11. Il Grano (Sagra del Pomodoro) – Los Angeles – September 10, 2008 [CLOSED]
Sal Marino grew up in Naples, where he developed a profound respect for Italian cuisine. Since 1997, he’s worked to make Il Grano one of the top Italian spots in Los Angeles. The West LA restaurant deserves attention on a regular basis, but it’s never more compelling than during the summertime Sagra Del Pomodoro festival, when Marino prepares dishes using 42 varieties of homegrown tomatoes.
Marino was one of the first chefs to introduce crudo to Los Angeles, and he’s developed a deft touch with raw fish over the years. Matt’s Wild Cherry Pea Sprout Salad accompanied slices of warm Japanese yellowtail carpaccio. A single Grilled Santa Barbara Prawn was cut in half and lightly grilled. The oversized shrimp came with a momotaro Peach tomato salad, which provided a pleasantly acidic foil to the naturally sweet meat. Risotto Cuore di Bue was expertly cooked, a tomato-infused mound of risotto with a smoked mozzarella center, a basil flower crown and dots of pesto. Roasted eggplant cannelloni featured an ethereal crepe-like wrapper and an intensely sweet San Marzano sauce flecked with organic Sicilian oregano. The fluffy eggplant filling was folded with a crumbled white cheese. San Marzano rabbit fettuccine Bolognese & loin stuffed with olives achieved mixed success. The simple al dente pasta was tossed with a flavorful orange sauce. The slice of loin was tender and tangy from the olive “stuffing,” but contained a couple “nasty bits,” to use an Anthony Bourdain expression. The best parts were the accents: crispy basil leaves and a tiny yellow “sungold” tomato containing Kalamata olive slices.
We thought about limiting dessert to Marino’s spectacular market-plucked huckleberry panna cotta, but the idea of tomato sorbet was too compelling to ignore. Unfortunately, the sorbet was watery and bland. Still, the meal was a resounding success.
12. Bar Pintxo (Castilla & Leon Tasting) – Santa Monica – October 9, 2008 [CLOSED]
Writers and honored guests (including the Consul General of Spain) were invited to Bar Pintxo (Joe Miller’s tapas bar) to celebrate the cuisine and wines of Castilla y Leon, a region of Spain. Miller’s crew loaded high-top tables with delicacies like, chorizo Leon, made with four kinds of paprika, silky Nevat goat cheese and a dish of hearty lentils with crumbly slices of morcilla and small Galician chorizos the size of baby carrots. Almost every bite I took was impressive, but this night will undoubtedly be remembered for my first taste of jamon Iberico de bellota. Nico Jimenez, the five-time world champion ham carver, was flown in from Extremadura to carve the remarkable ham made from acorn-fed, black-hoofed hogs. I enjoyed about 20 slices of the nutty meat, with melt-in-your-mouth ribbons of fat, chewy red musculature and crunchy white spots of caramelized amino acids. Apparently the meat contains nothing but “good cholesterol.” Considering the leg cost $1500, at about $90 per pound, that has to make jamon Iberico de bellota one of the most expensive health foods in the world. Antonio Martinez from Antalva Imports even paired the food with some of his imported Spanish wines, including an outstanding 2005 Bierzo (Pago de Valdoneje) made by Raul Perez using mencia grapes.
13. Silverlake Wine – Silver Lake – October 12, 2008
Three days a week, George Cossette, Randy Clement and April Langford host tastings at their sleek wine shop, which specializes in “small production, high quality, artisanal wines.” On Sundays, they host the most ambitious of the events, with food from talented local chefs. On October 12, Silverlake Wine hosted a special 90-person blowout with food from up-and-coming chefs Matthew Poley (savory) and Tara Maxey (sweet). The couple prepared a sumptuous five-course feast (thoughtfully paired with Silverlake vino) for only $20 per person. This act of charity from Silverlake Wine led to an unforgettable event.
Passed appetizers included Carne Cruda (raw filet mignon) on grilled bread with pancetta aioli, which was rich in all the right ways. The expert pairing: Allimant-Laugner Cremant, a sparkling Alsatian wine.
Next up: a family-style bowl of Panzanella – Heirloom tomato and Charred Bread Salad with Cucumber, Basil, Bell Peppers, rocket, balsamic vinaigrette and gobs of burrata. Chefs commented that 2008 was an epic year for tomatoes, as evidenced by the juicy, late-harvest specimens in this salad.
Their pumpkin lasagna was especially fabulous, Kabocha and butternut squash puree layered with pasta sheets, Parmigiano, brown butter sage glaze and gobs of hand-pulled buffalo mozzarella, topped with cubes of al dente squash and greens. The wine pairing: a hearty 2006 Borie La Vitarelle from the south of France.
When we arrived, the Whole Roasted Niman Ranch Suckling Pig was on the counter, a real showstopper, bound with twine and crisp-skinned. Poley cooks a free-range piglet every week at Michael’s on Naples, stuffing the beast with fennel, dill and garlic. Here, the piglet came with cranberry, flageolet and lima beans, plus blistered carrots roasted with red wine vinegar and herbs. The wine: a 2004 Bridesmaid Red produced by Pam Starr and Drew Neiman at their custom crush facility in Napa Valley.
Tara Maxey handled dessert duties. Even without her ice cream maker (stolen the night before), she made three impressive desserts, highlighted by the Caramelized Yellow and White Peaches Baked into Sweet Polenta cake with Tricolore Raspberries. Yet another highlight: Maxey’s signature chocolate cookies incorporating four kinds of chocolate, simultaneously bitter and sweet, with crunchy bits.
14. La Grande Orange Café – Pasadena – November 5, 2008
Two kinds of Los Angeles restaurants seem to serve as critic-bait. A new restaurant from an established chef usually falls into that camp. For example: Suzanne Goin’s A.O.C., Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza or Michael Mina’s XIV. Other restaurants attract notice for their innovation. Consider The Bazaar, a new Beverly Hills restaurant from José Andrés, who conquered D.C. with molecular gastronomy. Then there are restaurants that don’t fit either paradigm that just serve reliably good food made from high-quality ingredients. They attract a steady stream of loyal followers, but don’t offer glitz. A leading example is Pasadena’s La Grande Orange Café.
The former Santa Fe railway depot has evolved since the March opening. Scott Malin was the original Executive Chef. Now it’s Vincent Valenzona, who’d apprenticed with Joachim Splichal and Wolfgang Puck before signing on with LGO. As always, everything is made to order and no ingredients are frozen or come from a can. First up: chilled slices of silky yellowtail sashimi in ponzu sauce with diced red and green chilies. Every day, LGO usually offers a couple seasonal specials. This day, it was a bowl of earthy tomato soup containing oversized baguette croutons and a single fried basil leaf. On the side: a premium grilled cheese sandwich with Tillamook cheddar and smoky slices of Nueske, showered with fresh-shaved Parmigiano. A new addition to the menu: New York strip steak flavored rosemary and garlic butter, char-grilled over oak. The steak came with spicy broccolini sautéed with caramelized onions and red chile flakes, plus high-caliber French fries dusted with barbecue seasoning. Short rib tacos combined grilled corn tortillas, diced tomato and chunky guacamole. On the side: rice with black beans drizzled with crema and a dish of smoky chile sauce. For dessert, we split another seasonal special: a generous slice of silky pumpkin pie spooned with fresh whipped cream. To drink, the deluxe Arnold Palmer utilized simple syrup, lemon juice and a single mint leaf.
At this point, I’ve eaten almost everything on the La Grande Orange Café menu and there’s never been a down dish. In less than a year, LGO has established itself as one of L.A.’s most reliable restaurants.
15. The Nickel Diner – Los Angeles – November 22, 2008
Kristen Trattner and Chef Monica May opened The Nickel Diner over the summer, helping to transform another block of downtown’s diminishing Skid Row while contributing one of L.A.’s better breakfasts. Pastry Chef Sharlena Fong has established a modern take on classic pastries, including the Bacon Donut, a textbook glazed donut showered with crispy bacon bits. 5th and Main involved spicy BBQ pork hash topped with two poached eggs. The hash was awesome, with chunks of potato that were nearly caramelized in porky runoff. The first scramble combined bacon, spinach, roasted garlic and gobs of goat cheese. No surprise, the accompanying roasted potatoes were crusty and excellent, with lush interiors. The salmon scramble included leeks, roasted tomatoes, chives and a squiggle of sour cream. This scramble came with a dish of cheesy polenta, which was like a sweeter, cheesier version of grits. Breakfast also came with a choice of toast, including white, wheat or sourdough. Tables at The Nickel host containers of seasonal jam. Today, that meant strawberry-pear. The Nickel team plans to open for dinner and late-night. There’s no reason to think their food will decline as the skies grow dark.