A private dinner at Wolvesden, Los Angeles

Wispy black clouds draw its shady curtains over the silver moon.  A lonely wind drags a broken beer bottle through the vacant streets of industrial downtown LA, its hollow echo resonating and disappearing into the urban abyss.  A howl echoes in the distance.  A macabre panorama on this frigid evening brings hungry pack mates together for a feast at the Wolvesden, a secret supper club revealed only to those who dare to step in.  The pack has convened at the den for a private dinner organized by the evening’s host and alpha male, Chuckeats.  It is a special occasion slightly different from the usual workings of the Wolvesden, where lucky strangers from a year long waiting list are brought together for one of Chef Craig Thornton’s dinners at his downtown loft.

It takes days for Thornton to prepare for these feasts, foraging the vast flat plains of Los Angeles for seasonal ingredients and hunting, patiently, for the ultimate fresh catch.  He works alone, diligently, wisely- taking no sous chefs nor brick and mortars that would constrain his independence- a lone wolf whose culinary creations are as wild and raw as his nature.  Live Santa Barbara spot prawns and fresh scallops large enough to eclipse the moon adorn the countertop of Thornton’s kitchen, ready for a sacrificial offering for the pack members who, one by one, gather around the fire on the stove top with bottles of wine and voracious appetites in tow.  The pups and vixens slowly circle the kitchen, admiring the hunt, panting breaths clouding the air, lips curled back to reveal their teeth and paws trembling with excitement as they hold back their instincts to pounce on their prey.

Thornton gives the signal and the sacrificial ritual begins.  For this special evening he has specifically hunted for impregnated female spot prawns, all the better to appease the  predators who have come for the Wolvesden festivities.  The prawns scurry across the hotel pans, making tiny scratching noises with their spiny little feet in a desperate attempt to escape their fate.  Their thin whiskers sway left and right, their black beaded eyes without expression.

One by one we take our turn at the cutting board to sink the knife into the occiput of the crustaceans, killing them as humanely as possible in one precise swift blow.  ‘Let me, let me!’ we all cry, amidst a crescendo of excitement, as we each experience the satisfaction of the catch and the kill.  The strike of the knife, a gush of green liquid, and soon we have a tray of butterflied prawns engorged with bright orange eggs and vivid green tomalley.  They are flash baked in the oven with a sprinkle of sea salt, just enough to sweeten the flesh and concentrate the bitterness of the innards.  After a twist of lime and a dash of coffee powder, we simultaneously rip the flesh out of the shells and sink our teeth into this delicious first course to start the feast.

Thornton pries open the live scallops, removing the white adductor muscles and slicing them horizontally in half.  The motion is so quick that the scallops don’t even realize that they have been severed- they are still fasciculating, twitching and undulating like calm ocean waves, unperturbed.  Wedges of frozen and fresh Oro Blanco draw out the sweetness of the scallops with a splash of white soy, black sesame and chili for extra flavor.

Tortilla is used unconventionally as a purée in a deconstructed fish taco dish, smeared across the plate as a background accent to complement the vivid hues and bright flavors of lime, avocado, cilantro and pickled red onions in the black sea bass dish.

Thornton is a master of uni, at times juxtaposing its sweet butteriness against the crisp bitterness of celery, and in other dinners immersing it in the brininess of black squid ink for a deep ocean adventure.  Here he balances sweet and bitter for the slick little orange sea urchin that are plated with intensely sugary beets- dehydrated yellow beets sliced thin like fruit leather and salt roasted red baby beets- green tea shortbread crumbs, pea shoots, nasturtium and a splash of yuzu kosho vinaigrette.

A whole filet of John Dory is gutted with Thornton’s razor sharp knives, stuffed with thyme and citrus wedges and slathered, quite liberally, with butter.  Into the oven it goes, this glorious specimen of succulent fish, as the butter infuses into the flesh and fine beads of sweat form on the surface of the skin.

In one swift move the chef skins the fish and divides the flesh into equal pieces for each hungry member of the clan.  Razor thin celery slices impart just enough bitterness to temper the buttery clam juice broth that the meaty clams and Asian pears have soaked up.

This time a sputtering of melting fat on the hot skillet draws the pack to the kitchen- it is time for the meat courses, and Thornton is preparing what wolves love best- offals.  The smell of meat drives the wild pack into sympathetic overdrive- we whine, we yelp, we sniff and we bark as we impatiently wait for that golden crust to form on the sweetbreads.  The meaty nuggets are presented as an open faced sandwich on fried green tomatoes with raw cheddar cheese, crème fraîche, chives and a trio of peppers-cayenne, pimento and piquillo.

A refreshing palate cleanser made with freeze dried blueberries, verjus and mandarins tames the excited pack into submission for a quick break before more meat appears on the dining table.

Thornton has broken down a whole wild pheasant earlier that evening- oh how we would have loved to hunt and kill that bird ourselves, the pups secretly think, their tails wagging at the thought of such an adventure.  The roasted bird is tossed in a parmesan hazelnut rosemary cream sauce that lovingly clings to the fresh pappardelle, a little too salty for many but the crispy skin cracklings loved by all.

For the final savory course Thornton pulls out a loaf of 48 day aged beef from the oven, slicing them in perfect little medium-rare pink toasts that he plates with watermelon radish, chives, dill, and sautéed wild mushrooms- yellow foots and black trumpets.  The vixens watch from a distance, leaned back in crouched positions, ready for the ambush, while the impatient pups trot and pace around the kitchen, salivating at the veal tongue and pork cheek pelmenis (dumplings) which, once served, swiftly disappear between their sharp incisors.

Dessert begins with a playful tribute to the Whopper, Thornton’s nod to our dinner host Chuck who, despite his reputation for having a refined palate for the finer things in life, is quite the closet junk food addict.  A steel spoon delivers a swift blow to the chocolate capsule, causing it to crack and massively hemorrhage a miso and malt liquid.  It bleeds briskly like an aneurysm into the fluffy carpet of salted Valrhona chocolate purée (mixed with homemade tofu for that light airiness- how brilliant) and gets soaked up by the roasted barley malt cake, a satisfying and delicious interpretation of America’s finest snack.

Thornton hones in on sweet nostalgia with an unmistakable flavor that makes us smile.  He has turned cereal milk, those last few remaining spoonfuls and satisfying gulps of sweetened milk at the bottom of the breakfast bowl, into an ice cream with chewy nuggets of rice krispies and sliced bananas.

The feeding frenzy ends on a sweet and playful note as the wolves rub their muzzles on their napkins and lick their chops.  It was quite a feast, beginning with an interactive catch and kill that instantly awakened the ravenous nature of the pack and whetted rapacious appetites.  There was a lot of meat- too much for even these wild animals to clean up, an issue of portion control that Thornton is aware of (‘I don’t want anybody to leave hungry, and I just get too excited about the food!’) but the smells, the sights and the tastes kept us curious and amazed from course to course.  There is something really special about this chef, who is immensely passionate about what he does, yet is as humble, unassuming and generous as they get in this industry.

At the end of the evening we salute this wonderful chef, rolling to the floor on our backs in a food coma, satiated bellies facing up in the ultimate sign of respect and submission.  Thornton responds to this gesture by removing his hat, revealing his wild long mane that he thrashes back and forth- a true pack leader, a majestic wolf.  The pack howls in unison.

A dinner at the Wolvesden is a special treat, and a private dinner with friends makes for an even better experience.  Book your feast with this talented chef and get ready to Strike. Tear. Chew.                                                                                                                     ……at the Wolvesden

Random trivia: Did you know that scallops have up to 100 simple eyes around the edges of their mantles?

Advertisements

LQ@SK- Los Angeles

An f-bomb bellowing lad in a yellow banana suit hardly seems like a fitting partner for a classically trained French chef, but when the stars aligned for the unlikely duo that is Starry Kitchen’s Nguyen Tran and Chef Laurent Quenioux, a delicious culinary project was born.  Los Angeles diners were saddened with the news of Quenioux’s Bistro LQ closing earlier this year, one of the few restaurants in the city that offered a wonderfully stocked cheese cart and a vivid menu of non-traditional fare like calves’ tongue, duck neck and goat tripe, proteins perhaps too adventurous and ambitious for the local audience. While Quenioux has since kept busy in the kitchens of Vertical Wine Bistro as Executive Chef, his enthusiasm and creativity needed an extra outlet, and a pop-up project called LQ@SK (Laurent Quenioux at Starry Kitchen) was born.

What started out as an underground food operation out of Nguyen and Thi Tran’s apartment has now become a famous joint called Starry Kitchen where downtowners nosh on lemongrass chicken bánh mì and crispy green tofu balls for lunch, and spicy Korean black pork belly for dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings.  Starry Kitchen has a loyal following, a spacious dining room, an energetic staff, a large kitchen, an available venue for dinners most nights of the week, and a signature mascot/owner whose banana suit has become just as famous as his radiant smile and dirty mouth- it’s a near perfect location for a pop-up.  Near perfect, that is, as there is no gas stove- only an induction cooker that may scare off most chefs, but not our French renegade whose LQ@SK ‘Fooding Around in LA’ pop-up dinner shows no sign of such kitchen shortcomings in his dynamic food. The first successful run of LQ@SK last month showcased delectable whimsies of global delicacies like escamoles tacos and teriyaki rabbit albondigas. This year, he started his tasting menu with another Mexican delicacy in his amuse bouche, huitlacoche.

Amuse  – Little neck clam, huitlacoche, epazote, sauerkraut sushi

Poached and chopped little neck clams were neatly tucked into a bite sized sushi with huitlacoche, sauerkraut and epazote flavoring for a light and crunchy amuse.  The earthy seduction of huitlacoche, dark maize fungus also known as corn smut (and raven’s excrement in Nahuatl), came through very slowly through each successive bite.

Warm veal feet, “ravigote”, anchovy, piquillo varnish, “gargouillou” of summer vegetables

One of my favorite courses of the evening was the warm veal feet, a delightfully gelatinous and tender serving of buttery meat, classically paired with an acidic ravigote sauce and an anchovy fillet that added a whole new dimension of flavors to the dish.  That alone would have sufficed to make for a satisfying course, but the addition of bright orange piquillo varnish with an assortment of summer vegetables (cucumber, tomato, radish, carrot and beets) transformed each bite into a memorable marriage of bright festive flavors.

Scallops 2 Ways, (tartar and sautéed), beet ribbons, zucchini smear, vermouth demi glace

Minced scallops perfumed with yuzu and a sprig of dill glided across a carpet of red and yellow beet sauce while a meaty scallop, perfectly pan seared to exquisite tenderness, soaked up the flavorful juices of the vermouth demi glace and zucchini smear.

Lemongrass galanga Consommé, Sautéed Foie Gras, Dungeness crab, roasted nectarine

The other memorable success of the evening was the Dungeness crab and roasted nectarine dish, not only for the complex flavors and light seductive aromas of the beautifully done broth, but for the surprising fact that the foie gras, which would normally take center stage, was outshined by the summer nectarines.  The foie was transformed into a docile and subtle accent under the sweet spell of the fruits and soup, making for an unexpectedly light dish that was easy to eat and enjoy.

Lamb loin, lamb kidney, lamb sweetbreads, chipotle, sweet peas

The lamb trio, reminiscent of Chef Quenioux’s Bistro LQ days, presented a trio of lamb loin with peas and tarragon, lamb kidney with a spicy chipotle sauce and lamb sweetbreads with Meyer lemon and thyme. Each told a completely different story, and the one that lured me in the strongest with its unique texture and lingering spiciness was the lamb kidney with chipotle.

Pandan pana cotta, grenadine, prickly pears, cherry apricot sorbet

Colorful Crayola hues and playful contemporary plating popped against the white background, each component with a strong personality that delighted my palate.   Bright magenta prickly pear smear, grenadine Thai basil seeds with a quiet crunch and a quenelle of cherry apricot sorbet were fun components to this dessert plate, but the Kaffir lime and pandan panna cotta, with an unusual lime green color, was the most memorable, for it lingered for almost half an hour on my palate.

Techno music, friendly staff and a laid back vibe created an atmosphere that made it seem like a casual gathering of friends more than a restaurant pop-up, a refreshing experience in this phase of LA dining where guest chef stints and pop-ups are becoming all too common.  $45 for 5 solid delicious courses was also appealing, reminding me that great food and a fun dining experience can still be had for an affordable price and not exclude budget conscious diners.  This second round of LQ@SK will only be around for a few more weeks, and we can only hope that there will be more to come.

*August 7th at 7pm, LQ@SK will be doing a special 1 night-only dinner event for LA Gastronauts. Fancy some duck hearts, bear tenderloin, cockscombs, sea cucumbers and…..beaver? Sign up for this unique dining experience before it sells out!

LQ@SK

Starry Kitchen                                                                                                                 350 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90071                                                                                                   (213) 617-3474

Random trivia:  Did you know that epazote, a pungent Mexican herb, is frequently used to season beans as it is believed to help relieve abdominal discomfort and gassiness from eating beans?

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.