Our 99 Essential Restaurants issue came out last week. In celebration, we're highlighting some of the spots for their special attributes. Today: Seafood.
Is it worth telling you again that Los Angeles is currently going a seafood renaissance? We've certainly said it before. What's also true is that there are a bunch of seafood spots that have been around for quite some time that still deserve our love and respect.
When browsing through the 99 Essentials list this year, we found a special abundance of seafood spots, a mix of places both shiny and new, tried and true, and somewhere in between. Here are five essential L.A. restaurants to get your fish fix.
If you've driven all the way to Inglewood to seek out Coni'Seafood, chances are you're here for the snook. That snook, or pescado zarandeado, is the dish that has garnered the most adoration from devotees of chef Sergio Peñuelas, and there's no doubt the whole split, grilled, tender white fish is one of the city's great seafood dishes. But really, it's only the beginning of what this small, slate-gray restaurant has to offer. In a dining room one wag describes as resembling "the Flintstones' living room," there are smoked marlin tacos, which are like the best tuna melt ever, only in taco form. There are all manner of cocteles, such as the ceviche marinero, a jumble of shrimp marinated in lemon, cucumber, cilantro and tomato, topped with hunks of sweet mango and bathed in a wicked, dusky "black sauce." Then there are the camarones, giant, head-on shrimp that come in many different variations of sauce: diablo for the spice lovers; borrachos - in a broth made from tequila, lime, cilantro and crushed peppers - for the hungover. There's a brightness and complexity and pop to this food that makes all of it - not just the snook - well worth the pilgrimage. 3544 W. Imperial Highway, Inglewood. (310) 672-2339.
4. Connie & Ted's
At Connie & Ted's, Michael Cimarusti's tribute to his childhood holidays along the Rhode Island shore, the chef has achieved something remarkable: a fish camp that seems right at home in the heart of West Hollywood. The giant, glassed-in swoosh of a building has all the dazzle and pizzazz the neighborhood requires; in addition to being a dining destination, it's an exceedingly fun place to grab a beer and some oysters at the bar while watching the game on the big-screen TVs overhead. Along with executive chef Sam Baxter, Cimarusti has created a menu of incredibly straightforward, classic American seafood dishes, proving that sometimes the simplest things can be the most impressive. This is food that is devotional rather than ego-driven, and as such it relies mainly on the quality of product rather than flashy cooking. There are chowders, lobster rolls, a fantastic selection of raw oysters, and the freshest fish cooked simply. In a year in which L.A. saw a slew of new, East Coast - inspired seafood spots, Connie & Ted's stands out as the best of the bunch. 8171 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; (323) 848-2722.
3. The Hungry Cat
In the past year, L.A. has been blessed with a number of great new seafood spots, while Providence continues to be one of the most impressive, seafood-driven fine dining establishments in the country. But we're still hard up for forward-looking, fish-focused restaurants, places that rely on neither retro charm nor unattainable luxury. That's where the Hungry Cat comes in. It's a restaurant that has all the technique of a serious, classically trained chef (David Lentz) and all the creativity of our best New American cookery. Each night, you'll find a bevy of thoughtfully composed fish preparations, more exciting than the simplicity of nostalgia and better prepared than you're used to: a piece of char, crisp on the outside with a meltingly rare center, served over creamy celeriac with citrus, beluga lentils and hazelnuts; pastrami trout with beets and bitter greens, served with fresh-cooked naan; manila clams in a stew of merguez sausage with huge chunks of grilled bread slathered in harissa aioli. The raw bar is great, the cocktails are fun, and the place is generally a blast. But the real value here is a type of cooking that is bold, fanciful and masterly. 1535 N. Vine St., Hlywd; (323) 462-2155.
2. L&E Oyster Bar
This is the neighborhood gem that keeps on giving. When L&E Oyster Bar opened in 2012, Silver Lake was deeply grateful for a serious oyster bar with a laid-back vibe, which served fantastic wine and the coldest bivalves in town. Two years later, L&E has grown to include an upstairs bar with a great porch overlooking Silver Lake Boulevard, as well as a wallet-friendly happy hour. Chef Spencer Bezaire continues to deliver much more than oysters. There are standbys that still satisfy: the mussels cured in oil and served with chorizo toast is one of the city's best bar snacks, showing the virtues of two kinds of oily goodness combined. But there are also seasonal dishes that pop up and smack you upside the head with their creativity and quality. We're still thinking about a seafood boudin noir we had at L&E a couple of months ago, a fat seafood sausage blackened with cuttlefish ink over sunchokes with beurre blanc - simply stunning. It helps that the place is damned adorable as well, all mirrored and checkered floors - like a tiny slice of Paris, only with better oysters. 1637 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 660-2255.
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While much of the attention given to Michael Cimarusti this year was for his new, much more casual seafood spot, Connie & Ted's, Providence remains the chef's crowning achievement. This is modern fine dining at its best: service that is formal but relaxed and engaged, a wine list to swoon over, cooking that is precise and elegant. Tasting menus here begin with a flurry of small bites - a Dark and Stormy in gelee form, which bursts on the tongue and channels the drink perfectly; a nasturtium leaf fashioned into a taco, holding delicate, raw scallops and puffed rice; a cracker made of salmon skin, served with a smoked salmon dip dotted with bright orange roe. From there you move on to anywhere from three to 16 courses, most of them quietly creative odes to the sea. It's a dining room that's regularly perfumed with black truffles, where waiters excavate Santa Barbara spot prawns from hot salt and plate them tableside, where a German-engineered cheese cart glides around silently - it's a place for quiet decadence. If the theater of a full tasting menu is too spendy for you, many things are available à la carte at the cozy bar, where - unsurprisingly - some of the city's most coddled and delicious cocktails are being served.