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Straight to the Duck Heart 

Jonathan Gold’s Top 10 dishes of 2006

Wednesday, Dec 20 2006
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Duck-Heart Cassoulet

Bistro K is a restaurant out of a daydream, with a kitchen that ranks among the best in greater L.A. It’s run by the gifted and accomplished French chef Laurent Quenioux, where you can — indeed must — bring your own bottles of wine, and where an exquisite, intimate dinner usually ends up costing a bit less than a quick meal of cheeseburgers and drinks at a mediocre Hollywood bar. And while the menu is missing such bistro clichés as steak frites and roast chicken, it is well-stocked with game and offal dishes hard to find elsewhere in town. The cassoulet of duck hearts, tender nuggets of meat braised with turnips and slippery bits of poached duck’s tongue, served in a cardamom-scented mushroom sauce on a sort of footed cake plate, is worthy of a multistarred Michelin chef. 1000 S. Fremont Ave., South Pasadena, (626) 799-5052.

Al Bap

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O-Dae San is the grandest fish restaurant in Koreatown, an elegant, sushi-intensive dining room paved with acres of glass and marble. But peasant that I am, I can never tear myself away from the ever-fascinating al bap, a big bowl of sushi rice frosted with a half-dozen different kinds of fish eggs, laid out in contrasting streaks radiating from a plop of creamy sea-urchin roe at the center of the bowl like rays from the sun. You can mix them together, gild them with the raw chicken-egg yolk that shares the bowl, or savor them egg by egg by egg until the bowl is empty and you are happy and full. I may be a peasant, but I’m not crazy. 2889 W. Olympic Blvd., L.A., (213) 383-9800.

Fried Bao

Morning or night, at Noodle House, it is always time for delicious fried bao, fluffy, steamed pork buns sizzled until their bottoms crisp up like eggs fried in oil and the jellied juices of the pork heat and melt until they are pressurized enough to rocket across the table the moment that your teeth breach the substance of the dough. The buns, a lucky eight of them, are served browned-side-up, arranged into a bao fairy ring connected by a gauzy scrim of batter. You detach a bun and dunk it into a bowl of spicy garlic-infused soy sauce. The sauce-saturated pastry assumes a soft, mousseline texture; the soy mingles with hot porky essence; the buns seem to hop into your mouth one after another as if propelled by an alien force. 46 W. Las Tunas Dr., Arcadia, (626) 821-2088.

Potato Tacos

The tacos de papas at El Atacor #11 are magnificent beasts, thin corn tortillas folded around bland spoonfuls of mashed spuds and fried to an indelicate, shattering crunch. The barely seasoned potatoes exist basically as a smooth, unctuous substance that oozes out of the tacos with the deliberate grace of molten lava. The glorious stink of hot grease and toasted corn subsumes any subtle, earthy hint of potato, and guacamole-drenched tacos de papas evaporate so quickly that you are thankful they come 10 to an order. I have seen families of five sit down to five separate orders, 50 tacos in all, and afterward there wasn’t a crumb or a spatter of sauce to be seen. 2622 N. Figueroa Ave., L.A., (323) 441-8477.

Lardo Pizza

Lardo di Colonnata is a traditional meat from the snow-white quarries of Carrara, chunks of back fat cut from the local pigs and cured for months in special basins hewn from marble. When it is ready, you slice the lardo thin and melt it into grilled bread. There is nothing better in the world. At Pizzeria Mozza, Nancy Silverton’s new restaurant, the lardo probably comes from Seattle instead of Tuscany, and it is draped over smoking-hot pizza crusts instead of hot bread: gently oily, scented with fresh rosemary, tasting totally, powerfully of pig. 641 N. Highland Ave., L.A., (323) 297-0101.

Macanese Fried Crab

Regulars at Macau Street may tempt you with stories of fried duck chins, roasted pork neck, the stupendously flaky egg-custard pies and, of course, pork cookies hot from the oven. But when you finally land a table at the crowded Macau-style café, you will find that all around you, everybody has ordered the same thing: the house-special crab, which is to say a plump, honestly sized crustacean dipped in thin batter, dusted with spices and fried to a glorious crackle, a pile of salty, dismembered parts sprinkled with a handful of pulverized fried garlic and just enough chile slices to set your mouth aglow. If you are lucky, you may draw a female crab whose goopy, delicious roe crisply laminate the inside of its carapace. The one time I tried to deviate from the fried crab and ordered the curry crab, a famous Macanese dish also listed on the restaurant’s list of specialties, the waitress shot me a look that I last remember receiving from an algebra teacher in eighth grade. 29 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 288-3568.

Kobe-Beef Rib Eye

You may not have the will or the funds to spend $120 on a steak, but you still might want to consider visiting Wolfgang Puck’s gloriously expensive Cut and splitting the Kobe-beef rib eye four or five ways, because unless you happen to play in the NFL, there is no way you can digest even a small sample of the plutonium-dense meat by yourself. At Cut, a single mouthful of Japanese rib eye from Kyushu pumps out flavor after flavor after flavor, every possible sensation of smoke and char and tang and animal you can imagine for second after Technicolor second. If you happen to be at Cut, and you happen to have in front of you what would ordinarily be a perfectly splendid corn-fed Nebraska strip steak, aged 35 days, seared at 1,200 degrees, then finished over oak to a ruddy, juicy medium rare, you’ll take one bite of your neighbor’s Japanese Kobe steak, cooked the same way, and look around for rocks to throw at your own hunk of meat. 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 276-8500.

Beef Roll

101 Noodle Express, a bleak mini-mall storefront next to a bowling alley, may not scream with promise. But the café is home to the Shandong-style beef roll, a massive, bronzed construction that commands its platter like two El Tepeyac burritos laid side by side — brawny Chinese pancakes rolled around slivers of stewed beef and seasoned with a sprinkling of chopped scallion tops and fresh cilantro. The inside of the beef roll is smeared with a sweet, house-made bean paste with an ethereal, almost transparent top note, a bean paste that bears the same relationship to ordinary hoisin sauce that Joachim Splichal’s demi-glace might to a slug of canned brown gravy. It is a simple composition, and yet not; ordinary street food raised to a transcendent level. 1408 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 300-8654.

Khandvi

What the owners of Rajdhani like to call Gujarati dim sum might more properly be called a bottomless thali, the cooking of the Indian province overwhelming you with labyrinths of flavor and a profusion of perfumes, a 10-course combination platter constantly refilled in all of its components. After 45 minutes, your plate will probably look exactly the way it did before you started eating, save the odd drip of lentil dal. But when the waitress bearing khandvi — tart, fermented-batter crepes smeared thickly with puréed lentils and coiled into jelly rolls —comes around again, you will probably beg for another portion no matter how full you may be. The concept of too much khandvi simply does not exist. 18525 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (562) 402-9102.

Bacon

It is hard to go wrong with bacon, but Square One, a cheerful, brightly painted breakfast place in the L. Ron Hubbard district of East Hollywood, may have the city’s best: Nueske’s bacon, the well-regarded artisanal product from northern Wisconsin, sliced thick, laid on a rack, and slow-roasted until it becomes crisp but pliable, sweet and deeply smoky, exploding under your teeth into gushers of fragrant juice. Even if your American Express card has long-standing relationships with smokehouses in three or four mid-Southern states, you may never have tasted bacon cooked with the obsessive care that Square One brings to its slabs. Everything goes better with hickory-smoked hog belly. This morning’s horoscope probably told you that. 4854 Fountain Ave., Hlywd., (323) 661-1109.?

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