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Street Cred 

At her new Hollywood restaurant, Susan Feniger puts the cart before the hors d’oeuvre

Tuesday, Sep 8 2009
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View more photos in the "Street Cred" slideshow. 

When the first Bush was in the White House, gas was cheap and many of us hadn’t yet figured out how to turn on our ovens, my friends and I used to treat our parties almost as ethnographic excursions, afternoons spent driving through distant neighborhoods followed by evenings of communal feasting lubricated by cases of whatever Jon’s Market had been bringing in from Slovenia or Yerevan. Gujarat curries from Little India, Indonesian chicken from Bellflower and beef ribs from Leimert Park always made the cut, Jamaican spinach patties and tureens of Belizean boil-up, Peruvian chickens and Uzbek plov, Bajan conch and Honduran conch chowder, Cantonese duck and fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, Yemeni chicken soup, Cambodian frog salad and Pakistani grilled meats. The long, sagging tables, supplemented with an alarming amount of whatever they sold at Trader Joe’s, looked and smelled a lot like Los Angeles.

When Susan Feniger’s and Mary Sue Milliken’s City Restaurant opened around that time, it also looked a lot like Los Angeles, a restaurant that absorbed the influences of the local Asian and Latin-American communities reimagined through the prism of hard-won classical technique. This was at a time when a reasonably hip Angeleno might be expected to have traveled to Bali and Kerlala, though not necessarily to Florence, gone on surf trips to Mexico and eco-journeys to Costa Rica, and at least considered the possibility of a bicoastal Tokyo-California existence. The San Gabriel Valley Asian thing hadn’t quite swung into gear, at least not in the way it exists today, Little Saigon was still in its building phase, and Terhangeles consisted of maybe a kebab shop or two, but if Los Angeles was at least becoming an international city, a grand version of the two chefs’ modest Melrose café, City, was its restaurant, a center of a new kind of sophistication that was unimaginable before the latish 1980s. It was at City that many of us first experienced tandoor cooking that didn’t happen to be in a Punjabi restaurant, regional Thai flavors applied to French composed salads, and the entire Diet for a Small Planet-ish concept of meat-as-condiment. What Wolfgang Puck and his crew were doing over at Chinois and Spago may have invented a new way of cooking, but City was a worldview.

click to enlarge ANNE FISHBEIN - Paani puri

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City is long gone; Milliken and Feniger fully absorbed into the simpler beats of Border Grill and the pan-Latino showcase Cuidad. But Feniger’s new Street is a hypercool new restaurant in the space that once housed the coffeehouse Highland Grounds, a bi-level dining room with the occasional torchy blues singer on the upper level, an umbrella-shaded patio splashed with graffiti-style paintings by Su Huntley, and a sophisticated bar program that includes both cocktails and things like bitters-spiked lemonade. As at City, an evening at Street feels halfway between a sophisticated cocktail party and a political act, hosted by people who know that roasted sweet potatoes can be a perfectly good appetizer, that every pancake deserves a little chile, and that some bottles of beer are worth $28.

Feniger, in her solo debut as a chef, revisits some of the utopian transglobal ideas from City, but with a direct, accessible twist. Street is a virtual museum of world street food, with snacks and savories from every part of Asia, Moldavian meatballs and Lebanese kofta kebabs, Russian pampushki and striped bass with Pamplona chorizo. Cumin-scented millet puffs are brought to the table instead of bread and butter, and if that sounds like a good idea to you, Street, especially the section of the patio abutting the fire pit, may become your new favorite restaurant.

While boy chefs were busy displaying their machismo this year by displaying their prowess with big meat, bringing hacksaws to carcasses and sliding their unmentionables into throats all over town, Feniger, the chef and proprietor of Street, was letting her eggs run wild, poached and fried, served over South Indian tapioca, slid onto a bed of spicy semolina and draped over a Cantonese white radish cake, garnishing a Korean rice salad and flopped onto flatbread — and on pretty much every table, a barely fried egg becomes almost as a dipping sauce for the kaya toast, the Singapore-style dish of briochelike toast spread with soft coconut jam that has become the restaurant’s most popular dish.

Everybody loves street food; almost as many love Street food. The restaurant is a happy, fun, sophisticated place to be. But as young Angelenos 20 years ago were more sophisticated about sushi and dim sum than their parents, today the people who flock to Street can be expected to know their way around a Korean menu that doesn’t necessarily feature barbecue, tell mandoo from xian long bao, and have at least a working idea of the differences between the salads from the north of Thailand and the curries from the south. If a chef is going to serve a $12 poke, it should be demonstrably better than the $6 poke her customers are going to find at the Hawaiian joints in Gardena.

Feniger’s poke, made with sushi-quality ahi, tossed with perfectly ripe bits of avocado and served on a hot cake of crisped rice, is in fact better than other local versions; so are the crunchy pani puri, hollow, thin-skinned ping-pong balls of batter filled with pulses and drizzled with a thin curried broth; and the fried, nut-laced Indian semolina cakes. Would that kaya toast be better in Singapore? Probably — the best versions are tinted green with pandan leaf, while the pale one is not — but it’s delicious nonetheless. Did the pho measure up to the best pho in South El Monte? It kind of didn’t, even if it was made with a beautiful oxtail broth, and the bloggy grumbling may have driven it off the menu.

Street is at its best when Feniger riffs, when the ramen is powered not by a traditional tonkotsu broth but by an unusual yuzu tartness; a “new Jerusalem bread salad’’ becomes a clever take on the Middle Eastern bread salad fattouch spiked with feta and bits of Jerusalem artichoke (which of course has nothing to do with the region); when the Korean-style mung bean pancakes are studded with bits of anise-braised pork belly. Thai miang kham are exquisite, but Feniger’s take on the do-it-yourself Thai bundles is clever roasted coconut, heart of palm, tamarind jam and minced lime, among other things wrapped in bits of collard instead of the traditional betel leaf.

Half the menu is vegan-friendly, although you probably wouldn’t notice that fact unless it was important to you, and at least as much attention seems to have been paid to the roster of rare beers, spiced lassis and herbal coolers as to the short but appropriate wine list. Don’t miss Feniger’s parfait, a layered concoction of espresso gelatin, chocolate mousse and cream, sweetened with special halvah imported all the way from Canter’s Delicatessen.

STREET: 742 N. Highland Ave., Hlywd., (323) 203-0500, eatatstreet.com. Open daily from noon for lunch and dinner; from 11 a.m. for Sunday brunch. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.

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