Sunday, November 7, 2010

Beef of Tuscany at Mozza's Scuola di Pizza

My love affair with the themed dinners at Mozza's Scuola di Pizza continues.

This month is "Beef of Tuscany" on Friday nights and I am still savoring the memory of all the amazing beef courses I ate this past Friday with a fabulous group of my co-workers.

Manzo Toscano Menu

Nancy Silverton's famous foccacia bread is served at the beginning of every meal at Scuola di Pizza. They are delicious but be careful not to eat too many slices and get full before your real meal begins.

Our first course was a nice vegetable antipasto to fulfill our vegetable servings for the day before the carnivore feast begins. You can also say it assuage the guilt some of us felt for enjoying so much meat in one meal.

I don't usually like raw vegetables but this salty anchovy dressing made all the vegetables go down smooth like a spoonful of sugar.

As we ate our vegetable antipasto, a lot of use couldn't help stealing glances at the cured meat locker off to the side of the dining room, by the kitchen. It was like the salami and sausages were calling out to us.

Carne Cruda
This beef tartare paired with slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano and artichokes on top of a crispy bruschetta bread was a favorite of many at our table of 22. A tangy vinaigrette offset the richness of the cheese. I liked it but my favorites came later in the meal.

Breve Costoletta Alla Griglia
These thin-sliced short ribs (like the kalbi you'd find at Korean BBQ) had a very tangy marinade and they were best balanced with the salsa verde that came with it.

Coda Alla Vaccinara
These oxtails were amazing! For the first time, in a restaurant, I was served a whole oxtail that was braised perfectly; just the way I've always wanted it. Every savory bite of the fork-tender meat mixed with the stickiness of the bits of soft cartilage from the joints of the tail bones confirmed my conviction that a lot of Americans are missing out on this delicious and underutilized part of the cow.

The oxtails had a lot of meat and being able to tear chunks of it off the a whole tail was a satisfaction that's rarely fulfilled for me unless I cook it myself. I don't really care for dishes with deboned, shredded oxtail. It's too "clean" and the shredded meat is often dry. I miss the cartilage which I think enhances the flavor and keeps the meat moist.

The carnage of tail bones on my plate.
I think I ate more oxtail than anyone at the table. I was not shy about breaking the tail at the joints and giving each piece my individual attention. I really wish more restaurants would serve oxtail and do it justice. Please, no more dry shredded oxtail tapas or lame oxtail soup that only has a sliver of oxtail meat in it.

Bistecca Fiorentina
These three amazing hunks of Porterhouse greeted us as we arrived at the dinner. Each steak was about as thick as the width of three fingers. They were already cooked and just resting until it was time to be served. My anticipation was very high.

Steak Monuments? Steaks of Liberty?
Our final course deserves the utmost respect and admiration from all carnivores.

I think this might be the best steak I've ever eaten, beating my favorite ribeye at The Hitching Post in Buellton and definitely beating all the $50 steaks I've ever paid for from LA to NYC. Every component was perfect. It was a juicy medium-rare. The meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender with well-marbled fat. Most importantly, the meat was seasoned thoroughly with a coarse salt and porcini rub the previous day so the flavors from the high quality beef and the seasoning was just bursting in every bite. Our chef, Chad Colby, said salting the steak the previous day is actually okay and it won't dry the meat out. He said salt early and salt often for great flavor. I was always told that salting too early would dry out the steak but I'll give this a try at home soon.

Riso Gelato
Like the Heritage Pork dinner previously, everyone was bursting at the seams by the end of the last savory course but not surprisingly, everyone had a special dessert pocket. I love this creamy rice gelato. I'm seriously wishing they serve this regularly at the Mozza Restaurants and also package it for Mozza2Go. Better yet, they should have local grocery stores carry it so we can all enjoy this anytime.

Torta Di Polenta
This moist polenta cake was topped with roasted hazelnuts and slivers of almonds. When I read polenta, my mind immediately jumped to yellow corn and I was dubious to this dessert's delicious meter but I should not have doubted Mozza. Their pastry chef did a fantastic job with this cake and luckily, this one is sold at Mozza2Go.

This was another fantastic meal at the Mozza restaurants. I can't make it to Italy this year so having this little bit of Italy brought to me is the next best thing. I can't wait to go again next month when they're featuring the "Best of 2010."

By the way, this is actually my third themed dinner at Scuola di Pizza. I had the Heritage Pork dinner first, and then two weeks ago, another group of co-workers invited me to join their Veneto-themed dinner. (I have some lovely co-workers.) I stupidly forgot my camera at that dinner and the pictures from my phone were very dark. I loved the huge plates of prosciutto, giant prawn calamari, sea urchin risotto and the braised beef tongue at that Veneto dinner. The Veneto dinner also featured the Riso Gelato and Torta di Polenta so I was very happy to see it again at this Tuscany meal.

However, of the three themed dinners I've tried so far, the Heritage Pork is still my top favorite (every course of that dinner was a winner for me). This "Beef of Tuscany" was very close to being the top favorite on the strength of the oxtail and porterhouse steak but I didn't really love the kalbi short rib. If you're looking for an amazing meal, check out the Scuola di Pizza's calendar and book your seats before the dinners are sold out.

Scuola di Pizza
6610 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 297-1130
**Tip: A lot of people are confused by how many Mozza restaurants there are on the corner of Melrose Ave. and Highland Ave. Sitting on Highland Ave. is Pizzeria Mozza which is where the valet for all the Mozza restaurants are. Osteria Mozza is right on the corner of Melrose and Highland. Mozza2Go is next to Osteria Mozza, on Melrose Ave. Scuola di Pizza is a small, private space for cooking classes, tastings and themed dinners and the entrance is hidden inside of Mozza2Go. Cool?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Portland's Best Restaurants: Pok Pok, Ha VL, Screen Door and Laurelhurst Market

If you love food, do yourself a favor and plan a food vacation to Portland. I've heard over the last few years that this rainy city of Oregon has become the hub for good food that can satisfy both your yearning for comfort food and creative cuisine. It's also a city for readers, artists, DIY-ers and musicians so what's not to like?

I spent a week on a food tour in May this year and here's my long overdue post (motivated by a friend who is heading to Portland in a few days). I ate at a lot of places while in Portland and some were so fantastic, I had to break my travel rule and go more than once; I did not regret it and I hope you will like the few places I'm highlighting here.

I want to give a special shout out to my friend Charlie who lives in Portland and was my partner-in-crime on this food tour and taught me how to take better food photographs. He's an awesome photographer (check out his shots for the LA Derby Dolls) and I was very lucky to have him take some of my photographs too on this trip.

My favorite restaurant in Portland is Pok Pok hands down. Pok Pok serves food popular in the restaurants, streets and homes of Southeast Asia though Thai and Vietnamese cuisine seems to be the main influence. Pok Pok was so good, I ate there three times and it made me want to travel to SE Asia even more. The restaurant also operates the Whisky Soda Lounge diagonally across the street; it's a wonderful place to enjoy Pok Pok appetizers and small plates with whiskey, a beer or one of their creative cocktails while you wait for your table at Pok Pok.

Muu Paa Kham Waan
I loved that Pok Pok had game meat on the menu. This boar collar appetizer was a little chewy and as I chewed, the strong marinade of garlic, coriander, pepper, soy and chili permeated my tongue and paired well with my beer. That's what I love about Pok Pok; they're not afraid of strong flavors and the food has an array of flavors and depth.

Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings
Fried fresh, natural chicken wings with a caramelized garlicky fish sauce marinade. This is a home recipe from one of Pok Pok's cooks. I'll take these over buffalo wings any day!

Khao Soi Kai
You won't find a bland pad thai at Pok Pok. This Thai curry noodle soup hits your nose with the smell of curry heaven but it's not super spicy and the chicken just falls off the bone. Pok Pok and a lot of Portland restaurants uses fresh, natural chicken (aka no hormones, antibiotics). I ordered this twice in my three visits.

Cha Ca La Vong
This is a refreshing dish perfect for a warm Summer day. Pieces of lightly fried catfish with tumeric, scallions, mint and peanuts served over a bed of rice vermicelli noodles with mam nem, a Vietnamese anchovy sauce. But seriously, I don't need a Summer day to eat this. One Cha Ca La Vong please. Pok Pok was my last meal before I left Portland and I made sure that I ordered this again.

Kai Yaang
Most of us know this dish on Thai menus as Thai BBQ chicken but this game hen is anything but the dry, bland chicken you'll find in a lot of Thai restaurants on the Westside. The meat on this is moist and gives off hints of lemongrass and garlic. The chili sweet and sour dipping sauce and sticky rice that goes with the chicken is perfect.

Kuung Op Wun Sen
Mmmm. Giant wild-caught prawns cooked in a clay pot with pork belly, whiskey and thin rice "thread" noodles. The whisky and soy marinade seeps into all the ingredients in the pot as it's cooked over charcoal, almost like it has a caramelizing effect. Again, ate this twice.

Sii Khrong Muu Yaang
Baby back ribs from Carlton Farms. I would have liked the whisky honey sauce to be stronger but the ribs were meaty and yummy anyway.

This was the only dish I didn't write down the name of. It was a delicious beef clay pot stew with sauce that went perfectly with rice.

Mango Sticky Rice
Warm, moist sticky rice topped with ripe mangoes and a warm, sweet coconut syrup. This dessert was so good, I ate the whole thing. Charlie had to order his own. Hehe.

My favorite "hole-in-the-wall and you'll miss it if you blink" spot in Portland is Ha VL, a Vietnamese sandwich banh mi shop that only sells one featured noodle soup a day. Charlie had read that Pok Pok's owner/chef, Andy Ricker, loves eating breakfast at Ha VL every morning because it's one of the very few authentic noodle shops in Portland. Since we both love noodle soup and Pok Pok so much, we had to make the pilgrimage. Ha VL's noodle soups is like food art; they look, smell and taste delicious and all for $7.50 a bowl. You can really tell the owners put a lot of effort and good ingredients (i.e. using natural chicken) into the noodle soup and foodies of Portland appreciate it because Ha VL often sells out before closing. Like Pok Pok, this was the only place I ate at three times during my week in Portland and fueled my fire to travel to SE Asia. I'm super jealous that Charlie lives within five minutes of Ha VL. (Oh, and we ran into Ricker all three times. He was cool and I thanked him for running such a great restaurant.)

Pnompenh Noodle Soup (Hu Tieu Nam Vang)
A slow-simmered pork broth with shrimp, pork liver, sliced roast pork, fishballs and squid. Love - Love - Love. Unlike Japanese pork broths that often add extra pork fat for flavor, this soup was clear, not oily and still bursting with flavor and depth. And I loved all the different ingredients with the al dente rice noodles.

Shrimpcake Noodle Soup (Bun Rieu)
Again, the delicious pork broth with ground pork meatballs, shrimpcake, sliced pork and tomatoes. My words are not doing justice to how good this noodle soup was.

Peppery Pork Meatball Noodle Soup (Bun Moc Hanoi)
Pepper-marinated pork meatballs and slices of pork in pork broth. The name says it all. Simple and satisfying.

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup (Bun Bo Hue)
This was our lucky day. It was Saturday and it turns out that on weekends, Ha VL serves two different noodle soups. Charlie and I ordered different soups but no doubt, knowing that I was leaving Portland soon, I contemplated ordering both noodles just for myself. My stomach forced me to exercise self-restraint.

Favorite neighborhood restaurant in Portland goes to Screen Door, a restaurant that specializes in Southern comfort food and showcases a lot of local and organic food. It's low-key and has a great bar for people-watching. We scored a table that faced the open-kitchen so I got to see all the action and salivate over every dish that came out of the kitchen. By the way, everyone who worked in the kitchen looked like rock stars or hipsters. That seems to be a trend in Portland.

Pan-fried Scallops
This was the special appetizer of the day. Fresh scallops. I had to order it and I was not disappointed. Sweet and cooked to bouncy perfection with crispy edges.

Lowcountry Shrimp n' Grits.
I've only had grits once before and it was not a good experience. But this appetizer from Screen Door totally changed my mind. The grits were smooth and creamy with garlic butter and shaved parmesan and I was surprised that it went so well with the shrimp. I almost licked the plate.

Steak topped with Fried Oysters
Oh my god! This was their special of the night and I couldn't believe the steak was amazing for only $19.95. The steak comes from cows raised nearby and the juiciness and meaty sweetness of this steak is hard to find even at some of the top steakhouses in Los Angeles. And those two fried oysters was the cherry on the top of a perfect meal.

Crispy Fried Buttermilk Chicken
Charlie ordered this and I couldn't help stealing bites from him. The chicken just taste so darn good in Portland. I really appreciate their wide use local, naturally raised chickens; you can really taste the difference in the meat texture and the meat juices. The chicken alone was so good, I didn't think it needed the ham gravy and mash potatoes that came with it.

Los Angeles desperately needs more butcher shop and restaurant hybrids like Laurelhurst Market, which features all natural, hormone/antibiotic-free meats. This is the foodlover and cook's dream shop that I wish I had near me. (The newly opened Salt's Cure in WeHo might be the answer but it's too far from me and I've yet to have time to check it out). As you enter Laurelhurst, you're greeted by their butcher shop's meat glass counter chock full of goodies like head cheese, whole rabbits, duck fat, bacon, sausages and more. You can order different cuts of meat to take home and cook (I got some short ribs). To the left of the restaurant, is a casual dining room with just the right blend of decor to make you feel like you're in a nice bistro. The wait can get long at Laurelhurst but luckily, they have a cozy bar.

I love this chalkboard hanging in the Laurelhurst dining room. I really wanted to steal it and take it home with me.

Steak Tartare
I love steak tartare but I only order it when I trust the source/restaurant and Laurelhurst fit the bill.

Bacon Deviled Eggs
Bacon and eggs - two of my favorite foods. Enough said.

Wedge Salad
The lettuce in the salad tasted like it came straight from a garden. It had a wonderful blue cheese dressing and came topped with bacon, fried shallots and some herbs. Charlie ordered a salad because we were feeling guilty for not quite fulfilling our vegetable serving of the day but of course, it had to come topped with bacon. This is why I love eating with Charlie.

Grilled Creekstone Farms Ribeye
This didn't really need the blue cheese topping and onion rings. The steak was huge, tender and delicious. Best of all? Only $33. Again, hard to find that quality in LA.

Housemade Smores with a Whiskey Shot
Best Smores Ever! And paired with whisky? Brilliant.

Portland is a great city to eat, drink (breweries abound) and be merry in. Plus, the city has Powell's Books (I spent about almost a whole day in there, lost in cooking, literature, true crime and sci-fi), proximity to the beautiful Oregon coast and Seattle, another great food city, and tons of parks and trails to hike and bike. The city is liberal and friendly to folks like me who love to read, eat delicious food, drink good beer, cook with fresh ingredients and live in a community that enjoys its art, music and film.

I can't wait to go to Portland again and I foresee many future visits even if it's just for a long weekend. If it weren't for the rainy weather, I'd be planning my move up there.

Pok Pok
3226 SE Division Street
Portland, OR 97202
(503) 232-1387

Whiskey Soda Lounge
3131 SE Division Street
Portland, OR 97202
(503) 232-0102

Wing Ming Market Center
2738 SE 82nd Ave # 103
Portland, OR 97266-1577
(503) 772-0103

Screen Door
2337 East Burnside St.
Portland, OR 97214-1655
(503) 542-0880

Laurelhurst Market
3155 E. Burnside St.
Portland, OR 97214
Restaurant - (503) 206-3097
Butcher Shop - (503) 206 -3099

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Heritage Pork Dinners & Pig Butchery at Mozza's Scuola di Pizza

When I read Jonathan Gold's review of Nancy Silverton's new pop-up restaurant, Scuola di Pizza, I knew I had to try it. Why? Meat, Nancy Silverton, Mozza and family-style, Italian food. Need I say more?

Then, I read that Heritage Berkshire pigs are currently the theme of their Saturday Mangiare in Famiglia dinners and I nearly knocked over my phone reaching for it to make a reservation. August was all booked but luckily, September was still open and even better, there was a Pig Butchery Intro Class two days before my dinner and we'd be butchering the pig for that upcoming dinner.

Silly question. Of course I signed up for both.

I'll post a few pictures from the Pig Butchery but not most since it's probably a bit too graphic for some. I did post pictures of a whole uncooked pig last year but seeing a whole pig versus a pig being butchered is a different thing.

The Tools
There were six of us in the class and Chad Colby, the Mozza chef who led the class and oversees the pork dinners, made sure that we understood what we were in for before class began. It wasn't a hands-on class (sharp knives, legal-reasons, etc.) but since it was such a small class, we were seated right in front of Chad and the pig and got to see an up-close demo of how to butcher a pig from head to tail.

Future Bacon
It was amazing to see Chad use every part of our Red Wattle Pig. Red Wattles have very high-quality fat so every bit was saved for rendering or cooking. The only things that were thrown away were the glands. The internal organs came pre-packaged from the farm due to health reasons and sadly, because FDA forbids it, there was no pig blood so no blood sausage or the likes. The class was a little over 3 hours (they fed us plenty of Pizzeria Mozza throughout) and I learned a lot and took copious notes. I'm more confident now in cooking with a pork shoulder and one day, I might even tackle a whole hind leg.

Rib Chops
Red Wattle pigs are raised humanely without any genetic modifications. In other words, they roam free and forage for most of their food and they aren't given stimulants and hormones and that's why they are classified as Heritage pigs. As Chad butchered the pig, I could see the meat was marbled evenly with fat and the meat gave off a beautiful and succulent shine. Because the meat is of such high-quality, cooking it doesn't require much head-scratching. You can easily season it with coarse salt, fresh ground-pepper, some fennel seed and olive oil and a hot pan or grill will do the hard work for you. One of the best parts of the class was Chad cooking all the "butcher's scraps" (aka delicious parts that you don't serve or sell because they don't look pretty) this way and serving it to us.

Salumi e Pate Nostrano
Two days later, I got to enjoy the Red Wattle and I was in heaven. The dinners are served family-style (thus the name Mangiare in Famiglia) and a long table fits 22 people. First up was this charcuterie plate with a variety of coppa, liver pate, headcheese, prosciutto and ciccioli zucca made from the pig's head, shoulder, neck and liver and cooked with the pig's fat. The headcheese was my favorite; I couldn't get enough of it.

Salsiccia Fresca (aka Sausage) with Broccolini
Again, delicious and a perfect pairing. This was when a tiny bell started to ring in the very back of my head. A tiny bell that wanted to remind not to eat too much because there was a lot more good food coming. Tip: Don't eat too much of that famous Nancy Silverton focaccia bread; they're good but super filling. Haha.

Soffiata (Souffle?) with Pork Ragu and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Holy moly this was good. I've had Mario Batali's pork lasagna and I think the pork in that and the pork ragu in this are very similar. The top was full of cheesy pillowy goodness and the pork ragu was to die for.

Arrostito Spalla de Maiale
This roast pork shoulder was amazing. In class, Chad cut off almost two inches of fat and saved it for rendering. That left about an inch of fat that completely wrapped and protected the shoulder while it roasted in the oven for nine hours at 225 degrees. Chad says it's difficult to find a pork shoulder in the supermarket that has enough fat to keep the meat moist because so much fat is trimmed off. Plus, few regular markets will carry meat as good as this. But it's not impossible. Find a good butcher and do a special order or buy extra fat to wrap around your pork shoulder.

The entire pork shoulder was hand-shredded and tossed with a salad and a light vinaigrette. I could eat this salad every day. The pork was only seasoned with salt and pepper but the slow roasting made it fork-tender and finding pieces of meat with some fat on it was like finding nuggets of gold. At this point, that tiny bell was ringing on top of my head but there was meat; I happily forged on.

Rib Chops
Oh my god. These were the rib chops from class! Grilled to medium (light pink center) with salt, pepper, wild fennel seed and olive oil, every bite of this pork chop and the thin layer of fat on the edge was like eating pork gold. I was really full from the pork shoulder already but the rib chops were too good to pass up.

Piggy Coconut Almond Biscotti
A cute, crunchy prelude to our last course.

Trio of Gelato and Sorbet
A sweet way to end the night with chocolate gelato, raspberry sorbet and yogurt. The gelato was a chocolate lover's dream and the yogurt was surprisingly good and I couldn't get enough of it.

I had a great time in both the class and dinner. I highly recommend the class if you're interested in understanding where your meat comes from, how it's brought to you, understanding cuts of meat and how to cook it or just for fun and learning. I enjoyed meeting people at the family dinner too; it's fun to meet some like-minded people who are passionate about good food and meat. Coolia and I were lucky enough to sit next to two couples who were vinophiles and one of them works at the Wine Hotel in Los Angeles. He brought different red and white wines to pair with each course and they shared every wine with us and they were all amazing. Half of what he brought is very hard to find but I look forward to paying a visit to the Wine Hotel.
Currently, Scuola di Pizza serves dinners on Fridays and Saturdays (they served lunch on Sundays last month) but the schedule changes month-to-month and the themes change too. Other times, the space doubles as an intimate classroom for pizza, cheese and wine classes and of course, the pig butchery class. Check out the schedule on the Mozza2Go website.

Scuola di Pizza
6610 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 297-1130
Tip: The Mangiare in Famiglia dinner is $75/pp and the pig butchery is $150/pp. If you attend both the pork dinner and the the pig butchery class, you get $50 off the pig butchery class.

Farmers Market Welcomes Me to My New Hood

It's a bit of a culture shock to go from Palms/Culver City to Sherman Oaks but I'm making the adjustment, albeit a slow adjustment. Food is a must for me in acclimating to a neighborhood and so far, I'm really happy to find authentic Vietnamese pho at Pho So 1 (you don't have this on the Westside), delicious but cheap $9 lamb shawarma plates at Pita Kitchen and the rich pork Tonkatsu ramen at Jinya Ramen.

My happy find today is the Studio City Farmers Market. I missed having easy access to several weekend farmers markets in Mar Vista and Santa Monica and finding the Studio City market helped me feel a bit more at home today. It's a pretty good-size market with a variety of vendors selling fresh produce, eggs, honey, mushrooms, fresh pasta, seafood, breads, jewelry and clothing. It's also a great place to grab breakfast or lunch; I was really tempted to eat there but my hands were full of ingredients for the lunch and dinner that I was going to cook as soon as I got home.

My bounty from the Studio City Farmers Market! I had one of these peaches right away when I got home. Man, it was juicy, sweet and tasted like Summer and most importantly, it smelled like a ripe peach!

The Yang Farmstand had these beautiful baby bok choys, eggplants, carrots, garlic and green onions. The rest I got at from different vendors.

I'm super excited about this fresh bucatini pasta and can't wait to cook it with some tiger prawns and a homemade tomato sauce tonight.

This bakery has really good bread. All natural and no preservatives and the bread is fresh and soft like a pillow. I was there too late and missed out on the cinnamon raisin bread but I put this one to good use for lunch today. Must try their rosemary, garlic and potato varieties next time.

I present you a BET. Bacon - Egg - Tomato.
Truth is I forgot to buy lettuce but substituting with an overeasy egg with the yolk running over the fresh heirloom tomato and the whole wheat honey bread made this sandwich a winner. Dan and I eat like Kings.

Oh, don't forget to compliment your BET with a soda from Galco's. I love Cheerwine; it's like Cherry Dr. Pepper but way better.

So, I am starting to adjust to my new hood. It is an easy 20 minute zip to Highland Park to satisfy my taco cravings whereas it took me 40 minutes from Palms before and it is relatively easy to get to K-town (Korean BBQ!) and Downtown. If you ever find yourself in the area, give my finds a try. I also welcome recommendations. If it weren't for a friend's recommendation, I wouldn't have found Pita Kitchen. Now, if only Father's Office and Sasabune would open on this side of town...

12052 Ventura Pl
Los Angeles, CA 91604
Sundays - 8am to 1pm
Free parking behind the Chase Bank or the nearby CBS Studios