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Showing posts with label Restaurant Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Restaurant Review. Show all posts

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What's Cooking in New Orleans

Mention New Orleans and anyone who's been says, "The food's so great. And the music. If you go, you'll love it."
I hadn't been so when I was able to stay for a three day weekend in early October, I jumped at the chance.

With so few days in town, I asked for suggestions on Facebook and Twitter, read guide books and got recommendations from friends who are NOLA aficionados.

Certain restaurants appeared on multiple lists:

Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville Street, New Orleans 504/522-5973) in the French Quarter (for oysters although I was advised the place is so crowded, a good workaround to get in is to sit at the bar between 3:00pm-4:00pm).

Donald Link's restaurants are popular, especially Herbsaint (701 Saint Charles Avenue, New Orleans 504/524-4114) and Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas Street, New Orleans 504/588-2123) I made it to the latter, but more about that in a minute.
Fried chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House (2401 At. Ann Street, Seventh Ward, New Orleans, 504/822-9503). Not close to anything, tucked away in a suburb, but well worth the 10 minute cab ride or 30 minute walk from the French Quarter.

Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the original Cafe du Monde (800 Decatur Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, 504/525-4544) in the French Quarter for a morning or afternoon cafe au lait and beignets.

In the jackets-preferred Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Avenue, Garden District, New Orleans, 504/899-8221), Antoine's Restaurant  (713 Saint Louis Street, New Orleans 504/581-4422) and Galatoire's Restaurant (209 Bourbon Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, 504/525-2021) for an upscale version of Creole, Cajun and New Orleans cooking.

We didn't have time to use the St. Charles streetcar, travel on a Mississippi riverboat, take a ride in a horse drawn carriage through the French Quarter or visit the Audubon Zoo.

Because the city is on mostly flat ground, riding a bicycle is a great way to get around town. My wife took an early morning bike ride. Leaving the Hotel Modern (936 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, 504/962-0900, 800/684-9535) where we were staying, she spent two hours happily riding around the Garden District's stately homes and the hauntingly beautiful cemeteries.
We missed many of the recommended places, but we did have a drink at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monetleone (214 Royal Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, 504/528-1019), which made me dizzy even though we were sitting safely in the nearby large lounge. Changing my seat improved the experience so instead of watching the slowly spinning bar, I watched people on the street walking by and riding in horse drawn carriages.
We heard music everywhere, in bars, on the street and in parks.
Our first night in town, arriving late because our Southwest flight was delayed, we walked into the French Quarter for something to eat. Surprisingly, given New Orleans' reputation as a party town, all the restaurants were closed by 10:00 PM.

After asking around, just off Bourbon Street we found Oceana Grill (739 Conti Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, 504/525-6002) which stayed open later than most restaurants.
Not on anyone's list, we enjoyed our meal of Cajun seafood gumbo, blackened red fish with red beans and rice and bread pudding with whipped cream. Even though it was close to 11:00 PM, the food tasted freshly made, the crab was sweet and delicious, the red fish with Creole seasoning was moist and spicy.
A Manhattan-up-with-a-twist was made with the local Sazerac Rye. Very nice.

On our short trip, we started a list of places we would happily recommend and look forward to visiting again.

We made a pilgrimage to cash-only Cafe du Monde for coffee and a breakfast beignet. Given the crowds morning-noon-and-night, it's surprising they have such a limited menu. Basically it's a riff on the SNL cheeseburger-cheeseburger-cheeseburger joke. Only here it's cafe ole-beignet-orange juice.
The beignets--better than any I've eaten anywhere else--arrive thickly coated with powdered sugar on tapas sized plates. There's no way you'll eat your beignet and NOT get sugar on your shirt and pants.
The coffee is great and goes perfectly with the airy-suggary beignets. Even though the place is crowded, the turnover is quick so even if there is a long line to get in, you can sit, eat and even read the newspaper without feeling guilty.
A kitchen the size of a large closet accommodates dozens of waitstaff and kitchen help. With exquisite choreography, servers carrying large trays loaded down with silverware, stacks of paper napkins, water glasses, coffees and beignets leave the kitchen passing by others returning tray-fulls of empty glasses, dirty silverware and plates.
Meals at Herbsaint and Cochon were good. Finding fresh vegetables that haven't been steamed, stewed and fried isn't that easy in New Orleans. Donald Link treats his veggies with respect even as he celebrates all things meat, especially pork at pig-centric Cochon where I had a crust-perfect serving of short ribs on a bed of vegetables and creamy faro.
Since I love good fried chicken, Willie Mae's was a lot of fun. One of my fondest memories growing up was our trips to the beach with containers filled with potato salad and fried chicken. Admittedly the fried chicken was soggy after spending the night in the refrigerator, but I loved it none the less.
At Willie Mae's, there is no such thing as soggy fried chicken. The chicken that arrives on the plate is as crisp as can be with the meat, hot and moist.

For $10.00, you get a wing, thigh and leg, a corn muffin and a choice of sides, which in my case was not a "side" but a second course of red beans and rice served in a large bowl. I loved the fried chicken and the red beans and rice. The beans were thick with flavor and a touch of heat.

The best meal of the trip started with an interview with Austin Kirzner, executive chef at Red Fish Grill on the edge of the French Quarter. Kirzner sat down with me over a cup of coffee in the morning before the restaurant opened and described the kind of cooking he learned to do in Louisiana and New Orleans.

To illustrate what he was talking about, he showed me how to make a New Orleans classic: BBQ Shrimp. The video lays out all the ingredients and the techniques required to make an easy-to-make recipe that any home cook could prepare. The full interview and his recipe are on Zester Daily.
The heads-on shrimp were delicious. And his creamy cheesy grits were as good.
At night my wife and I came back for a tasting of Red Fish Grill's menu.
Kirzner showed us his favorites: the BBQ oysters which were actually deep fried and served with blue cheese dressing, raw oysters on the half shell and Louisiana blue crab cakes.
A crispy whole redfish looked as if it could still swim but this time in a river of vegetables and a filet of hickory grilled redfish was topped with sweet lump crabmeat.
Several delicious desserts appeared on the table, including a fat slice of pecan pie with whipped cream and an over-the-top triple chocolate bread pudding that could barely contain itself in its silver bowl.
When we weren't eating and listening to music, we walked around the city, admiring signs, graffiti and architecture that was unique, distinctive, traditional and modern, with a sense of humor and a delight in bright, vibrant colors.










Monday, June 11, 2012

Loteria Grill Opens on the Santa Monica Promenade

Westside fans of the Loteria Grill at the Farmers Market who lamented the long drive into LA can now enjoy Loteria's freshly made Mexican food right here in Santa Monica in the old Gaucho Grill space.

Loteria Grill Santa Monica (1251 3rd Street Promenade, 310/393-2700) opened just after Mother's Day. The restaurant and full bar are open 7 days a week, Sunday-Thursday 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM and Friday-Saturday 11:00 AM to Midnight.
A great way to experience the restaurant is during Happy Hour, 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM, 7 days a week, with an extra hour until 7:00 PM at the bar.

Happy Hour means 1/2 off appetizers and beverages (except for the specialty tequilas).

Making a Difference with Design 
When Jimmy Shaw, owner/chef, was setting up his first restaurant at the Farmers Market, Loteria could have been nothing more than another fast food restaurant in the maze of stalls. But Shaw's graphic design in that confined space stamped Loteria Grill as smart, hip and stylish.

In the new space on the Promenade, Shaw was confronted by the realities of a difficult space.

Gaucho Grill had its fans but the restaurant on the Third Street Promenade was famously dark and claustrophobic. Shaw's solution to that limitation was to knock down the front and back walls.

Feeling very much like cantinas I remember from visits to Mexico, the entrance of Loteria Grill is open to the Promenade. With the bar filled and diners soaking up the sun as they eat and drink, the open-air room is as welcoming as any restaurant could be.
Leaving the bar area on your way to the main dining room, you walk down a long hallway illuminated by a beautiful wall of three-dimensional loteria friezes.

Tall double glass doors protect the dining room from the commotion of the bar area. The high-ceiled room has a light, airy feeling. The space on the left is defined by the open kitchen and the busy activity of cooks and servers. On the right, the high wall is painted a dramatic, blood red.
The old, claustrophobic back wall has been replaced by a window with a view of what appears to be a carefully manicured  park that is actually an alleyway.
A Well-Constructed Menu
From what we tasted that day, I would recommend the Quesadillitas de Plaza, three fried masa turnovers stuffed with a delicious filling made with seasonal ingredients. This visit, the filling choices were squash blossom, roasted poblano peppers and cheese and, my choice, huitlacoche corn fungus or "truffle."
The quesadillitas had a mix of flavors and textures from the crisp masa, earthy-sweet huitlacoche filling, the salsa's mild heat and the creamy guacamole and crema Mexicana.

Whenever I am in Mexico, the one dish I always have is a shrimp cocktail. Unlike the American version, what you get in Mexico is a generous amount of freshly steamed shrimp in a chilled tomato juice "soup" seasoned with chili powder, lime, raw onions, peeled cucumber, cilantro and avocado.

You can eat the shrimp one by one with a spicy soup chaser or by placing a shrimp on a Saltine cracker with a piece of avocado and a chunk of onion.
At Loteria, the cocktail (Coctel de Camaron) is served in a large goblet, filled to the brim with shrimp, avocados, cucumber and that delicious tomato soup. Saltines are fanned across the plate like a winning poker hand.

To go with the shrimp, I had a shooter of chef Shaw's special tequila, the Loteria Double Barrel Herradura Reposado (no Happy Hour 1/2 off discount for this item). The smokiness of the Heradura Reposado paired well with the sweet shrimp.
For anyone new to Loteria, I would recommend the Probaditas Sampler. A dozen mini tacos are topped with a tasting of the restaurant's best fillings and sauces. My favorite sauce is the mole poblano, with its subtle heat and deeply rich flavor.
To go with our margarita de jalapeƱo and tequila martini with mango, we had the Ceviche Uno, Dos, Tres (available Friday, Saturday and Sunday). Perched on top of crispy corn tortillas, the ceviches ranged from red snapper with fresh tomato, tilapia and cilantro and shrimp with sweet mango and fiery chile habanero.

Restaurant reviews are appropriately criticized for inflated or over-enthusiastic language, but I can honestly say, the cocktails and ceviches were a riot of delicious and satisfying textures and flavors.
For a main course, you can't go wrong with enchiladas, especially when topped with the mole sauce. Although it isn't a main course, the sope with chicken or pork is also delicious.

If you're a hungry meat eater, the flank steak is very good. Carne Arrachera a La Parrilla comes nicely charred. A heavy steak knife accompanies the large piece of meat.

The dish also comes with sides that include refried beans, spicy escabeche (pickled onions, carrots and yellow peppers), potatoes with poblano peppers, zucchini & roasted corn and a generous amount of caramelized onions resting underneath the steak and soaking up all its fragrant juices.

My favorite way to eat the steak is to tear off a piece of freshly made tortilla, smear on some refried beans, add a thin slice of steak, a few strands of caramelized onion and a bit of escabeche. I slide the flavorful packet into my mouth, chew, enjoy and do it again. It's a little time consuming, but this way I savor all those wonderful flavors in each and every bite.

Last and Delicious
For dessert there are daily specials, mostly of the rib-sticking kind (flourless chocolate, caramel or tres leches cakes). I am told the tequila ice cream is good. That wasn't available so we had the Mexican sweet cheese ice cream (Helado Chongos), a thicker version of vanilla and very good.




Friday, May 11, 2012

Two Restaurants for Mother's Day: Michael's in Santa Monica and Maison Giraud in Pacific Palisades

Mother's Day is a special time to appreciate our mothers and the mothers of our children. A leisurely meal in a pleasant surrounding is the perfect way to celebrate the women who are so central to our lives.

Brunch is the preferred meal for Mother's Day, when a sunny late morning adds to the celebration.

Michael's Restaurant (1147 Third Street, Santa Monica, CA 90403; 310/451-0843), located on Third Street in Santa Monica, half a block north of Wilshire, has an elegant dining room with the relaxed feeling of a private home. Surrounding diners at the rear of the restaurant, a lush patio garden obliterates all traces of the busy city a few feet away.
By staying focused on farmers market fresh, seasonal ingredients, owner/chef Michael McCarty has pulled off a magic trick, staying contemporary and innovative even as the culinary landscape changed. When the restaurant opened, market fresh produce was a rallying cry for a few talented chefs. Nowadays, just about every restaurant says it buys locally and seasonally.

The difference then as now is that fresh ingredients are a good beginning but to be something special, they must be prepared by a talented chef with a great palate.

For the West Side, Michael's is a member of a small group of upscale restaurants. On the spring menu, starters are priced from $18 for a half dozen raw oysters to $22 for the Maine lobster gnocchi with mains ranging from $34 for the Jidori half-chicken to $44 for the rack of lamb and New York steak.

But Happy Hour at Michael's is a bargain and it begins early (Monday-Friday 5:00pm; Saturday 6:0pm). Michael keeps Happy Hour happy until closing. With flavors inspired by the larger menu, the snacks are as varied as an crostini with duck confit or with burrata, arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano, truffle-thyme fries, Andouille sausage with beer caramelized onions, piquillo pepper and avocado salad and an upscale riff on Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in the Jidori wings with maple syrup and chile salt (addictive!).

For Mother's Day, Michael's has a Sunday brunch from 11:30am-2:00pm. The prix fix menu for adults ($65.00/person) and for children under ten ($30.00/person) has four to five choices per course in a three course brunch. The dishes are elegant (oysters with blood orange mignonette, petit prime filet with English peas, Shimeji mushrooms and white corn) and familiar (Eggs Benedict, Cobb salad, blueberry pancakes with chicken sausage or smoked bacon). Dessert is sensible (strawberry-oatmeal crisp with creme fraiche ice cream) or complex and rich (dark chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream, chocolate ganache and raspberries).
If you want to toast mom, Michael's has an excellent wine cellar, including wines McCarty grows and bottles at his Malibu home, and a selection of delicious cocktails (a blood orange mimosa, Stoli bloody bull, "smoke love" with single malt scotch and smoked mescal, the "dark side of the moon," a wicked mixture of gin, vermouth, orange juice, lime orange oil simple and Creme de Violette! and a "frozen white lady," a sweet, ice cold, lemony confection of a drink).

Up the hill from Santa Monica, Maison Giraud (1032 Swarthmore Avenue, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272; 310/459-7561) is an outpost of French cuisine in suburban Pacific Palisades. Paired down and minimalist, the dining room is elegantly efficiently. Outside on the covered patio, diners enjoy eating at sidewalk tables, shaded by trees.
Alain Giraud wants the restaurant to be a relaxed gathering place for everyone wanting a good meal in a quiet setting. Like McCarty, Giraud is a habituƩ of farmers markets, looking for the freshest, best tasting, seasonal products he can find.

In the bakery he shows his deft hand with buttery, effervescent croissants, brioche, Danish, and other sweet and crisp pastries. 
For Mother's Day, Giraud will serve brunch from 10:30am-2:30pm featuring the usual menu with a selection of omelets, custardy scrambled eggs, French toast, Nicoise salad, grilled salmon, quiche and Eggs Benedict. For Mother's Day, he has added a green asparagus salad with citrus vinaigrette, roasted halibut and spring vegetables and for dessert, a strawberry and pistachio confection.
Besides dining at the restaurant, Mother's Day can also be celebrated at home by ordering from the bakery and the take-out menu.




Saturday, December 3, 2011

Milo & Olive, Santa Monica's Newest Restaurant

Huckleberry, Sweet Rose Creamery and Rustic Canyon touched a foodie sweet spot with locals in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles. Husband and wife co-owners, Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan proved again and again that they understood what the upscale community wanted: farmers market fresh food served in casually artful settings.
Mid-range pricing means they can afford to use high quality ingredients and indulge their flair for visually engaging food. Walk past Huckleberry's bakery display and you'll be hard pressed not to take a photograph. The scones and muffins are gorgeous.

Their forte is creating exceptionally well-prepared comfort food.
That is definitely the focus of their newest restaurant and bakery, Milo & Olive (310/453-6776) located at 2723 Wilshire Blvd. at Harvard on the border of Santa Monica and West Los Angeles. The bakery is open from 7am-11am. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 7am-11pm.

Beginning on December 1st, the restaurant opened for lunch and dinner. We had dinner on day 3 and had the opportunity to talk with Josh Loeb as he moved efficiently around the busy restaurant, supervising staff and talking with customers.

According to Loeb, he and Zoe hadn't planned to open another restaurant.

What they needed was more bakery space. They took over 2723 Wilshire because, Loeb explained, "we needed space for our bread production." Because they had a little more space than they needed, "Then we thought we'd sell pizzas in front." Describing the process he sounded like a home owner doing a remodel that took on a life of its own.

Which explains why the dining room occupies only a third of the space. With a total of 24 seats (8 at the bar and 16 at 2 communal tables), Loeb expects "50% of the business to be take out because the dining space is so limited."

Given the tight quarters, waitstaff and customers have to say "excuse me" a lot as they move around the dining room.

Even with the space constraints, the restaurant works very efficiently. Customers are urged to put in their entire order so the kitchen can pace itself. On our visit, the only slow down happened when a lot of take-out orders hit the kitchen.

High ceilings, the open kitchen and a glass wall at the front of the restaurant give the dining room a spacious feeling. The textured concrete walls extend almost to the ceiling where exposed brick and wooden beams take over, adding to the casual feeling where friends out to grab a pizza, couples on a date or families would be completely comfortable.
To make children feel at home, as they are seated they are offered brown paper bags to decorate with crayons.

The evening we had dinner the blustery Santa Ana winds had died down, leaving behind a cold chill in the air. When the nights are cold, I'd recommend wearing a jacket or sweater because the glass fronted entrance of the restaurant opens directly into the dining area.

Adhering to a no-reservations policy, seating is first come, first serve. You check in upon arrival and wait inside along the glass wall bordering the street. You can order beverages while you wait, spend your time studying the menu, catch up with friends or simply stare at the incredible display of baked goods.

The croissants, muffins, sweet rolls and breads have ceiling lights shinning down on them, giving the culinary stars their moment of stardom before being consumed.

Communal tables aren't everyone's cup of tea.

But the experience can be a lot of fun. Like a dinner party for strangers, we ended up talking with four different groups of people. Maybe it is a sign of the times or a reflection of the demographics of the neighborhood, but everyone at our table was a foodie.

The result was a lively conversation about other restaurants and how they compared to Milo & Olive. Pizza, like hamburgers and barbecue, evokes passionate responses. The pizzas at Stella Rosso in Santa Monica and Nancy Silverton's at Pizzeria Mozza were compared with those arriving at our table.
Our group had lots of opinions about their pizzas, which included a margherita topped with a sunny side fried egg (a $3.00 add-on), a pie with crispy pepperoni and one topped with mixed mushrooms.
The pizzas are medium sized with 4-5 large slices. The consensus at the table was that all the pizzas were fresh tasting and well-seasoned.

The mushroom pizza received high praise for its mix of crispy chanterelles, maitake, beech and oyster mushrooms paired with comforting melted Fontina cheese on the chewy-crisp dough. A sprinkling of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano added the right amount of bite and saltiness.

If you aren't into pizza, you'll still have a lot to choose from at Milo & Olive.

The paired down menu has salads, vegetable sides and a selection of meats and seafood, including a branzino ceviche, fried squid and a ragout of mussels, clams and shrimp as well as several dishes with anchovies.

Meat eaters couldn't go crazy but can order chicken meatballs, sausages and cannellini in beans in broth and braised beef short rib with grits and greens.

Lovers of vegetables will find themselves well-served at Milo & Olive.

Our fellow diners were full of praise for the roasted seasonal vegetables, the marinated green beans with a generous portion of Drake Family Farms goat cheese, the roasted pumpkin in brown butter and sage from McGrath Farms and the mix of lettuces from Coleman farms that arrived piled high on the plate with avocado, pomegranate and pine nut gremolata.
The majority of the pizzas were vegetarian although, again, meat eaters would find enough to keep them happy with the anchovy, pepperoni and pork belly sausage pizzas.

Most dishes cost $10.00-$15.00.  Occasionally a dish struck some at our table as exceptionally small like the $15.00 Aqua Pazza, a petite cast iron dish with mussels, clams and sweet shrimp in a white wine-garlic sauce, accompanied with several slices of grilled bread. The comment was "delicious but on the small side, kind of a tease."

As you would expect from Zoe Nathan, the desserts were well made, visually stunning and delicious.
A poached pear tart with tall flaky crust was very good, as was a lemon curd with mandarine orange sections. A chocolate chocolate tart and a ginger walnut cake were also available. We decided to try the pear tart and lemon curd, which were delicious.
Designed as a casual neighborhood hangout, where you can drop by to pick up a take-out order or stop for a glass of wine or beer, a salad, pizza, dessert and coffee, Milo & Olive is a terrific addition to the West Side dining scene.