The Best Dishes of 2009
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "Best Dishes of 2009" photo gallery.
The original Shu Feng Garden, jammed into the usual mini-mall storefront in a corner of Rowland Heights, has for years posed a conundrum. Although it has been, practically without question, the best Sichuan restaurant in the county, with exemplary versions of cold pig’s ear, fuqi feipan and spicy fried chicken, its superiority to the best places in the San Gabriel Valley was slight. Unlike the scallion pancakes at Earthen or the hand-pulled noodles at Ma Lan, the mapo doufu rarely seemed profound enough to justify an extra half hour on the freeway. But at the new location in San Gabriel Square, traffic on the Pomona Freeway is no longer an issue. Dan dan mian may be the most meager of dishes in the Sichuan repertory, a simple bowl of noodles with minced pork, pickled mustard greens and chile, the stuff of a million street carts, but Shu Feng Garden’s supple, stretchy noodles and extravagant use of Sichuan peppercorns makes its version pretty special. 140 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. (626) 560-1815.
Are pig’s ears the new pork belly? Because they’ve been everywhere lately, not just on Sichuan menus but dumped over terrines, tangled with squid and piquillo peppers, topped with fried eggs, tossed into salads and folded into tacos. Really, this winter they’ve been easier to find than artichokes. Ground zero for the recent pig’s ear craze is probably Church & State downtown, where the ears, simultaneously crisp and chewy, soft and tasting like the best French roast pork, are piled into a metal julep cup with a little dish of béarnaise sauce on the side, as impossible to stop eating as the onion rings on your girlfriend’s plate. I know Walter Manzke has transformed Church & State into the most accomplished of the city’s bistros, including the stadium-sized newcomer in Beverly Hills, and that we should probably be celebrating his Provencal-style spot prawns, his suave bouillabaisse or his woolly mammoth–size roasted marrow bones instead. But those ears! 1850 Industrial St., L.A. (213) 405-1434.
If you drive the back roads of Umbria on a Saturday afternoon, you will probably run into dozen porchetta wagons parked by the crossroads, vending parcels of temptation at least as potent as anything dreamed up by Robert Johnson: sandwiches carved from the whole roast pigs stretched across the serving counters of the trucks; crisp-skinned and screaming with fennel, rosemary and garlic. At Mozza2Go, the new takeout wing of the Mozza empire, the meat is a bit softer than what you find in Italy, but it is also juicier, practically running down your chin, and the explosive flavor betrays the fact that the restaurant probably spends as much on the fennel pollen as it does on the pork. 6610 Melrose Ave., Hlywd. (323) 297-0100.
An intercoastal restaurant war was launched this fall when Momofuku chef David Chang suggested on a panel that San Francisco cooking was basically figs on a plate. (Chez Panisse chef David Tanis perhaps anticipated this when last year he called his wonderful cookbook Figs on a Platter.) But if the fig is the right fig, it doesn’t need much to showcase its loveliness. And at the Tasting Kitchen, which is almost Maoist in its simplicity, the delicate, smoky sweetness of roasted figs was set like a jewel on a bit of grilled bread smeared with fresh, pure fromage blanc made in the restaurant’s own kitchen. Stunning. 1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 392-6644.
If you are open-minded about dessert, a beer float can be a mind-blowing way to complete a meal, all cold creaminess and explosive fizz, innocent sweetness and a blast of pungent, hoppy bitterness. As served at Golden State, an ale-intensive Fairfax gastropub, the beer float is practically a sacrament, a scoop of brown-bread ice cream from the cult gelateria Scoops, moistened gently with Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, a marriage of equals. Caramelized intensity plays against caramelized intensity here, brown against brown, rich against richer, and the strong back taste may remind you of the Russian fermented-bread drink kvass. Beer floats are not uncommon in serious beer bars, but Golden State’s version is a step or two beyond. Everybody should try a scoop of Scoops in their beer. 426 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. (323) 782-8331.
Kiyokawa is the kind of discovery every gastronaut hopes to make at least once in his life, a talented sushi chef, stuck making spicy tuna rolls at an obscure neighborhood restaurant, who has it within himself to prepare the sparkling sashimi plates and first-rate kaiseki dinners, a chef prepared to dazzle adventurous palates with fresh wasabi grated on sharkskin, sake-marinated uni, and live Santa Barbara spot prawns that are stunning in their sweetness. Yet as masterfully as Satoshi Kiyokawa handles raw fish, his most impressive dish may be this simple soup, a strong dashi bathing a single, luscious round of daikon; some carrot; a cube of bean curd; half a taro root with its hairy outside but not its potatolike inner skin removed; and a couple of snow peas. It takes 15 minutes to remove the outer skin of taro, rubbing each tuber with a crumpled piece of aluminum foil instead of swiping it with a knife. Each vegetable must be simmered separately, and combined only at the end, so that the flavors do not muddy one another. It is a dish worthy of a three-star chef. 265 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 358-1900.
In this year devoted to the odd parts of animals, Laurent Quenioux of Bistro LQ is the most devoted of all, flinging gizzards and duck hearts around the way other chefs use parsley, wrapping fish in caul fat, leaving no lamb organ unturned. Like any good Frenchman, when the weather turns cold, his fancy turns toward game, and Quenioux may be at his best with game: boar, partridge and grouse, but especially the strong, dark meat of wild boar, with its divine stink of the woods in fall. When it’s on the menu, his stewed hare is spectacular, adulterated with maple syrup and cotton candy perhaps but tar-black and reeking of autumn, laced with thin, slippery lozenges of jelled blood, a dish with swirling, mysterious depth. 8009 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (323) 951-1088.
Ludovic Lefebvre is a chef without a kitchen, a restaurateur without a restaurant, an auteur of cuisine who pops up for a month or two in a bakery or a gallery space before disappearing back into the obscurity of his Twitter feed. What he serves at LudoBites is accomplished haute cuisine at popular prices; what he demands from his customers is a sense of adventure. He does not tend to repeat a dish. Still, it is hard to forget a soup served last July — a cool cream flavored with funky, smoky Spanish chorizo, bathing cubes of juicy, ripe melon and splinters of tart ice — ice that expressed the essence of cornichons and pickled onions, with a texture as jagged as its taste. A soup like that is worth the wait. ludobites.com.
The Varnish, a tiny bar hidden behind an unmarked door at the back of Cole’s, is the cocktail bar L.A. has long dreamed of, a civilized temple of spirits where bliss is measured out by the dram. It is a good place to contemplate the unknowable, the terrible moment of clarity that is often found toward the bottom of a glass. The menu lists a half dozen or so cocktails, both originals and drinks taken from ancient bar manuals, but my first drink of the evening is always an Aviation, a concoction of gin, fresh lemon juice and a dash or two of violet, a flickering, elusive fragrance that vanished from the bartender’s palette more than 40 years ago, a fragrance both antique and unmistakably new. “If you catch a whiff of violets from the darkness of the shadow of man,’’ D.H. Lawrence wrote, “it will be spring in the world.’’ Make mine a double. 118 E. Sixth St., dwntwn. (213) 662-9999.
You are probably weary of reading about the brilliance of Kogi by now, about the Twitter feed, about the fleet of trucks, about the 3.0 transformation of Roy Choi from hotel chef to savant. By the end of next year, when the freeways are choked with Calbis and Bullkogis and Komodos and Bools and FuXions, you may wish that Aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice had never left grad school. But the fact of the galbi taco remains: sweet, marinated short ribs tucked into freshly griddled corn tortillas with shredded cabbage and a supertart Korean relish of scallions, soy, sesame seeds and citrus, lashed with chile — perhaps the first taco innovation since the Poblano taco arabe worthy of standing beside the sainted trinity of asada, cabeza and al pastor. Will the cute someone shivering at midnight punch your digits into his or her phone? That’s up to you. But the Kogi short-rib taco is forever. kogibbq.com.
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