Category: Reviews – Food and otherwise

Animal Restaurant – Meat and Greet on Fairfax

Knowing I would be at loose ends in L. A. with our 8 year old on a summer Saturday night, I seized the chance to visit Animal restaurant on Fairfax, white hot popular and still bustling since their opening in 2009.   I called ahead to try and get a 6 p.m. slot.  Their new system has you leave a message with your request and they phone you back.  As we  drove to the Natural History Museum by USC, I got the call.  Not possible, but come right at 6 and we’d likely get a bar seat. Good enough.   We would be “nose-to-tail “eating very soon.

Soft shell crab over loosely scrambled eggs, with an intervening layer of pureed salsa. Thin- sliced avocado and radish garnish.

We showed up at 5:45 to find a bearded owner/chef outside (not sure whether it was Shook or Dotolo),  quietly yelling at some teens along the lines of  “my roof and don’t get on it, of course I called the cops.”    Some graffitiing kids had broken his gas line.  The restaurant would not be opening until it was fixed.  The gas company was working on it as we spoke.   I took the opportunity to shake his hand and said we were excited to eat there.   As dolled-up couples showed up for their reservations, the situation was explained over and over.  The hostess brought out some house wine for any takers.  Juliet was given a lemonade and some cookies.  The hostess also confided she had a cancellation, so a table was ours.   Still,  the wait dragged on and we arranged to come back.  We went to the car and played a tough game of Go Fish.  Juliet cleaned my clock using her uncanny ability to get exactly the right cards from my hand just as I was ready to pounce.

We returned and were whisked to a table ahead of  a few others.  Juliet called out a hello to Ashley, the manager who gave her the treats.  I suppose we were seen as insiders.  Too funny.   I toyed with getting the rabbit loin spring roll, and certainly the liver pate on toast, but with a child, unless you are a mean adult,  you order one course and that will do it for patience, hunger and tolerance for doing a boring grown up thing.    Juliet ordered  the flat iron steak with fingerling potatoes and artichokes, finished with a parmesan truffle oil fondue.   I cannot, and did not, resist soft shell crab, over scrambled eggs, sandwiched with a pureed salsa.  I got a glass of a decent French rose and we staved off hunger with a side of garlicky grilled bread, finished with salt.

Our waiter eyed the presence of a child warily.  C’mon dude.  Two tables down featured some glamorous parents out with their 3 year old and a 6 month old in a carrier!   Ashley saw to it we got our food quite quickly.  Juliet was admired for eating a medium rare steak.  She loved it but found the sauce “a little cheesy.”  Fair enough.  My crab, appropriately, had the liver, so I got a nice burst of mustiness as I ate.  That’s what you pay for at Animal, and I got it.

Restaurants usually get complacent after being open a while and endlessly popular.   Animal seems in top form, while also maintaining a friendly and unflappable vibe.  It’s a neat trick to turn over tables all night while  not seeming to rush your customers.  Very much a plus is their inclusion of sides with your entree.  Too many chefs see every dish as a chance for another sale.  Also appreciated by lots of tables the night we were there was the BYOB policy with a $20 corkage fee.





Bibigo Beverly Hills

Chinese food is everywhere.  Indian food is everywhere and who would have thought people would be eating seaweed and raw fish in every major city in America?  So Korean food may be next.    I was in on a so-called “soft opening” last week of a new Bibigo location in Beverly Hills.  I had not been to the Westwood one near UCLA, but I have been to many  a grocery store in Koreatown for cheap, super fresh produce and seafood.  The Koreatown grocery stores have inside dining, usually noodle bowls and dim sum which are hand made on the spot.

My expectations were pretty high based on the terrific random food I had had in a low key grocery store.   Bibi, I gather, is short for “bibimbop” which means rice and veggies – an absolute staple, the meat and potatoes of Korea. Bean sprouts, chopped leeks, mushrooms, scallions and raw mustard greens are typical.

Plain words, explosive flavors.

The location is prime, just below Wilshire on Beverly Drive, in “lunch alley”. Beverly Hills teems with workers looking for a new place to eat, so they should get takers.   Just how many times can a person eat at CPK?   The staff was eager to explain what the food concept was, but not so up on what was in the food.  My fantastic shrimp pancake was laced with peppers which I was told were leeks.  Then the server checked with the kitchen., Yep.  Serrano peppers.  There were indeed leeks, plus shrimp and peppers, in a rice flour pancake, crisped brown and with a super hot pepper chili oil and lemony dipping sauce.  At least I think it was lemon. The server swore it was not.

I was invited to try more and went for the spinach salad with avocado, dried fig and the equivalent of Korean croutons: basically rice krispy treats without sugar.  Nutty and good.  The salad dressing (no choice) was pureed sesame seeds, wine, a touch of vinegar and more peppers.  This could have been put on an old shoe and it would have tasted good.  The mix of  salad ingredients was a touch off but tasty.

I had no room whatsoever but moved on to Bulgogi – marinated beef slow smoked over red oak, then served on a hot stone with hot chilis and mushrooms.  As with a lettuce wrap, you eat it by putting it in rolled-up mustard and dandelion greens.  I love bitter greens, beef and chilis.  Sold.

Like all Asian restaurants, dessert is basically defined as the absence of chilis.  I tasted a tofu “pana cotta”  which was barely sweet and a touch grainy, with a super simple fruit garnish.  So dessert is not why you go here.

The chain has several locations in Korea and two in Los Angeles.   City of Beverly Hills free parking is nearby and the Westwood location offers 2 hours free with validation.  They also have a frequent dining club with bonuses, kinda like earning a free cup of coffee at  Coffee Bean. And to help your dining experience?   Be a chilihead like me.


The Wood

I met an old friend for dinner at The Wood, one of the many casual dining spots in Culver City, a subsection of west L.A. that has its own mayor, city council, and white hot food scene that gives Silver Lake a run for its money.   The venerable cook and gourmet food supply shop Surfas anchors the area, plus there are a couple of small storefront cooking schools.   Locally, food is on the brain.   And indeed the co-owners ran a coffee shop and a cafe, respectively, and met at a farmer’s market.   That would be Demetrios Mavromichalis of  Venice Grind and Laurent Triqueneaux of Cafe Laurent.

It doesn’t hurt that there are film studios and media companies nearby to keep the caterers and lunch spots busy.  Lest you picture quaint streets and adorable areas to walk, I’ll set you straight.  Culver City was a suburb developed in the late 40’s/ early ’50’s at the height of L.A.’s love affair with the car, and has wide, bleak streets and pretty ugly architecture.  Style-less Moderne, let’s call it.   Travel a block and you will doubtless see an auto repair shop.  Not exactly Rodeo Drive.

A bleak corner with good food.

There is mostly outdoor dining at  meat-and-potato-centered The Wood, but we ate inside as it was 55 degrees, people!  The cafe promises locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible,  which is quite easy in California.  My rose wine was from Santa Barbara, for example, as was my side dish of kale, but my perfectly medium rare lamb chops were from New Zealand.  The amount of garlic in the chimichurri sauce on top of them could only be described as fearless, and very possibly from Gilroy, a garlic-growing center in mid state. The lamb stood up to the garlic. I did, too.

My friend’s pork chop was a shade dry,  but the accompanying mashed potatoes were way better than mom-style.   We started with fritto misto,  since the fried brussel sprouts appetizer would overdo me with a double load of winter vegetables.   The tempura-battered veggies and a few shrimp were good enough, but oily, indicating less than fresh or double-used oil, as a general rule.  Just a guess.  It was served cutely in a cake baking tin lined with parchment paper.

I’d go again and try a burger, and the sprouts, and try to find room for the chocolate pot de creme, too.    The desire to go again means this is a good place, and, as my friend noted, way better than the tired greasy spoon that used to be there.

Driving back to the freeway you’ll pass an only-in-L.A. series of storefronts, namely a famous sword and gun collectors shop, a relatively new mosque, the headquarters of,  a Lutheran church, the DMV and Sony Studios.

Hot Peppered Pizza on the Highway to Hell: A Review

Los Angeles has an ever-replenishing supply of consumers under 30, aided by the presence of lots of top tier colleges, and, oh yes,  the draw of Hollywood fame and fortune.  Are they eating 3 course meals and sipping $100 bottles of wine?  Not so much.  Pizza?  Yep.   And not Pizza Hut, Papa John’s or Domino’s.

Point of fact: indy pizza joints are popping up in trendy Los Feliz and Silver Lake  almost as fast as wine bars. Actually, they are usually within a storefront of each other. Such is the case with Lucifer’s Pizza, on Hillhurst.  You might not fly such a restaurant name in the heart of the Bible belt, but it is doing just fine where black clothing is de riguer, even for toddlers (seriously!).  The place proclaims itself to be “Damned good.”  Get it?  The hook of the menu is that you get to decide how spicy your pizza will be: “zero,” “medium,” “fiery” or “blazing”.    Go for blazing and fresh cut hot peppers, pickled peppers, and housemade chili sauce will end up on your pizza, which you can order in personal or large sizes.  Sandwiches, wings and salad round out the food choices.

Being in Rome, my dining partner did as a Roman and ordered the spiciest pizza there was, and made it blazing.  I went with zero as I was hungry and if lost feeling in my mouth, what the hell (!) would I eat?    We got some water/Coke out of the cooler (you can bring your own beer and wine; they don’t have a license) and waited quite a long time.  We took plenty of peeks behind the counter; the kitchen seemed to be a little overwhelmed with take-out orders.   We people-watched, seated at our table shaped like a coffin, spurning groups of three or more who were trying to get us two to move so they could have our bigger table.   You’ll pry this comfy coffin from my cold dead hands, hipster.

The thin crust pizzas, a bit greasy with cheese, showed up.    John reported his was very spicy but far from inedible (you’d have to bring food literally on fire to be too spicy for him).  I tried a  pepperoni slice off his which had been soaked in the chili sauce. Hot on its own, never mind the fresh sliced hot peppers all over the pie.   My Sicilian sausage with fresh tomatoes was okay,  but we are pretty sure we were eating dough not made in house.  Dough is a big part of setting yourself a cut above as a pizza joint.

The point in coming here is not necessarily nuanced ingredients, however.  It is about  being guaranteed access to very hot peppers, wearing black, being in a black room and not spending too much money to do so.   Lucifer’s succeeds on all the above counts, but has a way to go to beat Garage Pizza a few blocks away, where they make the dough in house (rumor has it that the chef cut his teeth at Joe’s Pizza in New York!) and slices are ready to go almost instantly, with a wide choice of toppings, too.

Lucifer’s Pizza is located at 1958 Hillhurst Avenue in Los Angeles.


Sly’s in Carpinteria: A Gem Worth the Drive

Maybe you have a distant memory of going to a “fancy” restaurant when relatives were in town or a cousin was off to college. There were white tablecloths, a jacketed waiter and “continental’ specials. The kitchen somehow came up with kid’s plates that weren’t on the menu, and the staff had been there forever. Oh, yes, and the adults could order a handmade cocktail for the occasion. It was family-friendly in a kind of stuffy way. You dressed up a little and Shirley Temples were a house drink.

Very few such places exist any more, but Carpineteria, yes, that little town 10 minutes south of Montecito and lacking an upscale hotel, pier or restaurant scene of much description, has one. It’s not in its 60th year of operation, however, only its third, helmed by James Sly, a long time chef who made Montecito’s Lucky’s steakhouse what it is today. You kind of only find this place if you live near there or someone tells you about it. And don’t worry, it won’t be closing due to lack of interest. Sly’s ( has its followers who make sure the place is not empty. Here is where you’ll get Blue Plate specials of American classics like pot pie and meat loaf every night of the week, very good steak (hand cut and aged in house), locally-sourced wines, produce and breads. Their grilled artichoke is delicious and straight from Castroville, of course.

The low key town means low key rent, one suspects, and thus a lot more value goes on your plate than you might expect. No, it’s not cheap, but it’s not crazy pricewise either. We took our 6 year old there a couple of Sundays ago and enjoyed the aforementioned artichokes and herbed scallops to start. My husband had his favorite Bloody Mary, ever, and perfectly pan-roasted chicken. I had the prix fixe menu of the day, which had a Gruyere souffle, a more than decent steak with a carrot puree, and a petite tarte tatin to finish. My souffle was fallen, I must say, and the waiter blinked a bit when I asked about it. (Update: From James Sly: “The soufflé suissesse is unmolded, and served in cream, baked with gruyere over.” So it turns out that the souffle wasn’t fallen after all. However, that waiter should have known that.)

Sounds much better than fallen! It’s baked in a half inch deep mold.
He said it came that way. Hmmm. Well, it tasted good. And it was $34 for all three courses.

As a more than decent home cook, Top Chef addict, farmer’s market shopper and all-around food enthusiast, I am well aware most restaurants use shortcuts to streamline operations and pare costs. It’s an admirable business model – if you don’t care that the food be special and personal. Sly’s does indeed care about special and personal. On a brunch visit, we asked how they get the artichoke just so. We were advised how to steam them using vegatable broth for 45 minutes, chill them in the fridge for at least an hour, trim them properly and then grill them. I’m not so sure Morton’s, McCormick and Schmicks’ are doing it that way or would take the time to tell us about it.

The Los Angeles, and, casting the net wider, southern California, food scene is really world class these days. You can get well-made food from eager culinary grads who’ve cut their teeth in New York, Paris and Miami. You want deconstructed Italian, cutting edge Vietnamese, fusion Korean? Seriously amazing.

But no frills delicious is much harder than that. Deceptively simple is all about showcasing ingredients and adding salt, pepper, butter, herbs and a huge dash of service. Sly’s has it.

By the way, one of the Bloody Mary’s key ingredients is fresh squeezed juice of a whole lemon. As for the rest, sorry, you’ll have to go to the corner of Linden and Seventh in Carpinteria for the recipe.