ABC Cocina review

Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Cocina might be more rustic and noisier than its big locavore brother ABC Kitchen, but it takes itself a lot less seriously too. On one hand the impressively lavish menu seems to steer solidly in the direction of Iberian-inspired tapas, but then a sudden sharp turn suggests we’re on a runaway taco truck with no brakes, picking up a litany of multi-culti hitchhikers as we perilously head for the border. With a chipotle pepper here or a chorizo there, here a taco, there an empanada and everywhere a salsa…Vong has created the ultimate pan-Latin kitchen comedy, by masterfully staging a telenovela right in the middle of a bullfight.

Spiced Ground Beef Empanadas - ABC Cocina

Spiced Ground Beef Empanadas

Many of the usual suspects are re-imagined with new and exciting textures and flavors like adding hearty eggplant to the Spiced ground Beef Empanadas or laying landmines of crispy chicken skin with lemon zest into the Arroz con Pollo giving the otherwise mundane staple some unexpected crunch and purpose.

Patatas Bravas - ABC Cocina

Patatas Bravas

I was initially suspicious of the 24-karat gold roasted Patatas Bravas that were nested next to a pool of mysteriously dark and picante sauce suspended in the heart of an ivory aioli, but after mixing the liquids together and then dribbling them over the crispy nuggets, I found myself pleasantly overwhelmed in rosemary rapture.

Grilled Maitake Mushrooms - ABC Cocina

Grilled Maitake Mushrooms

Even though the woody-smoky-charcoaly Grilled Maitake Mushrooms were crowned with melted herb goat cheese, their tart Fresno pepper vinaigrette might have shifted the earth on its axis by a hair.

Chipotle Chicken Tacos - ABC Cocina

Chipotle Chicken Tacos

Of all the gourmet Taco options, the Chipotle Chicken seems to have done the best job at already establishing its own fan club and Twitter account. But as delectable as it might have been, with just the right amount of fuss you’d expect to find inside a floppy masa shell, something was definitely missing. Too dry? Too crunchy? Turns out the grilled Jalapeño salsa was left in the kitchen and only arrived after we had digested the final morsels. Oops! But the sublimely moist and flavorful Grilled Chorizo sausage arrived with all of its parts fortuitously present.

Housemade Chorizo Sausage - ABC Cocina

Housemade Chorizo Sausage

While things may have changed slightly since former chef de cuisine Dan Kluger left the ABC’s to start his own venture, his footprints for success are still well-entrenched in these polished-concrete cocina floors. ¡Esta bien!














Trois Mec, Los Angeles review

Trois Mec

Trois Mec

Trying to get into any of LA’s “it” restaurants at the peak of their game has always involved a bit of high stakes drama. But none can rival the theatrical shenanigans of securing a seat at Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo and Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec (three mates). Just like any other live performance, the website offers tickets to specific sittings on specific dates. The “pay now – see you in two weeks” scheme permits diners to sample Lefebvre’s unconventional cuisine in a daily changing, omakase (chef’s choice) menu of whatever happens to be in season, in vogue or in the pantry.

Trois Mec exterior

Trois Mec exterior

Thrilled to be finally clutching a ticket, I gingerly opened the door to a roar of “Bon soir”, in an utterly unremarkable dining room, that occupies the space of a formerly unremarkable pizza joint at the end of an unremarkable strip mall in the shade of the Hollywood hills.

Then for the next couple of hours I found myself drowning in a tsunami of mediocrity as the giant candle of hype melted away into a puddle of weak tea. Sure, the notion of a don’t ask, don’t tell, hush-hush, say-no-more, pre-pay, chef’s choice supper club sounds rather enticing, but when the eloquently described dishes yield little more than the total sum of their parts, its hard not to feel like you’ve just been taken for a bit of a backstage joyride.

Garlic Bread - Trois Mec

Garlic Bread

A series of pre-menu Snacks included the house signature Buckwheat Popcorn – a decent enough, salt and vinegary blocker for the gaps in between the teeth; the peppery Tapioca cake with melted Parmesan cheese – a solid runner-up in the rice-cake cook-off; a Dijon Crème Brulee – every bit as unnecessary and pretentious as it sounds; a highly forgettable miniature sesame crisp something-or-other with shredded greens; and finally the first applause-worthy item, a square inch block of fire toasted Garlic Bread with melted herb butter.

Spot Prawn - Trois Mec

Spot Prawn

The five menu items started with the melancholy death of a Santa Barbara Spot Prawn, which was camouflaged from sight by slithers of crusty tomato, and camouflaged from taste by the violent upstaging of horseradish-infused crème fraiche.

Grilled Eggplant Caviar - Trois Mec

Grilled Eggplant Caviar

The Grilled Eggplant Caviar reminded me of a bucket of red laundry with Jamon Iberico swimming in a soggy pond of honey melon juice amidst a few crushed hazelnuts in suspension.

The Sunchoke salad, the only real hit among the misses included a medley of the thinnest slithers of delicately pickled sunchokes amongst a splendid blend of crunchy green beans and roasted sunflower seeds over a bed of citrusy hummus, spiked with thyme powder, giving the dish a fresh elegance and a little hope for the rest of the evening’s performance.

Sunchoke Salad - Trois Mec

Sunchoke Salad

The jury is still out as to whether it might have been easier to slice through my wallet or the Grilled Beef Belly, which would have also benefited more from the company of a crispy roast potato than the paltry abalone mushroom and green herb jus.

And finally a sugar-crusted, raw egg yolk topped the Carolina gold Rice Pudding, which came peppered with brown butter powder, making for a curiously savory and unnecessarily rich dessert.

Sesame Crisp - Trois Mec

Sesame Crisp

If I’m ever in the area again, I just might pop next door to Ludo’s Parisian bistro Petite Trois, which by all accounts looks and feels (and hopefully tastes) like a real meal – and may yield slightly more value for the $100 seat!

Flex Mussels review

Flex Mussels

Flex Mussels

Can we please hear it for mussels – those inexpensive, scrumptious, highly adaptable and relatively unsung heroes of the shellfish world?

"Bombay" Indian curry, star anise, garlic, cinnamon, white wine - Flex Mussels

“Bombay” Indian curry, star anise, garlic, cinnamon, white wine

While they might make an appearance on many a menu in many a city, they often seem to do well at being overlooked or under-ordered. Is it the size of their shells that belies the amount of flesh within? Or could it be because they require actual physical contact and dexterous assistance? Or maybe that their classic preparation (white wine, leeks and cream) fails to put the lust back into lackluster?

Thanks to Bobby & Laura Shapiro, the Canadian duo who are somehow able to haul in an endless catch of the most perfectly sized, beardless, Prince Edward Island farm raised bi-valves that snap open as they soak up flavors from all around the world at Flex Mussels.

The menu offers 23 different options that are as delicious as they are audacious. From simple, low-key ingredients you might expect to see in a pot of mussels: Dijon mustard, orange zest, fennel and tomatoes, to some you’d be surprised to see: curry coconut broth, pesto, spinach or Kalamata olives, to some you’d be outright flabbergasted to see: bacon, ham, chipotle adobo, prosciutto or blue cheese. The kitchen goes even further to include lobster, calamari, shrimp, crab and an entire sausage gumbo into some of their most memorable concoctions. My favorite is the Bisque, with hearty chunks of succulent lobster tail, sweet San Marzano tomatoes and a generous hint of brandy in the bread-dippingly delectable garlic cream.

"Gumbo" Andoille sausage, peppers, ochra, shrimp, roux - Flex Mussels

“Gumbo” Andoille sausage, peppers, ochra, shrimp, roux

The scene at both of their strictly informal Manhattan-based bistros (West Village and Upper East Side) is equal parts young, noisy, popular and energetic, with not much room for décor beyond a few enlargements of the Prince Edward Island setting sun, allowing the punch-line-printed (“Mussel-tov”), black T-shirt-wearing staff to deliver pot after steaming pot to the dozen or so crowded tables.

Curiously enough and contrary to the laws of nature and physics, the longer these pots sit on the table, and the deeper you dig to extract your harvest of delight, the hotter they get! Hmm.

Flex Donut Collection - Flex Mussels

Flex Donut Collection

The menu also offers a sizable Not Mussels section, including a wonderfully light and crispy, mixed seafood plate called Burnt Fingers, a very affordable selection of California and European White and Red wines (including a rarely-seen-in-these-parts Turley Old Vines Zinfandel) culminating in the Flex Donut Collection, where 4 or 6 (or more) tennis-ball sized donuts are served with a vanilla dipping sauce on a wooden rack, practically exploding with your choice of sinful fillings, from Salted Caramel and Wild Blueberry to Meyer Lemon…but it’s still all about the mussels!

Yunnan Kitchen review

Yunnan Kitchen

Yunnan Kitchen

When chefs leave restaurants, the impact to a kitchen is far greater than say when a captain leaves his ship. Ships aren’t really expected to do much more than shlepp passengers (who prefer to travel in hordes, unpack only once and who are quite comfortable with their first impression of a foreign destination being the port) without fuss, plague or delay. Restaurant kitchens on the other hand have hungry, expectant, impatient, picky and frequently critical diners to feed, a reputation to uphold – all while serving countless renditions of the same dish monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, minutely without a single fluctuation. Chefs can’t cut corners. They aren’t allowed to improvise or compromise because they are ultimately the first and last reason any diner recommends, revisits or pans a restaurant. So when Doron Wong took over the leadership from Travis Post at Yunnan Kitchen in the Lower East Side over a year ago, he created a fresh and affordable menu with sharable dishes offering a spectrum of Yunnan province flavors – from aromatic petals to gasket-blowing peppers that are part of the reason there is still a pervasive line outside the door.


Ma La Chiciken Wings - Yunnan Kitchen

Ma La Chicken Wings

If New York has flower, theater, diamond and garment districts, then the Lower East Side is the uncontested eclectic food district. Yunnan Kitchen’s rustic space with Clinton-Street-de-rigueur exposed-brick, pressed-steel ceilings and dim lighting is pretty much the final outpost in a row of distinctive and original establishments, where reservations are seldom offered.

Wong has a few signature cocktails that debut many of the spices and aromas that are about to color and define the rest of the evening. The first appearance (of the seemingly abundant) Sichuan peppercorns is added to a sweat-inducing grapefruit, chili, tequila Rita. The next most reached-for ingredient in the house is Chrysanthemum, which becomes the cornerstone for an aromatic, sweet ‘n sour Daiquiri with splashes of citrus and St. Germain.

The broad measuring-tape-sized Spicy Pulled-pork cold noodles, snake around morsels of barbecued pork and cherry tomatoes, which are dressed in chili oil with a more subtle infusion of Chrysanthemum giving them an unexpectedly fragrant – yet spicy perfume.

Mushroom Rice Cakes - Yunnan Kitchen

Mushroom Rice Cakes

Notwithstanding the addition of flecks of ham and the odd chili, the Stir Fried Mushrooms felt a little rubbery to me, with perhaps too much restraint in the flavor department to warrant a position on the very cautiously selected 16-item menu, but the Mushroom Rice Cakes are fabulous. Diagonal slithers of a dense yet remarkably light rice cake, are warmed with the smokiness of fermented chilies in a thick, rich and hearty brown sauce.

Lamb Meatballs Mao Shao - Yunnan Kitchen

Lamb Meatballs Mao Shao

The addition of Yunnan spices to the soft and perfectly juicy Lamb Meatballs Mao Shao is yet another brilliant example of distinctive simplicity.

The all-time favorite Ma La Chicken Wings (with shoulders attached) are an absolute knockout. As you bite through the dry crunch of the ochre skin, waves of warmth begin to envelope your senses from your lips to your nose to your toes, as the unrelenting heat of the Sichuan peppercorns serves up the first punch, followed by a surprising left hook from the Numbing Spices. I managed two rounds before tapping-out.

Ma La Chcolate Crémeaux - Yunnan Kitchen

Ma La Chcolate Crémeaux

The only real disappointment was the Ma La Chocolate Crémeux. The fact that Asian desserts have never found a fan base in the US is nothing new or surprising, but because there was only one lonely option on the menu I felt compelled to give it a try. The doughy train-wreck of a biscuit that tried to commit suicide on uncooked cumin, flanks a scoop of Sichuan pepper-infused Valrhona Chocolate Mousse with curiously sticky marshmallow triangles, feels out-of-character and heavy-handed to have emerged from this kitchen. (Maybe chef Wong can sneak in something simple from one of his neighbors up the street. Just sayin’.)