30 March 2016

Dinner at The Little Door in Santa Monica inspires dreams of Paris

The best meal we had during our March trip to southern California was at The Little Door in Santa Monica. The restaurant was on a list of recommendations from the daughter of some friends of ours. We hadn't tried it on any of our previous trips to LA. This time, we decided to make a reservation. Wow! We'll definitely be back.

Really. We liked everything about it, starting with the ambiance and decor. Inside, the restaurant is warm, inviting, cozy but without being crowded. It seems to be authentically French. Many of the other patrons were speaking French, and the host (perhaps owner?) and servers seemed to be answering fluently.

The dinner made us excited to plan a trip to Paris.

I started the evening with a cocktail, a Vieux Carre, which has recently become my new obsession. (Here's the recipe I've been using to make the cocktail at home: Click Here.)

To start, my wife and I split a salad. It consisted of shaved Brussels sprouts with farro, bacon, and Parmesan cheese. The dressing was a vinaigrette with olive oil, lemon, and balsamic vinegar. The lemon in the dressing gave the salad a refreshing, tangy citrus flavor.

For our entrees, we both had fish. Linda had grilled sea bass which was topped with a sauce made from sun-dried tomatoes and Pernod (an anise-flavored liqueur). It was served with sauteed spinach, braised fennel, and a potato puree topped with black olive tapenade.

My fish was roasted monk fish with a sauce of blood orange and capers. The fish was wrapped in bacon, so it came out almost like a bacon-wrapped scallop. The fish was served on a mash made from cauliflower flavored with mustard and a roasted red pepper sauce - Romanesco. It was excellent.

We both had a glass of wine with the fish. Hers was a sauvignon blanc from Chateau Reynier in Bordeaux. I had a sancerre from the Loire Valley. Both were excellent.

Our server was very good. I mentioned how he seemed to be ably bilingual with the French-speaking patrons. For us, he was attentive and friendly. By the end of the meal, we were tempted by dessert but finally decided not to. (We did plan to go out to find some live music after dinner.)

Overall, the value of our dinner was good. It was the most expensive dinner we had on this trip. But the amount of food was ample, and the flavors and presentation were impressive. So the overall experience was well worth the cost.

I do have one regret about the dinner, however. When I looked at the menu, I was tempted by an entree called Couscous Royale. The description called it a lamb stew with lamb chops, chicken, and merguez lamb sausage. I was a little dubious about ordering 'stew' and the monk fish sounded so good, so I went with the fish.

But during the evening, I kept seeing our server bring a tagine to tables around us. It looked fabulous. So at the end of the evening, I asked about the tagine. Oh, he replied. That's the lamb stew. It's a specialty of the house.

Oh, well. Something to look forward to the next time we're in LA and a return visit to The Little Door.

22 March 2016

Malibu Seafood offers fresh fish with an ocean view

I suppose we should have read the reviews more closely. We knew that Malibu Seafood was a fish market that also sold meals. But we thought it was a sit down restaurant. So when we arrived for a late lunch and saw a line out the door, we wondered if we'd ever get seated. 

I dropped off my wife to get in line while I parked the car. When I got back to her, she had discovered that in fact, it is not a sit down restaurant. Rather, you place your order at a counter and receive a pager which notifies you when the food is ready. Then you pick up your tray, find a picnic table and eat. 

So, other than that unexpected discovery, we had a very enjoyable lunch. As I noted already, we were surprised by the long line when we arrived at about 1:30 for lunch. Turns out that a film crew was shooting a commercial nearby, and they had arrived just before us for their lunch break. Still, reading other online reviews, apparently it's fairly typical to wait in line at Malibu Seafood. But the line moves fast.

It was worth the wait. We both were tempted by the fried seafood. It looked inviting and smelled wonderful. But we ultimately opted for grilled squid steaks. That's something we seldom see on menus in Minnesota. Plenty of Minnesota restaurants serve fried calamari, but grilled squid - not so much. I had a sandwich with fries. My wife had a platter with fries and coleslaw. The squid was excellent. The fries were thick cut and kind of soggy. My wife's coleslaw was good but ordinary.

The weather was gorgeous. So we found a picnic table with a nice view of the beach and the ocean and enjoyed our lunches.

Overall, I have to admit, I don't think it was worth a special trip. After lunch, we went down to the beach and walked around a little bit. It was nice, but not really any different from the beaches at Santa Monica, or really anywhere along the coast. Still, our lunches were quite reasonably priced, and it would be a nice, casual place to stop if you were in Malibu anyway.

Just in case you were wondering, they're not open for breakfast. There's a sign on the wall that explains that they don't serve breakfast because that's when they're out catching lunch.

20 March 2016

Hertz has become my first choice for car rental

I doubt that headline will cause anyone at Hertz HQ to do cartwheels. I only end up renting a car once or twice a year. But after another great experience with the company in March, I decided to write a blog post about it.

National used to be my preferred car rental agency. Before I retired, Land O'Lakes had a corporate agreement with National. I had an Emerald Club loyalty card through the company, and it was convenient to also use it for personal travel. I still have an Emerald Club membership. I just haven't used it since retiring in 2013.

My first experience with Hertz came in 2014 as my wife and I planned a trip to Italy. For some reason (I can't really remember why) I was dissatisfied with the choices available from National. So I decided to look around. Hertz had the best options available to me at the time, so I decided to book through them.

We had a great experience renting the car in Italy. In order to facilitate the rental, I installed the Hertz iPhone app. I have to tell you, it's really a slick app. (One of the funny little quirks about it - whenever I rent a car, even in the U.S., the confirmation page on the app is in Italian.)

Since then, I always check with Hertz first when planning travel. And since then, I haven't found any better deals for the rentals I needed.

This most recent experience in March is a good example. We flew in to Los Angeles on a Saturday morning. Our reservation was to pick up the car at the LAX Marriott. As a member of the Gold Plus loyalty program, when I checked in at the Hertz counter in the hotel, I was offered an upgrade. So my wife and I ended up driving a Mustang convertible around southern California for a week. We both agreed that it was a gas!

That kind of service truly exceeded our expectations. So thanks, Hertz. See the happy customer below.

13 March 2016

Kwik Pick: Terzo Vino Bar whets our appetite for Italian white wine

We met friends at Terzo to talk about travel in Italy. As my wife and I plan our next trip, we got lots of good suggestions from these friends, and she had just returned from skiing in the Italian Alps. So between us, there was a lot of enthusiastic discussion of our planned itinerary.

I wrote my previous review of Terzo in 2014, as we were planning our first trip to Italy after I retired. Our intent was to sample wines from the regions where we'd be traveling. It was a great strategy for shaping our expectations of the wines we'd be tasting on the trip. Not that we need to make up an excuse to go to Terzo, but planning for our next trip was as good a reason as any.

Also, Terzo has revamped its food menu, now offering more meals and a prix fixe option. We've always liked the food there, and we eagerly anticipated the new menu. This visit turned out to be an exploration of Italian white wines. The ladies started out with a glass of prosecco. My wife commented afterwards how much she enjoyed drinking the prosecco out of a regular white wine glass, instead of a champagne flute. I had a glass of Lambrusco, which turned out to be refreshing, light, and bubbly, a nice starter for the evening.

Then we switched to a bottle of Pratello Lugana, a white wine from the Lombardy region made from 100% turbiana grapes. I wasn't familiar with either the region or the grape. But this wine went very well with my wife's scallops and my branzino.

Food: 5/5 Besides the entrees mentioned above, we shared a couple of items from the pasta (primi) section of the menu. Everything was very flavorful, creatively prepared, and attractively served.

Service: 4/5 We relied on our server's advice for the wine. As with our past experiences, the suggestions were very good. The only quibble that I have, service was somewhat slow. It didn't bother us too much since we were having an enjoyable conversation. But we all noticed and remarked on the slow service.

Ambiance: 4/5 The ambiance is comfortable and casual. Tables are not crowded.

Value: 4/5 We felt the wine was very reasonably priced ... but the food was kind of expensive. The prix fixe option is $45 for a choice of an antipasto, a pasta/primi, and an entrée. But everyone at the table has to go that route, wich precludes sharing. And the servings are ample, so if you go that route, you can expect plenty to eat. In the end, though, I guess I'd say that $45 for food at a wine bar is a lot.

Recommendation: Definitely go to Terzo if you like Italian wines or if you want to try a variety of wines from different regions of Italy. The food is excellent. Just be prepared for some sticker shock at the cost of a meal.