Wednesday, June 25, 2014

review - Vino Tapas and Wine Bar

18046 Ventura Blvd.
Encino, CA 91316
Tel: 818-343-2525

This is a revisit. Read my original review from November 2013 here:
with owner Alla Volk

18046 Ventura Blvd.
Encino, CA 91316

Tel: 818-343-2525

Vino Tapas and Wine Bar in Encino has some very exciting news to share. Beginning July 1, this one of a kind establishment will be open for lunch from 11 am to 3 pm daily. Owner Alla Volk was on hand to greet me June 24 and was so ecstatic about extending her hours. Alla plans a special paella and sangria day, most likely Sundays, shortly after the lunch schedule starts up. The deliciously authentic wine, sangria and tapas Vino has to offer are praised by everyone who stops by and now there are more opportunities to spend time there....and the cuisine is authentically Spanish, which has a lot to say for a Russian owner. Ole, ole!

Yes, Alla prides herself on her Spanish chef and her selection of genuine Spanish-style tapas, which include albondigas and tortilla espanola. When she puts the special paella day into full swing, she intends to offer not one or two different kinds of paella but perhaps six or seven to match the menu of Spanish restaurants in Spain where she has eaten and savored every morsel. With this kind of passion for her art, Alla is a true restaurateuse par excellence, and you know you are in good hands when you visit Vino Tapas and Wine Bar.

On this second visit, my desire was to try several things that I had not eaten the first time, so I ordered calamares fritos, crisply fried squid served with romesco and aioli side sauces  and my friend, higadillos salteados, pan seared chicken livers with garlic, paprika and thyme served in a sizzling cast iron plate.
The calamari were absolutely yummy tasting and those chicken livers were so deliciously prepared. I know it requires a special taste, but both my friend Jim and I were brought up on the exquisite flavor of liver so we truly appreciate it in all of its forms. Of course, who can resist the potato croquetas, crispy mashed potato croquettes filled with chicken and served with tomato aioli, the patatas bravas, crispy potatoes with spicy aioli sauce and the slider, that scrumptious mini burger with lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, bleu cheese and tomato aioli, served with fries? This is one of the very best sliders I have ever tasted! Jim also tried the delicias, bacon wrapped dates filled with caramelized walnuts and bleu cheese and the gambas al ajillo, shrimp sauteed in garlic, herb and white wine sauce. He simply raved about both, especially the dates wrapped in bacon. We both savored more than one glass of the luscious homemade sangria.

For my main course - or big tapa - I ordered short ribs, which are braised over night with spices and herbs, and served with green beans, tomato confit and mashed potatoes. I had had the filet mignon on the last visit and must admit it's a toss up for me between the filet and the short ribs, as they are both beautifully prepared and succulent...and just enough, after devouring so many tapas. For dessert, I tried the bread pudding with cranberry and vanilla ice cream and Jim, the banana bread with bruleed banana and chantilly cream. Que rico!, as the Spaniards say...and who am I to disagree? I came to be satisfied… and I certainly was!

I rarely talk about presentation, which, in my book, is 50% of a good restaurant meal. For me, it's the food that counts most, but yes, presentation makes the food more appealing. Vino Tapas and Wine Bar present all of their small and big tapas and desserts in fine artistic form. I particularly enjoyed seeing the short rib dinner on the bed of mashed potatoes and vegetables delectably protruding from the hole in the center of the large plate, drawing immediate attention to it.

What is also utterly unbelievable about Vino Tapas and Wine Bar apart from the great food, presentation, service and warm atmosphere with Spanish paintings on the walls, are the moderate prices. At happy hour from 4 pm to 7 pm, the tapas are only $5, and the big tapas - filet mignon and short rib dinners - only $15 each. It is not everywhere that you may order authentic Spanish food, get lovely guitarra music later in the evening, and do not have to complain about spending too much money. And now that Vino Tapas and Wine Bar will be open for lunch...what a double deal! Que suerte (luck) for us all!

Grade: A+

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

review - The Red Room Food and Wine Bar

17499 Ventura Blvd, Encino
(adjacent to the Coral Tree Cafe)

Sitting right next to the Coral Tree Cafe at 17499 Ventura Blvd in Encino, The Red Room Food and Wine Bar may be small in size but, boy oh boy what a more than ample treasure! It's a pleasure when owner and ambiance are a match, and Fernando, originally from Argentina, is really proud of his huge international wine selection and literally beams as he serves his product. There is a large black board on the back wall above the bar that lists all of the wines, which come from as far away as Spain and as close as the best vineyards of Encino, California.

Fernando brought me a lovely glass of rosee from Navarra, Spain - 2011, and after he received my thumbs up, he wanted to explain his connection to what he calls the poetry of wine tradition. He obviously has a passion for the grape as he in great detail talked about how 3 grapes, not of the very best quality, when crushed,  fermented and dried, can produce the greatest tasting wine. A little known fact, at least for me, as I usually associate the best with the best! I will think differently from now on. I also savored a glass of cool refreshing Braquetto and later, from a nearby Encino vineyard, 19 ROWS Syrah, a scrumptiously dry red wine. Not being a primo wine connoisseur, I learned a great deal from Fernando’s vast knowledge.

As well as being known for their fantastic wine selection, the Red Room offers delectable cuisine with only the finest and freshest ingredients. Fernando and his pretty server Nikki offered my friend and me quite an array of delicious tapas. Sonoma lamb meatballs with merguez spices, goat cheese polenta and charmoula yogurt, topped the list, followed by Burrata, an incredible flatbread with nicoise olive tapenade, burrata cheese, a local cherry tomato and basil. My friend really praised the Ahi Tuna Tartare with avocado, Persian cucumber and Belgian endive wedges. We sampled two very different salads. One, my favorite, is Panzanella Salad with Persian cucumber, feta cheese, heirloom tomato and red onion. It is the first time I have not seen lettuce in a salad, but it is unnecessary. The flavors of the fruits and vegetables mixed together provide a pleasing, mouth-watering feast, unlike any other I have tasted. The second offering Kale Chopped Salad with organic kale, quinoa, toasted almonds, golden raisins, parmesan cheese and lemon vinaigrette is quite hearty and most definitely prepared with healthy eating in mind. Next came some delicious tacos with Mexican shrimp, steak and chicken. Riquisimo! (rich!)

We were given three entrees to share: Grilled Scottish Salmon, Bistro Steak served with fries, and tender boneless Short Rib, resting on a bed of crushed heirloom potatoes and roasted carrots and covered with red wine sauce. I love fish of any type, and chef Joseph Gillard chatted with us briefly about the salmon. When asked by my friend if he can tell simply by tasting from which waters the salmon has been caught, he gave a resounding "Yes!" It was Atlantic salmon we were sampling, known for its farm-raised goodness. Needless to say, the short rib was so tender it melted in the mouth and the sirloin steak was right behind it in tenderness, and flavorful deliciousness.

For dessert, we enjoyed a cheesecake, which had the smoothness of a rich creme brulee and served with homemade blueberry jelly. All jellies are made on site.

The Red Room has a lot to offer: reasonable prices, incredible wines, unparalleled cuisine...and also three nights of guitar music on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. There is a comfortable enclosed patio, perfect for chilly nights, right outside the bar itself. Ask for Fernando! He's a world-class charmer and really knows his stuff. I will most assuredly return for more great food, drink and company.

Grade: A+

Fernando and Nikki

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

review - The Original Pizza Cookery

The Original Pizza Cookery
6209 Topanga Canyon Blvd (at Erwin Street), Woodland Hills
(818) 887-4770

It is always exciting when a restaurant exceeds your expectations. I remember visiting a Pizza Cookery in the 80s on Ventura Blvd either in Encino or further out and thinking that the pizza was excellent. But it was a tiny, hole-in-the-wall pizza joint for takeout. There was not enough room to sit down to enjoy a full meal. So this was what I expected June 10 when I visited The Original Pizza Cookery in Woodland Hills. Boy oh boy, was I in for a surprise! When I walked in what I saw was a comfortable sit-down restaurant with a pleasant Italian decor - tiny Christmas lights everywhere - and when I looked at the menu, there was everything on it from soup to nuts - Italian, of course! I suddenly realized I was in for one gigantic treat. As you probably know by now, Italian is my favorite food. Si, Si, con tutti i mezzi (by all means)!

Owner Jordan Klempner was on hand to welcome us. He told me that this restaurant has been opened for 40 years, and that they just recently added a new lunch menu. Now that's success! 40 years and still thriving! They must be doing something right... the prices are low...and you get good sized portions.

I ordered a fabulous Barbequed Chicken Salad with honey dijon dressing, a half-portion of whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce and a mini pepperoni/meatball pizza. The salad was so plentiful and delicious, I did manage to eat the pasta, but took the pizza along. My friend Jim had a Caesar Salad, stuffed shells and a mini mushroom/garlic pizza. He raved and raved, as we both savored our lunches like two little kids in a candy store. As I have frequently told most of you, there is always room for dessert. When I heard the menu included spumoni with cookie sticks, I could not resist. I was amazed that such delicious food came at such a reduced cost. I remember eating a year ago at a famous Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills and being disappointed at the small portions served and at such overwhelming prices. Pizza Cookery has every other Italian restaurant beat with a half-portion of pasta - $5.95, and believe me, you get more than enough. My Barbequed Chicken Salad was a mere $7.50, and the pizza cut into 4 slices, with two items, under $14. Amazing!
 There is also a special gluten-free menu for pizza, sandwiches, salads, drinks and bakery items - and a vegan menu, for both lunch and dinner, for eating in as well as take out. Pizza Cookery will also cater your next party or social event.

Some of the specialty items on the menu include: minestrone soup as appetizer, as well as a variety of delicious salads. As far as entrees are concerned, you have a choice of great hero sandwiches that range from tuna to Philly Cheese Steak to grilled chicken to the famous Chicken Parmesan Sandwich, all priced under $12. Pizzas are made available on whole wheat crust as well as regular, and soy mozzarella may be substituted for regular mozzarella. Pizza specials include vegetarian deluxe, southwestern, as well as Greek and Mexican pizzas and a Mediterranean pizza made with olive oil. All pizzas contain the freshest of ingredients including oregano, tomatoes, garlic and cilantro. Combination pizzas range from small at $17 to large at about $25. Pizza Cookery sure wins out over corner pizza stores because Pizza Cookery is high on taste, never skimping on quality. Pasta specials include lasagna, fettuccine alfredo, manicotti, canneloni, chicken parmesan and eggplant parmesan, with an extra nice price under $13 and with house salad included, only $18.25.

I should have been born Italian. I eat more Italian food than any other type of cuisine. So, now that I've re-sampled Pizza Cookery - actually tried the Original Pizza Cookery on Topanga Canyon in Woodland Hills. for the first time in 40 years - I've got a lot of catching up to do. I'll be back.

visit them online at:

Owner Jordan Klempner