Smoke over the Aegean
17068 Devonshire St. (west of Balboa, in Northridge)
Phone: 818-366-7573 | map
Why Ocean? Well, it's Mediterranean, and that's about as much explanation as I can offer, and it doesn't matter. It's got its culinary and social head together.
It isn't as confusing as people seem to think; turn into the driveway between Ocean Cafe and Lakeshore Learning Materials, park in the expansive lot in back, and enter in the rear of the building.
The interior is quite nice--butterscotch walls with ornate curtains and a chrome thicket of hookah necks, a banquet hall with a dancefloor--and you might admire it as you pass through all the way up to the front to the big covered patio. It's nicer and breezier, Devonshire isn't that loud, and you won't hear the music blaring inside.
They are attentive with the coals here, bringing red shards to tong atop the tinfoiled shisha bowl. The flavors are well-mixed, subtle yet buzzy. The tall, clean-shirted young man named Mimo will come by to make sure your evening is pleasant.
It's more of a restaurant that has hookah rather than a hookah joint that has food; too often the kitchen of a hookah place is an afterthought, offering hackingly dry koobideh or some familiar fries with dipping sauces, but Ocean's Mediterranean heart comes through.
Small plates will quickly fill every centimeter of your table. Hummus, of course, and labne, a thick, yogurty cream cheese, milk-white and sweet, bookend your appetizers.
I'm hooked on the kibbeh, four lemon-shaped spheroids of bulgur fried golden brown and bubbly; they're juice-saturated with ground beef, browned pine nuts and a wriggle of citrus, and really moist, on par with Skaf's Lebanese in Glendale. I think these will be a habit when coming here. The kibbeh? Yeah, we'll get the kibbeh.
The grape leaves are also deliciously finger-wetting, the leaves holding a thick finger of rice, almost risotto in consistency.
The makanek is fun occasionally, near-black Lebanese sausagettes, dry and scratchy in deameanor but benefiting from a squeeze of lemon or a swipe through some tabbouleh, itself a chopped wet heap of parsley, cucumber, tomato and olive oil without any bulgur.
Intended for large, hungry parties commanding enough tables to accomodate all the plates, there is a honking big platter with six skewers, resting above a mound of short-grain, fluffy rice and beneath curls of white onion and sprinkles of parsley.
The beef is the fight-over feature of this shared experience, aggressively done, browned through but juicy and toothsome. The char is wonderfully crunchy, the rub widely seasoned with a pleasant spice that awakens a few minutes later. The chicken is at the same level of quality, the full flavor of the fowl pulled forth by the grill. Both are as refreshingly moist as everything else. The kafta is quite good but not the champion of the three, blackened and gamy in a good way, threaded with green spices and less heartburn-prone than many koobidehs and bargs I've sampled elsewhere.
It can be as expensive as you want it to be, but we tend to congregate with good friends over beers and a flotilla of plates and a hookah, so we live it up a bit.
Many thanks to Doug and Rosina for introducing us.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), The Valley, Armenian, Greek, Lebanese )
Ford's Filling Station is a deceptively workaday name for a high-end creative menu. We can banter buzzwords like gastropub and hyphenated labels like California-Mediterranean around all day, and Ben Ford is already a Google-worthy name among L.A. entrepreneurs, so we'll cut through all that and talk about dinner.
To drink we get a couple of Summer Slaps, and not the kind you might get when you proposition Miss Lula Mae at the church luncheon. These are concoctions of sweet tea vodka (yes, there really is such a thing), 10 Cane rum, and lemonade; the taste is somewhat like a Long Island Iced Tea but rummier, and oddly grapefruity. We like them, and carefully don't drink more than one each, because despite the svelte glass they come in, they're forceful.
We have been experiencing some damned tasty potato soups lately, and so far this is king. (Bianca: "French. Fry. Soup!") This has a roasty flavor, with half-inch cubes of crisp potato, topped by a green swirl of leek oil and chive cream. Grab one of the hard little buttery torpedoes of bread they bring you, and dip it into this.
There are some savory-looking meat, cheese and flatbread samplers that we must see to later (probably with two or three companions), but it's dinnertime. We cannot say no to this, however. The Macaroni and Cheese is a bed of heat, lightly breaded and just past al dente; Fresno chili adds no color but a little zing.
See that darkened bit on the left? That's not char, that's ham hock, dear friends, and it permeates the entire dish. Soul food purists beware--ham hock traditionally belongs in your greens--but it's devastatingly good.
Mr. Ford has put some eyebrow-raising yet fantastic combinations together onto large white plates. It might look dubious in the wrong light, but sweet Unforgiving Lord of Saucy Revelation, the Trenne Pasta is luxurious. The aptly-named triangular tubes are great for sweeping up the tremendously gentle yet sturdy sauce, with three chili pepper relish, roasted pepitas (pumpkin or squash seeds), a few shreds of spicy greens, and--this is the eyebrow-raising part--absurdly tender pulled pork.
Pulled pork in my pasta? I'd never thought of that, but it's an energetic yea from this corner, sir. Every bite is soaked with flavor and forces the closing of one's eyes to contemplate. This is a mighty dish.
Not to be outdone, this too looks like a tumbleweed-caused auto wreck, but it's Polenta Cake. Surrounded by mushrooms and well-sautéed pearl onions, and topped by a frazzled nest of spring salad, the cake is muffin-soft, soaked in an almost beeflike richness. Truffle mascarpone cheese slowly melts through as if aware of its own preposterousness.
We manage dessert. There is a Jack and Coke: cola cake with Jack Daniels ice cream. Jack and Coke? We must know. You remember those peppy ads from the '50s urging you to bake with 7-Up? The effect is more subtle here; it only appears in the finish. If you weren't told what it was, you might think it a fine vanilla bean ice cream and shiny chocolate sponge cake with a bit of excitability, but scratch your head wondering where that vaguely syrupy, oaky, maple undertone was coming from.
Ford's can be spendy. The Summer Slap comes in at twelve bucks, the outrageousness of which is arguable here in Los Angeles. Dinner can reach as high as an omakase sushi dinner if you try a few different things and have some drinks, but the sheer skill shown here, complexity without complication, is well worth it.
And hey: did you know Ben Ford's dad is named Harrison? Yeah, that one.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Santa Monica/Culver City, Greek )
Local pizza, Boston style
1504 W. Glenoaks Blvd. (southwest of Western, in Glendale)
Phone: 818-242-1744 | map
A local hole in the wall if you ever saw one: faux brick, Bud on tap, Little League sponsor plaques, rickety steel napkin dispensers which you will use often.
It's Greek/Boston style, which I venture to guess means that the crust is thin, rises high on the sides, is crunchy-soft almost like a pastry, and baked in a pan. I like it almost as much as a New York Neapolitan pie.
I always like to try a pepperoni and sausage, to see how a pizzeria does both. The pizza is even-handed on the sauce, with a solid tundra of melted cheese. The sausages are spicy spheres of joy, the pepperoni typically curled. Despite being bolstered by olive oil, the grease level is high, so can be perilous to tender tummies; to soak up some of the orange stuff, some paper towel dabbing may be in order.
I am elated that the garlic bread is not those sad, soggy little foil-wrapped afterthoughts of which so many pizza joints are guilty. Rather, for a mere buck-seventy-five you get a big honking half-loaf, slightly singed around the edges, of a rusty nuclear orange.
Other things: the Chicken Parmesan Sandwich is hearty and pillowy, the breading very light. The chicken is almost lost inside the red sauce, blanket of cheese, and the thick and crunchy Italian roll. It's fair enough but doesn't generate a desire for dopamine-gland-triggering like the pizza will.
Parking is a small lot, so can be quiet or impossible. Mondays are light around lunchtime, while Fridays are horrid around two.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Pizza, Greek )
Aroma. It's not the first choice I'd pick for a name, since there is a glut of trendy one-word eatery names* like Eat, Taste, Chops, Dish, Bones, Chomp, et cetera, and you'd hate to have to answer the question, "wait, which Aroma? The one on Sunset, the other one on Sunset, the coffee place in Burbank, the one in Alameda, the one in Buena Park, or the one in the Valley?"
This particular Aroma is an Israeli-style bakery, the original location for which is in Encino. The Sunset location tends toward a more skilled kitchen, a more vain clientele with a greater likelihood of complaining about a recent audition, slower service, and more fully deserving of the price tag.
Anyway. The menu is spiral-bound, daunting, full of many dozens of possibilities, and not terribly concerned with labeling or organization**. Drinks and desserts have their own menu. Go through all this carefully, pick a few appetizers, and relax outside on the firepit-dotted smoking patio, listening to Sunset roar by.
Appetizers! I think. It's hard to tell. But I can recommend the Avocado Egg Rolls (hot and perfectly crunchy with sweet cilantro and teriyaki sauces), and the Eggplant Rolls (rolled up with pesto and goat cheese and fried, which makes for an oddly uncrispy texture if you're not ready for it but an excellent flavor if you like eggplant) served with a tomato-basil sauce.
To eat there's a lot of yummy-looking photos on the menu. The Home Run is a tortilla wrap, packed with Mexican turkey breast, hard-boiled egg, and a burny hot sauce, with a heavy tang of black olive. There's also a Salmon-filled Phyllo Dough plate, flaky and sesame-dotted, accompanied by salad or mashed potatoes and a pesto sauce. There's also plenty of veggie sandwich & panini options, pastas, salads, and offers to sell you bridges.
There's a parking lot, which may or may not be persistently valet-controlled, and street parking if you're attentive to signage.
Welcome to 2009, by the way!
* How about we go into single-word overload? How about Grub? Bite? Nom? Piehole? Gastrowhore? Cuizzical? Masticate, Cooked, Yummers, Toothsome, Growly, Kisser, Puss? Contact me if you want to buy any of these.
** It is, if I dare make the comparison, rather like Cheesecake Factory's menu, in that it has a "what the %$#@! am I going to pick to eat?" factor, just without all the advertisements for property ownership and liposuction. Let's look at it this way: if you download the menu from their website, it's 23 megs.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Deli, Hollywood, Bakery/Patisserie, Vegetarian/Vegan, Coffee/Tea/Desserts, Greek, Israeli/Kosher )
Glendale is a haven for Armenian food as it is, so there is a good deal of competition. For me, especially with the Greek influence, Elena's beats many of them hollow.
It's a humble building; the floor noticeably slants toward the street, there are murals on the walls depicting Mediterranean harbors and Greek mythology (think laurel-clad maidens draped over bulls in the clouds). The tablecloths are vinyl, tan and marble-striped. Greek music plaintively strums, sways and pleads overhead. You can see through a door to where their paperwork takes place. Soap operas play on the small TV overhead. It has the comfortable feeling of a restaurant that was once a house.
The women bustling about with motherly smiles on their faces might as well be my own kin, although I am not at all Greek nor Armenian. They make me feel at home, quickly placing a basket of pita bread and neon-pink pickled cabbage before me. The small crock of fakes lentil soup, while thin, is lemony and full of all kinds of taste. The basic salad is a quarter wedge of iceberg with sweet onions and a vinaigrette. All this is nice.
What blows my mind is the 1/2 Chicken 1/2 Lamb plate. Fan. Tastic. Both meats are slightly charred around the edges in that way I like, juicy and epiphany-causing. Even the rice, yellow and wonderfully Greek, is wonderful: moist and full and likely cooked in chicken broth. The dish comes with sliced sweet onion and grilled tomato and green pepper (probably an Anaheim chile).
Elena's also has gyros, of course, stacked in thick heavenly wedges rather than brittle shavings. The tzatziki (the white yogurt/cucumber stuff) is also thick, almost potato-saladesque in consistency. There is baklava and Armenian coffee to finish me off.
Parking can be had at the nearby church on most days; otherwise you can find something on the residential streets.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Armenian, Greek )