Monday, September 29, 2014

What I've Learned About Grown Up Restaurants

Not too long ago my friend Shari and I ventured out to try Alma, a tiny 30-some seat tasting menu only dining room tucked next to a strip club on an up and coming hipster block in downtown LA. Named the 2013's best new (American) restaurant by Bon Appetit Magazine, Alma has gotten more than it's share of press, most of it centered on its young and inventive chef Ari Taymor (and a fair share about the restaurant's 15 year old aspiring chef Flynn McGarry -- yes he was working the night we dined).
Alma is an interesting restaurant full of unexpected combinations -- seaweed beignets, cod crudo with finger limes, or, as pictured above, uni and burrata on house-made english muffins. Taymor's (one of Food and Wine Magazine's best new chefs for 2014) hyper-local style of defying convention is unusual for LA. It's the kind of cooking coming out of Copenhagen or the bay area these days. This kitchen is daring. And daring can come with mis-steps. Each of the unheard of combinations brought to the table by friendly -- often direct from the kitchen staff -- servers sounded intriguing. I was anxious to try them. But I can't say they were all delicious. This is cerebral food best enjoyed with a moment to reflect over the first bite and contemplate the second.
The night we slipped in there was a group seated nearby that was so loud -- I mean sports bar playoff game loud -- it seemed crazily out of place. Everyone in our row of tables turned his/her head at the more alarming outbursts. But the noise persisted and I admit it did affect our enjoyment of the meal the chef offered up.
Finally when one of the cheerful chefs brought us a dish to taste and asked how everything was we admitted the noise was really disturbing. I know beyond tactfully asking the offending diners to try and hold it down a bit there isn't much a restaurant like Alma can really do. But I suddenly realized what separates the kickstarter funded, young chef flurry of inventiveness restaurants from grown up fine dining. The grown ups make amends -- send a coffee or glass of wine to the table -- a message of apology and shared distress between the front of house and the offended diners. Youthful Alma, once a downtown pop up and fairly new to it's home building, shrugs her shoulders and continues to sprinkle ground coffee (or ash marshmallows, or celtuce purée) where it has never been before.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Real Italian Home Cooking

Italians as a habit and societal necessity put their best face forward. They call it "bella figura." It's the unspoken rule that keeps Italians from running to the supermarket in pajama pants and flip flops and makes sure every guest is treated as visiting royalty.
There are dishes you make for company and there are cozy one pot suppers you might eat with just the family at home  -- people with whom you can completely relax.
Way down in Pulgia, the heel of the boot, one of those simple dishes you'll never find on a restaurant menu or even as an invited guest in a friend's home combines potatoes and squash with spaghetti in a rustic, quick, comforting dinner.
I dress it up a little with olive oil, herbs, and chili peppers but even with just cheese, pasta water and pepper this dish is a quick meal favorite. To the salted water boiling for your spaghetti add two large handfuls of diced potatoes, after they boil along for 2 minutes add the spaghetti and diced zucchini. Cook according to the package directions. Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water and drain the spaghetti mixture. In the same pot -- I could do this in a skillet and make dinner even quicker but it's nice to have less dishes to wash -- heat a glug of olive oil with chopped garlic and crushed red pepper. As the garlic just starts to color add in the drained pasta with potatoes and squash, 2 TB (or more) each chopped parsley and basil, the reserved pasta water (as much as you need to make a bit of a sauce), and a large handful of grated parmesan (or pecorino which we prefer) cheese. Toss everything together for a minute or two and serve with a bit of grated cheese on top.
No, it's not fancy but with potatoes and tromboncino squash from our backyard garden it felt just right for just the two of us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

48 Hours (almost) at Home

Home for a quick stop between jobs, the garden -- though James has been doing his best to keep up -- was overflowing with produce. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, green beans all waiting for me. 
Our vegetables make me so happy. I'm actually proud of them.  I can't let them go to waste. I pulled out the canning pot (a beautiful new one James got me for Christmas) and started to plan.
Hours of peeling and slicing and boiling later (what a way to squander a little time at home) James helped me store away 6 jars of canned tomatoes, 4 jars of pickled peppers (those are gonna be great for sandwiches and to spice up sauces over the winter), 8 jars of dill pickle slices and 7 jars of bread and butter pickles. Quite a haul. Looks like pickles for Christmas (presents) this year..