What is an essential Los Angeles restaurant? I was thinking about that over lunch at Providence a couple of months ago, contemplating a dish of Santa Barbara sea urchin cosseted with gently scrambled egg, wondering whether the uni might go better with an Alsatian pinot blanc or a Central Coast viognier.
As the L.A.-based sportswear industry tends to have more global sway than the louder kings of high fashion, and even the artiest of European directors looks over his shoulders at Hollywood, Los Angeles cooking has traditionally exalted the idea of food as popular entertainment, the big fast-food chains, as well as the aestheticization of sushi, pizza and tamales. But a meal like the one before me at Providence is a different thing altogether, the result of precision, real technique and a well-trained kitchen team. Somebody had to raise the uni, someone needed to recognize it as special, somebody had to prepare it, and a fourth person needed to know how to cook it.
I like trucks, taco tables and pop-ups as much as the next guy, but I was really hoping to find evidence pointing to a resurgence in fine dining, powered by exposure to complex cooking on food television, and the vast numbers of people coming out of training programs like Cordon Bleu or the CIA. Alas, I did not.
Instead, when I looked at the new heroes of cooking in America, I kept seeing Lukshon's Sang Yoon, Kogi's Roy Choi and ramen-slinging David Chang of New York's Momofuku: Asian-born guys classically trained in European techniques, working in great American kitchens, who decided to redirect their imagination toward street food. Their dishes have a directness of flavor, and their high-low juxtapositions still have the ability to shock, even in a world where pandan leaf and calamansi lime have become nearly as common as salt and pepper.
If you ring a change on trout meunière, there are probably six old dudes and seven Frenchmen in Los Angeles who would notice the difference. When you change up the taco, the bowl of ramen or the cheeseburger, you've opened up the avant garde to everybody with a Yelp account. Serve a glass of craft beer with it, and you're golden. It has become a street-food world.
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Look at Bryant Ng's marrowbones with belacan at Spice Table, a dish that seems to express everything important about Los Angeles cuisine. Roasted marrowbones are a signature of Fergus Henderson, whose offal-intensive London restaurant is the lodestar of the Euro-American nose-to-tail movement, and you see them on the menu at Mozza, Lazy Ox, Animal and Cut. The labor involved in serving them properly — sourcing the bones, sawing them in half and roasting them to just that point before the marrow collapses into grease — indicates a seriousness of intent, dedication to a dish that is usually one of the lowest-priced items on your menu, and which half of your customers won't eat. Ng smears the marrowbones with fermented shrimp paste, which gives them identity, and roasts them over a hot wood fire, which adds a high degree of difficulty.
You don't actually have to eat bone marrow to be glad that it's on the menu. It means that somebody in the kitchen cares.
See the list below and click for the reviews:
Church & State
Din Tai Fung
El Huarache Azteca
Euro Pane Bakery
Fab Hot Dogs
Good Girl Dinette
La Casita Mexicana
Lazy Ox Canteen
Meals by Genet
Musso & Frank Grill
Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa
Newport Tan Cang Seafood Restaurant
Night + Market
101 Noodle Express
Palate Food + Wine
Pollos a la Brasa
Sapp Coffee Shop
Son of a Gun
Tacos Baja Ensenada
Waterloo & City