Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodbye 2011...

Don't let the door hit you in the a** on the way out!

Yes, 2011 was a bear in many ways - but as I look back, I'm finding it hard to complain too much. We traveled, we had lots of good food and great times with friends and family and generally enjoyed ourselves quite a bit.  On the flip side, there was more sadness and loss around us than we are used to - both in our lives and the lives of some close friends.   I hope that's not a continuing trend.

A few weeks ago, I saw a quote that really resonated with me:  "Enjoy the little things, for someday you will realize that they were the big things."  Late this summer, I had a mini health scare that gave me just enough pause to see the wisdom in this.  The things that make my life great are the "little" things - like meeting a friend for coffee and a chat on a weekday morning, making and serving a killer dessert,  showing my nieces one of my favorite movies or playing a game with them, reading a book to a two year-old, going to the farmers market or harvesting fresh vegetables from the garden, drinking a great bottle of wine on the patio, putting a vase of gorgeous flowers on the table, roasting a perfect chicken, going to a great yoga class... just being with the people that matter most and enjoying the moments in between the stressful, inevitable realities of life.  These are the things that make life good, even when the big picture isn't so rosy.

Regardless, it still feels like it's time for things to start looking up in 2012, doesn't it?  Let's hope so.  Here's to better times ahead.  Salud!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holidays, 2011

It's been a good week. We took a few days off before the weekend and spent some time with the girls (our 8 and 11 year old nieces).  We played with the puppy, who is growing like a weed and is such a sweetheart we can hardly stand it.  I did a lot of baking.  Too much, it turns out. One can only eat so much peppermint bark.... (or should, anyway.)  To cap it off, on Friday we brought back the now bi-annual Posole party - complete with killer margaritas.  
Our Christmas celebration was low key.  I received some lovely gifts.  The tile is from a local artisan, and my friend Lisa gave me an autographed copy of the Chez Panisse book, and James got me the Clare Vivier tote I asked for. I also got the Milk Bar cookbook and the Chez Panisse menu book.  Planning a post on those soon.  The jars are Saba, a grape must product that is absolutely delicious, and a small bottle of fine balsamic vinegar - from my personal trainer, because she is a huge foodie. I gave her the Mozza cookbook.
I just harvested the first basket of tangerines the other day.  Usually they're ripe in time for Christmas, but not quite this year.  We also have Meyer lemons coming in.  I've been doing some dining out and need to write up a few new places, and have a year end post in the works so stay tuned...

I hope your holidays were filled with joy and peace and your new year is as well.  See you soon!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday Treats!

Jora and I were busy little bees this weekend.  Have you ever done your holiday baking with a friend?  I highly recommend it!

Sweets:  clockwise from top -  Peppermint bark, mandelbrot (made by my mom), Mozza's chocolate hazelnut maltagliati, vanilla bean fleur de sel caramels, and caramel pecan shortbread.

Savories:  (not pictured)  cheddar cayenne crackers, blue cheese and walnut crackers, bourbon soaked cherries, and Nancy Silverton's roasted almonds with salt and olive oil.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pizzeria Mozza and the Mozza Cookbook

Pizzeria Mozza - Newport
A few weeks ago I took a day trip up to Newport Beach with a friend to do a little Christmas shopping at Fashion Island and have lunch at the new Pizzeria Mozza up there.  It's an easy day trip from San Diego, and the food is just as good as the Los Angeles branch.  We started with the caprese salad and toasted bread - a first for me.  They roast the tomatoes lightly on the vine, and serve them over a bed of fresh burrata with pesto and olive oil.  This is simple enough that it is all about the details, and this version was divine.  I tried making it at home using the instructions in the cookbook a few weeks later, but the same magic just wasn't there.  The one thing that was just as fantastic was the bread - grilled in the panini press with garlic olive oil and sea salt.  HIGHLY recommend recreating it at home if you have one of those fabulous devices.
Pizzeria Mozza - Newport
We split the salad and an order of the squash blossoms (a must) and moved onto the mushroom pizza.  I hadn't tried this particular one before - I've been stuck on the goat cheese, scallion and bacon pizza - but it was really good, with the same puffy crispy edges, an assortment of mushrooms, good cheese and lots of garlic.
Pizzeria Mozza - Newport
For dessert we split two of our favorites - one of which is the Caramel Copetta.  It's a sundae of caramel ice cream, marshmallow fluff, caramel sauce and spanish peanuts with a pizzelle cookie on the bottom and a liberal sprinkle of sea salt.  I think that's why I like it so much - all that salt and caramel.
Pizzeria Mozza - Newport
Our other favorite is the Butterscotch Budino - the most popular dish at either of their restaurants. It's a deep butterscotch pudding, topped with the same caramel as the Copetta, with a dollop of whipped cream and creme fraiche on top.  It's worth every bit of the hype.
Pizzeria Mozza - Newport
Just after this adventure, a friend of mine went to Nancy Silverton's book signing at Chino Farms and got me a copy of the new Mozza cookbook (autographed to Alice Q. Foodie - awww!)   Opening it up, I immediately wanted to make everything in it.  I was thrilled to see that it included the recipe for my favorite cookies they sell in their to go shop - Chocolate Hazelnut Maltaglieri, the Torta Della Nonna, pizza dough, pasta dough, their composed mozzarella crostini, salads, etc.  It really is a complete compendium of almost every dish at Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza.

Unfortunately I haven't had the best luck with the recipes. The instructions for the caprese suggest roasting the tomatoes for way too long at too high a temperature.  Mine broke down during the process and I didn't cook them as long as the instructions suggested  (on the plus side, they're great in pasta!)  I also tried the budino right away for James' birthday last week, since it's pretty much his favorite thing ever.  The first time it set up too soft and super grainy. It calls for an outrageous amount of cornstarch (2/3 of a cup!) and three cups of whipping cream, where most pudding recipes call for just a few tablespoons of cornstarch and whole milk.  I tried again with a half recipe (which was plenty for us - it makes ten servings!) but as I cooked the custard it turned grainy and lumpy again.  This time I used a hand blender to smooth it out again - but the recipe doesn't say to do that, it just says to strain it.  It worked pretty well, but it still wasn't perfect.  The flavor wasn't quite right either - it was more "butterscotch" than theirs - not necessarily a bad thing, just not what I was after.  I'm determined to get it right.  If and when I do, I will post a recipe.

The Chocolate Maltaglieri and the Torta Della Nonna were a success, luckily. Will post about those later.  The baking times were still off -  for the cookies it was too short and for the tart it was too long, but I was able to figure that out on my own.  I guess it also depends on your oven somewhat - there is a little natural variation there.  All in all, it's a lovely book and I would definitely recommend it - but my advice would be to take matters into your own hands if it appears necessary!

Amended:  I have made the pizza dough twice and it's fantastic!

Pizzeria Mozza
800 W Coast Hwy (toward Balboa Island)
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 945-1126

parking is impossible, just plan to valet. It's not as hard to get a reservation as it is at the LA branch, but it's still a good idea - they are on Open Table.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Meet Lucy.

Well we didn't exactly plan to get a puppy again so soon, but you know how they say the dog chooses you...  This little girl picked us at an adoption event this past Saturday.  She's a black lab mix and she is ALL sweet baby puppy, all the time.  She does look like Lola, but she is a different breed mix, and she seems to be a bit less feisty and stubborn - for better and worse.  :)  Bart is adjusting - he was six years younger the last time we brought a puppy home and was a bit more tolerant, but he started playing with her this morning which is a good sign.
This is what she looks like right now.  I'm really not looking forward to the day when she discovers that all my shoes are just behind that curtain!

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Camp Honey Badger

Camp Honey Badger
First off, I just wanted to say thank you for all the warm and lovely expressions of sympathy about Lola.  They made a rough week a little more bearable.  Before we got the call that led to our early return, we were having a great time at Camp Honey Badger - the affectionate name given to this little annual Thanksgiving gathering at William Heise County Park in Julian.  It was a beautiful setting  - a little chilly but nothing a wool blanket, a camp fire and some ugg boots couldn't take care of.  We had this great tent to stay in courtesy of James' family - it's hand made, y'all.  Not as easy to put up and take down as a two man popup, but a great option for a trip of at least a few days.
Camp Honey Badger
 This is pretty much how we spent our time - sitting around the blazing fire (which we kept going from dawn to lights out at 10 PM) and drinking something. Coffee, champagne, scotch, you name it.
Camp Honey Badger
On the first night we had Japanese food. I fried up karaage (Japanese style fried chicken marinated in soy sauce, garlic and mirin and dusted with cornstarch) by head lamp in the dark in our turkey fryer, while Andrew made ramen with tofu in a dashi broth, and Shihomi - owner of Azuki Sushi in Bankers Hill, supplied a delicious traditional beef curry and rice.  Sake, Japanese scotch and at least a couple of kinds of wine rounded out the menu.  It was the best camp food I've ever eaten, bar none.   Afterwards there were Vosges s'mores - courtesy of Janice. That's right, Vosges s'mores bitches.  I said it.  Boom.
Camp Honey Badger
We had a great kitchen set up going - here's James frying up some bacon for breakfast  on Thanksgiving morning on our camp stove.
Camp Honey Badger
We had two other stoves, a small oven, a fryer and even a small portable dishwasher for the pots and pans and our dishware - and lots of coolers - though the temperature wasn't really a problem.
Camp Honey Badger
We took a nice little hike on Thanksgiving with Heidi's dogs - Ruby set a blistering pace.  The scenery still shows the unfortunate effects of the brush fires that roared through here a few years ago - but it's lovely in it's own sort of desolate, scrubby way.
Camp Honey Badger
For the Thanksgiving meal, Andrew cooked up Jidori chickens - first on a rotisserie over the fire, and then directly on a grill.  I had made cranberries and some pies, and we had dressing (which we rolled into balls and fried in the deep fryer - genius).
Camp Honey Badger
James had brought some lobster tails that he wanted to fry - so I whipped up a corn dog batter and fried those up as an appetizer with some champagne.
lobster fritter
Janice and John prepared brussel sprouts with bacon and pecans...
Camp Honey Badger
And we feasted and drank rose in our cold weather gear.
Camp Honey Badger
My last photo from the trip, literally, is this box of Dallman chocolates that were passed around just after the meal - generously supplied by the owner Isabella, who had joined us that afternoon.
Camp Honey Badger
When we go back next year, we will seriously consider bringing the dogs with us.  Not just so we can keep an eye on them, but because their body heat will come in handy on those long, chilly winter nights!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

65 Things I Will Remember About Lola

  1. The way she would flop to the ground and sigh heavily when she laid down on the hardwood floor.
  2. The squeaking noises she made when James came home every night - and the way she stood up on the counter to see his car through the kitchen window.
  3. All her little snorty sounds.
  4. The sound of her beating on the dog door, trying to get in.
  5. The sound of her working the dog run gate back and forth trying to get it open.
  6. That terrible, braying bark.
  7. The snuffling sound of her hoovering the kitchen floor for tidbits.
  8. The way she crossed her paws daintily when she laid down.
  9. Her lady-like, soulful brown eyes.
  10. Her refusal to come until promised a treat or a meal.
  11. Her spinning happy dance as you set the bowl down at feeding time.
  12. The sound of her tags hitting the bowls and her knocking the food bowls around on the tile as she licked them both clean hours after feeding time.
  13. The way she would slide her nose under your arm if you hung it over the side of a chair, then walk your hand out to the point where she wanted to be scratched.
  14. Her licking. Always with the licking.
  15. The way she would lean full force into you with her rear and look over her shoulder pleading for a butt scritch.
  16. The way she would lean back into your hand with all her might if you pushed on her.
  17. Her terrible fishy breath.
  18. Her soft, floppy ears.
  19. The way she always beat me to the garden gate.
  20. The way she jumped back in bed with me when I would sleep in.
  21. The pawing when she got impatient while begging for food.
  22. IMG_8980
  23. The way she used to lay on the back patio and watch the birds.  
  24. The bowing, barking and romping as we got ready to go for a walk.
  25. The jumping. Always with the jumping.
  26. The way she never seemed to sleep at night. 
  27. The way she would start pawing at the gate at regular intervals at dawn.
  28. The spinning happy dance she would do when you came to get her in the morning.
  29. The way she would paw impatiently at the door on the way out for a walk.
  30. The way she and Bart (our other dog) nibbled each other constantly.
  31. The way she would come and lay next to you on the sofa or in bed and just gaze up at you adoringly.
  32. The way she would sneak over to Bart’s bowl and speed-eat any leftover food, hoping she could get it all down before we took it away.
  33. The way she always insisted on walking right next to me on my right side on walks.
  34. The way she adored Bart and would not let him out of her sight – even sitting next to the pen when he was locked up at doggie day care.
  35. The way she liked to be kissed right between her eyebrows.
  36. Her snuffling sighs.
  37. Her farts. Yes, even those were charming.
  38. Her ridiculous crotch licking.
  39. The way she and Bart would spoon on the couch.  
  40. The way she liked to have her blanket pulled out to lay on at night.
  41. The way she would almost take your finger off if you gave her a treat she really liked, but if you scolded her, she’d take the next one nicely.
  42. The pig-like snorting as she took a treat or bite of food from your hand.
  43. Bart and Lola 030
  44. The way she sat for treats on day one.
  45. The way she would jam her nose into your armpit at the breakfast table to beg for bacon.
  46. All the times we caught her up on the counter (or just heard her paws hit the floor.)
  47. The distinctive sound of her walk – created by her always too-long nails and ambling gait.
  48. The way she would try to stealth lick babies from behind, even though she was afraid of them.
  49. Her one pink toe.
  50. Her soft pink belly.
  51. Her long "handsy" paws.
  52. Her little peanut head. 
  53. The way she hated it at first when I blew raspberries on her stomach, but eventually learned to tolerate it.
  54. Her pretty girl silhouette with her long eyelashes.
  55. The rolls she would get behind her collar when she got too fat.
  56. The way her fur was always shiny, even though she had terrible dandruff.
  57. The way she would lay on the middle of the sofa, in the pillows, until she heard me coming and would then slink off.
  58. The sound of her slinking off the sofa, one back leg at a time.
  59. The way she backed up onto the sofa to turn around near the coffee table.
  60. Her Disneyland bear-cave snoring. 
  61. The sound of her pawing at the door to the garage when I came home.
  62. The way she would run circles around it if I came home in James' car, because she thought he was supposed to be in there.
  63. The long period of time when she absolutely refused to get in the car.  
  64. The way her little tail stub twitched back and forth constantly.
  65. The way she would startle if you gave her a little puff of air - the only disciplinary tool that worked.
  66. The way she would scrounge up every last bit of food on the floor and jump up on the counter to snatch the little stray bits at feeding time.
  67. The way she always smelled good, no matter how dirty she was.
RIP sweet girl.  We miss you like crazy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Five Pies

Five Pies

You've heard of Five Guys? Well, this is Five Pies.  :)

We're off on our camping trip this morning. The truck is packed with the tourney pavilion (wait till you see this thing!) The pies and chicken liver mousse are waiting patiently in the fridge. Hot chocolate has been pre-blended so it can be re-heated on the stove, and the cranberries and other accoutrement are waiting to be loaded. It looks like we're moving to the mountains. I guess that's the dark side of glamping.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and I will see you next week!

{p.s.  I need one of these!}

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pie Crust

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Parmesan Crusted Chicken {A Recipe}

Parmesan Crusted Chicken
I just ate a bite of this straight from the fridge, and it was so good I was prompted to come sit down and write down the recipe right this minute, so I can do it exactly the same way next time - and of course, share it with you.  This has always been one of my favorite dishes to eat, but it took me a few tries to get the formula down for my ideal crust, and even longer to remember to measure everything out!
Parmesan Crusted Chicken
For some reason, I had a hard time figuring out the right amount of salt.  It takes more than you would think, and it really makes a huge difference.  I use both flour and crumbs to form a nice crisp coating that won't slide off the chicken, and I like to add just enough cayenne or chile powder to wake it up a little.

I made this batch the other night as a special treat for James, who just ran his first half marathon on Sunday!   We ate it with a simple salad of arugula and tomato dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.  It's a little bit of a project, with the assembly line and the frying and all (another reason it's an every-once-in-a-while thing!)  But it's pretty well worth it - especially if you make enough for leftovers.  Which, by the way - did I mention? - are fantastic cold.  :)
Parmesan Crusted Chicken
Parmesan Crusted Chicken

3-4 pounds of boneless and skinless chicken pieces (I used 2 thighs, 4 breasts + 4 tenderloins)

dry mix:
2 cups fine breadcrumbs
2/3 cup flour
2 teaspoons fine grain sea salt or kosher salt
1 cup (loosely packed) finely shredded fresh parmesan cheese
1 tsp cayenne or hot chile powder
a few grinds of pepper
2 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

wet mix:
4-5 eggs
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
a splash of milk

2 cups vegetable oil for frying*

cut lemon for squeezing and more salt for sprinkling

Place dry ingredients in a medium-sized shallow bowl and toss with a fork to blend.

Crack eggs into a large bowl and add mustard and a splash of milk - blend with a whisk or hand blender to thoroughly incorporate the mustard.

Set up a work area with a plastic cutting board, a 2 foot long piece of saran wrap and whatever you use to pound meat. If you don't have a special tool, a flat bottomed heavy glass or small saucepan will work. (I use this and I absolutely love it, it's also great for cracking spices and smashing garlic cloves, etc.)  Cut your breast meat into halves off center, since they are thicker on one end.  Lay each piece in the middle of the saran wrap and fold the wrap over with a generous overlap (one piece should last you the whole batch.)  Lightly pound each cutlet from the center outward just a couple of times in each direction - until each piece is uniformly just a little less than 1/2 inch thick.  (Be gentle with the tenderloins, they will probably just need one very light tap.)  As you finish pounding the cutlets, put them in the bowl with the egg/mustard mixture to marinate.  They can stay there for an hour or so at room temperature and even longer in the fridge.

When you are ready to fry, pour vegetable oil to about half an inch deep in a large heavy frying pan or cast iron skillet.  Heat frying pan over medium-high heat and line a baking sheet or large platter with a double layer of paper towels.  If you plan to hold the cutlets before serving, turn the oven on to 250 degrees.

Set up your work station like an assembly line - with the bowl of cutlets and egg on one end, the crumb mixture next, then they frying pan, and the paper towel lined tray on the opposite side.  Place your cut lemon and a little dish of salt by the tray.

To fry, pluck your first piece of chicken out of the egg mixture with one hand and lay it in the crumb mixture. Using the OTHER hand, toss crumbs and flour over the chicken to coat, and flip and pat it couple of times to get the coating to stick. (If you use the same hand for both, your fingers will soon have more coating on them than the cutlets.)  Lift the first cutlet by one end and dip a tiny corner into the oil.  If it sizzles, lay it down gently in the oil.  If it doesn't - put it back in the flour and wait a couple more minutes until it does.  Dip and coat two or three more pieces, as many as will comfortably fit, and set them gently in the oil too, making sure it sizzles but isn't burning or smoking.   Let the pieces get nice and brown around the edges before flipping - they should cook quite a bit longer on the first side than the second.  Using tongs, gently flip them once. When they are well browned on all sides, lay them on the paper towels to drain.  Squirt with a little lemon juice and sprinkle with a tiny bit of salt.

Turn the oven down to 200, and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.

Serves about six - or fewer, with leftovers.  :)

* optimally, if you are going to fry more than 3 batches, you should really change your oil - it will get lots of burnt bits in it and start to taste funny after that.  I pushed it and did four, but that was definitely the limit.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Good Stuff

The Art of Chez Panisse

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Joan Didion's Blue Nights

Joan Didion

 “There were cucumber and watercress sandwiches, a peach-colored cake from Payard, pink champagne...”

I've had a minor obsession with Joan Didion since I read "Where I Was From" about 8 years ago.  It was the kind of thing where I immediately picked up all of of her (non-fiction) books and read them back to back.  I loved The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and when it came out I devoured The Year of Magical Thinking - about the aftermath of the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne.

When I heard that Didion's only child had died at just 39 years of age right before Magical Thinking was released I was both horrified and captivated.  I searched for more information on Quintana. What on earth had happened to her?  And how could Didion possibly cope with another loss so soon after her husband's death?   All of these questions are answered in Blue Nights.  Didion tells the story of Quintana's life - from their somewhat boneheaded handling of her adoption to her childhood in Malibu and Brentwood all the way through her illness and death - including her mental and emotional troubles and ill-fated contact with her birth family.

In recalling these events,  Didion returns to certain evocative memories again and again.  Quintana's wedding, with its peach colored cake from Payard, cucumber sandwiches and pink champagne, the stephanotis woven in her braid, the bright red soles of her Louboutins visible when she knelt at the altar. She recalls the fried chicken eaten from a friends' fancy plates to celebrate Quintana's christening, the Chanel suits the women wore and  the cigarettes they smoked and the hotels they stayed in when they traveled -  the Kahala and the Royal Hawaiian in Hawaii; the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, the Ambassador and the Drake in Chicago.

It was a life of privilege to be sure, but there is an appealing pared-down simplicity to it as well.  When they lived on the beach in Malibu, they lit fires in the fireplace to heat their home, she packed homemade fried chicken and strawberries with sour cream and brown sugar in Quintana's lunches and they had cucumber sandwiches for Quintana's sixteenth birthday lunch.  Didion always packed the same list of simple necessities when she traveled.

Amid the shock and numbness of grief, Didion is eventually forced to confront her own mortality.  She develops shingles, she loses consciousness in her apartment and wakes up in a pool of blood.  A doctor accuses of her of making "an inadequate adjustment to aging."  We might not all be so unlucky as to lose our entire family in the space of a few years, but if we live long enough, we will all get old. Didion writes about aging the way I expect to think and feel about it, which is both distressing and strangely satisfying, like seeing your worst fears come true.   Unfortunately, she also confirms something else I've long suspected - that your cherished memories are not all that helpful when they serve primarily to remind you of what you have lost.

photo credits:  Payard Cake from Martha Stewart, Blue Nights Cover from Amazon, Corvette photo via New York Magazine - Getty Images, shoes from Christian Louboutin, cucumber sandwiches via Victoria Mary Vintage, Didion's packing list from English Muse, family photo in Malibu via The New York Review of Books.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011

There and Back Again - Las Vegas Edition

Vegas 2011
Lately, I've found myself becoming a true fan of the road trip.  Some of our best recent vacations have been car trips - Big Sur, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, the Grand Canyon... It's just so easy.  You don't have to worry about the size of your liquid containers, there are no backscatter x-ray machines or overzealous TSA agents to contend with.  You can pack your own food, throw a bottle of champagne or two in the car - or even a couple of stowaways like we did when we took our nieces along  to the Grand Canyon last year.  Like I said.  Big fan.
Vegas 2011
With all that in mind, we decided to drive to Las Vegas this past weekend for a visit with some friends.  (I'm not sure what is says about us that they chose to fly!)  The two photos above were taken at The Mad Greek, a classic roadside stop in Baker, California.  Baker is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the main street is lined with fast food chains, so at least this was something different.  I wish I could recommend the food, but I really can't.  The menu is strangely complicated and there must be something good on there, but it's not the Gyro or the Greek Salad, trust me. They did have some traditional pastries and cookies in their case that looked nice, and they serve espresso and gelato, so it might be worth a stop for a snack and to take a photo or two, but I'd stick with In n' Out in Barstow or Lynwood for lunch.
Vegas 2011
When we got to Vegas we checked into our room and went out for a little walk.  I took this photo of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon through the window.  We didn't eat here this time, but it's my favorite fine dining spot in Vegas.  It's no more expensive than the other schmancy options around town, but I feel like they run a tighter ship somehow.  They also have a new three course tasting menu at the Mansion for $120.
Vegas 2011
We walked over to the new Cosmopolitan hotel to check out the "scene."  It is sort of the newest hot spot - something like the Hard Rock or Palms.  This is the "Chandelier Bar" -  located inside a giant 3 story tall crystal chandelier.  The restaurants are located upstairs in a mall-like area - and of course I wanted to check them out.  By far the most happening spot was Jaleo - Jose Andre' Spanish tapas spot, which spilled out onto the upper level (below.)
Vegas 2011 We had plans to eat that night at Julian Serrano over in the Aria hotel next door, but we had a little time to kill so we ducked into China Poblano - the other more casual Andres restaurant there, for a taco and a cocktail.
Vegas 2011
When you walk in, there are two counters on either side of the restaurant.  Behind one ladies are making fresh tortillas for tacos, and on the other side they are folding dumplings, making those little pleats one by one.  The menu features Chinese and Mexican specialities, like dim sum, dumplings and tacos, and several dishes that blend both cuisines. Everything on the menu was appealing, and affordable to boot.
Vegas 2011
We started with a couple of  margaritas, topped with Jose Andres' special "salt foam"  - I am a recent convert to salt on my margaritas, and I absolutely loved this.  Mine was pomegranate and James had the plain.  I recommend the pomegranate.
Vegas 2011
We ordered two tacos, only one of which I remembered to photograph, and some Sui Mai dumplings.  The taco below is "barbacoa" - the other was pork belly.  I preferred the barbacoa - but the sui mai may have been my favorite. I only wished we could have ordered more. The gentleman to my right ordered several things that looked good, including a ceviche of tuna with amaranth seeds, soy sauce and pecans and what I think was the "Ocean Nest" - a dish of fried egg noodles with shrimp and other seafood.  Our friends also went for brunch on Sunday and said they had a great meal.
Vegas 2011
Our dinner at Julian Serrano was good, but not great.   It's not quite "fine dining" but it's a step up from casual, located in a swankily decorated room right off the Aria's lobby.   I liked the style of the place, and a few of the things we ordered were very good - especially this scallop dish with romesco sauce.
Vegas 2011
We also liked the anchovy crostini, below.   The jamon serrano with pan tomate was also good, but James couldn't help comparing it to the Pata Negra from L'Atelier (one of the drawbacks of being spoiled by that place!) The "Gambas al Ajillo" - a usual Spanish favorite of mine - were rubbery, and our server sold us on a strange house specialty of  filet mignon with cheese and honey that turned out to be a terrible waste of a nice piece of meat.
Vegas 2011
The best thing we ordered by far was this relatively inexpensive Rioja, recommended by the sommelier.  Seriously -  remember this label.  It was excellent.
Vegas 2011
Our friends arrived the next day, and we met Lisa for lunch at Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina in the Crystals shopping center in the new City Center complex.  The mall itself is quiet as a morgue, probably because it has only the most ultra high end stores -  but we had a really good meal at this casual spot. My mussels were perfectly cooked and served in a little cast iron cocotte with lots of chorizo and spicy broth with just a touch of cream.  James had the prosciutto and pesto pizza and Lisa had the potato pizza, both of which came with a thin crust and good toppings.  We also shared a butter lettuce salad  similar to a cobb, with bacon, egg, blue cheese and hazelnuts.
Vegas 2011
After lunch, Lisa and I strolled over to the Aria for coffee and something sweet from the Jean Philippe Patisserie while James went to find Luis in the poker room.  We went a little nuts and tried not one, not two but three things - a dulce de leche filled brioche (swoon!) a "snickers" pastry, and a lemon meringue tart.   All were divine - I don't think they have anything that isn't.
Vegas 2011
It's a popular spot, located on the casino floor - hopping all day long with cafe customers getting breakfast, lunch, desserts and snacks.
Vegas 2011
We had breakfast from here two mornings in a row, and all I can say is deca-dent.  It's a good thing we brought gym clothes.
Vegas 2011
Friday night's dinner was our usual standby - Lotus of Siam.  I've written about it before here.  They have expanded significantly since we were there last, at least doubling in size and adding a large wine vault.
Vegas 2011
We always love this crispy rice dish with sausage and lime juice, and we found another new favorite this time, these prawns - separated from their shells and fried - served over spicy drunken noodles and topped with a light chili sauce. I also recommend the green curry duck and the soft shell crab salad.
Vegas 2011
Dinner the following night was at Comme Ca - a French bistro back in the Cosmopolitan.  We had originally had reservations at Twist, Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental, but we decided we just weren't up for anything that fancy.  Our meal at Comme Ca started out on the right foot with lovely appetizers - an excellent seafood "plateau" and a really nice beef tartare, but slid steeply downhill with the entrees.  Luis' mussels tasted unpleasantly of dried herbs, Lisa's burger was cold, and both dishes were served with stiff, stale frites.  I had planned to order the steak frites, but James talked me into getting the "Wellington for Two" at $99  (gulp.)  Ordered medium rare it came out blue - to the point of impossible to cut - with soggy pastry and cold sides.  I think I ate two bites. It was so bad  we complained, and they confessed it was their first night serving it as a Saturday night special.  I hope they work that formula out before they ruin too many other couples' date nights.  They comped us one bottle of wine ($65) which was a nice gesture, but I would have rather they comped the more expensive inedible dish.  We skipped dessert.

Lunch on the way back was In n'Out in Barstow.  It always amazes me that their $5.45 cheeseburger combo  (Animal style, add ketchup and mustard, fries well done and a side of chiles!) can be so much better than a $100. meal.  In a strange way, I guess it all evens out in the end.

Recommended Spots:
China Poblano
in the Cosmospolitan - 2nd Floor
3708 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina
In the Crystals Shopping Center at City Center
3720 Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89115

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
in the MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Jean Philippe Patisserie
two locations, in the Aria on the casino floor, and in the
Aria - 3730 Las Vegas Boulevard South Las Vegas, NV

Other Vegas Posts:
My Vegas Favorites, Otto - at the Venetian Shops, The Neon Sign Museum & Luv It Frozen Custard.