TuesdayWhen you have lunch at Café Pinot with one of the Four Masters of Jameson Whiskey, certain rules apply. The wine list will be gently but firmly removed from your hands, and you will drink this man’s Irish whiskey with your duck breast, no matter how longingly you gaze at the Bordeaux on the next table. If you start to sip your Jameson’s neat, the master will wince in his courtly way and suggest that you add a few drops of water or a single cube of ice to open up the bouquet. It is permissible to discuss global warming, poetry or the mighty state of the euro, but it is understood that the conversation will eventually work its way back to whiskey — or in the case of Brendan Monks, Jameson’s master of maturation, back to the sherry barrels in which the whiskey mellows. You will learn that the casks in which sherry used to be shipped to Ireland are no longer obtainable, and that Jameson’s now builds barrels for the respected sherry house Lustau, pays the bodega for the use of its wine, and imports the barrels to Ireland when the wine is drawn off. You will also learn that Jameson’s, at considerable expense, does the same thing with port casks for some of its older and more expensive whiskeys — including the new and exceedingly expensive Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, a 22-year-old blend, which Monks is in town to promote. (He slipped me a tiny lab vial of the stuff to taste, and to my credit I managed to make it all the way home before I cracked it.) This afternoon, we are drinking just plain Jameson’s with our salads of local beets and goat cheese. Oddly enough, it seems to work better than Chardonnay.
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Eater's digest: La Casita Mexicana's Ramiro Arvizu
WednesdayOne of the great things about Los Angeles is that when you are craving spicy Chinese beef noodle soup, and Dai Ho, the home of the temperamental Taiwanese noodle baron, is closed just because, you only have to travel a few blocks down the bridal-shop-choked main drag of Temple City to find a decent bowl. Mandarin Noodle Deli is in the neo-Shandong mode of the Mandarin Deli restaurants, to which it is vaguely related. If you’ve ever been to a Mandarin Deli, you will recognize the long, crisp potstickers; the steamed fish dumplings; and the garlicky composition of hacked chicken and cucumbers. The beef rolls, which involve thick, fried pancakes wrapped around payloads of sweetly spiced meat, cilantro and bean sauce, are at least in the same ballpark as the legendary examples at 101 Noodle Express. And then there are the spicy beef noodles — not nearly as sublime as the bowl down the street, but on a Dai Ho–less planet, they’d do just fine.
ThursdayI went with LouAnne Greenwald’s USC cultural-studies class to the Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza for clayudas, for mole-soaked tamales and for a beyond-wonderful plate of chapulines, tiny insects that had been stir-fried with onions, tomatoes and superhot chiles.
“I’m really into beer,” confessed the student sitting next to me as he gingerly forked up a fried bug.
“Like different Mexican beers?” I asked.
“Whatever’s in front of me,” he said.
FridayIn most circles, Lent is about penance, abstinence, meatless Fridays at a minimum. At La Casita Mexicana, Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu’s showplace of serious Mexican cooking in Bell, abstinence never had it so good. The weeks before Easter here see feasts based on the traditional Lenten foods of Jalisco and Michoacán, a collection of recipes and produce that rarely makes it to the United States, including a kind of wild yam, camotes del cerro, with the light, slippery crunch of Japanese yama-imo, dipped in egg, fried, and served in a tomato sauce; tiny dried lake fish, charales, cooked in a green sauce with strips of roasted cactus; sizzling potato tacos with Mexican cream; and a hand-chopped ceviche tinted green with herbs and served with a chile-laced avocado salsa, a preparation with resonances of both Guadalajara and Nobu. On Friday, there were tortas de camarones, porous little shrimp cakes, both with cactus in tomato sauce and drowned in a poblano black mole and slouched on a bed of potatoes and romerito, a wild plant that looks like rosemary but eats like stringy, succulent spinach. Even the house-made soft drinks, including one based on puréed alfalfa and another of perfumed Mexican limes from a tree in Arvizu’s mother’s backyard, were different from anything I’ve ever tasted. The meal ended with a bowl of the Lenten bread pudding capirotada and a slab of torrejas — crisp, perfected French toast drenched in syrup. I’ve never felt less penitential in my life. (The Lenten meal will be served one last time this year, this Friday, March 21. Reservations are essential.)
SaturdayWhen you crave paella in Los Angeles, your choices are the soupy Latin American interpretations at places like Versailles and El Colmao, the overelaborate versions at Chaya Venice or Pinot Bistro, or the menu turistico take at La Paella or Spain. The vivid-yellow paella served Saturday afternoons at La Española, a Spanish delicatessen in an obscure corner of the South Bay, is none of these — it is basically a showcase for La Española’s various chorizos, and while it aspires to nothing like transcendence, it is correct: served at room temperature in Styrofoam clamshells, streaked with the odd roasted pepper, lots of sausage, a shrimp and a mussel or two, more chewy than suave, the paella you will taste everywhere in Spain. If you are truly in the mood for suave, you can always buy a packet of the coveted Iberico ham that La Española imports, made from the hocks of acorn-guzzling pigs raised in cork-oak forests and costing a cool $100 a pound.
How do you follow paella? With noodles. In ramen, as in indie rock, obscurity is a virtue to be prized. And there is probably no ramen shop as obscure as Ahsah, a dim storefront in a distant Gardena mini-mall, red sign untranslated, train-car-narrow interior shrouded in billowing steam. The noodle blogger who calls himself Rameniac praises the kotteri shoyu broth, a murky, long-simmered boiled-bone creation enriched with floating bits of ground pork, as well as the California-made noodles and the optional half-boiled eggs. I like the special fatty pork, soft enough to dissolve like porcine snowflakes on your tongue, but I prefer the funky punch of the broth at nearby Shin Sen Gumi to Ahsah’s, and the unconventional noodles, properly bouncy but nearly as thin as vermicelli, are less soulful than the thicker, soup-sopping traditional ones. Ahsah’s other specialty is takoyaki, fried pingpong balls of batter with a bit of octopus floating in the gooey center. Sanuki No Sato, whose soba and udon are so elegant, is in the same mall, and Gardena Ramen is across the street — this is a tough neighborhood for noodles.
Ahsah, 18202 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (310) 769-1010.
Café Pinot, 700 W. Fifth St., dwntwn., (213) 239-6500.
Guelaguetza, 3337 W. Eighth St., Koreatown, (213) 427-0601.
La Casita Mexicana, 4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell, (323) 773-1898.
La Española, 25020 Doble Ave., Harbor City, (310) 539-0455.
Mandarin Noodle Deli, 9537 Las Tunas Dr., Temple City, (626) 309-4318.