Fine dining with a steady beat at Culina

Artistic and modern Tuscan cuisine is the focus at Culina, the Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.

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Chef Luca and his staff provide a fine dining experience

Last weekend, my husband and I enjoyed an intimate dinner in Culina’s refined and comfortable atmosphere. The main dining room features sophisticated décor and excellent service. For a more private experience, dine in the glass-enclosed Grappa Room, which can accommodate up to 12 guests at an impressive table made from a 200-year-old fallen Magnolia tree.

Culina also features a top-notch culinary experience from Chef de Cuisine Luca Moriconi, now in his second year at the restaurant. However, he’s been part of the Four Seasons Hotels family for years, beginning as a junior sous chef at the Michelin-starred Palagio Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze before serving as the resident Italian chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Damascus, Amman and Palm Beach.

An additional talent this chef displays, that is different from many other chefs, is drumming. I learned it’s one of his passions. Studies have shown that drummers have an innate ability to problem-solve and change those around them. They are better able to keep a steady beat, which are all important skills in a kitchen.

Our meal started with two types of bread, which were delivered to our table with a side plate of Italian delights. One bread was sliced thick, displaying a soft interior and beautiful baked crust outside. The other was wafer thin, a crisp flat bread broken into different sizes. Both could be enjoyed with enhanced butter ribbons, crispy fried and dried red chilies, small Italian olives and taralli, or crunchy olive-oil biscuits shaped like mini doughnuts.

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Culina also offers a creative cocktail menu. We selected the La La Lupe, comprised of El Tesoro Tequila, ginger cordial, lime juice, St. Germain, agave and orange bitters. It arrived in a clear old fashioned glass with a slice of lemon and beautiful orange flower. My husband ordered the Silk Sheets, which features Ketel One vodka, Amaro Nonino, Lillet Blanc and Peychaud’s Bitters, to sip with our starters.

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Each dish is a work of art.

The night we dined, Chef Luca debuted his new spring menu. We started with the Tonno Rosso, a raw ahi tuna mixed with chopped sweet and spicy peppers. Its presentation looked like a work of art with the bright red fish placed on top of thinly sliced cucumbers arranged as floral petals. Slightly toasted pine nuts gave this dish a buttery and mild pine flavor, and the Carasau flat bread crackers inserted into the middle gave the dish height and crunch. Our attentive server, Orsola from Italy, recommended pairing this dish with a pour of Montenidoli Fiore, a dry white wine that elegantly complemented the fish.

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Charred octopus peeks out behind earthly leaves

For our next course, Orsola recommended a pour of Fattoria Sardi Rosé from Toscana to pair with the charred octopus salad. The soft salmon pink-colored wine was well-balanced in minerality and acidity and offered a crisp, clean and refreshing aroma with notes of dried rose hips, raspberry and melon.

As for the salad, four pieces of an octopus tentacle peeked out under frilly watercress and frisse leaves. Each tentacle was moist, not chewy, rubbery or dry. Again, Chef Luca presented this dish in an artistic arrangement with a cauliflower and smoked potato puree in the center for dipping and al dente green beans to round out the dish.

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To accompany the next course, a decadent risotto biancorossonero, we had a glass of 2016 straw-colored Vorberg Bianco, which cut the richness of the dish. Chef Luca shaved a generous amount of seasonal black truffles at our table. The northern Italian rice was mixed with mushrooms and sottocenere cheese, a cow cheese with a rind of ash, truffles, herbs and spices that offers an earthy flavor profile. A spoonful of truffle caviar and carabineros deep-sea prawn crudo added a pop of cardinal color.

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Ethereal lasagna just like Chef Luca’s momma makes in Italy

Chef Luca’s signature dish is his mother’s lasagne di Grazia, where he creatively recreates a classic beef lasagna and adds layers of pleasing béchamel sauce – a velvety white sauce that is more flavorful than ricotta – and a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano. The perfectly cut square of his lasagna, which comes in a beautiful blue glazed ceramic bowl with a sienna-colored interior, is the most heavenly lasagna that I have ever tasted.

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Bass with a caper emulsion

Our last main course was roasted striped bass served on another beautiful blue plate. Underneath the perfectly cooked moist fish was sautéed spinach, and on top was julienned zucchini and a pleasing caper emulsion.

For dessert, we had a classic Millefoglie featuring vanilla cream, honey gelato and more shaved black truffles on top from Pastry Chef Federico Fernandez, who is known for his creative confectionery offerings. This talented pastry chef also makes tiramisu, brown butter cake, panna cotta, and an array of vegan ice cream, sorbetti and gelati. For those who choose to sip their sweets, grappa and dessert wines are available by the glass.

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My new friend Natalia – one of the sweetest servers in Los Angeles

On our way out, we were once again struck by the décor, this time for the flower- and artwork-adorned lobby with exquisite floral pieces from celebrity floral designer and artist Jeff Leatham. A life-sized statue by American artist and sculptor J. Seward Johnson depicts Marilyn Monroe in her famous white dress blowing above a subway grate, one of the most iconic scenes in the 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch.”

Between the atmosphere and the food, dinner at Culina is an elevated culinary journey that is artistically and thoughtfully presented by Chef Luca and his Four Seasons team.

Culina and the attached Vinoteca wine and small bites lounge are open for dinner every Sunday through Wednesday from 6 to 10:30 p.m. and every Thursday through Saturday from 6 to 11 p.m. The restaurant is also open for breakfast and lunch daily. Culina and Vinoteca offer a Sunday brunch buffet from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. 300 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills, (310)860-4000.

This review was also featured in the Beverly Press 

 

Terrine’s Summer Cocktails Worth Sipping

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Enjoy their discounted menu during dineLA Summer – photo by Jill Weinlein

Last Wednesday I attended Cocktail Hour at Terrine to sip some of mixologist Ryan Wainwright’s new summer cocktails. His focus is to make spirits the stars. His bar is filled with bowls of fresh fruit and little bottles of colorful bitters. Wainwright is a stickler on quality ingredients and detailed execution. He has taken creativity to a new level that wow’d me.  I tried getting up close to watch this talented bartender, yet never had an opportunity. Instead, Marlene standing near Wainwright enlightened me about the new summer libations. What I noticed at this bar are bottles of spirits you don’t see everyday. I sampled a few of Terrine’s dineLA Summer menu items, while sipping the following cocktails:

Route De Menton - Photo by Jill Weinlein
Route De Menton – Photo by Jill Weinlein

Bright and Bubbly category I ordered the Route de Menton. Terrine is French in decor, French in cuisine and French in their wines and cocktails. This was served in a large wine glass, as Marlene measured St. George Citrus vodka – a zesty vodka made from  California-grown Valencia oranges, Seville oranges, and bergamot. A little lemon juice, orange juice and honey is added. Then a healthy pour of Prosecco and a splash of China-China – an aperitif that is chestnut-brown in color offering a citrus melange of aromas. It’s poured over large square ice cubes and garnished with a slice of orange.

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Route De Menton – Photo by Jill Weinlein

In the Crisp and Refreshing Category I opted for The French Cowboy made with Vago Espadin Mezcal from Puerto Escondido on Oaxaca. There are light aromas of sweet potato and citrus with a whisper of anise and banana. Fresh lime juice, honey and Aancho Ryes – based on a 1927 recipe from Puebla, Mexico known for its ancho chiles, which are dried and smoked poblanos. This was dazzled with smoked sea salt.

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Photo by Jill Weinlein

A pretty cocktail was the pink Angels Bay made with Diplomatico Blanco Rum aged up to 6 years to achieve balance, body and softness. Marlene added lime juice, strawberry, honey, Amaro Lucano – a spirit produced by a family owned company in Pisticci, Basilicata. It was originally made as a blend of over 30 herbs by a pastry chef in the late 1890s. It’s a base used in cocktails or an after meal digestif. At the end this cocktail has a touch of Pernod Absinthe. A strawberry garnishes this beauty.

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Photo by Jill Weinlein

Those looking for a strong anise flavor will enjoy Le Vieux Port made with Bombay Dry Gin, lime juice, orgeat, cucumber, housemade creme de menthe and Bicard Pastis (created in 1951 when the ban on anise-based aperitifs was lifted in France). This looks like a mojito, yet tastes like black licorice. Crushed ice is piled high above the glass and its garnished with a sprig of mint. I loved the added touch of serving this cocktail in a deep silver coaster. Well done, especially when the ice starts melting and the cocktail overflows. It’s meant to be sipped on a regular basis, otherwise as the ice melts, it appears as if you have never taken your first sip.

What looks hot, is actually a cold cocktail with a spiked shortbread cookie - photo by Jill Weinlein
What looks hot, is actually a cold cocktail with a spiked shortbread cookie – photo by Jill Weinlein

My favorite surprise cocktail was served in a dainty china tea cup – The Espresso “Martini” made with Jacked Wheatley vodka (pure and crisp on the nose with a fresh and clean taste finishes with hint of soft vanilla). Menotti’s cold coffee that is made in Venice, CA is added with Cafe Moka, Kailua, cream and orange bitters. It looks like a cappuccino, yet is a cold cocktail. An added touch is a square shortbread that has been brushed with rum. It’s crisp on the corners, yet soft in the middle, due to the alcohol absorbing into the cookie. A spiked cookie? I like this a lot!

Enjoy their discounted menu during dineLA Summer - photo by Jill Weinlein
Enjoy their discounted menu during dineLA Summer – photo by Jill Weinlein

Visit Terrine for a cocktail or two before you indulge into one or two of Chef Kris Morningstar’s creative dishes. Stephane Bombet and Francois Renaud are on hand to make sure the restaurant is running smoothly.

From July 17 to July 31 they will be offering a dineLA Summer menu, as well as their regular menu. A multi course lunch is $15 and three-course dinner is $39 per person. Terrine – 8265 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90048 – Phone:(323) 746-5130 – Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. –  5:30–11:30 p.m- Reservations – click on OpenTable.

A little bit of Disney Magic at the Bel Air Bar + Grill

 

(Photo by Bel Air Bar + Grill)
(Photo by Bel Air Bar + Grill)

Driving off the 405 freeway onto the Moraga exit, I noticed a striking two-story glass bougainvillea flower window in the front of the Bel Air Bar + Grill. I was invited to a tasting dinner by the owner of the restaurant Susan Disney Lord. She is part of American royalty – the Disney family, and the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney and one of Roy E. and Patricia Disney’s daughters. Her grandfather and great-uncle Walt Disney, co-founded of The Walt Disney Company.

Lord is a true California girl growing up in Toluca Lake, she now lives near the beach and close to her restaurant. Besides owning this restaurant, she is the President of the Roy Disney Family Foundation, participates on the Cal Arts CAP council, and is passionately involved with the Alzheimer’s Association by serving on the Board. She is also a wife, and the mother of five children that include two sets of twins.

Walking up the stairs into the private dining room, Lord was the first person to welcome me. When I remarked about the flowers on glass, she enthusiastically told me about its story.

Lord bought the landmark Bel Air Bar + Grill a few years ago and renovated the building. She commissioned an artist that she has known for about 30 years, Amanda Weil, to make a dazzling first impression of the restaurant.

These two ladies walked a few blocks up on Moraga to gain inspiration from the beauty of this So Cal enclave. They both appreciated the magnificent magenta colors of bougainvilleas growing freely. After taking a few clippings, Weil went to work.
At night, the nearby Chevron gas station’s bright lights, backlight the exquisite flowers on glass creating a visually beautiful moment as you walk in the door.

I told Lord that Weil’s piece is the new Georgia O’Keefe of art on glass. It’s spectacular.

Since Walt Disney founded and created Cal Arts with Lord’s grandfather Roy O. Disney, up in Valencia in the early 1960s, Lord has always had an affinity to the school known as “The Caltech of the Arts.”

Disney staffed the school with an array of his talented artists. Most of Disney’s movies including Frozen, Tarzan, Pocahontas were all made by many Cal Arts students.

(Photo by Jill Weinlein)
(Photo by Jill Weinlein)

Lord displays Cal Art students artwork on the walls throughout the restaurant. They rotate a few times a year or when a piece is sold, with all the money given to the student.

Standing together, Lord and I remarked about Zach Eins piece over the bar and multiple pieces upstairs. This talented artist uses a blow torch to burn images of human eyes and faces on wood. They are exquisite.

After construction took about one year, Lord hosted a “I survived the 405” party and everyone in the neighborhood came to have dinner, drinks and bond.

(Executive Chef Chris Emerling and owner Susan Disney Lord - Photo by Jill Weinlein)
(Executive Chef Chris Emerling and owner Susan Disney Lord – Photo by Jill Weinlein)

New to the restaurant is Executive chef Chris Emerling. Born in Springville NY, Emerling told me that he didn’t dream of being a chef as a young boy, “I wanted to be a snowplow driver, because it looked so cool.” However, as he graduated high-school, he enrolled in the Pittsburgh Culinary School and soon worked in mostly private clubs and high-end French restaurants including a kitchen in Lussaine, Switzerland.

He’s a kind chef, with a beautiful smile, and a perfect fit to work at Lord’s restaurant, because he seems to add a little “pixie dust” to each dish.

Trays of his fish and braised short rib tacos were passed around the room. These weren’t your everyday tacos, the fish was cold house-cured salmon with a crunchy jicama ginger slaw and the short rib tacos were accentuated with a carrot poblano salsa, chipotle and avocado.

(photo by Jill Weinlein)
(photo by Jill Weinlein)

As we sat at a long, elegantly decorated dining room table upstairs, I felt as if I was in a scene of Disney’s “Be Our Guest” in Beauty and the Beast. Multiple servers paraded into the room with long white plates in their hands. Each plate offered three individual appetizers that included a burnt orange colored, pureed, and chilled gazpacho with dill weed. The pixie dust Chef Emerling infused was avocado dots. Next to this amuse bouché was a four-minute poached egg that had a delicious tapenade made with a classic tomato, oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. Last was a luscious burrata topped with Emerling’s housemade duck prosciutto, herb poached mushrooms and sprigs of arugula.

(Photo by Jill Weinlein)
(Photo by Jill Weinlein)

Our next course was a colorful salad sampler trio, including the restaurant’s classic chopped salad that first appeared on the menu back in 1997. SInce it’s a Bel Air community favorite, Lord and Emerling kept it on the menu, and just heightened it with carrots, corn, garbanzos, Parmigiano-Reggiano and a sprinkling of honey balsamic on top. It was a real crowd pleaser the night I dined.

Another favorite was the Waldorf “Escoffier” salad. Don’t visualize a chunky mayonnaise salad, this one is pure elegance. In the 1930s, Auguste Escoffier was one of the world’s greatest chefs. A group of men in the Jantzen suite at the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria formed an epicurean organization who gathered at the Waldorf regularly and called themselves, “The Friends of Escoffier.”

Emerling’s Waldorf salad is not flat, but rises above the plate. Instead of chunky apples, his apples are sliced long and thin to peek out. Instead of celery, Emerling chops celeriac which is the bulb that grows from the stalks. Celeriac is the heart and soul of celery, offering a delicate and vibrant flavor to this fine dining dish. California walnuts are sprinkled around and then glistened with a delicate and vibrant 3880 French Escoffier secret sauce that only Emerling knows how to make so well.

(Photo by Jill Weinlein)
(Photo by Jill Weinlein)

Seafood dishes include grilled salmon that is half cooked and boosted with lemon, lovage – a herb that a few chefs are foraging in the local foothills, and dash of cream. It’s served with a potato and fennel sauté.
The scallops were served with four root vegetables that included carrots, kohlrabi, onion and celery. The roots change based on what chef selects at the markets. He makes a divine pickled pineapple to complement the scallops and drizzles an orange citrus emulsion before dusting it with a cilantro and red pepper luster. Emerling also creates this same sauce for the Market fish of the day.

Meaty entrees include a pan roasted juicy chicken with preserved cranberries and a delightful rosemary hash with chicken gastrique. His tender, slow braised pork cheeks were served with sweet potato gnocchi and peas, while his red wine braised short ribs are cooked for hours and served with roasted rainbow carrots, garlic mashed potatoes with charred poblano chilies to intensify the flavors.

(Photo by Jill Weinlein)
(Photo by Jill Weinlein)

For dessert you must order the lemon tart with an Italian meringue. I didn’t care for the coconut infused chia pudding, however I know chia is the new ingredient to upgrade desserts. Expect to see more chia seed dishes on menus across Los Angeles, because they are high in fiber, high in omega-3’s, and plump up in liquid giving diners a satisfying fullness.

At the end of the feast, I walked back to my car, and noticed just behind the restaurant, a little cafe named The Shack. Owned by Lord, it’s a great alternative for to-go food from the same fine dining kitchen inside the Bel Air Bar + Grill. The Shack opens Monday through Friday for breakfast, snacks, soups, salads, sandwiches, coffee, smoothies and shakes from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Great-Uncle Walt and Grandfather Roy must be smiling with pride at Susan Disney Lord. Her winning culinary destination is an ideal spot to meet family and friends who live in the San Fernando Valley, or to go to before or after a UCLA basketball or after exploring the Getty Center.

The Bel Air Bar and Grill is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Happy Hour is available the same days from 4 to 6 p.m. Brunch is on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner is served nightly at 5 p.m. $$- $$$ 662 N. Sepulveda Boulevard. (310)440-5544.

Once – Better Than A 10!

Writer with
Writer with Executive Chef Ricardo Zarate

Following chef Ricardo Zarate, one of my favorite Los Angeles chefs, has been an exhilarating culinary adventure. I first met the three-time James Beard Foundation award nominee at his spirited, urban Peruvian restaurant, Mo-Chica. He followed that success by opening Picca, near Century City, and Paiche, in Marina del Rey, introducing pleasing South American cuisine with a touch of Asian and European flavors.

I also followed him to Santa Barbara to experience his Blue Tavern restaurant, featuring Californian cuisine with a Peruvian flair in hand-tossed pizzas, pasta and grilled meats. Sadly, it all came to an end when he disappeared from the L.A. restaurant scene.
While dining at different restaurants in Los Angeles, I recognized a few of his loyal servers and whispered, “Where is Ricardo Zarate?” Quietly, a few told me, “He is coming back, and he will make a sensation when he does.” I held onto those words.

Last month, I learned Zarate is back. He opened a pop-up in Santa Monica at Santino’s on Lincoln Boulevard. Many of his previous employees wanted to work with the kind and gentle chef again, especially his Paiche crew.

Naming his new pop-up Once (pronounced on-seh) made perfect sense, since in Spanish it means number 11, and Zarate is the 11th of 12 children in his family. Growing up in Lima, he was in charge of cooking for his family at a young age.IMG_7385

I eagerly made a reservation to reunite with my old friend and experience his new venture. The interior of Santino’s is dark, with lots of wood and light fixtures with designs made from wine corks.

I sat at a table for two and noticed the pleasing scent of grilled vegetables and meats. Zarate’s son was assisting him at the grill. The tables are close together letting guests see the different dishes being delivered in the dining room.

Feisser Stone, known as a superstar mixologist at Hinoki and the Bird helms the bar at the back of the restaurant. Guests may order beer, wine and low-proof cocktails including the Mint To Be made with sherry, lime, cucumber and garnished with mint. It was very refreshing on a warm summer night. I also ordered a Passion Fruit Brut made with champagne, aperol and a small passion fruit popsicle. The bubbles of the brut slowly melted the popsicle.

The menu features 11 a la carte dishes that change weekly based on ingredients Zarate finds at farmers’ markets. His goal is to create dishes that people are eager to share with others at their table.

IMG_7390My favorite starter was the Peruvian causa in a mason jar. Causa is a popular layered Peruvian potato dish served cold. Zarate starts with a base of Peruvian black botija olive aioli, layers it with smooth avocado and mashed yellow potatoes, and tops it with a beautiful, thick, eggplant stew with pieces of the dark purple skin. It’s served with thinly sliced grilled bread brushed with oil. Causa has the consistency of budino, and is an exquisite spread on the toasted bread.

We were also thrilled with the smoky barbecued figs paired brilliantly with peppery arugula and crisp pepitas dusted with Parmesan. The dish was drizzled with savory balsamic rocoto chile pepper dressing.

Zarate offers seafood dishes including one of his famous ceviches, which are packed with heat. Paella is grilled on the back patio, and charcuterie plates include octopus and cured meats.

After a plate of deep-fried, crispy Japanese mackerel sprinkled with sea salt arrived, I passed the plate to an inquisitive man at a FullSizeRender-22nearby table. He closed his eyes and smiled after he tasted the crispy fish dipped in a lovely citrus aioli. When Zarate’s wood fire-grilled Peruvian paella was brought to his table in a large, black skillet, the guest urged me to try the fried rice mixed with amarillo aioli, black tiger prawns, juicy and sweet Hokkaido scallops and Chinese lachang sausage.

Three meat options on the menu include a small rib-eye plate and a much larger rib-eye dish served with cipollini onions and grilled tomatoes. We ordered the filet mignon sliced and served in a black skillet with roasted tomatoes, braised cipollini onions, red onions, grilled green onions and sliced fingerling potatoes. Zarate uses Kimlan soy dressing to make savory gravy, and serves a sunny-side-up egg on top, making the dish spectacular.

Zarate also offers three desserts each week including panna cotta, and chocolate and picarones. We ordered the chocolate mousse with lucuma – a Peruvian fruit with maple and sweet potato flavors – and topped with Chantilly cream. The couple seated next to us loved the sweet potato beignets served with a cup of fig syrup. Glasses of sherry, vermouth, Moscato D’Asti, Cardamaro, Bonal and Byrhh – an aromatized apéritif made of red wine – are available for guests craving after-dinner drinks.

Zarate twice walked into the dining room to greet some of his familiar guests. A few diners stood up to shake his hand and pat him on the back. I rose to give him an appreciative hug and congratulated him on his new endeavor. Zarate is back and better than ever.

Reservations are available Thursday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. until October for tables for two, four or six guests. Reservations can be made up to two weeks in advance by visiting https://www.table8.com/v/once-by-ricardo-zarate.

A limited number of tables are available on a first come, first served basis. If seats are available at the bar, walk-in guests are welcome to sit and watch Zarate do what he does best – cook amazing Peruvian plates.

3021 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. http://www.eatonce.com.

This article was featured in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News on September 10, 2015.