Saturday, July 31, 2010

C&O Cucina, Mama Mia!

To sum up the reasons why I find myself drawn back to C and O Cucina like a junkie to their dealer every time I am anywhere near Marina Del Rey, I only need five words:  "Garlic balls" and "Linguini with Lobster". 

C and O Cucina has caused me to break several of my cardinal rules - Try as Many New Places as Possible (nixed whenever I am in MDR);  Taste as Many New Dishes as Possible (nixed whenever I am at C and O).  Pretentious haute cuisine is not what C and O's is all about - it's proud to be an exceptionally good mid-tier restaurant, and they definitely have me hooked as one of my favorite places to go for a reliably great, hearty meal - and insanely good garlic balls - without breaking the bank.  And I love that we can stop by, after just throwing on a simple top and skirt over our beach gear, after an afternoon at nearby Playa del Rey (which by the way has an awesome beach - far less tourist-jammed than Santa Monica and much easier to get to, just off the 90 freeway and Culver Blvd).

Garlic Rolls (FREE and all you can eat!!!!)
So back to the food - C and O can churn out the garlic rolls they are famous for, like nobody's business...knots of steaming hot, fluffy bread with a golden, crunchy crust, saturated in olive oil, and covered in chopped garlic and basil/parsley...and this is all given to you by servers dedicated to delivering these little bundles of joy from the time you are seated, to your drowsy, pre-food coma exit, as an endless plate (read: free and all you can eat)!!!
As if this weren't enough, they also offer most pasta dishes at "gargantuan" portions - translation:  massive bowl enough to feed a small country.  Typically, you can 'supersize' your pasta dish at just $4-$6 more than the price of the regular portion.  As a foodie on a budget, I trully appreciate the generosity of this offer, and the fact that I can take home pasta that will then last me for 2 more days' worth of meals (and the food stands up to reheating!) is...molto belissimo.

Linguini with Lobster ($16.95 regular,
$22.95 gargantuan - off menu)
So - onto the dish that is like 'crack' to me - Linguini with Lobster ($16.95 regular) - slipper lobster tails, roasted portobello mushrooms, asparagus tips, roma tomatoes and linguini in brandied lobster cream sauce.  Again, Michelin-star quality cuisine this is not, but it IS incredibly good for a mid-tier restaurant and a meal that will actually fill you without causing you to get behind on your mortgage.  You can get this dish in gargantuan size as well for $22.95 - but it's not noted on the menu, so you have to ask - and if your server is not familiar with this, ask them to double check with the manager, as we've done this 4-5 times now without issue.

My friends who are also regulars at C and O, love to order the Rigatoni al Forno ($13.50 regular, $19.50 gargantuan) - baked rigatoni with bolognese sauce, pureed spinach and ricotta cheese topped with melted mozzarella and sprig of rosemary for garnish.

C and O Cucina has a sister restaurant, C and O Trattoria, which has much more of a 'scene' - likely due to its location along a row of bars and restaurants at the pier in Marina Del Rey.  There are always big crowds lining up for a table at dinner time there, of couples and groups running the spectrum, from tourists in casual garb, to locals dressed for an evening out, to VIPs arriving in hummer limos.  You can finish a nice leisurely three-course meal at C and O Cucina, in the time that it takes to reach the host, just to get your name in, at C and O Trattoria.  But it depends on your itinerary for the night - if you want to fill up before hitting the bars on foot to avoid driving in LA traffic, C and O Trattoria might be ideal for you - if you have the patience to wait (outside - there is bench seating only enough for two - other misfortunates have to literally stand in line) 30 minutes to an hour, among large and boisterous crowds, for a table.  I personally do not, so I cannot attest personally to the quality of food and service at that location either.

As for C and O Cucina, though I have personally had great experiences in all aspects - in the spirit of full disclosure, a close friend whose opinion I trust has said that their pesto is not quite up to par - it's made of spinach instead of basil, and just doesn't taste quite right.  That said, I fully endorse the Linguini with Lobster and of course, the garlic balls! 

Molten Chocolate Cake ($6.95 regularly -
but $0.01 for us with coupon, and $40 dinner for three!)
 C and O also has great special deals from time to time.  Sign up at the restaurant's website, or fill out a guest card after your first visit to receive emailed offers - the one we most recently received (and happily used) was "1 cent dessert" (with minimum $40 food order).  That brings up an important point about the customer service at C and O - on our most recent visit, I happened to forget my printout of the coupon - but my friend had an image of the coupon on her camera and the manager was kind enough to honor the coupon based on the electronic image! 

So, to summarize at greater length than at the start of this post - I absolutely love that on top of good food at great prices, C and O understands the meaning of true hospitality and the importance of friendly, accommodating service as well - keep up the great work, and this is one of many diners who will definitely keep coming back!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience - 5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%


C and O Cucina
3016 Washington Boulevard
Marina Del Rey, CA 90292
Ph: 310.301.7278

C & O Cucina on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 26, 2010

Aroma Cafe - Midday Getaway

Tucked away amongst quaint boutique shops and restaurants in Studio City, Aroma Cafe is a not-so-hidden neighborhood gem that quickly converts every visitor who sets foot into the place, into a regular. 

The small strech of Tujunga Avenue on which Aroma Cafe  sits is like a calming oasis in the culinary desert of the San Fernando Valley.   Its leisurely-paced foot traffic, set against the backdrop of tree-lined suburban sprawl, and customers whose biggest concern seem to be where to kick back with a latte while on a two hour break from walking their dog - is a stark contrast to the tourist-jammed tween/teen mecca of lights, sound and fury that is Universal Studios just 5 minutes' drive away.

A large part of Aroma Cafe's charm lies in its fluid, eclectic layout and dining areas - as well as its delectable culinary and adorable gift/stationery offerings.  A few tables, padded wooden bench and planter line the entrance to the cafe - stepping inside, you will find a cute counter filled with mouth-watering pastries and pies, topped by tiered displays and jars of freshly baked cookies and sweets.  Ceramic bowls filled with greens and savory treats also abound. 

Small tables housing fragrant bags of coffee or handcrafted cookies shipped from artisan roasters or bakers from the pacific northwest round out the area around the front store window and provide points of interest for those waiting in the long lines at lunchtime.
Be prepared for at least a 10 minute wait at weekday lunch, and 15 minutes on weekends, just to reach the counter to place your order - it's a whole other challenge, after getting your number placard from the cashier, to find a table (the server then has to locate you by said number placard in order to bring you your food).

As far as seating goes, there is something for everyone:  for the office worker looking for a quick fix on a schedule, there are rows of elevated tables and barstools just opposite the counter, in the main front of store area.
For those who can afford a slightly more leisurely lunch, but wishes to stay out of the California sun (blasphemy!) which can be intense at midday, there are just a few tables set indoors along the passageway through a gift/stationery store that is nestled in the middle of the cafe.  If you can make it past the cute trinkets and handmade cards in the store area, you will not be able to stop yourself from taking in a breath as you step outside into the 'backyard' area - greeted first by the soothing sounds of elegantly placed water fountains, then soft sunlight floating through spaces between patio umbrellas - and the occasional friendly squirrel running along the wooden picket fence - one can't help but be charmed by this amazing little place that feels like a mini vacation in the middle of your day.  (I was unfortunately on a lunch break with a co-worker - but we were both severely tempted to just stay at this idyllic hideaway for the rest of the day!)  The backyard patio is great for people watching as well - there are all species of industry types here, but thankfully not of the obnoxious sort - you might see screenwriters quietly discussing their scripts with production execs, or the occasional B or C list star (on this specific day, I passed by 'one of those brunette chicks' from Gossip Girl!) - all seem to have an unspoken respect for their surroundings and other diners, and maintain a very peaceful, laid back, cell-phone free environment.

So, have I raved (at uncharacteristic length!) enough about the ambience yet? ;P  Time to move onto the food, which I am extremely happy to report, is equally praise-worthy!
It was tough for me to narrow down just one dish from the extensive menu - which alone would merit a week-long diatribe - but I will spare you the pain of a post that spans the length of the site - suffice it to say I felt like I was going to get whiplash, with my eyes excitedly hurtling back and forth between pages filled with words like "kobe bleu burger", "crab cake sandwich...applewood smoked bacon", "proscuitto and eggs panini melt" and "shrimp and lobster omelette".  After what seemed like hours of painful indecision, I finally choose to go with the Lobster Club sandwich ($13.95) - heaven on a toasted brioche, with fresh maine lobster, romaine leaves, vine-ripened tomatoes, and applewood smoked bacon with an ancho aioli...AND fries (you are given a choice of style - I went for curly)!

Of course, being afterall a cafe, there is also an extended list of coffees, teas and other handcrafted drinks on the menu.  I went against the grain and opted for a bottle of Orangina, so that I can blow my quota for sweets all on the Chocolate Chip Cheesecake ($4.95), which had me salivating on sight.  This was no ordinary cheesecake - it is at once both fluffy and creamy, light yet filling - perfectly proportioned with a crunchy dark cookie crumb crust, filled with smooth, creamy cheese center, topped by perfectly airy whipped cream, and taking it over the edge with a dusting of miniature chocolate chips.  I still have dreams about this cake, days after the first taste.

On later (more leisurely weekend brunch - breakfast items served til 2:30pm) visits, I have had the Peanut Butter Chocolate Mousse Pie (also excellent, but very rich as you would expect - I preferred the Chocolate Chip Cheesecake over this PB one), and a Shrimp & Lobster Omelette ($13.95) with black tiger shrimp, chunks of maine lobster, spinach, vine-ripened tomatoes, topped with chardonnay dill hollandiase sauce served with very flavorful roasted rosemary potatoes and choice of toast (I chose olive bread, which was awesome).  It may be a $14 omelette, but well worth every penny as they don't skimp on the shrimp and lobster - both come in fairly large chunks and taste fresh - the size of the omelette itself was big as well, and makes for a filling meal - I actually couldn't finish the potatoes and toast even though I wanted to scarf down every last morsel! 

Their Salmon Stack ($13.95) is another great breakfast item - a creative twist on classic eggs benedict, this dish features two potato pancakes (instead of English muffins) stacked with smoked salmon, two poached eggs, and asparagus topped with dill chardonnay hollandaise sauce.  All served with a side of fruit.  Though definitely above average, the eggs were a bit bland with just a little too much white, and the potato pancakes could have been a bit crisper and hotter - it is the Shrimp and Lobster Omelette that truly haunts my dreams. 
Though obviously their coffees and teas are excellent (love the macchiato) I've also tried the pineapple, mango, banana fruit smoothie with apple juice and loved it - it's not so thick that you feel like you should be eating it with a spoon, and the balanced sweetness tastes like it come from fruit rather than scoops of sugar - yum!

All-in-all, this is The Perfect spot for a laid back lunch / brunch with friends or your significant other - and has become one of my favorite spots to go on a sunny day in LA (well that was a redundant expression!).  This one, I almost selfishly didn't want to write about, to prevent crowds from overrunning the place more than they already have - but Aroma Cafe definitely deserves to be the talk of the town on every level - and I will be back for many, many more bites - calories be damned!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 4 bites
Ambience - 7 stars
Service - 5.5 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%


Aroma Coffee & Tea
4360 Tujunga Avenue
Studio City, CA 91604
Ph: 818.508.6505

Aroma Coffee & Tea on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 19, 2010

Meet for Moules Ten Ways

I'm a sucker for packaging, even of the virtual sort - so after perusing the photos on Meet's website, I was eager to test drive the dishes in person.  I also happened to have $25 worth of Dining Dough for the place, so with gift certificate in hand, my friend and I had our rendez vous at Meet for early dinner on a Sunday night. 

Based on the look and feel of the website, I was expecting a small, intimate yet sophisticated bistro.  What I saw when we arrived was 'cozy', alright - but at first I thought I had mistakenly gone to a pizzeria, or a mom & pop Italian eatery - with the restaurant's red and white checkered tablecloths and wooden chairs, and brick-focused decor.  We decided to sit in the outdoor patio, the better for people watching and less claustrophobic, for a balmy summer night in California (though the tables on the patio are still fairly close to each other - so that you can hear conversations at the tables next to you).  Brushing off first impressions of the decor, we were excited to see what savory treats the night would hold for us.

Having developed an addiction to beet salad after my recent euphoric experience at Magnolia, I decided to give Meet's Beets salad ($11.95) a try to see if it would give Magnolia's version a run for its money.  The description was straightforward, and lead to an expectation of a simple yet elegant and clean dish - "frisée, candied walnuts, warm goat cheese with honey champagne vinaigrette".  When the plate arrived, I must admit the presentation was not of the caliber advertised on the website - a tower of crudely stacked slabs of beets, two different colors, were topped by a pool of goat cheese (which congealed after sitting a few minutes untouched, since I was busy catching up with my friend).

For our entrees, we were both instantly captivated by the description of the Moulieres Meet ($18), mussels served in saffron broth with crab AND bacon.  Sounds like heaven, right?  This dish did not disappoint, arriving in a gigantic white ceramic bowl, with the mussels at just the right texture - soft, smooth and just slightly chewy, without any hard ridges - and a flavorful broth, with generous piles of crab and bacon that made it a very tasty and filling dish.  We were actually too full after this to get dessert (though the trio of profiteroles was tempting!)

My only other complaint about Meet is the service - while the waiters were very nice and friendly, and seemed to mean well - I asked for an Arnold Palmer when we sat down, and had to remind the waiter three times before they brought the drink over, which arrived halfway through my entree.  The place was small and definitely not at capacity, so it was a little disappointing that he simply forgot my drink order many times over.

All-in-all, not quite what I expected from a french bistro in the up and coming neighborhood of downtown Culver City - but not a bad deal for mussel lovers who want to explore variations on the classic Moulieres Marineres, and of course be sure to get your discount certificate from first for an even better bargain!

Update Aug 2011: All-You-Can-Eat Moules Frites - Wednesdays for $23.95!  All the delectable mussels you can eat in any or all of the different styles - now there are 12 (they added two). My favs are: Bisque (in lobster broth), Thai (curry broth that sounds questionable on the menu but is not spicy at all and incredibly flavorful), and Provencale - all of these are so delicious I could pick up the entire bowl to slurp the broth after the mussels are done.  You wouldn't see my face at all for 10 minutes.  One serving of fries per order. 

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites
Presentation - 4.5 bites
Originality - 4 bites
Ambience - 3 stars
Service - 4 stars
Overall experience - 4.5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 70%


9727 Culver Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232
Ph: 310.815.8222
OpenTable: Look for reservations

Meet Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Magnolia - Best Mac and Cheese / Beet Salad in LA

Deceptively simple, but abundantly satisfying - Mac and Cheese is a comfort food that brings out my not-so-well-hidden inner kid.  This is a dish that doesn't need to be complicated to be amazing - Magnolia understands this and has worked its magic to serve up a grown-up version that doesn't feel like it's trying too hard.
Magnolia's Baked Mac and Cheese ($10) has the perfect consistency and weight - thick enough to satisfy, but not so dense that it sinks to the pit of your stomach like a mushy anvil.  My favorite part of the dish - and in my humble opinion - the secret to its success, is in the top layer - Magnolia crisps the top layer of cheese, to offer an abfab combination of crunchy/crisp to creamy smooth in every spoonful.  The portion size is also just right - the Mac and Cheese with a salad is great for a light meal before catching the latest flick at the Arclight (more on that later) - this way I won't be in danger of falling into a food coma while trying to keep up with a movie!

Which brings me of course to the topic of my other favorite dish at Magnolia - the Beet and Avocado Salad ($11) - which consists of roasted multi-colored baby beets tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and roasted pistachios.  I have to start by saying that I am not a 'salad person' - and until recently, have been a bit of a snob about it:  where is the art in chopping and tossing a bunch of raw vegetables together?  But I quickly became a convert after two milestone tastings:  Petrossian's Foie Gras Haricots Verts, and Magnolia's Beet and Avocado salads.  The skill of the chef lies in his/her ability to select ingredients at their optimum state, that complement or bring out the best in each other in texture and taste, and include them at the right proportions.  The artistry reveals itself in the balance of colors, and the delicacy with which the chef casts brush strokes of flavor across the canvas of the plate.  In this case, all elements are picture perfect (though of course I get so intoxicated with this dish that I always forget to document it with a photo!).  The golden and red beets are at just the right consistency, and tossed in at perfect bite-sized pieces among the fresh mesclun.  The pistachios add a nice crunch, counterbalanced by the buttery creaminess of perfectly ripened avocado.  Have I already (over)used the word perfect to describe this salad?!!

My fellow diners will usually order the mac and cheese or a grilled artichoke as a starter and an organic homemade Turkey Burger ($12) - which they attest to being very tasty. Other entrees run from $16 (Market Vegetable Plate) to $28 (Steak Frites).

As I mentioned earlier, we do always end up grabbing a quick, light bite here before a movie at the Arclight Hollywood, which is just a block or so down the street - totally within walking distance (and you can conveniently park in the structure next to the theater!).  The Arclight is my favorite cinema chain - though I don't love the higher prices, it does tend to draw a less rowdy crowd - everyone here is of course willing to pay a bit more for a respectful environment where you can truly enjoy a movie without obnoxious phones going off, late-comers disrupting your view of the screen, or people who feel most comfortable conversing in the dark while everyone else is silent.  Magnolia fits in nicely with this theme - the atmosphere is 'relaxed upscale'.

The other perk of dining at Magnolia is that it is a great place for a "spot the star" game - though not a place frequented by A-listers, we've run into 'is that really...or just someone who looks like...' celebrities every time we've come in, from Gabriel Aubry (of Halle Berry baby daddy fame) to Topher Grace to David Henrie from Disney Channel. 

All these things combine to make Magnolia a great pit stop in a low-key night out in Hollywood - I highly recommend it!

On a 7 point scale:

Flavor - 6.5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience - 5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%

Magnolia Hollywood
6266 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028
Ph: 323.467.0660
OpenTable: Look for reservations

Magnolia on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pink Taco Hits the Spot

It's been much too long since my last post!  Been a busy summer for this blogger - will be spamming the site with all the reviews that have been backed up since June in the next few weeks!

Let's start with a fun one - Pink Taco.  Yes, the name on its own immediately makes you think of either a sleazy strip joint or porn palace - but is really a fairly unique concept bar/restaurant chain with a location in the very tame neighborhood of Century City.  In fact, the bar/restaurant sits on the top floor of Century City mall - so really, how crazy can it get?

We had a great girls' night out there on a Saturday in June.  Two of my girlfriends and I were looking for a fun, but not too crazy, night out.  We just wanted to have drinks in a fun environment, but not be at a place where you could see/feel sharks circling.  Pink Taco turned out to be the perfect spot to meet this objective - though most people wouldn't expect such a place to be part of a suburban mall.  From the minute we stepped through the gigantic medieval-castle-style wooden double doors, we felt like we were transported to another city - one perhaps inspired in equal parts by New Orleans, Mexico City and Las Vegas (the chain did in fact start within the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Vegas...).  
Shamelessly playing up the irreverent tongue-in-cheek (sorry, had to do it!) humor inherent in its name, Pink Taco's lobby houses a long wooden counter that serves as gift shop, so that the first thing you see when you step inside is a display of - what else? - thongs and panty sets emblazoned with the words "Pink Taco".

Next up is a bar area with saints-and-sinners themed decor including a Virgin Mary figure watching over all the alcohol-imbibing guests at the counter, and a giant red floor-to-ceiling Satan statue in a recessed wall off to the side.  The whole area is lit with a combination of christmas lights and fantastic wrought iron star-shaped lamps hanging overhead - plus a backlit wall of bottles in the center behind the bar. 

Moving further up and back into a platformed dining area, we were seated at a table in a section surrounded by patio-style wooden wall panels, decorated by an eclectic mix of rock n' roll and biker memorabilia.  There were large flat screen TVs hanging around the room, showing the latest sports games, perhaps to lend some comfort to guys who may have dared venture into this 'bar for women'. 

Charmed with the decor, we next turned our attention to taking care of our hunger pangs.  Pink Taco had quite a large menu  - of mainly mexican fare, with some items that featured some fun twist.  After quite a lengthy moment of indecision, we started off with the Pink Taco Platter ($24.95) - which consisted of two chicken skewers, two carne asada skewers, cheese quesadillas, guacomole, two corn tamales, hand battered rock shrimp and slow-roasted ribs.

For the main fare, there is a large selection of tacos and enchiladas.  I ordered the Seafood Enchiladas ($15.95) - menu offers your choice of shrimp or lobster (I got lobster, of course!) wrapped in corn tortillas, topped with brandy chipotle cream sauce, and served with side of rice and beans.  I don't like corn tortillas so I asked to substitute them for flour tortillas - the waitress warned me that flour tortillas may be too dry for the dish, but helped me to get the kitchen to make the switch anyway.  I think it turned out great, I didn't find it too dry at all.  The brandy chipotle cream sauce, like the restaurant, had spunky spirit - perhaps it was the chipotle that lent a little kick to its taste.  Though just slightly too salty and pungent, I thought the flavor was interesting and something that I have not experienced at any other mexican restaurant - so it got a thumbs up from me.

My only complaint for the night is that the Raspberry Mojito I ordered tasted like diluted cough syrup on ice, with a bitter aftertaste. 

Other than that, great "managed wild" night out with the girls in the 'burbs.

On a 7 point scale:

Flavor - 3.5 bites
Presentation - 3 bites
Originality - 2 bites
Ambience - 4.5 stars
Service - 4 stars
Overall experience - 4 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 90%

Pink Taco
10250 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067
Ph: 310.789.1000

Pink Taco on Urbanspoon


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