Restaurant Review #198: Pecorino, Brentwood

Tortelloni di Melanzane

Pecorino, a hard-to-spot restaurant in Brentwood’s Little Italy, serves traditional rustic Italian fare plus a few innovative creations in a cozy setting. Unlike the Italian restaurants of the suburbs, Brentwood’s eateries are small and cozy and serve smaller portions of less-Americanized dishes, and Pecorino is no exception.

The clientele also reflect the expensive neighborhood: businessmen still in their suits, ladies who lunch, and retired couples. Exposed red brick walls, dark wooden ceiling beams, and traditional white linen tablecloths create a setting that is part modern industrial loft, part your wealthy grandparents' dining room.

Moderately low lighting from the wrought-iron chandeliers overhead and flickering candles on every table bathes the entire room in a warm glow, and tantalizing scents occasionally waft from the partially exposed kitchen. Chef Raffaele Sabatini and his twin brother Mario, are natives of Abruzzo, a region in central Italy that lies 70 miles east of Rome.

The staff made an excellent first impression by insisting on opening the front door and giving us a generous table for four when we were only two. They also honored our request for a quiet table in the back, though noise may not have been an issue no matter where we were seated. Unlike many of LA’s upscale eateries, Pecorino does not ignore the comfort of its diners to make an extra buck by cramming as many tables into their space as possible; instead, they have preserved the privacy that is part of any enjoyable dining experience by spacing the tables at least an arm's length apart.

Acoustics are also well-designed here: even when full, the dining room is reasonably quiet, making it a great place for closing a real estate deal, catching up with old friends, or holding hands across the table with your significant other.
Filetto di bue in salsa

Despite Pecorino’s warm interior, the restaurant can feel a bit pretentious to those who aren’t part of the scene—your first choice after being seated will be whether to pay $7 a bottle for mineral water or endure the supposed indignity of requesting tap. I can't help but wonder if thus signaling to the staff that you have no intention of dropping a week’s pay on your dinner will result in an evening of mediocre service.

Despite the ridiculous markup on water, refills on fountain drinks are free and frequent, and many of Pecorino’s dishes are reasonably priced enough that you can easily control the cost of your meal. Appetizers, soups, and salads range from $8-19. Primi range from $11-22 and secondi range from $25-44. Desserts are $7-8. If you're on a budget, you could order only a primi (pasta dish) and your bill would be pretty reasonable. Though the primi are small and perhaps not enough food to fill up on, to order both a primi and a secondi would be major overkill, despite what their category names imply.

Of course, if you're out for an evening of excess, you could easily spend $75 or more per person on insalata di avocado, burrata cheese with roasted bell peppers, filet mignon, a bottle or two of cabernet, a sampling of cheeses, tiramisu, and espresso. (It’s worth noting here that diners can take a bite out of any bill of $50 or more by purchasing a $25 certificate on Restaurant.com for $10 before leaving home—just make sure to use the certificate Monday through Thursday and present it before you start ordering. The meal reviewed here, including one glass of wine, one soft drink, tax, and tip, cost about $100. Don’t expect to leave with leftovers.

Though the menu’s dishes are listed in Italian, descriptions beneath each item prevent the selection from being intimidating. The filetto di bue in salsa is a ten-ounce filet mignon in shallot and red wine sauce, served alongside olive oil mashed potatoes with green onion. Though the hunk of meat with lumpy sauce next to a sloppy scoop of lumpy mashed potatoes did not make for an attractive presentation, the generous portions, lightly tangy sauce, and properly cooked meat made up for it. While some restaurants will not cook a steak medium rare out of fear of the health department, Pecorino had no qualms about complying with our request. The mashed potatoes, while an interesting idea for a variation on a traditional dish, would have tasted better with salted butter instead of olive oil and far fewer green onions, if the onions even added anything at all.

Dining room

The tortelloni di melanzane consisted of fresh pasta filled with pureed eggplant and ricotta in a light cherry tomato stew. The pasta was definitely al-dente: not how I like it, but admittedly the proper way to cook pasta. The filling did not have a great deal of flavor on its own, a disappointment given the rich, smoky flavor of properly cooked eggplant, so the pasta was left to rely entirely on the sauce and a generous sprinkling of freshly-grated parmesan cheese for flavor. Fortunately, the sauce was mellow but bright, with tomatoes, garlic, and herbs providing a welcome explosion of summer flavor on a cool winter evening. More sauce, or perhaps more flavor in the filling, would have made for a tastier dish. The glass of pinot grigio I ordered to accompany my dish was uninspiring—perhaps I should have asked the waiter for wine suggestions.

Pear and white chocolate mousse

Like most dessert menus, Pecorino’s is pretty predictable: tiramisu, crème brulee, ice cream, sorbet. For a restaurant that strives to remain true to its European roots, the dessert menu was noticeably absent of any fruit-based dishes, unless you count the sorbets. We ordered two of the more creative-sounding items, pear and white chocolate mousse and chocolate mint mousse.

The pear and white chocolate mousse was confusingly named for two reasons: one, it was not a poached pear accompanied by fluffy white chocolate mousse, as I had imagined, and two, there was no hint of pear flavor whatsoever in either the mousse or the sauce that surrounded it. A few errant chunks of elemental white chocolate in the mousse marred an otherwise smooth, tongue-coating texture that captured the essence of the main ingredient. Raspberries, a traditional accompaniment for both chocolate and its albino cousin, along with a rarely seen ground cherry (a sweeter relative of the tangy tomatillo), garnished the attractively presented dish.

Chocolate mint mousse

The chocolate mint mousse, which was also quite gorgeously plated, would have benefited from a stronger chocolate flavor and a mint filling that didn’t taste fake, like a Rocky Road candy bar—not the flavor you want to experience at an upscale restaurant. If I wanted to be generous, I would say that the accompanying mint sauce was vibrant; if I didn't, I would say that it reminded me of a certain 80's movie whose theme song is wildly overplayed every October 31st. The dessert portions were generous enough to share.

At the end of an otherwise nice meal, the service committed a cardinal sin of American dining: making us wait thirty minutes to pay. Perhaps the staff was trying to add to the authentic Italian dining experience by following the European custom of requiring diners to request their bill, but given the attentive service we had received earlier in the evening when the staff seemed to be everywhere all at once, it seemed incomprehensible that no one so much as stopped by to ask how we were doing once our desserts had been served. Even declining coffee and asking for a doggie bag wasn’t enough to prompt our waiter to deliver the bill.
As far as getting there, maneuvering San Vicente at dinner time on weekdays (also known as rush hour) will have you fantasizing about buying a motorcycle--or a helicopter--so unless you live within walking distance, it’s a good idea to make the latest reservation you can—say, 8:30 or 9:00.Parking at this restaurant, or any other in the neighborhood, is almost nonexistent, though if you get lucky you can snag a meter on San Vicente (free after 6:00pm) or a spot in a nearby neighborhood (though these neighborhoods seem to have more red zones and oversized driveways than parking spaces).Otherwise, expect to hand your keys over to the valet—just make sure they don’t give you the wrong Mercedes when you leave.

If you’re looking for Italian food in Brentwood, you have plenty of choices: Osteria Latini, Vicenti, Sor Tino, La Scala, and Toscana—just to name a few. At Pecorino, while the food was generally good and the service was mostly fine, neither impressed me enough that I would care to return when there are so many other options. In particular, I’d rather drive a mile to West LA and eat at Il Moro, where the prices are the same but the food and the service are considerably more inspiring.
11604 San Vicente Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Pecorino Website
Pecorino Menu
Pecorino on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #197: Gladstone's of Malibu

Indoor dining room

I only went to Gladstone's because I dragged my family out to Malibu to visit Cholada Thai and it was closed (they're closed on Mondays--I forgot). There aren't a ton of dining options in the area, so we forced my mom to deal with her bird phobia so we could all deal with our raging hunger. I can't accurately say that I regret the choice, since we didn't really have any other options on our very tight schedule, but I will say that the experience was far from ideal.

You can't argue with the view

If you're afraid of seagulls or want to eat all of your meal yourself, definitely don't sit outside. These birds have no qualms about coming right up to your table and stealing your food, as we observed. You won't lose much of the beachside experience by sitting inside if you can get a table by the window. The windows open and have screens, allowing you to enjoy the view and the breeze without the annoyance of the birds. It's also pretty chilly, even on a sunny, late summer afternoon, so bring a jacket.

Valet parking is required and costs $3. If you're going to the beach anyway, paying half the beach parking rate at a beach lot is a nice perk, but if you're just going to the (already overpriced) restaurant, the parking charge (with the accompanying expectation that you tip the valet) is just annoying.

Down Home Lobster Roll

My mom ordered the Down Home Lobster Roll. Even if I could eat shellfish, I wouldn't touch this mayonnaise sandwich with a ten foot pole. I don't think the delicate (and expensive) flavor of lobster was meant to be smothered with cheap glop like this. The potato chips were soggy.

Shrimp sandwich

I couldn't try this one either, but my father was not impressed. It's worth mentioning that our server didn't give a hoot about my shellfish allergy when I was trying to order. The menu is laden with shellfish, so if you're really allergic (I'm only slightly allergic), please don't eat here.

Grilled cajun fish tacos

Cajun? You have to be kidding me. The fish in these tacos was overcooked and tasted like it hadn't been seasoned with so much as a pinch of salt. The tacos came with beans and rice--both cold, both flavorless. I wasn't hungry enough to bother sending them back, though, and they weren't good enough to take home as leftovers.

Seagull-friendly beachside dining

I like to give a restaurant the benefit of the doubt, but in this case I just don't have any reason to. Based on my lousy experience, I'd say that Gladstone's relies entirely on their beachside location and ocean views to draw diners and tourists. Such mediocrity makes it all the more annoying that the website and menu are so full of hype. There's nothing like eating with an ocean breeze caressing your face, but the food and service at Gladstone's really aren't worth the high prices. For the same money, you could get some gourmet cheese and snacks at Whole Foods and have a picnic on the beach in a location that isn't an obnoxious bird magnet. For even less money and if it isn't Monday, you can enjoy some of the best Thai food in the city just up the street. If you get taken to Gladstone's against your will, save your hard-earned money and get by on a beer and a baked potato--it's hard to screw those up.

Gladstone's of Malibu (also known as Gladstone's 4 Fish)
17300 Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
Gladstone's Website
Gladstone's Menu

Gladstone's 4 Fish on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #196: La Pergola, Sherman Oaks

La Pergola's attractive dining room

I chose La Pergola because Zagat recommended it and I needed a place with "normal" food to take my parents to. The restaurant looks dingy from the outside with a dirty old awning and a neon red sign, which is probably why I'd never considered eating there before, though I've driven past it many times. Its outside appearance is deceiving, because the interior is bright, cheery, and uniquely decorated with Italian ceramics.

Ravioli del Giardino

If the cheery decor wasn't enough to make me like the place instantly, the service really sealed the deal. The waiter, who may have also been the manager judging by his demeanor, was impressively patient with my parents' ordering indecisiveness and with explaining menu items and unfamiliar terms. My mom always has to ask the server, "What is that like?" before she feels comfortable ordering anything, even if the dish is already described on the menu.

Since my parents were hungry, I didn't hassle them with photographing their food, so you'll just hear about my dishes. I ordered the ravioli del giardino, a dish so good that I will probably never manage to try anything else on the menu in all the return visits I hope to make. The pasta tasted fresh and homemade and was filled with a puree of vegetables that somehow managed to taste like cheese. The creamy sauce was incredibly rich and I'm sure the dish contained many more calories than I normally eat in an entire day, but it was worth every bite.


For dessert, my dad ordered the house special. Tartufo is the Italian word for "truffle." In this case, it's also a dessert consisting of a ball of chocolate hazelnut ice cream with a chocolate coating and a maraschino cherry in the center. Though it didn't sound all that exciting to me, it was actually very flavorful. I only wished that I had been the one to order it!

Plum sorbet

The plum sorbet was a disappointment after the excellent pasta and tartufo. For $7, it tasted nearly identical to a cherry popsicle, which wasn't quite the flavor revelation I was anticipating. The plum lacked the sour tang of the plum slushes I like to order from boba tea shops. Of course, there are sour plums and there are sweet plums, so a sweet plum sorbet is perfectly valid even if I didn't enjoy it.

Windowside seating with a view of the patio and Ventura Boulevard

We arrived early on a Sunday evening and were the only ones in the restaurant for a while, which I found puzzling considering how nice the restaurant was and how excellent the food and service were. As the restaurant filled up more and more the closer it got to 7:30, it proved to be yet another popular destination for the Sherman Oaks senior crowd (which apparently is a significant part of the neighborhood's demographic, judging by my other dining experiences in the area). Arrive early and maybe you'll get to have the place to yourself, too. Don't let the blah signage deter you--this restaurant is a great find.

La Pergola
15005 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91403
Map of La Pergola
La Pergola Website

La Pergola on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #195: Il Moro's Fall Harvest Menu, West LA

Salsiccia Casareccia in Umido con Polenta Fresca

Being invited to try Il Moro's Fall Harvest menu was a unique opportunity for me in that I have never previously had a comped meal at a restaurant which I am already familiar with. I was looking forward to seeing how my previous two experiences at Il Moro as an average diner would compare to my experience as someone who needed to be impressed. Since I already thought that Il Moro's service and food were nearly impeccable, I wasn't really expecting anything to be different on this visit except for the price.

Il Moro did not let me down. Truly the only difference between this visit and my previous visits was that the manager visited our table three times to share his thoughts on the food and the restaurant. He told us that Il Moro's menu is based on the cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, a region well-known for its food, and that his chef insists on spending eight hours to make their ragu. He pointed out that the restaurant is popular despite being tucked away, not having much signage and not being in an area that receives any pedestrian traffic. You can come to Il Moro just to have a drink at the bar, you can come for their wine tastings on Tuesdays, you can come for a business meeting (they have a private room), or you can enjoy their outdoor patio. Clearly he has tried to create a restaurant that fulfills multiple needs, and I think he has succeeded.

Carpaccio di Manzo e Insalatina, Carciofi Croccanti in Odore di Aceto Balsamico

I always let my servers pick my wines at Il Moro because they always do an excellent job. This time I had a sauvignon blanc from Luretta to go with the first few courses. The wine was pleasantly fruity, but not too sweet.

Our first treat was a house-made, Italian style pork sausage stew with braised onions and tomato sauce served atop soft, buttery polenta (lead photo). I'd never had anything like it, and the flavors melded together flawlessly. The rosemary garnish was interesting because it added an aroma to the dish which was not part of the flavor--a good choice, I thought, since rosemary can be overwhelming. This dish would fit right in at Cube.

I've only had carpaccio a couple of times, at Orris and Lucques, and I have to say, Il Moro's version is the best I've tasted. Their paper-thin slices of raw beef fillet are topped with organic baby lettuce, sultry oven-roasted tomatoes, lemon dressing, shaved Parmesan cheese, and drops of 10-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena. Naturally, I licked the plate clean.

Cappelletti in Brodo di Cappone con Fegatini

"Aaack, I ate chicken liver?" was what I thought when I got home and looked at the menu. I paid no attention to the menu at the restaurant because I just wanted to eat whatever the chef sentout. These fresh, handmade quadretti, or tiny squares of pasta, were filled with chicken liver and served in a tasty capon broth. To me, the pasta mainly just tasted salty, but the broth had a richness and complexity that definitely wasn't Campbell's.

Tortelloni di zucca al ragu

This attractive pumpkin bowl (can you imagine having to carve and embowl all of those pumpkins? Yikes!) held homemade tortelloni filled with pumpkin, amaretto cookies, fruit mustard, and parmesan cheese, sauteed with Bolognese sauce and a touch of cinnamon.

Since Giada di Laurentis is always tossing ameretto cookies into her dishes, I was excited to try this dish, which is extremely popular at Il Moro and only available for about three months every year. The cookies were thoroughly blended with the filling and did not provide any sort of crunch (which wouldn't have worked in this dish) but I thought the amaretto flavor was overwhelming and made the pasta filling overly sweet. It really needed a lot of the Bolognese sauce to balance out the sweetness. The sauce was delicious, but I think I'm more of a butternut-squash-filling-without-amaretto-cookies kind of gal. I'm a supertaster, though, so I think a lot of things are too sweet that other people enjoy.

Ravioli di Manzo Brasato e Spinaci al Burro Fuso, Risotto alla Vecchia Modena, and Maccheroni al Pettine al Ragu di Coniglio

At this point in the meal, the server brought me a red wine: Le Pietre, from Aldeghieri. I really don't know if I was drinking expensive wines or moderately priced wines, but I was quite impressed with both of them and with how well they paired with the food. (If you ever question whether your wine is a good match for your entree, just save a few sips for the dessert course and notice how terrible your formerly delicious wine tastes with your dessert.)

For this course, I ate a few things that I normally would not have touched. The risotto consisted of carnaroli rice with porcini mushrooms, slowly cooked chicken gizzards and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Chicken gizzards, you ask with disdain? Truthfully, I didn't notice them at all because the mushrooms were the dominant flavor in the dish, yet somehow the overall flavor reminded me of movie theater popcorn.

The maccheroni consisted of homemade, rolled-tube ridged egg pasta sauteed in a lean rabbit ragu with fresh vegetables, white wine, and a light tomato sauce. The maccheroni looked like penne from a distance, but upon closer inspection, you could see that the tiny lines in the pasta ran horizontally instead of vertically and that each piece of pasta looked like it had been rolled individually.

The ravioli filled with fresh spinach and braised beef in Barolo wine in a golden butter sauce was one of the best dishes of the evening. I couldn't take apart the spices I tasted in the filling, but they almost reminded me of Indian food. I'm not sure how large a regular serving is, but I doubt I could have eaten more than a few pieces of this incredibly rich pasta. As it was, I was already too full to finish even three pieces, delicious though they were. Still, I would definitely order this ravioli if I went back.

Costiccine d'Agnello alla Senape

By the time we received the grilled baby rack of New Zealand lamb brushed with herbs in a mustard sauce, I was probably too full to really enjoy any more food. The lamb had a texture more like beef (normally I think lamb has a slightly crumbly texture) and I wasn't that keen on the sauce, which I thought was too salty (but my guest loved it). The dish was served with perfectly cooked asparagus sauteed in butter and garlic. While all of the dishes were attractively presented, this presentation was the most show-stopping one of the evening.

Chocolate tarte brule with fresh strawberry sauce

Coming from someone who doesn't get that excited about chocolate, this dessert was spectacular. Carmelizing the top of this chocolate mousse-like cake with a flourless chocolate crust was truly an epiphany. The sensation of the fork breaking through the delicately crunchy top followed by the flawless smoothness of the other two layers was great foreplay for the sumptuous flavors to follow.

On my previous visits to Il Moro I sat on the patio, but this time I sat indoors to have a different experience, take advantage of the better lighting for my photos, and because it was rather chilly outside (their patio is heated, though). Even though the restaurant was fairly full, it was never too noisy and there was plenty of space between our table and the neighboring tables. The kitchen is open, so occasionally an errant food aroma that doesn't quite go with what you're eating will waft over. The chairs were exceptionally comfortable.

While Il Moro's menu is not your typical "safe" Italian menu of lasagne, pizza, and spaghetti that most of middle America is used to, it does have enough "normal" dishes for the average person. However, it also has many upscale or unusual dishes that you aren't likely to find at most Italian restaurants, even in a city as culinarily diverse as Los Angeles. The menu is not always easy to understand, but the servers are friendly and will be happy to explain any dish to you. Il Moro was and still is one of my favorite restaurants, and I highly recommend it.

Il Moro
11400 Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Il Moro Website (with menu)

Foodie Universe's previous Il Moro review

Il Moro on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #194: Cafe Bizou, Sherman Oaks

Sesame coated salmon with potato pancakes and mushrooms in a burgundy wine sauce

Despite having eaten at over 200 restaurants in Los Angeles, when my parents come to town, I have a hard time figuring out where to take them. My adventurous tastebuds don't appear to be genetic, so my knowledge of local Japanese restaurants is lost on them. Thankfully, Cafe Bizou turned out to be a place that satisfied both my parents' desire to eat food they were familiar with in a restaurant unique to LA and my desire to eat something flavorful and well-prepared.

Halibut with vegetable strudel and mashed potatoes in a tomato garlic sauce

We made a reservation for dinner on a Friday night and were glad we had, because plenty of people were waiting when we arrived. There isn't actually much of a place to wait though, especially when it's raining outside, which made the entrance pretty cramped. Within the restaurant, the tables are better spaced than in most of LA's eateries. That being said, we had a difficult time creating enough space for our plates, glasses, and bread basket at our table for four.

All entrees and pasta dishes have the option of adding a cup of soup of the day or a romaine salad for $1. I'm not sure if I think the extra dollar is gimmicky or a good way for folks who don't want either to save a bit of cash. For a dollar, though, the portions were generously sized.

Steak au Poivre: Sliced steak served with mashed potatoes and vegetables in a brandy cream sauce

The best entree of the evening was the salmon (lead photo). Coming from someone who doesn't really care for salmon, that's saying a lot. If I go back, I'll definitely order this dish. The other two entrees we tried were also solidly prepared, albeit less unique. The vegetable strudel that accompanied the halibut could have used more flavor in the form of cheese, butter, or even a little extra salt. The steak was perfectly cooked, and every dish was attractively presented.

Flourless chocolate cake

The dessert choices were pretty standard. Amusingly, my parents thought that flourless chocolate cake was for people with dietary restrictions, so I ordered it so they could see what they were missing out on. Moist and lightweight instead of dry and heavy, the flourless chocolate cake was superb. The tiramisu, which I normally think is a dessert menu cliche, was extra moist and had clearly earned its spot on the menu.


The best part of our meal at Cafe Bizou was, well, everything. If you're a regular reader (or a regular diner, period) you know how difficult it is to find a restaurant where the food, the atmosphere, and the service are all done well. For an evening out where there's something for everyone on the menu and everything works and tastes as it should, Cafe Bizou is an excellent choice.

Cafe Bizou
14016 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
Cafe Bizou Menu
Cafe Bizou Map

Lunch M-F 11:30 - 2:30
Dinner daily 5:00 to close (oh, I hate when places say that!)
Brunch Sat, Sun 11:00-2:30

Appetizers and Soups $3 - $9
Entrees $13 - $20
Martinis $7 Wines by the glass and the bottle, or BYOB and pay corkage
Cafe Bizou on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #193: Cafe Orient, Chatsworth

Orange Chicken

When you're in the Northridge/Chatsworth area, there aren't a lot of unique dining options--almost every restaurant is a large, loud chain. Cafe Orient is an oasis in the desert, serving homemade Chinese and Vietnamese food in a hand-decorated, cozy, lavender setting. Despite being small, the restaurant was uncrowded enough that we were able to be seated right away. Fortunately, we made it there before the 9:00 closing time.

(Note: I wrote this last year and just discovered that I had never posted it. Hopefully Cafe Orient has not gone away since then. Drop me a line if you know anything.)

Charbroiled Beef

The orange chicken had a delicate orange flavor and was sweet without tasting candied. Rather, it tasted like it was actually made with the juice of an orange and wasn't laden with cornstarch, unlike most of the Chinese food I've eaten. The charbroiled beef was flavorful and tender, but unnecessarily greasy and didn't quite taste like Vietnamese food. Though the meat could have used more lemongrass flavor, the nuoc cham and rice made the dish addictively good.

Dining room

Overall, everything about the experience was hassle-free, even parking (there is a large lot in front). This restaurant is probably not your best bet if authenticity is what you're after, but for a comfortable dining experience with decent food, low prices, and uncannily fast service, Cafe Orient is a good choice.

Cafe Orient
20527 Devonshire
Chatsworth, CA 91311

Cafe Orient Hours:
Lunch 11am-2pm
Dinner 5pm-9pm
Closed Sundays
Cafe Orient on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #192: Robin's, Cambria, CA

Tandoori chicken with yellow dal, fruit and mint chutneys, sauteed sugar snap peas and brown basmati

Robin's is an "eclectic" restaurant offering dishes from all over the world (sort of the Al's Pancake World of Cambria, if you will). When I first read Robin's menu, I thought, any restaurant that serves this many different types of food can't do any of them well. Unfortunately, I overrode my instincts and gave Robin's a try anyway since it was recently voted the best restaurant in Cambria.

If I lived in Cambria, not Los Angeles, and didn't actually know what the different cuisines represented on the menu were supposed to taste like, I might have loved Robin's, too. The food, while not bland, wasn't fully or properly seasoned, leaving my tastebuds unsatisfied.

Visually, though, the food is much more pleasing than most of its more authentic counterparts. How often do you see Indian food presented so well? (Of course, well-presented Indian food, in my mind, only means one thing: rising prices. I'm just waiting for the day when Indian restaurant owners collectively realize that they are undercharging for their food. Getting that much flavor for $7.95 can't last forever!)

Crispy Vietnamese Lumpia

In lieu of an entree, I ordered several appetizers. I started with the crispy Vietnamese lumpia with homemade kimchee. Despite the fancy name, it was really just standard spring rolls, albeit fairly flavorless ones.

Panko crusted calamari with Asian slaw, sesame citrus vinaigrette, and sambal aioli

The panko crusted calamari didn't turn out to be as much of an epiphany as I had hoped--I probably wouldn't have even noticed the panko if it wasn't listed as an ingredient on the menu. The squid was properly cooked to avoid rubberyness and the sambal aioli was a tasty complement, though it would have been better served on the side. The calamari were served atop the Asian slaw, which did not add anything to the dish and mainly got in the way of eating the calamari.

Robin's salmon bisque

The salmon bisque came recommended, but while eating it I kept thinking of my Alaskan friend from college who likes to mock the salmon most people eat, saying that it's what Alaskans feed their dogs. Needless to say, I didn't get too far on this dish. Also, is orange the right color for a dish that features salmon as its main ingredient?

The tandoori chicken was quite good, though it was not a good approximation of Indian food. The chicken breast was very moist and the dal still had a pleasant bite to them rather than being stewed into oblivion. Mysteriously, there was only one sugar snap pea in the entire dish. I wouldn't mind eating this dish again, but if I wanted the richly spiced flavor of Indian food, I would look elsewhere.

Chocolate mousse

Robin's desserts come from the dreaded display case (meaning, as a rule, the desserts will be served at the wrong temperature and tinged with the stale flavor of display case air), which is why I picked the desserts that I knew weren't sitting in there (you can see the display case when you walk into the restaurant). The chocolate mousse was full of flavor, but the experience was dampened by a mound of canned whipped cream and a wilting mint garnish. I enjoyed the bread pudding more, which was drenched in sauce the way I like it.

Bread pudding

The dining room is sort of creaky and homey, like someone's living room, and diners are casually dressed. This isn't quite a date restaurant, though in Cambria your options are limited. The restaurant is normally crowded and difficult to get into on a weekend night. If the owners of our bed and breakfast hadn't hooked us up with a reservation, we would have faced a 45 minute wait at 7:00. The service was pretty slow and indifferent, which isn't what I was expecting from a restaurant that was recently given an award by diners.

Though Robin's has been open for 22 years and is so popular that it opened a sister restaurant, Novo, in San Luis Obispo, I wouldn't go back and I wouldn't recommend it. I don't think that the food lives up to the expectations of LA diners.

4095 Burton Dr.
Cambria, CA 93428
Robin's Website
Robin's Map
Lunch 11:00 am - 4:45 pm
Dinner Sunday - Thursday 5:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Dinner Friday & Saturday - 5:00 pm - 9:30 pm
Sunday Brunch Specials


Restaurant Review #191: Rincon Salvadoreno, Van Nuys

Pupusas topped with curtido

After eating at a few hundred restaurants, almost 200 of which I've taken the time to write about, I've learned that there are no undiscovered restaurants out there, particularly in a city as large and thoroughly combed as Los Angeles. So why did I decide to get my birthday dinner from the dirty, dingy, hole-in-the-wall that is Rincon Salvadoreno when there were zero customers inside? I guess hoping I'll manage to discover a restaurant others haven't gives me some kind of foodie high.

Despite the name, Rincon Salvadoreno has mostly Mexican-sounding dishes on its menu. I was there for the pupusas though, which were advertised in the window as being $1 on Mondays. In fact, the woman who appeared to be the restaurant's sole employee, a crotchety old glad-you're-not-my-grandmother type, also informed me of this special. Yet, when the bill came, we were charged--well, I can't even figure out how two horchatas and six $1 pupusas comes out to $16, but I figured she needed the money more than I did so I didn't bother to argue. Despite the fact that I speak fluent Spanish, we had major communication problems the whole time I was there.

"What flavors of pupusas do you have?"
"Meat and cheese."
"What kind of meat?"
"Meat and cheese."
"Are there different flavors?"
"Meat and cheese."

After this exchange, I just ordered six pupusas and two horchatas to go and hoped for the best.

Despite the major communication issues, hostile service, terribly dreary space and menus that I was loathe to touch, the pupusas (which contained shredded pork and cheese) were freshly made and the best I've had yet--not too salty, not too greasy, not too doughy. So I guess in some ways, I did find a gem, but I'm unwilling to deal with so many unpleasantries when there are plenty of other places to get pupusas in the area.

Rincon Salvadoreno appears to be a chain with additional locations in North Hollywood and Sun Valley--I wonder if they're any better?

Rincon Salvadoreno
14338 Victory Blvd.
Van Nuys, CA 91401

Rincon Salvadoreno on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #190: Gio Cucina Napoletana, Encino

Involtini di Pollo

Many Valley restaurants are crowded and noisy on Friday nights. If you'd rather celebrate the end of the work week with a quiet evening out, Gio Cucina in Encino is a great choice. While I don't agree with the old LA Times review that hails Gio Cucina as the best Italian food in the Valley, they do serve up solid food at reasonable prices and provide excellent service in a relaxed, low-key setting.

Gio Cucina is nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall on the second story of a strip mall. Parking is scant, but we were still able to get a spot at 7:00. We considered a quiet, breezy outdoor table on the balcony, but overruled it due to the plastic chairs, car dealership view, and potential to be frequently interrupted by other restaurant visitors walking past (in the end, I don't think any of these things really would have detracted from the joy of having a relatively secluded table and fresh air, and I will probably sit there on my next visit). The restaurant's interior is nothing to brag about, though it's clear that the owners put thought into making a minimalist space look as elegant as possible with lace curtains, white tablecloths and linen napkins. Though there are only about ten tables, you'll still have plenty of breathing room since they aren't crammed together Westside-style.

Our dinner started with complementary mini bruschetta topped with fresh, juicy tomatoes (all of the restaurant's vegetables are fresh), along with fresh dinner rolls and a tangy, dijon mustard-infused olive tapenade (who knew olives and mustard went together so well?). The tapenade had a strong enough flavor to still stand out even when eaten with bread, unlike some other olive tapenades I've had that taste like nothing more than ground up canned black olives. I could have eaten the bread and olive tapenade all night, and they would have let me, too--they offered us more bread twice. Alas, most of us can't eat six dinner rolls and still have room for entrees and dessert.

Duetto di Ravioli, Pollo e Aragosta

For entrees, I tried one pasta dish and one secondi. The Duetto di Ravioli consists of candy-shaped chicken-filled ravioli in a light cream sauce paired with lobster and shrimp-stuffed ravioli in a pink sauce. Gio Cucina brags that their pasta is made fresh daily. While I commend their efforts, I'm afraid that I'm not enough of a pasta connoisseur to tell the difference. I thought that the pasta wasn't cooked enough, as the folded edges of the candy-shaped ravioli were a little too chewy, but some might argue that the pasta was cooked al dente and I tend to like overcooked pasta. The ravioli fillings were very flavorful, but the sauce was a little lacking both in flavor and quantity for my tastes. On the other hand, I often find cream sauces to be too heavy, and I didn't experience any burnout on this dish.

The secondi I tried was the Involtini di Pollo, a rolled breast of chicken stuffed with ricotta, sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach, cooked in a white wine sauce and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts. The chicken was moist and properly cooked (save for a few bits that got a little dried out in the oven). I couldn't taste the sun-dried tomatoes at all, a real shame since they might have provided a little kick that the dish lacked, though it was still quite good. The white wine sauce complemented the flavors of the chicken and also went so well with the perfectly-cooked broccoli that I actually ate and enjoyed the broccoli, and that's saying a lot coming from someone who swore off the vegetable long ago. Again, I wished there had been more sauce, but I do tend to drench my food in sauce. The serving sizes of both dishes were adequate, reminiscent of healthier European portion sizes and not the gigantic American portions that are making our country obese. Of course, I like to have leftovers, and we easily finished both of our entrees with room left over for dessert. The entree prices were very reasonable, at about $15 each. Most entrees fall in the $10 - $15 range.

For dessert, I had the panna cotta with fresh raspberry sauce. The panna cotta had a perfectly smooth texture, but little flavor save for the raspberry sauce, which had a very pleasant tang. The better dessert choice was the Terrina di Cioccolato con Amaretti. A true chocolate-lovers desert, the terrina di cioccolato was the densest chocolate chocolate dessert I've ever eaten, more comparable to fudge than to cake, with a bittersweet chocolate flavor. It came with a very flavorful amaretti ice cream that had the pleasantly icy texture of homemade ice cream. I would not order the panna cotta again, but I would re-order the terrina. We were also offered a chocolate souffle, but I was skeptical since it was offered at the end of our meal, and a proper souffle takes a while to bake (I'm pretty sure our waiter was new, but he was still very good).

The service was incredibly attentive. We were given our choice of tables, bread and bruschetta hit the table mere minutes after we were seated, our drinks were always refilled promptly, and we didn't have to wait too long for our entrees. It did take me forever to decide what to order--the menu is extensive and varied. Gio Cucina also serves pizzas, soups, salads, and is open for lunch on weekdays in addition to dinner every night except Sunday. Being such a small operation, its hours are limited, so make sure to check the schedule before you go.

Overall, I really enjoyed my experience at Gio Cucina Napoletana. Though the food had some imperfections and didn't blow me away with its flavor, the dishes were still solidly prepared and I really appreciated the wide variety of menu options (including things I don't normally see on Italian menus). The service was excellent, the prices are very reasonable, and while the atmosphere isn't really nice enough for a date, it's pleasantly unpretentious and down-to-earth. You don't need to dress up to dine here, and you can bring your kids (and if you're sans-kiddos, don't worry--despite the family-friendly atmosphere, there weren't any issues with screaming or out of control children).

Gio Cucina Napoletana
15826 Ventura Blvd # M (on the north side of the street)
Encino, CA 91436
(818) 905-7446

Gio Cucina Website
Gio Cucina Menu

Lunch: M-F, 11:30-2:30
Dinner: M-F, 5:00 - 9:30, Sat. 5:30 - 10:00
Gio Cucina Napoletana on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Review #189: Java Groove Coffee, Van Nuys

Grilled chicken panini

Java Groove is a relatively new coffee shop and cafe in Van Nuys about a four block walk from the Van Nuys Courthouse. Despite its warm wood floors and deep orange walls, it maintains some of the sleek sterility of a corporate coffee shop while seemingly aiming for something a bit more personal (it is family-owned, after all). When I visited on a Saturday morning, they had a live saxaphone player--live in the way that the saxaphone players on the Third Street Promenade are live, with shrill notes played against a back up tape. Java Groove is small, with seven, two-person indoor tables and a few outdoor tables. They are one of the only places in the area with free Wi-Fi.

Java Groove is about a year old and inhabits a sleek, relatively new pedestrian-friendly shopping center on Victory just east of Van Nuys Blvd. It is one of several new sandwich shops that have popped up in the area, presumably to serve the nearby Van Nuys Courthouse's lunch crowd, who are (so the festering of sandwich shops would have me believe) not interested in trying one of the many nearby taco shops or pupuserias. Java Groove's neighbor, formerly the Mexican restaurant El Pedregal, is now also a sandwich shop called The Patio Grill. Then there's the Subway at Erwin and Van Nuys, the Quizno's across the street from the Subway, and the sandwich and smoothie shop opening at the corner of Friar and Van Nuys where the never-open Zairov Chicken used to reside. Java Groove was dead on a Saturday at lunch and isn't even open on Sundays, further proof that it doesn't exactly cater to the neighborhood (can you imagine a Westside coffee shop dead on a Saturday?).

I must admit that I did not try the coffee (in fact, it did not even occur to me to try the coffee, so hungry was I). What I did try was a grilled chicken panini. It took longer than I expected for the sandwich to be made, but that's because it was made to order, so I really cn't complain. The freshness and high quality ingredients made all the difference for this flavorful sandwich with juicy chicken and perfectly melted cheese. The true test that no sandwich shop ever passes is the tomato test--everyone puts their tomatoes in the fridge and turns them into tasteless, mealy, dessicated disks. Well, Java Groove's tomatoes were none of these. Quality tomatoes at a random coffee shop--who would have guessed? The sandwich ingredients are slippery, so leave the toothpick in while you eat it.

I also ordered a chocolate smoothie. Chocolate smoothie, you ask? Yes. For some reason, Java Groove does not (or at least not on my visit) make chocolate milkshakes, only chocolate smoothies. They do, however, make mango milkshakes. But not mango smoothies. And milkshakes only come in one size, but smoothies come in three. Are you confused yet?

If you're spending the day serving jury duty at the Van Nuys Courthouse, Java Groove seems to be one of the best options in the area for an inexpensive lunch (or, ahem, "cigarette" break) that you can walk to. If you're looking for something with a more authentic Van Nuys flavor, you might try El Traipiche Pupuseria on Sylvan (on the opposite side of Van Nuys Blvd. from the courthouse) or Taqueria Emanuel. Most people will not enjoy Rincon Salvadoreno for the dingy atmosphere and lousy service, but their pupusas are awfully good. If you have enough time to jump in the car, I recommend Mi Casita Salvadorena, Zankou Chicken, or a short drive to Sherman Way in North Hollywood where you'll find the delectable Krua Thai. If you need some fuel before the day begins, don't miss the crullers at Donuts and Delites.

Java Groove also offers catering services and rental of their coffee shop for private events and meetings.

Java Groove Coffee
14310 Victory Blvd
Van Nuys, CA 91401
(818) 785-6593
Java Groove Website

Parking lot in rear
Java Groove Coffee on Urbanspoon