Stefan’s at LA Farm

For those of you who watched Season 5 of Top Chef, not only will you recognize this cocky bigger-than-life character who lost to Josea in the finals, but will probably also have a strong opinion about him.  Stefan Richter, the Finnish born and German raised chef who made a lasting impact on viewers, has joined his Top Chef alumns in opening up shop in the LA restaurant scene. Last summer he took over the LA Farm space and vamped up the interior.

For those of you who have been to LA Farm, I’m sure you’ve wondered at least once or twice, why on earth somebody decided to build a restaurant there in the middle of absolutely nothing on the most deserted section of Olympic Boulevard.  Although that still remains a mystery, once you make it inside, the beautifully redone atrium patio with leather banquettes and firepits on all 4 corners of the room will make you forget all of that.

Most Top Chef fans will agree that despite his abrasive and in-your-face attitude, Stefan was the more talented of the finalists and probably deserved to win.  It’s not just his impressive resume which include stints at the Bellagio in Vegas, Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills, the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, and his own catering service that give him the upper hand, but he clearly demonstrated superior skills and innovative dishes compared to his competitors.  At his new restaurant where he is very hands on in every part of the operation, you’ll not only get a taste for his food, but also a taste for his loud personality.  He really is just like you saw him on TV, and you’ll still either love him or hate him.

His new menu features items that stick to the basics that Angelenos love like steak frites, veal chop and seafood risotto, and he throws in the occasional twist with sliced pig’s head and pork cheeks.  However, what initially lured me to his restaurant was the small plates menu.   All items are $3-6 each, and everything sounded delicious and fun.

Classic deviled egg with Osetra caviar was surprisingly delicious.  I’m not a big fan of deviled eggs since it’s not the type of dish to ever wow anybody, but we ordered it at the urging of our server.  The subdued acidity and whipped creamy texture of the yolk mixture was delightful, enhanced by the clean saline finish of the caviar.

The Cali crudo, a tuna and halibut carpaccio with lime vinaigrette and cilantro microgreens, was also a winner.  The fresh slices of fish were superbly tender, and dressed with an aromatic and fruity olive oil.

The french onion soup with Gruyere crostini was too cute for words.  It’s hard to tell from the photograph, but these white porcelain soup ramekins were about the size of a nectarine.  Despite its petite size, each bowl was packed so full of flavor and content that it didn’t seem like I was having a mini portion.  The concentrated rich broth was overflowing with sweet caramelized onions, and the crostini had just the right amount of gooey Gruyere cheese to make me happy.  A lot of restaurants offer soup cappuccinos and warm soup shots, but this was the first time that I saw french onion soup being offered in a miniaturized portion.  I can’t even count the number of times that I had to forego ordering french onion soup because I didn’t want to fill up on a whole portion and not be able to eat anything else.  I fell in love with Stefan’s mini soupe a l’oignon for this reason- a mini portion with mega flavor.

We ordered one dish from the regular menu and all of a sudden it seemed gigantic in contrast to all of our other small dishes.  The smoked rabbit salad with pears, fried parsnips and house cured artichokes in a thyme vinaigrette was a well rounded dish.  The succulent and tender  rabbit was the best part of the dish, and I loved the crunchy deep fried parsnips bits, but the salad greens were limp and soggy from too much dressing.

Sonoma foie gras with cracked white pepper, smoked salt and griddled brioche was one hell of a sinful bite of pure fatty goodness.  These half-dollar sized treasures were so decadent, that its buttery and rich flavor was almost too much for me to handle.  At $3 a piece, it’s hard not to get a whole dozen of these tasty morsels.

Sweetbread schnitzel with warm potato salad reflected Stefan’s German upbringing.  The sweetbreads were a little on the gamey side, but the tartness and acidity of the chopped cornichons in the potato salad balanced it out perfectly.  The salad was absolutely divine and made in true German style.

Truffle arancini with lemon aioli was my favorite small plate of the evening.  Arancini, which are Sicilian deep fried rice balls, means ‘little oranges’ in Italian for its similarity in color and shape.  The rice filling in these arancini balls tasted just like the exquisite white truffle risotto that I cooked at home recently (in my previous blog entry).  The warm delectable rice balls were deep fried to a perfect crunchy exterior.  I could have easily eaten another 10 of these.

Although there were many tempting choices for dessert, we had to try the  mousse au chocolat with baumkuchen, more so to try the house made baumkuchen.  I love baumkuchen, and I usually buy it at department stores in Japan where it’s a very popular dessert.  This German ‘king of desserts’, whose name means ‘tree cake’ because of the many thin ring layers that it has, is usually baked around a round spit to make a large ring shaped structure.  The one at Stefan’s was a flat horizontally layered cake that was baked in a pastry pan.  I was hoping for a nice thick cut of the traditional ring shaped version, and was disappointed when they served me an ultra thin cut of flat cake that was brittle and dry.    The dark chocolate mousse was a bit too rich for my palate, and we couldn’t finish it off.

I absolutely adored the lollipop trio dessert for its concept, appearance and taste.  The photo below of the lovely trio is  one of my favorite food photos that I’ve ever taken. Each lollipop had a sweet and rich chocolate center that was surrounded by liquid nitrogen frozen ice cream.  The flavors of the evening from left to right were: passion fruit vanilla, eggnog with cranberry sauce, and red wine chocolate.   Although all three were outstanding, my favorite pick was the passion fruit vanilla for its smooth vanilla flavor and passion fruit tartness.  These lollipops were not only delicious and flavorful, but also exhilarating and fun to suck on.  Just looking at these cute stick desserts made me smile, and I regressed to childhood as we all giggled and laughed.

After our wonderful dinner we took a tour of the bustling open kitchen.  The comforting aroma of freshly baked breads from the pastry station in the back corner and the sizzling sounds of meat on the grill filled the air as we took in the intense energy emanating from the kitchen.

We followed our noses to the pastry station and congregrated around the chef who was in the middle of preparing 2 desserts.  The German cheesecake with fresh berries looked fascinating.

We also discovered the culprit of what gave off the tantalizing aroma that originally lured us to the pastry station.  Buchteln with maple pecan ice cream and crème anglaise was being assembled for an order in the firepit lounge.  Buchteln are sweet Austrian dumplings made of yeast dough and baked in a pan in tight clusters.  Each batch is freshly baked to order and dusted with powdered sugar during plating.

Our persistence in hanging around the pastry station paid off, for we got to sample the freshly baked buchteln (or maybe he gave it to us to make us drooling dimwits go away).  These warm pillowy delights, with a slight dusting of powdered sugar, were quite amazing on their own- I couldn’t even imagine how good the whole compiled dessert would be.

Once we returned to our seats, Stefan joined us for a couple of drinks and a lipsynching marathon to the rocking 80’s mix that was playing in the restaurant.   His signature song, Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, came on at the height of our trip back to memory lane.  You can hear this song when you log on to the restaurant website.  Stefan chuckled as he told us that Steve Perry contacted him to ask why this song was on the website, and that Perry was coming to LA Farm for dinner the following week.

I went for a second visit last night and had a few other items off the small plates menu.  Since this was an impromptu late night visit to Stefan’s, I didn’t bring my camera.  I hope my words will be enough to convince you to try these wonderful tapas items at Stefan’s.  The beef tartare with poached quail egg was superb, although the accompanying breadsticks were a bit on the chewy side.  Tiny burger sliders called ‘Like a Big Mac’ with caramelized onions, cheese and lettuce ribbons, were tender and juicy.  They didn’t taste like Big Macs at all, but they were still just as satisfying even at these super mini sized portions.  Kumamoto oysters with green absinthe jello and a tart fennel vinaigrette were amazingly refreshing.  Parmesan truffle mousse with warm porcini crisps were oozing with wonderful truffle essence.  There was an extra drizzle of white truffle oil on the mousse that sent my truffle loving dining companion to truffle ecstasy.  The white mousse was so rich that it almost tasted like truffle butter.  A small portion of this was definitely enough though, as the intense salt content of it made me gulp down a gallon of water before bedtime.  Roasted California pistachios came in 4 flavors of tomato, guacamole, chile and garlic.  Apparently this is one of Stefan’s favorite items, as he finished off our entire bowl when he came over to hang out with us.

Stefan told us that he had just bought 2 other restaurants, one on Montana and one in Culver City.  At that time he couldn’t tell us where, as it was still an industry secret, but a recent press release revealed that he took over the old Cynthia’s on the Corner space on Montana and 15th.  Opening is planned for next week as Stefan’s on Montana.  As for the Culver City location?  We’ll soon find out.  Although I have yet to try his formal dinner menu at LA Farm, I really enjoyed the small plates concept.  Everything that we had was spectacular, and it was really fun to be able to sample an array of small delectable delights for an even smaller price.

Stefan’s at LA Farm

3000 Olympic Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90404-5073
(310) 449-4000

Random trivia:  Did you know that a man named George Smith invented the lollipop in 1908 to make it easier and less messier to eat hard candy?  He named this ‘hard candy on a stick’ after his favorite race horse named Lolly Pop.

Caché Restaurant

IMG_1362

Bar area

Caché, which means ‘hidden’ in French, is a lovely gem that recently opened on Main street in Santa Monica.  After the former restaurant Hidden’s schizophrenic menu failed to keep the crowds coming, Josiah Citrin took over to transform this large space into a rocking joint.  We all know and love Josiah Citrin from his other successful LA projects- Jiraffe, Mélisse and Lemon Moon.  Caché is a different concept, serving straightforward but well executed food in a loungey setting.  Diners can enjoy their meals indoors or outdoors, and late night partiers can congregate for cocktails in the outdoor patio by the enticing oblong fireplace.

Chef Arrington checking the white truffles for dinner service

Chef Arrington checking the white truffles for dinner service

Citrin has chosen a bright young star to lead the Caché kitchen.  Nyesha Arrington, the Chef de Cuisine,  is a SoCal native who was entrusted to take this position after proving her capabilities at Lemon Moon and Mélisse.   Her impressive resume also includes stints at Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier and The Mansion in Las Vegas.  Her appreciation of cultural diversity, stemming from her multi-cultural background, is reflected in the superb balance and integration of different flavors.

We were greeted with a wonderful warm mason jar of assorted olives.  IMG_1269Warm olives are so much more pleasurable than cold or room temperature ones, it makes me wonder why more restaurants don’t serve it this way.  I love the warm olives at Pizzeria Mozza, and what a joy it is to dip my pizza crust into that aromatic warm olive oil.

Caché offers 4 types of mason jar starters, but the ones to get are the duck confit and foie gras parfait.  The rich and creamy foie gras parfait was topped with a luxurious port wine gelée.  The duck confit jar had tender shredded duck meat mixed with herbs and vegetables.  Both were equally satisfying and addictive, and we kept asking for more bread.  The bottle of 2005 St. Émilion Bordeaux from Chateau de Bellevue we ordered was a bit tart before it hit the decanter, but it got better and better through the course of our meal.  The lustrious tannins in this full bodied wine were a wonderful complement to the mason jar delicacies.

IMG_1265

There was no conversation or interaction at the table during the first 10 minutes of our ravenous mason jar frenzy.  IMG_1271These delectable delights had tapped into a part of our brain that had been scientifically thought to be dormant since the caveman era.  Dilated pupils, flushed face, rapid heart rate and incomprehensible gutteral grunting… these incredible edibles almost caused a sympathetic nervous system overload.  Once we calmed down, we started talking about what our ideal ‘last meal’ would be.  The heated debate included stellar candidates like sushi, steak, lamb chops, caviar and truffles.  The one thing we all agreed on was that we would love to have this foie gras parfait mason jar there before we draw our last breath.

The lovely calamari dish with chorizo, confit meyer lemon, cherry tomatoes and parsley came straight from the wood fired oven.  The chorizo slivers imparted a wonderful smokey flavor to the tender calamari, and the citrus kick from the meyer lemons kept the dish fresh and sharp.

IMG_1270

Caché’s version of moules frites was spectacular.  The black mussels were cooked in a delectable white wine, shallots and tomato sauce that we lapped up with the fries.  After the fries were gone we used our spoons to drink it like soup.  I’m normally not a fan of thicker cut fries as they tend to be soggy and overcooked, but these were fried to a perfect outer crisp and moist tender interior.  I could really taste the innate rustic potato flavors in each dazzling morsel.  The farmer who made these potatoes would be proud.

IMG_1272

I was ecstatic to see bone marrow on the menu.  It’s one of my favorite things to eat, so we placed 2 orders.  The fire-roasted bone marrow was silky and rich, oozing with blissful beef essence.   The green parsley foam on top added a perfect amount of saltiness to complement the marrow gelatin.  The wild mushroom tapenade on the toasted baguettes was earthy and aromatic, but it overpowered and competed with the bone marrow.  I had to scrape off the paste in order to indulge in a full-scale unadulterated marrow orgy.

IMG_1280

The crisp and fresh market wedge salad with cherry tomatoes, egg, blue cheese and bacon vinaigrette was the perfect palate cleanser to reset my heavy marrow-saturated taste buds.

IMG_1277

Caché has many delicious flat breads on their menu that are all baked in their special wood fired oven.  Toppings range from spicy sopressata to duck sausage, zucchini to caramelized shallots.  They all sounded amazing, but we decided to go with the evening special:  lardon, caramelized onion, cantal cheese, bechamel sauce and thyme.  A splendid array of caramelized sweetness, fresh herb aromas, lardon saltiness and cantal sharpness on a doughy flatbread canvas baked to perfection.

IMG_1286

The crispy pan-fried loup de mer was served on a bed of marinated eggplant, lemon and rosemary caponata.  The best part of this dish was the loup de mer skin with crispy scales, fried to a light flakiness that crunched and danced on my tongue.  The fragile texture was addictive, and I found myself enjoying the skin more than the flesh.  The hearty caponata was a bit too intense for the fish, and I left it untouched.

IMG_1298

One of my dining companions had already been to Caché and raved about the Kurobuta pork chop.  Even though we offered to order another dish so that he could have the opportunity to try something new, he insisted that we get it.  He wanted to relive the experience- it was that good.  The thick cut of meat was cooked to a perfectly even color, temperature and consistency.  The freshness of the mint ribbons and the subdued sweetness of the pineapple and five spice chutney embellished this juicy pork.  There was nothing really fancy about this dish, and it was a new flavor combination for me, but somehow it hit the spot.  It was comforting, warming and soulful.  Yes, this was a fantastic and solid dish, and I would order it again on my next visit.

IMG_1294

Chef Arrington complemented our entrées with 3 sides of: carrot with passion fruit, thyme and black pepper, asparagus with curry and pistachios, and a yukon potato purée that was whipped up in classic buttery Robuchon style.

IMG_1302

I bumped into Nyesha a couple of weeks ago at the Santa Monica farmers market as we both rummaged through a box of fairytale eggplants.  She had a twinkle in her eye as she enthusiastically told me how she was going to prepare it for the dinner menu that evening.  I could see the wheels of creativity and inspiration cranking at full speed in her brain as she proceeded to sniff, pick, taste and caress all of the fresh produce throughout the market.  It looked like she was having an intimate conversation with each vegetable.  I couldn’t help but feel a twang of jealousy toward the lucky people who would get to enjoy the farmers market inspired menu that evening at Caché.

IMG_1353The food at Caché boasts innovative flavor combinations with simple fresh ingredients.  It’s fine dining in a hip LA setting.  Yet it also has the comfort of soul food and the familiarity of happy childhood memories at the kitchen table.  How is it that in a jar of refined foie gras, on a superbly baked flatbread, on a side of Robuchon-style whipped potatoes, and in a crispy loup de mer skin that is difficult to perfect, I can taste the love and passion of this talented chef?  How is it possible for these plates to satisfy my soul as much as it pleases my belly and my eyes?  It’s something about the essence of the food and the aura of the chef.

Any chef can cook to impress, please, execute, and entertain.  But only a great chef can take that to a higher level and also cook to nourish and nurture.  That’s why the greatest chefs in the world are our mothers and grandmothers.  Young and beautiful Nyesha sure ain’t your grandmother, but she cooks with the same intention and soul.

http://www.cacherestaurant.com/

Random trivia:  Did you know that mussels are gonochoristic?  That means that each individual mussel is born either male or female.

Riva


IMG_3605Fraiche in Culver City is one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, and it even won praise as Los Angeles Magazine’s Best New Restaurant Pick for 2007.  Chef Jason Travi and his wife Miho really established themselves at this wonderful restaurant that still brings in the crowds.  I’ve been a huge fan of Travi’s food from the time when he spearheaded La Terza restaurant on 3rd Street (which is now gone.  Gino Angelini, Travi’s mentor at La Terza, just reopened the space this past weekend as Minestraio Trattoria).  I was really excited to try Riva, Travi’s new digs in Santa Monica.  I went in with an open mind, despite mixed reviews on Yelp and Chowhound.

Riva means ‘shoreline’ in Italian; it features more seafood, and is only a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.  The interior features high ceilings, large mirrors on the walls, an open kitchen, and a large bar-  simple and elegant like most other nice restaurants in LA or NY.

As soon as we were seated , the first thing we all noticed was the deafening noise level.  Hands down, this was the noisiest restaurant that I’ve ever been too.  I felt like we were at a bar or a lounge.  Halfway through the meal, I got so tired of leaning in, shouting, and saying “What?” all the time, that I just zoned out of the table conversation.

The menu has 4 categories: Crudo, Appetizers, Pizza, and Entrees.  Crudo means ‘raw’ in Italian and Spanish, and it generally refers to raw slices of seafood dressed in olive oil, sea salt, and some type of acid (vinegar or citrus juice).  Depending on how it’s arranged or dressed, it’s fancy sashimi, ceviche, tartare, or carpaccio.  This concept of Italian sashimi became popular when Mario Batali succeeded in doing it well at his NY eatery Esca many years ago.  Riva makes them with fluke, geoduck clam, cuttlefish, sea bass, tuna, and other sea creatures.  We ordered the scallops that came in a citrus oil dressing with bread crumbs and red peppers.  It was good, but a bit bland and lacking in acidity.

Scallop crudo

Scallop crudo

I ordered the house made Testa Rossa from the appetizer menu.  Testa is head cheese, which is a cold cut meat dish made from the head of a pig, calf, cow or sheep.  The head of a freshly slaughtered animal is carefully cleaned and prepped, then it’s simmered in a large stockpot for hours until the meat falls right off the skull.  All of these juicy tender bits of meat along with the stock, are refrigerated to set in pans or molds to make a terrine, or rolled into a large sausage.  The collagen from all of the cartilage and bone marrow of the skull gives head cheese that gelatin-like consistency when cooled.  Head cheese is usually eaten chilled or at room temperature so that all of that wonderful collagen doesn’t melt.

Testa Rossa

Testa Rossa

The testa was garnished with radish, mint, lemon and watercress.  As you can see, theirs is a rolled testa (looks like a slice of pancetta), as opposed to a terrine with chopped up bits.  It was heavy in fat content and low on meat, which went well with the tart acidic garnish, but somehow I was left unsatisfied.

We ordered the Nizza pizza with black olive, anchovy, sweet onion, capers and thyme.  Riva makes thin crust pizzas.

Nizza pizza

Nizza pizza

Our server told us that the pizza is made without cheese, but if we wanted it with cheese, it was an additional 2 dollars.  I wish they would either not offer the cheese option if the cheeseless pizza was their original inspiration, offer the cheese option gratis, or indicate the $2 cheese option charge on the menu.   Was I being too picky or is it the noise level getting to me?  Well, we did order the pizza with cheese.  The pizza was well done, and the crust was done the way I like it- crispy on the outside, doughy on the inside.  The flavor of the toppings came together nicely and it made for a nice shared appetizer.

For main entrees, we ordered the monkfish, lamb, and seafood bouillabaisse.

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca on a bed of potato puree, spinach and pancetta, with a sage and marsala sauce.

Lamb Spezzatino

Lamb Spezzatino

Braised lamb in a tomato sauce over a bed of three color cauliflower and creamy semolina with a hint of smoked cheese and parsley gremolata.  I didn’t taste the monkfish dish, but the lamb dish was fantastic.  The lamb cubes were very tender, and each bite had so many layers of flavors- the rich and robust tomato flavored lamb stew, followed by the creaminess of the semolina, with a smokey cheese undertone, finishing off with the tart freshness of the gremolata.  I wanted to order that dish but since somebody else was getting that, I decided to go with something else for variety.  I regretted this decision.

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Fra Diavolo is a tomato based sauce with garlic and hot peppers, frequently used for pastas and seafood.  According to the menu, my dish was supposed to have a half lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, and fregola sarda.  Fregola sarda is a toasted Sardinian pasta, and it looks like pearl sized cous cous or tapioca, only much denser.  My dish was okay- the tomato sauce lacked richness and flavor, and the lobster meat was spongy.  I was so bored with my seafood dish that I didn’t even realize it was missing the squid until I was almost done with it.  Instead, it had a few chunks of tasteless unidentified white fish.  I informed my server about the missing squid, and she apologized for the kitchen screw-up.  Sigh…

Another turn off with the seafood dish was that the half lobster came with a fully intact large lobster claw, and they gave me a large silver lobster cracker.  I was very surprised that this seemingly upscale restaurant would expect their customers to get their hands and clothes dirty trying to crack a lobster claw doused in tomato sauce.  I was wearing a white silk blouse, and was not about to ruin it with bright red tomato splatter.  Sigh…

There’s an entree item on the menu called Costata di Bue per due, prime rib for 2.  The table close to us ordered it.  They bring a big chunk of prime rib from the kitchen and the maitre d’ slices it on a rolling chopping block in front of you.

Prime rib

Prime rib

I think I was the only one who noticed that the maitre d’s jacket kept brushing up against the meat.  Yuck.

I was hoping that Riva would redeem themselves with dessert, but they loved letting me down that night.  I was so excited to try their Tiramisu, but I was told that they were out.  How can you be out of a dessert option?  That’s crazy.  The others got carrot cake and gelati.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake

Carrot cake with pineapple sorbet.

Gelati & sorbetti

Gelati & sorbetti

Butterscotch gelati and peach sorbetti.

I was so let down by this point that I didn’t even have the motivation to try these desserts.

Despite my excitement about trying this restaurant,  I didn’t have a good dining experience at Riva.  I was thoroughly disappointed with the quality of the food, the poor service, and the low caliber of the staff.  For $90 a person, I think it’s fair to expect a certain level of service and food.

The best thing about my dinner was the wine.  We had a wonderful 2005 Capezzana, Barco Reale di Carmignano.

Riva is supposed to be strong on their crudo dishes and pizza.  My advice for you- go to Japanese sushi restaurants for good raw fish, and Terroni or Pizzeria Mozza for better pizza.  If you’re looking for a good dining experience in Santa Monica, take your loved ones to Anisette.  And if you’re still keen on trying Travi’s food, stick to Fraiche.

http://www.rivarestaurantla.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that Oscar Best Actress winner Halle Berry ate raw fish so she could throw up on cue and look authentic doing it while filming the movie ‘Perfect Stranger’?  Now that’s dedication to your art, girl.