Independence Tavern

Independence Tavern opened in early February in the location that used to house Buddha’s Belly.  Named after the steam-powered railroad line that once ran from Santa Monica to San Pedro, it is now a New American style restaurant with an impressive menu and cocktail pedigree.  Tom Block, a friend who used to work at Beelman’s Pub, became the executive chef at Independence Tavern invited me for a hosted dinner to sample their offerings.

The Independence Tavern

The cocktail menu at Independence Tavern is overseen by Vincenzo Marianella of Copa d’Oro, which is conveniently located just a few doors down.  Rumor has it that he has a trap door that allows him to move between bars without having to step outside.  I started off with The Longshore, a bourbon-based cocktail that’s a little like an Old Fashioned and a little like a flip.  It is has an astringent flavor profile, which suited me fine.

The Independence Tavern

First came a wooden plank of oysters on a half shell.  The oysters were accompanied by smoked salmon roe and a delicate cube of apple. The sweet crunchiness of the apple was a pleasant contrast to the briny oysters and roe.

The Independence Tavern

Next came a shrimp and crab ceviche served with a flatbread more like a papadum than a tortilla.  The crisp flatbread worked well as a tool to deliver bites of tender shrimp and crab.

The Independence Tavern

Around the same time we were all digging into ceviche, another bowl of raw fish arrived. This time it was a red snapper crudo with candy striped beets, tangerines, serrano pepper, lime, and puffed rice.  I loved the variety in texture and the heat of the slices of spicy pepper, but the bites that I had were a little too sweet.

The Independence Tavern

Then came a beautifully plated slice of toast slathered with a smoked whitefish mixture that included shallot, apple, fried capers, radish, and garnished with cilantro blossoms. This was a unanimous crowd favorite. The toast was already cut into four pieces, which I was grateful for. There’s nothing harder than trying to divy up a piece of toast in a neat manner.

The Independence Tavern

To refresh our palates from all the fish, a rainbow-hued bowl of chopped salad came out.  Curled leaves of purple kale, an egg, roasted carrots, green beans, smoked white beans, feta, and candied walnuts was delicately dressed with a lemon mustard vinaigrette.  This crunchy bowl of vegetables was both healthy and appetizing, which I know can be hard to accomplish.

The Independence Tavern

Vegetarians will be pleased to know that the roasted mushrooms with the 62 degree egg and yuzu kosho hollandaise was egg-cellent. Yes, I went there. The meatiness of the mushrooms and the rich egg yolk make you forget that there’s no meat in this dish. The sharp fragrance of the yuzu helps keep the mushrooms’ earthiness in check.

The Independence Tavern

Next came one of my favorite dishes of the night, which was the grilled octopus.  The octopus arm was served whole — great presentation which made me think of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Not only did this dish look good, but it tasted fantastic.  The octopus was unbelievably tender while still retaining its core texture.  The beans, grapes, celery, and pickled chili sounded like a strange conversation, but each element worked well together to form a cohesive dish.

The Independence Tavern

After that, we were served a tortellini duo: some stuffed with herbed goat cheese and others with spaghetti squash with brown butter, roasted apple, and parmesan.  I did not win the tortellini lotto and only managed to pick out the spaghetti squash-filled ones, but that was fine.

The Independence Tavern

Following that pasta dish was another pasta dish with venison ragu.  The house made pappardelle was good, but I found the ragu a bit salty.

The Independence Tavern

Then came a roast chicken with beluga lentils, leg confit, guanciale, and broccoli di ciccio.  I really liked the sweet, snappy broccoli with its spritz of lemon. I had mistaken a cube of guanciale for a cubed potato in the dim lightning, but it was a great surprise for my mouth.

The Independence Tavern

The dark horse of the night was the spicy cauliflower with preserved lemon and Thai chili.  The colorful cauliflower and Romanesco broccoli was crisp, but not hard, and the preserved lemon dressing was perfect.  If this were served on top of some puffed rice, I could see it becoming a popular vegetarian or even vegan entree.

The Independence Tavern

A dish I’d like to refer to as The Flavorbomb came out to top off the meal. The rack of lamb with Thai red curry rub, smoked eggplant puree, coconut, and bok choy was a memorable way to end the night.  The lamb was cooked perfectly, but what really got everyone talking was the eggplant puree.  Its dramatic black color and intense smokiness really outshone everything else on the plate for the other diners.  Personally, I really liked the combination of the Thai red curry and the bok choy.

The Independence Tavern

Toward the later half of the meal, I ordered a second cocktail: The Smoke of Scotland.  With its cask strength Laphroig scotch, it really packs a punch. The peaty flavor of the cocktail makes it a great sipper, but not something I would recommend to eat before or with a meal.  I was concerned that the elderflower liquor would be too cloying, but I actually didn’t detect any hint of it in the cocktail. Lesson learned: trust Vincenzo.

I may be biased because the chef is a friend, but the menu at Independence Tavern is great, especially the “Sea” section.  The dishes on it manage to be exciting and different while still being accessible to most palates.  What’s even better is that the kitchen is willing to accommodate most vegetarian and vegan diets. I hear with enough advance notice, they can even put together a vegan tasting menu. For those who only  want to stick with what they know, there is also a pretty tame sandwich and burgers section.

 

Independence Tavern
205 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401
310 458-2500

Kaioo Ramen

Kaioo* Ramen opened in the first week of February, replacing an unsuccessful hotpot restaurant.  With the LA ramen revolution in full swing, it’s nice to see some new places to slurp the hot bowls of noodle in the SGV.

kaioo_ramen2

On my first visit, I ordered the eponymous Kai Original Ramen bowl in a combo with gyoza.  The ramen came with slick, chewy yellow noodles in a delicious, rich broth.  Unlike other ramen places, the broth is a chicken broth base. The pork chashu topping came chopped up instead of in slices like the picture, but was still decent.  There was also ground pork sprinkled on top, which was a nice touch. My favorite part was the chili and chives mixture, giving eac spoonful of broth a pungent, spicy, taste.  According to the waitress, their style of ramen is Kobe style.

kaioo_ramen3

The gyoza that accompanied my ramen catered to the Chinese palate, which is understandable since this ramenya is located in a plaza mostly full of Chinese customers.  Instead of a garlicky filling, it had green onion or chives.  The skin was also surprisingly delicate and soft without being mushy.

kaioo_ramen1

After spending a week trying out ramen at other local places, Kaioo Ramen managed managed to perk my interest even then. I’m planning on returning next time for the tsukemen and the spicy chicken ramen.

 

Kaioo Ramen
1261 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
626-940-5541

* There’s some confusion in the name. The menu makes it look like “Kai Ramen” but on Yelp it says Kaioo Ramen. And on the credit card bill, it says Kai Oo Ramen.

Ramen Champ — Long Live The Champ

ramen_champ 2

Disclaimer: I was invited by a friend to Ramen Champ and did not pay for my meal.

When I first walked into the small ramen restaurant, what caught my eye was the bold black on white drawings on the wall.  If you look carefully, you’ll see a narrative created by noodles.  While plenty of places are nice to look at, I’m glad to say that Ramen Champ has both style and substance. It’s a rare thing to have a place offer vegan ramen. It’s a rarer thing for this place to not only be a normal restaurant offering non-vegan options, but also have one of the best bowls of ramen in LA.

ramen_champ 5

The tonkotsu ramen here is not for the faint of heart. Literally.  The amount of pork packed into this bowl of ramen should come with a warning label like the ones on roller coasters. The rich soup is less of a broth and more of a porky gravy that coats each strand of chewy noodle to make a perfect mouthful.  The toppings include curling slivers of green onion, crunchy slices of radish, a soft boiled egg, sliced pork belly, and a drizzle of garlic oil.  As much attention should be paid to the flavorful, slightly sweet, soft slices of pork as to the broth.

ramen_champ 7

Then there’s the soft boiled egg.  Oh, that egg! The soy-seasoned egg easily gives way to a molten yolk that barely manages to stay together.

ramen_champ 6

On the other end of the spectrum is the vegan ramen*.  I’ve had a lot of vegan ramen in my life and this is the best.  The mushroom broth is seasoned so that the sometimes overwhelming taste of mushroom is brightened and actually tastes like a ramen broth, including that oily mouthfeel.  The toppings — hen of the woods mushroom, seasoned slices of tofu, radish, and green onion, all work to create a cohesive bowl of ramen.  One of the shortcomings I always see in restaurants attempting a vegan ramen is trying to get too creative by throwing kale, broccoli, spinach, or even sesame paste in.  Ramen Champ doesn’t fall into those traps and instead stays focussed on giving vegetarians a taste of what everyone else is eating.

ramen_champ 1

I would have already been happy if this place offered good ramen, but the non-ramen dishes on the menu were notable as well.  The mushroom tempura has shimeji mushrooms in a delicate and crunchy batter accented with a few shiso leaves.  The vegetable curry (which also happens to be vegan) is made with a fragrant house-made curry powder which is worth trying if you’ve only had the stuff that’s come out of an S&B can.

ramen_champ 4

Then, if that wasn’t enough, there are also house-made condiments to jazz up the ramen.  For a little heat, try the sriracha infused chili oil, which made my mouth do a double-take.  I heard there will also be a house-made Japanese seven-spice (togarashi) in the future.

ramen_champ 8

With all these tasty options to order off the menu, and the attention and care put into even minor things like condiments, I won’t be surprised if Ramen Champ ends up having lines like its forerunner, Eggslut.  It does make me sad that this will probably be one of the few times I’ll be able to just stroll in and pull up a stool under the monochromatic mural and slurp a bowl of ramen without having to wait or battle crowds.

ramen_champ 3

Ramen Champ
727 North Broadway #203
Los Angeles, CA
Ramen Champ

* Normally, this option appears as vegetarian ramen on the menu, but if you’re vegan, make sure to let the server know so that the egg will be left out and the usual noodles will be swapped out for eggless noodles.