Archive for the ‘I love to eat, does that make me a foodie?’ Category

When we ended up at Tantalum in Long Beach, it wasn’t with plans to eat at the “exotic dining” waterfront restaurant. And even more so, it wasn’t with intentions of eating macaroni and cheese. When I visited the marina-side restaurant’s website earlier in the day, it was in search of a venue with music and dancing for a girls’ night out that would be happening several hours later.

All the food on the menu sounded delicious, and Yelpers raved about the dishes, particularly the calamari. But I didn’t give it too much thought and actually figured dining in would have to wait since we were just going for drinks and to hopefully dance when the DJ started spinning at 9:30.

All my assumptions and plans went out the window when the other girls wanted food upon arriving at Tantalum. Though not as hungry, I caved in and ordered an appetizer too: a superb fried brie with raspberry chipotle drizzle. Although everything we ordered (and shared) was VERY good – even the calamari, and I am not a seafood person – this review is dedicated to the Truffle Mac n’ Cheez, an item under the “Tantalizers” section of the menu.

The orange-yellow goodness came out piping hot in a mini cast-iron skillet. The pasta wasn’t swimming in grease like other skillet-served mac and cheeses I’ve had, so I was already happy before it hit the table. The top layer was a golden brown, either from baking or flash heating under the broiler. My friend recalled it as “a burnt crisp” – for her, that’s a good thing. For me, it was a a great toasted crunch. And for the cook, it was a perfect “asiago gratin,” a brown crust of grated asiago cheese.

This particular macaroni and cheese used gamelli pasta, a spiral tube noodle about two inches in length, which isn’t very common for mac and cheese. I will admit that because gamelli is a longer noodle, it made getting my mouth around a few spiked on a fork a little awkward. Aside from that, it was a pleasantly unique choice for the dish.

The cheese sauce was more creamy than it was stringy (i.e. not like mozzarella pizza cheese), I’m guessing due in part to the truffle oil and types of cheeses used. The consistency was pretty good: less on the saturating, thick side, but runny would be too harsh of an adjective. Unfortunately, the sauce didn’t have a lot of flavor, bordering on bland. As I write this, I’m struggling to remember the taste – so obviously nothing stood out. It didn’t have any particular spice that gave it a bite or sharp cheddar kick.

Shared among six girls, the Truffle Mac n’ Cheez didn’t last long. But my friend and I both commented afterward that had there not been help, we might not have eaten the entire dish – something that normally wouldn’t be a problem for our mac-and-cheese-loving selves.

The place: Tantalum, Long Beach
The dish: Truffle Mac n’ Cheez, $11
The ingredients: Gamelli noodles, cream, truffle oil, asiago gratin
The verdict: Tasty, but not enough to lick the plate clean, or even finish the dish. I’d suggest going for the calamari instead.

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I’m not a cook by any means, and I envy those people who can whip up a dish with a few random ingredients. There are a few recipes, though, that I really love and love making. Most of them are borrowed from my mom, who probably borrowed them from other people. Each time I make them for a gathering, at least one person asks me for the recipe, so I figured this would be a good way to share them. This post will be a live document that I add to as I have time or as recipes are requested. Enjoy!

Salmon Loaf

Ingredients:
1 can of pink salmon
3/4 row of saltine crackers
1  1/2 cups corn (canned or frozen)
2 tablespoons butter
garlic powder
salt
pepper

Directions:
Crush crackers and mix in bowl with melted butter and corn. Clean canned salmon of bones and skin and add to mixture. Season entire mixture with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Fill loaf pan with mixture and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.

Tastes Like More Ice Cream Cake

Ingredients:
Half gallon of vanilla ice cream
3 rows of Oreos
1 jar of chocolate fudge
1 tub of whipped cream
chopped nuts

Directions:
Set ice cream out to soften while you smash up all the cookies. Layer the crumbs across the bottom of a 9-inch by 9-inch casserole dish. Layer the ice cream over the cookies. Spread the fudge over the ice cream, and then do the same with the whip cream. Sprinkle the chopped nuts over the top.


Poppyseed Chicken

Ingredients:
5-6 chicken breasts
1 1/2 sticks of butter
1 tablespoon poppyseeds
2-3 rows of Ritz crackers
1 can cream of celery soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup sour cream

Directions:
Cube chicken and microwave until partially cooked (6 mins at 60%). Crush crackers, melt butter and mix both with poppyseed. Spread half of cracker mixture on the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch pan, and then layer chicken on top. Mix soups (no water added) and sour cream, and spread on top of chicken. Spread the remaining cracker mixture over the top. Bake one hour at 350 degrees.


Tacoritos

Ingredients:
2 cans refried beans
1 package ground beef
1 packet taco seasoning
2 cans cream of chicken soup
Large flour tortillas
Shredded cheese
Sour cream
Shredded lettuce
Salsa

Directions:
Brown ground beef and mix with beans and taco seasoning. Set aside. Warm soup and then coat the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch pan with a thin layer. Fill about six or seven tortillas with the bean mixture and line them next to each other in the pan. Before rolling each up, fill the tortillas with half of the soup. Once all tortillas are rolled closed in the pan, pour the rest of the soup over the top. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 400 degrees. Dress each serving with cheese, sour cream, salsa and lettuce to taste.


Breakfast Quiche

Ingredients:
1 roll croissants
1 package pre-browned breakfast sausage
4 eggs
1 cup cheese
3/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Directions:
Unroll croissants and spread across a 9- by 13-inch casserole dish. Push dough together at edges and push up sides of pan slightly. Dice entire package of sausage and spread pieces over the dough. Sprinkle cheese over the sausage and dough. In a separate dish, beat eggs with milk, oregano, salt and pepper. Pour the mixture evenly over the cheese. Bake dish for 20-25 mins at 450 degrees.


Tricolor Pasta Salad

Ingredients:
1 package tricolor spiral pasta
1/2 green bell pepper
1/2 red onion
1 container feta cheese
1 package pepperoni
1 can sliced olives
1 bottle Italian dressing

Directions:
Boil pasta till tender; drain and let cool. Dice bell pepper and onion, and halve pepperoni slices. Mix bell pepper, onion, pepperoni, olives and one-half bottle of dressing with pasta. Chill pasta salad in fridge. Add feta and rest of Italian dressing to taste.

The idea for this blog came about from the trend toward comfort foods, just with a gourmet twist. So most of the mac ‘n’ cheese dishes I reviewed were either gourmet plates or the main offering of a pasta-focused restaurant (like at Mac & Cheeza). But the Macaroni & Cheese I’ve heard so much about served at The Penthouse, which is the top-floor restaurant at The Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica, is simply listed under sides – no description, no additions, no spotlight.

I was lucky enough to dine at the pricey Penthouse for my first time on the dime of my employer, so I planned to take advantage of the opportunity to review the popular dish. I explained my column and the cheesy journey it chronicles, and then convinced them to embark with me on this next adventure. So by the time the mini cauldron – yes, as in a black steel pot – came out, filled to the brim with large elbow noodles and oozing cheese, we were all very excited.

Despite the odd dish choice, the presentation was very neat. Our waiter warned that the “side” wouldn’t be enough for all eight of us, but the small cauldron ended up being deceptive because each of us had a couple scoops. The top of the macaroni and cheese was crisp, shiny and golden brown in spots. These characteristics are due to the dish’s last few steps before serving: it’s put in a salamander (a special broiler used in restaurants and by professional chefs) for flash cooking of the surface. Underneath, the cheese wasn’t rubbery at all and was especially creamy the further you go to the bottom.

Just based on looks, I think the cheese is what sold me (aside from the cute little cauldron). I could imagine how tasty and gooey it was going to be. But in the first bite, each of us were let down. The cheese is actually quite bland; though, creamy with a good consistency, it doesn’t have much flavor. We all agreed it needed more of a kick, whether from a different type of cheese, say, sharp cheddar, or another ingredient, such as a potent spice or green chilis.

Also, the macaroni noodles were cooked al dente (slightly tougher). I prefer mine fully cooked, so it was another downfall for me, but  a couple people in the group liked the al dente noodles.

The place: The Penthouse at The Huntley, Santa Monica
The dish: Macaroni & Cheese, $10
The ingredients: Large elbow noodles, Vermont aged white cheddar, cream, garlic
The verdict: I expected more from a place called The Penthouse and “known for its macaroni and cheese” so I’d suggest trying one of the other tasty items on the menu, or checking out the venue when it’s popping on a Saturday night.

Before I knew The Misfit served gourmet macaroni and cheese, I really wanted to go there because it was “the new” restaurant-bar in Santa Monica and everyone only had good things to say about it. When my friend told me we were going there to start of her bachelorette party, I was stoked, and scoured the menu to see what I might order. My eyes immediately darted to the entrée that would my next stop on the Ultimate Mac ‘n’ Cheese Quest.

Most of the items on the menu were designed to share, but the macaroni and cheese, which you could order with Spanish chorizo or pancetta (for a couple bucks more), was enough to be a meal for one—and I definitely wasn’t planning on sharing. Although I didn’t order any of the add-ins, the original version actually comes with diced green chilies. It seemed a strange ingredient (so much that one girl asked for hers without them), but I was eager to see what it brought to the flavor.

The square, shallow dish came out sizzling, literally; the cheese and oil around the edges was still bubbling. While normally a good thing for me because I like hot foods served hot, it was actually a not-so-obvious indication that the gooey pasta is served best at that temperature. Because once it cooled down, the oil started separating out and the cheese became rubbery. When that happens, it means that the cheese is real instead of Velveeta, which now must be labeled “cheese-flavored product.” But the draw back of real cheese (as well as cream-based sauces) is that it doesn’t stay in its creamy state long, and you definitely can’t reheat it. So unfortunately, I ended up with some noodles and noncreamy cheese swimming in oil. Honestly, there was so much oil, I had to drain it out on the saucer underneath. My apologies to the dishwasher, but I just couldn’t stomach it.

Ok, enough about the consistency; let me get to the taste. I must say, the chilies really did it. The main cheeses—Gruyere and Tillamook cheddar, which is by far my favorite—already had a sharp bite. But the diced chilies kicked it up a notch. Not where it was too spicy, though; just enough to make my nose start running. Although not listed on the menu, other ingredients included whole grain mustard and nutmeg, both of which added to the flavor even more.

Another aspect I liked was the pasta itself, which is actually a brown rice noodle for the gluten-free folk. Ironically, my friend recently “diagnosed” me with a gluten allergy, something that has yet to be confirmed. Either way, I couldn’t even tell!

As a complete package, the dish was good. The taste was spectacular, but my overall opinion was brought down significantly by the consistency. I wouldn’t order it again or recommend it, but I’d definitely go back to the joint to try something else off the unique menu. Oh, and I did end up sharing.

The place: The Misfit, Santa Monica
The dish: Baked Mac + Cheese, $10.50
The ingredients: Brown rice noodle, heavy cream, whole grain mustard, Tillamook cheddar, Gruyere cheese, parmesan reggiano and nutmeg
The verdict: The bite from the cheeses, spices and chilies was delicious, but the fact that I actually shared my mac ‘n’ cheese says a lot.

Unlike all the other restaurants I’ve reviewed, Mac & Cheeza, which has a location in downtown Los Angeles and Bakersfield, doesn’t have a fancy name for its signature dish. Maybe it’s because the owner didn’t want to fall into the trend of leading customers on with snazzy “gourmet” names. Maybe it’s because a single name is too limiting for the eatery’s do-it-yourself nature that starts patrons off with basic precooked noodles and allows endless customization from there. Or, maybe it’s simply because Mac & Cheeza really only serves one thing: macaroni and cheese.

Instead, the dishes are labeled by size; not just the boring small, medium and large, but instead baby mac, momma mac, daddy mac and mac daddy ($5, $10, $20 and $30, respectively). The baby mac is a sufficient portion for a small meal, but also would work well as a single side to, say, a burger or something. Because I was breaking my week-long restriction of no carbs and because Mark and I had ventured all the way from Santa Monica to downtown LA by bus, I wanted something more substantial and went with the momma mac. A Yelp reviewer’s experience with ordering that size made me laugh (and also feel kinda sick): “I’ve come to realize the momma portion must be in reference to the feeling of expecting a noodle baby when you’ve finished. Maybe I just gained five pounds. Maybe I don’t care.” The daddy mac and mac daddy sizes are intended for groups, and over the course of our meal, several people came in to pick up their daddies for take-out.

Once you pick the size, you have to decide on regular elbow noodles or rice ones and cheese-based sauce or soy-based sauce. I didn’t give either of those choices more than a second of thought.

The next step is to add ingredients, first veggies and then meats. Each size comes with one free ingredient, but any extras are a dollar more each. Because I prefer my mac and cheese just straight up (as I state in nearly every review), I really struggled with this step. I like spinach and green onions and black olives, but not necessarily in my macaroni and cheese. Other add-ins included collard greens, peas, jalapeños, mushrooms and tomatoes.

I opted out of veggies and went with a meat: diced hot links. Other options included ground beef, BBQ chicken, tuna, bacon, ham, chorizo and veggie sausage. Mark also opted out of veggies and went with BBQ chicken and bacon.

Lastly is the toppings, which are included with the order: a cheese blend and spicy toasted walnuts. This step is an important one, because once everything is combined in the disposable metal baking tray, the cheese and/or walnuts are sprinkled on top before the creation makes its way through the oven where it’s all heated one last time and the top is toasted. That’s what creates the yummy baked look in the picture.

After all is said and done, I’d have to say I was somewhat disappointed. I know, I know, I worked it all up just to come crashing down. I think the DIY customization is really clever and allows customers to create the dish and taste they want. But, I think the chef needs to go back to the beginning and make some adjustments to the most basic aspect of the dish: the cheese. Aside from using a different noodle, there isn’t much he or she can do there, so making sure the cheese is no less than superb is essential. Unfortunately, I think it was lacking. It was slightly runny and far from creamy. It didn’t have much flavor and am very confused what restaurant a different Yelp reviewer was at when she said it was “rich”. Yes, I know the idea is to add flavor with the variety of other ingredients, but why not make tasty mac and cheese tastier with the ingredients? What about people like me who would rather not add anything? They would be severely bored and disappointed.

I will admit that I regretted not adding more and different ingredients. I ended up eating a lot of Mark’s because his was much tastier and had a thicker consistency because of the additions. The BBQ chicken added a pleasant sweetness that paired surprisingly well with the cheese flavor. The chicken was shredded, which I really liked because the smaller pieces blended better with the noodles than large chunks would. Even though we both agreed that his was better, we didn’t have any trouble polishing off all of his and most of mine.

The restaurant: Mac & Cheeza, Los Angeles
The plate: Momma Mac, $10
The ingredients: Elbow noodles, white cheddar cheese sauce, diced hot links
The verdict: The DIY customization is perfect for mac-and-cheese lovers who like the concept of adding to the American staple; for me, it has a lot to live up to.

The last gourmet macaroni and cheese I sampled brings to mind two of my favorite TV shows as a kid…

I used to watch Full House religiously every afternoon with my sister, and there’s one episode that stands out as a favorite. Little Michelle is trying to earn her Girl Scout cooking badge and Uncle Joey is helping her. In true Michelle fashion, she thinks that simply combining two of her favorite foods will create a delicious new dish. One of the concoctions combines canned tuna and ice cream. While both are good separately, together they are not. I can’t remember her other recipes, but you get the idea. Finally, with Joey’s help, she makes orange juice popcicles.

The other show is Wheel of Fortune, which I used to watch with my dad. Being a words-person and obsessed with all things clever, one of my favorite puzzles is “Before and After”. It combines two phrases that have the same word (one at the end and the other at the beginning), such as mac ‘n’ cheese and cheese sandwich.

Which, oh-so cleverly I must say, brings me back to my review. Thought up by the brains behind The Grilled Cheese Truck, Dave Danhi, this macaroni “dish” is not served in a bowl, but instead between two slices of Texas toast. This popular LA food truck combines two of my favorite foods (actually one more, but I’ll get into that later) to create an even more scrumptious meal, just like Michelle tried to do. It’s like macaroni and cheese knocked up a grilled cheese sandwich to procreate a mac ‘n’ cheese sandwich. (That’s the “before and after” if you haven’t caught on yet.)

Before I describe the Cheesy Mac and Rib sandwich, I’m just going to say it now: It’s amazing! The bread is toasted just right and moistened with a perfect amount of butter. I don’t know if they put cheese on it before slopping the macaroni in, but it really doesn’t matter. There’s plenty of gooey cheddar cheese to go around. The third yummy ingredient that I mentioned above is BBQ pulled pork (which is actually optional). So for those of you who like meat in their sandwiches – I’m raising my hand – this is for you. However, I actually found the result to be the opposite of what Michelle encountered with her failed mixtures: Separately, I typically don’t like meat in a standard grill cheese sandwich or in mac ‘n’ cheese. But when you combine the two carb- and cheese-loaded items, meat is great mixed in, especially BBQ pulled pork. The meat version also has caramelized onions in it, which adds a nice hint of sweetness, along with the BBQ, to the palate.

Served fresh off the grill, piping hot and out of a truck nonetheless, I was left completely satisfied. The creator of this sandwich, which actually spawned the idea for the business when Danhi entered it in LA’s 7th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational, is pure genius, not to mention the brilliance behind his grilled cheese cookery on wheels. The menu had an extensive list of different grilled cheese sandwiches, ranging from $3 for a standard sandwich with American cheese to $7.75 for the Brie Melt with smoked turkey. I almost ordered  the Brie Melt, which comes with doubled-cream brie, sliced pears, honey and smoked turkey, but changed my mind at the last minute. I’m very glad I did; though I don’t doubt the other one would have been very delicious. I’d like to track the truck down and try some others. But that will have to be a whole different blog series.

The “restaurant”: The Grilled Cheese Truck, Los Angeles
The “plate”: Cheesy Mac and Rib sandwich, $7.50 ($5.50 minus the meat)
The ingredients: Macaroni and cheese, sharp cheddar, Texas toast, BBQ pulled pork, caramelized onions
The verdict: An utterly amazing mac ‘n’ cheese masterpiece that you can eat with your hands!

Although this mac ‘n’ cheese doesn’t fall under the gourmet noodle dishes that many restaurants are trying to exploit and that I’m intent on taste-testing, I had to include it in my Ultimate Mac ‘n’ Cheese Quest because it’s a fairly new addition to Panera’s already extensive menu (less than two years old, which is right in line with this “gourmet” macaroni and cheese trend) and it’s utterly delicious!

The deli-bakery’s Signature Macaroni & Cheese is the “More” under the Soups & More section of the menu. It can be ordered in a large (pictured) or small – basically like ordering a bowl or cup of soup. It’s also one of the many items you can combine in a “You Pick Two” meal. The large size is enough on its own for a meal, but the small goes well with a half salad or sandwich. Unless you request a substitute side (apple or chips), the pasta comes with a baguette – a Panera staple – which ends up being a bit of a carb overload. As tempting as it can be to tear into the center of the baguette, I highly recommend setting it aside and saving your entire carb allotment and all the room in your stomach for the mac ‘n’ cheese.

The cheesy goodness is served on the slightly soupy side, but because it’s also typically served piping hot (can you tell I’ve had it more than once?), giving it a little time to cool down thickens the cheese sauce right up. At that point, give it a little stir to coat every shell and it’s just right. According to the website, which currently has the dish featured in its “What We’re Celebrating” section, “When we created our Macaroni & Cheese, we tried 20 different  cheese to find the right blend. The winner: Vermont white cheddar with a touch of mild American.”

The cheese sauce is what does it for me. It’s creamy and smooth with lots of rich flavor. It’s different from others in the sense that it’s not gooey and stringy in the melted-brick-cheese kind of way. Maybe that means its creamy in a powdered-cheese kinda way, but I try not to think about that. I think one of the reasons I like this mac ‘n’ cheese so much is because it’s very similar to my favorite boxed macaroni and cheese: Shells and White Cheddar Pasta Roni (a review of this will come later).

One disappointing aspect is one that I only discovered today, as I write this review. I happened upon Panera’s nutrition guide and saw that the large serving has 980 calories! I guess I should have figured as much, but it tasted a lot better before I knew that. But the fact that it has 70 percent of your daily calcium is a plus, right?

The restaurant: Panera, Santa Monica, CA (nationwide chain)
The plate: Signature Macaroni & Cheese
The ingredients: Enriched frigate pasta, skim milk, American cheese spread (cheddar and Colby cheese), cheddar cheese, soybean oil, cream
The verdict: Though it’s on the basic side, it’s a tasty mac ‘n’ cheese that leaves you licking the bowl when it’s gone.