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Back Buzz - February 24, 2003

pumping heartCafe Pinot, 700 West Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA USA

Before I start this month's column I want to mention an e-mail I received recently. Paul from Seattle has recommended three places for expresso:

"I know you don't get to the north end often, but try Cloud City Coffee on Roosevelt in the Maple Leaf neighborhood [8801 Roosevelt Way NE]. They use this little roaster from Ballard called True North. Also, believe it or not, I found great shots from a parking lot stand. The place in the Ballard Market parking lot is fantastic; the guy uses Lavazza, pulls a great shot....finally, try the Diva Espresso in Wallingford if Jennifer is working. She works mornings, probably is out of there by 10am, but she's one of the best baristas in town. (Note that Diva has dropped Batdorf & Bronson, I'm not sure who they've switched to.)"

And now back to Los Angeles. A few months ago I took the Blue Line up to downtown LA to meet an old friend I hadn't seen for years. Since Kimmer and I had planned to go to an exhibit at the Los Angeles Central Library we first stopped for an espresso at Cafe Pinot, located next to the library on 5th between Flower and Grand. This California-French restaurant features a heated patio and offers a nice view of the Downtown skyline, which I've been told is especially stunning at night. Open weekdays for lunch and every day for dinner, the restaurant features a take-out window on one side and seems to be popular with local office workers and suits. We sat at a table near the entrance, ordered our drinks, and proceeded to catch up on our respective lives since the early 1980s, when we had been best friends in Long Beach. This was a perfect setting for meeting an old friend you haven't seen at all for 15 years and haven't spent time with for 23 years. My, how time flies when you're living your life, moving here and there, getting married and divorced and working and playing and eating and sleeping, not to mention all those countless cappuccinos, macchiatos, and espressos...yes, that's a whole lot of catching up to do.

So what better place to start than with a couple of cappuccinos at Cafe Pinot? For Number 1 in a series our cappuccinos didn't exactly inspire us to heights of creative and inspirational rapture we would have favoured for a proper nostalgic retrospective. They were perfectly okay, mind you -- and the foam was velvety and pleasant -- but the shots were a bit too smooth for our liking: no surprises here. But Cafe Pinot definitely receives an A for presentation, as the cups were of a wonderfully smooth, seductive Italian shape and weight and decorated with a pleasing graphic design.

Since the cafe is basically a restaurant we felt a bit awkward ordering only cappuccinos at lunchtime, and waiters kept appearing to foist lunch menus upon us. What's with all this food that is constantly shoved at you whenever you want to go out for an espresso or a beer in Southern California? I mean, did we look like we were hungry? For art, certainly, but we were about to go satiate ourselves on a delightful exhibit of Pop-Up Books Through History. And the Los Angeles Central Library is an artistic and architectural feast in itself, with the Petropoulos ceiling mural in the main lobby merely an appetizer for the impromptu walking tour of LA's historic architecture of which we partook after our library visit, taking in the historic Grand Central Market -- LA's oldest and largest open-air market -- and culminating in the lobby of the spectacular Bradbury Building.

In case you're wondering, we did finally have lunch: tasty chile relleno platters from one of the stands in the Grand Central Market, which was a much cheaper and simpler option than perhaps a fish, chicken, duck, or lamb entree at Cafe Pinot. And much more suitable for a vegetarian like myself.

I was reminded of my first visit to the Grand Central Market several years ago with my brother, after we took a ride on the currently closed Angels Flight funicular. We passed by many food vendors offering a wide variety of Latin American and Asian options. As we walked by the butcher counter on the northern wall, past vast displays of the many edible parts of a pig, including the head, I heard my semi-vegetarian brother whimper "Babe!" ever so softly and sadly. Ah, well, what's a vegetarian to do?

Speaking of vegetarians and edible animal parts reminds me of an e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from two and a half years ago:

The young web development wizard who lives in Apartment 1 invited the other tenants on "our side" to a barbecue this evening. He bought a house a block away, and this may be about the last I see of him.

What impressed me was his bartending skills. As you and I have discussed, it's rare to meet someone who drinks hard liquor. Perhaps a single malt enthusiast or margarita fan, but who demands fresh mixed drinks these days? My neighbour told me that he ran a bar where he worked for over a year. His bar was stocked with some premium spirits -- Bombay Sapphire, Absolut Citron, dark rum (not Myers's, alas), and aged 100 proof bourbon. He had sliced lots of fresh lemon, and his bar was untainted by bottled mixers. And the table was set with glass -- wine glasses, pint glasses, highballs, martini glasses and a shot glass. Although I had brought my own pale ale along with some fresh hot salsa, once I realized that he was earnest about mixing things, I decided to taste his "signature drink" -- a "lemon drop." It included Triple Sec, fresh lemon, and Citron, and was served in a martini glass with sugar on the rim. The overall effect was a lively taste of lemon, neither sour nor sweet, probably owing a lot to the Absolut.

Being a vegetarian, he provided only vegetable kebabs and slabs of "Veat" in a shape imitating a filleted chicken breast with a bulge like an attached leg. I felt I had to give that a try, and it was okay. He claimed he really liked the stuff, in part because it held up on a grill a lot better than tofu. He found fault only in the fact that the makers alluded to meat, both in the name and the appearance. But why stop at simulating chicken, I thought. If this stuff appeals to vegetarians who would really rather be eating meat, let them indulge in feline or cannibalistic fantasies with textured vegetable protein in the shape of, say, a rat or a human hand. Why be limited to humans and animals -- why not create your own creatures? Wouldn't it be fun to invite your vegetarian friends over for a meal and serve vegetarian versions of Blackened Roadkill or Grilled Extraterrestrial? How about an appropriate Chicken Kiev, a whole roast vegetarian chicken with six legs, seven wings, and several large tumours? Or Escargots De L'Amour, an attractive appetizer of a dozen vegetarian snails connected in a chain of sexual union?

Mmmm, when's dinner?

On the same subject, here's a more recent e-mail exchange:

The world just keeps getting stranger. In yesterday's London Times I read that scientists are currently growing their own fish fingers in laboratories. They're planning to actually grow their own meat and fish from little scraps of flesh, reducing the need to slaughter animals. Is this strange or what?

Speaking of alternative food sources, have you ever eaten Quorn? According to an NPR news report I heard Friday, it's the most popular meat substitute in England. As I listened to this report I began to think I was listening to their annual April Fools topic, but that's still a week or so off. The stuff is made from a fungus and it's about to debut in the U.S. But some people oppose its introduction without extensive testing for allergic reactions. One mycologist interviewed for the report said that the fungus in question was about as closely related to mushrooms are human beings are to jellyfish.

Since you're not fond of the taste of meat, I know that meat substitutes wouldn't have any appeal, but have you even heard of the stuff? Quorn is very popular in England. I never ate meat substitutes in the States because I much preferred my own vegetarian cooking, made with fresh ingredients and no hard-to-pronounce additives. But since my partner who cooks all the meals is such a devout meat-eater he always feels like he should cook me a piece of salmon or trout whenever he's having a pork chop or chicken escallop or whatever. And since my system is simply not used to eating fish seven days a week, I soon discovered all the vegetarian meat-ish substitutes as an alternative. I'd hate the ones that taste like authentic beef or pork, of course -- but most of them don't taste anything like meat.

I do like Quorn Fillets, which are chicken-breast-like fillets usually seasoned with a crunchy herb-and-garlic-seasoned coating, and you can bake them or grill them. And there's also a Quorn Roast, which is like a big turkey roll which you can slice thinly, making it good for sandwiches as well as the traditional English Sunday Roast, which every meat-eating English person (including previously-mentioned carnivore) loves. As you probably recall the English roast features slices of roast pork, lamb, beef, or chicken, with roasted potatoes, roasted vegetables such as parsnips and carrots and onions and swede, steamed cabbage and peas and broccoli and cauliflower, Yorkshire puddings, and gravy (vegetarian on Quorn) poured over it all.

I think most of the meat-like substance used in these products is mushroom protein, which could very well be some sort of non-mushroom fungus. Some of them are made from more authentic foods such as cheese, eggs, nuts, and grains.

So does this mean they might start "growing" vegetable animals? If they can grow fish fillets from bits of fish, could they grow meat-free sheep, cows, and chickens from bits of mushroom and lentils? Could they create chickens who can lay poultry-substitute fillets instead of eggs? Will "farm-raised pigs" come to mean pigs that are actually grown from crops?

My god, I think I'm losing my appetite now...