Sunday, October 25, 2009

HanArum Roll House - Irvine

I do not advocate the eating of those sushi-like products wrapped in cellophane and kept in refrigerated sections of supermarkets. There's just too much at stake, the least of which is flavor. If you're going to have sushi, have sushi. Go to your local itamae, sit in front of him and eat it as it's meant to be eaten.

But when it comes to the Korean version called kimbap, the cellophane is almost an inevitability; because other than a few exceptions, kimbap is mostly sold in supermarkets wrapped under plastic to function as a light lunch, a snack, or an accompaniment to a bigger meal. Every major Korean store in town has a kimbap station, where middle-aged ladies roll nori sheets around rice and savory fillings.

H-Mart's kimbap station is called HanArum, which sells what is possibly the cheapest and most filling lunch you can get anywhere in the Diamond Jamboree complex.

Their tuna roll ($3.50), is tightly wound, crammed with so much stuff to a critical mass that it immediately unfurls in your mouth like a coiled spring of moistness and crunch. A Subway tuna sandwich could only dream of beating it in nutrition, value, and flavor.

The secret is in the ingredients. It contains no less than a dozen components, including tamago-style egg, imitation crab, spinach, carrot, pickled radish, burdock root, sesame leaf, cucumber, tuna salad, celery, onion, and cucumber, with a hint of sesame oil, salt and vinegar for seasoning.

All the layers amount to rings of textures and tastes beyond that in a typical sushi roll. No soy sauce or wasabi needed. Above all, it's refreshingly simple -- a no fuss, grab-and-go lunch.

And if you want even more variety, HanArum also does a combo selection of kimbap for $5.00: colorful medallions filled with just as many yummy things as the tuna roll, but with different proteins at the nucleus. There's cooked beef as well as ham and cheese. That's right, I said ham and cheese.

And yes, they'll be wrapped with cellophane...but here's a tip, come early and you'll catch 'em as they're being made. The ladies will still package it up in plastic as they serve it to you, but it will be so fresh it might as well be made to order by an itamae. Well, the Korean equivalent anyway.

HanArum Roll House
(949) 553-8808
2600 Alton Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92606

Kula Sushi Bar - Irvine

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tacos Tumbras a Tomas @ The Grand Central Market - Los Angeles

I don't go to L.A. proper more than I have to. It's because that section of Interstate 5 between La Mirada and Norwalk irks me to no end. An impermeable barrier that I like to call "The La Mirada Crawl", it is like a force field that keeps the populations of both counties separate and isolated within their own bubbles.

But a few weeks ago, brunch at The Bazaar came calling, so I had no choice but to spend what seemed like a decade inching along staring at brake lights all the way to La Cienega.

And this week, we did it again to go to the Grand Central Market and then afterward, The Getty Villa. Both represent two things O.C. does not have a lot of: markets that have been around since the turn of the century and grand museums built by long-dead oil tycoons.

I know what you're saying: what about The L.A. Farmers' Market and The Getty?

Been there, done those.

The Villa and the Grand Central Market, on the other hand, we haven't done. And when we arrived, we found both were smaller than the Travel Channel would have you believe. Within minutes at the Grand Central Market, we were already familiar with the lay of the land. There were produce vendors, but not as many as there were Chinese steam-tray joints and taco stands. There was one mariscos counter that served caldo de siete mares out of real bowls and lime wedges for squeezing.

More surprising than the size was the noticeable lack of tourists. Instead, the lunch crowd consisted of a hodgepodge of cultures from every socioeconomic strata. Diners included transients with oversized backpacks, downtown office workers in ties, neighborhood residents, and on this day, us: two hungry O.C. bumpkins.

What we were we to order? I shunned the usual info sources of Chowhound, Yelp, and L.A. Weekly for a foolproof method that has proven useful at hawker centers in Singapore and Hong Kong: find the stall with longest line and eat from there.

The longest queue was at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas -- a neon-lit, gaudy stall where a traffic jam of bodies crammed the narrow walkway between it and the next stall. If you needed to get through, you had better find another route. Or better yet, order your lunch here like everyone else.

At the front of the line, meats that had been roasted, boiled and simmered rested under heat lamps. Proteins were plucked out when someone ordered, then chopped by cleavers, and assembled into tortas, tacos, burritos, and combo plates in a flurry of ladles, tortilla, hot sauce, and chopped onions.

When our counterman constructed our burrito, the fillings had reached such an impossible height that for a second I questioned how he proposed to roll it up. Defying all physical laws, he did it, and without a trace of filling escaping.

Also, though the burrito was as heavy as a shotput -- as thick as it was long -- the densely packed mass of rice, beans, onions, cilantro, salsa, and the overly generous heap of shredded carnitas never became cloying.

What you see is the last quarter of it, after my lovely dining companion and I cut it in half to share. Inside: A nicely salty, but not over-seasoned, moist porky carnitas feast which fueled us for the freeway journey to Malibu.

Grand Central Market, Space A-5
(213) 620-1071
317 S Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Fora Restaurant - Long Beach

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Roma D' Italia - Tustin

I'd like to file Roma D' Italia's cannelloni in the category of "Where have you been all my life?" Until last week, it's a dish that hadn't yet met my acquaintance. And if my friend, who treated me to dinner, didn't order it, I would've never been introduced to this sexy Italian seductress. Even as I heard my buddy utter her name, I thought I heard cannoli, which isn't the same thing.

For those who haven't enjoyed the pleasure of cannelloni, it is essentially an Italian enchilada. Although that description doesn't quite do it justice, it's the closest approximation I can make since it has a some sort filling rolled up into a starchy tube, baked in a casserole dish, and engulfed in sauce and cheese.

But there endeth the similarities. The filling is usually veal chopped to a fine pulp, the rolling medium is a homemade crepe, and the sauce is gooey with mozzarella as stretchy as lace. Voluptuously rich and supple, it is as much an enchilada as dim sum is tapas.

To eat Roma D' Italia's cannelloni is to be seduced, immediately and completely. Brought out a fuming, bubbling, you gently lift it out of its warm slumber. The thin sauce covering slips off slightly as you do, revealing its lithe and naked skin. And when you take your spoon to it, it yields at your touch as if it were half-melted Häagen-Dazs. Every part of it that passes your lips trembles in ecstasy and liquefies instantly into a mouthful of savory protein pudding. Now that's amore!

Roma D' Italia‎
(714) 544-0273
611 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

Best of OC 2009
El Francés (the Frenchman): Pascal Olhats
May Garden - Costa Mesa

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Bazaar by José Andrés - Los Angeles

I'm sure that in the countless words that have been spilled about The Bazaar by José Andrés (and there have been many), I won't be the first to say that it is Disneyland. Plain and simple, it is a theme park made for people like me. And it isn't just for the fact that there are three distinct themed rooms, which is obvious; but for the food, which takes you on a ride as head-trippy as a Small World on acid.

The menu, itself, is like a park map which asks: What do you want to go on next? Every section is like a new land to explore. With the traditional, like cheeses and charcuterie, you got yourself Frontierland. And with the dishes that uses the much-bandied-about techniques of molecular gastronomy, it's Tomorrowland.

First, let me tell you about the design of the place: It will remind you of the Haunted Mansion Holidays, the one that incorporates the splashy color schemes and characters of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas -- a merger of the weird and the classical, as if a MOCA installation vomited on The Getty.

There are chairs that glow. A restroom from the future (see above). Shapes that shift. Giant electronic portrait frames which feature baroque art that morphs at intervals. Philippe Starck, the go-to guy for nightclub design, seems to have designed the place to put you off kilter, to conjure up the same kind of giddy childlike excitement you had when you saw an audio animatronics statue move for the first time. Most of all, there's a playfulness here, a testament that imagination and creativity didn't die with Walt Disney or Salvador Dali.

But with everything that titillates and beguiles, you are let in on the joke. Take for example, the wall behind the reception desk. It's covered with 8x10 headshots of people. You gaze at it, cock your head and wonder if you're supposed to know these faces. Then you walk around to the other side of the wall and you laugh your ass off. Now you get it. There are 8x10 framed pictures of the backs of their heads. Punchline delivered.

Once you sit down and start ordering, the E-ticket ride really begins. And though we had reservations for brunch on a Saturday, it turns out we didn't really need it. We had the restaurant all to ourselves. When Space Mountain doesn't have anyone in it, you don't need a FastPass.

The plan was to get the tasting menu for $40, but our server warned us: you don't get much with it, maybe four items tops. Better to pick out stuff yourself, discover things on your own, he said. And he was right.

There was the "12 Tiny Eggs Sunny Side Up", subtitled "Huevos a La Cubana 'Andy Garcia'", from the brunch menu. I still have no idea what the dish had to do with the Ocean's Eleven actor, but when you can get a penny-size, unbroken yolk in every spoonful, you don't wonder about anything else other than why the dish hasn't been copied for every IHOP and Denny's in America.

Though I secretly hoped that José Andrés has found a way to coax a chicken to lay an egg with a dozen yolks, these are, of course (or at least I presume) twelve quail eggs cracked into a round pan. And like it had been through a ticker tape parade, it's showered with confetti slivers of salty rendered ham, chives, and drips of sauce. Beneath the egg disk: a platform of a jasmine rice that's been crisped up to a crunchy texture, like the Koreans do with their bibimbap. The only thing I wished for was a bottle of Maggi to douse over everything, maybe Sriracha, too. Still, it's easily the heartiest of all the dishes we tried that afternoon.

A play on "Philly cheesesteak" is the lightest and quickest to go, since it's the size of a canapé. No hoagie roll is employed here, just something they call "air bread", which has the stale crunch of a puffed-up motza cracker, its hollowness filled with cheese, exactly like an eclair. Instead of chocolate, it's topped with a few microplaned slices of Wagyu beef so thin you're liable to inhale it directly into your lungs if you breathe in too heavily.

There is a section devoted entirely to the Spanish love of canning, and of course, they have to actually serve it out of an oval tin. The sea urchin roe -- one of the best things we ate -- sits like ice cream over silky oil and bits of finely diced vegetables with the jarring crunch of Pop Rocks and the sharpness of relish.

The "Not your everyday Caprese" is true to its name, unless you're already a student of Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne, or José Andrés, whereupon it would be the starting lesson in Molecular Gastronomy 101. The liquid mozzarella that constitutes a quarter of the dish is made by a process that involves syringes, sodium gluconate and sodium alginate. The result is a Mr. Wizard science magic trick that creates a thin film of skin around the liquid -- a temporary water balloon that bursts on your tongue. The trick for the diner is to pick up the fragile orbs with a spoon, along with the de-skinned cherry tomato, the pesto, and the Cheez It-like cracker. And when it's all in your mouth: POP!

There are more traditionalist, straight-forward, no-nonsense offerings like buñuelos, codfish fritters which were a bit salty but ate like a perfectly fried hush-puppy, still damp and oozy in the center. A dish called "The ultimate Spanish tapa!" straddles the line between the ordinary everyday and extra-ordinary once-a-year-for-a-birthday (which this was). Essentially, it's a rich potato salad; but it becomes much more when you start digging and discover hard boiled eggs, carrots, peas, and a nicely fishy tuna belly -- all deluged with blanket of eggy foam, the wonder froth that binds it all together.

Then there are boneless chicken wings, as close as you can get in the restaurant to a McNugget in shape; but also not that far off in flavor either, with a divet of olive puree on top. And a cookie, called volcano, which is a chocolate hazelnut brittle that tastes like an inside-out Ferrero Rocher.

But the best, as they say, is always saved for last. And in the dessert called "Nitro Coconut Island" we found a bulbous, hovering dome like E.T.'s spaceship. What is it? What is it made out of? Is it meringue?

Upon the mere touch of our spoon, it cracked and crumbled, like the climactic scene of an avalanche movie, when one minute a main character is innocently admiring a snow cavern, and the next, a fissure suddenly develops. Then someone frantically yells "RUUNNNN!!!"

In the aftermath of the collapse we found out how they did it: it's a ball of coconut milk foam quick-frozen under nitrogen. As if it weren't already fun as cotton candy, there's accompaniments of passion fruit sauce and caramelized banana coins.

I dreamt of it last night, hours after our trip, which I thank my lovely dining companion for treating me to. And although it was only slightly more expensive than two one-day tickets to the real Disneyland, just like my first trip to the Magic Kingdom, I went to bed overstimulated, my head dancing, swirling with the wonders I've seen and tasted, everything that I've described above.

The Bazaar by José Andrés
(310) 246-5545
465 S La Cienega Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048

To read Pepsi Monster and Kevin Eats' review on
The Bazaar CLICK HERE and HERE
Haven Gastropub - Orange