Desperately Seeking Restaurant: Must have excellent food & good prices. Must be casual, have great service and lack attitude & pretension.
That's what I'd fill out if I went on a restaurant matchmaker service. Yup, I'm more of a hole-in-the-wall type of girl. Since I'm more about the food and less about the atmosphere, you won't typically find me in a trendy, chichi place. Give me Sam Woo over Spago any day.
So that's why I was a little wary of picking A.O.C., one of Los Angeles Magazine's Top 25 Los Angeles Restuarants, for girls night out. Not that I don't trust LA Magazine's taste in good eats, but alot of these places tend to become too hyped after making the magazine's cut--less about the food, more about the scene. I've also heard stories that one needs to reserve about 2 weeks in advance to get a table here on the weekends. *Oh my* Nevertheless, I love small plates, I thought I'd bring the girls out with me to try and meet Mr. Right. I called about a week ago to make reservations for this past weekend. No problem.
A.O.C., standing for Appelation d'Origine Controlee, the French laws applied to wines, eaux-de-vie, dairy, and farm products to ensure quality and regionality, is the second of Suzanne Goin's (of Lucques fame) and Carol Styne's endeavors. Specializing in small dishes with both California and Mediterranean flavors, the idea behind this wine and food bar is to allow the diners to try many new and different flavors and pair them with their favorite wines.
My girls and I walked into A.O.C.'s lofty space via the heavy, austere-looking front door. We'd just come from a full day of shopping, so we were all tres casual--jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops to be more specific, but looking as un-LA chic as we were, we were still greeted with a smile and seated promptly at our dark leather banquette. Our minimalist section of the dining room was separated from the main bar area and featured soaring windows and mirrors that seemed to watch over us as we ate. Okay, so far so good for looks and smile.
Soaring To Lofty Heights
Now to the important stuff, let's cut to the food, shall we? To get straight to the point, everything we tried was simply amazing. We chose a little of everything from their three main menus: "cheese", "charcuterie" and "from the wood burning oven." As we waited for our orders, we grazed on the bread, black olives and harissa on the table. The harissa really caught our attention--really good we thought--but what does it remind us of? Finally, we concluded that this traditional Tunisian paste made of Ancho chiles and spices reminded us of gochujang, a spicy Korean pepper paste that we're more familiar with, and pictured the chefs going shopping at Hannam Chain Supermarket for jars of gochujang.
Bread, Olives and Harissa
But ANYWAYS, we started with a wonderful salad of cucumber, avocado and green goddess dressing. The green goddess dressing was rich and herby, with a unique asiany taste that we couldn't quite place our fingers on, and complemented the coolness of the cucumbers and avocado nicely.
Cucumbers, Avocado With Green Goddess Dressing
Next, our 3 cheese plate...il tronchetto dei guelfi (Lombardy, Italy): a cow's milk cheese with a mild, nutty flavor, reblochon (Savoie, France), a rich, softer-than-brie cow's milk cheese, and a roquefort gabriel coulet (Aveyron, France), a blue cheese that was, well, fucking strong but excellent eaten slowly to offset many of the other flavors on the table. Including the plate's red walnut and fig garnish and...
Three Cheese Plate
...the marinated olives. We couldn't get enough of the gratis olives on the table, so we decided to order more. This time, a combination of green and red olives that were of the perfect saltiness and bite. My friend made a likeness of Ike, Kyle's egg-headed baby brother from South Park, out of one of the olives. Immature for playing with our food, you say? So what? We know how to have fun, so fuck off. Hee hee, just kidding.
Assorted Marinated Olives
The roasted dates stuffed with parmesan and wrapped with bacon was one of my favorite dishes of the night. I mean, what an unusual flavor combination. But I looooved how the crispiness and saltiness of the bacon offset the tenderness and sweetness of the date which offset the saltiness and nuttiness of the parmesan. A really small bite of heaven. Sorry, I'm not posting a picture. I was so excited about the dates that the photo came out all blurry from my hands shaking so much.
I also loved the next dish, a kind of open faced sandwich made of a base of grilled brioche, and topped with proscuitto, gruyere cheese, frisee and a grilled egg. A nice harmony of textures going on here. The garlicky brioche and cool frisee were crisp while the egg, proscuitto and gruyere lended a richer substantiality. A really well done dish.
Brioche With Prosciutto, Gruyere and Egg
The flavor in the mussels with roasted tomato and morcilla was kick ass. I've never had morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) before, but I believe that it really added some depth to the sauce that the small but fresh mussels were bathed in. Sticking out of the bowl was a piece of grilled garlic bread that was perfect for mopping up the sauce.
Mussels With Roasted Tomato and Morcilla
The grilled skirt steak with green garlic aioli wasn't on my top things to order as I'm not a big fan of the more-on-the-tougher-side skirt steak, but this one was juicy and tender. The biggest praise I have for this dish though is the bed of arugula it lay on, whose mild peppery flavor went so well with the juicy steak and garlic aioli.
Grilled Skirt Steak With Green Garlic Aioli
Next were a couple of veggie dishes: english and sugar snap peas in butter and mint and cauliflower, curry and red vinegar. The peas weren't the best dish of the night for me as I'm not a big fan of mint but they did have a nice bite. The cauliflower was, however, really, really good. They reminded me of one of my favorite Indian dishes, aloo gobi, sans the potatoes and a little drier and smokier. Very tasty.
English and Sugar Snap Peas With Butter and Mint
Cauliflower, Curry, and Red Vinegar
My absolute favorite dish of the night though was the braised pork cheeks with horseradish gremolata. A few of the girls were iffy about this one when I ordered it--I mean, who wants to eat Porky Pig's face, right? But I'm telling you, these were melt-in-your-mouth tender with a nice, hearty, almost anise-y flavor. I couldn't really taste the horseradish, but the dish was so rich in flavor by itself that I didn't care.
Braised Pork Cheeks With Horseradish Gremolata
What's great about A.O.C. is that they have over 50 wines you can buy by the glass or carafe, so you can really afford to taste and experiment. We ordered 2 carafes to try: the first carafe was a California Central Coast Pinot Noir by Arcadian Vineyards. Year? I don't know. They swiped the wine list away before I could look at it to write stuff down. Yeah, whatever. Shut up. What I do know is that this was one of the best pinots I've ever had. It had me from the first sniff, where the hints of cherries and berries gave an idea of what was to come. The wine itself was very well balanced, smooth yet spicy. The next carafe was a Bordeaux from Chateau Reignac. Again, I'm a loser, I didn't get a chance to get more info in this one, including the year and blend. I can tell you that this was another winner: full bodied and dense, complex with oak-y and fruity flavors, in my opinion. Went really well with the pork cheeks and the roquefort cheese. So you can already tell that I'm not a wine expert by any means, right? But I do know good from bad. And these were great.
Our Almost Empty Carafe of Bordeaux
For dessert, we said what the heck, let's just try everything, so we ordered 5 out of 6 desserts on the dessert menu. My favorites were the Alain Blanc Manger with Cherry Compote, a light almond-y panna cotta sitting on top of a sugar cookie served with a sweet compote of black cherries on the side, and the spanish milk chocolate roulade with toasted almonds, a silky smooth roulade made of sponge cake and chocolate whipped cream covered in a glistening chocolate ganache. We also ordered a mixed berry galette and a berry gratin, which were good but kind of tasted of the same berry, crumbly, a-la-mode-y fashion, and the ice cream du jour, a caramel ice cream served with 2 pillowy chocolate cookies.
Alain Blanc Manger With Cherry Compote
Spanish Milk Chocolate Roulade With Toasted Almonds
*Whew!* That was a lot of food to describe huh? The price was a little more than I spend for dinner on a normal day--we ended up paying $40 per person after tax and tip--but for all that food, wine and dessert, I thought it was a pretty damn good bang for the buck. Well last but not least, the atmosphere and service at A.O.C. were, to me, the clincher. Our server, though looking like your typical actor wannabe, was very friendly and knowledgeable about the menu. He was honest--he wasn't one of those servers who tries to push more food on you when asked "Do you think that's enough for us?" He was attentive without being overbearing or rushing us. In fact, one of the things I enjoyed most about the evening was that the restaurant really creates a pleasant atmosphere for its customers. Like a well-oiled machine, everything seemed like it was paced perfectly: each dish was brought out one or two at a time instead of all at once like many small plates restaurants do, allowing us to savor the character of each dish. The six of us felt like we were part of a gourmet tasting panel, each putting our two cents in about the dish we had just tasted while also continuing with our normal conversations. Looking around the room, it seemed as if the other tables were having just as much fun enjoying good food, wine and each other's company.
So yeah, this one's got good taste, is friendly & fun, is sophisticated but not snobby, is about quality not quantity. I think it's a match made in heaven. Yeah, this one's a keeper for sure.
8022 W. 3rd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048