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23rd January
2010
written by spd

The dining room at Vertical.  (img: Vertical, via Open Table)

The dining room at Vertical. (img: Vertical, via Open Table)

I really slacked on dining out in Toronto.  With the St. Lawerence Market nearby, and a well-appointed kitchen, I found myself roasting chickens, shaving brussels, and browning butter to toss with orecchette most nights.  I did, however, treat myself to one very lavish dinner while David was in town.  Food and Wine made several suggestions, but 6 degree weather led me to the closest fine dining suggestion, Vertical.  Located on mezzanine level of Canada’s tallest building, First Canadian Place on King Street, the surroundings made me feel that I should have a corporate card on me.  However, we arrived late on a Monday and there were only two other dinners on a date, so it felt a bit like our own private dining room.

Our indecision is a reflection of how varied the menu is, and instead of making up our minds, we just ordered an insane amount of food. We started with Grilled Zucchini, cut into scallop-like discs, topped with speck, golden raisins, and mint. The seasoning was deeply eastern, and really surprising, with the mint making a definitive mark on the plate. It’s a not a dish I would think to make, though I’m glad they did! Our other starter didn’t move mountains but was flawless and simple, and because of that, my favorite of the night. Grilled Boneless Sardines with Grilled Crostini, pungent Morrocan Olive Tapenade, and Lemon. The skin was perfectly crisp, and the dish had just the right amount of acid. Sardines are a staple of Portuguese cuisine, and this dish made me so excited about our upcoming trip to Lisbon… I want to sip Vinho Verde in the Alfama over grilled sardines, but for now a New Zealand Sav Blanc will do.

Our pasta course arrives and they have made a mistake. The Papardelle has been confused with the Tagliatelle. I return mine, eager to try their twelve hour braised wild boar ragu, but David is content with his, and picks out pieces of Lobster and Scallop from his lightly dressed mound of house-made pasta. The correction is made, though I would think the boar would be more tender after 12 hours. Still, it’s a dish that warms me to the bone, as we gaze on the snow-dusted streets outside.

We finished with an Orata, presented whole at the table, then taken away and de-boned. Served atop a mixture of cauliflower, stewed tomatoes, olives, and caper berries, the fish wasn’t grilled, but braised, making it’s firm flesh so tender and moist. I missed the crispness that would have come from grilling but David was happy with the milky skin, which still had it’s thin under layer of fat. By now, I was bursting at the seams and had given up on my portion, when the waitress brought out some olive bread to sop up the incredibly flavorful tomato-based broth. I could have had had that broth for soup as a starter and been content. David was eying desserts, and we ordered something I can no longer remember, which is telling. He rolled me into a cab, and I stayed uncomfortably full for hours! Haha!

Vertical is certainly not a cheap destination, and the location might make some feel that they’ve just just exited their office and taken the elevator a few floors down, but the food stands on it’s own. It’s simple, straight-forward cuisine that’s not nearly as stuffy as it’s surroundings that makes Vertical worth a visit.

Vertical Restaurant and Bar.  100 King Street West. Toronto, ON M5X 1K7, Canada. ph (416) 214-2252

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30th October
2009
written by spd
The dining room at Michy's (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

The dining room at Michy's (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Michelle Bernstein looks great on paper. This half-Latina, half-Jewish ballerina-turned-chef has hosted a show on the Food Network, published a book, won the James Beard, appeared numerous times as judge on Top Chef, the list goes on. She has the distinguished honor of being the only native chef of Miami to really receive national notice. Her first lone venture, Michy’s, is located in an unassuming strip mall in the upcoming area of Biscayne. While most restaurants are thematic, Bernstein resists being categorized, and has been quoted as saying, “It’s just kind of a restaurant.” With Latin, Southern, French styles and a slew of others making an appearance on the menu, would she be presenting a watered-down version of all of them? I had to taste for myself, so I took my parents on the last night of our run in Fort Lauderdale.

We started by sharing an order of the delicious Jamon Serrano and Blue Cheese Croquetas. This upscale take on a Cuban snack that I’ve been eating for much of my life was a delightful balance of salty and sweet! My Dad had the Peruvian Ceviche with Snapper, Ginger, Lime, Chilies, Sweet Potatoes and Corn; but not just corn – corn three ways! Popped corn, fresh sweet corn, and corn nuts added textural interest to the dish. I had the White Gazpacho with Marcona Almonds, Grapes, and Cucumbers, and it was probably the highlight of the meal for me, because it was so surprisingly flavorful and still light. I could eat this daily – in smoothie form as a post-gym snack.

What’s wonderful about Michy’s is that most dishes can be ordered in half-sized portions, so you can try many things. This left plenty of room for our entrees. My mother had the Salmon with Farro, Baby Artichokes, Cippolinis and Lemony Saffron Nage- safe, but very delicious. And my father had the Steak Frites, a wonderfully flavorful Churrasco with house made Fries and Bearnaise and and Au Poivre dipping sauces. The fries appeared very well done, but were slightly soggy. The dipping sauces, however, were wonderful, especially the Au Poivre. I order the dish that grabbed my eye the second we sat down – the Crispy Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads with Fava Bean Pesto, Fresh Favas, Oranges, and Caraway Veal Jus. It was an utter disappointment. The heavily breaded sweetbreads were floury and soft, the Favas were bland, and the presentation was haphazard. I don’t quite know what to make of the dish, except that it’s not at all what you expect from a celebrity chef’s kitchen. Yes, the food at Craftbar in New York is horribly overrated, but at least it’s finely executed. I’ll excuse the misstep because what followed was a wonderfully satisfying Bread Pudding dessert, with Raisins, Congac, Chocolate Chunks, Orange Rind and Vanilla Ice Cream that tasted like creme brulee. It was a fine way to end the evening!

Bernstein overlooking the 50-seat dining room. (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Bernstein overlooking the 50-seat dining room. (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Bernstein herself made several trips to the dining room that evening, and that might explain the lull in between some of the courses, or the fact that the Crispy Sweetbreads and Frites were a little soft. She’s a great culinaire but she might need a great expediter in the kitchen with her. Still, the meal was memorable and sparked my curiosity. I would return to Michy’s but since her starters seemed her strongest suit, I’m more likely to scope out her newly opened tapas restaurant, Sra. Martinez, located in the nearby Design District.

Michy’s. 6927 Biscayne Blvd. Miami, FL 33138-5733. ph. (305) 759-2001

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9th October
2009
written by spd
aldea

The austere, but elegant dining room at Aldea (img: Aldea)

Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t had much Portuguese fare since performing in Macau, China with West Side Story in 2005. This might partly explain my attraction to Aldea, George Mendez’ debut Flatiron restaurant, which has garnered glowing notices since it’s opening in May. His understated riffs on tradition Portuguese meals combine rusticity and refinement to create seemingly simple food that you want to eat. The setting is a narrow, austere two-level dining room, with six coveted seats overlooking the open kitchen in the back.

The concise dinner menu lists twenty-two items, of which fourteen are petiscos (Portuguese amuse), charcuterie, or appetizers. We began with the Sea Urchin Toast with Cauliflower Cream, Sea Lettuce, and Lime. I could take or leave it, but I appreciated the homage to Portugal’s Asian outposts. I followed with the dish that initially caught my attention when reading the review in Time Out New York: Migliorelli Peas with Tennessee Bacon, Soft-Poached Egg, Green Garlic and Truffle. The dish was comforting and straight forward and the egg was a thing of beauty, poached to perfection at precicely 64 degrees. However, the Tenessee Bacon was oppressively smoky and robbed the shaved black truffle of its presence on the plate. Still, I found myself finishing every last pea. David’s Baby Cuttlefish with Carmelized Lychee, Mentaiko, and Squid Ink was clean and focused, but I longed for more delicious lychee to balance the bitterness of the ink. He loved it.

When ordering our entrees, we asked the waiter for suggestions. He described the Arroz de Pato as simple and classic — “something your grandmother would make.” Sure, if your grandmother could sous vide a duck breast! This dish took traditional Portuguese flavor profiles to new heights! Duck appearing in three incarnations (sous vide breast, confit, and mouth-watering cracklings), dehydrated olives packing quite a punch, dollops of apricot paste lining the plate, brightening the rich flavor of the duck and thinly sliced chorizo. It was strongest dish of the evening — one worth returning for. We also had the Sea-Salted Chatham Cod with market cranberry and fava beans with lemon-basil mussel broth, because I couldn’t conclude a Portuguese meal without tasting Mendez’ preparation of this signature ingredient. Satisfyingly seared on the outside and resting on a bed plump beans, this dish looked very promising. The fish was quite nice, and the mussels hiding among the beans were so tender that my fork could could slice them without a fight. However, the same smoke permeated the broth. When we asked, the waiter said that the chef uses lardon to flavor the mussel broth. This is a case where the phrase “everything’s better with bacon” might fail to be true.

It appears that Mendez creates his menu like a couture designer creates a collection. Just as a fabric would re-appear two looks later, Mendez echos certain ingredients throughout the meal. In the case of the bacon, it felt redundant, but we were happy when the apricot paste showed its face again as one of the dipping sauces for the delicious “sonhos ‘little dreams'” (small donuts, elegantly enveloped in a linen napkin).

We probably didn’t need to order dessert, as a selection of small confections come with the check. The meal was flecked with these fine dining touches, presented here in an unstuffy setting. The food was moderately priced and inventive without being challenging. It’s the sort of restaurant that is easy to enjoy, and I would spend my time and money here again.

Aldea. 64 W 10th St.  New York, NY 10011-8702.  ph. (212) 505-7777

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7th September
2009
written by spd
View of Park Kitchen from the window.  (img: New York Times)

View of Park Kitchen from the window. (img: New York Times)

Once again, the New York Times has led me to a food find! On our first night in Portland, Oregon, I decided to give a two-year old recommendation a go. In David Laskin’s April 2007 article in the NYT Travel Section, he writes of Park Kitchen: “In a former garage, the restaurant has a warren of dark and cozy rooms that faces an open kitchen, where the chef and owner, Scott Dolich, combines elements of French, Italian and Northwestern cooking in an imaginative fusion all his own… The food may sound fussy, but the results are subtly superb.”

Well, my friends, his words were well chosen! Dolich’s modus operandi has Pacific Northwest written all over it… even if his cooking techniques are French or Italian. He routinely checks with local purveyors, and conceives dishes based on what seasonal ingredients are available. Apples and stone fruit grow here in abundance, and you’ll find them in many dishes. Heavy rainfall makes Oregon an ideal environment for growing mushrooms, another ingredient that surfaces here.

There were many ingredients that raised questions at the table… What’s purslane? Hyssop? Amaranth? Nasturtiums? (Most are greens that appear in lovely salads, like the Peach and Blackberry salad, with Pecans, Purslane and Crumbled Feta.) Fear not. If your dish sounds like a Top Chef challenge, it will arrive and taste like artfully prepared comfort food!

One of the most comforting dishes we tried was the Semolina dumplings, Piperade and Lobster Mushroom Succotash. The same lobster mushrooms were used to make a sauce for our Gnocci with Grilled Corn. Unlike the pillowy gnocchi you’d find at Becco or the like, these were quite dense and pan fried after being boiled, much like Polish pierogi. With the sweet grilled corn, the dish resisted becoming unseasonally heavy and was a nice prelude to our entree, Roast Pork with Beans, Fennel, and Gooseberry salsa. The pork was quite lean and thinly sliced, so it’s even more impressive that the meat was deliciously moist. Unannounced clusters of house-made sausage added layers to the pork’s flavor, and the gooseberry salsa was like an invitation to Fall.

The best bites, however, bookended the evening. The Duck Confit Crepe with Basil, Feta was accompanied by heavenly grilled peaches, and the mind-blowing dessert that concluded our meal – The Plum and Tomato crisp with Basil Ice Cream – is a perfect example of sweet-and-savory done right! There wasn’t anything trying about the dish; Flavors that aren’t necessarily associated with dessert were not only harmonious, but bettered the dish.

Although Dolich and Co. have no shortcomings n the kitchen, the restaurant’s design leaves something to be desired. I think a rather charming meal can be had overlooking the park outside, or at one of two or three coveted tables up front, but once you pass the bar and step into the back dining room, you’re in a rather dull space. Not the most appetizing green on the walls, and the banquettes are sort of outdated. Perhaps, if they dimmed the bright pendant lighting, and put candles on the copper-top tables, they might save in renovation costs. Still, if it’s not a great setting for a candlelit date, it’s a great place for friends and eat, drink, and be merry. And save room for dessert!

Park Kitchen. 422 NW 8th Ave.  Portland, OR 97209-3529.  ph.  (503) 223-7275

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2nd September
2009
written by spd
The ever-changing chalkboard menu at Bunk Sandwiches.

The ever-changing chalkboard menu at Bunk Sandwiches. (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

On a recent overcast afternoon in Portland, I waited for a drawbridge and walked 25 minutes through a cluster of half-abandoned warehouses to land at a nondescript awning in the middle of the Hawthorne district. Had it not been for the line of twenty people stretching out the door, I might have missed it! What was I searching for? A killer sandwich. I know… what I am I thinking?! I don’t even care for sandwiches half the time. I usually feel that the bun is muffling the taste of the inner stackings, or, worse yet, that the inner stackings wouldn’t even be worthy of a salad if they were stripped of the sauce slathered all over them.

BUT… I was curious to see what the fuss was all about. The rock stars who run Bunk Sandwiches have been plugged in nearly every Portland foodie blog, the NY Times travel section, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network, et al. There’s nothing overly appealing about the setting, and all of there heros are served on pedestrian, brown butcher paper. The ‘Open’ sign doesn’t even hang at a right angle. The sandwiches are allowed to speak for themselves, and, OH, what a fine job they do!

When I first arrived and inspected the ever-changing chalk board menu, I was disappointed that some of the more unorthodox options were absent. What of the Roman-style Tripe with Pecorino? The Bone Marrow and Snails on Toast? The Salt Cod with Chorizo and Black Olive? Still, there were several others to fuel my indecision. I opted for the Pulled Pork Shoulder with Apple-Cabbage Slaw, Pickles and Whole-grain Mustard on a Poppy Bun. Sweet and Sour Perfection! Served with house-made kettle chips and washed down with a lovely iced tea with mint (and yes, they thought to put out simple syrup!). One of the better sandwiches I’ve had in my life. I devoured it in under five minutes, while a friend waiting for her local Albacore Tuna Melt stared in awe. From my outdoor table, I could see a lonely Subway on the next block, and had a hearty chuckle. They really know what they are doing here… and it’s worth the walk.

Pulled Pork with Apple-Cabbage Slaw and Pickles on a Poppy Bun (img: Sean Patrick Doyle

Pulled Pork with Apple-Cabbage Slaw and Pickles on a Poppy Bun (img: Sean Patrick Doyle

Bunk Sandwiches. 621 SE Morrison St., Portland, OR 97214.  ph.  (503) 477-9515

1st September
2009
written by spd
The front lounge at Charlie Palmers at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza.  We agree that the artwork is a little awkward... :)

The front lounge at Charlie Palmers at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza. We agree that the artwork is a little awkward...

Our time in Costa Mesa was dominated by drives to Laguna Beach, splurges at South Coast Plaza, afternoon dips at The Spa (a comp membership from the Wydham made the sad internet connection a bit more bearable!), and post-show trips to Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s South Coast Plaza. Bloomingdales, you ask? A Charlie Palmer restaurant in a Bloomingdales? I raised my eyebrows as well; but, rest assured that this separated setting is infectiously chic and the food deserving of the Charlie Palmer brand.

Executive Chef Amar Santana was plucked from Aureole (where he served as sous chef) by Charlie Palmer. A native of the Dominican Republic, Santana entered Careers through Culinary Arts Program competition and won a trip to London’s prestigious Le Cordon Bleu where he trained with some of the world’s most talented rising star chefs. Oh-so-fortunately for us, the father of our cast’s most recent addition (Deb Grausman, who plays Chava) operates the very program that awarded Santana his scholarship. The world gets smaller and smaller… and as a result, tastier! We made four or five trips to Charlie Palmer’s during our two week stint in Costa Mesa, during which I tasted over twenty of Santana’s creations and paid for only about a third of them. Sure, in a one-on-one match with Aureole’s Christopher Lee, Santana might go down… but that is in no way meant to imply that his food isn’t stellar. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me (literally) by picking apart the dishes that I didn’t enjoy, but do I want to steer your tongue to the right direction.

The happy hour menu of small plates is a grrrreeat value, with not one of the plates surpassing the ten buck mark. There are expected upscale riffs on American bar food such as the Kobe Beef Sliders with Truffle Mayo ($10). His ‘hot wings’ are coated with Siracha BBQ Sauce and the bones are frenched ($9). Skip these and stretch your comfort zone without stretching your budget (You are forgiven, however, for ordering the twice fried French Fries with Chipotle Aioli… they are quite amazing!) The Crispy Veal Sweetbreads, served with Fennel Caper Relish ($10) are perfectly cooked (when I ordered the Braised Veal Tortellini with Chinese Long Beans at lunch, the Tortellini were topped with sweetbreads that were obliterated in the fryer! Clearly a mistake, as these were fantastic.) and the Blistered Shishito Peppers with Course Salt and Yuzu ($7) are bright, tangy and occasionally pack a punch of spice. The citrus here really makes the dish.

Blue Cheese Stuffed, Bacon Wrapped Dates ($6) and Burrata Cheese with Roasted Tomatoes and Arugula Pesto ($8) are certainly no revelation, but oh-so-good. I never thought I’d type this, but you can skip the Roasted Bone Marrow with Raisin Marmalade and Grilled Bread ($10). The buttery taste of marrow is completely overshadowed by the raisin marmalade, which tastes even more of red wine and onions than raisin. The Grilled Baby Octopus with Celery Root and Verjus Vinaigrette ($9) arrived and was a little tough from the grilling, and the celery root was pureed instead of braised. Wah, wah.

Do NOT skip the Sunny Side Up Egg over Tuna Ham, Fingerling Potatoes and Salsa Tartufara. ($10) The tuna is cured like ham and thinly sliced (a preparation I haven’t seen before) and the tartufara tastes so irresistibly of truffles, you’ll lick your fork. Pair any of the above with half-priced wine and cocktails like the Blood Orange Mojito or the Sexy Seduction with Ketel One and candied jalepenos.

Santana does not employ a pastry chef, which is surprising, since the deserts are rather complicated. For the most part, I loved all of them, with the exception of the Peanut Butter tart, which is paired with a cough-syrupy Grape Sorbet. The sugar and cinnamon-dusted Churros with Smoked Chocolate are perfection ($9) – you feel as if you are sitting around a campfire!

All in all, the small plates constitute one of the finest bar menus I’ve seen. And with half-price booze, how can you loose?

Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza. 3333 Bristol St, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. ph. 714.352.2525

Post-show outing with the cast!  I'm in the white polo next to Executive Chef Santana.

Post-show outing with the cast! (I'm in the white polo next to Executive Chef Santana.)

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31st August
2009
written by spd
Pizzeria_Ortica_Interior

(img: Pizzeria Ortica)

I’m very fortunate that someone left their copy of OC’s Riviera Magazine on the eliptical in Costa Mesa. Otherwise, I might not have found Pizzeria Ortica, which holds this year’s title for Best Pizza in Orange County.  I haven’t tasted every pizza in the OC, but I would probably agree.  This narrow, sun drenched dining room opened in January of this year and has already generated a deserving buzz. Since it’s just a hop-skip-jump from the theatre, I decided to give it a go. The Napoli-style pizza is, indeed, delicious (I was particularly fond of the Salsiccia e finnocchio with house-made sausage, caramelized fennel, mascarpone, red onion, and buffalo grana) but don’t neglect the rest of the menu, especially the Chino Farm insert.

Every Thursday, both chefs drive south to Chino Farm in Del Mar and showcase their beautiful produce in a dozen or so seasonal dishes. The sweet corn risotto with peas was a highlight… and a perfect accompaniment to our favorite entree: Branzino con pesto Trapanese (a simple, beheaded Branzino, artfully de-boned, and pan fried until the skin was perfectly crisp and the flesh moist and flaky.) Served with a mild almond pesto and lightly-dressed mound of arugula, it answered my prayers for a light pre-show meal. Still, in my three trips there, the most irresistible plate placed on the table was the Cavolini di Bruxelles (roasted brussels sprouts with toasted hazelnuts, breadcrumbs, and lemon zest.)

Owner/Chef David Myers understands the power of taking fine ingredients and allowing them to speak for themselves. I would recommend this to any pre-show diner.

Pizzeria Ortica. 650 Anton Blvd.  Costa Mesa, CA. 92626. ph. 714-445-4900

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14th August
2009
written by spd
The exterior of Suzanne Goin's Lucques (img: Lucques)

The exterior of Suzanne Goin's Lucques (img: Lucques)

Long before the locavore movement was in vogue, Suzanne Goin was a practicing farm-to-fork chef, sourcing her foods from the California’s finest growers. Named one of Food and Wine’s top chefs one decade ago, Goin took home the James Beard in 2006 for best Californian chef. Lucques, her chic, but homey Melrose restaurant, is the first of four in the Los Angeles area (her newest, Tavern, just celebrated its opening) and is located in a charming space that used to serve as  silent film star Harold Lloyd’s carriage house.   David and I took our lunch there on a sunny afternoon, and found the food to be just as lovely as the ivy-covered outdoor patio.

Every meal at Lucques begins with helping of butter-basted almonds, crusty bread, fleur de sel, butter and lucques, the restaurant’s vivid green namesake olive. It could be what we chose to order, but Goin’s love of the almond – used in almost ever dish that came to our table – led us to believe that, perhaps, they chose the wrong name!

While we were originally enticed by lunch prefix, the three courses offered that afternoon featured no protein whatsoever (Suzanne!). So we went a la carte, and were not dissapointed. Our starter was seasonal and fresh, and exactly what we had hoped for. Fresh Peaches with Dandelion Greens, Almonds, Ricotta Salata and Abbamele. The saltiness of the ricotta salata and the intense bite of the dandelion were wonderfully matched with perhaps the most perfect peach I’ve ever laid eyes on (And, yes, I’ve been to Georgia). The dish made all other produce I’ve consumed in my life look unworthy.

Our two entrees arrived and were both colorful sights to behold. David chose the Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich on Toasted Brioche with Avocado, Tomato and Bacon. The ingredients were top-notch, but the slippery combination of the avocado and the tomato made it a difficult stack to eat and by the end of our meal, it was a de-contructed pile of goodness. The mayo (?) that was served with it was too salty, but the asian cabbage coleslaw that accompanied the dish was quite good. I normally despise coleslaw, but this wasn’t a mayo-saturated, bland scoop of goo… it was lightly dressed, and a perfect side for summer.

Oregon Salmon with Almond Pesto, Corn Pudding, and Shaved Summer Squash (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Oregon Salmon with Almond Pesto, Corn Pudding, and Shaved Summer Squash (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

I chose the Grilled Market Fish (that day, Wild-Caught Oregon Salmon) with Corn Pudding, Shaved Summer Squash and Almond Pesto (yes, almonds). I could rework the lyrics of “My Favorite Things” to include the ingredients on my plate. As I devoured the dish, I kept thinking that this is a perfect example of how I wish to eat daily. Lord knows what the chef did to the paper-thin squash, but they were divine; and the textural contrast of the corn pudding’s crispy edges with it’s souffle-like interior was very nice. David thought that the presence of the fish itself was eclipsed by the other elements on the plate, and I’ll agree that the chef was a overly generous with the almond pesto. I would, however, order it again in an instant.

Lucques is worth a visit if you are looking for simple fare, prepared with the finest ingredients. The setting is charming, and the food itself is guilt-free and healthful.

Lucques 8474 Melrose Ave. West Hollywood, CA 90069. ph. (323) 655-6277

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10th August
2009
written by spd
mozza

The elegant marble mozzarella bar at Mozza

I rarely opt for Italian when eating out, as I find my favorite dishes are quite easy and inexpensive to prepare at home.  Still, when scouring LA’s Menupages, I could find only one fine restaurant with a 5:30 dinner seating (my call at the theatre is 7:30).  To my great delight, that restaurant was Osteria Mozza, the posh lovechild of three venerable names in Italian cooking:  Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich.  After nearly 17 years of friendship (and Seven James Beard Awards among them), this is the trio’s first outing.  I’m happy to report that this is Italian at it’s best … and I couldn’t conceive of turning out half of the dishes served to me this past Thursday!

The meal begins with complimentary ricotta, tapenade and basil crustini.  The cheese is, of course, fantastic, and the tapenade is divine!  The bread that is delivered after drinks are placed is also quite good; I’m sure I can credit Silverton with that, given her beginnings at La Brea Bakery.

The starters do not disappoint!  The creamy Burrata with Grilled Asparagus, Brown Butter, Guanciale & Sicilian almonds tastes exactly the way you want it to taste.  Good ingredients don’t need to be fussed with, and this Burrata is perfection. The centerpiece of the dining room is a massive L-shaped mozzarella bar, so as you can guess, the antipasti list contains more than a dozen fromage-centric plates.  I’m sure all are just as lovely.  The Grilled Octopus with potatoes, celery & lemon is also bright, and perfectly prepared.  David didn’t care for the celery, but since I never care for celery, I was surprised to find it a worthy choice.

Grilled Octopus with Celery, Potatoes and Lemon

Grilled Octopus with Celery, Potatoes and Lemon

We split our primi, the Taglietelle Verde with Lamb Ragu.  (Even though the server was quite unenthusiastic, I was pleased that he served us two half portions on separate plates.) This was the course that lingered on my tongue and in my mind for days afterwards.  The fresh mint, folded and wilted into the complex ragu, made this dish.  The pasta itself – thick and al dente – wasn’t too shabby either. By now, it was evident that the chef de cuisine knew what he was doing!  We ended with the Sweetbreads Piccata with Artichokes.  There was a huge gap of time between this course and the previous one.  And the sauce was overbearingly acidic.  But ignore that – the preparation of the sweetbreads themselves was so divine that it sparked a five-minute conversation!  Often too heavily fried, or not crisp enough on the outside, these were texturally sublime.  We ate them slowly, to make them last.

I was busting at the seams when I began my show, but I don’t regret a bite.  It’s a meal worth spending money on.  I knew little about Mozza before entering the dining room (I didn’t even know that they were in possession of a coveted Michelin star), and my experience exceeded what would have been high expectations.

Osteria Mozza. 6602 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90038-3410.  ph (323) 297-0100

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8th August
2009
written by spd
200905-go-la-animal-ss

The minimalist dining room at Animal (img: Food + Wine)

In a town obsessed with light fare, David and I indulged in a caloric feast that made me scratch my head and wonder ‘how are we not in New York?’  Animal, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Fairfax forty-five seater, has managed to create quite a stir in its first thirteen months.  Certainly, critics of its carne-centric cuisine have surfaced,  but most deem their efforts extraordinary.  Among their fans: Food +Wine, which included the tattooed duo on 2009’s short list of Best New Chefs.  Their first restaurant venture, Animal is the sole Los Angeles representative, and deservedly so.  Gail Simmons of F+W was sitting with her girlfriends two tables over, so you know their recommendation is a sincere one!

We decided to go tapas-style, as their list of small plates is irresistible.  We began with one of the few vegetarian options, a beautiful Heirloom Tomato Salad with Ginger Vinaigrette and a medley of herbs, including mint and Italian parsley.  This was a lovely prelude to our carnivorous feast.  What followed was a Braised, Deep Fried Pig Ear with Siracha Chili, Lime and a Fried Egg.  As heavy as it sounds, it managed to feel quite light, with a hefty amount of acidity to brighten the dish.   It was, perhaps, the most memorable plate of the evening. Then came the easiest sell of all: lightly fried Sweetbreads over Creamed Spinach with Capers and Hen of the Woods.  I love sweetbreads; spinach is my favorite superfood; salty capers are a go-to place for me in the kitchen; and –  as I’ve mentioned here before – hen of the woods mushrooms top my fungi list!  I loved the dish.  At first bite, I found the capers to be overwhelming, but when paired with a larger scoop of the creamed spinach, the dish was actually quite balanced.

Foie Gras Loco Moco (img: Tasting Table)

Foie Gras Loco Moco (img: Tasting Table)

When it came time to choose an entrée, we agreed to split one of the most ludicrous dishes ever conceived: Foie Gras Loco Moco with a Niman Ranch Burger, Spam, Fried Quail Egg over Anson Mills Gold Rice.  To know that someone had committed the culinary sin of placing a perfectly seared piece of foie gras atop a fried sliver of SPAM… I had to experience it first hand!  I’m happy to report that it’s a well-conceived riff on a Hawaiian classic.  Let’s not pretend for a moment that it hasn’t wreaked havoc on my arteries, but the dish has merit besides the sheer novelty of it.  Finally, we did ourselves in with their infamous dessert, a house-made Chocolate Crunch Bar rolled in finely chopped Crispy Bacon and Salt and Pepper Anglaise.  David thought they could have challenged our palates with more bacon, but I loved that it nudged the tongue ever so slightly at the end of each bite.

I found Shook and Dotolo’s menu to be adventurous, unpretentious, and a great value.  Our five plates, and a carafe of Tempranillo brought the tab to just under $100… I would go again in an instant!

Animal, 435 N. Fairfax Ave. Los Angeles, California.  ph. 323-782-9225

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