My first time at Taste of a Nation

A coworker of Husband’s told us about this event a while ago and ever since finding out about it, I’ve been keeping watch for the next LA date.  The minute tickets went on sale, I snatched up VIP ones and counted down to June 6th.  Taste of a Nation is an event that occurs in different cities at different times of the year.  Chefs in that locale get together and offer up tastings of various items, all in the name of ending childhood hunger in America via the Share Our Strength charity organization.  Tickets for the LA event aren’t cheap but you get access to an amazing event AND, even better, you help out a great cause.

Media Park in Culver City

The Taste of a Nation LA event was held in Culver City’s Media Park, a perfect location with trees for shade in some areas and easy access parking.  VIP tickets included free valet parking.  It was awfully nice of the organizers not to oversell capacity; there were a lot of attendees but the park was never uncomfortably crowded, nor were there ever any insane lines to get to the food.  I think the only complaint I had that day was about the amount of sun I got.  I need to remember a hat next year and sunscreen.  *ouch ouch sunburned cheeks*

Husband and I were there with a couple of other foodie friends and we attempted to sample everything but failed.  Still, we managed to try some amazing bites like the beef cheeks from XIV, Public’s sliders on brioche and duck and foie gras sausage, The Foundry’s grilled cheese sandwich and Street’s Burmese Melon Salad.  I’ll let the pictures do the talking…

Watermelon gazpacho shots by Bazaar (Jose Andres)

Liquid nitrogen magic!

The AMAZING beef cheeks with a corn foam courtesy of XIV (Michael Mina)

Salted caramel gelato from Gelato Bar...perfect for the warm day (Joel Gutman/Gail Silverton)

The Foundry's grilled cheese (Eric Greenspan)

Torchon foie gras with organic apple gastrique and marcona almond brittle by Bottega Louie (Sam Marvin)

Burmese melon salad by Street (Susan Feniger)

That’s but just a taste of what was offered. Most of it was amazing though there were a few dishes that were too salty for me or just didn’t really win me over for one reason or another.

Chef Michael Voltaggio demo-ing how to make a pasta dinner

Liquid nitro man

There was a cooking demo by Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio.  If you watched the show, you know that he does some amazing but complex dishes.  For his demo, instead of doing something that seems like it requires years of culinary expertise, he kept it simple and showed how to make a meal for 8 from a few simple ingredients, something that resonated with the theme of the event.  But for dessert, he whipped out the liquid nitrogen and made churros.  That was pretty awesome.  🙂  I had the chance to meet him and he was quite nice.  He also showed off his new tattoo – the Taste of the Nation logo…

Wait, are they auctioning off LudoBites or Chef Ludo?

Part of the event is a silent auction where people can bid on various items like gift baskets or trips.  There was also a live auction to bid on catering services by various chefs.  Chef Ludo Lefebvre offered up his Ludobites Truck and Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken auctioned off their Border Grill truck for private parties. I have to say, Chef Feniger is just awesomely energetic and enthusiastic, and it was a lot of fun watching her jump on stage and encourage the bidders.  I think she’s my new chef crush…  Her passion is infectious.

There was also a little “carnival” section where you could trade in tickets to make use of the mobile photobooth truck or attempt to win restaurant gift certificates via a culinary trivia game.  I tried my hand at the trivia three times and managed to win three times!  🙂  Wooo…an 8oz Burger and 2 Fraiche gift certs!  I have to say though, some of those questions were challenging…

All in all, this was really a fabulous event and even Husband enjoyed himself.  I think the free booze won him over.  He did say though that he felt like a vegan at a BBQ since there wasn’t much that he could eat due to most items having some sort of fruit or vegetable in it.  *roll eyes*

We both swore that we will try to make this event every year.  We had a lot of fun and got to support a worthwhile cause.  We also want to win one of those live auctions…time to save up a few thousand dollars!  🙂

More pictures can be seen on my Facebook page.

For more information on Taste of a Nation, visit http://taste.strength.org.  I highly encourage you to attend next year!

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Urban Solace – comfort food for the stomach

Recently, I had to take a work trip down to my old stomping grounds of San Diego.  While I was there, I decided that a stop at one of my favorite restaurants was necessary; it had been too long since I had been to Urban Solace.  I called up my friend, “Chef” Eddie, and off we went for dinner.  Located in the North Park area, Urban Solace opened its doors a few years ago.  Since then, it has earned much acclaim for Chef Matt Gordon’s wonderful upscale twist on comfort food.  Even though it was a weeknight, the restaurant was packed and there was about a 20 minute wait.  For those who are faced with some extra time before being seated, a large bar area located near the door is a great place to hang out and have a pre-meal cocktail or have some wine or beer (bottled and tap) from the extensive list.

Cheddar biscuits with orange honey butter

One thing that I always tell people they MUST order when eating at Urban Solace is the warm cheese biscuits with orange honey butter.  Naturally, Eddie and I ordered some as an appetizer.  Soft, fluffy, cheesy, these are the epitome of what cheddar biscuits should be.   Paired with sweet citrus butteriness, it’s an interesting flavor contrast.

Spinach salad

I was craving veggies so I decided to get the spinach salad: baby spinach, goat cheese, warm sherry vinegrette, bacon, dates, hazelnuts.  An excellent large salad, this was just what I wanted.  Healthy greens, meaty bacon for protein, hazelnuts for crunch, dates for a little sweetness…very well balanced.  Maybe not the healthiest salad, but I did get my veggies!

Duckaroni

I also was craving mac n’ cheese and heard nothing but great things about the version Urban Solace serves.  The duckaroni is a mac n’ cheese made with blue cheese, duck confit, roasted garlic, arugula, and scallions.  You can order it as a side or as a main dish; I opted for the side since I had the salad.  This was fantastic.  There was a lot of cheese sauce which is a big thing for me as my main complaint for a mac n’ cheese is that it’s not cheesy enough.  I loved the crumb topping.  The blue cheese flavor was surprisingly mild.  The duck was a great addition and the flavor just meshed well.  I’m used to either some sort of shellfish, chicken or bacon/ham being in a mac n’ cheese but duck was a new one for me and I have to say, it was good.

Chicken and Dumplings

Eddie went with the chicken and dumplings and let me steal a couple of bites.  This was excellent and very rich in chicken flavor.  The dumplings weren’t overly dense and soaked in the sauce making for yummy bite after bite.  He polished off his plate for the most part.

We didn’t have room for dessert because all this food stuffed us silly; we even had biscuits leftover!

All the times I have been here, the food has been spot on, both in flavor and execution.  Consistency in deliciousness is just one of the reasons why Urban Solace finds itself on the list of San Diego’s best restaurants.

The service is always friendly and excellent.  As for the prices, I think they are not very expensive for the quality of dining experience you get.

The Catty Critic gives Urban Solace 5 NOMs.  Now if only they would open up here in LA next door to my house…

Urban Solace
3823 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92104
(619) 295-6464
http://urbansolace.net/
Urban Solace on Urbanspoon

Westside Tavern

A few weeks ago, the Husband and I tried to make it to a free showing of “Up in the Air”.  Unfortunately, we arrived too late to get a spot in line.  Since we were already out and about, we opted for Westside Tavern for dinner since it was right there.

Walking in, you get the feeling that the space is a swanky restaurant…a bit out of place considering you’re at a mall but then again, we are in Los Angeles.  The restaurant is fairly large and has a spacious bar area with a large selection of alcohol and wines.

Near where we were seated was a large chalkboard with the day’s specials.  I noticed a butternut squash soup with almonds and pumpkin oil, and scallops with spinach, blood orange and persimmon listed.  Both sounded enticing so I got a cup of the soup for an appetizer and the scallops as my main course.  The husband ordered the clam chowder, another board special, and the Niman Ranch flat iron pepper steak with a Béarnaise sauce.

Butternut Squash Soup

New England Clam Chowder

The soup was amazing.  The butternut squash flavor enhanced with the pumpkin oil and seasonings like nutmeg and cinnamon was simply rich and delicious.  The almonds gave it a nice texture contrast.  I couldn’t stop eating this and wanted more after I was done.  This was a soup that is craveable.  I hope that Westside Tavern adds this as a regular item one day.  Or maybe I don’t…  If they did, I’d be in trouble.

The clam chowder was good with lots of chunks of clam.  The only complaint my husband had was that it was a bit gritty, as if they didn’t wash the clams well enough.  I agree; the bites I had all contained grit.  Not pleasant and took away from the overall enjoyability of this dish.

Scallops with spinach, blood orange, persimmon

Niman Ranch steak with Béarnaise

The scallops dish was great – nice sear and not rubbery (overcooked), with the exception of one of the scallops.  The spinach was sauteed with garlic and packed a lot of flavor.  The blood orange gave a nice citrus note and the persimmon a sweetness to each bite.

The steak dish was alright but not spectacular.  It could have benefited from some seasoning like salt and pepper.  The Béarnaise sauce was served on the side, fortunately, because neither my husband nor I liked it.  I haven’t had Béarnaise before so I’m not sure if it was made badly or if I just don’t like it.  The fries served with the steak were decent, nothing spectacular or noteworthy.  I did steal quite a bit from Husband, though, since those fried potato pieces are a particular weakness of mine…

Half-eaten S'mores Parfait

Since this was our first time to Westside Tavern, my husband deemed it necessary to try a dessert in the interest of this blog.  I think he just wanted an excuse for dessert.  We decided on their S’mores Parfait – chocolate pudding with a crumb topping and toasted house-made marshmallows.  This was really delicious and a nice ending to our meal.  The crumb topping provided a nice crunch to offset the smooth and chocolate-y pudding.  And the toasted marshmallows….mmmmmm.

Our service was excellent.  The prices were a bit high; dinner ended up costing us about $100 (tax and tip included) though we did have a carafe of wine with it.

I would have to give Westside Tavern 3 1/2 NOMs for our first visit.

Westside Tavern
10850 West Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90064
310.470.1539
http://www.westsidetavernla.com/
Westside Tavern on Urbanspoon

Portugal Imports

On Saturday, my half-Portuguese friend, the ever-talented Tanya Bjork, introduced me to Portugal Imports in Artesia.

Olive oil, sardines, jellies...

Linguica, cheese...

It’s a small grocery shop/deli that serves up some pastries, bread, sandwiches and various imported items from Portugal and Brazil.  Here you will find cheeses, linguica, olives, wines and other specialty items.  And of course, port.

Since we got there in the early afternoon, most of the pastries were gone. I did get 2 natas (egg custard in a flaky cup) and 2 almond pastries.  The natas were decent but apparently, not quite authentic according to Tanya.  I enjoyed the almond pastries which was a cake-bread type thing with an almond filling and almond slivers on top.

There were only two pieces of bread left so we claimed those for our sandwiches.  I noshed on a delicious linguica (Portuguese sausage) sandwich.  This was a simple sandwich…bread and sausage which seems a little wimpy since we’re used to getting overloaded subs.  But it is surprisingly filling!  The bread was good but a little dry from sitting out all day.   The linguica was juicy and plump and really flavorful.  I wish there had been some cheese but I think you could ask for it.  Next time…  I did try a little bit of the Sao Jorge (St. George) cheese which Tanya told me only comes from the island of St. George…sort of how champagne only comes from that region in France.  The cheese had a mild nutty flavor.  I picked up a package of the linguica and some wedges of the cheese to bring home.

I also tried the bacalhao bolinhos (deep-fried potato cakes with salted cod) which were awesome.  Crispy outside, soft inside, it wasn’t overly salty or fishy which is a sign that the bacalhao (dried salted cod) was rehydrated correctly.  Bacalhao can be quite salty if it is not soaked long enough with regular water changes.   Also known as Pasties de Bacalhao, these are made in house and can be purchased frozen in boxes of a dozen.

The workers here are really friendly.  We chatted about various Portuguese dishes, alcohol and Rockband with the man and woman behind the counter.

If you’re in the Artesia area, I recommend stopping by just to see the shop and, if you get there in the morning, pick up some of the pastries!

I give Portugal Imports 4 NOMs for their food, grocery items and especially their service.

Portugal Imports
11655 Artesia Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701
(562) 809-7021
www.portugalimports.net

Portugal Imports on Urbanspoon

Siena

****UPDATE:  This restaurant is now closed.  Sadness…****

Last weekend, Dan and I ventured from our apartment near the playa to head to Pasadena for a free music festival. A record-breaking heatwave apparently decided to show up as well. When we got there, it was so obnoxiously hot, we quickly looked for a place to hide while we waited for our friends to show up. A small restaurant was advertising a $2.50 Corona special and appeared to have AC so we ducked in.

Siena is a small, inviting ristorante in Old Pasadena. The minute you walk in, you’re greeted warmly. Dan and I were quickly seated. I liked the interior a lot – orange-rust walls, black wood accents, table tops decorated with a collage of Italian sceneries. It was comfy yet sharp.

After browsing their lunch menu, we decided we weren’t hungry enough to order full entreés (I had cooked a huge breakfast) so we settled on sharing the Frito Misto while Dan enjoyed his Corona and I had a glass of cold, crisp Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($7).

I have to comment on this wine. I’m not a expert on wine by any means; I prefer the sweeter flavors of port and muscats and stick with simpler reds like Zinfadels. But since it was so hot, a nice chilled glass of white wine seemed like a good idea. This Sauvignon Blanc advertised a nice flavor of passionfruit and fig and it delivered. It was intensely fruity and didn’t have that strong aftertaste that a lot of wine have. The first sip won me over. Bev Mo carries it in their stores as does Trader Joe’s as I found out today. Yes, I purchased a bottle for home consumption. 🙂

Back to Siena…. We were quickly served some lovely warm rustic bread – soft on the inside with a nice crunchy crust. And instead of butter, we were served a dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a sign of a proper Italian ristorante. Siena spruces the oil and vinegar mixture with a sprig of rosemary, parmesan cheese, garlic and red pepper flakes. Delicious!

We then had our Frito Misto delivered. A mix of breaded shrimp, calamari, zucchini and artichoke hearts, this dish was a great appetizer. The coating was very light and it was not oily. A lot of the times, I find deep-fried appetizers like this to be too heavy on the breading and greasy. It was nice to come across one that had it right. And I’ve never had deep-fried artichoke hearts before. I have to say it was good and the taste of the heart was not overpowered by the batter and deep-frying, another common issue.

The rest of the menu looked really good. If it were not so far from where we live, I’m sure Dan and I would go back for a proper meal there. The duck sausage pizza with fennel and mozzerella ($11) looked interesting and I want to try the wild mushroom bruschetta. Perhaps if we find ourselves in Pasadena again….

I do have to comment on the service. They were really awesome there. After we met up with our friends and spending about a 1/2 hr outside, we quickly retreated back where we spent the next couple of hours occupying a table and ordering only beers (well, I had water due to suffering a bit of heat sickness). They did not try to chase us out nor were they less attentive.

We did have pictures but Dan seems to have hidden his camera from me…so I’ll have to come back and edit with pix!

Siena gets 4 NOMs from the Catty Critic.

Siena
43 E Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91103-3923
Phone (626) 584-6050
Fax (626)796-6050
http://www.sienapasadena.com/