1. Hamasaku’s Jewelry Box Chirashi
Wonny Lee and Yoya Takahashi of the California-inspired Japanese restaurant Hamasaku created the most beautiful dish of the night. The word “chirashi” means “scattered,” and it is used to describe a variety of sushi and other ingredients scattered on rice. Of course, artfully arranged is more descriptive of the dish. Hamakasu’s chirashi did resemble colorful jewels, or perhaps a kaleidoscope. Some of the ingredients were tuna, salmon, cucumber, roe, and tamago.
2. Being first in line for Joe’s Stone Crab.
Every time I attend one of these events, the line for Joe’s Stone Crab from Miami Beach is always daunting. Sometimes I go for it, and sometimes I have to refrain in order to cover the rest of the event. Chef Andre Bienvenu knows what the people want. Whether it’s fresh seafood, BBQ or iron-grilled sandwiches, his food is always a crowd-pleaser. So with early entrance Friday, I headed straight for his booth. I received a welcoming Lychee Sake Sangria, but the food wasn’t quite ready. They promised me if I returned in 15 minutes they would remember me. When I came back, there was already a huge throng waiting, but true to their word, they handed me a Chinese Take-out box with Camaron and Chicharron Fritters. The deep fried fritters had big chunks of sweet shrimp. I overheard another guest comment, “I don’t think it was really necessary to give us two.” Ingrates. Maybe next time I will just kiss the cook.
3. Chef Charles Phan’s contagious smile.
Charles Phan is the person credited with inventing America’s modern Vietnamese cuisine when he opened The Slanted Door in 1995 in San Francisco. The restaurant, now located in The Ferry Building, is a regular stop on all of my visits to San Francisco. If you are stuck downtown at a meeting, you can always make do with Out the Door in the Westfield Mall, a low-key outpost of The Slanted Door. Known for its Filet Mignon Shaking Beef, I always go for the noodles. The 5-spice noodles from Out the Door are fantastic, as are the crab noodles at the main restaurant. In spite of patronizing his restaurants, Friday was the first time I actually met Charles Phan. His friendly smile impressed me as much as his Mi Quang rice noodles with turmeric and pork. Just looking at the photographs I took of him puts a huge grin on my face.
4. Hendricks Gin
The set-up for Hendrick’s Gin not only had a cool motorcycle and sidecar for people to pose on, they had world-class bartender Damian Windsor mixing up the drinks. The cocktail menu included a Melonius Melonade, Cucumber Lemonade and an Unusual Negroni.
5. Chatting with Chef Jason Fullilove about the re-opening of Clifton’s Cafeteria.
Like all lovers of old-school restaurants, we have been both excited and nervous to see what the new Clifton’s Cafeteria will be like. To Andrew Meieran’s credit, they have kept the bucolic murals and dioramas, taking everything even further. The various floors will have different themes, including a tiki bar made up of decor from the late great Bahooka. Perhaps the best decisions were to choose Damian Windsor to head up the beverage program, and to turn the kitchen over to Chef Jason Fullilove. Jason told us that he will still use the original recipes for popular dishes like the macaroni and cheese, but will add some dishes of his own. We asked if the additions would be classic American with a spin, and he responded that the new menu items would reflect the diversity of LA. If it’s any help, he served a tart green apple and frisee salad on Friday night. Clifton’s re-opening on September 17 can’t come fast enough.
6. Fresh tuna over coconut rice, nuoc cham, passion fruit curd, crispy rice, and fresh micro herbs from The Churchkey.
We had no idea. The restaurant is known for its fun and innovative takes on American classics, but upon closer examination of the menu, they do serve an Ahi Tuna Tartare. So this was not totally out of the blue. The “sushi” was so huge I was intimidated at first. After watching me examine the handful from every angle, looking daunted, a nearby guest encouraged me, “You can do it. Just take a really big bite of that tuna.” After following her advice and being transported somewhere beautiful, I told her, “You’re a very supportive person.” The coconut rice and fruit curd was unexpected and a perfect match for the fish. Way to go, Chef Fretz!
7. Chef Paul Lee’s Dungeness Crab Cone
The combination of Dungeness crab with cardamom, nuoc mam and green mango sorbet was absolutely inspired. The cool, fruity sorbet is perhaps the best thing to happen to crab meat since melted butter. It’s no wonder Chef Paul Lee of Patina is known for his artful presentations.
8. Badmaash’s Spiced Mango Pork Belly
We are so used to Badmaash’s super-popular lamb burgers, we were kind of surprised by their exiting new dish. Chefs Pawan, Nakul, and Arjun Mahendro cooked up a Spiced Mango Pork Belly Served on a Bacon Biryani. Most of the tastes at LAFW are meant to be eaten in small bites. But this rice dish was hearty and flavorful, I want to have a giant bowlful for dinner.
9. The Hunt for Jeffrey Lunak’s Okonomi Dog
I have not seen this much excitement surround an eatery that doesn’t officially exist since Starry Kitchen. I asked where they are located and I was told that they are nowhere yet. Okonomi Sauce is a mild barbecue-like sauce combining a myriad of ingredients, like ketchup, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, Mirin and sake. On Friday, Chef Lunak was making a bahn mi dog that was totally killer. It was a full-sized hot dog, which was a lot of food for an event like this. But it combined the best of two worlds and was hard to put down. Later I ran into Nguyen Tran, Jet Tila and Aaron Sanchez on a serious hunt for the Okonomi Dog and I was happy to point them in the right direction.
10. Tin Vuong’s Lemongrass Beef and Shrimp Vermicelli Salad.
Tin Vuong has always been close to my heart as a South Bay local, honoring the infamous punk rock “church” in Hermosa Beach with Abigail. But Little Sister in Manhattan Beach has been his most popular undertaking. It’s usually hard to get a reservation, and now I know why. The vermicelli with the Nuoc Cham dipping sauce poured over it was delicious enough on its own. But the tender and intense lemongrass beef pushed it over the top to make it one of the most memorable Vietnamese vermicelli dishes I have ever eaten. As I was taking pictures, a woman asked the guy rushing to pass out plates, “Could I have one without the beef?” He stammered, “I can’t…it’s…it’s part of it.” So a few minutes later I asked him, “Could I have the beef without the beef?” He looked exasperated for a moment, then broke into a big grin.
11. Shuck buddies Kris Morningstar and David Lefevre
I’m not sure how Neal Maloney got two such esteemed oyster shuckers for Morro Bay Oyster Company, but it doesn’t really matter when they were having such a good time. Kris Morningstar was sliding oysters straight into people’s mouth like he was feeding baby birds.
12. The fun food from Holstein’s Shakes and Buns.
Chef Anthony Meidenbauer is as much of an entrepreneur as he is a chef. Starting with Las Vegas, he worked on Block 16, Public House, and Holstein’s Shakes and Buns, which he also brought to Orange County. He even worked with Pink’s to import the definitive LA Burger to Vegas. Having been put off previously by another chef’s pastrami tacos (I will not name names; I love that chef), I was reticent to try Meidenbauer’s Reuben Egg Rolls with Russian Dressing. But they were not only palatable, they were delicious! And I was neither drunk nor stoned. How do you deep-fry pastrami and have it not come out greasy? In case that wasn’t enough to convince me to travel to the OC, they served a Campfire S’Mores Trifle. Spins on S’Mores have been popular lately, but the mousse was so rich and the marshmallow whip so light, my companion raved about them for the rest of the night and returned for seconds.
Honorary mentions: Superba’s nitrogen candy, which makes you breath out the “breath of the dragon.” Seoul Sausage’s Chinese Spiced Lamb Belly. Chef Billy Ngo’s Passmore Ranch Sturgeon Poke with Marrow Soy from KRU/Fish Face. Jet Tila’s Kahlua Pork Tacos. Viet Pham’s Octopus. B Sweet’s Bananas Foster Bread Pudding. Chef Perry Cheung’s Coconut Rice Cakes with Shrimp for Phorage. Tim Byres of Smoke providing craft brew pairings from Deep Ellum Brewing for his dishes.