On a backpacking trip through Europe in my early 20's I ended up in the small Alpine ski village of Isola, France. After a long day on the slopes my friend Anne-Sophie took me to a rustic restaurant for dinner -- all dark wood and fireplace and goblets of wine. There I had my first taste of raclette (rah-KLEHT), an easy, gluttonous DIY dinner in which you drip stinky melted cow's milk cheese on a pile of boiled potatoes, ham, cornichons, and in this case, pearl onions and walnuts. Wow. Melty, salty goodness that warmed our frozen toes and fingers and coated our insides like cheesy Pepto Bismol. It was the perfect après-ski treat; I have sought it out ever since.
Los Angeles is a far cry from the mountains of Western Europe but when we get a cold snap sometimes we just need a pile of melted cheese and potatoes. Traditionally, a half-wheel of raclette cheese is mounted at an angle on a stand with a heater above it. When you're ready to eat you lower the heater toward the cheese, place your plate of potatoes beneath it, and scrape the runny fromage down the slope onto your plate. Sadly, the raclette trend has not reached such proportions that you're able to find those contraptions in L.A., but these three restaurants do a damn good imitation of the finished product.
3. Bar Marmont:
You wouldn't expect a pan of melted cheese at a bar known for underfed Hollywood scenesters, but you will find it here: a fun, assemble-it-yourself cutting board of oozy raclette and potatoes, a tangle of prosciutto, a pile of purple pickled onions, sliced green apples and nice buttery bread. Chef Carolynn Spence fell in love with it in Austria and has had it on the menu in various incarnations for years. At $20 it's an expensive little appetizer but the flavors are spot on, and the mix-and-matchiness makes it a fun dish to share with friends. A word of warning, though -- the metal pan of cheese & potatoes cools quickly, so eat fast before the it starts to congeal. 8171 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles; 323-650-0575.
Chefs/Owners Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor have never had raclette in the Alps. They first ate it at a brewery in Atlanta, but they too fell in love with the simple brilliance of this dish. The version at The Hart + The Hunter, in the back of the Palihotel lobby, is largely pre-assembled for you: a layer of cheese atop potatoes and ham served in a hot skillet with a side of pickles, onions and chewy bread. If you're a newbie you may wrinkle your nose at the smell, but that just shows how authentic their cheese sourcing is -- plow right through and dig in. Smear the concoction on bread with a bit of grainy mustard. Close your eyes. Chew. Wash it down with a gulp of wine. Yeah, that really doesn't suck. 7950 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles; 323-424-3055.
1. Chalet Edelweiss:
Here you will find one of le plus authentique versions of this dish. Chalet Edelweiss is tucked into a bright space near the airport, with a patio buttressed by a 3D mural of Matterhorn and a bar encircling a man-made tree. Inside there's a wood-burning oven, steins of beer, waitresses dressed in the female version of lederhosen, and a fine plate of Swiss raclette -- potatoes, cheese, pickles, tomatoes and onions. The Swiss don't generally add ham, but Edelweiss will sprinkle on some bacon if you ask. It's the simplest version of this dish, but perhaps the purest.
Here, owner Stefan Bachofner is so serious about his authenticity that the chairs are imported from Switzerland, the pretzels flown in from Bavaria, and traditional raclette wine (Fendant, a bright white) served in stemless flutes. The restaurant is warm and homey with sort of a Cheers feeling to it (more than once the staff greeted regulars by name) and a fun place to come with friends. And here's a secret: They have a raclette heater and giant half-rounds of cheese. And will gladly bring them out for very large dinner parties if you call in advance. Go on, give it a try. You can start your juice cleanse tomorrow. 8740 S. Sepulveda Blvd. Los Angeles; 310-645-8740.
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