Sunday, July 24, 2011

Grand Casino: Main Street, Argentina Style

Lidia Lamanna sits daily at a sidewalk café in downtown Culver City, knitting or embroidering guest towels to give as gifts. Her industrious spirit was an inspiration when I was first getting to know the city, and I would often bring my beadwork and create jewelry while sitting on Grand Casino's patio, nursing a café con leche and a couple of alfajores.

How many calories can you burn while beading?

One day, I decided to stay for dinner, and ordered the strip steak, whose simple and garlicky seasonings always remind me of the steaks my dad used to prepare. I was hooked. I've brought friends to Grand Casino since, happy to find a place that combines incredibly good food with a comfortable atmosphere. Later, I learned that Lidia was not just a crafty lady who liked to knit in Argentinian restaurants, but the owner of my favorite downtown eatery.

"It was my husband's idea," says Mrs. Lamanna of Grand Casino, which she and her late husband Frank Lamanna, opened seven years ago on Main Street. "He always liked to do something new."

The greatest thing to happen to Catholics since Vatican II: Grand Casino's tuna empanada, available - sadly - only at Lent.

The bakery - purveyor of the aforementioned alfajores and other delights - has been there since 1987, with all the baking done on-site. Lamanna, who has retired and turned over the chef's apron to her daughter Linda, says that many of the dishes are made from family recipes. The menu, which is influenced by Lidia's Austrian-Russian background and her husband's Italian tradition, posseses the additional sabor of their native Buenos Aires.

Lamanna says that while she has experienced many types of cafés around the world, the ones in Argentina most resemble the cafés of France. People from all walks of life gather on the patio at Grand Casino all week long, using it as everything from a boardroom to a breakfast nook. Artistes of all kinds share their art, as the restaurant is a cozy venue for many musicians, tango dancers, and wine tastings.

Clemente Leon, who has worked at Grand Casino for five years, says that his favorite thing about his job is, "Everything. My customers. They bring their friends."

Grand Casino's parrillada, or mixed grill. Indulging my inner gaucho, minus the funny pants we wore in the seventh grade.

People - incredible food notwithstanding - are what make the place hum. Last Monday, when David and I drove into L.A. from Phoenix, missing not only Carmageddon but yet another Arizona dust storm. I told him he had to experience Grand Casino on this visit. But as we walked in, we learned that the restaurant closes at 8 p.m. seven days a week. We must have looked pretty hungry, because once again, luck was with us: Lidia and her staff allowed us to stay and eat. We ordered the parrillada, a mixed grill for two, which we devoured with great enjoyment and extra chimichurri sauce, as the staff closed the restaurant.

I learned recently that Grand Casino will begin to stay open an hour later - until 10 p.m. - all seven days. Apparently I was not the only one who wished that my favorite escape from the L.A. grind was open later. When it first opened, people were clamoring for Grand Casino to stay open past six and serve dinner. With the restaurant being located off Culver Boulevard, the dining hub of town with trendy options on every corner, that kind of popularity is nothing to sneeze at.

"We want all the customers to be happy," says Lamanna.

It's impossible not to be happy at Grand Casino. Even when, on April 1 this year, I and about 30 die-hard customers ate our lunches with contentment both inside the restaurant and at the sidewalk tables as city workers jackhammered at chunks of Main Street right in front of the patio - no foolin'.

It's a good thing I don't taste with my ears.

Soon-dooboo: A Soup by Any Other Name

I've been hard pressed to find one common spelling for that ultimate Korean comfort soup, sundubu. Or, as I've seen it spelled on menus, soon-tofu.

Mountain, a new Korean eatery in Gardena's Tozai Plaza, spells it soon-dooboo. I ordered the soon-dooboo chigae, or as Wikipedia has it listed, sundubu jjigae. No matter how you spell it, the light but satisfying concoction is full of buttery soft tofu, a variety of shellfish, and a spicy but not overwhelming broth. Tradition dictates a raw egg, broken into the boiling soup when it arrives at the table. But my favorite part of a sundubu/soon-dooboo/soon tofu meal is the banchan.

Any way you spell it, Korean tofu soup is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

While kim chee - or kimchi - is often thought of as spicy pickled cabbage, any vegetable can be made into kim chee, at varying levels of heat. Dylan and I were served the requisite cabbage and daikon varieties, along with the inevitable potato salad. As the blandest thing on the table, this made for a good palate cleanser. But the most surprising banchan was a bowl of what would be best described as caramelized tidbits of beef in broth, an unusual prelude to the fiery soups we were anticipating.

Tongyeong "tapas" - banchan can be a meal in itself.

Mountain prides itself on health conscious ingredients. They even offer dishes that are considered great remedies for colds (and hangovers. Yelpers - who call the Koreatown location "Mountain Cafe" - are fervent believers in the restorative powers of abalone porridge and the sam geah tang, which is chicken ginseng soup.

They even offer a choice of white or brown rice, which always gets bonus points from me. Except that the "brown" rice was highlighted by a lovely shade of purple. Like the elusive common spellings for tofu soup, the jury is out on what gives this rice the color of a penny loafer. Luckily, it's a whole lot tastier than one.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New Kid in Town: Ferraro's on the Hill

The newest Italian eatery in identity-conflicted Rancho Dominguez is located on Victoria Street in a strip mall that includes the place to get The Best Pho in Los Angeles, a Quiznos, and an ever-changing rotation of mom-and-pop lunch spots that cater mainly to firefighters, whitish-collar captains of industry and those of us at Cal State Dominguez Hills who are starved for options during Campus Dining's semi-hiatus during the summer months.

I was sitting in my office one morning when a guy with a New Yawk accent walked in and gave me a handful of fliers and coupons for Ferraro's on the Hill, including a coupon for a free slice of cheese pizza. Although fliers don't usually excite me, the messenger got authenticity points for his pronunciation. I just happened to be mulling over where James and I would go to lunch that day, and Ferraro's, looked promising with its menu of classics, the names of which all ended in an operatic vowel.

The restaurant itself is stark and clean, with a map of Southern Italy on a chalkboard-like surface and plain wooden tables and chairs. But my old friend "Al Fresco" beckoned from the large and sunny patio area, so we seated ourselves outside after ordering from the counter.

Spaghetti with meat sauce is my usual litmus test for a new Italian restaurant. I ordered the Bolognese meat sauce, while James had his spaghetti with meatballs. When our pastas were served, we noted with delight that the noodles were coated with sauce in addition to being topped with a generous dollop of sauce on top. But it was the complex flavor of the sauce itself that made us wish our plates of pasta would never end.

Works of art: Bon vivant James Scarborough and his life-changing plate of spaghetti and meatballs.

Actually, James, who is an art, theatre, and film critic for the Huffington Post and his own blog, really is a work of art, having been immortalized in a portrait by Ray Turner, which is on view at the Long Beach Museum of Art through Sept. 11. As executive director of PICTURE Art, a new venue on campus, he has become the Pied Piper to students who wander into his space and end up wanting to work as docents, or at the very least, decide that it's a great place to bring a date.

As we sat eating in reverence while trying to figure out the exotic herbs that were surely responsible for our state of gastronomic rapture, Joe Ferraro came out and asked how the food was. Like pupils showing off for a culinary tutor, we burst forth with our guesses on the secret ingredient: Fennel! Sage! Nutmeg! Coriander!

Joe indulgently listened and then revealed to us that the sauce did not contain any of these spices, but was simmered for six hours and included a touch of cream. He then brought us a soup bowl full of Joe's Famous Tomato Salad, which consists of chunks of fresh tomato, red onions, and basil, marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We were bursting from our Bolognese bacchanal, but slurped up the gazpacho-esque concoction greedily, soaking up the tomato juice with our bread.

You say "tomayto," I say "tomaato"... And, "Bring me more bread!