10 of the best

Travelling for a month in Mexico and California meant that we ate (pretty much) in a different restaurant every night, so I thought trying to pick my top ten dishes out of all these meals would be difficult, but it was surprisingly easy once I sat down and started listing them.

So in no particular order…

1. Shrimp tacos at Taco Fish, Hermosillo

So so tender and fresh, and packed full of flavour, seriously the best ‘fast’ food I’ve ever had.

Shrimp tacos

2. Cheese risotto with sock eye salmon and brown butter sage sauce at Cook, St Helena

I  suggested Simon ordered this then spent the rest of the meal annoyed that he’d gotten it and not me. Hands down the best risotto I’ve ever had, incredibly cheesy but not too rich, the salmon perfectly cooked and fresh, and best of all the brown butter sage sauce. Heaven.

www.cooksthelena.com

Sockeye salmon on cheese risotto

3. Queso Fundido con Chorizo at Restaurant Palominos, Hermosillo

Seriously is anything better than a bowl full of melted cheese (chihuahua!) and melt in your mouth home-made chorizo? I think not.

www.restaurantpalominos.com

Queso Fundido

4. Jumbo shrimps, Water Grill, Downtown LA

I’m actually salivating thinking about this. Plump, juicy and tender, perfectly cooked, served with a delicious cocktail sauce and a garlicky saffron aioli. Love love love!

www.watergrill.com

Shrimp

 

5. Chocolate tart with chewy caramel & sea salt at The Slanted Door, San Francisco

Right, so chocolate tart base filled with flowing caramel, covered in solid dark chocolate and then sprinkled with sea salt? I think I might love you Charles Phan.

www.slanteddoor.com

Chocolate caramel tart

Last mouthful

6. Cinnamon roll, Alamos, Mexico.

Steaming rolls coated in freshly ground cinnamon goodness, slathered in a hot cinnamon sauce…I’d go back to Mexico just for another one of these.

www.teresitasalamos.com

Cinnamon Roll

7. Three Twins Organic Ice cream, downtown Napa/ Sweet Rose Creamery, Santa Monica

The best ice-cream I’ve ever had. Ridiculously creamy, packed full of delicious fresh ingredients. I tried the vanilla chocolate chip and Mint Confetti (mint ice cream with flecks of dark chocolate).

That is ’til we stopped by Sweet Rose Creamery in Santa Monica and tried their salty caramel ice-cream with a good sprinkle of Fleur de Sel on top – absolutely astounding. Didn’t get a photo as my camera broke minutes before this, but that just means I have to go back.

www.threetwinsicecream.com
www.sweetrosecreamery.com

Vanilla chocolate chip and mint chocolate chip organic ice cream at Three Twins

8. Rustic Canyon Burger, Rustic Canyon Wine Bar, Santa Monica

Wow. Simply the best burger I’ve ever had. Incredibly juicy beef patty, home-made burger bun that was bordering on brioche, just the right amount of melted sharp cheddar cheese, a rich onion fondue, herb remoulade and beautifully cut french fries. Wait, did I mention we added confit bacon to the mix as well? Yep. Went back on our last night in LA to have it again it was so good.

www.rusticcanyonwinebar.com

The burger at Rustic Canyon

Burger, cross section

9. Peach Crostata with Homemade Vanilla ice-cream, Rustic Canyon Wine Bar, Santa Monica

After burger bliss, we almost ordered a chocolate and salty caramel tart, but that would have been a big, big mistake. Recommended by our server, this used in-season peaches and the most buttery, rich pastry I’ve ever tried. The juice of the peaches and sugar leaked a little through the pastry, creating incredible caramelised edges. Not only did we go back and order this again but also went to their bakery for breakfast and fought over a take away strawberry and rhubarb crostata as we sat on the beach for afternoon tea. Simon said he wanted to marry the pastry chef. We could work something out, I’m sure.

www.rusticcanyonwinebar.com

Peach crostata.

10. Pretty much everything at French Laundry.

So after seeing that they had an over 6-month waiting list, we decided just to turn up at French Laundry and try our luck. And how lucky we were to get a table and experience their incredible food. A mind-blowing meal, so good I can’t say which was my favourite dish. Possibly all. But the real standouts were probably the oysters and pearls (caviar with oysters) and the butter-poached lobster tail. Awe inspiring.

www.frenchlaundry.com

Caviar and Pearls

Butter-poached lobster tails

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I hate brunch

Whilst breakfast is my favourite meal of the day, I hate brunch. I’ve always wanted to like it after all, what’s nicer than meeting friends for brunch at the weekends? But the problem is, if you combine breakfast and lunch, you end up missing a meal! This is not a good thing.

Not only that, in reality brunch really is just breakfast or lunch – you either end up with something eggy or just a boring old lunch dish.

Saying that, I’ve had some pretty great weekend brunches (and have made up for it with afternoon tea later in the day) whilst we’ve been travelling and so perhaps brunch is on the road to redemption with me.

The main reason being that I’ve discovered the key to a good brunch is courses. Yes, that’s right, a starter and a main, and possibly even dessert.

On the Saturday morning that Luis and Sergio were leaving LA, we drove over to Brentwood Country Mart, a lovely little collection of shops and restaurants dotted around two large, sun-filled courtyards, and had brunch at Farmshop, a restaurant and as the name suggests, a food shop.

I was very happy to see there were dishes to start with as well as main brunch plates so I ordered us chopped chicken liver with grapes, caper berries and sourdough and a big platter of speck with marinated melon and burrata.

Chicken liver with caper berries, grapes and sourdough

Marinated melon with speck and burratta

The chicken liver was the stand out dish – rich and creamy, with deep livery undertones, topped with fresh herbs.

We then each ordered a main dish – I chose the frittata with cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, squash and crispy squash blossoms – the goat cheese and squash blossoms really made this dish, as did the copious amount of olive oil drizzled over the plate. Luis had homemade pastrami (which was delicious and just melted in your mouth) with heirloom cauliflower, beans, wild mushrooms, eggs sunny side up and green tomato ketchup – great dish. Sergio had the shirred eggs with chorizo, wild (and bitter) greens, chickpeas and yoghurt – basically the eggs were baked with all the ingredients around them, resulting in a lovely heavy, warming dish, with eggs still runny. Simon ordered coddled eggs, which were served in a small bowl and sprinkled with mushrooms, with a side of smoked salmon, and served simply with toast.

Frittata with goat cheese, tomatoes, squash and blossoms

Homemade pastrami

Shirred eggs with bitter greens, chorizo and chickpeas

Coddled eggs with mushroom and house-smoked salmon

We also tried a big bowl of greek yoghurt with homemade granola and a big bowl of fresh berries – also incredibly fresh and amazing. Really love these farm to table concepts and wish we had them in HK!

Farmshop
Brentwood Country Mall
225 26th Street Santa Monica, CA 90402
www.farmshopla.com

Loved the salt on the slab of butter that came with my sourdough!

Inside Farmshop

Counter display at Farmshop

Seafood spectacular

I had the best meal of our trip today, and possibly one of the top three dining experiences I’ve ever had. And it was at lunch.

This was the one must-visit place in LA we had on our list – infact, Luis’ friend Grant told him not to come back if we didn’t go. The Water Grill is in downtown LA, and after a good hour’s drive from Brentwood, we finally found the restaurant, which was on the ground floor of an unassuming looking office building.

We were seated in front of the seafood bar, and I couldn’t resist photographing all the different varieties on show. The menu changes on a daily basis, depending on what’s fresh and in season. We shared a small seafood platter, which arrived glistening and packed with five different oysters (not my favourite food, so I didn’t try), Peruvian Bay Scallops (incredibly fresh) served with orange and pistachio, Wild Jumbo Pacific Shrimp (they were so amazing and fresh we ordered a dozen more to share), Prince Edward Island Black Mussels (huge!), Cherrystone Clams and half a hard shell American Lobster.

The seafood platter

More seafood

I ordered the calamari fritto mist – swordtail squid with olives, basil leaves, zucchini, lemon, and harissa sauce. I hadn’t seen lemon deep-fried before but it worked incredibly well, rind and all.

Calamari Fritto Misto

Simon had a Thai-inspired hand cut big eye tuna tartare with vermicelli, green papaya, red chilis and candied peanuts, all in a spicy coconut sauce. Such an unusual combination that worked really well – I imagined the tuna would be overpowered but it was really well seasoned and mixed with fresh herbs so it held up well against the spicy sauce.

The Thai-inspired tuna tartare

Luis chose their signature clam chowder. It was packed full of clams and vegetables, topped with Niman Ranch smoked bacon and was very rich yet still light ( apparently made lighter because of the climate).

Clam Chowder

Our server, Scott, was a real charmer. Perhaps I’ve been in the US a bit too long now, but there was something very endearing about being called ‘my lady’ every time he served me something or I had a question. My main course, pan-seared sea bass with Prince Edward Island black mussels with a fennel and carrot ragout and an orange emulsion, came a little overcooked, and he was incredibly gracious about it (though I imagine the problem was our shrimp order – the fish probably ended up sitting under the heat lamps for some time) and thanked me for mentioning it as it was his favorite dish on the menu and he wanted us to love it too (yep, I’ve been here too long!).

When it did come back, it was very slightly undercooked, but perfect nonetheless. The soft flesh of the sea bass worked really well with the small plump mussels and fennel and the orange sauce was surprisingly delicate.

Sea bass, second time round

Simon and Sergio both had the sturgeon – it was good, but the sea bass was much better.  I don’t normally order sturgeon – it’s a lot heavier, almost meaty, a bit like chicken, but personally I like much lighter, less fleshy fish. It was served with a lovely roasted beet risotto that I thought was the best part of the dish.

Wild Quinault Reservation Sturgeon

It seemed a bit too much to have dessert as it was only lunchtime –  but we made the mistake of ‘just having a look’ and were hooked as soon as we saw ‘ red velvet cake with cocoa nib streusel and raspberry and marscapone ice cream’. Then we decided we might as well try a couple of others as well and ordered a Tahitian Vanilla Flan (served with orange Cognac caramel, mandarin orange sorbet and cardamom churros) and a Vermont Maple Pudding (with creme fraiche, fleur de sell and pecan shortbread).

Red velvety goodness!

The Tahitian flan

Cardamom churros

Maple pudding

Hands down, the Red Velvet cake was the best dessert. It was warm, soft and deliciously chocolately. The streusel was also rich, warm and crumbly and the cocoa nibs added a little bit of crunch. The flan was good – lovely deep vanilla flavor and a smooth creamy texture, and went well with the crispy churros.  But the real surprise was the maple pudding. I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but the presentation, served in a jar, with the homemade shortbread on the lid, and with a quenelle of creme fraiche worked really well. The deep mellow maple flavor was almost a little smoky but was offset with the sweetness of the other ingredients to perfection. I pretty much finished this off by myself.

As we started to wobble out the door, Scott brought over some petit fours – mini dark chocolate ganache macarons, lemon curd and fresh fruit jellies. Great end to an amazing meal. I’m thinking about going back already!

The Water Grill
544 S. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90071
www.watergrill.com

Fruit jellies, chocolate macarons and lemon curd

Black mussels

Sea urchin

Interior of restaurant

Kitchen at Water Grill

The best burgers in LA?

Luis told me we had to go and try ‘the best burger in LA’ (according to GQ magazine) at a place called Umami Burger, where they apparently grind their own meat, pickle their own vegetables, process their own cheese, and make their own ketchup from scratch. Sounded good to me!

We had spent the morning at Santa Monica pier and beach, and by the time we were ready to eat, it was well after 3pm. It took us some time to find the restaurant – the address we had for it was a department store – Fred Segal – so we kept walking and had a look at a few other places including a great deli where we bought some freshly baked peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies (eating healthily has gone completely out of the window by this point of the trip).

Umami Burger entrance

We finally realised it was actually at the back of the department store, and there was no signage or branding anywhere!

Needless to say, we were famished by this point, so ordered straight away. Between us we had the Umami burger ( beef patty with grilled shiitake mushrooms, parmesan cheese wafer, caramelised onions, and roasted tomatoes), truffle burger (beef patty glazed with truffle oil and topped with truffle cheese), the Greenbird (Turkey patty with crushed avocado, green cheese, butter lettuce, alfa alfa and green goddess) and the Pork & Stilton burger (served with port-caramelised onions). We also ordered some sweet potato fries, homemade ketchup and roasted garlic aioli.

The menu - the logo looks like a pair of lips but I guess it's a burger!

I had big expectations and all in all was quite impressed. The Truffle burger was by far my favorite – the beef patty was tender and juicy and the truffle glaze on it complemented it perfectly. The Umami burger was good, same beef patty, but there was perhaps too many other tastes and textures to contend with, however this is meant to be the key to the famed ‘umami’ flavor.

The Umami Burger

The Truffle Burger

The Greenbird

The turkey burger was a little dry, but perhaps it was an unfair comparison after having the truffle burger. the Pork and Stilton was also a little dry, and either there wasn’t enough Stilton or it was very mild, but I could barely taste it.

I really liked the bun the burgers were served in – light and fluffy, almost like brioche, with a lovely glaze on top. Each was branded with a grilled ‘U’ on top, which I thought was a great (design) touch.

The sweet potato fries were delicious – they were twice fried and coated with a mixture of cinnamon, salt and brown sugar, which worked really well. Dipped into the roasted garlic aioli, they were incredibly moreish.

Sweet potato fries

Roasted garlic aioli

We didn’t order more of them though – we decided to share two more burgers between us. After much deliberation we settled on the Manly burger ( beef patty with beer-cheddar cheese, onion strings and lardons) and the Triple Pork Burger (ground pork, chorizo and bacon, served with manchego cheese and pimento aioli).

Luis expertly cut them into four when they arrived and we quickly polished them off. The Manly was a little bit too heavy – the lardons in particular were very salty and chewy. The Triple Pork burger was tasty but the chorizo was the most dominant flavor and overpowered all the other ingredients.

Inside the Truffle Burger

Manly Burger

Triple Pork Burger

Outside the restaurant

Umami Burger
500 Broadway, 
Santa Monica, CA 90401

www.umamiburger.com

Tequila!

I was woken up by a call from Luis at around 9.30am, saying we were going out for fish tacos – another typical Mexican breakfast.

We drove about 5 minutes down the road to Taco Fish, a small and colorful open-air roadside taqueria. There were just two items on the menu – fish or shrimp tacos  – so we had one of each.

Fish and shrimp tacos fresh from the fryer

The shrimp and fish are lightly coated in batter and flash fried. We topped them with fresh coleslaw and salsa drizzled jalapeno sauce and cilantro mayonnaise over both.

Covered in coleslaw and salsa

Shrimp taco with red onions and chipotle mayonnaise

They were piping hot – simple yet stunning, slightly spicy and crispy, with tender shrimp and fish hidden within.  I tried all the chili sauces on the table. None were very spicy- in northern Mexico they use chiles for flavour rather than for heat. They even had soy sauce, which apparently is very popular and used in a lot of cooking.

Simon and Sergio enjoyed them so much they both ordered another shrimp taco- this time Simon smothered his with pickled red onions and jalapeno sauce.

Open air dining at Taco Fish

After breakfast, we drove around the town centre for an hour or two, did a bit of shopping and ended up in the supermarket on the way over to Luis’ sisters place to stock up on alcohol.

Chile pork cooked in claypot

Luis’ mum prepared lunch for us- chile con carne with pork instead of the usual beef. The bright red fiery looking sauce  had a lovely warmth to it, not what I was expecting based on the colour (the chiles it was made from are actually green but are sun-dried til they turn dark red). This was accompanied by what I can only term as Mexican fried rice, and some homemade frijoles. We ate this with giant flour tortillas and green chile filled tamales that were made by a family friend, which were a lot smoother than the ones we had for breakfast yesterday.

A very full plate of home-cooked food

Stuffed pepper tamale

Frosty tequila bottle

Trying to pour out the frozen tequila

Aloysus, Luis’ brother in law, brought out a chilled bottle of Reposado tequila after lunch. Infact it was so cold it was almost frozen so he had to shake it for some time until it was pourable. He served it with a  chaser of a small snifter of sangrita and a plate of lime wedges and salt  Tequila, especially good quality Reposado, should be sipped like brandy, not taken as a shot.

Some cousins arrived around 5 with some sweet snacks – some ‘bow ties’ or thin dough dipped in a sugar syrup and deep-fried until they are beautifully glossy and brown, and some flat unleavened cakes that were filled with brown sugar. Both were incredibly sweet and rich but were the first dessert we’d had since being here, so I had to sample both!

Sticky bow ties!

Filled with brown sugar

A day at the beach

Woke up at 4.30am feeling uncomfortable and incredibly hot. I had turned the aircon off because when we got back last night it was absolutely freezing in the room, but forgot it was 35 degrees even at night.

We went to the gym then headed to the hotel restaurant for a light breakfast. Once there, I sat with a green tea while Simon headed straight for the buffet. I went up to have a look a and was completely overwhelmed- there was so much heavy, rich and steaming Mexican food, most of it meat, that I couldn’t quite handle it that early in the morning.

Luis with the mini lemon cakes

Luis and Sergio joined us about 20 minutes later and Luis took us around the buffet and explained what everything was.  It wasn’t like any breakfast I have ever had – there were at least 20 different dishes on offer, plus the usual egg station serving up huge omelettes and pancakes. Luis recommended a few must tries – chilaquiles, a dish of day old corn tortilla chips cooked with tomatoes, cheese and meat, frijoles (refried beans) albondigas – beef meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, a stew of beef, peppers, chiles and onions and white corn tamales. It was the first time I’ve ever tried tamales – they were steaming hot and wrapped in corn leaves, and a soft, mushy texture punctuated with some very chewy bits of corn.

Chihuahua!

Right after breakfast we headed over to Cosco so Luis could stock up on produce to take back to Hong Kong. There was a huge bakery section and we ended up buying cinnamon rolls, mini lemon cakes, red velvet cake and a lemon meringue cake for lunch the next day.

Panella in baskets

We then headed next door to the supermarket to stock up on some more food and checked out the huge variety of local cheeses, including the panela in a basket and the infamous chihuahua, as well as the many varieties of chorizo that are ready made and can just be heated up and put into anything from tacos to queso fundido.

After dropping off everything we had bought, we jumped back in the car and drove to Kino beach. It was an hour’s drive through the desert and when we finally saw the ocean glistening in the distance it seemed like a mirage.

The bright interiors of El Pargo Rojo

It was a sweltering day – at least 40 degrees, so when we finally arrived at El Pargo Rojo, a seafood restaurant by the beach, decked out in bright reds and oranges, the first thing we did was order big pitchers of limonada and beer.

Scallop cocktail

Lobster, garlic prawns and piri piri fish

Luis recommended the seafood cocktails, so I tried a scallop one, Simon and Luis had shrimp and Sergio chose a jumbo cocktail that was a mix of shrimps, snails, octopus and fish. They all arrived drowning in a mild tomato sauce with a few lime wedges and crackers, and I added a good dollop of chile sauces to mine. The scallops were very fresh and tender but I had a mouthful of Simon’s shrimps and immediately had food envy as they were succulent and full of flavour.

The butter and cilantro sauce

Pulpo Enamorado or 'Octopus in love'

Next up we decided to share three dishes – grilled lobster, piri piri fish and garlic prawns. The lobster was a little overdone so was a bit chewy, the fish was coated in a heavy sauce and then covered in cheese and was rich and moreish, though the fish got a bit lost under all the coatings. The prawns were tiny, more like shrimps and were lovely and garlicky, cooked liberally with lots of spicy chile seeds. Surprisingly the best part of the meal was the sauce that accompanied the lobster – melted butter with lots of cilantro and tomato, we ordered extra and simply ate it with rice.

Beach and desert outside the restaurant

Gorgeous white washed house overlooking the beach