Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Waterloo & City

Downtown Culver City has seen quite the surge of eateries pop up in the past few years, and even the non-downtown parts of Culver City seems to be going though some sort of restaurant resurgence. The recent openings of Earl's Gourmet Grub, Chego, Curious Palate, and now Waterloo & City have my coworkers and I very excited since we work in Culver City, albeit near the Westchester borderline.

Waterloo & City takes over the space once occupied by Crest House, a restaurant that I never tried so I can't comment on how it fared. I can just tell you can that I pass this location frequently and had been anticipating Waterloo & City's opening for some time. Executive chef and owner Brendan Collins heads up the kitchen and brings with him experience from piloting the kitchens at Melisse and Palihouse. By his side is Carlos Tomazos who has done time at Per Se and Le Bernardin. The resumes of these two are very impressive and so you can see why I was very excited for this outing.

I arrived just after 5pm and met up with my coworkers. Though the interior has been completely and tastefully redone, the exterior is largely in-tact including the nostalgic sign floating above the roof. One thing I want to point out here is the presence of a parking lot. Parking lot? In the west side? Sorry but you'll just have to see it for yourself.

I start my night this the Julep with Maker's Mark, agave nectar, fresh mint leaves (top). This bourbon and agave cocktail had my interest from when I first saw it on the menu, especially since Manhattans are my favorite drink. It was very refreshing and I loved the aroma and flavor from the mint leaves. A little less agave nectar would have made it perfect, but otherwise this was a hit for me. Below that is a Samuel Smith organic lager. About 40 beers--mostly from England, Belgium, and US--adorn the drink menu which also listed a few dozen wines. This organic lager was nice and it paired well with the pizzas to come.

Bread service. Waterloo & City bakes its own bread and it shows. Two varieties were served--baguette and an egg bread with poppy seeds. Both were very good and consumed quickly by all. A second basket quickly arrived and was emptied in short order.

Roasted beets, St. Maure cheese, avocado, sherry emulsion. When I read this on the menu I figured the roasted beets would take center stage, but instead they were hiding behind a surplus of mixed greens, including a few sprigs of my arch enemy frisée. That's not necessarily a fault, but I was hoping to see a heaping mound of roasted beets which I have recently become very fond of. Nonetheless, the thick red and orange beets were plentiful enough to make this enjoyable, and the ice-cream scoops of tangy St. Maure added a level of sophistication. A light sherry dressing evenly coated the greens making them very palatable, and a few hunks of avocado were a nice finishing touch.

Chicken liver and foie gras mousse. Served pate style with what tasted like fig jam atop, and with a few pieces of toasted baguette. At first glance I knew we would need another serving or two of baguette and so I quickly asked for more, which our waiter brought out free of charge (as expected). The richness of the liver and mouse was perfectly balanced by the sweet jam. Spread over the hot toasted bread made for a fantastic combination of sweet-savory-soft-crunchy flavors and textures. The consistency is similar to room-temperature butter, and about just as rich. Dare I say that this is better than the version at Pizzeria Mozza? It's light enough to share between two person, though probably too heavy to be eaten by one.

Moroccan pizza with lamb, arugula. Waterloo & City boasts a few interesting pizza selections, certainly some that I've never seen. A good crust is the most crucial part of a good pizza, and I'm happy to say this crust was quite commendable, especially for a place that claims no fame to great pizzas (not yet at least). It was chewy, yeasty, and had a good amount of charred pockets of air. That said, a slightly thicker crust would have better balanced the heaviness of the meatballs, as a few of the spicy balls found their way back on to my plate. Side note: My wife and I went to Morocco for our honeymoon, and I remember eating some very good pizza at a tiny shop in Essaouira (hey the shop was packed with locals!) The spices on this pizza and texture of the meat definitely brought back memories of dining in Morocco.

My coworkers ordered the Murgh makhani, Greek yogurt, cucumber pizza. A pizza with Greek yogurt and Indian-spiced chicken? Yes! And it was delicious! I enjoyed this more so than the Moroccan pizza, mainly of the bright and refreshing flavors brought by the cool yogurt. This was such a winning combination for me.

Triple-cooked fries with truffle butter. I only devoured a few pieces but honestly there were some of the better fries I've had in a while. Triple-cooked typically involves the fries being deep-fried three separate times in progressively hotter oil, with the end result being light and fluffy fry with a very crisp exterior. Exquisite. And far more sophisticated than the homogeneous fries you can get any any burger stand. The truffle butter added to the gluttony factor, though I would have preferred a nice, tangy house-made ketchup.

Manchester tart, lemon curd, coconut macaroon, sorbet. For dessert my coworker and I decided to split this lemon tart. Lemon curd on its own is delicious enough, and served in a flaky pastry shell with a serving of sorbet made for an extravagant dessert creation. I didn't care so much for the melted sugar art and I simply pushed this aside (out of my way!). The coconut presence was strong and added an interesting texture. A little more sorbet would have been welcomed to help balance the sweetness, though this is a dessert.

Overall I was very pleased with Waterloo & City. By 7pm the place was completely full and the bar was beginning to overflow into parts of the dining room, though I never felt it was too crowded. Our server was attentive and very courteous; he did his best to accommodate our large group. A few kinks need to be worked out such the long delay with some plates being served, as well as some plating issues like the erroneous sugar sculpture and the lone three pieces of baguette. Keep in mind this place just opened the week prior and so these soft-opening quirks are very much expected. I'm entirely confident that Waterloo & City will work these out quickly. We'll be back and I highly recommended you pay this place a visit.

Waterloo & City
12517 West Washington Blvd.
Culver City CA

Monday, May 17, 2010

Spring menu at Ortolan

Last month the Michelin 1-star restaurant Ortolan announced a special Spring set menu of three courses for only $40 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. Normally their set menus start at $85 with individual appetizers ranging from $20 - $30 and entrees hovering around $40, so I figured the $40 3-course offering was an excellent deal.

Ortolan is helmed by French chef Christophe Émé, who was done time at fine dining establishments in France, England, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany. He's worked alongside some of the most respected chefs in the world including Philippe Legendre (Le Cinq, French Michelin 3-star) and Philippe Braun (executive chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris) , and was the executive chef at L’Orangerie, an L.A.-area restaurant that received recognition as one of the best French restaurants in the US.

After some nudging from his wife who happens to be actress Jeri Ryan (she played Seven of Nine on Star Trek Voyager), chef Émé decided to finally open his very own restaurant, Ortolan, in the heart of Los Angeles' dining scene on 3rd street. This casually elegant restaurant has been running strong for five years, serving chef Emé’s classically inspired French cuisine.

Last Thursday my friends and I made the trek over to 3rd street for our 7pm reservation. Punching through LA's notoriously thick traffic on a weeknight is not an easy task, but we all made it in time before my hunger had me walking over to the adjacent Toast Cafe.

We're led to a semi-private dining table overlooking 3rd street. The room is tastefully decorated and somewhat isolated from the bustle of the main dining room.

Amuse bouche - Chilled green and white asparagus soup. Served in test tubes with little straws for slurping along with an additional tube holding a sprig of lavender. This looks straight out of a high school chemistry lab. I wasn't too impressed with this presentation and I would have preferred the soups to be served in shorter, wider glasses for drinking. And while the asparagus flavor came through as very refreshing, the soup itself was closer to room temperature than chilled.

Amuse bouche - Warm eggplant caviar in an herb puree. Now I realize this doesn't look too appetizing, but trust me it was quite impressive in taste and texture, despite what you might be thinking :). On its own the eggplant was a bit salty for my taste, but spread over some soft bread allowed the earthiness to pull through. The herb puree added a subtle aroma and a nice minty flavor.

First course - Marinated salmon, lemongrass sorbet, ginger, ponzu. Chopsticks were provided so you could reach in for chunks of raw salmon through the thick sorbet foam. A unique experience no doubt, and a very tasteful one too as the salmon was extremely fresh and gushing with flavor. A little more ginger kick would have been welcomed, but otherwise this was a fantastic first course. Check out the plating: the "fish bowl"sits atop a series of three stacked plates of progressively larger sizes. Neat. Now I do have a gripe and it's the fact our first course appeared nearly 30-minutes after the amuse bouche. In fact the entire meal moved rather slowly with our dishes appearing at a pace way too slowly, especially since the restaurant was not busy by any means.

Second course - Lobster spaghetti with beef jus, white asparagus cream. I rarely have a hard time deciding what to order, but I just couldn't decide on this dish or the potato ravioli with morels, but a little consultation from our waiter had me set on the lobster spaghetti. I absolutely loved the presentation with the spaghetti noodles tightly coiled around lobster meat, giving the illusion of a sushi roll. To eat, I simply sliced portions with my fork and then scoop some of the beef jus. Morels added earthiness and a contrasting texture, while the peas gave the whole dish a little more color.

Third course - Apple tart with vanilla ice cream. It's quite large at about 7" in diameter and the elegant design was very pleasing to the eye. I loved the freshness of the apples and the sweetness of the crust. Apple tart is one of my favorite desserts and Ortolan's version did not disappoint. I should say that our third and final course came out so late that I was worried this dinner would carry into breakfast the next day :-O. Ortolan needs to work on their dinner pace.

This vanilla ice cream was provided with the dessert but came out partially melted. Was that the pastry chef's intent? After a few minutes this ice cream was nearly all liquid, at which point I just drizzled over the tart. Delicious nonetheless.

My friend ordered the Lemon tart with tangerine sorbet, citrus supreme. A pungent lemon flavor was so pronounced that it nearly dominated the overall experience, but the effect was actually refreshing and bright, especially with the sweetness from the citrus pieces. The custard, however, was a bit runny for my tastes as I prefer a thicker consistency.

Overall this was a great effort from Ortolan and you are certainly going to be hard pressed to find a better deal at any other Michelin 1-star restaurant. At $40 for three courses, that works out to $13.33 per course and this includes the two amuse bouche servings, a wonderfully warm bread service, and a gorgeous setting along 3rd street. Several of us also opted for the $20 wine pairings, which completely heightened the overall dining experience. I'm no wine connoisseur and I can't tell if the pairings were "beautifully mated" with the accompanying dishes, but I was pleased with the selections and since I have zero complaints, I suppose then that pairings were just fine.

I'm still stymied over why the courses came out so slowly; nearly 2.5 hours for a 3-course dinner on a slow weeknight? Now I do take the time to savor my food (honestly!) but this was beyond my savoring threshold. Nonetheless, the food was excellent, the presentation was sophisticated, and the service was attentive and not overbearing. Ortolan has other tasting menus including an $85 Spring seduction tasting menu which includes seared scallops, short ribs, and herb-crusted cod. I'm definitely making a return visit soon.

8338 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles CA 90048

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

LudoBites 4.0 at Gram and Papa's

When I read the announcement of chef Ludo Lefebvre's fourth installment of his LudoBites series, I quickly jumped online to secure my seat. Just to show you how popular his events have become, I wasn't even able to grab a prime-time (8-ish) weekend spot as they had all been consumed by the LudoBites faithful within an hour of the announcement, but I was able to reserve a Saturday 6pm 4-top. Not bad considering I reserved just an hour after the annoucement! Just a rehash, LudoBites 2.0 at BreadBar was excellent, and 3.0 at Royal/T was even better, so on to 4.0 at Gram and Papa's in downtown LA to just what chef Ludo has concocted since his last pop-up.

Today's menu. Chef Ludo's wife, Krissy, pointed out to me that the menu's format was different from those of past LudoBites events in that there was a clear separation of appetizers, entrees, and desserts. With past events the menus contained dishes grouped simply into savory or sweet categories. I'm actually indifferent on this and I'd be happy either way.

Warm baguette with honey lavender butter and smoked lard. We started our meal with a few orders of crusty baguettes and we made quick work of them. The lavender butter was ultra creamy and slightly sweet with a discernible lavender scent. Liquid bacon is how I'd describe the smoked lard as there was a strong presence of bacon-like taste. Both spreads were delicious.

Brie chantilly with honeycomb, balsamic, frisee. Biting into the silky and soft brie with the underlying sliver of toasted bread made for a dreamy combination of flavor and texture. Pairing the cheese with the honeycomb and balsamic helped balance the richness of the brie, and the crisp frisee brought added texture.

Foie gras black croque monsieur, lemon turnip chutney. Who would have thought to put foie gras in a sandwich? Well chef Ludo no less! I overheard someone mention the bread is colored using squid ink, and it certainly exhibited a dark, nearly black hue. The foie gras was soft and rich as you'd expect, while the bread kept the overall taste in balance. To my surprise the sandwich held its shape nicely even after we split each piece. I wasn't sure what to do with the lemon chutney, but it brought very little taste to the other components and so I left most of it sitting on the plate.

Soft shell crab cornet, mango, red spicy mayo, Corona granite. Let's start with the oddest part of this plate--the Corona granite. Yes that's frozen Corona slush, and yes it's paired with soft shell crab. It's pairings like these that immerse you into an Iron Chef-like setting. As for the soft shell crab, it was very fresh in taste and expertly cooked and prepared. The mango was nice and almost dessert-like in sweetness, although the spicy mayo could have been much spicier.

Rack of lamb, goat cheese, bonita, artichokes, potato mousse, mint. Fatty, tender, and cooked to a nice medium-rare, this nicely-sized lamb chop was a hit with our dinner group. I used the mint puree to brighten the taste of alternating bites; one bite without the mint and one with the mint added some interest to the overall taste. Note the tube of goat cheese. And those artichoke pieces? Tender and delicious they were.

Above is the potato mousse that came with the lamb. It's hard to tell from the picture, but the potato mousse had a texture similar to that of marshmallow cream, thought the taste was brimming with starchy potato-ness. I can only imagine the amount of butter and cream sacrificed for these potatoes.

Bavette, escargo red butter, shallot jam, roasted eggplant, carrot slaw. The bavette steak aka flap meat was a little overcooked for my liking, though the intense shallot jam helped to cover some of the dryness. I would have preferred either thinner slices of beef or simply a larger single portion cooked to medium-rare. Nonetheless, I found the beef to be a little chewy and lacking in beefy flavor. My favorite part of this dish? The carrot slaw. It was crispy, tangy, fresh, and in short supply as I made quick work of it.

Dark chocolate souffle, vanilla whipped cream, hot chocolate ganache. There were only two desserts on the menu, and when dark chocolate souffle is one of them then it really doesn't matter what the other on is (oh come on, really?!). First take note of the size--it's HUGE! Here's a picture with my portion and a heaping spoonful of the cream and ganache:

WOW! This was easily the best restaurant souffle I've ever had. Warm and slightly crispy on the outside, and gushing with deep chocolate filling on the inside that emitted an intoxicating chocolate aroma upon spilling out of the center.

That concluded our LudoBites dinner and we left very satisfied. The service was good and friendly, though some dishes came out a little slower than expected. As I've mentioned before with previous LudoBites events, the emphasis is squarely on the food and not so much Michelin-star service. Note: LudoBites ends on May 28 and you can still likely get a table with the wait list.

Afterward a few of us decided to hike up to 6th street to Cole's to try their famous French dip sandwich. Yes I realize we had just completed a full dinner and dessert outing, but with Cole's just around the corner, we couldn't resist. About a month ago I devoured a French dip at Phillipe's, and it was very good so I was curious to see how Cole's compares as I know people are adamant about which one reigns supreme.

Cole's French dip with au jus. We sat in the dimly lit Varnish Room which is an attached speak-easy bar behind the main restaurant. Rumor is that this place was in its former life a subway stop. Here's the dip up close and personal, or at least as personal as it gets with a mediocre iPhone capture:

The verdict: It's much better than Phillipe's, mainly because of the bread as it's softer and tasted fresher (even at 10pm at night). A generous serving of beef was both tender and full of beefy flavor, more so than Philippe's. Making this whole experience even better was the fact that we ordered this to go, then sat in the Varnish Room where we enjoyed a round of artisinal cocktails.

Upon exiting Cole's, we passed by Babycakes and decided to snatch the last few cupcakes from the display case. Babycakes is a NY-based vegan bakery which recently opened a second shop in downtown LA adjacent to Cole's.

Vanilla cupcake with mocha frosting. Now before I comment on the taste, let me remind you that vegan means no eggs or dairy products are used, so just rely on your culinary imagination to guess what ingredients go into this. That said, it was no wonder this cupcake was completely underwhelming and almost unpleasant in taste. Making things worse was the texture: it was like cornbread, really course cornbread. In fact the cupcake tasted like dry cornbread with canned frosting. We gave the second cupcake to a homeless person on the way out; I hope she enjoyed it. Oh well, at least we tried.

LudoBites at Gram and Papa's
227 E 9th St Los Angeles
CA 90015

Cole's (Varnish Room located in back)
118 E 6th St Los Angeles
CA 90014

130 E 6th St Los Angeles
CA 90014