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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia

The first Tuesday of every month, my wife and I have dinner with a group of friends. We go to the Santa Monica Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Pier, Santa Monica 90401; 310/451-7800) for a tasting of the current Festa Regionale.

The dinner is on the early side, so it is a bit of a rush to get there from work, but the idea is to meet, talk, eat, sample the wines, and still get home early enough to deal with kids and other obligations.

The region celebrated this month is Lombardia. The dishes have substance, the better to fight off the cold in this northern region of Italy, so there are entrees of osso buco (Ossobuco alla Milanese) and beef tenderloin with mascarpone and gorgonzola (Filetto di Bue alla Lombarda), which is something of a gilded lily but the side of grilled polenta and sauteed spinach help ground the rich dish.

A Franciacorta Brut, Tenuta di Montenisa, a light fruity sparkling wine, the Malvasia '"Tasto di Seta," Castello di Luzzzano, 2007 with a pleasant mineral flavor, and the Bonarda Oltrepo Pavese, Carlino, Castello di Luzzano, 2007, with a full-bodied quality that would please any Bordeaux-loving oenophile were the regional wines selected for the month.

By group consensus the Lombardia menu was pronounced Best of the Best. The butternut squash and potato soup (Zuppa di Zucca), tomato and mache salad with polenta croutons (Pomidoro alla Padana), polenta squares with six different toppings (Crostini di Polenta), sauteed salmon fillet with red grapes and shallots in a reduction of the Franciacorta (Salmoncino Franciacorta) were all excellent.

Our favorite dish was a very simply prepared pasta with a mix of porcini, crimini, and shiitake mushrooms (Pappardelle Gialle ai Funghi). The savory mushrooms were supported perfectly by the soft, wide strands of freshly made pappardelle. We liked them so much, the whole group is going back again on Sunday.

The end of the meal was another high-point. The Semifreddo all'Amaretto combined custard and creme anglaise with a soul-comforting whipped cream-creaminess.

All articles about restaurants are duty-bound to include photographs, the better to help readers appreciate the food.

My wife is out of town and we missed her at the tasting, so these photographs are as much for her as they are to document a great meal at Il Fornaio in Santa Monica.


For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Barbrix Opens in Silver Lake

The front wall of Barbrix (242 Hyperion Avenue, Silver Lake 90027; 323/662-2442) is no wall at all.

On hot summer nights, crowds will no doubt start inside at the bar, then, drink in hand, move outside to claim one of the half dozen tables and settle in for an evening sampling the appetizers that include marinated olives, burrata with tapenade, shrimp & chikpea flour tortillas (a favorite), and crostini topped with soft and sweet crescenza, fig relish & prosciutto.

Go deeper into the restaurant and you'll discover intimate groupings of tables, some against the side wall under the picture windows, others tucked into semi-private alcoves.


The stylish restaurant was recently opened by a husband and wife team, Claudio Blotta and Adria Tennor Blotta who met when they worked at Campanile.

They designed Barbrix so it would feel as inviting for couples out for an intimate meal as for groups of friends who want to spend an evening hanging out. The bar offers wines and beers from around the world to pair with the savory offerings on the affordable, tapas-style menu.


At the back of the restaurant there is an open kitchen designed around an L-shaped counter. Chef Don Dickman keeps a watchful eye over his chefs as they plate--to the left--the appetizers, salads, cheese plates, and charcuterie while on the right he directs the finishing of meat and fish courses--the wild boar sausage with a bean ragu, Niman Ranch porchetta style pork belly, and grilled skirt steak on a wild arugula salad.

For those who prefer seafood, the menu offers plates of pesto manila clams, grilled sardines with preserved Meyer lemon & mint aioli, monk fish swimming in a spicy chorizo sauce with chickpeas, and roasted Alaskan halibut resting on a funeral pyre of sunchokes, chard & alba mushrooms with gremolata.

Mediterranean ingredients give Barbrix its flavor edge. The take-away for me--unfortunately we took home no doggie bags that night because we ate everything we ordered--was the memory of a very pleasant evening and a new love for chermoula.

Served on the Roasted Cauliflower Salad, the charmoula added multiple levels of flavor to the caramelized vegetables.

When we came home I was determined to make my own version of the classic North African sauce. I experimented over several nights and discovered its versatility. I used it with fish, grilled meat, roasted vegetables, salt-crusted potatoes, and as a dipping sauce for a vegetable crudite.

Chermoula Sauce

Yield 4 servings
Time 10 minutes

Ingredients

3 garlic cloves, skins on
1/4 cup cilantro, mostly leaves, roughly chopped
1/4 cup Italian parsley, mostly leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch of Cayenne
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Method

Char the cloves on an open flame. Clean off the blackened skin, mash, and finely chop. Use a mini-grinder and puree the garlic, cilantro, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil.

Season with sea salt, paprika, cumin, and cayenne. Stir well, taste and adjust the seasonings if needed.

Refrigerated in a sealed container, the sauce will keep 3-4 days. Serve at room temperature.

Variations

Add 1/2 teaspoon chopped preserved lemon
Add 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
Use dried parsley instead of fresh