Best Of :: Culver City/Palms/Mar Vista
Best Restaurant: n/naka
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.
Stanley's Wet Goods might be the Goldilocks of wine shops — its selection isn't so big that it overwhelms, nor is it so small that you can't find exactly what you're craving. On an unusually dim and chilly recent afternoon, I went hunting for a more wintry wine than I typically drink and was expertly steered to a rich and inky Lagrein, a cabernet sauvignon alternative from Italy's Trentino region; it tasted like something Cersei Lannister might savor. The soaring room is a soothing, modern space in which to peruse the rows of offbeat and smartly curated bottles, organized by country and region, and the lower-ceilinged room off to the right is a cozy spot to grab a chair and sample a flight of whatever wine (and beer) the shop is pouring that day. They serve snacks, too. It's an even better place to spend a weekend evening, toggling between the bar, the shop and the food trucks parked out front.
BäcoShop is restaurateur Josef Centeno's first foray beyond downtown, where his five other restaurants dominate the couple of blocks where Main and Fourth streets meet. It's based on the food item that defines Bäco Mercat, his original downtown restaurant, the bäco — a Centeno-invented folded flatbread that is part sandwich, part taco. Like Chipotle, the format at BäcoShop is a choose-your-own-adventure menu: You select a protein, maybe chili shrimp or slow-roasted pork, and then decide if you want it served as a bäco, a bäcorrito (like a bäco but in burrito rather than taco form) or a bowl. There are a ton of creative vegetable sides to choose from, and you can get any three of them as a plate for $12. The thing that impresses me most is how hard Centeno and co. have thought about all the things that are missing from the usual fast-casual experience. Vegetables, yes, but also decent beer and wine, desserts you'd actually want to eat, and solutions for busy families, like the "Bäco packs," available after 5 p.m., in which you can get two, four or eight Bäcos with sides and cookies. BäcoShop is a concept that deserves to multiply.
Even before Vespertine, chef Jordan Kahn was known for his visually stunning food, at Red Medicine (where dishes were as likely to turn up in goldfish bowls as on plates) but also prior to that, when he was Michael Mina's corporate pastry chef. That hasn't changed at his daytime place, Destroyer, despite the fact that it's basically a futuristic cafe where Hayden Tract office workers come to get coffee and oatmeal. But the coffee is from San Francisco's Coffee Manufactory, and the oatmeal comes raw and crunchy in a beautiful, white bowl with drifts of red currant, perfect for Instagram, as is just about everything here. In fact, Destroyer's stark background, heavy, earthy ceramics and meticulously artful platings might make it the most Instagrammable restaurant in the known universe. Chicken confit comes in a wide bowl under a blanket of charred cabbage leaves and a flurry of cheese. Beef tartare, bound by smoked egg cream, comes under a plated armor of perfectly arranged radishes, with sprigs of dill at the edge for frondy visual appeal. This is cerebral food, but it also speaks to your more emotional needs.
OK, so your kids might not jump for joy at the idea of a "guided tour." But this one is filled with wild animals your children can touch! And with all these alligators, bobcats and servals hanging around, your kids will likely be grateful for the guide, who keeps these animals (and your rugrats) cool, calm and friendly. Walking into STAR Eco Station, you obviously get a whiff of zoo smell, but you're also met with a placid, stress-free environment. It's amazing that these people can host birthday parties and keep your kiddos on their best behavior with just the right joke or smile, but it behooves everyone to create a soothing environment. Some of these animals are endangered, and many have been rescued from illegal trafficking operations. So that rare turtle some dude tried to smuggle in his suitcase from Thailand? When TSA at LAX catches that little guy, they can release him to the kind people at STAR, who also slyly instruct your kids on how to be stewards to the animal kingdom.
Located next to the dark, labyrinthine Museum of Jurassic Technology is an equally mind-blowing world hidden behind a nondescript, gunmetal gray door. Ring a buzzer, and an assistant will lead you inside to one of L.A.'s most cerebral temples of arcane knowledge, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a "research and education organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the Earth's surface." CLUI casts an examining eye on the way humans shape their landscapes. Its exhibitions are stark, minimalist and sleek, often featuring photos that document radio towers perched on peaks or the strangely beautiful, brutalist concrete channels that bring water to our city. Founded by artist Matthew Coolidge, CLUI also occasionally coordinates bus tours of hard-to-access places such as L.A.'s electrical infrastructure or its dinosaurlike oil derricks, and it publishes a yearly periodical dedicated to recent excursions to presidential houses or underground business centers carved into mountainsides. CLUI is in line with an idea called place-making, which postulates that anyplace can become special once a story is attached to it. In that way, CLUI becomes a kind of frame through which we see the world. You'll never look at a pit mine or strip mall the same way again.