Monday, October 31, 2011

Pizzeria Mozza (Newport Beach, CA)

Pizzeria Mozza
800 W Coast Hwy, Newport Beach, CA 92663
Mon 10/31/2011, 06:45p-09:00p

It's rather unfortunate that the most anticipated opening of the year in OC is merely a transplant of an existing restaurant in LA (and as of December 2010, Singapore). Nevertheless, Mozza is sort of a big deal, and this southern outpost of the Batali/Bastianich/Silverton empire was certainly worth a visit. After some issues attaining a liquor license, the eatery debuted at the start of September, and Matt Molina from the first Mozza returns as Executive Chef, while Chef de Cucina duties are handed off to Emily Corliss, a veteran of the original location as well.

Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach Interior
Mozza sits on the ground that was formerly home to Dolce Ristorante Italiano, though Batali and company decided to tear down that building and start from scratch. Newport maintains the warm, earthy vibe of the original, as well as its predecessor's pizza oven-facing counter, and also adds a full bar, something missing from the Los Angeles location (as Osteria Mozza next door has one).

Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach Menu Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach Menu Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach Menu
Mozza's menu, as expected, reads familiarly, and you'll find almost all your favorites from the Melrose eatery. Click for larger versions.

Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach Wines by the Glass Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach Wine List Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach Wine List Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach Cocktail & Beer List
Appropriately, wines here are Italy-centric and reasonably priced. The vini is complemented by a handful of beers, while cocktails (by Lucas Swallows of Carnevino/Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group in Las Vegas) will arrive when the restaurant receives its full liquor license. Click for larger versions.

Grissini bread sticks take the place of normal bread service.

Arancine alla Bolognese
Arancine alla Bolognese [$12.00]
We kicked off the meal with an octet of arancini, which are basically risotto balls coated with breadcrumbs and fried. They were nice, with a mild rice-y savor deftly augmented by the meaty, tangy Bolognese sauce.

Mussels al forno
Mussels al forno [$12.00]
Mussels were impressive, showing off a lovely salinity that was perfectly countered by the dish's spicy, peppery base, while the toasted bread served to moderate the course.

Ricotta with artichokes, pine nuts & currants
Ricotta with artichokes, pine nuts & currants [$12.00]
Next up was the most complex course of the night flavor-wise. Reading its description on the menu, I wasn't too keen on it initially, but really the dish was pretty interesting. The ricotta definitely grounded things with its cool creaminess, serving as a stage on which the slight vegetal tang of the artichoke, the earthiness of the pine nuts, and the sweetness of the currants could really shine. Lovely mintiness from the herbs, too.

Chicken livers, capers, parsley & guanciale
Chicken livers, capers, parsley & guanciale [$9.00]
Rounding out our appetizers was a plate of bruschetta, topped with chicken liver. The aggressive relish of the fegato del pollo was moderated in part by the piquant bits of caper interspersed within, while the guanciale added a well-placed salty smack to the mix. I'd think twice about ordering this if you don't count yourself as a fan of liver though.

Margherita with mozzarella, tomato & basil
Margherita with mozzarella, tomato & basil [$14.00]
The margherita is sort of the de facto order when trying out a new pizzeria, and tonight was no exception: when all you're dealing with is tomato, mozz, and basil, there's nothing to hide behind. Though not strictly napoletana in execution, the pizza was tasty nonetheless, with the tangy tomato working in concert with the cheese to great effect, all punctuated by overarching notes of peppery basil. As for the crust, it's baked for a relatively long time at a relatively low temperature, making for a crisp, toasty, puffy-edged character that I rather enjoyed.

Egg, bacon, Yukon Gold potato & Bermuda onions
Egg, bacon, Yukon Gold potato & Bermuda onions [$19.00]
Egg, bacon, and potato, three of my favorite ingredients, all on one pizza? This was definitely a must-order. Our server likened this to a "breakfast pizza," and it did not disappoint, showing off a profound savoriness from the bacon and a gorgeous bit of lusciousness from the runny egg that went perfectly with the potato, onion, and cheese. You can't go wrong here.

Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach Dessert Menu
Desserts at Mozza Newport are the charge of Pastry Chef Sarah Asch. Click for a larger version.

Chocolate Nougatine Tart, black walnut gelato, shortbread, agrodolce
Chocolate Nougatine Tart, black walnut gelato, shortbread, agrodolce [$10.00]
A chocolate nougatine tart actually was rather tart, thanks to the agrodolce. The sweet & sour notes of the sauce countered the sugariness of the chocolate nicely, and I appreciated the restrained savoriness from the walnut gelato as well. Lovely crunch from the nougatine to boot.

Butterscotch Budino, Maldon sea salt, rosemary pine nut cookies
Butterscotch Budino, Maldon sea salt, rosemary pine nut cookies [$10.00]
Naturally, we had to end the evening with Mozza's famed budino, which, really, was as strong as ever. The interplay of the unabashedly saccharine pudding with the Maldon is a perfect example of mixing sweet and savory flavors, with the salt doing a fantastic job in balancing out the weight of the butterscotch. The cookies, meanwhile, added the fragrant tang of rosemary into the mix, and also served to provide some textural variation to the dessert. Very nice, as always.

Two months after opening, Mozza Newport seems to be humming along just fine, dishing out straightforward, satisfying fare in a relaxed setting. I really have no complaints, save for the hassle of actually trying to get a reservation to the place. In the end, the restaurant is pretty much a carbon copy of the original up in LA, which really isn't a bad thing and probably already miles ahead of most Italian eateries in Orange County.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A-Frame (Culver City, CA)

A-Frame Restaurant
12565 Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90066
Sat 10/29/2011, 06:20p-08:30p

A-Frame Exterior

I remember three years ago, when one of my classmates at USC told me about this new thing called Kogi. I'd never heard of it before, but according to him, Kogi was a food truck making its rounds across all the clubs in K-Town (I think he'd had it at Le Cercle), serving up Korean-inspired tacos. It seemed like a pretty neat concept to me, and months later, Kogi BBQ would give rise to our current food truck obsession here in LA. Given the smashing success of Kogi, its chef, Roy Choi, has expanded his culinary purview considerably, bringing his trademark cuisine to the Alibi Room, Chego, and most recently, A-Frame, his homage to "modern picnic food."

About the Chef: The so-called "godfather of the food truck movement" was born in 1970 in Seoul, but was raised in various parts of Los Angeles. His parents owned grocery stores, liquor stores, and restaurants, and Choi spent some of his early years in the kitchens of his family's eateries. However, like many Asian parents, Choi's wanted him to become a lawyer or doctor or something practical with a good salary, and thus, he gave law school a shot, but never graduated. Dejected, he began watching episodes of Emeril Lagasse's Food Network show Essence of Emeril, and the series largely reignited his passion for cooking. With this renewed verve, Choi attended the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, and completed his studies there in 1998. In New York, he cooked in the kitchens of Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin and Charlie Palmer's Aureole, and also worked stints under Bobby Flay, Susur Lee, and Iron Chefs Rokusaburo Michiba and Yutaka Ishinabe in Japan.

Following, Choi started his eight year relationship with the Hilton company, working at an Embassy Suites in Lake Tahoe before becoming Regional Chef for the entire Northern California and Pacific Northwest. The chain eventually brought him to Beverly Hills, where Choi served as the Executive Chef at The Beverly Hilton and its associated Trader Vic's restaurant. He left Hilton to become the opening chef at RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen, which debuted in June 2008. His tenure at the David Overton (founder of Cheesecake Factory) and Mohan Ismail owned restaurant was brief, however, because Kogi was just a few short months away.

The concept behind Kogi was formed like many other great ideas: drunk and at 4:00AM. It was actually the brainchild not of Roy Choi, but of one Mark Manguera, who'd come to the realization of Kogi after wolfing down some of LA's legendary street tacos. Manguera teamed up with his wife, Caroline Shin, and also brought on board his sister-in-law, the infamous Alice (or aLLLLLLLLice) Shin. The next step was luring away Choi from Rock Sugar, and with that done, he secured the help of friends and family to start promoting his nascent food truck. Thus, on November 20, 2008, a culinary empire was born. Thanks to the incredible marketing machine behind Kogi, the truck became an unmitigated success, igniting the current food truck craze that's swept the Southland, and indeed, much of the country.

In response to the unyielding demand for Kogi tacos, Choi set up a brick & mortar outpost in February 2009 at the Alibi Room, a lounge just a stone's throw away from A-Frame. In 2010, Choi launched his rice bowl concept Chego on Overland in Palms, just down the street from n/naka, and later that year, he was named one of "America's Best New Chefs" by Food & Wine. For A-Frame, Choi partnered up with David Reiss (The Brig, Playa Cantina, and Alibi Room), and the twosome debuted the restaurant on November 4, 2010 to considerable anticipation. The Chef's next project is also in conjunction the Reiss, as Choi will be taking over the kitchens at Reiss' Beechwood, filling the shoes of departed chef Jamie Lauren.

A-Frame Interior
Situated right next door to Brendan Collins' gastropub Waterloo & City, A-Frame occupies the space of a former IHOP, and takes its name from the structure's unique architecture. The room was revamped by Sean Knibb in his first restaurant project, and features communal seating, meant to encourage sharing. A-Frame seats 47 in the main dining room (pictured), in addition to 8 at the bar, 23 in the patio, and another 14 out front (under those weird hoop skirt lamps).

A-Frame Menu A-Frame Beverage Menu
A-Frame's menu presents Choi's version of re-imagined "picnic" food, ostensibly inspired by the beachside cookouts of his youth. "Papi Chulo" wasn't in tonight, but note the signature of Chef de Cuisine Jude Parra-Sickels, a French Culinary Institute graduate who worked under David Chang at Momofuku Ssam Bar and Momofuku Noodle Bar. Click for larger versions.

Scarlet Swizzle Cristopher Oaxacan
Scarlet Swizzle [$11.00] | Rum, Grand Marnier, falernum, lime, bitters
Cristopher Oaxacan [$11.00] | Mezcal, habanero, lime, orange
Naturally, we had to begin with a couple cocktails, courtesy of Bartender Brian Butler, who comes to A-Frame having previously worked at Alibi Room. The Scarlet Swizzle was quite tasty, with juicy undertones of falernum sweetness balanced out by a touch of astringency from the bitters, all over a marked base of rum. The Cristopher Oaxacan, meanwhile, really showed of the mezcal, with plenty of woody notes that joined forces with the habanero to produce a smoky-spicy punch of flavors that lingered long on the palate, countervailed only slight by hints of citrus here and there.

Cured Striped Bass
Cured Striped Bass [$12.00] | with clarified watermelon juice, Thai basil, cucumber, and pickled watermelon rind
Sashimi cuts of bass were mild and light to the bite, perked up by the refreshing zing of cucumber and watermelon, while Thai basil provided a deliciously aromatic component that helped integrate everything together.

Sesame Leaf Wrapped Shrimp Tempura
Sesame Leaf Wrapped Shrimp Tempura [$11.00] | with fresh cucumber, herbs and shoyu dipping sauce
Choi's take on tempura was pretty spectacular. The use of perilla in the shrimp contributed a delightfully minty note that played off the sweet salinity of the crustacean beautifully, and I loved the delicate crunch of the batter. The tempura pieces were delicious alone, but even better when dipped in that wonderfully piquant shoyu sauce--in fact, we even drank up the remaining liquid at the conclusion of the course.

Charred Baby Octopus
Charred Baby Octopus [$14.00] | with carrot kochujang puree, bok choy, pickled vegetables and nori seaweed
Octopus was also rather tasty, with a fantastic spiciness from the gochujang that paired gorgeously with the light brine of the cephalopod, while the nori contributed subtle hints of umami goodness. The dish was perfectly lightened by the inclusion of bok choy and the other veggies, which also made for some great textural variation. My only quibble was that I would've liked the octopus a touch rarer.

Clam Chowder
Clam Chowder [$11.00] | with green curry, lemongrass, pancetta, coconut milk, and toasted sourdough
Clam chowder was one the best I've had, though it certainly wasn't traditional at all. Rather, the broth, with its lemon grass and coconut milk, recalled a Thai style tom kha soup, amped up by the incorporation of salty bits of pancetta. The soup formed a wonderful base to the clams, which were supple, plump, and perfectly cooked, and we eagerly supped up the left over liquid at the end.

The Trick Del Mar
The Trick [$11.00] | Tequila, cucumber, ginger, lemongrass, chile salt
Del Mar [$11.00] | Bourbon, grapefruit, vanilla, honey, allspice
Time for more cocktails. The Trick showed off a delectable tanginess from the combination of ginger, lemongrass, and cucumber that countered the weight of the tequila admirably. The Del Mar, on the other hand, recalled a holiday libation, with a lovely sweet spice that interacted perfectly with the drink's boozy base.

Furikake Kettle Corn
Furikake Kettle Corn [$6.00] | buttered Blazin' J's Hawaiian style
Furikake refers to a Japanese condiment of dry bits of nori and other umami-laden ingredients, and here it was put to good use as a topping for kettle corn, playing off the corn's inherent sweet-savory interplay nicely. If you're curious about the Blazin' J's reference, it's a local producer of kettle corn; see their Facebook page here.

Baby Back Ribs
Baby Back Ribs [$12.00] | air-dried and hoisin-chili glazed
Pork ribs were quite delectable, with profoundly deep, sweet, xian flavors laced with just a subtle hint of heat. I really appreciated the crunchy bit of crust on the ribs, and the meat was plenty tender, but I would've liked them juicier and more succulent.

Harvest Saison & Reserve Wheat Sour Wild Ale
Harvest Saison, 5.9% [$8.00] | Craftsman Brewery, Pasadena, California
Reserve Wheat Sour Wild Ale, 5% [$9.00] | Telegraph Brewery, Santa Barbara, California
Switching things up a bit, we opted for beers this round. Up first was Craftsman's Harvest Saison, which actually wasn't very saison-like to me, with a restrained spiciness and an interesting banana essence. The Reserve Wheat Sour Wild Ale, on the other hand, conveyed a good amount of tart, lemon-y notes with very little hoppiness; it actually reminded me of an apple cider.

Roasted Lamb
Roasted Lamb [$18.00] | with toasted sesame oil, shoyu and garlic, served with fresh herb salad and salsa verde
We moved on to the main courses. A roasted leg of lamb was actually quite toothsome, with a definite ovine savor backed by a great touch of Asian-y, umami-rich flair from the sesame and soy. The meat was certainly tasty alone, but I adored the use of herbs and salsa verde here, both of which added a well placed point of levity to the dish.

Dyn-O-Mite [$4.00] | butter and sour cream twice baked duchesse potato, with chives and parmesan crust
Think of this side as a baked potato on drugs! 'Nuff said--I think my favorite part was actually the super crisp skin.

Knuckle Sandwich
Knuckle Sandwich [$12.00] | braised bowl of oxtail, tendons, knuckles and other forgotten pieces, served with soy chili dipping sauce, and toasted bread
Our final savory course brought us a bowl of various "forgotten" animal parts, braised tender. Save for the oxtail, which showed off loads of deep, dark flavors, the bits were rather bland. As such, the soy-chili sauce was absolutely key. We poured it into the bowl, and it really did a great job in tying everything together.

Frescas Fizz Waialua Hawaiian Natural
Frescas Fizz [$11.00] | Gin, hibiscus, lemon, egg white, orange bitters
Waialua Hawaiian Natural [$4.00] | Lilikoi soda
A final round of drinks with the desserts. The Frescas Fizz had a lovely sugary, citrus-y tang that linked up nicely with the gin, and I really liked the frothiness imparted by the egg white. We also had something non-alcoholic, the Lilikoi soda from Waialua. Though lilikoi is actually passion fruit, the soda actually tasted of peach, and I was rather smitten by it.

Thick Ass Ice Cream Sandwich
Thick Ass Ice Cream Sandwich [$6.00] | black pepper szechuan ice cream and salted chocolate cookie
Time for some dessert, which here at A-Frame is the charge of Pastry Chef Beth Kellerhals, a graduate of the French Pastry School who also runs her own company called Double Chin Desserts. The restaurant is known for its thick-ass ice cream sandwiches, so we had to try one. Here, I really enjoyed the peppery tang of the ice cream, which worked well with the saltiness inherent in the cookie. It was a tasty combination indeed, but unfortunately, the cookie got too tough towards the end, which sort of ruined things a bit.

Chu-Don't-Know-Mang [$7.00] | pound cake cinnamon churros, with malted chocolate milk and vanilla ice cream
Churros were awesome, more substantial and denser than your typical variety, with a completely in-your-face smack of cinnamon-y sweetness. Wonderful alone, they were doubly good when smothered in that gooey mix of ice cream and chocolate milk. Think of this as Choi's version of Thomas Keller's famed "Coffee and Doughnuts!"

Janice & Chris
As I mentioned above, the communal seating at A-Frame encourages sharing and conversation between strangers, and we just happened to be seated next to Janice and Chris, a couple from Torrance. They were great dinner company, and we all definitely embraced the ethos here of sharing is caring.

Having never really eaten Roy Choi's food before, I was a tad skeptical going into A-Frame. That being said, he delivered in a pretty big way, really fulfilling his promise of refined, modernized picnic food. The cooking here just seems so in touch with LA's current culinary Zeitgeist, with plenty of Asian-esque, familiar-yet-interesting flavor combinations that are easy to get comfortable with. Chef Choi is one to watch, and though Beechwood wasn't really on my radar before, I'll be interested to see what he does with the place in the coming months.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

ink. (Los Angeles, CA) [2]

Ink Restaurant
8360 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood, CA 90069
Thu 10/27/2011, 07:30p-09:45p

After my first visit to Michael Voltaggio's Ink, the Chef facetiously asked me to "give him at least a week" next time. Well, I gave him much more than that for this latest visit.

Ink Menu Ink Drink Menu
The menu this time around, fortunately, was nearly completely different than that of my previous dinner, and I applaud the Chef for the velocity at which he's changing things up--makes for great replay value. Click for larger versions.

rum [$12.00] | lime, house grenadine, green chartreuse
Devon Espinosa's cocktails, too, have changed, and we started out with his new rum-based one. It was quite fetching, with the herbaceous zing of the Chartreuse playing off the lime nicely, all while the rum added weight and gravity to the drink.

kale [$12.00] | burrata, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin preserves, yuzu
We kicked things off with a non-traditional salad of sorts. There were some really smart flavors going on here, with the creaminess of the burrata deftly balancing out the astringent kale, all under overarching notes of tangy yuzu. My favorite part here though was the smokiness imparted by the pepitas, as well as the pumpkin purée, which served to ground the dish with a restrained sweetness.

octopus and hiramasa
octopus and hiramasa [$16.00] | romaine hearts, fried caesar dressing
Both the octopus and the yellowtail amberjack were delightfully textured, and perked up by some great tart flavors. I loved the crispness imparted by the lettuce here, while the cuboids of caesar imparted a delicious depth and body to things, tying everything together. A standout dish for us.

bigeye tuna
bigeye tuna [$15.00] | parsnip-sesame cream, grapefruit, soy gel
Big eye tuna was mild and clean, with the soy gel providing a touch of umami-soaked flair that recalled the eating of sashimi, though some bites were overly salty. I appreciated the complexity and lusciousness imparted by the parsnip cream here, while the bits of bread helped moderate the dish. The key, though, was the grapefruit, which provided a much needed levity to things.

charred avocado
charred avocado [$11.00] | hen of the woods, whipped fish sauce, mushroom chicharrón
Another highlight of the evening was the avocado, which showed off a fantastic creaminess that went surprisingly well with the earthy relish of the maitakes, while the fish sauce added savory, yet ethereal overtones of pungency to the dish that I really enjoyed. The best part of the course, however, were the mushroom chips--I wanted an entire bag to myself!

beef tartare
beef tartare [$15.00] | horseradish, hearts of palm, sea bean chimichurri
Next up was perhaps the most fascinating beef tartar that I've had. The meat itself here was actually pretty mild, so what was interesting were its various accoutrements. The sea beans contributed a marked salinity to things that amped up the beef nicely, while the horseradish supplied pricks of piquancy to the dish. I also liked the tartness of the red onion gelée, as well as the rye tuiles for texture.

aviation gin
aviation gin [$13.00] | red bell pepper, agave, parfait amour
Our next drink was Espinosa's take on the classic Aviation cocktail, which conveyed a great interplay between the gin and the floral tang of the Parfait d'Amour, while the agave added body and sweetness to things. I didn't get too much from the bell pepper, though.

brussels sprouts
brussels sprouts [$10.00] | pig ears, house-cured lardo, apple
Brussels sprouts and pig ears, two of my favorite things to eat, together at last. The sprouts' innate astringency was adroitly augmented by the bitterness of char, while a veil of lardo served to provide a palpable gravity to the crisp veggies. If that wasn't good enough, strings of fried pig ear showed off a superb mix of crunchy and supple textures, while providing a shot of saltiness to the fray.

bay scallops
bay scallops [$14.00] | lamb neck and chickpea poutine, yogurt curds
Here was Voltaggio's version of poutine, substituting chickpea for fries, lamb for gravy, and yogurt for cheese, while also throwing scallops, fennel, and chive into the mix. The whole thing taken together was actually pretty delicious. Amazingly, the scallops weren't overpowered by all the other ingredients at play, and still were able to convey their inherent sweetness and salinity just fine. The lamb, of course, served up dark, meaty flavors, tempered a bit by the relative austerity of the garbanzo cylinders, and I appreciated the lightening effect of the herbs as well.

berkshire pork
berkshire pork [$22.00] | charcoal crust, macaroni and cheese, leeks
Pork was undeniably tender, with a delectable porcine goodness balanced by a substantial amount of astringency from the meat's charcoal crust. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I quickly warmed up to the countervailing bitterness at play. What I wasn't as keen on was the onion, which I found a touch sweet.

pinot noir
pinot noir [$18.00] | soliste, "narcisse", sonoma coast 2008
In preparation for our final savory course of the night, we opted for a wine, the 2008 Narcisse Pinot Noir from Soliste in Sonoma County. It was delectable, with a light body and plenty of cherry and berry flavors, laced with a bit of smoky savoriness.

wagyu hanger steak
wagyu hanger steak [$25.00] | turnips, coffee-cardamom soil, mustard, vadouvan
Hanger steak, not surprisingly, was stupendously beefy. It actually paired pretty well with the vadouvan, which imparted an Indian-inspired flair to the dish that was further enhanced by the coffee-cardamom combo. Meanwhile, the turnips, mustard, and greenery worked hard to counteract the strong flavors at play, sometimes succeeding in the effort.

apple [$9.00] | crème caramel, burnt wood sabayon, walnut
Desserts haven't witnessed as much turnover as the rest of the menu, but they have been refined. Take, for example, Voltaggio's apple dessert, which now had burnt wood sabayon in place of burnt wood ice cream. I thoroughly enjoyed the previous iteration, but this was arguably even better. The apple and caramel formed a wonderfully sugary complex together, while the frozen nitro sabayon contributed a restrained savoriness to the mix that filled out the dish perfectly. Very nice.

Ink appears to be still going strong. What's interesting is that Voltaggio seems to have veered toward the more adventurous in terms of taste. Previously, despite the progressive technique and plating utilized, many of the flavor profiles here were relatively familiar, comforting even. Now, it seems like the Chef is trying for the more experimental, more ambitious, and from what I've eaten, it appears that he's pulling it off. I'm very curious to see how the restaurant and its food progresses in the coming months, especially with the implementation of the omakase option in January.