By Richard Foss, Culture and Cuisine Writer
It’s the time of year that I look back at the year just passed — at its joys, trials and the big pile of restaurant receipts I need to do my taxes. As I dig into that job, I re-experience meals long digested and find myself looking through my photo archive to see whether that sushi was really presented as exquisitely as I recall, whether the goodness of that steak was discernible just by looking at it and whether that plate of pasta really was the size of a manhole cover? There are other memories, too, of wilted greens, salty sauces, and meals I began trying to forget as I was eating them, but I’m happy to leave those behind.
I was able to come up with five noteworthy experiences of 2018 that I hadn’t written about in this publication. Two are inexpensive, two moderately priced, and one costs as much as all the others put together, but they were all delightful.
Snacks and Wine at Off The Vine
The food menu at Off The Vine is minimal, mostly cold snacks and salads with a few flatbreads and desserts. When I visited with some close friends it was for a glass of wine and a charcuterie board before dinner at a nearby restaurant. Later, I found myself wishing we’d just stayed at Off The Vine and kept ordering small plates, because the experience was delightful. The space is cozy without being cramped, decorated with simple charm, with a staff of people who all know and love wine and are happy to make recommendations. The cheese and charcuterie board was nothing spectacular, but abundant hospitality makes good, honest food taste better. I left with a bottle of an interesting wine from a small producer and a determination to return and stay longer. Off the Vine is at 491 W. 6th St., #103, San Pedro. Details: (310) 831-1551, offthevinewines.com.
Pizza at Burattino Brick Oven
It’s rare to have a thoroughly delightful time at a place that is having an off night, but that’s what happened at Burattino Brick Oven Pizza. The challenge of operating short-staffed was made worse by trouble with the register, and I heard the cashier dealing with a take-out order that had accidentally been delivered to the wrong address. There was much running around to fix things and in the process our salad was forgotten. None of that mattered when I had my first bite of what was probably the best pizza of the year. The thin crust had the lightness and rise that you only get from very fresh dough. The balance of toppings and sauce was just right — there was plenty of flavor but the whole thing didn’t turn to mush. If Burattino Brick Oven is like this on a bad day, I can’t wait to return for a meal when the place is firing on all cylinders. Burattino Brick Oven Pizza is at 19701 S. Western Ave., RPV. Details: (310) 832-1200, burattinopizza.com.
New Mexican Food at Panxa Cocina
A few months ago I reviewed the seasonal Hatch Chile roasts at Panxa Cocina and became so absorbed in that topic that I didn’t get around to mentioning the regular menu. This is the only restaurant in greater Los Angeles that puts New Mexican cuisine front and center, making it a place of pilgrimage for those who enjoy the spicy, smoky flavors of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The things you know from Mexican cuisine are made a bit differently here – the enchiladas are stacked like a layer cake instead of being rolled and the tamales are more the size of dumplings than the fat version we’re used to. There’s a playful inventiveness in the presentations and details, so don’t expect a meal here to exactly duplicate anything you’ve had elsewhere, but the flavor profile is spot on. Panxa Cocina is at 3937 E. Broadway, Long Beach. Details: (562) 433-7999, panxacocina.com.
Paella at La Española
I order paella almost any time I see it on a menu because I’m extremely unlikely to make it at home. The recipe is complex, requiring both time and practice, and I’m happy to leave it to a pro. Also, it’s usually expensive. But once a week in the small deli at La Espanola Meats, primarily an importer and manufacturer of Spanish foods,the Saturday paella lunch is served for about $12 a plate. The plates are paper and the paella is eaten at long wooden tables on a patio that never lets you forget you’re in an industrial area of Harbor City,
But the flavors are pure Spain. A tip from a local: place your order in advance or show up early, because they often sell out. La Española is at 25020 Doble Ave., Harbor City. Details: (310) 539-0455, laespanolameats.com.
Wine dinner at Mar’Sel
Every once in a while you decide you deserve a meal that really takes you to another plane, a long, leisurely experience to savor and inspire. If you are in the mood for such an evening, perhaps for some special celebration, the best thing to do is see whether Mar’Sel at Terranea has a wine dinner scheduled. Their events are intimate — the one I attended was for only about a dozen guests — and Chef Andrew Vaughan and the guest winemaker come out to talk with diners, explain the dishes, and give thoughtful advice about food and wine pairings. If that sounds like having a private chef and sommelier at a dinner party, you have the exact feel of the evening. You’ll enjoy, learn, relax and spend some time in the most serene environment in a wide radius. It will be pricey — expect to pay about $220 per person — but your palate and brain will feel like they’ve enjoyed a vacation afterward. Mar’Sel at Terranea is at 100 Terranea Way, RPV. Details: (310) 494-7891, terranea.com/events.