Paella has always grabbed me. Living in Miami in the 1970s, I ate a lot of it in Cuban restaurants, where it may not have been traditional Spanish paella but it was still a great dinner out to share. We don’t have many Spanish restaurants in San Francisco, but every Latin-American culture seems to make some version of the dish. Alas, I have never been to Spain, although I have tried my hand at recipes from Spanish cookbooks. And earlier this year I got a taste of chef Julian Serrano’s version of paella at his tapas restaurant at the Aria Resort in Las Vegas.
Last week, as the rest of us were settling into the Christmas spirit, a grumpy Beverly Hills restaurateur snapped a picture of Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila and asked her to leave, even before she was seated. Then he published her picture on the restaurant's website, since picked up by blogs and news media. The fallout has sparked a debate. Simply put, what difference does it make whether a restaurant critic can remain anonymous?
For someone who loves the simplicity and directness of Italian food, especially when it comes from a wood-fired oven and hearth, the problem with the menu at Cotogna is in narrowing down the choices. As a result, extra dishes can easily make a simple lunch into an impromptu banquet.
Cotogna is the long-awaited casual sister to Quince, the much-lauded restaurant steeped in Italian cuisine. Michael Tusk’s kitchen turns out some of the best pasta anywhere, so it took all my restraint not to order all six of the primi on the menu earlier this week when my wife and I met a friend for our annual pre-Christmas lunch. But then, if we did, would we have enough appetite for one of the pizzas too? Or the spit-roasted pork or lamb chops scottadito? Not to mention a roster of vegetable dishes that are hard to pass up.
A few minutes before the newest resort hotel in Las Vegas threw open its doors Wednesday night, Sophie Gayot of the gayot.com website peered over her Champagne glass at me and confided, "not much fine dining here." It stopped me short, because I had been thinking that the Cosmopolitan had hit the target pretty solidly with its lineup of restaurants, which we were about to sample along with about a thousand other invited guests.
Grouped in one corner of the third floor are outposts of chef Scott Conant's Scarpetta, Costas Spiliadis' Estiatorio Milos and the Bromberg brothers' Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill, all from New York; José Andrés' Jaleo from Washington, D.C., and David Myers' Comme Ça and the STK steak house from Los Angeles. To any knowledgeable foodie, that constitutes an all-star lineup.
But on reflection, I realized Gayot's comment hit the mark. None of those restaurants was designed to challenge Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy or Julian Serrano's Picasso for supremacy in Las Vegas' haute-cuisine sweepstakes. They are, in concert with the overriding trend in dining in America, places that serve really good food in comfortable and casual surroundings.
I never would have heard about Pah Ke's except for some friends who come regularly to Kailua, over the ridge from Honolulu, and instructed me in no uncertain terms to go there. Although it looks like an ordinary Chinese restaurant in a strip mall, its chef and owner Raymond Siu, they told me, does the most creative things with the produce of local farms.
Raymond Siu is one of the most underrated chefs in Hawaii. He follows the modern philosophy of local, local, local, and applies it to Chinese cuisine updated with elements of other Asian cultures. That's what separates him from most of the other practitioners of what has come to be known as Modern Hawaiian Cuisine, who largely apply Hawaiian touches to a western approach to food.
On the plate, the food looks simple. Two thick slices of big-eye ahi tuna, a swirl of pink sauce and a pool of green sauce under a lovely little deep-fried quail egg garnish. I mix all the flavors together on my fork. The pink sauce buzzes with espelette, a sort of hot paprika-like pepper powder, and the delicate topping of green picholine olives on the tuna add another southern French touch. The green sauce of parsley and oregano jumps with freshness under a lovely little deep-fried quail egg.
Five adjacent wineglasses hold four whites and a rosé, but I have no idea what they are. The double-blind tasting is designed to ferret out which wine would please the most palates at one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, Chef Mavro in Honolulu. The owner and chef, George Mavrothalassitis, brings his finely honed French sensibilities to Hawaii's abundance of unique ingredients. It's exciting food, and it's wine-friendly.
When chef Michael Mina moved his flagship restaurant recently, he filled the space at the Westin St. Francis with a steak house. It has a heck of a wine list. Much of the Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning book from Restaurant Michael Mina remains on site, spread around several cellars and storerooms in the hotel.
It's called Bourbon Steak San Francisco, the fifth one in Mina's burgeoning restaurant empire of 18 countrywide.