Best Of :: Food & Drink
We use the term "hole-in-the-wall" as a folksy cliche, but RiceBar truly is a hole in the wall, a teeny kitchen with a door on downtown's Seventh Street. The entire space — kitchen, storage, fridges, dining area — is 275 square feet. The master of those 275 square feet is chef Charles Olalia, an exceedingly friendly dude who often looks kind of happily stunned to find himself here. It is quite amazing to find him here, given that his last job was executive chef at Patina in Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the ritziest restaurants in California. Before that, he worked at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Guy Savoy in Las Vegas. At RiceBar, the focus is not on fine dining but rather heirloom, fair-trade Filipino rice bowls in a variety of flavors. The menu is built around the four large steamers in the front window, each holding a different kind of rice. Kalinga Unoy is a rust-colored red rice, grown on ancient terraced fields in Kalinga in the Philippines, then sun-dried. The flavor is lightly nutty and sweet, and it delicately complements RiceBar's suggested topping, bistek tagalog: tender, pan-seared, soy-marinated beef. There's black rice covered in hunks of lush avocado, crisp radish, sweet pops of marinated grape tomatoes and tiny, pointy, salty, crunchy fried anchovies. Pork longganisa, a sausage that's made in-house, comes sliced and accompanied by pickled veggies; it has an almost floral and aromatic yet funky flavor that leaves a light, fatty sweetness behind. Olalia will recommend you order this over garlic fried rice and also that you add a fried egg. He's a wise man in both regards.
After the success of Maude (which last year earned our Best Restaurant in L.A. award), the world has been watching to see what Aussie mega-star chef Curtis Stone would come up with next. It turns out, Gwen does not disappoint. For the project, Stone brought his brother Luke over from Australia, and became the importer for some serious quality Australian beef that was hitherto unavailable in the States. Fronted by an old-fashioned butcher counter, the restaurant is like a gleaming art deco shrine to meat. On one side of the room, a glass case holds hanging carcasses and charcuterie; in the back of the restaurant, you can watch as animal parts cook over and around various kinds of flame in the open kitchen. The format is a five-course tasting menu, starting with charcuterie and salad, moving on to handmade pasta, and then comes the meat. You might get lamb cooked a variety of ways, or you can supplement the meal with a hunk of dry-aged Waygu. A flurry of vegetables complements the meat course, and the bright rusticism on display in these dishes might be the highlight of the evening. Gwen is not a cheap thrill, and tickets must be bought ahead of time. But, similarly to Maude, Stone has proven again that sometimes spending a silly amount of money on dinner is well worth it.
When a restaurant is built as part of the Broad, one of the most highly anticipated modern art museums in the West, it comes as no surprise that it, too, is a work of art. Otium is an eye-catching masterpiece that pleases your visual palate even before you've tasted chef Timothy Hollingsworth's playful edible creations. The building, designed by architect Osvaldo Maiozzi, is a cubic, modernist shell, and a designer consortium collaborated to outfit it both inside and out. The Studio Unltd firm teamed up with House of Honey to create a modern rustic space. Handmade glass light fixtures by Neptune Glassworks dangle from above, shedding a glow on the yellow wall tiles from Heath Ceramics. The bright colors juxtapose with reclaimed wood from District Millworks, while custom pieces by chef/furniture maker Chris Earl make for comfortable seats in which to watch chefs in the stunning open kitchen. There, they use herbs and flowers from the rooftop garden. And it wouldn't be an art-museum restaurant without an enormous Damien Hirst fish mural on the outside wall, so there's that, too.
The exceptional food served at Providence would be enough to earn Michael Cimarusti the title of best chef in the city. The fact that he brought us L.A.’s best New England–style seafood house with Connie & Ted’s only ups the stakes. But Cimarusti’s dedication to sustainable seafood, his efforts to educate the public about the problems facing our oceans, and his new seafood shop, Cape Seafood, give us even more reason to sing the dude’s praises. Now, whether you’re in the mood for an amazing lobster roll or looking for a beautiful piece of fish to take home and cook yourself, Cimarusti’s got you covered. The best evidence for his talent, though, remains the elegant, measured, gorgeously presented food at Providence, L.A.’s most special of special-occasion restaurants.
Salazar, the wonderfully smoky-smelling new taqueria from chef Esdras Ochoa, has officially put Frogtown (aka Elysian Valley) on the map as one of L.A.'s favorite new dining destinations, thanks to mesquite-grilled meats, homemade tortillas, tequila-heavy bebidas and lots of outdoor seating. But what makes Salazar's patio stand out in a city of many patios is that the entire restaurant is, essentially, a patio — so much so that while sipping a margarita, one might wonder what exactly the owners would do should it rain. The indoor portion of Salazar consists of the bar and only a handful of tables, a small part of the large, unique space. Even the entrance and host area is located outdoors on a gravel lot. Built on the grounds of a former auto body repair shop, the sprawling 100-plus-seat outdoor dining area is replete with trees, succulent landscaping and enough umbrellas to keep the sun-averse shaded. And after the sun sets behind the L.A. River, as the sky turns from blue to pink and stars begin to sparkle overhead, stay for one more cerveza because Salazar stays open late.
Every year, when considering this award, I sit back and think through the last 12 months of meals. Which was the most memorable? Delivered the most pleasure? Made me giddy with joy? And once again, I have to admit — that meal happened at Trois Mec. I’m still dreaming about a bowl containing tender chunks of bay scallop and foie gras swimming in a matsutake mushroom and miso broth, which was flecked with pickled sunchoke and hazelnut oil. Over the summer, the restaurant’s vegetable dishes seemed to draw inspiration from some of the most exciting cooking happening in Paris, with elegant, playful takes on asparagus and citrus, and a chanterelle crudite that was at once foresty and fresh. As the restaurant’s chef/owners Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo march on to ever more crowd-pleasing projects, it’s nice to know that their most personal little fine-dining spot retains all of its weird magic.
Chef Bryant Ng has brought to Cassia some of the sensibility that made his now-shuttered Spice Table such a favorite, but the context here is slightly different: He's riffing on the interplay between French and Vietnamese cuisines, both the influences that are born of the historical French occupation of Vietnam and crossovers born of Ng's imagination. Cassia is part grand brasserie and part modern Asian eating house. The menu, too, is huge and follows the laws of a brasserie, with offerings from the raw bar, a charcuterie section, small plates and larger plates. You must order a chilled seafood platter, which comes in various sizes. Rather than the tower of chilled crustacean bits that's customary, you get a sampling of Ng's cooked and raw cold seafood creations: a bowl of large prawns bathed in an aromatic Vietnamese hot sauce; smoked salmon dip topped with fresh salmon roe and served with grilled country bread; hunks of raw scallop in chili oil with tiny bits of ham and corn and gobs of fresh herbs; long spindly king crab legs cut lengthwise so the sweet meat is easy to access, topped with a lemongrass fish sauce and a flurry of shiso leaves. At $45 for the small platter, which also comes with six raw oysters, this is an incredible treat.
It's a lot of fun to imagine the genesis of the menu items at Trois Familia, that "duuuude, wouldn't it be cool if ..." flash of inspiration that created dishes such as churro French toast and maple-chili glazed bacon. At the Silver Lake French/Mexican brunch restaurant opened by Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo and Ludo Lefebvre, the dishes may sound ridiculous — garlic-butter bean burritos? Hash brown chilaquiles? — but they taste incredible, all the more so if you put yourself back into that "duuuude" mindset. Sure, high-end stoner food is almost a genre unto itself these days, one that Shook and Dotolo are partly responsible for creating. But Trois Familia proves that there's still plenty of originality to be milked from the stoner-chef mentality, and also that late morning is probably the best time of day — other than 4 a.m. — to eat this way. Now, if only the threesome would open a late-night version, we could have our breakfast fix at both ends of the a.m.
You could eat a 100 percent vegetarian meal at Moruno and be totally satisfied, despite the fact that there's plenty of meat on the menu. There's a ton of meat-free fun to be had — the roasted butternut squash with dukkah deserves its own cheering section — but vegetable dish of the year goes to the rotisserie cabbage. Served with a creamy and tart pickled-mushroom yogurt, it comes blackened on the outside and soft on the inside, the leaves melting into a juicy wonder of funk and vegetal sweetness. It shows a whole new side of cabbage, and eating it is as wonderful as discovering that a beloved old friend has a mind-blowing talent you never knew about.
My main beef with most barbecue joints outside of the South is their failure to recognize the benefits of regionality and instead try to do too much, to be all barbecue to all people. Maple Block Meat Co. is just such a place — but it works. Chef Adam Cole moved around the South as a kid, living in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, and he developed a taste for quite a few different barbecue styles. His restaurant, unsurprisingly, pays homage to all kinds of traditions. He spent some time training with a competition barbecuer, and at Maple Block he's smoking whole animals in J&R wood smokers that are built in Texas. Cole is not adhering to any particular style or region; what he does do very well is smoke meat — brisket in particular. The tender slices of beef are intensely smoky, the ratio of fat to lean meat is just right, and the peppery crust on the outside delivers just enough prickly flavor. I wasn't the first to notice the superiority of Maple Block's brisket; Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor for Texas Monthly and perhaps the most respected barbecue writer in the game, penned an essay in Los Angeles Magazine late last year declaring his admiration for Cole's efforts. After quipping that "California has sunshine and great wine — they're not supposed to have great brisket, too," Vaughn declared Maple Block's brisket the best in California. I must concur — and would suggest that its superiority extends even beyond the Golden State. This brisket is as good as any I've had outside of Texas and far better than 90 percent of what the other 49 states have to offer.
Ray Garcia has been hinting for years that he's capable of greatness, and at Broken Spanish he lives up to that promise. Located in the former Rivera space downtown, Broken Spanish gives the chef the creative freedom to explore the place where his Mexican heritage and his fine-dining background meet. His menu offers plenty of comfort food that's exciting as well as soothing: You can have tamales stuffed with lamb neck, or with a delightful mix of favas, peas and Swiss chard. There are touches of true modernism, too, such as a beautiful jumble of snap peas, sea beans, black sesame and creamy requesón cheese. Garcia is playing with an inventiveness that feels natural, and he puts deliciousness first. Broken Spanish is a heartening step forward for a chef who was obviously meant to be at the forefront of the modern Mexican food revolution.
Chef Sergio Peñuelas, who gained a devoted following at Coni'Seafood and, before that, at Mariscos Chente, recently moved to Long Beach's Cheko El Rey del Sarandeado. Peñuelas is justly famous for his pescado zarandeado, the Sinaloan specialty of whole grilled snook. But equally worth driving for are his marlin tacos, beautifully salty, cheesy and almost austere, topped with one perfect slice of avocado. Peñuelas' marlin tacos here seem a little more substantial than I remember from Coni'Seafood, the marlin meatier and the cheese less overwhelming. I've heard these tacos compared to a tuna melt, and while it's true that the two preparations share some spiritual DNA, to me the current version is much more elemental — it has more brawn and less smoosh. If you're a marlin taco newbie, these will make you rethink the whole concept of a fish taco, in the best possible way.