Sunday, December 25, 2011

My Comeback from LA Sushi Bar Humiliation

The new Wilshire location - best in LA?
Happy New Year!  Ray Romano once said that sushi is to LA, as pizza is to New York. 

Many years ago, when I was a sushi novice, I was walking down Sawtelle Ave in West LA with some time to kill between appointments. Since I had not eaten lunch, I was attracted to the sushi sign across the street and decided to walk into a building that looked more like a home than a restaurant. I went in and stood inside the door before someone finally decided to greet me. Silently, a young woman showed me the only open seat at the crowded sushi bar. I noticed the white lettering on a small blue patch on her white blouse. It said “Trust Me.” Curious, I thought.

At the sushi bar, I sat quietly waiting for an opportunity to order. The sushi chef handed me a large plate of marinated albacore. “Wow” I thought. “That’s quite a complimentary starter.” It was delicious. After I finished it, I asked the busy chef for some salmon sushi. He grunted audibly. It dawned on me that I had done something wrong and asked the well-dressed woman sitting next to me, “Are you supposed to order here?” “You can, but you shouldn’t,” she replied, with the slightest bit of condescension in her tone. “They tell you what to eat and how much of it to have. This place is good…. and expensive. Where do you normally go?” she asked. My immediate answer drew a scowl. “Crazy Tokyo in the Valley,” I answered quietly. “This is a far cry from Crazy Tokyo,” she said.  "I always enjoyed Crazy Tokyo in Encino, especially the Spicy Sashimi Salad with Tomatoes," I mumbled.

I proceeded to allow the chef to serve me four more wonderfully fresh, single pieces of sushi – each artfully decorated. I was dying for a spicy tuna roll, but that was not going to happen. I checked out, paid $40 and moved on. I had experienced what many in LA consider the Holy Grail of sushi – Sasabune.

Sea and Sun
Years later, I went to the new Sasabune location on Wilshire Blvd. At least I knew what to expect this time – still no spicy tuna roll. The food is excellent – but be prepared to stay for a while and bring plenty of cash if you plan to leave satisfied.

A better west side option for me is Hamasaku at Sepulveda and Santa Monica Blvd. Creative presentation. Nice decor. Friendly staff. Very high-end sushi that is exceptionally fresh. While it is expensive, you will feel like you have eaten a meal.  Interesting celebrity crowd is a bonus.

Sauteed Shrimp - The perfect dish?
I am not a big saki guy, so I like to bring my own wine to sushi bars (at a table) or order carry out so that I can enjoy a great wine at home. A Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay is usually perfect with sushi. I recently had a nice Mer Soleil Chardonnay with a carry out order from one of my favorite places – Little Brothers in Woodland Hills. It is a very small restaurant that has a loyal following. Some of my West Side friends who have moved to the valley begrudgingly admit that Little Brothers is as good as anything they have tried. The related Brothers restaurant, just a little further east on Ventura Blvd., is bigger and just as good. The garlic sauteed shrimp roll (not really sushi) could be the perfect dish. It pairs so well with the Mer Soleil Chardonnay – grown in Monterey, California. I did an earlier blog on the joy of golf in Monterey, but this is a vineyard that we hope to visit in 2012.  Mer means sea and Soleil means sun – both of which have quite an influence on the vineyard.  It is not too oaky – more on the citrus side. You will taste hints of everything from vanilla to lemon. Works will with a nice piece of yellow tail belly from Little Brothers.

Another favorite – Shibuya in Calabasas. Get there at 11:45 at lunch to get your name on the chalkboard or forget about having a table at this small but premium quality establishment. Very large and plump pieces of super fresh fish, artful creations. Right across from the Calabasas Commons – you can practically smell the affluence in the air.  My choice is to carry out (although it seems cumbersome here at times) and take the sushi home to enjoy with a bottle of Jordon Chardonnay from Sonoma. The Jordon Chardonnay (a must vineyard stop on your trip to the Sonoma wine region).
Assi Roll - Nice!
For quality and value, it is hard to beat Shiki Sushi in Studio City. This place is located east of Coldwater, buried deep in a small shopping center that runs perpendicular to Ventura Blvd. The sushi itself is fresh and cut generously. The lunch special features a tasty ginger dressed green salad, a spicy tuna roll and a bountiful main roll like the Assi Roll – featuring crab, shrimp and  scallops piled high. Try the chunk spicy tuna roll and chunk salmon roll – flavorful and hard to finish – under $20 for the entire lunch.  They charge a modest corkage fee, under $10, so this is a good time to bring out the Cakebread Chardonnay. Crisp with just the right amount of oak, it is the perfect sushi wine – bring it to Shiki and you’ll have a wonderful sushi experience.

Good Choice
Sushi Yuzu could be the best around. I have some sushi loving clients who do not wish to go anywhere else and who can blame them? Yazu makes some tremendous dishes with ultra fresh fish, including their signature Chilean Sea Bass hand roll – five visits, I have enjoyed that dish five times. Try it with an Erath Pinot Noir from Oregon - which will make the flavor of the sea bass dance. The 2009 Erath Pinot is described by wine.com: “Fresh and bright flavors on the palate are balanced with a blend of juicy cherry and racy pomegranate. An easy sipper yet enough acidity to pair beautifully with your favorite dish.” In this case, the Sea Bass or the crab hand roll.

“All you can eat” sushi joints usually frowned upon, but Midori has to be given some recognition. The staff is excellent and attentive and Midori makes a point of keeping the menu interesting. It is a consistently crowded sushi bar – a testament to their fresh fish and wide selection of rolls on the all you can eat menu. You will walk out for $30 per person for lunch, but usually, I am unhappy about only one thing; I ate too much. Midori offers Fat Cat Pinot Noir on their limited wine list. The Napa winery has a fun filled approach to wine making – seems to fit with sushi. Here is their own "cultural description" on the Website: “At Fat Cat Cellars, our vibe is velvety varietal wines. Wines inspired by the jazz music we love. You’ll find a fusion of rich flavors and genuine Cat-itude in every glass. You dig?”

At Midori, I dig the appetizers that are included in the all you can eat deal, like the Salmon Skin Salad, the Calamari Tempura or the Cucumber Sunomono. You will feel like a “Fat Cat” when you walk out of Midori, which has three locations along Ventura Blvd in Encino, Sherman Oaks and Studio City.

For style points in a hip locale, head to downtown LA – 21 Floors above the financial district, you will find Takami Sushi and Robata Restaurant, serving high quality, creative sushi dishes and some very tantalizing signature cocktails. The Takami Edamame is a great place to start - Sauteed Soy Beans in Garlic, Butter and Soy Sauce. Then try out the Takami Roll - Spicy Tuna, Snow Crab, Asparagus, topped with Albacore and an Apple Ponzu Sauce. Their Toro, Tuna Belly is expensive, but melt in your mouth good. I normally try to suggest a great wine (and they do have a fine wine list) the Signature Cocktails will really rock you. After one, enjoy a bottle of the very reliable 2009 Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay; a combination of fruit – like apple, lemon and pear, along with nutty and oaky characteristics that all work well together and with Takami’s Japanese influenced dishes. By the way – Takami is advertising a Sunday special - 50% off on bottled wine.

Because not everyone can afford high priced premium sushi, you have to take your hat off to Kabuki. Sorry to the sushi snobs, but every location is packed and like Midori, they deliver a fine product at a reasonable price. Happy hour deals are ridiculously good. The Sashimi Salad is excellent, as is the Sunkist Roll, featuring Spicy Tuna and Avocado. Kabuki has multiple locations. It is a fun place, with a full bar and if you are going to order a bottle of wine, try the Jacob’s Creek Australian Chardonnay – light on the oak, easy on the fruit with a little lemon and melon overtone – very drinkable with Kabuki’s diverse fare.

One final note – I did have a client who was embarrassed in a sushi bar even more than I was at Sasabune. She actually thought the wasabi was avocado and took in a healthy spoonful – it really happened, I was there. Not pretty.

What I am listening to right now on the crowded LA freeways –  Seal Team Six - A riveting look inside the world of Navy Seals.

If you drive a lot, or if reading just wears you out, you have to try Audible. I am thoroughly addicted to the Audible downloads program. Check out the amazing introductory offer from our friends at Audible.com that you can access from this page. I’m personally cranking through a book each week. I'm addicted!

Contact me at winefoodjava@gmail.com

High quality and great value coffee you should be drinking in your office every day:  Micro-Roasted Seattle Blend – the number one seller at Gourmet Coffee Service – Southern California’s office refreshment leader. www.gourmetcoffeeservice.com

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wine Tasting Advice from the Experts - plus a few tips from me...

How many times have you been wine tasting? If you are like me, each time you visit wineries, you learn something totally new about wine, the art of wine making and the pleasure of wine tasting. To get the most out of my next wine tasting experience, I decided to ask wine industry pros to weigh in on wine tasting and how to do it right. I have a few ideas of my own, but the experts had some interesting suggestions.

Ferrari Carano is beautiful - the gardens are beyond belief.
Ferrari Carano is a beautiful winery located in Healdsburg. With acres of beautiful gardens and vineyards, it is the type of winery that you will want to spend some time at, just walking around and taking it all in. The facility itself is impressive, with elegant tasting rooms and friendly staff. Their wonderful wines are poured generously. I will be dedicating a full article on Ferrari Carano down the line.

Patrick Mukaida, Director of Hospitality at Ferrari –Carano, had a number of suggestions for wine tasting guests. Some of his suggestions had never dawned on me, like his advice that wine tasting guests wear minimal cologne, to avoid interfering with the aroma on the wine. Patrick also asked (probably on behalf of the wine industry) that women avoid wearing too much lipstick – as it can make it pretty challenging to clean the wine glasses.

Before you arrive at a winery, do some research. Find out what wines the vineyard is know for.

There is plenty of art at Hess besides
the wine making - this cannon is melting.
Along the lines of planning, Patrick says that visitors should try to keep their tasting geographically tight. “Those trying to cover Napa and Sonoma in one day – they usually don’t make it.” Dennis Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars suggests that visitors call ahead to make an appointment. “Many wineries have gone to an appointment only system, so planning ahead can really make your day,” says Dennis. Cakebread is “must visit” winery in Napa. While they are perhaps best known for their Chardonnay (that may be a pedestrian view), their red wines are staggeringly good. That is the kind of thing you find out when you are visiting wineries.

Drink wines from light white to heavy red – in that order, but Patrick says you do not need to rinse your glass constantly. Only rinse when you are moving from white to red or from a dessert wine to something bigger and bolder.

When tasting wines, Patrick suggests that you ask which wines “are distributed widely and which are available only at the winery itself.” Knowing that information, you’ll understand if it makes sense to join the wine club or if there are some wines you might want to pick up while you are there.

The best place to get suggestions on which wineries to visit: Ask the people who work at the winery. “We tend to know what’s good and are happy to make recommendations,” says Patrick.

Jim Caudill, Director, Public Relations & Hospitality at The Hess Collection, says, “A terrific tasting strategy when you are visiting wineries is to simply be open to new experiences. At Hess, for example, our winemakers create an entire series of wines in limited amounts – often just 200 cases – that are sold only in the tasting room. These Small Block Series wines are often from small experimental vineyard blocks, a GrĂ¼ner Veltliner, for example, from Mount Veeder. Instead of asking for something familiar, explore what the winemakers are exploring.”

“Verticals are often a great way to see how vintages and aging affect wine, adds Jim. “We often offer three different vintages of our Cabernet, for example, so you can compare and contrast. And library selections are equally interesting, since these wines are often simply not available in the broad market, and you may be able to enjoy a bit of history right there in your glass.”

Do not rush from one winery to another. That is my personal rule. I generally try to limit my winery visits to no more than four in a day. Jim from Hess puts it well, “Enjoy the experience, no reason to rush. Much better to “take the pulse” of a great experience, perhaps just two or three times a day, rather than rush from tasting room to tasting room.” Hess is not a winery to rush through. A wine tasting in the garden at Hess is quite nice and the contemporary art gallery will bend your imagination – even before the wine tasting.

"Tour of the Palate" at Hess
Eating is important when you are wine tasting. Dennis Cakebread and Jim Caudill both suggest a light lunch, but Jim urges guests to elevate their lunch experience, like Hess’s “Tour of the Palate,” where their Executive Chef puts together a pairing of three small tastes with wines, but those small plates are often enough for a light lunch.

If you are on the road in Napa – I love Dean and DeLuca, the kind of grocery store that simply has everything you could want for lunch, such as spectacular gourmet sandwiches and salads – not necessarily light! It’s busy and you may end up eating in the parking lot – but you’ll still love the food.

A couple more lessons I have learned from experience: Share wine tastings with your spouse or companion. It really is about the tasting, not the drinking. This will also cut your costs in half if you are not a wine club member, enjoying free tastings.

My best tip – and I will continue to share more in future editions – get a driver! If you can afford the splurge, hire a professional driver, a black sedan, a van or a limo and enjoy a nice, elegant touring experience. I can recommend several limo/driving services. In Napa, call Andrew’s Napa Limousine. In Sonoma, try Beau Wine Tours & Limousine Service. In Paso Robles, Epic Limousine is an excellent service. Good drivers are well connected at the wineries – which is always nice.

One simple wine tasting strategy to utilize before you leave on a visit to wine country. Talk to that restaurant owner, country club manager or wine store owner that you know well – as a customer or as a friend. Tell them that you are going to wine country and ask them for some contacts they know in the wine business in Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles or Santa Barbara. You will be surprised at their connections, but after all, these people are in the wine industry. Great connections in wine country can result in a memorable VIP experience – so do a little networking before you leave town.

Awesome with Lamb Chops
Our Wine and Food  Pairing of the Week:  Rosemary Lamb Chops from the Fig & Olive Restaurant on Melrose in West Los Angeles, with a Frog's Leap 2009 Petite Sirah. Note:  The food at Fig & Olive is artistic and delicious.

Here is what the winemakers wrote about this selection (I picked up a case at a recent Frog's Leap wine dinner).  "Our fifth vintage of this extraordinary varietal saw a long growing season of nearly perfect weather combine with a small crop to produce this remarkably complex wine. Inky dark in the glass with hints of lavender and boysenberries, the 2009 Petite Sirah manages to show beautiful depth across the flavors without ever seeming heavy or pondering. Think of this wine as fall approaches and your thoughts turn to hearty stews and roasted meats."

Our Value Wine of the Week:  08 Silverado Chardonnay.  Great Value at Total Wine and Bevmo - typically under $18 for a creamy Napa white that you can proudly serve during the Holiday Season.
What book am I listening to while trying to find a parking spot in the crowded malls?

Red Mist by Patricia Cornwell. Don't shop, just stay in the car and listen!

If you drive a lot, or if reading just wears you out, you have to try Audible. I am thoroughly addicted to the Audible downloads program. Check out the amazing introductory offer from our friends at Audible.com that you can access from this page. I’m personally cranking through a book each week. I'm addicted!

High quality and great value coffee you should be drinking in your office every day: Micro-Roasted Vienna Roast – a top seller at Gourmet Coffee Service – Southern California’s office refreshment leader. http://www.gourmetcoffeeservice.com/