Portland Food Adventure at Mediterranean Exploration Company: A Sneak Peek

If you  consider yourself a Portland “foodie” and haven’t heard of Mediterranean Exploration Company, then you’re obviously slacking on your Eater PDX feed.

Regardless, the keywords about MEC that you need to know to get the gist: John Gorham, The Revolving Door of Restaurants on NW 13th and Flanders, and Greek potatoes. John Gorham, the culinary sheikh behind Tasty n Sons, Tasty n Alder and Toro Bravo recently took over the former Riffle space; painted the walls an extremely favourableTiffany turquoise (aka The Nines Hotel’s signature hue) and revamped it into a clean, industrial chic restaurant peppered with a street sign in Hebrew here and there.

True to it’s name, MEC’s menu is a blend of locavore bounty fused into traditional Mediterranean dishes (mostly focusing on the Jewish side of Middle Eastern cuisine). If you’ve tried any of Gorham’s other restaurants you will see some crossover in terms of ingredients and style- for instance MEC has it’s own rendition of radicchio salad (there’s a mean one at the two Tasty’s if you didn’t know).

Since I accidentally slept through the MEC Preview Party a couple of Sundays back and suffered the subsequent Instagram-induced FOMO, I decided to attend the Portland Food Adventures dinner last Wednesday to get a taste of the Pearl District’s newest destination. The menu, as has been the case with each PFA I’ve attended was far from skimpy:

Mediterranean Exploration Company's Menu for the Portland Food Adventures Dinner
Mediterranean Exploration Company’s Menu for the Portland Food Adventures Dinner

Upon entry, I was greeted with a refreshing Moroccan Spritz craft cocktail, a plate of olives and some scrumptious fried tomato fritters. Forgive me for prioritising my hunger levels over getting a photo of the fritter- just envision an ambiguously shaped fried tidbit.

Moroccan Spritz Cocktail with Olives

As I’ve mentioned previously, my mother is Saudi-Palestinian and I grew up a decent portion of my life in Dubai. As a result of this upbringing, I’m incredibly discriminating on what I consider to be stellar Middle Eastern food. The term ‘Middle Eastern food’ itself is rather vague anyhow as it encompasses a plethora of different sub-cultures and their regional cuisine; much which is unbeknownst to most Western palates. Besides, Middle Eastern cuisine is often categorized as Mediterranean cuisine (particularly Greek)- and while there are some similarities in ingredients and structure within a meal; they are quite different when done authentically. Plus, “Mediterranean Cuisine,” in it of itself has just as much variety.

From my understanding, Gorham isn’t necessarily trying to make MEC into a 100% accurate emulation of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine but to rather inspire local bounty with those flavors and combine them with a few of the traditional staples. For instance topping hummus with a lamb ragu- a play on the traditional lamb or chicken shawarma topping.

In the first set of courses, we got to sample a variety of dishes that I would compare to Mezze (small typically vegan/vegetarian dips and bites that make up an appetiser course):

 From the initial courses, my favourites were the fried cauliflower with labneh and the radicchio salad (because I’m a sucker for radicchio salads as my neverending love affair with the Nostrana salad can confirm). The Vered Hagalil salad was a fresh and welcome component considering it was a hot summer day, however I found it to be a little bland- perhaps a little bit more acidity and seasoning would put it right on the money. I’d also say the same about the trio of dips and pita- the textures were on-point; the pita full of the right amount of stretchy chewy doughy bliss and the dips just the right amount of chunky. The only thing was the bread could have used a bit more salt and the dips, a little more seasoning and oomph.

If you’re a fan of seafood, then you will love the offerings at MEC. I’m a relatively new fan of seafood (and still a slightly hesitant one). I admit I’ve never eaten something with it’s head attached and I also tend to avoid octopus or anything else that I might have to chew a few seconds too long. The calamari however was great! Lightly fried, not fishy in the least and fabulously balanced with the acidity of the ouzo, lemon and tomato sauce. The Chreime (Tripolitany Jewish Fish Stew) was also a pleasant surprise- I initially expected some sort of soup full of various ambiguous sea creatures but instead I got a generous portion of lean white fish dunked in what seemed to be a harissa type of sauce.

Being the carnivore I was born to be, the final set of savory courses was my favourite. And a huge part of it may surprisingly have been due to the potatoes- scrumptious Greekified steak frites roasted in a melange of spices. The lamb chops were also beautifully seasoned- and in some of my favourite flavours- oregano, garlic and lemon. As for the lamb ragu and hummus- I wanted to be impressed and being the hummus and meat fiend I am, I had been looking forward to this course. However, I do admit I found the hummus to be a little underwhelming, I’d like to go back and taste it again without the background noise of all the prior courses, but I found the texture to be a bit stiff and lacking the creamy viscous-ness that I associate with the world’s favourite chickpea dip.

Dessert however…

Rose Water Panna Cotta with pistachio caramel and accompanied by Marco di Bartolia Marsala Superiore
Rose Water Panna Cotta with pistachio caramel and accompanied by Marco di Bartolia Marsala Superiore

Yes! This dessert course was a winner; light and guilt-less and a harmonious way to pair rosewater and pistachios. Along with dessert, per the usual PFA protocol each guest was presented with an envelope of goodies; goodies in the form of giftcards to three of Gorham’s favourite establishments. And really, I couldn’t be more excited about the selection we received:

1) A $20 Dining Certificate to Ringside Steakhouse (or Fish House)

2) A $10 Gift Card to Måurice; an adorable new lunch and gourmet dessert cafe

3) A $20 Gift Certificate to Serratto

Really, if you’re looking for an evening out on the town savouring the bounty of Portland’s best chefs in the company of other food-admirers, then attending a Portland Food Adventure is the way to go. You get a lengthy tasting menu with drink pairings and $50 worth of gift certificates so you can go and find another new favourite place. This particular PFA was priced at $125 and you can see which other ones are on the docket for the next couple of months so that you can plan out your next date night right at this link!

A huge thanks to Chef John Gorham and his lovely wife, Renee for hosting this delectable event and I look forward to trying MEC again in the near future. They will be open limited hours Wednesday-Sunday from 5:30-10 PM on a walk-in basis from July 16th-July 31st and will begin taking reservations on August 1st!

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Portland Food Adventures: A Night at Ataula

Ataula is about five minutes from my office. It’s a small, slightly hidden restaurant right off NW Thurman on NW 23rd Place across the street from the Food Front Co-op. I’ve heard rave reviews about this tapas spot- from both the press as well as my boss, who himself is a regular; yet for one reason or another it was not until last night that I made it in to experience the culinary prowess of Chef Jose Chesa myself.

Open Kitchen
Open Kitchen
Gorgeous wraparound bar
Gorgeous wraparound bar

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Chris Angelus, of Portland Food Adventures informed me that this event still had space last week, and given that Ataula has been on my “To Eat” list for some time now, I decided to spring for the seat. Portland Food Adventures creates events at various restaurants 1-3 times per month where you can fully experience and immerse yourself into this city’s remarkable culinary landscape through private multi-course meal and drink pairings guided by the chef themselves. In addition, the chef selects three restaurants that they personally like to frequent in Portland that guests receive gift certificates to at the end of the meal. Sounds pretty awesome, huh? This is the third time I’ve had the honour to be invited to such a fantastic event- for posts on my other two times you can click the links below:

Hokusei- June, 2013

Grassa- June, 2013

Anyhow, on to Ataula! I arrived last night at 6PM sharp, which was a remarkable feat given the slush-fest that Portland still is. While I knew Chris would be in attendance, I was also pleasantly surprised to run into (and be seated with) Heather Jones (of Heather Jones Consulting) and Lisa Hill (of Lisa Hill PR). I’ve attended several events in the past hosted by Heather’s and Lisa’s clients so as usual, it was fantastic to share a meal with them.

Upon arriving, I was greeted with a much much needed cocktail:

Warmed cachaca, hibiscus, lime/lemon juice, citrus bitters
Warmed cachaca, hibiscus, lime/lemon juice, citrus bitters

This cocktail was absolutely delicious; and even better that it was warmed- as big of a hot toddy fan I have become, I think I would choose one of these any day over it. And in case you’re wondering, it was created by the ever so talented mixologist, Angel Teta (who was formerly at Raven and Rose).

The Menu for the night
The Menu for the night

Prior to the first course, we were given an amuse bouche of a chorizo lollipop stuffed with goat cheese, some grilled bread with olive oil and sea salt, and an apertif- this one a vermouth soda mixed with some angosutra bitters and salt:

And voila, the first course:

Course 1: Remolacha + Queso Fresco: Pickled beets, organic greens, tarragon-house made ricotta, walnuts, asian pear, kale chips
Course 1: Remolacha + Queso Fresco: Pickled beets, organic greens, tarragon-house made ricotta, walnuts, asian pear, kale chips

The salad was a fantastic starter course- fresh and full of textures. I was particularly enthused about the candied walnut addition- reminded me a bit of the sunflower seed brittle that Imperial uses in their kale salad.

Prior to the second course, Chef Jose (who by the way was Eater’s 2013 Chef of the Year) came out to tell us a little bit about himself and the purpose of Ataula. Chef Jose was raised outside Barcelona and has worked and lived in several major cities around the world, but him and his wife recently decided to make Portland home. He describes the cuisine of Ataula as “Spanish Catalan cuisine with a modern twist.” As for the name of the restaurant, Ataula is loosely derived from the French term “A table,” meaning, “at the table,” meant to invite customers to come in and feel like they’re part of a family. The ambiance and service is definitely spot on to that mission and many of the dishes on the menu are indeed served family style to encourage a meal of sharing and social interaction.

And, onto course 2!

Mini Rossejat Negre: Toasted noodles, calamari, squid ink, sofrito, harissa aioli, parsley oil
Mini Rossejat Negre: Toasted noodles, calamari, squid ink, sofrito, harissa aioli, parsley oil
Mont Marcal, Brut Cava Reserva, 2010
Mont Marcal, Brut Cava Reserva, 2010

The toasted noodles was definitely a fascinating dish; I was definitely a fan of the melange of flavours and textures ranging from crunchy to chewy to meaty. The harissa aioli also gave it a touch of subtle heat.

Moving onto Course #3, one of the more well known traditionally Spanish dishes: Paella

Paella Ataula: Bomba rice, prawns, mussels, calamari, clams, saffron picada, lobster fumet
Paella Ataula: Bomba rice, prawns, mussels, calamari, clams, saffron picada, lobster fumet
Valdespino Fino, Inocente, Single Vineyard
Valdespino Fino, Inocente, Single Vineyard

The pairing with the Paella was a type of sherry; rather potent but a suitable matching for the dish. I personally am not a huge rice person, but I enjoyed the paella- it reminded me a lot of Cabsa, a traditional Saudi dish made from rice, vegetables and meat then served family style. Plus, I loved the abundance of seafood.

Course 4:

The fourth course was definitely a rich one- essentially a Catalan version of canneloni, pasta enveloping tender chicken in a rich bechamel-like sauce. While I did enjoy it, it was certainly a heavy dish especially considering the abundance of rice and noodles in the menu as was. If I were to change one course on Chef Jose’s itinerary I would perhaps substitute this one with something lighter and more veggie-abundant.

And for the final savoury course…

Meloso Cremoso: Lamb shoulder, creamy rice, butternut squash, onions, cabbage, smoked bacon
Meloso Cremoso: Lamb shoulder, creamy rice, butternut squash, onions, cabbage, smoked bacon

Despite being less photogenic than some of the other courses, this may have been my favourite course of the night. I would describe it best as “beautifully executed comfort food.” The creamy rice was essentially an al dente risotto mixed with a heaping serving of tenderly braised lamb and veggies- the best possible combination of textures and tastes for a snowy subzero type of evening. Somehow, I finished the whole thing and still had room for dessert…

Xuixos de Crema: House pastry fritter, crema catalana
Xuixos de Crema: House pastry fritter, crema catalana

When was the last time I had a pastry? Probably 2012; but I would come back for this any day- this fritter is essentially a Spanish rendition of a croissant; chewy buttery stretchy dough coated in cinnamon and sugar and perfect all by itself. And yes, ate all of that too so see you all at 24 in the Pearl later tonight.

And to conclude the night, each guest was awarded with gift certificates to Irving Street Kitchen (yay one of my favourites!), Besaws and Fifty Licks! Definitely a fantastic selection of spots that I will be hitting up soon! If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to one of the upcoming PFAs, tickets are still available for the two upcoming events at Cocotte and The American Local!

And finally, a huge thank you to Chef Jose for creating such an impeccable Monday night supper experience, and to Chris for hosting!

Chef Jose and Chris
Chef Jose and Chris

Click below for:

Ataula’s Website

Ataula’s Twitter

Ataula’s Facebook Page

Ataula on Urbanspoon

Hokusei: Nine Courses of Sea Creatures & Sake

I have been spoiled on the culinary front this week.

On Monday I scarfed a cheeseburger at Clyde Common for lunch followed by a fantastic spread of salads, pastas, and wine at Ava Genes; then last night I spent four and a half hours at Hokusei indulging in a nine course supper facilitated by Portland Food Adventures.

I arrived to Hokusei, a small-ish sushi and omakase eatery on 44th and Belmont at around 6:15 PM to be greeted by the lovely Chris Angelus of PFA who assured me that he had seated me for the night at ‘The Fun Table.’ Like the PFA event at Grassa last week, I showed up not having known anyone but in anticipation of an evening of banter, beverage, and delightful cuisine.

I was seated besides Alyssa, Lauren, Kyle, Adrienne, and Andrew- a group of friends who regularly frequent Portland Food Adventures and had even formed some of their friendships with one another at  prior event. They were all very friendly, full of hilarious anecdotes and stories, and just as into sampling unique culinary delights as myself.

Mozuku Sunamono: Seaweed, Cucumber, Tako, & Vinegar paired with Shooting Stars Champagne Cocktail
The Starter Course- Mozuku Sunamono: Seaweed, Cucumber, Tako, & Vinegar paired with Shooting Stars Champagne Cocktail
Artwork against the back wall
Artwork against the back wall
Ankimo: Monkfish liver, sumiso, ginger, and caviar and a touch of truffle oil (paired with Schichihon Yari-Shgia)
Ankimo: Monkfish liver, sumiso, ginger, and caviar and a touch of truffle oil (paired with Schichihon Yari-Shgia)

This course was delightful! I’ve never tried Monkfish liver and admittedly it’s only in the past year or so that I have developed such a liking for various pates and livers; however this was paired deliciously with a truffled miso sauce and tinge of ginger, chive, and caviar.

Chris introducing us to the Chef, Kaoru Ishii
Chris introducing us to the Chef, Kaoru Ishii
Hiyashi Chawanmushi: Cold egg and dashi custard, crab, scallop, uni, and gingko nut paired with Yuri Masumune-Akita
Hiyashi Chawanmushi: Cold egg and dashi custard, crab, scallop, uni, and gingko nut paired with Yuri Masumune-Akita

As a “food blogger” I sometimes perceive that the stereotype dictates that I should be absolutely adoring and raving about the dishes which would appeal to the most limited selection of palates. However, I will be fully honest about this custard: It was not up my alley. It was certainly unique and visually appealing, but I’m not incredibly crazy about ultra fishy aromas and flavours. The orange organism atop the custard is the uni (my table mate Kyle described it to me as being the gonads of a sea urchin) and underneath the uni hidden in the custard are mysterious chunks of scallop, crab, and gingko nut. Definitely an interesting dish.

Saba Misoni: 10 hour braised saba in hacho miso paired with Eiko Fuji Honkara
Saba Misoni: 10 hour braised saba in hacho miso paired with Eiko Fuji Honkara

Saba, a sort of mackerel is another fish I’ve seen constantly on Japanese restaurant menus but have never taken the initiative to try. This course was not slimy or fishy in the least, in fact the braising of the fish fully absorbed the sweet flavour of the hacho miso and was an enjoyable contrast to the fresh herbs atop.

Beef Carpaccio: Painted Hills New York strip, ginger, garlic, chives, yuzu, olive oil, soy, sesame oil paired with Eiko Fuji Ban Ryu-Yamagata
Beef Carpaccio: Painted Hills New York strip, ginger, garlic, chives, yuzu, olive oil, soy, sesame oil paired with Eiko Fuji Ban Ryu-Yamagata

At the risk of sounding super vanilla, the carpaccio may have been my favourite dish. The seasoning was so delicate and multifaceted encompassing most of my favourite seasonings (namely garlic and giner with a little citrus accent). I would probably come back to Hokusei to get five of these (and that’s not an exaggeration by any means).

Chilean Sea Bass Yuan Yaki: Soy, mirin, garlic, ginger and yuzu zest paired with Maboroshi Junmai Ginjo
Chilean Sea Bass Yuan Yaki: Soy, mirin, garlic, ginger and yuzu zest paired with Maboroshi Junmai Ginjo

This was another splendid course; the stalk on top is ginger pickled at the end to cleanse your palate prior to and after consuming the little filet of fish. I loved the charred and perfectly flaky texture of the sea bass and once again the delightful garlic/ginger/yuzu marinade. Splendid.

Ebi Shinjo Age: Shrimp dumpling, myoga, and osuimono
Ebi Shinjo Age: Shrimp dumpling, myoga, and osuimono

To translate (or what I believe would be a translation), the accompaniments to the itty shrimp dumpling were peas, a shiitake mushroom and ginger blossom strands. This dish was a refreshing contrast to the otherwise meat heavy prior courses. Plus the ultra umami broth was superb for post-accompaniment-consumption slurping (or drinking gracefully rather).

Bara Zushi: Assorted fish, shiitake mushrooms, cucumber, gourd, tamago over sushi rice. Paired with Morimoto Imperial Pilsner
Bara Zushi: Assorted fish, shiitake mushrooms, cucumber, gourd, tamago over sushi rice. Paired with Morimoto Imperial Pilsner

As you can see, the farther in the courses we go, the worse the quality of the photos get. I would tell you it’s because of all the sake in the prior courses but in reality it’s just that the sun was almost completely set at this point and my ipad camera is not exactly of DSLR calibre.

Anyhow, this dish was a lovely ending to the savoury courses of the night; it was entree-sized and by the time it came I was most certainly ready for a carbohydrate appearance.

Chocolate Pot de Creme: Chocolate mousse, creme anglaise, and fresh berries paired with a Strawberry Rye Manhattan
Chocolate Pot de Creme: Chocolate mousse, creme anglaise, and fresh berries paired with a Strawberry Rye Manhattan

And…dessert! While not the most Japanese of sweets, this was such a delectable little pot that it even reinstated my recently M.I.A. sweet tooth. And don’t be fooled by the berry-esque hue of that Rye Manhattan, one sip was all I needed to realise that the strawberry:whiskey ratio was somewhere in the vicinity of 1:10

All my 25% consumed sake and cocktail pairings
All my 25% consumed sake and cocktail pairings

As you can see, eight beverage pairings was all too much for me; next time I attend a PFA I may need to bring a friend as my designated cocktail-consumer since I only consumed around 22% of all the libations provided to me. I also would like to thank the fantastic staff at Hokusei for allowing me to accumulate all my cups throughout the night so that I can Instagram this lovely image.

Gift certificates to Levant, Sok Sab Bai, and Chiang Mai
Gift certificates to Levant, Sok Sab Bai, and Chiang Mai

And the fourth coolest part of the night (meaning besides the food, beverage, and company) is that each of the guests were provided with gift certificates to three restaurants of the Chef’s choice. While I’ve been to Levant and Chiang Mai and adore them both, I have not yet had the opportunity to try Sok Sab Bai, a new Cambodian restaurant which recently converted from having been a food cart.

I have to say that I had an incredible time at Hokusei last night and truly enjoyed spending my Tuesday evening at another Portland Food Adventure. I also would like to sincerely thank the mysterious gentleman who invited me to partake in this lovely “foodie” experience and thus provided me with the chance to try the unique specialties of another fantastic Portland restaurant.

While the $125 ticket price for this event (and most other PFA events) may seem like a splurge; you do get around $50 worth of gift certificates along with an extremely immaculate and high quality menu of courses and way more beverages than you would dare ask for.

For more information on upcoming/past Portland Food Adventures, check out their site here!

Hokusei Sushi on Urbanspoon

Macaroni & Negronis: A Preview of Grassa

One of the coolest things about being a so-called ‘food blogger’ is that you never know who is going to read your posts, relate to your words, and reach out.

Yeah, I love to dine out and write about it later for fun, but of course it is always exciting to be contacted by the Portland community with opportunities and invitations to attend events and try new establishments/products.

My post a couple of weeks back regarding my ‘final lunch break’ pre-unemployment at Lardo ended up receiving the attention of a very kind and prolific Portland foodie who asked Chris Angelus of Portland Food Adventures to contact me with an invitation to an event at Hokusei, a renown sushi/omakase establishment on June 11th as a very generous gesture to brighten up my day due to my recent job lay-off situation. Of course, I accepted because who am I to turn down an opportunity to have a six course Omakase supper and beverage event prepared by Chef Kaoru Ishii?

In addition to that, Chris from PFA also invited me himself to an experiential Pasta-making and dining event last night at Grassa, a restaurant slated to open next Wednesday at the Indigo building sandwiched between Lardo and Racion.

Menu for the evening
Menu for the evening

Chris’ best chef friend is Rick Gencarelli, the mastermind behind Lardo who in the past year has transformed it from a simple sandwich food cart into two brick and mortar establishments and is now opening his third dine-in restaurant, Grassa venturing into the territory of fresh pasta (which they also intend to sell retail along with some of their house made sauces).

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Anitpasti Salad: Olympic Provisions Meats, Mama's Lil Peppers, White Beans, Oregano, Red Wine Vinaigrette
Anitpasti Salad: Olympic Provisions Meats, Mama’s Lil Peppers, White Beans, Oregano, Red Wine Vinaigrette

There were approximately thirty attendants at the event and we were seated at two communal tables placed between the Open Kitchen and the ceiling-floor length windows facing SW Washington Street. Pre-pasta making we were all supplied with delicious Negronis, Bicyclettes, and a couple of appetisers to hold our appetite for the next hour. And of course, everything was served family style and in great abundance.

Fritto Misto: Calamari, Fennel Lemon, Calabrian Chiles
Fritto Misto: Calamari, Fennel Lemon, Calabrian Chiles

I admit I am normally not a fan of octopus, but this fritto misto was delectable, especially with the tad of fire from the calabrian chiles and the two un-pictured dipping remoulades.

Pasta Making
Pasta Making

My mum would be so proud of me, I got to put on an apron and stuff little Mezzaluna pastas with a ricotta/parmesan filling…yes, my first few were deformed but then again this was my very first time attempting to stuff pasta.

Super Awesome Pasta Making Machine
Super Awesome Pasta Making Machine
View of the Open Kitchen
View of the Open Kitchen
Mezzaluna filled with ricotta and tossed with brown butter and sage
Mezzaluna filled with ricotta and tossed with brown butter and sage

This was hands down my favourite dish! The sage was fried in the same method that Lardo next door does with their herbs on their French Fries and the brown butter and parmesan with the pasta was delightful in the simplest of manners. I could probably eat this every day and never get bored.

Squid Ink Chitara: Chorizo Butter, Charred Octopus, Preserved Lemon
Squid Ink Chitara: Chorizo Butter, Charred Octopus, Preserved Lemon

And here I was once again faced with chunks of charred octopus, and quite frankly it was fantastic and not slimy in the least; I’m beginning to think I need to give the tentacled creature another chance in every day ordering…

Radiatore with tomato braised chicken, crisp skin, ricotta, basil
Radiatore with tomato braised chicken, crisp skin, ricotta, basil

Being a fiend for anything with chicken and ricotta, this was another fantastic yet simple dish; a very slightly fancified version of pasta with tomato sauce.

Tiramisu
Tiramisu
The Radiatore and container of fresh Marinara I got to take home
Take-Aways

At the end of the night, Rick had a table set up with all the various pasta shapes and a choice of Marinara or Bolognese sauce for us to take home. Being a fan of the ‘radiator’ shaped radiatore, I selected that one along with a tub of fresh marinara.

While I was definitely the youngest person at the Grassa PFA, I had a great time meeting and commiserating with my fellow attendees over a delicious meal. I admit I still sometimes get a little nervous about going to events where I know I will not know anyone, but with a communal seating arrangement and unlimited negroni flow you’re guaranteed to start a conversation with your neighbour and have a grand old time (which I most certainly did).

Thanks again to Chris from PFA for the gracious invitation, for Chef Gencarelli for providing us with such a fantastic hands-on dining experience, and to the lovely staff at Grassa for keeping us well-fed and hydrated. If you’re looking for the next Italian hotspot on the Westside, be sure to check out Grassa when it opens next week!

You can also stay in the loop on all Grassa new through their Twitter and Facebook pages!