Italian Masters Pt.II – Guido Teaches Me Ispirazione!

ricotta gnocchi
The Italian Masters tour was essentially a wine event to promote Italian winemakers under Kobrand’s distribution, but I was really more interested in the food. And even more than the food, spying on the chefs. *raising eyebrows* Yes, yes, I am not ashamed to admit that I idolize chefs. DJs and chefs. Okay, and after Part I of this two-part series on the event, guidos do it for me, too.

The event took place in a small banquet hall within the Fairmont hotel, which surprised me, as I thought this was going to be a fairly large event. Normally I wouldn’t have cared about the actual size, but the space was far too small to accommodate all the guests. I do alright with crowds, but I don’t do well with heat. Not only was it body heat from all the people packed in there like sardines, moving around from table to table, but the body heat was increased since many of the glossy , pink-faced Italian men were dressed in their Italian silk suits and they were filling the air with their warm breath from laughing and talking. Of course, there were hot portables stoves going full blast for many of the food tables. I was glistening. Glistening right through my summer white cotton jacket.

The list of participating chefs and restaurants was impressive. Some of the places I had been to before, like Beacon, and others I had yet to try. Perhaps this little tour around the banquet hall was going to be a good kick in the tastebuds; inspire me to finally make a reservation.

mako burger
Kobe beef makes it Asian fusion

To ease into everything, I started with the table that looked the least crowded. Straight ahead toward the back of the room at 12:00, it was Mako, serving the most adorable little baby burgers on tiny rotund buns. Chef Makoto Tanaka’s pan-Asian-fusion restaurant gets good press in these parts, but his offering confused me. Very American beefy burgers from a place that’s known for small plates of “food for sharing” like Asian seafood risotto, Peking-style duck, and pad thai? Oh, it was Kobe beef. ;) The burger was good, but not enough so that I could ignore tuna tataki salad – totally typical – and baked sake marinated salmon – boring – on Mako’s menu.

Beacon was scheduled to be there, but their table was empty for the entire time I strolled the event. Perhaps they made it later in the evening, but it was no matter. Beacon was one of the restaurants I had already tried, and to be quite honest, the first and second time, I was none too overwhelmed. Ah well, the two Asian restaurants out of the way, so now we’re on to the good stuff!

salmon in puff pastry
salmon in puff pastry – how very brunch!

We continued counter clockwise to what looked like the first stop of a hotel brunch buffet with a miniature tanning bed aka heat lamp glowing orange over petite pastry packets with tiny tomato halos. It was our host hotel’s restaurant serving a very hotel-brunch-like salmon wrapped in puff pastry. Not too bad, and it reminded me – Sarah, you have phyllo dough in the freezer. Do something with it. Soon.

Now right up the center of the room, Nancy Silverton. Chef Silverton scares me. I needed to “taste” a few more pinot grigios before I could muster enough courage to go up to her table. Why? Why would I be intimidated by a…a baker? Because she’s like the most famous bread baker in the bread-eating world, that’s why, duh! My roommate used to tell me stories about how intense Chef Silverton was. Like crazy intense about the holes in the bread. And the color of the crust.

chef nancy silverton
le gran dame of dough!
cheese on crackers
this ain’t ritz crackers and cheez whiz

But as famous and intense as she is, Chef Silverton isn’t too good to get back there behind the table, hair pulled back, sleeves rolled up, scraping a honeycomb with two spoons. Chef Silverton and her staff were presenting cracker-like biscuits with cheese, nuts, and honey. But it wasn’t Ritz crackers with cheez whiz. The crackers were semi-sweet, crumbly, yet dense and had some hint of herb flavor – was it rosemary? Topped with a golf ball of mozzarella that they had hand-stuffed with ricotta, and drizzled golden delicious. All of it was incredible. Herbs, nuts, honey, and cheese are good on their own, and even better together, which later inspired me in a basil pine nut crust.

Only days before the event, I had tried to dine at Angeli Caffé, but a visiting friend wasn’t interested in italiano, so we ended up at Cobras and Matadors. But Angeli Caffé remained on my brain because of chef/owner Evan Kleiman – magna cum laude from UCLA and then entered grad school. Beauty and brains and a chef, to boot? I was smitten.

chef evan kleiman
beauty, brains, and a chef!

Angeli Caffé table had trays of pressed sandwiches, but what caught my eye were the small ping pong balls that Chef Evan and her assistant were rolling by hand, then dropping into an enormous vat of simmering water. Pasta? Dumplings? I was reluctant to ask because, well, around chefs, I become tongue-tied, struck with awe. Chef Kleiman smiled in the sweetest most welcoming way possible and just nodded a plate toward me. Try some ricotta gnocchi and she laughed.

ricotta gnocchi
perfect pillows of ricotta cheese

Ricotta gnocchi! For weeks before this event, I had been dreaming about ricotta gnocchi. I had never heard of gnocchi made with anything other than potatoes, but when I happened to flip through the May 2005 issue of Bon Appetit magazine that focused on Italy, and spied a gorgeous bowl of tiny bumpy ivory dumplings with leeks, I became obsessed. They were ricotta gnocchi and I was determined to make them. Even though I had never tasted one in my life.

But it took me a while, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy a giant container of ricotta that would make enough gnocchi for 10 people, so I waited, and hoped for an occasion. But I didn’t have to. Angeli Caffé, Evan Kleiman, was serving ricotta gnocchi right here, right now, at this event. I tried one. I just about died right there on the spot, biting through the tender, buttered pillows of ricotta that were soft and supple as cheese should be, yet with just enough tautness to hold their shape. What the heck was I waiting for? Just go home and make the damn ricotta gnocchi for myself! And I did. They weren’t quite as soft and pillowy as Chef Kleiman’s but what the hell do I expect? She’s been doing this for like 30 years.

the chef from jerne
no pastry bag? use a ziploc!
stuffed onion
perfect pot-bellied pearl onion

And now back down the center of the room to Jer-ne, the restaurant at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Marina Del Rey. Jer-n?’s chef isn’t exactly modest, as he had himself advertised on most of the PR and promo materials, rather than the restaurant. Ha! Little good it did, since I don’t even remember his name! But I do remember the luscious little pearls he was serving that I initially thought were seared scallops. They were tiny, pot-bellied pearl onions filled with a creamy herb mix, then sort of half-braised, half-sautéed in a pan. I popped the whole thing in my mouth and burnt the roof of my mouth. Ouch! That’s what I get, greedy little thing that I am! After I got over the “hoo hoo, hot hot!” I bit through and tasted the onion’s crisp sweetness, bursting with creamy soft filling. I can’t wait to try and make the same thing in November, as these little gems would be perfect on a Thanksgiving table.

the cook from vincenti
lasagne with a side of hot chef?
verdant layers of lasagne

There were quite a few people around the Vincenti table for a while, so it took me a while to get there. I hate fighting crowds. But when I finally made it, I could see why. I guess I hadn’t noticed earlier that the herds of people were mostly women, crowding around snatching away plates of a lasagne from a very beautiful cook. There is no way he was Chef Nicola Mastronardi. This cook was a hired hand, perhaps an actor who didn’t have an audition today. Lasagne, what? Right. Still, it did remind me that at some point this summer, I’d like to try my hand at a vegetarian lasagne.

the pork belly
fat is still fat
grace sign
red wattle?!?!

Just across the aisle from Vincenti, Grace had set up mini-shop. I have not yet been to Grace, but all I ever hear is that I “have to go,” if for nothing else than the little box of pastries to take home. But I was more interested in the Doughnut Shoppe dessert, with tiny yeast-raised, filled, and glazed doughnuts with vanilla ice cream. Ever since I had the homemade doughnut dessert at Gordon’s House of Fine Eats (now closed in SF), I am enamored of doughnuts, even if it’s a microwaved Krispy Kreme with a scoop of Häagen Dazs, as dessert.

Grace was serving braised pork belly with morels and asparagus. Pork belly is real delicacy I suppose, but for some reason, I could not bring myself to eat the glistening globule of pure pork fat that was slip sliding around the plate in a puddle of liquefied lard. The sign said “red wattle,” and that sealed the no-deal. I took the tiniest bite ever that I thought I could stomach. Yep, that is pure fat. I didn’t have it in me to taste anymore. Fat is flavor, yes. But fat is also…fat. And that’s that. The morels and asparagus were great, flavored with fat :)

roasted fig and peach
pine nuts and figs, but sans green sugar crystals

The last table of the day had the most enormous figs I had ever seen, and since it was mid-June, still a wee bit early for good figs, I was completely taken. Where on earth did these come from? I took as risk and asked the lady behind the table if I could have one. She said no, they were the display for Melissa’s Produce. Dammit! I should have just snatched it off the plate and stuffed it into my bag with all the other promo materials that were being given away. Instead of the baseball-sized fig, she offered me some of the foods that they had prepared. Little consolation, but I took the plate anyway. I looked at the plate and couldn’t believe at a gourmet event, they were serving what looked like Pillsbury slice and ba
ke sugar cookies rolled in green sugar crystals! But I was mistaken. They were pine nut cookies, served with a dollop of sweetened mascarpone and small roasted peaches and figs. Now that would make a good tart, less the fluorescent green crystals, of course ;)

By the end of the mini tour of LA restaurants, I had wilted into a sweaty, rumpled mess with a bag full of promo materials, wine descriptions, menus, and business cards. I’m sure I’ve lost all the paperwork, or at very best, it’s buried at the bottom of a disheveled stack of bills and unopened mail on my desk. I may not rush to make reservations at Mako or Vincenti, or even Grace, for that matter, but I walked away with ispirazione, and that’s all that matters.

Actual Date of Event: Wednesday, June 15, 2005

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  • Fatemeh Khatibloo-McClure

    lasagne with a side of hot chef?

    For you, anything!

  • stef

    ugh, i am SOOOO envious! nancy silverton!!!! and the hot chef, of course, yeah….

  • Lindsay

    what a fantastic write up, sarah! it’s funny how we ended up taking a lot of the same pictures! it was so nice to hang out with you that day and to get a taste, if you will, of how a real foodie thinks, and eats.

  • Anonymous

    Oh my god, is all you ever do is to brag about these “special” events you get invited to and famous people you get to see? Yeah yeah yeah, you’re very special.

  • sarah

    i actually have a picture of the cook that i thought i was sneaking, but he looked up just as i was aiming, so he looks sort of startled, but in the cutest way. that one i am keeping for myself. ;)

    and i never got up the nerve to go up and talk to chef silverton. i mean, what on earth would i say?!?! “um, hi. just thought i’d tell you that your bread rules.” as if she didn’t already know that!

    just like lindsay didn’t get up the nerve to talk to evan kleiman! haha! that was so funny when you were like “ohmigod! that’s her! i listen to her all the time!” and you wouldn’t go over and say anything or let me snap a picture of you and her! LOL!

    and anonymous, no no, i am not special. just very, very lucky.

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