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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Providence: Fancy Seafood Using Asian Ingredients is a Winner But Save Up Before You Go

I had high expectations of Providence, a fancy shmancy place known for its seafood cooked using Asian ingredients and sauces. Oh, and its multiple dollar signs when listed indicating it's a pricey place. I'm normally a pretty demanding customer when it comes to restaurants that charge an arm and a leg. If I'm going to pay bank, I expect the ambiance to be wonderful, the service attentive, knowledgeable and unpretentious and the food stellar.
Shortly after my dinner companion and I arrived, we were told we needed to wait as our table "was not ready." As we sat there waiting for our third friend to show up, it dawned on me that they were just being lame and not seating us to wait for the entire party to be present. I have to vent a bit here. I don't understand why restaurants do this! It is the most frustrating, customer-UN friendly practice ever! Don't make your customers wait for the sake of your convenience. If there's a reasonable reason restaurants do this, I have yet to hear it. It's not like we had a 8-person party. So we were seated after I asked our hostess what the holdup was. Overall food was very good. Service was above average but short of my expectations for a restaurant of this caliber (and price tag).
One thing I do love about fancy restaurants is that at least they give you a few freebies like amuse bouche in the beginning of the meal to whet your appetite. Providence was no exception and I took diligent mental notes of what everything was but unfortunately, my brain has limited memory so I wasn't able to remember everything.
The first soupy one was a bright green concoction that was likely a cold cucumber soup with some foamy thing in the bottom, paired with a cheese puff. Presentation was gorgeous and it was nice having a cold starter in this scorching weather although the interior felt a bit over-air conditioned after a while.

The most effective "mouth-amuser," as it translates from French, was the salmon skin chips that came displayed on a marble-like plate with compartments, accompanied with a trout roe dip topped with chives. The chips were a revelation. 1) I'm not a huge salmon fan, much less a salmon skin fan, 2) it was as perfectly roasted/toasted/torched as you can imagine -- crispiest of crisp and 3) and how green of them to not throw anything away and transform them into these beauties.

I liked the butter and the bread selection was not bad, but again -- high standards alert -- I like my fancy bread warmed up so it almost tastes like it came fresh out of the oven. The selection included bacon bread, olive bread (both of which were bland and too salty, respectively) and a very interesting seaweed focaccia-type soft bread. Who knew seaweed had so many permutations like seaweed mashed potatoes and seaweed bread? Bonus points.

Of course there's always the more disciplined part of me telling me to stop filling my stomach with useless carbs and save myself for the really good stuff that's about to go down. The crab appetizer was, yes, pretty, and a mix of sweetness from the crab meat and juicy sweetness from the melon that lined the plate, which was drizzled with what tasted like balsamic vinegar to add some savory to the sweetness. It also had mango, which was a lot of sweetness on the plate that was tempered, or saved, rather, by the addition of this sriracha mayo that gave the dish the flavor and kick it needed. Another rant: I couldn't believe I bit into at least three shells. I most definitely don't think this should happen when I'm paying $$ for my food. This ain't the Crab Shack, y'all. Am I being too demanding here?

The scallop ceviche that came with "sea lettuce" that basically resembled a type of seaweed, was fresh and naturally sweet.

The main dish was spectacular in its presentation and flavors. French rouget, aka red mullet, pan fried whole and fileted with a green as grass pistou that was a mix of parsley and jalapeno.

Our server had cautioned that the fish is naturally fishier than your average fish a la Spanish Mackerel but the fish was perfectly cooked and seasoned -- and not fishy at all. The flesh was soft and tender. Obviously the quality of the ingredients was solid.

Another main dish, the sea bass, came with blocks of blood sausage, celery root, pickled celery that I didn't care for and shishito. The fish was equally well-cooked although I didn't love the celery.

The seared duck breast had a croquette-like fried ball with some deliciously smoked eggplant, chanterelle mushrooms, black figs and shiso leaves. There was a lot going on on the plate but the meat was well-cooked and the sides complemented the gaminess of the duck well.

We tried three desserts, including a trio of house-made sorbets and two extremely creative desserts -- a peach crumble over a bed of miso pot de creme and a combination of soft cakes, muscat grapes (my new favorite fruit of the summer), rice crispies and a muscat grape sorbet.

The sorbets were good but the best one was the muscat grape flavor. What did I tell you about my new obsession? They were all like biting into the original fruit transformed into icy scoops sitting daintily on avant garde glassware.

The peach crumble over the creamy miso creme was divine. I suspect both the chef and pastry chefs are masters of mixing sweet and savory that seemed to be a common thread throughout the entire meal. This dessert was very creative and it worked well.

The grape-rice crispies-sorbet dessert was also a nice mix of textures and temperatures but not as memorable as the miso peach crumble.

After stuffing ourselves silly with all this crab, mullet and miso peach crumble, the restaurant offered us a sweets sampler plate including macaroons, raspberry jellies and plum caramel. I can't believe I'm saying this because I'm not a big candy person but the plum caramel was incredibly good.

The macaroons were too sweet for me. I'm no big fan of jellies either but I still finished them because they were home-made, so to speak.

I brought a nicely chilled rose from a cool winery in Napa I recently visited for a hot summer evening so we could enjoy a whole bottle and not pay a hefty check. Corkage is $30.
Service was not as good as other high end restos like Bazaar or Mozza.

I will likely be returning although it is, after all, a special occasion restaurant.

It's located in a weird part of Melrose -- not quite WeHo nor Hollywood. A bit grungy for the type of restaurant, actually. But street parking is easy so that I like.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Decent Italian, Out-of-This-World Strawberry Rhubarb Pie and Crustiest Bread Around: The Best of Ojai (near Santa Barbara)

I wasn't sure what to expect when we took a road trip to Ojai for the weekend, but it turned out to be all that it was cracked up to be -- relaxing and quaint, with a few unforgettable gems thrown in. Our first stop was OMG! - Osteria Monte Grappa, a cute little Italian place with a nice outdoor patio that purports to serve authentic Italian food. The pan fried calamari in a tomato sauce with a slice of polenta sporting the perfect grill marks was ok but the squid wasn't top quality.
I liked that the bread was warm although in Italy serving fresh, warm bread usually seemed to be the last thing on restaurateurs' minds. Anyway, we used the bread as sponges to absorb the tomato juice in the calamari dish.

It was fun trying some of the local wines -- an Ojai rose that I craved due to the severe heat. It was 7pm and barely under 100 degrees!

The first pleasant surprise was the grilled beet salad, which came with radicchio, green beans and shaved parmesan. I usually like my radicchio grilled so its bitterness is tempered but the revelation was definitely the grilled beets. The tiny beets themselves were bursting with flavor. They seemed like they were just picked in the restaurant's own garden. They were naturally sweet but they also had smoky undertones from the grill, which first made me happy but then made me wonder if they had added any liquid smoke to infuse a smoky flavor.

Nah. It's got to be natural, right? Well, I'll never know. But they weren't smoky to the point of being overpowering. They were just right and added a whole new dimension to the beet salad I had never tasted before. Brownie points.

The first pasta, penne with eggplant, tomatoes and chunks of burrata was just average. I liked its lightness.

Revelation #2 came with the fettuccine pesto with monkfish, green beans (OMG evidently likes its green beans -- never seen so much of it in Italian food before) and bell peppers. What I liked about it was that it didn't taste too heavy like most pestos I've had. I've had very few pestos that I loved. This was came very close. Purists may say it was too watery or that one couldn't taste the basil as much. Guilty on all accounts. But I actually liked the subtle basil taste. One of my dinner companions and I were positive this pesto had more than basil -- we tasted mint, for instance. But the menu cryptically presented the dish as "local herbs pesto," whatever that means. We asked the hostess and server but they insisted it was mostly basil, maybe with some parsley. Parsley?! We swore we detected mint in there but apparently none was used. In any case, I had never had pesto with fish, only solo, with veggies or shrimp. So it was a nice combo that I hope to have again.

And now, for the third and last revelation -- the cheesecake. I've never had cheesecake in Italy so not sure how authentic it was and it wasn't the most attractive-looking piece of cake. But oh, it was the perfect end to a good meal. It wasn't too sweet, which is always a pet peeve of mine for desserts. The raspberry sauce was subtle and the cheese flavor was just enough to appreciate the fact that it's a cheesecake. Italians seem to use ricotta for their cheesecakes but not sure ricotta was used for this version. In any case, it was solid.

The sorbets were good too although not exactly revelatory. The lime sorbet was the best, followed by peach.

Definitely a place I'd like to return to, save for the weird server who carded us (normally would have been flattered but he was creepy!) when we ordered wine and gratuitously kept calling us "love." You're not in London and you're not English, dude!

The next day, we discovered some amazing gems at the Farmers' Market despite the scorching weather. We managed to get the sweetest yellow peaches and juicy plums from the stands. I got the most delicious crusty bread from New Vineland Bread, which is part of a well-known winery in Lompoc that sounds very promising (note to self: must visit soon). I also stopped by Mt. Olive Company's stand, which had the most amazing jams. So amazing, in fact, that I got the peach and nectarine one spiked with chili sauce.

The kicker was the strawberry rhubarb pie from Marcie's Pies/Jimenez Family Farm that was, quite simply, out of this world. I'm a huge pie snob and this was one was, again, not too sweet, and the fruit filling was clearly made with the best quality ingredients where you can really taste the sweetness. You know how many fruit just don't taste like anything anymore? Well, you could definitely taste these berries and rhubarb. This was my very first rhubarb pie and it was divine.

I mean, take one look at this pie. It's a veritable beauty! I just learned much to my delight that I won't have to trek all the way to Ojai to have another one of Marcie's Pies because they come out to the Farmers' Markets in Santa Monica and Hollywood. Woo hoo!! Big thumbs up.

After nearly melting away in the sun, we headed to Oak Grill at the massively expansive Ojai Valley Inn & Spa to seek refuge in the wonderfully air conditioned interior.

The bread was freshly baked and warm. The butter was notably good. I had the slow-cooked barbecued braised beef sandwich that came with roasted green chiles, arugula, pepper jack cheese and chipotle aioli on a toasted potato bread bun. It was excellent. Picture-perfect grounds. Impeccable service. All this doesn't come cheap but lunch is more affordable than dinner.  Plus, you get the view.

Try going to Ojai for a weekend getaway. It's close enough and its greenery and remote feel still make you feel like you've escaped the city.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Luggage Room Pizzeria: Promising but a Miss

I had somewhat high hopes for The Luggage Room Pizzeria in Pasadena after reading some of the message boards and hearing about it from a fellow foodie friend. Then I heard it was from the owners of the adjacent La Grande Orange. First red flag. Aside from a slightly decent burger, I hadn't been impressed. Didn't like the vibe or decor there. And I felt somewhat the same way about the ambiance at  Luggage. Plus, I have yet to find a fantastic eatery in Pasadena (cue the hate mail from impassioned Pasadenos). Call me a hater, but it's true.

I entered fully prepared to like this place. I even refrained from a chance to have pizza for lunch to save myself for this pie.

But you guessed it. I was disappointed. I had been excited about the prospects of being able to top my pies with extra freebies like egg. Looks the part above, right?

Well, the crust didn't quite cut it for me. Ok, I am a crust snob. Fine, I am an everything snob. But I can't help it if I've tried the most amazing pizza in Napoli and can't get it out of my head. It set the standard and I can't go back. The crust should be crispy yet substantive enough to be able to hold the cheese, tomato sauce and other light toppings without getting too soggy. I long for light and airy pizza where you don't feel heavy at all even after four slices. I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to burgers and pizzas, but Mozza for sure and Olio does a better one than this place.

Let's start with the good -- the kale and quinoa salad. Kale seems to be making a comeback and that's a good thing if it means getting more vitamins and calcium into my body. It came shredded with some shaved Parmesan cheese and tomatoes but the nice touch was the crunch and nuttiness from the sunflower seeds. It was like a speed cleansing to prep my stomach for the unhealthy food about to make its way. The dressing was light and lemony. Thumbs up. See, I'm not always scathing.

But that was the extent of the somewhat positive experience. Service was good but the clunky wooden trays they brought the pizzas on were inconvenient and miscalculated for the small tables, especially since we had ordered three pies. Why disincentivize (I hope that's a word) ordering multiple pies and make it hard to place on the table?

The white wine Sangria that our server claimed was one of its signature drinks was basically 99% ice, 2 grape halves, one tiny orange wedge and one teaspoon of wine. Weak. I drank it because it was cold. But I can confidently say that my Sangria is at least five times better.

We got the classic Margherita, one with Italian sausage, fennel and roasted red peppers and another one with burrata, roasted garlic, piquillo peppers and balsamic reduction. The last one we topped with an over-easy egg for free. I give them props for offering the option of adding cool toppings like egg, broccolini, fresno chiles, roasted garlic, etc, for free. But alas, while I loved the egg, it wasn't able to save the mediocre pizza.

Margherita is my pizzometer wherever I go. And this didn't exactly pass. Serviceable, but not enough to want to return. My love of piquillo peppers drew me to that pie but I could barely taste them, not to mention the roasted garlic.

The sausage and fennel one was probably last  among my ranking of pizzas we had. But I am biased against meat in my pizzas. Yes, the carnivore extraordinaire, the one who adds bacon and meat to everything does not like to have meat in pizza.

We had a bunch of leftovers so my dinner mates and I took some home...and had them for breakfast with an egg the next day. Sure, eggs always take things up a notch but the pizzas were still too salty without too much else in terms of flavor.

None of the desserts enticed us so we passed.

Needless to say, I'm glad I tried it but I won't be returning.

Credits to photos 4 & 5 go to ctg. Thank you!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Messob in Little Ethiopia: Soak Up The Goods with Spongy Injera

I was never one to crave Ethiopian but having it for the first time in a long time made me realize that perhaps I had missed it more than I knew. We went to Messob in the heart of Little Ethiopia on Fairfax and got an assortment of mostly vegetarian dishes to eat the spongy injera bread with.

We got the Doro Wot, whole chicken pieces in a delightful sauce with a hard boiled egg and a sample of the veggie ones that included garlicky peas and onions, lentils in a red pepper sauce, steamed vegetables with spices and chopped up collard greens. My favorites were the chicken and peas. The massive tray came with a nondescript and unremarkable greens salad on a bed of injera.

I loved tearing pieces of the injera and grabbing different fillings for each bite. My only highly culturally insensitive complaint, if you will, is that I'm not the most adroit so just using my hands to try to break off a piece of the hard boiled egg with one hand using the injera piece as my only utensil was like an accident waiting to happen. I was fully prepared to have the chicken sauce splatter all over my dainty summer dress but thankfully, there were no injuries during the shooting of this post.
I could taste the distinctive flavor of peas and the lentils were good too. It felt particularly good as you know how lentils are good for you? The collar greens were just ok, probably my least favorite but it provided a variation in texture and color.

The steamed vegetables consisted of green cabbage and carrots, which didn't have too much flavor but again, they balanced out the other strongly flavored ones on the tray.
I'm not going to lie. I'm not going to list Ethiopian on top of my list of favorite cuisines just yet. But it was still a nice reminder of the wealth of restaurants and mini communities that LA has to offer. Maybe I'll bring my own knife to cut up the egg and chicken next time.