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

A Tale of Three Megabargains

For all you aspiring actors, struggling writers, and impoverished graduate students (including your LA editor, Thi N.), now's the time to try out LA's high end. A bunch of the big-name places are offering special bargains.

First up: Mistral is doing a prix fixe dinner on Sunday nights. It's $34 a person, plus tax and tip. It's "been spectacular the three times my wife and I have gone... an outstanding dinner at an outstanding restaurant," says Hughlipton.

Campanile is now offering its Soup Kitchen menu on Wednesday nights to all, not just to Writers Guild members. It's $22 for soup, a choice of three entrees, and dessert. Wolfgang had heirloom carrot soup with cumin crème fraîche, flat iron steak with fries, and homemade vanilla ice cream. "It was a great meal in a great space for a really great price," says Wolfgang, who adds that the steak was perfectly cooked on the wood-fired grill, and perfectly seasoned too.

And Mori, sushi joint extraordinaire, now has a weekday bento box lunch priced between $12 and $23.

Mistral [San Fernando Valley - East]
13422 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks

Campanile [Mid-City]
624 S. La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles

Mori [Westside - Inland]
11500 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles

Discuss: Mistral Bargain
Campanile Soup Kitchen Menu
FYI - Mori (of all places!) has a bargain of a lunch. The Bento Box.

Overheard on the Los Angeles Boards

"Joey's is on the bad side of terrible. The baby back ribs are not even smoked, much less trimmed of fat and gristle. The sauce is mostly high fructose corn syrup." - aizan, dissing Joey's Smokin' BBQ

"Terrific old style Italian American food from childhood. Yummy garlic bread just like I remembered, homey meatballs (very dense with meat, not a lot of breadcumbs going on)."
- noshie, on Boccali's

"Surprised to see that she is still around after 5 years selling just homemade brittle, but there you have it. The dark chocolate-covered stuff is PRIMO!" - jackattack on Pauline's Pecan Brittle

All Your Taco Death News in One Place

Business Wire salutes Taco Bell founder Glen Bell, who passed away last weekend at the age of 86. In addition to bringing the world the 7-Layer Burrito, the Volcano Taco, and countless bouts with post-bean digestion issues, Bell was "a fervent supporter of 4-H" and built Bell Gardens, a 115-acre model produce farm that he opened to the public. (Sadly, Bell Gardens appears to be defunct.)

Also: Without Bell, we wouldn't get to enjoy this video footage of a dog eating a Taco Bell bean burrito in less than a second. [Via Gawker]

And, as part of today's Deadly Taco Twofer, the story of a woman who stabbed her husband to death in part because of a fight spurred by her dumping soda on his tacos.

Download CHOW Wallpaper: Beer

This week's downloadable wallpaper is an up close and personal photo of one of our favorite hometown beers, Anchor Steam. Chris (our photographer) shot many different beers, but said Anchor had the nicest bubbles by far. "I shot this using the MP-5 Canon Macro lens," he says, "and that allowed me to get as close as I wanted, almost bordering on abstraction."

Below are multiple-size downloads based on your monitor resolution:
1280 x 800 | 1440 x 900 | 1680 x 1050 | 1920 x 1200

Vegan Cassoulet

I love this Emile Henry cassoulet pot from Sur La Table, pictured at right in the "Fig" color. Cassoulet, a French dish of braised white beans, is usually loaded with duck confit and/or sausage. But when I had a great vegan version in a San Francisco restaurant, I decided to re-create it at home. How hard could it be? I put together the version below, which turned out great. The breadcrumbs are of massive importance, kind of what makes the dish, and making your own fresh ones is the way to go.

Vegan Cassoulet
Mirepoix: 2 leeks, 1 celery rib, 1 carrot, coarsely chopped
Olive oil
3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
3 cups cooked white or whitish beans (I used green flageolet, cooked them myself in the trimmings from the mirepoix, and used the bean broth for the vegetable broth)
1 can diced tomatoes (the normal-sized can, not the big one)
Vegetable broth (make your own from boiling water with the vegetable trimmings, a bay leaf, and salt)
Some white bread that is stale or toasted, made into crumbs, then sautéed in some olive oil with salt and pepper
Parsley (optional)

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. In an oven-safe braising dish or pot, sauté the mirepoix in olive oil on the stovetop until soft.

3. Add the thyme, bay leaf, and salt and pepper, stir, then add the beans, tomatoes, and 2 cups of broth. Bring to a simmer.

4. Put in the oven and cook for 20 minutes without a lid.

5. Remove from the oven and top with breadcrumbs. Increase the temperature to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and return the pot to the oven to brown the breadcrumbs, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh parsley, if desired.

Not Your Average Hydroponic Garden

Window Farms is a group that's developing and cultivating a DIY system of edible hydroponic gardens which use recycled materials and are built with urban window spaces in mind. Created by New York artists Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray, it's not so much a product, but an ongoing collaborative experiment. People can go to their site and get all the information they need to build their own window farm, interact with other builders, and share what's worked and what needs improvement. So far, there are nearly 1,300 people registered. Window farms are mostly being built by New Yorkers, and the group has had installations at both the Whitney and Eyebeam, but they're also gaining traction in other areas, and have even been installed in art galleries in Hong Kong and Helsinki.

And though the art community has embraced it (no surprise there, as they do look cool), the underlying idea is really about creating a hyper-local supply of food. Maya Nayak of Window Farms says the things that grow best are bok choy, lettuce, and herbs like basil, chives, and thyme. Root vegetables won't really work, but she said that people have successfully grown heirloom tomatoes and even squash.

Kits are in the works for non-DIYers, but to get the full experience it seems like building it yourself is what it's all about. I'm rallying the CHOW staff to see if we can't install one in our test kitchen.

Check out Cool Hunting's recent video on the group:

Big Cuban Love from a Little Kitchen

Pilar in Brooklyn is a Chowhound love story, a four-month-old mom-and-pop kitchen that's turning out pure Cuban soul, says Daniel76. Vaca frita (braised skirt steak, shredded and fried with onion, garlic, and lime) is amazing. Pernil (marinated roast pork) is "off the hook," tasty and tender, no knife required. It's served most of the week, but much of the menu is specials and soups that change daily.

If there is caldo gallego on offer, get it. This is a deeply flavorful white bean stew with great smoky chorizo that's made in-house, like everything here, Daniel76 says, including empanada dough, pie dough, soups, and desserts. Those empanadas are also worth checking out, by the way, especially the ones filled with tender smoked beef short rib. So are those desserts: Try the passion fruit flan or guava and cream cheese pie.

lambretta76 loves Key West conch chowder and garbanzo frito (chickpeas with smoked chorizo and ham), and declares the Cubano the best he's had in New York, better than the ones at El Sitio in Queens (which has been up, down, and recently up again).

"This is a true labor of love," sums up Daniel, "knocking out some of the best Cuban food I have had."

Pilar [Clinton Hill]
393 Classon Avenue (between Greene Avenue and Clinton Place), Brooklyn

Discuss: Pilar Cuban Eatery in Brooklyn

Good Times Roll On at Cooking With Jazz

Cooking With Jazz, a much-missed Cajun spot in Queens, is taking an encore. A month ago, several years after closing a smaller space up in Whitestone, it reopened on Union Turnpike. Loyal fans say the kitchen hasn't missed a beat.

Chicken gumbo is thick and spicy, NYJewboy reports, boasting "complexity that cannot be obtained anywhere else in THIS city." Seafood gumbo is just as good: oysters, shrimp, scallops, fish and more in a piquant, well-rounded broth that stuartlafonda describes as dark and "evil-looking." Other hits include stuffed fried eggplant (with creamy shrimp sauce), the seafood Big Mamou (scallops, oysters, salmon, and jumbo shrimp in spicy/sweet sauce, tossed over fusilli), and chicken étouffée (Jaleamia "would have been happy eating a bowl of the sauce by itself"). stuartlafonda faults only a tasteless prefab chicken cutlet that turned up blackened with his jambalaya platter.

Hounds note approvingly that chef Steve Van Gelder, a Paul Prudhomme protégé, pays attention to the little things, like warm jalapeño bread and corn muffins, for starters, and the seasoning of the rice (“often ignored and underspiced," NYJewboy laments). You'll spot him working the room, catching up with grateful regulars.

Cooking With Jazz [Jamaica Estates]
179-22 Union Turnpike (between 179th and 180th streets), Jamaica Estates, Queens

Discuss: Cooking with Jazz reopens in a few weeks!

Overheard on the New York Boards

"Egg and avocado, it turns out, are wonderful bedmates." - plumpdumpling on an innovative ravioli dish at WD-50

"[T]he pièce de résistance for us was the brioche dessert. With pink peppercorn ice cream and a blood orange glaze. It was the most heavenly piece of French toast ever. I will dream about this dessert tonight!" - RawTunaFan on Aldea

"To explain why it took 34 years to get married I now remember eating the onion buns with sweet butter and raw onion. No wonder I couldn't get a date." - foodismylife on Isaac's Bake Shop

A Child’s Garden of Controversy

America's gone gaga over the idea of using gardens and small-scale farming to teach children, particularly those in disadvantaged school districts. What many parents assume is that this must have an incredibly positive educational effect, because it seems so damned wholesome and thoughtful. An Atlantic article by "I'm just an old-fashioned stay-at-home mom (with a full-time domestic staff)" Caitlin Flanagan takes aim at this theory. You can kind of get a sense of her point via the tone of her introduction:

"The galvanizing force behind this ideology is Alice Waters, the dowager queen of the grown-locally movement. Her goal is that children might become 'eco-gastronomes' and discover 'how food grows'—a lesson, if ever there was one, that our farm worker’s son might have learned at his father’s knee—leaving the Emerson and Euclid to the professionals over at the schoolhouse."

More an op-ed attack on left-wing elitism (actual and perceived) than a thoughtful analysis of educational policy, the article does do one valuable thing: It points out that measurement of education-via-gardening is difficult to do, and that it should be done more rigorously. But flatly writing the movement off because it fails to directly prepare students for standardized tests is about as blinkered a perspective as one can have on education. The whole article is, in fact, like a game of left-wing label pinball, where the aim is to hit as many loaded terms as you can in as few words as possible.

Moreover: There's no fresh-food crisis in urban America, because Flanagan once saw a Ralph's in Compton with all sorts of great veggies.

But the most irritating part of the article may be her description of Chez Panisse as: "an eatery where the right-on, 'yes we can,' ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people can tuck into a nice table d’hôte menu of scallops, guinea hen, and tarte tatin for a modest 95 clams—wine, tax, and oppressively sanctimonious and relentlessly conversation-busting service not included."

That's a load. You can eat at Chez Panisse for $60 on Monday nights; $75 on other weeknights. And based on first-hand experience, the service was impeccable—and nobody is more irritated by sanctimonious left-wing crap than this writer, a Madison, Wisconsin native who was forced to relive the 1960s four or five times before graduating high school. Service at Chez Panisse was elegant, minimalist, warm, and welcoming.

Image source: Flickr member Pink Sherbet Photography under Creative Commons