Jill’s 10 Favorite Restaurants in 2015

In 2015 I dined at least three times a week in search of the quintessential dining experience. That is over 150 restaurants I had to reflect back on to chose only 10 favorites for the year.

To qualify, the ambiance needed to be clean and appealing, the service must be friendly and efficient, and the food needed to “wow” me. Throw in a stellar wine list and a few tantalizing cocktails.

When friends asked for dining recommendations, these were the culinary experiences that I fondly recommended. I hope to visit each of these restaurants again in 2016 –

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  1. Barton G – Winner of the Special Occasion Dining Award

Jaw dropping culinary presentations begin the moment you sit down at Barton G and continue throughout the evening with vaporizing cocktails on elegant trays and three-foot tall entrees and desserts parade around the dining room. If you don’t want people ogling over the dishes you order, than Barton G may be too intrusive for you. These dishes demand attention. It’s the ultimate special occasion restaurant. When my daughter turns 21 in 2016, I will take her here to sip her first martini named Buddahlicious. the pear infused vodka is mixed with lychee and cranberry juice and served with a nitrogen pop of pear vodka and small golden buddah. Rub his tummy for good fortune.

What to order:

Cocktail: Sabrinatini martini served with a nitro-champagne swizzle stick and a solid chocolate monkey hanging down the side of the glass.

Food: The fresh line-caught halibut ceviche served inside into a leopard print stiletto heel. It’s mixed with a scoop of mango sorbet and small laughing bird shrimp marinated with the halibut in leche de tigre for hours. It’s drained and poured into a shot glass. Guests are to drink back the shot before reaching for a long plantain chip to scoop the avocado mousse, mango sorbet and ceviche.DSC_0475

Dessert: The Marie Antoinette served with pink cotton candy styled as a wig and the baked Alaskan Everglade with a large croaking neon eyed frog and huge piece of seven-layer red velvet ice cream cake, wrapped in toasted meringue and topped with full size candy apple to represent the ‘cherry’ on top.

Dress code: Celebrity fashion – short skirts, high heals and great hair.

Open Sunday through Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday the restaurant is open until 11 p.m.
61 N. La Cienega Blvd. (310)388-1888 –Barton G LAFullSizeRender-17

2. Terrine – Winner of the Most Romantic Al Fresco Dining

For my 26th wedding anniversary, I took my husband to Stephane Bombet, Executive Chef Kris Morningstar and Francois Renaud’s newer elegant California brasserie. Chef Morningstar pleases Los Angelenos with some of his French favorites that include beef tartare, onion soup, steak frites, divine quiche, escargot, tartines, and Croque Madame’s.

Cocktail: Terrine Gin & Tonic made with Bombay East, Renaud’s lemongrass and a house made yuzu tonic. It’s pretty with a long peeled rind of ruby red grapefruit.

FullSizeRender-15Entree: The juicy Terrine burger with truffle butter and cheese, a secret aioli, flash fried onions and cured tomato jam. The jam elevates this burger, especially on the soft brioche bun.

Dessert: French lemon tart. The meringue on top looked like floral grommets torched lightly to give the dish a visually stunning presentation.

Dress Code – Fashionable

Hours: Hours are from – 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Terrine – 8265 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles – (323)746-5130 – Terrine

Girasoldrink3. Girasol – Winner of the Best Field To Table

The design inside is magical. One feels as if they are inside a giant sunflower. Executive Chef CJ Jacobson and two-time “Top Chef” alumni, and Chef de Cuisine Justin Abram work their magic in the kitchen. They visit local farmers’ markets, while GM Adrian Migliore forages local herbs and flowers in the Angeles National forest several times a week. They gather edible weeds, bushes and pine needles to enhance many of the dishes. The butter for their exquisite bread is infused with toasted lovage leaves, the burrata salad is dressed with a forest floor vinaigrette.

Cocktail – a frosty tall aluminum tumbler filled with a slightly sweet vodka-guava cocktail. It’s similar in presentation to a Moscow Mule.

Entree – A signature dish at this restaurant is the octopus salad. The chefs roast long eggplant until it’s almost a puree. They add Little Gem and frisée lettuce to the plate. To make the salad dressing, the chefs char some rosemary and toss the ash with olive oil. This offers a more intense essence of the herb. The octopus is stewed for almost two hours in its own juices and then grilled before its placed on top of the salad. It’s finished with sweet & sour chilies and toasted lovage.

Dessert – Deconstructed chocolate S’mores dazzled with bright yellow sunflower petals on a dark chocolate bar, with marshmallows, banana cream, caramelized banana sliced lengthwise and a graham cracker crust.

Hours: Nightly for dinner from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., on Sundays they serve brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 11334 Moorpark St. Studio City, (818)924-2323 – Girasol

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4. The Front Yard – Winner of the You’ll Have A Great Time

In LA there are a slew of hotels that offer exceptional restaurants. In Studio City, the beloved Garland Hotel’s signature restaurant is a lot of fun.

Cocktail –  Cucumber press cocktail made by head bartender Will Cutting. He mixes Bulldog gin, lime juice, cilantro, cucumber, and combier pamplemousse, which is a grapefruit flavored triple sec. This is an ideal drink for a hot summer day and evening.

Entree – Chef Turano is an expert at seafood with his grilled red wine glazed octopus with pickled ramp aioli, spiced crisp chickpeas, and a radish salad. We also ordered his wild halibut entree. It’s delivered to his kitchen as a whole fish before Turano butchers the 30 pound fish himself. One side of the halibut is pure white in color, the other side is darker and more gray. He takes the pure white meat of the fish and prepares it with three different cauliflowers. It’s served with a blond gastrique made with Chardonnay and sprinkled of sugar and butter. The dish is colorful with small green cauliflower florets and pickled beech mushrooms.

Dessert – Salted caramel pudding in a jam jar with freshly popped salted caramel popcorn decorating the plate.

Open for breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner. $$ 4222 Vineland Ave. (818)255-7290 – The Front Yard

(La Quinta - Photo by Jill Weinlein)
(La Quinta – Photo by Jill Weinlein)

5. Morgan’s in the Desert – Winner of Epicurean Delights

Spend a weekend at the La Quinta Resort and Spa to experience Executive chef Jimmy Schmidt three-course themed prix fixe menu with wine pairing menu selected by Morgan’s Sommelier Lisa Tussing. One week it could be an Heirloom pear and Artisan duck menu, the next Squab and Pumpkin dishes.

Cocktail – Pomegranate-Ginger Margarita Sauza Agave Tequila, Pomegranate Juice, Ginger & Lime. Served on the rocks.

(Chef Jimmy Schmidt knows how to prepare local ingredients into spectacular dishes. Photo by Jill Weinlein)
(Chef Jimmy Schmidt knows how to prepare local ingredients into spectacular dishes. Photo by Jill Weinlein)

Entree – The Mahi-Mahi dusted with coriander seeds and served with a mild chopped celery root and roasted leeks with lots of microgreens. Coriander is the dry seed from cilantro. It offers a pleasantly sweet and lemon essence to the fish.

Dessert – The visually spectacular butter popcorn ice cream parfait served with salted caramel house made Cracker Jack popcorn. It’s heightened with bittersweet chocolate fudge and sea salted caramel.

Dress Code – Resort wear

Dinner is served nightly from 5:30 – 10:00 p.m. 49499 Eisenhower Dr. La Quinta, CA (760) 564-4111 – Morgan’s in the Desert

(Photo of Ricardo Zarate and Jill Weinlein by Rick Weinlein)
(Photo of Ricardo Zarate and Jill Weinlein by Rick Weinlein)

6. Smoke. Oil. Salt – Winner of Best Tapa Hour 

James Beard nominee Ricardo Zarate and Executive chef Brian Gregg created a new three tapa “happy hour” special for $19. Pair it with a glass of Spanish wine, sparking cava, fruity sangria for and extra $7.

Cocktail –  Kalimotxo – a Spanish cocktail made with equal parts red wine and a cola-based soft drink.

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

Entree – Crispy Frito chicken with Serrano ham and a lovely, slightly spicy red brava sauce. Also, grilled scallops on a pea puree adorned with crunchy hazelnuts and a tangy lemon aioli. The Pintxo de Iberico, is a toasted sourdough bread layered with a slightly smokey unpasteurized sheep milk, and delicious Iberico ham.

Dessert – Brazo Gitano made with rolled sponge cake, dulce de leche and a passion fruit curd.

Tapa Hour is 5:30 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner nightly from 5:30 to 12 a.m. Brunch is served on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 7274 Melrose Ave. (323)930-7900 – Smoke. Oil. Salt

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(Photo of Robert Downey Jr. by Timothy White)

7. Cavatina – Winner of Dine Like a Celebrity

Located in the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood. It opened its door in 1963 and soon became a favorite to rock stars coming to Los Angeles. Below the street level pool is a world-class sound studio. Some of the best rock stars have recorded their Grammy-winning songs here. They also can park their tour bus underground to stay incognito from their fans.

During the award-season with Emmy’s, Oscars and Grammy’s, the hotel sells out and is filled with A list actors, musicians, comedians, writers, artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, supermodels, restaurateurs, billionaire entrepreneurs.

The night I was invited to dine at the fine dining restaurant Cavatina, my group and I partied like rock stars while enjoying a multi-course dinner prepared by James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Michael Schlow and the new Executive Chef Jonathan Kim.

Appetizer – The Grilled Octopus was served with a “hummus” made from black chick pea puree, olives, fresno chiles.

Entree – a skillet of shrimp and lobster with black crispy rice.

Dessert – An exquisite creme fraiche cheesecake with a hazelnut crumble and scoop of Fossleman’s coffee espresso ice cream.

Dress Code – LA hip or Rock star

1200 Alta Loma Road, West Hollywood, CA – (310) 657-1333 – Cavatina

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

8. The Church Key – Winner of Best Dining Cart Experience

Foodies and locals rave about their unique Dinner and Brunch wheel cart dining service. Celebrating their second anniversary, Executive chef Steven Fretz and General Manager Joseph Sabato decided to introduce the cart service for a creative lunch experience.

Cocktail – The Church Key Mimosas made with fresh fruit elixirs and the Bloody Mary with an array of garnishes.

FullSizeRender-66Entree – Vegetarians love the bright green English pea falafel patty on a dark pumpernickel and oat bun. Be sure to add the fried egg to the truffled tahini and tomato mixed with parsley relish. A skewered tomato raisin, grilled green onion and clove of garlic accompany the veggie-style patty, making a pretty dish and oh so delicious.

Dessert – Fretz’s winning warm brioche donuts with a brown butter glaze and cinnamon caramel sauce.

Open Monday through Sunday from from 11a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., for dinner. Sunday Brunch is served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 8730 W. Sunset Blvd. (424)249-3700 – http://www.thechurchkeyla.com

(Dramatic Entry - Photo courtesy of Bel Air Bar + Grill)
(Dramatic Entry – Photo courtesy of Bel Air Bar + Grill)

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

It’s been open a few years, but now has a new Executive chef – Chris Emerling. Roy Disney’s granddaughter Susan Disney Lord owns this visually beautiful restaurant located near The Getty Center off the 405 freeway.

Appetizer – 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.

(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)

Entree – 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. The ultimate winter comfort food.

Dessert – Lemon tart with an Italian meringue.

Dress Code – casual elegance.

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.

fullsizerender-4010. The Flintridge Proper – Best Brunch in the Valley (San Fernando and San Gabriel) NOW CLOSED.

Sunday is a day of exploring treasures that lurk around our great city. About 20 minutes from downtown LA is the bucolic small community of La Canada-Flintridge. There are lots of oak trees, bridal paths and bike trails throughout the town.
A big draw to the community is the 160 acre Descanso Gardens offering paved pathways to explore a variety of gardens, a small train ride, water features, an art gallery, and historic home to tour.

Before or after a visit to Descanso Gardens, enjoy brunch at the nearby Flintridge Proper. It’s one of the only unique farm to table dining options in town and houses the world’s largest gin bar.

Cocktail –  The slightly sweet Angel Kiss offering an essence of grapefruit. It’s was refreshing and perfect to sip while looking over the menu.

fullsizerender-37Starter –Enormous buttermilk biscuits on a wood plank that were sprinkled with sea salt. There was a silver container of berry jam and shredded butter that looked like shredded mozzarella cheese. The butter was so smooth and easy to spread on the warm biscuits. It was a fun starter to share among the table.

Brunch Fare – The salmon Benedict with smoked salmon on two English muffins topped with poached eggs and a pleasing citrusy Hollandaise sauce. I love the smooshed potatoes.

Open for lunch and dinner starting at 11:30 a.m. Breakfast and brunch is served on Sat. and Sunday starting at 8:30 a.m. The restaurant closes at 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturdays. $$ 464 Foothill Blvd. La Canada Flintridge (818)790-4888 – theproper.com.

This article is featured in GPSmyCity –  https://www.gpsmycity.com/gps-tour-guides/los-angeles-631.html

Innovative Cart Service at The Church Key

The Church Key earned a winning reputation with foodies and locals raving about their unique wheel cart dining service. Celebrating their second anniversary, Executive chef Steven Fretz and General Manager Joseph Sabato decided to introduce the cart service for a creative lunch experience. I invited a friend to join me for lunch last week.

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

A 1960s Pan Am beverage cart near my table was stocked with carafes of green tea, black tea lemonade, and little bottles filled with different housemade elixirs. Our server, Parker, recommended a eucalyptus elixer to be mixed with iced green tea. There is no alcohol, just pure, thirst quenching refreshment. Other glass bottles contained hibiscus, passion fruit and a Chai that Parker said goes really well with the black tea. “We make new elixirs weekly to change it up,” he said.

Fretz and Sabato started the cart service when they opened The Church Key to offer diners instant gratification. Instead of guests waiting for a server to take a cocktail or appetizer order, the wait staff approaches guests after they have been seated and offers a beverage and a dim-sum small plate. “Diners can sit back and relax while looking over the menu,” Sabato said. “For lunch, we thought an ice tea and lemonade drink cart would appeal to our guests. Arnold Palmers are instantly made right before their eyes.” He said they are thinking about decorating the Pan Am cart to look more like a retro-lemonade stand.

Each meal of the day is a unique dining experience. Chef Fretz graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and joined the Michael Mina Group before opening The Church Key. He earned a reputation for pushing boundaries and making classic dishes more exciting.
His lunch menu, printed on a white paper placemat, looks almost like a children’s menu in an easy-to-read font. A jar of pencils is placed on the table for guests to work on a maze on the menu, or try a word search. “We like to get playful and artistic with our dishes and dining experience,” Sabato said.

Lunch fare includes a Brussels sprout Caesar salad with slices of grilled chicken, shriveled tomato raisins bursting with flavor, crunchy sunflower seeds and Parmesan cheese. You won’t find romaine lettuce in this unique take on Caesar salad.

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

The avocado croissant toast is layered with creamy avocado, pickled egg, Hatch chilies and layers of smoked salmon with lemon zest shavings and dollops of luscious creme fraiche.

My favorite dish was the bright green English pea falafel patty on a dark pumpernickel and oat bun. Be sure to add the fried egg to the truffled tahini and tomato mixed with parsley relish. A skewered tomato raisin, grilled green onion and clove of garlic accompany the veggie-style patty, making a pretty dish and oh so delicious.

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

Fretz’s creativity is evident in his French fries, which look like large steak fries, but are actually made from potato gratin. He prepares large trays of potato gratin, cools them, then cuts the gratin into long and thick sticks. Then he deep fries them and serves them with an aioli. They are a heavenly balance of salty, cheesy and creamy potato treats. Don’t be shy about asking for ketchup. I think these are the best fries in Los Angeles.

He also makes a tapioca crusted fish taco made with sea bass that is crispy on the outside yet moist inside. They are enhanced with a Serrano chili aioli, salsa verde, shredded slaw and chips with guacamole.

We had to sample dessert and ordered a plate of Fretz’s winning warm brioche donuts with a brown butter glaze and cinnamon caramel sauce. We each had one donut and took the last one home to enjoy later in the day.

Next time you want to celebrate a special occasion or want to meet a group of friends for lunch, brunch or dinner, reserve a table at The Church Key. The wheeling beverage cart service is one of Los Angeles’ most unique and fun dining experiences. $$ Open Monday through Sunday from from 11a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., for dinner. Sunday Brunch is served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 8730 W. Sunset Blvd. (424)249-3700.

This review was published in the October 29, 2015 Beverly Press and Park LaBrea Newspapers.

What’s New At This Year’s LA Street Food Festival

IMG_6004Wow! This year the LA Street Food Festival was impressive with over 100 vendors. It ran more smoothly than in the past few years and everyone seemed to have a smile on their face.

Here’s what’s new, innovative and worked well at this year’s festival at the Pasadena Rose Bowl –

1. New Hours – Gates opened at 3 p.m. this year. Fortunately, it wasn’t a scorching hot day. The festival continued until 8 p.m.

2. This year, guests were offered a cardboard tray that looked like a individual size pizza box. It had a drink and shot holder and space for at least three small plates. Ingenious. It’s called a FreeHand ThumbTray and was a big hit at the festival. There were a few of the sponsors and participants advertising on the tray. As we all walked around the Rose Bowl their name was  communicated in a unique way. To learn more, go to www.freehandtrays.com or http://www.carryoutsupplies.com.

3. The layout included the historical Rose Bowl field this year. They even had a Rose Garden VIP Lounge down on the turf. Guest could enter through selected gates and take a seat in one of the stadium seats or take a nap before indulging in more food and beverages.IMG_5981

4. There was a separate VIP line at Gate F and a General Admission entrance at the opposite end of the stadium at Gate C. This helped give the illusion that the lines weren’t as long in the parking lots and at the entrance.

5. The $90 VIP ticket allowed foodies 90 minutes (that’s $1 a minute, and worth it) to enjoy the event before the General Admission crowd entered the festival. The lines were much shorter for VIP guests to enjoy all the food trucks and tents, plus gain full access to two VIP areas – one in the Garden Concourse near the main stage and the other down on the Rose Bowl field. The Coachella style Garden VIP area had Celebrity chef Phillip Frankland Lee creating innovative plates and lounge furniture by West Elm to kick back with some creative fare and tasty cocktails. IMG_5992

6. Upon entering, guests were given an easy to read illustrated map of the festival. The Latin cuisine tents were designated with colorful fiesta flags, beer tents were dotted along the pathway with steins of foamy beer. Asian cuisine was marked with a Chinese take-out box with chopsticks. American dishes were noted with American flags and the European area was a wrap. Desserts were ice-cream cones, donuts and creamy floats with a straw.

7. Instead of free bottled water, they gave away boxed water. I learned that The Boxed Water container is far more sustainable than plastic bottled water. About 76% of the box is from a renewable resource – trees.

8. New Additions to the festival this year were Osso, IMLI, Berliners, Tacoteca, Sweetfin Poke, Scratch Bar, Gadarene Swine, Bachi Burger, and Thee Elbow Room. I really enjoyed the chefs at the artisanal French Food Truck serving IMG_5922Croque Madame and open face Croques with foie gras shredded on top.

9. Veggie festival-goers gorged on One Veg World barbecued Dragon fruit sliders and Chef Phillip Frankland Lee’s Gadarene Swine’s veggie shots in the serene VIP Lounge.

10. Plenty of Alcohol – There was the Tequila Tasting Tent in the Latin area with pours of Angel Bendito Tequila, Corazon Azul, Tequila Don Nacho and a Michi Mobil serving micheledas. Beer aficionados sipped generous pours from Angel City Brewery, Firestone Walker, Stella Artois, Goose Island and Singha. Cocktails were served at Church Key, Venice Whaler and Corner Door booths.

11. I cooled down at The Ice Cream Social area grabbing tastes from the McConnell’s truck, Sno Creamery tent, Choctal, and Salt & Straw. IMG_6001

12. I loved the new addition of an air-conditioned comedy bus. Hot or weary guests entered a former prison bus, now decorated like a nightclub lounge, to sit back and laugh at a few jokes and comedic routines. I’m already looking forward to next year’s La Street Food Festival in July 2016!