Al Bacio successfully delivers authentic Italian

In December of last year, we visited Al Bacio for a media preview. There were so many people and the meal felt rushed and I was uninspired by the whole experience. I generally do not like to gauge a restaurant by a media tasting alone anyway, preferring to return again on my own at a later date. By visiting again several months later also gives the restaurant and its staff a chance to work out any opening hiccups they might have had during the preview.

So we returned recently to re-visit Chef Christian Simionato, previously sous chef at Pelican Hill Resort’s Andrea Ristorante, and give it another try. We find Al Bacio offering a menu of dishes showcasing the best of regional Italian cuisine with a myriad of top quality ingredients imported directly from Italy.

Al Bacio

While we perused the menu, a basket of bread arrives. There is a house-made focaccia and surprise surprise, slices of a rustic loaf from Orange County’s premier bakery, OC Baking Company! When asked why he didn’t source bread right there in LA, Simionato’s response was “I give my customers the best of every ingredient, so why not the bread also”.

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An amuse bouche of gianchette (whitebait) with artichoke is served in a jar with a thin piece of crisp bread. It was definitely an “amuse” to my “bouche” with its tangy bursts tantalizing my tastebuds.

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I love octopus and have been known to order it whenever it is on the menu. Therefore, it was a no brainer that Polipo all Griglia ($15) would be the logical choice to kick the meal off with. Octopus, which has first been braised, is finished off on the grill for a char, intensifying its flavors tremendously. Paired with a red pepper bagnetto — red pepper sauce — and a lightly dressed mixed green salad, make sure you gather all three components for each mouthful as they work together in perfect harmony.

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Scallo Scottate in Padella ($16) is a dish of seared scallops with Sicilian caponata and topped with to-die-for crispy pancetta. No additional words are required.

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If you’ve never had white asparagus, you won’t know how delicate and sublime it tastes. However, if you have, then its distinctively aromas will hit you immediately. Vellutata di Asparagi Bianchi ($13) is a white asparagus soup finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and topped with a sauteed spot prawn. We mmm-ed and ahh-ed with each spoonful and I delighted in sucking on the spot prawn head drawing out every last bit of its umami goodness.

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If you don’t order the way we do when you dine out, and you’ve only a three course meal planned (or just an entree), I highly suggest a pasta dish. Tagliatelle al Ragu di Agnello ($18) is a good choice simply because the tagliatelle is made in-house and served with a lamb ragu enveloped in a rich hearty savory sauce.

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Or, if you’re looking for a “secondi” course as they do in Italy, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe ($16) is perfect for you to share. A simple, yet utterly delicious spaghetti with pecorino and black pepper, you will want to eat mouthful after mouthful, and won’t be able to stop.

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Moving on to entrees, I was intrigued by Orata “al Cartoccio” ($30), a whole sea bream “al cartoccio”, meaning it is wrapped in parchment paper like “en papillote” in French cuisine. The fish is de-boned and stuffed with zucchini, cherry tomatoes, black Taggiasca olives into its cavity. The result is moist, flaky flesh with the beautiful amalgamation of flavors from the vegetables. I ate the entire fish — well, almost!

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Meat lovers should find Guancia di Manzo Brasata al Barbaresco ($29) incredibly satisfying. Beef cheeks braised in Barbaresco (wine) is so tender you wouldn’t need a knife to cut it. The “mulino sobrino” polenta is light, perfectly textured for me, although a little too thin for my dining companion. The sauce is rich and I wanted more of it to accompanying the sauteed mushrooms with.

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The unassuming restaurant sits on the very busy Sunset Blvd. Drive a little faster and you will miss it completely. However, if you take a moment and step inside, you’ll find some heartwarming and very stellar dishes that will surely surprise and tantalize you.

Al Bacio
8741 Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Tel: 310-657-1182

Al Bacio Ristorante on Urbanspoon

a charming spot in Beverly Hills

An old friend was in town on business and had been stuck at her hotel for an entire week. When I got there over the weekend, she told me she had been watching this channel on TV with tons of restaurant recommendations and she wanted to eat at one of them.

After eliminating the pretentious and those “seen and be seen” restaurants, we ended up at Pici Enoteca in Beverly Hills, a small bistro-style restaurant reminiscent of New York City rather than California. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising when we found out co-owner and Chef Jason Harley was a Brooklyn transplant and graduate of the CIA in New York.

What stood out upon entering the restaurant was the owner personally greeting his customers, and he went out of his way to set us up at a table even though we didn’t have reservations and he was fully booked that evening.

We started with Mushroom Soup ($7) a special of the day. It was full of heady mushroom aromas and texturally pleasing. A drizzle of pesto oil added an aesthetic finish but was not necessary to help the flavors any.

Arugula Salad ($9) was filled with beets, both red and golden. A refreshing plate of greens which we shared. In fact, I am almost always insistent on sharing everything just so I can taste as many things as possible.

My friend saw the pizzas on TV so we had to order one. Margherita Pizza ($12) arrived on a very thin crust with tomatoes and basil. It was my type of pizza, although it wasn’t exactly Napoli-style pizza, but it still tasted great.

What I came here for was the house specialty pasta — pici — something that is hand-made daily by Chef Jason. This was what enticed me from the TV. Pici is a hand-rolled thick pasta like spaghetti but cut into strips. Here, they are short, rolled up bits of pasta with the most perfect al dente texture to them.

We ordered the Shrimp Scampi Pici ($20) — plump scampi with shaved Parmagiana-Reggiano and a drizzling of pesto. This is what I would come back for again.

For dessert, Chef Jason suggested his special Apple Donuts with Vanilla ice cream ($7). Rounds of apple are battered and fried like fritters — although they were in the shape of a doughnut — and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Simple and tasty, they made a nice finish to a satisfying meal.

If you plan on visiting Pici Enoteca, make sure you have a reservation. That way, you know for sure you’ll get a table and get to eat your dinner!

Pici Enoteca
212 S Beverly Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Tel: 310-274-7424

Pici Enoteca on Urbanspoon

Bao Dim Sum House — a surprising find

When hankering for some dim sum, it is most convenient when you’re standing somewhere in Monterey Park or Alhambra area. In fact, anywhere in the San Gabriel Valley area will do. Beverly Hills is NOT a good spot to be in — or is it?

I searched on Yelp and found Bao Dim Sum which had a four and a half star average. Despite my skepticism we went ahead and checked it out.

When we entered I immediately started to worry. The place was SO fancy and pretty inside. This is the kind of place you’d find in Hong Kong, except, in HK, the dim sum is really good. My fears started to mount even more. What to do?

The only thing to do was to order a few items — since we were already here — and suck it up. The menu was simple, just the items people are most familiar with although there were some of the more traditionally Cantonese dim sum like tripe. No chicken’s feet were in sight though. Everything was a little more expensive than what you would get in Chinatown, or San Gabriel Valley.

Nevertheless, we ordered some dim sum and waited for it to arrive. Pork and shrimp shu mai ($5.25 ) was steaming hot. We ordered two baskets because my friend is a shu mai fiend.

They looked good, albeit bigger than I would’ve liked, but I tucked into one and was blown away by how good it was. WOW! This was better than a lot of the more so-called traditional dim sum places. The flavor was perfect with an even pork to shrimp ratio. I ate a few of these and I don’t even like shu mai!

Har gow ($4.95) or shrimp dumplings were also really good. The wrapper was not super thick like most places (I hate that) and you could tell it was super fresh because they were steamed to order. The shrimp had a nice snap and the wrapper was soft enough to not interfere with the filling.

Naturally, I had to order one of more ‘unique’ items so Beef Tripe in XO sauce ($5.25) was it. Although I didn’t detect any XO sauce, the ginger and scallion did enough to give it the familiar taste I needed. Plus, this is the way I’m accustomed to, not with XO sauce, although that sounded really good too.

Our server suggested Chicken Dumplings ($5.25). She said they are not what people expect and they are not the usual dumplings (potstickers) you get everywhere.

When they arrived I knew exactly what they were. I usually hate these because they use the wrapper made out of rice which gives them a sticky texture. These had the regular gyoza wrappers but were formed like a pattie rather than a “dumpling”. They were SO good! I’m glad we ordered these.

Usually we never leave without consuming about 10-12 dishes, but we were full after five. The dim sum here are all larger than usual — which kinda makes up for the slightly higher prices — but then you fill up quicker.

Dim sum is best eaten with a larger group for a bigger variety but from what we sampled, this is solid dim sum fare, even if in Beverly Hills! I won’t hesitate to return again in the future if craving dim sum and in the area.

Bao Dim Sum House
8256 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Tel: 310-655-6556

Bao Dim Sum House on Urbanspoon

>The Bazaar Part One — a disappointing birthday celebration

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Back in November last year, Holly Wong of Seeking Delicious and I celebrated our birthdays with 9 of our friends at The Bazaar by Jose Andres. One of my friends came as far as Toronto — Canada that is — and one from Thousand Oaks.I’ll have to say my review of The Bazaar will come in Part I and Part II and you will understand why once you’ve read this review in its entirety.

For some reason, traffic was horrific that evening and it took us about 2 hours to get from OC to Beverly Hills so our guests arrived sporadically. While waiting, several of us ordered some drinks, including Passion Fruit Up! ($16) which comprised of orange rum, passion fruit and ginger-laurel syrup, topped with passion fruit foam. It was like drinking a dessert, aromatic with a perfect combination of sweet and tart flavors.

Passion Fruit Up!

Holly and Mahesh decided to go all out and partake in the table side service drink Caipirinha ($20). A guy comes around with a cart and starts concocting this drink consisting of Brazilian cachaça, fresh lime and sugar and freezes it as you watch, using liquid nitrogen.The Caipirinha was good but was it really worth the $20 price tag? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Our party is finally seated at a round table and as we squeezed into the small space, our server comes over to tell us about the $75/8 course tasting menu we were ‘encouraged’ to order due to the size of our party — (there is a $55 one for 5 courses as well). We queried about the offerings and decided to order a few extra items not on the tasting menu as well. **I’ve added the a la carte pricing for convenience**

We start with a yogurt tamarind star anise dip ($10) served with sweet potato chips in a paper bag. A few serves were placed on the table and everyone was to share. However, we quickly ran out of the sweet potato chips and I asked for more.

yogurt dip with sweet potato chips

We joked about the size of the portions and how we may have to just keep asking for chip refills if we were to fill up and I sarcastically said “yeah watch, they’ll be charging us for the chips and we’ll have end up eating $200 in chips”. Yes it was funny, but at the end of the meal, they charged us $5 for every bag they gave us — *guess it wasn’t a joke after all*

Our next course arrived in the form of American caviar cone ($9/per person) — we were each presented with a baby cone filled with caviar and a lovely foam.

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This was one of our favorites of the evening. The crispy cone was a wonderful contrast to the gooey, salty, poppy texture of the caviar.

Jamón Ibérico Fermin (2 oz) $28 was definitely a hit with everyone. Perfectly salty dry cured, free-range Ibérico ham served with Catalan roasted bread and a tomato spread. This is very traditional and one of my favorite Spanish tapa. For the longest time, flesh of the black pig was not allowed to be imported into the USA and I knew people who would try to “smuggle” it in their luggage from Spain. Boy was I glad when they lifted that ban!

Jamon Iberico

Our next item was mussels in vinegar, olive oil and pimenton ($8) served in a tin. I know this is traditional and served at tapas bars across Spain, but I didn’t enjoy this at all. Neither did I like the King crab, raspberries in a raspberry vinegar ($18), also served in a tin. The raspberries completely masked the sweetness of the crab which was a real shame!

We were all perplexed as to why we were eating tuna ceviche and tuna roll ($15) because it reminded us of something we’d eat in a Japanese restaurant.

tuna ceviche

Even so, this was very refreshing, tuna was very fresh, and the avocado made it very creamy, adding to the flavor.This dish was tasty so we were thinking things were looking up, but then an array of what were the worst items of the night followed.

We just couldn’t understand Catalan spinach, apple, pine nuts, raisins ($8). It reminded us of frozen spinach — tasteless and bland. The apple, pine nuts and raisins just made a strange pairing for the vegetable. Nobody at the table liked this. But the worse was yet to come.

Boneless chicken wings with green olive purée ($9) was just mind-boggling. We couldn’t even figure out what it was until one of my friends (who absolutely abhors chicken) proclaimed that it was chicken. We were thinking it was something a little more exotic, like pigeon perhaps, or even quail. But alas, the server informed us it was boneless chicken wings. There was laughter of disbelief from some of the people, but the consensus was mutual — everyone disliked this dish tremendously!
braised Wagyu cheeks

Next was the braised Wagyu beef cheeks with California Citrus ($18) but they sous vide the Wagyu a little too much. The meat was mushy and reminded me of meat from one of those vacuumed packets you’d find at the supermarket. We were all flabbergasted at this point, most of us shocked that a perfectly good Wagyu was treated in this manner. Two pieces were left and no one wanted it.

Ironically, we had chicken again and we were told that it was seared chicken sous vide with dates, mustard caviar and spicy mustard greens ($10). After the beef, I was very skeptical about another sous vide item. Although it was better than the Wagyu, the chicken was so-so despite the pleasant acroutrements.

Chipirones en su tinta

After four disappointing dishes, we were not looking forward to a fifth, but luckily, Chipirones en su tinta ($10) arrived. Baby squid with own ink was nicely flavored, but Holly, who has lived in Spain for 6 months commented on how these were the biggest baby squid she’d ever seen. We laughed it off to how everything is bigger in America and let it go at that. I enjoyed them even though they weren’t as delicate as they should’ve been.

Papas Canarias, salty wrinkled potatoes served with a mojo verdé ($8) was tasty but wasn’t unique in any way.

Neither were the Buñuelos — codfish fritters — served with a honey aioli ($9). I love codfish and these looked good, but the exterior wasn’t fried to perfection making them soft and texturally dismal. I was very sad.

By now we were all dying to finish up our meal and move on to dessert, but we had a few more courses yet to come.

Next on the list was the Tortilla de patatas “new way” * ($5/per person). This was one of the items we ordered in addition to the tasting menu. This is served similarly to the caviar egg at Melisse except it was potato foam, egg cooked to a perfect 63 degrees and caramelized onions.

Thank god this was pretty good. Those of us who ordered this supplement were pleased with the result. Not caviar egg, but still, decent enough after the string of shockingly disastrous courses we had to endure.

not your every day Caprese

One of my favorites of the night was Not-your-everyday Caprese, cherry tomatoes, liquid mozarella ($12). Little balls of cherry tomatoes and mozarella were filled with an air pocket, if you will, which created a perfect sensation in your mouth when you bit into them. I loved it so much I took the one remaining portion left on the plate. This is one of my top 5 items of our 18 course meal.

asparagus tempur

Green asparagus tempura ($9) with a romesco dipping sauce was again very average, something any ordinary Japanese restaurant is able to create with no problem whatsoever. I guess the only thing which sets it apart from a Japanese dish is the ubiquitous Spanish dipping romesco sauce.

Sautéed wild mushrooms ($12) with hazelnut praline topped with micro chives was a strange dish. I’m not sure I liked the hazelnut praline although I liked the wild mushroom medley. However, again, someone pointed out that sauteed mushrooms was something all of us have had elsewhere, so it wasn’t anything unique.

Philly cheesesteak

I’m glad they saved the best for last so to speak. “Philly cheesesteak” was definitely one of the top fives of the night. Thin bread with air pockets filled with melted cheddar was topped with slices of rare Wagyu beef ($8/per person) and was absolutely DELECTABLE!! I think we were all in agreement that we would’ve been happy eating five of these and calling it a night.

cotton candy foie gras

Last but not least, our second supplement item was Cotton candy foie gras ($5) — I’m glad they kept this as the last item. I’d been waiting to try this forever. A small piece of foie gras is placed on a stick with cotton candy spun around it. The sweetness of the cotton candy paired perfectly with the soft rich flavor of the foie gras.

We moved to the “dessert” room for our desserts — which I’m not going to go into. We had ordered some champagne which didn’t arrive until towards the end of the meal. I think our server was perhaps not the most well-trained, nor was she knowledgeable about our questions. Each time we asked her something, she had to go “find out” the answer, sometimes, not returning with a reply.

Our evening was not what we had hoped for and I tweeted our experience the entire evening. Still, I was very shocked and humbled when Chef Jose Andres himself tweeted me back apologizing for our evening and personally inviting me back as their guest. Therefore, Holly and my second visit to The Bazaar will be featured in Part II of my Bazaar experience to be posted at a later date.

SLS Hotel
465 South La Cienega Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048
 

(310) 246-5567 Photography by Mahesh

The Bazaar By Jose Andres on Urbanspoon