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In a town renowned for its charm, no dining establishment is more charming than La Bicyclette, the little French cafe in Carmel-by-the-Sea at the corner of Delores and 7th, once the site of the same proprietors’ fabled La Boheme, the eatery that more or less kicked off the foodie movement in the region. Sharing the ramshackle romance of Casanova, its venerable (and more famous) sibling on 5th Avenue at Mission, the kitchen of the bustling bistro applies the traditions of Belgian-French country cooking to fresh, mostly local and organic ingredients (with some produce coming from the Carmel Middle School Hilton Bialek Habitat), rendering meals that are as deceptively simple as they are deeply satisfying. The selection of entrées changes daily: you can find sample menus here, but don’t expect that the smoked Serrano honey-lacquered Bobwhite quail with wood-fired petite yams or the slow-braised Berkshire pork and cabbage will necessarily be on your table tonight. A specialty of the house is thin-crust pizza from a wood-fired Mugnaini oven. The wine list never fails to satisfy.
And that vintage French bicycle parked outside? It may look like a prop, but it functions as the delivery vehicle should you decide to order from Casanova’s more extensive wine cellar a few blocks away.
Don’t miss an opportunity to stop at La Bicyclette the next time you’re passing through (or anywhere near) Monterey Peninsula. The Detourist has been known to go 100 miles out of the way to feast at La Bicyclette.
File: La Bicyclette restaurant, open every day (breakfast 8-11am, lunch 11:30am-4pm, desserts & appetizers 3-5pm, dinner 5-10pm — wine tastings anytime!); Dolores Street at 7th, Carmel-by-the-Sea CA; 831.622.9899; http://www.labicycletterestaurant.com.
When in a new town, one of the surest ways to eat well without breaking the bank is to dine at happy hour. Although typically happy “hour” falls between 4 pm and 7 pm, competition and a troubled economy have inspired a surprising number of eateries, including some of the best, to expand the discounts “until 10 pm,” “until closing,” or even “all day.” A little searching for “happy hour” on the internet will usually turn up plenty of choices.
Offerings vary, though, and it often pays to call ahead to double check hours and menus (some happy hours are every day, some Sunday-Thursday, a few one or two days a week). Speaking generally, happy hour choices are limited: the bar menu and selections from the list of dinner appetizers, plus a couple of wines and well drinks — expect to pay half the regular prices or a little more, although occasionally you will run across a place discounting its entire menu, usually at prices similar to the difference between lunch and dinner for the same item. Many locales offer breaks only on alcohol, another reason to call ahead. And, believe it not, there are still a few spots with free food during happy hour, an amenity that was commonplace once upon a time ( see, Free Happy Hour Food in LA, Denver and the Bay Area; Splash Ultra Lounge and Burger Bar and Sissy K’s in Boston; free tapas at Il Moro in West Los Angeles, as long as you order a drink — call ahead: these things change).
Speaking of happy hours, it’s more than a little fun to discover that one of L.A.’s most venerable high-end eateries offers a terrific happy hour in its cozy bar.Michael’s, whose history stretches back to 1979, an age when L.A. had maybe a half-dozen fine restaurants, includes a short list of wines, beers and cocktails and a select but satisfying menu of small plates — don’t miss the Duck Confit Rillettes (most items $6, except oysters $3 each). Of course, you can also order from the regular dinner and bar menus (the latter includes a rotating daily pizza special for $10). Bonus #1: happy hour extends from 5pm to 10pm closing. Bonus #2: Michael’s is decorated throughout with an unusually adventuresome collection of modern artworks.
After hearing a bezillion times how great it is, I made a detour to the The Grill at Hacienda del Sol. Except for the setting — in the restored and renovated Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort that was once a Roaring 20s-era school for daughters of the super rich — the restaurant was otherwise remindful of St. Estephe, the legendary Southwest Fusion eatery of the 1980s that was unaccountably cloistered in a Manhattan Beach shopping mall. At a time when there were possibly six decent restaurants in all of L.A. County, St. Estephe conjured up sometimes delicious, often fanciful, always outrageously priced creations that took Hispanic-American food to places it had never been before.
(You might order “chips and salsa,” for example, and be served a dinner plate with a thin layer of red and green sauces deployed in the pattern of the holism symbol and graced with a single taco chip in the form of a dove. This was before anyone knew what a “plate” was, so the place definitely was cutting-edge, but as admirable as its efforts may have been as art, they left something to be desired as, well, food. And it was damnably expensive. You’d wonder what gave the boys in the back the bigger kick, sending out their latest caprice — or the bill.)
The Grill at Hacienda induced St. Estephe flashbacks. The menu is replete with components like shrimp chorizzo, parmesan foam, pancetta dust, micro egg yolk, jalapeno-blueberry jam, yam and smoked gouda gratin, charred tomatoes and, I kid you not, “heirloom” beans. Normally this kind of menu — small portions, unusual tastes — is right up my alley, but Hacienda del Sol’s eclecticism just comes across as pretentious. I can’t say the food overall is bad (although the chorizo con pappas was positively insulting), but it lived up to neither its aspirations nor its prices (and lets face it, when you’re blown away by a meal you don’t notice how much it costs).
There are plenty of first-rate restaurants in Tucson. You needn’t go out of your way for this one.
You have to be pretty far off the beaten path these days not to have access to gourmet dining. Not that regional and ethnic food doesn’t keep us well fed and happy, but it is reassuring to know that there is no longer a corner of the Union that doesn’t have at least one place offering high quality cuisine and a decent wine list.
In Escondido, CA that place is Tango, a full service eatery, lounge and wine bar. Nationally acclaimed chef Rico Bartolome offers a constantly changing array of fusion dishes, including on my last visit tempura oysters (on arugula with a remoulade), a duck comfit (rhubarb jam, strawberries, goat cheese and candied pecans), and an amazing korean hot pot (miso-marinated sea bass, shrimp, kimchee, bok choy and assorted mushrooms in dashi). Applying classic European kitchen techniques to Pacific Rim-influenced dishes made of fresh seasonal ingredients results in offbeat creations from chorizo-wrapped loin of venison with chimichanga and mole through osso bucco with panang curry to pistachio duck schnitzel with sweet and sour cabbage. The wine list is always well-selected. Desserts change daily (think sugar pumpkin and mascarpone cheesecake with spiced whipped cream or crêpe stuffed with chocolate, banana fritter and banana ice cream), and last visit fresh pies to go were by the cashier. Lunch Monday to Friday and dinner every day. Monday to Thursday, $25 sunset prix fixe dinners are available. Happy hour 4-7 every day but Monday, when it’s 4 to closing. Half price wine on Wednesdays. Events nightly in the lounge. There’s a private dining room for parties of 10-30, and you can dine on the patio weather permitting. Despite the sometimes brutal desert heat, this is one place worthy of abandoning the comforts of the coast. Tango is at 417 W Grand Ave in Escondido; 760-747-5000.
Some of Vegas’ best dining establishments are hidden from visitors in strip malls, on side streets and in neighborhood centers. On an extremely hot summer afternoon a couple of years ago I found one that has become among my favorite Vegas eateries. Moments after I thought, I need for some protein, I spotted, stretched across the facade of a nondescript cinder block building on a low-end commercial block on Spring Mountain Road, a hand-made banner announcing “Hot and Juicy Crawfish.” It goes without saying that spicy food and hot weather go hand and hand, and in the high desert heat ice cold beer sounded good.
Inside the modest building, aside perhaps for the fact that the staff appeared to have blown in from Vietnam rather than Arcadie, you’d have been forgiven for thinking you’d crossed from Nevada into Louisiana. Every table in the small establishment was stripped bare except for a heavy plastic sheet cover, lobster bibs, and a role of paper towels. The crawdads — your choice: hot, hotter and scorching — delivered by the pound in steaming plastic bags — no utensils: this is not a place where you eat without getting your hands dirty — were perfect, at least in the garlic and cajun versions with the spice level dialed up to volcanic. Order two pounds or more, and corn on the cob and potatoes are tossed in the bag with the creatures. I don’t want to think about the impact of all the plastic on the environment, but from an operational standpoint this restaurant is a model of efficiency: at the end of the meal, the staff balls up the plastic table cloth — shells, paper towels, styrofoam cups, et al, and carts it off. Talk about no fuss, no muss.
“Hot n Juicy Crawfish” — that’s it’s name as well as it’s game — had only been open a couple of weeks and its menu was limited, if that’s the proper word, to crawfish. Since then, besides adding some equally fine steamed shrimp, the menu has expanded unnecessarily to include crab, catfish, calamari, chicken wings and raw oysters, as well an étouffé that is unexpectedly tasty this far from a bayou. The seasonings are described as Louisiana Style, Juicy Cajun, Garlic Butter, Lemon Pepper, and Hot N Juicy Special, and the spice level now runs from mild through medium and spicy to extra spicy (you will be flagged off extra spicy because of the danger of third degree burns; pay the warnings no heed: have another beer and dig in). Hot n Juicy Crawfish, 4810 Spring Mountain Rd, Las Vegas, NV; 702-891-8889.
Tip: Although Las Vegas has a bus system and lots of cabs, the only way to really explore the town is by car. If you didn’t drive in, don’t forget that the best budget car rental companies, Advantage and Fox, both have shops at McCarren Airport; in general, McCarren is probably the easiest airport in the country to rent a car.
By the way, a hot new documentary on chile peppers, written, co-produced, and hosted by the Pope of Peppers, Dave DeWitt, and shot on location in Mexico, Guatemala, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Florida, perfectly presents people’s powerful passion for peppers. Heat up Your Life – Peppers and People (YouTube)
When I first came to Los Angeles four decades ago, there were maybe six gourmet restaurants in the entire town. Now there are more than that just on Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue, and they’re about to joined by another. Jean-Francois Meteigner of La Cachette in Century City will start serving patrons at La Cachette Bistro on Saturday in preparation for a full-blown opening in a couple weeks. La Cachette Bistro, 1733 Ocean Ave (between Pico Blvd and the Santa Monica Pier), Santa Monica; 310-434-9509.
The best way to experience Las Vegas is to get off the Strip. The unusual makeup of the town’s populace — heavy on entertainment workers and retirees wealthy enough to move there from somewhere else — spawns local restaurant, nightlife and arts scenes that exceed those in most other burgs its size.
For example, a recent round of gallery hopping during one of Vegas’ monthly First Friday street fairs was eye-opening. The Las Vegas arts district is housed in a few blocks of industrial spaces and ratty storefronts set just the beyond the north end of the Strip, within walking distance — if you like a good walk — of the Stratosphere and old downtown. With the streets closed to traffic for the evening, a First Friday stroll amid food carts, street vendors and live bands would be fun even if the art was ordinary.
It’s not. Recent visitors — regulars at Thursday nights in Manhattan’s Chelsea gallery district, Chicago’s art Fridays and Los Angeles’ scattered weekend openings — were impressed by the vibrancy of Vegas’ compact arts community. There may not be as much work on display in Vegas, but what’s there is universally competent and intermittently thrilling. Vegas are holds its own against its bigger rivals.
Like any city in the southwest, good eating in Vegas is spread all over town. Fortunately for First Friday-goers, one of the local Vegas eateries worth a visit is in the arts district: Tinoco’s Bistro (103 E Charleston Blvd; 702-464-5008), in the arts factory building itself, is a friendly Italian place, with low ceilings, tables shaped like artists’ palettes, and lots of art on the walls. In a town where millions of dollars are spent creating ambience, Tinoco’s stands out for its feeling of authenticity. By the comparison to the Strip, the prices are low, low and low for both lunch and dinner, and the food’s terrific.
Most of the other eateries in the area are Latin-flavored. At Casa Don Juan (1204 S Main Street; 702-384-8070) an authentic enchilada platter will cost you less than a movie ticket and huge overstuffed tacos packed with carne asada and guacamole can be had for the price of a bag of theater popcorn (their claim to the title “Best Margarita in Las Vegas” would be hard to challenge). As you travel back toward the Strip on South Las Vegas Blvd, you’ll come upon a Howard Johnson’s that holds a surprise: the Florida Cafe Cuban Bar & Grill (1401 S Las Vegas Blvd; 702-385-3013 ) attracts a mostly Spanish-speaking crowd for downhome Cuban specialties like ropa vieja and classic Cubano sandwiches (one of the steaming, cheesy foot-long creations could feed a small village in the Sierra Maestra).
Other art district hangs: the pricier, more Vegas-ie Ice House Lounge (650 S Main Street; 702-315-2570) is a good place to hear live local music; on the other hand, so is Dino’s (1516 S Las Vegas Blvd; 702-382-3894), calling itself “the last neighborhood bar in Las Vegas,” the sort of dive where you might expect to find a (pretty good) polish sausage to go with your karaoke.
Like countless Bohemian communities before it, the Vegas art district is a fragile thing. Great galleries and clubs have already come and gone and experience shows developers love art scenes to death. Now is probably the time to visit, before it goes the way of the Soho, Wicker Park, Venice Beach and countless other artists’ havens that have been abandoned to the bourgeoisie. It won’t be as much fun after the artists are forced to move to the corner of Nellis and Lake Mead (or wherever) to find affordable space.
It’s late. After twelve hours on the road, we’re exhausted and famished. Somewhere on Route 1A, a beaten-up stretch of highway that meanders through the North Shore parallel to the real Rte. 1 and the harbor, seeking a signal from the elusive ATT Wireless, we pull into a parking lot on what looks in the dark like landfill at the edge of a marsh in front of a dejected-looking building that might be dedicated to processing fish lips into cat food. We call our hotel for directions, but we’ve been through so many detours and roundabouts that we can’t tell the innkeeper whether we’re headed north or south. “We’re in the parking lot of something called The Wharf,” we say, and that wins us incredible and, as it turns out, fanciful you-can’t-get-here-from-there-style directions that include a “right turn down the alley behind the Cathedral.”
Satisfied for the moment that we won’t be sleeping in the car, our attention immediately reverts back to our stomachs. All the long day, expecting to alight by dinnertime in the land of the shoah dinnah, we have been limiting our intake to light snacks, leaving room for the lobsters and steamers that are to be our reward. Sensing that we’re talking to a local, we ask the hotelier for “the best place for lobster” in the Saugus-Revere area. “Yoah theah,” comes the reply. “The Whaff is excellent!”
And you know what, it is. A rambling multi-roomed roadhouse that probably started its life 30 years ago selling the day’s catch off the back of a wagon, Mt Vernon At The Wharf, as it is officially named, is comfortable, friendly and dim. Since it was so late and a school night, we were the only customers, save a couple of locals watching ESPN in the distant bar.
Too young to afford us a wine recommendation and too inexperienced to provide real service (she had to be sent back for things like napkins and butter), our waitress was nonetheless cheerful and solicitous; before heading home for the night, the proprietor herself stopped by to make sure all was well. Two large, plump lobsters, steamed veggies and baked potato, plus ever-dependable Guinness (better safe than sorry), and we were out the door for less than $35. We passed on the steamers because of the hour, but we’ll be headed back. For one thing, we’d like to be in the joint on a Friday or Saturday night. Bet it’s really cookin’ (Mt Vernon At The Wharf, 543 North Shore Road, Revere, Massachusetts, 617-289-0885).