Capo’s in Santa Monica

I think most people know that the greater Los Angeles area possesses its fair share of fantastic restaurants, but compared to true dining sensations like New York City, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco it is, well, subpar. Because my wife and I live in Newport Beach, an hour south of Los Angeles, we find what we can to enjoy in Orange County, we travel a lot and always find dining loves where we go, but the “big city” to our north doesn’t excite us much. Many years ago we found the exception to that rule in Santa Monica, and have dined at Capo’s at least once a year ever since. Capo’s is a tiny little rustic place (15 tables) up the hill from Shutters on the Beach resort near Ocean and Pico in Santa Monica. It is tough to get a reservation, and walking in is an exercise in futility. But at the end of the day, it is well worth whatever effort you must exert to experience this dining treasure.

The menu at Capo’s is a work of art, and as they keep a large grill fire going in the back of the restaurant you can see and experience some of the culinary creations in real time. For appetizers last night we both went to the grill, Joleen with a shrimp scampi of sorts

IMG_0027.JPG and me with a simply unimprovable octopus

IMG_0025.JPG. The char was perfect, which is to say subtle but not too subtle, and the flavors were impactful.

Speaking of char, a little romaine lettuce on the grill with caesar dressing is the way salad ought to be served.

IMG_0024.JPG. Their salad menu is actually quite extensive (as is the appetizer menu), so don’t be limited to what we ordered last night.

Speaking of which, you do not want to ignore their pasta (or risotto) dishes when you order here, but they are a meat restaurant. Therefore, I heartily recommend adding a pasta main dish to your meat main dishes so as to not deprive yourself of all Capo’s has to offer. We have actually done a risotto most times we have been here as well but bypassed risotto last night for the linguini with clam sauce. No overpowering flavors here – just perfect ones.

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Speaking of meats, Joleen went with the Branzino which is coated in the perfect amount of salt and seasoning, giving me phenomenal variety in what I ate last evening.

IMG_0029.JPG It is a salty treasure but you really can’t imagine it being prepared much better. I went with the staple of the rack of lamb, and you will see that the exterior char with the perfectly lush medium rare middle made this as scrumptious as any lamb I have ever put in my mouth (that is saying something).

IMG_0023.JPG. Words fail to explain,. And if you don’t like lamb, the veal chop is insane.

Dessert is less important when you have had four or five courses, but when they say “homemade blackberry crisp”, I take it very seriously. The picture hopefully says it all.

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Would I drive from Newport Beach to Capo’s every single weekend for dinner? Maybe not, though if more places like The Ritz and Arches and Sage keep going away (or going downhill), I’ll do what I have to do. Capo’s is the best spot in LA County, and I would bet my rack of lamb on it …

(And if you want to get your money’s worth with the drive, feel free to stay overnight and enjoy some short rib tacos at their adjacent coffee shop, Cora’s, the next morning. ALSO worth the trip).

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The Black Dog at Martha’s Vineyard

Every now and then you come across a place so cool, so authentic, and so good, you just don’t care about anything else. The Black Dog at Martha’s Vineyard may have launched a bit of a clothing line and may have a sort of cult following out there (two things that normally do not bode well for this restaurant critic), but what it does have is the best lobster roll on the island and one of the most picturesque little locations you could dream of.

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I started, of course, with some fried oysters. I wish the portion had been smaller because I was in serious danger of not making it to the next courses.

IMG_2304.JPG As my wife pointed out, the tartar sauce itself was a meal. For all I know every appetizer was this good, but there is no chance I will ever find out. Fried oysters for me. Always and forever.

I had clam chowder in about ten places last week at Martha’s Vineyard (counting breakfast). I had some spectacular cups of chowder, one poor cup, and a few just “really good” ones. But I had nothing like the Quahog Chowder at The Black Dog. Perfect thickness. Perfect texture. Flavor galore. And clams. The right kind of clams.

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But yes, the Lobster Roll takes the cake. And what a lobster roll this was. I am pretty sure the lobster recreated itself atop my brioche roll as it never seemed to go away. Sweet, juicy, lightly seasoned, and just deliciously placed in a perfectly toasted roll. This was what I was thinking about when I booked this trip.

The setting in Vineyard Haven is simply perfect. Sailboats surround you and the small unassuming wooden house draws people in for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tourists, sure, but ample amounts of locals who know it is the best restaurant in town. A great place to bring kids – a great place to go for a date – or a great place to go by yourself with a book – I have a new lunch place to call home in Martha’s Vineyard.

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JoJo’s on the Upper East Side

My wife and I are on a roll now at finding neighborhood restaurants on a Saturday night that do not disappoint in New York’s upper east side. The latest happens to share my wife’s name, or at least her nickname, JoJo’s.

The restaurant is just off of Lexington Avenue on 64th Street. It looks like a little doll house and is as adorable on the inside as the outside. The hostess found as a quaint little table in the front dining room, though the upstairs is quite cozy as well. From there the dining love began.

I opted for a charred octopus on a warm potato salad to start, and it was simply remarkable.

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I could have eaten ten portions, or at least I felt like it. Rare, scrumptious, but subtly flavorful cuisine.

Joleen opted for a ricotta ravioli which was heavy on herbs and not overly tomatoey …

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The entrees were spaced out perfectly from the appetizers and the wait staff was both professional and personable. I would also add that they weren’t dressed like prostitutes, which is itself a refreshing change from many dining experiences.

Joleen went with the Beef tenderloin with ginger mushrooms, broccoli rabe, and a soy caramel sauce. She is fortunate I was so pre-occupied with my own plate as she could have gone dinner-less if she weren’t married to such a polite man. Packed with flavor but subtle, a perfect beef entree …

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My entree was the magnum opus of the evening, two lamb chops coated in spicy crumbs, and prepared to medium rare perfection. I have eaten lamb in more restaurants than I can count and the accompanying sauce and seasoning was just a perfect compliment to the entree.

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I cannot say enough about JoJo’s from the staff to cuisine, and if comfortable, elegant neighborhood dining is your thing, add this to the top of your list.

Perbacco in San Francisco

San Francisco is becoming one of my top favorite dining cities in America, led by its long legacy of leadership in ethnic foods and a barrage of top culinary names that have invaded the city over the last decade. Last night gave Joleen and I the chance to frequent Perbacco’s with some friends, and the experience warranted a review.

We began with an assortment of house-cured salamis and cheeses, the former of which are displayed here … An easy bad self-explanatory way to prepare.

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While I pondered my entree options, I bought some time with the Piastra Roasted Octopus with beans and spicy vinaigrette … This could have been my meal, as most finely prepared Octopus could be. The preparation was perfect, the thickness of the meat perfect, and the seasoning exquisite.

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Before we delved into our main courses we allowed for an intermediary course of a trio of pastas, from the Coujette (potato gnocchi with duck ragu) to the tajarin (hand cut tagliatelle with 5 hour pork and mushroom) to the noodles with roasted meat and cabbage …

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All of them were flavorful and delicious, but the spaghetti noodle with the five-hour pork was the highlight.

The main course for me was I went with the slow roasted pork shoulder for my entree with bean and pepper ragout …

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My friend shared the braised devil’s gulch rabbit with sweet peppers, and in both cases I was a non-participant in table conversation as I partook. The ladies had the Halibut, and Scallops, and the feedback indicated a 10 for the Halibut, with the scallops not scoring so well.

It is a must-visit restaurant for those coming to San Francisco. The service was splendid, and the timing of the multiple courses perfect. The menu was creative but not eccentric and tasty but not exotic. A positive review in every way!

Le Bernardin Reviewed

I get the rap of being a food snob, but it really isn’t totally fair. I do enjoy fine dining and I am blessed to do it in some fantastic establishments, but I also mark on my calendar the day the McRib is coming back to McDonald’s each year. However, this review will do little to break out of my reputation as a foodie, as it does not get more food snobby than Le Bernardin; and it doesn’t get much better, either.

This 51st Street haven for New York’s fine diners is couched perfectly between 6th and 7th Avenues, and represents one of the true treats of city dining. I have been several times and never done the tasting, as the natural sequence of courses is a bit of a tasting in and of itself.

We started with the Raw course, a Chef’s special chilled beausoleil with pickled shallot seaweed water gelee. The flavors were surprising, light, and fresh. The temptation was strong to order a half-dozen, but I wisely resisted in anticipation of what was to come.

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The Almost Raw course involved classic Le Bernardin creativity … Geoduck: Thinly shaved giant clam with lemon confit and piquillo pepper in pesto broth. At this point I desire some bread to smear in the sauce, as I feel like it would be better for my reputation than picking up the plate and licking what was left. I did neither.

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The Barely Touched course for me was Charred Octopus, something I had in one form or another several times last week. This came with a green olive and black garlic emulsion on a sundried tomato sauce vierge. The meat was splendid, but I would have preferred no sundried tomato flavor, and more green olive/black garlic love.
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You have no right to go to the Land for your entree at Le Bern though they do have some lamb and duck entrees that I am sure are wonderful. But this is French-influenced seafood, and I stayed pure with the Pan Roasted Monkfish, complete with mushroom puree, black trumpets, and armagnac black pepper sauce. It was as perfect as it looks and sounds.
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And for good caloric measure, we concluded our evening with a Chocolate Mille-Feuille, caramelized phyllio, thyme gelee, and salted milk chocolate ice cream. I am an entree and pre-meal diner, not a dessert guy; but this changed that for seven straight minutes. No letdown, and no anxiousness to get the check and depart; just slow and thorough appreciation for each bite of heaven. 20131019-182539.jpg

The bottom line on Le Bernardin is that the entire experience is as delightful as you can hope to have this side of heaven. The wait stuff is not pretentious or New York rude – not at all. They are professional and classy as you would expect, but they are menu-educated and very accommodative. The experience may be a “once in a lifetime” visit for many (George Soros apparently just did his pre-wedding dinner there), but should you be the type who is willing to spend significant discretionary dollars on an excursion like this, you will rarely experience a culinary treat more worthy of your funds.

And if this whole deal isn’t for you, the McRib comes back in six weeks …