Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Where to Eat: The All-New, All-Vegan Spring Menu @ Crossroads

The Eats: A high-end vegan restaurant, on a trendy section of Melrose Ave.

The Location: Mid-City

The Vibes: Upscale, intimate, exclusive

Good for: Alone, dates, small groups

When-To-Go: Brunch and dinner

The $ Factor: $6 - $22 per appetizer, salad, entrée, etc.

The Names behind the scenes: Chef/Co-Owner Tal Ronnen, Executive Chef Scot Jones

The 4-1-1: Not only are all of the foods vegan, the libations are too; Crossroads has an all plant-based bar

Parking Situation: Valet parking and metered parking on adjacent streets

I’ll Be Back…: To try the “crab cakes,” next time!

Throughout the years, I’ve had my fair share of (albeit brief) love affairs with vegetarianism/veganism. There was that one time I gave up all meat for a month…until I started dreaming about BBQ ribs. Then there was that other time I stuck to a two-week, raw vegan meal plan, which left me feeling very energized and clear-minded. 

The truth is, I’m a huge enthusiast for eating less meats and more fruits and veggies, so that’s why when I was invited to experience the all-new, all-vegan spring menu at Crossroads, I jumped at the opportunity. I was excited/curious to see what Chef/Co-Owner Tal Ronnen — who’s prepared vegan meals for Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres and Ariana Huffington — had conjured up for this season. 

The new spring menu comprises dishes that are completely new, including items from Ronnen’s latest book, fittingly named Crossroads. It also features a few staple dishes that have been around since the restaurant’s opening, in 2013.

There are dozens of dishes made with ingredients you’d assume to be vegan — like nuts, veggies and beans. But what’s most mind-blowing is how Chef Ronnen has managed to invent plant-based alternatives for traditionally non-vegan dishes — such as cheeses, ice cream and even salmon (more on that later!).

Here’s a look at some of the highlights from the nine dishes I sampled during this delightful four course dinner.

The Spring Asparagus Pizza with Truffles 
A medley of grilled asparagus, kale and grilled garlic give this pizza a pleasantly crunchy texture. Pair that with the bold flavor of a creamy truffle sauce, and it was so flavorful, that I completely forgot I was eating pizza without cheese. Great to share or eat as a main course.

The Spring Chop Salad
Out of the two salads we tried, the Spring Chop Salad was my favorite, even more so than the signature Kale Caesar, which has been on the menu since Crossroads’ launch. The Spring Chop Salad won me over for its inventiveness, pairing sugar snap peas and greens with a subtly sweet whole grain mustard vinaigrette. The salad has an amazing earthy taste. It’s also in the Crossroads cookbook, should anyone want to prepare this salad at home. 

The Charred Ricotta with an Apricot Glaze
This cheesy appetizer is an example of how Crossroads can make plant-based foods seem like they’re the real deal. Using the vegan cheese from his own cheese line, “Kite Hill,” Chef Ronnen is spot on with the characteristics of regular ricotta — right down to the consistency, texture and taste. The ricotta in this appetizer spreads easily and magnificently on the accompanying crostini and the sweet dried fruits. It literally melted in my mouth. Also, it's slightly charred, thanks to a quick stint in the pizza oven. 

The Oven Roasted Truffled Potatoes
New to the menu, this Small Hot Plate features thinly sliced potato squares stacked neatly in a row and dusted with sprinkles of Parmesan “cheese.” The potato is soft in the middle and crispy on the outside. The edges were a little too crunchy for my liking, but the potato itself was seasoned very well and flavorful. 

The Balsamic Oven Roasted Mushrooms 
Another new Small Hot Plate, with crimini and shiitake mushrooms doused in a balsamic glaze, with shallots, fresh spring herbs and pine nuts. It’s so hearty and filling, that it can be great as a side, or even as a main course. 

The Tortellini with Heirloom Carrot Lox and Kelp Caviar 
By far, this dish was one of the most memorable of the night. Large, ring-shaped pasta are filled with velvety almond cheese, spinach cream and oven-dried tomatoes. But the best part: heirloom carrots have been transformed into “salmon.” The taste, the smell, the texture and the flavors — all will leave you convinced you’re eating fish! 

A trio of desserts 
We sampled the New York style cheesecake, made with Ronnen’s Kite Hill cheese and topped with Harry's berries, a chocolate bread pudding with vanilla bean creme anglaise and my favorite, the hot fudge sundae. The ice cream in the sundae is infused with almond milk and has the exact same consistency as regular dairy ice cream, without sacrificing any richness in flavor. It’s topped with whipped cream and bananas. 

I'd recommend Crossroads especially for vegans and for anyone who’s interested in getting introduced to plant-based dining, but hasn’t made the full jump just yet. Trust me, you won’t have time to miss the meat, because what you’ll get instead is a wide variety of colorful, creative — and filling — options. A well-prepared dinner in a classy ambiance — that’s what Crossroads is all about. 

See you there soon!

For more information: 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Where to Eat: The $90 Mother’s Day Dinner @ One Pico, Shutters on the Beach

The Eats: A Prix fixe, three-course meal

The Location: Santa Monica

The Vibes: Upscale casual, beachside, airy

Good for: Alone, dates, groups, families

When-To-Go: Mother’s Day, May 6, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

The $ Factor: $90 per person, beverages not included

The 4-1-1: One Pico is a restaurant located within the hotel, Shutters on the Beach

Parking Situation: Valet parking and also nearby metered parking

I’ll Be Back…: For a cocktail at their bar!

I’m not going to lie; when I first heard about One Pico’s Mother’s Day dinner at $90 per person, my mouth literally fell to the floor. No, my initial thoughts weren’t that my mother wasn’t worth it — because she absolutely is!!! — it was more like what in the world could honestly be worth $90?! In one meal, and three courses?!

But because my mother has a thing for beaches and my grandmother has a penchant for white table linen cloths, we booked reservations and planned for a relaxing evening here.

As background, One Pico sits on prime real estate property in Santa Monica, slightly south of the Santa Monica Pier. It has wall-to-wall windows that offer a view of the Pacific Ocean that would take mostly anyone’s breath away. A seat at one of One Pico’s coveted window-side table is the optimal place to be to catch a stunning sunset. 

With a focus on a “seasonal market menu,” here’s a look at what One Pico offered, specifically for Mother’s Day:

First Course – APPETIZERS
Baby Artichoke, Poached Farm Egg, Alaskan Salmon Crudo or The Lobster Crab Cake

I was slightly surprised that there were no vegetarian/vegan options for the First Course; even the baby artichoke included anchovies. Nonetheless, the three that we did try — the Baby Artichoke, Alaskan Salmon Crudo and The Lobster Crab Cake — were excellent. Each used typical ingredients, in unusual ways, for example, pairing salmon with cucumber and baby orange slices. My favorite of the night was the Lobster Crab Cake, pictured below. There were just so many thick chunks of both lobster and crab, perfectly mashed together!

Second Course – ENTREES
Jidori Farm Chicken, Black Cod, Hand Made Fettuccini, Grilled N.Y. Steak or Maine Diver Scallops

I was extremely pleased with my selection, the Jidori Farm Chicken, pictured below. Underneath delightfully crispy chicken skin was ricotta cheese, and spinach tossed with raisins and chardonnay accompanied the half chicken. My mother wasn’t too thrilled with her N.Y. Steak, but did mention it could have been because she prefers a ribeye cut. I sneaked in more than several bites of my grandmother’s Hand Made Fettuccini. The pasta, which also included roasted garlic, Maitake mushrooms and heirloom cherry tomatoes, was so rich and literally melted in my mouth.

Third Course – DESSERTS
Deconstructed Red Velvet Cake, Chocolate Almond Coffee or Raspberries Tart

Dessert took a turn from the traditional, with options like the Deconstructed Red Velvet Cake — fluffy pieces of cake paired with beets and candied pecans. The Chocolate Almond Coffee cup was a chocolate lover’s dream come true, with rich, buttery chocolate ganache and almond coffee sponge cake. My favorite selection was the Raspberries tart, pictured below. It included a tart filled with coconut cream, topped with raspberries. And the best part, the pink champagne sorbet accompanying it. 

All in all, we had a marvelous time and the food was hands down, pretty remarkable, inventive and fresh. Combine that with marvelous cocktails, attentive service and tranquil ambiance, and One Pico gets a thumbs up from me. I'll definitely return for a cocktail and a chance to check out a sunset.

How about you — how did you spend your Mother’s Day? 

Leave your responses in the comment box below!

For more information: 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Where to Eat: The Weekend Brunch @ Republique

The Eats: Decadent pastries, buttery breads and impeccable desserts

The Location: Mid-City

The Vibes: Airy, open, charming

Good for: Alone, dates, large groups

When-To-Go: Weekend brunch, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., Saturdays & Sundays

The $ Factor: Foods $4 - $17; Drinks $4 - $16

The Names behind the scenes: Owners Walter Manzke and Margarita Manzke

The 4-1-1: Charlie Chaplin built the location, in the 1920s

Parking Situation: Free + metered street parking, slightly hard to find in the area

I’ll Be Back…: For the cinnamon dusted beignets!

Apparently, I’m late to the food game at Republique.

This widely popular restaurant on La Brea Ave. debuted back in December 2013, but it was only after a chance restroom stop here earlier this year, that I discovered it. During my dash to the ladies’ room, Republique's immaculate layout — the vibrantly rich colors, the warm ambiance and soaring ceilings — caught my eye and sparked my curiosity. So, I vowed to return soon and stay longer than 10 minutes next time.

Fast forward to a couple months later, and good to my word, I came back. This time, with friends, an appetite and a plan to check out the weekend brunch.

Like most brunch hangouts on any given Sunday in the city, Republique looked packed. Driving by the front of the restaurant, I noticed the line to enter stretched long and far down the street. Fortunately, it actually moves (fairly) quickly.

The line that starts outside eventually takes you inside, past an amazing display of pastries and desserts (pictured below), before you order at the cashier. You're then given a number and must find seating in one of the multiple dining areas available. There’s plenty of options: sitting at a bar, next to large windows, in cozy enclaves towards the back…at communal tables, at individual tables…upstairs. It’s really rather impressive how many different options there are and surprising how it doesn't feel crowded inside, especially after seeing just how many people are trying to get in.

One detail that's almost impossible to describe is just how fantastic Republique smells inside. There’s an on-site bakery (pictured below), and the subtle scent of baking breads and fresh croissants wafts through the entire space. It’s fun to watch the bakers in action, but it’s even better to inhale that delightfully intoxicating aroma. I’d literally come back here for the smell alone.

Because the breads and pastries looked and smelled so good, there was no doubt we'd be ordering copious amounts of them. We started off with a large baguette, pictured below. It comes with regular butter, jam or honey, but you can also order a special type of French butter for $7, called "Normandy Butter." Apparently, it’s supposed to be smoother, creamier and richer. We tried it, and I honestly don’t think it’s worth it; the baguette alone is satisfying enough and literally melts in your mouth.

Next up were entrees. While standard brunch selections like French Toast, omelettes and salads are available, our host recommended trying options exclusive to Republique. Following his suggestion, I opted for the Smoked Salmon Tartine, pictured below. It’s thick cuts of smoked salmon piled high onto a slice of multigrain toast, with avocado, capers and onions. Filling and flavorful, I would definitely order this again!

We ended our brunch excursion with an assortment of pastries, including this fantastic little chocolate puff, pictured below. Aside from the desserts in the display in the front, there are also daily specials, such as our cinnamon croissants with hot chocolate.

I would definitely stop by Republique again for brunch. It's a great place for groups of friends, tantalizing pastries and breads, and the gorgeous decor provides the perfect backdrop to pass a few hours.

See you there soon!

For more information: