Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Animal (Los Angeles, CA)

435 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90048
Tue 09/29/2009, 08:45p-11:35p

The story of Animal, one of 2008's most highly-lauded restaurant debuts, is the story of 2 Dudes: Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook. The dynamic duo met on their first day of class at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale--a classic case of love at first sight. After graduation, Dotolo and Shook worked on the lines at Michelle Bernstein's The Strand in South Beach, and continued to make their way around top kitchens in Florida: Mark Militello's Mark's, Oliver Saucy's Café Maxx, and Doug Reese's River House. The pair then headed west, stopping at Ray Roach's Wildflower Restaurant in Vail, before landing at the now-defunct Chadwick in 2001. At Chadwick, Dotolo and Shook were able to work with Govind Armstrong and Ben Ford, and it was Ford's celebrity connections that helped the dudes launch their catering company, Caramelized Productions. The success of the company led to a stint on the Food Network (2 Dudes Catering), and paved the way for a cookbook deal (the seemingly "Two Girls, One Cup"-inspired Two Dudes, One Pan) and the opening of Animal restaurant in June 2008 (apparently, with partner Benedikt Taschen). Animal quickly achieved widespread fame, and Dotolo and Shook were heralded as the Best New Chefs of 2009 from Food & Wine magazine, in addition to receiving a Best New Restaurant nomination from the James Beard Foundation.

Given Animal's eminence, I'm surprised that it took me this long to get here. The restaurant had been on my to-eat list for a while, but I finally went thanks to Selina, one of my readers. She'd organized this dinner with me, her friend Darryl, her brother Peter and two of his friends, as well as Danny of Kung Food Panda and Wesley of Two Hungry Pandas (with all this panda lovin', perhaps next time we should get Pandalicious and ilikepandas as well!).

Animal Exterior Animal Exterior Animal Exterior Animal Exterior
Animal has no exterior signage, with the chefs preferring to spend the $5000 or so it would take to get a suitable sign on food-related wares. Look for Canter's Deli; Animal is four doors up in this largely Jewish neighborhood (all the more ironic given the restaurant's heavily porcine menu). Valet parking is available for $5.50, though nearly-impossible-to-find street parking is gratis after 6:00p.

Animal Interior
Inside, Animal is a small restaurant indeed, accommodating under 50 guests. Spots can be hard to come by, so the small 7-seater tea-stained and copper-topped bar is available on a first come-first serve basis (the full menu is served here). The space is minimalist--bare concrete floors, stark off-white walls, uncomplicated beech tables and ash chairs--but yet is strangely warm and comforting. After conversing with Shook after dinner, we found out that nearly every part of the interior was thoughtfully placed, from the hostess stand to the banquets (off a yacht) to the retro light bulbs.

Animal Menu Animal Wines by the Glass Animal Reserve Wines
The seasonal menu is fairly large, and changes often, though there are a few mainstays, such as the infamous loco moco and bacon chocolate crunch bar. The result is a fun, interesting, casual comfort food experience. As for wine, Shook is in charge here, rotating the eclectic mix regularly, available by the glass, carafe, or bottle. Click for larger versions.

Cremant d'Alsace, Lucien Albrecht Brut Rose, NV Alsace
Selina and I are fans of the bubbles, while Darryl desired something "red," so we went with a bottle of the Cremant d'Alsace, Lucien Albrecht Brut Rose, NV Alsace [$53] to start. A fairly standard rosé, it showed fresh berry and apple flavors over a light, fizzy, crisp body--a fitting way to kick things off.

chicken liver toast
chicken liver toast [$3.00]
When our server brought this dish out to us, he indicated that the liver was topped with saba (grape must syrup). Upon mentioning this to Shook after dinner, the chef told us that the topping was in fact balsamic, and that the server "should've known better!" Getting back to the dish at hand, the essence of liver was strong in this one, but not overwhelming. The balsamic actually provided a sweet temper to the liver, while the bread also added a mitigating element, as well as a nice textural variation. A brazenly simple, yet profound dish.

pig ear, chili, lime, fried egg
pig ear, chili, lime, fried egg [$10.00]
Next was one of my favorite dishes--I could've snacked on the crisp, savory, delectable pig ears all night. However, I really appreciated the use of lime to counter the power of the pork, and the application of egg, which provided an overarching, luscious creaminess and richness to the whole dish. Perfectly balanced and superb.

barbeque pork belly sandwiches, slaw
barbeque pork belly sandwiches, slaw [$10.00]
And now, the first of two preparations of pork belly. The belly was exactly what I expected: unctuous, oozing oil, fatty, gelatinous, uncommonly heavy, breaking apart upon mastication. It was everything that pork belly should be, with a great sweetness as well. However, though the coleslaw was instrumental in moderating the gravitas of the meat, I felt that the sandwich needed much more of it.

pork belly, kimchi, peanuts, chili soy, scallion
pork belly, kimchi, peanuts, chili soy, scallion [$12.00]
Pork belly. Number two. The belly itself was very similar in consistency and body to that above; however, it's flavor was far more savory than sweet. Here, instead of slaw, the counterweight to the pork was the kimchi, its tart tanginess effectively and vitally cutting the richness of the belly. The peanuts, meanwhile, added a great crunch and nuttiness to the dish. Nice.

poutine, oxtail gravy, cheddar
poutine, oxtail gravy, cheddar [$15.00]
The Saturday prior to this meal, at Crazy Hook in K-Town, after we consumed multiple 5-litre cylinders of Bud Light, Christine warned us about the poutine at Animal. Undeterred, we went ahead and ordered it anyway. Her main issue with the poutine was that it was overly salty, and indeed, the oxtail was suitably savory, heavy, and luxurious, but not overwhelmingly so in my opinion. Though the cheddar didn't play as much of a role I as I wanted it to, the surprisingly-crisp fries did form a superb complement to the gravy, providing a fitting base on which to consume the oxtail. Think of this as a high-class version of chili-cheese fries!

foie gras, biscuit, maple sausage gravy
foie gras, biscuit, maple sausage gravy [$22.00]
I was a bit wary of this dish, as in general, sweet foie gras and I do not get along terribly well. Fortunately however, it wasn't nearly as sugary as I thought it'd be. The sapor of foie was strong on the attack, which then gave way to the mild, savory sweetness of the gravy, finally finishing with a strong blueberry note. I felt that this was one of the weaker courses of the meal, and though some swear by it, the dish just didn't work out for me.

Ommegang Abbey Style Ale Abita Amber Cooper's Sparkling Ale
At this point, I was thirsting for some beer, and decided to order up a bottle of the Ommegang Abbey Style Ale [$9], a Belgian Dubbel-style ale out of Cooperstown, NY. It was a tasty brew, with prototypical spicy, malty, slightly caramel-like flavors. After tasting the Ommegang, Danny and Wes were convinced to order their own brewskies: the Abita Amber [$6] from Abita Springs, Louisiana and Cooper's Sparkling Ale from Leabrook, Australia.

quail fry, grits, chard, slab bacon, maple jus
quail fry, grits, chard, slab bacon, maple jus [$28.00]
I could eat a bucket of this! Seriously, the quail was one of the highlights of the meal for me. The bird was suitably juicy and lip-smackingly flavorful, with tender flesh and a lovely layer of crispy fried skin. As good as the quail was on its own, I liked the use of chard, providing a nice bitter vegetal tang to things, as well as the grits, quite possibly the best version I've had anywhere. The only thing that seemed a bit out of place was the sweet and savory bacon, which was superfluous.

foie gras loco moco, quail egg, spam, hamburger
foie gras loco moco, quail egg, spam, hamburger [$35.00]
A uniquely Hawaiian delicacy, a traditional loco moco consists of hamburger (or sometimes Spam), topped with a fried egg and gravy, over rice. Animal's take on it, perhaps the restaurant's signature item, adds foie gras into the fray. Ironically, I liked everything except the foie. The burger was cooked rare and delicious, while the Spam proved to be suitably scrumptious as well. The rice, at the same, was somewhat of a mitigating factor. The foie, while deftly prepared, just seemed a bit out of place given the context.

tres leches, dulce de leche
tres leches, dulce de leche [$7.00]
Arguably my favorite type of cake, a tres leches ("three milk") is a sponge cake that's saturated with three kinds of milk. The example here was heightened by a very sweet, very dense frosting, as well as dulce le leche, giving the cake a caramel-tinged finish. Excellent.

panna cotta, saba
panna cotta, saba [$7.00]
Panna cotta usually has a gelatin-like body, so we were somewhat baffled at this presentation, which was uncommonly creamy. We wondered if the dessert didn't set properly. In any case, despite the custard's unique consistency, the flavor was indeed intact, with mild notes of vanilla, accented by the tart saba syrup.

bacon chocolate crunch bar, s&p anglaise
bacon chocolate crunch bar, s&p anglaise [$7.00]
Our final course of the night was the ever-popular bacon chocolate crunch, which Shook admitted was originally inspired by a Kit Kat bar! Despite the allure of bacon, its presence here was actually pretty slight. The tasty chocolate-nut complex was what came out strongest, with the bacon only adding a subtle salty counterpoint. Very good, though the anglaise wasn't particularly apparent.

Animal Kitchen
After dinner, we were invited into the smallish kitchen to chat with chef/owner Jon Shook (Dotolo was in Italy at the time). Shook seemed quite affable, yet very serious and very passionate about his work at Animal, and we were able to garner some insights into his culinary philosophy, the story behind Animal, and his future plans. Interestingly, Shook mentioned that Animal was getting an ice cream machine in the near future. Naturally, I had to inquire about bacon ice cream, but Shook indicated that his preference is actually for more traditional flavors--we'll see what they come up with!

Before dining at Animal, I had a discussion about the place with a fellow foodie, who described the eatery as "definitely not fine dining." And indeed, the restaurant in comfy, cozy, casual. But at the same time it's ambitious, daring even. It sort of straddles the line for me. Though some of the flavors were a bit overzealous, a bit over-the-top, the experience overall was quite positive, and I can definitely see why the place is so popular. The Dudes have talked about opening a sandwich shop, a BBQ joint, a seafooder, a breakfast place even. Though Jon wouldn't elaborate, expect "something" by the end of the year--I can't wait.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Ashoka the Great (Artesia, CA)

Ashoka the Great
18614 Pioneer Blvd, Artesia, CA 90701
Fri 09/25/2009, 07:05p-08:20p

Readers who have been following my tweets might have seen that I was planning on dining at Stonehill Tavern down in Dana Point this evening. Those plans, however, were subsequently foiled. With Stonehill out of the picture, my dining companion and I decided on Indian, something that we hadn't done in a while.

Ashoka was opened by a Punjabi immigrant, Darshan Singh. Singh arrived in the US in 1985, and worked in the Indian restaurant biz for two years prior to opening his own restaurant, named after Ashoka the Great. Ashoka (born Ashok Bindusara Maurya) was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled over the bulk of the Indian subcontinent in the second and third century BC. Somewhat ironically, the restaurant serves meat, despite the fact that Ashoka the Great was a noted proponent of vegetarianism.

Ashoka the Great Exterior
Ashoka is located on the stretch of Pioneer Blvd in Artesia known as Little India (a.k.a. the "International and Cultural Shopping District"). Note the "A" from the Department of Public Health, which also appears prominently on the restaurant's web site (in <marquee> text no less--at least it's not <blink>). The reason why this is important is that, at one point, Ashoka was "C"-rated, much to the chagrin of the owner.

Ashoka the Great Interior
The decor is typical Indian restaurant chic, with booths lining the walls, tables in the middle, and the buffet station to one side. An interesting artifact, near the entrance, is a large board covered with photos of various Bollywood celebrities who have eaten at Ashoka.

Ashoka the Great Menu Ashoka the Great Menu Ashoka the Great Menu
Here we see Ashoka's menu, fairly prototypical for a Northern Indian restaurant; click for larger versions. In addition, Ashoka is well known for its $7.95 lunch buffet.

Papadum Pickles & Mint Chutney
Upon being seated, we were quickly brought papadum, basically thin crispy wafers typically made from lentils. Ashoka's was actually one of the better versions I've had, with a nice bit of peppery spice and a lingering heat. Following the papadum came two jars: one with mint chutney, the other with pickles.

Mango Lassi
I started with my usual Mango Lassi [$1.99], a sweet mango- and yogurt-based drink.

Taj Mahal Premium Lager Old Monk 10000 Beer Selection
Beer in India began with the British importing it to the country during the early 1700's. The English even created the famous Indian Pale Ale (IPA) style, a highly-hopped brew designed to withstand the long voyage to India. The Brits eventually set up breweries in the country to brew their IPAs, but ironically, most breweries in India ditched the style in favor of lagers during the 20th century, and to this very day, no major brewer in the country produces an IPA.

Getting back to the beer at hand, we first ordered up a Taj Mahal Premium Lager [$5.75], from giant United Breweries Group out of Banglore. UB has a roughly 50% market share, and also produces India's best-selling beer, Kingfisher. The Taj Mahal was fairly nondescript by itself, with light carbonation and not much in terms of flavor, but went decently with the food. The next beer was much more interesting: the Old Monk 10000 [$5.75] from Chennai's Mohan Breweries & Distilleries Ltd. It was easily the most interesting Indian beer I've had, with a flavor that reminded me of watered-down whiskey! The brewery also makes Golden Eagle, a more mainstream lager.

Ashoka actually had the most interesting selection of Indian beers I've encountered, and had we not been so full from the food, we would've certainly ordered up more bottles. Perhaps the Haywards 5000 and Royal Challenge from Mumbai's Shaw Wallace & Company Ltd (now part of SABMiller)? Or maybe India Special from Yuksom Breweries out of Sikkim (they also make Himalayan Blue, Yeti, and Dansberg)? Definitely Manav Breweries' Karma from Ghaziabad. Next time.

Vegetable Samosa Vegetable Samosa Interior
Vegetable Samosa [$1.99]
I usually like to start my meals with some samosas, basically fried pastry tetrahedra stuffed with potatoes and peas. The examples here were some of the better ones I've had, with particularly crisp shells, lovely spice on the potatoes, and great use of peas. Though they could've easily stood on their own, the samosas came with a tamarind chutney, which provided a sweet counterpoint to the savory turnovers.

Chicken Pakora
Chicken Pakora [$3.25]
A popular snack food, pakoras consist of a main ingredient, in this case chicken, battered in chickpea/gram flour and deep fried. Though the chicken was a bit dry, I did appreciate its delicately spiced flavor, heightened by the application of mint chutney.

Fish Pakora
Fish Pakora [$3.99]
For pakoras, fish is a less common filling. The examples here were good enough, but the essence of the fish was overpowered somewhat by the batter, resulting in a rather monolithic eating experience. I much preferred the chicken version, though once again, the mint chutney did help things.

Basmati Boiled Rice Garlic Naan
Basmati Boiled Rice [$2.95]
Garlic Naan [$1.75]
To go with our mains, we requested the typical accoutrements of basmati rice and garlic naan. Disappointingly, the Cheese Kulcha [$2.25] we ordered failed to make an appearance.

Chicken Tikka Masala
Chicken Tikka Masala [$7.99]
When trying out an Indian restaurant for the first time, I invariably get the chicken tikka masala, which I use as a sort of gauge. The irony is that it isn't even a "true" Indian dish; rather, it was created in Great Britain by a purportedly Pakistani chef. Nevertheless, the dish is immensely popular, and I've seen variations of it at every Indian restaurant I've been to. Chicken tikka masala is made from chicken tikka (spice- and yogurt-marinated chicken chunks baked in a tandoor), served in a creamy tomato-based masala, or mixed spice, sauce. The example at Ashoka was certainly a tasty preparation, though the chicken could've been more tender. I enjoyed the sauce, which was somewhat lighter and less tart than usual, allowing the chicken to take center stage.

Lamb Palak
Lamb Palak [$7.99]
Palak refers to a style of curry dish made with spinach and an assortment of spices (the distinction between "saag," I believe, is that saag curries have mustard leaves in addition to spinach). The most popular variant is palak paneer, a cheese and spinach curry. Meat can also be used, with chicken and lamb being the animals of choice. We chose lamb this time, and noted that the meat was robust in flavor, a bit gamy in fact--very distinctly lamb. This wasn't a problem though, as the spinach effectively tempered the power of the meat, leaving a long, vegetal finish on the palate.

Mattar Paneer
Matar Paneer [$5.95]
Finally, we have a dish of mattar (peas) and paneer (cheese) in a tangy, spicy, savory sauce. This was actually my favorite dish of the night, with the firm yet yielding consistency of the paneer, as well as its mildly tangy flavor, being especially notable. The peas were just as important, with their vegetal smack providing a key counterweight to the gravity of the dish.

Gulab Jamun
Gulab Jamun [$1.75]
Despite being ridiculously full at this point, I saved room for dessert (which seems to occupy its own separate compartment in my stomach). We went with the gulab juman, spheroids of khoya (a cheese product) garnished in a sugary rosewater syrup. It was one of the best I've had: hot, buttery, sweet, rich, delicious.

In the end, though Ashoka doesn't really bring anything new to the table, it's still a nice place to get tasty, dependable preparations of classic North Indian fare; I would have no qualms about coming back. Look at it this way: if Ashoka's good enough for the likes of Sanjay Dutt and Satish Shah, it's good enough for me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A.O.C. (Los Angeles, CA)

8022 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048
Sun 09/20/2009, 06:45p-09:00p

A.O.C. Exterior Regular readers may recall that early this year, I ventured to Madison, WI to attend the graduation of my former Berkeley roommate, who'd just finished medical school at UW-Madison. While there, we dined at the City's most vaunted restaurant, L'Etoile. Well, my former apartment-mate is starting at UCLA this fall for his PhD, and just moved out here to Los Angeles. I wanted to take him out for his first real meal here in the City, hence this dinner at A.O.C. I chose the place not only for its menu, but for its chef, Suzanne Goin--Goin started her career at Chez Panisse, the very place where I'd had my first fine dining experience during my undergrad years at Cal, an experience that I shared with this same roommate.

But the A.O.C. story starts much further back than that. Goin grew up in Southern California as part of a well-to-do, foodie family. Her parents planned their vacation itineraries around restaurants (sounds like me), and regularly took the young Goin to LA's finest establishments, places like L'Ermitage and Ma Maison (for her senior project, in 1984, Goin even spent three weeks here working in pastry), thus cementing her passion for food. Goin attended Brown as a history major, and during that time, worked at Al Forno Restaurant in Providence, RI. After graduation, she started a small restaurant in the area, but yearned for something bigger; that's when she applied to work at Chez Panisse. Alice Waters recognized Goin's talents quickly, and the young chef worked upstairs at the iconic Californian for two years, an experience that would have a profound impact on her developing culinary style. After Chez Panisse, Goin moved to France, where she was able to work at Alain Passard's legendary eatery L'Arpège. Following, Goin made a stop in Boston at Todd English's Olives before landing at Mark Peel (another Chez Panisse alum) and Nancy Silverton's Campanile in 1995. In 1998, Goin teamed up with partner Caroline Styne to open up Lucques, which became wildly successful, allowing Goin to write a cookbook (Sunday Suppers at Lucques, with a forward by Alice Waters) and open A.O.C. at the end of 2002, also with Styne. In addition, Goin and Styne recently opened Tavern in 2008, and Goin also co-owns The Hungry Cat (2005) with husband David Lentz.

The inspiration for A.O.C. stemmed from two sources. First, Goin and Styne noticed that the small bar at Lucques was turning out to be quite popular; the pair wanted to create an entire restaurant that would duplicate the atmosphere at Lucques' bar. Second, both women were fond of grazing on appetizer plates and sipping interesting wines for dinner; wouldn't it be nice if there were a restaurant catering just to that? Thus, A.O.C. was born. The name is short for Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, a French term meaning "controlled term of origin." It signifies a certification given to certain geographically-defined agricultural products, including alcohol (e.g. Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Calvados), cheese (from Roquefort to Reblochon to Rigotte de Condrieu), and other such items (Lescure Beurre des Charentes, Poulet de Bresse, Lentilles du Puy, Miel de Corse Châtaigneraie). Though A.O.C. is most definitely small plates, don't you dare call it "tapas." The food here is meant to be much more, with each dish designed to be complex and interesting enough on its own. Diners can decide to nosh merely on a slice of Tomme de Savoie, or they can create their own multi-course "degustation."

A.O.C. Interior
A.O.C's space previously housed L.A. Trattoria, and retains its wood-fired oven, which once churned out some of the City's only official Neapolitan pizzas. Compared to Lucques, A.O.C.'s Barbara Barry-penned interior is more urbane, less rustic, more monochromatic, less cozy, sparer, but more elegant. Above, we see a 180-degree view of the space, starting with the charcuterie and fromage counter to the left, moving along the dark shelves hugging the walls, past banquets and tables in the main dining space, before ending at the 16-seater bar, home to the 50-wine Cruvinet dispenser.

A.O.C. Menu
The menu is shown above; click for a larger version. Note that an entire page is dedicated to cheese.

Wines by the Glass Wines by the Glass
A.O.C's selection of 25 whites and 25 reds (by the glass or carafe), along with two flights, is large but manageable; click for larger versions. Naturally, there's also a considerable list of wines by the bottle as well.

Bread and Harissa
Upon being seated, a small plate of bread appeared without hesitation. It was competent, but what was much more interesting was its accompaniment, described as our server as harissa, basically a North African condiment made from ancho chilies, garlic, and cumin, among other ingredients. It had a smoky/spicy/sweet flavor that went surprisingly well with the bread.

Flight of Sparkling Wines
Being a fan of the bubbles, I started with the Flight of Sparkling Wines [$25], consisting of the Cremant de Bourgogne, Parigot & Richard, Rosé NV; Bouzy, Camille Saves, Grand Cru NV; and Moscato d'Asti, Elio Perrone "Sourgal", Italy '08. Though the glasses were individually numbered, really such markings were redundant. The three sparklers couldn't have been more different: the citrus tang and vermilion tinge of the rosé; the dry, toasty notes of the Champagne; and the juicy, sweet savor of the Moscato.

Gulf Shrimp, Smoked Tomato Butter and Cornbread
Gulf Shrimp, Smoked Tomato Butter and Cornbread [$14.00]
Upon arriving at the table, the dish gave out an aroma reminiscent of the Indian standby murgh makhani, or butter chicken; must've been the butter and tomato! The shrimp themselves were deftly cooked, firm, plump, with their natural flavor still intact. The crustaceans' sweetness was countered by the inherent tanginess of the sauce, as well as its marked richness. They were served with the shells still on, and though my dining companion meticulously de-shelled the shrimp, I devoured them shell and all. I must admit though that I didn't quite "get" the cornbread; it was tasty enough, having soaked up all the goodness in the sauce, but seemed a bit out of place.

Halibut, Salt Cold Gratin, Sorrel and Garlic
Halibut, Salt Cod Gratin, Sorrel and Garlic [$17.00]
I always appreciate a good halibut, and this was no exception: firm yet yielding, mildly flaky, and uncommonly juicy, with an excellent crust, accented beautifully by sorrel and garlic. The star of the show for me, though, was the salt cod gratin. Supremely savory, yet not overpowering, it formed a fantastic foil to the comparatively delicate halibut. Delish.

Brioche with Prosciutto, Gruyère and Egg
Brioche with Prosciutto, Gruyère and Egg [$14.00]
With these ingredients in one dish, it'd be pretty hard to screw things up--think a classy Egg McMuffin! You have a base of toasty brioche, which is complemented by the salty ham and heavy, rich cheese, while the egg adds further creaminess and heft. This whole complex, however, is mitigated by the frisée, which adds a lightness and levity to the whole course. I'd like to see this dish with asparagus substituted for the frisée; I think its bitterness would make for a nice contrast.

Arroz Negro with Squid and Saffron Aïoli
Arroz Negro with Squid and Saffron Aïoli [$14.00]
Arroz negro is a classic Catalonian/Valencian dish of rice flavored with squid ink, served with squid. Here, the use of ink gave the rice base a slightly tangy, somewhat briny flavor, which was superb. The rice was tasty enough on its own, but the squid rings added a distinct sweetness, as well as a chewy textural element. I also much appreciated the use of onions and garlic, which gave the dish a certain bite and buoyancy. Excellent.

Lamb Sausage, Orecchiette, Peppers and Ricotta
Lamb Sausage, Orecchiette, Peppers and Ricotta [$14.00]
When ordering this dish, we expected the sausage to come out in traditional tubular sausage form, not in bits. Nevertheless, the morsels of lamb present were indeed quite delicious--immensely flavorful and backed with an herbal tang. I wanted more of it! As good as the lamb was, I did appreciate the use of orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) here, their mild flavor balancing the substantial sapor of the sausage.

Barbecued Pork Spareribs with Coleslaw
Barbecued Pork Spareribs with Coleslaw [$14.00]
And for our last savory course, we have a classic BBQ presentation of pork spareribs. Though a standard preparation, it proved nonetheless delectable, with a sweet yet savory smack and a consistency that was nearly falling-off-the-bone. Gimme a whole rack please! The coleslaw, meanwhile, effectively tempered the weight of the meat, and was scrumptious in its own right.

Dessert Menu
At this point, we were presented with a small selection of desserts and dessert wines; click for a larger version.

Amontillado, La Cosecha 15 Year
To drink, I went with the Amontillado, La Cosecha 15 Year [$11], a dry sherry with a sensational lingering nutty finish.

Ibarra Chocolate Cake with Spiced Pepitas and Dulce de Leche Ice Cream
Ibarra Chocolate Cake with Spiced Pepitas and Dulce de Leche Ice Cream [$10.00]
Ibarra refers to a brand of chocolate from Mexico, commonly used to make hot cocoa. Because of that perhaps, the resultant cake here was actually quite mild in sugariness. Most of the sweetness, thus, came from the superb dulce de leche ice cream (which I wanted more of). The combination of cake and ice cream made for a great pairing, one that was accented expertly by the spicy pepitas and tangy mascarpone.

Peach Ice Cream Sandwich with Graham Cracker Cookies, Bourbon and Pecans
Peach Ice Cream Sandwich with Graham Cracker Cookies, Bourbon and Pecans [$10.00]
Who can resist an ice cream sandwich? I certainly couldn't. The peach ice cream was "peachy" indeed, imbued with the saccharine essence of the fruit. The cookies, thus, were a great complement, countering the peach's sweetness with a wonderful cinnamon-y spice. I didn't get much from the Bourbon, however.

I love the concept here: small plates of Cal-Med, reasonably-priced wine, how could you go wrong with that right? The key for me though is that the fare at A.O.C. is actually quite swell: a menu based on fresh, local, seasonal California ingredients and rustic Mediterranean flavors. The dishes at A.O.C. are almost always bold, honest, simple yet complex, familiar yet exciting. Nearly everything sounds good and everything that I had was good; it's a system that encourages trying, and sharing. No wonder the place is so popular--A.O.C. gets an A-OK from me.