Before & After: Sycamore Kitchen, Los Angeles

Sycamore Kitchen (Brad A Johnson)Sycamore Kitchen (photo by Brad A Johnson)

Best. Sticky. Bun. Ever. Wow, this thing is good. They call it a salted caramel pecan babka roll, but we all already know it as a sticky bun. And it’s the best damn sticky bun you will ever eat. Chef Karen Hatfield is a genius. This is what her babka roll looked like when I sat down at the table. And here’s what it looked like 10 seconds later… Continue reading

OC Review: Lola Gaspar, Santa Ana

Lola Gaspar (photos by Paul Rodriguez and Brad A Johnson)

The first thing that impresses me at Lola Gaspar is how short the waitresses’ shorts are. They make the outfits at Hooters look prudish.

To be fair, though, that was an awfully hot day, and Lola doesn’t have much — if any — air-conditioning inside the bar. On other days, I’ve seen them wear more.

Lola Gaspar is one of downtown Santa Ana’s early adapters. And now, just as the neighborhood starts to welcome a slew of new restaurants, this old gastropub seems to be stepping up its game. Continue reading

Short Order: Smoke Oil Salt, Los Angeles

Smoke Oil Salt, los angeles (photos by Isaac Arjonilla, LA Register)

For much of the past decade, no country outside of America has had a greater impact on the global culinary scene than Spain. At the same time, there has been a surprising dearth of Spanish cuisine in California. Smoke Oil Salt brings some of that much-needed influence to the center of the city.

Everyone’s been calling it a tapas bar, but that’s not really what’s going on here. Yes, the menu proposes lots of small plates, but small plates don’t necessarily mean tapas. Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica is a tapas bar – and a darned good one. Smoke Oil Salt is equally authentic, but this place is more of a destination. The cooking is far more elaborate, which isn’t surprising given that the chef, Perfecto Rocher, formerly ran the kitchen at The Blvd inside the posh Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. He comes from Spain, from a family that has produced a long line of chefs. Continue reading

Short Order: Wei Shian Noodles, Irvine

Wei Shian Noodles (Brad A Johnson)

Cold spicy pork at Wei Shian Noodles, Irvine (photo by Brad A Johnson)

You’ll notice even from a distance that Wei Shian Noodles stands out of its neighbors in the predominantly Asian shopping center anchored by 99 Ranch Market, at Jeffrey and Walnut in Irvine. Most of the center’s tenants are restaurants, and to call the majority of them no-frills would be an understatement. This just helps distinguish Wei Shian, whose interior softly glows with the light of crystal chandeliers. Everyone inside is dressed just a little fancier, too. But not too fancy. It’s all relative.  Continue reading

Quick Review: Hotel Normandie, Los Angeles Koreatown

Hotel Normandie, Koreatown (photos by Brad A. Johnson)

Overview: The Hotel Normandie opened in 1926 as a residence hotel for single men. It was apparently quite the social scene back then, if not exactly high glamor. But a lot changed in this neighborhood, now better known as Koreatown. The hotel stopped being a real hotel long ago. It even became, temporarily, a “hotel” for medical marijuana patients. But it reopened as a normal hotel again in February, with 91 rooms, following a complete gutting and makeover. The building’s original blend of Renaissance Revival architecture and Spanish Revival decor has been honored throughout, with a modern twist. Continue reading

Short Order: J Zhou, Tustin

J Zhou (Brad A Johnson)Spicy shrimp dumplings at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine, Tustin (photo by Brad A Johnson)

“What’s that smell?”

The air around my table has just turned sour. An acrid, pungent, invisible cloud sneaks up behind us and overtakes the entire dining room.

“What’s that smell?” I wonder again, whispering.

Just as I scrunch my nose, the head waiter walks by and hears my question, which I thought I had whispered so softly that only my dining companions could hear.

“That smell?” he asks, leaning into the table, beaming with pride. “Can you smell that?” Continue reading

OC Review: Watermarc

Watermarc, Laguna Beach (photos by Leonard Ortiz and Brad A Johnson)

Laguna Beach in the summertime feels quintessentially Californian. Convertibles cruise the main drag, tops down, radios blasting. The sidewalks teem with pedestrians, locals and tourists alike, a swirling parade of tousled hair, flip-flops, panhandlers, boob jobs and diamonds.

Watermarc has a front-row seat. The windows overlooking Coast Highway are flung open to let in the ocean breeze. The air is fortified with animated conversation and laughter, punctuated with the chorus of cocktails being shaken, the pop of a wine cork, a Harley roaring past the front door.

The quaint patio is tucked into a romantic, brick-paved alleyway. An upstairs deck basks in the filtered glow of moonlight that peeks through the surrounding trees. On Friday afternoons and Saturday nights, every seat in the dining room is filled. Waiters weave through the crowd, up and down the wooden stairs with armfuls of crab cakes and oysters and blood-orange martinis.

Continue reading

Short Order: Son of a Gun, Los Angeles

Son of a Gun (photos by Brad A Johnson)

Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo opened Animal in 2008. They struck gold with pig fat and innards. They followed up with the slightly more ambitious, seafood-oriented Son of a Gun in 2011. Then last year they made the leap from chefs to rather-rockstar-ish culinary enablers. They’re the behind-the-scenes partners at celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre’s wildly successful Trois Mec, and the imminent Petit Trois. And now they’ve got another project in the works – a wine shop and eventually a cafe – in the old Damiano Pizza space just up the street from Animal. I figured this was as good of a time as any to check with Son of a Gun to see how everything is going there. Continue reading

Short Order: Ahgassi Gopchang, Los Angeles

Stirfried chives w/ kimchi paste at Ahgassi Gopchang (photo by Brad A. Johnson)Stir-fried chives w/ kimchi paste at Ahgassi Gopchang (photo by Brad A. Johnson)

Ahgassi Gopchang opened about a year ago on 6th Street in Koreatown. It’s from the same owners as the popular Korean barbecue joint Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong.

“Gopchang” is the Korean word for intestines. It’s important to know that because that’s their specialty here. But of course that’s not all they serve. In fact, the beef they put on the barbecue grill here is better than most other places in K-town. And more to the point, the restaurant’s parent company owns the beef supply company that supplies a large swath of the Korean restaurant business in the U.S., so one can only assume that their own restaurants will have access to the company’s best beef. And intestines. Continue reading

Where to eat on jury duty in Santa Ana

dining in downtown santa ana (Photos by Brad A. Johnson)

I got summoned to jury duty last month at the Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana. Just before lunch, they called my name. I got thrown into the pool for a very high-profile trial. For our own safety, they gave us each a number and said we were to no longer use our names in the courthouse. The next thing they told us was, “This trial is scheduled to last 4 weeks.”

My first response was, “Oh, crap. What did the defendant do?”

My second thought: “Oh, crap. Where am I going to eat every day for the next four weeks?” Continue reading

First Look: Oneworld lounge at LAX’s new Tom Bradley Terminal

IMG_4949_50_51Oneworld lounge at LAX’s Tom Bradley International (photo by Brad A. Johnson)

Overview: Oneworld alliance partners Qantas, British Airways and Cathay Pacific debuted a new luxury lounge on June 17 for first- and business-class passengers flying out of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. And although the lounge is branded specifically for these three airlines, who footed the bill for this project, the club is actually open to all Oneworld partners. Continue reading