Once, in New Jersey, a chef threw a dead fish at me. I was on a day trip to the Jersey Shore, and my boyfriend and I had saved our pennies to go to the fanciest restaurant in the beach town we were visiting, money we didn't really have. I ordered a fish dish that was utterly inedible. It came in a broth so bitter it made my mouth curl, topped with raw hunks of endive even more bitter. It was my own fault, I reasoned, ordering endive in July.
I can count on two fingers the instances I've sent back a dish in my life, and this was one of them. I was working as a server at the time, and I knew how controversial this would be to the waitress and the kitchen. I apologized profusely, told them I was happy to pay for the dish but that I didn't think I could eat it. I was hungry. I hoped they might let me order something else.
I could see the terror on the waitress's face as she headed back to the kitchen. Almost immediately, the chef appeared at our table with a red flustered face and a dangerous smile. “I hear you didn't like the fish,” he said through gleaming teeth.
I tried to explain what I hadn't liked about the dish. He went back into the kitchen and returned with a raw fish, which he slammed on the table while screaming obscenities and ranting about the perfect freshness of his product.
How could we salvage our evening? “Can we go to Blue Ribbon?” I whimpered about halfway home to Brooklyn. My boyfriend nodded, and an ease came over us, not a balm exactly but an understanding that it would be all right.
I haven't been back in years, but at the time Blue Ribbon was a place you could get a great bottle of pink Champagne and a bowl of matzoh ball soup and a seafood tower and the best grilled cheese sandwich ever. It was this amazing collision of comfort and luxury. We all need that in our lives, the kind of restaurant we can count on, that middle ground between familiarity and opulence or the combination of the two, the place you fall back on as if it were a downy pillow, where you'll be assured that they'll be nice to you and feed you well.
It took me a long time to find that place in Los Angeles. I found restaurants that excited me, and places that offer steady joy in a variety of flavors. But when I want that sense of easy extravagance, something that soothes even as it impresses, I go to A.O.C.
I didn't feel this way about A.O.C. on first pass. In fact, three years ago, when the restaurant moved from its original home up the street to a new building, I visited and decided not to review it, saying to my editor, “I don't have anything new to say.” It wasn't that the food wasn't good — great, in fact — or that the room wasn't gorgeous or that the new cocktail program wasn't exciting. It was just that it seemed like so much else I'd experienced in Los Angeles. I understood that owners Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne were trailblazers, and part of why I'd written so much about this type of restaurant was because chefs and restaurateurs strived to emulate what Goin and Styne had created. But still. How many new observations could I possibly make about market-driven small plates? Was this really that much better?
A few years later, the answer is clear: Yes, A.O.C. is much better, and not just thanks to its status as an originator of the style.
Though Goin and Styne's restaurant Lucques, which opened in 1998, was the original showcase of their brand of wine-focused California-/French-inspired fine dining, A.O.C. is more representative of everything great about the mash-up of local cuisine and European influence. This was apparent in its original location, which opened in 2002, and it's even more apparent in its new spot, which is an utter dream of a restaurant: a cozy dining room with circular corner booths; arched doorways with French doors opening onto the patio; the leafy, bricked-in magic of the patio, anchored by a candle-festooned fireplace, adorned with trees and vines, and punctuated by the sounds of revelry from the private dining room above. The warmth and beauty of the space make this a fine candidate for the restaurant that might best soothe and pamper you. The feeling is of stepping into an enchanted space where everything might be taken care of. The warm glow of hospitality is palpable.
But the good vibes are also the result of the food, the wine and the cocktails. The original A.O.C. didn't have a liquor license, but at this incarnation cocktails became an important component, and barman Christiaan Rollich quickly made A.O.C. a destination for drinks lovers. He makes all his own tinctures and such, and can craft drink based on absinthe and chartreuse and shake it with lime, pistachio and egg whites into something creamy and light, or reimagine a rum-heavy tiki drink as something elegant and grown-up.
This attention to quality should come as no surprise, given Styne's fantastic wine lists at A.O.C. and at her other restaurants. At A.O.C., France and California in particular are given loving attention, and there are bottles that qualify as great bargains.
As I've mentioned, a plethora of restaurants adhere to the small-plates concept, but at A.O.C. you are forced to take it seriously. There are really no traditional entree-sized plates here, just tons of small plates and a handful of platters. In this way, the restaurant seems to achieve better what everyone is trying to do — that is, have the food be truly communal. It's a great place for a romantic meal, but perhaps its calling is as a venue for a larger celebration, when you can order half the menu and pass the plates around.
What should you eat? You can barely go wrong. I adore spreading the table with meats and cheeses and the farmer's plate, a jumble of roasted veggies and bitter greens and chickpea puree and burrata and hunks of grilled bread. A.O.C. is great at providing what is basically a glorious picnic at the table. Add to this one of the focaccias, topped perhaps with fig, prosciutto, Taleggio, walnuts and saba, and you've got a full meal made entirely of nibbles.
There are beautiful international influences in many of the small plates, such as the devilishly black arroz negro, the slightly firm rice punctuated with soft squid and lush saffron aioli. A curl of lamb merguez comes over white bean puree and perfectly sweet/bitter roasted peppers.
If you have enough people to dive into the platters, I can't recommend highly enough the ode to Zuni roast chicken. It's cut into hunks and served with torn, olive oil–soaked bread and green olives, and it's so comforting and delicious that I find myself craving it weekly. But you would do just as well to get the grilled whole fish with coconut rice, or the giant pork chop with cornbread-chorizo stuffing and plums.
Over mid-afternoon drinks at the quiet bar, or nibbles at happy hour along the high communal table, over sunny brunches on the patio and wonderful dinners in those booths or under the trees, A.O.C. has become the spot I turn to when I need to be comforted and pampered. And it will likely be the place I'll retreat to, hoping to restore my faith in humanity and restaurants, if anyone ever throws a fish at me again.
A.O.C. | Four stars | 8700 W. Third St., Beverly Grove | (310) 859-9859 | aocwinebar.com | Mon., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Tue.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. | Plates, $10-$54 | Full bar | Valet parking