Saturday, May 22, 2010

I love you, Thomas Keller

As a young twentysomething culinary enthusiast living a life in high-rent Southern California sustained exclusively by an entry-level professional position, I find myself gravitating towards more towards low-to-mid level restaurants with only the occasional completely gratuitous meal splurge, seeing as the reality of eating out doesn't always meet my dining dreams. As a self-proclaimed food writer, I try to be as critical as possible in my taste outings, but with my limited budget I find that most of my posts tend to be more positive than perhaps a normal critic's might be. Does this mean that I don't understand the subtle nuances of food and the experience of taste? I don't think so. I like to think that I simply don't waste my time with food that has even the slightest possibility of being mediocre; there's too much food to choose from and too few dollars to get it with, and with the abundance of GREAT food and drink in San Diego alone, why bother taking a risk when sublime surely awaits elsewhere?

That being said, there exists a completely above-and-beyond realm of dining experience, the creme de la creme of restaurants across the globe, Michelin-starred, reservations months in advance required, any of which I would sell my firstborn for the privilege of a single meal. The French Laundry tops this personal list. That being said, Thomas Keller- this blog is for you. Quite simply, how many Americans idolize certain movie stars or athletes with celebrity obsession, I don't like to think that I consider "American royalty" anything more than a voyeuristic infatuation that Us Weekly has taken too far by preying on people who have nothing better to do than gossip about the latest sex tape and Hollywood escapade. I prefer to get my kicks in food, and great food is only made by great chefs, just as great movies are only made by great actors. As a more behind-the-scenes person, it's easy for me to understand and appreciate another artist behind closed doors. Of course, as the only American chef to have more than one Michelin starred restaurant, Thomas Keller is the Robert DeNiro of chefs in our time.

Chef Keller (can I call you Thomas?), you inspire my mind and tastebuds far beyond any other artisan weaving together plates of mouth-watering delight today. Thus far, I have only had the pleasure of dining at Bouchon in Las Vegas, and I pray every day that will not be the end of my experience of your vision. As some take pleasure in playing music, creating art, shooting hoops, going camping, or what have you, I take the most pleasure from taking the first bite for the first time in a new restaurant where from the moment I walk in the door I am treated as though I am home. It seems to me that you share the vision of comfort without over-pampering, and the highest standards for freshness and innovation without stuffiness. You hold the belief that perfection in food is unattainable yet should never cease to be the goal, in which the happiness of the experience can in fact create a perfect meal. A meal does not start and end with the food on the plate- it encompasses the company, the talk, the setting, the moment, and the food just happens to be a fantastic bonus in which memories are made from.

I don't tend to lose my head irrationally over a "celebrity", but when I heard that you were appearing at Williams-Sonoma to sign copies of "ad hoc at home", let's just say it was shades of Beatlemania fanaticism which surprised even myself as I lay gasping on the floor frantically scrambling to check my schedule. Unfortunately, with a steady gig in the 9-5 world comes the inability for noontime ventures such as this would require. Luckily, I had a friend who happens to be in between jobs and with a crisp $20 and the promise of eternal love, he agreed to get a copy signed for me. I regret that I couldn't shake your hand myself, but it's probably better that way- I can't guarantee that I wouldn't have jumped over the table to at the very least kiss your feet and offer my undying servitude.

As a stauch vegan, I'm sure it was difficult for him to be in the presence of completely opposite-idealed people discussing their love of foie gras and puzzlement at the idea of never again eating short ribs or a slice of Fondo di Toscana truffle cheese, but like a champion he stuck it out. Beforehand, I tried to enlighten him as to the lucky experience that lay ahead, but unfortunately my enthusiasm could not be properly channeled through another. Please accept my shameful excuse and humblest apologies. I'm sure it was an embarrassing moment when he handed my business card for this blog to you, and I doubt you'll ever even take the time to read this, but if you ever do, please know that I hold you in the highest respect as a chef and sharer of food the likes of which I can never replicate, but only appreciate and aspire to enjoy at least once at every establishment. Your book now sits proudly by itself on my coffee table, and I have already begun to collect ingredients to further my culinary exploration in homage to whom I consider the greatest chef in the world today.

Thomas Keller, I love you. Save a seat at the French Laundry for me- I'll see you there soon.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee & Bicycle tour

Ah, family vacations. That phrase so dear to some, and yet so unbearable to others, continues to be loaded with a multitude of connotations and almost never predictable events that haunts families all over the world. My immediate family, being split from our entire extended family by the whole of the United States, lived an almost exclusive bicoastal vacation lifestyle and never ventured anywhere outside the confines of California, barring a Minnesota/ Wisconsin trip one time that thankfully was never repeated. Wild stuff, believe me. Somehow, even with one sister married, one brother engaged, and me living across the country, my mom managed to scrape together a family vacation someplace other than our grandparents' houses for the very first time.

A family friend was getting married at a Sandals resort in Jamaica, so obviously that means the entire Demmon clan finally had an excuse to get some stamps in our passports together! My sister, brother-in-law, and I, not invited to the wedding, spent the first two days mainly relaxing at our Sandals resort and planning activities once we joined with the parents, brother, and sister-to-be post-nuptials. Sandals, if you are unfamiliar with the eye-glazing concept of complete and utter middle American tourist propoganda, is a chain of all-inclusive resorts that cater to 99% honeymooners and fat white people drinking pina coladas who are getting their love handles sunburned. Of course, me being not one to judge, wholeheartedly embraced the obvious antiquated ideals of rich and faux rich white folk being served by a darker shade and relished in my glorious location unfortunately sans fiancee in what seems to be a place where a lady missing a man compares with missing a nose.

Obviously, there's a tangent that burns within me, but the real reason I actually think people might be interested in my experience in Jamaica is for the one activity that A) I picked, B) was off-resort, and C) crazy as it might seem, actually involved physical movement. I could add D) there was not a drink with an umbrella to be seen all day, but I have to admit the "Dirty Banana became a guilty favorite of mine.

100% downhill, the Blue Mountain Bike Tour was hardly the Tour de France, but it was a fantastic opportunity to see actual Jamaica and not just the inside of a gated resort that honestly could have been absolutely anywhere in the world. A 2 hour bus ride through the heart of Jamaica was the only time I was able to even catch a glimpse of what this country has to offer, despite the fact I was still seeing it through windows of a moving bus. Still, it was a nice change than the barrage of beluga whales and their drunk husbands and horny newlyweds.

Off topic again.

The lush greenery of the countryside overwhelms the majority of the mountainous island and serves as the representation of green on the nation's flag. Coffee is one of the biggest exports of Jamaica and Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee can be found across the world and remains highly regarded as some of the best coffee on the planet. Amongst the endless advertisements for activities available for Sandals patrons, nestled somewhere between a authentic "Jamaican bobsled" experience and a steel drum show was a flier for the Blue Mountain Bike Tour, touted as a "must-do" for islandgoers looking for something a bit more adventurous. Being a single, bored white tourist with an appetite for delicious and a yearning to see "real" Jamaica, I signed myself, my sister Lauren, and mom Patty up for the next day's tour.

We left the hotel at 8 AM sharp and aboard a massive tour bus were able to observe small villages, bustling markets, catch glimpses of unbelievably humongous cruise ships docked near a rock quarry, a house shaped like a cruise ship built by a retired eccentric boater, Mick Jagger's quaint island getaway, and an abundance of palm tree farms and working fields that seemed to take us back in time to plantation days. We eventually made it to the foot of the mountain, but the ever-long twisting and winding, often surprisingly narrow and treacherous "road" kept us on the edge of our seats for at least another half hour until we reached the middle of the mountain where our journey really began.

The Blue Mountain house welcomed us with a Cajun style French breakfast, complete with some of the freshest coffee in the world. Even with a more experience palette than most, the first sip caught me by the seat of my pants and kicked my ass. Strong doesn't begin to describe what I can only imagine is the coffee equivalent of crack! Our guides were pleasant, patient, extremely knowledgeable, and let us load up on plenty of piping hot black coffee and beignets before walking us through the life of the coffee bean.

Much of the old traditions remain in Jamaica, partly due to lack of modernization, along with a will to replicate the extremely hands-on approach to maintain what the world expects in quality.

Would you believe that the black substance you suck down every morning from lattes to cappuccinos starts its life as a red berry? The thick shell must be hand peeled to reveal the inner seed, which resembles a small nut. Once roasted, it takes the familiar form of the bean we all know, love, cherish, and grind into oblivion. Infinite factors play infinite roles in breathing life and flavor into the bean which ultimately distinguishes it as a certain flavor or roast, depending largely on the human handling component. Temperature, location, and length of grow time are larger components taken into consideration, but minor steps such as roasting time, place, the fineness of grind, etc. all play major roles in shaping the complex bean into beverage.

Our guide demonstrated the old way of hand-grinding the roasted beans into powder in a wooden container not unlike a mortar and pestle. The sooner the ground beans mix with hot liquid, the fresher the flavor. I don't doubt that the coffee we had was the freshest coffee I have ever had. Barely out of the ground, every raindrop and molecule that ever came in contact with the plant made its presence known on my tongue. For me, it was a religious experience.

I couldn't resist at least ONE dorky tourist photo, complete with safety gear for the ride ahead! Does this make me the most legit barista or what?

I'm sure the warnings against leaving the resort have some merit, but looking at the gorgeous landscape around me, I can't help but wonder if part of the indigenous population smiles knowing they have this unspoiled beauty almost all to themselves.

After breakfast and our coffee lesson, we claptrapped our way down the mountain at about 5 mph on ancient cruisers to soak in the scenery and make sure the old folks didn't fall off the cliff to our right. Traces of civilization were apparent (the occasional car, power line, and a parade of school children complete with snappy uniforms that would make any nun weep with delight), but for the most part I have to hand it to the bike company- with numerous waterfalls, unusual plants, exotic birds, and an unbeatable view, they have got this tourist thing down pat. Around every few turns we'd come across one of these old coffee depots, an old community center of sorts where farmers could combine their goods to share with all. Sort of an antiquated farmers market, where the only goods were coffee.

Our guide explained that many children walk to school, sometimes miles, since the mountain is a large community and small pockets of families could easily be separated by a different side of the mountain. A number of them leave school halfway through the day to work the coffee fields with their families, and uniforms are required in all schools to ensure no one appears to be of a higher or lesser status due to their clothes. They were ordinary, silly kids but very disciplined in their group walk home, but we still got a couple curious kids who, when they heard the rattle of what must be a daily event, lined up to give our entire group the longest moving high-five train I have ever seen. Still, there was a shy one or two in the bunch.

We had probably ridden for about a half hour before we came across the post office that served the entire mountain. Rain, snow, or sleet, right? How'd you like to climb a mountain for your job every day?

Across the bridge lives the resident Rastafarian elder. (white folks with dreads, try not to drool). Rastafariansm lives, jah love. You can tell when he's home by the barrage of black SUV's parked outside. This has nothing to do with coffee but was bizarre.

Our coffee lesson and ride ended at the picture-perfect location, complete with the obligatory beer-drinking contest (which I clearly should have entered based on the offensively bad performances given by all). The ice cold water was as fresh as anything I have ever tasted, and as cliche as it was to swim under a waterfall in Jamaica, I have to admit it was perfectly engineered for a great ending of an extremely enlightening experience.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Madeleine Bistro

Even at the crippling old age of 25 I like to think I'm still young at heart! I hit the big quarter century in fine style surrounded by friends, beer, and music in the City of Angels having the time of my life. The weekend consisted of midnight stumbles around Hollywood, sidewalk hot dog vendors, the obligatory Kidrobot excursion, and of course good eats. I'm not terribly familiar with the L.A. food scene, and I can't imagine even scratching the surface over a weekend. With vegans in tow, we were steered by our Studio City resident friend to Madeleine Bistro north of Hollywood in Tarzana which offers only animal-friendly fare with nary a furry friend served!

To be honest, when we walked into a completely empty restaurant on a Sunday morning, I wasn't expecting much. The brunch menu isn't the most striking, and the atmosphere of French bistro meets California streets isn't exactly the most unbelievable or unique concept around. I suppose the whole vegan spin is a draw for animal lovers who also enjoy a bite out, but the faux-McDonald's breakfast meatless menu for three times the price and nary a bacon strip to be found didn't tantalize my tastebuds as much as I had hoped for L.A. However, due to the fact that I was VASTLY outnumbered, I sat down and plotted my upturned nose decline of food.

Well, maybe ONE beignet. I'm hungry now, and that won't be too much to fill me up until we can find a BLT, right? I'll take a half order.

Adorable! I'm sure they'll be tasty. At least enough to tide me over until REAL food, right?

Shit, these are amazing. Have I been fooled by the carnivorous propaganda?! Is it possible that this hippie crap can be... delicious?!?

Delightfully so! Sugar in the morning isn't my regular route, but after tasting these piping hot, sugary sweet morsels of absolute pleasure, I would be willing to forgo the dry toast and coffee for the rest of my life! Homemade strawberry compote sidled along lovingly to the large, hot, sweet balls of goodness which happily made their way into my mouth. After trying a bite, several others at the table promptly ordered their own and all were gone within moments. Even a half order was enough to satisfy not only my sweet tooth, but my desire for additional brunching! Everyone was kind enough to allow me to steal bites from their plates as well, and I was astonished to find flavor explosions on every plate. Don't misunderstand, I've had plenty of experience with vegetarian and vegan fare, but to go in with low expectations and to come out singing praises isn't exactly the norm. I know what I'm in for and generally have a realistic idea of what's going to be sliding down my gullet. However, Madeleine Bistro is absolutely a place for those skeptical carnivores and already committed vegans alike. An added bonus is the fact that it's away from the hustle and bustle and hours-long waits in Hollyweird! Skip the line and head for Madeleine.

18621 Ventura Blvd.
Tarzana, CA 91356

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stout, San Diego

I've gotta hand it to San Diego- for a food lover, there's no place quite like it. For someone equally enthusiastic about spirits, it's unbeatable. Before this I thought myself an expert on culinary variety, and I'm sure there are places even more rampant with speakeasies, pubs, saloons as well as hole in the wall joints and white collar silver settings, but until I go to that place I'm content staying right here. Stout is a fantastic pub in the Downtown district that's large enough to accommodate a party of any size, and still dark enough to make you feel a little bit dirty and ready for a beer. Seemingly filled with hockey fanatics, they offer a wide span of sports offerings across countless HD TV's, but this doesn't strike me as a typical sports bar. Stout remains first and foremost an Irish pub, and one of the most popular across-the-pond experiences for San Diegans.

Typical Irish fare is served, along with some bar requisites like burgers and buffalo wings. However, how can you waste a pub opportunity by not getting a Reuben? With a Smithwick's in one hand, my eye on the Penguins, and a mouth filled with sauerkraut, there are few places I find myself as happy, or as full. Recommended for meatheads, hooligans, and drunks alike!

Stout Public House
1125 6th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 702-7933

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Grill 'Em All

The gods of metal are surely smiling upon the latest trumpeteers of delicious glory on four wheels! Never has there been such an homage to all things delicious and devilish all wrapped upon in a mobile unit, thrashing their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs. Grill 'Em All is a newcomer in the recent food truck explosion based in L.A., but with a solid menu and unapologetic culinary offerings they've already smashed their way into the highly competitive market and destroyed all that stand in their way. The duo of Ryan Harkins and Matthew Chernus paired up with a wild vision and have already landed a spot on the Travel Channel's "Food Wars", which followed the unholy pair as they blazed through California preaching their ideals of metal and BURGER.

Luckily, through mutal foodie fanatic and metal maniac Dave Witte I was able to catch these guys as they served up their goods boardwalk-side in Mission Beach, under the shadow of mighty Belmont Park. Unfortunately, a gloomy sky deterred many a regular Saturday beachgoer and potential slaves to the newly introduced Witte Burger, namesake of the very man above! I didn't need to ask what the Witte contained because to bear such a proud name means only one thing- A GLORIOUS EXPERIENCE. However, for the benefit of you mere mortals who haven't yet experienced the madness that is Witte, it's a burger on a homemade bun, slathered in California cream cheese, beer-fried bacon, Sriacha soaked grilled onions, and a roasted garlic aioli to make your arteries beg for mercy. Since the boys were on a roll filming for Food Wars, a malt vinegar aioli served as a delightful substitute in the garlic's stead. Not a disappointing choice. The film crew recognized the tunnel vision of food fanatics that have just been handed something that can't possibly exist outside the realm of awesome, and took the opportunity to ask us a few questions. I'm sure our close ups of sriacha-stained blood drool and flecks of juicy meat torn apart will look just greeeaaattt on all those HD-TVs. Hello America! This is Beth and Ashton and we're disgustingly enthusiastic! Join us in our revelry!

Only those who are from the South understand the automatic connection when you come face to face with one of your Rebel kin elsewhere in the nation. An immediate bond is formed for life once the name "Richmond" is invoked in conversation, and an instant friendship cements itself usually over a beer. Since the City of San Diego generally frowns upon public displays of drunkeness, we had to make do with gorging ourselves with meat rather than hops and yeast. The boys took to us instantly once we spoke the name Witte, and we didn't even need to ask- within minutes we were handed two dripped, glorious, thundering, mighty burgers, a side of truffle fries to boot!

The trumpeteers of Viking lore ten thousand strong could not have blasted more thunderingly into your face than this burger. I felt as though I was balancing on a pitchfork of insanity simply attempting to comprehend the madness of this gluttonous treasure. Mighty Thor himself would smite a legion of warriors to feast upon the Witte at his victory table, and sacrifice a thousand virgins to appease the demons swarming in his head with which the absence of burger would appear.

These preachers of metal and munchin' remain tadpoles in the food arena, but with a solid menu of absolutely phenomenal offerings and a schtick to rival any major stationary restaurant, I can't fathom that these crazy metal apostles won't achieve immortality through food.