Inspired by Heavenly Hominy

 

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Neal Fraser’s Pork Posole

Last weekend at a party, a mutual friend of ours was talking to the Cute Gardener and I about having a hard time making reservations for a super trendy restaurant run by a trio of guys who have become emperors of fad food and venues in Los Angeles. At one point, she asked if we’d join her if she ever succeeded in securing a table. We politely declined and admitted we were particularly picky about where we spend our time and our dollars when it comes to eating out. We aren’t the types to pull over at any old place while on a road trip and we tend not to frequent a place more than once unless it completely blows us away. We rarely, if ever, eat breakfast out because it is always better at home. The CG makes dinner for us most nights and honestly, most of the time, even his most basic dishes taste ten times better than anything we might find in a local bistro or gastropub. We spend a lot of time researching restaurants before we step through their doors. For us eating out is not about casually finding sustenance, it is about the ever elusive potential to encounter nirvana and then to be so inspired that we want to steal the ideas and replicate them at home. We want to be shocked, cooked for, surprised and delighted and we budget heartily to be able to do so like some people budget for adrenaline adventures, fancy toys, vacation homes or expensive clothing.

This was the case recently after a dinner at Chef Neal Fraser’s Redbird where we discovered a smoky, rust colored posole thick with rich pork and topped with pork belly. It was more of a robust chili than a traditional stew fortified with chewy nuggets of hominy. The restaurant is located in the rectory building of what was L.A.’s first archdiocese Catholic cathedral so I even felt the blessings of angelic intervention with each bite of food. Fraser had evoked something heavenly in my mouth.

Could it be true that I hadn’t had hominy—the distinctly meaty dried corn that is soaked and plumped to perfection in a mineral lime bath—since I was pregnant with my now 24-year-old daughter? I used to crave hominy in that weird, idiosyncratic and random way of mothers-to-be, stuffed into quesadillas at midnight with scoops of grocery store potato salad smothered on top.

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My inspired posole tacos

My reunion with Fraser’s trumped up hominy was so harmonious; I chose to delve into some posole making myself the next week on my night to cook. I found a fat can of hominy in my local Mexican food aisle and made this version going halves on the chilies. It was delicious as a soup but even better two and three days later, after it had thickened into the perfect topping for quick, impromptu lunch tacos dressed with radish, cabbage and cotija cheese.

The Age of the Restaurant Gimmick

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Gorgeous apple starter from Maude

We live in the age of the gimmicky restaurant; an age that consistently leaves me hankering for the good old days when a meal meant a straightforward meal. I realize that competition in the culinary world is fierce and that the food business is one of the hardest industries to carve a living within—so I understand why chefs and restaurateurs are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to stand out from the crowd so as to attract their share of diners. But, sometimes, it goes too far as the Cute Gardener and I have seen all too frequently of late.

Take San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions, with its Americanized version of the dim sum joint, for example. It has been lauded as the greatest thing since the reversed foie gras ban. So like every devout foodie, we tried to get reservations when visiting the city last summer. The reservations game was a feat in itself as the CG spent many a day online trying to finagle our way in. Our actual visit was tepid at best. While we enjoyed a few of the items we ordered off the menu, the roving carts of additional options were a confusing mix of seemingly random dishes that didn’t pair well together or make choosing a wine for the evening very easy. I imagine they are shooting themselves in the foot by missing out on bottle wine sales because of the inability of guests to foresee what they might be eating. Also, after watching carts stroll the room multiple times hawking fresh fare like ceviche, it doesn’t seem that appealing to grab one on its fourth or fifth time around. By the end of the evening, all the cart items are offered in a sort of blow out sale, which made us wonder why we weren’t able to just know what we are being offered at the beginning of our meal. Overall, the concept just didn’t fly across cultures. At least in a real dim sum restaurant, everything is cohesive and makes sense.

Another restaurant that tried the dim sum concept was The Church Key in Los Angeles. We had heard rave reviews about the place from friends and were looking forward to eating in the brightly lit dining room we had seen on the show Best New Restaurant. On the show, there had been flaming cocktails and roving carts offering so many side dishes that many patrons had to turn their “dim done” cards up on the tables so as not to be constantly disturbed. On the night we went, we visited the website for a look at some of their signature drinks and dishes and read about the restaurant’s fun style which apparently carried right down to the interesting flight attendant-like uniforms on the servers. When we arrived though, it was as if we had entered a time warp to a totally different restaurant that had kidnapped The Church Key’s space and replaced it with a new identity. No flight attendant uniforms clad the blasé wait staff. One cart of food came by our table during the entire two hours we were there and the falafel we chose off of it was gluey and seemed like it had been re-fried after being made a couple days ago. Although we saw people with some of the better-known gimmicks, like the bowl of shared alcoholic punch, it was nary to be found on a menu. The room was dark. It was as if the owners and chefs had gone on vacation and the kids were left to tend house and decided to do their own thing, including throwing leftovers in the microwave. Or perhaps the restaurant was simply suffering from being born with too many gimmicks that didn’t holdover or translate as viable or economically sound options in the long run.

Last week we went to Maude, which is the high-end restaurant brainchild of Australian Chef Curtis Stone in homage to his grandmother. The gimmick is relatively simple: take one seasonal ingredient and make it shine across nine or ten dishes done creatively in haute gourmet fashion. We like Curtis and were looking forward to eating there for the year  it took us to finally get a reservation. Because it is so difficult to get a reservation, it is hard to plan a visit there around an ingredient of your choosing. We missed out on figs, morels, and other things we might have preferred to the apples we were served all evening when we finally got in. We had a marvelous evening there and the food, for the most part, was superb, but it was decidedly hard to eat apple dishes all evening with a high level of enthusiasm when we were forking over two hundred bucks a pop for the meal. Out first, and possibly only, opportunity to eat food from a chef we’ve long admired was perhaps demeaned by the proliferance of one certain taste in every dish.

We know novelty has its merits and tricks can be fun, but our palates are starting to suffer from the constant barrage of foodie trends, leaving us hungering for the old fashioned, the tried and true, and the solid. We are left in want of just simple good food, done well, alongside something to drink that matches and a server who knows the proper ratio between professional and friendly. Thank goodness there are still places around like Patina.

Dim Sum Decadence

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One big foodie perk of living in Los Angeles is the close proximity to an assortment of dim sum restaurants. The Cute Gardener and I are usually such delicate eaters but when it comes to our occasional dim sum mornings, all bets are off. We will typically hook dim sum onto a trip out of town or a holiday morning with visiting relatives as a way to give ourselves permission to indulge. Then we will land at a table at one of the various joints and pile it full with aluminum steamer bowls and little plates heaped high with food from the incessantly passed carts, only halting our chew for a quick sip of water or boiling green tea every once in a while. We know the trick to eating dim sum lies in a rapid pace; otherwise we will fill up our bellies too quickly to finish all the delights we still have yet to taste.

I find it interesting that upon research I discovered that dim sum began as a way for people to engage in yum cha, or tea tasting. In fact, in Cantonese, going to dim sum means going to drink tea. In America, it seems the opposite – dim sum is known almost as an Asian form of tapas, the tea being secondary or non-existent on the table at all. It almost seems strange to my Caucasian palate to drink a hot brewed beverage with various hot dishes. Regardless of the bastardization my mouth creates while engaging in this ancient mealtime, it is one of the true highlights of my life.

My favorite dim sum dishes are as follows:

1. Pork bao buns, which are baked, doughnut like glistening rounds stuffed with sweet barbecued pork. There are also steamed buns, white and fluffy with the same type of pork filling, which are equally prized. You can find these freshly made in Chinese grocery stores or to-go at dim sum joints take-away counters for under a dollar apiece. We always have a few in our freezer at home for convenient lunches.

2. Shumai, a small, dense, steamed dumpling with pork or shrimp shriveled into a thin, wheat flour skin.

3. Xiao long bao (XLB), or soup dumplings, which are closed, doughy pockets enveloping hot zesty broth that you poke a chopstick hole into and sip out over a wide spoon.

4. Har gow, which consists of shrimp chunks wrapped in a translucent wheat starch dumpling. It can also be made with tender bits of scallop instead and we are always delighted to encounter that version.

5. Teochew-style dumplings, which are a zesty mixture of diced up pork, peanuts, garlic, chives, dried shrimp, and Chinese mushrooms in glutinous rice wraps just begging to be dipped into a swish of slick chili oil.

6. Guotie, or potstickers, dumplings that are stuffed with meat and cabbage, steamed and then fried so that they deliver a crunchy texture to counteract the mushy middle. Perfect with a dark mushroom soy.

7. Rice noodle rolls, which are wide, flat noodles that are steamed and rolled around meats and sprinkled with sesame seeds or accentuated by greens—shrimp being our usual preference.

8. Egg tarts for dessert, which are miniature little baked pastry cups filled with egg custard.

But this is only a small list from an enormity of choice from buns stuffed with sweet bean paste, fried chicken feet, steamed meatballs, spare ribs, glutinous rice wrapped in a lotus leaf and richly sweet, spring rolls to turnip, taro and water chestnut cakes, congee, fried sugarcane shrimp balls, sliced roasted duck and pork, and a myriad of vibrant vegetables like bok choy, spinach, broccoli and other lesser known Asian greens. For some reason, we never seem to make it to the green stuff because we are too busy stuffing our faces with all the steamed and fried foods that we don’t normally find ourselves able to procure.

Dim sum can be dangerous, both on the heart and on the hips if indulged in too frequently. In that respect, it is also dangerously cheap (between .75 to $2.50 for most dishes) so it’s probably best that most of the greatest dim sum restaurants are still a bit of a car drive away from us in L.A.’s historic Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley.

Awed by Arizona’s Indigenous Ingredients

Kai 01My favorite dish of 2014 (so far…)

I am always delighted when I am taken by surprise on a culinary excursion. I am relatively spoiled to live in Los Angeles, a city where fine food options crop up practically weekly and represent a plethora of my favorite cuisines from Japanese to Italian to French all within thirty miles of my home. But there is a price to pay for living in a foodie metropolis that is written frequently about in the annals of serious bibles such as Zagat – you tend to find the trendy bandwagon full of similar experimentation across restaurants with chefs all simultaneously expounding poetically on the latest hot ingredient such as charred Brussels sprouts, chunks of linear pork belly, squid ink pastas and cold uni amuses. Not that I am complaining, all of these things are delicious. It’s just nice to be jostled out of the usual tempo and thrown into something unexpected and unusual.

Which is what occurred for me on a recent trip to Arizona. Of all the places in the world, little did I think I would discover my favorite dish of the year, strange surprises, as well as a cornucopia of new Native American tastes in a state that boasts dry bush, desert land, a petrified forest, the saguaro cactus, and one of our seven natural world wonders over any real foodie notoriety. We traversed the southwest for a week and boy, did we eat well. Surely we were a tad bit more gluttonous than normal knowing that at the end of the trip, we would be scaling the Grand Canyon on the hike of our lives—a once in a lifetime opportunity to burn about 5,000 calories in one four hour period. This made for happy tasting and an adventurous spirit that comes when one is on the road.

IMG_1709Pine butter

The best part of the journey was discovering the ingredients of the indigenous peoples and seeing them respectfully incorporated into our meal experiences from the low brow to the high brow and everywhere in between.

Some highlights:

The bizarre Sonoran hot dog in Tucson—a unique frank stuffed into a pita-type bun and filled with normal tomato and mustard condiments but then also loaded with Mexican adornments like chopped onion, black beans and crema. Sounds disgusting yet both the Cute Gardener and I admit to latent cravings that still linger.

We enjoyed an exquisite butter studded with verdant pine flecks from the renowned forests surrounding Flagstaff in the surprising environs of a French bistro’s bread course.

IMG_1811 Pork Belly

Also in Flagstaff was dinner at Tinderbox, which paired odd foods together in ways that, once tried, seemed completely natural like caramelized pork belly (hands down the best version of this dish I have tried yet) on blue cheese grits and pork tenderloin spiced with Asian elements and then laid atop a bed of whipped sweet potatoes.

We spent an evening in five-star glory at a restaurant in Chandler called Kai where I found my FAVORITE dish of the year in a seared Hudson Valley foie gras with Sonoran spiced funnel cake and the most decadent, thick whipped banana cream I have ever had which will surely haunt my dreams for years to come. We also took advantage of being outside the California border by eating two more foie gras dishes on our trek since it is no longer legal in our home state. The Kai bread plate alone touted several local ingredients that caused the traditional base course to become elevated and special. This included a doughy, plains flatbread and a grainy muffin studded with nuts and pipian seeds. Other first-time-ever-tasted additions over the course of the evening were tepary beans, spiced pepitas and cholla buds.

The experience reminded me that it’s nice to step outside your comfort, cultural zone every once in a while, leaping with a palate’s blind faith into the realms of something entirely perhaps new to you, but regionally historic—and for good reason.

Girasol Reignites My Foraging Fire

IMG_1480Marinated and grilled pork satay with caramelized onion puree,
California olive oil, grilled lemon and fennel pollen

The Cute Gardener and I enjoy seeking out and trying the food of Top Chef contestants whenever we get a chance. Not only are we avid fans of the show, we tend to come away each season with favorites like Paul Qui (whose food we have yet to taste) and Stefan Richter (whose food we tasted and liked but whose restaurant service was highly dissatisfactory). I liked CJ Jacobsen when he appeared on the show but not as much as others so when I saw us slated to dine at his Studio City restaurant Girasol recently, I was only mildly anticipating the meal. After all, the menu seemed rich with dishes I’ve seen an overabundance of lately on the California cuisine landscape. Was I wrong.

IMG_1483Rabbit rillettes with moist roasted carrot, root veggies, green almonds and sweet buckwheat tuile

What I learned very swiftly after receiving our first dish was that CJ’s artistry comes not so much in orchestrating the wildly creative entree or the ground-breaking and new appetizer, but in treating common dishes with such whimsy and foraging fervor that you are introduced to delightful flavor combinations and gleeful mouthfuls that you were not expecting in the least. Each plate was articulated in what is clearly the chef’s own voice—an earthy and casual simplicity built through completely complex and extraordinary ingredients found in the Angeles National Forest and our own backyards.

IMG_1481Dried fava bean puree with house chorizo, cherry tomato, parsley and grilled flatbread

Everyone who knows me knows how much I am fond of foragers. I constantly make the CG pull over whenever we encounter wild food along the road. It was very cool to see the fruits of Jacobsen’s own treks into the woods on our table such as a slight dusting of citrus yellow fennel pollen on succulent, light pork or the slivered, tart green almonds that spiked and livened our chunks of tender rabbit. A buckwheat tuile immediately had me wanting to think of other ways to use the slightly sweet ingredient in other applications back home like crepes, crusts and spreads. It didn’t surprise me to learn that CJ spent time working for one of my favorites—acclaimed Chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma Restaurant—a hero in the soulful, foraging department.

IMG_1482 Whole fried snapper, crispy greens, fermented Fresno chili,
sauce of kumquat, sorrel and citrus

A highlight of the evening was the whole fried snapper, which arrived with a curved tail as if plucked mid-swish from the lake. Atop a pile of bitter fried greens and alongside a mild sweet sauce, it was a refreshing departure from my fried fish oeuvre of late at Asian restaurants that seem to favor too hot sauces and heavy oils, all of which typically compete with the flakiness of the fish. I would order this one again.

IMG_8222Cute Gardener-grown arugula flowers

After dining at Girasol I spent a Saturday afternoon chomping on arugula flowers in our garden, suddenly seized with the propensity to look at every specimen as a potential ingredient. Much like the leaves, the flowers were peppery but had sweetness mingled with bitterness and smelled slightly like peanut butter.

IMG_8225 My kale, swiss chard, arugula flower, arugula, and mushroom salad with
walnut oil and foraged grapefruit vinaigrette.

That joyous discovery landed in our salad bowls later at dinnertime. CJ’s passion for finding in the field has definitely infected our household in the most positive of ways. It also made me realize that you can find new things constantly, even if you think you are looking in all of the same old places.

 

Momofukud Up

Momofuku Milk Bar 131210-01I spent four days on a Chinese macrobiotic cleanse a few weeks back while the Cute Gardener went to New York City for a business trip. When I told him I was all clean from the Thanksgiving food onslaught, he told me I better be ready to get dirtied up again because he was bringing home cookies from the Momofuku Milk Bar. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I just spent all this time clearing out my organs, skin and pores so I will go light on the cookies when he brings them home,” I immediately starting feeling the joy a cocaine addict gets knowing he’s going to score later in the evening while imagining just how many cookies I could possibly stuff into my newly minted and hollowed out gut.

Momofuku Milk Bar 131210-02Because you see, these weren’t ordinary cookies but indeed more like crack. In fact, the Momofuku Milk Bar actually makes a dessert called Crack Pie, served in a small cardboard sheath akin to an alcoholic’s brown paper liquor store bag made of nothing but brown sugar, copious amounts of butter and cream.

I stumbled upon the Milk Bar and its noted pastry chef Christina Tosi while watching an addictive television series called Mind of a Chef about the creative genius of Chef David Chang. Chang is one of my favorite chefs because he takes every day ordinary things and makes them extraordinary. It’s not that watching him make gnocchi out of cheap, grocery store ramen or doing amazing things with dried milk powder makes me drool; it’s the crafty thought process behind taking things that he was forced to eat growing up and then turning them into wizardry combined with new ingredients from his grown up palate that stokes my admiration. Non-pretentious and joyous creation is what made him famous more so than being just another guy cooking up delicious dishes. His zest for the craft shows and takes me back to the days when I sat in my own bedroom with a Ready Bake Oven, powder chocolate bags, an adjacent science laboratory kit and lots of bottles of lotions, oils and half used lipsticks. I loved pouring them all together and lighting them on fire in ways only a former latchkey kid can truly grasp the bliss within. Only Chang’s grown up combinations have landed him with over half a dozen restaurants where the fun continues.

He chose a perfect person to hold court at Milk Bar in Tosi because she does equally zany, fun in the preschool playground things such as making ice cream flavors inspired by the taste of leftover cereal milk and banana cream pie from the gross, black rotten bananas that her experimentation has taught her produces the absolutely best flavor.

This is why I wanted to taste her cookies so bad, especially the odd pure corn version that was touted as a densely, sugared, sweet creamed corn bread. That and the blueberries and cream beast that was so moist it had the heft of a baseball in my hand. And the double chocolate sin fest that held the perfect ratio of crispy outer crunch to inner, soft and mushy core. The crack pie never made it back to California, which is probably best because by the time I downed the three baked-to-perfection cookies (still amazing after two days in a plastic bag and a flight across the states) not an ounce of my internal cleanse perfection remained – only a severely worthwhile sweets high and a desire to visit New York City soon if only to lap up the Milk Bar’s mile high cakes next.

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.

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.

A Pair of Piccolos and Prized Pig Ears

I have eaten at a dozen Italian restaurants in the Los Angeles area over the past year, but the one that reminds me most of being in the actual country of Italy is Piccolo in Venice. This is partly due to its location which, like many of the places I loved in Italy, is a quick pedestrian turn off of a main road (in this case the freak filled boardwalk) onto an alley walking street and voila, you feel as if you’ve entered a charming Italian home. An intimate room where a fireplace glows, waiters are snappy in the dim light to take your coat, and once you sit and start to settle the smells from the small kitchen float to the nose full of deep dark meats and doughy delirium.

Piccolo was also the first restaurant I ever tried in Venice, marking both a friend’s birthday dinner and the night I decided I was going to move to the beach to finish my novel so perhaps maintains an elevated rosy hue in my mind for those reasons. In any case, I wanted to take the Cute Gardener there for a while now and finally got a chance to this past weekend.

Overall, our meal was as delicious as I remembered. It included adorable, tiny black balls of squid ink bread with verdant olive oil; a moist focaccia I actually liked (nine times out of ten I don’t); a yummy sweetbread patty starter that arrived atop a dollop of polenta underneath a runny quail egg with tangy marsala sauce; a subtle quail sugo spaghettini; and a top-notch beef tenderloin agnolotti of perfectly thin pockets of meat swimming in an aggressive garlic oil and rosemary sauce. The only downfall to Piccolo is that it is very expensive per dish when you consider the actual amount of food you are getting so we decided to skip a third course, headed straight to a tiny mascarpone and ganache dessert and ended up seeking out another place in town for more food.

As we were eating at place number two for the evening, we were thinking about the price of Piccolo. It doesn’t happen to me often, but when I thought of the maybe eight tiny pieces of pasta in my bowl, I got a little frustrated. How can anyone possibly get sated on something so scant?

So we decided to do an experiment. The next day, after ice-skating in Santa Monica, we went to Piccolo’s supposedly cheap and cheerful sister Hostaria del Piccolo, owned by the same people but offering simpler and less sophisticated fare. It seemed to be doing well considering they had opened a second Hostaria location in Venice just a few weeks ago.

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Lured in by the egg dishes on the brunch menu, we ended up beginning with pig ears instead and what a beautiful thing they were. Super julienned and fried perfectly so that you got some crunch but didn’t lose your teeth, the generous pile was served with a side of mellow salsa verde that provided a perfect soothe to the fry. We were also instantly impressed by the service, almost as if we were still in the upscale version from the night before.

IMG_4690We tried a sausage and pepper pizza although were surprised when the “pepper” came as really just a drizzle pureed pepper sauce on the already cooked pie. The dough was a little soft for my taste but the nicely sliced sausage was wonderfully integrated with the melted cheese and the green olives. I discovered that green olives are a perfect salty compliment to melted cheese and dough.

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The spinach tagliatelle pasta was homey and savory like chicken noodle soup albeit a tad bit overdone on the noodles. All in all, for an impromptu lazy Sunday stop for a bite it was above the norm. It was almost akin to my enjoyment of Pizza Antica, other Sunday funday faves.

The bottom line is I love both Piccolos. One, I can go to once a year or on special occasions when I have a bigger budget to order more dishes and the other I can duck into with friends for a scrumptious, eight dollar plate of pig ears. I can equally see myself doing both.

Piccolo was chosen by Zagat as one of Los Angeles’ Top Ten Restaurants in 2012. Not Top Ten Italian restaurants, but restaurants in general. That is certainly saying something … that I have excellent taste … (said with a wink and a smile as I try to determine what else I am going to make on a green olive pizza at home for my next restaurant-inspired challenge…)