Best Of :: Food & Drink
Sherman Oaks' newly opened Augustine Wine Bar is an incredible evolution in the world of wine bars, an oddity and a gamble. Here's the premise: Owners Dustin Lancaster and Matthew Kaner (who also are responsible for Bar Covell, the wine bar in Los Feliz), along with Dave Gibbs (the singer-songwriter best known for his band Gigolo Aunts), opened a neighborhood wine bar with affordable, quirky wines, a short but ambitious food menu and a specials board with around 16 rotating vintage wines from Gibbs' personal collection, available by the glass and bottle each night. These are wines of stunning rarity and age, bottles that you might possibly stumble upon on one of the country's grandest wine lists in a restaurant that's been collecting for decades. Some of them are too rare or weird even for that. These are not wines that plebeians such as ourselves usually would have access to, and certainly not by the glass. Drinking here is a kind of pinch-yourself treat that leaves you hoping with a passionate fervor that this strange operation manages to find a way to continue doing what it's doing.
It seems almost sacrilegious to name such a newcomer as Best Restaurant in Los Angeles when there are so many long-standing amazing eateries to choose from. And yet, over the last year, no place has walked the line between thrilling creativity and technical brilliance as well as Curtis Stone's Maude. It seems the chef, who has spent much of the last 20 years dabbling more in reality television and lucrative spokesman deals than in the actual kitchen, was just saving up all his energy and talent to funnel into this tiny labor of love. The menu, built monthly around a seasonal ingredient, exudes playfulness and is perfectly executed. Meals turn into symphonic musings on a season and an ingredient, and it's pure joy to watch Stone's train of thought meander through the courses. Impeccable service and a wonderful wine list only add to the charm, as does the set price (around $100 per person, more for months when luxury ingredients such as truffles take center stage), which would be three times as much in New York or London.
Chefs have long been playing in the fun space between California cooking and the grand French brasserie, but with Terrine it feels as though Kris Morningstar has finally hit on something solid, something more than playtime. His take on the French classics is stunning: The French onion soup is as deep and rich and laden with cheese as any you could find in Paris, and his grand charcuterie plate is a thing of wonder. But he's also inventing classics of his own. The crispy pig ears served in strips with aioli on the side are like frites from piggy heaven. The garbure, a stew of duck confit and white beans, expresses the very quintessence of duck, its deep brawny soul, its particular gamey perfume. The room, with its burnished mirrors and heavy silverware, feels exactly classy enough (without ever veering toward stuffy), and the back patio with its glorious Javanese bishopwood tree is one of L.A.'s loveliest outdoor dining options. The cocktails are great, the wine list is fantastic, and service has just the hint of formality you'd expect from the charming Frenchmen, Stephane Bombet and François Renaud, who oversee it.
Here's the thing about Ludovic Lefebvre: On the one hand, he's capable of turning out some of the city's most impressive avant-garde food at Trois Mec, and on the other, he gives us French food so classic at Petit Trois that it's better than the subject material it draws from. (Seriously — try finding a croque monsieur or a plate of escargot in Paris as good as Ludo's versions. I've tried. They don't exist.) The guy can turn around and teach your 7-year-old how to make clafoutis at one of his kids' classes. And then, he nonchalantly decides to put a burger on the Petit Trois menu, and — voila! — it's the best burger in the city. His fried chicken is great. His cookbooks are great. One of these days the guy will do something that's not 100 percent fantastic, but that day hasn't come yet.
Here's a confession: The last three times I've been to Providence, my credit card has been declined. Once, the card had expired three days earlier; on another occasion, the waiter swept up my husband's card before he had time to furiously transfer funds on his phone's banking app. A third time I just didn't have enough money in the bank. Providence is expensive. I paid in cash. But the point is, despite my faux pas — which have become comical in frequency at this particular establishment — the staff never once made me feel a fool. In fact, they've been just as gracious in dealing with my banking mishaps as they've been when recommending a wine, or preparing Santa Barbara spot prawns tableside, or wheeling out that glorious German-engineered cheese cart and deftly creating the perfect cheese plate. For a restaurant so formal, the service staff at Providence manage the exact right amount of warmth, a welcome that feels so genuine you might return even after embarrassing yourself twice. And then do it again.
When République opened, you could often see Taylor Parsons ducking in and out of the cellar room, tasting and swirling wines, then rushing out to tables to exclaim upon what he had found in the glass. No one was more enthusiastic, more excited to share his love for wine than Parsons. This is still the case, though now that he’s taken over duties as general manager as well as being wine director, he’s less likely to be tasting wine on the floor and more likely to be in some managerial meeting. If you’re lucky enough to catch him, though, he’s a font of friendly knowledge and is likely to have some bottle open in back that he just can’t wait for you to try. His list is still one of the most approachable and exciting wine documents in town, ranging from bargain bottles he’s sought out to true special-occasion treats. And he’s done a very good job of hiring wine folks to be on the floor in his stead when he’s stuck in those pesky meetings.
There’s a lot about Mélisse that’s a bit intimidating. The room is quiet and exceedingly luxurious. The service is formal. The menu is littered with ingredients such as truffles and caviar, with prices to match. But one thing about the place that isn’t nearly as daunting as you might imagine is the wine list. Sure, it’s encyclopedic, the product of years of expert curation and collection by recently departed wine director Brian Kalliel and his successor, Matthew Luczy (who has worked at Mélisse for years). If you want a bottle of $8,000 1988 La Tâche, you can certainly get that here. But the list is also surprisingly approachable and offers plenty for the value-minded. There are some lovely bottles of Premier Cru Chablis for less than $100, plus a large selection of half bottles and plenty of lovely full-bottle picks in the $30 to $50 range, which is a hard thing to find in any decent restaurant these days. Not only that, the staff provides the kind of wine service that feels like an exciting, giddy conversation about joy and pleasure. Which is exactly what learning should feel like.
Set sail for Melrose, where chef Eric Greenspan has created a garden party–like seafood oasis, Maré, behind Greenspan's Grilled Cheese (you actually have to walk through the grilled cheese shop and into its office to find Maré's unmarked door). The chef isn't known for restraint, and he goes big with his bread course. Greenspan brushes par-baked La Brea Bakery baguettes with egg wash before lining their tops with a "Coastal European everything bagel" spice mix: sesame, poppy, fennel and coriander seeds, plus smoked Maldon sea salt. Seeds from warm loaves soon spill onto butcher paper. Greenspan joked, "I get to walk past and watch people pick at it like pigeons." Bread comes with garlic-and-oregano-infused olive oil and seasonal accompaniments that Greenspan calls "marketplace." That could mean pickled heirloom lipstick peppers, olives, pistachios and spiced kumquats. Request more complimentary bread to soak up seafood broth, possibly black mussels in pistou or shrimp in leek and white wine. Extra marketplace costs $4, which is cheap for such colorful fun.
Who was it that said fine dining was dead? Were we supposed to believe no one wanted to spend tons of money on dinner anymore? If that's the case, then what's up with the return of the old-school steak house? A great steak house is a reason to get dressed up, drink martinis and behave as though the economy never collapsed in the first place. And in the last year, L.A. has gotten a ton of new places to do just that. To name just a few: In Manhattan Beach, David LeFevre has given us the Arthur J; a few miles south in Hermosa, Tin Vuong opened the straightforwardly named Steak and Whisky; and Brentwood has the opulent Baltaire. Hooray for all of these, because if we're going to have a trend it might as well involve old-man cocktails, creamed spinach and big hunks of meat.
Vibiana, the now-deconsecrated cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and one of the city's oldest buildings, has long been used as an events space. Now chef Neal Fraser, his wife and business partner, Amy Knoll Fraser, and restaurateur Bill Chait have built Redbird in what was the rectory, the upstairs quarters of which used to house the cardinal. Get it? As much as the name nods to the building's history, the part of Redbird that best makes use of that history is the main dining room, which is actually a patio (which sometimes is covered with a newfangled retractable ceiling). It's a glorious space, designed by Robert Weimer, all white walls and potted trees and views of the cathedral next door. There's a sense of the past in the architecture and a sense of the future in the design details. It's one of the most dramatic and thrilling rooms to house a new L.A. restaurant since, well, République, which is also a Chait project.
The purest expression of chef Gary Menes' vision comes early in a meal at Le Comptoir, the new, permanent iteration of what had been his transient pop-up restaurant. Following a small amuse, perhaps a blistered shishito pepper over a tablespoon or so of crispy rice, and after a silky soup of early heirloom tomatoes poured over a Japanese sweet-potato velouté with creme fraiche and fried bread, comes the "vegetable and fruit plate," a gorgeous and artful arrangement of the day's bounty. The description of this might read "potato, broccoli, corn, cauliflower marrow, beet, celery, celtuce, calamansi, pickled onion, persimmon, carrot, tangerine, cucumber, peas, broccoli, grape and more." There are quite a few places in town that offer a vegetarian version of their tasting menu, but sitting through those can feel as if you've paid for all the creativity and luxury and yet received dishes that are afterthoughts. At Le Comptoir, the opposite is true: While there are meat dishes you can sub in for certain courses, the base menu is vegetarian, and as a result you can be sure Menes has conceived every dish carefully, with elegance and flavor in mind. When you're looking for vegetables to be the star of the show, this is your place.
Despite L.A.'s healthy leanings, most restaurants still miss the mark when it comes to meat-free menu options. Kitchen Mouse forgoes not only the meat but also gluten and refined sugar — and what it lacks in fat and carbs, it makes up for in creativity and flavor. Inside the adorable, shabby-chic space you'll find crispy gomasio rice cakes with oyster mushrooms, shishito pepper salad and cilantro-ginger chutney, as well as romesco tacos with roasted poblano-potato mash and arugula-corn slaw. Plus, Kitchen Mouse serves these really addictive pine nut cookies that are rich and soft and buttery and just small enough to have you convincing yourself they're calorie-free.