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Sometimes I feel like Goldilocks tasting food across the city; some dishes are bad, some are just bland, and I keep searching for ones that are just right, hoping to find the best ones. Unlike the notoriously bad review by the New York Times of American Kitchen and Bar, I do my best to post something likeable or hopeful about every place I go, unless something happens so beyond good taste or good manners that I remove a review, which has only happened once (for exceedingly bad manners).

So with all this being said, I will begin with the bad. Jinya Ramen recently opened on Sawtelle and I was looking forward to good broth to rival the excellent Tsujitawhich has lines around the block for a table. Unfortunately when their own press release says the broth is “pumped up with industrial quantities of dashi and dried fish” it means INDUSTRIAL, which a is distinctly different than QUALITY. As a franchise, I did not expect much, but I was appalled to see them using a MICROWAVE to heat up some ingredients! The spicy pork miso I ordered was presented beautifully, but after a few spoonfuls, I could not eat this exceedingly sweet slightly foul smelling soup.

Later that night I had an upset stomach and I woke up with the horrible consequence of having eaten an industrially produced soup stock. It is well worth the wait to eat at Tsujita.

After that experience I had to go get a bowl of something good to put into my system, so I headed over to Urth Cafefor their marvelous vegetarian chili. It is on their menu everyday and my favorite vegetarian chili (besides the one I make myself).

The quality of the ingredients and the blend of perfect spices, make this a filling and savory bowl of comfort food for any cold or rainy day.

After trying something new and something old, I wanted to try something different, so I went to Vino and Tapas in the Valley before a movie screening in the area. They have a Happy Hourfrom 4-7pm with drinks ranging from $4-7 and tapas for only $5. Since they open at 4pm the place was empty, but that was fine with me since that meant I could get in and out before my movie with ease.

I ordered a Kaiken 2009 Malbec which was quite nice, but ended with the much nicer DeLoach Pinot Noir, both $6 each during Happy Hour and served in the perfect glassware for the varietal!

I hardly ever see chicken livers on any menu, so I had to order them. They were a bit overcooked and a bit bland, so I asked for some salt, but even adding seasoning could not save this dish.

I also ordered some mushrooms with garlic, herbs and a Chardonnay sauce which were so delectable that I ate the sauce with slices of bread to soak up every last bite!

To get rid of the taste of the chicken livers, I ordered the meatballs in tomato sauce which had a nice basil flavor and decent tomato sauce. It was not an outstanding dish, but it was executed well and a nice rendition of the classic.

It was wonderful to end on the excellent flourless chocolate cake dessert for $8 with vanilla ice cream and a chocolate sauce. It is a very rare event when I finish a dessert and I finished this one!

I am very grateful to have a happy sweet ending to this week before Thanksgiving, and I am very grateful for all of you who read my blog and for all that I am able to share with you!

Vino Wine & Tapas Room on Urbanspoon

The week-end pleasures of a movie and dinner are not easily obtained when in a mall. Aside from places like Westside Tavern, there are very few restaurants in malls where you would chose to go if you were not already there for a movie or a store.

Mika & I went to an afternoon movie, so we wanted something in the late afternoon and did not want to settle for the big corporate chains, so we tried Townhouse Kitchen+Bar in the Sherman Oaks Galleria. This place is especially worthy of a try during their TWO happy hours when drinks and appetizers are $5 (about half off regular menu prices) between 4-6pm weekdays and from 11pm-1am. They have rotating specials, like $3 Blue Moon Beer, and every Tuesday burgers are $5. It’s a place that is comfortable enough to welcome you in jeans yet nicely appointed enough to take a first date.

Service was top notch from the hostess to our waiter Greg and our small plates were so beautifully presented that our eyes feasted before our stomachs did. I had a glass of MacMurray Pinot Noir for $11 which was served in a stemless glass and when I commented to Greg how much I appreciated the way it was served, he said he was glad because some people prefer stemware. For restaurants and drinkers, stemless are much more practical and I don’t see why anyone would complain about a practical choice!

The first appetizer of Tequila Shrimp ($11.99) had a nice mango salsa and spicy bite. The shrimp were not spectacular, a bit undercooked and obviously not seared, but the spices and salsa helped made up for it.

We chose the grilled asparagus side which was charred and lightly salted with coarse grains.

And the beet lollipops covered in pistachios and served with a blue cheese dipping sauce that was so mild even Mika liked it (she hates blue cheese).

The Kurabota pork belly sliders were well seasoned, but a bit dry and they need either more pickles or some sort of spread on the wonderful buns to make them spectacular; we improvised by adding some of the mango salsa from the tequila shrimp which worked well. They were served with thinly sliced buttermilk battered onion rings and ketchup.

Our table looked like a party buffet!

It’s nice to have an alternative in a convenient location which serves good food and offers specials to night owls and day birds alike. Perhaps this Townhouse in the Valley would be a good place to spend next week-end during carmageddon when the 405 shuts down.

Townhouse on Urbanspoon

Canyon Bistro on Topanga recently reopened after remodeling their outdoor patio, and although I have been to this casual comfortable cafe for lunch and loved their beautiful Roasted Vegetable Napolean, with marinated tomatoes, portobello mushroom, roasted red peppers, roasted eggplant, goat cheese, arugula and a balsamic reduction ($10) and their Saffron Mussels, with mussels steamed in white wine, shallots, cream, Dijon and saffron, served with bistro fries or baby greens ($18), I stopped in last week to try their dinner menu.

I have friends who are bidding on a house in the area and I wanted to make sure this was a spot they would enjoy for dinner if they wanted to go out either for a romantic dinner or as a family with young children. I’m glad to be able to tell them, yes, on both counts.

I had the Rack of New Zealand Lamb, dry herb rubbed and served over roasted garlic mashed potatoes and haricots verts with a port wine reduction ($30). I asked for spinach as a substitution for the haricots verts and loved the garlicky sauteed greens so much I would have ordered it as a side if they had not made the substitution. I ordered the Rack of Lamb rare, and although the very center of the four ribs was rare, the outer ribs were more medium, so keep this in mind when you specify doneness. The lamb was tender and well seasoned, and the port wine reduction was rich and delectable, so the mashed potatoes were merely tasted (not enough garlic for me), not finished. This is a hearty plate so to have finished nearly everything on it is a testament to how well done everything was was (no pun intended, ok maybe a little pun intended).

My friend ordered the Braised Short Ribs in red wine and mirepoix, slow roasted and served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus and carrot and finished with pan jus ($25). She generously gave me a taste and as tender and well executed as it was, I preferred my Rack of Lamb. The red wine and mirepoix sauce was not complex enough to make my taste buds dance, but it was good enough to make them smile.

Since my friend loves brussel sprouts, she ordered them as an additional side dish and we both loved tender sprouts sauteed with bacon so much we finished this dish even after eating out entire entrees.

Finding a great bistro hidden in a canyon is like finding gold in a stream; you know it exists, but you are glad to be one of those who is lucky enough to experience the joy of seeing it in your pan, or in this case, on your plate.

The Canyon Bistro in Topanga on Urbanspoon

It’s been about 2 years since I have reviewed Shik Do Rak (read my previous post here) and although many of the good points remain, some things have changed. As I noted in my previous post, it is very rare to find any Korean restaurant which serves non Koreans (especially non Asians) well; I have literally been told “No, we are not serving” when entering with a Caucasian and seeing that the restaurant is obviously open and serving.

Shik Do Rak still does well when greeting all customers, they still smile and open their doors to all who enter. Since none of us was Korean (they spoke to me in Korean and I said “What?”, and one of us was Caucasian, we were happy to be welcomed.

The portions are still huge and very reasonably priced, with huge portions of Kalbi (marinated or not) for under $28; the grill was about 15 inches in diameter and what is on the grill was only about half of one order. Before any meat arrives they toss the onions and mushrooms on while the grill heats. The Kalbi is very well marbled and they provide scissors and tongs so you can cut up the meat safely so you can maneuver it on the grill.

You have the option of cooking your food yourself, or having them cook it for you and bring it out, as they did for this pork dish. The ventilation is fairly good, with huge hoods over the grilling tables (one side of the restaurant has no grills so they cook your order in the kitchen and bring it out to you if you are seated in the non-grilling section). Your hair will probably still smell of BBQ, but not to the point where dogs will follow you home. The pork was tender, slightly spicy, and crispy on the more grilled pieces; watch out for bits of bone clinging to some of the cartilage.

Numerous side dishes arrived before the main courses to be eaten as condiments and although all of us love heat, but the grated radish was too hot to eat more than a few bites at a time, and the gelatinous green dish was tasted and left alone after my friend Mika said that “It tasted like nothing” and had a strange texture. The burdock root, tofu skins, and bean sprouts were all good, as was a slightly too sauced bowl of green salad. Mika had to have rice so she ordered that as a side (all Korean restaurants only serve rice on the side because they feel that if you have meat,fish, and sides rice is merely filler).

With three of us, we ordered three dishes, so besides the two meat dishes, we had Jap Chae (glass noodles with vegetables and beef). Once again the portion was huge, served on a 15″ plate and piled high. It was well seasoned and loaded with fresh vegetables, but I found it a bit oily.

We were the only non Koreans in the entire restaurant, and it was packed so two years later, what changed? The portions are still huge (we took a third of the food home) and the food is still fresh and well seasoned; I still think that this is the best Korean BBQ restaurant outside of Koreatown. But on the negative side, the one disturbing change was that tables which arrived after we were seated got served (ate and left) before we did and we were ignored after our dishes were served, even after trying several times to flag down a waitress to refill our kimchee dish. Their service is still miles above many places for their treatment of non Koreans, but I am disappointed that they are becoming a more segregationist restaurant rather than standing out as a place were everyone is served without regard to their national origin.

Shik Do Rak - Northridge on Urbanspoon

I was looking for a place other than the big green chain to get an espresso when I saw the Cafe Teramo signage behind the huge flower store on the corner of Victory and Coldwater Canyon in North Hollywood. Maybe it was divine providence, or my years of food hunting instinct, whatever the reason, I was grateful for the resulting delicious find.

Walking into the cafe I did not expect much since it was so hidden and seemed so small from the outside, but the outside appearance was completely different from the inside experience. You can not see anything from the outside except dark glass, but once I walked inside, three HUGE brightly lit display cases showed off cookies, pastries, and cakes in a variety and quality I have never seen before in the Valley. Cafe Teramo rivaled a Parisian Patisserie for the scope and skill of offerings, including three different kinds of Tiramisu, gorgeous full round and sheet cakes ranging from Wild Strawberry to Napoleon, cheesecakes, mousses, tarts, and a range of gelatos and sorbets. They even have petit four versions of several of the cakes and tarts so you can sample several without committing to a full version. They also sell quality chocolate bars, raw and roasted nutmeats and seeds, cookie gift packages, and they serve a nice strong espresso to help wash down their sweet and creamy confections.

The only way this could have been better would have been if they had some tables or chairs set up so you could enjoy your cafe and pastry here instead of schlepping it home. Some of the best things in life only get better with anticipation, so maybe that was a conscious ploy to get you to savor your treats even more by making you wait until you get home to eat them; it gives the expression “Home Sweet Home” a whole new meaning.

>I was looking for a place other than the big green chain to get an espresso when I saw the Cafe Teramo signage behind the huge flower store on the corner of Victory and Coldwater Canyon in North Hollywood. Maybe it was divine providence, or my years of food hunting instinct, whatever the reason, I was grateful for the resulting delicious find.

Walking into the cafe I did not expect much since it was so hidden and seemed so small from the outside, but the outside appearance was completely different from the inside experience. You can not see anything from the outside except dark glass, but once I walked inside, three HUGE brightly lit display cases showed off cookies, pastries, and cakes in a variety and quality I have never seen before in the Valley. Cafe Teramo rivaled a Parisian Patisserie for the scope and skill of offerings, including three different kinds of Tiramisu, gorgeous full round and sheet cakes ranging from Wild Strawberry to Napoleon, cheesecakes, mousses, tarts, and a range of gelatos and sorbets. They even have petit four versions of several of the cakes and tarts so you can sample several without committing to a full version. They also sell quality chocolate bars, raw and roasted nutmeats and seeds, cookie gift packages, and they serve a nice strong espresso to help wash down their sweet and creamy confections.

The only way this could have been better would have been if they had some tables or chairs set up so you could enjoy your cafe and pastry here instead of schlepping it home. Some of the best things in life only get better with anticipation, so maybe that was a conscious ploy to get you to savor your treats even more by making you wait until you get home to eat them; it gives the expression “Home Sweet Home” a whole new meaning.

>Yes, you read the title of today’s post correctly. I am writing about a place named A&W (no, it is not the fast food chain) which serves Dim Sum (until 3pm every day). Aside from the fact that they are the only place to get really good Dim Sum in the San Fernando Valley (three locations), they also serve very good Chinese food, including BBQ meat dishes, fresh live seafood, and they have a gelato, espresso, and boba tea bar adjacent to the main dining area of the recently remodeled Granada Hills location.

Their menu has dishes I would not expect to find in the heart of the Valley, including authentic Chinese choices of Peking Duck, roasted squab, and fried rice with salted fish and chicken. And yes, the taste is actually pretty good compared to the restaurants in Monterey Park and Downtown LA’s Chinatown. The most wonderful part of the entire meal was the service with a smile and a “no problem” attitude, a rare find in the Chinese restaurants in other parts of town.

Portions are very generous, so if there are only two of you, try to find one dinner dish to share or you will end up with food to take home for another meal, which is not a bad idea. A better idea is to go with friends so you can taste several dishes, and if your total dining bill (in house) is $100 or more, they will give you a FREE order of fresh crab!

>My friend Pel told me about a Thai massage place in the Valley that she said was wonderful; Pel should know, she lived in Thailand for some time and she is a massage connoisseur. Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember the name of the place and only knew the general area, so she told me to meet her at Vara’s (which is where she thought she had gone).

It is said that all things happen for a reason, and I guess the reason is that we were supposed to discover a new place together. For those who have never had a Thai massage, it is similar to interactive yoga; you wear loose clothes (scrubs are provided by the spa), lie on a futon/mat and the therapist stretches you and walks on you. It is good for people who love pressure (they will tone it down if you want less), and also a good style of massage for those who do not like being undressed for a massage.

Vara’s is very clean, very hospitable, (the kind and polite culture of Thailand translates to Thai businesses in the U.S.) and very professional. My therapist Ann did a good routine (I would rate her work a 6.5), and Pel’s therapist Da did some good deep work (she rated her work a 7), so the therapists are well trained. I am as picky about my massages as I am about my food, so my ratings are as tough as Olympic judges (who haven’t been paid off-I have never gotten paid for a post about a company or service). Your therapist may not speak English very well, so make sure your preferences are clear before and during your session.

For only $39 per hour (longer sessions and varied styles are offered at higher prices), it is definitely worth trying traditional Thai massage if you haven’t yet. Now that Pel has remembered where she wanted to take me originally, we plan to try that place next week.

Stay tuned for next week’s ratings….

>I’ve tried going to open mike nights, but have never liked them because like a box of chocolates, you really never know what you are going to get (and it usually is not something you like). I prefer regular comedy shows with people who have already cut their teeth and know how to perform with stage presence and without notes.

I had a fun night of comedy at Ha Ha’s Comedy Cafe in North Hollywood watching my friend Kyle Stone finally make the jump into stand-up comedy last week, performing his first real gig at Ha Ha’s. I went with some friends to see him and give him some moral support; I found a low-key friendly place, with a local crowd and some famous comedians. Last Tuesday night Damon Wayans was there trying out some new material, so Kyle was part of his warm-up posse (way to go for a first time gig!). There is a nice supportive vibe to the place; the comedians tend to work off each other instead of against each other, so the audience benefits from the cohesive energy of people who are happy to be there.

Ha Ha’s has a basic menu of bar food and drinks which will do in a pinch, but try to get to the area earlier than the show and have dinner up the street in the new NoHo district just to the north of the comedy club. Go have a snack and a glass of wine just three blocks up at Ecletic Bar and Grill. This bar has some great wine flights to compliment their diverse global cafe menu. If you have enough time before the show, drive over to nearby Barsac which offers French and Italian classics like ossu bucco and bouillabaisse, but I would go for the escolar (fish) that is served with a puree of vegetables, grilled tomatoes and snow peas, with a champagne and sage sauce.

North Hollywood isn’t just a bedroom community anymore, there are laughs, drinks, and good food here to enjoy. With the new Orange Metro line running into the center of the new NoHo district, you don’t even have to drive here if you live on the west side of the valley or downtown, just hop on the metro and remember to leave before midnight or like Cinderella you will end up walking home.

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