Follow Me To The Deep End!!

Feb 25, 2015

The Mystery of GQ Restaurant Critic Alan Richman's #25 Pick for "Most Outstanding Restaurants in U.S." or WTF is Alan Richman Smoking?

Alan Richman, restaurant critic for GQ.

Maybe I’ve been living in L.A. too long. Maybe I’ve indulged in dim sum for too many years. (I’ve eaten dim sum since I moved to Los Angeles when I was 3 years-old—virtually each weekend when I was a child with cha siu baos practically doubling as pacifiers.) Maybe I've started taking things for granted. Maybe Alan Richman knows something I don’t.

I doubt it.

My question: What the har gow is Alan Richman, GQ’s long time food critic, raving about? Awarding as one of his picks Shi Hai Restaurant in Alhambra for “GQ’s 25 Most Outstanding Restaurants of 2015”? Did any of my Los Angeles readers take notice? You should’ve because it stuck out like a sore chicken’s foot in a dim sum tin.

Mind you, this is Richman's list of “Most Outstanding Restaurants” for the entire nation—48 contiguous states plus Alaska and Hawaii—that’s a whole lotta eating places. How Shi Hai managed to score a sweet spot at #25 is mouth-boggling.

For anyone who’s not up to speed on Shi Hai Restaurant, here’s the gist: Shi Hai is a Chinese seafood and dim sum restaurant in Alhambra, CA, specializing in “modern style” dim sum—which usually means the diminutive, “touch your heart” bites of Chinese deliciousness like har gow (shrimp dumplings) are made to order and not rolled across a banquet room on steam carts waiting to be snatched up by diners as is with traditional dim sum service.

Also, modern style dim sum is usually of higher quality in both ingredients as well as technique.

During my visit to Shi Hai, I was impressed with the selections pictured on the menu, but, as many Yelpers noted, the items didn’t represent very well IRL, kinda like a bad internet date.

shi hai shrimp sprout
Dim sum, lose some.

Superior dim sum, especially at the level of a high end Chinese restaurant, should reveal expert craftsmanship cultivated from decades of time in the kitchen making dumplings, rolls, and buns. This is evident in the precision of the folds, the amount of pleats, and the pleasing mix of ingredients that distend the dumpling.

shi hai shrimp chive
Holey dumplings, Batman!

At Shi Hai, an order of Shrimp & Bean Sprout Leaves dumplings arrived splitting at the seams or torn. Another tin of Shrimp & Chives dumplings had similar imperfections. This shoddiness I would expect to see at a Chinese deli that heavily discounts its goods, not at one of the top 25 restaurants in the country.

Moreover, the chicken feet were not ideally tender. I order chicken feet everytime I have dim sum. I know good chicken feet. I should have a trophy with talons jutting out from it. Shi Hai’s menu states that the chicken feet is in abalone sauce. Mine wasn’t.

shi hai dead fish yelp
Take some stars away for this one.

Furthermore, a Yelper noted in a photo comment that many of the “fresh” fish are “dying/dead.” I verified this with my own snapshot. In fact, our table faced the “live” fish tanks, and the first thing I noticed in the hideously murky water were several thornyheads sleeping with the fishes, um, themselves.

shi hai dead fish
They're just sleeping, honey.

I’m completely baffled by how a high-profile restaurant critic like Richman included a mediocre place like Shi Hai on his exclusive list. Here’s how he justifies his choice in his piece:

“Sadly, dim sum tends to be the same everywhere: unchanging versions of shu mai and har gow roll by on carts. Terrible tea. Indifferent service. Shi Hai is way better: attentive staff. Choice of teas. Six kinds of slippery rice-noodle rolls, including one stuffed with barbecued pork and corn. It's not a Great Leap Forward, just fantastic small steps.”

Okay, I have no inkling how the guy decides which restaurants are deemed “outstanding” but “just fantastic small steps” is poor reasoning. (What is this? MasterChef Junior?) In fact, it’s the “Great Leap Forward” that should justify inclusion on the list rather than not. That said, Shi Hai isn’t even making “fantastic small steps.”

Los Angeles’ master restaurant critic Jonathan Gold is a dim sum fiend, and he seemed only lukewarm about Shi Hai. Food writer Clarissa Wei, who likes to focus on the San Gabriel Valley’s Chinese food scene, said it’s “not that good.” Eater LA’s editor Matthew Kang was surprised that Shi Hai appeared on the list. Yelpers definitely aren’t impressed with Shi Hai giving it an average of 2 1/2 stars.

Food, of course, isn’t the only measure of an exceptional restaurant, and, clearly, Richman feels Shi Hai’s attentiveness to its guests was noteworthy. I couldn’t disagree more. There are too many examples to share, most involve me thinking that our table had the power of invisibility as I tried to flag down server after server, all ignoring me, managers included.

shi hai octo dumpling menu
I ordered this...

However, the worst offense was when I was given the wrong dim sum item. I had ordered the octopus (ocyopus on menu - haha) dumpling but was delivered har gow (shrimp dumpling) instead. They do not look the same. In fact, with its attempt at being artsy, the restaurant tries to make the octopus dumpling look like an octopus. The shrimp dumpling looks like a standard dim sum shrimp dumpling (but with these creepy eye marks).

shi hai har gow
...NOT these!

When I brought this to the server’s attention (after multiple attempts at waving over one), she told me that this is what I had ordered. I politely disagreed and explained IN CHINESE that I ordered the octopus dumpling not the har gow. She passed me off to an assistant manager who also told me that I had ordered the har gow and that is what I got. Fortunately, I still had my order form to prove that I checked off the octopus dumpling. Bewildered, she went off to get the top dog manager who came over and explained that the kitchen was out of the octopus dumplings and substituted with the har gow. I asked him why nobody told me. It’s no big deal. Just let me know. Don’t make me sound like a moron. He eventually removed the har gow from the bill. If I didn’t speak Chinese, I doubt there would’ve been a resolution.

These are not the signs of an exemplary dining establishment worthy of inclusion on any “outstanding” list. So, why is Shi Hai on Alan Richman’s list? I have no clue. Maybe Alan can explain himself better.

In an apples to apples comparison, I personally would’ve given the #25 spot to China Red which is also a modern style dim sum restaurant and opened in 2014, on par with the King Huas and Lunasias of L.A.

Like I said, I have no idea what Richman is thinking. There’s no good dim sum where he’s from, so maybe he himself has little idea of what the good stuff is, but I think there’s more to it.

If Richman wants, I can show him where to eat next time he’s in L.A., but until that happens, I wish he’d stop telling me where to go, especially for dim sum.

Nov 6, 2014

Firefly—Reunited with an Old Flame. A Midsummer Night's Meal in Studio City. Firefly Restaurant, Studio City.

firefly cocktails
Firefly's library lounge. It begins here.

Some years ago, when I was working 90 hour weeks in the television industry—sitcoms in particular—I frequented a local hot spot called Firefly. It was a local hot spot because only locals seemed to know where it was. The restaurant was and is obscured by ivy and has no sign (other than the "Firefly" sign on the valet podium).

firefly bubbly blossoms
Boozy & summery.

For me, Firefly was an oasis, an escape from my overwhelming week of collating scripts and running errands for producers. No matter how frustrated I got with my "glamorous" Hollywood job, I always knew a cocktail was in my future at the patio bar.

firefly lobster bloody mary
Bloody outstanding lobster!

Admittedly, this review is a couple months late. It's autumn now (but it still feels like an endless summer in L.A.) and the dishes I had this night may be seasonal, i.e. the Compressed Watermelon or Strawberry Raviolo. However, the real point of my writing is the cooking of Firefly's chef Paul Shoemaker, as well as the irresistible desserts of pastry chef Raymond Morales.

Comfortably settled in the library lounge surrounded by leather-bound books, guests were offered canapés like the Lobster Bloody Mary with American Caviar. It tasted of oceanic perfection, the luscious, buttery lobster melding with the salty, bursting caviar. I was ready for more.

firefly short rib
A very short short rib.

Tender as can be and boneless, the Short Rib, Smoked Potato & Red Onion Compote, was a single bite of beefy bliss on a spoon. Smoked potato shavings and sweet onion sauce boosted the flavor of the savory short rib as they should.

firefly compress watermelon
Taste of summer compressed into a tiny cube.

Refreshing the palate was the Compressed Watermelon, Carbonated Sugar & Thai Basil. Herby, sweet, and wet, this teensy taste was enough to reset my mouth for the real meal.

firefly hamachi sashimi
Hallelujah! It's hamachi!

Hamachi is one of my favorite fish, especially in the form of sashimi. Chef Shoemaker keeps it simple and lets the super fresh fish shine with only some heirloom tomatoes, ponzu, and smoked sesame. Firefly's sommelier Diane Deluca paired this with a 2013 Tselepos Moschofilero from Mantinia, Greece. The hamachi was buttery fresh perfection.

firefly scallops
Superb scallop.

If I had to choose one dish for which I absolutely fell head over heels, it would have to be the scallop. The Block Island Diver Scallops, Brentwood Corn, Grandma Green Figs, Chanterelles & Bacon was ideally seared releasing gorgeous flavors which were both clean and umami-kissed. The sweet and savory sauce complemented the pillowy scallop without a fight. The entire plate was a joy for the eyes and mouth. Both vibrant in color and tastes, it was gone much too quickly.

firefly bone marrow ravioli
Bone marrow plus ravioli. YES!

I'm an unapologetic bone marrow whore. I'll suck any bone to get to the good stuff. Um, sorry, let me rephrase that. I love bone marrow. Normally, I'd have to dig out this beautiful goopy beef butter myself. At Firefly, it's neatly sealed in ravioli pasta and served hot. This bite of raviolo oozed with buttery marrow and accented with truffle foam, making it light and beefy at once.

firefly chatham cod
Thank, cod!

This cod piece, eh, piece of cod from Chatham stacked with smoked eggplant, spreadable Italian sausage, and piperade was a meal in itself. The mix of flavors never competed and worked well as one. Everything was quite meaty including the smoked eggplant. Although the cod itself was delicate and flaky, the rest of this plate was a hearty affair.

firefly beef tenderloin
Beauty and the beef.

The Beef Tenderloin was a thing of beauty, just browned on the exterior and vibrant red inside. A joy to eat along with the potato pave, haricot verts. The classic bordelaise sauce brought it all together. Somm Deluca poured a 2008 Bodegas Casa Primicia Tempranillo to complement.

firefly strawberry raviolo
A modern dessert.

Pastry chef Raymond Morales' time to shine came at the end of the meal with two outstanding desserts. The first was the Strawberry Raviolo on a spoon. Bright, sweet, and slightly tart, the strawberry was happiness in dessert form. The shortbread espuma completed the modern version of a classic.

firefly smoked salt carmelo
Dessert to die for.

Smoke Salt Carmelo, Baileys Ice Cream & Whiskey Foam came together to create a super dessert, as if they were The Avengers. Each brought its best aspect to the plate and made it impossible not to devour. There was caramel, coffee, sweet, crunchy, creamy, chewy, cold, warm; it was all there and it was decadent. This is what other desserts look to when they aspire to be amazing.

To sweeten the already sweet deal, a Baileys Espresso Martini came with dessert.

If I had only known reuniting with an old flame would be so incredibly delicious, I would've revisited Firefly a long time ago. Looking forward to the next rendezvous.

11720 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA

Nov 4, 2014

I Love the Nightlife: Get Your Phil. Dinner & Los Angeles Philharmonic Concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall—A Classical Pairing!

get your phil concert bow
Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and pianist Jeremy Denk face their well-earned applause.

I'm still aglow from the magical evening of feasting and night music. It's funny how a pre-concert dinner and some classical music can transform even the most dull and unrefined (me) into a sparkling sophisticate. If you didn't know, I'm referring to the L.A. Philharmonic's dinner and concert packages which pair a restaurant pre-fixed menu with a classical concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. For example, on October 24, there was the option of enjoying Spear Steak & Seafood with Salonen, Saariaho, and Sebelius. (You could've picked Chaya too but lost the alliteration though still have enjoyed awesome food.)

get your phil zinc goat cheese
Think Zinc for pre-concert eats.

On the eve of Halloween, my pre-show restaurant choices were between Zinc Cafe & Market or Eat. Drink. Americano. I opted for Zinc for the romantic patio. After all, it was date night. A Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc were quickly ordered and just as quickly brought to the table. Ah, the night was afoot. The Honey Drizzled Goat Cheese with walnuts went with the wine just fine. Sweet and pungent, opposites do attract.

get your phil zinc artichoke
The artichoke did not choke.

The artichoke was warm and became almost perfect when dipped into the basil aioli. The happy train continued to choo-choo-chew.

get your phil zinc pappardelle
My favorite pasta is pappardelle.

I wasn't sure about this one called Pappardelle with Bitter Greens. But, you know, sometimes bitter makes it better, in this case, for sure. Blanched bitter greens with assorted mushrooms, fresh black pepper, bread crumbs, lemon zest, all crowned with a poached egg made this pappardelle plate super satisfying. Mainly buttery, bittery, and earthy from the different mushrooms, the combo of flavors and textures were harmonious in unexpected ways.

get your phil zinc pizza
Mushroom pizza are for fun guys like me!

The Funghi Wood Fried Pizza is piled on with good stuff. At least three types of sauteed mushrooms, white sauce, garlic confit, gruyere cheese, parmesan, jalapeño, red onion, and fresh dill form this delicious pie. Super hearty and flavorful, this pizza will make you want to skip dessert, but, of course, that'd be silly.

get your phil zinc brownie
Brownie points!

I cashed in my brownie points for the Warm Brownie dessert topped with vanilla ice cream. The intermingling of warm and soft with cold and creamy was classic and perfect. This dessert vanished in seconds, just in time for a second dessert.

get your phil zinc lemon square
Don't be a square. Eat one instead.

The Lemon Square was a nice way to end the meal since its tartness sort of acted as a palate cleanser. And, with a final swig of Chardonnay, it was off to the concert. After all, Esa-Pekka was patiently waiting, wand in hand.

get your phil concert
Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen brings it!

He's back from London! Our former L.A. Phil frontman Esa-Pekka Salonen has returned to gig his fall residency at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 (I have no idea what this means) filled the hall during the first half and was exhilarating, particularly the piano by Jeremy Denk.

Post-intermission brought us Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 ("Eroica"). The music was a splendid end to a joyous night of food and fine culture.

There are several more "Get Your Phil" dinner and concert packages to experience. The next one on November 14th features music by Ravel and Elgar. However, being a foodster, I'm mostly excited about the restaurant selections of either John Sedlar's Rivera or one of Esquire Magazine's Best New Restaurants 2014 Faith & Flower. That should be a great show package. Check out the other upcoming dinner and concert packages at L.A. Phil's website.