Sunday, February 3, 2013

dineLA Winter 2013: El Caserio: Ecuadorian Italian in Silverlake

I have a confession to make.  When dineLA first launched Restaurant Week, I was super excited on two fronts: getting deals to dine at top spots around the city that may not be normally affordable to me, and being able to check out new places with reduced monetary risk (thanks to the prix fixe menus!).  But over years with this event I've subconsciously veered my focus more towards the deal aspect.  I'd become comfortable, and complacent - I had the restaurants picked out that I knew I could rely on for a great meal, experience, and at a great price, and my choices became cookie cutter.  I forgot my sense of adventure and taste for culinary roulette.

So I want to thank Beauty Jones for being the amazing friend who gently steered me back, without judgment - just a friendly suggestion of some place new that neither of us had ever tried, but that she had wondered about as she passed by on the way home every day.

I knew this would be a fun culinary adventure when I heard that it featured 'Ecuadorian Italian' fare.  I didn't realize the venue itself would be transporting as well.  Though in Silverlake, it's off the beaten path in a more reclused area - the restaurant seems to rise out of nowhere in a remote part of Silver Lake Blvd, in the shadow of the freeway.  The first thing that greeted me was an ancient, ornate door that looked like it weighed 2000 pounds, and wouldn't be out of plce at some remote ruins of a castle.  Once inside, there is the bar, then a charming dining room and mosaic patio strung with lights and a 'Secret Garden'-like spiral staircase that in the dark seemingly led to nowhere.

We were distracted away from the setting by some bread served with fiery-red 'aji' dip, which was super spicy but delicious (and I usually can't handle that much spice!).  On to the dineLA offering then: it was to be a 3-course dinner for $35 per person.  But the dishes were so generous each meal could easily feed two average sized ladies.  Course 1: Appetizers - a mini assortment from Los Andes: Locro de Mote (soup), Ensalada de Melloco, Papas con Queso - this was an amazing appetizer platter that was anything but mini - it could almost have been a small meal in itself, and we each got our own platter! And it all tasted amazing. The four quadrants were like a study in what you can do with the same ingredients.  All contained either potato or corn.  The salad was of pickled potatoes (first time we'd encountered that preparation of spuds) that were perfectly cooked - crunchy but soft at the same time, I think pickled onions, on a bed of greens with a light vinaigrette dressing.  The lovely soup was made with potato and mote (giant corn kernels typical to South American cooking - Ecuadorians boil and peel before serving them) and was beautifully smooth, served at just the right temperature.  Then there was the dried corn that reminded us of corn nuts, but a million times better (no smothered in artificial powders, and much lighter, with an airy crunchiness).  Lastly, the trio of different types of potato served on a spicy cheese dip that had a texture like smoothed out cottage cheese, with a bit of heat.  We'd come back just for this platter alone.
Course 2: Mote con Fritada corn and garbanzo bean served with tender roasted pork garnished with plantains.  Again mote is featured in Beauty Jones' chosen dish, mixed with garbanzo beans this time to accompany roasted pork and fried plantains (for a bit of sweetness to go with the protein).

I couldn't resist the Seco de Chivo ($16 on regular menu) goat stew slowly cooked with beer herbs, naranjilla and tomatoes, served with yellow rice and maduros.  Mainly because I had no idea what most of the words on the menu meant. Turns out naranjilla, which translates to "little orange", is a fruit that looks like a tomato but tastes like rhubarb and lime.  This is one of the ingredients used to cook the goat stew - which was foodgasm-inducing.  The goat was super tender, and the sauce was a supernova of sweet, savory, herbaceous, tempered acidity in your mouth.  The Italian influence came through on the tomato base of the sauce.  Maduros turned out to be sauteed plantains, and there was also an unnamed but delicious savory cake on our plates that was made with cheese and we think cornmeal.

Course 3: Tiramisu ($8 on regular menu) - the dessert options were less unique, and we both went for the Tiramisu over the "figs and cheese" (hate ordering things at restaurants that are easy to make/serve yourself at home). It was a classic but skilled execution, with pleasing levity all around and the ladyfingers were not soggy. 

Since the appetizer platter isn't on the regular menu, and there aren't any comparable dishes that I can see, it was hard to estimate the overall savings.  But knowing the goat stew was $16 + dessert at $8, that would leave $11 of the dineLA prix fixe for appetizer.  Taking portion sizes into account, and the great experience, we thought it was all worth it.  This one made us lean more towards 'new experience' versus the 'deal on paper' - but the end result is a lovely night out trying something new, and we each had enough leftovers for lunch the day after.

Overall, very excited to have discovered a new place and type of cuisine I hadn't experienced before.  I never would have put Ecuadorians and Italians together, but now know that there's a huge population of Italian immigrants in Ecuador leading to Italian influences in Ecuadorian cuisine - so I learned something new too. Thanks dineLA and Beauty Jones! 

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 - 95% 

El Caserio

401 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026
Ph: 213.273.8945

Parking: street parking

El Caserio on Urbanspoon     

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