Il Cortile Ristorante – Paso Robles

Central Coast, Food Adventures

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On our recent trip to Central Coast Wine Country, we were overwhelmed by our dining options in downtown Paso Robles. After all, where there’s good wine, there’s good food, right? But in our search for dinner plans, Il Cortile stood out with its homemade pastas, stunning dishes, and (because first impressions matter) clean and modern website.

Upon our arrival, we were pleased to find that our first impressions were just the beginning of a wonderful experience. It was a warm summer evening so we elected to dine al fresco on the inviting semi-enclosed patio. Our server Andrew was friendly, and somewhere along the way, we learned that a surprising number of Paso residents (including himself and the Chef Santos MacDonal) are LA transplants!

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Even after having partaken in an entire afternoon of wine tasting, we could not resist yet another opportunity to sample the Central Coast, so I had the Rose flight while Martin chose the Italian flight to start our meal.

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We love grilled octopus so despite other tempting offerings such as mozzarella di bufalo, coppa con burrata, and carpaccio di anatra (duck), we went with our first instinct: grilled octopus with fresh vegetables marinati in a spicy vinaigrette. The octopus was charred to perfection and oh so tender. It was served over a hearty bed of cannelini beans and tomato, reminding us that we are indeed in an Italian ristorante.

We mentioned wanting to try two different entrees and sharing so that we could sample two of their famed dishes. But without any indication or request, our server went ahead and asked the kitchen to split the plates so that we could each have our own portions, beautifully plated. So thoughtful!

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Following our antipasti was our primi of pappardelle al aragosta – squid ink pasta with a lobster ragu finished with salmon roe. Remember when we said we love grilled octopus? Well we LOVE squid ink pasta. Guaranteed, at least one of us will order it given the option. The lobster ragu was rich and packed with generous bits of lobster meat, while the roe (which I believe was actually tobiko, or flying fish roe, as it was much smaller than the distinct size of ikura) added a welcomed touch of saltiness. The pasta itself, made in-house, had the distinct texture that only fresh pasta has, and it was cooked just until al dente. Absolute perfection, we enjoyed every bite of this. (Editor’s Note: I noticed this dish is no longer listed on the current menu on the website and has been replaced with a lobster ravioli dish instead.)

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Our secondi was a very special dish, one that everyone will tell you to order if you come here but never seems to make a permanent appearance on the menu: osso buco – overnight-braised pork shank with parmesan risotto. It was customary to serve me easier-to-daintily-eat slices and chunks of braised meat while the gentleman got the rest of the bone-in shank in all its glory. What they didn’t know was that this lady has a strong stomach and ended up devouring some of her date’s portion as well, it was just so good! Quick research on the history of osso buco tells me that this was a more “modern” preparation with its tomatoes and mirepoix, but modern or traditional, it was an impressive dish that felt decadent and yet comforting at the same time. Don’t miss it!

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For dessert, Martin was in the mood for something less sweet and made a special request for an affogato – hot espresso poured table-side over vanilla ice cream. I opted for the vanilla panna cotta which was garnished with fresh strawberries and a berry coulis. I loved being able to actually see the flecks of vanilla bean, and the flavor was delicate. Delicious!

From beginning to end, we had an amazing experience. Be sure to include Il Cortile in your next Central Coast adventure!

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Check out Il Cortile – ilcortileristorante.com

608 12th St
Paso Robles, CA 93446

See their Yelp reviews here!

Homemade Squid Ink Pasta (Nero di Seppia)

Main Dishes, Recipes

Martin and I had always wanted to go to the fish markets in Downtown Los Angeles but we never seem to wake up early enough to catch the good stuff. One morning, we made our way over to Los Angeles Fish Co. in the industrial district, ready to be inspired by the bounty of the sea. Razor clams, Santa Barbara uni, PEI mussels, pompano fish, arctic char, fanny bay oysters… the assortment was exciting. One of the more interesting finds was a jar of cuttlefish ink. We love to order squid ink pasta whenever we find it on a menu, and we’ve always wanted to make it at home ourselves, so we opened our wallets and forked over the $35 for the 500 mL jar (as we later discovered, it will last us for a very long time).

Capellini nere alle vongole

Capellini nere alle vongole

The first question I had (and Googled) was “squid ink vs. cuttlefish ink.” The verdict? I learned that most commercial squid ink is actually from cuttlefish, and that cuttlefish ink is superior because of its rounded, smooth flavor. Squid ink could taste strongly of iodine. Both bring the briny essence of the sea and a stunning black hue to a classic Italian dish. My second question was whether I should have purchased the cephalopods whole and extracted my own ink sacs. Another Google search told me that commercially harvested ink, packaged in jars, are generally higher quality and better suited for cooking. And the third and last question — how the heck do I add it to the pasta dough?

Squid Ink Pasta Dough Ball

Squid Ink Pasta Dough Ball

Well, browsing online yielded a lot of recipes for what to do with the store-bought squid ink (don’t do it). But when I finally found some advice on making homemade black pasta, it turned out to be surprisingly easy! Just take our fresh pasta recipe (yields about 1 pound of dough), and whisk in one tablespoon of ink with the egg-oil mixture prior to pouring it into the flour. It’s that simple.

Ingredients:

Ingredients:

5 ounces all-purpose flour

5 ounces semolina flour

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon squid ink (or cuttlefish ink)

1 teaspoon olive oil

1. Measure out the flours and gently mix to combine. Make a well in the center.

Flours and Egg-Ink Mixture

Flours and Egg-Ink Mixture

2. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt, ink, and oil. Pour into the well.

Whisking in the Ink

Whisking in the Ink

3. Using a fork, stir in a circular motion to slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet.

Kneading Time!

Kneading Time!

4. When a dough starts to form, knead on a floured surface for 5-10 minutes.

Resting the Dough

Resting the Dough

5. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes to 1 hour.

Cross-section of Dough

Cross-section of Dough

6. Cut into quarters. Flatten into a disc and roll out to desired thickness.

Beautiful Velvety Jet-Black Pasta

Beautiful Velvety Jet-Black Pasta

7. Cook in salted boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Drain and toss into sauce of choice. Serve immediately.

Cut Pasta

Cut Pasta

So if you’re looking to make a homemade Italian meal to impress a loved one, try making squid ink pasta. Now that’s amore!

Serving Suggestion: Squid Ink Pasta with Clams

Serving Suggestion: Squid Ink Pasta with Clams

DineLA – Piccolo Venice (Winter 2014)

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Though this entry is a bit belated, we have not missed a single DineLA Restaurant Week yet, and this winter, we would have had no excuse as restaurant “week” lasted a whopping twelve days! Winter DineLA is always extra special since it coincides with Martin’s birthday. His selection this year? A quaint little Italian place tucked away at the Venice Boardwalk… where we’d probably walked past at least a dozen times without even realizing it was there. We’re so glad we got to stop by and try their menu; in fact, one of the reasons why we chose this restaurant was that their dineLA menu offered a five course tasting of items featured on their regular menu.

Piccolo Venice

Piccolo Venice

The cozy atmosphere and romantic ambiance makes Piccolo perfect for date night. Candles lighting each table, a beautiful chandelier in the center of the room… Immediately after we were seated, our friendly and oh-so-Italian server brought a basket brimming with warm table bread. My favorite was the fluffy cubes of focaccia.

Table Bread

Table Bread

First Course: We both selected the conchiglie – marinated fresh sea scallop and sea urchin. What it fails to mention is that the crudo-esque dish arrives in the form of mini seafood “dumplings”, with the thinly sliced scallop resembling a clear hargow wrapper encasing a “filling” of uni.

Conchiglie - marinated fresh sea scallop and sea urchin

Conchiglie – marinated fresh sea scallop and sea urchin

Second Course: plin – fontina filled, homemade ravioli, butter-parmesan, fresh black truffle shavings. I love fresh pasta, though this particular dish was drowning a bit in the salty sauce. Still, nothing a few generous flakes of earthy black truffle couldn’t save. (Did I ever mention that I want a truffle pig? Or perhaps to train one of our cats to hunt truffles…)

Plin - fontina filled homemade ravioli, butter-parmesan, fresh black truffle shavings

Plin – fontina filled homemade ravioli, butter-parmesan, fresh black truffle shavings

Third Course (M): neri – squid ink tagliolini, sea scallops emulsion, bottarga shavings. Martin is a sucker for squid ink pasta and he seemed very pleased with the long strands of briny goodness flecked with crumbles of cured fish roe. I was a bit jealous.

Neri - squid ink tagliolini, sea scallops emulsion, bottarga shavings

Neri – squid ink tagliolini, sea scallops emulsion, bottarga shavings

Third Course (A): garganelli – homemade, braised wild boar sauce ragu. From appearance alone, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference from the boar sausage and ordinary ground beef, but one bite of gamy, hearty protein and I was hooked. It paired perfectly with the al dente hand-rolled pasta.

Garganelli - homemade braised wild boar sausage ragu

Garganelli – homemade braised wild boar sausage ragu

Fourth Course (M): tagliata – seared natural australian kobe ny steak, lemon-thyme pesto, maldon salt. It arrived rare just the way he likes it, and the pleasant surprise — cubes of crispy fried polenta! How did they know he loved those?! Super tender, juicy steak – this was a great dish.

Tagliata - seared natural australian ny steak, lemon-thyme pesto, maldon salt

Tagliata – seared natural australian ny steak, lemon-thyme pesto, maldon salt

Fourth Course (A): anatra – pan roasted duck breast, roasted black currants sauce. I love a good seared rare duck breast and Piccolo did not disappoint. The meat was tender and was complemented well by the currant sauce. My surprise sides? A dollop of purple potato mash (puree?) and crispy roasted brussels sprouts… some of my all-time favorite side dishes. Again, how did they know??

Anatra - pan roasted duck breast, roasted black currants sauce

Anatra – pan roasted duck breast, roasted black currants sauce

Fifth Course: chef’s selection of homemade desserts. If you have any allergies or dietary restrictions, TELL YOUR SERVER. We were surprised that the plate arrived on our table without any mention of what the selections were, nor a particularly thorough description of the items. That’s okay for us though; we have daring palates and resilient stomachs. Just thought I’d warn ya.

Semifreddo with amaretto caramel

Semifreddo with amaretto caramel

Semifreddo with amaretto caramel sauce and profiteroles (or, a la Italia, bignole) filled with fluffy dark chocolate mousse.

Bignole filled with valrhona chocolate mousse

Bignole filled with valrhona chocolate mousse

Both delicious palate cleansers and adorable little bites to end the meal. Molto bene!

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Check out Piccolo Venice: piccolovenice.com

5 Dudley Avenue
Venice, CA 90291

See their Yelp reviews here!

DineLA Winter 2014 – $$$ ($45/person) dinner

Parking near Venice Beach is notoriously difficult. We swallowed our pride and paid for the valet, which shares a parking lot with On The Waterfront Cafe.

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!

The Tripel – Playa del Rey, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

For our friend E’s birthday, we took him and H out on a double date to The Tripel, a popular gastropub in the heart of Playa del Rey. All four of us are big fans of Top Chef so we were excited to check out Brooke Williamson’s pride and joy so close to home. We ordered nearly 1/3 of the dishes on the menu to share, though admittedly, it was a lot of food for four people, especially paired with beer. Everything arrived as it was ready, so there wasn’t really a rhyme or reason for the sequence of dishes. Rest assured, we happily devoured every single bite, but we did have to (reluctantly) forgo dessert.

Sweet Potato Tots

Sweet Potato Tots

First, the libations: Martin went with the Chimay Grande Réserve (Blue), one of his favorite brews to indulge in on special occasions. E ordered the Black Velvet (stout, cava, and cassis) from the Cocktails menu, and H and I each had the Fox Barrel Pear Cider (my favorite cider, especially on draft). The chalkboard featured over a dozen varieties of brews on draught, something for everyone!

And now for the food…

Sweet Potato Tots

Sweet Potato Tots

Sweet Potato Tots with Horseradish Honey Mustard and Spiced Aioli: crispy, piping hot, sweet and savory, these little orange nuggets were delectable! The sauces were good; I liked the mustard most, as it was tangy and a touch spicy. The spiced aioli reminded me of a chipotle aioli, so fans of that will enjoy it for dipping their tots and frites.

Spicy Coconut & Red Curry Biscuits

Spicy Coconut & Red Curry Biscuits

Spicy Coconut and Red Curry Biscuits — Orange Blossom Honey and Clotted Cream: the dense, scone-like biscuits were perfect for slathering with the refreshingly cooling clotted cream drizzled in sweet fragrant honey. Great flavor combination.

Crispy Pig Ear Salad

Crispy Pig Ear Salad

Crispy Pig Ear Salad — Treviso, Poached Egg, Apricot: this was one of the dishes i was especially looking forward to – a bed of frisée and treviso (a mild radicchio) dressed in a light citrus-y vinaigrette, a beautiful poached egg in the center, and a crown of crispy strips of pig ear on top, this bowl was an impressive presentation. E did the honors of cutting through the egg, letting the yolk ooze over the salad and mellowing out the acidic vinaigrette with its creaminess. All four of us, having grown up eating pig ear (usually braised and sold by the pound in Chinese barbecue places), were excited to see more and more chefs in LA choosing to serve this and other offal in a high-end setting. A must try.

Steamed Mussels & Clams

Steamed Mussels & Clams

Steamed Mussels & Clams — Serrano Pesto Broth, Grilled Bread: we almost skipped this dish with the reasoning that we could get moules frites in just about any reputable gastropub. However, I’m SO glad we went for it because this turned out to be (dare I say it?) my favorite dish of the night. The mussels and clams abounded, always a good sign for one of these dishes, but the highlight was the broth. Oh, the broth. Fragrant with the expected notes of lemon and white wine, packing an incredibly flavorful kick from the serrano pesto. After we had dunked all of our grilled bread to sop up the broth, H and I shamelessly picked up our discarded clam shells and re-purposed them as spoons. No regrets.

Garlic Shoe String Frites

Garlic Shoe String Frites

Garlic Shoe String Frites with Horseradish Honey Mustard and Spiced Aioli: crispy thin frites reminiscent of those at Father’s Office. They were served with the same sauces as the sweet potato tots, and again, I personally preferred the honey mustard.

Squid Ink Spaghetti

Squid Ink Spaghetti

Squid Ink Spaghetti — Ground Shrimp, Lemon, Chili Oil, Herbs, Salmon Roe: another dish I was really looking forward to, especially since the menu description brought back memories of the black pasta aglio olio from The Daily Catch in Boston. The al dente pasta carried the briny, citrus-y flavor of the squid ink well, and I enjoyed the variety of textures that the ground shrimp and ikura offered. The lemon flavor was a tad overwhelming though – I love lemon with seafood, but this pasta tasted like someone squeezed lemon in it, then someone else came along and unknowingly added more lemon, and possibly a third hypothetical person after that. That said, it definitely didn’t stop me (and especially H who adores lemon) from polishing off the whole plate.

Grilled Umami Butter Drenched Quail

Grilled Umami Butter Drenched Quail

Grilled Umami Butter Drenched Quail — Black Figs, Fingerling Potatoes, Sorrel, Chive Blossoms: tender and juicy boneless quail nestled over roasted fingerling potatoes and caramelized figs, this was a bit difficult to share, at first in logistics (though we ended up splitting it into quarters) but then after taking a nibble, I just wanted to claim the entire dish for myself. Umami indeed!

With no reservations and only communal tables, we had quite a wait ahead of us when we arrived on a Sunday night. Thankfully, on busy nights there is a friendly hostess who will take our names and keep track of seating so we aren’t tasked with awkwardly hovering over tables and practicing our Jedi mind tricks to urge diners to leave so we could swoop in. Everything was peachy once we were finally seated and could join in on the joyous merrymaking that seemed to be the theme throughout the venue (always great to dine with happy people). The kitchen paced our dishes well so that nothing grew cold (except maybe the tots and fries but they were perpetual side dishes throughout the meal) and so that our piece of table didn’t get overly crowded. We are already looking forward to a few return visits to try the remaining 2/3 of the menu!

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Check out The Tripel: thetripel.com

333 Culver Blvd
Playa Del Rey, CA 90293

See their Yelp reviews here!