Monday, January 23, 2017

Somi Somi: Taiyaki Sundaes in Koreatown

Growing  up in Hong Kong, one of my favorite memories was after-school treats at the wonderland of a food hall, below an iconic Japanese department store called SOGO.  Among gleaming cases of artfully wrapped cookies, boxes of perfect rice cracker snacks, and stalls serving steaming bowls of ramen - was a magical grill from which they pulled out a fish shaped 'pancake' stuffed with red bean paste, and awarded it to my eagerly waiting chubby little hands like the greatest treasure in the world. I couldn't have made this analogy at the time, but looking back they were like dessert hot pockets, but fish-shaped on the outside with sweet filling on the inside

For many years as an adult in LA, I couldn't find this beloved snack ('taiyaki' in Japanese) anywhere - until I spotted it at a stall in the food court at Mitsuwa Torrance a few years back, only to have it abruptly replaced with takoyaki. Then, by some foodie wizardry it seemed, several dessert houses resurfaced taiyaki in a different form around the same time: as a base 'cone' for sundaes - maybe we have Instagram to thank for the quick proliferation of photogenic foods such as this - but several I tried were more about the photo opp than taste / texture. 

Then came Somi Somi, and their Ah-Boong ($5.95) served in made to order taiyaki cones. You can make your own sundae by choosing from organic ice cream flavors like True Milk, Green Tea, Banana, Chocolate, then selecting from filling options like red bean, custard or Nutella; or choose from set combos for the same price.

As a green tea fan, but also wanting to try their 'true milk' ice cream, I went for the preset Greenpuccino Boong with a swirl of green tea + milk ice cream, and red bean filling inside the 'fish cone'.  I also added Nutella, because who can resist Nutella ever?

Once the foundation is finished, you'll also get your choice of toppings from a tray of 4 (sprinkles, colorful cereal flakes, graham cracker crumbs, oreo cookie pieces), and the server will top the whole thing off with a bamboo skewer of strawberry and marshmallows.

The verdict?  It's always tough for modern versions of nostalgic foods to measure up to romanticized memory, but Somi Somi did a good job with the taiyaki - the dough is flavorful, but not too sweet, just the right balance of density 'chew' (possibly from mochi dough?) with lightly crispy exterior, and at the right size so that it's satisfying but not an overwhelming amount to work through - and it's easy to grab-and-go. 

The ice cream itself was smooth, light yet creamy and structured, so the texture was a thumbs up for me - but as for the flavor, I would have liked the green tea flavor to be more pronounced - though that's a matter of personal preference as I love green tea, with intensity.

I still liked the ice cream anyway, and all the components of the sundae worked well together - though if comparing to other green tea (and matcha in particular) ice creams around town it is not my favorite.  But I love that they do also offer the option to get the taiyaki without it (since taiyaki is really my first love from my childhood): Hot Fish Cone with Filling ($9 for 4 or 1 for $2.50). Somi Somi makes them in very small batches when customers come in, so that they pretty much always have fresh ones for you.

I've already been back twice in a week and will definitely be back again soon for both the sundae and the taiyaki on its own!


On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience -  4 stars
Service - 5 stars
Overall experience - 5 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


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Somi Somi
620 S Manhattan Pl #208-A, Los Angeles, CA 90005  (inside Madang Mall, 2nd Floor)            
Ph:  213.568.3284

Instagram: @somisomiicecream

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

INTRO: Creative, Intimate Chef's Table & Art Gallery Secret Supper Dining Experience in North Hollywood

With three of Hollywood's biggest powerhouses - Disney, Warner Bros and Universal - and their resident creative communities within miles of each other, it's been shocking that we haven't seen more innovation on the dining scene in the surrounding neighborhoods to pique imaginations and expense accounts.

 So it was extremely exciting to hear about INTRO, a brand new, secret supper club that's just landed in a former dance studio just down hill, in a non-descript stretch of Lankershim.  The concept is a Chef's Table tasting menu served in an intimate art gallery space, paired with eclectic music for a dining experience unlike any other in this part of the valley.

As befitting a secret club, the entrance is unmarked, but after double checking the street address, and pushing cautiously through the door, you step inside a cozy space with brick walls painted a dark bluish grey, adorned with contemporary art pieces,

Photo credit: acuna-hansen
and rustic chandelier casting a warm glow over the beautifully decorated table, and reflecting off glasses of champagne over which flows the casual chatter of strangers getting to know each other - all adding to the feeling as if you're part of the opening scene of a movie, ripe with anticipation of what's about to unfold.

We kicked off with a personal introduction from Chef Paul Shoemaker (with an impressive resume of service at Michelin-starred Bastide, Providence, Alain Ducasse, French Laundry, and Water Grill as well as local favorite Firefly), and curator / co-owner Rob Ciancimino, speaking to their respective passion for local sourcing (for Chef Paul including foraging in Malibu hills, and showcasing the essence of California’s agriculture and resources through dishes with casual sophistication, made with playful techniques and flavors, for Rob to find the best of local artists to highlight).

Then a trio of cocktails in creatively presented form made its way to us - these weren't regular drinks though, but crafted to be eaten!

  • Bourbon Cider Liquid Rav
  • Oyster, Champagne, Beet Juice Caviar, Passion Fruit Fizz: this was a fun take on the oyster shot, but with a sweet / tart twist
  • Cold Fever, Gin Tonic


Then came the Pre-Amuse that blew many at the table away. Foie Gras Truffle Mac Daddy and Foie Gras "Dime Bag".  As regular readers know, I'm a huge fan of foie so I may be biased - but it also means I've had a LOT of it in various forms - but never like this.  Taking a risk with a nodd and a wink to what food lovers often reference as addictions to ingredients they are partial to, Chef Paul has creatively come up with foie powder wrapped in a transparent 'dime bag'.  At first even seasoned writers and food bloggers at the table were pleasantly surprised by the execution on this, and chuckles were heard around the table as we bonded with our neighbors over how to approach this - whether the bag was to be opened and poured into our mouths, or...?  Turns out the bag is made of edible rice paper, and the powder inside, mixed with crisp, crunchy pepitas was subtle sweet meets savory, earthy and nutty.  I 'inhaled' the bag in no time - addictive, indeed.  Consider my bouche very amused.  Haven't had this much fun at any restaurant in a long time, valley or otherwise.

The macaron, though in more familiar form, was also mind-blowing in flavor - intoxicating with the fragrant of truffles and decadent earthiness of foie cream between fluffy cloud like cookies with a crisp exterior - texture very much in Parisian style.
 
After that platter I knew I would love the journey of the unexpected at INTRO.  And the main portion of the meal hadn't even started yet.

Next up was the 'formal' Amuse, of salmon skin chicharrone, smoked salmon roe, creme fraiche and salmon cone. Classic and a tasty, refreshing kickoff to the courses that follow.

Bone Marrow / Truffle Ravioli  with parmesan reggiano - rich and decadent spoonful of meat butter meets culinary gold with the super aromatic truffle shaved over the top of a mushroom stuffed raviolo.


Scallop elicited audible moans of pleasure around the table - no exaggeration.  A perfectly cooked scallop with unusual accompaniments was responsible: Chef Paul served it up a baked avocado mousse that was rich and luscious yet full of levity, yuzu ponzu for just the right amount of acidity to balance the richness, caviar for burst of brininess that takes you back to the ocean, and smoked sesame as the finishing touch.  Many diners said this was their favorite dish of the night - I would as well, if not for the foie dime bag which is still top of mind and palate.


Butter Poached Maine Lobster coral nage, basil soil








Variation of Beets goat cheese crumbles, mello, candy walnets, beet macaron, passion fruit










Pate A Choux Gnocchi smoked maple gel pork belly, honey poached cranberries, pine nut soil, pig skin.  The pork belly just melted in our mouths.

Pasta with Truffles truffle fondue, espuma and fresh truffle - simply prepared with just a few ingredients, but so fresh and delicate yet satisfying at the same time. 

Our fish course was Monkfish persimmons, bottarga, reduction of coca and ginger.  The monkfish was so perfectly cooked that we involuntarily sat back, eyes closed for a brief moment, just taking it in.










Then came the meat course: Prime  Hanger epoisses, potato fondue, potato chip, pistu, sauce bordelaise.  The use of luscious, pungent epoisse cheese was brilliant - I never wanted to eat another piece of steak without it again.  And the potato chip, also not usually seen with steak, helped add bit of crisp to counterbalance the decadence of the creamy cheese.

Here's a shot from the other side, as I loved the presentation of the leeks so much as well.















Then as pre-dessert, a shimmering plate was placed in front of us called Gold Mine - a golden nugget with gold dust burst around it, as if it were a meteor-like treat that landed in a desert of edible gold sand - the plating was so beautiful it should qualify as #foodart.  Chef Paul explained that it was meant to be a high end version of a nostalgic childhood treat - like laffy taffy flavored and presented for adults: passion fruit, macadamia, strawberry saffron fluid gel.  Delish.


For our last dish, pastry chef explained the inspiration came from something he spotted by the side of the road while he was driving: a beautifully gnarled, very dead tree, but which had a bit of green peeking through the soil beneath it.  The death and rebirth, and concept of from ashes will come renewal, left a strong impression, and from that memory came Dead Tree made with gianduja ganache, brown butter, chocolate trees.  Beneath the chocolate soil, chef had even buried a green colored piece of white chocolate to represent that glimpse of hope and renewal that he saw in nature.  I couldn't think of a time when we needed that message more, than at the end of 2016.  True artists capture the zeitgeist, and food artists translate that beyond the visual to a multi-sensory experience that resonates with your palate as well - and chef has accomplished that nicely here.

All in all, an amazing experience and very good fine dining deal, and I would definitely return again soon, so excited for this side of the Valley to have a tasting menu of this caliber!  

This supper series is by special engagement only - while Chef Paul and the team wait for their permanent space to be built out next door, in the space formerly occupied by Osteria Firenze. The full fledged restaurant will serve a la carte as well as tasting menus sometime in 2017.  Til then, INTRO will be serving their creative tasting menus, which will change seasonally, Friday and Saturday nights only, starting at 7:30pm with bubbly, first course served at 8:00pm.  Every month will also feature a different fine artist, and their art will stay up throughout the month for guests to view and purchase.

Check it out soon!


*Disclaimer: this meal was hosted.
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INTRO Art Gallery & Chef's Table

4200 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood, CA 91602
Email: rob@verse.la

Friday and Saturday nights only, starting at 7:30pm.  $125 per person, prix fixe 12-courses

Website: experienceintro.com  
Parking: street meters on Lankershim

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun: Day 5: Snorkeling with Whale Sharks and Fresh Ceviche Over the Caribbean

My new year's resolution is to be more expedient in capturing our travel adventures, so on this NYE, I'm going to finish out 2016 by recapping the long overdue last chapter of our epic summer trip to Mexico.

On our final day in Cancun, due to scuba safety guidelines, we were not able to dive (24 hours before flight) - but even on the surface there was a lot of marine life fun to be had, and the snorkeling tour we took turned out to be one of my favorite vacation memories ever!

It was a super early pickup at the hotel, then to the marina for a 7:00am meet.  At the dock, you can rent shortys and other equipment for an extra fee, or bring your own*.

While waiting for everyone to figure out their gear, our guide went over rules of engagement with whale sharks using a clay figure, which I loved and found out he'd bought from an artist at the marina. Their booth was closed at the time, so he very kindly sold his to me for 50 pesos (and it's now one of my favorite travel souvenirs ever).

Then it was a long and very choppy - both hands tightly gripping railings - hour boat ride (remember your dramamine, people!  Definitely very rough on those with motion sickness or back issues) with breathtaking, well worthy ultimate payoffs of up close encounters with whale sharks as well as crystal clear blue sea and whitest sand at Isla Mujeres:



So first, whale sharks.  Since we were in prime season in the region (June-September), we were treated to many sightings up close, even before we got in the water, from the boat!





Whale sharks are amazing, gorgeous creatures whose name can be a little confusing: they are not whales, and not a predatory type of shark that hunts and feeds on meaty fish like most other species that people are familiar with, but are a filter feeding type of shark that is really more a massive docile fish - the largest fish in the world, in fact at up to 40 feet or more - that likes to scoop up plankton at the surface of the ocean with giant flat mouths (and no sharp teeth that are visible to passersby).  So despite their size, they are no threat to humans at all - but just very beautiful gentle giants!

Of course we also got to jump in and swim alongside them. The process was exhilarating: with a very small but agile boat, and us chasing very large creatures who will definitely outswim us - in order to see them up close, our captain had to bring the boat perpendicular to the whale shark as it's swimming towards us.  Swimmers sat literally on the edge of either side of the boat with all our gear on, ready to go.


Once the whale shark was within reasonable distance  - our guide would shout "go, now, go go go!" and we'd jump in immediately and swim in the opposite direction than the whale shark is going - jumping in near its gaping mouth, and swimming towards its tail, to give us the best chance of seeing the whole animal before it passes us by in stride.


Our guide joked that it's ok, the whale sharks don't view us as food - the last time he had a tourist accidentally jump into a whale shark's mouth, it 'gummed' the tourist, thought 'yuck' and spat the human out. Hilarious.  But in any case it was one breath taking, beautiful encounter after another.

Tour guide jokes aside: the whole time, we had to be careful as our guide instructed to keep at a distance for the safety of the animal - we're strictly prohibited from touching them, as they have a gel-like substance that protects their skin, and human touch with all our microbes would damage that substance and expose them to infections - which none of us want!

Here's a short video of the swim (made using Replay app):



Fun fact: spot patterns on the whale shark are unique to each individual, like fingerprints to humans - and scientists can examine photos and videos to help catalog different individuals.  Everything happened too fast for us to try to do anything other than try our best to keep up this time - but all the more reason to revisit / do whale shark swims elsewhere to learn more about these beauties.

It was such an amazing experience and privilege to be able to swim next to these majestic, lovely gentle giants - it really inspires us to think more deeply about everything that we do in our daily lives that could put whale sharks, other creatures around them, and their home, at risk - and creates greater urgency for us to make changes.

After the rigorous exercise of chasing massive, magnificent 30-40 foot whale sharks, we had all worked up an appetite, and our boat crew whipped up, right on the boat, the freshest, most delicious fish ceviche we'd ever tasted, for us to enjoy on deck or in the shallow water (and yes, made with local fish, NOT the giants we'd just been swimming with).




It was a bit of a mad rush at 3pm back to the hotel to rendezvous with @jennybawel (who had completed her whale shark tour the day before), since our flights out were that evening - but international travel meant we had to meet our shuttle at 4pm. But we made it, and were glad to have been able to maximize the last day.

At the airport, we had time to grab a bottle of Xtabentun (~$35 USD)  - liquer made in the Yucatan region from anise, fermented honey made by bees with pollen from xtabentun flowers, and rum, which may have its origins dating back to a Mayan ceremonial liquor - from duty free...
 
...and one last meal of guacamole and chips (guac made tableside!  At the airport!), steak fajitas and pina coladas at Air Margaritaville, before heading out. 

All in all, Cancun / Tulum was a bucketlist trip that fed our minds, bodies and souls with cultural / historical adventure from Chichen Itza to Mayan ruins, to fantastic food ranging from the deck of a small boat to the middle of a jungle to gorgeous Mayan themed setting in a fine dining restaurant, to water adventures above and below from cenotes to whale sharks.

Definitely one of our most epic vacation destinations of all time. Can't wait to go back soon!

Looking for more activity ideas for Cancun / Tulum / the Yucatan? Check out how we maximized our trip in my recaps of Day 1Day 2, Day 3 and Day 4. For more photos from this trip, please visit my Instagram @onemorebiteblog or search with #onemorebiteblog_cancun and #onemorebiteblog_tulum


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Cancun, Mexico

Cancun Scuba Center
Boulevard Kukulcan Km. 6.5, Hotel Zone – Cancun (77500) – Quintana Roo – MĂ©xico
Email: operations@cancunscubacenter.com
Ph: +52 (1) 984 106 80 02
Website: cancunscubacenter.com

Happy Shuttle Cancun
Ph: 1 800 818 9821
Website: happyshuttlecancun.com

Air Margaritaville
Cancun Airport
Terminal 3; 77515 CancĂșn, Quintana Roo, Mexico 
Ph: +52 998 193 0380

Day 5 costs breakdown:

  • Snorkeling: $145pp USD includes transportation from hotel to boat, boat with guide, water, snacks and ceviche
    • Crew tips: $20 per person
  • Shuttle to airport ~$20 USD ($10 per person)
  • Souvenirs: 
    • 1 clay whale shark figurine 50 pesos (~$2.33 USD)
    • 1 bottle of Xtabentun ~$35 USD
  • Lunch at Air Margaritaville, Cancun airport 945 pesos total ($70 USD), $35 USD per person
  • Total: ~$247 USD per person

(See my recaps for Day 1 here, Day 2 here, Day 3 here and Day 4 here.  To see more photos from this trip, check out my Instagram @onemorebiteblog)

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*Tip for those who are not athletic and possibly only exercise once or twice a week like yours truly: definitely use a "shorty" (a short sleeved, knee length wetsuit), which helps you float so you can rest on the surface as needed between vigorous swims, and use a life jacket for the same reason.  You won't need to dive down to see the whale sharks since they feed near the surface.  

Also, having the right fins made all the difference when trying to keep up with large marine animals.  I love my split fins which were super energy efficient and helped propel me forward with a minimum of kicking. I bring these on all my trips as most dive shops don't have split fins for rent.  These split fins are not great for cenote dives though, when you want to be slow and steady in staying in single file formation with your group - so if you dive cenotes in Tulum then you may want to use rental fins which are shorter and not split in the middle.

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