The Sicilian secret in Santa Monica – O+O Sicilian Kitchen and Bar

img_3676The only thing not great about O+O Sicilian Kitchen and Bar in Santa Monica was finding the place. Waze announced my dining companion and I had arrived, but we still couldn’t find it after 10 minutes of walking up and down Ocean Blvd.  We started to leave when we ran into a group of people who were also looking for it.  They had friends on the phone who were at the restaurant who swore it really existed and we were just a half black away.  I’m glad we did not give up the hunt.

Even on a dark, cold and rainy night, somehow a restaurant full of people had found O+O.  The place was packed.  After having a needed glass of Tuscany wine to unwind from our trek, we relaxed into the warm and friendly neighborhood atmosphere of the Italian family style eatery, where large groups had pushed together tables, and many families with children were dining together.

The menu featured modern Sicilian cuisine with a California flair, with dishes such as fennel and blood orange salad, fried olives, squid ink linguine and vegetarianna artichoke and eggplant pizza.  As a charcuterie aficionado, I was happy to see a selection of cold cuts, and for my starter I had the persimmon and prosciutto salad. The meat was satisfyingly salty, and the burrata perfectly creamy soft.

img_3678

It’s a good thing I didn’t eat lunch that day, because after the generously portioned salad, I was already feeling full, and I was wondering if we should have ordered the second course, the restaurant’s popular classic meatballs, but we were glad we did.

The meatballs lived up to their promise, of being classic. They tasted just like my mom’s meatballs from my childhood, the ones she would make for the progressive dinner parties, that percolated all day in the crockpot in their rich tomato sauce with basil, and pecorino.

For the main course, I ordered the breaded swordfish, which was previously a special, but because but it became so popular they put it on the menu. It was light and tasty, served with romaine, arugula, fennel, and cherry tomatoes.  A delicious and perfectly cooked dish.

To finish off our meal, we enjoyed the trio selection of ricotta, pistachio and chocolate cannoli, which were fresh and just the right size to not be overly filling after a three-course meal.

img_3681

The food made this place worth finding, but clearly by the size of the crowd, the restaurant was not as hidden as we thought. In fact, the crowd was a bit much, as the place was rather noisy, probably owing to the acoustics of the mostly glass walls. It seemed like everyone was yelling to be heard, so on one hand there was an enjoyable frenetic New York-y energy, but on the other hand, I would’ve liked a more tranquil environment to savior my food.

While they are not terrific for audibility, those panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows offer an incredible view of the outdoors, which on a sunny day would be the place I would choose to dine. The patio overlooks a lovely courtyard of the Pacific Terrace building complex in which the restaurants resides — and which should be part of the street address instead of Ocean Avenue, if they want to make the place less impossible to find; but maybe its best we keep that a secret.

Wandering from the Westside for a special seaside dinner at Las Brisas

lb-gallery-brunchWhen choosing a restaurant for a special occasion, such as an anniversary, birthday, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, holiday dinner or even a proposal, the ideal venue should be as memorable as the event, a tall order which Las Brisas in Laguna always aims to fulfill for its guests.  My second to last visit there was about 10 years ago, and after enjoying a Christmas day dinner there recently, I wondered why it has been so long.

lasbrisas_gr_march-3-2015-0852

The drive from Los Angeles to Laguna is about an hour, and like many Angelenos I tend to dine within a 20-minute drive radius, but every so often I will venture further outside my culinary comfort zone, such as to Malibu or Laguna, and that is when I realize why the drive is worth it.  As a dining destination, Las Brisas has it all.  A spectacular vista of the Pacific coastline, excellent food, superb service, an elegant yet laid-back atmosphere, and a few bonuses, such as a bird’s eye view of surfers and divers who are drawn to the famous seascape, and a warm, friendly atmosphere that can only be cultivated by decades of being a local establishment beloved by its neighbors.

The legendary restaurant was built in 1938 as the Victor Hugo Inn, a world-class restaurant and celebrity getaway, and it became Las Brisas in 1979, a first-class sea-to-table culinary destination attracting both locals and visitors of discriminating tastes.

The menu features an infusion of the best of Californian cuisine with authentic Mexican recipes of rich, sweet, sour and spicy flavors, such as the Shrimp, Tampiqueños an entree of Spicy wild Mexican prawns sautéed with shiitake mushrooms, Chardonnay and garlic. Traditional Mexican dishes are given a modern twist, such as Caleta, a savory seafood enchilada with skirt steak or the choice of free-range chicken or grilled fish soft taco; or La Asada, a Chipotle-citrus marinated natural skirt steak with a chicken enchilada.

For our holiday dinner, the fare was more continental and limited, with a fixed menu offering including beet salad, butternut squash soup, chops, steaks, scallops, seabass and of course, surf and turf; and for desert a seasonal eggnog crème brulee or apple cinnamon tart.  Despite the fact the restaurant was packed on Christmas night, with diners overflowing onto the patio, where they were warmed comfortably by the glowing flames from glass tower heaters, and guests were brimming out front door on one of winter’s chilliest nights, the maître d seated the waiting guests swiftly and efficiently.

img_3908

img_3924-edited

Likewise, the service was meticulously organized, with hot plates being delivered within a few minutes of ordering, and my medium rare filet was cooked exactly right and the perfect temperature.  We were amazed at how our uber-efficient server juggled the at-capacity crowd with aplomb, answering our questions about the menu, chatting with guests about the holidays, and taking the time to help us select a wine to pair with our entrees.  I half expected him to start spinning plates on a pole.

lasbrisas_gr_march-3-2015-0955

One large group that was being seated next to us began to grumble about having a chair placed on the end of the table for an extra guest, so without any discussion the server quickly conferred with the host who obliged the group with a larger table by a window, very much met to their liking.

This is the attitude of “aiming to please” which has made the restaurant a favorite for those occasions when patrons desire impeccable service that makes them feel special.  For the holidays, the restaurant decorated its dining rooms with festive lights, Christmas trees, candles and orchids adorned with holly berries for the season, but the centerpiece for guests of all ages was a giant aquarium that resides in the foyer, which perpetually has small children gathered around, gazing at the brilliant coral and sea life.

img_3902

img_3909

The aquarium is a dependable mainstay, like the restaurant, and no matter the fact it has stood for 38 years in the same place, it is always dynamic and exciting, well worth the trek out of LA to find an experience you can’t have sitting on a city sidewalk.

Cerveteca Downtown LA’s Menu Offers a Melting Pot of LA Cultures and Tastes

CervetecamenuGuest post by Stephanie Houfek

Just open a month, Cerveteca Downtown LA is bustling on a Friday night like a trendy and happening spot that’s been around for years. Other than a few newbie servers still learning the ropes, the place seems settled in like the artsy-techie neighborhood’s mainstay it is destined to become, serving up delicious Mexican comfort food blended with modern style, straight from the generations-old recipe box of the Hermosillo family owners.
Operations Manager Yvonne Garcia says the restaurant is a family affair. She works the floor along with her brother, who is one of her fellow business partners, along with her two strikingly handsome grown-up twin sons. Her mother, known as Chef Mama, is busy getting prepped dishes out of the kitchen, with the help of a cousin.

cervetecainteriorThe eatery’s signature family inspired dishes include the La Puente Backyard Original, a fat and tall burger dressed with a thick cut of pork-belly bacon — just like Mama used to make on the grill; Pescado a la Veracruzana, a red snapper heaped with castelvetrano olives, capers, tomato and garlic with arrozajillo; and the restaurant’s already famous Hangover Spicy Soup, a mouth-enlivening concoction of shrimp, clams, fish, chayote squash and carrot.
Other specialties on the menu include appetite-whetting starters called Chicano Cheese Pots, a trio of like a trio of stringy cheesy dips with mixed with corn and spices, served with guac; and sides like grilled plantains with a mild sour cream; and healthy options like Quinoa ‘n Kale, tossed with roasted corn and spiced cashews.

fishsoup
Like the surrounding ‘hood and the city center in which it resides, Cerveteca is a melting pot of LA cultures and tastes. Its inspirations include Mexican and Asian fusion and Greek and Peruvian influences. The restaurant also pays homage to its predecessor, R23, a Japanese restaurant that occupied the 923 East 3rd Street site for nearly two decades, by repurposing the sushi bar with a marble-top raw bar offering a changing menu of ceviche, oysters, and other raw fare. The desert menu includes Mama’s homemade bread pudding, flan and the Cerveteca sundae.

breadpudding

flan
The eatery’s hardwood floors and brick-walled interior remain intact, but the entranceway off of the alley has been altered to bring the outdoors into the dining space, which seats nearly 100.
Cerveteca Downtown LA is part of the Hermosillo restaurant family, joining its sister restaurant Cerveteca in Venice, which also features some of the elements from the new restaurant, such as the charcuterie and cheese, crafted beers and wines carefully selected by wine director and partner Norma Alvarado, but also with distinctions, such as the fully stocked raw bar with a wide variety of ceviche, and a daily happy hour from 3-7pm with the unbeatable deal of $1 oysters.

“Personally, I think there’s wonderful and similar creative and cultural energy between Venice and Downtown’s Arts District,” said Hermosillo. “The richness and artistic qualities of the two neighborhoods are connected, so being in both locations make perfect sense for Cerveteca.”cheesetrio

Plan for LA’s Best Modern American Comfort Food for Kids and Grown Ups — Plan Check Kitchen + Bar

For epicurean kids, Plan Check Kitchen + Bar unveiled its new children’s menu last month, with smaller portions of some of their most-famed dishes, like smokey friend chicken, and the PCB (Plan Check Burger) Jr., sans onions. The ambiance of this bar and restaurant is decidedly grown-up, but even after 7 pm on a Sunday night, the place is crawling with young kids, out with the ‘rents for a family dinner.friedchick800pickles800

While the kids menu throws in one can’t-miss favorite of grilled cheese, the other offerings are suited for kids who have a bit more adventurous palate. My seven-year-old son went for the BBQ chicken stix, which are definitely not your typical chicken fingers.

stix800 These tender and tasty skewers, swathed in tangy BBQ sauce and sprinkled with crunch cheddar ban bacon bits, presented in a mini iron skillet on a bed of fries, were just to my son’s liking, though for those who prefer breaded nuggets, these fingers would have gone untouched.
While the kids menu is called such, even the drinks — fountain soda, lemonade, or iced tea, eschew the usuals — juices and milk, and are served in a tall narrow glass — no plastic sippy with a straw here. For sure, this kids menu is not your standard, and like the atmosphere — a bit noisy, hip and happening — the menu is exciting enough for adults, but tame enough to appeal to kids.

fries800
For the of-age crowd, the upscale comfort food is divinely satisfying. The portions may seem small, but the food is filling as it is scrumptious.

chips800The sweet potato waffle fries, made with beef tallow, pop with flavor as vivid as the bright orange color, and the smokey fried chicken earns its reputation as mouth-watering — one of those dishes where you take a bite then your eyes go wide when the flavor saturates your soul.
The cruller donuts are the final treat to finish off such a delectable meal. The cinnamon-coated dough twists come with a dipping cream sauce and cream mousse along with banana slices for the ultimate donut fix.
Plan Check Bar + Restaurant is smart to be so different from its neighbors. It’s not what you would expect in the middle of LA, which makes you wonder, “Where else could you go for a meal like this?” The answer is nowhere I can think of. And that makes it even better.

burger800
The crowd is eclectic. In addition to the sprinkling of families, there was a large contingent of stylish (assume gay) men, attractive single men and women at the bar. Prices are reasonable, with burgers and sandwiches $12 to $13, and other entrees from $13 to $16. Some of the snacks and apps are particularly unique, such as the selection of pickles and a wire basket of exotic veggie chips with avocado dip.

cruller800
Plan Check, which takes its name from its original location across from the Building and Safety Department, where architects, engineers and the like would lunch while reviewing plans for permitting. Two current locations are at 351 N. Fairfax and 1800 Sawtelle in LA. A downtown location on Wilshire is due to open soon.

Open Sesame Restaurant Serves Inspired Authentic Mediterranean Cuisine

Founder Ali Kobeissi Offers a Fresh Take on Traditional Lebanese Dishes

Open Sesame is a great name for Ali Kobeissi’s restaurant not just because sesame is an essential ingredient in the Mediterranean food he serves, but because dining there is akin to a magical experience like the Ali Baba tale full of adventure and hidden treasures.

osla3

The Los Angeles location of Open Sesame, sister to its location in Long Beach, offers guests an experience that combines the best of meticulous big city service with the familiarity and coziness of a small independent restaurant, coupled with outstanding Middle Eastern fare.

Kobeissi has created an intimate eatery for those who crave authentic Lebanese cuisine, with flavors not just of exotic spices, but also an ambience of romance and the warmth of a family kitchen.  As with his first location in Long Beach, opened in 1999, the Los Angeles restaurant became popular quickly.

otc1

As a youth in Beirut, Kobeissi worked in a spice factory, and he developed a love for healthy, flavorful made without animal fats or additives.   His menu is a delicious testament to his dedication to this wholesomeness.

I was lucky to get a table on a Saturday night with a friend for a feast of Kobeissi’s authentic dishes.  We started with the Kibbi, a shell of ground beef filled with roasted pine nuts, caramelized onions and herbs, with a side of yogurt dip.

For entrees we had the Sultan, a combination plate of marinated lamb chops, grilled tiger shrimp, and filet mignon served over basmati rice and Kafta skewers of beef and lamb with parsley, onion and Lebanese spices and hummus.  Of course we couldn’t go Mediterranean without falafel, so we ordered a couple patties a la carte.

Falafel

The food was plentiful though light enough that we did not feel overfull.  To finish off our very satisfying meal, we ordered two desserts:  Baklawa a la mode, which was the freshest we had ever tasted, and the Ashta ice cream made a perfect complement; and the Chocolate Molten Lava Cake, which was just the right amount of rich, topped with Lebanese almond ice cream.

While we did not order any of the salud juices, the Spicy Ginger Shot of ginger and cayenne sounded like a blast; or other exotic beverages to choose from included Turkish coffee infused with cardamom, or Laban, a chilled yogurt drink with dry mint.

Kafta

As we looked around the room, many patrons had finished their meals but lingered for the enjoyable ambience.  Kobeissi roamed the room, graciously greeting and chatting with his customers as if they were long-time friends, welcome to stay the entire evening.  But with food this good, the crowd of guests arriving for their reservations would be glad to have their tables soon.

Sultan

Open Sesame is located at 7458 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles.  For menus and more, go to www.opensesamegrill.com