I have been asked by many readers (well, at least a dozen), where I'll be having Thanksgiving dinner. As a restaurant critic, I get lots of holiday invitations but politely pass on them all to follow my annual (animalistic) habits. I'm fortunate to always be invited for Thanksgiving lunch to the lovely Malibu home of Fred and Betty Hayman, where their amazing French chef prepares a traditional holiday meal with roast turkey and ham as its centerpiece and all the delicious sides and pies. Good company, fine wines, superb food... what could be better? But this year I am also going to have a second holiday meal... in the late evening... at a wonderful Italian restaurant in Santa Monica. Not that I will be hungry, mind you, but I want to support the new chef there, who has initiated a series of startling 'concept dinners' of which I am a huge partisan. It all started some weeks ago, the last Thursday in October, when Milan native Owner West Hooker-Poletti and Manager Megan invited me to Locanda del Lago (231 Arizona Avenue, Santa Monica, (310) 451-3525), on the corner of Third and Arizona, with valet parking). I have been happily eating here for years, but I didn't realize that they were now celebrating their 20th anniversary! A mighty culinary feat at any time, especially these.
And they have a new Executive Chef who evoked my curiosity, for he is a world-class famous toque and I was deeply curious as to how he would improve upon what was already a superb menu. You may remember from my recent writings that Lago is a fiercely dedicated, Northern Italian dining haven, and I even recommended to George Clooney that he stop by here to taste what I consider the best of such regional food. Now Executive Chef Gianfranco Minuz is cooking there, and I knew that he had earned Michelin stars in both Italian and American kitchens. The food is that of the Lake Como district, and I spent considerable time when younger at the Villa D'Este there. Chef told me that he had just finished ten years at the esteemed Trattoria Tre Venezie in Pasadena, and before that had his own restaurant, Ca' Masierei, in Trissino, Italy, each recognized by Michelin with a star. Originally from Friuli-Venezia in northeastern ItaIy, he had trained with the legendary Gualtiero Marchesi in Milan, the three-star chef who defines modern Italian cuisine.
I just had a superb meal tasting many of his new additions to the menu... Capon Chicken in a cremini mushroom salad with warm mushrooom dressing, handcrafted Octopus Ragu with homemade pasta (incredible!), Blueberry and Chestnut Risotto (yummy), and Italian Fritelle with tiger shrimp and zucchini. Of course the restaurant's classic Vittelo Tonnato, Pizzoccheri, and Ossobuco alla Milanese were still stalwarts on the menu. But what knocked me out... and has resulted in my returning this holiday Thursday evening, is that the chef has decided to celebrate what he calls Morso della Bestia (Bite of the Beast) the last Thursday of every month. And I had the pleasure of enjoying his October meal... of lamb in all its various incarnations. An all-natural Niman Ranch Colorado lamb (my favorite meat) was delivered to the restaurant, and chef and his aides butchered it down to... nothing. The resulting dishes: lamb belly, sauteed lamb offals (you don't want to know, but I'll tell you...kidneys, sweetbreads, heart and liver), lamb ragu, and a garlic-thyme roasted leg of lamb sliced tableside with horseradish roasted potatoes. Unlimited litros of red and white house wine...for a price of $60 per person for the five-course dinner. Such a great, delicious deal.
Naturally, somewhat boastfully, I later sat with the chef and told him about my many experiences with Chef Fergus Henderson and his iconic London restaurant, St. John's, which is celebrated worldwide for its "Nose to Tail" cooking (and a book of the same name.) My taste for offbeat offaly cuts of meat come from those British evenings, and just yesterday I went to Lindy & Grundy, my butchers-of-choice at 801 N Fairfax Avenue, where Erika and Amelia sold me some offal to have for dinner (a slice of heart, split marrow bones, sweetbreads and kidney). Theirs is the only source of such stuff that I trust implicitely and will eat. Chickens, also.
Which may explain why I am stopping by Lago for a late Thanksgiving dinner, 'cause Chef Gianfranco is cooking a Diestel Family Ranch turkey... and I have reserved the pope's tail for myself. (That's the last piece over the fence before it disappears.) I already have made reservations for the January 26th New Zealand Venison dinner, the February 23rd Muscovy Duck dinner (yes!)... and have not decided about March 29th featuring Virginia Seabass and April 26th for Capon Chicken.
So... if you were wondering what I am doing for Thanksgiving, now you know. Incidentally, for all my friends and neighbors, I will be fulfilling another of my annual traditions for you next week. I always cook five or six turkeys in different, weird and wonderful ways and distribute them to those folks. One will be rubbed in olive oil and herbs, then microwaved on high for 25 minutes! (to solidify the flesh; it really works) and finished in a searing hot 450-degree oven for another hour. One will be cooked at 200 degrees from midnight to noon in a sweet Thai chili sauce before a final hot blast. Another will be steamed/poached in Chinese style, with soy, ginger and green onions. And one will be cooked conventionally at 325 degrees, with herb butter stuffed under the skin, for about 2 ½ hours. No stuffing, of course, and each will have lemons stuffed into the cavity. Aren't holidays fun!!
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