Friday, September 24, 2010

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade - Episode 20

We've been on a bit of a hiatus, we Foodie Girls.   Not that we haven't been eating, mind you.  Far from it.  No one is starving.   I myself was extremely well fed throughout the latter part of August and well into September.   But as a group, we were overdue for a collective dining experience.    I'd like to believe that it was a longing for each others' company that brought out a record number of FGs, old and new, this time around.

But it was the rice pudding.  I can't lie.

Episode 20 - We're Crazy for Lazy Ox

I dial the number.

Highly chipper voice on the other end:  Lazy Ox Canteen!  This is Jennie*!  How can I make your day better?

I am in no way prepared for this.  Do my laundry?  Pick up the kids?  A foot massage? 

Me:  Uh...I'd like a table for six for lunch next week?
HCVOTOE:  Fantastic! We can certainly take care of you!  See you then!
Me:  You can? Um...thanks.  Thanks very much.

I hang up, still in a bit of a daze at the outpouring of apparently genuine solicitude I have experienced from a very "in" restaurant in downtown LA.

The day before our lunch, I call back.  I am nervous, because I am going to be causing a problem for the happy lady.

HCVOTOE:  Lazy Ox Canteen!  This is Jennie*!  How can I make your day better?
Me:  Hi, Jennie! (Stalling for time) I love the way you answer the phone there.  Really.  It's awesome.  Anyway, I have a reservation tomorrow for six.  Is there any way that you could accommodate nine of us?  

I hold the phone slightly away from my ear, wincing in anticipation.

HCVOTOE:  Sure!  That is no problem at all! 
Me:  Wow.  I mean, just wow.   There are no words here.
HCVOTOE:  It's my pleasure!  We can't wait to see all of you tomorrow!

I love Jennie.  Even without the manicure or the ironing I was thinking of having her do.

The following day, we arrive to find our table waiting, three good friends at the bar, and a smiling staff ready for us.   I almost hug the blond at the front desk, but maybe it's not Jennie?  Better not risk getting thrown out when this is so obviously a place we want to stay for a good long time.

The front windows let in a wash of light onto the warm, roughly hewn dark wood walls.  Blackboards above the bar and and in the back list a ton of specials (warm fava beans, fried chicken, pork belly) and wines by the glass.   The room is about half full of downtown types with shirt sleeves rolled up and a few hip people who probably own lofts nearby.    A huge sheet of rustic looking metal hangs on a wall of astroturf, a soft red glow illuminating the stenciled cut out of a sleeping ox.   The vibe is exciting and comforting at the same time. 

Our server fills us in on the chef's specials for lunch:  fried squash blossoms stuffed with burrata,  soft shell crab, a braised breast of veal, and highlights some things on the menu.   Almost every dish has an intriguing ingredient or approach:  Grilled cabbage salad with tarragon.  Poblano chile soup with grapes and crispy pork belly.   Creamy faro with kale and mushrooms.   Caramelized cauliflower with mint.   Pig ear "chicharon".  Pasta ragu with a fried egg on top.    

We order with gusto.   The staff figures out in about two seconds that we are sharing everything**, and brings out the dishes in rounds without our saying a word.   Well done. 

The parade begins with the squash blossoms, and they are genius.  Fried in a delicate batter that almost shatters when it hits your mouth, and oozing with warm, salty cheese, the surprise is the sweet, slightly tangy honey that has been drizzled over them.    I hear groans of happiness up and down the table.    We order more even before the next dish arrives.   

 It's the warm cabbage salad, with a richness that must come from the grilling nicely offset by the pile of tangy tomato and tarragon salsa on top.   Another winner.   The cauliflower is wonderful, too.   It is very reminiscent of the dish we loved at Sunnin, but with the clever addition of pine nuts and mint that heightens the earthy richness of the warm golden brown cauliflower.

The macaroni salad, touted by the waiter, is bland and unremarkable.  We pick at it, but then eagerly turn to the pigs ears.   Salty and crispy and just a tiny bit chewy, with a tasty aioli and a pile of radishes and limes, they are lip-smacking good snack food, and, with the exception of one FG who can't get over their origin, beloved by all.   The soft shell crab special, by contrast, is all batter and almost greasy, and has almost the identical garnishes, along with some soon-to-be-familiar pickled onions.

The poblano soup is a revelation.    Creamy and gorgeous, with a swirl of creme fraiche and a few grapes scattered on top, the vibrant green color belies the smoky heat and rich flavor within.    But our favorite (after those squash blossoms!!!) was the creamy faro.  Prepared risotto style with a savory, meaty broth, bites of bitter kale against rich mushrooms, nutty cheese and the toothsome, hearty grain, it was comfort food to the nth degree.  

The conversation around the table ranges wildly, but the group is in high spirits as the main courses begin to arrive.   These are less thrilling, and generally less successful, as we start to see overkill on some key ingredients.   Pickles that worked in a refreshing barley salad with feta show up yet again in a nearly inedible grilled shrimp pasta with huge pieces of dark nori thrown in, and again in the turkey sandwich.   The turkey sandwich, in turn, has an unwieldy chunk of pork belly between the crispy bacon and the turkey.  What may have seemed like a good idea at the time turned out to be a much better sandwich when the pork belly was removed.  Then the combination of the soft, sweet brioche bun with the rest of the ingredients is delicious. 

A sandwich of the pork belly alone finds no takers, although the side of fries that came with it has friends.   The fried egg looks fantastic on the pasta, but the sauce, and the dish overall, seems like something a home cook could easily make.   The flank steak entree, however, is excellent.   Served over a bed of utterly creamy polenta with a zesty chimchirri sauce and baby zucchini, this fairly common cut is somehow new and interesting in this preparation.   And very, very yummy.

The dishes are pushed aside, and little knots of discussion are going on all around the table.  We are engrossed in catching up, making connections, reminiscing about the squash blossoms (Weren't those amazing!  Oh my god, YES!), etc.    I check my watch and see that an hour and a half has gone by, and we have not had a chance to order dessert.   Which is a problem, because despite all of the gastronomical satisfaction that we have enjoyed thus far (Weren't those squash blossoms incredible?  Oh my god, YES!!) we did not come here for the faro.  Or the cabbage.  Or the cauliflower.  Or the steak.   We came here for dessert.

I quote here from the Culinary SOS column in the LA Times***:

"I've only had rice pudding in college dining halls 10-plus years ago and was never a fan. But last night I had the rice pudding at Lazy Ox Canteen; I think my knees went weak. Could you help me get this recipe? I have been thinking about it for 12 hours straight."

And from a high school guy I know:
"The best rice pudding in the world is at the Lazy Ox Canteen."

I am turning to signal the waiter so we can order some, when he leans over to clear the table and says:

"We have some dessert coming out right now for you.  Hope you enjoy it."  And then several generous bowls of rice pudding are set down in front of us.

Enjoy it?  Enjoy it?!? We f*%#ing LOVED it.   I can't even describe to you how good this dessert is.  Quite possibly one of the most delicious ways to end a meal that I have ever had in my life.   Creamy, sweet, cool, vanilla-y, cinnamon-y, melt-in-your-mouth-y.   With a pool of buttery caramel and a crunchy sugar topping.    Crazy, crazy good.  And it was on the house because that's just how perfect this meal was turning out to be.

Three orders of rice pudding (paid for) to go later, we troop out into the sunshine and hug each other good bye, grinning like idiots from the after-effects of our magical time at the Lazy Ox.

Jennie, how can you make my day better?  My dear, you really can't.  This was the best day I've had in a long long time.

FG final verdict?  Lazy Ox Canteen is ON the List!
Pricing Info:  Smaller plates $6-12, entrees: $15-20
FG value rating:  Fair Deal

* Not her real name, but it's something as cheerful as Jennie, so you get the picture.
** I give them full marks for this, even though it was probably hard not to overhear nine women agreeing loudly that ordering a bunch of stuff to share would be a really good plan.
*** The recipe was printed in the paper here.  Fair warning that a fellow FG has already tried recreating the dish based on this, without even coming close.   But it's probably worth a shot anyway.

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