Monday, April 21, 2014

Where to Eat: The Oyster Bar @ Tipple & Brine (Part 1 of 2)

The Eats: A daily selection of oysters from around the world and other inventive dishes with an emphasis on seafood

The Location: The Valley (Sherman Oaks)

The Vibes: Barn Chic

Good for: Dates, groups, solo

When-To-Go: Dinner, daily beginning at 5 p.m.

The $ Factor: $$; Oysters are $3-$3.50 each; entrees are in the $15-$30 range

The Names behind the scenes: Owner Richard DiSisto (Vantage Restaurant Group); Executive Chef Mike Williams (Epic Roasthouse and Boulevard, The Tasting Kitchen, The Parish); Chef de Cuisine Logan Jones (The Parish, Axe, The Tasting Kitchen)

The 4-1-1: Owner Richard Disisto built the entire restaurant…by hand. As if that's not impressive enough, he skillfully used refurbished materials to make mostly everything; light fixtures, walls, stools, etc.

I’ll Be Back…: For the oysters and the Brussels Sprouts!

The Thursday before its grand debut (on Monday, April 14), Tipple & Brine held an Opening Party to provide a sneak peak of what it plans to offer, once its doors officially open to the public.

Guests experienced complimentary champagne, bite-sized hors d’oeuvres, craft cocktails and one of the main attractions of the restaurant—the oysters.

Oysters are a very big deal at Tipple & Brine. From displays instructing how to properly eat them to signs that proclaim "It was a brave man that 1st ate an oyster," it's clear they reign supreme here. At the end of the cocktail bar is a vibrant oyster bar, where daily oyster selections are prominently displayed and the team that attentively prepares them are hard at work. Each day there will be six types of oysters served on the half shell, hailing from both the East and West Coasts, and from around the world, that you can mix and match, at $3 to $3.50 each. They’re carefully hand picked and selected—I saw the team mercilessly toss multiple oysters if they didn’t look or smell “right”—and platters are accompanied by lemon wedges, vinegar and a tangy mignonette sauce.

Aside from oysters, Tipple & Brine will have a select menu that features other seafood and land-based entrees and a rather impressive selection of vegetable dishes. Servers passed out bite-sized portions of some of the appetizers, entrees and the two desserts that are currently on the menu—the carrot cake and an amazing, chocolate concoction called the Chocolate Cremeux, pictured below, with caramel, pretzel streusel and brown butter whipped cream.

Although the focus is mainly seafood, it must be noted that the vegetables are most certainly pulling their own weight. The favorite for many guests of the night, and a few servers I talked with, were the Brussels Sprouts, which are fried, drenched in a sweet chili vinaigrette and topped with misonnaise and green shallots. The Cauliflower with pickled chili and currants wasn’t passed around, but I heard is most certainly another “must-try” item. Aside from the veggies, I also thoroughly enjoyed the fried chicken with raw kale and a Green goddess dressing made in-house, pictured below. That may have been a special for the night as I didn’t see it on the regular menu, but if it happens to somehow magically appear, definitely order it. You won’t be disappointed.

While I did get to try all six of the types of oysters on deck for the night, I didn’t get to experience the entire menu, so I will definitely be back to do that. I’m already getting ready for what I’d order; the Lamb Shank with creamy grits and the much-talked-about Cauliflower.

Tipple & Brine is part of DiSisto’s dream to turn the stretch of Ventura Blvd. where the restaurant is located into a “downtown Sherman Oaks,” with same pull that downtown Los Angeles, West L.A. and other prominent city neighborhoods have, with their scores of reputable bars and dining destinations. I’m sure with the spectacular oysters and unique menu, that won’t be much of a problem.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Tipple & Vine—an in-depth look at its cocktail program!

For more information:


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Where to Eat: The Present and Past Merging @ Faith & Flower

The Eats + Drinks: California rustic cuisine + turn-of-the-century cocktails

The Location: Downtown

The Vibes: Renaissance meets modern; upscale, eye-catching, intimate

Good for: Groups of friends, dates, solo dining and/or drinking

When-To-Go: Open evenings, after 5:30pm every day

The $ Factor: $$ - Prices range from $6 to $85

The 4-1-1: The restaurant derives its name from the street that it’s on: Flower is the current name of the street and Faith was the street’s alleged name in the 1920s. Also, the menu is in the form of a book. Don't just read the beginning; read it in its entirety!

I’ll Be Back…: For the Chicory & Asian Pear Salad!

Last week, I was invited to a pre-opening dinner for one of the latest additions to downtown, a swanky new restaurant, Faith & Flower.

The night before its official opening, a friend and I joined hundreds of industry guests—the owners, other bloggers, magazine editors, hotel execs and others—in the beautifully decorated restaurant, which features high ceilings and a handmade sunburst wall installation in the main dining area; a long black, sleek communal table and an intriguing wall mural by Robert Vargas in the bar area (pictured below); and other eye-catching accents scattered throughout. Its décor is most certainly a nod to a more regal time period of Los Angeles, with a sense of glam that thrived in the Old Hollywood Era.

Faith & Flower is the first SoCal brick-and-mortar venue for Coastal Luxury Management, a Central California company that produces the Pebble Beach and the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festivals. There’s a ton of well-known names attached to the restaurant: Executive Chef Michael Hung (Michelin-starred La Folie), Lead Mixologist Michael Lay (Restaurant 1833 and Rose.Rabbit.Lie.), Executive Pastry Chef Ben Spungin (Bernardus Lodge) and restaurateur Stephane Bombet (Picca, Mo-Chica and Paiche).

From the pre-opening night, two things stood out to me:

First and most importantly, the food was absolutely impeccable. Plates are family-style—to be shared amongst your group—and out of all of the dishes we tried, there wasn't one that I didn't like. The cuisine is coined as California rustic, but appears to have less of a focus on one specific region and instead incorporates global themes into everything.

The Deviled Jidori Eggs had an Asian flair, with kimchee and Korean chili adding a rich and bold flavor to the traditional recipe of deviled eggs.

I’m convinced someone from the South came up with The Black Eyed Peas. Hidden below the flavorful black eyed peas are a bed of tender, braised greens, with small pieces of delightful smoked bacon nestled inside.

The Chicory & Asian Pear Salad reminded me of the gastronomy of Spain, with its thinly sliced Serrano ham. Hazelnuts added a surprisingly pleasant crunchy affect to the salad and the Malvarosa cheese and pears added a fun play on tart and sweet. It was all tossed in a very faint hint of a tangy dressing—so faint it almost didn't seem like it was there—which was nice, because you really got to taste and appreciate all of the ingredients of the salad itself.

Since I don't eat beef, I didn't try the Oxtail Agnolotti, but my friend and the couple dining next to us raved about it all night and asserted that it was the best item on the menu. The waiter explained to me its genesis—that it was heavily influenced by both African and Caribbean cuisines that frequently incorporate oxtail into their dishes.

Last to note, the cocktails are most certainly what you'd call hand-crafted cocktails. Intricate and rare ingredients are featured in many, making them quite complex and curious. As someone who is easily pleased with a basic two-ingredient drink (i.e., a Jack & Coke), initially reading the menu, I was slightly intimidated by all of the ingredients that I simply didn’t know (i.e., Bigalette China-China Amer). Fortunately, my waiter provided guidance and surprised me with this great blend of gin, Mandarin Napoleon, lemon and a spray of absinthe, called the Dutch Gin Crusta.

If you're looking for a place to grab a simple, standard martini, this might not be the place; even my friend’s Jameson and ginger ale featured ginger ale made in-house, with fresh ginger (although yes, there are wines, beers, absinthes and amaros by the glass). But, if you’re looking for 19th and 20th century cocktails that Faith & Flower claims were widely popular in L.A.’s former speakeasies, then this is definitely the place to check out.

In closing, Faith & Flower’s price point is very competitive for what you get, which is top notch dining, drinks and presentation. Cocktails are $10-$14. The smaller plates range from $6-$10; larger plates are around the $20 mark. One of the only extravagantly priced option I saw on the menu was the $52 Whole Tai Snapper. We didn't get that, but we saw it delivered and it looked like it could easily feed at least five people. In all, we ordered about three small plates, two entrees and two desserts and were thoroughly and satisfactorily filled afterwards.

All in all, I think this is a fantastic upscale addition to the downtown neighborhood. Centered right in the middle of downtown and walking distance from The Staples Center and other landmarks and entertainment, it's easily accessible and an ideal location for drinks after work, a dinner date or shareable bites before a night out.

See you there soon!

For more information:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine @ Azla vegan

The Location: South L.A. / Downtown

The Vibes: Community-oriented, friendly, open, colorful, inviting

Good for: Traditional Ethiopian fare with a vegan twist

When-To-Go: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.; closed on Sundays

The $ Factor: $; Combo meals range from $3.95 to $11.95 and come with 1-4 items

The 4-1-1: Azla is part of the Mercado La Paloma, an entrepreneurial incubator where dozens of local residents have access and assistance with launching their own businesses.

I’ll be back: To check out the monthly Brunch Club series, taking place every last Sunday of the month. It features DJs, an Ethiopian-fusion breakfast and vegan pastries created by 17-year-old Clara, of Clara Cakes.

“Beyond vegan, I’d really love to see Ethiopian food become a major global cuisine. 
The same way that people think about Thai food or Mexican food, 
I’d love people to have Ethiopian food on the top of their mind.” 
– Nesanet, owner of Azla vegan

Azla vegan is something spectacularly special, more than just the opening of another Ethiopian restaurant…It’s the first Ethiopian restaurant in the downtown area. It’s also a vegan restaurant. And, it’s a family-owned business, with the mother-daughter duo of marketing guru Nesanet (pictured below) and her mother chef Azla, its namesake, running the restaurant and its adjacent shop.

After speaking with Nesanet briefly over the phone and arranging a time to stop by, I headed down to where Azla has been located since it opened last summer 2013—in Mercado La Paloma, which has an intriguing story of origins in its own right (more on this little mercadito later; post coming soon). Inside this entrepreneurial incubator that makes up the Mercado is the colorful blend of food stands and shops, featuring cuisine and artwork of various global cultures—from the Yucatan and Michoacan regions of Mexico, to Thailand and, of course, Ethiopia.

Upon my arrival, Nesanet greeted me with a big, warm smile, a packed plate of some of Azla’s prized specialties and she sat down to speak with me. During our conversation and a follow-up phone interview, she shared with me her passion about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, her pride in Ethiopian food and what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in the heart of L.A.

“I used to actually teach in this area; I taught in South L.A. and I love this part where it meets downtown,” she began, explaining why Azla is located where it is. “One of our missions is to provide nutrient-dense foods to populations in areas that don’t necessarily have an abundance of choices in terms of healthy food. I also enjoy the fact that this neighborhood is transforming. it’s a nice, eclectic mix of residents from South L.A., the university [USC], and the creative community. We wanted to be somewhere that wasn’t so oversaturated with vegan and vegetarian restaurants; we wanted to provide this option to a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily have that, but has the community of people who are hungry for it.”

Azla vegan is very simple and no frills. You walk up to the counter and order items off the standing menu—items like the Yatakilt (curry potatoes, carrots and cabbage)—or daily specials, like the spicy mushrooms, the day that I was there. Everything you order is loaded onto a plate, placed on a colorful tray and you can sit down anywhere in Mercado La Paloma, which has tons of tables and chairs scattered throughout (see photo to the right).

Now I can't lie. When I tend to think of vegan or vegetarian diets, I (ignorantly) assume that they mostly consist of a whole bunch of salads, inedible raw foods and a few nuts thrown in for kicks. In other words, boring, dull and food that I’d tire of really quickly. But Azla proves that vegan food can be extremely varied, full of flavor and also very filling. Every single dish has its own unique feel to it, thanks to the varying spices and diverse ingredients in each one. This was great to experience, especially since my visit to Azla came on the eve of a unique time in my life: I was starting a two-week vegan cleanse the very next day.

“Ethiopian food provides such an interesting opportunity to introduce people to plant-based foods that aren’t bland and aren’t full of over-processed foods, like the fake meat—although we do play with those every now and then just for special occasions,” said Nesanet. “Our food has such tasty options with lots of different textures and colors that are just made from just straight up plants and beans and legumes. You know exactly that they came out of the ground; someone didn’t create them in some manufacturing plant.”

She continued: “Our restaurant and our approach is also to make it really accessible: our customer service, the way we talk to people and are really interested in sharing information beyond ‘This is what’s on our menu.’ We really love to share like—‘these are the health benefits of some of our spices’ and ‘this is why you can get protein from a vegan diet; it doesn’t have to be meat.’ We’re going to play hopefully a big role in educating a larger audience not only to just Ethiopian food, but also the benefits of a plant-based diet.”

Hands down, my Azla favorites were the Shimbra (pictured above) and the cooked Kale and Collards. Shimbra is a crunchy mixture of kale, carrots, chickpeas, cranberries and almonds, tossed in a light vinaigrette and cumin. The Kale and Collards is a warm combination of—you guessed it, kale and collard greens—that is bursting with flavor at every bite. Nesanet attributes this to the chef: “My mom has a magical way of making them less bitter,” she laughed.

And one of customers’ most popular dishes is Misir: red lentils mixed with spicy berbere and Azla’s tofu dish, with tofu sautéed with tomato, onion, garlic, bell pepper and jalapeno (pictured on the plate below, in the left corner). 

“We’re really happy and proud to be a family-owned business,” Nesanet concluded, towards the end of our conversation. “My mom’s dream has always been to open a restaurant and then my background in health and wellness has helped it all come together. We love that we’re a small, family-owned business in this community. We definitely have plans for expansion, so look out for the next location soon,” she laughed.

So the next time you’re in the mood for Ethiopian food and vegan fare, I highly recommend heading to Azla vegan.

See you there soon!

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