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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

New Bakery Pastry Crawl

Dana B’s pastry crawl through eight of the city’s new (less than a year old) bakeries yielded a few top picks:

1. City Bakery’s caramelized French toast. Hot, cold, whatever–and this baby needs no maple syrup. This is also the place for an oatmeal cookie fix. And check out their nicely flaky, salty pretzel croissant.

2. Breadbar’s apricot tart with custard, and chocolate-almond croissants

3. Maison du Pain’s pain aux raisins.

Other good stuff: cinnamon roll at Jamaica’s Cakes butterscotch pudding at Susiecakes.

But steer clear of napoleons at Maison du Pain (did someone forget to add sugar?), whoopee pies at Susiecakes (there are tastier ways to pursue adult-onset diabetes) and scones pretty much everywhere.

City Bakery [Beaches]
Brentwood Country Mart
225 26th St., San Vicente, Santa Monica

Breadbar [West Hollywood]
8718 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles

La Maison du Pain [Midtown]
5373 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

Jamaica’s Cakes [West LA]
11511 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

SusieCakes [Wealthy Westlands]
11708 San Vicente, at Barrington, Los Angeles
310-442-2253 (CAKE)

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The great pastry trek is over… (Long)

An Evolutionary Leap in SFV Banh Mi

Sandwich Express is a big step up from the existing banh mi places in the Valley, says yclops. Unlike the rest, they bake their own baguettes. There’s a choice of 15 sandwich fillings.

The special combo (dac biet) has a very loose, light pate, with good flavor, along with assorted cold cuts–lots of meat and bits. Grilled pork tastes of five-spice and is a bit fatty without being gristly. Grilled BBQ pork is less sweet than some versions–more like Vietnamese carnitas. Shredded chicken is reasonably moist.

Banh mi are $2-2.75; baguettes are 75 cents to $1.

Sandwich Express [West San Fernando Valley]
18575 Sherman Way, Reseda

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Sandwich Express–“new style” banh mi shop in Reseda

Unorthodox Route to Perfectly Cooked Steak

Going against the conventional high-heat-is-better school of steak cooking, A Fish Called Wanda experimented with searing, resting, and finishing in a very low oven–and the results were fantastic. “I have finally made a perfect steak,” she exults. “Perfectly medium-rare from the surface to the center.” Wanda used hanger steak, but other flavorful cuts would work as well with this technique, she’s sure.

Here’s how: Preheat oven to 250F. Sear steak quickly in a very hot oven-proof skillet. Remove steak to plate and allow both steak and pan to cool for 10 minutes. Return steak to pan and finish in oven for approximately 10 minutes per inch of thickness (for medium rare).

Here’s a photo of Wanda’s perfect steak.

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Perfect steak —finally!

Olive Oil that Won’t Leave a Stain on your Wallet

Buying expensive single-estate olive oil only makes sense if you’re going to serve it in the raw. For cooking, once you add other flavors, the subtleties of the really fruity oils are lost, advises Texas Toast. So you’ll probably want two oils: a premium extra virgin olive oil for dressings, sauces, and finishing dishes before serving, and a workhorse everyday oil for sauteing and other basic cooking. So what are the good workhorse olive oils?

In a recent roundup of supermarket olive oil brands by Cooks Illustrated, Da Vinci brand came out on top. Chowhounds recommend Trader Joe’s oils; of their several varieties, President’s Select might be the best all-purpose oil they stock. Trader Joe’s Santini Brand Sicilian olive oil is made from thousand year old olive trees; it, too, is very tasty, says Louis.

If you’re interested in going Greek, kalamata oil, also available from Trader Joe’s, is one of the best and least expensive extra virgins. In fact, olive oils labelled “from Italy” are frequently blends of oils from other countries, like Spain and Greece, simply bottled in Italy.

Avoid purchasing more olive oil than you’ll be able to consume in about 6 months, as olive oil can go rancid quickly after that. Diane recommends buying about no more than a about a 32 oz. bottle and then dispensing just as much as you need it into a smaller, more decorative bottle, adding herbs or flavorings if you desire. If you do need a larger quantity of oil, Costco’s own Kirkland brand olive oil (produced solely in Italy from Tuscan olives) is a great choice and exceptionally well priced, says Walters. Stick with the pure stuff though; their garlic-flavored extra virgin is too garlicky for even diehard garlic fans.

Louis recommends a practical test for any great olive oil: fry a farm-fresh egg in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When you find yourself using the toast to mop out the pan, you have found a keeper.

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inexpensive, but good, olive oil? [Moved from Home Cooking]

Foolproof Halibut

Pan-searing and finishing in the oven is a foolproof way to cook halibut perfectly every time, swears Bostonbob3. Here’s his technique:

Preheat oven to 350F. Season halibut on both sides with salt and white pepper. Heat olive oil in an ovenproof saute pan and sear halibut on one side until lightly browned. Flip the fish over and sear the other side. Flip over again and place the pan in the oven to cook for 6 to 8 minutes.

It’s terrific drizzled with the classic accompaniment to halibut: lemon juice, melted butter and capers, says River Rat.

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Hints on Cooking Halibut?

Spreading Out from Nutella

Nutella is certainly tasty, but it’s laden with peanut oil. For better chocolate-hazelnut spreadss, without the peanut oil, there are several alternatives.

Check out Trader Joe’s cocoa hazelnut spread, recommends Gastronomos. Also try Merenda, a high-quality spread from Greece.

Le Pain Quotidien sells their own line of delectable chocolate-hazelnut and pure hazelnut spreads.

Canadian Chocolatier Bernard Callebaut makes a decadent hazelnut spead that PaulV prefers to Nutella, and they’ll even ship it to the states.

99 Ranch sells a Dutch brand of hazelnut spread with similar ingredients to Nutella, sans peanut oil.

Nutella loyalists should seek out Italian-made Nutella (distinguished by its glass jar and nutritional info in Italian) which tastes even better than what’s shipped out to the U.S. and doesn’t contain any nasty partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

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Nutella alternatives

Bruni Takes It Rare

Why does New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni write so much about burgers on his blog? What national chain’s fast-food burgers does he deign to devour? Adam Kuban of A Hamburger Today gets to the bottom of these and other issues in a fun interview with the much-maligned critic. The questions are respectful, the banter is light, the discussion is refreshingly un–New York-centric, and Bruni wins points with me for his description of the ideal burger (thick, rounded, and grilled, made with ground chuck and topped with Swiss—never mozzarella or jack).

It’s interesting to see Bruni approached from this neutral, Q&A angle by a blogger, since the critic has long been lambasted in the land of blogs and message boards (most hilariously by Jules at The Bruni Digest) for turning his reviews into off-topic points about the restaurant industry, being unfair and pompous (not to mention being a cocktail rube), engaging in “star inflation,” and of course abusing the English language.

For my part, while I enjoy my share of Bruni-bashing, it’s refreshing to take a break. (I think reading Ruth Reichl’s enjoyable Garlic and Sapphires has also made me more sensitive to the plight of restaurant critics.) Still, Bruni does bring up a potentially annoying reason for his frequent burger-focused blog entries:

I don’t think I’ve written many—or maybe any—burger stories in the actual paper, other than my fast-food trip across the country. But you’re right that I’ve done a lot of blog posts about burgers. I think burgers are good Internet/blog material—they’re accessible; many people have experiences with and strong feelings about them; and so the subject of burgers often fosters an interesting, fun dialogue.

I agree that people have endless fun picking, panning, and dissecting burgers, but there’s a slight whiff of snobbery about this quote, as though Bruni is implying that “accessible” food is better left to the unwashed masses on the Internet, keeping the actual paper reserved for more rarified tastes. Is that breakdown roughly true? What should be the role of the food blog as opposed to the dining section of a given newspaper?

Your Morning Spray

The Chicago Sun-Times reported today that that mad alchemist of the culinary world, Ferran Adria, has made an, um, improvement on the traditional espresso. Adria’s new coffee thingy is known as espesso (note the missing “R”), and it’s more like a custard than a cuppa.

Sez the Sun-Times:

Espesso consists of espresso and an ingredient the company won’t divulge, combined in a pressurized canister and left to set for 12 hours. The result is a mousselike, cold solid sprayed right out of the canister.

Oooohkay. Should you want to try this unusual treat, you’ll find it any of the three branches of Chicago coffeehouse Lavazza’s —and nowhere else. You can, however, order variations on the espesso theme: espesso cappuccino or espesso macchiatto, both with solidified milk served in the same cup as the espesso. Anyone tasted it yet? It sounds sort of intriguing, but the name alone makes me want to punch a wall.

NOVA Wine-Geek Meet-Up (Plus: Eartha “Goes HAL”)

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

I scored a great slice of whole-wheat shoofly pie at an organic roadside farmstand on my way south from Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Maple Arch Farm is along Route 10 between Parkesburg and Cochranville, Pennsylvania; (610) 593-7105. They’re open May through October (except Sundays).

Thus fortified, I headed down to Our Nation’s Capital. But on the way, I had a terrifying problem with Eartha, my GPS navigation assistant. Hear my podcast: MP3 file. If you doubt the story, go to Google Maps and plug in “Thankless Lane, Rising Sun, MD,” and you’ll see that this is indeed where the scenic route (Route 273, marked “scenic” in maps and atlases) starts diverging from Route 95 as one leaves Lancaster county headed toward DC.

Wine Geek Meet-up

Arlington, Virginia
Having extricated myself from my high-tech nightmare, I made it to DC just in time to throw on a sport jacket and have a blow-out dinner with a couple of friends (who’d never met each other). Robert Mitchell is a former Navy SEAL (he currently “works for the Army mumble mumble mumble project management mumble mumble”) and food/wine aesthete, and Dave Sit is a television executive, playwright, ping-pong champion, crack chef (both French, having studied with Paul Bocuse, and Chinese, having been born in Canton), and food/wine aesthete (his palate and encyclopedic mental database are renowned among collectors). You’ve probably noticed the point where we all intersect.

What I like about both is that while they have somewhat intimidating credentials in their real-life occupations, and have intimidating knowledge and experience in food and wine, there’s not an iota of snobbery between the two of them. They just love and appreciate great stuff, and live to share/analyze/discuss it with kindred spirits.

The photos will give you the idea:


Rob (seeking absolution from a morsel of tender short rib).

We hit a newish wine bar/restaurant called Tallula (2761 Washington Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia; 703-778-5051), and it was terrific. It is a wine store, wine bar, and restaurant, and while the store isn’t bargain-priced, the café and restaurant hardly mark up the wines (those last five words are heady music to the ears of any wine geek). Dave and I met for a drink before, and we ordered a slew of Amuse Yourselfs, micro-tapas that are lots of fun to rip through along with wines by the glass. We tried these:

Risotto fritter (roasted corn and scallion, romesco sauce)
Crispy and soulful.

Duck spring roll (confit leg, chipotle chili, orange gastrique)
Well fried, and a wonderful unique flavor mélange, not at all fussy.

Steak tartare (Dijon mustard, capers, Parmesan cheese tuile)
Terrific; worth a visit just for this.

Lobster roll (tarragon aioli, brioche roll)
Good, but a bit blah.

Wild mushroom strudel
Clever and delicious.

Heirloom tomato salad
Fine but unmemorable.

Beer-battered corn dog (chorizo sausage, whole-grain mustard)
Contrived and disastrous; dry and weird.

For entrées, Dave and I ordered short ribs (with creamy cheddar grits and tomato salsa) (left) and house-smoked beef tenderloin (with duck-fat fried potatoes, black truffle, glazed carrots, Zinfandel reduction) (middle); then Robert asked for grilled saddle of venison (with chanterelle mushrooms, napa cabbage, cornbread, and ancho-Syrah reduction) (right). Dave and I were a bit startled. Three red-meat dishes … an ordering faux pas? No. Robert had nailed it; these were exactly the right things to get, and the carnivorous riches went beautifully with wine.

The wine list is excellent, atmosphere is high-end but convivial and laid back, prices are fine for the value, and service is good (one problem: Our waiter only somewhat grudgingly took away a patently bad bottle, which left us miffed, plus left the restaurant out the cost of the bottle, a lose-lose outcome). I’d recommend this place quite strongly. But I need to single out the short ribs, which were fantastic and interesting. The grits were quite firm and polenta-like, ribboned with soulful tomato sauce and dosed up with lots of cumin, evocative of Texas tamales—a beautiful and ingenious backdrop for the exquisitely tender short ribs. Unforgettable!

Join us for the meal via some audio snippets (notice the increasingly slurred speech … and buzzy background crowd—as the meal proceeds):

MP3 file #2

Introducing Dave and Rob.

MP3 file #3

App talk … plus the bittersweet phenomenon of “letting go.”

MP3 file #4

Left brain wine geek/right brain wine geek.

MP3 file #5

Everything’s in duck fat!

MP3 file #6

The 45 Chateau Latour was not ready.

MP3 file #7

Everything great tastes Cantonese.

MP3 file #8

Dave’s Childhood in Canton … and the Butter Story.

MP3 file #9

Heirloom tomatoes are overrated (also: the Dave Matthews fruit).

MP3 file #10

Chateau Palmer is like baseball player Dave Kingman … and why is Jim recording our meal?

MP3 file #11

Rob’s Zinfandel rant and Dave’s bizarre winemaker footware anecdote.

MP3 file #12

Deconstructing the short ribs.

The Famous Mr. Ed(ible)

Slate magazine quickly and clearly breaks down the arguments on either side of the U.S. House of Representatives bill that would ban the slaughter of horses for meat.

The arguments in favor of the ban boil down to the fact that horses are pretty and nice, and we like them. The arguments against boil down to the fact that warm, soft horseflesh equals cold, hard cash.

Somewhat shamefully, the question of deliciousness never enters the debate. I vividly remember my Italian TA in college, the bellissima Signorina Mangiameli, talking about the horsemeat entree she ate in Italy and how incredibly tasty it was. And hey, if the USDA endorsed it, how bad can it be?