Sotto (Los Angeles, CA)

Sotto
9575 West Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Dining date: 3/30/11

Sotto is a new Italian restaurant from Steve Samson and Zach Pollack (Pizzeria Ortica) in the old Test Kitchen space. The Italian fare here includes a variety of dishes from house-baked breads to various seafood and meats to pizzas from a wood-fired oven. And not just any wood-fired oven. Every single brick (and some Vesuvian soil!) of this oven was imported from Naples and hand-assembled in LA by the designer. I’m not sure how it gets more authentic than that!

Tonight was the first night open to the public; given that I attended the closing night dinner at Test Kitchen, it was interesting to come full circle and visit on Sotto’s opening night. The floorplan remains pretty similar, though the dining room is much darker.

Julian Cox helms the bar here (fittingly, considering he was the main barman at Test Kitchen), which features a lot of Italian amari-based cocktails. Naturally, we had to try a couple.

5th Amendment Bourbon, Barolo Chinato, Rammazotti, bitters

This cocktail exuded a strong bourbon flavor, as well as a somewhat spicy, almost medicinal quality from the Barolo Chinato.

Typico Italiano Meletti amaro, London dry, fresh grapefruit and lemon juices, honey, marjoram

The Typico Italiano was more my style, as I really liked the savory marjoram in tandem with the fresh juices. Crisp and refreshing, I could’ve consumed a ton of this.

Grilled pork meatballs pecorino, bitter greens


This was the first dish to come out, and it was a good one. The meatball was similar in flavor to an Italian sausage, but in a looser-packed texture of a meatball. The arugula, in a lemon vinaigrette, was fantastic, adding some peppery bite to the rich meatballs.

Whole grilled orata wild fennel, currants, acquassale

Next we had this whole grilled fish. Now, the dining room is dim…very dim. To carve a whole fish in this lighting was a bit problematic at times, as it was hard to distinguish between flesh and bone.

The grill marks on the skin were very good, giving it a smoky, grill flavor that went well with the fish. The meat was quite good, delicate though not overly moist. I appreciated the lemon slices (packed into the cavity), which lended a little bit of extra flavor. The acquassale (sort of a bread salad) wasn’t really my thing, but it did add a welcome acidity.

Squid ink pasta bottarga, mint

I didn’t like this pasta. I found the squid ink to be overwhelmingly strong, and the pasta to be slightly undercooked. Some of the strands were a perfect al dente, while some had a gritty, crumbly interior.

Spaghetti clams, zucchini

This pasta was better, starting with thick (though hollow) al dente strands of spaghetti. The clams weren’t as flavorful as I expected, but the zucchini provided a nice sweetness and some extra flavor that I enjoyed.  Perhaps a little heavy-handed on the salt, though.

Margherita tomato mozzarella, basil, extra virgin olive oil

Lastly, what we were both anticipating most (and perhaps the majority of Sotto’s customers), the pizza. The oven, burning at around 900 degrees, cooks a pizza in about a minute to two. Crazy. The first thing I noticed was the nice char uniformly around the crust, as well as on the bottom. The dough was very nice – soft, chewy and just a little bit crispy on the exterior. I thought the tomatoes were slightly too acidic; otherwise, this was a very good pizza. I’d be interested to try some of the other toppings.

My experience at Sotto had some hits and some misses. Given that this was the first day of regular service, I’d like to see if this is smoothed out over time. I’d definitely return to try some more of the pizzas…and seriously, anything else coming out of that oven. I’m not quite sold on the pasta yet. Surprisingly (for an opening night), one aspect of the meal was very strong though – the service.

é by Jose Andres (Las Vegas, NV)

é by Jose Andres
The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas
3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Dining date: 3/26/11

exterior

é is Jose Andres’ single-table, eight-person restaurant within a restaurant (Jaleo), serving a 19-course menu similar in format to that of the Saam Room at the Bazaar and Minibar. The menu is strictly product-driven and showcases Andres’ flair for molecular gastronomy.

It’s been on my (and my parents’) radar since word first broke in December – my father’s been wanting to try the Saam Room for a while and hasn’t had the chance; knowing that we’d be in LV, this was a perfect opportunity to try some of Andres’ cuisine.

I’ve never been congratulated by a restaurant for managing to get a reservation. So when the first words I got from é confirming my reservation were “Congratulations, you’ve made it!” I found it a little weird. The email even referred to the meal as a “show,” something I’d typically find off-putting. However, knowing Andres’ flair for the dramatic, I was definitely intrigued. Tickets (literally) to the show are $250 inclusive of alcohol, tax and gratuity.

ticket

The eight seats at the counter circle where the food is prepared, granting the opportunity to see how everything comes together, as well as inviting dialogue about each plate.

Frozen Sangria with Grilled Strawberries

frozen sangria

We started off with this “cocktail” of sorts – sangria frozen with liquid nitrogen. Cool, fruity, refreshing…it was a nice way to start off. The grill really brought out the sweetness of the strawberries, which I thought were very good.

Spanish “Clavel”

spanish clavel

An unusual presentation here – this was a mold of Jose Andres’ hand. Since he wasn’t able to serve us in person, he thought this was the next best thing. A clavel means a carnation (the flower), so it made sense when I saw the flower-looking creation in the hand. A little bit sweet, a little bit floral, and very crispy.

Beet Jewelry

beet jewelry

Designed to look like rings, the natural crimson color of the beet was perfect topped with some gold dust. It was a really crispy, subtly sweet and a little salty. Kind of like a rolled up potato chip, but beets.

Caramelized Pork Rinds

caramelized pork rinds

I thought these were really well-executed, having a texture kind of like puffed rice. Perfectly crispy with a hint of sweetness.

Membrillo and La Serena Cone

membrillo and la serena

Membrillo is a quince paste, here topped with a sheep’s milk cheese in this cone. The cheese was slightly bitter and contrasted well with the sweetness of the quince.

Apple “Brazo de Gitano”

apple brazo de gitano

Brazo de Gitano is a Spanish dessert consisting of rolled layers of sponge cake and cream. Andres’ interpretation was a really light, dried meringue rolled around a bleu cheese cream. It reminded me of a French macaron – the meringue had the chewy, yielding texture of a macaron shell. A little bit of sweetness from the apple went well with the cheese.

Jose’s Combination: Jose’s Taco and Artichoke with Caviar

jose taco

artichoke caviar

This is actually my third time having Jose’s rendition of the taco (American Wine & Food Festival and Saam Room were the others). It’s so simple – just jamon iberico and caviar. The salty sea flavor of the caviar works so well with the rich ham. The artichoke-caviar combo was a new one for me. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the ham, but it was still good.

Bocata de “Calamares”

bocata de calamares

This next dish was inspired by one of Andres’ childhood favorites – a fried squid sandwich. No squid here; instead fried uni (what!) was combined with cucumber, aioli and scallions. I thought this was delicious. The uni was the focal flavor, with a nice crunch from fresh cucumber.

Ajo Blanco

ajo blanco1

ajo blanco2

Ajoblanco is a cold Spanish soup with bread and almonds as key ingredients. Here, a deconstructed version – we were advised to try each component separately then mix and taste. This was my first time having this type of soup, and I found it to be refreshing, with an almond milk type of consistency.

Santa Barbara Spot Prawns with Roses

prawn with roses

The spot prawns were perfectly cooked – sweet, juicy…so good. The rose foam was very subtle and wasn’t quite strong enough to add much in flavor.

Smoky Oysters in Escabeche

smoky oysers

The oysters were encapsulated in a spherification of their own juice and were accompanied with onions and a sweet foam. The dish wasn’t quite as smoky as I thought it would be, but the oysters were a nice burst of flavor, while the onions complemented them well.

Catch of the Day (Turbot)

turbot

Turbot here was topped with citrus juice pearls (kind of like tapioca balls) and accompanied by fermented black garlic. I’ve never had this garlic before – it tasted like raw garlic, though much more subtle. The fish was nicely cooked, and the citrus was key in adding some acidity.

Whole Lobe of Foie Gras Baked in Salt

foie gras salt

foie gras

Impressive presentation! I often see whole fish cooked in this way, but not foie gras. A whole lobe was cooked encrusted in salt, then topped with sea salt and some type of melon and juice. The foie gras was fantastic – melt-in-mouth tender, rich and buttery. I liked the sweetness of the fruits as well to pair.

Secreto of Iberico Pork

secreto

secreto2

secreto3

One of the best pieces of pork I have ever had. The pork here was so well-marbled, it really resembled a sort of toro or wagyu beef. Add to it some black truffles, and this was quite a delicious dish.

Orange Pith Puree La Serena

orange pith puree

This dish had the return of the La Serena cheese, served over orange puree. The creamy, salty cheese worked well with the fresh, vibrant orange flavor.

Frozen Apricot Coulant

apricot coulant

apricot coulant2

This was an interesting one – I liked the apricot, along with caramel flavors. Upon breaking the shell, an apricot liquid poured out, mixing with the tangy yogurt.

Apples & Red Wine “Fredy Giradet”

apples red wine

Here we had vanilla ice cream in tandem with apples and red wine spherifications. I thought the flavors really meshed here – the creamy and sweet vanilla ice cream was balanced well with apples and red wine flavors.

25 Second Bizcocho

bizcocho

This would be the last dish, looking like a miniature version of the Matterhorn. Light and airy, kind of like a sweet sponge cake.

Chocolates

chocolates

We finished with a duo of chocolates: a saffron milk chocolate and an aerated dark chocolate. Both were good, but I especially liked the complexity of the saffron chocolate.

Lobster Paella

paella1

paella2

Seeing the impressive wood-burning paella pit in the restaurant, we had to try it. Graciously, the restaurant obliged and included a taste of this dish at the end. The rice was cooked very well – al dente with a rich saffron-infused flavor. Generous chunks of lobster were spread throughout, but I found them to be borderline overcooked. Still, a very solid rendition of the dish.

Spanish wines were poured throughout the meal and included 1+1=3 Cava Brut NV, Gutierrez Colosia “Sangre y Trabajadero” Oloroso El Puerto de Santa Maria, Estrella Damm Inedit (Ferran Adria’s beer), Lopez de Heredia “Viña Gravonia” Crianza Blanco Rioja, Guimaro and one other.

In all, I thought this was an excellent meal. I preferred this meal over my two visits to the Saam Room; in terms of the food, the playfulness and excitement was still there, but I thought the food tasted much better at é.

The setting was much more intimate and personal. Being able to see how each dish was put together and to get the story behind each dish was integral to the ‘show.’ Service was top-notch and very accommodating – truly, the goal was to make this as complete and enjoyable of an experience as possible.

25 Degees & Library Bar (Los Angeles, CA)

25 Degrees & Library Bar
Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel
7000 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Dining date: 3/23/11

I don’t tend to seek out LA’s top burger joints, but when I do stumble across a notable burger, I’m almost always game. The purpose of this trip actually wasn’t burger-inspired at all; rather, it was to come try Library Bar, also in the Roosevelt Hotel. Here is where Matt Biancaniello crafts innovative market-driven cocktails. Yes, market-driven. Kind of like a chef’s mentality, but with drinks.

25 Degrees sounded like an ideal spot to grab something casual to eat before hitting up the bar. 25 Degrees (named after the temperature difference between medium-rare and well-done) is a newer, small chain serving up some gourmet burgers – 3 signature options are available, as well as a build-your-own option.

The lone “starter” was a spiked milkshake.

Guinness Milkshake creamy vanilla bean, smooth chocolate, Guinness

Thick and creamy; malty, with just a little bit of alcohol on the end to remind you it’s there. It might be a challenge to tackle a burger and fries after this heavy treat.

French Fries


Our sides came out much before the burgers. This was a very generous portion, and I kind of liked the presentation of the fries spilling out of a Chinese take-out box. I thought the fries were cooked well, crispy, but rather bland. There was an herbal seasoning (oregano was the most prominent flavor to me), but they still tasted somewhat unmemorable.

Onion Rings


The onion rings were better, though not particularly memorable either.

Number Two – roasted tomato, crispy prosciutto, burrata, pesto

I ordered this Italian-inspired creation. The burger arrives on a large brioche bun, topped with burrata and crispy prosciutto. All burgers are made with ground sirloin; in the markets, this is always one of the leanest variations of ground beef. However, this burger was cooked a nice medium-rare/medium and was definitely juicy. The pesto had a strong flavor, but I thought it held up well with the meat and creamy burrata, with the prosciutto being a fun substitute for bacon. The roasted tomato was not sliced; rather, it seemed to be cut into large chunks and easily fell out of the burger.

Number One – caramelized onion, prelibato gorgonzola, crescenza, bacon, arugula, thousand island

I tried a bite from this burger as well, another signature. It might’ve just been my bite, but I was a little overloaded on the thousand island; however, the meat was again juicy and cooked well.

Custom Burger – ground sirloin, fried egg, burrata, jalapenos

“Dessert” was a walk over to Library Bar – a small, dark bar…almost hidden. Upon walking in, I was immediately confronted with fragrant smells of a garden – the bar is lined with a ton of fresh produce from various fruits to all sorts of fresh herbs. One of the more colorful bar setups I’ve seen, for sure.

Between the three of us, we were able to sample an assortment of 8 cocktails. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the names or components of each.

Rum, lime, mint; Mezcal, jalapeno; Gin, sage (left to right)

Mezcal, campari, chili

Gin, aged balsamic vinegar, strawberries, St. Germaine foam

My favorite was probably the beer cocktail. Hops-infused gin, grapefruit juice, lemon juice and an IPA combined to make something that tasted sort of like an alcohol-ed-up IPA – the citrus was a key ingredient in brightening it up.

Beer cocktail hops-infused gin, grapefuit juice, lemon juice, IPA, rosemary

25 Degrees makes a solid burger. The sides were a little disappointing, but I think the burger made up for it. More memorable than 25 Degrees was Library Bar, which was packed on this rainy Wednesday night. I thought the cocktails were really interesting and vibrant; not all of them were hits (a spicy mezcal/campari/chili concoction didn’t work with us), but overall I thought they were fun and tasty. I loved the idea of combining some fresh market produce with the drinks, and I’ll be sure to return for more.

Braised Beef Brisket

Dining date: 3/20/11

I often wander into my local supermarket not knowing what I’m going to get. Many times, I know exactly what I want to eat and make a bee-line directly towards my desired meat and produce. Other times, I use the market for inspiration and develop a menu on the spot, depending on what looks good/piques my interest.

On this day, the beef brisket looked particularly good. I really like this cut of beef – it’s reasonably priced, and when cooked low and slow for hours, yields tender flavorful meat. I’d have loved to be able to BBQ this, but I don’t have an outdoor smoker. Instead, I decided to braise it in a French style. Buying a few pounds of it, I’m able to make a dinner from it, as well as a couple of workweek lunches.

My braising formula was pretty standard. I browned the meat, then sauteed a mirepoix of onions, carrots and celery. After adding some garlic, rosemary and a few crushed tomatoes, I deglazed with a red wine (Cabernet was what I had on-hand). Finally, I tossed in some bay leaves with a mixture of chicken broth and beef broth and just let it sit in a 300 degree oven until fork-tender. I expected this to take about 3 hours, but I ended up braising for about five. Not sure why – but it just wasn’t “fork-tender” until about that time.

While my meat rested, I reduced the braising liquid significantly – by about one-half. This resulted in a really rich sauce/gravy, so I chopped up some fresh scallions to top the meat off. Not only would it be a nice garnish, but I thought the fresh ‘bite’ from the scallions would complement the rich meat and sauce well.

I was happy with the meat. It took a while to prepare, but it was pretty tasty.

Ramen Jinya (Studio City, CA)

Ramen Jinya
11239 Ventura Blvd
Studio City, CA 91604
Dining date: 3/18/11

I first heard about Ramen Jinya from Jonathan Gold’s raving review of it last year. He even called their tonkotsu ramen one of the 10 best dishes of 2010. I really enjoy a good bowl of ramen, so that was more than enough to convince me to try it. However, I didn’t get a chance to until this year’s Gold Standard event. I made 5 different stops at their booth, where they were serving a delicious and soul-satisfying tonkotsu ramen. I knew a visit to their restaurant was in short order.

A number of pork and chicken broths (and even one seafood) are available, along with a bunch of toppings to customize your bowl exactly how you want it.

Chicken Gyoza


The lone appetizer was these dumplings. I thought they were just okay – the filling had more of a cabbage flavor than meat, and the gyoza skin had a nice chew to it. I wanted a crispier bottom too. Not really better than some frozen ones you can get.

HAKATA Tonkotsu Ramen – Premium Rich Flavor Pork Broth, Chashu, Flavored Egg, Green onion

This particular type of tonkotsu broth is limited to 20 servings a day for some reason, so I felt obligated to try it. My first sip of the milky broth was delicious – a rich, hearty flavor was complemented with the sweetness of onion and pickled ginger. The noodles were excellent as well, with a nice al dente chew. The chashu was lean, yet surprisingly tender and flavorful. My one qualm is I would’ve liked more broth. I think I eat faster than most, but not fast enough to avoid the noodles absorbing much of the broth, ruining my broth-noodle ratio.

YOKOHAMA Tonkotsu Ramen – Original Base Pork Broth, Chashu, Flavored Egg, Green onion

The server said this was the ramen served at the Gold Standard event. It tasted a little different from my memory, but still good. Not as fatty and oily as the Hakata ramen, the pork broth had a lighter, cleaner flavor. All of the other accompaniments were the same.

JINYA Ramen – Chicken Broth, Chicken chashu, Spinach, Green onion, Crispy onion

I also had a sip of this broth, a chicken based one. After having a couple of pork broths, this chicken was was noticeably lighter and cleaner, but still hearty. Depending on what I’m feeling like, this would also be a solid option, but I tend to prefer the richer pork broths.

Jinya is a very good place for ramen. I think all of the ramen components are done very well; my only complaint is the soup-noodle ratio. I enjoyed their Hakata ramen over Shin-Sen-Gumi’s, though not over Ippudo’s.

Maison Akira (Pasadena, CA)

Maison Akira
713 East Green Street
Pasadena, CA
Dining date: 2/3/11

My last dineLA meal of this past season was here at Maison Akira. Maison Akira has been somewhere I’ve been interested in trying, but not enough to actually plan a trip there. One of my high school friends recently moved to Pasadena, so it was a perfect opportunity to come try some of Chef Akira Hirose’s Japanese-French cuisine.

The dineLA menu was a 3-course meal, but I put up the pictures of everyone else’s food for the heck of it.

Amuse Bouche – tofu cake, uni, pesto sauce


This sounded pretty interesting, but I thought it fell flat. The flavors were rather muted in the cake, with mushroom and seaweed the most prominent. The uni was just okay, and the pesto didn’t really have the vibrant, fresh flavor I was looking for.

Côté Seared House Smoked Scottish Salmon with Japanese Eggplant Caviar

Sautéed Hokkaido Scallops with Shimeji Mushrooms in a Yuzu Kosho Jus

These were some tiny scallops, for sure. I thought the sear was good, resulting in a nice scallop. I didn’t get a lot from the yuzu kosho, though, so this dish was sort of one-dimensional for me.

Sautéed New Zealand Wild Tai Snapper in a Black Mussel and Seaweed Chardonnay Sauce

Angus Beef Château Steak in a Cabernet & Béarnaise Sauce with Gratin of Potato & Oyster Mushroom Sympatic

Maple Leaf Duck Breast Rôti, Sauce à L’Orange With Daikon Pot au Feu and Shiitake Mushroom

Snake River Farm ‘Kobe’ New York Steak in a Marchand du Vin Sauce with Potato Mousseline

The steak was very good; tender and flavorful with a really nice pan sauce. Disappointingly, the mashed potatoes were surprisingly bland and clumpy, and the vegetables didn’t add too much either. The plating reminded me of a frozen dinner, with the meat in the bottom, and scoops of potatoes and vegetables at each corner.

Vanilla Yuzu Cream Brûlée


This was a good creme brulee, exemplifying the French and Japanese influences of Hirose’s cooking. The yuzu lent a subtle tart flavor; I find yuzu to sometimes be overpoweringly sour, but I thought the custard and bruleed sugar tempered it well.

Crêpes with Baked Banana and Caramel Ice Cream

Hazelnut Chocolate Mousse Cake and Maccha Ice Cream

The cake was pretty good – moist and chocolatey. I didn’t get any hazelnut flavor in the cake, just from the nuts on top – I would have preferred them to be incorporated a little better. The green tea ice cream was pretty good.

I found Maison Akira to be disappointing. It wasn’t a question of execution; frankly, I found many of the dishes to be rather boring. I could see how his type of Asian fusion cuisine was more exciting in the 90’s, but it seems like it hasn’t really changed with the times. The dineLA menu didn’t include some of the dishes the restaurant is most famous for (like the miso Chilean sea bass and Grand Marnier souffle); however, these dishes did not exactly inspire me to return and try those out.