Jonathan Gold's 10 Best Dishes of 2011
Roast marrowbones with prawn sambal
In a year when Los Angeles cooking came together with a coherence it probably hasn't seen since the mid-1980s, this dish at Spice Table seemed to express everything important about local cuisine. The roast marrowbone is a touchstone of the nose-to-tail movement. Its garnish of scarlet pickled onions hints at the Yucatán. Chef Bryant Ng, a Singaporean who also cooked at Pizzeria Mozza, roasts his bones in the wood fire that perfumes his downtown restaurant and glazes the marrow with a Southeast Asian paste of fermented shrimp and ground chiles that chars and crisps in the smoky heat. When you spoon the trembling marrow onto a bit of sliced baguette, garnishing it with the rau ram and a sliver of pickled onion, the taste of the leaf is sharp, almost metallic; the funk of the shrimp paste gives way to a low, throbbing chile heat; and the marrow melts on your tongue, meat yet beyond meat; a mellow, liquid bass line that makes the other flavors dance. 114 S. Central Ave., Little Tokyo. (213) 620-1840, thespicetable.com.
If you have eaten extensively in Koreatown, you undoubtedly have run into ganjang gejang, raw marinated crab, as a giveaway in an assortment of banchan. And you probably haven't much enjoyed it: The crabs are too small, they're too gooey or they have been too long from the sea — probably all of the above. At Soban, ganjang gejang, at the princely price of $29.95, is a way of life, even though the dish is properly drinking food and a sign on the wall indicates that alcohol is neither permitted nor condoned. One look at the plate and you will forgive: two neatly bisected blue crabs, not transformed by rice wine, as is the norm, but by what seemed to be a clean, soy-tinged distillation of the animal's own juices, mellow yet crabbier than the crab itself. When you suck at a leg, the flesh pulls cleanly out from the shell, firm but not cooked, briny and sweet, and nearly glazed with big clumps of roe. 4001 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown. (323) 936-9106.
Stuffed Monterey squid
At Lukshon, Sang Yoon of Father's Office fame has focused his perfectionism on the street food of Southeast Asia, and the cocoa-dusted foie gras ganache, lamb-belly roti canai and Spanish mackerel with coconut vinegar are almost jewel-like in their precision, if not their fidelity to the dishes on which they are riffing. I've never had anything quite like his tiny bulbs of California squid stuffed with Northern Thai fermented ground-pork sausage, although I've stared at recipes for similar dishes in Vietnamese cookbooks. The sauce, a kind of pesto made with the pungent Vietnamese herb rau ram and Malaysian candlenuts, is from a fantasyland where Liguria meets Kuala Lumpur. Could this be the year of rau ram? 3639 Helms Ave., Culver City. (310) 202-6808, lukshon.com.
The bäco, Joseph Centeno's elusive creation, was for years the focus of a Where's Waldo of L.A. food — a kind of flatbread sandwich, vaguely resembling either a pita wrap or a steroidal taco, that Centeno has flirted with at most of the restaurants he has cooked at since he was at Opus in the mid-aughts, but never officially put on a menu because he was afraid he would never be able to serve anything else. (Bäcos are awfully good.) Now, at his new tavern/small-plates joint Bäco Mercat, it's all bäcos, all the time. A bäco may taste a little like a falafel, or a crisp shrimp bánh mì, or a chicken salad sandwich by way of Algeria. But it is mostly a gooey thing with the Catalan pepper-almond sauce salbitxada; bits of pork belly; crunchy, porous cubes of what Centeno calls beef carnitas; scallions; and a kind of smoky olive oil thing that binds, flavors and oozes into your lap. 408 S. Main St., dwntwn. (213) 687-8808, bacomercat.com.
A year ago, Los Angeles had barely heard of tsukemen, pronounced skeh-men, a Tokyo-born dish of bare, cooled noodles served with a dipping sauce of superconcentrated pork broth flavored with dried fish. Now tsukemen has gone viral — I half-expect to see it pop up at Jack-in-the-Box. The local grail of tsukemen may be found lunchtimes only at Tsujita, a branch of one of the best-regarded ramen shops in Tokyo. The thick, burly, slippery noodles are pure chew, with the tensile strength of suspension-bridge cables, served with a sauce of long-boiled Kurobuta bones, the syrup-dense essence of pig. You are instructed to eat one-third of the noodles with the dipping broth, the second third with a shake of powdered chiles and the final portion with a squeeze of lime. When you are finished, the waitress takes your thickened sauce and tops it up with hot water. It has become soup. 2057 Sawtelle Blvd., W.L.A. (310) 231-7373, tsujita-la.com.
There is, perhaps, no dish homelier than congee, a loose, bland porridge made with last night's rice, occasionally enriched with a splash of broth. Yet in the right hands, the soothing blandness can serve as a canvas on which intriguing, even violently clashing flavors may be splashed. At Red Medicine, Jordan Kahn spikes his congee, made from "heritage" rice, with ginseng, toasted hazelnuts, raw egg yolk and fresh sea urchin gonads, whose various levels of nuttiness circle one another like sharks in a clear sea. 8400 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 651-5500, redmedicinela.com.
Dan dan mian
Dan dan mian, of course, is on the menu of any restaurant with even vague pretensions toward Sichuan cuisine — a simple, intensely flavored dish of noodles with dried chile, pickled mustard, fried peanuts and a bit of vinegar. There is almost always a handful of crumbled pork in the bowl, but if you happen to be vegan, most places, even the hard-core ones, will leave it out if you ask them to. Sesame paste? Optional. Dan dan mian is at its best dialed up to 11, reddened with tons of oily chile sludge and zapped with enough fresh Sichuan peppercorns to leave your gums numb for a week. Until it closed abruptly, the best in the San Gabriel Valley was at the Alhambra noodle shop Chuan Yu. And when Chuan Yu was reincarnated a few miles east as Lucky Noodle King, the dan dan mian was even better, because it was made with what seemed to be fresh noodles instead of dried, a bowl whose slippery, living texture was as intriguing as its 220-volt taste. 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. (626) 573-5668.
Maize cake Bombay Taj
A "maize cake" is John Sedlar's new unit of consumption at Playa: a thickish, palm-size patty of nixtamal, passed across a griddle just long enough to crisp the surface. It tastes a little like the thick, handmade tortillas you sometimes get at Central American restaurants. The surface of the Bombay Taj is smeared with a kind of masala paste, both tart and hot, and dotted with bits of chewy, pungent mango pickle and a bit of seasoned yogurt. The spicy maize cake supports three or four cubes of pork belly, cooked sous vide with duck fat to a melting softness and crisped a moment before serving. It's basically a luxury-class carnitas taco but twisted 90 degrees, made new by the new platform, the sharpness of the pickle and the mephitic breath of turmeric. 7360 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (323) 933-5300, playarivera.com.
Are you fond of meditation? If you are, you may enjoy Robata Jinya's dish of warm tofu freshly made at table: a beautifully weathered bowl, a few drops of nigari, a stream of soy milk from a pitcher. Don't stir, the waiter insists. Patience. Five minutes later, the tofu is ready, soft as a sigh, ready to season with planings of dried bonito, grated ginger and a syrupy drizzle of ponzu. For once, patience is rewarded. 8050 W. Third St., Mid-City. (323) 653-8877, jinya-la.com.
Whatever impression you take away from M.B. Post, whether you are there for the grilled lamb's tongue salad with pickled strawberries or a glass of Crémant de Bourgogne, what you are going to dream about tonight are the bacon-cheddar-buttermilk biscuits, palm-size creatures that have the gravitational pull of the sun. You may be a biscuit purist with a carefully maintained stash of White Lily flour, but it is hard to deny these things: crackling crispness yielding to elastic striations of dough; an appealing saltiness that welcomes but does not require the sweetness of soft maple butter; and the smoky, animal pungency of bacon, lots of bacon, achieved without the slightest sensation of smokiness. I am not in favor of the new trend of charging for bread, but it is impossible to visit M.B. Post without wolfing down at least one order of these, and maybe getting another for the road. 1142 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach. (310) 545-5405, eatMBPost.com.
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