Top 10 Dishes of 2007
In Umbria and southern Tuscany, porchetta is less a foodstuff than a sacrament — entire pigs stuffed with garlic and wild fennel, roasted in special high-heat ovens, and sold on weekends from behind the counters in bars, on outdoor terraces, and off of the equivalent of taco trucks parked by rural crossroads, where a butcher whittles his hog into panini-size portions, capped with chewy skin and a precious hunk of the liver, until the animal is all sold. Porchetta in its atavistic form does not exist in the United States. But Nicola Mastronardi, the chef at Vincenti, is a master of roasting over wood. And on the rare occasions it is on the menu, his rotisserie-cooked porchetta is magnificent — loin and belly are wrapped into a spiral, seasoned with fennel, and spit-roasted to a crackling, licorice-y succulence. 11930 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood, (310) 207-0127.
It may be best known for its carne asada fries, but the real specialty at My Taco is this central-Mexican lamb dish, a soft, spicy mash of long-stewed meat sizzled crisp on a flat top, sprinkled with chopped onions and cilantro, and served with a cup of clove-scented goat consommé. You grab a bit of the lamb with a tortilla, fold it into a taco with onions and salsa, and chase it with a shot of the soup. Or you moisten the lamb. Or you scoop up lamb with your spoon and wet it in the soup. Or you dump your lamb into the soup itself and let the devil take the hindmost. With barbacoa like this, you can do anything short of converting it to biodiesel. We’ll leave that to the carne asada fries. 6300 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 256-2698.
Have you ever seen a strawberry doughnut from the Donut Man? It is an iceberg of a doughnut, a flattened spheroid big enough to use as a Pilates cushion, split in two and filled to order with fresh strawberries, although only in season. The fruit is moistened with a translucent gel that lubricates even the occasional white-shouldered berry with a mantle of slippery sweetness, oozing from the sides, turning the bottom of the pasteboard box into a sugary miasma in the unlikely event that the doughnuts actually make it home. The tawny pastry itself is only lightly sweetened, dense and slightly crunchy at the outside, like most good doughnuts, with a vaguely oily nuttiness and an almost substantial chew. It is the only doughnut I have ever seen that is routinely served with a plastic knife and fork. It is worth every penny of the $2.50 it costs. It is worth waiting for spring. 915 E. Route 66, Glendora, (626) 335-9111.
When Wolfgang Puck decided to stop serving foie gras in his restaurants earlier this year, many of us panicked. Puck has been a Rodin of duck liver since his days at Ma Maison, molding the marvelous substance into marble-smooth terrines, crusty sautéed slabs, mousses as light as air, transforming the unlovely organ into a medium as universal as milk. At Spago, the foie gras once marked the perfect moment of luxury and calm, the essence of Puck’s ideal of a meal as a flowing dream. So what did Puck and his chef Lee Hefter substitute? Hummus, made from fresh fava beans. Pop a hummus tartlet into your mouth; feel the delicate pastry shatter, releasing a sort of jelly, lightly flavored with olive oil, that lingers on your tongue as an earthy yet ethereal essence that dissipates only when you chase it with the last few drops of Champagne left in your glass. Suddenly, the ducks of America breathe a sigh of relief. 176 N. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0880.
The kua kling Phat Tha Lung is probably the most famous dish at Jitlada, the powerful incarnation of the Southern Thai love for controlled-fusion levels of fresh chili heat. It’s a searing, tongue-scouring, chile-intensive dish that pins your nervous system into the red. But on your 15th or 16th visit to the restaurant, which has redefined local expectations of what a great Thai meal might be, you may find that the one dish you have ordered every time is the house mussel preparation: big, fresh, green-lipped New Zealand specimens steamed in a fiery broth of lemongrass and chiles — more chef Suthiporn Sungkamee’s riff on Thai flavors than a traditional dish, but so delicious that you will find yourself slurping the leftover broth. If you ask nicely, co-proprietor Jazz Singsanong will bring you a little saucer of a salty green-chile sauce that flips the flavors into hyperdrive. 5233½ Sunset Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 667-9809.
Like glowing metal streaking through the firmament, Ludobites, a temporary restaurant run by l’Orangerie and Bastide chef Ludovic Lefebvre with Breadbar and the Beverly Hills Cheese Shop, cast off sparks that illuminated the local restaurant firmament, a haute-cuisine tapas bar run from behind the counter of a bakery. Vanilla panna cotta with caviar? Tar-black croque ?monsieurs with foie gras? Broccamole? Just a regular Tuesday night at Ludobites, which unfortunately served its last meal last week. But most of all, I remember the udon, cooked softer than any Japanese chef would dare, seasoned with the French-style Sri Lankan curry blend called vadouvan, that with its citrus-peel tang and burnt-onion sweetness tasted almost exactly like a bowl of the thick Iranian soup asht — a four-culture carom shot that landed exactly on point.
A cemita looks superficially like a Big Mac — both sandwiches are multilayered concoctions on oversize, sesame-seeded buns — but unlike the fine cooks at Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1, McDonald’s rarely offers jellied pig’s feet as an option. After the roll is griddle-toasted to a fine, oily crunchiness, it is then crammed with cheese, slices of avocado ripe enough to constitute a condiment, and a layer of chiles, either pickled jalapeños or smoky chipotle chiles. There is a layer of meat over the chiles — Poblano head cheese, perhaps, or the slippery pickled pigskin called cueritos, or chicken, or Puebla-style carnitas stewed to dense porkiness. Usually, though, it’s a parchment-thin sheet of breaded, fried beef: the familiar pan–Latin American meat milanesa, named after the Milanese way of cooking veal — burnished to a bronzed crispness in a vat of hot, clean oil. Should you get your cemita garnished with big handfuls of the shredded Poblano string cheese called quesillo? It goes without saying. 3010 E. First St., E.L.A., (323) 881-0428.
There are so many things to like about Larkin’s, including the tiny corn muffins, the peppery fried catfish, the pleasant patio, the oozy macaroni and cheese. On a good day, the fried chicken is as fine as you’ll find in a Los Angeles restaurant. But it would be wrong to overlook the salmon cakes, modest but delicious examples of the soul-food breakfast specialty made with decent fresh salmon instead of canned, and spiked with more crunchy vegetables than a Southern, but not a Californian, cook might think proper. 1496 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 254-0934 or www.larkinsjoint.com.
Los Angeles has been without a decent brasserie for so long that some of us forgot how good they might be, how pleasant it is to eat decent choucroute, drink peasanty Côtes du Rhône by the glass and contemplate the virtues of a Gruyère-clotted onion soup that didn’t happen to be from Hamburger Hamlet. Comme Ça, David Myers’ stylish brasserie in the Melrose Place neighborhood, is a tough reservation at the moment. And one of the reasons is his version of an Alsatian tarte flambée, a brasserie staple of puff-pastry baked with crème fraîche and with cubes of chewy, smoky bacon. There isn’t a wine in France that doesn’t taste better helped down by a slice of the buttery tarte. 8479 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd., (323) 782-1178 or www.commecarestaurant.com.
This chicken-ginseng soup ranks first among Korean hangover tonics: broth, salt, and a tiny hen stuffed with glutinous rice and aromatics. You could consider samgyetang the Korean equivalent of Jewish chicken-in-a-pot, if you could imagine a matzo ball actually stuffed into a chicken. Keumsan, the local outlet of a Seoul-based chain, may be Samgyetang Central in Koreatown, and its signature dish is essential: a crock of mild, ginseng-fragrant broth nestling a tiny chicken stuffed with sticky rice, jujubes, and a gnarled sliver of ginseng root that traces the contour of the chicken’s cavity like some kind of alien internal organ. Don’t you feel better already? 1144 S. Western Ave., Koreatown, (323) 731-9999.
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