Mitchell, Donna Reed, James Stewart, and Carolyn
Grimes in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1947)
L.A. Eats, Part One
by John Mariani
Pioneer Napa Valley Wine Maker Is Back
by Mort Hochstein
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard (1941)
by John Mariani
The down period for Los Angeles dining, which began about the time one-state-over Las Vegas began to steal its thunder, ended a couple of years ago, and now, with a slew of new restaurants typifying the city's diversity, it's time to re-consider L.A.'s ranking among American food towns.
9669 South Santa Monica Boulevard
Now, isn’t this just what Beverly Hills—where people would sell their bodies for the “A” tables at Spago, Cut and Mr. Chow—were dying for? A humble little Austrian restaurant with a six-foot-seven chef and nothing close to an “A” table.
If BierBeisl was only a place to get a platter of wursts and some rare Austrian brews, it would be welcome enough anywhere in L.A. But when you get such great bursts of flavor from a Käsekrainer sausage pumped up with oozy Emmenthaler cheese and sharp pepper, and when an appetizer of glazed white asparagus are as sweet as candy and sprinkled with unexpected sautéed sweetbreads, heirloom tomatoes, lemon confit and veal jus, you soon sense that chef-owner Bernhard Mairinger is doing at BarBeisl something far more special. Break off the arm of a fat, soft pretzel and sop up the vinaigrette on the carpaccio of silky pork roast. At the end, rouse yourself to share that giddy Austrian dessert called Kaiserschmarm of golden, hot meringue and warm plum compote. And, if you are taller than Mairinger, you eat free!
By all means ask Mairinger to pair up some
beers with his food. I did. Here’s what he said:
“For instance, Weisswurst made with veal only and poached in milk with onions is one the leanest, creamiest sausages, so it is best with a creamy, hoppy almost buttery sweet Stiegl Weisse, which is a traditional, very popular combination in Bavaria.
“Debreziner, made with beef and pork, fresh horseradish and tarragon mustard, is juicy, peppery, and spicy with cayenne pepper, paprika, and caraway. I like it with the Staropramen, my favorite Czech beer, which adds bitterness and hoppiness, so the slightly sweet flavor of fresh horseradish stays on the palate along with the spices after every bite, and even after the meal.
“Käsekrainer--Viennese street food--is a peppery beef and pork sausage that has Emmenthal cheese folded into the coarse brat, so it literally explodes in your mouth, and if you are not careful enough, all over your shirt. Pair it with Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, which is grassy, gently bitter, perfectly balanced with a hint of hops and caramel.
“Bier Cabanossi is a coarse beef and pork steamed and smoked sausage served with pickles, tarragon mustard and peppercress, very good to eat with a dark Koestrizer Schwarzbier that has an almost coffee bitterness that supports the sweet-saltiness of the sausage and pickles.”
408 South Main Street
It’s not about the
sandwich. Which is one helluva great sandwich:
a bäco (right)
is a freshly baked roll, somewhat like a soft taco
or pita, that in its original conception was
filled up from whatever was around the
kitchen—now, fried pork belly, carnitas, pickles,
and a sauce of tomato and almonds called salbitxada.
Variations followed fast—bäcos with crispy
hot sauce, and chive; oxtail hash, smoked Gouda
and mustard; beef tongue schnitzel with harissa,
smoked aïoli and pickle.
Bäco Mercat is not a place that says anything glib about casual dining trends. It’s a place entirely its own, unreproducible without Josef Centano. “I wanted a neighborhood place,” he says, “and it’s downtown because that’s my neighborhood. I live across the street. I love the Old Bank District and the buildings here because of their history and character and architectural bones. I didn’t have the budget for a designer, so it’s a pretty DIY place. I stripped and shined all the old brass in the restaurant. I helped paint. A friend recommended a craftsman who works with iron, and he built the bar and the restaurant signs. It is what it is.”
8432 W. Third Street
Victor Casenova has fallen upwards. Two years ago, the very posh ristorante moderna Culina at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, where he was a celebrated star chef, made Esquire’s list. Now at his own little trattoria on the very un-posh West Third Street, Bronx-born Casenova, 35, has gone back to his roots, with authoritative renderings of Neapolitan pork braciole with wine dark ragù and bitter Swiss chard. He stuffs sweet peas, ricotta, and mint into sheer ravioli dressed with nothing more than lemon butter, and he spreads his excellent, smoky pizzas with fresh funghi porcini, a rich besciamella cream, soft-centered burrata cheese, smoky pancetta bacon and a dash of thyme.
The room is small, three cozy rows of nicely-set tables, the colors are olive and red, the floor polished, the walls hung with Italian food posters, and white flowers flourish in a big terracotta vase. You are greeted by a manager named Molly, who is as pretty as she is affable, and Casenova will be in and out of the kitchen all night to ask how you like everything. You won’t have trouble telling him, except perhaps to stutter, trying to come up with enough superlatives.
SHUTTERS ON THE BEACH
One Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA
It's the easiest thing in
the world to sit at 1 Pico, have an extra glass of
California chardonnay, look out at the ocean then
contemplate either a stroll on the beach or a nap.
Whatever you opt for, tomorrow is tomorrow and you do
one or the other after a fine lunch.
Pico is open for lunch Mon.-Sat, dinner nightly,
Sun. brunch; Lunch special $29 for two courses;
Dinner appetizers $12-$19; main courses $25-$33.
There will be Christmas Eve Christmas Day, and
White's Altamarea Group has got his hands full with many properties, including Al Molo in Hong Kong, so I was delighted to find him bounding from the kitchen at Ai Fiori when I had a recent lunch there. I've known White since he first showed his exceptional talent at Fiamma, and his ebullience is as fetching as ever. Chef de cuisine PJ Calapa keeps things in the air on a day-to-day basis.
Ai Fiori's menu always has a selection of crudi, as first showcased at Marea, and he does one with fluke, American caviar, and a squirt of Meyer lemon to brighten the piscine flavors. His creamy torchon of foie gras with a lacing of balsamico, crunchy of almonds, and buttery brioche is classic and very good, and his vellutata of lobster with black truffles and bits of chervil is simple in the best sense of the word.
There are of course, all housemade pastas here, and every one I've tried has been exemplary, including black Ligurian trofie imbued with cuttlefish ink and morsels of more cuttlefish, scallops, and rare, spiced mollica crabs. Agnolotti, sheer and light, are packed with braised veal with a sweet corn purée and charred corn, veal jus, and basil, while plump tortelli come with ricotta and mascarpone, sottocenere cheese and a fine red wine glaze, a rich dish you might want as a main course. Something of a signature White keeps on his menus is the spaghetti with blue crab, lemon, bottarga, and chilies (left), a dish that seems a clash of flavors but is in fact an impeccably wrought whole on contrasts.
If you feel like seafood as an entree, any of the day's fish will make you realize that few chefs in NYC do seafood this well, as with an olive- oil poached wild striped bass with artichokes barigoule, blue crab, sea urchin, and lemon. His sea scallops are always the finest in the market, served with , fennel, leeks, trout roe, sea and a shellfish sabayon of real depth. Somehow such strong flavors only serve to enhance, not cover up, the delicate sweetness of the scallops.
At lunch the meat entrees include a roast chicken with cipollini onions, piquillo peppers, fregola, caramelized onion jus; lamb wrapped in caul fat, with, ratatouille, and a tomato confit (right); a strip loin of beef with endive, potato terrine, “cacio e pepe”, and classic bordelaise; and a hamburger with bacon marmalade, American cheese, pickles and pommes dauphines.
For dessert the Ligurian olive oil cake has plenty of fans, and I particularly love chef Alina Martell's crostata of chocolate with spiced pear and pistachio, pear and pear sorbetto.
The winelist has breadth and depth though there are few bargains here and too few bottles under $50. Prices for food have gone up considerably, too, since Ai Fiori opened, but you'll still dine more lavishly here than at most of the deluxe French restaurants around NYC. And you will dine very well indeed.
Ai Fiori is open for
breakfast daily, brunch Sat. & Sun., Lunch
Mon.-Fri., and dinner nightly. Lunch, $42 for two
courses; Dinner menu for 4 courses $92; tasting menu
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
PIONEER NAPA VALLEY WINE MAKER IS BACK
by Mort Hochstein
Portet is back.
In 1972, Portet and John Goelet, both from families that had been part of the French wine industry for many generations, went overseas to found Clos du Val, which became one of California’s flagship wineries. Just four years later, Clos du Val made headlines when it and a handful of upstart Napa wineries embarrassed the greats growths of Bordeaux in a historic blind tasting, which became known as The Judgment of Paris. Portet’s first vintage, entered in that wine competition without his knowledge, finished eighth in the tasting, whose results astonished and embarrassed the French judges. Ten years later, in a rematch, the French were again upended when Clos Du Val finished first. For the next three decades Clos du Val made its mark early and continued to win honors under Portet’s leadership.
After his brief retirement, Portet and Don Chase, a veteran Napa wine executive created Heritance, which, Portet observes, “is a winery without walls.” The partners source their grapes from the vineyards Portet knew for so many years and produce their wine at a custom crush facility. The venture, with Portet’s name on it, has taken off rapidly and Heritance Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are now available in New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and, of course, California. Portet says he continues to observe the dictates he learned as an adolescent in Bordeaux, aiming for “balance and complexity and, always, a long finish. The days of overpowering reds from Napa are no longer,” he observes. “The wines I make today are closer to those of my French roots, balanced between fruit, earth and acidity, and assembled with an eye toward the foods they will enhance."
“I was born and raised in the vineyard and the wine business,” he recalled recently. “My father, André, was estate manager for Château Lafite and from an early age, I walked the fields with him, studying how grapes, soil and weather conditions come together and how those grapes can be assembled into great wine.” After studying agronomy, viticulture and enology in Toulouse and Montpelier, Portet joined John Goelet, another member of a distinguished Bordeaux wine family, and embarked on a mission to find the ideal vineyard ”where we could grow great grapes and make a quality wine.” Portet toured for two years, visiting and studying viticulture in South Africa, Australia, and South America, eventually seizing on the Napa valley as the ideal place to realize his goals. “I was impressed,” he noted recently, “with the intense and powerful wines being made at the early stage and could see Napa’s potential for great Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Convinced that better grapes came from the hillsides, he established Clos du Val in the then relatively unpopulated Stags’ Leap appellation. "I was newly married, and I told my wife I expected to be in California for only a short time, but John Goelet wanted me to stay to buy equipment and oversee the operation. I had to make decisions on, say, the diameter for a pump. I’d never chosen a pump or purchased hoses previously. That short time turned into 40 years.”
In October of ’72, rains came just after he’d harvested 80 percent of his first grape crop, and he never brought in the remaining 20 percent. “They were rotten and I would not touch them,” he recalled. That problematic vintage, however, was the one that put Clos du Val on the map and, he observed, “the rest is history.” Napa was just beginning its long ascendance in the seventies and Portet was one of the vintners who helped Napa win its high esteem in the world of wine.
in his winery without
walls or fields, he has a freer hand and is able to
change his blends as the situation arises: "I no
longer worry about pumps or presses that can break,
and while I work closely with the growers, I am not
responsible for the vineyards. Without those
responsibilities I can be more creative, more flexible, and
I can experiment with small lots. And change my
blends as I see fit.”
But we there for the Heritance wines and the Judgment of New York in 2012 is that they show the balance and elegance associated with wines made by Portet. I’d always found Clos du Val a bit austere, in the mode of top line Bordeaux, but the Heritance wines are indisputably much more approachable at an early stage and they linger long on the palate, a key characteristic of a Portet wine. I particularly enjoyed his 2010Sauvignon Blanc, enhanced by Semillon, but he had to change the blend the next year. In 2011, not happy with the Semillion crop, he went into his flexible mode, remembering that some French winemakers used Roussanne to bolster their Sauvignon. He was lucky enough to find good Roussanne grapes in Carneros, so he altered his blend to make a wine that is similar but a bit lighter than the 2010. Since 2003, while still allied with Clos Du Val, Portet has also been a commuter to Argentina, where he produces a Malbec under the Nandu label. Looking to the future, he’s thinking about trying a Rhone blend and he has other projects in mind.
With retirement behind him, Portet is doing what he does best, finding the right grapes and assembling them into good wine. “I am enjoying my Heritance adventures, “ he laughs.” My wife says I should have been doing this ten years ago.”
as the late Jim Morrison once put it, "I
believe in a long, prolonged,
After eating Chicago chef Grant Achatz's food, NYC chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten
asked him, "I want to know what you're smoking." Achatz (right) said,
"Chef, I'm smoking dreams, man. I'm smoking dreams."
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