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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Dinela Roundup: Locanda Veneta Rules, Ortolan, Craft and Palate Disappoint

I didn't go all out this dinela season but it's always a pleasant surprise when I discover a gem I hadn't previously noticed. This time around, it was Locanda Veneta, a low-key Italian joint in Beverly Hills that might as well be straight out of a small alleyway in Venice. It's rustic Italian food at its best, with decent service and hugely generous portions (maybe this part is more American).

The perfectly grilled baby squid atop spicy greens was superb, probably one of the best dishes I've had during Restaurant Week this time around.

The squid was seasoned lightly with some salt and pepper, and squirted some fresh lemon juice over it and I could taste the sea. So soft with enough of a bite. I'll definitely dream about this squid, or I'll just have to return for that.

The first course consisting of mushroom risotto, a creamy lobster squid ink (aka black) ravioli and a spicy penne alla arrabiata was a great pasta sampler. I liked the risotto the best, cooked al dente with an intensely mushroom flavor that took me back to the woods. The arrabiata was nice and tomato-y with a bit of a kick. The lobster was not fresh and pretty much killed the ravioli. I was mildly annoyed when I asked the owner to announce the dishes and he went on this patronizing explanation that would be fit for someone who's been living in a cave all her life and had never had Italian food before. "Risotto is made from arborio rice...The ravioli sauce is a saffron sauce. Saffron is..." and I had to stop him. I couldn't take it anymore. I know he was trying to be friendly. Let's not go overboard here.

As for the others, the radicchio, arugula and endive salad that was very lightly dressed in a vinaigrette was refreshing; the braised rabbit with olives, pearl onions and mushrooms was very tender, a bit salty and reminiscent of coq au vin, the classic French chicken dish braised in wine and veggies; and the pork loin stuffed with fennel and Italian sausage accompanied by grilled radicchio and caramelized onions was good but I don't like the strong Italian sausage flavor, so had to remove it before eating. The grilled radicchio transformed the bitterness into a wonderful sweetness and the onions were very sweet. The desserts were nothing special -- tiramisu and a Nutella crepe that was overly sweet and ridiculously over-decorated with creme. This from a Nutella fiend...

Portions were so large I currently have a lifetime supply of rabbit in my fridge, not to mention spinach gnocchi that it came with that I'll sear on a pan when reheating. They'll taste better that way anyway -- less mushy and crispier.

Did somebody say Michelin 2-star restaurant? I was never a Michelin believer, but I was appalled at how awful Ortolan was. So what if the chef is French? The service was downright terrible and the food was highly forgettable.

The only, and I mean, only saving grace for this place was the seared scallop appetizer that came with chestnuts (one of which was past its prime), grapes and kumquats in a truffle sauce. The scallop was perfectly cooked -- browned and crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. And the tartness, sweetness, sourness and nuttiness of all the accompaniments worked very well together.

The asparagus soup that came in a test tube on the house was ok. The "open ravioli" (consisting of a single sheet covering the veggies) with green beans and other vegetables was extremely bland. The braised short ribs over a light risotto and topped with some haricot verts and greens was overly salty but passable. The salmon wrapped in a pastry with some other things was bland and the salmon didn't taste fresh at all. The chocolate tart and panna cotta desserts were embarrassing.

But the biggest beef I have with Ortolan is the outrageously bad service. To add insult to injury, it automatically adds a 20% service charge to your bill (apparently all dinela patrons as a matter of policy) without telling you and has the audacity to include a "tip" line when paying by credit card. Thank God my dinner companion caught it and after speaking with a manager, it was removed and I was able to give what I believed the service warranted. Whatever you do, Ortolan, you have to pay more attention to the service. Or at least make sure your food tastes amazing so people are willing to endure the sub-par service, especially for those prices. Get thee to the Bazaar or Osteria Mozza to see what I'm referring to when I say good service.

Nick & Stef's Steakhouse
I went for the burger during the lunch hour, since it's a steakhouse and it's hard for a steakhouse to mess up a burger. The burger was decent, cooked medium rare as I like it, with a sturdy bun and basic accouterments like lettuce, tomato, red onions, cheddar cheese and pickles. The Thousand Island dressing/sauce it was smothered in was interesting.

The room temperature, over-salted sweet potato fries, however, were unacceptable. They were sliced too thin and dipped in some sort of sodium bath. No good at all. The skirt steak was tasty but the sides were unremarkable (potato puree and arugula). The lemon merengue pie was too sweet and sorbets tasted like they were out of Ciao Bella boxes (which I like, actually, but I could get that in the store!).

Craft Los Angeles
I was curious to try this celebrity chef's (Tom Colicchio) restaurant even though I never watch Top Chef. Well, I was disappointed. The best thing was the foie gras and jelly spread that was part of the charcuterie plate. It was very well made and was a great match for the bread. The greens salad with pecorino and hazelnuts sounded better on paper than it tasted. Didn't jump off the plate. We got the exotic-sounding "Hawaiian blue prawns" to much disappointment (totally bland and unexotic) and the loin steak atop beans and thyme was decent but nothing to write home about. The desserts were so blah that they don't warrant mentioning. Should've gotten the pork shoulder entree that sources later told me was the best choice...

Palate Food + Wine
A group of us went there for the dinela menu but upon arriving, decided to order off the regular menu. I would not return. Service was equally bad as Ortolan and the food was forgettable. We got the "porkfolio" cured meats sampler that consisted of prosciutto, speck, salumi, finocchiona, saucisson sec and bresaola (air-dried salted beef). I think I could get a better sampler at the Cheese Store or even the Whole Foods in Pasadena. The only thing worth mentioning was the pate-like potted pork that spread like mustard on bread and almost had a chicken/tuna-like consistency and taste but somehow worked well.

The beet and citrus salads (two separate salads) were ordinary. This may sound anal but I took issue with the way the citrus was cut in the salad. Don't cut them against the rind. Segment each piece so we only get the "meat" of the citrus. The extra work is worth it because it doesn't detract the flavors from the peel and white parts.

The best entree was the grilled hanger steak but that was not that remarkable. The dish was good but was neither original nor transformative. The pork belly with squid was the next best dish but it could have been a lot better. The squid's flavors and textures didn't pop to bring out the best in the ingredients, like the squid at Locanda Veneta above. The salmon wasn't fresh and the grilled cod was not edible. The cod was overcooked and smelled fishy.

Now for the service. Our server was not attentive and we had to continuously flag him to get more water and other baisc things that should be done by default. I was looking forward to chef Octavio Becerra's creative concoctions but alas, they didn't work and bad service didn't make the experience any better. I'm surprised at how many restaurateurs don't understand the importance of good service and don't take it seriously, especially when it comes to a so-called fine dining establishment.

Now onto burning all those calories!

Craft Los Angeles
10100 Constellation Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 279-4180

Locanda Veneta
8638 W. Third Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048-3323
(310) 274-1893

Nick & Stef's Steakhouse
330 S. Hope Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 680-0330

8338 W. Third Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048-4311
323) 653-3300

Palate Food + Wine
933 S Brand Blvd.
Glendale, CA 91204
(818) 662-9463

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