Restaurant Review #236: Daphne's Greek Cafe, Westwood

Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Made in Neverland

Imagine a Greek version of Baja Fresh and you’ve got Daphne’s Greek Café. Don’t be fooled by the “café” moniker; there may be tables outside, but this is not a nice, breezy sidewalk café. Sure, the food is tasty, quick and affordable, but the atmosphere is only slightly above fast-food. Indeed, they even offer “meal deals” like you might find at McDonald’s (alas, you cannot Super-Size your gyro). You’ll order at a counter and then if you dine in you’ll go find a table (or maybe you’ll go to the soda fountain first, if you’ve ordered a drink). Your food will be brought to you shortly. Like most all Westwood eateries, the place is loud and lacking any sort of peaceful vibe. However, for a quick meal at a good price, you could do worse.

Daphne’s Greek Café
10889 Lindbrook
Los Angeles, CA 90024
310.208.6931 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              310.208.6931      end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Daphne's Greek Cafe website
Daphne's Greek Cafe menu


Restaurant Review #235: Skiff's Cakes, Simi Valley


Skiff's is a small, family-owned bakery in Simi Valley that sells cupcakes and special-order cakes.

The cupcakes come in numerous flavors and are all filled in the middle with wedding cake fillings. Most have chocolate or vanilla buttercream icing. Cake and filling combinations include red velvet with cream cheese, white cake with strawberry mousse, vanilla cake with vanilla bavarian cream, chocolate cake with chocolate bavarian cream, carrot cake with cream cheese, lemon poppyseed with lemon chiffon, and more. Ordering the cupcakes was a bit of a challenge--since it's such a small bakery, there are no display cases and, while there is a list of all the cake flavors and fillings available for special-order cakes, there is no list of which flavors have been combined into the cupcakes. I was presented with a tray of perhaps fifteen flavors of cupcakes that were available and a girl behind the counter pointed and recited all the flavors to me. It was difficult to keep track of the flavors I wanted to order and the girl didn't seem particularly patient.

When I got the cupcakes home, I was disappointed in them for two reasons. First, the amount of filling inside each cupcake was miniscule--barely enough to get a taste of it. Second, the flavors I had didn't match up with what I thought I had ordered. I'm not sure if I pointed at the wrong cupcakes on the tray, if the person who made the cupcakes didn't put the correct fillings in them, or if the girl behind the counter didn't recite all the flavors correctly. It didn't really matter what the reason was--the important thing was that I didn't get everything I wanted, and for $3 a cupcake, that was annoying. Also, I found the cake to be dry and the vanilla buttercream icing to be overly sugary (but I think most icing is too sugary). The chocolate buttercream icing tastes like fudge and is quite good.

Based on the reviews I've read online and the word-of-mouth recommendations I've received, Skiff's seems to be popular and well-liked for its custom cakes. The owner, Steve, is a very laid back, straightforward, down-to-earth guy who will make you feel confident that he and his wife, the cake baker and decorator, will do a fantastic job with your order. Custom cake prices are reasonable and middle-of-the-road as far as area bakeries go, and their website has numerous beautiful photos of their creations and plenty of information about their cake flavors and policies. But my experience with the cupcakes gave me doubts about how good the actual cakes would be. I don't doubt that for many people, Skiff's is a great choice, but I will gladly drive the extra miles to go to Bread Basket in Camarillo.

Skiff's Cakes
2355 Tapo Street, Ste 14
Simi Valley, CA 93063
Skiff's Menu
Skiff's Website


Restaurant Review #234: Olivios Bistro, Simi Valley - CLOSED

Lobster ravioli - $17.95

Update: This restaurant has closed. 

Olivios Bistro is a new Simi Valley restaurant located in the Albertsons shopping center on Madera. We decided to try it because they were offering a gift certificate on Restaurant.com for $25 off $50.

Bruschetta - free!

The restaurant was nearly empty on a Saturday night, which is often a bad sign. However, with the place being new and trying to lure customers by offering discounts, I hoped it was just that no one knew about it yet. We were instantly impressed by how clean and crisp the restaurant is--all the tables are dressed in white linens, and the summer evening sun gives the dining room a pleasing natural glow.  

Bread - free!

The next pleasant surprise was the free bread our server brought us. Free bread is always a plus, but when it's a hunk of boring French bread, you don't feel like you're getting anything special. Olivios served us garlic herb rolls, sundried tomato foccacia, crispy, garlicky bruschetta, and olive tapenade. They even offered us seconds.

Crab cake appetizer - $11.95

The portion size of the crab cake appetizer was generous--it would make a good light lunch on its own. I appreciated that it came with salad, because I didn't want to pay for two appetizers. The menu didn't seem to have an option for an inexpensive side salad with an entree. They do have two salads for $5.95, but I'd like it if a small salad came with my meal or cost only a couple dollars extra. But this is only a minor complaint.

Corn chowder - $3.95

The corn chowder (the soup of the day) was also generously portioned, delicious, and a meal in its own right for a light eater.

Pappadelle - $12.95

The pasta at Olivios is obviously homemade. You can tell right away from the texture--it's lighter and has a different bite than dried, mass-produced pasta. If you like puttanesca sauce, you'll like this dish. It doesn't have olives, capers, or anchovies, but it is a salty, hearty, non-boring tomato sauce with ground lamb, eggplant, spinach, and tomato.

As much as I loved this dish, it would be difficult to return to Olivios and not order the lobster ravioli (lead photo), which was probably even tastier.

Cheese tortellini in pesto cream sauce - $11.95

The only snafu of the evening involved the cheese tortellini. The server must have misheard the order and brought out the wrong dish. I think a good server can avoid this problem by always reading back diners' orders before placing them with the kitchen. Our waiter brought the correct dish to the table within minutes, but in the restaurant's haste to make up for the error, the pasta was a bit undercooked, and I thought the sauce was too salty (but then, I don't really care for pesto in any case). Still, we were willing to forgive them since everything else was top notch.

Warm chocolate cake - $5.95

I have to admit that from the menu description, I thought this dessert would be pretty dull. Also, I'm not really a chocolate lover--I tend toward the fruity and vanilla-flavored desserts. But this cake was a very dark chocolate and had the consistency of a flourless cake. It was difficult to not eat more than my fair share of it.

Creme brulee - $5.95

All creme brulee tastes the same to me, but that doesn't mean I don't like it. Olivios is also offering a free dessert promotion on their website when you sign up for their email list.

Dining room

Overall, I think Olivios is one of the best restaurants in Simi Valley. The service is fantastic, the food is high quality yet affordable, the dishes are beautifully presented, and it's one of the few places in town that is a bit upscale (though it's still comfortable). I can't wait to go back.

Olivios Bistro
1230 Madera Road
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Tuesday through Sunday 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Friday & Saturday 5:00 p.m. -10:00 p.m.
Though not mentioned on the website, a sign outside the restaurant indicates that they are now serving Sunday brunch--if you're interested, you may want to call first.
Olivios Bistro website
Olivios Bistro Menu


Restaurant Review #233: Firehouse Cafe, Simi Valley

California Fireman omelet with hash browns - $7.75

Sitting in Firehouse Cafe, you'll feel like you've been transported out of Southern California and into a friendly Midwestern city--say, St. Louis. There's zero pretense at this affordable, no-frills breakfast and lunch joint. The flooring is charcoal gray industrial carpet, the chairs are standard-issue black metal with padded vinyl seats, and the white walls are somewhat haphazardly adorned with photos and firefighting memorabilia and gear. Red accents throughout, including diner stools at the counter, contribute to the firehouse theme. The space is just one big, rectangular open room, so there's no sense of intimacy at any of the tables, but at least the tables are spaced well apart. The restaurant was busy late on a Sunday morning and we felt lucky to get the only open table.

Huevos rancheros - $6.95

The coffee doesn't break with the restaurant's no-frills vibe--it's of the coffee-pot-on-a-burner variety, so if you're into the gourmet stuff, be warned. But it does come with free refills. The breakfast menu offers everything you'd expect at and is served all day (which, most days, means all morning and early afternoon). I love omelets, but can only make a mediocre one myself, so that's what I almost always order at breakfast joints. Firehouse Cafe's version met my expectations--fluffy, cheesy (swiss), and stuffed with bacon and veggies (mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, avocado). Our food arrived in a reasonable time frame and the portions were so generous that we had ample leftovers. (Not that leftover omelets are terribly appetizing, but I hate wasting food.) The lunch menu offers more than 30 sandwiches, 16 firefighting-themed burgers, and several salads, plus standard appetizers like mozzarella sticks and potato skins. They also serve dinner on Fridays.

The service is supposed to be friendly here, but our waitress seemed like she'd much rather be somewhere else. This wouldn't prevent me from giving the restaurant a second try, though, given my positive experience with the atmosphere, food, and price tag. 

Firehouse Cafe
1244 Sycamore Dr
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Mon-Thu, Sat-Sun 7 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Fri 7 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Firehouse Cafe Menu


Restaurant Review #232: Saddle Peak Lodge, Calabasas

Cream of mushroom amuse bouche

Saddle Peak Lodge, named after the rock formation it sits under, has been around for more than 100 years in various incarnations, including a general store and a summer resort. Tucked away in the hills of Calabasas, sort of on the way to Malibu via Las Virgenes, you'd never know the restaurant was there if you weren't following a set of directions to it. That makes it all the more amazing that the place has been around for so long. We didn't have any trouble finding it with the directions (although we did get lost on the way out since it was pitch black and I was too busy thinking about my meal to think about which way I should be turning).

Saddle Peak Lodge is almost cave-like in the evening, cozy and dark with stone, timber, and lots of prize game heads lending weight to the restaurant's name. A seat by the window next to the patio gave us a glimpse of the scenic mountain surroundings. It's the kind of patio you'd love to host a special event on (if you could afford it--and if you can, the restaurant has several private rooms and special menus available for events).

We were invited to try the restaurant to experience a new event they are offering: every Wednesday from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Saddle Peak Lodge is hosting Jazz in the Canyon with the Gonzalo Bergara quartet. Since we were invited, our meal was on the house, and our experience probably does not completely reflect what the average diner might expect. It was apparent that the head chef, chef de cuisine, and general manager knew who we were, since they each came to our table and introduced themselves. Our waiter, however, clearly thought we were just regular guests.

Saddle Peak Lodge serves French-influenced American food using seasonal ingredients. The executive chef, Adam Horton, has a more impressive resume at 27 years old than most chefs will have in their entire careers. He attended the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, externed at Saddle Peak, then went to Europe, where he cooked at classical French restaurants with two and three Michelin stars, including Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. On returning to the United States, he worked at Melisse before heading back to Saddle Peak as sous chef. Horton has been named a top five rising chef by Gayot, and the restaurant’s numerous accolades include a listing in the 2009 Michelin guide, one star in the 2008 Michelin guide, a AAA Four-Diamond award, a Zagat Award of Distinction, and numerous best-restaurant awards. The chef de cuisine, Chris Kufek, also has impressive credentials, but for the opposite reason--he's self-taught. He's also only 25. General Manager Joshua Buckner has twenty-one years of restaurant experience and is also a musician.

We were seated very close to the band, which had me a bit concerned about the noise level, but it didn't turn out to be a problem. The music seems like it's meant to be part of the background--which is good since this is a restaurant, not a bar or club. 

Our meal began with a mushroom soup amuse. It was tasty, but not extraordinary in any way. I found it a bit awkward to sip from the cup because of its thickness; I wished I had a small spoon to eat it with.

Pretzel bread and pumpernickel rolls

Fresh bread arrived right away—a pumpernickel roll and a pretzel bread roll. I was pleased by the interesting choice of flavors and their dense, soft, moist texture. If I have any complaint about the bread—and this is hardly a complaint—it’s that the delivery of every course was so perfectly timed that I had scarcely any time to turn my full attention to the bread.

Salt and butter

The rolls came with butter and a high-end moist sea salt that tasted like it had a hint of anise. I tend to laugh when I see super-expensive salts at the grocery store, since you can buy a huge container of salt for 60 cents that basically accomplishes the same thing, yet when I encounter a really good salt in a restaurant, the memory sticks with me (Lucques comes to mind, for example). Now I will have to finagle some $15 salt out of someone as a gift.

Yukon potato blini, smoked salmon, creme fraiche and caviar

As a second amuse, we tried a mini potato pancake topped with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and caviar. The smoked salmon did not taste different than any other smoked salmon I’ve had, but I could have eaten a whole plate of the blini (the mini pancakes), which were denser and more moist than breakfast pancakes and had a hint of sweetness. Basically, take everything that’s wrong with an ordinary pancake—it’s too dry, it has no flavor, it’s sometimes bordering on greasy—and this blini corrects it. Too bad I couldn’t get it to last longer than four tiny bites. I think they should serve full-sized blini for brunch!

Fijian albacore sashimi with ramp vinaigrette, avocado and pea greens

The appetizer was a Fijian (from Fiji) albacore sashimi. Albacore is probably my favorite raw fish, but this dish didn’t do anything for me. The pea tendrils seemed overdressed and I guess I am just accustomed to eating my raw fish with fewer accompaniments.

Wild mushroom agnolotti with roasted mushrooms, parmesan, herbs, ricotta salata, and truffle butter

For me, the best and most memorable dish of the night was the wild mushroom agnolotti (agnolotti is basically ravioli, in case you were wondering). The pasta was obviously homemade, and it was perfectly cooked. The aroma of truffle butter wafted up from the plate—how can you not like any dish that has truffle butter? The serving didn’t look very big, but it was so rich that it must have taken me 30 minutes to savor every bite (granted, I have won awards for my ability to eat slowly). This dish actually reminded me of some fantastic pasta I had at Melisse (and that was before I even knew the chef had worked there).

Diver scallops with peas, pea tendrils and uni veloute

I’m not sure I can fully comment on the scallop dish since my friend ordered it and I only had one bite, but it didn’t wow me--except for the black garlic that came on the side. Black garlic is regular garlic that has been slowly fermented in heat- and humidity-controlled conditions for three weeks. I’d never heard of it, seen it, or tasted it before. It has a unique, rich, slightly sweet flavor that has been compared to molasses.

New Zealand elk tenderloin with sweet potato and celery root purée, currants, bacon, wilted arugula and sauce chasseur (hunter's sauce)

Saddle Peak Lodge has several game meats on the menu—elk, buffalo, and ostrich. Because game meats are lean and have a high iron content compared to the meats most Americans usually eat, they are challenging to cook. Horton uses the sous vide technique to cook the meat uniformly medium rare.

The elk tenderloin is a house specialty. I didn't think it was "gamey" at all; rather, it reminded me of filet mignon. It was perfectly cooked and so tender I could cut it with the side of my fork (no exaggeration). This dish normally costs $54, so to be able to enjoy it as part of an $85 tasting menu seemed like a real bargain, and the portion was so large that I couldn't even finish it. The sweet potato and celery root puree was delicious but I found myself wanting to separate it from the currant sauce so I could fully appreciate it on its own. The currant sauce acted as a sort of steak sauce (but much better than A1!).

Deconstructed lemon merengue pie: toasted meringue ice cream, lemon curd, liquid sable and graham cracker

The deconstructed lemon meringue pie was hit and miss for me. The cake pieces seemed ordinary, but the “pie crust” was incredible. It had that addictive quality that I find in Persian halva and Spanish turron. And despite the way it looked on the plate, standing up, it wasn't crunchy, but soft. The meringue ice cream seemed to be a feat of molecular gastronomy. It was very cold in places and had such a delicate texture that regular meringue would seem heavy by comparison.

Our waiter obviously didn’t know that we were special guests—and I think that was a good thing, because we got to see what the regular service is like. Our waiter was friendly and endearing, and all of the many servers who delivered and took away our plates, refilled our water and served our bread, were, well, perfect. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable in an expensive restaurant when you normally eat at Chili’s and hole-in-the-wall Thai places, but no one was even remotely pretentious or condescending toward us the entire night. I felt totally comfortable. And the comfy chairs, while not ideal for leaning over the table and eating, certainly encourage you to lean back, relax, enjoy some good wine, and take your time. They’re very conducive to a leisurely evening of good conversation and live music.

Considering that this was a four-course tasting menu with an extremely reasonable price tag of $85, I was surprised that the portions were so generous. For $40 extra (per person), we could have had wine pairings, too, which I also thought was reasonable. (Unfortunately, I did not indulge in those as I was driving.)

Saddle Peak Lodge's description of itself as "rustic yet refined" is perfect and applies to both the food and the ambiance. The restaurant does have a dress code (how often do you see that?), but they basically just don't want you to show up in beach attire. Parking is valet only and has a $4 service charge (and they returned my car very promptly at the end of the night). Total, the tasting menu for two people with sparkling water came to about $100 a person, including tax but not including gratuity (thankfully, since the restaurant invited us, we only had to pay gratuity and parking). Not including the amuses, if we had ordered each dish from the regular menu instead of getting the tasting menu, we would have paid nearly $140 each. Perhaps the portion sizes were pared down for the tasting menu, but it didn't seem like it.

All in all, this was probably one of the best meals I've ever had, even if it wasn't one of my favorite meals I've ever had. The latter has nothing to do with the quality of the restaurant, the food, or the chef--it's purely a matter of my personal taste. I will probably always be someone who gets more excited about a bowl of spicy noodles than a gorgeous piece of meat. But I would really like to go back for the agnolotti, for brunch, and for any occasion that would allow me to sit on the patio during daylight hours. If you like really good food that is different without requiring you to be too adventurous or eat anything "weird," and if you want upscale food at a reasonable price in a comfortable atmosphere, Saddle Peak Lodge is a great choice.

Saddle Peak Lodge
419 Cold Canyon Road
Calabasas, CA 90265
Saddle Peak Lodge website
Saddle Peak Lodge menu
Dinner Hours:
Wednesday through Thursday
6:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Friday 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm
Saturday 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm
Sunday 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Sunday 10:30 am to 2:00 pm


Restaurant Reivew #231: Corner Bakery Cafe

Poblano Fresco with roasted chicken

You remember the old SAT question:

Barnes and Noble : Borders
Corner Bakery Cafe : _______?

a) Chili's
b) Panera Bread
c) Ono Hawaiian BBQ
d) Pizza Hut

Yes, the correct answer is B. (Isn't it always?) Corner Bakery Cafe (CBC) and Panera Bread are essentially the same restaurant, except that CBC's empire is not as geographically widespread. But thankfully, unlike Borders and Barnes and Noble, it's not just that one is green and the other is red: the two bakery cafes actually sell different things. Well, different-tasting things. Both serve breakfast, salads, soups, sandwiches, panini, bakery sweets, fresh bread, bagels, lemonade, and coffee. CBC is better if you want a hot breakfast; Panera is better if you want a bagel (they have more flavors). CBC also serves pasta, which Panera does not. Both rotate their soup flavors according to the day of the week, but their only overlapping soup flavor is broccoli cheddar. Panera's You Pick Two is a more liberal version of CBC's Corner Bakery Combo, which limits the types of salad you can get with your half sandwich, though Panera does charge extra for its more elaborate salads. Both offer five panini options, each with different types of meat and each with one vegetarian option. Both have an Asian salad, a Greek salad, and a caesar salad, but CBC forays into non-lettuce-based salads with options like egg salad and pasta caprese salad.

I don't think I can provide any kind of unbiased assessment of which one is better--I used to work for Panera, and I remember it as one of the best jobs I ever had. I didn't even get sick of the food after eating it every day. But I do think Corner Bakery Cafe is a worthy competitor.

Corner Bakery Cafe
1555 Simi Town Center Way

Simi Valley
, CA 93065
and many, many other locations in 11 states and the District of Columbia)
Corner Bakery Cafe website
Corner Bakery Cafe menu
Mon - Sun: 8:00 AM - 9:00 PM


Restaurant Review #230: Oaks Korean BBQ, Simi Valley - CLOSED

Chicken and beef on the grill

Update: This restaurant has closed.

Oaks Korean BBQ in Simi Valley, whose sign actually says "Oaks Oaks Korean BBQ," is the only Korean restaurant in the area--the next closest are in Canoga Park. The restaurant is attached to a sushi bar, which seems like it may have been a separate restaurant at one time.

It's possible to order sushi from your table, so you don't have to choose between Korean food and sushi, making this restaurant a great option for a group with diverse tastes. The sushi, however, is of the spicy mayo school of sushi preparation, so if that's not your thing, be warned. I tried a spicy yellowtail roll and while the portion was generous and the fish was fine, I couldn't force myself to eat more than two bites because the rice was too soft and not vinegary enough and the mayo was overpowering.

Beef bulgogi, uncooked

The main attraction at Oaks is the barbecue, of course. The restaurant offers the option of cooking the marinated meat at your table over a gas grill or having it cooked for you in the kitchen. Personally, I prefer the latter, as it leaves the cooking to the experts and makes the dining experience more relaxing.

I always stick with bulgogi, as I'm not too adventurous when it comes to eating meat. You have a choice of spiciness when it comes to the meat marinade, but this being Simi Valley, there doesn't seem to be any difference between medium and hot--neither is spicy enough. It's still a decent marinade, and the pork and beef are particularly flavorful here.

Bean sprout banchan

The barbecue dishes come with an assortment of banchan, which are side dishes like bean sprouts, broccoli with sesame seeds, "spicy" cucumbers, and kim chi. The banchan are not very spicy--I even asked if they had spicier ones, hoping maybe they had a second batch only for Korean diners and others who requested them, but no such luck. You can ask for a side of chili sauce, but it's not quite the same. (I enjoy that fiery sensation on my lips and the sweat on my brow, trying to douse the flames in my mouth by chugging beer and shoveling in rice and meat.) Also, the banchan selection is not as extensive or as exotic as you'd find at a K-town restaurant. Steamed white rice, fresh lettuce leaves, and miso paste also come with the meat. The lettuce and miso are for making wraps with the grilled meat.

Marinated turnip (?) banchan

In addition to sushi and Korean barbecue, there are Korean soups, teriyaki beef/chicken/salmon, tempura, raw beef, octopus, tofu and yellowtail collar. There's also a savory, fried scallion pancake that comes with tempura dipping sauce. I highly recommend ordering this as an appetizer. An extensive selection of ice cream beckons for dessert: fried ice cream, mochi, and plum, mango, green tea, strawberry or chocolate ice cream. There's also a small selection of beer and wine.

Cucumber banchan

The food isn't cheap, with each plate of meat costing around $17, but you do get a lot of food for the price considering that miso soup, rice, and all the sides are included in the price. The restaurant is quiet and the booths offer privacy. Since the grills are gas, you won't reek of barbecue when you leave, and there is no noisy vent fan to yell over. The restaurant is also very clean.

Kim chi

The restaurant isn't easy to spot from the street or even after you've pulled into the parking lot. It's at the corner of LA and Sequoia, in the back corner of a strip mall with a 7/11, next to the comic book store. The service is excellent--friendly, prompt, and well-informed. It does seem that the age of the server corresponds directly with English-speaking ability, with the grandmotherly woman who might greet you at the door not seeming to speak any English and the young man who served us last time obviously being a native speaker.

Dining room

Though dining here does make me crave K-Town restaurants like Soot Bull Jeep, whose food is notably better, the less intense food at Oaks is probably more crowd-pleasing for a suburb like Simi Valley (even though Simi does have a surprising number of surprisingly good ethnic restaurants). There's definitely no "scene" here, but that's one of the things I like about it--the atmosphere is very comfortable, yet still probably nice enough for a date. Oaks is one of my favorite restaurants in the area and definitely a place I would return to.

Oaks Korean BBQ
1970 Sequoia Ave #9
Simi Valley, CA 93063
(805) 583-3434
Oaks Korean BBQ Menu


Restaurant Review #229: Lazy Dog Cafe, Thousand Oaks

Black and bleu pizza - $11.95

For a group evening out in Ventura County, I attempted to steer everyone toward my favorite German/Italian restaurant, Two Guys from Italy, but was mysteriously overruled in favor of the Lazy Dog Cafe, a local suburban chain restaurant that I'm sure receives a lot of its business from its proximity to the Thousand Oaks Muvico theater (other locations are in in Westminster, Orange, Irvine, Torrance, and Temecula). Good luck getting a table on Saturday night at 7:00 unless you want to hold onto a plastic buzzer for the next hour. There are few things I hate more than waiting for a table at a generic restaurant. I kind of wanted to stay home. Okay, I really wanted to stay home.

Now put all my grumping aside, because this place actually has a lot going for it. The hamburgers are unbelievable, and they'll actually cook them medium rare. For what is largely a pizza and burger place, you might be surprised to learn that they also serve braised lamb shank and cast-iron baked trout with a citrus-walnut brown butter sauce. They also serve pasta, soup, salad, Chinese food (I'm skeptical), sandwiches, and an unusual array of starters--you can get everything from hummus to sauteed eggplant to chicken wings. There's really something for everyone (they also have a kid's menu--you can guess what's on it).

Lazy Dog Cafe also wins points from me for its actual beer menu with 16 draft beers, including 5 of their own (which can be ordered as a tasting sampler totaling 3o ounces), Rogue Hazlenut Brown, Firestone Double Barrel Ale, and a rotating selection of seasonal beers. Your inner sorority girl will be happy to know that they also serve a plethora of cocktails and martinis; those who have (or pretend to have) more refined sensibilities will appreciate the long and reasonably priced wine list.

Cheeseburger -$8.95

I ordered the black and bleu pizza, a thin-crusted, hubcap-sized pie topped with cajun chicken, hickory-smoked bacon, mozzarella, carmelized onions, blue cheese, diced tomatoes, and green onions. I know I enjoyed it at the time, but I should have eaten it all in one sitting because the leftovers were a soggy mess that marred my opinion of the dish. I also tried the pepperoni pizza, which is totally worth the heart attack you will definitely have if you eat that much pepperoni in one sitting. (For someone who adores pizza, I really should venture outside of the Red Baron box more often.)

Another dish I got to sample since we dined in a large group was the fish and chips. It was exactly what you'd expect it to be--thick hunks of cod, beer-battered and deep fried until golden, crispy, and dripping with grease and generously salted. If you ate the whole platter, you'd be good to go for at least a day, calorie-wise. It was delicious and paired wonderfully with my beer, but I couldn't have eaten a whole meal of it--it's just too one-note for me. But fish-and-chips lovers should be pleased.

The name of the restaurant is terribly misleading, though. Knowing nothing about the place beforehand, I assumed it was some sort of dog-friendly sidewalk cafe (but Toto, we're not in Venice anymore). In actuality, it is like an enormous Chili's, minus the southwestern tiles (for those of you well-versed in suburban restaurants, it's actually more like BJ's). And it's not the easiest place to hold a conversation, especially if you're with a large group--I could have laid down in the middle of our table for eight and there still would have been enough room for all the plates and drinks. So sit next to, not across from, the person you most like.

Two of us were out the door for only $40, and that included two entrees (with leftover pizza), a beer, some cranberry juice, and it's possible that someone may have talked me into taking a chocolate cake shot even though I am morally opposed to paying $6 for two ounces of alcohol. Maybe I was trying to prove that I can still drink like a 23-year-old.

Lazy Dog Cafe
172 West Hillcrest Drive
Thousand Oaks, CA 91360
Lazy Dog Cafe Website
Lazy Dog Cafe Menu
Sun 10am - 11pm
Mon - Thur 11am - 11pm
Fri - Sat 11am - midnight


Restaurant Review #228: M Cafe, Culver City

Tuna tataki salad - $11.25

M Cafe in Culver City is one of a small chain of three macrobiotic restaurants in Los Angeles (the other two are in Beverly Hills and Hollywood). If you're not a health food nut or a vegetarian, you might be turned off by the idea of a place that only serves macrobiotic food--you won't find any refined sugars, eggs, dairy, red meat, or poultry on the menu--but the chefs have created each dish with the intention of appealing to all palettes, and in that I think they've succeeded (as long as you're the type of meat-eater who can live without a hamburger for a little while).

Most of the food is attractively arranged in well-lit display cases so you can see exactly what you're ordering. As much as I usually dislike display-case food, in this case I think it's a good idea. People unfamiliar with macrobiotic food, who aren't sure what they'll be getting into if they order barbecued seitan (a tasty meat substitute) or scarlet quinoa (a grain not unlike couscous, in this case colored and flavored with beet juice), can check it out. And my strawberry shortcake didn't have that stale flavor that's usually the bane of display case food.

But there are plenty of familiar items on the menu for the less adventurous. There are sushi rolls made with organic seafood and sold two bites at a time for $2.25 or $2.75; french fries (with shiso, nori, and sea salt) and sweet potato fries (with chili, sea salt, and lime); panini of the day; and a club sandwich (facon can't be that bad, right?).

Drink options include fresh-squeezed juices (kale lemonade, anyone? I prefer to saute my leafy greens, thanks, but my friend swears by the stuff), natural sodas, teas, mate, and--thank goodness-macrobiotic does not mean going without caffeine, so I ordered an iced coffee (it does, unfortunately, mean no milk or cream--only soy, almond, or rice milk, sorry). The coffee had the color of iced tea (I prefer the black sludge variety) but tasted blessedly stronger than it looked. There's free, self-serve water (LA County water, I presume) near the front door if you'd rather not pay for Fiji or "M Cafe Water."

Ordering is a bit difficult if you don't already know what you want since you walk in and order at the register without the benefit of sitting down and perusing a menu. There are large menus on the wall and printed ones near the cash register, but I find it hard to think on the spot, and the display case can be hard to see if the place is crowded. I had an easier time because I'd looked at the menu online beforehand. You'll get a number after you order and a server will bring your food to your table.

Strawberry shortcake - $6.25

I ordered something safe--the tuna tataki salad and a strawberry shortcake. I haven't been to a farmers market in a while and had forgotten how delicious fresh produce--creamy, sweet avocado, cucumber, mixed greens, a handful of spouts, and some marinated lotus root--can be. The marinated, seared tuna was of the quality you'd expect from a good sushi restaurant and paired nicely with the sparingly used, not-too-spicy wasabi mayo. The ponzu vinaigrette had the right balance of sweet and salty with a tinge of sour. My only complaint is that I wasn't full after eating it, but a salad is a salad, even if it is an entree.

That's where the strawberry shortcake came in. You'd never guess that it was made without refined sugar. Nothing seemed like it was missing. The cake was very light--you won't feel weighed down after eating it like you would after, say, a molten lava cake at Chili's. Not that I would know. And after such a light lunch, I was definitely hungry for a hearty meal of pad Thai that evening.

The dining room is airy, with high, open ceilings, white walls, plenty of large windows, and rustic wood floors and furniture. There are a smattering of outdoor tables, if you don't mind the sidewalk and street traffic. The glossy photo menus add a corporate vibe to a place that otherwise feels cozy, if a bit chaotic--like most places on the Westside, the tables are close together, and the space is long and narrow. The prices are pretty standard for a Westside lunch cafe, with most entrees priced between $8.50 and $11.25, but at $22 total for my salad, dessert, and coffee plus tax, there's no way I could eat here on a regular basis. The no-waiter aspect--and hence, no 20% tip--does help keep the total cost down. You can also buy their food at some Whole Foods stores.

I honestly wasn't expecting much from this restaurant, but I left quite happy with the flavors of everything and the knowledge that I'd eaten a healthy meal, even if I wasn't terribly full.

M Cafe
9343 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
M Cafe website
M Cafe menu
Sunday through Thursday
9:00 am - 9:00 pm
Friday & Saturday
9:00 am - 10:00 pm


Restaurant Review #227: Bar Celona, Pasadena

Poblano pepper and bean dip with crispy flatbread

Bar Celona has been in Old Town Pasadena for years, but Chef Josef Centeno of Echo Park's Lot 1 helped re-do the menu recently. Though I hadn't been to Bar Celona before, I did remember looking at the menu and thinking that it didn't seem very interesting. This time, there were more things I wanted to order than I could afford (or eat).


We went on a Tuesday night because we wanted to hear the live flamenco music. Every Tuesday night, local flamenco band Cale plays in the bar area. They mostly played Gypsy Kings, which I enjoyed and is certainly crowd-pleasing, though I would have liked to hear more variety. You don't have to sit in the bar area to hear the music, as they play it through the restaurant's speaker system. Unfortunately, we were sitting right underneath a speaker and it was very loud. I also had to watch some drunk birthday girl twirling around in front of the band, trying to get attention all night. I guess what I'm saying is that the music is great, but you might want to sit in the dining room instead of the bar area. You'll still be able to hear the music.

We started with a non-Spanish hummus-like appetizer. The flavor was good, but it had that fermented tang to it, like it had been sitting around a day too long. So you may want to skip the poblano pepper dip.

But don't worry, it gets better.

Piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, lightly breaded and fried

I have loved piquillo peppers ever since I had them at Jose Andres's Jaleo in D.C. I savored every bite of this dish, eating it entirely too slowly so that the fried breading got soggy. I also love chile rellenos, but I'm not sure that deep frying peppers is the greatest idea--they're so moist that you're lucky if the coating is still crispy when the dish arrives at your table. Eat this one as soon as you get it.

Flatbread with three sausages

The flatbread with three sausages sounded so boring, and $9 for what is essentially a mini-pizza is pretty egregious. (You're right--I didn't order it.) But the Spanish chorizos and the unique, tangy sauce were outstanding. The dish had a very rustic, homemade feel and was big enough that you could share it without feeling deprived of a decent portion.

Potato and pulled pork shoulder croquettes

I love croquettes, but they are almost never done right. Usually, croquettes are dry, and these were no exception. Pulled pork could have been a very flavorful filling (think carnitas), but in this case it wasn't. I think I'm just going to have to learn to make my own croquettes, because the only good ones I've had since Spain were in Puerto Rico. I wouldn't order this dish again.

Sweet potato and butter empanadas

I couldn't get enough of the sweet potato empanadas. The deep-fried pastry was light and flaky on the outside and gooey on the inside. The sweet potato filling was sweet and creamy and thankfully did not remind me of Thanksgiving. I'm not sure I ever saw an empanada while I lived in Spain, but authenticity be damned. The empanadas were delicious.

Chicken kebab

As I'm sure you can tell from the photo, the only bad dish of the bunch was the chicken kebab, which was overcooked and dessicated. It didn't seem like it would have had much flavor even if it had been cooked for the correct amount of time. Marinade, anyone?

Sauteed oyster and crimini mushrooms

The sauteed mixed mushrooms were very flavorful and took me right back to Spain. The name of the dish was slightly misleading, as there were plenty of (cheap) button mushrooms in the dish as well, but it was still more mushrooms than I wanted to eat in one sitting. This is a good dish to share, or, if you don't mind snooty looks from the waitress, take home the leftovers.

Plates range from $6 to $25, so the tab adds up fast--I could have gone out for sushi for the same price and about the same level of fullness. Though I didn't love the prices (especially for the sangria--$8 for one glass with ice in it, really?), they are customary for a tapas restaurant (I'm sure they're also necessary to pay Colorado Blvd. rent!). You can save a few bucks if you go during happy hour, though.

I also didn't like our waitress's snobby attitude, but I can't say that it was representative of the overall service at the restaurant (or even of her--could have been a bad night). I really enjoyed the food, the sleek decor with glowing red panels and warm yellow ochres, and the live music. I would definitely like to go back the next time I feel like splurging.

Bar Celona
46 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA
Bar Celona website
Bar Celona menu


Restaurant Review #226: Ken of Japan, Simi Valley

Spicy mayonnaise--err, spicy scallop roll

Ken of Japan serves the kind of sushi that I used to like--before I moved to California. I knew what I was probably getting myself into by choosing a restaurant that was both Japanese steakhouse and sushi restaurant. But on the other hand, if I had ruled out O2 based on the teriyaki chicken and teriyaki filet mignon that appear on its menu, I never would have found an almost Westside-caliber sushi restaurant in sleepy Simi Valley.

Yellowtail nigiri

So to Ken of Japan I went. We called to make a reservation. For some reason we couldn't have a 7:00 slot for four people--granted, we made the request at 6:00, but you don't expect to be refused a reservation time in the suburbs. Especially when the restaurant is almost entirely empty when you arrive. Who knows why they didn't think they could or didn't want to seat us earlier.

Eel cucumber roll

The menu is expansive. A photo menu of different sushi rolls shows most of the options available, though because of (I'm guessing) space limitations, it is not entirely clear on all the ingredients that are in each roll. Most of the rolls seem to contain crab (or fake crab, as the case may be) or spicy tuna. So while there appears to be a wide variety of interesting sushi on the menu, if you don't like these two items, you'll find yourself mostly limited to the usual stuff. And the usual stuff, like the dry yellowtail nigiri I ordered, is not very good. With sushi, there is no acceptable middle ground. Either the fish is top notch, or it's just not appetizing to eat raw. And with globby, spicy, mayonnaisey rolls, the quality of fish takes a backseat. So why pay a raw fish premium when you're mostly just eating rice and sauce? (As some consolation, the spicy scallop roll was genuinely spicy.)

Spicy tuna tempura roll

If you're the kind of sushi eater who likes spicy tuna tempura rolls (quick, eat them before they get soggy!) and doesn't really like raw fish, you'll probably be quite happy at Ken of Japan. Like I said, the selection is considerable. The portion sizes are also huge, especially if you're used to Westside restaurants, and the prices are reasonable (even bordering on inexpensive). We ordered way too much sushi. Each roll had eight large pieces--not the small six pieces I am used to. I kind of wish our waitress had commented that we might be ordering too much food. But I guess it's not really the staff's job to discourage you from spending money.

Salmon mango roll

As I alluded to in my comments about the reservations, I was disappointed in the service. The mango salmon roll came stuffed, unexpectedly, with crab. When we mentioned it to the waiter, he had no interest in having the roll remade or taking it off the bill, but only asked us if we wanted to box it up and take it home. (I'm not a fan of the "customer is always wrong" philosophy of business.) A take-home box didn't exactly solve the problem for the people who couldn't eat crab (yes, even fake crab). Also, the quality of mango used in the roll was pretty much what you'd expect for the dead of winter--so why is the restaurant even serving it? A place like Kiriko in West LA would never try to pass off a roll made with pale, almost crunchy mango as one of its top offerings--it wouldn't even serve it.

Teriyaki chicken and beef

The non-sushi-eaters in our party ordered a combination plate that came with teriyaki beef, teriyaki chicken, spicy chicken, eggrolls, salad, and miso soup. The salad had a mayonnaise-based dressing (surprise) that wasn't appetizing to anyone, so those went back to the dishwasher untouched. The miso soup had bits of fried tempura batter in it (intentionally), which tasted better than it sounds, though soggy bits of batter aren't very appetizing. The teriyaki meats were both dry and inunspired. The spicy chicken was a winner, though.

Spicy chicken

Ken's serves beer, wine, and sake plus cocktails made with soju, a Korean distilled liquor considered comparable to vodka in taste but that doesn't seem to require a full-blown liquor license (Musha in Santa Monica also serves beer, wine, and soju cocktails). We didn't try any of the drinks, though.

You've probably guessed that this isn't my kind of restaurant and I won't be going back. If it sounds appealing to you (plenty of Yelpers like it), save a few bucks by picking up a gift certificate on Restaurant.com before you dine. Look for a coupon code online to get your $25 certificate for as little as $2--Restaurant.com is always having sales.

Also, I should point out that while we chose to sit at a regular table for the peace and quiet and privacy, Ken of Japan also has a room with communal, Benihana-style tables and cooking.

Ken of Japan
4340 Cochran Street
Simi Valley, CA 93063-2352
(805) 527-6490