Best Of :: Food & Drink
While food courts rarely offer surprises, there are exceptions, including one located in a supermarket food court in Rosemead. A display case filled with a colorful array of rainbow-hued desserts and beverages awaits you at Hien Khanh, the SGV branch of one of Little Saigon's leading sweets purveyors. The vivid, almost neon colors can provide a guide to flavors, particularly with the sticky rice desserts: green for pandan, orange for a spiky, southeast Asian fruit known as gac in Vietnam, and yellow for the infamous durian fruit, known as much for its stench as it is for its rich, custardlike texture. Desserts made from glutinous rice flour and using coconut and coconut milk feature prominently, as do tapioca, cassava, mochi and sesame balls. Che, Vietnamese dessert beverages, come with a variety of add-ins based on drink size. Sweetened beans are a popular item, with che bau mau — literally, three-color dessert — a real favorite.
Sometimes I take notes on my phone while dining out, in order to remember later how something tasted or how it made me feel. From my last meal at n/naka, I have only one entry. It reads, "Sushi course: This is what fairies eat. On their birthday." In addition to feeling like Tinkerbell at her most celebratory, I had multiple other giddy moments during the course of the meal, as well as the persistent thought: This is the best restaurant in Los Angeles. That wasn't always true of n/naka — chef Niki Nakayama's kaiseki restaurant in Palms was wonderful from the moment it opened, but it's taken her a few years to grow into her full potential, and if I were to guess I'd say the difference now is that she trusts her instincts more fully. Meals made by Nakayama and team are lyrical musings on season, tradition, newness and the meeting of California and Japan, both culturally and in terms of ingredients. Seafood and seasonality are prized above all else, and occasionally a dish arrives — a spiny sea urchin, for instance, filled with its own creamy roe, plus snow crab and dashi gelee — that redefines your feelings about the limits of textural pleasure. If you opt for a sake pairing, you'll find yourself delighted by some of the most intelligent, passionate beverage professionals around, who mix no snobbery with their enthusiasm. That's the beauty of this restaurant — it is practically perfect while exuding humbleness and hospitality at every turn.
Felix, the Venice restaurant from pasta maestro Evan Funke, has it all. The space is wonderful in the way that only restaurants built in old houses can be, outfitted in warm brown leather booths and green botanical wallpaper that feels both modern and vintage. The service is lovely. The cocktails are fantastic. The wine list is deep and smart. You could easily make a beautiful meal from the antipasti section alone: delicately fried squash blossoms stuffed with fior di latte; a crudo of raw ridgeback prawns with a gloriously creamy texture; pork meatballs that have been quickly fried and burst with porky flavor. But you're here for the pastas, which are made in a glassed-in, climate-controlled room that faces the front dining room. Funke and his cooks roll and cut and extrude the dough with care and precision, a showcase of the handmade techniques the chef learned on his travels and proof that he's serious with his oft-used social media hashtag #fuckyourpastamachine. It would take weeks to eat through all these pastas, from saffron-tinged malloreddus (tiny Sardinian gnocchi) and multiple variations of spaghetti to hearty ragus and lovely little orecchiette with sausage and broccoli. Every table seems to have a plate of the pappardelle — bathed in a mellow Bolognese, the pasta is practically silky, making the pappardelle of your past seem rough and clumsy by comparison. Taken as a whole, Felix is a stunningly great restaurant: personal, beautiful and with some of the most goddamned delicious pasta Los Angeles has ever seen.
The recent reinvention of Michael's, the 38-year-old Santa Monica mainstay that helped to define modern Californian cooking, rests mainly on the brilliant decision to hire Miles Thompson, the young chef who used to run Allumette in Echo Park and then left town for a couple of years. Thompson's cooking was always assertively modern, but in the time he's been gone from L.A. it has become more refined, more clever and more umami-driven. This is food that's cool to look at (in some cases for reasons that are almost subversive), but it isn't so cerebral that it becomes a killjoy. Pure pleasure appears to be the base ingredient in all of Thompson's cooking. Crab and uni chawanmushi is built upon a base of savory egg custard, topped with large hunks of Dungeness crab and the decadent funk of uni, punctuated by delicately floral ginger sprout. Burrata comes lolling in its bowl with orange orbs of trout roe across the top; underneath is a sweet and tart chow chow, which sits in lovely contrast to the milky cheese. Thompson's arrival at Michael's offers hope that, rather than shut down our venerated institutions, we might honor them by moving steadily forward, keeping the components that are worthy of preservation (in this case the iconic, irreplaceable glamour of the restaurant's leafy patio) and installing youth and vitality where it's needed.
Upon its opening in February, Pasadena's Bone Kettle was touted as "a bone-broth concept." This description buried the lede significantly: The far more interesting thing about Bone Kettle is its chef, Erwin Tjahyadi, and his use of Indonesian flavors on this menu. Bone Kettle is not a purely Indonesian restaurant by any stretch of the imagination, nor does Tjahyadi claim it is one. It's inspired, he says, by his travels throughout Southeast Asia, and particularly by the many bone broths he tasted along the way. And the soup is great! Local company Sun Noodles provides the round, slightly bouncy, ramen-style noodles, and the broth, made from boiling beef and spices for 36 hours, is milky and rich and comforting. But what's far more interesting about Bone Kettle are the small plates, and the evolution they represent in terms of bringing Indonesian flavors into the New American canon. Gado gado, an intense peanut sauce that's usually served as a dressing over vegetable salad, is used by Tjahyadi as the binder for a small pile of chewy rice cakes. Mie goreng pedas — literally fried spicy noodles — is chock-full of shrimp paste–fueled, fermented fish funk. A sous vide egg comes nestled in the middle of the bowl, adding to the dish's slick richness. Bone Kettle is a major advancement of our city's best food trend — the one that involves chefs with immigrant backgrounds and fine-dining training taking the two parts of their culinary identities and merging them into something new and delicious.
Mexican chef Diego Hernández is best known for his restaurant Corazón de Tierra in Baja's Valle de Guadalupe, which has racked up admirers and accolades, including a ranking of No. 39 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America. Hernández recently made his much-anticipated L.A. restaurant debut with Verlaine, taking over the old Dominick's space in West Hollywood. After a rocky start, Verlaine has become just as thrilling as we all hoped it would be. For proof, look no further than the unassuming, dark red, oily liquid that comes alongside the ceviche of the day. The ceviche itself, generally made with Hiramasa yellowtail, is vibrantly fresh and lightly flavored with cilantro and lime. It comes with house-made tostadas on the side, and two ramekins, one with mayonnaise and one with that red stuff, a "matcha" sauce made from fried guajillo chilies and scorched peanuts. It has a dark smokiness, the edge-of-burnt peanuts presenting a radical kind of nuttiness. If the matcha sauce is indicative of Hernández's ability to present beautifully intricate flavors, his grilled oysters showcase an opposite talent, one in which simplicity is king. It's tempting to use some kind of Eurocentric comparison to sum up Verlaine, something along the lines of how Hernández's talent for burnt peanut sauce is just as impressive as the skill of a chef who has mastered sauces with cream or butter at their core. But that would undercut the newness of this food and the history that came before it. At his best, Hernández delivers some of the most thrilling food I've eaten in L.A. this year.
Josef Centeno is doing something slightly different at P.Y.T., something that makes this newest venture relevant in its own right. Where all the food at his Bäco Mercat — meat and meat-free — is aiming for maximum flavor and contrast and excitement, the food at P.Y.T. is more focused on the soul of the vegetable itself, and the best way to frame singular ingredients so that they shine. This ethos makes for food that's presented in a slightly simpler format, and dishes that are built around produce that Centeno obviously chooses carefully, perhaps even obsessively. This was perhaps best evidenced with a dish P.Y.T. served early on, in which Centeno figured out how to get the most turnip-y flavor from a turnip by wrapping it in an hoja santa leaf and baking it for hours in a salt dough crust. He'd bring the whole thing to the table and crack it open in front of you, cut the turnip into pieces, and drizzle it with some shiso-inflected chimichurri.
At MTN, Travis Lett's new Abbot Kinney izakaya, the ramen is almost a thing unto itself, so much a product of its time and place that it's hard to compare it to other ramen. Lett and his crew have managed to make something based in Japanese tradition but rooted in Southern California. For their beautiful, ludicrously priced pork ramen, they cook down the bones and head of a whole Peads & Barnetts pig — but rather than a thick, milky tonkotsu broth, this version is much, much lighter, yet still manages to pack an incredible amount of pork flavor into each sip. The bowl comes with komatsuna (mustard spinach), fermented black bean paste and pickled Fresno chilies. There's a clam version that tastes so purely of the ocean it borders on magical. The ramen noodles, which have a chewy, firm structural integrity, are made in-house from artisanal wheat and buckwheat. That it's served in the trendiest, most fun new restaurant in the neighborhood makes it all the more exciting.
The decision to start a magazine and a restaurant that are based on one another speaks volumes about Botanica and its owners, food writers Heather Sperling and Emily Fiffer, and also about the state of restaurants in L.A. right now. This is an intellectual pursuit as well as an aspirational one. The storefront space is a market that sells wine and coffee and a few beautifully chosen baskets of seasonal produce; behind that lies a long bar and banquette seating, and there's a garden patio out back with more seating and vases spilling unruly arrangements of flowers. Most of the food comes in wide, heavy bowls, herbs and lettuces and pops of brightly colored garnish draped around the inner curve of the tableware, messy but somehow composed and perfect. The natural beauty of produce is king here, rarely manipulated more than just enough to emphasize its best qualities. You could go to Botanica simply to be the type of person who goes there, who eats gorgeous plates of food that look as though they were lifted from the pages of a fabulous food magazine, in a room that might be featured in the pages of a fabulous design magazine. Botanica is a restaurant, but it is also a lifestyle.
Where to begin? The menu is scrawled in marker on greasy brown paper bags. It's BYOB. It has a phone number and a website, but neither is currently functional. Your server might not remember that he's already taken your order, but he will confer "blessings" upon you multiple times. The crowd is generally, painfully Silver Lake–ian, high-waisted jeans–wearing and quirkily beautiful. The seating is almost entirely outdoors on the sidewalk in a jumble of colorfully painted but rickety tables and chairs. (Who knows what they'll do if it ever rains.) And yes, you will most likely have to suffer through a long wait for one of those tables. But once you've endured that wait and popped open your BYO bottle and the dishes begin to arrive at your wonky table, it's hard to keep up any façade of annoyance with Mh Zh. If you do manage to maintain some ambivalence throughout your meal, the last vestiges will likely dissipate when you get your check. I have stuffed myself silly here numerous times and have never yet cracked $50 (pre-tip) for two people. Mh Zh is cheap, and the Israeli food served here — from charred potatoes to a pile of peas over stracciatella cheese to the funky and tangy "lamb ragooooooo" — is as simple as it is delicious.
When European art powerhouse couple Iwan Wirth and Manuela Hauser Wirth opened their expansive gallery compound in the Arts District, the move signaled that the global art world was beginning to invest big money in our city. With high-profile names lined up to populate the exhibition spaces, it was surprising to discover that the real gem of the reimagined 19th-century flour mill was its restaurant, Manuela. The elegant space, designed by Matt Winter, encompasses everything that is great about dining out in L.A. The restaurant's interior is a glass-enclosed room, perhaps like a cozy conservatory in a Montreal manor (or the boardgame Clue), which creates a seamless indoor-outdoor feel with the expansive patio area. There, brunchers lounge and Instagram each emerging dish, like paparazzi for chef Wes Whitsell's grilled peaches or sizzling Texas quail. At night, the thick marble bar becomes a launching pad for discussions on gentrification or (post)-postmodernism fueled by Manuela's craft cocktails, served under the yolky glow of the chandeliers. Art lovers can make discoveries of their own, too, such as the large-scale expressionistic cityscape by South Los Angeles painter Mark Bradford and a pastoral mural by Black Flag's illustrator Raymond Pettibon. When your meal is done, you can stroll to the nearby gardens and chicken coop to personally thank the hen responsible for your omelet. This merger of sophistication and casualness reflects the Angeleno experience, where cultural collisions and mashups are never-ending.
What restaurant makes you feel fabulous and stylish and wonderful just because you were smart enough to walk in the door? Kismet does. The all-day restaurant from chefs Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer and restaurateurs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo has a way of charming you so much, you become part of the charm. Maybe it's the sunlight streaming in from the front windows, shining that famous white L.A. shimmer on the blonde wood interior. Maybe it's the plates of food, festooned with beautiful green lettuces, jewel-toned vegetables, little pots of house-made sauces and yogurts, big slabs of bread. Maybe it's the effortlessly disheveled beauty of the servers, or the fact that more than one movie star is likely to walk in looking fabulously disheveled themselves — this is a place where even the A-list can hang out without any drama. Whatever spell Kismet is weaving, it certainly works to make anyone who enters feel marvelously clever for being part of the magic.