Friday, November 12, 2010

Little Dom's makes a BIG impression

(Chocolate Napoleon at Little Dom's)

Little Dom's (2128 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, CA)

Being a restaurant critic on vacation has its advantages: the reader response seems slightly less weighty knowing that you aren't dining and critiquing in your own city, and the likelihood of colliding on the sidewalk with a loyal patron, or even worse, an angry owner or chef, who loathes your review is slim to none.  But it also has its drawbacks: when you have only two evenings in Los Angeles, the decision of where to eat becomes anguishing, as the need to make smart choices is exceedingly greater since you may not find yourself in the same neighborhood anytime soon, and when you do, the often fickle restaurant landscape is likely to have changed significantly.

So when my dear friend, Pete, graciously arranged a dinner with Brandon Boudet, the executive chef and co-owner of Little Dom's, it cut my stress in half.  And I will say up front that our evening at Little Dom's exponentially surpassed our second dinner in L.A. at Wolfgang Puck's latest venture (it was disastrous on several levels, but should make for a comedic write-up down the road).  Had I all of it to do over again, I absolutely would have dined both evenings at Little Dom's, as I cannot fathom a more holistically pleasurable experience to be had anywhere else in the city of angels. 

Carved into the steep and twisting hills of Los Feliz sits this drool-inducing beacon of Italian-American cuisine at its finest, which transplanted to New York City would rival even the most highly buzzed of trattorias.  Inside, the bar teeters the fine line between gaudy and elegant, with dramatic wallpaper, leaded glass windows, marble table tops, and leather seats, ultimately emulsifying to create a neighborhood warmth and coziness that is somehow nostalgic, current, and casual.  The waitresses are saucy, stunning, and remarkably knowledgeable.

Chef Brandon, a New Orleans native, joins us just moments after our arrival.  Our waitress seems shocked to see him actually sitting down, and even more so when he proceeds to order cocktails for the table.  Though he has the dark curls and warm smile of a creole cherub, the level of respect he garners is instantly apparent.  He asks if I would like to order any appetizer in particular, and I just laugh and push away my menu.  I think I'll let him decide what we should taste.

The jazzy cocktails at Little Dom's are just as serious as the food, with meticulous attention to details such as unique serving vessels, varied ice cube sizes ranging from crushed bits to two-inch cubes, and market-fresh garnishes distinct for each concoction.  A moscow mule over crushed ice sings of crisp vodka, sweet ginger, and tart lime.  Did someone say bacon?  Yup.  Applewood bacon infused bourbon with bitters, maple, and orange peel, the ultimate breakfast for dinner.  Do not be remiss and forego the cocktail list for your standard whatever-and-tonic. The gorgeous spirits are every bit as delicious as their plated counterparts.

The beer selection is an undeniable nod to N'awlins, mixed with a few other carefully selected brews.  The citrusy and hoppy Abita SOS Pilsner was full-bodied yet refreshing, and a portion of the proceeds benefit Cleaning Up Our Coast.

An impressively diverse wine list is delineated with headings like, "Tried and True," "Your New Best Friend," and "Go Out on a Limb."  The selection even features an irreverently named "dago red" and and "dago white" label crafted uniquely for Dominick's and Little Dom's.  Unlike other restaurants who often have generic wines repackaged and labeled for house service, the chef, owners, and wine team actually spend time with the vineyard tasting an array of varietals and flavor profiles, personally selecting the blends that eventually arrive in the restaurant cellar.

A simple first course of finely shredded emerald ribbons of raw kale with grilled baby carrots, all tossed in extra virgin olive oil and lemon set the tone spectacularly for the rest of the meal.  Fresh market vegetables prepared to perfection require no masking whatsoever.  If a basic autumn salad can taste this delicious, I knew I was in for a real treat with the more intricate dishes to come.

Pizza is served like a shiny garden mosaic on crispy, paper thin crust that miraculously crackles and tears simultaneously, like a tender water cracker.  Though toppings range from biellese pepperoni and speck to anchovies and egg, the pizza del giorno featured a simplistic, yet addictive and tasty harmony of arugula, aged provolone, mozzarella, and sweet red tomatoes.

Glistening artichokes are grilled to perfection, and as you squeeze caramel-charred drops of lemon juice onto the petals, it seems a tease when the last bit of meat from the heart of the plant is devoured.

Littleneck clams are anything but little, like plump pillows of the ocean that have been tenderly steamed and then dipped in garlic oregano butter.  The grilled ciabatta, brushed with olive oil, is almost a separate dish in and of itself.  Though the two pair excellently, be certain to taste each component individually.  I can't recall the last time I enjoyed such luxuriously succulent clams or such crisp, chewy, and simply wonderful italian toast.

One of the stars of the evening was also one of the few windows into the creole background of Chef Brandon Boudet, who once worked a stint alongside Emeril Lagasse.  Sweet jumbo shrimp are showcased on a pedestal of a crispy polenta fritter, a golden outer crunch giving way to a smooth and buttery puree inside.  The entire masterpiece is blanketed with a generous (yet not excessive) ladleful of tangy piquante sauce that tickles the tongue and seems to liven the sweetness of the seafood and savoriness of the polenta.

One true sign of an extraordinary restaurant is when it can elevate something as simple as potatoes to such a crack-addictive level of deliciousness that I have craved them almost every single day since my visit.  At Little Dom's, these little apples of the earth are boiled until tender, then smashed so that the skin and inner tater are juxtaposed in a playfully confusing hodgepodge of texture and flavor.  The exploded spud is then deep fried, and tossed with minced garlic and lemon, a kaleidoscope of salty, sweet, sour, crunchy, and tender all jumbled into one.  When something so ugly can taste so outrageously wonderful, how can you not fall head over feet in love with it... kind of like a wrinkly bulldog of side dishes.

Another dish that draws from the chef's southern roots is a fantastic spin on chicken and waffles, this version featuring a sublimely tender wood oven roasted duck confit with hearty polenta waffles, drizzled with a syrup of reduced marsala wine.  A decadent and elegant duet of sweet and savory, it was another highlight of my evening.

I would ordinarily skip over something as seemingly common as capellini pomodoro in favor of dishes like the fried ricotta gnocchi with chantarelles and porcini cream or the squash ravioli, but considering the feast laid before me at the table, who was I to complain?  And boy, would I have missed out on what was perhaps the best capellini I have ever enjoyed, a reminder that simple classics executed to superior degree are often better than the most beautifully complicated creations.  The capellini was outstanding, al dente threads of angel hair pasta, tossed with wood oven roasted tomatoes sweeter than I ever knew possible, oregano, garlic, a whisper of crushed red pepper, and a gossamer snowfall of grated parmesan.  If etiquette and gratitude were not necessary when sharing a table with three diners that included the chef himself, I would have greedily hoarded this plate to myself, and stabbed any chubby little finger attempting to share it with a sharp-pronged fork.

Though dinner left us beyond satisfied, pastry chef Ann Kirk's sweet endings are not to be missed.  Take, for instance, this caramelized white chocolate mousse on a shortbread wafer with sweet roasted hazelnuts and a passionfruit coulis, a buttery and fluffy cloud of cream and caramel cut beautifully with citrus, with the delicate crunch of hazelnuts.  Exquisite.

Speaking of luxurious and decadent desserts, the chocolate napoleon left me speechless.  Chocolate phyllo leaves remain crisp and crunchy like paper thin cocoa brittle between velvety dollops of malted panna cotta, chocolate budino, and whipped creme fraiche, dusted with confectioner's sugar.  This ranks as one of my top five favorite desserts... ever.  Garnish it with a few plump raspberries to cut the richness, and it could easily take the number one slot.

Grandma had better watch out, because Little Dom's has hijacked the traditional apple crisp, spicing it up with curry.  It sounds freakish and absurd, but it actually worked fantastically for one of the most unique apple desserts I've tasted (something I don't often say, considering I spent ten years of my life baking pies and desserts all summer).  The sweet cream gelato cooled the zip of the curry, and the result was uniquely scrumptious.

Though the napoleon won my heart (and belly), the table favorite was the butternut squash fritters, warm, sugar-tossed southern doughnut balls that break open to reveal steamy, sweet cake batter with glowing pieces of sweet orange squash, cooled off by a quick dip in whipped creme fraiche.  The quintessential early winter sweet ending.

Monday Supper features a three-course meal for just $15, and brunch features breakfast pizzas and eggs benedict with fennel pollen hollandaise.  Right next door is Little Dom's deli, for sandwich creations and the like.

A very special thank you to Brandon and Isabelle for what was by far my favorite meal ever in California.  Huge hugs.

Little Dom's on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Charlotte J said...

These are such beautiful pictures. Love your musings.

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