening skin, is devoid of fishy-ness and lies in harmony with the ponzu sauce and ginger.

Salmon with pickled radish
Normally a mundane sushi on its own, but paired with Keizo's homemade soy sauce and a sliver of pickled radish, seem to perk it up a bit.

The damage? 24 whopping pieces per person! The only gripe I have is the non-appearance of uni and salmon roe. Which makes me wonder, has our hunger for sea urchin finally drove them to the brink of extinction? Twice I've entered Nijiya Supermarket with disapoinment. No uni. Even Kiriko on Sawtelle did not carry uni that night. Once again, we've inadvertently finished off a specie.

 But there's a caveat to all this gushing. Fridays and Saturdays are omakase only. Which is fine by me. I've no qualms with omakase, it's the lazy man's way of enjoying sushi in gastronomic porportions. Although I do believe that omakase should be creative, seasonal, and different from the regular menu. The whole point of omakase meaning "entrust" should be a journey of the unexpected, at least I wholeheartedly believe so. Sushi Zo fails in this aspect. Each small piece of sushi is straight from the sushi checklist without deviation, save a few in the opening act:

What a peculiar presentation! Although the taste is anything but intriguing. Two baby squids with a dallop of miso dressing. Let your imaginations run wild.

The closest thing to uni tonight: ika (squid) noodles infused with uni.

So is this a true omakase? Keizo's creativity is somewhat limited to the first few offerings, then followed with everything off the sushi menu. There is no contest to the quality of the seafood and I have no objection to his traditional-Edo style method. I've even grown to love the warm rice that sometimes falls apart in the soy sauce. But to install the omakase only decree is a bit hard to stomach, even if it is only on weekends. Since the dishes are strictly from the menu, I would prefer the liberty of ordering my favorites and leave off the likes of salmon and such. Grumbling aside, I will be back for the iron-fisted sushi policy, being the masochist that I am. But on weekdays, undoubtedly.

Sushi Zo
9824 National Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90034-2713 -
(310) 842-3977

Sushi Zo in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ludi-Bites 4.0 Finale

My LudoBites cherry was popped tonight. It happened without warning, abruptly, leaving me at somewhat of a daze. And even now I'm still trying to ascertain how good it really is. Salaciousness aside, this chance dinner is attributed to fellow blogger Kevin of KevinEats. Although very last minute-like 24 hrs last minute- I was stoked at the invite. Admittingly, I was one of the hundreds of people who tried to get a reservation at Ludobites but failed miserably. I've concluded that the only probable method of snatching a table, besides knowing someone who knows someone, is keeping your fingers locked on a keyboard the minute Ludobites sends an email announcing the new pop-up location. As for me, I'll just cross my fingers and hope that I'll know someone who knows someone.

Tonight's the final night for Ludobites version 4.0 and to think I almost missed it by a hairline. Well, here I am on the LB bandwagon and is about to share a culinary excursion. Since Chef Ludo's dishes have been dissected and studied like a lab specimen, I'll leave the infallible descriptions of each dish, which includes the entire menu,  to my dining companions Kevineats, Epicuryan, Food je t'aime, UncouthGourmands. This leaves me with the more memorable and noteworthy courses, in my opinion.

Dorade Ceviche, Heirloom Tomato, Spring Onions, Lemon Honey Paste
The dish itself was a little mundane. The fish was slightly overpowering. Although I did enjoy the whimsical presentation, especially the subtleties such as the flowers.

Brie Chantilly, Honey Comb, BalsamicVinegar
The brie is whipped until light and airy much like butter; a requisite dish loved by everyone at the table.

Santa Barbara Prawn, Avocado, Passion Fruit Cocktail Sauce
I don't particularly fancy the rubbery prawns, but the "icy" crème fraiche did add an interesting note to the dish.

Veal Tartar, Oysters, Almond Oil, Seaweed, Tonnato Sauce
 Veal tartar, supposedly the star of the show but underrepresented, concealed even more so by the strong flavors of the tonnato sauce. I would prefer more veal essence than fish.

Boudin Noir Terrine, Apple Puree, Wasabi
Although not much of a blood sausage fan, I do find much jolly in watching my companions ravage over a plate of gore with blood stained teeth. ; ) Within a few minutes, it's reduced to a mangled stain, but artistically so.

Foi Gras, Green Cabbage, Kimchi Consomme, Pickled Turnips. Sesame Oil
Chef Ludo really did some damage on this concept. Neo-Franco meets Asian fusion. Velvety foi wrapped in simple napa cabbage and sitting in a light won-ton soup base. Creative? Yes. A hit? Most definitely.

Crispy Soft Shell Crab Cone, Spicy Mayo, Mango, Corona Granite
This may be the long lost cousin of Geisha House' spicy crab roll. More bluntly put, your standard fusion sushi fare. The exception being the crunchy cone that actually was quite becoming on its own. The combination of the Corona icy eludes me.

Ham Soup, Bread, Swiss Cheese, Radish, Cornichon, Guiness
"Salty," I think. Tastes again. "Cheese sandwich." I shit you naught. There is a tiny Swiss cheese sandwich lying in the bottom of this ham soup. I would've missed it if it wasn't for someone's kind reminder that there's more depth to this soup than pretty foam and ham purée.

Foi Gras Black Croque-Monsier, Cherry-Amaretto Chutney
A signature dish of Ludo's and easily my favorite. The bread is colored with squid ink and toasted with butter sandwiching globs of decadent foi. The cherry chutney cuts through fat with ease, but I find less use for it.

Squid Carbonara", Pancetta, Poached Egg (63°), Parmesan Snow, Chive Flowers
It would be hard not to harbor love for this dish. A perfectly poached egg that does not break even after we peel back the skin, chunks of crispy pancetta, and tender cuts of squid. The sum of its parts.

Dark Chocolate Souffle, Vanilla Whipped Cream, Hot chocolate cream
The souffle..is just a souffle. Albeit a good one.

Needless to say, Chef Ludo is an artist, not limited to just the culinary world, but an artist in paints and canvas as well. The wall at Gram's and Papa is checkered with his oil paintings and bric-a-bracs that constantly remind us of Ludo's celebrity status. An artist, in a sense, where his vocation isn't to please the client, but to procure an outlet for his creative inspirations. The passion for his creations are apparent when his frustration mounts as our perpetual camera clicking reaches a climax, afraid that we might, in our fury of shooting, leave his dishes cold. He tweets, "I zink zey forget to eat".  I can see why people like this guy. He's charming. Friendly. Devilish. He struts his tattoo with rock star caliber. But I digress.. It's about the food, right? A factor that is often neglected in this era of celebrity chef-dom. Overall, I enjoy his outlandish and novel concepts, even with a few hiccups here and there. If I do show any doubts, I'm only thwarted by my very high expectations.

So comes an end to Ludo's 4th scene, but rumor has it his next showing will be sometime around July. When that times rolls around, be sure to super glue your fingers on the keyboard; lest your chance to watch him on stage be gone before you can even say "Ludo Lefebvre".

And again, many thanks to Epicuyan and Kevineats for supplying the free flowing booze to keep the night young.

Ludo Bites 4.0 at Gram and Papa's in Los Angeles on Fooddigger