Café Sierra - Los Angeles

555 Universal Hollywood Drive
Universal City, CA 91608

"Let's go to Vegas!!" "What for?" "You know? Gamble, Drink, BUFFET!!" "BUFFET you say!!" No need to drive all the way to Las Vegas just for a buffet. There actually are better buffets than Hometown Buffet in Southern California.

Café Sierra is located in the Universal City Hilton, directly across the street from Universal Studios. Café Sierra's buffet is a traditional buffett but with an Asian twist to it. The seafood buffet is only available on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The cost of the buffet is $46 which is a tad bit more expensive than an actual Las Vegas buffet but miles closer.

Dim Sum station: har gow, shiu mai, cha sui bao. These items were all skipped to reserve room for the more expensive and less filling items.

Soup Station: A choice of either shark fin soup or a clam chowder. I didn't try the clam chowder, but the shark fin soup was a tasty version.

Pasta Station: Fully aware that pasta is a dish that can fill up the belly, I couldn't pass up the cook to order pasta station. Tell the cook what kind of pasta you would like, the sauce, and what items you would like in the pasta and away he goes.

Sushi Station: I was surprised to see a hand roll station that patrons could choose what veggies, fish, and roe you would like in there. I appreciated the fact that the hand rolls were made to order. Various nigiri and sashimi were available to choose from as well.

Buffet line: Various Chinese dishes such as crispy duck, honey walnut shrimp, jelly fish salad, etc....kalbi short ribs which weren't grilled but not bad. Carving Station: The selection of hand carved meats is similar to what you would find at a Las Vegas buffet. At Café Sierra, they have lamb, some kind of roast beef (which is that large piece of meat pictured on the left), beef ribs, and of course prime rib. I found that the lamb was a bit on the gamey side which is to be expected but a bit too gamey for my liking. The beef was a bit bland and on the dry side. Of the three, the prime rib was my favorite. The prime rib was cooked to a medium and actually wasn't bad for a buffet. One of my plates with an assortment of seafood. Shark fin soup was actually pretty tasty. Salmon and roe handroll and salmon sashimi were both good considering they came from a buffet. The spicy calamari was nicely seasoned and breaded. I didn't care too much for the snail, which was chewy, and baked scallop.
Pictured here is a lobster thermidor that is sliced in half and cooked with mushrooms, cream sauce, and bread crumbs. The lobster was actually better than I expected. My one complaint was that it was a tad too heavy on the cream sauce. But it was good enough for me to eat two of them.
Cold Seafoods: Large mound of endless and bottomless crab legs. This is the bounty that comes off of the Deadliest Catch. Also, in the cold seafood section is unpeeled shrimp and raw oysters.
Dessert Station: The buffet not only has a soft serve machine with various toppings but also has a ice cream fridge. I was surprised to see various flavors of mini Haagen Daaz, strawberry shortcake bars, and Nestlé Drumsticks which happens to be one of my favorite ice creams. I was overly excited when I saw this. They also have all kinds of cakes, fresh fruits, creme brulees, and flan. A white and milk chocolate fountain with various fruits and goodies to marinate with chocolate can also be found. The desserts we tried were all standard, but nothing outstanding.

If you are craving a buffett and you don't feel like driving to Las Vegas, this is the next closest thing to a Las Vegas buffet. I actually thought this buffet is better than most buffets that are found in Las Vegas but it can't beat the Wynn's.


Animal - Los Angeles

435 North Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Chefs: Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo AKA: "The Food Dudes"

UNSUSPECTING - The dictionary defines this word as "not thinking likely or deceiving the unsuspecting public." I would say that this is the perfect word to describe what is going on over at Animal. Unsuspecting in the fact that there is no signage to indicate the restaurant.
Unsuspecting that these two "Food Dudes" are creating such fantastic food. Here's a picture of the inside of the restaurant looking out toward the street. The design of this restaurant is definitely minimal. pork belly, kimchi, peanuts, chili soy, scallions (11)
Take a look at the carmelization and crispiness of that pork belly. The pork belly was nicely cooked with the exterior having an excellent crisp and the interior revealing moist and succulent meat. The kimchi at Animal isn't your typical Korean style kimchi. This version is thinly sliced as opposed to the thicker pieces of cabbage. The chili soy added a extra flavor boost to the pork belly. When the kimchi and the chili soy were eaten together, it was a bit too salty for my liking. But I love that Animal is willing to put out interesting and innvotative dishes that pack tons of flavor.

foie gras, biscuit, maple sausage gravy (22) I WANT MORE!! GIVE ME MORE! This was what I was thinking after just finishing this dish. A perfectly executed lobe of foie gras sits on top of a fluffy biscuit that is swimming in a sweet and savory maple sausage gravy. I would have to rate this dish as one of my favorite dishes I have tasted. The foie gras and the maple sausage gravy went so well together. Foie gras is usually paired with a sweet component of some sort, and at Animal they stayed true to that rule. I think I could have ordered about 3 or 4 more orders of this dish. I just wanted to pick up the plate and lick every last morsel and spot of gravy. I didn't... But I should have...Next time...

flat iron, mash, foie gras sauce, roasted cipollini onions (28)

"You had me at foie gras." What is it about foie gras that makes me want to order it whenever I see it on a menu? This wasn't even a foie gras dish; it was just a foie gras sauce. The flat iron steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare as specified. A tender and flavorful steak that tasted even better with the foie gras sauce. The foie gras sauce itself wasn't what I thought it would be. It had a faint hint of that livery foie gras flavor. The mash potatoes were very smooth, although in my opinion too smooth. Lately, I have been enjoying a little bit of texture or small chunks of potato in my mash. The roasted cippolini onions were cooked perfectly as well. This dish was a meat and pototoes type of dish. A solid and good dish but nothing really outstanding.

tres leches, dulce de leches (7) The tres leches cake was a good but not excellent version. The frosting on top was well done with it not being too sweet but just had the right sweetness. The cake sat on top of a sauce that was similar to caramel. The cake itself was moist as it should be. I would have preferred that it to be soaked a tad bit more with milk to moisten the cake even more.

Animal was just recently nominated by the James Beard Foundation as Semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category. Unsuspecting is no longer the word that would describe Animal. Expect is the new word...as in...you should expect to have a good meal at Animal. This is not a restaurant that has delicate and subtle flavors. The food at Animal is bold and full of flavor. Definitely deserving of a nomination for best new restaurant!


Blue Bottle Coffee - San Francisco

66 Mint Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

If you're a coffee lover and you live in San Francisco, undoubtedly you have heard and most likely have tried Blue Bottle Coffee. At Blue Bottle, they take coffee to a different stratosphere than the Starbucks and other coffee franchises. Coffee to them is not just an art, but it is a science as well. Blue Bottle does artisan microroasting, meaning they take a hands-on approach to their coffee, no matter how inconvenient or time consuming it might be. This philosophy is a true coffee lovers or even food lovers philosophy. Blue Bottle uses only certified organic coffee beans that are sustainable, pesticide free, and shade grown. I had no idea what the "shade grown" meant so I looked it up. It means that the tree is grown slowly, under lush tree canopies, giving them time to ripen, to develop a smooth rich flavor, full of complexities.

All coffees are made to order at Blue Bottle. They don't make their coffee beforehand and let it sit out for a day, half a day, an hour, or even minutes. Each order is brewed right there at the moment you order your coffee. This ensures maximum flavor and freshness. Here is a picture of our Latte. I think I am graduating to other levels of coffee drinking. Latte's no longer cut it for me. Beautiful presentation here but the strength and flavor of the coffee was not there. I don't think it was the barista's fault; it is merely the fact that the latte isn't a coffee drinker's drink because of all that milk.
Two of our individually brewed cups of coffee. I don't claim to be a coffee connoisseur, but this coffee had strong but clean flavor to it. Bad coffees are either way too weak tasting or are very strong and leave a bitter taste in your mouth. The cups we drank at Blue Bottle had a good strength and a smooth finish.
This interesting contraption is where the sugar and cream are housed. The bottom part can be removed to reveal the sugar and the top portion with the spout dispenses the cream.
Here is a picture of the siphon bar where the science experiments are conducted. No science experiments but one would think so by looking at it. This machine is rumored to cost $20,000. Halogen lights are used to heat up the coffee and a siphon is used to extract. It is a simple yet complex process that yields a perfect cup of coffee. We'll have to try this on our next trip. A small pot of coffee from the siphon bar will set you back about $11.

Click on this link to watch the siphon bar in action.

We may not be coffee connoisseurs but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate a good cup of coffee when we drink it. After having the coffee a few times at Blue Bottle, I think that my standards and my appreciation for coffee has been heightened. Next time you're in San Francisco make sure to stop by the kiosk at the Farmers Market or the cafe on Mint Street to sample some of these caffeinated creations.


Ladurée - Geneva, Switzerland

7, Cours de Rive
1204 Geneva

My very first macarons that I've ever tried were from Ladurée (brought over from Paris thanks to my cousin), and ever since, I've been on the quest for ones in the US similar to these heavenly Parisian round cakes. And finally! I got to experience these delicacies once again (and once again, they were brought over from France! Geez, I should really go to Paris myself and enjoy these macarons while strolling down the Seine).

Anyway, my dad just returned from shooting a wedding in Geneva, Switzerland, and I had given him Ladurée's address and a list of flavors. It was quite thrilling opening up the light green box again after so many years.
These round cakes are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside with a smooth and soft filling. Bakers at Ladurée's "laboratory" make the macarons every morning, but set them aside for 2 days before selling them to achieve the perfect balance between texture and flavor.

Ingredients include the precise amounts of almonds, eggs, and sugar. There are permanent popular flavors available (ie. chocolate and salted butter caramel), as well as seasonal flavors and temporary creations (ie. ice mint, apricot ginger, white amber).
The caramel au buerre salé (salted butter caramel) was a delight! When I took a bite, I just closed my eyes while I tried to savor every taste. The filling was so buttery and just melted in my mouth. This macaron has just the perfect balance of the salt, butter and caramel. My most memorable yet!

The pistache (pistachio) macaron was equally good in having the perfect taste and texture.
The cacao amer (dark chocolate) is light and bittersweet. The ganache filling was so smooth and not too sweet. As for the framboise (raspberry) and fruits rouges, I could tell they used real fruit that was fresh and not too overly sweet. I was even chewing on the fruit seeds. Not as impressive as the caramel macaron, but nonetheless, very delicious.
My dad bought these a day before his flight so that means it was probably about 3-4 days since these macarons were made. What I like about these macarons, is that they are crispy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. I'm not sure if the extra day made a difference in the crispiness. But nevertheless, the macarons still tasted perfect and I enjoyed every single bite!


SPQR - San Francisco

1911 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA
(Pacific Heights/Fillmore District: Between Bush & Pine St.)

SPQR is the Latin acronym for Senatus Populusque Romanus ("The Senate and People of Rome"). The restaurant is tucked in the Fillmore District and occupies a quaint and small space. You can't take reservations, so come early and put your name down. Then, shop at the nearby stores while you wait. (We came around 6pm and had to wait 45 minutes. By 8:00pm, the wait was almost 2 hours).

SPQR features comfort food-style plates, specializing in Roman Italian cuisine. They offer 3 antipasti for $21 or 1 for $8 each. But we ordered 2 antipasti dishes, saving our appetite for the mains. Like their sister restaurant A16, SPQR uses organic and seasonal ingredients. While we were lunching at A16, the waitress informed us that the pasta at SPQR is FRESHLY DRIED PASTA. Yes, I meant what I just typed and it seems as though it is an oxymoron. Every night they make the pasta for the next day, using a process that makes the pasta like play-doh. Hence, the FRESHLY DRIED PASTA. Potatoes with pancetta, fried chiles and pecorino (8)
This is one of the BEST dishes I've ever had. It was just so simple yet amazingly tasty! I just could not get enough of these perfectly roasted potatoes that had a hint of lemon juice, which was the hook that drew me into this dish. The pancetta and pecorino also added flavor to the potatoes. However, the chiles were pretty mild as I couldn't taste any spiciness really. Nonetheless, I continuously commented at how wonderfully delicious this dish was - even til the last bite, even til the end of the meal.

House-made pork sausage with braised fennel (8) In all honesty, for some reason, I can't really remember much about this dish. I do remember it being a good dish but not outstanding. I remembered that I liked it better than the fried meatball dish. I have to start taking notes when I go out to eat...

Fried beef meatballs, dandelion greens, & chiles w/ borlotti bean bruschetta (15)
This is one of the few dishes that we didn't enjoy as much as the others. For some reason, I was thinking more of a traditional meatball with a red sauce. I felt that the frying took away from the flavor of the meatball. Didn't really enjoy the borlotti bean bruschetta which was like mexican refried beans. This dish wasn't a bad dish, but it just wasn't on par with the rest of the dishes that we had that night.

Spaghetti Amatriciana- Guanciale, tomatoes, red onions, pecorino & chiles (14)
So this is what freshly dried pasta tastes like. At SPQR, you choose the sauce preparation and then you have the choice of either spaghetti or rigatoni. Eating freshly made pasta is so different from eating dried pasta. It's all about the texture of the pasta. The dish was so simple yet so satisfying and delicious.

Almond-milk granita with espresso crema (7.5)
After a meal that was a tad on the heavy side, we perused the menu for a dessert that would be light and not too rich. My eyes immediately gravitated to the almond milk granita. This dessert was like eating almond milk flavored snow that had just fallen from the sky. The espresso crema added an interesting flavor that contrasted the almond milk, giving the dessert an added depth to it.

Imagine it being 75 B.C. and the citizens of Rome are sitting at the steps of St. Peter's Square. These are the types of dishes I imagine them eating. SPQR is not a restaurant that is subtle or delicate in their seasoning of their dishes. This place is all about flavor. The Senate, the People of Rome and We have spoken and We all agree that SPQR is definitely worth a visit and to be enjoyed by All. But don't go there hungry because the wait is not a short one.