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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fogo De Chao

     What better place to celebrate my meat-loving husband's birthday than at a Brazilian steak house in the company of good friends? And according to the grapevine, this meat emporium is one of the best. Restaurants like Fogo don't just provide a meal, but a sybaritic event. There's a protocol and even strategies to maximize the experience.
     The space is large, as you would expect it to be to accommodate servers weaving in, out and around the tables to offer their treasures. It's all framed in mahogany with dramatic and vibrant flower arrangements to contrast. The tables are impeccably set with large gleaming wine glasses and white linens, all surrounding the main focal point, what most call the salad bar, the restaurant calls the Market Table, and I call an all-you-can-eat buffet.
     I know they treat everyone the same, but the service is like nothing I've ever seen, and I felt like a queen. A team of waiters hovered over our table refilling side dishes and water glasses, bringing cuts of meat, catering to every whim, answering every question and all with unwavering smiles, and somehow without being intrusive.
    They start you with a basket of dainty cheese and yucca rolls, Pao de Queijo. These little puffs look like toy bread. They just put you in a happy mood right out of the gate. From the bar, DJ ordered her classic Seven and Seven, Mario ordered a Caiparinha, the traditional Brazilian cocktail with cachaça, John a Brazilian beer called Devassa, which apparently means "salacious, bawdy and wanton". I had the more proper Superfruit Lemonade, a refreshing mixture of that oh so familiar Veev açai, Grand Marnier Rouge, strawberries, blueberries and lemon.
     Let's now address the Market Table, because the name 'salad bar' just won't do. Come to think of it, you could actually do your groceries off this table. Here's a short(?) list of only what I saw from my table: smoked salmon, Chilean sea bass, shrimp cocktail, shrimp skewers, grilled zucchini, asparagus, green salads, pasta salads, chicken salad, fresh mozzarella, olives, countless varieties of imported cheeses, and I will stop there because I still need to comment on the reason for our visit, the meats.
     Before I revisit the main course, I must mention the plates of fried polenta, caramelized bananas and mashed potatoes that are never allowed to deplete before they are refilled. This is why I never made it to the Market Table. Didn't need to!
     This is without a doubt the land of the carnivores. Sure, they try to distract you with bells and whistles, but a true meat eater must stay in the zone to get the most bang for the buck, if you will. If your two-sided coaster is on green, the protein parade begins, and before you're done with one cut, another is offered, and another, and another... Picanha (top sirloin), Fraldinha (bottom sirloin), Costella (beef ribs), and our favorites this evening, Filet Mignon and Beef Ancho (ribeye).
     And if you still have it in you, white meats are also prominently featured- lamb, pork ribs, chicken, pork loin and pork sausage. Whew! Time to turn the coaster to the red side!
     Dessert anyone? Well, it's a birthday celebration so there must be dessert, even if there's only room for a few bites. We decided to order one and share. The honored birthday guest picked the Tiramisu, one of his favorites, and it didn't disappoint. It was creamy and rich but not overwhelming, as Tiramisu can be sometimes. A sweet end to a lavish meal.

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Bobboi Natural Gelato

      Here it is! Our first encounter with authentic gelato outside of Italy. Bobboi is located in LaJolla, California, a lovely suburb of San Diego. The Italian owners take pains to demonstrate to the employees the slow, loving process of making real flavors daily, fresh and on the premises, using only California milk and organic fruit and sugar. The employees, in turn, share the information with any patron that shows interest. They speak their knowledge in near reverence, as they should.
     You won't find the infinite rows of flavor options that you see in most Italian gelato counters, but the dozen or so choices are masterfully crafted and well thought out, so ingenious combinations can be made in a cup. John had the strawberry and 'Bacio', or chocolate and hazelnut, and I mixed the 'Mediterraneo', a combination of pistachio, hazelnut and almond, with the salted caramel. Each flavor had that distinct personality we have come to expect from gelato. Any two can dance well together but one never takes away from the other.
      I was starting to wonder if there was anyone in the U.S. that could make gelato like it's done in Italy. I figured we must have the technology, there are many Italo-Americans in the country, we produce quality raw materials, so what's the secret? Why is it so elusive? Having found one place that can craft this mystical and powerful substance, my faith is renewed and my quest for more places will continue.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Village Pizzeria

     I'm convinced our trip to California was a divine birthday gift meant to quell my thirst for Italy, if only for a spell. Coronado is a beach town in the southern San Diego area. It is home to the famous Hotel del Coronado, setting of the iconic film "Some Like it Hot". Before we began our exploration of the hotel, we felt a bit peckish. Several attractive restaurants beckoned, but we weren't feeling a formal lunch. The sleepy little Village Pizzeria with its ceramic centurion advertising a 3:00 pm happy hour caught our attention. Now, I've already said I'm not a pizza enthusiast, but this place was exactly equidistant from our car and the hotel we wanted to explore, so why not?
     The menu seemed standard with all the usual choices of toppings, sizes and varieties of crust thickness. There were some pasta dishes, hoagies, calzones and a few appetizers, one of which grabbed me immediately. I am so happy that crispy Brussel sprouts have become so popular. I am quite fond of them, and I feel a minimum of guilt when I indulge.
     The specialty pizzas are what sets this place apart. Their careful combination of fresh ingredients is quite reminiscent of Neapolitan pizza-making. We ordered a 12" pie divided into two customized sides. John's half was called the 'Whitestone' which came with ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan. He added pepperoni and sauteed red onions. My side was called the 'Billy Goat', and it had roasted vegetables, goat cheese and garlic olive oil. John was quite satisfied with his half, but he likes pizza more than I do, so I wasn't surprised. What did come as a pleasant surprise was that today turned out to be one of those rare days when I happily jump on the pizza bandwagon. The vegetables were bright and fresh and roasted to sweet perfection. I have to learn how to roast vegetables until the exact nanosecond when they release their sugary secrets yet retain their brilliant colors. Every bite was sweet ecstasy, and just when you're about to surrender to the trance, the goat cheese gently taps your taste buds with a pop of saltiness.
     This little excursion almost didn't happen. It was the last day of our vacation, and the original plan was to spend it leisurely near our hotel in Torrance and turn in early in expectation of our crack-of-dawn flight home. At the last minute, we decided to squeeze as much adventure as possible out of our trip to California. There would be time for rest when we got home. Serendipity is the best consequence of not having a plan.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Casa Escobar

     You can't visit California and not have some solid, well-prepared Mexican food. It's not my favorite cuisine considering its foundational ingredients are spicy hot peppers in varying degrees of deadliness. That said, this glorious state offers such a wide set of options for this particular indulgence, you will inevitably find a few to suit your sensibilities.
     Casa Escobar has the look you expect from an elegant yet relaxed Mexican restaurant. It's expansive, with chalk-white walls that contrast sharply with the rustic dark wood of the Spanish Colonial high-backed chairs. These chairs, however, are covered in hand-tooled leather of varied colors, and the tables are dressed in toasted yellow cloths. All this brightness tempers the severity of the furniture style, the wood-beamed ceiling and the Gothic chandeliers, and give the room a happy, welcoming air. The view of Malibu pier through the wide windows doesn't hurt. The bar is elegant and dark, but again, softened by sublime paintings of lilies and white birds in flight.
     They start you out with a basket of warm corn chips and a trio of dipping sauces- tomatillo salsa verde, red salsa and enchilada sauce. The chips were so crispy fresh and flavorful, I didn't even investigate the sauces. I ordered a Vodka Mango Margarita and John a beer from the bar. I had forgotten how generous Mexican drinks are, and the colorful Hulk-sized glass that came to the table put a huge smile on my face that didn't fade for a long time.

     We both ordered the house burrito, with chicken for me and beef for John. I asked for the whole wheat tortilla and no jalapeños or any other spicy substance knowing full well that this is an impossible expectation from Mexican fare. My burrito was stuffed in savory rice and beans, flavorful chicken strips, cheese and all the elements I was looking for, and then doused in a mixture of salsa and melted cheese. Yes, it was spicy, no way to get around that completely, but since I was expecting it, I asked for sour cream, which helps with the burn, and between that and my Mango fun drink, I was feeling no pain.
     I try not to over-plan my vacations so I won't be disappointed when something doesn't happen exactly the way I expect, but a Mexican meal was on the non-negotiable list, and we couldn't have picked a better place. Friendly service, fresh authentic food, great drinks and a view of the Pacific Ocean. Andale!
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Friday, September 4, 2015

Bluewater Avalon

     The founders of the city of Avalon in California's Catalina Island made an inspired choice with a name that conjures visions of mythical beauty, idyllic landscapes and the romanticism of the Arthurian legend. From my viewpoint, when you approach the island by water, the landscape and the architecture transport you to sun-drenched, lush, picturesque Mediterranean lands. What a wonderful birthday surprise! This visit will hold me for a little while until I can return to my beloved Italy.
     I like to wax poetic about the unique color of the Mediterranean Sea, but this island off the coast of Long Beach presented me with three ocean hues I never knew could coexist. I made sure to choose a place for lunch where I could watch cobalt, sapphire and seafoam waters flirting with the rocky shore.
     The cocktail menu at Bluewater Avalon contained something called Buffalo Milk, in honor of the wild buffalo that roam on the seaside range of the large island. I had to try it, and I'm so glad I did. My 'milk' had Crème de Banana, Crème de Cacao, vodka, Kahlua, fresh whipped cream and nutmeg, and the combination made for an exquisite and fun twist on a milkshake. John had a Ballast Point Calico Amber Ale, a beer born in his new favorite place in the world, Santa Barbara.
     I ordered the crab salad sandwich with bacon and avocado on a Brioche bun, and John ordered the fish and chips. I worried that the crab would be spicy as it often is when I order it, but this salad was refreshing and savory without the presence of pesky pepper. It combined ideally with the lightly seasoned chunks of avocado, and the crispy bacon gave it all just the right amount of saltiness. It was big and messy, and I licked my fingers after every bite. The fries were fresh fried, thick and meaty. Didn't even leave one in the basket.
     John didn't find what he was looking for in his fried cod and fries. He's decided to give up on that dish for a while. He finds it bland no matter where he orders it. This fish was meaty and fresh and perfectly fried, and it came with the creamiest homemade tartar sauce, but you see, John won't indulge in accompaniments. Flavor shouldn't need crutches to show up, he believes. I can see his point.
     Have you ever sat somewhere in the world and found yourself taking in the deepest breaths from marveling at your surroundings? It's the experience of oneness with Divinity. For someone as tightly wound as I am, places like Catalina Island are soul therapy. 

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