Blackball Desserts

BlackBall DessertsBlackball is one of the many Chinese-style dessert shops opening up in the SGV.  It replaces the now defunct Hong Kong dessert shop formerly known as Benser Tasty.  Blackball specializes in house-made grass jelly. If the term ‘grass jelly’ scares you, don’t go running yet. Blackball makes the scary black gelatinous dessert palatable with a bunch of add-ins.  Green bean, red bean, konnyaku jelly, chewy sweet potato, chewy taro, and cream.  The combinations are endless. BlackBall Desserts

On a hot summer day, I really wanted the cooling properties of grass jelly, so I ordered up a bowl of it with green bean, konnyaku, and the chewy pillows of sweet potato and taro.  They’re like gnocchi’s sweet, denser cousins.  Unlike the grass jelly that plops out of a can, the jelly here is softer in consistency and not as herbal.  The sweetness of the other toppings do a good job of balancing out the grass jelly, so good in fact that I felt like I was eating an actual dessert instead of something mildly healthy.

While I’m sad that Benser’s mango and black rice dessert is now just a distant memory, I’m glad that a worthy dessert shop has taken its place.  The heat-lowering qualities of the grass jelly will probably entice a few diners exiting Boiling Point with fire in their bellies across the parking lot.

Blackball Taiwanese Dessert
250 W Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 872-6865

Rustic Canyon

Last night, Will and I finally made it to the west side for dinner. We’d been meaning to try out Rustic Canyon ever since we found out Jeremy Fox was now cooking there. It seemed like a good idea, since he’s been known to cook creative vegetable-heavy dishes and it wouldn’t be a stretch for Rustic Canyon to do some vegan dishes.

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We started off with the marinated olives and marcona almonds.  The almonds flavored with sugar and lavender are said to be one of Fox’s signature dishes and it’s no wonder why. What at first smelled like a bowl of potpourri turned out to be a bowl of addictive, strangely spiced almonds.  The olives marinated with fennel, orange, and garlic were also a nice surprise. Everywhere in LA has a bowl of marinated olives now, so we were expecting more of the same, but something made these olives taste really bright and different.

DSCF1511 The beets and berries, as suggested by our server, was a slightly different take on the ubiquitous beet salad.  The dressing was overly acidic for my taste, and I like pretty sour stuff. It could have been balanced out had there been more avocado in the salad.  The addition of mint gave it an unexpected pop which I liked.

DSCF1514I also had the squid ceviche: a quirky combination of squid and melon that actually worked.  The squid was gently poached in salted water, so not a traditional ceviche.  Each piece was perfectly tender, and the entire dish was dressed well with a good balance of acid and richness from the sauce below the squid. I also liked the slightly sweet pickled slices of chili pepper.

DSCF1509We also had the focaccia with burrata and eggplant caponata. While good as a plate of bread and cheese, it wasn’t as successful as focaccia.  The top of the focaccia didn’t seem done enough and the bread was denser in the middle than I expected.  It seemed like the dough wasn’t given enough time to rise, or something.  I’m not usually one to complain about a dish to the restaurant, as long as it’s edible, but since the server asked how the bread was, I told him the truth. He assured me that this was a different “style” of focaccia, since focaccia differs from region to region and that it was meant to be rustic.  Fine. We’ve had focaccia up and down the west coast of Italy and this was not like any of the different focaccia in any region we visited.

Not pictured was a chickpea stew with tomato sauce which was really good, vegan, and tasted amazingly like meatballs with red sauce.

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We also had a bread stew with tomato sauce, which tasted similar to the chickpea stew. This would have been a safe dish if not for the basil kimchi on top.  It was really spicy and unexpected, and gave what would have been a boring dish a little zing.

One of the hardest decisions of the night was picking between the Tcho chocolate cake or a scoop of sweet corn ice cream. The sweet corn ice cream won out and it was so good I don’t regret it at all.  The slightly salty, creamy, corn taste was exactly what I had pictured when I read it on the menu.  It was so good, I didn’t want to waste any time taking a photo of it.

My feeling about Rustic Canyon is a little mixed. I over heard the staff say that Fox wasn’t in the kitchen that night, so it might have been attributed to that, but I thought some of the dishes didn’t seem that balanced and leaned toward the too much acid side.  And while most of the dishes were good, nothing really blew my socks off.  I couldn’t help feeling that this was a case of a good chef and a good restaurant but neither being a good fit with each other.

Rustic Canyon
1119 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401

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