Saturday, February 27, 2010

A good little Indian

Yesterday I stopped at this little fast-serve Indian joint at the corner of Washington Blvd., and Overland in Culver City called Samosa House East.  I needed to grab some food quickly, and had been passing this place for days, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Inside it was painted in bright colors, tending towards orange and saffron, but in a very pleasant and upbeat way. It was clean, and it smelled nice.

I was in a hurry so ordered a few samosas and a mango lassie from the nice Indian girl behind the counter.

Then I started paying attention to what was going on. Looking again at the short menu I realized it was a vegan joint. As an order for naan (flat Indian bread) was called out, the guy in the kitchen picked up a ball of dough and started shaping it – cool, made fresh and to order! And the food in the case looked, frankly, fantastic, as people before me and right after me chose what they wanted for the multi-portion plates. This was not your usual drab all-you-can-eat strip mall stuff. I mean, there were things here I’d never heard off, yet they looked appetizing. The woman next to me ordered the jackfruit – said she was addicted to it. When's the last time you ordered jackfruit, right?

The people doing the ordering tended to come from two categories: Hollywood types from the local Sony studio’s lot, or well-dressed Indian men. More good signs!

My samosas came out of the kitchen, were popped in a bag along with sauces, and handed over to me along with my mango lassie. Total time somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes, cost under $10.

Back at my desk at the office where I currently am working on top secret marketing projects I dug in. Along with the samosas were containers of spicy mint sauce and a couple of sweet chutney.

The samosas were above average. Not the best I’ve ever had, the best were greasy meat samosas from a joint that soon after burned down (karma?), but these were definitely very good. Not oily, freshly made, well stuffed with potatos, peas, miscellaneous other veggies and nicely spiced.

The mint sauce and mango chutney were fantastic. They had a freshness that spoke of “prepared this morning” and definitely not from a can or bottle. The mint had a spiciness that built over several bites until I kind of realized my tongue was on fire, at which point I switched to the sweet chutney. Once things had cooled off, back to the mint I went, because it was so dang good!

And the mango Lassie? My god, the best I have ever had, and I’ve had my share. Fresh mango flavor, not too sweet, and smooth with the exception of the occasional bits of crushed cardamom.

Another good sign: My stomach felt good afterwards. I can't always say this about Indian food.

Clearly, this little Indian deserves a repeat visit.

Le Capitaine

samosa house east
10700 Washington Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232-3314

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Warm the Soul

Travel around France in the winter and you will often see a hand written sign taped up in the café windows that reads vin chaud. A good vin chaud is the ultimate warm you up beverage. Countries throughout Europe all have their own variations, as we do in the U.S., usually called mulled wine here. The French variations I've had have often eclipsed the mulled wines I've tasted in the U.S., and when you start to compare recipes you'll see why.

There are as many variations of the French recipe as there are French cafés, kitchens, cooks and bartenders. My own recipe benefits from a few secrets given to me by the young and very French sous-chef of L’Hermitage Beverly Hills. He and I were playing a game of petanque one cold night at the Los Angeles Petanque Club, and he had brought a large thermos full of vin chaud. It was the best I’d ever tasted. After some cajoling he gave up a few of his secrets.

Here is my recipe:

      1 bottle of French red wine, on the lighter side, such as a Beaujolais or pinot noir.
      1/8 cup orange liquor, preferably Grand Marnier
      1/8 cup Benedictine
      1 large orange
      1 tablespoon of honey
      1 tablespoon of brown sugar
      6 cloves
      3 tablespoons vanilla extract
      2 cinnamon sticks
      1/8 teaspoon of ground ginger
      3 shakes of aromatic bitters, such as Fee Brothers or Angostura Bitters

Slice the orange into 1/4 inch thick slices, leaving the ends whole. Put slices into a large pot, squeeze all juice out of Orange ends into pot, and discard ends. Add vanilla, honey, sugar, cloves and ginger. Muddle a bit to break up orange slices and get everything acquainted.

Add the bottle of wine and the bitters. Turn heat on medium, stirring occasionally. Do not let it come to a boil.

Have a large thermos ready if you plan on transporting, or a big heat-resistant punch bowl or similar container ready if serving immediately.

Put the Grand Marnier and Benedictine in the thermos or punch bowl.

When the wine mixture is too hot to touch, but before it boils, transfer it into the thermos or punch bowl, mixing it with the Grand Marnier and Benedictine.

It is now ready to serve, and warm the soul.

Here are a few variations to inspire, or when you don't have the Grand Marnier and Benedictine handy:
      Use Cognac or Armagnac instead of the Grand Marnier and Benedictine
      Use Grappa instead of the Grand Marnier and Benedictine
      Add a half-cup of Pineau des Charentes
      Use a nut liquor, such as walnut liqueur or Amaretto (I have not tried this, but is sounds like it should work, no?)

And I’m sure you can think of a few other ways to make it your own as well.

Stay warm.

Le Capitaine

January 3rd, 1940, vin chaud is being distributed free to French soldiers a few months before the Battle of France, where things go very poorly for La Belle France.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cest Comme Ça

Last night a good buddy and I went out to dinner at Comme Ça, a trendy little French place on Melrose just off La Cienega. I had high expectations as two different friends had recommended it.

The place looks like a cross between an old fashion Parisian bistro and a modern artsy joint. Kinda chic without trying to hard, and drips a bit of money – as in “this will cost you my friend.”

The bar is well stocked and the house drinks are pleasantly different, and good. I had one called The Blues made of gin, house made blueberry syrup, and fresh squeezed lemon juice. Almost as good as it sounds.

We sat at our table and the retro-modern plastic chairs struck me. Not the most comfortable in the world. The chair was part of the “modern” component in the decor.

For appetizers we had Steak Tartare and a charcuterie plate.

The Steak Tartare was good, but not great. There lacked any surprise and delight. For example when you order it at Anisettee you get a steak that has been hand chopped and it shows, the quality of meat is obvious, and just for kicks they place a tiny quail egg on top. The ingredients are all there and you do the final mix. This wasn’t like that. It was ground beef with the required ingredients mixed in and shapped into a paddy and served in a bowl with some crackers and a couple greens for decoration. It kind of tasted like the Steak Tartare my dad makes, but not quite as good. Not a bad effort but not at this price. Cost: $14

The Charcuterie Plate, called “Selection of Three” came out and there were two very small wedges of a paté de campaign, two tiny slices of paté de téte, and 4 slices of salami. The paté de campaign was good, but not great, the paté de téte was pleasant but there was so little it was almost a joke, and the salami was… ordinary. Overall, OK but not much delight. Cost $14

Are you sensing a trend?

My buddy ordered the duck comfit for dinner and the waiter convinced me the lamb shank with Israeli couscous was “amazing.” Well the duck was, to quote my buddy who loves duck comfit “OK, a bit dry” which is not good, especially at $24 a plate. Mine was anything but amazing. It had a bitter edge, a seriously bitter edge. I told the waiter and got a shrug and “I’ll mention it to the cook” which was not exactly the reaction I expected. I mean, I ordered it because he insisted it was amazing. Honestly it wasn’t so bad that I was going to make a fuss and return it, but I would have expected the waiter to either offer to take it back, or throw in a glass of wine or dessert or something to keep us happy. Nope. Shrug and walk off.

This kind of summed up most of our experience at Comme Ça. It was as if everything was done just well enough to attract you and then they deliver just enough for them to get by. The menu looks good, but when the food arrives it is just passable. Even the service was best on arrival and at its friendliest right when we sat down, then after that it was just enough to get by.

The place has no heart or passion. People were just going through the motions. It’s that simple. And in a nice French restaurant that’s not enough. French anything, but especially French food, is about the passion.

The only exception was dessert, but we didn’t know that until they arrived. They had a Mont Blanc on the dessert menu, something you don’t see often here, but the lackluster description by the waiter “It’s a cookie with some chestnut crème on it and topped by a meringue” delivered with a shrug, was not enough to make me choose it.

By the time the desserts we did order arrived my expectations were very low, and the more than halfway decent desserts boosted our spirits. Again nothing to praise at length, but my buddy’s profiteroles and my pot aux crème were above average. The dessert chef clearly liked chocolate, and that was good. Cost $8 each.

In summation, the kitchen and wait staffs at Comme Ça need to rediscover their passion for food and  service. They need to make sure that there is some surprise and delight in the guest's experience. What they have now are the motions without the payoff, because it’s motions with no heart or passion. And considering the price tag, ballpark $80 a head, that just doesn’t cut it. C'est triste, très triste, because I have no intention of returning.

A la votre,
Le Capitaine

The dinning room at Comme Ça

Comme Ça's web site: