Archive | Travel

Lights, Camera, Food!

Movie stars, glamour…Culver City? This LA enclave a bit north of LAX once billed itself as the “Heart of Screenland,” and rightfully so. Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane and King Kong were all filmed here. Today, it’s possible to visit the original Yellow Brick Road on a tour at Sony Pictures Studios. And at Culver Hotel (which original owner Charlie Chaplin is rumored to have sold to John Wayne for a dollar during a poker game), you can sip a cocktail (or sleep over) in a landmark once occupied by Wayne, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Ronald Reagan and Oz’s rowdy cast of Munchkins. But the big buzz is about Culver City’s restaurant scene. There’s Fraiche, recently named by the NY Times’ Frank Bruni as one of his top ten new restaurants. Even when I visited – at 5:30 on a Wednesday – the place was packed. I grabbed a seat at the bar and gobbled a quick plate of Rigatoni Bolognese en route to the airport. The intense, long-simmered sauce was rich with lamb and rosemary. And the classic French bistro décor is a nice change-up from LA zen-chic. Then I dashed down the street (you can actually park your car and walk from spot to spot here) to Akasha. This new restaurant and bakery is the first from Akasha Richmond, a private chef to Barbara Streisand and other celebs, who is dedicated to all things organic and sustainable. No time to eat in, but I snapped some fast photos and picked up a slice of deep-chocolate tarte that nourished me as I waited in the nearly endless LAX security line. Nearby are also dining spots from the sons of Harrison Ford (Ford’s Filling Station) and Dennis Wilson (Wilson), as well as BottleRock, a wine bar and retailer, where they’ll pop open anything from their 800-label collection if you’ll buy two glasses from the bottle. Half a mile east of Culver City’s new restaurant row, don’t miss Surfas Restaurant Supply. Chefs have been making pilgrimages to Surfas’ collection of kitchen gear and obscure gourmet ingredients (lavender powder or Emily Ridley’s Fuggle Mustard, anyone?) for over 70 years. More about this culinary wonderland in another post!

Deiner’s Diners

John Deiner of the Washington Post has been to the Mountain. Spud Mountain, that is – a roiling mound of cholesterol. I could feel my arteries clogging, just reading about it:
The waitress seemed to struggle with the very weight of the concoction, a bubbling mass of french fries buried in cheddar cheese and chives. When I pierced the top, steam and bacon vaulted upward through the fissure. The only thing missing was lava pouring down the sides and villagers running for their lives.
Boy, do I love great writing about bad food! Deiner is the Edmund Hillary of Spud Mountain. He conquers that pinnacle and others in a story about New Jersey diners (there are 600 of them statewide, he reports). Additional towering taste treats include Mile High Meatloaf, banana cream pie and pancakes as big as your head. Deiner nails the ambience – if you can call stainless steel and swivel stools ambience – of the diners sprawled along Route 130. Here, he’s taking a pie break at a spot called the Dolphin:
Each time a truck rumbles by on 130, the Dolphin shudders a bit. I swear I see whitecaps in my water glass.
Ah, it all takes me back to Ernie’s, one of my favorite, long-gone joints in Columbia, Missouri. A pal and I once ordered slices of pecan pie to go. The waitress barked to the kitchen, “Pecan! Pair! Walk!”

Chasing a Food Memory

It’s an unassuming plate – little irregular lumps of nearly naked pasta. No visual fireworks, no flashy garnish. I doubt I’d have ordered the agnolotti dal plin if a dining companion hadn’t praised it. “Guido’s mama makes them all by hand,” Daniel said, describing the folded, veal-stuffed pockets. “The sauce is just meat drippings from the roasting pan – but it’s probably the best pasta dish I’ve ever had.” We were eating at sleek, modern, expensive Guido Ristorante, in the little town of Pollenzo, Italy, home to Slow Food’s gastronomic university. There were plenty of flashier dishes on the menu (see one here), some with tennis-ball sized white truffles shaved on top. But I went for the agnolotti dal plin, and was blown away by the intense, long-roasted veal filling that’s encased in delicate pasta, then tossed in the rich, meaty pan juices. I understood why Guido chose to hang a huge black and white photo of his mama’s right hand on the restaurant wall. It hovered over our table like a benediction. When I walked into San Francisco restaurant Perbacco, it had been a year and a half since I devoured those heavenly agnolotti – which grew more and more delicious as my memory savored them. I scanned the menu, and a dish popped out: agnolotti dal plin filled with roasted vitellone and savoy cabbage, sugo d’arrosto. Crisis. Should I risk disturbing a perfect food memory? Of course, I reasoned, these agnolotti must be good, since the chef presents them with so little fanfare on a menu packed with items designed to impress. They’re competing with truffle-herb ricotta gnocchi in wild mushroom brodo, for heaven’s sake. I decided the agnolotti must be a special, secret dish for those cognoscenti belonging to the Order of Mama’s Hand. I could easily have been disappointed – but wasn’t. Chef Staffan Terje’s agnolotti were just as unassuming, spilled onto the plate without the least attempt to impress. And when I bit into the first rich, meaty bundle, it transported me back to the table in Italy where I’d crowded in with seven friends for an incredible meal beneath that benevolent hand. It’s tempting to chase a food memory – but not always successful. And yet, who can resist? You can leap over miles and years, dine with lost loves and dear friends. It’s alchemy, in the hands of a chef.