Friday, July 30, 2010

Fair enough...

"Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough -- that we should try again."
--Julia Cameron

I can buy that...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Crave Cafe: Lead Us Not Into McDonalds, But Deliver Us From Taco Bell

Who hasn't had that "It's 3a.m., I'm in the Valley, I'm hungry... Fast food it is!"-rationale slice through their brain. It's inevitable, it's the only option.

Until now.

The beauty of the Crave Cafe is that it's the kind of 24-hour place you'd still want to go, grab some food, sip a tea on the couch, or linger with friends even during normal human business hours. The space is simple but chill, and their menu... Frankly, it's impressive that they're able to stay in business considering their long hours and long list of quality options.

First off, let's walk into Crave -- there's an outdoor seating area with some warming lamps (essential for those native Californians who start to shake the second it gets below 70 degrees), an endearingly haphazard main seating area, and a couple of overstuffed couches on the sides. Off to the left is... oh my, a line of frozen yogurt machines! Straight ahead... dear me, a glass case displaying individually sized (if you're hungry) quiches, colorful mugs of fruit, and layer cakes that might make a first-timer weep. Just looking at the Godiva chocolate cake is enough to send a person into a choco-overdose; stare too long at the Blue Velvet cake, and it's burned into your mind forever.

Once you make it to the counter, your options expand to crepes, panini, omelettes, salads... Again, NOT your standard late-night fare. Anyone who's ever subjected themselves to a Denny's Grand Slam after a particularly late night can appreciate the beauty in having real-food options, even in the wee hours. Peel your eyes away from the massive wall menu to take in the smaller board perched on the counter -- a Nutella menu. Get it on a croissant, in a sandwich (sourdough is HIGHLY recommended), with fruit, whatever. The chocolate-hazelnut spread has some serious devotees (including a certain reviewer), so offering it to a 24-hour crowd is just really smart.

The beverage selection is also lovely, including an array of coffees, teas, juices, and fancy-pants bottled drinks. Also worth mentioning is the fruit cup. Now you might ask, "What on Earth is so special about a fruit cup?" This isn't a sad ramekin loaded with cantaloupe, honeydew, and other filler-fruit staples. These large mugs are stuffed to the brim with watermelon, strawberries, mango, pineapple -- the pieces you'd save for the sacred last few bites if it were any other fruit salad. It's little things like that which set this place apart.

The food itself? It's good. Now, this is not to say anyone's reinventing the wheel here, but this is quality food that is reliable and tasty, won't send you into pangs of post-Burger-King regret, and you can get it any time (EXCEPT Sunday nights after midnight; they gotta shut it down at some point). As previously mentioned, their ability as a 1.5-year-old cafe to keep the doors open is itself impressive in this day and age when even celebrity chefs have trouble making a new restaurant last and Starbucks' and Subway's pop up on every other corner.

So whether it's a lazy morning, a light lunch, or something to satisfy you as you head home crazy-late (you party animal), Crave is worth a stop.

Crave Cafe
14504 Ventura Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA 91403

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Abuelitas: ROAD TRIP!

Here's a trip I took to Abuelita's Cucina Familiar in Topanga Canyon a while back for the Progressive Dinner Drives video series. (Who shot the video? That would be the talented Steve Yager!)

Cucina Bene: What Happens When I'm Hungry

Here's what happened...

I was on my second attempt at trying to hit the Blue Dog Tavern. I walked into the place -- farther than I got last time when I had car trouble en route -- and said, "NOPE!" It was packed. And I was hungry. So. Very. Hungry.

Luckily, in the vicinity (on Sepulveda, south of Ventura Blvd.) is a short strip of restaurants and storefronts. Being far too ravenous to make a decision, I left it to my dining companion. "Indian, sushi, or Italian?" He picked Italian, which is how I ended up at Cucina Bene.

Now the translation of "Cucina Bene" is basically "upper-class kitchen." (And yes, I just looked that up online.) If I knew that going in, I probably would have been even more disappointed than I ultimately was.

It all started so well. We walked in. We sat down. We ignored the table of screeching 40-somethings and perused the menus. A plate of quickie amuse-bouche items was dropped off for us -- a pleasant surprise! I reached for the least readily identifiable one; black olive tapenade (VERY finely pureed). Not bad. The white bean and tomato ones were also quite tasty. Ooh, small garlicky rolls! "Score," thought I.

Meh. Lukewarm. Chewy. Clearly the victims of having sat too long under a warming lamp.

Out comes soup and salad. The mixed salad was both mixed and a salad, dressed in what I cannot describe as anything but "house" dressing. My companion didn't fare so well, with a bowl of carrot-artichoke soup that really tasted of nothing but salt. Hmmm...

Seduced by a the seafood lineup of "Tiger Shrimp, Mussels, Clams and Scallops," I caved to the Sapore di Mare. Allow me to dramatize my encounter:

Dana: Whoa! Um, okay... So, tell me a bit more about yourself.
Dana: Yes, I can taste that. Very seafoody. What else?
Dana: Clearly. And I like your noodles. But wait, what's that I taste...?
Dana: Ah yes, that's it.

Now don't get me wrong; I love me some tomato sauce. Can't get enough of it. And because of that, I fully recognize how good as well as how potentially bland it can be if you're not trying (having made plenty of bland tomato sauce in moments of laziness myself). Which brings me to a major, over-arching (if not somewhat tangential) point.

This place seems torn between trying too hard and not trying at all. For example, the decor. It tries very hard to emulate what reads in America as a southern Italian classy-yet-rustic vibe; there was a textured faux-finish on the walls (decently done) and the majority of the place looked nice. And then on each table was a solid plastic flower-ish object. Not even trying; I've seen better fake foliage at Steak 'n Shake. (OK, I made that up, but you get the point.)

So the food. My Sapore di Mare had mussels that were nicely cooked and had one shell removed (thanks, easier that way!), clams with hardly any meat in them (eh, I GUESS that's not their fault), scallops (lovely), and shrimp with the texture of pencil erasers. Seriously. It's not hard to cook shrimp properly, but all too easy to overcook 'em. This was a case of just not trying.

Finally, my companion had the Penne all'Arrabbiata, a dish I really like... generally. This was just a plain yet slightly spicy tomato sauce. The only saving grace was the sausage (crumbled, not linked) he had added to it; that provided some flavor lacking in, well, everything else.

However, the staff was very sweet, and our server was personable and a little jokey, but still very professional. So there's that.

But here's the thing: the quality and the price definitely didn't line up. I have no problem putting down some cash for a good meal; food is one of my great joys in life, thus it's worth indulging now and then. This? Not making the Worth-It List.

And this is why you never tell someone, "I don't care! I just want food!" Because inevitably, you will get that -- just food.

Cucina Bene
4511 Sepulveda Blvd.
Sherman Oks, CA 91403

Chego: Bowl Full of Heat or Hype?

So, let's bask for a minute in the uncertainty of the "did she like it or not?" moment.


Alright, now that's over with.

As a die-hard fan of the Kogi Truck -- there's a reason I tolerate the rapid-fire stream of location tweets cluttering my Twitter feed on a daily basis -- I, of course, had sky-high expectations of the place. What Roy Choi does with flavor is a bit like a symphony orchestra playing Hendrix (on electric guitars... with their teeth) -- the fundamentals are high-class, but the soul is there, with much respect paid to the ingredients.

So one spectacular summer night, I find myself in Culver City, looking for dinner. Jackpot. I locate Chego (the super-cute bright orange sign certainly helps), park on the street (the lot is tiny, but welcome to L.A.), and walk my happy self to the door.

Once in, I see that the place is hopping. There's a communal table space (mostly commandeered by a big group), a stool/bench area (usually my preference, but some rogue children from the big group rendered it temporarily undesirable for me), and a stand-n-eat section (no thanks; I'm taking my time). I zero in on an outdoor table with my name all over it before placing my order with the (intensely friendly) counter guy:

A Sour Cream Hen House bowl
A Sriracha Bar
A Mandarin Jarritos to wash it all down.

When the waiter walked out with my glorious bowl o' food, the splash of color and texture immediately struck me. Some rice bowls are not pretty (see: Yoshinoya). This thing was so gorgeous, it was like the cast of LOST. (Which would make Yoshinoya's bowls akin to the banjo kid from Deliverance. Aww, I miss those pretty LOST people and their island. But I digress...)

My Sour Cream Hen House bowl had a melange of flavors and textures -- spicy, tangy, starchy, crunchy, creamy, cool, crazy... (Annnd now this is starting to sound like West Side Story.) The Chinese broccoli stalks were perfectly crisp, the brown rice was saturated with some terrifically umami flavors, the fried egg was oozy (but not in a worrisome way), and the fresh herb combo (cilantro and Thai basil) added a nice freshness to the dish.

And then there's the spicy stuff. The sour cream sambal paired with red jalapenos is an evil genius duo. First, you taste the spicy sambal, which is balanced by the sour cream in a comforting, cooling, "everything is okay, don't reach for your drink just yet" kind of way. Then POW! come the chilies, sneaking in just when you think all is safe. ADVICE! Wait out the burn -- you're gonna blow through that Jarritos pretty quickly if you're a wuss about every little bite.

After powering through the entire bowl (partly because the spiciness made it nearly impossible to stop, partly because it tasted too good to WANT to stop), I had no room left for the Sriracha Bar, a confection from Chego/Kogi pastry chef Beth Kellerhals's Double Chin Desserts line. So I took it with me...

[cut to the next day]

The bright spot in my otherwise ordinary workday was THE SRIRACHA BAR. That hot-sauce-infused caramel goo sitting on slab of chocolate-coated crisped rice, covered with spicy-sweet peanuts and dark chocolate... Pretty darn good. Truth be told, I had built it up in my head as more, but would absolutely get it again and recommend it to others. And if I ever come across a stash of that sriracha caramel, I will descend upon it like Winnie the Pooh with a pot of 'hunny' and run for my life...

Basically, if you haven't been already, you should be on your way right now.

3300 Overland Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90034