Trattoria Mollie – Montecito, California

Trattoria Mollie in Montecito, California

In its three best-selling editions–published in 2006, 2008 and 2012–National Geographic’s “Passport  to the Best” has enthralled, excited and educated connoisseurs of matters of taste across the globe.  With top ten lists in dozens of categories studded with savvy tips and inspiring imagery, this wayfarer’s bible invigorates investigative yearnings for exotic travel, if for nothing else to confirm or refute the opinion of the authors.  Still, when the  “Passport to the Best” recognized Trattoria Mollie in Montecito, California as “one of the “Ten Best Destination & Special Restaurants in the World,” the honor was probably lost on much of the popular culture demographic. 

Trattoria Mollie has instead garnered much more fame and acclaim courtesy of a rousing endorsement from media mogul Oprah Whitney than from any source.  Oprah reportedly dined at the swank Montecito restaurant every day during the summer of 2006, most often–if not exclusively–enjoying an entree showcasing three turkey meatballs studded with raisins.  It’s an entree she introduced to President Obama during his visit to Trattoria Mollie.  So impressed was Oprah that she also introduced Chef Mollie Ahlstrand to the world on both her popular show and “O” magazine.  As her annual “Oprah’s Favorite Things” episode consistently proved, an endorsement from Oprah carried significant weight.

The petite and beautiful Chef Mollie Ahlstrand

Trattoria Mollie is the eponymous restaurant of an Ethiopian-born chef trained at some of the finest restaurants in and around Rome, including  Arturo’s Aurelia Antica, a favorite restaurant of Pope (now saint) John Paul II.   Preparing heavenly pasta dishes for the pontiff and for a phalanx of celebrity admirers isn’t necessarily what has earned Chef Mollie such a sterling reputation.  Her grace and charm are on display every time she leaves the kitchen to mingle with diners.  Swathed from head to toe in immaculate white, she employs ambassadorial skills in making sure her guests are happy.  She may not visit for very long, but has such a high likeability quotient that you’re left with the impression that you met with beatific greatness. 

Chef Mollie’s guiding principles seem to center around “fresh food prepared by hand” as you’ll be reminded by the wait schtick of a very well trained and amiable server staff.  Mollie purchases many of her vegetables at local farmers’ markets and much of the seafood used at the restaurant is delivered fresh daily by professionals who fish the nearby coastal waters.  You can observe Mollie and her staff in action as you walk into the restaurant.  She’s a veritable whirling dervish of activity, simultaneously performing and guiding the preparation of incomparable Northern Italian cuisine.  It’s why she earned the Five Diamond Silver Medallion Award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences.

Bread with olive oil and Balsamic vinegar in a utilitarian decanter

 The key word there is “hospitality.” It’s not every “celebrity” chef who leaves the comfortable confines of the kitchen to treat all guests as celebrities themselves. Heck, most celebrity chefs rarely even venture into their kitchens any more.  Mollie’s staff embodies a “mia casa, tua casa” spirit in making you feel welcome and valued.  We bantered with our Italian server as to Velveeta’s place on an Italian cheese platter and shared Fathers’ Day sentiments with another.  What we appreciated most, however, was the wait staff’s loving treatment of Tim, our darling dachshund who dined with us. 

You won’t be seated for long before a basket of bread arrives with a very utilitarian decanter holding both olive oil and Balsamic vinegar in one vessel.  The housemade bread is a classic–pillowy soft on the inside with a slightly hard crust on the outside.  It’s an ethereally light bread that soaks up olive oil and (or) Balsamic vinegar.  The wait staff will gladly replenish it if (when is probably more appropriate) you finish it.

Prosciutto and Melon

Trattoria Mollie’s simple menu belies the extraordinary preparation of some of the most sumptuous and extraordinary Italian food you’ll ever have.  The dinner menu includes nine pizzas.  Yes, pizza on an Italian fine-dining menu.  Appetizers, soups and salads are simple too, a far cry from the melange of ingredient combinations other restaurants deploy seemingly to impress, not necessarily to harmonize well together.  Daily specials warrant an attentive ear so you don’t miss out on something luscious. 

We compromised on a simple appetizer of prosciutto and melon, thinly sliced cured ham from Parma, Italy served with fresh cantaloupe.   The key to maximizing your enjoyment of this refreshing delight is to include a bit of each flavor component in each bite.  Considering the prosciutto is whisper thin, but resilient, it’s a bit of a chore, but well worth the effort.  Every ingredient is excellent on its own; together they sing.  The melon, as fruits and vegetables in California tend to be, is fresh, sweet and juicy.

Ossobuco alla Milanese

One of the consequences of the timing of our trip to California was that we missed out on the weekend special at Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho.  We missed out on Joe’s life-altering pork ossobuco, an entree so wondrously prepared, it’s been known to cause rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air foodgasms.  As such, ordering Trattoria Mollie’s Ossobuco Milanese was a no-brainer.  Mollie’s rendition showcases a meaty veal shank prepared in a stew with prosciutto, onions, carrots, celery and rice cooked in a white wine sauce.  It’s an amazing dish as rich and sumptuous as any ossobuco we’ve had, bringing to mind favorable comparisons with Joe’s version. 

Mollie’s special of the evening, Lasagna Bolognese, showcased a sauce which has long been the bane of my dining experiences at Italian restaurants.  In America, Bolognese sauce has become the generic name for a meat and tomato sauce.  It’s been dumbed-down from the way it’s prepared in Italy.  Every prior experience at Italian restaurants in America has left me disappointed and irked at how inauthentic and inferior Bolognese sauces are prepared.  Fortunately Chef Mollie didn’t abandon her Italian training to suit American tastes.

Lasagna Bolognese

The Bolognese sauce on the lasagna was absolutely fabulous–so much so that I probably took an unfairly profligate number of spoonfuls from Kim’s plate.  We could never have imagined Lasagna Bolognese to be a superior entree to an Ossobuco entree, but it was!  What made the Bolognese transformative were several elements.  First, the sauce didn’t overwhelm us with tomatoes which, as intended, are a complementary ingredient to the meat, a lean ground beef coupled with high-quality pancetta.  Secondly, the sauce may have been prepared with a bit of milk, the telltale signs being the more orange than red color of the sauce and the tenderness of the meat.   Thirdly, the sauce was lightly seasoned.  None of the aromatic spices–not even bay leave–were in evidence.  Lastly, freshly grated authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano was used in perfect proportion to other ingredients.  This is a dish about which we’ll dream for a long time.

After all the dishes have been picked up,  a variety of delightful Italian cookies and biscotti are delivered to your table.  They offer a textural and flavor-profile variety which makes them a perfect post-prandial treat, not that you should miss out on Trattoria Mollie’s desserts.  Though the Dolci Fatti in Casa (housemade desserts) menu is tempting, for taste and textural contrast, you can’t beat the Formaggio Assortito, assorted Italian cheeses and fresh fruits.  The cheeses are a wonderfully sensual delight with textures ranging from hard and crumbly to soft and light and flavors ranging from sharp and nutty to sweet and milky.  The fruits–red and green grapes, strawberries and apples–provide a delicious contrast.

Formaggio Assortito: Assorted imported Italian cheeses and fresh fruit

Trattoria Mollie is an experiential delight that will remind you what hospitality is all about while introducing you to some of the most magnificently prepared Italian food you’ll ever have.

TRATTORIA MOLLIE
1250 Coast Village Road
Montecito, California
(805) 565-9381
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 June 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Lasagna Bolognese, Osso Bucco, Prosciutto and Melon,

Trattoria Mollie on Urbanspoon

JENNIFER JAMES 101 – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Jennifer James 101 on Menaul

The number 101 has some very interesting connotations.  If you grew up in the 60s, you might remember the Benson & Hedges cigarette jingle, “One, oh, one, one, oh, one, a silly little millimeter longer one, oh, one, a silly millimeter longer.”  Talk about ear wax.  That jingle was like It’s A Small World and the Gilligan’s Island theme.  Once you got it into your head, you couldn’t get rid of it.

My brainiac mathematician friend Bill Resnik appreciates that 101 is the 26th prime number.  He points out that it’s also a palindromic number (a sequence that reads the same forward and backwards) or rather a palindromic prime.  Geekier friends like Craig Stegman and Kenny Sanchez, developers extraordinaire, know 101 as a dreaded “fatal error” status code. In academics, 101 connotes a beginning or basic-level course number taught in universities in many English speaking countries.  English 101, for example, is typically a remedial English course (not that I’d personally know anything about that).  It’s where students brush up on the basics to prepare themselves for upper level courses.

So why would Jennifer James, arguably Albuquerque’s very best chef, choose the number 101 to share her name on her restaurant’s appellation?   It’s all about going back to basics–not in the remedial sense of the word, but in the sense that basics connotes simple, clean food.  Of course, under her deft hands, simple food is prepared with the freshest, seasonal local ingredients available and  is executed so exceptionally well  that those ingredients literally speak for themselves.  101 also implies the chef’s willingness to learning constantly while imparting the fruits of her lessons to her customers–lessons such as the spirit of sustainability and the use of local ingredients.

At Jennifer James 101 (JJ101), you won’t find the fusion of disparate ingredients competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds.  Instead, you’ll find surprisingly simple flavor combinations which work well together harmoniously.  Dinner at JJ101 is your taste buds’ equivalent of a sweet symphony performed flawlessly in your mouth–the type of symphony for which your taste buds will desire encores.  As with a moving symphony,  blissful satisfaction will have your mind recalling every subtle nuance and concordant flavor profile of a truly captivating meal prepared by a consummate virtuoso.

A slice of bread with flavored butter

Jennifer James didn’t so much burst upon the fledgling Duke City dining scene as she did  win it  over quietly, but decisively.  While savvy diners  and a smitten media  certainly heralded the talented chef as a  formidable  force to watch,  their acclaim –though reverential in tone–seemed somewhat subdued, as if awaiting something even bigger and better than her first  eponymous venture,  the  diminutive but fabulous Jennifer James Contemporary Cuisine (on San Mateo).  That something “bigger and better” became manifest in 2002 when she launched Graze, a tapas restaurant which cemented her reputation as perhaps the city’s very best chef.

Graze was undeniably one of Albuquerque’s most popular and innovative restaurants, the cynosure of the burgeoning Nob Hill area dining scene.  After nearly four years at the helm of arguably the city’s most progressive restaurant, Jennifer left Graze, resultant from the dissolution of a business partnership in which a common vision and direction was no longer shared among parties.  She took a brief (albeit interminable for her followers going through  JJ withdrawal) sabbatical during which she traveled, cooked and planned her next venture.

Fortunately she chose to remain in Albuquerque which she sees as being on the cusp of emerging as a formidable dining destination.  JJ101 opened on April 29th, 2008, oddly well-distanced from the Nob Hill district which seems to preternaturally draw much of the city’s culinary innovation.  The restaurant is instead ensconced in an area not especially regarded for its restaurants, a denizen of a strip mall on Menaul, just a few blocks west of the Coronado Mall.  Interestingly, the “anchor tenant” of that restaurant for more than a year was a hot dog joint that has since left the area.

In 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 (five consecutive years) Jennifer James was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as best chef in the southwest, a validation of her place among the nation’s elite chefs.  A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world and is widely regarded as its equivalent of an Academy Award.  It’s quite likely the other nominees weren’t self-taught as Jennifer was.  Spending her childhood on a farm in Illinois had a profound influence that permeates her philosophies on fresh, farm to table ingredients.

Large family dinners also engendered an appreciation for community, the sharing of food.  In her fabulous tome, An Alphabet for Gourmets, M. F. K. Fisher wrote “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” Jennifer’s restaurants have cultivated that spirit.  At Graze, diners would order several different appetizer-sized small plates and share them among the table, a practice encouraged and facilitated.

The restaurant’s color palate is an interesting blend dominated by ocre-rouge walls punctuated by long, thin mirrors positioned both vertically and horizontally.  The ceilings have the contemporary touch of exposed dark grey ductwork.  Tables are adorned with white linen cloth contrasted by the black-backed chairs which are more functional than comfortable.  The solid, blond hardwood floors and suspended lampshade-style lighting provide plenty of illumination.

Menus are seasonal and even at that, are subject to change based on the availability of ingredients.  The menus are also small, a limited number of first course appetizers and a second main course menu plus the day’s specials.  Freshness of ingredients is absolutely guaranteed–in part because of the chef’s commitment, but also because the restaurant is too small to accommodate much storage.  As much as possible, ingredients are procured locally from area farmers with whom relationships have been established.  Fish is flown in overnight from the Pacific Northwest with wild river salmon a favorite.

Shortly after you’re seating, the amuse bouche of the day is brought to your table. Fortune smiles upon you if it’s the pickled cucumbers and onions.  Served in a small ramekin reminiscent of those used in Korean restaurants for the variety of pickled vegetable dishes known collectively as namul, this is a fabulous introduction to the creative simplicity of a brilliant chef.  The cucumbers are sliced razor-thin, almost to the point of being transparent.  Wholly unlike sour dill pickles, this cucumber-onion amalgam is sweet without being cloying, tangy without pursing your lips and crunchy with a snap of freshness.

The staff of life featured at JJ101 is a crusty slice of bread; it comes courtesy of Santa Fe’s Sage Bakehouse, an artisan baker non-pareil.  It’s a delicious masterpiece studded by another unique Jennifer James twist–butter accentuated by complementary ingredients you might not believe can improve butter as much as they do.  Think butter tinged with a subtle hint of curry or lemon, neither in such quantity that they dominate your taste buds, but both in perfect proportion to tease and tantalize them when spread on a yeasty canvas.

Appetizers

21 June 2008: Years of dining at Jennifer James restaurants should have taught me not to be surprised at just how wonderfully executed simple foods are under her talented hands, but every visit brings with it new surprises.  One of my favorite first-course surprises is the freshness and deliciousness of flash-fried oysters.  As good…make that better…than any I’ve had in New Orleans, these pearlescent beauties are sheathed in a thin, golden batter that crunches slightly as you bite into them, releasing the briny sweetness characteristic of fresh oysters.

Arugula Salad

22 May 2010: Another first course executed extremely well is an arugula salad with dried apricots and a hazelnut vinaigrette.  As with many Jennifer James creations, it’s not overdone with a plethora of ingredients; it’s a mound of fresh arugula leaves with just enough dried apricots for contrast.  It’s an interesting contrast at that.  Arugula is an aromatic salad green with a slightly peppery flavor while dried apricots have a burst of sweetness tinged with just a hint of tanginess.  The hazelnut vinaigrette is lightly applied and provides an interestingly crunchy texture to the greenery.

Ahi Tuna Sashimi, Tatsoi, Wasabi-Soy Vinaigrette, Ginger

3 August 2012: For diners who appreciate a greater greenery variety than the small garden salad usually served with sushi, many Japanese restaurants have a section on the menu dedicated to salads. Typically Japanese salads are crunchy, sprightly and made with fresh ingredients including sashimi, but too many are given misleading names such as “Viagra” and are then dressed with an overly sweet-tangy dressing which deflates the salad’s heat-generating properties. Leave it to Jennifer James to create a Japanese inspired salad with a better balance of flavors than we’ve experienced at any Japanese restaurant. Instead of conventional greens, the salad is made with tatsoi (sometimes called spinach mustard) which has lush green, spoon-shaped leaves and a sharp, strong, slightly spicy flavor. The salad is stacked with gloriously red, wonderfully fresh ahi tuna then drizzled with a wasabi-soy vinaigrette tinged with ginger which accentuates the wasabi without watering your eyes or overpowering other ingredients. Featured in the summer 2012 menu, it’s easily one of the best Japanese inspired salads I’ve ever had.

Caramelized onion and garlic galette with Gruyere

3 August 2012: Almost at the opposite extreme of the ahi tuna salad and its complex flavor profile is a caramelized onion and garlic galette which is magnificent because of its simplicity and delicateness. The term galette has been used to describe a fairly wide variety of flaky pastries which can be filled with either savory or sweet ingredients, but the best description I’ve read comes from Noelle Carter of the Los Angeles Times who calls the galette “pie’s free-form cousin.” In filling the galette with caramelized onions, JJ101 managed a harmonious interplay of both sweet and savory. The onions are browned slowly so the onion’s natural sugars caramelize, emphasizing its natural sweetness. A sheen of Gruyere, a slightly sweet, slightly musty cheese tops the galette. It’s a wonderful marriage. The galette itself is light and flaky with rich, buttery undertones.

Lobster tail salad

Chilled Lobster  salad

10 March 2014: During an intimate evening with Merry Edwards, the Doyenne of California winemakers, JJ101 showcased the pairing of wine and food.  Holding fast to my stance that I won’t drink (not even a drop) adult beverages when driving, I can’t offer a first-hand perspective on the quality of the wines, but every diner at our table raved about them.  A Sauvignon Blanc was paired with a chilled lobster salad as luxurious and fresh as any you’ll find in Maine.  The lobster had a remarkable for New Mexico “just caught” freshness with chilled, not frozen flavor.  The bite-sized chunks of lobster meat from the tail and claws were delicate and sweet, steamed to perfection.  Unctuous avocados, tangy grapefruits and sliced red peppers provided complementary and contrasting elements to the light salad drizzled sparsely with a light dressing.  It was a perfect way to begin a terrific evening.

Entrees

Oyster Po’ Boy with bacon-salted housemade chips

3 August 2012: With her first bite of the fried oyster Po’ Boy, our friend Kimber Scott enthusiastically proclaimed the oysters “the best I’ve ever had.” That’s quite an endorsement considering Kimber hailed from Houston, Texas where the Gulf Coast’s silky, pearlescent beauties are extracted from cool waters every day. We lived 90 miles east of New Orleans where we also had boatloads of oyster Po’ Boys and none were nearly as good as JJ’s version. Interestingly, the best fried oysters I’ve ever had come from Albuquerque restaurants—JJ101 and Cafe Jean Pierre. These oysters are fried in a light batter which yields with a satisfying crunch to the warm, moist, and succulent oyster within. Their flavor is deeply earthy and satisfying, and the experience might lead one to prayer of gratitude. The Po’ Boy is served with housemade chips flavored with a bacon salt.

Grilled buffalo New York strip steak with Crispy Shallots

3 August 2012: Steaks are a frequent offering on the seasonal repertory, and not always beef steaks. The Summer, 2012 menu included a grilled buffalo New York strip steak which has far fewer calories and saturated fat than steaks made from beef. Buffalo also has a “sweeter” and livelier flavor than beef without gaminess. Jennifer James manages a seared-in charred crust that belies a medium-rare degree of doneness, not an easy feat. The steak is tender with a flavor reminiscent of high quality, high grade beef. Similar to premium steak and chop houses throughout the Midwest, the steak is topped with a melting butter (olive oil butter in this case) which adds a moist glaze and penetrates the meat with a subtle buttery flavor. The steak is then topped with crispy shallots, luscious tangles of sweet onions and certainly not a gourmet twist on French’s fried onions. 

Wagyu Beef with Tallow Frites

Wagyu Beef with Tallow Frites

10 March 2014:  In recent years, wagyu beef has become so de rigueur in fine dining restaurants that the novelty is all but worn out and the thrill is all but gone.  Given the option of a wagyu beef steak or a USDA Prime Beef (dry-aged, of course), many diners will opt for the latter.  Wagyu beef at JJ101 should never elicit a ho-hum reaction.  Not only is the beef characteristically rich and unctuous with a perfect marbling of fat to meat ratio, it is as carne adovada tender.  During a wine-tasting dinner honoring winemaker extraordinaire Merry Edwards, JJ101 infused wagyu beef with a huckleberry and molasses sauce which imparted a slightly sweet-tart flavor.  Wonderful as the wagyu beef was, the conversation at our table centered around the herb-tallow frites which all agreed were among the very best we’ve ever had.  Tallow (rendered fat), by the way, is what made McDonald’s fries so good.  JJ101’s herb-tallow fries would put McDonald’s fries to shame.  They’re crisp on the outside, fluffy and light on the inside and nicely salted.

Almond Crusted Halibut

22 May 2010: Back to basics with seafood means letting its inherent flavors shine on their own with very little embellishment to complement (and certainly not mask) those flavors.  In too many restaurants seafood is desecrated with ingredients seemingly trying to render the seafood fruity or cloying.  It’s an abomination!  Those purveyors of fishy perversion should take a lesson from Jennifer James and let the seafood speak for itself.They could start by trying to mimic Jennifer’s almond-crusted halibut.  The nutty crunch of a lightly-applied almond crust is a nice surprise, but the better surprise is just how moist and tender the halibut is and how delicate and flaky its white flesh is.  Halibut is a mild-tasting fish especially popular among those who don’t like “fishy-tasting” seafood.  It is served with a basmati rice so light and delicate as to have ethereal qualities, especially when sitting on a shallow pool of a  superb curry vinaigrette.  Sliced carrots prepared in accordance with French tradition are sweet and delicious with a snap of freshness.

Fried catfish, bacon hushpuppies, chow chow and black pepper aioli

22 May 2010: Having spent eight years in Mississippi and in close proximity to America’s most prolific aquaculture industry, I’ve long lamented the absence of great catfish in New Mexico.  Restaurateurs in the Land of Enchantment seem determined to coat catfish in sawdust and serve it as desiccated as beef jerky.  Jennifer James’ version of  fried catfish is several orders of magnitude better than any catfish I’ve had in New Mexico and on par with the very best experienced in the Magnolia State.  Two filets of lightly-coated catfish about a half-inch thick are moist and fresh, an exemplar of flavor.

The catfish are served with hushpuppies impregnated with bacon.  Hushpuppies are deep-fried cornmeal dumplings that traditionally accompany catfish throughout the South.  Bacon is a whimsical Jennifer James improvisation that works exceptionally well.  So does the chow chow, an American pickled relish served throughout the South.  Chow chow is made with a variety of ingredients which generally have a balanced flavor profile that includes just enough piquancy to grab your attention as well as sweet and tangy pronouncements.  Jennifer James’ version is the very best I’ve ever had–even better than the chow chow in a New Orleans French market off Jackson Square.

Risotto: roasted squash, tuscan kale, parmesan, pumpkin seeds

17 November 2010: I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that in my entire half century on this planet, I’ve had outstanding risotto only a handful of times.  By outstanding, I mean the type of risotto that elicited the type of reaction one of George Costanza’s girlfriends had when partaking of an especially wonderful risotto. In a memorable Seinfeld episode, the post-coital ritual of lighting up a cigarette was lampooned–only in this case George Costanza’s girlfriend lit up contentedly after a satisfying meal of risotto. The noisy ardor with which she consumed the risotto was something the ego-fragile George couldn’t elicit from her in the bedroom.

Jennifer James’ version of risotto is in the upper tier of the best risotto I’ve ever had and unlike others in that elite class, it isn’t studded with lobster, seafood or honey-roasted duck as were other memorable entrees of risotto I’ve had.  In fact, unlike the risotto that now exists solely in fond memories, the 101 version doesn’t include seafood or poultry.  The JJ version is a celebration of fall’s bounty, showcasing roasted squash, Tuscan kale, Parmesan and pumpkin seeds.  A risotto this absolutely perfect, so stunningly delicious undoubtedly requires very close tending to as risotto is a complex, multi-step to prepare entree.  The fruits of that monitoring is a rich, smooth, creamy…and comforting consistency coupled with a rare deliciousness rarely found in any rice entree. 

Risotto with Pork Belly

Risotto with Pork Belly

10 March 2014:  Aside from the company of Franzi, Albuquerque’s most beauteous barrister, the highlight of my evening during the Merry Edwards wine-tasting dinner was an incredibly rich, swoon-inspiring risotto punctuated with crispy pork jowl “chicharrones”, thinly sliced radishes and micro-herbs and served with a pork belly hunk.  The risotto joins the pantheon of rarefied risotto I’ve had–a risotto so good, it made a convert out of a nay-sayer at our table who believes the origin of risotto to have been an accident wrought by overcooking.  The pork belly was no accident.  It was porcine perfection, the answer to the critics who decry bacon to be “so over.”

Corn Smut – Fresh Corn Tamale, Chipotle Cream, Roasted Corn Salsa

3 August 2012: Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations have been reportedly making tamales at least since 5000BC. Although New Mexicans (we’re so spoiled) tend to associate tamales with corn husks filled with steamed corn masa and chile marinated pork, the versatility of tamales is virtually endless. The options, both sweet and savory, are limited solely by the imagination. JJ puts her own unique spin in creating some of the very best non- traditionally New Mexican tamales I’ve had and showcasing them in the Summer, 2012 menu. Sweet corn masa is punctuated by the unique flavor of huitlacoche (corn smut on the menu), a gnarly, slimy, sometimes gooey, ink-black corn fungus long savored in Mexico. Corn smut is imbued with an earthy, musky flavor some compare to truffles. The tamales are topped with a roasted corn salsa made from corn niblets scraped from the cob and a chipotle cream which packs a delightful punch.

Yogurt-marinated grilled chicken breast, Tabbouleh, Tomatoes

3 August 2012: It’s long been my concerted opinion that the one protein which is most vastly underutilized below its potential is chicken. Still, so many restaurants serve a perfunctory chicken breast entrée, most so boring they can render diners narcoleptic. Many are predictably bland and the restaurant’s efforts to provide something dietetic. JJ101 brings chicken to life! Her yogurt-marinated grilled chicken breast renders chicken more than interesting; it makes it delicious. The grilling process imprints the chicken breast with a deliciously charred crust. The chicken itself is moist and flavorful with briny notes. Accompaniments include a timbale-shaped “summery” fresh tabbouleh topped with sliced tomatoes.

Grilled mahi mahi, roasted parsnips, garlic confit, lemon, butter, parsley

17 November 2010: Deliciousness is imparted on every morsel of JJ’s grilled mahi mahi served with roasted parsnips, roasted garlic and parsley.  The subtlety of the butter, lemon and garlic confit with which the mahi mahi is grilled is like a sweet whisper across the pillow from a lover.  That subtlety means the flavor of the mahi mahi comes across wonderfully.  Interestingly mahi mahi translates from Hawaiian to “strong, strong” not because its flavor is especially strong, but because of its strength and fighting ability.  Thankfully that strength doesn’t translate to its flavor which can be exceptional.  It’s not “fishy” tasting and has a firm white flesh with a slightly sweet flavor needing little help to shine.  JJ obviously realizes this.  The accompaniment–roasted parsnips, roasted garlic and parsley are terrific in their own right.

Dessert

Hot milk cake with fresh strawberries and cream

22 May 2010: The dessert menu lists only a handful of post-prandial treats and as with other menus, offerings showcase seasonally available ingredients.  Early summer might mean a hot milk cake with fresh strawberries and cream, Jennifer James’ version of strawberry shortcake but legions better.  Hot milk cake is not unlike tres leches cake in that it’s moist and buttery though not nearly as spongy as its Mexican relative.  It’s also a cake so difficult to prepare correctly that only the most confident and well-practiced chefs should endeavor to do so.  The strawberries and cream transported me to the banks of the Windrush River in Bourton on the Water where I last had strawberries as succulent, fresh and delicious and cream so delightfully graceful and light.

Top: New Mexico Honey Panna Cotta with Plums
Bottom: Chocolate Cream Pie

3 August 2012: The Summer, 2012 menu featured seasonal desserts showcasing cool, fresh ingredients and fruits in season. The New Mexico Honey Panna Cotta with Plums answers the question “what would silk taste like.” The panna cotta, an Italian cooked cream dessert has an ethereal, slightly wobbly texture and a flavor that hints of star anise. It’s topped with wondrous New Mexico honey, the best in the world (but I’m not biased about my home state). The plums are fresh and juicy with a sweet tanginess that complements the more neutral sweetness of the panna cotta. The Chocolate Cream Pie is dense and dreamy, a chocolate lover’s little piece of heaven. The chocolate is, much like French gateaus, not overly sweet or bitter, but deeply chocolaty. It’s also deeply addictive.

Plum Cake with Black Pepper Ice Cream

Plum Cake with Black Pepper Ice Cream

10 March 2014:  There may be no challenge as formidable as declaring one dessert (appetizer or entree, too, for that matter) at JJ101 your very favorite.  Just when you thought you’ve experienced perfection, you partake of something that exceeds perfection.  My current favorite dessert at JJ101 (at least until my next visit) is a brown sugar cake stuffed with tangy red plums topped with a dollop of black pepper ice cream.  Every element of this dessert stands out.  Every element comes together.  The sweet-tangy, richly flavored amber fleshed plums marry oh so memorably with black pepper (who’d have thought) ice cream.  By itself, the brown sugar cake would have earned my adulation.  The coalescence–the whole–earned my devotion.

Chocolate Pudding Cake

17 November 2010: Another exceptional desert is the chocolate pudding cake made with an adult chocolate (semi-sweet).  It is a rich and moist, its center not quite of molten liquidity as pudding-influenced cakes sometimes tend to be.  Instead, the moistness is distributed evenly throughout the cake.  Every forkful is blessed with a sexy sweetness that imparts itself on your taste buds for a while. 

In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Jennifer James’ fried kale a “Hot Plate Award” as the “Hot Garnish” Albuquerque can’t live without. Frankly, “can’t live without” could describe almost everything on the menu.  The reasons for which she was nominated for a James Beard award are in evidence in every meal at Jennifer James 101.  It’s a transformative experience for cynics who decry what can be done with simplicity and freshness of ingredients.  It’s back to basics in the very best sense of the term–and it’s much more than a silly millimeter better than most restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.

JENNIFER JAMES 101
4615 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2014
1st VISIT: 21 June 2008
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 26
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Fried Oysters, Foie Gras, Arugula Salad, Almond-Crusted Halibut, Fried Catfish, Milk Cake, New York Strip, Chocolate Pudding Cake, Risotto, Mahi Mahi, Oyster Po’ Boy, Yogurt-marinated grilled chicken breast, Grilled buffalo New York strip steak, Caramelized onion and garlic galette, Ahi Tuna Sashimi, Corn Smut – Fresh Corn Tamale, Lobster Salad, Wagyu Beef, Red Plum Cake

Jennifer James 101 on Urbanspoon

Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar – La Jolla, California

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La Jolla’s Grande Colonial Hotel, home of the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar

My baby sister Anita paid me the ultimate compliment, not as a brother, but as a savvy restaurant essayist. When we ran into her at the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar in picturesque La Jolla, she told me “I knew you’d find this place,” acknowledgement that she recognizes my prowess in finding the very best restaurants everywhere I travel. Born nine years apart with four siblings in between, Anita and I are anomalies in our family in that we’re passionate gastronomes in a brood which suffers the same dull palate deficiency which afflicts many Americans who prefer chain restaurants.

Unbeknownst to us, Anita, her hunky husband Andy and their precocious, beautiful Emily were staying in La Jolla’s Grande Colonial Hotel, just a few miles from our rental home. Leave it to Anita to stay in the hotel housing the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar which was accorded the 2013 Gold Medallion Award as California’s best hotel restaurant in the fine dining category. Our other siblings would have been just as happy staying in a hotel adjacent to the Olive Garden.

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The dog-friendly patio where our Tim and Callie celebrated their ninth birthday

2013 marks the Grande Colonial centennial anniversary as the oldest hotel in La Jolla. The opulent grand damme, within strolling distance of La Jolla Cove, remains as stylish as many an elegant European hotel with mahogany trim and wood moldings as well as stylish lead chandeliers and crystal doorknobs. The Nine-Ten Restaurant, named for its address on 910 Prospect Drive, opened in July, 2001. Since its launch, the restaurant has earned almost every conceivable accolade: an “extraordinary to perfection” rating from Zagat, the California Restaurant Association’s “Best hotel Restaurant” designation, Gayot’s “Top Ten Gastronomy Cuisine Restaurants in the United States” award and many more.

More importantly for us, the Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar earned a five bones rating from BringFido.com, an online resource for locating dog-friendly restaurants, lodging, air travel and more. Food and Wine also praised Nine-Ten for its dog friendly nature, noting that “the dining staff is especially accommodating to dogs, setting out water bowls and treats, and occasionally hosting dog parties on the patio.” Our darling dachshunds Tim and Callie certainly enjoyed their visit, especially when so many dog lovers stopped by to ooh and ah at them.

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An asparagus soup, light on cream, with pea pods

Nine-Ten’s executive chef Jason Knibb earned a broader national profile when he became San Diego’s first “cheftestant” on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America program where he was bested by Iron Chef Bobby Flay in battle caviar. In culinary circles, he’s much better known for the many accolades he’s earned and for his mastery of “California cuisine,” that fusion of disparate ingredients and cooking styles emphasizing the use of fresh, local ingredients. The chef changes the menu based on the growing season, procuring fresh produce from highly reputable local artisan farmers.

Special prix fixe menus are available daily and feature matching wines from the extensive, Wine Spectator-awarded wine cellar. For dinner, that means one hot or cold starter, one entrée, one dessert or one cheese. Intrepid diners desiring a true epicurean experience can put themselves at the “Mercy of the Chef”, a special prix fixe menu created at the whim and inspiration of the Chef and featuring matching wines. Frankly, you can put yourself at the mercy of the wait staff, too, because they know the menu well and make savvy recommendations.

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Taste of Four Cheese served with bread & accompaniments

One such recommendation was the soup of the day, an asparagus soup infused with pea pods. The soup’s neon green color bespoke of its freshness, but didn’t prepare us for its deliciousness. Especially remarkable is the fact that the soup was not of the cream of asparagus variety (a lot of cream will make almost any type of soup taste good). In fact, there was very little cream used on the soup. It was mostly pureed asparagus seasoned lightly and allowed to shine. Pea pods proved a very complementary partner, introducing elements of sweetness to the soup.

A simple salad of locally grown mixed organic greens with a champagne vinaigrette was similarly remarkable for its simplicity. The best and most intrepid of chefs allow ingredients to speak for themselves with seasonings and dressings used sparingly and only to accentuate the native flavors of those ingredients. The lightly applied champagne vinaigrette meant we could enjoy the organic greens with the flavors bestowed by fertile soil, sunlight and irrigation. When it comes to salad, simple can mean spectacular.

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Hanger Steak with roasted baby turnips, carrots, chanterelle mushrooms, parsnip purée, Cabernet reduction

Several years ago much to the consternation of PETA, television commercials introduced the slogan “Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California.” Whether the commercials bolstered the market for California’s artisan cheeses is debatable, but they did resonate with us. In most of our dining experiences at restaurants featuring California cuisine, we indulge in cheeses. The cheeses don’t always come from California, but they’re almost always delicious.

The “taste of four cheeses” with bread and accompaniments at Nine-Ten is an exemplary cheese plate, but it might not make California cows happy because no California cheeses are showcased. Instead, you’ll find Taleggio, an Italian cow’s milk cheese served with fig jam; Drunken Goat, a firm goat’s milk cheese from Spain served with fried almonds; Shaft’s Blue, a soft cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin served with apple slices; and Manchego, a sheep’s milk cheese from Spain served with pickled walnuts. This cheese plate provides great variety in flavor and texture, smartly employing palate cleansing accompaniments on which you can nosh in between frolicking in the fromage.

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Loch Duart Salmon: celery root puree, Swiss chard, roasted baby apples & salsify, apple cider gastrique

One of the dishes best exemplifying California cuisine is the hanger steak which is served with roasted baby turnips, carrots, Chanterelle mushrooms, parsnip puree and a Cabernet reduction. The hanger steak, a lean and thin cut of beef, is cut into strips and is absolutely perfect at a shade under medium. Most surprisingly is how very tender–cut with a fork tender–this cut is served. We’ve often found hanger steak tough and stringy when used on fajitas. The Cabernet reduction imbues the steak with a moist viscosity and smoothness while the vegetable accompaniment would make the most recalcitrant of children learn to love vegetables. Alas, there weren’t enough of us to suit our adult palates.

It’s with decreasing frequency that we order salmon in New Mexico. Despite often being prefaced by such terms as “wild caught salmon harvested by fishermen,” a residual “fishiness” belies any purported freshness. Nine-Ten’s Loch Duart Salmon is the best salmon we’ve had in many a year. As can be gleaned from the name, Loch Duart Salmon comes from Scotland and has been consistently judged superior in taste, quality, color and overall perception. While fruity flavors and fish don’t often go well together, the apple cider gastrique applied onto the salmon created a perfect marriage of savory-brininess tinged with just a hint of tangy sweetness. The accompanying vegetables–celery root puree, Swiss chard, roasted baby apples–were a tease. We wanted a plateful and received spoonfuls.

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Meyer Lemon Tart topped with raspberries and edible flowers; side of basil ice cream with cookie crumbs

Desserts are not to be missed. They’re as creative and delicious as dessert can be. On its own, the Meyer Lemon Tart would have made a sensational post-prandial indulgence. You would have been deliriously happy to devour it and call it a fabulous way to end a meal. Topped with raspberries and edible flowers, it purses your lips ever so slightly with its tanginess. The edible flowers provide a delicate, almost minty flavor while the raspberries are ever so fresh. The most welcome addition to this dessert is a single scoop of basil ice cream. It’s as refreshing as it sounds, as good as any Thai dish employing fresh basil.

At the other flavor profile extreme is the half-baked chocolate cake drizzled with caramel sauce and topped with vanilla bean ice cream. Its name foretells of its texture. The cake has an almost molten quality to it and it’s served warm so the ice cream melts almost immediately. Only the edges of this cake are cake-like. The rest is gooey (but not like melted caramel), rich and absolutely decadent.

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Half Baked Chocolate Cake: caramel sauce with vanilla bean ice cream

During our next family reunion, Anita and I would probably want it held at a restaurant like Nine-Ten, but may wind up at Red Lobster instead. Anything to maintain peace in the family.

Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar
910 Prospect Street
La Jolla, California
(858) 964-5400
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 4 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 26
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Asparagus Soup, Taste of Four Cheeses, Hangar Steak, Loch Duart Salmon, Lemon Tart, Half Baked Chocolate Cake

Nine Ten on Urbanspoon

Pizzeria Mozza – Newport Beach, California

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Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach, California

Breadmaking is one of those almost hypnotic businesses,
like a dance from some ancient ceremony.
It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells
–there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise,
no hour of meditation in a music throbbing chapel
that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this
homely ceremony of making bread.”
~M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating

For those of us geriatrically advanced enough to have had moms who actually baked bread in their ovens, the singular joy of those incredible yeasty bouquets wafting toward us is a treasured memory, one we relive when we visit old-fashioned bakeries. The sense of smell, more than any of our other senses, influences our ability to recall past events and experience. It’s very well established that fragrance is one of the most potent mediums for conjuring up a memory and for tugging at the heart strings.  

At most pizzerias, it’s the aroma of garlic and sauce simmering on the stove that greet you, sometimes even before you walk in.  Step into Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach, California and your sense of smell might go into overdrive as your nose seeks out the incomparable fragrance of baking bread.  That, at least, was my inclination knowing that one of the three partners who founded and own Pizzeria Mozza also founded one of America’s most hallowed havens for the staff of life.

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Main dining room at Mozza Pizzeria

That partner would be Nancy Silverton, founder of LaBrea Bakery, the premier artisan bread brand in the country.  Founded in 1989, LaBrea Bakery sparked an artisan bread renaissance, ultimately leading to the bakery’s breads being sold at premier grocery stores and restaurants across the fruited plain.  Today, as La Brea Bakery celebrates it’s 20th Anniversary, its freshly baked, old-world breads are available in 17 different countries.   Longtime visitors will tell you LaBrea maintains the same signature taste, texture, and quality that was born in South La Brea Avenue so many years ago.

The other two partners are household names among foodies.  One is Mario Batali, the peripatetic restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality.  Batali is renowned for pushing the envelope, taking a contemporary approach to traditional cooking.  In doing so, he has earned a number of James Beard awards.  The third partner is Joe Bastianich, a restaurant impresario who partnered with Batali to launch Babbo, one o the most highly regarded Italian restaurants in America.

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Fried squash blossoms with ricotta
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

When it first launched in Los Angeles in 2007, Pizzeria Mozza instantly became one of the hottest reservations in the Los Angeles area.  Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize and James Beard award-winning food critic Jonathan Gold called Pizzeria Mozza  “the hottest restaurant opening since Spago launched in 1982.”   Six years later, reservations are still a must.  Based on its success, it was a given that  Pizzeria Mozza spin-offs would open, the second launching in 2010 some 8,782 miles away in Singapore.  The third opened in Newport Beach in 2011.

Whether by design or by accident, the Newport Beach restaurant evokes images of Batali’s signature crocs.  Both the signage and awning are the same bright orange color Batali sports on his feet.  The cynosure of the main dining room is a brick wood-burning oven which will bake a pizza in three minutes at temperatures of 500-600 degrees, burning only almond wood.  Seating along the bar is in personal space proximity, but it might be worth getting to know your neighbors just to be able to imbibe the preternatural melding of fragrant smoke and baking bread.  

Pane Pomodoro with Speck, Burrata and Pickled Ramps

Pane Pomodoro with Speck, Burrata and Pickled Ramps
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

The menu is an exercise in salivation control.  It reads like a delicious novel, each item conflicting you between wanting to order it immediately or reading further just in case there’s something even better.  Fortunately our inaugural visit was with friend and passionate fellow foodie Sandy Driscoll, an LA resident who’s navigated her way through the menu during several visits.  Sandy is the very best kind of friend for visiting restaurants, the type of friend with which whom you’re comfortable reaching over with fork or spoon and sampling each others’ food is expected.  Male friends don’t share in this way.

The menu is segmented sensibly, starting with some thirteen antipasti, all showcasing the fresh bounty of California’s farms.  Next on the menu are five insalate, each one desirable.  Carne–four Italian meat dishes the envy of any charcuterie–follows then it’s bruschette, three toasted bread offerings topped with assorted ingredients.  Three panini are also available, but by the time you’ve read this far, you’re ready to peruse and imbibe the pizza menu, thirteen different pies as inventive and inviting as possible.  It’s likely that only after you’ve sampled all of the previous fare that you’ll even look at the piatti on the back side of the menu.  The piatti are three specials of the day (such as brasato al barolo).

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Bone Marrow Al Forno with garlic, sea salt and parsley
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

The fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta is a farmers’ market favorite available seasonally.  The squash blossoms are ethereal, sheathed in a delicate tissue-thin batter tinged with just a bit of sea salt.  The bulbous flower yields sweet-savory cheese nectar with each bite.  As with all antipasti on the menu, the squash blossoms are decadent and delicious, but they don’t linger and by the time you get your pizza, will remain a pleasant memory.   

Since Sandy introduced me to burrata several years ago, it’s been on my “must order” list. Burrata, an almost unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella, is ethereal in its texture and as rich and creamy a cheese as you’ll find. In fact, in Italian Burrata actually translates to “buttered.” It bears a strong resemblance to mozzarella, but is much softer and when penetrated by a knife or fork, has an interior that spills out, revealing unctuous, stringy curd and fresh cream.

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Prosciutto di Parma, Rucola, Tomato (certified organic tomatoes grown in Los Gatos, California by Robert DiNapoli and Chris Bianco) and Mozzarella di Bufala

At Pizzeria Mozza, burrata is available as a condimenti for your pizza, but can also be found on the bruschette menu.  More specifically, burrata shares canvas space on a perfectly toasted pane with speck (a salt-cured and smoked juniper-flavored Italian ham) and pickled ramps.  Every ingredient atop the bruschette is fabulous in its own right; together the combination may elicit a foodgasm or two.  The whisper-thin speck is porcine perfection.  The pickled ramps are infused with a sweet-tangy marinade which renders every bit of them thoroughly delicious.  The burrata was, of course, outstanding. 

Since a 2012 visit to The Purple Pig on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, bone marrow al forno has become an obsession, one for which I would endure twelve Herculean labors. While other foods may be considered rich, bone marrow is almost obscenely so.  It’s one of the richest, most unctuous ingredients available.  At Pizzeria Mozza, two split-roasted beef bones reveal in troth-fashion, a trove of irresistible marrow.  Almost too rich to eat on its own, the marrow is best enjoyed atop toasted bread with just a light pinch of sea salt, garlic cloves and parsley.  I’m already looking forward to my next bone marrow indulgence.

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Sacon, Salame, Fennel Sausage, Guanciale, Tomato and Mozzarella

The pizza menu is a showcase of California freshness, every ingredient a complement to the beauteous bread canvas on which they’re laid out.  The crust is blistered and puffed at the edges, tapering off to a whisper-thinness at the pizza’s middle.  It’s a crust which–credit Nancy Silverton’s mastery of the bread oven–will evoke fond memories of your mom’s baked bread.  When this crust hits your eye, it’s amore.  When it hits your taste buds, it’s “I’ll cheat on mom’s bread and I don’t care if she knows about it” good.   Each pizza is about ten-inches round, a personal sized pie you’ll want to share with good friends.

Pizza, unlike burgers, is so much more than the sum of all its components strewn out on a bread canvas.  Often the most overlooked aspect of a great pizza is the sauce, a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce that lends shimmering deliciousness, moistness and personality to your pizza.  Pizzeria Mozza offers three pizzas on which the sauce is showcased.  The three Bianco DiNapoli Pomodoro pizzas use a sauce made with certified organic tomatoes grown in Los Gatos, California by Robert DiNapoli and Chris Bianco.  If the name Chris Bianco sounds familiar, it’s because he’s widely credited with creating the best pizza in America at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.  

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Coach Farm Goat Cheese, leeks, scallions, garlic and bacon

Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes aren’t found on too many pizzas.  Organically grown, these plum-shaped beauties are packed with a touch of sea salt, organic basil and topped with their own juices.  The results are a sweet tomato so good you’ll want a bushelful.  At Pizzeria Mozza, the tomatoes are hand-crushed onto the dough and topped with other signature ingredients.  An excellent combination includes prosciutto di Parma, rucola and mozzarella di buffala, all premier ingredients, all downplayed by my enjoyment of the tomatoes.  Frankly, Nancy Silverton’s pizza crust and these tomatoes would have made for an outstanding pizza on their own.

The most popular pizza on the menu is the “meat lovers” pizza (though to call it such would be to give it the same sobriquet as a vastly inferior chain pizza) featuring bacon, salame, fennel sausage, guanciale, tomato and mozzarella.  The fennel enriched sausage is a coarse blend and it’s piled on in intimidatingly large chunks.  It’s easily the most plentiful among the toppings and it’s the most flavorful, too.  

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Caramel Copetta: Marshmallow Sauce, Salted Spanish Peanuts, Caramel
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

While ingredients are predominantly from California, Pizzeria Mozza cares more about the quality of their ingredients than about their place of origin.  One pizza showcases Coach Farm goat cheese, an authentic, artisanal goat cheese made in the traditional methods employed by French farmstead cheese-makers. Vive la différence! This goat cheese is rich and creamy, but not at all gamy or overpowering. It’s a perfect foil for leeks, scallions, garlic and bacon.  As with the sausage pizza, the goat cheese is apportioned generously.

Even if you don’t have room for it, you’ve got to try Pizzeria Mozza’s desserts, all of which are formidable equals to the menu’s savory fare.  One must-have is the Caramel Copetta, a “sundae” of caramel ice cream, marshmallow fluff, caramel topping and Spanish peanuts with a pizzelle cookie at the bottom and more than a pinch of sea salt.  The combination of sea salt and caramel has become almost de rigueur in many restaurants, but few couple these ingredients so well.  The interplay of salty and sweet ingredients makes this a memorable dish.  It’s deliciousness makes it a dessert we’ll order again.

Strawberry Gelato Pie

Strawberry Gelato Pie
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

One of the most refreshing desserts we’ve had in recent memory is the strawberry gelato pie with caramelized almonds and Saba.  Upon reading “Saba,” my mind immediately conjured images of Japanese mackerel at a sushi bar.  Thankfully, Saba is also a word for a sweet-tangy Italian condiment made with grapes.  In any case, it enlivened this pie (not that it needed much help) with just a bit of cloying sweetness to meld with the tangy sweetness of the strawberries.  

My dessert, the Stone Fruit Copetta (apricots, sbrisolona (a crunchy Italian tart), vanilla gelato) was the least successful of the three, a Rodney Dangerfield “no respect” dessert considering I had the entire cup almost to myself.  Apricots are an acquired taste, an often overwhelming and powerful sweet-tangy fruit with a deeply intense flavor.  The Stone Fruit Copetta is almost an anti-dessert in that it’s not overly sweet and won’t win over too many hearts and appetites, but I liked it a lot.  Perhaps I can relate.

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Stone Fruit Copetta: Apricots, Sbrisolona, Vanilla Gelato
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Service at Pizzeria Mozza was terrific.  A highly professional and personal wait staff answered all our questions and was on-the-spot with refills and advice. When we lingered long after our meal, we were offered a complimentary glass of wine to move from the patio to the dining room so the restaurant could accommodate a private party. It’s wholly unlike the stereotype of LA service.

Pizzeria Mozza is on my short list of restaurants which have provided “best pizza experiences” of my life, joining the aforementioned Pizzeria Bianco and Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana as the three most transformative pizzas I’ve been blessed to experience.  

Pizzeria Mozza
800 W Coast Highway
Newport Beach, California
(949) 945-1126
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 26
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Bone Marrow Al Forno, Fried Squash Blossoms, Pane Pomodoro, Pizza, Strawberry Gelato Pie, Stone Fruite Copetta, Caramel Copetta

Pizzeria Mozza on Urbanspoon

Arthur Bryant’s – Kansas City, Missouri

Arthur Bryant’s, home of heavenly sauce

Shortly after Arthur Bryant died in 1982, the Kansas City Star published a cartoon showing St. Peter greeting Arthur at the gates of heaven and asking, “Did you bring sauce?” Perhaps not even in Heaven can such a wondrous sauce be concocted.

Arthur Bryant’s is probably the most famous barbecue restaurant in the country, if not the world–an institution to which celebrity and political glitterati make pilgrimages. If Schlitz was the “beer that made Milwaukee famous,” then Arthur Bryant’s is the barbecue that made Kansas City one of America’s four pillars of barbecue (along with Memphis, Texas and the Carolinas). In a city where barbecue is exalted, Arthur Bryant’s may no longer be indisputably the one restaurant everyone mentions as their favorite, but it remains a revered institution. In 1974, renowned New Yorker magazine author Calvin Trillin declared in Playboy magazine that “the single best restaurant in the world is Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue at 18th and Brooklyn in Kansas City.”

Throngs crowd around the counter to order their barbecue bounty

Approaching the restaurant may make you giddy with anticipation. You might not even notice that the original restaurant is situated in the seedy side of town where buildings are boarded up and surrounding streets are nearly deserted. The aroma of barbecue being slow-smoked with a combination of hickory and oak will probably have you salivating with unfettered desire, but you’ll have plenty of company from the line of diners snaking the building. That lust grows as you and those equally ravenous patrons share stories about first experiences with the legendary barbecue (the barbecue brotherhood which grow from Bryant’s barbecue queues could serve as an example for divided nations). The small talk ceases when you finally make it to the counterman where you place your order.

The counterman drops a slice of Wonder Bread on your plate (or on butcher paper for take-out orders) then unceremoniously snares a huge pile of beef and deposits it on the bread. He then takes a squirt bottle and festoons the meat with a Day-Glo colored orange sauce, a unique, grainy “secret recipe” concoction of paprika and vinegar quite atypical of the sweet sauce served at other Kansas City barbecue restaurants. The sauce is fiery, tart and addicting. Three more slices of Wonder bread top the “sandwich” creation which is accompanied by a handful of sliced pickles. A single order of French Fries can feed a small army.

A rack of ribs from Arthur Bryant’s

Sandwich is a vast understatement for the enormous mound of beef, pork or “burnt ends” piled onto a half acre (okay, maybe a little overstatement there) of orange wrapping paper (to go orders). By the time that paper is unwrapped, the bread has been rendered virtually incapable of serving as a vehicle for the steamy meaty accompaniment bathed in sauce. The meat is vegetarian conversion glorious in all its manifestations. The beef is better than you’ll find in Texas (forgive me Ryan Scott, but if it’s any consolation, Arthur Bryant did come from Texas), the pork as perfect as ‘cued in Memphis and better than both are “burnt ends,” barbecue beef brisket parts (not scraps mind you) as tender as butter with caramelized edges that seal in flavor. Charred and smoky, the burnt ends are a Kansas City tradition.

Arthur Bryant’s barbecue is so good you might wish you could consume it like pigs eat their dinners from the trough. It’s so good that only utterances of pleasure will interrupt your vigorous mastication. It’s so good that even though an individual sandwich can feed a family of four, you’ll polish it off and want more. The smoky aroma and tenderness of the pork, beef and especially those terrific burnt ends will imprint themselves on your memory for a long time.

A burnt ends “sandwich” with pickles

Ribs are an Arthur Bryant specialty.  The sweet fragrance of smoking hickory wood penetrates the meat with a just-right hint of smoke.  The thin bark is where the terrific meaty flavor is most concentrated.  There’s not much fat on the ribs, but you will encounter the oft annoying membrane.  You can purchase ribs by the half or full rack or by weight (a full pound is just about right).  While sauce is wholly unnecessary, the sauce which works best with the ribs is the original sauce.

The beef burnt ends will give you more hickory smoke flavor than other meats.  At first glance, New Mexicans might mistake them for carne adovada and indeed, there are some similarities.  Not every bite-sized piece of meat will be tender or fat-free, but it will be delicious.  The fattiness should be expected with burnt ends as well as chewy pieces.  The burnt ends are smothered in Arthur Bryant’s sweet sauce which is more typical of the sauces you find in Kansas City.

Quarter pound of ham

Perhaps the one meat not even the great Arthur Bryant’s can smoke to perfection is ham.  While the ham has a  good flavor and it isn’t overly salty, it’s also rather dry.  The caramelization around the edges is a nice touch, almost like the small ring which characterizes the low-and-slow smoking process.  The sauce which goes best with the ham is the “sweet heat” sauce which offers both a pleasantly piquant level of heat as well as sweetness. This is a ham which would go better on a sandwich than on a plate with mashed potatoes and gravy.

As with all great barbecue restaurants, Arthur Bryant’s offers a number of barbecue accompaniment-worthy sides.  The aforementioned French fries are lightly salted and go well with the original sauce (to use ketchup is to desecrate them).   An order is large enough for a small, developing country.  The restaurant obviously takes its time preparing the baked beans which are sweet, but punctuated with tanginess perhaps emanating from  the original barbecue sauce.  Then there’s a light smoky flavor and pieces of meat mixed in.

Baked beans

There are two other Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue restaurants in Kansas City, but the original offers the very best dining experience.  Arthur Bryant’s barbecue is everything it is reputed to be and oh so much more. It’s almost 800 miles away from Albuquerque, but it’s worth a trip from anywhere in America.

ARTHUR BRYANT’S
1727 Brooklyn Avenue
Kansas City, Missouri
(816) 231-1123
Web Site

LAST VISIT: 9 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 26
COST: $$
BEST BETS: Burnt Ends, Pork Sandwich, Beef Sandwich, French Fries, Ribs, Baked Beans

Arthur Bryant's Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Frontera Grill – Chicago, Illinois

The Frontera Grill, one of the very best Mexican restaurants in the United States. Next door is Xoco, the restaurant Chef Rick Bayless launched in 2011

Not everyone has the relentless drive and impassioned fortitude to parlay their most ardent desires and zealous fervor into a wildly successful thematic venture, but then not everyone is Rick Bayless, America’s Mexican chef and restaurateur nonpareil. His single-minded passion for the Mexican culinary experience is reflected in multimedia ventures such as his successful PBS television series “Cooking Mexican” and “Mexico – One Plate At A Time” as well as his genre-redefining, award-winning books. One of those books, Authentic Mexican was heralded by the New York Times as “the greatest contribution to the Mexican table imaginable” while another, Mexican Kitchen was chosen best cookbook of the year.  Mostly, however, his passion is reflected in his restaurants.

In 1987, Bayless launched the vivacious and hyper-energetic Frontera Grill restaurant in Chicago, a veritable pantheon to his unique interpretations of contemporary regional  Mexican cooking.  The walls of the Fronter Grill could be decorated with all the plaudits and accolades it and its proprietor have earned. Instead its walls are festooned with museum quality folk art from throughout Mexico, some whose whimsical quality will bring a smile to your face.  It’s more likely, however, the edible culinary arts played a more significant part in the restaurant being named the “third best casual restaurant in the world” by the International Herald Tribune and in earning a James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” Award in 2007. It goes without saying that you won’t find a sombrero or a serape decorating these walls.

The colorful dining room at Frontera Grill

The Frontera Grill rocks and rollicks! It’s vibrant, boisterous and lively–no need for mariachis here. The wait staff is ambassadorial in its courtesy and Mensa-like in its knowledge. The food is beautiful to look at and absolutely delightful to the taste.  It is fresh, vibrant and plated like a work of art. The Frontera Grill would be the very best Mexican restaurant I’ve experienced in the United States were it not for its fabulous sister restaurant, the more upscale Topolobampo.  It’s a restaurant at which every morsel of every appetizer, entree, dessert and beverage dances on your taste buds like a sensuous siren.  It’s the antithesis of every stereotypical Taco Bell quality pseudo Mexican restaurant to which Americans have, for far too long, been subjected.  With his triumvirate of terrific restaurants, Bayless has redefined what diners recognize as and appreciate about Mexican food.  He has elevated Mexican cuisine it to the levels of gourmet, fine-dining and to recognition as one of the world’s great cuisines.

The Frontera Grill is to be shared; it should not be experienced alone lest you risk friends and family not believing your tales of culinary indulgences so great and grandiose as to sound mythical. Take friends or family and you’ll not only double the fun, you’ll also double what you’ll get to sample by sharing orders family style. You’ll also have witnesses to validate a sensational shared experience.  In September, 2012, I had the privilege of sharing a meal at the Frontera Grill with friends and fellow culinary bon vivants Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner.  It was Bill’s inaugural visit to Frontera and it was wholly unlike any visit to any Mexican restaurant he’d previously had.  His wide-eyed wonder mirrors that of many first-time visitors.  The Frontera Grill must be seen and experienced to be believed!

Just-made Tortilla Chips & Two Salsas: Three-chile (Cascabel, Morita, Guajillo) and tomatillo with Serrano & cilantro. Bacon Guacamole: Grilled white onions, roasted Serrano, roasted tomatillo, bacon. Tortilla chips

The Frontera Grill menu of hardwood grilled dishes, rich moles, and chile-thickened braises is  gleaned from cooks in markets, homes and restaurants throughout Mexico.  That menu changes every month which keeps things lively and interesting, but may also mean your favorite dish may not be available next time you visit.  Bayless’s sometimes rather loose interpretations of Mexican dishes are, at the very least, optimized versions of time-honored and traditional recipes.  At other times, they’re Mexican “inspired” dishes showcasing his creativity in making Mexican cuisine all it can be.  He has forged relationships with local artisan farmers who provide the high-quality, fresh and organic sustainable ingredients used in his restaurants.  Quite often those ingredients are of much higher quality than might be found in Mexico.

From the onset of your meal, those ingredients shine both figuratively and literally.  The tomatillo salsa, ameliorated with Serrano and cilantro, is nearly luminescent, as green as pulsating kryptonite.  It’s fresh, lively and invigorating, not so much with piquancy but with a brightness of ingredients coalescing to give you just a bit of heat complemented by a savory tanginess which characterizes tomatillos.  A three-chile salsa, made from very different but complementary chiles–Cascabel, Morita and Guajillo–is similarly luminescent, an iridescent reddish hue.  It has a greater depth of flavor than its verdant cousin, but only enough heat to get your attention.  The tortilla chips have a just-made and very pronounced corn flavor.

Ceviche Trio: Frontera Ceviche (albacore, tomato, olive), Yucatecan Ceviche (shrimp, squid, orange, cucumber), Tropical Tuna Cocktail (big eye, avocado-tomatillo, tropical fruit salsa).

The Bacon Guacamole, constructed from grilled white onions, roasted Serrano, roasted tomatillo and bacon is rich and unctuous, as smooth and creamy as butter and lovingly tinged by the sultry porcine perfection that is bacon and a pleasant piquancy courtesy of the roasted Serrano.  It may seem like an unlikely flavor pairing, but it works exceptionally well.  The guacamole is made from avocados at their very peak of ripeness.  Nestled atop a sheet of banana leaves, it’s a special starter.

No matter what other appetizers you order, make sure to save room for an item or two from the ceviche and raw bar (oysters, seafood cocktails and ceviches).  Oysters are shucked to order and served with a tomatillo-habanero “minoneta” and a smoky chipotle-garlic salsa and fresh-cut limes.  Even better is an oyster and ceviche plate featuring one dozen oysters and their accompaniments as well as ceviche and a tropical tuna cocktail.  The ceviche is incomparable, as good (if not better) than the ceviche you’ll find at Peruvian restaurants.

Northern-Style Quesadillas: Flour tortillas folded over Wisconsin Jack cheese and stuffed with Duck carnitas with grilled red onion

If you’re a ceviche addict, there’s no better starter than the Ceviche Trio: Frontera Ceviche, Yucatecan Ceviche  and a Tropical Tuna Cocktail. Each showcases the freshness and flavor of seafood “cooked” in citrus juices.  The Yucatan Ceviche (shrimp, squid, orange, cucumber ) is bold and beguiling, a melange of briny seafood cooked perfectly and tangy citrus so invigorating you’ll dredge up every last drop.  It would make an excellent cocktail.  So would the remaining liquid after you’re done consuming the seafood and its accompaniments on the Tropical Tuna Cocktail (sashimi-grade Hawaiian big eye tuna, avocado-tomatillo, tropical fruit salsa).  The tropical fruit salsa  and avocado-tomatillo are as refreshing a pairing as you’ll ever find on ceviche while the big eye tuna epitomizes smoothness.  The eponymous Frontera Ceviche (albacore, tomato, olive) isn’t quite as lively, showcasing the just-caught freshness of the albacore.

At the hands of the Frontera Grill kitchen staff, even something as simple as quesadillas are elevated to the level of sublime.  Northern-Style Quesadillas start off with flour tortillas folded over Wisconsin Jack cheese then engorged with one of the following fillings: black beans and young greens, duck carnitas with grilled red onion, charcoaled chicken with guacamole, tender Mexican woodland mushrooms with roasted poblano peppers and grilled shrimp with smoky, spicy chipotle peppers.  The duck carnitas are exquisite, a light smokiness permeating the rich, moist duck which was moist and tender without a surfeit of fat.  The saltiness of the Jack cheese and the sweetness of the grilled red onions made for a perfect interplay with the savory goodness of the duck.

Sopes Rancheros: Crispy corn masa boats filled with savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado, homemade fresh cheese

Frontera’s Sopes Rancheros, crispy masa boats filled with savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado and homemade fresh cheese are wholly unlike the sopes found in Mexican restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment which tend to pile on ingredients atop a tostada shell.  The masa is perfectly textured–light and delicate, but strong enough to form an interior “pool”  into which the ingredients are piled.  The shredded beef is savory and lightly seasoned.  There isn’t much bite to this dish, but there is a lot of flavor and it’s all quite good.

It’s not every Mexican restaurant at which you’ll find Swiss chard.  Frontera’s rendition is among the very best I’ve ever experienced–a cast iron skillet replete with Poblanos rajas, thick cream, roasted potatoes and homemade queso fresco.  The thick cream imparts a bit of sweetness reminiscent of coconut milk on Thai food, but it’s all Mexican crema.  The melange of ingredients play very well off one another: the sweetness of the cream against the piquancy of the Poblanos, the savory qualities of the roasted potatoes against the saltiness of the queso.  It’s a surprisingly good entree.

Swiss Chard: Poblanos rajas, thick cream, roasted potatoes, homemade fresh cheese.

In a market increasingly saturated with such pretenders as Taco Bell and Chipotle,  Frontera Grill is a refreshing change of pace, an authentic champion of the flavors and festivity of Mexico at its very best.

FRONTERA GRILL
445 North Clark
Chicago, Illinois
312-661-1434
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 26
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Guacamole, Queso Fundido, Tacos al Carbon, Flan de Cajeta, Panque De Chocolate y Kahlua

Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon

Bobcat Bite – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

America's best burger is available only at the Bobcat Bite

America’s best burger is available only at the Bobcat Bite

Update:  In a twist of cruel irony, the Travel Channel’s May 13th airing of the Burger Land program celebrating the Bobcat Bite debuted just a few days after the announcement that the world-famous Bobcat Bite as we all know and love it will be forever changed.  An official statement from Bobcat Bite, issued on May 9th, announced the restaurant renowned for its outstanding green chile cheeseburger would shutter its doors in June, 2013.  The press release read: After 12 years, Bonnie and John Eckre will serve their last famous Bobcat Bite burger at the Old Las Vegas Highway location on June 9. They will be vacating the premises June 14th at the demand of the building’s owners, the Panzer family.”

In his celebration of America’s favorite dish, filmmaker George Motz traversed the fruited plain in search of some of the country’s most unique burgers for his 54-minute film Hamburger America . An avowed burger lover, he wasn’t necessarily trying to find and rank America’s best burgers per se. Instead, he feted eight restaurants in continuous operation for 40-plus years whose menus featured burgers made from fresh meat, not frozen, for those 40 years. One of the eight restaurants featured was Santa Fe’s own Bobcat Bite.

In his GQ magazine article “The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die,” Alan Richman was more definitive in rating America’s best burgers. Taking the measure of 162 burgers across the country, Richman’s goal was to find “the best damned assemblage of ground beef and buns this country serves up.” He rated the Bobcat Bite the 12th best burger in America (but not the best burger in New Mexico; that honor went to the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio).

Bonnie Eckre, the heart and soul of the Bobcat Bite

Bonnie Eckre, the perpetually smiling heart and soul of the Bobcat Bite

In 2007, the Food Network aired a program called “Top American Restaurants – Bon Appetit Picks the Best” in which the editors of Bon Apetit magazine selected the “top places in this country to enjoy the ultimate incarnations of iconic American cuisine.” Among the iconic American cuisine feted were hamburgers. This category was won by Santa Fe’s Bobcat Bite–to the surprise of absolutely no one who has ever dined at this Santa Fe area treasure.

That’s high praise indeed, but accolades are nothing new for this Lilliputian restaurant (seating for only 26 patrons) which was also featured in March, 2000 edition of New Mexico magazine and, as previously mentioned, is held in high esteem by Michael and Jane Stern of Gourmet magazine and Roadfood.com.  In their terrific 2009 tome 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, the Sterns rated the Bobcat Bite number one on their list of “must-eat” green chile cheeseburgers.  They wrote, “The meat in this extraordinary GCCB is extraordinarily tasty–high-quality beef, a full inch thick complemented but not overwhelmed by chile that is more tangy than hot.”

Shelves show off just a few of the many awards and accolades Bobcat Bite has earned over the year. Diners can find a Bobcat Bite shirt just their size, too.

When it comes to burgers, it’s all about the beef and that’s where Bobcat Bite has the edge over the competition. The owners still grind their beef daily on the premises, using only hormone-free chuck shoulder and chuck tenders then forming the patties by hand, careful to control fat content.  The 50-year old cast iron grill is wonderfully seasoned so that each burger is prepared with remarkable consistency.

Each burger is a thick and juicy 9.5 ounce slab of beautiful beef served with an American and Swiss cheese blend, green chile, lettuce and tomato. Mustard and ketchup are available on your table and you can ask for mayonnaise and sliced (or even better, grilled) onion if you’d like.  If you do opt to use a condiment on your burger, use it sparingly because it’s the beef that may bring tears of joy to your eyes.  The only steak in New Mexico even comparable to the utterly erotic deliciousness of the coarse ground beef patty at the Bobcat Bite is the peppery elk tenderloin at Geronimo.

A green chile cheeseburger in my meaty hands

A green chile cheeseburger in my meaty hands

It takes two hands to handle the gigantic green chile cheeseburger, but you could use a third hand to wipe your mouth.  I can palm a basketball easily, but as the photo above attests, my right meathook is challenged to hold the green chile cheeseburger at the Bobcat Bite.  At medium, this burger is pink through and through; it’s as juicy a burger as you’ll find anywhere (easily a five napkin burger) with beef being the prevalent flavor.  It’s an absolutely delicious beef which you can eat by itself; even mustard and ketchup might be considered desecration.

The restaurant goes through 80 pounds of green chile per week and it’s not the canned green chile variety other dining establishments serve.  That being said, the green chile doesn’t have much of, if any, bite.  It could be because it’s buried under a blanket of cheese which tops the inch-thick hamburger patty.  The lack of piquancy is the sole factor preventing an even higher rating for these treasures.

The world-famous Bobcat Bite green chile cheeseburger

The world-famous Bobcat Bite green chile cheeseburger

When I introduced my friend roastmaster nonpareil Bill Resnik to the Bobcat Bite, what he couldn’t get over is just how wonderful the restaurant smells. He told owner Bonnie Eckre (pictured) that she could make a million dollars if she could bottle the aroma of her sizzling burgers then suggested that aroma would make a great aftershave. It would leave men perpetually hungry.

While the Bobcat’s bounteous burgers are best known, the restaurant also serves excellent steak. About the prime ribeye steak, Michael Stern says, “there is none more delicious between Amarillo and L.A.” Even better than the ribeye is the 10-ounce New York strip steak which is perfectly seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic and prepared exactly to your specifications.

A bacon green chile cheeseburger with homestyle potatoes

Burgers and steak aren’t the restaurant’s sole entrees. The menu also serves pork chops, a grilled chicken sandwich and a few other items, but most people order the burgers or steak.

There isn’t much on the menu (a tossed salad and coleslaw) for vegetarians, but the coleslaw is as good as it comes. Instead of the overly sweet salad dressing or mayo you’ll find on most coleslaw, the Bobcat Bite uses a tart, vinegary dressing. It’s not acidic enough to pucker your lips, but it is tangy and delicious with flecks of green pepper and very finely chopped slaw.

During winter months, the Bobcat rotates–between a New Mexico style green and a Texas style red–a bowl of chile (spelled New Mexico style). The Texas style red chile includes beans, ground beef and tomato and is almost soup-like. In fact, to thicken the sauce, you can add crackers and have a very good Texas chile soup (although Texans can’t spell and would call it “chili.”)

The Bobcat Bite's wonderful coleslaw

The Bobcat Bite’s wonderful coleslaw

The Bobcat Bite sits on a 100 acre ranch which used to be a working quarter horse ranch. Bobcats used to sit and perch on the restaurant’s roof and would come down from the mountains to get fed scraps tossed out the back door. No doubt that even the scraps at this wonderful little restaurant taste pretty good.

BOBCAT BITE
420 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 26
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Ribeye Steak, New York Steak, Potato Salad, Coleslaw

Bobcat Bite Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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