Finally, they get it. After years of dismissive neglect, the rest of the country has begun to realize how fantastic it is to eat in L.A. right now. Credit our lack of obligation to an old guard, our status -- still -- as the place you go to create your art, the freedom that allows for experimentation and evolution. There's no better major city to be a young chef with an unusual vision, no place where that vision is more likely to come, undiluted, to fruition. Many of the best dishes I ate this year came from young, new chefs, and most came from restaurants that opened in the last 18 months.
But that's not the only thing driving our culinary explosion. It's also our immigrant population, our cultural diversity. We've long been known as a city where you can eat like you're on almost any continent. Now that richness is morphing into something else, something new: the beginning of a truly American cuisine, one rooted in the food of our immigrant populations but filtered through the lens of multicultural America. It's more honest than fusion, and more interesting.
Many of the best things I ate this year tell a distinct story: about the people who cooked them, their personal journey, the country of their heritage, as well as the city they now call home. At this moment in time, there's no other place in the world I'd rather be eating or writing. Here are the dishes I most savored in 2013.
10. Camarones taco at Colonia Taco Lounge: Colonia, Ricardo Diaz's latest project, offers quite a few contenders for Taco of the Year. But the one I find myself craving, the one that calls all the way from La Puente, is the taco camarones. Served on an outstanding warm flour tortilla from Mexicali, the shrimp, sauted in aji, pop with freshness. What sets this taco apart is the base of creamy, coconut rice smeared between the tortilla and the shrimp. The rice is so comforting, so sweet, so full of flavor, it makes for a taco that engages you on more than one level, emotionally and physically. What more could you ask of a taco? 13030 Valley Blvd., La Puente; (626) 363-4691.
9. Gnocchetti with pesto at Bucato: It's hard to pick a favorite pasta from Evan Funke's Bucato in Culver City. In fact, it's hard to pick a favorite dish at all. The focaccia is revelatory, and the panzanella salad isn't just the best panzanella in our panzanella-saturated town -- it's one of the best salads, period. But in the end I had to choose the gnocchetti, bathed in vibrant green pesto. Bright, mellow and almost floral, Funke's pesto is a great reminder of why this basil-based concoction has become one of the world's most popular sauces. The gorgeous, tiny, rolled pasta support the sauce with just the right amount of bite, the perfect resistance. 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City; (310) 876-0286.
8. Ricotta gnocchi with short ribs and strawberry soffrito at Rustic Canyon: Leave it to a chef like Jeremy Fox to take strawberries and, rather than going the usual route -- sorbet, perhaps? -- make a meaty pasta sauce. The soffrito, made from reducing strawberries with pine nuts and onions for hours, creates an utterly beguiling dish when combined with rich short ribs and served with pillowy gnocchi. The result is at once weighty and intense yet buoyed by the purity and zing of its ingredients. It's one of many reasons Fox's appearance this year in the Rustic Canyon kitchen has been such a welcome treat. 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 393-7050.
7. Satsuki rice with uni, geoduck and tangerine at Orsa & Winston: Hipster foodists will tell you they've been into uni for, like, ever, but 2013 was the year uni made its sweet briny self known to, and adored by, the masses. It's a welcome trend. And while there were a number of uni dishes I could have picked for this list, the one that most stood out was the satsuki rice with uni, geoduck and tangerine at Orsa & Winston, Josef Centeno's Japanese/Italian omakase restaurant. (That such a place even exists is testament to how awesome L.A. is right now.) Served midway through your nine- or 15-course tasting menu, this is the dish that will make you stop and marvel at the delicacy and intelligence on display at this restaurant. The brine of the geoduck, the sweetness of the rice, the soft, generous acid of the tangerine and, yes, the lush eroticism of the uni, made this a high point in a very lofty night of eating. 122 W. Fourth St., dwntwn.; (213) 687-0300.
6. Malva pudding cake at Sqirl: I likely never would have sought out the malva pudding cake at Sqirl, so enamored was I of the tiny cafe's savory offerings. The muffinlike cakes never would have caught my eye among the tarts and pastries next to the register.But owner Jessica Koslow delivered one of the muffinlike cakes to my tablemate one fine afternoon, knowing her well enough to realize she might appreciate something so amazing, and I've been hooked ever since. It's a miracle of taste and texture, the perfect amalgamation of butter and sugar and flour, the center a smoosh of pudding, its edges a sugary miracle. Is it breakfast or dessert? Who cares? 720 N. Virgil Ave., E. Hlywd.; (323) 284-8147.
5. Cavatelli with uni ragu at Allumette: Quite a few dishes Miles Thompson served at Allumette stayed with me for months after I last dined there, chasing my imagination and sense memory. The young chef has a knack for unusual combinations and striking flavors. But the most elegant of them, the one that demonstrated not only inventiveness but also serious technique, was the cavatelli with uni ragu, fromage noir, English peas and braised mushrooms. It was light yet complex enough to be surprising, full of flavor yet utterly delicate. 1320 Echo Park Ave., Echo Park; (213) 935-8787.
4. Spaghettini with black abalone, pickled cod roe and Italian summer truffles at n/naka: Of all the dishes Niki Nakayama serves in her complex kaiseki service at n/naka, the spaghettini is the boldest, the one that hews least to tradition and Japanese formalism -- one reason it stands out among the relatively quieter courses of sashimi and delicate seafood. But it's also a dish that is greater than its components, a balance of textures and flavors so well thought out that it's nothing short of stunning. The perfume of the truffle, the dueling types of textural resistance from the abalone and the pasta and the light acidity of the pickled roe builds to something astounding. 3455 S. Overland Ave., Palms; (310) 836-6252.
3. Koa kan chin at Night + Market: A banana leaf filled with rice fortified with pig's blood Ñ not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think "comfort food." Unless, that is, you're Night + Market chef Kris Yenbamroong. It's a dish Yenbamroong's mother grew up eating in Northern Thailand but has since almost disappeared even there. Thanks to this bold young chef, here in L.A. we have the amazing good fortune to taste what even Thailand is losing. Served with raw onion, cucumber, dried chile, cilantro and lime, it is hearty, spicy, tangy and refreshing -- nourishment at its most basic and most complex, all wrapped up in a banana leaf. 9041 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd.; (310) 275-9724.
2. Potato pulp at Trois Mec: This is the one dish that's a constant on the ever-changing menu at Trois Mec, the part of the tasting menu that makes the least sense yet leaves the biggest impression. Basically a pile of pulped potato on a plate, it is likely the least beautiful thing you'll be handed by chef Ludo Lefebvre and crew. But it's so much more than just potato. There's an overabundance of butter, the tang of aged cheese, even a whisper of savory ocean in the form of bonito flakes. The combination is completely addictive -- and completely unforgettable. 716 N. Highland Ave., Hlywd.; no phone.
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1. Trout roe with peas and lemon curd at Red Medicine: Recently chef Jordan Kahn has changed up his menu at Red Medicine, shedding almost all of the Vietnamese influence that previously guided him. What he's serving now is pure Kahn: driven by ingredients but also by fine art, composed, bizarre, delicious. Like many Kahn creations, the trout roe comes in a glass bowl -- as much a landscape sculpture as it is a dish. But where other chefs who get this avant-garde with their platings can become so enamored of themselves that flavor loses out, here the creation tastes as miraculous as it looks. Sweet peas and creamy lemon curd taste of pure spring, while soft trout roe brings a hint of saline weirdness. It's a very, very good weirdness. 8400 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (323) 651-5500.
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