Leo & Lily – Woodland Hills

Smoked salmon plate with tomato, red onion, capers, cream cheese, hard-boiled egg and Jerusalem bagel

The buzz was out on the streets, and I must have been told by at least 10 people in the past several weeks that I needed to try a new restaurant in Woodland Hills called Leo & Lily. Although it’s a densely populated area, Woodland Hills in the west end of the San Fernando Valley is by no means a dining mecca. In fact, from my perspective, it is in dire need of good tasting food. So, I assembled my crack team of enthusiastic food aficionados (Gail and Amy) and decided to pay Leo & Lily a visit and find out what the brouhaha was all about.

The restaurant itself doesn’t sit directly on Ventura Boulevard, but slightly off, maybe about 500 feet. That’s great because the entire front is a lovely outdoor patio with plenty of seating, and you avoid all the fumes from the traffic along the boulevard. There’s lots more seating inside the restaurant, which is warm and welcoming.

Inside Leo & Lily was warm and welcoming.

Since it was an unusually cooler day in the valley, my team and I decided to dine on their outdoor patio. As I glanced over the menu I was surprised how ambitious it was, as they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. (You can peruse the menu here.) We began our lunch with the sweet potato fries ($3.50) and the portobello mushroom fries ($3.95). The sweet potatoes were good, but for my taste I would have preferred them a bit crispier and with a touch more seasoning. The portobello fries however, were some of the best tasting stuff I’ve ever had. The outside had a crunchy, perfectly seasoned exterior with big pieces of flavorful, portobello mushroom inside.

The Portobello Mushroom Fries, served with a garlic aioli, were the stand-out hit of the day.

Sweet potato fries

We were greeted by owners Guy and Maureen Zaradez who were working their way through the patio area making sure that their customers were happy and being taken care of.  Guy was telling my group how he’d been in the restaurant business most of his life. He explained how his goal was to bring healthy yet affordable dining to his customers, serving freshly baked breads and pastries, as well as making most everything else in-house.  You could see that they had poured their heart and souls into this venture.

Owner Guy Zaradez brings his Mediterranean flavors to Woodland Hills

Our entrees arrive, and they are beautifully plated. We’ve ordered the sirloin steak sandwich ($11.95) which comes with an asiago cheese and onion jam on a whole wheat ciabatta, along with a tasty side salad. The steak is thinly sliced, and the sandwich achieves a great layering of flavors.

Steak sandwich with asiago, onion jam, whole-grain mustard on a whole wheat ciabatta

For Gail, the vegetarian in the group, we ordered the L & L Veggie Chopped ($10.95). This large salad comes with chickpeas, tomato, red onion, cucumber, red pepper and ricotta cheese with a creamy tahini dressing.  All the vegetables were fresh and crispy, and the salad was so generous, that she had to take some home.

L & L Veggie Chopped

The last entree that we ordered (pictured at top), was the smoked salmon plate ($10.95).  Our server tells us the the salmon is smoked in-house. It was tender and buttery and served with red onion, capers and cream cheese. It comes with a Jerusalem bagel, a crispy, sesame encrusted bread, which is something I’ve never had before, and really enjoyed.

Having enjoyed our lunch so much, we decided to finish off the meal with something sweet since Leo & Lily make all their desserts in-house. We ordered the raspberry breton ($3.95) and the flourless chocolate cake ($4.95).  Having been wowed by the presentation of the entrees, I guess I was a bit disappointed that the desserts were just plopped on a plate. A dollop of whipped cream and a few raspberries would have gone a long way to make the dessert feel more complete.

The flourless chocolate cake was the clear favorite.

The raspberry breton was a tad on the dry side.

Having been opened only 5 weeks so far, it seems Leo & Lily have worked out practically all of the kinks. The service was efficient and extremely friendly. There was sufficient parking in their lot as well as street parking, so we didn’t have trouble accessing the restaurant. But most importantly the food tasted great. I enjoyed the casual atmosphere as well as the thoughtfully prepared dishes. Leo & Lily, welcome to Woodland Hills, we’re glad to have you.

Leo & Lily...casual, affordable and healthy!

Leo & Lily, 22420 Ventura Boulevard Woodland Hills, CA 91364  (818) 222-6622

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9021PHO – Westlake Village

Pho heaven’s sake, why did it take so long to get authentic, gourmet Vietnamese food in the west end of the valley!!!  But let’s count our blessings that it’s finally here.  Chef Kimmy Tang is the culinary force behind 9021PHO, her Vietnamese bistro that opened in Westlake Village a mere 4 months ago. Her flagship location is in Beverly Hills, and she plans to open a third very soon in Culver City. The space is open and contemporary. It’s very zen-like on one hand, yet exudes a warm energy, much like Chef Tang herself.

Chef Kimmy Tang

When we ask Chef Tang where she trained, she tells us she is entirely self-taught. She said that she had opened her first restaurant called Michelia in 2001, but that she closed it 7 years later. She explains to my friend Gail and I how she traveled throughout Europe and Asia for several years, honing her culinary skills and expanding her horizons before opening the Beverly Hills location in 2009. We watch her as she buzzes from table to table, making sure her customers are happy and well taken care of. So let’s talk about the pho.

Pho Chay with tofu

Pho, (pronounced fuh) is a traditional Vietnamese soup, with French and Chinese influences. She offers versions with beef, chicken, tuna or shrimp. Since Gail is vegetarian and we’re splitting it, we order the Pho Chay ($8.95) made with tofu, straw mushrooms, onion, baby corn and rice noodles in a vegetable broth. This serving was certainly enough to serve four diners. The broth is light and fragrant with star anise being the most prominent of the spices flavoring it. The big pieces of tofu don’t make you miss meat at all, and the bok choy still had a nice crunch to it.

Panko friend sole

9021PHO boasts a rather large menu. It offers everything from a selection of appetizers, salads, noodle and rice dishes to seafood and meat dishes. Since we wanted a little taste of everything, we both ordered one of the lunch specials ($9.95). It came with a crispy, crunchy egg roll, soup, a slaw type salad, rice and a dessert all within a bento-style box. I ordered the panko-crusted sole, and it was excellent. The best part was the French, spicy aioli that Chef Tang makes fresh everyday. The fish was moist and flavorful on the inside, and had a perfect golden, brown crunch on the outside. I couldn’t finish it so I brought the rest home. However, when I walked in the house I popped the left-over in the microwave…and it was gone.

Gail the vegetarian ordered the tofu with onion, bell pepper, eggplant, straw mushroom and baby corn in a black bean sauce. They also offer a choice of jasmine rice or brown rice. Our server told us that every day the special comes with a different dessert. Today’s dessert was a cold dessert soup of red beans and coconut milk. I’ve never tasted anything like this before.

Vietnamese iced coffee

Pho people who enjoy their coffee drinks, the iced coffee is a must. The Vietnamese coffee has a deep, bold flavor; it’s mixed with condensed milk and served over ice.  It packs a real punch, in fact as I write this, I’m still buzzing from it.

I think Westlake Village has a real winner on it’s hands. It’s obvious that Chef Kimmy Tang cooks with both her heart and her soul. In a sea of pho restaurants that dot the city of Los Angeles, her flavors are more refined and elegant than most. I for one welcome her to the valley. If you give 9021PHO a try, I’d love to hear what your impression was. Tell Chef Kimmy I said hello!

9021PHO -  30990 Russel Road, Westlake Village, CA 91362

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Charlie’s Pantry – Studio City

Sweet potato tater tots, need I say more

When Noreen and I asked the woman behind the counter at  Charlie’s Pantry in Studio City, what is your must-have dish, she told us it was the sweet potato tater tots. Well girlfriend wasn’t lyin’. These tiny, little nuggets which come with two dipping sauces, have a little crunch on the outside, and a soft texture on the inside, and no grease whatsoever. We couldn’t stop eating them until they were gone.

Charlie’s Pantry has been opened only a scant three months, but I have a feeling they’ll be around for a long time.  This lovely bistro is part restaurant and part gourmet market offering specialties from around the world. It’s bright and airy, and we felt as though we were  dining in a good friend’s backyard as we sat at the large picnic table in the center of the room.

Charlie’s Pantry offers a substantial lunch menu of freshly made soups, salads and sandwiches. I love my comfort food, so we decide to start with the Man’s Grilled Cheese sandwich. It comes with apples and walnuts, is charcoal grilled and slathered in rosemary butter and drizzled with a port wine reduction. You get the creaminess of the cheese, tartness of the apples and crunch of the nuts all in one bite, BUT it’s the rosemary butter that sends this sandwich over the top.

Man's Grilled Cheese with Rosemary Butter & Port Wine Reduction

To counter balance the carbs, we decide to order the Palm Beach Salad. For me, this was a perfect combination of flavors. The chicken breast that was crusted in almonds was moist, the organic greens were fresh, and the fennel, cranberries and toasted almonds added the sweet and crunchy to the dish. The orange citrus honey dressing only enhanced the salad without over whelming it.

Almond crusted chicken breast, baby spinach, Belgian endive, raddichio, fennel, cranberries and roasted almonds

Having tried one of their sandwiches and salads, we thought we should give a soup a try. We order the matzo ball soup which is an overly generous portion. For me, matzo ball soup is the ultimate in comfort food. This broth lacked that rich, chicken flavor I was hoping for and the matzo ball was dense and meatball like; not light and airy like my yiddishe mama’s. Sorry Charlie, this dish fell short for me.

Matzo Ball Soup

At this point, Noreen and I look up at each other and start to laugh because we can’t believe that two, five-foot women were able to consume so much food. But everything is so good that we feel dessert is in order. Charlie’s Pantry offers a nice array of homemade desserts from tiramisu, cheesecake, cookies and pastries. However, we spy the beautifully colored French macarons displayed in the case and decide that’s the direction we should go.

French macarons

These cookies were a lovely ending to a great meal.  They were light and chewy and not overly sweet. Perfection.

Charlie’s Pantry offers a breakfast and lunch menu, and a deli case filled with a mouth-watering selection of homemade delicacies. It was also easy to get to as there is underground, valet parking and they validate. Yay!  A real bonus in LA, right!

Noreen in front of Charlie's Pantry

Charlie’s Pantry 12265 Ventura Boulevard #101 (in between Coldwater & Laurel Canyon), Studio City, CA 91604

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Raphael Restaurant…You Had Me At Hello

The sign on the front of Raphael Restaurant, on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, said lunch from 11:30 until 2. When we opened the front door to the restaurant at 1:55 looking to be fed, we expected owner Arnon Raphael to send us packing. Instead, we were greeted with a very warm and welcoming hello, and told we could absolutely get a table.

I was looking forward to coming here as I had read that Adam Horton, formerly of The Saddle Peak Lodge, one of my favorite restaurants, was the executive chef. When you enter the restaurant you are immediately charmed by its sleek and sophisticated decor. Owner Raphael told us that his wife had designed the interior that boasts warm woods, stone, and stunning lighting fixtures that add to the overall dining experience. One side is the elegant but casual dining area, and the other side is a rather spacious and comfortable bar area.

My friend Kim and I were seated at a lovely booth right in front of the window. We were greeted by our server Joslyn, a Cameron Diaz look-alike, who was extremely friendly and professional. For me, the servers seem to set the tone of the experience, so, I could see we were off to a good start. Raphael has an extensive wine selection, serving 50 wines by the class. Kim chose a Santa Barbara, Pinot Noir, and I went with the Italian, Pinot Grigio.

Raphael describes their menu as “world cuisine”. I like that. I like to be able to enjoy tastes from all around the globe at one table. Their lunch menu is limited; 4 salads, 4 sandwiches and 5 larger plates as well as several side dishes. This is never a problem for me. I don’t need a huge selection to chose from, I just expect that the few dishes a restaurant does offer should be done absolutely perfect.

The sandwich we chose was the Scottish salmon with capers, red onion, dill Havarti and a luscious ramp aioli on a soft, sesame seed bun.

Scottish salmon with capers, red onion, dill Havarti, and ramp aioli

When the dish arrived it appeared a little “bare”.  Nothing, no garnish, no accoutrements, visually I thought it needed a little “something”. Well that being said, it didn’t really need anything. The salmon patty was so full of flavor and cooked perfectly. The combination of the elements on this sandwich didn’t require anything to spruce it up. It was perfect just the way it was. We did however, order the fries which were crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. They were a great compliment to the salmon. When I return, I will absolutely get this dish again.

Som Tam Thai - green papaya, tiger shrimp, lime, peanuts, chile & cilantro

For the salad we chose the Som Tam Thai, a visually stunning dish of green papaya, tiger shrimp, lime, peanuts, chile and cilantro. I don’t handle the heat well, and this dish was a tad too spicy for me. Next time I would ask them to turn down the heat a bit.  The shrimp were big and meaty, not over-cooked which happens so often with shrimp in salads. The flavors were authentic, as if we were having this dish in a Thai street market.

They offered 3 choices for the dessert, none of which appealed to Kim or myself. Joslyn said that the pastry chef would like to make us a dessert that wasn’t on the menu. Wow, that never happened to me before, they are eager to please at Raphael.

Trifle of fresh strawberries & lemon with strawberry mini meringue kisses

We were presented with a trifle of fresh strawberries and lemon garnished with strawberry meringue kisses. It was tart and light and luscious, the perfect ending to our meal.

Raphael is the caliber of dining that you tend to find “on the other side of the hill”. It’s smart and well done, and offers you the whole package in terms of ambiance, service and cuisine. I’m so glad they’re in my neck of the woods.

Kim in front of Raphael

Raphael 11616 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City 91604 ( In between Colfax & Tujunga)

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Olive & Thyme Cafe and Marketplace

This outing begins like most in Southern California, a beautiful sunny day and a short car ride down the 101 Freeway. Today I’m heading out with my two foodie compatriots Lauren and Marci. We’re going to Toluca Lake, located in the eastern San Fernando Valley and home to Warner Brothers and NBC studios. I worked in Toluca Lake in the mid 80′s for a movie production company that made one C-rated movie and then was never heard from again. When I worked there, Toluca Lake was stuck in the 1960′s and the only places to eat at the time were a place called Paty’s and Bob’s Big Boy, with that huge statue of Bob right out front. Today I saw a whole new Toluca Lake that’s seemed to have had a makeover. It appears refreshed with quaint shops and modern eateries.

Field Trip! Off with Marci and Lauren.

Marci suggested that we try Olive & Thyme, a newly opened, family owned cafe and marketplace.  The restaurant is warm and welcoming. You can tell a lot of thought was put into the details of creating this environment. This is my kind of menu, simple and fresh with a limited number of choices. They offer the usual cafe fare with a selection of salads, sandwiches, soup and prepared salads in the deli cases, along with homemade desserts and top-notch coffee drinks.

Middle Eastern Chicken Sandwich

We decided to split several dishes so we could get a little taste of everything. We opted for the Middle Eastern Chicken sandwich wrapped in a grilled pita with hummus, tomatoes and harissa (a Tunisian hot chili sauce). It was a great combination of flavors and seemed a healthy choice. We also ordered the Cobb Salad which is a standard at every cafe these days, but it’s a salad I always like to order. This one didn’t fail to please and was plenty for three people.  What amped this one up was it’s spicy Russian dressing which took it from ho-hum to something really special.

Cobb Salad with Spicy Russian Dressing

But the piece de resistance (I had to use that term) was the Braised Short Rib Sandwich. This would be the sandwich I would recommend you would have to order. It’s served on thickly cut country sourdough with a horseradish creme fraiche and smothered in sweet, caramelized onions. Very rich, and you might not be able to eat dessert after it.

Braised Short Rib Sandwich

Having made the trek out to Toluca Lake, I was not going to leave without having one of Olive & Thyme’s homemade desserts. Lauren and I made our way over to the dessert counter where we both spied the same thing…the coconut cake of course. And mama loves her comfort food. Moist cake with a lemony filling and a white chocolate frosting covered in lots of coconut! Three of us could not finish one piece.

White Chocolate Coconut Cake

My overall feeling was that I just had a delicious homemade lunch at a friend’s house. The surroundings were that cozy and the food that comforting, and the company, the best!

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SWEET BUTTER Kitchen Cafe & Marketplace

It seems my life in the San Fernando Valley expands as long as Ventura Boulevard itself. Everything I’ve done in my life over the last thirty years has either be on or slightly off of Ventura Boulevard. To me, it is the boulevard of dreams. Whatever you fancy in life can be found there from Studio City to Woodland Hills.

I made plans with two women from my pastry school to meet for lunch.  This is an activity I’m very good at, I honestly love lunch. And Marci, my baking buddy suggested a place called Sweet Butter in Sherman Oaks. Geez, just the name alone, I knew it had to be good. When we drove up I thought, “did they build this place just for me”? The outside is so welcoming, painted just that perfect shade of buttery yellow. You knew whatever was inside had to scrumptious.   Here it was the middle of January  and we were able to take advantage of their large outdoor seating area of comfortable banquets.  I’m all about the food, but all the quaint touches were not lost on me. Colorful flowers, patterned fabrics, lots of wrought iron. I love it!

And I loved their menu. Yes I’m a sucker for French bistro style food, that’s kind of how I would describe it. They don’t have waitress service, so you go inside and stand in line to order and it’s brought to your table. Therein lies the one thing that was a problem for me. I don’t like having to stare down the other customers with that look of “dude, that’s my table, I’ve been standing here for the last ten minutes”!  However, once seated, all was good with the world.

Fresh, fresh, homemade, and yes…fresh.  They have a great selection of salads. I got the “South of the Boulevard” with chopped Jidori chicken which was moist and flavorful, Romaine, black beans, grilled corn and tortilla strips (they added just the right crunch), with a creamy Chipotle Buttermilk dressing.   Simple and delicious. Marci got the Tuna Nicoise with Italian tuna. I didn’t taste it, but it looked great. The portions were fairly large, so I ended up taking mine home for a late afternoon snack. Each salad was under $13.00.

I’m also an iced tea, and coffee fanatic. I find so many restaurants don’t pay any attention to these beverages.  Well, Sweet Butter does. After lunch I had a cup of their Intelligentsia brand coffee, and it was delicious. Mama likes her coffee. That with one of their homemade chocolate chip cookies, and I was a very happy girl.

I can definitely see going back again and again as there was no shortage of tasty looking sandwiches, salads, soups and homemade desserts to choose from. Good food, and a great view of Ventura Boulevard…dang I love the Valley!

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