Monday, September 25, 2006

When the Moon hits your eye...

OK- so now we are going to move on to something near and dear to my Big Guinea heart... Pizza. I never feel more at home than when I have a coupla slices in front of me and (hopefully) a Manhattan Special chaser. I won't begin to try and write about my favorite places to partake of the pie while in New York. There isn't enough room here to impart all the delicious details and, if there was, who really has THAT kind of time?!?? (...I don't know if I could even just LIST all the places... actually, I'm sure I could, but that will have to wait for another day...)

First and foremost, I like my own pizza best while in California. However, I don't always have time to build a fire in the brick oven out back, let it burn for two hours to get the temperature up, break out the dough and everything else involved... Sometimes I just wanna walk in, grab two slices and wash 'em down with a little carbonated sugar water. When I get to feeling that way and I'm in Southern California, there are only a few places "on the outside" that will do.

In Los Angeles, I have found two places that can really call what they make 'pizza' and both are owned by NY transplants. The first one I found was Albano's (officially Albano's Brooklyn Pizzeria), a little place on Melrose Ave, on the north side just west of La Brea. First time I walked in and took a deep breath, I knew I was in the right place. These guys make a great pie. Actually, they make a lot of great pies. My two tops are the plain slice- the benchmark by which you can judge all pizzerias- and their white pie with spinach. Both are pretty heavy on the garlic; not overdone- just enough to carry you back to Brooklyn. Great ambiance too. Plaster walls covered with some Brooklyn love- a picture of MY bridge with MY Towers in the background and the REAL Dodgers. The rest of the wall is covered with signatures, well wishes, and signed headshots. Lotta familiar faces- niiice.

My other LA spot is in Venice- the Abbot's Pizza Company, a pizzeria also started by some guys from NY. This place makes a nice pie, thin crust and just the right amount on top. They also do something I have only seen at one other place (Pietro's in East Meadow LI); they line the edge of the crust with a topping of its own: you get a choice of sesame, poppy, onion, garlic, or "the blend". Because of this "seed "condition, their pizza is often called Bagel Crust pizza. You also get a choice of sauces (Olive pesto, garlic pesto, alfredo, and of course, tomato sauce) I'm a purist- I really don’t delve into the "optional" sauce categories all that much. And Sesame seed is as adventurous as I have gone with the crust. If I wanted a bagel, I'd get a bagel and some lox- that's a whole different animal. In general, I stick with a good old regular crust, the way the good Lord intended us to eat it. I have two favorites here also: their plain pie (of course) and the Popeye Chicken Pie, with spinach, mushrooms, onions, and marinated chicken over the olive pesto sauce. Normally I don't go that far off the block when it comes to pizza, but this one is really good. Definitely worth a try.

Further south in San Diego, I have one more spot that hits home with me. They even got the name right: Bronx Pizza. It is a place started by a few guys from the Bronx (and one guy from Huntington). Are we starting to see a pattern here? These guys started in a little place with a great approach: the "2 slices and a soda" deal. Last time I checked it was $6, which is ok, I guess. You get two slices of any pizza you see and a fountain soda. There is always a good variety in the case, with vegetables, meat, and white pizza available almost all the time. They make a great plain pie and their sausage pie is great, too: lots of meat and great flavor. Plus, it’s about the only place I can go in San Diego and get a little NY attitude. The walls are covered with all kinds of NY memorabilia- a map of the Belmont section of the Bronx (Mom's old neighborhood) and a great mural that you can see from sitting at their "counter" seats are most notable.

Now- here comes the disclaimer: while in Southern California, I can recommend all of these places. They represent the best of what exists in the pizza business in this area. If we were in NY, who knows? Things would probably be a little different. There is more competition and that only brings improvement. Given the option, we all know I'd be in NY eating a coupla slices. I am, however, here... in this place... eating this stuff.

Hey, I love my own pizza, but if I have to go to the "outside", the only three options are Albano's , Abbot's, and Bronx Pizza. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Omakase, Itamae-san

Probably one of the best things I have learned about food here in California is that the sushi here is unbelievable. Don't get me wrong, I have a handful of favorite spots that I can't live without in New York- mostly small, quiet places (like Mori, Tomoe, Koodo- mmmmmmmmm, Koodo) But the sushi on the left coast is killer; I suppose it doesn't hurt that so much of the fish comes from the Pacific, giving it a better shot at freshness.

Now, I'm not saying ALL the sushi out here is great- it definitely isn't. I've paid the tab on some sub-standard meals, and let me tell you- The Big Guy was not too happy about that. But I digress; I am here to talk about Good Food, not bad. Having said that, I will tell you that my best "full experience" in a sushi restaurant was in Downtown LA at a great little place called Sushi Sharin. The first time I popped in there, I opened the door and almost retreated. The room was pretty full, and it didn't sound like anyone was speaking English. I was more than a little intimidated. I stayed, though, and I'm really glad that I did.

The true "experience" came on my third or fourth visit. I sat down and gave full control of my meal that night to Itamae-san (the chef). This was probably the single smartest move I have ever made in any restaurant. It's like going to Sunday dinner at Gramma's house- she knows all the right stuff to make and all the things that she makes best.

I ate so many different foods that night that I never would have known to try, more new tastes and textures than I have ever had in one sitting. Everything, from the crispy, fried baby mackerel (yes- you eat the whole thing, bones and all) to the uni that finished my meal- was spot-on. Somewhere along the way, I had a small bowl with broth, vegetables, and a couple of pieces of cooked fish that had the most fantastic, clean taste. I mean I could actually taste the fish. The texture was perfect- firm, yet giving as my teeth went into it. The bit of seaweed salad with a touch of ginger mixed in was ideal. The simplicity of all of it was one of the most refreshing and exciting parts of this experience. There were so many delicious tidbits from start to finish that I had never known about, and still feel like I don't really know about. It was impossible to keep up with what everything was.

There was an older couple sitting next to me (late sixties, easily- maybe older). They went from speaking Japanese with the chef to speaking English with me seamlessly. They spent part of the evening encouraging me to "put the chopsticks down and eat with your fingers" and part of the time watching me like parents looking at their child eating for the first time. I think they were surprised by the range of what I found palatable. By the end of the meal, I think I had won some respect for my open attitude towards the meal, especially the uni. The gentleman even questioned the chef as he prepared it and passed it over to me. Itamae-san smiled, though; I'm sure he remembered I had ordered and raved about it on each of my previous visits.

Every piece of fish I ate was ideal. It was fresh and firm. The cuts were just right: generous, but not Godzilla sized (can I say that?!??). The rice was certainly fresh, also. And perfectly seasoned with a touch of vinegar and sugar balancing the light stripe of wasabi painted onto the rice under each piece of fish in the nigiri-sushi.

Itamae- san knows his business- the sequence of my meal,the varying of taste and texture, and the perfect bottle of cold sake that he chose to go with it- all of this combined to create a lasting impression.

In Downtown LA, Sushi Sharin is the place to go for a "full-experience" sushi dinner. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so.

Sushi Sharin
359 E. 1st St
Los Angeles

239 Park Ave South
New York

172 Thompson St
New York

129 Front St, Lower level
New York