Friday, April 19, 2013

ESCAPES: L.A. Eats Part 1: Hollywood and WeHo

It's no secret that I'm a true east-coaster: I love the fast pace and multiculturalism of New York City, the lights of Broadway, the densely-populated Eastern seaboard, the cool waves of the Atlantic, intellectualism, brunettes, and sarcasm. But I've always maintained that the west coast is a nice place to visit. I've been vacationing there since I can remember, but the food was never the most memorable part of my trips out there. We all know the importance of food and wine in Northern California, and they've got some great restaurants, vineyards, and food purveyors up north, no doubt. But Los Angeles has only recently come into its own as a culinary destination. Now, don't get me wrong: it's no New York, despite the numerous New York dining establishments that have opened L.A. branches. But strategic planning can get you some very good food -- both low-brow grub and haute cuisine -- in the varied and sprawling nabes of the City of Angels. 

I began my L.A. stay at the Hotel Roosevelt, a revamped iconic spot on Hollywood Boulevard, in the thick of the city's most kitschy, touristy neighborhood. But it's hotels like this one that have made the area a destination for locals as well: there's a hot bar scene, some good restaurants, and a pool and pool bar that -- I shit you not -- is cordoned off by a velvet rope and bouncers with a guest list. The food at the poolside Tropicana Bar is perfectly refreshing for a lunch lounging by the pool, or a little happy hour ceviche-and-mojito deal. But if you're not on the guest list, the burgers and fries in the hotel's 24/7 burger spot, 25 Degrees, are pretty damned delicious. 

My next move was to a design loft apartment in wonderful West Hollywood. This is as close as a New Yorker can come to a semi-walkable neighborhood, where I could avoid renting a car and could walk to a great selection of top restaurants, bars, and shopping (think Manhattan's West Village). I highly recommend chef Suzanne Goin's Lucques, where a warm dining room awaits beyond the ivy-covered entrance...and a gorgeous back patio beyond that. Goin is renowned for her comfort food elevated to elegant, and her "Sunday Suppers" are a great prix fixe value. Another great spot is David Myers' Comme Ca, also in WeHo. The classically French-trained chef-surfer has created a spot that is both laid-back California and European luxe, serving everything from burgers to bouillaibaisse to bone marrow. The mood changes dramatically from lunch to dinner, so it's worth stopping in for both.

My college friend Deb, a former pastry chef and fellow food lover, moved to L.A. from New York about 5 years ago. She gets excited when I come to town, since she knows I'm always interested in hitting some great dining spots. At her recommendation, we headed to Hatfield's, owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team with experience in some of the top kitchens in New York (Jean-George, Gramercy Tavern). Quinn is the chef and Karen is the pastry chef, and they work with a team behind the glass of an "open" kitchen, where diners can observe the cooks at work. 
Since I've been on the other side of that glass, I prefer to enjoy the dining room -- here, a soaring space made to feel intimate with lots of booths and banquettes in a neutral room with greens and oversized honeycomb light fixtures.
There is always an a la carte menu, but we chose seasonal tasting menus, which offer lots of flexibility.
Highlights included a raw Hawaiian kampachi with jicama, avocado, roasted peanuts, and black lime creme fraiche. The paprika-dusted shrimp with white beans was light and tasty, and the black cod with asparagus cream, roasted asparagus, and mushrooms truly tasted of spring (and the Pacific Northwest).

Desserts ended the meal on a high note, with a caramel semifreddo with Mexican chocolate sorbet, its warm-spice and chile pepper kick pairing nicely with the rich, decadent flavors of caramel and chocolate. 
Similar flavors were used in a very different way in the cinnamon sugar-dusted bomboloni (little donuts), served with dark chocolate sauce for dipping, and a vanilla date shake, in a nod to Southern California and its many date palms. In all, the meal was very satisfying without stuffing us, and the cocktails and great wine list proved the perfect accompaniment. I was a little jet-lagged and ready for a good night's sleep.

One spot I'd been looking forward to trying since I'd read about its opening was Red O. Mexican cuisine is not necessarily at the top of my list of favorites, as it is for many people I know, but then again we don't have the variety and authenticity of places on the east coast like those that exist in California, particularly Southern Cal. And now, perhaps the most revered American expert on Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless (based in Chicago), has opened a spot in L.A. I'd taken an insider's chef's class from Bayless at an IACP Conference in Dallas years ago, and he always left an impression on me. His food is delicious, his knowledge of regional Mexican food encyclopedic. And I wanted a really good Mexican meal of the variety that's hard to find in New York. The decor of Red O was gorgeous: full-length windows and glass ceilings with gossamer white curtains and white canvas draping that resembles boat sails, wrought-iron details and artful dining room dividers. The lighting was perfect, spot-lit walls surrounding tables with candles and low-hanging mod wicker chandeliers. Potted palms are everywhere. We sidled up to the bar while our table was being prepared, and I started on the first of many delicious cocktails. I'm not much of a tequila drinker, but the La Dama cocktail was quite more-ish, as the English say.

The mix of top-shelf tequila with mango grenadine, serrano chiles, pomegranate liqueur, and pomegranate seeds was perfectly balanced between sour, spicy, and sweet. Once we sat down, it was in extremely comfortable surroundings, on a banquette with lots of pillows and low-lying tables -- and of course as is the norm in WeHo hot spots, we were surrounded by plenty of beautiful people. 

One of my all-time, hands-down, favorite things in life? Ceviche. So starting off with the ceviche trio was a no-brainer. My friend and I spent a good 15 minutes trying to decide which of the three was our favorite: the albacore, ahi, or yellowtail (in the end it was a tie -- we'll need to try several more to pronounce a winner!). 

The menu is vast so we asked our server for some guidance, and in the end we selected courses from each menu category, as it's not really organized in courses as we know them. After the ceviche we went with a classic tamale, made contemporary with goat cheese. We followed that up with some beef short rib sopes, kind of a fried pastry base, formed into a cuplet and filled with pulled short ribs in a rich red tomato-chile sauce and topped with queso anejo

We were also tempted enough by the Oaxacan offerings to try an Alaskan halibut cooked in the style of this famous Southern Mexican town. The fish was perfectly seared and served with a chile sauce, oyster mushrooms, and a tomatillo-radish salsa. Light, spicy, and interesting.

Of course, if you want some inexpensive and authentic Mexican street food, you can always head, as we did, to roadside taco stand Pinches Tacos, right across Sunset Boulevard from the Chateau Marmont and retro-fabulous Bar Marmont. It really is a little shack where you order your tacos, get a tray, and wait for your number to be called. The small tacos are all under $3 a pop, and the larger entrees of burritos and enchiladas and sandwiches are all under $10, so it's hard to go wrong here. You can fill your belly and save your cash for tippling across the street.

Where else can I recommend in this part of L.A.? I did meet an old friend for drinks at Fig & Olive on Melrose Place (note: I'm well over Fig & Olive in New York, but its L.A. counterpart is a real scene), and had a girls' night out at Koi, which had some very tasty sushi -- something I'm always excited to get on the west coast. And of course, no stay in West Hollywood would be complete without a smoothie from Urth Caffe', location of many an Entourage scene, and the spot where everyone in this part of L.A. heads for coffee, shakes, and some major star gazing: L.A. Style.

8474 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  900

Comme Ca
8479 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90069
(323) 782.1104

6703 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90038
(323) 935.2977

Red O

8155 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90046
(323) 655.5009

Pinches Tacos

8200 West Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA  90046
(323) 650-0614

Fig & Olive

8490 Melrose Place
West Hollywood, CA  90069
(310) 360.9100


730 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90069
(310) 659.9449

Urth Caffe
8565 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90069
(310) 659.0628

7000 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90028
(323) 466.7000
25 Degrees
Tropicana Pool and Bar

Monday, April 1, 2013

SPRING HOLIDAYS: Passover, Pasqua, & Pasquetta

Springtime holidays celebrate a renewal of life, reinvention, rebirth. Both Passover and Easter have Biblical stories behind them, though historically there's always been a spring solstice celebration of fertility and life. Personally, I grew up going to family Passover seders as a sort of obligation. But as an adult, I've grown to enjoy the holiday, and really came to appreciate it when I began hosting my own seders in Rome. I would invite friends over, both English speakers and Italians, and everyone would participate in the reading of the haggadah (the book that contains the story of Exodus and the prayers said before, during, and after the Passover meal). There were rarely other Jews present. For my friends, this was simply an interesting twist on one of my dinner parties.
But it was a fun cultural experience for everyone, and friends got to explore and enjoy some traditional Passover foods, things they'd never tried before. Another plus? Everyone loved the idea of the requirement of consuming lots of wine throughout the meal. And there were so many passages to be read and prayers to be said before we actually got to eat the dinner that one of my friends, upon spreading the apple-nut mixture haroset on a piece of (tasteless) matzo, proclaimed, "This is the best thing I've ever eaten!" Yes, he was starving and half-drunk. But it was a happy moment nonetheless!

Easter, while not a holiday I generally celebrate, is a day of great importance in Italy. Still, I could always appreciate the trappings of Easter in Rome (to wit: people camping out alongside the Coliseum to witness the Pope's Stations of the Cross, and the accompanying sound checks, was more reminiscent of desperate fans scalping tickets to a rock concert than devout Catholics hoping to glimpse their religious leader). And I've certainly enjoyed my fair share of the Easter feasts with friends and loved ones. 
In Rome, it's a celebration of spring itself, La Primavera: lamb, artichokes, asparagus, eggs, cheesy parmigiano Easter bread, salumi and formaggi...the list goes on.There's a saying in Italy that states: Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi...which basically means Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you want. I like that it's a more community-friendly holiday in Italy. People certainly turn out for church, but beyond that, the Easter meal can be with family, friends, or out in a restaurant. Eating well is the priority. 

And the next day, Easter Monday, or "Pasquetta," is basically national picnic day. In Rome we'd head to the vast and beautiful park, Villa Pamphili, for vino and nibbles and sun and frisbee. It was always packed, but this was the perfect gathering spot for everyone in Rome to soak up some springtime sun and get out of doors without trekking to the beach just yet. And a picnic is a wonderful excuse to eat up leftovers, make delicious panini and frittate and drink crisp vino bianco in the afternoon...

This year, I catered clients' Passover seders, and today is barely warm enough in New York City to make a picnic tolerable. Lovely as Central Park is, it's no Villa Pamphili, there are no umbrella pines, and precious few people in the U.S. celebrate Pasquetta. I miss Rome in the springtime. But I brought a little bit of The Eternal City along this season in my Passover carciofi alla romana (Roman style braised artichokes) and sauteed greens "Jewish Ghetto style" with sultanas and pine nuts. Preparing them brought me back to my 17th century apartment in Largo Arenula, to my Passover seders in my large living room with the wood beam 15-foot-high ceilings, the noise of the city's cars and vespas passing beneath my windows.
It brought me back to preparing for Pasquetta picnics, chilling bottles of Falanghina, and packing up the coolers to hop on the tram outside my door, which took me across the river to Trastevere where I'd meet my friends. We'd head in a caravan to Villa Pamphili, to our spot, to our own "famiglia romana" in the park, eating and drinking wine, laughing, tossing the frisbee until our shadows grew long and we headed back out along the walled Via Aurelia Antica, through Monteverde Vecchio, down the hill into Trastevere, at dusk.

 Buona Pasquetta a tutti.