Restaurants With Stories

01/31/2013

Restaurants with Stories: Southern California Edition

When it comes to good food, my standards are a bit unorthodox. I look for a story and a passion for food that has been built into the framework of the business. I have travelled a better portion of the Southern California region in search of restaurants whose beginnings are unique, and whose mission it is to step outside the box of culinary tradition and create food worth talking about. My goal has been to find those places and create relationships with the owners, learn about their unconventional menus and share their stories.

What sparked it all? A routine shopping trip to Whole Foods market several years ago now.  Strolling down the isle, I reached for a frozen pizza I had yet to try. Being that it was frozen, I wasn’t expecting anything extraordinary, but when I cooked it that night, I was surprised and delighted by all that my tastebuds were experiencing- a frozen, culinary masterpiece.

On the back of the box, I read into the history of the company and what makes their bakery unique. Doubling as a restaurant on the weekend and receiving all their ingredients from local farmers (within 40 miles of the bakery), Full of Life Flatbread became a new gastronomic obsession that made my mouth water and my stomach crave for more. Located just 2 hours North of my home, I ventured to the “bakery” before they were to open for dinner that Saturday night.

When I arrived, Clark Staub, a Los Angeles native in the music industry (formerly the VP of Marketing for Capitol Records) and now owner of Flatbread Full of Life restaurant in Los Alamos, Full of Life Flatbread Pizzadirected our attention to the fresh fava beans and pink lemons that had just arrived. Never before had I seen such a production, and from there, I decided there must be more places like Flatbread- and so my journey began.

Clark Staub welcomed me and guided me through their facility- all the while; new ingredients for tonight’s meal were arriving. I was lucky enough to taste their homemade pink lemon whipped cream and witness the making of the Fabergé Egg-inspired chocolate eggs filled with fresh berries and crème. The night was quickly approaching and I headed back to my hotel to jot down notes of amazement. As I did so, I Google-d keywords like “organic unique restaurants,” “great restaurants with great owners” and the like.

For dinner, I made my way back to Flatbread and dined on some of the most delectable Pepperoni and Poblano Pepper Pizza (my favorite combination of ingredients to this day), Clam Stew, Duck Confit Salad followed by a variety of other fresh flatbread wood fired pizzas. All of which had been prepared that afternoon by ingredients from friendly farmers I met that afternoon. While the Poblano pizza was among my favorite items, I was particularly intrigued by a flatbread pizza topped with cooked Stinging Nettles.  Yes, poisonous, stinging nettles.  When cooked properly, nettles are devoid of their poison and are actually quite a tasty and unique addition to a pizza.

It is restaurants like Flatbread that intrigue me and create a whole new idea of eating out. Not only are their ingredients fresh and organic, the passion behind the preparation is evident in each bite of the meal. Setting a new standard of expectations for food, restaurants like Flatbread raise that the bar.

While it is far more common to find Los Angeles professionals-turned-passionate outside of the L.A. area pursuing a life of simplicity and passionate culinary expression, another great restaurant with a story lies right in the middle of our own City of Angels.

Philippe’s, a famous French-dipped sandwich deli just around the corner from Chinatown, also has a unique story. A story of the invention of a world-renowned staple in the lives of Los Angeles foodies.

Established in 1908 by Philippe Mathieu, a sandwich deli had it’s big break when a French roll dropped into a roasting pan filled with hot juice and because the Police officer that ordered the Phillipe's French Dipsandwich was in a rush, he decided he’d take the sandwich anyways. Amazed by the taste, the police officer returned with a group of friends to try this “French Dipped Sandwich.” Even today, the same deli offers a variety of “French dipped” sandwiches alongside unique dishes like Pickled Beets, Navy Bean soup and even offers wine and beer.

Philippe’s menu is not the only unique aspect of the restaurant though, their ordering process can catch new visitors off-guard but creates a distinctive culture. The long, deli-style counter is operated by “Carvers,” many of whom have worked there for more than a decade and have mastered the art of speedy service.

There is something to be said about an old-fashioned deli-style French Dipped sandwich that earns accolades from esteemed journalists of the New York Times, L.A. Herald Examiner and the Los Angeles Daily News. New York Times’ own MacDonald Harris in an article titled “Real Food in L.A.” wrote “…There is an air of camaraderie among the customers, a kind of unspoken friendliness and consideration that’s rare in a big city…” Whether it’s the type of customers it attracts or the mutual respect for good food among customers, Harris hit the nail on the head in his 1990 article about Real L.A. food.

Although their food brings customers from afar, the décor is a large part of the whole “Philipe-ian” experience and leaves a lasting impression. Philippe’s has had the same furniture and décor as the day it was opened, making sitting in Philippe’s a time- warp in the keenest sense. A red phone booth sits across the room while a baseball game blares on the oversized, outdated television and sawdust is swept beneath the shuffle of hungry passersby. The family-style seating is reminiscent of the early 20th century industrial cafeterias, yet lends itself to a uniquely inviting meal. There is a rarity among restaurants that share these inimitable qualities and Philippe’s is among the few great dining experiences.

While Philippe’s may be a trek to some on the West side of Los Angeles, west- siders have a unique and curious eatery of their own to indulge in. The Curious Palate, aptly named, boasts a slogan of “Eat Well, Have Fun, Get Curious” for reasons one can only understand by experience. Fortunately, my goal is to share those experiences.

As you enter into the modest, street-side eatery, it’s difficult not to take notice of the repurposed materials used for the Menu blackboards, counter tops and kitchen doors, giving The Curious Palate a rustic and antique feel. The original 1940’s ceiling beams and slate paint made from eggshells produces a sustainable restaurant that focuses on culinary preparation rather than high-end design.

The Curious Palate, formed by a Diplomat’s son- Mark Cannon and Agricultural Engineer and product developer- Elliot Rubin is just a hobby for them. Keeping their day-jobs intact, The CuriousThe Curious Palate Palate allows Elliot and Mark to find joy in creative meals without the pressure of living off of its revenue.

Revolutionizing the perception of healthy, delicious fare, The Curious Palate offers meals like the infamous Meatloaf Burger- a tender, juicy, all-organic burger served with a homemade caper sauce on a fresh brioche roll and a side of lemon infused green beans with pieces of potato and Asian pear. Although definitely not cheap, this may be the best item on their curiously diverse menu.

Another great but not-so-Southern-California destination that makes the oenophile in my squeel with joy is a not-so-foodie destination, but equally worthy of being mentioned as the story is one to surely melt your heart. Saarloos and Sons winery is situated in a tiny town just 40 minutes North of Santa Barbara, and while it’s not technically a “restaurant” per se, it definitely feeds my soul.

Upon entering the “tasting house” for our first tasting of Saarloos wine, we were welcomed with sarcastic humor and open arms – and a confident proclamation of our nerdiness. I admit, I am anerd, but a proud, wine-loving nerd to be sure.

In any case, I ventured around the quaint tasting house and struck up conversation with Harvard alum, former Caligraphy Club President, and Saarloos Son, Keith Saarloos.

Saarloos and Sons wine

It didn’t take long to realize that their business was more about the business of loving what they do than making as much money as physically possible. It gave life to the experience -and rather than being left to entertain ourselves amongst strangers, we were treated like an extension of the Saarloos family. With the strategic placement of family photos, the smell of delectable wine-inspired cupcakes and genuine love for the place, the “tasting house” as it’s called, became a place with a name, a family and a heartfelt selection of wines aptly named after family members and events that best represented the wines.

Whether it’s wine, food or experiences in general -when you combine passionate owners, sustainable décor, and organic ingredients, you’re surely in for a surprise. Philippe’s, Flatbread, Saarloos and Sons, and The Curious Palate surprise and delight customers because they share the things that make them unforgettable experiences. They make dining (and drinking) more than just the mere purchase and consumption of calories. And isn’t that what it should be about?