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Fajita pitas, Octopus Tacos, and the Birth of California Cuisine 

25 moments — over 25 years — in L.A. restaurants

Thursday, Jul 17 2003
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1 When Michael’s opens in 1979, there are other serious dining rooms in Los Angeles, including Ma Maison and the newish, ultraluxe L’Orangerie, which bestrides La Cienega like a Louis Quinze bank lobby. Only a year before, my high school girlfriend and I had taken the RTD to L’Ermitage, where we had dined on either kidney stuffed with liver or liver stuffed with kidney (neither of us could tell the difference at the time) and a bottle of Morgon we had somehow been allowed to purchase. But these other restaurants were French, relentlessly so, and Michael’s is a new sort of thing: a fantasy of California as imagined by a dude who has spent an awful lot of time living the good life in Paris. The cellar is filled with Napa Valley wine; the patio is awash in Renoir-like stippled shade; the tables are set with Christofle silver. The art on the walls, Stellas and Rauschenbergs and Hockneys and such, is sufficient to endow a modest museum. The menu, heavily influenced by the French nouvelle cuisine found at such Michelin-starred joints as Chiba and Michel Guerard, is nonetheless centered around California’s peerless produce, and many of the clichés that will later cause eyes to roll even in Ohio hotel restaurants — raspberry vinaigrettes, angel-hair pasta with Chardonnay cream, multicolored bell-pepper confetti, entrée salads based around grilled protein — are new. The opening crew, which includes Ken Frank, Mark Peel and Jonathan Waxman, who will all go on to major careers, may be the Beatles — make that the Byrds — of California nouvelle cuisine. And nearly 25 years later, there still may be no better place to drink a bottle of Sonoma Chardonnay in the summertime than on Michael’s patio, under the benevolent gaze of the pink-shirted waiters and the battalion of Robert Grahams.

2 Orson Welles’ doctor advises him to stop “having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people in attendance.” Unaccountably, Ma Maison does not experience a 25 percent drop in revenue.

3 At West Beach Café (unless it was at his earlier Café California), Bruce Marder discovers that Venice artists and grand cru Burgundy do in fact go together — rather well, actually. Marder’s later successes will include the octopus at Rebecca’s (both as grilled in a taco and as fabricated by Frank Gehry for the ceiling), the chicken potpie at Broadway Deli and the clubby exclusivity of Capo, an icon of tasteful luxury so understated that you probably need a subscription to House & Garden to understand it as luxurious at all. But he will probably always be best known for the historical moment when artists and their followers noticed that their conception of Miller Time had grown to include Calvados hors d’age. Preferably billed back to their dealers.

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4 According to Barbara Lazaroff, Ed LaDou’s audition for Wolfgang Puck was a disaster, highlighted by a pizza topped with mustard and pâté. But as realized in the wood-burning ovens at the original Spago, LaDou’s pizza is just spectacular, topped with things like duck sausage or smoked salmon — or, in one memorable instance, slices of fresh white truffles. Spago catches on in part because Puck is the first famous chef to cook the way Angelenos eat, which turns out to be a pretty good culinary lingua franca for what will come to be known as New American cuisine. The first menus are Mediterranean-inspired, with supersize flavors derived fairly directly from the kind of redwood-deck dads’ cooking more identified with Sunset Magazine than with Escoffier. And as for LaDou, he will go on to develop the pizzas for the California Pizza Kitchen chain and to run his own wonderful pizzeria, Caioti.

5 New Southwest cuisine is born not on a windswept mesa, but in a Manhattan Beach shopping mall. John Sedlar, who grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and trained under Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage, introduces the flavors he’d grown up with to classical French cooking, thereby creating an abstracted hybrid that nobody has ever seen before, and elevating the use of squeeze bottles and obscure chile pastes to heights unimagined even by fans of Jackson Pollock. Sedlar’s innovations lead inevitably to the fajita pita and to the availability of blue-corn tortilla chips at Trader Joe’s. He long ago left the restaurant world to concentrate on his dream of a museum dedicated to the tamale, but I know people who still dream about his chiles rellenos stuffed with the French mushroom purée duxelles.

6 Evan Kleiman opens Angeli Caffe, which crystallizes the affinity of Angelenos for casual Italian cooking |— the spaghetti alla checca, roast chicken and minimally garnished pizza that a Sienese teenager might eat for dinner at the trattoria down the block on the nights his mother didn’t feel like turning on the stove, but which was essentially unobtainable to those of us on this side of the sea. Suddenly, one out of three restaurants on the Westside turns into a neo-Tuscan caffè, and the city, then the nation, becomes awash in salads dressed with balsamic vinegar and bowls of tiramisù — few of which are even remotely up to the standard set by Angeli’s rustic simplicity.

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