Sunday, May 17, 2009

Los Angeles

I didn't get to travel too much when I was growing up. My parents, outside of the odd road trip, would save most of their money to take my sister and me to India to stay for months with our relatives in Kolkata, which was certainly a valuable experience. However, I always longed to travel to other parts of the world (or even other parts of India) and romanticized the backpacker lifestyle. While I never quite got to do the backpacker thing, I did start travelling fairly regularly as soon as I started working. Unfortunately, this blog was not in existence when I had my adventures (food-related and otherwise) on my trips and recently, my husband and I have curtailed our travelling for various reasons. However, I was fortunate enough to be sent to Los Angeles for work a few weeks ago and we decided to make a mini-vacation out of the trip.

The first day was filled with work for me but my husband walked around downtown LA during that time. He chose Philippe for his lunch, an old-timey restaurant that claims to have invented the french dip sandwich. Despite the long lines, he thought the sandwich was completely worth it. He was even thoughtful enough to get me a jar of Philippe's famous hot mustard, which I have yet to try.

The trip started to feel like a vacation for me only when we ran into the cutest bakery called Vanilla Bake Shop right near our hotel in Santa Monica. We loved it so much that we went back there a second time. On the first visit, I tried the most decadent bite-size peanut butter chocolate tart. But, the shop seems to be best known for its cupcakes and the best way to try several flavors is to take advantage of the 3 mini-cupcakes for $5 deal. We tried a red velvet, a black & white, and a vanilla cupcake. All three were mouthwateringly good and super moist and 3 mini-cupcakes were plenty for an afternoon snack with a cup of coffee.

Our first real dinner in LA was at Joe's, a restaurant in Venice Beach that specializes in farm-fresh, seasonal fare. I would describe the menu as New American. Although I don't remember the exact descriptions of each of everything we ate, I remember the stand out dishes were a rich mushroom ravioli appetizer and a seared duck breast with lentils main course.

We finally were able to enjoy a leisurely brunch on our second full day, when we headed to Blue Plate in Santa Monica. It was a small, bright restaurant that was packed for brunch even on a Friday morning. The food was very fresh and served in extremely generous portions. Both my husband and I got variations on the scramble, which was essentially scrambled eggs with a choice of 4 add-ins. The dinner menu, which was scrawled on a blackboard on the wall, also seemed to include some interesting choices using seasonal ingredients.

Of course, no trip to California is complete without some burgers. On our quest to try the best California burgers, we first hit In-n-Out burger at the Westwood location. Having done our research beforehand, we knew to order our burgers and fries "animal style," which sounds frightening but just really means that your burger and fries will be smothered in a mix of cheese, sauce, and sauteed onions. While the burger was certainly good, it was nowhere near as good as I thought it would be from having heard all the hype. Much more satisfying were the burgers at Fatburger, which also has several locations including one conveniently located on Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade. The Fatburger was juicy and full of beefy flavor. Both burgers were California-style in that they were relatively flat patties and not the bigger and more loosely packed burgers one usually finds in New York.

Our second sit-down dinner was a point of much discussion and we finally settled on Jar, a chophouse in West Hollywood. The restaurant was decorated, I believe, to invoke a chophouse from the 1940's. I found the decor to be, frankly, a little oppressive as the walls were all dark wood and the furniture struck me as a little heavy and stuffy. The food, also, was only ok in my opinion. My husband got what was essentially a modern twist on Salisbury steak, which was very good. However, my coq au vin was seriously oversalted, which I think is a fatal mistake for a kitchen in a pricey restaurant to make.

Because we did not feel like having another heavy brunch on our last day in LA, we decided to graze at the Farmer's Market in West Hollywood. The market is year-round and the emphasis seems to be on prepared foods rather than vegetables and fruits as in the Union Square market in New York. While I munched on a perfectly good chocolate chip scone from one of the bakeries in the market, my husband hit the jackpot with a chicken taco and potatoes mashed with poblanos at Loteria Grill, a Mexican foodstand. It was our first taste of California Mexican food on this trip, which we loved so much that we decided to hit Border Grill in Santa Monica for our last dinner. Border Grill was a huge, bustling restaurant that had just the festive mood we needed to cap off our trip. Everything we tried, from the traditional tamale assortment and Chile Relleno to the less traditional gaucho steak, was fantastic. We knew we had made the right choice as soon as we were served with an assortment of fresh salsas served with fresh tortilla chips. I find California Mexican food to be more authentic than what you normally find in New York, but somehow more tasty than what I had when I actually went to Mexico!

While I had some mixed feelings about LA as a whole -- great weather, quirky characters, but a serious lack of architecture and a troublesome car culture -- the food was certainly a highlight.

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