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Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds sing "White
Christmas: in the movie "Holiday Inn" (1942)
WHERE TO EAT IN L.A. RIGHT NOW
by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: PORTER HOUSE
by John Mariani
SWEETS FOR THE SWEET IGNORE DESSERT WINE PAIRINGS
by John Mariani
TO EAT IN L.A. RIGHT NOW
Bette Davis and Director William Wyler (1938)
The doldrums of dining out in L.A. have finally ended after a decade when no one could come up with the Next Big Thing. So instead chefs went back to cooking well and Los Angelenos seem to have sighed in relief, content to eat fine food in casual spaces and to spot a few celebs now and then. (The Michelin Guide ceased publication of its L.A. guide after one year because, its then-director sniffed, Los Angelenos don’t really care about the food, only the sightings.)
The city is still heavy with sushi and Mexican, but, as it has for the past five years, Italian rules, especially after the success of Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali’s Mozza. French cuisine is on life support, modernist cuisine has made no headway, and Wolfgang Puck has opened yet another restaurant, this time in the $100 million rehab of the Hotel Bel-Air, with the name. . . .(drum roll). . . Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air. Here are some of new places that have put L.A. right again.
Mr. C Restaurant
Mr. C Hotel
1224 Beverwill Drive
If you wander into Mr. C. Restaurant from the entry way to the chic new Mr. C Hotel (the first in what the Cipriani family hopes will be a worldwide deluxe chain), you may do a Hollywood double take—doing!—when you wonder if you’re on a set for a movie about Harry’s Bar in Venice, maybe with Helena Bonham Carter or Kate Blanchett.
Though larger than the original, which opened in the 1930s and was Hemingway’s favorite haunt in the 1950s, it looks almost exactly the same, right down to the wall clock, the polished mahogany bar, the tablesettings, the low tables, the color of the linens, glassware, waiters' jackets, and the menu. The crowd is considerably more Tinseltown than Venice, but then the original Harry's Bar was never without a few show biz celebs.
It’s really quite a trick of trompe l’oeil, and when you begin with a bellini and plate of carpaccio, you’ll know this is no mere facsimile. Mr. C.’s food comes pretty damn close to what you’ll get at Harry’s Bar (a name the Ciprianis have never replicated, though others, shamelessly have). The prices are actually a bit less than in Venice.
Here are the Cipriani classics: baked tagliolini
with ham; ; scampi al curry; pasticcio di
tagliardi verdi alla bolognese; and those
wonderful, silly meringue desserts. Prices are
a tad lower than in Venice, with full portions of
pasta around $26, easy enough to share with a
hotel itself has a bright newness about it, its
138 spacious rooms done up with big
black-and-white photos of Italian movie
stars. Downstairs there is a soigné
bar and lounge, outside of which is a crew of
parking attendants who, when I stayed there, were
much in need of direction. The fact that the
hotel is off the beaten track, on a curiously
named street--Beverwill--gives its rooms a welcome
quietude, and coming down to breakfast at that
splendid repro of Harry's Bar makes a stay here an
almost nostalgic moment. The
fact that it offers the luxury of L.A. hotels like
the Four Seasons and Hermitage at somewhat lower
rates means it's in tune with the times.
7360 Beverly Boulevard
Esquire named John Sedlar “Chef of the Year 2011” for a body of work that goes back to the 1980s, when he introduced a refined style of Cal-Mexican cuisine in L.A. He was born in Santa Fe and always tried to marry Mexican and South American food with a Southern California swagger, first at Bikini in L.A. in 1991, then Abiquiu in 1994—both representing the early-on cutting edge of Neo-Latino cuisine. After the devastating earthquake in the city, Sedlar left the restaurant business to open a food company, returning to the business two years ago with high-style Rivera downtown, because, he says, “My chef friends were having a lot more fun than I was.”
Now, this year, he has opened the more casual Playa, where he works around “reflexiones”—windows into memories—thematic dishes that subtly reflect his favorite chefs or movies (“A Clockwork Orange” [right] was a theme this summer), all drawn from decades of visits to Mexico, South America and Spain, which gave him the taste and experience to write authoritative books like Modern Southwest Cuisine and to host a video named Tamale Madness.
So, go to Playa with some friends and order a mess of tortillas he calls “maize cakes,” one made with wild mushrooms, black garlic, olives crushed to look like soil, L’Explorateur cheese, and a mushrooms foam; another is a wrap of burrata cheese with salsa verde, arugula, amaranth, and Sal de Colima sea salt. Try to assess the delicacy of a dish like his fresh corn custard with Cotija cheese, black quinoa and squash blossom sauce, and learn how he builds such wonderful flavors into piquillos relleños with Gruyère, golden raisins, and chorizo. None of it will cost you very much either.
PUBLIC KITCHEN AND BAR
Public K&C has some of the best-looking staff in the city, and Chef Tim Goodell wants to please everyone; portions are big, and the crowd comes for a good time. The burger is as good as are the steaks and chops and the pork schnitzel, but the apps like squash blossom with three cheeses; chicken liver terrine with fruit marmalade; and the Neapolitan meatballs are going to hard to resist. The motto here is “EVERYTHING TASTES BETTER WITH AN EGG ON IT.”
block tables, 1960's library chairs,
9575 West Pico Boulevard
“Sotto” means “below” and you have to go down a few steps, across from the 20th Century Fox lot, and enter into a rustic trattoria whose hostess—Nicole—may look familiar: she was a winner on “America’s Top Model” a season or two ago. Congenial G-M Gina Pepito is very easy on the eyes too.
The room is all rough wood and old caged light bulbs, with wine bottles hung from a ceiling rack, a communal table, and open kitchen. Back there work Steve Samson and Zach Pollack, the latter turning out bubbling, char-crusted pizzas (right) that are perhaps the best in Los Angeles right now, not least a calzone called “Homage to Caiazzo” (a town in Campania), packed with escarole, capers, Gaeta olives, and creamy burrata.
They're nice kids doing what they love and it shows in every dish. Their repertoire is culled from regions like Puglia, Abruzzo, Campania, and Calabria, which becomes obvious on the first bite of the roast griarelli peppers with capers and oregano. Sicilian sardines with citrus salsa and olive-pistachio vinaigrette tingles on the tongue, and rich al dente pastas like bucatini with tomato and Fiore Sardo cheese and casarecce with braised lamb ragù, egg and pecorino have just the right bite. This is not a place to bring an attitude.
Ray’s & Stark Bar
Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art,
5905 Wilshire Boulevard
The Patina Group that gave L.A. the elegant Patina restaurant at the Walt Disney Music Center downtown has now provided another great L.A. institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, with a more winsome but no less delectable place to dine and, next to it, a swank bar that is usually packed by six with an arts and entertainment crowd—who book a lot of parties here. The Ray Stark in question is the producer of films like “Funny Girl” and “Steel Magnolias,” and the restaurant is a gift of his foundation.
The restaurant on the plaza is a glass rectangular box, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, with the feeling of a de Chirico painting bathed in Southern California sunshine. Inside are lipstick red seats, Eames chairs, and gleaming polished metal, and Ellen Palevsky’s collection of more than 150 designer cups from 1850-1950 in neat little white shelves.
Chef Chris Morningstar, who worked at Patina, cooks with an artistic flair that fits impeccably into the Museum’s tenor, with wholly modern ideas like wood-roasted chile, chorizo, dates and goat’s cheese with almond sauce; yellowtail with an avocado cream, smoked tomato jelly, and crispy potatoes; and a coffee pudding with smoked caramel, espresso granité, and a chocolate cigarette. It’s food with a frisky panache, clean tastes in splashes of color, as sensuously sunny as a David Hockney pool painting.
HOUSE NEW YORK
Despite naysayers who contended no New Yorker would ever go up three or four flights of escalator to eat at a restaurant, the resounding success of Per Se, A Voce, Masa, Landmarc, and Porter House NY is nothing short of a phenomenon after seven years. Within its large dining room and bar area of 140 seats, Porter House rarely has an empty table any evening of the year, recession re-schmession. There are big roomy, round booths, no tables crammed in, no lousy tables for out-of-towners, no bad lighting. Broad tables with soft tablecloths, good stemware, and a view of Central Park that makes you swoon, the Jeffrey Beers-designed room is a testament to New York swank without being "swanky."
partner Michael Lomonaco, manager Tim Brown, and a
fast-moving staff keep Porter House hopping without
the slightest lag in service, not least from sommelier
Roger Dagorn, who is always on hand to make the choice
of wine perfect for your taste, your dinner choices,
and your budget.
Where to begin on the menu? There are several salads, including a classic Caesar, clams Casino, and smoked salmon. I usually go straight for either the pan-seared sea scallops with capers, brown butter, and celeriac or the roasted beef marrows bones with an herb salad and toasted country bread. The jumbo lump crabcake lives up to its billing—it is all jumbo crab morsels, lightly bound and served with a tangy horseradish cream. I highly recommend the rigatoni alla bolognese, a wonderfully rich dish correctly made without too much tomato, and the truffled risotto with pine nuts and black truffle butter. A guy named Lomonaco is not going to screw these up.
I suppose there are some who might opt for non-meat main dishes at a place called Porter House, though it strikes me the same as if a person went to a dim sum restaurant and ordered General Tso’s chicken. (The lobster offering here, oddly enough, is a pretty puny two-pounder.) So I can’t vouch for items like herb-roasted chicken or grilled swordfish. But I will go into high praise about the massive, juicy veal chop with roasted garlic and arugula, and the equally gargantuan Colorado lamb t-bone chops dashed with a little rosemary. There are four sauces to accompany these cuts, and they are worthwhile in small dabs.
The signature item, porterhouse (right), served for two but hefty enough for three or even four is everything I hope for in beefiness and age, surface resilience, and crusty char. If I order it for two, I always end up taking a good portion home. The strip steak is excellent, as is the big cowboy ribeye, which also comes chili rubbed, if you like. I am always tempted to have the burger, described as “private stock,” with Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion rings. Otherwise, as at other steakhouses, the sides—all of them first rate, including nonpareil onion rings, crisp potato chips, and very rich creamed spinach—are a la carte.
Desserts may not be in the cards after a heavy meal like this, but share at least one—maybe the South Carolina coconut cake (left), all seven layers of it, or, for winter, the pumpkin pie with sherried nutmeg whipped cream and candied walnuts. For the kid in you, the chocolate sundae and root beer float will be nostalgic pleasures, even at twelve bucks a pop.
Prices have risen a bit at Porter House, but no one is likely to leave hungry—you can easily consider the leftovers from a main course here as tomorrow’s lunch—and the whole experience is one of sumptuous revelry.
As noted, some men seem to thrive on the masochism of those old line steakhouses where the maître d’s couldn’t care less what time you say your rez in for and the waiters have no patience for describing anything on the menu. Porter House is the antithesis of that experience, a steakhouse where the greeting and the service are as genuine as the quality of the beef, and every bit as generously portioned out.
Porter House New York is open daily for lunch and dinner, with dinner appetizers ranging from $9-$22, and entrees $26-$56.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Sweets for the Sweet Ignore Dessert Wine Pairings
by John Mariani
A century ago that was pretty much the case, when sweet Hungarian Tokaji, Portuguese Madeira and Port, Spanish sherries, Italian Marsalas, and French Sauternes were enjoyed as much with savory dishes as with sweet. Champagnes, now preferred bone dry, were once much sweeter, from demi-sec (half dry) to doux (sweet).
The best sweet wines are made from grapes whose sugars have been concentrated by drying, partial freezing, late harvesting or infection by the so-called “Noble Rot.” Some, like Port and Sherry, are fortified with spirits to stabilize them. The worst are made like fruit punch, with sugar and fruit infusions added. So in a world where Thunderbird still outsells chardonnay and cabernet, people still associate sweet wines with cheap plonk and deemed them “dessert wines.”
“The term dessert wine is a taboo today; `dry’ is where it’s at,” Daniel Johnnes, wine director for the Dinex Group in New York, told me by phone. “I direct my sommeliers not to list sweet wines as `dessert wines,’ and to discuss with the guest the varying degrees of sweetness between, say, a Sauternes and a lighter bodied Barsac. I think they go very well with certain braised meats with caramelized flavors.”
But such wines are a tough sell. Among Sauternes, only the illustrious Cru Château d’Yquem, sells really well, often served with foie gras or Roquefort cheese.
“The contemporary attitude is that anything sweet is bad for you and will put on weight, which is absolute rubbish,” David Levin, owner of The Capital Hotel and Restaurant in London told me. “It’s a mental block, so we really have to promote our sweet wines. We carry six vintages of Yquem half-bottles, which are far easier to sell than a whole bottle.”
Levin’s wife Lynne, who is manages their wine estate in the Loire Valley, has just released half bottles of Levin Noble 2010, a botrytis-affected sauvignon blanc for sale in the UK, Australia, and Sweden. “It’s got 60 grams residual sugar,” she says, “but the balance of acids allows it to go well with many different dishes, like a goat’s cheese salad.”
American sweet wine producers are struggling too. According to Ken Young, executive director of the Sweet and Fortified Wine Association in Appelgate, CA, sweet wines now account for 7.5 percent of all U.S. wine shipments. “Before 2008 we had sale increases around 6.2 percent annually, but since then it’s only around two percent; sales are pretty flat for fortified wines, though Late harvest wines are doing pretty well.”
Sweet wine makers are, therefore, trying hard to prove their wines go with all sorts of savory dishes. At a dinner at Restaurant Daniel in New York, vigneron Aline Bal (above) of Château Coutet, served her Barsacs with soft-shell crabs and pressed duck. French actress Carole Bouquet (right), who owns a winery on the Italian island of Pantelleria, last month served her Sangue d’Oro passito at New York’s Boulud Sud with first courses like octopus à la plancha with almonds, arugula, and sherry vinegar; and sheep’s milk ricotta with tomato confit, and tapenade.
Even the great Hungarian Tokaji wines, whose sweetness is graded by star-like symbols called puttonyos, have their place before and after dessert. Director of Hungary’s Royal Tokaji Wines, Ben Hawkins, author of the just-released Real Men Drink Port . . . and Ladies Do Too, told me by phone that, “the very sweet six puttonyos Tokajis should be drunk after dessert, like a Cognac or Port. We blend the three- and four-puttonyos wines to make an aged late harvest wine, which has more acidity, so they can be enjoyed with more savory dishes, like a three-year-old Gouda, which is considered as classic a match in Hungary as Roquefort and Sauternes is in France.”
I, too, would insist that sweet wines go better with cheeses than dry red wine. Whether it’s Port with Stilton, a late harvest riesling with goat’s cheese, or a vin santo with Parmigiano, the flavors assimilate much better than with cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, which may take on a metallic taste.
I also like sweet Chinese poultry dishes like with sweet wines. Try a sweet rice or lychee wine with Peking duck or General Tso’s chicken. The French classic duck à l’orange is well served with a Lustau Sherry, and when feasting on sweet North African dishes like tagine and bisteeya, dry wines just don’t work. I’d go with a glass of ruby Port.
After dessert, curl up with a magnificent Silvano Garcia Dulce Monastrell 2001 ($30), a powerful argument for the individuality of Spain’s viticultural soul and perfect with sweet-fleshed roast chestnuts and a dish of figs before the fireplace.
And for something truly remarkable, make some scrambled eggs in butter with shavings of black truffles. Pour a glass of iced Pacific Rim Vin de Glaciere Riesling 2010 ($16 half bottle), made in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Now, that is a decadent revelation indeed.
John Mariani's wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis.
BAD TASTE IN THE MOUTH NUMBER 556
According to the NY Daily News, gold-rimmed china plates from Saddam Hussein's many dining rooms have ended up at Park Avenue Autumn restaurant as part of a participatory art installation. To enhance the "complicated" experience, Chef Kevin Lasko created an Iraqi-inspired dish of venison chop covered in tahini and date syrup, with pomegranates, pine nuts, and scallions. Lasko compares the tahini to Saddam Hussein himself: “It's very good to eat and it tastes good, but, at the same time, there are bitter memories because of Saddam. It's actually kind of very similar to how the tahini and the date syrup are — the tahini is very bitter and the syrup is very sweet.”
SO, THIS WAS AFTER BREAKING THROUGH
THE POLICE BARRICADES?
from New York to the Bay Area, I've looked back on
winter with the sweet sorrow of a complicated
relationship. Sure, it often hurt, but the pain
was interspersed with threads of warmth and
relief. In this land without well-defined seasons
(don't kid yourselves), I miss sharp contrasts.
Thus when Oakland's balmy October weather
developed an abrupt chill, I headed to Kitchen
388. I may have missed this year's Halloween
snowstorm in the Northeast, but at least I could
throw on a sweater and duck into a warm nook for
breakfast."--Jesse Hirsch, "Hot and Cold at Kitchen
388," SF Weekly.
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