Taverna Tony

23410 Civic Center Way
Malibu, CA 90265
T. 310.317.9667

A couple of years ago, after silently lamenting that I lacked a sense of adventure, I decided to drive to Malibu on my own from the ranch. Driving long distances was still new to me at the time and I had no idea that the canyon roads were going to be curvy the entire way. It felt death-defying–you might as well have asked me to go bungee-jumping! My palms were sweaty, my stomach was in knots, and I cursed myself for not driving straight into L.A. like I normally did.

Taking the road less travelled, though, has its perks because that's when I stumbled across Taverna Tony, a romantic, bougainvillea-shaded veranda enclosed by a traditional white stucco wall. With its terracotta tiles and bright cerulean blue touches, it looked as though this entire restaurant had been transplanted from a vibrant coastal town in the Mediterranean. Feeling proud that I had completed my mission safely and soundly, I confidently strode into the bar and ordered myself a glass of crisp white wine.

I can't resist a Greek menu, but the best things here aren't actually on the menu at all. Tony's highly addictive "house dip" is graciously sent out with a basket of a warm loaf of bread once you sit down. Apparently, the dip's main ingredients are avocado, red caviar, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. The rest is a secret that's kept under lock and key. Every time I've returned since, I keep asking for the recipe, hoping one of the waiters will crack. But this is all in vain, which is wise because, instead of recreating it at home, I have no choice but to come back for more.

Of course, the crisp, bountiful salads and simply grilled seafood dishes are major draws, but my other favorites here include the avgolemono soup (a homemade chicken and orzo soup bolstered with egg yolks and lemon juice), the tender and smoky grilled baby octopus with spring onions, and the psarasoupa (a tomato-based fish and seafood soup). It's so hard not to fall in love with Greek food. If you make a day out of hanging out in Malibu, you must stop here!

Spaghetti alla Chitarra with Octopus, Sea Urchin and Breadcrumbs

8764 Melrose Avenue

Sea urchin pasta is easily one of my top picks as a fantasy last supper but, I have to admit, it's not exactly an original idea of my own. It was an idea I picked up from lounging around at Italian art dealer's loft in West Chelsea years ago (when I still lived in New York). Most of those random nights in the city were a blur, but this one in particular stood out because of the fantasy last supper conversation. 

The whole thing began when I shared that I'd recently read an interview with Eric Ripert in which he revealed that his fantasy last supper would be something like meditating under a banyan tree and then eating a dozen oysters. What a Zen answer, Eric Ripert. Anyway, that somehow evolved into everyone taking turns sharing what their fantasy last supper would be.

While I can't remember what I said–or what anyone else said that night–I do remember what the hostess said:

"I'd be on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea with my best friends. We'd all go diving for sea urchins, swim back to the boat and open them up. I'd cook spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and then we'd dump our catch into the pasta!" she said, while waving her cigarette around. "And, of course, there would be very good wine."

With that, she conjured up a timeless image of la dolce vita; a life of leisure, nature, and friends. 

Since then, from time to time, I'll have an insatiable craving for sea urchin pasta and nothing else will do. Cecconi's rendition uses spaghetti alla chitarra tossed in a silky sea urchin sauce with slices of grilled octopus. It's an oceanic splendor that whisks me away to the turquoise waters of the Italian coast by the forkful... In other words, give me sea urchin pasta and then give me death!







The Little Next Door

8142 West 3rd Street

As a creature of comfort, I rarely delineate from my trusted stand-bys–one of which is having breakfast at Joan's On Third. In my humble opinion, Joan's consistently makes the best eggs in town. There, they've mastered three basic egg-cooking techniques to perfection: Their soft-boiled eggs always have a warm, yolky center; their scrambled eggs are always scrambled into creamy-soft, fluffy folds; and their omelettes would make Chef André Soltner proud. Despite the number of breakfasts I've cooked over the years, I still feel iffy about how my eggs turn out. I don't know how their kitchen manages to churn out perfection day after day.

This past Sunday, when my boyfriend and I arrived at Joan's for breakfast, we saw that it was closed for the Easter holiday. Quel dommage! Our attention then turned to a small, ivy-covered patio with café tables and rattan bistro chairs next door, which is literally called The Little Next Door. (I've passed this French restaurant numerous times on the way to Joan's and paid no attention to it previously. In fact, I believe it was my friend Bill who once told me this place was nothing to write home about. When it comes to restaurants, I always ask Bill for his two cents.)

We started off with a warm pain au chocolat as we decided what to order. (If you don't already know this, it must be said that you should always judge a café/restaurant/bakery by its pain au chocolat or croissant–especially if it's "French".) Thankfully, theirs was a promising sign. 

My boyfriend ordered his usual omelette; I went with "Two Eggs Your Style, served with bacon and potatoes". Whence dining at an unfamiliar establishment, I tend to order my eggs over-easy because, in my opinion, it's a foolproof method of cooking eggs. (Sunny-side up can be tricky if the whites aren't cooked through on top.) Given the interesting variety of eggs Benedict on offer, it might sound like I ordered the most boring thing on the menu, but the aforementioned "potatoes" weren't your run-of-the-mill hash browns... Imagine my delight when I was surprised with a serving of pommes dauphinoise, the Queen of Side Dishes: thinly sliced potatoes cooked in milk, butter and cream underneath a bubbling blanket of grated Gruyère!

My eggs were good–because, like I said, it's pretty hard to screw up eggs cooked over-easy–but the pommes dauphinoise is truly what took this breakfast to the brink of divine. 

The First and Last of a Perfect Paella

image1 (18).JPG

Last fall, I had the privilege of trying Chef Jonathan Vasquez's cooking at Smoke.Oil.Salt, a Spanish restaurant on Melrose Avenue, before it unexpectedly closed. I'd never even heard of the restaurant before I ate there. In fact, I had only known about it through making a mental note of its name from passing by. It was easy enough to remember. Why? Because the alchemy of (1) smoke, (2) oil, and (3) salt is what makes any cuisine sizzle and sing!

I have a particular soft spot for Spanish cuisine. It's a very approachable cuisine. I've only been to Spain once–Barcelona; 2005–but will never forget my first meal there. I was strolling along the street when I caught sight of a man at a sidewalk cafe, tucking into a plate of crispy fried eggs and french fries. It wasn't particularly special, or even traditionally Spanish, but those rich orange yolks, glossed with olive oil, called out to me. It was just the right thing, cooked just the right way, in just the right place. 

Smoke.Oil.Salt's pan con tomate hit me with that very same feeling. From my seat at the bar, I watched the sous-chef rub a large slice of rustic bread with garlic, grill it, and then carefully spoon a mixture of freshly grated tomatoes on top. He delicately lashed it with olive oil and sprinkled a few fresh thyme leaves on top. Then, with a very sharp knife, he made two swift cuts and produced three pieces on a slate serving board. I was impressed with its sublime simplicity. I could taste the quality of the bread, olive oil, and tomatoes. 

I knew that great things were still to come. 

The pièce de résistance was the seafood paella–a masterpiece in a cast-iron skillet. The perfectly cooked squid ink rice was a glistening ebony backdrop for the blistered cherry tomatoes, pickled onion, grilled prawns and squid. Small, frilly bunches of lightly dressed cilantro leaves adorned the paella, which was crowned with a fried egg. Every bite brought out a different element of the dish–crisped edges, piquant flavors, unctuousness, or smoke. I could taste the care and passion and focus that the chef had for cooking. 

My friend Nathan, who was dining with me that evening, was on a cleanse and therefore picked away at his salad while I was trying to suppress the sheer enjoyment of my meal. I could sense that he knew he was missing out on greatness.

"I'm sorry," I apologized. "Is this torture for you?"

"Yes," he replied. "Your eyes are literally rolling to the back of your head after every bite."

"You should just have a bite."

He hesitated, already filling up with guilt. 

"Food is energy! Your body will burn right through it by the time we walk out of here!" I exclaimed, putting on the pressure.

He took his fork and gingerly scooped up a sliver of pickled onion and a few cilantro leaves that had a couple of grains of rice clinging to it.

"Oh, come on!" I laughed.

"I can't!" he wailed. "I might eat the whole thing if I do! We'll come back when my detox is over."

Not too long after that, I read news that Smoke.Oil.Salt shut its doors for the last time. I told Nathan the sad news. We still mourn for that pan con tomate and paella to this day.

Satdha Plant-Based Thai Kitchen

2218 Lincoln Boulevard

One thing I've noticed about L.A. is how prevalent Thai restaurants are. I swear, I see Thai restaurants everywhere! That being said, one of my favorite Thai restaurants also happens to be vegan: Satdha Plant-Based Thai Kitchen, which is located on the edge of Santa Monica and Venice Beach. The food here is vibrant and expertly spiced yet also very clean and healthy-tasting. For such a casual place, the presentation is elegant and considered. My go-to dishes are the kukicha (twig tea), kale chips, tom yum soup with mushrooms, and pad thai with tofu, which is garnished with fresh garlic chives.