There is something magic about a leap year, a year divisible by four. In November, you get to vote against the evil of your choice. In midsummer, tiny gymnasts spend two weeks on TV. In June, if you believe the Phil Jackson/Lakers Leap Year Theory, Kobe and Pau Gasol will make it to the NBA finals. And on February 29, Leap Year Day, downtown's Ciudad turns into City Restaurant for just a single evening.
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City renewal: The Leap Year Day reunion
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This is a night for the aging hipsters among us to imagine ourselves young again, endomorphs turned back into ectomorphs, tasting the dishes that we loved before Britney Spears was even conceived: the funky-tart sweetness of Thai melon salad with toasted peanuts and tiny dried shrimp; the Peruvianesque grilled chicken with Indian-spiced tomato pickle, a mouthful of rigatoni in a slurpingly good Parmesan cream sauce.
"Remind me never to do this again," said chef Susan Feniger, flexing hands stiff from a day of stuffing each of said rigatoni with chicken mousse. "2012 will definitely be too soon."
In the first wave of great cooking in Los Angeles, when Jean Bertranou and Wolfgang Puck bestrode the city like twin colossi, City Cafe was Exhibit A when journalists attempted to explain the creativity of the scene, a tiny storefront, squeezed in next to L.A. Eyeworks on Melrose, where the young chefs Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken reinterpreted the changing face of the city in the media of Brussels sprouts, goat cheese and lamb. If you had to go to the bathroom at City, you passed through a kitchen probably smaller than the one in your apartment, crowded with half a dozen cooks, flavored with smoke drifting in from the makeshift grill somebody had set up out in the alley. At City, you discovered tongue stew and paillards of chicken that were much better than anything you managed to whip up at home, rajas and chilaquiles, the beauty of roasted poblanos and the pleasures of a really fresh oyster.
Unlike l'Ermitage and Spago, City Cafe was a restaurant that young artists and struggling musicians could actually afford, a node of black clothing and sculptured haircuts drawn in by the walnut tarts and lemon poppy-seed cake made by Milliken's mother, by the sandwiches of apples and Brie, and poached salmon whose finesse betrayed the old-school French training of the chefs — chefs whose travels took them to Bangkok, Bombay and Merida instead of the old food capitals of Europe. In 1987, Milliken's geometric haircut spoke as specifically of a time and place as the upswept coif of Robert Smith of the Cure.
In the mid-1980s, Feniger and Milliken turned the old City space into the original Border Grill and opened the vastly more ambitious City Restaurant in an old car showroom on La Brea, which became the face of a new style of Los Angeles cuisine, cooking that acknowledged Koreatown and Thai Town and Little India and the stretch of Russian delicatessens in West Hollywood. Chicken was as likely to be cooked in an Indian tandoor as to be crisped in a pan, and you could follow a Thai Chinese-sausage salad with Irish lamb kidneys, an all-American baseball steak, a Poona pancake or a smoky, spicy Portuguese fish stew that owed a lot of its flavor to L.A.-made Spanish chorizo. As screenwriter Jonathan Roberts once said, City Restaurant was the kind of place where you would never, never let on that your regular shopping list failed to include chrysanthemum greens. The customers were the old City Cafe customers, grown up just enough to be able to afford Comme des Garcons instead of parachute pants, Burgundy instead of Chablis. Before the chefs closed the restaurant to concentrate on an expanded Border Grill and the then-new Ciudad, City Restaurant tasted like the future.
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But was the future beef stroganoff with delicious homemade pickles? Poona pancakes? Eggplant curry with spinach? As it happened, their Mexican restaurant Border Grill turned out to be the future, a popular cuisine chopped and channeled rather than a new cuisine brought into being. Last Friday night at Ciudad, however, everybody was eager for a taste of the past.
Taste memory is brutal and specific, and each dish at the City reunion seemed to nudge out another scene, a mussel bisque recalling the glow of a blind date's fine cheekbones, the parsnip puree a bad preholiday funk, the banana-mustard raita a happy summer afternoon, the cracked-pepper vinaigrette on the carpaccio the Lakers' victory over the Celtics in 1985. I remembered those cupcakes, frosted with ganache and filled with cream, not only because my friend Anne makes them a couple of times a year from a recipe in the City Cuisine cookbook. To paraphrase A.J. Liebling, if Proust was able to pull five volumes out of the taste of a cookie dipped in tea, imagine what he could have done with City's lamb moussaka, beef stroganoff or potato bhujia with yogurt and mint.
Ciudad, 445 S. Figueroa St., L.A., (213) 486-5171. Mon.-Tues. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Wed.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., ?Fri. 11:30 a. m.-mid., Sat. 5 p.m.-mid., Sun. 4-9 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards.
City Cuisine cookbook (William Morrow), available used and new on Amazon.com.