Put Them Anywhere: Or, The Conundrum of dineLA

IMG_0565Crab salad with Old Bay, cucumber, fennel and mustard vinaigrette
and roasted pear and buratta salad with micro arugula and
pistachio vinaigrette

NOTE: I never write negative blogs. If I don’t like a restaurant or have bad service, I will typically not write about it at all preferring to focus on the positive aspects of my foodie life. There are certainly plenty of other critics out there who do it much better. But in this case, I felt the need to spotlight and critique a recurring experience in the hopes that it might be helpful to all participants involved in the vein of Einstein’s famous quote about insanity being the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Maybe my two cents, combined with the general input across the blog waves, Yelp currents and other food media rumbles will come in handy to the Los Angeles tourism arm that puts so much effort into dineLA.

IMG_0566Japanese squash and apple ravioli with crispy bacon
and arugula and fennel risotto

The Cute Gardener and I avidly engage in the Los Angeles culinary scene as well as support the efforts of its hardworking chefs. You need only take one glance through the archives of this blog to see proof as I tend to write about one or two new restaurants in the area that we visit on a weekly basis. A large part of our combined monthly budget goes towards boosting this sector of our economy and we tend to participate in dineLA when it rolls around twice a year offering set menus at a fixed price for patrons who want to try out new eateries. This year though, we’ve come to the conclusion that we may have had enough of this discount promotional spree after two out of our three experiences these past two weeks have left a bitter taste in our mouths.

IMG_0567Chilled cucumber soup with dill and Meyer lemon and
smoked potato and carrot soup with marjoram

To sum up our frustrations, I will begin with the wonderful welcome we received to Stefan’s at L.A. Farm last night, in which we walked up to a truly nonchalant hostess who quite audibly said to the girl who came to lead us to a table: “Put them anywhere.” And that she did, right at the first table in her line of sight, even though we were preferred Open Table diners and then the evening proceeded to spiral downward from there.

To be fair here, we love Stefan, or at least were highly entertained by his rambunctious personality as we watched Top Chef’s last run. We liked his cantankerous humor and his adventurous yet homey dishes and were looking forward to trying out his restaurant. Seeing it on the dineLA roster motivated us to get there more quickly and we were anticipating the tasting menu for $45 a person, something we might not have otherwise tried at this time in lieu of our existing list of restaurants to visit.

IMG_0568Lake Erie white fish with green lentils, spinach and lemon chive butter
and crispy scallop with sweet corn puree and pumpkin seed oil

The minute we sat down, before we could even look at the cocktail list, a brusque waiter was breathing over us asking what we wanted to drink. When we said we needed a minute to look, he was back in less than a minute, and seeing that we were still looking at the menu, he said, “In my male opinion, you should just get two of everything, that’s the best bet.” He was talking about the dinner menu, which we clearly hadn’t gotten to yet, and when we looked up at him befuddled, he asked, “So should I just get that started for you?” He was referring to the dineLA menu, which was the only offering this evening in the restaurant, which differed from most other LA restaurants that offer the dineLA menu side by side with their normal menu. We felt like we were the contestants with bad body odor at a speed dating event. “Put them anywhere” was our first signifier of this but then it went on to include other things like being served plates at breakneck speed, some coming in the hands of the same person who would retrieve the empty ones on the table; tiny two bite portions of the six course dinner; the absence of our waiter during our entire meal as if to say he didn’t imagine we would want anything else like a second glass of wine or need anything else like a new fork for a new course. At one point, the CG had to swipe a fork off a nearby table, as it was clear there was never going to be a replacement. Although the waiter passed our table many times, I had to physically say excuse me to him for another glass of Pinot Gris mid-meal. He did become rather attentive as our dessert plates were placed down, bringing another bottle of water over to fill our glasses when we had nothing else to eat that would parch our thirst further. It was one of the worst experiences I have had in a long time.

Coming in second to that experience was the dineLA lunch at Café Bizou the weekend prior where we were served scorching stuffed mushrooms that contrasted grossly with the cold and gel-like balsamic glaze on the haphazardly sloppy plate and a bowl of French onion soup with a slab of white cheese across the top carrying nary a broiler bubble and non-caramelized onions.

Again, to be fair, I will admit that we also dined at The Palm Restaurant to kick off this jaunt and had a wonderful meal. But while there, we did have to ask for the dineLA menu, which was not offered up to us upon seating. This is another common trait of restaurants during this time that only makes us diners feel like we are “less” than when we have to ask for the special cheap menu after the server has spent two minutes describing the night’s specials. And even though we usually tip on the price of what the meal would have been without the discount, we may become potentially prequalified in the server’s eyes due to our dineLA participation and treated as such, which is yet another humbling experience.

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Whole roasted beef tenderloin with parsley mash, onion ragout
and sauce gribiche and pork tenderloin with dark beer sauce
and apple and parsnip ragout

At the end of our meal last night, we glanced back on the past two years that we have attempted to enjoy dineLA and noticed that the trend continued. Last year there was a bland and unattended to dinner at Chinois that didn’t live up to my hyped up expectations of Wolfgang Puck’s widely touted Chinese and some unmemorable moments at other restaurants that any other time on any other non-discount oriented visit might have pleased me plenty. So I am completely confused as to why chefs, owners and/or restaurateurs of great places even choose to participate in this attempt to put the dining scene in a favorable light when that light is continually dimmed in lieu of unfavorable experiences?

IMG_0571Chocolate mousse with summer berry coulis and
Bavarian blue cheese with rye, honey and
candied walnuts.

My question to some of these restaurateurs is this:

If it is a pain in the ass to get your server’s to act amicably and professionally when they are expecting less tips based on lower bills …

If it is a pain in the ass to serve people you consider lower than your regular guests because in your eyes they are “just trying to get a deal” and therefore deemed unimportant to impress as you don’t expect them to ever come back and pay the normal price…

If it is a pain in the ass to cook large amounts of certain items on a separate parallel menu for potential new regulars to your establishment for a two-week period …

And if it is difficult to cook food of the same quality that you would normally cook on any other given day …

… then why in the world participate in the first place? If it’s just for the PR, then do you falsely believe that even bad PR is good PR?

Because it’s not.

The saddest thing about all of this is the fact that we loved Stefan’s food so much last night (which is why I have gladly showcased it here to illustrate this blog) but we will truly never go back, not with service like that. And I’m pretty sure that defeats the purpose of dineLA’s mission in the first place – that of showcasing the best food that L.A. has to offer by putting each restaurant’s best foot forward.

Boccalone’s Society of Salted Pig Parts

IMG_4995The last time the Cute Gardener and I were in San Francisco we visited the Ferry Building for a food-sampling spree. Our afternoon was spent tasting from all of our favorite places like Hog Island Oyster Co. and Cowgirl Creamery and exploring some new ones like Boccalone, owned by one of my favorite chefs Chris Cosentino. The meat emporium, equipped with fridges hung with hearty sausages and old-fashioned cherry red bologna slicers, featured a salumi cone for a few bucks where you could try samples of yummy versions of salami.

Boccalone Jan 1Having enjoyed it so much as well as having a partner who is also a meat lover, I decided to buy the CG a three-month membership in the store’s Salumi Society for Christmas. For $66 bucks a month, purchased right over the Internet, he would be shipped an ice pack Styrofoam box of four surprise packages of salted pig parts. Who knew what would be in those boxes or what neat dishes could be made from them? I thought it would be fun to be at the mercy of the store’s choices.

The store was also very flexible with shipping. They stated that the boxes would go out a certain time every month but that varied based on their busy-ness so on two occasions I had to call and make sure the boxes wouldn’t arrive on days when the CG would not be in town to receive them. Although they were super accommodating with all my wishes in a very charming small business way as opposed to a huge, non-responsive corporation way, the fact that they aren’t shipping like clockwork could be a potential irritant to some customers.

Boccalone Jan 4The first month’s box was stocked with cotechino, pancetta, salame pepato, and spicy Italian sausage. The traditional meats were great and of good quality and enjoyed with wine and charcuterie as well as used in cooking pasta and other dinner meals. The CG got the willies though from the cotechino, which was a flabby, gelatinous white meat with an odd beige rind. Information that came with it suggested it could be fried and seared on polenta or something of that sort as a flavor additive but he found that it just melted away into nothing when attempted.

IMG_4990The second month’s package was my favorite assortment as it had brown sugar and fennel salame (I am a huge fan of sweetened meat but others, like the CG, may not be). It also had a yummy pate di campagna that was wonderful eaten cold, a slab of herbed lardo, which became the CG’s favorite (although he mentioned it was not from Boccalone but a popular Italian Iberico maker, not that we were complaining!). It also had more spicy Italian sausage, which we had already eaten in the first box. This is an important consideration for those who think they will be getting different items every time.

Boccalone AprThe third and final box contained another repeat – the brown sugar and fennel sausage from the second box. It then provided breakfast sausage that was long, delicious and spicy and lonza – a cured and spiced pork loin that the CG enjoyed immensely being that it was similar to young prosciutto before it turns into ham. The fourth item was called ciccioli and actually looked like a bunch of tender cartilage spines folded together into plastic, or albino dehydrated eels. We had no idea what it was but it tasted bizarre, like eating bleached bones. I got on Twitter and asked Chris what they were and he answered: skins, tendons and meat. I’m still not sure what we were supposed to make with something composed of those three ingredients but it sure authenticated the fact that Chef Cosentino leaves no part of the pig untouched in his culinary world.

Boccalone Jan 5So overall, we were dosed with enough salame to make us feel good, a few premium items to make us feel like our money was worth it, some gross and funky, foreign parts that challenged our sense of adventurousness and a few repeats that gave us an idea of what the store considered its most popular parts. I think in the future I will bypass the Salumi Society and order the things that I know I like right off the website to be delivered on my choice of date.

Swept Back to the Land of Farrah Fawcett Bangs at The Palm

IMG_0554The old American steakhouse basket: something studded with fruit,
French baguette, and Italian skinny breadsticks in a bag.

When I was a little girl in the 1970s I imagined Los Angeles would be a place full of tongue in cheek hijinks and beautiful movie stars who were stylish yet real and either knowingly dramatic or hilariously funny like those on the set of MASH, Love Story, The French Connection, Airplane, Saturday Night Fever, Cannibal Run and all those other slapstick bandit-riddled flicks with Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood and an ape.

IMG_0558Blue cheese crumbled veal chop the size of Fred Flinstone’s club

This is the era I grew up in where titles like Thank God It’s Friday hearkened to a lighter, disco ball-colored world where men and women were fun and flirtatious and everyone was better on roller skates. The movie industry had progressed far past its glamorous, studio roots at that time but it still wasn’t the cheesy, shallow, Vander-plastic surgery-ville that it has largely become today. My nostalgia for that time when I was young and innocently enthralled with Charlie’s Angels is the reason I had such a great time at The Palm Restaurant recently.

IMG_05609 oz. filet of yum

I am not a huge steakhouse girl but do enjoy one or two evenings a year visiting a BOA or Fleming’s to receive some high-class pampered service around illustrious and pricey cuts of meat. Although The Palm Restaurant was on my radar as a steak joint, I likely would have never eaten there as I prefer the aforementioned upscale stag-esque joints for my petite filet cuts. But when the Cute Gardener told me that we could see caricatures all over the walls at The Palm of actors and actresses harkening back to 1975 and that it was a West Hollywood classic, I changed my mind.  We opted for a visit during dineLA in case we needed a lower price point to justify a lower expectation when it came to the food.

IMG_0559Asparagus fritti was a twist alongside the usual sauteed mushrooms.

But we shouldn’t have worried because the food was fine. Classic steakhouse fare of meat and the prototypical sides pleased us plenty but it was the cartoons on the walls and the old school atmosphere of a slightly more authentic time that contented me most. Brooke Shields and Mary Tyler Moore winked down at me with the feathered hair of my youth and Clint’s wrinkly eyes crinkled across the wall. In one plush leather booth, a couple was celebrating their anniversary and handed a special, schmaltzy card by their familiar waiter. At least three men in my line of vision were wearing plastic bibs for their incoming lobsters. A swanky-suited couple sparkled to the right of me while a tee shirt wearing grandpa licked his creamed spinach spoon to my left. We had dressed a bit glitzy and ordered in a classic vein and I was enjoying the hell out of my blue cheese stuffed olives swimming in my massive martini.

IMG_0561Can’t get more classic than cheesecake and flourless chocolate
swimming in raspberry sauce.

It was just the kind of overall feel good experience you can’t buy over pretentious cocktails and sprayed on airs in other places. A feel good evening was had by all as the burly male waiters with ponytails and handlebar mustaches whizzed by the Flo and Fannie waitresses who could have been there for years amongst the consistent clink of oversized glasses and swaying ice cubes.

Bloody Independence Day Hash

IMG_6558

Although we appreciate the freedoms we have in our daily lives, the Cute Gardener and I tend to cringe from the normal Independence Day crowds and social mores on the 4th of July. American national pastime rituals like parades, barbecues, carnivals, fairs, picnic, grassy concerts and large outdoor convergences are just not our style. But meat is definitely our style so instead of the typical burgers and dogs, we tend to seek out our own versions of protein extravaganza. Last year it was salt and pepper crab and Peking duck in San Francisco’s Chinatown and this year, well; let’s just say both our marathon watching of the show Dexter (which inspired the CG) coupled with my admiration for Chef Chris Cosentino duly compelled us…

…see ever since watching Chris’ appearance on Top Chef Masters last year, I have had a grueling obsession with trying real blood pudding. He made it from scratch on one of his challenges causing me to subscribe to his daily Instragram feed which is a never-ending offal heaven of nightly portraits from his restaurant Incanto, of which I am devoted to trying at least once in my lifetime. Yes, I am one of those weird girls who will show photos of duck guts to the CG as if it were a shoe catalog, wondering aloud how we can possibly replicate the dish at home or making it known that it’s on my official “to eat one day” list.

IMG_6556Blood pudding (or black pudding, or blood sausage) is a type of link made by cooking blood with a filler of ingredients like herbs, spices, bread, suet, and nuts until it is thick enough to congeal when cold. Sound appetizing? Well, it actually is and we were lucky enough to find a package of it ready to go at a local authentic down and dirty butcher in a seedy strip mall.

IMG_6554Inspired by our non-traditional holiday, the CG decided to take the nonconformity up a notch by making breakfast for dinner utilizing the blood sausage as replacement meat in an upscale and adult version of ham, hash and eggs. We simply cooked the sausage in a toaster oven until the outsides were firm and crisp and the insides a soft and steaming spreadable and crumbling mass. For the hash, he fried potatoes in vegetable oil and then added diced bits of Swiss chard stems and leaves. When that had all sautéed down into a nice and even hash, he made small holes in the pot and cooked up some eggs right in the mix. The beauty of this preparation is the way the eggs ooze all over the hash ready to be speared up by a fork already holding some of the blood sausage – one of those meals where everything goes together into the mouth creating a bold burst of flavor and texture. Kind of like the fireworks we enjoyed later from the privacy of our bedroom window overlooking at least fifteen separate shows in the sky throughout the valley and cities of Los Angeles.

Beyond Schnitzel and Brats at Bier Beisl

IMG_0533Walnut, pretzel and French bread basket with tangy
and zesty red pepper and potato spreads.

Ok, I’ll admit it. The first trip we took to Bier Beisl in Beverly Hills WAS plump full of sausage and schnitzel.

IMG_0534The best chicken liver I have had anywhere to date: silken on the tongue,
accentuated by tiny diced and spiced apple and accompanied by a
steaming,  fresh baked flaky popover straight from the oven.

But in my defense, there were many good reasons for this. For one, even though Wolfgang Puck’s been around forever, we had yet to find an elevated Austrian restaurant in Southern California. Secondly, the Cute Gardener has a palate thing for Patina trained chefs and we heard that Bernhard Mairinger was one of the hyper-masterful alumni of that chef’s club so we wanted to get a glimpse of his particular style of Austrian. And finally, it’s hard to deny the opportunity to try fried, battered pork and plump white links simmered in milk straight from a true son of the country himself.

 IMG_0535An egg-y and spright beef tartare with pickled bits and a quail egg,
spiking extraordinarily high flooding of the addiction gene in the brain.

And it was great! So great in fact, that we broke our “we never visit a restaurant twice” rule for our traditionally ironic non-American food Fourth of July anti-holiday feast after taking a glimpse at all the new items now offered on the menu.

 IMG_0536Happy wieners that ooze juice when pierced on some nice
pickled mustard with fluffy fresh horseradish.

Only this time, we eschewed the dining room to sit at the bar where we had a personal view of Chef Mairinger and his team as they uber-calm and meticulously delivered us plate after plate of exquisite tastes without one single flaw in execution.

IMG_0537Even though these sweetbreads were fried the inner texture was creamy
perfection.  The nuggets were accentuated by hot, popping
cherry tomatoes, crisp green onions and mellow potato cubes.

The thing about Mairinger is that he articulates the flavors and customs of Austrian cuisine but in a voice that is truly his own. It’s one thing for a master chef to have reign over a restaurant like Patina whose only caveat is to make tantalizing and delicious food from a cornucopia of ingredients and options and do it ideally and well every single time. (And yes, I realize this is a huge thing to accomplish for any chef.) But to have a chef boldly create from one specific region and genre based on classics that are age old with a historically defined legacy and completely elevate each dish to a fresh frontier of upper echelon in both taste and presentation is pretty courageous.

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Fork tender beef and two ways swimming in a savory gravy with
grilled artichoke and a sturdy bread pudding.

Our pre-scouting of the menu created an “eyes bigger than our stomach” ordering strategy. Bread basket with spreads, two appetizers, a wiener mid-course and three entrees later, Mairinger opened his mouth to tell us that he was completely impressed with our consumption and sent over a fine nightcap of plum liqueur to send us off.

 IMG_0539My second favorite dish of the night after the chicken liver, this pork belly
came topped with crunchy fried onions, swimming in a warm bowl of
spinach infused spaetzle and quail eggs. You mix the whole lot together
and have a cream-laden version of ham and eggs married to macaroni
and cheese.  I told the Chef I could eat this every day for breakfast and
he said  that although it would indeed be a good start to the
day, I might have to go back to bed after.

The food coma on the couch later was entirely worth it and I have decided that Bier Beisl is indeed my favorite restaurant of 2013.

Truly Holy Mole

IMG_6520I’ll never forget the holiday party a decade back where I had my first bites of the glorious dark river of deep deliciousness that is mole. My introduction came in the form of an El Salvadoran variety, which I learned was mole poblano (outside of Mexico, the most traditional version). My gracious hostess, an articulate architect, explained to me that she had cooked it like it was done in her home country, the sauce simmered all day in a massive pot with whole parts of chicken thrown in bones and all. My juicy breast was so tender in its day long stock of densely, rich goo that I was forever spoiled towards that ilk of the dish where even though the color resembles a chocolate bar, the flavors are more nuanced and smoky with only a hint of the sweetness underneath.

I’ve never found a comparable form of mole since and probably never will.  I have made my own homemade mole through a recipe given to me by my good friend Tina that incorporates the store bought jar of sauce with fresher home refrigerator ingredients that is great on a whim but I’ve stayed away from the daunting task of creating it from scratch.

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So when the Cute Gardener found Rocio’s Mole de los Dioses (yes, they are that confident that they are providing sauce of the gods), I was delighted, not only in finding a restaurant that was truly original and unique but that also served forms of mole for every taste bud. Like typical Southern California Mexican restaurants, the location was in a gritty, neighborhood strip mall. Unlike traditional Mexican restaurants, the menu offered things I have never seen before like bright green freshly made nopalito cactus tortillas. They even serve a small pot of boiling hot shrimp and chili broth with a baked cracker to wake up the palate before the mole parade ensues.

IMG_6516They have thirteen types of mole on the menu ranging from the traditional basic chocolate to varieties containing everything from pumpkin seeds and pistachios to coffee, white cocoa, mexcal cactus and wine.  We ordered the mole sampler so we could taste three kinds at once. The signature Mole de los Dioses made with cuitlacoche was my favorite. For those not in the know, cuitlacoche is corn smut. That’s right, it’s the funky black moldy stuff that grows on kernels that is a Mexican delicacy much like sucking russet colored marrow out of chicken bones or eating crab brains out of the head shell is for other cultures. This was my favorite version. The other two were a super sweet and chipotle-esque smoky Oaxacan and a green Mole Verde with pepitas. All very interesting and yummy and served with those fat nopalito tortillas in raw form for dipping.

I also ordered a plate of mole poblano on chicken and the chicken was dry like in every other restaurant entrée version of mole I’ve had since trying my supreme first timer.

IMG_6518A plate of empanadas was also highly eccentric in that the fried pockets were fluffy rather than dense. The fillings of more corn smut, squash blossoms, and cheese were light and salad-like, different than the empanadas I am used to typically overly saturated with beans.

If I weren’t so full, I would have tried the Diosa del Campo (cream of grasshoppers and mexcal soup) or the fried plantains with tequila sweet cream topped with broiled sesame seeds for dessert. Maybe a chance to go back with another adventurous palate exists in my future.

Over the Top and Tweaked by Lust at Waterloo and City

IMG_0516I’ve been hankering to try Brendan Collins’ food at his passion pit Waterloo & City ever since sampling the menu at Larry’s by the Sea in Venice, which he created. Larry’s is the single elevated place to get tasty food on the boardwalk and Collins helped in creating offerings there such as flat bread pizzas, quick yet savory arancini balls and sophisticated bites of pork belly amongst a culinary beachside scene that typically fancies greasy pizzas, below average tapas with beer and overcooked burgers. So when the Cute Gardener told me that Collins’ real restaurant resided in Culver City and coined itself a traditional British gastropub, it was added to my must-try list.

A year later and I’ve finally been anointed by Collins’ special brand of bowler hat wearing, sumptuous food cooking that I could easily revisit time and again. Everything about the restaurant is comforting – not in a grandmotherly sense but more of a jovial “meet me and the boys at the end of the work day for some great grub” kind of way.

Named for the London underground railway line Collins traversed in his youth, the restaurant does bustle with the constant ebb and flow of boisterous guests enjoying some delicious food and drink together. The super casual yet simultaneously modern ambiance is accented by English meadow graphic wallpaper in cool gray monotones and the feeling like you could have stumbled in literally off the beaten track from some roving European countryside to order up your Shepherd’s and pot pies.

IMG_0517Collins says about owning a restaurant, “If you aren’t ready to sacrifice your entire life and life savings then don’t do it.”

This focus and determination comes flying through in entirely original creative dishes that pop out of the menu beyond the expected gourmet-tinged pub fare. First off, I am a sucker for high-end charcuterie. Never have I seen such an array in one place from smoked salmon, fried egg, and gribiche sauce terrines to duck rillettes with orange jelly and toasted country bread to duck and walnut pate with orange-apricot marmalade. I almost ordered the rabbit and pistachio terrine until I heard the waiter’s mouth drop the special lamb terrine bomb on me. The exquisite little square, hemmed in by a ribbon of carrot and featuring raw and tender chunks of my favorite meat, completely tickled my fancy.

IMG_0518If that weren’t enough, our entrees were over the top decadent as well, particularly another special of the night boasting a homemade pappardelle with chunks of garlic-swimming escargot, tufts of bone marrow and swaths of prosciutto.

IMG_0519My dinner came with three massive seared king scallops atop a sweet pile of corn succotash and tortellini also stuffed with creamy cheese and corn. Perhaps to some it was a completely indulgent, semi-verging on the ridiculous gluttonous dish of corn, but I hardly could raise an objection when each bite had me smiling and cooing for more.

I realized that I have absolutely no problem diving into the deep end of sinful, pleasurable eating when it comes wrapped in wholesome concoctions made by a chef with such flair.