Digging in to the comfort food at Tart is like visiting your impossibly cool hippie aunt…if you were from Georgia. Or at least that’s what was conjured for this Southern girl. Every detail toes the line between quirky-cool and too-kitschy, somehow managing to land on being too much and just enough all at once.
We ordered fried chicken sandwiches, the BLET and 2 eggs with smoked trout (breakfast all day!). Executive Chef Nick Erven (formerly of Messhall) came to Tart just earlier this year and his menu didn’t disappoint. With a flair for Southern flavors tempered with a California affinity for healthier choices, everything tasted indulgent and authentic without venturing into butter-soaked Southern caricature territory (you know who you are).
While I’m always a sucker for an all-day breakfast, (not to mention bottomless mimosas and a whole punch bowl situation), the dinner menu proved just tempting enough to lure me back at a later date. Meatloaf? Hush puppies? Black eyed peas? Don’t even get me started on the desserts. I’d beat a path back to my ancestral side of the Mason-Dixon line for any of those things, but as long as Tart’s around, I can find all that goodness a lot closer to home.
After lunch, we got a quick tour of Farmer’s Daughter, the hotel similarly decked out in quirky kitsch goodness. It’s hip, but friendly. There’s a pool (which you can dive into fully clothed for a discount on your meal at Tart or take your phone in with you and get it for free), a cool outdoor lounge and totally renovated rooms (complete with denim comforters) that only hint at their cheesy motel past…but in a cool way. The location is hard to beat, and the available rental bikes make sure you can cruise the neighborhood with ease. Next time you have out-of-town guests, you should suggest they stay here. Or at least stop by for an awesome crowd-pleasing meal. If you’re cheap, you can always take a quick dip and score a deal.
Andrew’s Cheese Shop in Santa Monica is a veritable wonderland for the cheese-obsessed (like Andrew Steiner himself), but a minefield of nightmares for the lactose-intolerant. Thankfully, we fall into the former category. Or at least we’re wannabe cheese-obsessed. We’ve had cheese. We enjoy cheese. So we went to the Cheese Man to delve deeper into dairy. The consensus? That place stinks! In the best way possible.
If you’d like to tag along on this little cheese adventure, read on. Vegans, avert your eyes. This is about to get real.
With a solid four years of press surrounding his successful shop, Andrew’s back story is pretty well known. Back when he was a server at Patina, it all started with a cart, a bunch of books and strong feelings for cheese. Innumerable wheels later, Andrew was named Maitre d’Fromage (Cheese Man for us laypeople), and the rest is history.
Being decidedly on the ‘novice’ side when it comes to cheese, we had some questions for Andrew. And if you’ve got holiday plans that call for fancy cheese, we even have some of his seasonal recommendations and tasting notes below.
When people come in and don’t know anything about cheese, where do you start? What’s a good entry-level cheese?
Well, usually I ask what they like, and most of the time the answer is, “I don’t know,” or they lead off with, “I really don’t like…” which is fine. I mean, it’s funny how many people think they do or don’t like something, but they don’t actually know. So if I’m really starting off with no information, I’ll have them try a mild cheese first, something rich and buttery, because those tend to be crowd-pleasers. It’s fun to get someone excited about something new or different. But it’s important to remember that the whole point is to enjoy what you’re eating. So when people come in and just ask for what my favorites are, I really encourage them to go through some samples. My taste could be totally different from their taste. You try some and find what you like. And then pair it with what appeals to you. It’s really pretty simple.
What about the other side of the coin? How do you deal with the folks who think they know it all?
They’re a little trickier. I’ve had people come in and tell me about some great cheese they had in France and they’re so sad when I tell them they can get that cheese at Von’s. Or someone will come in raving about a cheese and I’ll order a sample to try it, because I love it when I can learn something new. But it comes in and I’ll taste and it’s just terrible. Then these people will call me or come back in asking, “Hey, what did you think of the cheese?” or “So when are you going to start selling it?” and I have to tell them no. ‘No, I did not enjoy that,’ which is really the key factor.
Then what does it take to get you excited about stocking a new cheese? And how often does that happen these days?
There’s definitely a lot of tasting involved – I get samples all the time. I’d say that as far as being surprised by a cheese, it comes down to complexity of flavors and the length – how long it stays with you. And I only find a new great one maybe once or twice a month, so it’s pretty rare. There was a cheese recently that I tried and wasn’t blown away at first, but the flavor just extended and the more it lingered, the more I liked it. I had read a review that really ripped it, and that really sucked, because I don’t think the reviewer knew what he was talking about. But that was a good one. I wrote them a letter saying I disagreed with the review. (laughs)
This is probably like asking you to choose a favorite child, but if you had to pick your favorite cheese-producing animal, is it cow, goat, or sheep?
It’s funny you ask about the favorite child because like parents would probably tell you, it depends on the day. (laughs) But if I really had to choose, I’d probably say sheep. Their milk is higher in protein and fat, so you can really pack a lot of flavor in there. Even more specifically I’d say a certain breed called Lacaune. Their milk is used for Roquefort cheese. It’s really phenomenal.
This time of year tends to involve a lot of hostess gifts and finger food for parties. What are your seasonal recommendations?
This first one is a work of art. It’s a Grevenbroecker from Belgium. It’s really stunning on a platter. It’s made differently than a typical blue cheese, so it develops all these “fingers” going all the way through the cheese. It’s really rich, with some sweetness and a peppery zing. It’s a wonderfully complex treat, but also really accessible for everyone. Definitely one of my top picks.
This next one is Brin d’Amour, from Corsica. It’s a sheep’s milk cheese covered in rosemary, savory, juniper berries and chili peppers. Obviously, it’s really herbaceous, but also a little sour. It’s rich enough so all those herbs really complement the flavor instead of being overpowered by it. As far as wine goes, it’s made to go with big reds, but I prefer a grassy Sauvignon Blanc for a pairing.
Oh man, this Vacherin Mont d’Or is one of the finest achievements of human civilization. It’s made from raw milk way up in the Swiss Alps. It’s this precious, high-altitude winter milk, and they wrap it in the bark of a spruce tree. The flavor is just incredible – scrambled eggs, butter, and wood. So, so good.
Thanks, Andrew for your time and cheese-pertise (exper-cheese? …too much?) After all this cheese talk (and sampling, we’re not gonna lie), we couldn’t walk out without some treats. We picked up 3 cheeses to snack on back at the office and some awesome hard-to-find beers to pair with them. And we got one of these bags to cart our loot off in.
If you get a chance to swing by Andrew’s Cheese Shop in Santa Monica, we strongly suggest you stop in. Just don’t let the smell stop you.
Andrew’s Cheese Shop
728 Montana Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Monday – Friday
11:00 AM-7:00 PM
Saturday 10:00 AM – 7:00 PM
Sunday 11:00 AM – 6:00 PM
If you haven’t been by Diablo Tacos, billed as “urban taco fabricator and crafter of fine micheladas”, you’re missing out on a relative newcomer that’s making quite the impression at the crossroads of Silverlake and Echo Park. They serve a selection of six signature tacos and two seasonal tacos daily for lunch and dinner. And don’t think for a second that “signature” is code for “expected”. They range from things like butter roasted Maine lobster with key lime crema, and refried brioche to braised pork belly with caramelized banana and Thai peanut relish to maple fried chicken, with purple kale and Red Rooster vinaigrette. Hungry yet?
We chatted with Summer Stearns of Diablo Tacos about how she’s (along with executive chef Angel Flores) dealing with the haters, surprising the industry, and generally living the American dream. Turns out, the whole thing is far from sinister. In fact, aside from Diablo’s maddeningly addictive twist on the Michelada, we found the place to be downright heavenly.
How did you get into this business and how did it prepare or inspire you to open Diablo Taco?
Well, I started bartending back in college and that’s when I really fell in love with hospitality and all the challenges and logistics that go along with serving people. I was lucky enough to wonderful, passionate mentors at both Patina and Gordon Ramsay, who really challenged me to be the best. After having those experiences, the next logical step seemed to be opening my own restaurant. Working for yourself is the dream, right? So that’s really how it all started.
Ok, so why the taco? Here in LA, taco places are literally everywhere.
We’re native Angelenos! To us, the taco is like a sandwich. It’s casual, it’s comfortable. We were initially attracted to the idea of small plates, but that concept is less accessible to some people. So we spun it. It’s the unique flavors and combinations of small plates, but more approachable. And portable!
Were you met with resistance initially?
Definitely. On the internet, it’s so easy to be negative. We felt some backlash against the idea of “another taco joint”, but we really believed in what we were doing and believed other people would, too. And so far, they have.
How about the hurdles you face as a female restaurateur? How has it been to start out a young entrepreneur in the business as a woman?
You know, it is what it is. There are a lot more men in the industry. And I still get people asking to speak to my supervisor, just because they don’t believe I’m the one in charge. So there are definitely obstacles. It’s a man’s world, but I’ve got big plans, and I’m tough enough and resilient enough to do it. So I just keep plowing through.
That really seems to be going well for you! Tell us how these crazy popsicle Micheladas came to be.
It’s kind of a funny story. I was walking around the flea market at the Rose Bowl in July with friends – it was over 100 degrees and we were dying. I just blurted out that I could really go for a Bloody Mary popsicle, and that was it. Plus, I’m a big beer fan. Putting the two together in a twist on the Michelada just made perfect sense. That’s why we also feature a lot of local and craft beers – I mean, tacos and beer, how can you go wrong? Then we went even further and created another version with Japanese yuzu fruit and fresh lime juice paired with a cherry cider, plus our seasonal option. Right now it’s a blood-orange pop paired with Hefeweizen.
So with all the unique flavors, what’s your go-to meal at Diablo?
You mean, besides the micheladas I just spent 5 minutes talking about? Definitely the maple fried chicken taco and grilled sweet corn. That taco is one of our best sellers and it’s so good. Plus, the corn has this great mix of cheese and creamy citrus and truffle oil. It’s the best.
To check out the menu, see hours, get connected to their social media, or plan a party at Diablo (can we come?), check out their website here.
This recurring column will feature chefs, farmers, food writers, caterers, sommeliers, cheese mongers, and all manner of food-obsessed characters sharing what they know, love, and do best. Check back regularly for recipes, behind-the-scenes looks at events, tips and a growing community for those driven by taste.
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In a city endlessly obsessed with what’s new and trendy, The Little Door on West 3rd St. continues to happily defy that notion as it approaches its 16th anniversary. We sat down with Chef Nicolas to hear his take on success, seasonality, and what makes his toes wiggle.
Coming up on 16 years, that’s an impressive milestone in LA. How has The Little Door evolved?
Well, we started out mostly Provençal, with a very small menu and there was no sign, no advertising. The first wave of customers were mostly industry people. And I was looking for great dishes to add to the menu, so it changed frequently! Slowly we became more Mediterranean with Moroccan influences, as it is today. The Little Next Door came after about 10 years, serving all day long – breakfast through dinner, full catering menu, plus all the homemade jams and sauces, baskets, etc. And we only added liquor this summer at The Little Door. That brought in a whole new clientele.
How often does the menu change now?
About every month. I love working with seasons because it gives you a very distinct sense of time and place. I’m at the farmer’s markets twice a week, looking over everything, picking and choosing what I want to work with. We’ve got a core group of farmers we buy from, but it still comes down to the highest quality ingredients. Personally, one of my favorite things to eat is an amazing piece of fruit, perfectly ripe or a fresh vegetable. All the flavor is there.
What are your go-to dishes to cook for yourself or your family?
I love comfort food, food that makes sense. Lately, it seems like everyone wants to reinvent the wheel in food all the time. You don’t need something fancy, just the food that makes your toes wiggle. Something like a great grilled fish and in-season vegetables and rice or potatoes. It’s homey, it’s spontaneous – you open the refrigerator and see what can be created from what you have.
How does that approach to food in general influence The Little Door?
You know, I’m old school. I believe that consistency is the key. I believe in serving great food that makes you feel good after you’ve eaten it. It’s very straightforward. Here, most of my kitchen staff has been here for over 14 years. I think if you keep people happy at work, they become family. And it’s the consistency that holds everything together. At The Little Door, what you see is what you get. I’m just being myself, and I’m not here to impress, I just like keeping a low profile. Look, I don’t have any tattoos like so many chefs now! This is what I love, and I’m so happy we stay busy with people who love it, too.
Now that we’re finally getting into some fall weather, what ingredients are you excited to work with this season?
It’s funny, years ago no one did anything with figs. I could go to the markets and be the only one buying them. Now, figs are everywhere! So I really like quince. Growing up in the south of France, we had a tree in our backyard. You can use them for the fragrance, in closets and around the house because they have a very strong perfume. But they’re not great to eat raw until they’re very ripe, so people don’t mess with them much. I love to cook quince down for jams and jellies or for tarts or a salad. It’s interesting, the fruit is yellow, but once you cook it for a while, it turns this bright red. It’s great for autumn – a wonderful unique flavor.
Speaking of quince, Chef Nicolas also gave us this recipe for a great fall salad, starring the intriguing little fruit.
To poached the quinces:
- 2 quinces peeled, cored and quartered
- 1 ounce of lemon juice
- 2 rind of lemon
- 2 ounces of honey
In a sauce pan, poache the quinces with the lemond, rind, honey and enough water to cover.
Cook until the quinces are cooked but still a little firm.
Set aside to cool.
For the vinaigrette:
In a stainless bowl, whisk together:
- 1 tablespoon of pomegranate molasses
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon of mustard (dijon)
- ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
- Salt, white pepper and cayenne to taste
- Drain and wedge the quartered quinces in three pieces each
- 5 slices of prosciutto, cut crosswise in ribbons
- 16 slices onetik cheese with vegetable peeler (1″ x 2″)
- 3 bunches of wild arugula, washed
- ½ cup fresh pomegranate
- ¼ cup of roughly chopped marcona almonds
- 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons of fine diced shallots
In a serving bowl mix all ingredients together, add the dressing to coat to your liking.