Daily Dish

The inside scoop on food in Los Angeles

Category: Restaurant Reviews

Taking a trip up the coast? S. Irene Virbila suggests Julienne restaurant in Santa Barbara

Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila says her Santa Barbara dining options used to be limited to La Super-Rica and a few other spots. But now, her list includes Julienne Restaurant. She gives it two stars in this week's review:

I was smitten the moment the platter of house-made charcuterie came out. This was a serious effort. Everything on the plate with the exception of prosciutto was made in-house. That meant a coarse-textured, country-style pork and liver pâté with a golden raisin compote, a slab of their own mortadella embellished with pistachios, even the saucisson sec and a Tuscan-style finocchiona salami. They actually make much more — including lamb lardo, trotter terrine and potted foie gras served in a little glass jar topped with blackberry gelée — but serve only five or six selections at any given time.

Read the rest of her review here.


-- Top reviewed restaurants of the L.A. Times

-- 113 wine picks by S. Irene Virbila

-- 121 recipes for your favorite restaurant dishes

-- Rene Lynch
twitter / renelynch 

Photo: Julienne makes its own charcuterie. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Best restaurant in the world? Whose world?


Nobody takes "best" lists seriously, but they are plenty of fun to argue about. And there's plenty of arguing going on right now over the list of 50 best restaurants in the world put together by Restaurant magazine and sponsored by San Pellegrino. Best restaurant in the world? The whole wide world? Noma in Denmark. Wonder how many of the voters have actually eaten there (it has only50 seats and it is, after all, in Denmark -- our Betty Hallock went last year and here's her report). Silver and bronze medals go to two Spanish restaurants: El Celler de Can Roca and Mugaritz. Osteria Francescana in Italy and Fat Duck in England round out the top five.

The top American restaurant is Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago at No. 6. In New York, Per Se is No. 10 and Daniel is No. 11. There were no California restaurants in the top 50. (But the Bazaar by Jose Andres in Los Angeles is No. 85.) 

-- Russ Parsons

Photo of Noma chef René Redzepi by Christian Charisius / Reuters

Two stars: Hostaria del Piccolo in Santa Monica

Plan ahead if you want the calzones, above, at Hostaria del Piccolo in Santa Monica. They have to be ordered 24 hours in advance.

In this week's review, Times restaurant critis S. Irene Virbila says of Hostaria: 

The food here — pizza, pasta and more — really tastes like Italy, comforting and familiar. Normale, as an Italian would say.

Read the rest of Virbila's review here, and check out this photo gallery of more images of Hostaria del Piccolo, as well as some of the signature items on the menu.


-- Top reviewed restaurants of the L.A. Times

-- 113 wine picks by S. Irene Virbila

-- 121 recipes for your favorite restaurant dishes

-- Rene Lynch
twitter / renelynch 

Photo: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Wordless Wednesday: When life gives you an unkind review, mock it

Submitted by Bobbi Bowers who writes the food blog Fresh and Foodie. She snapped this picture at Longman & Eagle restaurant in Chicago, and reports that she loved the meal and got a kick out of the restaurant's sense of humor. You can follow her on Twitter @freshandfoodie. Thanks, Bobbi.

If you have a photo you'd like us to consider for Wordless Wednesday, e-mail me at Rene.Lynch@latimes.com

-- Rene Lynch
Twitter.com / renelynch

A field guide to Yelp reviewers

OK, treading lightly onto very dangerous ground here. There's an essay on Atlantic's Life website that I find hilarious. It's about Yelp reviewers and it's by Derek Brown, a Washington, D.C. mixologist. As you can guess, he's not terribly complimentary. There are a few scattered obligatory caveats ("Before one gets the wrong idea, I like Yelp and appreciate the concept"), but for the most part it's pretty scathing.

The problem, he says, is that the good content is pushed out by the bad and he breaks the unhelpful reviewers down into a few categories: The Ubermensch who condemns the herd mentality; the Blood Feud, who reviews a meal he had several years ago; the Cheapskate who ... well, you can probably guess; and my personal favorite, the Know-Nothing, who posts comments such as: "The pickled vegetables were too sour; they reminded me of vegetables + vinegar."

What do you think? How reliable do you find Yelp reviews? Incidentally, if you haven't already, be sure to bookmark the page, which is home to consistently interesting, well-written pieces on food and, now, style.

--Russ Parsons

Photo: Yelp co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman

Photo credit: Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

Everyone's going loco over Taco Asylum in Costa Mesa

Is there room in Southern California for another hip taco slinger? Judging by the lunch crowds at Taco Asylum, there is indeed. They're lured in by creative taste combos such as lamb with ratatouille, background, wild mushroom with fried chickpeas and parsley salad, center, and a grilled octopus taco.

That's why it's our Find of the week.


More eats that are easy on the wallet

The Review: Petrossian in West Hollywood

Andrew Kirschner leaving Wilshire to open his own restaurant

-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

The Find: Guisados taqueria in Boyle Heights


Ricardo Diaz is on his way to building a culinary empire. Three years ago, Diaz and his in-laws opened Cook's Tortas in Monterey Park. There, sturdy, rustic rolls are baked on-site, everyone sips pineapple-celery and watermelon-mint aguas frescas and dessert brings soft corn cakes and biscuits smeared with loquat marmalade. Now comes Guisados, the new Boyle Heights taqueria from Diaz and business partner Armando De La Torre. Here, guisados achieve ascendancy; these are humble stews and braises that you'd otherwise most likely find simmering atop a home stove. What's next from Diaz? 

Read more from this week's Find here. 



Restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila photographed and kicked out of Red Medicine

Our restaurant critic has been unmasked.

S. Irene Virbila, the L.A. Times’ restaurant critic for the last 16 years, was visiting Red Medicine restaurant in Beverly Hills on Tuesday night when she was approached by managing partner Noah Ellis, who took Virbila’s picture without her permission and then ordered Virbila and her three companions to leave, refusing them service.

Ellis posted her picture on the restaurant’s Tumblr site, explaining that she was not welcome there.

No surprise that the posting immediately ricocheted throughout the blogosphere, generating plenty of discussion along the way. Over at food blogs Eater LA -- which also published Virbila's photo -- and Squid Ink, there were dozens of comments. Some called it a petty, vengeful act and a desperate bid to cover up persistent problems at the restaurant, while another praised Virbila as "an island of constancy in a sea of ever-changing food 'reviewers.' " 

There were also comments siding with Red Medicine: "... their reasons were grounded in the idea that no one person should have enough influence to take down an establishment, and sadly that is how things sometimes work in this fickle, fame obsessed town. i have seen people show up at restaurants with s.irene's reviews cut out so the[y] know what to order, as if they don't have an actual brain and the ability to decide for themselves, and then be upset when the menu has changed or something is not in season."

Ellis said he was intentionally trying to take away Virbila's anonymity because he does not like her reviews: “Our purpose for posting this is so that all restaurants can have a picture of her and make a decision as to whether or not they would like to serve her. We find that some her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational…"

Virbila said she and her companions had been waiting for 45 minutes past their reservation time when Ellis approached her, camera in hand. Ellis said on the site that Virbila arrived “in the middle of a particularly hairy service  … and because we had guests lingering, were not able to sit [her party] immediately.”

Ellis added, “We’re writing this to make everyone aware that she was unable to dine here, and as such, any retribution by her or on her behalf via a review cannot be considered to be unbiased.”

Times Food editor Russ Parsons said Virbila contacted him after the incident and was upset by it. It was humiliating to be confronted in such a manner, Parsons said, and Virbila felt violated to have her picture taken without her permission. But mostly, he said, “She was upset because she has worked extremely hard for more than 15 years to maintain her anonymity in the L.A. restaurant scene.”

Parsons said that a truly anonymous restaurant critic is increasingly rare in a world that revolves around instant communication and a camera is as close as your cellphone. Some media outlets say true anonymity is impossible and, as a result, no longer try to go to great lengths to hide a critic’s identity.

Anonymity is important because restaurant critics function as consumer advocates and want to ensure their meal closely mimics the meal and dining experience that anyone else would get if they were to show up at that restaurant. If the critic is known, the staff can go out of its way to give them special treatment.

To that end, Virbila makes reservations under a different name, never uses her own phone number and even pays with a credit card issued in a different name. She never accepts free meals for herself or her companions.  Review protocol calls for her to visit a restaurant on three separate occasions and sample a wide variety of menu options so that her reviews can truly inform readers.

“Restaurant meals can cost a lot of money,” Parsons said, “and we want to make sure that when one of our readers goes to a restaurant they can expect the same experience the critic received.”

The Times will continue with its plans to review Red Medicine. The restaurant was chosen for review, Parsons said, because of its pedigree –- Ellis has worked in the past with noted chef and restaurateur Michael Mina. And, Parsons added, “We had hopes that they would be doing interesting things with Southeast Asian food. We will still review them.”

As for Virbila? “Virbila has been our restaurant critic since 1994. We consider her to be one of the premier restaurant critics in the U.S.,” he said.

--Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

No diss intended re Chez Jay


Last week's review of the Yard in Santa Monica provoked a slew of testy comments -- not about the Yard, but regarding my comment that Chez Jay, one of Santa Monica's last surviving dives, just isn't the same. Not so, my correspondents e-mailed. "You're right the place has changed -- it's way better, thanks to Mike [Anderson] and his great staff," wrote one. "As a 25-year customer, I can attest to the fact that Chez Jay is still a great 'dive,'" another insisted, "and if it is not the same since Jay's death, as you point out, you should also mention it's undeniably better."  

Every dive should have such die-hard and loyal fans. Makes me want to go back again just to revel in the vibe of the 44-year-old-plus restaurant half a block south of the Santa Monica Pier. With its longtime crew, Chez Jay is Santa Monica's equivalent of the beloved neighborhood pub. Hope that wherever he is, the late Jay Fiondella is touched that Chez Jay holds such an affectionate place in his old customers' hearts. They're still hanging in there, enjoying their steak and beer. Wish he could do the same.

-- S. Irene Virbila

Photo: Owner Jay Fiondella at Chez Jay in 1984. Credit: Samuel Mircovich / Los Angeles Times

Survey says: Zagat unveils its 2011 L.A. restaurant guide


Pizzeria Mozza and the Bazaar by Jose Andres are like the most popular kids in high school. Sushi Zo proves that it's what's on the inside -- not the outside -- that counts. It's getting cheaper to eat out in L.A. (although not by much). In-N-Out burgers reign supreme. It's hard to get good service these days.

And food trucks -- duh -- are hot.

Those are just a few of the highlights gleaned from the latest Zagat survey of more than 10,000 local diners, covering 2,016 restaurants in Los Angeles and other regions of Southern California and compiled into the Zagat 2011 dining guide. Tim and Nina Zagat -- the founders of the burgundy pocket guide that pioneered "user-generated content" before that term even existed -- were in town this week to chat about the new guide, as well as dining trends.

First up: How relevant is the Zagat guide in a world where everyone seems to be a restaurant critic with an online soap box? The Zagats say social media have been a boon for what they do, and the proliferation of online restaurant chatter only helps them stand out more in the crowded marketplace. "We have one of the highest-grossing apps for iPhone," Nina Zagat said, and more than 100,000 followers on Twitter.

"We don't just collect information and throw it" online, Nina said. "We always thought it was important for the content to be curated, to put the comments together in a way that is meaningful for the user. The core value of what we do is the editing of the comments and the quality of the content."

The survey includes several questions that reflect just how much the food world has changed. An overwhelming majority of diners think it's "acceptable in moderation" or "perfectly acceptable" to take pictures of their food or other diners' food. But 67% said "it's rude and inappropriate" to text, e-mail, tweet or talk on a cellphone during the meal.

Following the jump are just a few of the survey highlights (and click here for a survey PDF):

Continue reading »

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Daily Dish is written by Times staff writers.