For years and years, I have been an avid fan of Food Network Star — going all the way back to its genial, awkward first season which saw two party planner guys take home the inaugural crown. Since then, we’ve witnessed many dubious winners claim the big prize (ahem, Big Daddy’s House) while more deserving runners-up go home empty-handed. Well, sort of empty handed. Some near-misses have found success with Food Network despite premature ejection from their star path. Kelsey Nixon and Adam Gertler have had post-Food Network Star runs, and so has Jeffrey Saad, whose season five loss was parlayed into hosting gigs for Spice Smuggler and later United Tastes of America.
Saad, it should be noted, also helms his very own restaurant, La Ventura, here in Los Angeles, and last week, I was invited to a media-comped dinner at the establishment. FINALLY — I would be able to sample the cooking of a Food Network star. It’s what I’ve always dreamed of.
(And yes, I’m fully aware that I could just traipse over to any of Guy Fieri’s dining establishments, but I do like to maintain a certain level of dignity.) …… (Full disclosure, I’m typing this unshowered in my underwear.)
Given that La Ventura has a distinctly Mexican flair (I mean, it’s a Mexican restaurant), it was only appropriate that Chef Saad had gotten his hands on a custom harvest barrel of Herradura Tequila. This batch, aged just short of being an añejo, was smooth and oaky and altogether warming. I’m not sure how much is left in that custom barrel, but if you’re lucky, maybe you can still snag some of this tequila. Or at least launch a Kickstarter for a new barrel.
What goes best with tequila? If you said “poor life choices,” then yes. But if you also said chips and guac, then you, sir (or madame), are correct. This guacamole was brightly acidic and full flavored. I may have eaten more than is appropriate in polite society.
The first of many, many fuzzy and awful photos. It’s a pic of someone’s specialty cocktail from the Rhinobar pop-up (basically, a mixologist named Rhino did a stint at La Ventura, but he’s gone now; so don’t get too excited).
Before long, we had transitioned from bar to table where we began the meal in earnest with lobster-chorizo fundido. You know, something light and healthy… Of course I enjoyed this greatly; although, if I were to nitpick (and you know I will — I am a blogger, after all), I would nix the chorizo. I mean, hey, I love me some chorizo, but it did overpower the lobster a bit. Still, it’s a solid starter, and you know I’ll be all up in this next time I swing through.
THE HAND OF JEFFREY SAAD!
My crappy-ass photo does no justice to this deee-licious dish. Basically, these are scallop and shrimp skewers. Cooked perfectly and drizzled with a sauce of who knows what (don’t ask, just eat). A great example of simple food prepared just right. Get this.
A sampling of Cubano sandwiches and tacos (al pastor, I believe). Really delicious, especially the sandwiches. Susie Fogelson would love it.
Another excellent cocktail. This is the Summer Reyes, which consists of habañero-infused Herradura Tequila with dry red chile liquor and a flamed orange twist. But again, as goes Rhinobar, so goes the Summer Reyes. sooooo… oh well?
What if someone took a classic French dish such as duck confit, but then gave it the mole treatment instead? Then you’d have this beauty of a dish with a sauce so richly comforting you’ll want to slather it in a duvet cover and go to sleep under it. I’m sorry, that metaphor was disgusting. The point is that Saad learned out to make this sauce from a little, old lady in Mexico, and if there’s anything we know about little, old ladies in Mexico, it’s that they can cook a sauce. Unfortunately, this dish is not a regular menu item, but keep an eye out on the specials board, and if this appears, pounce. Also, that rice was pretty great too.
Kind of a mixed bag of stuff on this plate. There’s a deliciously seasoned, perfectly grilled slab of carne asada; a jar of drunken beans (tasty, and I don’t even dig beans that much), and my favorite thing on the plate: a pile of shrimp that again underscored the sense that La Ventura knows how to grill its seafood. (For those wondering, the shrimp is that nondistinct ball of char in the center of the plate. Not my best photography)
Perhaps a nod to the Border Grill, this is Saad’s vegetable tray, featuring cauliflower, kale, beans, and other tasty goodness. I was a big fan of the kale.
For dessert, Chef Saad wheeled out a Bananas Foster getup that had me quietly scared. But I believe he used tequila instead of rum. I could be wrong. I was so full that my brain had ceased functioning.
Here goes the booze.
Okay, we got a little flame going on there. That’s cool.
Whoa. Okay, that’s a bit out of control.
Alright, let’s get a fire extinguisher handy — just in case.
Is this normal? This isn’t normal, right?
We’re going to die.
I mean, the flame is the shape of a mushroom cloud. That’s a terrible omen.
Somehow, I get the sense that Chef Saad is actually enjoying this sadistic fire game. YOU’RE IMPERILING FOOD BLOGGERS. HOW DARE YOU.
Long story short: bananas foster on top of salted caramel ice cream. Yay!
By the way, GET the salted caramel ice cream (if it’s on the menu that day).
In case you couldn’t tell, I dig La Ventura. Like similar Los Angeles restaurants Border Grill and Lotèria Grill, La Ventura showcases elevated Mexican fare without sacrificing any of the boldness of the cuisine. And seriously, that ice cream was awesome.
11929 Ventura Blvd
Studio City, Ca 91604