Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Anniversary Number Twenty-Eight

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, March 16, 2008)

As I mentioned a week or so ago, last weekend was Skip and my 28th anniversary together. As usual with us, we decided to celebrate in grand style. The first thing that’s needed for any celebration is a great meal. On Friday we had two of them. I started the morning by making brunch. There were some great, and very strong, bloody marys, and I made a Spanish-style omelet, or tortilla, as they refer to it in Spain. I fried up some potatoes, green peppers, onions and Spam in a pan. Then I added in some scrambled eggs, sprinkled some Parmesan cheese on top, and placed the whole thing in the oven at 350 degrees. Baking it like that causes the eggs to puff up and once it’s done, after 10 minutes or so, it can be sliced into wedges and served. It’s my favorite way to cook eggs and is always damned tasty. You can put whatever you want into it, like artichoke hearts, olives, asparagus. Whatever you want. You can also use any meat you want, like sausage, bacon or ham. I used Spam this time as sort of joke that been running between Skip and I since I read my friend Paula’s book, "Good Enough", a few weeks ago. (You need to read it to understand. )


We discussed going to one of our favorite restaurants for dinner that night, like Providence or Spago, but in the end, we decided to go with a restaurant that we had never been to before but had heard good things about. That turned out to be a great decision.

Blue Velvet ( is a rather new restaurant on the Los Angeles scene that is located downtown, but in a location a bit out of the way from the other upscale restaurants you find in the area. When the restaurant first opened in late 2006, the executive chef was a guy named Chris Morningstar. He had an impressive resume that included such LA heavy hitters as AOC, Grace and Patina. And under his leadership in the kitchen, the restaurant was receiving some very good reviews.

The first thing we noticed upon arrival was the room itself. The restaurant is situated on the ground floor of an upscale apartment building that used to be a Holiday Inn. The lounge and main dining room are designed beautifully, very influenced by Japanese design. One wall is made of small grey pebbles. Another is several layers of white fiberboard, cut with holes and overlapped, making it look like a large piece of Swiss cheese. Right outside of the main dining room window is the apartment’s swimming pool, lit blue in the evening, and casting a calming glow over the whole place. The downtown skyline can be seen over the pool’s glow. It’s a wonderful, romantic setting for a special meal.

Then we found out that there had been some changes made to the restaurant that haven’t been updated on their website yet. Morningstar had left less than a month ago and his replacement was a young chef named Jonathan McDowell. The tasting menu, which on the website is seven courses for $85, is now nine courses for $115. That might seem expensive, but it turned into eleven courses over the evening. We also asked for the beverage pairing (as opposed to wine pairing) for an extra $45 each, which is rather cheap for what turned out to be ten drinks, all in healthy pours.

I would have loved to taste Morningstar’s food, but it couldn’t have been better than McDowell’s. He presented us with what we consider one of the top five meals we’ve ever had in Los Angeles.

The meal started with a single Kumomoto Oyster served in the shell with a light miso vinaigrette and chives. It was paired with a lovely sparkling Saki from Hou Hou Shu. I’ve never had a sparkling sake before and I loved it. It fit beautifully with the ocean taste of the oyster.

The next course was grilled Hamachi Collar with daikon radish and cucumber. The collar (neck) of a fish is a cut rarely used, but full of flavor. Hamachi is a wonderful fish and this presentation brought the flavors out and made them shine.

Next came a single Sea Scallop, stuffed with kumquats and daikon radish, in a hoison and shallots sauce. The scallop was lightly cooked and translucent. The citrus flavor from the kumquats brought everything together to complement the scallop’s natural flavor beautifully.

The fish courses continued with a piece of grilled Japanese Mackerel on a bed of beet risotto with fennel and citrus. The risotto was a lovely thing and helped cut through the natural oiliness of the flavorful fish.

For the fifth course, we had seared Foie Gras served with a lightly fried vegetable spring roll on ginger snap peas and a sweet chili sauce. I’m used to this duck liver being served in a sweet manner and this savory presentation was amazing. I was getting bored of Foie before this and wasn’t really missing it as it disappeared off of menus due to misguided animal rights activists. But with this presentation, life won’t be the same without that wonderful fatty liver to enjoy now and then.

All the courses so far had been highly influenced by Japanese techniques. But with the next course, that all changed. American Southern cooking made its appearance when we were presented with a large chunk of Braised Bacon in a Sherry glaze, served with Burrata Cheese and Salsify Tortellini with Fennel Noodles and Baby Beet Greens. It was a wonderfully rich plate of food that was just the ultimate presentation of barbecued pork.

The American Southern influenced continued with the seventh course. This was a confit of Guinea Hen leg that had been breaded and fried and served over Brown Butter Grits with Molasses. The breading on the leg had been mixed with mustard seed and made for the best fried "chicken" I had ever eaten.

Mediterranean influence came into the last savory dish. This was a Rack of Lamb with Spiced Pear Yogurt, Chick Pea Panisse, Cucumber and Paprika Salad and a Lamb Shoulder Terrine. The chick pea panisse was like fancy bars of falafel and everything came together into one of the best Moroccan-style dishes I’ve ever enjoyed.

The cheese course was next and we were presented with a small piece of Coach Farm Goat Cheese, served with toasted brioche, apple puree and chopped hazelnuts.

The dessert plate was quite a sight. There was an Espresso Soufflé, a Chocolate Cigar filled with Diplomat Cream (a mixture of pastry cream and whipped cream), and a Frangelica Ice Cream. Everything was wonderful, especially the dark chocolate cigar.

Then we were given a plate of Petit Fours, including a PB&J Sandwich, Chocolate Fudge, a Peanut Butter Truffle and a Chocolate Shortbread Cookie. It was a wonderful end to a wonderful meal.

Throughout the meal, our waiter poured some amazing wines from the eclectic wine list, each pairing with the foods perfectly. For the desert course he poured a small glass of Basil Hayden Bourbon mixed with Frangelica Liquor. It was an inspired choice.

I don’t know much about Chef Jonathan McDowell, but right now I consider him one of LA’s best kept secrets. This guy is going to become big news in culinary circles in the future. But for now, he has transformed Blue Velvet into one of LA’s top restaurants. I hope to return soon.


The next day was Saturday. We knew what was coming on Sunday, so we decided to take it easy for this day. We woke up early because we needed to get to bed very early and with daylight savings time kicking in that evening, we would already lose an hour of sleep. But we couldn’t let the day go without doing something, so we met Skip’s boyhood friend, Dennis, and his adopted son for dinner. Dennis isn’t as adventurous with food as we are, although his 3 year old seems to eat just about anything and like it. Being a food snob, I refused to go to a chain restaurant. Cheesecake Factory was Dennis’ choice and I hate that place. Huge plates of food with little flavor. So we finally decided on a small Mexican place in Montrose, a small town just north of Glendale, called La Cabanita.

This is easily our favorite Mexican place in Los Angeles and its dirt cheap as well, so that makes it extra inviting. It’s a very popular place. As we were arriving, Jason Lee from "My Name Is Earl" was just leaving. All the food there is great, but the reason to go is for the Chile en Nogada. If you’ve ever read "Like Water For Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel, a magical book that you all should read, you would have heard of this hard-to-find in America delicacy. It’s basically a type of chile rellano. It’s a poblano pepper, stuffed with shredded beef (or sometimes pork or chicken) and dried fruits, and then topped with a delicious walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. It’s traditionally served in Mexico around Christmas time, but you can get it at La Cabanita year round and we always order one when we eat there.

Dennis wouldn’t try it, although he seemed to really enjoy his nachos, ordered off the "gringo" menu. I liked the nachos as well, and I also loved my bowl of Cream of Carrot soup. Everything was washed down with great margaritas, making this a terribly satisfying meal.


Sunday morning, we were up at 5 AM so we could be in the parking lot of Magic Mountain ( by 7:30. We were there for the West Coast Bash, a yearly event thrown by Rideworld ( and Theme Park Review ( on the second weekend of March at both Knott’s Berry Farm and Magic Mountain.

Skip and I LOVE roller coasters. We’ve planned whole vacations in the past around a theme park that had coasters we wanted to ride. One of my favorites was a three day vacation in 2002 where we flew into Cleveland and drove immediately to Sandusky to go to Cedar Point (, where we rode Millennium Force and all the rest. After spending the whole day there, we jumped in the car and drove a good portion of the night down to Cincinnati. We checked into a motel for a few hours sleep and then went to Paramount’s Kings Island ( early the next morning. We spent that day riding the Beast and its Son, and then we got back in the car and drove through the night back to Cleveland. The next morning we woke up, went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (, where we were very lucky enough to see a whole exhibit devoted to the always amazing Yoko Ono ( Then we drove to the airport and came back home. (We also managed to fit in a dinner at an up-and-coming restaurant called Lola’s, now Lola, run by a new chef Michael Symon, who is now an American Iron Chef. See: It was hectic, but it was so much fun. Even when we went to Paris in 2000 for a couple of weeks, we planned the trip around a couple of days at Paris Disneyland. We’re pretty crazy about theme parks that have exciting rides in them.

We always skip the Knott’s portion of the West Coast Bash. I don’t know why, as we love Knott’s, but we’ve been to the Magic Mountain event for the last three years now. The park always opens several hours earlier just so that the people who register for the event can come and have ERT (exclusive ride time) on several of the roller coasters before the park opens to the public and gets crowded. Magic Mountain has three of my favorite coasters: Tatsu, Goliath and X. Unfortunately, X is being refurbished into X2 and won’t be open until Memorial Day weekend, so we couldn’t ride that. Goliath wasn’t on the ERT schedule this year, although we did manage to ride it once after the park opened.

But Tatsu was on the schedule and as soon as they opened the gates to us, Skip and I raced up the hill so we could get in a few rides before the park opened. (Once the park opens, the line for this ride can get to be a couple of hours long, and that was the case this day. I love the ride, but not that much.) If you looked up these rides on the Magic Mountain webpage, you’ll see that Tatsu is a massively huge flying coaster. That is, once you get strapped into your seat, the whole thing lifts up so that you are lying on your stomach, staring down at the ground. Then the coaster takes off and the effect is like you are flying through the air, as you can’t see the track or anything except what’s underneath you. It’s absolutely frightening and so damned fun. Just the fact that it feels so wrong makes it so right.

But after several rides on that, the public came in and the line got too long. We managed to ride Goliath, as well as Superman and Batman, both great coasters themselves and that was it for us for the day.

The reason for this was that Magic Mountain went all out this time. They not only gave us the ERT as they do every year, but this year they provided lunch and then gave us all an over two hour behind the scenes tour of the park. Some of it was kind of dull, like when we got to go into the area that will soon become a kiddy play area based on Thomas the Tank Engine, or when we hung around the area that the great wooden coaster, Psyclone, used to be until the Northridge earthquake ruined it for ever. We were also supposed to get a sneak peak at the new museum that is being put together in the Sky Tower in the middle of the park. Alas, it was a very windy afternoon and they can’t operate the Tower elevators when there’s wind, so we missed out on that as well. But the last part of the tour was a sneak peak at X2 and we got to go into the ride mechanism and watch a test run with the new trains. Now, that was exciting.

After that, we all were herded into the Magic Moments Theatre to hear some of the top level executives talk about the park and some of their plans for the future. We also got to hear a presentation from S & S Worldwide, one of the premier rollercoaster manufacturers in the world, which also included some sneaks at upcoming projects. There were films and question-and-answer sessions and then we got the big announcement. The park announced to us that although the park was scheduled to close at 8 that evening, they were keeping the park, and ALL the rides, open until 10:30 just for the West Coast Bash participants! And on top of that, the winds had died down and now the Sky Tower Museum was open as well, just for us!

I wish I could have gotten as excited as everyone else was, but unfortunately, Skip and I had already made plans for that evening and we had to leave as soon as the presentation was done.

Now, let me tell you. I’ve had some major problems with Magic Mountain over the last several years. The park was dirty and in need of lots of touch-ups and repair. The employees were usually surly and unfriendly. The lines would get long and the park would still only run one train to keep costs down. We had been yearly pass holders for close to a decade before, but about five years ago, we decided that we had had enough and stopped getting the yearly passes, going to the park only once a year during the West Coast Bash. But this year, under a new management team, the park was sparkling. Everything looked and worked beautifully. There were always two trains running on every ride and sometimes three. It was a pleasure to be there. So Skip and I are once again Annual Passholders and will be visiting the park a lot this year, especially once X2 opens. And because of that, we didn’t feel too bad about missing the nighttime ERT. We’ll be able to ride all those rides many times this year and there’s always next year’s West Coast Bash for our yearly dose of ERT. (We’re already promise ERT on X2, plus backstage tours of new coasters being built for 2009!)


So, we were off for the reason we had to leave Magic Mountain so early on a special day. We had a good drive ahead of us down to Anaheim so we could see the New York Dolls play at the House Of Blues. Fortunately, there was little traffic and it only toke us a little over an hour to get there, so we had time to grab a bite to eat at the Mexican Restaurant across the way from the House of Blues called Tortilla Jo’s ( It’s a decent, sometimes very good, restaurant run by the Patina Group. This time though, they were out of the menu item I wanted, a carne asada torte (or steak sandwich), so they comped me a full carne asada plate that was delicious with its mashed sweet potatoes, full of lots of butter and cinnamon, and sautĂ©ed peppers. I love getting a free meal, but I really love getting a free meal that tastes great. (They also threw in a plate of chicken flautas that were extremely tasty as well.)


After a couple of strong margaritas a Tortilla Jo’s, we were ready to make our way to the House of Blues. Because of the time we took at Magic Mountain and eating dinner, we missed both support bands, and after hearing them on their Myspace pages, I think I’m happy about that. But I was extremely excited about seeing the New York Dolls ( again. I had seen them do a Don Krishner’s Rock Concert taping back in their original glam days and I saw them a second time when they were in their red vinyl communist days just before they split up.

When I heard a few years ago that they were getting back together again after almost 30 years, I was pretty upset about it. They were a great band, although they only managed two albums in their lifetime. And since three of the original members were now dead, including guitarist Johnny Thunders, who to me was impossible to replace, I just didn’t see what the point was. But I went to see them perform live anyways and was surprised by a great set. And I found I didn’t miss Johnny Thunders all that much either. The new musicians backing singer David Johannsen (who some of you may know as Buster Poindexter) and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain were young, snotty and loud and they fit into the sound and image just perfectly.

Then they announced they were doing a new album and I was worried once again. After all, lots of bands get back together and are great live, but their reformed albums usually turn out to be a major piece of crap (see The Stooges for details). I needn’t have worried though as the album fit right in with the two earlier albums. In fact, it was one of my favorite albums of 2006.

This time, they were even better live. The band has worked together for close to two years now and are much more comfortable and in sync with each other. I was a bit disappointed that there were no new songs, but there were some new cover versions, including a great take on Janis Joplin’s "Piece Of My Heart" and a touching, although short, tribute to Johnny Thunders by playing his great song, "You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory". But new songs or not, they just rocked and they sounded great. Fuck the Sex Pistols. Fuck the E Street Band. Fuck the Rolling Stones. The New York Dolls are the World’s greatest living rock band.

The next day, it was all over. We were exhausted and just sat around the house all day and watched TV and moaned. A friend of ours asked us, "Don’t you ever do anything that’s just relaxing?" But this is relaxing for us. What’s the use of having fun if you don’t take it to the limit? I don’t find sitting by a beach or contemplating Buddha and my navel to be fun at all. I want to live life to its full extent. If I can’t do that, that’s what’s the point?

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