Wednesday, June 13, 2012

First Bite: Napa Valley Grille

What's Amy Eating? Napa Valley Grille

Last month I was invited to lunch at the Westwood Village restaurant "Napa Valley Grille." It is a wine country-inspired restaurant that has been a staple of the city for the past 12 years. I had no idea what lay ahead for me and my plus one, but I had a feeling I would enjoy every bite.

Shortly after I was greeted by the hostess, I was introduced to Executive Chef Taylor Bordeaux. He proceeded to walk me to my table for two and seat me with menu in hand. We chatted for a few minutes as I gathered more background on him and the restaurant. I learned that he is a Wolfgang Puck Worldwide alum with over 17 years of culinary experience, and that his wife is a registered dietitian, which greatly influences his cooking. As I glanced over the menu, he let me know that his plan was to "throw stuff my way" for the meal.

PAUSE, let's recap. I was invited to review a restaurant where THE executive chef would be cooking specifically for ME? On the inside I was jumping up and down screaming with excitement. On the outside I played it cool. I felt like I was going to be the newest judge on Iron Chef. He returned to the kitchen and soon after my plus one (none other than my mom) arrived.

Before any food was brought out, I was treated to a nice refreshing glass of Voss sparkling water, which wouldn't have been complete without the lime wedge.

First on the agenda was bread. But not just any bread. Fresh, fantastic, bread of your dreams bread. It was warm and fluffy on the inside, with the perfect crunchy crust on the outside accompanied with an out of this world chimmichurri sauce. So many restaurants can't get something as simple as the bread right, and Napa Valley Grille nailed it. This was a promising glimpse of what was yet to come.

The first course presented to me was a Black fig and prosciutto appetizer with burrata cheese, micro basil, aged balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and grey salt. Prosciutto and burrata had previously never been in my diet. After eating this dish, they are both here to stay. This was the ultimate example of a perfectly balanced dish. The salty meatiness of the prosciutto with the silky creaminess of the burrata cheese was such an amazing match. I felt that the cheese was there for texture while the meat was there for taste. Digging deeper you discover the fruity essence of fig and your taste buds are pulled in another direction. All of these flavors are so different yet work so well together. I have always been a fan of sweet with savory, so this was truly a treat. To top it all off you have the fresh concentrated flavor of micro basil and a wonderfully potent aged balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. From first to last bite I was intrigued and left wanting more well after my plate was cleared. Each ingredient was equally important and had it's own starring moment. I have been craving this dish ever since I left and my taste buds cannot wait to return for a reunion. 

All gone!

Round two offered soft shell crab. It was presented with a home made tartar sauce and a lemon wedge. The presentation was enticing and the home made tartar sauce was excellent attention to detail. The crab was fresh and flavorful, and due to my mom's wheat sensitivity, Chef Taylor fried the crab with corn meal instead of traditional wheat flour. I really appreciate that he was able to cater to my mom's special needs while still making the dish taste great. 

Time for my favorite dish of the whole meal. Sweet corn agnolotti. It is a house made pasta with black truffle and parmesan butter sauce. From the first bite, it became my new favorite pasta. Imagine if a sweet corn tamale and ravioli fell in love and came together to create one super dish. You would have a culinary masterpiece on your hands. Each bite was an explosion of sweet corn flavor and the fresh pasta was the perfect vessel to deliver it to my mouth. The black truffle was not overpowering and had just the right place in the dish. The parmesan butter sauce was light and creamy. Anytime I've eaten pasta in the past I've felt weighed down. This pasta had light flavors with a serious punch. Along with the prosciutto burrata plate, this has earned it's spot in my diet and I must return for an encore. 

*DUN DUN DUN* I now present to you, Amy Castle's procession of pasta eating faces!

"Hey foodies, let's try a bite!"

"OHHH, it looks good."

"Mmm, that's pretty tasty."

"Oh my GOD this is amazing."

"I'm in pasta bliss."

(Giggles to self that she enjoys pasta this much.)

"Ok, you guys SERIOUSLY have to try this!"

"I could weep with joy due to how good this is."

"This pasta gets a big thumbs up!"

Accompanying my pasta were green beans in a sweet sesame soy sauce. The green beans were crispy and the sauce was addicting. The dish was topped with toasted sesame seeds which added great texture and flavor. I finished every last bean and will definitely order them again.

My mom was treated to the natural half roasted chicken with pan jus. We swapped bites of food and her chicken was one of the juiciest and most flavorful I've had in a long time. The skin was crispy perfection. The rosemary was very present and the pan jus was just the right sauce. I have to go back to fully appreciate this dish.

Accompanying my mom's chicken were baby artichokes sautéed with garlic and shallots. I only had one because my attention was turned to the green beans, but it was tender and full of deep garlic flavor. 

For dessert, we were presented with a cappuccino pot de crème. A crème brulee type custard with fresh chantilly cream on top and garnished with a chocolate dipped spoon. Yes, you heard me correctly. Chocolate. Dipped. SPOON. The custard was smooth, with rich notes of cappuccino, yet not too sweet. Overly sweet desserts are a big pet peeve of mine, so I am happy to report that this dessert earns an A + on the sweetness level. The chantilly cream was so light, and tasted like it was freshly whipped on the spot. I rarely finish all of my dessert, but this really hit the spot and I couldn't help but devour the whole thing. 

My new friend, the chocolate dipped spoon.

When lunch had finally come to an end, I thanked Chef Taylor and the manager Tracy and headed back to my car. All of the flavors were still swirling on my palette, the memories of an incredible meal still fresh on my mind. I headed home, straight for my computer, to share my wrap up review with you. My foodie friends, here it is.

Napa Valley Grille is perfection. Chef Taylor's attentiveness throughout lunch was such a pleasant surprise and an experience I will never forget. He introduced me to unexpected flavor combinations and opened my taste buds up to new culinary possibilities. Each dish was well thought out with attention to detail, and each ingredient within had a specific purpose. The emphasis on locally sourced produce is so important, and I greatly appreciate Chef Taylor's commitment to using only the freshest ingredients. From the beautiful decor, to the warm staff, to the out of this world dishes, Napa Valley Grille is a must try, and a new addition to my favorite restaurants. 

For more information on Napa Valley Grille, check out http://www.napavalleygrille.com and don't forget the follow them on Twitter @NVGRestaurant. 

Napa Valley Grille
1100 Glendon Avenue, Suite 100

Los Angeles, CA 90024

Phone: 310.824.3322

Thanks for coming along on this culinary adventure with me, and I can't wait to take you along on the next!

Happy eatings,


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Aaand I'm Sick

I tried to fight it. Thought if I ignored it it would take the hint and move on to some other unsuspecting being. But alas, this soreness has decided to take up residence in my throat for the past two days.

Being sick is annoying. It also always seems to happen to me when I'm really geared up to do lots of things. Take this week, for example. I went to a holiday party at my friend's place on Thursday night, the party ended early so I actually found myself home in bed by midnight. I snuggled into bed and set my alarm for 8 to do my early morning productive routine of gym, clean room, film a review, etc.

However, during the course of that fateful slumber, something in my body decided "ehhhh the hell with productivity. I'm gonna get sick now and screw up her plans for the next two days."

So I awake Friday, to my surprise much later than I had intended to, with a rough feeling in my throat and sleep in my eyes.

The thing I dislike most about sick days is that I can't be productive. I have to actually rest and drink more liquids than my body can hold and just chill till I'm well again. But that doesn't stop me from thinking of ways to be productive.

So after bouncing around on Netflix for a good while yesterday, I decided what my "productive" sick project would be. I, Amy Castle, am going to watch every episode of Good Eats in order. All 13 seasons. I've been wanting to do it for a while, but now the time has come. If you don't already know, Alton Brown is my idol and role model. He makes everything interesting and fun, so who better to accompany me during my throat ailment than my favorite foodie? I'll be gaining a ton of food knowledge along the way, which will better my future videos and posts.

As soon as I'm in tip top health, more reviews are coming. I'm really excited to start writing again, and I hope you're excited to join me on my culinary adventures.

Until then, it's throat coat, good eats, and Christmas pajamas.

~ Amy

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

First Bite: Take A Bao

Tonight I decided to try a new restaurant in the area: Take A Bao. I had driven past it practically every day since construction began, and now that it had been open since October, my curiousity finally hit it’s peak. I turned to Yelp to get the scoop and browse the menu before driving there, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it wasn’t just another American – asian fusion spot. The words “all natural meat” quickly grabbed my attention, and in that moment, I knew it would be tonight’s feasting spot.

Upon first arrival, I was greeted with an open, modern trendy atmosphere. It seemed like the kind of place you’d find artsy hipsters looming about. As I enter, a friendly staff member greets me and asks if it’s my first time dining there, to which I reply yes. I inform him I’ll be ordering togo, and he hands me the menu and says to let him know if I have any questions.

Now it was time to get down to business. I open the menu and instantly my eyes begin darting all over the page. Flavors are popping out all over.   amarind, Yuzu Marmalade, Sesame Sea Salt, Plum Hoisin Sauce, Kimchi, Garlic Lime Aoli. My mouth was already watering.

After a once over of the menu, I decide on the Hoisin Steak and Thai Peanut Chicken Baos. I like the ability to customize my order, so this place already gets a point for allowing you to choose between a white bun, wheat bun or bibb lettuce wrap on your Bao. Being health concious, I chose the lettuce wrap. To finish off the meal, I decide to throw in a side of roasted sesame edamame. I ordered my picks, and within 10 minutes they were ready to take home.

On the car ride back, I restrained myself from sneaking a bite of my findings. The aromas were filling my car at such a rapid rate that I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to contain myself. Luckily the drive was short, and I immediately rushed inside to unwrap my new taste tests.

I reached for the Thai Peanut Chicken bao. With the first bite, I’m immersed in a mix of tangy and savory flavors. It’s a good 4-5 bites with plenty of filling. The chicken was moist and the ground peanuts added a great texture. Bits of cucumber, cilantro, and scallions topped it off, and the rich peanut sauce gave it a wonderful kick. Smooth butter lettuce was the perfect partner to hold it all together without detracting from the main ingredients.

Next up is the Hoisin Steak Bao. My taste buds are instantly pulled in a completely different direction with sweet soy sauce notes in the Steak glaze. The steak itself melts in my mouth and is cooked perfectly. All the flavors of pickled daikon, radish sprouts, cilantro and peanuts keep me interested through to the last bite. While I loved the sauce, they were a bit heavy handed on it. I had a good amount left in my foil wrapping when I was done, so I decided to get creative and dip my edamame in it, which definitely enhanced the taste. 

Their edamame was actually the only thing that didn't impress me. “Roasted Sesame Edamame with sesame sea salt” got my hopes up for something exciting, and it unfortunately fell short for me. It wasn’t until I was about half way through my stack of edamame that I began to really taste the sesame salt. It was a good flavor, but not nearly enough of it and not well mixed. It just ended up being regular edamame for me. For $3.50 a serving, I think I’ll skip it next time and try one of their drinks instead.

Overall, Take A Bao impressed me. They use natural meats, local produce, and intriguing ingredients. The wide variety of menu items and flavors that kept me wanting one more bite makes for a certain second visit from me. The range of portion size is another plus as well. From the small dishes starting at $3.50 to the plates that go up to $13, there’s something for almost every price point and hunger level. Whether you’re looking for a quick bite of Bao or a full sit down meal, they’ve got you covered. I’m looking forward to trying more dishes and seeing how this restaurant develops. 

Fore more information on Take A Bao, visit www.takeabao.com