Aug 2009

California Spirit Gourmet Gala XXV

Fine dining is always a pleasure, and when a great cause benefits, it’s even better. Founded by Wolfgang Puck, Sherry Lansing, and Barbara Lazaroff, California Spirit is a much-anticipated event with a well-established reputation as one of the most prestigious charity galas in California. Now in its twenty-fifth year, California Spirit donates all proceeds to the American Cancer Society, the nation’s largest private, not-for-profit source of funds for cancer research.

This past Sunday, over 650 Angelenos gathered at the Pacific Design Center for the annual event. While mingling and bidding the evening away, the charitable crowd was treated to a bevy of gourmet bites and premium California wines.

Whereas the restaurants that participated in Angeleno magazine’s Chefs Night Out event offered a single dish, the restaurants this evening prepared anywhere from two to five delights—Hats off to Chef Bill Bracken of The Island Hotel in Newport Beach for executing three savories and two desserts!

With so much deliciousness available, the sane move would have been to pick and choose from a few notable vendors. However, I was feeling rather ambitious, so I aimed to taste them all. Thank goodness The Astronomer was in tow, or else I would’ve been clutching my belly in the fetal position before hitting the halfway mark.

Beacon Restaurant in Culver City was the vendor closest to the check-in tables and thus, our first stop. Chef Kazuto Matsusaka was on hand to serve up summer corn soup with coconut and bacon (top, right); grilled yellowtail tacos with shiso, pickled ginger, and tomatillo salsa (left); and open-faced grilled lamb sliders with kimchee and feta cheese (bottom, right). All three dishes were thoughtful, tasty, and fitting of Beacon’s “Asian cafe” concept.

With such great food and friendly service, I was curious as to why I had never heard of the restaurant. One of Beacon’s workers commented that media coverage of Los Angeles’ restaurant scene tends to focus on grand openings and as a result, established restaurants often faded into the background.

Next, we moseyed over to Beacon’s neighbor Mélisse, where Chef Josiah Citrin offered up “shrimp cocktail” (top) and 48-hour short rib (bottom). The shrimp cocktail was a deconstructed affair with little shrimps floating in a gelee of horseradish and tomato. Although refreshing, I would’ve preferred more shrimp and less cocktail. The sous vide short rib was served on a bed of heirloom tomatoes and drizzled with chimichurri. The texture was spot-on, but the overall flavors were mundane.

Chef Vernon Cardenas of Sushi Roku made baby sardine (bottom, left) and spicy tuna handrolls (right) to order, and had shrimp shooters (top, left) on hand to chase it all down. The handrolls were a little heavy on the nori and skimpy on the filling, while the shooters weren’t particularly memorable. I was expecting a stronger showing from Sushi Roku since its sister restaurant Katana nailed it at Chefs Night Out.

Chef John Cuevas of Montage Beverly Hills kept it simple with a single cherry tomato dipped in basil creme friache (left) and a shot of gazpacho (right). Thumbs up for approaching the task at hand in a seasonal manner, but thumbs down for a general lack of zing.

The Island Hotel in Newport Beach brought their A-game. The former Four Seasons property served shrimp sliders with sides of taro chips and black truffle macaroni and cheese. The Astronomer fell hard for the burger and likened the innards to shrimp dumplings. With the intoxicating essence of truffle permeating the perfectly al dente pasta, the mac and cheese had me at first bite.

Chef Roberto Maggioni of Locanda del Lago had the unfortunate task of following up The Island Hotel. The tortellini de barbabietole (left)—red and golden beet tortellini with poppy seeds and extra virgin olive oil—were pretty to behold and pleasant to eat. The vitello tonnato (top, right)—roasted and sliced veal tenderloin in creamy tuna-caper aioli—tasted like canned tuna perched upon a Ritz cracker. For dessert, messy profiteroles filled with amaretto cream were served (bottom, right).

The third slider of the evening came courtesy of chefs Ari Rosenson and Josh Brown of Wolfgang’s CUT. The steak sliders with caramelized onions and arugula were bursting with flavor and perfect from every angle.

My favorite bites of the night were prepared by Chef Jason Travi of Riva and Friache. The lamb tartare (left) with saffron yogurt and taro chip was totally unique and definitely delicious. The tender cubes of raw lamb mingled lusciously with the fresh mint and saffron yogurt. The albacore tuna parfait (right) with avocado and tomato foam offered a fresh take on seasonal ingredients.

One of the restaurants I was most looking forward to scoping out was Chinois on Main, Wolfgang’s Asian fusion outlet. Chef Rene Mata served up (clockwise from top left) Japanese seafood pancakes, a salad of heirloom tomatoes and blue crab, Chinois chicken salad, and Korean style short ribs. Even though the Chinois chicken salad seemed totally dated, the flavors had a timeless quality about them that I could still appreciate. The ribs and pancake, on the other hand, could use a tune-up.

Chefs Lee Hefter and Thomas Boyce of Wolfgang’s flagship Spago in Beverly Hills offered up cornmeal dusted soft shell crab sliders with a sweet corn salad on the side. As expected, the slider was flawless executed and tasted nearly perfect, even with the crab’s willowy legs dangling about. The sandwich’s pickled peppers cut the deep-fried factor nicely.

The final savory bites of the evening came from Red Seven, Wolfgang’s restaurant at the Pacific Design Center. Chefs Matt Bencivenga and Ben Hong served soft shell crabs with a miso chile sauce and mesclun greens. A frothy and sweet carrot cocktail made with liquid nitrogen was a fitting accompaniment.

The Island Hotel went all out with their desserts as well. The retro whoopie pies (left) and cute-as-can-be smores tacos (right) had the crowd swooning in a sea of sugar.

Chef Jason Travi (Riva, Friache) offered a beautiful plate of milk chocolate with coconut marshmallow, brown butter paste, chocolate Krispies, and a swipe of ganache. Gorgeous plating and wondrous flavors had me contemplating going back for another.

Sherry Yard, executive pastry chef for Wolfgang’s empire, served snow cones and ice cream cake from a bar carved from a huge block of ice.

I had a ball attempting to sample every dish at the event, but fell short by one vendor—Angelini Osteria was passed over for serving an uninspired salad. When all was said, auctioned, and eaten, California Spirit XXV raised $620,000 for cancer research, free local education programs, and cancer patient services. Three cheers for great food and philanthropy!

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9 thoughts on “California Spirit Gourmet Gala XXV

  1. Girl, you are a “live fast die young” kind of eater. But I salute you for your grit.

    That slider from CUT looks great – but what’s with the emphasis on meat and fish/shellfish? It’s interesting to note the absence (mostly) of fowl.

  2. there’s a japanese restaurant on convoy in san diego called tajima that serves the seafood pancakes… my fiancee and i got combo pancakes (oyster, crab, pork… profit?). they topped it with fish flakes, which move around on top of the food like there’s a breeze in the room. it’s a really fun thing to look at, but basically tastes and sits like a brick in your gut.

  3. now this is a food fest..looks and sounds like a great event. some friends and i went to the Korean BBQ cookoff this past weekend and sad to say it was rather disappointing. But once we surveyed the scene we hightailed it out and still had a good time in Ktown anyway.

  4. okay, you def need to write “insatiable: the sequel”. that crab slider looks so yum and that whoopie pie choked me up a little. i’ve gotten a hold of myself but i won’t be looking at them fotos again. too dangerous.

  5. I saw that your fave bite of the evening was from Fraiche. I have a funny story about that restaurant. When Nick, my friend Joanna, and I ate there our waiter was unimpressed by us until Nick ordered the blood sausage appetizer and the rabbit entree. After that, he would specifically ask Nick what he thought of things, and even put his hand on Nick’s shoulder while still pointedly ignoring us girls. It was hilarious.

  6. wow, you living the good life right there. how much did this all cost btw?

    and lol @ andy. i know what you’re talkin about.those wriggling flakes made me kinda sick, looking at them, but the food is delicious.

  7. Fiona – Interesting observation about the meat selection. I wasn’t missing fowl one bit, but I was getting tired of tomatoes about halfway through!

    Andy!!
    – So happy you’ve joined the dialog at GASTRONOMY! It’s been forever, right? Bonito flakes are trippy, indeed. Have you been to Jasmine for dim sum? It’s on Convoy too and a family favorite.

    RC – Man, food festivals are getting trampled these days. Remember the Great American Food and Music Festival? Now, that was an epic disaster. I’m glad to hear that you had a kick ass time in K-town anyway. That’s the spirit!

    Sook – I don’t know what it is about these events, but I just get super competitive and want to eat EVERYTHING. It’s me against the gala!

    Sharon – Nick is a man of impeccable taste. When I finally meet him, I will ignore you and only talk to him. You have been warned.

    Sawyer – This swanky affair was priced at $350 a head. As a member of the press, I attended for $0. And as a partner of the press, The Astronomer was free as well.

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