February 16, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Camera. Action. Bite.

I’m in Lotusland now, one of the judges on "Top Chef Masters." Photo Alex Gottfryd 
I’m in Lotusland now, one of the judges on "Top Chef Masters." Photo Alex Gottfryd

        I disappeared from my usual table rounds last week and wasn’t allowed to say why until Wednesday, when Bravo announced the judges for “Top Chef Masters” – its new series produced with Magical Elves and Top Chef’s matinee idol Tom Colicchio as consulting producer. To be aired, I don’t know when. True, the press release left off a crucial “e” on my name. Drat that spell check! Nothing like a missing “e” to deflate a puffed-up ego.

         So here I am in rather generic downtown Los Angeles – not exactly the cliché LA I know from movies – not old Hollywood, not historic Fairfax, not the beach at Santa Monica. I share the judge’s table with Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland and London Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner. No, I never heard of him either, but he definitely has a sexy beast look and the swagger of a Brit at loose in the lowly colonies.
London Observer’s Jay Rayner
        Pulling our strings in the culinary smackdown role of gorgeous female moderator is Kelly Choi, creator and host of NYC TV’s “Eat Out New York.” I never expect anyone that beautiful to also be funny, irreverent and raucous. It’s a virtual old-home week. Oseland’s a New York import too, sassy, unswervingly opinionated and a great expert on authentic ethnic food in grubby shopping malls. Choi strides the world in five-inch heels like a comic book heroine, all sass and perfect skin, Vargas-girl lips, Vogue model svelte. And she eats. I’ve watched her. But it seems to go directly to her brain
nothing sticks to her hips. I am definitely in the valley of the masters. As for the master chefs: they compete in deviously wicked challenges. I’m sworn not to reveal more.
        Do I have a judgelike persona? Am I a bitch? A Pollyanna? A cuisinary pit bull or a simpering fan? What do you think? What do you like in a TV competition judge? Who’s your judge idol and why? Email me your best advice, please. I need to know.
Cha Cha-ing with the Stars.

Pay at the window and a waiter delivers at Cha Cha Chicken. Photo: Steven Richter

        I couldn’t wait to get a taste of Lotusland culture at Cha Cha Chicken in one of those painted fast food huts designed to lure L.A. carbots as they lurch by. Splashes of pastel paint, folksy graphics, paper flowers, and wonderfully lurid oil cloths on every table are so full of promise here, a favorite of Steven’s son Nico, who lives in Santa Monica. 

        I ask for my $8.75 quarter of dark meat extra hot with two sides, red cabbage slaw and corn, a strange burst of faith. Where in the world would corn be fresh-picked in February? Well, at least it isn’t water-logged from the steam table. The chicken is moist, the house jerk sauce devilishly hot, a non-traditional version with fresh mango and pineapple scarcely cooling the habanero.

Drifting local: Fabulous jerk chicken. Funky graphics. Photo: Steven Richter

        Nico never orders anything here but the jerk chicken enchilada plate so Steven has to have that too. It’s great to see two grown men so happy. With two very sweet mango-lemonades, we dropped $35 dollars plus tip, cash only.

1906 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica. 310 581 1684.

A Riff on Turkey

Shepherd’s salad and splendid meze to pile on puffy Turkish bread. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m not the only one in my crowd pinching pennies these days. It’s the latest craze and clearly a real threat to the economy. I do feel a little guilty when my guy and I share a pizza and pasta and a salad and sneak out the door for $50. Am I unpatriotic? At least we still go out eight nights a week, as the Road Food Warrior puts it. Now a self-appointed restaurant critic, I have to un-pinch pennies too, and often eat top-of-the-line, hoping my personal recession ends before my retirement account gives out. Which is how I got to Hanci Turkish Cuisine.

         Prowling on eater a couple of weeks ago I found a complaint from Hanci chef-owner Yakup Karates that he had yet to be reviewed by any critic. I’m a fan of Turkish food and am always looking for a spot I can love the way I love Beyoglu on Third Avenue at 81st Street.

         Sure enough, on a recent wintry night there is only one other table occupied in the tiny Tenth Avenue storefront, its walls hung with souvenirs of Turkey. And the four of us can feast on meze for small change. In fact, even tasting more than we can finish, the tab breaks down to $35 per person, tax and tip included. A four-course lunch for $13.95 shows the house’s eagerness to court a local following.

Proud Turkish chef Yakup Karates yearns for attention. Photo: Steven Richter

        It may be wise to stick to meze here, mostly $5 to $6 a plate. Shepherd’s salad with feta, eggplant cooked in a spicy tomato sauce (soslu patlican), the zesty mince of tomatoes, green peppers and onions (ezme) we love that our friends are tasting for the first time, and rolled stuffed grape leaves – all of it fresh and full of flavor. We’re daubing bits of the puffy bread that comes warm from the oven with everything, occasionally dipping a chunk into marvelous cacik, thick yogurt with minced cucumber, garlic and dill. Even an order of leeks and carrots shimmering in olive oil, so often overcooked and abused elsewhere, have unexpected character. The menu promises “light” crisp-fried calamari – these rings and tentacles could be flash frozen, I suppose – but they taste freshly fried and are an excuse to indulge in a tangy garlicky sauce alongside. The only letdown in our starters is a quartet of soggy and listless fried feta-stuffed phyllo rolls. 

Stuffed cabbage above,  a generous mixed grill to share below.  Photo: Steven Richter

        The enthusiastic young woman serving us, Karates’ daughter I assume, watches us eat, gauging the response. “You like everything?” she asks, removing empty plates. I don’t let her clear the cacik, thinking I don’t get to eat yogurt this rich too often. Perhaps less fussy eaters will be content with various over-cooked kebabs on the $21 mixed grill platter we four are sharing. It almost doesn’t matter that the baby lamb chops are overcooked as well, they come from such an undistinguished lamb. We said “rare, please” but the server forgot or the kitchen didn’t care. And lamb and rice studded cabbage seems listless and watery to me, though my companions disagree.

        Given one table turn across the otherwise empty room, we are practically family by 10:30 and Karates sends out an assortment of pastries on the house: apricots stuffed with cream, baklava, caramelized milk pudding and a baking tin with kunefe shredded wheat with cheese and pistachios – the pan hot enough to burn my finger as I try to cut it in four.
        Even the neighbors had not yet discovered Hanci Turkish Cuisine on a stretch of Tenth that is not exactly a dining Mecca, although I did see a slow stream of  delivery (free with a $15 minimum) heading out into the icy tundra. I’m as worried about Hanci’s future as the chef is, so I’m sending budgeteering friends who love Turkish food. And we’re close enough to count this as almost-neighborhood. Alas, not close enough for delivery.
854 Tenth Avenue between 56th and 57th Street.  212 707 8144. Open seven days a week from 11 am to 11 pm.
Famous Sichuan without the Hot Pot

Steamed fish with bean curd is a hit even with bean-curd denyers. Photo: Steven Richter

        The quest for a really wonderful Chinese restaurant in Manhattan never ceases.  And tonight we want one that’s cheap.  A sophisticated new friend, Taiwan-born Gloria, likes Famous Sichuan on Pell in Chinatown. She promises to join us later. We’ve settled into what looks like an assembly line Chinatown eatery, brightly lit with obligatory chinoiserie. It’s discouragingly empty and I can’t blame the fierce cold since the joint across the street is jammed. We’ve ordered by the time Gloria arrives – carefully avoiding $24 specialties for many $4.50 appetizers or $10 vegetables, sharing spicy dan dan noodles, marvelous peppery stir-fried minced chicken and scallion pancake – surprisingly well-done for a Sichuan kitchen – and Shanghai soupy buns – unsurprisingly awful. We consult her on noodle choice and she consults with the owner on vegetables.

        Carefully sautéed snow pea leaves, an odd but pleasant beige vegetable called loofah, more noodles and sensational steamed, sliced fish with bean curd that has even the bean curd-deniers raving makes up for tea-smoked duck that tastes like last week’s leftovers.

The kitchen's heart isn't into minced chicken to wrap in lettuce leaves. Photo: Steven Richter

        “I didn’t know the food was so good here,” says Gloria.
        “What do you mean?” I cry. “You said you loved this place. That’s why we’re here.”
        “But I always have the Sichuan hot pot,” she says.  “It’s the specialty. Is it too late to order two or three for the table?”
        I study the Hot Pot menu, a choice of sixty plus items to poach in a torrid broth: blue crab and squid, frog and black fungus, taro and tofu, duck’s tongue, beef tripe, pig’s kidney, beef tendon. Where to begin?
        It comes to a vote; we’ll return when we’re hungry for hot pot. We leave $125 behind for the five of us, hitching a ride with our pals to the Village, where in the throes of thrift I fully intend to hop the subway. But what the hell, it’s too cold. It’s hard to kick a full-blooming addiction to taxicabs.
10 Pell Street between Bowery and Doyers. 212 233 3888. Open seven days from 11 am to 10:30 pm.
Patina Restaurant Group