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Last week I parted with Da Vinci restaurant in Beverly Hills. Why? I’ll get to that, but first I want to tell you what I was making there during the last few days, even hours…

Jason Fullilove, the executive chef and my mentor, makes one of the best breads I’ve had in my life. First and foremost, his creations remind me of home. Home as in Poland. I don’t know if it’s the water or the quality of grain (must be either one as those are the main components of any bread) in European breads that make them so voluptuous and fragrant. Each loaf slides out of the oven dressed in that brilliant crust all around while it’s slightly chewy yet airy, and perfectly delectable on the inside.

Don’t even think for a second that I am comparing those bakers’ diamonds to the stuff you normally find in your grocery store in America. Those pre-sliced, cotton-like, packed with artificial ingredients and god-knows-what-other-crap “breads” frankly don’t even deserve to be called that. Ask Michael Pollan.

If you ever tasted a homemade bread, especially the French style bread, you get my blues. You hear my music. You understand also why so desperately I wanted to master the skill of making that perfect loaf. Chef Fullilove granted me the space for the exercise. He also crumbled some of his secrets before me. The last few days that I worked at Da Vinci I was making breads. Lots of them. Breads with dates. Dill rolls. Whole-wheat loaves. The most luscious, aromatic, fluffy and almost creamy Focaccia bread with Olives.

These dorky photos, taken with Jason’s iphone, don’t even come close to the true beauty resting on those sheet-pans. Nonetheless, have a glimpse…

Oh, my dear Zeus and the rest of the Olympian gods that must have looked after me from the top of their holy mountain. Between the two languages that I use fluently on a regular basis there are not enough words to express the hedonistic moment of ecstasy that electrified my entire body upon the first taste of that Focaccia. My whole life flashed in front of my eyes in a form of movie clips as well as cartoonish clip-arts, and I saw a light in the end of a tunnel…

AM I IN HEAVEN NOW?

But I was still alive. Though I could not comprehend that I was given a chance to taste such delicacies on this Earth still.

Ok, I am not quite trying to toot my own horn here. This bread was made with a close supervision of the chef and his sous-chef Nichole. Herself, she can whip those babies out in the middle of the night, blind-folded and with a glass of Dirty Martini in one hand, if she chose to. However, it was me who lost her virginity that day, and the Angels Choirs sang to announce my becoming… of a bread maker.

My appetite only grew from here. The following day I arrived at the restaurant and from the door I screamed to the chef:

CAN I MAKE BREAD TODAY????

Thanks to my untamed enthusiasm, I was entrusted with making butter rolls. And a few hours later yet another success! I was on the roll, and hell yes, pun intended!

I know you’re on the edge of getting grossed out by all the sugar-coated descriptions of my personal glory, but wait till you see what I did with those puffy buns of buttery euphoria… I turned it into authentic, very realistic, explosive, steamy and moaning FOOD PORN…

Just imagine the taste of this home-roasted and juicy turkey along with voluptuous avocado, sun-ripened tomato and lots of sweet roasted garlic squeezed in between two legs of that tanned and muscular Butter Roll…

I’ll leave you with that image for a moment.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s also my definition of Lunch With A Happy Ending!

Aaaand back to reality. A few days ago an article on LA Eater made chef Fullilove’s departure from Da Vinci public. Allow me to add my three pennies to the story.

What led to chef’s exit were months of his struggle with the circumstances of this troubled Beverly Hills eatery. The owners’ dearth of experience in running a high-end restaurant became obvious to most parties involved early on. Additionally, the lack of true management only expedited the venue’s fall despite the executive chef’s tireless efforts to promote Da Vinci and attract real enthusiasts of culinary artistry with his extraordinary creations.

I think it says volumes that three other staff members walked away along with their chef, myself included.

Without looking any deeper into the ugly eyes of the monster, know that I deeply cherish the days I spent at the chef Fullilove’s side in that kitchen for I have witnessed and tasted the fruit of his labor. I was lucky enough to observe him at work, and to be so generously offered his secrets and his knowledge in general. Yes, I have learnt a ton. I have enriched my culinary vocabulary and expanded my kitchen horizons. I was taught cooking techniques I only had heard about before. I was given a place to experiment and exercise my passion.

It has nothing to do with respect, but for all the above I am grateful even to the (still) owners for making the space available to me as well.

Chef Jason, I thank YOU! And I look forward to the day (in the near future I hope) when your beautiful food is accessible to public again.

It is about nine-fifteen at night on a Saturday preceding our month-long trip to Europe and I’m not even packed yet. Instead, I am posting a few new pictures here to let everybody know I’m alive and kicking after a week of a non-stop sweat fest at Da Vinci.

One Bite

Last Friday we served my One Bite at the restaurant, and I was bouncing on the inside with pride for it was very well received by the diners. It was a Mascarpone Crab Cream with Smoked Cashews, Chives, and Spiced Rice Powder over Mango. I made another version with a slice of a strawberry on the bottom. Both looked spectacular.

We also sold out the soup of my creation. Can you imagine? I’ve just begun my apprenticeship there and the executive chef allowed me to make such a significant contribution to the menu. As the orders for the Soup of the Day started coming in, we poured into bowls this gorgeous orange nectar of a soup, my Carrot-Ginger Cream with Marinated Blood Oranges.

Carrot-Ginger Soup with Blood Oranges

The menu is full of wonders worth exploring. However, I want to brag only about my three pennies since, how shall I put this, it’s my blog.

My next installment should come with photos of some Polish classics, as I know my mom has been cooking for the last four weeks since she had learnt about our arrival in Poland. Yes, Jason and myself will travel to my homeland leaving tomorrow. I shall be in touch and keep ONE MORE BITE updated on a semi-regular basis. Get ready for all those European flavors as I’ll be bringing this and that from the Old Continent to the table.

Midnight’s around the corner and I’m buzzing like a hummingbird in the midst of its mating ritual. I walked into our house not long ago after a full day at Da Vinci’s kitchen, where I was on my feet hour after hour after hour. There’s no way around it—I’m pooped. However, the thrill and satisfaction that fill every cell of my body are irreplaceable.

Since I must rise with the sun tomorrow in order to make it to my yoga class before I race back to the restaurant, I will only share with you a few quick notes from another day of my apprenticeship.

I was announced “The Queen of Soup” by the chef, which was accompanied by an imaginary drum-roll and crowning. I didn’t do a good job with imagining the crown though, as it’s kind of tight and makes my head itch. I took the title nonetheless and made SPICED BEET SOUP finished with fresh parsley flakes.

Also, it seems I’m in charge of the Family Meal every time I’m there. No problem; let me do my magic. Today I was given three whole chickens to run with anyway I desired.

My vegetarian friends, now comes the part where you should close your eyes; or better, think of it as a commercial break and go make yourself tea, or run to the bathroom, or go feed the fish, or clip your nails, or… you know. You may not like the next paragraph.

I decided to cut the chickens into separate parts, and bake them in the oven (at 375°) seasoned with spices, a bunch of fresh thyme, bay leaves, garlic, and white wine. Thirty minutes later I pulled out a hot tray of tenderness hard to describe. I used the drippings from the tray to flavor spaghetti that completed the meal, and tossed it with a handful of freshly chopped parsley. Was it a light meal? Hell, no. Did I want to bath myself in that tray? God, yes!

Among a dozen of other tasks, I was also entrusted with making so called ONE BITE of my own design. One Bite is literally a 1-bite dish that is served as a gift from the chef in many high-end restaurants, or between courses, when guests choose a full tasting menu. (The tasting menu requires a whole new entry, which I will surely get to in the near future. That’s so much fun!)

Let me have drum-roll again tonight, as if I don’t toot my own horn, who will? Here comes my ONE BITE, Ladies and Gents:

 

One Bite

 

This is PICTACHIO-MASCARPONE CREAM OVER A CUCUMBER DISC FINISHED WITH LIME ZEST AND A CROSTINI thank you very much. This little thing could serve as an appetizer at your next house party, so feel free to take the idea and make it your own. I’ll tell you what I did, and you may get inspired.

Into a food processor I tossed a handful of toasted pistachios, one clove of garlic, about a teaspoon of coarse sea salt, and a few cracks of black pepper. The machine did the work for me and turned the nuts into a coarse meal. Next, I added softened mascarpone cheese (maybe 1-2 tbsp), a big handful of fresh cilantro and let the blade spin again until everybody merged into a coherent mass. If the mixture seems too thick, you can add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Small circles I cut out of my cucumber slices; then I topped them with the cream, lemon zest and the cracker. Voila! ONE BITE for ONE MORE BITE.

I take just a tiny bite of credit for it though. Chef Jason Fullilove is such an inspiration. Not only does he experiment and finds new flavor connections every day, but also he encourages us all to dig deep and find our own ingenious voice. He challenges us, but never leaves unsupported. He’s available at all times, and finds sheer enjoyment in sharing all his knowledge with anyone interested. I think I’ve found my hen that lays golden eggs (no offense, Chef). I will follow him as far as I can before he files for a restraining order.

The day has come. April 15th arrived and Uncle Sam wants to hear from you. For once I have taken care of my taxes way before the due date, which, as you know, ended up in my utmost indignation and relentless hiccups despite my wildest expectations. Nonetheless, since I no longer need to worry about 2009, I can focus on a bowl of whole-wheat comfort bathed in a juicy sauce of my choice.

Every week Jason and I do groceries on Saturday, and we buy either one whole chicken that will last for several dinners/lunches, or just a chicken breast plus a fresh fish fillet. Those take care of two to three dinners a week. The remaining days we follow a mostly vegetarian diet.

Usually around Thursday I glance into the depths of our refrigerator and panic as the only thing looking back at me is one sad veg (like zucchini or broccoli), a half-empty jar of capers, leftover mascarpone cheese and rapidly wilting dill. For a moment I’m startled wondering what to make for dinner. But then I run through the pantry and discover at least two variations of dry pasta kicking back in the drawer, a can or two of water-packed tuna (no salt added), maybe a jar of tomato puree, and to make the deal even sweater – there’s a bag of artichoke hearts in the freezer. In a basket there’s always a few onions and garlic cloves only waiting to get in the game.

It takes about 20-30 minutes to make a hearty meal out of the above-mentioned. During the time my pasta water boils in a large pot, I chop and sauté an onion, add drained and crumbled tuna meat, then capers, frozen artichokes, and cover it with my liquid tomatoes. I season the sauce with salt and pepper, maybe a touch of paprika, and let it all simmer together until the pasta is aldente.

Apropos pasta, for a chunky sauce like this, choose the kind of noodles that have ridges and holes allowing the sauce to wrap itself around and/or inside each peace and become one. It’s very sexy.

(Hearing the words, Cosmo lifts his head from the nap, sniffs around, and teased by the aroma coming from the kitchen he barks out loud: OOO, DID SOMEONE SAY SEXY?)

Turn off the heat under the sauce. Scoop about a tablespoon or more of mascarpone cheese and incorporate it into the sauce. Let it melt, baby, let it all nicely melt in. Add freshly chopped dill or parsley, and slowly toss in your cooked pasta along with about a ladleful of pasta water. Mix it all together and voila!

I can’t even describe how phenomenal that meal is. My advise to you is to make only as much pasta as you’d like to eat at one sitting. If you make too much, you’ll be huffing and puffing but you won’t be able to stop before the dish has disappeared from the surface of the Earth.

Here’s another variation of my pasta mid-week fix. Get yourself an Anaheim pepper (green bell pepper will do, too), chop it and toss into a blender with 2 cloves of garlic, chopped onion, a bunch of cilantro, good pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper, a touch of chili powder, and drizzle in some olive oil. Mix it all into a green sauce.

Heat your skillet, add olive oil and sauté chopped zucchini (2-4, depending on their size), while your pasta is boiling away in a separate pan. Season it with salt and pepper and maybe a touch of smoked paprika (why not). When zucchini is semi-soft, add the green sauce and let it simmer together until the noodles are aldente. Toss the pasta into the skillet, stir, push everybody around, and serve!

Feel free to begin this dish with diced pancetta, letting its rendered fat to be the base for the zucchini. You can also add grated Gruyere cheese at the very end, or Parmesan if you prefer. Melted cheese will help bind your pasta with the sauce, turning the dish into a close-knit family.

Even when you think there’s nothing to eat in your house, think again. Check your cabinets; check the produce drawer in your refrigerator. From my experience, there’s always a lonely fellow left sending out RESCUE ME messages either by a pigeon, or in a bottle, or even coded in Morse, just dying to be devoured with pleasure. It’s just a matter of sautéing or fixing up otherwise.

I’m outta here. Da Vinci is exepcting.

Last weekend was very dramatic for some 40 millions of Poles; not only those who live in Poland, but also for the rest of us scattered all around the world. Life goes on, however, and we must do, too. I’m lucky to have found an optimal way to keep my focus on being productive, whilst learning at the same time.

Remember Da Vinci restaurant I wrote about a few weeks ago? Remember the chef, Jason Fullilove, who had asked me to write a review of his fine dine venue in Beverly Hills? I hesitated for a few days whether I should do it. Boy, am I glad I gave in to my tickled with flattery ego, for I have officially begun my apprenticeship at the restaurant as of last Friday.

How did that come about, you wonder. Well, it’s all about the food with me these days. After my Jason and I were fed the feast of our lives at Da Vinci, I approached the chef himself and threw myself down on to the impeccably clean floor begging to be granted an unlimited access to his kitchen. I needed to see him cook, as I saw there a big opportunity for me to learn from a master. OK, maybe I wasn’t THAT dramatic …on the outside, but in my head I was serenading the chef and sending him fruit baskets and belly dancers straight from the Rio de Janeiro carnival (picture the feathers and nipple tassels!) in order to get my foot in the door. Worked like magic!

I’m all itching to tell you about my experience thus far. Let me begin with stating that I have never worked in a professional kitchen before, or a restaurant in general. As soon as I walked in, I was given a chef’s jacket and an apron, none of which accentuated my svelte figure, dammit. With latex gloves on and my short hair I looked like a 16-year old boy working on his science project for school. Wait, 16 may be a few years too old for that kid to be still sweating over science homework, so I’ll let this photo serve as a cane for your imagination:

Agi at Da Vinci's Kitchen

You see me here prepping a TUNA TARTAR, an assembly of perfectly diced tuna meat later served with lemon saffron emulsion and rye tuile. I may look professional, but don’t let that fool you. I have no idea what’s happening around me. It’s as if I had pushed the door open expecting to enter the kitchen, while I landed in a different galaxy, far, far away from the Milky Way. I heard people talking to me and telling me things I was supposed to be doing and all I could extract in response was QUE? The chef said PEEL AND BLANCH ASPARAGUS to which I was trying to remember what name my mother gave me at birth.

I experienced one of the most severe brain farts in the history of the humankind.

That wasn’t even the hardest part yet. As I soon realized, working in a professional kitchen is all about sweat control. I’ve mentioned the uniform before. Now I’ll walk you through all my layers from the bottom up: *satin thong * leather garter * lace-up bustier * cotton t-shirt * chef’s jacket * steal apron * latex gloves * dull facial expression. Need I say more?

I was first put in charge of chopping an onion and chives, which out of the blue escaladed into cooking the so-called Family Meal (lunch for the entire staff of the restaurant). The chef gave me the ultimate freedom to use anything from the WALK-IN (the refrigerator) and the pantry, and I was on my own. Thus the sweat-fest began.

That whole first day was utterly intimidating, mind-wringing, back-breaking, and absofookinglutely exhilarating. I couldn’t wait for more. And more I got, big time. On day two I entered Da Vinci’s kitchen and froze when faced the door of the WALK-IN. Right there, in front of my green-and-blue eyes framed by a mustache of thick black eyebrows was a list with my name at its top taped to the refrigerator door. The note had a litany of tasks I was entrusted with for the day. I scrolled down the roster:

-       make mango and avocado sorbet

-       make fennel pureé

-       clean and organize the containers in the WALK-IN (there are millions of them in that, that… COLD fridge!)

-       make the Family Meal

-       make a soup for TODAY’S SPECIAL for the restaurant

-       make watermelon consommé

-       scrape salmon.

Come again??? Does it say that I am to cook a soup that will be served to the guests of this fine dining locale?

The pressure and the level of expectation I was bequeathed terrorized my guts. The chef, once again, offered me total independence in the kitchen and I could concoct whatever my shaken soul desired.

In normal circumstances, I consider myself pretty confident in a kitchen, particularly when it comes to making soup. I have it down. By normal circumstances I understand a familiar kitchen supplied with ingredients I have previously chosen and purchased myself, or at least approved. None of which was true at that very moment at Da Vinci. I wandered back and forth between the fridge and the pantry looking for my regular suspects: celery root, carrots, parsnips, leeks, and chicken or veggie stock. I found carrots, onions and celery stalks. There were also two heads of a cauliflower.

Over the next 6 hours I ran amok looking for missing ingredients, chopping, sautéing, simmering, blending, pureeing, cleaning, re-labeling, chopping some more, juicing, freezing, and sweating like a wild hog in a Swedish sauna. One by one I crossed off my tasks from the list on the refrigerator door.

Five o’clock ding-dong announced my CAULIFLOWER SOUP ready to be served. Minutes later the first guests arrived. Orders came in: TODAY’S SPECIAL. Three bowls of the soup went out. Exhausted, but still riding off the leftover adrenaline rush, I kept myself busy impatiently awaiting the waiters to return with empty plates. I needed to know how my soup was received, but I didn’t dare asking. Luckily, I did not need to. Alina rolled in through the swinging doors and delivered with a comforting smile: THEY LOVED THE SOUP!

Swoooossh! A giant stone fell off my chest and banged on the floor. That one sentence at that very moment made it all worth the sweat and sheer terror that accompanied me throughout the day. That’s the best validation any cook or chef can ask for, aside from every penny a client happily pays for our services.

I shall return with more insider’s stories and tips straight from Da Vinci’s kitchen. Right now, however, the water is rapidly filling the bathtub, blue bubbles are bursting violently under the current, and I can hear my name called from the bathroom. I’m going to soak my aching limbs.

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