March 9, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Eating LA: Animal. Mozza. Bazaar. Rivera.
Chef John Sedler is back with pungent admonition at Rivera in Downtown LA. Photo: Steven Richter.
I twitter and shiver at the word “pig” on a menu – constant vibration in these porky times – so how can I resist a restaurant called Animal? My Hollywood restaurant newsletterist friend Jay Weston is game, so here we are on a tacky stretch of Fairfax looking for number 435. There is no name anywhere to be seen except on the valet parking sign. Hummph. Attitude. A coy minimalism to go with the menu’s logo: “animal” in lowercase, as if smudged by a dying typewriter ribbon.
Animal fans don’t seem to mind the bare bones setting on Fairfax. Photo: Jay Weston
The determined lack of décor is a little like a slap in the face. Bare bulbs and some padded fabric panels that probably dull the roar in the vaulted space with its concrete floor. Tables are bare, banquettes very primitive, though the staff is decorative enough, our ready-for-Hollywood waiter, the hostess with pink pigs on her tee. I like that unfailing California eagerness that no one pretends we don’t exist just because we are the only customers over 35. All this would be amusing, well, mildly amusing, if the food were even half as good as yelpers and bloggers attest and possibly not quite so expensive (entrees $24 to $29 seem greedy on broken concrete).
Not even oxtail ragout can elevate poutine for me. Photo: Jay Weston
Jay has heard raves for the fried quail and the poutine, that Canadian aberration of French fries in gravy and cheese. Here the spuds sit in an oxtail effluviance with chunks of juicy meat and the cheese is proudly Vermont cheddar. A delight for Jay, who’s left the rest of the ordering to me. A saucer of crisp fried hominy is very one note, we agree, even with a squeeze of lime. Will it be fried chicken livers? And will they be rare? I don’t want to risk it. Not poached egg on broccoli either, poached egg being inevitable in any other restaurant in town these days. Melted petit Basque cheese and chorizo on garlic bread sounds both wonderful, but scary. I contemplate foie gras on a biscuit with maple sausage gravy.
Dare I suggest $29 does not buy a grand slab of balsamic ribs? Photo: Jay Weston
But no, we agree on pork belly with kimchi, peanuts and chili soy. What is not fatty enough for Jay is nicely not-too-fatty for me. Two thickly crusted quail nested on creamy grits are juicy and delicious, alongside bacon-flecked chard. We sit eyeing the leftovers regretfully, having chosen the chance to be alive tomorrow rather than gobble it all. Easy enough with balsamic pork ribs with butterbeans and black cabbage that are not that compelling.
My vote for the pork belly, preferably followed by a citric sorbet. Photo: Jay Weston
I desperately need a bitingly citric sorbet. Even Pinkberry would do the trick. But Jay is determined to taste the bacon chocolate crunch bar on salt and pepper crème Anglaise. I am forced to admit it’s actually delicious. And I like the small jar the chocolate pudding comes in rather more than the pudding. Clearly I am a minority vote here. Co-owners Vinnie Dotolo and Jon Shook have made such an impact, Animal is a James Beard Award nominee for New Restaurant of the Year.
435 N. Fairfax, Hollywood. 323 782 9225
I Scream for Ice Cream
There’s always a line for ice cream cookie sandwiches at Diddy Riese. Photo: Nico Ruderman
I craved a little ice cream closure after a not very satisfying dinner one night, so Steven’s son Nico and his girlfriend Anne jumped on the freeway heading for Westwood Village near UCLA. There, Diddy Riese’s outrageously fat ice cream sandwich between my choice of cookies – chocolate chip and chocolate chocolate chip – was climax and closure all in one for just $1.50. Actually, I could barely finish half it was so big. It’s just Dreyer’s ice cream, sumptuous in this dress – I picked Rocky Road – and the cookies are fresh, soft and chewy.
“We don’t have ice cream for $1.50 in New York City,” I marvel.
“Last time we came it was just $1,” says Anne.
Here’s Nico’s Cookie dough ice cream between sugar cookies. Photo: Nico Ruderman
926 Broxton Ave., Westwood 310 208 0448
Pizzeria Mozza: Count the Pizzas, Not the Years.
Cherry tomatoes-on-the-stem in Mozza’s winter caprese salad. Photo: Barry Michlin
“At the Table One Never Gets Old.” I like the hopeful legend at the top of Pizzeria Mozza’s menu in this joint venture of Los Angeles legendary baker, Nancy Silverton, and our own Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Never mind that you can get fat and drunk.
This rustic tightly packed spot with its adjoining osteria is such a runaway hit, you have to book a month ahead. But a longtime Silverton friend offers to secure a table. We wait in an intimate huddle near the door in the small square room with its twin eating counters till a quartet of languorous diners finally surrenders our space. All around I see bubble-edge pizzas in flight paths taxiing by.
The scorched and bubbly crust on Mozza’s egg and guanciale pizza is a revelation. Photo by Barry Michlin
But first we must warm up with strikingly crusty zucchini blossoms oozing ricotta – as good as, I will dare the blasphemy to say, the sublime flowers crisped by Sirio’s sister and wife in the Maccionis’ Montacatini kitchen. Next I am dizzyed by the sweet scent of garlic as super thick slices of country bread hit the table to spread with eggplant caponata or oozing burrata topped with grilled cherry tomatoes still on the stem. Perfect also for layering with slices of prosciutto di Parma and buffalo mozzarella. Brussels sprouts seem sweet as well as properly bitter lathered with toasted crumbs, possibly the best yet in a winter of wonderful sprouts.
And then the pizza, as beautiful a Neapolitan as Sophia Loren in her prime: small, an imperfect circle, edges bubbled and blistered, judiciously sauced with wild mushrooms, fontina, taleggio and thyme. Can this be the best Neapolitan-style pie I have ever tasted? Could be.
Nancy Silverton pops in to say hello and two more pizzas arrive: Another beauty with prosciutto, ricotta, tomato and mozzarella, and a third wearing fontina, mozzarella, sage leaves and truffled isottocenere (a cheese cured in ash, originally from Venice).
Amazingly, there is still appetite for Meyer lemon ice cream pie with candied lemon zest and champagne vinegar sauce. I contemplate sitting there till breakfast to hold the table. But reality pulls me away.
641 N. Highland near Melrose, Hollywood. 323 297 0100
Bazaar: The Yin and Yang of Jose Andres
Greasy tamarind chips and foie gras in cotton candy make a rude start. Photo: Steven Richter
I would never have thought to pair the charismatic Spanish chef Jose Andres with Philippe Starck. But now, as I lick my Lilliputian caviar cone at Bazaar, I realize they both love a joke. The French designer’s flea market chairs and portraits of men morphing into monkeys can be as whimsical as the chef’s “organized Caesar” and Philly cheesesteak with air bread. Andres, fervant disciple of the Bunsen Burner trickster, Ferran Adria, has settled into this sprawling series of rooms in the 11,500 sq. ft. lobby of Hotel SLS in Beverly Hills for his first venture outside Washington, D.C.
A trio of Bazaar chefs at the cold station. Photo: Steven Richter
Stunning young women in cocktail dresses circulate with carts, offering cocktails, mini-cones and foie gras swirled in cotton candy, possibly one of the most hideous concepts I’ve ever had in my mouth. Scrape off the saccharine fluff and discover even the foie gras is second-rate. But Andres loves it and I guess enough Gen Xers and Millenium kids do too. Our companion tonight urges us to try tamarind potato chips with a yogurt fluff dip and is shocked when tonight’s version arrives soggy and greasy.
A paella-like pasta dish with shrimp, scallops amd wild mushrooms at Bazaar. Photo: Steven Richter
With 66 tapas to chose from – cured meat, cheese, Spain’s famed canned products, and notions ancient and futuristic – I suggest we are safer focusing on the chef’s “Traditional Tapas. At $8 to $12 dollars we can make a splendid supper of sensational goat-cheese stuffed piquillo peppers, savory cod fritters with honey aioli, luscious scallops in Romesco sauce and rossejat – a crusty paella-like pasta dish, perfect for sharing. A generous portion of splendid lamb loin with mushrooms and potato is just $14.
But amazingly, as wild as I am for great olives – born on a tree – with a twist of ham, I also enjoy being amazed by Ferran Adria’s “olives,” olive essence encased in a not-at-all obnoxious edible membrane.
Brussels sprouts leaves with lemon puree, apricots, and grapes don’t really need that frothy lemon air and the sautéed cauliflower “cous cous” with vegetable harissa broth and lemon fried quinoa does not rival the authentic Morrocan version, but I do recommend Japanese eggplant with soy, dashi glaze and fried quinoa.
Gum drops and lollipops or yogurt parfait? How to decide? Photo: Steven Richter
The maitre d’ asks if we would like to move into the Patisserie for “sweet little snacks,” leading us to a table in the throne room of the pastry chef who commands her team behind a vision of Candyland – chocolates, lollypops, gum drops, cookies piled high on display from 75 cents to $3. From a list of $10 desserts we sample silken sorbets: Frédy Girardet’s apples in red wine with floral touches and marvelous Greek yogurt panna cotta layered in a glass with apricots and Muscat gelatin. Note to myself: Must return. 55 more tapas to try.
465 S. La Cienaga Boulevard, just south of Burton Way. 310 246 5555
Caution: John Sedler’s Full Speed Ahead
Rivera snacks are a mix of good and goofy. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s eerily quiet at chef John Sedler’s brand new Rivera, tucked into the foot of a condo in the upcoming downtown neighborhood, South Park. But Irene Virbilia’s rapturous boost in the LA Times should have foodies swarming. “Virbilia says we have to have the tortillas florales with avocado butter. And the Dog’s Nose salsa,” advises our companion – a bi-coastal commuter with longtime cuisinary cred.
Chef John Sedler cheerfully poses for the sidewalk camera. Photo: Steven Richter
Chef groupies and foodies of a certain age will remember Sedler from his earlier celebrations of the cooking of the Americas, especially our own Southwest at St. Estèphe, Bikini and Abiquiu. I vividly recall one night at St. Estèphe. I was coo-coo in love that night, but even through that erotic haze I could feel the silliness of a Sedler plate. It had three horizontal stripes – as if squeezed from tubes of paint – one red, one green, one yellow - I forget the flavors, chili avocado, mustard mayo. A big… whatever.
But aging bad boys can learn. So I’m eager to taste.
Who is that smiling at my lamb chops? Photo: Steve Richter
Rivera is long and shallow, a glass-enclosed alley parallel to the sidewalk revealing a violet-glow bar stocked with tequilas, Mescals and prestige alcohols, chunky leather seats with attached trays to hold your Anejo Honey Sour. Fasten your seatbelt. The window passes two diners at a communal table and one at the sashimi counter (Latino-Japanese fusion) and drifts by the kitchen where I spot the chef at work.
I suppose I can’t blame Sedler that our guest is distracted by the sweep of surrealistic images moving across a plasma screen on the wall unseeable behind Steven and me. That’s the artwork. And it’s not that some of this food isn’t good, even very good, and priced for inexpensive grazing should one be so inclined: starters, $4 to $14, if you don’t count Iberico ham at $36; entrees $21 or under except for prime rib. It’s just that a certain missionary spirit can be annoying.
I don’t need snarly lectures with my chicken. Photo: Steven Richter
The handmade tortillas inset with floral silhouettes to spread with Indian butter are amazing, possibly the best I’ve ever tasted. But I can live without the dog snout potion and its silly mini chips. “Deconstructed salsa essences” with tomato water in a glass is a joke with no punch line. Flirty female eyes stenciled in basil powder peer over Basque lamb chops, rare and delicious if you scrape off the too salty sauce. And braised pork shoulder cooked in a banana leaf with Peruvian potatoes is pretty fabulous. “CAUTION” and three fleeing figures drawn in paprika on the plate of the stuffed pepper are mildly amusing, but the stern “COURTESY IS NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS,” written in curry powder…puhleeze. Do I need this with my chicken? I’m out of joint even though it’s a juicy bird and marvelously sauced.
Downtown LA has been reaching skyward, lush with luring new condos and architectural statements and a brand new stadium, so there may be real need as well as an avid following for this mix of the arty and the arch. Am I too cranky? See for yourself.
1050 S. Flower, 213 749 1460.