Now that I’m in my reduced sugar intake phase, I’ve been visiting restaurants that claim to be organic, sugar free, or otherwise oriented toward healthy foods. The common denominator so far seems to be the panini sandwich. I suppose the correct spelling in the singular is panino, but no one seems to use that. When I was young we never heard of a hot Italian sandwich, and this kind of thing was called a grilled cheese (or grilled bacon and cheese with or without tomato, or grilled something else). This new version of grilled sandwich is made in a gizmo, like a waffle press, which speeds up the preparation and gives it a nice texture.

My first Los Angeles experience with the panini was at Golden Mean Books and Cafe at 1028 Wilshire Blvd. near 11th Street in Santa Monica. I was there with my favorite computer nerd, who is a vegetarian, and he was visibly relieved that I had selected that restaurant for our meeting. We started with a taste of this and a taste of that. We each tasted the soup of the day, which was butternut squash, and it had a lot of flavor. We sampled the hummus, with the daily flavor of dill flavor added, which was freshly made and well worth ordering.

For a main plate he had the veggie burger and I had the portobello mushroom panini with mushroom, onion, peppers, baby arugula and vegan mozzarella for $10.95. It came appropriately grilled and striped, and I was pleased with the combination of flavors. It was delicious.

When the owner, Aaron Glassman, checked in on us he had a couple of desserts in hand. I was full and ready to give it up, but I could see a gleam in my friend’s eye. So we allowed Aaron to leave a bit of apple crisp and a slice of coconut cake on the table. Both were incredibly delicious. Being short of will power, and being assured that there was no sugar used in the preparation, I ate the whole crisp. And my friend insisted on taking a slice of the coconut cake home to his wife. Ahh, the power of sweet!

Other than the slight turn-off from the flies buzzing around because the door fan wasn’t working, the Golden Mean is a real find.

My next experience with the panini was when my friend John Blanchette took me to the Panini Garden at 2718 Main St. I was surprised to find, behind a non-descript doorway, a lovely lavender garden patio in the back, shielded from the street noise, outside yet covered from the sun. I noticed a full breakfast menu which I’ll sample one day, and a lunch menu of hot and cold paninis, soups and salads. The shepherd’s salad, with herbed goat cheese, with tomatoes and walnuts was fresh and flavorful. I ate the spicy chicken panino made form chicken breast, Cajun spices, mozzarella and basil. I would prefer it if it were a bit more spicy, but the quality of the ingredients, and the toasted bread made it a special treat. I passed on the desserts, and finished with an excellent espresso from the Delta Café Roasting Co. Panini Garden is a lovely place for a relaxing lunch on Main Street. Sandwiches run about $10.

The following week we went upscale. Friends invited me to the L.A. Farm on Olympic Boulevard, with chef “Stefan” from Finland. And what was on the menu? A hot pastrami sandwich with horseradish sauce, mustard, cole slaw and cheese for $16. And what did it look like when it arrived? A panini of course. The panini has moved upscale, and now we can find it on the fancy restaurant menus. The grilled ciabatta bread looked nice, but the pastrami looked fried, and not appetizing, so I passed on a taste. Instead I ordered the bouillabaisse special of the day. Of course, I knew it wouldn’t be real bouillabaisse because you don’t get that in L.A. But I was surprised by what I did get: a genuine French bourride (except it had salmon pieces in it, unlike in France). A properly made bourride consists of fish soup with a garlic mayonnaise added to the broth so that the broth develops a bit of viscosity, stronger flavor, and a light color. It was quite delicious, and not easy to find in L.A. in spite of all the French restaurants now popping up.

Of course the chef continued to claim that it was really a bouillabaisse.

For a good panini maybe we better stick to the healthy spots.

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at

If you go

• Golden Mean Vegan Café, 1028 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393-6500, Open Monday-Wednesday & Sunday, 11 a.m. — 9 p.m.; Thurday-Saturday 11 a.m. —10 p.m. Inexpensive.

• Panini Garden, 2715 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 399-9939 (open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week). Inexpensive.

• Stefan’s at L.A. Farm, 3000 Olympic Blvd, Santa Monica, (310) 449-4000, Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. — 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5:30 p.m. — 9:30 p.m. About $30-40 a person.

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