Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Italian Food, A Review

There’s this little Italian restaurant in Santa Monica that we’ve always passed, never venturing to go inside because, after perusing the outside menu one day, we realized that the price range is not that of a casual dining experience, but more of the “special occasion” variety. Well, finally, and fortunately, a special occasion happened that deserved a reservation at this little, refined Italian watering hole.

We almost laughed as we entered, half expecting the host to recognize and chastise us for passing by so many times and not stopping in. But he beckoned us to follow him with a warm smile, ushering us to a table along one of the dark walls. The restaurant was small and cozy, with two walls lined with oak wine barrels-turned-wine racks, full of wine of course. He presented us both with menus (“Grazie.” “Prego.”) and handed MyL the wine list. MyL promptly passed it over the table to me, “She’ll be ordering the wine tonight.” Smile.

Our server came shortly thereafter plunking a bread basket on the table and with the slightest Italian accent asked what kind of water we wanted. No olive oil came with the bread. Looking at the menu, I noticed that we would have to order separately. Hmmm…I would forgive this if the olive oil was good--and the one they offered was…very good, in fact (Olio & Olive). But before jumping to order some, we tried the bread first…as I continued to read the wine list. The bread was soft and doughy; it was dusted with cheese, parsley, and dried bits of garlic; it did not need any oil.

As for the wine selection, well, after getting MyL to agree to enjoy a glass or two with me, our choices opened up significantly with the list of available half bottles. I was craving a Montepulciano, so asked the server what came closest. He consulted with the sommelier who, as I predicted, suggested the two Brunello di Montalcino. We ordered the 2001 Col D’Orcia (priced at a none-too-modest $58; this was a special occasion after all). It was deliciously tannicky, dry, full-body, and had a lingering, smooth finish. It would be perfect with what I had in mind for dinner.

The menu itself was full of rich one-off Italian classics (homemade beet tagliolini with homemade quail sausage, sea urchin carpaccio, veal shank and pheasant). We listened to the specials and the chef’s tasting menu for $70 each ($125 each if we wanted to top each plate with white truffle shavings, otherwise they would all be topped with black truffle shavings, save one dish of our choosing to have the white). We decided to order from the menu, and our server was gracious enough to split each dish for us free of charge.

We started with an Italian classic: crudo di carciofi e parmigiano (thinly sliced celery and artichoke hearts served with arugula, shaved parmesan and a lemon dressing). It was light, lemony, and crunchy. A perfect dish to start with. From there I was torn between pan-seared sweet breads served in a bed of soft polenta and marsala wine demiglaze or cognac chicken liver terrine served with Tuscan croutons. We ordered the terrina di fegatini di pollo con crostini di pane all’aglio. The terrine was huge, larger than the servings offered at a specialty food store. And the garlic crostini was a very complementary backdrop to the creamy, earthy terrine. I ate most of this dish.

We followed our second course with a pasta: ravioli di brasato su salsa di porcini (homemade ravioli filled with braised beef filet mignon served in a bed of porcini mushrooms and topped with butter and sage sauce). MyL chose this course, and what a good choice indeed. I love brown butter and sage sauces to begin with, so adding this pasta (covered in more parmesan, mind you) to this sauce was about six bites of heaven for me. The ravioli filled with the filet mignon was substantial, yet not too heavy for the delicate pasta. The flavors blended together to create delectable, little edible pillows.

Our final course was simple, yet classic: costiccine d’agnello nostrano alle due senapi (marinated Colorado lamb chops served with Dijon and grain mustard sauce), ordered rare with warm centers. The lamb was crusted over from carmelization on the outside and perfectly juicy and bloody on the inside. As we finished our fourth and final course, I commented to MyL, “If we were not sitting in this restaurant, surrounded by these people, I’d pick up this lamb chop and clean the bone!”

Our server came to our table then and asked how we enjoyed the meal. “We didn’t enjoy it at all…as you can see by our completely cleaned plates.” His eyes twinkled, “Yes, I can tell.” And I could tell that he’s proud of the food they serve…as well he should be.

Any dessert? Cappuccino? Espresso? No, thank you. Nothing can follow a meal like this except the time afterwards to savor the taste and appreciate the experience.

Molto bene. Grazie. Prego. Buonanotte. Yes, indeed. It was a good night.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

My love affair...with food

…and wine, but this is not dedicated to wine (although I am keenly aware of my current preference to the darker tannicky petite sirah over its more elegant cousin, the syrah). I will save my (very strong) opinion of wine for later.

There is no rhyme or reason for this…shall we say…aubade. My love affair with food is complicated---in the best and worst sense.

Granted those of you that know me, really know me, my precious and patient loved ones, also know that this is my source of constant struggle, my lifelong yin and yang. I am not addressing that rather somber side of my love affair, however. Not right now.

As for the emphatic and rather passionate side of my love affair, it’s far-reaching and all-encompassing. From the playfulness of an amuse bouche, served before the hors d'Ĺ“uvre to awaken the palate, to the silky sincerity of my favorite cheese, the French bucheron, I am very earnest in my love. And I welcome both the aperitif and digestif alike, before and after my meal. I crave the fleshy raw, paper-thin savory slices of a peppery carpaccio with fresh lemon juice squeezed on top as much as I crave the cured, paper-thin sharper slices of a prosciutto di Parma wrapped around melon or figs. Pate is one of my weeknight indulgences spread over a hearty crostini enjoyed with, of course, a glass of wine. But recently I was most pleasantly surprised by a rich foie gras slider (basically, a panini cut into fours) that I enjoyed at a local wine bar. It was accompanied by a mix of olives that included deliciously mild and nutty lucques, another favorite of mine.

I could go on and on, mind you.

But I should also recognize the flipside of my gastronomical love affair. The dirty, gritty, deliciously sinful flipside. My fast food of choice? I’m torn between either the fresh and substantial In-N-Out burger (ordered animal-style and protein-style, and always after midnight) or the supermarket pre-cooked whole rotisserie chicken in the plastic bag priced under $10, in any flavor that is offered (from BBQ to herbed). I also tend to gravitate towards anything deep-fried, as in chicken (preferably on top of a waffle) or Twinkies---a la mode (thank you, Lulu’s Blue Plate off of Sawtelle; may you rest in peace). Of course, breakfast being a favorite weekend pastime of mine would be remiss without Spam over eggs and rice, with a few dashes of hot sauce, or Eggs Benedict, a dish I must order at any place that offers it, good or bad reputation notwithstanding.

I must speak to my obsession over protein. From a good quality juicy steak, cooked rare-plus (i.e., very bloody with a warm center), and sometimes au poivre, to anything in the ocean, from sushi to shellfish. I should mention, in particular, the crab…completely doused in Old Bay (those from the Eastern seaboard, preferably from Washington, DC down to the Carolinas should be plenty familiar with Old Bay).

That said, my Samoan heritage needs representing here, too, with its rich and tropical flavors. The bright taste of oka (raw, seasoned fish in lemon juice, coconut milk and onions) is almost in and of itself a perfect amuse bouche. And Samoan BBQ chicken (marinated in soy sauce, fresh minced garlic, vinegar, and sugar) is juicier and more complex than most any BBQ chicken I’ve tasted.

My love affair with food is highly judgmental, borderline snobbish. A food can be prepared appropriately and as expected; a dish can be served fresh and flavorful; a plate can be made simply but with the highest quality ingredients…and the alternative can also happen.

My love affair spans far and wide. I’d say that it’s resting very appropriately in France right now, and probably will be there for a while. I’m enjoying complimentary French foods, wines, and cheeses too much to sway in another direction just yet. But I will continue to appreciate the pleasant, little surprises along the way at the hole-in-the-walls, or the recommended dishes at the local spots, or the homemade holiday treats as they are brought into the office. I will not turn down my first experience with any food. In the same token, do not expect me to be at all forgiving the second time around.