Tar & Roses – Santa Monica, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Ever since we first met at Freshman Orientation at UCLA, S and I have made it our tradition to take each other out to dinner for our birthdays every autumn. The birthday girl always gets to select the venue, so a few weeks ago, I met her in front of a place that’s been on my list of must-try restaurants since it opened less than two years ago — Chef Andrew Kirschner’s Tar & Roses. Boasting a seasonal farm-to-table menu of small tapas-style plates alongside an extensive wine list, Tar & Roses has been well-received and earned some rave reviews on Yelp and in the blogosphere. And after our fabulous dinner experience, I can definitely attest that it is worth the hype.

squid ink fettucini / octopus / blistered tomato / breadcrumb

squid ink fettucini / octopus / blistered tomato / breadcrumb

Speaking of hype, the crowd is still going strong. Even on a Sunday night, without reservations, we barely managed to snag a pair of seats at the counter. What a stroke of luck that turned out to be – the counter is totally where it’s at! A quick peek into the kitchen and close proximity to the bruschetta and charcuterie board (not quite legible from other parts of the dining room), we enjoyed the relaxing ambiance and casual vibe in the otherwise cozy and romantic restaurant.

2011 forteto della luja / moscato d' asti / piedmont, italy

2011 forteto della luja / moscato d’ asti / piedmont, italy

I started with a glass of Italian Moscato while S selected the house white — a Passerina from the Marche region. The Moscato was sweet without being cloying or syrupy, and the Jackson’s White was crisp and clean – perfect for our variety of seafood and vegetarian dishes that evening. (Did I mention that S is a pescatarian?)

atlantic sardine crostini / avocado / pickled onion / cilantro / lime

atlantic sardine crostini / avocado / pickled onion / cilantro / lime

First, a crostini to start. If you’ll recall from our sushi adventures, S and I both love fishy fish. Atlantic sardines certainly fit the bill. The oily, salty fish paired well with the creamy avocado and tangy pickled onion. There was also a subtle sprinkling of cayenne to give it an extra kick.

squid ink fettucini / octopus / blistered tomato / breadcrumb

squid ink fettucini / octopus / blistered tomato / breadcrumb

I LOVE squid ink pasta, but I’ll be honest, what really stole the show in this dish were the melt-in-your-mouth, extremely tender bites of octopus. Beat it against a rock? Massage it with salt? Boil it with wine corks? Every cook has his own secret for yielding the most absolutely perfect texture. I have no idea how they do it here, but I could eat a giant bowl of this and be happy. The heirloom cherry tomatoes were a nice touch for their color and sweet-tart flavor.

wood roasted sunchokes / goat cheese / lemon / hazelnuts

wood roasted sunchokes / goat cheese / lemon / hazelnuts

S: “I don’t know what sunchokes are, but let’s get this.” Arguably the best executive decision of the night. Sunchokes are tubers with very little starch but plenty of fructose. They caramelized beautifully and when paired with the tart dollops of goat cheese, fine shreds of lemon zest, and crunchy hazelnuts, it was like magic. I don’t even like goat cheese. I also rarely eat hazelnuts outside of nutella. But this… this was pure delight for my palate.

ricotta gnocchi / asparagus / pea tendrils / lemon

ricotta gnocchi / asparagus / pea tendrils / lemon

Though I generally prefer potato-based gnocchi, these ricotta ones completely disintegrate on the tongue. They’re like light, fluffy clouds, coated in a creamy sauce and enveloped in wilted, sauteed pea shoots.

a close-up look at the gnocchi and pea tendrils

a close-up look at the gnocchi and pea tendrils

We even found this lovely tendril and just had to take a close-up of it. Twisty-twirly tendrils generally remind me of spring, but these spiraling greens have just come into season (from now through early spring). What a treat!

roasted beets / feta / tarragon / horseradish

roasted beets / feta / tarragon / horseradish

I love beets, especially when they’ve been roasted. I know some people say they taste like dirt, but I prefer to call it earthiness. Topped with feta and fresh sprigs of tarragon, this dish reminded me of everything I love about fall.

strawberry crostata with honeycomb ice cream

strawberry crostata with honeycomb ice cream

Of course, we had to save room for dessert. We decided to splurge and each get our own. S chose the strawberry crostata – a crisp pastry topped with fresh berries and served with honeycomb ice cream from LA Creamery (amazing!). The strawberries were macerated in a bit of salt which provided a nice contrast.

affogato - tahitian vanilla ice cream with stumptown espresso

affogato – tahitian vanilla ice cream with stumptown espresso

As soon as we were handed the dessert menu, one single word jumped out at me — affogato. i knew I had to have it.

affogato - an action shot

affogato – an action shot

S, in her adorable artsy-ness, took it upon herself to stage an “action shot” for the benefit of NomNomCat readers. Decadent Tahitian vanilla ice cream (also LA Creamery) drenched in steaming, bitter espresso from Stumptown Coffee, this dessert was about as trendy as it gets, but it was the perfect end to the wonderful meal.

All in all, I loved the rustic decor, the seasonal dishes, and the friendly staff. I will definitely be back with M in tow, and you can bet we’ll be stalking Open Table for a reservation next time. If Tar & Roses has been on your list of LA bookmarks, well, what are you waiting for?? Do yourself a favor and check them out!

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Check out Tar & Roses: tarandroses.com

602 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401

See their Yelp reviews here!

Happy Hour: Coast – Santa Monica, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Drive west far enough on any of the streets in Santa Monica and before long you’ll find the beach. Cass and I were scoping out some beachfront locations and decided to stop in at Coast for happy hour which runs from 4pm-7pm, Monday through Thursday at the bar. Located in the beautiful Shutters on the Beach hotel, immediately adjacent to Casa Del Mar, Coast offers ocean views, fresh seafood, and great mixed drinks. Bonus: the happy hour menu features special pricing on appetizers as well as house wines and select cocktails.

Coast - The Open Kitchen

Coast – The Open Kitchen

Cass and I like to plan ahead, so when the bartender asked us what we would like from the happy hour menu, we said “One of everything!” Really. I’ve always wanted to do that. In fact, for the fish tacos and oysters, we had to order two. The bartender chuckled as she entered our order in the POS.

Blackberry Bramble

Blackberry Bramble – $14

To celebrate it being Thursday, I ordered a Blackberry Bramble – Hendricks gin, lemon juice, agave, blackberries. I had spotted it when I first glanced at the menu and knew I had to try it. Full of muddled blackberries and a generous pour of refreshing cucumber gin, this drink was perfect for enjoying the beautiful summer day.

Oyster Bar Chalkboard

Oyster Bar Chalkboard

The far end of the bar features a glass display housing a mountain of ice and fresh oysters. That day’s varieties were Misty Point, Malpeque, and Kumiai – a respectable selection for August. (Though I recently learned that the mnemonic of eating oysters only in months that end in -er is actually an outdated myth.)

Oyster of the Day - $2 each

Oyster of the Day – $2 each

We ordered two of the Oyster of the Day (Misty Point, I believe). Shucked to order and nested on a bed of crushed ice, the oysters were served with a spicy cocktail sauce and a vinegary tart mignonette. Not too sweet and not too briny, these oysters were a great way to whet our appetite for the fried goodies to come.

Fried Calamari with Tartar Sauce - $6

Fried Calamari with Tartar Sauce – $6

The fried calamari were crispy with a light coating of batter and a tangy house-made tartar sauce. These were good but not particularly special, and personally I prefer my calamari with a bright marinara sauce rather than a creamy tartar.

Fish Tacos - $2 each

Fish Tacos – $2 each

Grilled fish tacos (by far my favorite over the deep-fried kind) on a house-made corn tortilla and topped with pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, and shredded lettuce. The epitome of California beach cuisine, these fish tacos made us feel right at home.

Meatball Sliders with Provolone - $6

Meatball Sliders with Provolone – $6

These sliders were Cass’ favorite dish of the night – a pair of little round buns sandwiching savory, moist meatballs completely enrobed in melted, stringy provolone cheese, layered with a thick dill pickle slice. Taking the first bite was a bit of a challenge (it’s so tall!) but it’s well worth the effort to get a bit of everything in each bite.

Coast Ceviche with Warm Tortilla Chips - $5

Coast Ceviche with Warm Tortilla Chips – $5

This was my favorite dish of the evening. With hearty, sizable chunks of  white fish marinated in lime juice with diced tomato, brunoise of shallots, and plenty of cilantro, the ceviche was the perfect light and refreshing summer dish. The warmed tortilla chips, in both regular and blue corn, added a colorful contrast.

Corn Meal Crusted Rock Shrimp - $6

Corn Meal Crusted Rock Shrimp – $6

Both of us agree that our second favorite of the night was the corn meal crusted rock shrimp. Nuggets of fresh, sweet shrimp coated in a thin crispy layer of corn meal (and fried, of course), these were too easy to just pop in your mouth and devour them all!

The Dessert Display

The Dessert Display

We were debating whether we should order more food when we recalled the cake display we saw right when we walked into the restaurant (genius, we thought!). It was hard for us to decide, so we asked the guy behind the counter to please bring us a slice of his favorite…

Old Fashioned Six Layer Chocolate Cake - $10 a slice

Old Fashioned Six Layer Chocolate Cake – $10 a slice

…the Old Fashioned Six Layer Chocolate Cake from SusieCakes in Brentwood. An impressive monstrosity of super moist semisweet chocolate cake, thick and velvety ganache, and a thin layer of sugary frosting, this dessert was exactly what we needed to finish our meal. Surprisingly, it was not too sweet despite being so decadent and satisfying.

Saltwater Taffy

Saltwater Taffy

The offerings on the happy hour menu here are Coast are perfect for sharing with a friend. We were glad to have had the opportunity to try all of the delicious appetizers and by the time we polished off the last bite of cake, we were stuffed, though not too full for just one more little treat — a colorful piece of saltwater taffy! If you live or work in the Santa Monica area, definitely mosey on by to Shutters on the Beach and enjoy sunshine and HH here at Coast.

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Check out Coast: shuttersonthebeach.com

1 Pico Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90405

See their Yelp reviews here!

DineLA – Catch American Seafood (Summer 2013)

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

It’s that time of year again — summer dineLA restaurant week! A time for great deals, checking out new restaurants, and going out in the middle of the week for more than just happy hour. Last week, Martin met up with his best friend at Le Ka in Downtown LA while I had a girls’ night out with Cass at Catch in Santa Monica. And what a catch it truly was – located in the lobby of Hotel Casa del Mar, the beach-front view was gorgeous and the ocean breeze reminded us of why we love LA.

The view  from the dining room at Catch

The view from the dining room at Catch

We each ordered the same crafted cocktail: The Perfect Pair – hendricks gin, fresh muddled pear, lemon juice, pear juice, thyme. I love Hendricks and as Cass pointed out, this mixed drink was refreshing and naturally sweetened with plentiful fresh pears. Highly recommended!

The Perfect Pair

The Perfect Pair – hendricks gin, fresh muddled pear, lemon juice, pear juice, thyme

In retrospect, the table bread was definitely an indicator of the quality of the meal to come. A basket full of hot, panini-pressed slices of fresh bread perfect for dipping into the California olive oil adorning each table. It was so good we asked for a second one! I love when a restaurant serves their table bread warm and Catch took it to the next level.

Even the table bread was awesome!

Even the table bread was awesome!

For my first course, I selected the Grilled Spanish Octopus – smoked potatoes, paprika, merula olive oil. I don’t think I have ever had octopus that tender before. The texture was absolutely incredible, and the flavors melded so well together, especially with the garnish of lemon zest and fleur de sel.

Grilled Spanish Octopus

Grilled Spanish Octopus – smoked potatoes, paprika, merula olive oil

Cass’s appetizer was the Marinated Beef Carpacccio – pine nuts, arugula, garlic chips. The beef was paper-thin and the toppings (especially the garlic chips!) added a great mouthfeel with the variety of textures.

Marinated Beef Carpaccio

Marinated Beef Carpacccio – pine nuts, arugula, garlic chips

My primary reason for selecting Catch was the entree: Cioppino – mussels, clams, scallop, shrimp, seared fin fish, saffron-rouille crostini. The fascinating part was that the broth was poured in tableside. Traditionally a fisherman’s stew of assorted seafood in a tomato and white wine broth or sauce, cioppino is one of my all-time favorite dishes, and this was the first one I have eaten where the components were prepared separately. This method had its perks — the fish was crispy, the scallop had a beautiful caramelized sear, the head-on prawn was smoky, and the bivalves were all perfectly cooked. The portion was generous and incredibly satisfying — with my discard bowl piled high with shells and every last drop of broth scraped clean, I was a happy camper. Delizioso!

Cioppino

Cioppino – mussels, clams, scallop, shrimp, seared fin fish, saffron-rouille crostini

At our server Jeremy’s recommendation, Cass had the Mustard Marinated Black Cod – roasted shiitake, sunchokes, green asparagus. I don’t know where Catch sources their asparagus from, but these were massive! The fish looked tender and flaky, and the silence that fell over our table as we both focused intently on our entrees told me that she really enjoyed it.

Mustard Marinated Black Cod

Mustard Marinated Black Cod – roasted shiitake, sunchokes, green asparagus

Of course, there is always room for dessert! It was a tough decision, but I ended up choosing the Chocolate & Espresso Tart – warm salted caramel sauce. It was like a blast from the past – at first glance, it bore near-identical resemblance to the dessert that Martin and I had while aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train.

Chocolate & Espresso Tart

Chocolate & Espresso Tart – warm salted caramel sauce

After just one bite, however, the difference was clear — the tart crust was crumbly, the ganache filling was velvety, the fluffy homemade whipped cream could not have been further from the canned stuff, and the DIY (drizzle it yourself) salted caramel sauce was simply stellar!

Chocolate & Espresso Tart

Chocolate & Espresso Tart (post-drizzle)

Cass weighed her options and finally settled on the Market Strawberries – short cake, pistachio streusel, creme fraiche ice cream. The strawberries looked so fresh and the short cake biscuits were adorable. The pistachio streusel added a lovely splash of color that made the dish shine. A refreshing way to end the meal!

Market Strawberries

Market Strawberries – short cake, pistachio streusel, creme fraiche ice cream

The dineLA 3-course dinner was a $$ – $35.00 per person. The food was well worth it, but what really made our evening was our server Jeremy. He was considerate without being overly attentive and he humored our requests for pictures, even counting off in 日本語. I’ve found that some dineLA experiences can feel rushed because of the sheer volume of diners, but Catch embodied the laid-back beach lifestyle while serving elegant, delicious dishes.

Santa Monica Sunset

Santa Monica Sunset

Hurry, only 5 days left to participate in dineLA restaurant week!

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Check out Catch American Seafood: catchsantamonica.com

Hotel Casa Del Mar
1910 Ocean Way
Santa Monica, CA 90405

See their Yelp reviews here!

Yelp Elite Event: Seasons 52 – Santa Monica

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

The Yelp Elite – kinda sounds like some sort of secret society, doesn’t it? Though browsing crowd-sourced restaurant reviews has become ubiquitous especially among those with smartphones, a lesser known aspect of Yelp is the Elite Squad – a collection of members who post high quantities of quality reviews, photos, check-in tips, and other contributions to the Yelp Community. One of the perks of being Elite? The opportunity to experience new restaurants (and older ones looking for a fresh perspective) with 100 of your newest friends. Cass and I went to such an event this past Monday at Seasons 52, a new New American restaurant just across the street from the beach here in Santa Monica.

Seasons 52

Seasons 52

We parked at the structure adjoining the Santa Monica Place mall and walked over to Broadway and Ocean Avenue. Literally seconds from the sandy beach and surrounded by palm tree lined sidewalks, Seasons 52 fits in perfectly with its seasonally changing, health-conscious menu. As our friendly bartender Nathan pointed out, every item on their menu is under 475 calories and nothing is prepared with butter or deep-fried in oil. How could food taste good without butter?? we asked ourselves. But we were in for a treat…

Beautiful Bar

Beautiful Bar

We had arrived early, so we spent some time hanging out by the bar and admiring the stunning decor. Warm, inviting wood trimming, crystal clear glasses all emblazoned with 52, bottles upon bottles of domestic and imported wine… we could tell that this would be a great place to return to for happy hour.

A Warm Welcome

A Warm Welcome

After checking in, we were invited into a large private dining room set up in the back of the restaurant. The long tables seating ten at a time hinted at the evening’s family-style meal. Seasons 52 even printed cute little menus that read “Welcome YELP! Elites!” across the top. Brownie points!

The Wine

The Wine

Three varieties of wine were endlessly flowing throughout the evening – a sustainable Sauvignon Blanc from Honig in Napa, a Monastrell from Wrongo Dongo in Spain’s Jumilla region, and a Garnacha from Alto Moncayo in Spain’s Campo de Borja, known as The Empire of Garnacha for the prevalence of the namesake grape. We sampled the white first – crisp and ice cold, it turned out to be our favorite of the night.

YELP SWAG

YELP SWAG

Every table was decorated with Yelp SWAG from shot glasses to bottle openers to paper fans. While mingling with fellow Yelpers and waiting for the food to arrive, we kept busy by trying to figure out how to add our new-found friends through the Yelp App.

Kona Crusted Grilled Lamb Lollipops

Kona Crusted Grilled Lamb Lollipops

Our table was presented with the lamb chops first, and what a great start it was! This also turned out to be the best dish of the night, hands-down. The rub was sweet and smoky and reminiscent of really good kalbi, the meat was tender and juicy, and the Frenched bones allowed us to enjoy this as a “finger food” of sorts. I could have polished off a whole plate of these!

Shrimp Cocktail

Shrimp Cocktail

Next up was the shrimp cocktail, served with parsley, lemon, and cocktail sauce. It was good but nothing particularly special. The shrimp were all parboiled until barely opaque, and the serving portion was generous for our table to share.

Double Hummus with Crisp Sea Salt Lavash

Double Hummus with Crisp Sea Salt Lavash

What’s the green stuff? I heard murmuring throughout the room. A quick glance at the menu revealed the identity of the mint and edamame hummus, a delicious modern spin on traditional chickpea hummus. Its partner in crime was a flavorful roasted red pepper hummus. The lavash strips were crispy and made for excellent carriers of the house-made hummus.

Chicken Quesadillas

Chicken Quesadillas

We then ventured south of the border with these hot and crispy chicken quesadillas with grilled chicken, pico de gallo, and melted cheese. I liked how some of the bits of cheese went astray and turned extra crispy on the griddle. A twist of lime and I was a happy camper!

Stuffed Mushrooms

Spinach Stuffed Mushrooms – under parmesan-panko crust

I really enjoyed these cute little bite-sized treats, and I would love to borrow the recipe for a party sometime! (Hint, hint.) The portobello mushrooms were juicy and hearty, and the spinach added such a substantial filling that you don’t even miss the cheese or meat or seafood that other, more fatty stuffed mushrooms usually wallow in. The crunchy topping of parmesan and panko really brought the whole bite together.

Tuna & Avocado Sushi Roll

Tuna & Avocado Sushi Roll

No healthy Californian / New American type of place would be complete without a fresh sushi roll, but unfortunately this roll was not a great representation. The soy paper wrapping was interesting but the rice was hard and not formed properly (too squished?). The tuna and avocado did taste pretty fresh, so that was a saving grace.

Fig & Goat Cheese Flatbread

Fig & Goat Cheese Flatbread

Our table nearly missed out on the flatbreads (there was some miscommunication regarding which tables were served what and in what order), but luckily Community Manager Brittany B saved the day and we were able to try them both. The fig and goat cheese flatbread was pretty good. The menu described it as topped with applewood smoked bacon, sweet cipollini, arugula, 15-year balsamic, and fresh mint. I liked the sweet balsamic glaze that was drizzled over the top; it really tied together the hodge-podge of toppings.

Ripe Plum Tomato Flatbread

Ripe Plum Tomato Flatbread

And finally, the tomato flatbread, reminiscent of a margherita pizza. The flatbread itself was a bit dry and cracker-like, but I really enjoyed the fresh tomato and the generous sprinkling of chiffonade of basil. This tasted great paired with the Garnacha.

All in all, we really had a great evening. Many thanks to Brittany B for pulling together such an awesome tasting event, and cheers to Erica and the team at Seasons 52 for their hospitality, friendliness, and delicious food and wine! I was impressed with the staff’s ability to juggle so many tables of hungry Yelpers with such grace and efficiency. This was my sixth Elite event and though each one was different, there are not many restaurants daring enough to host a sit-down, family-style meal for this many people, all of whom are avid review writers. I think they did a great job, especially with the way they smoothly handled the minor hiccup our table encountered.

We can’t wait to come back to Seasons 52 to sample more of their 475 calories or less menu…. and so I can indulge in an entire order of kona crusted lamb all to myself. ;)

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Check out Seasons 52: seasons52.com

1501 Ocean Ave
Santa Monica, CA 90401

See their Yelp reviews here!

Not near Santa Monica? Fear not – Seasons 52 has 39 locations nationwide – check out their website to find the one nearest you!

DineLA – Blue Stove (Winter 2013)

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

For dineLA Winter 2013 (I know, I’m playing catch-up with my entries), C and I decided to check out Blue Stove for lunch. Blue Stove offered a two-course lunch with a tasting pour for only $15/person. Situated among the clothing racks inside the Nordstrom at Santa Monica Place, the restaurant had a quaint wine bar sort of theme going on. We were seated immediately and received prompt, friendly service from our server.

Blue Stove

Blue Stove

Spicy tuna on wonton

Spicy Tuna on Wonton

Starter: we both ordered the Spicy Tuna with sriracha aioli on crispy wontons. Each hor d’oeuvre-sized bite was also topped with chopped cucumber and a generous mound of masago (cod roe). It was an interesting take on one of my favorite appetizers, spicy tuna on crispy rice. The sriracha aioli could’ve used more kick though.

Jambalaya

Creole Jambalaya

Entree 1 (a): I had my eye on the Creole Jambalaya with shrimp and andouille sausage since we first started perusing menus to select our dining destination! The sausage and spices gave the rice a great kick and the three well-seasoned and beautifully grilled shrimp had awesome flavor. I was pleased with this selection and it paired perfectly with the 2 oz pour of a crisp, refreshing California Chardonnay.

Crispy Dark Cherry Beef

Crispy Dark Cherry Beef

Entree 2 (c): My dining companion selected the Crispy & Spicy Dark Cherry Beef. She said the sweet and spicy flavors of the glaze were delicious but the texture of the beef was chewier than she would’ve preferred. I imagine her beef dish paired well with the Italian Barbera she selected for her tasting pour.

Ultimate Chocolate Cake

Ultimate Chocolate Cake

Dessert was not included in the $15 dineLA lunch offering, but we were enticed by our server’s description of the Ultimate Chocolate Cake, consisting of two layers of moist chocolate cake sandwiched by a filling of Nutella, drizzled with a rich chocolate ganache and topped with a dollop of fluffy chocolate mousse. Oh so decadent and very, very good. The sprinkling of fleur de sel added a great contrast to all of the sweet elements.

All in all, we enjoyed our meal. Honestly, its department store location is a bit of a turn-off, but for a casual tapas and wine experience, I could see myself returning to try items from their regular menu. Its mall location did have one important advantage — ample parking!

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Check out Blue Stove:

222 Broadway St
Santa Monica, CA 90401

See their Yelp reviews here!