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Friday, December 24, 2010

Fish in Sausalito: Spicy Cheddar Grits with Spot Prawns? 'Nuff Said

I'm sure the cool maritime decor and foggy weather in Sausalito had something to do with it, but Fish was pretty excellent.

It wasn't cheap by any means but maybe because I was traveling, or maybe because I had just endured a windy car ride that made me severely car-sick, I felt it was somewhat worth it. Oh, and a minor detail -- I was treated.

The fish was fresh and Fish was both good at doing old standbys well (think fried fish sticks) and offering new and interesting takes on old ingredients (can you tell what the picture on the right-hand side is?).

Yes. It was shrimp, but not any old kind of shrimp. I don't really like peppering names of dishes with millions of qualifiers and adjectives, but for the record, these were Kelsey Michelle spot prawns. They looked and tasted different from the ones I'm used to eating at home and other restaurants. I'm guessing these were caught locally and it showed. They were sweet, plump and delicious.

Key to this was what it came with -- spicy Spring Hill Cheddar grits and local dungeness crab gravy. I'm usually not a grits person whatsoever, but I made a huge exception here because these grits actually had flavor -- spicy with that loverly sharp taste of cheddar cheese. Seriously, what's not to like? To add amazingness to the already goodness, it was smothered in crab gravy.

Again, anyone who knows me will tell you I've never liked gravy. But this one was definitely special. While it wasn't exactly crab-filled, the little pieces that I did find really added a lot to the texture and flavor. What a great dish.

The fried fish sticks were good but I wouldn't return just to have that again. It's pretty plain, although I do appreciate its simplicity.

The grilled cheese sandwich was nothing to write home about. But the fries, oh the fries. This place understands that no self-respecting seafood joint that hawks crowd favorites like fish and chips would have fries that are anything but perfectly crispy, piping hot and not over-salted. Definitely not the frozen kind. I had a hard time keeping myself from wolfing down the entire batch of fries so I could leave room for the real deal -- the super fresh seafood served so creatively here.

It's far from home but I'd definitely like to return here on my next trip.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Veto Vito's Pizza and Pass on Pinches Tacos in WeHo

I've been reviewing the good, so it's time to review the bad. Pinches Tacos and Vito's Pizza, both in West Hollywood.

The carne asada tacos were tough and the meat was not well-seasoned, just overly salty and flavorless. Then they got the order wrong -- brought us chicken mole tacos instead of the grilled chicken we wanted, and were too hungry to take back by the time we got our food. Still searching for that decent Mexican joint near me that I can stop by for a decent taco when I have a hankering...

Nor have I found a good pizzeria near me that serves half-way decent pizza. I tried Vito's after reading some raves on message boards, but to no avail.

My dinner companion and I tried several types of pizza, including the Margherita, which was ok and the white pizza, which had mascapone cheese, and was the best, in my opinion. Maybe it was the novelty of pairing mascapone cheese with pizza. One could say it was a bit of cheese overload but I personally can never have enough cheese so it wasn't a problem.

The pesto one was soso, as was the one with sausage and pepperoni. I usually don't like meat on my pies, so that may have biased the ranking.

I still like the Pizzeria Mozza for high-end, but in search of an equally juicy and flavorful Margherita topped with fresh basil for a fraction of the price.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Jar: Rib-eye and Fries for a Special Occasion

Because I was good on Thanksgiving day and didn't stuff myself silly with, well, stuffing and such (more on my Thanksgiving day meal later), I didn't feel bad having an uber hearty meal at Jar, complete with fat, bloody steaks and tender, juicy pot roast.

I had read about this "signature" pot roast, so although my companion and I weren't huge pot roast fans, we ordered it. It was definitely one of the best pot roasts I had ever had (albeit in my limited pot roast experience) although a tad on the salty side. The carrots and onions were well integrated into the roast, which was nicely seared on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. I also liked the horseradish cream it came with, that gave it a nice balance in flavor with a slight kick.

My favorite item out of all the things we ate was undoubtedly the rib-eye steak, which was all it was cracked up to be. It was perfectly cooked medium rare -- nice and browned on the outside and crispy on the edges and bloody and soft on the inside. We had a choice of sauces so based on posts we got the lobster bearnaise (because there's always room to get more luxurious and decadent) and the peppercorn sauces. The lobster one was far too rich, even for this butter and fat fiend, and distracted from the amazing flavor of the steak. The peppercorn, which was more watery with whole peppercorn spheres for some kick, was just ok. I almost didn't mind slicing and chewing one piece of meat after another, without any condiments, just pure good red as red meat. When I saw the massive hunk of meat, I didn't think I'd put much of a dent but I couldn't stop eating it, bite after bite, as my stomach would tell me I needed to stop. But my head wanted to keep eating because it was enjoying it so much. Similar to my Girasole experience with its carbonara.

The fries were also very good, served piping hot and super crispy. It didn't hurt that they came smothered with garlic bits and parsley, imparting even more flavor and textures. The only thing is I wanted to leave room for the star of the show -- the rib-eye -- and not fill my stomach unnecessarily with these carbs. But then my dining companion and I concurred that fries don't keep very well. What better excuse?

We tried to be semi-healthy amid the heart attack on the table. We got the stir-fried water spinach, which was good and reminded us of the great Chinese restaurants that serve this (Din Tai Fung came to mind) but nothing to write home about, especially given the stellar steak sitting next to it.

A big disappointment was the crab deviled eggs appetizer, which was raved about on message posts but was so unmemorable and devoid of crab that I almost think it is a misnomer.

Those things were absolutely nothing special. The deviled eggs tasted flat and didn't have much flavor in them. The crab that I had hoped would add some pizazz to the quotidian egg didn't do much and at worst, even had a whiff of unfreshness to it.

The octopus salad special was ok but nothing to write home about either. My companion is a huge octopus fiend so we tried it and the octopus was cooked well enough -- nice and soft, not too chewy. But it didn't exactly blow me away.

The bread that came with butter was good but would have been better had it been heated. The butter was salty but I like salty so it was ok.

For dessert, we had bread pudding topped with vanilla ice cream and some caramel sauce. It was good but think we were too full to really enjoy it. Portion was small so that was actually good for us so we didn't have to feel bad for not finishing it.

In short, I would definitely return for the steak but it's also a special occasion place, not cheap at all. We got a special deal from Open Table but still overall not an everyday kind of experience. Tables are a bit on close side but noise level isn't too bad. You're better off parking on the street since they only have valet (and I personally hate to valet).

I was torn between the Kansas City Steak that's the only dry-aged one on the menu and is a whopping $40 a pop, but once I realized the rib-eye is more marbled, aka fatty, aka much more succulent and um, yummier, it was a no-brainer. It also helped that it's supposedly the chef's favorite cut. Let's just say it had me at marbled.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sushi at Jinpachi: Excellent and Expensive

I found a great new neighborhood sushi joint in Jinpachi. Not everyday prices for sure, but it's obviously a place that takes its sushi seriously. It's low-key but most importantly, serves fresh fish with warm rice in its sushi. I'm partial to this new style of warm rice + sushi. I wasn't crazy about the fact that most of its offerings (I didn't do omakase because it was my first time and wanted to check it out) had some kind of sauce drizzled on it. Still, the fish was very fresh and I'd definitely like to return for more.

Strangely enough, when we ordered a-la-carte and got an order of blue fin tuna, toro (fatty tuna) and hamachi (yellow tail), they gave us the toro first, which seems counter intuitive considering toro is the mother of all buttery tunas and serving it first would make anyone appreciate the lesser quality tuna served next less.

In any case, toro (right) was good but not as good as in other comparable establishments like Hiko or even Sushi Zo. It came drizzled with soy sauce with freshly grated wasabi inside. Loved the warm rice too.
Not surprisingly, the blue fin tuna (left) that was served immediately afterwards didn't really do it for me. It's like serving a Corona after having Hitachino Classic Pale Ale, which incidentally I was drinking this very evening.

But I digress. The hamachi, or yellow tail, was excellent. It too came with a bit of soy sauce drizzled on top, but it tasted so fresh that I hardly cared.

I'm also particular about the accompanying pickled ginger and that was very good too. No funky smell coming from some pickling issues.

Once I built up some confidence on the quality of the fish served here, I moved on riskier picks like scallop and Spanish mackerel, both of which were recommended by the chef, by which time I trusted. The scallop (right) that came with rock salt and beautiful specks of yuzu rind jewels was excellent. I'm not a big fan of shellfish sushi, not least because it's hard to find good ones, but this was well worth the risk.
The Spanish mackerel (top picture) was an even bigger risk in the sense that even at Hiko, my favorite sushi joint in LA, this sushi would more often than not come out fishy. But this one didn't have a hint of fishiness and the grated ginger and minced green onions it came topped with complemented well with the fresh flavor of the fish.

Then I got my standards like uni (sea urchin), blue crab handroll and last but not least, anago (salt water eel). The uni (left) was also excellent, albeit drizzled once again with soy sauce. The seaweed the warm rice was wrapped in was extremely crispy and I could tell it was very good quality seaweed.

The crab handroll was equally stellar. The crab was sweet and the warm rice wrapped in the seaweed was the perfect combination. I could have this for lunch every day.

The last one I had was anago, or salt water eel, which comes with the syrupy brown sauce that's slightly salty and sweet used for unagi. The flesh of the anago was so incredibly soft it (excuse the cliche) did melt in your mouth.

I also liked the beer selection. As much as I like Sapporo served in an ice cold glass straight out of a cooler, I can't help but love what's probably my favorite Japanese beer of all time, Hitachino Classic Pale Ale that has the cutest little owl on the bottle. But more importantly, it's fantastic beer that goes so well with sushi. The perfect pairing if ever there was one.

I'll be returning, probably for another special occasion. Prices are a bit steep for every day sushi. A meal for two with one beer came out to about $55 per person. I hear that omakase is $100 per person. I may just try that next time. Now I gotta find an excuse. It's very quaint and quiet. If you're looking for a scene, this isn't the place for you. I didn't like the fact that it also serves a lot of cooked dishes and the omakase also includes cooked dishes, which to me, seems so much like a contradiction. I came for sushi, not cooked foods! Anyhow, that's my rant. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Take a Bow for Bowery's Burgers

This burger surprised me. It was juicy, cooked just to my liking at medium-rare and had a very pleasant meaty taste. I liked this burger so much I'm going to go out on a limb and add it to my Top Five LA Burgers alongside the other hall of famers Houston's, Burger Kitchen and Rustic Canyon, in that order.

I also liked the fries that can be ordered as a mix of regular and sweet potato fries. I had it with "the works" and I chose cheddar cheese, avocado, caramelized onions and bacon. I was debating between bacon and fried egg, but in the end, think it was the right choice. I had wanted fresh red onions but apparently all the onions they had were either in confit form or caramelized.

What I didn't like was the bun, which was an English muffin that didn't hold the hefty interior very well. It quickly fell apart upon my cutting the burger in half. The patty was also too round as opposed to flat so that made it even harder to bite into. As much as I like meaty patties, this one could have used a tad of flattening.

I also have a problem with burgers priced at $9.50 that charge you for everything, and I mean, everything you decide to add to it, such as 3 toppings for additional cost or a lousy 50 cents for a side of thousand island dressing. Really? 50 cents for a side of "homemade" dressing? Come on.

As if that weren't enough, the side of fries alone was $5, and considering places like Houston's serve their burger (albeit costing more in the high teens) with fries included, I somehow felt robbed.

I didn't think much of the overdressed Bowery salad that came with greens, lentils, asparagus, beets, goat cheese and hazelnuts. Sounds good, right? It was drowning in dressing, which is not good. The salad would have been a lot better otherwise but it was hard to taste anything.

The vibe is ok but a bit noisy and crowded (or maybe I'm just getting old). It's tight quarters. It doesn't have any beers on draft, which is weird for a bar, but at least it has a decent selection. I chose a delightfully bitter Stone IPA that went well with my bloody burger.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Eat Not at Eatalian: Worst Pasta I've Had in Years

I was so disappointed by the food and service at Eatalian that I vowed never to return again. So not worth the drive out to "Gardena," (closer to Harbor Gateway and Compton, actually). The space was great -- open, airy and very modern-cafeteria. The high ceilings reminded me of Bottega Louie, but Eatalian is a lot less fancy than that.

The only redeeming thing about this place was the pizza. I was a bit perplexed that the Margherita didn't have any basil on it, but I figured everyone must have their own version of Margherita. So I got the "speciale," that includes cherry tomatoes and basil. Maybe the menu should have specified that it only comes with 5 little slivers of basil, because they really skimped on the basil that usually adds so much flavor to the pizza. I'm talking fresh, large, full-leaves of basil sprinkled on top of the pizza.

The pizza crust was decent -- thin, crispy and not too chewy like those cheap ones. But there wasn't enough tomato and because there was more cheese than tomato, or maybe because they had oversalted it, it was too salty. I liked the fresh mozzarella blobs but I don't think it was enough for me to want to return.

The pastas were dismal to say the least. Thank god I was able to take one back and not get charged for it. The biggest culprit was the "handmade" tagliatelle al ragu. Oh my god. It was the single most bland thing I've put in my mouth in years. It tasted like a mush of nothingness over some flat spinach noodles. There was ground meat in it but it didn't taste like anything.
The tomato sauce tasted as bland as the meat. Normally, I would think about ways to add flavor to it from my home kitchen. I was thinking, would it taste better with some garlic added or, what a thought, salt?

I actually tried adding salt but it didn't do much for it.

Then the spaghetti carbonara wasn't much better. The pancetta seemed well cooked enough, crispy and porky as they should be. But what happened to flavor again? It looked like a perfectly serviceable carbonara with its "egginess" from the raw egg and cheese mixture and bits of pancetta throughout. And both pasta were cooked al dente. But that wasn't the issue.

The pasta was totally bland, again. So I proceeded to add more salt and pepper to add flavor. Because carbonara is a more simple dish, I feel, it actually helped to salt and pepper it. It was edible. I didn't take it back, but the tagliatelle, I had to. It just wasn't salvageable by any means. Not even Thomas Keller or Ferran Adria could have saved this dish.

Don't even get me started on the shoddy and slow service. Ok, our guy didn't charge us for the awful pasta. But this place is clearly short-staffed and it needs to beef up staff or somehow improve the quality of the service. Everyone's running around like chicken without their heads.

Also, this place also clearly got more business than it can handle. That was apparent in the diluted quality of the food. I'm sure it wasn't like that when the LA Times or West Ways magazine gave it rave reviews.

Whenever I run into places like these, I think about Hillstone Group that owns places like Houston's or R+D, etc. All restaurants are chains and are always inundated with customers but always have great service with great food. It's all in the training, experience and philosophy of the management. Maybe Eatalian bit off more than it could chew. I really wanted to like this place because it's a great concept and I wanted to an affordable place to go for good Margherita pizza (can't always go to Mozza, right?).

The gelato was totally unremarkable -- had the Bacio and mango. Yuck. The pastries that they sold there, like chocolate croissant and "cannellino," were downright bad. Maybe this is their version of chocolate croissant and I'm very picky when it comes to this. The chocolate was like chocolate custard instead of the dark brown chocolate essence in the best croissants. Yuck! And the cannellinos, well, I've never had one of these but if it's supposed to be their version of cannolis, they were really bad. They used a soft puff pastry shell instead of a hard shell and the custard was not good. I'm not a big fan of cannolis but even I was put off by this lame impersonation of the real deal. If I'm the lame one by not knowing this is the way they should be, my bad.

Hope this place improves but I'm not returning until I have word of mouth from trusted sources about its comeback.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Daisy Mint in Pasadena: For Emergency Thai Cravings Only

Who woulda thunk it? Two words: Thai + Pasadena. I didn't think they'd mix either, but I was surprised at the decent Thai served up in an area known more for housing overrated bakery Europane than good Thai eats.

Daisy Mint looks like it was obviously converted from a bohemian cafe -- judging by the cool art hanging on the walls, what looks like a glass pastry display by the cashier and the prerequisite old-school chandelier.

I had the chicken pad see ew and the tofu penang curry with brown rice. The pad see ew was above average, and I liked that it was stir fried with some black beans to give it a heartier flavor. The chicken tasted fresh and came in generous chunks instead of it being mostly noodles and greens.

The tofu penang curry was on the overly sweet side for me but once I added some hot sauce, it was better. I liked the pumpkin and the other healthy veggies in the curry. Having it with brown rice adds to the good-for-you appeal. I like it better when the tofu is fried but then I catch myself and think, oh, that's right. I was trying to eat healthy.

The worst part was the dessert. I mean, look at this monstrosity! The day's special, banana-stuffed dosa with vanilla ice cream, sounded so good on paper. Unfortunately, it was an awful execution. The deep-fried pocket filled with banana wasn't even warm (we were told it's usually warmed but this one wasn't because it was closing time, so they microwaved it for us, which helped a little but not enough to salvage it.) and the ice-cream didn't taste like vanilla at all. To make matters worse, they drowned, and I mean, drowned it with this awful berry syrup and condensed milk. If there ever was a dessert crime, this would be it.

One interesting thing I noticed from the menu was that it had Korean elements on it, including barley tea, kimchi fried rice and ribs. Although I probably wouldn't go here to get my Korean food fix, I thought it was an interesting mix. I asked if the owners were Korean. It turns out the owners are a Thai woman and Korean man couple. Cute.

Although I'm not sure I'll be returning anytime soon, it is good to know that there is a place to get half-way decent Thai in the middle of Pasadena. Me, I'm lucky to be closer to Thai Town than I was before, so there's little reason to venture out to Pas.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Skip Yatai on the Strip

Anything purporting to be Asian fusion spells trouble for me, so I didn't have high expectations for Yatai on the strip. Well, besides a half-way decent crab handroll using tofu sheets and a theatrical pouring of sake from a giant wooden flute, most of the food wasn't all that.

Message boards exalted the virtues of its tuna sushi over toasted rice but while it sounded interesting on paper, it was much less so in practice. The tuna and the crunchy rice were ok and I liked that it tried to add flavor with a slice of jalapeno over each sushi. But it didn't compare to the fine sushi joints serving tuna sushi.

The crab hand roll that came in a paper-thin tofu sheet was probably the most flavorful of all things we got but again, why have this when you can have a divine blue crab hand roll at Hiko?

Our server repeated a few times that they weren't a sushi place. That's why they don't have the pickled ginger we asked for, she continued.

Then there was the sake pouring out of a massive wooden container that required the showmanship (or woman in our case) of a master.

It was poured into a cup until it overflowed into another wooden cup. It's a pain to drink but apparently that's how some hard-core sake places serve it.

There were some utterly forgettable dishes, including a paprika-dusted squid dish that was so overcooked and rubbery that we mourned the abuse the squid suffered.

There were also deep fried octopus balls that I thought would be like the ones sold on the streets of Tokyo from those molds. But alas, they were like potato koroke, deep fried balls of mashed potatoes coated with panko crumbs, except there were barely any octopus pieces and it wasn't panko.

The other deep fried items were just ok. The fried pumpkin with curry salt got rave reviews on message boards so we ordered that. The pumpkin was well-fried, crispy and light. The curry salt consisted of curry powder and salt. Nothing revolutionary, frankly.

The chicken karaage was also crispy but nothing like the really gingery and soy sauce-marinated flavor you get at real yakitoris or izakayas like Shinsengumi.

Maybe it was because they are neither a real sushi joint or real izakaya. They're fusion.

Not sure I'll be returning here. There are simply too many options serving far better food at similar or lower prices.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Larchmont Grill: Hold the Burger, Go for Calamari

I walked into Larchmont Grill with semi-high expectations from word of mouth and yelpers. I went on its Burger Night (Wednesday) that offers all kinds of different burgers, including a $19 Kobe beef burger that seemed to get mixed reviews, a basic one and a BBQ bacon cheddar burger.

The short end of it is that the burger was definitely above average. The patty was flavorful and I loved the sweet potato fries you could substitute regular fries with. However, it had some issues for this burger-crazed snob.

For one thing, the sesame seed bun was far too dense and dry, meaning it was either not the best quality bread or it was at least more than a day old.

While the patty was flavorful and had a red, semi-bloody interior, it was a little more cooked than I would have liked, although not overcooked enough to take back. When biting into the middle part, it seemed ok, but the edges were most certainly overcooked and the patty was hardened and dry as a result.

The cheddar cheese, butter lettuce, red onion (could go easier on those) and what tasted like an heirloom tomato were the works, alongside a side of avocado added as an extra. The barbecue sauce on the side was good enough, although not as good as the sauce from Los Olivos Cafe up north, which I've said I could drink by the bowl.

The fries were crispy and hot.

I also liked its take on fried calamari steaks, which it dusts with rice flour and serves with a tarragon caper aioli and a sweet chili dipping sauce. The calamari looked like chunky home fries, except they were really soft and crunchy squid chunks instead. The rice flour gave it an airiness that made fried food feel less heavy. The dipping sauces went well with the squid, although I personally liked the aioli better. The chili sauce could have used more heat.

The starter salad of butter lettuce, cherry tomatoes, radishes, avocado and pecorino romano shavings with a chipotle ranch dressing was refreshing. It was a bit overdressed for my taste and I wished they kicked it up a bit with the chipotle dressing as I could barely detect any heat. I realized later that the composition of the salad was very similar to the works in my burger, but it didn't matter. I could never have enough of avocado, tomatoes and pecorino cheese anyway.

The dessert was ok but I wished they hadn't dumped so much whipped cream on the ricotta fig tart. The tart itself was good and I loved the fresh berries it came garnished with. But I could barely taste the fig in the compote or jam that was drizzled over the tart and I could have used some condensed milk or better yet, really good, home-made vanilla ice cream or hazelnut gelato, to go with it instead of the dollop of cream that I shaved off.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Yabu in WeHo: Nab a Spot at the Sushi Bar

Just as I am very loyal to my fave burger joints, Hiko has been my go-to sushi place since I first stumbled on it almost six to seven years ago. But I'm also always looking for the next find, the neighborhood gem that has yet to be discovered. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the sushi at Yabu in West Hollywood. Sure, it wasn't a revelation like it was with Hiko, but some of the pieces were definitely worth returning for.

The most memorable was probably the scallop, which was contoured perfectly around the rice bed thanks to the precise knife-work of the chef who put incisions the size of tiny squares for easier consumption. I'm usually not a shelfish sushi person, but the scallop was so fresh and flavorful.

Another shellfish surprise: shrimp. It was so tender and packed with flavor that I vowed not to dismiss shellfish sushi again. It was also contoured to the shape of the rice block. I'm partial to warm rice, which Yabu didn't offer, but at least it wasn't super cold and too sticky.

My favorite kinds, such as toro (fatty tuna) and uni (sea urchin), were ok but not as good as at Hiko. The toro didn't melt in your mouth as much and the uni, while good, wasn't as rich, silky and fresh-tasting.

The giant clam was a disappointment. It smelled too much like the sea for my taste, and not in a good way. The squid, which came with a sheet of shiso leaf, which I don't usually like, was just so so. I don't understand the inserting of shiso leaf at every turn in sushi. I think it ruins the harmony of the flavors but that's just me.

We did omakase (chef's choice) and the chef made us a nifty little uni roll that had been deep fried and came with a side of fancy salt. I liked the interesting mix of textures of crunchy with the soft uni but there's nothing that compares to the great experience of having a fresh uni wrapped in the most delicate and crispy sheet of seaweed, like it's overflowing out of the seaweed (see first picture above). Plain and simple. Why deep-fry something that is perfectly good raw? It was good to see innovation in action but I'll go back to my no-frills uni dish any day. There's a reason I went for sushi. If I'd wanted cooked food, I'd have gone somewhere else. I don't like it when they mix and match raw and cooked food too much.

They made soup out of the shrimp heads left over from the shrimp sushi, which was ok.

I would advise to stay away from the fried calamari, which was so overcooked it tasted like rubber. So bad.

I didn't expect the sushi to be much good here because its west side location is known for its soba (buckwheat) noodles. I'm not a soba fanatic, so only went a few times even when I lived nearby. But the West Hollywood location is convenient, the service is good (we had to take back the sake more than once because it tasted off -- and they obliged and apologized profusely for the inconvenience) and sushi is definitely above average. Not the cheapest but reasonable if you don't go crazy with the expensive sushi.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Girasole: My New Favorite Italian in LA

Ok, so I just got back from Italy a few months ago. But even after all that pasta, a brief hiatus left me wanting more. My dining companion and I ventured out to find the best BYOB in town, so we stumbled upon Girasole on Larchmont.

What a find. I can't believe I'd passed by it so many times all these years and never discovered this truly hidden gem! There are many things to love about this place.

1) BYOB with no corkage

Can't beat that. Prices are a bit higher than your average Italian joint but then again, this isn't your average Italian joint.

2) Cozy, family-run place

It's tiny so reservations are a must and I don't recommend big parties of more than four. I love the neighborhood joint-feel of it.

3) Last but certainly not least, the fantastic food

I was so pleasantly surprised when I ordered the mixed cured meats plate and got a large board of bresaola, prosciutto, porchetta and a spicy salami calabrese with some arugula and drizzled olive oil. The meats were so fresh -- just sliced off the cutter -- and while it didn't necessarily come close to the cured meats I had in Italy, it was still a world away from those served in some of the average Italian places around this town. This was the first wow.

Then when I bit into the first morsel of the much yelped about pumpkin ravioli with sage and butter, I was hooked.

I'm usually not a big fan of sage but here it worked so well I couldn't just have one. In fact, the sweetness of the pumpkin, strong sage flavor topped with the what's-not-to-like butter were literally singing in my mouth. Washing it down with some Sangiovese made it even better. I was full but couldn't stop eating. Honest to God.

The tagliatelle al ragu was good too. A bit heavy on the sauce for me but still a lot better than many establishments purporting to serve "Spaghetti a la Bolognese," a claim our Italian friends would cringe at.

We were initially disappointed we couldn't find carbonara on the menu, so we made some inquiries and they agreed to make it for us (apparently one other patron had ordered it that evening). We were drinking Syrah and Pinot Noir that evening, and truth be told, this carbonara was just as addictive as the pumpkin ravioli. Ok, not as good as the one my dear friend EB made for me in Bologna, but very good nevertheless. Because it had pancetta, eggs and noodles, I felt like I was devouring a comforting breakfast dish, except I was having it with wine. Again, totally full on my second trip there, but unable to stop myself.

Girasole has single-handedly reversed my aversion for ravioli with its amazing offerings. I tried the mushroom ravioli in a creamy wild mushroom sauce. Ridiculous! I'm usually 1) not a big fan of ravioli as stated, and 2) not crazy about cream sauces because they're too heavy.

Well, this dish defied my expectations once again. Every bite felt like I stuck my head in a bouquet of wild mushrooms. It felt like I was there in the forest, smelling the wonderful aromas of the mushrooms. Did this dish go well with the red wine? Suffice it to say I couldn't stop eating this either.

On another visit, we tried the prosciutto with melon and figs. The menu listed it as one or the other but our greedy selves had to ask if we could get both. Ask and you shall receive.

This was another pleasant surprise. Fresh, just sliced prosciutto, some wrapping uber-sweet cantaloupe slices (like candy) and others adorning a few halves of black figs that had been drizzled with sugar and torched on top to warm and caramelize them a bit. The figs were phenomenal -- fresh and of course went perfectly well with the salty meat.

The only dish that didn't blow us away was the lamb stew that came with plain risotto. While good, I found the stew a tad salty for my taste, like it had been overcooked and its liquid over-reduced.

Some complained about the service but both times we went, we found the service to be good to excellent.

Oh, the olive oil that comes out with the bread (could be fresher) before the meal is interesting. I tasted hints of green tea, of all things, but our server assured us it came from a fine brand from Italy called Genco, as he showed us the large rectangular canister. Some patrons like the olive oil so much they buy it by the canister, he said.

Now onto dessert. We had an orange cake that was moist, very orange-y and delicious. Went great with the coffee.

I can't wait to return to try the braised rabbit that gets raves and other raviolis on the menu. Up to this point, Osteria Mozza had been my favorite Italian restaurant in LA but Girasole is inching up quickly, especially for its value.

Friday, October 8, 2010

RIP Cardinale Kitchen: Please Start an Empanada Lunch Truck

I know it's been a few months now, but wanted to pay respect to CK. Rest in peace Cardinale Kitchen. Cardinale sat on the corner of Melrose and Vine and served the best empanadas with the most garlicky chimichurri sauce. I loved that they were baked, not fried and had boiled egg in some of them, like I remember them back from my South America days. I am crushed that I no longer have a place to get my breakfast empanadas (which tasted great with an oozy fried egg). I think the owners should either start an online empanada-only business or go lunch truck. The other dishes weren't anything to write home about and that's probably why it never caught on. Please come back!

I bet that if they were to start an empanada lunch truck and used social media to have them followed, they'd hit the jackpot. So, ex-owners of Cardinale, what are you waiting for? The masses want more! Don't leave us with the mediocre fried versions from other joints that purport to make the best empanadas in LA! Claim your place in the empanada hall of fame! Los estamos esperando desesperadamente!

The beef was hands-down my fave, but the chicken, spinach, ham and cheese as well as the caprese were all pretty good.