Eating Every Day

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bistro

Steak
East Colorado Avenue, Pasadena, November 23, 2014—
DINNER TONIGHT WITH A COUPLE of friends we always enjoy: funny, smart, connected, people you can converse with about food, food politics, books, computers, travel… and it doesn't hurt that Sarah knows her food and the local restaurant scene. She chose the place, and apart from some snags in the service (white wine and Champagne insufficiently chilled, for example) the place turned out to be just what we needed: relaxed, accessible, with a simple bistro menu that wasn't hard to order from.

We began with an order of brandade, nicely whipped salt cod with potato, served on a bed of tomato confit — a curious idea, I thought, not mantecato in the Venetian style by any means, perhaps more a Genovese take on the classic dish — I don't know: there is so much more to learn. In any case, quite nice; I'd have it again willingly every couple of weeks.

From there, on to the classic "bistro steak" you see here, a hanger steak, nicely grilled, with bordelaise sauce, pommes Anna on the side, and creamed spinach. This is a combination I couldn't possibly resist. I thought the potatoes lacked the last word in authenticity — not outstanding potatoes, and perhaps not as buttery as they might be, and needing both salt and pepper. But these are cavils, and I'm sorry to be so critical. It was a perfectly good dinner, and I'd go back if I wanted a bistro.

Oh: and on the way out, we were offered a miniature canalé. A nice touch, I think.

Catarratto, Tola (Sicily), 2011: unusual, nice flavor and body, unfortunately not cold enough;
Garnacha, Santo Cristo (Spain), 2010: good body, flavor, and balance
Canelé, 3219 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles; (323) 666-7133

Sotto

FullSizeRender
East Colorado Avenue, Pasadena, November 22, 2014—
ANOTHER ITALIAN RESTAURANT tonight, because unprogrammed curiosity is a moral weakness. And tonight's proved to be one of the best places we've sampled lately, with setting, service, menu, and execution on a uniformly high level: absolutely nothing to criticize.

After a well-made Martini, we began with bread and olive oil — bread made in house, with a nice texture and flavor, nothing stupendous, but utterly fresh and generous, with a very good Tuscan-style olive oil.

IMG 7105IMG 7104
We ordered chickpeas two ways from the "small plates" side of the menu: first, fava e cicoria, dried fava purée with wilted chicory, red onion, and pane guttiau, which turned out to be something like Sardinian "music-paper bread," dry, crisp, perfect little wafers. The purée was absolutely marvelous, as silky and sumptuous a blend of favas and olive oil as you can imagine — a perfect emulsion, nicely setting off the almost bitter greens.

Next, "chickpea panelle": (lemon, Ragusano) in parentheses on the menu after the listing. These were an Italian (probably Ligurian) kind of panisse, chickpea-flour-and-soft-cheese lozenges, fried of course, dusted with grated cheese and served with a lemon wedge. The perfect is the enemy of the good, they say; it was perhaps too bad we'd had the fava purée first; but these panelle were very good indeed, soft and subtle inside, crusty and alert outside.

IMG 7108I went on to carne cruda: hanger steak, pounded paper-thin with one of those bossed tenderizing hammers (this is a guess), garnished with a scatter of parmesan shavings and urled scallion greens, then drizzled with that good olive oil, and judiciously salted. I've never had a dish quite like it: not tartare, not bresaola. Utterly clean and wholesome and delicious.

Dessert was a "bittersweet chocolate crostata" with hazelnuts and salted rosemary caramel. The rosemary was, thankfully, very discreet indeed, the merest hint. The chocolate pudding was as silky and unctuous as the fava purée had been, a nice reference back to the beginning of the meal.

And after that we had a tortino — I'd have called it a little pie-cake — filled with pears that had been poached in red wine, and prune purée, and topped with lemon-flavored whipped cream, in a very nice pastry shell — a dessert referring to many others but staking out rather its own territory, and a delicious thing.

We really liked this place. The service was professional, friendly, and discreet; the wine list was interesting; the food, we thought, impeccable. We will return.
IMG 7116
Cannonau, Argiolas (Sardegna), 2012: true varietal, rich but not powerful, very pleasant
Sotto, 9575 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles; (310) 277-0210

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bestia

IMG 7080
East Colorado Avenue, Pasadena, November 21, 2014—
BACK TO BESTIA tonight, partly because I remember it fondly from a while back, partly to see how it would hold up against recent dinners in Italy and last night's meal at Union. It was a very interesting evening.

Comparisons are odious, of course. But still. Union offered a true meal, easily chosen from the menu, taken in a relatively small room where all the diners were clearly a member of a community of some kind, if only provisionally. The room was well lit; though busy, it was quiet enough to make conversation possible. The restaurant is on a side street in the "Old Town" business district of Pasadena, with a fairly lively street scene.

Bestia is a warehouse sort of building in an industrial part of old Los Angeles; there is no street scene. The dining room is broken up into at least three areas. The place is incredibly noisy inside; we ate on a sort of enclosed terrace where it was possible to converse and even — as you'll see — eavesdrop on the next table: but always aware of the noise within. The room was so dark we resorted to flashlights (from our iPhones) to read the menu. And speaking of menu: first, most of the items were composed of a number of ingredients; few of the items seemed to fall readily into a coherent dinner plan; most of the items were really, really expensive.

Perhaps I'm telegraphing my final preference between the two. But let's get on to the dinner: We began, since it's Friday night, with Martinis, specifying our preferences (three to one, up, with a twist, for me; half and half, up, with olives, for Cook), and were quickly advised the bar had no Martini olives. Okay, fine, a lemon twist will do. The drinks arrived in curious stemware but were perfectly to specification — and ran $16 apiece.

We started simply, with bread and oil ($6) and roasted vegetables — apart from a number of salads, most of them collisions, to my mind, of unrelated things, just about the only vegetables on the menu. You see some of them in the photo above: heirloom carrots, tiny Brussels sprouts, broccoli flowerets, all beautifully flavored, roasted together in olive oil in, I'd guess, the pizza oven, for a short time, at high heat — probably after first having been blanched. This was a delicious thing, worth lingering over.

From there I went on to Cavatelli alla Norcina: ricotta dumplings — strozzapreti-shaped gnocchi, you might say — with housemade pork sausage, black truffles, and grana padana. The truffle was thankfully restrained, the sausage a bit on the bland side, but the dish was well balanced. Lindsey's pasta was better, I think; I had ordered it last year — the menu isn't changed that much in the lapsed year — and recalled it as a nicely structured and integrated dish.

Dessert: none for me — well, a simple grappa — but Lindsey ordered the "chocolate budino tart," with its now-obligatory salt caramel and olive oil. I thought it rather pedestrian under its olive oil and salt, but Lindsey liked it.

At the table behind me I'd heard a woman exclaim, in an Italian accent, at the presence of puntarelle on the menu. I love puntarelle, myself, and would have ordered them, but they came with endive, persimmons, pomegranate, mint, and pecorino, in a chili lemon vinaigrette — what I meant by collision. Later the same woman expostulated about the fish, a grilled "whole" orata which had apparently been cooked, somehow, without its bones. How can they think of doing that, she said afterward when we left the room together, how can they cook the fish without the bones, it's the bones give the fish its substance and its structure, you can take the bones away after it's cooked, of course, but you can't possibly cook the fish without the bones.

Well, I said, non siamo in Italia, things are different here, they travel and read and learn and then ignore the history and make it new, that's what Los Angeles is about.

Saperavi, Vinoterra (Kakheti, Georgia), 2010 (deep, old, terra-cotta aged, short on finish at first but developing nicely in the glass; very interesting)
Basadone, Castello di Verduno (Piemonte), 2013 (light, attractive, fragrant, fully achieved)
•Bestia, 2121 E 7th Pl, Los Angeles; (213) 514-5724

Union, Pasadena

IMG 7057
East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, November 20, 2014—
WE DINED AT A TABLE under this mural, only the center part shown here — and other quotes from Alice Waters were to be found on the walls in other strategic locations. This restaurant is serious about the specificity of its provender, which confirms to the Good, Clean, Fair maxim of Slow Food. But you have the feeling that, ethical and correct as the operation is and intends to be, it is Deliciousness that drives it.

It drives it down an Italian country road, I would say, certainly on the basis of tonight's visit. (Not our first, by the way.) I was eager to sample this place again so soon after a couple of weeks in Italy, while the authentic tastes were still in my mouth, so to speak; and I was certainly not disappointed: this is one of the great Italian restaurants not in Italy.

IMG 7056

We began with this plate of bread, butter, and giardinera: good sound bread, delicious butter, pickled vegetables that were unusually piquant but crisp and tasty, setting us alert for what was to follow.

That was a plate of sautéed wild mushrooms served with the softest, subtlest polenta I've had outside Venice — "Grist and Toil" polenta the menu called it, and I'm sure a lot of work went into its production, both in the field and in the kitchen: but the result was anything but effortful or labored, merely soft, delicate, complex, utterly satisfying. The mushrooms gained from a sherry vinaigrette, surprising on this menu, but quite explicable: perhaps we were in Venice, where ships occasionally call from Jerez…

IMG 7058I went on to this porchetta, with potatoes roasted in the fat, and salsa verde on the side. Porchetta correctly done involves shreds and slices, fat and crackling, and plenty of dense lean meat as well. This was excellent. If we'd begun somewhere in Puglia, and gone on to Venice, I was now in Testaccio, and no mistake about it. The pork had that slight taste of tripe that roast suckling pig has to have; this pork was young, I'm sure of it, but complex, again, and long in the finish. The potatoes had a fine creamy texture, and the salsa verde was a Piemontese type, heavy on the parseley, very nice with the pork.

How could I resist the gianduia budino on the dessert menu, after my recent researches into bonet, the classic Piemontese chocolate-hazelnut dolce? This was not bonet, as it lacked any reference to amaretti; instead the little jar of silky pudding wore a chocolate cookie dusted with powdered sugar as its lid. But it recalled Piemonte, perhaps because I'd gone on to a marvelous red wine…

Soave classico, Balestri Valda (Garganega, Veneto), 2012 (truly suave, a little innocuous, very pleasant);
Nebbiolo, Francesco Borgogno (Langhe), 2013 (too young, but a beautiful wine quite willing to be dealt with now)
IMG 7060

•Union, 37 E Union St, Pasadena, California; (626) 795-5841

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

On the road again

Hunter Liggett Military Reservation, California, November 19, 2014—


We're on our way south to see some theater and visit friends and restaurants, and thought we'd break the trip in a place new to us. In every respect but one it's truly a fine place: a Mission-style "hacienda" designed by Julia Morgan for William Randolph Hearst, funky but grand, in a beautiful, tranquil landscape a mile from a favorite (real) mission, San Antonio de Padua. There's even a pleasant if barnlike bar. If only there were a restaurant!


Oh well. We settled for the bowling alley, as there was no choice. Lindsey had a hot dog with sauerkraut, which she pronounced okay, "not one of those skinny unpleasant little hot dogs." I had this seven-inch pizza, with fresh tomatoes and decent sausage and, of course, too much cheese.


Corona beer in the bottle

•Liggett Lanes, FHL Bowling Center, Infantry Road Building 121, Jolon, California; 831-386-2680

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Stew

IMG_6972.jpg
Eastside Road, November 17, 2014—
BEEF STEW must certainly be one of the Hundred Plates. Of course there are many variations. This one seemed a little French to me; perhaps because of the sprigs of thyme I ran across. I don't know how Cook made it; I was in the other room.

She made it yesterday. One of the requirements of a good stew, of any good braise I think, is that it be prepared at least a day before it is to be consumed, to allow the flavors to deepen, to marry, to discuss things among themselves, without our interfering, so that they may reach an ultimate accord, perhaps even a consensus.

That's what happened with this one. It was served with noodles, as you see, not with potatoes — no Irish stew here, no cabbage, no praties.

Before the stew we had an appetizer of padron peppers, cooked the usual way; afterward a green salad, dressed tonight with lemon juice rather than vinegar.

Zinfandel, Beaulieu "Coastal Estates", 2011 (a little flat)
IMG_6970.jpg

Monday, November 17, 2014

Family

IMG_6963.jpg
Eastside Road, November 16, 2014—
THESE ARE WHAT the Italians call fragolini, "little strawberries" literally — in fact, little fraises des bois, and the biggest one here is perhaps three times the size of a common pencil-eraser, the one at the end of the pencil, if you haven't worn it down or (as I used to do, I confess) bitten it off.

Fragolini are among the most delicious things in the world, far as I'm concerned — and I'm a guy who normally doesn't particularly go crazy about strawberries. These little berries are about the only thing we haven't shared with family this last weekend, and not, I promise you, simply because they cost about a dime apiece. We, or at any rate I, was simply unwilling to share. We had them as dessert after lunch today, a nice lunch involving the minestrone Cook made the other day.

IMG_6965.jpg

Dinners were taken with family — a sister is visiting from New Mexico, and what better way to socialize than at the table? Last night it was here, and involved chicken; tonight we're down the hill at the neighbor's, and you may be sure meat's on the menu — grilled over wood: beef and pork, and broccolini, and a plate of persimmons, avocado and arugula that was a joy to see. Oh: and fresh applesauce with vanilla ice cream. Delicious!

Cheap pinot grigio; Barbera, Preston of Dry Creek, 2011