Showing posts with label Santa Monica Restaurant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Santa Monica Restaurant. Show all posts

Monday, June 11, 2012

Loteria Grill Opens on the Santa Monica Promenade

Westside fans of the Loteria Grill at the Farmers Market who lamented the long drive into LA can now enjoy Loteria's freshly made Mexican food right here in Santa Monica in the old Gaucho Grill space.

Loteria Grill Santa Monica (1251 3rd Street Promenade, 310/393-2700) opened just after Mother's Day. The restaurant and full bar are open 7 days a week, Sunday-Thursday 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM and Friday-Saturday 11:00 AM to Midnight.
A great way to experience the restaurant is during Happy Hour, 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM, 7 days a week, with an extra hour until 7:00 PM at the bar.

Happy Hour means 1/2 off appetizers and beverages (except for the specialty tequilas).

Making a Difference with Design 
When Jimmy Shaw, owner/chef, was setting up his first restaurant at the Farmers Market, Loteria could have been nothing more than another fast food restaurant in the maze of stalls. But Shaw's graphic design in that confined space stamped Loteria Grill as smart, hip and stylish.

In the new space on the Promenade, Shaw was confronted by the realities of a difficult space.

Gaucho Grill had its fans but the restaurant on the Third Street Promenade was famously dark and claustrophobic. Shaw's solution to that limitation was to knock down the front and back walls.

Feeling very much like cantinas I remember from visits to Mexico, the entrance of Loteria Grill is open to the Promenade. With the bar filled and diners soaking up the sun as they eat and drink, the open-air room is as welcoming as any restaurant could be.
Leaving the bar area on your way to the main dining room, you walk down a long hallway illuminated by a beautiful wall of three-dimensional loteria friezes.

Tall double glass doors protect the dining room from the commotion of the bar area. The high-ceiled room has a light, airy feeling. The space on the left is defined by the open kitchen and the busy activity of cooks and servers. On the right, the high wall is painted a dramatic, blood red.
The old, claustrophobic back wall has been replaced by a window with a view of what appears to be a carefully manicured  park that is actually an alleyway.
A Well-Constructed Menu
From what we tasted that day, I would recommend the Quesadillitas de Plaza, three fried masa turnovers stuffed with a delicious filling made with seasonal ingredients. This visit, the filling choices were squash blossom, roasted poblano peppers and cheese and, my choice, huitlacoche corn fungus or "truffle."
The quesadillitas had a mix of flavors and textures from the crisp masa, earthy-sweet huitlacoche filling, the salsa's mild heat and the creamy guacamole and crema Mexicana.

Whenever I am in Mexico, the one dish I always have is a shrimp cocktail. Unlike the American version, what you get in Mexico is a generous amount of freshly steamed shrimp in a chilled tomato juice "soup" seasoned with chili powder, lime, raw onions, peeled cucumber, cilantro and avocado.

You can eat the shrimp one by one with a spicy soup chaser or by placing a shrimp on a Saltine cracker with a piece of avocado and a chunk of onion.
At Loteria, the cocktail (Coctel de Camaron) is served in a large goblet, filled to the brim with shrimp, avocados, cucumber and that delicious tomato soup. Saltines are fanned across the plate like a winning poker hand.

To go with the shrimp, I had a shooter of chef Shaw's special tequila, the Loteria Double Barrel Herradura Reposado (no Happy Hour 1/2 off discount for this item). The smokiness of the Heradura Reposado paired well with the sweet shrimp.
For anyone new to Loteria, I would recommend the Probaditas Sampler. A dozen mini tacos are topped with a tasting of the restaurant's best fillings and sauces. My favorite sauce is the mole poblano, with its subtle heat and deeply rich flavor.
To go with our margarita de jalapeño and tequila martini with mango, we had the Ceviche Uno, Dos, Tres (available Friday, Saturday and Sunday). Perched on top of crispy corn tortillas, the ceviches ranged from red snapper with fresh tomato, tilapia and cilantro and shrimp with sweet mango and fiery chile habanero.

Restaurant reviews are appropriately criticized for inflated or over-enthusiastic language, but I can honestly say, the cocktails and ceviches were a riot of delicious and satisfying textures and flavors.
For a main course, you can't go wrong with enchiladas, especially when topped with the mole sauce. Although it isn't a main course, the sope with chicken or pork is also delicious.

If you're a hungry meat eater, the flank steak is very good. Carne Arrachera a La Parrilla comes nicely charred. A heavy steak knife accompanies the large piece of meat.

The dish also comes with sides that include refried beans, spicy escabeche (pickled onions, carrots and yellow peppers), potatoes with poblano peppers, zucchini & roasted corn and a generous amount of caramelized onions resting underneath the steak and soaking up all its fragrant juices.

My favorite way to eat the steak is to tear off a piece of freshly made tortilla, smear on some refried beans, add a thin slice of steak, a few strands of caramelized onion and a bit of escabeche. I slide the flavorful packet into my mouth, chew, enjoy and do it again. It's a little time consuming, but this way I savor all those wonderful flavors in each and every bite.

Last and Delicious
For dessert there are daily specials, mostly of the rib-sticking kind (flourless chocolate, caramel or tres leches cakes). I am told the tequila ice cream is good. That wasn't available so we had the Mexican sweet cheese ice cream (Helado Chongos), a thicker version of vanilla and very good.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Two Restaurants for Mother's Day: Michael's in Santa Monica and Maison Giraud in Pacific Palisades

Mother's Day is a special time to appreciate our mothers and the mothers of our children. A leisurely meal in a pleasant surrounding is the perfect way to celebrate the women who are so central to our lives.

Brunch is the preferred meal for Mother's Day, when a sunny late morning adds to the celebration.

Michael's Restaurant (1147 Third Street, Santa Monica, CA 90403; 310/451-0843), located on Third Street in Santa Monica, half a block north of Wilshire, has an elegant dining room with the relaxed feeling of a private home. Surrounding diners at the rear of the restaurant, a lush patio garden obliterates all traces of the busy city a few feet away.
By staying focused on farmers market fresh, seasonal ingredients, owner/chef Michael McCarty has pulled off a magic trick, staying contemporary and innovative even as the culinary landscape changed. When the restaurant opened, market fresh produce was a rallying cry for a few talented chefs. Nowadays, just about every restaurant says it buys locally and seasonally.

The difference then as now is that fresh ingredients are a good beginning but to be something special, they must be prepared by a talented chef with a great palate.

For the West Side, Michael's is a member of a small group of upscale restaurants. On the spring menu, starters are priced from $18 for a half dozen raw oysters to $22 for the Maine lobster gnocchi with mains ranging from $34 for the Jidori half-chicken to $44 for the rack of lamb and New York steak.

But Happy Hour at Michael's is a bargain and it begins early (Monday-Friday 5:00pm; Saturday 6:0pm). Michael keeps Happy Hour happy until closing. With flavors inspired by the larger menu, the snacks are as varied as an crostini with duck confit or with burrata, arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano, truffle-thyme fries, Andouille sausage with beer caramelized onions, piquillo pepper and avocado salad and an upscale riff on Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in the Jidori wings with maple syrup and chile salt (addictive!).

For Mother's Day, Michael's has a Sunday brunch from 11:30am-2:00pm. The prix fix menu for adults ($65.00/person) and for children under ten ($30.00/person) has four to five choices per course in a three course brunch. The dishes are elegant (oysters with blood orange mignonette, petit prime filet with English peas, Shimeji mushrooms and white corn) and familiar (Eggs Benedict, Cobb salad, blueberry pancakes with chicken sausage or smoked bacon). Dessert is sensible (strawberry-oatmeal crisp with creme fraiche ice cream) or complex and rich (dark chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream, chocolate ganache and raspberries).
If you want to toast mom, Michael's has an excellent wine cellar, including wines McCarty grows and bottles at his Malibu home, and a selection of delicious cocktails (a blood orange mimosa, Stoli bloody bull, "smoke love" with single malt scotch and smoked mescal, the "dark side of the moon," a wicked mixture of gin, vermouth, orange juice, lime orange oil simple and Creme de Violette! and a "frozen white lady," a sweet, ice cold, lemony confection of a drink).

Up the hill from Santa Monica, Maison Giraud (1032 Swarthmore Avenue, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272; 310/459-7561) is an outpost of French cuisine in suburban Pacific Palisades. Paired down and minimalist, the dining room is elegantly efficiently. Outside on the covered patio, diners enjoy eating at sidewalk tables, shaded by trees.
Alain Giraud wants the restaurant to be a relaxed gathering place for everyone wanting a good meal in a quiet setting. Like McCarty, Giraud is a habitué of farmers markets, looking for the freshest, best tasting, seasonal products he can find.

In the bakery he shows his deft hand with buttery, effervescent croissants, brioche, Danish, and other sweet and crisp pastries. 
For Mother's Day, Giraud will serve brunch from 10:30am-2:30pm featuring the usual menu with a selection of omelets, custardy scrambled eggs, French toast, Nicoise salad, grilled salmon, quiche and Eggs Benedict. For Mother's Day, he has added a green asparagus salad with citrus vinaigrette, roasted halibut and spring vegetables and for dessert, a strawberry and pistachio confection.
Besides dining at the restaurant, Mother's Day can also be celebrated at home by ordering from the bakery and the take-out menu.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Special Menus at La Sandia and Zengo at Santa Monica Place

If you live near Santa Monica, you have already visited the open air Dining Deck on the top floor of Santa Monica Place. For anyone who used to visit the old mall, what a difference!
The old food court was on the bottom floor of the mall. Dark and airless, the fast food restaurants weren't especially inviting.

The remodeled mall improved in many ways, most notably with the elevation of the food court to the top floor. For restaurant patrons, free valet parking is available with validation at the Second Street entrance.

Recently I participated in a tasting for food writers at the side-by-side restaurants, La Sandia and the fusion restaurant, Zengo, both owned by the prolific chef Richard Sandoval.
A side note: if you are ever in a restaurant and you see a group of diners all taking photographs of each course as it is placed on the table, you are probably watching food writers doing "research."
During February at La Sandia, chef Sandoval celebrates the regional variations of the Mexican tamale with a "Tamal Festival," featuring two seasonal blanco tequila cocktails (a fresh pomegranate margarita and a passion fruit Mexican mojito) and eight tamals.
The tamal, as described by chef Sandoval:
From Mayan origin, meaning ‘wrapped;’ A traditional Latin American dish made of stuffed masa wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, that is steamed or boiled. Viewed as a comfort food, tamales are enjoyed throughout all parts of the day. Dating back to 1200 BC, tamales have traditionally been prepared for feasts and celebrations. Mexican tradition states that on Dia de Reyes, all enjoy a special bread, containing a hidden doll. He who finds the doll hosts a Tamal Party in February. Over time, tamales have taken on regional influences, resulting in hundreds of varieties of fillings and wrappings found throughout Latin America. 
My favorite was the Torta de Tamal, in the style of Mexico City. Shredded chicken is tucked inside a corn tamal which is placed inside a biscuit-like bun with lettuce, tomato, onion, salsa verde and a spicy chipotle aioli. Speared by the long toothpick holding the sandwich together was a slice of radish, pickled in salt and lime juice.

Ah, carbo inside carbo, the definition of comfort food. Delicious. The heat from the spicy aioli and salsa verde countered all that starchy creaminess in the right way.
Vegetarians will enjoy the tamals with the tamal de frijol con queso. Sweet black beans and melted cheese fill this tamal, which is topped with an entomatada salsa--the result of sautéing Roma tomatoes, onions, garlic, fresh oregano and chipotle peppers--and poblano crema.
If you are a pescaterian, you can have a filet of mahi mahi cooked perfectly in the tamal de pescado a la Campeche. The fish is topped with a slab of moist masa, seasoned with the herb epazote, tomatoes and spiced with cilantro and Serrano.
Myself, I'm a meat eater and I thoroughly enjoyed the shredded chicken in the tamal frito Toluca and the pork tamal estilo Oaxaca.
For dessert, chef Sandoval offers sweet yellow corn tamales wrapped in corn husks and topped with masticated raisins. The dessert tamales were good but the crispy churros were excellent.

La Sandia's sister restaurant, Zengo feels like the men's club you always dreamed about. A wide deck wraps around the dining room with views to the Promenade below. At night a refreshing ocean breeze gives the deck the proper amount of romance. With heat lamps a blaze on cooler evenings, the deck is the perfect spot to enjoy drinks, appetizers and a meal with your significant other and friends.

The dark wood and low lighting take some eye-adjusting. A long bar divides the restaurant into an inside dining room and the outside deck. Our waitress explained that "Zengo" means "give and take," which she suggested meant that the courses are supposed to be shared so everyone can have a taste of the varied and innovative menu.

Of course, "give and take" also refers to the fusion that is the menus focus. Latin American and Asian cuisines are mashed up in the most elegant way. From February 15-March 31, chef Sandoval brings together ingredients and techniques from Brazilian (Sao Paulo) and Chinese (Shanghai) cooking.
One of the best appetizers, the crispy Shanghai spring rolls look like traditional Asian fried spring rolls and they taste like very good ones indeed. Adding to the success of the spring rolls are the Brazilian tempero baiano spice mixture and juice from the acai berry added to the ginger dipping sauce.
The salt cod fritters, popular in Brazil, here called coconut crusted bolinhos de bacalhau, are delightfully crisp on the outside, and soft, warm and sweet inside. The sweet and sour sauce, Chinese in spirit, is better than you've probably had in an LA Chinese restaurant. If you have been to Brazil, the bolinhos de bacalhau will bring back sense memories of women from Bahia, cooking their fritters on make-shift set ups on the beach.

I'm happy to say my wife and I have when we visited our older son, Franklin, when he was studying in Rio.
We enjoyed days on the beach, eating the delicious snack food carried by vendors who walk up and down the sandy beaches selling fried shrimp, crisps, fresh fruit and ice cold drinks. We also ate at dozens of restaurants as our son showed off his Portuguese and treated us to his favorite restaurants.
During February and March, at Zengo you can enjoy the national dish of Brazil, feijoada, a meat, bean and vegetable stew. Cooked low and slow, the flavors of pork, beef, bacon, black beans and a dozen herbs combine into comforting deliciousness.
Zengo's version is refined and well-made. The black beans are cooked perfectly. Their sweetness blanketing the salty pork sausage and braised beef. Be sure to order rice with the feijoada. The salty sauce would benefit from the neutral rice.

The traditional Brazilian drink is the caipirinha, a stronger version of the Cuban mojito, made with cachaça. Zengo makes a very good caipirinha. The special drinks for the Shanghai-Sa Paulo festival are also worth trying: the pomegranate kumquat cocktail and the coconut caipirinha.
For dessert, the Shanghai-Sao Paulo menu offers a coconut tapioca with a mix of mango, kumquat, lychee, coquito nuts and shiso. All that is a mouth-full and you'll definitely enjoy every mouthful of tapioca, the perfect way to finish your tour of Brazil by way of China.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Delicious Authentic Mexican Dishes at La Sandia in Santa Monica Place

To celebrate Mexican Independence Day (September 16), through the weekend La Sandia will serve Ponche, a traditional Independence Day punch, and the rich and spicy Chile en Nogada, a poblano pepper stuffed with pork in a walnut cream sauce.

La Sandia Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar shares the top floor of Santa Monica Place with half a dozen other restaurants, the Food Court and the Market.

You'll recognize La Sandia by the crowded patio and open air bar, offering over 200 tequillas, half a dozen margaritas and Mexican beers, Mojitos, Capirinhas and Sangria pitchers.
The front part of the restaurant is dominated by the busy bar scene, especially at Happy Hour. With generously extended hours Sunday-Thursday from 4:00pm-9:00pm and Friday 4:00pm-7:00pm, Happy Hour appetizers are $3.00 (shrimp ceviche, a choice of quesadillitas, tacos, empanadas and sliders, chicken wings and bbq pork ribs), margaritas $5.00, Mexican bottled beer $3.00, daily specials Mondays-Thursdays and $5.00, "bottomless" bowls of guacamole.
Walk past the bar and you enter the restaurant with a dining room in a plaza style expanse, dominated by a retractable ceiling, a large fountain with four, smiling cherubs and upholstered booths with plush seating.
On a recent weekday visit, the bar area and patio were packed with young professionals. The booths and tables in the restaurant were filled with a mix of couples, families with small children and groups of friends relaxing, eating and drinking.

The food is well-plated, with good sized portions. All the sauces, flour and corn tortillas and salsas are made fresh daily.
Featured dishes like the molcajete tacos for two ($23.95), could easily feed four as part of a family style meal that included the guacamole prepared tableside ($10.95/$18/95), an appetizer like the mushroom huraches ($9.95), one of the rich and deeply satisfying soups (tortilla soup/$7.95 and roasted corn/$8.95), another entree like the iron skillet shrimp fajitas ($17.95) and a sampling of the desserts, which include affordable portions ($2.95) of flan, tres leches cake, sorbets and a banana empanada with vanilla bean ice cream.
The moderately priced food is hearty, well-seasoned and fresh-tasting with a homemade quality. Nicely, La Sandia feels festive without being loud.

The molcajete is used in the presentation of many featured dishes.
Traditionally made from volcanic stone, the three-legged bowl is used in preparing the guacamole at the table. Whole avocados are mashed together with onions, fresh tomatoes, cilantro, serano peppers for heat, sea salt and lime juice. Guacamole can be good but at La Sandia it is great, with the perfect balance of salty, creamy, crunchy (those delicious raw onions) and heat. Eaten on the freshly made tortilla chips and all you're missing is an ice cold cerveza or a salt-rimmed margarita.

Attention to details is a standard of good cooking.
The molcajete tacos for two exemplifies that perfectly. Also served in a molcajete. This time the stone bowl has been heated in the oven so the sauce surrounding the cubes of grilled skirt steak bubbles and pops, releasing waves of savory sweetness into the air. Topping the dish are the quartered pieces of a whole tomato, two plump brown mushrooms and a packet of charred scallions. A raft of beef cubes appear to float on the surface.

Looking at the dish you assume the word "tacos" in the menu description is a mistake. There is a container of freshly prepared flour and corn tortillas next to the molcajete but surely this is a hearty stew not a "taco."

But you would be wrong. The molcajete contains the taco filling. Possibly the most elaborately constructed "filling" I had ever seen.

To finish the dish, you will ask your waiter for more flour and corn tortillas....many more. Dig deep into the stone bowl to discover its hidden, secret wonder: molten hot fundido cheese.

Tear a tortilla into quarters, put a spoonful each of the Spanish rice and charro beans (black beans simmered with chorizo and onions), a fork-full of caramelized steak coated in liquid cheese, add a piece of charred scallion, a tasting of the roasted tomato and green chile salsas and pop the tasty packet in your mouth.

As your mouth enjoys all those flavors and textures, your eyes close and you begin to mumble. Your friends at the table will wonder what you are muttering about. If they could hear you clearly, they would understand you are saying, "Oh my god that is wonderful."

When the plate of chile en nogada, the holiday dish, appears on the table, everyone will lean forward to inhale the wealth of aromas rising from the poblano pepper, split open to reveal the crumble of sauteed pork. One bite and your eyes close again and if you are all sharing bites together, all eyes will be closed and mouths will be moving as if speaking through sealed lips. A passing waiter will wonder if this is a group seance.
The walnut sauce makes the dish. Warm, creamy, full of flavors that are nutty and yet so much more, the sauce perfectly ties together the muskiness of the poblano with the sweetness of the pork. Adding the pomegranate seeds is a delightful finish. The acidic crunch cuts diagonally across the richness of the sauce.

Chef-owner, Richard Sandoval generously shared his recipe for Chile en Nogada so even after Mexican Independence Day, you can continue to enjoy this delicious dish at home.


Serves 6

Ingredients for the sauce

1 tablespoon shelled walnut pieces
1/4 cup almonds, blanched
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup goat cheese
3/4 teaspoon each granulated sugar, salt and black pepper, to taste


Place the ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth. Set aside covered and refrigerated until ready to use.

Ingredients for the filling

1 3/4 pounds combination of shiitake, button and portobello or crimini fresh mushrooms, cleaned, de-stemmed and sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium white onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 pound fresh tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon almonds, blanched and finely chopped
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 medium apples peeled, cored and chopped
1 medium ripe pear, peeled, de-seeded and finely chopped
1 medium ripe peach, peeled, pitted and finely chopped
1 tablespoon of oloroso sherry
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ground pork picadillo


In a large frying pan, heat the oil to medium high and sauté the onion until translucent; add the mushrooms until golden on all sides. Add the rest of the ingredients and continue to cook until all ingredients are heated thoroughly.

Cool enough to handle easily.

Directions for final assembly

6 poblano chiles, roasted and peeled, stems kept attached
1 fresh small pomegranate, seeded
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Make a slit in each roasted poblano chile from the stem to the tip. Remove the seeds and placenta carefully and divide the filling equally to stuff the chiles. If not serving immediately, chill in the refrigerator, covered, for up to a few hours before heating.

Before serving, cover and heat through in a 300 degree oven for a few minutes or under the broiler until hot. When ready to serve, spoon the sauce over the stuffed chiles and garnish with pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley.

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