Killer Sushi: The Izaka-ya by Katsu-ya

Izaka-ya, where have you been all my life? In the 4 1/2 years I've lived in my neighborhood, I've walked/driven/biked past this sushi spot more times than I can count. For Christ sake, my gym is literally located ABOVE Izaka-ya. As in upstairs. Yet it wasn't until last week that I walked in on the advice of Los Angeles Magazine and a friend. After a mind-blowing sushi experience, I now have to spend the rest of my days making up for my years of missed Izaka-ya delights.

I have to preface that I had just finished a 35 mile bike ride and I was starving. Protein shake be damned, I wanted sushi. End of story. Bryan and I arrived at Izaka-ya and took our time ordering, going for the seared tuna with jalapeno, popcorn shrimp roll and spicy tuna on crispy rice. Oh.My.God. The seared yellowtail simply melted in your mouth, the heat from the jalapeno and light-yet-savory broth giving it the perfect kick. The popcorn shrimp roll was insanely good; it is hands-down one of the best sushi "rolls" I've ever had. Each roll is topped with a tempura'd jumbo prawn and a drizzle of spicy sauce. The shrimp are hot out of the fryer, succulent and sweet. It was impossible to actually eat the roll and the shrimp together, so I happily got into a smooth, shrimp-roll-shrimp-roll tasting routine.

Seared tuna with jalapeno

Popcorn shrimp roll
The crispy rice topped with spicy tuna was invented by Izaka-ya, so I was really looking forward to it. It did not disappoint. Unlike some other sushi joints that have copied Izaka-ya's genius invention, the rice was a perfect combination of a crisp exterior and hot, creamy interior. It wasn't too crunchy, too hard or too cold from being prepared ahead of time. The tuna mixture was fresh with a slight tang from the spicy sauce. Killer.

Crispy rice with spicy tuna
Then came round #2. We opted for the miso black cod and the salmon tempura roll. I love black cod and this was one of the best I've had. Everything about it was just right; the fish was flaky and tender, the miso had been absorbed by the cod and the edges were ever-so-slightly crispy. As for the salmon tempura roll, it was gorgeous. Fresh salmon rolled around crab, shrimp and avocado, them tempura'd (my own word) and served on a individual dollops of diced red onion cream. Sushi lox, in the best possible way.

Salmon tempura roll

Miso black cod
It's a joy to watch the sushi chefs and they are incredibly friendly, patient and willing to take the time to explain the ingredients of Izaka-ya's numerous rolls. It's clear the kitchen makes everything to order, so each dish is served at exactly the right temperature. Piping hot, room temp, chilled. But not so chilled that you can tell it's been in the refrigerator for hours. You kno what I mean. Kitchen aside, the service is also excellent. Your glass (be it water, hot tea, what-have-you) is never empty, they're always wearing a smile and we never had to track a server down.

View from the sushi counter
While we did a good job of making up for lost Izaka-ya time, I already can't wait to go back. It just rocks.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Eat 'Em: Umami Burger

So here's the thing: I'm kind of a counter-intuitive food blogger. As much as I'd LOOOVE to run to every brand-spanking new restaurant that opens in LA, I don't. This is for a few reasons: 1) They usually need some time to work out the kinks, e.g. service, menu, consistency; 2) There's always a rush for reservations, and; 3) I know better than to believe all the media-conjured hype. I truly think the true test of a restaurant is – gasp! – six months to a year post-opening.

That said, I believe I'm the last person in Los Angeles to try Umami Burger. As some background, Kikkoman is desperately trying to establish Umami – aka "the fifth taste" – as the food industry's next big thing. Clearly, it's working because the term Umami is everywhere. Maybe I'm just simplifying things too much, but I swear that Umami just tastes like truffles: earthy, rich and somewhat salty. And anyone who reads this blog knows I have a serious love affair with truffles. But I've loved this taste for years and years so the recent, bordering-on-insane attention to this so-called fifth sense is a bit lost on me.

Photo courtesy of AContinuousLean.com

A few weeks ago Bryan and I found ourselves smack at the intersection of La Brea and Olympic Boulevards; barely a stone's throw from Umami's original location. We figured, what the heck? It was time to finally try out the infamous burger. We got the famous Umami burger, a SoCal burger, an order of hand-cut fries as well as onion rings. From our table, I could see the kitchen workers hand-peeling the potatoes, butchering huge cuts of fresh meat and slicing onions. It was impressive, especially since the quantity of food they put out would be a reason for other restaurants NOT to prep everything (almost) to order with completely fresh ingredients.

The Umami Burger

The SoCal Burger

I really, really wanted to like it. Love it, even. I mean, they've even got a truffle burger...how could I not at least fall in lust with this place? But after biting into my Umami burger – guaranteed to come medium rare, my favorite – I was left underwhelmed. Disappointed. I took another bite, thinking maybe it was me. Nope, it wasn't. The burger that was supposed to charge out of the kitchen with a lion's roar was nowhere to be found. Instead, I got a burger that looked great on the surface, but underneath didn't have much going on.

The crazy thing was that all the elements of Umami-ness were there: a parmesan tuile, a bit of tomato compote, Umami's signature sauce, tiny slices of shiitake mushrooms and grilled onions. The bun was great; hot and crisp from a quick detour to the grill. But the burger was well done, not the as-advertised medium-rare. And perhaps the toppings detracted from the star of the show, but I truly couldn't taste the beef. At some of my other favorite burger establishments – Father's Office, Taste, 8oz Burger Bar – the beef is well, beefy. It's rich. It's wonderful. Had I not seen behind Umami's kitchen curtain, I honestly would have wondered if the beef had come in (Umami lovers, don't kill me)...frozen. I'm sorry.

Umami's famous thick cut fries

Onion Rings

If it's any consolation, the fries were great. And the ketchup clearly had truffle oil in it. Same goes for the onion rings. The famous "Umami" secret seems to be a healthy dose of truffle oil in just about everything. Delicious, but not groundbreaking. At least not to me.

At the end of the day, I absolutely bow down to Umami's respect for freshness and ingredients. But I just don't get the hype. I went in, totally optimistic and hoping to be wowed. But someone else can have my seat on the Umami Burger bandwagon.


May The Forks Be With You: Star Wars-Inspired Foods

Unless you've been living under a rock (or on another planet), you've heard of George Lucas' film phenomenon, Star Wars. I mean, I'm the farthest thing from a Star Wars fan, but even I know that the film has become so ingrained in American culture that the quote, "May the force be with you" is as well-known as "Four score and seven years ago." Recently I've come across a few Star Wars-inspired foods that even I'll admit are pretty awesome. My personal favorite, which is what inspired this post are the Williams-Sonoma Star Wars cookie cutters and pancake molds. My husband will definitely be getting some Star Wars cookies for his birthday. There's also a Yoda pizza, R2-D2 cookies and a Tauntaun wedding cake. While they're fun, I really have to ask: what the hell is a Tauntaun, anyway? From the photo below, I don't think I want to know...

Source: Geekologie.com

Source: BakeAt350.com

Source: StarWarsBlog.com

(Totally gross to anyone who's not a huge Star Wars fan)
Source: StarWarsBlog.com

Dead Tautaun Cake, Part 2
Source: StarWarsBlog.com


BakeLab's Cookie Equation: Art + Science = YUM!!

Close your eyes for a second. Think about the last time you made cookies. Or cake. Or brownies. Imagine yourself assembling the ingredients – creaming the butter and sugar, sifting the flour, incorporating the vanilla and mixing in chocolate chunks. As you eat a spoonful of your magical cookie dough elixir – no doubt closing your eyes and exhaling a satisfied "mmmmmm" – you know that these cookies are going to be great. Maybe they'll even change the landscape of cookie-dom, filling your house with the irresistible aroma of melting butter, caramelizing sugar and ooey-gooey chocolate along the way.

What happens next? Your precious cookies are baking right along. All is going according to plan until you take them out of the oven. The cookies aren't the fluffy, moist, chewy morsels you've dreamed of. Instead they're tough, dry and deflated. A little bit like your spirit.

Blah...flat, dry cookies.
It's okay. We've all been there. But thankfully after this past weekend, I'll never have to go to that dark place again. How is that possible, you ask? Because I was fortunate enough to spend some time at LA's Bakelab, an art-meets-science-meets-baking haven founded by an artist, a molecular gastronomist and a pastry chef. Except in this case, they're all the same person: Kristin Feuer, Bakelab's pastry chef and owner. And thanks to Kristin's generosity, all our cookies can be fantastic from here on out. Keep reading for her enlightening tips and tricks.

Kristin working her magic inside the Bakelab
So why was I there? Celebrating National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day, of course! I accepted an invitation to celebrate a day devoted to the granddaddy of cookies with Kristin and her partner in cookie crime, Jill. Celebrate we did, tasting our way through a variety of Bakelab's "Big & Chewy" lemon, ginger molasses and peanut butter cookies, chocolate chip cookies and the bakery's latest creation, iced oatmeal cookies.

Bakelab's "Big & Chewy" sugar-coated Peanut Butter cookies (cut into quarters).

Bakelab's original Chocolate Chip cookie, cut into quarters.

Bakelab's latest creation: iced oatmeal cookies.
Kristin and her partner, Jill, are not only meant-to-be Bakerella's (the Baker's clog definitely fits), they're effusive, warm and live and breathe all things flour and sugar. Learning from previous stints at Providence and Clementine, Kristin's modern interpretations of signature desserts – from pink coconut snowballs to homemade S'mores to root beer float cupcakes – reflect her passion for modern art and baking. Her "lab" produces custom cookies, cakes, cupcakes and bars that achieve a retro feel without being cliche, featuring clean lines, simplicity and a respect for the details. Her talents as a graphic artist and photographer shine through on Bakelab's website (filled with her very own sketches), custom aprons, button-down shirts and edible, custom fondant stamps decorating cakes and cookies.

Clockwise from top left: Jill & Kristin in Bakelab's shirts & aprons; Bakelab's signature concentric ring cake design; chocolate & vanilla snowballs; Devil's food cupcake with edible fondant stamp.
But back to the cookies. Kristin's cookies are like none I've ever tasted. After loading a small plate full of samples and pouring an ice cold glass of organic low-fat milk (hey, something had to be low-fat that day!), I sank my teeth into the "Big & Chewy" Ginger Molasses cookie.


At first glance it was a pretty thick cookie, so I immediately anticipated a somewhat tough bite. I couldn't have been more wrong. It was so light, so fluffy and so moist in the center with such an intense gingery-molasses flavor, I just couldn't believe my taste buds. So I took another bite. And another. It just kept getting better.

My Bakelab "sampler" platter.
The same thing happened with each and every cookie. The other "Big & Chewy's" include Lemon Sugar and Peanut Butter. Rolled in sugar not one, but TWO times to ensure a crackly, crunchy crust, both flavors were incredible; easily the best I've ever had. Then came the Iced Oatmeal, new on Bakelab's menu for Father's Day. Age-old Mother's Oatmeal cookies have officially been shamed.

Bakelab's Father's Day Cookie Box
Before we all suffered the inevitable sugar crash and burn, Kristin took us into the kitchen to demonstrate her technique for making and baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Listen up; in Kristin's words, these are the tips that the back of the chocolate chip bag doesn't tell you. While she says "I have a deep, intimate relationship with my cookies. I know what they're doing in the oven," not all of us are that lucky. So if you want to change your cookie-baking destiny and never suffer another flat, burned or tough cookie again, these tips are for you.

Clockwise from top left: Chocolate chip, ginger molasses, oatmeal raisin and lemon sugar cookies.
1. Creaming the Butter and Sugar: Don't cream them any longer than about 1 1/2 minutes (even though the chocolate chip bags tell you to cream for 3 minutes). Too much air from over-creaming equals a flat cookie. Kristin looks for when it starts to get smooth and creamed.

2. Incorporating Vanilla and Eggs: Add the vanilla before the eggs. The snottiness (I know, gross but true) of the eggs sticks to everything and prevents the vanilla from adhering to the butter and cream. Fat needs flavor, but if you add the eggs first, the vanilla flavor won't properly incorporate into the butter (aka fat).

3. Beating the Dough: Beat the dough for a quick "one, two" count just beyond the point where the flour is incorporated. You'll make a little more gluten (aka structure) that results in plumper cookies.

4. Aging the Dough: Just as bread dough develops flavor as it rises, chilling the dough overnight allows subtle nutty and toffee characteristics to develop. You can pre-portion the dough in scoops, freeze them and store them in a Ziploc freezer bag or Tupperware container for a few months.

5. Baking the Dough: Baking the dough when it's frozen allows the protein in the flour to set up before the fat melts out, yielding a very plump cookie. In other words, it's basically a race to the finish between the flour and the butter. The butter wants to melt and flatten out the cookie, while the flour wants to set up the cookie's structural integrity. When dough is baked at room temperature, the butter wins and flattens out the cookies. The flour doesn't have a chance. When baked from frozen, the butter and flour work in harmony.

6. Removing the Cookies: Pull the cookies from the oven when there is still a pale circle of dough in the center of the cookie. It will keep cooking on the sheet pan even when out of the oven, so you'll get a nice caramelized edge and wonderfully soft center.


La Scala's Famous Leon's Chopped Salad

It's been two weeks since we got back from Italy and we still haven't had an Italian meal. We were so full from amazing cheese, meat, wine and pasta that all we wanted was a salad. Anything with crisp, cold greens and light dressing.

Enter La Scala's Original Leon's Chopped Salad. La Scala has been one of my favorite LA restaurants since I was in high school. Only God knows how many Leon's Chopped Salads I've consumed (it's easily more than 100). Just namedrop "Leon's Original Chopped" to any Angeleno within 10 miles of Beverly Hills or Brentwood and the response will be, "Oh.My.God. I LOVE that salad!"

La Scala Beverly Hills location
So what's so magical about La Scala's Leon's salad? It's just so light, crisp and...uncomplicated. There's nothing fancy about it. Nothing pretentious. It's just lettuce, salami, mozzarella cheese, marinated garbanzo beans and one Kalamata olive on top. The famous "Leon" dressing is tart yet light, full of red vinegar and what I can only imagine is some olive oil, salt and pepper.

Not a salami fan? No worries. La Scala has catered to every Angeleno low-carb diet in town. You can get chopped tuna, turkey, or my personal favorite, hot grilled chicken (also chopped) on top. They grill the chicken to order and the heat is a great contrast to the chilled salad.

Leon's Original Chopped Salad
(apologies for the bad photo; the lighting was very dim)
While I would love nothing more than to go to La Scala every day of my life and get this salad, at a minimum of $10 per half salad, La Scala has made a pretty penny off of me in my lifetime. That said, I decided to recreate the salad at home and save lots of dough. I try to do this with many of my favorite restaurant meals; it's not only fun and a money-saver, it's a great way to experiment and test your kitchen chops (pun intended). Leon's dressing was a tough one but I think I've cracked the code. I've also added a few personal touches along the way, so feel free to ignore them if you're a Leon's purist.

I finely chopped lettuce, salami, basil, turkey, shallot and Parmesan cheese. I rinsed and added whole garbanzo beans and cracked some fresh pepper over the mixture. Then I whisked together two tablespoons red wine vinegar and one tablespoon of light champagne salad dressing and poured it on top. Toss the salad and you've got a plate full of chopped deliciousness! It's a fantastic hot weather meal or light dinner; I can't wait to ditch the turkey and salami and try it with a grilled (and chopped) chicken cutlet on top. I've made it three days in a row and Bryan even gave me the seal of approval.

My version of Leon's Original Chopped Salad.
I guess now it's Christie's Original Chopped Salad!

These are TINY bowls of red wine vinegar & champagne dressing.

The result: My version of Leon's Original Chopped Salad!


My Dream Come True: An Italian Truffle Hunt

Bryan and I partook in an incredible activity while we were in the Italian wine/olive oil countryside of Umbria: a truffle hunt! We were set up with an appointment to meet Severio Bianconi (see photo below, on the right), owner of Tartufo Bianconi, a small company selling black and white whole truffles and truffle products (think pate, polenta, reduced balsamic truffle creme, raw acacia truffle honey, etc.) to local chefs and restaurants. So we drove to Citerna, a tiny medieval town with 200 full-time residents and met JeanPierre (dressed in camo below), an official truffler hunter and his prized truffle hound, Asia.

From left: JeanPierre, Asia, the owner of truffle reserve, his dog Sandy, & Severio Bianconi.

For over an hour, we let the dogs loose and they immediately caught scent of truffle after truffle. They would start to dig furiously and we've have to catch up with them before the dug too far and ate, yes ATE, the truffle. These dogs are incredible smart, but given the chance, they're even smarter: they're eating that prized funghi. The hunters taught Bryan and I how to dig out the truffles and after that, we became the hunters. We followed the dogs and found truffle after truffle growing under the oak and hazelnuts trees. We dug each one out, hiking through the preserve. At one point I make the mistake of looking too closely into the piles of leaves underfoot and realized that they were absolutely teeming with spiders. Hundreds of them. Big ones, too. I am no friend of spiders, big or small, and it took a lot for me not to run screaming from the preserve. But I kept my cool and focused on the once-in-a-lifetime task at hand: unearthing some of Italy's best truffles. It was incredible.

JeanPierre checking out Asia & Sandy's truffle spotting.

Jean Pierre showed us how to dig out the truffle w/o damaging it.

There they are! White truffles!

And black truffles! What beauties...
If you can believe it, the afternoon got even better as we took our bounty back to Severio's home and met with his wife Gabriella, who took us through a five-course truffle cooking class. We prepared truffle polenta with cream sauce, truffle souffle with mini crostinis, homemade pasta with truffles, cheese drizzled with truffle honey, chicken topped with reduced balsamic truffle creme, truffle mashed potatoes (a light potato flake mixture) and finally, a farmhouse cake (sans truffles). We ate dinner with the Bianconi family, practicing our Italian along the way while they practiced their English. It was amazing and true to European form, we relaxed at the dinner table, sipping wine and eating for over three hours. It was a magical day. Truly a culinary dream come true.

Our truffle bounty: we "hunted" all these truffles!

The Bianconi's family kitchen.

Here's the prep. Check out our work:

Shaving black truffles into olive oil & garlic. I never wanted to stop.

Bryan loved the wood-burning oven. Check out the glowing window.

Truffle polenta, before being baked.

Shaved black truffles in olive oil, warmed in a copper pan. Wow, the aroma...

Truffle Souffle. So delicious, crispy edges and all.

Homemade pasta, soon to be topped with my shaved black truffles.

Chicken cutlets filled with cheese and truffle pate, rolled and boiled.

And finally, our meal. So incredible. Severio opened some of his family's Greccheto wine (white table wine served anytime throughout the day, similar to Sauvignon Blanc), a Chianti and a sweet dessert wine he made himself, Vin Santo. He opened the red wine to demonstrate his strict rule that you should absolutely NEVER drink red wine with truffle dishes. In his opinion, the tannins overpower the truffles. After trying it, we had to agree.

Truffle souffle with bruschetta and truffled crostini.

Truffle polenta in black truffle creme sauce.

Fresh pasta with shaved black truffle & Umbrian olive oil.

Stuffed chicken with truffle potatoes & balsamic truffle creme drizzle.

The only non-truffle dish: warm farmhouse cake with crunchy sugar crystals.

Overall it was a day we'll never forget. Gabriella even gave us a book with some of her recipes in it. A huge thanks to the truffle hunters and the Bianconi family for their hospitality, expertise and culinary prowess.
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