I’ve reviewed about three dozen new restaurants this year, many favorably, even if I would never choose to go back again. Restaurants are, after all, a personal preference. Everyone has favorites, and often their choices reek of idiosyncrasy. There are restaurants I would happily revisit if you were taking me out — these are either restaurants that are too pricey for my budget or ones that I like a lot but that wouldn’t, for reasons of style or ambiance, be at the top of my list. But then there are restaurants — three from this year — that I would revisit on my own, and happily pay the tab, and even rack up a big bill, out of pure joy at the mere opportunity to do so.
Rocca. This rustic Italian place across from the Border Grill in Santa Monica has the good looks and bustle of a Roman ristorante — and some of the best food in the city. Chef Don Dickman knows how to shop. His ingredients (tiny mussels from Maine, farmers market produce, wild boar, imported charcuterie) are top-notch, and he knows what to do with them. Maria Gomez, resident pasta maker, turns out strands that are a pleasure to bite. The drizzle of truffle oil on the
tagliata, the soft creamy heart of snow white burrata, the
occasional marrow bone on the menu, melted cheese on crostini smeared with truffle paste — these details nag at me, make me want them, haul me back.
Cheebo. Funky, fun, and completely, unabashedly unpretentious, Cheebo in West Hollywood simply embodies the way I like to eat day-by-day: organic when possible, with big flavors, good products, and a level of skill in even the simplest preparations that makes the ordinary deeply satisfying. Long-cooked organic pork, a range of skillfully composed salads, a pizza whose crust has an alluring internal crunch and well-wrought toppings (try the sausage and fennel), plank-roasted salmon — nothing’s fancy and virtually everything is stalwartly delicious.
Lotería Grill. Of all the food stalls in the Farmers Market — and I love M. Marcel’s outdoor French café — this visually uproarious stall (enlarged Mexican lottery tickets on hot pink walls) gives the most satisfying blasts of flavor. The Mexico City–style tacos have range and personality. Vegetarians will be thrilled with the champignones con epazote, a dark, bosky, rich mix of mushrooms and onions with the peppery Mexican herb. Carnivores can get everything from chicken with pumpkin seeds to fluffy albondigas (meatballs) in a tomato chipotle sauce to sweet, moist cochinita pibil and chicharones stewed in tomatillo sauce.