Saturday, May 27, 2006

Mikawaya Sweet Shop and Sushi Gen


That's the sound a jury summons makes when your spouse drops it off in front of you at the dinner table. Jury duty. Again. While most people dread and complain about jury duty, I secretly love it. Not only is it a free day off to read a book, there's also the famed 1 1/2 hour LUNCH. Not just any lunch, but a free-for-all of choices among one of Los Angeles' most ethnically-diverse areas. Within walking distance of city hall lies Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Grand Central Market, and a whole bevy of restaurants and bistros. When I lived downtown, I hated it and complained about the food. Now that I'm out of downtown, I miss it and remember how great the food was. Go figure.

I decided that today was Little Tokyo day, so I headed a few blocks East to the Japanese Village Plaza. First stop: Mikawaya Sweet Shop. Mikawaya gained quite a bit of mainstream popularity with the introduction of their mochi ice cream back in 1993. The Little Tokyo outpost creates fresh mochi ice cream and much more... rows and rows of wagashi (Japanese traditional sweets), some American pastries, and (surprisingly?) some outrageously good gelato. I was an Al Gelato woman before, but Mikawaya converted me.

To get to the gelato, you have to go towards the back of the store. You'll know when you find it because it looks like 20 stainless steel bins of heaven. Fluffy, pretty, soft, yummy gelato and sorbet.

Mikawaya has the subtlety of flavour down pat. Their gelato is not overly sweet, so the taste really shines through. They have a wide range of flavours, many of which you don't find in a typical gelateria, like kiwi, passion fruit, green tea, and green apple.

My favourite is apple pie gelato, which tastes exactly like homemade apple pie. Alas, they didn't have it today, so I chose green apple and coconut.

The coconut I've had before and it was just as good as last time. Green apple was a new one for me - the first thing I noticed was a strong sour-appley taste, almost like a Jolly Rancher, but fresher. If you love sour apple, you simply must go try this gelato - it's insanely good.

I'm not a big mochi fan, but people who are tell me Mikawaya's are great.

I decided to try a few today. The one on the left is orange flavoured, the one on the right is traditional red bean mochi.

Hmm. Yeah. Still not my thing. But for people who like it, I think you'll be pleased with Mikawaya.

118 Japanese Village Mall
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Hours: Mon-Fri, 9:00AM - 6:00PM, Sat-Sun, 9:00AM - 7:00PM

Next up: Sushi Gen!
I was fortunate enough to try Sushi Gen a couple months ago and I've been longing to return ever since. Just little old me at the bar this time.

First, hamachi, which tasted buttery and super-fresh:

Next, hotate (scallops), which were not as good as last time, but still really good. I think I missed the lemon and salt that Kazu garnished them with.

Maguro, which looks hot pink in the photo, was actually more of a bright red. This was a bit of a disappointment (although far better than most sushi spots). The fish was a little soggy, and didn't have that rich flavour you long to sink your teeth into.

Uni brightened things up a bit. I love uni, and this was fresh and sweet.

Albacore was heavily sauced, but tasty...

And finally, aji, which was hands down the best dish of my lunch. Really fresh-tasting, with that strong, assertive flavour that only aji provides.

Total bill before tip: $38. A veritable bargain!

Sushi Gen
422 E Second St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Hours: Mon-Fri 11:15AM-2PM, 5:30PM-10PM
Sat: 5PM-10PM

I did a little photography on the way back. Most people like to shoot the Frank Gehry architecture, me, I likes me the Caltrans building. It looks like something out of the future.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Boule Patisserie and Sprinkles Cupcakery

Next stop on my L.A. Bakery tour with Amy: Boule. Prices aside, Boule is hands-down my favorite L.A. bakery - they create some really beautiful and interesting desserts and present them as miniature works of art. Yes, you pay for the presentation, but you also pay for some of the highest quality and most exotic ingredients you'll find in any L.A. bakery... tonka beans from South America, Kalamansi limes from Southeast Asia, real Lapsang souchong tea from China. It's a patisserie for slightly more adventurous palates... those seeking basic chocolate truffles may be surprised to bite into a truffle infused with habanero pepper (which, as I learned at their recent tasting, is HOT!).

But one Boule treat sure to please every palate is the macaroons. They're fluffy and a little bit chewy, with a slightly crunchy shell that gives way to a rich, soft interior. With something for every flavour fetish, they come in approx 8-10 different flavours each day, with a rainbow-sherbet color palette to match.

Front row, front to back: chocolate, lemon
Center row: raspberry, lavender, pistachio, coconut
Back row: lemon, tahitian vanilla, lemon, raspberry

Meet Mr. Lemon Big Mac

All the flavours are really good, but I particularly like raspberry, coconut and lemon. Sadly, two of my favorites, passion fruit and apple cinnamon, were replaced by two new flavours, lavender and mocha. The lavender is interesting and quite good, the mocha is probably my least favourite of the batch.

We also picked up a lemon tart...

(I'd love to comment on this, but Brian ate it all before I had a chance to taste it... it sure looks pretty, doesn't it?)

Some chocolates...

Counterclockwise from top: Oscuro (Lapsang souchong-infused chocolate, dark and smoky), Lili (Passionfruit Ivoire, a fruity white chocolate), Jade (green tea, smooth and soothing), and a new truffle, I didn't get the name of it, that contains black licorice.

A purse of Boule's fantastic fleur de sel caramels, and I was set. Most women come home from shopping and lay out all their new clothes and shoes... I come home from shopping, and lay out my bounty of treats:

420 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10AM-7PM, Sun 10AM-5PM

Next stop: Sprinkles Cupcakery in Beverly Hills.

I must be getting old... when did cupcakes become all the rage? I guess it started with Magnolia Bakery in New York, which hit mainstream (read: exploitable) popularity when its cupcakes were featured on Sex and the City and then again in the completely hilarious Lazy Sunday SNL skit. Like many one-trick food wonders, what starts in New York frequently trickles down to L.A., and we Angelenos were quick to gobble up our very own cupcakery - Sprinkles.

On a once semi-quiet street in Beverly Hills came the cupcake invasion: you may not actually recognize the photo at left, because there's not a line of 200 people coming out the door (photo from Food GPS, which has an informative article on Sprinkles' cupcake philosophy).

So on a sunny and otherwise pleasant Saturday afternoon, we stood in line for nearly 40 minutes for our cupcakes. Let me rephrase that: we stood in line nearly 40 minutes for the PRIVILEGE of paying $3.25/each or $36/dozen for cupcakes. During this time, several curious passerby had to ask what we were doing: What are you guys buying tickets for? What's going on inside Rubio's? (Rubio's Fish Tacos is right next door) Is this the line for Rubio's? What's this line for? By the fifth or sixth inquiry, you start to wonder yourself: what AM I standing in this ridiculously long line for, anyways?

Oh yeah, cupcakes:

Sprinkles offers about 10 different flavors of cupcakes each day. On Saturday, we chose from: Banana, Black & White, Coconut, Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, Peanut Butter Chocolate, Red Velvet, Strawberry, Vanilla, and Vanilla Milk Chocolate. I was a little disappointed that they shelter the more exotic flavours from the Saturday tourist crowd. Alas, I'd have to come back all week to sample Carrot (Mon, Thurs), Ginger Lemon (Wed), Orange (Wed), Pumpkin (Wed, Fri), and Chai Latte (Friday).

At $36/dozen, you hope that they'll be legendary. My first taste test was dark chocolate.

Blech. WAY too sweet - I almost had to spit it out. I know what you're thinking, "Hey dummy, it's a chocolate cupcake, it's supposed to be sweet." Well, this was like your basic devil's chocolate cake with an extra two pounds of sugar. Chocolate comes unsweetened, so there's no excuse for something so over-sugared. Vulgar.

Fortunately, the next two were a bit lighter. Here's the coconut...

The coconut was also way too sweet, but manageable. I really liked the coconut sweetened cake; the sugar-saturated frosting combined with the sweetened coconut flakes was a little much, but pretty good overall.

Finally, banana:

Banana was by far my favourite of the three. Why? I could actually eat a second bite without feeling like my teeth were going to fall out. The cake was a sweetened version of banana bread, rich and moist and very homemade-tasting. The cream cheese frosting was again oversweetened, but at least it had the tang of the cheese base to mellow it out.

Sprinkles Cupcakes
9635 Little Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10AM-7PM

By the time we got out of Sprinkles, most bakeries were nearing closing time. Next time Amy comes to visit, I'm planning to take her to Jin Patisserie in Venice and Bluebird Bakery in Culver City. Any others we should check out?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sweet Lady Jane

My sister-in-law Amy was in town this weekend, which means I had a great excuse to stuff my face with delicious treats. Why? (who needs a reason, really?) Well, the official reason is that Amy's a pastry chef at Jean-Georges' Prime Steakhouse at the Bellagio. And I figure, if a pastry chef is visiting L.A., I should probably take her to all the famous L.A. bakeries, right? So on Saturday, we took a little tour around town.

First stop: Sweet Lady Jane.

I've eaten many cakes from Sweet Lady Jane, but I've never actually been to the bakery. Since it was my first time, I had two objectives: the first was to eat a brownie, since they were voted "Best Brownies in L.A." The second was to eat lunch, so I wouldn't slip into a sugar-induced coma by the end of the bakery tour.

I'm so glad I decided to eat lunch at Sweet Lady Jane - their sandwiches are perfect. Homemade, assembled with love, fantastically fresh.

There are four sandwiches on the menu, with four choices of bread - 16 possibilities in all. After much agonizing, I decided on the curried chicken salad sandwich on fresh baked rosemary bread.

Mmmm, mmmm, MMMMMM! I love this sandwich! Delicious, really high-quality chicken, perfectly "curried" with raisins, sitting on top of fresh crunchy lettuce. The rosemary bread was pillow-soft and tasted like it just came out of the oven.

I ordered the half-sandwich, half-salad-of-the-day, which meant a caesar salad with real homemade croutons. LOOK at that crouton! It's a crouton-lovers dream!

On to dessert...

Here's that oh-so-famous brownie in all it's sunlit glory

It's a firm brownie, more chewy than cakey, not too moist. It's flavoured with espresso and almond, which gives it a rich taste that is nothing like the Better Crocker version. I actually kinda like the fudgy brownie-in-a-box variety... shhh! Don't tell Jane! Her's was great though, and certainly in a class above the rest.

Amy had a slice of the triple-berry shortcake, which is yellow cake layered with whipped cream and fresh berries - one layer each of blackberries, raspberries and sliced strawberries.

You may not know this, but the USDA actually recommends Sweet Lady Jane's triple berry shortcake as a good way to reach your five daily servings of fruits and veggies. No, really, they do.

Sweet Lady Jane
8360 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 8:30AM-11:30PM (Lunch from 11:30AM-2:30PM)

Next stop on the L.A. Bakery Tour: Boule

Thai Iced BlaK(TM)

Flametorching peeps was fun and all, but unfortunately, I wasn't the first to do it. Today, I decided to make an original contribution to the food universe and so, I present to you: Thai Iced BlaK(TM).

That's right, Thai Iced Coffee, made with Coca-Cola BlaK.
What. Why are you looking at me like that?

The problem with Coca-Cola BlaK is that the idea of it just doesn't sound that good: carbonated soda-coffee-something. Coke effervescence with coffee essence rhymes (how long did it take them to make that up, by the way?), but it still doesn't sound much better.

Since no one seems to like BlaK except me and Steve from Gastrologica, I decided to try and make it a little more fun by combining it with a concept most people DO like: Thai Iced Coffee. Some of the tastiest food inventions come from unexpected combinations: Chicken Fries, Nerds Rope, Hamburger Helper... (OK, I'm losing you, come back).

But really. Thai Iced BlaK(TM) is pretty freakin' good. I make the peasant's version of Thai Iced BlaK(TM)... no cardamom pods in this recipe. All you need is crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk, and, of course, Coca Cola BlaK.

First, crush the ice, then pour in the BlaK, layer on a heaping tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk...

Stir, and serve.

It's like a Thai Iced Coffee, but a little bubbly and with a hint of Coke flavour.
I usually like mine stronger, so next time, I'll be layering the bottom of the glass with an espresso shot. And there you have it.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Susina Bakery & Cafe

The last time I went to Susina Bakery, it was still called Sugarplum Bakery, and I had an outrageously good quiche that I still use as a measuring stick against all other quiche in L.A. Tonight, I wasn't craving quiche, but rather cookies and cake, so we set off on the short drive to Beverly and La Brea.

Susina is a remarkably pretty bakery with a friendly, psuedo-European feel. All the goodies are out on display, and my first impression is akin to the scene in Willie Wonka where all the school kids are unleashed on the village candy store. Rows and rows of cakes in all flavors and sizes, treats stacked high in beautiful wrappers, jars and jars of old-fashioned candy... it's a dieter's worst nightmare.

Well, not EVERY dieters' worst nightmare. My favorite "diet" book, French Women Don't Get Fat, actually condones this sort of place. If you crave sweets, the author rationalizes, journey to an exquisite bakery that makes fresh treats from the finest ingredients. Don't absent-mindedly stuff your face with garbage throughout the day, but make it an event: go, sit, breathe, bite, savor, relax, enjoy...

So I did. I started with a chai tea latte, which puts next-door-neighbor Starbuck's version to shame:

Brian had a slice of cheesecake, which was so light and fluffy, the filling must have been air-whipped. Each bite had a rich but light flavor and melted in your mouth - I dare say this is the best cheesecake I've had in L.A. With each bite, I giggled. It's like eating a bunny.

I had a plate of tiny Italian-style cookies...

The macaroons were pretty bad (no Boule, that's for sure), but I liked everything else, especially the dark-chocolate-covered candied lemon peel.

We also took a few treats home to enjoy later. In case you're wondering, yes, stuffing your face with cookies and candy when you get home from eating cake and cookies is part of the French woman diet too. It's the missing chapter they added to the second edition.

I'm a sucker for Sea Salt Caramels, and Susina's didn't disappoint - but they didn't really wow either. What did wow me is that they managed to repack Swedish Fish and charge a 500% mark-up. Who would pay that much for Swedish Fish, when you can buy a gallon at Bed, Bath & Beyond for a few dollars? Oh yeah, me.

I was going to run a little experiment to show you that these are the exact same Swedish Fish you can buy at the drugstore, but then I forgot. They're the same thing -I promise.

Susina also had some cute cookies themed for Mother's Day, so being the sweet daughter that I am, I bought some Mother's Day cookies... for myself. Sorry Mom - they fell into my mouth!

There are few things more invigorating than breaking the head off of a $4.50 cookie.

Well, one thing - the first bite:

Susina Bakery & Cafe
7122 Beverly Blvd. (near La Brea)
Los Angeles, CA
Hours: Mon-Fri, 7AM-11PM, Sat-Sun, 8AM-11PM

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Jollibee's on Beverly

I'm a huge marketing geek - can't get enough targeted messages, commercials, mascots, logos, creative product names, etc. RARELY do I take off my overly-analytical cap and allow myself to be swept up in the magic of a marketing campaign. But one day, two months ago, it happened...

I was driving down Beverly when I saw a new fast food outlet in construction. Red and yellow... a new McDonald's maybe? Blah. Boring. But then a couple days later I saw the sign: JOLLIBEE'S. Complete with a freakin' adorable bee mascot wearing a chef's hat. Jollibee's - Jolly Bee. A jolly bee mascot! Love at first sight, I was hooked.

It took me a few weeks to get out to the new Jollibee's, but in the meantime I did some research. Jollibee's is basically the Filipino version of McDonald's. In fact, there are more Jollibee's in the Philippines than there are McDonald's, probably because our Filipino friends find the McDonald's molester clown just a little bit creepy (understatement) and would rather break bread with a Jolly Bee instead. Wouldn't you?

I also learned that Jollibee's specializes in chicken, burgers, and spaghetti. You read that right - SPAGHETTI. Fast food spaghetti, nonetheless. Genius.

Part of what makes Jollibee's so great is their overly-obvious use of catchy product names and borderline ridiculous advertising. I'd love to hear the creative discussions behind these ads:
"Let's see if we can get the woman's eyes closed in post so she looks more entranced in her chickenjoy experience."
"Spicy chickenjoy is hot, and when you're hot, you sweat, so we need to show the guy wiping sweat off his brow. Yeah, good, that looks perfect. Now we need to fix the top image so that he appears to be 'making love' to the chickenjoy. Perfect."

Product names are everything! I mean, what sounds better: Big Mac or Juicy Yumburger? Fried Chicken or Crispy Chickenjoy? And with Chickenjoy, you even have a choice: you can Chick ENJOY or Chicken JOY. Swell!

Here's what I ate. Make no mistake, it was mostly terrible - maybe the worst fast food I have ever had in my life. But you gotta give 'em credit for the marketing effort...

Crispy Chickenjoy: slightly worse than KFC, not even in the same league as Popeye's. Passable, but not enjoyable.

Jolly Burger with Jolly Fries: Brian said it tasted like a school cafeteria hamburger. Meat was OK, but the bun was particularly awful and really dry. The fries seemed suspiciously like the Burger King fries, but cold. Thumbs Down.

Jolly Spaghetti: This ain't no Italian spaghetti. I'm not sure WHAT is was. The sauce was sweet, almost like barbeque sauce, with cheddar cheese on top (what?). I don't even understand this dish, or the fact that you can order it in the drive-thru (how do you eat it in your car?). Two big thumbs down. Heinous.

The sweets were a little better.
Pearl Cooler: it's like a Boba Tea milkshake. This is pretty good, if you like Boba. Me, not a fan: I feel like I'm sucking eyeballs through a straw. But the taste of the shake part was really good - possibly pistachio flavoured? The Filipino equivalent of the Shamrock Shake - they also have a purple one in Ube flavour, which looks like it would be grape but is actually coconut-chocolate.

If you look at the cup while you're drinking, you feel like you're sucking the little bee eyeballs right out of his head.

Banana Langka Pie: Sort of like the McDonald's apple pie, but supposedly in a different flavour. Langka is jackfruit, which I've never had, so I have no idea what this is supposed to taste like. But it was pretty flavour neutral. I only ate a bite - not worth the calories.

Halo-Halo Supreme: No, there is no regular Halo Halo, just supreme. And, it's pronounced Hollow (as in Mahalo), not HAY-lo as in, the thing angels have on their head. Listen to stupid me asking for the HAY-lo HAY-lo and the lady at the counter says, "OK, one Hollow Hollow." Sheesh.

This was the most interesting dish of the lot. And so COLOURFUL - I loved it! I have no idea what any of the ingredients are, but going strictly by color, some of them were ice creamy (lavender, orange), some of them had the consistency of red bean mochi (maroon, dark purple), some were gummy (green) and some crunchy (tan). It's served on top of crushed ice, so you stir it all up into a big ugly mess. Red + Orange + Green + Purple + Tan = Ugly. But tasty.

After all this food, I was still hungry. Mostly because I only took one or two bites of everything and threw the rest away, even the fries.

Bottom line: Jollibee's did not make me Jolly. It made me Glum. Very Glum.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Jollibee's and No, I'm Not Dead

No, I'm not DEAD! I ate at the new Jollibee's and lived to tell my tale!

Where have I been? Well, there was the whole food poisoning thing. Then my laptop broke. Then I got an $8000 bill from the IRS (egads!!! still recouping from that news).

More about my Jollibee experience to come...