November 30, 2012 by Gennefer Gross
Despite the fact that Los Angeles is the birthplace of Hollywood, there are few places that still embody the old world glamour of yesteryear, an age where women dressed to the nines and dining out was a celebration of food, not the Bravo Top Chef who prepared it or the hot spot among bloggers. The Walk of Fame is now crawling with costumed superheroes trolling for tips and tourists who think the ‘Rat Pack’ refers to Vincent Chase’s entourage. And Restaurants have become part of a PR machine selected by social media buzz and the experience has been reduced to often incoherent rants on Yelp.
Yet, nestled within the the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, is Oliverio Restaurant, a palm tree-flanked oasis where time stands still. Where you’d expect ‘Ol Blue Eyes and his chums to be sipping Bourbon as they gaze upon the gams of aspiring Hollywood starlets. Where Marilyn Monroe (who actually lived there back in 1952) might be lounging by the pool or a debonair Don Draper dazzling a potential client over drinks. It’s a living museum, and within it beats the heart of a passionate chef who just wants to cook delicious food.
So, don’t expect fancy foams or smoking liquid nitrogen coming out of Chef Mirko Paderno’s kitchen. His dishes aren’t aided by science, they’re fueled by love… and you can taste it in every flavorful bite.
I first sampled Chef Mirko’s food at the Los Angeles Food & Wine festival this past summer, where his braised veal cheek in gorgonzola cream sauce was my favorite morsel of the event, a fork-tender piece of meat that literally melted in my mouth. I remember being struck by how juicy it was and surprised that a bold cheese like gorgonzola didn’t overpower the delicate veal. Chef Mirko remarked that evening that it was all about “showcasing the star of the dish” and “respecting the ingredients,” allowing them to “come alive on the plate.” And come alive they did. In big, bold bursts. The likes of which you can conjure long after they’re gone because they leave that strong of an impression, and for me, it was one that lingered on my palate for months until I had the privilege of enjoying a six-course feast prepared by the man himself at Oliverio Restaurant last week.
Chef Mirko calls the way he cooks, “no frills,” but I I’d call it, “no fillers.” Each course was presented simply, free of elaborate garnishes on crisp white plates that allowed the star — his food — to shine.
The first course, uni and spicy tuna tartare was simple, fresh and vibrant. The uni was rich and velvety with just a few sprinkles of sea salt to bring out its natural essence, allowing you to appreciate that hint of sweetness as it gently hugs your tongue. And the smooth smack of spice from the tender tuna tartare awakened the taste buds. The perfect start to an unforgettable meal.
The second course was a study in sheer indulgence, gently lulling you with the silky strum of winter truffle juice that languidly coated every glistening bead of caviar. Unlike traditional caviar that tends to be crunchy in texture with a potent punch of saltiness, these bubbles of bliss were subtle in taste, floating across your mouth like whipped pearls of ice cream with nutty notes that paired beautifully with the creaminess of Chef Mirko’s housemade burrata.
After two luxurious courses, Chef Mirko kicked it up a notch with a hearty bowl of chunky lobster soup. The broth was earthy and full-bodied with a rustic comfort that made you feel warm and cozy inside. The ripe black olives were a lovely complement to the sweetness of the lobster while the acidity of the capers and smoky tang of the charred cippolini onions added new dimensions of flavor. The mix of textures also enhanced this dish, gliding from the sponginess of the lobster to the plumpness of the olives to the crunch of the onions, resulting in satisfying spoonful after spoonful.
When it comes to truffles, I’m of the opinion that there’s no such thing as too much, and the fourth course proved me right. Beneath a lavishly thick pile of shaved white truffles, sat a dense swirl of hand-cut pasta, coated in truffle butter sauce (yes, more truffle) with a touch of cream and crumbles of housemade sausage. The pasta was a perfect al dente, and the sausage scattered throughout had just the right pop of salt to enhance the blanket of cream enveloping it. This dish is pure luxury, but lacks the pretense you might expect from nearly two pounds of truffles.
The penultimate course crystallized Chef Mirko’s culinary journey for me. We started off dancing along the surface with soft kisses of flavor, building gradually with deeper intensity… and here came the embrace. Like a soul-enriching squeeze from your chubby Italian grandma, this sinful Saffron risotto sticks to your bones. It’s soothing, gooey starch bound together with intermingling flavors of butter, white wine and parmagiano cheese. It tastes like… home.
And as you settle into the food equivalent of a comfy sofa, Chef Mirko whips out one final dose of decadence in the form of twelve cuts of succulent Akaushi beef. The phrase ‘fat(ty) and happy’ would be apt here given the richly marbled meat that imparts a buttery, almost bone marrow, flavor. Crusted with rosemary and finished off with a few splashes of EVOO and you have a carnivore’s juicy dream.
At this point, I’m completely smitten with Chef Mirko’s cooking, and enabled by his high octane homemade limoncello, begin to blather on about what a genius he is and how impressed I am. He smiles softly. There’s a gleam in his eye — it’s not pride, though I know he’s proud I enjoyed the meal so immensely. It’s not arrogance, though he has plenty to be arrogant about. It’s delight. He is genuinely delighted at my response. It’s what drives him to cook the way he does and what fulfills him when he watches his guests savoring his food. He is humble and gracious, sharing stories of his childhood in Milan, growing up in the kitchen and how happy it made him. It’s not his job. It’s his passion. It’s who he is.
In LA, there is no shortage of five-star restaurants and premiere chefs performing culinary acrobatics in the name of creative cuisine, but there are few who do what Chef Mirko does. And like the silent films of the golden age of Hollywood that the Avalon Hotel pays homage to, Oliverio Restaurant is a blockbuster. Without all the noise.