View more photos in the "Guerrilla Cuisine: Jonathan Gold’s Essential L.A. Restaurants" slideshow.
As surely as figs ripen, basil bursts into fragrance and the paleta vendors step up their rounds, so too arises the question of what an essential Los Angeles restaurant experience might be, whether one is in line at a taco stand or sipping an exquisite Meursault among the Robert Graham bronzes in the patio at Michael’s. And in this year, which saw both the grandest restaurant openings in decades and the rise of the pedal-powered pushcart, the discussion takes on a different sort of weight.
The idea of an essential Los Angeles restaurant includes neither the kitchen so hamstrung by the whims of the farmers market that it is barely able to get a sandwich to table, nor the hotel dining room run by a supremely gifted Spanish chef but slinging the more reproducible artifacts of molecular cuisine without respect to season or place. Luxury for the sake of luxury seems almost vulgar now — you’re probably not going to see a padded footstool for your purse again — but the ruder sorts of chefly idiosyncrasy, the bit of pickled lard in your tomato salad, are going to be around for a while.
This year especially, an essential L.A. restaurant may not even be a restaurant at all — it may be a tweet telling you which street corner to hang around at, or a cart parked in the same location from the hours of 11 to 2. Clubgoers are used to seeing their favorite band at the Smell one week and at Spaceland the next, but it is a new thing for diners, separating chef from dining room, the exultation of guerrilla cuisine.
As we’ve said before, an essential restaurant is one that reflects Los Angeles in a startling and unusual way, that uses fresh local ingredients in a fashion that respects the land in which they were grown, that showcases cooking echoing both foreign-trained chefs’ region of origin and the hypercharged mosaic of the L.A. dining scene. An essential restaurant moves people, inspires them to think about food in a different way, inspires them to think about Southern California as a great agricultural region, a great port, a builder of the shiny symbolism that is a large factor in how the rest of the world thinks of itself. And it’s also a damned good place to eat. —J.G.
* DENOTES RESTAURANTS NEW TO THE LIST
Green is the navy blue of the Westside, we hear, and in Culver City’s downtown business district, where adaptive reuse has taken on the patina of true religion, the gutters flow with green wash. But even by Culver City standards, Akasha, where the recycled wood is sealed with beeswax, the chairs are upholstered in hemp and the waiters wear organic cotton, stands alone. Akasha Richmond, who is both chef and muse here, was one of the best-known vegan cooks in the world before an obsession with weight-lifting led her to rediscover the virtues of meat. The kitchen’s commitment to organic, sustainable, certified, cruelty-free ingredients goes without saying, and you can get cocktails rich in free radicals and high-end antioxidants. But although you can eat as low on the food chain as you like at Akasha, and Richmond’s bowl of curried mung beans is the kind of thing you always used to hope for when you visited a hippie restaurant, her cooking is pretty homey: star anise–braised short ribs, flatiron steak with pecorino-crusted potatoes, and pistachio-crusted scallops. Or you could just order a plate of lamb sliders with feta and what are probably the best onion rings in town. 9543 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 845-1700. akasharestaurant.com. 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 credit cards accepted.
Alcazar is a slice of coastal Lebanon transplanted to the heart of Encino, a sun-dappled terrace perfumed with cumin, grilled mullet and the bright coals of apple-scented tobacco burning in brass hookahs. The cooks may be Arab, but the owner, a well-known Armenian crooner who sometimes sings here on weekends, is not above insisting that the chile-red Armenian version of hummus and the fluffy raw-beef dish kibbe nayeh share space on the menu with more traditionally Lebanese things like fried sea bass with fried pita and tahini; stuffed grape leaves and a wonderful dish of sautéed chicken livers with pomegranate. 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. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. All major credit cards accepted.