Let’s get straight to the point: I’m obsessed with Canelé’s Baked Pancake with Meyer Lemon Custard. A simple concoction of flour, eggs, sugar, milk, and too much butter, it’s so good I’ve spent the past four Sundays in a row hunched over the ethereal puffs, wondering if I’d discovered nirvana.
Like many discoveries, I stumbled across greatness by accident. The pancake sits inconspicuously on the menu, snuck in between a salad and sticky bun under the “sides” section. On my first pass, I missed it and had a forgettable fennel-cured salmon with creme fraiche on pumpernickel. I was a few bites in when someone else’s order of baked pancakes caught my nose and eye. The alluring scent of butter and sugar practically strong-armed me into ordering one on the spot.
Some might call Craig Thornton’s obsession with food OCD. I call it passion. A document on his computer filled with menu ideas, ingredient pairings, and preparations is so long it could double as a culinary dissertation. He’s a stickler for flawless produce, scheduling his day around picking up the best meat and fish. But despite the heaps of praise his underground supper club, Wolvesmouth, has garnered, Craig simply can’t sit on his laurels. He’s always refining dishes, continually pushing himself in a never-ending quest for perfection. Is it achievable? It doesn’t matter– the process of constant refinement almost defines Wolvesmouth.
This past Wednesday, I was invited back to the Wolvesden to partake in another one of Craig dinners, and it was here I experienced the joy of refinement.
Wine bottle in one hand and cellphone in the other, I stepped out of the cab and dialed the number that was sent to me a few hours ago. A man met me at the door, escorted me up a flight of stairs, and I found myself at Wolvesmouth, Craig Thornton’s underground supper club (more details here).
Walking into kitchen, I found Craig hunched over a pot of mashed potatoes, continually tasting and evaluating its texture with jedi-like focus. He didn’t say a word, keeping to himself and focusing on the food. My eyes wandered to a pile of morels being meticulously brushed clean, and a tray of perfectly prepped sweetbreads later appeared on the counter. In the corner, vacuum-sealed lamb loin submerged under the steady hum of an immersion circulator, and I overheard someone saying rabbit was on the menu tonight. Craig sure didn’t skimp on ingredients!
15 minutes passed and Craig was still mixing and tasting the potato puree. With the amount of care lowly potatoes received, I wondered how much more love Craig lavished on the more expensive produce? I arrived at dinner knowing it would be a delicious showcase of composition, flavor, and plating, but I didn’t expect Craig’s immense respect for produce to be what resonated long after the meal ended.
If you find yourself on the corner of First and Beaudry, just a few blocks northwest of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, you may spot a crowd huddled around a grill and a billowing tower of smoke. The smell of charred meat wafts through the air and if you’re anything like me, will inevitably find yourself in line for a late night taco. On my last visit, music was playing, an elderly couple was enjoying a quesadilla, and I overheard a teenager raving to her friend about how these were her favorite tacos in Los Angeles. I walked up to the grill, said hello, and fist bumped Javier and Esdras. They’re here every Wednesday through Saturday evening, grilling meat and serving tacos with a smile.
It wasn’t always all smiles for this duo though. Two years ago, Javier and Esdras were laid off from their jobs working in a casino. Like others struggling with unemployment, they contemplated life’s next step. During college, Esdras often invited friends home for the weekend to introduce them to authentic carne asada tacos. After the first bite, they’d collectively groan with pleasure and wish that one day, Los Angeles would have something similar to offer. Long frustrated with the lackluster carne asada served in Los Angeles, Esdras recruited his best friend Javier and together they started Mexicali Taco & Co.
“A seafood restaurant from the Animal dudes? What the hell?”
That was my initial response when I first got wind that Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Animal Restaurant were opening up a seafood-focused eatery in West Hollywood. After all, I was likely the only food-obsessed dude in Los Angeles that questioned if the celebrated duo could pull it off. Yes, I adore Animal and have enjoyed numerous meals there over the past few years, but Vinny and Jon cooking seafood? I mean, they’re practically the patron saints of bacon!
Being an offal lover, I go to Dotolo and Shook’s hallowed eatery to indulge in a head-to-tail testosterone-laced tour de force of porcine goodness. Bring on the headcheese! Two orders of sweetbreads! More deep fried pig ears (topped with a fried egg, please)! And if I’m feeling particularly gluttonous, perhaps an order of biscuits topped with a slab of seared foie gras and covered in a maple-sausage gravy. It’s so luxuriously rich and flavorful my heart practically stops -both literally and figuratively- with every bite.
So Vinny and Jon cooking seafood? Outside of say, battered cod deep-fried in rendered pork fat, I had a hard time imagining the sight. This I had to try for myself.
Given most Italian restaurants in the United States serve Southern Italian cuisine, essentially richer and far more tomato-based than it’s lighter seafood-focused Northern counterpart, it’s unsurprising most diners equate Italian food with pizza and spaghetti covered in the requisite “red sauce”. If you’re looking to understand Marea, Michael White’s Northern Italian restaurant just south of Central Park, a good start would be to point at the very first item on the menu, Ricci. A slice of toasted baguette topped with sea urchin, shrink-wrapped in a thin film of lardo, and finally dotted with sea salt, the bite-sized appetizer is a showcase of the restaurant’s style, the quintessential result of what happens when you marry Chef Michael White’s unique and bold cooking with the seafood-centric cuisine indigenous to the coastal cities of Northern Italy.
Given my intimate relationship with uni in its many Japanese preparations, Ricci seemed like an unlikely combination, but my first bite proved me wrong. It was surprising yet familiar; simultaneously challenging and comforting. A bolt of salty cured flavor from the lardo gave way to the unctuous sweetness of the urchin beneath. It was hauntingly good, yet little did I know the best was yet to come.
Diners flock to Eleven Madison Park to be coddled and pampered, to leave well-fed and well-served. It’s a destination restaurant; a place reserved for special occasions and deservedly so. While Danny Meyer has built his Union Square Hospitality Group into a gastronomical empire, from burgers (Shake Shack) to Roman trattorias (Maialino) to veritable Manhattan institutions (Union Square Cafe), his flagship restaurant remains untouchable, with food, service, and ambience fit for royalty.
Eleven Madison Park, for the past two or three years, has displaced Blue Hill as my favorite restaurant in New York City. Every time I find myself in the Big Apple, no matter the time of day, appetite or food preference, Eleven Madison Park inevitably comes to mind. I suppose it’s a blessing that I live across the country, as paying for triple-digit meals on a weekly basis would also mean I’d have to take up residence in a cardboard box.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog (yes, all three of them), you’re probably wondering why I haven’t posted anything in nearly a month. Lazy? Perhaps. Busy with work? Sorta. A lack of good food in my belly? Certainly not. So what’s been driving the recent blog neglection?
Macarons! Those elusive silver-dollar sized almond meringues often filled with buttercreams, jams, and ganache. Yes, they’re small, sweet, and sometimes pastel-colored. And yes, being a straight 24-year old dude that works in finance, the confections have probably earned me a few behind-the-back snickers from my coworkers. But I can’t help it…an obsession is an obsession. Read more
For the most part, I shy away from new restaurant openings, figuring the eatery will need some time to get into the swing of things: for the service to get their rhythm going, for the kitchen to start consistently executing great dishes, and for the duds on the menu to get weeded out.
So I’m still scratching my head at how I ended up at Lukshon, Sang Yoon’s wildly-hyped upscale Asian restaurant, one chilly February evening, a mere week after it opened. But if tonight’s meal is anything to go by, I’m certain I’ll be making the drive over to Culver City over and over to try more of Sang Yoon’s unique upscale takes on comforting Asian food.
Sometimes I wonder if snagging a seat at Craig Thornton’s underground supper club, Wolvesmouth, is harder than landing a table at Totoraku, Momofuku Ko, and The Fat Duck combined. Given the recent blog and media coverage as well as the limited number of seats at Thornton’s events, that statement probably isn’t too far from the truth.
For the uninitiated, Craig Thornton throws what are essentially organized invite-only dinner parties twice a month. The 10-15 course menu constantly changes, and most impressively, Craig single-handedly sources, preps, and cooks every dish. Diners, for the most part, don’t know who they’ll be eating with, and suppers are donation-based (each person pays what he/she thinks is fair). Those interested in joining sign up via an online mailing list (here), and cross their fingers that someday down the road, they’ll get an invitation in their email.
While I haven’t had the luck of receiving a golden ticket in my inbox, I’ve always been intrigued by Thornton’s unique, imaginative, and cerebral cooking ever since I first stumbled across Wolvesmouth months ago. So this past Sunday, when I came across one of Craig’s recipes, Wolves in the Snow, published in LA Weekly’s food blog, Squid Ink, I couldn’t help but give it a shot. Here’s what transpired.