Best Of :: Food & Drink
Enter a twinkling town square off Sixth Street, squeeze up a stockroom stairwell lined with crates of sake and enter into something of a grand ballroom, which is possibly an old church or a cavernous bank. This is Gaam Restaurant and Lounge's bright nighttime world. Here, overlooking Koreatown traffic, with a stream of soju and a steady rotation of K-pop music videos, the evening blends into the wee hours, and an early dinner can easily end in an all-night laser dance party. Accordingly, much of the food on Gaam's menu is the Korean equivalent of drunk comfort food, but any sober skeptic will drool over the vast, eclectic "spicy seafood soup," whose scallops and tentacles sizzle through the ragefest on a personal flame pot, and the Hibachi steak, laid on a bed of tiny forest mushrooms. And if that's not enough party for you, the excellent Gaam Karaoke is waiting just two blocks east. 3465 W. Sixth St., Koreatown. (213) 388-8850, facebook.com/GaamLA.
In this era of gastropubs and fusion bistros, it comes as a welcome relief to enter a place that still calls itself a "chophouse," as does Suzanne Tracht's 11-year-old West Hollywood restaurant, Jar. The moniker is a signal to other beautifully atavistic traits: a maitre d' in a suit and tie, white tablecloths, an iceberg wedge on the menu, a playlist of Sinatra and Armstrong and Nina Simone — and some of the best steaks in Los Angeles. Not only will your dry-aged Kansas City steak or your filet of beef or your prime rib-eye arrive perfectly cooked and presented, it will be served with a little white ceramic boat of sauce like the perfect accessory (a cufflink, a pocket square). The beef is so tender that it hardly needs the lobster béarnaise in the first place, but you are not here for restraint. (Think to yourself: What would Frank do?) Order a martini or two, then the stellar chocolate pudding for dessert. 8225 Beverly Blvd. (323) 655-6566, thejar.com.
Michael Cimarusti's seafood palace on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood earlier this summer celebrated its seventh birthday, a suitably biblical number for a fish restaurant with an excellent pastry kitchen. In those seven years, Providence has neither plateaued nor reversed direction: It has gotten better, kind of a stunning achievement for a restaurant that was worth 2 Michelin stars back when they gave them out in this town. Cimarusti and his crew manage something rare: a combination of technical mastery and playfulness, and a willingness to change things up instead of resting on their considerable laurels. The menu transforms as frequently as the fish swim in and out of their seasonal waters, the staff forages for local greenery, and the plates emerge from the kitchen like small epiphanies. Maybe you can credit it all to the fact that the chef and the general manager like to go fishing out of San Pedro on their few days off. 5955 Melrose Ave., Hlywd. (323) 460-4170, providencela.com.
Back in 2007, when Judy Ornstein first opened her neighborhood café FOOD, she had a recycling brainstorm: Why not install a plastic, serve-yourself, all-you-can-drink dispenser and fill it with filtered H20, ice cubes and whatever fruity odds and ends she found in the kitchen? Sometimes there are hunks of pineapple sweetly infusing the cold water; other times it's a mind-bendingly thirst-quenching day spa mainstay of cucumber slices and handfuls of fresh mint. Often they go refreshingly tropical with floating orange, lime and lemon slices. Ornstein's light, rejuvenating, bright idea also doubles as an art installation that changes daily: Some have compared the dispenser, sitting in a far corner next to a stack of glasses, to wallpaper in a ladies' restroom circa 1968 or a freeze-frame from a Trix cereal commercial. But we think it recalls a dreamy, zero-gravity fruit salad experiment at NASA — and what's not to like about that? 10571 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A. (310) 441-7770, food-la.com.
Four dollars for a cup of coffee? Before you spit out your Starbucks, hear us out: There's a revolution going on in the java world that has little to do with the over-barbecued cafe loco you're used to and everything to do with small organic farms in South America that are churning out product with the kind of terroir previously associated only with wine. Now, we're not so sure about hints of chocolate and pomegranate in our perfect, 195-degree cup of Commissary joe, but it is super smooth and low on acid. Props to Intelligentsia Coffee for kickstarting this thing in L.A. But what we like about the 2-year-old Coffee Commissary in West Hollywood is that it's simple, casual and gimmick-free. Nobody's slurping and "cupping" this stuff, and you won't be huffed on if you don't know your Coava from your Victrola. Hot water is swirled over a cone of precious grinds, with the resulting brew transferred to a thick mug. That's it. 801 N. Fairfax Ave., #106, W. Hlywd. (323) 782- 1465, coffeecommissary.com.
On a chic strip of shops near a leafy Sherman Oaks neighborhood filled with film-industry types, Sweet Butter is designed to feel as if you've stumbled into a sidewalk pastry shop in Paris. Fleur de sel caramel brownies, butter-rich croissants, bread pudding with brioche (in coconut-lemon and chocolate versions), cinnamon muffins filled with homemade peach or strawberry jam, plum-lemon bars and savory bacon-cheddar scones are churned out by three in-house pastry chefs. Founder Leslie Danelian, a former food stylist and longtime caterer, keeps the charm factor high but the prices low: Mouth-watering chocolate chip cookies are $2, muffins and scones $2.75. The pastry items rotate, so each day Sweet Butter's glass case is filled with surprises. The French county–style restaurant offers full breakfast and lunch menus, with items such as grilled turkey, fig jam and bleu cheese sandwiches. 13824 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 788-2832, sweetbutterkitchen.com.
Opened in 1941, the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel continues to be the most glamorous restaurant in the Los Angeles area. Bar none. (Heck, we saw Warren Beatty there just a few months ago.) Of course, glamour is always difficult to define. For us, it has to do with an elegant, understated style and a kind of worldly sophistication. The Polo Lounge has all these things, plus an extremely attentive waitstaff. L.A.'s true heavy hitters with class — like Beatty — go to the Polo Lounge, and we have a special fondness for the gardenlike outdoor patio, especially at night, with its candlelit ambience. The spice-crusted wild salmon isn't cheap, but you're buying an experience — and one worth having whenever possible. People often go in search of glamour in this town and have a hard time finding it. Look no further. 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 276-2251, beverlyhillshotel.com/the-polo-lounge.
—Patrick Range McDonald
If you're from Taiwan, stepping into a Four Sea Restaurant will make you feel right at home. They have two locations — one in Hacienda Heights and another in San Gabriel. Rumor has it that they're opening another branch in Irvine. Their success isn't unwarranted. They have one of the largest selections of Taiwanese breakfast items in Los Angeles, and the staff is uniformed and polite. Maybe the English-speaking abilities of some of the servers are lacking, but the efficient ordering process at the counter more than makes up for it. Go for the salty soy milk and sticky rice roll. They produce some of the best variations of the rice rolls, or fan tuan, outside of Taiwan. For those unfamiliar with the dish, it's chewy grains of rice wrapped around pieces of twisted cruller and a perfect balance of shredded dried pork and assorted vegetables. 2020 S. Hacienda Blvd., Hacienda Heights. (626) 330-3088; 708 E. Las Tunas Drive, Ste. A, San Gabriel. (626) 285-8369.
Few doughnuts are worth driving some 30-odd miles to taste (if you're coming from central L.A.) but in the case of the Donut Man, gas up. And not just for the doughnuts' undeniable deliciousness but also their sheer girth. If you've heard of the place, likely you've seen photos of the strawberry doughnut, which oozes a filling of whole, ripe strawberries from a sweet, biscuitlike shell. That's a good one to try, as is the apple, which, unlike most apple fritters, has filling that runneth over much like its strawberry cousin. Best of all, though, is the Tiger Tail, a glazed chocolate and vanilla braid that looks as if they put devil's food and regular batter in a soft-serve ice cream machine and hit "twist." Like many of the other varieties, it's semiridiculously oversized, making the whole doughnut experience at the Donut Man feel like a culinary funhouse. 915 E. Route 66, Glendora. (626) 335-9111, thedonutmanca.com. —Ali Trachta
It's hard to pinpoint what makes pies from Cake Monkey so singularly special, but allow us to ruminate. For one thing, no matter what the spectacular filling is, it's encased in a shatteringly crisp butter crust. It's burnished and bronzed and topped with sanding sugar, which during the course of sampling pies around town we've determined is pretty much the key to nirvana. The fillings are seasonal, ranging from blueberry frangipane in the late summer to cider roasted apple pie in a double cheddar crust in the fall and honey-braised pumpkin tart with homemade toasted marshmallow topping around the holidays. No matter what's in it, this is pie in all its glory. Ask for it with ice cream if you must, but believe us when we say it stands on its own. Available at Umami Burger or by special order from Cake Monkey (cakemonkey.com). 850 S. La Brea Ave., Hlywd. (and other Umami locations). (323) 931-3000, umami.com/umami-burger. —Rachael Narins
The star of Pho Filet, as you may guess, is its filet mignon, which comes as standard in most of the restaurant's bowls of pho. The filet mignon's immensely popular co-star is the pho bac; it's a distinctly gingered affair, with pronounced hits of cloves in each slurp. It is absolutely delicious, although because it is rather strong, a purist may prefer the lighter version over at Pho Huynh's. Good thing, then, that Pho Filet's Southern-style pho is equally superb. Try the pho tai (pho with thin slices of filet mignon) and ask for the meat on the side so you can leisurely add it into your scalding hot, slightly sweet, deeply flavorful broth to cook as you please. It will be a soul-satisfying meal. 9463 E. Garvey Ave., Ste. A, South El Monte. (626) 453-8911 (no website). —Tien Nguyen
At Rivera, you can dial a phone number listed on the menu to hear chef John Sedlar describe some of the dishes. "Most people think of tamales as the embodiment of Mexican cuisine's earthiness," he says in the recording, before launching into an explanation of "Clams Tamalli." The dish is supposed to "join together earth and sea" with its corn masa and chopped clam meat. The tamale is steamed in large clam shells, then served with a French-style butter sauce flavored with green chiles. The other Rivera tamale — a thin rectangle of masa with braised pork short rib inside and mushrooms on top, served on a banana leaf — also could challenge the notion of earthy Mexican food. The masa is fluffy, moist and buttery, almost like a pancake. Rivera serves three different menus, one for each room. If you don't see the tamales on your menu, and you've become a tamale fan by now, do not panic! You can, and should, order them anyway. Visit Sedlar's other restaurant, Playa, for the tamale with filet mignon, wild mushrooms and chipotle béarnaise, or a Thai-inspired version with shrimp, lemongrass and chiles. These are not your abuela's tamales. 1050 S. Flower St., #102, dwntwn. (213) 749-1460, riverarestaurant.com. —Daina Beth Solomon