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In and out. 4 hand roll special. I devoured the 4th: blue crab, before snapping a pic.

Whenever I’m in San Francisco for work, the pre-lunch conversation usually goes like this:

Me: “Where to go for lunch?”

Colleague: “How about we go to blah-blah?”

Me: “What’s that?”

Colleague: “It’s Chipotle for Korean/Vietnamese/Thai/Japanese/Indian food.”

The fast-casual, assembled to order, fresh ingredient restaurant has been popular in San Francisco and I usually lament that there aren’t more of those in LA.  Well, now there’s a Chipotle for sushi right in downtown LA called Kazunori.

Unlike its SF variants, this one has a limited menu and mainly serves handrolls.  While there are sushi purists who lament this Chipotlezation of the sacred Japanese art of combining fish and rice, I embrace it.  There are times where I want sushi but I don’t want to commit to 2 hour lunch, but I also don’t want to ride the danger zone of pre-made rolls at the supermarket deli.

KazuNori is a tiny restaurant tucked next to a downtown parking structure.  The U-shaped bar has a bunch of stools pulled up to it and you’re greeted by a simple menu that can be checked off, dim sum style, upon entering.  The menu is limited to 3, 4, or 5 hand rolls or a la carte, or cut rolls for takeout.  I sat down at the nearest open spot and checked the 4 handroll option with the daily special (toro), salmon, bay scallop, and crab.

For its second week of opening, the KazuNori handroll machine is efficient.  The sushi chef handed me a roll about a minute after I turned in my menu and as I finished rolls, the next one would be made and handed to me just as quickly.

I can talk about the fish, which was of decent quality, but the stars of the handroll are the nori and rice.  The rice was served warm, bordering on hot, and seasoned assertively. Although you have dishes to pour soy sauce in, the soy sauce was unnecessary. Each bite was perfectly salted thanks to the seasoned rice.

Then, there’s the nori.  The half-life of toasted nori is a short one. The distance from the sushi chef’s hand to your mouth should be as short as possible to maximize on optimum nori time.  At KazuNori, the distance is short enough that the nori enters your mouth still toasted enough to flake off, almost like a good croissant.  The optimum toastedness of the nori makes it hard not to scarf down each handroll as it is presented in front of you.

Of the rolls I had, the bay scallop and crab roll stood out. The bay scallop had a mayonnaise-based sauce, which usually isn’t my thing, but in this case, highlighted the velvety texture of the scallops.  The tiny amount of fish roe mixed in gave it a nice textural contrast. The ubiquitous crab roll was lighter on the mayonnaise if there was any at all, and the sweet taste of the crab meat was a perfect meal-ender.  Who needs dessert when you can finish with the crab roll?

KazuNori is located at strategic spot in downtown LA.  Because a meal there is fast, it’s perfect for someone working downtown.  The price is decent, not counting the $5 to park in the lot next door.  While the craftsmanship and quality may not be as good as the 3-handroll special at Kiriko, I do like that the chef waits for you to finish each roll before making the next.  Once they get their beer license in order, I am sure its 11pm closing time will make it a popular spot for the late-night dinner crowd.

KazuNori Sushi
421 S. Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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Well, I finally made it down to Maruhide Uni Club.  When I first read about this uni-lover’s heaven, I really wanted to go, but it was just so far south that it didn’t seem worth it.  I’m here to tell you it is worth it.  I had the uni ikura salmon don and it was every bit as good as I had hoped.

Yes! Uni explosion in my mouth.

The uni was fresh, rich, salty, and tasted like the sea. I like that the restaurant provides different types of uni, which made it easier to compare tastes.  Some bites were fresh and sweet, while others had a more savory, salty note.  What surprised me was that the salmon in the bowl was also decent.  The three generous pieces had that wonderful oily, salmon texture and the perfect amount of salt.

Instead of the usual tamagoyaki, the bowl also included slices of uni tamagoyaki, which had the briny sea urchin layered within the rolled omelette.  It was the first time I had it and now I’m wondering where it’s been all my life.

The included bowl of uni soup was an enjoyable departure from the usual miso soup.  Its light, delicate taste was a foil to the unctuousness of the rest of my meal.

At $19 for this amount of uni, salmon, and salmon roe, it was a steal.

One caveat: the menu is fairly limited, which is great because then people can focus on just eating uni.  I was looking for edamame or an avocado maki for Robin and they didn’t have either. Lucky baby had to eat uni omelette, ikura, and rice for lunch.

Maruhide Uni Club
2130 W Redondo Beach Blvd
Torrance, CA 90504

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I don’t usually think of Spanish food as vegetarian friendly, but when I inquired about the menu at Contigo, the woman who picked up the phone said it would be no problem for not only a vegetarian, but even a vegan. And no advance notice was necessary! With that type of attitude, I couldn’t not go to Contigo with Will.

The restaurant sits in the middle of Noe Valley, flanked by expensive childrens’ apparel stores and expensive pet apparel stores. The space itself is scarcely big enough to contain a large wood-burning oven, the open kitchen, a bar, a few seats, and an outside patio.  Thankfully, the outside patio had heaters and was some-what enclosed, which made our dining experience a lot nicer.

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I started off with a piece of toast with house-cured sardine and a nice bite of olives and anchovies. It was the perfect thing to get me in the mood for the food to come.

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Will had the avocado and pea toast topped with fresh porcini.  The avocado and pea mixture was good enough already, but the porcini sent it over the top.  Can I just sit outside and eat a plateful of that with a glass of Txakoli, please?

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The white gazpacho was similarly great.  It really surprised me because I’m usually lukewarm about gazpacho. This one was creamy, savory, and had those great tart cherries as garnish.

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Next, Will had the chickpeas and spinach, which looked almost like an Indian dish.  They were pretty good and nicely spiced.

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I had the chorizo, chickpeas, and tripe, which is a fairly common Spanish dish.  It was my favorite thing of the night. The tripe was wonderfully tender and the amount of paprika from the chorizo was perfect.  The dish had that wonderful stick-to-your-ribs satisfying taste that only things that are slow cooked for a long time seem to have.

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We also had the patatas bravas which we knew we couldn’t pass up as soon as we saw it on the menu. These were probably the best version of the dish I had ever had. The potatoes were shatteringly crispy on the outside, hot and fluffy on the inside. And the sauces! Wow.  I’m drooling just thinking back to that dish.

Is Contigo worth the bus ride into Noe Valley? Yes.  Would I return again? Yes.  Am I sad that there’s nothing like that near me? Yes, but my wallet is happy.

Contigo
1320 Castro Street (at 24th)
San Francisco, CA 94114
415.285.0250

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The Good

The LA Weekly comped my 2 tickets in hopes that I would write about it. Which I am doing right now.

One of the first tacos I had this Saturday was the bacalao/octopus/seafood salad taco from La Guerrerense of Ensanada. It was so good that I went back to get a second helping. It was so good that both times, I devoured it before taking a picture it. The only bad thing is that I’d have to go to Mexico or wait till next year to try their taco again.

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Eggslut’s pork and quail egg taco was perfect:  Crispy, flavorful pork underneath a perfectly fried quail egg and a pile of thin-sliced pickles and herbs. I don’t know what that puree under the pork was, but it was tasty.  Like their GCM location, the Eggslut tent also had a long, winding line in front of it.  I hope this taco makes an appearance on the GCM menu soon.

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The surprise of the day was that there was a vegetarian taco stand that was super nice about leaving off the dairy to make a vegan taco. The second surprise was that their taco was really good. Taco Maria’s mushroom chorizo taco with house-made chips on top were so good I almost thought Will got a meat taco by mistake.  The best part was that because their taco was vegetarian, there wasn’t that much of a line for it, so it was easy to get seconds.  People who avoided that tent because it was vegetarian missed out, but more tacos for us!

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Thanks to a tip from a friend, I got in line for a smelt taco from Corazón y Miel. It was artfully plated and tasted as good as it looked. The smelt was full of eggs that popped delightfully between my teeth. This was a different take on a fish taco that I enjoyed.

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I had another octopus taco which I believe was from Picca.  It was good, but its flavors were nowhere near as good as the one from La Guerrerense. I thought the flavors of Picca’s was a bit muddied and not as bright as what I would expect from them. What a great problem to have: one tasty octopus taco was not as delicious as another one.

 

The Bad

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I really wanted to like the fish taco at Pez Cantina. They had an impressive array of house-made condiments for the fish taco. But no amount of condiment could disguise an over-cooked piece of fish.  The batter was nice and crispy, but the fish itself was dry, hard, and tasteless.  Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by fish tacos from Taco Baja Ensenada, but this one was just not worth the line.

 

The Ugly

The line to get into the event was pretty slow.  Considering most people had printed tickets or tickets on their phone, I would expect the line to get processed pretty quickly, but that wasn’t the case. But that line was nowhere near as bad as the line for drinks.

Whoever decided that alcohol and bottles of water would be bought at the same measly handful of locations needs to re-think that plan.  Those lines snaked through several food lines, adding to a lot of confusion. If I were one of the people who bought drink tickets with their ticket and I had to stand in a 30-minute line for a $5 crappy beer or sticky sour mix cocktail, I’d be pretty angry.  I didn’t have drink tickets and I’m still angry about that.

From what I hear about the tequila garden, it was similarly disappointing.  I get that the Weekly has to make money off of an event like this, but having big soulless tequila vendors and Spearmint Rhino stands in the festival clashed with the better curated food vendors.

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When I searched for “vegetarian friendly dinner” in the financial district of San Francisco, one restaurant that caught my eye was Cotogna.  Its colorful website was bursting with pictures of fresh vegetables, so I didn’t have to feel silly about calling them and ask if it was a good idea to take a vegan there.  It just so happened that the night we were dining there was also a Sunday Supper night, which I was looking forward to.

I had the regular set for Sunday Supper while Will had a modified vegan set.  I didn’t get to take too many pictures because I was both starving and trying to hold an active infant in my lap for the start of the meal. Luckily, the staff was nice enough to borrow another highchair from a nearby restaurant so that we could put Robin in it and eat like somewhat-civilized people. Robin seemed to enjoy the food as well.

One thing Cotogna is known for is their fresh pasta and it did not disappoint. My taglioni was the perfect amount of al dente — I expected no less. What really impressed me was that they had to use dried pasta for Will’s dish since most fresh pasta isn’t vegan and even their dried pasta dish with tomato sauce, which sounds boring, was really good.  Will declared that he would be happy to return to the restaurant soon.

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There was also a beet salad appetizer. While it was good, it didn’t blow me away. I’m just bored of beet salad.

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In lieu of a meaty protein dish, Will got this hearty bowl of fresh corn and chanterelles. He really enjoyed this and was happy it wasn’t yet another salad. The only odd thing about this dish was the choice of purslane for garnish. It made the dish look pretty, but the lemony taste of the purslane didn’t really mesh well with the rest of the elements in the bowl. I had the same thought about the fennel fronds in my lamb dish.

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Other than the odd taste of the fennel in the lamb, I enjoyed my meaty main. The lamb was not overcooked and the eggplant puree served with it added the necessary pop of flavor to an otherwise heavy bite.

Since I picked Cotogna because it was vegetarian friendly, close to our hotel, and had something special for Father’s Day, I have to say it was a hit. It could be the Aperol flip that I had to start with, but I also thought the wine selection by the glass was both interesting and reasonably priced.

The only downside to dining at Cotogna is that it’s going to be hard to decide between eating there or Barbacco next time I’m in SF and want that type of Californian-Italian food for dinner.

Cotogna
490 Pacific Avenue,
San Francisco, Ca 94133
415.775.8508

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When we heard that a friend was the executive chef at a new bar downtown, we knew we had to pay it a visit.  With the baby in tow, we got to Beelman’s pub at the old-person dining hour of 5:30 in the afternoon.

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The chef, Tom Block, bought us a round of drinks and we ordered the Phantom Limb and Airplane Mode.  The Phantom Limb was balanced, fragrant, and really good. The Airplane Mode, an interesting draft cocktail, was smooth and herbal.  At the time, I thought, “If the drinks are this good, the food must be great too.”

The food at Beelman’s isn’t fussy, but also isn’t your typical pub burger and fries. Yes, if that’s what you want, they do have burger and fries on the menu. The fries were actually really good — fat, crispy on the outside, hot and fluffy on the inside. But I encourage you to branch out and try some of their other dishes.

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The smoked beet salad surprised both Will and me.  Living in LA, we’ve had our fill of boring beet salads. It’s up there with kale salad as the most overdone type of salad.  But this one was so good that Will ordered seconds.  The smoke flavor was subtle and the dressing was spot-on.  We ordered this with a vegan modification and didn’t even miss the dairy. Our second serving came with grated horse radish on top that made it even better.

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Then there are the green beans, which were good, but not as exciting as our other dishes. They had a snappy bite to them and the bits of chile pepper were a nice addition.

Beelmans pub

I can never say no to smoked salmon, so I ordered the house-smoked salmon.  It was great!  I loved that the slices of bread were not over-toasted so that they shattered as soon as I bit into them. I loved the slight spice rub on the salmon. It was like eating a delicately smoked pastrami, except made of salmon.

Beelmans pub

I wavered on whether or not to get the spaetzle since I wasn’t that hungry, but Will said I should and I’m so glad I agreed. The spaetzlel was one of the highlights of the meal.  Rich, cheesy, and comforting the way I imagine mac and cheese is to other folks.  The fresh peas and favas was just icing on the cake. I was sad to come back from feeding the meter to see a good portion of my spaetzle was stolen by Robin.

Beelmans pub

The chef then sent out the roasted mushrooms for us to try. These were oyster and hen of the wood mushrooms cooked with a splash of sherry vinegar for brightness.  They were really tasty and I could imagine them going down well with a tall glass of beer.  I wanted to try the grapefruit lager, but it was so popular that it was sold out that night.

It’s amazing how many great dining options are popping up downtown now that it’s being revitalized. If I were working downtown or even lived there, I could see this becoming a regular place to stop by, have a few bites to eat and something to drink.  I’m already planning for another visit there to meet a friend who lives nearby.

Beelman’s Pub
600 S Spring St
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Downtown

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Crispy quinoa salad with kale and apricots was a success. #vegan #vscocam

People are often impressed (or pretend to be impressed) when they see our garden. They think it’s because we are serious about hyper-local organic vegetables but the real reason I keep a garden is because I’m often too lazy to go to the supermarket and like the convenience of foraging for veggies in the backyard when I need to cook dinner.

Our apricot tree is just starting to bloom.  In the usual race to pick ripe apricots before the birds and squirrels get to them, I wanted a way to use not quite perfect apricots as well as a way to use the bountiful kale that’s in the garden.  I had some leftover cooked quinoa in the fridge I also wanted to use up.

As with all my dishes, I free-styled this one, so there’s not so much a precise recipe — more like a suggestion of how to throw things together.

Ingredients:

  • lacinato kale
  • 4-5 ripe but not too soft apricots
  • 1.5 cup cooked quinoa
  • almonds
  • a few sprigs holy basil
  • 1 shallot
  • orange marmelade
  • sherry vinegar
  • olive oil
  • aleppo pepper
  • ground cumin
  • ground ginger
  • salt and pepper

Instructions:

De-stem the kale, wash, and thoroughly dry. I use a salad spinner for this, but swinging it around in some kitchen towels also works.  Chop the kale roughly so the pieces are smaller than a dime. Put the kale in a large salad bowl and throw in a pinch of salt and a couple glugs of olive oil.  Now use your hands and massage the kale, making sure to distribute the oil and salt.  Don’t be afraid to squeeze the kale. After a minute of massage, set it aside. The kale will tenderize while you prepare the other ingredients.

Put a tablespoon of oil on a skillet and spread about half the amount of cooked quinoa out on the bottom of the skillet.  Sprinkle on some aleppo pepper. The quinoa should be in one layer.  The heat on the pan should be high enough that there’s a slight sizzling sound.  Keep an eye on the quinoa and toss and re-spread every couple of minutes to prevent burning.  In the meantime, in another pan, toast the almonds, tossing every few minutes to prevent burning.

Remove the pits from the apricot and chop roughly to the size of M&M’s.  Put the apricots in the bowl with the kale.

Now for the dressing. Get out a glass jar with lid to mix the salad dressing in.  Mince the shallots and put in the jar. Top with a few tablespoons of oil and 1/3 as much vinegar.  Throw in a pinch of salt and a pepper.  Put in half a teaspoon of orange marmalade, or more if you like your salad sweeter.  Put in a small pinch of cumin and a small pinch of ground ginger. Cap the jar and give it a good couple of shakes to mix everything up.

Finely chop the holy basil.

When the quinoa is toasted (took me 10 mins) the almonds should be done too. Chop up the almonds and add them to the kale.  Add the rest of the (untoasted) quinoa to the kale, and then add everything else (toasted quinoa, holy basil, toasted almonds) to the bowl. Top with the salad dressing and mix, mix, mix.  Taste the salad and add more salt if needed.  Serve and eat immediately.

I thought I had made enough to eat the leftovers for lunch tomorrow, which would also give me a chance to see how well this salad kept, but we ended up eating everything for dinner, so I have no idea if the quinoa would stay crispy or not, sorry.

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