By Besha Rodell and Amy Scattergood
Most years are pretty chaotic for a city's restaurant scene, even more so since 2008, but this past year proved to be a particularly excellent one for restaurant openings here in Los Angeles. Among the very best? A few fantastic mezcal- and beer-fueled taco joints, a glorious seafood emporium, a pasta palace and a much-loved location reincarnated as maybe our version of Les Halles. This year also marked a new wave of something beyond fine dining, with a few notable chefs ditching (again) the white tablecloths for loud playlists, yet returning an elevated cuisine to their plates. In short, it's been kind of an awesome year.
Despite having been open for only a few weeks, République already is proving itself to be worthy of the insane amount of anticipation it garnered. The former Campanile space is resplendent in its new incarnation. For folks who adored chef Walter Manzke's work at Church & State, there's a lot at République to be happy about. Many of the same bistro classics that made Manzke's time at that downtown restaurant so successful show up on the large menu here. There are escargots en croute, three wee porcelain cups bearing garlicky, buttery escargot and topped with puff pastry. You can get steak or moules frites, bouillabaisse, or a pig's-head fritter served with lentils and topped with a fried egg. Already, the charcuterie at République is up there with some of the best in the city, particularly the more rustic pâtés. It seems as though Walter and Margarita Manzke and company are looking to create a restaurant with multiple uses, appropriate for almost any dining need beyond fast food. 624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; 310-361-6115.
Helmed by chef Walter Manzke and restaurateur Bill Chait, Petty Cash takes the city's most iconic food and turns it relentlessly trendy. If you worship at the church of street food, you ought to hate this place. Yet it's hard to argue with this colorful, boisterous room, and damn hard to argue with Petty Cash's mezcal old-fashioned, a cocktail that pairs uncommonly well with tacos, and which you certainly won't find on any street corner anytime soon. The truth is that Petty Cash works. It works partly because of its components, and partly in spite of them. For all its trendiness, the restaurant has a lot of thoughtful underpinnings, and that thoughtfulness raises it above any other fancy taco joint I can think of. Each taco filling has its own, thoughtfully calibrated accompaniments; tacos arrive at the table like diminutive sculptures wrought from pig (or cow, or sea creature), masa and bright toppings. The charcoal-grilled octopus, for example, comes bathed in chile de arbol and topped with peanuts, jack cheese and avocado. Petty Cash is aiming for a middle ground, somewhere between tradition and creativity, with all the trappings and fun of an of-the-moment Hollywood restaurant. In that regard, the place has succeeded mightily. 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-933-5300.
At Colonia Taco Lounge, Ricardo Diaz (of Guisados fame) is bringing together two factions that have long been destined to share an intimate relationship: very good tacos and very good beer. Colonia might teach you a lot of things: the possibilities of cauliflower, how to fall head over heels in love with a flour tortilla, how to eat far too much and somehow still want more. Would it be blasphemy to say that the corn tortillas here may be better than at Guisados? Slightly more delicate, slightly more musky with corn? And the flour tortillas, imported from Mexicali, taste comfortingly familiar but so much softer and more soulful than any cardboardlike disk you may have discovered alongside your platter of sizzling fajitas over the years. The taco estofado — Oaxacan beef stew — was so rife with fragrant spices as to taste like fall itself. The barbacoa offers hunks of soft lamb, and comes with a small ramekin of chipotle-rich braising liquid for dipping (although unfortunately this dish tends to sell out pretty often). On top of all this bounty is the immeasurable fun of pairing these tacos with some seriously stellar beer. La Puente is a trek for most Angelenos, but I'd remind you that Colonia is right off the freeway, that the food is delicious and quick, and that you'd be hard-pressed to find beer and booze this good anywhere nearby. 13030 Valley Blvd., La Puente; 626-363-4691.
Sichuan restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley open and close with baffling frequency, switching signage and ownership so often, sometimes with only subtle changes in both, that it's about impossible to keep track of it all. But when Chendgu Taste opened last summer, there was a noticeable buzz — and one that's had as much staying power as the heat from the restaurant's mouth-numbing wontons. The food is very spicy, but the flavors are clean and oddly light. As is the lovely, open dining room, which feels at once fancy enough for your parents and casual enough that you'll line up with your bar-hopping friends — sometimes for more than an hour — on a weekend evening. The plate of cumin-zapped lamb skewers (not to mention something called Diced Rabbit With Younger Sister's Secret Recipe) is alone worth the wait. 828 West Valley Blvd., Alhambra; 626-588-2284.
6. Chi SPACCA
Chef Chad Colby's baby, the latest addition to the Mozza compound, is modest compared with its restaurant brethren, Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza. But Colby's ambitions are far from modest. Amidst the big, important, celebrity chef–driven machine that is Mozza is a young chef, a Willy Wonka of meats, who doggedly pursued a passion project that wasn't even possible in Los Angeles before he made it so. His huge selection of cured meats and terrines stands head and shoulders above anything else in this town on that now-ubiquitous “charcuterie” section of the menu. The salamis are dense but also melting, imbued with ingredients like intensely aromatic fennel pollen, or the bright, biting, almost fruity Tellicherry pepper, which comes from India. He also showcases special butcher cuts, featuring some incredibly cool cuts of meat you're unlikely to come across elsewhere. Chi SPACCA is the most relaxed, most enjoyable way to eat at any of Mozza's operations, and thanks to Colby's dogged pursuit of knowledge, flavor and licensing, it's also some of the most delicious food that Mozza, and Los Angeles, has to offer. 6610 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; 323-297-1133.
In some ways, Orsa & Winston is Josef Centeno's return to his roots: As a young chef, he was steeped in fine dining at Daniel and Manresa, among quite a few other extremely high-end restaurants. But Orsa & Winston is also a testament to everything he's done since, the ways in which he's mastered the bright, acrobatic flavors and cultural mash-ups that made his restaurant around the corner (Bäco Mercat) and his restaurant next door (Bar Amá) so successful. Orsa & Winston has a tasting-menu format, which Centeno is billing as Japanese/Italian omakase. Both the Japanese and Italian influences are subtle, more inspiration than straightforward guidance. Yuzu makes its citrusy tang known throughout the menu, while a course of milk-bread focaccia, which comes in soft, generous rolls served with testa and umami-rich black cod tonnato, feels like the heart of the meal. Orsa & Winston is a fine example of an excellent chef's imagination and divine guidance taken to a glorious extreme, where raucous music and very good wine and all the inspirational fodder absorbed over a career of cooking are allowed to run wild. It's also a fascinating step toward a new generation's model for fine dining. 122 W. Fourth St., Los Angeles; 213-687-0300.
As the newest culinary addition to the Helms Bakery complex, Bucato gives L.A. another option for stunning Italian food, and it's turning out some of the most glorious pastas this city has ever seen, each bowl a small miracle. Aside from pasta, Bucato's menu features sputini, which translates approximately to “snacks,” as well as vegetables, seafood and meat. Each of these sections holds its own pleasures: a delicate, lemony Dungeness crab crostino topped with lardo; a refined chicken cacciatore with its wild mushroom, herb and tomato components pulled apart and served artfully on the plate under a very good, woodfire-roasted bird. Chef Evan Funke thinks harder about how to get the most out of simple broccoli than many chefs do about far more complex dishes. Funke and his crew are taking so many things we think we know and showing us a better version, the best version. 3280 Helms Ave.; Culver City; 310-876-0286.
For chef Michael Cimarusti, seafood has long been the medium of choice, his passion and his muse. Connie & Ted's, named for the grandparents who took him fishing as a kid in Rhode Island, is a tribute to the food of his childhood: the chowders and crabcakes, the boiled seafood dinners and fisherman's stews of the Northeast. This is food that is devotional rather than ego-driven, and as such it relies mainly on the quality of product rather than flashy cooking. And so there are chowders, lobster rolls, a fantastic selection of raw oysters, and the freshest fish cooked simply. The 160-seat space on Santa Monica Boulevard feels right at home in West Hollywood, a huge swoosh of a building with a glassed-in front behind a large red-and-wood patio, and a dining room that nods to the nautical rather than screaming about it. 8171 Santa Monica Blvd.; West Hollywood; 323-460-4170.
While David Myers' Hinoki and the Bird is a perfectly good spot to quaff cocktails and wolf down (delicious, impossibly crispy) fried chicken bits, when you stop to notice its subtleties, it's hard not to end up slightly awed by what Myers and Co. have achieved. There are elements borrowed from the Japanese traditions of kaiseki, omakase and izakaya — highly stylized, ritualized dining meets choose-your-own-adventure tasting menu meets casual pub food. It's a Western restaurant with Eastern sensibilities, and an Eastern attention to detail. There are so many things here that could be classified as must-try dishes, enough that you'll have to return a few times in order to eat them all: the mussels in green curry, covered with shaved cauliflower so its vegetal tang permeates the whole dish and punctuated with crumbled sausage and fistfuls of cilantro, dill and basil; the light citrus tang of the lobster roll, the roll made black as soot with charcoal, the freshness of the lobster set against its sweet grit; the simple pleasure of the roasted yam, as sweet and decadent as dessert. It takes an extreme level of dedication to create an experience this flawless. You won't just taste it; you'll also see it, feel it and breathe it in. 10 W. Century Drive, Los Angeles; 310-552-1200.
1. Trois Mec
Among all the awesome restaurants that have made 2013 a great year to eat through, Trois Mec has not only provided some of the best food but probably the most fun as well. Because of course Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo couldn't just open a normal restaurant, could they? Instead, the trio opened up shop in the former home of a tiny pizza joint (keeping the signage) in a crappy strip mall — no sign of their own, no telephone number or hostess stand, but instead a ticketing system that they borrowed from maybe Grant Achatz or Beck. Was the hype worth it? Absolutely. Ludo is cooking the best food of his career, gorgeous plates of technically masterful stuff, which he and his heavily tattooed crew hand to you as they make it, pausing over the counter to chat about the food or deconstruct Ludo's French rap playlist. This is stunning food, and the tiny jewel box of a restaurant functions like the secret playhouse the three chefs probably always wanted, a funhouse of glass and marble and bone marrow custard. 716 N. Highland Ave.; Los Angeles.
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