Dine LA at Erven

I used to love Toronto’s Winterlicious and Summerlicious, two culinary events where restaurants across the city offer a fixed price menu for a limited period of time, with prices ranging from $15-25 for lunch and $25-45 for dinner. I remember back in high school, my friends and I even had lunch at the CN Tower for $25 (lift included) during Winterlicious, an experience typically worth at least double that amount. Over the years, however, I found myself becoming more and more disappointed with these culinary events. Rather than featuring their best dishes from their usual menus, restaurants started creating lower quality menus just for Winterlicious/Summerlicious. Portions seemed smaller and the ingredients of lower quality; my overall excitement for these annual events hence diminished.

That’s why when I heard about Dine LA, a similar event in Los Angeles where restaurants across the city offer fixed price menus for a limit\ed two-week period, I was skeptical. I skimmed Eater’s list of “Best Dine LA Dinner Restaurants” and found one, however, that I was quite interested in trying. Erven Restaurant in Santa Monica used to be a strictly vegan restaurant until just recently, when it added a few meat and dairy products to its menu.

I was also impressed that unlike most restaurants during Toronto’s Summerlicious, Erven’s menu for Dine LA featured items on its regular menu. In fact, the main courses on its Dine LA menu were typically worth more than $20 each – making the three-set course for $29 a great value. I booked a table for the last Friday of this culinary event.

I liked the vibe of Erven. It was a nice restaurant, yet didn’t seem pretentious. The waiter offered us complimentary white sangria upon our arrival, and promptly seated us to our table. The white sangria didn’t taste like typical sangria; it was sweeter yet lighter in the fruit taste. We liked it so much, we ordered a carafe to share ($12).

For starters, we ordered the beets with peas, pistachio, rose and strawberries, as well as the charred California avocado with macadamia tahini, chili-garlic salsa and pomegranate seed. The beet dish played a lot with temperature; there was this green foam that resembled frozen gelato.

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The charred avocado was amazing, and unlike any other avocado dish I had ever tasted. I normally don’t like avocado much, unless it’s in sushi, but the sear on this one was amazing. The tahini and pomegranate seeds paired with the avocado also contrasted well with its rich taste.

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For our mains, we got the salmon with chorizo, corn chowder, basil dumplings and smoky tomato, as well as the vegan Thai-style burrito. The salmon dish was one of the best-cooked fishes I’ve ever eaten, and that’s saying a lot about Erven, considering that it used to be a completely vegan restaurant.

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The Thai-style burrito was quite interesting; it was stuffed with fried rice, tempura sweet potato, lime cream, peanuts and tom yum gravy. My only criticism would be that the wrap itself was a bit too thick, almost overpowering the taste of its stuffing.

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I was already full by the time the two desserts came, but there’s no way I would have left them untouched. We had ordered the cheesecake with roasted plums, corn nut crunch and goat cheese ice cream, as well as the vegan chocolate bread pudding, made with peanut butter, fluff and banana.

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I’m not too big of a fan of savory ice creams, such as goat cheese ice cream, but it was interesting. The chocolate bread pudding contrasted with the rich peanut butter and light marshmallow fluff was absolutely delicious.

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I was highly impressed and satisfied with my Dine LA experience, and I would recommend it for those who are in Los Angeles in time for it!

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8 LA Things to Do

There are some things in life you can only ever experience in Los Angeles, such as movie screenings inside a cemetery, or a food market where people line up for almost half an hour to eat deep fried shrimps from the inside of a pineapple. Either way, here are some things that I think are worth experiencing while in La La Land.

1. Cinespia

Cinespia is an outdoor movie screening in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (yes, a cemetery). The shows almost always sell out every week, and people often get to Cinespia right when gates open to reserve a nice spot for the movie. Visitors bring either their lawn chairs or their picnic blankets, as well as some wine and snacks. I even saw some people with a full-out buffet-style picnic spread.

A movie in a cemetery – I really don’t know where else you can find this.

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2. Rockin Roe Bowl at The Korean Mkt.

Poke has become a growing trend recently, but only in LA have I ever seen it taken to the extreme – filling rice bowls with colourful fish roe instead of the usual raw fish. I highly recommend this bowl (if you like roe), which is available at The Korean Mkt in Sawtelle. Everything else at this small shop is delicious too.

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3. Throwing exploding rocks on the ground in Chinatown

As we were strolling through Chinatown one evening, all we could hear was the sound of tiny explosions. They were too quiet to sound threatening, yet frequent enough to raise mild concern. We realized that a lot of children here had bought popping rocks – tiny bundles that make a small explosion noise when thrown on the ground – and were continuously smashing them on the ground all around the streets. We bought a small pack too ($0.25) to play with, since all the cool kids seemed to be doing it.

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4. Smorgasburg

This is basically where people get “instagrammable” food; lineups for the most popular vendors tend to have wait times anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. To be fair though, the two items that I tried (passion fruit strawberry shaved ice and Hawaiian shrimp pineapple rice) were both really delicious.

The Smorgasburg market is also in NYC, understandably.

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5. The Getty Center

Entrance to this stunning garden and museum is free and iPhone audio guides are also free for use. Many gardens that I’ve visited before had an entrance fee, so take advantage of this free opportunity!

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8. Buffet at The Dodgers Stadium

For ten more dollars than a regular ticket, you can opt to sit at the Coca Cola Pavillion at the Dodgers Stadium, where there are all-you-can-eat nachos, popcorn, hot dogs, peanuts, and bottomless soft drinks. Although the Dodgers lost the night I went, the buffet made it all worth it.

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Other places worth mentioning are the Santa Monica Pier on Thursday evenings for its Twilight Concerts, By Chloe for its amazing vegan “fast food,” Sqirl for its locally-sourced creative brunch dishes, and Fly Wheel, a cycle class that allows participants to compete by keeping track of their progress on a scoreboard at the front of their room.

Happy exploring in Los Angeles!

California Dreamin’

Despite it being my third time going to LA in the span of twelve months, I still love the city so much and am always able to find new things to do or new places to check out. Although I have to study while I’m here (GMAT cramming), it’s also become a good excuse to check out different cafes around the city.

Here are some of the places that I’ve visited over the past week:

On my first day in LA, we went to Melrose Avenue, which starts at Santa Monica Boulevard, at the border between Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, and ends at Lucille Avenue in Silver Lake. There are lots of cool shops, restaurants, and coffee shops all along the street, as well as cool graffiti (and the infamous pink Paul Smith wall). We went to Alfred’s Tea Room to try their Earl Grey boba tea, then settled down at Alfred’s Coffee to study for awhile.

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The next day, we went to Malibu Wines, a small park with nice seating area and booths selling wine tastings and bottles. Entrance is free, and visitors are welcome to bring in their own snacks. We tried a white wine flight; it’s always fun trying to decipher the different flavours of various wines. It’s not on the menu, but you can also order mimosas at the central booth in the park.

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After church on Sunday, we ate lunch at Smorgasburg, a market that only happens every Sunday in the DTLA area. It features really creative food vendors; we tried the Hawaiian Shrimp and a passion fruit shaved ice. Be prepared to wait in long lines at Smorgasburg!

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Afterwards, we studied at Verve Coffee in DTLA. This shop offers juice tasting flights, which is the ideal solution for people like me who can never decide on just one thing to order.

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In the evening, we went to the Grand Central Market, and ordered Thai food at Sticky Rice. This unassuming stall makes one of the best Khao Soi dishes I’ve ever had, and their portions are also quite large for the $10 price tag. We strolled around the area afterwards, and came across the majestic Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

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The next morning, we went to Santa Monica Beach, and I studied on the beachfront at Perry’s Cafe. It was nice being able to enjoy the hot weather and dig my feet into the warm sand while studying. Afterwards, we strolled down Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a nice street by Venice Beach with neat shops and cute cafes. A great place for ice cream on Abbot Kinney is Salt and Straw, which has really unique flavours, from olive & feta cheese to black tea & coconut stracciatella. The TOMS Flagship Store is also a great studying spot, as the back door of the store leads out into a grand patio with outdoor seating (and free WiFi).

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On Tuesday, we checked out Coffee Tomo in Sawtelle, which has the most amazing pretzels in all of LA. They bake them fresh, and the pretzels are so soft they almost resemble like a croissant on the inside. I recommend the sweet potato & cheese flavour, which oozes with sweet cheese and a taste of condensed milk.

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Afterwards, we went to Jimmy Kimmel Live in Hollywood. It was my first time attending a live filming of a TV talk show, and it was so exciting to see it all being carried out. The show has a “hype guy” who never actually appears on the show, but he’s in charge of hyping up the audience and making sure that the audience is clapping and shouting as loud as they can. By the end of the taping, my cheeks hurt so much from laughing, and my hands hurt from clapping excessively hard, but it was so much fun, and I’d definitely love to attend another one. We had to book the Jimmy Kimmel tickets a month in advance. Although the tickets are free, they run by a lottery system, so try entering for as many days as possible.

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In the evening, we went to the Comedy Store, which featured comedians David Spade, Tiffany Hadish, and Howie Mandel for the night. I didn’t think I could laugh anymore for the day after Jimmy Kimmel, but the comedy store was really, really good. I’d recommend it for a fun night out with some friends.

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With its perfect weather and endless list of things to do, Los Angeles is definitely up there on my list of favourite places in the world.

Chicago Road Trip

I’ve always wanted to Chicago. The only two things I really knew about the city before was the Bean and deep dish pizza, but it turned out to be a really fun city with a lot more things to do (and delicious foods to eat). We stayed at a spacious Airbnb in East Pilsen, which cost roughly a hundred dollars per person for three nights. This was close to the Mexican community area, where there were tons of really unique cafes.

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A place that I would highly recommend trying is the original Billy Goat Tavern, which first opened in 1934. It’s located under the Chicago Tribune and the old Chicago Sun-Times building. A lot of writers used to eat here, and there’s also also a famous SNL skit about this place.  Apparently they sometimes bring in their famous goat to surprise diners too!
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It’s everything you would expect from that classic fast diner – but they serve chips, no fries. We also visited the Navy Pier, which made for a relaxing walk around the water. There’s also a giant Ferris wheel and botanical garden at the main Navy Pier building.
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One of the best pieces of tourist advice we followed was to go to the Sky Bar in the John Hancock building instead of paying to go up the 360 Chicago tour. It offers a similar view, and buying a drink at the bar (no cover) definitely costs less than a ticket.
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And of course, what’s a trip to Chicago without deep dish pizza. We went to Lou Malnati’s, one of the oldest names in Chicago pizza history.
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We ordered two deep dishes for the table: “The Malnati Chicago Classic,” which has sausage, extra cheese, and Buttercrust, and “The Lou,” which has spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes and garlic Buttercrust. The Classic was quite heavy, especially with the layer of lean sausage; I liked the Lou better.Another place that I would recommend trying in Chicago would be Seoul Taco, which serves Korean-Mexican fusion food. It’s the best bang for your buck, with tacos costing $2.50 and the most expensive menu item being the Gogi bowl for $8.
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Chicago turned out to be such an amazing city. I liked how it was bigger than Toronto, yet less busy/ (angry?) than New York. I’d definitely recommend this spot for a road trip!
As a side note, if you do choose to road trip from Toronto to Chicago – make a pit stop at the Al Ameer Restaurant in Dearborn, which is one of the five recipients of the 2016 James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award. Our group ordered the family tray, and everything in it was remarkable. It’s authentic cuisine worth the pit stop – not to mention that their housemade pita bread was amazing.
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Los Angeles

LA is probably one of my favourite places to explore simply due to its sheer size. The city itself is made up of so many different neighborhoods; each with their own distinct character and happenings. Here are my top recommendation for things to do and eat:

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TO DO

  • Biking around Venice Beach: There’s an awesome biking trail from Venice Beach to Santa Monica Pier, and a bunch of cheap rental places around as well. You’ll be able to see more during the day with this faster method of transportation. Make sure to stop by Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice to checkout all the cool shops (the TOMS flagship store is also there).
  • Free movie screenings by rooftop pools: Almost every week during the summer, there are free movie screenings by rooftop pools of hotels in Beverly Hills. It’s a luxurious experience and will cost you absolutely nothing. Refreshments are also available.
  • Disneyland: Although Disneyland is a expensive to visit, it is definitely worth it. There’s really no place like this with its joyful atmosphere, fun rides, crazy decor, and familiar childhood characters. You know this park has been doing something right if it’s been opened since 1955. ​ I visited Disneyland in October, so the park was in full Halloween mode, with attractions like a Nightmare Before Christmas themed haunted mansion. I was impressed by all the details they put into setting up this temporary attraction.
  • Griffith Observatory: This spot offers a spectacular view of the entire city and is free to visit. Inside the observatory are also a museum about astronomy and a massive telescope that is available for public viewing on certain evenings.
  • Manhattan Beach: This was described to me as the nicest beach in LA, and I would agree. Perfect to go to friends with, read a book, or just lie down and soak up some sun. Manhattan Beach is also one of the three Beach Cities that make up the South Bay.
  • Surfing in Santa Monica: I’ve been told that Santa Monica is the ideal beach for beginner surfers. I went on a Monday morning, which was perfect since very few people are in the waters during that time of the day. It was a really fun experience that I would try again and recommend everyone to try.
  • The Broad: This relatively new contemporary art museum opened in September 2015 in downtown Los Angeles. There is free admission, and over 2,000 works of art in its collection. I really enjoyed this museum, and it was certainly one of the most unique and spectacular ones that I have ever visited. Go early or register online in advance since people start lining up at the door in the morning to get in. Make sure to checkout Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room at The Broad (and sign up on the wait list once you enter the museum) because it’s a breath-taking experience. It’s a mirror-lined chamber housing colourful and seemingly endless LED lights. Because of its small size, only one visitor or couple is allowed to go in at a given time.
  • The Hollywood Hike: This is considered a relatively easy hike; there are no rough patches or steep hills, and it takes about three hours round-trip. I would recommend starting the hike late afternoon to avoid the scorching mid-day sun, and you’ll be able to enjoy the sunset by the time you make your way down. Bring lots of water!
  • Universal Studios: To be honest, I didn’t think I would enjoy this amusement park as much as I did. The rides are really impressive because many of them integrate high-tech animation to amplify the impact of small seat movements, making you feel as though you are on a roller coaster. Don’t forget to drink the Butter Beer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (the one with ice cream is so delicious and really refreshing when waiting in long lines for rides).
  • Walt Disney Concert Hall Tour: This was probably the most majestic concert hall I have ever visited, and free tours are offered daily as well as audio tours. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, this is an internationally recognized architectural landmark and one of the most acoustically sophisticated concert halls in the world.

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​​EATS:

 

  • Blue Bottle Coffee: This was one of the best iced coffees that I have ever had – bold with hints of chicory.
  • BY CHLOE: A spot that I also got to try during my visit (and have been longing to try) is By Chloe, a vegan cafe in Silver Lake. I can honestly say that this was probably one of the best taco bowls I have ever tried – and that means a lot considering how much I love this dish. The one at By Chloe has spicy seitan chorizo, black beans, corn, avocado, tortilla strips, and is served with a sweet lime vinaigrette. Trust me on this, regardless of whether you are vegan.
  • Eggslut at the Grand Central Market: I went to the market at ten in the morning, and Eggslut was the only vendor with a line – and a long one, to be exact. I got in line, wondering if it would be worth it. After my first bite into that egg & cheese burger, however, I knew that it certainly was. The burger was juicy, piping hot, and full of flavour. The “slut,” which is a cage-free coddled egg on top of potato purée, was also unique and packed full of flavour.
  • Pearl’s Rooftop for brunch: Not only is the rooftop a beautiful, sunny spot for weekend brunch, but the menu is extensive and everything we got exceeded our expectations. They also offer DIY mimosa kits that are fun to make.
  • PokiNometry: Poke is a big thing in Los Angeles and there are many different spots to get it, but I found PokiNometry to be one of the best. Their seafood is fresh, while their topping choices and portions are also very generous.
  • Sprinkles in Beverly Hills: There’s a cupcake ATM machine outside, or the option to sandwich your cupcake with ice cream inside the cafe. Either way, there are tons of flavors to choose from!
  • Sugarfish: There is no sushi like Sugarfish sushi.
  • Verve Coffee Juice Flight: If you are indecisive like me, this juice flight is perfect for you. It features ten different cold-pressed juices for the price of $8-10 (depending on location).