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Restaurant Review: NYC Award-winning chef "pops up" in the 818 with a gastronomic wonder

Posted By Karen Young On October 18, 2010 @ 12:19 am In Featured,Food,My Daily Find,Restaurants,spotlight | 3 Comments

BY KAREN YOUNG

I’ve previously written that some of my best restaurant finds are in strip malls in out of the way places. This time I’ve found one in a good size strip mall in a well traveled place — the one anchored by Trader Joe’s in Studio City.  This restaurant has some of the most creative, sublime and ingenious cuisine I’ve experienced — ever. Rather heady  statement, I know.

Georgio's Cucina is refined and updated in every way in and out of the kitchen — perfect for a romantic meal or business meeting.

The place? Georgio’s Cucina. For 31 years, the space was formerly known as Georgio’s California Pizza and Pasta with old school family Italian cuisine, green wallpaper, red booths and hanging hooks left from the hanging plants of bygone years. I hadn’t been in years. And, boy, has it changed.

I passed by it one Sunday a couple weeks ago after a Traders Joe’s run, did a double take because it looked so different, and wandered in to inquire.

Georgio’s Cucina is a “pop-up” restaurant through the end of the year. Manning the kitchen is Chef Gary Robins, a three-star chef and James Beard nominee from NYC. If you couldn’t get your Ludobites 6.0 reservation, I suggest you ring Georgio’s Cucina for a reservation before you get to the end of this review. Yes,  it’s that good.

Robins came to Los Angeles to partner with his longtime friend and associate Chris Heyman, a restaurateur also originally from New York. Robins and Heyman first worked together at Heyman’s highly touted Match in Manhattan. Heyman then moved to Los Angeles as a principal in Table 8 and 8 Oz Burger.

Cheese plates and rustic homemade desserts on this sideboard as you enter Georgio's yields part of its European charm.

With all the fervor about “pop ups” lately, I count Robins as the original concept for the “pop up” chef without being so obvious. Hired to create menus at restaurants such as the Russian Tea Room, the Biltmore Room and Sheridan Square in New York, he would disappear on to his next venture so quickly, he left critics and patrons wondering “Where’s Robins?” in that Waldo kind of way.

Well, Studio City has got him, so all you 818 naysayers, it’s time to come down from your 323, 310, 213 perches and take a taste. And for all you 818ers, now there’s no reason not to stay local. It’s not inexpensive, but if you are really into fine dining, it is quality and ingenuity that’s rare to find.

Robins says he and Heyman chose Georgio’s because it has a “tremendous amount of warmth and history” which helped with their vision for a sophisticated, yet rustic Italian style restaurant. The space itself has been salvaged and refined. The red booths remain, the wood is stained darker, and vintage decor found at flea markets covers the walls. The centerpiece of the restaurant is a giant refinished armoire/sideboard.

The menu at Georgio’s Cucina is pure fusion. Robins describes it as “progressive American with heavily Italian influences using regional cuisine.” I also noted dashes of Asian and French influence. Open Tuesday through Saturday evenings only, the main menu changes daily.  Robins creates completely unique dishes for this restaurant.  This is his own “test kitchen.”

Hamachi Crudos

Robins starts his day at 5 am traveling downtown to the fish market. He chooses seasonal produce from local farmers markets and has some of his meat, such as Dry Aged Piedmontese Beef flown in from Montana.

On the evening I was there, my dining partner and I  tried a variety of anti-pasti, crudos, small plates, a flat bread, and a primi. First up was Mediterranean Olives marinated in rosemary and wild fennel. Biting into that first olive brought me back to eating al fresco at a wood table in an Italian garden surrounded by grapevines.

Next was  Hamachi Crudos which was five generously sliced pieces of velvet textured fish in a blend of Serrano chili with ruby grapefruit and shallots. The flavors were mellow so that the taste of the fish melded well with the sauce. Another crudos of Fresh Oysters on a half shell was then presented on a rectangle wood platter  on a bed of salt accompanied by a light Chianti mignonette sauce. Divine.

What followed was a huge surprise — Duck Polpette which are meatballs on top of a very soft and creamy polenta with a rosemary marsala jus surrounded by sweet and sour cherries. I discovered that the secret to the meatballs is that they are made with foie gras which gives them a very distinct taste. Anyone familiar with Robins’ legacy in New York knows that he is known for his foie gras.

Grilled Mediterranean Octopus

Another beautifully presented small plate was the Grilled Mediterranean Octopus. Generally, octopus is tough and chewy. This was tender and moist and simply not like anything I’ve had before. Braised in white wine, it has a smoky/tart flavor and is served on top of a small salad consisting cranberries, beans and potatoes dressed with a black olive vinaigarette.

Robins makes four different types of flat breads with various toppings. Fig and gorgonzola, ricotta and porcini, langoustines and almond pesto. The fourth, in which we indulged, was the Focaccia Robiola — a crisp, light flatbread topped with arugula, prosciutto and laced with white truffle essence. Delicious, exquisite and perfectly rustic.

That evening there was a special Pumpkin Gnocchi — delicately rich morsels prepared in sage brown butter, grated walnuts and burgundy truffles. It is one of those “oh my” dishes that you question how something like this is made.

Pumpkin Gnocchi

At this point, my dinner companion and I were too full to try a Secondi, but the selection for the evening was choice —  a whole roasted Branzino sea bass which is de-boned tableside and served with garden beans and tomato lentil salad; Chilean Sea Bass with baby artichokes, black olives and tomatoes; Anise Scented Seared Ahi with wilted escarole with blood oranges and white bean ravioli; Osso Bucco is braised in white wine with a butternut squash risotto, apple smoked bacon and pistachio gremolata; and the previously mentioned Piedmontese Beef served with cippolini and roasted potatoes.

Robins does it all — including serving as pastry chef with at least five desserts offered each evening. We tried bites of the Blood Orange Crostada and the Flourless E. Guittard Chocolate Cake. Both were delicious, although I have a preference towards fruity desserts so the Crostada stole my heart. Coffee is imported from Heyman’s wife’s family’s coffee plantation in Hawaii. Only Americano is prepared. Both coffee and tea are served  with a demitasse stick.

Duck Polpette

Georgio’s doesn’t  have a full bar, but does have a small, but select wine list with wines also offered by the glass. There are two signature drinks nightly — White Peach Bellini and a Sangria with fruit that changes seasonally. Mine had a slice of blood orange. Prosecco is also offered (and one glass is complimentary for My Daily Find readers).

Dining at Georgio’s is a true gastronomic experience. The ambiance is pleasant, romantic and on the quiet side, but it’s really all about food — which if one bite can make you think and spur your imagination to places far away from the strip mall, Robins does the trick.  Here’s hoping that after this pop-up, Gary Robins finds a place close by to call his own.

Georgio’s Cucina. 11992 Ventura Blvd Studio City, CA 91604 www.georgioscucina.com 818. 985. 1072  Open Tues-Thurs. 5-10:30 pm, Fri-Sat. 5:30-11:30 pm. MY DAILY FIND READERS RECEIVE ONE GLASS OF COMPLIMENTARY PROSECCO. Antipasti, Crudos, Flat Breads, Small Plates ($6-$22), Primi ($15-$19), Secondi ($27-$42), Desserts ($9), Cheeses ($12-$18).  Kids choices off the menu: Pasta Pomodoro or Flat Bread with tomato and mozzarella.  Corkage: $20.

Karen Young is the Founder/Editor of My Daily Find.  Email her: karen@mydailyfind.com

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