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Amid post-pandemic and inflation jitters, creativity thrives in restaurants

Two chefs prepare food in the light of strong lamps.
Kinn chef Ki Kim, left, with H Woo Lee during a nine-course collaboration dinner with Kevin Lee, a.k.a. @chefboylee.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)
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Bursts of chef creativity in our pandemic and inflation era, Chicago’s misunderstood Italian beef and “The Bear” effect. Here with this week’s Tasting Notes, I’m Laurie Ochoa, general manager of L.A. Times Food, filling in for Bill Addison, who is hard at work on this year’s 101 best restaurants list.

Creative defiance

There is a certain crackle you hear when you break into the crisped skin of an expertly cooked piece of fish. I heard that crackle Thursday night as I was served a lovely piece of tilefish at the chefboylee x kinn collaboration dinner hosted by this year’s L.A. Times Food Bowl. The dinner, held at chef Ki Kim‘s Koreatown restaurant Kinn, was just the latest example of the culinary artistry we are seeing in the face of slow pandemic recovery, supply-chain holdups, industrywide staffing issues and growing inflation.

With chefs Kim, Kevin Lee, better known on social media as @chefboylee, and H Woo Lee behind the counter, diners were served Santa Barbara spot prawns that Kim says were marinated in soy sauce with apple, onion, garlic, ginger, tequila and Sprite, then served with a sauce of grated sea urchin that was so good I used my finger to get the last bit before the waiter took the plate away. There was also steamed abalone, dry-aged duck, handmade pasta with perilla sauce, leeks so rich they tasted like meat, squash ice cream with a spoonful of caviar and, for dessert, perilla sorbet followed by a persimmon doughnut. It was an extravagant version of Kinn’s usual tasting menu, which distinguishes itself by being one of the most (relatively) affordable prix fixe meals at $72.

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Tilefish with foam and a green leafy garnish
Tilefish with foam at the chefboylee x Kinn collaboration dinner for the 2022 L.A. Times Food Bowl.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)

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Earlier this year, Jenn Harris wrote about the profusion of tasting menus we’re seeing all over Southern California — chefs say the predictability in sourcing and staffing helps them survive. Of course, there is much to be debated about the cost of these menus, but one benefit is that chefs are melding their heritage with their culinary training to come up with new dishes that deserve to be copied and integrated into the canon of modern California cuisine. I think of the squirrel fish Times critic Bill Addison loved at Jon Yao’s Kato, or the marzipan with Meyer lemon ice at Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George’s Camphor in downtown L.A.

Steamed abalone appetizer in an abalone shell
Steamed abalone appetizer at chefboylee x kinn collaboration dinner for 2022 L.A. Times Food Bowl.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)

Beef with Italian beef

An animated beef sandwich on loop.
The divinely delicious, distinctly Chicagoan and oft-misunderstood Italian beef sandwich.
(Jennifer Hines / For The Times)

We know you’ve been reading a lot about the FX on Hulu series “The Bear,” and how stressed-out chefs — and, for that matter, stressed-out workers in all sorts of industries — relate to Jeremy Allen White’s lead character, Carmy, who leaves his life as a star chef to run his family’s Italian beef restaurant. But the show seems to be having a lasting influence on Italian beef sales beyond Chicago, home of the beloved sandwich. Stephanie Breijo talks about “The Bear” effect with L.A. chefs, including some who were making and loving Italian beef before the show and are seeing increased sales. But Chicago native Lucas Kwan Peterson says hold on a minute. Not every Italian beef you see is true to the Chicago original. He breaks down the essentials of a real Italian beef, which should be “sloppy and unwieldy, and best eaten immediately while standing up.”

No one can doubt the Italian beef credentials of Courtney Storer. The former Jon & Vinny’s culinary director was raised in Chicago and, alongside chef, actor and internet star Matty Matheson, served as culinary producer of “The Bear,” which was created by her brother Christopher Storer. We asked Courtney Storer to show us how to make a real Italian beef and Stephanie Breijo watched as the chef took us through her recipe. One key lesson: Pay attention to the bread.

Shanghai surprise

Shanghai-style dishes at the San Gabriel restaurant Wangjia.
At the San Gabriel restaurant Wangjia, clockwise from left, stir-fry shrimp, salty pork and vegetable with rice, greens of the day: ta cai, crab with Shanghai rice cakes, steamed pork buns, and braised minced eel in brown sauce.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

If you regularly eat in the San Gabriel Valley, you know that Sichuan food dominates the restaurant scene. Gone are the days when massive dim sum and seafood palaces like Empress Pavilion in Chinatown or Monterey Park’s Harbor Village (which once hosted Hong Kong’s abalone king for a $160 sun-dried abalone dinner) were major players. But as Bill Addison writes in his latest restaurant review, there is more to the SGV than Sichuan food. The relatively new Shanghai-style WangJia — in the space that once housed the late, great Noodle Island — has a sprawling menu that in a nod to current trends includes Sichuan dishes. But goes for the Shanghai specialties: crab with rice cake or eel or the dish listed on the menu as “salty pork and vegetable with rice” or xian rou cai fan.

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Readers tell us classic Mexican spots we forgot

An illustration of a colorful restaurant.
A classic Mexican restaurant.
(Daniel Villanueva / For The Times)

After last week’s series on Southern California’s classic Mexican restaurants — including a guide to 38 essential classic Mexican restaurants, plus Gustavo Arellano’s essay on how Cal-Mex dining is often mocked, maligned or ignored; Lucas Kwan Peterson’s interviews with “five of El Cholo’s longest-serving employees”; Jenn Harris’ visit behind the scenes at Tito’s Tacos and my look back at the how the late Jose Hernandez Rodriguez, chef and owner of the original La Serenata de Garibaldi, paved the way for the more complex nuances of Mexican cuisine to be appreciated alongside beloved classics — Amy Wong, Food’s audience engagement editor, asked readers to share memories of their favorite classic Mexican restaurants. Amy published 11 of the many responses we received, including notes on Gilbert’s El Indio on Pico in Santa Monica, Los Toros in Chatsworth, Mi Casa in Costa Mesa and one of my family’s favorites, La Cabañita in Glendale. I usually go for one of the restaurant’s stuffed poblano chile dishes, either chiles a La Cabañita filled with chicken, almonds and raisins or the pecan-sauce-topped chiles en Nogada filled with meat, dried fruits and nuts.

Food Bowl finale

We’re approaching the final week of Food Bowl, presented by City National Bank. Highlights include this weekend’s final two Night Market events at Paramount Pictures Studios including tonight’s “Saturday Night Flavor” with a dumpling demonstration hosted by The Times’ Jenn Harris featuring Lukshon and Father’s Office chef Sang Yoon as well as chefs from Lunasia, plus a Thai food demo by Jet Tila. Tastings include food from El Ruso chef Walter Soto Alvarez, Katsu Sando chef Daniel Son, Kuya Lord chef Lord Maynard Llera, Park’s BBQ chef Jenee Kim and many more. At Sunday’s Backlot Brunch, look for Kinn chef Ki Kim, Gunsmoke chef Brandon Kida, Here’s Looking at You chef Jonathan Whitener, Howlin’ Ray’s chef Johnny Ray Zone, Jitlada Southern Thai chef Jazz Singsanong, Mayura Indian Restaurant chefs Aniyan Puthanpurayil and Padmini Aniyan, plus many more.

At Tuesday’s Baja in the Bungalow, chef Diego Hernandez of Ensenda’s Bête Noire is preparing a Baja seafood feast at Melody. Three events are planned for Wednesday night, including a discussion of food, the restaurant industry and climate at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute with special guest Jorge Gaviria, co-founder of heirloom corn specialist Masienda. Billy Harris and I are hosting an L.A. Regional Food Bank Dinner on Wednesday with Nancy Silverton at the Barish in the Hollywood. I’m looking forward to the Barish’s whole oxtail and wood-oven baked pasta. Also on Wednesday is a screening of the Hulu film “Prey” with food by Ka’teen and Angry Egret chef Wes Avila.

Food Bowl wraps up Thursday with a plant-based dinner by chef Mollie Engelhart at her Sage restaurant in Culver City.

Also:

— Singer Robbie Montgomery’s St. Louis soul food restaurant, Sweetie Pie’s Upper Crust, which had been featured on the OWN reality show “Welcome to Sweet Pie’s,” shut down almost a week after Montgomery’s son was found guilty in a murder-for-hire plot against her grandson.

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— Twitter lit up with Lord Voldemort and got-your-nose jokes after Beyond Meat Chief Operations Officer Doug Ramsey was arrested and accused of biting the nose of a man. Meanwhile, Irvine-headquartered Taco Bell has announced it will test Beyond Meat carne asada in the chain’s Dayton, Ohio, market.

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