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Many big name restaurants are now opening smaller, more casual places for those who want to sample smaller plates in a more relaxed atmosphere. Josie La Balch opened the Next Door last year, and it has become one of my regular Santa Monica stops for both lunch and Happy Hour. It’s nice having a neighborhood spot which combines local produce and international culinary skills to make food that delights the eyes and the palate.

The jewel tomato and opal basil bruschetta is one of the simplest choices on the menu, but the artful presentation and the balanced ratio of fresh burrata to ripe tomatoes, drizzled with quality olive oil perfumed with opal basil, elevates this appetizer to a work of art.

The creamy cauliflower and spring onion soup is actually made with cream and will make someone who says they don’t like cauliflower ask for more, please.

The chicken breast “Caesar” with romaine, radishes, and asiago was an interesting variation. Tarragon leaves and watercress sprigs added a floral bouquet which I found refreshing, but I found that the dressing was not strong enough to dress up the plainly roasted chicken breast and romaine. With the Asiago and the fresh herbs, I’m sure the idea was to have a more subtle dressing, but this dish didn’t work well enough for me to order it again.

However, I would reorder the Steak Frites any day I wanted this classic French meal. At only $19, this was such a wonderful piece of hanger steak that I could have cut it with a butter knife. It came exactly as rare as I ordered it (cold in the middle), although the plate was so hot it partially cooked the bottom slices! The truffle fries were perfectly crisp, salted, and delightful.

The lunch menu has a sloppy roast pork, fried rapini, aged provolone, garlic mayo for $14 that may be a too rich for some people, but if you love roast pork, the added crunch of the fried rapini and the creamy melted provolone, make this a very hearty sandwich. The freshly fried chips were dusted with spice and were addictive……

The chocolate torte was lighter than it looked and beautifully made with freshly whipped cream and a dark chocolate sauce. If you are a chocoholic, this is the way to end a meal without going into a sugar coma!

Wines by the taste, glass, or bottle are available from vineyards in California to Europe, so you can literally have a taste of wine with each course. There is a full bar and happy hour specials on drinks and appetizers from 4-7pm and street parking is plentiful, so if you are in the neighborhood trying to get to or from the 405 freeway, sit Next Door and relax while everyone else sits in their car.

Next Door by Josie on Urbanspoon

No, Industriel is not a misspelling, it is a restaurant serving “Urban Farm Cuisine” in downtown Los Angeles. The interior is definitely a playful mixture of industrial “decor” like the metal chains & pulley by the stairs, combined with a rustic farm feel as they show off their home made pickled carrots, tomato jam, and pickles for sale. Everything that can be made in house IS made in house here and the quality ingredients are skillfully used in all their dishes.

The Quinoa, with roasted mushrooms, pecan, kale, and a caramelized shallot vinaigrette was one of the best dishes using quinoa which I have ever tasted. The textures and flavors each complimented each other and gave the dish a hearty yet fresh taste.

The Red Snapper Nicoise was a delightful variation on the usual tuna. The perfectly cooked snapper was served with barely blanched green beans, olives, tomatoes, and the most perfectly done boiled eggs I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant, I could eat this dish several times a week. The bottarga dressing lightly coated the greens and gave a well balanced acidity to the fish.

The only reason I would not come here for lunch more often is the location in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. If you work in the area, this spot is a treasure, but if you don’t live or work in the area, coming here can be a bit of a challenge with traffic and parking, so I would suggest you make a reservation for a week-end and enjoy the pleasures of having a lazy day at Industriel.

Note: Underground parking at the One Wilshire building, about a block away, is only $5 on week-ends (cash only).

Industriel on Urbanspoon

Zinc in the Shade Hotel has a prime location only a few blocks to the beach and pier in the heart of Manhattan Beach. It’s a rare treat to find great food in a great location, but add to that combination some very affordable prices, and you’ve got a formula for success. Zinc seems to have mastered the formula. With a $16 lunch menu that includes an appetizer, entree and dessert every weekday between 11-4pm, this is a great place to enjoy a lunch at the beach without breaking your piggy bank.

I started with a tomato bisque drizzled with basil oil. It was a good rendition, not as flavorful as Bottega Louie’s or Bouchon’s, but a solid starter.

For my main course I chose the Steak Frites, hanger steak with brown butter, red wine demi-glace, and shallots, served with hand cut fries. I ordered it rare and it came as ordered, but because it did, the quality of the meat showed and it was not pretty. The sinewy piece was so tough in places that I could only eat about two thirds of the steak. The sauce was good and the crispy shallots were wonderful accompaniments. I would definitely choose another main course, like the King Salmon burger (which was sold out).

The fries needed salt, but unfortunately adding them after they arrived was a little too late since it would not stick after they had cooled.

I chose a berry sorbet for my dessert, a refreshing finish, not too sweet or tart.

Would I go back? Sure, but I would pick another main course and try the chocolate pot de creme for dessert next time. With a location like this, I want to find food good enough to go back for next time.

Note: You can park under the Mettox shops in covered city metered parking, so bring plenty of change or buy a cash key.

Zinc on Urbanspoon

Ever since Antica Pizza closed, I’ve been searching for a pizza place to love. Bravo does a very good job, but their pizza is more New York style than Napoletana style, and the closest VPN member is in Pasadena, so I tried nearby Sotto.

Located downstairs under the wonderful Peruvian restaurant Picca, Sotto has a slightly speakeasy feel, as if you need a password to get a seat. No need to worry, your name is enough of a password if you make a reservation. You should definitely reserve a table, the place was packed in the middle of the week in the middle of the day.

The Dine LA menu is a steal at only $20 for three courses. I started with the shaved beet and mixed lettuce salad, composed of wheatberries, lemon vinaigrette, and Fiore Sardo. The beautiful rainbow beets added an unusual visual dimension to this salad, and the thinly shaved Parmesan added a nice sharp and slightly salty enhancement without overpowering the greens. I loved this salad and could probably eat it several times a week.

But I came for the pizza, so I chose the classic margherita, made with tomato, mozzarella, basil, and extra virgin olive oil. The ingredients were all high quality and the crust was chewy and thin in the center, but somehow the center was soggy! The pizza was also a bit too salty since they salted the dough and the tomatoes (salt one or the other, but both is overkill). It was still a very tasty pizza, although after eating at Antica Pizza, they fell short on the texture and flavor of the dough.

Dessert was a cannolo Siciliano, made with riccota, orange marmalade, pistachios and chocolate. I didn’t taste any chocolate (unless they were tiny chocolate chips hiding in the filling), but this was one of the few cannoli I’ve ever liked. The crunchy exterior was as great container for the light and flavorful filling.

Service was very slow (more the fault of a full Dine LA onslaught than the server), so be prepared for a leisurely meal. My search for my perfect pizza continues, but Sotto is a nice local option.

Sotto on Urbanspoon

It’s one of my four favorite times of the year; Dine LA week started (again) yesterday and it was time to revisit Blue Stove since it’s been over a year since I last tried their menu. The Dine LA dinner menu for $25 includes three tapas and three pours of wine pairings, one for each plate.

I started with the Ahi Tuna Poke with fried wontons, which was paired with a 2009 Kenneth Volk Viongier. There was a bit too much soy sauce in the Poke, which not only made it a bit too salty, but made it a bit runny (as you can see on the plate). This composition of seaweed, avocado, and mango would have been delightful otherwise.

My second wine pairing was a pour of 2009 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir, which was my favorite wine of the night; light enough to pair with poultry or even seafood, yet full bodied enough to enjoy with my red meat course.

I ordered my skirt steak with romesco and balsamic onions rare, and I was thrilled to see that they actually cooked my steak “blue” (cold in the center)! The onions were a zesty counterpoint to the rich meat and romesco sauce and aside from the meat being a bit stringy, this was a great dish.

I had them wait to deliver my dessert because I was so full after my first two “small” plates, but when I finally felt I could take another bite, I had the berry cobbler with a pour of 2010 Catena Malbec. I managed to taste this HUGE dessert so I could write about it (the sacrifices I make for this blog:). The berries were wonderful and the ice cream was a good quality vanilla, but unless you are a cow (with 5 stomachs) there is no way anyone I know could finish this 8″ dessert after two courses!

Dine LA is a great excuse to revisit old places and try new ones, so I’m heading over to try a new one (Sotto) tomorrow since today I revisited an old one.

P.S. For those who don’t already know, you can valet park free for 3 hours at Santa Monica Place if you eat here (just remember to get a validation at the restaurant).

Blue Stove (Nordstrom) on Urbanspoon

Happy Bastille Day!
Since I was not in France this year, I had to “make do” with celebrating La Fête Nationale in Beverly Hills. Yes, I know I live a rough life 🙂 I put on my Philippe Adec navy and white striped T shirt and jeans and headed over to Bouchon, which had an all day Happy Hour with drinks, food and balloons! The house wines were only $5 a glass (and decent), spirits only $7, and beers only $4, alors santé!

The daily soup special was a fresh pea soup which was as light and fresh as summer would taste in a soup.

The regular soup was tomato basil, and this is probably my favorite version (ok, maybe tied with the one at Bottega Louie). If you love tomatoes, this will have you licking the bowl:)

The bakery next door makes the incredible epi that comes with your meal (and I took a warm baguette home from the bakery just because it’s one of the best baguettes in Los Angeles). If you have never been to France, come here and have some of the bread so you will get an idea of why peasants stormed the Bastille because they could not afford bread.

The Happy Hour menu included a tomato and burrata crostini for only $4. I’m not a big burrata fan and didn’t taste this, but the tomatoes were ripe, lightly dressed and allowed to simply shine.

I could not resist the $2 oysters. I started with 8 and ended up eating 4 more for an even dozen. Absolutely fresh, served WITHOUT being rinsed, and with a simple squeeze of lemon, this was a perfect meal for me.

The pork belly sliders with home made cole slaw and cornichons were delightful to the eye and stomach. They serve TWO for $8 but I didn’t get a chance to snap the photo before one was already devoured!

I lusted after every cone of french fries which arrived to other tables, so we decided to order one and I ended up eating more potatoes than I have in a year! They were a bit thin for my taste, but they remained crisp even when cold and I couldn’t stop eating them!

My favorite plate here is the lentils with duck confit and poached egg. It is my ultimate “old lady” comfort food (soft chewable food)! I only managed to eat about half of my bowl ($15.50), but the leftovers warm up superbly and I know I will have at least another comforting meal tomorrow!

The lemon tart is the must have dessert here, with a meringue top and a shortbread crust, it is just tangy enough to make you forget this is a sweet dessert. Served with buttery cookie crisps, this is a wonderful way to end an evening.

Bastille Day was a great excuse to go to my favorite French bistro and enjoy people watching from the outdoor cafe overlooking the first public garden built in Beverly Hills in the last decade. Marie Antoinette may have said, “Let them eat cake” but I would rather eat bread and oysters at Bouchon.

Bouchon Bistro on Urbanspoon

Anyone who knows me at all, also knows that as a general rule, I do not eat Mexican or Chinese food. So even wonderful places for those types of cuisines will probably never make it onto my restaurant list, much less into my mouth. The old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt”, is my reason for shunning both; I grew up in a Chinese restaurant and I worked in a Mexican one (please don’t ask so I won’t have to tell).

For a Mexican place to even make it into a conversation with me about food is remarkable, but when TWO food connaisseurs tell me about the same place and rave about it, I will make the trek to Eagle Rock (a 20 mile drive) just to satisfy my curiosity and try the place. I am so very glad I did. Ca Cao is not only a restaurant, it’s a deli, so many of the items they serve are available for sale to take home, from the tortillas to the sauces and everything in between. You will want to do that because they make EVERYTHING here (yes, that includes the tortillas)!

The chips here are the BEST I have EVER eaten (having worked in a Mexican restaurant, this was the one smell I could never get out of my nostrils at the end of the night). Made fresh daily and sprinkled with a delectable seasoning, they were great without either accompanying (freshly made) sauce.

Ca Cao is famous for their mole and chocolate, so my friend ordered their mole fries for $4.95 that I guarantee will be unlike any french fry you have ever tasted. I did not care for the sweet smoky flavor, but would say that many people would (I just don’t care for sweet savory dishes in general).

The mesquite smoked Angus beef torta was only $9.50. Made with freshly baked rolls from the Eagle Rock Italian Bakery, beans, tres quesos (three cheeses), sauteed onions, tomatoes and jalapenos, this was the ultimate Mexican meat sandwich.

I had to order the sustainable white fish, seared with garlic infused Valle de Guadelupe olive oil, topped with avocado and charred spring onions, and served with cilantro lime rice and  pico de gallo for $14.95. This was the best fish I’ve ever had in a Mexican restaurant, including the fish I’ve eaten IN Mexico in Careyes (yes, I also lived and worked in Mexico for about a month, but that’s another don’t ask don’t tell story:) The plate was so big, I had to take half of it home, but it was just as delightful even reheated the next day as it was in the restaurant.

My friend somehow found room for dessert (she always does), so she got a nice ice cream sundae, drizzled with chocolate sauce, sprinkled with almonds and accompanied bu fried tortilla chips. It was the perfect ending to a meal which will remind me not to pre judge any place based on cuisine!

They have a marvelous happy hour menu Tuesday-Friday from 3:00-5:30 with tacos that are only $1.65 and a “gringo burrito”, made with carne asada, french fries, green onion, cheddar cheese, guacamole, and lettuce is only $5.95!!!

Cacao Mexicatessen on Urbanspoon

I love eating with people who know and enjoy excellent restaurants. Those of us who have worked in restaurants, catering, or cook for our friends, know the skill and work it takes to achieve that elusive smile when excellence is attained. Very few places make it to the top of our dining list and even fewer stay there, but Locando Positano now has a place on our list and it looks like it will be staying.

I had dinner with Katie, an 8 year old gourmet (her palate & sensibilities are more sophisticated than many 38 year olds), and her parents on a Blackboard Eats menu that included three courses for $35 (a glass of wine with dinner would made it $42, but instead of glasses, we ordered a bottle of Mozzini Rosso 2009 that was excellent).

Janet started with the heirloom tomato and burrata caprese. This classic combination not only looked beautiful, but the tomatoes and burrata were as fresh and balanced a combination as I have ever tasted.

Bob and I had the beef carpaccio and we were both amazed by the quality of the beef, the perfect lemon vinaigrette on the baby arugula, and the proper ratio of parmesan to arugula and beef. I would rate this as one of the best beef carpaccios I’ve eaten in years.

Our 8 year old gourmet, Katie, had the pappardelle with bolognese, served with freshly grated parmesan and adored it. Her Dad adored it too since he polished off her leftovers after eating his main course 🙂

Bob’s main course was scallops over spinach with thick cut bacon and mushrooms. I wasn’t sure I could eat the scallops since I am allergic to farmed scallops, so I tasted the spinach and loved the rich combination of flavors.

Janet and I ordered the home made pappardelle with wild boar braised in a Brunello sauce. It was heaven on a plate. Perfect pasta with a perfectly braised meat. I could eat this everyday as my comfort dish.

They were out of the lemon mousse, so we opted for the other dessert choices of the night. The only rating of “fair” to anything we ate went to the tiramisu, which we all agreed was a bit too “wet” and not very creamy. It was a fair rendition of the classic, but not a dessert we would reorder.

The baba  was delightful, with a wonderful rum soaked spongecake as light as air, paired with freshly whipped cream and farmer’s market strawberries.

Katie & I both had the tartufo, made with gelato, rolled in cocoa powder and presented with farmer’s market raspberries and a rolled wafer cookie. We both finished our desserts!

Bob capped his meal off with a double espresso and when it arrived Katie looked at it and asked “Where’s the lemon (twist)”? I think maybe one day when I retire from writing about food, Katie may take over for me (she’s already in training, she took the pic of her own pappardelle bolognese:)

Locanda Positano on Urbanspoon

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