Category Archives: Restaurants

Eating Adventures in Los Angeles, Part I: Taco Maria, Shibumi, and Mian

Mussels, clams, lima beans, cherry tomato and chile -- a third-course on the Taco Maria prix fixe.

Mussels, clams, lima beans, cherry tomato and chile — a third-course on the Taco Maria prix fixe.

 

I may have been in Los Angeles last month for only four days, but I did some major eating in that short time. Come along for a taste.

Taco Maria

In a building inside SoCo design complex in Costa Mesa is the OC Mix, a mini marketplace of fun trendy shops and small cafes.

It is here you will find Taco Maria. Its artsy locale is fitting because this is high-concept Mexican food by a chef who used to cook at Coi in San Franciso and Commis in Oakland.

Nope, this is not your standard enchilada- or burrito-drowned-in-cheese kind of place. While it serves a la carte lunch, it turns into prix fixe-only at night. And what a fine parade of dishes you’re in for with the $75 four-course meal (wine pairings are $35 extra), which is quite reasonable for what you get.

Sitting at the counter, you are up close and personal with the cooks preparing your food.

Sitting at the counter, you are up close and personal with the cooks preparing your food.

Each course offers a choice of two dishes. So if there are two of you dining, you can order the entire menu and share tastes of everything, which is what my husband and I did. Sit at the counter in front of the small kitchen, and you can watch the cooks in action.

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Chinese Food Reimagined At Mister Jiu’s

Chef Brandon Jew expediting in the kitchen of his Mister Jiu's.

Chef Brandon Jew expediting in the kitchen of his Mister Jiu’s.

 

For many years, my Uncle George had his insurance office on Waverly Place in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He’d often take clients for lunch or drinks to Four Seas restaurant across the street. Back then, it was the place to socialize, a glamorous spot where so many friends and family members of my generation remember attending celebratory banquet meals.

So maybe it was appropos that my first visit to Mister Jiu’s, which reincarnated that space a year ago, came just a few weeks after my uncle’s passing last month. Making my way through that tucked-away street, I somehow felt I was walking in his shoes, seeing this venue past, present and future.

Chinatown stopped being a destination dining scene long ago for so many Chinese-Americans of my generation. These days, if we head here at all, it’s because we’re playing tour guide to visiting friends. But Chef Brandon Jew, who grew up in San Francisco, was lured here to create a restaurant that he hopes will reinvigorate this historic neighborhood.

Certainly, he’s succeeded in drawing more Millennials, Generation Xers, and Baby Boomers to this area, as evidenced by the crowd I saw dining here on a Saturday night.

Original chandeliers from the Four Seas.

Original chandeliers from the Four Seas.

The open kitchen can be seen from the dining room.

The open kitchen can be seen from the dining room.

Located on the second floor, the restaurant has a wall of windows that overlook bustling Grant Avenue. The lotus-flower chandeliers from the original Four Seas have been polished to a gleam, giving a touch of elegant nostalgia to the space.

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Nancy Silverton’s Polenta Cake with Brutti Ma Buoni Topping

A cake for nut lovers.

A cake for nut lovers.

 

Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don’t.

In my case, I always do. I’m the person who won’t even dive into a box of See’s candies unless it’s “nuts and chews.” For me, it’s M&M’s with nuts all the way. And I can happily munch on almonds by the handful, day or night.

This is a cake that appeals to nutty folks like me.

“Polenta Cake with Brutti Ma Buoni Topping” is from “Mozza At Home” (Knopf), of which I received a review copy. It’s the newest cookbook by Nancy Silverton, the chef who helped kick-start the modern-day artisan bread revolution. She’s also the chef/co-owner of Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza, and Chi Spacca, all in Los Angeles.

As Silverton writes in the book, this cake is the happy marriage of a classic polenta cake, and a traditional meringue and nut cookie called brutti ma buoni, which means “ugly but good.”

Crunch-a-licious.

Crunch-a-licious.

Personally, I prefer “distinctive” over “ugly” because I think that’s what this bumpy-topped cake is, owing to a profusion of almonds and hazelnuts mixed with egg white, honey, vanilla and orange flower water that’s strewn over the cake before it finishes baking.

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Santana Row Welcomes Oveja Negra

The black sheep is the mascot of the new Oveja Negra.

The black sheep is the mascot of the new Oveja Negra.

 

Out with Citrus; in with Oveja Negra.

The Hotel Valencia in San Jose’s Santana Row has transformed its former restaurant into a new concept with a new name. Chef Ocean Orssten still remains at the helm, but now he’s creating a menu of “unruly tapas.” Hence the name, Oveja Negra, which in Spanish means “black sheep” or refers to the odd man out. It’s his whimsical way of saying he’s not necessarily doing typical traditional tapas here, but more globally-inspired, off-beat small plates.

I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant recently to check out its new look, which sports brass tack-hammered, dark banquettes, white curved-back chairs, and Moorish accents.

Shrimp and grits -- Indian curry-style.

Shrimp and grits — Indian curry-style.

The signature cocktail is the Mezcal Brillante ($14) that puts smoky mezcal in the spotlight with the tartness of grapefruit. A rim of freeze-dried yuzu with yuzu marmalade gives each sip an extra sweet-sour pucker.

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In Tribute to My Friend Marvin

Prosciutto, rucola, tomato and mozzarella served with plenty of memories at Mozza.

Prosciutto, rucola, tomato and mozzarella served with plenty of memories at Mozza.

 

The first time I ever ate the exquisite pizza at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles was also the first time I met Marvin.

We lived on opposite ends of the state. Me in Silicon Valley, and he in the Arts District of Los Angeles, which was appropriate given his long career as a sound editor on movies ranging from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” to “Basic Instinct” to “Erin Brokovich.” It wasn’t movies that brought us together, though, but food, of course.

When I was the food editor of the San Jose Mercury News, I would often get emails from loyal readers far and wide, especially right after the food section published each Wednesday. None captivated me more than those from Marvin, who always had a thought or two about any story I wrote.

First off, you had to love the fact that his email address was “KitchenSynch.” That alone was enough to make me smile whenever I saw it pop up in my inbox each week. Second, he shared my love of sweets and ginger; so how could I not feel a kinship with him? He’d often send me recipes he’d come across that he tried and knew I would like — for brioche buns, loaded ginger muffins, and “Babette’s Apple Cake.” He’d even send me care packages at the newspaper of ginger candies, ginger jams and ginger sodas he knew I’d appreciate. Third, he would email me recommendations for movies. Often obscure, many times foreign, ones I’d never heard of. But all were worth seeing in their own right. And last but not least, when my parents passed away in the same year, within two months of one another, it was Marvin who wrote the most touching words of comfort to me, lifting me from the shadows of devastating despair.

After months and months of these email exchanges, I figured it was high time we met in person. My husband and I were headed to Los Angeles for a long weekend, so I emailed Marvin to see if he would like to meet up at Pizzeria Mozza. He agreed, readily.

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