Saturday, February 15, 2014

Kiss That Frog: Sweet Treats and Childhood Memories Make For Heartwarming "Gal-entine's Day"

When I was growing up, Valentine's Day was fun. All the way from first to seventh grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, we kids would knock ourselves out, preparing tiny cards and sweets for our classmates. On the 14th of February, we would deposit these gifts into the brown paper lunch bag "mailboxes" that we each had on our desks.

Perhaps it was because we were at a Catholic school, but there was never a kid who didn't get anything in his or her Valentine mailbox. In later years, when Valentine's Day took on an entirely different set of expectations, I still regard it - whether I have a significant other or not - as a day to celebrate all kinds of love and friendship.

Lindt's Froshkönig (Frog King): My dream man would be
nattily dressed and filled with chocolate too!
The commercial zeitgeist that is foisted upon the world at large - mostly the males of the species - is not lost on me, but for entirely different reasons. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and red roses mostly remind me of my Dad, who would present our mother with a dozen red roses and a large heart-shaped box of chocolate on Valentine's Day every year. In addition, he would give his three daughters each a smaller heart-shaped box of candy. So it seems to be my birthright that I have lovely chocolates at Valentine's Day, even if I have to buy them myself. (Pull out tiny violin to play sad tune here.)

I could not help but be charmed by Lindt's "Frog King" tin of über-luxurious chocolates, which was exclusively sold at Target. It seemed made for me to be able to laugh at my single state. I shared some of it with my two handsome princes, my nephews Seiji and Kenzo, who wondered why the box was shaped like a frog. They had never read the Brothers Grimm story of the prince who would be released from his amphibious state by true love's kiss. But they really liked the frog-shaped chocolate in particular, because it tasted like Nutella.

Valentine's Day is also one of the most hectic dining-out days on the calendar, or at least, it used to be. Perhaps ROC on Sawtelle isn't really the go-to dinner destination for a romantic meal, but it was a perfect place for Shiho and I to have our "Gal-entine's Day" nosh. The scallion pancake with ginger soy dipping sauce was a perfectly crispy and surprisingly, not at all greasy. It triggered a Proustian memory of my first scallion pancake, enjoyed years ago at a now closed Islamic Chinese restaurant in Torrance.

ROC's scallion pancake hits the appetizer spot.
ROC is known for its xiao long bao, or Taiwanese soup dumplings. I had eaten dumplings a couple of nights ago at Typhoon at the Santa Monica Airport, so wasn't really in the mood. I opted for the beef noodle soup, without the noodles, since I had maxed-out my nighttime carb intake with the scallion pancake. But the fragrant soup, with its subtly spicy broth, similar to pho, was amazing even without noodles. There was a huge, heart-sized chunk of oxtail in the bowl, its meat falling off the bone simply by my gazing at it, and plenty of baby bok choy for color and crunch.

Shiho had the pork dumplings, which she thinks taste fresher than the dumplings at the mecca of XLB, Din Tai Fung. I tasted one, with its fragrant broth inside the dumpling skin, and tender seasoned minced pork. I concurred, although Din Tai Fung is an experience unto itself. In addition, ROC gets major points for offering more than just Chinese broccoli as its only vegetable. We enjoyed a plate of kale, stir-fried with just enough garlic, edible, yet crunchy.

Love potion: ROC's beef soup with oxtail and baby bok choy
We were going to take in a reading by 'zine artists at GR2 that didn't start for another half-hour, so we strolled up to Nijiya Market, looking for dessert.

Shiho enjoyed the array of nostalgic Japanese candies that recalled her childhood in Okinawa, and I enjoyed the colorful and artistic package designs of everything from shampoo to baby biscuits. Japanese companies take great care with the presentation of even the most mundane of objects and food. I found these tiny chocolate hearts that looked like they were made by extruding chocolate through an icing bag and meticulously packaged in a cardboard box with a sliding lid. They were actually very tasty too.

Shiho treated me to mango mochi ice cream, which we both agree is a gastronomic marvel of the 20th Century. It began to melt as we loitered too long in Nijiya after taking it out of the freezer case, and when we got to GR2, we almost forgot about it as we settled into the tiny gallery and the standing room-only audience.

A famous Japanese brand of chocolate gets into the
spirit of Valentine's Day.
When we remembered the mochi, I told Shiho that we would have to eat them like soup dumplings, taking a tiny bite out of the outside, and sucking out the melted, liquified ice cream.We did so, enjoying the creativity of the 'zine authors, the laughter their work created, and another new Valentine's Day memory.


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  2. Congratulations to Shiho, whose amazing work is featured in GR2's "Year of the Horse" show!: