Mardi Gras in Los Angeles at the Original Farmer’s Market

bengets   jumbalyala

Los Angeles is a long way from New Orleans, but The Original Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax will bring the ways of the Bijou state to Angelenos this weekend, as it kicks off the 26th annual Mardi Gras Celebration, on Valentine’s Day, February 14.  The three-day event will feature bead throwing, beignets, Dixie beer, face painting, and a lineup of music including Cajun and Zydeco bands and strolling performers.

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The boisterous, family friendly celebration includes special menu items from the many of the market’s 120 vendors. Chef Clinton and his crew at famed The Gumbo Pot will cook up their world-class jambalaya and Cajun gumbo, including alligator gumbo, along with catfish, crawfish pie, and many Cajun-spiced dishes.

The Normandie Bakery, run by the wonderfully sweet baker Josette, will slice up traditional King Cake, coated with purple, green and gold sugars and complete with a Baby Jesus baked inside.

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Bob’s Coffee and Doughnuts will serve puffed and powder-sugared fried dough treats that New Orleanians know as donuts but tourists call beignets. E.B’s and other bars at the market will be serving favorite beers of the Big Easy, such as Dixie Beer and Abita Purple Haze.  Rumor has it that one of the market’s sushi vendors will feature a special crawfish roll.

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Besides the cost of food and drink, the entire event is free.  Festivities continue into the evening hours over the weekend and wrap up February 17 with a Fat Tuesday finale 6 to 9 pm featuring Eddie Baytos and The Nervis Bros playing on the West Patio.  For more information and a full schedule of bands and activities, visit www.farmersmarketla.com.

 

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Locanda del Lago Welcomes the Familia Italian Style

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The term “family restaurant” means different things to different people.  At Locanda del Lago it means many things.  The traditional Northern Italian restaurant at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade has stood the test of time in LA where eateries go in and out of vogue with the seasons, but a typical bustling multigenerational Saturday night crowd shows this family favorite has staying power, not just as a restaurant where children are welcome, but also where diners are treated like family.

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Greeting guests at the host stand, an affable JD, in a snappy bow-tie, sets the tone for visitors. At first I thought JD mistook me for someone he knew, since his welcoming was so enthusiastic, but I later learned from our server, John, that JD is always this way.

John, who by his movie-star good looks and his expert recitation of the daily specials I presumed — and confirmed — was an actor, was pleasant and patient as my dining companion and I mulled over our options.  We decided to start off with one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, since JD had told us that the ingredients were fresh sourced just the day before from the local farmer’s market.  We chose the blood orange martini — delicious and fruity, and the raspberry and lemon drop martini — very sweet, accented by a sugared rim.

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We moved onto the appetizers — Burrata e Zucca; a creamy Burrata cheese with a savory-sweet butter squash compote; and the restaurant’s popular sampler of fried shrimp, calamari, smelts and zucchini. The former was a generous portion, making us wish we had ordered just one starter; and the latter was made interesting by the smelts, but overall this plate was a bit more crispy than hoped for, and since we were saving room for our entrees we had this bagged to take home.

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For entrees we chose the fillet, assuming we “could not go wrong,” and John in fact reinforced this idea using these exact words.  We also opted for a lobster pasta, which John highly recommended and informed us was the Chef Gianfranco Minuz’s own favorite dish to eat himself, whenever he was lucky enough there was any left at the end of a night.

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While the fillet was more on the medium than the medium-rare requested, it was still a tender piece of beef with a rich Porcini mushroom sauce and served with sautéed broccolini.  The pasta dish was a surprising pale green color, almost like tinted glass noodles, and while neither of expected to like it, we were pleased that it was, as promised, an exquisite treat.

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We finished our dinner with a molten lava cake, which unfortunately was still chilled in the center. Nevertheless, we polished it off, and though I was certain John would have offered us another dessert if we had complained, we were quite satisfied overall with our meal.

By the time we left, after pacing ourselves through an enjoyable two-hour dinner, we noticed most of the tables around us were the same guests as when we sat down.  The tables were filled with families — of grandparents, parents and children.  We were amused to see one table complete filled with children — the proverbial kids table — next to their parents who were clearly savoring their long evening of dining and visiting with family.

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As we made our way out, JD introduced us to the affable Michelin-starred Chef Minuz, whose menu was inspired by the tastes of the regions of Lombardy and Lake Como, and they saw us out the door, as good hosts always do at the end of an evening spend with familia; and they invited us to come again, which we certainly will.

Everythng is Awesome at LEGOLAND Movie Experience at LEGOLAND Resort

If your kids love building ingenious LEGO building brick creations and they could not get enough of the LEGO Movie, they will be thrilled to go where everything is awesome at the new LEGO MOVIE EXPERIENCE at LEGOLAND California Resort.  The attraction features a behind-the-scenes look at the LEGO Movie set where kids can step onto a LEGO soundstage and see the amazing collection of LEGO models that were featured in the 3D animated adventure.

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Visitors can view more than three million LEGO bricks that make up the models on the set and relive the adventures of the hero Emit, one perfectly ordinary LEGO minifigure who follows a calling to stop an evil tyrant, and he learns that he is a lot more special than he ever imagined.

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While the LEGOLAND park operates on a limited schedule with shorter hours off season, the advantage to visiting during winter months is that the crowds are sparse.  On a cool and rain-sprinkling Sunday in March, we were able to get on the most popular rides with a wait of just a few minutes.

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For those staying overnight to visit LEGOLAND Resort, the new LEGOLAND Hotel bordering the park offers terrific convenience, but another great option is one of the best little hotels anywhere, West Inn and Suites.  This boutique hotel offers a great value at a reasonable price starting at $159.00.  West Inn & Suites is located just few minutes away from LEGOLAND on the outskirts of an industrial park and close by the McClellan-Palomar Airport and the railroad tracks.  Despite the unusual location, this terrific inn is smartly decorated and features top-notch friendly service.

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The large king or queen suites are appointed with classic contemporary dark wood furniture, desks outfitted with outlets for computer and a pull-out queen sofa bed in a separate sitting area perfect for kids.  This place has everything a traveler could need and more:  heated pool and Jacuzzi, wi-fi, lighted make-up mirrors, wet bar, mini-fridge and in-room coffee maker.  Families with young kids abound in this hotel, due to its nearness to LEGOLAND, so it makes sense that the staff were so understanding when the our kids locked the in-room safe, and security had to come up to open it; or when we needed a fan for white noise to help the kids sleep.  Other kid-friendly amenities include a game system and two TVs, and fresh-daily cookies served with cold milk every night along with a hot breakfast buffet served daily.

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Two restaurants adjacent to the property are the popular local and tourist dining destinations:  the gourmet West restaurant and the more causal Bistro West.  Both source their produce from a local three-acre farm where fresh veggies are plucked each morning and brought to the restaurant’s kitchen. Image

Bistro West sees plenty of families enjoying the restaurant’s satisfying comfort food post-LEGOLAND.  The kids menu features typical mac and cheese and chicken strip fare along with a nice kid-portioned filet mignon for the little foodie sophisticate.

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For grownups, some of the featured favorites are the calamari fritti two ways with Asian seasonings and a wasabi cocktail sauce and classic fritti with roasted garlic aioli.  For entrees the local white sea bass served with pickled baby carrots and black olive tapenade over farro and hearty pastas like the spaghetti in vodka tomato cream with sautéed shrimp are winners.

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The white chocolate and Tahitian vanilla bean crème brulee duo or the made-for-sharing mud pie loaded with layers of Oreo, ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce are delicious finishers.

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Getting Intimate with Milo and Olive

Neighborhood Eatery Charms with Warm Atmosphere, Fresh Ingredients and Bread Delights

Milo & Olive has been around for three years, but from the buzz inside you would think the hole-in-the-wall bakery and pizzeria on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica had just opened its doors.  With just two large tables surrounded by chairs and a long bench, and bar seating overlooking the kitchen, about 30 lunchtime diners vie for a place at the tables and counters, where they sit beside and chat with strangers, off-line style.

Despite the din of patrons’ voices and clatter in the kitchen, the mood is relaxed, and of course intimate.  Chef Erin Eastland smiles from the large open kitchen, greeting guests as they enter.  Servers lean over customers, which can’t be helped in this small space, to deliver an assortment of fresh small plates, salads, pastas and wood fired pizzas to eager guests.  It’s a happy place, and once you’ve sampled the menu, you know why.

The salads – like the daily beet salad special, are so fresh you taste the aroma before you take a bite.  Likewise, the small plates are bursting with flavor, like the sautéed kale, pickled with fresno chili and garlic, that won over even a lukewarm kale eater like myself.

Arugula & Radiccio salad - credit Emily Hart Rothlores

When they say “small plates,” they mean it; but it doesn’t mean you won’t get enough to eat. Something about a truly satisfying dish, like the potato gnocchi and market vegetables prepared with basil and walnut pesto and Parmigiano Reggiano, fulfills in taste what heaps of bland food could never satiate.  And as the European-style shared-table seating inspires, the small plates are perfect for sharing among your party, so that you can satisfy your appetite with a diverse sampling of several dishes.

While many of the exotic pizzas are tempting – such as the pork belly sausage pizza with escarole or the roasted eggplant and greens pizza with mascarpone — one of the most popular pizzas at Milo & Olive remains the staple crispy pepperoni, so covered with spicy slices of meat that it actually crunches.

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Aside from their pizzas, the not-to-miss signature item at Milo & Olive is the wood fried garlic knot, a twisted soft bread ball soaked in extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.  Worth the extra 20 minutes it takes to prepare, this the ultimate garlic-lovers treat.
Garlic knot - credit Emily Hart Roth

Other rustic bread and pastries offered include classic baguettes and country boules; green olive, lemon and thyme breads; three-cheese cheesebread; whole wheat potato bread; and homemade bagels.  All are the creations of co-owner Zoe Nathan, who along with business partner Josh Loeb, who are together the team behind Santa Monica’s other restaurant gems Rustic Canyon and Huckleberry and the recently opened Sweet Rose Creamery ice cream shop.

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The concept behind Milo & Olive is warm and inviting: a place where guests can come enjoy morning coffee and pastries or gather to dine with friends, or meet new ones, for lunch or dinner.  The crowd is mostly local office workers during the weekdays, but weeknights and weekends guests drive in from across Los Angeles, or from as far as Paso Robles, as were a couple who shared our table for a late lunch.  Despite Milo & Olive’s popularity, they don’t take reservations, so prepare for a wait if you show up at busy times.  Nobody gets special treatment for seating, but just like at the family table, if you don’t mind getting cozy, they will squeeze you in.