Archive for August, 2008

Vin Bar

Piero Selvaggio is one of the best restaurateurs in the country. His passion, his joie de vivre, his hospitality and his generosity is unrivaled. This is not a restaurateur missing in action; Piero is always there and is always making sure that his flagship restaurant delivers.

Lately, we have been trying out the Vin Bar, the informal space at Valentino. But even though we were sitting in the casual part of the restaurant, Piero insisted that we meet chef de cuisine, Giacomo Pettinari and that we just let Chef Giacomo cook. Not only did Chef Giacomo cook, but he also came out of the kitchen to describe each dish like a proud papa.

Cute guy plus super chef

For more on the chef see here:

http://www.valentinorestaurant.com/valentino/pettinari.asp

 

Grapefruit, Marinated Scallops, Cherry Tomatoes, Basil Oil, Caviar – excellent balance of flavors, light and seasonal

 

Sicilian couscous with tiny dice of tomatoes, carrots, zucchini with a touch of cayenne for heat. On top was tuna tartar marinated with pine nuts, oven-dried cherry tomatoes and olive oil. A parmesan cheese stick lay across the top. Chef Giacomo explained that couscous and tuna is a typical Sicilian combination. This was definitely not your standard tuna tartar – innovative, plus delicious.

 

This is a dish that the chef, Giacomo Pettinari learned from his mother – Seppia Cuttlefish Soup with green beans – definitely comfort food with great depth of flavor.

 

Hand-made Strozzapreti with tomato sauce, a base of riccota sauce and strips of fried pancetta. Giacomo explained that this is also called “priest chokers.” He said it is called this because centuries ago, it was common practice to let priests eat for free in restaurants. Wishing to get rid of the “freeloaders”, chefs rolled the pasta in such a way with the hope that the pasta would get lodged in the priest’s throat and choke. Well, I obviously didn’t choke – the pasta was cooked to perfection and wasn’t drowned out by the sauce. Excellent 

 

Pappardelle pasta with chestnut ragu, beef shortribs and cumin. I questioned Giacomo about the use of chestnuts and he mentioned that he had frozen them when they were fresh. This was exceedingly rich, but again perfectly executed.

 

Angus Beef with Chanterelles and Red Wine Reduction- I tend to prefer fish and/or game to beef as a personal preference so I only took a couple of bites of this. John ate all of his and had my portion as leftovers the next day.

 

Cheese

Sheep’s milk cheese from Piedmont

Cow’s milk cheese from Toscano

Orange Marmalade

 

We never BYO wine at Valentino. Valentino’s wine list is legendary and it would be an insult to Piero to bring wine. We have known Paul Sherman, Valentino’s sommelier for years (he used to work with Ken Frank) and we left it up to him to chose the wine.

Paul Sherman

 

 

Wines in the order they were served:

 

Vin Bar and Valentino is one of the nicest dining experiences in Los Angeles.

 

Bloggers, Internet Posters and Restaurant Criticism

The internet has become a forum for anyone to say anything about everything. I am not in favor of stifling criticism or abridging first amendment rights, but I do think that as diners we have certain obligations. Dining is not a passive experience. It is an interaction where I am in control of the experience as much as the staff and the kitchen.

So, I think there are so many ways that a diner can maximize his/her dining experience.

ENTHUSIASM

I remember the first time I went to the French Laundry.  My husband had to work and I was lucky enough to secure a last minute reservation. I was by myself and although I am knowledgeable about cuisine, my wine expertise is marginal, at best. Laura Cunningham, at that time, was acting as sommelier and I decided to be completely open and honest. I said that this was the first time I had ever dined alone in a “fine dining” restaurant and I was somewhat intimidated. Also, my husband always ordered the wine and I would appreciate a lot of help. Laura suggested that I just let Thomas cook and she would pick the appropriate wine. I got there at noon and didn’t leave until 6 pm when diners were being seated for dinner. That was the beginning of a now long-term relationship that started with a very nervous diner.

The first time we went to El Bulli, Juli Soler, the GM, immediately picked up on our appreciation for cuisine coupled with the joie de vivre that we bring to dining experiences. From the start there was an extraordinary feeling that they “knew us!”

This is something we experience in most restaurants. I do not think it is because we are that much more knowledgeable (although after years and years of fine dining experiences and almost as many years in the kitchen, we do understand food). I think we approach each dining experience with excitement. I am never jaded or give the impression of “show me what you can do.” I really want to have a wonderful time and love and respect the profession to the utmost. I do not expect the “last meal on earth” experience every time we go out. Instead I so appreciate the effort of both the front and back of the house that I think this sense of “I am ready to enjoy myself and truly love what is served” conveys itself to the staff. Because we are so willing to let ourselves be willing participants in a restaurant, the restaurant willingly tries to give us their best. Also, if one dish doesn’t live up to expectations or there are missteps along the way, I am willing to chalk it up to experience. We try not to put a staff on edge or give the impression that you had better “wow” us. I think because we are so enthusiastic that enthusiasm generates even more enthusiasm from the staff. At one restaurant we go to frequently, the chef commented to us, “we love seeing your name on the reservation list.” I think the reason he feels that way is that we are ready to try whatever is offered.

A RELATIONSHIP

Establishing a relationship with a restaurant is actually very simple. If you are a regular, you will get better treatment – reservations at the last minute, reservations at prime time, understanding of what you like, specially designed tasting menus and other perks. This might seem unfair and politically incorrect, but a regular is the bread and butter of a restaurant. They know you will come back again and again and as a result, your loyalty is recognized and rewarded. If there is a restaurant you really like, go back often. Every single time we dine at a restaurant, even those we have been to over 100 times, we always write a thank you email. We are very specific about those dishes we particularly loved, a server who was outstanding or anything that made the dining experience memorable. You would be surprised how few people write a complimentary email, but are quick to complain.

I think the biggest mistake diners make is to assume that you can have an instant relationship with a restaurant. Sometimes there is “love at first glance”, but generally this is a slow process.

HOW TO CRITCIZE

Chefs and staff are human and do make mistakes. How you handle those mistakes can turn an iffy situation into a win-win for both the restaurant and you as the diner. Waiting until you get home to write a nasty review on the internet might make you feel better, but you still had a lousy experience so how did you win? I don’t know of one chef or FOH person in the restaurant business who sets out to have unhappy customers. After all this is a business and these people have to make a living. Bring up your concerns when they occur. Being nasty won’t win you any awards and threats about blogging your dissatisfaction is unethical, to my way of thinking.  The expression you get more with honey than vinegar is apt and true. Honey is not only easier on the service people in this world who are just doing their jobs, but it is less stressful for you. Patiently, quietly and calmly mention your concerns to either your server or the manager.

ACCURACY

Bloggers expect the chef and staff to faithfully execute their responsibilities. I think restaurants have the same right to expect their customers to accurately report their experience. I can’t tell you how many times I have read descriptions of dishes that I know well that have a list of ingredients that isn’t even close to what was on the plate. Someone, writing that they were disappointed at FL and recommended that you “save your money”, described Keller’s cornets as “The small cone with tuna tartar and crème fraiche was plain and uneventful.” For the record, it is actually a Cornet of Atlantic Salmon tartar with sweet red onion crème friache. Another person writing about Manresa with the warning “awful food for an absurd price” described the famous Arpege Egg dish as “This odd egg muse(sic) had some really bad sour cream on the top layer (it was served inside a partically (sic) cut egg.)

For the record, the actual recipe is here:

http://whatscookingamerica.net/Eggs/ArpegeEggs.htm

 If I personally don’t care for a dish, I have a responsibility to say that it wasn’t to my liking, but not that it was executed poorly. The ethic for blogging should be, in my opinion, not based on  personal judgements, but rather specifics reported accurately.

I have given you a sense of where I am coming from as a blogger, but thought it would be beneficial to hear from chefs and restaurateurs. How do they feel and deal with food sites and people writing about their meals?

So chefs, restaurateurs and staff members, I look forward to your take on the situation. You are free to comment anon.

Providence

Providence is definitely our “go to” restaurant in Los Angeles. At the moment, it is one of the few fine dining restaurants in LA that delivers on every level with incredible cuisine and gracious plus knowledgeable service. There is a passion for fine wine and food that permeates the restaurant and is immediately apparent to the diner.  As always, we just let Chef Michael do his thing.

Amuse – The Cocktail

From left to right – Mojito, Gin and Tonic with Lime and Greyhound Vodka. This is a familiar and satisfying beginning – almost like the start of a FL meal with gougeres and cornets.

 

Kadai (sea bream) sashimi with citrus, olive oil, chives and topped with Petrossian American Golden Imperial caviar (Sacramento Delta) – absolutely superb – exquisite fish handled with restraint

 

Scallop Sashimi with cucumber that had been compressed with orange flower water, a brush of soy, mint and topped with cucumber blossom from Yumin’s garden (the chef de cuisine at Providence) Talk about passion – it is so evident in every single ingredient on the plate and thank you Yumin for your garden.

 

Japanese welks (snails) on a taro root that had been prepared sous vide with sake, buckwheat barley, grated yuzu and little dots of port wine reduction. I never saw a menu and I wasn’t handed a written menu at the end of the evening. Every description of each dish was given verbally. Now imagine a very packed dining room and the patience of Steven, our server to describe each dish in detail – amazing. In terms of the dish itself, it was a textural masterpiece. There was a crunch from the barley, an almost chewy quality to the welks – somewhat like squid and a peppery component – not exactly certain what added that taste.

 

Uni tempura with burdock and a shiso leaf – my notes say Yippeee!!!! This was absolutely sensational – uni with burdock that was coated in tempura batter and deep-fried. Don’t even think about grease, there wasn’t any. We were instructed to wrap the shiso around the uni and eat it like a package. I was in uni heaven.

 

 Matsutake with hamo, a quenelle of loup de mer and scallop, shallots and celery. To the side were two rolled strips of Kobe beef. This is presented as pictured below.

Then a broth made with bonito, chicken and pork was poured over the Matsutake and fish. The kobe strips were to be lightly “cooked” in the broth. Again, this was a dish with restraint – each element added to the whole without a ‘wrong” note.


 

Couldn’t resist taking a picture of just the Kobe,

 

Santa Barbara Spot Prawn with mussels, squid, baby bok choy, tomato confit.

 

The sauce is added table side –  Thai red curry/coconut base. I was fine with this dish, but John can’t handle very spicy food and one taste was enough for him.

 

 This is when I was blown away by the extra mile that Providence and Chef Mike will go to – Mike made another prawn dish for John asap. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns, Chayote Greens, Chanterelles and Shellfish Jus – he loved it.

 

Presentation of the Turbot Roulade –  covered cloches, Spanish olive oil and fresh basil from Chef Mike’s garden.

 

 Cutting of the basil

 

Turbot Roulade with baby basil.  tomato, chorizo, unfiltered Spanish olive oil. Steven said something about “red and shiny,” but he was never able to give me an accurate description of what that meant. Alongside the turbot was a clam fritter. This was the only dish of the night that was a miss for me. The turbot just didn’t have enough flavor and texture for me.

 

Japanese eel, seared foie, porcini mushrooms and truffle crushed potato topped with an egg  - this was an Oh My dish – absolutely perfect.

 

White Peach, Miso ice cream – as usual my ending notes are lousy – a lot of wine is always my excuse.

 

 

Wines at Providence – BYO

 ’00 Serge Mathieu Champagne–nice, clean and delicious.

 ’01 Corton-Charlemagne, Louis Latour–excellent, well aged white burgundy, a real treat.

’95 Chambolle-Musigny, Anne Gros–disappointing…not a lot of life, a bit thin, did not add anything to the meal, too bad

 

What a wonderful meal. Providence is an absolute must for anyone who cares about great food and exceptional service. This is not a restaurant resting on its deserved laurels. It is led by a passionate chef and every aspect of dining here reflects that passion and care. 

John Ashe and Company

We originally had plans to go to La Salette for lunch, but I was worried that I might eat the menu and then be in trouble for our blowout meal at FL that evening.  When we called to cancel our reservation, the woman who answered the phone, said, “Aw shucks, we were really looking forward to you coming.” She didn’t know me from Adam, but she genuinely sounded disappointed.

Our choice as a substitute was John Ashe and Company, primarily because I wouldn’t be impressed by the cuisine and therefore not eat too much. In retrospect, this was weird reasoning, but I didn’t want a repeat performance of when we had lunch at Zuzu and then I wasn’t that hungry for our dinner at the Laundry.

The restaurant is kitschy, almost like a stage set. It is a huge restaurant and seems to be the TOURIST restaurant of the area. The food is safe, middle-of-the-road, edible but ……..

The view

 We had the champagne tasting

John

Hog Island Oysters on the half shell with a trio of sauces – sweet tomato jam, pink peppercorn mignonette and Meyer lemon granite. The best of the sauces was the last.

 

Me

Ahi tuna tartare tower, ginger-avocado mousse, honey-miso slaw topped with basil oil and tobiko. This was served with wonton chips. This wasn’t bad – a decent version of tuna tartare, although there was too much slaw in relationship to the tuna.

 

John

House-ground tri-tip burger on a poppy-seed crusted brioche bun with Marin Cheese Company Petite Blue, Caramelized Red Onions, River Dog Fries. The fries were greasy. There was way too much bun for the burger and John deep-sixed half of the bun.

 

Me

Pepper-coated Ahi Sandwich, Braised leeks, Boiled Egg, Kalamata Olive tapenade on Housemade Focaccia Bread. On the side Romaine Lettuce Leaves with Parmesan – a take on Caesar Salad. Again, this was nothing to write home about, but it was food and did the trick of forcing me not to over-eat.

Cyrus

Cyrus meal in December

Sometimes, I feel as if I am bucking against the tide or I am unduly negative or maybe just plain contrary. But Cyrus generally underwhelmed me. I found the room out-of-place for a wine country restaurant – full of pretensions and trying too hard for sophistication.

Within seconds of being seated,  the champagne and caviar cart is wheeled over. The hit of the evening was my “caviar purse” seen pictured on the box at the front. We decided to skip the caviar course as we had just indulged in quite a bit of oscetra at Christmas. We decided to have the full 9 course tasting menu. 

 

With our champagne, a plate of bite-size appetizers arrives. A completely forgettable peeky toe crab salad with pomegranates and an excellent goat’s milk cheese and truffle dumpling.

 

The next amuse was poached lobster with celery root remoulade and blood orange glaze. This just didn’t have enough flavor.

 

Truffled Red Wine Risotto with Shaved White Truffles and Parmesan Reggiano Foam – this was the dish of the night, although much of the truffle flavor was from oil not the actual truffles.

 

Ahi Tuna Tartare with Celery Root, Portabellas and Watermelon Radish, Black Perigord Truffles and Soy Vinaigrette – This was in a word unpleasant. There was absolutely no balance of flavors, way too acidic, generally weird, the shredded portabellas threw everything off plus there was an overwhelming taste of truffle oil.

 

Seared Foie Gras with Toasted Chestnut and Sherry Soup – The foie with chestnuts is presented first and then the soup was poured on. The foie was excellent, although the chestnuts were soggy. The soup was horrible – thin with too much sherry added. I had served chestnut soup for Christmas and my husband declared my version 100 times better.

 

Langoustines with Cauliflower Cream, Crayfish and Uni –  the langoustine was slightly overcooked, although the uni and crayfish was a nice addition. I wasn’t that taken with the cauliflower cream as I found it quite bitter.

 

Truffled Kurobota Pork Belly with Flagolets, Roast Fuji Apples, Trufffled Cipollini Onions, and Calvados – Again more is more with Chef Doug Keane – I wish he would edit his food. Both John and I made the comment that you always wish for one more bite with Keller and with Keane you wish there were fewer bites. Also, there were too many flagolets so that the balance of the dish was “off.”

 

 While we were waiting for the meat course, the staff surprised us with a bowl mounded with glass rocks holding frozen lollipops made with Lemon Myrtle (similar to Verbena)

 

Red Wine Braised “Kobe” Beef Cheeks with Farro and Bloomsdale Spinach, Bordelaise Sauce – this would have been excellent, but the crispy farro threw the dish off. This seemed to be a running theme of Keane’s food – the main ingredient was excellent, but there always seemed to be one component that marred the whole.

 

Now, the cheese cart is wheeled over and it was superb. But I am at a loss to understand the way it was served. I chose my three cheeses and John chose a different three as we have very different likes and dislikes in cheese. However, we were served only one cheese plate.

 

Soda Pop Hibiscus Syrup – very sweet

 

 

Caramel Soup with Kettle Corn Sorbet and Chocolate Filigree – this was an absolute winner – The waiter brings a scoop of salty sorbet in a bowl, covered with a lacy filigree of chocolate and a pile of popcorn on top. He then pours on the hot caramel broth so that the chocolate net melts and collapses into the bowl. What’s not to love about salty popcorn, hot caramel and chocolate?

 

John – Champagne Caramel Custard and 5 Citrus

1.  Meyer Lemon Cardamon Sorbet

2.  Blood Orange Pate de Fruit

3.  Kumquat Beignet

4.  Ruby Grapefruit Curd

5.  Key Lime Shortbread

I didn’t taste any of his dessert so I can’t give an accurate account.

 

Mignardises

 

The bottom line for me – Cyrus is not French Laundry or Manresa. The level of execution is just not there. The “dazzle” is more from the ambiance (if that is your cup of tea) than the plate. In point of fact, I could eat Keller’s and Kinch’s food on a picnic bench! Of course, I wonder why my reaction is so contrary to Bauer’s and other critics. I just felt that too many dishes needed editing and too many times, I wished for one less bite.

 

Ame

From the Chronicle:

Skipping lunch: One of the best-kept secrets for lunch will go out with the new year. Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone, proprietors of Ame (689 Mission, at Third Street) in the St. Regis Hotel, have decided to stop serving lunch. Ame will join its sister restaurant, Terra, in St. Helena, as a dinner-only destination.

“We just don’t do lunches well,” said Doumani, ceding to the great established truth of restauranting — which is that you don’t make money at the noontime meal.

Well, I agree with Lisa that they don’t do lunches well. The best things to order are from the sashimi bar. When you go to their main menu, the kitchen just doesn’t deliver. Service was haphazard, mainly handled by bussers who were clueless.

From the sashimi bar:

Tartare of lightly smoked Tasmania Ocean trout with wasabi panna cotta and American sturgeon caviar. The trout was handled as rough dice. The wasabi panna cotta was superb, adding a great spicey “bite” to the dish.

Tempura “Poke” wrapped in Ogo seaweed, Hawaiian Sea Salt and thin slivers of green onions and threads of daikon. After much prodding, our server thought that the fish was hamachi, tuna and sea bream.

Sashimi of Hamachi with pickled wasabi leaves, mountain caviar, daikon sprouts and ponzu. The mountain caviar were the small beads ringing the plate. I asked exactly what was mountain caviar and was told that they were the seeds from the Broom Cypress Tree from China. Who knows??? Excellent, although there was a bit too much ponzu.

From the appetizer section:

Panko Crusted Miyagi Oysters in lettuce cups with yuzu mayonnaise.  Why or why is there so much lettuce? We deep-sixed the lettuce and ate just the oysters.

From the main course section:

John: Spaghetti with bottarga, broccoli di Ciccio, chilies, and a fried organic egg – John asked how spicy was this dish and was assured it was very mild. Well, it was so spicy that John managed to just eat the egg.

 

Me: Porchetta with polenta cake and forest mushroom sauce – the porchetta was dry and so overcooked that one bite was enough.

I would love to try the Chawan mushi dish, but at the time, it wasn’t on the lunch menu.

 

 

 

 

Comme Ca

I really, really like Comme Ca – service is extraordinary, the food is excellent, but there is one huge caveat – the noise is deafening.  At 7:00 you can have a normal conversation, by 9:00 your ears are ringing. This might be a function of my age – I am not a thirty something or even close to a forty something.

Brad was our server and he did a superior job – attentive plus knowledgeable. The Comme Ca menu is not static – there have been numerous changes re preparations i.e. the smoked salmon galette is now salmon tartare, there is a tomato salad with avocado and triple cream cheese, the Scottish salmon entree is now done with melted tomatoes and  béarnaise, the pork chop prep is with Swiss chard and corn, there are 2 types of bouillabaisse – one done with only shellfish that includes lobster and the sole is done with piperade and Manilla clams.  I think this speaks volumes about Comme Ca as a restaurant; they could stick with the tried and true, but they are willing and certainly capable of tweaking the menu and adding appropriate seasonal ingredients.

Being old foggies, we tend to stick with our favorites. All dishes were splits – one for two and served family style.

Amuse – Crouton with goat cheese, nicoise olive, piquillo pepper – excellent

 

Tarte Flambee with caramelized onions, fromage blanc, lardons – the edges of the tarte were burnt, but we just ignored the edges and the topping itself was flawless.

 

Dozen oysters – Malpeque and Virginia – perfect for slurping

 

Brandade de Morue Gratinee – salt cod, piquillo pepper puree – this absolutely deserves to be a signature dish at Comme Ca –  a dish I just can’t resist.

The dish as presented doesn’t photograph as well as the dish plated.

 

Glazed Sweetbreads, peas, lardons, glazed onions – what more could one ask for?

 

Steak tartare, hand cut with with capers, cornichons. Comme Ca’s version is far superior to Anisette’s

Comme Ca’s version

Anisette’s version:

 

From the photo, my guess is that most of you would vote for Anisette’s version, but look at the dish plated.  Anisette’s version was so over-dressed, it was drowning.

Comme Ca:

Anisette:

 

Roasted Beef Marrow and Oxtail Jam, toast, fleur de sel – excellent, but we were getting full and the noise level was deafening.

BYO Wines at Comme Ca

Serge Mathieu, Cuvee Tradition Blanc de Noirs–typically clean and direct, nice long finish.

’02 Joseph Drouhin, Beaune Clos des Mouches–this is a great white burgundy that I wish I could afford more often.  In the old days we bought it by the case.  Beautiful light nose, very fruity but not extreme, no oak, clean, full-bodied chardonnay.

’96 Clos Saint-Denis Michel Magnien, Reserve–aged Burgundy, full, rich, good raspberry nose and flavor, long, clean finish.

Bottom Line – Comme Ca is doing it right; I just wish there was a way to soften the noise factor.

 

 


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