Photo by Anne FishbeinMy first meal at Angeli on Melrose was in the mid-’80s and consisted largely of culture shock. I was living in the southern Sierra at the time, and had come to Los Angeles to do work for a magazine and visit friends. Early on a summer evening, three of us met for dinner at Evan Kleiman’s new but already famous café on Melrose. The place was packed. We squeezed through a maze of seats to an undersize table. The chairs were uncomfortable, the room unbelievably noisy. I ordered a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine. Conversation was impossible, but I do remember one friend repeatedly yelling over the din, “I love it here. I come here every day!”
I failed to understand why.
The room was architecturally attractive, but harsh; the other customers, intimidating in L.A. Eyeworks eyewear and outfits from Ecru, had apparently been peeled from the pages of style magazines. My pasta was austerely sauced — a few mushrooms, some olive oil. My part of the bill came to a whopping $17.
It all made me want to flee back to my rural neighborhood, where the fanciest steak ã in town cost $12.95, and came with soup and salad and a scoop of cobbler for dessert. When we finally paid up and squeezed our way back toward the exit, I felt a distinct sense of injury.
It didn’t take long, however, before I learned to appreciate upscale pasta and its trappings. I still don’t like noisy restaurants and uncomfortable chairs, but the beauty and intelligence of Evan Kleiman’s cooking became clear to me and, from there, the pleasures of Italian pasta beyond the tired standbys of marinara and cream sauces.
Some time after my first visit to Angelion Melrose, an editor took me out to lunch to the second Angeli, a larger, brighter, and even more architecturally inventive space on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles (may it rest in peace). The editor ordered spaghetti sauced with — get this — nothing but butter and Parmesan cheese. And it cost $8! I was outraged again, until I tasted it: This was one of the simplest, most delicious things I’d ever eaten. Sweet butter, good Reggiano Parmesan and a noodle so pleasurable to chew it was as if my teeth had developed an addiction all their own. After that, I ordered it at every opportunity. It made me happy, and happiness, at $8, is a true bargain.
Thank goodness for my change of heart, because by 1987, I’d begun reviewing restaurants regularly, and the great food boom that had made Los Angeles briefly the national center of culinary invention was already giving way to recession — and to a deluge of dough that would succor us for the next six or seven years. From the late ’80s until the mid-’90s, almost every new restaurant was a mid-priced Italian pasta joint: a cucina, a caffe, a trattoria, bistro, ristorante. Suddenly all anybody wanted to eat — or could afford to — was a bowl of pasta and a slab of boozy tiramisù.
Countless restaurateurs rode out the recession on this tide of noodles. Rarely has there been a commodity with a higher profit margin andsuch creative possibilities. I mean, think about it: Just how much does a bowl of pasta, any pasta, cost to make? Yet a basic pasta amatriciana (tomato, chili flakes, a few bacon bits) sold for around $10. Add a $5 bottle of Pelegrino and a couple of $5 cappuccinos, and both wolf and landlord stay at bay.
Pasta proliferated for years. It became what we ate when we ate out, replacing such staples as fried chicken, roast beef, steak and chops. And it wasn’t long before it had wormed its way onto menus in coffee shops, diners, delicatessens. Some pasta dishes, cappellini alla checca, for example, became a must on every menu. Many chefs sold only the basics — arrabiata, amatriciana, vongole, marinara, Bolognese — while others set out to find or create their own distinctive dishes. Some scoured the backwaters of Italy for great products and little-known preparations. Others invented shamelessly, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, from Cajun seasonings to seaweed. (The pasta craze did begin, after all, at the height of culinary eclecticism and experimentation.) The apex of strange pairings was probably at the short-lived Matrix restaurant in the Hotel Nicco, where the menu consisted of a grid with sauces on one axis, pastas on the other, making it theoretically possible to have soba amatriciana or spinach linguini with peanut sauce.
Over time, the public’s hunger for noodles has expanded to include a wide variety of Asian noodles and various hybridizations. Pasta is, after all, a blank page, a piece of clay, an idea waiting to happen. It can take any number of shapes and sizes, from the teensiest pastina to fat cannelloni. There are delicate homemade pastas and trusty dried versions. Some are scored, scalloped, pinched, folded or stuffed. Some are extruded — a desirable brand sends the dough through ancient machines so the surface is irregular and porous. A pasta must simultaneously hold its sauce and its own integrity.
The success of pasta and other noodles, and their beneficial effect on the economy (they surely kept many a restaurateur and restaurant from bellying up), stem from the noodle’s ability to enchant, endear and addict. It is my theory that once the tooth discovers the perfect combination of give and resilience in the best of noodles, the body and mind are helpless to resist.
Here are some of my favorite places and noodles:
Celestino Drago may be responsible for starting the angel-hair pasta craze in Los Angeles. His version was simplicity itself: chopped peeled raw tomato on hot noodles with olive oil, minced garlic and basil. Drago has also consistently offered other great Italian classics in his various restaurants. At Il Pastaio, I first tasted garganelli, a tube pasta that is rolled rather than extruded, and thus has many crevices to absorb flavor; it comes with rapini now, but I liked it best with a spicy tomato sauce. Also delicious is Il Pastaio’s pale-brown spelt spaghetti, a slightly coarse, tasty, elastic noodle lightly dressed with fresh ricotta, lemon and lemon zest. At Celestino in Pasadena, I love the plump spinach tortelloni stuffed with pumpkin, and sauced with a cream and crisp sage leaves. At Dragoin Santa Monica, spaghetti gets traditional Sicilian treatments: spaghetti alla bottarga with garlic, olive oil and cured tuna roe; and the classic Sicilian spaghetti with fresh sardines, pine nuts and wild fennel.
Posto, in Sherman Oaks, is one of the most sophisticated, competent and inspiring sources of excellent pasta; I recently slipped in for lunch and had spinach garganelli with peas and smoked duck in a velvety pink sauce. The play between the elements was unbelievably fun: The flappy pasta with its reservoirs of creamy sauce, the pop of the peas and their inner sweetness, the salty duck — masterful. A friend had huge, ear-shaped shells in a veal ragu, another study in pleasure: al dente, scored pasta laden with a rich, meaty sauce, with a sharp tone of wine. Again, the mouth insisted on bite after bite.
Alto Palato on La Cienega makes consistently inventive pastas — I’ve had a pumpkin gnocchi sauced with cream and sage; a simple spaghetti with shredded zucchini. You might find a lobster ravioli or an earthy eggplant ravioli topped with pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese, arugula and cherry tomatoes. At Il Moro, the pasta itself is of the highest quality, which is why I’ve returned ã again and again for the dish with the simplest topping: a linguine stirred with butter, ricotta and lemon. Campanileconsistently makes a few good pastas every day; I still remember its torn pasta with olives and fava beans.
In addition to favorite restaurants, I have favorite dishes, things I try all over town in the hope of tasting a perfect version. And I’ve found, if not perfect renditions, pastas well worth eating. They include:
For lasagna: Porta Via’s wild mushroom and spinach version is an earthy, robust, meatless classic made with a firm noodle, creamy bechamel and a good dose of nutmeg. Also Grandmother’s pasta at Vincentiin Brentwood is a robust, meaty, deeply satisfying variation.
For aglio olio: A pasta of sublime simplicity, just garlic and olive oil, aglio olio when made well grows increasingly delicious in the act of eating it. Each bite gets more strongly flavored, until the last few noodles, marinating in the bottom of the bowl, pack a wallop. My three favorite versions can be found at Axe in Venice, Da Pasquale in Beverly Hills, and Angeli, of course.
For Bolognese: Victor’s in Hollywood wins my vote. There, Bolognese is not just another red sauce. In fact, it’s slow-cooked, cunningly seasoned meat with onions and carrot and a subdominant dose of tomatoes, served on spaghetti in enormous portions. A few miles to the east, the new Caffe Capriin Silver Lake makes an excellent, equally meaty, linguini Bolognese.
For Chinese noodles: I can’t find better Chinese egg noodles than those at Yujean Kang. Cool noodles with chicken and sesame are sparingly sauced but high in flavor (unlike lesser versions of the dish, which are oversauced and underflavored). Subtly seasoned curry noodles have an alluring edge of sweetness and spicing that grows more complex with each bite. But my very favorite are the full-bodied, spicy Beijing noodles with ground pork. All three dishes are made from a long, supple, chewy egg noodle with the perfect toothsomeness.
In Beverly Hills, The Mandarin’s Rice and Noodle Shop sells a selection of decent house-made noodles. They tend to be softer than I like and conventionally seasoned, but for a quick take-out noodle in Beverly Hills, they’re just fine, especially the spicy Dan Dan noodles with ground chicken and lots of chile. The supple, pleasantly resilient noodles made in-house at Chu’s Mandarin, upstairs in “The Great Mall of China,” in San Gabriel, have a lot of personality and just the right tensile strength. These excellent noodles are shown to best advantage in the black-bean sauce with ground pork, and in various pan-fried combinations. Also try them cold, with shredded chicken, peanut sauce, bean sprouts and sesame seeds. The hand-cut noodles at the Mandarin Deliare irregular, slivers of firm, chewy dough best consumed in a rich broth — they haunt.
Finally, and unpredictably, Lee Hefter at Spago Beverly Hillsmakes a great lo mein stir-fry with chicken and shrimp, chewy lo mein (egg) noodles, vegetables and black-bean sauce. More important, Hefter gets chow fun, thick rice noodles, like few other chefs. These are the big white sheets of noodles that you see folded to look like clean dish towels in Chinese markets. Hefter makes his own rice-noodle sheets and cuts them into thick slices for chow fun, which he sauces to accentuate just how slippery and chewy and sexy a substance they are. Against this texture, he plays vegetal crunch (Chinese broccoli, earthy mushrooms, lots of parboiled garlic, chile, a bean sauce). If, for contrast, you want to see how bland and dull and poorly the same sort of noodle can be, try Eurochow’s tepid version with beef and pea pods, and cornstarch gravy.
For cold Korean noodles: On a hot day in the city, cold spicy Korean noodles are a perfect antidote. At Arirang, in a huge former warehouse in Pasadena that’s been transformed into a lovely upscale Korean barbecue restaurant, try the delicious smog-busting bowl of chilled buckwheat noodles in a spicy chile dressing (bibim naeng myun). Seoul Jung, the lavish Korean restaurant in downtown L.A.’s Omni Hotel, serves a lovely version of the same dish.
For udon and soba: Sometimes nothing but a bowl of udon — preferably nabeyaki, the mother of all hot udon dishes, with fish cake, vegetables, a raw egg and shrimp tempura — will warm the heart. My favorite versions can be found at Mishimaon the corner of Olympic and Sawtelle in West Lost Angeles, and on Third Street by the Beverly Center. (I’ve never been to the branch in Torrance.)
For vareniki: At Out Take Caféin Studio City, vareniki, a Russian-Polish filled pasta, are stuffed with potato purée and served with caramelized onions and a dollop of crème fraîche. They’re the ultimate comfort food; have an order with a bowl of Out Take’s beet borscht: a perfect match.
For koldunai: Café Montanain Santa Monica serves an excellent version of this Lithuanian dumpling, a bursting little purse of meat in a thick boiled noodle skin that’s scattered with bacon bits and sour cream. Add a bowl of soup or a house salad, and you have a hearty, satisfying meal.
For assorted fusions: As Asian noodles of all types squirm their way onto Los Angeles menus, authenticity can become secondary. But who cares when the result is things like the slippery clear cellophane noodles (made from mung beans) served at the The Standard coffee shop on Sunset in a spicy mix with ripe avocado and juicy red grapefruit? It’s a weird, luscious, wonderful taste-’n’-texture extravaganza. On the other side of town, in another hip 24/7 coffee shop, Fred 62, customers can choose from udon in chicken broth with Tokyo vegetables; soba in dashi broth with vegetable tempura; Korean potato noodles in a sesame dressing with vegetablesã (served hot in broth or cold); a Vietnamese vermicelli in a spicy mint-chile soup; and a Thai flat rice noodle in a vegetarian spicy lemon-grass broth. Axe, in Venice, in addition to sublime aglio olio, offers a hot soba with vegetables (I like it with an added portion of grilled salmon) and a supple udon, served in a Thai-style broth with Chilean seabass. And for years, people have been heading to Shirofor chef Hideo Yamashiro’s ephiphanic salmon mousse with shrimp ravioli in a rich shiitake mushroom sauce.
Basic Pasta Drago, 2628 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 828-1585. Celestino, 141 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena; (626) 795-4006. Posto, 14928 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 784-4400. Alto Palato, 755 N. La Cienega Blvd.; (310) 657-9271. Il Moro, 11400 W. Olympic Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 575-3530. Campanile, 624 S. La Brea Ave.; (323) 938-1447.
Lasagna Porta Via, 424 N. Cañon Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 274-6534. Vincenti Ristorante, 11930 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; (310) 207-0127.
Aglio Olio Axe, 1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 664-9787. Da Pasquale, 9749 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 859-3884. Angeli, 7274 Melrose Ave.; (323) 936-9086.
Pasta Bolognese Victor’s Delicatessen, 1917 N. Bronson Ave.; (323) 464-0275. Caffe Capri, 2547 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; (323) 644-7906.
Chinese Noodles Yujean Kang, 67 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 585-0855; and 8826 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 288-0806. The Rice and Noodle Shop at the Mandarin, 430 N. Camden Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 859-0926. Chu’s Mandarin, 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 207, San Gabriel; (626) 572-6574. Mandarin Deli, 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 623-6054; 356 E. Second St., Little Tokyo; (213) 617-0231; 701 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 570-9795; 9305 Reseda Blvd., Northridge; (818) 993-0122. Spago Beverly Hills, 176 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 385-0880.
Cold Korean Noodles Arirang Korean Restaurant, 114 W. Union St., Pasadena; (626) 577-8885. Seoul Jung, Omni Hotel, 930 Wilshire Blvd.; (213) 688-7880.
Udon and Soba
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Mishima, 11301 Olympic Blvd., West L.A., (310) 473-5297; 8474 W. Third St., (323) 782-0181; and 21605 S. Western Ave., Torrance, (310) 320-2089.
Vareniki Out Take, 12159 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 760-1111.
Koldunai Café Montana, 1534 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 829-3990.
Fusion Pastas The Standard coffee shop, 8300 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 650-9090. Axe, 1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 664-9787. Shiro, 1505 Mission St., South Pasadena; (626) 799-4774. Fred 62, 1850 N. Vermont Ave.; (323) 667-0062.