Foodstuffs

Foodstuffs

0 comment Thursday, July 3, 2014 |
I've always thought that Viets are in vogue. But now that Angelina Jolie has welcomed Pax Thien into her multiculti brood, the people from the peaceful south, as we Viets are known, are representing. I think it's delicious justice that Jolie has two kids from previously warring nations: Maddox from Cambodia and Pax from Vietnam. I wonder if the tykes will play out the border skirmishes that have marred relations between their native lands in their new home. My cousin Peony joked that Pax might make flip-flops trendy.
Last week, at a dinner with colleagues from another newspaper and a PR firm, I tasted trendy Viet cuisine at Crustacean, a new high-end restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif. An extension of San Francisco's Crustacean, where I had feasted on Dungeness crab and other modern, albeit pricey, adaptations of Viet dishes five years ago, this restaurant reminded me of an opium den with its dimly lit interior, ceiling fans, second floor interior patio made of dark wood and brightly multicolored carp swimming in the aquarium encased under the clear floors. But the restaurant wasn’t stuck in time as a colonial caricature. After all, there was a live band accompanying customers who had one too many lychee martinis on karaoke and thus turning the restaurant into another kind of caricature. Still, that distraction was minor, especially compared to the yummy food, which was prepared by the family's matriarch. And yummy is understood by everyone, no matter what language they speak.

This is the tapas trio comprising ahi tuna taco, eggroll stuffed with shrimp mousse and beef carpaccio. I think the traditional Vietnamese eggrolls are already perfect with their filling of carrots, turnips, ground pork and lump crab meat. Of the two wrappers that eggrolls are usually made with -- rice or egg -- I prefer the rice paper because it is lighter than the egg version and becomes translucent when fried. Still, Crustacean's egg wrapper version was a nice try at chichi crunchiness. The ahi tuna taco and beef carpaccio were both tasty, though I think they were probably added to the menu to appease the Euro-leaning Beverly Hills crowd.

Watercress is one of my favorite veggies. Perhaps the simplest dish my mom made was to boil the watercress in some water. After removing the cooked greens, she flavored the broth with a tomato, fish sauce and dried shrimp. We always had the boiled watercress and soup with shrimp sauteed in the shell with salt and some spices until they were a little caramelized. Here, Crustacean tossed watercress with frisee and mache, and plopped it atop thin slices of vine-ripened tomatoes and pears. The lemongrass vinaigrette was subtle, perhaps a little too much so that white pepper might have been a better seasoning than black pepper. Nonetheless, it was a very refreshing salad.

This ravioli made of rice flour was something that I could see my mom serving, if she ever had the time or energy to make banh cuon, or rice flour crepes. We usually buy it from someone who charges about $5 for a big plate that can feed three people. Crustacean opted to use fresh shrimp instead of the dried ones that were traditionally pulverized and seasoned with salt. It also stuffed the ravioli, whose wrapper was a tad thicker than expected, with braised fennel. The old-school Viet ravioli would have nothing but the dried shrimp or ground beef sauteed with dried mushrooms as filling. The garnish of fried onions added a touch of tradition.

For the fourth course, I was asked to choose between charbroiled tiger prawns and Mama Chef's famous garlic noodles or Chilean sea bass steamed on a bed of ginger and topped with scallions, cilantro and ginger citrus sauce. As you can see, I picked the shrimp with noodles. Delicious! Missy let me try a bite of her sea bass, which was also tasty. But the garlic noodles were the Viet version of comfort food, a pleasant antidote to carb-hostile Los Angeles.

Dessert was also an opportunity for me to exert my personality through the selection of a warm pistachio cake a la mode with apple ice cream or a warm walnut cake made with Godiva chocolate. So what if neither of these sweets originated in Vietnam. The chocolate cake was soft, gooey and rich. The caramelized candied walnuts sprinkled on top provided the perfect crunch. Unfortunately, I took only three bites before I had to bid quick adieus to my dinnermates and dash off to cover my last event for LA fashion week.

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On Sunday, Miguelito and I hustled down to South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., to celebrate the birthday of a friend who turned 66. A momentous occasion called for an extraordinary meal. So we pulled into the high-end shopping center's parking lot in front of Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's. It also helped that the birthday boy is a good buddy of Palmer's.
The personal connection with the cooking maestro earned me a mini tour of the kitchen, where executive chef Amar Santana let me peep at one of the two -- count 'em, two -- suckling pigs that he prepared for our extravagant feast.
In tribute to Palmer's famed seminar, Pigs & Pinot, where participants spend a weekend in Healdsburg, Calif., learning how to make the most of the other white meat, Santana paired a Pinot noir with our dinner. (Our appetizer of seared foie gras with pears and apples was complemented by a Riesling.) Santana used every piggy part for our dinner. From left to right in the photo, my plate was filled with lentils, pork belly, crackling skin, polenta, sweet potatoes and shallots, Brussels sprouts roasted with bacon, mushrooms and a rillette of pig's ear stuffed inside pork belly.

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0 comment Wednesday, July 2, 2014 |


Six moons ago, my pals and I ended a night of head-bopping and booty-shaking with some $1 tacos. It was fitting that we closed the night with some carnitas in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood because we kicked off the nocturnal festivities with a Hollywood concert for a multicultural hard-rock band called Madrepore. The group's half-Mexican singer didn't let his open fly distract him from crooning in Spanish. I can't think of any food that would have complemented the electroclash dancing that followed our rock-out en espanol. But my friend's boa certainly goes well with any midnight snack.

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Isabel celebrated her birthday on Friday with a flourless chocolate cake, chickpea pancakes, pork tenderloin stuffed with bacon, crab croquettes and other little plates of delight from Cobras & Matadors' kitchen. There was also lots of discussion about sex -- and posing for suggestive pictures involving churros -- at the table among Isabel's randy friends. I was the prudish one who kept telling the others, "TMI: too much information!" I talked more about sex tonight with my five dinnermates than I had in a year with my other pals. Scott, the uninhibited Floridian who lassoed our blond waitress into the raunchy tales with a question about the name of a certain sexual act, assumed the position of matador -- until the check arrived. The server bypassed him to take instructions from me on how to split the bill. "I'm the matador!" the baby-face Scott said to the waitress. "She's the cobra!" the waitress retorted, pointing to me. Ssssss!

After dinner, and some suburban debauchery, I crashed at Isabel's house. On the way back to my place the next morning, we stopped at Yuca's, my neighborhood taco stand that won a James Beard award for its cochinita pibil, or Yucatan-style baked marinated pork, stuffed in tamales, taco, tortas and burritos. Isabel ran into one of her co-workers who was picking up brunch for her rambunctious four-year-old son and hungover hubbie. The little boy liked my purple boots. "Cowboy girl," he called me. Once we learned that he and I share the same birthday in November, we gave each other high-fives and called each other birthday buddies. Scorpios rule!

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My friend Bruna tipped me off on a gallery reception yesterday at SciArc for an Argentine architect named Florencia Pita. "Imagine a Junya Watanabe ruffle pattern transformed into architecture in a shiny magenta 67 PETG," Bruna said, adding that she wrote a fairy tale to accompany the artwork. A big fan of Watanabe, I had to pop in for a visit. Plus, I was already wearing my blue suede boots, which made me feel as if I were a character stepping out of the woods in a Grimm fairytale. I wasn't prepared for the shock of pink waves that greeted me in the shoebox of a gallery space. My writer's mind brimmed with metaphors: tripe, Balenciaga's Victorian-inspired blouses for spring 2006, an accordion, cotton candy, a garden maze, etc. Pita, who is in her early 30s and has been teaching at SciArc for fewer than five years, said she came up with the idea for the vinyl and foam installation after seeing a fashion and textile exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York. She supervised 57 students at the architecture school for the month-long project to cut, by hand, pink vinyl sheets that were attached together with metal screws and also to shape lavender foam that resembled sand waves left by a receding ocean tide. Clad in all black with a choker composed of pearl-sized laboratory glass beads, Pita had enough style and charm to get anyone to do anything. She said she originally wanted to have the pink sheets stand vertically in linear rows. On the gallery's smooth pink floor, however, the straight sheets fell over. So she decided to attach them at intervals and form curves that could defy gravity. The best view of the installation was from the second-floor catwalk above the gallery.

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0 comment Tuesday, July 1, 2014 |

For my last Viet meal in Virginia, my dad yesterday took me to Huong Que, one of the most popular restaurants in the D.C. area which happens to be owned by a guy who went to junior high with my mom in Vietnam. Though the restaurant's Viet name can be translated as "home fragrance," most Americans know it by its Anglo moniker: Four Sisters, which was in tribute to the four daughters in the family. I'm not sure how many know that there are only three sisters working in the family business now, as The Washington City Paper has reported.

My $6.25 lunch special started with a spring roll, wrapped the traditional way with the green onion strand sticking out of one end.

The lemongrass-marinated chicken was so tender that I didn't even need my serrated knife to cut it.

My dad ordered the Viet coffee. Just as they do in Vietnam, the server brought a thermos of hot water for my dad to pour into the filter himself.

After lunch, we went next door to Song Que, the deli that is also run by the Lai-Tran family. I bought sweet porridge speckled with black beans and the coconut milk on the side, sticky red rice with fresh grated coconut and sticky rice steamed with peanuts to eat on the train ride to New York. I had already stuffed my tote with a papaya and Asian pears for the trip. I'm turning into my mother! Next thing you know, I'll be carrying bags of dried shrimp to Los Angeles.

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I am a social person who has a social job that often requires me to mingle with socials (that is, socialites, instead of Socialists) from the design, art, music and film worlds. This is the bird's-eye view of a free show played by The Submarines at a party hosted by an action sports line. Even if I didn't have to report on this event for a story, I would have tried to catch couple Blake Hazard and John Dragonetti playing live. I loved the album "Declare A New State!" that they made after they broke up. The music created from their pain was hypnotic. Since then, the singer and guitarist got back together and released "Honeysuckle Weeks." A little peppier, presumably from their reconciled bliss, the new album is just as good as the predecessor. Plus, Blake is quite the ingenious fashionista with her stash of vintage clothes and H & M finds. I liked how her pigtails and prairie-style frock coordinated with the daisies decorating her keyboard.

On another night, I went to a one-night-only art show that a European denim brand hosted in Beverly Hills with Dennis Hopper, who curated. Hopper is a respected photographer in his own right. The access he had to the vibrant personalities from his Hollywood heyday in the Sixties and Seventies was the source of some striking images. In the parking lot behind the apparel company's showroom, Hopper hung Civil War-style military uniforms near a white convertible classic. Illuminated above the heads of the scruffy dudes and chicks with short hair and long, skinny legs, were projections of Hopper's artwork.

This appears to be a painted billboard of a photo that Hopper took decades ago.

Hopper's son, Henry, also carries the creative gene. I missed his real-time creation of a paper and plastic installation that sprawled over a quarter of the parking lot. I did catch his destruction of the piece, an act that was also part of the art, I was told. The hipsters seemed unfazed by the trash. They continued to sip their champagne, forage for mini burgers and dot their mouths with white linen napkins. Well after Henry Hopper got bored of his art, these tykes jumped in to accelerate the denouement.

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