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Summer Cocktails (and more) from Border Grill

*Post by Mark.

Mid-July, Los Angeles weather has finally acknowledged that it's summer, shaking off the June gloom to reveal rising temperatures. The best (or at least, most fun) way to combat the heat? Icy seasonal cocktails. Which is why we jumped at the chance to sample Border Grill's new summer cocktail menu (as well as a parade of small dishes from the kitchen), premiering today.  The cocktail list puts a fun, modern spin on traditional Mexican ingredients, echoing the food focus of Border Grill’s co-chefs and owners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.



Even without the new cocktail menu, the downtown Border Grill location seems like it’s designed almost specifically for unwinding after work. The great chips and (trio of) salsas, the playful décor, big patio and massive bar make it a prime happy hour destination.  



While we sample the cocktails, the kitchen wisely sends out a little foundation for our stomachs. First up: a fantastic mushroom ceviche (below), an item not typically on the menu, that will be offered to DineLA diners over the course of the next several days. The tiny bite brightens up earthy seasonal mushrooms with lime juice and cilantro aioli, and gets a nice crunch from minced jalepenos, and crisp fried plantains. 



The Fire/Water/Melon (below, left), made with Peruvian pisco, watermelon, lemon and serrano chile, may be the consensus favorite. Pisco literally translate to 'fire water' and keeping true to its name, the drink balances out its sweetness with a kick of heat. The Silver Surfer (below, right) is a little more divisive. Made with tequila blanco, celery mint shrub and sparkling water, this drink might not be for those opposed to celery. The vegetable is very prominent, but is surprisingly refreshing when combined with the crisp and clean notes of mint. 



The squash blossom taco (below) is a big hit, stuffed with sweet kernels of corn and a trio of cheeses inside a crispy, fried, handmade corn tortilla. The delicious vegetarian bite is topped off with a little fried hoja santa, a large-leafed herb that makes another appearance in our next cocktail.



The Summer Santa (below) features the aforementioned hoja santa along with cacacha (Brazilian rum), raspberry, orange and lemon. Light and fruity, the unexpected aroma from the herb (think root beer and anise) grows on you with each sip. 



Halfway down the expanded cocktail list, we take another food break. Chicken sopes with peanut mole (below) look small but are surprisingly filling, thanks to the thick maize shell.



The Andean Stallion (below) is a drink that combines two of our favorite base spirits, Fernet Branca and Pisco, with agave, lime and a dash of angostura bitters. Lovers of the Italian amaro will relish the combination, while the uninitiated may find this an approachable introduction to a medicinal spirit that is widely considered an acquired taste. The Pisco and Fernet have crossed oceans to be together, and let me tell you, their love story tastes great in a chilled martini glass. 



Just how good are the quinoa fritters (below)? Well, good enough to win Mary Sue Milliken a challenge on Top Chef Masters. The same winning recipe is on display here, with black quinoua and cotija cheese getting fried up and topped with an amazing red pepper mayonnaise. Our only complaint was that there wasn't a hundred of them.



The Ginger Summers (below), named after the two loveliest Gilligan's Island ladies, is a drink almost pretty enough to forget about getting stranded. Tequila reposada, orange liqueur, ginger, and blueberry (and a mezcal wash for a light smoky finish), make for a sweet and slightly spicy summer sipper that would certainly help pass the time if lost at sea.



Already approaching our consumption limit, the green corn tamales (below) put us over the top - these picturesque corn husk packages hide a creamy, buttery mash of grits and sweet corn. Serve them with some sour cream and salsa fresca, and you might have the perfect comfort food. 



Our final cocktail to sample is the Cava Guava (below). With cava, guava and lemon, it's very much like a bellini, only this one packs an extra punch - a shot of tequila blanco, which would make this very dangerous for day-drinking. As it stands, it's a rather elegant drink to end the evening with.



The perfect bow on the experience? Churro tots (below). Infused with dulche de leche and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, the bite-sized poppers are delicately crispy on the outside, warm and doughy on the inside, and taste great with the chocolate, caramel and whipped cream dipping sauces.



So, next time you walk out of work, besuited and sweaty and looking to unwind, you know where to head. Border Grill has some wonderful bites and a cocktail menu offering summer quenchers that are approachable for all audiences, and yet will challenge tastebuds with new ingredients. The expanded cocktail menu is available at the Santa Monica location as well.

*Disclosure: This was a hosted meal.

Border Grill on UrbanspoonBorder Grill on Urbanspoon


Pliny the Younger - Beer Geek Achievement Unlocked at The Daily Pint

*Post by Mark.

It's been a year now since we fully embraced craft beer. I know this because we'd just moved to LA and were starting to discover our local craft beer watering holes like The Surly Goat and The Blue Palms Brewhouse when suddenly the craft beer world was all abuzz about something called Pliny the Younger. For the uninitiated, Pliny the Younger is an incredibly rare and sought after annual release from the Santa Rosa brewery Russian River. It is available for just a few weeks in February each year and only served on draft. Because of the extremely limited amount, people often wait in long lines for hours on end just to have a chance to sip the scarce brew. Some would tell you that Pliny the Younger is the best beer you'll ever drink. Others will tell you that it's an overhyped phenomena. Neither would be entirely wrong. 



A year ago, we tried and failed to snag ourselves a pour of the precious Pliny. What followed was a very long year - but a year that helped us grow to appreciate craft beer all the more before experiencing what some might call the pinnacle. And what a year it was: we've explored LA's great new beer bars like Beer Belly, Mohawk Bend and City Tavern, raided the shelves of bottle shops like Buzz, Sunset Beer Company and Oaks Gourmet, made countless new friends over frothy brews and tried our hand at brewing our own. Hell, we even got a dog and named her Pliny (below). No, Mom, we named her after the philospher, not the beer.



We've also consumed our fair share of Pliny the Elder in the past year - the Younger's slightly more common, year-round counterpart. If the Younger is the best beer you can get in California, then the Elder is the second best. Beer Advocate has them ranked 1st and 5th most popular, respectively, amongst all beers.

So, at the conclusion of our year-long pilgrimage, there was a cold glass of Pliny the Younger waiting for us at the mountaintop. Last week, Santa Monica's The Daily Pint had a keg tapping that went fairly under the radar by Pliny release standards. All we had to do was drive out to Santa Monica the day before to pick up tickets ($10 each) for the event the following day. When they tapped the keg of the Younger, the bar was still relatively empty. There were no lines or hang ups. And the best part? We each got our own full twelve-ounce pour.  



Was it worth the wait? How did the Pliny taste? "Kind of like baby sh*t," our friend noted after taking a sip, "but in absolutely the best way imaginable." He's not wrong. The intense flavor of hops certainly aren't for everyone. But they are definitely for us. While the Elder packs a solid punch at 8% ABV, the Younger manages to sneak its 11% ABV past your tastebuds. The alcohol may go straight to your brain, but it never tastes like anything stronger than a 7% or 8% beer. The hops flavor, as I said, is intense, but it's not over the top. This is a beer that is masterfully crafted and unusually well-balanced. The beer is an anomaly, and drinking it makes the brewer in me's head hurt trying to figure out the science that made this drink possible.

We'll gladly be waiting in line again this time next year for another taste of it. If you still haven't tried it, you might want to leave work early today (Tuesday, Feb 21) and head over to the Surly Goat - they'll be tapping a keg around 6 pm (but the line is sure to start forming much, much earlier). And check back tomorrow, we'll be talking about another chance for you to get your hands on some Pliny the Younger this weekend.

Daily Pint on Urbanspoon


Josiah Citrin's 'In Pursuit of Excellence' Book-Signing at Mélisse

Post by Angela.

On the morning of my first real day in Los Angeles last year, after a 14-hour drive in 100+ degree heat, my mother and I checked out of our seedy Westside motel as soon as humanly possible and drove to the rental office on Wilshire to pick up the keys to my new apartment. While waiting for the office to open, we wandered the empty streets of Santa Monica and came upon a very unassuming restaurant front. "Hey, that's supposed to be one of the best restaurants in L.A.!" I mentioned to my mom. "Really?" she questioned, skeptical. I didn't blame her. From the outside, Mélisse looks as if it could be any old run-of-the-mill French restaurant. But those in the know...well, know better. 

Mark and I still haven’t made it to Mélisse, one of only three restaurants in the Los Angeles area to earn two Michelin stars in the vaunted guide’s 2009 edition (the other two are Providence and Spago), for dinner, but I like to think we’re saving it for a very special occasion. Nevertheless, we jumped at the opportunity to take a sneak peek at Mélisse at the book signing of executive chef, Josiah Citrin, who just published his first cookbook, In Pursuit of Excellence.  



We joined the throngs of Chef Josiah’s family, friends and admirers being funneled into the tiny restaurant. As we waited in line to purchase copies of the book, we marveled at the difference between outside and inside decor – the dining area at Mélisse could well be an art gallery, with a warm, rich palette of color and clean, elegant lines.



Book in hand, I made my way over to the chef to get his signature. As I waited, I flipped through the 240-page creation of Citrin in collaboration with Patricia Aranka Smith (writer), Matt Kiefer (food photography), Charles Park (location photography) and Mélisse Chef de Cuisine, Ken Takayama (food styling). Even without the chef’s autograph, this gorgeous book would make a great Christmas gift, whether the recipient aspires to try his or her hand at the recipes within, or just wants to bask in the beauty of the photos. SPOILER ALERT, MOM!!! This particular copy is destined for my mother – I’m hoping that, despite her initial skepticism of Mélisse's bona fides, she and I can share a meal there on one of her next visits.



And just what can you expect from the recipes in the book? Within its pages, Citrin divulges the secrets to some of Mélisse’s signature dishes, broken into categories: amuse bouches, soups, first courses from the land, first courses from the ocean, poultry and game, meat, cheeses and desserts. We were lucky enough to sample some of these delights, including grapes crusted with goat cheese and pistachios matched with a spherified grape (below, left), cones of ahi tuna tartare topped with a smooth avocado mousseline (below, right)...



..refreshing cucumber chawan-mushi (Japanese savory custard) layered beneath gazpacho and tomato gelee...



...luscious foie gras terrine topped with a subtle, sweet apricot-date condiment ...



...herby mushroom tartare (below, left), tiny, meaty sliders perched on black sesame encrusted brioche buns (below, right)...



...shot glasses filled with chocolate mousse (below, left), and delicate orange macaroons with chocolate filling (below, right).



The fare offered at the book-signing only whetted my desire to return for a full meal, but I may have to save up a little - Mélisse's tasting menu, Ten, runs $150 per person. In the meantime, I may copy a few recipes out of the book to try at home before wrapping it up and giving it to my mom. The book is available exclusively through Mélisse, the restaurant website,, selected retailers and

Melisse on Urbanspoon


A Tale of Two Bay Cities - Obtaining Santa Monica's Preeminent Sandwich

*Post by Mark.

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles, every conversation about sandwiches has always taken a turn towards Bay Cities. The gourmet market has been serving Santa Monica since 1925, and its sandwiches, with an extensive array of Italian meats and cheeses, may very well be the closest thing to a bustling New York deli you'll find in LA. After much procrastination, we finally made it into Bay Cities on a recent weekend to grab some pre-hike sandwiches.

Yet, we discovered, there are two different ways to approach Bay Cities with dramatically differing outcomes. The experience of ordering online can be a pleasant one, whereas a spontaneous visit can prove a stressful free-for-all, and it wouldn't be fair to consider the deli without taking both experiences into account. 



Let's file our first Bay Cities experience into the lesson learned category - a harrowing, nightmarish adventure filled with folly. Consider this a cautionary tale. Our first mistake was going around lunchtime on a Saturday morning. Cars were lined up in the street, backing up traffic, just to wait for a spot in the parking lot. But the experience wasn't all about our mistakes. Before we even made it through the front doors a security guard welcomed us by screaming about not taking pictures inside. 

We acquiesced to the apparent no-pictures-inside policy, but soon discovered it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Inside, we were pulled into an elbow-to-elbow maelstrom of disorganized chaos. Along the right side of the store, the long deli counter and the crowd surrounding resembled a war zone. People fought their way to grab pre-made sandwiches like Bay Cities' signature Godmother sandwich. Everyone else grabbed a ticket and fought to hold their position near the counter. I've seen tamer crowds in the pits of a Rage Against the Machine concert.



When our number was eventually called, Angela took care of the ordering while I ventured away to scavenge for some side dishes in the market section of Bay Cities, which was not much better than the deli counter. Narrow, packed aisles meant people stepping on your toes, hands reaching over top of you with blatant disregard for humanity. It was like The Road Warrior and obtaining a plastic tub of potato salad was a kill-or-be-killed conquest.



Meanwhile Angela was having troubles of her own. A moment's pause while ordering sandwiches?  Well that gets you yelled at, too. Twenty minutes later, sandwiches in hand we stepped into another long line to pay. With all the pre-made Godmother sandwiches, we could've saved ourselves a lot of trouble, Angela noted, if only she hadn't wanted her Godmother without onions. Nevertheless, we paid for our sandwiches and left, attempting to wash our hands of the last forty-five harrowing minutes whilst also trying to return our blood pressures to normal levels.



We waited until we were settled at a picnic table in Temescal Gateway Park before unwrapping our hard-won prizes. I had opted for a simple sandwich with proscuitto and hefty chunks of fresh mozzarella (above). The bread, although not as fresh as I would have liked, was excellent - crusty, chewy and flavorful.



Angela, still shaken from the whole process, managed to enjoy her Godmother (above) for a full 30 seconds before realizing that, despite her specific request, her sandwich contained onions. All of that waiting and shot-nerves was for nothing. She chould've just walked in and grabbed a pre-made sandwich after all. Once she had the chance to rant, cool down and pick the onions off, she begrudingly conceded that the both the bread and ingredients (Genoa salami, mortadella, cappicala, ham, proscuitto, and provolone) were top notch.



The sides I managed to grab, cole slaw and potato salad (above), didn't really register one way or another. But these little Peruvian cookies we nabbed (below) gave us a nice sweet ending to our picnic meal.



Where Bay Cities is truly king is their extensive selection of fresh ingredients. But, if you're willing to accept more limited ingredient offerings, we'd recommend All About the Bread, where the bread is always fresh out of the oven and the counter-staff actually remembers your name instead of yelling at you. Of course Michael Voltaggio's ink.sack and Westwood's Fundamental are leading the wave of a new gourmet sandwich shops in town providing reasonable alternatives. 



But it would be purely sour grapes for us to suggest that Bay Cities isn't responsible for some of the best sandwiches in LA. Order ahead and you'll likely agree. When you order online you'll find your sandwiches waiting for you on a rack in a much tamer side of the market. But if you stumble upon Bay Cities during peak hours without planning ahead, I suggest following the immortal advice of The Road Warrior's villianous Lord Humungous, "Just walk away."

Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery on Urbanspoon


Rustic Canyon Winebar & Seasonal Kitchen

*Post by Angela.

We finally managed to stop in on the burgeoning eatery empire that Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan have established in Santa Monica with an evening visit to Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. The pair owns Huckleberry Cafe just across the street, and Sweet Rose Creamery, which focuses exclusively on your sweet tooth. Under the direction of Rustic Canyon chef Evan Funke - whom you might find perusing the produce at Santa Monica's Farmers Market a few blocks away - the kitchen's focus is on presenting high quality ingredients to diners in simple preparations that let all the elements of the dishes shine. 



The decor at Rustic Canyon is sleeker and more intimate than the name would suggest. Warm wood, deep burgundy walls, and intimate booths make the restaurant a great place for date night (not first date, though, as it's a little loud), or a fun dinner with friends.



A small plate of marinated green olives tided us over as we perused the large menu. As we were dining with one of our favorite food-loving couples, in order to maximize the number of dishes we got to try without busting our guts or our wallets, we decided to each grab a couple of small plates each.



First up? The highly recommended roasted beets & farro, with feta, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, red onion, fennel and yogurt. The light dish was great, if not particularly innovative - the sweetness of the beets was well-balanced by the sharpness of the feta and licorishy fennel.



The crispy baby artichokes were fantastically simple, and a great preparation for artichoke lovers - you get the great crunch, but the frying doesn't overwhelm the taste of the thistle.



A clean and simple dish, the figs and prosciutto paired salty and sweet in an appealing way. Funke's commitment to fine, seasonal ingredients is apparent and the elegant presentation here is something that needn't be meddled with. 



One of the biggest hits of the night was the spicy kurobuta pork meatballs amatriciana (a traditional Italian sauce based on dried pork cheek, pecorino, and tomato), with pancetta, roasted tomatoes and chilies. On their own, the pork balls were incredibly flavorful and tender; when combined with the meaty, tangy sauce, the dish was a crowd-pleaser.



The fried cauliflower, served with garlic, lemon, parsley, capers and bread crumbs, was surprisingly tasty. I mean, you could fry virtually anything and top it with those ingredients and it would be pretty great, but the mildness of the cauliflower makes it a particularly effective delivery system.



The sole seafood dish of the evening was delightful as well. The Columbia River Sockeye Salmon with smoked bacon, green garlic, morel mushrooms, and romesco was perfectly cooked. The smoked bacon and the mushrooms lent a nice counterpart to the assertive flavor of the fish - sockeye tends to be slightly fishier than other varieties, which is why I rarely order it, but the other elements of the dish complimented its boldness nicely. 



One of the dishes I was most looking forward to was the crispy white polenta with a sunnyside farm egg, wild mushrooms and parmigiano-reggiano. The creamy, decadent dish was wonderful, with nice textural contrasts from the crisped corn cake and the lush egg yolk. The wild mushrooms grounded the dish with a delicate earthiness.



My absolute favorite item of the night was the sweet corn agnolotti with caramelized corn, a beautiful seasonal dish. The house-made pasta did its job and got out of the way of the real star, the mouthwateringly sweet corn filling. The caramelized bits of corn added excellent dimension.



Upon request, our server recommended four of the desserts, which worked out perfectly in terms of number (if not for our diets). Unfortunately, the desserts as a whole didn't quite live up to our savory dishes. The chocolate macaroon pie with coconut and whipped cream (below, left) was a fairly forgettable sweet, although I do recall it being chewier than I had anticipated. The turtle Sundae, with caramel ice cream, chocolate sauce, honey peanuts and whipped cream (below, right) definitely hit the spot in terms of sweetness and richness, but I'm not sure it wasn't something we could have recreated at home with little effort.



The sweet corn cake with vanilla ice cream and blueberry compote (below, left) was my top pick for the dessert stage of the meal - lighter than the other three sweets, it hit a good balance between savory and sweet. The last dessert to get polished off was the olive oil torte with cocoa nibs and olive oil chocolate sauce (below, right). In theory, this dessert was right up my alley. In execution, it left something to be desired, as it was on the dry side and almost off-puttingly dense.



Despite our mild disappointment over the desserts, at the end of the meal, we could all see why the Rustic Canyon team has done so well where they are. Rustic Canyon and its sister restaurants do a very good job of capturing the relaxed vibe of Santa Monica and that area's focus on superb ingredients prepared simply. I'm sure we'll be returning soon, if only to sample the restaurant's famed burger.

Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen on Urbanspoon