Thursday, January 29, 2009

//Good Grits

I remember getting a slight chill last weekend when Mr. ProNerd was in town. The stress from that must have sent my immune system into a tizzy, because this morning I woke up with a vague sense that all was not well with my body. The most prominent symptom, the one that led me to believe I had caught the tail end of the virus that had wreaked havoc on my boyfriend one week earlier, was the one that greeted me the moment I swallowed.

Post nasal drip feels like the back of my throat is covered with blistered tissue from having accidentally swallowed piping hot coffee the day before. That, or someone managed to jam an emery board down my esophagus while I was sleeping. Post nasal drip is dry. It's rough. It's omnipresent. I hate it. Hate. Hate. Hate it. Should you have a congested nose, at least you can choose to breathe through you mouth. Unfortunately, there's only one way you can swallow, and most of the time you perform the function without even realizing it. For me, the routine reminder of post nasal drip's existence only magnifies the fact that I'm ill.

Since the only way to get over a cold is to just let it run its course, symptom suppression is the only way I can stay sane while my body's white blood cells conduct biological warfare inside of me. Sleeping 14 hours a day is ideal, too; but I work. I'm not a fan of pseudoephedrine or other OTC cold medicines, so I look to food to help me obliterate the myriad of aches, sniffles and other annoyances that come as part of the typical rhinovirus package.

In the past I've consumed large quantities of tom yum goong with extra chili flakes, kim chi, wasabi with sushi (yes, exactly like that), Odwalla Blueberry B Monster smoothies, oatmeal and peanut butter. Basically, spicy, thick, and bland foods that either coat the back of my throat, or open the mucus floodgates and consequently divert my attention away from the dreaded PND. At 17 I ate an entire quart of ice cream in one sitting — that's how much I wanted to forget about the post nasal drip going on at the time.

Coincidentally, last night I went to bed thinking it'd be a good idea to get grits the following day for lunch. This craving for hominy porridge is the direct result of the subpar brunch experience I had at Moonshadows in Malibu last Saturday. (Warning: the site plays music the moment you click "Enter Restaurant")

I'd eaten at Moonshadows before, but for dinner only. Honestly I was quite surprised that their brunch didn't live up to the gastronomic culinary excellence like their nighttime meals always have. Now don't get me wrong, the food wasn't terrible by any means. And perhaps part of the reason why I was disappointed was because I'd checked out their menu a few days prior to brunch, determined what I was going to order (Niman Ranch wild boar and cranberry sausage over grits with Fuji apple raisin "gravy," with caramelized onions and bacon chips), and let my imagination tantalize and taunt me with the most exceptional vision of what said dish was going to taste like. Still, this is Moonshadows of Malibu we're talking about here! Their direct competitor of Geoffrey's, another high class establishment on the Pacific Ocean. The food _has_ to be of a certain quality; it's not like Geoffrey's is that much further up the coast, or their prices that much more exorbitant. For whatever reason, though, the dish I ate was no better than what I would have gotten at Denny's.

Grits by themselves are thick, hearty and bland, which makes them the perfect kind of comfort food for lessening post nasal drip. Their texture and taste makes them a dream ingredient for a haute cuisine chef who wants to show off their breakfast talents — the perfect canvas onto which one can pour whatever sauce they like. Chefs dress up every variety of rice with all manner of additives, sweet or savory; they've been known to make creme brulee oatmeal with sugared bananas, too. Omelets always taste better when the eggs have been beaten with a smidgen of cream. What I'm trying to say is: If a high class restaurant is going to charge $18 for a bowl full of grits, the gravy that accompanies it better have some taste to it. What I got at Moonshadows was as bland as the hominy itself — you couldn't even taste a hint anything in the sauce. The raisins were few, the Fuji apples had been pureed so much their juice (and consequently their flavor) had evaporated. It was tasteless; and as for the color, does the word "gruel" spring any particular hues to mind? I was suitably unimpressed, and unfulfilled, which brings me to today.

As late as yesterday, I still wanted recompense for my experience. I wanted food justice. I wanted to know that I didn't have to go to the South for a decent bowl of warm hominy. Believing Google sincerely meant it when they said "Do no harm," I figured it couldn't hurt to enter "Los Angeles best grits" into their search engine. The first entry to pop up was a ChowHound.com discussion about where to find palatable grits in the greater Los Angeles area. After sifting through about 45 responses, a few places came up: Nick's Coffee Shop and Deli on Pico, Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, Pann's over by LAX, and Square One Dining in Hollywood. Nick's didn't have a website of their own; and though they received positive reviews on Yelp!, no one had anything to say about their grits. Roscoe's and Pann's... eh, the quality of their dishes can be extremely variable. The 35 mile roundtrip to either of these locations, combined with the knowledge that I might be served yet another bowl of disappointment, made me hesitant to even consider them. At least so soon. (nb: Pann's does have the best biscuits in Los Angeles – that you can count on.)

Square One Dining was new on my foodar, and it was only 7 miles away. I scratched my chin and went to their website. It checked out OK. I mean, insofar as I could tell, I liked the sound of all their offerings. Then again, I liked the sound of what was on Moonshadow's brunch menu too! Thwrup, thwrup, thwrup went my fingers as I strummed them on my laptop. Then I remembered that Los Angeles Magazine.com had a "Best of Section" that had proven to be spot on more often that not (for instance, under the category of "Best Grilled Cheese," you won't find The Foundry, thankfully... but that's another gastrotale for another entry). Sadly, no category for "Best Grits." They did, however, have a link for "Best Breakfast." I clicked. There right smack dab in the middle of the page was an entry for Square One Dining. And they gave a thumbs up to their grits! A cross-match! Score! I had a plan, and now I had a place to go with it; on Thursday I would go try their grits.

Then I woke up feeling ill this morning. Energy zapped. Muscles twitchy. Could I make the 7 mile trek to Hollywood? Should I? Yes, yes I should, damn it. I'm sick. But more importantly: I'm sick AND suffering from post nasal drip AND I don't have any oatmeal or juice on hand. So before I went into work, I went to Square One Dining to soothe my throat.

I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about the aesthetics of the place, or the service. Suffice to say, there isn't a huge sign outside the restaurant that announces its presence. The name of the restaurant is on a dark-gray brown awning, and the color of restaurant's name on the overhang is only slightly lighter. The trees on the sidewalk partially obscure the place as well. You might drive past it. But I found it, mostly because I took a gamble and assumed that a chartreuse single-story building on the residential side of Fountain Avenue had to be the local eatery. This wasn't the first time I'd encountered such a setup in Los Angeles, and I don't think it'll be my last. Sure enough, the place was Square One Dining.

The service was prompt, and they didn't charge me after I switched from drinking an iced latte to iced tea. The grits were brought from the kitchen and placed in front of me within 7 minutes of my ordering them. Oh boy did they look marvelous, with lots of thick, cube-like bits of bacon stirred in with perfectly melted cheddar cheese! (Photos below.) I added a wee bit of honey just because and then spooned some of the grits into my mouth. Mmmmmm. The dish did the trick — PND went away for a few hours, and I got my grits do over. Had I been any hungrier, I might have gotten their chorizo, tomato, jalapeƱo, onion and mozzarella egg white omelet with grits on the side, but the cold did a lot to kill my appetite. As such, I left the restaurant with a cardboard container filled with 3/4 of the original grits dish (which I then heated up and ate for dinner).

Square One gets my enthusiastic approval.

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Square One Dining serves Intelligentsia coffee and espresso. For two years now I've been meaning to bite the day old espresso puck and stand in line for what has long been rumored to be the Best Coffee in Los Angeles (or on the West Coast, for that matter). Thanks to Square One, I no longer feel the temptation to do so. Intelligentsia and me didn't hit it off, so it's back to Dunkin Donuts and Lavazza for me. *phew* For a moment there, I was worried.

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