For more photos, view Anne Fishbein's slideshow of "Fierce Chefs and Fiery Kitchens."
If there were such a thing as a Los Angeles cuisine, I suspect it would probably be a lot like what they serve at Houston’s, which is to say the market-tested version of the grill-happy, big-flavor, salad-intensive cooking pioneered decades ago at places like the original Spago.
We can examine the way local food has insinuated itself into the national food culture, and we can name dozens of local dishes, including L.A. galbi, California rolls, Caesar salad, gourmet meatloaf, designer tamales and McDonald’s fries, which are prepared all over the world. We can look at the way that farmers market produce has become so essential that certain carrots and berries have achieved something close to celebrity status, or we could look at the continuing importance of Urban Rustic cuisine, where entertainment executives pay big money for the privilege of eating like Tuscan peasants. There is the vitality of our immigrant communities, of course, and the quality of Asian and Latin-American food rarely approached in other parts of the country, and the continuing abundance of small-plates restaurants geared to the palates of promiscuous aesthetes unable to commit to a single entrée.
Even more so this year, there is the rise of the hypermasculine restaurant, where chefs take the same kind of fierce pride in their arcane meats and cheeses they probably used to take in their record collections. Their whites are always stained with blood, and they exult in the hard labor and difficult conditions of even the modern restaurant kitchen. I include women in this formula: One of my favorite new hypermasculine restaurants, a Skid Row breakfast dive called the Nickel, is actually owned and run by women.
So what is an essential Los Angeles restaurant? It is where your scrambled eggs come flavored with hyper-reality, where the plums are the sweetest, where you occasionally have to be reminded that you are neither in Osaka nor Guadalajara nor Panicale, that you are sometimes most in L.A.
The 99 Essentials, A to W
The Organic Muse: Akasha
The Culver City restaurant scene is well into its mannerist phase, an era of sleek surfaces, theatrical settings and food that coolly defies nature. But the standard-bearer at the moment has to be the eco-intensive Akasha, where the recycled wood is sealed with beeswax, the chairs are upholstered in hemp and the waiters wear organic cotton. Akasha Richmond, who is both chef and muse here, may be one of the best-known vegan cooks in the world, a television chef and Vegetarian Times columnist who has been in the employ of both Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand. The kitchen’s commitment to organic, sustainable, certified, cruelty-free ingredients goes without saying, in the bakery-café up front, as well as in the dark, multiveneered dining room. But although you can eat as low on the food chain as you like at Akasha, and Richmond knows from a mung bean — her bowl of curried mung beans, rice and flatbread is the kind of thing you always used to hope for when you visited a hippie restaurant — her cooking is surprisingly sybaritic: skewered, curry-dusted grilled shrimp; a decent roast chicken with farro; killer sweet-potato fries, and a big, juicy Heritage pork chop. The best dessert, a salty chocolate tart, comes with soymilk “whipped cream” scented with organic vanilla. Or you could just order a plate of organic-beef sliders and what are probably the best onion rings in town. 9543 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 845-1700. Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon-Sat 5:30-11 p.m. Full bar. Takeout and catering. Garage parking. All major CC. Health/Vegetarian.
‘Zahle in the Valley,” a friend calls it, a bit of Mediterranean Lebanon in the middle of Encino: a shaded terrace of music, grilled mullet and bright coals of apple-scented tobacco burning in brass hookahs. The cooks are reportedly Egyptian and Lebanese, but the owner, a well-known Armenian crooner who sometimes sings here on weekends, is not above insisting on the chile-red Armenian version of hummus and the fluffy raw-beef dish kibbe nayeh to go along with the fried sea bass with fried pita and tahini; stuffed grape leaves, and a dish of sautéed chicken livers with pomegranate that are delicious enough to make you forget you don’t necessarily like innards. The shish towook, grilled kebabs of extravagantly marinated chicken breast, is as good as a kebab ever gets. On weekends, ultrathin sajj bread, like lavash, is baked on the patio over a vast heated surface, wrapped around grilled meat or made into the thin, crisp, thyme-scented Arab quesadillas called kl’leg. Lebanon is famous for its red wine, but Alcazar, in the gentle levant of Encino, also serves oceans of arak, an anise-scented Lebanese liquor that turns milky when you stir it with ice and cool water. 17239 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 789-0991. Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sat. 11:30 a.m.-mid., Sun. noon-9 p.m. Full bar. Hookah and cigar lounge. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. All major CC. Lebanese.