Trendwire, April 2010

Trendwire, April 2010

Food & Drink

Trendwire, April 2010



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The Food Channel Trendwire
April 2010 • Volume 24, Number 3 •

USFiRavesThe Food Channel

A Look Back at the Raves & Faves Restaurant Tour of Los Angeles

When one thinks of Los Angeles, California, the images that quickly come to mind are the Hollywood sign, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sunset Boulevard, swimming pools, and movie stars. While we’ll still associate L.A. with all those things, what our Food Channel® crew will mostly recall about our Raves & Faves tour of the area’s eating places will be the wonderful people we encountered and the great food they serve there.

With guidance and support from tour sponsor, U.S. Foodservice, we crisscrossed the byways and freeways of sunny SoCal in search of the latest restaurant and consumer dining trends. At the end of the day, at the end of the tour, looking back, what did these successful foodservice operations have in common?

One commonality that popped to the top of the list was the passion of the food professionals we were lucky to spend time with. They care so deeply about their own people, and about the customers they serve. Time after time we heard owners and managers speak with pride about the people who work the long hours to prepare and serve the food. We found there’s very little staff turnover at these places, highly unusual in the restaurant business. Chef Brian Hirsty of the Bluewater Grill said with a chuckle, “People are so happy here, we can’t get rid of them!” Laurie Sisneros, co-owner of Spaghettini Italian Grill and Jazz Club, commented, “We have low turnover. They are our people and we know they are going to take care of our customers.” Spaghettini has a “family meal” with staffers twice a month “to bond together and try new items and wines.”

Keeping It Fun

Can “fun” be a trend? Because we certainly found it in abundance on the L.A. Raves & Faves tour. Paul Kraft, owner of Café Tu Tu Tango, explained why he went into the restaurant business in the first place. “We started it because it was fun,” he said. On any given night at Tu Tu, you may be treated to an artist at work, a belly dancer, a balloon artist, or a tango demonstration. There’s plenty of fun in the food, too, from the Spanish Antipasto all the way through the build-your-own S’Mores, complete with their own mini campfire.

At Yogurtland, the fun comes from getting to help yourself to any of 16 flavors of creamy frozen yogurt and 48 toppings. Trust us; that is a LOT of fun. They keep things fresh, too, introducing two new flavors every 6 to 8 weeks. We loved the mixture of rich Dutch Chocolate with cool Peppermint that created a frozen peppermint pattie.

Scratch Is Back

When it came to the food, the emphasis was clearly on quality ingredients and dishes made from scratch. “We make our own soups, sauces, and dressings,” said Patrick Campbell of Damon’s Steak House. “We don’t cheat on anything.” You can tell that by the taste of Damon’s beef tenderloin—thick, juicy, and totally satisfying.

Allan Ratman, owner of Katella Deli, voiced similar pride in their house-made offerings. “We bake virtually everything from scratch. We make all our Danish, rolls, and bagels from scratch. We’re the quintessential Jewish deli,” he said. He mentions the corned beef, pastrami, fresh roasted turkey, and brisket—all available on rye bread or challa. Katella has a definite retro feel, with deli favorites such as the refreshing fountain treats that include New York Egg Cream, Chocolate Phosphate, Malts, and Shakes.

“Scratch” is also where it’s at from Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que. “We are a scratch kitchen,” owner Craig Hofman told us. “Homemade biscuits. Apple butter. Salad dressings. Dessert sauces, such as caramel and whiskey. Lemonade. All homemade. Our guests can discern the difference—they know our quality is better.”

Scratch cooking is the tradition at Jerry’s Famous Deli, says corporate V.P. Ami Saffron. “As big as our menu is, we still manage to make virtually everything we can from scratch,” he said. “The good part is, you have home cooking. We still cook the old-fashioned way, and we use the best ingredients.” For the adventurous diner, we recommend the celery soda, which is akin to drinking fizzy celery.

Watermarc executive chef Marc Cohen stated it simply. “We make everything in-house.” They must be making it pretty well. Cohen is continually listed among the Best Chefs of Orange County, putting his special touches on dishes such as his Toasted Garlic Pan Seared Chilean Sea Bass, served with warm artichoke and asparagus potato salad, goat cheese, and roasted tomato coulis. He’s also setting trends with ingredients, including making his own seafood sausage; we’re seeing specialty sausages pop up more and more these days.

At Mexican restaurant El Cholo Café, quality ingredients are essential, said owner Rand Salisbury. “From the very beginning we’ve always used quality ingredients, and that’s important to us. Our Cheddar cheese is aged six months before we pick it up.” The Carne Asada is made of New York Strip Steak. And there’s a consistency of quality. “We’ve had the same tortilla vendor for 60 years.” The El Cholo margaritas are something special. They must be. They serve 30–40 gallons of them a day, according to Salisbury.

Fresh. Local. Authentic. Simple.

At Rutabegorz they serve nothing that is fried or deep-fried. “We provide old-school vegetarian values—lots of fresh and natural foods,” said owner Paul Berkman. We should note that the place is by no means meatless. The Garlic Chicken there is superb, as is its BBQ Fiesta Wrap, and Bean Nachos.

The Arroyo Chop House in Pasadena makes an unequivocal claim to be “the only restaurant in Southern California that serves, exclusively, the highest grade of beef available, U.S.D.A. Prime,” which applies to about 2 percent of graded beef. “We’ve never served a steak that wasn’t prime,” say owners and brothers Bob and Gregg Smith. Arroyo serves all the classic cuts from Porterhouse to Petit Filet to Kansas City and New York Strips, and it’s prime eating all the way.

Authenticity is the key at Versailles Cuban Food. All of the menu items—from the deliciously strong Cuban coffee to the fried bananas, to the Famoso Pollo Versailles (Versailles Famous Garlic Chicken)—are what owner William Garcia calls “true Cuban style.” Versailles is where the locals eat, as demonstrated by their listing as one of the top restaurants at

Along with the commitment to scratch cooking, another preparation trend we noted on the tour was, quite simply, simplicity. Many owners commented that the best food is often high-quality food, simply prepared. “It’s about simple, and quality,” said Bob Lynn, owner of La Grande Orange. The Santa Monica restaurant maintains an herb garden right outside the front door to ensure freshness down to the smallest ingredient. “The things that tend to be the most meaningful are also fairly simple,” Lynn said. “They come from your heart.” It was also interesting to see the trend for some of the more “off the beaten path” vegetables come to life at La Grande Orange, such as the Brussels Sprouts Salad that was a favorite of our Food Channel crew.

Co-owner Cary Hardwick of Spaghettini Italian Grill and Jazz Club describes his menu as “grilled meats and grilled vegetables, simply prepared,” and the food is simply delightful. Northern Italian for Southern Californians. But “the jazz is the thing that really sets us apart,” says Hardwick. Customers are treated to live jazz five nights a week, which has made Spaghettini a real “destination restaurant.”

The use of quality locally sourced ingredients was another commonality in many of the restaurants we visited. Louise’s Trattoria is one good example. The Italian eatery uses all local herbs, fresh pasta made locally, organic beets roasted on premise, and all California vegetables. The focaccia bread is the signature item at Louise’s. It seems everyone who dines there says, “We love the bread!”

At the Bluewater Grill chef Brian Hirsty insists on buying direct from local fishermen and farms. “With direct feedback, I can control size, harvesting methods, and fishing techniques,” Hirsty explains. When fresh swordfish arrives, a typical 360-pounder gets routinely rolled through the restaurant during its busiest time. “The best marketing ever,” says GM Chris Rock. The Ponzu Sashimi Sea Scallops are phenomenal, served in the shell topped with wasabi aioli, seaweed salad, and masago. Bluewater is a definite trendsetter when it comes to presentation and experience. Just ask them to demonstrate how to eat the Salt & Pepper Shrimp, and you’ll remember your meal for a long time.

Customers Crave Comfort

In a down economy, comfort food often rises to the top of the menu, and we tasted a lot of delicious comfort food on the L.A. tour. The matzo ball soup at Jerry’s Famous Deli certainly qualifies. The classic Jewish deli prepares 200—300 matzo balls per location every day. They are hand rolled, boiled in hot water, put into room-temperature water, and finally held in chilled water for later use.

Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que executive chef Chris Ferrell has noted the revival of comfort food. “In troubled times, people fall back to Mom’s mac and cheese or Grandma’s fried chicken and gravy,” said Ferrell. “I’ve been watching the emergence of comfort food.” And Ferrell’s certainly on-trend, serving up plenty of comforting homemade biscuits and slow-smoked barbecue.

Fine Art, Fine Food

Another trend we encountered time and again was the use of fine art as an accompaniment to the fine food being served. Louise’s Trattoria commissions some of the art in the restaurant, “but at least half is from local artists,” said CEO Rob Serritella. “Every six to eight weeks we do a new art show and tasting with wine and cheese,” he said. At Tu Tu Tango, the dessert is presented “artfully”—local artists created pieces to showcase each sweet selection, and servers bring the artwork to the table to present the dessert choices. “It’s our version of the dessert tray,” says owner Paul Kraft.

From the large murals at Damon’s Steak House to the paintings and sculpture by Laguna Beach artists displayed at Watermarc, the use of art to enhance the dining experience was a feast for the eyes.

So that’s a wrap. Fifteen Southern California restaurants in eight days. Wonderful food and warm, friendly people who are passionate about their business. You can meet many of them in our video interviews, and in-depth reviews and blogs, by clicking on the restaurant links in this special edition of Trendwire. Or better still, come out to sunny California and enjoy the great food and service in person.

We’d like to thank U.S. Foodservice for helping us with Raves & Faves, a new and unique way to spotlight some of America’s finest independent restaurants and bars, and helping these operations to connect with current patrons and reach out to potential new customers.

The Food Channel also offers an opportunity for people everywhere to rave about their favorite restaurants, wherever they are in the world. Sharing is strongly encouraged at iRaves.

The Food Channel also publishes a great consumer newsletter, called FoodWire®. To receive a copy, please register your email address at


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