Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Cilantro Gene

Everyone has different palettes and it’s common for people to have widely different lists of what they like or don’t like to eat. For example, I can’t stand mayonnaise and have never really understood why. The Cute Gardener hates some white foods from bananas to coconuts to marshmallows. We both tend to agree that our food dislikes probably stem from childhood traumas or instances when we were forced to eat versions of these things cooked badly or force fed to us simply too much in our early lives.

But one thing that has always confused me is the true hatred that some people feel towards cilantro. It’s one of those herbs that have no shades of gray. You either love it wildly and viciously (as do I) or it causes such a recoiling sense of dismay (as in the Cute Gardener.) Recently, I stumbled upon news that some people actually have a gene that causes cilantro disgust. That is the only way to explain why someone like culinary queen Julia Childs could possibly hate the stuff. I think she called it one of the most offensive things ever.

Needless to say I do not have the gene. I could shove a whole bunch of the leafy stuff into my mouth at random for its sprightly perfume and the way my mouth instantly feels soothed by the freshness of its crunch. It’s as if my whole entire body perks up and takes deep breaths in the presence of the stuff. But because so many people in my close tribe do not share my lust (perhaps proving the old adage that opposites like puzzle pieces do indeed attract) it is an herb that I oftentimes find myself eating alone.

This week I made myself a big pan of my favorite cilantro tomato sauce with some San Marzanos fresh from the garden and was glad I didn’t have to share it with anyone anyways.


1 cup chopped cilantro
8 diced San Marzano tomatoes
1 small yellow onion
3 cloves minced garlic
Olive oil
4 ounces whole-wheat spaghetti

Heat a saucepan on medium low heat and place in a tablespoon of olive oil and onions. Put on a lid and sweat the onions for 8 minutes until translucent. Then add the garlic and sauté for one minute. Then add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes until tomatoes start to break down and integrate into sauce. Meanwhile cook the whole-wheat spaghetti. After tomatoes simmer for 15 minutes, remove from heat, season with salt and pepper and then add the cilantro making sure to blend it all in evenly. Serve on top of pasta and enjoy!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Best Los Angeles Burger Found at Plan Check

House made vanilla cream soda at Plan Check on top of 
their cocktail menu filled with nice little surprises

Hyped up and hungry after seeing the latest James Bond flick Skyfall in Westwood yesterday, we planned on checking a burger off of our burger-hunt list by visiting Plan Check on Sawtelle.  The restaurant, which sits like an alternative, last resort on a street filled with Asian dining is something that has intrigued our radar for a while, especially in the beef department. After an intensely satisfying meal there and my subsequent coining of it “my favorite burger in Los Angeles” of the moment (yes, even throwing the almost unflappable one at Rustic Canyon to second place) we decided that it could also be our go-to food haunt post-movies in Westwood since we’ve discovered there just aren’t that many great choices in eating around there.

We sat outside since it was a balmy warm post-holiday weekend on non-pretentious and old-fashioned cast metal chairs around an industrial chic concrete table. To start we shared the chunky fries cooked in beef tallow and discovered the tangy, pickled ginger spiked and fresh tomato pureed ketchup that was a fresh and sprightly delight.

I ordered one of three burgers, which included a plain wagyu beef and cheese version, and a messy and lustful bacon, hot sauce and egg version, and mine – The Bleuprint. This is simply the best tasting burger I’ve had so far anywhere: meat that was dripping red and warm on the inside while retaining a nice smoky caramelization on the outside; a bun that was crispy and golden brown yet soft; just enough fried onions to add texture and saltiness without overwhelming with hard bits; a few sprigs of peppercress, a luscious dollop of roasted garlic steak sauce; and pig candy, which was basically bacon turned into a sticky, chewy, sweet fruit roll up that I swore is the object embodiment of sin.

The Cute Gardener ordered the fried chicken because he has a fried chicken list as well as a burger list and knew he would get half of my dish in the end. A generous portion arrived where a great, crumbly fry crust covered perfectly tender chicken pieces, swimming in a lovely smoked milk gravy with some freshly made yam preserves on the side that tasted bright and fruity. The spicy, pickled okra was a crunchy and juicy little gem of a side.

Consistently with each dish no ingredient or item served were ordinary, but a custom created blend of unique flavors that became signature to the restaurant’s tastes. I haven’t had a meal like this in a while; where every single element stands out and completely causes awe and a smile. I left already mentally planning what I would order on my next trip, happy tongue and tummy ready for a continued lazy Sunday.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Post-Thanksgiving Grace Period Gluttony

The most beautiful thing about the 24 hours directly following the Thanksgiving holiday is that you float around in a sort of surreal food coma where your body is both in shock from all the food you ate the day before as well as hungry for more. And because it is the 24 hours directly following the holiday, you are allowed a kind of grace period to wean yourself back into the normal realm of diet you are used to while giving you just enough leeway to properly devour and dispense of all the leftovers that have accumulated pushing the limits of your refrigerator door.

This is when all kinds of crazy happenings ensue.

Like taking the random opportunity to consume six peanut butter and cacao nib cookies for breakfast, dunked into exquisite steaming mugs of coffee adorned with all the remaining whipped cream from the night before pies. Of course, you conveniently forget in your tryptophan daze that you had already consumed about 15 of them the day preceding or the night before that in the kitchen of your boyfriend as he lovingly pulled them from a hot oven.

Or deciding to boldly stop off on the way home from relatives’ lodging at the gourmet Greek food store for lunch just to see how their distinct version of comfort food compares to that which you so heartily consumed on your own cultural and historical day. And you discover that yes, the homemade moussaka comes mightily close to a turkey-mashed potato-gravy compiled biscuit with its lasagna-esque, stacked strata of potatoes, ground beef, nutmeg and cream. The dolmadas with acidic grape leaves wrapped around mushy and savory rice reminds you of the starch piles dotted with nary a green from your own aforementioned Thanksgiving plate.

Then you tackle the problem of elevating the turkey leftover beyond the typical dry sandwich or watery-brothed soup or reheated breast smothered in cranberry sauce by the Cute Gardener's version of spontaneous, faux-turkey comfit. It starts with shredded light and dark meat turkey remnants poached in olive oil so that they turn rillette-like, smoky, dense and rich. Added to this are hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and fresh minced garlic and basil, tossed together over perfectly al dente linguine…

…and served alongside a Chinese sup-choy…so at least you get the greens you’ve been lacking to start the veer back on to your normal course of eating….

You gain five pounds but you don’t care. It will go away over the ebb and flow of the next few weeks when your body and chemistry return to normal.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Menage a Trois a la Rustic French Fare

I have been a really bad member of a supper club ever since I moved, missing the last two occasions (one Italian-themed and the other Oscar party snack-oriented) and even more so my good, foodie friends. So I corralled one member with a newly purchased house and another member who is a great organizer and then myself from afar, and we decided to throw a special dinner this past weekend called Menage a Trois. As menu designer I was looking to create a meal of rustic French fare after spending the last half a year curled up on the couch on many occasions at the Cute Gardener’s house flipping through the pages of Dorie Greenspan’s “From Around my French Table.”

I came up with the following: 

St. Germain cocktails
Assorted French Wines
Mustard Batons
Beef Bourgogne
Haricot Verts
Potato Gratin
Tarte Tatin
Cheese Plate

The concepts behind these dinners are that each person invited signs on to make one of the prescribed menu dishes from scratch; of course, cranked up a bit above the norm with a flourish of their own voice.

As guests arrived, we enjoyed various bottles of French wine and the cocktail of the evening titled the GOLD Standard. Made by one of our illustrious ladies who brought a package of finger tattoo mustaches for us to choose from Pepe Le Pew style, it consisted of St. Germain and pear vodka – strong enough to be a proper cocktail but sweet enough to pair well with the berets and stylish handkerchiefs that dotted the guests’ attires.

We also snacked on my mustard batons – my newest go to recipe for appetizers. They are distinctly French and are basically puff pastry breadsticks with middle sections ripe with Dijon. But because they are so easy, and the possibilities are literally endless (think raspberry jam ones for breakfast, Nutella and cacao nib dusted versions for dessert or olive oil and sea salt powdered varieties for a champagne and salad lunch!), I have become quite fond of the perpetual crowd pleasers.

I also cooked a hearty pot of vichyssoise in a countryside style where the potatoes, leeks and onions were steamed and charred with butter and herbs first to provide a smokier robustness to the normally cream intensified dish. We served this in small wine glasses so that guests to drink the starchy puree without utensils. The starch of the soup was the perfect setting for the fragrant entrée to come.

The beef Bourgogne arrived smoking hot and perfumed with a potent scent of wine on top of bacon notes from the 24 braising the meat had incurred. The delicious stew was ripe with pearl onions, baby carrots and mushrooms – all the makings for the perfect French countryside main dish. 

Alongside that were haricot verts – the green beans painstakingly split in half to expose the textural crunch of the inner seeds, apparently a major step in the classic side dish that can not be side stepped in order for it to be deserving of the term “authentic”. Sprinkled with diced almonds, it was both nutty and green tasting.

The tarte tatin, made by our tart of a host, featured pears instead of the typical apples and delighted in its novelty. Baked under a beautifully imperfect and hilly crust …

… the true caramelized heart of the dish was revealed when turned over and out on a platter. Buttery yet light, dense and sweet simultaneously, the crust provided a nice heft for the juicy and chewy fruit.

And of course … no French feast would be complete without a great cheese plate to accentuate up all the aforementioned indulgences.

I did end up eating leftover beef Bourgogne for the next two mornings, as it is the kind of dish that gets better and better as it ages.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Getting Closer to the Perfect L.A. Pie

The hunt for good pizza in Los Angeles has been an interesting one where we will first hear about a place and then seek it out, typically ordering a basic margherita and then another more creative option, sometimes splitting the choices simply between a white and a red. Our adventures have turned up an assortment of experiences including:

800 Degrees in Westwood, our choice before a movie, which provided us with a floppy, non-flavorful crust with charcoal black pockmarked dough and inconsistencies in topping delivery across the area of the dough due to the careless assembly-line style of creating the pizza. Nothing I dislike better than seeing beautiful pieces of basil-strewn slices of pizza and then tasting nary a bit of its flavor on my own slice. It is also the place that made us realize we rarely ever agree with Johnathon Gold’s food reviews in the LA Times.

Pizza Antica, which actually serves up a good pie on a solid foundation on a mall rooftop in Santa Monica overlooking the sea – but because it’s located in a housewives of the West Side consumerist heaven, I tend to want to stay away.

Il Fico, which provided us the score find of our favorite bowls of pasta yet left much to be desired in the pie zone. The pizzas tasted fine but were really thin with crust that didn’t stand on its own and a very bland tomato sauce that constantly needed spruced up with the pot of chili oil brought to the table with a miniature spoon. Again, there were bad consistencies in delivery of toppings on the pizza.

Savory’s in Malibu surprisingly had the best sausage topping we had tasted in a long time. Although known for all kinds of food and not just pizza, we ordered a pie and were in awe of the meat done in a soft, dense and herbal-packed bite and halved meatball where the sausage stood out amongst the other ingredients as a star that still played well with others. Of course, like a lot of places we fall in love with, it was gone within a few months of our visit.

Masa in Echo Park for a deep dish that was a true delight for a one time meal with an almost dare I say sausage patty for a topping that was very delicious albeit a little strange.

Olio is probably the Cute Gardener’s favorite so far, with its marvelous margherita made extra flat with a unique tomato sauce and a true basil taste and mozzarella cheese spread throughout even though the look contradicts that fact. But it was still a little too ordinary for me with its ultra plain crust.

Then there was the time where we spent an hour stalking the downtown L.A. freeway tangle on foot looking for the illusive and mysterious Hollywood Pie that we later found out had aborted their physical space in lieu of becoming a delivery only service. And only to a select chunk of neighborhood. 

And finally, last Friday night we ventured into Stella Rossa, nicely situated only a half hour walk from my home to try out their highly-hyped and super-crowded space for some pie. Our proposed 45 minute wait ended up only being 20 and we scored a seat looking into the baking oven area while still being off to our own. You can’t escape the loudness of the joint because the dining room is centered around a massive square cocktail bar. You can sit at the cocktail bar if you want for food on a first come first serve basis as well.

True to form we had our margherita and a sausage. I loved both pies, and the sausage comes the closest for me a being my kind of preferred sausage. Richly seasoned old Italian style with fennel, it is delivered crumbled across the cheese with a lovely ground texture that I have yet to find in the area. The distribution could have been more even but I enjoyed the flavors that were also quote good in the crust itself- a salty, buttery bed. The only complaint of mine was that the crust to topping portion of the pizza was almost 50% meaning you get a lot of crust on the pies and less ingredients. Eating all of that crunchy, crust caused me to cut the upper roof of my mouth because it was quite hard as it cooled down. I loved the beet salad appetizer with ricotta and arugula and a hint of fresh lemon in the dressing. It was a refreshing beginning to the pizza that would come. Because it is in my neighborhood and the pies and wine are all priced right, I will no doubt come back again and consider this the pizza place in my neck of the woods. That is, until another one comes and wows me more. 

And then there are those dirty little secrets we all have, like the ones we order really late at night when we are hungry and too tired to drive or eat a proper pie at a proper place so we call in our favorite trashy, cheap and easy order for a delivery pie. Mine always tends to be the Bada Bing onion and peppers delight from Bravo on Main Street.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cozy Football and Comfort Food

I never thought I would say this, but I am going to miss college football when this season is over. I am an artist and a progressive: I am not supposed to like watching a bunch of men, gladiator style, performing dangerous exhibition sports for a sea of grunting, pounding on the chest peers but I do. It’s become an almost soothing sort of ritual that harkens back to my childhood when the sounds of Saturday and Sunday sports provided a weekly monument of familiarity in an otherwise chaotic household.

Growing up, I had that kind of family that spent whole weekends during this time of year huddled in the living room. My stepfather had a special La-Z-Boy type chair that nobody else was allowed to sit in. From this perch he would command the atmosphere, gruffly barking out orders to the athletes on the television screen as the day progressed and the kitchen started to heat up with mom’s one pot casseroles that we salivated over while munching on tortilla chips and her famous white trash dip on the communal overstuffed couch. My mother would stand behind the billiards table at her ironing board taking care of the week’s laundry pile while acting as supportive cheerleader to her favorite teams during their games. From my adjacent bedroom I would type away at my typewriter keys, writing angst-ridden poems with the sports soundtrack from the other room juxtaposing wildly with my deepest thoughts coming out in courier font on pieces of blank white paper.

I left the noise for almost two decades and then rediscovered it again this season with the Cute Gardener who plans whole Saturdays around the schedules of his favorite teams. It has become a ritual for me again, only this time much more cozy as I sit on the couch all day in pajamas huddled under a blanket in the coolness of winter with an excuse to do nothing all for twelve hours other than root for the favorite teams. And at the end of the day as the games start to dwindle down to the last of the slate and hunger starts to set in, I look forward to the home-cooked meals – one pot comfort dishes cooked by my mate that have replaced the maternal chips and dips.

My favorite of late was a simple Mediterranean chicken dish made expertly tangy and creamy by the addition of Armenian olives and feta bought at a Middle Eastern market in Granada Hills that was selling whole blocks of the crumbling white cheese for about 3 bucks a pound, providing five times the amount we might pay the same price for in a store like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

To make, simply sear four chicken quarters and then drain the fat.  Add half an onion sliced, twenty kalamata olives, four cups of deseeded tomato, and oregano.  Cover and simmer.  Add half cup crumbled feta and serve.

I will be sad to see this season end but like the idea of having something to look forward to again next year and an excuse to whittle away Saturdays in the dimly, lit den capped with comforting food.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Royal Treatment at The Royce

When you are an avid foodie who eats out four times a month and your tastes run from the lowbrow taco shop to the three star Michelin dinner, you pretty much know what to expect from the bottom of the spectrum to the top of the spectrum and all the variations in between. You know you are going to have a casual, jeans wearing, no nonsense, serve yourself salsa in paper cups, plastic fork experience at the strip mall Hispanic neighborhood carne asada joints but you don’t care because you are there for the way they make the beef and the pork so authentically that you could never duplicate it at home. And when you put on the heels and the lipstick comes out of the cosmetics drawer so that you can look the part in a pristine dining room where some famous chef resides sweating over his kitchen so your exquisitely rare meat is dotted with the precise amount of gourmet garnish on the plate you know you are going to pay a hearty price for the pleasures of being catered to so lusciously.

But every once in a while you have an experience that is so elevated and so individualized that you wake up the next morning with the aftertaste of ultimate satisfaction on your tongue and wonder if it were all just really a dream. That’s how I woke up this past Saturday after a night out with the Cute Gardener at The Royce.

The Royce is located in Pasadena’s prestigious and swank Langham Hotel where even the hallways boast crystal chandeliers and a sense of early California citrus ranch and oil baron history. Recently remodeled, it boasts a classy white dining room with plush seats, muted white and black exquisite abstract drawings and splashes of blue throughout. As we sat, we were immediately offered an aperitif of Mendoza sparkling rose from Argentina.

This was followed by a creative amuse bouche of smoked tofu in mini lettuce cup, a blistered and bread-crumbed shishito pepper and a sweet little cup of belly warming butternut squash soup. This was all before we even uttered an order.

Our waitress was so attentive that she asked if we wanted to work with the sommelier for our meal when she noticed us strategizing our orders together noting that we would probably be sharing. The sommelier became a remarkable companion throughout the evening starting with our appetizer course where he brought out and poured two wines for me knowing that my dish could go either with a full and jammy white or drier Chablis. I ended up enjoying a Zind Humbrect Gewrztraminer 2011 Alsace with my diver scallop carpaccio sprinkled with bonito horseradish “rape” and chopped Oregon state chestnuts.

The CG was given a Caroline Parent red burgundy to match his roasted pheasant soup with parsnip emulsion and Muscat grapes. Both of us were stunned with the smoky richness of the pheasant mousse on top of the long, thin crostini that floated in the soup. The soup was poured at the table – another touch of old school yet rarely seen elegance.

For the entrée, I chose my go-to of lamb, which came with two generous round filets, perfectly roasted in curried garlic honey sauce with charred and tiny onions, fat Christmas lima beans and a sorrel emulsion. I enjoyed a Jake-Ryan Cellars zinfandel alongside the juicy, medium rare meat.

The CG had the seared squab which was delightfully served with roasted fig halves, swiss chard, matsutake mushrooms and cocoa nibs.

There were a lot of diners around us in the house and not very many of them looked that happy. We wondered if people who have a ton of money come to take even their ability to have luxurious dining experiences for granted and become bored because it certainly couldn’t be the food that was causing everyone to appear so blasé. To spice up the atmosphere, at least for the staff, we did something a little crazy next. For our first dessert, we ordered an appetizer plate of heirloom shelling beans ragouette with celery and shaved white truffle for $60. We were definitely going to enjoy and appreciate our one time experience in the land of the rich. I had been itching to try the white truffle delicacies and this seemed like the proper time and place to do so. It was worth it with flaked slivers of buttery, rich truffle atop sublime foam and the pretty amazingly cooked beans. The sommelier was so confused yet pleased by this order that he comped us some red wine during this course.

Finally, for dessert, we ordered the picandou du lot goat cheese with tomato jam, which was funky in the best ways and paired interestingly with the jam.

We were stuffed to the gills and ready to go but were delivered yet another plate of small chocolates ranging from milk to pepper white to espresso dark chocolate. And then, to top off the night, as we were about to exit the grand glass doors back into our normal lives, the host grabbed us and ushered us in to the stately wine room where he poured me a free glass of grappa and some brandy for my mate and brought in the chef David Feau to meet us. We were so impressed with everything and we told him so and as he shook our hands and thanked us in French, I knew that this evening would remain up there in my top five dining experiences for quite some time.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pine Nut Gnocchi and Leek Lust

Even though the Cute Gardener's ancestors stem from places known for chow mein and sushi his cooking specialty is more rooted in that country shaped like a boot. When we first met I was a little overwhelmed when I looked into his cupboards and saw thirty boxes of pasta in every shape and form. Was he one of those weird people who collected dried food goods in preparation for doomsday? No, he was actually one of those people who eat like the Italians do, believing like Sophia Loren that a bowl of pasta a day keeps the blues away.

I was in luck!

I am still knocking on wood a year later after having been served a myriad of home cooked pasta dishes. His culinary style is denoted by its purity in which a type of pasta is married with oil, an herb, a vegetable, and some meat brought together in exquisite piles in bowls and plates that I can't help but empty - short of licking the dish. Even though I tend to not eat everything on my plate with most other meals, with his pasta dishes I tend to even go back for seconds.

The latest creation I was treated to was an Italian twist on steak and potatoes inspired by our daytime trip to the Italia Bakery and Deli in Granada Hills where we found savory and authentic sausage and pepper sandwiches, glorious home baked cannolis, perfectly dense white chocolate covered biscotti for coffee dipping and packages of plump and beautiful gnocchi.

While the gnocchi were boiling he whipped up a beautiful sauce of olive oil and pine nuts simmered down to a dense and smoky reduction.

Chopped leeks were sautéed simply providing a veggie side where every buttery bite burst with juice. I really enjoyed them in this style, as they were elevated to let their true magic shine whereas they are usually otherwise used to pump up other foods with flavor or to heft up soups conspiring with potatoes. This application was the surprise of the dinner.

A highly marbled steak, seasoned simply with salt and pepper, was fried rare to add some balance and protein to the palate.

The gnocchi was tossed with the pine nut reduction, a hearty amount of minced basil from the garden and copious amounts of Parmesan cheese. A hybrid form of a traditional meat and starch was turned upside down into a belly warming Italian comfort food meal.

The Cute Gardener’s pine nut gnocchi has replaced strozzapreti for my pasta of the moment – and believe me, those were big shoes to fill.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Girls and Ghouls Dine With Demeter

This past Halloween I opened my front door at six p.m. to let in Death, the High Priestess and The Star – otherwise known as three of my close girlfriends dressed up as representations of cards in the tarot’s major arcana. I was a breathing heart in a red ball gown in homage to The Lovers card and hostess of the evening’s Girls and Ghouls dinner as we took the opportunity to celebrate All’s Hallowed Eve modern-goddess style with some healthy, heart fueling food and rituals in the witchy hour to manifest internal and external goodness in our lives for a cycle of another year.

The only rules were that we had to make our dish from scratch using nutritious and life-affirming ingredients. What we ended up with was a plethora of Demeter the harvest queen-inspired dishes like beets with red onion and goat cheese, cauliflower and spinach medley, kale salad with tangy homemade dressing and my new favorite butternut squash pasta that I had concocted earlier that afternoon specifically for the occasion.

Of course, every dinner between goddesses would not be complete without high salutations to Bacchanalia.

We took the opportunity to honor death with conversations over dinner inspired by mortality and how little life we are all actually granted to live here on this planet. We all looked deep into our souls and psyches and shared, in the true spirit of sisterhood and seasonal renewal, those parts of us that we wished to shed, let go of, and grieve the loss of with all due respect. The ceremony of discussing this amongst ourselves over fine food provided a guttural spiritual cleansing and moment of witnessing for each other’s truest desires. We ended the evening with chocolate cheesecake and carrot cake dolloped with home whipped, non-sweetened cream.

That night when all had gone, I lay awake long past midnight feeling as if the ghosts of the past were cleansing my home, sweeping out the old and making way for the new.
Butternut Squash Farfalle with Fried Sage and Sunflower Seeds
Serves 2

1 medium butternut squash
1 small sweet onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves
1/2 pound farfalle pasta
3/4 cup sunflower seeds, toasted
4 ounces high quality Parmesan, shredded or shaved (about a cup total)

Heat the oven to 375°. Cut the butternut squash in half and scoop out the strings and seeds the middle cavity. Flip the squash halves upside down and peel them. Cut the squash into 1-inch cubes. Toss with the onion, garlic, a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper. Mince about half of the fresh sage leaves and toss with the squash.

Spread the squash mixture in a thin layer on a large baking sheet and roast for about 40 minutes or until the squash is soft.

Heat salted pasta water to boiling and cook the farfalle until al dente. Drain and set aside. As the squash finishes roasting, heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a large high-sided sauté pan. Drop in the rest of the sage leaves and fry for about a minute.

Remove with a slotted spoon and salt lightly. Crush with the back of a spoon.

Add the pasta to the pan along with the roasted squash mixture. Crumble in half the sage. Cook, stirring frequently, for five minutes or until the pasta is heated through and getting crispy on some of the edges. Add the sunflower seeds and cook for another minute. Stir in  the cheese and serve.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Comfort Fish at Joe's

There are all kinds of comfort food. There’s the kind that mothers make rooted in deep hometown traditions that taste best served from hearty casseroles in heavy bowls with ingredients likely to induce heart attacks. There’s the kind that is super elevated in a gourmet version like the coconut mushroom soup with sweetbreads at Hatfield’s in Los Angeles. And then there’s the in between kind that surprises you in its creativity and ingredients served in homey settings that just make you feel belly warmed and content.

To me, that middle kind is the reason I love Joe’s on Abbot Kinney. It was the first restaurant I ate at in Venice Beach over a year ago when I first moved here when my friend Michael Childers treated me to their luscious shrimp and grits breakfast. Everything from the bread plate to the condiments to the homemade charcuterie to the actual breakfast dish came surrounded by the early morning beach light streaming through the windows of this neighborhood joint that felt more like somebody’s beachside bungalow home. I have been itching to get back ever since and was thrilled to revisit it with the Cute Gardener last week.

It didn’t disappoint. We had originally wanted to go for the promise of Friday night jazz but when that was replaced on the calendar with the presence of the oyster man, we were still pleased. As we sat amidst a bustling low lit dining room filled with a nice variety of guests who seemed to all be there for the same casual yet elegant homey experience, we ate two forms of the fruits of the sea from Washington and British Columbia. One was funky and deep which the CG loved and my favorite was the brinier, clean and meaty nugget.

To further indulge my cozy meal by the sea mood, I ordered the coconut-encrusted cod cheek, which came large and luscious on top of swiss chard and coconut lime sauce with spots of uni.  

The CG’s salmon and tuna tartare crostini plate was light and classy with the fish perfectly room temperature and melting on the mouth like butter.  

My main of fried monkfish was a puffy textural delight served with nice vegetables and small pumpkin gnocchi dumplings that slightly spiced the tongue with fall flavors.
The CG’s jidori chicken was the hit of the evening, something we both had eyed on the menu for the addition of nicely al dente chestnut agnolotti; a combination that was perfectly fibrous and contrasting to the sweet chicken meat cooked exquisitely. A black kale pulled the dish together. The combination of flavors made this usually average meat the star of the night.
For dessert, we indulged in the special pumpkin trifle which was an adorably presented dish layered in a mason jar of pure, non-sweetened pumpkin puree, soft chocolate cookie crumbles, ice cream and a piece of pumpkin brittle. Sometimes I do weird things like pour coconut milk straight from a can into a small bowl and spoon honey over the top. This dessert gave me ideas in doing similar things with pure pumpkin puree.

We were so pleased with our meal we even stopped to say hello and give our praise to Christophe Happillon from Oyster Gourmet and learn about his pop up oyster company that roams the high-end restaurants in the area. We had a hunch he was the same person who we had seen at another Venice haunt Larry’s by the Sea one evening and we were right.

This was the most satisfying meal I have had since Il Fico, home of my favorite pastas in Los Angeles, and I know that it’s a place I will return to time and again because of the consistently good food and the menu that changes according to season.