Missing from the bustling Los Angeles scene for too long has been the presence of fine dining allied with cool music (preferably jazz.) Yes, we have Herb Alpert's wonderful VIBRATO up on Mulholland, along with a few hit-or-miss places in Hollywood, but here on the West Side of the city we were bereft of such unique entertainment spots.....until now. The people who have run the very successful Spaghettini Restaurant in Seal Beach for the past 26 years, Cary Hardwick and Laurie Sisneros, were actively looking for a spot to open a second venue here in L.A., and then struck gold when the building at 184 North Canon Drive, right next door to Wolfgang's SPAGO, suddenly became available. They then teamed up with a legendary nine-time Grammy Award nominee, jazz saxophonist David Koz, to supply the music for SPAGHETTINI and the David Koz Lounge restaurant/nightclub (310) 424-4600, and an amazing new experience was unveiled in recent weeks in the heart of the city.
But nothing would have worked without the food rising to the occasion, and they managed to garner Scott Howard, one of the best chefs ever to grace the California scene. The first time I went there for dinner with Ginny Mancini, widow of the great musician Hank Mancini, it was a quiet Monday night in early January, just after they opened, with no music scheduled. We loved the Cal-Italian food and I vowed to return for a dinner with the musical accompaniment. Last Friday night I dined with my regular reviewing team of editor Penny McTaggart and David Rapoport and we three had one of the best dining experiences of many months. Did we ever!
My more observant readers will remember that even as a long-time journalist/film producer, I actually came out of the jazz world, having joined George Wein in 1954 to publicize the original Newport Jazz Festival on the Lorillard farm in Rhode Island. It was backstage there in1958 that I met Billie Holiday and she gave me a copy of her autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, suggesting that I film it someday, and it was 13 long tortuous years later that I was finally able to do so with Diana Ross as Billie, Billy Dee Williams ("the black Clark Gable") as her husband, and Richard Pryor in his first film role as Piano Man. It proved to be a huge success, with five Academy Award nominations, and led to a prosperous film career for us all. So my jazz roots are deep and still flowering. Last night there was a swinging jazz group led by sax player/composer Jackiem Joyner and a surprise guest, singer Selena Albright. (Her father, Gerald, is one of the legendary saxophonists of the world and plays here often.) As you read this, on Tuesday night a young jazz vocalist named Ariana Savalas will appear, and I'll be there to cheer her on since her late father, the actor Telly Savalas, was a dear friend. The talented musician/entrepreneur Dave Koz is shepherding the music here, and I know far too well (from Herb Alpert) the difficulty and expense it takes to keep such a vigorous music program going. More power to them all.
Combining an elegant, delicious dinner menu with late-night entertainment (usually from Wednesday to Sunday evenings) is no small feat. General Manager Cecil Kepner is an experienced hand at this, and on each occasion I have been impressed by the intense training the wait staff has expressed. Last night I gifted Sommelier Jeffrey Blancq with a bottle of Laetitia's Brut Cuvee, my favorite sparkling wine, and he expressed a liking for their rare Brut Rose. We had a young woman, Vatrize Braza from the Dominican Republic, handling our table and were deeply impressed with how well she had been indoctrinated with a deep knowledge of their cocktail/wine list and menu. When she suggested that I try a Jack Taylor cocktail I almost fell off my seat. When I first came to California, I went to Jack Taylor's shop on this very site on Canon. Jack was the 'bespoke' tailor of the elite entertainment world, making custom suits for Sinatra, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon and even Fred Astaire. I couldn't afford such luxury but bought a tuxedo shirt from him and we became casual friends. This week would have been his hundredth birthday.....and here I was drinking a cocktail named in his honor.
At ten o'clock on music nights the stage hidden behind wooden panels during dinner service is slowly unveiled. You can pay the cover charge and the two-drink minimum if you want to just come to hear the music, and about half of the house this night did so.....but I strongly recommend you make an evening of it and start with the luscious meal and settle back (at no extra charge) for the music. I once had a dinner at a San Francisco restaurant when Scott Howard was chef there; he then went on to his own restaurants before Seal Beach. So I kind of knew what to expect, but still on my two visits here, working my way through most of the menu, I have been blown away by the delicious intensity of the dishes. The legendary French chef Pierre Gagnaire once told me that the sign of a great chef is that he is not afraid to use a little salt. And Exec Chef Scott has no such fear, he salts his dishes to perfection when needed. Two of my favorite starters are the Burrata ($14) with strawberry jam, miso, wild rocket arugula, yuzu and a drizzle of aged balsamic...and the Tuna Tartare ($18), finely-chopped ahi tuna with avocado, ponzu and shreds of scallion. After the meal, I emailed the chef about this dish, since I detected the one ingredient I like in my tuna tartare to make it perfect....and he confirmed that he had added a dollop of spicy Japanese mayonnaise to it. Yes! We split another fine starter: Pommery Shrimp ($24), the medium-sized shellfish dressed with Pommery mustard, citrus, and mache. Penny ordered another starter but the chef sent out such an ample portion we all shared it, and it was one of the highlights of last evening's meal: Risotto ($18) with wild mushrooms (hen of the woods I think) and a sauce made of madeira and parmagiano reggiano, the carnaroli rice dressed with chives. This dish was so utterly heavenly that we all agreed we would have it as a main dish on our next visit. Still to be tried is the Beef Carpaccio ($19) and the Prosciutto ($18), as well as the daily soup ($12). To be honest, I have not yet had any of the four salads here...too filling, when I have so many appealing main courses to experience. Here's a Caesar ($12), an Heirloom Apple & Arugula ($14), a Bloomsdale ($14) with cippolini onions, ricotta and blood orange, and a Persimmon ($14) which looks most interesting.
There are five pastas on the menu, all hand-made daily and each better than the next. Ginny and I had split a Spaghettini ($28) on my first visit, and it was memorable: thin spaghetti with a touch of saffron, shreds of Dungeness crab, shrimp, and fennel pollen. Last night we split the Spaghetti & Meat Balls ($24), the thin pasta perfectly al dente, and the meatballs juicy and distinct. Later I asked the chef if the balls were made with several meats and he assured me that it was pure beef. He did use the finest San Marzano tomatoes and pecorino for the sauce. The Trotolle ($24) is gently doused with lamb Bolognese, feta, mint, and California evoo. (Yes, I had to ask....it's an acronym for extra-virgin olive oil.) Still to be tried: the Pappardelle Carbonara ($21) and the Ravioli ($22).
As we all consumed our delicious Chilean Seabass ($40), I asked Penny in my usual arrogant fashion if she knew the real name of this fish; she didn't and I pontificated that it had originally been called Patagonion dogfish until a smart West Coast importer renamed it and it became a runaway success. She merely stared at me for a moment and said quietly, "Now why would you tell me that while I'm enjoying it?" The fatty, silky fish - along with Black Cod/Sable and rarely-seen Escolar - are my favorite seafoods of the moment. Also on the menu is a Pacific Halibut ($38), a Branzino ($34) and (for my ex) Steelhead Salmon ($35). David and I are long-time lamb aficianados, so the Sonoma Lamb Chops ($56) were a 'must.' I tasted a mint pesto and noted that the sauce was 'agrodolce,' an Italian sweet-and-sour dressing made with vinegar and sugar. I scarfed up the goat cheese gratin with maitake mushrooms and could have gone for more. Also featured on the 'Land' menu are three other enticing main courses. As I've always written here, I have never met a Braised Short Rib that I didn't love, so I know I will relish these ($29). My friend Dennis Mao supplies all of the Jidori Chickens in town, so this Chicken Breast ($26) comes from the finest fresh bird. The New York Strip Steak ($48) is a dry-aged beef from the fine Harvey Guss outfit, and it features some of the most delicious sides around: smoked gouda orzo mac 'n cheese and bone marrow bordelaise. Yum.
The menu has a small quote from Audrey Hepburn (if I'm not mistaken she said it in "Breakfast at Tiffany's):"Let's face it, a nice creamy chocolate cake does a lot for a lot of people; it does for me." And me, too. Exec Pastry Chef Adrian Arandela has on offer a Chocolate Cake ($15) and a luscious Opera Cake ($15), with espresso ice cream, caramel cremeux and passion fruit. But my favorite desert is the Tiramisu ($15), with its vanilla merengue and pistachio macaroon buried at the bottom (topped with a slice of dark chocolate.) Ask for a plate of their refreshing Sorbets ($15), the strawberry basil, Meyer lemon and grapefruit mint are beyond expression. They open at 6 pm for dinner, lunch expected shortly.
All of this and cool jazz too! Oh, my, living in Beverly Hills can be a burden....but such a nice one. Hey, Wolfgang, you should stop next door and enjoy the music.
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