Monday, June 23, 2008

Los Angeles restaurant- Osteria at Mozza

Mozz-art for the mouth

Aperitiv: My mind kept wandering off the road and down the avenues of possibility that sprang from the words, “mozzarella bar.” I was still trying to wrap my brain around this myth-like monument featured at Chef Mario Batali’s, Mozza (6602 Melrose Ave), when my aunt and uncle’s overnight layover in LA gave me the perfect excuse to insert myself into this culinary conundrum.

After pre-ordering a bottle of wine by phone, Mozza called back to inform me it would be $4 higher than originally quoted. It was a minimal difference, but their attention to detail gave me a firm handshake of a first impression before I even stepped through the door.

Amuse bouche: With all the giddiness of a school girl, I replayed the Osteria menu (vs. the Pizzeria, next door) in my head as we dipped into dark chocolate woods (including wine racks creeping close to the ceiling), contrasted by cloudless sky colored walls. Cherry red, meat slicers gleamed with all the appeal of a new bike and porcelain pedestals laden with caramelized leeks and asparagus flaunted roasted sugars like the Willy Wonka of vegetables.

We managed to scalp front row seats at the marble-topped mozzarella bar, manned by the legendary Nancy Silverton (expert cheese maker/restaurant partner) wielding her curds and whey. Our waiter, James*, fiddled with my uncle’s new camera and after telling us he had been a photography major at NYU (“Get out, we’re from NJ”), that was all we needed to create an instant bond (bond with James = James bond). *all mozzarella and pasta decisions were made upon James recommendations.

He handed us our first, complimentary bite of the evening that spread goat cheese, black olives and greens on a toasted baguette. Can taste-buds become fluent in Italian? Si et grazie.

Cheese course: Though many campfire tales had been told of Burrata mozzarella, nothing could prepare me for the reality. Slicing it was similar to the effects of biting into a Cadbury cream egg, but the oozing center was composed entirely of fresh cheese. Caramelized leeks and sturdy garlic bread only intensified this mild rendition with some sweetness and substance ($15.) To say I was blown away is an understatement.
Proscuitto and Burrata ($15, pictured above) also played its game of dismantling my pre-conceived notions of “mozzarella” like gazing into a funhouse mirror with a rearranged sense of the familiar. I couldn’t get over the texture. Two golf sized balls of mozzarella sat on a plate, wallpapered with proscuitto, but their consistency reminded me of a poached egg with a thin, outer layer that peeled back from the “yolk” (ham and eggs- Mozza style.)

Octopussy: James swore up and down that the octopus ($18) was like no other and repeatedly mentioned its tenderness with tourettes-like intensity, so again we listened to our James bond, our own 007 (yes, he speaks Italian and scuba dives) and if I hadn’t known it was octopus, I would have guessed it was a buttery pork chop. This was a must order item 1,000 times over, and though I'd never been a fan, this easily scored a ten(tacle.)

Pasta course: A giant ravioli with ricotta and egg yolk center ($18) might have been my favorite dish of the evening. Skeptical about a runny yolk (but reassured by James), my doubt was washed away with sage brown butter, homemade pasta and parmesan. My only complaint was that I wished I were at home, so I could have licked the plate.

True comfort food blended orecchiette pasta ($18) with the artery slowing serenity of sausage, swiss chard and the panko-like crunchiness of fresh breadcrumbs.

Meat course: Their crispy half duck ($29) achieved multiple awards from this judgmental jaw:
1) #1 crispiest skin on a duck
2) #1 juiciest meat on a duck
3) #1 original accoutrement*

*Wasabi pears were just another imaginative and complimentary dynamic to this dish served atop a wooden cutting board with a large enough knife to reenact carving Thanksgiving dinner all for myself.

My aunt “mmm-ed” over her thinly sliced steak ($26), candied with aged balsamic and tart from sheets of parmesan resting amongst mixed greens. My uncle’s monkfish ($29) in a red diavolo sauce was tasty, but my duck easily earned top billing.

Dessert course: Olive oil gelato and rosemary cakes with rosemary brittle ($11)- need I say more. I was suddenly a judge on Iron Chef. This was a whole new realm of dessert and I reveled in its savory, sweet seduction. Olive oil gelato ingrained rock salt sprinkles, while the brittle consisted of a sprig of rosemary encased in a clear piece of crystallized sugar and tasted as if eating the sprig itself (without the stem.) Mini cakes were pillows that fluffed my palate for satisfied exhaustion after a job well.

In a word: Memorable.
In a few words: I go to bed dreaming of the yolk/ricotta ravioli.
Final words: absolutely worth the trip (or several); ask for James.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tipping is not a city in China

Rachel Ray’s $40 a day (and all you have to do is stiff your wait staff)
I just caught an old episode of Rachel Ray’s show, “$40 a day” and I remembered why I have such distain for this woman. It’s not just her forced excitement (you might actually try chewing your food before saying, “Yummo”), but the fact that her dalliances through each city only allows for a 10 percent tip to servers (even my grandparents tip more than that!)

This is not the way to travel. If you don’t have money to tip properly, then you don’t have enough money to eat out. Tip needs to be factored into the price before ordering. Why should the server suffer just because Wretched Ray decided to splurge on the red snapper?

I'm sure she imagines the peons fetching her food are lucky just to bask in her Ray rays, but I'm sure the short straw ends up waiting her table (worst sentence in restaurant rhetoric- “I’ll just have some water”). Not only is she stiffing the staff, but she is encouraging other travelers to do the same. It makes for an unappreciative way to see the country.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

San Francisco restaurant- Fog City Diner

Clear Skies at Fog City
Black and white checkered teeth smiled along Fog City Diner’s abdomen. It was a surreal experience expecting Mel’s diner (kiss my grits) and instead receiving a symphony for the senses. Classic counter and booths were present, but hair nets wouldn’t fit the bill here. It was the diner with a socialite’s makeover, hit with a gigantic powder puff that buffed out the crude wrinkles and crags of diner’s lowbrow reputation and kept the charm, while classing her up a bit.

Dessert cases backed by mahogany reflected light on spacious booths that radiated warmth through a tiny lantern and engaging waiter. Charred corn chowder also helped chase away the chill with a throw of bacon and though traditionally a thick soup, it didn’t sit heavy. Light enough if fact, for me to continue on with goat cheese and roasted eggplant stuffed piquillo peppers served with an olive dressing similar to tapenade. Their individual efforts paired together tighter than the A- team for one elite technique.

Dare I say truffle fries with asiago cheese? I would, but my tongue is still trying to scrounge any last particle of this food-a-graph from my memory. Duck confit shredded in spring rolls with shitake mushrooms, while shrimp cones whimsically scooped the savory perspective on sundaes with avocado toast, cilantro and pumpkin seed “sprinkles.”

Fog City spooned out home cooking like mom used to make, if your mom was Julia Child. Their humble persona exemplified life without cutting corners and placed upscale cuisine in a diner booth, where classy still remained comfortable.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Palm Springs restaurant- Zin Bistro

Original Zin- Zin Bistro breaks a culinary commandment

The downfall of mankind is usually associated with an apple. But was it a golden delicious or mackintosh? Perhaps Eve mistook one variety for another and by assumption, condemned our fate.

My own expectations had landed me in a similar situation (on a much smaller scale) at Zin Bistro (198 S. Palm Canyon Dr), where my choice was not what it seemed and inevitably led to my dining demise.

My mother and I discovered Zin Bistro’s oversized, open-air windows a bit too late (having just finished a mediocre meal of pizza and wine), but promised we would return the next evening to sample the glowing delicacies of their autumn menu. The main reason for our return: tempura squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese in a light, tomato sauce.

The “Zin” stood for Zinfandel and their numerous wine awards were scattered behind the hostess stand. We chose a back booth to cut out some of the window breeze and landed in a mauve, cushioned booth across from the kitchen. Our waiter appeared and accommodatingly took our appetizer order along with the drinks. I chose cream of mushroom soup, blending silky earthiness with truffle oil, while my mother ordered her squash blossoms.

Squash blossoms arrived like miniature parcels waiting to be unwrapped, but after the first bite my mom said, “Something’s not right. Does this taste like blue cheese to you,” (as much as my mom loved goat cheese, she hated blue cheese.)

My bite included pungent veins of blue, revealing that indeed this was not what we were expecting. Chevre is the creamy, tangy version usually served when ordering "goat cheese" off a menu. Our waiter noticed our distress and after chatting with the chef, he assured us it was goat cheese. And I said, “This is chevre?”

“Yes,” he mumbled, as he let us try another bite and I pulled out another chunk of blue. After the second audible disagreement with the chef, our waiter asked if we would prefer something else as he cleared the uneaten plate. We didn’t.

For entrees, we both had macadamia encrusted mahi-mahi with sautéed spinach and mashed potatoes. Lackluster to say the least, I chided myself for not going with my first instinct, the braised rabbit, but unfortunately I wouldn’t never make it back for seconds.

At the end of the meal, the manager came over to ask us what the problem was with the squash blossoms we hadn't eaten (before she took them off the check.) We explained that we had expected chevre because:
1) In all the years of ordering goat cheese at restaurants, it has consistently been chevre (unless specified.)
2) It has become the generic, universal terminology for “goat cheese.”
3) The waiter told us it was chevre.

Her curt demeanor and pinched face made it was clear that she did not come over to satisfy, but to justify. Her answer was, “There are hundreds of goat cheeses, just as there are hundreds of cow cheeses. This was Humboldt Fog.”

Definition: The Hulk of goat cheeses, Humboldt Fog had enough muscle to wrangle palates into a headlock (similar in pungency and texture to blue cheese with bits of chunky mold.)

Meaning: It's potent profile gave all the more reason to note this on the menu.

We answered that yes, we were aware of different types of goat cheese, but when a precedent has been set, you can’t turn the tables at your discretion. If I ordered a cheese pizza, I'd assume it would be with mozzarella. Would I send it back if instead it was topped with cheddar? Absolutely- rules can't be changed mid-game. The manager’s attitude sat worse than the squash blossoms and made an unmemorable meal instantly memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

San Diego bar- Nunu's

Nunu's is good news

Nunu’s (3537 5th Ave) still has a strong (as its drinks) reputation as one of San Diego's premier dive bars. Blending Elks lodge aesthetic with 70's lounge swagger, booths coated in deep red vinyl line the outer wall with enough room to fit the whole crew*.

*weekend crowds force involuntary acts of acceptance to a slew of unknown “booth buddies."

Drinks are “face-wincingly” potent, which make tunes from the digital jukebox all the easier to dance to. Heavy handed barkeeps and petite perimeters on the patio induce further interaction with strangers (or at least make for a good amount of eavesdropping!)

Great drinks - yes
Great service -yes : when crowded- no
A San Diego institution- always

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

San Diego restaurant - Grant's Marketplace

Deli Wish Granted
Grant’s Marketplace (2953 Beech St.) floated in like a fairy godmother after I wished on my east coast roots to find a true, deli sandwich in San Diego.

My standard being: quality cold-cuts, thinly sliced, layered upon first-rate bread and adorned with proper condiments- not as an option, but as a steadfast rule.

Grant's seemed to have read my rulebook, but more likely they had written it. Boar’s Head meats (no turkey roll here) lured me with its bacon-like beacon from our familiar friendship back east. The bread could also hold its own, which showed guts, since most places out here treat it with secondary status- oh, how wrong they are. Besides the regulars (wheat, white, etc.), Grant's offered marbled rye and crispy, rosemary loaves from Bread and Cie (local bakery.)

This rosemary bread was essential for my first-meal-of-the-day favorite, traveling off breakfast's beaten path and directly into the “Rosemary Avocado Smash”( rosemary olive oil bread, avocado, basil, salt and pepper.) While eating my "oh, so San Diegan" dish, this town's deli potential gained some ground.

Classics like the messy warmth of a Ruben or the salty coolness of a BLT were rivaled with "freshies" like Caprese (tomatoes, mozzarella, basil) and “Smokin’ Joe” (roast beef, cheddar, bbq sauce.) The "Californian" quickly became my #1 (a metaphor for my present "state" of mind?) with turkey, white cheddar and avocado.

Grant's rounded out their reputation by swinging a mean ladle when it came to homemade soups and left me with the question, what's more important - oxygen or turkey corn chowder? Stocking shelves with unexpected finds like pancetta and high end wines, they still make sure there's enough bottles of Coke and Stewart’s root beer to sip with your "sammy".

My standard (ended up) being: Grant's standard.

It's easy to become a fixture once you grow some roots, so I'll be here often, at an outside table, just gaining a little east coast perspective from this west coast deli.

(open 6:30am-9pm)