El Quinto Piño review

El Quinto Piño

El Quinto Piño

The mere expression “Spanish tapas bar” instantly conjures up a very familiar expectation of a Spanish inspired, small-plates snack bar. It is therefore brave and admirable for Alex Raij and Eder Montero to create a derivative in their Chelsea slither of a bistro – El Quinto Piño, that’s just as traditional as it is bold and quirky. The charming comedor room off of the curved bar feels familiar and intimate in its simple understated design, with mismatched chairs, interesting lighting and a large sound-absorptive woven tapestry.

Nuestras Bravas - El Quinto Piño

Nuestras Bravas

The large menu features sufficient “usual-suspect” dishes to satisfy the purists intent on reliving that distant Spanish vacation (or the opportunity to show off their international-ness to their less-travelled friends). In addition there are a few bold spinoffs that improve on the original, and a couple of quirky creations to bolster interest (and stars) amongst the food critic literati. While most of the menu undergoes periodic regional rotation to retain freshness and an element of the unexpected, there are a few permanent staples that are mentioned on a variety of must-try lists.

Croquetas - El Quinto Piño


No tapas bar in its right mind would ever dare open its doors without the mandatory Nuestras Bravas (fried potatoes trickled with spicy aioli), Pan amb Tomaca (tomato and garlic rubbed bread with salt and olive oil) and those crusty shelled, delightfully creamy potato and Serrano ham Croquetas – all of which are as reliably delicious as they are popular and more than make up for the somewhat bashfully-flavored and under-toasted shrimp and squid Fideúa (Valencia short noodle paella).

Uni Panini - El Quinto Piño

Uni Panini

On the bold side, creating a po’ boy styled Bocadillo de Calamar has all the best flavors of delicately fried and exquisitely crispy squid legs, adding crunch and sweetness to a tightly wrapped vegetable sandwich. I would also have to concur that the Uni Panini deserves its position as one of Eater.com’s Top 20 sandwiches in all of New York. But while I adore the flavor of sea urchin, I wish someone could have warned me about the lightning-bolt shock of sinus-clearing mustard!

Fideúa - El Quinto Piño


And finally some of the quirkier options that include the Arroz Brut de Conejo, which is a cabbage stuffed with rabbit meat and rice, or the crispy and rather harshly intense ocean-floor surprise taste of sea anemones cooked into soft scrambled eggs known as Revuelto de Ortigulla.  The proof that Raij and Montero have solidly catered to just about everyone’s culinary comfort zone is directly proportional to the persistence required to snag a table.




République, Los Angeles review



If reinvention is as American as Apple Pie, then the capital would have to be Los Angeles – where dreams are made, shattered and reconfigured between a jog through Runyon Canyon and a tall, wet, white, decaf, no-foam, percent, vanilla latte on Sunset Plaza. Like any other business, restaurants are hardly immune to the competitive pressures of new entrants and fickle loyalties – regardless of how unrelenting their meteoric success might have been. While cooking-show super stars were being created a mere mile up the road, no one noticed that the first darling of SoCal’s seasonal-sustainable discipline, Campanile, fell victim to waning interest. But the good news is that République has breathed brand new life into what was once the Charlie Chaplin building on the edge of Hancock Park. Walter Manzke (formerly of L’Auberge Carmel, Patina and Petty Cash Taquería) has performed a spectacular transformation, not only with tiles from the Philippines, wood from Thailand (for the lengthy communal tables and even lengthier charcuterie boards) but also by cracking the cloistered space wide open, and relocating Chaplin’s iconic tiled fountain to enhance the super-bistro’s curb appeal. Manzke and pastry-chef wife Margarita have created robust-flavored pan-European plates from France to Alsace to the Italian Riviera (and beyond) accompanied by an exclusively French yet approachable wine list with a handful of cheerfully curious cocktails that include Absinthe, Serrano chillies and Pandan leaves as ingredients.

Grass-fed Beef Tartare - République

Grass-fed Beef Tartare

As you walk in, a very respectable selection of bi-coastal oysters greet you (where the bakery used to be) along with a tempting glimpse of pre-baked dessert tarts and a row of imported tulip-bulb shaped dollops of fresh Normandy butter. The menu is broken down more by kitchen department than digestive courses, with separate sections for Bread, Steak Frites and Savory Tarts. Most portions are sharable and the wait staff shines at taste timing and course choreography. And here’s the best part, not only is the shelf-life for any menu item dictated by its availability, but many of the preparations are frequently reinvented (I assume due to diner indifference or kitchen fatigue or both) leaving a menu perpetually brimming with highly popular and difficult-to-make decisions.

Tasmanian Sea-Trout Crudo - République

Tasmanian Sea-Trout Crudo

Must-have starters include the pastry covered Escargot, the Thai-inspired Charcoal-grilled Prawns and two incredibly flavorful crudos: the impeccably balanced Hamachi with fire and freshness from pineapple, passion fruit and fresh jalapeño, and the lightly smoked Tasmanian Sea-trout in a wonderfully light (yet creamy) leak-and-potato mousseline (whipped egg-white sauce) with green apple gelée. Our waiter very accurately defined the Grass-fed Beef Steak Tartare as follows:  “They didn’t reinvent it or anything – they just nailed it!” And nail it they did with dill pickled onions and a take-no-prisoners mouth-watering tarragon aioli.

Nueske's Bacon Tart Alsacienne - République

Nueske’s Bacon Tart Alsacienne

The Nueske’s Tarte Alsacienne is a traditional, thin-crusted savory flatbread drenched in melted gruyere cheese over soft caramelized onions and heavenly strips of chewy bacon.

The rich, sweet and juicy Australian Lamb Rack is presented in a cast iron pot over nuggets of lamb shank and a wintry mix of beans, tomato and zucchini. As a side, we had to sample the irremovable menu fixture Wood Oven Roasted Brussels Sprouts, which are deliciously browned with apple-wood bacon and a soft poached egg.

Australian Lamb Rack and Shank - République

Australian Lamb Rack and Shank

Most of the desserts include seasonal fruits as inspiration around tarts, pastries and puddings, and the cheese menu includes local and European options with a couple of seldom-seen raw-milk choices.

Mirabelle Plum Tart - République

Mirabelle Plum Tart

And so while it’s tough to let go of my many recollections of Campanile and their impossible-to-get-into Thursday night grilled-cheese heyday fests, I couldn’t help finding myself in total embrace of brand new memories at République.





Dining in Brussels

La Villette

La Villette

Belgium has always enjoyed a respectable (if somewhat unadventurous) culinary reputation, thanks to its border with the Netherlands and France. On one hand, some say that the local cuisine is classic French cooking served up in Dutch-sized potions, whereas for the vast majority of the chewing world, the only dishes that come to mind are Waffles, Beer, Moules Frîtes (mussels and fries) and of course my relentless weakness – chocolate. (More about that in a subsequent blog)



Not to be outdone by any other European city, Brussels has its fair share of serious eats, modern surprises and tourist traps. There isn’t a single visitor to the city who doesn’t arrive armed with the name Chez Leon as a recommendation from a cousin’s neighbor’s aunt’s sister’s hairdresser’s boyfriend’s therapist. Located on the awning-covered, light-bulb-string-illuminated, beggar-inhabited Rue de Bouchers, the only way to describe the Moules Frîtes at this Belgian institution – is institutional! If the boredom of the wait staff is any indication of how the cooks must feel every time a red-eyed, jet-lagged backpacker orders the exact same dish, it’s no surprise you’re left with a relentlessly lingering aftertaste of salty leaks. For a more pleasantly memorable Moules Frîtes experience, the delightful bistro on Sainte Catherine’s square called La Villette hits the spot. The menu is riddled with Belgian favorites from Grey shrimp to Sole to Entrecote steak.

Moules Frîtes with Belgian endives - La Villette

Moules Frîtes with Belgian endives – La Villette

Their Mussels with Belgian endives is flavored with white beer foam and cream, creating a rich, deep and buttery broth for the generous pot of fresh Zeeland bivalves, and for putting the hand-cut fries to good use.

Vol au Vent - La Villette

Vol au Vent – La Villette

The equally scrumptious Vol au Vent is best described as a deconstructed chicken pot-pie, with a very simple cream, beer and mushroom gravy. Desserts include the ubiquitous Pancakes and Profiteroles in some form or other, but the Crème Brulee made with Chamay beer is a true original.

Burratta - La Manufacture

Burratta – La Manufacture

Other classic restaurants in the city range from the 90 year old and multi Michelin star honoree Comme Chez Soi, to the hip, trendy locovore kitchens like Alexandre, Delicatessen, and the former suitcase factory La Manufacture – featuring a mind-blowing Burrata with external olive-oil infuser and a hot, crispy and sinfully delicious Goat Cheese Crème Brulee, but what the menu boasts in green olive and pistachio crusts or tarragon sauces is quickly diminished by the complete and abject lack of service.

Le Wine Bar de Sablon

Le Wine Bar de Sablon

My personal favorite has to be the neighborhood bistro Le Wine Bar de Sablon. The staggering menu features every part of every creature (snails, brains and sausages included) proudly produced by the tiniest of kitchens.

Sea bream Carpaccio - Le Wine Bar de Sablon

Sea bream Carpaccio

The Dorade Royale (sea bream) Carpaccio was spiked with red peppers and pickles, giving the fish a smooth, sour and spicy edge. The Rillettes were sinfully festooned in thick duck fat with pickled onions and stoneground mustard for a sharp contrast, but the runaway hit of the day was the Poêlée de Champignons.

Poêlée de Champignons - Le Wine Bar de Sablon

Poêlée de Champignons – Le Wine Bar de Sablon

A caramelized and sautéed trio of dark forest flavored and freshly plucked moist porcini, chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms served with steaming hot polenta.

Lizzie's Wafels, Bruges

Lizzie’s Wafels, Bruges

And without doubt, the hands-down best Waffles in town – are actually located out of town. Just steps from the Grote Markt in nearby Bruges, Lizzie’s Wafels have conquered the hot, dimpled vanilla biscuit market. After years of being pestered by insistent tourists demanding waffles, Lizzie finally relented and took the popular all-day breakfast snack to a higher level. Serving nearly 150 super-sized crispy waffles per day with all the obvious (and some less obvious) toppings, Lizzie also created Chocolate “Roses”, which are peach-sized chocolate blooms in three flavors that are lowered into scalding milk for the most decadently wonderful melted hot-chocolate delight the world has ever tasted.





Hot Chocolate "Rose" - Lizzie's Wafels, Bruges

Hot Chocolate “Rose” – Lizzie’s Wafels, Bruges