Photo by Raul Vega
The first time I went to Manhattan with some money in my pocket, I made a reservation at a restaurant reputed to be the best in New York at the time, a place with four stars from The New York Times, a celebrity clientele, and an avant-garde cooking style that had been proclaimed by the national food press to be absolutely the latest thing. An entire neighborhood had grown up around the notoriety of this chef: million-dollar lofts carved out of butter-and-egg warehouses, champagne bars popping up in old loading docks, limos lining up on streets that had previously never seen a cab. Good food has the ability to pull people toward distant parts of town.
But when I got to the restaurant, the entry hall was lined with cardboard crates of fruits and vegetables, many of them trucked in from California, that wouldn’t have passed muster at my local Vons, let alone at a place like Chez Panisse: skins wrinkled, bloom dulled with age. The menu, aside from a few nods to current Parisian fashion, seemed almost antique, somewhat within the context of “nouvelle cuisine,” yes, but prepared from ingredients that had nothing to do with the mid-Atlantic region that the restaurant happened to be in, and acknowledging nothing of the world beyond France. It happened to be early spring, yet half of the dishes on the menu included fresh tomatoes, which weren’t remotely in season. The lettuces in the salad may as well have been made from plastic. The food, even the chef’s famous specialties, was dull, featureless, like the San Gabriel Mountains barely seen through the smog.
Also in this issue:
A few good eggs: L.A.’s freshest faces in the kitchen. BY DEBORAH VANKIN
And subsequent meals in many of the other four-star restaurants in New York accentuated something that I had not been prepared to believe: In the late ’80s, Los Angeles, as the Pacific Rim’s hub of culinary cross-pollination and the center of a great agricultural zone, supported restaurants that were not merely as good but actually better than their New York peers.
Wolfgang Puck may not have invented the idea of cross-cultural cooking, but he came pretty close, and what he came up with eclipsed all the old-fashioned Dover sole, sieved pike and overblown pastry of the great New York restaurants. Ken Frank, when his La Toque was on the Sunset Strip instead of in the Napa Valley, composed exquisite salads of the toasted salmon skin, radish sprouts and mountain yam he’d tasted at his favorite sushi bars. Nobu Matsuhisa, re-examining Western cooking through the prism of Japanese technique, pushed from the other direction and created a paradigm of his own.
Still, Puck, who in just a couple of years at Spago had already created the Mediterranaen casual-dining template that changed American cooking for the better, created the East-West formula at Chinois followed by chefs around the world: heightened flavor; amplified crunch, smoke, heat and earthy depth; a shotgun marriage of Asian ingredients, European technique and plenty of butter. Los Angeles is where the culinary movement known as fusion cuisine started in the late ’70s; where four of the top five food scores in the Zagat survey are earned by Asian restaurants; where in some circles shredded green papaya is more common than potatoes; where mu shu pizza was born. Talk about the anxiety of influence: Being a chef in Wolfgang Puck’s Los Angeles must be like being the second-best playwright at the Globe.
At the height of the 1980s boom, the restaurants here were astonishing — L’Ermitage and Trumps and Citrus, 385 North and City, St. Estephe and Valentino and Rex and Michael’s. In 1989, Campanile and Patina opened in the same week. But then the ’90s happened, and the focus of the food world shifted back toward New York. Chefs spread out from Los Angeles to open some of the best restaurants in the country, including Jonathan Waxman, Thomas Keller, Hiro Sone, Tadachi Ono and Tracy Desjardins. (Sometimes a follower of the food scene in Los Angeles can sound like a bitter Dodgers fan wondering what the team would be like if they hadn’t traded away Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza.) Half of the openings in town seemed to be of restaurants controlled by either Puck or Joachim Splichal, and many of the others were of exclusive velvet-rope restaurants with indifferent cooking and interiors influenced by traditional Japanese design and high-class S&M dungeons.
These last few years, Los Angeles more or less has had a reputation as a culinary backwater, and I suspect that its restaurants get less national attention than those of Chicago or even Las Vegas. Bay Area chefs have (unjustly) won the James Beard award for best California chef 12 years in a row, and in a few of those years all five of the chefs even nominated came from Northern California. In glossy-magazine polls, Los Angeles doesn’t rank in the top 10 American restaurant cities. (This isn’t to say there were no good new restaurants between Campanile, say, and Bastide. The restaurants of Suzanne Goin and Suzanne Tract, who both amplified and expanded on the California-Mediterranean principles laid down by Puck and Alice Waters, come to mind.)
But good things can happen when attention is diverted elsewhere. The quality of the local farmers-market produce is higher than ever, and the percentage of restaurants taking advantage of that produce is higher, too. The artisanally raised chickens and pork and veal are tastier than anything available 15 years ago. More young chefs are finding flavors and techniques at the blindingly authentic Asian restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, and their customers have become educated about that cooking. Chefs are finally opening small restaurants without the backing of nightclub entrepreneurs or the fine people at Restaurant Associates.
And although Jidori chicken, beef two ways and cauliflower-raisin-caper emulsions may be spreading from menu to menu like a bad cold, I submit that it is easier than it has ever been to find a great meal at new restaurants in Los Angeles — at Sona, at Noé, at Norman’s, at Grace. Because finally: Chefs are starting to cook as if they live in Los Angeles.
The Reviews: Grading the new kids
8 Is Enough
Govind Armstrongis another one of those guys who seem to have been cooking in Los Angeles just short of forever, and chefs still talk about him showing up in the kitchen at Spago at an age when most young men are still thinking about Little League. Like a lot of guys who grow up in public, Armstrong has had his up periods and his downs. His stints at local restaurants have been alternately brilliant, pretty good and puzzling. He has cooked dishes that I will never forget, and dishes that I will never forgive him for.
At Table 8, a painfully hip, house-music-blasting place that is the first true restaurant of Armstrong’s own, he seems to have found his groove, which is to say beachy, vaguely Mediterranean California cuisine with impeccably sourced meat and fish, plenty of organic farmers-market vegetables, and a rather generous notion of the places where bacon might be appropriate. (Jonathan Waxman’s cooking comes to mind, as do the first years of Campanile, one of the restaurants where Armstrong has worked.)
The brined, roasted Kurobota pork, from Berkshire pigs given the porcine equivalent of an extended spa vacation, is a revelation, superbly moist and taut-fleshed, with a clear, focused flavor quite unlike that of meat treated less carefully. In some parts of the country, dishes like wild New Zealand salmon with curried cauliflower and grapefruit, fried soft-shell crab with summer succotash, or duck prosciutto with white balsamic and summer melon might be considered a little left-field. In Los Angeles, they are what passes for classicism, an extension of the kind of sunny, global-ingredient cooking pioneered at Michael’s 25 years ago and updated by a chef whose frequent-flier miles do not necessarily take him only to France. 7661 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 782-8258.
When new restaurantsare discussed in Los Angeles, Citrine is often one of the first places mentioned. There is a long tradition of restaurants at that address, including Ma Maison and Jozu, and the dining room is strikingly beautiful in a gold-leaf Kabuki kind of way, especially when you consider that Tulipe, a very good French restaurant that was once in this space, looked basically like an office-building coffee shop. Citrine’s chef until recently, David Slatkin, had a big and mostly deserved reputation for intricate multicultural cooking drawn from Latin American inspirations as well as from Asia.
But a cuisine as tricky and personal as Slatkin’s demands constant vigilance. And when Slatkin drifted away from Citrine a couple of months ago, the restaurant quickly devolved under new chef Richard Pelz into something like a steak house with a few exotic touches and a menu that could have been lifted from any of a dozen restaurants in Hollywood. Although even restaurants where the doorman outranks the chef probably think twice before serving diver scallops overcooked into hockey pucks, foie gras on a bed of what tastes like last Christmas’ gingerbread men, or a pork fillet frosted with a tasteless substance that might as well be Soylent Green. 8360 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; (323) 655-1690.
The Middle Passage
Before she headed to Los Angelesfor a stint at Border Grill, Monique King was the chef of Soul Kitchen in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, which focused on the cooking of the New World’s African diaspora, from spicy Jamaican dishes to Afro-Brazilian stews to creole shrimp and grits: 400 years of African-American history on a plate. It was an incredibly important restaurant — I once wrote that King’s bold, confident cooking made her the Lauryn Hill of New American cuisine. Plus, she really, really knows how to fry stuff.
King’s Firefly Bistro — which she runs with husband and co-chef Paul Rosenbluh — is perhaps less ambitious in its scope, and the vibe in the souped-up tent that serves as the dining room is more suburban relaxed than urban chic. It’s a comfortable restaurant, the kind of neighborhood place you drop into a couple of times a month because you like the idea of cornmeal-fried anchovies in your caesar salad, or of a paella that tastes more like an uptown version of jambalaya, or of a strawberry shortcake that just happens to be frosted with a superior lemon curd. Firefly Bistro seems more interested in serving you dinner than in confronting you with pan-fried American history. Asian touches pop up now and again, and a few Mexican things, and quite a few folky flavors from Spain. (The tapas served to coincide with the Thursday-evening farmers market right outside the bistro’s doors have become a South Pasadena tradition.) But there are still the barbecued quail, the fried crawfish tails, and the pecan-crusted catfish fillets stacked up like poker chips. King has apparently not abandoned her old moves. 1009 El Centro St., South Pasadena; (626) 441-2443.
In New York City, Italian wine bars are multiplying like the Ebola virus, spreading house-cured head cheese and wines like Romitorio and Cannonau through neighborhoods that had barely seen a jug of Gallo just a year or two before. In Los Angeles, the first serious Italian wine bar is probably the posh Enoteca Drago, the latest outpost of Celestino Drago’s pasta-driven empire, where you can chase a plate of prosciutto, a mess of baby octopi, or even the elusive lardo — cured pig fat in the style of northwestern Tuscany, melted onto a slab of fried bread — with a glass of crisp Verdicchio from the Marches.
Some of the wines are served in flights — sets of small pours of vintages arranged by grape or by region. For about $20, you can taste Grenache from four different parts of the world or four different whites from Italy’s Austria-adjacent Alto Adige, which are designed to make discussions of Alpine terroir flow as easily as last week’s argument about Michael Moore. ‰
Almost incidentally — Enoteca Drago does function as a full restaurant, although it is occasionally hard to remember this when you’re floating in the middle of a Brunello reverie — you will also find great pasta with pesto and one of the few proper versions of spaghetti carbonara in town. 410 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 786-8236.
If you have been followingrestaurants in Los Angeles for any length of time, you have probably been aware of Max chef Andre Guerrero since somewhere in the middle of Magic Johnson’s rookie season. Guerrero jumped from the kitchen of his parents’ bistro to a modern diner to a restaurant on Malibu Pier to Linq, bringing with him a deft cross-cultural sensibility and a killer recipe for chicken adobo. Max is the restaurant he has always deserved, an elegant sea of calm in the thick of what passes for Sherman Oaks’ restaurant row, with well-heeled customers whose summer clothing fades into the taupe banquettes as naturally as lions blend into the dry Serengeti plain.
Fusion chefs, even the best of them, tend to fall on one side of the spectrum or the other, either dressing up essentially Western techniques with Asian flavors and exotic ingredients or supercharging existing Asian dishes with professional French technique. Guerrero, who is Filipino-American, seems to split the difference about as adroitly as anyone in town. So where his “ahi towers” are nothing like traditional sushi, for example, the perfectly engineered cylinders of fried sticky-rice cake, seaweed, pickled ginger, wasabi-flavored flying-fish roe and raw fish have all the sensations of a great, trashy tuna roll, plus the oily crunch of the rice and the contrasting sensations of hot and cold. The crisp-skinned seared whitefish, smeared with a spicy tamarind paste, garnished with something very much resembling an Indian vegetable pakora, and served on sweet turmeric-stained rice with cashews and raisins, may not be strictly an Indian dish, but it riffs on Indian flavor principles pretty well.
When Guerrero veers too closely to actual Asian dishes, as with his leaden potstickers or his duff take on Thai chicken-coconut soup, the results can be uninspired. This is, after all, a midlevel restaurant, not a temple of cuisine. But there is always that chicken adobo to contend with. Or an ahi tower to go. 13355 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 784-2915.
Grace Under Pressure
If Los Angeles restaurantswere like rock bands, and at times it seems as if they are, Neal Fraser would be the glamorous indie-rock hero, a chef with a wobbly, idiosyncratic style that couldn’t be further from the finish-fetish crowd pleasers popped out by the corporate overlords at the houses of Splichal and Puck. Small, chef-run restaurants were as common in dot-com-era San Francisco as they are on Third Street now, but Fraser’s Boxer was the first glimmer of eccentricity in a Los Angeles restaurant scene that had become dominated by three or four big players, and the fact that the restaurant became a hangout for the modeling agency down the block helped nudge his French-Moroccan-Japanese take on New American cooking into vogue. (It was his model of success that inspired Los Angeles chefs in the mid-’90s.) During the ensuing samurai segment of his career, after he was bought out, he introduced his beef two ways, his seared sea scallops and his skewered whatever to restaurants all over the Westside.
Grace occupies a different phylum from the rest of Fraser’s restaurants, not so much because of its extreme fashionability (his restaurants have always been chic), but because he abandoned his sly Orientalisms for a detailed, market-oriented sort of New American cuisine, heavy on the French technique, and inspired by the strong flavors and intricate presentations of New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Soups are served in trios — a spicy lemongrass-flavored soup with lobster; a sort of warm vichyssoise garnished with croutons made out of cut-up grilled cheese sandwiches; a cold avocado purée lightened with foamed crème fraîche — and crisped skate is served with caramelized cauliflower and flavored with puréed raisins and capers. Sautéed foie gras is dusted with ground pistachios and cocoa nibs.
The cooking can still be a little rough around the edges at Grace: an occasional duck breast cooked far past pinkness, or a salad of grilled radicchio not grilled quite long enough to bring out the smoky sweetness hidden in the leaves. But Fraser is clearly aspiring to greatness here — this is tremendously ambitious food. And there are freshly fried jelly doughnuts for dessert. What more could you want? 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 934-4400.
Is Tamarin the second coming of Indian cooking in Los Angeles? Is the Western-tinged cuisine of its chef, Uma Singh, on a par with that of Floyd Cardoz from the accomplished Franco-Indian restaurant Tabla in Manhattan or even that of the Bombay Café’s estimable Neela Paniz? Is the drooling stone monolith that dominates the dining room as compelling as the Eric Orr water sculptures that used to show up in high-end restaurants? Is Indian food really compatible with Italian wine? Should the fresh Indian cheese paneer really collapse under your teeth like cubes of tofu, or lamb biryani clot as damply as last night’s plate of Uncle Ben’s?
Probably not. Tamarin isn’t even quite up to the standard of Café Talesai in the same Beverly Hills mini-mall, whose similar approach to Thai cooking is remarkable. But if you’re hungry for vindaloo or chicken tikka and you happen to be in Beverly Hills, you could do a lot worse. 9162 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 777-0360.
Cinch, like so many of the restaurantsdesigned by Dodd Mitchell, looks like the archvillain’s lair from a Sean Connery–era James Bond movie, sleek luxury fitted into a nuclear-hardened concrete bunker: dark woods, flickering candlelight, booming music and burnished chinoiserie seemingly concealing a darker, edgier function. If Cinch made you feel comfortable, right at home, Mitchell wouldn’t be doing his job.
The proto-Japanese cooking at Cinch may be a perfect fit for the vaguely sinister architecture, things like fried oysters wrapped in shiso leaves and served on puddles of cold avocado velouté in their own shells; raw salmon subsumed into spring rolls; raw Kobe beef flavored with rosemary, shiso and olives — everything just a few degrees skewed from the vertical, everything fashionable enough to function as a lifestyle signifier as well as an appetizer or entrée. Cinch operates, more or less, as a swank lounge that just happens to serve bang bang chicken alongside its mojitos, and chef Chris Behre, who worked for years in Sydney and London with Tetsuya, Australia’s superman of fusion cuisine, may occasionally be a little loose with the details of his cooking. As with a lot of cross-cultural chefs, the fireworks come in his small courses; big slabs of animal find him at a loss. 1519 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 395-4139. ‰
The Good Diet Young
“Serious” restaurantshighlight Jidori chicken on their menus, have somebody in the kitchen who knows how to work the mulberry lady at the Santa Monica Farmers Market and feature at least two different preparations of foie gras. Luna Park, the La Brea Avenue spinoff of a popular San Francisco café, is more of a place to drop by for a salad with Green Goddess dressing, a glass of Shiraz and a pretty good piece of salmon with mashed potatoes — which is to say, it occupies a spot on the food chain halfway between L’Orangerie and the local branch of the Cheesecake Factory. The 20-somethings who throng the restaurant for goat-cheese fondue, garlicky moules frites, and grilled artichokes with aioli presumably couldn’t care less. 672 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 934-2110.
I would have betthere was nothing new under the sun when it came to steak houses in 2004, that every possible permutation of the Rat Pack lifestyle, every $120 Kobe beef fillet, every conceivable tomato salad, cigar station and vodka martini had been explored. This steak-house thing has been going on a long time, after all, and even the most Atkins-crazed Robb Report subscriber could hardly want for variety.
But it’s not the braised turnip greens that make the difference at Lincoln Steakhouse Americana, owned by the people who run Paladar, and it’s probably not the iceberg wedges or the Brussels sprouts. The profoundly charred Angus-beef porterhouses are fine, but no better than you’ll find at a dozen other places in town. I like the turbocharged briar-fruit smack of a Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel, but the wine list is neither big nor weighted toward obscurities. What Lincoln has that other steak houses do not is young women, in packs and in pairs, on dates, on business dinners, and dining alone. And these aren’t young women nibbling salads or sipping white wine, or hanging around the bar waiting for you, but women ordering big steaks and eating them. I would credit the well-known charm of the antler chandeliers for this phenomenon, but I would probably be wrong. 2460 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 828-3304.
The most profound dessertI have tasted this year was probably the marshmallow stew at Minibar, which is a new small-plates restaurant in that patch of Universal City that doesn’t like to admit that it’s part of the San Fernando Valley. When you order the stew, the waitress comes back with two coffee cups one-third filled with viscous white goo, and a teapot, which turns out to contain the kind of hot chocolate that is essentially melted candy bars thinned with a little hot cream. When you pour the boiling liquid into the marshmallow, the effect is — not fluffy Camp marshmallows becoming sodden in your Swiss Miss, and not the ritualized immolation of s’mores, but of the marshmallow somehow rising up to envelop the chocolate, becoming a living, actualized mass of bittersweet deliciousness. It’s a good thing that the teapot is a big teapot, because you are going to end up consuming every drop.
Minibar is sort of an interesting place to be anyway, a tall lounge with sofas, throbbing post-rock and hidden antechambers, op-art dots on the walls, and Keane paintings of bug-eyed waifs big as the Peter Paul Rubens allegories in the Louvre — it’s like being in the inside of Tara Reid’s head. The snack-food-intensive menu put together by Sharon Hage of all people, a chef who is often called Dallas’ answer to Alice Waters, and executed by Noah Rosen, is as cross-cultural as they come: crisp cheese-stuffed yuca puffs like the ones that show up at breakfast time in São Paulo; Yucatecan-style pollo pibil, baked in banana leaves; Indian-style curried lamb; Shanghai-style spring rolls stuffed with French duck confit and served with a Thai-style peanut sauce. And there’s a lot of interesting wine priced around $20 a bottle — which is good, because it takes a lot of experimentation to figure out the proper thing to drink with plantain latkes smothered in Salvadoran crema. Go with the Albarino, I say. Merlot and plantains are just not a match. 3413 Cahuenga Blvd., Universal City; (323) 882-6965.
Japan, Medium Rare
Beacon marksthe triumphant return to form of Kazuto Matsusaka, who was chef for almost a decade at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois in the ’80s, and may have been the best-known Japanese-born chef in America before the rise of Nobu Matsuhisa. Matsusaka, who is always a presence at Beacon, glowering from his station in the coffee-shop-style open kitchen, has moved his cooking back toward Japan, but toward a kind of Japanese cuisine inflected by the clean lines, big flavors and relaxed cross-cultural inclusiveness of the best California restaurants.
You would probably never find anything like Matsusaka’s salad of perfectly ripe avocado dressed with toasted sesame seeds and minced scallions in Tokyo, but the dish follows classical principles, and it is luscious. The signature Beacon sushi roll is made of fresh crabmeat sluiced with a loose, ponzu-flavored gelée similar to the ones Parisian chefs use to garnish their game terrines. The “pizza” topped with wasabi-flavored mayonnaise, slices of raw ahi tuna and bits of sweet pickled ginger tastes less like a pizza than like a folk dish that the Japanese haven’t got around to inventing quite yet — either that or a supercharged Japanese homage to the smoked salmon and crème fraîche of Puck’s famous “Jewish” pizza at Spago. The hanger steak with wasabi is so successful, the searing tang of the horseradish doing something wonderful to the tart, carbonized flavor of grilled meat, that you might wonder why nobody had thought of the combination until now.
Too many chefs in the United States, including many famous ones, prepare Asian dishes without any real understanding of the cuisines they think they’re working in. Matsusaka’s knowledge of the Japanese kitchen is flawless, but his real mastery may be of the Los Angeles palate. 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City; (310) 838-7500.
Rhapsody in Blue
Patina has always been famousfor the offhand complexity of its presentations, and a recent bowl of soup at the new Disney Hall version of the restaurant may have been among the oddest of all. The raw flesh of a Santa Barbara spot prawn — killed seconds before it was served, said a waiter — shared space at the bottom of a bowl with fresh coconut, threads of slivered lemongrass and tart, juicy flecks of chopped citrus. The composition was frosted with flakes of dried bonito, the color and consistency of pencil shavings, that shivered in the draft from an air-conditioning vent. It was a stunning composition. Another waiter poured hot miso soup from a silver pitcher, and the prawn began to poach in the heat of the broth, firming into a substance neither solid nor liquid, neither cooked nor raw, each cell of the animal coming to crunchy, gelid life. So far, so good.
But the bonito flakes immediately grew soggy in the soup, transforming into a wet, salty wad whose texture was reminiscent of damp newspaper, and the bits of citrus lent the dish a sort of spoiled-milk sourness rather than the dazzling sparks of acidity one imagined the chef had in mind. The lemongrass all but disappeared. The miso began to precipitate out of the broth in a manner you may vaguely remember from 11th-grade chemistry, and the slippery sweetness of the coconut was just off.
It is easy to see how the dish worked on paper, as a deconstruction of a Brazilian moqueca perhaps, or as a take on the lime-in-the-coconut funkiness of Tahitian poisson cru, but it is difficult to believe that anybody in the kitchen actually tasted the dish before putting it on the menu. If this were one bum dish on a menu of earthly delights, it would be easy to write off as chefly exuberance. At the moment it is emblematic of the problems in this kitchen. Time and again, Patina offers textbook examples of good dishes ruined through overelaboration: nicely seared foie gras accompanied by a rhubarb “baklava” that resembled a clumsy rugelach; a beautiful vichyssoise spiked with a weirdly sharp-tasting scoop of potato ice cream; a deep-fried tuna roll served with tomatoes and favas at the precise moment in late spring when neither vegetable is really in season.
Patina’s dining room in Disney Hall is arguably the most important restaurant space in California, and when Joachim Splichal concentrates, as he has so many times before, he can be among the best chefs in the United States. Nobody is writing Patina off at this point, but somebody in Splichal’s kitchen has to learn how to taste. 141 S. Grand Ave. downtown; (213) 972-3331.
Sometimes I think of Blair’sas one of those restaurants with waggled quotation marks around them, a restaurant that is so of itself, in a neighborhood (Silver Lake) that so clearly is not, that it seems like one of those suit-wearing hat guys sitting upright behind the wheel of a ’68 Dodge Dart, his hands at 10 and 2, who usually turns out to be a 28-year-old dude projecting what his shrink could tell you is the way that he wishes his father was at his age. Blair’s is an adults’ restaurant for people who don’t really consider themselves to be grownups even in their late 40s, a civilized redoubt of caesar salads and crab cakes and shrimp cocktails that are served with a side of deviled eggs, a sort of roadhouse where the pepper steak comes with oodles of farmers-market vegetables, the salmon comes with lentils, and the roster of artisanal beers is nearly as long as the wine list. I would be surprised if anybody’s parents ate this well at Rotary Club meetings. Or if the dinner music rocked nearly this hard. 2903 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake; (323) 660-1882.
South of the Border, South of the Boulevard
The Los Angeles area has a bigger urban populationof Mexican descent than any city outside of Mexico City, and possibly a higher number of taquerías and mariscos stands and full-blown margarita merchants than of every other kind of restaurant combined. ‰ Most of the non-Mexican cafés in town are staffed by Mexicans too. So it is a mystery that it has taken this long for a local restaurant (besides, of course, Border Grill) to put together California’s twin obsessions with Mexican food and farmers-market produce — which is to say, empanadas stuffed with the Mexican green quelites, chicken breast with squash blossoms, a killer green-chile stew with organic nopales, and a decent if gentrified version of the classic Guadalajara roast-goat dish birria, although it’s made with braised lamb instead of crispy bits of kid. Señor Fred, brought into existence by Andre Guerrero, who runs Max down the street, has become even sharper, the food more assertively flavored under its current chef, Juan Carlos Leon.
Still, while some of the food is very good, on weekend nights Señor Fred, which is painted as black as a goth teenager’s bedroom, turns into a rocking, screaming bar scene. And the usual fried tacos and enchilada plates and the like tend to be fairly similar to their sports-bar equivalents. At such times, even the best empanada de huitlacoche may not be enough. 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 789-3200.
Drive, He Said
Leonard Schwartz, an excellent chef who recently left the world of expense-account cuisine to fashion the Zeke’s barbecue chain, may have been the prime mover behind the mid-’80s comfort-food thing, the one that validated chili, meat loaf, and macaroni and cheese for the sort of diners who had heretofore supped on truffled pâté. In the ’90s, at Maple Drive, he added big salads and chicken soup into the mix, as a service to his Nate ’n Al’s–loving entertainment-industry clientele.
So, when Eric Klein, an Alsatian guy who had spent time in the kitchens at Spago, took over last year, he inherited a mandate to serve meat loaf, chicken-in-the-pot and what in Chicago they sometimes call garbage salad. The customers came for the jazz, they may have come for the renowned tuna tartare, but they most assuredly did not come because they wanted their fried calamari served with Salvadoran-style shredded cabbage and tartar sauce weirdly flavored with the Japanese spice mixture togarashi. But one by one, the regulars were seduced by Klein’s foie gras with kumquat chutney and his seared loup de mer with caramelized cauliflower, raisins and pine nuts, even if they did come from the playbook of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, as well as the brasserie standards of Spanish mackerel with potato salad (although it tends to be a little dry) and Alsatian tarte flambée, which is how the devil himself would make pizza if he suddenly came into a lot of cream. It is hard to really dislike a chef who lists bacon as his favorite vegetable, even in Beverly Hills.
Suddenly, the requisite multiculti Asianisms didn’t seem so odd — soft-shell crab tempura with Japanese pickles; skirt steak marinated to taste like spicy Chinese takeout — and the “barbecued” salmon with puréed Jerusalem artichokes almost seemed classically French. Although the kitchen, as they say of young NBA teams, is currently in its building phase, apt to overdress a melon salad with eiswein vinegar or to drown something called “Southern Scampi” in an overacidic broth, it is coming along. If Klein keeps it up, someday he may even be able to drop the meat loaf off the menu. Although I wouldn’t count on it. 345 N. Maple Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 274-9800.
Big enough to host a rugby game, with a scrum of customers around the counter intense enough sometimes to make you think you are in the middle of one, Lemon Moon is something like the ultimate office-building canteen, a grand daytime restaurant in a new Westside media complex whose customers are mostly fated to eat their lunch back at their desks. As a concept, a restaurant that nobody actually eats in (except for slacking aesthetes from across town and those few toilers who don’t mind their colleagues knowing that they don’t have better things to do) may be the dialectical opposite of those restaurants where business lunches start at 1 and tail off, four bottles of wine and three cognacs later, somewhere after 5.
The guys who own Lemon Moon, Josiah Citrin and Raphael Lunetta, who used to run the excellent JiRaffe together before Citrin split off to open Melisse, are no doubt aware of the contradictions — Melisse has been a bastion of that four-hour lunch, and JiRaffe is a decent place to spend at least two. Still, if you’re going to have a glass case of deli salads, they might as well be great deli salads: marinated lamb, and eggplant chermoula, and roasted mushrooms with polenta, among many others. This neighborhood may support a $12 cheeseburger, but it has to be a really good cheeseburger. Nobody minds if you call the flatbread “pizza,” as long as it’s crisp and light and ‰ intensely flavored. Ultimately, of course, Lemon Moon’s biggest competition is neither Spago nor the Buffalo Club — it’s that guy selling stale bagels down the hall. 12200 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 442-9191.
New Wave Hookahs
As often as you may find yourselves
back at Maroush, sitting beneath stark photomurals of cedars and plowing through platters of tabouleh, baba ghanoush, and the best grilled quail with garlic sauce in Hollywood, it is hard not to be a little awestruck by the new Lebanese restaurant Mandaloun. Because while the local Middle Eastern restaurant scene is no stranger to grandeur, there has never been anything like this place, a gilded gastrodome of massive kebabs, and pita made to order, and outdoor terraces devoted to the baking of Lebanese flatbreads and the smoking of apple-flavored tobacco. There are meze here you may have never seen outside of cookbooks, including dandelion salads and a salad called shanklish, made out of sharp, extra-aged Lebanese cheese. And it’s all tucked away — if “tucked” is a word that can be used for a dining room the size of Staples Center — on the second floor of a mall-alley complex that from the outside looks better suited to a parking structure. 141 S. Maryland Blvd., Glendale; (818) 507-1900.
If you can remember the kind of yearningthat Angelenos poured into the 18-year-old Kobe Bryant before his rookie season with the Lakers, you can get an idea of what at least some local foodies were expecting of Brooke Williamson a few years ago. Williamson was not only commanding an important kitchen in her earliest 20s (Zax), but did so as a member of what my colleague Michelle Huneven calls the bohemian Farmers Market school of Los Angeles chefs, which is to say that her menus were loaded with the creamy burrata cheese, Persian mulberries and Meyer lemons that are the signifiers of the successful post-Silvertonian kitchen (they don’t sell those mulberries to just anyone, you know), symbols of a chef as adept at shopping as at cooking. Nobody as young had gotten that kind of attention in the local food scene since the teenage Ken Frank opened and abandoned Michael’s back in the ’70s.
Still, Amuse, the daytime restaurant Williamson opened last year with Nick Roberts, although it may consume more farmers-market produce per customer than any restaurant on the Westside, is an ambitiously unambitious establishment, with baroque variations on lemonade instead of a wine list, breakfast all day and a menu composed mostly of small plates — lentil “hummus,” prosciutto and burrata salad, a deliciously funky onion and Gruyère tart — and sandwiches: a croque Madame, shrimp salad with radish sprouts, and hamburgers made from ground rib-eye. As in the early days of City Café, when Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were also trying to figure out what it means to be a classically trained chef in a city that would rather eat big salads than quenelles de brochette, there is the feeling of experimentation, collaboration, fun — as if a good grilled chicken and Brie sandwich is no less worthy than a truffled fillet. Weekend brunches are a zoo, but the spare, sun-washed upstairs dining room (which often seems filled with trysting couples and Europeans on vacation) is a great place for a long, iced tea–lubricated weekday lunch. 796 Main St., Venice; (310) 450-1956.
Like the United States between 1812 and 2001,the Los Angeles fine-dining scene has never been attacked on its own soil from abroad. Asian restaurants, sure — transplants from Taipei and Beijing alike have been welcomed; restaurants from Manila, Tokyo and Seoul have branches here — as well as actors’ bars like Joe Allen and the Ginger Man. When exalted European or regional American kitchens decide to open away from home, it is almost always in Manhattan: Milos, San Domenico, Jacques-Imo, Ducasse.
But our daily paper is owned by a Chicago corporation now, our homegrown banks by a corporation in Charlotte, our baseball team by an undercapitalized Bostonian parking-lot czar. For the first time in the city’s existence, Los Angeles is beginning to feel a little like a colony. And the appearance a few months ago of Norman’s, a local branch of the finest restaurant in Palm Beach, should have been the final straw. Los Angeles is used to exporting its chefs — its Spagos, its Pinots, its La Toques — not bringing restaurants in from suburban Florida as if we were Eurodisney or Las Vegas. This feeling of ressentiment at Norman’s rarely lasts as long as it takes to finish the first course.
Norman’s style of cooking, sometimes called Floribbean cuisine, processes Caribbean recipes through the matrix of French technique, often inflecting a dish with an Asian flavor or two: the kind of French toast you’d hope to find in an $800-per-night Antigua resort, for example, piled with seared foie gras and gingered lime zest, or slices of raw, seared yellowtail wrapped around spicy braised oxtail, or duck breast served with a loose paella that can’t decide whether its flavors come from Valencia or the Yucatán. Craig Petrella must have been the most talented chef in Norman Van Aken’s restaurant empire, because it is impossible to discern where Van Aken’s ideas ease off and his own ideas begin. Except that I think I like the West Hollywood restaurant much better than the Florida original. 8570 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-2400. ‰
The Floating World
“It’s just like Singapore,”a friend sighed when she first sat down at Noé, the restaurant in the downtown Omni hotel. A forest of standard glass towers rose outside, and the gray-toned corporate design of the dining room itself could have been plucked whole from a catalog of high-end hotel design. The waiters and waitresses stumbled through what was obviously a service script — really, the 43rd time my friend was addressed in the third person as “the lady,” I wouldn’t have blamed her for flinging the heavy centerpiece through the picture window — and the wine list, although there are a few decently priced New Zealand wines, read as if it were put together by a robot. If you weren’t sure that you had just walked over one block from a concert at Disney Hall, you could be in any large city in the world.
In a setting like this, you might expect the food to be as blandly generic as the nondescript art on the walls. And the desserts, which seem put together by committee, pretty much are. But Robert Gadsby works with this sense of dislocation, nurtures it, plays with the inside of your skull in ways that Gerhard Richter or Thomas Pynchon might recognize. Take his triptych of foie gras, for example: one part prepared au torchon in the French manner; the next whipped into a mousse glazed with a Coca-Cola gelatin, in the fashion of D.C. chef Jose Andres; the third fried like country ham and served on a tiny skillet of truffled scrambled eggs. A braised lamb shank was spiced like Moroccan lamb, smeared with yogurt as if it were Iranian, and ultimately revealed a level of chile heat that could only have been North Indian.
A plate of sand dabs could have been read as a fairly orthodox presentation of goujounettes de sole, a classical French dish of flatfish fillets cut into pieces the size of whitebait, seasoned and floured, fried crisp, and served in neat heaps with a wedge of lemon and a bit of remoulade. But sand dabs are perhaps the most Californian of seafood, and the seasoning included a faint whiff of something that was neither salt nor pepper. The remoulade was fashioned from crème fraîche instead of mayonnaise, and was seasoned with fresh herbs rather than the traditional gherkins, etc., and the golden batons of fish were arranged atop denuded sand dab skeletons that had been dipped into a spicy sauce and deep-fried to a hard crunchiness, a Chinese technique you may have encountered when eating double-pleasure flounder in a Cantonese seafood dive. There were tempura shishito peppers on the plate, and a very Mediterranean salad.
Robert Gadsby has been knocking around Los Angeles restaurants since the late 1980s, at least, and has been considered the chef-most-likely-to for almost a decade. Noé is a strange place for a talent to flower, but in this rocky soil, perhaps Gadsby’s food has found its home. 251 S. Olive St., downtown; (213) 356-4100.
At Sona, a sliver of watermelon
may be less a sliver of watermelon than a wisp in a chilled soup, a salted crunch tracing the shape of a curl of marinated yellowtail, a glistening cellophane window into the soul of a pistachio, a texture in a sorbet, a jelly exposing its cucumberlike soul. Is a particular duck breast poached or roasted, or is it some combination technique designed to maximize the juice?
Has there ever been a dish wittier that Sona’s version of vitello tonnato, a bit of cool sashimi draped over a hot lobe of fried veal sweetbread bathed in the traditional Italian tuna sauce? Have you in your life encountered batons of recently living abalone tossed in its shell with yuzu and microscopic rounds of the tiniest haricots vert? In a city with a thousand foie gras preparations, have you tasted the liver garnished with rhubarb, a razor-thin slice of toasted spice bread and a teaspoonful of forest-green celery-leaf sorbet?
What we know as California cuisine may be dedicated to revealing produce at its best, but David and Michelle Myers go after nature with blowtorches and microtomes and dynamite, determined to bend the old woman to their will. The morning after nine courses at Sona (this is one restaurant where only the tasting menu will do), it will already seem like a half-forgotten dream. 401 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-7708.
Speaking of Undisclosed Locations
There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. There are also unknown unknowns. These are things that we don’t know that we don’t know. And there is whatever it is that they serve at Jaan. Charentais melon tartare? You tell me. 9291 Burton Way, Beverly Hills; (310) 385-5344.
To be continued . . .