Friday, June 15, 2018

FOOD: Tatsu Ramen

On a stretch of Sawtelle in West LA you can find dozens of Japanese restaurants with different specialties, one right next to another, up to six in a row in one strip mall. Of course there are places to get ramen. Today I tried the much-vaunted Tatsu. There was a line of people waiting, but this place processes people with Tokyo efficiency, starting with iPads on the sidewalk for automated self ordering, followed by text messaging to let you know when a table is available. I went for a bowl of “Old Skool” ramen, with slices of pork, woodear mushrooms, and green onions, all in a rich tonkotsu broth. The richness of the broth is a testament to the hours and hours that they boiled the pork bones. The noodles are thin but chewy and with a wheaty flavor, almost slightly undercooked, but that’s the traditional way it’s made in Fukuoka. I slurped up every last drop.

Friday, June 08, 2018

FOOD: Ostrich Farm

Lovely evening sharing a favorite new neighborhood restaurant with a new friend. Ostrich Farm really showcases the wonderful produce we get at our local farmers markets, along with a few things they grow in their own garden, in fresh light preparations, doing much on the grill. The little gem salad is crisp and fresh, with small shavings of fennel, large shavings of pecorino, thinly sliced watermelon radishes for color and spice, and bits of fresh dill, lightly dressed. Artichokes are grilled with preserved lemon. Grilled prawns are served on a generous heap of fava beans. Long thin asparagus is lightly grilled, topped with panko gremolata and capers. Deeply roasted carrots are topped with labneh and a pesto made from the carrot tops. A spring risotto is generously filled with chopped vegetables. And the Pacific salmon with its satisfying hearty grill marks is served on a spring succotash of corn, zucchini, and red pepper. In one departure from current trends, the portions here are rather generous. The “plates” are almost too much for one person, and even the “small plates” give plenty to share. So it’s good to bring a friend or two. For dessert we just shared the Eton mess, a jar filled with blackberries, lemon curd, chunks of baked meringue, and whipped cream.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

FOOD: 71Above

We have a fun Christmas tradition with our friends Chris and Carol where we gift each other with a fabulous dinner sometime in the next year. This means we get a good excuse to spend time together, to enjoy great dining, and celebrate Christmas several times a year. Win win win. Last night, we enjoyed such a “Christmas dinner” at 71Above – the stylish space with exquisite food and breathtaking views from the top of the US Bank Tower (the highest if not officially the tallest tower on the LA skyline). This was a great addition to the upper-end DTLA scene when it opened nearly two years ago. Chef Vartan Abgaryan (formerly at Cliff’s Edge) makes creative modernist takes on local ingredients, symphonies of flavor plated like works of art. We started with bubbly rose and an amuse bouche of three colorful and creative bites, including cucumber with sumac and passionfruit, and a lipstick radish with a dollop of soft cheese and ground pistachio. The hearty crusty wheat bread was warm and delicious, always a good harbinger. Our windowside table, looking east and north, overlooked downtown, the lights of Dodger Stadium, and the vast city stretching out in the distance. We started around 7pm, so enjoyed the last soft patches of sunlight and then watched the city transform into a jewel box nightscape as the evening went on. The menu is a prix fixe three-course dinner. Of course with four of us, we could share bites of different things. Our first courses included a fine gazpacho with thin slices of sour plum and cucumber; squash blossoms stuffed with rice, peanuts, and charred scallions with poblano chile and coriander; and oysters poached in champagne with fresh uni, caviar, and a tarragon leaf. Our second courses included a risotto with arugula, nettles, and preserved lemon, dramatically presented with sunflower petals around a center of ground olives; asparagus in black garlic honey and pea puree, with snap peas and pea tendrils; an almost dessert-like fois gras on brioche with macadamia, cocoa nibs, blueberry, and tarragon; and a handkerchief pasta with golden beets, goat cheese, and a pistachio pesto. Our third courses included spring lamb rack, loin, and croquette made from other lamb cuts with red walnuts and raisins; New York steak with a celery root bone marrow puree and onion jus; diver scallops with white asparagus and shaved fennel. Desserts included a coconut custard with tapioca pearls, puffed sweet basil rice, toasted coconut, young soft coconut meat, and matcha sorbet (like a modernist take on buko pie); a pistachio paste with pistachio sorbet and a colorful circus tent of white chocolate, cassis, and lemon cremeaux; and a caramel milk chocolate structure with a Sydney Opera House of hazelnut brittle, butterscotch shortbread, cocoa meringue, and brown butter hazelnut ice cream. In all, a fantastic evening of great food and great company. (See complete set of food pics here.)

Friday, May 25, 2018

FOOD: Manuela

Wonderful dinner downtown catching up with some old friends. We met at Manuela, a restaurant typifying the explosion of creative energy that is the DTLA Arts District. An old grain mill taking up an entire city block has been transformed into a Hauser & Wirth Gallery complex, with Manuela as a restaurant opening onto a central open courtyard. One side of the courtyard has been planted as the herb and vegetable garden for the restaurant, and the home for the chickens to provide fresh eggs. The old brick walls of the inside of the restaurant provide an organic extension of the art gallery to showcase rotating art displays. The food is Los Angeles farm- and dock-to-table, but with a Southern accent. Having just met the chickens, the deviled eggs are a must to start, yolks whipped with buttermilk and dill with a dash of red pepper on top. A cucumber sour cocktail (Hendricks gin, cucumber, parsley, egg white) was just the right note to toast Memorial Day weekend. “Barbecued” oysters were cooked just barely enough to melt the light dusting of Parmesan breadcrumbs while the oysters still tasted fresh and briny. Arugula with goat cheese and spiced pecans made a bed for the early peaches and cherries that are already in the market. Hot, light-as-air flaky cream biscuits, served on a board with mandoline-thin slices of country ham (like Virginia lardo), and honey butter, all together melting on the tongue with divine lightness. Most dishes here are quite conducive to sharing, so fortunately with four of us, we could get a good selection of the many great offerings. Local yellowtail was perfectly grilled with the tasty char of grill lines on the skin, served with tender young snap peas, green garlic, and shallots. A Peads & Barnett pork collar was beautifully charred on the outside and tender inside, rubbed with caramelized shallots, large-grain mustard, and a bit of rosemary. Diver scallops were butter-browned to light crispness on the outside, served atop grits with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and little chunks of bacon. Roasted cauliflower was lightly sweetened and brightened with date vinegar and almonds. As the menu says, “you ain’t done yet”. For dessert, a rich chocolate torte came with popcorn ice cream and popcorn (cause who doesn’t like sweet and salty), and some light-as-air churritos came with a dulce de leche dipping sauce. Wonderful food, wonderful company, wonderful way to start the holiday weekend. (See complete set of food pics here.)

Jaffa, Kenneth Hahn Park Views, and Marilyn Sanders' Fierce Flowers

“Modern Israeli” is the latest flavor to hit the LA restaurant scene, and Jaffa on 3rd St is a prime new example. If you get to Jaffa early, as I did, you might have to wait a few extra minutes for the lavosh to finish baking, but you’ll be glad you did. The fresh-baked flatbread – warm, spongy, with browned spots, and good bready flavor – makes a perfect wrap for the cornucopia of Israeli flavors, generally including a base of Israeli salad (chopped greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion), tahini (sesame purée), zhug (a Yemenite condiment of hot peppers ground up with coriander), and pickles. I tried the “sabich” which featured thinly sliced and crisped eggplant, hard-boiled egg, hummus, and mango amba (a middle-Eastern savory chutney). It had a nice fresh crunch against the soft bread, with different bits of the complex flavors popping up in different bites. The accompanying taboulleh was a very fresh tasting variety of finely chopped greens with bulgur wheat in a citrus and light oil dressing. Oh, and that Jaffa shake! Made with almond milk and tahini (maybe with bits of halveh?) and dates, with a drizzle of date syrup on top. The space is lovely too. (I wish I’d taken a picture before it got busy and it felt invasive to get a good scene shot.) There’s a covered sidewalk patio area, but even the inside is largely opened up, with two oversize windows with opened shutters and tables creatively built into the sill, so that some people are literally sitting in the window. The décor palate is mostly light/white and wood, with bold blue water glasses on every table and blue bottles here and there adding a nice color pop, and fun blue and white irregularly shaped dishes.

After lunch, I went to check out the Kenneth Hahn Park, atop the Baldwin Hills, where I’d heard they have great views over the whole LA basin. It seemed a lovely day for it, with just enough clouds to be scenic but not obscure the views. Indeed it was a rewarding vista easily earned with a short hike. While I didn’t find a complete 360-degree spot, I did find one spot I could stand and take in at least 270 degrees, from Palos Verdes due south all across the Santa Monica Bay to the west, the Hollywood Hills to the north and around to the downtown LA skyline. It is amazing what you can see. Need to get back here with my real camera, as the iPhone doesn’t do it justice. I could see much of Catalina Island beyond Palos Verdes, and not just in silhouette. I could see the distinctive Googie “theme restaurant” at LAX, and watch planes landing and taking off. I could see the entire bay out to Point Dume. It is a marvelous vista of this vast and vibrant city.

Descending from the park, I headed to the Fabrik Projects gallery on La Cienega, to see a Marilyn Sanders photography exhibit called The Ferocity of Flowers. The flowers in these striking photos are very recognizable, yet she makes you see them in new ways. Normally, color is one’s dominant impression of flowers, but these photos are all sepia tone or silver gelatin prints. Without color, one is drawn instead to contemplate their shape and structure, and the way that light plays on them. On many of these, the play of light is fascinating, as it is sometimes direct, sometimes reflected, sometimes backlit translucence, or all of those interacting at once. Translucence and reflection illuminate shape and structure in unexpected ways. The other thing that makes these photos intriguing is the scale. She gets very close, closer even than the usual flower macro shot, creating an intimacy and an altered sense of proportion. Some of those pistils and stamens looked like something I could reach out and dance with. Some of the petals looked like a surface I could imagine sliding on or climbing. In one shot of lilies, a light source from behind creates a thin glow along the edge of the petal, the way one might see the first glow of dawn breaking over giant sand dunes in the Sahara. I wanted to ascend it. Beautiful and fascinating.

See the complete set of photos from this day here.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Dumplings, Highland Park, and Beyond The Streets

Today’s off-Friday exploration began at Mason’s Dumpling Shop, a new arrival in the increasingly happening Highland Park. These dumplings did not disappoint. The snow crab and pork soup dumplings had a delicate flavor that balanced both meats. The trick to soup dumplings, I learned today, is that the stock is chilled into a gelatinous aspic so it can be rolled up into a dumpling, and then the flavorful gel turns to soup when the dumpling is steamed. It is a test of chopstick skill to pick up the dumplings without piercing them and letting the soup spill out. Less delicate but even more flavorful were the pan-fried pork dumplings, spicy meat filling and the wrapper pleasingly browned and slightly crispy. I also had a seaweed salad with chili garlic dressing just to have a bit of green to go with my dough-and-meat fest.

After lunch, I took a walk along Figueroa, one of the two main streets of Highland Park. This neighborhood is reminding me of what Echo Park felt like 10 or 15 years ago. There’s a layered history of a part of town once fashionable, falling out, and starting to rise again. Liquor stores and pawn shops are starting to be replaced by hot new foodie spots, trendy coffee, record stores, barber shops, and even one combo record store / barber shop. Abandoned once-grand buildings that lined this stretch of the classic Route 66 are getting new life. Some classics, like the Highland Theatre, are alive again, and some of the Route 66 era kitsch, like a giant plaster “Chicken Boy” can still be seen. Just recently, the sidewalks were graced with a series of 14 tile mosaic murals depicting historic scenes of Highland Park, including the original Tongva indigenous people, the Rancho San Rafael land grant, the Ebell Club, and the Judson Studio (famous for its stained glass). There’s even one of the Highland Theater and Chicken Boy. Wanting a warm drink on this “May gray” day, I almost stopped into a hipster coffee house, but then a sign in Spanish on an older generation establishment caught my eye advertising atol de elote, a warm Guatemalan drink made from ground corn and sweetened milk. That hit the spot.

This survey of street art was a perfect prelude to my afternoon destination, an art exhibition called “Beyond The Streets”, just a couple miles down the arroyo in the industrial no-man’s land between Chinatown and Lincoln Heights. If you want to do an ambitious art installation that requires large sprawling spaces, a warehouse in this part of town seems to be the go-to spot. This provocative and at times immersive exhibit is all about street art and graffiti, including photographers who have chronicled street art, pop art inspired by graffiti, artists who grew up spray-painting walls and subway cars before moving to canvas and galleries, and even some actual graffiti. Parts of the show document “famous” graffiti and celebrate the anti-establishment attitude of the artists in a way that’s probably intentionally troubling to people like me who appreciate the artistry while also appreciating that there is a line where it crosses into vandalism. (Ironically, when you enter this exhibit, you are asked to explicitly state that you do not intend to damage or add to the art in any way, and you’re not allowed to bring in your own spray paint.) If you have any appreciation for pop art, you would enjoy this show, and some of the installations are truly impressive. Lee Quiñones, who became notorious for painting murals on schools and handball courts around New York City, has recreated one of his handball courts here, life size, and you’re free to play handball on it if you like. Several of the exhibits you can completely enter into, including a “gangsta garden”, an ironic version of a barrio strip mall church, a “temple” that reinterprets classic European sacred spaces, and recreation of the Venice Beach skateboarding pavilion that you’re welcome to skate on. Some exhibits were massive, such as a 30+ foot high wall that formed a large half circle, completely and intricately painted. Many were quite eye-popping, some amusing, some a bit challenging. I ended up spending three hours wandering this vast sprawling exhibition. It’s on through July 6, and then it heads to New York. Check it out! (See complete photo album here.)

Saturday, April 28, 2018

FILM: Disobedience

Some great performances from Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, and an interesting situation: the daughter of a beloved orthodox rabbi, broken away from the community after a youthful lesbian affair, returns for her father's funeral. I found it interesting, though not completely satisfying in the end. I did like that the portrayal of the orthodox characters wasn't completely monochromatic heavies. But I wasn't sure what the principal characters really wanted, or why they made some of the choices they made, or what really happened in the end. The film began and ended with a rabbi pondering man's unique gift and responsibility of freedom, suggesting that the film had a point to make about that, but if it did, I left unsure what the point was. And perhaps in keeping with Jewish tradition, it's more about the questions than the answers.

Friday, April 27, 2018

ART: LACMA: Hockney Portraits, Teotihuacan, Young Il Ahn, and the Coronation Carpet

There’s a trove of things going on at LACMA. The Hockney show “82 Portraits and 1 Still Life” is fascinating and distinctively colorful. The artist did this series of portraits over a couple of years, inviting a variety of people to sit for him, ranging from big names in the art world to the artist’s dentist, his housekeeper, and her daughter, subjects ranging in age from 8 to 80s. Each subject sat in the same chair in the same setting for three days for Hockey to capture what he playfully called a “20-hour exposure”. The result makes you really appreciate the portraits, what is unique about each, and how personality is expressed in the face, the hands, the way each one sits in the chair. The colors are all Hockney’s signature vibrant colors.

Then walk across from BCAM to the Resnick Pavilion and step back 500 years to see a palatial Persian carpet from the early 1500s when Persian carpets really started to become a national industry. This particular carpet features a central medallion in red, a field of cream richly decorated with trees, vine, and animals, corner scenes on red, and an ornate deep blue border. This particular carpet is called the Coronation Carpet, as it was used in front of the throne at the coronation of King Edward VII of Britain.

Then step into the next series of rooms and back another 100 years or more to see “City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan”. This fascinating exhibition presents a large collection of artifacts from the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, which flourished in the first few centuries CE, a thriving cosmopolitan city of 125,000 people at its height. The city was divided into districts dedicated to different gods and with different types of crafts. The exhibit is similarly arranged, to show the different artifacts in proximity which part of the city they were found in. I was quite taken with the expressive statues and masks, ceramics and stoneware, and the murals, many of which are surprisingly vivid even today. Their colors were mixed into plaster in way that allowed the colors to endure, and apparently the city was brightly colored with a lot of murals.

Over in the Hammer Building, I flashed back to the present time, with a showing of Korean-American abstract artist Young Il Ahn. His “Water” series plays on a theme of “unexpected light”, with a very large panels of what appear to be monochrome colors from a distance, but on approaching, appear to crack, and an underlying color of unexpected light breaks through. The hidden colors have such a luminous quality that the paintings almost appear to be backlit, and it is surprising to see the previously unseen colors emerge as you get closer. It reminded me of being on Hawaii and seeing a lava flow at dusk, dark volcanic rock with an eerie orange light glowing through the cracks from below.

And of course I had to visit all my perennial favorites: Chris Burden’s “Metropolis” (the most amazing track for Matchbox cars ever) and “Urban Light” (the most Instagramable collection of lampposts) , Tony Smith’s “Smoke”, Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” (the giant boulder suspended overhead), and the Cantor Sculpture Garden full of Rodin and Bourdelle sculptures.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

FILM: Isle Of Dogs

Wes Anderson is always so creative and this latest film was no exception. Wonderfully original and completely off-the-wall story, gorgeous animation, great voice characterizations from the troupe of talented actors who follow Anderson wherever his inventive mind leads. Thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

Friday, April 13, 2018

BOOKS: Born A Crime

South Africa, both under apartheid and after it, is such a different place to anything I have experienced, making Trevor Noah’s autobiographical “Born A Crime” such a fascinating book. Even for South Africans, Noah’s perspective is rather unique. His title “Born A Crime” comes from the fact he was born of a white father and a black mother, which violated anti-miscegenation laws still active on the books at the time he was born. My eyes were opened to so much about South African society. I hadn’t understood and appreciated how blacks are so divided by tribes with distinct languages (a situation ingeniously and insidiously exploited by the apartheid system to discourage blacks coming together), nor how people were divided not only black and white, but also an intermediate category called “colored”, which included people of mixed ancestry, Indians, and other arbitrary distinctions (for example, Japanese people were officially “white” while Chinese people were officially “colored”). Noah was raised by his mother, an extraordinarily strong and independent woman who was pushing boundaries even before apartheid was abolished. She taught him English and Afrikaans as well as several tribal languages, sent him to private schools, and gave him a window on many parts of society, living at times in a black township or middle-class neighborhoods, attending white churches. His mixed-race status, many languages, and varied experiences made him someone who could fit in anywhere but belong nowhere. He thus grew up developing keen insight into the complex society around him as can only be gained by someone who is “insider” enough to understand and sympathize but also “outsider” enough to make objective appraisals. His stories are packed with humor, understanding, insight, and at times a challenge to see the world a different way. In one story, he thoughtfully unpacks why among South African blacks the name “Hitler” doesn’t have anything like the infinitely negative charge we assume should be universal, and how that lead to a colossal misunderstanding with a black dance troupe performing at a Jewish school hosting a multicultural diversity festival. Through other stories, he explains life in the township and life in what we would call “the ‘hood”, and why they may think about crime a bit differently than you do. Other stories are just generally human, experiences growing up in various schools trying to fit in, getting a date for the prom, and so on, all told with great charm and humor. And his keen insight is also brought to bear on abuse and alcoholism, in stories of how his step-father abused his mother. This is a fantastic book, and it is even better as an audiobook, since it is read by the author. He has the gift of writing the way he talks, which since he is a comedian (and now the host of the Daily Show) is quite engaging. Hearing him do all the voices, the dialects, and even occasionally the languages (including those Xhosa clicks) as he tells his stories brings them even more to life in vivid color.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

FILM: Finding Your Feet

Yes, it's fun. Go in expecting nothing more than simple enjoyment, don't examine it too closely, and let these superb actors enlivening a work-the-stops script play you like a violin, and you'll leave happy.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

BOOKS: Behind The Beautiful Forevers

In Behind The Beautiful Forevers, author Katherine Boo renders a fascinating slice of, as her subtitle has it, “life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity”. The slum called Annawadi lies on a patch of empty land between the Mumbai International Airport and a row of gleaming high-end airport hotels, a crowded community of people struggling to stay alive and perhaps get just a little bit ahead, living precariously in improvised shacks on land they have no legal claim to, which could be bulldozed at any time. In this community lies a rich tapestry of dreams, schemes, motivations, crushing circumstances, corruption, prejudice, envy, and surprising wellsprings of hope and perseverance. This is a work of narrative non-fiction. It is non-fiction in that all of the characters are real people, using their real names, and the incidents described are real. The author spent years visiting, interviewing, getting to know, and following a number of people over many years. She witnessed some events herself, gathered other events from interviews, cross-checked, and verified where possible with public records, with a journalistic diligence. Boo’s descriptions of the characters and their circumstances are vivid, and she skillfully weaves them into an engaging narrative by using a pivotal event – a woman who sets herself on fire, with lasting repercussions on several families – as a through line to propel a sense of story. I was rapt in the stories of these people, their lives so foreign to my own experience, and appalled at some of the things they suffer. I think what I found most unexpected was how much these people who have so little are regular targets of extortion by corrupt police, corrupt doctors, and corrupt teachers. Many of them work hard at what they can, a few actually claw their way ahead, but all are so buffeted by larger random circumstances that any connection between hard work and getting ahead is quite tenuous. Larger events, like the construction of the airport, the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and the 2008 Great Recession in America, all had their ripples in this fragile slum. A century ago, Sholem Aleichem vividly described the struggles of Jewish life in 19th century Russian shtetls (tales which inspired Fiddler on the Roof). Boo brings that same kind of sensitivity to precarious lives in tenuous tenements, combined with the accuracy of a journalist, in painting this portrait of Annawadi and its inhabitants.