1155 N. Highland Ave.
Ammo has been around for three years as a catering company, a take-away kitchen, a tiny breakfast ’n’ lunch spot. Only recently has it annexed and remodeled an adjacent storefront and opened for dinner. The new dining room has a Zen simplicity, with wall-length banquettes, lots of pale wood, boxy paper lamps and a Thermopane vista of Highland Avenue. At breakfast, Ammo is part espresso bar, part minimalist coffee shop: There’s the conceptual opposite of Denny’s Grand Slam, two cup-poached eggs with daubs of pesto, thin sheets of reggiano and a scattering of chunky roasted potatoes. Ammo bustles at lunch. All the soups are delicious: potato leek; a purée of white corn with a dollop of pesto. Composed salads, too, rank far above average. I love the never-a-dull-bite French lentil salad with roasted beets, chives, arugula, crunchy pepitas and just enough goat cheese. People I know eat dinner at Ammo for the tuna tartare alone, the raw, smooth fish chopped with avocados, chives and a squirt of lemon juice on crostini. I myself like the butter-lettuce salad, with grapefruit and golden beets and curds of a good sharp feta. And all are helpless before the ice cream sandwich, a classy remake of a classic: two intensely bittersweet chocolate cookies filled with rich, house-made espresso ice cream in a pool of just-salty-enough caramel. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday–Saturday; weekend brunch. Lunch entrées from $8 to $12; dinner entrées from $12 to $23. (MH)
12130 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.
The newest kebabery to join West L.A.’s crowded Persian restaurant scene, Darya has materialized from a once-drab storefront to Las Vegas MGM Grand–style opulence, with crystal chandeliers and gilded Greek columns reflecting shimmery light around its dining room. Those more-than-generous plates of grilled, skewered protein, traditional in Persian restaurants, are all here, too. But in tune with the sensibility of its neighborhood, Darya has wisely created a list of vegetarian plates that includes the creamy roasted-eggplant-based kashk-e-bademjan, and fesenjon, a vegetarian version of the usual pomegranate-and-walnut-sauced duck fesenjon. Though prices are kebaberia-low, lamb chops are juicy and meaty, the skewered Cornish game hen plump and well-marinated, and the ground chicken or beef Koobideh is seasoned to sausage-like succulence. Almost everything arrives with the traditional saffron-misted basmati, piled to obscene heights, though Darya’s kitchen will graciously substitute a romaine salad or a more exotic rice. Try zereshk polo, freckled with tiny tart barberries, or adas polo, dotted with lentils, dates and raisins. Beer and wine is served, but the house doogh, a refreshingly thinned yogurt drink, is still best alongside Persian flavors. Beware: A live singer on Fridays and Saturdays may prevent intimate conversation. Open daily 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Entrées from $7.95 to $13.95. (LB)
8450 E. Valley Blvd.,
Nos. 108 and 109, Rosemead
Hidden behind the swank and palatial 888 Chinese restaurant, the casual Happy King is a family-run place where you can breakfast all through the day. It’s the Hong Kong equivalent of Rae’s or Twohey’s coffee shops, where you sit beneath the cheerful gaze of Hong Kong movie stars smiling from a larger-than-life, photorealistic mural. Happy King’s menu says “Specialist in rice and noodle,” but there’s much more to eat here than that. Breakfast specials for $3.25 combine vast, comforting bowls of soupy rice congee (minced beef, lean pork or fish) with a choice of fried noodles, deep-fried savory Chinese crullers, or silky, noodlelike stuffed rice rolls. Lunch specials, also $3.25, â— veer off into the mysterious world of preserved meat, black salted turnip and even double-boiled turtle. But the menu’s Chinese snacks — not considered formal enough for a meal, yet wonderfully filling — are the best items to sample: A mountainous plate of spicy salt-fried tofu (the No. 5 appetizer), shrimp with creamy scrambled eggs, and a minced-beef soup with masses of cilantro — all for the funky-dive prices we so appreciate. Open daily 10:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Snacks from $2.95 to $10.50. (LB)
225 S. Beverly Drive
Mako, the new Beverly Hills restaurant started by Mako Tanaka after leaving Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main, is in the former location of Il Mito and the short-lived La Veranda. Mako’s room has been redone in a simple, casual style with lots of pale wood, pretty blue hanging lamps and attractive original art, some of it by Mako’s wife, Lisa Brady. The dining room is well-staffed. Hosts and servers are attentive, good-natured, full of enthusiasm. They’re serious, and pulling for this restaurant; and the group effort is heartening. Mako serves up a familiar Pacific Rim fusion strain — Euro/Cal eclectic with strong Asian influences and an emphasis on seafood. An appetizer of deeply caramelized braised short ribs with black truffles and gnocchi is hearty and delicious, though pricey. Big, beautiful scallops are perfectly cooked, served on the shell with a bit of mashed potatoes and lots of slivered black truffle — excellent. Also a hit was grilled filet mignon, a tasty, beautifully cooked piece of beef with a side of sweet sake soy, and spinach. The great risk of fusion is a murky multiplicity, in which the diverse parts don’t add up to a whole. Unfortunately, many of the dishes here slip into that murk. A dessert crumble with apple, currants and nuts is a cross between mince pie and granola. The best dessert is yuzu tart, with a cute, singed beehive of meringue and delicious coconut sorbet. Open for lunch Wednesday–Friday, dinner Monday–Saturday. Entrées from $21.50 to $29.50. (MH)
1432-A Fourth St., Santa Monica
Dwarfed by the brazen neon of Harvelle’s Blues Club behind Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, Café More’s subtle façade blends into a clutter of signs on its ’20s building. This glamorized former coffee shop aims to serve all things to all people: breakfast, lunch, dinner, tapas, weekend late-night supper and coffee-bar fare. Despite its lack of focus, some efforts work quite well, but the kitchen and waitstaff of this 2-month-old spot gets periodically overchallenged. Pricey omelets and fritatas cooked to a gentle rubberiness one morning spoiled a breakfast plate that otherwise tried hard to please, with home fries of tiny red potatoes and a cup of very fresh diced fruit. Tapas are nicely rendered here: grilled veggie slices splashed with unctuous aioli sauce; seared, spicy salmon medallions perched on pumpernickel alongside a tangle of sprout salad; barbecue duck-confit pizza — truly a weird-sounding fusion, studded with moist chunks of duck on a fairly good crust. Entrées cover the bases — steak, chicken, salmon and pasta — but seem lackluster choices, a situation that’s understandable given the kitchen’s range of tasks. For a full meal you will want at least three tapas ($5 and $6); most men will want four or five, plus at least a shared dessert, so your tab can mount fairly quickly. Wine, beer and champagne, while not standard fare at most coffee shops, are offered here. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Sunday–Thursday until midnight, Friday-Saturday until 3 a.m. Meals from $7 to $20. (LB)
11101/2 Gayley Ave., Westwood
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Tanya Petrovna is the heroine of the local vegan world. Co-proprietor of three easy-going Native Foods cafés (in Palm Springs, Palm Desert and now Westwood), she’s made a name for her restaurants by refining such simple ingredients as textured soy protein and tofu, using seasonings excerpted from worldwide cuisines. Her homemade tempeh, a nutty-tasting cultured legume cake popular in Indonesia, and seitan, a meatlike wheat gluten, taste better than the more commercial versions. Petrovna puts these ingredients to work in big bowls of salad, on flat wraps, and in sandwiches, tacos, burritos and pastas. She includes loads of fresh veggies and uses oils sparingly. Even a group of steadfast carnivores found most dishes here acceptable. A few minor complaints: under-“caramelized” onions topping a pizza that had a lavoshlike crust so limp it was impossible to pick up, and even difficult to eat with a knife and fork; and a too-watery dressing on the otherwise pleasant Chinese salad. Open Monday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Entrées from $6.50 to $8.50. (LB)
NICK & STEF’S
330 S. Hope St., Downtown
Nick & Stef’s is one of several à la carte steak houses to open in conjunction with the new Staples Center, but Joachim Splichal’s imprint is unmistakable and delightful in the variety and range of starters: 12 vegetables, 12 kinds of potatoes and 12 sauces (you choose the one you want to accompany your entrée). Even traditional items have the Splichal spin: The standard steakhouse shrimp cocktail is here four hefty, spicy char-grilled shrimp served with coleslaw and barbecue sauce in a martini glass, altogether brimming with flavor. Caesars are assembled tableside. A waitperson carefully spoons, squeezes and dribbles ingredients into a wooden bowl, stirs ’em up and then adds lettuce. But for all the show, the salad is pasty and dry. The meat is, obviously, the star here. The filet (which comes in two sizes) is inarguably excellent: Wonderfully cooked, the meat is full-flavored with just the hint of that addictive cheeselike sourness. The New York, also cooked to perfection, was tasty enough but not distinctive, and a real chore to chew. The marbled rib-eye had a grand depth of meatiness and a complex age but, again, was chewier than expected. Vegetarians can dine here more happily than in many other restaurants. There’s the traditional creamed spinach, but why not have rapini sautéed with garlic? Beets, roasted and slyly smoky, are fabulous in a horseradish cream, and beer-battered onion rings are at once crisp, crunchy, sweet and slippery: irresistible. It’s hard to pass up chocolate cake from a Splichal kitchen, but the pies are even better. Open for lunch weekdays and for dinner daily. Entrées from $22 to $32. (MH)