Saturday, February 21, 2009

Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles CA

Authentic or not, Mario Batali and his partner Joseph Bastianich - restaurateur, winemaker, and son of chef Lidia Bastianich – have done more to advance America’s appreciation of the traditional and neo-traditional Italian cuisine than anyone current or prior. Whether your opinion of Chef Batali trends more towards amicable genius or overhyped and thinly spread sell-out, the man can cook and does things with pasta and offal that simply aren’t done in the standard Italian restaurant here in America (or even perhaps in many parts of Italy.) Bringing their Michelin Starred Credentials from Babbo and Del Posto further west than ever before (Vegas,) Batali and company further strengthened their repertoire when forming Mozza by enlisting Los Angeles culinary goddess and ex-Spago alum Nancy Silverton to manage breads, cheeses, and the now-famous Mozzarella bar. Coming back to town, having experienced Babbo and Otto on a previous trip to NYC, and hearing the continued hype of Osteria Mozza my family and I managed to secure reservations the Saturday of Academy Awards Weekend – no easy task, to be sure.

Leaving yet another Kings loss and arriving at 5:55pm, even before the restaurant’s official opening at 6:00pm, there was already a line – both at Osteria and the Pizzeria next door. Valet was simple and affordable and after a short wait the front doors were opened revealing the warm yet boisterous interior with aspects of wood and metal, light and dark – quite dissimilar to the homey feel of Babbo, yet not loud or showy. Centering the restaurant was the large mozzarella bar where, unfortunately, Chef Silverton was not on duty so early in the evening. As many have noted, at Mozza as well as Babbo, the soundtrack was notable for the Beatles, Who, Stones, and Hendrix – yet somehow it seemed more subdued at Mozza, perhaps due to the energetic buzz of the room compared to Babbo’s intimacy.
Seated by our hostess at a little table near the kitchen and behind the wine bar, my seat offered a great view of the restaurant, mozzarella bar, and kitchen doors – alas, no open kitchen. Notable for the low light (not Mastro’s low, but on par with The French Laundry) I found it funny that there were two guys wearing shades at separate tables to our left – apparently incognito or just too damn cool. Doors opening at six I can say that every table in the house was packed and the bar abuzz by 6:30 – clearly the “place to be.” A few moments later Anthony, our server, arrived to fill water and present menus. Gregarious in a way, but somewhat bumbling in others I found Anthony likeable, albeit not a very good waiter in comparison to others on the trip – water glasses frequently unfilled, forgotten dishes, odd mannerisms – but he certainly did have good knowledge of the menu – important given Batali’s reliance on classic Italian nomenclature with minimal explanation.

Bread was brought to the table after approximately five minutes of looking over the menu and true to form, was served without olive oil or butter unless specifically requested – and request we did. I have indeed heard others complain of this need to request, but having read the Babbo cookbook I certainly understand the dedication – bread is served solo in Italy. Regarding the bread – apparently from Silverton’s La Brea Bakery – we were served only one type, a decent but unmemorable white Italian bread nowhere near on par with the rustic country bread at Babbo.

Returning after allowing us time to decide, Anthony decrypted the menu for my guests and orders were placed – as others noted, antipasti, primi, secondi, salads, and mozzarella must all be ordered at the same time in order to divide up courses appropriately. A similar concept to Babbo, I certainly wouldn’t have minded this policy if it were actually followed and Anthony had not forgotten one of my dishes (the dish I had most looked forward to) until he was reminded…before dessert. Orders placed, we sat for a bit before our amuse was delivered.

As expected, the amuse consisted of the Crostini with fresh ricotta, olive tapenade, and basil chiffon with olive oil. Simple yet tasty, the olives and basil certainly hit hard at first but are later tempered by the creamy ricotta that is offset by the crunchy crostini. Not as good as the chickpea amuse at Babbo, this certainly is a solid “signature” amuse for Mozza.
Our first ordered dish arrived approximately 5 minutes after the amuse and was delivered straight from the Mozzarella bar. Described as burratta stuffed with ricotta, the Burricotti with radicchio, spiced walnuts, honey & fried rosemary was absolutely sublime and amongst the top dishes of the night. Smooth and creamy cheese atop a crispy slice of crostini was complimented astoundingly well by the fresh bite of radicchio and hints of zesty rosemary but then further enhanced to a peak on the palate by the addition of a succulent lavender flavored honey and cinnamon baked walnuts. A play on texture, temperature (the rosemary and radicchio served warm), and bitter with sweet, smooth with crunch – wonderful.
Second courses arriving included two pastas and a polenta. For myself, the gnocchi, a standard by which all Italian (and non-Italian) restaurants must be judged. Served with wild boar ragu at Babbo, I was pleased to see that at Mozza the decision was made to serve up Gnocchi with duck ragu. Like Babbo, the housemade gnocchi were perfectly cooked, tender yet still retaining a good texture, like potato pillows. The ragu addition to the gnocchi was quite pleasing, albeit less so than the wild boar version at Babbo or Spiaggia in that it sported a mild gamey-ness to it that wasn’t off-putting, but not especially subtle either. The heavy dusting of freshly-grated Pecorino Cheese was a wonderful addition performed tableside.
For my Aunt, yet again a fan of the simple, Spaghetti all'Gricia was chosen as her pasta and customized sans-chili peppers. Cooked wonderfully al dente with strong hints of pancetta bacon, onion, oregano, and super-1oo tomatoes (described quite prominently in the Babbo cookbook and worth every penny) I can honestly say this was the best ‘simple-spaghetti’ I’ve ever tasted. Well salted, like most of Batali’s pastas, there was no single element of the sauce that overwhelmed the others and everything was a perfect balance. I especially found the pancetta to be a wonderful taste and textural addition given its crispy yet supple mouth-feel.
For my mother, a light course was selected – the Polenta with Parmigiano. Well cooked high quality Polenta and fragrant Parmigiano served in an individual crock with hints of garlic and peppercorn. Good but not great, I think this dish would have been better placed with the secondi’s or as the carb base to another protein dish. Certainly not as good as Symon’s at Lola or the version at Spiaggia.

Plates were cleared and a short amount of time passed before our next course arrived – two protein based secondis to be shared around the table. Delivered with a flourish and topped with appropriately grated cheeses we were offered a “bon appetite” – the first of the night compared to the excess at La Botte. Oddly noting that a third primi pasta had not been delivered I must note I grew a bit curious as it was something I really wanted to try, but to avoid my food getting cold we decided to start eating. Before describing the dishes I will note that our waiter did indeed forget the dish entirely and fully admitted to doing so prior to rushing off while guaranteeing this would be “taken care of.”

Our first main, the Pan Roasted Pork Loin with fennel & olives and sambuca was ordered as a direct comparison to the superb Grilled Pork Chop at Babbo and while good, fell definitively short of the mark. Well cooked and tender, the loin was notably fatty – especially for loin, and the flavor of the fennel was lost to the potent olives and heaviness of the sambuca. While I have heard others claim that Mozza is heavy handed with the salt shaker, I actually felt that this dish was appropriately salted yet slightly over-peppered. Personally, I’d not order this again, but my mother enjoyed it.

Our second main, the Sweetbreads Picatta with artichokes and lemon spinach was something I’d looked forward to since the moment I saw it on the menu – unfortunately it did not live up to my hype at all. Large in portion and very high in quality, the tender and delectable sweetbreads were simply buried in the heavy flavor of olives and incredibly potent degree of lemon. Seemingly poached only in lemon juice and further topped with lemon peel I simply could not get over the degree of lemon in this dish and honestly wondered if there was something wrong with my taste-buds. My mother, a lemon fanatic as noted in myriad previous reviews, willingly tasted the spinach (no love for sweetbreads) and agreed that it was very lemony – even for her.
With about 1/2 cup of spinach and olives remaining, the ‘missing’ pasta finally arrived – luckily as I was really starting to feel blasé about the meal in general. While I personally believe that the gross oversight (especially in the setting of forcing you to order everything at once to assure appropriate service) should have led to this dish being comped, after seeing it and tasting it I can say it was worth the wait. Hyped elsewhere, the Fresh Ricotta & Egg Raviolo with Browned Butter arrived in all its glory as a giant single noodle stuffed with warm and textural ricotta and thick yolk that simply bled when cut. Further enhanced with the stupendous flavors of nutmeg, hints of cinnamon, and fresh brown butter plus sage I can say without a doubt that this dish was on par with all but the Truffled Egg at French Laundry and Trotter’s Poached Pennsylvania Duck Egg with Perigord Black Truffle in the “best egg dishes in America” category.
Plates cleared we were allowed to linger for a short time over the memories of the food before our waiter returned with dessert menus. Having experienced good-but-not-great desserts at Babbo and feeling somewhat full I considered deferring on dessert until I saw the options. Moments later our three orders were placed and we were left with a short wait before our selections arrived. While the noise had indeed increased from the time of our arrival, even at 7:30 I did not find the restaurant “loud” at all.

The first dessert, Piccolo Bundino Caldo di Cioccolato with candied almonds and bourbon gelato, was selected by myself and was everything I expected – but better. A rich molten chocolate cake – almost soufflé like – was served atop a slick of thick vanilla caramel and candied almonds, then topped with a scoop of succulent yet potent bourbon gelato. An absolutely wonderful dessert in every way I couldn’t have been happier to end the meal on two such high-notes.

My Aunt’s selection, Apple Borsellino with Carmel Gelato & crema, was another winner and certainly the best apple-dessert of the trip. Vastly better than La Botte, Spago, or All Angelo’s Apple Strudels, this fluffy pastry with hints of cinnamon and clove housed a perfectly baked hot apple and was matched with a room temperature sweet cream and slowly melting Caramel gelato plus warm caramel sauce, powdered sugar, and an apple chip. Taken singly each component was superb – combined they were even better.
As good as the previous two desserts were, the third dessert was actually the show-stealer in terms of “why doesn’t everything taste that good” simplicity. Bombolini with mountain huckleberry compote & vanilla gelato was simply traditional Italian donuts rolled in cinnamon sugar and flash fried, then served alongside a fresh huckleberry reduction with hints of wine and creamy vanilla gelato with crème fraiche. Simple, sweet, wonderful – a must order.
When the meal was all said and done our waiter thanked us for coming and once again apologized for the forgotten dish prior to delivering the bill. Tolling at approximately $70 per person after tax and tip I can’t say Osteria Mozza was overpriced by any means, but at the same time I can’t say it was as affordable as Babbo – nor was it as good. While the desserts were certainly elevated a step or two among those at Babbo and the Mozzarella Bar was a nice touch, the only item on the menu that truly wowed was the Raviolo – which was clearly hampered by its poor service placement. While other dishes such as the spaghetti and the Burricotti were also quite good, the secondis were very disappointing and the service was merely adequate. While I officially like the energy of the room, such inconsistency would make it difficult for me to return frequently – or at least until the hype dies down a bit.


Conor said...

Not that it matters that much, of course, but those are caperberries in the veal piccata, not olives.

uhockey said...

Intersting, Conor - thanks. The flavor was quite similar to olives, I thought, though the degree of lemon may have hidden the difference.

Conor said...

I assumed they were olives until I bit one in half, by itself--filled with little seeds and very capery, if that's a word. For what it's worth, the sweetbreads I had there (Feb. 13, I think) were very very good, but definitely very...piquant, shall we say. But for me, the heavy hand with the acid (both lemon and vinegar, I'd guess) was necessary because of the huge amount of creamy, organy deliciousness (Can you tell I miss living and eating in Chicago?).

uhockey said...

Clearly - but LA isn't bad. I'm still trying to figure out where to eat on the 22nd of March when I'm out there again - Providence vs. Craft vs. Patina vs. Jiraffe are my current thoughts - though XIV looks interesting.

George said...

If you're still undecided about LA this weekend, let me strongly urge that you try Providence - it ranks as one of the top restaurants in LA (on a short, but getting a bit better, list that includes Melisse, Valentino, Michael's, Sona, and others that I can't recall right now...) I love your descriptions and have read through French Laundry (yikes!!), Chez Panisse Cafe, and of course Mozza...

uhockey said...

Likely doing Providence on Sunday, Valentino with a friend on Monday. Still trying to decide on a lunch for Monday and dinner Tuesday.