Nine Kick-Ass Dishes of 2002

1. Few pastas are simpler or sexier than the ribbony, slightly chewy house-made papardelle at Alto Palato, which is tossed with slippery, mouth-filling porcini mushrooms. A little olive oil, a little sea salt, some good cheese, and there it is -- the best pasta I had all year.

2. How about just a good, juicy, crusty, delicious piece of meat? The bone-in rib-eye steak at Mastro's is it. There's a reason Bill Clinton's a regular there.

3. At Max Restaurant, Andre Guerrero's smart, precisely prepared "trio of pork" showcases the other white meat in three distinct, equally tasty preparations: juicy, marinated chunks of pork grilled and served on lightly sautéed pea sprouts; a bacon-wrapped tenderloin roasted and served on mushrooms; and rich, slick braised pork belly on a bed of tiny lentils.

4. After Studio City's Café Katsu closed down from an electrical fire, the sushi chef/owner Michite Katsu took the year off and spent some of it in Italy. He then returned and opened Tama Sushi(named after his wife) and began serving a very simple, perfect live scallop sushi topped with a few drops of lime juice and coarse Italian sea salt.

5. The latest from the ever-enterprising Wolfgang Puck is Brasserie Vert, upstairs in the new Hollywood & Highland shopping mall. The menu, designed by Puck's corporate chef Lee Hefter, is a kind of rapturous tour through bistro land. The most surprising and delightful dish -- especially to those of us who've eaten our weight in fried calamari -- has to be the fritto misto, with lightly battered, crisp fried capers, olives, lemon (!), rock shrimp, zucchini and shredded onions, and a smooth lemon-garlic aoli for dipping. Also -- so long as we're talking fried things -- don't miss the Italian doughnuts with almond ice cream for dessert.

6. Croques-Monsieurs are cropping up all over town, but my favorite -- for its simplicity and quality -- is at Nicole's Gourmet Imports in South Pasadena. A baguette, sliced lengthwise, is layered with just enough béchamel, a good thin-sliced flavorful French ham, and aged Gruyère, all topped with a dash of nutmeg, then toasted till the tips of the ham are crisp and the cheese bubbles and browns.

7. Fresh sweet, springy lobster wrapped in toasted seaweed with a little sushi rice -- what could be better? Lobster rolls at the new, upscale sushi bar/pan-Asian Wabi Sabi, quite simply, rule.

8. Cheese courses are finally taking hold in this town -- you could even call it a craze. But so far, nobody serves cheese with as much class -- or condiments as good -- as Mélisse. Watch for a dead-ripe St. Marcellin -- you can spoon it up -- a sheep's-milk Brie called Perail made by Lou Perac; there's an excellent old Amsterdam aged Gouda and a good Spanish cabrales. Cheese plates, served tableside, come with candied kumquats, candied figs and cracked walnuts served with a house-made dried-fruit bread.

9. Let us eat cake -- so long as it's made by SugarPlum Bakery. Pastry chef Anna Delorefice's "Berry Blossom" is a fluffy layered mass of vanilla sponge cake, white-chocolate mousse, fresh berries and hidden crunchy bit s of meringue. As cake goes, it's not too rich and not too sweet, but just right -- especially with a good hot cup of tea.


1. When physical culture meets agriculture, the result is health food — and in the realm beyond spirulina, mung-bean sprouts and brewer’s yeast, some of it even tastes good. But a glass of wheatgrass juice, even at the venerable Beverly Hills Juice Club, is one mean son of a bitch.

2. The Indian region of Gujarat is as renowned for its vegetarian snacks as Alsace is for sauerkraut. And at Jay Bharat, you can taste most of them: Bhel are thin-shelled, crunchy, hollow things, cradling a few beans and bits of potato, into which you spoon a spicy vegetable water the color of a pine forest; pani wada, which look like White Castle burgers, are filled with a garlicky vegetable purée, and mesui masala, a giant crepe, is folded over spicy potatoes. It’s a meal you won’t forget . . . especially at about 3 a.m. the morning after you eat it.

3. At one time or another you’ve probably noticed the dancing flames outside El Gran Burrito, a stand tucked next to a Metro Rail station in East Hollywood. Like most great Los Angeles taco places, El Gran Burrito is less notable for the food served inside the restaurant than for the food served out back on evenings and on weekends, when the big grill is set up under an awning, and the mingled aromas of wood smoke and charred beef permeate the air for blocks. Carne asada burritos — that’s the ticket.

4. From a series of stainless-steel vats in the center of the room, the counterman at Chili John’s scoops out pinkish beans, mounding them high in a yellow plastic bowl, then carefully spoons thick, brick-red chili over the beans until the bowl nearly brims over onto the counter. With a flourish, he tops off the chili with a splash of bean water. He cocks an eyebrow, which means, "Would you like an extra little drizzle of orange grease with that?’’ You nod.

5. The original Oki Dog, home to a generation of punk rockers and hustlers, was too colorful for its own good. After a decade of neighbors’ complaints, West Hollywood finally managed to close it down. But the Pico operation still thrives, with its relentlessly transglobal blend of junk cuisines — cross-cultural burritos that have it all.

—Jonathan Gold


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