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Sunday, February 5, 2012

dineLA Roundup: Scallops at Culina, Lobster Veloute at Tar Pit and Cauliflower Almond Soup at Sotto

I inadvertently booked mostly Italian restaurants for DineLA this past week, and by the end of the week, I was completely Italian food-ed. It'll be a while until my next pizza or pasta bite.

Overall I wasn't blown away by the three joints I tried, which were Culina, Tar Pit and Sotto.

There were, however, some notables. I'm going to start with the good dishes.

As an entree, Culina in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills served seared scallops with fennel and grapefruit that was well cooked, crispy on the edges and served very warm, which was good. The scallops were on the gigantic side and were extremely meaty. I wasn't crazy about the licorice taste of the fennel with the scallop (I don't mind it with the right combination, though) but the citrus flavor and texture of the grapefruit went great with the scallop, which was fresh.
The Tar Pit also served scallop but a single one atop a delectable lobster broth that our table couldn't get enough of (we asked for bread to absorb all that goodness). The menu called the broth veloute, as in velvety in French. It was also topped with tobiko, fish eggs, but I'm not a fan so skipped that. The rice puffs didn't add much to the dish.

The charred octopus at the Tar Pit that came with smoked paprika and white cheddar grits was a tad chewy but a nice starter. You know how I feel about white cheddar grits so I won't repeat myself but suffice to say that the octopus, soft grits and smoky paprika were a good match.
The cauliflower and almond soup at Sotto was very innovative and good. The texture of the soup was pretty thick, which I didn't mind, and super soft. This creamy soup was dotted with spicy chilies, briny capers and golden raisins. I love being pleasantly surprised at flavor and texture combinations and that's exactly what this dish offered. I liked tasting the cauliflower and nutty almond paired with some kick, saltiness as well as sweetness. If the flavor components don't work well together, I'd say it was a bad flavor explosion but that wasn't the case here.

I also liked the grilled mackerel scapece over a bed of chopped cauliflower (I'm not a cauliflower junkie, I swear) and other goodies at Sotto. Scapece is the Italian equivalent of escabeche found in many Spanish-speaking cultures, meaning grilled or poached protein (fish or meat) that's been marinated in some kind of vinegar or citrus-like mixture.

The fish was ok -- could have been a bit more fresh -- but the kicker was the bed of cauliflower, cured lemons, It's a speciality of the island of Pantelleria and a sauce used on fish, made of tomatoes, capers, basil, parsley, oregano, almonds, garlic, oil, chili peppers. There was a lot going on but I liked it. Again, a pleasant surprise.
The "short rib mignon" at the Tar Pit was not bad although not exactly melt in your mouth as ribs should be. Then again it was far better than the outrageously dry braised short ribs at Culina. The Tar Pit's short ribs came with apple-chestnut puree and pickled leeks. Although I could hardly taste the leeks, the puree went ok with the meat.
The tortelloni of sweet potato, amaretti cookies and sage brown butter at Culina was good but not nearly as good as the pumpkin ravioli at Girasole that I have raved about in the past.

The bucatini all' amatriciana at Culina held so much promise but they poured so much salt on it that the only way I was able to enjoy it was at home, topped with an unseasoned fried egg to temper the sodium. The yolk mixed into the pasta and made it more palatable. I'm not big on the hollow pasta either, mostly because I don't think it adds anything in terms of integrating better with the sauce as with farfalle or fusilli and it's darn hard to eat because it keeps slipping!

Don't get me started on the less than stellar dishes. The roasted chestnut, canellini beans and porcini soup at Culina sounded great on paper as I like all three of those things, but was too heavy and needed something light to balance out the starchiness.

The vegetable terrine of roasted vegetables and caramelized kumquats and fried plaintains at the Tar Pit was hard to eat and served room temperature, which I didn't like. The roasted vegetables were hard to mess up, but I wasn't sure about adding the sweet and tart kumquats. As for fried plaintains, what's not to like about them?

Other culprits: margherita pizza at Sotto that looked great but the crust was disappointingly soggy and chewy, instead of being crispy like it should be. The tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil were all great but the crust is half the battle, am I right? If the crust ain't there, forget about it.

The braised lamb ragu with egg and pecorino on casarecce pasta at Sotto was outright bad. The lamb was stinky and just because I don't like to waste food, I did the fried egg trick again but this time, it barely made a difference. Maybe next time, I'll have to add a ton of freshly ground pepper to mask the not-so-fresh lamb.

Ditto for the root vegetable pasta at the Tar Pit, which was bland period. No amount of fried egg-ery could salvage this one. The snapper and crab ravioli dish was probably the worst one of them all. Dry ravioli that's been frozen for far too long, as was the snapper. Awful.

Let's talk desserts. The best was the bittersweet chocolate crostata with hazelnuts and salted rosemary caramel at Sotto. Because I don't have a huge sweet tooth, I liked the sweet-cum-savory aspect of the not-too-sweet chocolate cake.

The cleverly dubbed "gelato pie" (how could one not like something called this?) consisting of meyer lemon, blueberry marmelade and hazelnuts atop some biscuits was too heavy on the cream for my taste.

I haven't met a hazelnut I didn't like. But too much cream is too much cream.

As far as service, Culina was alright but I don't think I'll be returning. Just too many good alternatives for Italian, including Osteria Mozza for special occasion or Girasole for amazing seasonal ingredients prepared fresh and no corkage!

The service at the Tar Pit was, er, pitiful. The owner/chef, Mark Peel of Campanile fame kept a constant watch over the restaurant floor featuring beautiful decor, but service was extremely slow. I didn't care for the live music either that was too loud but my fault for coming to a lounge/restaurant. It's more like a bar than a restaurant. Hard to keep a conversation.

Service at Sotto was curious. They made us wait for our table when we could see there were two tables that were visibly available right by the hostess area. Our server, however, was good.

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