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Whenever you want authentic ethnic food, it is always a good idea to ask someone who is actually from the region for their favorite place to eat. My favorite restaurant, Vanilia, in Santorini was recommended by a Greek, and the same Greek recommended Papa Cristo’s here in Los Angeles as the place he goes when he yearns for the comforting food of his homeland.

Papa Cristo’s is a Greek institution, having been in business at the same location for nearly 60 years, owned by the same family. Places that withstand economic turns and fickle tastes for decades do it by doing something well, in Papa Cristo’s case they do several things well, from authentic Greek dishes, to products from Greece you can not find elsewhere in Los Angeles. I saw from the plates at the taverna that portions were huge, so I opted to take a bit of everything home because if I ate in the place, I would end up with most of it in a doggie bag anyway.

Their spanikopita ($2 each) is the best I have ever eaten, and yes, that includes the places I ate it in Greece last year. It is perfectly flaky with a wonderful spinach and feta filling that did not even leave a grease stain on the paper lined foil pouch.

All their meals come with a Greek salad, replete with kalamata olives, feta cheese, fresh tomatoes, and cucumbers on top of romaine and iceberg lettuce. The lemon and olive oil dressing is superb, but I ate half my salad without any dressing it was so good.

Because I don’t remember the last time I saw it offered on any menu in Los Angeles (other than a handful of Asian places), I chose the grilled baby octopus as my entree for $13.99. The serving was so big that the container measured 9″ x 13″ and it was filled! The baby octopus was tender, marinated with a light lemon, olive oil, and oregano dressing, absolutely authentically prepared and addictive. The potatoes had a light seasoning that made the starch very palatable for a non potato eater like me and even though I only intended to taste them, I ended up eating half a potato (which my friends will tell you is a huge amount for me)!

Freshly made pita bread was included in the meal, along with tzatziki sauce (a yogurt and dill dipping sauce), and I tore into this warm fluffy bread with gusto, dipping it into the tzatziki every other bite.

This hearty meal was more than enough for two, much less my one small stomach, so the value and quality here is unbeatable. If you prefer lamb or chicken, or if you are vegetarian, they have all those options for meals, and every choice is under $13. Craving a truly European flavor? Order the whole grilled Tsipoura fish (under $18), a tender flaky fish that could convert nonfish eaters to pescatarians.

Every Thursday they have a “My Big Fat Greek Family Dinner” for $18.95 per person (not including tax + tip) that includes 8 appetizers, chicken, lamb, potatoes, green beans, Greek salad, baklava, Greek coffee, and live entertainment (belly dancers). This is probably more food and value than you can find anywhere else in Los Angeles, so take your family & friends and share the bountiful food and fun.
All you can imagine as appetizers, from dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) to taramosalata (Greek “caviar”) are available, as well as the classic moussaka, kebabs, and gyros for entrees. If you want to make a meal at home, they sell lamb shanks, meats, and cheese in the cold case, and they have even more products in the freezer for you to take home and make later.

They have a large selection of ouzo and Greek wines to complete your meal, and prices are excellent; I bought some white anchovies in olive oil and lemon juice for less than $5 that would have cost over $12 at Whole Foods.

If you are in a sweet mood, there is an entire case of baked and sweet goods from cookies to baklava (a walnut and honey pastry), and loukoumades (fried honey puffs similar to donuts), but the sweetest deal is finding a taste of Greece in Los Angeles until I can go feast in Greece again.

For those of you who live in the Los Angeles area, the Los Angeles Times Travel Issue of BrandX (a generation X publication) published this article I wrote about Santorini in their 5/25/11 edition.

Papa Cristo's on Urbanspoon

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“I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” ~Jessica Dovey

After seeing “Rio” with two friends we wanted something sweet to eat, but we also didn’t want to just have dessert for dinner. Across the street from the theater we saw Ugo, which turned out to be a good choice for appetizers and gelato.

My friend Mika chose the Polpette, two 100% ground beef meatballs with homemade bread crumbs and marinara sauce ($6.50) because it said on the menu they were the “best you would ever taste”. While she didn’t agree with the description (neither did I) because they were a bit dense and dry, they were good enough to finish and the sauce was a very good light rendition of marinara.

I chose the beef carpaccio with Parmesan, capers, and arugula because I was in the mood for beef and it’s not often that I see raw beef on any menu. I was relieved to find this dish so balanced with greens, beef and cheese, rather than other versions I’ve had which either drown the dish in olive oil or smother it with Parmesan. I loved the lemon vinaigrette dressing on the bed of arugula which gave my bites of the beef with salad a piquant fresh crunch.

Alia chose the fried calamari which I tried to photograph, but none of those pictures came out, sorry. The calamari was tender and did include tentacles as well as rings, so although it was not noteworthy, it was a well executed version of this dish.

Alia’s dessert choice was the Bacio di Dama Hazelnut and vanilla crunch gelato topped with thick whipped cream, Bacio di Dama cookies and chocolate for $9 (sorry the picture is blurry). The dessert was big enough to share, but Alia somehow managed to eat nearly all of it even after her appetizer; it was as delicious as it looked. She especially loved the crunchy bits of hazelnuts in the gelato.

I was boring and ordered the wild raspberry cheesecake. It was a dense, thick version, with a layer of raspberry jam for $6.99. Like many other things on the menu, I found it uninspiring but decent.

Mika chose the cappuccino gelato served in a chocolate coffee cup topped with whipped cream $9 and adored both the presentation and the taste of the perfect way to end a meal for non coffee drinkers.

Ugo has a wine bar next door and they have a happy hour, so if you are happy with decent appetizers and great gelato desserts, this is a good choice before or after your movie in Culver City.

Ugo - An Italian Bar on Urbanspoon

A friend of mine had a pair of “Toe Shoes” by his door and I am not talking about ballet shoes. He said they took some getting used to at first, but he liked them because they felt as if he was barefoot. I am always shopping for shoes and I was intrigued by shoes that could make me feel like I was walking barefoot since my walks wearing regular athletic shoes have led to as many as five blisters per foot.

The most well known manufacturer of barefoot “toe shoes” is Vibram and they retail at stores like Adventure 16 and REI, so finding the shoes is easy. I tried on a few pairs from the lighter Sprint model to the TrekSport, the one I ended up buying.

It took trying on two sizes to find the correct one, but once I did, I loved how light and flexible they felt. There are different models for whatever sports you want, ranging from biking to yoga, and depending on the sport, the soles are made for indoor, outdoor, or rugged rocky terrain. All the outdoor models are quick drying so these are perfect for water sports or places with pebbly beaches.

Look I have alien toes!

The sole of the TrekSport model has more padding for outdoor use on things like sidewalks and rocky trails. I have followed the instructions of wearing them only an hour or two a day and gradually increasing the time to get used to them, but already I want to wear them everywhere. The only negative I have found with them is that even with the Coconut Active Carbon in the upper, my feet perspire after a few hours, but the foot bed is made with antimicrobial microfiber.

Hmmm, something that feels good and is good for you? The philosophy behind barefoot five finger shoes is that they help you walk as you do naturally and therefore the shoes help your posture, balance, and agility while helping you strengthen your legs and feet.
 Since Adventure 16 is having a 20% off sale on all their Vibram shoes until the end of the month, it may be time to get a second pair….

Since President Obama went to Tavern recently for one of his fund raising meals, I decided it was time to brave Brentwood traffic and literally eat as well as the President.

The skylights in the dining room give it a greenhouse effect during the day and it was the next best thing to eating outdoors. I was happy to see the place filled with diners of both sexes and varied ages, showing it was a draw for anyone with a taste for fresh ingredients.

The lunch special was Artic Char with saffron cous cous, cumin carrots and green harissa over arugula for $24. I paired it with a glass of Pinot Grigio ($14) and enjoyed one of the best lunches I’ve eaten in many months.

This was one of the best pieces of fish I have eaten in years; the skin was crispy and crunchy while the flesh melted in my mouth with a tender explosion of freshness. The green harissa added a light taste of parsley to the fish. The saffron couscous was a brilliant marriage of two delicate ingredients which complimented the fish perfectly. the cumin carrots were not completely cooked so they retained a crisp counterpoint to the tender textures of everything else on the plate.

The attached bar has a happy hour and the adjoining market has salads and sandwiches to go if you prefer to eat elsewhere or just need a meal on the go, say to the Hollywood Bowl. It is a bit pricey at $14 for a sandwich, but for the quality of ingredients and masterful combination of tastes, you will not be disappointed with the value.

I love enjoying the meal of a President without having to pay with politics.

Tavern on Urbanspoon

I have many vegetarian and several pescatarian friends, so I am always happy to find places which serve dishes they will eat. Of course it always helps if the options offered are tasty enough for me to happily forgo my meat, and I’ve written about a few restaurants in a previous post, but the Veggie Grill has now updated their menus and expanded their locations. Their latest outpost is at the Farmer’s Market next to the Grove and I was invited to their soft opening tonight before they officially open tomorrow. It’s always good to have a dress rehearsal before playing to the public and even with some technical difficulties, like the air conditioner on the fritz, the cast and crew performed flawlessly.

I took my friend Mika, who is an omnivore, but like me, she has vegan friends. She had never been to this vegetarian friendly fast food chain (betcha can’t say that five times:) and she was so impressed that she literally yelled out in the restaurant, “This is delicious!” to all the servers.

Mika ordered the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin’ $8.95, which is their Crispy fried chillin’ chickin’ (specially seasoned and marinated veggie protein blends), lettuce, tomato, red onion, and avocado, served with southwestern spiced vegan mayo. She opted for it served on Steamin’ Kale $1.50 instead of the wheat bun and she substituted the Sweetheart Fries $2.25 (you can also opt for a spring salad or mac and cheese as substitutions) instead of the red cabbage slaw or chili that normally accompanies the sandwiches. I was glad I got a taste of everything on her plate before she inhaled, because by the time she exhaled, her plate was clean. I was impressed by the crispy friend chillin’ chickin’ for both texture and taste; if children grew up eating this, they would never want “nuggets” again. The sweetheart fries were wonderful even without the chipotle ranch dipping sauce, and the spiced vegan mayo was surprisingly spicy.

I learned from my last experience and ordered my salad dressing on the side when I chose the All Hail Kale salad $7.95. The kale and red cabbage in the salad are already marinated, so the extra dressing is overkill IMHO. The salad is served with roasted corn salsa, agave-roasted walnuts with a ginger-papaya vinaigrette, and I added blackened tempeh (a tender yet crunchy blend of organic soybeans and rice culture that is sautéed and grilled) for $2.50. I enjoyed the fresh ingredients and found the marinade tasty, but the tempeh was not the best; I found it bland, even though it was “blackened”, and a bit greasy. If you want added protein in your entree salad I would suggest you go for the chickin’. The walnuts added a nice sweet crunch and even though I did not add any more to my salad, the ginger-papaya vinaigrette had a nice bright zing.

We got to taste all three dessert offerings which are all free of dairy, cholesterol and refined sugar. Neither Mika nor I liked the chocolate pudding because neither of us is a pudding fan, but she adored the carrot cake (she said it was the best she had ever eaten), but I found the frosting too sweet. I liked the chocolate chip cookie because it was not too sweet, which is exactly the same reason Mika did not like it.

Having the freedom to choose is one of the great pleasures in life. Choosing for your taste while others choose for theirs is one of the reasons there are so many options for restaurants and on menus. It’s nice to find a vegetarian friendly restaurant where two omnivores have choices that please them enough to want to return.

I don’t like crowds, and I like sitting down at a table with silverware for my meals, so with the food truck craze stirring up both controversy and accolades, I must admit I have only been to the esteemed Kogi Truck (see my previous post) until today’s Ludo Truck foray.

I went to the Affair in the Garden, an art show in Beverly Hills, which I attend nearly every year. It’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon in a park, walking around sculptures, paintings and jewelry while live music plays. It’s a free event, except for the price you will be paying for whatever you purchase, and there are always artists who bring unique and intriguing work to show.

My two favorite artists this year were Jett Jackson‘s whimsical and slightly disturbed pop surrealism paintings of Alice who never seemed to have escaped from Wonderland, and Thomas Barbey‘s black and white photographs which combine two negatives in ways that remind me of Escher‘s mind altering work with ironic titles.

But after wandering and shopping, it was time to eat and since there was no line at the Ludo Truck, I made a beeline for the order window. I decided to try both the chicken wings and the chicken “balls” with bearnaise sauce (you get a choice of BBQ, Honey Dijon, or Bearnaise). The plain 2 piece wing option for $6 includes a coleslaw with jalapeno that was a refreshing spicy take on conventional coleslaw. The wings were slightly sweet with the sauce, peppery, and crispy with no batter. I would definitely order these again. I didn’t even dip them in the BBQ sauce (which was spicy sweet).

If heaven smells like thyme, then the chicken balls smelled heavenly. They are made from chicken thighs, so they are juicy dark meat, with no bones and a fragrant aroma that wafted through the container. I ordered two pieces for $6 and couldn’t wait to taste them. The crunch of the flour batter was satisfying and perfectly seasoned.
 

Unfortunately the batter was not cooked all the way through as I found out after I had taken a few bites. Yes, that is RAW batter in the center of the chicken ball 😦

It’s too bad that I didn’t have a deep fryer with me or I would have refried it so I could eat it. I was very disappointed that more quality control wasn’t used to ensure a completely cooked order; I would have preferred to wait a bit more rather than to have received my order quickly, but not cooked.

I would try them again, perhaps it was an off day for them and they wanted to leave and enjoy the art show in the park too rather than being cooped up like a chicken in a truck all afternoon.

Canyon Bistro on Topanga recently reopened after remodeling their outdoor patio, and although I have been to this casual comfortable cafe for lunch and loved their beautiful Roasted Vegetable Napolean, with marinated tomatoes, portobello mushroom, roasted red peppers, roasted eggplant, goat cheese, arugula and a balsamic reduction ($10) and their Saffron Mussels, with mussels steamed in white wine, shallots, cream, Dijon and saffron, served with bistro fries or baby greens ($18), I stopped in last week to try their dinner menu.

I have friends who are bidding on a house in the area and I wanted to make sure this was a spot they would enjoy for dinner if they wanted to go out either for a romantic dinner or as a family with young children. I’m glad to be able to tell them, yes, on both counts.

I had the Rack of New Zealand Lamb, dry herb rubbed and served over roasted garlic mashed potatoes and haricots verts with a port wine reduction ($30). I asked for spinach as a substitution for the haricots verts and loved the garlicky sauteed greens so much I would have ordered it as a side if they had not made the substitution. I ordered the Rack of Lamb rare, and although the very center of the four ribs was rare, the outer ribs were more medium, so keep this in mind when you specify doneness. The lamb was tender and well seasoned, and the port wine reduction was rich and delectable, so the mashed potatoes were merely tasted (not enough garlic for me), not finished. This is a hearty plate so to have finished nearly everything on it is a testament to how well done everything was was (no pun intended, ok maybe a little pun intended).

My friend ordered the Braised Short Ribs in red wine and mirepoix, slow roasted and served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus and carrot and finished with pan jus ($25). She generously gave me a taste and as tender and well executed as it was, I preferred my Rack of Lamb. The red wine and mirepoix sauce was not complex enough to make my taste buds dance, but it was good enough to make them smile.

Since my friend loves brussel sprouts, she ordered them as an additional side dish and we both loved tender sprouts sauteed with bacon so much we finished this dish even after eating out entire entrees.

Finding a great bistro hidden in a canyon is like finding gold in a stream; you know it exists, but you are glad to be one of those who is lucky enough to experience the joy of seeing it in your pan, or in this case, on your plate.

The Canyon Bistro in Topanga on Urbanspoon

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