Osteria Mozza–A Tongue Thriller

Burrata de Puglia

Last week we had a wonderful gastronomic adventure at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles on Melrose Avenue (West Hollywood).   We selected this restaurant on a friend’s recommendation (see Mia’s food blog, “Dubu Diaries”) and we definitely were not disappointed.  We would place this restaurant in the top 20 we have been to around the world!

We started with three antipasti, after receiving a complementary amuse bouche (what is the equivalent in Italian?):  delicious little spirals of mozzarella packed with basil leaves, sundried tomato and olives drizzled with sharp, green virgin olive oil.  What’s not to like about beginning a meal like that?!

Then we moved on to a grilled baby octopus salad on a bed of greens with potatoes, celery & lemon.  I must confess that I am an octopus obsessive and order it whenever it is on the menu.

Ribollita

Our other two appetizers were Ribollita Delfina, a hearty Tuscan soup made with beef, bread and assorted vegetables.  Our young friend who had been to Italy explained what the dish was–we were all ribollita virgins eager to try.  Literally meaning “reboiled”, the ribollita arrived in a soup bowl, looking more like a juicy frittata than a soup, with a clear broth surrounding it. Absolutely wonderful!  Apparently, ribollita dates back to the Middle Ages when servants would gather leftovers from the aristocrats and make soup for their own dinners.

What Osteria Mozza is renowned for, however, is their burrata bar, a wide selection of  burratas and mozzarellas, served with or without vegetables.  We had the special fresh burrata flown in from its place of origin –Puglia, Italy (only on Fridays and Saturdays).  A memorable palate pleaser of soft, fluffy clouds of cheese perfection.

Squid Pasta

Our entrees included a flat fettucini-like pasta–Maltagliati  served with a succulent  wild boar ragú; exceptional grilled quail (two of them!) swaddled in pancetta  and braised, honeyed radicchio; braised beef short ribs in a  porcini reduction on a bed of delectable creamy  polenta.  But  the most adventurous and surprising combination:  a squid ink pasta (chitarra freddi) tossed with dungeness crab, spiced with jalapeno and topped with a delicate sea urchin.  What a tongue thriller!  To accompany this food coma we toasted with two bottles of  Ferrari,  Trento Brut Rosé –a fine dry wine similar to a Spanish rosé cava or a pink prosecco.

If someone had told us that this restaurant was owned by partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, restaurateurs with far-reaching empires including wineries, we probably would have passed, discounting the hype these two always receive with rave reviews that only served to disappoint at two previous encounters at restaurants they own in New York City and Kansas City.  However,  Osteria Mozza, which opened in July 2007, and was nominated as Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation  that year and recipient of one Michelin star, does not disappoint!
  You probably will not find an osteria this side of  Italy that is more fun, high-spirited, and serious about serving only the very best gourmet creations.  Next door is the smaller, more casual Pizzeria Mozza, which we hope to try the next time we are in town.  Perhaps it is because Nancy Silverton has entered into a partnership with the more famous Batali and Bastianich that this is the best riff on Italian cuisine we have enjoyed in a very long time.

Azuki–The Sushi, Not the Bean

We’ve eaten at just about every high-end sushi restaurant that exists in any town we are in, looking for the Holy Grail of sushi, and some standouts have really  been memorable.  In San Diego, I believe that  Azuki belongs in the same category as the best we’ve been to: for its freshness, creative presentation, and quality of preparation.

Located in Banker’s Hill near Balboa Park, Azuki is both a “sushi-ya” restaurant and watering hole.  We arrived at the door (beautiful glass with azuki beans inside the panels) just as the Happy Hour was ending but the friendly sushi chefs encouraged us to get a drink and an appetizer before they would officially close Happy Hour.  

So, we sat at the bar and immediately ordered beer and sake, with spicy albacore tataki (sprinkled with yuzu, shichimi pepper, jalapeno, lemon zest with Hawaiian sea salt (usually $14 we were charged the $6 happy hour price!).

Then we ordered a few hot dishes: the hamachi kama (grilled yellow tail head chock full of succulent morsels of cheek flesh) and three types of tofu  were delectable. Some of their creative, whimsical  interpretations of sushi or raw food were amazing:  loved the Kobe roll–spicy rock shrimp with avocado and seared wagyu beef layered on top.  Just to push the eater over the top, truffle aioli and parmigiano reggiano were garnishes laid on the seaweed.  Also enjoyed the Vertigo roll–snow crab, scallops, hamachi with shiso leaves, cucumber and avocado to add green color and veggie flavor.  The classic sushi was beautifully presented and perfect, sweet, tender, and impeccable color.

Azuki is committed to using local and organic produce whenever possible and due to overfishing concerns with bluefin tuna, serves only more sustainable aqua culture fish and seafood. The menu of hot, cold, small and large plates means Azuki has something to offer all appetites – and budgets -, even for non-sushi lovers. The wine, sake and beer lists are excellent, too, so it would be fun for drinks only…or maybe that dessert I skipped.  Live music later on weekends could make Azuki an entertainment destination in and of itself.  If you are in San Diego, this is a must! 

 

Machka–Istanbul in San Francisco

A new Mediterranean restaurant opened in San Francisco last month ( at 584 Washington St. in the Financial District) called Machka. The small 32-seat dining room features long communal tables, a few smaller tables, and lots of dark wood paneling, suggesting an old tavern with its exposed brick walls.   A beautiful flag with the Tengrian crescent symbol (used for the restaurant’s logo), representing the moon and stars, hangs outside by the front door.

Serving dishes that artfully combine Turkish cuisine with the flavors of Spain, Greece and Italy, Machka  would be the perfect place for either  lunch or late dinner in a district of San Francisco not known for many top restaurants.

Stuffed Dates

A signature appetizer of blue cheese and chorizo-stuffed dates with pastirma, or Turkish pastrami, on a small  frisée salad served with sherry wine and mustard vinaigrette was our favorite, a culinary flavor bomb!

Pistachio-crusted Goat Cheese

A close second was pistachio-crusted warm goat cheese with caramelized onions on crostini topped with golden currants and drizzled honey!

Other signature menu items include house-made falafel, grilled octopus, grilled kebabs (smoked paprika marinated beef, lamb or chicken), and flatbread wraps (durum) stuffed with vegetables, meat (lamb, chicken or beef), and tahini. The wine list has both Turkish wines as well as California ones.   We chose a white Turkish wine, Kavaklidere’s “Cankaya” which was dry, crisp and delicious.

Next time we go (and we definitely consider this a winner), I want to try the kebabs and falafel.  The durum, I thought, was not quite as good as at other places where I have eaten –a bit too dry and the lamb should have been more tender.  The flatbread was also a bit thick for my taste.  Still, the appetizers (mezes) and service were outstanding and I am still thinking of those flavor bombs!

Visit Machka at  584 Washington Street, at Montgomery Street (415-391-8228)  and let me know what you think!

Bar Pintxo: In a pinch

Recently on a trip to LA we embarked on a culinary adventure beginning with a cooking demo by Bar Pintxo Chef David Planowski   at Surfas, a gourmet kitchen supply store in Culver City.  Recently rated as one of the top 10 bars/tapas restaurants by Los Angeles Magazine, we wanted to check it out for ourselves by sampling at the demo.  Surfas had about fifty participants with several audience volunteers helping Chef David with an unforgettable gazpacho, including his secrets: squeezing the tomatoes and cucumbers to get maximum juice and the variability of  his standard vinaigrette (has to do with the mustard options).

  At Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica we tried a delectable array of small plates and had a chance to talk with Chef David about some of his dishes.  “Pintxo” in Basque (pronounced “pinch-o”) refers to small plates that are speared with a toothpick or skewer and usually a bit smaller than tapas. Although we are tapas addicts, I can’t say that most of the pintxos were smaller than the tapas plates we sample in San Francisco and New York.  We thought the restaurant was generous with proportions.  Some of the menu items we had not seen at other establishments before: dates with smoked bacon and valdeon cheese,  crab with citrus essence and avocado cream, seared calamari salad with pickled radishes, albondigas (lamb meatballs) filled with pickled grapes, on a bed of spinach with pumpkin seeds. and snap peas with fresh mint. We did have some dishes we have tried elsewhere as well:  grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and infused olive oil (a little stingy with the octopus, I thought), chorizo with tomatoes, white asparagus with romesco sauce , and jamon serrano and jamon iberico We finished off with a strawberry ginger flan that was an original interpretation of the classic dessert with just the right combination of fruity sourness and gingery tang.

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Chef David explained to us that he loved experimenting and changed the menu often.  So, Bar Pintxo is a keeper if you find yourselves walking along the beautiful Santa Monica beach and want to have a delightful and unpretentious meal of  Spanish small plates this side of Madrid and San Sebastian!  Bar Pintxo’s also has an unbelievable wine list , including some difficult-to-find Penedes cava.  Try Bar Pintxo’s –you’ll love it!

 

 

Seagrass Restaurant: Bon Appétit–Mi Cuit

Last weekend we went to Santa Barbara and had a delightful experience participating in the inaugural cooking lesson by Chef Robert Perez, owner of Seagrass (30 East Ortega Street).  Trained in France, the Netherlands, and as a sous chef at L’Auberge de Soleil, Perez opened his first restaurant Citronée near Sacramento before moving thirteen years later to  Santa Barbara. This intimate family-run restaurant is elegant but not severe, relaxed and informal.  The chef’s wife, Marianna, serves as hostess and his son, Ruben, manages and greets guests.

Seagrass is rated #1 by Zagat’s, with #2 being Bouchon (where we had an equally phenomenal meal the night before).  What made Seagrass especially memorable for us foodies, is that we had not only the exuberant chef all to ourselves but his sincerity and hospitality in the kitchen made us feel like we were in our own home.  The “coastal cuisine” that Chef Perez specializes in is deserving of the highest praise:  the quality of ingredients includes local shellfish, salmon flown in from New Zealand, locally raised lamb, regional wild boar, and farmers market produce. Together with mostly Santa Barbara County wines, what more could anyone ask for?

Before sitting down to the three-course lunch of soup (cauliflower-puree garnished with a smathering of tiny crispy soba noodles), Alpine salmon, and chocolate mousse with chocolate decadence cake on the side, we had a demonstration of how to prepare this exquisitely designed meal.

For the soup–we watched the chef nurture a classic vichyssoise. Next was the pièce de résistance –the entrée of Alpine Salmon (Mi Cuit –“half-cooked”) with green cabbage “slaw” and tomato basil beurre blanc. (For the truly  curious, check out our YouTube clip at “seagrass cooking demo“).

This unusual salmon entrée is a bridge between sashimi and ceviche.  Semi-cured in olive oil, salmon mi-cuit can be served at room temperature or cold.  Olive oil is heated to 120-130 degrees and then poured over the raw salmon filets, submerging them gently in the pan to soften, retaining an amazingly bright pumpkin color.  Hence, the “mi-cuit“, the half-cooked, half-cured salmon. While the filets soak, the Napa green cabbage “slaw” is lightly sautéed in a pan with carrots (diced into tiny cubes) and then plated first, as a bed for the salmon mi-cuit.  Lastly, an incandescent and translucent tomato beurre blanc is prepared and gently poured over the perfectly bathed salmon.  And voilà– salmon mi- cuit!

For lunch Seagrass paired Melville’s crispy delicate Viognier with cauliflower soup and  Ojai’s gorgeously fruity  Presidio Syrah with the salmon mi cuit.  Each menu item is created, Chef Perez informed us, with wine in mind– nothing too delicate or too spicy to overpower each recommended wine.   Ever since the movie “Sideways”, Santa Barbara is now inseparable from its association with wine and proud of it.  This restaurant has some of the best wines the region has to offer.  Bon Appétit!

 

“Mud Slide”– A Spa Experience

During President’s Weekend I decided to take my daughter, Maya, to Calistoga for a spa decompression treat–a Girls Getaway–that actually was a promotion at the Solage Spa and Resort in Calistoga.  Part of the package included a mudslide and complimentary cocktails the day of arrival.

After a beautiful drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the lower part of wine country, we were greeted at the beautiful Solage with gracious hospitality and the “Mud Slide” treatment.  What fun!  We were ushered into a stone slab shower and spa bathhouse designed exclusively for administering a clay concoction infused with fragrances including mint, lemongrass, and lavender, which we slathered on each other.  The clay/mud concoction hardened and cracked while we lay on the slate slabs on warm towels with cucumber slices over our eyes.  What’s not to like?  After showering, we went outside for another rinse off before going into a bathtub room with humongous tubs that made me slide around (due to their length) so I thought I might drown.  Maya clued me in as to how to stay above water by arching my back and pointing my toes. Our giggles and laughter prompted the Solage spa assistant to keep knocking on the door to see if we were alright.

Still another step in the process of the “Mud Slide” was walking in our fluffy robes (au naturel, of course) to the women’s secluded outdoor pool, warmed to the perfect temperature.  There were probably about ten other young women (20’s and 30’s) in the pool as we lowered ourselves down into the soothing, steaming, and aromatic water.  As each woman rose from the water, one by one, to move on to the sauna for the final stage of the “mud slide”, I couldn’t help but notice the array of “pubic haircuts” displayed.  I tried not to stare or gape–but didn’t do a very good job of it. I couldn’t help myself–there was the “Brazil” (no hair) I had read about,  other half-and-half trims which were just lower than the crease below the navel, or zigzagged, and what I call the “double moustache”, just a brief hairline on each side of the “two-lips”.  How was I supposed to know such a variety existed among young women?  And, who would do that to herself?  Wouldn’t it be excruciatingly painful? This is another experience like “laminated list”–women my age just have no clue.

So, that is my “mud slide” experience–a slide into another zone I thought I knew only too well.  My awareness of a  “girls getaway” experience was just that:  a “getaway” from even what I assumed was every “girl’s” anatomy.

 

Napa Valley Film Festival–Is this the next Sundance?

Last week (November 9-13) I attended the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF) with a friend who lives in Calistoga and has volunteered in the festival’s planning.  Over 100 films were presented, many for the first time at any film festival, in 12 screening locations from Napa to Calistoga.  Along with viewing films we had the  pleasure of tasting fine wines from local wineries and delicious food at the welcome party (for holders of Pass Plus and patrons).  In the next two or three posts, I will be reviewing several of my favorite movies from NVFF.

While this year marks the 30th anniversary of Sundance,  walking through the Napa Valley circuit of theaters I kept imagining that Sundance was probably a lot like this in 1981, except for subzero temperatures and a smaller geographical area to maneuver.  Since my friend Caroline and I had been to Sundance several times, we had the experience to compare both festivals.  First of all, for those who prefer the autumn splendor of colored leaves, hills, and vines, Napa Valley is incomparable.  The rugged beauty of Park City, Utah definitely has its merits–especially for skiers–but the subzero weather makes long outdoor lines a form of human torture.

Second, the novelty of the film festival in the Napa area resulted in great flexibility among the friendly volunteers in greeting attendees, guiding them to the complimentary wine tables, and allowing the two of us into the theater after the first minutes of the movie’s showing.  Sundance would never let us do that!  We were quiet and moved stealthily to seats in the back near an exit.  Never an option at Sundance.

The films were overall of high quality with some first runs–“J. Edgar”, “The Descendants”, “Butter”, and “Hideaway”–all produced by major production studios.  Several of the indies were charming and original–“Becoming Santa”, about the history of Santa Claus and the training of Santas at a special school, “Jiro Makes Sushi”, about an 85-year old master chef in Tokyo’s only 3-star Michelin restaurant, and “Mamitas”, a coming-of-age film about two Mexican-American teenagers in Los Angeles.  The editing, sometimes a lack of subtitles, and infrequently amateurish cinematography in a scene or two marred some of the indie films we saw. As word gets out, however, there should be a broader selection of fine films to choose from.

There were perhaps two major indicators that the NVFF is just beginning its journey to being a major player in the long list of film festivals across the country.  One is the lack of adequate signage for finding some venues (Elementary School and Gliderport in Calistoga, for example), where anyone but locals would not be able to find the location.  Even my friend hesitated in finding the driveway for the Gliderport venue.  The second indicator was the absence of a shuttle bus system to transport attendees from one theater to another, and some were at least 45-minutes apart from point-to-point (Calistoga to Napa).  While over half of the attendees were locals this year, that will definitely change as the word gets out that this film festival means business about being ranked in the top ten nationally.  With the food (Zuzu, Market, Azzurro, Oxbow Market, Jole) and the wine (unique in comparison with Sundance), the Napa Valley Film Festival is definitely a contender for being a knockout star among film festivals going forward!  Check out their excellent website at: www.napavalleyfilmfest.org. (Sundance could learn some lessons in this department from Napa!)

Moss Landing–Cruising around Santa Cruz

Last weekend, driving back from our daughter’s spectacular wedding at Costanoa Lodge, we stopped in Moss Landing to introduce some relatives to a small, going-back-in-time sort of place along the coastline.  Not the typical, tourist-designed site for buying tchotchkes, Moss Landing retains its quaint, historic fishing village vibe!  Located on Monterey Bay at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing is one of our local best-kept secrets.

First we went to La Galeria, where there is a Monterey Peninsula College printmakers’ exhibit.  Not so easy to find.  You turn onto the main street (Moss Landing Road) from Highway  1 at “The Whole Enchilada”.  Don’t be fooled and  stop there.  Keep on going a few 100 feet and hidden behind The Haute Enchilada you can find this little surprise of a gallery– very cozy and wood-paneled–with approximately 100 prints, some priced between $75 (unframed) and $120 (framed).  The public reception will be on Saturday, October 22, from 2:00- 5:00 p.m. with food catered by Haute Enchilada (www.hauteenchilada.com).  We first went into the gallery to look at the exhibit, and then had a very tasty lunch at the restaurant in front of La Galeria –Haute Enchilada.  We shared poblano chile soup, tortilla soup, guacamole and chips, pork and chicken enchiladas, fish tacos, taco salad, and a delicious rosemary chicken panini.  Everyone loved sharing their food and enjoyed the sunshine on the patio with chilled local beers as well as Mexican ones.

After lunch and art viewing, there are also other surprises: antiques, a small Shakespeare museum (including a chair made from the wood from Stratford-on-Avon’s theater and nearby church), the exquisite Stella Page Design handbag boutique (designs include Japanese koi, Buddhas, and exotic floral patterns). Moss Landing is also home to MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium’s research facility), and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, the research arm for the California State University system.

We didn’t have time to walk along the pier and look at the boats and the egrets, pelicans, herons  and cormorants who graze and fish everywhere along the water.  Birders would find nearby Elkhorn Slough impossible to ignore, a favorite with naturalists.  Guided tours on kayaks are available on weekends (http://www.elkhornslough.org/visit.htm) and also through the Monterey Bay Aquarium.   But, if you have time either on your way into Santa Cruz to go to one of the First Friday art walks or to Aptos and neighboring beaches, don’t forget to take a glimpse at California’s past and stop for an hour or two in Moss Landing.