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Thursday, July 17, 2014

West Hollywood's RivaBella Ristorante: Italian Luxury Just Off The Sunset Strip

RivaBella Ristorante is in West Hollywood on the border of Beverly Hills and within sight of the Sunset Strip. From the outside, RivaBella has the look of an expensive fine dining restaurant.  Walk inside and the friendly bar men will offer you a cocktail or a glass of premium wine, then you'll enter a dining room with rustic wooden tables, brick walls and a massive hearth. The spacious restaurant has the feel of an upscale country inn. 
RivaBella balances elegance with casual dining. On the evening we had dinner, some diners were dressed in business suits while others wore shorts and colorful sport shirts.  A retractable ceiling opens to the sky. Natural light floods into the room through floor to ceiling windows. At night, candles on the tables and strings of white lights give the room a romantic, festive aura. 
RivaBella puts on a show
You'll experience the restaurant's theatrical side when you enter the dining room and pass the DJ who is working through a play list of pop songs. Order the mushroom risotto and the waiter brings a cart to the table heavily laden with a Parmigiano Reggiano wheel large enough to fit on a Mini-Cooper. 

The server ladles the hot risotto on to the wheel of cheese. As he swirls together the delicate grains of slow cooked Acquerello rice and sautéed mushrooms, the Parmigiano Reggiano yields to the heat forming a more perfect union of rich deliciousness. 
At the other end of the spectrum, Carmelo, our waiter, encouraged us to order the ice cream prepared table side using liquid nitrogen. The menu describes a dessert that you expect will be a dish of vanilla bean ice cream and a choice of toppings as varied as candied pistachios, chocolate pearls, fresh strawberries, salted caramel and Nutella sauce. But the dessert arrives not in a bowl but on another one of those carts, this time with enough machinery and "smoke" rising into the air to make Willy Wonka swoon. The liquid nitrogen supplies the pyrotechnics. The waiter works the machinery and presides over the transformation of mere mortal ingredients into a memorable sweet feast.

The menu
Executive Chef Luigi Fineo and Chef-Partner Gino Angelini created a menu that draws on many traditions. Northern Italian dishes like cavatelli with broccolini come directly from chef Fineo's grandmother's kitchen. So too the bucatini carbonara and shellfish caciucco are classics of Italian cuisine. But the chefs are open to discovery, which is how the popular lamb reuben with pickled cabbage materialized on the menu.
As a starter, we ordered the corn soup with crab. Everyone dipped a spoon into the bowl for a taste. By the time I pulled out my camera, the soup was half gone it was that good. Somehow chef Fineo created a "creamy" soup without cream that tasted like summer. Bits of steamed crab and finely chopped chives were a great addition.  I liked the dish so much, chef promised I can come back to the restaurant and he will do a video demonstrating the recipe. 

For a salad antipasti we had a plate of prosciutto di Parma topped with wild arugula and chopped burrata. Salty prosciutto was mellowed by the burrata and countered by the spicy arugula. 

Chefs Fineo and Angelini are masters of contrasting textures and flavors. That was apparent repeatedly through out the meal. A dish of roasted octopus had the right amount of char to bring out a sweet chewiness that was balanced by oven roasted fingerling potatoes, salty olives and spicy salsa verde.

We enjoyed the strozzapreti with langoustine. The slender, twisted pasta and the soft, pink langoustine paired well together and both benefited from a musky sautéed wild mushrooms-brown butter sauce. 
Their preparation of a ricotta chicken breast also made good use of wild mushrooms. The bottom of the flat bowl had a thick pool of sauce flavored with Hen of the Wood mushrooms and Padron peppers.  


When we asked about the bone-in ribeye steak, Carmelo said the 20 oz. cut was large enough to share. Covering a rectangular wooden platter, the thick steak had a beautifully charred crust. Seasoned with salmoriglio, the lemon-garlic-chili flake topping brightened the moist, fatty meat. Accompanied with a large side of oven roasted vegetables, the shared steak was perfect for two. 


The dessert menu had a good selection of choices. Besides the liquid nitrogen ice cream sundae, there were classics like tiramasu, sfogliatelle, crostata, a selection of gelato, an inventive milk chocolate pana cotta layer cake and sweets fabricated to look like a plate of charcuterie. The desserts sounded delicious but we had eaten too many antipasti and entrees. Carmelo was disappointed that all we wanted to end the meal was a round of double expressos and macchiatos.  Next time we'll save room for the sfogliatelle, a favorite from my days living in Providence, Rhode Island and I'd definitely like  to be entertained with a nitrogen ice cream sundae.

RivaBella Ristorante, 9201 W. Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069 (310/278-2060), http://www.innovativedining.com/restaurants/rivabella

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bring Your Own Food on the Airplane For An In-Flight Picnic




You can almost see the French cheeses and crackers on a tray with glasses of bubbly Champagne, an opulent first course meant to stimulate the appetite before a gourmet entree — chateaubriand, perhaps, or line-caught salmon with roasted asparagus. If you listen closely, you can hear the flight attendant whispering to leave room for the hot fudge sundae with fresh whipped cream and toasted almonds.
In coach, nothing is free. Sure, for now the sodas, water, and coffee are still complimentary, but if you’re hungry, have your credit card ready. Alaska Airline’s cheeseburger with chips is a relative bargain at $6, but Delta charges $9.49 for their hamburger and $10.99 for one of their wraps, and a vending-machine-type sandwich or salad is $9.99 on American Airlines. 
You’ll do a lot better if you brown bag it and pretend you’re on a picnic.

Choose food with staying power

Pack food that travels well: trail mix, your own tea bags and sunflower seeds. Fresh fruit is good, but avoid berries that bruise easily. Carrot and celery sticks are great, as are sandwiches. One caveat: Remember that you can only take 3 ounces of any liquid through airport security, so go easy on the salad dressing or condiments you bring.

Assemble sandwiches carefully

Sandwiches are an easy-to-eat option for in-flight meals because everyone gets to choose what they want. There are an infinite number of combinations from ham and cheese on rye to a grilled shiitake mushroom and watercress sandwich for vegetarians. Meat eaters in the family can go crazy and build a feast of turkey breast, salami and provolone on deli rye.
To keep your bread pristine, put the mayo or mustard (as well as tomatoes or lettuce) between the meat slices, not directly on the bread. Or, for really long flights, wrap the bread, meat and cheese in plastic wrap sealed in Ziploc bags and assemble the sandwich with condiment packets while you’re flying.
Avoid fillings that might disturb your fellow passengers. Overly messy food or condiments, like chopped liver and garlic paste are a bit too aromatic for an airplane’s close quarters.

Keep it fun for the kids

If kids like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stop at a camping supply store and pick up a couple of refillable plastic tubes. The kids can choose their favorite peanut butter and jam and pre-fill the tubes at home. Now they have something to look forward to on the plane.

A salad bar in the air

Make carrot, potato or pasta salad at home and pack it in plastic containers. Keep a green salad fresh by assembling it when you’re ready to eat. (A tip: You can pick up a couple of the empty salad dressing containers at your grocery store’s salad bar.) At home, give everyone the chance to pack their favorite salad fixings. Besides lettuce or arugula, bring chopped tomatoes, scallions, croutons, olives, hardboiled egg slices, crumbled cheese, and carrot rounds — those salad-dressing containers work well for these items, too. It's a little more ambitious, but a grilled vegetable salad is well-worth the extra effort.  A treat anytime, at 30,000 feet, the sweetness of charred vegetables is especially delicious.
Besides salad dressing in one of those little containers, bring sea salt and black pepper as well.
Want to make your salad even more delicious? Try this simple vinaigrette. Just heat ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar over a low flame until it’s reduced to a teaspoon, then mix it together with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. The reduced balsamic adds depth and natural sweetness to the dressing.

Let your deli do the work

To glam up your meal, nothing says classy like a charcuterie plate and nothing is easier to prepare. Pick up a selection of favorite meats, pâtés, cheeses, and a small baguette or a selection of rolls at your favorite deli. Bring along some olives, a few cornichons — those tart French pickles — and a packet of Dijon mustard, and you won’t care what the first-class passengers are eating.

Celebrate your sweet tooth

For dessert, go wild and stop at your favorite bakery. Fresh fruit tarts don’t travel well, but cookies, muffins, scones and even eclairs do quite nicely if packed in plastic containers, like the ones used at the deli or the lidded containers sold by Ziploc and Glad.

Don’t forget the basics

Bring paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils so you can feast in style. A plain kitchen towel makes a perfect airplane tray tablecloth and helps with spills. Pack everything in plastic containers. Be a good neighbor and carry plastic bags for easy clean up so you don’t leave any trash behind. Take along sea salt and freshly ground pepper in empty 35mm film canisters (remember those?) or even the plastic containers used for prescription medication.

Why we love flying

With all the inconveniences, we easily forget that flying is a manmade miracle. Think about it, a hundred-plus people and all their luggage powering through the sky above the highest clouds. Amazing. If only we didn’t feel so claustrophobically uncomfortable, we could return to the wonder we felt as kids when we pressed our noses against the window and looked down at the earth below.
We can’t regain that lost innocence, but enjoying a delicious home-prepared meal, maybe we can reconnect with the fun of flying. A really good sandwich, some olives, and a crisp Fuji apple from the farmers market can do that for you.