Monday, November 24, 2008

Lil' Parlor Pizzeria, South Pasadena

[Taking a short break from the South America posts for a minute as there are a million photos to sort through. I should have some more posts up soon!]

I’ll be totally honest and say I’ve never been a fan of Steven Arroyo’s restaurants. I never “got” Cobras & Matadors after several trips there, and my two visits to his South Pasadena wine bar 750 ml never did it for me either. I haven’t heard a lot of positive things about his downtown place, Church and State, so I thought maybe it best for me to stay away from that one as well.

So why did I try Lil’ Parlor Pizzeria, the new pizzeria opened in the old 750 ml space by this very same restaurateur? There is no real thin-crust, wood-fired pizza in my neighborhood, and the 7 minute drive from my door to the South Pasadena restaurant made it easy to at least give the place a shot. Other than sushi, Italian is my favorite food on the planet; thin crust, lightly dressed pizzas are near the top of that list along with a pile of al dente parpadelle clinging to some sort of slowly braised ragu.

J, my friend Ikea (not his real name but it’s a nod to his Swedish heritage) and I strolled in at around 7:30 PM on Friday night. We were warmly greeted and I immediately noticed the giant leg of prosciutto that sat on the counter, ready for me to dive into. Ok, maybe it wasn’t waiting for me but it was a good sign that maybe, just maybe Steven and I have a future together (as restaurateur and customer, of course).

We sat down, placed our orders and the wine was quickly brought to the table. Although J’s glass was filled well to the middle with his white wine, my glass was filled less than a third. Ikea suggested I take a sip, look at the waiter and say “Mmm, good, I’ll take this one!” and then give the glass back as if I was simply given a taste and that I wanted more. Although the idea was appealing, I figured I’d just sit this one out and hope that my next glass was more half full than half empty.

Appetizers: J ordered the heirloom tomatoes w/ burrata, and although I thought it a bit late in the year for the tomatoes I didn’t say anything. I should have. Look, you can spread burrata on a rusty iron and it’d still be divine. But even the rich creamy heavenliness that is burrata couldn’t save the grainy, bland heirlooms. We left most of it untouched.

Ikea fared far better with his baked ricotta w/ peppernata, aged balsamic and olive oil. The slab of baked ricotta was extremely mild and could have used some salt, and although J dubbed it as “tofu,” Ikea seemed happy with his choice.

I ordered the charcuterie plate – a nice selection of salami and prosciutto plus some pepperoncinis, olives and cheese. Very good, nice portion and nice selection.

Now for the pizzas:

Ikea went for the “Old School,” a pizza topped with pepperoni, tomato sauce, mozzarella and oregano. He deemed it delicious and thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

J was the real winner here- his “The Woods” pizza looked so bare upon first glance that I was worried, but powerful flavors coming out of the fresh chanterelles, smoked onions, fontina and rosemary were unbelievable. We kept looking at it, then tasting it, just wondering how such minimal toppings could pack such a punch. Truly delicious. I’m craving one as I type this actually.

I, unfortunately, lost the pizza battle with my Margherita pie. The “roasted tomato sauce” was bland and as grainy (oddly!) as those heirlooms and there was barely a smidge of mozzarella. Yeah, I know, I said I liked minimal toppings but, in the words of Oliver Twist, “Please sir, may I have some more cheese?” (minus the cheese part). Luckily I had some of the prosciutto and these incredibly sweet peppers left from my charcuterie plate so I doctored it up and it was fine.

I have to say, even though it was a hit and miss, I’d definitely go back to Lil' Parlor Pizzeria. The crust is the key- it’s tasty, it’s perfectly thin, it’s beautifully crusty without being too hard and the yeasty flavor of good bread runs deep. As always, I’d take into consideration that the restaurant is still fine tuning since they’d been opened less than a week when we went. All things considered, the pies are good and that’s what I want- a good pizza place near my house. I hope the margherita gets a little better and they stop serving mealy tomatoes, but that mushroom pizza alone is worth making the seven minute drive for……….heck, it’s worth making an hour drive for. Oh, and my second glass of wine was indeed more of the "half-full" variety.

Lil' Parlor Pizzeria
966 Mission St,
South Pasadena, CA

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Last snapshots of Bogota

A few last shots of Bogota, Colombia before I continue the posts on South America with the next destination of my recent trip: Buenos Aires. I truly loved Bogota and plan to return there to see more of it's wonderful culture and people!

Casa Vieja
- a restaurant offering traditional Colombian food........ this bowl of ajiaco, a thick potato soup with chicken, potatoes, corn on the cob and garnished with cream and avocado.

The new face of Bogota. If you squint just a bit, you'd think you were on Rodeo Drive....

....and speaking of new faces of Bogota:

Hooters, the proud new addition to the city. My friend and guide Carolina said she was happy that Hooters had come to Bogota, since it's a sign that other new American businesses will likely follow.

.......and the smiling new faces of Bogota Hooters?

Have you ever seen such gorgeous Hooters girls in your life? I haven't, and these beautiful ladies were more than happy to strike a pose.

Girls making jewelry to sell........

A trip to the Museo Botero.....

...where we saw works by both Botero, famous Colombian artist (here, in a self-portrait) addition to Botero's extensive personal collection of works by other this one by Salvador Dali...

...and speaking of art...this is just one of many sculptures around the city which are located high above the ground

A local fruit called lulu:

The church in the main plaza:

Messing around at the Presidential Palace...

View of the Andes from the plane.....on our way to Buenos Aires- posts coming up next!

Until then...........

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bogota, Colombia Part 2: Leo Cocina y Cava

I’d done a bit of research on restaurants before we left for our maiden voyage to Bogota and I had one place on the brain: Leo Cocina y Cava, a contemporary, Colombian-fusion restaurant owned and run by Leonor Espinosa- a groundbreaking female chef who has been a leader in ushering Colombia into the world of international fine dining. Although there were other restaurants that I’d heard good things about, I wanted to make sure to hit one high end restaurant that focused on Colombian food, not French or Italian, so I asked my new friend Carolina to make the reservations on our second night there.

A group of six of us sat down in the modern yet warm space and sipped on their signature cocktail (sorry- I can’t remember the name but it resembled a cosmopolitan) while perusing the extensive menu. There were multiple seafood offerings in addition to some lamb, beef and rice dishes, but I quickly decided on the Filete de Róbalo – a white fish (snook?) resembling grouper coated in a rich sauce and set on top of some black coconut rice and enclosed in a plantain leaf. I’d heard raves about the restaurant’s coconut rice so I wasn’t going to miss out.

I have to say that since Bogota was the first of three cities on our trip, I can't remember the actual names of each dish but will describe them the best I can. Sorry! Taking notes while taking photos and drinking lots of wine just doesn't work for me:).

We opted to order a few appetizers to share:

A whitefish ceviche that was absolutely perfect- just tart enough, the fish was tender and fresh.

Seafood empanadas: Crisp little discs filled with shredded seafood, these were one of my favorite appetizers.

Rabbit empanadas: need I say more? Crispy, tear-drop shaped dough filled with tender stewed rabbit.

Plate of mixed seafood. Whoa- this octopus was transcendent. Life-altering. It was so tender while still retaining a bite and we all scratched our heads in amazement wondering what cooking method the chef used.

Tartare with local avocado: Very good, although the local avocado is not as creamy as the Haas variety we're used to here in SoCal.

Now for the main courses. Although everyone had their own, we all reached across the table numerous times tasting each other's plates.

Mine: the aforementioned fish in plantain leaf. We declared this "the winner" of the night- the rich, slightly sweet sauce and tender fish was perfect with the black coconut rice. Not the best looking dish but the best tasting for sure!

The Carne Puyada - slow cooked beef over risotto.....I think the photo says it all.

Grilled prawns over cilantro risotto. The prawns were perfectly cooked but the real star was this risotto. It would never have occured to me to make a cilantro risotto (since I always use cilantro as a fresh, not cooked, garnish to dishes) but I'll have to get in my kitchen and try to re-create this. WOW.

Another prawn dish swimming in a succulent broth, displayed by my friend Manny who seems to think you need to present your dishes with a hand gesture.

Grilled, pepper-encrusted tuna. Fresh, delcious.

We polished it all off and sat there, quite satisfied, when the waiters started bring out desserts we hadn't ordered. Thinking it was a mistake, we tried to wave them away but they sat these right in front of us:

Miniature beignets filled with chocolate, served with Helado de kola Roman - an ice cream made from a popular pink cola. Yes, it really IS that pink. The ice cream has a heady, almost chemical-like flavor so you might love it if you're 8 but I wasn't too crazy about it.

Carrot cake with coconut ice cream- this was subtle and lovely.

Flan with crispy rice. Whoa. Not only was the flan creamy and rich but it sat on a bed of....cake? And was topped with crispy rice which I'd never think to do but went so well with all of the creamy elements. Note to self: top all flan with crispy rice!

So it turns out that the sous chef saw us from the kitchen and recognized Carolina, whom he used to work for at her family's old restaurant. Thus the dessert parade which followed our main courses. He came out to introduce himself to the rest of us and I was amused to see that his first name was Disney. Seems his parents were fans of Walt Disney and bestowed the last name onto their son as a first name. We chatted with him for a bit, told him how remarkable the food was, and he said that it was unfortunate he hadn't seen us earlier since he would have simply done a prix fixe of recommended dishes. He then said "Can you come tomorrow?" Hm, lemme think for a millisecond.....YES! So we all decided to return the next night, this time to experience Leo Cocina y Cava in the way that Chef Disney felt we should. Score!

The first night: friends with Chef Disney, minus me, who conveniently took the photo:)

The next night, our party of six turned into a party of nine (word spread fast among band and crew about our delicious eats from the night before) and we once again found ourselves in the cozy restaurant. First up? A bowl of Hormigas Culonas (big fried ants available only in the region known as Santander). Yup. Honestly, I had heard of these ants and expected to see little fried mini ants on a plate but the bowl of big, black balls totally threw me for a loop. It was a bowl of just the bottom third of the ant, and talk about big butts! I ate one and it was fine- crispy, tasted like protein......nothing gross yet nothing wonderful. Some of the guys had fun chomping away but I think once was enough for me. Glad I tried it though!

Hormigas Culonas - the "big assed ants"

Night two- awaiting our feast...........

Right then, we spotted Leonor Espinosa walking around, inspecting every flower, every wine glass, making sure everything was operating smoothly. We stopped her to tell her how much we enjoyed her food, and she was very kind and even let us snap a photo with her. I was oddly starstruck and didn't say a whole lot but made sure to thank her for the delcious food!

The chef, Leonor Espinosa, and my left eye.....:)

Chef Disney started us off with sea snail ceviche drizzled with herb oil- it was so fresh, briny and the perfect way to start off our six course meal.

We had a few of the dishes we'd had the night before- prawns with the cilantro risotto, grilled langoustine, etc. Next up, we had a pile of tartare over which the waiter poured the richest, most succulent broth I'd ever had. It was slighly gamey and extremely savory.

The meat course was New Zealand baby rack of lamb cooked medium rare, piled on a knob of creamy mashed yucca and drizzled with au jus. It was divine.

We had several different desserts (including the flan which was asked for) and then had a chance to peek into the kitchen. It was quite small and I was amazed that the chefs could turn out so many dishes out of the tiny space.

We finished off the evening with an aperitif of Aguardiente, Colombia's national alcoholic beverage. It has a strong, anise flavor which I normally hate but somehow the sweetness and warmth of this liquor sat quite well with me. I'd definitely have it again.

So - two nights of mindboggling food with great people in a city I'd never been, plus a surprise visit from the famous chef and a peek into the kitchen- wow! It was a fantastic experience and I would recommend Leo Cocina y Cava to anyone visiting Bogota.

Leo, Cocina y Cava:Ubicado en Bogotá ( Calle 27 B No 6-75)
Horario de atención: De lunes a sábado: 12 a 4:00 p.m. y 7:00 p.m. a 12:00 p.m.
Reservas: 286 7091 281 6267