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Remember my recent interview with Stefan Richter I posted on these pages just last week? Little did I know the article would open the gates to some SUPER KEWL STUFF like making ice-cream with liquid nitrogen.

Ok, so maybe it’s not that titillating and super-duper-exhilarating to you. In America you kids get to play with such cool things at your high school lab. However, in post-communistic Poland, where I pushed myself three levels up the educational ladder, there were no funds for such excess. We had books… lots of books, literature, graphs, exercise books, and then physical education. We shared one projector between many classrooms and we lacked props and toilet paper in the restrooms. It wasn’t that bad. We had electricity.

Um, where was I? The interview, yes. Having read the post, Jason Fullilove, an executive chef of Da Vinci Restaurant in Beverly Hills contacted me inquiring if I would review his fancy joint. I hesitated because, let’s be honest, I’m no food critic. I like food, love making it (the food, too), and I’ve been trying to build a career out of that art form as well. Does that mean I have the right to tell people where to spend their hard-earned dollars on food? Yes. No? Maybe.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to do a quick search. I found Jason Fullilove’s bio along with a description of his new high-end food court in the world-famous Beverly Hills. There it was in black and white, clear as the day, bright as the sun in the morning sky, in the chef’s own words:

“We focus on seasonal ingredients purchased locally, modern cooking techniques – like liquid nitrogen – and hyper modern cuisine to increase the flavor and experience.”

LIQUID NITROGEN. Hello! Instantly, I wanted to get into Jason’s kitchen to play chemistry assistant in his food lab so I could blog about it later. I was sold. Well, to be perfectly honest, he had me at his name. JASON. FULLILOVE. And a chef at that. It just doesn’t get any better. The food MUST be amazing at this place, I thought. I grabbed my Jason The Life-Partner and off we went to Da Vinci.

We were seated at the Dean Martin booth, as the rat pack member apparently was a regular at the venue back in the 70’s.

Dean Martin's Booth at Da Vinci Restaurant in Beverly Hills

The place is proud of its history, for its history is dense and curvy. The owner, who mooned over the main floor throughout the evening, eagerly shared stories with us. I would gladly pass them on to you if it weren’t for the excellent choice of wine we were offered at the table: KENWOOD JACK LONDON 30th ANNIVERSARY, CABERNET SAUVIGNON, SONOMA, 2006 – $13/glass. After the second serving of god’s nectar certain details just didn’t sink in.

Chef Fullilove (I can’t get enough of saying it out loud. Admit it, you’re smitten, too!) came out of his kitchen to greet us and shortly thereafter disappeared behind a pair of SQUEEEEAKY doors adjacent to our booth. Minutes later THE SHOW BEGAN.

Just as you’ve seen a million times in various animated cartoons, a river of crisp white plates appeared floating in a single file line from the kitchen chambers, through the SQUEEEAKY door, around the corner, and straight onto our table. Ok, maybe it was a waitress carrying the dishes, but to me it seemed just as magical as the moving pictures on a TV screen when I was five.

One course after another we ploughed through the feast, starting with a basket of fresh, house-made bread. Let me just pause here for a moment to honor each slice with a minute of silence, as I haven’t enjoyed bread this much since leaving my motherland in Europe close to a decade ago. Chef Fullilove explained to me that the secret to such voluptuous texture and round flavor hides in the amount of time the starter is given to develop, about a month.

We tried and tasted, smacked and swallowed, chomped and chewed through all 175 courses (or so). The festival seemed endless; hence I decided to narrow it down to what we thought were the highlights of the night.

Heirloom Beet Salad w/Humbolt Fog Goat Cheese & Pistachio Vinaigrette

It was more than just a Beet Salad. It was a summer romance you wish could last through winter.

Grilled Asparagus w/Chick Pea Puree & Blistered Teardrop Tomatoes

If you’re anything like me, when you hear Chick Pea Puree, your brain automatically turns toward the Middle East in search of pita to scoop your hummus. You could not be more surprised with this appetizer – it tastes nothing like hummus. It also came with deep fried cherry tomatoes. Their skin was crisp like a chip, while the tomato itself took on a flavor metamorphosis I had never witnessed before. Enticing.

Pan-Roasted Sablefish with New Potatoes and Crab Hash

Perfectly crispy skin covers the most velvety and delectable flesh of this white fish served over new potato and baptized with crab hash. Oh, so luxurious.

At that point, after three additional, house-made pasta dishes (and you know what pasta does in your tummy – EXPLODES!), Jason and I were rapidly reaching the critical point of saturation. Secretly, we slid our hands under the veil of the tablecloth and loosened our belts and buttons hoping to find more storage.

Then we heard a drum-roll and the Royalty arrived.

Colorado Spring Lamb Duo w/ house-cured Lamb Bacon & Fennel Puree

I can’t even begin to describe the perfection of this dish. It’s an ode to lamb embellished with house-cured lamb bacon. The meat cooked perfectly – it melted in our mouths. Each bite was silky and rich, ecstatic and comforting. Chef Jason’s dish bequeathed the lamb a second, and who knows if not better life. I will never forget that first bite. Absolutely brilliant!

When the waitress arrived with the desserts, she had to pull us out from underneath the table where we had slid unable to sit upright any longer. When supine, there seemed to be less pressure put on the walls of our four-chambered stomachs.

Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta with Butter Cookie Crumbs

Decadent and delightful. Impeccable presentation.

The night was spectacular. Not only were we served a superb meal of the highest quality (and well beyond our storage limits), but also, and maybe most importantly, it was a celebration of food in general. It was a feast reminding me of my European roots. Not once were we rushed through the courses. In the end, we spent almost THREE hours at the restaurant being allowed to savor and indulge. The chef himself joined us at last and tasted his own sweet creations. I felt home.

The very next day, I went back to snoop around (with chef’s Fullilove’s permission) Da Vinci’s kitchen. He let me take a few pictures of liquid nitrogen in action. Before my very eyes, with the excitement of a six-year old (that would be me), Jason Fullilove made a batch of Mango and then Green-Tea Ice-cream.

Liquid Nitrogen freezing mango and cheese

Mango in Three States of Being after a treatment using liquid nitrogen

The high pitched squeal you heard last Monday, circa 3:30 pm, was me not being able to hold the excitement inside any longer.

Boy, did we have fun at Da Vinci. Thank you, Jason Fullilove. You truly are full of love and it shows in every dish you create. Bravo!

The francophonic week is over. The spirits of the literary geniuses of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre have fled. Poof. No more Fhench accent for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No more late night intellectual discussions about the benefits of a Thai massage with a happy ending versus a relaxing afternoon at a local strip joint with a lunch buffet.

Laurent and I go way back. We met years ago when I first moved to New York City. I was as naïve as they come, and he was my guide and a companion while I was getting a fast lesson in life in that city that never sleeps. NYC is not for pussycats. We became instant friends. We took trips around the city taking pictures (Laurent is a brilliant photographer, I kid you not. Just take a look at these for a second:

We partied our asses off. He taught me my un, deux, trois’s and Je m’appelle’s. Then he asked me to be a witness at his wedding, after which he left me, jackass, alone in NYC and moved back to Europe with his wife. OK, not quite alone. By then I already had a family of friends and possibly dated a guy, or two. I went to visit the newlyweds in Versailles. Then life happened, winds of change came, Laurent wandered solo from a country to another, got an MBA to complement his doctorate in chemistry, because why not, and three and a half long years went by before I saw him again.

It’s only a miracle that I’m not married and with 12 kids wrapped around my ankles. Hence, I had the time to take Laurent around the Tinseltown and show him where celebrities come to be “stalked” by paparazzi, and “the stairs” in Santa Monica where they get their asses pushed by the personal trainers. When we strolled down Rodeo Drive he concluded: “I’ve never seen so many fake boobs in my life!”

Now Laurent is gone. Bye, bye Loh-hou. All we have left are a few pictures and a memory of the Pahree-inspired dinner I made for my friend’s arrival. Ratatouille. Mmm…

It is a vegetable stew that for centuries was considered a peasant’s meal. The dish got a facelift over the years, and today the Frenchies serve it in their top restaurants as a posh side dish, and adequately charge big bucks for the bite.

I’ve never made Ratatouille before. However, since I’ve just watched the movie “Ratatouille” not long ago, Laurent’s visit prompted me to try it out. I’m notorious for skipping recipes. And even if there is one to guide me, still I tend to take side trips off the beaten track and fook around with the dish. Hence, when I did my “research”, I simply read on Wikipedia what the most common ingredients used in the stew are. Next, I went to the store, bought the veggies, and I was on my own.

Feel free to follow my steps, as the dinner was quite delightful. However, keep in mind the words of the native Frenchie (Laurent) when he took the first taste: “Hmm…, interesting. I’ve never had a spicy ratatouille.” So goes the authenticity of my stew.

Forget the spicy. THESE ARE THE CLASSICAL COMPONENTS OF RATATOUILLE, more or less (hell with the proportions):

–       1 large eggplant

–       4 medium zucchinis

–       1 red bell pepper

–       2 green bell peppers

–       1 large onion

–       6-8 garlic cloves

–       3 medium carrots

–       2 Roma tomatoes

–       14 oz can of tomatoes

–       fresh marjoram

–       fresh basil

–       fresh parsley

–       2 bay leaves

–       splash of red wine vinegar

–       kosher salt and black pepper to taste

–       1 tsp red pepper flakes

–       1.5 tbsp of paprika

–       1 tbsp of ground nutmeg

–       1 tbsp of freshly ground fennel seeds

–       1 tbsp dry marjoram

–       dash of cayenne pepper

–       olive oil

It’s a one-pot dish, but requires some loving. Ok, it’s a royal pain in the arse, because once you’ve chopped and diced and cubed that mountain of vegetables, now you pretty much have to sauté each one separately. It adds up, so you better clear your schedule for the afternoon. Don’t be discouraged, however, as when you’re done, and that beautifully cooked stew oozes off the sides of the herb-infused rice on your plate, the labor pains are just a vague memory and you’re stupidly ready to do it all over again. The joy of creation. The symphony of flavors. The SATISFACTION!

I used my brand new Dutch oven that I got from Jason’s parents for Christmas. The pot was deflowered by a French classic. Can you see how poetic and romantic that is?

First, heat some olive oil and toss the carrots in. Season with salt and pepper. Remember to cut all the veggies in similar size chunks. After about 10 minutes remover the redheads from the pot and set aside in a large bowl. You’ll keep adding more sautéed vegetables to that bowl as you go. Next, go with the eggplant. That guy is soooo flavorless it’s sad, and this is when I got creative and added a bunch of spices (red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and chopped marjoram). Add a splash of red wine vinegar to help you deglaze the bottom of the Dutch oven. Give it 10 minutes and out of the pot and into the bowl. Time for the zucchini, and a little more olive oil if needed. Same thing – season with a touch of salt, some paprika, some nutmeg, and the ground fennel seeds. Last but not least, the bell peppers, and you’re half way there. Stir, sauté until softened, and out.

A touch of olive oil and we’re making the sauce that will bind the circus into a proper stew. Toss your sliced onion into the pot, sprinkle with crashed marjoram, and cook until translucent. Don’t salt the onions just yet, as you want to capture the natural sweetness of the onion and let it condense. Salt would prompt all water to evaporate thus drying out the veg too quickly. Add diced tomatoes and cook them along with the onions. Garlic goes in along with the canned tomatoes. Stir and drop in the bay leaves, toss chopped parsley and basil (a handful of each), taste and season with more paprika, nutmeg, cayenne pepper and a touch of salt and pepper. Remember, you’ve seasoned all other veggies with salt already, so be gentle here.

Bring all the vegetables back into the pot, mix together with the tomato and onion sauce, cover with a lid, and place in a preheated oven (400°) for 30 minutes. And you better keep your mittens on.

Voila! You have just made yourself a beautiful, healthy, vegan, and yet quintessential French meal. If missing a bit protein, use ratatouille as a side dish to your chicken breast or a pork chop. Or better, keep it clean and vegetarian with a thick slice of rustic country bread, or over a bowl of steaming rice mixed with more chopped fresh herbs. (The first night we tried it over spaghetti. Not the best choice.)

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