Monday, August 21, 2017

Where to Eat: Traditional Southern Italian Cuisine @ Franco on Melrose

The Eats: The hearty cuisine of Campana in Southern Italy

The Location: Melrose District

The Vibes: Intimate, airy, discreet

Good for: Alone, dates, small groups

When-To-Go: Daily, for dinner only

The $$ Factor: Starters, $11 - $23; Entrées $16 - $35

The Names behind the scenes: Owner / Chef Franco De Dominicis

The 4-1-1: There's also a room that holds about 25 people if you want to have a private gathering

Parking Situation: Metered and free street parking

I’ll Be Back…:
For the Ravioli Zucca!

Blink too fast and you just might miss it. 

Wedged between two buildings on the bustling Melrose Ave., just slightly east of La Cienega Blvd., you'll find Franco on Melrose, a restaurant dedicated to showcasing cuisine from the Campana region of Southern Italy.

Upon entering Franco, you’re standing smack in the middle of its kitchen. Yes, that might cause some confusion, but no, you didn’t go through the wrong entrance. A few short steps forward, and you’ll see that you’ve come to the right place — a tiny one-room seating area with a bar, lots of foliage and tables decked out in white linens. Vine-covered and muted steel blue walls soar high towards the open ceiling, which casts the entire space in soft, natural lighting, with strings of circular lights adding a festive touch.

For the past five years, Owner / Chef Franco De Dominicis has been bringing the flavors of his hometown Campana (total population, slightly over 2,000) to Los Angeles. Open for dinner only, the quaint — yet still uber-chic — restaurant changes its menus seasonally, but never strays far from old-school cooking traditions and styles.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to get an exclusive tasting from Franco himself, sampling bits of everything, from piatti piccolo (small dishes) and antipasti (appetizers), to pastas, seafood and the star of the house, meat dishes.

Franco started me off with petite versions of five of the most selected small dishes and appetizers. 

The Carciofi Salad, pictured above, is tossed with artichokes and arugula, and a tart dressing comprising lemon and extra virgin olive oil. A thin slab of Parmiggiano, a.k.a. Parmesan cheese, balances carefully on top of the salad and helps cut the tart taste.

I typically don’t eat beef or cheese, but I wasn’t passing up the chance to try the Polpette Di Carne, pictured below — pork and beef meatballs topped with melted Mozzarella. With hints of tomato and basil, they oozed with flavor and were nice and plump and juicy!

Other starters included the Burrata Caprese, pictured below, the Olive Marinate, which is basically like a handful of olives, and a very interesting dish, the Zucchini Blossom, which is fried squash filled with herb ricotta cheese and spices. In total, there are 20 different piatti pccolo and antipasti to nibble on.

Obviously, pastas are quite a big deal in Italian cuisine, so it only made sense to try a few. From vegetarian to meat and seafood — and ravioli, linguine and spaghetti — Franco has practically every type covered. Plus, all pastas are made fresh, right in an upstairs room at the restaurant.

Hands down, my favorite pasta for the night was the Ravioli Zucca. Butternut squashed is roasted to the point where it’s actually surprisingly sweet and then stuffed into thin ravioli, which is lathered in a creamy, buttery sage sauce and topped with Parmiggiano. I’ve never had squash cooked that way!

Seafood lovers shouldn’t skip out on the Pestana, pictured below, which includes linguine tossed in a medley of clams, mussels, shrimp and calamari and a savory wine / tomato broth.

The Fusilli “Franco’s Mom” is one of the signature dishes. Comprising both pork sausage and beef meat Ragu, it’s a meat lover’s dream come true and extremely filling.

And speaking of signature dishes and meats, the Brasato di Manzo is one of the most popular entrées. It has such a rustic countryside feel, with a large chunk of short rib accompanied by sautéed spinach and other earthy veggies like carrots and potatoes.

All in all, the menu is remarkably diverse; from small to large options, vegetarian-friendly to carnivore-appealing dishes, there’s surely something to pleasure everyone and every appetite size. Most importantly, it’s incredibly tasty and inspires me to book a trip to Italy, ASAP.

So the next time you're looking for a quiet but still classy and authentic Italian dinner — perhaps with the fam or for a romantic rendezvous — I recommend heading on over to Franco on Melrose. Ambience is charming, the food delicious and the Italian wines nicely pair with the entrees.

See you there soon!

For more information: 


Friday, August 11, 2017

Wilson's Words of Wisdom: August Round Up (Rooftops)

Over the years it's been wonderful to see more and more rooftop bars, restaurants and lounges pop up all over Los Angeles. Pretty much no matter what part of the city you're in, being high up in the sky will afford you breathtaking views — of the San Gabriel Mountains, the glistening Pacific Ocean, the vast cityscape — or of all of these.

So, in an ode to spectacular rooftop destinations — and more specifically ones I've been loving this Summer '17 — this monthly roundup is dedicated to a few I highly recommend you make a point to visit sometime soon.

Take a look at the list below and leave your fave places in the comments section, too!

Mama Shelter

Not only are there sweeping vistas of the nearby Hollywood Hills, but Mama Shelter's vibrantly colorful decor paired with the abundance of lush vegetation throughout the space make this rooftop restaurant/bar such a welcoming hideaway, high above the bustling streets of Tinseltown. Technically speaking, weekend brunch is only offered at the downstairs restaurant.  But, the rooftop lunch menu actually includes both breakfast and lunch items, so it really still feels like you're brunchin'. I recently went with a large group for a birthday get-together, sampling a ton of different entrees, all which were incredible. The ceviche had some of the largest slices of shrimp ever and the make-your-own-charcuterie board with a respectable selection of different cheeses, meats and fruits means you can tailor it exactly to your liking. Plus, the cocktails — like the Dreamscape pictured above, with vodka, creme de violette, lemon and cranberry — are on point. Very light and fruity, perfect for the season. Tip: apparently on weekends, a line starts to form around 2 p.m. to head up, so if you want to avoid the crowds, get there earlier in the day rather than later.
For more info

Spire 73

* Tableside S'mores photo cred: @NoIGLauren

As one of the newest additions to DTLA in the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown, Spire 73's claim to fame is that it's allegedly the highest lounge west of the Mississippi. And sitting 73 stories above ground level, you definitely feel like you're in the clouds, especially when you look out and see cars that look like the size of ants. Spire 73's biggest selling point is its breathtaking — and very high — location and the fact that if you are so inclined, you can literally sit right on the edge of the building, with nothing separating you from thousands of feet below but a glass wall. Both the decor and food options are quite curious; benches are covered in synthetic grass and appetizers are items like deviled eggs with squid ink. I'd say come here to catch the sunset, drink a cocktail and nibble on a dessert like the Tableside S'mores pictured above, which is great to share and to catch a case of childhood nostalgia.
For more info

High Rooftop Lounge

One of the best places in the world to catch a sunset is right on the beach...And if you're at the beach watching the sun glide gently into the water, then you might as well be doing it several hundred feet above ground level. Enter into the picture, High Rooftop Lounge. Situated on top of Hotel Erwin literally steps away from Venice Beach, this open air destination offers the ultimate view — and killer cocktails to match. The only fallback to High is that snagging a seat here can be a challenge. Reservations, while highly recommended, are extremely hard to come by, especially on weekends and beautiful summer afternoons like we're currently experiencing. Without booking in advance, seating can be super limited and you may be relegated to standing room only. Tip: I probably wouldn't come here without securing resys first, but the sunset views alone are worth any and every hassle of trying to get here.
For more info

Commissary @ The Line Hotel

Located in the very trendy and very crowded The Line Hotel in Koreatown, Commissary is a restaurant — housed in an airy and vibrant greenhouse. I'm in love with the fresh, earthy smell in here, thanks to the varied types of plants and shrubs hanging on the walls and overhead. There are also all kinds cutely quirky, detailed touches in everything — from the presentation of the menu (in an envelope) to the actual menu selections themselves (i.e., cocktails served in plastic containers, like the one above, the Pimp's Cup, with ginger, cucumber, rhubarb and shiso).  I've mainly hit up Commissary to grab a nightcap or before heading over to Break Room 86 in the hotel, but I'm also itching to try the weekend brunches, which include both buffet and set menu options. If you go before me to brunch, let me know how it is!
For more info

Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles

The Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles may have a Spanish Gothic facade, but its rooftop bar / lounge pays homage to the desert lifestyle, with a Southwestern style etched into everything from overhead canopies to throw pillows and artsy wooden furniture. Throw into the mix a nicely sized pool, a roaring fireplace, a few trees and shrubbery, and a DJ spinning ambient tunes, and you've got yourself a fine spot to soak up the sun and sip a cocktail. Speaking of cocktails, I'm loving the summer-themed libations, like the Amazing Frozen Drink, pictured above, with peaches, peach liqueur and peach Schnapps.
For more info

WEST Restaurant & Lounge @ Hotel Angeleno

So West Restaurant & Lounge in the iconic Hotel Angeleno is less rooftop and more penthouse, but I added this Westside hideaway to this list because it still has respectable views that stretch east across the Wilshire Corridor to as far west as the Pacific Ocean. And, there's really not a better time to enjoy these views than during the daily afternoon happy hour (5 to 7 p.m.). Coined "the 405," the happy hour has standard L.A. fare — think buffalo bites, hummus and mini tacos — and cocktails with tongue-in-cheek names like "carmageddon," "brake lights" and "@%#! the 405." The lounge decor is modernly chic, with lots of rich wooden panels and ceiling-to-floor windows, and the vibes here are definitely more low key and relaxed. Another big selling point: bartenders make a mean lemon drop martini!
For more info


Other rooftops I've enjoyed throughout the years and can't wait to get back to: Perch, Hotel Shangrila, The Wilshire Hotel and The Standard in downtown LA.

I'll catch you at one of these soon!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Where to Drink: Tiki Cocktails @ Tiki No

The Drinks: Classic tiki cocktails

The Location: The Valley (North Hollywood)

The Vibes: It’s a full-fledged tiki bar, complete with thatched huts, bamboo sticks and tiki statues

Good for: Alone, dates, groups (large and small)

When-To-Go: Daily, 5 p.m. – 2 a.m.; Daily happy hour 5 – 7 p.m.

The $$ Factor: $8 – $28 per cocktail

The 4-1-1: On Wednesdays and Sundays, karaoke sessions also go down

Parking Situation: Nearby metered parking

I’ll Be Back…: To try the Scorpion Bowl!

Right now, it's not uncommon for the temp to hit 100+ degrees within my beloved hometown — the best, the greatest, the absolutely fantastic San Fernando Valley.

And when the temps surge to these ungodly highs, there’s only one thing to do: head somewhere that’s nice and chilly inside and grab a very cold, very refreshing beverage.

One place in particular to cool off is Tiki No, which as it name suggests, is a tiki-themed neighborhood bar in North Hollywood. The interior, dimly lit and with the air conditioner blasting at full speed, has been transformed into a Polynesian retreat. Thatched roofs cover the main bar and booths, while tiki statues, bamboo poles and colorful lanterns add a nice island touch throughout as well.

The bar serves up 14 specialty tiki cocktails, with most comprising some sort of rum — from dark to golden and black, and even overproofed and aged — hailing from tropical places, like Puerto Rico, St. Croix and Jamaica. Many drinks feature more than only one rum and another type of alcohol. Prime example, the Lychee Luau, pictured below. It includes two types of rum, a lychee liqueur, and pineapple and lemon juices. Only two of the tiki cocktails have no rum whatsoever, the Eastern Sour with Kentucky bourbon and the Suffering Bastard with gin and cognac.

Tiki No cocktails are both originals and ones that have been around the block for decades, from all parts of the world. The menu includes the year, locale and city where each drink originated, and you’ll see they hail from as far as Egypt (the Suffering Bastard) to right here in our own backyard (the Dark and Stormy). And, some were even created in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Apparently one of the most popular orders is Tiki No’s version of the Piña Colada, pictured below, with aged rum from St. Croix, cream of coconut and both fresh pineapples and pineapple juices, all blended. Personally, I liked it a lot! It's not overbearingly sweet but still has a pleasant, fruity flavor.

One of the most creative, original cocktails, IMO, is the Toasted Marshmallow, pictured below. It’s got apple and lemon juices, a smidge of cinnamon and it’s mixed with not one, not two but three different alcohols: rum, “fluffed” vodka and the Spanish liqueur, Licor 43, made with 43 different ingredients. Definitely very potent! 

Cocktails aside, a major selling point for this bar are the prices; everything’s under $12 (save for the $22 / $28 Scorpion Bowl, which can be shared with several people). Plus, the daily evening happy drops prices even lower. Half of the menu goes down to $7, including another Tiki No original cocktail worth calling out, the Coconut Mojito, pictured below. It’s a thirst quencher!

Last thing I’ll note is that this bar serves up only drinks — no food, save for a few munchies like chips. So, don’t come here hungry, just come here thirsty!

And the next time you find yourself in The Valley, on a hot summer’s day, in dire need to escape the heat and sip on something ice cold, head to Tiki No. It’s got the whole island vibe thing going on and some potent tiki cocktails to match.

See you there soon!

For more information: 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Where to Eat: dineL.A. / Summer Poolside Dining @ Viviane Restaurant, Avalon Hotel Beverly Hills

The Eats: An American-meets-European-meets-California menu, with light fare like pan-seared salmon, grilled peach burrata and Tuscan tomato soup

The Location: Beverly Hills

The Vibes: Al fresco, poolside, intimate

Good for: Alone, dates, groups (large and small)

When-To-Go: Daily, 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.; 
Sunday – Thursday, 5:30 – 10 p.m.; Friday – Saturday, 5:30 – 11 p.m.; daily happy hour 3 – 6 p.m.

The $$ Factor: Entrées $19 - $34; dine.L.A., for a limited time (until July 28) — two-course lunch $25 and three-course dinner $49

The Names behind the scenes: Executive Chef Jack Hotchkin

The 4-1-1: This hotel has quite the history! Way, way back in the day, it was the stomping grounds for megastars including Mae West, Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe, who apparently even lived here for some time. It’s also been a retirement home and apartments before being renovated once again into a hotel in the late ‘90s.

Parking Situation: Valet or very limited street parking.

I’ll Be Back…: For the dineL.A. experience!

The Avalon Hotel Beverly Hills is a hidden gem, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. 

Tucked away in a residential part of Beverly Hills, if you blink too fast, you might miss it. But right on the corner of Olympic Blvd., slightly east of S. Beverly Dr., this unassumingly glitzy boutique hotel offers both old Hollywood charm and subdued relaxation, all in a California chic, mid-century modern setting.

I've been going to the hotel’s restaurant for years, partially because it’s been the perfect business setting to grab morning breakfast, midday lunch or afternoon cocktails.

With its modestly elegant, airy vibe, it’s classy enough to woo a client, intimate enough to hold a conversation and close enough to nearby offices in Century City and Beverly Hills for quick access.

And, what I love most — how the entire indoor-outdoor setting seems to center around the main focal point of the hotel grounds: the curvaceous, glistening pool!

Whether dining inside or outside, from nearly any seat, you can get a glimpse of the sparkling beauty, no matter where you are.

I’ve seen the restaurant change names and focuses, but for the past several years, it’s been coined Viviane and, since this past May, it has a new executive chef, Jack Hotchkin.

Hotchkin, who’s had stints at L.A. staples like the Soho House and Chateau Marmont, has crafted a menu that has American, European and California influences, with lots of colorful, vibrant produce that we Angelenos can never get enough of — like avocados and kale — and lots of light options (for example, seven out of 15 Starter / Salad / Main dinner items are seafood items, like octopus, scallops and salmon).

Over the weekend, a good friend of mine and I had the opportunity to check out some of Hotchkin’s latest creations when I visited for dineL.A., which runs from now until next Friday, July 28 and features a three-course dinner, with two to three selections per course. There are both items off the regular menu and a few that you can only find for this special occasion.

Here’s a glimpse of what we sampled:

First Course:

The Crab and Corn Fritters — oval-shaped fried balls of goodness, crab and corn, with a creamy avocado, cilantro aioli. To note: the fritters aren't on the regular menu; they’re a dineL.A. special.

The Grilled Peach Burrata with prosciutto, loads of fresh basil, a balsamic glaze and two slices of grilled ciabatta bread. Definitely bursting with a lot of different flavors and textures — from sweet and savory, to creamy and crunchy — to make this appetizer fun to try.

Second Course:

The Pan Seared Salmon came in what was almost like a ponzu broth that teemed with steamed bok choy and radish slices. Somehow both the salmon skin and the Brussels sprouts leaves balancing on top of it managed to stay crispy, which gave a nice juxtaposition between textures. 

The Pancetta & Sweet Corn Agnolotti dish featured pasta stuffed with a sweet corn mixture, then topped with crunchy pancetta, corn kernels and cheese, all bathed in a rich brown butter sauce. 


We went a little rogue, and instead of opting for the two dineL.A. options (Chocolate Pot de Crème or Assorted Ice Cream), we went with the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta and Hazelnut Brownie with vanilla gelato, pictured below.

We were both soooo full that it was hard for either of us to stuff down more than a few bites, but we did agree that these desserts were super, super rich in flavor and quite decadent as well.

You can check out Viviane’s entire dineL.A. menu here and the next time you're in the mood for some Cali-inspired nibbles — perhaps poolside, in a super chill, upscale ambiance — check out Viviane.

See you there soon!

For more information: 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Wilson's Words of Wisdom: July Round Up (Fried Chicken)

Nothing says summer food to me more than Popsicles, freshly cut juicy watermelon, corn on the cob, grilled and BBQ meats, and without a doubt...

fried chicken.

Whether packed for a picnic, shared at a cookout or simply eaten at any given time, there's nothing like crunchy, scrumptious, very-well-seasoned fried chicken.

So in honor of the season and some incredible places delighting us with their perfectly fried deliciousness, this month's round up is dedicated to (some of) the Best Fried Chicken in the city. From kettle fried to “hot” chicken, high-end to economic, and everything in between, these six places are sure to satisfy.

Read below and don't forget to drop your favorite fried chicken spot in the comments section below, too!

Jim Dandy Fried Chicken 

Forget about Popeye’s and don't even bother with KFC — it's Jim Dandy that fits the bill when you’re looking for cheap, but still satisfying fried chicken. It's easy to forget it’s a fast food stand, because everything is seasoned so well; I mean, I even like the greens here, and I'm pretty picky about my greens. Jim's chicken is quite crispy on the outside and plump and juicy on the inside. Choose from regular or spicy (which, IMO is pretty mild; there just seems to be more spices in the batter). But best of all, the food here is a low price point. You can get like five pieces of chicken, two sides, two rolls and a drink, all for like, $2. OK, maybe not that cheap, but most of their dinners and combos for up to 4 pieces of chicken — which come with a side or two — are less than $8. There are two locations, both in South L.A. — one on Vermont, the other on Manchester.
For more info

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken is a southern classic that originally launched in Tennessee and has now expanded to 22 locations in 11 states. Quite recently, the chain has made its way to the best side, the Westside, with locations in Burbank and central L.A. The L.A. Location has a low-key, casual vibe, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, bottled beers, exposed red bricks and several TV screens. I wasn't completely sold on the BBQ beans or the mac ‘n’ cheese sides, but the actual fried chicken itself? Unforgettable. Gus’s features “hot” chicken — a type of fried chicken from Nashville that goes through a special multi-step process of preparing the chicken. What ends up as part of the process is that there’s a thin coating of "secret" spices layered between the skin and meat, and when you bite into it, there’s definitely a noticeable kick. And, I don't know how they managed to do it, but the chefs have made it so the skin stays crispy — even the next day. Best of all, they have the Monday special: four legs, side and a drink, all for eight bucks.
For more info 

astro doughnuts & fried chicken opened this Spring 2017 in DTLA, hailing from our nation's capital. And while astro may be known for its massive donuts that have awesomely creative flavors — like the seasonal cherry blossom flavor in honor of the cherry blossom season in D.C. or the maple bacon flavor, which blows my mind every time I eat it  (pictured above) — don't. sleep. on. the. fried chicken. astro makes these incredible sandwiches that have golden flavorful fried chicken pieces stacked between two pieces of bread — choose from a potato roll, cheddar biscuit or my favorite, a savory donut, topped with Old Bay spices. You can also top your chicken with hot sauce, honey butter, sausage gravy or one of the other six sauces which range from Sriracha Buffalo to Blue Cheese and Ranch. It's filling, it's bursting with flavor, it's just the way a fried chicken sandwich should be!
For more info

La Louisanne in the Baldwin Hills area most certainly draws some very interesting characters and most certainly could benefit from a facelift, but that doesn't stop folks from flocking to this dimly lit, low key bar/restaurant, especially on Mondays for the $1.99 plate of red beans & rice and fried chicken. Yes you read that right. $1.99. For a whole entire plate. The chicken is fried hard and the beans and rice have a Southern flair. A lady makes her way around the rooms, passing out these plates, and you can order as many as you'd like, so long as you pay cash. A singer backed by a house band belts out live jazz/blues/R&B covers and cocktails here are stiff...just make sure to order them at the bar; table service can take a painfully long time.
For more info

Honey's Kettle Fresh Fried Chicken in cutesy downtown Culver City is a fast casual restaurant that serves up "kettle-fried" chicken — a process that creates light, smooth but still crispy chicken. Portions here are massive; a combo, such as the 2 Piece Lunch with Kettle fries, butter pickles and a biscuit, pictured above, is so large that can easily be shared between two people. The buttermilk biscuits with the side of warmed honey are hot and fluffy, and go with the chicken so well. Sides I've tried and liked so far: the fries, the sautéed green beans and the fresh cole slaw.
For more info 

Comfort LA

Comfort LA has made quite the appearance on my blog on multiple occasions, but I'd be remiss not to mention them once again for their fantastic chicken wings drizzled with "that sauce." No, you can't get breasts, legs or any other cuts, but what you can get is 6, 18 or 100 tiny flats and drumettes, covered in chives and a housemade sauce that has a tangy, slightly sweet kick to it. Comfort LA also stays winning for its late late hours (open until 3 a.m. on the weekends), its BYOB policy (and yes, that includes alcoholic drank), a plethora of games to play (like dominoes, which I challenge anyone to play at any given time) and its involvement with the local communities by hosting a lot of community-centered events for NPOs and orgs working on notable causes.
For more info