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LA (DOWNTOWN): THE PRETTIEST PRESENTATION [PATINA]

By Nora Zelevansky / August 2nd, 2010

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For anyone who has ever watched a Top Chef episode (or even a Hell's Kitchen, lord help us), "plating" is not a foreign concept.  We get it: The food needs to look pretty too (chili dogs notwithstanding).

Still, every once in a while, I come across a dish that's so spectacular looking that I hardly want to touch it for fear of ruining the pretty picture.  Such was the case this weekend, when Andre and I went and had an amazing dinner at Patina downtown.  At the waiter's suggestion, we ordered the roasted vegetable "Mosaic" (see above) and it arrived looking like something Willy Wonka would have dreamed up.  Is that an Oompa Loompa peeking out from behind the asparagus?

It's not easy to make vegetables look so tantalizing, but–of course–we shouldn't have been surprised, as the restaurant's new executive chef from NYC, Tony Esnault, hails from one, two AND three-star Michelin restaurants.  For this dish, he actually cooks each element individually, so that it retains its flavor and the right texture.

Truly, everything we ate was good.  But another highlight for me was the Hibiscus Honey sorbet (the pink one below).  See, for lactards who don't feel like cheating and eating dairy, dessert can be a sort of sad time.  Most of the best sweet treats involve butter, milk or, in my humble opinion, condensed milk (dolce de leche or tres leche cake, anyone?).  Sorbet is often the only solution and it tends to be kind of pathetic.  How much raspberry icey stuff can one person eat?

But this hibiscus flavor was really different than anything I'd tasted before with this subtle honey flavor and a slightly tart undertone.  I loved it!  And the coconut was pretty excellent too, super creamy with a texture more like ice cream.

What did I do this weekend?  I ate everything in sight at this special occasion spot apparently.  I totally recommend you do the same. Ooompa, loompa, doopety doo, I've got another puzzle for you …

xo – N.

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LA (BEVERLY HILLS): THE BEST ALTERNA-“IVY”

By Nora Zelevansky / March 9th, 2009

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(Cecconi's Delish Ahi Tartar, Lovely Indoor Area and Refreshing Iced Tea Served Alfresco)

The Ivy, Orso, Spago . . . any longtime LA-er can point you towards the city's sceniest power lunch scenes, where–often–a beloved patio table is most coveted.  No matter how notorious the scene, though, many restaurants have slowed to a relative crawl in light of the current economic sitch (blah, blah, blah–who wants to talk about that?)

Just trying to set the stage . . .

Picture it, Sicily, 1910.  No.  Cause I'm not Sophia on Golden Girls.  But do picture it, Robertson & Melrose, this past Thursday: I head into new Italian spot Cecconi's for lunch at a little past 1pm (yes, I have a lateness problem–SORRY).  First of all, it smells like fire place outside, which I love and this little stretch of Melrose is a lesser traveled section with many good restaurants and SoCal staple shops from comfy casual, but well-cut haven James Perse (can you tell I'm obsessed?) to his father's famed boutique, Maxfield.

Once inside, this new restaurant is crazy crowded; not in a bad way, but it's packed to say the least. And I'm seriously underdressed in a striped long-sleeved shirt, jeans and white converse, at least by comparison to the swanky crowd.  In a weird way, I guess my nearby neighborhood is just a bit more casual.  Maybe I should have seen that coming, but the more time I spend working at home in loungewear, the less I ever feel like putting on constricting nice clothes (that aren't James Perse).  Like Cher from Clueless, my party clothes are binding, you know?  Moving on.

Though I'd not heard a ton about the food itself, of course I'd read about the eatery's opening, so I wasn't surprised to see the pretty French blue chairs and chandeliers set against black and white tiling. Plus, as the restaurant originated in London and then found a home at NYC's Soho House, I knew to expect at least a high-end experience.  Luckily, my punctual lunch date had picked a spot on The Terrace.

My theory is that patios are so coveted in LA because, despite the year round beautiful weather, there aren't so many great outdoor dining spaces.  It's inexplicably odd, but true.  Anyway, this is a lovely one and no sooner had I taken a seat on the sun-slathered banquet, when they covered half the patio with their retractable roof to shield us from burning or heating up.  Very conscientious, I must say.

First of all, the restaurant is not too pricey, especially for the level of experience (a wise choice in this climate–blah blah blah–I know, who wants to talk about that?).  I ended up taking a risk and ordering the Ahi Tartar with Chili & Mint, which is occasionally good and sometimes–when the tuna isn't quite right, the tomatoes are overused and the seasoning is nil–can be a dire mistake. This version was delicious, tangy and flavorful–perhaps the best Tuna Tartar I've had almost ever.  And my companion's Carpaccio was equally tasty.  (Why when I say "companion" does it evoke my grandmother's nurses for me?  Whatever, Driving MIss Daisy.)

The iced tea, which was delish and (rumor-has-it) is sometimes offered in peach, has a thick, juice-like appearance, which the waiter explained is because it's french-pressed like coffee.  He said that means the herbs are potent, but–whatever it truly means–the iced tea is very refreshing.

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(Buffalo Mozzarella Pizza–You Know I Can't Resist, My Driving Miss Daisy's Crab Ravioli and A Little View of the Patio)

I continued on the classic train with a Buffalo Mozzarella Pizza (lactard buffalo/not cow-style), which was really chewy (in a good way) and had incredibly fresh tomato sauce and an almost smokey flavor to the crust–I loved.  And, though I skipped dessert, I'm definitely planning to head back and hit that sweet stuff soon.

Rumor has it that breakfast is amazing (and extremely reasonable) and also there's Prosecco on tap on the way.  Especially by comparison to scenester spots like The Ivy, where celebs and execs go to make appearances and literally be seen, but the food is pricey and largely uneventful, Cecconi's seems like a lovely alternative.

But hopefully not too lovely.  Cause we'd all love to continue to be able to get in.  Even in an economy that's not so messed up (blah, blah blah–who wants to talk about that?)

Picture it, LA, 2010 . . . 

xo – N.

LA (HOLLYWOOD): THE BEST BRUSCHETTA/BEER FLIGHT

By Nora Zelevansky / February 20th, 2009

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(A Waiter Recommended Beer Flight at Delancey)

So, having linked to a story about their wine tasting room's opening and being a big fan of The Bowery (owned by the same peeps and just up the street), I went to try Delancey out for myself on Thursday evening with a few lovely friends. You know who you are, M., B. &  P.

I want to start out by acknowledge something that, I think, as a born and bred New Yorker who lives in LA, I'm in a semi-unique position to say: sometimes LA has a major inferiority complex when it comes to NYC.  And, as much as I love my hometown and appreciate a good nod to the Big Apple, I think the obsession occasionally borders on sad.  So, maybe there is a fantastic reason why everything at Delancey is named for L.E.S. (The Lower East Side), but it feels a little . . . like it's trying to hard.  I mean, they already own Bowery, so the NYC worshipping seems plentiful enough. (P. grew up with me on the Upper West and B. was a longtime New Yorker and they agreed–so there).

Okay, that said I really liked Delancey's vibe.  I dig the intimacy of the space, the exposed brick walls, the shiny, reflective exposed brick facade, wine-colored booths and the beers choices scrawled casually across an over-sized mirror. Even more than Bowery with its much slicker black and white tiled motif, Delancey does feel like a neighborhood spot (and for a moment I wish I lived deeper into Hollywood).

And food-wise things were good.  First of all, the menu, like Bowery's, is really reasonably priced.  The beer menu (and the flights they offer, which you can customize or, like M. did, you can have created specially for you based on preference) is substantial and I had a glass of sparkling red, which I just LOVE all the time, though I don't think it was a Lambrusco. (Lambrusco is an Italian sparkling wine that's sort of considered low class, but I'm just a sucker for it, as it feels festive to drink like a winter-appropriate summer cocktail).
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(Ode To Delicious Bruschetta By The Pocket Lint)

Whose bruschetta this is, I think I know, his house is in the village though . . . Sorry.

The above White Bean Crostini Bruschetta with Olive Tapenade (one of my favorite condiments/foods in ever invented), Oil Cured Tuna and Radish was ultimately my favorite part of the meal, as it was amazingly flavorful.  I sort of envisioned coming back another day with friends and just ordering a bunch of bruschettas and some wine because they have like six options, including a Prosciutto, Goat Cheese & Dates situation–sign me up.  I don't know about you people, but live by a "more options to nibble the better" picking rule.

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(Essex Pizza and Rainbow-Colored Baby Artichokes)

Also, for my fellow lactards: the Essex pizza with Salumi, Olives and Cannelini Beans also has Sheep's Milk Ricotta in the mix and was very tasty (though the crust has a specific olive oil doused sort of crunchy consistency that some of us liked and some of us disliked).  I'd probably still take Terroni or Mozza's crust over this.  Maybe Pizzeria Ortica too.  But none of them offer me a Sheep Cheese version. Anyway, I liked it enough so that I almost murdered Andrew when he gobbled my leftovers without asking yesterday.  Grrrrrr.  Tip: don't get between this girl and her food cause she might bite.

I'd also like to give a shout out to all the Crispy Baby Artichoke hoes with Chili, Sweet & Sour Onions, Mint, Pine Nuts and Orange (I'm crazy), though I think they might have been elevated even further with a bit more acid and/or heat (do I sound Top Chef-esque?).  Actually, they were so beautifully colored that I'd order them just for a cheerful addition.  And, according to B., the Gnocchi with Wild Boar, Sage and Olives, was a yummy choice too.

All and all, though there wasn't a pickle monger or yenta in sight, I'd definitely cross town for Delancey again.  (Get it?  Crossing Delancey?  Sorry–I tried to stop myself from making the reference, but I just couldn't).

xo – N.

LA (HOLLYWOOD): CRUMPLED TWENTY

By Nora Zelevansky / February 12th, 2009

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The Best Link Today:

Every so often you wander into an LA spot and find yourself transported elsewhere: such is the case (in my book) with Hollywood's Bowery bistro, where–in an intimate, NYC West Village-esque, beautifully tiled space with specials scrawled across a chalk board–locals (like moi) dig on deeply flavorful burgers (served on English Muffins), wine and beer.  (The pharmacy parking lot on Sunset & Fairfax also transports, but that's more like to a East Village crack den circa 1985, so that's another story).

Well, according to Daily Candy's Weekend Guide today, the Bowery owners have launched a tasting room at their newest Hollywood spot: Pizzeria & Bar Delancy.  Obviously, a Lower East Side NYC-theme rules the roost and, while DC focuses on the vino situation, I think some of those pizzas sound pretty amazing.  Yes, in true lactard fashion, I especially like the sound of the Essex with Salumi, Cannelini Beans, Black Olives and Sheeps Milk Ricotta.

BTW–I am an olive fanatic.  Another fascinating tidbit about me.  And another must-try place for pizza.  Add that to the list . . . I'll get back to you with a full report!

xo – N.

LA (DOWNTOWN): THE BEST OXTAIL RAVIOLI AT NEW DRAGO CENTRO

By Nora Zelevansky / January 30th, 2009

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(Celestino joins the table, as these lovely ladies and I snap photos and pretend we're tourists–Do you like how my shirt kind of matches the water glasses?)

Some people envision an "Italian stallion" with rippling golden muscles and a swarthy seductive gaze.  Me, not so much.  I prefer a man whose passion is pasta.  SO, I hopped over to (and eventually rolled out of) Chef Celestino Drago's newest eatery, Drago Centro, Downtown this week.

If you're already a fan of his other locations, you'll be pleased, as the food is divine and the space is wide open and spacious.  Downtown's fine dining restaurants can sometimes feel corporate, I think, but this manages to escape that stuffy vibe.  (Or maybe I just drank too much wine?)

Speaking of which: Centro's charming sommelier, who searches out lesser poured wines (which, you know, we like since we're all about the hidden gems) is rife with knowledge, but not pretension.  FYI–he said if he had to drink one wine for the rest of his life it would be Riesling because of all the variety, so maybe we should adopt that position for table talk too?  I just LOVE a Riesling.  (Did that sound convincing?)

Anyway, I ate my way through a boatload of bread (I couldn't help it–the olive oil gets me every time), Buffalo Mozzarella with garlic oil and tomato puree (good for the lactards like me, who shouldn't do cow cheese), I Carciofi grilled artichoke salad with bronte pistachios, Oxtail Ravioli with celery roots and broth (which was flavorful and light) AND desserts from Doughnuts with Ricotta Cream to a homemade cookie plate.

But the highlight of the evening was definitely chilling out with Celestino himself, who–instead of being affected or, well, absent from the restaurant entirely–was front and center, hilarious and sweet as could be.  Actually, Celestino's family–some siblings from Italy and others from LA (with restaurants too)–were all in attendance.  Turns out the lot of them–six boys and two girls–grew up in Sicily, where his mother (reportedly an outstanding cook) prepared meals with ingredients farmed on their own land.  Um, can I move in?  (Not that I didn't love your "Daddy's Special Soup," Dad, but Campbell's Chicken Noodle and Tabasco does not a farm-to-table dinner make).

So that's where "Italian Stallions" come from.  I'll drink Riesling to that.

Cheers!

xo – N.

LA (WEST HOLLYWOOD): THE BEST MINT CHOCOLATE CHIP MERINGUE

By Nora Zelevansky / January 21st, 2009

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True confession: I'm a lactard.  But I periodically cheat because–in my humble opinion–life without mozzarella sticks would just be no life at all.  Still, I get psyched when I discover a truly yummy treat that is practically milk free (but not some odd soy concoction).  Maybe that's why, despite my usual salt addiction, I am SO obsessed with the mint chocolate chip meringues at Thee's Continental Bakery at The Farmer's Market.  That and they're the best things ever.

Now, non-LA *natives may be inclined to ask, "Which Farmer's Market?"  And though myriad temporary green markets abound on designated days in la la land, "THE" Farmer's Market generally refers to the permanent fixture next to CBS (where a college version of me once shot an episode of The Price Is Right alongside a frightening, makeup caked Bob Barker, thereby destroying perfectly lovely memories of Plinko watching on childhood sick days).  Anyway, though the countless food stalls would be draw enough for me, I love coming here because–in a city that many people insist isn't, well, a city–a cross section of people descend on this one spot.  And, yes, I must mention the The Grove outdoor mall is next door, which is fantastic if you like to watch fountain water choreographed to Celine Dion tunes. Actually the movie theater is great.

Everyone has a favorite Farmer's Market eat: my father has vacillated between Kokomo's BLT and Bob's Coffee & Donuts' apple fritter (before Kokomo's moved to Beverly Blvd).  My husband, Andrew, can't resist Moishe's Chicken Shwarma Sandwich.  But, personally, I love the mint meringues best for many reasons, not the least of which is that they resemble meteors from an alien land.  Secondly, meringues are generally made from basically egg whites and sugar and the simplicity appeals to me.  Thirdly, close encounters with mint chocolate meringues are rare.  And lastly, they literally disintegrate, as they touch your tongue.  Like many of the best things in this world, they're crunchy on the outside and chewy inside.  What could be more perfect than that?

xo – N.

*In LA, the term "native" is bestowed on anyone who stays past pilot season.