Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stella Rossa - Raising the Bar on Farm to Table Pizza in Santa Monica

What's a chef with The Fat Duck, Nobu, Arzak, and L20 on his resume, and 9 Michelin stars at last count in his trail, doing at a pizza bar in Santa Monica?  That's the burning question I sought to answer, when I was invited to a hosted dinner this past weekend at Stella Rossa Pizza Bar and to meet its chef-partner, 27-year-old Jeff Mahin.  An hour and a bit, one cheese plate and three pizzas later, my conclusion is this:  Chef Mahin is there to change the way we look at and enjoy pizza, by simply doing what he loves.

The son of a civil construction engineer and metallurgist, Chef Mahin left a job at Nobu New York at 17 years old to 'take a break' to study science and math at UC Berkeley. Then he decided he wanted to pursue cooking in earnest, and with the background in science, it made all the sense in the world for him to get into molecular gastronomy. Obviously a guy who does whatever he sets his mind to, he then applied on a whim and landed a job at 3-Michelin-Starred London eatery The Fat Duck, in Heston Blumenthal's famed culinary lab.

From there, if you look at it this way, the transition to Stella Rossa is arguably just as natural: to reference a familiar scientific / philosophic rule - Ockham's Razor states 'the simplest of competing theories should be preferred to the more complex'.  And with the early Japanese influence in his life (and his continuing love of sushi) - you can see, as he's explained, the philosophy of Japanese food carries over - subtraction, not addition, letting natural flavors shine. Simple food, done well with fresh ingredients can be exquisite. 

The result of Chef Mahin's science background combined with his passion for local ingredients is pizza that borders on a religious experience.

Laid back and unaffected (his favorite food to make at home is soup - "I could drink Miso soup for the rest of my life") Chef Mahin's chill personality belies a drive for perfection.  His goal may just be for Stella Rossa to be a fun place to work, making a universally loved simple food, but his talents direct him to go beyond the ordinary.  After many trials, he landed on a mix of locally milled flour, filtered water, sea salt and fresh yeast for his pizza dough.  This is fermented for at least 18 hours in individual containers - to allow the dough to 'age' properly. Each mound is only removed from the container at the proper 'rise', immediately before use, for optimal freshness.

The fresh yeast apparently gives the dough a less sour taste, which allows for a better bread-like 'canvas', the better for flavor-infused pizza crusts that work in balance with, and don't  overshadow, farm fresh ingredients sourced from the best of Santa Monica Farmers Market.

It was fun sitting at the counter to watch Chef Mahin in action.  He demonstrated how to toss the dough, working air into the sides for a fluffy crust while stretching out the center - til it's translucent - for an incredibly light, thin pie, the better for showcasing toppings.

Then goes the pies into the Baker's Pride ovens. Much has been written about the lack of fancy wood-burning or brick ovens here, but Chef Mahin's recipe was calculated to work best with the ovens he has.  As he good-naturedly quips: "I'd love to get an inscription over the oven, in Latin or something, that says "I'd rather be criticized for our oven and praised for our pizza, than praised for our oven and criticized for our pizza."

While the pizzas were baking, we noshed on Fresh Local Burrata ($10.95) with organic extra virgin olive oil, sea salt - creatively paired with wood fire roasted grapes and housemade bread.  All simple ingredients, but incredible in every way. 

The burrata (locally sourced from Di Stefano) was one of the most smooth and creamy I've ever had - and in my mind rivals the cheese handcrafted at Osteria Mozza daily.  Chef Mahin intended to present two different kinds of sweetness between the cheese and fruit, which comes through nicely - and is elevated by light grilling, giving great interplay of cold/warm and layered textures with creamy cheese and crunchy grapes atop crispy, toasted, deliciously fragrant housemade bread.  Top it all off with Olave extra virgin olive oil from Chile - chosen for its light, buttery, sweet finish - and you have a dish that is absolutely divine. (This olive oil is also used on all SR's pizzas! Chef Mahin see his crusts as more like bread - and prefers olive oil with bread versus butter as olive oil is much more nuanced.)
SR was extremely generous with the tasting, sampling three pizzas for me that night.  The first was Bloomsdale Spinach ($13.95) with crispy purple kale, young pecorino, cracked black peppercorn, organic extra virgin olive oil. 

It was the unique topping combinations that got me.  Chef Mahin selects not only from whatever inspires at the farmers market, but also what works best on his pizza dough without weighing it down, and what will shine with its clean and balanced flavors.

Though the first and last time I had kale - as a side dish from a catered meal elsewhere - I hated it (too bitter and rigid), I'd read many great things about SR's Bloomsdale Spinach pizza and I figured I'd give the veggie another try.

Then I took a bite, and become a Believer.

Again balance was key - the brushes of green with petals of purple, sprinkled with tiny curlicues of cheese were not only gorgeous to look at, but struck a perfect balance of tastes and textures with creamy sweet/savory spinach and paper-thin crisps of slightly bitter kale, and buttery, nutty gossamer pecorino. 

All this on the lightest layer of bread, surrounded by a thick outer crust which got me food-drunk with its doughy smell and golden-brown crispy outer shell, that yielded to a pillowy center with nice chew.  I still can't believe Chef Mahin got me to like kale - but it turned from hate to love at first bite.


Just when I thought I'd found my favorite, the Shaved Mushroom ($13.95) with gruyère, melted onions, black truffle, torn parsley, rosemary, thyme arrived.
 
Regular readers know I'm a sucker for truffle and mushrooms.  That these are thrown in with rosemary, thyme and gruyere made it almost statistically impossible for me not to like this pizza.  What I especially loved: all ingredients are finely chopped, so they melted and blended well into each other, making each mouthful a smorgasbord of rich and balanced flavors.  Though I didn't see actual truffle shavings (RIP 8 1/2 Taverna), I ended up liking that the truffle aroma/taste is not so pronounced as to overwhelm the rest of the pizza.  And again, a crust so perfect it made my eyes roll to the back of my head.
I also got to try the pizza special: Butternut Squash with Candied Bacon and Taleggio.  The squash was thinly shaved and almost salmon-colored, draped in light folds over the pizza, and beautifully garnished with fresh basil leaves.  I loved that all ingredients were again incredibly fresh, applied with a skillful, light hand - and of course it had me at 'bacon'.  I did find the squash a little too sweet, but really liked that the cheese was barely there - unlike most heavy handed pizzerias which load their pies up with artery cloggers in dense blankets. And. Again. That. Crust.





I thought I would be ready to burst after all that food - but apparently my stomach is bottomless, and cried out when a fellow diner started raving about dessert. She said the Salted Caramel Pot de Creme with maldon salt was amazing - and knowing caramel was one thing Chef Mahin mentioned in other interviews that he'd spent a lot of time at The Fat Duck lab perfecting, I just had to try it. 

The eggless custard  came in a glass jar - thick and creamy topped by runny amber colored liquid caramel, punctuated by salt crystals to cut through the sweetness.  A perfect finish to the meal!

All in all, loved Stella Rossa, which has proven that simplest can be best.  There's no novel length list of ingredients to hide behind, no gravity-defying feats of architecture or mind-boggling products of chemistry on your plate to serve as distraction. At Stella Rossa, it's just you and the beautiful crust and fresh ingredients.  Pure, clean, local flavors, served up in top form.

Very happy to have a pizza place to love, that I can now add to my list of favorite restaurants on the Westside. 

[For more photos from Stella Rossa, check out the album on my Facebook page]

[Deal alert: Text STELLA to 30364 to receive periodic messages with offers like free appetizer or dessert. Standard messaging rates may apply.]

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%
___________________________________________________________

Stella Rossa Pizza Bar
2000 Main Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405
Ph: 310.396.9250

Parking: Valet $7, meter parking on Main north of Pico free after 6pm (double check signs before parking, of course)

Website: stellarossapizzabar.com
Twitter: twitter.com/stellarossasm
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*This meal was hosted.

Stella Rossa Pizza Bar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Komida - Tokyo Meets Tijuana Meets Greenwich Village by Hollywood and Highland

The lesser trafficked stretch of Orange Drive, in back of the Hollywood and Highland complex, is now one of the most dangerous spots in the city - for those with an addiction to Chef Brock Kleweno's crazy delicious Japanese tacos and wasabi guacamole.

My first introduction to the genius fusion creations was at the taco stand at the seasonal Yamashiro Farmers Market.  Yamashiro had, for me at least, for years just been an unaffordable tourist spot that held little interest beyond its much touted views of the city.  Then came the Farmers Market, with its unbridled access both to said scenery, and to the talents of Yamashiro Exec Chef Kleweno - all for the comparatively low, low price of $6 a taco (complete with 'fixin's').

There was Miso Sake Black Cod tacos, with incredibly fresh, tender, flaky fish on amazing little flour tortillas (my fav).  And the Hoisin Duck Confit taco.  And salsas with Asian-inspired flavors. It may look like street food, but it tastes like fine dining - ingredients are all top quality.  That's not all, the tacos are all served with free chips with wasabi guacamole and pickled shishito peppers.

Yamashiro's taco stand brought excitement to a staid brand, made its food accessible 'for the people', and most importantly introduced a whole new interpretation of Latin-Asian fusion street food. Arguably, what Roy Choi did for Korean-Mexican, Brock Kleweno trail-blazed for Japanese-Mexican.

I was just getting sad that the seasonal market was drawing to a close for the year, which meant losing access to those amazing tacos and guac - when the announcement came that Chef Kleweno would open a 'pop-up' in Hollywood, serving those fan favorites!!!

And this weekend I finally got to check it out!

The pop-up is currently in 'soft open' mode, Thursdays 5-9pm (mirroring former Farmers Market hours) and Saturdays 10am-2pm, but they hope to expand hours as business ramps up.  They will be officially up and running starting October 31st.

It's sort of a 'hidden gem' right now, tucked away in back of the Hollywood and Highland complex in an industrial looking space that's big on character.

There's a small lobby with walk-up cashier, covered outdoor patio complete with a little stand for a bar, and a semi-private party room near the front.  All come with 'dressing' befitting the fusion cuisine - Japanese shoji inspired roof panels, matted curtain, subtle stone buddha statue, Mexican bar table covers and vintage soda bottles, and tongue-in-cheek artwork on the menu board.  All in a sort of urban yet laid back space, with exposed brick walls that makes me think, for some reason, of some cozy neighborhood gem in Greenwich Village.  It was love at first sight - everything was done tastefully, not in a too serious way but also doesn't hit you over the head with too-obvious cultural references.

So, the food (right, that's what I came for!) - along with fan favorite tacos and salsas, a Chicken Satay taco makes an appearance on Komida menu. I was there for a quick snack, so I went straight for a fix of my favorite - the Miso Sake Black Cod Taco ($6).

Komida takes a casual approach, serving food in a cardboard tray (a la Farmers Market), which works for the casual seat-yourself outdoor dining space.  The taco - and everything else from wasabi guacamole (buttery with a kick!) to the pickled  shishito peppers (sweet and tart) with fresh tasting chips were as fantastic as I remembered, and I inhaled every last morsel in the tray.

Chef Kleweno previously mentioned plans to sell the wasabi guac 'to go', but they are not quite ready yet.  Starting in November we'll be able to squirrel tubs of the stuff away back home to scarf down shamelessly.

As for drinks: in addition to Mexican sodas (including Pepsi) beers, wines and cocktails are served at Komida - I had the Jamaican Agua Fresca ($10), a refreshing burgundy colored drink made with hibiscus syrup and champagne.

All in all, loved that there is now a place for me to get Chef Kleweno's fusion tacos, and that the space is centrally located - yet an awesome haven of calm just steps away from over-the-top Hollywood - is a bonus.

I can't wait to go back to Komida - if I had my way it would be a weekly fix ritual.

[Update 10/31: They are officially open - hours are now Monday to Fridays 11am-9pm!]

[Deal alert:  Happy Hour Mondays to Fridays 5-7pm $2 Chicken Satay Taco, $3 Short Rib Taco and $15 beer bucket (Singha x4), carafe of Jamaican Agua Fresca or carafe of Lycee Sangria]

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100%
___________________________________________________________

Komida

Hours Thu: 5pm-9pm Sat: 10am-2pm (Update 10/31: Hours are now Mon-Fri 11am-9pm)
1738 North Orange Drive, Hollywood, CA 90028

Parking: Hollywood & Highland structure - $2 first 2 hours w/ validation from stores in the complex, $1 for each additional 15 mins.

Website: facebook.com/Komida.LA
Twitter: @Komida_LA
______________________________________________________________________

Komida on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 20, 2011

1MB Savvy Saveurs: Savings & Sweepstakes 10/20/11 - Halloween Edition

When it comes to Halloween, no one does theatrics like LA - click here to follow me on Twitter for instant updates on the latest discoveries :)

Happy grazing!

HALLOWEEN EVENTS UNDER $100pp:
Need a costume? Get 10% off + free shipping for purchase of $40 or more at BuyCostumes.com with code HALLOW10 through 10/31


FOODIE FINDS:
  • Stock up on gourmet candy:
  • dineLA extended 3-course prix fixe lunch & dinner from now til Halloween:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

25 Degrees - "Bordello Meets Burger Bar" 24-7 at The Hollywood Roosevelt

25 Degrees - To some, it's just 'that bar in the corner' of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.  Entourage fans may recognize it, unknowingly, as the backdrop for Season 6 key art.  To others still, it's the only place to get a decent gourmet burger at any time of day or night - and a place that kitschy 'retro' diners could only aspire to be, when they grow up.

I had a fabulous time at Chef Tim Goodell's other restaurant in the hotel, Public Kitchen + Bar, for brunch a little while ago - so was excited when I was invited to a media dinner at 25 Degrees recently.

Photo courtesy of 25 Degrees / Wagstaff
The place is described as "bordello meets burger" - with the sophistication of a wine bar and the ease of a burger joint - style that is reflected in its velvety, lush interiors in sexy burgundy, espresso and black,  balanced by a laid back vibe befitting its 'smart casual' menu. 

Despite its location, 25 Degrees is not all about appearances though.  Chef Goodell raises the bar on the burger with careful attention to each element that goes into it - sourcing high quality ingredients from the patty (natural, no-hormones added chopped sirloin beef from family-owned ranches) to a brioche bun baked fresh daily at Ca'd'Oro with the chef's proprietary recipe, and an artisanal cheese selection, the majority of which come from Cow Girl Creamery.
Photo courtesy of 25 Degrees / Wagstaff
Burgers are made to order either in pre-designed combinations, or you can construct your own by choosing from a list of meats, veggies, cheese, sauces (13 sauces at last count!) and delicious toppings from standard bacon to green chili or even sauerkraut.

Wisely forgoing gimmicky names in favor of focus on ingredients, house-made burger offerings are listed on the menu simply as "number one" "number two" and "number three" ($12 each). 

While all three sounded great, I was drawn to "number two" by key words "burrata" and "prosciutto" (accompanied by pesto and roasted tomato).  With the burger fad that has raged through LA, and Umami at the forefront, that is the natural, instinctive first comparisan to draw when assessing flavors.  Perhaps it is a result of clever marketing, or maybe it is truly in the interplay of ingredients, but for me Umami does have the advantage when it comes to complex interactions that triggers experience of an undescribable "fifth taste" that is instantly addictive.  I didn't get this with the 25 Degrees burger, and the patty I received was unfortunately cooked 'well done' where I had requested 'medium rare'.  But "number two" was definitely a great juicy, tender, well-made burger with a perfectly pillowy bun - the ratio of meat to bread was also just right.  Everything tasted fresh and deliciously rustic, and you could almost imagine that you were eating this on a farm where everything was made from scratch that day, using only items found in their backyard.

25 Degrees had also planned to introduce a "number four" burger - made with yellowfin tuna, butter lettuce, crispy fried onions, and spicy aioli - we didn't get to try it that night but I hope to go back soon for a taste!

Besides burgers, another main attraction at 25 Degrees is its drink list.  There were several interesting cocktails, but - because there's no topping Matt Biancaniello especially when he is just across the hotel lobby at Library Bar - the showstoppers are really the spiked shakes.  They were the creamiest milkshakes so rich you can have them for dessert (which we did) - AND they give you a nice buzz!  Their signature spiked shake, which others at the table loved and raved about, is the Guiness Milkshake ($8), but being not at all a beer fan, this one didn't appeal to me.  It was the Bananas Foster and Night Owl (each $12) which caused love at first sip for me.  Bananas Foster is made with fresh bananas, spiced rum, Myers Dark Rum, butterscotch schnapps and vanilla bean ice cream (this may be my new fav way to get my daily serving of fruit and dairy...), while Night Owl, a new addition to the menu is made with a luscious combination of Kahlua, Godiva dark chocolate liquer, fresh vanilla bean ice cream and housemade chocolate sauce.  You might say, $12 for a milkshake seems excessive - but really as a dessert + cocktail (and a giant glass of it!) it's a pretty good value.  And they are both is so addictive I'm still thinking about them, weeks later. 

[Unfortunately the shakes are not part of their Late Night Happy Hour (Sundays-Thursdays 11pm-1am), but other alcoholic beverages are - cocktails are $7, well drinks $6, house wines $5 and beers $4.]

Spiked sodas are also supposed to be added to the menu soon, with Orange - stoli oranje/salerno blood orange liqueur/orange soda /OJ, and Cream Soda - maker’s mark/vanilla liqueur/ginger beer ($12 each).

Aside from burgers and shakes, 25 Degrees also offers a shortlist of salads, apps & sides, and sandwiches.  We got to try the fries, sweet potato fries and onion rings ($4 each), all very tasty with the plethora of dips (lemon dill, garlic aioli and chipotle were my favs).  I don't usually like salads, but really liked the Heirloom Tomato one ($12 full size / $7 half size), a unique combination of heirloom tomatoes and watermelon plus fromage blanc and tomato vinaigrette, a really refreshing dish that was all kinds of crunchy, juicy, tangy, and subtly sweet deliciousness!

So, the name of the restaurant actually refers to the difference in temperature for cooking between medium rare and well done.  After a fabulous evening tasting from the food and drink menus, my conclusion is that 25 Degrees is both medium rare AND well done.  In a town over-run by burger-mania, 25 Degrees sets itself apart with its gourmet approach and upscale yet fun, laid back setting, and defies the odds - especially in Hollywood - by delivering quality food & shakes over 'scene', and doing it 24-7.

Tastefully done indeed.

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While I wait to try the Ahi Tuna burger, 25 Degrees was kind enough to share their recipe.  Those who cook - enjoy! ;)

"Number Four" Burger Recipe

Ingredients:
6 lbs. ¼ Inch Diced Saku Tuna
¾ c. Parsley Minced
½ c. Mayo
½ c. and 1 Tbl. Gouldens Mustard
1 ½ Tsp. Wasabi Paste
2 oz. Brunoise Red Onions
2 oz. Soy Sauce
1 oz. Pickled Ginger Minced
1 ½ c. Panko (japanese bread crumbs)

Blackening Spice Ingredients: (Mix all together)
¼ c. Paprika
2 Tbls. Dried Oregano
3 Tbl. Salt
2 Tsp. Sugar
2 Tsp. Cayenne
2 Tsp. Black Pepper

Preparation:
Mix first 8 ingredients together, form into 6 oz. patties.

Dust with blackening spice mix and dredge in panko.

Saute patty in a nonstick skillet with olive oil until browned on both sides.

Serve on a toasted burger bun with fresh lettuce and crispy fried onions.

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On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%
______________________________________________________________

25 Degrees
The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel
7000 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028
Phone: 323.785.7244

Parking: Valet with validation $6 for first 3 hours, $2 for every additional half hour. (Or park across the street at Hollywood & Highland - $2 first 2 hours w/ validation from any purchase at stores in the complex, $1 for each additional 15 mins.)

Website: 25degreesrestaurant.com
______________________________________________________________________

25 Degrees on Urbanspoon



*Sorry all the photos are PR shots - my camera (and its operator, actually) is not good enough to take photos in the dark...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

1MB This Weekend: Two Toasts on the Coast

It's only Tuesday, and I"m already thinking ahead to my next days off.  This weekend there are two notable seaside city food & wine events - both on Sunday.  How am I to choose?!

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Taste of Abbot Kinney

What: Abbot Kinney is one of my favorite streets in LA, with its boutique shops packed with one of a kind finds and the 'upscale neighborhood gems' of restaurants like Gjelina and Primitivo.  Taste of Abbot Kinney offers a chance to sample foods , cocktails and wines from some of its hotspots as well as access chef demos, a silent auction and raffle.

VIP Reception includes: chef demos, appetizer and cocktail tastings, event book with exclusive recipes, bios, and insider info from chefs and mixologists of Abbot Kinney, entry into 'opportunity drawing' and gift bag.


General Admission includes: tastes at all participating restaurants and event book.

When: Sunday. October 23, 2011 VIP reception: 3:00-6:30pm Tasting Tour: 4:30-6:30pm

Where: Abbot Kinney, Venice, CA

How much: VIP $100 Tasting Tour $60 (50% off tickets at Goldstar here)

Anticipated drool-worthiness?: 90% This event drew flak last year for running out of food and drinks early, so this year organizers have taken steps to address the main concerns, and also got Chef Joe Miller of Joe's Restaurant/ Bar Pintxo to chair the event to lend credibility. Gjelina, Primitivo, Lemonade (and Creme Caramel LA) are all participating, which would make the event (at Goldstar prices for budget foodies) worth it!  For Food Network fans, the VIP reception will be hosted by Adam Gertler, best known as host of the network's Kids in a Candy Store. Also, proceeds go towards a good cause - Inside Out which supports empowerment of at risk youth through the arts.

Event website: insideoutca.org

Los Angeles Magazine The Food Event

What: Sample food from some of LA's top restaurants, watch celebrity chef demos and participate in panels with the experts. All at a beautiful estate in the rolling hills of Malibu that will make you feel like you're on vacation: Saddlerock Ranch, home to Semler and Saddlerock wines (close to Malibu Wines, a venue I love!). "The ranch boasts acres and acres of natural beauty, vineyards, rolling hills, animals like llamas and zebras, and space to spread out and relax for a true escape from the city, but with just a short drive." (quote from event website)

When: Sunday, October 23, 2011 1-4pm

Where: Saddlerock Ranch 31727 Mulholland Highway Malibu, CA 90265

How much: $95 advance purchase up to 10/22 ($110 at door). Add $5 for 1 year subscription to LA Mag

Anticipated drool-factor?: 100% I love the grounds of Malibu Wines, great for a 'daycation' just a short drive up the PCH, and I expect Saddlerock Ranch to be very similar. I like that it's AYCE/drink for one price, and list of participating restaurants include some of my favs: Waterloo & City and Westside Tavern and some I've been wanting to try like Lukshon, Cleo, Mas Malo, Mo-Chica, Playa and Rivera. Plus it's a 21 or older event, so no unruly kids...

Event website: lamag.com/thefoodevent

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What will you be doing this weekend?

[For more upcoming foodie / fun events, check out my very creatively named Upcoming Food Fests & Fun Events page.]

Monday, October 17, 2011

Los Angeles Food & Wine: Lexus Grand Tasting - Well Engineered Inaugural Fete

Pebble Beach Food & Wine was one of the best food events I've ever been to, one that I had saved up to attend with "Foodie Mentor" several years back (pre-blog!), but which time has not worn down in my memory - I still remember every detail of the single event we attended - the Lexus Grand Tasting - distinctly.

So, when it was announced those same organizers would be bringing LA its very own food & wine festival, I was beyond excited.  The format mirrors that of Pebble Beach - themed events, featured chefs, all over the city over several days - but with more of a celebrity emphasis given that it is, afterall, LA.

The LA fest was also a logistical feat, with over 55 events over the span of 4 days.  Of these, the ideal one for food lovers on a budget, would have been the Lexus Grand Tasting, which was to bring together 30 chefs and 200 wineries so that you can experience tastings from all at once.  This event was spread over Saturday and Sunday, with varying chefs and wine purveyors.  At $195 for one day's general admission, it was still well beyond my budget - and I was getting ready to live vicariously through other bloggers / twitter when the good news came that event organizers had miraculously approved me for a press pass (thank you)!! 

It was a gorgeous Saturday when I headed downtown to join in the festivities at LA Live.  Apparently there's a deck towards the back, beyond the Mariott, where they had set up tents for the event.

Both indoor/outdoor spaces were abuzz with food and wine lovers, flitting from booth to booth alternately tasting and sipping.  Wineries far outnumbered chefs, and I tried to strategize to hit food booths first - but ended up just going with the flow and letting plates reveal themselves among the glasses as I went down the aisles.

The stellar line-up of some of LA's finest chefs included Mark Peel and his Campanile team - I didn't get to meet him at the booth, but made myself at home with their Mussels with sausage and aioli a delicious dish, that was somehow light (with an amazing broth) and hearty (with sausage and rich aioli) at the same time.  At food events, with limited stomach capacity, it's sort of the measure of how good something is - the number of times you go back for a plate.  I had about 4 of these (no shame, at all).
Ricardo Zarate and his Mo-Chica / Picca Peru team also brought two best-of-show dishes:

Alpaca Chorizo Crostini (alpacas are a South American species of camelid that look like llamas!), exciting as it was the first time I've had this.  The meat was pretty tender, and evenly infused with seasoning, so I'm not sure what the natural flavors of the meat is like, but I liked the way Chef Zarate prepared it!


...and Diver Scallop Anticucho, perfectly seared with a mix of crunchy and leafy greens on top.
Of course, with the celebrity focus of the festival, the Grand Tasting would not be complete without a Food Network star.  The featured one was Tyler Florence, who not only gave a cooking demo that morning to VIP ticket holders - but was also on hand at a booth, preparing samples of Hamachi Tartare Cauliflower Panna Cotta for guests.  For me, the fish 'blanded' into the cauliflower panna cotta, in taste as well as texture - but great for Tyler fans to get the personal service - he pretty much stayed at the booth, prepping samples or giving interviews, throughout the event.
Speaking of celebrity chefs - Todd English also had a booth at the event for Olives, though I did not see the chef while I was there.  Say what  you will about celebrity chefs, but at the Pebble Beach event Todd English's booth had one of the best bites of the show the year I went, a succulent pork belly on the most unbelievable, fresh made flatbread. 

At this LA Food & Wine event, the Olives team presented an inventive plate, with a fuschia-colored Roasted Beet Risotto with Blue Cheese, Corn Raita and Ginger Soy Skirt Steak.  I would never think to put all of those things together, and despite the unnatural-looking coloring of the risotto and all its accompaniments, everything worked unexpectedly well together, and I thought everything besides the dry and overly chewy beef was some of the most creative and delicious bites at the event.  Too bad I only saw this towards the end of the show, and was too full to go back for seconds (would have had 3-4 plates if I had room!)
One of my favorite things about food festivals is the element of discovery - being able to take restaurants for a test drive before committing to a full on culinary journey with them. 

And there were quite a few chefs / restaurants that I've not heard of (some from other parts of the country) that I was glad to have the chance to try.

A local find is Savory, from Malibu, which brought a Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Candied Hazelnut and Black Truffle Creme Fraiche.  The soup was a little sweet, and takes a little getting used to, but I liked the sampler with the crunchy candied hazelnut and of course the dollop of super fragrant black truffle creme fraiche, which hits your nose first and then sets your synapses firing on all cylinders in a split second.

An out of town discovery was The Bristol (Chicago), which had an incredible seafood plate that made you forget for a moment you were in downtown LA, and transported you to some seaside fishing village where some kind soul has just lifted the crab and mussels from the ocean and plopped them on your plate.  Complete with foam and the lightest whipped pommes puree.  The chef told me the name of this dish, but it was long and in the chaos of the event, I'd simply condensed it in my mind to "OMGaaaaaaahhhhh".  The only sad thing is that since The Bristol is in Chicago, I won't be able to just 'pop over' for that full meal.

Another favorite at the show from an out of towner was the spicy Soppressata (dry-cured salame) from Old Town Social of Chicago, served in a paper cone!  Another one I'll be sad not to be able to visit easily.
For dessert, I've been wanting to try Madame Chocolat, otherwise known as Mrs. Jacques Torres (Mr. Torres' shop is a must stop on the rare occasions when I make my way to NYC).  There were what looked like chocolate marshmallow pops which went very quickly so I didn't get to try, and a lovely dark chocolate bark with dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. Made a note to myself to visit her shop soon.
There were a few booths that had beautiful displays - one of these was the Four Seasons Resort Maui Wailea, which had an appropriately ocean-themed table, and served up Salmon Tartare in adorable bite-sized waffle cones. 

Rosa Mexicano had a massive pan of duck that they made for their tacos fresh at their booth - I at first wasn't going to use up stomach space for this, but after the scent of stewing duck wafted over, I caved and loved every bit of the bite.
Joe's Restaurant had a roasted pig head on display at their booth, perhaps to indicate a nose to tail approach, where they served up Pulled Pork Sliders and fresh-made paella.  I literally got the last scoop of paella in the pan, so perhaps that impacted the sample, but to me it was dry and didn't bowl me over with its flavors - the rice wasn't as rich with saffron / seafood flavors as I would have liked.
There was of course plenty of alcohol on pour, and it was great to get to sample everything from France's #1 champagne, to LaMarca prosecco, to Portugese white wine, to Ice Wine from Canada (including a Cabernet Ice Wine!).  Not into wine? Beer drinkers could grab Stella, Hoegaarden and Leffe on tap at the Stella Artois space, where they also gave away souvenir beer glasses in velvet bags. 

As a total lightweight, I couldn't get through more than a few tastings at select booths, and collapsed into a food/wine coma as soon as I got home.

All in all, the event was technically well run, very organized and vendors did not run out too early - but just needs a little elevation and extension next time round.  The food samples were not at the caliber of the Pebble Beach event, with just a smattering of luxe ingredients and innovative preparations - but granted it was also not nearly as expensive. As "food" comes before "wine" in name, would be good to pump up the food offerings versus wine - and to extend the event run time to allow people to sample everything without having to literally race through the venue. 

So, a solid start as part of a well engineered festival, that by its sheer scale helps put Los Angeles on the map to gain greater recognition as a dining destination.  Looking forward to seeing what they do with the next one!

[To see more photos from the event, visit my Facebook page]

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Los Angeles Food & Wine: Lexus Grand Tasting 2011
Saturday October 15 12pm-3pm General Admission, 10am-3pm VIP with cooking demo
Sunday October 16 11:30am-3pm General Admission
L.A. Live - Event Deck
800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90015
General Admission: $195 one day, $350 both days; VIP $250 one day

Website: lafw.com      
Twitter: twitter.com/lafoodwine
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Ocean & Vine at Loews Santa Monica - dineLA & Happy Hour by the Sea (Feels Like Vacation)

How did I spend so many years in LA and never set foot in Loews Santa Monica? 

The sunlit hotel is pretty much on the beach - and last Sunday "Designer" and I were excited to check out TWO spots inside - spurred by the dineLA dinner deal and daily Happy Hour on the poolside terrace with a view of the Pacific!


The atrium / lobby was breathtaking - with towering palm trees underneath the skylit glass roof, and a waterfall wall behind the reception desk offering soothing background noise.  I didn't notice this until friends started pointing it out recently - but apparently whenever I really like a place I say: "it feels like you're on vacation".  Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel makes me feel like I'm on a tropical getaway, without the kitsch.

After taking in the decor for a brief moment, we made our way outside to Papillon, the poolside, beachfront lounge complete with wicker seating and fire pits.  Papillon offers Happy Hour every evening from 5-8pm, with a shortlist of cocktails, wines and appetizers for $6.60 each.  That's considered a great deal pretty much anywhere in LA - but the idea that it comes with gorgeous beach views, where you can sip and graze in an upscale but unpretentious setting, makes this an absolute hidden gem.
We found a table fairly easily (though I think we pretty much got the second to last open one!) and settled in to enjoy the view.  Though we were heading to Ocean & Vine for dineLA, we couldn't help wanting to check out the appetizers while we're there (that way we know what to expect for next time, as we already decided we were lame for not discovering this place sooner - we could have lounged here all summer!)

There were six appetizers to choose from. Our unanimous first choice was the Santa Monica Ceviche with lime, chili and cilantro marinated shrimp, baja sea scallops, salmon, guacamole, tortilla chips.  This was a decent sized platter, and the ceviche and guacamole tasted fairly fresh. But though I appreciated the thoughtful menu (they didn't just serve generic 'bar bites'), and understood these were offered at a pretty low price for SM beachfront property - the quality wasn't something we dreamed about after we left.  Not sure that I would crave it, if it weren't for the view. 
We allowed ourselves to indulge in one more appetizer (after pushing dinner back by an hour and a half!) - Duck Taquitos with mango salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo.  I was excited about this one - but not sure if it was because the service was a bit slow that night, that the taquito lost a bit of crispness and heat before we bit into them, and the duck was a bit dry, but again the trio of dips were fresh tasting, and I would say 'not bad for the view'. 

I guess we could sit on the beach for free - but I liked Papillon, again for making me feel like I'm on vacation.  Plus, you can drink at Papillon...
There are beers, champagne, wines and cocktails on the menu, but our server let us know the cocktails would pretty much be standard mixed drinks like rum & coke (they used to serve  pina coladas but not anymore :/ )

So, Designer decided on champagne and I went for the red sangria.  Of the two, I would recommend the champagne (the sangria tasted like 'a drink inspired by wine' and not really real wine with fruit - too diluted and only a piece or two of token fruit).
The terrace offered great views of the Santa Monica Pier, which was especially gorgeous around sunset with the ferris-wheel-light-show and palm trees blooming against the watercolored sky-sea-sand. 

As the sun retreated for the night, we made our way inside to the Ocean & Vine dining area.  I was excited about this menu as there were some dishes we have not tried before AND this was one of the dineLA deals with the biggest savings versus items on the regular menu ($34 for 3-courses, with estimated savings $29)!

After a pretty delicious bread basket containing what I thought was carrot bread (there were some orange - subtle, not dayglo - pieces in the mix) we both of course went for the seafood starter: Santa Monica Chili with Laughing Bird Shrimp, Baja Sea Scallops, Lump Crab, Roasted Garlic, Fava Beans ($16 on regular menu).  This reminded us of a bouillabaise but lighter and a tad spicy.  All the seafood tasted really fresh, and we appreciated that the shrimp was not overcooked, but tasted made to order.

Four thumbs up on this one.
For my main, I went for the Grapevine Smoked Beef Tenderloin Cold Smoked with a Hint of the Vine, Caramelized Onion, Cognac Beef Marrow Glaze, Artichoke Chips, Black Barley Pilaf ($38 on regular menu!!!).  This in itself justifies the price of the dineLA dinner deal - a perfectly cooked (medium rare of course) piece of beef that is rich with flavor (I'm guessing grass fed!).  Loved the marrow glaze and the sides as well - the sides were forgettable individually, but as a whole texturally served as a nice 'foil' to the tenderloin along with the original artichoke chips.
It did feel a bit Freaky Friday with me ordering meat and Designer ordering fish, but we shared everything anyway and were both curious as to how Catalina Thresher Shark with
Ginger Persimmon Nage, Pacific Lobster Mashed Potatoes, Agave Glazed Heirloom Carrots and Beets would taste (and it was not on the regular menu!).

Our server let us know the texture of the shark would resemble swordfish, which then deflated our expectations as neither of us were fans of swordfish - we both liked our fish tender and velvety smooth.  We should have guessed that the meat would be tough, as sharks of course swim constantly, are lean and pretty much all muscle.  We were glad we tried it, but probably wouldn't order it again anywhere else. The lobster mashed potatoes was the star on this plate.

As I already got my money's worth with the tenderloin alone, I wasn't as mad as I would have been to have wasted my dessert on the Warm Sweet Potato Lasagna with Vanilla Cream, Pecan Caramel (not on regular menu).  I love creativity and risk-taking in food, so in that regard I respect and applaud this dish.  However, the execution left us wanting less of a soggy, rubbery pile of flavorless pasta sheets layered with dehydrated meat and cognitive-dissonance-causing caramel and vanilla creme, and more of a sophisticated interplay of sweet and savory (the disparate elements didn't come together coherently for me).   



Designer wisely chose the Pear Chestnut Crème Brulée with Pistachio Tuile (not on regular menu, closest comparable item is Peaches 'N Creme Brulee for $9). This was an interesting twist on a french classic - the mix of juicy sweet pear pieces with earthy, softly crunchy chestnuts for me worked quite well with the crisp burnt sugar top and creaminess of the interior.

All in all, a great value for dineLA prix fixe - despite the faltering on the one dessert choice - you get to dine in a relaxed but beautiful setting, AND if so inclined - to grab a few cocktails out by the ocean before dinner at Happy Hour prices.

We will definitely be back again to Papillon for Happy Hour, and maybe dinner at Ocean & Vine at some point when we're able to splurge!

[For photos from other meals / deals from dineLA Fall 2011, check out the album on my Facebook page]

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 4.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 5.5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$$$ (4 bite marks regular menu)
Probability of return visit - 100% (for Happy Hour & view)

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Papillon
Happy Hour - Daily 5-8pm Wine, select cocktails and appetizers $6.60

Ocean & Vine  
dineLA dinner - $34

Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, California, 90401
Ph: 866.563.9792    

Parking:  Meters on Ocean Ave 2-hour limit, or free after 6pm daily; meters on Main Street 2-hour limit, free after 6pm and free Sundays (of course, double check street signs)

Website: santamonicaloewshotel.com
OpenTable: Look for reservations
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Ocean & Vine (Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 13, 2011

1MB Savvy Saveurs: Savings and Sweepstakes 10/13/11

Savings and sweepstakes uncovered this week - click here to follow me on Twitter for instant updates on the latest discoveries :)

Happy grazing!

FOODIE FINDS:
  • A Taste of Abbot Kinney - Up to 50% off tickets ($30-$50 vs. $60-$100) - event date 10/23 3-6:30pm. Deal from Goldstar Events
  • Dylan's Candy Bar - celebrating 10 year anniversary with 20% off orders online! Use code: 102011 (valid 10/13-10/16 only)
  • Crescent Hotel $58 brunch for 2: bottomless cocktails (including heirloom bloodys!) + sliders + choice of main.  Deal from Thrillist Rewards (less than 7 days left to buy)
  • ONEHOPE Wines $40 for $100 of wine / merch at ONEHOPE Wine & help raise $ for charities  deal from Bloomspot
  • Papillon at Loews Santa Monica Happy Hour daily 5-8pm cocktails wine & apps $6.60 each - go more for the ocean views and sea breeze while lounging by firepits poolside, than the quality of drinks/food
  • Reminder: Los Angeles Food & Wine (October 13-16)
  • Reminder: dineLA 3-course prix fixe lunch & dinner
    • Officially less than 2 days left! (ends 10/14)
    • Some restaurants are extending their dineLA deals!
    • Tips:
      • American Express cardholders don't forget to sync up your card with Foursquare and check in to get $5 credit on your bill!
      • Use OpenTable to make reservations to earn points towards a free dining voucher useable at any participating OpenTable restaurant!
SWEEPSTAKES:
  • Mercato di Vetro Grand Opening Bash Sweepstakes - Like @MercatodiVetro on Facebook and enter its sweepstakes to win 4 tix to the grand opening bash on 10/25 (sweepstakes ends 10/17 11:59pm EST). Official rules here
  • Taste of Abbot Kinney - Win two tickets to the event on 10/23 from GrubstreetLA (ends 10/18)
  • Best Candy of All Time Sweepstakes Enter for chance to win year of candy from Dylan's Candy Bar via YumSugar (ends 10/28 11:59pm PDT) Official rules here
  • SLS Hotel - celebrates 3 year anniversary with sweepstakes.  Enter for chance to win a night at SLS Hotel November 1st for just $3.  Requires Twitter account - just retweet:  “@slshotel: SLS Turns 3! RT for a chance to win a night at SLS on our anniversary November 1st for just $3”
  •                                                             ********

This is meant to be an easily digestible (yes, I did) report of third party offers - I am not the sponsor nor affiliated in any way with any of the companies listed above. I do not receive any payment for these listings. Please read offer details / official rules carefully before deciding whether to submit your information.


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To get more mileage for your money everyday - see Get More Bites Outta Your Budget. Check out my Sweepstakes Page "Win Your Next Bite" - for more foodie promotions!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Scarpetta - dineLA Escapade at the Montage Beverly Hills

When would you ever pay $24 for a plate of spaghetti?  For a lot of die-hard fans, the resounding answer has been: when you're at Scarpetta.

I didn't really get it - from all accounts, there weren't any luxury ingredients added - no truffle, no caviar, no champagne sauce or exotic shellfish.  Supposedly the beauty is in the simplicity - and skillful execution using highest quality ingredients. I do love fresh pasta and was extremely curious about that spaghetti, given all the rave reviews - but just couldn't bring myself to throw down that much cash for noodles with tomato sauce.  Then along came dineLA.

When I saw the notorious famous dish listed on the dineLA menu, as part of a 3-course lunch for $28, I knew this was my chance to go and try it.  I'd passed by the grounds of the Montage so many times, with its perfectly manicured 'park' between two wings of the hotel - and imagined what it would be like to be able to dine at any of the restaurants there. 

The bad news? They weren't offering the dineLA menu on either of the Sundays, and I wasn't ready to commit to a $44 dinner for the same menu items I could try at lunch for $28.

That's when I realized the event I most wanted to avoid that week - a visit to the dentist - was really a blessing in disguise. The dentist office was only a short drive from Scarpetta.  I was already going to take time off work for the appointment - couldn't I just make a 'quick' stop as my late lunch hour?  Afterall, it's probably a good idea to eat before I potentially lose the ability to, for a few hours.

And so I found myself at Scarpetta on a weekday, freshly released from work and a short time away from my dreaded date with novocaine.  A finite, measured moment of anticipated joy, sunshine between bouts of rain (cue Base Rob song...can anyone say child of the 80s?)

For just a little while, I could live the fantasy of being a lady who lunches.  Whenever she wants to.  Even late in the afternoon.  The serene, mostly empty dining room fueled my imagination, and the servers kindly played along, offering the lone diner a magazine for entertainment, while they prepared my meal.

I of course went straight for the Creamy Polenta with fricassee of truffled mushrooms.  It's so hard to find a place that knows how to do polenta right (it's often too rubbery, or too mealy) - but Scarpetta serves theirs pitch perfect - living up to its name in lush texture and rich flavor.  Loved the generous portion as well - you could almost fill up on it alone.  This one could be a strong contender for 'the one dish I would choose, if I could only eat one dish for the rest of my life'. 


And then it came - the long awaited Spaghetti.  I didn't know what I thought it would be like, but hype by nature builds up unrealistic expectations, and stacks the odds against the object to deliver on them.  Like the feeling you got when you were 12, and totally crushing on that cute celebrity who has been giving you smoldering looks from your Tiger Beat pullout on your wall, for like, ever - only to find when you finally meet them in person that they're 'not all that', or not very nice, or have all the personality of a paperweight (*ahem* hypothetically speaking). 

I wanted to be dazzled - and mulled over bite after bite, second guessing my taste buds, challenging them to find the magic.  But at last, it just wasn't there.  Taste is obviously subjective - I love fresh pasta but this just didn't do it for me. Personally I found the noodles to be too thick, tough and chewy, so that it felt like I had to put a lot of work into eating it.  The sauce was fantastic - clean and well balanced with the ratio of noodles, and just a hint of acidity - you could still taste the sunshine in the tomatoes, and smell the fragrant, fresh basil in its folds.  This was indeed one of the best sauces I've ever had (with giant caveat that I've never actually been to Italy) - but the dish just wasn't $24 good.  But I was glad I got to try it during dineLA, when I could feel like it really didn't cost as much - with the $28 being spread across three courses.

For dessert, I went with the Vanilla Caramel Budino with gianduja chocolate sable cookies.  I LOVED this - as the streaks left on the glass by an apparently frenzied tongue would attest.

I knew I would not have time to brush my teeth before going to my dentist - she was going to take one look in and shake her head in disgust. But the budino left me no choice - it lured me with its creamy sea salty sweet caramelly pie crust crunchy crumbly deliciousness!

The portions for each of the courses were very generous, and I had to take a few deep breaths at the end of the meal before I could polish off the two sable cookies. A nice deal for lunch, I think. As the items I ordered are all on the regular menu, you can see that the dineLA deal saves you an estimated $20 per person for these dishes.
 
So, Scarpetta is actually an Italian colloquialism meaning 'little shoe', which is the shape that bread starts to look like, when you use it to scoop up sauce on your plate.  I love that visual of a happy diner relishing the last few bites of their meal. 

And even though I think this will be my first and last "$24 spaghetti", as I scooped up the last of the crumbs from my three course meal - I was glad I got to try the spaghetti while it's 'on a deal'.  (For my money, I prefer the more inventive pastas of Osteria Mozza - and their 3-course prix fixe, almost any mozza bar starter+pasta+dessert+glass of wine now $42 per person Sundays-Thursdays). I did enjoy it well enough at the dineLA price - and now I can say "di fare la scarpetta" - I've done the Scarpetta.

[For photos from other meals / deals from dineLA Fall 2011, check out the album on my Facebook page]

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 4.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$$$ (4 bite marks regular menu)
Probability of return visit - 90% (for polenta & other dishes)

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Scarpetta 
Montage Beverly Hills, 225 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Ph: 310.860.7970     

dineLA - $28 lunch, $44 dinner
Parking:  Self-parking in structure next to hotel - 2 hours free

Website: montagebeverlyhills.com
OpenTable: Look for reservations
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Scarpetta (Montage Beverly Hills) on Urbanspoon

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