10 Best Dishes of 2005

Illustration by J.T. Steiny

1. Frozen ham foam. The menu at Bastide, Los Angeles’ best French restaurant, famously veered from the Provençal stylings of Alain Giraud to the Alain Passard–influenced avant-garde cooking of Ludovic Lefebvre, before retreating to Lefebvre’s somewhat more sedate, classical mode. But when the chef is in a playful mood, watch out for things like a frozen, egg-shaped capsule constructed from the foamed fat of a Jabugo ham, served with a single, gooey egg yolk and a scarlet curl of the ham itself, made from a special breed of acorn-fed Andalusian pigs – like the ultimate ham and eggs. The porky sweetness of great ham rarely expresses itself as intensely as it did in Lefebvre’s snowball. 8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles, (323) 651-0426.

2. Spot prawn tartare. The most modern restaurant in Los Angeles at the moment is surely Providence, a space-age shotgun marriage of European rigor and free-floating California ease, a Francophile Italian maitre d’ and an all-American chef, Michael Cimarusti, whose seafood menu, which changes practically daily, ranges every one of the seven seas. It just doesn’t get better than Cimarusti’s spectacular tartare of live spot prawns served with buttery, cumin-dusted leaves of Tunisian brik pastry, sweet, marine flavor popping in the mouth like Champagne bubbles, a dish that puts your synapses on overload. 5955 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 460-4170.

3. Lobster roll. The primary object of desire at Hungry Cat is the lobster roll, an abstracted rendition of the New England beach-shack standard: lobster meat bound with mayonnaise, seasoned with chopped herbs and a few drops of lemon juice, and spooned into a split, crisp, rectangular object about the size of a Twinkie, so beautifully crunchy that it may well have been deep-fried in a vat of boiling dairyfat, like one of Elvis’ sandwiches. In Maine, $22 gets you a lobster the size of a small pony. But when the closest acceptable lobster roll may be 2,800 miles away, the Hungry Cat’s lobster roll, bolstered with celery-root slaw and a pile of wispy fries, just might be worth the expense. 1535 N. Vine St., Hollywood, (323) 462-2155, www.thehungrycat.com.

4. Pljeskavica is a thin, Balkan hamburger, as big and round as a phonograph record, flavored with salt and onions and peppers and briefly cooked over a hot charcoal fire, a chewy meat patty that still has all its juice. In Los Angeles, pljeskavica is served more or less exclusively at Aroma Café, a Westside coffeehouse that serves probably the only Bosnian cooking in town. Tucked into its sturdy, focaccia-style bun, a steroidal construction that bears the same relationship to a supermarket roll that Barry Bonds’ right arm does to the musculature of a ballerina, Aroma’s pljeskavica is as daunting in its appearance as it is difficult to pronounce. 2530 Overland Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 836-2919, www.aromacafe-la.com.

5. Pad Thai. In the mid-’70s, when we were all discovering Thai food, pad Thai was tasty, even thrilling — stiff bundles of rice pasta slicked with orange oil, oversweetened with palm sugar, tossed with a few shrimp, sprinkled with dusty ground peanuts and plopped on top of a mass of bean sprouts. But the ultra-spicy, tamarind-soured, fish-sauce-laced house-special version at Krua Thai is about as good as it gets, a powerful dish, truly exotic, sweet and squiggly and delicious, stocked with both tofu and big shrimp — the dish made vivid again after 30 years as a cliché. 3130 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, (818) 759-7998.

6. Corn pizza. The pizza at Zelo is a different sort of pie, crust enriched with a little cornmeal, packed and crimped into a high-rimmed, steel, deep-dish pizza pan blackened from years in the ovens and baked to a kind of high crunchiness — just oily enough to keep it from being compared to an overdone but particularly delicious muffin top. Crispness is generally a virtue in pizza, but Zelo’s is almost beyond crisp, a crackling, luscious, tooth-shattering crispness with the staying power of a Hendrix chord. Corn pizza, irregularly heaped with corn kernels, roasted torpedo onions glazed with balsamic vinegar, and snipped chives, is oddly reminiscent of a Tuscan antipasto table — there is no pizza remotely like this in Los Angeles. 328 E. Foothill Blvd., Arcadia, (626) 358-8298.

7. B’stilla. The flavors at Chameau may be modern, lightened and fresh, but chef Adel Chagar’s techniques come from the traditional Moroccan kitchen. Where most restaurant versions of b’stilla, a Moroccan pie of poultry, eggs and spices enclosed in a flaky crust, will be made with bought filo or strudel pastry, Chagar’s version is made with the traditional warka, crisp leaves made by tapping balls of flour and water onto a hot surface and then peeling off the thin membranes of cooked dough with one’s fingernails. It is something of a miracle to come across the real thing, thin as gauze and nearly transparent, stacked above and below the steamy, savory filling of duck, almonds and eggs as if it comprised merely the bread of a sandwich instead of a finely tuned etude in crunch.339 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 951-0039.

8. Sweet-rice balls. As delicious as Chinese puddings thickened with dried bird spittle can be, they will probably not supplant crème brûlée any time soon. But Giang Nan’s sweet-rice balls, marble-size spheres of pounded glutinous rice stuffed with payloads of ground peanuts, black sesame or toasted seeds, are orbs of pure, gooey texture, a miraculous, dense substance that modulates into little bursts of flavor as it oozes down your throat. You may have had decent sweet-rice balls before — Japanese mochi is a somewhat cruder take on the form — but the ones at Giang Nan, floating in a warm, tangy broth flavored with rice-wine lees that the restaurant specially imports from Shanghai, are so much better that they might as well be from a different galaxy. 306 N. Garfield Ave., No. A-12, Monterey Park, (626) 573-3421.

9. Copper River salmon. You may have never heard cat owners talk about their pets with half the affection Kiriko chef Ken Namba uses to describe his Copper River king salmon in season, beautiful, shiny fish whose flesh is so luxuriously heavy with oil that it tastes almost surreally alive. Namba smokes his salmon over smoldering cherrywood, slices it thick and wraps it around spears of ripe mango: The sashimi is soft and luscious, salty and sweet, penetratingly smoky yet delicate — one of the most magnificent mouthfuls of food imaginable. 11301 Olympic Blvd., No. 102, West Los Angeles, (310) 478-7769.

10. Camarones a la piedra, a warm shrimp ceviche popular on the tropical northern coast of Peru, is a formidable plate of seafood, at least in the version served at Los Balcones del Peru, right across the street from the ArcLight complex: shrimp tinted a violent taxicab-yellow with pureed amarillo chiles, propped up with cylinders of boiled Peruvian tubers, and only just cooked through, so the bare, slippery crunch of the crustaceans plays about the stolid, claylike chaw of the yuca like a ballerina dancing about a marble column. It is easy to envision a $24 plate of camarones a la piedra at Koi or Sona, but it is hard to imagine the extra expense making the shrimp any more delicious. 1360 N. Vine St., Hollywood, (323) 871-9600.