Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar- Vancouver, BC Canada

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” the famous saying goes, conveying the notion that visitors should respect and understand other cultures by following local customs and traditions, but when I travel, my motto is “When in Rome, eat as the Romans do.”  One of the best ways to enjoy travel is to indulge in local delicacies, regional specialties and seasonal foods- a trip to Japan is not complete without sushi, a stroll through Paris is meaningless without freshly baked buttery breads, Italy is not the same without a real homemade pasta dish, and delectable tapas washed down with vino tinto is a must in Spain.  On a recent trip to Vancouver in June, I was determined to have BC (British Columbia) spot prawns, which were at the peak of their harvest season, not to mention Canadian salmon, fresh oysters and other locally caught seafood.

There are many seafood establishments in Vancouver, given its obvious geographical location, but we opted for a casual night out at Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar in the trendy neighborhood of Yaletown.  Blue Water Cafe is housed in an old warehouse with red brick and wooden beam construction on Hamilton Street, a brick-paved sidewalk lined with hip boutiques, galleries and restaurants in what used to be Vancouver’s garment district.  Heading the kitchens of Blue Water cafe since 2003 is Executive Chef Frank Pabst, who has trained at Michelin-star rated restaurants in Germany and France, and sushi master Yoshi Tabo who tends to the raw bar.  Together they serve exceptional fresh seafood fare using wild and sustainable harvest seafood at this restaurant that is noted for being a founding member of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program.

Fresh seafood is the clear attraction in this beautiful restaurant where diners come for the casual atmosphere and exceptional service in the large dining room decked out in rustic maritime decor.  Many were indulging in the Blue Water Cafe Seafood Tower, a three-tiered ocean extravaganza with oysters, prawns, tuna, clams, mussels, ceviche, smoked salmon, lobster and sushi rolls, paired with local BC Rieslings and Chardonnays, while others snuggled up to the sushi bar for sashimi and rolls.  We were lucky enough to snag the last serving of fresh BC spot prawns, served raw with soy sauce and wasabi.  These local crustaceans were saturated with sweetness and so plump that they had a nice sharp crunch on the bite.

My favorite way to enjoy prawn heads is a simple deep fry with a generous squeeze of citrus.  These BC spot prawns, which were swimming around in the tank until the minute before preparation, were some of the best that I’ve ever had, full of savory green tomalley and bright orange eggs that imparted an indescribable umami to each bite.  BC spot prawn harvest season begins in May and only lasts for 8 weeks, so we were extremely lucky in timing our trip to overlap with this season.  We missed the annual BC spot prawn festival which is held at False Creek Fisherman’s Wharf, and didn’t get to sample all of the spot prawn specialty dishes at famed local restaurants like Vij’s and C Restaurant, but this simple raw preparation of fresh prawns at Blue Water Cafe was enough to satisfy my cravings.

I was ecstatic to see a whole page dedicated to oysters on their menu, with selections heavily weighted on local BC bivalves and a few from Washington state and the East Coast.  Of course, we ordered a BC platter, starting with the small plump Kusshi oysters from Cortes Island with a smooth and soft buttery texture.  Going from smallest to largest, the next were the Black Pearls from Quadra Island with a light and refreshing lettuce finish.  The Effingham Inlets from Barkley Sound, plump oysters in long blond shells, had a stronger flavor with a briny finish.  Beach Angels from Read Island were my favorite with its plump fatty flesh and pleasant briny finish.  Marina’s Top Drawer from Cortes Island had a flatter shallow shell with sweet fruity flesh while Fanny Bays from Nanaimo Bay, usually my favorite type of oyster, had a disappointingly muddy taste.

Dungeness crab salad, shrimp cocktail, baked scallops, or smoked sockeye salmon terrine?  All of the seafood appetizers sounded wonderful, but we went with the Albacore tuna carpaccio, a spice crusted thinly sliced delicately flavored carpaccio presented as a Niçoise salad.  Sweet smokey roasted red peppers, crunchy haricot verts, sliced eggs, crunchy cucumbers, tart radish slices, salty kalamata olives and microgreens all dressed in a wonderful anchovy vinaigrette were the perfect complement to the locally caught white tuna.

All of their seafood entrees sounded divine, like the white sturgeon with chioggia beets, miso sake glazed sablefish and Arctic char with braised leeks and fennel.  Our server was enthusiastic about the special of the day, grilled wild salmon with romesco sauce and broccolini served on a bed of basmati rice, chorizo, squid and shellfish beurre blanc saffron sauce, and so were we.  There’s really nothing better than locally caught wild proteins prepared with simple ingredients that enhance their natural inherent flavors.

A trio of sorbets- an incredibly tart cassis, a sweet guava and a creamy banana- garnished with berries and sliced star fruit ended our wonderful seafood dinner at Bluewater Cafe.

There are an infinite number of seafood establishments in Vancouver that offer the local ocean’s bounty, from oyster shacks and Chinese dim sum carts, to sushi bars and harbor view fine dining restaurants.  With seafood so fresh and flavorful, you almost can’t go wrong at any seafood joint, but the Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar is a true gem where you can savor both Western and Eastern preparations of fish, crustaceans and bivalves in one sitting.  A leisurely after-dinner stroll along the brick-paved streets of Yaletown for people watching and window shopping is the perfect way to walk off a full and content belly.

Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar

1095 Hamilton Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 5T4, Canada
(604) 688-8078

Random trivia: Did you know that spot prawns are protandric hermaphrodites, born as and spending their first 2-3 years of life as males, then changing into females to lay eggs at the end of their life cycle?

La Guerrerense- Ensenada, Mexico

The last time that I crossed the border down to Baja California was back in 1997 when a group of us piled into a pick up truck with sleeping bags and bathing suits for a week long vacation.  There were 8 of us, adventurous and reckless hippie students, who made the long trek through the chaotic streets of Tijuana, along the beaches of Rosarito, past the town of Ensenada and through the barren Dr. Seuss deserts of Baja Norte until we parked our vehicle at Mulege.  From there, we loaded up sea kayaks with a week’s worth of food and water along with a tortilla press that we borrowed from a local fish taco stand, and paddled off into the Sea of Cortez for an island hopping adventure.  Our daily proteins had to be hunted and scavenged; the men went line and spear fishing while I skin dived with a hunting knife in hand for mussels and clams.  The Sea of Cortez was rich with fresh and tasty offerings, and we ate like kings and queens.  We honored the food that was given to us by the spirits of Baja and we never took more than what was necessary.  We slept on the beach under the shooting stars,  took midnight dips in the warm bioluminescent waters and kayaked in tranquil waters alongside pods of dolphins that numbered in the 300′s.  Baja California is and will always be a special and magical place for me where I felt at one with the energy of the land and the sea.

When my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA invited me to join him for a weekend culinary Baja trip, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  A chance to revisit my long lost love, Baja California?  Tears almost welled up in my eyes as I flashed back to how peaceful and happy I felt on my 2 previous sea kayaking trips to Baja.  But Bill’s itinerary wasn’t bound for the Bay of Concepción- it was for Tijuana and Ensenada.  The crazy city where college kids party at Senor Frog’s?  I cringed for a split second, but by this time I knew Bill well enough to completely trust that he had something special up his sleeves.  With Chef John Rivera Sedlar, food writer Barbara Hansen, and gourmand Brian Saltsburg in tow, we crossed the border down to Mexico for what would end up being an unforgettable weekend.

Bill knows these cities like the back of his hand, and he knows all of the chefs and owners like his family.  One of the most memorable stops that we made was on the street corner of First and Alvarado in Ensenada, a small unassuming food cart under the watchful eye of the majestic flag of Mexico.  At this cebicheria called La Guerrerense, matriarch Sabina Bandera Gonzalez whips out the most mindblowingly scrumptious seafood tostadas to a never ceasing crowd of locals and tourists.

Crunchy tostadas are made with a variety of fresh ocean delights, from fish, shrimp and octopus to clams, abalone and even sea cucumbers.  Due to the ocean-to-cart concept of this wonderful tostada cart which is famed for being Chef Benito Molina’s favorite lunch spot, there may be days when they’re out of certain products.  Much to my dismay they were out of sea cucumbers, pata de mula black clams and abalone which are some of my most favorite foods, but I was quickly distracted with Sabina’s first offering, a rich and flavorful bacalao lincod tostada teeming with earthy chili aromas and a spike of green olive saltiness.

The flat tortillas were light and crunchy, but sturdy enough to withstand falling apart to my big bites, allowing for smooth and mess-less eats.  Within seconds the bacalao tostada was in my happy belly and I contemplated my next move, to which Sabina handed me an erizo sea urchin tostada with a wise and knowing nod.  I quickly pounced on it and was surprised by the first bite.

I was expecting a mild buttery uni but La Guerrerense’s version had an overpowering salty flavor like conserved uni, leaving me a bit confused- only then did I realize that I had pulled a rookie move by biting into this tostada right away before Sabina could finish garnishing it.  I thought she would give me an ‘Ay, hija…’ look, but instead she responded with a loving smile before topping it off with succulent chunks of freshly shucked almejas pismo clams, slices of avocado and a few splashes of hot sauce.  This was when I had an epiphany about life, similar to the one that I had many years ago when I was knee deep in the Sea of Cortez on a deserted island with a net full of fresh mussels, salt crusted hair blowing in the hot wind as I engaged in a distant tête-à-tête with a curious sea lion. The tender and sweet clams engaged in a joyous dance with the brininess of the sea urchin and the silky textures of the buttery avocado, awakening my taste buds to the bountiful harvests of the local waters.

Thick slices of freshly prepared caracoles, sea snails, had a splendid meaty flavor with the texture of steamed abalone.

I couldn’t get enough of the almejas, pismo clams, that came with my sea urchin tostada, and I asked for a whole plate.  Even then, I wanted more of this heavenly clam that tasted even more fresh with a squirt of lime juice, a pinch of sea salt and a tinge of hot sauce.  The flesh had a nice subtle crunch like a geoduck clam, but was tender on the bite like a scallop.

We got to meet Sabina’s daughter Mariana, the master shucker and cocktailer who prepared all of the fresh clams for us.  With the precision, grace and confidence that Mariana worked with, you would think that this was her full time job, but she’s actually a full fledged PhD at UCSD who comes down on the weekends to help with the family business.

Another round of chopped pismo clams came on the shell with a half serving with avocado and salt and the other with lime and hot sauce.  Clams this fresh with the smell of cucumber and lettuce just can’t be found in California, even with expert handling, refrigeration and speedy transportation.  That’s the beauty of La Guerrerense- it’s an exceptional place that offers exclusive delicacies native to the region, and these discerning locals who run it really understand the food.  You will never find this type of seafood stall anywhere else in the world.  This is pura Baja.

We finished off our inspirational meal with a tostada of pate de pescado, smoked tuna fish pate, that paired magnificently with the house made pineapple salsa.

Many Mexican food trucks in Los Angeles will offer a salsa verde and salsa roja in addition to the bottled hot sauce staples like Tapatio and Cholula, but down on the coast of Baja, you’ll find homemade salsas of all colors and types.  Even then, it’ll be hard to top the impressive collection at La Guerrerense where Sabina and Mariana line the counter with endless jars of their original creations.  Each salsa has a unique name like ‘Beso de Angel’, ‘Chilito Exotico’, ‘Pepino Endiablado’ and ‘Chilito la Guerita’ which reflects its concept and flavor.  I was blown away by the ‘Chilito Exotico’, a pineapple based salsa with Japanese takanotsume pico de pajaro chiles.  The earthy and smokey aromas of the ‘Chilitos de Mi Jardin’ made with dried chiles, garlic, almonds and peanuts was too phenomenal for words.  I bought a jar of each of these favorite salsas to take home with me, and I savor every spoonful like liquid gold.

When I found out that Sabina had been operating this street cart in the same location for more than 30 years, I almost fainted- oh, if I only knew about this little treasure on my previous trips to Baja.  How my life would be different now- perhaps for better, perhaps for worse.  Had La Guerrerense been on my radar back then, I may never have made it past the stand to make the virgin passage down to Bahia de Concepción where I bathed my body in the sacred waters of the Sea of Cortez.  I may never have had the opportunity to study and understand the mystical properties of the Baja waters had I not fished its treasures with my bare hands and nourished my body with its salt.  There is a reason for everything that happens, and thankfully I’m now at a place in my life where I can appreciate the true magic of La Guerrerense.  Unfortunately, I’m presently also at a place that’s not close enough to La Guerrerense.

La Guerrerense is open every day from 10am to 5pm, except Tuesdays

La Guerrerense
Corner of 1st and Alvarado
Zona Centro, Ensenada
Baja California, Mexico

If you’re a fan of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, you may have watched the recent Baja episode.  Recognize the guy chomping on the tostada in the photo above?  That’s Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA, my trusted culinary Baja guide who not only guided Andrew Zimmern through the episode, but scouted out and chose the locations for the shoot.  You’ll be seeing posts on my blog about some of the same locations that were on the show.  If you didn’t get a chance to catch the episode last night, you can watch reruns or check out the Bizarre Foods website for more information.

Random trivia:  Did you know that the succulent orange flesh of sea urchins that we enjoy as buttery delicacies are technically the gonads?

Providence

Providence restaurant on Melrose Avenue, headed by Executive Chef Michael Cimarusti, needs little introduction.  Cimarusti opened this restaurant after mastering the art of seafood cuisine at the Water Grill in downtown LA.  With 2 Michelin stars under its belt and a good fight by Chef Cimarusti on Top Chef Masters, this restaurant is already a legend in the US.  Specializing in seafood and consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in Los Angeles for food and service, my recent dinner experience here at Providence did not disappoint.  The white porcelain barnacles that decorate the walls of the dimly lit dining room climb all the way up to the high ceilings, giving diners the illusion of being small fish submerged in the depths of the Pacific Ocean.

As I sipped on my excellent Dorian Gray cocktail with campari and rosemary, I looked around the dining room and immediately noticed how the heirarchy and craft of each staff was reflected in their uniform. The last time I saw this type of formal distinction was at Le Meurice in Paris.  I don’t know what it is, but dining in a restaurant where there is such formality and tradition makes me feel safe and secure.  It gives me the comfort of knowing that everything will be perfect and that I am in good hands.

Looking through their market menu, I was ecstatic to find my cousin’s wine.  It’s quite rare to find it in wine stores in LA let alone restaurants.  Even though I was drinking the same bottle for free just a few months ago when I visited my cousin in Burgundy, I didn’t hesitate to dish out the big bucks to order this wine for my tasting menu dinner.  The Simon Bize Bourgogne Blanc 2007 ‘Les Perrières’ was an excellent pairing with our special seafood dinner.

The amuse bouche was a playful tribute to 3 classic cocktails in molecular gastronomy style.  The greyhound, one of my all time favorite cocktails, was a vodka and pink grapefruit sphere with a soft gelatinous membrane that burst splendidly inside my mouth.  The gin and tonic jelly, with a fresh twist of lime juice, was refreshing and amazing.  With a crunchy sugar layer on top and a soft gelatinous texture inside, this made for a really fun amuse.  The mojito sphere was my favorite, having a silky and smooth consistency.  Que rico!

Our next plate had a lot going on.  The house cured Tasmanian sea trout with shimeji mushrooms, ginger crème fraîche and crispy rice crackers was an absolutely divine play of wonderful textures and flavors, and one of my favorite dishes.  The sea trout was smoked to perfection and and the crème fraîche had the perfect amount of subtle ginger zing to bring out the fatty and sweet flavors of the fish.  The hint of toasted rice aroma that infused my nasal passages when I crunched down on the rice crackers added another level of enjoyment to this bite.  The soy marshmallow cube with wasabi pea crust had a soft, almost liquidy texture that was amazing.  The mini grujere, a type of French cheese bread, was delightful.  Warm, soft, airy and succulent…being served only 1 of these tiny grujeres was the ultimate tease.  The carrot soup with crème fraîche was smooth and creamy, and had a nice subtle vadouvan kick.

The Santa Barbara sea urchin with toasted sesame seeds, avocado, rice chip, crème fraîche and caviar was insane (everything here at Providence was so good that I’m running out of adjectives already). Fresh buttery sea urchin with caviar is a combination that is almost fail proof, but Chef Cimarusti took that to a whole new level.  The avocado added more buttery texture, the crème fraîche added more creaminess, and the rice crisp imparted a light and pleasant texture to the dish.  The only complaint I had about this amazing dish was that the toasted sesame seeds overwhelmed the pure essence of the uni, and should be taken out.

Kanpachi with shaved white truffles and deep fried soba/buckwheat was excellent.  The crispy texture of the soba was fantastic with the tender cuts of fresh kanpachi sashimi, all bound together with a nice creamy viniagrette.  I was sad that the white truffles shavings were weak in aroma and flavor.  White truffles normally make my heart dance and flutter, but these were severely lacking in potency.

The other star player of the evening was the Santa Barbara spot prawn dish in salt crust and rosemary, prepared and served tableside.  As soon as they wheeled the cart into the main dining room, the wonderful aroma of prawns filled the air and everybody looked over in awe. With the speed and calmness of a Shaolin master and the precision of a neurosurgeon, our veteraned server prepared these prawns so quickly that his hands and forks look like squiggly lines in my photo.  The whole process was a demonstration of supreme craft and skill, and I had front row VIP tickets to this amazing show.  The prawns were dressed with cold pressed Arnaud olive oil and ready for eating within minutes.  The succulent sweet flesh paired with the intense flavor of the prawn eggs and innards was simply astonishing.  This was my favorite and most memorable dish of the evening- and how ironic, given that it was only prepared with salt, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.  Simple IS best when using fresh ingredients.

The next dish of eel and foie gras with bermuda onion, soba, frisée and thin white truffle slices with vinegar sauce and parsley dots was confusing.  I had an eel and foie gras dish at Bistro LQ not too long ago that left me equally puzzled.  I love eel and boy do I love foie gras.  But I feel like these 2 proteins compete against each other rather than complement each other, and I’m still finding it difficult to accept this combination.  Otherwise, the sauces and other components of this dish were flawless.

Salmon belly with matsutake mushrooms was quite sensational.  This dish showcased 3 ways to enjoy this highly prized fungus- raw thin slices, large braised chunks, and an intensely rich and flavorful sauce.  I was surprised to see matsutake prepared with salmon- matsutake is a delicate fungus that is normally paired with a lighter white fish that doesn’t dominate its presence.  Salmon has such a distinct flavor, presence and fattiness that would normally overshadow matsutake, but Cimarusti knew exactly what he was doing.  I could tell that he really understood ‘his Holiness the Matsutake’- by preparing it 3 ways, he pulled out its aroma and essence to a maximum to make it all about the matsutake.  The wonderfully tender and fresh salmon was just there to make sure that the mushroom really shined on stage.

French turbot with tomatoes, cauliflower (chunks and purée) and panisse with basil sauce was Chef Cimarusti’s final bow to the seafood portion of the tasting menu.  The fish was tender, buttery and remarkable.  Whenever I dine at a restaurant, I always get a meat dish- not only because I love a good cut of red meat, but also because I’ve never been excited with cooked fish dishes.  It’s very rare for me to be impressed and happy with cooked fish, as I often find it either overcooked or boring.  Not so here at Providence, where almost every dish was a sensation and an absolute joy.  Dining at Providence almost made me wonder why one would ever eat meat at all- okay, that’s taking it a bit too far now.  Bravo to Chef Cimarusti, who obviously loves and understands the precious creatures of the ocean.

And what’s a meal without a cheese cart?  Providence offered a really fine selection of cheeses, from my favorite stinky Epoisse to the robust Robluchon, an aromatic truffled cheese to a soft ashed goat cheese.

Apples, figs, candied walnuts and a wonderful apricot, black pepper and Riesling jam accompanied our superb cheese dish.  Sommelier Drew Langley chose 2 divine ports for us to enjoy with our cheeses that transported me to heaven.  The 1998 Graham’s vintage port Quinta dos Malvedos, was full of sultry richness and smooth texture.  What really hit the spot for me was the 30 year Taylor Fladgate Tawny Port.  Smooth and sweet like honey with a sophisticated boldness, this was one of the best ports that I’ve ever tasted.

And now it was time to enjoy pastry chef Adrian Vasquez’s sweet delights.  Melon soup with mint granité, blackberry gelée, vanilla ice cream and fresh blackberries was a cool and refreshing way to start the dessert course.  The soup tasted like sweet exquisite Japanese melon from Senbikiya, and was without a doubt the winning dessert of the evening.

The deconstructed banana cream pie with graham crackers was interesting.  Although it wasn’t my favorite dessert dish, I appreciated the playfulness of this dish.

Pineapple mousse on a pineapple sheet with horchata gelato, goat’s milk caramel dulce de leche, guava pate de fruits and a rice cracker was a sensational play of varying textures and sweetness.

We also had 2 other dessert dishes that I unfortunately forgot to photograph.  As you can imagine, I was a bit distracted with the feast.  A coffee mousse with chicory caramel ice cream and roasted hazelnuts tasted like really good tiramisu.  A chocolate peanut butter ganache with Chambly Noire ice cream and chocolate covered pretzels wasn’t so successful.  The ice cream, made with a black Belgian ale, sounded better than it tasted.

As if the tasting menu wasn’t satisfying enough, we were gifted with a lovely box of chocolates all handmade by pastry chef Vasquez.  The beautiful chocolates came in a sleek black Providence box with a magnet flap closure that I plan to use as a jewelry box after I’ve devoured all of the delicious chocolates.

Is Providence worthy of 2 Michelin stars?  Absolutely.  Fresh quality seafood executed with innovative concepts and astounding flavors, coupled with impeccable service make for a high class establishment.  In this LA environment where a ‘celebrity chef’ or reality TV hotshot seems to be opening up a new restaurant every month,  it’s comforting to know that I can get unpretentious service in this classic longstanding restaurant.  There is absolutely no attitude here- only warm hospitality and excellent food.  Come to Providence to experience true fine dining in its purest form.

Providence

5955 Melrose Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90038

(323) 460- 4170

Random trivia: Did you know that turbot, along with flounder, halibut and sole, is a type of flatfish that has both eyes on the same side of their head?  They are all born looking like normal fish, but after a few weeks one eye migrates to the other side, one side of their body turns white and the other dark, and their body flattens out.  Turbot is a ‘left-eyed’ flatfish whereas halibut, sole and flounder are ‘right-eyed’.

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.

Crawfish

A couple of weeks ago I went to The Boiling Crab in Little Saigon for a crawfish fix.  I’m not that into crawfish, but I thought why not?  It seems to be a popular joint down there.  And I love crustaceans.

The restaurant is a typical crawfish-ish joint, if that makes any sense.  Hay and sawdust on the floor, loud rock music, big screen TV’s playing football, predictable “Gone Fishing” type wooden painted signs on the walls, big barrels posing as bar tables, customers wearing plastic bibs, petite waitresses wearing tight logo T-shirts.  You get the picture?  The only weird thing was that this was in a small stripmall in Little Saigon tucked between a Vietnamese DVD store and a banh cuon joint; oh, and all the customers were Asian.

Well, I got my bib on, toasted with a bottle of Corona, and ordered the house specialty.  Crawfish here is ordered by the pound, and you can choose between several seasonings (garlic butter, ragin’ cajun, lemon pepper, or the whole sha-bang, which is a combo of the 3 flavors).  You can also order shrimp, catfish, crab legs, and hot wings by the pound with these seasonings.  You also order sides (we ordered corn and smoked sausage) which they put all together inside a plastic bag and steam.  This place is not fancy and not the kind  of place you go for a first date.  Unless you want to see how well your date can suck.  On a crawfish head, that is.  Actually, may make for an interesting first date.  Ahhh…takes me back to college when some guy took me out on a first date to a rib joint.  I was more interested in gnawing and tearing every last bit of meat and connective tissue off each luscious piece of baby back rib on my plate than in my date.  There was no second date.

Our spread:

Oysters and crawfish with Corona

Oysters and crawfish with Corona

The oysters were pretty good.  My tastebuds have been spoiled on Hama Hama’s and Malpeques, so these weren’t mind blowing for me.  We quickly dove into the whole sha-bang seasoned crawfish.  You hold the abdomen (what people generally refer to as the tail of the shrimp or crawfish, is actually the abdomen), then gently and carefully twist the head off.  Then the most crucial part of the process- you suck on the head to get all the good parts out- the ‘tamale’, the guts, the liver, the innards, the organs.  Yes, this is truly the best part of all crustaceans, don’t you think?  Or is it just me?  I could care less about the meat.  And you suck and you suck until you have extracted every little last tasty particle of innards, and the head exoskeleton is collapsing inward.  Then you peel the abdomen, eat the white meat, chase it with some beer, and repeat the process.

The crawfish were delightful, and it was actually really fun to get my hands dirty.  There’s something carnal and sexy about eating with your hands and slurping away. And feeding each other with crawfish juice dripping down your fingers and mouth.  Mmmmmmm……check please!

Crawfish aftermath

Crawfish aftermath

The whole process was fun, and the crawfish were good, but honestly, after my 10th one, I started having heartburn.  Too much heavy seasoning.  I was starting to feel so ill that I began losing suction.  But we still managed to finish everything, and it called for a group hug:

Group hug

Group hug

So many good crawfish, but the finalists for Best in Show are….

Take a bow

Take a bow

This is a good place to go with a bunch of friends, so you can sample a little bit of everything without getting too much heartburn.  A couple of doors down they have a Boiling Crab take out restaurant for those who want to eat at home.  I think I’m good with crawfish for a while.  It was good, but for crustaceans I prefer Japanese sweet shrimp sashimi or soft shell crab tempura.

http://theboilingcrab.com/

Random trivia:  Did you know that the longest word with the 5 vowels in reverse alphabetical order is PUNCTOSCHMIDTELLA, which is a crustacean?