Milo & Olive (Santa Monica, CA)

Milo & Olive
2723 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Dining date: 4/10/12

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Milo & Olive is the newest restaurant (opened in November) in Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan’s quickly expanding empire in Santa Monica that already includes Sweet Rose, Rustic Canyon and Huckleberry. I’ve been to both Sweet Rose and Rustic Canyon and enjoyed both so this place has been on my radar, but I never had just the right impetus to make the drive over to the westside. That is, until a friend of mine clued me in to Walter Manzke being in the kitchen! Casual readers may know I’m a huge fan of his work, and I quickly picked a date to come out and check this place out.

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Milo & Olive is categorized as sort of a bakery/pizzeria, but its more than a pizza parlor, offering a host of baked goods (displayed in the front; I’m guessing these are similar to ones offered at Huckleberry) and a bunch of small plates from veggies & grains to meat & fish. When discussing his stint here, Manzke’s temporary role seems to be as a chef consultant rather than, say, an Executive Chef. He’s definitely not here to completely overhaul the menu with his imprint.

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It’s a pretty small place with two communal tables seating 6-8 each and a kitchen counter seating about 8 more. No wonder the lines are so long; we waited about 45 mins on a chilly Tuesday evening.

MARINATED ARTICHOKES baby spinach, toasted pine nuts, capers, golden raisins, goat cheese

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The artichokes were served warm, lightly dressed with a vinaigrette balanced by some sweet raisins. Some goat cheese added a subtle funk to the dish, but not in an overpowering way. Pine nuts added a nutty crunch.

WOOD OVEN ROASTED PRAWNS mediterranean salad

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The prawns came out sans shell, cooked to what I thought was a medium/medium-well like temperature. A bit on the firm side, I like my prawns a little more springy and succulent. The accompanying salad of creamy garbanzo beans, juicy tomatoes and crisp cucumber was a fresh and tasty side that I thought went well with the shrimp.

WOOD FIRED GARLIC KNOT extra virgin olive oil, sea salt

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This was probably the most memorable dish of the evening, a warm doughy ‘purse’ filled with garlic. The garlic was cooked down to a very soft texture and was sweet, far from the bitter bite of raw garlic. The dough itself was crispy on the outside and pillowy soft and yielding on the inside. With a dash of salt and olive oil, these were some great bites.

Of course, we sampled a couple of pizzas too.

HOUSEMADE PORK BELLY SAUSAGE braised greens, tomato, fresh mozzarella

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MIXED MUSHROOM fontina, Parmigiano Reggiano, thyme

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The pizzas resembled Mozza’s in size and style – I thought they were pretty well made. The mushroom pizza was expectantly earthy with the clean flavors of the mushrooms, cheese and a hint of thyme. I really enjoyed the pork belly sausage; the sausage itself was delicious balanced by some greens and a really tasty tomato sauce. It’s so hard to compare pizzas across the city since everyone has a different idea of the perfect pie, but that pork belly sausage pizza was one of my recent favorites.

In addition to the baked goods in front, there were a few desserts offered. We had room for two of them.

LEMON MERINGUE

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The lemon meringue was simple but well done, with a fine balance between the light and creamy lemon curd and sweet whipped meringue.

VANILLA CUSTARD TART

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I liked this dessert better with it’s rich, subtly sweet custard in a flaky, sweetened crust. Blueberries were a nice topping too.

Manzke came out to chat with us at the end of the meal to share some of his thoughts on the LA food scene and his upcoming restaurant République (it will take some time). This was my first time spending any sort of quality time with the chef, and I was definitely excited to do so. Also at the end of the meal, we were each gifted bags of goodies to take home; a loaf of bread and some type of pasty. I got a loaf of ciabatta and a croissant. Score! It was the end of night and they were presumably clearing out the day’s inventory, but I thought it was a nice touch (per Yelp, it’s a somewhat common occurrence – so go late!). Even the next morning (or days, in the case of the ciabatta), they were pretty delicious especially when reheated lightly in the oven.

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Milo & Olive was pretty good. My favorite items tended to be those involving dough, including the garlic knot, pizzas and dessert/pastries (I’m definitely gonna have to check out Huckleberry soon). The two small plates we tried were good but just missing that extra ingredient to make them pop. If this restaurant was in my neighborhood, I’d definitely be back soon. Given it’s across town from me, I’d have to think about it a little – there are so many other places I still want to visit for the first time. But who knows, that garlic knot may be calling my name sooner than I think.

Sous Vide Flank Steak with Arugula Chimichurri

Dining date: 4/9/12

The latest in my experimentation with sous vide has been beef. Actually, the first thing I cooked was beef (a flat iron steak) and I moved over to chicken, pork and lately, I’ve been cooking a lot of fish. Some duck was a gateway back to red meat, and I’ve been playing with a bunch of steaks (short ribs soon to come!).

The thought came to me while I was planning what to bring to an Easter BBQ potluck. I could cook the flank steak sous vide ahead of time and bring the vacuum-sealed bags to the BBQ to be finished on the grill. I think flank steak is a good option marinated and then grilled, but I’ve heard that cooking it sous vide for a long period of time can slowly break down some of the connective tissue to yield a more tender meat. I was sold.

I tried using three different marinade/cooking liquids, each with one pound of steak. The first was an Asian-based marinade with soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, fresh garlic and fresh ginger. The second was definitely more Western with a reduced red wine (down to almost a syrup), minced carrots, onions, celery, and both fresh thyme and rosemary. Lastly I went with a simple blend of garlic salt and pepper, allowing the meat to bathe in its own natural juices. I sealed up the bags and plopped them into a 131F water bath for 16 hours.

I brought the first two bags (the Asian and Western) to the BBQ, where they were patted dry and finished on an open flame. Given that this was my first time making it, I was a bit nervous – surely I didn’t want to bring a dud to the potluck.

As I sliced into the steak, I breathed a sigh of relief as it yielded perfect end-to-end medium rare meat.  I couldn’t resist eating one of the slices on the spot and was rewarded with pretty good beefy flavor, with each of the different steaks subtly showing off their marinades. It was more tender than usual, having a consistency akin to a slow-cooked beef brisket. I considered it a success and hey, Wolvesmouth approved!

For the last steak, I ended up making it the following day at home. I warmed the bag up in hot water, removed the meat from the bag and patted it try. Lastly I seared both sides with a blowtorch and cut it thinly across the grain, on a bias.

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Given that this one didn’t have a marinade, I didn’t want it to be one-dimensional. A sauce to accompany the steak would be ideal, and I had stumbled upon an intriguing recipe a while back. It was an arugula chimichurri, something I thought would fit in perfectly. Garlic, citrus and arugula are all wonderful accompaniments to red meat so I figured together they’d be a sure bet.

Below is the recipe, adapted from Kitchen Daily.

Ingredients:
1 cup arugula leaves, rinsed and dried
1.5 cloves garlic, peeled, or more to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more as desired
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt, to taste 

Directions:
Combine the arugula with a pinch of salt, the garlic, and about half the oil in a food processor or blender. Process, stopping to scrape down the sides of the container if necessary, and adding the rest of the oil gradually. Add the lemon juice, then a little more oil or some water if you prefer a thinner mixture. Yields enough sauce for approx. 1 pound of meat.

The recipe was pretty flexible; it’s really about proportioning the ingredients to personal taste. Balance is key too, since the raw garlic and lemon acidity are both assertive flavors that can easily overpower.

I generously spooned the chimichurri sauce on top of the meat and was ready to dig in. I loved the colors, particularly the vibrant green of the sauce. The flavors were just as vibrant too between the peppery arugula, garlic and bright lemon flavors. It ended up being an excellent accompaniment to the flank steak! I’ll make this chimichurri again since it’s such a good pairing with a nice steak.

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Plan Check (Los Angeles, CA)

Plan Check
1800 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Dining date: 4/3/12

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Plan Check opened just over a month ago, bringing a ‘modern American’ gastropub to the Japanese-centric Sawtelle area of West LA. It’s a combination of ex-Umami Corporate Chef Ernesto Uchimura’s grub with drinks masterminded by Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix (Harvard & Stone, La Descarga, Black Market, Pour Vous). It’s one of the latest in LA’s gastropub movement and follows a similar template to many others – hire a noted mixologist to craft a bar program and serve interesting upscale bar food. Early on, the place has been packed so it seemed like a spot worth checking out.

Wooden tables grace the space, including one large communal table and a long counter that stretches the length of the bar and kitchen area. It was a full house on a Tuesday night, but the three of us were able to secure three seats overlooking the kitchen.

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The menu is made up of snacks, sides, sandwiches and composed plates (which were like small plates); we honed in on the latter two categories. We started with a little bit of charcuterie from the snacks section.

pickled chorizo sausage green garlic

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prosciutto americano

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The chorizo was interesting, with its subtle heat and a lightly sour flavor from the pickling. The prosciutto was pretty typical.

Two more snacks rounded out the first wave of courses.

oyster on the half yuzukosho cocktail sauce

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These were huge. Plump and tasty with the lemon and a zesty cocktail sauce.

warm crab dip dynamite sauce, masago, blistered tomato, toast

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The crab flavor came through on the dip with nice spreadable creaminess, but I wished the bread was toasted more for texture.

We also ordered  a selection of the sandwiches and all three of the larger plates.

PCB (plan check burger) akaushi red wagyu beef, americanized cheese, ketchup leather, savory onions, mixed pickles, crunch bun

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I thought the burger was cooked well but it wasn’t really memorable in any way. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the ketchup leather, a fruit roll-up type method of bringing a ketchup flavor without getting the bun soggy (as actual ketchup may). A novel idea, I suppose, but I didn’t notice a significant difference. It ended up being a fairly standard burger, executed just fine.

pork belly pimento grilled cheese twice cooked pork belly, spicy green pimento cheese, inverted crunch bun

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The pork was pretty good on its own but I thought the dish as a whole was a bit on the bready side. The thick slides of bread did have some light texture, though I didn’t feel the pimento cheese was very assertive.

pastrami poutine pastrami bits, pastrami gravy, cucumber pickles, melted swiss

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The smokey peppery flavor of the pastrami was good, but I was looking for more of a gravy here to bring it all together. Also, the fries were on the softer side – with a poutine I always prefer them crispier to hold up as they soak up any oil/juices.

smokey fried chicken jidori chicken, smoked milk gravy, yam preserves, spicy pickled okra

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The chicken had a nice smokey flavor and was quite juicy. I think the top two pieces were fried crispy but the bottom one (the one I got) had a mushy, soggy exterior. Sweet yams were a nice pairing.

short rib pot roast red wine, bone marrow turnover pie, sweet n sour mirepoix

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The pot roast itself was good, although fairly typical. Tender, fatty and pretty flavorful. The bone marrow turnover pie was fun, tasting very much like a beef pot pie.

grilled rockfish rock shrimp tempura, flaked wasabi, citron tartar sauce, grilled cucumber, bonito

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I thought the fish was cooked well, imbued with a smoky flavor. I thought the bonito was an interesting addition, adding much more depth of flavor. The tempura shrimp was good too, but I think it added more for texture than flavor.

veggie chips yucca and plantain, avocado

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I found the plantain and yuca chips to be fairly greasy and undersalted. The avocado spread was tasty though.

stuffed mushroom roasted portobello, swiss cheese fondue, crispy kale, steak sauce

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The portobello was meaty and kind of juicy, while the swiss cheese fondue was a good accompaniment. Steak sauce added more savory depth to the bites. One of the better dishes.

We also sampled a couple of desserts.

cruller donuts cooked to order, cream, fruit

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These were basically churros shaped like a cruller donut. I liked the churro, though it was slightly on the oily side, while a light whipped cream was a good pairing.

ice cream bars milk cereal

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This was also one of the highlights of the night. From Milk on Beverly, the ice cream had a sweet milk flavor with crispy cereal on the exterior. Whimsical and addicting. Pricing was a 33% markup over the ones at Milk.

We tried a pretty good selection of cocktails as well as their housemade moonshine sodas. I found the cocktails to be much more interesting. This first one, Tropic Thunder, was my favorite with a good balance of spicy and fresh citrus between the jalapeño and lemon. Yummy.

Tropic Thunder jalapeno infused kanon vodka, mango, lemon juice, sugar

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Fuji Apple yamazaki 12 yr, apple brandy, almond syrup, fresh lemon, peach bitters

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Godzilla pisco porton, midori, orgeat, lemon, lime

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Spaghetti Western vida mezcal, tapatio, red bell pepper, lime, agave, beer

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Bento Box brugal rum, licor 43, nigori sake, bitters

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Moonshine with Cherry Coke

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Moonshine with Tangerine Soda

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Plan Check was a letdown, especially considering our meal was almost $100pp all-inclusive (though to be fair, I’m sure we ordered more than the average customer). Were my expectations too high? Maybe, but they weren’t really that high to begin with. There were a few solid dishes (rockfish, stuffed mushrooms, cruller donut, ice cream bar) but they were outnumbered by the underwhelming ones. I think conceptually most of the dishes sounded good, for example the pork belly grilled cheese and pastrami poutine could’ve been big hits. However, something was lost in translation between the concept and plating since the end results didn’t come close to the heights they promised.

Le Comptoir (Los Angeles, CA)

Le Comptoir
Tiara Cafe
127 E 9th St
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Dining date: 3/29/12

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Le Comptoir has been sort of a longer-term pop-up, occupying the Tiara Cafe space in downtown’s fashion district for a number of months now. For three days a week (Thurs-Sat), Gary Menes cooks his version of seasonal farm-to-table food. What I found pretty unique (and very intriguing) about this dinner was that essentially all seating is at the kitchen counter – diners get an upfront look into each and every dish being prepared.

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A la carte is not offered at Le Comptoir; rather, each diner is served a vegetarian five course tasting menu ($52). That’s right, vegetarian. Meats are available through a number of supplements (if all are taken, the cost of the meal rises to $106), but the focal point of the meal is definitely on the produce. A four-wine pairing is also available for $24.

We decided to order one “base” menu and one with all of the supplements in order to try everything.

croquette fromage, pesto aioli

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First we were served this amuse; it was a hollow croquette with a dense, cheesy crust. The pesto provided some brightness and acidity…as well as the bulk of the flavor.

The housemade bread was served early and often, and had a subtle sourdough flavor with a delightful crispy crust.

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okinawan sweet potato velouté, farinette, yogurt, green garlic, herbs
mas bruguiere les muriers 2009; coteaux du languedoc; roussanne, marsanne

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roasted french foie gras, dried cherry compote, saba (supplement)
mas bruguiere les muriers 2009; coteaux du languedoc; roussanne, marsanne

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These were the first course options. The veloute was a hearty soup with a creaminess and subtle tart flavor from the yogurt. I thought it had good earthy flavor, while the crispy bread added texture.

The supplement featured a silky and creamy seared foie gras, complemented by a bittersweet cherry flavor. The execution was on point, but I thought there could’ve been some more exciting accompaniments to the liver.

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sunny side-up egg, young lettuce, herbs, jus vert
mas neuf paradox 2010; cote du rhone blanc; grenache blanc, roussanne

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“asperge vert” et oeuf sur la plat, reggiano, beurre noisette, citron (supplement)
mas neuf paradox 2010; cote du rhone blanc; grenache blanc, roussanne

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Second courses. This first one was a little interactive, where you add the compound butter, lettuce and herbs. Finally, the jus is poured over the top. The egg was cooked perfectly, showing off a rich and creamy (and huge!) egg yolk that went very well with the lettuce and herbs; a green vegetable juice was a difference-maker adding a bright, bitter flavor in each bite.

The supplemental dish featured some delicious sweet and smoky thick-stalk asparagus. A little bit of citrus was a nice accompaniment, as were the rich egg and crunchy croutons.

“veggie plate” beets, pickled onion petals, turnips, radish, kohlrabi, pears, rutabaga, grapes, scallions, fava beans, celtuce
domaine du fresche, alain boré; anjou rouge loire valley 2010; cabernet franc

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house made fettucini, black winter truffles (supplement)
domaine du fresche, alain boré; anjou rouge loire valley 2010; cabernet franc

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Third courses. The first was very simple, highlighting a bunch of fresh produce. Some were roasted, some were blanched, and each showcased their own clean flavors. I enjoyed tasting each one separately…my favorite had to have been the delectably sweet fava beans.

The supplement was hands down the most anticipated dish of the evening for me. The unmistakable truffle essense easily came through in a strong way, but the house made fettucine was lacking the desired al dente texture. It was soft. Tragic. A very light cream sauce kept it simple, letting the truffle flavor come through.

“flavors of tangerine beef broccoli”, pea tendrils, broccoli, black forbidden rice, caramelized onion jus, tangerine
luc lapeyre san bres 2010; minervois, coteaux de languedoc; grenache, syrah, mourvédre

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“poitrine de porc”, slow braised heritage pork belly, stone ground grits, apples, greens, white wine braised leeks (supplement)
luc lapeyre san bres 2010; minervois, coteaux de languedoc; grenache, syrah, mourvédre

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Fourth courses. This first was a vegetarian take on ‘tangerine beef.’ I enjoyed the broccolini and pea tendrils, particularly with the orange citrus. The black rice was made to resemble beef; texturally I think it did, but there was no mistaking that this was an earthy grain and not cattle flesh.

The pork belly was expectantly tender and fatty, accompanied by some underseasoned grits, sweet apples, and an olive-based sauce. It’s hard to go wrong with braised pork belly and it was delicious here, but I’m not sure the rest of the plate did much to elevate it.

chocolate, blood orange, vanilla tuile, sour cream, pistachio, graham cracker, mint

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There was only one option for the last course, dessert. The cake was very moist, while a myriad of flavors including sweet strawberry, tart blood orange and a deep chocolate flavor heightened the dish. A whipped creme fraiche was a nice topping too, completing a light yet satisfying dessert.

Coffee is available at the end of the meal from Handsome Coffee Roasters. Menes prepares the coffee with some of the most painstaking detail I’ve seen outside of an actual coffee bar. He even uses water sourced directly from Handsome itself. As expected, it yields a great cup.

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I thought Le Comptoir was a good meal, though not without its flaws. While a lot of restaurants try to showcase seasonal and farm-to-table produce, I found the quality to be much more apparent in this meal than others. Though, maybe that was because the vegetable-centric nature of the meal forced one to. Indeed, I found the strictly vegetarian plates to be more interesting and more successful than the supplemental ones containing meat. Given this and the fact that the supplements doubled the price of the meal, I think many of them weren’t worth the splurge. It was unfortunate that the execution of the fettucine with truffles wasn’t spot on – it had to be in order to be successful.

My main concern with vegetable-centric meals (which I know is shared with others) is the fact that meals tend to be lighter and sometimes less filling. However, I think Menes composed his plates in a way that was individually interesting and for the most part, well-rounded. While one may not leave full, I think most stomachs would at least leave content. If not, Mexicali Taco is nearby and open late.

Lazy Ox Canteen (Los Angeles, CA)

Lazy Ox Canteen
241 S San Pedro St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dining date: 4/1/12

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I’ve been to Lazy Ox Canteen a number of times and have always had a fairly positive experience (except for the time they ran out of fried chicken at 6:30). However, for me it’s been stuck in the “pretty good, not great” category and it’s been a while since I’ve returned even though I live a block away. The restaurant has undergone some dramatic changes in recent months, leading me to this latest visit.

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Opening chef Josef Centeno has now moved on to focus more on his own concept a few blocks away, Baco Mercat. In his place is Perfecto Rocher, a Spanish-born chef who has spent time in a number of renowned kitchens around the world (Gary Danko, Picasso, Manresa, Martin Berasategui, El Bulli). He’s been remodeling the menu and, given his background, I’m expecting it to be drastically different from what Lazy Ox patrons have been accustomed to. As of tonight, just under half of the dishes were Rocher’s creations (and growing), with the rest being legacy Centeno plates. From Rocher’s resume, what really intrigued me was that he’s a third-generation paella maker – I love the dish and always look forward to having it.

Tuesday (3/27) was National Paella Day (yes, this is the first time I’ve heard of it too), and the the restaurant celebrated by preparing a full week’s worth of paella, presenting a different paella each day. Tonight was the final day; Rocher served up a country style paella with rabbit, escargot, chicken, artichoke and lima beans. Of course we’d order that, but we started with a few small plates.

grilled octopus tomato confit, fennel, olives, white balsamic vinaigrette

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The grilled octopus, with a smoky charred flavor, was slightly chewy with a cool, crunchy asparagus and fennel salad and light acidity from the vinaigrette. A slice of tomato added some juicy sweetness as well.

roasted japanese eggplant bonito flakes, yuzu kosho creme fraiche

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I really liked these. The eggplant was roasted down to a creamy consistency, while the bonito provided a lot of the depth of flavor. There was a tart yuzu flavor that was almost too acidic, but I thought these were still delicious bites.

huevo ‘arzak’ french fry purée, chorizo oil

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Given Rocher’s experience, I was very intrigued by this dish inspired by Juan Mari Arzak and his eponymous 3-star restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. One of Arzak’s signatures is a poached egg resembling a pouch or a flower. This one didn’t have as much of a ‘pouchy’ resemblance as other examples I’ve seen, but it did the trick. A starchy yet creamy potato purée tasted just like French fries (without the texture) and acted as the base for the oozing egg and chorizo oil.  Simple but rich and satisfying.

crispy rabbit livers hearts of palm, anchovy vinaigrette

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The breading was pretty crispy, but I found the liver to be overly dry. The salad of hearts of palm and celery did a nice job of countering the richness of the organ.

country style paella rabbit, escargot, chicken, artichoke, lima beans

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Finally we had the paella. We were told the paella filling was kept pretty shallow in order to maximize the amount of crispy rice on the bottom. Indeed, the charred bits added texture and flavor to the al dente rice which I really enjoyed. I found the chicken legs to be dry though, but the rabbit and escargot were more moist in what amounted to a pretty meaty dish. Shiitake mushrooms, artichokes and lima beans rounded out the fillings. The saffron flavor here was more subtle than other paellas I’ve had, but I didn’t really mind.

rice pudding caramel, pine nut crumb

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This might be one of my favorite desserts in the city, and I’m glad it’s still on the menu (for now?). The rice pudding itself was pretty good, with a subtle vanilla flavor and just a little bit of texture in the rice. With the added richness from the whipped cream and sweet depth of flavor from the caramel, I savored each bite.

Lazy Ox Canteen appears headed in a very different direction under Rocher with a lot of interesting Mediterranean (particularly Spanish) based dishes. Overall though I like it – the downtown area doesn’t have anything with such a strong base of Spanish influences, one of the most exciting food regions in the world right now. I found the flavors to be clean and bright and execution to be mostly strong, so I’m curious to see what the restaurant will be like once the transformation is complete.