Ray’s (Los Angeles, CA)

Ray’s
LACMA

5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Dining date: 7/13/12

ray's exterior

Ray’s (and connected Stark Bar) has been a place I’ve wanted to try for some time now. Opened a little over a year ago, it’s somewhat quietly gained some strong accolades including being named a Best New Restaurant in 2011 by Esquire. It’s uniquely located on the LACMA campus in mid-city; on a Friday evening the place was bustling. There were a lot of people walking around (something was going on…still not sure what it was), making for an interesting place to dine and people-watch.

LACMALACMA

Given the restaurant is attached to a museum, the restaurant has some artsy touches of its own. One of these was the dining room table, which included drawers that opened up with silverware. How fun! I’m just glad the server pointed it out before we inquired about missing silverware.

silverware

The chef at Ray’s is Kris Morningstar, someone who’s been bouncing around LA for some time now (Blue Velvet, Casa, District). The concept is farm-to-table featuring a wood-burning oven and grill. The menu is pretty condensed with a number of appetizers, a few entrees, two pizzas and a few sides. We ended up ordering a bunch of items to share.

Warm, crusty bread was the first thing out of the kitchen. The first batch was excellent but the second one suffered from uneven reheating.

bread

sorrel soup, lemon creme fraiche, marcona almonds

amuse

The kitchen sent out this amuse – a sorrel soup. The flavors were mainly grassy and tart, and the amuse as a whole was kind of refreshing.

calf’s brain haricot vert, hazelnut brown butter, preserved lemon

calf's brain haricot vert, hazelnut brown butter, preserved lemon

The calf’s brain was seared nicely leaving a silky soft interior. Some hazelnuts and waxy green beans rounded out the dish nicely.

corn agnolotti stuffed pasta, hazelnuts, lime brown butter, wild arugula, hen of the woods mushrooms

corn agnolotti stuffed pasta, hazelnuts, lime brown butter, wild arugula, hen of the woods mushrooms

Good chewy agnolotti pasta was filled with a sweet corn filling. The pasta was covered in a rich butter sauce; arugula did a good job of balancing it out with a fresh, peppery bite.

bottarga squid ink bucatini, calabrian chile, mint, cherry tomatoes

bottarga squid ink bucatini, calabrian chile, mint, cherry tomatoes

I thought the pasta was kind of soft (overcooked?), but I enjoyed the flavors. The squid ink and bottarga provided the sea flavors while fresh mint really brightened things up.

calabrian pizza fiery salami, parmesan, garlic, mozzarella

calabrian pizza fiery salami, parmesan, garlic, mozzarella

I thought this pizza was pretty well done. A thin, charred crust held up a zesty tomato sauce and some pretty good salami.

farro broccoli di cicco, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, chili sauce, slow cooked egg

farro broccoli di cicco, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, chili sauce, slow cooked egg

Loved the textures in this dish between the chewy farro and oozing egg yolk. Juicy cherry tomatoes packed a punch, while some chiles brought a lingering heat. There were a lot of components to this dish and I thought they all came together very well.

branzino potato gnocchi, piquillo peppers, sugar snap peas, olives

branzino potato gnocchi, piquillo peppers, sugar snap peas, olives

The branzino had a crispy skin but the meat may have been slightly overcooked. The small gnocchi were nice touch, while the snap peas provided some texture and sweetness.

chicken roulade anson mills grits, collard greens, roasted turnips, sea island red peas, crispy shallots

chicken roulade anson mills grits, collard greens, roasted turnips, sea island red peas, crispy shallots

This simple chicken dish may have been the highlight of the night with its succulent and tender meat. It was pretty juicy and packed with herb accents, and the creamy grits were a good earthy accompaniment.  Very nice.

hanger steak grilled scallions, charred onion puree, sungold tomatoes, smokey blue cheese, crispy bread, smoked marrow

hanger steak grilled scallions, charred onion puree, sungold tomatoes, smokey blue cheese, crispy bread, smoked marrow

This hanger steak was cooked well and really exuded a smoky aroma. Juicy tomatoes made a repeat appearance, adding some sweet and brighter flavors. I’m not sure I caught the marrow flavor, though.

We also ordered a couple of side dishes to go along with the entrees,

macaroni gratin, comte gruyere, buttered bread crumbs

macaroni gratin, comte gruyere, buttered bread crumbs

The pasta was a little bit soft, but overall this was a good enough dish. The bread crumbs were an integral part of the plate for me.

frites josh’s ranch

frites josh's ranch

This side didn’t fare quite as well, with many of the fries being rather oily and soggy. Ick.

bto

BTOs

Lastly the kitchen sent out some sweets, dubbed BTOs (Better than Oreos). I’m not sure I fully agreed with the title; they were different with a soft, crumbly cookie and richer cream filling.

The food at Ray’s was overall pretty good, particularly for something considered a ‘museum restaurant.’  The dishes seemed fairly simple in concept, allowing them to shine (or falter) pretty clearly. Given the most expensive thing we ordered was $25, I thought the prices were pretty reasonable; I’d come back if I were visiting the museum.

LACMA lamps

M.B. Post (Manhattan Beach, CA) (2)

Can You Dig It?
Manhattan Beach Post (M.B. Post)

1142 Manhattan Ave
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
Dining date: 7/16/11

M.B. Post chef David LeFevre turned 40 earlier this month. To celebrate, he organized a dinner at his restaurant this past Monday featuring a rather strong cast of chefs from around LA. Animal, Mozza, Sotto, and Rustic Canyon/Milo&Olive/Huckleberry are some of the more popular restaurants in the city, and they’d all be represented in this meal. Each chef (or chef team) teamed up for a course to bring together this 5-courser. Proceeds went to benefit Common Threads.

can you dig it menu

While our party originally had a reservation to Angelini Osteria’s iteration of the 5×5 Collaborative Dinner (featuring guest chef Michael Tusk of Quince/Cotogna), we opted to make the trip to Manhattan Beach. It was my third trip to the restaurant (I’ve been once for dinner and once for brunch and enjoyed both).

bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits, maple butter

bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits, maple butter

It wouldn’t be a celebration without M.B. Post’s ever-popular bacon cheddar biscuits. Given it was the first time at M.B. Post for the rest of our party, I was slightly worried I’d talked them up too much. No worries here. Everyone loved the warm smoky, cheesy biscuits as much as I did. And the maple butter is ridiculous. Can’t go wrong with these guys.

gem lettuce, pickled beets, bread crumbs, green garlic crème fraiche – Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo (Animal, Son of a Gun)

gem lettuce, pickled beets, bread crumbs, green garlic crème fraiche

This dish was a little bit of a departure from some of the heavier dishes the Animal guys seem to be known for. Crisp lettuce and sweet beets were complemented by some crispy breadcrumbs and fennel fronds; I found the clumps of creme fraiche to be too unevenly distributed though.

hamachi grilled over white oak with tomatoes and bitter greens pesto – David LeFevre (M.B. Post)

hamachi grilled over white oak with tomatoes and bitter greens pesto

The hamachi was cooked beautifully; it was a bit of a denser fish yet still pretty juicy. Grapes, tomatoes and bell peppers provided a sweet flavor dynamic to counteract the bitter greens pesto. Waxy green beans topped it all off. This might’ve been my favorite dish of the night.

orecchiette with sausage & swiss chard – Matt Molina (Mozza)

orecchiette with sausage & swiss chard

I had high hopes for this one given that I enjoy Osteria Mozza’s pastas. The housemade orecchiette was quite chewy, smothered in a hearty sausage ragu. The salt and spice were slightly heavy-handed, though I liked the breadcrumbs.

beef short rib alla vaccinara, bitter chocolate agrodolce, semolina gnocco – Steve Samson & Zach Pollack (Sotto)

beef short rib alla vaccinara, bitter chocolate agrodolce, semolina gnocco

This dish was originally to feature veal cheek, then beef cheek and finally a late-game change brought short ribs to the plate. I would’ve loved to have had the cheek, but found this short rib to be very well done. It tore apart easily, and was so tender and flavorful, pairing with the rich sauce (though I didn’t get so much of the sweet-sour flavor combination). The gnocco was a fun addition too, being a sort of crushed, creamy version of gnocchi. A little bit of what I thought was shaved celery was a nice touch too, adding a fresh crispness.

fresh corn cake with sweet rose creamery corn ice cream and strawberry rhubarb compote – Zoe Nathan (Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, Sweet Rose Creamery, Milo & Olive)

fresh corn cake with sweet rose creamery corn ice cream and strawberry rhubarb compote

I had heard about this dish (or something similar) at Rustic Canyon and was eager to try it here. The cake was moist, light and sweet from the corn. Nice. The strawberry rhubarb compote was really good too, as was the corn ice cream. This may have been the best dish of the night too..

assorted cookies and pastries served with spiked milk

assorted cookies and pastries

spiked milk

A serious bounty of sweets came last, presumably from Huckleberry. If that wasn’t enough, it was paired with a glass of spiced, spiked milk. I was pretty impressed with these sample-size treats which included lemon bars, macaroons, homemade twix, chocolate cupcakes, sugar cookies, and whole wheat chocolate chip cookies.

I thought this meal was good, though it had its up and downs. I always like dinners like these where notable chefs come together for one meal. My favorites were the biscuits, hamachi, short rib and corn cake. I will be back to M.B. Post; I’ve been craving a proper dinner visit.

Melisse (Los Angeles, CA)

Melisse
“Foie for All”

1104 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Dining date: 6/30/12

melisse exterior

June 30 was the last day to legally serve foie gras in California (although some loopholes do exist). Melisse has been at the forefront against the ban and, combined with the fact that it’s one of the best restaurants in the city, I thought it would be the ideal spot to do a ‘last meal’ of sorts. For a number of months now, Melisse has been offering a “Foie for All” tasting menu featuring the ingredient in about 8 courses. Knowing that others would likely follow suit (and indeed, it did appear to be a full house), I made this reservation in the beginning of April and eagerly awaited this dinner.

We ordered a few drinks to start (pictured from left to right, top to bottom). We previewed the new cocktail menu (consulted on by Pablo Moix) at the 5×5 Collaborative Dinner in April, so it was interesting to see the final list here.

Pimm’s Rickey pimm’s, fresh pressed lime, topped with soda
Cameron Coup jameson irish whiskey, famous grouse scotch whiskey, orgeat almond syrup, lemon juice
Citrine el tesoro plata, aperol, grapefruit and lime juice

cocktails

citrine

My favorite of these was probably the Citrine with its grapefruit/lime flavors balancing out the aperol nicely. The Pimm’s Rickey tasted slightly watered down.

Grape, Pistachio, Goat Cheese

amuse

We began with Melisse’s signature amuse. The juicy sliced grape, covered in a thin layer of goat cheese and pistachio, was a well-balanced bite – sweet, savory, nutty. The spherification of grape juice provided the same flavors, albeit in a very different vehicle.

Bacon bread, olive bread, ciabatta, brioche and french breads were on offer this night. My first serving was of the latter two.

breads

bread butter

Foie Gras Cromesquis

Foie Gras Cromesquis

Next up was another small bite, our first of foie gras. It was a crispy croquette filled with a warm foie gras liquid. Warm and comforting, it was very similar to the one I had at the LudoBites foie gras dinner.

Foie Gras Royale Blackberry Gelee, Foie Gras, Caramelized Buttermilk Mousse

Foie Gras Royale Blackberry Gelee, Caramelized Buttermilk Mousse

Next we had a layered treat with blackberry, foie gras and buttermilk. We were instructed to get a little bit of each layer in every bite and were awarded with sweet notes from the blackberry complementing the foie gras mousse. Subtle but present flavors.

Terrine of Foie Gras Seasonal Flavors and Toasted Whey Bread

Terrine of Foie Gras Seasonal Flavors and Toasted Whey Bread

I really enjoyed this terrine with its creamy foie gras and a layer of sweet cherry. While the flavors were ones I’ve had before, they really seemed to shine on this plate. I liked being able to add my own salt & pepper to taste, as well as the nuts for texture. These were all spread onto the toasted bread to make some tasty bites.

Truffled Foie Gras Agnolotti Crisp Chicken Oyster, Summer Vegetables, Toasted Pistachio Consomme

Truffled Foie Gras Agnolotti Crisp Chicken Oyster, Summer Vegetables, Toasted Pistachio Consomme

The pasta was very nice with a slight chew and creamy foie gras center. The broth had a subtle nuttiness, and the grilled summer vegetables were a nice accompaniment. Even with the foie gras, this plate managed to feel rather light and really showcased the season. Beautiful colors too.

True Day Boat Scallop “Rossini”

True Day Boat Scallop “Rossini”

True Day Boat Scallop “Rossini”

Scallops, foie gras, and black truffles sounded like a dream team on a plate. While the combination of components was good, I don’t think they all came together in the ideal way. The scallop was on the smaller side and was slightly overcooked, while the one sliver of shaved truffle got lost in the mix. Still, the foie gras was seared perfectly and I liked the charred cipollini onions; the truffle and leek puree was a nice accompaniment too.

Foie Gras and Dover Sole Sweet Corn Pudding, Porcini Mushrooms, Brown Butter

Foie Gras and Dover Sole Sweet Corn Pudding, Porcini Mushrooms, Brown Butter

This was an excellent dish with a sweet corn pudding being topped with a light sole and poached foie gras in a brown butter sauce. The flavors were well-balanced and really worked well, but I found the textural interplay to be strong too between the silky foie gras, meaty fish and creamy corn pudding.

Liberty Duck Breast Cured and Whipped Foie Gras, Leeks, Peaches, Hawaiian Heart of Palm, Toasted Macadamia

Liberty Duck Breast Cured and Whipped Foie Gras, Leeks, Peaches, Hawaiian Heart of Palm, Toasted Macadamia

potato mousseline

Our last savory dish of the evening was a duo of duck, if you will. The duck breast was cooked a nice medium-rare, juicy and tender. Small bites of duck confit, hearts of palm and the creamy mashed potatoes were all excellent. The difference-maker was the foie gras though. It was whipped and frozen in a long tube form, and grated like truffles onto the plate. Pretty cool. The liver slowly melted when in contact with the heat of the duck and sauce, permeating the dish with its flavor. Again, I enjoyed the side of salt and pepper to play with the seasoning.

“Strawberry Shortcake” Foie Gras Ice Cream

"Strawberry Shortcake" Foie Gras Ice Cream

Our last proper course was a play on strawberry shortcake. Two layers of thin cake sandwiched a foie gras cream and fresh sweet strawberries. The foie gras was present but not at all overpowering, blending seamlessly into the dish. The foie gras ice cream was very subtle in flavor; balsamic vinegar gelee provided sharp acidity.

Canelés and Chocolate Chip Cookies

canele chocolate chip cookies

Tropical Tea Macarons and Foie Gras Macarons

foie and tea macarons

Lastly, we were presented with some sweets to close out the meal. My favorite was the tropical tea macaron, exuding a flavor similar to a passion fruit iced tea with a perfect chewy texture. The foie gras macarons were a nice touch too, indeed bringing the foie flavor one more time.

Overall I found this to be another good meal at Melisse. While we had 9 different tastes of the ingredient, at no point did I feel tired of foie gras, a compliment to the varied preparations. The liver was incorporated in a way that it didn’t dominate any single dish; rather, it was worked into each plate in tandem with the other principal ingredients. Flavors were, for the most part, bold and well-balanced and the execution was also strong (though not perfect).

I suspect foie gras won’t be too difficult to obtain in California even though the ban is now in place, but I still found this to be a very fitting send-off!

Other recent foie gras dinners:
LudoBites: Best of Foie Gras
C.H.E.F.S. Dinner @ The Royce

L&E Oyster Bar (Los Angeles, CA)

L&E Oyster Bar
1637 Silver Lake Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Dining date: 5/29/12

l&e oyster bar exterior

Recently, my friend Diana was craving a lobster roll. Rather then splurge on the $32 version at Water Grill, we wanted something a little more casual and reasonably priced in the area. L&E Oyster Bar came up and, while they don’t offer a lobster roll, the menu intrigued us enough that we decided to go.

Yelp warned of long waits at the no-reservations spot in Silver Lake, and indeed it was pretty busy on a Tuesday evening. Our party of three got one of the last tables available, squeezing into a table for 2.

l&e seating

True to its name, L&E Oyster Bar offers up a host of oyster options – there were 9 varieties of fresh oysters available the night we went. In terms of preparation, these oysters were served raw, grilled or fried with steamed and smoked options for other seafood. About 4 larger plates were available too.

hush puppies

hush puppies

A complimentary ‘amuse’ came out of the kitchen – these fresh, hot hush puppies. There were two layers of sweetness between the cornbread and honey with a nice crispy exterior. A pretty good starter.

the daily dozen sun hollow, phantom creek, beausoleil

the daily dozen sun hollow, phantom creek, beausoleil

Of course, we had to try some of the fresh oysters. The daily dozen offered 4 pieces of 3 of the oyster options – ideal for sharing amongst the three of us. I enjoyed all 3 varieties, though had a hard time picking out the subtleties between them.

oysters casino butter, paprika, thyme, shallots, neuske’s bacon

oysters casino butter, paprika, thyme, shallots, neuske's bacon

We also tried some grilled oysters on the shell; here, a classic oysters casino. I found the oyster to be cooked well, but there was a very strong grassy flavor that I found overpowering. I think it was parsley.

grilled oysters of the day chipotle, pickled onion, Mexican cheese

grilled oysters of the day chipotle, pickled onion, Mexican cheese

We also tried one of the grilled specials of the day. I found this one to be much better balanced, flavor-wise with a bold chipotle BBQ-like sauce and some spicy notes coming through.

fried oysters with sauce gribiche

fried oysters with sauce gribiche

More cooked oysters – this time fried. Simple and rather satisfying, the batter was light and crispy with plump tasty oysters on the inside.

clam chowder farm-raised clams, neuske’s bacon, weiser farms pee wee potatoes

clam chowder farm-raised clams, neuske's bacon, weiser farms pee wee potatoes

I thought this was a very strong bowl of clam chowder. It was rich and creamy with soft potatoes and a bunch of tasty clams; the smokiness of the bacon was present but not overpowering.

lobster spaetzle & cheese maine lobster, house-made spatzle, english peas, bread crumbs

lobster spatzle & cheese maine lobster, house-made spatzle, english peas, bread crumbs

We also tried this rendition of a lobster macaroni & cheese. I had high hopes for it but thought it fell a bit short. I thought the lobster could’ve been better incorporated since I got the flavor from the piece sitting on top, but not in the interior of the dish. The spaetzle and cheese sauce itself were pretty good, though.

blackened local sea bass sweet corn succotash, blistered shishito peppers

blackened local sea bass sweet corn succotash, blistered shishito peppers

This may have been the most disappointing dish of the night since the sea bass was flat out dry. The sweet corn succotash was a nice counter to the spices of the blackening seasoning, but it wasn’t enough to recover from the piece of overcooked fish. Boo.

fries with aioli

fries with aioli

Lastly we had a side of fries, which was probably the most filling thing we had all evening. These were quite good – crunchy with a complementary herb flavor. Perfect for dipping into the chowda’.

L&E Oyster Bar had its ups and downs but overall was somewhat of a disappointment. The quality of their oysters were definitely a strong point as expected, but the larger plates fell flat (lobster spaetzle and sea bass). Given the consistent crowds, I wonder if I was just there on an off-night or if I’m just missing something; regardless, I’m not in a hurry to return.

Drago Centro (Los Angeles, CA) (2)

Drago Centro
525 South Flower Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Dining date: 5/15/12

drago centro sign

Drago Centro is a place I’ve visited many times. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s across the street from where I work. Most of my recent visits have been for happy hour; the restaurant has one of my favorites in the area. It’s deceptively reasonably-priced and offers a strong list of discounted bar bites, wines and cocktails. Still, I often find myself ordering one of the a la carte pastas which I consider some of the strongest in the city.

I would get a chance to sample many of the pastas in this latest visit, revisiting some old favorites and enjoying some new ones. Cathy of gastronomyblog was invited to dine at the restaurant (her first time) and I eagerly came along.

drago centro bread

I enjoy the bread service, particularly with the bold and fruity olive oil that’s served alongside. We ordered a couple of small plates and focused in on a bunch of pastas.

la zuppa roasted yellow corn soup, soppressata corn ragout

la zuppa roasted yellow corn soup, sopressata corn ragout

la zuppa roasted yellow corn soup, sopressata corn ragout

I really like when corn is in season and this soup was a clear reminder why. The soup was naturally very sweet with bright corn flavor. Rich but not heavy at all. The soppressata provided a bit of meaty flavor for an extra dimension.

le cozze steamed mussels, garlic, chile flakes, toasted crostini

le cozze steamed mussels, garlic, chile flakes, toasted crostini

A heaping bowl of mussels came next. A simple dish with a white wine base, these were tasty but I feel like I’ve had these flavor profiles many times before with mussels.

After a couple of appetizers we moved on to the main feature: pasta.

le fettuccine fettucine, jumbo lump crab, zucchini flowers, spicy tomato

le fettuccine fettucine, jumbo lump crab, zucchini flowers, spicy tomato

As expected, the pasta came out perfectly al dente with a light tomato sauce. Sweet chunks of crab were the highlight for me, pairing well texturally and flavor-wise with the fettuccine and tomatoes.

i tagliolini neri squid ink tagliolini, mussels, clams, shrimp, lemon verbena

i tagliolini neri squid ink tagliolini, mussels, clams, shrimp, lemon verbena

Next up was a squid ink pasta with a myriad of well-cooked seafood. I thought the lemon verbena added a bit of lemon scent that complemented both the seafood and squid ink well.

gli agnolotti zucchini agnolotti, ricotta cheese, brown butter

gli agnolotti zucchini agnolotti, ricotta cheese, brown butter

A simple dish but executed well, the agnolotti had a nice chew and a creamy filling. Small chunks of zucchini and a nutty brown butter sauce completed the dish.

le pappardelle al fagiano pappardelle, roasted pheasant, morel mushrooms

le pappardelle al fagiano pappardelle, roasted pheasant, morel mushrooms

A signature dish here, I fell in love with it the first time I had it a couple years ago. Ribbons of wide-cut pappardelle were smothered in a rich ragu with tender pheasant and morel mushrooms. Savory, hearty and delicious.

i garganelli garganelli, pork sausage, parmesan, fennel seeds

i garganelli garganelli, pork sausage, parmesan, fennel seeds

This is another one of my go-to pastas. I really liked the texture of this type of pasta, having a really nice bite to it. Tasty sausage and fennel seeds were a strong tandem, while the parmesan added some creaminess to the buttery sauce.

il risotto ai funghi risotto, wild mushrooms, parmesan cheese

il risotto ai funghi risotto, wild mushrooms, parmesan cheese

As our march of pastas ended, we transitioned to a rich mushroom risotto. I think there was a lot of parmesan cheese since the dish was definitely rather thick and creamy; the risotto was a good one but not as exciting as our previous dishes.

coda in umido e polenta braised oxtail, polenta, carrots, celery, onions, gorgonzola crème

coda in umido e polenta braised oxtail, polenta, carrots, celery, onions, gorgonzola crème

We were getting pretty full by this point, and this may have been the richest dish of the evening. A few pieces of tender braised oxtail were placed on top of a rather thick polenta; I thought this dish was pretty much as advertised. Crispy onion rings were a fun way to add some texture.

When the dessert menu came, we were indecisive over two options..and the kitchen ended up giving us a little bit of both.

i bomboloni doughnuts
la terrina chocolate and olive oil terrine

i bomboloni doughnuts, prosecco, peaches

la terrina chocolate and olive oil terrine, salted caramel gelato, almonds

The doughnut was served warm with a light and airy center, dusted in sugar. I enjoyed the light whipped cream along with it. The dessert terrine was more complicated with layers of chocolate and olive oil. I thought the olive oil flavor was very subtle compared to the chocolate, though I liked tasting the individual layers of smooth mousse. A nutty chocolate base (similar to a kit-kat) provided the texture.

Food-wise, this was another excellent meat at Drago Centro. Over the course of my visits, the service is what has been notably poor and that isn’t something that has gotten better. Still, the caliber of the food is some of the best downtown and the pastas hold their own compared to anywhere else in the city. For an expense-account option downtown (or just to splurge on some Italian grub) this place would have to be near the top of the list.

Note: This was a hosted meal.

Mo-Chica (Los Angeles, CA)

Mo-Chica
514 W. 7th Street
Los Angeles, 90014
Dining date: 5/27/12

mo-chica exterior

Mo-Chica was chef Ricardo Zarate’s first restaurant in 2009, located in the Mercado la Paloma near USC. A lot has changed since then with Zarate being named a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2011 and having one of the bigger restaurant openings last year with Picca. With all of his success, Zarate’s been able to relocate his first restaurant to a much larger location and kitchen (and thus, menu). The new digs are in the heart of downtown at 7th & Grand, steps from the ever-popular Bottega Louie. The grand opening is on the 30th, however I dropped in on one of the soft-opening nights this past weekend.

Since I live and work in downtown, I’ve been eagerly anticipating this opening. Like the former Mo-Chica and Picca, Zarate brings food from his Peruvian homeland, something that still seems to be unique in the already-diverse LA food scene. Also similar to the sister restaurants, an open kitchen offers a view of much of the cooking and preparation – always fun to see.

kitchen

Brian Summers and Deysi Alvarez are in charge of the cocktails here (not usual suspect Julian Cox), and we tried a few (from left to right).

mo-chica bar

OAXACALIFORNIA LOVE mezcal, tequila, lime juice, pineapple rocoto gomme
PAPA DON’T PEACH banks rum, fresh peaches infused with calvados, peach bitters, simple syrup, lemon juice
THA DOGGFATHER aka PISCO SOUR pisco porton, egg white, lime juice, lemon juice, cane syrup sugar, angostura bitters
TEA-NAGE DREAM oro quebranta pisco, pitta & brendan’s tea

mo-chica cocktails

Smoky mezcal cocktails seem to be all the rage right now and I’m still on that bandwagon. The Oaxacalifornia Love was my favorite of the four with its lingering smokiness countered by sweet pineapple and lime flavors.

arroz con mariscos peruvian seafood paella, salsa criolla

arroz con mariscos peruvian seafood paella, salsa criolla

This is a similar dish to what I’ve had at Picca and the previous Mo-Chica, and found this version to be a strong one. Squid, shrimp and mussels were all cooked well, as was the rice with just a little bit of texture. A creamy sauce brought it all together. The crisp red onions were a theme throughout the evening, adding a bright freshness to the dish.

estofado de alpaca alpaca stew estofado, tagliatelle, aji amarillo sauce, fried organic fertile egg

estofado de alpaca alpaca stew estofado, tagliatelle, aji amarillo sauce, fried organic fertile egg

I think this was my first time having alpaca; it reminded me of lamb but much less gamey. This dish presented a tender chunk of the meat to go along with fresh tagliatelle and a buttery aji amarillo sauce. A fried egg added some extra richness to the dish.

seco de cordero lamb shank, canario beans, cilantro beer sauce

seco de cordero lamb shank, canario beans, cilantro beer sauce

We found this to be a generous portion – a sizable lamb shank was slowly braised, leaving tender and gamey meat. The red onions and tomatoes on top did a good job of adding some freshness to cut through the rich meat while the beans and peas were a nice way to sop up much of the residual braising liquid.

choritos a la chalaca grilled chopped mussels, prawns, squid, tomato choclo salsa

choritos a la chalaca grilled chopped mussels, prawns, squid, tomato choclo salsa

When ordering this dish, we had Picca’s steamed mussels with pancetta and aji amarillo in mind. This was a much different plate where chopped mussels, prawns and squid were placed back into a mussel shell with a citrusy sauce. I found this to be a cool and refreshing dish, though I was still longing for Picca’s mussels.

colita de rez oxtail, trigo de mote, huancaina salsa criolla

colita de rez oxtail, trigo de mote, huancaina salsa criolla

The portion of this oxtail seemed small compared to the lamb shank. However, the meat was deliciously tender and rich, and I really enjoyed the barley risotto which reminded me of one of my favorite dishes at the old Mo-Chica. Some corn nut-like popped corn added texture.

carapulcra peruvian sun dried potato stew, crispy pork belly, chimichurri

carapulcra peruvian sun dried potato stew, crispy pork belly, chimichurri

A hearty potato stew was topped with chunks of pork belly. I liked that the pork wasn’t overly fatty, it still seemed somewhat lean yet tender and flavorful. I wished the skin was crispier though as it seemed a little limp. A chimichurri provided a bright accompaniment to the pork.

tiradito de jurel spanish mackerel tiradito, ginger amarillo sauce, garlic chips, sesame oil

tiradito de jurel spanish mackerel tiradito, ginger amarillo sauce, garlic chips, sesame oil

Tender slices of Spanish mackerel were complemented by citrus and ginger flavors, as well as crispy garlic chips. The addition of sesame oil added some earthy depth; a lot of components here, but I thought they were pretty well-balanced.

paiche amazonian fish from peru, ajiaco de arroz, cherry tomato escabeche

paiche amazonian fish from peru, ajiaco de arroz, cherry tomato escabeche

This might have been my favorite plate of the evening. The white fish was moist and went well with the juicy cherry tomatoes; a spicy risotto-like rice base completed the dish.

As expected, our dinner at Mo-Chica was a strong one full of delicious and hearty Peruvian fare; this move adds another good restaurant to the ever-expanding downtown scene. The food, atmosphere and pricing all closely resemble Picca more than the old Mo-Chica, with a number of the old favorites to remind us of the restaurant’s roots. While I’ll miss the seemingly bargain-basement prices of the old restaurant, I’m sure I’ll find myself here more often due to the location and the more complete food and alcohol offerings. It’s open for lunch too, so I’ll have to add this to the lunch rotation.