Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nova Express

A touch of the Red Light culture in LA

You can feel the stress level drop off at the curb as you enter Nova Express and fully expect a waitress to hand you the cannabis and hashish menu. The rhythms are both calming and uplifting. IB Melchior’s 1960 classic “The Angry Red Planet” moves across the south wall as gargoyles, octopi and an impressive collection of comic book heroes and villains loom and linger in the background.

Nova Express boasts “The best pizza on earth” but being from New York I have to chuckle just a bit. The “Interplanetary Menu” offers everything from empanadas and bagels with cream cheese, to specialty fruit smoothies and tiramisu. Though clever in design with “Galactic Neutrinos (Planet Earth Sandwiches)” and “Celestial Salads”, how good the food is may depend greatly upon your state of mind.

If you long for that next visit to Amsterdam, take a trip on the Nova Express. Unwind your mind and satisfy your munchies but be sure to come prepared, Northern Lights is not on the menu.

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An exit from reality

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Funky Art

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No, that's not the calamari appetizer

Be sure to check out the website for upcoming live music and related events.

426 North Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 658-7533


Where the locals flock together

If Hitchcock, God-fearing aliens and one of the best damn rotisserie chickens in town is your idea of a good time, you’re not alone. The Los Feliz locals truly do flock to this chicken shack for good simple American picnic fare, and a bar to send you stumbling home.

Seated on the patio directly across the street from the beautiful Church of Scientology Celebrity Center (Nanu-Nanu), we stuck with the basics. Creamy cole slaw with spot on seasoning, red bliss potatoes roasted crispy outside with a soft fluffy center, and the whole rotisserie chicken juicy and succulent throughout was served with lavosh bread and your choice of American, Malaysian, French and Mexican dipping sauces. Top all that off with a sunny 85 degrees and an ice cold Stella and call it the good life. Honorable mention goes to the warm German chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla that put us over the edge but was worth every bite.

Independent, famous for fine fare at a good price and infamous for its late night bar scene, Birds is truly the cock of the walk when it comes to chicken.

5925 Franklin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 465-0175

Monday, March 19, 2007

Bottle Rock

Just Plain Bad

At first glance Bottle Rock is clearly not a “destination” restaurant. It’s more like one of your buddies converted his garage into a bar and added a patio, and an over the top wine collection. This is the type of place you meet your friends for a drink before going out on the town. Awkward aluminum stools set around tables that are too close for comfort, and a sloppy deli case housing cheese, cured meats and ill fated (odor and flavor permeable) pastries are among the disappointments at this young addition to the Culver City awakening.

The wine selection is surprisingly sophisticated and wide in range. Offering rarities as fine as Sine Qua Non by cult wine god Manfred Krankel of Campanile and La Brea Bakery fame, Bottle Rock has one of the better collections in town. Just be prepared for a blind taste test. The members of the wait staff, most of whom unfortunately visited our table asking the same questions one after the other, (though surely unplanned and well-intended it felt like an assault), won’t be able to answer most of your questions about the wine or the food for that matter.

When it came to ordering (after deciding on waiter number three) we went with our instincts and switched back and forth between the ’03 Provisor Syrah, and the’04 Four Vines “Anarchy”, a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Mourvedre. The five cheese plate with an assortment of toast points seemed like an obvious choice. From a list of about a dozen cheeses we picked the Brillat Savarin a triple cream with a white bloomy rind, Epoisses which is also a triple cream but with a bit of an attitude, Fourme d'Ambert the famous raw milk blue, MouCo’s gold medal winning washed rind Colorouge and La Ricotta Di Pietro Punturi a soft sheep’s milk Ricotta listed as being topped with a dollop quince honey. All wonderful in their own right except for the sheep’s ricotta which arrived sans quince honey and bland as Elmer’s Glue.

After rudely being interrupted mid-speak by the obliviously intrusive servers at least four times, my friend decided that we should try something else (where are these guys when you actually need something). The roasted dates stuffed with Tilston Point blue cheese from Tony Hook and wrapped in prosciutto, were perfect little packages bursting with rustic flavors. Sorry Cobras and Matadors, Bottle Rock’s got this one in the bag.

With glasses not yet emptied we decided that a chocolate tort should round out the experience and in a sense it did. The pre-made pastry enveloped our palettes with such bold flavors as dark chocolate, salami, blue cheese, and my favorite, freezer burn. Dessert was awful. All in all Bottle Rock was a disenchanting experience and a waste of a c-note. Sorry guys, better luck next time.

Bottle Rock
3847 Main Street
Culver City, CA 90232

Friday, March 9, 2007

Square One

One for the books, or blogs if you will

The only perfect meal I’ve ever had in a Los Angeles restaurant was served up by Phil Fox and company and started with a dried cherry, almond muffin and a glass of fresh squeezed OJ. Together they set the stage for a birthday breakfast to crush all breakfasts with the swift force of non-pretentious eminence. This is as good as it gets folks.

All the big players were at the table. Thick (serious thick) cut bacon, burger size breakfast sausage patties, spicy paprika laden Hungarian links, and a slice of ham firm, flavorful, and moist; all supplied by Dan and Jim at the LA Farmers Market’s renowned Huntington Meats. While the English muffins (so good I had to order two on the side) are hand made in the kitchen by chef Hayden Ramsey alone, and provide an ideal nest for supple poached eggs, wilted baby spinach, and smoked Canadian bacon, all crowned with a hollandaise sauce rich in flavor and texture, yet unobtrusive to the individual savour of the underlying ingredients. Also joining the party were chorizo, gruyere, tomato, onion, roasted pepper, tortilla and two farm fresh eggs all baked together in an individual cast iron skillet and topped with a piquant salsa roja. And for the purist in me, a single buttermilk pancake with natural maple syrup and softened butter is as good as I’ve tasted.

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Square One
4854 Fountain Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90029

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Vorderer Sternen

Star Powered Sausages

Whether it’s banking or business, art or architecture, family, friends, or just an itch for travel that brings you to Zurich, be sure to stand in line with the locals and others in the know at the Vorderer Sternen. The bratwurst at their casual tented grill is said to be the finest available anywhere. This devotee agrees; I’ve never had anything that comes close. Paired with an ice cold Calanda beer, spicy yellow mustard, and a hunk of bread known as Gold Burli, any of which may as well have fallen from the heavens, the whole experience is divine. If one of these scrumptious sausages doesn’t fill you up, do yourself a favor and order a second. With unrivalled reverence, and at a mere six and a half Franks, you’re not likely to find anything else to satisfy that “I should have had another one” hankering. Centrally located next to the Bellevue tram stop, the Vorderer Sternen ('The star in front') is an absolute must any, or in my case every time you’re in Zurich.

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Vorderer Sternen
Theaterstrasse 228001
Zürich, Bellevueplatz

Ramos House Cafe

Home Cooked: Historic Dining in the OC

Off the clichéd beaten path and across the tracks is where you’ll find not only an enchanting historic district, but a Bloody Mary that’ll blow you away; all the way back to 1881 in fact. That’s the year that the Ramos House was built.

The Ramos House Café, as it stands today is tucked away amongst the ancient oak trees and age-old adobes that line Los Rios Street, the oldest remaining residential street in California. Situated in the heart of the Los Rios Historical District in San Juan Capistrano, chef John Q. Humphries and company are serving up fare that can only be described as, simply-inspired.

“This marshmallow is a perfect example.” says Humphries, “It’s just a marshmallow, but instead of using the Stay Puffs that’ve been on the shelf at the general store for years, we just make ‘em fresh. Taking something as simple as a meatloaf and just making it a bit more clever, building it up some.” It’s this philosophy that drives the entire menu from the buttermilk biscuits w/ apple butter, to the lentil soup with confit duck and gingerbread croutons. Everything is made fresh, and every dish on the menu makes sense.

Although, before opening the menu I highly recommend that you sit back, take in your surroundings, and be sure to add a Scotch quail egg when you order that first soju Bloody Mary. Satisfaction garnishes the face of Derek Baugh of the Malibu Family Vineyards; my long time friend and go-to guy on anything in a glass. You also want to be sure not to miss out on the Schramsberg brut rose; the glass slipper to warm apple beignets, caramelized citrus salad, and basil cured salmon. Go ahead and order another bottle; the weightless scrambled eggs that entwine the bacon and Crab hash with sour cream remoulade, and the sweet potato duck hash w/ mushrooms, are the perfect bridge between complementary beverage and choice ingredients. Whereas the beef stew with its beam of blue cheese mashed potatoes evenly supports the meritage from Napa Valley’s Viader Vineyards that is conveniently offered in a half-bottle. “Bring two more Viader,” commands the chef as we marry northern and southern California in our enlightened mouths. “No, two more bottles.”

While sizing up the place, you may notice that no one seems to be coming in or out of the actual house except for John from time to time. All of the diners, as well as the wait staff are gathered on the picturesque patio that until recently was covered by a century old mulberry tree, the centerpiece of the dining area. The venerable mulberry finally had to come down in 2005. Three saplings have been planted around the fringe of the yard. John hopes they will provide a substantial canopy by late 2007.

The patio can be a bit brisk, but no worries, a blanket embroidered with the Ramos House hallmark can be promptly provided as a loner, and even purchased as a keepsake from a noteworthy dining experience. It’s just one more thing to make you feel at home. Speaking of home, “That’s my bedroom right there,” declares Humphries proudly.
“I do actually live in the house.” He beams like a parent watching his child at play. You really get the feeling that you’re in this man’s home.

“I was living in New York, and wanted to do a business out of my home,” he adds. As a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and a savvy cook, John’s future was wide open. He came west, unknowingly beginning the journey back to his native Southern California. John first landed in San Francisco in the kitchen that was on its way to becoming The Savoy. Like many San Francisco restaurants, the kitchen at The Savoy has two stories, separated by a steep flight of stairs. “I had snapped my leg at a concert and was just ineffective there,” says Humphries.”

After some seriously needed healing time, still fancying the idea of a home-based business, John came upon the Ramos House. It seems that the owner at the time, a little old man who had been there for ages, was ready to leave. He wanted to move closer to his family. It was decision time for John. “When I first moved in I really begged and borrowed to do what I did.” says Humphries, “I was nowhere near ready to do it.” The existing kitchen, which was conveniently located at the back of the house facing the train tracks, was taken out. A small, but well-organized commercial kitchen was built in its place.

Although the zoning laws put John in the clear to do business from his home, there were no existing businesses on the quiet, almost clandestine street. The city agreed that The Ramos House could sell food and drink from 9 to 5, but dinner service it seemed was out of the question. “I fought for seven years to get the right to do dinner here,” Humphries explains, “and I won.” Dinner would be added to a famously stellar breakfast and lunch service; or would it?

On the day that John was to accept his victory, he was walking through the neighborhood doing an interview with a journalist from a local paper. She began speculating on some changes that could take place in the wake of Ramos House switching gears to full time. She had a vision of the rest of the houses on the street being “cleaned-up,” and some of the people possibly even moving out to make way for businesses or real estate investors. It dawned on John at that moment that a full-swing fine dining establishment smack in the middle of a very old, and very residential street, one which he had come to treasure and call home, would in-fact change things to some degree. “I’ve become very attached to living here,” Humphries says earnestly. “You’ll see if you stick around. At 4:00 this street dies. It’s me, and the sunset, and I’m done with my day.”

In short, John respectfully withdrew his request to serve his no doubt divine dinner fare at the café. The integrity with which that decision was made is one of the many contributing factors to the gratifying dining experience that awaits those in the know. As for my friends and I, we did hang around: it’s 4:00, it’s us, and the sunset, and we’re done with our day. And so goes brunch in the home and office of chef John Q. Humphries. Thanks John.

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Soju Bloodys
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Duck Hash
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Cocoa witha Marshmallow

The Ramos House Cafe
31752 Los Rios Street
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675