Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Real Food Daily: Not-cho average not-chos

For the week leading up to our girl’s night out dinner at Real Food Daily last Wednesday night, all I heard about was the “not-chos.”

Lauren from Harb Knock Life, a frequent patron of the popular vegan eatery on La Cienega Blvd. in West Hollywood, couldn’t stop raving about them, and even Sook of Yutjangsah, a happy ingester of sausage and bacon insisted that we would be ordering them.

Their loud pontifications did nothing to overturn my skepticism of the not-chos with melted cashew cheese, black beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, tofu sour cream, and optional taco mix ($14.50). It sounded dreadful. Especially to a girl who is not really a nachos kind of person – vegan or otherwise.

I know (and am known to frequently associate with) many people who are happy to clean out a bag of Cheetos or Kettle Chips, but I’ve always considered chips to be my least desirable form of snack food. I’d much rather have a chocolate chip cookie or piece of fruit or a handful (or two) of salted cashews when I need an afternoon fix.

So when Wednesday night finally arrived, I only begrudgingly acquiesced to splitting an order of Real Food Daily’s not-chos, thinking that I’d take a bite (it’s what I do), and then focus my attention on my entrée. I thought I’d be perfectly content to watch my dining companions massacre the stack of salty chips while I sipped my glass of organic Sauvignon Blanc ($9).

But as is often the case when I think I’m going to hate something (Exhibit A: The chicken livers bruschetta at Pizzeria Mozza), I was instantly smitten with the not-chos. My “one bite” turned into at least twenty. And my intentions to focus my energies on my main course, the monthly special “Hunk of Burning Love” with Kung Pao Tempeh and vegetables, pineapple fried rice, stir-fried vegetables, toasted cashews ($15.95) were immediately foiled when I discovered that it contained more than just a “little kick” like our server suggested. (Unless she meant Goliath’s version of a “little kick.”)

But it didn’t matter. That evening I only had teeth for the not-chos with their liberal application of cashew cheese and fixings. They were messy, over-the-top and the complete antithesis of what I would normally find appealing. Which is why it’s a good thing I have friends who love me enough to force me into trying things outside of my usual food vocabulary.

Even if it does mean eating my weight in tortilla chips.

Real Food Daily
414 N. La Cienega Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90048

(310) 289-9910

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Garlic Edamame: Going the extra mile

A little over three years ago, pre-blog and pre-food obsession, I used to be like most twenty-somethings. I made grilled cheese sandwiches with pre-sliced provolone and cans of Amy’s chunky tomato soup for dinner. I used Knorr’s dry pesto mix to make sauce for whole wheat tortellini from the grocer’s refrigerated section. I’d even eat frozen Gardenburgers on slices of whole wheat bread with regularity.

While my convenience dinners make me shudder now, back then I was perfectly happy to eat like a regular person. Bored, yes, but content with cutting as many corners as possible so I could, well, eat dinner as quickly as possible.

Today, I don’t have a single can of soup nor package of dried sauce in my cupboards, and most of my dinners are the opposite of convenient. I whip up soup from scratch, spread goat cheese over roasted veggies for gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, and make my own pesto and veggie burgers. It often means that I will spend over an hour in the kitchen every night for a meal that I eat in fifteen minutes.

Now that I’ve developed some semblance of skills in the kitchen, I feel a certain pressure to use them – to do above and beyond what is necessary for an ordinary week night. This pressure is especially acute when I’m cooking for other people. I can’t just serve a guest cheese and crackers for an appetizer; I have to make risotto cakes. I can’t just prepare an entrée for a dinner party; I have to have broccoli soup, roasted vegetables and Skor bar cake with banana creme fraiche, as well!

This past Friday evening, I was unexpectedly charged with the task of creating some sort of edible appetizer from a refrigerator/freezer that was in dire need of replenishment. I found half a package of frozen edamame in the freezer and originally planned on just serving that. Mid-way through the boiling process, however, the nagging voice that frowns whenever I reach for Tribe hummus at the grocery store started to assault my conscience.

“You can do better than that, Diana.”

While the voice isn’t necessarily right about the hummus (it can actually be cheaper to buy it than to make it), I knew the voice was right about my lackluster attempt at a snack.

So I began chopping up a large clove of garlic, and then whisked together 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sesame oil and 1 teaspoon maple syrup in an effort to recreate the addictive garlic edamame at Bar Hayama.

After the edamame was finished cooking (approximately 5 minutes), I toasted the garlic in some olive oil, and then added the edamame and soy sesame sauce. I stir-fried everything together until the green pods were well-coated and then served in a fancy white bowl. While the appetizer required a liberal supply of napkins to eat, the humble soy beans were transformed from mundane to special with just a few extra steps.

Do I miss the days when there was no nagging voice telling me that my frozen pizza would be so much better if I add roasted garlic, mushrooms and roasted red peppers to it? And that I really should be making my pizza from scratch anyway?


But not enough to go back to eating Gardenburgers.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A heart-warming homecoming with Osteria Mamma

Nearly three years ago I enjoyed a transformative meal at Osteria La Buca, a literal hole-in-the-wall rustic Italian eatery on Melrose Ave. that could scarcely seat twenty people. As my new friends and I sipped wine and marveled over the addictive calamari fritto and soft bread with arrabiata sauce, the convivial staff wooed our party of four with personal service that included pronunciation lessons for bruschetta (“brus’ketta”) and gnocchi (“nyo-ke”).

The latter lesson proved to be particularly important for us – we were all immediately smitten with the cloud-like potato dumplings that we each ordered with “Mamma’s” fumé sauce, a tomato cream sauce with bacon, scamorza cheese and oregano. Even before the epic tiramisu arrived at our table with its lofty layers of mascarpone cheese (incidentally, the best version I’ve ever had), we knew we’d be back.

A few months after that meal, Mamma, her son/co-owner Filippo Cortivo and company expanded Osteria La Buca into the space next door and the restaurant nearly quadrupled in size. The new space was chic with a bar area downstairs and a romantic loft upstairs where couples flocked to split thin crust pizzas by the light of the fireplace. It was a beautiful renovation, and upon first walking into the “new” restaurant, I was admittedly in awe of the modernized environs.

My initial awe, however, was soon replaced by disappointment. Service was achingly slow, the prices shot up and the food was inconsistent, often arriving at the table cold and underwhelming. With Osteria Mozza offering better pasta at the same price point a mile closer to my apartment, two years ago I stopped making special trips east of Larchmont for a taste of Mamma’s home cooking. Osteria La Buca seemed to have lost part of its soul in the move.

Then, this past October, Mamma and Filippo parted ways with La Buca. Word on the blogosphere was that Filippo didn’t like the direction the restaurant was headed and wished to go back to the original conception of strict Italian cuisine. It saddened me to think of what had befallen one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles. Another example of cosmetic surgery gone wrong.

So when I heard Mamma and Filippo were opening a new space near Melrose and Larchmont Avenue in March of this year, I was hopeful that the charming restaurant I fell in love with three years ago would finally be back to its original humble state.

Just two weeks after Osteria Mamma’s soft opening on March 10th, an opportunity arose to check out the new restaurant this past Friday night. A craving for pasta, a willing partner who didn’t mind waiting till 9 pm to eat dinner (I bribed him with a homemade snack) and an adventurous spirit all coalesced to bring us to a tiny window-side table in the corner of what has already become a popular dining destination.

As we sipped from a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that we’d brought with us (the restaurant doesn’t yet have its liquor license so is currently BYOB), I couldn’t help but form a comparison sheet in my mind.

The bread isn’t the same. I thought with dismay.

The service is still a little slow. I noted when it took a few minutes to get our water glasses.

And the gnocchi is still only available with the boscaiolo cream sauce with green peas, ham, and mushrooms – not with a choice of any of Mamma’s sauces like at the original location.

I even turned a critical eye to the precarious placement and size of our table – isolated in the nook of a window and barely large enough for both our legs to fit underneath. While our legs are lengthier than the average Los Angelino (even those that have the assistance of lifts/heels), I couldn’t help but wonder if, like before, my initial excitement would be replaced by disappointment.

Was the soul of Osteria La Buca lost forever?

But then the food started to arrive.

The polippolata salad with grilled octopus, fresh celery, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, lemon and olive oil ($9.25) – a new addition to the menu that while not as transcendent as Osteria Mozza’s version, proves to be respectable in its own right. The bites of octopus are so tender they are almost interchangeable with the chunks of potato, and the celery, spinach and lemon lend a lightness to the starter that makes it the ideal precursor to the main event -- the pasta.

While I was tempted to order the gnocchi ($14.75) that started my love affair with La Buca, or the Arianna pizza (formerly known as the Jijo) with mozzarella, speck, walnuts and truffle oil (also $14.75) that nurtured it, ultimately, I ended up trying something I’d never had before – the Trenette Nere alla Bottarga ($17.95). The steaming bowl of homemade squid ink linguini luxuriously bathed in an earthy olive oil and topped with cherry tomatoes and five girthy shrimp reminded me of how I felt when I had my first bite of Mamma’s gnocchi years ago.

The al dente noodles infused my mouth with a subtle kiss of brininess that was further accentuated by the crisp bites of plump shrimp. I wanted to marry the flavors and textures onto my tongue forever and was surprised when my fork collided with the bottom of the empty bowl. I hadn’t planned on eating the whole thing.

Osteria Mamma isn’t the same as the 20-person space that charmed my friends and me in 2007. And it’s not the same as the 60+ person space that drove me into Nancy Silverton’s waiting arms two years ago. It’s its own animal featuring aspects of both restaurants, the most important of which remains intact. The magic of Mamma’s cooking has not been lost on the drive west on Melrose. It is there on every tabletop – even the precarious one sitting alone in the corner.

Osteria Mamma
5730 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(323) 284-7060

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pasta e Fagioli: Bacon really does make everything better

“It has a little kick to it,” Our waitress told me at Real Food Daily on Wednesday night.

I nodded, “a little kick” didn’t sound too scary, and the Kung Pao tempeh with pineapple rice, vegetables and cashews was the monthly special. According to the waitress, that meant it was the most popular entrée!

I like being popular.

And eating popular things.

“Okay, I’ll have that then,” I responded brightly, closing my menu with finality.

Four glasses of water and one glass of wine later, I hobbled back to my apartment like a wounded soldier. I had taken on the “Hunk of Burning Love” (the actual name of the menu item) and the hunk had won. My weak stomach ached for the rest of the night and most of yesterday – angry at me for treating it so savagely at the restaurant.

Apparently, I can’t handle spice.

As the day wound down yesterday, all I wanted to do was go home, assume the fetal position, and eat a big bowl of soup and bread to soothe my achy breaky belly. I remembered Cathy from Gastronomy Blog had raved about a Pasta e Fagioli soup earlier this year, so I printed the recipe off her site and headed to Whole Foods.

While I’m sure it would have been fine to make the hearty soup without the bacon that the recipe requests, as I meandered through the aisles, I could hear Cathy’s voice urging me toward the meat counter.

“Get the bacon, D. A little fat never hurt anyone.” She whispered with a wink.

I nodded, “a little fat” didn’t sound too scary, and bacon is the most popular foodstuff in America right now.

I like being popular.

And eating popular things.

After I’d picked up my zucchini, brown onion, can of diced tomatoes and Great Northern white beans, I requested one slice of bacon from the specialty cheese and meat counter. Even though the slicer and cheese specialist behind the counter were exchanging looks that made me feel like a crazy person, I held strong with my mission.

“Cathy wants me to eat the bacon,” I thought, “And I’m going to eat it, gosh darn it!”

The soup preparation was relatively easy as soups go, but my whole wheat orzo did take a while to cook, allowing plenty of time for the soup to thicken up and for the tomatoes to lose their tinny flavor.

The endless minutes spent eying the stove proved to be worth the wait. The resulting bowl of soup was packed with flavor and was exactly what I needed to settle my stomach last night. Even though the quantity could probably have fed two people, I demolished the entire pot – and every little tiny scrap of bacon.

Apparently, bacon really does make everything better – even an achy breaky stomach.

Pasta e Fagioli
Adapted from Gastronomy Blog/America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook
Serves 1-2

1 slice bacon, chopped
¼ brown onion, chopped fine
1 garlic clove, minced
1 zucchini, diced
½ cup kale, chopped
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
Red pepper flakes (I replaced with pepper because of my spice woes)
½ 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
1/3 cup canned Great Northern white beans, rinsed
1 3/4 cup chicken broth
¼ cup whole wheat orzo
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 cube Trader Joe’s frozen basil
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Cook the bacon in a medium pot over medium heat until crisp, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the onion, zucchini, garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes (or pepper). Cook until the onion and zucchini are softened, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes with their juice, beans, broth. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.

Stir in the pasta and cook until just slightly underdone. (It took nearly 20 minutes for my pasta to cook through.)

Add the kale, and when just wilted, remove the pot from the heat, stir in the parsley and basil cube, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Top with grated Parmesan cheese.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Date, Banana and Walnut Oatmeal: How to eat dessert for breakfast -- without a teaspoon of sugar

“I can’t believe you gave up desserts!” People say when I tell them about my Lenten sacrifice to go without sweets for six and a half weeks.

I don’t blame them for finding it so shocking – I’m shocked I’ve been able to stick to my commitment as well. I’m known for many things (ie. my adoration of the Mozzas/Nancy Silverton, and my bad habit of buying skirts I can’t afford at Anthropologie), but not for my ability to turn down food – especially food that involves sugar and/or chocolate.

Especially chocolate.

Yet somehow I’ve made it five weeks and two days now without a single bite of ice cream, sip of a mocha or nibble of a muffin. Though in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that the miraculous happening cannot be completely attributed to my sudden acquisition of an iron will or direct intervention from God. There have been a few pinch hitters that have helped me get through the dark moments when I’m craving something sweet – specifically Chobani Greek yogurt with frozen blueberries, dates (ie. nature’s candy), cuties, rooibos tea, and oatmeal.

Yes, oatmeal.

And, no, my version does not contain even a teaspoon of brown sugar – that would be cheating and God doesn’t like cheaters! (But I think He’d probably be okay with pumpkin eaters...)

While I’ve been savagely smitten with stirring a tablespoon of peanut butter into my oats for the past seven years, lately I’ve been mixing things up with some other tricks to make my morning oatmeal even more of a tasty treat. Instead of buttering it up with my favorite nut butter, I’ve been cooking it with bananas, dates, nutmeg and cinnamon, and then topping it off with toasted walnuts.

The natural sugars from the dates and bananas and addition of spices helps satisfy my sweet tooth, and the crunchy nuts on top add further dimension and texture to my breakfast. It’s definitely not the type of affair that would appeal to savory breakfast-eaters who get their thrills from eggs and sausage, but it’s been a saving grace for me – one that I am sure to keep enjoying long after the Lenten season ends.

Date, Banana and Walnut Oatmeal
Serves 1

½ cup 100% Quaker Oats
2 dates, chopped
1 small banana, sliced into small chunks
2 tablespoons toasted walnuts
1 tablespoon wheat germ
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup water
3 tablespoons – ¼ cup skim milk
Pinch of salt

Bring water to a boil in small saucepan. Add oats and salt, reduce heat, and simmer on low until water is almost completely absorbed (3-5 minutes). Stir in banana, dates, milk, nutmeg, cinnamon, and continue cooking together until stiff and oats are cooked through – approximately 5 more minutes. Add the wheat germ and more milk if needed. Turn off the heat, stir in the vanilla and serve immediately. Top with walnuts.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Akasha: Flirting with vegetarianism

I’ve been toying with the idea for a while. Not committing, of course, but mulling over it like I mull over why I am bleeding followers on Twitter.

Is it because I revealed I’ve never had pastrami on rye before?

Is it because I talk about Bar Method too much and people are tired of hearing about how sore my butt is from pretzel?

Is it because I eat an excessive amount of quinoa?

The world may never know… (or care)

Amidst all this excessive brooding that is truly a waste of my neurotic energy, I have also secretly started pondering the “v” word that I dare not whisper in the company of men or fellow food friends lest they run for the hills screaming.

So instead of whispering it, I’ll just write about it. Because in cyberspace there are no hills, and most people only read food blogs for the pictures (unless, of course, I’m recounting my bad dates).

Yes, it’s sad, but true. I don’t read most food blogs either.

And, yes, I’m flirting with the idea of vegetarianism.

Well, sort of, kind of, not really…

I still love the cow.

And the fish.

And a good grilled chicken salad or wrap from time to time.

But, I have also been cooking with a lot of tofu, lentils, beans, and alternative forms of protein lately – and really really liking it.

In other words, I’m pulling a Tiger Woods. I’m still married to meat, but when I’m feeling frisky (i.e. like a lard ass) I like to step my toe outside of the carnivorous box.

This past Thursday night, I was feeling really frisky. So frisky that I dared myself to go out for a celebratory gal pal dinner at Akasha in Culver City without lacing my tongue around any animal carnage.

Instead of starting with seared wild caught shrimp ($9) or bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo ($7), I opted for a shared order of a standard roasted garlic hummus with cracker-like caramelized onion flat bread ($8), and a somewhat ho-hum frisee and sunchoke salad that was sadly overwhelmed by the acidity of the lemon vinaigrette ($8).

For an entrée, instead of committing my attention to the pan-roasted Idaho trout ($20) or Zinfandel braised pot roast ($23), I coyly batted my eyes in the direction of the quinoa with roasted market vegetables and tamari grilled tofu ($12).

The nicely seared tofu gazed back up at me with such longing that I couldn’t help but spoon with the entire plate. While I knew I could cook up the same type of affair in my kitchen at home with similar results, in the moment it was the perfect veggie fling for my temporary “meat is murder” (i.e. "I ate too much last weekend") mood.

That night I left Akasha feeling lighter than my previous visit when I ordered a halibut risotto for my entree. Those watching me walk to the parking garage nearby might have even detected a slight spring in my step. (Which, incidentally, could also be attributed to the superior company and my two glasses of Sancerre.)

The next day, however, the spring in my step was gone (see two glasses of wine), and I was ready to come back to my first love. I happily noshed on a tuna fish sandwich for lunch. And then happily noshed on pork pupusas and a seafood soup for dinner.

Because, ultimately, now that I’ve finally had my first cheeseburger, I’m not about to give up my right to say, “I can haz cheezburger.”

But it’s nice to know that going veg from time to time doesn’t mean compromising satisfaction. And also doesn’t preclude ordering some seriously righteous onion rings ($7) on the side...

Akasha Restaurant
9543 Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
Phone: (310) 845-1700

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Egg Salad: A walk down someone else's memory lane

I get excited for a quinoa salad. My mouth waters when I think about gorging on chocolate soufflé cupcakes with mint cream. And I will sometimes spend an entire day at work dreaming about going home to make risotto with wild mushroom sauce.

But egg salad?

It just doesn’t get me hot and bothered and hungry – which, incidentally, would explain why it has taken me two months to post this recipe that I adapted from the NY Times.

I like egg salad and certainly enjoy eating it while in the act, but it usually isn’t the type of thing that moves me to “ooh” and “aah” and rub my belly in satisfaction. Maybe it’s because it seems so ordinary – a mundane occupant of a brown bag lunch, or a lazy dish at a summer BBQ. It doesn’t seem special because it’s something that everyone is familiar with, and has, most likely, grown up eating. (If they weren’t a picky child like me who snubbed eggs until her senior year of college.)

Even so, when I made this jazzed up egg salad sandwich for lunch a couple months ago, I didn’t just eat what could reasonably fit between two slices of toasted whole wheat bread. After I’d cleaned my plate, I went back to the kitchen and forked up the remainder of the salad in my mixing bowl.

And then I may have licked it clean.

It was the type of behavior that I usually reserve for chocolate chip cookie crumbs or the little kernels of quinoa that stick to my serving spoon – not for egg salad, the saddest sack in the deli case (aside from jello).

But, ultimately, there’s something kind of delightful about eating an egg salad sandwich past the age of ten. Something sort of intoxicating about the act of enjoying a food that most people associate with their childhood or, in my case, someone else’s childhood.

Either way, this grown-up egg salad recipe is an excellent way to take a stroll down memory lane. I highly recommend pairing it with a cool glass of too-sweet Country Time lemonade. And, if available, a chocolate chip cookie for dessert – crumbs included.

Egg and Herb Salad
Adapted from the NY Times
Makes 1 sandwich with leftovers that can be eaten straight from the bowl

2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried dill
½ tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
½ celery stalk, finely chopped
2 tablespoons red onion, finely chopped and soaked for five minutes in cold water, drained and rinsed
2 teaspoons capers
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon olive oil
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Greek nonfat yogurt
½ small garlic clove, minced

To hard-boil the eggs, place in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Cover the pan tightly, and turn off the heat. Let sit for 12-14 minutes (depending on how well you like your eggs). Fill a bowl with ice water, drain the eggs and chill immediately in the ice water.

Combine the chopped eggs, herbs, celery, capers, and red onion in a large bowl, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, yogurt, mustard and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss with the egg mixture.

Serve over a bed of arugula or on toasted whole wheat bread for a sandwich.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gloria's Cafe: I should have taken pictures

“Ok, you gotta pinky camera on the first dates. I know you can do it!!” Read the e-mail from Esi at Dishing Up Delights.

I cringed at her insistent e-mail. I didn’t want to pinky swear. I’d never been to Gloria’s Cafe, a widely revered Mexican/Salvadorian restaurant in Culver City that specializes in pupusas, and I couldn’t fathom going to a new eatery without my camera in tow.

Even if it was a first date.

I wasn’t the least bit concerned that the last time I took pictures on a (second) date, the guy nearly bolted for the exit.

He was just an exception to the rule – an anomaly among men!

Plus, he was too short for me anyway.

And his Facebook page was littered with pictures of him with scantily clad women with names like “Feather.”

I didn’t want him to call me. I really didn’t.

So, I tucked my camera into my Hobo clutch and planned to take some photos of the exterior of the restaurant before my date arrived, and, if it didn’t feel too Fatal Attraction, of the food as well. Maybe he would think it was funny -- cute even! He might even hold up my Droid light for me to ensure adequate lighting!

It could happen.

I drove up to the strip mall on Venice Blvd. nearly 20 minutes early, but wasn’t concerned about all the time I had to kill. I rolled down my window and began snapping away like a good food paparazzo. Mid-way through my photo shoot, however, I spotted a guy wondering around the parking lot in a striped, button down shirt that screamed “first date.”

I cursed under my breath and immediately e-mailed my friends.

“Oh my gosh I'm already here and its only 640 and I think I just saw him standing outside and I'm still in my car and I don't want to get out because I don't know if that was him or what!”

(I was a little nervous.)

After a few more minutes of hiding in my Corolla (a non-recall model), I texted him.

“Was that you outside the restaurant?”

It was.

I left the sanctuary of my car, the camera safely back in my bag, and did my best to be the most charming and sane date in the history of… well, my personal history. He was a little awkward, as would be expected for a blind date, but all was going fine until he told me he’s moving to Boston in three months.

“The last girl I went out with was freaked out by that.” He said as I choked on one of my ice cubes.

“Right… well, umm… that doesn’t mean we can’t still have fun.” I responded, a Katie Couric smile plastered on my face. (I did not think we could still have fun.)

Fortunately, our charming server chose that precise moment to ask if we’d like some Sangria.

“Dear God, please let him order a pitcher,” I thought as he hemmed and hawed between ordering glasses or the mini-pitcher ($14).

We continued with convoluted small talk over the well-executed pitcher of Sangria until our server came back to take our food order. I immediately took charge – zeroing in on the family-run restaurant’s infamous pupasas for a starter. My date didn’t know what they were (he’d also never heard of gnocchi before), but he let me order the revuelta (pork & cheese) and loroco (cheese & herb) variations without complaint ($4.50).

When the pupusas arrived, I fingered the camera in my bag. I’d mentioned my food blog already, so thought I might still be able to capture the pan-fried pupasas in all their pan-fried glory.

“This is really hard for me…” I started, ready to lay it on him like he laid his revelation about moving on me.

“Your voice sounds like Sarah Palin’s,” He interrupted, oblivious to what I was about to say.

Shocked, my fingers fled from the camera in my bag. I grabbed a pupusa instead and grinded my teeth into it – thankful to have something to distract myself from the comparison to one of the most mocked public figures in the country.

It was easy to be distracted. I marveled over the texture of what was, essentially, a cornmeal quesadilla. The pliant cornmeal was somehow lighter and less intense than the pupusas I’ve had in the past, and I especially enjoyed the revuelta version with its refined application of pork and cheese.

Our entrees arrived shortly after – the house and customer favorite Carne Adobada (slow-roasted carnitas topped with adobada sauce) for him ($12), and the Sopa de 7 Mares with fish, shrimp, crab, scallops, octopus, and calamari ($13) for me.

It was perhaps the worse possible thing to order on a date ever.

The cauldron-sized bowl arrived with over a pound of seafood spilling out. Four crab legs, huge chunks of white fish, octopus tentacles, whole scallops and shrimp stared up at me from a sea of tomato-based vegetable broth. Two-inch long carrots, onions, green peppers, and celery filled in the spaces between the sea dwellers – challenging me to attempt to consume each vegetable whole.

I knew there was no way to eat the soup in a lady-like fashion.

I was done for. (And secretly a little excited about it.)

So I made fun of myself as I used my fingers to wiggle out all the crab meat from the shells (a process that necessitated the use of six napkins). And I waved a particularly meaty section of octopus in front of my date’s horrified face before I cut it into neat pieces that I then deposited back into my soup. (Gnocchi boy did not appear keen on the prominent display of suction cups.)

And I held up the two-inch long calamari piece in my spoon and asked him, “Dare me to eat it all in one bite?”

Before even waiting for him to answer, I slid it into my mouth, relishing the chewy texture of the squid.

While it would have been infinitely easier to have ordered the fork-friendly Carne Adobada that was, incidentally delicious, the energy I had to put into eating my seafood soup was welcome relief from focusing on my dashed expectations for the evening. Especially when he took the rest of the Sangria without offering me any and revealed that he doesn’t own a car, his studio apartment doesn’t have a kitchen (oh the horror!), and he could pay for my dinner because he hadn’t rented a car that week.

“Do you want me to drive you home?” I asked as we started for the exit, the Christian soldier in me incapable of letting him take the bus back to Westwood – especially after witnessing me massacre an entire seafood counter.

Much to my chagrin, he acquiesced – clearly eager to keep the conversation with the girl who sounds like Sarah Palin going.

So I drove him home, waved good bye with a curt “this was fun,” and then peeled out of the alley, thankful to be alone with my neurotic thoughts and bulging belly.

I will not be his chauffeur again -- I am far more comfortable playing the role of a food paparazzo.

Gloria’s Cafe
10227 Venice Boulevard,
Los Angeles, CA‎
(310) 838-0963

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Panini Cafe: A wrap that is worth the wait

“You know I could kind of go for…”

“Yeah, me too.” My mom says.

“Do you think there’ll be a long wait?” I ask, eyeing the clock. It’s after 1 pm, but I know what weekends are like at Panini Cafe, one of Newport Beach’s only acceptable brunch places. (Incidentally, the locations in Los Angeles are not nearly as popular.)

She shrugs, unsure. “We can drive by…”

“Yeah let’s do that.” I say firmly, knowing that even if there is a long wait, we will most likely hold out for the object of our desire.

We both have wrap on the brain, specifically the chicken wrap that comes with hummus, tomato, cucumber, pickle, romaine lettuce, mint and basil neatly tucked into a whole grain tortilla ($9.95). It’s hardly an appropriate order for an Italian and Mediterranean restaurant that is named for its panini sandwiches, but it’s not all that shocking for my mom and me. We both share a deep love of wraps and have even been known to seek out sustenance from the fast food purveyor Tacone for a fix.

Yes, I do eat fast food.

(About once every three years.)

I’m not sure why we love wraps so much. It’s really just a sandwich held in place by an alternative form of carbohydrate -- a cross between a burrito and a sandwich, if you will. It shouldn’t evoke such a googly-eyed reaction, but for some reason, my mom and I can’t get enough of them. If there is a wrap on the menu, nine times out of ten we will both order it. And then, if agreeable, proceed to go back for it over and over and over again.

Which brings us to Panini Cafe for our last two lunches in Orange County.

To be fair, the chicken wrap at the casual come-as-you-are (as long as you have a nice bag) restaurant, is far superior than, say, the offerings at Tacone. For one, the contents remain intact and do not spill out onto one’s newly laundered skirt. The tender white meat is warm – a pleasant contrast to the cool veggies, fresh herbs and crisp lettuce. Plus, the wrap has pickles.

I love pickles.

Of course, it would be silly to wait more than fifteen minutes for some warm chicken and pickles tucked into a well-contained whole wheat tortilla. It’s not like it’s Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s fried chicken or a cheesy mac and rib from the Grilled Cheese Truck.

Which is why it’s a good thing it comes with sides – a lightly-dressed couscous pilaf with raisins, red onions, red peppers and fresh herbs, pasta salad or a fresh fruit cup that is not all melon.

Couscous and fruit are definitely worth the wait.

Especially when one has a mom as lovely as mine to chat with on the sun-kissed sidewalk outside.

Panini Cafe
2333 East Coast Highway
Corona Del Mar, CA 92625-2033
(949) 675-8101

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dessert-free for 28 days and counting... will I ever eat chocolate again?

“That looks so good,” the girl to our right says, leaning into Sook’s personal space to gaze longingly at the pistachio coupe that is sitting directly in front of me at the bar at Tavern restaurant in Brentwood.

Sook insists that the glossy-eyed gal take a bite, before returning the dessert back to its central position between Sarah and her.

Which of course means it is directly in front of me. Again.

“I don’t even like dessert,” Sarah says as she spoons another bite of the grown-up pistachio and chocolate ice cream sundae into her mouth.

Sook doesn’t love it at first, but once her spoon connects with the thick foundation of fudge lining the bottom of the glass, she, like Sarah, is won over as well.

They “ooh” and “aah” as they savor every salty pistachio nut, while I sit quietly, a passive eyewitness to the dessert massacre before me. Our server Eric takes note of my docile state, and comes by to heckle me into taking a bite.

“I gave up sobriety, moderation and abstinence,” He quips.

I smile (he’s cute), but shake my head firmly, unaffected by his ploys to get me to break my Lenten pledge. The spoon to my right remains idle. I’m perfectly content to sip my glass of Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc ($9.50) and am not even the least bit interested in the sugary concoction my friends are enjoying so audibly.

Today, March 17th, it will be four weeks since my last bite of dessert – a chocolate macaroon from a batch I made for a co-worker the night before Lent began. At the time, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to make it through six weeks of no dessert, and was half expecting to go back to my original plan to only give up chocolate – especially when the withdrawals and headaches hit that first weekend.

As my fellow food bloggers at the Stir it 28 fundraiser can attest, I was a grouchy, irritable mess.

For the next few days all I could think about was what I wasn’t allowed to eat. At my lowest, I fantasized about frosting shots from Sprinkles and had toxic dreams about devouring brownies. But I stayed strong – relying on tea and dates (the edible kind) to get me through the worst of my cravings, and after two weeks, I stopped feeling like I wanted to claw someone’s face off.

Now, with only two weeks to go, I feel like I could almost swear off desserts forever. My skin, which has always been speckled with visible pores, has never been clearer – or smoother. While my weight hasn’t changed, the waist band on my skinny jeans no longer cuts into my sides. And I no longer harbor neurotic thoughts about what will happen if I run out of money to buy food, or whether the people I’ve let down will ever like me again.

Okay, not really. I’m still as neurotic as ever, but one can dare to dream…

I’m not sure what is going to happen on Saturday, April 3rd when I can once again have my cake and eat it too. I’ve always defined myself by my sweet tooth and penchant for chocolate, but after four weeks without it, I now know that I don’t need to have it. I can go to a restaurant and not order dessert after dinner. I can get through an afternoon without a piece of chocolate. And I can sit by and watch my friends eat an ice cream sundae without a hint of longing.

I’ve realized that there really is truth to the belief that, with God, anything is possible.

Even for a girl who lives for her sugar-fix to give up dessert and not become any more neurotic than she already is.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Quinoa w/ roasted tomatoes, kale, tofu and pesto: A triumphant reunion with my favorite grain

Has it really been three weeks? I think in horror.

No, it can’t be. I would never allow that to happen.

Would I?

I think back over my past meals. Ramen, barley, polenta, whole wheat pasta, risotto…

My head dizzies as I make the realization – no quinoa.

I run to the window, desperately searching the sky for flying pigs. There are none in my direct eye line. I check my pulse for signs of an erratic heartbeat; feel my forehead for a temperature – but again, nothing irregular.

Completely flummoxed, I turn back to the kitchen. I know what needs to happen.

I need to make quinoa for lunch.

A quick search of 101 Cookbooks leads me to a recipe called “Heather’s Quinoa.” I don’t know Heather, but I do know Heidi and if Heidi says a recipe is good, then that recipe will most likely end up being my next best friend.

In other words, I’ll probably end up eating it six nights in a row. And then blog about it to tell everyone else to eat it six times in a row.

While the recipe is a little fussy, requiring me to slow-roast tomatoes, prepare pesto from scratch and scrub down some kale, the end result is more than worth the effort. It’s a brilliant reunion with my favorite grain, and one that I can’t wait to repeat for dinner the following night.

Quinoa is back in the dinner rotation, baby. And it’s never tasted better.

Quinoa with roasted tomatoes, kale, tofu and pesto
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
Serves 1

¼ cup quinoa, prepared according to package instructions
5 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup kale, chopped into thin ribbons
3 ounces extra-firm nigari tofu
1 shallot, minced
¼ cup frozen corn
1 tablespoon pinenuts, toasted
Olive oil

4 cubes Trader Joes’ frozen basil, defrosted
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon parmesan
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon, toasted
Splash of water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place halved tomatoes in oven-safe baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and then roast approximately 45 minutes or until shriveled in appearance.

Meanwhile prepare quinoa according to package instructions, and make the pesto. Combine pesto ingredients in a food processor, or use an immersion blender to blend together. Set aside.

When tomatoes are done, heat a splash of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the shallot and tofu and cook until tofu is lightly browned (approximately 4-5 minutes). Add the quinoa, corn and kale and cook together until heated through. Reduce the heat, stir in the pesto and the serve immediately. Top with the roasted tomatoes and pinenuts.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Great Greek and the Great Whipped Caviar Tarama

“I want to spread this on… everything,” I sigh, reaching over to spoon another heap of the lush whipped caviar tarama unto my already overburdened plate.

I slather another slice of the plush pita bread with an unreasonable amount of the salty spread, rendering the carbohydrate almost imperceptible to my palate. The pita bread is wonderful – perhaps the best I’ve had – but at the moment, all I can think about is how much I want to pick up the serving bowl of whipped caviar and lick it clean.

But that would be terrible manners.

Especially when there are nine other (hungry) people sitting at the table.

I’m at the Great Greek in Sherman Oaks courtesy of my very tall and very Greek friend Anna who has coordinated the dinner for our table of food bloggers – most of whom haven’t had much experience with the cuisine. I’ve dabbled in Greek before – or at least America’s version of Greek (pitas, hummus, falafel), which is really more Middle Eastern – but prior to this evening, hadn’t experienced the joy of whipped caviar.

Not that I’ve never had caviar.

I’ve had caviar.

Two whole times to be exact.

But never like this – never serenaded into a creamy state where its pungency is placated into a subtle briny kiss.

I reach for the plate again, ignoring the fine iterations of the other dips on the table – hummus, yogurt tzatski and eggplant melitzanosalata. They are well-done, but my eyes can’t seem to stray from the caviar and the accompanying pita. I can scarcely bear to leave it alone on the table when we are summoned by the jovial staff to dance around the interior of the restaurant. (I thankfully make it through the jerky kicking motions without falling – or losing my claim over another serving of the tarama.)

Even when the other dishes in our Greek deluxe family-style feast ($23.95/per person) begin circulating the table – tender braised lamb, a chicken kebab that defies the criticism that white meat is “bland,” seasoned meatballs, fried calamari, orzo pilaf, etc. – the simple dip still lingers in my head as the most memorable bite of the festive evening.

I can still taste it when I arrive home that night – a sweet and salty reminder of the one dish I didn’t get a chance to photograph. I almost don’t want to brush my teeth lest I wipe away the memory.

And when my brother sends me a text from China moments after I finally do opt to brush my teeth, I don’t respond, “How are you doing? Have you found me a present yet?”

Instead I write back, “I just ate fish eggs. They were delicious.”

Before waiting for his response, I promptly fall asleep – dreaming about a heaven that is lined with pillows of the fruits of my dear friend’s mother land. And in this version of heaven, it would be perfectly acceptable for me to lick the plate.

The Great Greek
13362 Ventura Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423


Friday, March 12, 2010

Miso Veggie Ramen: Attempt #1

It is a universal known truth known inside my head that if I post about something in the morning – a recipe or restaurant meal, I will inevitable crave it for the rest of the day. And the next day, and the following day, and the day after that, until I finally give in and either make the recipe again, go back to the restaurant where the memorable meal took place, or attempt to recreate said memorable meal at home.

(It’s really taxing work being a food blogger.)

Sometimes this (non)occupational hazard is a good thing. I hit the nail on the head with an open-faced asparagus and fried egg sandwich that tastes as good as (if not superior to) the version I regularly enjoy at Zinc Cafe in Corona del Mar. Or I discover that the LA Times’ wild mushroom sauce that is delicious over risotto is even better over barley risotto.

Other times I spend $15 on ingredients to make a tofu and veggie miso ramen like the one I enjoyed at Naga Naga Ramen that only cost me $6.95 on Tuesday night, and things go a little… bland.

The nontraditional miso ramen I made with tofu, kale, corn, green onions, carrots, shiitakes and ramen last night wasn’t terrible. It just lacked a certain oomph – the kind of oomph that would make me crave it again. Or, at the very least, not grow tired of it mid-way through the bowl.

I thought I was doing everything right. I went to a Japanese market to get powdered dashi for the broth. I bought wakame (dried seaweed) to reconstitute in boiling water. And I even asked someone who worked at the market which miso he would recommend (a mild white shiro miso that I think was, ultimately, part of the reason my broth lacked potency). Yet even with all my efforts and good intentions, my dinner didn’t come close to any of the umamified miso-based soups I’ve encountered in the past.

So now the question remains – will I attempt to make a bastardized bowl of veggie ramen again?

Stay tuned… (because I have no idea)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Naga Naga Ramen: Staying true to my healthy nature (and wardrobe tendencies)

While I lived on the North Shore of Chicago for four years during college, I’ve always known deep down that I could never stomach the extreme cold on a permanent basis. Not because even a slight breeze causes every inch of my skin to immediately become pimpled with goose bumps, and not because sunshine is my favorite source of vitamin D and without it I become an irritable and unpleasant person who may or may not have slammed one of her college roommates into a wall at one point during their matriculation. (I’m still so so sorry about that, Ali.)

As it is, the real reason that I had to leave the Windy City when I graduated was because a professional life in a cold climate requires that one wear pants on a near daily basis. No big deal for some, but for me, this would be calamitous – I hate wearing pants.

Even as I small child, I insisted on sporting dresses every single day, and it wasn’t until elementary school that I finally gave into hot pink leggings. As I grew older (and, incidentally, much much taller), my aversion to pants was further encouraged by my inability to fit into the regular sizes available at the then popular Wet Seal and Esprit. I often had to purchase pants that were several sizes too big for me just so they would be long enough.

It was not a cute look. (Especially with the clunky Steve Madden shoes I paired with them.)

I survived college by wearing all jeans all the time – grateful that at least denim companies were paying attention to their tall consumers. After four years however, I couldn’t wait to get back into the skirts and dresses that I love. I moved back to Southern California, went straight to Anthropologie and never looked back.

I do wear pants every now and again, and actually do own three pair that I drag out from the closet whenever the temperature dips below 60 degrees. Yet even on those “cold” winter days, I still feel uncomfortable and out of my element. The slick fabric feels restrictive on my legs, the cut seems too masculine for my slender frame, and it ultimately feels at odds with my personality and girly nature.

No matter how cute the pair or name on the label, pants just aren’t for me. After 26 years of half-heartedly fighting it, I’ve finally embraced my innate wardrobe leanings. I’m a dress and skirt girl.

I’m also a girl who is, at her core, a very healthy eater. Yes, I dabble deep into desserts when I’m not avoiding them for Lent, and I certainly am not loathe to dip my fork into a bubbly ramekin of mac ‘n cheese, but, for the most part, I actually enjoy – nay love – eating vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and fruit. Given the choice between a crisp Pink Lady apple and a red velvet cupcake for an afternoon snack, 9 times out of 10, I will pick the apple. (Though when I do go for the cupcake, I will savor and swoon over every morsel.)

When Cathy of Gastronomy Blog, and I decided to have dinner at Naga Naga Ramen in Old Pasadena on Tuesday evening, I found myself faced with a similar apple vs. cupcake situation. The casual, quick-service restaurant on Colorado Blvd. offers patrons an overwhelming array of different ramens that include several choices of broth – tonkotsu (a rich broth made with pork), shoyu (made with soy), miso, and then revolutionary ramens made with untraditional broths like tomyum. To further complicate matters, patrons must also select the adornments for their broth – the traditional pork or beef, seafood, veggies/tofu.

Upon receipt of the multi-page menu, I was immediately paralyzed by all these options.

“I feel like I should get the pork ramen since this is my first ramen.” I told Cathy, even though I secretly thought I might not enjoy it as much as the other offerings.

“So get the Naga Naga.” She said, referring to the restaurant’s most popular menu item that comes with sliced BBQ pork, seaweed, bamboo, cabbage, and boiled egg ($7.50).

“But is the pork fatty?” I asked, scrunching my nose up at the thought of chewing into an indiscreet fat globule.

“Umm…” She hedged.

I swished my lips back and forth, deep in neurotic thought.

“Do you want to slurp the broth?” Cathy asked, attempting to problem shoot.

I looked up in confusion. “I don’t know… do I?”

“The pork broth is very… rich…” She clarified, knowing that I would not be inclined to suck down any residual grease.

I nodded in understanding, but still felt conflicted. I wanted to order “the right thing” – the appropriate bowl of ramen for the occasion and restaurant, yet deep down, I knew that the “appropriate bowl” wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for my tastes.

So, when our waitress returned to attempt to take our order for the third time, I confidently requested the ramen that would be most true to my innate healthy tendencies – the veggie miso ramen with assorted vegetables, soft tofu and seaweed in miso broth ($6.95).

And then, when the bowl arrived, teeming with spritely noodles, delicate cubes of tofu, enoki mushrooms, cabbage, bamboo shoots, and corn, I took the whole charade one step further.

I made Cathy request forks (by this point I was convinced the waitress hated me), and then I cut the noodles into pieces that would not need to be slurped nor consumed with chopsticks.

The comforting bowl of ramen did not fail in its mission – it comforted me with its familial elements and warmed my healthy heart to its core. I pranced out of the restaurant (for the record, in a stylish sweater dress from Anthropologie) feeling happy that I’d stayed true to my inner nature. And happy that my dear friend Cathy, who cites pork as her favorite protein, didn’t for a second judge me for being exactly who she knows me to be – “D takes a B”... of vegetables.

Naga Naga Ramen
49 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91105
Phone: (626) 585-8822

Monday – Friday: 11 AM - 10 PM
Saturday and Sunday until 11 PM

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Grilled Cheese Truck: Appallingly delightful

I was predisposed to hate the Grilled Cheese Truck from its inception.

To be fair, I am predisposed against most of the trucks on LA’s mobile dining circuit because (in most cases) I don’t believe the quality of food makes up for the precarious nature of eating or acquiring it, but, even so, the Grilled Cheese Truck seemed particularly irksome to me.

While I have been known to indulge in Campanile’s Grilled Cheese Night, in general I find it appalling when people order the simple sandwich out at a restaurant.

Grilled cheese is a last resort dinner when the fridge is bare (everybody has bread, butter and cheese), and it’s one of the first things that young kids learn to make when their parents deem them capable of operating a stove. I even featured the humble fried sandwich on the menu of “Diana’s Cafe” when I was a precocious tike with culinary ambitions. (Other menu items included “Terrific Tuna” and “Perfect Pancakes” made with Bisquick.)

I thought it was completely absurd that people were willing to wait in hour-long lines to pay for a grilled cheese sandwich, and I half considered opening up my own operation from my apartment just to prove a point.

Until I realized that I would never be able to get the buttery smell out of my linens, and I don’t like touching other people’s dirty money.

So, when I heard that the Grilled Cheese Truck would be handing out samples at the EAT: LA 2010 Book Signing event that I was planning to attend with Cathy of Gastronomy Blog at Vroman's in Pasadena, I wasn’t excited. In fact, I think my exact words were, “I think I'll save my appetite.”

And I fully intended to do just that.

I didn’t count on it taking me ninety minutes to get from Santa Monica to Pasadena. I didn’t count on going to the wrong Vroman’s bookstore and then having to backtrack to get to the actual location of the book signing. And I didn’t count on staying at the bookstore until almost 9:00 pm because (some) archaic Pasadenians don’t know how to figure out where food trucks will be at any given time. (Apparently they’ve never heard of Twitter.)

Driven by extreme hunger and frustration at the world and everyone in it, I greedily snatched up a sample of the truck’s famed cheesy mac and rib sandwich that comes with macaroni and cheese, sharp cheddar, BBQ pork, and caramelized onions ($7.50).

At first glance, the sandwich is everything that I hate wrapped into one decidedly un-neat package.

It’s messy.

It’s buttery.

It’s completely, gratuitously over-the-top.

But, in that moment, it was also completely, gratuitously delightful.

While I’m not sure that I would ever wait in an hour-long line for the indulgent sandwich, the combination of the tender smoky meat, sweet onions, buttery white bread, and traditional blue box-style mac and cheese, was exactly what I needed last night -- comfort delivered directly into my hands. And, moments later, into my very grateful, no-longer griping mouth.

The Grilled Cheese Truck

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Oh Gjelina, I think I love you now

I don’t believe her at first.

“Really? You can seat us… now?” I ask, my voice hedged with skepticism.

She beams at me from behind the hostess stand, “Yep!”

I study her face, searching for signs that she is toying with my emotions, or, worse, that there is some unfortunate twist like that the seats in question are actually in the bathroom.

It would be murder getting a good photo in that lighting. I think.

But her smile doesn’t falter. Instead of jolting me back to reality with a well-timed “Gotcha!” she pulls out two menus and says, “Right this way.”

I gasp, grinding my fingernails into Sook from Yutjangsah’s arm – she has just arrived at the restaurant.

“They can seat us… right away!” I hiss.

Her eyes bulge out the same way they do when she eats something pleasing to her palate. (She usually accompanies said bulging with the words, “It’s delicious….”)

“Really?!” She screeches back.

“Yes!” I enthuse, practically giddy at our good fortune.

When Sook had asked me if I wanted to meet her for brunch at Gjelina, essentially the Westside’s version of the Mozzas in terms of accessibility, I was expecting us to brave many blocks of window shopping on Abbot Kinney before we’d actually be seated at a table. The last two times we’d try to make reservations for dinner (several days in advance), neither of us had been able to secure a time before 10 pm. I’d been to the hip space only once prior for a Sunday brunch, and my friend and I had to wait 40 minutes for two very precarious seats at a communal bar table. We spent the entire meal attempting to secure enough elbow space to eat our eggs, which incidentally required the assistance of additional salt.

But today, the slate is wiped clean. Already this Gjelina experience seems destined to be better than my first. The space seems lighter somehow, the servers seem less surly, and the restaurant seems temporarily devoid of the “I’m-better-than-thou-because-I-wear-sunglasses-inside” attitude that I detected on my first visit.

Caught up in the vibrant mood that is permeating the open-air restaurant, Sook and I both order glasses of the Fata Morgana Greco ($11). We play the game of, “I’ll order a drink if you do,” but it is clear that we both feel less wishy-washy about it than we are letting on. The occasion calls for libations, and we must savor the moment of being seated right away sans bribe or celebrity entourage.

As we take lady-like sips from our wine glasses and make un-lady-like conversation about the guy I’m stalking on Twitter, Gjelina casts a new spell on us. It drugs us with the intoxicating crispy fingerling potatoes with truffle oil, herbs and Parmesan ($5), essentially an upscale version of French fries that neither of us can stop eating.

It arrests us with an heirloom spinach salad with green olives, tomato, feta, and pinenuts ($9) that is impossibly flavorful for a salad of such minimal ingredients. The tangy lemon vinaigrette, earthy pinenuts and salty olives announce themselves on our tongues with authority – making a compelling case for the importance of using quality products.

And Gjelina goes in for the kill with the lamb sausage pizza with confit tomato, rapini, pecorino and asiago ($14). We have no choice but to surrender our senses to the thoughtfully topped thin-crust pizza that must be finished with oregano, red pepper flakes, and then eaten folded up like a NY-slice for optimal pleasure. Gjelina giggles somewhat maniacally in the background as Sook and I make eye bulges at each other.

“It’s delicious.” Sook says.

“It’s delicious.” I echo.

And then we retreat back into silence lest our verbal communication impede the process of devouring our share of the pie.

We stumble out of the restaurant in half-dazed stupors. It’s partially the wine, partially the food, and partially amazement that the partner that has abused us in the past has it in him to be so completely and utterly endearing.

“Oh Gjelina, I think I love you now.” I tweet, no longer concerned with where my Twitter crush is and what he’s tweeting about and what I can tweet back.

I only have thumbs for Gjelina. And it’s torturously good food.

1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, CA‎
Phone: (310) 450-1429‎