Cooking at home with octopus

As much as I love dining out and fully surrendering myself to professionals for an exquisite restaurant experience, I would choose to be on the giving side any day.  Cooking for friends and loved ones and bringing everybody together for a fun meal is how I love to enjoy life.  Food, wine and laughter are my joie de vivre, and I am fortunate to be able to have such experiences with my friend Haru Kishi, the Executive Chef of Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills.

Our mutual love for cooking and entertaining has culminated in many wonderful dinners shared with our ever expanding community of good friends.  We choose a theme ingredient for our dinners and get inspiration from the farmers market to construct a seasonal menu around it.  Black truffles, white truffles, lobster, lamb, duck and suckling pig are some of the themes that we have tackled, all ending in delicious memorable fêtes.  This time we chose octopus, and as usual Chef Kishi took charge of the theme ingredient while I filled in with other courses.  Although he hadn’t finalized his octopus dishes until the morning of the dinner, I started planning the other courses around a Spanish theme, our inspiration being pulpo a la gallega, a popular traditional Galician dish of tender octopus with paprika, olive oil and salt.

We found some beautiful purple potatoes and heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market that morning to complement the 3 octopuses that we got.  In addition, a visit to Wally’s Cheese Box, which is right around the corner from where I live, turned out an exquisite selection of cheeses to serve to our gathering of chefs, restaurateurs, mixologists and musicians who all brought delicious wines for the dinner.

The cheese board featured Fol Epi, Gres des Vosges, Mini Epoisse and a delectable Gorgonzola Dolce generously drizzled with truffle honey, one of my all-time favorite pairings that I frequently serve at parties. Accoutrements of Creminelli black truffle salami, farmers market nectarines, seedless grapes and fig & olive crackers went fast as the wine and conversation flowed ever so freely.

Kalamata olives rings were balanced on top of flattened cut ends of purple seedless grapes, then tressed with dollops of marinated feta cheese and parsley leaves, a painstakingly precise micro operation that took a lot of patience.  The end result was an army of beautiful little savory soldiers, standing at attention in perfect rows and saluting our guests of honor.

I also made little pintxos of Idiazabal cheese and pearl onions caramelized with Marsala wine, assembled on skewers and drizzled with a warm saba reduction.

Meanwhile the octopus, which had been braising all day to absolute tenderness, was quickly pan seared and cubed in preparation for Chef Kishi’s first octopus dish.  Half of the purple potatoes were cubed and seasoned with pimenton dulce, while the other half was puréed with cream, emulsified with olive oil and loaded into the spuma gun for a warm potato foam.

Skinned and apple balsamic vinegar-marinated cherry tomatoes were tossed with tender octopus and purple potato cubes, then topped with the luscious creamy purple potato foam and a sprinkling of pimenton dulce for an amazing dish of complex flavors and textures.  Chef Kishi’s modern take on pulpo a la gallega was an inspiration, and we all dug our spoons into the warm potato foam and noshed in unison.

Jamon Serrano chips were made the night before by dehydrating them very slowly over 3 hours in the oven at low temperature.  The crispy savory ham chips, with a wonderful concentrated saltiness, were the perfect garnish for the Canary melon gazpacho dish served with a dash of Piment d’Espelette powder.

Simple is best when it comes to good quality ingredients, and the juicy pineapple and green zebra heirloom tomatoes were arranged on a long platter with basil leaves and fresh creamy burratta.  Large pyramid shaped crystals of black volcanic lava salt, aged balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil were all that I used to bring these beautiful flavors alive in the vibrant salad dish.

Braised octopus legs were tightly rolled together in saran wrap and set in the fridge to glue them together.  This octopus sausage of sorts was thinly sliced to make axial wheels that resembled geometric flowers.  Chef Kishi constructed a gorgeous octopus carpaccio course using these octopus wheels, fresh dorade ceviche, yuzu juice, sudachi juice, puréed plums, apples, heirloom tomatoes, cilantro and olive oil.  Colorful bite sized arrangements of carpaccio were served on a Himalayan pink salt tablet that was chilled in the freezer, itself imparting a subtle saltiness to the food as it slowly melted.

Left over dorade trimmings and bones were made into an elegant and richly flavored fish broth with cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, star anise and bay leaves.  The clear warm broth was served in small shot glasses- a warm, inviting and comforting moment of solace before the final octopus dish by Chef Kishi.

While all 3 interpretations of octopus were amazing that evening, my favorite was Chef Kishi’s octopus bolognese, a hearty pasta dish made with finely chopped octopus to mimic the ground meat texture of traditional bolognese ragu.  Octopus trimmings, mostly from the head, were finely chopped and pan fried to give it a quick sear and a deep roasted flavor.

The octopus was combined with a base of chopped garlic, onions and olive oil, and reduced with cava that one of the guests brought.  Sun dried tomato paste and grated Roma tomatoes were added, then reduced on the stove to concentrate the flavors.  Tossed with squiggly radiatori pasta, the perfect medium for this hearty sauce to cling to, the bolognese was served family style in a deep dish Dutch oven.  With the texture of bolognese and the flavor of vongole, this final entrée by Chef Kishi was the stand out dish of the evening.

We concluded the meal with dulce de leche ice cream served on a carpet of chocolate crumble, with sweet farmers market raspberries and ginger vanilla bean crème brûlée, all made the evening before for easy assembly. The intense smokey caramel sweetness of the ice cream with the crunchy dark chocolate crumbles was a great combination to end this spectacular meal with.

Empty wine bottles and plates licked clean may signify a good meal, but my barometer for a good party is different: when strangers meet at the beginning of the evening with handshakes, and leave with hugs and exchanged contact information.  When old friends make deeper connections over wine and intimate conversation.  When everybody roars with laughter over funny jokes.  When we make toasts with every new bottle of wine that we open.  When we all take out our planners to see when we can do this all over again.

What will our next theme be?  I hope you will be joining us for dinner.

Random trivia: Did you know that some octopuses, when under attack, can perform arm autotomy? This is a form of self amputation of one of their 8 arms to serve as a distraction to predators.  They are able to regenerate this part of their body.

Venison dinner at Terroni

One of the best dinner experiences that I recently had started at 9am on a Wednesday morning when my friends Chef Marcel Vigneron and Chef Haru Kishi picked me up in their car to go to the Santa Monica Farmers Market.  They were on their way to the market for a shopping spree to pick up ingredients for a special venison dinner event at Terroni restaurant.  Marcel, along with 3 other local chefs, were invited to prepare grass-fed and humanely raised Wagyu beef and venison for a private dinner where chefs, wine distributors, food suppliers, restaurateurs and cattle ranchers gathered to enjoy an evening of good food and wine.  The Wagyu beef and venison, grass fed outdoors on free range pastures and raised without any additives, hormones, antibiotics or steroids, were supplied by Firstlight Foods and sponsored by local distributors Pilot Brands and Rocker Brothers Meats.

It was interesting to watch these 2 chefs toss ideas around and talk about menu inspirations as they rummaged through crates of organic vegetables, sniffed bunches of herbs and sampled ripe summer fruits.  Little by little, as our shopping bags filled up with vibrant produce, their dishes began forming in my mind and I couldn’t wait to see and taste the final products. Earthy chanterelle mushrooms, bright cranberry and calypso beans, wild arugula, purple ruffles basil, golden raspberries, fraise des bois wild strawberries, purple lavender blossoms and golden beets were just some of the items that they picked up at the farmers market.  Everything was brought back to Marcel’s kitchen at Bar 210 and prepped with the venison.

I love venison, especially when paired with tart berries, but it’s rare to find it on restaurant menus in Los Angeles.  There may be a misconception that venison is gamey, but good quality venison is lean with a delicate grain and clean light flavor.  In fact, venison is lower in fat than a skinned breast of chicken, low in cholesterol and higher in iron than any other red meat.   The huge venison saddle that Marcel received was a beautiful piece of dark red meat, and hardly had any odor.  The venison was skillfully broken down by these two seasoned chefs who worked with speed and precision.

Within 15 minutes the entire venison was broken down into beautiful pieces of strip loin, saddle and tenderloin.

My profession involves healing broken bones and sewing wounds back together, so it was a little disturbing to watch them crack the venison ribs and vertebrae with sheer brute force and throw them into a pot for a jus.  I cook a lot, so it wasn’t the concept that was disturbing, but the loud cracking and snapping noises from the butchering.  I quickly got over it when I started smelling the amazing aromas of the venison stock reducing on the stove.

The cranberry and calypso beans were boiled in a dutch oven with a bouquet garni and celeriac shavings while radishes, turnips, beets and daikon were shaved on a mandoline and pickled in rice vinegar.  Haru made puffed wild rice and amarinth seeds by quickly deep frying them in oil, while Marcel made puffed quinoa and beet root fluid gel using agar.

Both chefs cooked at full force with no breaks from 11am until 2am when the Terroni dinner ended.  Marcel and his sous chef Robert Montano even had to do dinner service at Bar 210.  The non-stop fast paced operations of the kitchen were exciting for me to watch as an outsider, but I saw first hand that the work is physically demanding and incredibly intense.  Multi-tasking over the hot stoves, running back and forth between stations, shaving, dicing, frying, slicing, boiling and poaching all while remaining mentally focused on menu ideas and time management to produce beautiful food for others to enjoy- it’s amazing that more chefs don’t experience burn out.

At 11pm, guests gathered around the large communal table in the Wine Library, a secret back room accessed through Terroni restaurant.  Terroni managing partner Max Stefanelli greeted guests at the doorway to the beautiful dining room lined with shelves full of wine bottles while Ben Andersen from Rosenthal Wine Merchants NY showcased the various wines that were paired with each dish.   A group of chefs were in attendance- Josiah Citrin from Mélisse, Raphael Lunetta of Jiraffe, Michael Cimarusti of Providence, Alex Becker of Nobu West Hollywood and Nyesha Arrington of former Caché.  One of the Truffle Brothers was there for the dinner, as well as the beverage director for the SLS Hotel, a few New Zealand ranchers, and Sarah from Tastespotting.

The first course to start the evening was Marcel’s venison strip loin carpaccio, seared with garlic and thyme, sliced paper thin and gently draped over wooden serving boards.  An assortment of beautiful garnishes brought vibrant flavors, colors and textures to the delicious appetizer: cranberry beans and calypso beans added an earthiness that anchored all of the contrasting acidity imparted by the pickled radishes, beet root and cipollini onions.  Pearly little beads of puffed quinoa titillated with their delightful crunch while golden beet root fluid gel, red beet root fluid gel and wild arugula added bright color palettes to the canvas.  Marcel put the finishing touches on the carpaccio with dots of golden egg yolk sauce before sending it out to the dining room.  Everybody sighed and swooned over this elegant and tasty dish.

My favorite dish of the evening was Marcel’s venison tenderloin tartare, hand cut with macadamia nuts, capers, pickled cipollini onions, beet root brunoise and walnut oil.  The light flavors, tender meat and fine grains of venison make it an ideal medium for tartare, and Marcel used just the right amount of ingredients to bring a perfect level of acidity and richness to the dish.  A generous dollop of tartare scooped onto a crispy bright red beet chip, augmented by a smear of wasabi cream and garnished with slivers of microchives and aromatic lavender blossoms made for a little piece of heaven in one satisfying bite.

Chef Andrea Cavaliere, Executive Chef of Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, offered his interpretation of venison carpaccio with pressed eggplant caponata, blueberries, shaved fennel and orange salad, chive blossoms, parsley blossoms and Thai basil blossoms.  The flavor combinations in this plate were outstanding- the sharpness of the fennel and the tartness of the berries complemented the mellow flavors of the tender venison very well.

There were 2 other featured chefs presenting dishes that evening, including Chef David Féau, Executive Chef of Patina Restaurant Group’s Cafe Pinot in Downtown LA, who made an amazing wagyu beef tartare with parmesan cheese, shaved summer black truffles and a quail egg shot.

Chef Micah Wexler, formerly of Craft and currently at Voyeur, presented a roasted venison tenderloin in cinnamon broth with rhubarb chutney, middle eastern kibbeh, fresh dill and parsley.

Marcel’s entrée was a venison saddle cooked sous vide at 56 degrees, perched on a bed of delightfully chewy farro cooked with dried blueberries in venison stock, and topped with wild arugula and puffed wild rice.  His inspiration for the dish was to present the venison with ingredients that reflected its natural habitat, which is why he used wild berries, grains and greens.  A crispy celeriac chip and crunchy puffed amaranth seeds added great textural contrast to the medley of delectable fruits that embellished the creamy celeriac purée- golden raspberries, blueberries, black berries, plumcot cooked a la plancha, and bright fraise de bois wild strawberries.

Andrea Cavaliere finished the savory meal with a plate of luscious Wagyu new york strip and rib eye with potato purée, carrots and jus.

Terroni completed the decadent experience with a sweet glass of zabaione and sugared cherries.

It was a treat to be able to spend the whole day with chefs Marcel and Haru and watch the extraordinary transformation of basic ingredients into edible art.  I didn’t expect those small berries that we sampled at the farmers market that morning or the massive chunk of raw venison laying on the kitchen counter to translate into such a beautiful feast for the eyes and a memorable dinner.  It’s a special moment when food becomes a meal at the hands of a masterful chef, and the instant that you take that very first bite, you also become a part of that delicious moment.

Terroni Restaurant and Wine Library

7605 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 954-0300

Random trivia: Did you know that popular legend implies that steak tartare got its name from the nomadic Tatar people of Central Asia who ate raw meat?  They kept the meat under the horse’s saddles to tenderize it for as long as a day’s ride.  Western Europeans, who feared yet also wanted to be like the mighty Huns, started preparing raw meat and adding spices to it, forming the base for what would eventually morph into the modern version of tartare.

Gordon Ramsay at the London – Part One

Gordon Ramsay.  Need I say more?  We love him and we hate him.  We all love his food, and we love watching him throw a temper tantrum on TV. But we would never want to bring him home to meet the parents.

Thankfully, my experience at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant at The London Hotel in West Hollywood was tranquil and laid back.  I had a superb experience thanks to my wonderful friend Haru, the sous chef there.  Ramsay sold the restaurant to the hotel a couple of weeks ago, but it didn’t affect the tasty creations that came from the kitchen.  Chef Haru did an amazing omakase style meal for us.

The restaurant interior is gorgeous and decadent.  Here is one of the private rooms:

private dining room

private dining room

I fell in love with the bar- Miami chic meets Monaco vogue?  I would love to go back to have a drink there.

The bar

The bar

We started with a trio of canapés, beautifully displayed on a plate:

Trio of starters

Trio of starters

Cod spring roll, smoked salmon and cucumber roll topped with caviar, and beef carpaccio with watercress salad, radish, shallot rings and lemon oil.  I loved the hint of lemon oil in the beef carpaccio canapé.

Next, a cherry gazpacho with celery and green apple, accompanied with roasted hand-dived sea scallops and watermelon.

Cherry gazpacho

Cherry gazpacho

This was one of my favorite dishes.  It was very refreshing, with so many flavors and textures to tickle my tongue.  I loved the slight tartness of the gazpacho with the crisp textures of celery and apple.

And now….for my absolute favorite dish of the day.  Actually, it may have been my absolute favorite dish of the year.  The foie gras chawanmushi.

Chawanmushi is a traditional Japanese dish of steamed egg custard.  ‘Chawan’ is a Japanese ceramic bowl or cup, and ‘mushi’ means to steam.  My mother used to make it all the time with chicken, shiitake mushrooms and shrimp.  This was the first time I ever had such a creative take on this dish.  I apologize that you cannot see the custard very well in this photo, but underneath the bread, white shimeji mushrooms, edamame and daikon radish sprouts are sprinkled bits of crispy deep fried duck tongue.  The savory foie gras custard was rich and silky smooth, with a complex depth of flavor reminiscent of black truffle and 40 year port wine.  This dish is too good for words. It’s culinary ecstasy.

Next we had broiled black cod topped with pig’s tails and kumamoto oysters, with a celeriac purée and beef jus.

Yes, pig’s tails.  They have just as much tasty fat and meat as the pork belly does.  The cod was cooked perfectly and was very moist.  The simple light flavor of the cod went very well with the rich topping of oyster and crunchy pig’s tails.  I loved the beautiful yet simple presentation of this dish.

Roasted duck confit with braised red cabbage and mustard sauce finished the savory portion of the meal.

I love duck confit, and this one we had was superb.  The meat was very tender and succulent.  It was plump and moist, unlike most duck leg confits that I have had, which tend to be very dry and overcooked.  I wish the skin was a little more crispy, but otherwise it was close to perfect.

And now, mesdames et messieurs, may I present to you… the dessert orgy.

We were celebrating my friend’s birthday, and it was so sweet to get this raspberry sorbet from the restaurant.  Just to clarify, the chocolate writing was meant to say Happy Anniversaire (anniversaire is birthday in French).

We all loved this dessert, the confit of grapefruit with grapefruit sorbet, passion fruit and mint foam.

Such a refreshing and light dessert that served as a wonderful palate cleanser.  The grapefruit segments were juicy and sweet, contrasting with the tartness of the grapefruit zest and passion fruit, with a light airy lingering finish of the mint foam.  A superb dessert that was an absolute delight.

For you chocolate lovers out there, the Valrhona chocolate fondant with brown butter caramel and vanilla ice cream was delicious.

A chocolate fondant is like a lava cake, with a runny and molten center.  Underneath that frosted baked top layer is a thick pool of pure chocolate heaven.  Each bite delivered a rich silky smooth chocolate warmness throughout my mouth.  Such indulgence!

The next dessert was a chilled coconut tapioca with passion fruit, with candied ginger and milk chocolate & star anise gelato.

Another spectacular dessert.  I loved the different textures involved in this dessert- crunchy, silky, smooth, milky, and chewy.  The birthday girl loved this one.

And finally, my favorite dessert of them all, the dark chocolate cylinder filled with passion fruit, mint granite and coconut foam.

I was pleasantly surprised to break open the chocolate cylinder and see a gush of vibrant colors- green, whit and yellow.  And again, so many different textures to stimulate my tongue.  I should have taken a picture of the dessert after the cylinder was broken, but we finished it too quickly.  It was a beautiful dessert to look at and to eat- edible art.

I want to point out that all of these desserts came out at the same time.  Picture 3 very happy women sitting around a table filled with all of these delicious desserts, spoon in one hand with wide sparkling eyes and ridiculously large smiles.

I had the most wonderful dining experience here, and I owe it all to the wonderful sous chef Haru.  This is what it’s all about, when you can taste the chef’s love and passion in every bite.

Gordon Ramsay at the London Hotel, West Hollywood

1020 North San Vicente Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069-3802
(310) 854-1111

Random trivia: Did you know that only domestic pigs have curly tails?  Wild pigs have straight tails.