Los Angeles

coffee.jpgIt’s 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, and like any well-adjusted twentysomething, I’m eating breakfast.  More specifically, I’m having brioche french toast and cappuccino at the Little Next Door on 3rd with my friend Gloria.  After living in LA for six months, I have determined that breakfast in the afternoon is exactly the sort of reckless behavior Sundays demand.

Typically in New York, Sundays amounted to consumption of greasy brunch complemented by mimosas and black coffee.  Following brunch was an inevitable headache, followed by more consumption in the form of excessive window-shopping, followed by an indulgent nap upon what appeared to be a laundry pile, but was in fact my bed.

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babybluesbbq.jpgAfter a screening of the frightening (and somewhat hilarious) Paranormal Activity my pals and I wanted to grab a drink and maybe some chow. Three of us, on separate occasions, by different people, had Baby Blues BBQ recommended to us.

This is a place with a great vibe and some pretty delicious BBQ. We all chatted and laughed over a few beers, some sloppy ribs and crumbly delicious cornbread.

I opted for The Deuce, which is a platter consisting of 1/2 a rack of Memphis style ribs, 5 of their BBQ shrimp (which were recommended to our table by some random cook who came out for no reason other than to tell us we should order the shrimp - they were delicious), cornbread and my choice of two from an extensive list of "fixins". It reads like a who's who of barbeque: collard greens, potato salad, baked beans, mac 'n' cheese, okra - fried and sauteed, mashed potatoes, stewed tomatoes, pork 'n' beans, etc. I opted for cole slaw and fried okra. At $22.95 this wasn't such a bad deal.

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newcafes.jpgYabu, Il Fornaio and Musha are my favorite restaurants. They have great food and they're comfortable and affordable. I'd go to them every week if I could. Having said that, without realizing it, I'd fallen into a rut. It took my wife, Michelle, to shake things up and get me to try two new restaurants.

R+D Kitchen is part of the Hillstone restaurant group that includes Bandera, Gulfstream, and Houston's among others. Recently opened at 1323 Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, R+D took over an address that was something of a black hole. Montana Lounge and Yu Restaurant had failed. Even a successful entrenpeneur like Wolfgang Puck couldn't make the space work for him. With the Aero theater directly across the street, this should be a good location.

Good design makes such a difference. The previous tenants had sealed off the space, creating dark interiors. Walking into the restaurant, it's easy to see that R+D came up with a fresh approach. With a minimalist design, a skylight in the middle of the dining room, an L-shaped bar to one side, and windows that open out onto Montana, R+D is inviting both inside and out.

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img 1235La Sandia Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar shares the top floor of Santa Monica Place with half a dozen other restaurants, the Food Court and the Market.

You'll recognize La Sandia by the crowded patio and open air bar, offering over 200 tequillas, half a dozen margaritas and Mexican beers, Mojitos, Capirinhas and Sangria pitchers.

The front part of the restaurant is dominated by the busy bar scene, especially at Happy Hour. With generously extended hours Sunday-Thursday from 4:00pm-9:00pm and Friday 4:00pm-7:00pm, Happy Hour appetizers are $3.00 (shrimp ceviche, a choice of quesadillitas, tacos, empanadas and sliders, chicken wings and bbq pork ribs), margaritas $5.00, Mexican bottled beer $3.00, daily specials Mondays-Thursdays and $5.00, "bottomless" bowls of guacamole.

Walk past the bar and you enter the restaurant with a dining room in a plaza style expanse, dominated by a retractable ceiling, a large fountain with four, smiling cherubs and upholstered booths with plush seating.

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girasolintExcept for a short stint on the Westside, I've spent over 20 years living in the Valley. And I love it. I really do. Yet, since I became more of a "foodie" a few years ago, I have been consistently disappointed with our lack of finer dining choices. We have excellent Mexican, burgers, pizza and sushi on every block of Ventura Blvd., but it's a wasteland when it comes to trying to find a place with a decent wine list, upscale decor and innovative food that doesn't cater to hipster millennials who are more concerned with being seen than with what's on the plate. Every time I read about a new place opening I held my breath in anticipation that my prayers would be answered…only to have them dashed by another gastro pub or taco joint (no offense).

So imagine my delight when Girasol, helmed by Chef CJ Jacobson, a two-time Top Chef contestant, was moving in to my neighborhood. The space located just outside Tujunga Village has been many different restaurants over the years none of them seemingly able to succeed for very long, so here's hoping his team can make it stick. They certainly transformed the building, pushing the sunflower-theme in a very modern, slick direction with an amazing layered metal ceiling and gray-brick tiled walls. It's like eating inside a metal sculpture. It's super cool, but not in a cold or unwelcoming way. You could really impress a first date by bringing them here.

The food mirrors the atmosphere and tastes as good as it looks. There's no real theme per se, just seasonal, creative fare that showcases the locally-sourced ingredients with a few unusual touches thrown in here and there to keep your palate engaged. Big Ceej is friends with many of the regional farmers, so expect the menu to change pretty regularly with the night's specials being as "in-season" as it gets. Thankfully he's cooking in California so his options are pretty varied.

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