The Sweet Spot   Leave a comment

Although Semi Sweet Bakery in downtown Los Angeles has savory items as well as numerous tempting sweets, the name isn’t quite right. It’s not partially sweet, and it’s tucked away in small, hard-to-find space not at all like a semi, as in truck; however, the quality and variety of baked goods rides above other, pedestrian bakeries.

semisweet crullant

Semi Sweet is  fun: it features several familiar goodies that can’t be identified by their better-known names to avoid copyright infringements. Take the Crullant: a cross between a croissant and a cruller (but this donut’s baked not fried); or the Pocket Tart, as unfamiliar in taste and texture as it is similar in shape and size to a convenient toaster variety popular among kids. There’s also the Ding-a-ling, a spin on the Hostess snack.

semisweet dingaling

The Crème Brulee Crullant had a slightly hard glaze and was filled with vanilla cream reminiscent of its namesake. The texture was light with just the right amount of sweetness. The Pocket Tarts have several filling options; since I’m almost always drawn to anything with strawberries that was an easy choice. Thin, flakey melt-in-your-mouth pastry crust encased a fine layer of strawberry jam. Ding-a-Lings also come in assorted flavors, but chocolate and peanut butter is a hard combination to resist – and it did not disappoint.

semisweet pocket tart

On the savory side, we tried, at the recommendation of a woman who described herself as a regular since she works a few doors away, the Jalapeno Mac and Cheese Empanada. Yep, macaroni and cheese with bits of the piquant chile baked in flakey pastry. It wasn’t sweet and all, but it was a truckload of flavor.

semisweet empanada

Semi Sweet Bakery

Four-and-a-half Plates
105 East 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA

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Comfort (food) Italian Style   Leave a comment


I’m not Italian, but that’s my go-to comfort food and pasta tops the list. At Terroni in downtown Los Angeles, the pasta is made fresh daily on site. There’s little else that can offer such solace when it comes to food.

Terroni is located in a cavernous space that once housed a bank. The ceiling seems to reach several stories. Sculptures hang overhead, a boar’s head and art adorn the wall, the open kitchen surges with activity and the dining room is very contemporary given the historic roots of the building.

Bread is brought to the table in a brown paper bag. It’s old world and clever at the same time. Plus, the bread is soft with a chewy crust. We start with Arancini di Modica. The spin on these rice balls, besides the artful way they’re plated, is the cheese and hearty ragu. There are three of us and four arancini. We’re polite about it, but wish we didn’t have to share the fourth.


I order Maccheroncini Geppetto, which was difficult to say, but easy to eat. The rigatoni-like pasta was suffused with a tomato-based sauce featuring homemade sausage, garlic and fontina. The sausage had a nice spice kick easily absorbed by the pasta. I tasted the Spaghetti al Limone, which was like a lemon grove. Olive oil and parmigiano were part of the mix, but lemon was the overwhelming essence.


The restaurant is beautiful and likely to be noisy when busy; fortunately, it wasn’t on our visit. I enjoy good conversation with my comfort food.

Terroni Downtown
Four Plates
802 S. Spring St.
Los Angeles

Never Too Old to Play   Leave a comment

I ‘m somewhat uncomfortable admitting that for all the years LEGO were scattered throughout my house, I used the plural and lower case (Legos) to identify the multi-colored blocks. Thankfully, Jonathan Bender has set me straight in his comprehensive book LEGO: A Love Story.
None of my sons live at home, but their LEGO are safely stored in multiple readily-accessible bins. I still have an MOC (My Own Creation, not from instructions) made by one of my sons as a gift on my dresser. Recently, my husband and I’ve been told it’s not Christmas without LEGO to build. I share this because LEGO have long been a part of my family. And we are not alone. According to Bender, in 2010, when his book was published, there were 62 LEGO bricks for every man, woman and child in the world.

Bender recalls his childhood fascination with the Danish-made pieces and his personal transformation to an AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO). He explains that LEGO developers acknowledge the Dark Ages, when kids quit playing with the bricks. However, Bender’s focus is on AFOLs and their worldwide presence. He travels to LEGO conventions, he visits LEGOLAND, the LEGO factory in Denmark, and interviews an assortment of LEGO designers, builders and collectors. Who knew of the various LEGO-related web sites, nor the impressive number of LEGO User Groups (LUGs – acronyms are big in this world).


Bender nimbly details the evolution of his passion for LEGO while also revealing a personal side-story about creating family.

LEGO: A Love Story
Four Bookmarks
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010
270 pages, including notes

No Tipping, No Kidding   Leave a comment


There’s nothing unusual about a restaurant banning credit cards, but the opposite is true at Brand 158: no cash. Even more unfamiliar is the concept of no tipping. That’s right, no tips, Zilch. Nada. While these atypical policies are hard to embrace; the real news is the quality and creativity of the food augmented by attentive servers.

Brand 158’s menu emphasizes ingenuity. Pastas, pizzas, salads, sandwiches (mostly, but not exclusively, wraps) and entrees including salmon, beef tenderloin and lamb are among the offerings at lunch and dinner.


More than a dozen variations of pizza are offered, and 158’s are imaginative departures from popular standards. Arugula is no longer necessarily a noteworthy topping, but it assumes some of its lost grandeur when blanketing caramelized pears, Italian Coppa salami, and pistachios on a white cheese sauce. The abundant toppings make it a difficult to eat this pizza with your hands, although the wheat crust could certainly have met the challenge of not folding under pressure. The pears, by the way, are pure genius.


Lobster Brioche featured what the menu described as “homemade mini brioche.” The light, yeast rolls were actually “branded” with B158, and with chunks of fresh lobster, lemon and dill provided the equivalent of lobster salad sliders. This came with a side of potato chips, which I usually ignore. These placed equal weight on their namesake – and were difficult to disregard.

Serving portions are large and it’s tempting to want to clean one’s plate. However, leftovers were a treat later.

Brand 158
Four Plates
158 S. Brand Blvd.
Glendale, Calif.

Two Kings Are Better Than One   2 comments


Fidel Castro is never identified by name in Cristina Garcia’s King of Cuba, but it’s easy to fill in that blank. The novel should be entitled The Kings of Cuba because the two main characters share a passion for the island nation and philandering. The difference is that one is a despot and the other an exile: the former in Cuba and the latter in Miami.

Both are nearing the end of their lives. Although El Commandante (also referred to as the tyrant and El Lider) remains vain, he can see his failing body reducing his political power. Goya Herrera wants nothing more than to help the tyrant’s life to a speedy conclusion. Goya’s disdain for the Cuban leader is tied to a lost love and living as an expatriate. It doesn’t matter that Goya’s life has been financially successful.

Alternating between El Commandante and Goya’s voice, other perspectives regarding Cuban history also are included in the form of footnotes. At first, this is annoying – as footnotes usually are. Eventually, they’re entertaining and edifying.

Goya’s family life is in ruins; his wife is deceased and his grown children have few positive attributes. By contrast, the tyrant has progeny he doesn’t even know about. The legacies they will leave behind are entirely shaped by the history they helped create. The tyrant led his country into a revolution that lasted 50 years, and the  businessman personifies the American Dream.

Garcia’s disarming narrative combines history with satire, and Castro’s presence is felt on every page.

King of Cuba
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Scribner 2013
235 pages

Top of the Class   4 comments


The distinction between a dining experience and consuming a meal is more than semantics. At Alma, Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant in America 2013, it’s an obvious dissimilarity.

Consider: the five- or seven-course menu are the only choices. Although asked about dietary restrictions, none were tested to see how they’d be resolved. For example, the New Zealand lamb is cooked to medium rare. If that was an issue, we were told, a substitution would be made. It was the chef’s way or not at all. Ultimately, the lamb, only a heartbeat away from a baahh, was melt-in-your mouth rich and tender enhanced by an almond milk sauce and new potatoes. Wait, I’m jumping ahead.


The repast comes with snacks: one-bite morsels worthy of larger plates. Mega-flavors are infused in pint-size portions. The first two snacks were previews of the creativity and range of textures/tastes awaiting our palates. My favorite was the quarter-size English muffin topped with burrata, uni and caviar. One bite wasn’t enough.

The meal featured smoked cod with Myer lemon and asparagus sauce; root vegetable soup poured over an egg yolk and Shitake mushrooms; octopus; the aforementioned lamb; and white chocolate semi-freddo with grapefruit and bitters. The final snack was a warm, glazed lemon curd-filled donut hole.

Alma exterior

Alma is inconspicuous; our server was vibrant and knowledgeable. The open kitchen is the size of a walk-in closet. Six chefs with varying duties choreographed a meal that will never be replicated. There’s no real menu.

The experience was enjoyable and enlightening; I ate everything. Still, it’s unlikely I’ll return. In a few weeks Alma will only offer a nine-course menu, further reducing the choices.

Four-and-a-half Plates
952 S. Broadway
Los Angeles, Calif.

Half a Review   Leave a comment



I’ve written once before about giving myself permission not to finish a book. I usually make the decision within the first 50 pages. I just stopped after 360 pages of Eleanor Catton’s 830 page tome, The Luminaries. The strange thing is, I will probably finish. Someday. Not now though; I have too many other books on my nightstand, and the library copy I’m reading is already overdue.

I can’t say it took me more than 300 pages to get into the 2013 Man Booker Prize winner, but it was no easy trek to make it that far, which is not even halfway.

The tale begins in January 1866 when Walter Moody arrives in a New Zealand mining town seeking his fortune. His first night in town finds him among 12 men ready to discuss a series of events to which they are all directly or tenuously connected. Catton pays meticulous attention to detail. Each character is exhaustively described from appearances, mannerisms, likes, dislikes, self-perceptions and reputation. Moody and company aren’t the novel’s only characters: a few women of mystery and ill-repute and several men who have either died or gone missing are also fastidiously introduced. Yet.

The relationships through business, friendship and happenstance actually do make for an interesting story. Hidden gold, lost fortunes, prejudices and the association of the characters is a maze. while easy to follow from one possible explanation only to be thwarted by another, is eventually, and finally, enthralling. I just hate to have library fines.

The Luminaries
Undecided on Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Co., 2013
360 pages of 830


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