Archive for May, 2004

Santa Monica – a fun slice of L.A.

Friday, May 21st, 2004

Santa Monica beach in the haze

Santa Monica beach in the haze

As a New Yorker, I can’t help but admire LA for its climate and outdoors-oriented lifestyle. That’s why I always make sure any trip to California includes a day at the beach… Santa Monica to be exact. It’s an eclectic, vibrant section of LA, with miles of gorgeous beach, great restaurants, and so much more.

The expanse of beach is incredible, several hundred yards of white sand stretch from the streets to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. In the morning, you can smell the salt air as the dew forms a blanket of hazy fog. Palm trees line the beach as far as the eye can see, and lifeguard chairs are dotted along the coastline. There is a path for bikers, runners and rollerbladers that bisects the beach – it runs all the way from Venice in the south to Pacific Palisades up north. This path is alive with sun worshipers. Along the path there are rental stands for bikes and rollerblades so that you too can join in the fun.

Southern California is a mecca for beach volleyball, and this strip of beach is no different; nets are set up everywhere. Teams battle it out in the sand, smashing that white ball as fast as a rocket. Volleyball players represent a good cross section of the community, representing all ages, sexes and nationalities – the commonality amongst them is that fit physique and golden tan. But the fitness fanatics are not just playing volleyball, it is fascinating to see all the exercise areas set up along the beach – a jungle gym for adults. One gymnastic area was particularly unique – picture a high bar as used in gymnastics, but 30 feet off the ground. Every few feet is a rope that dangles to the ground, and people are climbing these ropes like chimpanzees. But don’t feel intimidated, the ocean beckons, grab your towel and enjoy the waves.

The Santa Monica Pier provides a stark contrast to the tranquility of the ocean and the beach. It is a carnival that stretches way out over the water. With a carousel, roller coaster, and many arcade games, it provides hours of entertainment for the kids, or those adults that feel like kids. The Pier also holds free concerts every Thursday night during the summer.

Although the beach is the primary source of entertainment, the town is quaint and has a lot to offer. The 3rd Street Promenade is a shopping section that is closed off from traffic. It is a regular spot for musicians and other street performers. Although there is a proliferation of chain stores, there are also some uniquely creative stores thrown in. Montana Avenue is, however, the place for serious shopping with high-end boutiques and antique stores. But if you are not in a spending mood, sit at one of the many coffee houses and enjoy the people watching. Santa Monica is not just a maze of fancy stores, it’s quite a cultural center with a strong emphasis on art. The largest concentration of galleries in Santa Monica is at Bergamot Station, a complex of rehabilitated warehouses located on the site of the historic trolley depot. There are 40 art galleries including the Santa Monica Museum of Art. My favorite being the Peter Fetterman Gallery, which focuses on B&W photos.

Artichokes

Artichokes

When I think of LA, I think of healthy organic foods. Organic farming has been very popular in California for many years, and one of the best outdoor markets to buy from these farmers is in Santa Monica. It’s held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings on Arizona & 2nd. The organic produce is spectacular. Where else can you see five types of avocados? Carrots and asparagus are stacked two feet high, and the artichokes are the size of soccer balls. This is a must adventure for any food lover.
Carrots

Carrots

If you are looking for a unique diversion, take a walk south from Santa Monica to Venice Beach. Although best known for muscle beach, its real claim to fame are the street artists and the tattoo parlors. Some may find the area too seedy, but all will find it fascinating. Picture the burnt out hippies of the 60’s that did not want to lead the stereotypical corporate life. Musicians with tie-dyed shirts are strumming their guitars and singing. Religious fanatics are passing out leaflets. Every third store is a tattoo parlor, and the rock music is blaring. Artists are painting, while others are selling jewelry or trinkets. What a trip!

Artist in Venice Beach

Artist in Venice Beach

Staying in Santa Monica is quite luxurious, and yes quite expensive. The Inn at Shutters and Casa del Mar are two superb hotels that combine a small hotel feeling with five star service. For those with a family seeking a larger hotel, the Loews would be an excellent choice.

Santa Monica is not just a great self contained section of LA, it is also very convenient. It is 30 minutes from the Getty Museum, perhaps the best museum in town. Beverly Hills, and its famed Rodeo Drive is also a 30 minute drive. Downtown LA is far, over an hour drive, but unless you are going to the Laker’s game, don’t bother. And lastly, it is only 8 miles to LAX, making for an easy escape.

So if you have the opportunity to spend a few days in LA, have some fun in the sun…… and do it in Santa Monica.

AOC – Suzanne Goin does it again

Thursday, May 20th, 2004

Suzanne Goin was named the best new chef of the year by Food & Wine in 1999. After honing her craft at Campanille, she opened her first restaurant Lucques (pronounced Luke) on Melrose in West Hollywood. The food is French/Mediterranean, and is exceptional. Their braised Short Ribs were the best I ever tasted. But she did not rest on her laurels, and in December of 2002 she opened AOC with Caroline Styne, her wine savvy partner from Lucques. AOC also serves French/Mediterranean cuisine, but it is much more casual. It is a cross between a wine bar and a tapas bar…and it is fun.

The dishes are all “tastes”, smaller plates that are meant to be shared, like you were in a Chinese restaurant. This concept of offering smaller dishes is unique to LA, and it’s a great way to really experience the chef’s creations. Isn’t it more interesting to sample six dishes than to eat just an appetizer and an entrée? To pair with this exquisite food is an outstanding wine list, and 5o wines are offered by the glass.

AOC is a casual, but very hip scene. The first room has a long bar with a cruvinet, which is used to help preserve the wine after being opened. The room is abuzz, as all the tables are filled, and customers are passing plates. The back room is reasonable small, with tables of 4 or 6, and has the same high energy. To help guide everyone through this unique menu is a very well trained wait staff. They explain this concept of smaller tasting dishes, and highlight the chef’s signature dishes.

The dishes were all extraordinary, but a few that were strongly suggested by our waitress were right on target. A perfect starter was the roasted dates stuffed with parmesan and wrapped in bacon, unique and they melted in your mouth. Next we had a plate of speck (similar to prosciutto) with apples and arugula – a healthy, refreshing combination from the charcuterie section of the menu. The fish and meat dishes were all excellent, most were simply prepared, but were served with interesting, bold sauces. The sea bass was seasoned with lemon and bay, and was roasted to perfection in a wood-burning oven. Another great dish from the oven was arroz negro (black rice) with squid and saffron aioli. The perfect ending to a magnificent meal was a tray with an unbelievable assortment of cheeses, paired with a great dessert wine.

The food was great, but more importantly, AOC is a fun dining experience. AOC is located 8022West 3rd Street, Los Angeles (323)653-6359

Wine Tasting – Zinfandel

Wednesday, May 19th, 2004

Zinfandel is a great grape for spring and summer because it pairs so well with everything you are grilling on the barbeque. Zins are known as an American wine, and the grape is typically grown in very hot climates, resulting in bold, spicy wines with a high alcohol content. These wines typically have plenty of flavors, most notably: black cherry, raspberry, pepper, clove, and chocolate. But all Zins are not created equal; some are light and fruity, while the best ones have considerable backbone and structure. I recently went to a tasting with wines by 53 different Zinfandel producers, and although my favorite producer, Turley, was not there, there were some excellent wines. My favorites wines were…

Ridge has set the standard year in and year out, and this year was no exception. Lytton Springs 2002 ($30) was the best wine at the tasting, it is a blend of 75% zinfandel, 20% petit syrah, and 5% carignane. It is a full bodied wine with character, spice and great balance. Although you can drink it this summer, Paul Draper the winemaker prefers to age it about ten years. Ponzo 2002 ($25) was a new label offered by Ridge using grapes from the Russian River Valley. This wine is 96% zinfandel and was also full bodied with many layers of fruit and spice. It was smooth with a long finish.

Ravenswood was another top performer that consistently makes bold zins. Teldeschi 2001 ($30) is a single vineyard wine from Dry Creek that is mostly zinfandel with a little petit syrah and carignane blended in. This wine is a gorilla. Although it has many layers of fruits and spices, the tannins are very prevalent. This wine will be delicious, but I would age it at least 5 years. Monte Rosso 2001($30) is another Ravenswood wine, this one from Sonoma, and it’s composed of 100% zinfandel. It is also a very big wine, but more approachable than the Teldeschi. It’s delicious with character and style.

Montevina Winery was a newer zinfandel producer that impressed me. Their Terra d’Oro Schoolhouse Road 2000 ($20) was a unique blend of 80% zinfandel, 13% petit syrah, and 7% barbera. The barbera heightened the forward fruit, but this fruit was balanced with good acidity and body providing a lush, well made wine. The Terra d’Oro, Deaver 2001 ($20) was made with 100% zinfandel grapes from 118 year old vines. It was a big, bold wine that will age for many years.

The two best offerings under $20 were Peachy Canyon Westside and Rancho Zabaco Sonoma Heritage. These wines were more medium bodied compared with the wines above, but they had good flavor, were not too fruity, and provided good value.

Many times when people talk about zinfandels they refer to the “R’s”, most notably Ridge, Ravenswood, Renwood, and Rosenblum. Redwood has been a good producer in the past, but their 2001 vintage lacked body and character. The wines from Rosenblum were from the 2001 & 2002 vintage, and they were all too plumy.

Zinfandel is a fun grape. The combination of bold fruit and spices make it a great match for a grilled steak. So stoke up the barbeque and crack open a zin.

Wine of the Month: Messapicus Salice Salentino Riserva 1999 ($13)

Tuesday, May 18th, 2004

Salice Salentino is a wine produced in Apulia, a very southern region of Italy, and although sometimes uninspiring or poorly made, Messapicus delivers a homerun. It is a blend of Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera, grapes that date back to the early Greek civilizations. This is a medium bodied wine with ripe lush berries blended with spices. This wine is rich, earthy and smooth; perfect for the summer months.

Worth seeking out…

Monday, May 17th, 2004
  • If you like ice cream and sorbet, then you must visit Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Jon Snyder, the founder of Ciao Bella, opened this artisanal ice cream shop in August 2002. Their main focus is to custom design flavors for chefs, and do so in small handmade batches using the finest ingredients. The good news is that the lab has a small retail shop typically offering 12 different flavors. This gelato is creamy with intense flavor. They are located at 95 Orchard St NYC or www.laboratoriodelgelato.com
  • To add a little more crunch to your breaded dishes like pork chops or soft shell crabs use Panko breadcrumbs. These can be found in the Asian section of your grocery store or gourmet market.