Bestia (Los Angeles, CA)

Bestia
2121 7th Pl.
Los Angeles, CA 90021
Dining date: 3/28/13, 4/27/13, 6/7/13

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Bestia opened in downtown LA late last year, and continues to be one of the most popular restaurants in the neighborhood. Ori Menashe is the chef here (formerly of Angelini Osteria) cooking up Italian food based around a house salumi program, a wood-burning oven, and housemade pastas. Wife Genevieve Gergis heads the pastry program, completing the husband-and-wife team.

The menu is on the larger side, featuring about twenty small plate antipasti, about six pizza options and just a handful of larger entrees. My favorite part of the menu may be the pasta section, with a constantly-changing lineup of around eight at a time. There’s a lot of great-sounding stuff too; I’m always indecisive here.

This post spans three separate meals at Bestia, which I can confidently say is my favorite restaurant in downtown (and one of my favorite in the city) at the moment.

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Maccheroni Republic (Los Angeles, CA)

Maccheroni Republic
332 S Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Dining date: 2/2/13 and 3/16/13

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Maccheroni Republic opened at the end of last year, from the old owners of Locanda Veneta in mid-city. The location couldn’t be more different, from the Beverly Hills-adjacent Locanda Veneta to this spot across the street from Grand Central Market in downtown. It’s not exactly the kind of area where you feel comfortable walking around alone at night.

The restaurant has a real neighborhood feel to it, charming with a large patio outside of the main dining room.

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The menu seems to be sort of Italian comfort food, with a number of familiar appetizers (minestrone, arancini, bruschetta) and larger plates centered around housemade pastas. Most everything is pretty simple, relying on ingredients and execution of the classic Italian fare. The food tends to be pretty hearty (and carb-heavy) and portions are on the generous side, so even one pasta dish would fill most people up. With everything on the menu hovering around $10 (the most expensive is $14) it’s definitely reasonably priced for downtown LA standards.

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Duck Ragu

Dining date: 7/1/12

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Any casual reader of this blog may realize pasta is one of my favorite things to eat (all kinds of noodles, really). I’ve dabbled in preparing different pastas over the years with my most successful perhaps being the oxtail ragu with pappardelle. Following up on that effort, I’ve been meaning to make a duck ragu. Searching the web for recipes yielded a few variations on a Mario Batali recipe and I decided to go with one of them. The variations in the recipes were strictly whether or not to include porcini mushrooms, grate any cheese, or add sage; the base of each ragu was essentially the same.

The recipe I used is below:

Ingredients
4 duck legs and thighs, skin removed
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 medium Spanish onion, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 stalk celery, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
8 ounces red wine (Chianti preferred)
1 pound canned tomatoes, peeled whole
1 cup chicken stock
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

Directions
Wash duck legs and remove all fat. Pat dry.

In a thick bottomed casserole or Dutch oven, heat olive oil until smoking. Add duck legs and cook until brown on all sides and remove, about 10 to 12 minutes. Add onion, carrot, garlic and celery and cook until softened, about 7 to 9 minutes. Add wine, tomatoes, chicken stock and dried mushrooms and bring to a boil. Add duck legs and return to boil, lower heat, cover and allow to simmer for 1 hour. Remove duck legs and allow to cool. Pull all meat off the bones and return to pot, without the bones. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, or until quite thick. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat duck ragu in a saute pan until quite hot. Boil pasta until cooked and drain well. Put hot pasta into pan with duck ragu and toss well. Pour into serving bowl and serve immediately.

I followed the recipe closely, starting with the preparation of the duck. Skinning and removing the excess fat was the most painstaking part of the process (it didn’t help that I used 6 duck legs instead of 4 since I like my ragu a little bit meatier). The fat started to melt a little with the heat of my hand and everything quickly became quite slippery. Once ready, the legs were seared.

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The following steps were similar to any braise: sweat aromatics, deglaze with wine and stock, and return meat to pot.

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After an hour, the duck was removed and meat pulled off the bones. The meat was returned to the pot to simmer for another hour or so. I simmered it longer than the recipe stated to get the saucy consistency I was looking for (it continued to reduce on the stovetop), as well as to continue braising the meat to get it more tender.

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Once ready, the sauce and meat were put into a sauté pan to toss with pasta (I used fresh fettuccine and dried pappardelle). Once plated, I grated some Parmesan cheese to finish.

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I was pretty happy with the ragu. I liked the oxtail one more (personal preference) but felt this one seemed healthier (less unhealthy?) since there was significantly less fat in the resulting sauce. Next time I’d consider using an immersion blender before adding the shredded meat in order to make the sauce a little more uniform in consistency. Now, if only I could consistently make good fresh pasta..

Fresh Rigatoni with Ragu Bolognese

Dining date: 2/5/12

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I recently purchased a KitchenAid stand mixer (due to a deal I could not refuse) and immediately had dreams of freshly baked breads, cookies and pastries. However, while researching optional attachments, I came across the pasta extruder, a play-doh like attachment that basically pushes dough into various shapes to be cut. I had to have one.

I’ve made fresh pasta once before a couple of years ago with a manual pasta roller…it’s been sitting in the cabinet ever since. I found it to be pretty difficult and time consuming, and my result wasn’t even up to par with dried pasta. However, the extrusion method is much easier. Basically, a dough is made and pushed through various dies to create different shapes, then are cut manually. No need to roll pasta over and over.

Inspired by this post on food, je t’aime I set out to make fresh rigatoni with a ragu bolognese from the Mozza cookbook. The ragu was fairly easy – it took a lot of time (most of it idle), but had a lot of room for error. The pasta, on the other hand, had to have a dough that was just right. One thing’s for sure; every chef and cookbook has their own pasta recipe. I tried a number of them, but so far have found this one to work best for me. Interestingly, it requires no eggs, no kneading and no resting.

Pasta dough (food, je t’aime)

5 oz all purpose flour
5 oz semolina flour
4 fluid ounces warm water

1. Weigh flour and place in bowl of stand mixer.
2. With the paddle attachment, mix on low slowly dribbling in water to produce a wet and crumbly dough.

The dough is cut into walnut-sized pieces and fed into the extruder. It’s pretty fun to do (as long as it turns out well) and makes fresh pasta pretty quickly. The dough is the tricky part; if it’s too sticky/wet, the pasta won’t hold its shape and will get stuck together. If it’s too dry, extrusion becomes noticeably more difficult and the resulting pasta becomes too dense.

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To pair with the rigatoni, I went with Mozza’s ragu bolognese.

Ragu bolognese (The Mozza Cookbook)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8 garlic cloves
2.5 ounces pancetta, roughly chopped or ground
1 cup soffritto
1/2 of a 4.5 ounce tube double-concentrated tomato paste
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup whole milk

1. Combine oil and garlic in bowl of a food processor. Add pancetta and puree until ingredients form a homogenous paste.
2. Cook mixture over medium heat until the fat from the pancetta is rendered, about 5 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent the garlic from browning.
3. Stir in the soffritto and cook for about 1 minute.
4. Move the vegetables to create a bare spot in the pan, add the tomato paste to that spot and cook for 1 minute.
5. Add veal and pork, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook, stirring occasionally, until all of the juices released from the meat have cooked off and the pan is almost dry, about 10 minutes.
6. Add the wine, increase heat to medium high and cook until the wine has evaporated and the pan is almost dry, about 10 minutes.
7. Add the chicken stock, bring it to a simmer, reduce heat and simmer for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the stock has almost all cooked off but the pan is not completely dry.
8. Add the milk and simmer until the ragu returns to a thick, saucy consistency, 30-40 minutes.
9. Use the ragu, or allow it to cool to room temperature and refrigerate in an airtight container.

Finishing the pasta

Kosher salt
3/4 cup chicken stock or pasta water
3 teaspoons unsalted butter
12 ounces pasta
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino romano

1. Combine 1.5 cups of the ragu, the chicken stock and butter in a large saute pan over medium heat.
2. Stir ingredients to combine and heat until the butter is melted and sauce is warmed through, adding more chicken stock if necessary to obtain a loose sauce consistency.
3. Turn off the heat while the pasta is cooking.
4. Cook pasta until 1 minute from being done.
5. Place sauce over high heat. Lift pasta out of cooking water, drain and immediately add to the pan with the sauce.
6. Cook the pasta with the sauce for 2 minutes, stirring gently with a rubber spatula so you don’t tear the pasta. Add pasta water if the pasta is dry and sticky instead of slippery and glistening.
7. Turn off the heat and add the finishing quality olive oil, stirring vigorously and shaking the pan to emulsify the sauce.
8. Add the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino romano and stir to combine.
9. Plate pasta and use a microplane or fine grater to grate a light layer of Parmigiano-Reggiano over plate and serve.

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Expectantly, the ragu was the easy part (technically) though there were a lot of steps. As expected, it exhibited a rather rich (there’s a lot of fat) and luscious sauce, definitely meaty. Simple and delicious. I added a little bit of chopped parsley on top.

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Over the course of a few days, I prepared various batches of pasta and came up with some I thought were pretty good and some that were just bad. While I liked the taste and texture of my “pretty good” pasta, they didn’t hold their shape very well, falling in on themselves.

These held their shape perfectly, but were way too dense.

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My understanding is that the ideal dough for extrusion is different from one that goes through a pasta roller (particularly with the kneading and resting period), though I’m not entirely sure. For some reason, pastas in which I added egg, kneaded, and rested turned out way too sticky. If anyone has a pasta extruder and tips to share, I’d love to hear them!

Drago (Santa Monica, CA)

Drago Ristorante
2628 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Dining date: 11/30/11

Downtown’s Drago Centro serves some of my favorite Italian food in the city.  I’ve been there a number of times, but never to sister restaurant Drago in Santa Monica (one of chef-owner Celestino Drago’s first restaurants). The upscale Italian menu is fairly similar at both locations, but the downtown restaurant is just much more convenient for me. However, I was invited to come dine at Drago; it would be the perfect opportunity to finally venture out to the westside outpost.

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Opened in 1991, Drago has been a notable Italian restaurant in this city since opening. Celestino Drago doesn’t cook much these days, so the kitchen is in the hands of chef di cucina Evan Gotanda. He created a special tasting menu for us to sample our way through the menu.

We found some starches awaiting us at the table when we arrived.

Breadsticks and bread

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Arancini

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We were first served this amuse bouche, crispy rice balls (towers?) stuffed with cheese and ground beef. It was as good as it sounded, with a warm, cheesy filling and a wonderful crispy texture.

Ricotta e pere ricotta, pear, red wine, arugula, hazelnut salt

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I believe the ricotta here was house-made, a creamy and sweet cheese that, with the sweet pears, paired well with the peppery arugula and red wine sauce. Bits of hazelnut provided a welcome crunch.

Agnolotti di zucca butternut squash, ricotta, butter glaze

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I was eagerly awaiting some pasta dishes and this one didn’t disappoint. The squash provided a creamy, sweet filling while the exterior pasta still had a nice chew to it. A rich butter sauce with a subtle truffle essence completed the dish. Delicious and I wanted more!

Risotto alla barbabietola beet risotto, shaved candy beets, puffed risotto

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Next up was this vibrantly-colored risotto. Sometimes I enjoy beets and sometimes I hate them; it was definitely the former this time. It lended a sweet dimension to the risotto, the rice of which was perfectly cooked. The addition of crispy puffed rice added some nice texture too.

Cecaluccoli al fagiano cecaluccoli, roasted pheasant, morel mushrooms

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There was a pasta substitution here from one of Drago’s signature items – pappardelle with pheasant and morels. Instead, we were served a hand rolled cecaluccoli which had a delectable, addicting chew. The rest of the pasta was as good as I remembered from Drago Centro – a deep, rich sauce and chunks of tender pheasant.

Trota salmonata Arctic char, carrot, rapini, oregano, balsamic

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Next was this Arctic char, seared to a superb crispy skin. The flesh was moist, and I liked the addition of the earthy rapini. However, I found the rapini to be surprisingly bitter and the dish overall to be a touch salty.

Costata di manzo New York steak, soft polenta, bacon, brussels sprouts, red wine

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Here we also had the addition of braised short rib, completing a duo of beef. Both were cooked well, and the short rib was expectantly tender. A little bit of smoky bacon flavor came through on the brussels sprouts, while the polenta was light and creamy. Not quite as unique as the other dishes, but it was tasty.

To complete the meal, we had two desserts.

Brioche al mirtillo orange espuma, orange dust, cranberry granola

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This dish had a breakfast feel to it – a warm brioche, orange (espuma), and granola. I thought the idea was fun and found the individual flavors to be pretty spot on. I really liked the texture of the granola too.

Crostata al cioccolato dates, brown sugar gelato, walnuts

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Lastly was this dessert; it was a solid chocolate tart with a creamy date puree. I enjoyed the brown sugar gelato, while some walnuts added a bit of crunch to each bite.

My meal at Drago was as strong as expected. I thought the highlights were in the pasta/risotto area, which were some of the strongest I’ve had in recent memory in LA. Compared to other Italian restaurants I’ve tried in Santa Monica (Valentino, La Botte), I think I preferred Drago particularly for this reason. Thank you to Diana and Cathy for making this happen!

Note: This was a sponsored meal.

Delfina (San Francisco, CA)

Delfina
3621 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dining date: 11/26/11

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It’s hard to believe that Delfina has been open for 13 years. It’s as popular as ever, still being a very busy restaurant and oft-difficult dining reservation. Its popularity as a quintessential neighborhood Italian restaurant has helped Craig and Anne Stoll open up two other concepts, equally as popular: Pizzeria Delfina and Locanda.

I first dined here a long time ago and don’t remember much. I remember it being crowded. I also remember having the spaghetti and thinking it was too al dente. That’s about it (hey, I was pretty young). I’ve been wanting to return, particularly for some hearty pastas and just to check out the local scene. At the last minute, I was scurrying for a reservation on the day after Thanksgiving and a Delfina spot popped up. Bingo!

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Grilled Monterey Bay Calamari warm white bean salad

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We started with this appetizer. The squid was tender and really benefited from some lemon zest and a nice smoky char from the grill. The warm bean salad was a nice touch too, adding some creaminess and body to the dish.

Spaghetti plum tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and peperoncini

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A good spaghetti, the noodles had a delectable chew while the sauce had a bold tomato flavor, slightly on the acidic side. It’s no Scarpetta spaghetti, but it was an excellent pasta.

Pappardelle pork sugo

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Seeing this on the menu, it was a must-order. The pork helped to create a rich sauce that really went well with the pappardelle. I wanted just a little more sauce and some bigger pieces of meat though. The pasta was perfectly cooked, while a little bit of cheese added some extra richness. Tasty.

Paccheri all’ Amalfitana rock cod

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The pasta was chewy and the sauce creamy, but thought the fish was kind of fishy. Also, I thought the fish and sauce could’ve been better incorporated; they just didn’t seem to come together as well as I expected.

Liberty Duck in Guazetto polenta Valsugana, cipollini

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I thought this was a pretty hearty entrée with two duck legs smothered in a rich braising liquid. The meat was tender, though not particularly moist or dry. Really nice depth of flavors. The polenta was fairly dry on the outside making me wonder if it sat under a heat lamp for a little while; however, some of the polenta underneath its shell was light, creamy and delicious.

Black Pepper Buttermilk Panna Cotta barolo and huckleberries

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Soft and delicate, the panna cotta had a great smooth consistency and was a nice ending to the meal. Personally though, I don’t like a lot of tart flavors and the buttermilk definitely came through. As it should. The huckleberries were a nice touch too.

The meal at Delfina was a pretty good one. The food had a warm and comforting feel to it and I could see why it’s still such a draw. The prices were quite reasonable, with the food coming out to under $50 per person. Overall it was pretty delicious and I’d love to try more, particularly the small plates and pastas.