O'Groats has been about for nigh on thirty years, and the Valley edition is a couple of years old, popular with the Encinoan locals. I'd often passed it by, thinking it either a marmalade-infused, privileged abomination of fennel and foofery or a sportsbarian Valhalla of bros and brewery specials, and I would have been prone to sneer at this big blue oval logo that might have been yanked from a designer suitcase, but it's just not so. It's honest, and friendly.
The Ventura Blvd. location sighs beneath glum bank buildings like Encino eateries often do, with a massive gravel-and-pavement patio. Inside it's as airy as the day, predominantly blue and cream with a silvery tin ceiling overhead. They seem to know most of the folks who come in here.
Naturally I gravitate toward any dish called Latino Heat. This does not (necessarily) reflect my typical clubgoing pursuits.
This is a scrambled affair, but as I also am attracted to any option that says "make it a burrito," I do. It's packed with spicy, rich turkey sausage and a coat of sharp cheddar, and not quite enough jalapeño peppers to make it threatening. It's a hot and velvety jumble of yellow and russet yet holds itself together. A side dish of sour cream, melty avocado slices and pico de gallo waits patiently.
This is the Quesadilla O'Groats. What makes this a "huh!" creation is the much-lauded biscuit dough tortilla, which makes it less papery and more pitalike; pleasantly dappled with griddle marks with a buttery sheen, it's layered with steamed spinach, mushrooms, black beans, and is spot-welded by sharp cheddar.
While the vegetarian Qo'G is noteworthy, they make a dangerously good Corned Beef Hash here, a perfect pink-and-beige balance of salty chopped meat and mouth-filling potatoes.
Get this as a communal dish for the table; it's not greasy as might be expected, but it carries a real risk of post-brunch tummy-holding because you've eaten too much.
While John O'Groats is beloved for breakfast, do not, despite your tummy-holding, neglect lunch. On a lighter day I like the personality-laden Tostada Marie, where a crunchy-thin biscuit dough tortilla is piled with layers of warmth and coolness, with no one element bossing the others around. Home fries, chopped Gardenburger, spinach, salsa and cheddar are saturated with the juice of black beans, with the crepe-like sweetness of the tortilla adding interest.
The Encino location has a large parking lot in back with lots of grumpy bank-customers-only signage, but it is relaxed on evenings and weekends.
* A little detective work here, if only because the restaurant's website won't explain it: the road sign-cum-coat rack is a replica of the one at the very tippy-top right point of Scotland, in the village of John o'Groats. Conversely, Land's End is on the very bottom left of the Cornish peninsula, so the two are about as far apart in the UK as you can get. Dining in L.A., folks, is where you turn for party trivia.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, The Valley, Mid-City/Crenshaw/Jefferson Park )
Not far from where Bianca grew up, the neighborhood of Jefferson Park had a heavy Creole influence back in the '50s, since dwindled to a few fish markets and sausage makers. Harold & Belle's came about in 1969 and remains a cultural locus.
The interior is elegantly airy with textured damask wallpaper, black chairs and an expanse of white cloth. The menu needs only a few pages. There are a few soul-inflected offerings like fried chicken, steak and crab cakes, but you probably shouldn't bother with these. Concentrate on what you are looking for when jonesing for Creole: jambalaya, gumbo, poboys, red beans and rice.
The service is friendly and crisp. Food and drink orders arrive in overwhelming succession: from behind you a waiter will bark, "Excyuse meh! I have here an order of filé gumbo?", reducing potential confusion to nil while you clatter dishes around to make room.
Speaking of Filé Gumbo, I knew there was meant to be a collage of ample ingredients, but there is a lot going on here: a single chicken wing, sodden with juice and falling apart. Cylinders of smoked beef sausage, intensely soft and moist, from Pete's Louisiana Hot Links down the street.
And crab, I cannot help but see. Soft-shelled and clicky and requiring some dexterity, the crab is less a source of meat than a lender of its essence to the gumbo. Oh, and shrimp. And ham. All merged in a deep, dirty, divine roux that might be the jus of the gods. A mound of just-sticky-enough steamed rice provides some absorption.
This is a small order, by the way.
For a main course--for I am foolish enough to have both the gumbo and a main course--the Shrimp and Crawfish Étoufée is a robust swamp of richly spicy crawfish gravy. Thick curls of shrimp are firm and springy, and the tiny, fiercely red-striped crawfish tails are luscious.
There is a heavy-handedness with the gravy, which leaves less texture to enjoy, but it's not like you aren't going to keep forking it into your mouth with rice until you reach the point of regret.
The Seafood Platter, aside from being an art piece, is a collection of breaded abandon, and not for the single diner. Fillets of red snapper are tender enough so that only their scratchy exterior holds them together. Shrimp and oysters are also fried, all heaped atop a highly effective platform of buttered bread. So much battered seafood gets to be a little much, but the tartar and cocktail sauces make this less of a hardship. The oysters are the best part of this dish.
Naturally in an eatery of New Orleans descent, we try the Hurricanes. These are fairly bitey and valiant, and will help keep you in your seat, but you will need two to induce that familiar lurching-along-Bourbon-Street feeling you want to recapture.
We are of course rendered useless afterward, chatting peacefully in an unconcerned euphoria, without a hope of trying dessert.
Harold & Belle's leans toward the pricy, most of its dinner items lingering in the twenty-dollar range. They're open every day until 9, until 10 on Fridays and Saturdays, and have valet.
Many sleepy thanks to Tuesday and Christian, who via the latter's birthday offered us a perfect opportunity to finally make it down here.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Cajun/Creole, Mid-City/Crenshaw/Jefferson Park )
On the next occasion where it happens to be a perfect Southern California day, and you're moseying along the unpolished lower stretch of Venice, past vendors of jewelry, art, love, and hemp artifacts, past examples of the ripped and the haggard, dodging rollerskates and peeking into freak shows, and you come across the red-and-white awning, take a break and get in line at the door.
There is a bar inside, noisy and neoned and pool-tabled, but your focus is to smell the ocean air a little longer, so you wait for a table on the patio, under arches and columns with bas-relief faces looking bemusedly downward.
It isn't that the Sidewalk Café is a swirling tidepool of culinary brilliance and innovation. It's that it's an icon, sprouting from the fabulously literate and independent Small World Books next door. The building dates back to the Abbot Kinney days, replete with bootlegger tunnels and beatnik artist studios. Kerouac crashed here, I believe.
They are, however, well-versed in their alcohol. They serve greyhounds here! Grapefruit juice and gin, in a lowball glass. Also try the Mississippi Mimosa, which adds a touch of Triple Sec to the champagne and OJ. For our late-afternoon purposes, however, Bianca and I like the Sidewalk Summer Tea: sweet tea and lemonade. And vodka. You'll need two pairs of these to get properly on the road* to toasted.
Bianca: I feel like I should be fanning myself on the veranda.
There's lots of habitual bar food, normally a beery afterthought in other joints. The Grilled Cajun Shrimp Skewers, despite their trendy name, are good, firm and snappy and fingertip-staining, riotous with herb butter and a paper tub of vinegary, Tabascoan red pepper sauce. They aren't large or many, so consider two.
Also in the realm of the familiar is the Calamari Basket, brittle puffs of amber, with a chunky tartar sauce that Bianca lets me have because she dislikes tartar sauce, and also... kids, let me tell you about a concoction called cocktail sauce, and how we adults love it so, while laughing over our martinis. It's a classic, horseradishy enough to bring memories of Mom and Dad's parties.
The Café keeps its literary roots, and names its Bookshelf Sandwiches for books and authors, a theme of which I always approve: you can get the Hemingway, the Odyssey, the Thesaurus, the Larry McMurtry, et al.
Since I recently reread Slaughterhouse-Five** I zero in on the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It's a fine mess, a California-style burger with a superb bite, not nearly enough bean chili (So it goes), a schmear of thousand-island, onions and cheese. You get the sense that this taste, this intellectually escapist vibe, would have been the same fifty years ago. The fries next to everything you get can be big-plank style or a thin, seasoned heap.
It's still late afternoon and we're still working a quartet of Summer Teas through our systems, so I get a slice of Key Lime Pie. It's not pretty. It's messy and unkempt, just like an ideal Venice lifestyle; thankfully it's banana-yellow instead of green, and sour as a spinster aunt, causing our tongues to bang around dingdingding like a pinball machine.
Try the Sidewalk Café as the sun dips behind the ugly cement bunkers into the Pacific. You'll remember why you're here.
* No, that wasn't a Kerouac reference. Or was it?
** I would totally try a sandwich called the Kilgore Trout.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Pizza, Santa Monica/Culver City, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs, Seafood )
This is pretty much a deli counter tacked on to the Pavlovian-response treasure that is the Surfas Restaurant Supply. After wandering the aisles and telling yourself you do not need a four-bottle dispenser system nor a single blade mezzaluna, you dry your eyes and step into the brightly lit interior of the Cafe Surfas deli. Nice people work here. It's rather like Porta Via in demeanor, though smaller and without the impulse-buy jars of artisan mustard and wedges of cheese.
Not photographically imposing but a good start, the Black Bean soup is not the thick, moody affair you might be used to from Cuban restaurants but is more like a tortilla soup that has black beans in it. It's rather thin but fresh and vegetal; crispy finger-staining little cheese bread accompanies it.
Their flagship sandwich is Jorge's Chicken Sandwich. Jidori chicken and Nueske bacon are the most prominent champions here; the chicken is super tasty and tender, the bacon fairly limber and cooperative rather than crispy. White cheddar, baby arugula, red onion, tomato are soft-voiced, slowly turning green with the cilantro avocado spread. Lots of napkin work is required.
Besides meeting my coworker Adam for lunch, one of my current triggers for driving clear across town is the Kurobuta Ham Panini. The bread is toasted hard with a snappy crust, which I normally avoid but is brilliantly sour and tasty. Its interior is softened by a thin spread of quietly confident homemade chutney, and it's a good platform for the black pork. The ham, true to its name, is robust and pink and dark and marbled and ever-so-slightly briny. White cheddar pulls and drapes and makes everything even nicer.
They do salads, of course, and put everything into crisp, recycled-looking to-go boxes.
To drink I like their Blueberry Lemonade, but they also make a dandy, strongly chocolatey iced mocha.
Outside the warehouse and the deli counter is a pleasant outdoor patio with strains of classic rock. Surfas has a good-sized parking lot, the easier to stagger to your car with your Hamilton Beach Triple Spindle Malt Mixer.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Bakery/Patisserie, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts, Santa Monica/Culver City, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
Our ritual: after achieving tonsorial brilliance for Bianca at Static Salon (ask for Tony), we walk hand in hand along Melrose to grab brunch from Blu Jam. It's smack in the heart of Melrose's Shopping District, where an expensive footwear shop or a tattoo and piercing parlor is a stone's throw in any direction.
Named after the location's historical identity as a blues and jazz club--not a stylized fruit spread--Blu Jam emits a typically high-end coffee haus demeanor with an experienced kitchen. The claustrophobic sidewalk area is a jumble of umbrellas; the interior has a wall of brick, benches of blond wood, soaring log cabin ceiling beams, and inoffensive classic rock. You will invariably be seated by a pair of complainy white girls on your left and a trio of guffawing dudes on the right.
The Homemade Vegan Split Pea Soup is our current favorite comfort liquid, a pear-hued purée sweetened by the freshness of the peas. Herb-crusted croutons retain a deafeningly crunchy aspect. The Potato Leek soup is more earthy and very nearly as good. Note the newly color-conditioned and blown-out Bianca enjoying the last of her soup.
A Veggie Heaven Wrap, also vegan, sounds like a typically halfhearted attempt to cater to those with the audacity not to eat meat, but it's nicely constructed for such simplicity. Chopped veggies--carrot, zucchini, bean sprouts, lettuce, cherry tomato, avocado, mint--all play well together and share secrets with a drippy balsamic vinaigrette, in a grilled flour tortilla. Bink gets this with fruit on the side.
The Power House breakfast is not the desperate, expressionless, "sigh, at least it's low-carb, right?" health-minded breakfast typically available at other cafes (Eat Well, I'm looking at you). It's a brawny pair of firmly flame-broiled chicken breasts, heaped on six egg whites beaten into tofu-like density and striated with green, green spinach.
The best part of this is the sautéed cherry tomatoes and basil, which collapses nearly into a marinara faint. The tomato flavor is wonderfully dominating, and a couple of shakes of Cholula make my midmorning.
Like a plate of chilaquiles on a motorbike to Hell, the Migas has a sassy kick but not as tempestuous as the menu suggests. Bell peppers, eggs, disappearing bits of beef chorizo sausage, and the ever-present cherry tomato halves are clustered with tortilla chips. The effect is totally ungreasy, although I wouldn't have minded if it was.
With this mess is a jumble of crispy Red Potatoes, diced and rendered until crunchy french-frian ends are infused with the potatoness.
Blu Jam is known for their Brioche French Toast, the Crunchy version of which is rolled in cornflakes and maybe blessed by a priest before serving. It's not quite the crunchfest of Jinky's Cafe, nor the padded comfort of Fred 62's Bearded Mr. Frenchy, but it's cushy inside and fulfilling.
They're mostly a breakfast/brunch/late lunch affair until the early evening, and each server is sweeter and friendlier than the next. The coffee is good, real good, with artful baristan touches when foam is present.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Hollywood, Vegetarian/Vegan, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts )
The decor, being so design-minded, sparked our fears of chainy ownership*, with its clean black booths, to-be-expected corrugated metal, and aquamarine ceiling fans that don't turn quite quickly enough. The red walls are spanned with prints of vintage crate labels with uneasy historical references. Your table will have a bucket with hot sauces (try especially the mossy-colored Louisiana Gem jalapeño sauce on everything).
Bourbon Street Shrimp obviously has an interest in bringing in the crowd that wants its sports and its happy hour specials, and attempting a dinner on a busy night will probably prompt an irritable Yelp review. On an empty Sunday, though, it's good times. The kitchen has more time to give some love to its pub-food-inflected Cajun menu.
The five-dollar Hurricanes are dressed up like pink lemonade with a switchblade hidden under the skirt. They're kicky, and you'll notice that they get empty real fast... wow! Gee whiz! I suppose the car will stay where it is for a bit, because I'm feeling like NOLA, tipsy before twelve-thirty.
The only problem with the half-dozen Blackened Shrimp appetizer is that you didn't order the full dozen. They're finger-dusting and habit-forming. The cocktail sauce is good, not gaggy, and there's a creamy pink aioli sauce which is great to keep around for french-fry dipping. Need moar of this.
Rather than a safe-as-houses jambalaya or gumbo, I always check out an étouffée to see if the kitchen knows its acute e's.
The roux is impressively thick, deep like a brown curry, and sticks to the rice. Onions, spices, peppers and tomato cavort around the shrimp like a bacchanalia. It's a big dish.
The Buffalo Fish sandwich is a fun departure. These fish used to be hunted on the plains for their hides, apparently, and this version is lightly fluffed, drippy and gorgeous despite the American cheese failing to melt on top.
Bianca: This is stoopid with two o's.
What is it about this species of food that we eat far too much? We're full. We don't need dessert. We won't order it. Let's just go and walk this off.
Homemade Bread Pudding. They took liberties with this performance; with a moat of caramel sauce, it's more like a flan than a crumbled, bready, raisiny mess one is used to, coupled with some friendly French vanilla ice cream.
Bianca: I'll be under the table. Then I want to go grab the chef, shake him, and yell, are you kidding me?!
Dave: I want to sleep on this like a number bed.
There are lots of daily drink specials, happy hour shenanigans, and colorfully chalked boards with discounts: $4 pints of Newcastle or Sapporo, 2-for-1 margaritas and well drinks, et cetera.
There's a side lot with valet, and metered street parking.
* However, there was only one other location, on the disinterested western end of Melrose, which has since been replaced by some annoyingly one-word-titled eatery.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), West Side/West Hollywood, American, Santa Monica/Culver City, Cajun/Creole )