Friday, May 22, 2009

Divalicious Restaurant Reviews: Lucques, Osteria Mozza & The Bazaar

Lucques' Suckling Pig

Last weekend, the Original Diva (my mother), The Wine Lover (my father) and The Top Chef (my brother), all arrived in LA in the spirit of family and food. To kick back, have a drink, relax by the pool and meet the Adorable Monster. And I must report that this time around, he behaved himself admirably! No humping. Ok, maybe only a little. No biting. Ok, maybe a lot of biting. The Top Chef remained unconvinced, telling the puppy, "you have to earn my trust!" Let's hope that by the end of the weekend, he did just that!

Lucques' Green Garlic Soup

The eating kicked off quickly with an impromptu visit to Lucques where we sat on the patio. While I'd had their Sunday night suppers, I'd never dined on their regular menu, and boy were we in for a treat. I slurped down green garlic soup with salt cod croquettes, feasted on suckling pig with artichokes in a sherry and bacon vinagarette and somehow still managed to choke down two churros for dessert. Everyone was very pleased both with the ambiance and their food. The Top Chef commented about the chef, "she has good flavors." He went on to say he loved the focus on simple, fresh ingredients and proclaimed it was the best meal he'd had in LA thus far. We were off to a great start.

Next up, we ventured to Osteria Mozza at the request of The Top Chef. Again, while I'd been to the Pizzeria, I'd yet to set foot in the Osteria mostly because I was a little put off by the attitude of the hosts and the difficulty getting a reservation. I'd called a month ahead, only to be told that they only make reservations 30 days in advance. I was calling 31 days in advance. I'd have to phone back in 8 hours. I'd also had to confirm the reservation not once, but twice. All of that and when we arrived promptly with our complete party at 8:30PM for our reservation, we were informed we'd have to wait. And not just for a little bit, but they kept us waiting on our feet for over 50 minutes! To make up for it, all they sent us was a measly plate of goat cheese crostinis and one mozzarella appetizer.

As we took our seats, The Top Chef proposed he order for us and we all share a few things. "I want my own," The Wine Lover announced, tucking his napkin into his shirt in anticipation of the pasta he already planned to order. You see, my father, being half Italian, takes his pasta very seriously. We needled him for a few minutes before he said thoughtfully, "I want what I want." The ordering commenced, with The Wine Lover requesting his Linguine with Clams and Quail entree and The Top Chef listing off a few dishes that I didn't hear, but was excited to eat anyway. The Wine Lover also requested a bottle of a delicious Barbaresco, one of my favorite Italian wines.

First up, we had mozzarella, in the form of the free app sent out by the kitchen and also layered on top of asparagus with pancetta. It truly lived up to expectation, fresh and clean tasting, melting in your mouth. It almost made the 50 minute wait worthwhile. But only almost. Then came two pastas, Bucatini all'Amatriciana a spicy tomato pasta made with authentic guanciale that I had the pleasure of cooking myself with my neighbor's homemade pork jowls (click here to read about my pasta and get the recipe). If you want to try this pasta, this is the place as most restaurants don't have guanciale and will use pancetta instead, and trust me, the jowls make a world of difference, giving the dish a meatier density. We also feasted on a traditional chicken tortellini, filled with chicken, sausage & parmesan reggiano and served in a delicious chicken broth. Having recently procured the Babbo cookbook at The Top Chef's urging, this is a dish I plan to make (and I promise to blog about it).

For main courses, The Top Chef had chosen a whole, crispy duck and a halibut with a green peppercorn sauce. The waiter brought the whole duck out on a cutting board and plopped it in front of The Original Diva, who stared at the giant slab of meat with intimidation (she is mostly a fish eater). "Is this my chicken?" she asked the waiter, prompting him to burst out laughing. "No ma'am, it's your duck," he replied between chuckles. In her defense, she didn't order, so how was she supposed to identify the poultry? The Top Chef demanded the cutting board, and promptly dispensed succulent, falling apart pieces of duck with a spicy, gingery sauce. It was absolutely delicious. The halibut was also perfectly cooked, but the real star was the sauce, perfectly made, rich and spicy, the kind of thing you'd sooner think to pair with meat rather than halibut, but it gave the fish so much extra depth. Absolutely brilliant!

For dessert, we all ordered wonderful treats. I particularly loved my Strawberry Tart, but the donuts were also delicious. After polishing off a second bottle of Barbaresco, we paid our bill and left the restaurant. I had mixed feelings about the experience. The attitude of the hostess and 50 minute wait for a reservation I'd made a month in advance, to put it bluntly, completely sucked. But the service, everything from seasoning the wine glasses, to the attentiveness of the wait staff was great. The Top Chef noted these small details reverentially, stating that's how Mario does it at all his restaurants. And finally, I thought that the food was top notch. It felt far more authentic and intriguing than any Italian food I've ever tried. I've resolved both to visit Babbo at my next opportunity and to try out dishes from his cookbook, but if I go back to Mozza, I will show up early or very late and sit at the bar, bypassing the reservation process altogether.

For our final dining experience, we went to The Bazaar by Jose Andres (again!). This time, we'd grown smarter and we toted our own wine, partially because their list is lacking, and mostly because we wanted to share two special bottles with The Wine Lover. From the cellar, we chose a 2003 Tablas Creek Panopolie, their top bottling and a companion to the pricier Chateau de Beaucastel Hommage a Perrin. We also selected a 1994 Dominus, one of my father's favorite wines, a smooth Bourdeaux like wine that promised to be special.

The Bazaar's Philly Cheesesteak

This time around, the bar at The Bazaar could best be described as a scene, one that you could only find in LA. Packs of single girls dressed to the hilts roamed the space, giggling, imbibing cocktails, and asking my father to snap their pictures, much to his delight. We didn't have to wait to be seated, and were promptly escorted to a great table in the modern bar against the back wall with a sofa instead of chairs on one side. Now this was how you should dine! Setting my bottles in the table, I informed the waitress that they needed decanted, a request she quickly obliged, and that we'd be enjoying the Chef's Tasting Menus ($65/person, a real deal). "You're very trusting," she noted with a smirk before she raced off to get us started.

The Bazaar's King Crab with Raspberries

As courses began to pour forth from the kitchen, each tempting our palates and exciting us with their surprise, we eagerly swallowed them down. Early favorites included the caviar cones and the watermelon skewers with tomato seeds & basil, light, refreshing, delicious. One of the best dishes of the night was composed of tiny potatoes cooked in sea water until they formed a salt crust and served with a delicate cilantro pesto for dipping. Everyone loved it and fought for the remaining spuds. We also loved the tuna tartar wrapped in avocado, a dish The Top Chef said he'd tried in Spain, but preferred The Bazaar's version. I also loved their take on gazpacho, salty and refreshing.

The Bazaar's Caviar Cones & Watermelon Skewers

Not to be overlooked, the wines were both fabulous! The Panopolie had both tremendous fruit and restraint, light on its feet, smooth to drink, wonderfully balanced. Clearly a wine that could withstand more aging, and luckily we have at least one more bottle to go the distance. And the Dominus opened up to its promise, velvety with licorice and great tannins, the kind of wine that makes you want to keep drinking and drinking until it's sadly all gone. Both these wines are worth trying at least once in your life.

Ordering the chef's tasting menu was great because it preserved the surprise of the dishes and eliminated the need to navigate the ridiculous, overly complicated, repetitive menu. However, some hitches still appeared in the system. We received our olives twice and more than once, dishes destined for other tables found their way to us, but how can you complain about extra food? Some of the dishes were overly salted, but not offensively so, and in truth, most were perfectly seasoned. The Top Chef commented that this restaurant was "complete chaos." He lamented how hard it would be to run this kitchen, saying there was no way in a place that size with a menu that size that they were properly communicating with each other, a fact made clear by the arrival of the extra dishes.

Even so, out of the chaos, some beauty emerged, and I couldn't help but think that maybe that was the point after all. It certainly added an element of adventure to the meal! While it may be annoying to receive wrong dishes if you placed your own order, when eating the tasting menu it simply added absurdity to the meal. A story to retell later on. Our very reasonable bill arrived, and we weren't even charged a corkage fee, though whether that was intentional as a salute to the nice wines we brought or an accidental product of the chaos, I can't determine. Surprisingly, we all agreed that The Bazaar was our favorite dining experience of the weekend. Who knew?

Restaurants mentioned in this post:

8474 Melrose Ave.
West Hollywood, CA 90069

(323) 655-6277

Diva Rating: 4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Osteria Mozza
6602 Melrose Ave

Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 297-0100

Diva Rating: 3 stars (low rating due to front of the house problems)
The Bazaar by Jose Andres

465 S. La Cienega Blvd.

Beverly Hills, CA

(310) 246-5555

Diva Rating: 4 stars (especially for the chef's tasting menu)

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