Photo by Anne Fishbein
Here’s what I did last week.
SUNDAY: Everybody but me, it appears, adores the crisp-skinned roast chicken at the Cuban restaurant Versailles, loves the soupy black beans, the avocado salad, the mounds of bright-yellow arroz con pollo. And the walls at the restaurant are encrusted with reviews, a virtual history of the last 15 years of Los Angeles media, played out in carefully laminated encomiums and glowing celebrity tributes. None of these clippings is mine — I tend to favor funkier Cuban restaurants, like El Comal just a few miles east.
Today, at Versailles, the abundant citrus marinade seems less like a sauce than like a fizzy summer beverage, the roast pork is more stringy than luscious, and the moros y cristianos — beans and rice fried together — is too dry. As usual, my friend Margaret tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about.
MONDAY: My wife and I meet Naomi Duguid (who has just co-written a fine new book called Seduction of Rice, which reads as much like anthropology as it does like a manual of cookery) at the swank Korea town restaurant Yong susan. This is a North Korean place, about 80 percent private banquet rooms, and about half the food is unfamiliar: a pickle of dried, stuffed squid; meat-stuffed buckwheat dumplings; slithery noodles dressed with a sort of seaweed pesto; and an unusual, strong North Korean kimchi made with minced fish and vegetables fermented inside a whole cabbage. Spectacular.
TUESDAY: Happy Family is the newest restaurant in San Gabriel’s Great Wall of China, a simple Taiwanese-style café in the space that used to house the ambitious Shanghainese restaurant Fragrant Spring. The food is inflected by Sichuan — about half the other people in the restaurant are eating kung pao chicken — and the lunch specials are cheap. I like the braised Chinese squash, the hot-and-sour soup, the fried stringbeans and the spicy "homestyle" tofu. Not bad for what may be only the ninth-best restaurant in the mall.
WEDNESDAY: Is there anything so perfect as a late lunch at Pie ’N Burger, as a cheeseburger with everything and grilled onions, crunchy fries hollowed out and tawny from their immersion in hot oil, a bottomless cup of good American coffee? Today, my 4-year-old actually offers to share her chocolate shake.
THURSDAY: I decide to attend a conference on Asian cooking at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary In stitute of America, largely because I am anticipating a magnificent, squishy meal at Yount ville’s splendid Bistro Jeanty: jellied pig’s trotters, a bottle of Gigondas, crepes Suzettes for des sert. I get into Oakland too late, and end up instead drinking amontill ado at Bar César, a sleek, noisy new tapas place next door to (and vaguely affiliated with) Chez Panisse.
Instead of Jeanty’s snail salad, I find myself on the outside of a sandwich of ä grilled chorizo and bitter greens on an Acme baguette, a plate of tiny garlicky clams and a giant hay stack of fried potatoes, slivered thin as ticker tape, sprinkled with crumbled herbs and ballasted with a small ice-cream scoop’s worth of garlic mayonnaise. César is not really even a restaurant — like the great tapas bars of San Sebastian and Madrid, it is more or less a good bar that happens to serve snacks — but the art of it, the focused simplicity of it, is wonderful.
FRIDAY: The conference oscillates between lectures on the salad bar of the next century and rather complicated discussions of traditional Mekong rice culture. Madhur Jaffrey glosses a cheat sheet on regionally specific Indian spicing. Other chefs discuss the inevitable next step in American cooking: the efforts of Asian chefs like the Bombay Café’s Neela Paniz and Slanted Door’s Charles Phan to incorporate modern American techniques into their own food traditions.
Unfortunately (baby-sitting), I have to leave before dinner, so I end up — again! — at Conrad’s Family Restaurant back home. The Pasadena area, where I spend much of my time, is rich in independently owned coffee shops (Shakers, Twohey’s, the Fox’s, Dick’s, Little Red Hen), slightly idiosyncratic restaurants with white chili or decent beef-dip sandwiches on their menus, superior lime freezes or a special recipe for onion rings, great patty melts or honest Cobb salads. So I’m not precisely sure why I seem to end up so often at Conrad’s.
It can’t be for the company — the scattering of salesmen and seniors is hardly my crowd — and it certainly isn’t for the relaxed service. I don’t really like the food all that much (I always have a BLT on sourdough toast, which tastes precisely like every other BLT in the world), the fries are always stiff and the iced tea is always brewed too strong. Perhaps the secret of Conrad’s is this: It is open, and I don’t have to think about it too much.
SATURDAY: If you are like most of my friends, you are sick of hearing me talk about Empress Pavilion. It’s true; there are other Cantonese restaurants, and some of them are even in Chinatown, most of them serve jellyfish salad and roast quail, and many of them even make decent fish-bladder soup. But Empress Pavilion’s small menu of seasonal specialties — you often have to make a point of asking for a copy — always lists a few dozen things that you have probably never eaten before. And a dish called something like "pan-fried mashed bean curd," which I was expecting would resemble a stew, turned out to be the most delicious mixture of tofu and shrimp, patted into thick ovals and gently sautéed until they were golden and crisp, yet delicate inside as lightly scrambled eggs. It was the best single thing I had to eat all week.
Bar César, 1515 Shat tuck Ave., Berkeley; (510) 883-0222.
Bistro Jeanty, 6510 Washington St., Yountville; (707) 944-0103.
Conrad’s Family Restaurant, 861 E. Walnut, Pasadena; (626) 577-7603.
Empress Pavilion, 988 N. Hill St.; (213) 617-9898.
Happy Family, 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 213, San Gabriel; (626) 280-8589.
Pie ’N Burger, 913 E. California Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 795-1123.
Versailles, 10319 Venice Blvd.; (310) 558-3168. Also at 1415 La Cienega Blvd., (310) 289-3168; 17410 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 906-0756; and 1000 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach, (310) 937-6829.
Yongsusan, 950 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 388-3042.
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