Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My Everest: Butternut Squash Lasagna

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been scouring Jonathan Gold's list of the 99 best restaurants in Los Angeles (2010). This led me to a transcendent culinary experience that I now talk incessantly about to anyone who will listen, along with a failed attempt at recreation: butternut squash lasagna. 

Angeli Caffe is run by Evan Kleinman, esteemed chef and host of her own show on NPR, Good Food. A woman after my own heart, Evan studied Italian literature and film, as well as lived in Italy. I assume she fell head over heels as I did while I was there, and continued to explore a career as a chef. The author of several cookbooks (that I need to pick up), including Cucina Fresca and Cucina Rustica, Kleinman opened Angeli Caffe in 1984. Described as "simple rustic food in a modern environment", this brilliantly simple idea has been emulated by numerous chefs since its opening. Apparently, Evan also offers classes, another item on my list of things to do!

The restaurant boasts high beam ceilings, a hip, staggered wall of wine options, and close-knit tables. We settled on goat cheese stuffed eggplant rolls and calamari for appetizers. "Is calamari even Italian?" Quinn asked. Silly boy! Calamari is often served in the north of Italy and on the coast; I had some fantastic (and overpriced) calamari at a seaside caffe in Venice while I was traveling several years ago. Angeli's version blew most others out of the water. Rather than the often chewy, rushed calamari dishes I've tried in the past, the squid was tender and soft, melt in your mouth, served with a roasted tomato marinara that kept me going for more.  Though I was afraid I wouldn't have room for appetizers and my indulgent lasagna, Quinn and I devoured the entire plate!

Unfortunately, the eggplant rolls left much to be desired. The goat cheese overwhelmed the dish so we could barely taste the eggplant, which was underseasoned to begin with. We left those mostly untouched and waited for our entrees. Quinn ordered a bolognese dish, something I rarely do anymore unless I've heard rave reviews. My reasoning behind that is that once you've tasted bolognese from Bologna, everything else will pale in comparison. The sauce in its native city is so rich, with the tiniest bit of tomato but not much, it is an entirely different dish than the ones served in America. This dish was no exception. There's nothing wrong with it, per se, it's just nothing special. It seems like a basic meat and tomato sauce... something I can make myself in a quick minute. 

Then, finally, came bliss. The butternut squash lasagna is a seasonal dish that thankfully has carried over into February. Made with a fontina-beschamel sauce, the thin layers of lasagna melt together in the sublime way that lasagna in Rome does. Forget thick, tall blocks of ricotta and spinach. Authentic lasagna is a sloppy mess of sauce, lasagna, and vegetables. The sweetness of the squash and heavy delight of the creamy beschamel and cheese make for a coma-inducing meal. Topped with mixed mushrooms, this baby is one of the best dishes I've had (in America). After devouring the calamari and lasagna, I was in no shape to move, let alone order dessert. Next time though, the prospects look promising.

A few months ago, after my first experience with this delectable entree, I attempted to recreate it in the comfort of my own home. Having never made a beschamel sauce, the result was less than stellar. Since trying it again, I have more of an idea of the ratios and tastes involved in cloning the perfect butternut squash lasagna. Whenever I make my way to Angeli Caffe again, I'll have to bypass my favorite dish in order to try something new; they're famous for their pizza, so I'll have to find the ultimate one!

Angeli Caffe
7274 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046


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