Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Not By Soup Alone: Remembering John Lennon

Have been lax in posting lately, but had to share this thought du jour...

I know how Scarborough feels... The Beatles came to America the year before I was born... Nonetheless, as he says, ..."I did have their music, and in the end, that's all that mattered."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Paris In a Cup, 11/22/2009

Soup may not be everyone's cup of tea, but at our bi-monthly tea outing with the girls featured a welcome surprise... At Paris In a Cup in the historic downtown Orange, the soup's the thing, a perfectly satisfying demitasse of the stuff served with the miniature sandwiches...

The signature potion is baked potato soup with the classic bacon, green onion and cheddar cheese garnish... I would have gone for that, but the soup du jour, butternut squash with apple, just sounded too festive to pass up...

Hanging out with old friends is like putting on a favorite denim jacket... You feel comfortable, yet capable of almost anything... As part of the restaurant's first seating that day, we were the loudest, most raucous group - for a while... But then other groups of ladies began to rival our hilarity, fueled by the joie de vivre that comes from tea and sugar... But most of all, the energy that comes from being with friends who have seen you through some of the most awkward, significant, painful, and just fall-down funny moments of you life - and who still love you anyway.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bagel Factory, 11/22/2009

The best discoveries are the ones you don't expect... Driving home from another busy Saturday of errands, I was wending my way home from King's Road Beads when I happened upon the Bagel Factory on Robertson and Cadillac in a neighborhood called La Cienega Hills...

As I usually am on a Saturday night lately, I was wondering which of my favorite eateries would be comfortable enough to indulge in alone... I have several dependable options, and in some of them, I'm comfortable enough to dine alone: Tender Greens, Pho Show, Junior's, Canter's - basically anyplace with a counter, although I rarely sit at them... I try to stay away from fast food although that scenario is most amenable to solo dining...

So I was really happy to see Bagel Factory, where I knew I could get real food quickly and without a lot of ceremony... In my carb-loving 20s, I used to pick up bagels for everyone at work, along with several tubs of cream cheese "schmears" like smoked salmon and herb and veggie... But I swore bagels off completely when some dietary pundit compared eating one bagel to eating five pieces of bread... I'm still hoping that is urban legend, but I kind of doubt it...

Sadly, I don't even have a photo from my visit to the Bagel Factory, as it appeared so unexpectedly and by the time I realized I had left my camera in the car, I was halfway done with my early dinner...But sometimes, you've just got to rely on memory to tell the story...

Of course, the main feature for me now is the soup bar where eight choices are featured daily... I was assured by a very helpful girl at the counter that the more popular ones are offered almost everyday, such as the chicken tortilla and the sweet and sour cabbage, which is what I had... The piquant and pleasingly full-bodied broth with its shreds of cabbage and other vegetables was very satisfying and perfectly seasoned - not too salty, not too sweet...

Despite the robustness of the soup, I was still hungry because I never had time for a proper lunch today... I also had the smoked whitefish and egg salad combo on a bed of greens with a toasted "Black Russian," a pumpernickel bagel with raisins and onions... The smoked fish was perfectly complemented by the hearty, lightly sweet bagel... Either I was absolutely famished or it was amazing... Or both...

Pho Ever, 11/18/2009

After the weekly "Lounge Lizards" get-together at work, Dylan and I decided to go get some pho... My workday stand-by and favorite pho spot, Pacific Pho Noodle House is unfortunately not open for dinner and we had been to his favorite pho place in Tozai Plaza (sorry, I don't know the name of it) several times, so I charged him with finding new, unchartered pho territory...

He probably was amused by the name, Pho Ever... But this two-month-old restaurant was truly a find... A Yelp-er says that the place is very cute... It is, despite the rundown strip mall where it is located... The wood-framed booths are really cozy despite the Korean bbq grills in the center of the tables... Dylan quipped that the place looked like the home of a Vietnamese hobbit... I asked our server, who turned out to the manager, if it had been a Korean bbq restaurant and he said that the grills were going to be put to use later for some kind of Vietnamese version of bbq...

But we were there for pho... I gave my default order, rare steak pho... Dylan got more adventurous with something called Spicy Hue Style Noodle Soup with Lemongrass... This included round spaghetti-like noodles, beef, pork leg (apparently with bone and marrow included), pork sausage, shrimp cake, and a partridge in a pear tree...

Just kidding, there was no partridge in a pear tree... Actually, the shrimp cake came up missing too, unless it was a gelatinous cube that we surmised was some kind of Vietnamese blood pudding... Nevertheless, his broth was thicker than pho, and spicier without the addition of sauces or herbs...

My pho was the classic soup recipe, with unusually silky rice noodles and a very generous serving of rare beef, which cooked itself in the scalding broth... An unexpected spin on what would have been a pleasurable but predictable pho experience was the detailed training I received on how to best enjoy the beef slices ... Our server deftly poured a combination of hoisin and red chili sauce into a tiny dish and instructed me to dip the beef into it... I was so delighted with this flavor explosion that I forgot to add the dish of bean sprouts, basil, lime, and jalapeno to my steaming broth...

Another distraction was the appetizer we ordered, which Richard the server/manager swore was the best thing on the menu... It arrived, a colorful satay of beef with herbs and a bowl of fried shrimp crackers to eat with it...

The crackers made a cool sound, kind of like Pop Rocks candy exploding, when you spooned the ceviche-like beef onto them... They were good, but both of our soups had already bowled us over - no pun intended...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chicken and Rice Soup with Sesame-Encrusted Ahi Salad, 11/05/2009

Props to Campus Dining's Richard, Chef Ricardo, and the staff at Club 1910 at CSU Dominguez Hills!... You're the best!...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Los Angeles Mission, 11/7/2009

(Photos: Shio Ramen at Santoka, 10/31/2009; below, Chicken Leek Soup and Tuna Melt at Clementine, 10/26/2009; )

Who says that there are "no seasons" in Southern California?... The year's last burst of summery heat has given way to an autumnal chill, graced with the indescribably beautiful fall light...

The cold is bracing, although laughable to friends in other, less temperate parts of the country... As the weather in dips to temperatures below 60, I dig out the wool coats and tights and look forward to more soup adventures...

Since I've returned to eating solid food again after the scourge of a cold last month, I regret that my initial zeal for soup has waned somewhat in favor of crisp green salads, my homemade quiche (watch this space for story and recipe), snappy, thin-skinned red grapes, and surprisingly juicy persimmons...

But I still look forward to the comfort of a warm bowl of broth... Which led me to think of those who don't have the luxury of driving for pho or even the simple means to open a can of something from Trader Joe's... I've been hatching this plan to help serve Thanksgiving dinner at the Los Angeles Mission since I started the blog, and last Saturday, I attended a volunteer orientation for the Thanksgiving dinner event on Nov. 25...

Armed with my sister's stainless steel commuter mug full of her high-octane French roast, I sped east on the 10 for the 9 a.m. volunteer orientation... When I looked up the directions to the Mission the street view photograph on the Website did not merely show a stucco and brick building... It showed a stucco and brick building with a line of people in front of it...

I could not help but compare it to the time I looked up my sister's house on Google and saw that the photograph used was one that was taken during their remodel, which took almost a year to complete... The photo was taken from an angle that showed off the outhouse that was provided for the construction workers during the project... It was on their front lawn for so long after the main work was done that it was several weeks after it was removed that I noticed it was gone...

We're hoping that the Google map people need to update their photos of the neighborhood soon... But I know that sadly, the line in front of 303. E. 5th Street is probably never going to disappear...

I drove around to the back of the building as the Website instructed, in order to get "safe, secure" parking... I felt a guilty pang as I remembered Jolene's admonishment that morning to "be careful" when parking downtown... I snapped at her with something to the effect of not going downtown to be afraid and suspicious of people simply because they were poor...

I should have been more charitable and cognizant of her concern then... I'm trying to understand more that while it's nobody's fault that they are poor, it's also nobody's fault that they are not... But at the same time, I cannot help but wish that all of us could at least be more respectful of everyone's humanity - and innocence until proven guilty - regardless of external appearances...

The parking lot was full... A beleaguered-looking volunteer informed me that the lot was full and that I could park at their auxiliary space on Maple... There were a couple of parking garages on that street and I could not tell which was theirs, so I chose one and forked over the $3...

When I hit the sidewalk, I was nearly bowled over by the stench of urine that permeated the street... I held my breath and hurried along, clutching my notepad and my mug of coffee... I saw another woman who clearly was there for the volunteer orientation rushing ahead of me... She wore some nice but frivolous sandals, totally unsuited for walking on these mean streets... And she also had her stainless steel commuter cup in hand...

I asked her brightly as we entered the courtyard of the Mission if she was there for the Thanksgiving event... She patiently said, "Whatever they need"... The lines of people from the photo no longer circled the building, but the courtyard was full of men waiting patiently for whatever services the Mission had to offer them that day... We entered the lobby of the building after being directed by a man at the door to one of the chapels for the orientation...

I did not know that the Mission provides a program for those suffering from poverty and homelessness due to addiction and abusive environments... A "graduate" of the program was giving a testimony in the chapel to the audience of hopeful volunteers and guests who were to take tours of the facility... A second man described the Mission as "a place of refuge, a place where the storm stopped"...

If the Mission helped stop the storm for some of these people, it only stirs it up for the armchair activist... Those of us who had eagerly called, emailed or shown up that morning to sign on to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless with the likes of Mayor Villaraigosa and Hollywood celebrities were quickly put in our place...

"Think of the guy who comes in here when the papparazzi is gone," chided the woman giving the orientation, good-naturedly but firmly... "You can come back in January because no one will be here to help"...

The Mission was full to capacity of volunteers for the Thanksgiving event... It didn't matter that I had signed up online earlier that week... I realized that we not only have a problem with poverty and homelessness in our city... We also have the issue of too many people who try to help when it "counts," that is, when other people can see it...

Living in a city like Lost Angeles, particularly on the Westside, one is exhorted to care 24/7, and to sign up for every cause du jour... Not that I'm opposed to any of doing good in general, but it seems that some people jump on the bandwagon to help certain populations on certain occasions because it's the holidays and it's "the right thing to do"...

I wonder if my own motives are so pure... I wanted to volunteer for Thanksgiving because I thought it would give my stories of soup and comfort more relevance... "So this girl drives around eating soup and eavesdropping on conversations, so what?"... I wanted to give readers a real picture of what it's like not to be able to walk into a restaurant and order soup or anything else for that matter...

Everyone I know bemoans the current economic situation... We are all having to pull our belts tighter and I realize that for each person, it's all relative to what they are used to... But very few of us, at least in my acquaintance, have ever had literally zero... No stainless steel coffee cups, no hot coffee, no coffee maker in the kitchen...No kitchen, period...

The last tour group was escorted out and I left after turning in my application and deciding to see if I could get registered for the December 24 event... I realize halfway down the block that I forgot my coffee cup under my seat in the chapel and go back to get it...

As I leave the chapel again, I am told to watch my step and "God bless you," by a man, probably a resident in the program, who is mopping the tile in the lobby... I need to use the restroom before the long drive ahead and am directed to a facility in the back of another chapel where three or four men was watching a biblical epic dubbed in Spanish...

As I try to duck my way out of the darkened "theatre," a couple of voices say "God bless you" in the dark as I pass... I try to smile an acknowledgment in the general direction of the voices since I can't see a thing...

I think about all the times that I nod or say "Hello" to people at work in the halls or passing on the street... There are times when I don't give that small acknowledgment of humanity and think that it doesn't matter...

This morning, while glimpsing the world of the Mission on a Saturday morning, on my way to other things, I am the one that is being helped. My metal cup is a symbol of need, like the kind used for begging... I suddenly see it as kind of a signal that I need to slow down and drink a cup of coffee like a civilized person once in a while, at a table... If I am very lucky, it will be in good company... And I'm being reminded that my ill-perceived lack of time is no excuse for a lack of civility, of appreciating my fellow man or woman...

I am being reminded that yes, it does matter.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Larry's Vegetable Soup, 11/1/2009

After bullying Larry into starting a blog, guess what his first post was?... A recipe for fabulous-sounding vegetable soup from scratch!...

Almost makes a girl want to visit Seattle and blow off this lovely sunny weather on the first day of November in La-La Land in favor of cold wind and rain... NOT!...

Friday, October 30, 2009

R.I.P. "Soup Nazi"

I was trying to get Jolene and Hiro to find the "soup nazi" restaurant, as depicted in a Seinfeld episode... Just found that the place no longer exists.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Trader Joe's Black Bean Soup, 10/24

Encouraged by my foray into making my own soup - albeit the lazy way - I decided to tackle the carton of black bean soup that always seems to be in the cupboard. Someone always buys it with the best of intentions: high protein, good source of fiber, yadda, yadda, yadda. But it tends to be - well, so bean-y.

Everyone was home for dinner at the same time, a nice thing about the weekend. My brother-in-law Hiro was making pasta and my sister Jolene was washing the never-ending pile of dishes in the sink. I was trying to playing cooking "Twister" and be out of the way while embarking on my own project.

Another cause for commotion was the large pan of pumpkin mochi that my sister had baked earlier. Weeks of hoarding all the canned organic pumpkin we can find at Trader Joe's yields an endless supply of this unusual and addictive dessert all winter long. It's not as stiff as regular mochi, but more lighter, more cakelike and only slightly chewy. And like my squash soup, it makes the house smell like Thanksgiving.

Seiji and Kanzo were all too happy to beg for seconds and thirds of the mochi despite the fact that dinner was going to be on the table on about 15 minutes. I caved in and ate one small piece and started on the soup.

It was so simple it's embarrassing. I poured the black bean soup into a pot. It seemed like it ought to be darker having been made from "black" beans, but it was actually a nice mauve. I added a can of crispy corn kernels, also from Trader Joe's, and a small sprig of cilantro. A dollop of fresh sour cream gave it that gourmet kick and three grownups had black bean soup to go with ham and three-cheese pasta. The kids had Kamen Rider on YouTube to go with their dinner.

The Los Angeles County Museum is showing an Audrey Hepburn retrospective and I was planning on going to the second half of that night's double feature, "Two for the Road." This "One" got on the road too late and decided while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic at the far end of Fairfax that I was going to miss the movie. So I took a detour to Canter's to pick up some dessert.

In the last year, I've been at Canter's with a couple of dates. There was always a jovial African American man panhandling as you step out of the parking lot onto the sidewalk. As I walked toward him, he made some comment about "the happy couple out on the town." Apparently, some guy had gotten out of his car right after I did and was walking a bit behind me. I was so embarrassed that I didn't dare turn around. A small irony was that while I was alone this time, the man asking for change now had a partner, another man who sat across the sidewalk from him.

I wasn't hungry for food, but seemed to need to "be out," so armed with a book, I decided to sit down in a tiny booth. The waiter, who wasn't half bad-looking, passes me off to an older female server. I guess the lone girl with her nose in a book doesn't appear as interesting - or as good a tipper - as the cute couple on a date in the booth in front of me. I ordered a cup of herbal tea and look for Rodney Bingenheimer, who is almost always seated at the semi-circular booth next to the stairs. He isn't there. For the last 20-plus years that I've been dining at Canter's, he's been there, either with an entourage, or in more recent years, alone.

In our 20s and 30s, my friends and I would make a pilgrimage to Canter's at least once a month, arriving no earlier than 9:30 and taxing our then-younger digestive systems with Reuben sandwiches, potato knishes, and egg creams. Most of these friends have since gotten married, had kids, moved out of state, or all of the above. Most of them, and frankly myself included, would really have to work themselves up to eating even half a Reuben with sauerkraut and mustard. And if I didn't live in closer proximity, it would be a challenge to get me to drive up to Fairfax.

But I'm here now. A busboy walks by with a tray loaded with two-foot loaves of seeded rye. The waiter, who kind of reminds me of Huey Lewis but with darker hair, is speaking very loudly to a very old and apparently deaf man who is departing from a booth on the other side of mine. The waiter tells him how much he would enjoy the film "Charlie Wilson's War," how it captured the end of the Cold War era so well, and how it reminded him of the Congressional offices that he went in and out of when he was a toddler. Definitely a conversation intended to be overheard. When he was cleaning the man's table, I wanted to ask him why he was hanging out in the Capitol as a kid, but that seemed too forward.

If I had been with friends, we would have eavesdropped on this conversation, then picked it apart when we were out of earshot. We would have come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why the waiter was hanging out at the Capitol, such as having been adopted by the Ghanaian ambassador, or part of a child genius program spearheaded by the CIA. Which incidentally, has a great "kids' page" on their Website.

But I digress. You can be obnoxious in public with your friends, which I'm sure I was. You're protected somehow by this cocoon of togetherness, of knowing that however moronic your conversation is, you're with people whose observations are equally moronic.

But being alone, free of the obligations to wait for someone to finish their egg cream, drive them home, or put up with their boyfriend/sister/co-worker, has a price. The price is feeling like a sore thumb among the couples, families and friends out on a Saturday night. I guess the alternative would be to stay home and immerse myself in a book or a project, all the while feeling that I was missing something, because it is Saturday night, after all.

I finished my tea and sauntered to the bakery counter to get some of those little rainbow cakes and my new favorite, an unassuming bar of white cake soaked in rum and coated with a thin layer of chocolate and coconut.

Back outside in the night air, I pulled a dollar out of my change and handed it to the man who greeted me and my "date" earlier. He seemed a bit surprised to be handed money by a woman alone. I guess a sense of chivalry can exist even among those who beg for change. But I figured it was time in life to start doing the things I didn't have the inclination to do when I was too busy laughing and warm with the company of friends or holding someone's hand to shield me from things like noticing show-off waiters and panhandlers on the street.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Soupy Sales (1926-2009)

So weird that when I'm done with my blog for the night, I find this news item while checking my email.

His heyday was before my time, but his sort of humor would have gone over well with me as a kid. If only we could really hit people with a pie in the face when they annoy us instead of vulgar words or worse, building resentment. We'd be messier, but probably a lot freer.

Trader Joe's Butternut Squash Soup

For most people, the idiom "salad days" denotes a carefree period of life, typically during one's youth. For me, it has been redefined as "soup days," the long weekend I just had before having to return to work after a state-imposed furlough Friday. I brown bag it pretty regularly, so it stands to reason that I should create my own concoctions to take to the office. Fortunately, Trader Joe's offers several soups that transcend the limitations of the typical canned variety available at most supermarkets. These are very flavorful and can be enjoyed either on their own or as a base for new creations by hurried gourmets like myself.

Squash is a harbinger of fall on the veggie front. I decided to embellish TJ's Butternut Squash Soup with fried sage leaves. I remembered an impressive appetizer I had once of fried sage leaves that were served like musky green snack chips. I also would add sauteed onions and a dash of cumin to the ready-made soup.

I found a simple recipe for the sage leaves on the internet and proceeded to dredge a whole package of sage leaves in a bit of flour. I put about a quarter of a cup of olive oil in a skillet and when it was hot, quickly tossed in the dusted leaves.

The kitchen smelled like I was frying doughnuts laced with marijuana. Not that I ever have, but I imagined that the herby, starchy odor was what it would smell like. My nephews who were supposed to be going to bed ambled out to the kitchen.

Seiji said, "Something smells funny."

His younger brother Kenzo said, "Something smells good."

I predict that in about ten years, this scene will play itself out again, concerning the above mentioned substance, and probably without benefit of it being encased in fried pastry. Kenzo has the family's unanimous vote as "Most Likely To Fill-in-the-Blank."

Suddenly, they both said, "I'm hungry!" even though they never eat at 9:30 at night, proving once again that aroma is a stronger stimulant than actual taste. My brother-in-law herded them away for storytime before bed and I finished frying the sage.

My sister Jolene came home from the market and said, "It smells like Thanksgiving!"

I blotted the excess oil off the sage leaves with paper towels and ate one skeptically. It tasted of flour and very "green," but had that crispy texture I remembered. I eyed them critically started to prepare the onions. Jolene and I have decided that if you ever have to cut up an onion, that means you are "really cooking."

This feeling of accomplishment was diminished only slightly when I wantonly squirted half the carton of ready-made soup into my Ziploc container. I considered its caramel-colored surface, then sprinkled three spoonfuls of onion over it. I arranged five fried sage leaves on it. They lay there suspended like paper blooms in a Matisse collage, and I imagined their herbal goodness infusing itself into my soup while being radiated in the office microwave.

The next day at about 11:30, I heated up the soup. In the air conditioned void of the office, it did indeed smell like Thanksgiving! I started to stir it about and eat when my intern showed up. We got into a discussion about a possible story idea he had and then we went in and pitched it to my boss. Then I walked him down to third floor and set him up in our empty office with a computer after introducing him to some colleagues that he would be photographing at an event the next day.

When I got back to my desk, the odiferous creation was lukewarm and I had to heat it up again. Then another interruption occurred and distracted, I started to answered a couple of emails. It's hard to type and eat with a spoon. I had to heat the soup up again. But I didn't mind.

I've learned after telling people about my blog that soup is a universal good, the ultimate in home cooking and comfort food. There's a reason that there is a series of books called "Chicken Soup for the Soul." Except in my case, I'd rather have the soup.

My friend Alice has invited me to her mother's house for the New Year, where she and her brother will be taught the family menudo recipe. My mother has been threatening my sisters and I with the tutorial for lugao, a Filipino dish that is not really a soup, but a porridge made of rice, chicken and generous amounts of ginger.

It's almost as if our parents are passing a torch of culinary importance, of family tradition and memories of a culture that we experienced only vicariously as the American-born offspring of parents who decided to leave the lands of their birth and make this country their home. In many cases, food is the only thing we learned about from our parents' ethnicity.

The recipe for a childhood favorite - no matter its origin - is something one learns with some apprehension, probably because it marks the end of one's youth. Suddenly, you are charged with taking responsibility for something that only the "grownups" knew about. But deep down, you are grateful, even proud of your newly bestowed knowledge. It means that life goes on.

A co-worker who is our resident authority on gourmet cuisine liked my idea for a soup blog. He told me about how he makes chicken soup from scratch by boiling a chicken and "layering" flavors by reducing the broth, adding butter, onions, garlic, and other ingredients. He also told me that apple schnapps is the thing to add to butternut squash soup.

If I could give my nephews - who most assuredly, being part of my family, will be compelled to cook someday - a foolproof recipe that would carry them through whatever hungers or challenges befell them, it would be something like this:

Make sure your brains and knives are sharp.

Try to be there for people who need you when they need you and don't be disappointed that means your food gets cold. You can always heat it up again.

Cook as you like but be open to suggestions. Especially if they involve apple schnapps.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Traktir, 10/19/2009

After a morning of dreaded and dull car errands (fixing a broken headlight and the DMV in Inglewood), I realized that it was time for lunch. My appetite is still a bit finicky as I weather the last stages of my cold, so I called my friend Larry in Seattle for some inspiration, as the majority of our conversations revolve around how much he misses the food in L.A. I ask him where he would go if he could go anywhere to eat on a beautiful, sunny October day in the city.

I had told him about my soup blog and he mentioned borscht. I said that I had been craving it lately, if only because my last soup adventures lacked a bit of color. He Googled Russian restaurants and found a place in West Hollywood called Royal Gourmet Deli.

I drove down Santa Monica Boulevard at a leisurely pace looking for the restaurant and enjoyed being a tourist in flamboyant "Boys' Town," on what used to be part of the original Route 66. Fantastic window displays and signage are everywhere - even the police department has a Hollywood-esque sign, a star-shaped sheriff's badge outlined in neon.

When I got to Royal Gourmet Deli, I found a market of Russian specialties and fresh delicatessen meats and salads. Cakes the size of cafeteria trays were displayed on top of the counter. Teas, cookies and sweets labeled in Cyrillic text beckoned with appetizing pictures on their packages.

I saw a man eating at a table outside the back door and asked the young Asian girl at the counter if there was a place to be served. She said no, but that there was a restaurant next door. I considered some of the brightly packaged sweets, but wanting to have a truly authentic Russian deli experience, I asked her what the cakes were made of. Honey, nuts, and sour cream were major components. I bought a slice of something made with dried plums and sour cream and sauntered next door.

Traktir was not very large. It had a patio that opened onto the sidewalk and a small interior that was charmingly Baba Yaga-esque - if Baba Yaga had satellite TV and made her own vodka. There were several large glass decanters on the bar, each with lemons, cranberries, jalapenos and garlic, raspberries, or what I later found out to be large knobs of horseradish floating in them. One of the waiters told me that the liquor steeps for a month in the jars before they are drinkable and that jalapeno and garlic is the most popular flavor.

To complete this festive ambience, nesting matryoshka dolls, some traditionally styled, others painted to depict the Lakers and American presidents, greeted me from shelves that hung across the room from the vicious stuffed head of a wild boar. With such a mascot in attendance, I knew I was in for a good time.

I sat down and ordered the borscht. I've only had it served cold before and their version sounded hearty, served hot with potatoes, cabbage, and beef. I chatted with Larry a bit more while waiting. I was comforted by the thoughtfulness of water and lemon served in a carafe and a huge basket of bread that I was grateful for but left untouched in my ongoing war on carbs.

I eyed the only other inhabited tables in the restaurant. At these were seated several older people, one couple and four men and a woman who I assumed were regulars or members of the management. I felt self-conscious talking on my cell phone in the presence of the older generation, who represented at that moment a culture and time where people stopped in the middle of the afternoon to sit with friends, break bread and talk to one another. The smell of one man's pipe made me even more nostalgic for a place I've never actually known as a product of a culture that always seems to aim for "faster," not always "better."

Finally, the borscht arrived. The broth was a beautiful translucent ruby red, not the usual berry that always reminds me of a Pantone color chip. And it had levels to its richness. The sour cream had begun to sink below the surface, in tasty dollops flecked with fresh dill. Beneath that were fine shreds of cabbage and beet, floating like inclusions in a gemstone. The overall flavor was pleasantly piquant, not too spicy but not too bland. After a few spoonfuls of this sublime mixture, I felt renewed.

As if that weren't bliss enough, half a slice of the same light rye that was in the breadbasket was perched on the edge of my soup plate. Covered with a shredded white cheese and grilled to toasty perfection, it was the perfect counterpoint to the luxurious simplicity of the borscht.

By this time, I was incoherent with pleasure and had to hang up on Larry so as to devote my attention to the meal. I signed off, thinking how comforting a hot bowl of borscht would be in Seattle's frigid weather. Despite the fact that I was getting over a cold and had to put on a sweater, I was spoiled by the sunshine of early fall in Los Angeles that battled with an overcast sky and finally triumphed for the duration of the afternoon.

I said goodbye and thanked him profusely for guiding me to Traktir, albeit remotely. I wished he was with me, so I could have his piece of cheese toast.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Junior's Deli, 10/18/2009

The cold that inspired my current obsession with soup and hence, this blog (one must suffer for one's art) has put me on an unending quest for anything that will alleviate my discomfort. So far, only copious amounts of sleep and a hot liquid diet have worked.

After two weeks, I have not yet taken my dose of Jewish penicillin. So at the suggestion of my sister Jolene, who is a walking Zagat Guide, it's off to Junior's on Westwood Boulevard I go. Armed with William Saroyan's "One Day in the Afternoon of the World," I sit at the counter. I'm still not used to eating alone in a restaurant and having a book, even if I never open it during the meal, makes me feel less conspicuously alone.

I'm thinking of the last bowl of matzo ball soup I had, at Canter's, everyone's favorite all-night deli. I imagine a bowl of buttery chicken soup, with a nice, fluffy matzo ball floating in it. Out of curiosity, I ask the server what the soup of the day is. He tells me it's lentil and offers a sample. It's very tomatoey and light, not the usual hearty brew that lentil soup tends to be. But the tomatoes make it a little too zingy for this evening, and I ask for the chicken matzo ball soup.

Another option is kreplach, but I don't remember what that is.

"It's a kind of dumpling?" I ask the server.

"Yes, but with beef," he replies.

"What do you like better?"

"I'd get the matzo ball," he shrugs. I nod, asking him for rye toast on the side.

When I was growing up, soup was an afterthought, a gesture made at the beginning of the meal or eaten only when fighting a cold. The fine family of Campbell's products taught me all I needed to know about classic American cuisine, with alphabet soup, chicken noodle, and both chowders, New England and my favorite, the controversially tomato-based Manhattan.

I never went out of my way for soup. But this particular bout of whatever I have has killed my normal appetite for food and all that seems appealing is heat, flavored with herbs and some form of meat.

The soup arrives and old Willie S., who has been my constant companion all weekend in his library binding, is going to have to wait. The steaming bowl requires the use of all my senses to navigate the experience. I ask the server what the yellow knob on top of my matzo ball is, thinking it some sort of unexpected garnish like ginger or extra matzo dough.

"It's chicken, chicken," he says reassuringly, perhaps remembering my quizzical reaction to beef dumplings in chicken soup.

Chicken it is, big moist chunks of it. The bowl is also overflowing with numerous stubby lengths of green celery - it's practically a salad. The hallowed matzo ball takes up three-quarters of the dish, floating in the steaming broth like a fat man in a hot tub. A confetti of thin noodles is nestled underneath this porous hulk, taking the soup to the next level of comfort food. Carbs be damned. Eating this is the gastronomic version of donning sweatpants after a long buttoned-up day at the office.

I'm distracted from my OCD tendency to baste the matzo ball in broth as I'm eating the soup because it's perfect, not too salty and spiked liberally by me with black pepper. When the rye toast arrives, I butter one piece but abandon that in favor of dunking it into the flavorful soup.

My busy but solicitous server passes quickly, pausing to ask, "You like the soup?"

His remark is not a perfunctory, "Is everything tasting good? (as the grammar gods flinch) or the more generic "How is everything?"

I say that it's great. I was impressed with the fact that he actually remembers what people order.

I've noticed a correlation between the sometimes antiquated nature of a restaurant's bill of fare and the attitude of its staff. My experience has been that the more traditional the dishes offered, the more genteel and caring the servers tend to be.

It's almost as if they are stewards of not just your dining experience, but of another place that in this increasingly hurried world, we are constantly searching for. Whether that place signifies relief from a sore throat, the stress of a busy day, or a respite from the superficial gestures and words that often take the place of actual human connection, it's all the same. And you can often find it in the simplest of things - like a good book, a warm smile, or a bowl of really good soup.

Din Tai Fung, 10/17/2009

Yesterday was the first piano recital for my two nephews Seiji and Kenzo ... Since it was at an auditorium in Arcadia, we had to fit in a pilgrimage to that mecca of dumplings, Din Tai Fung. A visit to the shop on Baldwin Avenue, which is the only North American location of the Asian chain, is a rare treat along with the dumplings because a) of the great distance from anywhere and b) because of the minimum hour-long wait that is the hallmark of a trip to DTF...

The various types of dumplings are filled with typical dim sum fillings: ground pork, crab, sweet red bean paste. But the restaurant's popularity lies within the explosion of soup in each dumpling. Explicit directions are printed on the chopstick wrappers, warning the diner of the hot liquid that oozes out of each thin skinned dumpling when it is bitten. Eating these is a ritual. First, you pick up a dumpling, dip it in a sauce of shredded fresh ginger and black vinegar, place it in the large bowl of a melamine soup spoon, and then carefully take a small bite to slurp out the soup before gulping the whole thing down.

If one has waited a polite amount of time before diving into the tray of dumplings, as I did while dining with others (parents of the other pianists), then it is probably safe to simply take in the whole mouthful after the preliminary steps. Many of the group had never been to DTF before, and thought that they ought to try some of the other menu offerings: textbook dishes of fried rice and preternaturally green sauteed vegetables, their emerald perfection no doubt enhanced by a little MSG love.

But those of us who had been there before and the inhabitants of the spirited "kids' table" knew what the priorities were. Six kids each ordered their own tray of ten dumplings apiece, which even I know is a lot of food for a five- to seven-year-old. Their enthusiasm for this exotic yet comforting cuisine - when you're a kid, everything wrapped in dough is good - was evidenced by their happy shouts of "We're full!" This announcement preceded an orgy of running in circles and wrestling on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, to the horror of their parents and passerby - and one highly amused aunt.

At the end of the highly-detailed directions on the chopstick wrapper, it blithely instructs one to "Now enjoy it." It seemed the final benediction to those of us who had anticipated the recital for weeks, after hours of coaxing the kids to practice their songs, the donning of uncomfortable but photogenic clothing, and the hideous traffic endured to get to a venue that seemed to be at the ends of the earth.

Despite all this I hope that next year's recital will be in Arcadia. DTF - and watching S + K reach another milestone in their musical training - is worth the wait.