Friday, October 8, 2010

One Night at Cleo...

What started as a biff this week, turned into one of the best nights I've had in a while.

My wonderful friend Howie designed the titles for Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps and invited a bunch of folks to get together, watch the movie and celebrate his success with drinks afterward. So me and my girl Rachel head to the Arclight only to discover that not only were we 18 minutes late for the movie; we're a week late for the party. D'oh! Howie changed the date and I was so swamped with work, I didn't realize. Starved for both food and each other's company, it'd been weeks since we'd had a good catch-up, Rachel and I set out for the new Redbury at Hollywood and Vine to get drinks and tapas-sized munchies at Cleo instead.

We saddled up to the bar (no waiting and loads of individual attention from our wonderful bartender, Dan) and got to perusing the menu. But they only gave us one so this was my view as Rachel read the drinks and I read the savory courses.

Dan documented our ordering teamwork with the gentle glow of Cleo behind us.

Unlike some of SBE's locations, Cleo feels warm and homey, less of a club and more like the living room of a stately manor, complete with your grandma's china. The restaurant's dinnerware was all ordered from Ebay so it's mismatched but beautiful and oddly familiar. The Chateau Marmont used to do the same thing with their tea cups and, in my opinion, lost a great deal of their charm when they switched to more modern, matching, streamlined cups.

Cleo's menu is tapas by way of the Mediterranean with leaning into the Middle East thanks to ingredients like Za'atar, a favorite since I was a child. When I was a kid, my family would take trips to Israel and we'd always have to stop by the Old City so my parents could buy baggies of the spice, which consists largely of sumac, sesame, cumin and oregano, to bring back to New York. It was treated like sacred olive green dust in my house.

At Cleo, Za'atar clings to melted butter brushed over hot housemade bread fresh from their wood-burning oven. Fragrant, doughy and glistening with just the right amount of grease, the bread can be plunged into a variety of dips, the most popular being labneh (a Middle Eastern strained yogurt) and feta. A little bit of Greece with a detour through Persia, if you will.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we got into food, we had to get into drinks and Cleo is part of the current mixology trend to use all fresh fruit juices and wild flavor combinations. Looking at a drink menu where everything in $14 bucks, it gives me pause. But when we took the first sip of this strawberry and basil cocktail, every penny seemed worth it.

Refreshing and deceptively strong, this bad boy had danger written all over it. It's the kind of thing you could slurp down in five minutes, have three of and suddenly realize you can't feel your legs. So damn good.

Next, we had the beet salad (I've yet to meet a beet I didn't love) which featured golden and red beets, candied walnuts, arugula, frisee, avocado and fennel fronds in a sweet-tart pomegranate molasses vinaigrette...
...Which was so delicious, I dipped the ultra-thin crust of our wood-fired flatbread with mini artichoke hearts, potatoes and wilted dandelion greens that blended a slight bitterness with creamy earthiness, into the leftover dressing.

Next, dessert arrived; a baklava-inspired apple strudel, with walnuts and honey syrup resting inside the phyllo crust, and yogurt sorbet, light and refreshing.

Happily sated, the only thing left to do was a mini-Cleo photo shoot. Our bar-mate buddy Michael tried directing us, but his ideas included things like, "Grab each other's boobs," and we weren't about to go there. This was as close as we got for his viewing pleasure.

We abandoned the bar and headed home, but not before a quick stop in the lobby for some atmospheric posing...

And a little executive realness. FYI: Those shoes I'm wearing are from Ebay too.

Rose Water and Orange Blossom Baklava
makes 16 servings


1 pound walnuts, lightly toasted and roughly ground in a food processor or blender
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 package phyllo pastry
1 cup unsalted butter, melted

1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
Zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon Rose Water
1 teaspoon Orange Blossom Water

Preheat oven to 350.

Combine walnuts, cinnamon and sugar and set aside.

In the bottom of a greased 9 by 13 pan, place one layer of phyllo and brush liberally with butter. Repeat six more times, buttering each delicate layer, until you have 7 layers of phyllo. Spoon 1/3 nut mixture over phyllo and top with 5 more individually buttered sheets of phyllo. Repeat the process two more times and finish with 7 layers of phyllo. Brush final layer with butter and bake for 50 minutes, until golden brown.

While baklava is baking, make syrup by boiling all ingredients together for 10 minutes.

Remove baklava from oven and pour syrup over it. Cut into squares or diamonds and serve.

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