First, you have to find the veal cheeks. Then you have to have the patience to trim them and braise them slowly in a reduction of stock, wine and aromatic vegetables until the meat is soft as butter. In the end, it's a wonderfully flavorful cut of meat, as homey and comforting as your grandmother's pot roast. Aubergine's Tim Goodell serves it with the clarified cooking juices and a smooth and very rich puree of potatoes. And if he's done some shopping at Chino Ranch that day, he might dress the plate with pretty little caramelized turnips. Aubergine, 508 29th St., Newport Beach; (714) 723-4150. $19.
Chinese Ravioli in Shiitake Mushroom Sauce
Shiro is one of Southern California's most consistent restaurants because Shiro (short for chef-owner Hideo Yamashiro) himself cooks every night. Most customers would cite the sizzling catfish as their favorite dish, judging from the number of orders that sail out of the kitchen night after night. It's good, all right, but he's capable of much more: Each time I bite into one of his Chinese ravioli, I'm surprised all over again by these unassuming little twists of dough. Stuffed with a sumptuous shrimp and salmon mousse, they're served in a silky white wine and shiitake mushroom cream sauce. Shiro, 1505 Mission St., South Pasadena; (818) 799-4774. $6.50.
Warm Valrhona Chocolate Cake
Only one dessert is a constant on Angela Hunter's menu: her warm Valrhona chocolate cake with pink peppermint-infused syrup and Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream. It took me a while to try it, I'll admit--the idea of pink peppermint put me off. But it works brilliantly. The cake, the size of an ordinary cupcake, isn't very dark and not very promising-looking at all. Yet it's the most chocolate-y cake I can remember, liquid at the center like an elixir of exquisite dark chocolate. The puddle of pink syrup is just as much a surprise, penetrating but not too sweet. Boxer, 7615 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 932-6178. $6.
Provenal Daube of Lamb
Provenal daube is not just any old stew. To make this sophisticated country dish, Patrick Healy layers three cuts of lamb (the shoulder, the shank and riblets) in a casserole with onions, carrots, celery, garlic, shallots, bay leaf and thyme. Then he pours red wine over everything and lets it sit for three days before cooking it ever so slowly. To finish it, he adds a garniture of button mushrooms, pearl onions and carrots and presses a salt bread dough along the lid to seal the casserole. When your waiter breaks that crust at the table, an enticing aroma envelops the room. Served over egg noodles, this dish is so good you'll never think of poor stew the same way again. Xiomara, 69 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; (818) 796-2520. $19.
For me, the definitive dish at Gustaf Anders is Ulf Strandberg's traditional sugar-and-salt-cured salmon. Subtly sweet and salty, the marbled North Atlantic salmon is cut in fine slices and served with a lidded porcelain dish of creamed dill potatoes. The combination of cold salmon and steaming new potatoes is phenomenal. Eat it with some of Strandberg's handcrafted flat bread, pumpernickel and Swedish limpa scented with orange peel. (And don't leave without tasting the tall Swedish princess cake layered with whipped cream and strawberry jam, the whole thing veiled in a sheet of pale green marzipan.) Gustaf Anders, South Coast Plaza Village, Santa Ana; (714) 668-1737. $17.*
Ever since I watched Indian actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey sit by the stove, patiently stirring milk until it had reduced to less than half its original volume and was infused with the taste of crushed cardamom seeds, I've been hooked on the peculiarly delicious ice cream called kulfi. Flavored with pistachios and cardamom, the kulfi at All India Cafe is every bit as good as Jaffrey's was--and equally addictive. Owner-chef Santokh Singh also makes a potent fresh ginger ice cream from grated ginger root steeped in milk and a little cream. All India Cafe, 39 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (818) 440-0309. $2.50.
The fish dishes at Nouveau Cafe Blanc are always interesting and among the best choices on Tommy Harase's two prix fixe menus. I especially like his albacore lightly smoked over cherrywood. Last season, he served it as carpaccio, very rare, cut like sashimi and garnished with generous flakes of good Parmesan and a cloud of grated daikon laced with shiso and Japanese cucumber. These days, Harase serves it in thick, plush slices with tiny greens from his home garden and a silky curry-saffron sauce. Nouveau Cafe Blanc, 9777 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 888-0108. $9; or choose it as one of the five courses in $43 prix fixe menu.