Batali and Silverton Reign Supreme: Osteria Mozza

mozza-exteriorI have always known that he cooked great, authentic Italian meals, but I was never a huge fan of Mario Batali (of Motto Mario and more famously, Iron Chef America on Food Network).  But after experiencing the mouthwatering dishes at his restaurant, Osteria Mozza, I was ready to put on a pair of orange Crocks and join his fan club.

Osteria Mozza is one half of Batali’s joint venture with the master bread maker Nancy Silverton of the popular  La Brea Bakery (aka my Goddess), and is a more fancy and upscale eatery to its counterpart, Pizzeria Mozza, located next door. Of all the celebrity chef-owned restaurants that I’ve been to in Los Angeles and Vegas (Emeril’s Seafood, Delmonico, Spago, Nobu, and the usual), this was, hands down, the most impressive. All the bourgeois elements where there – the glitz and glamour, fancy zip code, stylish decor, a valet parking that costs my entire paycheck – but one thig that was missing from Osteria Mozza, and gratefully so, was the pretentiousness that’s usually attached to LA hot spots. The service here was down-to-earth and very friendly, and our server blessed us with great recommendations that certainly hit the hungry spot for all of us.

We were seated in a little room in the back of the restaurant which reminded me of a cozy Bed and Breakfast you can find somewhere in a little town in England. We were the first group to arrive but were surprise to see the tables fill up quickly with patrons of all kinds – the young, the old, the casual, the suit-and-ties.

The menus were a bit confusing because they were pretty much all written in Italian but our server lady helped us decided on a wonderful bottle of red, appetizers to share, primi and secondi for all three of us, and of course, desserts.

While we waited for our first dish to arrive, another friendly server brought us a complementary plate of crostini with fresh goat cheese and olive tapenade which showed great promised to how the night’s dining experience would turn out.

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Mozzarella tasting: burrata, fior latte & bufala mozzarella
My goodness – who knew that there were so much depth and complexity in mozzarella cheese? Each cheese was so different in texture, flavor, and the way it melts in your month.  One even tasted like fresh, silky and buttery tofu that I ate in Japan (which tastes nothing like the ones you buy at a supermarket here). This dish demonstrated the pride Batali has in cheeses, and these little balls, accompanied by Silverton’s out-of-this-world toasts, made us crave for more.

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Grilled Octopus with potatoes, celery & lemon
Please excuse the cliché, but this grilled octopus really tasted like chicken. But not one of those cardboard chickens, this tasted like a wonderfully grilled poultry that falls apart perfectly in your mouth. The celery and lemon added a refreshing touch to this northern Italian staple.

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Fresh Ricotta & Egg Raviolo with browned butter
This is not your ordinary ravioli in browned butter. Check this out – there’s an egg yolk in the middle that greets you on the first bite!

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Beef Brasatowith polenta & horseradish gremolata
We all expected this dish to be slightly sweet but that wasn’t the case. It was simple and more on a bland side but the sprinkle of horseradish coupled with grainy polenta made this dish memorable. Yes, you caught me, I ate a little bit of meat, but it was worth every bite.

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Tortellini e brodo
Sorry, I forgot what this dish was called but I hope this is the correct name.  These little tortellinis were filled with blend of sweet meats. Don’t worry, single order is not this tiny – the server lady was kind enough to split the dish into three separate plates.

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Torta della Nonna with honey & pine nuts
Just talking about this dessert makes me squeal in delight. The torta was fluffy and surprisingly light, and these three different kinds of honey were so unbelievable that I had to try really hard to restrain myself from licking the plate.

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Almond Cornette with tangerine and blood orange compote & yogurt gelato
The blood orange compote and yogurt gelato were so refreshing, they were the perfect end to our wonderful night of great wine, delicious food and a wonderful company.

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Osteria Mozza
641 N. Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036
★★★★★

Back to Florence I Go: Ribollita

a-ribollitaThere’s nothing more comforting than cooking up a pot-full of hearty soup and enjoying a bowl (or two) in my pajamas. I’m not sure which I enjoy most – cooking the soup or devouring the hearty bowl – but soup making is definitely my ritual when it starts to get chilly outside. Unfortunately, I have yet to venture out to very elaborate recipes (I don’t even own an immersion blender) so, at this time, my meager soup repertoire include those that only require me to chop and, well, open cans. That is probably why Ribolitta is my favorite soup to cook and eat.

But unlike the traditional recipe that requires the baking of the soup (thus the name which means to “re-cook”), I just simmer mine and enjoy it right out the pot. So I guess my version is technically not a Ribollita – perhaps it’s closer to Minestrone – but the flavors of the warm broth, nutty Parmesan rinds, robust cannellini beans and loads of seasonal vegetables are delicious enough to take me back to the streets Florence.

Cheesy TV Calls for Cheesy Meal: Mushroom Risotto

a3There are things in this gastronomic world that are meant to coexist to create a lovely harmony.  Goat cheese and honey, for instance, compliment other’s strengths – with the sweet drops of syrup gently balancing out the subtle tanginess of the cheese and its grainy texture. And the golden brown honey drizzled playfully over the ivory bar of goat cheese is like having Jackson Pollock’s artwork on a plate (or a kid’s doodle, you be the judge).

Another match I adore is spinach and bacon, where the sizzling, crispy bacon wilts the leaves on contact, creating the soft – but not mushy – texture good enough to eat at a kitchen counter, never making it to the dining room.

Others, however, are quite contradicting in theory, like chocolate and chili (wtf!) but it somehow works like magic.  For me, green tea ice cream ranks as one of the most bizarre creations. No reasonable Japanese would have ever imagined putting sweet confection in green tea, as the drink is something to be enjoyed straight, sans sugar and milk unlike its British cousins. But tradition takes the back seat to the out-of-the-box imagination, especially when the result is a specutacular success.  The combination of the slighty grassy bitterness of the tea leaves and the silky, luscious mixture of vanilla, cream and sugar, is a true culinary masterpiece (yatta!).

But above all that, my all-time favorite duo is combining cheesy with cheesy – and I’m not talking about piling four kinds of cheese on a dough to create a perfect slice of pizza.

The cheese I’m referring to here is Women’s Murder Club, author James Patterson‘s popular, best-selling series. Yep, books. I admit that I am addicted, although the series is one of those real corny thrillers where you know the murderer before the murder is committed. The characters are also quite predictable.  I picked up the book as a way to kill time during my frequent business travel and I would have never picked up this genre of books otherwise, but there’s something very soothing about mindless, effortless read (this is somewhat reminiscent of the time I secretly watched the endless reruns of embarrasingly plotless, severely nutrient deficient Saved By the Bell although I didn’t dare tell anyone about my sickening behavior … oh god, please forgive me).  So, when I learned that this book was turning into a television series on ABC, I had to make sure that I make this momentous Friday night a very special one for the series premier.

To celebrate the cheesiness of it all, I’ve decided on cooking mushroom risotto with lots of freshly graded Parmesan cheese — my first attempt on creating this Italian staple.

Mushroom Risotto

(Note: This is a quick and less sophisticated version of the real deal, which usually calls for more bourgeois ingredients such as truffles. We’re talking cheesy paperback thriller and not the work of Fitzgerald here, so this will do.  Also, I’m notorious for not following a recipe so this is completely my own creation.  Therefore, there’s no guarantee of success if you follow this poorly written instruction).

Ingredients: Pancetta or bacon (1/4 cup), Portobello mushroom (2 cups), garlic (1 clove), onion (1/2 of large or one medium), green peas (defrosted, 1 cup), arborio rice (2 cups), chicken broth (6 cups, unsalted, heated), dry white wine (1/2 cup), Parmesan cheese (bring that sucker on!), Italian parsley for garnish, salt, pepper and olive oil.

1. Begin by sautéing diced pancetta with a teaspoon of olive oil, then add minced garlic, onion and sliced Portobello mushroom in a large saucepan. Add salt and pepper to taste. I know I’m supposed to also add dried mushroom for more robust flavor but I couldn’t find it at Trader Joe’s (shucks).

2. Once the mixture is cooked all the way through (about 5-7 minutes), put aside half of the mixture. With the remaining mixture in a pan, stir in and cook Arborio rice until each grain changes color to slightly clear. Add the dry white wine and cook until the alcohol evaporates but still retaining the flavor.

3. Begin adding the heated chicken broth to the rice mixture, one cup at a time and stir, stir, stir, stir … darn, my arm hurts!

4. Once the rice is almost cooked, add the mixture you put aside earlier back in the pan, and stir again. Add a handful of green peas for color and lovely sweetness.

5. Add grated Parmesan cheese and top it with chopped Italian parsley. Add loads and loads of cheese, as this is the tribute to something cheeeeeeeeesy.

a116. Pour the remaining white wine in the glass and make yourself comfortable in front of your television. But if you’re like me, you might have to grab another bottle because all the wine was consumed during cooking.

7. Put your feet up and enjoy a relaxing Friday night with delicious wine, cozy plate of risotto and indulge in the guilty pleasure of cheesy television.  However, when Monday rolls around and your friends ask you what you did on the weekend, politely smile and walk away.  Afterall, you still have to maintain your image and what’s left of your reputation.

Match Made in Culinary Heaven: Ca Del Sole

Aside from the excruciating heat wave from May to September and a constant mocking of having the 818 area code, living in the San Fernando Valley, is, like omg, totally awesome. Come on, people, stop with the judgmental finger pointing and take a look around. Where else in the world can you find 15 Starbucks within a mile radius, witness historical landmarks torn down daily to be replaced by those new, shiny Westfield shopping malls, and enjoy little Lauren-wannabes talk in mysterious codes (yep, gagging someone with a spoon is a perfectly acceptable English phrase in this part of town)?

Well, whatever your opinion of the place may be, nobody can deny the fact that the Valley is, fur shuuuure, blessed with the abundance of dining options. For instance, Ventura Boulevard, the 20-mile blood vessel of the Valley that extends from Woodland Hills to Universal City, is the ultimate restaurant row, and any foodie’s dream. If you remain patient and carefully comb through the evil Jerry’s Deli and the homogenized Cheescake Factories of the world, you will surely find an original, one-of-a-kind gem you can call your own, even in this suburbia.

Ca del Sole is the needle I picked up in the Valley’s culinary haystack, thanks to my epicurean friend, in the cute, quite, upscale neighborhood of Toluca Lake. Inspired by the Northern Italian cuisine, the place exudes the beauty and the charm of a Venetian trattoria.

A bunch of us from work headed over to the restaurant for lunch to celebrate the end of a week-long training. We grabbed the table outside to accommodate the big party so I didn’t really get to see the elegant interior, but the patio area was so charming that I know I didn’t miss too much. It’s difficult to believe that this hidden place is only a mere blocks from the busy Universal Studios.

The lunch with my newfound friends and colleagues was truly enjoyable, and the wonderful variety of food we ordered was as colorful as the conversation.

The lunch special included a choice of antipasti or insalata, a choice of secondi (pork chop or pumpkin ravioli), and ice cream with fresh berries for dessert. I ordered the special with carpaccio and ravioli and everything was absolutely delicious. I was especially impressed with the pumpkin ravioli with crispy sage. The creamy sauce whispered to me that the autumn is just right around the corner and the aromatic pumpkin puree reminded me why this is my favorite season in a year.

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Carpaccio, thin slices of raw organic beef filet served with shaved Parmesan, capers and extra virgin olive oil

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Mezzelune, half-moon shaped pasta stuffed with pumpkin; sautéed with a light sauce ofbutter, sage, and parmesan cheese

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Pork Chop

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Insalata Caprino, goat cheese from “Redwood Hill Farm” with Belgian endive, baby arugula,
oven-dried grapes, caramelized walnuts and 12 year old balsamic vinegar

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Tonno, a seared Ahi tuna filet served on Swiss chards with roasted onion, oven-dried tomatoes, black olives, capers and herbs

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Salmone, an Atlantic salmon filet baked in a paper pouch with herbs, asparagus and acorn squash

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Ice cream with fresh berries

Don’t you think finding an amazing restaurant is very much like finding the person of your dreams? While you can’t help but wonder where the hell this person (or a restaurant) has been all your life, you simply cannot imagine living the rest of your life without him/her (or, it).

I think Ca Del Sole and I are going to be very happy together.

Ca del Sole: 4100 Cahuenga Blvd., Toluca Lake, CA 91602
★★★★★