Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Fun and Lively Mozzarella Bar at Osteria Mozza!

The first time I had heard about all things "Mozza," was when Pizzeria Mozza was just about to open. I remember hearing about the Mozza plan being a multi-restaurant project, with Nancy Silverton (of La Brea Bakery fame), and the always charismatic Mario Batali (of Food Network's Molto Mario and Iron Chef America fame) partnering to bring some interesting twists on Italian food in Los Angeles. After being wow'ed by Pizzeria Mozza, I was counting the days when Osteria Mozza would open next door.

Flash-forward to today (Summer 2008), and Osteria Mozza has become (and remains) one of the most popular restaurants in town (it was also just awarded One Michelin Star). I was floored on my first visit (when they first opened), but somewhat let down on my second visit, a few months later. I held off on writing about it to see whether Osteria Mozza was truly like my first visit (amazing!), or more like my second visit (average), and I wanted an excuse to sample even more items on their menu. (^_~) Now, after a few more visits, while there are some hits and misses, Osteria Mozza's indelible qualities remain its amazing, fresh Mozzarella Bar, and its fun, energetic Ambiance.

On one of my later visits, I arrived early and decided to try one of their signature cocktails (on my previous visits we always opted for wine): The Gordon's Cup arrived highly recommended by the bartender, made up of Gin, Japanese Cucumbers, Lime, and Maldon Sea Salt. This was easily one of the best cocktails I've had in the last few years, anywhere! The Gin was never overpowering, and there was a constant freshness that pervaded each sip, with a nice balance of the Lime, Maldon Sea Salt and Japanese Cucumbers. I found it more refreshing than most Mojitos even. The evening was definitely off to a good start. (^_~)

My dinner companions arrived and we were seated immediately. After placing our order, we were offered their complementary bread (from La Brea Bakery (where else? :)) and olive oil. Normally, this is an afterthought, but with Nancy Silverton at the helm, Osteria Mozza has the advantage of having fresh, fragrant breads delivered from the close-by La Brea Bakery, and it shows. Each of the breads I've sampled on my various visits have always been fresh, with a nice crust exterior and a soft interior. Their olive oil (from Italy) deserves special mention as well. While it's not one of the top olive oils in the world, for a complementary item, it's fragrant and better than the majority of olive oils provided during bread service around L.A.

We began with their usual, excellent, complimentary appetizer: Fresh Ricotta Cheese, Basil, and Olive Tapenade. The Fresh Ricotta was creamy and perfectly accented by the Basil and Olive Tapenade.

Our first order from the Mozzarella Bar arrived: Burrata with Bacon, Marinated Escarole & Carmelized Shallots. The Burrata Cheese was wonderfully silky and creamy, and when eaten with the Bacon, Shallots and the slight bitterness from the Escarole, it was just excellent! One of the best dishes from the Mozzarella Bar.

Our first regular Antipasti arrived next: Prosciutto di Parma & Melon. This was a rather simple dish, and it was literally the ingredients listed on the menu, deconstructed. The Prosciutto was delicious, perfectly salted and the cracked Black Pepper helped to bring out facets of the pork, but the Melon was a little too sweet. The sweetness of the Melon combined with the saltiness of the Prosciutto certainly works, but even with one small piece of Melon wrapped by an entire strip of Prosciutto, the fragrant sweetness still managed to overpower everything surprisingly. If, however, you love Melon (as one of my guests that night), then this would be perfect. (^_~)

After this, our next offering from the Mozzarella Bar arrived: The Burrata with Cullatello, Pickled Shallots & Pane Pomodoro. This was another interesting creation from Nancy Silverton (who was at the helm of the Mozzarella Bar that night (in fact, she's been there for every single one of my visits to Mozza)), with the fresh Burrata and Pickled Shallots nicely offset by the "heart of Prosciutto" as our waitress described the Cullatello. But the best part of the dish would have to be the Pomodoro Sauce. The Tomatoes added a nice acidity and fragrant sweetness to the dish that set it apart from our earlier Burrata dish.

Our next arrived soon after: Ribollita "Da Delfina" was essentially a Tuscan Vegetable Soup condensed and then pan-seared to create a hard outer crust(!). Unfortunately, it sounded more interesting than the final result, which really tasted of slightly charred / crusted, overcooked vegetable soup, but in a half-dried out form. Ribollita is supposed to be a rustic, simple dish, so I wasn't expecting anything elegant, but this version literally tasted like the individual ingredients (e.g., stewed Onions, Celery, Carrots, etc.) in a dried-out incarnation. Disappointing.

Our Primis arrived next, starting with the Gnocchi with Wild Boar Ragu. The housemade, fresh Gnocchi were perfectly cooked, tender yet still retaining a good texture, and the Wild Boar Ragu matched nicely, especially with the dusting of freshly-grated Pecorino Cheese. However, the Ragu tasted more like a typical Ground Beef Ragu than anything exotic or elevated, which is what one might expect with anything with "Wild Boar" in its name. :) It was still enjoyable, but nothing amazing.

The next pasta dish arrived with the Francobolli di Brasato with Thyme. This fresh-made pasta was named after its similarity to a postage stamp, and after one look, it was easy to see why. :) Each square pasta was filled with their famous Brasato ( slow-cooked Beef), but in puree form, which normally would sound like a great idea (since their Brasato is so wonderful with its fork-tender texture and good flavor), but it was a bit disappointing. It wasn't bad, but after having the Brasato in its original form (more on this later), having a smooth puree filling of it was a bit of a letdown. Besides that, it still had a good beefy flavor, and worked nicely with the Brown Butter, Thyme and Parmigianno-Regiano. Plating was a bit sloppy, however.

The first of our Secondi main courses arrived soon after: Crisp Duck al Mattone with Pear Mostarda & Wild Spinach. Its name hints at the cooking method, with the Duck being cooked "under a brick" to crisp it up. It looked delicious the moment it arrived at our table, so we quickly divvied it up to sample the Duck. By itself, it was just too salty, bordering on extremely salty. Looking past the salt as much as possible, the Duck was cooked perfectly, with a great crisped skin, and moist interior. When paired with the Pear-infused whole grain Italian Mustard, the natural sweetness from the Pear and spicy bite of the Mustard helped to cut through the Duck's saltiness a bit, and overall it was a great complement. But if the kitchen had reduced the salt by 25% - 50% of the amount they used, this Crisp Duck al Mattone would've been excellent and much more palatable.

One of our side dishes / Contorni arrived at the same time as well: Grilled Radicchio with Pancetta, Balsamico & Parmigiano. It sounded delicious (and anything with Pancetta couldn't be bad :), but when it arrived, we found an overcharred mess. In all my visits, this was the first time I had ordered this side dish, so I'm not sure if this was a one time fluke or not, but it was disappointing. The burnt edges on the Radicchio and Pancetta added a bitter and burnt note to each bite, and it was so oversauced with the Balsamic Vinegar that it turned the whole dish into a soggy mess as well.

Our final Secondi arrived at this point - one of my long-time favorites at Osteria Mozza - the Beef Brasato with Polenta & Horseradish Gremolata. It's been on the menu since they first opened, and tonight's version tasted just as delicious! :) The slow-cooked Beef Short Rib cut of meat (boneless), with a Barolo Wine reduction sauce was perfect on its own, fork-tender, rich, full of a fresh beefy taste that only comes with hours of cooking, this was outstanding.

The Polenta was nicely cooked, soaking up the Beef & Barolo Wine Reduction (^_~), but the best part of this dish (other than the Brasato) would have to be the Horseradish Gremolata, which was a more refined version of the standard fresh-ground Horseradish one usually can get with a Prime Rib. The Celery Leaf Salad atop the Brasato added a fresh, spring note to the dish as well.

Other Secondis I've tried from previous visits include their Monkfish alla Diavola (excellent, perfectly cooked Monkfish), and Guinea Hen Crostone with Liver Pancetta Sauce (for fans of Liver, I found the Guinea Hen very good, but a touch too overpowered by the extremely rich Liver Pancetta Sauce).

For my last visit to Osteria Mozza, it was a last-minute event, with a friend visiting and craving Italian food. We showed up and waited for an opening at their Mozzarella Bar (which is set aside for First Come, First Serve only). Luckily we only had to wait about 5 minutes before an opening at the beautiful Mozzarella Bar and we sat down and ordered.

I started off with the Fragola e Aceto: Gin, Strawberry, Lime, Balsamic Vinegar, Basil Foam. With the tasty description on the menu, I was looking forward to this drink. Overall it was decent, but I was hoping for more notes of Strawberry than there actually was in the cocktail overall. Still, very good.

One of the best dishes that Nancy Silverton and Osteria Mozza offers isn't even on the menu: Burrata Basilicata with Leeks. Available only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (and even then, it depends on availability of Nancy's supplier), this is some of the freshest Burrata cheese I've had in my life, and is flown in from the Italian region of Basilicata. Its presented in a cute "pouch" of Burrata, and Nancy presents it in the best way possible, with just a touch of a good-quality Olive Oil and some cooked Leeks. From my first visit until now, this Burrata is *so* smooth and creamy, *so* clean and fresh! Simply outstanding. (^_^)

The next offering from the Mozzarella Bar arrived soon after: Sheep's Milk Ricotta, Trufflebert Farms Hazelnuts, Lemon & Garlic. This was another outstanding offering with wonderfully *fresh* Sheep's Milk Ricotta, light and airy, and paired wonderfully with the toasted Hazelnuts, which were so fragrant and nutty.

The Crispy Pigs Trotter with Cicoria & Mustard arrived next. I had ordered this on my very first visit and was curious how it stood up over time. The Pigs Trotter is made from the Foot portion, which is brined, boiled and ground up before frying in this patty form. It was just as good as I remembered it, but as before, nothing outstanding. If you're a fan of Pork it's worth trying at least once. :) The Chicory and Mustard worked nicely with the Pork, another good pairing from Executive Chef Matt Molina.

I decided to order another cocktail at this point, the Il Postino cocktail: Light Rum, Lime, Honey, Prosecco. This was another outstanding cocktail from Mozza's bartenders, a tasty concoction that had the bubbly qualities of the Prosecco really bring to life the mixture of the Rum, Lime and Honey. I prefer the Gordon's Cup a bit more, but this was nice.

One of my favorite Pasta dishes at Osteria Mozza would have to be their Fresh Ricotta & Egg Raviolo with Browned Butter. It's a giant single Raviolo, and when you cut into it, the gooey goodness from the lightly-cooked Egg Yolk bursts out of the dish(!), turning this into something decadent and delicious. (^_^) The Nutmeg and Brown Butter sauce works nice with the dish, and the crisped Sage Leaf on top was a nice touch. Even after all this time, the dish remains consistently great. :)

After that, we had a Ricotta Gnudi with Asparagi. We were informed that "gnudi" meant "nude" in Italian and was in reference to the inside of a pasta cooked without the pasta exterior, hence the name. Interesting. :) And taking a bite, this had to be some of the most wonderfully light and airy "pasta" I've ever had! Considering Nancy Silverton's fresh Mozzarella Bar and great selection of fresh cheeses, that had a huge impact on how fresh and light this Ricotta Gnudi tasted. Outstanding!

Our final dish of the evening was the Agnolotti, Burro e Salvia (literally "Priest Hats with Butter and Sage"). The little Agnolotti pasta were delicious, and simply tossed in some fresh Butter and Sage, it was a nice way to end the evening. The pasta weren't too doughy or thick, and it was a nice way to enjoy the Agnolotti without overpowering them with something heavier.

Their Dolci / Desserts are wonderful, and although we didn't order any on this visit, in the past I've tried a few of them, including the much-talked-about Rosemary Olive Oil Cakes, Olive Oil Gelato & Rosemary Brittle, which was simply wonderful! The Olive Oil Gelato is just delicious with a light taste of Olive Oil teasing you with each bite of the Gelato, but never too prominent, and the Rosemary Brittle is a beautiful pairing. :)

Service in all my visits to Osteria Mozza has been consistently good. Each of my visits has been with a different server, and each time, they've been accommodating and spot-on. It's not the outstanding service you'd expect from a "five-star" restaurant, but for an Osteria, it's very good. While the price per person changed dramatically depending on when we ordered some nice wines, or stuck with cocktails, etc., we averaged between ~$80 - $130 per person (including tax and tip). Antipastis range from $11 - 18. Mozzarella Bar offerings from $12 - 24. Primis / Pastas from $17 - 19. Secondis from $25 - 58. Dolci / Desserts from $11 - 12.

Looking back at all my visits to Osteria Mozza, there have been times that the Pasta was decent, but nothing mindblowing, and too many of the Secondis have had miscues (or been inconsistent), but the offerings from the fresh Mozzarella Bar have always been consistently good. Perhaps it's because Nancy Silverton has always been present, furiously working away at some amazing creations at the Mozzarella Bar, or the freshness of the ingredients, but it is definitely the best reason to go to Osteria Mozza. :) And beyond that, Osteria Mozza has always had a good buzz and energy whenever I've visited. There's just something fun and exciting, a great start to a night on the town without being stuffy. (^_^) Recommended.

Rating: 8.1 (out of 10.0)

Osteria Mozza
641 N. Highland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Tel: (323) 297-0101

Hours: Mon - Fri, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Saturday, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Closed Sundays.

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