Monday, June 24, 2019

Where to Eat: Contemporary Peruvian Comfort Food @ Los Balcones, Hollywood

The Eats: Northern Peruvian comfort food with an international flair, featuring dishes like ceviche and Arroz con Pollo (chicken with rice)

The Location: Hollywood

The Vibes: Earthy, authentic, intimate, chill

Good for: Alone, Dates, Groups (small and large)

When-To-Go: Opens daily at noon; closes at 10 p.m. (Sunday & Monday), 11 p.m. (Tuesday – Thursday) and midnight (Friday & Saturday)

The $$ Factor:
Appetizers, $12+; Entrees, $20+; Cocktails, $14+

The Names behind the scenes: Chef Michelangelo 'Miguel' Aliaga

The 4-1-1: Los Balcones also features weekend brunches and daily happy hours, 4 - 7 p.m.

Parking Situation: Nearby metered and limited free parking

I’ll Be Back…: For the Lomo Saltado!

If you had to take a wild guess, what do you think a restaurant's average lifespan is?

A 2018 USA Today article notes that most establishments typically only last for five years before shutting down, with 90 percent closing within 12 months of opening.

So, it says a lot that Los Balcones on Vine St. in Hollywood has kept its doors open for 14 years and counting, even expanding its footprint across two new locations — Studio City in November 2018 and DTLA later this year.

But succeeding at longevity doesn’t mean that this one-room Peruvian restaurant has remained unchanged over the years. In fact, it’s had at least three renovations. The latest one has brought in rich textured woods, soft lighting and a color palate that’s reflective of native Peruvian color schemes — lots of muted reds, browns, oranges and yellows.

It also means the menu has evolved over time. Two years ago, the restaurant took a seasonal approach, rotating out items each quarter. And now, since March 2019, Chef Michelangelo “Miguel” Aliaga (pictured below with me) has been involved, bringing his own distinctive touch to the forefront. Originally from northern Peru with 10 years of professional culinary experience in Italy, he’s artfully blending traditional Peruvian dishes with international influences.

“We’re trying to put the discipline of European technique with Peruvian cuisine — that is our mission,” Chef Aliaga explained to me when I stopped by, earlier this month. “It’s European techniques, but not the ingredients.”

Paying homage to this South American country means you’ll find choclo — a native Peruvian corn that has a very large kernel — infused in a variety of dishes, such as in the thinly sliced sea bass tiraditos, pictured below.

It also means many dishes are reminiscent of comfort food that’s traditionally found in Northern Peruvian households, including the Arroz con Pollo, pictured below. Crispy chicken confit, prepared the French way of slowly cooking meat, lays on a bed of cilantro rice. It's all topped with a chilled, zesty salsa criolla, which comprises spices, tomatoes, onions, peppers and sliced jalapeños.

And the ceviche, pictured below — a dish that actually originated in Peru (who knew?!) — is made how it would typically be within the country: massive chunks of seafood and sweet potato are topped with onions, peppers, lots of lime juice, and not surprisingly, choclo corn.

In the Lomo Saltado entrée, flavors of Peru and China artfully merge. Sautéed beef filet gets doused in an Asian lee kum kee oyster sauce, accompanied by rice, roasted tomatoes and a Peruvian staple — the potato (apparently, Peru has more than 3,000 different potato variations!) Thick Kennebec fries are served soft and dense on the inside, and lightly salted and crisp on the outside.

But Chef Aliaga isn’t saying out with the old, in with the new, completely. A few Los Balcones staples from before his time actually remain, including the Fried Brussels Sprouts, pictured below. I learned that apparently, there was such an uproar from diners when they were temporarily unavailable, that they were ushered right back onto the menu in no time. They're similar to how many places these days are preparing Brussels Sprouts — crispy and slightly sweet. Yet they have their own distinct flavor, thanks to the addition of crunchy peanuts and a tangy aji amarillo yogurt sauce.

Rounding out the menu is a variety of cocktails, ranging from the pisco sour, a popular Peruvian libation, to creative inventions, like the Tamarind & Smoke, with mezcal, Jarritos tamarind-flavored soda, tamarind syrup and a chili rim. Personally, I loved Los Balcones’ fruity take on a pisco sour, called the maracuya sour, pictured below. Passion fruit gets added to the classic blend of pisco — a.k.a. Peruvian brandy — frothy egg whites, simple syrup, bitters and lime juice.

So the next time you’re up for trying out Peruvian food and cocktails, head over to Los Balcones in Hollywood. You’ll get fantastic, filling dishes, all in a welcoming ambiance.

See you there soon!

For more information: 

Disclosure: I received complimentary services; all views and opinions reflected are my own and not influenced by any other third-party sources.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Where to Be Merry: Soul of a Nation - "Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983" @ Broad Museum (Los Angeles)

The Merriment: A temporary art exhibition featuring the work of 60+ black artists, spanning two decades, from 1963 to 1983

The Location: Downtown

The Vibes: Educational, inspiring, thought-provoking, emotional

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

When-To-Go: Tuesday – Sunday (museum closed Mondays); FREE exhibition entry on Thursdays

The $$ Factor: $18, Adults; $12, Students with valid ID; Free for kiddies 17 and under

The Names behind the scenes: Artists including Betye Saar, David Hammons, Dawoud Bey, Roy DeCarava, Wadsworth Jarrell and so many more

The 4-1-1: General admission to the Broad Museum is free, but entrance into Soul of a Nation isn’t; purchase tickets in advance online to avoid lengthy lines to enter the museum! It’s also worth checking out the permanent exhibition on the top floor. There’s hundreds of art from famous artists such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and from other #WilsonsGuide favorites like Kerry James Marshall

Parking Situation: Nearby garage parking for a fee

I’ll Be Back…: For the jazz nights and gallery talks throughout the summer!

My invite for the grand opening of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 exhibition at the Broad Museum on March 23 — which just so happened to have The Carters and Ava DuVernay attend — *clearly* got lost in the mail (hey, it happens). So even though I really wasn’t invited didn’t have the opportunity to see the exhibition when it first opened, I made it a priority to stop by, during a recent trip back down to L.A.

Located on the first floor of the Broad Museum in DTLA, Soul of a Nation gives us access to hundreds of pieces of artwork created by more than 60 black artists, spanning two decades, between 1963 and 1983. From black-and-white photographs to colorful collages, larger-than-life paintings and complex sculptures, all types of art — big, small, traditional, abstract and everything in between — grace the space. The exhibition’s layout is chronological, neatly arranged into 12 different rooms. Each room represents a particular artistic style, time period and/or geographical region(s). We begin our journey in the “Spiral” room, with artwork from the Spiral Group that formed in 1963, and we wrap up in the “Just Above Midtown” room, which touts artists who were part of the Just Above Midtown art gallery in NYC, during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Fortunately, you can revisit rooms along the way, in case you want to catch another glimpse of a particular piece.

Similar to how the mediums are quite diverse — from photos to oil paints — so too, are the various subjects that each artist focuses on. Artist Betye Saar pays reverent homages to spiritual rituals of ancestors while others like Wadsworth Jarrell proudly portray prominent leaders, like Malcolm X in his Black Prince portrait (1971). Even mundane moments in every day life and ordinary people are captured, such as Emma Amos’ oil-on-canvas depiction of Eva the Babysitter (1973). pictured below.

Many pieces evoke strong emotional feelings, as they highlight many of the injustices blacks endured throughout our country's history. Anger, shock and disbelief engulfed me, as I viewed the inhumane mistreatment of the man in David Hammons’ Injustice Case (1970) faces. He’s gagged and hands bound behind his back while sitting in a chair — exactly how Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale was handled during his 1969 trial. With pieces such as Black First, America Second (1970), pictured below, Hammons’ also has us considering how to construct our identity: why must one identity come before the other? Will this order ever change? Who decides when/if it does?

In addition to the variety of mediums and subject matters sourced, there’s also a variety of geographical locations represented, from Chicago to New York and Los Angeles.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the various rooms within the exhibition:
  • Spiral – Showcases artwork from the 15-member Spiral Group, formed in 1963, right before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
  • Art on the Street – Has artwork such as magazine covers and collages, from artists involved in Chicago’s Organization of Black American Culture and from Oakland’s Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
  • Figuring Black Power – Highlights works from the Black Arts Movement, which stemmed from the Black Power movement and originated in the northeast U.S., eventually spreading throughout the nation.
  • AfriCOBRA in Chicago – The African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists — a.k.a., AfriCOBRA — was a Chicago-based artist collective focusing on the Black family, leveraging bright colors and incorporating text and mosaic-like shapes into its art. Below is Jarrell’s portrayal of Malcolm X, in Black Prince, that I previously referred to.

  • Black Light – Shows off brilliant black-and-white photographs from Roy DeCarava, the first director of the Kamoinge Workshop formed in 1963, and other photographers like Dawoud Bey. 
  • Los Angeles Assemblage – Includes sculptures made by various L.A. artists in the aftermath of the 1962 Nation of Islam Mosque police shooting and 1965 Watts Rebellion.
  • Three Graphic Artists – Reveals the works of Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington, initially shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
  • East Coast Abstraction – Reveres artists hailing from New York City and Washington, D.C. like Ed Clark and William T. Williams, who focused on abstract painting in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
  • Black Portraits – Displays artists who intentionally depicted portraits of Black Americans, from all walks of life. This was probably my favorite room, which includes one of my favorites, Barkley Hendricks’ What’s Going On (1974), which is a direct response to the Marvin Gaye song with the same name.

  • Improvisation and Experimentation – Follows the evolution of abstract art in the early 1970s, which included incorporating mixed media techniques by artists like Alma Thomas.
  • Betye Saar – Presents three-dimensional pieces by the L.A.-based artist Betye Saar, who blends technology and historic items within her art.
  • Just Above Midtown – Features works from this nonprofit art gallery that operated in the ‘70s and ‘80s to support and amplify contemporary Black artists’ works.
All in all, Soul of a Nation captures a multitude of interpretations of the black experience not only during these two decades, but also from past centuries and even the potential future. It’s interesting how so many of these pieces feel are so incredibly timeless and still relatable to this day, sometimes unfortunately so. For example, as depicted in Benny Andrews' Did the Bear Sit Under the Tree (1969), aren't we still fighting our country for basic rights such as equality? 

So the next time you’re looking to dive into art for a few hours, learning more about black experiences captured in incredible, creative ways and the rise of black artistry throughout the '60s through '80s, stop by this beautiful exhibition. But don’t wait too long; Soul of a Nation is only here for a few more months, until September 1, 2019.

See you there soon!

For more information:

What's going on is sourced from The Atlantic

Monday, June 10, 2019

Wilson's Words of Wisdom: June Round Up (Father’s Day 2019, Los Angeles!)

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written a special Father’s Day post — five years to be exact — but thinking about all of the fun, cool stuff that can be enjoyed with fathers of all ages inspired me to share some last-minute ideas for anyone who might need them. From hip-hop infused pizza dinners to educational wine classes and more, here are seven things to do with uncles / dads / father-like figures this upcoming Sunday, June 16. 

Have any exceptional ideas for Father’s Day activities? I want to hear them! 
Leave your suggestions in the comments below! 

Where to Drink: 1950s Cocktails @ Birds & Bees, DTLA

Take Pops back to his era via a trip into DTLA’s hidden, underground lounge, Birds & Bees. The décor pays homage to the ‘50s decade, with sleek orange couches, retro lamp fixtures and other knick-knacks from the time period, while the bartenders excel at craft cocktails that have nostalgic names, like the Sam Cooke and Gregory Peck. While technically closed on the actual Father’s Day, stop by Friday and/or Saturday evening.

Where to Eat: Hip-Hop & Pizza @ Delicious Pizza, Mid-City

Ever find yourself busting a rhyme with your dad or debating who was the greatest rapper of all time? Then take him to Mid-City’s Delicious Pizza, a haven for old school hip-hop heads where the genre seeps into everything from the food to the music selection and décor. Opened four years ago by Mike Ross, the longtime music exec who co-founded the original record label Delicious Vinyl, this laid-back eatery has more than 15 different pizzas to pick from, plus wings, salads and a funky cold sangria. Your dad will appreciate the "antique" boom boxes and photos of legendary albums like Def Jef’s Soul Food displayed throughout. 


Where to Be Merry: Exercising @ The Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook

Help ensure that you’re celebrating many more future Father’s Days by whipping el padre into tip-top shape at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook in Culver City. Aside from paying for parking, this local exercise destination has plenty of ways to exercise for free, while offering up sweeping views of the city — from Santa Monica all the way to downtown and beyond. Sprint up the switch-back trails, climb the grueling 282 stairs or invent your own workout routine at the top of the overlook. Bring the whole fam, as all ages are welcome.  

Where to Be Merry: Pedal Boating @ Echo Park Lake

Speaking of outdoor activities, Echo Park Lake offers pedal boats to rent so you can cruise amongst a beautiful wetlands oasis of lotus flowers, gorgeous views of downtown and charming Spanish-style homes, and wildlife — like cranes, geese and ducks. Pack a blanket for a low-key picnic on a grassy knoll before or after going out on the lake, and don’t leave without grabbing elote —that’s grilled corn drizzled with mayonnaise, lime juice, cojita cheese and chili. So good!

Where to Drink: Wine Classes @ The Blending Lab 

Pay the big guy back for all the days he made you go to school when you didn’t want to, by insisting he returns to class. The Blending Lab is a no-frills, off-winery wine tasting room in the Mid-City area that features wine blending class on Fridays and Saturdays. Learn the art of proper wine-tasting and experiment with making your own red wine blends. Plus, you can even take home your very own blend for an additional nominal fee. Classes are completely sold out for Father’s Day weekend, but spaces are available for the following weekend. 

Where to Be Merry: Family Fest @ Boomtown Brewery, Arts District

Arts District’s Boomtown Brewery is pulling out all the stops, with activities planned for both kiddies and grown folks alike this Father's Day. In addition to what you’d expect to find at a brewery — loads of beer on tap — there will also be face painting, a bounce house and even a tie making craft station. Rounding out the event, which takes place noon – 6 p.m., will be various food vendors. It’s free, and no reservation needed — simply show up!

Where to Eat: 9th Annual Father’s Day Brunch  @ Abbey Food & Bar, West Hollywood

Photo Credit: The Abbey Food & Bar

While the Abbey Food & Bar may be internationally known as an iconic gay bar, just as significant is the role it’s played in advocating for various diverse social issues, too. It’s frequently supported local communities in need for almost 30 years, whether through its annual “Christmas in September”  that has raised funds for the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, or now through its 9th annual Father’s Day Brunch, to help RaiseAChild and Pop Luck Club LGBTQ foster and adoption organizations. There will be a breakfast buffet with staples like scramble eggs, Applewood smoked bacon, pancakes and a special Abbey potato hash. It’s $16 for adults, $7 for the kiddies (and yes, it’s kid-friendly during brunch!). 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Where to Eat: Patio Dining @ Ysabel, West Hollywood

The Eats: A medley of worldly dishes with California inspirations, from sashimi to pasta and grass-fed beef

The Location: West Hollywood

The Vibes: Trendy, Upscale, Chic

Good for: Alone, Dates, Small and Large Groups

When-To-Go: Daily, 6 p.m. – 2 a.m.; weekends, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

The $$ Factor: Cocktails, $14 - $17; Dishes, $6 – $42

The Names behind the scenes: Executive Chef Alison Trent

The 4-1-1: Sit. On. The. Patio! It's the best seat in the house, for sure!

Parking Situation: Valet and nearby metered / complimentary street parking

I’ll Be Back…: To check out the weekend brunch! 

Upon first glimpse, Ysabel maaaay appear to have pretentious airs, with its well-dressed, trendy clientele that includes celebs like Common and Mahershala Ali. But, I’d go out on a limb to say that at its core, this semi-hidden WeHo hideaway is merely a simple restaurant serving up craft cocktails and really good American fare with worldly touches, all within a super cute ambiance.

To start, the enclosed outdoor patio feels like you’ve been transported to a Santorini-inspired paradise. Glittering lights hanging in trees throughout the space create a soft, intimate hue, while stark white walls encase the entire patio. There are a handful of quirky seating areas to pick and choose from, too. Hidden nooks and crannies tucked away behind the main entrance serve up the perfect location for a romantic dinner. A set of stairs complete with pillows to recline against is a great gathering spot for small groups. And scattered throughout the patio are couches, tables and chairs, amongst fire pits. While dining outdoors is my preferred way to experience Ysabel, inside’s not too shabby either. The interior boasts modernly masculine vibes, with a stately fireplace, oversized chairs and abstract chandeliers hanging above the marble bar tops.

Then of course there’s the food. The suggestion is to dine family-style; select a few different options to share with your crew. I’ve typically ordered three to five dishes when I’m with two other people, and we’ve left feeling completely satisfied. So far, I’ve tried about ten or so, and there literally hasn’t been a dish I haven’t liked! From meats to fish, veggies and pastas, there’s quite a range of options. While some appear to rotate on and off the menu, a few staples have remained, throughout the years.

One of my fave apps to kick things off has been the Hamachi sashimi, pictured below. Fairly thin cuts of fish are topped with sliced red chili, mint leaves and crunchy garlic, and accompanied by mounds of sushi rice. Everything is drenched in a deliciously tangy ponzu sauce. While on the lighter portion side — it’s more for a taste than to curve your appetite — the flavors are out of this world.

Another “must” is the “Yukon Gold Potato Pasta,” pictured below. A thin pasta sheet that has whole herbs beautifully embedded into it covers a hearty medley of oxtail ragu and buttery mashed potatoes. A Cabernet reduction adds a subtly opulent flavor to it all. It’s filling, so if you’re super hungry, definitely go for this one.

You also can’t go wrong with the Brussels Sprouts, pictured below. Slightly crunchy Brussels Sprouts are mixed with sweet raisins, all tossed in a light, sweet-and-spicy Kimchee sauce. 

There are definitely other items I’ve enjoyed — including the rigatoni pasta and fish of the day — but these three aforementioned items most certainly give you a good feel for the varied, diverse flavors that Ysabel can master so well.

And because a meal could never be complete without a proper cocktail, here’s a quick read on Ysabel’s offerings: they’re as fun as their fiercely feminine names. The Idalia, pictured below, is earthy-meets-sweet, with mezcal smoothly blended with parsley, dill and refreshing cucumber.

The Olivia, pictured below, brings spicy heat and passion, thanks to pepper-infused St. Germain and shiso leaves muddled with Grey Goose vodka and blackberries.

So the next time you’re looking for a great patio to indulge in al fresco dining and a few cocktails, head to Ysabel. Be sure to grab a seat by the fire and order the oxtail pasta on my behalf.

See you there soon!

For more information: 

Monday, May 13, 2019

Where to Travel: Las Vegas

When I was in my early twenties, my college girls friends and I liiiivved for our rambunctious Vegas trips. We’d spend allllll day turnt up at day pool parties, stumble our way into nightclubs for more good times and then foggily try to recollect the events of the past 24 hours, all while munching on salt-covered carbs in the wee hours of the morning.

Well, now that I’m in my thirties, let’s just say that’s not my typical Vegas experience anymore.

These days, if I’m heading to Sin City, it’s for a pretty vanilla reason: attending a trade show for work. Any indulgent activities that I’d partake in typically include doing what I love to do most anywhere: enjoying a fantastic dinner and cocktail.

My last trip to Vegas earlier this Spring gave me the chance to try quite a few new dining (and cocktail) experiences, thus inspiring this latest post. From decadently over-the-top to nostalgic, breakfast to dinner, I covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and it was all worth it.

So whether you find yourself in Vegas for a wild ride on the town, a relaxing spa getaway, or something in between, guess what? We all gotta eat! With that in mind, here are four places to put on your radar whenever you’re looking for your next noteworthy meal.

This list is by no way exhaustive and please feel free to drop your favorite Vegas restaurants in the comments section below — we can never have too many good recommendations!!

Where to Eat that’s reminiscent of LA: Park MGM’s Best Friend

We all love Roy Choi for bringing us the modern day food truck through his Kogi Truck launch. And, we’re smitten with his LA restaurants, including A-Frame, Commissary and Sunny Spot. Now there’s even more to love, as he’s brought his funky fusion of Asian, Mexican and Cali fare to Vegas, all via Best Friend. Located in Park MGM, this action-packed bar/restaurant pays homage to Choi’s childhood growing up in L.A in the ‘90s, in both physical appearance and grub. Inside, the space is playfully colorful, with massive photos of L.A. staples — like palm trees and the DTLA skyline — all enveloped in an elegant, natural color palate. The hanging plants throughout remind me a lot of the vibes in Choi’s Commissary, located in Koreatown’s Line Hotel. Similar to so many of his other establishments, Best Friend artfully blends together multiple cuisines through options like the Asian-inspired Slippery Shrimp and the Mexican popular street snack Elote corn, pictured below. My final musing: the attention to detail is in everything, from the eccentric glassware to the menus and servers’ attire. Come here for an eclectic — and nostalgic — trip down memory lane.

For more information

Even though there’s a Hakkasan in Los Angeles, fate had it that I finally set foot in the Vegas version of this fancy upscale establishment that has locations in eleven cities around the world. The first thing to catch my breath was the decor. It’s absolutely stunning! There are gorgeous ceiling-to-floor partitions with artistic designs outlined into marble. These partitions also create semi-secluded enclaves, providing a nice touch of privacy. Add dimmed lighting and ambient music and a space bathed in black, and you’ve got yourself a seductively swanky hideout! There are several ways to to sample the high end Cantonese cuisine: opt for one of the multiple dinner tasting menus or order items a la carte. I had the crispy duck rolls, pak choi (which is like bok choi and surprisingly delicious) and the Sanpei Chilean seabass, pictured above. Also, the cocktails were quite delicious and varied, like this Whiskey in the Tropics (pictured below) with banana (!) whiskey, guava, lime, mango jasmine syrup and other tropical ingredients. Also, if you spend more than $50 per person (which isn’t that hard to do if you go for one of the tasting menus or pretty much just order a drink, an app and an entrée), you’ll get FREE access to Hakkasan's bustling nightclub, right upstairs. It was a hassle-free experience to enter, as we simply showed our receipt to one of the bouncers who immediately whisked up to the front of the entrance. We were able to skip the very long lines and not worry about having to pay a cover. There are frequent celebrity guest hosts, and the night I went, Lil Jon got the crowd in a delightful frenzy with his DJ skills.

For more information

Wynn’s Jardin boasts a light and airy ambiance, with the option to dine al fresco. Should you choose to be outdoors (which, I highly recommend), you’ll be on a gorgeous enclosed patio, surrounded by shrubbery and overlooking the pristine pool area. For breakfast, Jardin serves up classics — think omelets and Benedicts and pancakes — but they taste just so freakin’ good! My “Grilled Chicken Omelette,” pictured above, with thick chunks of grilled chicken, avocado and Anaheim peppers (sans the Monterrey Jack cheese, which is an option) was sooo tasty and filling. I also loved the sourdough toast, pictured below, and the vegan butter that you can ask for, as it truly tastes like its dairy counterpart! Also, do yourself a favor and order a side of the French fries; yes, they’re worth it. Thick, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. And while you’re at it, get a cocktail, too. The French Cucumber — with cucumber vodka and cucumber soda, green chartreuse, Chareau aloe Liqueur and lemon — was light and refreshing, the perfect way to sip into Spring. Jardin opens at 7 a.m. for any early risers.

For more information

Where to Eat for a Decadent Dinner: SLS’ Cleo

Cleo, located in the soon-to-be-renamed SLS, serves up delightful Mediterranean cuisine and shows off its culinary prowess, from start to finish. Let’s begin with the appetizers. The Hummus with Tahini is some of the freshest, lightest hummus I’ve ever had, served with piping hot Laffa bread (a type of Middle Eastern flatbread) that comes in a warm brown paper bag. You can’t go wrong with sampling a few of the various meats either — from roasted lamb to chicken tagine, pork belly kababs and more. I’ve tried the Mergeuz sausage, pork belly and chicken kebab, all pictured below, and savored each and every bite. As for sides, the Brussels Sprouts with capers and almonds, tossed in a vinaigrette (pictured above), are rather tasty too. And don’t even think about walking away without dessert; the buttery, flaky Warm Cinnamon Apple Torte with vanilla gelato and a drizzle of apple-cider caramel is surely a decadent splurge (pictured below). This Mediterranean restaurant is definitely worth every penny and calorie, at each and every bite!

For more information

Monday, April 29, 2019

Where to Eat: A Three-Course MICHELIN Easter Brunch @ La Toque Napa Valley (Review)

The Eats: High end French cuisine served in multiple courses, with wine pairings available, too

The Location: Napa

The Vibes: Warm, classy, elegantly understated

Good for: Alone, Dates, Small Groups

When-To-Go: Daily dinner seatings, between 5:30 - 9:30 p.m.

The $$ Factor: Dinner, $120+ 

People Behind the Scenes: Executive Chef/Owner Ken Frank, Chef de Cuisine Scot Livingston, Pastry Chef Hayes Pickett and Sommelier Beki Miller

The 4-1-1: Once located in Los Angeles, La Toque has now been in Napa for over a decade and has received a MICHELIN rating each year for the past 12 consecutive years

Parking Situation: Complimentary valet parking 

I’ll Be Back…: For the mille feuille dessert!

My family and I are quite the brunchers. Whether it’s for a traditional holiday like Mother’s Day or simply another weekend, we’ll always find time for brunch.

So for this past Easter Sunday, I decided we must check out the special brunch at La Toque, a MICHELIN-rated French restaurant, in Napa Valley. I specifically chose this restaurant for two reasons: 1) it sounded absolutely wonderful to take a scenic drive into Napa and 2) it seemed like a steal to snag a three-course meal — for $48 — from a high end establishment where the multi-course dinners typically average $120 - $220. Bonus points as neither my mom or grandmother had ever visited Napa.

Located in The Westin, La Toque was nothing like I’d imagine a MICHELIN-rated restaurant. I was expecting a super stuffy, super extravagant ambiance, yet in reality, it's pretty modest. Yes, the one-room dining area is quite classy — with a beautiful oversized floral arrangement and softly bathed in muted browns, tans and whites — however, I’d say the decor overall is elegantly understated.

What’s not understated though, is the impeccable — and I do mean impeccable — service. You notice it right from the start, when offered piping hot towels to wipe your hands. You sense it in the delightful way menu options are explained, and you feel it throughout, like how your water glass never seems to get less than half full and how two servers silently make eye contact and nod before gracefully whisking away your plate. Executive Chef/Owner Ken Frank even stopped by to say hello, see how we were doing and patiently answer our thousands of questions we had. It's a rarity to see such attentiveness and effort in the little details in many other places, and La Toque remains memorable for that aspect, if nothing more.

But of course, there’s more! And that would be the food...

As shared, La Toque is MICHELIN-rated, which basically means that it’s received one of the most prestigious, globally renowned recognitions within the culinary world. There are three tiers — or stars — any given restaurant can receive. One star is like an entry level point and three is the most prestigious. Each year, a MICHELIN-rated restaurant may be judged unannounced by an incognito inspector, to determine if it will keep or lose its star, or even gain more. The criteria to receive a star comprises a variety of considerations, from quality to a chef's personality. You can read all about the MICHELIN assessment process here.

While La Toque typically offers multi-course meals, for two holidays in particular — Easter and Mother’s Day — it features what’s like an introduction into its course approach: a three-course meal with an optional wine pairing for an additional $24.

Here’s a peak of what was on the Easter menu.

To our pleasant surprise, we were treated to a traditional Easter dish: hot cross buns! Served warmed, this sweet bread is filled with raisins and currents. Our server shared that Pastry Chef Hayes Pickett had been perfecting the recipe for the past two years. I’d definitely say she got it right! 

First course
We had four appetizers to choose from: a Bibb lettuce salad, Dungeness Crab Cakes, Beet Cured Salmon and Asparagus. I appreciated our server for being honest that the Bibb salad was really an option for the less adventurous eaters, and the Beet Cured Salmon sounded like a fun trip on the wild side. I went for the Crab Cake, which was OK. I wish there had been more crab meat and less of the fried coating encasing it. Especially after having really tasty jumbo crab cakes the precious day, I was left wanting. An added nuance were pickled green strawberries and hints of dill.

Second Course
For the main course, there were five selections: Alaskan Halibut, a Grilled Hangar Steak, Tortellini filled with Spring Peas, a Lobster Omelet and Rancho Llano Seco Pork Cutlet Milanese. It was the pork's first time making an appearance on the menu and my choice. Pounded into a thin cut and then lightly fried, it came on a bed of Capperi di Pantelleria pasta that had been lightly tossed in brown butter. Lemon capers dressed in this same brown butter sauce was drizzled on top of everything. I enjoyed this tremendously, as it was bursting in flavors. I also sampled a bit of the omelet, pictured below, which is always featured on the Easter menu. It was indulgently rich, filled with hearty chunks of lobster, fontina cheese and soft breakfast potatoes. 

Third course
Last but certainly not least was dessert. We could pick between three: a blackberry ricotta crepe cake, a raspberry coconut mille feuille with toasted almond wafers and finally, a jar filled with layers of dark chocolate, milk chocolate for baking called CARAMÉLIA and blood orange, all topped with toasted almonds. I opted for the mille feuille, pictured below, which was sooo delicious. Dollops of coconut cream were wedged between slightly sweet crispy wafers, with ripe raspberries added on the top. 

All in all, La Toque provided a fabulous over-the-top dining experience, a big part due to its spectacular service that exceeds expectations and also of course, because of the nuanced approach to fine dining. If you’re ever interested in exploring a multi-course meal, I say check out this Napa gem.

See you there soon!

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