Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Best Bites #3-99 Problems But A Knish Ain't One

I wore hot pink shoes. THAT’S how excited I was to eat at Umamicatessen.

It was a throwback night. A celebratory, take-the-train-into-downtown with a beloved friend, wear shoes that will leave scars but know you will have enough cocktails to not feel them form as it happens, night.

Umamicatessen is five different restaurant “concepts,” all served in one dining experience. In essence, upon being seated, you have five different cuisines available. The gloriously spastic mentality that brought us the suburban mall food court has been movin’ on up.

Umami Burger is just one planet of possibility orbiting your table. There was a veggie burger eaten at our table, courtesy of the Umami sector. PIGG, the contribution from the famed Chris Cosentino brings you 100% lard-fried “pork corn,” and the hearty long-cooked Iberico pork ribs with olives that I chose from the nights list of specials. The bakery in residence, called And a Donut served up the carrot cake cream cheese donut I had, and was the provider of a pre-ban foie gras donut in whose honor many goosey gushing words have been penned.

But here’s the thing.

It’s kind of a thing about me, mostly a thing about Umamicatessen, and a bit of a thing about restaurants in general. The part which relates to me (can you keep a secret?) is that I absolutely HATE to write bad reviews. I feel that I am of most use to the people that read this blog when I can tell you all where to go, what to have, and what makes that particular bite of food SPEC-tacular. I have no interest in being a shrill Yelp-er, somehow blaming the restaurant I have chosen for the catalog of life’s ills that those type of reviews often reference. I would rather be pro-active, and lead to you to the good, than re-active, and emphasize the bad. And in my years writing here, I have almost never had to worry about writing in the negative, because I have been blessed with fantastic food.

But I am allowed to do that, because that is the nature of our relationship. Los Angeles is blessed with a handful of extremely talented restaurant reviewers. They are poetic, they are knowledgeable, and they will tell you when something wicked this way comes. In very very very articulate ways.

That being said, I cannot let my night at Umamicatessen be discussed and then archived without telling the whole truth. Our service was abysmal, and I was largely disappointed with everything that I ate. If there are points to be given for honesty, when our server told us that he had forgotten to put in our order for 30 minutes, and the kitchen was now out of what we had selected, I gladly give them those points. It happens. NBD. But I am inclined to take them right back because the correction for this (completely understandable) error was for the kitchen to grace us with a dish of “mocha” soft serve.

I am no stranger to mocha, nor he to I. I adore coffee, live for days on chocolate, and when the two are joined in holy fatrimony within the vessel of a creamy frozen treat, I am indescribably pleased. This “mocha,” however, will forever remain imprisoned in quotes, because as the love child of coffee and chocolate, it somehow tasted of neither. If I had to assess an adjective to this frozen atonement, upon penalty of death, I could really only say that it was cold. So thumbs up on that.

Human error is forgivable. “Mocha” abuse is not.

We had a donut. If a donut is on the menu, I’m eating it. But if this blog were a fashion show hosted by Joan (and daughter) Rivers, she might bitterly say that this particular specimen is a definite doNOT. A dehydrated urinal cake of a thing, it too chose to abandon every life boat sent for it in its own description. The chewy texture of carrot, the moisture it imparts, the lovely warmth of cinnamon, and the chance to include several brightly sweet raisins were wasted. In fact, they were simply not there. It made me hope that this one was perhaps the very last one to be made for the night, with remaining scraps of dough, and given a bit of accidental overtime in the fryer, spicing forgotten. That would be more heartening than to know that this is the Carrot Cake Donut that each person who orders it receives.

The meal stretched on about an hour longer than necessary, mainly because of orders not fired, and additional orders placed because what we had chosen, when it did eventually turn up, was ultimately unsatisfying. My friend had an Earth Burger from the menu, but it was nearly impossible to eat, as it instantly abandoned any half-hearted shape, and instead opted to become a sort of loose pile of mushroom and edamame on her plate with every attempted bite. The “pork corn,” fried in lard for the benefit of almost no flavor payoff at all, was exactly as good as any popcorn ever is, and no better. Crunchy and warm, and tossed with (a bit soapy) rosemary, but sorrowfully unspecial.

I had gone to Umamicatessen because I have always wanted to eat Chris Cosentino’s food. And I do enjoy an Umami burger. And I had heard so much about the foie gras donuts (no longer available-banned, I tell ya!). But in the end, through a last minute impulse order from The Cure, the restaurants Deli component, there was an astounding find.

A platter of innocent looking, cherubic little dumplings. Not much to look at, just a little family of diminutive browned lumps. And yet, within these mini potato knishes, lies the secret to textural happiness. Balance is beautiful, and the luxuriously smooth featherweight potato insides are the perfect counterpart to it’s outer shield of brown dough. And a tiny pot of whole grain mustard to dip them in. Between the tang and seed of the wildly freeform mustard, and the soft perfection of the knishes wearing it, this is a perfectly executed dish. It made me wish that I had simply sat down, ordered 5 servings of them, and called it a night.

I understand the irony of finding a Best Bite among the ashes of one of the worst dining experiences I have had, but that is sometimes true of food. I had a chicken fried steak in Middle-Of-Nowhere Texas a while ago, and it was everything you could ever convince anyone to slide onto a half-stuffed stool at a countertop for. That’s the adventure part of it. If you go in knowing all the answers, you’ll miss all the tiny tasty surprise parties that life wants to throw you. In a magnificent meatball, a sublime strawberry pie, and yes, even a knice little knish.


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