Trip Report (very, very long) – Langer’s, Beverly Soontofu, Fraiche, 3 Square, King’s Palace (Rowland Heights), Pizzeria Mozza, Musha (Torrance)
Was in town for a few days visiting friends and family, ate incredibly well. Got picked up at the airport, and went straight to:
I thought the pastrami was delicious, but lacked the pepper and smoke presence I usually associate with pastrami. Truth be told, halfway through each mouthful, the pastrami tasted remarkedly like corned beef – still enjoyable, though. I was impressed by every component of the pastrami platter (especially the chopped liver – however, even the humble baked beans and coleslaw were excellent, as were the pickles). I was also impressed by the potato pancakes and matzoh ball soup. Only the knishes disappointed. I still prefer Katz’s pastrami, but the other Jewish deli items bested every version I’ve had in NYC.
LA CH’er Cicely shepherded me through the next three meals:
By far the (thermally) hottest soondubu I’ve ever had – after the waitress expertly one-hand cracked an egg into my pot, I had to hold up a napkin for at least 5 minutes, in order to block the onslaught of spatters. The texture and flavor of the tofu were perfect. The broth was much more robust than the ones I’m used to - I was puzzled by the thicker texture, and couldn’t place the flavor. A little postprandial visit to Chowhound revealed the presence of miso in the broth. I liked it, but I also really like the more delicate seafood broth of my favorite tofu place in the Bay Area. As expected, the texture of the seafood suffered a bit from the super-high heat – the mussels came out ok, but the clams were rubbery, and the shrimp mealy.
Cicely and I joined up with two other friends for this excellent meal. If I had to pick my favorite dishes, I’d go with the persimmon with speck and arugula salad (the slices of... OMG this is killing me - about to use my most hated word, but no other way to describe it - LUSCIOUS, fully ripe Hachiya, paired with speck, pretty much smoked every other fruit and ham combination I’ve ever had), and the tagliatelle with sweetbreads. While the tagliatelle were slightly underdone (halfway through the dish, they had absorbed enough of the delicious brown sauce to reach perfect al dente texture, so I wondered a bit if this was intentional), the sweetbreads were amazing – firm yet creamy in texture, delicious.
I also really enjoyed the tagliatelle with peas, Meyer lemon, and crab; the risotto with bacon; the francobolli stuffed with chestnut, sauced in brown butter and sage; the monkfish with spinach, hazelnuts, and brown butter (I know, I know… I timidly voiced my concerns re: overfishing, and our very Gallic waiter quite hilariously told me to “get over it”); and the Paris-Brest (pastry could have been slightly crisper, but I loved the praline pastry cream).
Also good were the beef tartare with lemon and capers, the beets with a very fresh, very creamy ricotta, and the short rib ravioli (while well-executed, this was relatively plain compared to the other pastas - it needs acidity and/or heat to contrast with the richness of the short rib filing).
The only two semi-misses were the rabbit rilletes (unexpectedly firm and rubbery in texture) and the lardo (very slightly oxidized).
Had the excellent German apple pancake with crème fraiche. I don’t love regular pancakes – but I loved this dense, eggy, almost custardy version.
The rest of the trip was family time:
I never saw the menu, so I don’t know what these dishes are called, but I’ll do my best to describe them.
Favorites: silk gourd with crab roe, bai yie (tofu skin, but not the wrinkly tan kind – these were white and had a finely stippled surface) with soybeans – this had a haunting, subtle smokiness that was very addictive.
Competently executed: appetizer plate (braised wheat gluten, drunken chicken, “smoked” fish), braised sea cucumber, salt and pepper duck (served with buns - oddly, the duck was chopped but on the bone, making for some awkward eating), red-cooked fish, two-colored shrimp (half green, half white. No distinctive flavor to the green ones), tofu (with other stuff I can’t remember) in a brown sauce
Could have been better: braised pork (I was told it was shoulder, but it looked like a joint) – I think this was cooked too quickly at too high of a heat. It was a little dry, and the flavor didn’t penetrate fully. Pork belly soup – I love pork belly, but this has got to be my least favorite preparation. The meaty layers were tough and dry, and the fatty layers were chewy and… fatty.
Had a fantastic meal. Everything was so good, it’s hard for me to pick favorites, but if I had to, I’d say the farro polenta, robiola and guanciale antipasto, and the long-cooked broccoli with caciocavallo pizza. I love farro and order it almost every chance I get – this was a completely new preparation for me. It was creamy, without losing the nutty flavor that I love. Incredibly, it wasn’t overpowered by the robiola, and the tissue-thin slices of crisped guanciale balanced the dish texturally while complementing the umami-heavy robiola. I wanted the broccoli pizza because I recognized the broccoli preparation from an incredible pasta dish I’d had at B+B (Vegas) – the broccoli is cooked slowly to an unappetizing grayish-green color – a worthy trade-off, as it results in a sweet, nutty flavor and luxurious texture. It might not be for everybody – this was my mom’s least favorite dish of the meal. The crust is similar to that of Pizzaiolo in Oakland – definitely a Californian crust, created by someone who loves bread.
We also enjoyed the fried potatoes and ceci with herbs (Lupa in NYC always did the most miraculous things with chickpeas, and it looks as if the legacy continues… I strongly recommend people be on the lookout for new ceci preparations.) The potatoes were whole fingerlings, and the fried herbs were rosemary and sage. The brussel sprouts with prosciutto breadcrumbs were less oily and more vinegary than I’d expected - I actually laughed a little when I read another poster's characterization of the brussel sprouts as "oily"... wait until artichokes come in season... or for the roasted cauliflower antipasto... The brussel sprouts were very soft in texture and benefited from the crisp topping of breadcrumbs. The fried squash blossoms with ricotta and the arancine alla Bolognese were good, as was the polenta with lamb.
We also had the fennel sausage, panna, red onion and scallion pizza, and the Bianca with fontina, sottocenere, mozzarella, and sage. I didn’t realize until afterwards that I’d neglected to order a pizza with sauce – I’ll have to do that next time. The sausage was excellent (I didn't find the amount of topping to be at all sparse - from some of the reviews I'd read, I'd expected a comically bare pizza). The Bianca is basically a giant, open-faced grilled cheese sandwich, with an inverted proportion of cheese to bread. By the time it came, I’d slowed down, so by the time I started on it, the cheese had solidified a bit – still tasted good, but the texture wasn’t ideal.
Finally, I *had* to get the butterscotch budino, as I’ve been making it from the recipe published in the LA Times, and I needed to see a) how dark it’s supposed to be and b) how salty it really is. The answers: a) a lot darker than I’ve been doing and b) way less salty than if you follow the recipe closely – I cut down the salt from 1.5 tsp to 1 tsp, and it’s still saltier than Mozza’s. FWIW, I think it’s actually better without the caramel sauce and whipped topping.
So how does it compare to other restaurants in the Batali empire? Very favorably. Lupa (NYC) has historically been one of my favorite restaurants, but it has been somewhat inconsistent over the last few years. The hit rate at P. Mozza for this particular meal – 10 out of 10 dishes, without a single miss – was extraordinary. I haven’t had 10 excellent dishes in a row at Lupa in probably 4 or 5 years. I can’t do a true Lupa comparison, as P. Mozza has no pasta dishes, and the pastas are the one thing at Lupa that continue to be excellent, but as far as antipasti go, P. Mozza definitely takes it. The other two Batali “pizza” places (Otto in NYC and Enoteca San Marco in Vegas) don’t even come close to P. Mozza (their pizzas both suffer from thin, crackery, bland crusts, and I haven’t had great luck with antipasti at either place, either).
I’m a total izakaya novice, and I didn’t get a chance to research this before we ate – we did ok, but I think we could have done better.
Excellent: steamed monkfish liver, mackerel (aburi shimesaba)
OK: yellowtail sashimi, grilled tenderloin and stingray, takotama, breaded soft Japanese pancake.
After I came back, I read up on the CH reviews – next time, will order the fried chicken, the pork belly, the tofu nuggets, and the kabocha dip
Overall, a fantastic trip... Langer's and P. Mozza both go on my "must eat there whenever possible" list... and now I want to do a more in-depth survey of soondubu jigae in LA... plus I didn't even touch Mexican, Thai, or Vietnamese!
9411 Culver Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
704 S Alvarado St, Los Angeles, CA 90057
1725 W Carson St, Torrance, CA 90501
Beverly Soon Tofu Restaurant
2717 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006
3 Square Cafe
1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291
18900 E Gale Ave A, Rowland Heights, CA 91748
641 N. Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Luscious. Heh heh.
I'm relieved that you thought the lardo at Fraiche was a bit off, too... I thought it tasted kinda stale but then I thought I just didn't know anything about lardo (true, except for a single, revelatory encounter with the lardo pizza at Mozza).
For me, the big surprise of that meal was the bacon risotto. I thought it sounded horrible, which is why I didn't order it, but since we were eating family-style I tried some... and then some more... and finally we were all digging into the bowl, finishing every grain. Now when I think "bacon risotto," I think, "Genius!" It doesn't have the greasiness of bacon, just its salty, porky flavor. It's just right for a comfort-food dish like simple risotto.
Which level spiciness did you order your soondubu? There's 1-5 with 5 being the spiciest. I ordered 3-4 for a while because I thought the 5 would mask flavors but really, the 5 ended up with the richest, most concentrated broth when all that bubbling subsides. But if you're looking for a more subtle broth, the 5 probably isn't the way to go. I love the soondubu and kalbi combo.
Cicely ordered it "regular spicy, not spicy spicy" - so - maybe a 4?
The thing I like about the soondubu at Gaesung House of Tofu in Santa Clara is that the broth is distinctly seafood-y, actually tastes like it was made with shrimp shells - of course, when I asked some Korean friends for their opinion of it, they scoffed, "ah yes, Gaesung is very... light and healthy. Not so Korean."
great write up!
and yeah, i was just about to say, bacon risotto sounds fucking good!
cicely, whens the next food outing?