Friday, August 26, 2005


I am proud to have discovered this splendid restaurant as a visitor to Los Angeles, prior to moving here and reading "Counter Intelligence". My friend Adam and I were driving toward Guitar Center on Sunset and the lookout was somewhat bleak. I spotted the minimall sign reading simply "Uzbekistan" [7077 Sunset Blvd. 323-464-3663 Hollywood] and we immediately pulled in for a delicious lunch special. More high end than most of the places in my website but still a great value, Uzbekistan delivers the goods with over-the-top Russian murals, a deafening violin trio on weekends, Russian language TV and most importantly the best Central Asian food I have eaten. I recently ate my tastiest meal ever there and can report some recommendations.

We ordered the plov (rice dish = pilaf = pollo) and karsky kabob (lamb chops), then paused for suggestions only to have the waiter reply that our requested items were the most quintessentially Uzbeki items. Unlike Persian pollo, plov is made with short grain rice and the spices are earthier with more cumin. Uzbekistan boasts that they are open from 11am until the last mouthfulu of plov, testifying to the popularity of the dish. Karsky kabob is lamb chops grilled to perfection, I generally prefer meat on the bone and these were even better than the regular lamb kabob we were generously given by some fellow diners (thanks, friendly Russian dudes!).

Chuchvara are fried meat dumplings, served with a mild tomato sauce. These were good but I suspect the boiled manti and pelmeni could be tastier. A good choice for the dumpling fanatic like me.

Pickled vegetables. Sounds prosaic? Not at a quality Russian restaurant where this stuff is essential. Juicy tomatoes, cucumbers and most essentially a half head of bright crimson cabbage that's vinegary and fermented. Maybe winters aren't so hard with treats like this to tide one over.

Eggplant and beef appetizer. I can't recall the name of this dish (begins with O) but the sliced roast beef and eggplant were a tasty combination. A nice change of pace from the eggplant-only stews common in the Balkans and Central Asia.

Blini with caviar. Louis Armstrong used to sign his letters "Red beans and ricely yours", and I've tried to think of other combinations with a similar ring. "Blini and borchstly yours" sort of works, except blini in my platonic ideal are paired with sour cream and caviar - in this case salmon caviar. One rolls the pancake into an irresistible Russian "burrito" - don't you love how Mexican food terms are used in this way, like "tamale" as a descriptor for Chinese jung/zongzi? Anyways, this dish reeked of delicate luxury as it should - figuratively because the caviar was high quality. Blini with caviar is one of the few foods I could stand to eat every single day.

Blini with strawberries. Much as I love blini and caviar, the dessert version is not half bad either. Blini are served with an amazingly thick and gooey strawberry syrup. Eat fast or it will solidify!

Uzbekistan really hit the spot for a celebration of my friend's move to Boston. Normally I would be suspicious of "the only X restaurant in town", but there are so many Russians in LA that this fear is allayed. At Uzbekistan, the food is prepared with care for people who know what they are coming for and that's a great recommendation.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Giang Nan

Here is the finest Shanghai/"Jiangzhe"/eastern Chinese food I have tasted! Cuisine from cities in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces is famous for its deeply flavoured sauces, often featuring a lot of sugar and oil - quite dissimilar to the limpid Cantonese style. Giang Nan, [306 N Garfield #A12, Monterey Park; 626-573-3421] whose name means "south of the [Yangtze] river", is a comparatively new entrant into the scene. The other Chinese name is something like "building that chases the moon" as diagrammed on the takeout menu where a full moon rises above a pagoda-like structure. I went with my Chowhound friend Yimster, his sons and my labmate Peng (of Jiangsu extraction) for a meal that we will long remember:

House special de-greased and braised pork knuckle. A huge pork shank cooked in rock sugar and soy until it's falling apart, this is a classic dish. Nestled on a bed of spinach, it's a huge serving of delicious fatty pork that will serve at least four. Lambert commented that using a slightly smaller pork shank allows the flavour to penetrate even further into the meat, but he conceded that he has not had so fine a version in many restaurants. The waitress brought this to the table and said "everyone in the restaurant can smell this dish you have ordered".

"Lion's head" meatball with duck egg yolk. An unusual treatment of the distinctive Shanghai dish, featured a salted duck egg yolk in the middle of the large meatball. Texture and flavour were good, but Lambert found the cooking method somewhat unorthodox - not clear if it was deep fried, then simmered in the traditional way.

Chicken in wine sauce. A very winy version of this Shanghai cold chicken dish.

Jade celery. A simple preparation of celery in sesame oil. Nice contrast to the heavier fare.

Crab Meat and Pork Steamed Buns. Everyone's favourite Shanghai dumpling, the xiao long bao or soupy pork dumpling, here served with crab meat. Skin not as delicate as Din Tai Fung but the soup and filling are exceptional.

Chinese Bread, fried. Trashy but delicious, here the slightly sweet "small knife bread" is deep fried on its edges and served really hot with condensed milk for dipping. I loved it. Careful of your fingers!

Deep-fried flounder. Cooked with green herbs (fungus? I didn't know it) in the batter and served with dipping salt. Perfectly fried and delicious, I've also enjoyed this dish made with yellow croaker at Green Village.

Rice Noodle with Fish Head Casserole. Peng hadn't had this legendary Jiangsu dish for five years, and wasn't disappointed. By this time the waitresses had cottoned on to Lambert's enthusiasm and may have said a word to the kitchen, as there was a large portion of fish attached to the head. The rich fish stock had a tremendous flavour, each spoonful was savoured and we picked the head clean. Best of all were the homemade rice noodle sheets underneath the fish, which had absorbed the wonderful taste of the broth. A must-try dish.

Glutinous rice balls in fermented rice mash. Although we had eaten enough food for ten, the waitresses insisted that we try this dish, amazingly only $3.80 for a portion that served 5. The sweet fermented rice mash is very slightly alcoholic and delightfully scented with osmanthus flowers. Best of all are the tiny rice balls, about the size of Maltesers rather than the comparatively giant Japanese mochi. They have a fabulously soft texture and are filled with black sesame. Possibly the finest dessert I've ever had in a Chinese restaurant.

It's no exaggeration to say that Giang Nan joins Shiang Garden, Yungui Garden, Little Sheep and Sea Harbor in the absolute highest rank of San Gabriel restaurants. For the quality, the price is very cheap, and there are many other dishes to explore.

091905 note
Check out the incredible eel with acorns in claypot, it's the third eel dish on the menu. Outstanding, whole garlic cloves and luscious eel meat. The essence of eastern Chinese flavours.

Swan Restaurant

Thai Town on Hollywood Blvd is one of L.A.'s most popular food neighbourhoods, and with good reason. But lately, the centre of gravity has shifted to North Hollywood (confusingly named, new Angelenos may not know it's in the Valley...) where adventurous eaters can eat just as well and park much more easily. Swan Restaurant [12728 Sherman Way, 818-764-1892] is a mini-mall treasure right in the heart of Thai Sherman Way, nestled among car repair shops, pupuserias and Peruvian joints. It's a classic L.A. ethnic spot, from phone card ads to Thai game show television to whiteboard menu in language one doesn't read. Heavily Thai clientele, naturally. Swan's takeout menu says that "satisfaction is our goal". This is overly modest - they could aim for "culinary ecstasy" and not fall far short.

Sticky rice and dried fish. $2 specials menu, woohoo! This is a small mound of hard-cooked Thai glutinous rice with jerkified round fish on top, each about the diameter of an apricot but flat. Fish are really tasty, perhaps cured with some soy marinade?

Pork hock on rice. $2 special that feels like a Thai-Chinese dish. Fatty pork leg meat cooked in a simple soy sauce without the garlic and nuclear chilli of Yai's secret weapon. Great comfort food.

Fish cakes. My favourite $2 special which is saying a lot given the quality of the above. Fish cakes here have a softer, slightly less rubbery texture than those I've had elsewhere and the flavour is very basil-y. A sentimental favourite too, as my food-crazy uncle always orders these.

Curry with chilli paste [what is exact menu name?]. You'll recognize this dish on the menu by it's picture, which clearly shows the bright red curry broth and most importantly the black stalk of the fresh peppers "Phrik-Thai" that distinguish the dish as the "jungle curry" which is virtually inedible but delicious at Yai. Here it is still very hot - don't mistake green chillis for beans! - but doesn't have quite the overpoweringly soulful character of Yai's. Thai eggplant, kachai/soapy aromatic Thai ginger, beans, bamboo shoots, pork.

Fish tamarind paste curry with vegetables. Looks a lot like the jungle curry (minus deadly spices) but is much milder with the sweet tamarind flavour. Neither of these contains coconut milk so one savours instead the kaffir limes and curry spices. We chose catfish which was good and gelatinous.

Golden rice mixed with fermented pork tossed with sliced ginger. This is an incredible dish, one of the finest salads I have eaten anywhere in L.A. Rice is deep fried to a crisp in a fish-sauce saturated sauce that imparts a golden colour. Mix in ginger slivers, delectable "fermented pork" (slices of a sausage-like consistency) and basil for an inspired creation. There are rice salads at a lot of Thai places but this one really stands out. Wrap in lettuce leaf.

Whole deep fried trout topped with house special spices. Two dishes were on almost every table in the house; golden rice salad, and this stellar fried fish. Trout that's still moist and fresh-tasting inside is topped with a stunning amount of chopped garlic, handfuls of cilantro and spices that include tiny pieces of fresh kaffir lime (sublime... if I may say so). Every piece of this is a flavour explosion, and even the skin is worth savouring after all the trout meat is gone. A sensational dish.

A fortunate characteristic of L.A.s great Thai restaurants is that each has its own specialties and delights. Swan, Sunshine and Sri Siam provide compelling destinations besides Wat Thai in the new Valley Thai Town. There is a reason to try them all!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Mission 261

Mission 261 [261 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel, (626) 588-1666] joins New Concept and Sea Harbor as L.A. purveyors of ultra high quality dim sum. These restaurants are widely acknowledged to set a new high water mark for the genre. Menu ordering results in extreme freshness, and even old favourites are usually executed far better than traditional places. Don't be afraid of the extreme bling factor at Mission 261. The prominent shelf of cognacs and Westernized decor are not reflected in a ridiculous bill - it's more expensive than usual but worth the price.

Oddly, the traditional benchmarks were inverted relative to Sea Harbor, ha gau (shrimp dumplings) are better but siu mai (pork dumplings) are worse. Cha siu bau (pork buns) were just OK but I was very impressed by the lo pak ko (radish cake) - radish-y but not too heavy, perfectly fried - and silky ha chueng fun (flat rice noodle rolls with fresh shrimp).

In terms of crazy innovations, some were more successful than others. Deep-fried "bees" made of shrimp with nori stripes were OK, as were codfish and shrimp "fish". The house special I really liked was the spinach and scallop dumpling made with a green wrapper - fat and delicious. Also excellent was a lotus seed and rice flour cake with gingko nuts inside - a marvellous lo pak ko alternative for those with a sweet tooth.

I personally preferred Sea Harbor to Mission 261 but these judgements will depend on what one orders and on personal taste (have only tried a few items at New Concept, but they were spectacular). We should rejoice that there are restaurants pushing the envelope both in terms of quality and in their new creations.