Friday, April 25, 2014

Easter Egg Pasta

The most recent issue of Bon Appétit is pretty brilliant; while I read it every month upon arrival in my mailbox, this month’s copy has myriad recipes that I truly want to make, flagged with hot pink Post It notes.  On the list of intriguing items, there was a short article on various uses for leftover Easter Eggs.  Though I don’t celebrate Easter, but I do enjoy eggs.  One of the recipes was for a garlic-olive oil-anchovy-based pasta that was finished with grated hardboiled eggs and parsley.  I would never in a million years imagined adding hardboiled eggs to my pasta, but the rest of the ingredients are some of my all time favorites, and the addition of the eggs was intriguing enough for me.
I have been a long time fan of pasta dressed in garlic-lemon oil, and finished with a ton of parsley and Parmesan.  There are many variations to this theme:  a little anchovy paste sautéed with the garlic; a few capers; olives; a splash of white wine.  Nonetheless, the result is always some version of lemony, bright, garlicky pasta, with a healthy dose of freshness from plenty of chopped parsley and salty Parmesan.  It’s a recipe for success. 
This Easter-inspired version is exactly that with the addition of hardboiled egg.  It’s certainly a strange idea, but I enjoyed it at every turn.  For starters, I’ve never grated an egg before, which turned out to be a satisfying experience.  Using the large holes of a box grater, the soft egg all but disappeared with a few stokes, resulting in stands of egg white and crumbles of egg yolk, ready to absorb the salty, rich dressing on the pasta.  The richness of the egg juxtaposes nicely against the coarsely chopped parsley leaves, which render this dish almost to a salad like state. 
This dish is rich, but well balanced.  I did not skimp on the anchovy paste, which was evident in the toasted brown color that the pasta took on when it was tossed with the spicy, anchovy-infused oil.  This richness is then tempered by multiple elements.  The first and most obvious is the parsley leaves; peppery, a little lemony, and decidedly green in flavor, they impart lightness with both their flavor and texture.  Ironically, the egg also lends levity that is unexpected.  The yolks and whites act in very different ways.  The yolk coats the pasta and absorbs the olive oil-based sauce, softening the flavors from preserved fish and red chile flakes.  On the other hand, the egg whites provide lightness with tenderness and little volume.  Basically, they prevent the pasta from being construed as a big, dense heap of carbs, a noble and necessary task.  I’m sure the entire idea sounds bizarre (hardboiled eggs in pasta?), but it was quite delightful.  And a senior food editor at Bon Appétit created this concoction, not me, so hopefully that indicates that this is a legitimate recipe, as opposed to me losing my mind with my pasta-loving ways. 

Easter Egg Pasta (adapted from Bon Appétit)
Makes 2 servings

1/4 pound short cut pasta, like campanelle or fusilli
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons anchovy paste
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons capers
2 hard boiled eggs, coarsely grated
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Italian parsley leaves

-       In salted boiling water, cook pasta until it is al dente per package directions.  Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water, and drain the pasta.  Set aside.
-       In a sauté pan, cook garlic, red chile flakes, lemon zest, and anchovy paste in the olive oil for about 3 minutes.
-       Add pasta to the pan, and toss to coat.  Season with freshly ground black pepper.
-       Add lemon juice, capers, and Parmesan.  Add a few tablespoons of the reserved pasta cooking water if the mixture seems dry. 
-       Add the parsley and hard-boiled eggs.  Garnish with more cheese and parsley if desired.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sick Day

It finally happened: I got sick.  After over a month of visitors and traveling, I suppose it was inevitable.  Although I would have preferred to not be sick, the timing worked out relatively well.  We have officially entered the schizophrenia season in Colorado, where the weather hovers in the 55-75 degree range, with sunny skies, punctuated the occasional snowstorm.  My sick day coincided with a well-timed gray, snowy day; I hunkered down, clad in sweat pants and wool socks, and had a long, leisurely day on the coach watching the entire second season of HBO’s “Girls.”  After the first few episodes and some dozing, I became hungry.  So I took some Advil and bundled up, in order to venture to Trader Joe’s for some easy to prepare, yet tasty, sick day foods.
My first sick day food endeavor supplied a late lunch and plenty of leftovers.  I was still feeling achy and chilled at this point, so I made the lowest maintenance soup I could imagine; I’m ever so eloquently dubbing it “Dump and Stew Tortellini Soup.”  It requires absolutely no chopping, but rather, it is a series of store-bought ingredients that need only to be opened, and dumped into a soup pot.  I started with 6 cups organic, reduced sodium chicken stock, a small can of diced tomatoes, 2 bay leaves, a quarter teaspoon cayenne pepper, and 6 whole garlic cloves (lightly smashed in order to remove the peel).  I allowed all of this to simmer over medium heat for about 45 minutes, and then I added a package of cheese tortellini from the refrigerator case, and allowed them to simmer for about 8 minutes, per package directions.  I then ladled the soup over a few handfuls of raw baby spinach, and allowed the heat of the soup to wilt the greens.  You could add it directly to the soup pot, but I prefer to add it to each individual serving so it doesn’t get overcooked.  I then added a sprinkle of Parmesan and a dollop of store bought pesto.  It couldn’t have been easier, and it certainly soothed my achy bones.  The garlic and the cayenne are key for curative properties, and to ensure that you actually taste some something in a congested state.  I recommend eating the garlic cloves; they mellow out a lot while cooking, and practically dissolve in your mouth after all of that cooking.  I would also like to note that Trader Joe’s Organic Low-Sodium Chicken Stock is my new favorite, regarding this genre.  At $1.99 a quart, the price is nothing to sneer at, and it actually tastes like chicken (roast chicken, to be exact), with a rich, brown color.

After about 6 more episodes of “Girls,” I was getting hungry again, and I whipped up a naan pizza in the toaster oven.  Again, most ingredients were courtesy of Trader Joe’s, along with some lingering morsels I had in my refrigerator.  The naan comes frozen, so while I let a piece defrost, I browned a pre-cooked garlic-herb chicken sausage link in a small sauté pan, to allow the casing to blister and the meat to heat through before slicing it into rounds.  I smeared the naan with pizza sauce, augmented with a few teaspoons of sriracha, again for decongestive purposes.  Then I added some Parmesan, a few sliced kalamata olives, and some toasted pine nuts.  I seasoned the pizza with dried oregano, ground pepper, and garlic salt before finishing it off with chicken sausage and shredded mozzarella.  I then put my gorgeous pizza in my toaster oven at about 375 for about 10 minutes, until the cheese was melted and bubbly (oven for the first 7-8 minutes, and broil for the last two).  Put it directly on the rack (no pan or foil necessary), so that the bottom crisps.  It was delicious, hearty, satisfying, and delightfully easy.  The most challenging part of the preparation was slicing the browned up chicken sausage, which wasn’t exactly an insurmountable feat. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Psycho on the Road: Eureka, CA

Last stop in California: Eureka.  I can’t explain articulately why I wanted to go to Eureka so badly.  The decision was partially impacted by the mystique of Humboldt Bay.  If you’ve never studied it on a map, I think it’s worth looking up.  It’s a big bay with a tiny inlet.  Also, it’s the namesake for Humboldt Fog goat cheese, and we all know I’m a cheese fiend.  Additionally, I wanted to see the greatest giants of the Redwoods, and I figured it would be a good idea to aim for the Northern end of the state, and Eureka is definitely that. 

It turns out that Eureka is pretty weird.  Weird suits me, so it worked out well, but it also left me scratching my head as I drove out of town.  Our first stop in town was at bizarre second hand shop/fire hazard, packed with decades worth of used clothing and accessories.  It was run by a woman who most likely also lived upstairs, and she had everything in stock from plaid pants to a wide variety of furs to a few mean cats, whose danger was warned against in poorly located, hand written signs.  We then stopped at a chain liquor store called BevMo, that was anything but what you expect from a chain.  The staff was friendly, informative, and engaging; they had a great variety of all types of alcohol, and they even had a compelling selection of meats and cheeses.  From the delightful staff at BevMo, we received a recommendation for a bayside sushi spot called the Bayfront Restaurant. 
At the Bayfront, we enjoyed hot sake, miso soup, sushi, and a spectacularly entertaining view of a vagrant gentleman furiously changing a damaged bike tube, spilling and collecting crayons on the sidewalk, and washing his hands with malt liquor.  No, you didn’t miss anything: that is literally what we observed while we dined on fish wrapped in rice.  We even went outside afterwards to verify that they were indeed crayons, as one was left behind.  I was personally hoping that they were pastels, but alas, what we found was an orange crayon nub, with a yellow, Denny’s-clad, paper wrapper.  Either way, the experience was fascinating.
I had a roll called “The Pink Lady,” which included a central channel of shrimp tempura and yellow tail tuna, wrapped in something called “soy wrap,” then coated in rice and roe.  The soy wrap was pink, stretchy, and mildly sweet in flavor.  Our server told us they have it on the menu as a strictly vegetarian alternative to seaweed; it’s in the tofu family.  This didn’t quite explain why it was on my fish/shrimp-laden roll, but I liked the aesthetic, and the mild flavor, which allowed me to really taste the mild yellow tail, which was tender, and tasting like the sea.  It was also garnished with a drizzle of sweet eel sauce, and crunchy, little tempura fried bits; I know this is the farthest thing from authentic sushi, but it was oh so delish.
We also had “The Bayfront Roll,” which was simply tuna, avocado, cucumber, and roe.  It was simple, tasty, and fresh; however, the true pleasure of the Bayfront restaurant was the opportunity to observe the locals.  Jean noted that everyone in Eureka seemed to be clad in work boots.  Even on Saturday afternoon at a quiet and relatively sophisticated sushi restaurant, everyone seemed to be fresh off of a manual labor job.  All of the customers from the Bayfront then filed out the front door upon completion of their meals, and headed next door to a gelato shop.  Alas, it was an interesting culture that appeared to have blue-collar roots, yet with a clear taste for the finer things, like sushi and gelato.

Overall, it would have been downright sinful to vacate California without indulging in sushi, and this feat was achieved in the company of the surprising and compelling Eureka crowd.  After dinner, we checked into a motel, and the irony continued; we settled into our room, cracking open drinks, cheese, and peppered salami purchased at BevMo, to be greeted by a view of the Humboldt Country Correctional Facility.  I know this slogan is borrowed from Austin, but please, keep Eureka weird.   

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Psycho on the Road: Fort Bragg, CA

Our time in Bodega Bay yielded itself to a winding drive up the coast, and a brief stop in Mendocino.  It felt a little too much like Boulder, which I more than get my fill of, so we kept moving north to Fort Bragg.  We were seeking inexpensive shelter, and the Internet lead us to a place called the Pine Beach Inn.  I immediately called for availability, and spoke to the “concierge,” who informed me that they did indeed have space, but she was very busy, and I would need to call back or she could call me  back in ten minutes.  While it sounds rude, it was in fact hilarious, and turned out to be an effective, if inadvertent, sales’ ploy.  We were greeted by a boisterous bleached blond (the one whom I had the charming conversation with), and she hooked us up with an ocean view room, and a recommendation for lunch at Silver’s on the Wharf.  It was approximately 3 miles away in central Fort Bragg, right off the wharf.

Shelley was our bartender.  I immediately asked twelve questions about the fish, the specials, and her recommendations.  It turns out that Shelley does not eat fish, but she was effectively able to point me towards the cod tacos.  When it comes to fish tacos, the easy and delicious choice is always to fry the fish; it is a crowd pleaser.  A Silver’s, they sang for their supper by perfectly sautéing the cod, topping it with house made guacamole, pico de gallo, and a crunchy slaw, seasoned with chipotle and cilantro.  It was served with simple beans and rice, but perfectly presented.  Each grain of rice in tact, al dente, and flavorful, I scooped up mouthfuls with my tacos.  When I placed my order, my friend, Shelley, warned me that they were big tacos, usually eaten open faced.   Indeed, they were overflowing with large shards of cod, which was fresh, and tasted like the sea, not fish, just as fish should taste. 
Nonetheless, the true surprise and delight of the meal is something that is probably overlooked by most; it’s the unsung hero on a great plate of fish tacos: the tortillas.  Shelley actually told me that most people actually don’t even eat the tortillas, and let me tell you, that is an egregious mistake.  The delightful rounds were chewy, lightly browned in the right places, and had a noteworthy corn flavor.  I suddenly knew what was going on, and I immediately consulted with Shelley in order verify what I knew to be true.  “Shelley,” I said with utter disbelief, “are these tortillas home made?”  She nodded with knowing smile.  I think this is a remarkable detail: a seafood restaurant, perched on a local wharf, whose menu is overflowing with fried oysters, prawns, cod, and halibut, has someone in the kitchen taking the time to make fresh corn tortillas for the fish tacos.  Ironically, this detail isn’t even noted on the menu description.  Exasperated, I told Shelley repeatedly that this must be amended; theses tortilla deserved their day in the sun.  She was surprised that this had been overlooked, and she assured me that she would tell Silver.

Honestly, Silver’s was paying attention to all sorts of details: all their draft beers were craft, and mostly local; their breadbasket was loaded with carefully sliced pieces of warm bread, which also came from the local Fort Bragg Bakery.  The bread was chewy and stretchy on the inside, with a slight sourdough flavor, and a perfectly crusty exterior.  Overall, I loved Silver’s on the Wharf; I loved Shelley; I loved the food; I loved the mild but delicious Pilsner she recommended; I didn’t get to meet Silver, but I think I love him, too.  If you’re ever passing through Fort Bragg, Silver’s is definitively worth a stop for some thoughtful and fresh fish tacos.  If you’re really lucky, Shelley will be there, too. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Psycho on the Road: Bodega Bay, CA

The only way I can justify the point to which I am overeating is by blogging about it.  That gives the illusion of there being a higher purpose to all this excessive intake of food and drink.  Last night, we stayed in Bodega Bay, which was a quiet little bayside town, where Hitchcock filmed “The Birds.”  It rained all night, which allowed for the best night’s sleep that I’ve had since being on the road.  In the morning, I had lots of blogging to catch up on, and I wandered down the street into a little coffee shop, providing me with interesting local chitchat to eavesdrop upon as I posted about Nepenthe in Big Sur.  It was clear that everyone in that coffee shop knew each other and the minute ins and outs of their individual lives.  In fact, I shared a table with one woman, named Tommi.  She was so excited to have some fresh blood to sink her teeth into that she opened our conversation with, “oh, look we have the same phone!”  We both happened to have iPhones, along with half of America, but apparently in Bodega Bay this is a conversation starter.  She was a kind woman, who then proceeded to ask my all about my computer, as she is currently in the market, and took notes about what I told her as if I was some sort of a tech expert.
After we checked out of our little inn, we drove down the street, and sat facing the water, in the Sand Piper Café, where we had a shockingly good breakfast.  I was a little nervous about our the restaurant at first; I ordered a cappuccino with skim milk, and Morgan, our server, responded, “Is nonfat milk okay?”  Despite this shaky start, I was thrilled to receive a multi-layered cappuccino, that was not only beautiful, but delicious.  The milk was perfectly frothed, and the organic espresso didn’t harbor even the slightest bitter bite, which is so common in espresso drinks. 

Jean and I were both thrilled by our breakfasts, Huevos Rancheros.  In oversized bowls, we received layers of corn tortillas, mozzarella cheese, and pinto beans.  This was then topped with two perfectly poached eggs, salsa, a small dollop of sour cream, and a touch more shredded cheese.  The mildness of the mozzarella complimented the dish well, and the aesthetic of the white cheese also had a nice effect.  The beans were perfectly creamy, and the whole thing was even garnished with a couple of scallions for color.  Lovely breakfast, lovely scenery. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Psycho on the Road: Asian Street Food (Mill Valley, CA)

Thursday was an eventful day, despite spending the majority of the day in the car.  We left Big Sur, after having the complete local experience the previous evening at our motel bar.  We befriended a woman named Zosia, a stunningly beautiful local gardener, whom I am certain secretly runs Big Sur.  The next thing we knew, a gaggle of local Big Sur residents were swarming around us, competing for our attention.  After too many drinks during this incident, we were ready to book it out of town the next morning.  We stopped in downtown Monterey to have breakfast burritos packed with chorizo, eggs, and red skin potatoes.  We then stopped in Santa Cruz, where we took a drive through forest, and witnessed some hullabaloo on the beach between a crew of policemen and a vagrant.  We continued on, up the coast and then through San Francisco, when we became hungry.  Very hungry.

Uncertain of where we were actually going to stay the night, my travel partner made the wise decision that we seek food immediately, as things were deteriorating fast.  We stopped in Mill Valley, a swanky little town, just north of San Francisco, where we luckily found a spot called Boo Koo, which is defined at Southeast Asian street food with a California twist.  We were starving, so not of the most discerning mindset, but even with that said, we really enjoyed the fresh, fast, and inexpensive fare.
Jean had wok seared brussel sprouts, marinated in fish sauce and sriracha, finished with lime.  They were served on top of a cabbage slaw, which is great for people who enjoy cruciferous vegetables on top of their cruciferous vegetables.  She enjoyed it thoroughly.  She also had a side of spicy ginger beef, which had been either stewed or braised, and then shredded.
I had the Chinese Chicken Salad, which was slightly sweet, spicy, and had plenty of sesame oil throughout, which is only a good thing in my book.  The greens were a combination of mixed greens, romaine, and Napa cabbage, peppered with julienned carrots and daikon radish.  Interspersed throughout the salad were cold wheat noodles, similar to udon, but thinner, and they gave the salad a nice heft.  The salad was tossed with a light sesame chile vinaigrette, and topped with teriyaki glazed chicken, and a half of an avocado, thinly sliced.  My meal was delicious, if slightly over dressed.  There were also fresh herbs throughout the salad, which allowed for random bites flavored with mint, Thai basil, and cilantro.  Despite the fact that I was positively starving, I feel confident that this was an above average meal: tasty, fresh, and a great value.  It gave us the strength to soldier on, and find a great, sleepy little beach town to spend the night: Bodega Bay.  Coincidentally, it is same location where Hitchcock’s “The Birds” were filmed, and I must say that sea gulls were a tad  aggressive there.  Psychosomatic?  Entirely possible. 

Psycho on the Road: Nepenthe (Big Sur, CA)

Nepenthe seems to have somewhat of a mythical aura.  Dating back to 1949, the restaurant and bar is perched on a bluff over the Pacific Ocean in the heart of Big Sur, with a delectable view.  It has a relatively small, but meticulous menu; everything is fairly expensive and flawlessly executed.  My friend, Jean, and I arrived at Nepenthe on a sparkling afternoon after about 24 hours of rain.  In the aftermath of the rain, Big Sur glowed both blue and green, and we were ready to sink our teeth into the scenery and some great good.  We arrived at Nepenthe at about 2 in the afternoon, and the place was crawling with people.  We quickly concluded that a decent percentage of the patrons must have been only passing through because we were sure that the tiny town didn’t have the lodging to accommodate such a large crowd.  We put ourselves on the wait list, and then noticed two empty seats at the bar; the plush leather bar stools beckoned us in, and our entire experience had a “meant to be” quality following this serendipitous moment.

We started with cocktails; Jean ordered Pinot Blanc and I ordered my signature, vodka on the rocks (I’m on vacation, after all).  A gentleman in his mid-thirties sitting next to Jean, whipped his head around in shock, towards my direction after I placed my drink order.  Apparently, we were some of the only people in Nepenthe prepared to have a good time, and we certainly lived up to this premise.  Jean and I proceeded to indulge in one of my family traditions: the late afternoon, drinking lunch.  While the sun is shining, there is something particularly luxurious and fun about diving into a great meal, especially when augmented by an afternoon cocktail.  It is a common celebratory practice within my family, and Jean and I have also participated in many of these rituals over the years of our friendship.  Our post over the Pacific Ocean made this experience that much more fun, and the food was also impeccable and delicious, with the flavors augmented by the salt in the air.
For our first course, we ordered a roasted garlic and goat cheese appetizer.  This included a whole head of sweet roasted garlic, caramel in color, with the texture of slightly softened butter.  A ramekin of Laurel Chenelgoat cheese accompanied it, topped with roasted pecans and small-diced red bell pepper.  The goat cheese seemed like it had potentially been whipped, as it was so light and fluffy.  This was served with thin, crispy crostini to layer the duo of soft spreads on.  Mild, yet decidedly garlicky, we squeezed every last drop of garlic out of the papery package.  Our fingers became delightfully tacky with garlicky paste, and if I hadn’t been in public, I certainly would have licked them clean. 
We took our time; we lingered over the garlic; we ordered another drink; we reviewed the menu.  There were quite a few promising options: a char-grilled burger served with a two bean salad; a turkey sandwich with cranberry compote and havarti; a grilled chicken sandwich with smoked cheddar.  Yet we decided on items that we couldn’t get other places.  One of our choices was the Dungeness Crab Louie, a classic dish, prepared with Pacific Coast crab.  The salad was so profoundly cold and refreshing.  Every element was chilled to the utmost, including the plate.  A generous pile of crab adorned a mound of crisp mixed greens, topped with a drizzle of a Russian style dressing.  Most commonly, the crab would be tossed with the dressing, but this presentation was a little lighter, and allowed the crab to be the central focus, as opposed to the dressing.  The salad was finished with sliced cucumbers and hard-boiled egg.  I sort of felt like an eighty year old woman eating this salad, and the bartender actually did not give me a huge vote of confidence when I asked him what he thought about my selection.  Nonetheless, I stuck to my guns as Nepenthe is an old school establishment, and this is an old school dish. 
As delicious as the crab was, the true masterpiece of the meal was the cheese plate: a holy trinity of California cheeses, served in epic proportions with meticulously selected garnishes.  In all seriousness, they must have served at least 4 ounces of each cheese.  The spread included: Humboldt Fog goat cheese (a bloomy, soft rind goat cheese from Humboldt county, with a single gray vein of edible ash artfully streaking its middle), SchochFarmstead Monterey Dry Jack (made from heirloom cheese curds, it is the Jack version of aged cheddar), and Point Reyes blue cheese (a potent blue that is soft, spreadable, and creamy).  The trio of cheese was served with dried apricots, red grapes, quince paste, and house made apple chutney, laced with fresh mint, coriander, and lime.  We gleefully adorned crostini with this array of delicacies. 

Drunk on both cheese and booze, I became the most gregarious version of myself.  I began asking the bartenders questions, jotting down notes on their answers, and photographing everything.  The next thing we knew, our faithful friend behind the bar, Philippe, was serving us complimentary Pinot Noir, a specialty of the region knows as Lucia by Garys’Vineyard, which highlighted something hidden in each of the elegant cheeses.  Through this process, the other bartender, Jeremiah, warmed up to us as well, as he had initially been a little crusty (which is well understood as he has been inundated by haughty tourists at work since he started there in the 70’s).  Leaving three cheeses and three vodkas deep, it was a thoroughly worthwhile culinary experience.  If nothing else rivals it for the rest of the trip, I can go home a happy foodie.  Big Sur and Nepenthe are both recipients of a glowing psycho recommendation.  

Psycho on the Road: Nachos, Grits, and Greens (Big Sur, CA)

My grandfather passed away on Tuesday morning; he was 95 years old.  While this can hardly be described as tragic, there is a lot of sadness and emotion around the loss of life, even for a man who had more than abundant time on this earth.  Not only was his life full in terms of its longevity, but his also accomplishments, and the love he felt for his wife and family.  After a few years of steady decline, it happened seemingly quickly Tuesday morning.  I was sitting at my aunt’s kitchen table in Los Angeles when I heard the news, just minutes away from heading up the Pacific Coast Highway to the mysterious and isolated Big Sur. 

That coastal drive was probably the best possible medicine given the morning’s events.  My travel partner graciously drove the whole way up, as I sat in the passenger’s seat, cross-legged, listening to music, and drinking in the scenery.  By the time we were approaching Big Sur, we experienced something unusual for the central California climate: a bona fide rainstorm.  As the rain ebbed and flowed, the impact on the majestic coast was dramatic.  The color of the water varied, as did the surf, vacillating with the rainfall.  Up ahead, at times, the crevices within the green mountainside sometimes pronounced themselves, and at other times, they were faint and fuzzy gray.  I wonder if my grandfather ever came here; he was a well-traveled man, but my grandmother’s awe and amazement over my current travel plans lead me to believe the they never had this intimate experience with the California coast. 
By the time we arrived at the Fernwood Motel, it was nearly dark, and we were itching for a cocktail.  We imbibed in our room, until hunger set in, and stumbled across the parking lot to the bar and grill where we indulged in a comforting heap of nachos, chips dressed in chili powder, then piled high with pulled pork, pintos, and mound of guacamole.  This was not exactly a delicacy, but a mess of comforting finger food seemed to be the perfect antidote for my emotional day, and the chilly, damp weather.  The light in the bar was very dim, and has significantly impacted the quality of the photo, but I felt the need to include it anyway.  For the record, that is actually a half order.  They were called “nachos as big as your head,” but I’m pretty sure even the half order is far bigger than my head.
I woke up early the next morning, eager to find a coffee shop and have a quiet moment to write.  I set out at about 7, and learned an interesting fact about Big Sur:  you cannot get so much as a cup of tea prior to 8 am.  But in my efforts, I found the Big Sur Roadhouse, which turned out to be the perfect breakfast spot.  I returned to the motel, scooped up my friend, and we went back down the road where we happily ate matching breakfasts, called “The Roadhouse Breakfast.”  Upon its arrival, we were warmly greeted by oversized bowls of creamy grits, with a pile of slow-cooked chard nestled in the middle, 2 free-form, house made sausage patties, and a poached egg.  It was absolutely delightful.  The greens were tender, dotted with red bell pepper, but the overall flavor was mild and nourishing.  In fact, I think that’s the best way to describe the whole dining experience: mild and nourishing, but not boring in the least.  The sausage was loosely packed together, seasoned with fennel, and the egg was perfectly poached.  We also had a lovely server who was became quite invested both our travel plans, and our experience at her table, leaving our coffees off the tab.  I’m not sure if my grandfather would have enjoyed that breakfast.  The last thing I saw him eat was a corned beef sandwich; however, it was the perfect cozy meal for me in the wake of the previous days events. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Psycho on the Road: Yucking It Up at Monty’s Steakhouse (Los Angeles, CA)

I am currently in the midst of a massive Western exodus with a dear friend: a multi-state, 10 day, old fashioned road trip, with a focus on the California coast.  After blowing through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, our first stop in California was in Laguna Beach, where we were warmly welcomed into my friend’s mother’s beachside apartment.  After all of that driving, we enjoyed a great conversation, a few (i.e. many) drinks, and roasted vegetable pizza with our gracious host.  We then slept peacefully as the waves lapped the shore beneath our sacred, waterfront nest.  In the morning, we left that haven for LA, to be once again welcomed by excellent hosts, my aunt and uncle, who have been living in the Valley for 30 years. 

The four of us sat around their kitchen table, libations in hand, discussing dinner options, amongst other things.  The Valley is a Mecca of ethnic food, and we ran the through the litany of choices.  I have a hyper focus on eating sushi when I’m in LA because, being from the Midwest, it’s the best I’ve ever had.  There is nothing like the combination of unctuous, rich fish enveloped in al dente, short grain rice, especially when the fish was caught within driving distance of the sushi bar.  We decided on Brothers Sushi, where I haven’t been since I was a freshman in college; we proceeded to slurp our cocktails and engage in raucous banter until we were ready to eat. 

Piled in the car, we pulled up to Brothers; to our dismay, it is closed on Mondays.  While we were all disappointed, we soldiered down the street to another old time, LA spot: Monty’s Steak House.  It’s reminiscent of an earlier era, and it apparently boasts quite the singles’ scene for the over 50 crowd.  We sat in the dining room, and proceeded to ruin the evening of at least 20 restaurant patrons with our loud and obnoxious antics.  As individuals, each member of my family is quite loud.  When we gather, the volume amplifies exponentially.  The manager made the mistake of seating us in the center of the dining room, and then we proceeded to make some enemies, but it was all in the name of good fun.

We drank a robust and round cabernet, and gorged ourselves on old school steakhouse fare.  We had a variety of entrees at the table, and I have included pictures of everything.  They are not the finest photography; however, a sub-par photo is better that none at all.  Also, the presentation is yet another clue as to how old school this establishment truly is.  You won’t find a speck of parsley for garnish, and while some of our food may look decidedly monochromatic, our meals were artful in their simplicity, buttery and familiar.
I chose a California delicacy, known as sand dabs.  It’s a species of flatfish that is most common in the San Francisco area, but can be found by lucky restaurant-goers in LA.  It is a small, delicate fish, and it requires some finesse to filet.  The meat is sweet, and both firm and tender.  It is reminiscent of a cross between jumbo lump crabmeat and lake perch; it was breaded in panko and pan-fried, served with house-made tartar sauce, lemon, and a mountain of sautéed spinach.  My aunt mentioned that she felt I had the best thing at the table, and I did truly enjoy it.  The tartar sauce was quite good, but the fish was so good that I hardly made a dent in it.  It was a winning flavor-texture combo, and clearly different from your usual white fish dinner.
My friend, Jean, had the steakhouse chili.  Jean is a fiend for foods that include meat, cheese, and spice, and little else; thus, chili is somewhat of a Holy Grail for her.  The waitress informed us that it was a “two meat chili,” yet she couldn’t define this concept any further.  Given how little our server knew about it, I have a feeling it might not be a very popular menu item, but we all really enjoyed it.  Simple and tender, it was mostly meat, peppered with a few beans, and very red in color.  In addition to the usual chili powder, it had some sort of mysterious spice that is not commonly found in chili, which imparted one of my favorite flavors: je ne said quoi.
My uncle ordered a classic: chopped steak with onions.  This is essentially a hamburger made with steak, rendering it one of the best hamburgers’s ever had.  In fact, a chopped steak is so good, that despite it’s striking resemblance to a pedestrian burger, one would never dream of putting it on a bun, or adorning it with any of the other usual burger suspects.  In my experience as an eater and as a server (both extensive), I’m not sure if I have ever witnessed someone under the age of 60 order a chopped steak.  It is a dish of a different generation, but I must say it is truly delicious, and perhaps this can be a lesson to us all, so the chopped steak can make a righteous comeback.

Lastly, my aunt ordered a beautiful plate of sea scallops, seared, topped with roasted garlic, and served with angel hair in a buttery white wine sauce.  The scallops were tender, sweet, and served medium, which is absolutely proper.  We then doused the pasta with freshly grated Parmesan.  Being that my aunt is very generous and I am famous for carb-loading, I ate about 95% of the delicate strands of pasta, in addition to over half of my own meal.  I am truly a disgusting creature, but when it comes to food, I abide by the “go big or go home” philosophy.  On vacation, I rarely choose the latter.