California Dreamin: The Tasting Kitchen

When I was a kid, Venice Beach wasn’t somewhere you went for great food. You went there to see the sights, enjoy the beach, and maybe eat some ice cream. You certainly didn’t schlep there for dinner.

Times have changed for the better.

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The Tasting Kitchen was a recommendation from some foodie friends who said that this place had great food and a very laid back, cool, LA vibe. The vibe is VERY LA…lighting is dark, music is thumping, and the place is PACKED to the gills. However, when our reservation was late, they didn’t comp us a drink at the bar. In general, I found the service a little lacking on the west coast. No matter though, we were seated before long at a comfortable table and taken care of by a very competent server.

20140928_210640 Rillettes

Fabulous. I wish that the picture came out better because this is a wonderful starter. The rillettes are soft and savory with ribbons of juicy pork in a buttery, well salted spread. It comes with garlic rubbed toast that adds a gentle spice and some tangy mustard that kicks up the flavor quotient another notch. This couldn’t be more delicious.

20140928_214232 Oysters and salsify

Salsify is awesome! That’s what I took away from this dish. It tastes a lot like artichokes and has the meaty texture of hearts of palm. Here, its’ served browned and caramlized with a few nuggets of soft, briny oysters that bring out the veggie’s sweet, earthy undertones. This isn’t something I have ever had before and I can’t wait to eat it again.

20140928_215817 Ricotta agnoletti

Good, if not especially memorable. The agnoletti are soft pillows of creamy ricotta in a sweet, tangy tomato sauce. I really can’t say anything else bad or good about it – I would stick with the Calabrian sausage pasta next time, which was garlicky, spicy, and totally craveable. 
20140928_221052 Whole branzino with pine nuts and herbs

Delicious. Prepare for bones and you will be impressed. The fish is flaky, light, and saturated with butter and lemon. The pine nuts add an earthy, unexpectedly crunchy taste and texture to the fish.

The Tasting Kitchen has done the impossible…it has made Venice Beach a foodie destination. Not just for rollerblades and tattoos anymore, this ‘hood is now food-approved. Can’t wait to get back and try it’s neighbor Gjelina for what I hear are some unforgettable Italian dishes. Of course, first, you may have to pry those rillettes from my cold, dead hands. 

California Dreamin: Fabulous Mexican at Loteria

When I said that I spent a lot of time at The Farmer’s Market, I wasn’t kidding. In fact, our very first meal was there, at the wonderful Loteria Grill 20140927_105644 I first read about this place on The Amateur Gourmet and couldn’t believe that after an entire childhood of coming to The Farmer’s Market for lunch I could have missed such a gem! Loteria is a small outdoor stand that serves authentic Mexican food. It’s so popular that it has spawned several brick and mortar locations around town and is oft lauded as some of the best Mexican food in LA, which is really saying something.

20140927_105647 Just order at the counter, watch your food be made in the open door kitchen or wait at your table, then get ready to indulge.

20140927_110147 Agua frescas, nachos, and tacos…come to mama.

20140927_110059 Nachos

I mean, who doesn’t love a plate of nachos? Even crappy ones are good, and these…these are great. Fresh corn chips smothered in stretchy jack cheese, cumin scented black beans and impeccably fresh, juicy pico de gallo. Best of all is a tangy tomatillo salsa layered on top, filtering its tart, fresh bite down the layers of cilantro and  oozing cheese. This is a mammoth portion, so please get the small, and don’t be scared to ask for some smoky but not too spicy house made hot sauce alongside.

20140927_110103 Tongue tacos

Oh, HELL yes. These got better as I ate them. Springy bits of beef tongue in a spicy, rich, incredibly beefy juice spiked with fiery serrano chiles and sweet onions. It’s what I always think that tongue should taste like – delicious and reminiscent of filet, but with a little more chew. It’s hearty but not greasy, and the topping of buttery avocado tempers the peppers and rounds out the meat. Perhaps best of all are the tiny homemade corn tortillas – uneven in texture and with an earthy, overtly corn-y taste. This is pretty spicy, so I was in heaven.

This isn’t the cheapest option in the Farmer’s Market, but it isn’t crazy expensive and it IS crazy delicious. We went at 11 am and there was already a small line, so come early or pay the price! And don’t forget that a tongue isn’t just for talking – it’s for eating, too.

California Dreamin: The World’s Greatest Pancakes at Du-Par’s

I spent a lot of time at The Farmers Market on this trip to LA. Not some farmers market in the parking lot with some lady selling half rotten peppers out of the back of her truck. The LA farmer’s market on Fairfax, which has been there since the 1930s and is one of my favorite memories of my childhood. My mom took me down here to buy toffee from Littlejohn’s, a stall that has been here since Marilyn Monroe was Norma Jean. My grandparents bought me some of my favorite dollhouse furniture here – a small set of dishes that was white and had little blue flowers painted on it. My sister and I used to beg our parents to buy us mini water glasses, not realizing that they were shot glasses. It’s a large, winding outdoor area filled with wonderful restaurants and food stalls, retail food shops, and curiosity stores filled with souvenirs and kitschy items. It’s largely unchanged since my mom was a kid and if there’s one thing that I love, there’s some consistency.

If there’s another thing that I love, it’s world class pancakes.

Enter: Du-Par’s

This place has been around for as long as the Farmer’s Market has been here. I forgot to take an y pictures of the interior, but it looks like a  more spacious version of an East Coast diner. And from the outside, it still looks exactly like this:

20140929_090131 I know, it really IS to adorable for words.
20140929_091323 Buttermilk Pancakes

 

The reason you come to Du-Par’s. I would never call myself a pancake girl, but these…well, these make me a pancake woman. A crazed pancake woman. They are impossibly thick and light at the same time. I don’t know how they are so tall yet so fluffy…they seem to defy the laws of nature.  They aren’t too sweet, which is a major pet peeve of mine. They have a little tang from the buttermilk and the sweetness only comes through with the syrup. And this is the short stack – the portion is generous to say the least. Best of all, they come with warm syrup and warm melted butter, so you don’t have to tear your pancakes by spreading cold butter all over them. That melted butter is the bee’s knees.
20140929_091334 Bacon, jack cheese, and avocado egg white omelette

Avocados are just better in California. I’m not explaining or justifying, I’m just telling you the facts. Buttery, smooth, and sweet. The omelette is tasty, with rivers of me;ted jack cheese and tons of crunchy bacon, but the special part comes alongside… 20140929_091346 Homemade English muffin

 

Do ya think this place knows its way around a carbohydrate or what? This English muffin is the best I have ever had. Toasty and warm, slightly sour and with butter melted into its nooks and crannies. To say nothing of the homemade strawberry preserves served alongside; so juicy and sweet that they would seem artificial if they weren’t so obviously delicious.

Du-Par’s is one of my favorite LA haunts. The service is friendly, the prices are fair, and the food is memorable.

Not to mention, hearty and necessary after a week or 2 of eating sushi and quinoa salads.

California Dreamin: Lunch at Mendocino Farms

I recently accompanied my husband on a work trip to Southern California – my old stomping grounds! Though he couldn’t get over the right turns on red lights (yay!) or the lack of plastic bags in grocery stores (boo!), I managed to show him the fun side of LA in between meetings and talks. 

And by that, I mean the delicious side – like relative newcomer Mendocino Farms.

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This Beverly Hills location is unpretentious and casual – the idea is local, sustainable food offered at great prices in a fast/casual setting. You order from the hostess, pay at the counter, then find a seat and get your food in about 15 minutes.

This place is VERY Californian. The food is light and based on really fresh produce…

20140929_145017 the soda is artisanal and free of artificial flavors and colors (though, ironically, is produced right in my own backyard),

20140929_145142 And the outdoor seating area has picnic tables with benches covered in Astroturf. If you don’t like that, then you are missing out on life’s whimsy!

20140929_150001 Chinese chicken salad

Is it just me or is it impossible to get a good Chinese chicken salad East of the Mississipi? I simply haven’t had one that compares to the ones out West, and this is no exception. Crunchy Napa cabbage, slivers of scallions and bean sprouts, crispy wontons, and tender roasted chicken breast all in a tangy sesame vinaigrette. The vinaigrette also has miso, which adds to the savory profile of the salad, anchoring it so it doesn’t seem too light for lunch. The vegetables are chopped so finely that you get a little bite of everything in each bite. The wonton strips are a little sparsely applied, but that could be because fried wontons are my kryptonite and I can never get enough.

20140929_150008 Not so fried chicken

Next time, I would SO get this! That same roasted chicken rolled in rice cereal and put on a dense but not too crispy ciabatta bread with tangy mustard slaw, pickled onions, and herb aioli. It’s served with BBQ sauce on the side, but I prefer this au naturel. This hits all of my favorite points in a sandwich – hearty, vibrant, sour, crunchy, a little spicy, and properly saucy. The rice cereal is an inspired touch – it adds textural interest without taking over the other sandwich components. Don’t forget to ask for some mustard pickle remoulade on the side if you liek yours a little more wet – like I said, the BBQ sauce tends to overpower the sandwich, but the remoulade works better.

Mendocino Farms is the kind of place that I yearn for when I’m back in cold, dark NYC. I long for the airy, bright restaurant, with tons of space in between tables. I lament over the lack of well priced, inventive sandwich spots here that aren’t based on any cuisine, just amazing produce. I wish there was one of these here – I would eat here constantly.

At least we have plastic bags in Duane Reade.

Creative Crepes at The Starving Artist in the Berkshires

If you believe that you dine with your eyes as well as your mouth, I know exactly where to send you for a lazy Saturday morning breakfast in the Berkshires.

20140913_091839 The Starving Artist Cafe seems at first o be just a cute creperie on Lee’s main drag. You order at the counter then go to sit down at a small table or a window-side bench…. 20140913_091843 and then get to look at the gorgeous art gallery in which the cafe is housed. You like it, you can buy it! Sure beats seeing football on 3 screens in the local bar.  20140913_092800 Hot chocolate

Gargantuan, incredibly creamy, and none too sweet. Be sure to get it topped with the barely sweetened whipped cream, which only adds to the richness. This might put you into a food coma. It’s such a decadent way to start your vacay weekend.  20140913_093027 Mexican crepe with scrambled local eggs, black beans, avocado, and scallions

Tasty, if lacking in the spice department.

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A really good counterpart to that hot chocolate. The crepe is crispy yet tender and chock full of scrambled eggs with melted cheese, soft avocado, and chewy black beans. Don’t skimp on the salsa, because the eggs aren’t spicy at all. But they are wholesome and delish.

20140913_093033 Fruit cup

A good size, with delicious Asian pears and homemade granola. Win.

Loved this joint (though the espresso is dreadful). Fair prices, delicious food, and good service. Plus, decorations that can’t be beat.

Dinner in the Berkshires at Chez Nous

I am a control freak. I  love hotels, I love eating out, and I love planning the perfect vacation experience – it’s hard for me to give up control.

So, when someone else chooses the restaurant and it turns out to not only be great, but REALLY reasonably priced…I’m shocked, I’m thrilled, and I’m a little weirded out…happily weirded out.

We spent the Berkshires weekend with some of our favorite people, and friend M chose Chez Nous for dinner. She had been there before and swore that it was worthwhile.

I love having smart friends.

20140913_194810 Chez Nous sounds fancy and has an eclectic menu, but it is extremely comfortable with a buzzy, chatty atmosphere. you can arrive in jeans, but they should be nice ones. And please make reservations…if you can’t tell from the picture, the small home in which the restaurant is housed, is positively packed.  20140913_201032 Cheese plate

This is an example of how something doesn’t need to be overly complicated in order to be delicious. The cheese plate isn’t large – if you are hungry, you won’t want to share it with more than one person – but it’s well designed. The blue cheese is mild and creamy, with a slightly umami, funky finish. The local goat cheese is te other big winner here – soft and crumbly – ideal with the sweet grapes or airy, tangy bread. The chutney is the standout here. It’s clearly homemade, loaded with sweet onions and plump raisins. It’s bright with vinegar and really piquant – it is so tasty that I ate it with a fork, no cheese necessary. I would absolutely get this again.   20140913_204243 Burger topped with sauteed foie gras

My husband got this…I wimped out. Trust me, I still hate myself for not getting it. Just had to include a shot because it is so gorgeous. The burger itself was undersalted but well cooked – juicy and pink throughout. The accompanying fries and aggressively garlicky aioli are excellent.  20140913_204326 Seared Scottish salmon with spinach and einkorn risotto

Exactly what you want on a cold night when you have already maxed out on junk food on the car trip up. I always prefer local fish, but they were out of the striped bas that day and I just didn’t feel like halibut. This fish was lovely – cooked until medium rare with a tender interior and a salty, crispy crust. It’s served on some silky spinach and einkorn risotto. I am pretty sure that einkorn is farro,which I love. It has a somewhat al dente texture and nutty taste. It’s creamy and served with man mixed mushrooms that work surprisingly well with the fish. In case you didn’t notice, this portion looks on the small side. That’s because every entree here has the option to be served in half portions. This is such a great idea – if you filled up at lunch or if you are on a budget, you can diner here for a fraction of the price and/or food waste. I love, love, LOVE the half portion thing and wish that other restaurants would take its cue.
20140913_213117 Lemon lavender posset

Ignore the threat of lavender, because this is all lemon meringue pie in a jar. Creamy, tart, sweet – delicious. Served with sugary macerated strawberries and a homemade cookie alongside, this is something that any lover of lemony desserts will be obsessed with. It’s the pudding of your dreams – the cookie adds a textural contrast but it’s just icing on the cake. This little pot of lemony goodness is pretty near perfect – don’t go for a half portion of this!

Chez Nous is delightful. The vibe is casual but still celebratory, the food is delicious, and those half portions are awesome. The one dark spot was the service. I’m so sorry, but our server was out to lunch. She was new, but…like…new to this planet? She was really nice and friendly, but when we would remind her of dishes that were wrong or drinks that were totally forgotten, she sort of chuckled and gave us a friendly shoulder pat like “oh yeah…haha!” Not my favorite way to correct multiple mistakes. On the upside, this meal was SO reasonably priced. Part of that is because I’m from NYC, where everything is overpriced, and part of it is because of the half portioned entrees. It’s such a great way to keep down costs while still enjoying a delicious meal. Regardless of the scatterbrained service, I would return.

Sometimes giving up control can be a beautiful thing. 

Surf’s Up at Betty’s Pizza in The Berkshires

The Berkshires might not be the first place you would think of treating yourself to a taco or a slice of pizza, but you would be thinking wrong.

20140913_134909 Betty’s Pizza looks like Gidget met Jerry Garcia in Tijuana. I mean that in a good way, in case that isn’t clear. The space is super casual and covered in bright paint, surfboards, and quirky movie posters. This is a great spot for families – we saw a ton of kids there, coloring with crayons that the restaurant provides.  20140913_135124 However, if you want to come by for a slice or 2, just stop by the counter and get something to go.  20140913_141220 Betty’s chopped salad with hopped Iceberg, Hard-Boiled Eggs, Grilled Chicken, Mozzarella Cheese, and Roasted Red Peppers

This looks mundane and tastes AWESOME! Yes, the dressing is in a little prepackaged cup, but in Betty’s defense, Ken’s really is some of the greatest bottled dressing on the market. It’s creamy, properly funky, and doesn’t have any weird gummy texture that lesser blue cheese dressings have. The lettuce is finely shredded, the peppers must be roasted in house (they are silky and have a smoky flavor), and the chicken is juicy and still warm. The eggs are a little overcooked, but it’s still an excellent combination of flavors and textures and this take on a cobb salad is really tasty and a great counterpart to the pizza.
20140913_141612 Half sausage, half mushroom pizza

Really satisfying – and I’m saying this after 8 years of New York City pies. Thin, lightly burnished crust with a tangy, bright sauce and plenty of cheese. Teh mushroom pie is studded with meaty shrooms and the sausage half was gobbled so quickly that I didn’t even get a chance to try it…RUDE.  20140913_141756 A little pale, but still delicious.

Betty’s is the perfect lunch spot in Lenox. It’s quick, it’s cheap, and it’s so tasty. Get the longboard if you want 8 pieces of pie – and oh, you do.

Next up: Another morning, another brekfast

Otto’s Breakfast Deli and Church Street Bistro – Berkshires Break

After this weekend, I’m pretty sure I’m a yuppie from the movie Baby Boom. 

After all, I spent it in the Berkshires. 

This comfy, sleepy, totally relaxed section of Western MA is about 3 hours from NYC and though I didn’t find it as picturesque as Cape Cod or as foodie-centric as Maine – well, it was still a relaxing and pretty tasty weekend!

Check out our desserts at Church Street Cafe:

20140912_212104 Chocolate cake with espresso ice cream

As fudgy and familiar as you could hope. Dense and sweet, with a buttery, rather than bitter, finish. The espresso ice cream adds the pleasantly bitter edge that makes chocolate desserts so delicious on every flavor facet. It’s served warm, and the combination of moist cake and creamy, cold ice cream is pretty damned unbeatable. 
20140912_212111 Tiramisu

The lightest version of this dessert that I can remember. The mascarpone cheese is incredibly airy – it practically dissolves on the tongue. It has a light hand with the liquer, so the taste is mostly creamy, rich mascarpone which is not overwhelming, since it has been so aerated. The biscotti alongside is unmemorable, but if you love creamy desserts or tiramisu in general, this is one worth trying.
20140914_074803 We hit up Otto’s before we left town. It is a sweet little diner with the MOST kick ass wait staff (a million coffee refills, running outside to release the shade so the sun wouldn’t get in our eyes, offering substitutions and sharing plates without prompting…seriously, wonderful service) and a menu that is not especially memorable but especially well executed.
20140914_080242 Tomato and spinach two egg omelette with fruit plate

Not innovative, but well prepared and served quickly and with a smile and some hot sauce. The fruit alongside is fresh (the pineapple is especially delicious) and the pumpernickel toast is thick and pleasantly sour.

Next up: who wants pizza for lunch?

SoNo Seaport Seafood is So So Perfect for the Weekend

What to do when you have access to a car on a nice day in NYC:

1) Get the GPS

2) Get in the car

3)Drive to SoNo Seaport Seafood, only 1 hour outside the city, for a delicious seafood lunch on the water.

Sure, there are plenty of great lobster rolls and fish ‘n’ chips in the city, but very few of them have the room to spread out with a beer, some crayons for the kiddies, and a view like this:

20140823_113858 I mean, it’s nothing fancy, but that’s the charm of it. It’s a simple seafood market with an attached tavern that serves the freshest fish possible, in all the ways that you love it; ie, doused in butter and fried whenever possible.  20140823_113903 It’s the ideal place to have lunch with the family, because there is stuff for landlubbers as well as those of us who are more adventurous.  20140823_114838 Seafood bisque

Well, it just about puts clam chowder to shame. Pale pink and studded with tender lobster, tiny shrimp, and buttery pieces of scallop. It’s not as thick as a chowder – it’s a true bisque with a creamy but not super thick texture. There are soft potatoes in there and a slightly spicy backnote of crushed red pepper. However, it isn’t aggressively hot – just well spiced. If you like New England clam chowder, this may be the greatest thing you have ever tasted.  20140823_115232 Hot lobster roll

Until, that is, you try a Connecticut style lobster roll. These things are the best. Though not quite as delectable as the first rate version at Abott’s, this is wonderful. Large pieces of claw and knuckle meat dressed in plenty of clarified butter and served warm inside a toasted, top spit hot dog bun. You can get some of the excellent tartar sauce alongside if you need it, but you won’t need it. This is pure lobster taste. no mayo, no celery, no filler at all to get in the way – just all lobstah, no working for it. The lobster salad roll also looks good, but for the money, this one is where it’s at.
20140823_115245 Fries are generic, but since when are generic fries bad?

SoNo Seaport Seafood is a lovely and delicious weekend afternoon outside of the city. The prices can’t be beat, the service is great, the atmopshere is ideal, and the food…well, I cleaned my plate. Don’t miss the flaky fish and chips, either.

And there is a Ttarget only 7 miles away. So, happy Sunday indeed.

Locali in New Canaan and…a Guilty Pleasure

My sister is starring in Hairspray at Summer Theatre of New Canaan - yes, I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I figure that you might want to see her while she is still in a show where we can all afford tickets. I’m basically sure that Broadway is next.

But while you are in New Canaan, you might want something to eat.

Right in town, I highly recommend Thali or this new place we hit up, Locali. This lovely little restaurant has a breezy patio, friendly servers, and a menu of small and large Italian accented plates. The edamame Milanese, topped with garlicky breadcrumbs and the fried artichokes on punchy anchovy remoulade are both winners. However, if you come here, be sure to get some pizza.

20140720_151951 Hudson gem pizza with beet powder, goat cheese, and figs

Hit of the day, no question. The crust is whisper thin and crispy, with a puffy, airy crust at the edge that has plenty of charred spots. The pizza is covered in tangy goat cheese that is creamy and warm, with spots of sweet, juicy figs. The kicker is the beet powder – it’s so delicate that it has no texture, but it releases a deep, earthy taste that is unmistakably beet-like. This is the most fun twist on beets and goat cheese that I have had in awhile and it’s totally delicious. Sweet, savory, and vegetarian to boot!
20140720_151955 Ratatouille pizza

I mean, dontcha just love summer? That wonderful, tender-crisp crust covered in fresh, sweet tomato sauce (no heavy had with the oregano here, it’s all about the tomatoes), shaved zucchini and summer squash, grilled onions, and other fresh veggies. It’s doubtless made with whatever was fresh at the farmer’s market that morning and there is no way that our pizza is the same as the one that you would get if you ordered it next week  -maybe yours would have corn or zucchini blossoms. This is a garden on a crust. It greatly improved with the addition of some red pepper flakes, but then…what doesn’t?

I would go back to Locali in a heartbeat, and quite probably will.

Then, on the way home from the show, you may want to stop somewhere for dinner. Sure, you could get a steamed cheeseburger in Connecticut or maybe try Arthur Avenue in the Bronx…but, why would you, when you could go here:

20140720_195401 Luau salad at The Cheesecake Factory

Why, when I live in one of the greatest eating cities on earth, do I crave the mass produced crap was the only restaurant in town when I was growing up? It’s all generic salt and fat. It’s nothing local or seasonal. I highly doubt that it will ever win a Zagat rating, let alone a Michelin star. However…I just love The Cheesecake Factory. It reminds me of lunches with my aunt, of sliders with my best friend, and of being cool enough to drive myself to the mall. It’s so nostalgic that I can never resist it.

And unlike so many other memories, this one actually lives up to its former self each and every time. 

This salad is sweet and a little sour from the rice wine vinegar in the dressing. It’s thinly sliced chilled chicken, crunchy macadamia nuts, julienned bell peppers, and soft lettuce. And it’s those huge, crispy, fried and bad for you wontons. It’s kitschy, light, and indulgent – “Luau” is a perfectly apt name. I love this salad. All 19,459 calories of it. 
20140720_204724 I mean I didn’t eat this super sweet, brick like cheesecake studded with Oreos and loaded with preservatives. I didn’t eat the peanut butter cup version, either. 

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.