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Off the Beaten Path: East/West Ramen Fest – 5 More You May or May Not Want to Try

Ramen.  I clearly eat a lot of it.  Here are reviews of five more bowls – one in LA and four others from two new sister restaurants in NYC headed up by the well-known, Chef Hideto Kawahara.  If I die while eating ramen, I’ll be dying a happy woman.

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DAIKOKUYA LITTLE TOKYO (Los Angeles)

Daikokuya's Daikoku Ramen (photo courtesy of website since mine's stuck on home laptop)

MY TASTEFUL OPINION:  I didn’t dislike it, but I can do without it.

My last four visits to LA, I asked JM to take me to Daikokuya since I had heard so much about it.  The first three times we tried going, we either didn’t want to wait (consider an hour wait at least) or couldn’t get in since they weren’t taking anymore names before closing.  The ever-present lines at this restaurant remind me of Ippudo in Manhattan.  The fourth time, we decided to be patient and stick it out.  Luckily for us, a lot of people played our previous roles and skipped out, seeking another time that wouldn’t test their patience (good luck with that, folks!).  So, instead of waiting maybe two hours, we stood restlessly outside for an hour and ate dinner around 10:00 pm.

I went a little nuts and ordered the Combo Meal ($11.50) with Daikoku Ramen and a bowl of fried rice.  If you order a la carte, it’ll cost you $8.50 and $7.50 respectively.  Here’s when I wish I had a much bigger body because the portion sizes were more than I could handle.  I wonder if I could’ve requested the half portion of ramen with the combo meal…

Chopped fresh scallions, raw bean sprouts, menma, sesame seeds, curly noodles, three kurobuta (“Black Hog” which is as prized as Kobe beef) pork belly chashu slices, and a perfectly cooked melt-in-your-mouth whole marinated boiled egg floated (seriously THE BEST EGG ever) within and on top of a milky cloud of tonkotsu and soy sauce broth.  I had also requested the richer, kotteri flavor broth which used additional soup extracted from the back fat (according to their menu).  I can’t say if it made a difference since I’ve never had the original version.

All in all, I really didn’t have anything bad to say about it.  I just didn’t experience anything that made me want to go back and wait in line again.  I’d rather quickly grab a seat at another Japanese restaurant across the street and gobble down their super soothing udon noodles in a hot pot.

Daikokuya Little Tokyo
327 E. 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-1680
http://www.daikoku-ten.com/LTmnu09a.html

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HIDECHAN (New York City)

Hidechan Spicy Miso Ramen

MY TASTEFUL OPINION:  How can a chef be so inconsistent?  The ramen here is one of the worst I’ve had in the city and in no way compares to the deliciousness at its sister ramen joint, Totto Ramen (below).

My brother and sister-in-law took me to the new Hidechan in midtown east since they had been wanting to try it (and they know about my souper journey).  The whole experience turned into one big nightmare because 1) the ramen was a big disappointment and 2) immediately after we sat down, my brother (he’s older) decided he would ask me if JM was going to propose to me anytime soon.  Imagine the look of horror on my face.  I was nearly speechless.  I expected those words to come out of my dad’s mouth, but surely not his.  I’m not getting THAT old, am I?  Ok, maybe I’d been wondering the same thing from time to time, but, sheesh, no need for the added pressure from my own bro.  He’s supposed to be the chill one to tell me it’s all good, and there’s no rush…right?

After this awkward moment, I was hoping that Hidechan noodles would soothe my pounding heart.  They didn’t.  The Hakata Spicy Miso Ramen ($10.50) came with straight, thin noodles that were way too soft for my taste.  It wasn’t until after we ordered that we noticed a tiny little piece of paper taped to the table’s chopsticks container that said we could specify how we wanted the noodles cooked and how rich we wanted the broth.  Sucks that we saw that too late, and the waiter never asked us.  If he did, I would’ve ordered my noodles al dente, not soft and mushy, and my tonkotsu broth rich, not super light and underwhelming like they made it.  I was also unsure about the spicy miso paste.  The medium-sized scoop sitting on top of the bowl was mushed together with a bunch of ground beef (or pork?).  It almost seemed too beefy and was definitely not spicy.  I’ve never had spicy miso served this way.  Is this typical?  Anyway, last little note, if you order a boiled egg to accompany the bowl’s standard kikurage, scallions and bean sprouts (with the crazily, tooth-hurtin’ yellow heads), add $1.  But I would really think twice about spending even a dollar here.

Hidechan
248 E. 52nd Street (near 2nd Avenue)
New York, NY 10022
212-813-1800

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TOTTO RAMEN (New York City)

MY OVERALL TASTEFUL OPINION:  NO MSG automatically gives this restaurant a leg up on any in the city, but each ramen “flavor” has varying degrees of yumminess.

This past month my work lunches have been TOTTO-lly filled with ramen (yes, yes, very corny.  The man is rubbing off on me, to my dismay).  After my very first time, I went back for more two days later…and two more times after that…and I’ll be back again next week.  So, yes, I think it’s safe to safe that this has miraculously taken over Ippudo’s #1 spot on my list of NYC ramen houses.  Aside from the thankful NO MSG policy, you never have to wait too long, even when it seems like the sidewalk is packed with newbies and fans.  I’ve tried three out of the six noodle soup varieties already, and here are my thoughts starting from my least favorite.

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Vegetarian Ramen ($11)

MY TASTEFUL OPINION: I’ll stick with the good ol’ meaty versions.

Totto Vegetarian Ramen (observe the wooden pedestal in right photo)

Even though this is vegetarian, this is the second most expensive one on the list.  Most likely, it’s because they use organic noodles and other expensive items.  But I did in fact wonder if the extra costs also came from the fancy presentation – your cute round white bowl is, oddly, placed atop a wooden pedestal.  Sometimes vegetarian food does need some sprucing up to make up for a lack of meaty goodness, and meaty goodness is what I missed.

I’m no crazy carnivore.  I love my veggies.  I need my veggies.  But, for some reason, I was depressed while eating this.  I couldn’t get used to the seaweed and shiitake mushroom broth (which also had “peppery Yuzu paste,” sesame oil and a squeeze of fresh lime), even though those ingredients are some of my favorites.  Yuzu always piques my interest when I see it on the menu, but maybe I only like it in my cocktails or on cold raw fish.  The thin, soba-like noodles were a tad too soft, and I wish the raw chopped onions were softer and more cooked (only ’cause my stomach can’t handle raw onions).  The sprinkle of dry seaweed on top expanded nicely in the hot broth and intermingled with the random mix of cooked vegetables – cauliflower, zucchini, slice of red pepper, and corn.  While they were cooked to perfection, they were lacking some kind of sauce.  Think raw vegetables with no dip.  The only thing that made me happy were the slices of seasoned avocado.  I’ve never tasted avocado like this.  It tasted just like my favorite Chinese jar of fermented tofu.  I’m sure none of you know what that is (and it sounds disgusting), but it makes this lil chicky very happy.

Even though I didn’t care for this, vegetarians might.  I heard that a vegetarian friend of mine liked it.  I guess you can’t really find non-meat options on ramen menus, so Totto is smart for including this on theirs.  I do find intelligence sexy…

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Miso Ramen ($10.25)

MY TASTEFUL OPINION:  Much better than its sister’s Spicy Miso version.

Totto Miso Ramen with Side of Spicy Menma

The highlight of this dish was the curly, thicker al dente noodles.  No other ramen spot that I know of serves this kind.  And, just like men appreciate women with meat on their bones, I sometimes like more meat on my noodles.  Mmm.  The two slices of pork came a tad thin and tough.  I’m not sure if they torched the meat too long that day (yes, you can watch them torching the pans of sliced pork), or if they just use a different style for this bowl.  Whatever it was, I didn’t prefer the toughness.  Like its counterpart, Hidechan, you had to mix in a scoop of miso paste and ground pork with the chicken paitan broth, but somehow this tasted a lot better.  It must have to do with the more flavorful broth.  So what about the accoutrements?  You get the typical half egg, scallions and bean sprouts, of course, with the apparently typical Totto addition of raw chopped onions.  I ordered a side of spicy menma (add $1), and will never order it again.  It was unusually salty and just not good.  I overheard two women’s reactions to the non-spicy menma, too, and they also complained about the saltiness.  Sans additional menma, I think I could order this again, especially if they let me get extra miso on the side.

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Chicken Paitan Ramen ($9.25) + Whole Broiled Egg ($1)

MY TASTEFUL OPINION:  I might be eating this once a week…at least.

Totto's Chicken Paitan Ramen

The menu’s description: “These straight homemade noodles are cooked al dente style in a whole chicken and premium soy sauce based soup topped with scallion, onion, char siu pork, and a nori.”  You can see the ginormous pot of soup boiling with whole chickens (poor chickens), and you sorta want to dive in and bathe in it (or is that just me?).  But if I can’t bathe in it, then I’ll ingest it.  I’d be even happier if they canned all this richness so that I could slurp it at home, especially when I’m sick.  The torched pork slices were super tender, and they were joined by morsels of seasoned pork chunks that took me to another world.  Sure, this is a pretty plain bowl of ramen: a minimal variety of garnishes that are mostly a mute beige color leave the eye somewhat forlorn.  A friend who recently tried it said it was like a really great chicken noodle soup and was not impressed.  But, leaving out the vegetarians, who doesn’t like chicken noodle soup?  And who wouldn’t want one that’s pretty mind-blowing?  Personally, I think that if you can take the simple and minimalist approach, without the help of flavor enhancers, and still make foodies obsessed, then you’ve got a winner.

Totto Ramen
366 W. 52nd St. (btwn 8th and 9th Aves)
New York, NY 10019
212.582.0052
http://tottoramen.com/

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Over $10 – These soups should have a gold leaf in them.

$6 to $10 – You’re not shellin’ out the gold, but also not gettin’ super lucky.

Under $6 – It’s your lucky day!


Gettin’ Down to the Bottom of the Bowl: Ramen

Behold the new series called “Gettin’ Down to the Bottom of the Bowl!”  These are dedicated to classes I’m taking about certain style of soups (can’t say that I’ll actually be taking many of these) or any informational posts that go beyond the taste and ingredients of a soup (i.e. the history of where it came from).  I might just be taking stuff from Wikipedia.  Who knows.  This series stems from a ramen class I took a few weeks ago at the Japanese Culinary Center.  Basically, I and a few friends – T, L, JF, JF’s gf, JF’s friend – paid $40 and dedicated two hours to listening to a Japanese chef talk about the fine details of ramen and then stuffing our faces with three different bowls of noodles.

Upon entering and getting your name checked off the list, you’re handed a few pieces of paper stapled together.  I don’t think I’ve been handed class materials filled with pictures and charts since I graduated college ten years ago.  My brain wasn’t sure how to process it.  Luckily I wasn’t being graded, and I’m going to find out right now if I even understand the notes I scribbled all over the paper.  I’m definitely not as organized in my note-taking as I used to be.

In any case, first observation – the paper was stapled on the upper right hand side.  How authentic!  Certainly not in some fake Japanese joint.  No way, Jose.

You then chose which high-top table (no seats) you wanted to join.  About six people fit to a table.  And, while you were standing there listening to the chef explain the intricacies of ramen, you found your head turning right a few times to stare longingly at the mis en place for the noodles you were going to taste later.  Way to make your students lose focus.  Such a tease.

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So what did I* learn?  Here’s a little Q&A:

Where did ramen originate from?
China…of course.  ;op  In Chinese, we call it “la mien.”

What is the “definition” of ramen?
Soup + noodle = ramen

How many varieties of ramen are there in Japan?
3000-ish, but I’m not really sure anyone can put an exact number on it.  The high number is due to the fact that practically every little region has its own version.  And, according to Wikipedia, ramen with the same name can even have nuances from different vendors that propagate even more variations.

Some specifics on varieties of ramen that coincide with varieties of sake made in different regions.
Closer to shores of Japan –> More seafood-based ramen and crisper, cleaner sake
More inland –> More pork- and chicken-based ramen and bolder sake
More north –> More miso-based, fermented flavors and I have no idea about the sake

What is the soup made of? (Note: I’m taking this from Wikipedia since the sheet of paper is confusing.)
“Ramen soup is generally made from stock based on chicken or pork, combined with a variety of ingredients such as kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes), niboshi (dried baby sardines), beef bones, shiitake, and onions, and then flavored with salt, miso, or soy sauce.  Other styles that have emerged later on include curry ramen and other flavors.

The resulting combination is generally divided into four categories (although new and original variations often make this categorisation less clear-cut):”  Shio (“salt”), Tonkotsu (“pork bone”), Shoyu (lots of soy sauce), and Miso.  More on the latter three later.

What types of noodles are there?
They vary in texture, absorbability and shape.  There’s thick/thin, straight/wavy, water-added/less water-added, aged and flat.  We got to squeeze and smell some curly, raw noodles, and they were hard to break.  When you squeeze, it apparently creates the release of glutens, increasing the elasticity of the noodles (did I get this right? not sure).

Ramen noodles have a gauge number much like what you see with Italian pasta in the grocery stores.  The number is determined by how many 3cm widths you can cut.  The bigger the number, the thinner the noodle.

What is the unique ingredient that gives the noodles the “al dente” quality?
Sodium bicarbonate, which has a pronounced smell when uncooked (I did smell it when we passed the raw noodles around.).  It helps to keep the noodles firm even when in broth for a while.

So how long should you cook the noodles for?
Boil in water for two minutes in a separate pot, without salt, until 80-90% cooked.  Once you pour broth over them, the broth will finish the cooking process.

If you buy fresh raw noodles, do you have to cook it right away?
No.  If you actually “age” the noodles in the fridge for two weeks – covered (to not absorb other odors) but not air tight – it will create a better texture and enhance the flavor.  But, of course, if you see mold, toss out!  I’m sure you don’t want that kind of “enhanced” flavor…although you could possibly make that into your own special variation of ramen. ;o)

I bought a certain type of noodle.  Now what broth do I pair it with?  (Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand the diagram and can’t tell where straight vs. curly noodles fit in this.)
Soft, thin noodles –> Light soup
Soft, thick noodles –> Light, rich soup
Hard, thin noodles –> Tonkotsu soup
Hard, thick noodles –> Heavy, rich soup

How should I serve the noodles?
Piping hot.  It’s considered shameful if the bowl is not served hot.

It’s time to eat, and you hear people slurping really loudly when they eat ramen.  It seems like bad etiquette, right?  Why do they do that?
Slurping enhances the retro-nasal olfaction, which opens up the aromas.  So some people do this for a better ramen experience.  Of course, for some people, slurping is just slurping, and not something more sophisticated.  As for me, I can’t even slurp.  I tried.  I don’t like sucking in extra air for reasons I shall not say out loud.  So I guess I’m an average Yoshi (my name at a certain Starbucks), neither sophisticated nor bad-mannered.  Whether I can slurp or not, ramen still tastes super delicious to me!

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Now let’s get to the types of ramen we actually ate during class.  They pre-made everything for us and set up stations.  First, we picked up the actual bowls of noodles in one section of the room.  Three types = three lines.

Then, we went to the broth station to get the correct broth.

After the broth, we went to the “gu” (ingredient) station and added the appropriate stuff for the type of ramen you were eating (Hakata/Tonkotsu, Sapporo/Miso or Tokyo/Shoyu).

And we finally got to eat what we so beautifully, or not so beautifully, put together…one big bowl at a time…

Hakata Ramen (Tonkotsu Ramen)

HAKATA RAMEN (TONKOTSU RAMEN)
It’s a specialty of Kyushu, the southern part of Japan.  The rich broth is made from pork bone (“tonkotsu”), which is boiled under high heat.  The umami (or “savoriness” in English, “good taste/flavor” in Japanese) stems from the inosinic acid (used as flavor enhancer and important in metabolism) and emulsified fat.  Made with thin, firm, low moisture, straight noodles.  Common ingredients are: charshu (pork), kikurage (wood ear mushrooms), naruto (??), and beni shoga (sweet and sour red ginger).  [Um, re: photo, is that kamaboko (fish cake) supposed to be in there?  It’s not in the list of gu I just typed up.  Imposter!]  My favorite ramen spot in Manhattan that serves this style is Ippudo.

Sapporo Ramen (Miso Ramen)

SAPPORO RAMEN (MISO RAMEN)
Sapporo ramen originated in none other than Sapporo, Hokkaido, the northern part of Japan.  It’s made with a pork and chicken stock mixed with Shinshu miso (golden yellow miso that is salty but mild and versatile).  Let’s talk about miso for a sec…

There are two types of miso:  red (aka) and white (shiro).  Red takes six to nine months to produce, but white only takes two to three months, so white is typically used because it’s faster to make.  If you blend red and white miso, you create Awase miso.  Supposedly, the red gives umami and the white is more palatable.  Huh?

…now back to Sapporo ramen…it has a hearty, rich, nutty flavor, and it’s not oily because of miso’s “absorbability” to oil.  The broth pairs with high moisture, medium thick, wavy noodles to catch the “essence” better.  Ingredients include: charshu, corn, butter (Hokkaido is famous for its dairy products, so they put butter in everything; the butter goes well with the corn), sauteed bean sprouts, menma (bamboo braised in sake, mirin, soy sauce; my fave!), raw scallions, kamaboko.

Tokyo Ramen (Shoyu Ramen)

TOKYO RAMEN (SHOYU RAMEN)
Other common names for this type of ramen are “Shinasoba” or “Chukasoba.”  The clean, light broth is made from chicken and pork bones that are simmered in medium heat with soy sauce added.  Since it’s light, it’s considered good for the spring and summer.  By the way, there are 200 microbreweries that make soy sauce.  Yup, that’s right, microbreweries don’t just apply to beer!  Common ingredients are:  charshu, nori (seaweed), menma, kamaboko, tomago (egg), raw scallions, and sometimes bonito (dried fish flakes).

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*BURP*

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As you may have guessed, we were stuffed after having three bowls of ramen.  I think I satisfied any ramen craving for a long time after that.  So, even though we received an email with recipes to make all three types a couple of days after class, I have had no desire to look at them.  I don’t know if I ever will either, since I think, for me, great ramen is something I’ll always purchase at a restaurant, not something I’ll make on my own.  Even so, I’m still not sharing the goods with you, because I paid a relatively hefty $40 for this class.  Gotta save a little somethin’ special for myself!

Alas, that’s all I have to say.  I do hope you’re full of knowledge and will soon be full of satisfying ramen.

*Others may have learned more or less.  So this is by no means an account of EVERYTHING we learned in the class.  Did I need to include this footnote?  Probably not.

Japanese Culinary Center
711 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10017
http://www.japaneseculinarycenter.com


New! Categories Added!

I’ve finally gotten around to categorizing the entries! Look left! I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I feel good. I feel organized. Now if I could just transfer this organization to my apartment…


Off the Beaten Path: Soupin’ in the Los Angeles Sun

Last weekend, while in LA, I ended up having a lot of soup, despite the 70+ degree, sunny weather.  If you didn’t believe that I could eat soup at any time, believe me now.

** Soup #1 – SHIN-SEN-GUMI’S HAKATA RAMEN (Rosemead) **

MY TASTEFUL OPINION:  If the Man and some friends didn’t live in LA, there’s a pretty big chance I’d still fly out just for some of this ramen.

Eating at Shin-Sen-Gumi is a requirement whenever I visit LA, and, when I don’t have the time to go, it depresses me.  If you’re like me and think Ippudo is the best here in NYC*, I’m here to tell you that Shin-Sen-Gumi tops that.  I never thought I’d say something in LA is better than NYC, but there’s  first for everything, right?

The Man and I picked C up from the airport, and the plan was to take her straight to the ramen.  I had been raving about it for a while now, so I had to take her there.  Plans were a bit thrown off, though, when I had to make a not-so-quick quick stop to drop off some brown sugar cookies at a friend’s apartment.  I didn’t get to see him the night before, I wasn’t going to have another chance to drop them off, and I wanted to get it to him before he ran the marathon the next day.

Unfortunately, while I was trying to do something nice for one friend, I was making C grumpier and grumpier since she was starving.  After about two hours of driving in a huge detour and showing her all of the Macy’s she’s ever wanted to see in LA, we finally arrived at Shin-Sen-Gumi…and then had to wait another 20 minutes to get seated.  (This is the point where I was praying in my head that C wasn’t going to punch me in the stomach to make me suffer like she was suffering.  Perhaps this was an unintentional tactic – to get her so hungry that, no matter what, she’d agree the ramen is the best she’s ever had.)  Standing outside, kissed by the warm sun, I started to feel sweat beads forming on my back, but I still desperately wanted a bowl of ramen.

Since we sat down literally 15 minutes before lunch specials ended, we were able to get the “L-Set,” which included a half bowl of hakata ramen, takana fried rice and a small salad (which really isn’t that small) for a mere $7.50 (regular price for both w/o salad: $10.50).  Woohoo, I have perfect timing, right? 😉  If we didn’t make it before the 2pm deadline, we would’ve still had a super cheap meal since a normal sized bowl of ramen is just $6.95.

The best part of the Hakata Ramen here, besides the friendly cost and 10-star taste, is the fact that you can customize practically every part of your bowl.  You’re given a piece of paper on the table, and you check off what you want and how you want it.  Noodles – hard, medium, soft?  Broth – strong, medium, light?  Oil – Heavy, normal, light?  I always get hard, strong, normal.  Gets you excited, doesn’t it!

Shin-Sen-Gumi's Lunch Special L-Set - Takana Fried Rice, Hakata Ramen, Spicy Miso Paste

The standard “toppings” in each bowl are slices of intense, pink-colored ginger, tender slices of pork and chopped scallions.  When the waitress comes over, she’ll ask if you’re ok with keeping the ginger in.  Yes!  Other toppings – egg, bamboo, spicy miso, cod roe, extra pork, corn, seaweed, etc. – are an extra cost, ranging anywhere from $0.50 to $2.50.  Spicy miso is our fave, and thus, a mandatory thing whenever we go.  You can get one little scoop good enough for two people for $1.25.  This time I also ordered bamboo ($1) and flavored egg ($1).

Typically, with most meals, I stuff my face rather quickly, but at Shin-Sen-Gumi, I take my time and savor every. last. drop.  No need to rush a great thing, especially when I can’t get it everyday like I’d want to.  Did C like it as much as I do?  I actually never asked her, but, a few days ago – after she’s had some time to forget her pre-ramen trauma – she said something like our usual ramen lunch spots seemed blah after last Saturday’s experience.  So I think I gave her a truly unforgettable experience in every way possible…just like a good friend should. 🙂

*I still haven’t tried Tsushima, which a friend told me was his fave ramen place. They supposedly serve the best shio ramen from 12-2pm on Wednesdays only. I’ll have to try that sometime.

Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen
8450 E. Valley Blvd., #150
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 572-8646
http://www.shinsengumigroup.com

**Soup #2 – RIVERA’S CABALLITO de SOPAS DOBLES (Downtown LA)**

MY TASTEFUL OPINION:  It tasted good, but I wouldn’t order it.

Rivera's Trio of Caballito de Sopas Dobles, Cordero Vasco and Arabesque

The Caballito de Sopas Dobles, made from pureed white beans and roasted red peppers, was served as part of the first course “trio” for my friend’s wedding welcome dinner.  Everyone’s soup appeared in different glassware, including a thin, cylindrical vase, a champagne glass, and a beaker, which I thought was a cute idea but maybe a thinner beaker would look sleeker.  Or maybe I’m still having bad flashbacks to my high school chemistry class since my doctor friend, Dr. SB, didn’t seem to have an issue with it.

I downed the soup, but the whole time I thought I was drinking roasted red pepper mashed potatoes.  I can appreciate if the chef didn’t use an ounce of cream in it and just used white beans as a healthier option in creating the thick consistency, but I have no idea if this was what he/she did or thought.  Doesn’t really matter how it was concocted because, even though I thought it tasted good, I wouldn’t order this on my own.  It was a tad too thick, and I generally don’t lean towards roasted red pepper-flavored stuff.  But I’ll give the presentation an A.

How much would that soup cost?  I have no clue since I didn’t have to spend a dime that night.  I just tried looking at their menu online, and they have something for lunch called “two soups in two bowls” for $6.  I imagine soup in a beaker would cost around the same.  Maybe “two soups in two bowls” could be “two beakers, one flask” where one beaker contains the white bean puree and the other beaker contains the red pepper puree.  I’d have fun mixing my own soup, and customizing the thickness, although I might also just end up filling the flask with some tasty white wine.

Rivera Restaurant
1050 S. Flower Street, #102
Los Angeles, CA 90015
213.749.1460
http://www.riverarestaurant.com


** Soup #3 – LA SERENATA DE GARIBALDI’S CARROT SOUP (East LA) **

MY TASTEFUL OPINION:  Nothing fancy, just good homemade FREE soup.

The Man and I went to meet his older sister and two nieces at the Pasadena Humane Society before lunch.  Probably one of the worst decisions I ever made because I ended up tearing up in the car when we left.  If I lived in LA, I would’ve gone home with two young pitbull mixes and a three-yr-old poodle mix that day.  It killed me to leave them in those cages.  I needed some comforting.

Fortunately for me, the Man’s sister and brother-in-law decided to go to La Serenata, their favorite Mexican restaurant.  Driving into the barren alleyway to get to the back parking area was a tad scary, even in bright daylight, but you walked into a very warm and inviting environment.  The waiters were extremely friendly to the point that ours started talking to the family walking out while he was still in the middle of taking the bro-in-law’s order.

La Serenata's Carrot Soup

I ended up only ordering a traditional entree of Picadillo y Chile Relleno since I had a feeling it was going to be a lot of food, and they had already given us cheese quesadillas and tortilla chips with yummy salsa to start.  But guess what comes out first?  A delicious carrot soup.  Comfort.  Free!  I’m not sure if anyone at the table noticed that I drank it pretty fast.  It was the right consistency – not too thin or thick – and it tasted fresh and healthy.  The only thing that only slightly bothered me, oddly, was the bowl it was served in.  It was a thick, light plastic bowl that reminded me of cafeterias, and, for some reason, it affected me.  It could be a good thing, though, because I suppose it means that I think this non-fancy soup deserves to be served in something fancier.

La Serenata De Garibaldi
1842 E. 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90033
(323) 265-2887
www.laserenataonline.com

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Over $10 – These soups should have a gold leaf in them.

$6 to $10 – You’re not shellin’ out the gold, but also not gettin’ super lucky.

Under $6 – It’s your lucky day!


Off the Beaten Path: Nobu Los Angeles Saves the Best for Last

Money can’t buy you love, but it sure can buy you mouth-watering food.  The Man and I were lucky enough to enjoy a 5-star meal at Nobu Los Angeles last Friday.  But, even though my generous brother gave us a $150 gift card, happiness came at a hefty price, and the Man still forked over a lot of money.

We ordered the “high-end” 7-course omakase that promised “better” ingredients.  Without a point of comparison, I can’t say if it was really worth more than its cheaper 7-course omakase.  Would I want the Man to pay for it again, even though we loved it?  Not unless we (and by “we” I mean “he”) had money to spare.  I feel seriously lucky to have been able to try it once.

The service was impeccable.  The wait staff knew what they were doing.  Even with a good number of them roaming around, they left you alone while still managing to keep your drinks refilled and clearing the table at the right times.  Our main waitress even offered some Iron Chef action with our omakase – for some courses, the Man and I were treated to dishes containing the same (or similar) main ingredient, but the ingredient was prepared differently.  Sure, almost every dish wowed me, but the best was saved for last.  The soup.  It was the best not because it was anything unique.  It was the best because it was just what we needed after six very filling courses.  Nobu served the brothy soup (one clear, one a spicy seafood) as a digestif.  I instantly felt less sick and bloated once I drank some.  I left the fresh-looking vegetables in the soup alone since my stomach couldn’t take anymore solids, and Nobu should consider leaving it out entirely.  But, that aside, this is what I’m talkin’ about.  Soup is great for any occasion, at any time.

If you’ve never been to Nobu, and you have some cash available, definitely go check it out.  For now, I hope you can get a taste from the photos below.

Nobu Sushi Bar

Cocktails

Deep Fried Hot Peppers and Edamame Starter

"Palate Opener" - Rock Shrimp w/Kumquat Vinaigrette

1st Course - Toro Tartare in Wasabi Soy Sauce, Mini Oyster, Kimomo (Japanese Peach, "palate cleanser," awesomeness)

2nd Course - Array of Yumminess (I forget what each thing was)

Close-Up - biting into the head reminded me of Bubblicious Bursts gum. Was the brain squishing into my mouth?

Close-Up

Close-Up - Our Fave of the Four

Close-Up

Disposable Chopsticks - weird to have disposable ones at a high-end restaurant, but I suppose it's more sanitary

Sake in Bamboo

3rd Course - Salad with Uni, Orange Clam, Mussel, Tuna Tataki, Watermelon Radish

4th Course - (v1, Left) Sea Bass w/Truffle Panko Crust & Wild Mushrooms w/Yuzu Butter - Our fave of the two; (v2, Right) Tazmanian Ocean Trout w/Cactus Salsa

5th Course - (v1, Left) Wagyu Beef w/Spicy Miso & Super Baby Eggplant - My Fave; (v2, Right) Wagyu Beef w/Smokey Miso & Onions - The Man's Fave

6th Course - Toro, Japanese Red Snapper w/Shiso Leaf, Japanese Mackerel w/Kelp, Jumbo Clam, Sea Water Eel, Egg (that looks like Challah bread)

7th Course - (v1, Left) Clear Broth - my preference; (v2, Right) Spicy Seafood Broth - All. Look. Same. Until you dig inside.

Complimentary Dessert 1 - Green Tea Mousse with Red Bean

Complimentary Dessert 2 - Flourless Chocolate Cake w/Green Tea Ice Cream

Nobu Los Angeles
903 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90069
310.657.5711
http://www.noburestaurants.com


Off the Beaten Path: Maze at The London’s Cauliflower Soup

MY TASTEFUL OPINION:  You’re paying for the Gordon Ramsay name, not the soup.

Sometimes you have to go off the beaten path to experience new things and possibly end up where you’re meant to be.  I’ve decided to add this new “series” because, as you can guess, I’m always trying new soups.  There’s no reason to limit my blog to New York magazine’s tastes.  Who knows, I may discover something that’s better than their 50.

So far, I’m not off to a great start.  I met a vendor for lunch today at Maze at The London – Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant.  I’ve been there many times since it’s so close to my office, but I’ve never had the Cauliflower Soup ($14).  Since my vendor was treating, I decided to indulge a little and ordered the soup to start. 🙂

Maze at the London's Cauliflower Soup

A few minutes later, the waiter placed a shallow white bowl in front of me with a spoonful of smoked trout and caviar.  Completely perplexed, I thought it was a weird amuse bouche…until he presented a small carafe of milky substance – the soup – and poured it into the bowl.

It made for a pretty picture, but that’s really all it was.  I took a bit of smoked trout, a bit of caviar, and a bit of soup and thought, “Give me back my money!”  Then I remembered it was my vendor’s treat and felt relieved for myself but bad for her.  At $14, this soup better have some miracle drug in it because, otherwise, it just wasn’t worth it.  Or give me a whole pot of it.  You’re probably paying for the Gordon Ramsay name, and the “labor” that goes into bringing out the bowl and pouring the contents in separately…oh, and to see Philip Seymour Hoffman there.  Cut all the fancy flourishes, and bring me the soup for half the cost.

I am glad I finally tried it, though.  I probably would’ve regretted it had I not ordered it, especially because I don’t generally care to spend that much on a soup, and I would’ve kept wondering, “What if that’s a mind-blowing soup?!”  So I have to thank my vendor for giving me this opportunity.  Sometimes life presents you with opportunities, and you just have to seize the moment. 😉

This particular entry is dedicated to one of my best friends, C, who finally got herself to test the waters on a different path – one that could potentially lead to a successful and satisfying new career.  I’m extremely proud of her and can’t wait to travel with her down many more large highways and interesting side roads.

—-

Over $10 – These soups should have a gold leaf in them.

$6 to $10 – You’re not shellin’ out the gold, but also not gettin’ super lucky.

Under $6 – It’s your lucky day!


A Souped-Up Experience: Double Crown’s Gracious Dinner Invitation

After posting my review of Double Crown’s Mulligatawny, I was surprised with a comment from M at the restaurant’s parent company, AvroKO.  She had “a suggestion,” which ended up being much more than I could ever imagine:

“We came across your blog yesterday and we loved your mission of finding the 50 best soups in the city! Our Executive Chef Brad Farmerie loves making and serving soups in the restaurant, so he was glad to find someone [who] really appreciates that!  So, we would like to invite you to come for dinner on Sunday night; we’re currently making a few changes to the menu and are inviting friends, family and foodies to come and sample some of the dishes that Brad Farmerie & Chris Rendell are working on, and we thought, given how much of a soup fan you are, that we’d really like to get your thoughts on the new menu (which includes a wonderful laksa I hope you’ll love!).”

Excited beyond words, I immediately wrote her back and set a reservation for me plus two for their Sunday Nonya Nights.  After waiting in anticipation all week, T, Jamiroquai and I finally met up this past Sunday and had a dinner experience that not only satisfied our stomachs but also made us feel like royalty.  I’m pretty sure (but not 100% positive) that guests are typically supposed to choose one of two choices for each course on the Nonya menu, and then share each choice family-style.  Well, the three of us were treated to everything on the menu, plus an extra dish, courtesy of Chef Chris Rendell.

As I was taking photos, I wondered whether or not I could be fully honest in this blog entry since they were being so incredibly generous.  But they did say they wanted my feedback on the new menu, so here are my unabashed thoughts:  all dishes used extremely fresh ingredients, some could use a little tweaking, none left me with a desire to stop eating.  Overall, while in the company of two girlfriends that I consider family, I sometimes felt right at home, and I gobbled up as much as I could…until I couldn’t loosen my belt anymore.

*     *     *

The Cocktails

While we waited for T to arrive, Jamiroquai and I ordered cocktails, which, unfortunately, tasted a bit like medicine.

(Left) CUCUMBER, APPLE AND ELDERFLOWER TALL
Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, apple, elderflower, wild honey, cucumber

(Right) THAI BASIL DARK & STORMY
Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, homemade Thai basil ginger

Nonya Nights Menu

No price on this menu, but I looked it up, and it’s usually $35 per person.

Bread

We were wondering who made the bread because they were tassstyyyy.  There was a jalapeno bread of some sort with salt crystals on top, but our favorite was the one with raisins, fennel and other goodness.  We weren’t afraid to ask for more.  🙂  The coconut butter was too hard and didn’t add to the flavors.

Singapore Laksa

I just noticed this wasn’t on the menu.  While it tasted good (but not as good as Taste Good’s Laksa in Queens, which had more kick) and the noodles had a nice texture, the presentation left me slightly confused.  I felt strange eating and drinking a milky coconut substance – instead of black or chrysanthemum tea – out of a teacup.

Pot of Extra Broth

For me, this is also the type of soup where I would really want the starch of the noodles to eat with it.  That’s why, after I finished the sliver of a noodle in my teacup, I never poured more broth out of this pot.  I kept wondering, if the extra broth and our individual portions of noodles were put together in one bowl, would the soup-to-noodle ratio be insanely distorted?

I say keep it simple.  If it’s on the normal menu, I would serve it the traditional way in a medium-sized bowl for one person.  For Nonya nights, which are supposed to be about family-style, I would serve this laksa the way they serve soup at Chinese banquets.  The waiter brings out a big bowl of soup and serves it into little bowls, making sure every bowl gets a little bit of everything (or you do it yourself).  It’s more of a shared experience.  There’s just something about taking portions out of the same dish that makes you feel closer.

(Left) Salt & Pepper Squid w/Green Chili Dipping Sauce; (Right) Apple, Lotus & Lily Bulb Salad w/Chili Miso Dressing

I LOVE Salt and Pepper Squid, so I was very excited that this was on the menu.  It was nicely fried, but the first few pieces were too salty.  Once you got to the bottom, however, the pieces were more perfectly seasoned.  The green chili dipping sauce didn’t excite any of us either.  I’d toss slices of fresh green chili pepper with the squid instead.

The Apple, Lotus and Lily Bulb Salad was AWESOME.  I couldn’t stop commenting how refreshing it was.  This was also my first time eating Lily Bulb.  Um, hello?  I am oh so sad that I have been missing this all my life!  I never would’ve thought that miso dressing with apples would pair well together, but I think I’d eat this salad everyday for lunch if I could.  Do I dare try making this at home?

COMPLIMENTS OF THE CHEF: Yellowtail Sashimi w/Cucumber, Hijiki, Citrus-Truffle Dressing

This yellowtail sashimi was a nice surprise.  On the surface, it looked like maybe there was too much going on, but the different textures and flavors worked well together.

I think this was the point I loosened my belt a notch, and yet I still had a loooong way to go.

Coconut Chicken with Snowpeas and Mint

This chicken salad contained thinly sliced snowpeas, peanuts, raw beansprouts, mint, cilantro, toasted coconut and baby dried shrimp powder.  I couldn’t really taste all of the ingredients, and Jamiroquai said she wished there was more mint, but, just like the apple salad, I personally wish I could eat this for lunch once in a while, too.

Oatmeal Crusted Shrimp w/Fried Garlic

Possibly my FAVORITE DISH of the night.  Fried shrimp is a pretty popular Chinese banquet dish whenever my family has some dinner party, but I’ve never had it quite like this.  I usually don’t bother eating it because it’s just way too greasy, but this was something else entirely.  You could see it was deep fried, but it tasted rather light.  Does oatmeal automatically make everything taste and feel healthier?

Steak Knife

Behold the steak knife!  This is the point where Jamiroquai exclaimed that Double Crown was really winning her over – the partially serrated blade, light weight, and pretty ivory (?) handle…  Scary. 🙂

Grilled Strip Steak w/Chinese Black Bean Sauce

Too bad she wasn’t as ecstatic about the steak, which I could understand.

Although the steak was perfectly cooked – very tender and not hard to chew – there was a slight disconnect with this dish, despite some of its Asian ingredients.  I couldn’t taste the black beans, and the Chinese broccoli might’ve been better served as leaves only to resemble collard greens (and maybe with some mashed taro root?).  I appreciate the play on traditional Chinese beef and broccoli (if that’s indeed what it was), but, in this case, I’d rather have the Chinese version.

Sweet & Sour Eggplant w/Tofu & Pickled Bean Sprout

I couldn’t wait for this dish to come out because I wanted to see how it’d compare with my mom’s eggplant dish – one of my faves.  In the end, this might be a very close second to the fried shrimp.  My only gripe is that it was slightly too sugary for me, so I prefer my mom’s version.  But it IS called “Sweet and Sour” Eggplant.  *shrug*  The mushrooms at the bottom kept me going back for more.

Brussel Sprouts w/Sweet Chili Glaze

Looks charred, right?  Well, brussel sprouts that are charred and crisp on the outside ROCK!  These rivaled the ones T and I love at The Vanderbilt in Brooklyn.  Jamiroquai doesn’t usually like charred things, but she liked these.

Steamed Rice w/Ginger-Garlic Relish

The Rice – no Asian meal can do without rice, in my opinion.  I eat a lot of it, and I typically eat it plain with my meal.  But Double Crown’s ginger-garlic relish won me over, even though it looked a bit unappetizing.  I think I could eat this by itself as dinner every night and be perfectly happy.

Doggie Bag Claim Check

Before dessert was served, I had asked one of the waiters to pack up our leftovers.  I sure as heck wasn’t going to let that all go to waste.  A few minutes later, the waiter placed a claim check in front of me, and, after seeing the utter confusion on my face, told me that it was for my doggie bag on my way out.  Genius!  The table or floor wouldn’t be cluttered with a to-go bag, and I could continue on with my pleasant evening without feeling rushed.

(Left) Kalamansi Lime Custard w/Tangerine Broth & Champagne Kaffir Jelly; (Right) Warm Banana Fritter w/Cashew Toffee Ice Cream & Cereal Crisp

“MmmMMMMmmmmmMMmmmm…MMmmmMMmmMMm…” is all you could hear from us while we ate these desserts.  Jamiroquai and I wanted to end with our favorite one, but we couldn’t figure out which one that was.  T declared the Kalamansi Lime Custard her fave.  It resembled a creamsicle (but better) and refreshed the palate.

The fried banana reminded me of Filipino fried bananas but with a welcome crust.  The oatmeal crisp had just the right amount of sugar and spice, and the cashew ice cream thankfully tasted like real cashews and not a bunch of extracts.  Cashews are one of my favorite nuts, and I’ve never seen them made into an ice cream flavor, so this was special to me.  Together, these three pieces complemented each other, but they were also good enough to stand on their own.

*     *     *

As you can imagine, we left stuffed.  Too.  Much.  Good.  Food.  Sure, perhaps there could be some minor adjustments, but Double Crown will definitely be seeing me more often.  I’m especially excited to experience brunch in the Springtime.

Special Thanks

Thank you to M for contacting me and making the reservations for dinner.  Thank you to the waiters for being friendly and accommodating and never trying to rush us out.   And a huge thank you again to Chef Farmerie and Chef Rendell (whom I had the pleasure of meeting).  Words can’t express my gratitude for treating me and my friends to such a memorable meal.