The Freshmen 15 — L.A. Weekly's Best New Restaurants

Shibumi's abalone, house-made miso, ginger and fresh mochi
Shibumi's abalone, house-made miso, ginger and fresh mochi
Anne Fishbein

This year, we've changed the rules a little bit for our annual 99 Essential Restaurants in Los Angeles issue. To get a place on the list of the 99 Essentials, a restaurant must have been open for a full year. But we didn't want to miss the opportunity to celebrate the newbies, so we created another list: The Freshmen 15.

Here are the 15 restaurants that were born in the past year (including one that was revamped so thoroughly it has basically been reborn) that have the potential to become essential.

Oyster, poached uni, caviar, tarragon, champagne
Oyster, poached uni, caviar, tarragon, champagne
Anne Fishbein

71Above

Located on the 71st floor of the US Bank Tower, 71Above is attempting to be a landmark restaurant for Los Angeles. Its name is rendered in marble and metal on the floor at the entrance, the ceiling is decorated with hexagonal sculptural forms, the waiters have the suave formality of first-class airline stewards. The dining room circles the inner perimeter of the building, so no matter where you're sitting you're in range of the floor-to-ceiling windows, beyond which Los Angeles spreads out in all its twinkling glory. In the kitchen is Vartan Abgaryan, who came to 71Above from a stint at Cliff's Edge in Silver Lake, where he raised the quality of the food considerably. Abgaryan's cooking never seemed quite right at the neighborhood-centric Cliff's Edge — it was too pretty, too formal for that sprawling space. At 71Above, his penchant for high-end drama on the plate is much more at home. You can have oysters poached in Champagne and topped with uni and caviar, or a standard but luxurious steak tartare. An old-school foie gras terrine shares menu space with a decidedly modern parsnip dish, the vegetable roasted in duck fat and served whole on the plate surrounded by dollops of strained yogurt and date puree. 71Above excels at presenting a menu that might appeal to old-school and new-school luxury tastes alike. In this era of "casual" $200 meals, there's a lot to be said for a place that manages to feel truly special. —Besha Rodell

633 W. Fifth St., downtown; (213) 712-2683, 71above.com. Mon.-Wed., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thu.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-mid.; Sun., 5-11 p.m. Three-course prix fixe $70.

Asparagus duoEXPAND
Asparagus duo
Anne Fishbein

  Baran's 2239


On most nights at Baran's 2239 in Hermosa Beach, you'll find first-time restaurateurs and brothers Jonathan and Jason Baran pouring drinks or greeting diners while their collaborator, chef Tyler Gugliotta, runs the kitchen. Though the waitstaff at Baran's 2239 is quick to point out that much of the menu's produce hails from the chef's family farm, it soon becomes apparent that Gugliotta's inventive global cooking doesn't need to hang its hat on the farm-to-fork ethos alone. For a local hangout, the food at Baran's 2239 is progressive, delicious and unexpected. The compact, one-page menu pulls you in immediately. Gugliotta's version of focaccia is soft and supple, with a dense strata of Parmesan cheese and a side of whipped "umami butter," an indulgent spread supercharged with sun-dried tomato, capers and olives. A hamachi crudo, tricked out with a colorful aji amarillo and passion fruit, nods toward both Nobu and Peru, while Caribbean-leaning jerk chicken wings come with a sweet mango dipping sauce to tame their habanero-powered heat. The brothers Baran were shrewd enough to realize they'd wrangled a chef brimming with creativity and the skills to back it up, then had the prescience to let him cook whatever he wanted. —Garrett Snyder

502 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach; (424) 247-8468, barans2239.com. Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Plates $11-$95.

Fresh peas, Job’s tears, gooseberries, frozen cream
Fresh peas, Job’s tears, gooseberries, frozen cream
Anne Fishbein

Destroyer

Jordan Kahn's new restaurant is a far cry from his most recent project — the much-missed Red Medicine — in almost every way. Where that was a big, flashy, trendy restaurant, this is a sparse place with most of its seating outdoors, where you order from a counter and take a number to your table. What hasn't changed is Kahn's modern-artist's eye for presentation, his sense of drama on the plate and on the tongue, and his penchant for making incredibly delicious food. In fact, if anything his food has become more delicious at the same time as it's become more casual. Much of it is built on the premise of layers of flavors, and often those layers are literal. In the case of his chicken confit, everything comes in a wide bowl under a blanket of charred cabbage leaves and a flurry of cheese. The bottom layer is a mix of yogurt and hazelnuts, and the meaty, oily chicken (oily in the best way possible) combines with the cabbage funk and the luxury of dairy and the nuttiness of the hazelnuts for a dish that's just straight-up delicious, as well as being thrilling on a creative level. Beef tartare, bound by smoked egg cream, comes under a blanket of perfectly arranged radishes, with sprigs of dill at the edge placed in such a way so as to make the perfect Instagram photo. It tastes pretty swell, too. —B.R.

3578 Hayden Ave., Culver City; destroyer.la. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Plates $6-$14.

Shredded cabbage pancake with braised eggplant and chili hoisinEXPAND
Shredded cabbage pancake with braised eggplant and chili hoisin
Anne Fishbein

Erven

Omnivorous chefs making plant-based cuisine is perhaps the year's biggest trend (Erven's website calls it "coincidentally vegan"), but at Erven, former Saint Martha chef Nick Erven pulls from ingredients flavors and textures that you didn't know they had. The restaurant serves creative pastries and juices and a bunch of salads during the day, but the nighttime menu is where the real thrills lie. Kale cavatelli comes in a stunningly bright "tom yum gravy," along with squash, hen of the woods mushrooms and pears. Soft, wobbly tofu is paired with lightly charred Brussels sprouts and doused in a pickled-garlic ponzu sauce. This chef loves acid, and uses it to great effect. Even on a chickpea fritter turned dark with black garlic, the flavor that really sets the dish ablaze is the yuzu that dances at its edges. Add a fun wine list and service that is sometimes pitch-perfect, and you've got a restaurant that could very well act as the poster child for this new, thrilling era of plant-focused eateries. —B.R.

514-516 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 260-2255, ervenrestaurant.com. Lunch: daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10:30 p.m. Cafe/to-go marketplace, daily, 11 a.m.-close. Shared plates $5-$21.

Hot fried chickenEXPAND
Hot fried chicken
Anne Fishbein

Gus's World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken


Gus's originated in Mason, Tennessee, a family business that dates back to the 1960s, but it's now a bona fide national chain, with 17 restaurants across the South and Midwest. The L.A. location, which opened in June 2016 at the corner of Crenshaw and West Pico in Mid-City, is the first Gus's west of Texas. Unlike the Nashville-style hot-chicken joints, Gus's does not have different categories of spiciness. There's only one level: "hot & spicy." Plates come with two or three pieces of chicken, white or dark meat, atop a slice of white bread and with baked beans and coleslaw as sides. The coating on the chicken is thin and shattery. It seems as if they have somehow taken the skin of the chicken, imbued it with a slow-burning heat and lots of salt, and crisped it to the point where the fat has liquified and re-fused and created a perfect amalgamation of crackling schmaltz and cayenne. Yes, the interior is juicy, even on the white meat, and if you order the three-piece dark meat plate, you may find yourself dazed and covered in red and brown grease and wondering where all that chicken went when you had planned to take at least one piece home with you. And maybe you want another piece. Maybe you could just sit here and eat this chicken indefinitely. —B.R.

1262 Crenshaw Blvd., Arlington Heights; (323) 402-0232, gusfriedchicken.com. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Plates $8.90-$15.90 (individual pieces and large platters available).

Tête de Cochon
Tête de Cochon
Anne Fishbein

Gwen

Gwen, the new Hollywood restaurant from chef Curtis Stone and his brother, Luke Stone, is striving for greatness in so many ways that it's a little head-spinning. It's a meat importer, a butcher shop, a cocktail bar, a chophouse of sorts and a return to serious, glitzy Hollywood dining the likes of which we haven't seen in decades. Unlike Stone's other restaurant, the exceedingly intimate Maude, Gwen is large and brash, with one of the most breathtaking dining rooms in the city. Where Maude trades in delicate luxury, Stone's rallying cry here is "primitive elegance." The regular nightly prix fixe is more like an insanely over-the-top picnic than a formal meal. Courses come in great flurries of dishes, all served on little plates that spread across your table like puzzle pieces. You will see easily 20 or more dishes cross your table by the end of the evening, and many of those dishes are stunning. A recent change in format allows diners now to go for a much more affordable, pared-back three-course meal, or an even more extravagant tasting that includes caviar and foie gras and Wagyu and is downright bonkers. Whichever way you go, it's incredibly fun to take part in this monument to one guy's glorious, meaty Hollywood dream. —B.R.

6600 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 946-7513, gwenla.com. Restaurant: Tue.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid. Butcher shop: Mon., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Dinner $55-$185.

NectarineEXPAND
Nectarine
Anne Fishbein

Here's Looking at You


Here's Looking at You, like an increasing number of compelling places to eat in Koreatown, is not a Korean restaurant. It's the brainchild of two Animal veterans: Jonathan Whitener, the former chef de cuisine, and Lien Ta, a former manager. If you're familiar with the food served at Animal, it's easy to see the Dotolo-Shook fingerprints on Whitener's cerebral, postcultural cooking: an easy fluency in mashing together international flavors, a flair for turning lowbrow into highbrow, a penchant for balancing richness with judicious splashes of acid. But Whitener's style is distinct, too; his food has a lighter, more subdued touch, with less of that smash-mouth decadence that defines many of Animal's greatest hits. His ground brisket tartare, crowned with egg yolk, toasted chili powder, shaved turnips and sprigs of watercress, is so ethereal that it turns a dish associated with luxuriousness into something that feels downright healthful. Whitener shows a keen understanding of textures, especially when it comes to his gorgeously complex salads. A plate of Little Gem hearts dressed with a sort of five-spice ranch is pure crunch, speckled with crumbled blue cheese and flecks of dehydrated Chinese sausage pulverized to resemble garlicky bacon bits. Though not without its idiosyncrasies, Here's Looking at You is overflowing with as much raw creative potential as any restaurant in the city. —G.S.

3901 W. Sixth St., Koreatown; (213) 568-3573, hereslookingatyoula.com. Mon. & Wed.-Thu., 6-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid.; Sun., 6-10 p.m. Entrees $14-$29.

Chicken sandwich with pickles
Chicken sandwich with pickles
Anne Fishbein

Howlin' Ray's

Part of the allure of Howlin' Ray's is undoubtedly the dare that lies at the end of its infamous, hours-long wait in line: How hot can you handle? There are six levels of heat, and anything above the third level, called "medium," is hot enough that it comes with a warning. "Do not touch your face after eating the chicken," the guy at the cash register warns if you order anything "hot" or higher: "You will burn your skin." Yet there's something about the sting of cayenne (as well as a ton of other kinds of peppers, including ghost peppers) that creates a similar endorphin rush to jumping into a freezing river or being initiated into Fight Club. Even if you order the "country" style chicken — that is, level one, no heat at all — you'll find that this is incredible chicken, with or without the heat: The way the skin shatters and gives way, the utterly perfect spicing of the batter, the way it's indistinguishable from the skin of the bird, the juicy flesh underneath, all goes to show that there are far worse things you could do than spend half a day with your fellow weirdos, waiting in line for chicken so good it's made us all lose our collective minds. —B.R.

727 N. Broadway, #128, Chinatown; howlinrays.com. Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Chicken $3 (for one wing)-$28 (for a whole chicken).

Wheat berry “risotto” with black garlic and toasted cheese at Kali
Wheat berry “risotto” with black garlic and toasted cheese at Kali
Anne Fishbein

Kali

At Kali, which comes to us courtesy of former Patina chef Kevin Meehan and former Providence wine director Drew Langley, part of the conceit is that the restaurant features only ingredients sourced from California. As you'd imagine from a kitchen whose boundaries lie at the state line, Kali's roster of dishes changes often. If you were to judge it from your Instagram feed alone, Meehan's cooking would seem more avant-garde than it actually is — much of the food here aims for comfort rather than shock. A bowl of potato agnolotti with ridgeback prawns swims in creamy shellfish stock that's as decadent as any New England chowder. Grilled pork loin is paired with tart, celery-apple puree and the pencil-thin root vegetable salsify, which is roasted and then coated in ash to resemble tiny, tangled branches. It's a bizarre-looking forestscape that tastes both bleak and bright, conjuring the moment after a spring rainstorm. It's tempting to find a label that applies to Meehan and Langley's very personal project — the laid-back neighborhood gem, the freewheeling chef's counter, or maybe the ambitious temple of haute cuisine — but it's probably more accurate to simply call it a well-polished restaurant. —G.S.

5722 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; (323) 871-4160, kalirestaurant.com. Lunch: Mon-Fri., noon-2 p.m.; dinner: daily, 6-9 p.m. Entrees $26-$36; five-course tasting menu $65.

Melon bar with sorrel
Melon bar with sorrel
Anne Fishbein

Kato

What makes Kato — named after the Green Hornet's masked sidekick — so improbable? Put it this way: If this restaurant were a superhero, its power would be invisibility. Shoehorned between two Mexican restaurants in a two-story mini mall, Kato's blank storefront is no more than 10 feet wide. A scrawl of pale pink cursive on the glass front door is the sole signifier that you've arrived. The extent of Kato chef-owner Jonathan Yao's experience amounts to two stages (the industry-speak equivalent of an internship). Yet Yao exhibits an almost preternatural knack for weaving together subtle Taiwanese and Japanese flavors in ways that are at once elegant and unpretentious. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Kato is the chef's choice tasting menu. A five-course dinner here will cost you around $49 before tax and tip (actually, it's more like eight courses, once you include two snacks and a dessert). It's probably worth twice the price. —G.S.

11925 Santa Monica Blvd., Sawtelle; (424) 535-3041, katorestaurant.com. Tue.-Sat., 5:30-10 p.m. Prix fixe menu $49.

Veggie UtopiaEXPAND
Veggie Utopia
Anne Fishbein

Lalibela

If you have spent any amount of time eating in L.A.'s small but robust Little Ethiopia neighborhood, you might be familiar with the cooking of Tenagne Belachew, a matronly grandmother from a small town in northern Ethiopia. She's cooked in the community for more than a decade, at Little Ethiopia stalwarts Rahel and Marathon. Over the years, Belachew has attracted something akin to a cult following among local diners, and when she arrives at your table at Lalibela, brandishing a sizzling platter of derek tibs — butter-sauteed cubes of beef flecked with herbs — you'll understand why her new restaurant already has amassed a roomful of dinner regulars. There are crispy, house-made sambusas, triangle-shaped pastries filled with lentils and onions and paired with a swipe of bright green jalapeño sauce. Lalibela serves many of the Ethiopian staples common everywhere, but its delicate, subtly spiced details set it apart. It's the type of family-run jewel you might dream about encountering, a place where recipes are passed down through several generations, and the grandmother in the kitchen tends to pots that have been simmering for days. —G.S.

1025 S. Fairfax Ave., Carthay; (323) 965-1025, lalibelala.com. Daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Entrees $12.95-$29.95.

Chicken hearts with young eggplant, romano beans and ubriaco rosso
Chicken hearts with young eggplant, romano beans and ubriaco rosso
Anne Fishbein

Michael's

It's a little silly to pretend that 38-year-old Michael's is a new restaurant. But the reinvention of Michael's is so radical that we decided it belongs in the freshmen class. That reinvention rests mainly on the hiring of Miles Thompson, the young chef who used to run Allumette in Echo Park and then left town for a couple of years. Thompson's cooking was always assertively modern, but in the time he's been gone from L.A. it's also become more refined, more clever and more umami-driven. This is food that's cool to look at (in some cases for reasons that are almost subversive), but it isn't so cerebral that it becomes a killjoy. Pure pleasure appears to be the base ingredient in all of Thompson's cooking. Crab and uni chawanmushi is built upon a base of savory egg custard, topped with large hunks of Dungeness crab and the decadent funk of uni, punctuated by delicately floral ginger sprout. Burrata comes lolling in its bowl with orange orbs of trout roe across the top; underneath is a sweet tart chow chow, which sits in lovely contrast to the milky cheese. Thompson's arrival at Michael's offers hope that, rather than shut down our venerated institutions, we might honor them by moving steadily forward, keeping the components that are worthy of preservation (in this case, the iconic, irreplaceable glamour of the restaurant's leafy patio) and installing youth and vitality where it's needed. —B.R.

1147 Third St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-0843, michaelssantamonica.com. Mon.-Thu., 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Shared plates $15-$45.

Vegetable taco
Vegetable taco
Anne Fishbein

Salazar

Above all, Salazar is a triumph of atmosphere. Walking through the gates into the garden dining area from the somewhat grotty intersection of Fletcher Drive and Ripple Drive is like stepping through a portal into a desert fantasy. It's not too slick — the muted pastel chairs look as though they were pulled from a 1980s high school cafeteria, the sandy dirt underfoot gives everything a slightly dusty vibe — but it is beautifully laid out and designed. Chef Esdras Ochoa takes his inspiration from Sonora, Mexico: The tacos come on freshly grilled, slightly stretchy flour tortillas, and you can taste the smoke of the grill on the meats; dribble the very good house-made hot sauce over them, and they make for an exceedingly satisfying few bites of food. The carne asada has a garlic char, the al pastor a hint of pineapple sweetness. Every now and then, a restaurant can rise above the sum of its parts and be perfectly suited for its exact moment in time. Right now, in Los Angeles, Salazar is that restaurant. —B.R.

2490 Fletcher Drive, Frogtown; salazarla.com. Tue.-Thu. & Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-mid. Tacos $3.75, plates $12-$58.

Uni and egg tofu at Shibumi
Uni and egg tofu at Shibumi
Anne Fishbein

Shibumi

Chef David Schlosser is presenting a singular vision at Shibumi, and if you get on his wavelength, this place can seem like entering an alternate dimension. If there's a defining element to Schlosser's cooking, and Shibumi in general, it is simplicity, informed by the tradition of Japanese kappo-style cooking. The chef wants you to taste the ingredients — really taste them — so much so that eating here can be like discovering the elemental truth of foods you thought you knew well. There's a focus on texture rarely seen in Western cooking, which can be revelatory or disconcerting, depending on the dish and on your personal tolerance for viscosity. Cold seafood dishes are designed to highlight the fish above all else, but Schlosser adds elements that reinforce the silkiness and freshness of a Japanese sea bream, for instance, by contrasting it with the barely-there crunch of a ginger bud, its delicate floral flavor shimmering at the edge of your consciousness. Grilled pork and beef are presented so simply but are of such high quality and have been cooked so well that you're forced to ponder the elemental wonder of deeply flavored flesh and fat, its animal funk and tang. Shibumi is the result of one chef's years-long quest come to fruition, a focus on bringing something precious carefully across an ocean and laying it in front of us on polished vintage cypress. —B.R.

815 S. Hill St., downtown. (213) 265-7923, shibumidtla.com. Tue.-Sun., 6-10:30 p.m. Plates $6-$52.

Potato rosti with sunny side up eggs, smoked salmon, basil tahini and fennel pollen
Potato rosti with sunny side up eggs, smoked salmon, basil tahini and fennel pollen
Anne Fishbein

Winsome

Winsome would make a great set for a fashion shoot, especially in the daytime, when light streams in and illuminates the blond-wood ceilings and booths, and the long counter that curves around the bar and open kitchen. The hanging plants are draped just so; the wallpaper against the back wall is printed with a scene of fat-bottomed figures picnicking in a lush, green park. Winsome is put together by Marc Rose and Med Abrous, the guys behind the Roosevelt Hotel's lauded Spare Room cocktail bar. The chef is Jeremy Strubel, and his style is to douse everything in lots of bright, herb-based and often creamy sauces, to spike things with lots of acids, to throw a bunch of ingredients that sound fairly random into a bowl together and to create something harmonious and interesting and delicious. That's the thing about Winsome: Even if you'd like to resist the hipster fantasy it perpetuates, the food — and the drinks! — are likely to seduce you anyway. —B.R.

1115 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; (213) 415-1818, eatwinsome.com. Cafe, 7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily; breakfast and lunch: daily, 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Snacks $5-$13; shared plates $11-$19; shared entrees $29-$46.


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