Review #2: Il Grano

Los Angeles,
28 August 2013

If I had a choice where to have my final meal on this planet, it would certainly be at my favourite restaurant in the world, Il Grano. Nowhere in the world do I feel more in tune with the chef’s vision of food, both taste and visual, where I continue to experience amazing dishes at the creation of this maestro, Sal Marino (my review from my previous trip here).

Chef Sal is one of the friendliest, most personable chefs you’ll ever meet. He takes great pains to welcome his guests, making the dining experience truly personal. You are truly under his care as long as you are under his roof.

I immediately relaxed being escorted to my “usual” seat and Sal came by for a quick chat to catch up, and to let me know about tonight’s feast. I had not realised it was gonna be based on tomatoes, that he’s been doing “Pomodorologia” — Tomato Wednesday. This should be fun.

With a fine glass of Sorelle Bronca prosecco, the first of my many dishes arrived, a tasting of gazpachos.

01-gazpacho_trio

Each of the gazpacho were based on a heirloom tomato that Chef Sal had grown himself; in fact, he’s growing 24 different tomatoes in his gardens. The left, from the green zebra, is refreshingly tart. The centre, from the more “typical” sunrise, brought a bit more mellow taste. The right, from the ivory white (or snow white), had a fruity sweetness. This also showed off Chef Sal’s love of colours.

Now that was a fine start. The second dish came soon, and it was a slight twist of the caprese — with burrata, the fantastic black krim tomato, opal basil, and wild Japanese snapper crudo.

02-snapper_caprese

This was fantastic, an exotic twist on the humble caprese. All 4 components competed to be the star of this dish, as each had its unique contribution to the overall taste. Though to be honest it wasn’t easy to get all 4 into your mouth at once!

I was already in 7th heaven when the third dish came out, another plating work of art.

03-scallops

This featured slices of Hokkaido scallops, some more of those excellent green zebra tomatoes, some outrageous Japanese mini cucumbers, and wild fennel. Wow, now this was yet another treat. The sweetness of the raw scallops is perfectly juxtaposed by the tart green zebras. Awesome stuff.

Chef Sal then came out for a few moments to catch up, which was great. It’s always such a great time when I’m here, not just the food and drink, but chatting with Sal and the staff. He hurried back to the kitchen and the next dish arrived.

04_crab_salad_edited

This is a dungeness crab salad with corn and a salsa made from a mix of heritage tomatoes. A generous amount of crab worked well with the sweetness of the corn and the tanginess of the salsa. And of course, the dish (the physical dish) was a creation of Chef Sal as well. Oh, and a spoon of “crab fat” too… Mmmm…

After a little rest, the next dish was one of the most impressive dishes I’ve ever seen. Sal really did an amazing job here…

05-tomatoes_edited

This is a salad with a wide array of heirloom tomato varieties. The use of colours again, is quite stunning. With just a little buffalo mozzarella and garden-fresh arugula, this was a tour de force of tomatoes. You get all different tasting ones, and it makes you want to explore these nature’s gifts so much more. And then you curse your local supermarket…

The next dish, with the dish again created by Chef Sal in tribute to the Ponte Vecchio of Florence, features squid from Monterrey.

06-calamari_edited

Now I love squid, and these were done perfectly. Not too hard, not too stringy, just perfect. The visuals are just stunning. BTW the last few photos (and later ones too) I had to brighten a little because they were a bit dark (I refuse to use flash in a restaurant). Mmm…

After another rest, we switch to pastas. The first to be presented was the casoncelli, or “candy wrapper” pasta, stuffed with burrata.

07-casoncelli_edited

The sauce was made from the classic Italian pomodorino del pendolo (or Piennolo del Vesuvio). The tanginess worked with the burrata very well. But just when I dug into this dish, Chef brought out a little extra treat for me…

08-focaccia_edited

Now this was pretty impressive, using 10 different tomatoes. Tho I have to say this felt more pizza than focaccia! But it was pretty awesome!

I have to apologise as the photo for the next course came out completely jumbled. It was an excellent tortelloni stuffed with eggplant with chopped heirloom mix. It was delicious, you gotta trust me without a picture. And then came the final dish…

10-tagliolini_scorpion_fish_edited

This is the tagliolini with scorpion fish, all in a diavolo sauce from the famous Italian San Marzano tomatoes. Spicy and tangy, the fish added an extra touch to the overall feel of this dish.

I was extremely full by now, and I skipped the dessert. Chef came for a longer chat and it was good, talking the restaurant biz, Naples, and more. He showed me the small garden he has in the alley behind the kitchen, where some of the tomatoes come from.

The only thing that marred this near-perfect dining experience was calamitous…they ran out of grappa! So had to drink a calvados instead…travesty!

I headed out on a cab happy and full…wow, another amazing night of dining at this place. If I lived in LA I’d be here once a week at least. I think I’ve had 60 dishes in this restaurant over the last few years, and not one remotely similar to another. This is the flexibility that Chef Sal has.

And more amazingly, I had a wonderful tasting menu with no meat — just a little seafood. As an unapologetic carnivore, this is the most amazing part, that all this more than intrigued and satisfied me — without meats. This, my readers, is sheer awesomeness. You gotta eat here. You just gotta.

And if you need more examples? Go to the resto’s website, its Flickr and Facebook for more amazing photos of Sal’s creations. Amazing visuals, not to mention the taste. Wow, wow, wow…

Il Grano
11359 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Los Angeles, California

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Review: Hart and the Hunter

Los Angeles
27 August 2013

After a few days of apartment hunting in my old turf, I headed west to Los Angeles for a few days. Originally I was here to help a friend, but that turned out to not be needed…so my schedule freed up unexpectedly. Nevertheless I did not need the 1.5 hours wait for a car at Dollar… So after a trying day, I needed a good meal.

My first evening back in LA I took the recommendation of the excellent LA-area food blogger Tiffany Shinn of Eat Your Heart Out LA fame, and headed to The Hart and The Hunter on Melrose just off of Hollywood.

I drove up to the Pali Hotel, where the restaurant was based…to be honest I wasn’t happy with the valet policy. I was driving to look for a spot myself (looked empty) and the valet gave me a derisory wave…so I went back… Whatever…I handed my keys, not wanting any aggravation…

The restaurant, a former pop-up, wasn’t very busy yet, so I took a cozy corner table and enjoyed the evening. As I was driving, I had to limit my drinking (I really hate this aspect of LA) so stuck to a few glasses of albariño from Los Olivos.

A lot of the dishes looked interesting; most people had been recommending the biscuits starter, but I decided to skip it, and instead, to try some of the dishes that hadn’t been on the menu before…or ones I really wanted to try. So I started with two starters.

chicken_cracklin_1

First was the chicken crackling, three sizeable sheets of deliciousness. It probably ain’t good for my health, but whatever, these were delicious. The last one was perhaps a little salty, and the spicy vinegar a little too bland, but this was bloody good.

crab_claws

The second starter I ordered was the crab claws swimming in butter. Nice and tasty…again, probably not too healthy with the volume of butter. But they worked well with the bread. So far this has been quite enjoyable.

After a bit of a break, I embarked on one of the larger plates, the oysters.

oysters

To be honest this missed a little, as all the stuff on the oyster hid the flavour of the shellfish. It could have been anything inside the breading. Too much being done to spoil the natural taste of the oyster. I’m always moaning about “over-chef’ing” as my readers know… Oh well…

I had a nice chat with my server, who ironically came from the same area as my current flat-hunting, where I used to live. We even joked about our mutual former profession. Glad to see happy ex-lobbyists that found a better calling…

I decided to close the night with another large plate, to temper the 3rd glass of wine (before driving back to my hotel near LAX). I ordered the clams with bacon and mushrooms. My pictures of this dish all came out a mess (I got some butter on the lens!!!) so sorry, no pix. These were good, but once again very, very salty. I read a few reviews about this place that mentioned the salt issue…

I headed out generally happy with the meal. It was solid. Aside from being wee salty at parts, it was good. I can see this do well in LA. However, the evening didn’t really end that smiley. Turns out the $8 valet fee (plus the $2 tip) got me nothing, as the car was parked 5 steps away…and he just gave me the key instead of driving it to me. What a stupid thing…

As much I like the food scene in LA, it’s stuff like this (and having to drive) that makes me see LA as a place I visit only once in awhile instead of somewhere (like Montréal) frequently. Sigh…

Hart and the Hunter
Pali Hotel
7950 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA

Sachsen im Sommer…

For someone who is deathly afraid of heat, I tend to not do the “summer holiday” as most people do. There is nothing worse in my book than fighting packs of tourists while sweating through all forms of clothing, just to get half-arsed meals by staff that want to be on holiday themselves.

However, loaded with unnecessary stress (will elaborate on this another day) this year I impulsively decided to head out of New York at the end of July and found myself going to Saxony in early August, via London. And of course, perfect timing… Hottest days of the year, peak tourism season, best restaurants closed for summer holiday, etc…

I flew into a very muggy Dresden from London City (which was FULL of screaming children and drunks going to Ibiza and elsewhere) and was immediately sweating. As I checked into my hotel in the old town, I knew it would be a challenging few days — the air conditioning in the room barely worked, and it was pretty much pumping humidity into the room…

I escaped in the late afternoon on that early August Sunday and I see the symbol of Dresden, the re-built Frauenkirche.

D-Frauenk

I’m sure many of your have seen the pictures of Dresden after the bombing and know the saga of re-building the Frauenkirche. Thanks to the rain I got this rather nice shot… The rain helped with the humidity as I hid in a small wine cellar a block from the Elbe. As I enjoyed the fine local white wines, they told me the flooding from earlier in the Summer had been about 1.5 metres in the wine celler. That was frightening…

But I needed food and during the downpour all the tourists fled to the many cafes in the old town, but I managed to snag an outdoor seat at the Kutscherschänke and had a pleasant time. A nice bottle of local white, I proceeded to have some Leberkäse to start before some pork medallions for dinner:

Kutscherschänke Schwein

Now the pork, to be honest, was cooked rock solid… And idiots smoking around me didn’t help. But the large side of chanterelles more than made up for this. Yes, it’s a tourist trap, as are most places near the Frauenkirche, but… I was relaxed.

The next day I had planned to go climb up Königstein Fortress, but slept very badly (in a humid room with bad AC) and seeing the temperature today, I changed my plans. I decided to make a trek out to Meißen, a historic town with a castle on the hill.

panorama_before

It wasn’t a far trek from the station after a half-hour ride from Dresden, but it was very hot and sunny, and I was sweating pretty bad by the time I made it up the hill.

gate

Meißen is a cute place. I explored Meißner Dom (the cathedral) and Albrechtsburg (castle) in and out for the next few hours.

cathedral

After descending from the castle hill I needed food. It was too hot to eat outside, but it was also hot inside…but at least away from the sun. So I chose, from looking at various menus, Winzerkeller.

It’s a friendly place that featured local wines (Meißen is very wine-friendly) and I enjoyed a nice bottle over the meal. It began with a curious lentil soup with blood sausage:

Winzerkeller Linseneintopf

Interesting but a soup was probably a bad idea when I was already overheated… I enjoyed more wine and tried to cool down before the venison arrived…

WinzerkellerHirsch

Now sadly when venison is overcooked, it tastes like liver that’s been cooking for 3 days…and this is one of those times. A shame, really. But the potato pancakes were fabulous…when was the last time I said that? The wine was good and I took a nice local firewater before having to run back to the station to catch the train back to Dresden. This was the view as I walked near the station…magical…

panorama_after

When I got back, I had a walkabout to see more of Dresden, including the Zwinger Palace.

D-Zwing

Luckily the heat and late hour had dissipated most of the crowd. In fact, Dresden is deathly quiet after the tour groups leave. I don’t know how many overnight here, but it’s a shame…maybe this is why they don’t have a better-developed tourism infrastructure. This is how I got such a clean shot of the Fürstenzug, the parade of Wettins…

Fürstenzug2

I was knackered and burning up inside, so I actually only had one meal this day…and spent the rest of it trying to cool off in the room…and planned to try Königstein again tomorrow…

No luck, another bad sleep. And I think I may be a bit sunburnt fron the Meißen excursion. Damn… So ended up taking it rather slow and doing Dresden more in detail. And of course I needed a filling lunch, and ended up at Zum Schießhaus, a nice little inn close to Dresden-Mitte train station (I walked past it yesterday).

Zum SchießhausLammhaxe

Now this is a heck of a filling lunch, a nice lamb shank with Spätzle and green beans. You can see how sunny it is from the light (I was indoors!) as I enjoyed this treat alongside several large beers…about 3 litres…oops…

During the day, Dresden can be a tourism nightmare, full of groups behaving even less self-aware than most tourists. I hear a lot of Russian on the streets, barely any English. Despite trying to lure Czech tourists, I don’t hear as much. Way too many confused pensioners. I spent the day exploring many of the sites in town, especially the Katholische Hofkirche (left) — the church where most of the Wettin family were buried — and the old castle (right).

Hofkirche_Schloss

That evening I had my disastrous dinner at Caroussel, detailed here…again, I say AVOID, AVOID, AVOID!!! I got a better view of the Hofkirche in the downpour as I was headed back after that horrible dinner…

Katholische_Hofkirche

My last day I woke up early, again seeing if Königstein was possible, but it was pissing down so badly it would have been a mess. Plus, I was tired from this trip, and I am sick of tourists… So I tried avoiding many and walked around more periphery parts of central Dresden.

The sun was blazing so I hid myself in the basement cellar of Altmarktkeller — a Saxon-Bohemian restaurant. Most people were outside, but I enjoyed the air conditioning down below, and had a last meal in Saxony. Had a strange baked meat terrine starter, then for a main the Kaisersülze — home-made aspic.

Altmarktkeller Kaisersülze1

I remember enjoying sült in Estonia during the holidays, but this sauce-laden thing was definitely not it…oh, I miss Estonia… Ugh… I couldn’t finish this. I drank up the beer and headed back to the hotel…

As I hopped onto a cab for the airport, I have to say this little Saxon trip had been a near-disaster. Poor food, terrible (for me) weather, bad sleep, Caroussel, etc… I headed back to London needing another rest. Back to NYC then for that…sigh…

Kutscherschänke
Münzgasse 10
Dresden, Deutschland

Winzerkeller
Markt 9
Meißen, Deutschland

Zum Schießhaus
Am Schießhaus 19
Dresden, Deutschland

Altmarktkeller
Altmarkt 4
Dresden, Deutschland

Review: Caroussel

Dresden
6 August 2013

* WARNING – this is the WORST restaurant experience I’ve ever had in my life. Read on if you dare…especially at the very end…

I had been in Saxony for about 2 days during some of the hottest temperature of the year, and I had forgotten how bad parts of Germany were when it comes to heat. It’s often easier to find air conditioning going north-east from here… And on a steamy evening I headed to the 1-Michelin-starred Caroussel.

I had originally wanted to visit the other Michelin-starred restaurant in Dresden, the much-lauded Bean & Beluga, but they were shut for their summer holidays… Nevertheless, I hear good things about Caroussel, and I walked into the restaurant soaked in sweat.

I was seated in a nice table, but I noticed the dining room was very warm — much warmer than the lobby area. This would be a major issue the rest of the evening, and I was not the only one. Many other diners were fanning themselves and the staff seemed to ignore our collective discomfort.

I needed my liquids and the water came soon, but the sommelier (who was also the restaurant manager) was nowhere to be found. I lost my patience after about 15 minutes and decided to just order a bottle of a nice local white with no input. In fact, half the time the room was devoid of staff, or they were just standing around. Huh?

I was still sweating but enjoying the crisp white when the amuse bouche arrived.

AB1-parm_schnitzel_tuna

The parmesan “soup” with prosciutto (left) was rather odd. The veal schnitzel (centre) was a nice morsel. The tuna (right) was rather mediocre, nothing special. Nothing really stood out. I just enjoyed more wine and realised that this was slow dining at the extreme.

I had a bad flashback to my “tasting menu from lightning hell” at 2-Michelin Corton in NYC and how I nearly finished an 8-course in an hour. Here I was not even at my first course at an hour! In fact, a second amuse bouche came, a nice and heat-reducing watermelon dish.

AB2-melon

This was needed, but I can see by the very few plates that came out for fellow diners that arrived before me that this was gonna be a very slow night. Problem for me was that it was extremely hot, and I was dining alone. They seemed to not be able to handle lone diners. I understand that is not in the ethos of many countries to deal with solo diners, but a Michelin-starred restaurant should know how!

I was done with half the bottle of wine (drinking very slowly) and a full large bottle of water in that hour before the first course arrived, the fjord trout.

1-fjord_trout

Pretty ordinary, some different preparations of trout. The apple was a nice touch, but it was pretty “meh” — a word I really hate to use… It took another 20-25 minutes before the second course came, the consommé of venison.

2-venison_consomme

Oh geez, this was a “consommé of salt” more like it… It was so utterly over-salted I am shocked they didn’t notice it. Frankly I ate the dumpling-thingy and sent the rest back. I mentioned how salty and inedible it was…

The slowness, the heat, and now the over-salted broth… I am wondering by now if this is a conspiracy (or policy) to make us buy more wine! I drained more water but nursed my wine. I am not going to give them the pleasure!

After yet another nearly half hour (if this meal continues like this the 8 courses will finish past 1am), the third course arrived — the sole.

3-sole

This really didn’t work for me. The crust, fish and veg had utterly conflicting consistency and taste and it really didn’t work as a unit. It looks nice, but it doesn’t do anything for the palate. Three poor dishes that took over an hour… By the end of dish 3 (of 8), I have been sweltering in this heat for over 2 hours now.

At this point on Twitter my mates were telling me to bolt and remarking how poor this meal sounded. I was tempted by the heat to walk, but stayed. I had to run out to the bar a few times to cool off, something that some other diners who were pulsing red and sweating profusely did not do…why?

Running out of the dining room was not a problem since it took another 25 minutes for the next course to come out, the langostine.

4-langostine

Now this was pretty good, though honestly I thought it was wee undercooked. Usually not a problem, but when it is so warm I have no idea how fresh this is… And the black tea flavour really didn’t work. Over-cheffed…

I was really sweating hard now and had to excuse myself once again. I was really not enjoying this meal anymore, and I all but decided after my 6th course, the last savoury, I was going to call it a day.

By now my nursed bottle of wine was warm, and they took no care to replace the ice bucket. I was very unhappy, as my water was also inside the bucket and getting warm. These are BASICS for a restaurant, not even a Michelin-starred restaurant, and this place has been failing all night.

Seriously, if you are short-staffed and having structural problems, why don’t you close for a break like other places? Don’t stiff your diners and force them into a bad situation. And after another 25 minutes in the heat, the 5th course — the young pig — came.

5-young_pig

Now this wasn’t bad, but again, nothing special. The chamomile was not helpful, especially on a hot day. I really wish I was in a Bierhall somewhere at this point with a proper pork dish. I definitely decided that after the next course I am leaving…

Sweated more and growing extremely impatient and upset, I finished my warm wine — and made it plain I did not want another whilst in this restaurant. The water was now warm too, and I asked them to pour it all into my glass as it was getting very warm in the bucket. They just did not get the hint. It’s like they CHOSE to not perceive. Poor service, and poor management that trained such poor service…

And finally, after another 20+ minutes, the 6th course came, the rabbit.

6_rabbit

Ironically this was actually very good. Even my now-extremely-jaded tastebuds enjoyed this dish, cooked well and worked well with the beets. It pissed me off that it took so long to taste some really good food here, when my body no longer wants it. And with no wine.

At this point when they came to clear my dish I asked for the bill, and they were shocked. I told them it was too hot and I can’t deal with it anymore, and it was too slow. And of course, this was left as a parting gift by the confused service staff…and it’s not mine. I have a shaved head…

hair

As I headed out to pay, the manager/sommelier took care of the payment and charged me only for a smaller tasting (5 courses) that took off the salt broth. I mentioned the heat and wine issue and she seems understanding but made excuses. However, when I mentioned the consommé, she told me no other diners complained. But then what she said after that shocked me…

She then suggested that “Asian people do not eat salt.” What? Did I hear that right? She actually said it again after I told her how offensive that is. What if she said “Black people don’t eat sour” or “Jews don’t eat sweet” to someone? Holy fucking shit, I was livid. And she said it AGAIN!

I walked out after telling her how offensive that was. I was livid. Never in my 20+ years of being in continental Europe have I ever received such racist drivel directed at me! Even when I drank with skinheads I’ve never encountered such ridiculous shit!

I walked out in a still steamy but rainy Dresden late night, extremely angry. I stopped to look at the statue of August the Strong…

august

The Goldener Reiter shows what Dresden is…not the shit I encountered today. I took that with me as I crossed the Augustusbrücke back towards my hotel. What a terrible meal, and to be so insulted… The rain just added to the misery…

* Post-script: I wrote a complaint to the hotel management afterwards and they came back with a half-hearted apology. When I mentioned how racist this whole thing sounded, the manager had the gall to add a line in the email saying he lived in Hong Kong for a few years. What the FUCK does that have to do with it?

AVOID THIS RESTAURANT AT ALL COSTS!!!  I hope Michelin takes their star away for shit like this!!!

Caroussel
Bülow Palais Hotel
Königstraße 14
Dresden, Deutschland

Review: Maxelâ

London,
1 August 2013

I usually have a rule about travelling in the summer — especially to Europe. August tends to be the worst, with brain-dead tourists everywhere, and unpredictably hot weather. Sadly, I chose to escape NYC for various reasons I shall mention another day…and ended up in horrific heat in…London. When London is significantly warmer and more humid than NYC, it’s bad…and I am a COLD weather person.

I should have gone to Greenland like I wanted to…

Nevertheless the saving grace of a steamy London is the food. Several of my foodie friends have raved about the new Piemontese steakhouse Maxelâ in Kensington, and I couldn’t say no having seen the website. I’ve not been back to that part of Italy in years, nor Liguria, so I really do miss the unique food from the western part of the country.

The joy of London is that you have more than the bog-standard “Italian” restaurants — they respect the diversity of regional cuisine. Nowhere in NYC can you find such true Italian diversity. So despite melting in London, I was glad to be heading to Maxelâ.

To make matters more difficult, we were sat in the back room, where the air conditioning had broken down! Ugh!!! If it wasn’t for what we saw on the display walking in, I may have given up…thank goodness I didn’t!!!

0

It was blazing hot, but we fought on. A cute and unpretentious place that focuses on the joys of bovine consumption — proper beef, fed green stuff that the cows can digest, not the crap you get at “top” steakhouses that are fed corn thanks to the massive corn lobby in the US. Sorry, I shall stop pontificating now, but if you’ve never had proper grass-fed beef, do so. It’ll turn you off the corn stuff.

We began with an excellent starter of battuta all’abese — made of the special Fassone beef the restaurant specialises in:

1

Fresh, light and delicious, this is one of the best carpaccio you’ll ever eat. Really doesn’t need anything, it has enough natural flavour that only olive oil, salt and pepper are needed to maximise its appeal. Excellent!

BTW the Fassone is a breed of Piemontese cattle, which are special because of its “double muscularity” — producing a very lean meat that needs to stay as rare as possible. It’s almost the antithesis of the true wagyu, which is based on intense marbling of fat. Sometimes you need one, sometimes you need the other!

And of course, our large, 1.2kg rib steak appeared. Closer to rare than medium-rare, all it needed was rocksalt and olive oil…

2

Goodness this was good. It is very lean, which is why I suggested the rib, so there would be enough fat to give it balance. Cooked fantastically, the meat was simply scruptious. Wow…

Oh, I forgot the vegetable side…much needed too! Fantastic selection including aubergine and courgettes.

3

The two of us finished the giant piece of meat quite easily despite the heat, because it was cooked so well, and it was very lean. However, the heat was really getting to us, and we were now in the “meat sweats” phase… I knew how to cool down, looking over the dessert list…

4

Nothing as good as a sweet pineapple for dessert, especially for a lad that grew up in Hawai’i. Pineapples are rich with bromelain, which acts as a natural meat tenderiser. It will ease the meat digestion. Oh, please ignore that happy thumb!!!

We headed out in the stifling heat full and happy. It was nearly a perfect meal, marred only by the crazy heat under the broken AC in the back room. One of the best steaks I’ve ever had… Again, sometimes you need fine lean meat like this, sometimes you need the tremendous marbling of wagyu. Tonight was a night of Fassone excellence.

Maxelâ
84 Old Brompton Road
London, England