Eat Your Way Through L.A.
With less than a full week to eat, we sampled some of the best restaurants L.A. has to offer - the transcendental, raved-about Sona; the accessibly spicy Pollo Compero, and stylish Tengu Santa Monica.
reviewed by Cheryl Kain
To follow the Travel Channel’s theme of 1,000 must-visit places before you die, Sona is a Modern French restaurant that every person should have the privilege of experiencing before they leave Planet Earth. To start, Sona has been recognized with Wine Enthusiast’s Restaurant Awards of Ultimate Distinction, Wine Spectator’s Grand Award 2006; and National Geographic’s 10 Best of Everything’s "Top 10 Special Restaurants in the World". The world, people.
Oprah, People, GQ and The Wall Street Journal all scream rave reviews for Sona. Let me tell you, this is not one big hype-fest. After my dining experience (it can be called nothing short of that), I decided that I would simply fly out from the east coast whenever possible, to indulge in this luscious piece of heaven whenever I could afford to. I can’t afford not to. I’m in love.
Sona’s vibe evokes the ambience of a divine spa; it’s ultra-modern without being cold. A fossilized clay, textured wall, cool marine colors and clean lines fused Asian minimalist with beachy elegance, with stone, granite, Izabel Lam china and lovely flatware rounding out the visual "Ahhh"... Beginning the dinner were unusually good breadsticks; cheesy, crisp, buttery and very long. Next, we enjoyed canapés on tiles of rice with nori, inago, chiso peppers or tuna tartare. A carrot cardamom terrine with blood orange vinaigrette, and kumquat sorbet shaped like a little carrot was whimsical and woke up the palate, paving the way for one of the best meals I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming.
We decided to forgo the popular Degustation Menus - 6-Course Découverte ($89) and 9-Course Spontanée ($125) and order off of the menu. Handmade Tagliatelle, perfectly al dente, of course, was laced with black truffles, (hand sliced at your table) sweetly earthy and sublime. The lovely Squash Soup was not the usual, enhanced with Earl Grey foam, schpaetzle and a touch of orange marmalade. Just as impressive was the signature dish, Lobster Risotto with marscapone and shellfish emulsion, and the Hawaiian Opah, a sweet whitefish crusted with brown buttered macadamia, surrounded by oven-roasted pumpkin seeds, roasted pineapple, pomegranate and coconut curry emulsion. The Caramel Braised Salmon, with Congee and Water Chestnut was slow-cooked to sweet, butter-like consistency. The South African Chardonnay we chose enhanced the entrees. The desserts; Goat Cheese Tart and Apricot Bread Pudding were perfectly under-sweet and the tart particularly was out-of-this-world good. The warm, perfectly-textured, freshly sugar-dusted madeleines completed our meal.
A team of young men came out to present our food and change our silverware for each course. Everything here; service, presentation, waiters’ (there were no waitresses) knowledge and courtesy, lighting, and food were state-of-the-art. A surprising element was enjoying this exquisite food without the often overbearing vibe you’ve come to expect at a restaurant of this caliber. Every server, bus person and sommelier was witty, light-hearted, and wicked knowledgeable and the sincerity of their delight was contagious. We had so much fun! I never felt silly asking questions about the food. I could only guess that a presentation this seamless must be backed by hours and hours of rigorous training and foresight.
David Myers and Michele Myers and their team have created for foodies what amounts to a spiritual experience. Executive Chef and Owner David Myers was a James Beard Rising Star Chef nominee and was also named Best New Chef by Food & Wine Magazine. Michele is the founder and Pastry Chef of Sona, and was herself trained at the infamous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris; named Angeleno Magazine’s and Los Angeles Magazine’s "Best Pastry Chef of 2003", Bon Appétit’s "Rising Dessert Star of 2004", and named among the 2004 Food and Wine’s "Pastry Visionaries". The handsome David (would you expect anything else?) came out to greet diners, and our sommelier, Noel was proficient in every wine imaginable.
The clientele was diverse and varied, with groups, couples, and friends celebrating. According to some in-the-know peeps, Sona attracts a loyal following, which is rare in the fickle Los Angeles (and nationwide) restaurant business. Sona is akin to a glorious jazz concert - perfect marriage of classically trained "chops" with a wide road of improvisation. I am this restaurant’s newest unashamed groupie, and I am sure that I am not alone.
Reservations: 310-659-7708 or online at www.sonarestaurant.com (also through www.opentable.com)
reviewed by Lorene Belisama
A family chain restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised the moment I walked through the door. With warm greetings from the staff combined with vivid colors, lively salsa music and rich, spicy aromas floating through the dining room, I felt instantly transported to Central America.
Staff members, called Ambassadors, dressed in colorful shirts moved around the dining room carrying trays full of condiments; concerned with making their guests comfortable and happy. As I looked around, I noticed a vibrant wall mural in the dining room depicting the story of Pollo Compero’s evolution through the years. Thirty-five years ago, Pollo Compero opened its first restaurant in Guatemala. Their reputation spread, and eventually more restaurants opened in El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador, U.S., Spain and China. Pollo Compero operates over 200 restaurants throughout the world, with 18 locations right here in Los Angeles.
The menu revolves around the traditional recipe chicken that is always fresh, never frozen. Its unique flavor is a result of "injection marination" with a special blend of savory herbs and spices, and Compero’s own flavored breading. With a squeeze of fresh lime, I found the chicken to be exactly what the menu claims: "tender, juicy and crunchy and deliciously so!
The plantains tasted like a bit of heaven and melted in my mouth; the rice was extremely tasty and skillfully mixed with finely chopped vegetables; the mashed potatoes both fluffy and gratifying; and the beans! Not just ordinary pinto beans, by any stretch of the imagination. Believe me, I have been eating beans in Los Angeles my whole life and I find this to be a very unusual blend of flavors and textures. You must try these beans! Seriously.
Pollo Compero offers personal chicken meals served with one or two side orders, tortillas, biscuit, or dinner roll; family combos, as well as a catering menu. The chicken also comes in strips, in salads, and in mouth-watering "chicken bowls", served with beans, rice, cilantro, onions, and salsa. Prices are in the $5-$6 dollar range. The restaurant’s chili/salsa bar is overflowing and allows guests to fire up their meal in a variety of ways. A large selection of soft drinks, bottled water and coffee are available, but do try the Horchata - made from nuts, cinnamon and rice; and Tamarindo - an exotic drink made from the Tamarindo fruit (Two Central American favorites), for a delightful and refreshing experience.
For a quick, out-of-the-ordinary meal that you would expect to pay a lot more for, Pollo Compero will pleasantly surprise you! Pollo Campero: 5555 West Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. 323-953-1470 www.pollocampero.com
TENGU SANTA MONICA
reviewed by Lorene Belisama
I had a late dinner at Tengu Santa Monica. Located on trendy Ocean Avenue, this popular restaurant-lounge sits directly across from the Santa Monica Pier, with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean.
The place was jumpin’ and packed with a young (thirties and forties), sophisticated and diverse crowd. Everywhere I looked, wall-to-wall people were talking, laughing, drinking and eating. Moving toward my table, I noticed several familiar television faces in the crowd gathered at the lovely marble and travertine cocktail bar. Directly across the room, another crowd was gathered around the sushi bar. Named after the Japanese God of Mischief, Tengu’s lively cocktail bar scene features an extensive selection of rare and premium Japanese sakes, Tengu’s signature house-infused chilled pineapple sake, premium Japanese beers, domestic and imported wines, and signature cocktails like Japanese Sangria, (plum wine, red wine, Kintaro Pine sake, and fruit), and Zentini (Zen green tea liqueur, Effen vodka, fresh lemon and lime).
The visually stunning, contemporary Asian dining room had a powerfully calm, Zen feel. I was seated in the patio, a dimly-lit, windowed room that was an impressive study in black and white, sitting on a comfortable black lacquer and white leather armchair; chic white linen graced the windows and covered the tabletops. Black and white plates and chopsticks were artfully assembled, waiting to accommodate diners with a lit candle and a single purple orchid in a vase. Taking it all in, I watched the sunset, the colorful lights on the Ferris wheel at Pacific Park twinkled in the distance.
The Sushi and Pan-Asian cuisine was presented in an expansive, intriguing menu. It was predominantly fish, sashimi, rolls, and the Chef’s Omakese menu (a showcase of the freshest, and most exotic dishes Tengu offers); there were many non-sushi items as well. The waiter carefully explained their "Asian tapas" style of dining, and I enjoyed coordinating choices, combining "a little of this with that".
I began with Sushi Bar specials: Tuna a la Tostada-crispy rice topped with spicy tuna; and Subarashi-spicy shrimp, seared tuna, avocado and sweet onion with ginger sauce. I found that each bite was even better than the last! In all honesty, I could have stopped then and felt completely satisfied, but the night was young! Besides, my taste buds were wide awake now and screaming for more. I was off...
Next, I tried the Twice-cooked Chicken (oh my God), complete with spicy Szechuan glaze and served with steamed baby vegetables and roasted garlic whipped potatoes; and the Chilean Sea Bass (which I’ve had several dreams about since...) with the tastiest Grilled Vegetables. I also had some Avocado and Grapefruit Salad, with baby arugula, slivered red onions and Asian mustard vinaigrette - remembering it makes my mouth water.
After dinner, I tasted the Apple Ginger Pie with vanilla bean ice-cream - to die for; next was Banana Tempura, and thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. I finally stopped eating when the button on my waistband popped off!
All the credit goes to Executive Chef/Sushi Master Shunji Nakao, who is responsible for all of these culinary masterpieces. I heartily sing the chef’s praises. The prices per plate at Tengu Santa Monica range from $6-$32.
Tengu - 1541 Ocean Avenue, Suite 120, Santa Monica
Reservations are highly recommended, online at: www.tengu.com. Please call 310-587-2222 for restaurant hours.