Eschewing Easter for Italian Brunch at Cora’s Coffee Shop

IMG_5621The Cute Gardener and I tend to make up our own rituals for the holidays that the majority of the Western world otherwise celebrates in unison. It isn’t that we’re not patriotic that makes us eschew Fourth of July fireworks for crab and duck in underground Chinatown restaurants or that makes us ignore the Valentine’s romantic dinner crowds in lieu of our own private cooking sessions, wine tasting and LEGO making evenings at home. It’s just that we’re both inclined to make up our own road together filled with customs created that matter to us and don’t conform to the norm. There’s something special knowing that nobody else is honoring a day in quite the same way we are.

So instead of following the newspaper’s guidance on making gourmet peeps at home or following the crowds to the beaches, churches and parks to partake in colored egg hunts we like to spend Easter morning strolling lazily to some restaurant that we’ve always wanted to try. Today, it was Cora’s Coffee Shop, located a block from the beach in Santa Monica. In true adventurous fashion, we opted for a seat at the bar so we could watch the three cooks in their chaotic line dance of delivering up dishes to a packed crowd. Cora’s is unusual in that it’s one third gourmet egg and breakfast joint, one third upscale coffee shop and one third Italian specialty restaurant gaining inspiration and dishes from its sister property, the pricey Capo Restaurant next door. We didn’t want to shell out the big bucks to Capo for dinner until we tried a few of the Italian items that were being offered for half price or less at Cora’s.

IMG_5620From our position at the counter we gained an appreciation for what makes Cora’s a little offbeat and unique. Pancakes that first looked ordinary and mixed from boxes of Bisquick soon were peppered with organic blueberries, buckwheat or cranberries into high and fluffy disks waiting hot slabs of butter. Eggs poached to perfection were laid on beds of creamed spinach laden brioche slices. A massive, four-inch thick frittata was studded with soft lumps of potato and gleaming slivers of tender carrot. Freshly squeezed orange juice was poured room temperature and tangy into plastic oval cups. Plump tomatoes, bruised and full of character, were chopped in rustic chunks atop toast with large globules of silken burrata. Large tubes of rigatoni were tossed in buttery tomato sauce and strewn with fresh herbs. It was highly entertaining watching the hectic show around the stove and we hardly noticed the large amount of time that passed before our own plates were handed to us across the gleaming case full of flaky croissants, poppy seed muffins and gooey sticky buns. An air of do-it-yourself cuisine peppered with distinctive and special touches lent a favorable hue to our opinion of the place.

IMG_5622The CG ordered polenta with Italian sausage and although the polenta was poured from a Whole Foods-type plastic bag to cook in a pan, the quality burrata that was added made it milky and hearty. My lamb ragu over chunky al dente bucatini was comforting and warm, even if it was smothered in too much truffle oil. I agree with most of the top chefs today who say that truffle oil should be banished from the markets, as it is not the true essence of the miraculous and elusive fungi but a flavored rendition of a trend that overpowers everything in its wake. But despite this small error in execution, our time there was memorable because of the birds-eye view of a bustling kitchen that never stopped and was earnest in its attempt to please the ocean side masses.

Walking home along the water full of pasta was a moment to cherish as the mobs on the sand folded up their pastel colored table cloths and lugged bags full of candy to their cars. It felt good to be on the side of those who make life up as they go.

Susan Feniger’s Street Food

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For Christmas, I received a copy of Susan Feniger’s Street Food from a friend I had introduced to the author and chef’s Santa Monica restaurant Border Grill.

I have had a strange love/hate relationship with Border Grill ever since moving to the Los Angeles area over a year ago, which is clear from the fact that I have now been there four times which is practically unheard of in a life where I try new restaurants weekly and never repeat even the ones I love. It’s partly convenience, since it’s located right smack downtown in Santa Monica on a street where I have regularly had meetings and play rehearsals, and partly the fault of an article Feniger once wrote in Food and Wine Magazine where she lent out recipes for a party of 30 centering around Asian skirt steak that looked dynamite. I was itching to try her food.

The first attempt was a plate of simple and juicy pork carnitas, a generous and unadorned pile of scrumptious meat with piping hot tortillas and a drizzle of fresh crema that sated my lust for pig. The second attempt was at a friend’s birthday party where I stuck to a small plate of black bean and plantain empanadas, drizzled in the same signature crema that had me craving more for days. But the third time I went, I actually had an official entrée of carne asada tacos that was bland at best, not unlike any order I could pick up in a myriad of chains only accentuated again by that great crema and a trio of well-made salsas. So the fourth time I went on a whim to bide time because I was too early for an appointment, I sat at the bar not expecting much and ordered a plate of the pork nachos figuring I would stick with the pig meat that I already knew was great. I think Susan Feniger would have loved the fact that I was one of four women sitting solo at the bar that night, two of which were asking the bartender for separate sports programs on the overhanging televisions, and one, like me, who was busy writing something in a small notebook. All of us women were enjoying the happy hour prices and both eating and drinking merrily alone.  I even went off my normal pattern and ordered a Negro Modelo beer – beer being something I never drink – because the dark and freezing ale was desperately what I needed to counteract the scrumptious but super salty shredded pork nachos that were again swimming in that crema. I realized a few things then. One, I am in love with Susan Feniger’s condiments, not her actual food. Two, everything in that place is high-octane seasoned to the point that copious amounts of water are needed after every trip. Finally, entrees and dishes are not her strong point as much as the small plates and quick bites that can be enjoyed in such saturated fortifications of flavor without the palate feeling overwhelmed.

Which I guess is what’s perfect about the book Street Food. For the more globally adventurous person who wants to be creative at the cocktail party and is not afraid of spice, it is a great alternative to the normal chip and dip and onion tart fare. A jaunt around the world with Susan delivers snack-sized delights from artichokes and lemon zaatar dipping sauce in India to Tunisian chicken kabobs with currants and olives to Egyptian bus stop kushary to coconut curry popcorn. Maybe not something to pump up the average Super Bowl party but definitely items to throw into a group of dinner guests with a more exotic palate who would be great candidates for the roadside stand in any country. For those who like to sit down and eat proper at restaurants and get the willies by Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern’s Asian late night in-the-middle-of-the-road forays, this book is not for you.

Although I am a huge fan of multicultural cuisine, I am not a lover of the food truck craze. Because of this, half of the recipes in this book call to me and the other half leave me cold. I will definitely make the honey and turmeric lassi drink and the Turkish donuts with rose hip jam and report on those attempts later.

The biggest gem I took from the book was within the first few pages: a section on “Organizing the World’s Kitchen” for people who like universal tastes but are curious as to what to stock into their pantry in order to be able to whip up and achieve them on demand. Being a lover of Indian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern flavors this helpful list of salts, sours, sweets, hot and spicy, and mellowers and coolers became an instant grocery list for me.