It's All About The Benjamin Bailly

Cliff's Edge Silver Lake Feb '12
eat: Chickpea Fritters, Green Beans, Burrata, Skate Wing, Taleggio Risotto, Ricotta

Looks get you far in this town. Restaurants, like actresses, sometimes rely on sheer beauty alone, hoping that a pretty place will detract from a mediocre plate. Such was the case at Cliff's Edge, a Silver Lake haunt known for it's gorgeous, outdoor patio, instead of the menu. Under the canopy of twinkling lights and an ancient tree (whose bountiful, sweeping branches remind me of The Swiss Family Robinson), diners escaped busy Sunset Blvd. for a hidden, romantic garden. Since opening in 2004, the patio continued to defy its age--like many Angelenos--yet the food had lost its luster. That is, until Chef Benjamin Bailly arrived.

Thanks to Chef Bailly, a young Frenchman with James-Beard-nominated skills, the menu is abloom with local produce and seasonal goodness. Using a bounty of Mediterranean ingredients--pine nuts, capers, cumin --he creates fresh takes on classic dishes. In an unappealing space, the food would still be good. In Cliff's Edge's magical garden, it's phenomenal. At a recent celebration for my vegetarian friend, Bianca's, birthday, it was the perfect menu for our non-meat feast (as shown in our smiling faces).

Chickpea Fritters add some fried naughty to the nutrition of garbanzo beans. Dunked in a delectable lemon aioli, these golden-brown sticks render French fries irrelevant.

Burrata is brightened by grilled persimmon, sprigs of watercress, and a ruby-red Pomegranate vinaigrette, seeds included. While I'm normally not a fan of persimmons, here, they are more caramelized than sweet, the same way yams are yummier when roasted, not whipped with marshmallows.

In the risotto, the Taleggio gives good funk to the creamy dish made hearty by sautéed mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, and earthy Tuscan Kale

A crowd favorite, the charred green beans are tossed with pine nuts, raisins, curry, and feta, creating a warm salad of international flavor.

Bailly wouldn't be French without foam. Beneath these brown-butter bubbles lies a succulent skate wing, toasted pine nuts, capers, and sunchokes. Yum!

The whipped ricotta with honey, lavender, and olive oil is luscious and dainty, but I'd prefer this sweetness as dessert rather than mid-meal. Due to the aromatic lavender, our group was split. Some raved about the fragrant herb, while others felt it belonged in our bubble baths.

Chef Benjamin was at the host stand as we left, so we got to sing our praises to him in person. He's a handsome fellow, but it's not his looks that cooked up such delectable fare. It's the whole package--from the setting to the sharing amongst friends--that made our meal memorable.

Cure for the Common Meal

Salt's Cure West Hollywood Spring '11
eat: Charcuterie & Pickles, Braised Pork Shoulder, Veal Burger, Yellowtail, Mussels, Blackberry Crumble, Bread Pudding, Homemade Ice Cream
sip: North Coast Coturri Rosé 2009, Alesmith IPA

When I spied the "I Love Bacon" paperweight, I knew I had come to the right place. This porcine valentine sits atop the kitchen/bar counter at Salt's Cure, a delicious, down-to-earth spot in Weho. As one would expect from a restaurant/butcher shop, the air is perfumed with roasted, smoked, and braised meat. The small chalkboard menu changes daily due to the fact that the food is admirably sourced from Californian farms. Inside, the sparse space forgoes fancy decor. Instead, the open kitchen, exposed brick wall, flickering candles, and hum of happy diners create a simple backdrop where the focus is on the food. Forget the Food Network and grab a seat at the kitchen bar, where the chef duo, Chris Phelps and Zak Walters, cook right beneath your nose.

The well-curated wine and beer list keeps up with the Cali-centric theme. We are wowed by the North Coast Coturri Rosé 2009, a gorgeous, ruby-red rosé. Made from Merlot, an uncommon rosé grape, this medium-bodied quaff is ripe with currants and proves that pink wines aren't just pretty to look at. San Diego's Alesmith IPA is a refreshing mix of bitter hops and sweet malt. As the back of the bottle rightly boasts, "It's Pretty Awesome".

Start off with a house-made Charcuterie Plate featuring a rotating array of cured meat morsels. Skinny, beet-red strips of duck prosciutto is a tasty twist on this buxom bird. Potted rabbit is packed with lardo-like fat, while thinly sliced, smoked pork shoulder is delicate, yet intense. The unique, in-house pickles, like black radishes and cherries, are delightfully original. A whimsical pretzel roll--imagine a doughy bun sprouting a crisp, pretzel appendage--and grainy mustard round out the plate.

Braised Pork Shoulder is melt-in-your-mouth good. Served with it's succulent juices, creamy grits, and a healthy handful of cilantro, this is southern comfort.

A juicy, Veal Burger topped with veal bacon proves you can't have too much of a good thing. Held together by a tasty, and squishy, poppy seed bun, it's a charred, smoky, meaty masterpiece. There's such a fight for the Belgian-style fries that we consider ordering a second round.

It's not just meat at Salt's Cure. After honing their skills at fish-centric Hungry Cat, these chefs know their way around the ocean. Yellowtail is served raw with green olives, shallots, dill, and drizzled olive oil--it's sashimi, American-style.

Plump mussels are bathed in a beer broth - the IPA adding a yeasty heft to the shellfish--as well as a delicious dunk for buttery, garlic bread)

Seasonal sides are plucked-from-the-fields fresh. A dish of Roasted Corn, thyme, butter, and aged goat cheese is farm fabulous. Our waitress earns mad points when, upon discovering the corn was sold out, she convinces the kitchen to scrape together a mini-version for our table.

The dessert choices are so tempting that we each gluttonously order our own. Normally, I shy away from liquorous desserts, but in the Whiskey Brioche Bread Pudding, the booze blends wonderfully with the butter. As we swirl the bread in luscious crème anglaise, my friend, Hollis, exclaims how good this would be for breakfast. I second that emotion.

Blackberry Crumble is a steaming bowl of summer. When warmed, the tart berries are mellowed to sweet goodness. With chunks of buttery pastry and vanilla ice cream, it's pure yum. Other homemade ice cream flavors include a lovely Lavender Shortbread, a delicate Wildflower Honey, and a bracing Fresh Mint Chocolate Chip.

Eating at Salt's Cure feels like a meal at an old friend's house, albeit one who is a damn fine chef. Here, the staff is so amicable that the lines between waiter/customer are blurred. It's a convivial, casual dinner party, where the menu and guest list change daily, but the deliciousness remains the same.

Desserts of Childhood Past

When I was a teenager, my sister and our best bud, Matty, created a aptly-named dessert, The Fun Dessert of Fun. It was a gut-busting blend of as many sweets we could find: raw Pillsbury Brownie batter mixed with chocolate pudding, chocolate sauce, ice cream, sometimes even crumbled E.L. Fudge sandwich cookies. We were blissfully unaware of adult worries like expanding waistlines and salmonella. All that mattered was the chocolate and the accompanying sugar high; we were nerdlings who didn't booze, but we'd get smashed on sucrose.

As an adult, while my savory palate is more diverse and adventurous, my sweet tooth craves the homey, simple flavors from my youth. However, on menus around town, desserts have become unrecognizable, as mirrored in Adam Gopnik's recent New Yorker article, where he laments "It was as if dessert chefs had given up on dessert and produced something else in it's place." Restaurants are serving architectural concoctions of foams, cakes, and cream that are aesthetically pleasing yet taste nothing like the ingredients of which they are made. Thankfully, a handful of pastry chefs are bringing desserts back into familiar territory, creating delectable treats with a nod to the nostalgic.

Bar Breton

Known for their galettes, savory buckwheat crepes from Brittany, it's no surprise that Bar Breton serves a phenomenal Nutella crepe. They kick it up a notch by adding cocoa powder to the batter, so that the crepe itself is chocolate-y goodness. By serving the crepe sliced in mini-roulades (pictured left), each bite is jam-packed with warm, gooey Nutella. Like an Oreo Double Stuf, an abundance of the filling proves you can't have too much of a good thing

Greenwich Village

At Lupa, Mario Batali's convivial Roman trattoria, the focus is on wonderfully executed Italian standards like Veal Saltimbocca and Pasta Carbonara. After devouring these hearty dishes, there often isn't room for dessert, but I urge you to make space for Lupa's transcendent Tartufo. A globe of luscious, hazelnut gelato is coated in hard chocolate--think Magic Shell, gourmet style--then dusted with crushed hazelnuts. A pool of bittersweet chocolate sauce brings a hot yin to the gelato's cool yang. In the center, crumbled biscotti and candied cherry give good crunch and sweet.

El Porrón
Upper East Side

In America, French toast is reserved for breakfast, yet, other cultures believe this doughy treat belongs at the end of the meal. I had my first taste in Paris, where I devoured pain perdu (lost bread) bathed in crème anglaise. At El Porrón, an authentic Spanish spot, they serve torrejas doused in red wine. While I normally object to boozy desserts--where often alcohol overpowers the dish--these Rioja-soaked beauties are sublime. Like all quality french toast, the bread has been browned to buttery caramelization and you can truly taste the grape's sugar in the syrupy sauce. It all pairs perfectly with a creamy house-made, vanilla ice cream.


At the Breslin, April Bloomfield's bustling, pubby restaurant, she revamps a classic, British dessert: syllabub. For you Yanks, syllabub is a whipped delight of cream, sugar and booze. Here, its one part of a 21-and-over, sophisticated sundae. The parfait is composed of layers of chocolate syllabub, stout, crunchy chocolate nibs, boiled caramel and whipped cream I suggest dipping your spoon to the bottom of the glass to ensure warm stout imbues each bite.

New Year, New Traditions

Alex & Ika Cooperstown, NY 1 January 2011
eat: White Bean Soup, Clams & Chorizo, Hanger Steak, Rack of Lamb, Fried Fingerlings, Chocolate Chocolate Port Thing, BST, Sweet Potato Fries
sip: Albariño and Sangiovese (dinner) and Bloody Marys/Mimosas (brunch)

I've always lived in big cities that brim with more dining options than my belly can withstand. Even if I crammed in five meals a day, I wouldn't even put a dent in my extensive "Where I Want To Eat" lists, especially since new spots open daily and old restaurants are revealed through word of mouth. Consequently, it's rare that I return to a place often, even though I'd love to work my way through a menu, revisit favorite dishes, and taste a chef's wizardry in multiple forms. However, last weekend, on a jaunt to Cooperstown over New Year's weekend, I unexpectedly got my wish. My date, and fellow gourmand, Erik, had planned dinner at Alex & Ika's, a restaurant touted throughout the Finger Lakes Region. After a stellar meal of delicious, unpretentious dishes, we awoke the next morning searching for brunch. Since it was off-season, many places were closed, so we wavered between trying a questionable cafe or returning to Alex & Ika's. Luckily, we chose the latter and through two back-to-back meals, we got to truly experience this local gem's charm.

Thanks to its small-town location, Alex & Ika's has a laid-back, comfortable vibe. Inside, the restaurant feels like home; more a living room, than a dining room, the space features an old-fashioned wood stove, a wall of mismatched mirrors, photos, tchotchkes, and Christmas lights behind the bar. Familiar, classic rock tunes hum in the background. The menu offers a range of choices, whether you're in the mood for a simple burger or Star Anise Duck. After whetting our whistle at the quirky, bowling alley lane bar--a dirty martini for me and Lagavulin neat for Eric--we sit down for dinner.

The soup du jour is so jam-packed with ingredients that we are worried it might fall prey to the "too much of a good thing" cliche that can ruin a dish. However, the White Bean, Roast Garlic, Mushrooms, Bacon AND Pesto all harmonize in a tasty soup. It is reminiscent of chowder, both in it's creaminess and chunky quality. Plus, the mushrooms are as tender as clams or scallops.

Baby Clams & Spanish Chorizo That winning--and wholly un-kosher--pairing of seafood and pork is high on my favorite food couplings. Though teeny in size, these briny clams and cubes of salty pork pack a big wallop of flavor. Be sure to ask for extra bread to sop up the addictive butter, chardonnay, thyme and rosemary broth.

Hanger Steak Garlic Braised Crimini Mushrooms The steak arrives picture-perfect, medium-rare with mushrooms moist from red wine. The tarragon mustard cream is an original, tangy accompaniment; how refreshing to see tarragon used in a non-chicken setting. The Fried Fingerling Potatoes are the ne plus ultra of potatoes. I hate to admit that I agree with the overly-perky Rachel Ray, who has touted them as some of the best frites she's ever had. They are boiled, smashed, then fried, maintaining their potato shape while keeping the crispyness of a good fry. The dipping sauce, Chipotle Aioli, is equally good with the steak.

A gorgeous Char Grilled Rack of Lamb appears with the ribs crossed coquettishly atop a medley of delicious sides. Tomatoes, sweet from slow-roasting, are a welcome reminder of the bounty of summer. In addition, there are succulent artichoke hearts and creamy saffron porcini risotto. If that's not enough, a drizzle of white truffle oil completes the decadent dish.

Chocolate Chocolate Port Thing Is it a cake? Is it a sponge? The thing in question is an intensely chocolate cake; each nook and cranny has been impregnated with port, producing a cake so moist it would leave a wet spot in it’s wake. A pool of bourbon crème anglaise is a creamy bath for the ebony cake.

The next morning our dinner waitress welcomes us back. Since only a dozen hours had passed between our evening departure and noon arrival, it almost felt like we were old friends of the waitstaff and could have slept over on one of the banquettes. Sadly, they don’t do brunch at Alex & Ika’s, so I opt for the next best thing, a sandwich with brunch’s Very Important Meat - bacon. The BST--apple wood smoked bacon, sautéed spinach, roast tomato, and honey mustard on ciabatta - is quite possibly the best BLT I’ve ever had. Why? First - there is an insane amount of bacon ensuring each bite is porkilicious. Next, those sugary, roast tomatoes from last night's lamb are back again. Instead of the usual mayo --which I loathe -- a honey mustard adds the requisite moisture BLT’s require, but with an added tangy sweetness . Lastly, while a slice of white toast would disintegrate with all these ingredients, a hefty, doughy ciabatta bread holds it all in.

My stellar hangar steak makes a return appearance in Erik’s steak sandwich. Served with spinach, shallots, and walnut basil pesto on fresh ciabatta bread, it’s a meaty marvel. The accompanying sweet potato fries are also superlative - that’s two for two on tasty tubers. Again, the skins are crispy and caramelized while the inside is fluffy soft.
While it is technically lunch, one of brunches central ingredients, cocktails, are thankfully available. Erik’s mimosa has a mere hint of OJ rather than the usual half juice/half bubbly ratio and my Bloody Mary hit’s the spot, especially with a briny treat of a caperberry garnish.

While I'm not normally one to make New Year's Resolutions, the rewarding repeat performance at Alex & Ika's has definitely inspired me to break my dining mold. After all, eating out isn't just about trying the next new thing or checking off lists, but about building community, supporting local restaurants, and reproducing the delight of a familiar, home-cooked meal.

Farmhouse Fantasy

ABC Kitchen Flatiron 10 December 10
eat: Chicken Liver Toast, Crab Toast, Squash & Ricotta Toast, Waldorf Salad, Cauliflower Soup, Mushroom & Farm Egg Pizza, Sundae, Pumpkin Cake

ABC Carpet & Home has made its name selling shabby chic furniture and home goods. This rustic appeal comes with a luxurious price tag, so it is no surprise that the in-house restaurant, ABC Kitchen, is run by famed chef, Jean-Georges Vongrichten. His first foray into locavore cusine has found a fitting home in these country- fabulous surroundings. In true Jean-Georges style, ABC Kitchen showcases its sustainable style down to every last detail. The plates are handcrafted by a local artisan, the ingredients are locally sourced when possible, and the wine list features bio-dynamic and organic wines. In honor of the holidays, I was invited to lunch with Toni, my sister's mother-in-law and John, an old family friend.

As we enter ABC Kitchen one blustery afternoon, the lovely, zen space provides a welcome respite from the bustling street. The room exudes countrified charm á la Nancy Meyers; like her romantic comedies, this gorgeous, fairytale farmhouse is pure fantasy - no actual barn is this swanky. Wood accents abound, from the salvaged tables to the exposed wood beam ceiling. Nature is brought indoors: fresh-cut flowers are sprinkled in diminutive vases, white birch branches blossom from giant urns, and nature photographs decorate the walls. Old-timey bulbs cast a warm glow in the room. The waiter's uniforms--mismatched, slim-fit plaid shirts (think John Varvatos not John Deere) and stylish jeans--embrace the outdoor-couture vibe. Even the diners seem to have been selected from a casting director’s curated picks of naturally beautiful, stylish people. It's no wonder that our leisurely lunch became a three-hour tour...we didn't want to leave!

We begin with a trio of crostinis, which are available separately, though we couldn’t chose just one of the tempting options. A rosy pink Chicken Liver Paté is sumptuously smooth yet packed with chunky, gamey flavor. A fried sage leaf garnish adds a touch of fall while the olive-oil bathed toast reminds me that one can never have too much fat

Next, a Roasted Kabocha Squash Toast With Fresh Ricotta and Apple-Cider Vinegar. This brilliant, Hermès-orange crostini actually beckons us from the neighboring table; without our fellow diners' savvy ordering, we would have missed out. The comforting combo of sautéed onions and squash paired with creamy cheese and bracing vinegar made me not miss meat.

With the Peekytoe Crab Toast, the mouthwatering crustacean is just-picked fresh. This is high-caliber crab showcased simply with a dollop of lemon aioli. Although the presentation is unfussy, my friend, Toni, reminds me of the painstaking labor involved with picking this much meat from the crab. "Just the knowledge of how much work went into this makes it taste better" she exclaims.

Curious to see Chef Kluger's take on this classic New York dish, we order the Grilled Chicken Waldorf Salad. Fresh greens arrive topped with a medley of textures and flavors: moist, chicken tenders,, crisp julienned apples, salty pistachios, crunchy slivers of fennel, and sweet raisins. Instead of the usual addition of heavy mayonnaise, a cider vinegar dressing keeps this light and healthy. Since my tastes tend towards stick-to-your-ribs food in the winter, I wouldn't order this salad as a stand-alone dish, but it is a refreshing compliment to our other decadent dishes.

Upon John's suggestion, who had adored a carrot soup during a previous visit, we shared the Cauliflower Soup, Rye Croutons, and Rupert Cheese. If, like me, you are crazy about this cruciferous veg, this sublime soup is for you. Each slurp is packed with intense, creamy cauliflower oomph. The croutons are naughtily drenched with olive-oil and add delicious crunch. The Rupert, an aged, raw cow's milk cheese from Vermont's Bardwell Farms, is a nod to the oozy comfort of melted Gruyère traditionally found in French Onion soup.

Mushroom and Farm Egg Pizza This gussied-up white pizza features creamy ricotta, tangy parmesan, woodsy morel mushrooms, and a sunny-side-up fried egg, who's bright yellow yolk adds necessary moisture to an otherwise dry pie. I dig the light and airy whole-wheat crust, which is charred to a perfect crisp.

The sizable sundae, a destination-worthy knockout, is a welcome respite from frou-frou desserts. The winning combo is a four-part harmony of salty, sweet, chocolaty, and crunchy: Salted Caramel ice cream--the über-trendy flavor which has yet to bore me--, Caramel Popcorn, Candied Peanuts, bitter, rich chocolate sauce and a quenelle of luscious whipped cream. To illustrate this sundae's greatness, though Toni said she just had room for one bite, she almost polished it off (with my help, of course!)

Pumpkin Cake with Maple-Buttercream Frosting and Pistachios My relationship with maple is tenuous; I adore the autumnal-flavor, yet loathe the stickiness of syrup. Here, I happily get my maple fix --in a heavenly, buttery, not-too-sweet icing--which pairs perfectly with a moist, firm pumpkin cake.

After such a pleasurable lunch, I can see why ABC Kitchen has topped so many "Best Of" lists in NYC. It has heightened the locavore movement to a whole new level, all while maintaining delicious, unfussy food. Sure, you can enjoy fresh-picked produce at the farmer's market or in the comforts of your own home, but if you're looking for a treat, this place is for you.

Finger Lickin' Good

"You in your hot tub I'm looking at you salivating,
Dry you off I got your paper towel waiting.
Baby it's like you at the spa the way you gently lay in the pan
While enjoying your butter milk treatment"

In his rap "Fried Chicken", Nas praises poultry, equating hen's legs and breasts to those of a sexy woman. Songs from A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys are flavored with finger-lickin' lyrics. From pop culture to picnics, fried chicken has always been adored. Yet, this past year, that popularity has skyrocketed and fried chicken is popping up on menus all over town. To help guide you through the flock of choices, here are three of my faves, with a multi-cultural nod to LA's diversity.


Inside Korea's infinitely yummier version of KFC, a quote on the wall reads "Healthy Food For Ecstatic Body & Soul". The word "healthy" may seem out of place in a fast food joint, but the Korean frying technique is actually less caloric than it's American counterpart. By using a thin batter and a double-fry method, the skin becomes crackly and crisp. At Kyochon, the chicken is made to order eliminating any heat-lamp induced sogginess.

First, we tried the Sweet & Hot Wings (above). Don't be fooled by the sweetness, which initially mellows the spice. These sticky snacks pack enough heat to induce tears without obliterating your taste buds. The Garlic Soy Drumsticks (right) are addictively awesome, crunchy, and exceptionally salty. Kyochon is where to go for your "fast foodie" fried chicken fix.

Susan Feniger's Street

At this mecca of international street food, fried chicken is prepared Japanese-style, Tatsua-age, where the bird is marinated in soy, mirin, and sake before being blanketed in a rice batter and fried. Thanks to this sumptuous soak, the chicken is super-succulent. Although the chewy coating isn't crisp, it is indeed tasty, especially when generously drizzled with spicy Kewpie mayo, a Japanese brand made with rice vinegar. The complimentary sides--vinegary pickled vegetables and cold soba noodles with sesame and marinated tofu--round out the entree.

Eva Restaurant

Chef Mark Gold's delectable fried chicken is only offered on Sundays, during his prix-fixe family-style suppers (which at $39 for 5-courses and all-you-can-drink wine is a steal). Gold puts a whole lotta love into his birds. First, he bathes them in buttermilk and tabasco for 24 hours. Then, after dredging the chicken in flour and spices, he chills them so that they stay coated when cooked. Rather than use a deep-fryer, he fries the chicken in a skillet, creating a super-crunchy batter without excessive grease.

Sometimes, Gold adds his fried chicken to a dish which calls for plain, ol' boneless breasts (genius!). On my birthday last year, Chicken Piccata--modeled by my friend, Heather--was elevated to extreme yum. FYI, during the summer, Eva hosted unlimited chicken & draft beer on Tuesday nights. Hopefully that tradition will continue next year!

Happiness on the UES

Felice Wine Bar Upper East Side 24 October 10
eat: Polipo Grigliato, Pappardelle alla Bolognese, Broccoli
sip: Maltese Bianco Tenuta Rapitale 09 (Sicilia) , Felice Sardi Giustiniani (Toscana) 09

Although my home is temporary on the Upper East Side, I have still been eager to find a nearby spot that fits my neighborhood needs. I was looking to fulfill that quintessential New York fantasy: where everything you need is just outside your door. The haute, culinary institutions like Daniel and JoJo are too hoity-toity for a nightly nosh. 2nd Ave's restaurant row, a sea of mediocrity, seems to exist more due to convenience and sociability rather than quality of food. Indeed there are some tasty ethnic joints, Baluchi's (Indian) and Pig Heaven (Chinese), but I prefer to savor their dishes at home in my pajamas. When I stumbled on Felice Wine Bar, I finally found my local.

Felice Wine Bar is the sister restaurant to Sant Ambroeus, the Milanese pasticerria and gelateria that has expanded New Yorker's waistlines for 30 years. Felice, which means "happy" in Italian, is more than the average wine bar thanks to one of the owners, Jacopo Giustiniani. Since Jacopo grew up in his family's Tuscany vineyard, which he now runs, his intimate knowledge of wine imbues the restaurant with oenophilic oomph. The vinicultural theme is embraced in the decor: enormous, glass wine jugs create a stunning candelabra centerpiece and wine bottles line the walls. With tufted leather benches, a communal wooden table and a flattering, candlelit glow, the ristorante is equally suited for romantic dates or family dinners. In warm weather, sidewalk tables offer prime viewing of the passeggiata - the urban stroll.

My amica, Inga, and I opt for a seat at the travertine bar. Our charming bartender, Ben, educationally escorts us through the wine list. We sip the Maltese Bianco Tenuta Rapitala 09, a crisp, dry, lemony blend of catoratto and grillo, Sicily’s indigenous white grape. Contrasting, the Felice house white, from the Giustiniani family winery, is a marvelous, medium-bodied misto of buttery chardonnay and grassy vermentino. When ordering, be sure to leave room for the addictive bread basket. Freshly-baked bread arrives with a bright chartreuse olive oil that is earthy and astringent . Unlike the drier focaccia I'm accustomed to, this version is drenched in olive oil. According to Inga, an Italian cognoscente thanks to many years spent studying in Italy, this is the traditional way focaccia is served.

Polipo Grigliato I’ve never used “octopus” and “juicy” in the same sentence before, but this dish heightens this cephalapod to a new level. Grilled, citronette marinated octopus is bursts with plump, moist flavor. Served on a green cauliflower puree with roast potatoes, red onion, black olives, and fresh greens, this hearty appetizer could easily be an entrée. For those who are wary of octopus, I urge you to try this gateway dish - it just might tip the scale in it's favor.

Pappardelle alla Bolognese I often use this dish as the barometer of authenticity in an Italian restaurant. Here, thick ribbons of homemade pasta glisten with a tasty veal ragú. Since the sauce is traditionally made - more runny than hearty - the toothsome pasta stands out. Usually, I prefer a meatier ragú, but the simplicity of the sauce allows for a less heavy dish.

For our greens fix, the contorni menu offers seasonal veggies that are simply roasted or sauteed with garlic. Here, the verdant broccoli is dressed with garlic and olive oil - simplicity is bliss.

As the name says, Felice IS a wine bar, offering more than 100 bottles of wine of which 18 are available by the glass. Scanning the room, I see a couple nibbling crostini while sipping wine at the bar, a woman dining alone, and a garrulous group at the center table. Like other local faves, Felice happily hosts a variety of diners. It is a welcome, and much-needed, fixture on the UES - whether or not you live around the corner.

An Apple a Day

Northern Spy Food Co. East Village 13 November 10
eat: Housemade Granola and Yogurt, Kale Salad, Corned Beef Hash, Biscuits
sip: Strongtree Coffee

My apple fetish began with an October road trip upstate. Surrounded by stunning fall foliage, I munched apple donuts, sipped hot cider, and chomped on freshly-picked apples. Back in the city, I baked comforting crumbles weekly. Even my Halloween costume - a leafy homage to autumn - was inspired by apples. When New York Magazine published Beyond Delicious, a visual apple-ography of Greenmarket offerings, it was exciting as the September Issue of Vogue. As I scanned the myriad of heirloom apple varieties, one name caught my eye, Northern Spy, both for the mouth-watering description and also because it had a familiar ring to it. Where did I know it from? Then I remembered that East Village restaurant that kept catching my eye: Northern Spy Food Co.

Named after the aforementioned New York apple, Northern Spy Food Co. is a welcoming, neighborhood restaurant that focuses on local, seasonal fare. Last weekend, I dropped by for brunch with my amigas. It is an adorable joint that brims with homey cuteness - vintage wallpaper, Robin Egg blue benches, even an apple-scented bathroom air freshener - without being too precious. Their sustainability credo extends beyond the food; most of the interior design stems from salvaged materials, including the wooden dining tables made from bowling alley lanes. We are seated in a cozy nook (pictured above) who's diminutive size is well-suited for sharing and gossip.

Our brunch begins with warm, house-made biscuits and pear jam. Normally, I'm such a butter-junkie that I tend to spread it on any breakfast pastry, but these golden biscuits taste as if a pat of butter went into each bite. The accompanying pear jam is just-plucked-from-the-tree fresh. Dare I be so bold in saying these are the best biscuits I've had in NYC so far....

Housemade Granola and Yogurt The whole-milk, organic yogurt is European-style, aka runny, which is a welcome change from the popular, dense Greek version . Sweetened with honey, the toasted granola brims with pecans, oats, and cinnamon-y goodness. If the granola was served atop ice cream, it would be dessert, but yogurt lets it sneak into the "breakfast" category.

Corned Beef Hash The ubiquitous brunch dish is a standout here. No dry, canned cubed beef of lore, but hefty chunks of brined Heritage Beef Brisket. The meat is so juicy that a pool of beefy gravy bastes the confit potatoes and perfectly poached, Feather Ridge Farm eggs.

Kale Salad We round out our meal with a seasonal salad: a mountain of frazzled kale, ribbons of clothbound cheddar, chunks of delicata squash, and crunchy almonds. Kudos to the chef for this preparation. By shredding the kale, this hardy roughage is less overbearing and mixes well with the other ingredients Per our waitress' suggestion, we order two baked eggs atop the salad. Their runny yolks make an egg-y dressing creating a Caesar salad-brunch style. Looks like I'm not the only fan - the recipe was just posted in NY Magazine.

In addition to the food, Northern Spy Food Co. has other benefits that make for an enjoyable brunch . The Strongtree Coffee is tasty and mirrors the local/organic vibe of the foodstuffs. There were wooden benches outside to help make the brunch wait bearable, and once inside, we ate at a leisurely pace without ever feeling rushed. If I lived in the neighborhood, I could see myself frequenting Northern Spy Food Co. often. It is high-quality, low-cost grub served in a friendly environment. Like it's mascot, it is the kind of place you should have once a day.

Seven Meats In Heaven

Má Pêche Midtown 8 October 2010
eat: Beef Seven Ways
sip: Bayerischer-Bahnof Leipziger Gose

This is Sammy. He is holding a rib which glistens with crispy fat and tender meat. This isn't just any rib, nor is it the only meat he will devour tonight. He is midway through the gluttonous feast, aptly titled Boeuf Sept Façons, offered at Má Pêche, David Chang's French-Vietnamese restaurant. Last week, I was graciously invited by my fellow foodie friend, Jeff (who is Sammy's dad), to celebrate my birthday - and our shared carnivorous worship - along with his girlfriend, daughter and her friend.

Má Pêche is the first restaurant in Chang's empire located away from the East Village. In spite of it's Midtown location, it still bustles with the same downtown energy as his other restaurants, albeit in a brighter, slightly more upscale environment. I tend to prefer beer to wine when dining on Asian cuisine, so I order a Bayerischer-Bahnof Leipziger Gose, a citrusy, herbal wheat beer that is refreshingly bubbly - almost champagne-like - and yeasty. Gose beers are brewed with the non-traditional addition of coriander and salt, so I find it to be a tasty meal-accompanying brew, but some non-salt addicts may find the saltiness overbearing.

After reading the Beef Seven Ways Menu, which honors the meat's provenance by listing the farms where the beef is sourced, we decide to order a salad to supplement the veggies in our meal. The Heirloom Tomato Salad (Eckerton Hill Farm, PA) features last-of-the-season tomatoes and watermelon rind with an Asian influence of basil and yuba, dried beancurd. It's a bright palate-cleanser that is the perfect start to the sumptuous meal.

Tongue (Creekstone, KS). Admittedly, even I, the adventurous meat-lover, find that the idea of eating tongue makes my stomach queasy; consequently, my previous experience with tongue was limited to lingua tacos, which were smothered with spicy salsa that disguised the meat. However, this dish has made me a new fan of tongue. In fact, the entire table was all surprised and impressed with the tasty tongue, who's heft and texture I would liken most to Jewish deli meat. Served with a mountain of spinach and whole basil leaves, crunchy peanuts, and a plum vinaigrette, this savory salad is an encouraging omen for what's to come.

Wagyu (Imperial Beef, NE) America's version of Kobe, the exquisitely-marbled, high-quality Japanese beef, is seared slightly and served with radishes, scallions, ginger, and cilantro. This uncomplicated presentation highlights this magnificent meat; like fatty tuna, the Wagyu's richness is heightened when barely cooked.

Cote de Boeuf (4 Story Hill Farm, PA) and Sausage (Niman Ranch & Imperial Beef). Next, a mouthwatering platter of meat arrives with succulent, bone-in rib-eye (featuring the aforementioned rib), roast garlic, and amazing, house-made sausage that bursts with flavors of Thai lemongrass, basil, and shallot. A tray of accoutrements - pickled veggies, chili paste, fried garlic, homemade hoisin and fish sauce, bunches of fresh cilantro & basil - plus a head of butter lettuce accompany the meat. This is when the meal truly evolves into a festive, family-style feast - we are laughing , sharing our favorite flavor combos, eating enthusiastically with our hands, and licking our fingers as if we're at home rather than in a public place.

Oxtail and Shank (Pineland Farm, ME) The piece de resistance is the Flintstone-size beef shank that has been braised all day with crab paste and chili and arrives smothered in onions. The shank is so tender that no knife is required - a set of tongs is all you need to pull the succulent meat off the bone. Nestled next to the shank are plump oxtails packed with flavor from soy, sherry and apple juice. If you have always been hesitant to try oxtail, I urge you to taste these, which are, like the rest of the meat, outstanding. When we finally wave the white flag of food surrender, Jeff asks to take the mammoth shank bone for his homemade ragù. Turns out this is a common request - though the waiter warns us of stuffing the greasy bone in a purse (!) which has been the regrettably inane choice for previous diners.

Consommé (Pineland Farm, ME) The meal concludes with a delicate, short rib consommé brightened by the traditionally Vietnamese melange of cilantro, lime and basil. Although we are all stuffed like sausages at this seventh and final course, this simple soup is surprisingly, stomach-soothing. As I sip the savory broth, I'm reminded of the Bull Shots (Bloody Marys made with Beef Broth instead of Tomato Juice) I served as a hangover cure in my bartending days. Like that restorative cocktail, this consomme relieves our bursting bellies.

No dessert is offered for the meal, nor at the restaurant a la carte - though a massive wheel of stinky Epoisses is available if you're craving a non-meat finale. However, you can get your sweets fix upstairs at Milk Bar, Chang's decadent, dessert wonderland. There, the desserts are so damn delicious, that we ignored our full tummies and ordered their trademarked Cereal Milk Ice Cream and Birthday Cake Truffles (think Funfetti cake donut holes). Unfortunately, no photos were taken since we were busy gobbling up the goodies, but take my word for it, there's a reason that Milk Bar has a cult following.

All in all, Boeuf Sept Façons is one of the most memorable meals I have ever had. Singularly, each dish is a bovine masterpiece; together, they are beefy bacchanal that needs to be put on everyone's bucket list. Indeed, the $85 price tag may seem high for a Vietnamese, family-style meal, but how many tasting menus involve finger-licking, chin-dripping, mouth-watering wow?

Little. Inexpensive. Comfort

El Ay Si Long Island City, Queens 9 September 10
eat: Seared Calamari, Burger, Tater Tots, Green Beans
sip: Remy Pannier Vouvray, Vega Murillo Tempranillo

The other night, my friend, Sarah, suggested we meet in Queens, where we could have our pick of eats from the plethora of bars and restaurants along Vernon Ave. Normally, I would have gone online to forage the plethora of internet reviews to help guide our search. However, having just moved to NY from LA, I was excited to explore a new neighborhood and make our dinner choice the old-fashioned way - in person. In LA, since you are often driving to dinner, it is necessary to know beforehand where you will be dining. Plus, a good restaurant doesn't need to have an appealing exterior to entice passerbys. Yet, I do relish the simple joy of stumbling upon a culinary gem. Whether it's the waft of fresh baked bread, sun-drenched sidewalk tables, or an adorable sign that catches my eye, I like to have the senses be my guide.

At first, El Ay Si beckons us visually; the exposed brick, the candlelit glow, the cozy, dark wood booths à deux and, thanks to a balmy September night, the welcoming, open doors. Next, our ears perk up to Radiohead and Arcade Fire; food always tastes better with a dollop of good tunes. When we scan the small, yet appealing menu - a blend of comfort food and Mexican dishes - we are hooked. As we nestle into our nook, I have a eureka moment (this is for other food photojournalists out there): the booths feature individual lamps that eliminate the use of a pesky, unflattering flash.

Sarah has been craving a burger and this one hits the jackpot. It's a hefty 1/2 pound of super-juicy, delicious meat topped with lettuce, tomato, and caramelized red onions on a classic white bun. The accompanying sweet potato fries are awesome; sometimes the use of the healthier orange tuber produces a drier, overly-starchy fry, but these are finger-licking good. Plus, at $10, this combo is a steal.

Rather than ordering an entree, I decide to cobble together a meal of small plates. First is the Grilled Calamari, which is simply prepared with olive oil and sea salt. Although I'm a fan of the ubiquitous fried version, sometimes the squid becomes soggy or overly-heavy under all that breading. Here, the calamari are wonderfully chewy and light - a squirt of lime is all you need.

Comfort food has experienced a massive resurgence lately - chefs are reinterpreting classics by replacing processed ingredients with fresh ones, creating a haute-comfort cuisine. However, I'm tickled that one of the old-school standbys (and my childhood fave), tater tots, are popping up on menus around town. Here, a heaping mountain of taters arrive with an addictive, spicy chipotle mayo dipping sauce. You can also order them, and the fries, "Disco Style" - smothered with cheese and gravy. Genius.

To fuel my veggie fix, I get a side of green beans, which are glistening with butter, garlic, and fresh herbs. Thanks to the al-dente preparation, they are crunchy and flavorful. Like the previous dishes, this isn't a wimpy portion of beans, but a "Hungry Man" size serving that will satisfy more than your daily allowance of vegetables.

If you are interested in an imbibing-only eve, there is a long, welcoming bar in the front of the restaurant. In addition to classic cocktails and a decent menu of international brews, wine is offered at a reasonable range of $25-$42. I'm clinging to the end of summer, so I sip a golden, apple-y Remy Pannier Vouvray. Sarah embraces autumn with a medium-bodied, berry-licious Vega Murillo Tempranillo One of my favorite, tongue-in-cheek offerings is the "Highroller" a 3-liter magnum bottle (or 24 glasses) of Marwood Prosecco for a clean hundred. It's celebration, El Ay Si style.

This is a neighborhood joint through and through, from the amicable service to the wallet-friendly prices. It's good for a quick nosh or a long, lingering meal, an early dinner with kids or a weekend brunch. When our friendly waitress brings the check, she warmly gives us a $10 off coupon which illustrates our review perfectly: two enthusiastic thumbs up :)

Deal Alert - 20% off wine on Sundays-Tuesdays

Sublime on the Sunset Strip

Bar Marmont West Hollywood 15 May 10
eat: Smoked Trout, Crème Fraîche, and Potato, Gougères, Fava Bean Bruschetta, Burrata & Grilled Artichoke Board, Hanger Steak & Spinach Salad, Sheep Milk Ricotta Gnocchi, Caesar Salad with Grilled Sardines
sip: Brass Flower, Añejo Old-Fashioned, Peach Bellini

Last weekend, I had a mini-staycation at the Hotel Andaz with my friends for their belated birthday celebration. Although staycations originated from the need for a cheaper alternative to expensive travel, I have discovered that bunking in town has many benefits - you avoid the frustrating hell of airline travel, you can take a break from driving (this is especially necessary in LA) and you have the opportunity to explore unfamiliar neighborhoods you might have overlooked For example, our hotel, which we chose for it's fabulous rooftop pool, was located on the crowded and cheesy Sunset Strip, an area which I avidly avoid. The restaurant options within walking distance on the Strip are limited, unless your dining dreams include a mechanical bull, pricey hotel establishments, or the euro-trash mecca of Sunset Plaza. Indeed, we could have cabbed it elsewhere, but I relished the challenge of discovering a local gem. Ultimately, we ended up at an old place, Bar Marmont, that has been reinvented as a foodie destination.

When I first moved to LA, Bar Marmont was a place for boozing and schmoozing; it was the kind of place frequented by beautiful people who's idea of dinner was a cigarette and a cocktail. However, their culinary caliber increased in 2007 when Carolynn Spence, the chef de cuisine from NYC's popular gastropub, The Spotted Pig, came to helm the kitchen and now it excels as both a bar and restaurant. Inside, the room reeks of sexy; vintage light bulbs and lanterns set the mood. The French/Indochine decor features tile floors, smoky mirrors, and whimsical butterflies floating from the ceiling. We sample from the well-curated cocktail menu, which offers some tasty twists on old classics. First, a gorgeous, rose-hued Añejo Old-Fashioned (pictured right) who's girlie color suggests fruity and sweet, yet instead it packs quite a punch. This is a drink for those who like the taste of tequila rather than have it masked by a margarita’s salt and lime. The Brass Flower, an icy and refreshing take on a French 75, is an elegant concoction of St. Germain, Gin, Champane, and Grapfruit juice. A Peach Bellini bursts with first-of-the-summer peaches. Moving on to dinner, our friendly waitress, Abby, is a knowledgeable guide who helps us navigate through the menu which bursts with seasonal temptations.

Smoked Trout, Crème Fraiche, Potato Chunks of buttery trout top a hollowed-out potato with capers inside. A dollop of tangy, crème fraiche, a sprinkle of chives, and a dusting of paprika complete this delectable dish . The smoked trout is a welcome change from the standard smoked fish, salmon. It’s less oily and overpowering; I’m inspired to make this for my next brunch.

Gougères These surprisingly light, fluffy cheese puffs are France's interpretation of Brazil's addictive Pan de Quejo. I used to dine at Red Lobster (the Shrimp Shrimp and More Shrimp was my guilty pleasure) where each meal would begin with a piping hot basket of cheddar & onion biscuits. These gougères are the grown-up, culinary version and remind me that every meal should begin with cheesy bread.

Fava Bean Bruschetta Springtime’s bean of the moment taste best when they are served in unadulterated glory. Here, a hint of olive oil and salty pecorino highlight the bright, green beauties. Since cooking favas is insanely labor-intensive, I'm happy to let the pros do the work and always order them in restaurants.

Burrata and Grilled Artichoke Board I would return to Bar Marmont just for the sake of sampling this wooden plank of pleasures. I can’t get enough of burrata, the gooey, creamy, buffalo mozzarella that has been a welcome trend in the dining world. This is a multisensory affection; I love how it glistens, how it stretches like taffy, and how it brims with full fat flavor. I have nibbled numerous artichoke leaves to get to the holy grail of the heart, but here, the heart is grilled solo. There is an intensity and meatyness similar to a grilled Portobello mushroom. Slices of yellow heirloom tomatoes and earthy Lucques olives add to the mix. I’m not shy with my bread consumption, yet somehow grilling bread makes it even more irresistible.

Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Gnocchi with Squash Blossoms and Parmesan Thanks to the ricotta, these gnocchi are pillowy and light rather than stick-to-your-belly starchy. Bathed in a creamy, buttery sauce with basil puree and parmesan, this dish is pure comfort. Another springtime fave, squash blossoms, top the pasta, providing both a burst of color and zing to the plate.

Grilled Hangar Steak with Spinach Salad As a bona fide omnivore, who has equal love for animal protein and produce, I adore a dish that fulfills both of these food groups. Case in point: this deconstructed steak salad. On one side, lies a tender, perfectly cooked (charred on outside, pink in the middle) hanger steak. On the other, the salad, with pickled beets, slivers of crispy garlic, smoky blue cheese, and roasted red peppers would be wonderful solo, but it is the perfect side to the accompanying steak.

Ceasar Salad with Grilled Sardines Everyone has their own take on what makes a Ceasar good; some like theirs stinking with garlic, some like theirs drenched in dressing. As a true Libra, who’s always searching for balance, I prefer mine to be a harmonious blend where the ingredients work together rather than have one overpower the rest. The sardines - hearty, fresh ones not the oily, puny versions in a tin - and the fried capers are briny-licious.

After this filling feast, we were thankful for our digestive walk back to the hotel. It reminded me of one of my favorite Italian traditions, the passeggiata, but rather than strolling through piazzas, we trudged along the teeming sidewalks of the Strip. However, rather than sneer at the Saturday-night revelers, we smiled knowing that we had found a diamond in the rough. We would return to Bar Marmont for drinks and apps, for a romantic date, for their Sunday Night Fried Chicken Dinner, for unpretentious, fresh fare.

FYI, the valet is insanely expensive, so try to find parking elsewhere.

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm

The Gorbals Downtown 05 May 10
eat: Bacon-Wrapped Matzoh Balls, GLT, Crispy Broccoli, Potato Latkes, Welsh Rarebit, Fettucine with Artichoke Hearts, Sticky Toffee Pudding
sip: Cheesebro Rousanne, Dirty Martini

My job as a costumer requires that I spend most of my day in clothing stores. Lately, I've noticed an unfortunate trend in fashion - everything looks the same. Before, preppy JCrew and hipster Urban Outfitters never had crossover merchandise; now, they both carry oxford shirts, fedoras, and boyfriend blazers. A similar homogeneous current is affecting restaurants; even quality ingredients like pork belly, Jidori chicken, and beets have almost become monotonous due to their ubiquity on menus around town (how many gourmet burgers can one city have???) Consequently, I have been craving something different, something non-traditional, something to make me go "hmmm". Enter The Gorbals, an eclectic eatery in downtown LA, that will pique your culinary curiosity.

As their website accurately states, The Gorbals "does not fall into a category". The cuisine is a unique hybrid of Jewish, Scottish, and Spanish cooking. It's run by a Top Chef Winner, Ilan Hall, yet there isn't an ounce of pretentiousness from the celeb chef. They serve food until the rare hour of 2am. An ethnic folk band, The Petrojvic Blasting Co, plays Thursday nights. The restaurant is housed in the enchantingly bizarre Alexandria Hotel. Although the historic Alexandria has recently been renovated into low income apartments, the building still has a faded, Lynchian charm - a trip to the bathroom reveals a hidden jazz club and a dusty, majestic ballroom. The decor is industrial and raw, with highlights including an enormous communal table of rough-hewn wood, kitchen-view seating, and angular, wooden pillar-like stools. In spite of the minimalism, the room still hums with a convivial, homey vibe thanks to the affable staff. Since the menu features obscure organs like sweetbreads and gizzards, an adventurous and carnivorous eater will be in hog heaven here; however, when I came with my pseudo-veggie friend, Gretchen, she was able to find something to nosh. Having dined here three times, here is a smattering of my faves:

Many have dubbed the Bacon-Wrapped Matzoh Balls to be the "signature dish" of The Gorbals. They have garnered a lot of attention due to their shamelessly un-Kosher combo ; yet they are more than just a provocative plate. The crispy, fatty bacon accentuates the soft, doughyness of the matzoh ball and the fresh grated horseradish and parsely add a welcome zing to the plate. Surprisingly, these are amazingly light; like donut holes, one could practically pop a dozen in your mouth before getting full.

Latkes with Smoked Applesauce I wish latkes were not just restricted to Jewish delis. In spite of their deliciousness, they are a pain-in-the-arse to make, both because of their tendency to disintegrate mid-frying as well as the pungent oil smell that permeates your kitchen for days . Ilan's version is crispy, salty, thin and tinged with rosemary. The accompanying smoked applesauce pairs well with these and other meaty menu items.

Gribenes, Lettuce, Tomato Sandwich Gribenes, aka chicken skin, is the Jewish version of chicharrón -pork rinds. I had expected the gribenes to resemble the crunchy, oily skin of a roast chicken, but was sorely mistaken (as you can see from the photo on the right). In fact, the skin is cooked in it's own fat (similar to the French confit) which keeps it juicy, succulent, and meatier. Admittedly, I am that eater who relishes the fatty gristle around the steak almost as much as the steak itself, but I strongly believe that even the faint at heart would enjoy this sandwich. The combination of the fresh lettuce and tomato, the creamy dill aoli, and the gribenes is excellent. I would even go so far as to say I like this better than a traditional BLT. In the words of the Sizzlean adds: "Move over bacon....."

Crispy Broccoli with Soy, Chiles, Vinegar Don't be fooled by the few ingredients; this dish packs a powerful punch. On the outside, the broccoli has been charred to a shriveled crisp , yet inside the green flesh is flavorful and moist. It is a clever spin on the usual side of greens sauteed with garlic; it's so good that we debate ordering a second round.

Fettucini With Artichoke Hearts is a light and refreshing pasta perfect for springtime. The pasta glistens with a buttery, lemon sauce which is so unctuous that we are convinced that cream is a primary ingredient (turns out it's not even in the dish!)

Welsh Rarebit with Fried Egg
My English ancestors would be ashamed, but I always thought this was a meat dish (maybe I mixed up "rarebit" with "rabbit"?) Thankfully, I tasted my inaugural rarebit here and was excited to find that it is essentially melted cheese sauce on toast. I like the addition of the fried egg and Worcestershire sauce on top; this would be a perfect late-night, prevent-a-hangover snack.

Sticky Toffee Pudding with Nutella-Buttermilk Ice Cream This is more cakey and dense than the traditional oozy version. I sampled this dessert twice; the first time, the pudding had just a hint of toffee sauce, but the second time, the cake was drenched. The sprinkled sea salt transforms the pudding into the flavor du jour, salted caramel. Love the tangy ice cream too.

In beverage-land, The Gorbals has quality liquor, a smattering of microbrews, and an inexpensive wine list. In keeping with my recent white-wine infatuation, I drink Cheesebro Roussane a Carmel Valley, Rhone-style white which has a nice balance of fruit and minerals.

To be frank, this isn't a restaurant for everybody. The eclectic menu is small and lacks any food wimp options. Some have said the decor feels unfinished. Downtown parking sucks. Some experimental dishes are flops. In spite of these critiques, The Gorbals succeeds because it is like nothing else out there - it is artsy, innovative, communal, and relaxed. Each time you visit, who knows what you will find. The ever-changing menu is full of surprises. One night, Ilan served us his famous matzoh balls himself. Another night, my friend hosted a circus-themed, costume soiree. Maybe it's the hybrid cuisine or the diverse crowd, but The Gorbals feels like it could be located anywhere. Fortunately, it's here in good ol' Los Angeles.

Big Love To Steak

BLT Steak West Hollywood, CA 20 April 10
eat: Steak Sliders, Truffled Mac & Cheese, Popovers, Hanger Steak, Filet Mignon, Frites, Creamed Spinach, Jalepeno Mashed Potatoes
sip: Bourbon Sidecar, Dirty Grey Goose Martinis

Expectations have a profound effect on our experiences. When anticipations are high, the barometer of excellence is heightened as well. For instance, when a movie receives glowing reviews, I presume it is going to be a magnificent tour-de-force. After looking at an online photo of a potential suitor, I assume he'll be equally dashing in person. However, when these prospects fall short - the film is a flop, the date is a dud - the sting of disappointment is stronger than having had no hope at all. Conversely, when a situation has little promise, yet then exceeds my expectations, the outcome is surprising delight.

"Expect the worst. Hope for the best" This was the mantra that ran through my head the other night when I chose BLT Steak after my friends put me to the challenge of finding a "non-Mexican, close-to-home, non-frat boy, good food Happy Hour". To be frank, BLT Steak doesn't fit into my usual dining mold. It is located on the touristy Sunset Strip and it is part of a large, national restaurant conglomerate, BLT Restaurants, which in spite of it's high esteem, I have avoided due to my penchant for local, smaller establishments. However, I was intrigued by their 5 for $5 Happy Hour: a choice of 5 libations (red & white wine, beer, bubbly, cocktail) plus 5 yummy small plates each for a fiver.

As we enter the restaurant, the modern, sleek design feels corporate and cold, yet after a warm welcome by the hostess and bartender, we begin to feel more comfortable. The decor lends itself to a more civilized happy hour - one where you can eat and drink fabulously without breaking the bank. The seasonal cocktail is a Bourbon Sidecar, a twist on the original with Bourbon replacing Cognac as the main liquor. We nosh on Steak Sliders, aka mini Philly Cheesesteaks. They are a messy, yet tasty mound of thick chunks of steak, caramelized onions, and melted Gruyere. Sadly, the Fried Oysters with Pickled Cabbage are a disaster - dare I say that the oysters tasted dirty - but our palates are quickly saved by the divine Truffle Mac & Cheese with Bacon, a stellar, oozy version topped with a golden-brown, shredded Gruyere crust. Even the bar snacks, smoked almonds, paprika dusted-popcorn, and plump olives, are top-notch.

Turns out that happy hour is a mere taste of what BLT Steak has to offer. When I return two weeks later to watch a Lakers playoff game at the bar, my interest in BLT Steak blossoms into a full-blown crush. The romance begins when Andrew, our charming, attentive bartender, brings out an array of amuse-bouche goodies: a glass jar of chicken liver pâté, two grapefruit-size popovers, fresh butter, and sea salt (turns out this duo is a signature to all the BLT Steak restaurants). The intense, rust-hued pâté is wonderfully warm, iron-rich, and meaty which I prefer to other whipped versions. The popovers deserve to have their own post - heck, it's their photo, not the more apt picture of a steak, that I crowned atop this blog. They are a feat of baked wizardry; inflated orbs of airy, soft dough encased in a buttery crust that is reminiscent of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls (in a good way). Alone, the popovers are delectable. Slathered with butter and sprinkled with flakes of sea salt, they are simply naughty. Obviously, I'm not alone in my popover passion; a miniature recipe card is served with them to entice diners to recreate them at home.

In keeping true to traditional steakhouses, the steaks are served a la carte, letting the diner choose their sauces and sides. There is such love for the cow that on the back of the menu, a diagram depicts cuts of meat to the corresponding parts of the cow (i.e. round = backside) An educated eater is a happier eater, so I take a menu home to study my bovine anatomy. I opt for a Hanger Steak (a cut which hangs from the diaphragm) with horseradish sauce. It arrives in a venerable Staub cast iron pan adorned simply with roasted shallots. The steak is picture perfect: blackened on the outside and bloody red inside. This caramelized char is due to the super high temperature (1700 degrees!) at which the steak is broiled. It tastes even better than it looks; normally, I bring leftovers home from a steakhouse, but I devour every last bit of one of the best steaks I've ever had. Russel has the Filet Mignon, which is gorgeously teneder and plump.

In an effort to counteract the meatiness of the meal, we opt for two green sides. The first, Creamed Spinach is full of fresh spinach. I love how this version focuses on the spinach rather than the cream. Rather than have the greens drowning in a giant cream bath, it's as if the spinach has soaked up the cream and created a moist masterpiece. Next, Jalepeño Mashed Potatoes are a beautiful, yet unusual mint green (think Green Eggs and Ham). They are wonderfully whipped and buttery and the heat from the jalepeños adds a nice kick.

Andrew brings us Fries with Parmesan, Truffle Salt, and Lime Cilantro Aioli. One might think this could be a bad case of ingredient overkill, but somehow all the flavors harmonize deliciously. On their own, the double-fried fries would be stellar, but the extra accoutrements are a unique touch.

Next, Andrew brings us a surprise Molten Chocolate Cheesecake. Although we are stuffed, it is a sweet gesture that adds to the welcoming friendliness that has infused our meal. Essentially, the dessert is a gussied up sundae; the chocolate ice-cream like cake is drizzled with dark, melted chocolate and a dollop of vanilla ice cream rests on top. It's an appropriate end to our "haute comfort" meal.

Turns out BLT Steak IS my kind of restaurant. It can be what you want it to be: a celebratory dinner, an intimate bar meal, high-end bites for game viewing, or a refined happy hour. I have learned my lesson. Don't judge a book by it's cover. Don't stereotype. Don't assume. It's funny, looking through my old magazines, I realized that BLT Steak was listed as one of L.A. Magazine's 10 Best New Restaurants in 2009, but I must have ignored their listing due to my snooty aversion to anything non-local. Eat that piece of humble might like what you taste.

Deal Alert: Besides the great 5 for $5 Happy Hour, there is a nightly 3-course $50 Blackboard Menu which veers from the traditional steak menu and features seasonal fare.

This Ain't No Joke

Serious Pie Seattle, WA 25.Nov.09
eat: Italian Bread Soup, Pizzas: Yukon Gold Potato/Rosemary/Olive Oil, Penn Cove Clams/Pancetta, Cherry Bomb Peppers/Sweet Fennel Sausage, House Salumi/Walla Walla Onions/Sardegna
sip: Campodelsole Sangiovese 06

In the past few years, my sister, her hubby, and our Seattle entourage have started a night-before-Thanksgiving tradition where we load up on carbs before the big day. In 2007, it was uber-cheesy macaroni and cheese (from the New England Cookbook by Brooke Dojny. Click for the fab recipe here ). '08 was Joe’s delightful linguini with white clam sauce. We are like marathon runners training before the big race; however, instead of fueling our bodies for 26 miles of running, we are essentially expanding our stomachs to allow for more eating. This year, to keep the tradition going, and also to satisfy my ongoing urge to try new places, we went to Serious Pie, the downtown pizza joint owned by the prolific local chef, Tom Douglas.

Normally Serious Pie is jam-packed with lines spilling out the door, but since it was the eve before Thanksgiving AND a nasty storm, we arewhisked to our seats immediately. Serious Pie is a cozy spot that I like to call “Medieval Urban”; the communal tables and glowing fire of the pizza oven harken back to pubs in ancient times, yet the sleek lighting fixtures and glass-walled view of the adjacent bakery add a modern edge. We begin our meal with an Italian Bread Soup - a tasty potage of salty chicken broth, earthy kale and croutons so buttery they were impermeable to soggy-ness. It is a satisfying amuse-bouche that both warms our damp bodies and tempts our tummies for the upcoming feast.

The procession of pizzas starts with the Penn Cove Clam,
House Pancetta,
and Lemon Thyme Pizza. I grew up near Pepe’s Pizza, the famous New Haven pizzeria whose clam & bacon pizza has such a cult following that people order it frozen to be delivered across the country. The version at Serious Pie is insanely good; the briny, local clams combined with salty bacon is a fantastic (and totally un-kosher) flavor combination. In Seattle, seafood simply tastes better thanks to the "just plucked from the sea" freshness; plus, the sea-scented air adds another dimension to the sensory experience.

The Yukon Gold, Rosemary, Olive Oil Pizza is a naughty, rich, "oil dripping down to the chin" pie. One may be worried that the starchy potato would be overshadowed by the bready crust, but instead the potato's earthy-ness and complexity is highlighted. Speaking of the crust, the crucial foundation to great pizza, I find it wonderfully airy and yeasty, with just enough cornmeal dusting and wood-charred edges. Normally, I find that crust is tertiary to topping quality and sauce, but this complex crust is as good as any fine loaf of freshly-baked bread. Or, as the website aptly states: "Serious Pie is a pizzeria with a bread baker's soul" . Fyi, like many gourmet pizzas, this crust needs to be eaten fresh; when I brought a pizza home one night, I found it overly chewy and bland even when reheated.

Next up is the House Salumi, Walla Walla Onions, and Sardegna Pizza The salumi du jour is a magnificent, rosy-hued Coppa (cured pork shoulder) that is made in-house. The coppa, which blankets a generous 3/4 of the pie, pairs nicely with the tangy Sardegna (sheep's milk cheese), and sweet onions.

Finally, the Cherry Bomb Pepper and Fennel Sausage Pizza arrives. This interpretation of the classic Italian combo of sausage and peppers is heightened by the top-notch quality of the ingredients. The sausage is a carnivore's delight - meaty, juicy, and packed with flavor - while the peppers are pungently pickled and sweet. For drinking, there is an inexpensive wine list, with most bottles priced under $40 as well as a small, but well-curated selection of beers. We enjoyed the fruity and smooth Campodelsole Sangiovese '06

Serious Pie is a prime example of the artisan pizza movement that's sweeping the nation. There have been those that complain about the non-traditional toppings, lack of tomato sauce, and high prices. However, I like how these gourmet pizzas are stages on which quality ingredients - like burrata, guanciale, and squash blossoms - can shine. It's also a great way to eat well without breaking the bank.

Hungry Hungry Kitty

Hungry Cat Hollywood 21.March.10
eat: Crab Cake Benedict with Pancetta and Black Kale, Tweety's Herb Scramble, Fresh Pastries, Pug Burger, Fish & Chips, and Asparagus, Pancetta, and Crispy Egg
sip:Blanche de Bruxelles, Bloody Marys, Grapefruit Michelada

In Los Angeles, a city where looks matter more than substance, paradoxically some of the best culinary gems are actually hidden - behind generic storefronts, in dingy mini malls, or off the beaten path. Hungry Cat is one of those eateries; although it's located in a mundane, cookie-cutter complex of chain stores and apartments, the food is anything but bland. In fact, the restaurant excels on so many levels - amazingly fresh seafood and fish (oh ,the oyseters!) , artisanal cocktails, amazing brunch - that one forgets about the unfortunate mall setting. I have two preferred ways of dining at Hungry Cat. Firstly, I like sitting at the bar, which provides a great view of libation creation and glimpses into the busy kitchen. Secondly, I love sitting outside for a leisurely brunch, which can last for hours once the Bloody Marys start flowing. Here's a few of my favorite things....

Unlike dinner, where dessert ends the meal, I like to start off brunch with some sweets; they're the sugary yin to coffee’s acidic yang. Thanks to the opening of Tavern, another fine Suzanne Goin establishment, Hungry Cat now serves fresh-baked pastries from Tavern’s bakery. Monkey Bread, the baked-good love child of cinnamon rolls and sugary donuts, is comforting goodness. The Pain au Chocolat is pure Paris; flaky and napkin-stained buttery with a bitter, dark chocolate. If you’ve never been to Paris, here’s your chance to taste the City of Lights.

Tweety's Herb Scramble With Fines Herbes, Shallots, Jack Cheese and Crème Fraiche This dish reminds me of how good simplicity - like grilled peaches or a tomato flecked with salt & pepper - tastes. I rarely order scrambles or omelettes because they often are over-sized, ingredient-heavy ( do I really need chorizo, avocado, cheddar, cilantro, tomato AND onion), and over-cooked so that the eggs are bland and dry. In this dish, eggs are celebrated as they should be, and brightened by fresh herbs and tangy crème fraiche. The breakfast potatoes, some of the best in town, are generously roasted in olive oil and tossed with hefty slivers of garlic and woodsy rosemary.

Crab Cake Benedict with Black Kale and Pancetta
A perfectly executed dish with each component combined to create umami, brunch-style. Moist, succulent crab cakes, salty prosciutto, perfectly poached eggs, velvety hollandaise and black kale, which when charred, is heightened to a crunchy, briny accoutrement.

Beer-battered Fish and Chips This popular pub dish is elevated to gourmet status with a chunky, fried caper aioli, fresh parsley, and fried lemon slices. The fish is moist and fresh, while the batter itself is surprisingly light and crispy. The super-salty, double-fried fries are frigging delicious, whether they are eaten unadorned, swimming in mussel broth, or dipped in the condiment of your choice.

The Pug Burg
er with Bacon, Avocado, Blue Cheese, and Fried Egg. Since the menu at Hungry Cat abounds with aquatic treasures, I rarely order meat here, but thanks to my carnivorous friend, Russell, I got to taste the burger. Now, I may be biased because I tend to like a flatter, puck-like patty and this version is more tennis ball-shaped, but I find the burger to be so-so. The problem for me lies in the meat itself; although it is high-quality ground beef, it is overwhelmingly fatty and rich. Plus, the burger "ball" is so tall that it's impossible to eat it with your hands - and a fork and knife takes away from the finger-licking grease of the burger experience.

Grilled Asparagus, House-Made Pancetta, Walnuts, and a Crispy Egg I love the purity of this dish; each ingredient on it's own is delicious, but when combined, the eggy, porky, green, nutty blend is wonderful. Although I've sampled versions of this dish around town, the breaded egg and the homemade pancetta make Hungry Cat's stand out from the crowd.

Blanche de Bruxelles Witbier. With hints of bitter orange and coriander, this refreshing Belgian white beer is a great brunch beer thanks to it's light, citrusy finish. Bloody Marys are garden-fresh-good and come in many versions like the Maryland Mary rimmed with Maryland Spice Mix and garnished with an oyster. In the summer, I'm a big fan of the Grapefruit Michelada, a tart, refreshing mix of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, tecate, in a salted-rim glass.

A Diamond In The Forest

The Mountain Idyllwild, CA 11.March.10
eat: 10-hour Slow Cooked Short Ribs, Roasted Garlic Sautéed Kale, Banana Walnut Cake

My interest in food began as a byproduct of my love for travel. Each place I visited was memorialized by taste: thick dollops of clotted cream in Oxford, greasy, cheesy poutine in Montreal, that transcendent, ruby red tomato in Firenze that put the pale, supermarket versions to shame. Nowadays, when I head out of town, I endlessly forage the internet, an abundant and time-sucking resource, researching for restaurants that embody the essence of place. Although I enjoy these culinary quests, I sometimes relish a respite from my planning persona and head out of town without an itinerary. In spite of the wealth of information found online, local flavors are often best discovered with an old-fashioned approach, whether it's chatting up a native for their favorite haunts or by simply letting spontaneity lead the way.

Last week, I stumbled upon Idyllwild, a rustic, artsy town nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains between L.A. and Palm Springs. I had heard such disparate reviews about Idyllwild - some raved about the mountainous beauty, others lamented the lack of things to do - that I was eager to form my own opinion about the place. After spending three days in there, I can wholeheartedly say I'm hooked. It's a tranquil town that embodies all the traits of a stereotypical, mountain enclave - the air is woodsy & fresh, log-cabin cuteness abounds, and there is a dated quality, as if time stopped in Idyllwild forty years ago - plus, there are also a plethora of galleries and artisans. Indeed, this is a sleepy town, especially without crowd-attracting lakes and snow sports, but it is the quiet that makes it, well, idyllic.

When I arrive at the Fireside Inn, my charming, yet faded motel, I ask the front desk clerk for a restaurant recommendation. Her answer, which is wholeheartedly echoed by everyone I query, is Aroma Cafe. Aroma Cafe is the social nucleus of Idyllwild: it's an all-day restaurant, a coffee shop, a live-music venue, a gathering spot, a bar, and a place to soak up the sun on the patio. Since this is the most-reviewed restaurant in town - most folks say it's the "only joint with decent food" - I won't dwell on the details, but highlights of my dinner are a tasty salad of Blood Oranges, Avocado, and Arugula, a hearty Shrimp, Jalepeno Pesto Pasta, and fluffy, freshly-baked bread dipped in garlicky olive oil. All in all, the food is good, but it is definitely enhanced by the convivial hum and pleasant waitstaff that warm the place.

At my motel the following day, a sleek, modern postcard catches my eye. The Mountain advertises "Slow Food inspired", "Le Cordon Bleu graduate", "food made from scratch", "ingredients prepared with passion". I am surprised that such a gourmet place could exist here and am excited about the possibility that Idyllwild might be more than a one-restaurant town. When I arrive at Mountain, I am greeted by Courtney, the delightful, talkative co-owner. Considering it is an off-season Thursday night, the place is nearly empty (a factor that can sometimes add awkwardness to a meal), yet in this case, I am able to chat with Courtney about the inception and running of the restaurant. Since I'm unabashedly inquisitive and harbor a restaurant-owning fantasy, I am overjoyed to converse with her throughout my meal. The decor is homey - wood-beamed rafters, pine cones along the walls, butcher-paper tablecloths - and behind the bar, a gorgeous mural of the native Manzanita tree, painted by local artist, Darwin, honors Idyllwild's artistic roots.

With a nod to his haute-cuisine past, Chef Brian Ayers begins each meal with an amuse-bouche; tonight's is a palate-cleansing Salmon Mouse with Roasted Red Pepper and Garlic Toast. Ordering is a challenge because the menu mirrors a list of my favorite foods (house-made pate, brown-butter sage gnocchi, Coq au Vin, sweetbreads). Due to a lingering cold, and my waiter's enthusiastic advice, I opt for the comforting 10-Hour Slow Cooked Short Ribs braised in Merlot.Reminiscent of Boeuf Bourguignon, the tender, melt-in-your-mouth meat is served with sweet Vidalia onions, Crimini mushrooms, and garlic confit atop a mound of luscious mashed potatoes. For my greens fix, I get a side of the Roasted Garlic Sautéed Kale. Since the dining room is small, I can overhear the interactions of my fellow diners with the waiter. The service is exceptional; each order can be pleasantly personalized (whether putting sauce on the side or serving a half-portion of an entree) in order to fulfill one's dining desires. Also, each diner gushes effusively each time a dish appears, an unabashed compliment to the chef.

I finish with a moist Banana Walnut and Crème Fraiche Cake. Chef Ayers classical training is further reflected in his elegant presentation; here a simple cake is dressed up with a quenelle of cream cheese frosting and a dusting of cinnamon. The pièce de résistance is a mini-carrot cake that accompanies my check; nice touch to soften the blow of the bill, no?

The beauty of The Mountain is that it perfectly combines the rustic, laid-back, simplicity of Idyllwild with 5-star flair. It would be jarringly offensive if the decor was fancy, the menu was high-falutin', and the prices were exorbitant; the locals would never allow it. Instead, there is such a harmonious balance between city and country that the Mountain feels organic, like it could only have sprouted here in Idyllwild. Sure, I wish that the Mountain was in L.A. so that I could savor the fine fare often, but part of me loves that it's a destination, an inspiration for a romantic weekend, a fancy pit-stop en route to the desert, or a reason to jump in the car and leave life behind.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Reservoir Silver Lake 03 March 10
eat: Roasted Beets, Spicy Mussels, Mahi-Mahi, Farro Salad, Purple Yams, Ice Cream
sip: "The Prisoner" Napa 2008

Last Saturday, my friend, Shanna, and I spontaneously decided to dine at Reservoir, a cozy, neighborhood spot in Silver Lake. Soaked from sheets of rain (yes, it DOES rain in LA), we entered the tiny space to find the chef, Gloria Felix, at the hostess stand. At first, I didn’t know who she was, but once I spotted her chef whites, I deduced, from my many years of costuming and eating out, that she must be the big cheese. This may sound ironic, but I love it when a chef steps out of the kitchen. Whether it’s Chrisophe Émé (Ortolan) describing his famous caviar egg dish table-side or Mark Gold (Eva) hopping between tables to greet guests, I find that a visible chef adds a welcome intimacy and individuality to the dining experience. It’s comfortable too - like suddenly the restaurant has been revamped as a relaxed dinner party amongst familiar family and friends. At Reservoir, the familial nature continues that night as I realize that I know both waiters personally, an added bonus to any meal.

Inside, the snug space is aesthetically pleasing; the copper bar glows warmly under soft lighting and the ceiling, made from thin planks of recycled redwood, creates a cozy, nautical vibe. Since it's a blustery, winter night, I whet my whistle with a glass of "The Prisoner", a bold, lusty blend of reds including Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. This Napa Valley gem is an old favorite of mine thanks to it's gorgeous ruby hue, it's luscious mouth-feel, and it's "big fruit" character that is thankfully void of jammy-ness.

We begin with a refreshing salad of Roasted Beets, Fried Goat Cheese, Hazelnuts, and Fresh Greens-the greens are a lovely surprise considering most beet salads are served sans greens, which leaves me craving lettuce the rest of the meal.

Following our waiter, Damien's, advice, we opt for Spicy Mussels with Grilled Ciabatta Bread. The mussels are plump, juicy, and clean while the saffron broth bursts with red-pepper flake heat. After soaking up all our bread in the liquid deliciousness, we seriously contemplate risking our dignity and drinking the rest of the broth from the bowl.
With frites and a green salad, this would be a marvelous meal on it's own.

Reservoir encourages the diner to be a culinary curator by giving you a choice of side (they call them setups) to be served with their main courses. We select the Farro, Currant, Broccoli Rabe, and Pine Nut Salad to accompany our Mahi Mahi with Red Curry Sauce. The salad, a who’s who of my favorite ingredients, is nutty and complex while the fish is perfectly cooked - crispy on the outside and tender and buttery inside. I rarely choose fish at restaurants, since I tend to cook it-and not the red meat I usually order-at home, but I will rethink my ordering approach after tasting this sublime fish.

We finish our savory meal with transcendent Roasted Purple Yams with Chives and Crème Fraiche. They arrive resembling prehistoric dinosaur eggs that had just hatched a vivid, violet filling. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest farmer’s market to scoop up these awesome tubers. When roasted, the crunchy skins are caramelized to a buttery crisp and the inside is dark, rich, and moist like a dense chocolate cake.

Though we were stuffed to the gills, we couldn’t resist the homemade ice cream - a trio of sesame, vanilla, and chocolate. The bitter, decadent chocolate won hands down; the sesame did live up to it’s name, yet we prefer it in seed form, and the vanilla was decent, but had a flavor that seemed oddly synthetic, like a vanilla-flavored vodka.

When Chef Gloria catches me photographing her food, she cheerfully agrees to pose for a picture, a proud artisan flaunting her edible craft. Then, as if we were old pals catching up, we chat about her culinary past and her excitement about Reservoir's one-year anniversary. Her enthusiasm is not only infectious - it infuses the food with delicious love. After training at such beloved L.A. establishments like Lucques, Grace, and A.O.C., it should come as no surprise that Gloria shines with her own spin on "Seasonal Rustic" cuisine.

Deal Alert:
Happy Hour menu from 5-7pm includes $7-$12 dishes like Truffled Mac n' Cheese, Mahi Mahi Fish n' Chips, and a Burger as well as $4 beers and $5 glasses of wine.

Be Italian

Osteria Mozza Hollywood 4 Jan 10
eat: Grilled Octopus, Crostini di Anatra, Agnolotti Burro e Salvia, Bombolini
sip: Soave Classico Suavia 07

"Be Italian. Live today as if it may become your last". These words were passionately belted out by Fergie in the "Nine", the starlet-packed movie-musical based on Fellini and his assortment of often scantily-clad babes. The film is an orgy of Italian iconography - sporty Alfa-Romeo convertibles, sensual women, high fashion, breathtaking villages perched on cliffs, and the architectural wonders of Roma - that transports the viewer to 1960‘s Italy. Dining at Osteria Mozza, a Los Angeles gem co-owned by powerhouses Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, and Joseph Bastianich, has a similar effect; the magnificent food, attentive service, and bustling atmosphere combine to create a dreamland of Italian delicacies. Everything is bellisima - the soft lighting, the fresh ingredients, the tantalizing smells of braised meat and pungent garlic, even our fellow diners are beautiful.

In my opinion, a seat at the bar is the best view in the house. The traditional, zinc bar has been perfectly art directed with an array of rustic treats - a bundle of lavender sprigs, platters of roast tomatoes and leeks, white pumpkins, and an adorable menagerie of brass ducks. Behind the bar, aproned staff prepare plates of anitpasti; watching them slice a plump prosciutto is food porn, Italian style. After seeking ordering advice from our friendly & knowledgeable waitress, Julie, we are presented with a gift of ricotta, tapenade, and basil crostini. Since Mozza offers a tantalizing array of cheeses at their Mozzarella Bar, I wasn't surprised that the ricotta was creamy, fresh exquisiteness. Next, there was charred, dare I say "meaty", Grilled Octopus complemented by a lemony celery & potato salad. Usually, celery is an undistinguished ingredient in soups or stuffing, but here the crisp, crunchy veggie is raised to a culinary level and I'm longing to recreate this refreshing salad on a sultry, summer day. In keeping with my "greens at every meal" mantra, Market Lettuces with Crostini Di Anatra followed. The crostini were slathered with a fatty, flavorful duck rillettes (Italian vocab lesson: Anatra = duck) and the greens were perked up with a shallot dressing. Moving on to the carb-ilicious part of the meal, we have Agnolotti bathed in Burro e Salvia (sage butter); these little, pillowy pasta pockets miraculously stuffed with 5 kinds of meat, including veal cheeks, pork, and mortadella, are a new contender for the title "Heart Attack on A Plate", the affectionate nickname for Pasta Alla Carbonara. Honestly, this was hands-down one of the best pasta dishes I've ever tasted, a "last meal before you die", orgasmic dish. Perhaps the Tagliatelle with Oxtail Ragu was overshadowed by the awesome agnolotti, but I found the ragu to be overwhelmingly salty and mediocre, though the thick ribbons of homemade tagliatelle were divine. In spite of our bursting bellies, we couldn't resist the Bombolini, fresh doughnuts piled atop huckleberry compote, served with vanilla gelato nestled in lemon curd. The marriage of fried, tangy, sweet and creamy was a flawless finish to our magnifico meal. Throughout the meal, I savored glasses of Suavia Soave Classico 07, a medium-bodied, lemony, mineral-y white wine that complemented the hearty meal beautifully.

When I moved to L.A., I complained about the lack of Italian restaurants, which I blamed on both the absence of a large, Italian community and the carb-heavy cuisine's lack of appeal to fitness-obsessed Angelenos. Thankfully, Osteria Mozza, and the equally yummy sister restaurants, Pizzeria Mozza and Mozza-to-Go (their takeout joint) are here to satisfy my Italian cravings. Mozza isn't cheap, especially if you are an eater like myself, but it's worth the splurge. Deal Alert: A special menu is offered Sun.- Thurs nights at the Mozzarella Bar that includes a cheese, a pasta, a dessert, and a hefty glass of vino for only $35.

Pancakes Make People Happy

When I was at NYU in the mid-1990's, one of my favorite haunts was the now-defunct Royal Canadian Pancake House, a bustling joint that served gargantuan portions of breakfast classics, including manhole-sized pancakes, whole loaves of French toast, and the appropriately-named "womelette" - an omelette-topped waffle. Their slogan, "Pancakes Make People Happy", was simple, yet it's a belief that I've embraced throughout my eating life. Considering that most cuisines worldwide have their own regional form of pancakes (like French crepes or Chinese scallion pancakes), I've been fortunate to sample these tasty griddle treats in all shapes and sizes. Following is a smattering of my faves:

Maybe it’s my Jewish heritage, or simply my love of all things fried, but potato pancakes, or latkes, are always welcome on my plate year-round, and not just as the traditional Hanukkah meal. These beauties to your left were devoured at Norma's, the breakfast-centric restaurant at the Parker Palm Springs Hotel (a decadent oasis of Moroccan, desert chic). Norma's elevates breakfast to a gourmet level; amuse-bouche smoothies begin every meal and the menu features such fancy items as Foie Gras Brioche French Toast and a $1000 Lobster & Caviar omelette. However, Norma's version of gourmet isn't stuffy; there is a whimsical playfulness to the dishes and the food is more haute-comfort (and huge portions) than fancy five-star French. Norma's latkes are hefty cakes of shredded potato and onion that are perfectly fried on the outside, yet surprisingly smooth and doughy on the inside. I tend to prefer savory to sweet with my latke condiments (i.e. sour cream over applesauce)so I adored pouring the accompanying Sweet Carrot Payasam, a creamy, earthy Indian soup, over my latkes. If you have a sweet tooth, you'll dig the homemade Cranberry-Apple sauce, but I found it overly sugary even in spite of the tart cranberries. FYI, there is also a Norma's at the Parker Meridian Hotel in NYC, a memorable spot for my family because it is where my sister's hubby surprised her with a proposal in front of me, my mom, my Bubby, and my aunt.

Living in Echo Park, a Latino-filled neighborhood of Los Angeles,
I’ve been blessed with Latin-American eats right at my doorstep. It is here that I discovered pupusas and the aptly named pupuserias (I love how ethnic eateries often specialize in one dish and then name their restaurant after said dish, making it an easy find for the food explorer). Traditionally from El Salvador, the pupusa is a thick tortilla made from masa de maiz (corn flour) and stuffed with various savory fillings like my favorite chicharròn, fried pork rinds. These heavy, doughy cakes are normally served with curtido (pickled cabbage relish), and a runny tomato sauce. Like many pancakes, pupusas are comforting and filling, yet I find they are best followed by a nap or other leisurely activity due to their tendency to weigh down your stomach.

One of my latest discoveries is the arepa, a cornmeal cousin to the pupusa originating from South America. Depending on the region, arepas can be found in a varitey of thicknesses, size, fillings and garnishes. I tasted this version, a Blue Corn Arepa topped with melted cheese, at the Savory Cafe, a cozy joint in downtown Ventura, CA. The blue corn infused the arepa with earthiness while the oozy cheese complemented the crispy pancake perfectly. While a quesadilla has a 2:1 tortilla to cheese ratio, I liked the 1:1 balance of this dish, allowing for more gooey cheese per bite.

Last, but not least, my good friend, and culinary companion, Barndi,just turned me on to ho-dduk, a sweet, Korean pancake made from rice flour and stuffed with a gooey,brown sugar filling. I had my first taste chez Barndi, but my next stop is to head to L.A's Koreatown and taste these goodies piping hot from the street carts.

Post Update: My friend, John, sent me this amazing recipe from the NY Times for Heavenly Hots. These creamy, dreamy, little gems are surprisingly light (not "thuds in your bellies", the author's accurate description of pancakes) thanks to the use of cake flour and sour cream. FYI, don't be intimidated by the warnings about how hard it is to flip these beauties; I found it unexpectedly easy, and I'm far from an expert pan-wielder.

The Good German

People’s Pub Seattle,WA 21.Nov 09
Eat: Wiener Schnitzel, Spätzle, Rotkohl
Sip: Spaten Optimator

Before the trend of gastropubs - a pub with gourmet grub - swept the nation, there was The People’s Pub. This German tavern devotes just as much focus to the food as to the beer; the main attraction isn’t waitresses clad in busty, Bavarian dresses, but authentic, Swabian cuisine (foodie nerd note: Swabia is a cultural region in Southwest Germany).

Although the menu is peppered with more exotic fare like Jägerschnitzel or Paprikaschnitzel, I opt for the original Wiener Schnitzel Dinner, a heaping plate o’ comfort perfect for a rainy night in Seattle. The schnitzel is a hefty portion of thinly-pounded, moist pork blanketed in crispy breading. Although traditional Wiener Schnitzel is made with veal, this porcine version is quite common (and more palatable to the “non-baby cow-eating” crowd). In this world where pastas are laden with sumptuous sauces and fancy ingredients, the simplicity of the spätzle, a starchy, egg pasta in butter sauce, is down-to-earth pleasure. The veggie part of the plate, if you don’t count the dusting of green parsley garnish, is vibrant, fuschia rotkohl, a traditional German dish of red cabbage sautéed in vinegar and apple cider. This meal is a nostalgic nod to my childhood, when mom often served up breaded chicken cutlets (fried in butter rather than the more healthy & culinary-savvy olive oil we use now) with buttery rice pilaf. In fact, my love of butter-yes, this is the FIFTH time that word has been used in this entry-stems from my mom’s affection for the stuff - rather than spread a meager pat onto toast, she slathers thick ½” slabs. I swear I even once saw her sneak a square of unadorned butter out of the fridge! In sticking to German tradition, I quaff a regional brew, Spaten Optimator, a full-bodied, dark ale brimming with roasted malt flavor.

The People’s Pub embodies all that a neighborhood bar should be. It’s located in a picturesque part of town (Ballard), the food is filling and tasty, the quality beer is available in pitchers, and there is a cozy, conviviality that beckons groups and individuals alike. Plus, there are a variety of board games to encourage hours of good times amongst friends. As I sit surrounded by my sister & brother-in-law (who are the wise folks who introduced me to this pub), I can’t think of a better way to welcome me back to Seattle.