Milestones. And Cake. And Salad.

This September has been a big one for me.  New home (okay, so we technically moved in July), new job (okay, so school started in August), and new decade!  I’ve finally hit my 30s, and I like what I see so far (though admittedly I’ve only been stationed in this new world for two weeks).

Given my fanciful proclivities for putting food in my mouth, then, N. knows that my birthday must involve a restaurant in some form.  Since we are only just beginning to explore our new culinary surroundings, this was a perfect opportunity to embark on our adventures.  I started with Culver City which, delightfully, has a whole webpage devoted to its downtown restaurants, including (in most cases) links to each restaurant’s website.  This was almost too much.  I spent the better part of an evening cruising through online menus, imagining what kind of mood I might be in on the big day and what I might want to order and what, if the restaurant I ultimately chose should happen to be out of my top choice, I would order instead.

Based on menus and Yelp reviews, I decided on Fords Filling Station (FFS), whose upscale comfort food and wide range of offerings sounded promising.  I tend to like mid-range restaurants: not too fancy, where a prix fixe menu or outstandingly high prices make me feel like a grubby graduate student out of place (I know, I’m not anymore.  But it’s a hard habit to break in this new world of adulthood and employment), but not too casual either, where the food is sub-par or inconsistent and the wait staff makes no pretense of caring about our presence.  A gastropub – a self-proclaimed innovative collection of food, decor, and atmosphere – seemed like the right fit.

FFS is a fun spot.  It’s centrally located downtown, and the dining room is a big open space with a bar to one side, traditional tables, and long narrow two-tops where the couple sits on a bench next to one another looking out at the other diners, rather than across from each other.  N. and I were seated at one of these bench seats, and it was fun to sit side by side for a change in a restaurant setting.  Brick walls, big barrels, and warm colors make it inviting and, I thought, pretty unpretentious.

Our server, who was the perfect balance of informative and attentive, sold me on one of the night’s cocktail specials: citrus vodka, house made lemonade, and a little float of chambord.  It was nice – punchy and bright and sweet-tart, but oddly similar to a Rennie’s Lemonade from our erstwhile happy hour hangout in Eugene, and therefore it felt drastically overpriced at $12. 

We opted to share entrees so we could order a few things, and got a Cuban flatbread with smoked pork pieces, cilantro, mozzarella, and some kicky little red chilis; grilled asparagus blanketed in shaved parmesan,; and a flattened half chicken with amazing garlic mashed potatoes and succotash.

N. was most attracted to the chicken (as is often the case when we dine out), and here he was clearly right to be.  Flattened, the bones were gone, the meat was compressed, flavorful, and intensely juicy, and the skin was crunchy and buttery and tender and perfectly unctuous.  Because he is fonder of white meat, it was also a perfect dish for us to share, because N. left me the thigh, with its dark, meatiness pleasantly encased in a crisp layer of fatty crunch.  Beside the chicken, the mashed potatoes swam in a sauce of garlic confit, which was rich and intense: the best gravy I’ve had in a long time.

The flatbread, which would have been just delightful on its own, paled a bit in comparison to this chicken.  The crust was cracker-like in texture, and the pork pieces paired nicely with the pepper and cilantro, but together the dish was a little bit dry.  It needed – perhaps – some herb oil drizzled over the top, or maybe 45 seconds less in the oven.  Tasty, but not the star of the show by any means.

The asparagus was excellent: nicely flavorful and light, well cooked and, aside from the piece I dropped on myself (grace embodied, truly), a nice vegetal accompaniment to our meal.

Since I didn’t get any dessert that night (I was full but not overstuffed, and didn’t want to tempt myself by even glancing at a dessert menu), I was still longing for birthday cake a few days later.  Fortunately for me A., who blogs from the other side of the world at Over and Under, had told me about Porto’s – a Cuban bakery in Burbank that turns out to be right on my route to and from work.  I had to drive up to the school for a Friday meeting, and as I headed toward the freeway to come home, I decided to stop in and treat myself.

Inspired by the flatbread we’d shared at FFS, and because I thought it would be a good benchmark for a Cuban bakery, I got the Cubano.  Then, because it was still my birthweek (I’m big on extending the celebration as long as seems rationally possible), I picked out two tiny cakes to share with N.: flourless chocolate, and tres leches.

The sandwich was good.  Ham and pork packed tightly onto a fresh bakery roll with cheese, sharp mustard, and a pickle.  A simple sandwich, but a delicious one.

My dessert selections, though, were fantastic.  The tres leches was rich and light at once, not overly sweet but dripping with cream, like a well soaked angelfood cake topped with toasted marshmallow cream.  The flourless chocolate selection was less cake than a giant chocolate truffle: impossibly rich solidified ganache inside a thin shell of cake-like crumb.  N. was only able to eat two or three bites before declaring it too rich for his tummy.  I had no such trouble, but did talk myself into enjoying only half at that sitting, and saving the other half for another night when chocolate felt mandatory.

Indulgent?  Certainly.  But (at least in the case of the desserts) at $2-3 each, a reasonable indulgence.  Still, when one is a responsible adult (as I suppose some might now imagine me), one must temper such indulgences.  In this case, that means salad.

80. Trim and coarsely chop chard (rainbow makes for a gorgeous salad) and combine with white beans and chopped scallions. Dressing is minced ginger, a suspicion of garlic, olive oil and cider vinegar. 

I collected:

½ huge bunch red chard, thick stems removed

1 15 oz. can white kidney beans

5 green onions, finely sliced

1/2 inch knob of ginger

2 garlic cloves

1/4 tsp coarse salt

1/4 cup each cider vinegar and olive oil

1 TB honey

I tossed together the chard, beans, and green onions and set them aside in a big salad bowl.  To make sure the ginger and garlic were fine enough, I minced them by hand, then sprinkled them with coarse salt and dragged the flat of my knife across them until they turned into a thick, aromatic paste.  I scraped the paste into a glass measuring cup and whisked it up with cider vinegar and olive oil.  A taste of this was a cheek puckering revelation, so I added a healthy squeeze of honey to make it less astringent.

Aside from spinach, raw bitter greens are not always N.’s cup of tea.  Because I feared this might be the case with this combination, I decided to treat this more like a slaw than a salad.  I combined the main ingredients early and doused them in dressing a good fifteen minutes before dinnertime.  This would, I hoped, give the acidic dressing time to wilt the chard a bit, much like the vinegar in coleslaw dressing does for the cabbage.

It worked well.  By the time we ate (grilled chicken breasts sauced with equal parts whole grain mustard and apricot jam), the chard had lost just a bit of its aggressive bite but its freshness was not compromised.  The beans, sometimes bland customers, had soaked up a bit of flavor from the tangy bright dressing, and so while they were a steady, creamy counterpoint to the earthy-fresh chard, they weren’t at all boring.  We were both surprised by how well we liked this simple little salad.

Success, then, and balance: excitement and indulgence followed and tempered by stability.  If this is what the 30s are like, I’m ready.  Bring it on.  I’ll just be 30 forever.

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