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AGO – Los Angeles

Sunday night November 5th, four of us with a guest diner ventured over to AGO at their Los Angeles location. Ago is run by executive chef/partner Agostino Sciandri. It is financially backed by Tony & Ridley Scott, Gianni Nunnari, Meir Tepper, Bob and Harvey Weinstein and Robert DeNiro.

This restaurant is classic Italy. It offers a great wine list, fresh homemade pastas, even the waiters feel like they were plucked out of old Italy.  And it’s menu has options in several price ranges for any income level, other than the wine.  The wine was all WAY over priced.

Here’s the rub, nothing was amazing or drop dead wonderful.  Everything was just ok.  But at reasonable prices, to compete with Olive Garden it should be your choice over a chain.

I started with a cheese sampler plate.  The cheese was good, a nice mix.  Bread was on the table for everyone, although no one really ate it.  It was simple bread, not very fancy and rather tough with no flavor.  Lucia had the tempura seafood which had LOTS of calamari and a few vegetables.   I would order that next time.  It was a good portion with good flavor.

3 people at our table ordered the lamb.  I had a bite and it was good.  It was cooked perfectly, although you couldn’t taste the sauce at all.  The side dish was roasted potatoes which were simple and great.

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Our wine of choice was a Mac Murry, which complimented the meat we all ordered faultlessly!!

I had a special for the evening, squares of pasta with black truffle and pork.  It had way too many truffles on it which overpowered the entire dish.  I couldn’t taste the meat or the sauce, and the pasta wasn’t very special.  Seriously it was just little squares of pasta.

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The desserts were better.  The table had several fresh options to share from strawberry cheesecake to fresh fruit.  Sam had the tiramisu which was alright, but sadly he enjoys Buca di Beppo’s tiramisu better.  A chain restaurant’s tiramisu shouldn’t be better than a specialty restaurants.

Vinum Populi

This weekend the wife and I made a stop by Vinum Populi in Culver City to meet up with some of her work friends. The place was hard for us to find initially because there was no sign other than the gold lettering on the glass front door. We realized after finding it that it’s not so much a wine bar as a waiting room for Ugo next door. To be frank, this is the type of place that I would have walked right back out of were we not meeting people there — but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Walking in the front door, you are met by a cozy candle-lit atmosphere bustling with people checking out the wine machines (yes, I said machines), lounging , and clustered in little groups checking out their latest pour. We were met by a friendly young lady dressed in jeans, a black dress shirt tied off at the waist wearing a driver’s hat. The staff were all dressed in this … trendy … style.

She asked us if we had been before, and if we’d like to get a card. A card? Yep. The wine isn’t behind the bar — it’s plugged into these space-age looking stainless steel wine kiosks with red digital price tags, a red glowing push-button, tiny little spigots and a glowing green ATM slot where you put in your pre-paid card to retrieve a one ounce sample of your wine of choice. The beef I have with this issue alone could fill endless pages. Suffice it to say that it felt less like a wine bar and more like a Quickie-Mart. The wines were mostly Spanish and Italian in origin and were described by those in our group as being a bit peculiar.

I can’t quite explain this American phenomenon, but I’ll say it again — wine is not a cocktail. Keeping this in mind, we ordered the traditional cheese plate to enjoy with our wine tasting. What we got was a tray of minuscule white cheese cubes dumped into an indistinguishable pile. When Natalie asked the server what it was we were about to enjoy, in a put out manner she pointed in an equally indistinguishable way to four different parts of the candle-lit plate and hustled away. The cheese was accompanied by three little sauces and another plate of what I could only describe as baked bread crumbs. What sort of culinary adventure we were supposed to concoct with this assortment of impractically sized morsels was beyond me. I nibbled on the bread crumbs, fumbled with the microscopic cheese cubes and mostly ignored the sauces as, short of licking the plate, I lacked any way to get them into my mouth.

Later in the evening one of our friends ordered a pizza-type appetizer. This was equally disappointing. It came on what I assume was a pre-made cracker-like crust with the consistency of an overgrown saltine. The cheese, we assume, was an overly moist fresh mozzarella that dribbled everywhere. The toppings were chopped tomatoes and basil. Unimpressive for the price and disappointing when paired with wine and the upscale look of the place.

The cozy atmosphere was nice, but as the night progressed felt altogether inappropriate for a wine bar. I could barely read the wine descriptions by the light of the flickering candles, much less actually look at the beverage I was about to imbibe. They seem to have forgotten that the first sense to interact in wine tasting is visual. When combined with the somewhat pretentious attire of the service staff, the less than stellar food, the Star Trek wanna-be wine dispensers it made for an underwhelming experience at what was proclaimed to be the best wine bar in Culver City.

Most of my rant, I’d have to admit, has to do with me not getting places like this. Schmoozing in the dark while gulping a glass of wine and blowing smoke about your latest greatest project misses the point. The purpose of the wine bar is to make the wine the focus. So, if you’re going to serve a wine that costs $20 an ounce, put it behind the bar where someone who knows something about it can talk to you. As for me, the HAL 9000 approach just doesn’t do it.

In my search for links today, I realized that the owner made an appearance at our table near the end of the night. I’d have to say that he was probably the best part of the experience. Friendly, warm, fun and hospitable. Now, if only the rest of the place was too.

Providence

Welcome to LA Amuse-buche. We are a small Foodies’ Group based in Los Angeles with a love for the art and experience of food. We have various backgrounds: Canada, England, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota. Right now we are a small and merry band of five.

While this wasn’t our first outing as a Foodies’ Group, this was our best and thus will be the first one we blog about.

Wednesday, September 19th we ventured to Providence at 5955 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles, CA. The chef is the renown Michael Cimarusti and the chef de cuisine is Paul Shoemaker. You can read a little bit more information about Michael Cimarusti here or here.

The restaurant was quiet and peaceful, decorating with an under-water theme. We sat at the bar first and the bartender was fantastic. Each drink made to perfection and with style.

Once we were seated at our table, the group voted and decided to try the five course with wine paring adventure. It started off with quite an experience. The first few amuse-buche were surprises compliments the kitchen.

A Martini Gelatin: a gelatin cube including gin and other wonders inside, with a side of lime on a tiny spoon. Sam (my husband) whispered to Dan, “what do I do?” And Dan, the organizer of our group leaned over to Sam and said “I feel like I’m in the middle of a Monty Python skit.” Luckily the waiters were very helpful in describing all the food and wine in detail.

Next was a Mojito Drop. It was a mojito in a gel capsule also on a tiny spoon. The men in the group were a little put off by the texture of this one.

Third was a Melon Shooter. At this point we were all surprised and happy by the sophistication that was being sent out for us to explore. This was some sort of a melon reduction with a Wasabi Oil, and on a toothpick tiny melon balls and a chunk of olive. Personally I was feeling like I was in an episode of Iron Chef, and while in any other circumstance I doubt I would have tried said amuse-buche I jumped right in. It was a fantastic explosion of flavor. Delightful!!

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Japanese Kanpachi tartare was the first of the main courses and was paired with a Cserszegi Fuszeres, Craftsman 2006. Most of our group typically do not drink white wine, although all of us loved this little gem from Hungary. It was light, fruity and not to dry. This was a simple dish and a nice light way to start into the food.

Next was Bobby’s Block Island Sea Scallops with a St. Veran, Domaine de Valanges 2005 wine. This I believe was most of our favorite dish of the evening. The scallops were cooked perfectly and it was a fabulous combination of sweet and salty.

Then wild new Zealand John Dory with a Pinot Gris from Domaine Alfred 2005. Who knew fish could be sweet!!?? This dish wasn’t fishy at all. The lady creamer beans, smoked bacon, artichokes couldn’t have been more delightful. This wine was Lucia and my favorite.

Medallions of Veal with a Cote du Rhone from Domaine de la Renjarde 2003. This was Eric’s favorite combination for the night. The veal was on a bed of crushed potato, chanterelle, soy and spinach. The sauces were heavenly.

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And finally for the evening a Richardson Farms Black Plums which had a miso ice cream and was paired with a Late Harvest Chardonnay by Levendi 2005. This was another combination that was un-believable and empyrean in nature. Each bite was a pleasure.

Overall Providence truly earned it’s ranking in the “Top 50 Restaurants of the US” by Gourmet Magazine and we all look forward to going back and perhaps next time even experiencing the Chef’s Menu. If need any convincing that food is both art and experience this place will convert you!!

** Please note all photos were taken with a camera phone, and while we would have loved to take more we did not want to annoy the other patrons.