Rebirth of the Palate at Kali

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It was two years ago this month that I lost my mother to a swift and sudden battle with a rare form of cancer. Since then, my activities on this food blog have been spotty at best. When one is enthralled in the grief that follows the loss of a loved one, time becomes veiled in a marshmallow fog moving at light speed one instant and slow as molasses the next. Then one morning you wake, clothed in the realization that life must go on. It occurs to me now that my lack of luster for celebrating food here has been intricately tied to the absence of my mother, who for many years was my blog’s biggest fan. Every time I would write an entry I would find her comments shining on my page as she reveled in the culinary adventures of the Cute Gardener and myself. She was so thrilled that I had found my perfect mate and that we were fellow foodies eating our way through a fantastic life together. Every time I wrote after her death, I would feel the gap in my life where her happiness for me had been so vividly present.

But the other night, the Cute Gardener and I dined at a splendid new restaurant in Los Angeles called Kali and my zest for presenting my palate on the page was rekindled. Fittingly, Kali is the Hindu goddess whose name means “She who is death” in Sanskrit. She sweeps into our lives to shake up our notions of time and with her appearance comes the inevitability of great change. She shakes our equilibrium and asks us to topple all that is static in our existence so that we can make way for the new. This luxurious and innovative meal ushered me back to the land of the living and reignited my desire to share my life in food again.

After a few years of watching the restaurant scene become embroiled in trends like charred Brussels sprouts, potted meats in Mason jars, kale, deviled eggs and pork belly everything, it was refreshing to find a chef doing creative things with bitter notes and unusual ingredients that veered more toward the kinds of food I like to eat. There was a discernable lack of overarching fat and a respectful nod toward the delightful and unordinary, making Kali my pick for best L.A. restaurant so far for 2016.

Some highlights included:

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A gorgeous, silken soup where wicked nightshade vegetables of eggplant, peppers and tomato were roasted to bursting then covered with tomato puree.

Soft and puffy mini rosemary infused loaves of bread accompanied by herbal whipped butter.

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A black barley “risotto” served al dente with tart black garlic and strands of wheatgrass; the nuttiness of the grains spiked by chips off the disk of nearly burnt, toasted taleggio cheese that topped its middle.

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A luscious hunk of black cod over fig and corn streusel.

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And my favorite of the night: cubes of gorgeously fried duck breast reminiscent of the texture of perfect pork belly with a surprising sauce of coffee, honey and cocoa, daubed with curls of purple carrots.

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For dessert, a creamy meringue ice cream was sprinkled with shaved frozen egg yolk tableside. Amazing!

It was the perfect meal to mark my entrance back into a lust for food writing, eating and recognizing that at the end of every cycle of death is a concurrent wave of rebirth.

 

 

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.

Wings of Desire

IMG_9557Skate, like rays, are part of the shark family, with pectoral fins shaped like wings. The meat on the wings is partly gelatinous incorporated into tender and light flesh, which when cooked produces ripples of soft succulence that could be easily overcooked but when isn’t, is divine. I discovered this for the first time while dining recently at Patina with the Cute Gardener before seeing an equally angelic performance by otherworldly pianist Martha Argerich. My introduction was impressive as Patina chefs seemed to braise the dish, infuse it even, with subtle overtones of celery cream, caper berry and brown butter emulsion that allowed it to lazily melt upon my tongue.

I was happy to discover a new undersea creature for my repertoire as I have been enjoying the experimentation with varieties other than my normal old salmon when making my weekly meals for the Cute Gardener and learning that exotic sounding fishes and ocean denizens are nothing to be afraid of. The trick with fishes, even more so than meats, is to know what technique to use to cook the more fragile varieties and the precise amount of time to do so. I was so enamored by the skate, that I visited Santa Monica Seafood shortly thereafter and purchased two fresh pairs. I promptly handed them over to the CG and asked him, politely, to go to town, assuring our meal would be great and that I could learn to cook the skate in the process by watching his mastery with unfamiliar food items in our kitchen.

Because the wings are so delicate, the first entrée made was a pan steamed version upon which the CG sprinkled an addictive, tangy and equally delicate dressing of minced hard-boiled eggs and dill mustard that was decidedly Austrian. The second introduced a veil of barely there breading, pan seared and intensified with capers to top a pile of freshly made arugula rigatoni. Both were genius. I was sad I had only bought enough for two meals. I honestly could have eaten a few more consecutive days’ worth. I have found my favorite fish of 2015 and am going to be on the lookout for its presence on menus to discover others ways it will inspire chefs and home cooks this year.

Restaurant Trends Rehash

2014_trendy_restaurant_menu-thumbIt has been a steady three years since my palate first encountered the Los Angeles restaurant scene on a regular basis; long enough that I have steadily been out to eat at least 100 times, qualifying me for bona fide foodie status in the area. From highbrow white tablecloth dinners at the (sadly missed) Royce to down and dirty, oozing cheese taco truck mulitas, I have seen and tried a lot. So when Eater LA came up with the above graphic spoofing Every Trendy Restaurant Menu, I had to laugh with a semi-uncomfortable familiarity while also lauding myself for not completely being a slave to the status quo.

Trendiness is a weird thing. It is sort of like a stereotype. You don’t want to be a person who believes in stereotypes but you know deep inside that they sometimes exist for good reason so you are leery of discounting them completely. But then you feel really bad for giving into a stereotype when it bites you in the butt and you realize you were actually far off in left field from the truth. No one wants to jump on the trendy bandwagon, but nobody wants to be left out of a good experience either. You should not shun something based on its trendiness but you should not jump head first into it either just because it is popular. So I have broken the menu down below to reflect things that are in my life for a reason, season or a lifetime –the psychological way to gauge personal relationships, because we all know that food is one of my lifelong love affairs.

IMG_8875The Cute Gardener’s Hash is the trendiest item in my own home, and I don’t see it losing its allure anytime soon. Sometimes trends are followed for a reason.

1. The good stuff (aka in my life for a reason):

Housemade potato chips – the last time I ordered them, I was sitting at the Traxx Bar at Union Station with the Cute Gardener and a big fat martini. The chips were thick and starchy, slightly chewy in the middle, crisp on the edges and obviously an emotional purchase due to my love affair with the idea of eating things at bars where trains mass transit people from point A to B. Yes, you can buy cheap potatoes and make them at home, but who wants to go through all the effort?

Tarted up pork belly – I am firmly convinced that there will NEVER be a portion of pork belly on this planet that I don’t want to eat. In ramens (best done at Silverlake Ramen), on top of blue cheese mashed potatoes, or caramelized and fork tender all by itself.

Two bones with enough marrow to spread on a single piece of toast – When this dish is done well, it makes me happy. Especially when it’s done creatively like at Scratch Bar where the marrow bones are made out of sourdough bread.

What a weird uni dish – yes, uni is an extremely popular trend with no signs of slowing, but just like the most absolutely perfect, charming, and beautiful homecoming girl at school, you can’t help but hate and love it simultaneously. Plus, I fell in love with the CG over a plate of cold, black squid ink pasta with uni at Osteria Mozza so it’s stuck in my heart.

Gnarly looking whole fish with half a charred lemon – the last time I cooked a whole fish at home, I forgot to have the butcher remove the scales. In other words, I am still learning this one. So in the meantime, there’s still something exciting about getting a creature plopped in front of you at a high-class restaurant while everyone around you, less adventurous, becomes freaked out. This was super fun at Lukshon and Girasol.

Business class carrots – Odd inclusion to this meat heavy category of mine, but the Moroccan carrot dish (yes, in cute little crock) enhanced with harissa and a cool cucumber sauce at Pizzeria Mozza is my favorite vegetable dish in recent history.

2. The “I Wish It Would End Already” item (aka in my life for a season).

Newfangled deviled eggs – The CG is an egg whore and can hardly resist this delicacy. I am an egg whore too but my mom made the best deviled eggs this side of Iowa and my curried version is pretty darn good and I have a problem spending five bucks for two halves of egg.

City slicker fried chicken – the CG makes a superior version to any I have tried in restaurants of late. I always find that if the breading works, the chicken’s too dry. If the breading falls off, the chicken is too weak and flavorless. I can’t stand when there are grease spots next to hard spots. I am so picky about the dish I am hard pressed to ever try it. Although, I did have a few bites of the CG’s chicken at MB Post with honey drizzled over it alongside a cheddar biscuit that inched a little close to my soul.

Kale anything – kale grows in my yard and is thrown into smoothies and made into salads when I am feeling a certain lack of greens in my life. It is a vitamin. It is not something to be savored at dinner or paid for; that just seems so wrong and way too healthy for a night on the town.

Burger that’s crazier than it needs to be with fries – too big to put your mouth around, too many imbalanced ingredients, overcooked when asked for rare, or an aggressive single vegetable or piece of cheese –there are too many ways these burgers can go so wrong. I’ll take the balanced, meaty, messy and juicy alternatives at Comme Ca, Plan Check, Short Order, 25 Degrees, or Stout any day.

An unconventional riff on Brussels sprouts – at Tin Roof Bistro they char the living daylights out of these veggies and everywhere else they seem to halve and roast them in some bitter, acidic caramelization. Each time I have had them out, I become more nostalgic for the way my mother used to make them—steamed like tiny cabbages with butter, salt and pepper.

Fussy fries with truffle oil – I agree with Chef Aaron Sanchez, who said on an episode of Chopped to a contestant who was so darn proud of his dish spiked with truffle oil, “I wish they would ban that product from the marketplace.” If I want truffle I will eat a real one.

3. The “Purposefully Refused to Try Thus Far Based on Principle” additions (aka already in my life for life):

Tiny stuff you’re supposed to share. No, we don’t want eight olives in a ramekin that are already chilling at home in a half pound container from the Armenian grocer; nor nuts and herbs from the communal bin. We refuse to pay for toast unless it accompanies a pot of pork rillettes and the next generation of pickles is already brining in a jar in our fridge at home via the free cucumbers in our yard. We will make exceptions, though, for Littlefork where we can’t resist choosing a jar of spicy watermelon radishes from the pickle wall.

The CG has a saying that you shouldn’t eat things out that you could easily cook at home, that when you are in a restaurant, you want to be surprised and delighted. This usually applies to all salads and egg dishes but for the purposes of this menu, it means:

Shishito Peppers – throwing peppers into a hot oven until they blister is great but not for $14.

Painterly plate of beets and goat cheese – This got real boring after the 100th time I ate it when it first became trendy in the early 2000s.

Fish slivers doused in citrus juice – This can be bought at the grocery store. It’s called sardines in a can. Then squeeze lemon over the contents on a plate. Enough said. (I will however never forego a good plate of fried smelt on a menu.)

Amish chicken in the big city – I cook perfect roasted chicken in many forms. I don’t need any competition.

Wild salmon strikes back – see chicken.

Of course, whenever the palate tires from the same old thing, we learn to appreciate the unique dishes we make together at home or pull out the recipe books for a little adventure. I have been reviving my saffron risotto of late and the CG has been searing tomatoes in cumin for some extra spice in our life. We are looking forward to a new food season this fall with new menu items. Of particular note is our anticipation of Chef Bernhard Mairinger’s new spot Imbiss.

 

 

 

The Elevated Ingredient

IMG_2161Puffed smelt over beet wasabi

My life in food over the past decade has changed pretty remarkably from that of a person raised to eat and cook similar things from the family’s traditional archives to that of a person who is wildly adventurous and counts culinary sojourns, whether in a restaurant or in my own kitchen, as opportunities to discover and explore items vastly diverse. But even in this wide-open forum of a curious palate, I still find it important to eat responsibly. Enjoying food to me is not about being able to buy the most exotic ingredients from far away places or to experience luxury items that take labor and resources to find their way to my table. It is not about finding bigger and better perfectly grown tomatoes nor is it about promoting the production-oriented fish farms or hormone-injected meats. It’s almost the opposite—to find the gems of whatever is currently around me: fresh, available, natural and seasonal. Sure, there is a time and a place to splurge, but in the ordinary course of my meals, I like to know that purity is at each dish’s base.

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 Smoking goat’s cheese with pretzel loaf accompanied by pickled onions and cauliflower over kalamata paste

I also appreciate the chefs who cook from this premise. It’s a difficult feat to take a few essential ingredients and make them shine over a repertoire of dishes in a way that leaves the diner delighted in every bite and not bored by redundancy. On one of my earliest dates with the Cute Gardener, I was highly charmed by the romantic lights strung from the trees in the Lucques’ courtyard but then irritated by the rote application of root vegetables in just about every plate I chose off of the menu from pasta to salad. Even though I respected Suzanne Goin’s desire to utilize that, which was abundant, I wondered why there wasn’t a bit more creativity involved: root puree, diced steam root, cold root in salsa –that sort of thing.

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Blackened cauliflower with pickled onions.

I love it when I find the chefs who do this extremely well though and actually end up surprising me. One of recent note is Phillip Lee of Scratch Bar. When the CG and I ended up at the tiny La Cienega space for a small plates dinner, we were anticipating Chef Lee’s finesse with vegetables, which had been alluded to in many write-ups about the young vegetarian-niche cook.

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Roasted bone marrow in a sourdough “bone” with pickled onions

We ordered a smattering of meat and veggie dishes including the trendy and highly popular fried smelt puff and immediately noticed that every dish had the bright purple poignancy of beet somewhere alongside a curly pile of pink pickled onions. At the second dish, we got a little leery but by the end of the evening, we realized that each dish still had that magic ability to shine all on its own. The fact that neither beet juice nor pickled onions accompanied any of the descriptions of the wildly varying dishes made the inclusion of both on everything a very brash choice. A bold and risky move for a young chef that in this particular case not only worked, but showcased some of the best things about eating this highly accountable and resourceful way.

IMG_2163Cured pig’s head in a splatter of Pollock-esque beet sauce

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.

 

Asian Spice Trail Food Porn

IMG_1421The Cute Gardener has a habit of following ex-Patina chefs around Los Angeles. I don’t blame him because anyone who can hold high court in Patina’s exquisite dining room is bound to evolve on their own once leaving those hallowed kitchens.

I have a habit of following the trail of exotic Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors around Los Angeles always looking for the next pickled pepper, puffed bread or sour cheese that will tickle my fancy.

Together these two habits brought us to Acabar where we heard Patina and Palate alum Chef Octavio Becerra was creating a taste bud’s tour along the ancient Asian spice trail. Housed in a Moroccan-style pimp’s palace of a building complete with lots of mirrors, mosaics and a lounge area reminiscent of an opium den, I was a sucker from the moment we stepped foot through the gaudy, over-sized golden door.

I haven’t done a flat out food porn blog entry in ages but this restaurant merits it completely. Original concoctions, bold and addictive flavors, and a respectful nod to the proper quantities of spice had me scrambling to remember ingredients and recipes in my head all evening so that I could attempt to imitate them later at home.

IMG_1424We were told to order the porn bread early as it would take 25 minutes to cook and we did. Who could resist with a name like that? I was envisioning cheesy and crusty sin. It did get delivered to us, slipped erotically from a hot metal tube onto our plate but resembled more of a mushy sweet potato cake studded with aged cheddar and bacon than bread. Still, the flavors were delicious and I could have eaten the whole log alone not to mention the almond honey butter that compelled me to stoop so low as to actually lick the knife.

IMG_1422The best dish of the evening was a long and horizontal plate filled with caramelized cauliflower, braised perfectly tender with simultaneously buttery and tangy sauces of currants, dill and za-atar. The accompanying pile of pickled peppers was the best I’ve had in a decade.

IMG_1425More like dense little meatballs than what I usually consider arancini, these mini rice balls were stuffed with lamb, crispy risotto, winter squash and went soothingly well with a mint and pickled walnut salad.

IMG_1427I normally order shrimp toast when I see it because I love the concept. I always imagine it will be plump bits of shrimp and the crispiness of toast but what I normally find is soggy breaded shrimp pastes or the like. This was exquisitely fried to a puff with a dandy little fried egg on top, encapsulating nice bits of rock shrimp, Thai basil and notes of fish sauce.

IMG_1432The krispy kelebek dessert, although verdict is out on how authentically made, was a flaky, heavenly pile of sweet layered dough accented with persimmon, cassia and rum preserve and a honey pistachio labneh. Just those three words: honey, pistachio and labneh spell Unorthodox Foodie in Armenian.

The roasted pear duo tartlette’s tart shell was too hard for the beautiful fruit inside of it but I let the CG polish that off while I dove into the cinnamon, tahini, date ice cream. Another three words that describe objects created for my specific tongue.

A cocktail list by historical eras offered up fun ways to order drinks. I, of course, chose an archaic sazerac of cognac, rye, Peychaud’s bitters and an absinthe rinse while the CG went for a classic Cuban of cognac, apricot liqueur and lemon, which I fancied immensely. For dessert we shared a nice light rum, of which choices were many alongside a rambling bourbon and other spirits menu.

Scarpetta Had Me at Stromboli

IMG_0647A breadbasket is a breadbasket, right? Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s not so good. But even in its lowlier moments, you willingly dive into it upon sitting down at a restaurant knowing there’s nothing warm or crusty that can’t be fixed with a little helping of butter or olive oil. At least this is the way I thought before opening the breadbasket at Beverly Hills’ Scarpetta and finding the prototypical pre-meal ritual elevated to a religious experience. At the bottom of its cloth-lined berth beneath the toasted foccacia cubes and exquisitely dense French loaf sat four thinly sliced pieces of heavenly Stromboli. Like a pearl at the bottom of an oyster it was unexpected and generous. It also tasted like a gourmet sliver of soft, doughy, pepperoni and cheese-laden heaven. It was also accompanied by a savory eggplant caponata … and this was only the beginning.

Scarpetta has been on my dining wish list for a while, ever since first encountering owner Chef Scott Conant’s warm and comforting wisdom as a judge on Chopped. I figured his Italian food restaurants of large nationwide acclaim would be great if they were mirrors of his personality. The Cute Gardener confirmed my assumptions as he had dined there shortly before we met and was still hankering for their appetizer polenta with mushrooms. We even snuck into their swank bar for a delicious cocktail one night before meeting friends for dinner across the grassy courtyard at Bouchon so it was high time we finally made it there a few weeks back.

If the Stromboli hadn’t of sealed the deal for me, the aforementioned polenta with mushrooms certainly did – it was the most decadent and creamy version of the staple Italian peasant food that I’ve ever had. It didn’t matter that the wait staff that evening was a bit off – it was after all a busy and boisterous Friday evening in Beverly Hills in a large fancy space meant for seeing and being seen amongst a myriad of the rich and beautiful filling the dining room with the clang of high heels, gold, crystals, and a bevy of faux body parts. It didn’t matter that we were seated near the kitchen and could see the smoking patio with all of its inhaling denizens just outside our vision. It wouldn’t have mattered if the walls had fallen away around us in the middle of a snowstorm for that matter. All that mattered was the food –every plate was special: perfectly cooked, flavors expertly coaxed, and portions just enough to tease you into wanting more yet sating you completely by the last lick of complex sauce off a fork.

Some highlights:

IMG_0648Roasted scallops came with a caramelized char and then dimpled inward towards a creamy middle. The tiny summer squash melee was spiked with brightness that oozed into the miniature halves of juicy cherry tomatoes creating a tangy sauce.

IMG_0650A quirky spinach pici, or thick hand rolled spaghetti, was extremely fun to eat with varying widths and nodules that soaked up the earthy morels and braised duck leg meat that tenderly splayed between its strands.

IMG_0654A dark chocolate cake came like my favorite dark chocolate bars – bitter, dense, and chock full of cacao that was soft on the outside and hot in the middle. Burnt orange gelato made me miss my time in Sorrento when I had stayed at an equally posh hotel as the one I sat in now albeit overlooking a sea and sipping limoncello.

This dinner occurred with friends so we didn’t have our usual intimate, mealtime banter over each dish which gives me an excuse to encourage the CG to keep Scarpetta on our dining list so that we can do it up romantic style on another trip to rekindle my flame with my newly beloved Stromboli.

Patina’s Class Act

IMG_0145The Cute Gardener has been extolling the virtues of Patina Restaurant and its alumni chefs ever since I’ve known him and we’ve had the pleasure of tasting dishes by many of these exquisite masters over the course of the last two years amongst the Southern California culinary landscape. Last night I had the pleasure of trying the restaurant out before a concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall (which Patina is conveniently connected to) and feel equally entranced by the truly class act presented by the whole experience.

There’s something special about getting dressed up for a world-class performance and being fed a world-class dinner beforehand. Walking into the understated and minimalist dining room past an old school elegant cheese tray I knew I was in for a treat. We were given a great booth and then proceeded to be pampered by a bevy of special touches that elevate a great restaurant from a sea of wannabes starting with the fact that the soft-spoken and sharply professional waitress came carrying both black and white napkins to the table to see which was more appropriate for our attire. We settled in with perfectly mixed cocktails: a Le Voyageur made with pisco, campari and lemons juice for me and a Printemps Precosse of Tanqueray, spiced kumquat syrup, Champagne and lime for the CG and watched the artistry begin.

IMG_0146An amuse was offered of creamy carrot puree soup floating with an oval of toast. The CG informed me that the amuse is given to everyone no matter what even if a person merely stops in for a cheese course or a bowl of balsamic reduction strawberries at the end of a performance. This was followed by a bread course of which a large wooden box was presented with a choice of freshly baked plain baguette, whole-wheat roll or green olive ciabatta.

IMG_0147Based on their reputation for good soups, I had to try the asparagus veloute. A bowl arrived with a few curls of the vegetable alongside strands of pink pickled allume and a large crispy, breaded farm egg over which was poured a vibrant green and thick broth. A spoon sliced through the egg revealed gloriously runny yolk that swirled lusciously into the dish adding a luxurious heft to the dish.

IMG_0148The crispy veal sweetbreads came in a generous trio, perfectly accented by a touch of black truffle and a creative display of caramelized miniature cipollini onions, tiny polenta log and pencil asparagus. The sweetbreads were smoky meat treasures that I had to eat in small, delicate bites not wanting the pleasure to end.

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I am obsessed with pork belly and enjoy the fact that it can be presented in so many different ways but this was my favorite so far. Only a thin layer of the skin was kept on and the belly was rolled up like a roulade so that with each forkful I received a crunch of crispy skin, a soft layer of buttery fat and another more densely textured sliver of meat. The spinach laden with golden raisins and translucent radish disks gave the meat a nice kick. The sweet and sour sauce was poured over the dish steaming tableside.

IMG_0151The lamb arrived with a nice funk juxtaposed with a rainbow of carrot varieties, exquisitely charred to counteract the rare meat.

IMG_0154We couldn’t resist a cheese course and the tray was rolled up to us for our choosing. We opted for a super cream, an ash ripened goat and a hardened and aged beauty to run the full gamut.

IMG_0155After we made our choices, slices were taken in front of us and then laid onto a place with guava jam, raisins, filberts alongside a plate of the best fruit studded toast I have found to date.

IMG_0156Finally, as full as we were, we couldn’t resist a handcrafted passion fruit chiboust which was a circular disk of extremely light custard with a brulee topcoat surrounded by a sea of teeny diced exotic fruits like kiwi and mango. A wafer roll filled with carbonate mango sorbet provided a nice bitter twist to the otherwise super sweet dish.IMG_0157

To top off the elite performance, our waitress delivered a final plate of candies, a special send off to seal the memory of this unforgettable place.

One nice point about Patina is the fact that our server asked us if we were going to a concert and when we replied yes and told her what time it was, she made sure our meal was perfectly timed to meet our curtain call. Our receipt actually showed timing notes and we were there for close to two and a half hours and the expediting turned out wonderfully.

Utterly charmed by the flawless dinner, we made our way into the concert hall high on the good feelings that come from being catered to in such a professional way with the realization that we had absolutely not one critical thing to say about the whole experience. That’s a rare feat to encounter and was worth every penny – making Patina my favorite restaurant of the moment, and one I will return to on special occasions in the future.

Trendiness Reigns at Fig and Olive

There’s no escaping the ever-present existence of the fleeting trend when you live in a city that thrives on the fickle allure of perpetual shining facades like Los Angeles does. Although there are many places steeped in history, depth and complexity, it’s all too easy to find the shallow flickering on every corner whereas you may have to hunt a little deeper when seeking out the rich. Fads are a plenty from skirt lengths to nose job styles to tints on a car window – and always inevitably end up somewhere on the dinner table as well.

Recently, the Cute Gardener and I decided to try Fig and Olive, a place that had been on my “to try” list because of its description of offering new twists on Mediterranean food classics.  We were smart enough to try it during DineLA, knowing that if we were disappointed, the price tag on our woe would be lower than normal. Walking into the joint, we had a feeling that it was more pomp than grit just by presence of huge male bouncers scattered throughout the two story dining room filled to the brim with flashy patrons dressed to see and be seen. We immediately chose the top floor, more private balcony area to sit knowing that we’d have less of a chance to be in the midst of the annoying starlight and fanfare from the crowd vying to be front and center below.  We then proceeded to be assaulted by a line of the latest food trends.

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Trend #1 – The Olive Oil Tasting Bread Course

Fig and Olive prides itself on using olive oil in everything, replacing butter and other fats in all the dishes. So it was no surprise that we were served focaccia with three pots of various oils to sample for our bread course. Although there was a nice lemon tangy version in the center, the product sold in house was not something I would go out of my way to purchase.

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 Trend #2 – Reconstructing a Classic

People typically order beef Carpaccio because they crave the simple and pure taste of raw meat. Not raw meat laden with a salad. Not raw meat buried under a puddle of fontina cheese. Not raw meat mucked up by flavors and spices that completely disguise the fact that there is any protein on the plate. But many restaurants get nervous presenting the classic dishes because in their simplicity there is sometimes more room for error than in the more convoluted recipes so they try to recreate the dish and make it their own. Fig and Olive’s reconstruction included juicy cherry tomatoes and many flakes of sharp Parmesan cheese, making it a yummy fresh salad but left us wondering “where’s the beef?”

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 Trend #3 – Deconstruction

Perhaps the most annoying food trend is the deconstructed dish. The CG always says if he wanted to cook his own food at the table he would have stayed home and I am beginning to agree. We ordered a chicken tagine, which is one of my favorite Moroccan dishes. But the beauty in the dish is the way the myriad spices and fruits and liquids sit underneath a roasted chicken and blend into an exquisite broth of layered flavors that furthermore accentuate a bed of fluffy quinoa or other grain. The mingling of all these elements takes time and produces something sweet and savory simultaneously. This melding simply doesn’t happen when you are brought chicken parts, steamed vegetables, sliced figs and apricots, olives, tapenade and other sauce components in bowls to mix yourself at the table. There is no time to steep the entree properly when your waitress is whisking away bread plates full of half eaten bread as you wait. (Which points to yet another annoying trend: restaurants that push shareable small plates at tables too tiny for the multiple pieces of glass and dining ware.)

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Trend #4 – Pot de Crème

Chances are if you are in a restaurant in Los Angeles, you are going to find a basic pot de crème on the dessert menu. In the beginning of this onslaught I was hardly complaining. It’s hard to get tired of a perfect mug full of creamy chocolate cream and a nice swath of whipped cream on the top. It’s hard to mess it up and the texture alone is rather heavenly no matter where you try it. As a matter of fact, Gjelina’s decadently thick, butterscotch version remains on my top ten favorite desserts list. But I have to admit that now after eating so many versions, I am less prone to order one. Fig and Olive’s was ordinary and because olive oil is used in everything instead of butter or cream, both the bottom and top layers were extra watery and less satisfying. The shortbread wafer cookies that came with mascarpone cream and cherries were exquisite and buttery delights though that ended the meal on a much-needed good note.

Upon leaving, I admitted to the CG that I had learned a lesson not to glom on to the new and flashy eateries that I read about so consistently in my food scene email newsletters but to try and seek out the tried and true gems twinkling just below the surface of a city bathed in fifty shades of bling.