Friday, April 24, 2015

The District by Hannah An, Upscale Vietnamese near the Beverly Center

The District is a few blocks from the Beverly Center. A Vietnamese restaurant with an upscale menu and a friendly bar, chef-owner Hannah An has created an airy space with a large menu featuring organic poultry and meats, fresh seafood and a great variety of vegetable dishes that will keep vegans happy.
Many of the Vietnamese restaurants that have appeared in Los Angeles over the past year have focused on modified versions of street food: pho (the richly flavored beef or chicken noodle soup) and banh mi (French baguette sandwiches with meat and pickled vegetables). Both are available at The District, but these are versions made with high-quality, fresh ingredients and they are only two of several dozen dishes on the menu.
The chef-owner behind the restaurant is Hannah An, the eldest daughter of the family behind Beverly Hills' Crustacean, a restaurant known for the quality of its seafood and the elegance of the dining room. By comparison, the District is more casual. With an outdoor patio and windows that open to the street, the restaurant is light and airy and elegant in its own way.
Recently I joined half dozen other food writers for a tasting. We ate land animals and creatures from the deep. Some were crispy fried, others were braised with a layering of flavors. We ate steamed rice, soft braised noodles, light as air spring rolls, deeply flavored soup, a salad topped with a beautiful piece of crispy-skin salmon, an excellent Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk and a delicious cocktail that had plenty of heat.
The menus (lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch) overlap with dishes like pho (beef and chicken) and fried calamari available any time of day. Some like cha go roll are favorites in Vietnamese restaurants. At The District, the fried rice paper rolls practically evaporate in your mouth. There is not a drop of oil on them. Inside the well-compacted roll is a mix of ground chicken and vegetables. The garlic lime dipping sauce has enough heat and sweetness to compliment the other flavors. 

The affordably priced dishes are large enough to share. For those who want to splurge for a celebration, there is fresh lobster and filet mignon.
The best dishes at The District draw on the flavor combinations that immediately tell you the chef is from Vietnam. Whether combined in a sauce or used in the dish itself, freshly squeezed lime juice, cilantro, peppers and pepper flakes, fish sauce, fresh fruit, garlic and lemon grass are used by a practiced hand that knows exactly how much is the correct amount.

We were served black cod in a clay pot. In Vietnam the fish used would probably be catfish. Flaky and moist, the cod has a silken texture familiar to anyone who has eaten a version of Morimoto's miso-black cod, a dish served at many upscale Japanese restaurants.  Chef An uses lemon grass, fish sauce and a five spices mix to put a little edge into the darkly rich sauce. Chinese broccoli and thin uncooked ginger strips add texture.  On the very bottom of the hot pot were two triangles of fresh pineapple lying in wait for anyone who needed a bit of sweet-acid to add to the already complex flavor profile of the dish.
The calamari plate was another standout. Topped with a salad of purple kale and frisee, the crinkly leaves complimented the crispy calamari. The dipping sauce, another classic Vietnamese mix of fish sauce, peppers and lime juice rounded out the flavors. A selection of cocktails accompanied the calamari. The colorful cocktails have colorful names: Hot Asian, Side Car to Vietnam, Love You Long Time and Face Down in Saigon. 
The playfully named cocktails are well-crafted drinks designed by David Shoham, a mixologist well-known in Los Angeles. The freshly squeezed juices and the mix of heat and sweet are masterful. 

My hands down favorite of those we tasted was the Hot Asian. I could describe it, but I'll let the menu do it for me, "lemon gras infused Loft and Bear Vodka, organic Vietnamese chili agave, fresh squeezed lime juice, garnished with lime zest and Vietnamese chili." Hopefully you noticed that "chili" appeared twice in the description. Topping the ice filled glass was a whole, bright red pepper for those who wanted even more heat. 
I didn't need more heat, but I would have happily consumed another Hot Asian if I had brought along a designated driver. The cocktail was that delicious.

There is so much more to be said about The District by Hannah An. We ate a great many delicious dishes -- pho bo (beef with noodles), Hannah's noodles with crispy whole lobster, shaken beef with filet mignon so tender it really did melt in the mouth, chicken curry with fava beans, peas, thickly cut red onion rings with Thai basil and a kale Caesar salad topped with a crispy-skin salmon filet. 
There are many more dishes on the menu I want to try. I love the idea of chef An's take on French onion soup that uses bone marrow and Vietnamese spices. I want to have the roasted ginger chicken, crispy tofu, braised short ribs, District salad with prawns, kale and curly endive, duck confit salad with Vietnamese herbs, roasted cauliflower with pistachios, coriander-crusted lamb and the flatbreads (chicken, pork belly and heirloom tomato-burrata). 

They all sound delicious.

The District by Hannah An, 8722 West Third Street, LA, CA 90048, 310/278-2345.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

When The Water Runs Out: Farming In A Drought

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.
Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.
Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.
The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.
The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.
Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.
Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.
In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.
Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olivesand grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?
The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.
Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.
Picture 1 of 5
James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt
In the spring he knew the snowpack was below normal so he planted potatoes and squash early because they need less water and could be stored for months without damaging their quality. Hoping for the best, he also planted leafy crops.
After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.
In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.
But Birch is in a bind.
Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.
Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.
To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.
Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.
To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.
In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.
And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.
Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Easter Sunday Deviled Eggs & Sunday in New York City

New York has had some pretty difficult weather during the winter. Yesterday and today feels like spring has come back. Bright and sunny, I walked around the upper west side. Ate $1/each raw oysters at Cafe Tallulah (corner of Broadway & 70th). Sweet and briny. Really delicious.

Then later in the evening and a quick train ride up to 103rd Street to Buchetta Brick Oven Pizza between Amsterdam and Broadway for a Salsiccia e friarelli (sausage and broccoli rabe, mozzarella & parmigiano) pizza. Also really delicious.
For Sunday we'll have bunch in the city with friends and enjoy what is predicted to be another beautiful, sunny spring day. Yay for beautiful, sunny days!

Just before I left for New York I finished writing an article/recipe about making a very cool riff on deviled eggs by adding capers and sautéed anchovies. The recipe posted on Zester Daily. Take a look. It's easy to make and really yummy.

Have a great weekend.