Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Death Valley and Trona

We traveled to Death Valley for the first time last weekend to share in a wonderful celebration with dear family friends.  Before we headed back to LA on Sunday afternoon our friend encouraged us to exit the valley using a route that was not the route proposed by google maps.  There is a town, he said, that you simply must see.  His urging, plus the fact that the words "alternative route" are, to me, the most beautiful in the English language (take that Henry James with your "summer afternoon"  Have you ever spent a summer afternoon stuck in a small, air-conditionless house with 2 hot, crabby kids who just didn't feel like going to their expensive, non-refundable camp that day? I didn't think so) meant that we would go home through Trona.  We piled into the car, turned on some driving music, I spread the map in my lap ( God, how I love to sit in a car with a map spread out in my lap) and headed out.

About an hour and a half later, heading south, having climbed out of Death Valley, you enter the Searle Valley and then hit the outskirts of town.

It doesn't take much imagination to see the abandoned wagons of pioneers, braving the terrible conditions and the climate in search of a better life.

Trona takes its name from the mineral trona abundant in the nearby Searles Dry Lake Bed.  The history of the place is interesting - the Wikipedia link above can tell you a lot.

This the Searle Valley Mineral soda ash processing plant, the largest employer in town.

If you are one of the thousands of people heading to Death Valley from Los Angeles over these next several weeks I encourage you to take the route through Trona, at least one way.   It's a fascinating look at a small company town in a harsh, harsh climate, natural and otherwise.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Bouchon, Beverly Hills

We were so excited to go to Bouchon, Beverly Hills we arrived an hour before our 9:30 dinner reservation to spend some time at the bar.   First you need to know that there are actually 2 bars, one upstairs in the restaurant, and one on the main level spilling onto the terrace that holds the tables for Bar Bouchon, the more casual member of this pair of restaurants now open on the ground floor of the building that also houses the Montage Hotel.  We decided to have our drinks downstairs so we could carry them out to the courtyard.

Joy behind the bar is a delight. Being fond of manhattans we were happy to hear that she was "working on a few recipes" and we asked her to give us her current favorite. Mmm um mmm mmm mmm...  One key ingredient was the choice of  vermouth; 1789 Carpano Antica Formula.

An extra large twist of lemon topped the whole delicious thing.  Oh, I'd love one one my desk right now... She used rye so if you're a bourbon drinker do let her know before you tell her to have at it.

We headed upstairs, ready to eat.  When you get upstairs you will meet someone at the desk.  Tell her your name ( you know, the usual) and she will direct you back to the second desk where you'll have to do it all over again.  This isn't really a problem but, when my friends arrived nobody was at the first desk. So they headed down the hallway, into the restaurant, and up to the second desk where they were promptly directed back to the first desk. The first desk woman was back and a little annoyed, acting like they were being impatient "We're working on your table right now." As if they had been pushy, coming into the restaurant before checking in with her when she had actually been away from her post, in the bathroom or something.  The 2 desk thing is a necessity due to the way the restaurant is laid out.  I get that.  But I'm sure our party were not the first to be sent on a bit of a goose chase. It wasn't the happiest way to start a long anticipated meal.

Finally seated we were glad to see that the place was full at 9:30 with a nice energy.  

This greets you just after sitting.  The bread is wonderful, the butter exactly as soft and salty as it should be and the pistachio nuts provide a nice contrast should you want something crunchy.  This is a personal thing but, much as I appreciate the whole casual bread on white paper on the table thing, I really am happier if I can have a bread plate for myself.  I need somewhere to set my buttery knife. At places like this I am always trying to find a way to balance it on my fork or something.  I simply hate laying a dirty knife on a table. I know, it's not a big deal. I'm just saying.

We started with a couple of salads. The ingredients were as fresh as could be but, but, and I'm so sad to report this, the goat cheese on my salad maraichere au chevre chaude was not warm.  No melting creaminess to smear all over the wonderfully crisp lettuce and I so love doing that that even though the salad was good I was disappointed.

The onion soup was truly great but above you can see the appetizer of the night - rillettes aux deux saumon with croutons.  See the cunning jar it comes in?  I'm so glad they serve it that way rather than taking it out and plopping it in a big pile on a plate. The server ( the staff was uniformly friendly and prompt) peeled away the top layer of fat and made off with it.  I wanted to taste it but I hadn't had enough wine to insist on keeping it.  The dish, most often made with pork, is basically a mouse that you spread on the toast. This thing, made with both smoked and fresh salmon was so very, very good.  I could eat it with a salad and a light french white and call it the perfect lunch.

On to the entrees -

Traditional french bistro food is why you come here, or why you should anyway, and that's what you get.

Roasted Chicken

 Well cooked, juicy, beautiful to behold.   Make sure you have some more bread for the jus.

Steak frites which I did not taste, except for some of the frites.

They were good but, honestly, a little heavy.  The moules au saffran nobody loved.  The mussels themselves were good but the broth was not.  Maybe if you LOVE saffron but then again, maybe not.  I do not recommend this dish.  If you are wanting mussels keep calling the Tasting Kitchen in Venice to find out when they will be on the menu and get yourself down there.  After a few weeks I am still thinking about that amazing broth.

I had the Salmon with a ragu of mushrooms, fava beans and peppers.  It was good, well cooked, its lightly seared top nicely crisp.

Desserts were a high point.  As it was a birthday we let the birthday girl decide so we got all things chocolate.

Above is an order of the bouchon, which means cork (now you know.)  Little, chocolate, cork shaped cakes, meltingly good in the middle, dusted with powdered sugar and served with vanilla ice cream.

The profiteroles were perfect.  I have been having a little trouble with "house made" ice cream in high end restaurants over the last several months.  Weird textures, not enough flavor, ice crystals!  This vanilla was sublime.  Really just absolutely perfect texture, temperature and flavor.

Now here comes the bummer part. The space is not awesome.  It's weirdly laid out, as I noted, so you have to adjust yourself after you enter rather than having the wonderful, welcoming feeling you want on first opening the door to a french bistro. And it's a little cold, a little, dare I say it, corporate. Yikes. Not what I wanted to feel but there you are.

The designer went with the same ( or at least similar, this picture was taken a few years ago) fantastic floor tiles that are used in Las Vegas ( a side note: Bouchon Las Vegas serves the best breakfast in town. Tucked away in the back of the Venetian it's a lovely place to recover on a Sunday morning.  Try to get seated out on the terrace) but the rest of the space feels kind of, well, fake.

But I don't want to end on that note.  Go see Joy and have a good drink.  Go upstairs and order the onion soup and the saumon rillette and the profiteroles.  Have some nice wine from the lovely, ever changing list.  Have a beer if you feel like it and tell me what the "White Sail" tastes like.  We're lucky to have Thomas Keller in town and if we support him perhaps we'll get something small, intimate and a little more real feeling.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Coral Trees and Fog

The heat wave, brief but effective, is over.  After just 4 days of sudden, intense heat the sprinklers were turned back on after being off for more than a month, the beds lost their winter covers, my children popped a few new freckles, and my high, sexy black boots lost all their appeal.  It was too much, too soon and I'm glad it's over.

Look how it ended-

The fog came in off the sea. See how thick it is among the palms? I watched it come, smiling, and when it reached me I spread my arms to welcome it.  It was a wonderfully thick one. You could feel the water droplets as you moved through it and I had a beautiful, solitary walk in its midst this afternoon.  Most delicious of all was the way it held in the smells, wouldn't let the scent molecules scatter or burn off. The fragrances of the flowers mixed with the droplets so that the air itself became a kind of perfume.

I moved from garden to garden through the clouds of jasmine (above) and mock orange,  breathing deeply, stealing pictures, a fragrance burglar.

The tree in the first picture is called a coral tree ( Erythrina caffra) and is the official city tree of Los Angeles.  Some people say that the name refers to the color of the flowers, some to the weird growth of the branches, which does resemble coral.  Tree lover that I am I don't really like this one. I like my trees a little wilder, a little more likely to whip around in a wind storm.  These things look so, I don't know, managed , I guess.

But I do love this about them

This is what the flowers look like, scattered.  I always think of goldfish that just couldn't take being cooped up anymore. Though they probably knew they wouldn't make it very far, still they flung themselves out of their bowl, preferring the freedom of the fall and a few moments of mad, breathless flopping to swimming in circles.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

One Year

               the ultimate in driveable feasting, and of course the fur is fake!

Dear Friends and Readers - today marks the one year anniversary of A Driveable Feast. This is the 80th post.  I started this blog as a way to express my love for this city, to share my temporary and on-going delights, and to encourage people to really explore Los Angeles.  I have enjoyed this process more than I can say. Creating and maintaining a blog is like designing and publishing your own magazine and I encourage anyone who has thought of doing it to - well - do it!

I plan to continue to blog and am especially happy to report that I am taking a photography class beginning next month so you can look forward to better quality pictures ( I hope). 

Thank you to all of you who have shared your comments both here and personally with me. Your support is has been great.  I really do think that I will take those of you who were kind enough to suggest it up on your challenge to turn some of the best of this into a book.  And thank you to the readers around the world ( hello Larissa, Greece!) who have spent some time here. What an amazing world we live in, how much fun it is to share a little bit of life in Los Angeles with people all over the globe.  The wonder of it never ceases to amaze me.

Finally, an extra special thank you to my dear friend David G. who, over wine in my kitchen, first said to me "You ought to write a blog."  Today is his birthday too. Happy Birthday Doovie! And Happy Birthday A Driveable Feast.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

St Benoit yogurt

I have found what may be the world's best yogurt.  First - I don't know these people and I am in no way affiliated with this company,  I just really like this yogurt. That's it above.  St. Benoit yogurt is made in small batches up in Sonoma County.  It is so fresh tasting!  Made from the organic milk of jersey cows, I swear you can taste the grass they eat (ever so slightly.)  It's sold in large glass jars that you pay a deposit on and return to your grocer.  It also comes in single serving pottery crocks, also returnable.  The large size comes in plain and honey, the small in plain, honey and with a variety of fruit. I am particularly fond of the lemon. Yes, it's more expensive, but it's worth it.   You can find out more, including where it's sold and the company's commitment to sustainable business practices, by clicking the link above.  Here in Los Angeles St. Benoit products are at Whole Foods markets.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, John McPhee

Today is the 79th birthday of one of my favorite writers.  John McPhee is the reason I want to go to Alaska, the reason I know a lot about the Mississippi Delta and the reason I no longer take earthquakes personally.  He's pretty much responsible for the fact that my kids and I share a family-medicine practitioner, rather than having a pediatrician for them and someone for me.  And he's largely the reason that, except for a few blissful, Jane Austin-filled weeks last year topped off with yet another reading of my beloved A Moveable Feast, and a tear-filled day a few weeks ago re-reading The Catcher in the Rye, I haven't read a novel in years. How can one read novels when there are bears in New Jersey?

McPhee's work is hard to classify. He writes about the natural world, certainly, but he writes about people too.  In his most recent piece for the February 8th issue of The New Yorker, the subject is a patch of lily pads in a New Hampshire lake and the elusive chain pickerel it shelters.  But the subject is also his father, dying in Baltimore.  It's the most personal McPhee essay I've read.  The way he weaves the story together; first on the open water, hunting; then in a dark and final sick room and the inhuman ways of the young attending doctor; back into the open and the ravenous appetite of the fish - the mastery of his father's bamboo fishing rod, the final mastery of us all.  It's a beautifully written piece and a wonderful introduction to a writer whose work opens up the world in a way no screen ever can.  McPhee offers the gifts of a scientist's curious mind, a playwrite's ear for language and your favorite college professor's ability to make things that seemed complicated or boring in 11th grade now appear endlessly fascinating.

And if you can get your hands on this issue be sure to read Adam Gopnik's gorgeous appreciation of  J. D. Salinger in The Talk of the Town section.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Oh, to be in Iceland on Beer Day

Today is "Beer Day" in Iceland, a holiday that marks the ending of the 74-year-long beer ban on this day in 1989.  Bars in Reykjavik will be open until 4am...  Oh well, a girl can dream.

I had a great beer last night from the Craftsman Brewing Company located in Pasadena. The Craftsman 1903 is currently on tap at The Tasting Kitchen in Venice.   The whole meal was wonderful, the pastas are divine, but I would have been very happy with a few glasses of this creamy, flavorful and slightly sweet lager and several slices of the restaurant's homemade bread.  I would swear The Tasting Kitchen makes their own butter too and I'm indexing this place for an upcoming post. Yes, there will be at least one post on butter in the future. I have been holding back because I'm a little embarrassed about my butter obsession but, as I have recently decided to accept the things that cannot change (certain things about myself included)  stay tuned for posts about butter, mochas, and things made out of salted caramel.

If you can find Craftsman 1903 ( it's currently on tap at the Village Idiot and I hear it's often available at Father's Office) give it a try. I hope you'll find it delicious.

P. S. did you know that "they" now think beer might be good for building bones because of its high silicone content? You can read the article here