March 28, 2010

Animal (Los Angeles): Two Dudes - One Restaurant

Many restaurant names often have a meaning, like names of the owner or their place of origin but rarely does a restaurant name so clearly reflect the food you will experience: Animal in West Hollywood is one of these exceptions. From the very beginning this name makes it very clear that all kinds of animal protein will be the main focus of every dish – but everything else on the plate won’t disappoint either.

Animal was started in the spring of 2008 by chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. Both met in 1999 at culinary school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and decided from there on to tackle the challenges of the culinary world together. After finishing their culinary education they worked together in numerous restaurants in Florida such as The Strand, Mark’s and The River House before moving to the Wildflower restaurant at the Lodge in Vail. They then finally decided to move to Los Angeles to work under chefs Govind Armstrong and Ben Ford at the Chadwick Restaurant before opening their own catering service – Caramelized Productions. The catering service was also part of the short-lived Food Network series “Two Dudes Catering”. Having experienced once how it is to work as their own bosses they decided to open their own restaurant – Animal.

Animal is located on Fairfax Ave. in a non-descriptive building next to the Schwartz Bakery and a few buildings up from Canters.

The interior has a very rustic, bare-bones and minimalistic look. It is a single large room with a bar at one end and several wooden tables. But similar to the food at Animal the first look might indicate a very bold and straight feel but if you look at bit closer you will find many small details like bare filament light bulbs and few pictures which make everything comfy and welcoming. The service at Animal is always professional but at the same time personal – at which restaurants do you experience waiters who recognize you and greet you with a handshake when you come into the restaurant?

Animal has an interesting list of wines with some more unusual finds like some Italians, e.g. Negramoro or Coste della Sesia. At a recent visit we decided to order a few beers including a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale which had a malty start with a long sweet finish and an Abita Amber which is a nice smooth beer pairs nicely with the food at Animal.

You can easily only just focus on several of the small plates of Animal to get a full meal but we tend to share a few of them before switching to the entrees (but not forgetting the desserts either).

Small Plate 1: Chicken liver toast
We really like chicken liver in all of its renditions. The night before we had the chicken liver toast at Pizzeria Mozza which has a more coarse structure whereas the Animal variation is very smooth with balsamic drippings on top.

Small Plate 2: Rabbit loin, parsnip, pear mostarda and benton’s bacon
This plate has some ingredients you unfortunately don’t see often on menus – rabbit which had a delicate taste between chicken and game wrapped in bacon which helped to keep it moist and parsnip which has a nice earth flavor. The pear mostarda (an Italian condiment made out of candies fruit and mustard flavored syrup) gave a good balance with its mix of sweetness and slight spicyness from the mustard oil.

Small Plate 3: Duck confit, apple, pecans, dates and arugula
Rather classic version of duck confit with carefully chosen sides – bitter greens, sweet dates, sour apples - which helped to cut through the richness of the meat. Perhaps not the best version of duck confit we ever had but definitely a very enjoyable one.

Small Plate 4: Barbeque pork belly sandwiches and slaw.
As certified pork belly addicts it is hard for us to see pork belly on a menu and not order it. Animal has several dishes on rotation and this time we chose the pork belly sandwiches – wonderfully tender meat with a not too overwhelming sauce and slaw on a tasty bun. Unfortunately only one sandwich for each of us.

Entrée 1: Flat iron steak, sunchoke hash and truffle parmesan fondue
Very tender and perfectly cooked steak with an unusual but balanced sauce of truffles and parmesan which is quite addicting. The potatoes and sunchokes had a good smooth consistency.

Entrée 2: Veal breast, polenta, savoy cabbage and prosciutto
An Italian inspired dish which worked best if you tried to taste all the components at the same time.

Dessert 1: Tres leches and dulce de leche
Animal has only a few desserts and we tend to end up with the same two desserts – An outstanding tres leches cake which even though it is quite rich is at the same time very light. The dulce de leche adds a interesting caramel-like flavor.

Dessert 2: Bacon chocolate crunch bar and s&p anglaise
Animal’s signature dessert – not unlike a Kit-Kat bar but with added saltiness from the bacon which could have been a bit more pronounced. You mainly taste the good chocolate-nut combination.

We have yet to have a disappointing evening at Animal. The restaurant is a great addition to the many restaurants in this area with a very strong focus on excellent food and less formality. The ever changing menu – even dishes which are on the menu for a longer time often get different sides or flavor changing variations – makes every visit an unique experience.

435 N. Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles. CA 90036
(323) 782-9225

March 23, 2010

Hatfield's (Los Angeles) - Reopening on Melrose Avenue

It is always interesting when we look around in our circle of friends to realize how many couples work in the same occupational area. But if you really think about it, it is not that surprising that if you don’t know your partner from school days it is very likely that you will meet him/her during college or job years when the interests and life styles are very similar. So it is not surprising that in the culinary world where unusual working hours require a lot of understanding, chef couples are not unusual.

Karen and Quinn Hatfield first met when they both worked at Spago. They both then worked separately at different restaurants in New York (Jean Georges, Bouley, Gramercy Tavern etc.) before they decided to work together again at Cortez in San Francisco. In 2006 they decided to open up their own restaurant in Los Angeles – Hatfield’s.

We always enjoyed our nights at Hatfield’s as this restaurant provides in interesting contrast to most other high-end restaurants since in its original location it was a very small and intimate place with very few tables and a small kitchen. One of the highlights of Hatfield’s for us was their 7-course tasting menu which featured well executed French-Californian cuisine. As an interesting sidenote – when we ordered the tasting menu with two people both of us would get different dishes for each course which gave you a chance to taste 14 different courses. Due to the small number of tables it was always difficult to get a reservation at Hatfield’s and it wasn’t a real surprise that middle of last years the Hatfield’s decided to do the next plausible step and move to a bigger location.

They moved their restaurant from Beverly Blvd to the new location on Melrose Ave formerly occupied by Red Pearl Kitchen and several other restaurants including Michel Richard’s Citrus.

The first thing one recognizes is that the number of tables has at least doubled compared to the old location. The dining room has an interesting vibe somewhere between intimate and minimalistic with a very eye-catching honeycomb chandelier.

One of the most interesting changes to us is the new open kitchen. Many restaurants claim to have open kitchen but you often can only see parts of the kitchen or just a few of the line cooks – not so at the new Hatfield’s.

Here you have a very large window with a fantastic view of the whole kitchen from everywhere in the restaurant, you can even see Chef Quinn in action.

Another nice new feature at Hatfield’s is their bar with gave us a good opportunity to start the evening with two excellent cocktails.

Candied Kumquat Mojito – 10 Cane Virgin, pineapple, smashed kumquat, lime and mint. The cocktail had a nice balance between sweetness and tartness of the kumquats; and Winter Bellini – Prosecco frizzante and rhubarb puree. Unusual but successful variation on a bellini which had a nice tartness from the rhubarb, loved it.

Unfortunately Hatfield’s was just two weeks open at the time we visited and didn’t have the tasting menu up and running so that we decided to go with the 4-course prix fixe menu and covering all dishes.

Amuse Bouche: Diced yellowtail, squash, lime, curry. A very light and fresh start of the evening which showed already how Hatfield’s combines many different flavors from all over the world.

1st Course A: Pan roasted diver scallops, braised celery, salsify, apple froth. Nicely roasted scallops which had the typical sweetness and as a contrast the slight bitterness of celery and apple.

1st Course B: Charred Japanese mackerel, oven dried pineapple, avocado, fried shallots, nori infused salsa verde. Mild fish with some sweetness from the pineapple and an accompanying aromatic/herbaceous salsa verde.

2nd Course A: Pan seared dorade, carrot puree, Chinese broccoli, mushroom ragout. Very moist fish with a crispy skin. The sweetness from the carrot puree is balanced from the slight bitterness of the Chinese broccoli. The mushroom ragout added some “meatiness”

2nd Course B: Prawns a la plancha espelette, creamy crab rice, roasted peanuts, preserved lemon, mint. One highlight of this dish was the creamy crab rice. The prawns were crusted with pepper and sprinkeled with peanuts. A very Asian influenced dish.

3rd Course A: Long Island duck breast, whiskey prune smear, butternut squash, quinoa porridge. Sous-vide cooked rosy duck breast with a nice crispy skin, sweet butternut squash and quinoa porridge which reminded of a risotto.

3rd Course B: Horseradish dusted short ribs and hanger steak, spring onion confit, smoked potato puree. Very tender short ribs which got some spiceness from the horseradish accompanied by a surprisingly “smokey” smoked potato puree. The hanger steak was also very tender and was accompanied by a sweet-garlicky onion confit.

For desserts we could pick anything from the dessert menu.

4th Course A: Coconut custard “Macroon”, marinated pineapple, vanilla tapioca, passion fruit-elderflower sorbet. The coconut custard was the center of the dish and came along with many different flavor profiles from the sweet pineapple, tart sorbet. This dessert reminded us of desserts we had at Providence that we are completely addicted to.

4th Course B: Chocolate “Nutella” ganache cake, butterscotch rosemary ice cream, hazelnut toffee. Interesting take on a chocolate cake with a twist by the rosemary flavor of the ice cream.

Mignardises: Chocolate cupcakes

Overall we were very happy with the reopened Hatfield’s. The ambience is very different from its old location but it is still not too large and especially the open kitchen makes the atmosphere unique. Service was professional while friendly, and the food was as good as we remembered. The only small complain was that the portion size tends to be quite small. We normally feel that most restaurants in the US serve way too much food but Hatfield’s was one of the rare occassions where we felt that we should have added some supplements for the prix fixe. We are really looking forward to go back when the full tasting menu is available.

6703 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 935-2977

March 19, 2010

Fort Ross Wine Dinner at Cafe Chloe (San Diego)

The Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery is uniquely situated for a vineyard with just a mile from the Pacific Ocean. It is located close to the mouth of the Russian River between Jenner and Fort Ross, and at a height of 1200 to 1700 feet overlooks the ocean. The Fort Ross Vineyard is made up by 28 small vineyard blocks at the top of the coastal ridge. The South Africans Linda and Lester Schwartz started winemaking at this location in 1994. Today the Fort Ross Vineyard focuses on three varietals – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinotage. The name Fort Ross Vineyard might be not as familiar as some of the “big” vineyards in Sonoma and Napa County but nevertheless their numerous favorable reviews for many of their wines show that many wine connoisseurs appreciate their wines.

For many years now we have been very interested in food and cooking and always enjoyed drinking a good beer or wine to accompany our food, but only over the last two years or so we really started to get much more interested in learning more about wine, beer and cocktails. You can of course learn a lot by reading about these areas, but one approach that we have started to enjoy is to participate in wine/beer dinners, or to opt for a wine pairing with a tasting menu. So when recently Cafe Chloe hosted a wine dinner with wines from Fort Ross Vineyard we decided to take this opportunity to combine good food with some good wines.
Tasting menus with wine pairings can sometimes be quite formal but in this case it turned out to be a laid back and relaxing night. Only a limited number of tables took part in the wine dinner but at the same time regular customers could select a few of the courses with the wine pairing individually which was a good idea to at least get some taste of the food and wines.

1st Course: Chilled chicken & truffle galantine with Persian watercress
 and green garlic sauce vert.

Great start for the evening and our favorite course of the night. Galantine is stuffed meat (often forcemeat) that is poached and coated with aspic. The addition of truffle gave it a very elegant taste. The green garlic sauce vert completed the dish by giving a nice light, herbaceous touch. The 2008 Rose of Pinot Noir was a good pairing with its taste of strawberries and jasmine tea and a smooth finish which didn’t overwhelm the delicate taste of the galantine.

2nd Course: Branzino with sauce au vin blanc, spring vegetables –
peas, asparagus, favas, pea vines, radishes and beets.

This Mediterranean seabass had firm, moist flesh and a nice crispy skin. The vegetables were perfectly cooked, and especially the beets had a nice earthy flavor which suited the fish. The ingredients and the colorful presentation made this a great spring dish. The 2005 Chardonnay Reserve was interesting as it was an unfiltered wine. It had some fruity tones of peaches, apricots and melon with some acidity and a long finish.

3rd Course: Grilled duck breast with tangelo duck jus, wild mushrooms,
creamed spinach and duck rillette crepe Breton.

Also one of our favorites of the night – the citrusy sauce helped to balance the richness of the duck breast and the meatiness of the large pieces of wild mushrooms. The creamed spinach and especially the buckwheat crepe with duck rillette filling were outstanding “side” dishes.

This course was accompanied by two different Pinot Noirs – 2007 Pinot Noir (left) and 2005 Pinot Noir Reserve (right). You could already see by the darker color that the reserve would have a much stronger and refined taste than “regular” Pinot Noir. The reserve had a strong taste of brambleberry, cherry and plums and quite a lot of tannins whereas the “regular” had less tannins and also less intense berry flavor.

4th Course: Smoked pork shoulder braised with rosemary, roasted fennel,
tomato, cranberry beans and local olive oil.

Altogether a good dish but probably the weakest part of the tasting menu. The meat was very tender and had a slight smoky flavor. The beans worked as a good base for the dish but the fennel was hardly detectable and it felt overall unbalanced and overly rich. Some balancing flavors which would have cut through the richness of the meat like some bitter kale/chard or some vegetable mash with some added sweetness from carrots or winter squash would have been nice. The paired 2006 Pinotage reminded us not surprisingly of a Pinot Noir with some raspberry and blackberry flavors with a smooth finish.

5th Course: Irish cashel blue cheese, roasted green grapes and honeycomb.

A good finish of the dinner with this Irish cheese which reminded us of a mixture of Gorgonzola and Roquefort. The honeycomb had the perfect balancing sweetness to the tanginess of the cheese. The roasted grapes with their slight smokey flavor were a nice addition. This course was paired with a Sauternes from Cafe Chloe which had a good balance between its sweetness and raisiness.

Supplement Dessert: Affogato – drawn espresso with vanilla bean ice cream.

Although we were quite full we were thinking about some coffee and sweets to finish the night. What is better than combining these two than in an affogato. Cafe Chloe has very good house-made ice cream, including their vanilla bean ice cream, and they use high quality Illy coffee beans for their espressos. By the way, this is one of our favorite desserts at Cafe Chloe together with their exceptional pistachio bread pudding, or their outstanding chocolate pot de crème… we like desserts…

Overall we enjoyed this wine menu at Cafe Chloe a lot, and it was a good combination of excellent food and good wines. We found most of the Fort Ross wines to be good “restaurant” wines which means we would easily order a glass of them in the restaurant. On the other hand they sometimes felt raw and unfinished so that we probably would not order larger quantities for home enjoyment, one exception might be the 2005 Chardonnay Reserve. John, one of the three owners of Cafe Chloe, mentioned that they are planning three more wine dinners over the course of this year, and we hope that we might have time to enjoy them.
721 9th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 232-3242

March 17, 2010

French Lentil Soup

This year San Diego experienced an unusually cold and rainy winter – for the last couple of days the weather seems to have finally turned around and become “more typical San Diegan” again. The cold winter period gave us, however, a very good excuse but also a lot of motivation to try out different new soup recipes over the last few months. We always try to cook vegetarian dishes at home on a frequent basis as we like to go out for dinners often which tend to be non-vegetarian most of the time. Since we had some green lentils at home we decided to prepare a French Lentil Soup. In general, we prefer our soups not to be too brothy and like them to have more body by using larger amounts of vegetables than called for in most recipes, and also by pureeing part of the soup at the end of the cooking. If you like yours less thick just skip the pureeing step.

This French Lentil soup had a nice earthy flavor from the lentils which were accentuated by the addition of lemon juice and Sherry vinegar.

Tie thyme, bay leaf and caraway seeds in cheesecloth

Heat oil in pot over medium-high heat and cook onions and garlic for about 5 minutes and until onions start to soften. Add carrots, leeks and celery and cook for additional 6-7 minutes until vegetables are softened.

Add the tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes with stirring. Add vegetable broth, green lentils, white wine, sherry wine vinegar, lemon juice and sachet and bring to simmer. Cook for about 40 minutes until lentils are tender.

Remove sachet and puree half of soup in a blender. Season with salt and white pepper to taste.

Recipe adapted from “The CIA Book of Soups”

Serves 8:
2 tbsp oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
3 carrots, finely diced
2 leeks, finely diced
3 celery stalks, finely diced
1 tbsp tomato paste
7 cups vegetable broth
300 g (12 oz) green lentils
¼ cup white wine
2 tbsp sherry wine vinegar
juice of half a lemon
Sachet: 2 sprigs fresh thyme, 1bay leaf, ¼ tsp caraway seeds tied in a cheesecloth