Showing posts with label U.S. Restaurant Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label U.S. Restaurant Reviews. Show all posts

Nobu Malibu: Life's A Beach

Menu wiht chopsticks sticking out
I look good wet.

Just before reaching shore I dove underwater, then arched my back and exhaled up out of the chilly Pacific, getting my land legs back as I walked a bit unsteadily out of the surf. I wiped the sea water off my face before it could sting my eyes, pushed my open palms across my forehead, and used my fingers to comb my hair back.

My tanned body carried some of the glisten from the sea. I glanced over my shoulder at my beautiful boat, happy to have it but hungry for the food of the sushi gods, Nobu.

Large blue ship at sea

Approaching Nobu Malibu was like walking up to a venerable fortress. By the time I swung the wide wooden door open on its pivot, I'd slipped off my backpack and into a tight t-shirt and loose pants.

The juxtaposition of discipline and flexibility would be appreciated by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa -- he built his worldwide empire on Japanese and Peruvian fusion. Instead of de rigueur edamame, he shot out a plate of Russian Roulette to my table, chancy-hot shishito peppers dusted in sea salt. 

shishito peppers on a white platter

I marveled at how smoothly Chef Nobu turned the dial to the fusion tone -- the flakes of salt had fallen as gently as snow, cooling any heat from the peppers.

The first politely presented menu listed their varied and complex sake choices. My waiter quickly established his Nobu expertise with welcome wine guidance. They once used iced bamboo sake cylinders, but now served their cold hooch in an engraved silver teapot with an innovative ice compartment inside.

One sip of icy sake sends warmth deep into any core, then permeates out of your body causing a goofy smile. I squinted into the bright sun and saw my waiter, who was smart and kind and seemingly happy to be there, making me happy to be there. It might have been the sake.

I had an internal argument about my order. Nobu's food is like a rushed trip to Japan -- sure I want to hit the hot spots I know so well, like his yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno, but I also want to crawl down the side streets of his mind to discover foggy memories of Tokyo now blurred into California reality in a Monkfish paté with Osetra caviar ($22).

A small wooden spoon is offered to dig into the pate which is built solidly as a ship, launched to float in a pool of thick sweet miso. The black pearls of caviar are the salty deckhands. Monkfish livers are huge, so it's wise not to waste them but use them in this dish. The delicate flavor is complemented by Nobu's masterfully smooth blend. As if in my grandmother's kitchen, I ran my spoon along the bowl to gather the remaining caramel-thick sauce.

As each plate is finished, another flies onto the table with the rapidity of a shell game hustle. You want to see who brought it, but the beauty of the food itself is purposefully distracting.

Our waiter navigated our courses with a seasoned expert specificity, letting flavors subtly build. We were a boat rolling on a calm stream and he never let us run into shockingly harsh rapids. Nobu was the first to place a socialite-thin sliver of jalapeno on top of sashimi, ensuring a gracefully spicy complement. That move has been interpreted by sushi chefs globally and, although imitation may be the highest form of flattery, done badly it can bite diners in the taste bud. Become one with the flavor, don't freak people out.

Bigeye & Bluefin Toro Tartar with caviar ($34) is borderline verboten. With bluefin tuna being over-fished, it might soon share the protective ban of foie gras. I rationalize eating it now that we face the possibility that radiation from Japan's nuclear disaster has floated across our shared water. If I glow, it's from this dish in its current, affected state.

raw fish in bowl with caviar on top resting on ice

Toro is the lazy underbelly hitchhiker of the tuna, luxuriously soft from not helping the fish swim. Your wooden spoon glides into what looks like a firm tin of food with the ease and silence of a midnight swim. There's no need to chew. I just raised my tongue up against the roof of my mouth and it dissolved. The icy-cold, spicy-hot, wasabi-laced broth lingered and was eventually cooled by their offering of a sweet, tiny, dark pink Japanese peach.

The bowl holding my discarded peach pit disappeared. The armada of servers glides through the restaurant with a confidence that reminded me of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Here at Nobu, my plates were switched out between each course with a rhythmic precision that almost caused a whoosh. The all-black-clad staff serves in synchronicity, flying around the room with the reflected multiplicity of one mime in a room full of mirrors.

Nobu Malibu has the space for this ballet of service. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa's eponymous Beverly Hills room is tight. In 1987 he popped out of a champagne bottle onto the LA dining scene, and the entire town celebrated and held its glass up to get a taste, and a table. You had to know the host, call a lot, bring a little gift, stay in their good graces. I learned the small unwritten menu of their most treasured dishes a few years later, in the '90s, and kept it on a ragged post-it note I discreetly referred to out of sight of my waiter. It's hard to look slick if you pull out glasses to read a crib sheet.

I love those secret delights, but for this meal I wanted to step out of the Bento box, so I only ordered their unlisted avocado tempura. If you need a physical sign of a chef's genius, this pure and simple perfection proves it. The batter is whipped into a fluffy frenzy and barely clings onto the fruit. As your teeth sink into the creamy avocado, it hits you that you're eating lightly scented air, save for the bounce of resistance you meet from the protective tempura.

I've attempted to spread this tempura sensation across the nation by teaching lesser sushi chefs to make this dish. I've walked behind the line to hold their little startled and puzzled hands through the process, looking like Andy Garcia with a waxed chest guiding Sophia Coppola through gnocchi. Each time, like Godfather III -- epic fail.

My gallant Texan grandfather taught me you have to dance with the one that brung you. And Nobu's Rock Shrimp Tempura with creamy spicy sauce ($25) was born in Beverly Hills and is no fading star.

Have you ever bathed a baby? One has to be gentle but still get the job done. Nobu washes bouncy balls of lightly coated shrimp with the tangy spicy sauce and lays them on a bed of greens and asparagus still delightfully crisp with intention. Life's biggest joys include spending time with an infant and discovering incredible chunks of soft portobello mushrooms laden with the sauce, hidden within this dish.

Nobu has placed Executive Chef Gregorio Stephenson at the Malibu helm, and Chef Gregorio is a strong, inventive leader who sprouted in California, then flourished in Italy. When he returned, his stuffed suitcases burst open and his Italian training exploded all over Nobu's kitchen where he honors the original dishes with loyal fervor, while using his long, lanky arms to grab new ingredients with passion and shake and shake and shake until out pops a creation of his own that soon will slide onto the same legendary path. Italy turns everyone into huggers.

Simple words on the menu, Artichoke Salad ($21), manifested into a heaping fun alternative to a standard salad and arrived light and bright with lemon truffle vinaigrette.

Leeks had been roasted until enough flavor hopped on to hop off onto the mildly earthy artichokes. I was happy to forgo my usual Sashimi Salad # 2 to have this fresh trick from an old dog. The slivers of crispy leeks were slowed down with the lightly sour dressing that Nobu shook on before dispatching it from the kitchen. It's a bit like eating hay, but hay so soft and lovely that it must be reserved for unicorns.

Wolfgang Puck says be nice to Mexicans because they cook everything you eat, even at Spago. So I ate every type of taco they offered at Nobu except tuna and uni -- I'm trying to think positively, currently shunning all "un" words. Minuscule curved shells held marinated bites of cooked Lobster, shrimp, steak and a vegetable filling, like loving hands.

bite-sized tacos

Each was as easy to pick up as a hooker near an ATM, but I do play favorites. At first I only ordered the beef and lobster tacos, and they turned into seven seconds in heaven. I quickly added a request for the shrimp and vegetarian tacos, too. While the vegetable taco was delicious enough to be invited to spend the night, the shrimp was more the snack you'd eat drunk while standing over the sink. The salsa was the powerful pimp, hovering nearby and making sure the dish was everything you desired. Leave $6-$8 on the dresser for every two tacos.

A meal at Nobu progresses into a feast, expertly timed by our enthusiastic, knowledgeable waiter and coordinated with a kitchen that pops food out fast. Plates are dispatched across the room, zooming by on waiters' arms resembling the landing strip at LAX -- luscious food artfully arranged on impossibly large platters paraded by tables filled with thrill-seeking voyeuristic diners.

We moved into entrees as the Squid "Pasta" with light garlic sauce ($20) landed on our chunky dark wood table. Their food might have arrived effortlessly, but it looked complicated and intense. As I picked up a piece of calamari, I held it in the air and regarded it against the lovely ocean it came from -- each delicious morsel was hand-carved to resemble a nugget of al dente pasta. Food is cared-for here, an accomplishment of which they are proud. It's fussed over and offered to you as a gift.

Since we ate with chopsticks, each bite held one item making me pause and appreciate its individual texture while enjoying the flavor penetrating throughout. The mushrooms were splendid.

Nobu was one of the first chefs in Los Angeles to serve Kobe/Wagyu beef, but it costs $34 an ounce. Less may cost more, but it isn't actually more. I was happy to order the plentiful Beef "Toban" yaki ($30).

Each slice of the beef was as tender as filet mignon. The enoki mushrooms hovered on top protectively, but beef raises my aggression so I pulled them away like bedsheets and tore into the beef. The guards of asparagus sidled up to the meat were crunchy and incredibly tasty, but it was the sharp-angled cut that made me pause. An artist's appreciation for food should be respected, and he had honored the vegetable. 

Sunset would arrive soon; I could see the lights on the yacht popping across the bow like firecrackers. I realized it looked better from a distance than it did being on it. The Pacific tide was rolling closer to the shore for the night, hitting the sand at the deck's edge gently at first, looking for a hug.

The waves crashed louder, pounding the shore with the ferocity of an approaching climax. Our meal reached its crescendo at this same moment, laid out on a pure, virginal white platter.

I'll never dine at a Nobu and not have their black cod in miso ($34). I don't care if the world ends; I'll pin a note to a cockroach's back and send it into the very mouth of the apocalypse demanding this fish. If the oceans dried up and were no more, my sad tears from missing just this dish would refill all of the seas.

broiled fish

To see Nobu's crispy, sweet plump cod coming at you is equal to being greeted by your new puppy. It runs up -- you know what's coming and you love it -- and soon he's licking you all over the face with his fat, golden, sticky tongue.

I made a mess of the plate pawing at it oafishly with my chopsticks, looking over my shoulder in case a chef was holding his head in his hands at the sight of my massacre.

I had watched with fascinated admiration an Asian woman eating her sushi next to me. She held her chopsticks near the very top, and she manipulated them like super-long Fu Manchu fingernails. She deftly picked up a piece of sushi then turned it over with a gracefulness I could never mimic. Her movements were a soft light waking me from a nap. As she lifted the fish to her mouth, her lips smiled as they parted, as if she already knew the taste.

Her thickly-lined eyes closed against the harsh sun, making it easy to imagine her a Bond villainess poised to use the chopsticks to kill.

sushi on a white tray

Nobu's sushi is a wonder, but it's the personification of his entire menu and doesn't outshine his other cuisine. Harmony, balance, and excitement resonate though his mind and with each slice of his skilled knife a little of each slides out. I recommend talking to the waiters -- they are among the best in the business and most love the Chef's food as well. I enjoyed fish I'm not offered elsewhere -- not blowfish or whale -- but fluke served in the spicy Peruvian toradito style. 

I tucked into the flaming cauldron of my not-at-all-Japanese strawberry and rhubarb cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream. It was tart, smooth, and delightful.

Someone must have left the kitchen unlocked the night before. Malibu maven Barbra Streisand snuck in and baked till dawn. It's how she unwinds, but she can't bake at home; James Brolin is always on a diet.

Chef Nobu has spread his amazing food across the globe (you can't swing a cat without hitting one of his restaurants -- and no, he's not serving cat) and now he even has a hotel in Vegas.

The Malibu location is stunning, anchored with a roaring outdoor fireplace to warm the star-studded night that matches the sparkly diners. He perched his wide terrace over the ocean so it appears you might be on a ship at sea. In fact, his food can be found on the splashy line of Crystal cruise ships. His intent is the same as any voyage -- as long as you are in his house you don't have a care in the world.

As my lavish dinner came to a close, I realized, once again, that Nobu has achieved cuisine Nirvana. I stood up and politely slid my chair back into place. With a calm resolve, I said goodbye to the beautiful bunch of hostesses posing behind the desk, gathered into a stunning flower arrangement.

I walked out into the cool Malibu night air and into the sea from whence I came. Floating away naked under the moon-bright sky, I burst into flames and moved out to sea as an actualized Hindu pyre. A true mantra was chanted: I am content, I am full, I'll be back.

Nobu Malibu. 22706 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265. (310) 317-9140

Seattle's Art of The Table: You Can Go Home Again....

What's the name of that restaurant so many of us love? You know, the one that's been around a long time, where you eat whatever they happen to be serving? Oh yeah -- Home.

Visiting Seattle, I had the luxurious 9-course tasting dinner ($75) at Art of the Table. It was like having dinner at home. A warm, loving home where the dad works extraordinarily hard yet is still a fantastic storyteller.

In 1900, my grandmother bench-pressed a handcart miles across the Oklahoma Territory when she was four. The windy, West Texas dirt pushed back but she pushed harder and defiantly bloomed into a delicate beauty of a hard-hugging woman who always stopped her stirring to lock me in her arms, soaking me with her love of food.  

a chef at work in his kitchen

I think Seattle's Chef Dustin Ronspies might be my grandmother reincarnated.

I didn't sniff his neck for traces of Shalimar or stare into his eyes for a familiar flicker and whisper, Is that you in there? but I did narrow my eyes to stare at him while I slurped his chilled cucumber soup with shrimp and calamari salad, chili oil, cilantro and octopus jerky.

a bowl of soup

The shrimp and calamari are chopped into bits, waiting to be swirled in the soup like a cowboy dancing a girl around a barn, picking up the accent of spicy chili oil, dotting each spoonful with a crisp two-step bite.

Not that my Texan grandmother ever made this soup, but she had the inventive practicality of a locavore chef. She was also lavish, like Chef Ronspies' food.

As a tot, if I stayed the night and had no pajamas, she foraged in the cupboard, and cut neck and arm holes into a perfectly good pillowcase for me to sleep in. You'll never feel more loved than when treated like a pillow.

During the Depression supplies were limited, so everything got used up, except spirit. At Art of the Table, the crew starts each day with an assessment of what's on hand in the kitchen and what's needed and available locally to make that night's culinary dream materialize.

Then the chef writes a menu for that night, as he's done before every dinner service for six years. He started as a supper club, and expanded as demanded into the 22-seat restaurant. The tasting menu is Friday and Saturday, other nights offer a la carte small plates. Of course some of the ingredients are repeated, but each interpretation varies.

Tonight's vision opened with an amuse bouche of a fried Shigoku oyster with punjabi cabbage, pepper jam and saffron aioli. In my first bite, ginger gently hopped up from the punjabi like a mesmerized snake, proving Chef Dustin a charmer.

fried oyster in a bowl

The oyster wasn't a harshly fried starlet; this dish was treated like a respected legend. A hunky lifeguard rubbed oil on it's plump, sumptuous body, gently bronzing her into an enviable summer tan. At the first bite, the sea's briny discreet whisper spread through my mouth like salty gossip.

I sat at a communal table for eight with two friends, a pair of the country's smartest and most passionate eaters. Although I technically was one with the other five diners, they hovered somewhere in my peripheral distance, allowing me to remain focused on the bright stars in my sight and on my plates.

The next course showed Chef Dustin's brain can shake it up a notch -- salad of beefsteak tomato, cherry tomato, pickle radish, red onion, arugula, chevre croquette, macarona almond, basil oil and citrus vinaigrette.

I put a bit of the crispy fried goat cheese on the edge of my fork and picked up some of the not-an-egg-yolk yellow tomato that smelled like it was picked ten minutes prior. All the bits came together and worked. The chef loves pickling, and the radish and onion were brilliant foreshadowing of tart tastes to come.

The six tastes believed by Deepak Chopra to promote longevity are sweet, sour, salty, astringent, pungent and bitter -- and they were all in this salad, now coursing through my body hopefully carrying that message to the areas scarred by bacon.

Chef Dustin is the intense, molten magma of the restaurant's core. He keeps his diners -- and himself -- right on the verge of explosion. His grilled duck hearts, marinated greens, soubise, crispy apricots, curnips with a ponzu sauce teasingly reads like an epicurean dare.

Were I blindfolded, at first taste I would have slapped my hands on the table and pronounced the meat as tasty beef tenderloin.

The hearts were delicious eaten alone, but the curnips -- bastard children of turnips and carrots -- wanted to be legitimized with a comforting coat of his wonderful, creamy onion soubise. His apricots were impossibly light, surely fried only by the pure fluttering of several free spirits.

I peeked in the kitchen to catch that process, but we all know mythical can't be caught.

The restaurant is warm and close, resembling a comfortable house. Hosting bartender Mitch Palmer poured us in the door with a welcome sweep of his long arms, and kept the room's pace flowing like a hospitable aqueduct. Our table service was flawlessly handled by Lauren, whose broad, sincere smile popped off her sunny face and hit mine like a flavor.

Eat local... eat fresh... eat me... buzzed up from the bowl of Pacific King Salmon, banana fingerling potatoes, haricot vert, fava bean, ginger nage, pickled asparagus and curry oil.

broiled salmon

If I were the chef I'd hate to part with this plate. Pickled asparagus was laid across the top like a gentleman's glove, and pickled green beans served as both a back beat and backbone to the flavors in the course. Chef Dustin achieved fish skin as crispy as that of perfect pork belly, and the interior meat was so tenderly, expertly prepared that it was like something I wasn't supposed to see. The flesh sweetly blushed a hot pink as it left home and was served to ravenous strangers in it's raw, naked, vulnerable, flawless state.

I needed to cool off. Lauren discreetly slid the lemoncello sorbet, basil and cherry salad in front of me. The fresh, drunked-up Washington cherries swam around dodging my eager spoon, cockily revelling in their seasonal maturity.

Pastry Chef Shannon Van Horn found the sweet spot in this basil-laced sorbet. It's right next to savory, above creative and beyond thoughtful. Texture plays with temperature in each bite's bright boozy bounce.

Smoked pork jowl, chick pea polenta, marinated zucchini, tomato jam and pine nut vinaigrette was a new cut of meat for me. Yes, it's fatty, but that mixes with the meat in a logical balance. This cut is like holding a yoga pose for a long time -- you might teeter a bit, but don't over think it. Relax and focus and you'll be rewarded. His chickpea polenta is Julia Child in harem pants.

I was and wasn't surprised to learn that the meat was carefully roasted and monitored by Dustin's brother, Chef Derek Ronspies. They fulfill the mission and purpose of a real family, raising diners who enter as hungry babies and leave strong and better from the experience.

Dinah's camenbert, peppered honey, cumin-morel compote shitake crack, salt and pepper lavash is a cheese course one would find in a sophisticated Parisian restaurant, but when I bumped a bit of peppered honey against the soft cheese and offered my best excusez-moi -- it responded it's all good.  The creamy, mildly pungent cheese was made on nearby Vashon Island.

cheese plate with homemade crackers
Chef Dustin is a mushroom drug lord -- identifiable by the permanent forest of fungi brazenly tattooed on his forearm. His inked-in-crop didn't pop up overnight. He honed his craft as an inventive foraging locavore chef with great technique and good taste, producing his masterpiece snack -- crack shitakes. Crisp and light, and with mushroom's medicinal properties these may be the healing chips of the future. 

This course epitomizes what's surprising about the daily changing menu. Components may be interchanged with others but the resulting flavors always work in perfect harmony, supporting the whole society of the dish.

This was pure Communism at its best with the joy of Socialism.

That little tasty hint Chef Van Horn had dropped in her sorbet earlier reared its gorgeous green head again in my dessert of apricot-frangipane tart, fresh fruits, strawberry sauce, tarragon syrup and basil ice cream.

The mound of basil ice cream next to the tart reminded me of the infamous Seinfeldian assessment of Teri Hatcher's boobs -- they're real and they're spectacular.

The restaurant's policy welcomes you to eat with your fingers and lick the plate. I did both to make sure I got the bits of ground hazelnuts dusted beneath the ice cream, hoping they were hallucinogenic to explain the psychedelic tastes in my mouth.

I held the tiny pie in my hand and took a solid bite through the soft, thick crust, sinking into the sweet fruit and cream inside. If I closed my eyes I'd be sitting in my grandmother's kitchen eating pie, made with pecans she grew and gathered.

Reflection set in... Art of The Table is among the best meals I've had. I hope I haven't had my best meal yet.

If music be the food of love, play on. 

 Art of the Table. 1054 N. 39th Street, Seattle, WA 98103. (206) 282-0942

New Orleans: Mother's -- The South Will Rise And Shine!

I hurry down Magazine Street in New Orleans out of fear. My mind panics with possible scenarios; I do a quick check of my wallet in my front pocket, disguising my twitch as a coach's secret signal to steal third. It's hard to be this sharp this early, but I have to be. My thumping heartbeat stops for a second when a passing car hits a puddle in a pothole, splashing the 7AM morning quiet away.

Rounding the corner to Poydras Street, I close my eyes and use a wish I hope I have: Please don't let there be a line at Mother's restaurant.

Mother's is an experience that sticks with you forever and starts before you eat the food -- so this review tastes a little different.

A choir of angel's voices swells as I see the lone bouncer-looking doorman. I did it. But my struggle's not over. I'm jangled awake as I walk in the restaurant by the silverware banging-diners who look up at me and instinctively cover their food like a protective dog. Long as they're up, they grab a bottle of Crystal hot sauce and dash a few drops on their crawfish etouffe omelette.

The already-present diners and any others in line all makes for a dangerous combination that could mean that Mother's is out of the treasure that I and all these other early rise-and-shiners are here to grab -- biscuits and black. Homemade fluffy biscuits so dense they could be thrown out as the first pitch. Back in the magic kingdom of a kitchen, there's a ham roasting on a rod spinning over a fire and under a watchful eye.

That ham has my name tattooed all over it with its inky black, crisp, caramelized edges. When those bits are all carved off and served -- that's the end of that, until another day, and another ham. Carpe de black-ham.

I count the people in front of me and try to peek behind the line to see how much food is left. I don't plan on settling for a Ferdi Special Po' boy, or the red bean omelette, all very good, but not why I raised my hope and heart rate.

My hungry eyes meet those of a beautiful, future cougar working behind the line. She looks me up and down. What you want, baby? purrs out; she's a woman who can make a pot boil and a man blush.

On a different day I'd tell her I'd like to nuzzle my face in her ample bosom and take a nap, but today I hungrily stammer out my order, Morning ma'am. Biscuits and black and side of roast beef with debris and gravy. And two eggs over easy. She tilts her head and narrows her thickly-lined eyes. I stand up straighter, Oh, and please and thank you. I get waved forward with a swat of her grits-covered spoon.

I pay and shuffle through the ancient door to find a table in one of the rambling rooms with walls that tell stories.

I pass a life-size cadaver of butter sleeping on a tray, and stick my entire hand in it like I'm inseminating a cow. That's only in my mind; I would like to touch it just once though. I sit and stir my chicory coffee, enjoying the chatter of gravel-voiced diners eating off a Hurricane hangover. I'm close enough to the waitress stand to not be overlooked, and I overhear one waitress compliment another's hair. The freshly-tressed pats her head, lamenting, Three hours in the beauty parlor and here I am on my feet working at Mother's on a Saturday.

My plates are dropped off with a motherly Here you go, sugar and I give her back a look that means to be a hug.

Even though the black ham is sticking generously out from all sides, I lift the top of my biscuit to get a confirming peek. I lean in over the bowl of piping hot roast beef and pass my hand over it, waving the aroma towards my face just to feel my lips curl into a smile.

Debris is deliciously opposite from what it is -- the scrapings and drippings and leavings that gather in the pan while the meat is roasting for hours. They are little tiny, odd-shaped flavorful bits that not only a mother could love. That pan isn't deglazed with wine or stock, it's deglazed with love.

I scoop up a heaping forkful of meat like a strong farmer tossing hay into a stall. It drips drops of juice and I wonder how clean the table is and if I should lick it. Not wanting the spanking of bacteria, I let them be, and steer the gorgeous liquid-soaked meat over to top of the ham already sitting on the biscuit, and lay it on thick. Gilding the lily? Nope -- I am mounding a production worthy of a star. I crown it with a firecracker-red spot of classic Tabasco. The gravy soaks down into the biscuit, making every bite as wet as a sloppy kiss.

I've enjoyed lunch and dinner here, too. But there's a different vibe. The food bounces around with a faster rhythm and the bar is lively. It's noisier and crowded -- like your whole family's home. I prefer breakfast, when it's still quiet, and just me, my pokey-up hair and mom. 

I'm dining with someone new to Mother's, who didn't want to be running down this historical street. His mind could only go back ten minutes ago when he was hopping madly around the hotel room trying to fasten his trousers. He barely got one leg in, making him think the Big Easy's food turned him into Fat City. He panicked -- New Orleans was wild but not no-pants wild. At breakfast.

Give me my pants! I demanded as I tossed him his larger pants and grabbed mine.

Now, I watched him eat breakfast as if for the first time in his life. He had jiggly eggs over-easy in skillets that later will fry chicken, proving which comes first. He sees a crew working as a family who cares about Mother's -- for the food, each other and us. The No Tipping policy is hard to obey.

He crossed over to understand Mother's flavor. Once you let the taste of New Orleans roll around in your mouth like a Bourbon Street stripper twirling her pastie-tipped boobies, and let a jazz trombone slide it on down your throat, it gets under your skin and courses through your veins with the permanence of the flowing Mississippi.

In a metaphor for life as thick as the gravy, you enter one door at Mother's and leave through another. You've been all warm and cozy, feeling safe inside the womb-ish dining room's brick-lined walls, then you're spat back into the bright sunlight, onto the dirty streets of New Orleans. Your faith in time-honored traditional regional, down-home country cuisine is born again.

We passed a Mother's disciple outside on a smoke break. My friend, with his new but cocky familiarity of the local ways, bummed a light. The strong Gulf wind blew the flame out twice, but the waitress didn't give up. As he thanked her, I remarked that she must be glad when large groups leave town so she can rest.

Mother's never closes. There'll be a group after you and one on top of that.

But you must've closed after Katrina, I Anderson-Coopered her.

Oh, yeah, Katrina. She looked at me then looked away. I saw things crawl down this street that I never thought I'd see in the city.

What'd you see?

Owls. I saw owls, alligators, squirrels, possums. She took a long drag of her cigarette. I saw an eagle swoop down by my FEMA trailer. Almost snatched my baby.

What would you do if that eagle snatched your baby?

I'd go get that eagle and take my baby back. She stamped out her butt.

That's a mother.

Mother's. 401 Poydras Street, New Orleans, LA 70130 (504) 523-9656.

Hotel Bel Air: Wolfgang Puck -- Fairytales Come True

Brunch becomes a legendary meal with Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel Air, tucked away in a fairytale hideaway replete with live swans floating by like an unattainable woman, or a fluffy dessert.

Quiet, tree-lined Stone Canyon Road sweeps you up and away from trafficky Los Angeles into Puck's perennial midsummer day's forested land. Valet parkers disarmingly dressed as cricket players whisked my car off to a seemingly better place. I sniffed as I strolled through the gardens to the restaurant. Is the air better up here? It seemed sweet, fresh and inviting.

The hotel gives Puck's food a fantastic opening act. He carries the rest of your movie star dining experience like the blockbuster he is.

Jazzy Joe LoPiccolo plays you softly into the main dining area with his appetizingly unobtrusive live guitar music. Tables are nestled next to thick vines of luscious candy-colored bougainvillea. The main seating area is under a sun-diffusing canopy, resulting in flattering, soft light as if placing the diners in a well-lit movie. This is a room and an event worthy of a special occasion like Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, or today.

Propose here, grow old together here -- just pull your director's chair up and tuck in. The fun bartenders will shake you awake with a Bloody Carrot cocktail, or a tequila-spiked Bloody Maria. As I sat a moment while my table was being readied, they stirred everything with a smile and squeezed in a wink.

I love that for me at least, their dirty martini had a dirty joke sidecar.

I need brunch to be a meal that supports a total lazy Sunday habit and not make me think. I'm willing to eat at my desk and work through lunch and then roll my sleeves up at a shabu shabu dinner, but the languid, mid-day brunch is sacred.

This is the weirdly-timed meal that straddles breakfast and lunch. If you're an early riser and you've already wolfed down eggs by the time this meal rolls around, they offer sweet blintzes here, and pancakes.

If you pastried it up since sunrise, Puck's fairies have savory flavors such as a Black Angus burger slathered with Shallot-Jalapeno Marmalade so fantastic that it must be made my some kindly old grandmother they have chained to the canning vat in the kitchen.

You can also have oatmeal and fruit if your pacemaker rats you out for just looking at the Chilled prawn cocktail with spicy tomato horseradish and herb aioli or the Huevos rancheros con black beans, ranchero Salsa, avocado and cotija cheese.

The menu is simply presented on two facing pages -- choose one course from the left and one from the right. An icy glass of champagne or a crisp Bellini, included in the brunch's $68 price, is slipped into your hand to make sure you sit back and chillax.

I got a foreshadowing of dessert in the sweet and savory breadbasket baked by whimsically talented Pastry Chef Cassie Ballard.

I was brunching with my 5-year-old niece, and as soon as she spotted the unicorn-horn baguette Chef Ballard stuffed in the basket, she gave the baked goods a tiny but mighty thumbs up.

I started with Tortilla soup with crema fresca, grilled chicken, avocado and Guajillo chilies. I lived in Dallas where Chef Dean Fearing fearlessly introduced con mucho gusto Southwest flavors, so I am protective of what he accomplished. I'm ready to kick the ass of an offending interloping chef who misinterprets this lovely Mexican soup.

But one look followed by one spoonful and I was ready to kiss the ass of Hotel Bel Air's Chef Sonny Sweetman. That sweet man got it right. He must have stirred in the cumin while slow dancing to Bolero. The grilled chicken was so tender that it was hard to tell it from a chunk of avocado.

The texture of this soup is so important -- the tortillas have to be ground so fine that you have no idea they are even in it. They must have churned through a powerful blender stolen off a jet made by Rolls Royce. I grabbed the edge of a crisp tortilla strip and dragged it through the broth of roasted chilies to pick up all of the other components.

I was glad to not go into the kitchen and have a come-to-Jesus meeting over Southwestern cuisine on a Sunday, mostly because I was too comfortable in the cozy private both overlooking the lush, fern forest of a garden. The swans would miss their view of me.

Just as this classic restaurant has been updated in beautiful good taste, the Maryland Blue Crab cakes bumped up against mounds of basil pesto aioli and tomato relish are a call back to the classic days when crab cakes still starred Crab.

These were no has-been crab cakes, you know the type -- stuffed like an aging star's face with filler and sawdust. The crab meat was as loose and lovingly chunky as a slutty overweight actress. I could have given each forkful a name had I eaten slower. The thick slashes of basil pesto aioli held my bites together as I bid them adieu and into my mouth. The hard time Chef Sweetman served in Maryland restaurants paid off.

Our table was being handled with precision by Jennifer. She knew every detail about every dish; she let us know what was coming with each course, preventing us from making the dreaded menu item double-dip. Her lips turned up into a smile easily, and often. Her accommodating, professional attitude was as refreshing as a bite of warm strudel after being lost in the Black Forest.

My niece shrieked as she innocently pulled a chocolate muffin out of the basket that had been savagely bitten in half by an ogre and then casually tossed back in the basket. But all was well -- it was just an ogre in her father's clothing.

The Egg white frittata filled with asparagus & sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese and caramelized shallots is whipped into a middle-of-the-road compromise of a dish.

The eggs were soft and light, obviously fluffed by the wings of hummingbirds fluttering nearby on the edge of the good Bernardaud china. Creamy goat cheese is such a good pairing for herbed egg dishes.

We ordered the Thai style chicken salad, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, Napa cabbage & ginger-lemon grass dressing, and it was good. The dressing was the star but she was a little heavy for a delicate Thai girl salad. It made me long for Puck's Chinois Chicken Salad.

I might have preferred the Lobster Cobb salad full of avocado, chopped egg, point reyes blue cheese, smoked bacon and balsamic vinaigrette. If I'm going to Fatty Heart Attack Hell, I want to ride a rich lobster gurney whose wheels are greased with bacon.

Honey-haired beauties have long swum in the hotel's pool, including Marilyn Monroe, seen here in these round golden globes of Hotel Bel Air Benedict: poached eggs atop a white cheddar biscuit swimming in maple hollandaise.

Like a new starlet from the Midwest, the eggs are fresh off the farm. The rich, orange color of the yolks came spilling out like hot sunshine.

A sweet hint of maple lingers a bit, a delicate balance to the tart sauce. A thin layer of tomato coulis spread onto the in-house baked, oh-so-much-better-than-an-English-muffin biscuit, makes this dish the girl with something extra.

My Pan roasted Alaskan halibut with wild field mushrooms, wild sorrel, English peas and Meyer lemon sauce had been made with commitment.

It was crackly on the outside and buttery smooth inside, fearlessly prepared. This fish hit a skillet that was so hot it made a loud sssssssssssizzle, startling the jam-making granny.

This chef knows how to fry fish, fried-chicken crispy.

Jennifer slid graceful, swan-necked glass teapots onto the table to gently segue us into dessert.

Laying back in the cushioned, private booth, images of tanned pool boys hand feeding maidens popped into my head as fresh as the plump, juicy, local berries Jennifer brought, which I plopped into whipped cream.

The quenelles of raspberry sorbet resting on a baked meringue disk are like a chubby little pink princess dancing at the ball, standing on the top of her daddy's shoes.

As soon as it was placed on the table, I greedily ate the tiny nugget of gold perched atop the apple tart. It was just enough for me to claim that I will always have gold coursing through my veins. The pastry was as flaky as this town, only the caramel sauce kept it together. The molten chocolate cake oozed sin, and I ate it up.

The banana ice cream covered the shiniest star of the course: thin slices of ripe banana that had been kissed by a sugary angel and then brûléed to a brilliant candy crunch.

I didn't want to leave. But the proverbial clock struck midnight as the valet opened my coach door. I crawled in and it turned back into a pumpkin as I drove down the winding canyon. My fantasy screeched back to reality in a halting traffic jam on Sunset Boulevard. Noisy firetrucks tended to an accident most likely caused by horrible driving wicked stepsisters.

To see my niece watching her first, live and private performance of Swan Lake with a front row seat made me believe in fairy tales. A moment like that can make me believe in everything.

If anyone finds a slipper in the garden, I dropped it.

Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel Air. 701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles, CA 90077 (310) 472-1211