The Best Kind of Wednesday
Jill Santopietro's Braised Fennel with Meyer Lemon and Parmesan

Sweet Reverie


Last Wednesday might have been the highlight of my year thus far, but that doesn't mean that the rest of my week in Los Angeles was a faded blur. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the rest of the week was pretty fine, indeed. So fine that when the time came for me to leave yesterday, I felt a funny little twinge around my heart. I haven't felt that in a long time.


Maybe it was because I had to say goodbye to my mother, which is never easy. But I also think it was because being in LA just makes me feel so good. Who would want to say goodbye to a feeling like that? And while we're on the path of rhetorical questions, would you want to leave a city where the warm, almost entirely empty beach is a mere drive away from wherever you happen to be? But before I get too melancholy on you, let me tell you about all the delicious stuff I encountered in LA. Thanks to my helpful readers, and a diligent bit of list-keeping on my part, my food forays took me all over the city.


After a scenic, but long-ish drive from Santa Monica to La Brea, I had to fortify myself with a David Lebovitz-recommended bran muffin at La Brea Bakery. Well, to be totally honest, I meant to eat the muffin right then and there, but one store requiring ogling led to the next and before I knew it, I was in Pasadena, sharing my muffin with my family. Which I didn't mind, really. Because while the muffin was good, I'm not entirely sure I am the ideal target audience for the bran muffin. I am, however, always up for a bit of Oprah-recommended granola, so I brought a bag of that back with me. Now I can look forward to afternoon snacks at the office again (don't you think a handful of this stuff in some Liberte would be a nice pick-me-up?).


Speaking of pick-me-ups, another city drive a day later brought me to the odd enclave that is Century City, where I parked my car overlooking Santa Monica Boulevard and sat outside the adorable Clementine, where I finally tried Annie Miler's famous banana cream pie. Which felt like the grand culmination of a long history with that pie, starting when I first read about it in the LA Times Culinary SOS column several years ago. And what a pie it is. Each forkful is a nicely balanced, mercifully not-too-sweet bite of bananas, silky custard, floppy cream and agreeably crumbly crust. It was worth the drive. My co-eaters agreed.


Amy Scattergood and Design Sponge's Los Angeles guide both recommended a visit to Cube, which is a lovely little place. It smelled like the kitchens in Italy that I know, which can only mean good things indeed. And though I didn't have time to sit down and eat there, I bought a quarter-pound of Armandino Batali's superb culatello, which garnered high praise from my disbelieving mother ("this is made in America?") and was expertly sliced by the counter-girl, not always an easy feat.


I couldn't have gone to Los Angeles and not eaten at Lucques, especially not after all the good food I'd created with the help of Suzanne Goin's recipes. So we had a Sunday Supper there and it was fantastic. A little salad of tender watercress, Pink Lady apples, and Marcona almonds preceded the main dish of four seared scallops that had been nestled on top of a ragout of bacon, English peas, wilted mint and fava beans. A red pool of smoky piquillo pepper puree rounded out the dish. It was light and lusty at the same time, a lovely American riff on a Spanish classic. Orange-flavored bread pudding with crema catalana served with a little beaker of caramel sauce was the smart finish to the meal. A group of giggly chefs on their night out, clamoring over the food in the bathroom line, and the clean, precise flavor of the lucques olives that were set out with our menus added to the atmosphere.


But then a visit to Lucques wouldn't have been complete (it's a slippery slope) without a trip to The Hungry Cat, Goin's husband's restaurant. The night I was there, seafood reigned supreme over the menu. While our main courses of stuffed squid and braised clams (both heartily fortified with fresh chorizo) were certainly very tasty (and nicely priced), I still can't stop thinking about our pink and green salad starter. Lightly dressed frisee and radicchio were tossed with fresh tarragon leaves, slivered blood oranges, and snowy-white shreds of sweet, fresh crab. Simple, bright, and explosively flavorful - that was a salad for the ages. No photo would have done it justice either, but if you've got access to good crab, for God's sake, go and put this together. No recipe required.


Finally, the day before I left for California, I buckled under the pressure of hype and made a hurried lunch reservation at Mozza. While Otto never really impressed me, the combination of Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali had me totally intrigued. Besides, the mention of butterscotch budino in this article was reason enough to go, I figured. And oh oh oh oh, I am so glad we did. Because - and now get ready for some superlatives, because I simply can't help myself - I really think the pizza we had there (margherita, in case you're wondering) was the best I've ever had in this country. Hot, crusty, yielding, yeasty - it was pizza perfection. The tomatoes were sweet and savory, the melting mozzarella had that inimitable milky, barely sour flavor and the crust - the crust! - was a total joy to eat. Before the pizza arrived, we shared that little dish of rapini you see up there. Stewed into tasty oblivion, then punched up with a pungent spoonful of salsa verde and topped with a wobbly cooked egg, it was the kind of dish a home cook lusts after - the kind of thing you want to eat over and over and over again, preferably with some crusty bread and your mother nearby to marvel at your cooking skills.


And then, because we were already there and the food was already so good and because that darn article had lodged itself in my mind and wouldn't let go, we ordered the butterscotch budino. Praise be to the Los Angeles Times for printing the recipe, because this might possibly be one of the most delicious desserts I've ever eaten and I cannot wait to try this out in my own home so that I can tell you all that this is indeed a recipe to be photocopied, laminated and passed out to every single person you hold dear, because unless you have plans to visit Los Angeles any time soon, you are not going to want to let this thing pass you by. This silky, soft pudding that is sweet and yet barely so, at the same time. It is topped with a caramel sauce that you will want to bottle and spoon-feed yourself with, and ingeniously, between the pudding and the sauce is a layer of salt crystals, so that with each spoon you take, the salt jumps up to coax out the miraculously complex flavors that burnt sugar is so famous for. The whipped cream is secondary, the cookie a mere distraction. That budino, that sauce, that flaky salt - words cannot express how amazing it all was.


And just like that, the week was over. On Sunday, I had to say goodbye to the perfumed air, the quiet nights, and the improbably beautiful sight of palm trees framing a gleaming city and the blue sky. I took my leave from the freeways (which I actually like driving around on), the city's coolly retro signs, and this strange sense of lightness and calm I have when I'm there. I don't know what it is or where it comes from, but I can't wait for my next trip, so I can feel it for a little while again.


In the meantime, I've got a paper sack of kumquats to comfort me back home in this gray city of mine. They'll have to do for now.