Monday, September 15, 2014

Al Bacio Ristorante: La Loggia Room: Old World Italy, Modern Style in WeHo

As far as I know, it's not often that a chef reaches out directly to invite bloggers to their restaurant.

So when I received an email from Chef Christian Simionato of Al Bacio, I was definitely curious.

It was for a tasting to be held in the La Loggia Room in the restaurant.  Reading that “Al Bacio” means detail, care, and experience, tradition, respect, and passion, and seeing the personal effort that the chef put in just on the outreach, I knew I would be in for an experience.

Chef Christian was raised on his family farm in Villanova, a small town bordering Venice, where growing food, making wine, and curing meats - everything done with respect, and tradition - was a way of life that passed down through the generations.

Chef Christian is passionate about sharing lesser known dishes and ways of cooking from Italy, that would take LA's food lovers beyond the tried and true but all too familiar pastas and antipasti, was clear - and now he has a nook of a platform to do it with, in a front room called La Loggia.  It's a cozy event / private dining space where he gets to showcase and share, with more curious diners, the dishes that he loves in a tasting menu format.

Our experience of this new front room started with a bountiful spread of charcuterie and antipasto served personally by the chef.

There was a gorgeous leg of prosciutto, and cutting boards piled with salami, sopressa...
But of all the charcuterie the one that made the biggest impression on me was the Heart & Liver Salsiccia.  Its rich, intense flavor, density and pleasing fattiness reminded me of the Chinese version I used to love growing up: yun cheong (preserved liver sausage).  I haven't seen these in other Italian restaurants in LA - so many are focused on fresh, housemade - and cured meats tend towards salami and sopressata.  I couldn't stop eating these lovely little preserved sausages.
Then there was the Focassia di Recco with mozzarella and tomato, and fun appetizers like salted cod in a mason jar with crostini, and oysters in tomato sauce - all beautifully presented but less memorable in texture / taste.

For the formal start of the meal, we were seated at one large communal table for 10, the better for encouraging conversation, and sense of shared experience by design.

Our first course was Tortellini al Parmigiano - Parmesan Cheese Tortellini, Chicken Consomme.  The tortellinis arrived first, then chef ladled roiling hot chicken broth over it, which released strong fresh dough fragrance on contact.  

Some of chef's plates come with interesting notes about its history: Maccheroni Ragu alla Barese - pasta topped w/ a roll of beef neck, pecorino, pancetta and herbs was the 'legal' version that could be served in the US.  In Italy, apparently they would make this with horse meat.

Loved the light touch with the tomato sauce, over the fresh made al dente pasta, topped by the flavor bomb roll.
The first meat course was Coniglio alla Siciliana - Sicilian rabbit with pine nuts, black olives, roasted fennel & carrots.  Though tasty, nothing really stood out for me on this one.

It was the next course that I still dream of: Quaglia e Piccione Cotti alla Spiedo - spit roasted quail & squab, with glazed cipollini, roasted potatoes.  Perfectly cooked to delicious succulence, it made me work hard to try to tear every last piece of meat off the tiny wings.






 After dinner, a selection of Italian cheeses were served at the banquet tables to the side.  There was the photogenic large wheel of super creamy, spreadable Bontazola gorgonzola cheese, Maccagno raw cow's milk cheese, and other luscious wedges.  But it was the accompaniment that were intriguing: one such was a red wine soaked rhubarb (?) preserve that somehow tasted like beets, and went perfectly with the gorgonzola.  There was the truffle honey, which I can never resist.

To finish, chef served us a Neopolitan Rum Cake and chocolate almond cake with gelato (sorry no pics as it got too dark by then to take good ones!).

The menu will change seasonally at La Loggia.  Can't wait to see what Chef Christian does for Fall!  To book a tasting at the La Loggia Room, contact the restaurant (see below).


*Disclaimer: This meal was hosted.

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Al Bacio Ristorante La Loggia Room
8741 W Sunset Boulevard West Hollywood, CA 90069
Ph: 310.657.1182

Website: albacioristorante.com  

Parking: public open air lot across the street (except Thursday nights when it is taken over by a farmers market), or limited parking behind restaurant

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Al Bacio Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Salt & Straw: Plus One for Farm-to-Cone Small Batch Ice Cream in LA

With a loyal following in Portland, and buzz that had been building in Los Angeles via pop-ups in Joan's on Third, the grand opening of Salt & Straw's first standalone location in Los Angeles was one of the most highly anticipated among the good food loving community in the city.

Nestled among the tree and small business lined Larchmont Blvd, the little Salt & Straw storefront still stood out on opening day due to the long line of enthusiastic foodies from the moment they opened.

During my 30 minute wait in line, we heard many passersby, puzzled by the crowds in the scorching September heat wave, ask: "Are they handing out free ice cream or something?"  And the response I heard from people in line was consistently some variation of "No, you have to pay, but this ice cream is amazing, we're so excited to try it, it's worth the time in line!"

While Salt & Straw is offering some of their signature classics, like Sea Salt and Caramel Ribbons rooted in their Portland store, they've very smartly not just replicated their Oregon offerings -  but taking the core of their philosophy of featuring local ingredients and supporting local businesses, really making their new LA location feel like a community gathering place that is of and for California.

This is apparent in all the lovely details of the store, designed to highlight local purveyors and ingredients used in the ice cream.

There were the bars from local chocolatier Compartes, including my addiction favorite Love Nuts, used in a newly created ice cream flavor (more on this later); brittle from LA artisan Morning Glory; olive oil from Ojai; jams and preserves from Sqirl for their (PB&J) sundaes.

And the element that I really loved on top of it all: they go to the effort and expense of printing up signs that tell the story of those ingredients, so that you can understand where, how and why.  Be connected to what you consume.

And it truly was tough to choose from among the bounty on their menu: Classic flavors, Seasonal, "whole pint" milkshakes, sundaes, floats and drinks...all sounded delicious.

And then I noticed in smallish print under the seasonal flavors section: "Tasting Flight, $10".

That's when co-owner Kim, busy scooping but still clearly enjoying the sight of her own enthusiasm reflected in customers' faces - stopped to explain the flight: you get four tasting scoops, your choice from ANY flavor on the menu, for $10.  It really lets you sample more of the flavors without committing to full scoops (which, I was seriously about to do, because I had such a hard time deciding - calories be damned!)

Here is what I went with, with friendly server Ian's help as it was hard to narrow down:

*Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese
*Tomato Water & Ojai Olive Oil Sorbet
*Stumptown Coffee with Compartes Love Nuts
*California Peaches with Lemon Crumble

I had been immediately drawn to the creativity of the Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese flavor, but in the back of my mind did have some reservations about how it would taste: goat cheese can be pretty pungent and dense in texture.  It turned out to be a favorite that I will definitely return for soon: the olive brittle had a lovely, perfectly balanced mix of briny flavor with that distinct caramel/candied crunch, in super smooth, ever so slightly denser creamy texture with the goat cheese almost coming through as an after thought.  So uniquely delicious - who would have ever thought to put these ingredients together, and in ice cream form?

As I worked my way down the sample bowls, I found myself calling every single flavor my favorite.  The (almost blood orange sorbet hued) Tomato Water & Ojai Olive Oil Sorbet was sweeter than expected, as if it was made with heirloom tomatoes picked fresh from the farm, late season so that the sugars were even more concentrated. 

Stumptown Coffee with Compartes Love Nuts could easily be the mascot flavor of Salt & Straw and their marriage of Portland (coffee) with LA (chocolate) - and the blend of fragrant roast bean with hand roasted nuts that are caramelized with Tahitian Vanilla, sprinkled with sea salt, then layered in chocolate blend and topped off with raw cacao powder (best invention ever) was irresistible.  I bought a pint to go.

Last but not least was the California Peaches and Lemon Crumble: peaches are of course in season and a must-get on every farmers market trip recently, so I loved that they featured this in a seasonal ice cream flavor and paired it with citrus (!) and crumble, so that it was like the essence of a gorgeous height-of-the-season peach pie in the smoothest, creamiest ice cream form.

The Tasting Flight is a great option for newbies or those who want variety: a single full sized scoop is normally $4.25 and double $6.25.

I almost licked every bowl clean, and were it not for limits of biology and social decorum, I would have ate my way through the entire menu the first day.

Also, beyond the clear love and care S&S puts into their products, the service is amazing as well.  Despite neverending lines and customers demanding attention on opening day, Kim and Ian still took the time to really try to connect with each customer.   Kim came by several times to ensure I had my tasting and was enjoying it on what I called the 'flight deck' - the little counter to the back side of the cash register where I snuck to do the tasting, since the few counter seats along the window were already taken.  Between the great ice cream and personal service, I was sold.

Can't wait to go back, to try their milkshakes as well (especially another taste of Portland / tease to local outpost PokPok: Pomegranate PokPok Drinking Vinegar Shake).

Beyond what they're scooping / churning: I've also got to go back and check out all the fun gourmet goodies in their cubby shelves: from "chocolate vermicelli" to "hand crafted bourbon barrel matured maple syrup"!

See you again soon, Salt & Straw!

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Salt & Straw
240 N Larchmont Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90004

Website:  saltandstraw.com

Parking: Larchmont Village Plaza structure

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Salt & Straw on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 8, 2014

Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo: When You Just Want a Bowl of Noodles Made by a Korean Grandmother

Sometimes you just want a simple, steaming bowl of soup noodles, in a place where you can 'come as you are' both in terms of clothing and budget.  Say, when you're feeling under the weather, or you're saving for #bucketlist meals, or when you've just come from the gym/spa and don't have the energy/will to get back into full gear, hair and makeup.

I have a recent go to spot for such occasions, and it goes by possibly the world's most difficult-to-remember-name-to-non-Koreans of Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo.  Their specialty is fresh-made, hand-cut noodles (I believe the two final words in the restaurant name translate to shellfish hand cut noodles).  And it's conveniently located minutes from some of my favorite spas in Ktown, and in the same strip mall as one of my favorite bakeries in the area, Paris Baguette.

In terms of decor, the place is definitely no frills, but in a very comforting way, whether or not it's actually family owned, I'm not sure - but it gives off that vibe like it's family run.

The servers are frazzled most of the time as the restaurant is constantly busy - but you get the feeling that they have a hard and sometimes spiny shell with a soft center. 

As for the food: it looks and tastes like something a Korean grandmother would make for her family - simple, fresh, and infused with TLC.  And at $8.95 for a giant bowl of noodles plus banchan (free, refillable side dishes), also an incredible deal.

Banchan, as with other Korean restaurants, are first to arrive.  They keep these simple too, just a few dishes including puffed rice, kimchi, and a miso sauce that packs an umami punch.

The star of the show is of course the fresh made hand-cut noodles: seafood is apparently the most popular version, and they also offer chicken, but given the namesake I needed to try the bajirak version (a shellfish from Asia that may translate to littleneck clams). 

I loved everything about this steaming bowl of comfort.  To borrow the Chinese way of praising soup quality: the broth here has 'clarity' and 'purity', which makes it very soothing and helps impart a feeling that it's good for your body and soul.  The noodles were structured yet impossibly tender, and also taste like they were just pulled together and cut minutes before they reached your table.

The surprising element to me was the addition of kabocha squash for a hint of sweetness, and a nice clean starchy crunch.  There were also chunks of potato to soak up the broth and become nice soft/crumbly flavor bombs, and bit of scallions and shredded seaweed for additional taste.

When you are sick, the mild flavors of the soup noodles will be just perfect - but when you are not, there are the handy side dishes of miso sauce and kimchi, which allows you to adjust for flavor according to your own personal preference (that miso sauce is so good I could eat spoonfuls of it...).

Can't wait to go back (too bad it's not open right now...I'm making myself hungry writing about this)!


On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites  
Presentation - 4 bites
Originality - 4 bites
Ambience -  2 stars
Service - 3 stars
Overall experience - 4 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

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Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo
3470 W 6th St., Los Angeles, CA 90020


Parking: $2 valet in attached open air lot at night

(Restaurant is a little hard to find - it's in the same strip mall as Paris Baguette.  Go to the opposite end of the mall from 7-Eleven and it's next to a bar/lounge - the one with green tables)
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Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo on Urbanspoon

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