Recipes for restaurants

Massimo in Los Angeles

February 16, 2018

Among today’s hero chefs – and they are a growing group – two people really stand out.

Jose Andres, who’s showing the world how private citizens can deal with disaster if they have the heart, the will and the energy to do it. His work in Puerto Rico makes me proud to be human.  And Massimo Bottura, who’s making it his mission to enlist fellow chefs to feed the hungry all over the world.

Massimo was in Los Angeles last night, raising money for his foundation, Food for Soul (and also the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank), and to celebrate his new book, Bread is Gold.

This is what we ate – described in the chef’s own words. (Please forgive the photography; the lighting was romantic, which was lovely but all those candles made shooting food very difficult.)

Insalata di Mare

“The classic Italian antipasto reinvented like a game of hide and seek where octopus, shrimp, cuttlefish, calms, oysters, mussels, bottarga, yuzu, seaweed and aromatic herbs delight and surprise.”

A perfect description of one of my favorite Massimo dishes.

Maine Meets LA

A playful take on the East Coast lobster roll puts tradition on the back burner.  The hot dog roll is substituted with a Chiense steamed bun filled with fresh Maine lobster and dressed with crustacean sauce and marinated vegetables.

Autumn in New York: Winter in LA

“This dish is a tribute to Billie Holiday’s infamous rendition of the jazz standard. The main ingredients are apples prepared according to diverse culinary practices.  They are glazed with red beet juice and smoked, pickled in apple cider vinegar and warming spices, roasted in pork fat, pureed with red wine and onions and served with a green apple gel, and finished with a cream of Campanine apple mostarda and burnt apple dashi.”

(You’ll find my notes on this dish – and others – here.)

Riso Arancia

“Centuries ago, Caterina de Medici brought the original Tuscan recipe ‘anatra all arancia’ the celebrate her union with King Henry II and the recipe has been traveling ever since. This version, with duck, orange and spices bridges the cuisines of Europe and Asia.  Vialone Nano rice is cooked in a fragrant broth of burnt oranges and served with a hand chopped duck ragu and a coriander Peking sauce.”

What you’re missing here is the fragrance; the scent of oranges went wafting across the table in the most seductive fashion.

In the Cherry Orchard

“An edible landscape celebrates ingredients from the Modenese countryside. Three DOP cherries: ciliegia, duroni and amarine are blended into a deep cherry sorbet.  Crumble from a local chocolate and coffee delicacy called Torta Barozzi represents the rich agricultural soil while an almond infused ricotta from the foothills of the Apennines covers the dish like an Emilian fog.”


“A sweet and salty dessert becomes a celebration of the small and simple pleasures of life.”

Cracker Jacks on a visit to Antartica. Cold, warm, sweet, salty. Very fun.



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A Few Bites of LA

February 14, 2018

Have you ever seen a prettier shrimp?  It’s on the menu at Osteria Mozza: one giant prawn on a plate of pasta.  You pull off the head and allow the drippings to shower over your plate.  Then you eat the shrimp – with great delight – and finally twirl the pasta around your fork.  So delicious.

This is the satsuki rice porridge at Orsa and Winston, a wickedly delicious concoction that borrows from both Italy and Japan.  More rich risotto than spartan porridge, it’s topped with sea urchin, scallops, salmon roe.  I couldn’t stop eating it.

I loved the restaurant’s pickle plate too: each one so gently cured it retained its crunch.  It was as if the word “vinegar” had been whispered across the plate.

And the house-cured culatello is superb.

Stopped by Hearth and Hound for dinner one night. It’s one of the coziest restaurants I know, dimly lit, the table widely spaced so you can have a conversation. And on warm nights the patio is the place to be.

That spicy chicharron is a great way to start.

An admirable puntarelle salad revels in its anchovy dressing.

There’s a wicked grill – flames leaping – and almost everything on the menu meets that fire. These shrimp perhaps?  There’s no better way to get messy hands….

Black cod with orange sauce.

And if you eat nothing else here, don’t miss the charred cabbage.  Laced with meat drippings and plopped atop a little oyster-scented puddle, it will change, forever, your notion of cabbage.

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Dinner on the Dark Side

February 8, 2018

I arrived at the glowing spaceship that houses Vespertine with a large chip on my shoulder. Everything I’d read about the place put me off.  I was even irritated by the  message that arrived with my reservation. “Checking in with the valet before dinner is required, as this member of our team is integral to your experience.’’  I’m not even there yet, and already there are  “requirements.”

Indeed, when said valet insisted my first stop be the outdoor garden, I balked.  It was dark. It was cold. I wanted to go inside that strange perforated orange building. But he led me, inexorably, to a concrete seat and very reluctantly, I sat down.  The seat was heated! A soft fuzzy blanket was draped around my shoulders. The air was fragrant. Against my will I found myself snuggling in for a glass of champagne.  By the time my guide gently suggested it was time to enter the edifice I was loath to leave.

Dinner at Vespertine involves a fair amount of traveling. Your guide directs you to the elevator and you exit through the kitchen where otherworldly music plays as a team of eerily silent cooks ply tweezers. The substances they are working with do not resemble food, and the vessels they are so carefully placing it on do not resemble any plates or bowls you’ve previously encountered. Then you are outside again, climbing steep stairs to a dark lounge whose low tables are covered with twigs, candles and branches draped with strange black objects. It is like a campground on Mars.

The first offering is some sort of Douglas fir and white wine beverage topped with oxalis (a wood sorrel). That green concoction in the bowl starts off strange and becomes increasingly appealing; laced with tiny roe, it is like taramosalata conceived on Pluto. By the time I’d finished using it as a dip for the various sea vegetables (those black objects hanging from the twigs) I was sorry to see it go.

But here comes the waitress, gliding silently to the table with the next course.  Pull this little volcano apart and you find the most delicious cracker you’ve ever eaten, a kind of savory sable made of burnt onions and black current.

“I love this!” My companion says it with a kind of shock.


We both love the next course too, layers of green gage plums and apples, a sticky, gooey little treat that we pry from its ceramic tower.

We love this too, this dark cracker topped with abalone mushroom.

We’ve grown comfortable here, but now it seems it’s time to journey on to another galaxy on another level. I’m actually disappointed to discover that the dining room resembles… a dining room.  It is disappointingly conventional, filled with ordinary people conversing as they eat their dinner. And then the food arrives. 

Inside this spruce-sprinkled bowl are raw peas, kiwis cut to the same dimensions and a third little unidentifiable orb that is both sweet and sticky.  On top is a little round of frozen salad dressing that slowly melts.  It is delicious.

“The bowl is meant to activate your senses other than sight,” the waitress says as she sets down this peek-a-boo bowl.  I could have done without the lecture, but hidden inside that giant maw is the most wonderful rice pudding laced with little texture bombs – popped rice, tiny roe – and topped with onions and sunflower petals. I find it irresistible.

virginal wedding feast?   An essay on whiteness – smooth scallops, crisp white asparagus, fuzzy blossoms, crunchy shrimp crackers. When the pale yuzu -pine broth is poured into the bowl, all the textures meld, melt, change.

This dish looks like as strange and alien as a large red slug, but in the mouth it’s utterly familiar.  A gorgeously cooked spot prawn paired with the sweet crunch of water chestnut, the edgy acidity of quince, the electricity of sorrel and spinach.  More please.

Jordan Kahn is an interesting chef.  Unlike most of those who work in this particular idiom, he’s more artist than scientist.  Unlike Ferran Adria, who revels in taking food apart and putting it back together in ways that twist your perceptions, Kahn works in a gentler mold.  He’s trying to make you experience food in new ways, playing with color, texture and shape to coax out shy flavors. His is an art of combination, not reduction. Against my will I slowly allow myself to be seduced. 

Mussels and pork fat.

Dungeness crab and leeks.

Naragansett turkey,  with a complex sauce made of  bones and currants. Hyssop.  It arrives on long branches of yarrow, looking like  Thanksgiving in the middle of winter. (It took an effort of will not to pocket that knife.)

Smoked lamb’s heart, Marionberries, puffed rice, fresh cheese

Sea urchin with Pedro Jimenez sherry.  A dessert for people who don’t like dessert.  Pure heaven.

Black raspberry, sorrel and frozen buckwheat. Even the edges of the bowl are meant to be eaten.

The meal is long, slow, measured.  It is delicious.  It is entertaining. Some people will hate this restaurant, and I understand that. But I’m fascinated by chefs who are pushing the envelope as they reconsider the very nature of what a restaurant might be. Vespertine offers up the restaurant as performance art, and they’ve enlisted the help of artists, architects and musicians to enhance the experience. Kahn’s certainly not the first to do it, but he’s moved the concept farther down the road. This kind of cooking often ends up with extremely stupid food. And that’s the surprise of Vespertine: there is nothing remotely ridiculous about the food.

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Hello Old Friend

January 31, 2018

For the longest time Momofuku Ssam Bar was my favorite restaurant in New York.  The first bite felt as if David Chang had reached inside my head, seen my secret fantasies and conjured up the perfect dish for me.  Weird and wonderful, whipped tofu with huge orange lobes of Santa Barbara sea urchin and giant black tapioca pearls was not for everyone, but the textures and flavors swirling through my mouth made me deliriously happy. I went on to pork buns, rice sticks with spicy sausage, crisp Brussels sprouts drenched in fish sauce and chiles, knowing I’d come home.

I loved the atmosphere too – the raucous noise of the place, the way strangers exchanged food, the offbeat wine list.  For years my son and I went there as often as we could, and the restaurant never disappointed us.  I’ll never forget the night the chef sent out a new dish he was experimenting with – curved little bowls containing litchis topped with an icy riesling gelee and pine nut brittle. He came to the table holding  a chunk of frozen foie gras and began shaving it, pretty pink curls falling into the dish.  I took a bite and the cold shards of foie gras came together into something warm, rich and round, swirling around like magic in the mouth.

Nick went off to college, one by one all the people we knew at the restaurant left for other adventures, and slowly – I’m not quite sure why – I stopped going.  Maybe because the restaurant, with its backless chairs and throbbing sound was never a place where Michael could be comfortable. But last night, celebrating Nick’s birthday, we decided to go back.

It was like the first time.  A little less raucous (how did they mute the sound?) and considerably more comfortable (there are backs on the chairs now, more space between tables). But the food was pure edible excitement.

White on white. Fluke tartare. Kimchi ice. Daikon. Icy fireworks exploding in the mouth. Gentle flavors. Texture. Texture. Texture. I found myself hoarding the dish, reluctant to relinquish a single bite.

The perfect solution for people (me) who can never get enough caviar. Who could have imagined these Cantonese buns, with their soft pillowy texture and aching blandness, would be the perfect foil for sturgeon roe? Or that said roe could stand up to a bacon-infused ranch dressing?  Love the smoked egg yolk, and the crunch of the cucumber.

The most delicious ribs, falling from the bone with a complex smudge of sauce tasting of bonito flakes, kombu, nori and maybe mirin? It reminded me of the sauce on the great takoyaki I ate on the street in Osaka – and it’s the way I want my ribs from now on.

Cauliflower disguised as Stonehenge, a great manly monolith of vegetable drenched in lardo and ham vinaigrette.

And then, another dish that seemed conjured from my mind. Those spicy shrimp up top, crunching happily inside their shells, with floppy slices of rice cake, lots of pungent sauce, and a few soft, tiny potatoes. When the waiter arrived with tiny condensed towels and poured water over them, we watched as they grew larger, laughing as we mopped our sticky fingers.

The room feels happy.  The wine list is intriguing. I can’t stop thinking about that 1982 Riesling, which lost much of its sweetness and gained  character with age. “A wine that’s older than me,” said Nick, taking a grateful sip.

There are still so many dishes to try. I can’t wait to go back –  for the skate roasted in banana leaf, the foie gras taiyaki, the uni over rice. Or, frankly, for anything else chef Max Ng cares to dream up.  There’s nothing like finding an old friend and discovering it’s gotten even better since the last time that you met.



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Ticket to Japan

January 18, 2018

A real Japanese sushi bar has a particular scent that’s more spa than restaurant; it’s a clean, green aroma with a touch of cedar.  This is partly because sushi bars don’t cook: unlike most of their American counterparts,  a sushi bar in Japan limits it repertoire to raw fish.

Of all the sushi bars I’ve been to in America, Ginza Sushi Onodera most resembles the ones I found in Japan.  You sense there is something different here the moment you walk in the door: it smells right. Then you watch the chef slice the pickled ginger, take a taste and smile; it’s the best you’ve ever eaten.  The wasabi, of course, is the real thing, grated from a great fat root.  And at the end of the meal, when it’s time for miso soup, you get an elixir of startling intensity. The devil’s in the details.

This is a stunningly expensive sushi bar; an omakase dinner here runs  $300 or $400 a person.  But at lunchtime the $100, $130 or $150 experiences offer an equally pure pleasure.

Our meal began with one of the most stunning textural experiences you can have with food: shirako. The Japanese euphemism for these exquisite tidbits is “children of the clouds” which is about as poetic a description of sperm (cod sperm sacs, to be exact), as you’re likely to find. Think savory custard of the sea: very soft, slightly sweet, with a note of brine.

Then there is a parade of sushi (all the fish is imported from Japan), each piece prepared with enormous care, brushed with a measured amount of soy and placed on your plate.  Eat quickly, while the fishh is still quivering from the knife and the rice is still warm. (I’ve included links to some of the fish, mostly because I was astonished to learn how many different references the internet offers for sushi fish. This is a small sample.)

This is kinmedai – golden eye snapper

This is shima aji

Wild yellowtail

red snapper

Japanese baracuda –  kamasu


Kohada – gizzard shad, which is vaguely related to herring.  One of my favorites.  In the early days of American sushi this was translated, to everyone’s bewilderment, as  “young punctatus.”  Cured in vinegar, here it is topped with cured egg yolk.

tiny white shrimp, piled onto rice

And finally toro, which I neglected to photograph.  (I also left out the scallop, which came much earlier in the rotation.)

Beautiful salmon roe on a little pillow of rice.

My idea of dessert – uni and tamago.

Miso soup came next, spectacular miso soup, followed by this adorable little dish;

which opened to reveal the most delicious little smidgen of green tea custard.

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