Monday, June 27, 2011

Food Snob

My palate has changed. I used to be able to enjoy your everyday, run of the mill foods like Little Cesar's Pizza or Trader Joe's produce. Not even the popular restaurants in LA satisfy me anymore....what's happened to me??? My palate has become this insatiable, snobby, princess that only wants the finest and freshest. Fortunately, I live in Los Angeles where there is a farmers market everyday of the week. But what about the rest of my food that can't be bought at farmers markets? Why can't my palate be ok with Foster Farms chicken or the Ralph's meat or seafood counter? The truth is, I've spoiled my palate at home. Loretta and I exclusively shop at farmers markets for our produce, we buy fish from the wholesale fish market in Little Tokyo that supplies the best sushi joints in town and of course our love affair with our local butcher at McCalls. We bake our own organic bread, grow our own herbs, tomatoes and peppers and travel to Pasadena to Jones' every time we need to stock up on coffee. It's not much more expensive than blowing all of our money at the supermarkets. In fact, the produce is cheaper, the meat lasts longer and we have peace of mind knowing that we are eating as seasonal, local and healthy as possible, supporting the local economy and our princess palates are satisfied.

Lately, more than usual I've been called a "food snob". I think I will go ahead and embrace the title...what's so bad about caring for food and caring about where my food is coming from? Without food snobs there would be no progression in the food industry...right? We'd just settle for the same thoughtless, low quality foods from god knows where. You know, I wish there were more food snobs. Maybe I will evangelize my food snobbery...make some believers, attract some followers...lots of followers....paying followers who demand quality and go out and spread the word! We will support our local farmers, butchers, and fishermen! We'll give a damn! Because to all those who want to call me names....the truth is I just give a damn.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

LA Fish Co

I love going to the market, especially markets that specialize and price fairly. Last year, we found one such market: the LA Fish Co in Little Tokyo. This is one of the wholesale markets in LA that supply the many sushi restaurants in the city. Unlike the others, however, this one is also open to the public. Though they encourage customers to buy whole fish, they are flexible enough to sell sides, or 1 lb portions of sushi-grade tuna loin, perfect for experimenting restaurateurs!

Because of its large Japanese restaurant client base, this particular market flies in a lot of Japanese specialties daily. And, because discerning chefs contribute to most of this market's business, most of the product is extremely fresh, fresher than anything you'll find in even the best supermarkets. Parrot fish and New Zealand snapper were two crystal-eyed options this last week.

In addition to their Japanese specialties, the LA Fish Co also sells seasonal fish. It was exciting to see whole, super-fresh white seabass, black cod, and halibut. I've never broken down halibut, but it looks a little daunting to me, perhaps because of those two eyes slightly off-kilter on the same side of the animal.

Perhaps most exciting of all were these spiny animals, called sculpin, or cabraco in Spanish. According to some makers of Spanish bouillabaisse, the head of the skulpin is necessary for the fish stock. As a serious fan of good bouillabaisse, I've determined to make one for my fish station. What it will go on is tbd. Can't wait to pick a couple of these monsters up this week.

100 Years on Broadway

As part of the Bringing Back Broadway initiative, the Palace Theatre opened its doors after a recent renovation to showcase a history of Broadway as the former entertainment and commercial capital of Los Angeles. Incidentally, this summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Palace, which opened in 1911 for vaudeville and eventually, film.

From 1910 to 1931, 12 theaters were built on Broadway from 3rd to 9th Streets. They served as music halls, vaudeville and movie theaters, and even a "legitimate" dramatic theater. Many of them were extravagant and ornate, and each tried to trump previously built theaters in detail, seating capacity, or sheer height. The entryway to the Palace characterized the sometimes European castle, sometimes fairytale, sometimes gothic architectural tastes of the period.

I especially enjoyed the lighting underneath the balcony. The light bulbs had carbon filaments, which created a charming and romantic feel as you sat underneath them in the orchestra. The detail on the glass wasn't lost on me either.

In the hundred years since theaters started going up on Broadway, most of the theaters had been shut down at one point or another due to financial issues. Movie theaters were especially hard hit after WWII when city residents started relocating to suburbs and legislation separated ownership of movie studios and movie theaters. As the theaters struggled in their independence, many came to rely on Spanish-language films to help fill their seats. Broadway soon became a vivid entertainment center with restaurants, shopping areas, and movie places for the immigrant community.

As Broadway enters a new phase of revitalization, it is clear that Broadway is drifting away from its swap-meet, bridal shop, food stall identity and towards the general gentrification taking over Downtown LA. What sets Broadway apart, however, is the pervasive desire to cling to its historical roots. Whether these roots will manifest in a robust (English or Spanish-speaking) entertainment district, art center, food hub, or all of the above is yet to be determined. After learning a brief history of the area today, I'm just super excited that Ración gets to be part of whatever it decides to be.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Our best tasting yet.

A couple of days ago, we had some friends over for TM's best tasting ever. It was made even better because all I had to help with was the bread! My starter, which has been going for several months, is in a good place so the bread turned out well, even though it was slightly over-risen because of the drama with the pig (story to follow).

I had to pick up the pig from the butcher, which was terrifying for me as anyone who has heard my Bouley hazing story knows. Suffice it to say, seven years of avoiding contact with meat as a vegetarian ended at the ears of a suckling pig, whose head (complete with cigarette in mouth) was stuffed onto a shelf on my low-boy refrigerator by some very mischievous line cooks during my first few weeks in the kitchen. The suckling pig I picked up on Wednesday was a three hour ordeal because I had to gather the courage to touch what looked like the Bouley pig's long lost body.

TM prepared the pig very simply: upside down to start with EVOO, sliced onions, salt and pepper, and a couple cups of water. Presumably, the skin won't stick to the bottom of the pan with the water. And, you start the pig upside down because the skin gets crispy faster than the meat cooks so you only want to flip it about half-way through. The finished product was indeed quite beautiful:

Here's a close-up of that beautiful crisp, astonishing for an old crappy home oven:

The pig was served with its roasting juices, which was a concentrated version of itself: clean flavors, slightly gamey, very robust. I could only eat a piece because of my earlier trauma, but I'm pretty sure our guests were blown away. For me, the star attraction of the night was a lamb carpaccio with poached blueberries, marinated goat cheese, and an almond olive crumble. Not only was it a beautiful presentation, but the flavors were playful and had tremendous range, a combination of sweet, sour, savory, briney. Basically, all the flavors that are pleasant in this world. I could have done with more lamb since the lamb we got (thanks, McCall's!) was so mild, but all-in-all an stellar dish.

Our final dish was a marinated seafood dish with tuna, white anchovy, calamari, Spanish olives, and pickled radishes. We found these beautiful olives from a gourmet food stand at the Atwater Farmers' Market called Christina's From Spain. The olives were from a small artisanal farmer in the La Mancha region of Spain, an up-and-coming region for wine as well! The fish we got from LA Fish Company in Little Tokyo, our go-to fishmonger.

We didn't serve dessert at this tasting, but our guests dug into some beautiful stone fruits we picked up from the farmers' market. It was a perfect end to a meal where we really let the ingredients drive the recipes. Our philosophy moving forward: spend less time cooking and more time eating.

Thanks for the photos, Tim!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Our first contractor meeting

So. We finally met with a contractor at our proposed spot in the Eastern Columbia today. Perhaps we should have done it sooner so that we have a more accurate idea of what our costs will be. I suppose we could have done it to have another opinion on the build-out process. Regardless. We met with a contractor today. And, we liked him! He came as a recommendation from our friend Bryant, who just launched a restaurant. Though Bryant didn't use Triple Five in his own build-out, he recommended that we reach out to Triple Five first. Interesting.

We wanted to meet at the space to see if he could identify any issues. Unexpectedly, he offered to review the lease (we've had two lawyers look it over already, but this is the sort of thing that needs lots of eyes). He also gave us a ballpark range for build-out. Granted, the spread was $160k. At least we have a better idea now for what we need to raise. We also feel more confident that we know the general process for launch, i.e. time-line, permitting, people to involve, etc.

We then followed up our meeting with lunch with our friend, who is starting a bakery down the street. She decided not to use a general contractor. She's using a project manager instead so she can save a bit of money. I'll need to explore this idea, and the idea of using an expeditor/engineer instead of an architect, but my initial sense is that we might save some headache with a contractor. As with all things, however, our options will be determined with a better idea of our cash situation. So. As with all things thus far, we wait for new developments. Stay posted.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ración at the Downtown LA Artwalk

A couple of months ago, Lisa (the manager of the exhibit at the Eastern Columbia) suggested that Teresa and I cater some tapas for Artwalk. We thought it would be a great opportunity to meet some people in the building, and to see the public's reception to our food. We decided to make chicken croquettes with membrillo honey and goat cheese foam, and our chilled octopus salad with radishes and blood oranges. We got a great reception with the building's residents, who were exactly who we envisioned as our target market! Young professionals, health-conscious eaters, people who understand that Spanish food isn't Mexican food. Since the Eastern Columbia is slightly off the beaten path for Artwalk, we had a chance to really connect with the people who came by.

This month we catered for Artwalk again and made pan con tomate on home-made bread, and beer-braised meatballs with salsa verde. People dug the flavors and took the initiative to make sliders out of both tapas. The food was slightly more "throw-down," and tasters came back for seconds and thirds. The ingredients were probably 1/3 the cost of our first tasting, and took half the time to put together. Even though we haven't started selling our food yet, it is extremely helpful to get the real-time feedback from Artwalk. We love that people are equally appreciative of composed dishes made with more "prime" animal cuts, and more humble preparations. As one woman so aptly put it, "you can just taste the love in the food!"

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Question: do we need an architect?

Yesterday afternoon, we met with David and Derrick from SODA, the architecture/design firm in Downtown Los Angeles working on the Umami concept at 9th & Broadway. Yes, it's across the street from our proposed location. We haven't had to determine an architecture firm yet (though we've obtained proposals from two of our architecture friends or their firms) because we are waiting to secure our construction loan. Since we're moving forward with the loan process (tomorrow is our first official meeting, cross your fingers!), we will need to decide on an architecture firm by next month so that construction can coincide with the disbursement of funds. Fingers crossed!!

Our time-line and our budget are very tight. Time-line because we have a limited rent abatement and the goal is to open before the abatement runs out. Budget because...well, just because. As with all things, we are asking a lot of questions and talking to as many people as possible so that we can make an educated decision. In this case, our homework has definitely paid off. Schematics, health department code, we gotcha. Oh Lisa at the Department of Buildings? Yea, we met with her a few months ago.

Ostensibly, the SODA guys are our type of firm: young, ambitious, hospitality-focused, located and connected in Downtown. Our meeting went well. They seemed to understand our time and budget constraints. We will get a proposal for services by Friday. At the end of the day, however, I guess the question is whether we need an architecture firm. Start-up restaurants have the luxury of choosing to forgo higher professional fees by hiring an engineer to design kitchen schematics. The design of the restaurant would then be up to the contractor and owners. Architecture firms provide experience, construction oversight, and design savvy, all useful things when you can afford them.

Whether we can afford an architect isn't so simple as whether their fees fit into our budget. If, for example, we can save a month in the permitting process because of an architect's knowledge about city processes and another month in construction time because the architect's project management skills, we've effectively saved $7k in rent (and potentially earned 2 months of restaurant revenue from an earlier launch date). If the architect manages to save us another $10k in furniture and fixtures because of a relationship with a vendor, the professional fees would take care of themselves. None of these things are guaranteed, however, so you get our quandary.

Answer: I don't know!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Grease Interceptors 101

Today I attended a workshop on Grease Interceptors organized by the business advocacy group, the Central City Association. We were invited by our very nice landlord who is, presumably, a member of the CCA. Price tag for membership starts at $1,500, big bucks for us small potatoes. There were developers, architects, expeditors, and restaurateurs in attendance. Well, mostly people of the first three categories. Most developers decide in advance whether they will court restaurateurs to lease their retail spaces and do so by obtaining big ticket items like grease interceptors or Conditional Use Permits in advance. Our space had been designated a grocery store by the developers (though the current owner is amenable to a restaurant) so there I was today, learning about grease interceptors.

A grease interceptor basically filters water involved in cooking or cleaning (though not sewage or bar water, mind you) to separate and collect oils that would block sewer lines or harm the environment if poured down the drain. The reserved oil then gets pumped out and disposed of properly. Since the trucks that remove the oil need regular access to the interceptor, it has to be installed in an accessible spot, i.e. a parking lot or private alley. The reason why the interceptor is of such interest to developers is because of the cost - the tank and electrical components are only $10k-$15k, but the installation involves demolition and depending on the configuration of the existing guts of the building, can run up to $75k. Presumably, a developer can save money by installing a larger interceptor for multiple restaurants on a property (think strip mall or food court).

I worked once for a restaurant that was able to side-step the interceptor requirement because it was in business before the regulations came into effect in 2005. The restaurant has a drum outside the delivery entrance that the staff fills manually with cooking oils from the restaurant. The drum is stinky and leaks occasionally onto the delivery driveway. Aside from disliking this past experience, I have few thoughts about this whole interceptor business since our landlord agreed to take care of it as part of our TI. Though, I do hope it's a smooth process to get the plans approved. From what I understand, a restaurant build-out can take as little as three months, but permitting can take a year or two. Since we signed up for the Restaurant & Hospitality Express Permitting Program (thanks, Raul!), we've been quoted a shorter 4-6 month time-line. This 6 month time-line is in our projections, which unfortunately for us, have little wiggle room. Eh, so it is. Go grease interceptor!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wines, right at the source.

I think I understand why Americans with a little bit of wine knowledge tend towards snobbery. Wine is a hard study! There are so many grapes, regions, vintages, producers, and combinations thereof that it's easy to feel proud for knowing a little more than your average Joe. Ultimately, however, these people need to get over themselves because these attitudes make the average consumer hesitant to venture outside their comfort zones. Then, everyone else gets stuck with wine lists comprised of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Big, tannic Cabs and over-oaked Chards to boot.

Though I know I don't like big, tannic Cabs and overly-oaked Chards, I don't know a ton about wines. I'm sitting for my Certified Sommelier exam at the end of August so that I can force myself to learn more. Despite not knowing all the facts, TM and I are very opinionated about what we like, and have had the privilege of tasting quite a bit at local wineries and with vendors. We know how to identify quality in wines and find value in lesser known regions and varietals. So, when we put together our list in NYC and discovered some stellar local wines from the Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Long Island, we decided that there was no reason for us not to feature locally-produced, sustainably-grown options in our restaurant-to-be in Los Angeles.

As luck would have it, some winemakers have discovered that traditionally Continental-climate-loving Spanish grapes can be coaxed to adopt to the climate and elevation along California's Central Coast and in Oregon. At a recent tasting at our favorite local wine shop, Silverlake Wine, we tasted 3 local Grenache (aka Garnacha in Spain) wines by Qupe, Ethan (Qupe winemaker Bob Lindquist's son), and Barrel 27. We both admired the biodynamically-produced Qupe for its spice, elegance, and long finish. The Barrel 27 was also stunningly complex for its price-point, so we brought a bottle home to enjoy with some home-cooked Spanish fare.

The Albarinos we tasted were not all from California; the staff at Silverlake Wine mentioned that it wasn't quite cool enough to reproduce the conditions in Rias Baixes. Rightly so, the Albarino from Oregon and California were delicious, but didn't quite have the same crisp citrus flavors and minerality of Spanish Albarinos. Is "warm" an appropriate descriptor?

Shortly after our tasting, we found ourselves in the Northern end of Malibu for a friend's BBQ. On a whim, we decided to make the hour trip up to Santa Barbara to discover some other Spanish varietals right at the source. We sought out the Qupe tasting room in Los Olivos, partially because of the Grenache we so enjoyed. Incidentally, Bob Lindquist's wife Louisa had started a line of exclusively Spanish varietals. We tried the Grenache Rose, which was aptly described as a strawberry creamsicle. It had a tremendously round mouth-feel. We also tried the Tempranillo, which was a different style than we expected - bright fruits, medium bodied, dusty. The tasting room manager, Robert, gave us some terrific advice regarding a Private Label, kegged wines (to save on bottling costs and reduce waste caused by server error and corkage), and a winery in Lodi specializing in Spanish varietals called Bokisch. Yay!

After Qupe, we wandered down the street to Tre Anelli, which produces Italian and Spanish varietals. We couldn't help but tell the tasting room manager Janeen all about Racion, and she couldn't help but treat us to three additional tastings. We brought home the Verdelho, which tasted like a Chardonnay we had from Channing Daughters in NY (?!) and the Grenache, just because. We didn't get to taste the Grenache in the tasting room, but the Italian varietals were all well-balanced and flavorful.

Our trip was too short. I wish we had another day just to sit, drink, and relax. Though short-lived, we learned so much about where we want to go with our wine program at Racion. And thankfully, I got fresh inspiration to sit and study for my wine exam. There is still a long way to go, but how special will it be when we're able to bring in small-batch, local, native Spanish varietals, have our own Private Label, and/or tap kegs to bring high-quality wines at a lower economic and environmental cost?? Very cool.