Monday, January 31, 2011


Even the napkin wraps are adorable
There are lots of restaurants on 3rd Street in Los Angeles. Between Fairfax and La Cienega alone, you could probably count at least twenty-five. They all range in price scale but most have a similar pretentious quality to them. Don't get me wrong, I love 3rd Street and there's some great cuisine there.  It's just hard to find a place that feels like a "neighborhood joint" -- you know, the type of place where everyone knows your name -- or at least the owner. 

I've been meaning to write about simplethings (yes, they spell it all in one word) since they opened in November 2010. Even before it opened, it was under my watchful eye, since I am a savory pie addict. Yup, that's right. At least I can admit it. Chicken Pot Pie. Steak Pot Pie. Put anything you want into a gravy and then encase it into a pastry and I might just love you for life. As long as you don't screw it up. And, the folks at simplethings certainly did not. They've taken this foodie and turned my pie-eating into a weekly habit. It's an addiction. It's so bad that if there was a rehab for pie-eating, I might have to check in and leave this blog for a while.   

Chicken Curry Pot Pie
I first visited this simple pie shop on the evening of their grand opening. They didn't expect to sell out of all their savory pies earlier that day, and so I was left hungry and disappointed. But that feeling lasted only minutes, when co-owner Andy Paxson offered me two complimentary mini sweet pies as an apology. From that point on I knew that this was a guy who cared about his shop and his customers. He was sincere. He wanted me to come back. It mattered that this one customer was disappointed after an entire day of success. THIS my friends, is how you run a business. And when he placed a Banoffee Pie and a Chocolate Peanut Butter into the cutest brown box with it's very own stamped message that read, "You Make Good Decisions", I knew I'd keep my promise and come back. 

And so I did. On my second visit, I ordered two of the more unique savory pies -- Chicken Curry and BBQ Pulled Pork. But there are many others to choose from -- Steak and Lager, Free-Range Chicken, Portabella Mushroom, and even a Mini Pot Pie Sampler if you just can't choose. All the pies are served with balsamic greens. If you're not a pie person, there's also an extensive sandwich menu because, even though my review is pie-focused, this is also a sandwich shop. And the sandwiches truly sound as mouth-watering as the aroma of my pies about to come out of the oven! From an Avocado Melt to Thanksgiving to Brisket & Cheese and even Prime Rib, the options could keep you lunching here for days. 
BBQ Pulled Pork Pie

As I popped the top off my Bubble-Up soda (old-fashioned sodas and beer-bottled teas served ice-box style), I sat and took in the hip and cheerful lemon-colored seat cushions and overhead light fixtures. They even have bright yellow mugs to serve their Intelligentsia coffee in. I liked the yellow even though it was subliminally telling me to order one of their Lemon Bar Pies. But before I could even allow my palate to jump to sweet, the savory came out. And I couldn't believe my eyes. The hefty pies placed in front of me and my dining companion looked not only hearty but also...pretty. The crust was beautifully braided, there was a drizzle of sauce on the plate, and the greens that accompanied the pies looked vibrant and fresh. I tasted the Chicken Curry first and in one scoop, was impressed by the bold flavor tucked into this home-made pastry. This was curry just the way I like it. More seasoned than spicy. And the chicken was so tender that it tasted like it was born in the sauce. Kudos to Executive Chef, Carrie Cusack, for taking something simple and giving it a complexity that still brings comfort. 
One of two "sweet" pie cases

I thought for a moment that maybe this was just the lucky pie. That maybe this pie was superb but the others would just be ok. Well, I was wrong. As I cracked into the crust of the BBQ Pulled Pork Pie, I knew that the addiction had begun. A pork this tender in a cozy baked pie shouldn't be legal. I was afraid that I was eating this pie so quickly that I wouldn't allow my taste buds to admire all the wonderful things happening. But, even though the pie had disappeared from my plate quicker than you could say LIFE IS SHORT, the flavors lingered. There was a nice balance of heat and sweetness coming from the BBQ  sauce. Something that you could continue to dip into with your remaining crust. 

I couldn't leave without going sweet so I ordered a Mini Coconut Cream. I will say, that while I haven't tried all the little sweeties yet, this one, so far, is my favorite. Close tie for second --  the Peach and Blueberry Pies. As I dug into this little puff of creamy goodness, two chilled glasses and a large glass water bottle was placed on our table. I looked up and it was Andy. He was happy I came back. And he was even more happy that I was enjoying the pies. 

Paying it forward
It's been weeks since my initial visit and while the food has stayed just as amazing as my first bite, the simple, friendly service has recently raised the bar. I now have my very own Gift & Rewards Card -- and you can too. Every time you purchase something at simplethings, ten percent of that bill is added to your rewards card and whenever you want, you can use those bucks on more pies. It's just another simple idea that keeps the customers happy. maybe the combo of my rewards card and those delicious pies will keep feeding into my addiction. Maybe that's their plan. To tap into my longing for small town coziness. To feed me the most comforting food so that I'll want to come there every chilly night. To tell those still searching for the simplethings in life, that they're just around the corner. Perhaps. But, as my recent stamped message in my to-go box put it oh so simply.... 

life is short. enjoy the simplethings.

And I will do just that.

For info and menu visit: SIMPLETHINGS

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Beautiful Birds
This is my last entry on my three-part series covering the Anthony Bourdain Kitchen Basics Boot Camp held at Sur La Table in Los Angeles. Before enjoying this entry, you may want to catch up by checking out Day One and Day Two. If you've been following along, hopefully pretending to be a culinary student along with me, then you probably feel just as jazzed to journey into the world of Roasting, Braising and Sauteing (with a good amount of Stewing, too!).

Today was ALL about cooking. Each small group was to prepare a dish from start to finish. The menu? Perfect Roast Chicken, Seared Steaks with Peppercorn Pan Sauce, Beef Bourguignon, and Monkfish Stew with Saffron Aioli. Since my team was responsible for making the Fish Stock the day before, we would be preparing the Fish Stew. I was a bit nervous about this challenge. First of all, this was my first time in class handling a "protein" and second, the monkfish was priced at $29/pound! What if we totally screw this up?!? But I must say that I did feel better as I eyed the team across from us who were preparing four massive cuts of Dry Aged Prime Steaks (grass fed!!) priced at $119! If you haven't noticed, Sur La Table's classes use very high quality food. The kind of food that you should really let real chefs deal with. But it seemed that our leader Chef Gilligan/Miyagi believed in us. And if he did, I did too. 
At my stew station, I stared at the vegetables I was about to chop. Each one of them needed to be "fine" -- which also meant they needed to be chopped correctly. My teammate and I were extremely focused. Feet positioned, knife pinched, each chop as if it were a step from one dance move to the next. We were silent for some time and then I softly heard her say -- "doesn't this feel a lot like Top Chef?" Thank, God I wasn't alone! I smiled, "so I'm not the only one thinking that today feels like restaurant wars?" She laughed, "it so does!" From that point on, we agreed that we were going to kick some foodie butt.

Our very professional-looking chopped fennel, carrot, garlic and onion were added to our GORGEOUS Le Creuset pot. I add this detail because if you've ever seen one of these funky-colored cast-iron pieces, you'd fall in love. They can go on the counter, then on to the stove, and then you can move it elsewhere and serve. As I poured the olive oil and added my vegetables into the BMW of pots, I realized that I had to stop staring at it or I'd lose control and buy every last one of them after class -- which would land me living on the streets...given that they cost around $200 each. Trying to stay focused, I grabbed a silicone spatula and began stirring the vegetables, allowing them to "sweat". In cooking terms, sweating is when you cook your vegetables over low to medium heat until they become translucent as opposed to brown. Sweating allows the vegetables to stay hydrated and by moving them around the pot, you make sure that they are cooking evenly. If you were to dehydrate your vegetables and brown them, you would be caramelizing them. Two days ago, I did not know any of this. Isn't it amazing what a little time in class will do?

This stew is simple. Granted, I'm speaking in hindsight. But from here on out, you'll see how simple this recipe actually is. Seriously. Give this stew a try.

My first fish stew
With our fennel, carrot, garlic and onion sweating in our pot, we then added our fish stock (again, you should make this the day before -- you'll need fish bones, cold water, and your mirepoix -- yup, carrots, onions, celery). When adding your stock, you only want to add enough to just cover your solids. This is where your "relationship with the ingredients comes in handy". You must eye your vegetables and keep pouring the stock until a nice, thin layer of liquid just covers. Stir, and then you can lid. Keep this over medium heat while you get your Bouquet Garni ready. Don't worry, I also wondered what the hell a Bouquet Garni was. It's simply sprigs of Thyme, Parsley and Rosemary (really whatever you'd like) tied together with some kitchen string into a sweet little bouquet. Once it's tight enough, you drop that into your stew and stir some more. Once your mixture comes to a boil, lower to simmer for 30 minutes. Again -- it's all about flavor!! Be sure to add salt and pepper and keep on tasting. While this is simmering -- cut your monkfish. You should get a tail and cut from there, into small pieces that you could scoop up with a spoon. Remember to remove skin and debone (if the fish market has not done that for you). 

At the 30 minute mark, remove your bouquet and discard. Check your flavors. If you need more pepper, add it! At this point, you can add your monkfish. The fish will cook for about 10 minutes over the low heat. Once the fish is ready, you'll want to add 1/4 cup of heavy cream. This will give your stew the nice chowder texture that you'd want in a fish stew. Allow the cream to settle for about 10 minutes (make sure the liquid does not boil!). Lastly, top with finely, chopped tomato concasse (that's skinless, seedless tomatoes) and a little parsley for color. 

We were super excited about our stew. We knew it was looking great and our flavors were there. Until...we realized we forgot the Aioli! We can't serve Monkfish Stew with Saffron Aioli and not have Aioli! GEEZ! Chef even demonstrated the Aioli due to it's tricky technique. But as you know, in Restaurant Wars, you have to think quick and get moving and so....OPERATION AIOLI went into action. 

All you need for this amazing (and potent) drizzle is 4 garlic cloves, sea salt, about 10 saffron pistols, a cup of extra-virgin olive oil and an egg yolk. The tricky part is making sure the aioli is blended well. We first tried a food processor -- adding the minced garlic, some salt, and half the oil -- but when we added the yolk and slowly tried to drizzle the rest of the oil, the mixture was broken. Chef gave us a handy tip. While most of cooking does well with very expensive, fancy food processors and blenders, this aioli would come together much better with your own hand and a whisk. And so that's what we did. Amazing and smooth. We heated the saffron with a little oil and then added this fragrant spice to our mixture. 

WOOHOO! Our stew was ready. And it wasn't the only sexy dish in the room. 

You saw the after, now here's the before
A Beef Bourguignon that Julia Child would be proud of

Peppercorn encrusted Dry Aged Prime Steaks

If you're going to eat like this, you need a little sexy salad


And no one expected our surprise "graduation" dessert....

Individual Chocolate Souffles a.k.a. Heaven in a Cup

Chef tasted all of the food we made. While it looked perfect, it was really up to him on whether it tasted perfect. He seemed extremely happy with everything he was eating and then went to pick up his small bowl of Monkfish Stew. My teammate and I held our breath. Would he take a sip and spit it out? Would he squint and swallow and barely get out the words...."not bad"? He spooned a mouthful and his eyes lit up. He nodded frequently, seeming to enjoy what he was tasting. And then he said...."I'm impressed. This is the best this stew has come out in our classes." I did an internalized fist pump. My teammate leaned into me...."I think we won Restaurant Wars". I smiled. And the prize was the best three days of my foodie journey so far.

You can find the complete recipe for Bourdain's Rich Fish Stew in his Les Halles Cookbook

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I was surprisingly full of energy when I woke up for Day Two of my Chef Mini Boot Camp. I will admit that I was EXHAUSTED after Day One. But it was the good kind of exhausted. The kind where you've run yourself ragged from excitement and can't wait to run yourself ragged all over again. And with knife skills under my belt, I was ready to hit this second day with even more confidence than the day before. When I arrived, I glanced down at my menu packet and saw our next focus: Stocks, Soups & Sauces. Looks like we aren't going to be messing with any Swanson's or Campbell's in this kitchen. 

Mushroom Soup made from chicken stock
Chef Gilligan began our class by telling us that Bourdain is a firm believer that EVERYTHING is based in stock. Know how to make a stock and you have your foundation as a Chef. Here's a little Stock 101 for you -- you begin your stock from the bones of animals (of course if you are making vegetable stock, then animal need not apply). We combine cold water, our animal bones, and our "mirepoix" (the french cooking term for onions, carrots and celery) into a pot and allow to boil. During the boiling point, the protein from the bones is extracted and all the flavor is leached out, leaving us with stock. 

From stock we can make soups and sauces. Chef Gilligan went on to explain that from those base sauces (or mother sauces) we can make other sauces. And so on. He then looked to us -- Who can name the five mother sauces? Someone mumbled Hollandaise from the back. YES! Hollandaise is one. Any one else? Another student threw out Tomato Sauce. YES! That's another. And then the class went silent. Geez, I thought to myself. I eat, don't I? What the heck are the three other mother sauces?!? But before I could get the B out for Bechamel, Chef quickly gave us the answers. Yes...Bechamel was one. Velute, another. And lastly, Demi-Glace. If you didn't know these, remember them. You might need them if you're a contestant on a game show someday. As we were about to head over to the demo station to begin our day, Chef paused. He wanted us to know three important things:

1) A recipe is ONLY a guideline. You must have a relationship with the ingredients. 
2) Everything in a recipe should taste great by itself.
3) Cooking is about always adjusting. You want consistency without diluting flavor. 

Am I crazy here or do you see another "life" metaphor coming on? I wanted to contemplate this for hours while eating Pasta Fazool but the sound of a 100mph whisk reminded me that there's no time to contemplate....there's food to be made!

For our demo we observed a Bearnaise Sauce made from the base mother sauce -- Hollandaise. Bearnaise is not the most difficult sauce to make. In fact, I recommend giving it a try. But there are a few tricky parts. So, here are the pointers to help you out. 

This sauce is simply egg yolks with a tarragon reduction whisked to thicken with warm melted butter. But as simple as that sounds, there's a process known as "emulsification" that needs to occur so that the egg yolks "accept" the melted butter into its mixture. If you flunked chemistry, have no fear. Emulsification is when two liquids that won't combine are agitated and suspended into each other. Ahhhh.....agitated! So, what agitates the eggs you ask? Heat them. In a tricky manner, you want to whisk the eggs in a bowl that is cradled over a boiling pot of water. You need enough heat to make the egg mixture whip like ribbons but not too much heat so that they turn into scrambled eggs. When it's the right texture (almost mustard like), you want to pour a tiny bit of your melted butter into the egg mixture. This is the "suspended into each other" part. Once the melted butter is introduced and whisked, you can then start to slowly pour in the rest of your butter. Both artists and scientists should try it. It's quite amazing how the two come together. Note: prior to emulsifying, make your tarragon reduction with peppercorns, wine, vinegar, shallots and fresh tarragon. Once this has been over heat and almost dry, strain and take the wine mixture, add a little cool water and your egg yolks. Then you may let the emulsification party begin! Once you have your sauce, just add a little more fresh tarragon so you have the nice little green speckles in your golden color sauce. You can also add a little lemon zest, too!

The demo was great. Easy to understand. We were all ready to make our very own Bearnaise sauce. But as I glanced around the room I realized that the stations weren't set up for Bearnaise. They were set up for six different other stocks and sauces we'd be attempting to make. Chef smiled, "pair off and find a station. The recipe you'll be cooking is with your mis en place.'s a guideline. Have a relationship with the ingredients!" I quickly scanned the different stations. Oh man, did Mr. Miyagi just take over our cooking class!?! 

It took a lot of muscle to get them looking this good
I stepped up to the FISH STOCK station with my teammate and we stood frozen for a moment. We eyed all the ingredients like Ralph Macchio did with the paint cans and the long, old fence in front of him. And then...we got our game face on. Let's get chopping!!! Within minutes, I was getting the hang of this and I was slowly beginning to understand that, while the recipe was doing a good job of guiding, it was up to us to continually adjust and refine flavors. With the mirepoix, fish bones, additional herbs and garlic all in the pot and over a flame, we stepped back, relieved. Our stock would sit for 45 minutes and do it's thing. But as I walked back to my station I saw a second set up coming in. Our sous chef smiled -- next up, Mushroom Soup. 

As the hours of cooking continued, I started to develop, what will eventually be a long relationship with my ingredients. And as we enjoyed our Day Two meal -- Mussels Steamed in White Wine Sauce, Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Bearnaise and my team's Mushroom Soup, I contemplated Chef Gilligan/Miyagi's "jump right in" style. I liked it. It's how everyday should be. Just remember that:

1) A recipe LIFE is ONLY a guideline. You must have a relationship with the ingredients. 
2) Everything in a recipe LIFE should taste great by itself.
3) Cooking LIFE is about always adjusting. You want consistency without diluting flavor. 

Stay tuned for DAY THREE...

For more information on cooking classes at Sur La Table visit: LEARN TO COOK


Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Day One Menu Packet
I've made quite a few New Year's resolutions. Some of the top ones? To eat more. To enjoy more. To understand food more. And cook more. While I immensely enjoy being on the receiving end of the line -- seated at a cozy table, hoping that there will be an amuse-bouche -- I made a promise to myself that it would only be fair to write about food IF I joined the front lines, tied an apron on and actually prepared food myself. I also didn't want to sign up for a quick two-hour class. I wanted immersion. Luckily, I received as a Christmas gift the Anthony Bourdain Kitchen Basics three day boot camp held at Sur La Table (yes, that sweet kitchen store that sells EVERYTHING). And, as I promised in my tweets, I would share each day with you on this blog. The good, the bad and the not so tasty. 

When my morning alarm went off for Day One, I was filled with excitement and anxiety. Was Tom Colicchio already waiting in my kitchen with a challenge? Would I show up to the parking lot and find Anthony Bourdain standing in the center with a bucket of oysters to shuck? maybe all of my television watching was getting the best of me. But all I knew from the mini class description was that we were focusing on KNIFE SKILLS. And I'll be honest. My knife skills are at a 1. My knife block is old and I usually find myself chopping with a a small steak knife. It's terrible. So, I knew I needed this class pronto. 

Mis En Place at the Sur La Table kitchen
When I arrived at Sur La Table's back room, I was pleased to find a large kitchen, gorgeous demo station, a square unit of mini chopping stations, and two rows of seating. On each seat was a clipboard with the menu for the day and a rolled up apron. I put on my apron while our instructor, Chef Martin Gilligan, and his Sous Chefs, Emma, Susan and Annie, zipped around the kitchen to get things in order for the class. I took a seat and stared at the mini chopping station before me. I also noticed the very large Chef's knife. Oh man, I thought to myself. Now, I'm in for it. At exactly 11am, Chef Gilligan began the class. He briefly shared his background with us, a 20 year career that began with a degree from The Culinary Institute of America and included Executive Chef positions at the Kyoto Grand Hotel and Four Seasons. He also worked for Anthony Bourdain and when Bourdain finished his latest book, MEDIUM RAW, he contacted Chef Gilligan to implement a class to not only promote the book, but also teach cooking -- Bourdain-style. Gilligan spoke quickly about today's focus: knife skills. He also built our confidence up by reading an excerpt from the book, THE SOUL OF A CHEF. The excerpt spoke of how a Chef with 20 years experience in knife skills veered ever so slightly with his knife during a Master Chef Test. The moral -- even with experience under your belt, you will always be perfecting your knife skills. I liked this and I knew at that moment, Chef Gilligan was going to teach us a lot in three days. Without a moment to was demo time!

Don't forget to pinch
Our class of about 15 gathered around the demo station. In front of our Chef were 20 knives. He ran through in great detail the different types and their uses. He even showed us a knife handed down to him by his great aunt. It was proof that if you invest in a good knife, it will last for YEARS. He then went on to explain the infamous term -- MIS EN PLACE. For those who speak French, you'll know that this means "everything in place". Mis En Place is essential in cooking. It's organization. It's having all your ingredients in front of you. It's the key factor that allows you to track the rest of your meal and keep things timed perfectly. And...I personally LOVE it. I'm a Virgo so if I could keep my life in total "mis en place", I think I'd never be stressed. In the case of our demo, the mis en place setup was a variety of vegetables, a cutting board, two knives and a rag. Chef Gilligan slowly explained how to hold the knife. YOU MUST PINCH THE BASE OF THE BLADE. You do this with your thumb and index finger. The remaining three fingers wrap around the handle. This is important. It should feel like an extension of your arm. It's not comfortable at first but once you get used to it, the positioning makes you feel extremely confident holding an 8 to 10" knife. He then proceeded to cut a few of the vegetables we wouldn't be chopping at our station, like a green pepper and ginger. He even peeled the ginger with a SPOON! But then I swear TOP CHEF kicked into gear. He announced rather quickly the following vegetables we'd be chopping and the manner we'd be chopping them:

Peel (one-way peel or use your pairing knife/eyes or brown marks are unacceptable). Cut all sides and rectangle the potato. Slice three sides and julienne. Block cut the rest into fries.

Two-way peel in a quick back and forth motion. Thinly chop the narrow end. Once at the meatier part, begin a 45 degree angle chop. Finally end on a Faux Torne (rotating 45 degree chop). 

Chop the celery in half, making sure that it's not longer than your knife. Slice into thin pieces, stack and chop.

Take your peeled garlic clove. Place it toward the bottom of your cutting board. Press your knife flat against the clove and slam down with the palm of your hand.  Once you have a few pressed cloves, rock your knife from 2 to 5 (like on a clock) to mince. 

We're doing a concasse so we're going to take the pairing knife and remove the pit/stem on top by making a small incision. Then, flip the tomato and mark a small x on the bottom. Once this is done, place the tomato into boiling water for 60 seconds, remove, and then place in ice water. This will allow the skin to peel off easily. Once the skin is removed, slice the tomato in half and remove the seeds (fingers will do). Then take half the tomato (flat side on the board) and make thin horizontal cuts first. Once finished, position the knife down and begin to chop. 

Slice off the bottom so the onion can sit upright on the board. Root on top. Slice through the root, cutting the onion in half. Peel both sides. Take one half, turn root away from you and begin horizontal cuts. Slightly turn onion at an angle and then begin vertical cuts (cutting on the line of the onion) and then stack and chop. 

And then he finished with, "See the vegetables already chopped in your mind!!!" What the hell does that mean?? But there was no time to waste!

We quickly headed to our chopping stations to begin. Trying to retain all of this information was going to be tricky. And even though there wasn't a timer and we were all beginners, this really felt like a freakin' QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE!!! I quickly tucked the rag into my apron string and then eyed my vegetables. I grabbed the potato and felt confident. At least I've peeled a potato before. But as soon as I grabbed the peeler to begin my first peel --- SCRAPE! I scraped my thumb knuckle!! How on earth could I have injured myself in these first few seconds!?!? I decided to push through. I was NOT stopping. I got a good peel going and then realized I was starting to bleed. I quickly stepped away from my station, grabbed a sous chef and requested a band-aid. I washed it off, bandaged it up and was back at my station in no time. I will note that this was the ONLY time I needed first aid during this boot camp. Phew! As quickly as we were chopping, the sous chefs were coming around and collecting our prep work. These fine choppings were all going into some of the dishes we would be having for lunch. Chef Gilligan paced back and forth as we continued to do our tasks. He gave feedback, complimented and sometimes forced do-overs. It was intense but we were learning. And that's what we came here for. I felt a nice groove happening as I was going from one vegetable to the next. Wipe your station. Chop, chop, chop. On to the next. Within fifteen minutes, everything was chopped. But my onion was a mess. I now know Julia Child's pain when she left Le Cordon Bleu one day feeling deflated after massacring an onion. The onion is a beast but with practice and time I know it will get easier. 

Victorinox 8" Chef Knife
On our short ten minute break, we got a tour around the kitchen store with Chef Gilligan. He pointed out some great knives and was extremely helpful when buying on a budget. He recommended a VICTORINOX SWISS-MADE 8" Chef Knife for the those who want to chop like a pro but not spend $200 on a blade. I ended up purchasing it for the reasonable price of $29.99. 

Back in the kitchen, we realized that knife skills were not the only thing we'd need to get close to perfect in class today. We were going to end on the PERFECT FRENCH OMELETTE. To the demo station we went and observed one-handed egg cracking. Oh yes, we were going to do that too. No two-handed egg cracking in this class. We carefully watched as Chef poured olive oil into his heated, non-stick pan. He then added fresh spinach, allowing it to wilt. While wilting, he whisked two eggs together, adding just a touch of milk. He then removed the wilted spinach onto a plate and added butter to the pan. Once the butter was melted, he poured in the egg mixture. With a silicone spatula, he carefully moved around the edges and stirred the center. Having a browned omelette isn't an option. In the pan for about a minute, we could see the mixture cooking evenly. He then took the wilted spinach and added that into the center and sprinkled with some shredded cheese. He then removed the pan from the flame, folded the omelette in half and slid it onto the plate. The total time was just about three minutes and it looked delicious. He then grabbed his squeeze bottle and drizzled a balsamic reduction onto the plate. 

Correct way to get a good crack at it
As I stepped to my station to begin, I picked up the egg and hesitated. I wrapped my two fingers around it like a baseball, just as Chef said. I looked over at the sous chef who was watching. She smiled and said, picture it already cracked in the bowl. Don't think about it. Just visualize it. I took a moment to take this in -- Just visualize it. See it in the bowl. And then finally, I did. CRACK! With one hand and a little confidence the egg yolk and all the white slipped into the bowl. I couldn't believe it. And I realized at that moment that I didn't just learn how to do a one-handed egg crack, I learned that one of the keys to cooking is to feel confident with your vision. You have to see your plate before you make it. You have to see your vegetables chopped before you even lift your knife. And you need to see your egg, already in the bowl. A good cooking lesson. An even better life lesson.

As we wrapped up Day One and enjoyed some of the meals we helped prep --  Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce, Pommes Frites with Truffle Salt, and Fennel & Haricots Verts Salad -- we also got to eat our very own omelettes. Not only did the class give Chef Gilligan's omelette a thumbs up but we also gave each other a thumbs up as we realized there was a perfect omelette in each of us just waiting to be cooked.

Stay tuned for DAY TWO...

For more information on cooking classes at Sur La Table visit: LEARN TO COOK

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Hanging exposed bulb chandelier at Vintage Enoteca
The word "enoteca" is an Italian word originally derived from the Greek words Οινο θήκη, meaning "wine box". A fun fact being that I am Greek and I love to drink wine. These lovely little enoteche (yes, that's the plural form) can be found all over Italy as a place for visitors to try out reasonably priced wines with the opportunity to buy if they so wish. As enoteche gained in popularity they began popping up in Germany, Austria and luckily now here in the U.S. This is not to be confused with the word "inoteca", which foodies would describe as a restaurant serving small plates. However, what I pleasantly found at Vintage Enoteca was a little of both. 

Spanish hard cider
This small, New York-style wine bar sits on Sunset Blvd. away from the posh Sunset Strip but still on a block where all things feel hip. The generous amount of street parking and the large parking lot out back make it all the more reason for you to step inside this simple yet cozy enoteca. But an even better reason is their 5-7pm Happy Hour. During this time all food on their menu is half-off. Yes, half-off. It's a great opportunity to taste a number of items on their menu and pair them with their extensive wine list priced from $8 - $14/glass. As odd as this might sound, I opted to try a little something out of the ordinary -- a Spanish cider from their list. While it was a little disappointing to see a Beer & Cider heading and only offer one cider (the rest international and domestic ales), I threw caution to the wind and took the suggestion of my server -- the Isastegi Sargardo from Basque Country, Spain. As it was uncorked and poured into a short wine glass, I knew I was in a for a treat. Although made from apples, this cider had a subtle malt flavor to it that tamed the sometimes overwhelming sweetness usual hard ciders may have. Armed with this delicious libation, I hit the menu running. 

Medjool Dates
First up were the Medjool Dates. As mentioned in my previous review of NINE ELM, I love stuffed dates. I can't get enough of them. If I could stuff myself into a date I would. And I'd wrap a piece a bacon around me for warmth. So of course, I ordered them. At first bite I found the speck (Italian ham) wrapped around them to be quite nice and flavorful but when I hit the grana padano (italian cheese) I wasn't overall pleased with the texture. Grana Padano is known to be a "hard cheese" and it was so hard that my dinner companion and I literally removed the small pieces of it from the dates because it was too difficult to chew. It's a shame because the soft date and incredibly tender speck would have been in better company with something softer. However, I did appreciate the attempt in giving the dates a more refreshing take.

Margherita Flatbread
Beet Salad
Next up was the Beet Salad, which I highly recommend. Red and golden beets intermingled on the plate over a bed of mixed greens along with a light, yet creamy goat cheese and sprinkled with salted pistachios. It's not only tasty but it's also pretty. Just as we finished our salad we were ready to try one of their flatbread options. I prefer to go simple on my first pizza/flatbread tasting so I opted for the Margherita. When it was brought to the table I was impressed with it's decent size and fresh basil leaves. The flatbread itself was not too doughy and not too crispy and the sauce had a nice flavor. There are five other flatbread options if you are feeling a bit more adventurous -- Arugula with caramelized onion, Mushroom with fontina and thyme, Cauliflower with prosciutto and bechamel, Spanish with quince, and a Sopressata with olive and mushroom. At this point, the reader must note that because of this lovely happy hour our bill total for these three tasty items thus far was a whopping $11.50. Just amazing. So of course we ventured 
Pumpkin Risotto
on to one more item. I couldn't resist. And the Pumpkin Risotto was screaming my name. It arrived in a large bowl and was topped with a lovely piece of bacon. While I found it a little funny that the chef topped pumpkin risotto with bacon, I didn't necessarily mind it. My dining companion and I dug into this heaping bowl and both agreed that while it had a nice heartiness to it, it was missing flavor -- particularly the pumpkin. It gave off more of a mac and cheese vibe with a hint of sage and a smoky bacon fixin. Granted, at the discounted price of $5 a bowl (from the original $10 pasta selections), it sufficed as the comfort food I was hankering for.

After paying our extremely reasonable $30 bill, I stepped out of this small wine bar stuffed. I smiled. I like enoteche. And I will certainly be back to visit this little vintage one between Fairfax and Labrea. 

For menu and reservations visit: VINTAGE ENOTECA

Monday, January 10, 2011


As I always say, your stomach feels only as good as its last meal. And while my meal at NINE ELM fell during the holiday break, and it's now the beginning of a new year, my stomach and palate still fondly recall the meal I was served at this small, intimate restaurant in the heart of Danvers, Massachusetts. Chef Matt Sanidas owns this sweet little American Bistro and while it's not new to the culinary scene of the NorthShore, it was new to my list of the tastiest places to visit just north of Boston. 

Bacon Wrapped Dates

It was a blistery weekday night when I chose to visit the establishment and I was thrilled upon entry to find a heavily draped curtain half-mooning the door. It was to shield the draft from entering into the small 34 seat dining area. A nice, thoughtful touch by the owners, considering I found myself shivering at many venues on my trip. I must say, there is nothing more uncomfortable than being forced to wear your heavy puff coat while forking into a puff pastry! But thankfully the warmth of this venue carried over with the hostess who quickly checked off our reservation and seated us promptly. Our waitress was equally as nice as she gave us ample time to eye the extensive wine list. I was happy to see not one but two Rieslings, served by the glass. I opted for the Bogle California and was pleasantly surprised by the crisp and mildly sweet taste. It was a good choice indeed. Next we scanned the delicious-sounding list of appetizers that included Crispy Tempura Shrimp, Sauteed Mussels in a wine butter broth, Butternut Squash Ravioli and Bacon Wrapped Blue Cheese Stuffed Dates with Apple Chutney. We chose the latter. If it tasted as good as it sounded, we were in for a real treat. Prior to ordering, I was assured by the waitress that the blue cheese wasn't "overpowering". I was happy to hear this since I am a fair weather blue cheese fan. Upon arrival, the dates looked hearty on the plate, wrapped up in smokey, fatty goodness and in the center of it all was the sweet tie-in, just waiting to make love to it's savory counterpart. I've had MANY stuffed dates in my years of culinary exploration and this particular dish was top-notch. Of course with such a tasty beginning we couldn't wait for our next course.

Swordfish with Lemon Risotto
Entree options ranged from Filet Mignon to Cider Braised Pork Chop to Free Range Duck. I was happy to see that truffle oil was also a friend of our Chef's. It appeared not only in a potato side dish but also in the vegetarian option on the menu, Artichoke & Fontina Raviolis with Pesto Cream, Portobello and ahhh Truffle Oil. My dining companion and I were feeling in the mood for seafood so we opted for the Seared Scallops and the special of the evening, Grilled Swordfish over Lemon Risotto. The Swordfish was a beautiful piece that was neither too meaty or too flaky. But what made this fish pop was the most delicious parsley, shallot butter. Without it, the dish would have been up to par, but with the addition of this flavor, it really brought the fish to a whole new level. Just underneath was another flavorful punch of lemon risotto. It rounded out the plate nicely. The Seared Scallops, like the Swordfish, were also cooked to perfection but the Lemon-Chive Beurre Blanc was extremely mild and lacked any flavor. This was disappointing because such beautiful scallops deserved to be given a more flavorful sauce. They were however resting on a delicious mound of truffled mashed potatoes. One minor criticism on the plating -- both dishes were given identical roasted vegetables. Asparagus and carrots. While I like both vegetables just fine and while I agree that they too were cooked to perfection, I'm not a fan of glancing at my dinner companion's plate and seeing the very same side that I have when we've ordered two completely different dishes. If I'm paying for a "unique" entree, then I'd like for that dish to be accompanied by the flavors and textures that uniquely suit that dish. If we're all getting french fries, then I would have just ordered a burger. You get my drift.  
Seared Scallops with Truffled Potato

But our haze of veggie depression did not stop us from exploring our sweet side. Based on the recommendation of our waitress we opted for the White Chocolate Bread Pudding. While we waited for our dessert, we noticed the Chef step out and talk to some folks at the bar. It was nice to see him out of the kitchen and making the rounds. Our dessert arrived and we dug into the somewhat thin, square-shaped pudding that had clearly just been heated. It was piping hot. Giving it a moment to sit, we attempted again and found ourselves enjoying but inquiring whether this dessert was really bread pudding. It was sweet and tasty but without a doubt had more of a custard texture to it. We asked our waitress if our Chef was toying with a reinvented version of a Greek dessert, Galaktoboureko, sans the top layer of phyllo dough. She wasn't sure where we were going with this but said she would ask the Chef since he IS Greek. Upon returning she said that he had "no idea" what we were talking about but he would try to visit our table and talk about the dish. I wasn't sure if there was some offense in my statement. For the record, my thoughts on the dessert were meant to be a compliment only, as I think a reinvented version of bread pudding would be genius as a Topless Galaktoboureko. As we finished the last remaining bites of our dessert, we were kindly thanked by our waitress. I eyed the back of the house one last time with the hopes that Chef Sanidas would come out so I could not only talk dessert but thank him for leaving me with a memorable meal. Unfortunately, he did not step out to see what all the Greek fuss was about but I hope next time he will.

For menu and reservations visit: NINE ELM