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MAZE HUNTING

The state park near where I live is not very frequented, all the better for Ottie and I. He has been able to roam leash free for years and mingle with other like-minded dogs. Shortly after walking through the entrance, one is presented with a fork in the road: to the right is a long hike which ends at a large water tank and to the left is a short 20 minute uphill walk leading to a large maze that someone painstakingly built with rocks and lovingly tends to this day. Both choices afford a wonderful view of the Pacific, from two different angles. I tend to favour the right hike because it’s longer and because the maze has started to attract people, especially on Sundays, when some sort of ritual is performed.

In all these years, I never explored the side trails I could see while walking purposefully to keep up with Ottie and to keep my butt in shape. Then, a few months ago, boredom set in and Ottie and I decided to venture out. The first surprise, after a rough downhill jaunt more suited to a goat, was finding two centenary oaks, branches intertwined, that afford a restful expanse of shade, perfect for a picnic, if lugging down food, blankets and chairs wasn’t that arduous. Further on, a few weeks back, while standing on a ledge, we spotted a much smaller maze, that another mystery hiker took the time to build. Ottie and I have been trying to find the trail leading to it ever since, with not much success.

Today, we were determined. After jumping over a baby rattler who seemed more terrified than we were, we set out on this beautiful Memorial Day week-end. We stopped by the oaks for an apple and a cookie and soldiered on. Standing atop the trail, we could make out the maze and I estimated how much further we would need to veer right in order to reach it. The problem is, there are no marked trails. Three times we followed false leads that dead-ended into thick vegetation. On the fourth try, I was sure we had found it. Marching ahead to patrol possible rattlesnakes Ottie would find interesting, I could nearly see the maze, until, ankles cut up by all the branches I insisted on parting, once again I found myself in front of a wall of impenetrable brambles.

We looked at each other, Ottie and I, slightly defeated. He would have prodded on: nearly 10 and still marching on like a marathoner (while Portia wears an expression of “Remind me again, why are we doing this?”) but I decided this little maze was clearly a personal endeavour that whomever built did not want to share with the rest of us.

Mazes, before becoming fashionable forms of entertainment in many European courts and built with hedges that encouraged loss of orientation, were originally walking paths to  help focus on meditation and prayer. Maybe this little maze was built as an offering, maybe it’s just a little retreat for someone in need of peace and quiet. I will not mess with it – giving up, for once, felt strangely good.

 

 

 

 

 

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – RIVIERA – Calabasas

There is something to be said for the successful neighbourhood restaurant, the one that stays in business forever by delivering consistent food at affordable prices, enticing the local clientele to go back over and over instead of cooking at home. It’s hard to pull it off because many of these establishments tend to become first complacent, then mediocre. The formula seems to work better in Europe, where the food is kept simple with a few changes here and there, a high level of consistency and, often, signature dishes that spark the craving.

In Los Angeles, successful neighbourhood restaurants are few and far between. Riviera in Calabasas could have the potential to become one; instead, it falls prey to pretentiousness. Then again, maybe it’s just me. After three visits, prodded by a friend who lives nearby and frequents it often, my conclusion is always the same: friendly service but pretentious food that doesn’t hit the mark served in a pretentious space.

The restaurant is located in a drab (as drab as squeaky clean Calabasas can be) mini-mall which explains the heavy draperies covering the windows, to better create an atmosphere of intimacy. Even the front door is not see-through. The bar area, with a tv and low couches, where they offer Happy Hour between  5 and 8, is starting to look dated. The two main dining rooms, with the striped chairs and matching china and the small statues around the walls, aim to offer an air of opulence. The cuisine is described as Northern Italian and the chef heads from Lake Como but by trying to elevate the dishes to some standard of modernism, they end up being funny hybrids.

Upon being seated – and noticing the chipped bread plate – my friend and I were served a couple of soggy bruschettas with flavorless tomatoes and some nice bread with a sort of pesto that was so garlicky any self-respecting vampire would have run for cover.

The entrees are all between $24 to $40 which I don’t object to paying for first-rate ingredients. The organic salmon in potato crust and lobster sauce intrigued me and that is what I ordered. When it arrived, it ended up being two nicely moist pieces of salmon encased in a potato hash that was most likely flash fried. The fish inside was good but I found myself pushing the crust aside, too heavy with oil – the accompanying baby vegetables were simply steamed; now, who still serves steamed vegetables apart from the Marriot hotels and hospitals? The lobster sauce was not terribly flavorful and the whole thing managed to wake me up at 3 am, trying to find its way down my digestive tract.

My friend’s filet mignon with a black pepper sauce was tender but otherwise uninspired and served with the same sad vegetables. We passed on desserts.

Despite my griping, on a Monday night the restaurant was pleasantly full. I still think that contemporary Italian food, prepared with less fuss and ambition would go a long way into luring patrons like me back.

www.rivieracalabasas.com

 

 

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THE GRUMPY LIST

Petco last Sunday. Mother’s Day. The place is brimming with people and their dogs in tow – I am just trying to find a toy Ottie and Portia might find interesting. Not quite sure why I insist when old cardboard boxes seem to keep them occupied for hours on end. Maybe I am just tired of picking up cardboard bits as a wrap-up to an evening out. “Happy Mother’s day!” one of the cashiers thrills “We are all mothers, aren’t we, of our pets”. As a matter of fact, Ottie did cook me brunch, picked a bunch of roses and wrote me a card. The US is definitely going the way of old England when it comes to pets. Bonkers.  I just read that in San Francisco the dog population outnumbers children 180,000 to 108,000 (NY Times, 5/14).

Blue Plate on Montana in Santa Monica. Having lunch with a friend at this lively neighbourhood cafe where they promptly lose our order and the table next to us, who ordered after us, gets their food long before we do. But I am feeling in a charitable mood until our veggie wraps arrive. The moment we pick them up, they unravel like a spool of yarn, dripping vinaigrette and vegetables all over our hands and table. Kitchen, a wrap is meant to lovingly wrap what’s inside, keeping it tight until the last bite. Not terribly hard, not even for fashionable places in Santa Monica. If I wanted a tortilla with veggies on the side, that’s what I would have ordered.

The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Cancer research fund-raiser lunch with 300 people in attendance. You probably know of my visceral love for the Four Seasons. They don’t disappoint – the servers are impeccable around this mob of socialites, mostly women frozen in time by plastic surgery or frozen in place by their thinness. And did I mention highly pitched voices? The tomato 3 way appetizer is delicious. When I glance at the rest of the menu, I gasp at the sight of Chilean Sea Bass. 300 of them! Four Seasons Chef, don’t you get the Monterey Bay Aquarium list of sustainable fish? Don’t you know that Chilean Sea Bass has  been endangered for years and responsible restaurants don’t serve it? I had to go home and immediately write a letter. Mind you, I had forgotten how delicious it was…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – SOTTO

I was really looking forward to eating pizza at Sotto. Not that one would go just for the pizza – this restaurant’s menu is quite ballsy, with obscure Sardinian dishes even the most authentic Italians (like yours truly) might have a hard time recognizing. I like that, Italian restaurants that break the mold to explore all that Italian regional cuisine has to offer.

The reason why I was so looking forward to Sotto’s pizza is that a big deal was made of the wood fire oven imported from Naples, lovingly put together by Neapolitan artisans who know about the business of pizza ovens. Proper pizza cooks in under a minute in a 500F oven, slid in on a wooden board and retrieved bubbly and charred. It was a good omen.

Sotto is in a no-man’s stretch of Pico Boulevard, between Beverly and Beverwil, in a two storey building whose top is occupied by Picca, the Peruvian restaurant that has been gaining accolades of recent. Sotto means “under” or “underneath”, an apt name for the basement space that reminded me of some London flats where you would walk down from street level to enter (it was also the former home of “The Tasting Kitchen”). The long rectangular space is simple, elegant and rustic, with banquettes along the walls, wooden tables with no tablecloth and a large communal table in the center from which to see the action in the kitchen (and the famous oven.

The hostess promptly seated me even if the rest of the party hadn’t arrived yet, which gave me time to study the menu and the array of funky and inspiring cocktails.

What you simply must order is the house made bread: thick, crusty and cut into large slabs, it’s finished on the grill (or in the oven), giving it a slightly charred and wonderful taste. It’s served with either butter, olive oil or lard (which I was dying to order but for my arteries’s sake I passed on).

As an appetizer, the sardines did not disappoint. Interestingly rolled around fennel and pine nuts, they were flavourful, perfectly cooked and I could have kept on eating them as an entrée. The spicy clams with beans and ‘nduja sausage were also very good: fresh and barely steamed, they had a melt in your mouth quality and they perfectly married with the heavier broth which, to better mop it up, came armed with a thick slice of the above mentioned bread.

And then there was my Pizza Margherita. The good news is that the crust was charred the way the Neapolitan gods intended it to be; the sauce was good and not too plentiful and the fresh mozzarella as top-notch as I expected. Now, Neapolitan pizza, unlike the Roman one, is thicker at the edges and thin and soggy in the center. I can see how this version tries to replicate the original but the dough lacked the softness of the hundreds of pizzas I have had in Naples – it was just a bit too chewy. I still think Olio makes a better one.

Still, I would definitely go back. The two chefs behind Sotto have a very respectable background in Italian food: Zach Pollach worked, amongst many others, at my mother’s favourite restaurant, the 2 Michelin star Ambasciata near Ferrara. Steve Samson apprenticed, amongst others, at Valentino and other Piero Selvaggio’s establishments. They both clearly know their Italian food.

Next time I would like to try some of the Sardinian offerings or the Fusilli with Squid Ink which, I am told, are delicious. Coffee, served in the brown ceramic cups that are ubiquitous in many Italian coffee shops, was outstanding.

www.sottorestaurant.com

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DREAMS ARE MADE OF THIS

“What’s the value of dreaming in an unjust life?” asks a 17-year-old to his puzzled mother. Granted, he hasn’t had it easy, with a father who lost interest in him early on in their relationship, a single mother who works long hours to barely make ends meet and his grandma gravely ill. Tony could be forgiven for not believing that high grades will get him a scholarship, that years of study will parlay into a better future than the circumstances he was born in. Just another Latino kid who used to dream to become a CEO, in the midst of hormonal battles and mild depression, growing up to lose the stars in his eyes because what he sees around him doesn’t warrant his hopes. There are very many of them in this city.

His mother’s eyes fill with tears as she pours her heart out – her son stopped saying “Mom, I will buy you a house one day and you won’t have to work so hard”. He doesn’t believe in the Grimm Brothers anymore nor in a better future. What happened to the land of hopes and dreams? To the wild frontier of old where anything was possible? Twenty years have gone by since the Rodney King’s riots and this city has achieved a racial integration previously thought impossible, only to deliver our youths to a landscape devoid of jobs, of affordable higher education and impossibly high rents.

My instinct would be to tell Tony that dreams are cheap because everyone should be able to  afford them. That he should be dreaming big, bigger than his imagination will allow him –  it’s not necessarily reaching that goal that matters, but initiating the process. Dreams transform themselves over time and land us in places and situations we could have not imagined. But do I really have a right to encourage such dreaming? I would still like to think so. Without big dreams, imagination and perseverance Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela and all those who did and still work to make the world a better place wouldn’t have initiated the process that did, and will, indeed change this wonky world of ours.

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DINNERTIME AT THE DEER’S

Mr. and Mrs. Deer were leisurely parked outside my gate last night, when I got home. In fact, Mrs. Deer was looking positively radiant in her minimal make-up, batting her eye-lids, bearing just a hint of mascara. She was waiting for Mr. Deer, busy polishing his antlers with that special oil he is known to use, taking his sweet time despite dinner time approaching fast. Mrs. Deer did not want to miss her nightly reservation. Finally, Mr. Deer made his appearance, elegantly swooping in from the hillside, poised to reach out to Mrs. Deer, sprint towards my fence and make their way towards my rose bushes.

I slowed down, mesmerized by their beauty and their grace, knowing that the headlights would soon give my presence away and delay Mr. and Mrs. Deer’s dinner plans. And so it was.

My 8 year-long battle to keep the roses blooming through the Spring was lost a long time ago. My inept inner gardener loved to cut the multi-hued roses the previous owners had (stupidly) planted and cherished. Their plan to keep the wildlife at bay resorted to an electrified fence I promptly disconnected as soon as my (RIP) Rottweiler got mildly electrocuted. For a  short time, I tried web and neighbours’ inspired remedies as extravagant as sprinkling baking soda or laying small bowls of beer around the roots. Nothing worked. And that is how my exotic roses became the equivalent of a French Laundry meal for the resident deer.

A few days ago, I learnt of a couple who traded their Venice house for a pool accessorized abode in my neighbourhood. Six months into their “idyllic” residence, they spotted a rattlesnake in the backyard, where their toddler was playing – after calling pests’ removal companies and being told there was no way to abate rattlesnakes (no shit Sherlock – how would that work exactly?), they decided to move.

I am always amazed at the amount of city folks (and I was one the most urban of them all) who move to the canyons and expect to lead the same life as if they lived on the Santa Monica Promenade (“oh, I have to drive such a distance to get food – nobody will deliver”). At least, I did my research beforehand and made peace with the snakes, the deer, the coyotes, the tarantulas and the mountain lions whose habitat I trespass on (not to mention the landslides and the wildfires – as if earthquakes were not enough).

The gift I get in return is Mr. and Mrs. Deer welcoming me home at night, clearly unafraid of me – by now, they know I am running a rose special outside my garage.

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – WILL ROGERS STATE PARK

Few landmarks in Los Angeles are not connected, one way or the other, to the entertainment industry and state parks are no exception. I remember exploring Will Rogers State Park many moons ago and then forgetting all about it – in one way, here we are so spoiled for large areas of green and hiking trails. Will Rogers has the advantage of being conveniently located just off Sunset Boulevard, in the Palisades and, recently, I was reminded how pretty it is, when a colleague organized a Sunday picnic in the park.

Will Rogers, the man, used to be a famous actor in the 1920’s and ’30’s. Just for fun, he bought himself 184 acres  at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains, when the Palisades and Santa Monica were still a wasteland. An avid rider, he had beautiful stables built and a ranch house to enjoy week-ends and vacations. Both still stand and the park is undergoing major renovations to restore it to the way it used to look when Mr. Rogers owned it.

All 184 acres became state park when Mrs. Rogers died in 1944 (he passed away about 10 years earlier, in an accident). The ranch house can still be visited today and, if you are an equestrian, you can either take your horse on the trails or avail yourself of riding lessons. A polo club also has a sprawling field on the premises. There are pretty, if not challenging, trails, perfect for a walk with the dogs, and a wealth of picnic tables overlooking the polo fields. For a small fee, you are even allowed to bring alcohol, one of the very few parks I am aware of that permits it.

Being a “ward” of the state, parking is not cheap – $12 for a day pass but, if you are in the mood for walking, you can leave your car on the road leading to the park and just walk in. If it wasn’t that I was transporting a massive cake, I probably would have done that (on the other hand, our struggling state parks need all the money they can get…).

For more info and historical photos

 

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – PITFIRE PIZZA

With four locations in Los Angeles (North Hollywood, Culver City, West LA and Downtown), it’s strange I never ventured into Pitfire Pizza before. Even Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold wrote that Pitfire Pizza is a neighbourhood gem, with good, affordable food if not THE best pizza in the world.

The founders of Pitfire Pizza had in mind a sort of fast food place with high quality ingredients, wood burning ovens for great pizza and a neighbourhood atmosphere. Last night I ventured into the Culver City location which, incidentally, won an architectural award in the recent past. Between Marina del Rey and Culver City on Washington Boulevard, the warehouse-like space is built in the industrial style so popular these days: cement floors, exposed ceiling, spare tables and booths. Orders are placed at the register, with the food swiftly delivered by welcoming and competent serving staff.

I was there for pizza (you know, my never-ending quest) so I left alone the portion of the menu filled with salads, Panini and pastas. But a word about the ingredients first. Pitfire Pizza put their money where their mouth is: cheese is from an artisanal maker in Wisconsin, the mozzarella is made locally, meats and sausages are from Zoe’s in SF and a small producer from the Fairfax Farmer’s Market respectively and vegetables are seasonal and local. The pizza toppings are bit too involved for my tastes – I can’t go past 3 ingredients on my pie, and the combinations of cheeses, nuts, vegetables and meats the chef(s) came up with seemed a touch too heavy. But you can build your own pizza, simply on a base of mozzarella and tomato sauce.

My friend and I ordered a basic Margherita and a pizza with burrata, caramelized onions, arugula, hazelnuts and a drizzle of pesto (see what I mean? and that is the lightest of the bunch). The verdict? A far cry from my idea of perfect pizza is, the crust is a bit too doughy but nicely charred at the edges. The tomato sauce is average but the mozzarella and the burrata are excellent. Because a Margherita shines only if the three main components are outstanding (crust, sauce and mozzarella), this one fell a bit flat. The other pie was much better: the onions nicely caramelized, the arugula fresh and peppery and the hazelnuts a surprisingly good addition.

Despite being a very informal place, more than one server came by our table to ask if everything was fine and if we liked the food, and they offered to get us more drinks. Finally, a word on the beers – aside from all the usual bottled offerings, Pitfire offers lovely micro-brews on tap.

Soon the line of people waiting to order was reaching outside the door, with no letting up as time went by. The goal of becoming a neighbourhood place that serves high quality fast food has clearly been achieved. It might not be the very best pizza in town but it’s certainly many steps above the majority of pizza joints in LA.

For menus and locations click here

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – LA VILLETTA

Chez Mimi was a Brentwood fixture for over a decade, a charming French restaurant in a Spanish colonial building just across from the Country Mart, with one of the nicest patios in town. Then, like all good things, it came to an end an it resurfaced as La Villetta, yet another Italian restaurant in Brentwood (at least it’s not on that stretch of San Vicente where they all seem to be).

The building, a historical landmark, underwent an extensive renovation but it managed to retain the charm of Chez Mimi combined with much contemporary features. The patio  is still where one wants to be and, even on a chilly evening, this indoor courtyard is kept warm by amazing conical heat lamps that give you the impression of being inside.

Antonio De Cicco, who was manager at Toscana just down the road, for many years, ably manages the room. On a Saturday night, he is a welcome and warm presence, touching every table, chatting with regular and new clients alike, making everybody feel special. When La Villetta opened, the head chef was Pippa Calland, of “Chopped” fame, who has now been replaced by Dylan Hallas.

The menu is not particularly innovative but does stray somewhat from the typical Italian fare: the artichoke salad features pine nuts and manchego and the beet salad is complimented by endive, candied walnuts and apples –  they are nothing to write home about but pleasant enough. The pizzas are probably one of the best choices – two brothers from Naples are back in the kitchen stretching the dough and sliding it into the wood burning oven and the end result is an excellent pizza, Neapolitan style, with a slightly soft dough, charred edges and fresh buffalo mozzarella on top. Delicious!

The fish dishes such as the cod with olives and tomatoes or the grilled salmon, if not extremely creative, are fresh and well executed. The short ribs are tender but the pasta falls short. The special ravioli with eggplant, ricotta and walnuts are gooey, the sheets of pasta too thick and the tomato reduction far too similar to any canned tomato paste.

Desserts veer from the ubiquitous tiramisu to a rum baba, heavy on the rum and filled with whipped cream. The fruit tart is uninspired and the mille feuilles a touch too heavy. Still, the place is so charming that everyone seems to have a good time and I could go back just for a pizza and a beer. And a pretend it was another Sunday night back in Milan..

For address and menu, click here

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – BLUE PLATE OYSTERETTE

Whenever I think of Blue Plate, it’s a neighbourhood joint that comes to mind. Located on Montana in Santa Monica, I keep on going back for breakfast or brunch (but they also serve lunch and dinner), because the dishes are solid if not out of the world excellent, and the atmosphere uplifting and “coastal” with all the blue and white of the decor. And whenever I drive by Blue Plate Oysterette, their seafood sister restaurant, I also picture a neighbourhood place, even if Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica, high rises notwithstanding, is not much of a neighbourhood at all. A stone’s throw from the Promenade, it came highly recommended by trustworthy friends, and I thought it might be a good spot where to have a quick bite before a movie.

Still small, still white and blue with some beige thrown in and a bit more sophisticated than Blue Plate, Oysterette, as the name implies, is all about seafood and oysters in particular. In all fairness, I did not try the oysters or the crudo. The menu is fairly extensive and on the pricey side for a casual restaurant that doesn’t take reservations and whose tables are so close together you are practically sitting in your neighbour’s lap. Were I to go back, I would rather sit at the counter, in front of the open kitchen, and order oysters.

One of their signature dishes is the lobster mac and cheese (which has become ubiquitous in LA) and, for $20 appetizer size (albeit generous), I would expect more than a couple of ounces of lobster and for the pasta not to be overcooked into oblivion. And why mar an absolutely perfect Maine lobster with truffle oil? The house salad with shallot vinaigrette was devoid of any flavour – I am all for keeping our arteries in good shape but how about shelling out a bit more salt in the vinaigrette? The fried Spanish sardines, a starter special on the night I visited, were, on the other hand, perfect. Served on a bed of arugula with fried capers, they were crispy and light and I wished they were served entrée size.

The restaurant can get really noisy but the service is friendly and efficient. Bread is not offered but, upon request, the grilled sourdough that gets delivered is good. All in all, I would be game for going back and trying a few more dishes, especially the raw fish and the oysters. Somehow, oysters before a movie seemed a bit too decadent.

Check out the menu

 

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