Sunday, March 29, 2009

Disney Dining: Storyteller's Cafe

Back when I did my round up of dining options at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, several posters told me to check out the restaurants in the Grand Californian Hotel, adjacent to the California Adventure park. They were adamant that the food was much better than the park food.

Intrigued, on my last trip I had the breakfast buffet at the Storyteller's Cafe at the Grand Californian. It is certainly convenient as you can enter directly from the park, and it was a decent quality, if not exceptional, breakfast buffet which was, indeed, a step up from the park food. The buffet was fairly typical of what you would find in any nice hotel: eggs benedict, omelet station, various meats and pastries.

I very much liked the two types of lox, which had the taste of being home-cured. One was a traditional lox and the other more of a gavalox, with a heavy dill coating. Both were very nice; it's too bad the bagels to accompany them weren't of higher quality. The ham slices were thick and tasty and the biscuits and gravy looked good but had run out by the time I got to them.

Normally, this would be a fine breakfast, though not one to rave about, but in the low expectations world of Disneyland, Storyteller's Cafe was far higher quality than what can be found in the park. They also have a lunch menu and a dinner buffet.

Storyteller's Cafe is located in the Grand Californian Hotel, which you can enter from Downtown Disney or from Disney California Adventure near the Grizzly River Run ride.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Deck the Halls With Sweet Potato Lattes: Hollys Coffee

Hollys Coffee (no apostrophe) is essentially the Starbucks of South Korea, the leading player in the espresso bar market in that country with additional shops in Japan and Malaysia. In the US, there is a single Hollys on Sixth between Kenmore and Alexandria (south side of the street), selling numerous coffee and steamed milk drinks and freshly made waffles.

In many Korean coffee shops, the coffee, itself is an afterthought at best. Hollys, though, serves up one of the better cappuccinos you will find in coffee-challenged K-Town, certainly better than the local Starbucks. No decaff here though, so only a few sips for me.

In addition, Hollys has a more creative selection of the mandatory variety of sweet-milk concoctions. My favorite is the sweet potato latte, a steamed milk drink with sweet potato flavoring topped with sliced almonds. (In Holly's somewhat nontraditional terminology, a sweet potato latte is just milk and sweet potato, while a sweet potato macchiato has a shot of espresso). When I first ordered the latte, I was worried it might be akin to one of Starbucks' seasonal pumpkin drinks, a sickly sweet imitation of a pumpkin pie. Not so; the sweet potato latte is subtle in its sweetness and the flavor is very natural, tasting of real sweet potato. There is even a slight sweet potato texture to it. The sliced almonds on top help accent the nutty flavors of the sweet potato. It's a well done drink with points for originality.

Hollys also makes a nice hot chocolate and a number of good tea drinks, although I found the black bean drink to have an unpleasantly grainy texture.

I also gave the waffle a try. While I like the concept of a freshly made, hand-held waffle, it was a bit too doughy for me. But I keep going back for my sweet potato latte.

Hollys Coffee
3450 W 6th St. #109
Los Angeles, CA 90020
(213) 389-4553

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: WhiskyLive LA - Take 2

For those of you who may not know, WhiskyLive, sponsored by the good folks at Whisky Magazine is one of two major travelling whiskey tasting festivals, the other being WhiskyFest, sponsored by Malt Advocate. At these glorious events, distillers and companies come to shop their elixirs and give out samples to the drinking public. Unfortunately, neither of these festivals has ever come to Los Angeles.

Last year, we had a bit of excitement when Whisky Magazine scheduled one of its WhiskyFests for LA. Later in the year, however, they dropped the LA site.

Now, Whisky Magazine is again announcing a WhiskyFest LA, and this time they have an actual date and a location: October 20 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Given our last experience, I'll still hold back my excitement, but it sounds like the real thing. If so, LA, we are in for a treat!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Commercial Tacos: Sergio's Tacos

For a place called Commerce, there is surprisingly little commercial activity in City of Commerce in southeast LA. I was there recently scouring the streets for signs of decent food and doing my best to avoid the casino and the outlet mall.

It was there that I stumbled upon Sergio's Tacos. Sergio's is a small shop with the basic taco selection done very well. Carne asada was nicely charred and beefy, carnitas were fried well, though not as fatty as I might have liked, and I enjoyed the sauce on the pastor. If I am in Commerce again, you can bet I'll be stopping by Sergio's.

Sergio's Tacos
2216 S Atlantic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90040
(323) 261-3364

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Brandy Friday: Wrap Up

For our ninth Brandy Friday, we will do a bit of a wrap up. I've had great fun reading up on brandy and tasting seven Cognacs, an Armagnac and a California brandy. Here are a few conclusions I've drawn in this little flight of ours.

Brandy is Behind the Curve

We acknowledged when we started that brandy had some catching up to do compared to other premium spirits, and the stranglehold of the big four Cognac houses has yet to be undone by the little guys. Even for the small houses making excellent product, though, there are some innovations coming from the whiskey world that they might want to consider.

Nix the Caramel

Caramel coloring is used in nearly all fine brandy. I understand the desire to use it. One producer told me that consumers who see two bottles of the same brandy that are not the same color will be turned off. That may be true, but whiskey consumers have become educated on this point and while most Scotch is still colored, there has been an increase in naturally colored Scotch over the past five years, particularly from some of the smaller and more innovative distilleries. Straight bourbons and ryes, of course, are never colored.

Journey North of 40%

Nearly all fine brandy is bottled at 40% alcohol or just above. I've heard tell of cask strength brandies, but they are few and far between. It would be interesting to see some of the Cognac houses give us a bit higher abv to sharpen and intensify the taste.

Beyond Cognac

I focused this series on Cognac, but I was intrigued by the one Armagnac I sampled, so I'm making a note to add some more Armagnacs to my list. Then, there are Spanish, Armenian and more California brandies to many brandies, so little time.

Brandy Friday has been a real kick, and it will continue as an occasional series on Fridays, though unlike our Whiskey Wednesdays, we won't do it every week. And as always, I'm open to tips, samples and any other brandy advice, so let me know if you know of an excellent brandy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Prince of Peat - Bruichladdich Octomore

Famously touted as the most heavily peated malt ever made, Octomore may be the most eagerly anticipated Scotch release since Bruichladdich's earlier peat experiment, PC5.

Before we go into the details of this particular whisky, a word about peat. Peat, as you may know, is a fossil fuel derived from moss that imparts its smoky flavor on some Scotches when it is used to fuel the fire that cooks the malted barley. Peat in Scotch whisky is measured in parts per millions (PPM). Most Scotch has some amount of peat, and an "unpeated" Scotch may clock in at 5 to 10 PPM. What we used to think of as a heavily peated Scotch, say a typical Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig or the aforementioned PC5 would usually contain between 25 up to 40 or 50 PPM of peat phenols. The new Ardbeg Supernova weighs in at "in excess of" 100 PPM and the Octomore has a crushing 131 PPM.

While I was excited by this new malt, it also made me apprehensive. It's great that Bruichladdich pushes the envelope, and they continue to do so in a way that few other distillers do, but for them, pushing the envelope always seems to include pushing the price point.

Marketed in a sleek black bottle (pretty bottles nearly always mean higher prices), the cask strength Octomore sells at a hefty $185-$200, which must be a record for a five year old whisky. I was worried when the Progressive Hebridean Distillers, as Bruichladdich likes to be known, charged over $100 for another five year old, their PC5, and now I'm even more concerned. Exciting new Scotch releases are becoming more and more inaccessible, particularly in this economic climate. Presumably, Bruichladdich will find out if it is economically feasible to keep its whiskies at the top of the market's price point. Time will tell.

Whatever happens, though, Octomore will ultimately be judged on how it tastes, so let's get on with it.


Bruichladdich Octomore [Ochdamh-mòr], 5 years old, 63.5% alcohol ($200).

It goes without saying that Octomore is heavily peated, though the smoke is not as overwhelming as you might guess. Given that a Lagavulin or Ardbeg is typically in the 45-50 PPM range and Octomore is 131 PPM, one would reasonably expect the Octomore to taste more than twice as smoky as those other peat monsters. Not so. The peat is there in force, but it feels about on par with those peatier Islay malts in terms of smoke.

The nose is heavily peated, I might mistake it for a Lagavulin for its intense campfire-like smokiness. The flavor is dazzling and balanced, smoke is accompanied by some sweetness, like the caramelized, smoky taste of a lovely hunk of smoked salmon; there are even notes of a sweet brandy sort. Peated whiskies nearly always offer a long finish and the Octomore finish is of a seemingly indefinite length, remaining with you as a long, pleasant reminder of the whisky.

I was never impressed with the PC5, which I considered rather one dimensional, but Octomore is something different. Despite its heavy smoke, Octomore has a complexity and a depth that the PC5 lacked. In a side by side tasting, Octomore blew PC5 away.

Since I first tried Octomore, I keep returning to it. I keep yearning for that smoke fix. It has an almost addictive quality (like some other smoky things).

Octomore is a great and exciting whisky and I'm excited to see what happens to it with age. The price tag, though, is far too steep. Come on Jim, give us working stiffs a break already.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Shanghai Style: Mei Long Village

It's been a long time since I visited Mei Long Village. About five years ago, I went through a heavy Shanghainese phase. I did a pork pump challenge, an XLB challenge and a general Shanghainese challenge. Post-blog it's hard to believe I used to just eat stuff without writing about it (save the occasional Chowhound post).

Back then, I went to Mei Long a few times. They came in second in pretty much every category. They were a distant second to Lake Spring in the Pork Pump challenge, and I liked Din Tai Fung's XLB better (although Din Tai Fung is Taiwanese and not Shanghainese, you can't not include them for XLB). For overall Shanghainese, my favorite was Shanghai Kitchen. Last time I went to Shanghai Kitchen, though, it wasn't as good and I wasn't up for the wait at Din Tai Fung, so when I felt like Shanghainese a few weeks ago, I headed for Mei Long Village.

Mei Long Village lies in a strip mall on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel, along with another Shanghainese staple, J&J, a Lollycup, a Beard Papa and assorted other restaurants and businesses.

True to my memories, the XLB (aka xiao long bao or soup dumplings) were very good but not thrilling, and the shen jian bao (pan fried pork buns, one of my favorite Shanghainese dishes) was too doughy. However, the Shanghainese spare ribs were delightful little fried nubs of pork and rib bone with a tangy sauce. I also very much enjoyed the snow pea leaves, which have a taste somewhere between snow peas and bok choy. It was a good meal that reawakened my yen for Shanghai.

Hmm, maybe it's time to redo all of my Shanghainese challenges. Pork pump anyone?

Mei Long Village
301 W Valley Blvd., #112
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 284-4769

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Brandy Friday: Maison Surrene

Maison Surrenne is a collaboration between California brandy makers Germain-Robin and Cognac's largest family-owned producer, Surrenne, owners of four Cognac distilleries. Using its extensive stocks of aged brandy, Maison Surrenne is part of a new wave in brandy production which mirrors some of the recent innovations in whiskey. According to their materials, "there's no excessive adulteration by caramel or sugar syrup or boisé (oak-chip) flavoring." While in whiskey, this emphasis on purity of ingredients is becoming more and more common, it is virtually unheard of in the world of Cognac.

I was happy to receive samples of three of Maison Surrenne's "single district bottlings" from three different Cognac crus.

Distillerie Galtaud
Unblended Borderies

This is a single vintage bottling selected from casks between 14 and 15 years old from Galtaud, a single still distillery operating since 1800 in the village of Mainxe. Cognacs from the small cru of Borderies are known for their intense fruitiness.

This brandy is very fragrant on the nose with floral and perfume notes as well as fruit. Those notes come through on the taste as well with some oak, toffee and polished wood and lots of dried fruit on the finish.

Ancienne Distillerie
100% Petite Champagne

This is a Cognac from the Petite Champagne region. There is no age statement, but the distillery notes that its Petite Champagne Cognacs do not demand the aging time needed for other Cognacs as they mature quickly.

This Cognac has a very understated nose in which the wine really comes through. The immediate taste is very sweet fruit, followed by a very understated oak; then back to sweet wine on the finish.

XO Single Vintage
Grande Champagne

This is a 29 year old Cognac from the Grande Champagne region.

This is a beautiful Cognac, definitely the most complex of the three, with a lovely balance of fruit and oak and some sweet notes that are closer to Bourbon than wine. Lovely stuff.

I enjoyed all three of the Maison Surrene Cognacs and certainly would be interested to try more of their brandies.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

No Cupcakes for You: Johnny Cupcakes

It was one of those moments that people like us, people who love food, get excited about. You're driving around when out of the corner of your eye you see something new and potentially delicious. Sometimes, if you can't suppress the hunger or curiosity, you pull off the road and check it out right then, other times you make a mental note to go back and explore.

It happened to me a couple of weekends ago, driving down Melrose. On the north side of the street, west of Fairfax, was a place I'd never noticed: Johnny Cupcakes. It had an industrial mixer in the front window and a neon sign proclaiming "Freshly Baked."

A new cupcake place right on Melrose?!? Well of course I would check it out, so I went back the next day hoping to find a new treasure. Entering the store, I noticed that something was wrong. The glass pastry case was filled with pins and shirts and other memorabilia. I mean sure, lots of food shops have that stuff, but this was displayed rather prominently. Maybe the cupcakes were in the back cooler.

Picking up on my dismay, one of the hipsters behind the counter asked, "Is this your first time here." I replied affirmatively.
"We're not a bakery," he informed me, "we sell cupcake related clothing."
"Oh," I said, feeling sheepish and tragically unhip, "you must get that a lot."
"Yeah, we do," he replied in a quizzical sort of way as if it was a mystery to him why naming a place Johnny Cupcakes and putting a mixer in the window would lead some people to believe that the establishment actually sold cupcakes.

My new plan is to open a shop called Johnny Clothing and sell...cupcakes.

Johnny Cupcakes
7959 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 653-2253

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Irish Time - Connemara

In an ideal world, I wouldn't wait until St. Patrick's Day to write about Irish Whiskey, because anytime is the right time for a good Irish, and most Irish Whiskey consumed on St. Patty's Day is drowned in coffee and cream anyway. But come on, if you're a serious whiskey drinker and it's St. Patrick's Day, you're not going to be pouring yourself a Scotch.

This St. Patrick's Day, I'm excited to try something from the newest and only independent distillery in Ireland: Cooley. Cooley was established in 1987 at a time when the only other Irish Whiskey distilleries (Midleton and Bushmills) were under common ownership, and since that time, it has proved a force for innovation in Irish Whiskey.

Among Cooley's most popular products is Connemara, a peated, single malt whiskey. Yes, you heard me correctly, a peated, single malt Irish Whiskey. You see, Ireland is swimming in peat, but unlike in Scotland, there was no surviving tradition of using peat to make Irish Whiskey. Connemara has set about to change all of that. They currently have three versions of their peated whiskey: one without an age statement ($40), a 12 year old ($85-$90) and a cask strength($55-$60). I tried the no age statement Connemara, which also was the least expensive of the three.


Connemara, Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey, 40% alcohol.

Well, not surprisingly, Connemara tastes very much like a peated, single malt Scotch. Distinctively peaty, though not a monster; it's along the lines of a Caol Ila or less in terms of peating.

As I drink it though, I can't help but think that there is something missing. This is often true of peated whiskies from newer ventures, including McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt and Bruichladdich PC5. These distillers seem to think that, in terms of flavor, peat alone will carry the day, but the peat needs some character, even in heavily peated malts. I'm thinking of the sweetness of some Ardbegs, the intense smoke of Lagavulin or the medicinal qualities of Laphroaig. These whiskies are not just intensely peated, they have a more profound, more developed flavor; sometimes that flavor even intensifies the smokiness, but there is always more than just smoke.

With the Connemara, I kept sniffing and sipping and liking the initial burst of flavor, smoky but smooth, but then missing something, that extra burst of flavor or character that would provide the perfect balance and make this whiskey complete.

I think they are close to having a great whiskey here, but I'd like to see the good people of Cooley continue working it. Still, it makes a fine St. Patrick's Day drink, just don't pour it in your coffee.

Whiskey Wednesday Prelude: Octomore in LA

If you're a whiskey geek and particularly a peat head, you have no doubt been waiting for the arrival of Bruichladdich's new Octomore, famously touted as the peatiest Scotch ever made. I haven't seen it on any shelves in LA yet, but K&L Wines carries it in their Bay Area stores, and you can order it on-line either for home delivery or to be picked up at the Hollywood store. Unfortunately, the price tag on this five year old is a gasp inducing $200, but it's going fast, so if you want some, order right away.

Expect my review in a couple of weeks.

UPDATE: Alas, it appears that K&L is now out of stock. We will keep our eyes out and let you know when new Octomores are found in the LA area.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A New King of Dim Sum: King Hua

My family are dim sum fanatics, and we head to the San Gabriel Valley once or twice per month for a dim sum fix. For years, my favorite dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley has been the elegant Sea Harbor restaurant in Rosemead. Lately, we've also been spending some time at Elite Restaurant as well as our traditional cart-palace favorite, NBC. Lately though, I've yearned for something new, so we recently tried King Hua, a relatively new Alhambra dim sum restaurant with chefs who came from Sea Harbor.

Upon entering King Hua, it's impossible not to notice how much the place looks like Sea Harbor. It's an almost identically sized restaurant with an almost identical layout, so much so that one of my dining companions who I had recently taken to Sea Harbor asked me if this wasn't the same place.

The similarities don't end when you sit down. The menu looks almost exactly like the Sea Harbor menu. Not surprisingly, the food is also similar, though everything is just a little bit better. The flavors are a bit sharper, the shrimp a bit plumper, the sticky rice a bit more saturated in meat juice, the spare ribs a bit more garlicky. Shen jian bao (Shanghianese buns) are one of my favorite dishes anywhere, but King Hua's were especially good with a more flavorful porky filling than some other dim sum versions.

Given that King Hua was not only fabulous, but also a bit closer to me than Sea Harbor, I'm guessing this will enter the regular family dum sum rotation.

King Hua Restaurant, Inc.
2000 W. Main St. (between Fremont and Atlantic)
Alhambra, CA 91801
(626) 282-8833

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Brandy Friday: California Cognac - Germain Robin

Did you know that deep in the wilds of Northern California, they are making Cognac? Well, it's not technically Cognac because it's not from Cognac, France, but in Mendocino County, Germain-Robin has been making their Alambic Brandy since the 1980s.

The origination of the distillery is the stuff of legend. In 1981, Ansley Coale picked up a couple of French hitchhikers off Highway 101 in the California wine country. One of the hitchikers was Hubert Germain-Robin, the scion of a long-time French Cognac making family which had been recently swallowed by industry giant Martell. Germain-Robin yearned to make brandy in the small, artisan tradition that seemed to have been all but abandoned in France.

The term "Alambic Brandy" which Germain-Robin had to get special permission to use, refers to the Alambic stills (pot stills) which are used to make the brandy. This differentiates it from the big California brandy producers (Gallo, Korbel, Christian Brothers, etc.) which use continuous stills.

Ansley Coale, the co-founder of Germain-Robin is a passionate advocate for his product who insists that it's better than any Cognac out there. Chief among the reasons is the use of delicate Pinot Noir grapes grown in Mendocino County and enjoyed by many wine lovers. In contrast, the grapes of Cognac are grown in bulk and aren't fine wine grapes. Germain-Robin landed on Pinot brandy after much experimentation. Cabernet Sauvignon apparently makes lousy brandy because of the tanins, but Coale likes Sauvignon Blanc and uses some Zinfandel.

Coale prides his operation on being 100% transparent and was happy to answer even the most probing questions. He says they use a "trivial amount" of caramel coloring (1/10 of 1 percent) to maintain consistence and occasionally a trivial amount of sugar syrup, depending on the batch. They never use boisé flavoring (added wood chips) and eschew over oaked brandies.

Germain-Robin makes a number of brandies; I sat down with the well-regarded XO to see how this California upstart stacks up to the Frenchies.


Germain-Robin Alambic Brandy, Select Barrel XO, 40% alcohol ($100-115).

The XO is 80% pinot noir, with the remaining 20% being comprised of a number of varietals, including Semillion and the traditional, though underutilized Cognac grape Colombard.

This brandy is big, bold and complex. The nose is beautiful and dry with subtle grape notes. There is less sweetness than the Cognacs I've had, only a touch with some oak and a dry wine flavor. You can taste the pinot; the brandy tastes more like red wine and less like raisins than the Cognacs we have tasted. A beautiful drink that is certainly comparable to the best Cognacs I've tasted.

It's wonderful to see brandy of this quality being made with this much care right here in our home state. Cheers to Germain-Robin.

Next Friday: Back to Cognac

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

RIP Indo Cafe

It was only last week that I had to break the sad news of the demise of my favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Fassica. Now, more bad news with the shuttering of Indo Cafe, a great West LA Indonesian spot with amazing lamb satay, great noodle dishes and one of my favorite fish cake dishes anywhere. Yet another great LA hole-in-the-wall lost. Another sad week.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Who Owns My Whiskey? -- Beam Global

We are back, again, to our occasional series, Who Owns My Whiskey? Since we've been drinking a lot of Jim Beam products lately, we will take a look at Beam Global, which is part of Fortune Brands, a large Illinois-based company which has divisions specializing in golf equipment and home hardware as well as spirits.

The namesake whiskey distillery of Beam Global, of course, is Jim Beam. The Jim Beam distillery makes not only Jim Beam but also Knob Creek, Baker's, Booker's, Basil Hayden, Old Crow, Old Grand-dad, Jim Beam Rye, Old Overholt rye, and the new (rī)¹ (Rye One).

In addition to the Beam distillery, Beam Global owns the following major whiskey brands:

Marker's Mark

Teachers Blended Scotch

Canadian Whiskey
Canadian Club

Other Spirits
Courvoisier Cognac
Cruzan Rum
DeKuyper Schapps
Gilbey's Gin/Vodka
Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry
Sauza Tequila
Starbuck's Coffee Liqueur
Wolfschmidt Vodka

There are more spirits and whiskies, particularly a number of obscure Canadians, which I haven't listed here, but overall, Beam Global has an impressive portfolio. Even though they only have three single malt distilleries, they are very high quality, and Laphroiag and Dalmore have made huge in-roads in the US in the past few years, while Ardmore is just starting here. Jim Beam, itself, is of course the dominant player in Bourbon and Maker's is hugely popular among the premium Bourbon set.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Skip the Burger and Go Straight to the Cupcakes: Bouchees Bistro in Long Beach

Bouchees Bistro is a Father's Office style burger pub right next to the Blue Line stop on Long Beach Boulevard and Sixth Street in Long Beach.

I wasn't excited by the burger, which comes with your choice of upscale toppings and condiments. I did love their version of the now mandatory sweet potato fries which were nice and crispy and had the perfect sweet and salty contrast.

The secret of Bouchee's is that they have what may be, with the demise of Leda's, the best cupcakes in Los Angeles County. Far from the giant sugar bombs available at places like Crumbs and Sprinkles, Bouchees cupcakes are simple; moist flavorful cakes are topped with a lighter-than-air buttercream frosting that I just can't get enough of.

They make only one kind of cupcake per day, but each one I've had has been a gem. Strawberry had chunks of strawberry in the cake and a lovely, strawberry tinged buttercream. Mocha was probably my favorite with a great coffee flavor, but I also loved the Butterfinger which a sprinkling of the candy mixed in.

I'll eat the burgers, I like the fries and they also make a good homemade gelato (again, only one flavor per day), but these days, I just go to pick up cupcakes.

Bouchees Bistro
515 long beach blvd
long beach, CA 90802
(562) 951-8222