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One of the strange coincidences in my life has been the complete lack of exposure to the famous culinary duo of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, otherwise known as the "Too Hot Tamales" of Food Network fame. I've never seen an episode of that show, and when I was curious about it, it was no longer on air. Even growing up in L.A., I've never had the chance to visit any of their restaurants, but I've been meaning to try their famous Border Grill due to all the positive feedback by numerous people.
So when early buzz started to build about a new restaurant from half of the Too Hot Tamales duo - and that it was going to focus on Street Food from around the world - I was hooked and excited to try Susan Feniger's STREET as soon as it opened. :) It's a brilliant concept - presenting Street Food from around the world, all on one menu - and not having had any of Chef Feniger's cooking before, I wasn't sure if it would be traditional or fusion or modern updates on the classics. For STREET, Chef Feniger has teamed up with Chef Kajsa Alger to develop the entire menu.
From the moment you approach the building, it's very clear that the vibe is supposed to be relaxed and laid back, and the stick figure-like drawings and odd road signs add to the fun factor. It's charming and my excitement only grew.
On our first visit, we arrive 20 minutes early, and the restaurant is jam-packed already. It's loud, but not overbearingly so, and we decide to try some of their signature cocktails at the bar: Jerusalem's Between The Sheets (Plymouth Dry Gin, Cognac, Cointreau, Lemon Juice). This is described as "not quite an American Side Car, but close. From... the King David Hotel, circa 1925." It's fragrant, citrusy but just a touch too much Gin for my tastes, overpowering everything else.
We end up getting seated soon after the drinks arrive, a few minutes before our reservation time. Perusing their menu, all of the items sound like they have potential, but my eyes get drawn to the cutely named "Globe Trot" Tasting Menu option, where the menu charms the customer with this description: "Relax and enjoy a journey around the streets of the world with selections chosen by our chef for your entire table." (^_^) We decide to order the Globe Trot and we eagerly await the journey.
But before we could begin our journey, we're "held up in customs" so to speak: Our first dish didn't arrive for another 30 minutes from the time we ordered it. But it was only their second day of being open to the public, so I didn't mind.
The first dish for the Globe Trot is from their Tea Cakes & Dumplings section of the menu: Indian Vada Dumplings (Crispy Dal Fritters topped with Yogurt Sauce, Mint Sauce and Tamarind Date Chutney).
The Dumplings themselves are made out of Lentils, and visually it looks like this would be some beautiful, crispy treat, but unfortunately each Dumpling is rather dry and mealy. The fresh Mint Sauce and Date Chutney are nicely done, adding some classic flavors, but they couldn't save the doughy, lukewarm Dumplings.
The second course took another 30 minutes before it arrived: Cantonese White Radish Cake (with Chinese Sausage, topped with a Fried Egg, served with Soy Sauce and Garlic Chile Paste).
This is essentially Susan Feniger's interpretation of the classic Dim Sum dish, Luo Bo Gao (Pan-Seared White Radish Cake). As aforementioned, I've never had a chance to try any of Chef Feniger's cooking before, so I was curious if this dish would be traditional or fusion, etc. The first thing my guest (a devoted Asian Cuisine Hound) and I notice is that the portion is about half of a normal Luo Bo Gao order at most Dim Sum restaurants around town, but the most important thing is the taste, so we gently take a bite.
And it's a decent version of a *traditional* Cantonese Luo Bo Gao; there's nothing in the Cake itself that really sets it apart from the traditional versions. We break the Egg Yolk and dip some of the White Radish Cake into it (non-traditional), but it doesn't really add enough to the flavor profile to separate it from the classic version (but there's nothing wrong with that).
Our *fourth* course arrives about 20 minutes after this one, with our server innocently asking us how we enjoyed our Korean Rice Salad (the supposed third course), to which we mention that we never received it. Our server apologizes and quickly goes back to the kitchen to inform them of the forgotten third course of our Tasting Menu.
The fourth course turns out to be: Spicy Peanut Noodles with Vegetables (Flat Rice Noodles tossed with Long Beans, Eggplant, Carrot, Zucchini, Egg and Tofu in a Toasted Sesame Peanut Sauce).
This is STREET's version of Pad Thai Noodles. The Noodles unfortunately are extremely overcooked - having the consistency of mush when you bite down into it - but the actual Toasted Sesame Peanut Sauce is delicious. There are some clean, nutty flavors shining here, but the overcooked Noodles really take away from the final dish.
Besides that, with the abundance of Thai restaurants in the area (and throughout the Southland), STREET has some tough competition. As a point of comparison, Palm's Thai and Thai Nakorn's version of Pad Thai far surpass this one, and they're not even the best in the city. Like the Cantonese Radish Cake dish before this, this version of Pad Thai turns out to be leaning towards the traditional side of interpretation.
Our forgotten third course thankfully arrives soon after - only about 10 minutes later - and it turns out to be: Korean Rice Salad (Fried Egg atop Chopped Lettuce, Brown Rice, Soybean Sprouts, Enoki Mushrooms, Nori, Daikon Radish, Tofu and Sunflower Seeds in a Spicy Sweet Sesame Dressing).
This tasted unlike anything I've had before at Korean restaurants around town - which may be a good thing in that the kitchen is trying out their own unique interpretation of Namul (traditional Korean side dishes) in a more salad-like form. It's lightly-seasoned and refreshing, but just a touch too disparate for my tastes.
The fifth and final course of the Globe Trot is their Egyptian Style Baked Fish (with Roasted Lemons and Sea Salt. Served with Roasted Pepper Sauce, Braised Greens and Kushary (an Egyptian Street Food of Spiced Rice, Lentil and Macaroni)).
The fish this evening is Arctic Char, which unfortunately is badly overcooked, being very dry and rather plain (salt and black pepper). However, Chef Feniger's version of Kushary was wonderful and a beautiful flavor festival that my guest and I were hoping to have with every dish. Mixing the Rice, Lentils and Macaroni with the Roasted Pepper Sauce results in a genuine, nutty, earthiness that takes my tastebuds to a much more interesting place than what preceded it. I've become a fan of this Egyptian dish and I can't wait to try more Kushary (Kushari) in the future. :)
At this point, while my guest was hesitant, I insisted that we try the now infamous Beef Pho (Rich Vietnamese Beef Broth spiced with Star Anise, Cinammon and Black Cardamom over Vermicelli Noodles, Braised Beef and Asian Basil) dish at STREET. This dish has been the subject of extensive debates due to its rather high price point in comparison to what can be had around town. But I wanted to give Chef Feniger the benefit of the doubt and see what kind of interpretation would arise out of this.
Like the Cantonese Radish Cake dish, the portion size for this Beef Pho dish was a little surprising: It arrives in a small soup bowl, about one-half to one-third the size of normal orders of Pho around town, at 3 times the price. But again, it's really about the taste and interpretation, so I eagerly took a sip...
Ouch. (>_<) Like Rameniac says, I really don't like writing something negative about a dish or restaurant because it's someone's livelihood, but STREET's version of Beef Pho is just... bad. :( There's no other way to say it: The core of what makes great Pho is the Broth - the clearer and more translucent, the better. The purity and soul of a great Pho Broth is something to be treasured and places like Pho Minh, Pho Hien and Pho Hien Mai in the early days are stellar examples of this. The broth here at STREET is murky, overly salty and really plain. There's some notes of Star Anise and Cinammon, but it's mainly Salt Water that dominates the broth. :(
The Beef used in this Pho tastes like quick-cooked Beef Brisket, with no noticeable increase in quality of Beef. In fact the Beef was a bit undercooked (not stewed long enough) and noticeably chunky / chewy. The Noodles are not the traditional Pho Noodles, but instead a very thick Vermicelli Noodle, which is OK, but also throws off the normal association of what "Pho" is. The price doesn't bother me that much ($16 for a bowl that's 1/2 to 1/3 the size of a typical bowl of Pho around town for ~$5), but it's the disappointing flavors of the bad Pho Broth and undercooked Beef.
At this point, my guest is begging me to share in a dessert to wash out the aftertaste of the last dish, so we decide to try their Egyptian Basbousa Cake (Lime Soaked Semolina Cake with Macerated Blueberries, Lime Curd and Whipped Cream).
The Egyptian Basbousa Cake has a beautiful, clean citrus tone that permeates each bite - very refreshing - but it's just a bit too sweet. The Lime Curd helps to cut into it a bit, but after a few bites the whole dessert becomes too cloying.
By all accounts, there were so many underwhelming aspects that I'd be hard-pressed to go back, but I really wanted to see if it was the recipes or just a matter of the opening jitters and the full capacity / busy kitchen rushing certain items.
For the second visit, the kitchen has just opened, and there's some minor repairs going on in one corner of the restaurant. It's a beautiful day, and the restaurant takes on a different feel with the natural lighting pouring in.
The kitchen starts off each table with an amuse-bouche of Susan Feniger's version of a Rice Crispy Treat: Millet Seed Puffs, with Curry, Fennel, Marshmallow, Coriander, Blackcurrant and Cumin.
It is an *explosion* of flavors that challenges your taste buds! It's at once both sweet and herbally and savory. This amuse-bouche makes you feel like your tastebuds took a flight through the Middle East and India with each bite. *This* is the type of excitement that my guest and I were always hoping STREET would deliver.
Their Sanbitter Sunburst (Lemonade of Italian Aperitif Bitters and Citrus Juices) is at once beautiful and extremely intense with a wave of Grapefruit, Orange Juice and other citrus fruits blended to make a perfect refreshment for any citrus-lovers out there.
The Kaya Toast ("a uniquely Singapore experience" with Toasted Bread spread thick with Coconut Jam; served with a Soft Boiled Egg drizzled with Dark Soy and White Pepper) comes highly recommended by our server.
The Toasted Bread with Coconut Jam by itself is rather basic: The Coconut Jam makes the Bread taste like a simple offering from one of the many Asian bakeries around town - a very sweet jam-like pastry.
But dipping the bread in the Soft Boiled Egg (breaking the Yolk) and Dark Soy and White Pepper (with fresh Watercress), the dish is completely transformed: It's a delicious pairing of sweet and savory, subtle notes of Coconut mixed with creamy, gooey Soft Boiled Egg Yolk and a touch of Soy Sauce, and then the lush, fragrant Watercress. Excellent! :)
The Mung Bean Pancakes (griddled with Anise glazed Pork Belly, Scallions and Kimchi; with Hot Mustard Sauce) arrives soon after. This is STREET's version of the Korean Pajeon pancake dish. This is one dish that benefits from the smaller portion in that the kitchen is able to maintain a delightful crispy crust with every section of this Mung Bean Pancake (unlike some gigantic Pajeon where it falls apart and isn't cooked all the way through, getting soggy).
There's a tartness to this dish that's slightly off-putting, but when mixed with the Chinese Hot Mustard Sauce (definitely signs of an original interpretation of the traditional classic), the pairing works and the Hot Mustard helps to elevate this dish beyond the mundane (along with the good crispiness throughout).
The New Jerusalem Bread Salad (Chopped Salad with Jerusalem Artichoke, Persian Cucumber, Tomato, Feta, Parsley Leaves and Greens; tossed with Cumin Toasted Olive Bread, drizzled with warm Sumac Oil and Fresh Lemon) turns out to be a solid Greek Salad with a twist.
The Jerusalem Artichoke provides a nice texture contrast with the softer salad greens, and the toasted Cumin Olive Bread is a real attention grabber, with the mesmerizing scent that only Cumin can provide poking through when you bite into portions of the salad with the bread.
The one negative is that there's just too much Fresh Lemon Juice in the salad and it really dominates the flavors at times. If it was just a touch less tart, and a little less dressed, then this Salad would be perfect.
The Massamun Chicken Curry (Traditional Southern Thai Curry with Chicken, Red Yam and Mushrooms simmered in Coconut Milk and Spices of Muslim Indian influence) also strays from the authentic / traditional angle, but still works well.
This is much milder than the traditional version, but also a bit smoother, with a smart choice to use Red Yams (to add a good mellow earthiness and light sweetness). Chef Feniger's choice to serve this atop Thai Sticky Rice gives this dish a very filling / complete aspect to it, compared to the other dishes. It works with the Massamun Curry, but I prefer Jasmine Rice in this case.
The Turkish Zucchini Spinach Cake (in Puff Pastry with fresh Thyme and warm Feta, served with Roasted Pepper Sauce) is another winner.
The Spinach and Zucchini and Feta all combine into this moist, mild, tender core to the Puff Pastry, which is just buttery goodness. :) It's well-restrained, but the key is taking a bite with the absolutely stunning (visually and taste-wise) Roasted Pepper Sauce, which has a hauntingly good quality about it, lightly herbal, smoky and spicy. Delicious!
Another dish that comes highly recommended by our server is the Lebanese Za'atar Skewers (Marinated Lamb Kofta dusted with Za'atar Spice Mix and served over Toasted Lavash with Oven Roasted Eggplant, Kirmizi Biber Chile marinated Tomatoes, Cucumber Lebni Yogurt and Chopped Harissa Eggs).
The Lamb Skewers are completely delicious! :) Moist and juicy, bursting with a wild spirit from the Za'atar Spice Mix and the inherent Lamb flavor itself (almost like Mutton). As if that wasn't good enough, when eaten with the mixture of the Eggplant, Cucumber Yogurt and especially the Harissa Eggs with a bit of the Lavash bread... Wow! It's a bit of tart, the creamy, then the beautiful Harissa Eggs add a luscious exotic element. It's interesting and engaging and something I hope the rest of the menu can attain. Excellent! :)
Finally, their Stir Fried Noodles with Shrimp (Wok Fried Egg Noodles with Shrimp, Pork Belly, Chinese Broccoli and Choy Sum Greens) arrives soon after.
This seems to be STREET's interpretation of classic Hong Kong / Cantonese Chow Mein, except with a very thick, too doughy Egg Noodle. The problem with this dish is two-fold: The really thick, doughy Egg Noodles make the dish unpleasant to eat (at times it tastes like you're eating uncooked pasta), and it's much too sour(!), due to the addition of Orange Juice. I'm all for innovation, but in this case, Orange Juice + Oyster Sauce + Soy Sauce just doesn't equal tastiness. It's also unfortunate that the Pork Belly is diced up into tiny little chunks, and the tart sauce is so overpowering that you can't appreciate the Pork Belly or Shrimp for that matter. This isn't something I'd order again. (And for those that are curious, this is $18 for a Shrimp Chow Mein that's half the portion size of the regular dish found around town.)
STREET has just received their stock of Teas (17 different Teas in total), so I tried their Kokeicha (Japan), made from powdered Sencha rinsed in Rice Water, then pressed through thin molds.
This sounded intriguing, and I happily awaited the Kokeicha... unfortunately it tasted slightly musty and flat. I'm hoping it's just a bad batch of leaves.
Susan Feniger's STREET has only just opened, but on my two visits, the service has been wildly inconsistent, from the first night's 30 minutes between courses, to sitting without drink refills for 15-20 minutes at a time (and our server nowhere to be found), to the second visit's excellent service from a different server, who came to check on every table in her station consistently and periodically (while being really upbeat and spirited).
One other aspect that I have to mention is the hope that their dishwashing service improves. There were noticeable examples of dirty silverware and one dirty cup and two dirty plates that we encountered during our visits.
The prices are probably the biggest point of contention amongst everyone at this time: Prices range from $6 - $32 for "street food" (their full spectrum of dishes), and $35 for the Globe Trot Tasting Menu.
As to whether a foodie in L.A. wants to pay $16 for a bowl of Susan Feniger's Beef Pho (which is 300% the cost of a regular bowl of Pho found commonly throughout some portions of So Cal, and only about 1/2 the portion size) is up to the individual. The same problem will probably arise when a foodie sees the Cantonese White Radish Cake (Luo Bo Gao) for $7 when they can get a version of this dish with twice the portion for only $1.88 at most Dim Sum restaurants around town. Value is all relative: For some, paying $19.95 for All-You-Can-Eat Sushi at a simple Todai restaurant is sufficient. For them, is Urasawa really worth 27 TIMES the price ($550 per person) of what they normally pay? Only each individual can really answer that question. The sticker shock kind of reminds me of one visit I had to the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas: We ran across their NOODLES restaurant, and were stunned to see basic Cantonese / Hong Kong style dishes like Wonton Noodle Soup for $17, or Fried Rice dishes for $18, etc.
But in the case of Susan Feniger's STREET, I think the problem is more with the actual quality and flavor of certain dishes: I wouldn't order their Beef Pho again, not because it's $16 (well, partially :), but because their Pho Broth is just downright disappointingly bad (against better judgement I tried the Pho a second time and it was no better). The same for their Stir Fried Noodles with Shrimp: The $18 is a bit extreme, but for me, it's because Orange Juice and Chow Mein don't go together for my tastebuds. It's just too tart and the noodles are too doughy; the execution has failed.
Susan Feniger's STREET is a fascinating concept that's partially realized: Giving customers a chance to experience Street Food from around the world in a relaxed setting. The concept is great, the space is charming, the staff is mostly great, but ultimately it's about the food, and the food isn't all there yet. There are flashes of brilliance and some great dishes like the Lebanese Lamb Za'atar Skewers and the Turkish Zucchini Spinach Cake, where the flavors are so engaging and interesting that it makes the entire meal almost worth it, but then there are dishes that feel very flat and mundane, like the Beef Pho and Cantonese White Radish Cake. Taking on the entire world's various cuisines is an enormous challenge and most restaurants are lucky to get just *one* cuisine executed right, let alone multiple cuisines from around the world that are drastically different. I'm holding out hope that in the coming weeks, Susan Feniger and staff can wrangle and fine-tune the recipes for the weaker dishes and bring them up to the level of their standouts. If they can do that, then STREET is one location that'll be worth a drive to no matter where you are in L.A.
*** Rating: 6.9 (out of 10.0) ***
Susan Feniger's STREET
742 North Highland
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tel: (323) 203-0500
Hours: 7 Days A Week, 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.
(Eventually) [Brunch] Sunday, 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
742 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90038