Thanks to Yelp's recommendations, I found out about Cafe Carolina in Encino. Because the reviews were so good, I took a risk and invited friends to join my husband and me last night. (*You can skip this tangent & go on to Cafe Carolina's review if you like) I always get a little nervous asking people to join me for dinner at a place I've yet to try. We did that once before and the evening was a complete embarrassment - so bad, I felt like I needed to pay my friends back for the evening. Basically, I had the wacky idea to meet at a fondue place in the valley. Who knew some cubes of bread, slices of meat and veggies dipped in cheese could rack up to a couple hundred dollars? Not me! But, worse than the huge price, was that my friend almost electrocuted himself with the electric fondue pot's frazzled wire. Oops!
But enough about that -
Cafe Carolina was - thank goodness (as I mop my brow in relief) - as good as the reviews said. It's a cozy little place (nine tables, I believe) run by Chef Giuseppe Dossi, who even answers the phone himself with his friendly Italian accented voice.
First came the salads. My husband and I shared the wonderful spinach salad (Organic baby spinach tossed with red onions, walnuts, mushrooms, warm shallot- mustard vinaigrette and topped with salted ricotta). It was perfect, gently dressed in the warm vinaigrette. It's the sort of salad I aspire to make, but rarely do.
Next, came our butternut squash soup with marsala and mushroom. While the texture was smooth and creamy, I found it bland in spice and a little sweet. But this was the only dish that didn't blow me away.
I heard the gnocchi with Gorgonzola was really good, so I ordered that. Two of my friends, lovers of good gnocchi, ordered the gnocchi in pesto. My husband ordered steak with Dijon sauce and another couple ordered Penne in a tomato sauce.
Next, came my gnocchi in Gorgonzola sauce - light, potato dumplings in a seductively silky, rich buttery cream sauce with perfectly flavored (not too pungent) gorgonzola. Ahhhh...the dish looked like pearls immersed in a bed of white silk and tasted... well, this is what I said after my first bite, as two of my gnocchi loving friends and my husband dipped their forks into my dish, "I can imagine growing up as an Italian child and craving this dish as my ultimate comfort food." It made the most creamy mom-made mac and cheese seem about as comforting as a plate of jiggly, cold cube of tofu in comparison. This gnocchi is true comfort food.
Marv and Lisa's eyes rolled back in ecstasy as they each enjoyed my gnocchi... and they know good gnocchi. My husband, while finding his steak quite tasty, said he'd definitely order the gnocchi next time. Everyone cleaned their plates. Nothing was left over. Apparently, everyone was very happy with their dishes.
By this time the little place was filled, and my table was getting a little rowdy (we were on a gnocchi high, I guess). Lisa, so satisfied with her gnocchi in pesto and house salad, stood up and said, "I'm going to go hug Chef Giussepe!" We all watched her march off into the kitchen.
Lisa came back smiling. "What a great guy! I love this place!!"
I told everyone I heard their tiramisu (Ladyfingers, mascarpone and espresso in a delicious layered cake) is really good. So we ordered that and coffees.
As the waitress (and she was great, by the way - even after we wore her out) was about to walk away to get our dessert and coffee, I said, "Wait!! I heard the Chef makes a killer cup of hot chocolate."
"Oh, well, I have to ask him. He only does it at his discretion."
"Please," I begged with a pouty face (I stopped maturing at about four.)
And then she came out with my big, cup of fluffy whipped cream on top of the richest, most incredible European style hot chocolate I'd ever had. Lisa and Marv kept dipping their spoons into it. Lisa finally stole my cup away from me (nah! I gave it to her) . It's sweet, creamy-ness reminded me, somewhat, of the Cafe con Leche I used to have in Spain - something a European mother would make over the stove.
The tiramisu was a great way to finish the meal - one of the best I've had in awhile. After all the soups, salads, entrees, coffees, hot chocolate and desserts each of our meals averaged under $50 per couple. What a deal!
Delighted with our meal, our entire group got up and walked to the kitchen to thank the Chef for the wonderful evening.
*Oh, one more thing - they do not serve alcohol, but charge a $2 corkage fee if you would like to bring a bottle of wine.