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Loving food and living in Los Angeles for most of my life, there are a few chefs I have followed as they have moved around town. Some of my favorite places are the ones where a chef left the steady income of a big name brand to open a smaller, more personal, and casual place where they can showcase their talents without anyone reining them inside a certain kind of menu. The risk for doing what they love means their wallets will pay if the gamble with the public palate craps out, but after years and sometimes decades at the helm, hopefully the sixth sense of balancing creativity with cash flow comes as second nature, and they find their groove with their groupies.

Lunetta and Lunetta All Day share a kitchen and the captain at the helm is Raphael Lunetta with some partners who know food. I loved JiRaffe, and I have enjoyed his skills at Broadway Deli and Patina over the years, but Lunetta All Day may be my favorite iteration to date of the mélange of Mediterranean sensibility with Californian cuisine. Even the decor reminds me of the seaside cafés in the South of France, so of course I started with a nice glass of vinho verde for $6 during an afternoon Happy Hour.

There is a small but inviting outdoor patio with a small nook, providing outdoor dining when the temperature permits (which is most days in Southern California).

I came for the octopus tacos $9 for two, and they did not disappoint with tender morsels and good vegetables. Of course I also added hot sauce, and of course, they had three options 🙂

I was invited to an evening tasting of their new summer menu at Lunetta and enjoyed the meatballs for $16 so much that when I came back with a friend for lunch I raved about them, so she ordered them and literally cleaned her plate! This side salad came with the tender meatballs on creamy polenta, so it was a hearty but balanced meal.

I was going to order the grilled fish until I learned that it was salmon…so disappointed that even in California, Americans will eat salmon, but rarely eat any other fish. I understand restaurants can’t stock fish no one orders, so please EVERYONE in the USA, order a fish besides salmon and tuna!!!!! I beg you!!!! Try one that has a head and tail, that is NOT tilapia! Ok tirade over….so instead I ordered the tuna Niçoise which was delightful for $18.50 and came with a salad on the side like the meatballs!  The tuna was seasoned correctly, and I loved the farm egg with the rich yolk, cooked to perfection! I was carrying my French gray salt so I added some to my salad for the extra oomph I love, but I think most people would enjoy it was it was served.

We saved room for dessert and we were eying the table next to us eating the lemon ricotta pancakes (yes for lunch), so we ordered a brownie $3.25 and one pancake $5.25 with blueberry butter and maple syrup as a dessert 🙂

We discovered the brownie had chocolate chunks in it!!!!!Surprise hidden treasure of decadent richness that was just the right amount of sweetness. Spending time with a good friend is always a sweet experience, but sharing a meal together at Lunetta All Day made it a mini vacation to the mediterranean 🙂

The perfect French Belgian fry is the epitome of fried food expertise. Sadly today’s post does not include that example, because it’s been so long since I’ve had a perfect one. If you have eaten great fries in Los Angeles, please comment and tell me where you found yours! Ideally double fried in duck fat, medium thickness, and generously salted 🙂

I have found a great Apple Fritter, with lots of extra crunchy nooks and crannies, and enough bits of apple that you don’t have to wonder if it is simply fried dough. Best Donuts is open 24 hours, so if you are near Hermosa Beach, or on your way from or to LAX, this is an easy stop on PCH and Artesia.

@Jean_de_Paradis calls onion rings the “popcorn of vegetables” and I ate this “side dish” at Rock and Brew Redondo Beach, as my dinner one afternoon with a crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Technically I guess I had a vegetarian dinner, right?

Of course since I’m an omnivore, I had to get some fried chicken at Honey’s Kettle in Culver City to take home. Their crispy hot wings are my favorite but they ran out of the hot sauce, so I “settled” for their family sized whole chicken so that I would have leftovers (they reheat beautifully in your oven).

After watching the incredibly entertaining and fun movie Ocean’s 8 at the South Bay Galleria, I drove a block away for some falafels in a veggie bowl filled with salad and fried zucchini on top of brown rice at King Mediterrano. The tiny counter operation has a nice outdoor seating area, or you can take the food to go, which is a great idea in light of the large portions at prices that make their healthy options comparable to fast food chain prices.

After all this fried food, I will go back to eating my usual menu of grilled, sautéed, baked, and braised food, but variety is the cornerstone of balance, and I needed a few fun fried treats to balance out all my sensible eating 🙂

I’ve been trying to go to Fig & Olive for the last two weeks, but scheduling conflicts with my planned eating partner kept us from keeping any plans we made. As the adage says, “What does God do when you make plans?” The answer is “She laughs.” When the latest plans to lunch did not work out, I decided to go alone and take advantage of the Dine LA lunch menu for $28. Since the prix fixe menu was the same price as the bouillabaise alone, it made no sense to order a la carte.

The entrance is spacious and open with natural light streaming in from the skylights, making it feel as if you are in an enclosed outdoor patio. There are selections of olive oils from around the world and aged balsamic vinegar with different infusions available for sale at very reasonable prices. A bottle of 18 year old balsamic was $16 for 16.9 ounces, so at about a dollar an ounce, it’s a good deal. If you can’t come in for a meal, or simply want to make your own, you can order their products online.

The welcome basket of rosemary focaccia included olive oil selections from Australia, California, and Tunisia, and flavors ranging from fruity to herbaceous. My favorite was the Manzanillo  (the one on the right), the light and fruity one from California.

For my appetizer, I ordered the beef carpaccio, made with filet mignon, 18 year old balsamic vinegar, baby arugula, tomato, parmesan, and truffle olive oil. It was a magnificent version of this classic dish. The aged balsamic and the truffle olive oil added depth and complexity to this simple dish; I could have easily eaten two or three of these as my main course.

For my main course, I chose the trio de la mer bouillabaisse, made with grilled scallop, lemon sole, striped bass, shaved fennel, garlic infused olive oil, and served with a saffron aioli and olive oil crackers. Having eaten this dish in the South of France, I was a bit skeptical of whether a restaurant in Los Angeles could accomplish a decent, much less great version. I applaud the chef for this dish, the soup was fragrant with flavors of the sea, garlic, and fennel. There was a slight kitchen misstep with the striped bass and scallop; both arrived sushi style (raw) and I had to have them cook both pieces again. The waitress and manager were both very apologetic and immediately fixed the problem, going so far as to bring out another serving of the soup in addition to my two undercooked pieces.

The saffron aioli was spectacular. A small bit of it went a long way to enhance the flavor of the soup. Spreading it on the olive oil cracker before dunking it in the bowl made it a mouth watering highlight. It was so addictive that I ended up dipping the foccacia into it also!   

For my dessert, I wanted to try the “crostini” made with Amarena cherries, marscarpone, and pistachios on shortbread served on a plate of micro basil. The tart candied cherries, creamy mascarpone, and crunchy pistachios worked well together. I could have eaten the shortbread on its own, but the topping made this a decadent dessert for a non dessert eater like me.

A fine meal at Fig & Olive, to be repeated as soon as I can coordinate my schedule with someone else!
Fig & Olive on Urbanspoon

Going on vacation is always a pleasure, but finding mediocre food dampens my joy, and unfortunately the food on my latest trip to Palm Springs/Indian Wells was so mediocre I had to go back to my old favorite Zini Cafe to eat something that made me smile (see my previous post here).

When I lived in Palm Springs, one of my favorite places to eat was Al Dente. Their pasta and seafood were always fresh, deftly prepared, and well presented. I decided to stop there for lunch and was heartened when their tapenade arrived and was a perfect rendition of pungent olives, garlic, spicy red pepper flakes and a luxurious olive oil. I didn’t want to spoil my meal by eating just tapenade and bread, so I controlled myself and only ate two servings. I would have been happier of I had made a meal of tapenade instead of my salad.

I ordered the Caesar salad with grilled shrimp. Looks can be deceiving; the shrimp were over cooked and the salad was over dressed with a bland sauce. It was sad to eat alone (I was the ONLY diner in the entire restaurant at 12:30pm), but it was even sadder to realize that one of my favorite places had changed for the worse. The glass of Pinot Grigio I had was as refreshing as the service from my waiter, who was in remarkably good humor despite the 118F weather and having only one diner. Considering lunch was under $20, I left a healthy 30% tip, hoping that would show the waiter I appreciated his work, and hoping the lunchtime chef was just having a bad day.

Upon arriving at the Esmeralda in Indian Wells, the last thing I wanted to do was drive anywhere for food, so I had their bar menu of four tacos for $10, ordering two shrimp tacos and two carne asada tacos. My server suggested the Luna Pinot Grigio ($8) from Cava restaurant, and then he went out in the 118F heat to get me a glass from the restaurant! I wish the food was as good as the service. The shrimp were nicely done (thankfully not overcooked), crispy and tasty, but the carne asada tasted as if it was boiled in water, and the tortillas were obviously industrially made tasteless discs.

My friend Cindy wanted sushi, so we got a platter of Spicy tuna roll with avocado, yellowtail, white tuna, albacore, and mackerel for $40. Cindy liked it, but I thought the fish was not quite fresh enough for the price.

Our final meal in the hotel was lunch at Cava. We both chose the chopped salad with turkey, avocado, tomatoes, corn, and mixed greens for $12. It was fresh and lightly dressed, but I was disappointed that the turkey was cubes of sliced turkey and the waitress disappeared after we were served (we had to ask the hostess for our check and paid at the hostess stand because our waitress never reappeared).

Sometimes old favorites change for the worse, and new finds are mediocre, but great places like Zini Cafe that continue to excel are the reasons I love to eat in the Palm Springs area.

Cava Restaurant on Urbanspoon

An unplanned trip to Palm Springs this week meant that I got a chance to revisit Zini Cafe Med for their delectable tapas (see my previous post here).

Since the temperature was about 108 Farenheit, I wanted something cool, so I decided to order the chilled baby octopus salad, with cherry tomato, cucumber, red onion, and a mustard vinaigrette ($5) instead of the hot octopus I had last time. I liked this version nearly as much as the hot version except I would have ordered the salad dressing on the side since the strong mustard vinaigrette was a bit strong on the tender organic greens.

The spicy lime drizzled shrimp were my favorite of all the tapas I tasted. For $6, the four medium sized shrimp were perfectly cooked and the garlic infused spicy lime sauce was good enough to drink; thankfully there was yeasty and warm sourdough bread to soak up the sauce.

If I go back for a meal twice in the same day (as I did for La Petite Creperie in June), you know I love a place, and I did that here. For my second round of food I started with one of the same plates I chose last time, the Tuna Carpaccio, served with Citrus, Balsamic Pomegranate Drizzle, Spanish Olive Oil & Caper. The $6 plate was every bit as delightful as the one I ate last year.

The grilled calamari stuffed with Spanish chorizo, fried parsley and capers was a bit rich and salty, but a very hearty bite for $6. This was my least favorite of all the tapas I tasted, but even so, it was still good enough to recommend to people who like rich, salty sausage bites.

I don’t know if I was really hungry or simply intrigued when I ordered the grilled artichoke, asparagus, fried egg egg, Serrano ham, and Machego cheese plate for $6. It was like a mini-breakfast and my idea of comfort food. The perfectly fried egg was done to perfection with enough runny yolk, yet no runny white, the Serrano and asparagus were great complimentary flavors, and the artichoke and cheese were nice highlights.

Finding places that are still wonderful a year later makes my stomach and face smile with delight. To add yet another surprise, wines average only $6 for a good selection of red, white, rose or bubbly, by the glass, and their happy hours, which begin at 4pm and go until 7pm most nights, offer specials like a pitcher of Sangria with a platter of snacks for only $21. It may be 108 outside, but it’s cool inside Zini.

Zini Cafe Med on Urbanspoon

I must be in a Mediterranean mood, with meals at Papa Cristo’s yesterday and Aroma Cafe today. Or maybe my preferred comfort food is European and I just want to be comfortable 🙂

In a small strip mall across from the Westside Pavillion, Aroma Cafe offers a cuisine rarely seen here in Los Angeles, Bosnian food. Just as the USSR is now several countries, the former Yugoslavia is also and the distinct food of the Bosnian region is featured here with dishes I have never seen anywhere else.

The hearty menu has options of kebabs, sandwiches, and salads you will recognize, like the shish kebab with salad for $6.50, a grilled chicken sandwich for $10.50, and a Greek salad for $7.50. The bread served with meals here is similar to a ciabatta loaf, with a soft interior and chewy exterior, about 10″ in diameter.

The most interesting options here are the ones like the Sarma wrapped in sour cabbage for $14.50 that is served in a tangy sauce with sour cream. I loved this combination of a rich filling with a tangy sour exterior, but I know many will find this a bit strong and strange; I would recommend you stick to the chicken or lamb kebabs is you prefer your meals to have less complex notes.

Sarma is a mixture of rice and ground beef which is used to stuff cabbage, grape leaves or peppers and offered in all three varieties at Aroma Cafe. Since I love cabbage, I had it stuffed in the sour cabbage and somehow managed to eat all four rolls (one more bite became several).

Another unique offering here is Kajmak, a clotted cream that is spread on sandwiches of beef prosciutto. If you love the meat they use, you can also buy both cheeses and meats in their deli case to take home. I had fun perusing the deli shelves of products that I had never seen before and which had labels that did not even have an alphabet I recognized. One jar looked like nutella combined with a creamy spread that was infused with a cherry jam which I may go back just to buy for one of my sweet toothed friends. For dessert they offer baklava and apple or cherry pie, and to wash it all down they have Turkish coffee, espresso, or kefir.

Even if you don’t have a desire to travel to the Balkan region, you may want to travel across the street from the mall and get a taste of a culture and food that you won’t find elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Aroma Cafe on Urbanspoon

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