15 April 2007

at last, samurai

four years on, the seemingly endless construction at the site of the former ed debevic's has finally become gonpachi, L.A.'s newest temple to upmarket japanophilia.

being arbiters of all trends nipponese (at least in our own minds) pirikara and i decided to investigate.

so apparently this place is an offshoot of a popular themed restaurant in tokyo, owned and operated by the japanese corporation behind santa monica's monsoon cafe. throughout the evening i kept thinking of the okinawan pop punk band, mongol 800, affectionately known to their fans as "monpachi."

once past the gates, we found ourselves in a gloriously fantabulous cliche of a garden straight out of james clavell's shogun, complete with a stone path, koi pond, and oodles of japanese maple trees and lanterns. it's all very romantic, but the place could use a bench or a secluded corner for that post-dinner snog while waiting for the valet to pull up.

mongonpachi's bar is a japan fetishist's wet dream, with real samurai swords mounted on the wall to accent the requisite hollywood skank liquor and a surprisingly exotic array of sake and japanese wines, for which the restaurant's bartenders had to undergo special training.

kirin and sapporo are both on tap here. usually you only find kirin draft. nama sapporo is a rarity in this town, and it tastes mighty mighty fine.

pirikara had a rare kuro umeshu (black plum wine) but i paid no attention to the name of it. check her blog for details.

some friends joined us at this point. leave it to the japanese guy to order the spider roll.

gonpachi's specialty is soba, or buckwheat noodle, handmade on the premises in a little windowed booth downstairs in the restaurant's lobby. i have no picture of it because 1) the guy wasn't demonstrating at the time and 2) i was too buzzed to really care. it was good though, not refined white sarashina soba good a la otafuku or ichimi an honten, but milled with a slightly coarse texture, resulting in a rough but chewy and highly distinctive slurp.

two large flutes of draft sapporo will send a guy to the bathroom. monpachi has an exceptionally exquisite lavatory with a trough-like sink built out of imported japanese wood. in fact, the bartender explained that virtually all of the materials in the restaurant were imported from japan and that nails were not used in the construction of the place in accordance with traditional j-building techniques. we later learned that they spent 18.5 million dollars to build gonpachi. money down the toilet? we'll find out soon enough.

the sumiyaki started flowing in. yakitori, sumiyaki, kushiyaki... every place has a different name for basically the same thing: stuff on a stick grilled over wood charcoal. in monpachi's case, they use petrified oak, hence "sumi."

'pachi's tsukune, a ground chicken meat or meatball skewer, is exceptionally tasty and, at $4 a pop, exceptionally expensive. still, it's best chicken meatball skewer i've had in L.A., with a restrained but rich, slightly sweet flavor that is luscious on the tongue.

the bacon-wrapped asparagus, on the other hand, was standard robatayaki fare, with the pork shaved a bit too thin for comfort.

grilled eggplant, beef tongue, and ground chicken-stuffed mushrooms were all delectable. top class skewers, if a bit pricier than what you might find in the south bay.

negima, or chicken thigh skewered with green onion, is a yakitori mainstay. gonpachi's tare negima is merely ok. i've yet to find one better than the shio negima at shin sen gumi in torrance.

a second drunken trip to the loo resulted in a few detours. this was just kicking it in the stairwell. so that's where the $18.5 million went.

my shaky, inebriated point-and-shooting yielded far too many blurry pictures than i would have liked, but at least this shot came out ok. gonpachi is a cavernous two-story structure with an indoor balcony (and booths) wrapping around the main dining hall. it's basically the house of blue leaves from kill bill volume 1.

dessert. i think this was a gazpacho or something. piri ordered it. girls like sweets. i sampled a pinch of the peachy marmalade-ish stuff, but that's about it. with grilled meats still on the brain and a river of sapporo making its way through my system, i didn't order any dessert.

after our meal was done, a waiter was kind enough to give us a brief tour of the restaurant. gonpachi has numerous small to large-sized private rooms, perfect for a romantic game of footsies and sequestered necking, or that drunken toyota office party binge-fest with salarymen wrapping neckties around their heads.

snog chamber #2.

gonpachi's sake collection gets the reverential treatment in a museum-worthy display along some random hallway.

all that's missing is the karaoke machine. although i'm sure that can be arranged.

cameras lie. this, on the other hand, is a pretty accurate depiction of what i saw as we were navigating the halls.

and finally, we have a shot of the sushi bar, tucked away in an intimate corner of the ground floor, almost a restaurant within a restaurant, which gonpachi would certainly be huge enough to accomodate.

overall, i'm fairly hyped about gonpachi. i won't eat there too often as prices are slightly inflated, but the place is definitely good for the late-twentysomething los angeles yuppie birthday party. i'm not sure how long it will take them to recoup the millions they spent on the design, but it seems like they had the proper corporate backing to realize a venture so utterly lavish and slightly obscene. decent to good japanese food is always welcome in my book, better that than some masturbatory nouvelle/fusion extravaganza in such a prime location on restaurant row.

Gonpachi on Urbanspoon

27 November 2006

high on time zones

as food bloggers, we often go to great lengths to try out a new dish. often you will need a reservation or a referral to a rather pricy or inaccessible new restaurant. after hearing tales of a legendary bibimbap in just such a place - way, way, up in the sky - i decided to seek it out.

37,000 feet above the pacific ocean and just minutes past the international date line, i finally found what i was looking for. no referral was necessary, but reservations are a must. and the meal is, well, kinda pricy. korean airlines flight KE1, from tokyo to los angeles. this is not your grandmother's airplane food. well, maybe it is. if your grandmother flies korean air and likes bibimbap, like the old lady sitting next to me.

note that i am using the present tense, because the real modern miracle in all of this is the connexion wi-fi that is currently FREE on the airplane! nothing beats blogging live from um, an airplane, about um, bibimbap. if only they served ramen.

anyway, let's get down to the meat (and veggies) of this:

the rice is that microwavable pre-packaged kind you can find in better korean supermarkets. why they didn't think of this until now is my question.

the wakame soup is surprisingly faithful to the better stuff in k-town diners. everything rehydrated properly. i assume this is what happened becaue i couldn't see behind the curtain. the stewardess did come by to ask if we wanted bibimbap or the "western" meal moments beforehand. i assume this is when she counted heads to go pour the water for the soup. and no, i have no idea what the alternative dinner was.

i never knew that korean red chili paste is called gochujang. this particular version was a bit on the sweet side and unfairly spicy for the majority of non-korean diners (especially considering the pithy small restrooms in this establishment). it's totally tubular however.

mix it all together and you get exactly what you paid for.

actually, you get a whole lot more!

blurriness due to turbulence

fellow diners

price: $400 - $2500 per person depending on season and destination

15 October 2006

arrowroot hits the mark

after finally setting up my blogger, i took a little break from posting. that doesn't mean, however, that i haven't been eating. in fact, the day after providence, i went to one of my new favorites, the koreatown restaurant yu chun.

i was first swept into yu chun by a sea of red devil korean soccer fans. we'd just witnessed their country's elimination from the world cup on k-town's big outdoor tv screen. thousands of people drained into the numerous cafes within walking distance. my buddy suggested this one. little did i know at the time that yu chun is one of the premier places for chilk naeng-myun, korean arrowroot cold noodles. i've been going regularly ever since.

the weather could have been warmer on this particular afternoon, but if you're looking for something light and refreshing, naeng myun is definitely the way to go.

my koreatown contacts tell me that there are several outposts of yu chun in exotic locales as far off as garden grove. this particular one (on alexandria & 6th) might have been family-operated, with grandma making kimchi dumplings at a far table, mom cooking in the back, and daughter as our waitress. at least it seemed that way.

yu chun is a one-dish restaurant. my first time there i tried the spicy naeng myun; which was decent but sans broth, which, i would soon discover, made all the difference in the world. pictured are the vinegar and mustard to dump into your slush.

the banchan soon arrived. nothing mind-blowing, the kimchi was limp and a tad mediocre, but it was enough to hold you over for a few minutes.

time to get down to business. i ordered a naengmyun and galbi combo. arrowroot naengmyun is a little different from the regular buckwheat stuff; it has a darker color and a chewier, stringier consistency than what i was previously used to.

what makes yu chun's naengmyun stand out is... the slush! most places will serve lukewarm cold noodles with a few ice cubes in the bowl; at yu chun, you get a full on slush that pleasantly melts into a flavorful and exceedingly cold broth. noodles swimming in ice floes, i like it a lot.

the galbi. again, nothing spectacular, but it's a good compliment to the naengmyun and gives you that little bit of extra meat to send you home happy. truly, yu chun is a one trick pony specializing in chilk naengmyun. but it's a trick i won't tire of anytime soon.

30 September 2006

foam fetish fish

some of you might be familiar with the culinary wizardry of michael cimarusti, who used to hold court at downtown's water grill some years ago. i remember my first time going there, with a friend when we were but college students, and thinking, man, we're a bit out of our league in here. back in the day, water grill was widely regarded as the best seafood restaurant in town. cimarusti eventually left however; the menu changed (although you can still get some keen oysters there) and the quality, depending on whom you talk to and with the exception of the pastry menu, took a bit of a nosedive.

providence, tucked away on a nondescript, semi-residential stretch of melrose (east of all the trendiness), is cimarusti's long-awaited return. and then some. while water grill was stodgy and traditionalist in its east coast seafood house approach (think boston's legal seafood with a touch of california flair), providence is an entirely different animal. basically chef cimarusti has free reign now, and he goes buck wild with the west coast influences and his own particular brand of whimsy.

this was the centerpiece. quite appropriate with the seafood theme in resembling coral.

she was particularly enamored with the impeccably modern tableware.

we just threw caution to the wind and ordered the "chef's menu." there were two tasting menus on offer. as recommended by some fine folks, we chose the third, somewhat cryptic option, which basically meant omakase, cimarusti-style.

the first course was salmon skin "chips"; basically deep fried, "potato-chip style" salmon skin. quite remarkable and definitely unlike anything i've had before.

the second course was a tofu cheesecake-type amuse bouche
, flavored with crushed, dried wasabi. she pointed out that you can get the dried wasabi at mitsuwa. although i doubt most of the restaurant's clientele would have cared or even known what mitsuwa is. it didn't diminish at all from the dish. with its crunchy-meets-soft texture, it felt like a savory, wasabi-spiked candy.

third came the oyster shooter - kumamoto (what else) in tequila with lime. i forgot what the frothy foam/whip on top was, but foam would eventually become a theme throughout the evening. evidently the chef likes to play with textures quite a bit. i usually don't like tequila but this went down smoothly.

ah, kanpachi sashimi laced with julienned truffles and caviar. this was one of the best courses of the night. it was over too soon.

next came a tuna & truffle minimalist architectural composition, laced with truffle oil and i believe chopped parsley. the sauce was very flavorful. it's not too apparent from this picture, but the cubes are made of tuna slices alternately sandwiched between sheets of truffle and cut to form. the flavors were all there, but i found the texture of this one - hard/soft/hard/soft - a little discomforting. it's the same reason i'm not too fond of cooked eggplant - i don't like mushy flesh mixed with the vegetable's skin.

the next dish was a real winner though. uni marinating in a frothy blended egg yolk, laced with (again) truffle and served with brioche for dipping or spreading.

what seafood menu would be complete without grilled scallop? this one was topped with bacon and served on a tomato compote with burdock root on the side. a whole lotta japanese influence going on. not a bad thing when done well.

freshwater eel on creamy potato beds with a quail egg and shredded truffle. good but there were a few tiny edible bones in the eel. comes with the territory i think, but it's why i don't usually order eel at sushi restaurants. cimarusti's suppliers must have had a special on truffle today.

ayu, a japanese whitefish, with a delicately floured, pan-roasted skin and a sliced beet variety, which was very mild tasting and altogether quite good.

the waitstaff made a big fanfare with this next presentation. "a special chef surprise" they called it as they hauled out the domes. they opened them to reveal:

john dory with matsutake mushroom and lobster. as good as it sounds. the flavor of the mushroom really comes through; i forgot where i heard it, but japanese people say that the matsutake mushroom "tastes of the forests" in the same way that uni "tastes of the sea." now i can understand why.

they just kept rolling out the fish. the eleventh course of the evening was probably the wildest thing yet. cod over chorizo "in three forms" - sausage, powdered (?!) and foamed (?!?!). i don't think i want to know how they turned chorizo into foam, but i'll keep eating it that's for sure. the most intensely flavored dish of the evening. i think this is where cimarusti was like "fine! so they think they're hip enough for the chef's menu do they? let's see if they can take this!" and then rolled up his sleeves before making foam out of chorizo.

did you know that a full-sized four-pronged fork signals the arrival of a meat dish? my companion knew that meat was coming when the waiter placed four-pronged forks on the table. i didn't believe her since we were eating at a seafood restaurant and typically the beef dishes are mediocre and go in the "landlubbers" section. but lo and behold, filet mignon with grilled asparagus, baby carrot (complete with an edible stem), and the softest onion i've ever had. oh yes, and the meat was perfect too, seared to a char on the outside and evenly rare on the inside. that thing you see sitting on top of the beef is not a potatoe fingerling, it's a chunk of pure, grilled fat. i'd never seen fat presented as a garnish before so i had to eat some of it. it was divine. and it took a few years off my life i'm sure.

the pre-dessert was a handmade concord grape sorbet with ground peanuts and crumbled brioche. "it's basically a peanut butter and jelly sandwich" the server said. amazing.

finally, the dessert. as if the "pre-dessert" wasn't really a dessert too. yogurt (no, not like pinkberry) and graham cracker or pie-crust bits on one side and peach jelly on the other. two great tastes that taste great... ah, whatever. it was good.

finally, the post-dinner confections: chocolate-dipped potato chips, another jelly, and (ok i don't know what he was thinking here) some salted toffee-type thing that i kind of wish i hadn't tried. if only because the aftertaste lingered so. maybe it was meant to go with tea or coffee, which we regrettably ordered neither of.

all in all, it was a great chef's menu and, considering how much we ate (14 courses?!), well worth the price. cimarusti when unleashed is definitely skilled and imaginative. i wonder what else he does with foam =P. normally i'm a different kind of diner, one who prefers ethnic/traditional foods over haute cuisine, but providence appealed to my lust for seafood and the chef is very,very  good at what he does. go, go, go by all means.