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Cake Monkey Bakery

July 21, 2016

A couple of months ago, someone in our office talked about a new bakery that had opened up in Hollywood/West Hollywood area that was getting a lot of buzz.  He had read about it on some food site and we were looking at pictures of their baked goods online and drooling over them.  It so happened that he was going to be driving by the area later in the day and said that if he could, he’d stop by the bakery and pick up a couple of items to bring back to the office so that we could sample.  Sure enough, true to his word, he came back to the office that afternoon with a box of baked goods that looked oh, so good!  And he talked about how cute the bakery was and how all of their stuff looked fantastic.  As there were only a few people in the office that day, we all ended up splitting a little bit of each of the baked goods he brought in so that we could sample and we all agreed that not only did it look good, it tasted really good as well.  I’m such a sucker for cute bakeries with yummy baked goods that I decided I needed to go down to this bakery myself and check it out.

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Located not too far from the famed The Grove outdoor shopping center, Cake Monkey Bakery is the brain child of a native New Yorker who has had a life long passion for cakes and old school snack treats but was working as a Producer/Executive in LA’s film and television industry.  Lisa Olin always had a dream to create a bakery that created sweet treats that satisfied everyone’s sweet tooth by making old-school cakes and old-school treats that would remind people of their childhood.  She teamed up with Executive Pastry Chef Elizabeth Belkind and created Cake Monkey Bakery where nostalgic treats such as pop tarts and ding dongs are recreated and the star of the bakery is mini layer cakes in flavors that take you back to yesteryear.

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With a cute little storefront, the bakery takes up half the space in the back where these sweet treats are created from scratch on a daily basis.  The front of the store is filled with glass cases filled with delectable treats as well as being a small coffee shop as well where coffee drinks are hand crafted.  At the very front of the store is a small table top with seating looking out to Beverly Blvd where you can enjoy your coffee and treats with a pretty view.

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When you first enter the space, you’re bombarded with how clean and bright and beautiful it all is.  Then you’re hit with how amazing all the treats look.  You know you’re in trouble when each item you see looks more delicious than the previous item, and you already were convinced you wanted that first item.  You might as well buy one of everything in the store!  You’ve got fresh baked muffins and croissants for a morning breakfast.  But there’s so much more.  What about a chocolate hazelnut babka?  Or a chocolate raspberry macaron?  The pop pies, which are Cake Monkey’s version of a sophisticated pop tart features the following flavors: chocolate almond, apple, brown sugar cinnamon and blueberry.  What Cake Monkey calls their Mostest Cupcake is their homemade version of a Hostess cupcake and it looked fantastic!  There were also old fashioned coffee cakes and almond croissants.  And if you wanted a savory lunch treat they had bacon jam, cheese and caramelized onion twists.  Those looked amazing.

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The next case over contained cookies that looked like whoopie pies.  The cookie flavors were ginger molasses with orange scented butter cream or the Big O with Mexican hot chcoolate and vanilla buttercream.  There was a pretty chocolate cake pudding muffin or a maple eclair.  What about Cake Monkey’s version of a homemade ding dong which they called a cakewich?  There were 3 flavors:  peanut butter/marshmallow, raspberry red velvet and black & white.  And finally, they had homemade rollos as well which they called El Rollo, there was black & white and peanut butter.

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But it was the case furthest from the front door that most interested me.  This is what I came to Cake Monkey for, their mini layer cakes.  Cake Monkey makes these nostalgic layer cakes in a mini cake form that basically can fit in the palm of your hand.  The mini cakes come in a bunch of different flavors that change seasonally and even by the day based upon what is baking at the store.    Popular mini layer cake flavors include chocolate caramel cake, must love chocolate, raspberry red velvet, the classic (which is layers of yellow cake with chocolate buttercream frosting), vanilla gorilla, Cake Monkey carrot cake, and coconut cake just to name a few.  I arrived a few weeks before Easter so display case was filled with a bunch of pastel-colored Easter mini cakes that were just gorgeous.

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As I said, the hardest part was making a decision as to what to order since everything looked absolutely delicious.  When the person in our office introduced us to the mini layer cakes from Cake Monkey, he brought with him the chocolate caramel cake and black & white cake with him.  Since there were so few people in the office this day, we easily cut each mini layer cake into four slices so that we could each sample a small slice of cake.  This picture makes the cakes look bigger than they actually are.  When cut in fourths, each quarter slice is literally about two-three spoonfuls, if that.  So, I knew that when I chose baked goods for myself and my husband, I wanted to try new and different flavors and items.

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I chose a ginger molasses sandwich cookie filled with orange scented buttercream for my husband.  Ginger molasses is a cookie flavor that my husband really likes, and the spicier the better.  This large cookie, which was almost like a whoopee pie, was baked with sanding sugar atop the cookie which glistened in the final product.  The cookie was slightly spicy, slightly sweet and perfectly chewy.  The flavor was terrific.  And the orange scented buttercream sandwiched between the two cookies was the perfect flavor compliment to the ginger molasses.  The orange scent was subtle, you could smell the aroma of the orange, but the flavor was so subtle that it wasn’t too sweet and it didn’t overpower the flavor of the cookie itself.  My husband was quite impressed with this sandwich cookie I picked up for him.

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Wanting to try one of their adult, homemade pop tarts, I got the chocolate almond pop pie for myself.  First off, these were huge, and way better than any pop tart I’ve ever had.  The pastry itself was perfectly baked with a slight crunch, but still a bit chewy.  The inside the pop pie was filled with a chocolate hazelnut filling which was smooth, creamy and not too sweet or too thick.  The pop pie was then topped with crumbles, sliced almonds, powdered sugar and chocolate drizzle.  As this is a chocolate almond pop pie, the almond flavor wasn’t just prevalent in the slivered almonds, but rather there was an almond flavor – slightly marzipan in taste – in the dough for the pop pie itself.  I’m not a huge almond fan, but this was subtle enough that you could taste the almond flavor and you knew there was an almond presence in the dough, but it wasn’t too bad.  The crunch of crumbles and the sweetness of the powdered sugar and the chocolate drizzle really made this pop pie fun, delicious and a bit nostalgic.  It was the perfect adult breakfast item to help us all relive some of our childhood.

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I also couldn’t help but get a black & white cakewich as well.  Essentially a grown up version of a homemade ding dong.  Made using a chocolate cake sandwich filled with vanilla cream, the cakewich contains Valrhona crunchy pearls and the whole cakewich is then coated in bittersweet chocolate.  Doesn’t this look exactly like a ding dong, even down to being wrapped in aluminum foil!  However, this cakewich was way better than any ding dong I ever remember.  The cake is moist and delicious and not too sweet.  The crunchy Valrhona chocolate pearls is a nice treat to add a bit of crunch and texture to the cakewich.  And the vanilla cream is perfect as it’s not too thick, and not too sweet to take away from the chocolate cake.  I also love the bittersweet chocolate coating which is thick enough to add that crunchy layer to the cakewich every time you bite into the cakewich.  This is the ultimate nostalgic treat for me and it was perfect.

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Enough with the other treats though, like I said, what I came here for was the mini layer cakes.  I decided to go home with two of them.  One for me, one for my husband.  For my husband, I chose the lemon blueberry layer cake.  Two items my husband really likes, lemon and blueberry, all rolled into one.  Made with lemon cake and layers of blueberry cream frosting with bits of fresh blueberries swirled into the frosting made for such a delicious cake.  The outside of the cake was frosted with vanilla buttercream. At first, my husband, who isn’t a fan of cake, wasn’t too thrilled with the fact that I had gotten him a cake, as he could have done without.  But, once he tasted the cake, he actually devoured the whole thing.  He said that the cake was way better than he expected it to be.  The lemon cake was moist and delicious and was flavorful and meshed will with the blueberry buttercream frosting layered in between.  He liked the taste of the cake because it wasn’t too sweet and really tasted of natural flavors rather than artificial lemon and blueberry flavors.  The cake was small enough to enjoy without being overwhelming, especially for someone who doesn’t enjoy cake at all.  I was so happy that at least in this instance, I was able to win over my husband’s tastebuds.

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For my own mini layer cake, I chose the confetti cake.  Vanilla cake with rainbow sprinkles and vanilla buttercream is a total nostalgia cake.  This cake was so cute, I just couldn’t pass it up.  I’m not normally a vanilla cake kind of girl, especially when there are chocolate options, but I love rainbow sprinkles and this is exactly the kind of homemade cake that many of us received for our birthdays when we were kids that I couldn’t resist.  This cake was so delicious.  The vanilla buttercream is the star of the cake, with the perfect creamy texture, and a terrific taste without being overly sweet.  The confetti decorating the outside and the sprinkles mixed into the vanilla buttercream between the layers of cake was perfect as well.  The yellow cake was moist and delicious.  This was the epitome of the perfect vanilla cake and I absolutely loved it.  These mini cakes are also the perfect size as well – small enough to eat without feeling too guilty, but big enough that there’s substance to it that makes you feel like you’re eating more than just a slice of cake.  Cake perfection.

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Of course, since I was already stopping in, and it was early enough, I couldn’t help but order myself some coffee to go with my baked goods.  Actually, it was hot outside that day, let’s make that an iced vanilla latte.  Strong, sweet and refreshing, this iced vanilla late hit the spot and was all gone before I even made it home with my baked goods in hand.

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Cake Monkey has been such a hit that my office happened to pick a box of 6 assorted mini layer cakes as a celebration of one of our co-woker’s birthdays a few months back.  This was such a hit with people because not only were these mini layer cakes super cute, they are small enough that it allowed people to sample many different flavors of cake.  This birthday celebration really went over well in the office.IMG_3085

Enjoy life, eat cake is lit up in pink neon lights inside the store and it’s a great motto.  What more do you need to put a smile on someone’s face than some cake?  Make that a cute, adorable mini layer cake that is just as good as it looks and you definitely can enjoy life by eating cake.  Cake Monkey is one of the best nostalgic bakeries I’ve ever seen.  They make the most amazing and tasty baked goods that are reminiscent of so many of the sweet treats many of us grew up with.  If nothing else, you should go to Cake Monkey for their mini layer cake, but it’s almost impossible to walk out of there with us cake, don’t forget to pick up a cakewich a pop pie and some cookies.  Oh, and don’t forget a refreshing, tasty hand crafted cup of coffee as well.

Trois Mec

July 19, 2016

A few days before my birthday this year, my husband came home and asked me to look up a couple of new restaurants that we’d never been to before.  He wanted to gauge my reaction to see if I’d be interested in trying any of these restaurants out.  Specifically, we looked at two different restaurants that had several unique and similar aspects.  Not only were both restaurants owned by well known celebrity chefs, but they both used a ticketing system to secure your dinner spot, instead of a traditional reservation.  In general, on certain days, the ticket system opens up and you can log on to the restaurant’s website and purchase a ticket (generally minimum of 2) for a certain night and dinner seating during that night.  The tickets are pre-paid up front, in full. And that ticket secures your seat at the restaurant.  In theory, the ticket pays for the meal, tax and service charge so that you’re not responsible for paying for anything at all once you get to the restaurant, as long as you don’t order anything supplemental.  For restaurants, this is a great system as they know exactly how many people will be dining at the restaurant each night, and everything is pre-paid for, so they can control their costs and know exactly how much food inventory to order and have on hand for each night.  The tickets are non-refundable and once you’ve purchased them, you’re locked in.  Some people think this is a brilliant system, and others think it’s rather pretentious.  Either way you look at it, it’s amazing just how difficult purchasing tickets can be as they often sell out within minutes of becoming available.

One evening, several weeks later, as we were sitting around at home, my husband was putzing around on the Internet and discovered that there was a second way we could purchase tickets to one of the restaurants we were looking at earlier.  MasterCard has a “Priceless” program where you can sign up, if you are a MasterCard credit card holder, and it gives you exclusive access to events, reservations, and generally hard-to-get items.  Well, on the night he was searching around, there happened to be 2 tickets available for one of the restaurants for the second dinner seating a week later.  My husband asked me if I wanted to go and he’d buy the tickets from MasterCard.  I figured we should go for it since getting tickets the traditional way seemed to be so difficult.  So, with tickets purchased through MasterCard, we got ourselves a dinner date a week later to one of the hottest restaurants in town.

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Trois Mec, roughly translated from French to English as “Three Guys”, opened up in 2013 as the brainchild of celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre and his friends Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of “Jon & Vinny’s.”  The idea was to create a small, open kitchen restaurant, which only seats about 24-people per seating, serving a seasonal, 5-course tasting menu.  From one night to the next, you never know what you’re going to be served as the menu is constantly changing based on the whim of the talented Chef Ludo and his amazing crew and based upon whatever seasonal ingredients are available at the local markets.  But, not knowing what you’re going to get from night to night is part of the appeal of what continues to bring people back time and again, because the experience is never the same.  When Trois Mec opened, it had taken over the space of an old pizza parlor called Raffallo’s Pizza.  Today, the bright neon yellow sign for Raffallo’s Pizza still hangs above the restaurant space whose windows and doors are frosted on the outside so that you have no idea what’s going on behind all that glass.  When you walk inside the doors of Trois Mec, you’re transported immediately into a casual, hip place that they call an “unpretentious fine-dining experience.”

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Once you step inside Trois Mec, you realize that the restaurant itself is tiny. There’s only a total of 24 seats. Along the back wall, there are tables that seat larger parties. Then up front there’s a counter that has seats essentially looking right into the kitchen. The restaurant has an open kitchen concept and all the dishes are made right in front of your eyes. So, if you get a counter seat, you’re basically getting a front row seat into an amazing performance where the chef’s are the actors and the food is the star. The counter seats consists of about 6 upper seats where you’re sitting on a stool, and then next to the door, there’s a lower counter that seats two at a regular height. Those two seats next to the door are the two seats we got for our meal.

As soon as you sit down, a waiter comes over, explains out the performance will go for the evening, asks you about a drink selection and then the show stars. You can order wines by the glass and by the bottle, or you can have a wine pairing where they specifically pair a different wine with each course of the meal. One thing they offered at Trois Mec that I’ve not seen at another restaurant before is a non-alcoholic pairing menu where they offer a variety of home-made non-alcoholic drinks that pair with each course of the meal. I was so excited about this, and my husband decided to do the non-alcoholic pairing menu with me. This was going to be a treat.

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The first thing that comes out to the table are what are called their “snacks.” These are little few-bite items that are meant to be the appetizer or the warm-up to your meal. The first “snack” we received was the buckwheat popcorn, which is a signature of the restaurant. The buckwheat popcorn is made with puffed buckwheat and vinegar. This was so unexpected and unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. I wasn’t really sure what to expect with buckwheat popcorn, but it really was like a puffed rice. The vinegar punch from the puffed buckwheat is really what makes the dish. The puffed buckwheat is crunchy and the vinegar packs the zing to add the needed flavor to the buckwheat. It was like awesome goodness packed into a small bite.

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The next snack was the potato consumme. Essentially a potato soup (but without the potato). The broth is made from potatoes and it’s flavored with lemon thyme and brown butter. Served in a little tea cup, this is essentially a soup of a couple of sips. After one sip, you could really taste all of the components of this dish. The potato flavor comes through clearly, then there’s the earthiness of the lemon thyme and then the richness of the brown butter. It’s this brown butter that really brings the whole dish together and makes it cohesive.

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At this point, we were served our first drink from the non-alcoholic pairing. The drink was a sparkling limeade. We were told that all of the non-alcoholic drinks were made in house, which was a bonus because they really thought about the flavors and tastes and how it would pair with everything we were being served. The limeade was not too sparkly and really quite tasty. A good start.

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The next snack, of which there were 5 in total, was the crispy tapioca with passion fruit. This comes out looking like a deep fried cube and you’re not quite sure what’s inside and how it’s going to taste. When we were told it was tapioca, I was skeptical. How could deep fried tapioca really taste like anything since tapioca is pretty bland on its own, and how would frying it in the shape of a cube effect the flavor of the tapioca? Boy was I surprised. This cube of goodness was crunchy and tart. The passion fruit flavor shines through in the tartness and the tapioca gives the dish the volume and depth and surprisingly more flavor than I ever thought possible. This dish was quite surprising and unexpected.

Chickpea sorka with fennel, scallions and olive oil was the 4th snack of the evening. The chickpea was baked to almost resemble a parmesan crisp, which was really neat. I was a bit wary of this dish as the combination of chickpea and fennel didn’t really sound all that appetizing to me. But, I should have known better after the previous snack, to expect the unexpected. The flavor of the snack was outstanding. The chickpea added a great crunch and the fennel mellowed it out and added just that hint of licorice flavor. The olive oil added some depth and body to the dish and the scallions gave it that slight onion hint which rounded out the dish. This was really good, and I have to admit that the fennel really was quite delicious in this dish.

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The last snack was my absolute favorite. It was egg hot and cold. Served inside an egg shell, it is essentially a poached egg yolk topped with whipped cream and sherry vinegar. Ok, this sounds weird, especially the whipped cream part, but believe me, this was amazing. That’s the only way to describe this. The whipped cream was actually, in fact, whipped cream without the sweetener. The idea is to take the tiny spoon they give you and dig right down into the egg shell where the poached egg yolk is, and scoop up a bit of the creamy egg yolk, the fluffy whipped cream and the sherry vinegar all into one bite. What you get is this warm egg yolk which is rich and creamy, combined with this cool whipped cream and the zing of the sherry vinegar. You could definitely taste each and every component of this dish and it was amazing. The egg was super creamy and delicious and just incredibly awesome. I could have had two of these hot and cold eggs. I loved the creativity of the dish, and yet it was so simple with very few ingredients.

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Before moving on to the next food course, we were presented with our next non-alcoholic drink pairing. This time, the drink was elder mint soda. I thought that I wouldn’t like this one, but I was surprised. The drink was light, almost like an apple cider but with a little bit of a kick from the elder mint. It was surprisingly refreshing, and much better than I had anticipated it to be.

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Our next food course was carrot tartare. Presented and treated much like a beef tartare would be, but done in a vegetarian-style using diced carrots. The carrot tartare was flavored with citrus, puffed quinoa, cumin and served along side a fresh baked baguette. The dish had a great flavor and zing to it. The puffed quinoa was interesting and the combination of the citrus and the cumin was unique. Both spices really added flavor notes to the carrot tartare. This was such a unique and creative dish, and the fresh baguette to go with the tartare was a perfect accompaniment.

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Our next drink pairing was a ginger ale, but homemade. The ginger ale really packed a bit of a punch. This was much stronger than normal ginger ale. To appreciate it and enjoy it, you really needed to be a fan of ginger and be able to handle a bit of the ginger bite. This was different and unique, that’s for sure.

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Now, the next food course absolutely blew my mind. I’d never ever heard of this pairing of flavors before and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it all. The dish was served in a bowl and inside was white chocolate potato souffle topped with a caramelized eel. The surprise was that at the bottom of the bowl was cubed Granny Smith apples. First off, let’s start with the white chocolate potato souffle, essentially, a fancy way of saying white chocolate mashed potatoes. Who puts white chocolate into a potato puree? Potato puree can already be pretty sweet but add white chocolate to that and how will that work? But amazingly it was absolutely brilliant. The potatoes were incredibly creamy and smooth, but you could definitely taste the sweetness of the white chocolate throughout the potatoes. They weren’t trying to hide the flavor at all. The caramelized eel was amazing, and this was the first time I’d ever eaten eel before. The eel had a great smoky flavor to it, and the meat was tender. The combination of seafood with potatoes is a bit different, but it really worked. What really pulled this dish together though was the Granny Smith apples. The tartness of the apples really cut through the sweetness of the potatoes and it gave the dish the crunch it needed to balance out the light eel and the creamy potatoes. These are three completely different ingredients that I would never in a million years imagine would go together, and yet, put them in a dish together and they just work. This as my favorite dish of the night.

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Before our next food course was brought out, we were given a tasting of a drink called mountain shrub. The drink was different, and our waiter warned us in advance that it was a bit odd, but it was his favorite of the non-alcoholic drinks. Made with a combination of pine, vinegar and soda, the drink really did smell like a pine forest. It was interesting to smell the unique pine scent, it and it sort of transported you into the woods. But pine needles with vinegar? Wow, that was different. I was surprised that you could actually taste the pine in the drink, there was just a light hint of it. The vinegar taste was there as well, but not so strong, it was a complimenting note to the woodsy pine. The soda just added a brightness and effervescence to the drink.

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The next dish course was a dish of sushi rice topped with a grilled king crab leg, uni butter, avocado and leche de tigre. The dish was tangy, something I wasn’t quite expecting, but now I see why the mountain shrub was paired with this dish. To really get the flavor of the dish, you really needed to get a taste of everything in one bite, a little bit of the cool, refreshing avocado, the sweet sushi rice and the smoky crab leg. Together in one bite, it was delicious and very flavorful. The sushi rice is perfectly prepared and the crab legs were sweet and flavorful. The avocado is a great balance of flavors and compliments the uni butter and just cools down the whole dish a bit, which is nice.

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If we thought that our last drink pairing was different, this next one was quite different as well. Essentially, the drink was a pomegranate rose vinegar tonic which was made to look like a pinot noir. As the next course was a meat dish, red wine seemed fitting. The drink was definitely different. While I could taste the pomegranate, the flavor that was most prevalent was the vinegar. The tonic water made the drink a bit bubbly, and the rose gave the whole thing an interesting flavor. But, I think in the case of this drink, where the vinegar worked in the mountain shrub, the vinegar being so strong in this drink just didn’t really work as the other flavors just didn’t compliment the vinegar that well.

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Our meat dish of the evening was veal topped with cauliflower porridge, cinnamon and dates. This was different and interesting. My husband really liked the dish more than I did. While I thought that the individual components were fantastic, together, the cauliflower porridge over the veal was a bit odd. The cauliflower porridge itself was unique, but flavorful and much better than I had anticipated it would be. The spice and heat and flavor of the cinnamon is noticeable, and while I’m not a fan of dates, the dates in this dish weren’t so bad. They were mixed in with the veal underneath the porridge, so I never knew if I was stabbing my fork into a date or veal. The dates added a bit of sweetness to balance out the cauliflower. The veal itself was tender and flavorful. The smoked veal was really smoky and I loved that smoke flavor and aroma. However, for me, the cauliflower and the veal together was just a texture combination that I’m not sure I enjoyed all that much. My husband, on the other hand, who isn’t a cauliflower fan actually commented on how much he liked the cauliflower in this dish. To each his own, I guess.

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That was the last of the meal itself, it was now time for the dessert course. To drink with our desert, we were presented with a chai latte. Again, tea is not generally my drink of choice for any course, but the chai latte actually wasn’t so bad. The frothiness of the drink almost made me forget that it was tea. Surprisingly, while it didn’t really seem like we were served that much food, it was the right blend of course and size of dishes. I was, surprisingly, getting quite full by this point, so dessert was a good thing. I’m not quite sure I could have eaten more food.

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Our dessert was something called a “mont” blanc. Made with vanilla and chestnut ice cream, meringue and sliced button mushrooms and then dusted with “forest powder,” the dessert was definitely unique. Now, as we were sitting at the counter, I could see one of the chefs thinly slicing button mushrooms, but I couldn’t quite figure out what dish the mushrooms were in. Once we were presented with the dessert, now I knew. Um, mushrooms in my dessert, really? I don’t like mushrooms. But my husband told me to have an open mind and give it a try. You know what? It was surprisingly good. If I hadn’t know in advance that it had been sliced mushrooms, I never would have guessed. The ice creams, both made in house, were creamy and delicious. The meringue was crunchy and airy and provided an interesting texture to the dish, as well as adding sweetness. The mushrooms actually paired quite well with the ice cream as they were smooth and added a woodsy flavor that went well with the chestnuts. The dessert was visually appealing, and I never ever thought that I would eat mushrooms in my dessert, or really in any form, but I was shocked and just how unique, different, and good it was.

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As if I wasn’t already stuffed, we were presented with some petit fours to round out the meal. Each of us got our own dark chocolate avocado truffle with pecan and almond pastry choux with slivered almonds and almond cream pastry. My husband was a bit skeptical about the dark chocolate avocado truffle as he’s not much of an avocado fan, but this was different and unique. While you could kind of taste the avocado, it was more being able to tell that the creaminess and richness of the truffle came from the avocado. The dark chocolate was slightly sweet and slightly bitter which just made the whole thing go down so smooth and the bits of pecan just added some crunch to cut through the richness of the truffle. The almond pastry cream puff was delicious as well, though it ended up tasting a bit like marzipan. If you’re a marzipan fan, you’d like this cream puff, and if not, you probably wouldn’t. The cream puff was definitely almond flavored from the almond pastry to the slivered almonds to the almond cream filling. Ok, seriously, but this time, i was stuffed to the gills. I don’t think I could have eaten anything more.

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At this point, we thought this was the end of our night.  Our bellies were stuffed with good, creative food and exquisitely crafted non-alcoholic drinks.  We were completely satisfied with the meal and had no complaints whatsoever.  However, our waiter presented us with a surprise.  As part of the MasterCard “Priceless” program we were also given a copy of Chef Lud’s book “Crave” signed by Chef Ludo himself!  Wow, that was completely unexpected.  Additionally, everyone in the restaurant is given a copy of the night’s menu so that you can re-live the memories of the wonderful food that was presented to you.  After all, remember, there is no menu here, and other than the descriptions given to you by the chef’s when the food is presented to you for each course, you have absolutely no idea what you’re eating.  So having a souvenir menu is a great way to remember this visit to Trois Mec.  But, having a signed copy of a book by Chef Ludo makes this trip to Trois Mec absolutely “Priceless”!  That was such a terrific surprise, we couldn’t have been any happier!

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Trois Mec is such an incredible dining and food experience.  I admit that as much as I love food, I was a little nervous to go to Trois Mec.  Walking into a restaurant experience where there is no set menu for you to choose from and you’re just supposed to eat what’s presented to you is a bit daunting to me since I am definitely a picky eater.  But remarkably, once I stepped inside and we were seated right behind the open kitchen, all my worries faded away.  While I was presented with food items I’d never tried before, such as eel, or items I don’t like to eat, such as mushrooms, I actually loved every single morsel of food and drop of liquid we were presented with.  In fact, my husband and I just couldn’t get enough.  And by the time we walked out of the restaurant, with our signed Chef Ludo cookbook in hand, we were so stuffed and yet as giddy as a kid in a candy shop.  I would highly, highly recommend the Trois Mec food experience to anyone who wants to have a good time, a little fun and try something different.  You won’t be disappointed.

Maple Block Meat Co.

July 13, 2016

I’ve always been a bbq fan, but it’s taken my husband a lot longer to warm to the idea of bbq.  When I first met him, he wasn’t even a fan of ribs, so the idea of suggesting that we eat at a bbq restaurant was generally turned down.  However, he soon discovered that ribs were actually a good thing, and that combined with his enjoyment of brisket meant that he wasn’t so quick to turn down my suggestion to eat bbq.  Recently, my husband was reading the hot list of new restaurants in our area and one particular restaurant caught his interest, a new bbq joint located within driving distance of where we lived.  After taking a look at their menu, he told me we had to give it a try, so we made reservations for dinner that night.

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Maple Block Meat Co. located in Culver City is a bbq joint that specializes in wood-smoked meats served up in a casual restaurant and bar setting.  Using classic American bbq techniques, Maple Block smokes their meats in a wood smoker located out in the parking lot.  The smoked meats are then hand-cut and butchered inside the store as ordered.  The food served is good old American bbq and classic bbq fixings along with a bar that serves inventive hand crafted drinks and homemade sodas.

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The restaurant itself features a full service bar, indoor and outdoor seating and counter seating.  If you sit at the counter, you can watch as the chef’s cut up the ribs, brisket and other smoked meats to assemble plates and trays as they’re ordered.  It’s like getting to watch a bbq show.  There’s even a large mirror behind the counter so that those sitting in the dining room can also watch as the chef cuts up and serves up the tasty meat.

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It was pretty crowded on Saturday night when we arrived at Maple Block Meat Co. and we were lucky we had made reservations in advance, or else we wouldn’t have been able to get a seat.  We decided to start our night off with some drinks.  I ordered a fresh homemade lemonade.  It was completely cool and refreshing with a good balance of lemon citrus tang and sweet syrup.  The lemonade was probably a little more watered down than I liked so the flavor was somewhat subdued, but it wasn’t overly sweet as sometimes homemade lemonade tends to be.  Served in a mason jar, it felt like I had walked into a neighborhood bbq joint.  As their handcrafted cocktails were quite popular, my husband decided to order the Maple Block Mule made with ale, ginger beer, fresh lime and housemade ginger syrup.  Served with a wedge of lemon and a candid ginger slice the drink also came in a mason jar.  For my husband, he thought that the Maple Block Mule was nothing special and he was somewhat disappointed after it was advertised that their drinks were supposed to be really good.  Unfortunately, the drink just didn’t have enough ginger flavor, enough punch to it.  Sadly, my husband and I both found our drinks just to be slightly lacking from what we had expected them to be.

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To start our meal, we decided to get an order of buttermilk biscuits served up with whipped honey butter.  The biscuits were hot on the inside and flaky on the outside.  Perfectly baked, they still had a bit of crunch on the crust.  The whipped honey butter was fantastic and a perfectly compliment of flavors to the buttermilk biscuits.  This biscuits were so filling I could have chowed down on so many more if I wasn’t afraid of being full before the meal actually arrived.  I was ready to get this bbq meal started.

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One of the main things we wanted to come to Maple Block for was their brisket.  They have a reputation for having some amazing brisket and that is my husband’s favorite cut of meat.  My husband was so looking forward to enjoying some brisket that he put a note in our reservation that they better not run out of brisket before we arrived.  Sadly, when we were seated at our table, our waitress informed us that they had run out of brisket for the night.  We were so disappointed.  She did, however, tell us that we could order the “Texas style” brisket chili which was made with the same brisket that they serve as an entree, just inside the chili.  Since we really wanted to try the brisket, we decided to get an order of the chili to sample.  Served with white cheddar and sour cream with cornbread on the side, this chili was actually quite large – enough for the both of us to share.  The brisket chili was phenomenal.  There was big chunks of brisket in the chili and the brisket was full-bodied and full of flavor.  We could tell from the brisket chunks just how amazing the brisket here at Maple Block must be, and we were even more disappointed that we didn’t get to try any of the brisket.  The chili itself was a bit on the spicy side. There was a lingering heat from the chili that just warmed everything up.  The chili was hearty and full of flavor and definitely a recommendation for anyone who likes chili and who likes brisket.

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Since we were unable to order brisket we decided to try two other kinds of smoked meats.  First up with the smoked pork belly finished over a wood grill and served with peach mustard, grilled apples and pickled red cabbage.  Surprisingly, the item on the plate that I thought I would like the least, the grilled apples, turned out to be one of the best items on the plate.  The grill brought out the sweetness in the apples, but they weren’t so overcooked that they lost their crunch, so the texture contrast with the crunchy apple slices and the tender and fatty pork belly was fantastic.  The pork belly itself was terrific with a good mixture of fat and meat.  It wasn’t overly fatty where the oiliness gets to you, rather the fat added juiciness and moisture to the meat.  The meat of the pork belly tasted nice and smoky and the little bit of char flavor from being finished on the wood grill as perfect.  The peach mustard was too sweet for me and I though it made the pork belly, which already had a hint of sweetness itself, just overly sweet to create a flavor profile that just wasn’t pleasant.  The pickled red cabbage was just overkill, and for me the pickled flavors of the cabbage just didn’t match with the sweetness of the peach mustard.  It just seemed like the pickled cabbage clashed with other flavors on the plate and just detracted from how delicious the pork belly was.

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We also decided to order a full rack of smoked pork spare ribs.  Admittedly, we could have done with just a half rack, and had we known how filling the buttermilk biscuits and the brisket chili was going to be, we probably would have only ordered a half rack.  These pork spare ribs were huge, and a full rack ended up being about 10 ribs in total.  The ribs had a terrific smoke flavor to them imparted from hours of wood smoking.  The dry rub that is applied to the spare ribs before smoking really do impart a terrific smoky flavor that leaves the ribs incredibly tender.  There are homemade dipping sauces that are served as an accompaniment to the meat should you find the meat too dry on its own.  It was amazing how tender the ribs were, they literally fell right off the bone, which sometimes with larger ribs, you don’t find at other bbq joints.  I liked not having to gnaw the meat off the bones, it made it a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable to eat.  The spare ribs, while tender and flavorful, weren’t necessarily my favorite bbq joint find.  I’ve had more flavorful, better meats at other bbq joints and had there been brisket available the night we dined at Maple Block, we wouldn’t have even ordered the spare ribs, so by the time the ribs arrived to the table, we were already quite let down that we wouldn’t be dining on the one thing that Maple Block served that we really wanted to try.

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Even though we were so full from dinner, we had to give their dessert a try because it saw banana listed and I just couldn’t pass it up.  We ordered the banana pudding with peanut butter and bacon.  I am not a big fan of having salty and sweet desserts as I want my desserts to strictly be sweet, so I wasn’t quite sure how this banana pudding would be but my husband said he’d share the dessert with me and finish it off if I didn’t like it.  Truth be told, the banana pudding itself was fine, the bacon wasn’t my favorite.  I did enjoy the addition of the peanut butter to the banana pudding as they are flavor combinations that do go together.  Something as simple as adding peanut butter really does add a new dimension of flavor to the banana pudding, and it also helps to slightly change the texture of the banana pudding by making it slightly creamier.  The peanut butter flavor shines through in banana pudding, and the traditional addition of the nilla wafers is a nice touch.  However, for me, the addition of the bacon bits that are sprinkled over the top of the banana pudding was too much.  I didn’t like the flavor of the salty bacon and the crunch that it added to the banana pudding, I would have much preferred a traditional banana pudding dessert.

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By the time we walked out of Maple Block Meat Co. we were so taken by their brisket and so disappointed that we only had the brisket in the chili and didn’t actually get any brisket that within a few weeks we actually ordered take out from Maple Block and all we got was brisket.  In fact, we ordered 2 pounds of brisket, one pound of lean brisket and one pound of fatty brisket.  This was the first time that my husband and I had seen a bbq joint that actually offered both cuts of brisket and gave customers the choice which cut of brisket they wanted to enjoy.  It was very obvious which was the fatty brisket (left in photo) and the lean brisket (right in photo), and there was an obvious difference in flavor too.  Both cuts of brisket were amazing, the fatty was juicy and rich and definitely fatty.  The lean cut was incredibly smoky and just as flavorful.  We actually enjoyed just stopping by and picking up brisket that we’ve actually done it a couple of times now.

Maple Block Meat Co. has definitely become our go-to spot when we’re in the mood for good bbq in Los Angeles.  As advertised, their brisket is amazing, delicious and smoky as it should be.  Their brisket chili is also quite delicious and flavorful.  It can be busy at the restaurant, so trying to dine there without a reservation at night might not be a good idea, but having the option to just pick up take out bbq is a good alternative.  It’s always hard to find a place to does brisket well and Maple Block not only does it well, but offers two different cuts of brisket.  In my husband’s book, you just can’t beat that.

 

Pieology Pizzeria

July 11, 2016

Seems these days that pizza joints are all over the place.  There’s your local Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Papa John’s.  And then there’s the mom and pop, hometown pizza joints that little leaguer’s gather at, and teenagers hang out at.  Or there’s the go-to pizza joint that you pick up and order from to have delivered when you just don’t want to cook dinner at home its late at night and you just want to eat something but don’t want to go out.  And now, these days, there’s the new kind of pizza joint that’s essentially like the Chipotle of pizza, you go in and order a pizza and they make it in front of you assembly-line style adding the toppings and ingredients that you want so that you end up with your own customized pizza in minutes.  There’s a particular pizza joint like this that I had heard about and mentioned to my husband for months that I wanted to try.  Unfortunately, its location just wasn’t in a part of town that we found ourselves in very often, and the thought of driving out that way just to try this new pizza place didn’t pique my husband’s interests.  Fast forward a couple of years, the same pizza joint opened up a location just a few miles from where we live in LA.  We put it on our list of places we needed to check out.

At Pieology Pizzeria their motto is “The Study of Custom Pizza.”  Customized pizzas and salads your way with your ingredients the way you want it is what you get at Pieology, and all in just a matter of minutes too.  The idea behind Pieology came from the company’s founder, wife and children who wanted to come up with a way in which they could all spend more time together as a family.  From that philosophy the idea of a make-your-own pizza place was born with the belief that you could bring people together over pizza so that they could spend time together and share memories with one another.  And with all of the different options for pizza crust, and toppings and sauces, the combinations are limitless, as is the chance to share a meal with a friend or a loved one and to creating lasting memories over something as simple as pizza.

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As mentioned, at Pieology you can make your own pizza your own way.  However, if you find the choices a little too daunting and you just can’t make up your mind, there are some Pieologist’s Favorite Pies with pre-selected ingredients and sauces that you can choose from so you don’t have to come up with your own creation.  But, if you want to make your own pie, you start by choosing your own crust.  Due to the fact that this is a quick-cooking pizza, all of the pies are thin-crust and made in house on a daily basis. There are three different types of crust to choose from: house-made white, house-made whole wheat and gluten-free.  Each pizza is served at approximately 11.5 inches, so it’s a pretty good size personal pizza.  After the crust comes the sauce that tops the pie.  There are a large number of sauce choices, and the combinations are unlimited since all of the toppings, including sauces are unlimited.  So, you could choose one sauce, or multiple sauces or make a pizza half of one sauce and half of a different sauce.  The sauce choices include: house red, 3-cheese alfredo, herb butter, olive oil, fiery buffalo, pesto and bbq.  For my husband and I, we each decided to make our own pizza.  We both chose a house-made white pizza crust.  I topped mine with a little bit of herb butter and then red sauce on top of that.  My husband decided to go with olive oil topped with house red as well.

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Then comes the fun part of the pizza-making process, the toppings for the pizza.  Let’s start with the cheese.  What’s a pizza without cheese after all?  At this point, the choices start to get a little dizzying because there are so many combinations you just can’t decide what to put on the pizza.  Your cheese choices include: mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, feta, Daiya mozzarella, and gorgonzola.  Think about the different flavor combinations you could create from all of these different cheese options.  I opted to go with mozzarella and a little bit of parmesan on my pizza.  My husband chose the same combination of cheeses on his pie, mozzarella with a little bit of parmesan.

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Time for the protein now.  Of course, you could also make a vegetarian pizza as well and skip all of the different meat options.  But of course, I’m a meat eater, so I was definitely going to put some sort of protein on my pizza.  I don’t think my husband would skip the opportunity to put meat on his pizza either.  Your meat options are: pepperoni, sausage, meatball, Canadian bacon, all-natural bacon, all-natural chicken, and spicy all-natural chicken.  Again, all of the toppings are unlimited, so you can choose as many different types of meats for your pie as you want.  I went with pepperoni and a little bit of sausage on my pizza.  My husband chose sausage and bacon on his pizza.

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Last step in the process are the final ingredients that you may want to choose to put on top of the sauce and the cheese and the meats.  You’ve got your veggie options.  And these options are numerous: black olives, mushrooms, red onions, green peppers, artichokes, garlic, pineapple, jalapeño, corn, kalamata olives, fresh cilantro, spinach, banana peppers, fresh basil, grape tomatoes, and roasted red peppers.  It’s no wonder you could come here and never get the same pizza twice.  It was hard for me to try to decide what to put on my pizza, what toppings would go well with the sauce, cheese and meat choices I made.  I ultimately went with red onions, corn, grape tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic.  My husband went much simpler than I with fresh basil, pineapple and green peppers.  Again, your choices are unlimited, there’s not a maximum or minimum of toppings you can order.

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Now the pizzas are done and ready to be put into the pizza oven.  Because this is thin-crust pizza, it only takes about 8 minutes for them to cook your pizza all the way through.  By the time you pay, get your drink and find yourself a seat, your pizza is pretty much read to come out of the oven, be sliced up and then delivered straight to your table.  If you choose, after the pizza comes out of the oven, you can opt to have after bake sauces drizzled over your pizza.  These sauces include pesto, bbq sauce, house red sauce and fiery buffalo sauce.  This just adds an extra layer of flavor to your pizza.

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A few minutes after we sat down, our pizzas were brought to our table.  Nice and piping hot straight out of the pizza oven, the pizzas were perfectly baked to a nice crispy golden brown.  The toppings on the pizza were cooked enough that they weren’t raw, but they still had a bit of crunch to them.  So the red onion and the green peppers still had a bit of crunch and bite to them.  The pizza crust wasn’t weighed down by all of the toppings and somehow was still crunchy and crispy throughout.  Both my husband and I thought that the pizza crust was the best part of the pizza.  I thought that the herb butter sauce that I had put onto my pizza before the house red sauce was a bit too much and the herbs were really strong.  I liked my husband’s use of olive oil better than the herb butter sauce.  I also though that the garlic I had added as a topping was probably a little too much as well, and I love garlic.  But in this case, I probably could have done without so much garlic.  But overall, the pizza was well cooked, delicious and quite filling.  An 11.5 inch pizza is quite a lot for one person to finish on their own.

I liked the fact that Pieology’s customized pizza was truly unlimited.  All you pay for is the pizza, what you choose to put on your pizza, how much or how little, is all up to you.  It’s truly the skies the limit.  The result is a pizza that is customized to your tastes.  After baking for a scant 8 minutes in a pizza oven, you get a beautiful, perfectly cooked thin-crust pizza.  Pieology was fun, creative and delicious for essentially something that can almost be considered fast-food pizza.  It’s something different and fun and there’s good food to boot.  You can’t really go wrong.

Rustic Canyon Winebar and Seasonal Kitchen

July 6, 2016

During the lead up to my birthday this year, my husband and I went back and forth as to where to go and enjoy a nice birthday meal.  Then, one evening, a week before my birthday, he suggested that we go to an earlier dinner at a restaurant in Santa Monica that we had both talked about wanting to try for about a year now.  It just so happened that my husband was off at a seminar that day, and he’d be done with his seminar earlier than normal, so he’d be able to make an earlier dinner if I could swing it as well.  One of the reasons that this restaurant had made it back on our radar was that we had recently seen a list of the hottest restaurants in LA for Winter 2016 and this particular restaurant, despite having been around for years, was at the top of the list.  There must be something that keeps people coming back multiple times and the food must be good enough that it’s always atop critics lists.  It’s about time my husband and I found out for ourselves what it is about this restaurant.

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Rustic Canyon Winebar and Seasonal Kitchen was the first restaurant in the Rustic Canyon Family of Restaurants that includes Sweet Rose Creamery and Milo & Olive, among other restaurants that have taken over Santa Monica.  The idea of this upscale, California fresh cuisine came from founder Josh Loeb who would host intimate dinner parties at his house in the Rustic Canyon neighborhood of Santa Monica.  At these dinners, friends would gather around a long, candlelit table, tell stories, share good food and wine and make new friends.  And that is the idea that inspired the creation of the menu of the restaurant as well as the interior decor of the restaurant.  A small, intimate gathering place that is simple, elegant and understated to create a cozy, warm environment where friends and family can gather together to feast over fresh, farmer’s market fare created from simple, local ingredients and a selection of some of the best wines, hand crafted cocktails and artisanal beers that you can find in the marketplace.

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Since Rustic Canyon is known to have some terrific cocktails, my husband decided to give a couple of different cocktails a try.  His first drink was the Angeleno made with Redemption rye, Aixa Vino vermouth, Grand Poppy liqueur and Scrappy’s orange bitters.  This drink was a bit of a play off of a traditional Old Fashioned, which is my husband’s favorite cocktail.  My husband said that this drink was incredibly aromatic from the orange bitters and the orange peel (which I’m sure they also lit before bringing to the table to release the orange oils).  This drink was all alcohol, there was no watering down of the drink at all.  My husband thought that by adding vermouth to the drink, it made it different and definitely much stronger.  He definitely liked the drink.  I started my evening off ordering a ginger & meyer lemon homemade soda.  Rustic Canyon makes their own sodas and other non-alcoholic drinks rather than using commercially produced drinks.  This ginger and meyer lemon soda was bubbly and tangy and sweet and smooth.  The meyer lemon gave it that acidic tangy lemon flavor, but the combination with the ginger gave it a bit of a sweet note as well, but finishing off with just a hint of a bite from the ginger.  It was such a yin and yang of flavors that just came together so well.  Before the evening was out, my husband decided to order a second cocktail, this time a whiskey sour made with Redemption rye, fresh lemon, orange blossom honey, egg whites and Peychauds aromatic bitters.  My husband is a huge fan of bitters in a drink.  In the end, he ended up liking this drink better than the Angeleno because it didn’t have the vermouth which he thought just overpowered the Angeleno after a few sips.  The vermouth made it taste too much like a martini, which isn’t what he was looking for and it gave the drink an aftertaste that wasn’t that pleasant.  With this whiskey sour, this was straight up whiskey, which just goes down smoother and the drink itself was just tastier.  After my ginger & meyer lemon homemade soda, I also decided to order a second drink, the non alcoholic Moscow Mule.  The drink was good, it was very ginger-y.  Definitely more carbonated than the soda I had earlier.  It was like more ginger without the meyer lemon that was in the first drink I ordered.

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To start our meal, we decided to order the 4 cheeses plate served with Milo & Olive bread, preserves and nuts.  The 4 cheeses were Paulette cows milk cheese, Hanna sheep’s milk cheese, a goat’s milk minuet, and a Bayley Hazen Blue cow’s milk blue cheese.  Also served was frosted almonds, honey, quince paste and the Milo & Olive bread was raisin bread.  First off, you just can’t go wrong with Milo & Olive bread, and though I’m not a fan of raisin bread, it was actually quite delicious and the raisins were the perfect bread to go with a cheese plate.  All of the cheeses were pretty mild in taste and fairly standard.  The blue cheese was milder than I thought it would be and was probably my favorite of the 4 cheeses.  The frosted almonds were actually quite a nice touch as an accompaniment to the cheese plate as they added a touch of sweetness to the mild tasting cheeses.

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We also decided to split a salad starter as well before our meals arrived.  We ordered the kale salad made with dates, Fat Uncle almonds, healthy seeds, puffed rice, parmigiano and lemon.  First off, kale salad isn’t the type of thing that my husband and I normally order, but this dish is one of the more popular and well known dishes at Rustic Canyon and since it seemed that everyone else was ordering it, we wanted to see what all the hub bub was all about, so we decided to order it as well.  The lemon dressing on this kale salad was terrific, it just gave the kale a subtle flavor of lemon that was needed to punch up the salad.  The dates were sweet and interesting, and I don’t like dates, but this was pretty good.  The kale itself was fresh and crispy and crunchy.  My husband actually said that this dish was in his top 5 dishes he’s ever had, and this coming from a guy that doesn’t really like salads, but for him, all of the flavors just came together.  The crunch of the puffed rice and the almonds and the seeds all just added flavor and texture to the salad which was complimentary and pleasing at the same time.  The grated parmigiano just added a hint of saltiness and brought everything in the dish together.  It was a fantastic salad.

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For his entree, my husband ordered the flatiron steak served with sunchokes, parmigiano and marrow jus.  He requested the flatiron steak be cooked medium rare, and it was done to perfection.  The meat was hearty and tender and delicious.  I was able to sample a small bit of the flatiron before my husband finished off his plate, and I really liked the flavors of the steak.  The marrow jus was rich and decadent as a sauce for the flatiron steak and it really elevated the flavor of the meat.  This dish was filling and enjoyable and my husband was really happy with this selection.

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As a side dish, my husband just had to order the Grist & Toll polenta, curds & whey topped with fresh black truffles.  If you want to talk about an over-the-top, decadent dish, this is it.  The dish was probably already going to be decadent with just the polenta, curds & whey, but holy cow add in the fresh black truffle (and a lot of it!) and this dish is completely over-the-top and my husband was in love.  The flavors were incredibly rich that after a few bites, I found it to be too much, it either needed some fat or something acidic to cut through the richness.  But my husband was a different story, he loved every single bite of this dish.  All he could say was, “wow!”  And yet, another dish makes it into my husband’s top 10 dishes he’s ever eaten.

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My dinner at Rustic Canyon was the Stone Valley Farm pork shoulder with polenta, kale and green tomatoes.  The pork shoulder was tender and flavorful and perfectly prepared.  Roasted until it is fall-off-the-bone tender, I was surprised at the large serving size of the dish.  The polenta was creamy and rich and well prepared.  The flavor of the polenta perfectly balanced the rich, fatty flavor of the pork shoulder.  The kale and green tomatoes added another layer of flavor and texture to the dish that helped to balance the whole plate.  Rich, creamy, luxurious and decadent are all words that easily describe the complexity of this seemingly simple pork shoulder dish.

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At this point, I was full, but we couldn’t leave without checking out the dessert menu.  Since this was a birthday dinner, my husband encouraged me to order a dessert to celebrate, so I chose the vanilla bean budino.  Alright, I should probably listen to my husband more often and thank him because this budino was amazing.  Made with white chocolate and topped with pistachio and citrus, the budino had some really different flavor combinations and tastes as well as textures.  A budino is essentially and Italian custard or pudding dish, and this vanilla bean budino was perfectly created and flavored.  The vanilla bean flavor really shined through in the custard which was a terrific, luscious texture.  The addition of the citrus segments really set off the sweetness of the vanilla bean and the tang and acidity of the citrus.  And to finish it off, the pistachios added texture and crunch to the dish which rounded out the dessert perfectly and added an earthiness and hint of salt to the flavor profile that just enhanced how amazing the budino was.

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My husband opted for his own dessert of pear gallette.  The pear gallette was served with creme anglaise and pecan crumble and was much larger than I thought it would be.  Luckily, my husband was still hungry and the dessert was so good he didn’t have any problems finishing his final course.  My husband isn’t much of a pear fan, but he thought that the dish sounded creative and different from your normal gallette, so he thought he’d give it a try.  Sure enough, it wasn’t just your normal gallette as it was essentially sitting in a bed of creme anglaise which was just heavenly.  The crust for the gallette was fantastic and crispy and flaky, it was even coated in sugar crystals to add a bit of sweetness, plus texture and crunch.  The pears inside were hot and tender, but still had some crunch to them.  The filling was sweet, but not overly so that it was cloying.  But the creme anglaise helped to balance the flavor of the gallette and added a sense of richness to the dessert.  The pecan crumble stole the show though, adding both flavor and texture contrast to the dessert, but also acting as a way to connect the gallette to the creme anglaise as one cohesive dessert.  This dessert was massive, but it was so good my husband and I just couldn’t leave any of it behind.

As we walked out of the restaurant, my husband said he understood now why after years of having been opened, Rustic Canyon is still considered one of LA’s best restaurants.  For my husband, this is now his new favorite restaurant in Los Angeles.  Rustic Canyon lives up to all of the hype that comes with the restaurant and its reputation is well earned.  The idea of being invited into someone’s casual home to enjoy a delicious, hearty and fresh meal is what comes through when you dine at Rustic Canyon.  The food is amazing, and fresh, and local and invokes flavors and combinations of textures that you just wouldn’t have envisioned.  Something as simple as a kale salad is transformed into something so amazing with fresh ingredients and flavors that my husband counts it as one of his top 5 dishes ever.  That was a surprise to me.  The food, the service, the creativity, the inventiveness of the flavors and the ingredients really shines through, and through all of the hype and the pomp, what you really have is a good, clean, delicious food.  Rustic Canyon is the epitome of what Southern California cuisine is really all about.

Salt & Ash

June 28, 2016

One of people that I “follow” on Facebook is one of the food critics for our local county newspaper.  A few months back, I saw that this person linked back to an article in the Food section of the paper that listed the Top 10 Restaurants in Orange County.  For fun, I just thought I’d read through the article to see if I agreed with it, if I’d been to any of these restaurants, if I’d even heard of any of these restaurants, or if any of these restaurants were appealing enough to give a try.  In going through the list, I was stunned to find that one of the restaurants on the list was a restaurant in a neighboring city to my hometown that I’d never heard of before.  When I forwarded the list to my husband, he said we should make reservations for brunch for the upcoming weekend to give this new restaurant a try and see if it lives up to its reputation as one of the Top 10 Restaurants in Orange County.

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Salt & Ash is owned by a husband and wife duo who say that they make “real food for real people.”  Having taken over a former Greek taverna, they’ve transformed the space using reclaimed wood, recycled products and brick and mortar accents to create a warm and inviting atmosphere where guests are to feel like they are being welcomed into the owner’s home in a casual and relaxed space.  The menu is creative American fare featuring “hyper-local organic farmers, day boat fishermen, micro-brew masters and other small businesses,” featuring as much local Orange County product as possible.  The food is made in-house, fresh from scratch using locally sourced, organic meats, cheese and poultry which is served farmed to table.  The restaurant also features a full-service bar with both indoor and outdoor dining areas.  The bar highlights local micro-brews with an ever-changing and rotating list of beers on tap.

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One of Salt & Ash’s motto’s is “love, food, drink, life” and that is demonstrated in some beautiful lighting fixtures that hang up inside the space that spell out the words “love,” “food,” “drink,” and “life.”  While most of the interior walls are made with recycled wood and hanging candle sconces, there’s surprising a lot of natural light that streams into the space making it feel warm and inviting.  The restaurant has an open kitchen front from which you can see the chefs working diligently to make customers orders as they are placed.

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To start off our “brunch” meal, which was really more like lunch, we placed a couple of drink orders.  Being a non-drinker, I actually placed an order for a mocha chip milkshake.  I’m a sucker for milkshakes and almost can’t resist them when I see them on any menu, be it at a restaurant or a fast food place.  This mocha chip milkshake wasn’t super thick, but had a great mocha flavor, which I loved.  Unfortunately, as with any sort of “chip” flavored ice cream, when you turn it into a milkshake, the chips don’t get blended fully and you end up with a pile of “chips” at the bottom of the drink as they settle there.  My husband was intrigued with an ale that Salt & Ash had on tap from a local brewery in Orange called Valiant Brewery.  We later found out that Valiant makes a lot of Belgian-style ales, which my husband really likes.  What my husband ordered was a seasonal fall ale called the Imperial Brown Coconut Ale.  My husband really liked this beer since he could really taste the coconut and he said in all the beers he’s ever tried in his life, he’s never tasted coconut in a beer ever.  In fact, a couple of months later, we dined at Salt & Ash again and my husband was really hoping they might still have this beer, and he was disappointed to find out that this was a seasonal fall beer and they didn’t have any more of it.  We’ll have to see if they release it again this fall.

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As this was brunch, my husband, who loves breakfast-y food decided he wanted to order a breakfast item for his meal.  To go with a side of bacon and a side of hash browns, my husband ordered the brioche French toast.  The French toast was hazenlut crusted and served with a pear compote atop along with butter and warm maple syrup on the side with a dollop of fresh whipped cream on top.  I was surprised that my husband passed up an eggs Benedict to order the French toast, which was definitely more something I would order than he would order.  After slapping on some of the butter and drizzling the warm maple syrup over the French toast my husband took a bite and his taste buds sang.  He immediately told me that this French toast was amazing, it was hearty and filling, but not too sweet and he enjoyed the crunch of the hazelnut crust.  Surprisingly, he even liked the pear compote, which I thought for sure he wouldn’t like.  In the end, he gave me a slice of the French toast since he told me that I should give it a try as he thought I would like it too.  He was right, it was good and that hazelnut crust was much better than I thought it would be.  It was crunchy and light and gave the French toast a slightly nutty flavor.  As for the sides, the hash browns and the bacon, you can’t ever go wrong with your standard breakfast potatoes and meat.  My husband was more than satisfied and full.

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I decided to go with a more hearty lunch item rather than a breakfast item.  My order was the house blend burger with onion jam, aioli and aged white cheddar with a side of fries.  I was hungry, but this burger was huge.  In the end, I exchanged part of my burger with my husband for part of his French toast.  First off, the pretzel bun that Salt & Ash uses for the burger is perfect.  It sops up the juice from the burger, but without making the bun soggy and soft, which is something I hate.  The bun had a nice pretzel taste that complemented the burger so well.  The house blend burger patty was delicious, fatty and moist but full of rich, beef flavor.  Topped with aged white cheddar which gave a hint of tang.  The onion jam was much tastier than I thought it would be.  The jam was chunky enough that you could tell you were eating onions rather than just a jam spread and it had a nice mild onion flavor.  The aioli added the last level of flavor that the burger needed.  The aioli added moistness to the burger and complemented the aged white cheddar well bringing the burger together to one cohesive dish.  When I split the burger with my husband, he agreed that the burger was quite good as well.  In fact, this burger is specifically mentioned in the article about the Top 10 Restaurants in Orange County article I read.  So, it’s no wonder that we both enjoyed the burger.

My husband and I were pleasantly surprised by Salt & Ash and how delicious their food was.  We’d never expected to see a restaurant on the Top 10 list in our own backyard.  We enjoyed it’s really relaxed and laid back atmosphere, so much so that my husband and I have returned to Salt & Ash for dinner, and my friends and I have come back for brunch.  We love the fact that they really do make all of their food with care from scratch, and you can taste the care in every dish.  When we returned for dinner, my husband ordered a pasta dish with homemade pasta noodles that he loved.  And as a purveyor and supporter of local businesses, if you’re a fan of local craft beer, this is a wonderful place to come and taste and ever changing menu of local draft beer.  For a fun and relaxed brunch with friends or family or for a celebratory dinner meal, Salt & Ash is a terrific place to come, relax and enjoy some really good, local, fresh made American fare.

State Bird Provisions

June 23, 2016

One of the things we wanted to do on our second trip to San Francisco in 12 months was to get dinner reservations at a certain restaurant.  When we were in the Bay Area last year after New Year’s we tried to get reservations to this particular restaurant, but they happened to have a few days there where they were closed and therefore getting in was not possible since they weren’t even open for business.  So, as soon as we booked these plane tickets, the first thing we did was check the calendar to see if the restaurant would be open and how we could get a table.  Turns out, the restaurant was open, but reservations were only taken a certain number of days in advance and reservations opened at midnight or something weird like that.  By the time we remembered that we needed to check online for reservations the restaurant was down to one table left at 10:15 pm, so even though it was late, we took it before the opportunity to dine at this restaurant passed us by again.

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State Bird Provisions, a one-Michelin star restaurant and winner of the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant in 2013 and Best Chef: West in 2015, is probably best described as American fare served dim sum-style.  In 1931, the official state bird of California was designated as the quail.  The proprietors of State Bird Provisions say that their restaurant started out more as a recipe for quail and kind of grew from there to what it is now, an ever-changing menu with very few, if any, set items, created and produced based upon seasonal ingredients and tastes.  According to the dictionary, the noun provision is “the action of providing or supplying something for use,” in this case, food and drink.  So the restaurant, State Bird Provisions was born.

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This restaurant, with a small, open kitchen is non-stop action as it churns out plate, after plate, of small dishes using fresh seasonal ingredients to create a multitude of California-inspired, American fare.  From one moment to the next, you can’t predict what will come out of the kitchen as you watch the chefs work diligently with the tools of their trade.  The restaurant serves food in two ways, first, there’s a small menu that you are provided with when you are sat at a table or at the kitchen bar.  From this menu, you can order as much, or as little, as you choose.  These dishes will be prepared for you once they’ve been ordered, and brought to your table as they are completed.  However, don’t fill up on the menu items because, as described, this restaurant also serves food dim sum style.  Instead of steamed bamboo baskets or metal trays that you’d expect to see in a Chinese restaurant, here, beautiful small dishes are created then lined up on hand held serving trays, or push carts, and then servers go around to each table, describe the dish that they are presenting (that you can’t find on the menu), let you know what the price is, and then you make the decision as to whether or not you want to try these small little morsels.  There’s no pressure, so if they present something you’re not interested in, you just move on.  However, if you are interested in the dish, you let the server know how many you want (1 serving, 2 servings or more), the dish(es) is taken off the tray/cart ands served at your table family style for everyone to share.  Then, much like a dim sum restaurant, the server marks the card at your table indicating how many servings you ordered and at what price.  At the end of the night, when you’re all done, the card at your table is taken away, whatever you may have ordered off the menu and from the dim sum-style serving is added up, and you’re presented with your check.  I’ve never seen American cuisine, or really another other than Chinese cuisine, served dim sum-style, and that is part of the appeal of State Bird Provisions, not to mention that the food served is fresh, creative, and delicious, but the atmosphere and concept of food service is fun, inviting, and participatory.

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Before we got the evening started with food, we decided to order a couple of drinks.  State Bird has sherry, sparkling wine, champagne, ciders and beers available.  My husband went with the DIPA, Honey Badger, Marin/Cellarmaker Collaboration, local to Larkspur, California on draught.  I went with a non-alcoholic sbp soda in the flavor of Shiso Yuzu, pretty much a fancy homemade lemonade soda.

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We started the night by reviewing the menu on the table.  We chose a couple of items from the menu that we both wanted to try and then we waited for the dim sum carts and trays to come around to see what else tickled our fancy.  The first dish we chose from the first dim sum tray that came around was potato-trout croquettes with black trumpet ranch.  The potato-trout croquettes were definitely tasty.  They were perfectly fried so that they were super crunchy and crisp on the outside and tender and warm on the inside.  The texture of the potato-trout combination was interesting.  I’ve had potato and ham croquettes before, but mashing together potatoes and white fish meat seemed such an interesting combination that actually worked really well for me.  Both the potato and the trout was left chunky enough to be identifiable as separate ingredients and the fish was light and flaky and the potato was dense and fluffy.  As for the black trumpet ranch dipping sauce, I didn’t really taste any of it other than what was on the bottom of the croquette that I picked up.  Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of ranch dressing as a dressing or dipping sauce, and adding black trumpet mushrooms for someone who isn’t a mushroom fan isn’t an “add” for me.

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The next dish was also a dish passed around dim sum-style, the crispy and crunchy pork with apple mostarda.  A mostarda is a Northern Italian preparation of candied fruit in a mustard-flavored soup, traditional served alongside boiled meat.  In this case, the apple, glazed or preserved in a mustard-flavored syrup was served mixed with crispy and crunchy pork.  Apple and pork has always been a classic preparation, and these flavors played upon that pairing of sweet apple with rich and fatty pork.  The acidity and sweetness of the apple help to cut through the pork, and by making it a mostarda, the apple is treated with the added element of the mustard-flavored syrup with adds a little acidity and a little bit of background heat to the dish.  The crispy and crunchy pork is as described with the pieces of pork cut up perfectly into bite-sized pieces of deliciousness that were a bit crispy and a bit crunchy at the same time due to a coating that is on the outside of the pork.  The combination of fatty meat and acidic and sweet apple is a good pairing and makes a nice little dish that is a great size to share between two people.

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As more dishes were pushed around and passed by our table, we couldn’t resist trying each dish.  Our original idea of ordering a bunch of items off the menu slowly started to dwindle down as we kept ordering dishes from those being passed around.  Our next dish that we decided to try was the smoked trout with wild rice and mushroom in a pork belly dashi.  For me, this was one of my favorite dishes of the night.  The small morsel of smoked trout clumped with the wild rice in a loose dumpling sitting in the middle of the bowl was delicious.  A paper-thin slice of mushroom was laid atop of the “dumpling” and then the pork belly dashi was poured into the bowl.  The pork belly dashi was rich and warm and just so inviting.  The flavors were complex and just so delicious and using the pork belly for the fat to help flavor the dashi was creative.  The wild rice and smoked trout was strong and rich with its own flavors that actually paired with the dashi really well.  This was a small little bowl, more like a cup of this soup.  Based on how good it was, I could have used a whole bowl of these little smoked trout and wild rice “dumplings” and this amazing pork belly dashi broth.

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Another dish passed around that I had heard of before being quite popular was the garlic bread with burrata cheese.  I told my husband we had to try one of these garlic breads.  I like garlic bread, my husband is a fan of cheese so its like the perfect combination.  However, I also feel like this was one of those dishes that had so much potential and then just fell a little short.  First off, I thought that the garlic bread was a bit too chewy and not crunchy and crispy as I had expected.  This could be because it wasn’t garlic bread fresh out of the oven, so when it’s allowed to sit for a while, it cools down and just gets a bit chewier in texture than I had expected it to be.  Also, the bread, although described as garlic bread, seemed to be lacking a bit in the garlic part of the bread.  I had trouble identifying any sort of garlic flavor in the bread.  The bread is topped with a good amount of burrata cheese that had a great fresh texture and quality to it.  It was so and creamy and delicious.  Very mild in flavor, there is a nice amount of black pepper sprinkled atop the burrata to add just that tinge of spice and flavor to the dish.  You’re supposed to grab a chunk of the bread and some of the cheese with the black pepper and eat it all together to get the flavor of all the components.  If the bread had been crispier and crunchy and flaky, with a good garlic flavor, it would have been such a great flavor combination with the cool and creamy burrata cheese and the black pepper seasoning.

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My husband decided that he needed to try one of the restaurant’s more popular and signature dishes, the guinea hen dumpling with aromatic broth.  Again, this was another dish being passed around dim sum-style.  That made 5 dim sum dishes so far that we’d ordered from the passed trays and pushed carts.  This was definitely a dish for one person to enjoy as it contained on guinea hen dumpling and just a little bit of broth.  The dumpling was nicely pan friend and had a great crispy quality to add crunch and texture contrast.  The guinea hen filling was hearty and rich and my husband thought it was delicious.  But, the star of this dish for him was the broth that the dumpling was served with.  It was rich and hearty and full of flavor and my husband wanted more than just the little bit of broth they gave him.  I imagine, it was just as good as the pork belly dashi served with the smoked trout and wild rice dish we ordered.

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Crispy pork belly with citrus salad and vinaigrette was the next passed dish to come out of the kitchen.  I think by this time, we had only refused one or two of the dim sum-style dishes being offered.  We had better slow down if we wanted to order anything off the menu at all.  My husband wasn’t interested in this dish at all, so this was all mine.  Of course, I had to take off the slices of jalapeño because I’m weak and it’s too spicy for me.  However, the crispy pork belly was fantastic!  It was tender and flavorful.  The pork belly was pan grilled so it was crispy on the outside and fork tender on the inside.  The greens provided a nice flavor contrast to the rich and fatty pork belly and the vinaigrette added a nice acidic tang to the fatty pork belly as well.  However, the star was the citrus segments which added the perfect counterpunch of flavor and texture to the pork belly and really brought the whole dish together.

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The next dish was totally for my husband, he decided to try and order of the grilled shiitake mushroom with meyer lemon kosho.  Kosho is a Japanese seasoning that’s fermented, this time it’s made with meyer lemon.  Essentially, it’ll just intensify the flavor of the meyer lemon.  The grilled shiitake mushrooms were beautiful and hearty.  Two mushrooms per order, my husband loved it from the first bite.  The grill/char flavor of the shiitake was warm and inviting, and the meyer lemon kosho.  This dish was much heartier than it would appear to be.  And even though I don’t like mushrooms, after my husband had a bite of one of the shiitake’s he told me that I had to give this a try because if you didn’t know it was a mushroom you’d never guess.  Generally, my husband doesn’t lead me astray when he asks me to try a food item, so I allowed him to cut me off a small piece so I could try it.  Surprisingly, he was right.  The flavor of the meyer lemon kosho and the meatiness of the shiitake along with the wonderful grill flavor really made this taste like something other than a mushroom.  While it had a woodsy, earthy taste, if I didn’t know it was a shiitake, I’m not sure I’d guess that I was eating a mushroom.  It was a pleasant surprise.

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For me, the next dish was the one dish of the evening that I really did not like.  And that’s quite unfortunate since I’m the one that chose to get an order of this dish off of one of the passed trays.  This dish was grilled chicory with pomegranate seeds over potato puree.  the dish looked pleasant and light like a salad.  The potato puree was the best part of the dish, it was smooth and rich and flavorful and exactly as described, a potato puree.  The pomegranate seeds were also tasty, but then again, they were just pomegranate seeds straight out of the fruit.  It was the chicory that really turned me off of this dish.  I’m not sure how chicory is supposed to taste normally on its own, but in this dish, the grilling of this plant just brought out such a heavily bitter and acidic taste to the greens that it was so overpowering and off-putting and generally inedible that I couldn’t stand more than a couple of bites of the dish.  My husband also tried it and didn’t like the strong bitter flavor coming off the greens that he didn’t want any more of the dish at all.  In my book, this dish was definitely less than desirable and a complete failure in flavors.

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Finally, the first item we ordered from the menu arrived, the “croque madame” ham & fiscalini cheddar whole-grain pancake.  This was off the section of the menu called “toasts & pancakes” where State Bird Provisions has small bites that they offer that are packed with flavor.  Each order of a toast or pancake was meant to be a single serving for one person, so you needed to order accordingly based upon how many people wanted a taste of each toast or pancake ordered.  This particular “croque madame” order was placed by my husband.  Essentially, this was a fancy, high-end ham and cheese “pancake,” which is right up my husband’s alley. Of course, my husband was going to love this.  It’s got ham and it’s got cheese, what is there not to like.  The whole grain pancake was an interesting “bread” substitute which actually made this small little pancake a lot heartier than it appeared to be.  The cheddar was delicious and the ham was salty, but the bite of the whole grain mustard atop the pancake was a nice flavor punch to this dish that brought the dish together.

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The second item I ordered from the menu arrived at the same time, it was the yogurt butter-yellowtail “floss” toast.  This was my selection from the toasts & pancakes menu.  I loved the watermelon radish that topped the toast.  The yellowtail was light and delicious, but my favorite part of this was the toast itself which was some sort of sesame toast.  It was perfectly toasted and crunchy and hearty.  Sliced thin enough that it wasn’t too chewy, but had enough weight to be a pretty significant couple of bites.  The flavor of the fish and the sesames and the watermelon radish all came together into an enjoyable few bites.

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We were pretty full by now, but when one more cart was pushed towards our table and they were offering steak tartare, I just couldn’t refuse.  Steak tartare with umeboshi-rosemary vinaigrette and a surprise of uni served atop the tartare and crispy rice paper.  I’d never had uni before, so this was going to be interesting.  The steak tartare was strong and potent from the umeboshi-rosemary vinaigrette.  Umeboshi is a pickled Japanese plum, and the flavor of the umeboshi was really prevalent in the steak tartare.  The steak itself was rich and tender.  If you didn’t know it was raw beef, you’d never know from just tasting the dish blindly.  However, I thought that the umeboshi-rosemary vinaigrette was just a little too strong and it overpowered the rich flavor of the steak rather than complimenting it.  The uni, was rich and strong and gave such a distinctive flavor to the steak tartare.  The jury is still out for me as to whether or not I liked the uni or not.  It seemed a bit gratuitous.  The idea of using the rice paper rather than bread, or chips or something else was interesting and fun, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it.  In the end, while the taste of the dish was powerful and packed a punch, I couldn’t get through the entire dish as the flavors were just a little too strong for my palate and not really what I was expecting from steak tartare.

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It’s amazing how small bites can get you so full.  Every time a cart was pushed by or a tray presented at the table, it seemed like we wanted to try one of everything.  And yet, as our table was filled up, we realized that we were starting to get full.  So many flavors, so many ingredients.  But, of course, as the night drew to a close, we couldn’t leave without trying some dessert.  After looking over the dessert menu, my husband and I each decided to get our own dessert.  My husband chose the mulled wine granita with vanilla tapioca and orange blossom-poached fig.  The dessert was this beautiful, rich magenta granita in a glass jar which sat atop a beautiful layer of vanilla tapioca.  Over the top of the mulled wine granita were a couple of slices of poached fig and some micro greens as well for some added flavor and crunch.  My husband really enjoyed the contrast between the cool and boozy mulled wine granita with its icy texture and the sweet vanilla tapioca layered at the bottom of the glass cup.  The texture contrast between the spongy tapioca balls and the crunchy ice crystals along with their unique mulled wine and vanilla flavor contrast made for an interesting dessert that was as inventive and creative as it was pretty to look at.  The orange blossom-poached fig slices added yet another layer of texture and flavor profile to the dessert.  This completed what my husband thought was one of the best meals he’d had in a long time.

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My choice for dessert was the double chocolate “ice cream” sandwich with burnt marshmallow meringue and sour cherries soaked in balsamic vinegar.  The double chocolate ice cream sandwich was made with a chocolate cookie-brownie-like exterior encompassing rich chocolate ice cream to form a sandwich.  This dessert was much larger that I thought it would be, definitely enough for 2 people with 4 ice cream sandwich pieces served atop a wooden serving board.  The ice cream sandwiches are layered atop the burnt marshmallow meringue with some of the sour cherries soaked in balsamic spooned over the top.  I didn’t think I would like the sour cherries at all, but the flavor of the balsamic vinegar it was soaked in was quite potent and removed most of the sour flavor from the sour cherries to the point where I actually thought that the flavor of the sour cherries wasn’t half bad.  The star of the dish, for me, was the burnt marshmallow meringue.  The marshmallow was soft and sticky, but wasn’t so elastic as to be true marshmallow.  The texture was more like marshmallow fluff, which wasn’t too sweet and had such a terrific texture, the extra flavor from being burnt – probably torched – gives it that extra texture that helps to solidify the outside while keeping the inside marshmallow soft and fluffy. I was completely stuffed by the time I finished my dessert.

First off, for being a Michelin-star restaurant with all of this acclaim and all of the awards they’ve won, I was amazed by how laid back the restaurant experience and how it almost felt like you were walking into your neighborhood restaurant rather than such a highly acclaimed restaurant.  I think that’s a tribute to the owners and the set up to create a vibe that’s comfortable and inviting and welcoming.  The concept of American fare served dim sum-style is so unique and different, but fun and engaging at the same time.  Another terrific appeal of State Bird Provisions is that it has got to be one of the most affordable Michelin star restaurant you will ever dine at, which also makes it more accessible to the public than most other Michelin star restaurants that are here in the United States.  For months now after our visit to State Bird, my husband and I still talk about it, and we talk about the fact that we would go back to State Bird Provisions again a heartbeat if given the opportunity.  The food, the atmosphere, the style of food, the service, everything about the restaurant is appealing and the for our vote, my husband and I think that State Bird lives up to its reputation and deserves all of the accolades it receives.