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Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, a drunken has-been country music singer who rambles from gig to gig in a car as beat up as he is. His body is about to give out but his CRAZY HEART hangs on in this Oscarworthy performance. Written and directed by Scott Cooper and based on an aging novel by Thomas Cobb, the original music by T Bone Burnett and comfortable supporting performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal as his much younger love interest, Robert Duvall as a sympathetic friend, and Colin Farrell, his former protégé, are enough reason to buy a ticket. These “crazy heart” chefs perform equally well, but they do it in the kitchen.

In 1992, Thomas Keller, who recently opened BOUCHON (235 N. Canon Dr., BH; 310-271-9910) to much fanfare, quietly left Checkers Hotel in downtown L.A. and headed up to Napa Valley. There he turned a historic Yountville laundry into the now-famous French Laundry, then opened Bouchon, a French bistro with its own bakery nearby, eventually expanding it to Las Vegas and Manhattan, where he also owns the elegant Per Se. Back in Yountville, he hatched family-style Ad Hoc as a temporary project while he cobbled together a hamburger and wine eatery. When it proved too popular to abandon, he postponed the burger idea. Now in Beverly Hills, on two-storied Bouchon’s ground floor, he’s introduced another new concept, Bar Bouchon, a classic French wine bar with service by the glass or bottle, plus artisanal beers and a small plates menu. Plans are afoot for another Bouchon Bakery. On order upstairs, chef de cuisine Rory Herrmann, from Napa, does daily farm-to-table specials and French comfort favorites such as onion soup, steak-frites, and house pâté as well as quiche, trout with almonds, roast chicken, and leg of lamb. The raw bar’s two tier Grand Plateau is a feast of poached Maine lobster, oysters, gulf white shrimp, Dungeness crab, Bouchot mussels, and littleneck clams. Pastry chef Scott Wheatfill prepares a slew of desserts. At the most important restaurant opening of the year, and maybe the decade, about 400 guests, including Larry King, Jay Leno, Ludacris, Pierce Brosnan, and Julia Louis Dreyfus, toured every corner of the vast kitchen. One caveat: Thomas Keller loves tripe, the strange and spongy cow stomach, and predicts that we’ll all soon embrace it as we have the once-reviled sushi. Keller is not one to be reckoned with. Get ready.

Even if you only go to ANDREA RISTORANTE at The Resort at Pelican Hill (22701 Pelican Hill Road South, Newport Coast; 800-315-8214) for dinner, and not to spa, golf, or sleep, be sure to arrive before dark to appreciate the tile roofs and olive trees of this 504-acre resort overlooking the Pacific. Inspired by architect Andrea Palladio’s formal Italian Renaissance style, it also boasts the informal luxury that epitomizes this slice of Southern California. Before dinner, relax over cocktails in the bronze, gold, and green Great Room, or retire there for after-dinner cordials. From Friday to Sunday afternoons there is a pianist and traditional English high tea. Reserve seats in the dining room on the ocean-view terrace that has glass partitions and radiant-heat travertine flooring to keep you cozy year round. Executive chef Jean Pierre Dubray grew up in France’s Loire Valley and Andrea’s chef de cuisine, Stefano Chiarugi, grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Tuscany, where he learned to cook according to the seasons. His first-rate ingredients are sourced locally or brought in from Italy, and never uses more than five ingredients per dish to let the flavors shine through. Every day he makes tagliatelle; spaghetti; trenette; gnocchi; bucatini; maltagliati (“rough cut”); and ravioli by hand in a temperature-controlled Pastaio, where the pasta dries naturally. There’s also a Laboratoria del Gelato with imported equipment that produces artisan gelato in seasonal flavors such as pistachio, hazelnut, vanilla, and natural. We dined on eggplant parmigiana with fresh tomato sauce and burrata cheese; 18-month cured San Daniele prosciutto with fresh fig salad; braised veal shank with creamy polenta, and Dover sole with sautéed spinach. Choices ranged from an elaborate white and black truffle tasting menu to the daily soup or pizza of the day. If you get hooked on the gelato you can indulge further at the Caffè or at the spa where body gelato treatments end with a dish of it.

SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town, Photographs and text by Douglas Gayeton; Intro by Alice Waters; Preface by Carlo Petrini (Welcome Books; $50.00). The Slow Food movement focuses on the everyday pleasures of food by resurrecting the traditional pleasures of the table and incorporating them into modern life. In this charming book, an interplay of ten years of pictures and words transports you to a tiny town on the outskirts of Florence, Italy, where you meet the local mushroom hunters, sheep farmers, winemakers, fishermen, bakers, butchers, and chocolate makers who live the Slow Food lifestyle without necessarily knowing they are part of a movement. The author himself is co-owner of Laloo’s® Goat’s Milk Ice Cream in Petaluma, California.

SAMUEL ADAMS founder and brewer, Jim Koch, a craft beer pioneer and the brewer of the first American “extreme beer,” says that in the past five years his company has won more awards in international beer competitions than any other brewery in the world. Master brewer Bert Boyce was in town to introduce Utopias, which are brewed in small batches, blended, and aged in the Barrel Room. This year’s batch was finished in sherry casks from Spain, which add nutty, oak, and honey notes, and muscatel and port casks from Portugal, which contribute dark fruit flavors. In its first release in 2002, the Guinness Book of World Records pronounced Utopias “the world’s strongest beer” with 25 percent alcohol by volume. The 2009 batch is two percent higher. The average beer is about 5%, but forget average beers — we’re talking strong, rich, dark, and uncarbonated. Serve a two-ounce pour at room temperature in a snifter glass and savor like port or cognac. Selections include The Triple Bock, which makes a fine aperitif; Sam Adam's Coastal Wheat, with a crisp edge and lemon peel flavor; Cranberry Lambic; Old Fezziweg (ale); and Holiday Porter. Utopias are available in limited release every other year and sell for upwards of $150.

Samuel Adams hosted a dinner at ANIMAL (435 N. Fairfax Ave., LA; 323-782-9225), where the menu is a perfect complement to these unique beverages. Former caterers and Food Network semi-stars, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (“renegade chefs who play by their own rules”), published their first cookbook (Two Dudes, One Pan: Maximum Flavor From a Minimalist Kitchen pub. Clarkson Potter) before they opened their doors just up the street from Canter’s, in the heart of K-town (k as in “kosher,” not Korea). Take note because there is no sign outside the bare-bones storefront of this carnivore oasis, where signature dishes begin with salted fried hominy spritzed with lime and end with a bacon chocolate crunch bar. In between there are, at various times — the menu changes daily — pork belly with kimchi or lentils; pork chop; pork trotter; pork shoulder with collard greens, and country ham; roasted pork salad; poutine (oxtail gravy, cheddar and souse smoked pork belly); pig ear; baby broccoli with pancetta; Hawaiian loco moco, rice topped with a burger, foie gras, quail egg, and Spam on teriyaki sauce; a foie gras biscuit with maple sausage gravy; rib-eye steak in foie gras; leeks with spinach, egg, and bacon; fried quail with grits, chard, and bacon. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni loved their widely touted pork ribs, advising “if you’re going to be pork-selective at Animal, this is the pork to select.” No argument here. Reasonably priced wines come by the glass, carafe, and bottle but a big, cold glass of beer is a better idea with this hearty, rustic food.

L.A. has more Mexican restaurants than any other type of ethnic cuisine but at CENADURÍA LA CASITA MEXICANA (4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell; 323-773-1898) Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu prove that most of it bears little resemblance to the real thing. These boyhood pals from Jalisco started with a handful of their grandmothers’ labor-intensive recipes served up in a storefront a short distance from downtown and now they’re media heroes. Everyone starts off with a bowl of fresh chips slathered with pepian rojo, verde, and poblano moles. Nearly everyone orders the chocolatey 46- ingredient mole poblano, or green or red pepian with chicken or pork, or the signature chile en nogada stuffed with meat, dried fruits, walnuts, and candied cactus, then doused in pecan cream sauce and sprinkled with ruby pomegranate seeds. Tender flatiron steak served over grilled cactus with Oaxaca cheese and chile guajillo sauce is tender and tasty, as is a fillet of fish cooked with aromatic herbs, but the Azteca cheese fondue, four Mexican cheeses with poblano chile, cactus, mushrooms, and herbs wrapped in banana leaves and served with two types of fresh tortillas might be the best dish on the menu. In season, off-menu items might include dulce de jicama, cauliflower cakes, or fish in blackberry mole. Some of the vegetables come from a community garden. Fresh lemonade mixed with tiny chia seeds hits the right note and Mexican coffee goes perfectly with arroz con leche, rice pudding in a tortilla shell.

Dakota Weiss, executive chef at the HOTEL SHANGRI-LA dining room (1301 Ocean Ave, Santa Monica; 310 394-2791) says, “I make food that makes you feel at ease, not comfort food exactly, but every dish I make is approachable, fresh, and with a twist.” We’ll vouch for that. Her food is grounded in traditional French techniques but she’s as southwest as her name. She began her career at Santa Fe’s venerable Coyote Café, where she became their first female sous chef. From there she went to The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas, then various Ritz Carltons before landing at the Sunset Tower Hotel and now here. She’s at the top of her game in this beautifully renovated original art deco hotel, with a menu that emphasizes local, organic food served in new ways. Some of our favorites: wild salmon on a bed of leeks; Parmesan-crusted lamb loin with ratatouille; heirloom tomato gazpacho; a fabulous grilled globe artichoke with aged sherry aioli; shrimp cocktail with black pepper vodka cocktail sauce; grilled chicken provolone with mushrooms and spinach; a Niman Ranch burger with caramelized onions, tomato jam, and smoked cheddar; wild salmon with mustard rice crispies, melted leeks, and champagne sabayon; or risotto with heirloom corn and Santa Barbara uni. Desserts include strawberry shortcake and an untraditional donut. This holiday season they’ll be serving special prix fixe Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners and daytime brunches.

RICARDO ZARATE is the chef at both Wabi-Sabi and Mo-Chica so we shouldn’t be surprised at his mettle when, in the wee hours of December 1, he helped deliver his unexpectedly early second child, a 9lb+ baby girl. The frantic father called 911 but gave the wrong address and had to chase the medics down the street when they passed the house. They made it inside just as the infant was crowning, which rattled one of them, who gasped, “Put it back — we have to go the hospital!” We don’t know yet whether they named her Marquesa, after the street where she was born, or “sofa” as that’s where she came out. “One good thing,” said Ricardo, “I won’t have to explain to my son where babies come from. He saw the whole thing.” Congratulations and Happy Holidays to all! ▼


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