The Lobster claws at the pier

Restaurant: The Lobster

Location:  1602 Ocean Ave. Santa Monica, California 90401.  310.458.9294

Date: April 29, 2011

Cuisine: Seafood

Rating: Great view, decent food.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Every couple months we go to the Lobster. It’s located right at the top of Santa Monica Pier and has a tremendous view of the pier and the ocean, lots of seafood, and a lively scene. It is a little overpriced, but view spots tend to be.


The top of the pier.


The main room inside, with views of the ocean.


The menu.


Typical sour-dour seafood resteraunt bread.


A kind of chimichuri dipping sauce for the bread.


The wine list. I got a couple glasses of the ever reliable J.J. Prum Kabinet Riesling.


“Organic Country Fresh Farms Baby Greens. Fennel, Cherry Tomatoes & Shaved Parmesan with Red Wine Vinaigrette.”


“Manila Clam Chowder. Applewood Smoked Bacon & Weiser Farms Fingerling Potatoes.” This was a slightly different take on the New England clam chowder. I liked the clams in the shell factor, certainly makes it pretty. The broth had a nice flavor, but without the thick creamy whiteness of the totally traditional variant. It was a bit more like a corn chowder, or certain types of traditional Irish soups.


“Grilled Wild Columbian River King Salmon. Coleman Farms Baby Broccoli, Caramelized Onion, Weiser Farms Fingerling Potatoes & Tart Cherry Gastrique.” This would have been good except for the fact that while it was ordered medium well, it was medium-rare, and the pink inside didn’t have the firmness it should, but had turned into that kind of salmon mush. We actually sent it back. Cooked right it would have been fine.


“Butter Poached Lobster. Tutti Fruitti Farms Sweet English Peas, Wild Mushroom Ragout & Lobster Mash.” I usually get this, and there’s a reason. I love lobster. I love buttery bisque-style lobster sauces. I love pees, and mash potatoes go well with all of the above. Really, what’s not to like.

The hopping bar scene. It was even more crowded outside on the patio.

The Lobster is fairly typical of mid-high end ocean-view American places. The food is better than Gladstones (see below), and if you order right can be very good, but it certainly isn’t a stellar kitchen. Still, it can be a fun place and a very enjoyable meal, particularly if you enjoy our favorite North Atlantic crustacean.

For two reviews of Gladstones, check HERE and HERE.

Mark’s Duck House

Restaurant: Mark’s Duck House

Location:  6184 Arlington Blvd # A, Falls Church, VA 22044  703-532-2125

Date: April 23, 2011

Cuisine: Cantonese Chinese

Rating: Very very good cantonese.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This seeming hole in the wall in Falls Church Virginia features some of the best Cantonese food I’ve had in the states. So much so that wine guru (and foodie) Robert Parker is constantly eating (and tasting) here.

You can spot an authentic Chinese restaurant by the unassuming facade.

The minimalist decor.

The menu of sketchy meat cuts unsuited to white-bread American taste.

And the rack of roast ducks!

This was a late night family dinner, so Chinese beer seemed to suite the mood.

I’ve loved hot and sour soup since I was a kid, and this is an exemplary example. Basically perfect.

Classic Har Gow, little shrimp dumplings wrapped in rice pastry. Delectable too, as good as at various Dim Sum joints like Ping Pong, The Palace, or Xino.

They even have their own special sweet and vinegary soy for them.

And the deadly hot chili oil.

But there is one real reason why one goes to a restaurant named “Mark’s Duck House.” The pecking duck! Crispy roast whole duck is carved off the bone and brought to the table.

With the traditional scallions.


And my all time favorite, the plum sauce. This stuff has a sweet and tangy quality typical of Chinese cuisine that I just can’t get enough of.

All of the ingredients are combined in a pancake.

And then rolled into a burrito like shape. This is a delectable mix of textures and flavors. The rich duck meat, the crispy skin, the hot dripping fat off the duck, the tangy sauce, the scallions, the dry texture of the pancake. Yum! And this is as good a duck as I’ve had in the states. We wen’t to a place in Bejing a couple years back where we had three whole ducks each done a slightly different way and flayed at the table by a master carver who could have had a part in Kill Bill. That was some serious duck, and slightly better. Still, you don’t have to go all the way to China for great duck like this.

Lobster, causeway style, in crispy garlic, chillies, and chives. I’d never had this exact dish before, but it was wonderful. The closest I’ve had was at a Chinese friends 20-some course wedding banquet where the lobster was sauteed in a ginger garlic sauce. This version is dry (more or less), a little bit hot, and vary garlicky. But damn good!


Sauteed chive blossoms in oil and garlic. We asked the waiter for a vegetable recommend and out came this seasonal dish. Chive blossoms. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, and it looks like a big pile of chives. It turned out to be one of my favorite Chinese vegetable dishes in the states. Again in China I had some crazy good stuff, including one or two great all vegetable meals, but these were nice and garlicky again, piping hot.

Mark’s Duck House never fails to disappoint, but the menu is gigantic and potentially perilous. There are like 12 pages of densely packed dishes. Abalone, sea cucumbers, shark fin, you name it. One time a couple years ago we ordered oysters in garlic and ginger sauce and got this plate with three monstrous oyster beasts we nicknamed the “Grenades.” Each was about the size of a World War II weapon of the same name. Just the meat of the oyster, the size of a grenade!

Parlez Vu Modern?

Restaurant: Vu [1, 2]

Location: 14160 Palaway Way, Marina del Rey, CA 90292 310.439.3033

Date: March 25, 2011

Cuisine: Modern

Rating: Very creative, worth a trip, but needs a little tuning up

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Vu is a new place in Marina Del Rey. While I lived there in 1997-1998 MDR was a bit of a culinary wasteland. It hasn’t exactly had a renaissance, but it is improving, and Vu is certainly an example of that. This place is nicely situated along the Marina with good views — sort of oddly tucked into the ground floor of some apartment or office building — and it’s got very novel and even somewhat molecular food. There’s a lot of ambition here on the menu, and I give them an A for effort. But they need to tune it up a bit to rich the heights possible with this sort of cuisine. In LA, the current molecular champ (and there aren’t many contenders) is The Bazaar, and it’s tasting room Saam. This type of cuisine originated in Spain, and you can see some native examples HERE or HERE.


The menu offers both extensive small plates (front) and a few entrees and desserts (back). As I’ve said again and again, I love the small plate format.

The bread is homemade cornbread, with jalapeño butter. I approve. As a partial southerner, I love cornbread, and this was a good example of type.

The drink menus. The wine was all California, which is hard for me, a dedicated European Wine lover.

2009 Brander Sauvignon Blanc. Despite being New World, I enjoyed it, much like a good Sancerre.

““Reconstructed” Caprese Salad, balsamic-injected cherry tomatoes, basil-infused fresh mozzarella, red hawaiian sea salt, micro basil.” This was my wife’s favorite. A tad too much tomato for me (being a tomato hater). The texture was really neat though, almost like a merengue.

Hamachi, bbq spice, collard green fluid gel, micro cilantro.” I was a bit disappointed with this dish. Maybe it needed a slightly better grade of fish, maybe more spice, but it didn’t have as much flavor as I would have expected.

Grilled Cheese, toasted brioche, “midnight moon”, tomato jam, micro basil.” Overall nice. The sauce was very pomodoro sauce like. The cheese was maybe a bit tangy for the combo somehow, but good.

“Peas & Carrots, carrot noodles, pea puree, carrot chips.” The textures here were really neat (particularly the chips). The overall flavor was pleasant but very subtle and muted.

“Chicken-Fried Watermelon, pickled ring.” The fry here was great fry, and since you can fry anything it more or less worked. It was a little odd or surprising to bite into fry and get watermelon, but as I said, it was great fry.

“Lobster Tail, citrus, popcorn jello, fritos.” My favorite dish hands down. The raw lobster had a really nice texture, like raw scallop, and the crunchy crisp of the fritos really went nicely. Overall it showed off both the subtle lobster flavor and had a bit of zing (from the citrus I assume).

“Lamb “Lollipops” sweet tea poached, rosemary, roasted grape relish.” My second favorite. Very nice and meaty. Not a middle eastern lamb flavor as I might expected, but very tasty nonetheless.

“Buttermilk Panna Cotta, liquid nitrogen coke-a-cola, carbonated blackberries.” This was a little bit of a disappointment. I guess it should have been sweeter to my taste. The Panna Cotta itself was a little sour, like a yogourt and/or I expected the coke-a-cola topping to be VERY sweet to counter (it was instead subtle). The blackberries I loved. They had some serious zing. Overall it was pleasant, but it could have been great.

The view is, for the most part, very nice.

The menu here at Vu is really interesting and innovative. It has a good format (with lots of small plates) and is well priced. But I think the kitchen needs to tune things up a bit. I’m not exactly sure where the issue is, but the dishes were often just nice instead of wow — and it seemed they could be wow. It might be ingredients in a couple cases (like the Hamachi), or maybe it’s just a certain amount of zest or the ratios. The flavors were often a bit muted for my taste. It’s even possible that this is just a slightly flat execution by the kitchen (and the test recipes are good). This kind of cooking needs to really balance the flavors and have the whole thing jam through. Saam is a great example of this. At our tasting menu there a couple weeks ago, nearly every dish jumped off the plate and straight into your hind-brain.

But I very much applaud the effort, far too many restaurants churn out the same boring stuff. So I’ll check back again and see how things have developed.

Check out a second review at Vu here.

Quick Eats – Gladstones by the Sea

Restaurant: Gladstones [1, 2]

Location: 17300 Pacific Coast HwyPacific Palisades, CA 90272. (310) 454-3474

Date: Jan 18, 2011

Cuisine: American Seafood

Summary: Updated classic coastal seafood

 

Just 48 hours after our Sunday trip down the coast to Paradise Cove (REVIEW HERE), the incredible January weather was holding in fine form. 80 degrees, sunny, nice breezes. I had heard that SBE, the food/club group which operates the awesome Bazaar (REVIEW HERE) had bought Gladstones down at the end of Sunset. Now I’d never been too partial to Gladstones, even though it’s nicely located. Despite the great view, it never made the best of it and the menu was a bit old school, over priced, and leaned toward the fried and over-sized.

They didn’t change the look too much, but it’s not much to complain about.

The menu, click as usual for larger.

And page 2.

We decided to try both chowders. First the manhattan. Not bad, broth like a Cioppino.

The New England. Not as good as Paradise Cove actually. Too much like canned stuff, i.e. thin.

The impaled sour dough was cool though.

When I’d come here in the 90s I used to get the “coconut shrimp,” which were fried. In their update of the menu they have replaced them with this. Those are shrimp with rice and dried coconut, in a kind of thai peanut red curry. Oh wow. They tasted great! I mean I always like red curry (HERE, FOR A THAI PLACE REVIEW), but this was pretty damn succulent. Not exactly what I expected, and very rich, but damn good.

Since my Paradise Cove meal had just whet my seafood tower appetite, and I now had a partner in shellfish slaying crime, we went for the 2 person cold seafood extravaganza. This WAS better than it’s equivalent at Paradise Cove. Not the best tower I’ve had, but good. Scallops, shrimp, oysters, clams, lobster with avocado cerviche, Alaskan Crab legs, and the sauces: Cocktail, tartar, and vinaigrette. Everything was great except for the crab legs which tasted too frozen.

But again the biggest winner was the view, and the weather. January!  East Coasters look and weep.

Another shot of the porch.

The menu certainly hasn’t been radically redefined. It’s gotten a bit of an update, and the quality has risen. Still, it would be neat to see what someone really creative — like Jose Andres! — could so with the beach side restaurant concept.

For a second review of Gladstones click here.

Finally, Modern Dim sum in Santa Monica

Restaurant: Xino [1, 2]

Location: 395 Santa Monica PlSte 308Santa Monica, CA 90401. (310) 755-6220

Date: February 7, 2011

Cuisine: Modern Dim sum

Rating: A little heavy, but I’m glad to have some more good dim sum on the westside.

 

Xino is another of the new Santa Monica Place restaurants. I detail the whole deal with the new mall and it’s transformation in my Zengo review.

This one is more or less Chinese, but a sort of modern Chinese, and at lunch they serve real dim sum!

View from the patio. Lunch, on a monday, February. 79 degrees and not a cloud in the sky.

My brother presents the dim sum menu. This place is a lot like Ping Pong (REVIEW HERE), the modernized  dim sum I went to in Washington DC. It doesn’t have the traditional cart format, like The Palace (REVIEW HERE). This has advantages and disadvantages. The carts allow more control over the pace of the meal, but made to order is fresher.

Chinese mustard, chili, there was also soy and various sauces served with different dishes.

“Chili Spare Riblets, Sweet Chili Sauce, Asian Slaw.” These were pretty meaty, but fried up like orange beef. Gratuitous, but pretty darn tasty.

“Shrimp and Mango Dumpling, Ground shrimp, mango, firecracker sauce.” Crunchy wanton fried, tasty shrimp and mango inside, and a zesty soil garlic scallion sauce. What’s not to like.

“Shrimp Dumpling ‘Ha Gow‘ Shrimp, Bamboo sShoots, Rice Wrap.” Classic Cantonese dumplings. Good examples of the type.

“Stuffed Eggplant with Shrimp, black bean sauce.”

Crab Rangoon, Cream Cheese, Sweet Vinegar Reduction.” Not the totally typical rangoon, at least the sauce. Good though, and more filling than most examples. The sweetness of the sauce went nicely with the fry and the cheese.

“Kung Pao Chicken Lollipop, Sweet and Tangy, Crushed Cashews.” This was my least favorite dish, not that it was bad, but it was a little heavy, like hot wings crossed with that nut crusted chicken you sometimes get on the airplane. Very fried.

“Salt and Pepper Soft Shelled Crab, Fresh Chili, Spring Onion, Toasted Garlic.” This was some good crab. The only problem was that it cooled so fast. Basically, fried soft-shell. Nothing wrong with that.

“Candied Walnuts & Honeyed Prawns, Orange Zest & Frisee.” This is a variant of the classic prawn, walnuts in the sweet mayo sauce. This one is lighter, zestier, very yummy.

“Shanghai Dumpling, Pork, Ginger, garlic, Vinegar & Ginger.” These are basically the classic soup dumplings, but very good examples of the type, and nicely served with the vinegar in the little cups so that they don’t break apart on the steamer. Wow!

“Lobster Potstickers, shrimp, pan fried crisp.” These were some pretty awesome potstickers, typical on the outside, nice yummy lobster on the inside.

“Pork Siu Mai, Pork, Shrimp, Shitake, carrots, Egg Wrap.” Another typical dim sum dish, executed very well.

“Lotus Leaf Wrapped Sticky Rice, ‘Lo Mai Gai’ egg, chinese sausage, dried shrimp.”

Open the little packet of joy.

Examine the goodies inside. Also an excellent example of type, one of the best I’ve had.

Cool couches and booths on the patio. Pretty slick spot. And the food was pretty tasty, and reasonable. The above feast was only $66 including tax! What makes the real difference here is that they have a real Hong Kong dim sum chef — so despite the corporate trappings and location, and the slightly jazzed up variants, this is some solid dim sum.

For a second Xino review, click here.

Quick Eats: Divino

Restaurant: Divino

Location: 11714 Barrington CourtBrentwood, CA 310.472.0886

Date: Jan 07, 2011

Cuisine: Italian

Summary: Solid value.

 

Divino is another of Brentwood’s seemingly endless supply of Italian eateries. I find this one in the upper middle of the pack. It’s pretty good, and very reasonably priced, but not brilliant. The menu can be found here.

I ordered this “super tuscan.” Very nice wine actually, grapey in the extreme. Parker gives it 92 points. “This is a superb set of releases and I can’t recommend the wines highly enough. The 2003 Testamatta (70% Sangiovese, 15% Colorino, 12% Canaiolo and 3% Moscato Nero Malvasia Nera) is a deeply concentrated, expressive wine packed with the essence of black cherries, licorice, smoke, minerals and underbrush. It is a surprisingly fresh, finessed and elegant wine for this vintage, even if it can’t quite match the sublime 2004. Anticipated maturity: 2009-2018.”

They have regular bread and this “pizza bread.” This is just pizza dough baked in the pizza oven with no toppings, and then drizzle with olive oil. I do this extensively myself at home during the course of Ultimate Pizza (see here for more).

“Mozzarella Divino. Slices of fresh mozzarella & roma tomato, with extra virgin oil and basil.”

Beet and burrata special. Yes, even after going through two whole tubs of Burrata at home this week (CLICK FOR DETAILS), I ordered this. Nice burrata prep. The cheese was in perfect soft ripeness, and went well with the beets.

A “free” intermezzo of tomato, goat cheese, and eggplant, with basil. This was tasty.

“Ravioli Zucchini. Freshly prepared pasta filled with ricotta cheese & spinach topped with fresh zucchini sauce.” These were perhaps a little mushy, I like my pasta a bit firmer.

Another special. Spaghetti with lobster. Very nice. There was a bit of celery in here that lent this a very slightly asian noodle salad flair.

We didn’t order desert, but they gave us for “free” these little Italian cookies. The only sugar was the… sugar. They would have gone well with expresso.

All in all Divino does a nice job for the money. They aren’t revolutionary, but the food is solid and reliable, and they are considerably way modern than some of the Italian joints that haven’t changed their decor (or menu) since the 60s.

Quick Eats: Osteria Latini

Restaurant: Osteria Latini [1, 2, 3]

Location: 11712 San Vicente Blvd.Brentwood, CA 90049 310.826.9222

Date: Dec 03, 2010

Cuisine: Italian

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LA is full of good Italian places, and, well, it was date night and my wife loves Italian. So off we went to Osteria Latini which is one of the ten or so in Brentwood, most on San Vicente. About half of the places are actually very good and we often rotate around between them. The menu can be found HERE.


“BELLA SALAD, Arrugola, pears, dry cherris, goat cheese and shaved parmesan.”

“BEEF CARPACCIO, Thin sliced filet mignon with capers, parmesan and arrugola.” This was a very good version of this classic. The beef was excellent, there was a nice tang to the dressing, and the cheese was very good. I love good cheese.

“BOMBOLOTTI, Small rigatoni with tomatoes filet and basil.” Very straight up pasta.

RISOTTO ALL’ARAGOSTA, With lobster in a light tomato sauce.” I’m a huge risotto fan, all sorts of risotto. This was an excellent seafood variant. You can’t see it, but there was a lot of lobster in there. And the light tomato sauce was indeed — light — complementing the fleshy lobster well. It was not particularly rich — but was very good. Given that I was coming off the gluttony of the ThanksGavin, light was a good thing.


Latini always gives you this little glass of lemon sorbetto mixed with prosecco at the end, regardless of whether you order desert or not. Given my penchant for lemon and my sweet tooth, I like it a lot.

This place is well above the median line for the already high bar of LA Italian (although it certainly has A LOT of company). They’re friendly, tasty, reasonably priced, and the chef has a very good touch.

For other Osteria Latini reviews, click HERE or HERE.

Or for LA Restaurant reviews.

Or an entire month of eating in Italy!