On the occasion of three best friends from high school getting together for an end-of-the-year dinner, I chose Angeli Cafe on Melrose. After all, we all hit the big 50 in '05 and it was one of the very few restaurants still around from when we last saw each other. (Not to mention that the three of us grew up eating La Barbera's Pizza.) The rustic simplicity of the menu, the intimate urban setting and the affordable prices made it a perfect choice. It's the kind of place you might frequent in college or, in this case, much later in life. Evan Kleiman was off this night but the beet and ricotta gnocchi were sublime in a light coating of brown butter and sage for $12.25 and the mushroom risotto for $13 is one of the town's best. We all started with a veritable farmer's market of fresh tender beets and melt-in-your-mouth burrata for $10 that more than satisfied but had one friend commenting, "It's just beets and burrata," two foods I'm happy to let speak for themselves. Our one vegetarian friend was not too upset that the waiter had forgotten his forte, having filled up on the warm fresh bread and a flavorful minestrone for $5 but as an unnecessary gesture we were treated to a fig and walnut tart that we somehow all found room for.
Walking into the recently renovated Il Grano in W.L.A. nearly a year since my last meal there, I was struck by the new elegant look of the place. This is a design, unlike so many others, that really seems to want to help you to relax and not stand at attention. A quasi business lunch, I took my cue from the host, sat back and enjoyed the parade. We started with a crudo plate of scallop, snapper, Blue Fin tuna, toro and octopus that was simply amazing in both texture and flavor. Next came the one large Maine scallop with sea urchin and kale in a light buerre blanc. A linguini with Dungeness crab had the right saltiness while my favorite course (along with the crudo) was the crispy Japanese sea bass with cauliflower. Dessert came in the form of a cookie plate that included great shortbread and chocolate riches and that I found more satisfying than many destination cookie plates. As with Angeli, bread deserves a special mention here: perfect warm croissant shaped mini rolls with a great crustiness and soft center. I was a guest but it would be my guess that a meal like this would go for, what, $50-$65? You'd probably know better than I.