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Yes, Deer

Chichén Itzá. Chichén Itzá, a small counter restaurant in a communal mercado south of downtown, is the most serious Yucatecan restaurant in town at the moment, its menu a living, habanero chile–intensive thesaurus of the panuchos and codzitos, sopa de lima and papadzules, banana-leaf tamales and shark casseroles that make up one of Mexico’s most thrilling cuisines. Chichén Itzá, named for the vast temple complex north of Cancún, is as fresh as a marketplace restaurant in Mérida — especially on the days that it serves tacos made out of marinated deer. In Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Ave., (213) 741-1075. Breakfast, lunch and dinner Sun.–Wed. 8 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Thurs.–Sat. 8 a.m.–9 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Food for two $12–$22. Yucatecan. JG $

Empress Pavilion. I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday than meeting friends here for dim sum. But dinners are pretty fine too: If you’re lucky, the Dungeness crab steamed with noodles and about half a ton of fresh garlic will be on the menu, and there are plenty of snake and venison dishes in season. Bamboo Plaza, 988 N. Hill St., Chinatown, (213) 617-9898. Lunch and dinner Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.–10 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Validated parking. AE, DC, MC, V. $1.85–$4.80 per plate, $12–$15 per person. Chinese. JG $$

Josie. Josie LeBalch, who spent her 20s as the chef of an Italian restaurant but cooks with a French accent, is most famous for game dishes but may be as deft with a dish like baby squid and lentils as she is with all-American preparations of duck, wild boar, venison and elk — although her guinea fowl with wild rice is pretty special. And there’s chocolate bread pudding for dessert. 2424 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 581-9888. Dinner Mon.–Thurs. 6–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6-11 p.m., Sun. 5:30–9 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Entrées $18–$32. Progressive American with French and Italian. JG $$$

Michael’s. Look around you, man. Art, the real stuff — Rauschenberg, Stella, Graham, Hockney. Luxury foodstuffs identified by port of origin. A garden patio like we all dream of having between the lanai and the swimming pool. And organic pork chops, and grilled quail, and rare roast venison, and a cellar full — full! — of older Zinfandels and obscure Merlots and oaky, buttery Chardonnays that would be beautiful enough to make you weep if you ever got to taste them, because Michael’s, whose cooking under chef Nadav Bashan is nearly as Italian as it used to be French, still feels a little like an exclusive party that somebody forgot to invite us to. 1147 Third St., Santa Monica, (310) 451-0843. Mon.–Fri. noon–2:30 p.m. & 6–10 p.m., Sat. 6–10:30 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet and street parking. All major credit cards. $28–$40. California. JG $$$

Palms Thai. Perpetually jammed and newly relocated to a cavernous dining room just west of Thai Town, Palms is still the most famous Thai supper club in Hollywood, the home of Thai Elvis. There is a proper papaya salad, the unripe fruit shredded into crunchy slaw, with taut chile heat, sweet-tart citrus dressing and the briny sting of salt-preserved raw crab. And Palms Thai prepares an unrivaled, at least in this town, version of suea rong hai, northeastern-style barbecued beef. But much of the restaurant’s exotica is contained in a section of the menu titled Wild Things, and includes sauteed wild boar, pepper-garlic frog and a delicious dish of venison in a coconut curry laced with fresh peppercorns still on the branch. 5273 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 462-5073. Lunch and dinner seven days 11 a.m.–mid. (until 1:30 a.m. Fri.–Sat.). Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$40. Thai. JG $

Patina. The soaring dining room in Disney Hall is arguably the most important restaurant space in California, and when Joachim Splichal concentrates, as he has so many times before, he can be among the best chefs in the United States. The restaurant is known for the offhand complexity of its presentations, some stunning compositions among them, but tends to be rather hit or miss. Still, nobody has ever gone wrong ordering venison or game birds at Patina, which makes it a destination in winter and late fall. 141 S. Grand Ave., downtown, (213) 972-3331. Dinner daily 5 p.m.–11 p.m., Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. French contemporary. JG $$$

Phong Dinh. Phong Dinh is located just where you might speed up on the way to a little catch-and-release at the lakes in Whittier Narrows, probably untempted by the restaurant’s screaming neon promise of “World Famous Baked Fish.” But when the fish lands on your table, it is a sweet-smelling thing, still sizzling, lolling on a platterful of mixed greens as if it had just happened to belly-flop onto a passing salad. Phong Dinh is also noted for its game dishes — we’re partial to the slices of marinated venison that you cook yourself on a sputtering tabletop grill. 2643 San Gabriel Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 307-8868. Daily 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $15.95–$35. AE, D, MC, V. Vietnamese. JG $

Spago. Wolfgang Puck long ago redefined Americans’ idea of what a great restaurant might be. His cooking always had a deceptive air of simplicity about it, like the culinary equivalent of a caprice Yo-Yo Ma might toss off on the Today show. In the past several years, bolstered by imaginative executive chef Lee Hefter and pastry chef Sherry Yard, he’s redefined our idea of what Spago might be — and the roasted-beet cake with goat cheese, the turbot with Chino Ranch vegetables, and the roast duck perfumed with star anise are good enough to make you forget the duck-sausage pizza and the chopped-vegetable salad that originally made Spago famous. Venison in season? Don’t think twice. 176 N. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0880. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:15 p.m., Sat. noon–2:15 p.m. Dinner seven days, from 5:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Entrées $19–$36. California. JG $$$

Violet. A pleasant, mainstream bistro, Violet has all the appropriate buzzwords on its menu: the harissa aioli, the braised veal cheeks, the roasted venison loin, the rare ahi tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes, but it is also possible to drop in after a show at McCabe’s up the block for a caesar salad, a decent pepper steak, or a dish of very nice macaroni and cheese made with Gruyère, slivered leeks and chunked-up Serrano ham. Violet is a little restaurant that cares. 3221 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 453-9113. Lunch Tues.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., dinner Tues.–Fri. 6–10 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 5:30–10 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $44–$66. California cuisine. JG $$

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