There's not much in the life of a restaurant critic about which it's OK to complain. Waaah, I have to eat so much! Boo, I never get to eat at home. I know — it's a sweet gig and I should be grateful for it. And I am.
But one thing I do find frustrating is that once I'm done writing about a place, even if it has become a favorite, I rarely have time in my dining schedule to go back. Once a year or so, I check in with most restaurants we've covered in the past, but the idea of a favorite place, where I could become a true regular, is out of reach. I simply have too much else to eat.
This is always made most clear when I sort through the year's openings to decide the top 10 best new restaurants. It reminds me of the places I truly loved throughout the year, the places that — were I a civilian eater rather than a professional — would have become cherished parts of my dining routine.
Instead, I'll have to make do with yearly visits, and the hope that these lists are helpful in another way. If I can't be a regular, perhaps you can.
Smoke.oil.salt chef — and Valencia native — Perfecto Rocher is valiantly trying to bring the experience of Spain, specifically Catalonia, to Melrose Avenue. Despite our city's love of tapas, or at least their size and adaptability, there's little in the way of quality Spanish food in Los Angeles, and many of Rocher's dishes come as pure delight. His version of calçots — spring onions, served smoked over salbitxada, the thick sauce made with ground almonds and hazelnuts — is enough to throw you into a reverie for Catalan nights, even if you've never set foot in Europe. You've had gazpacho, but have you ever had cherry gazpacho? As deep and purple-red as the lips of a wicked vixen, topped with lobster meat, caviar and a fried oyster, it's just as sweet and tart, just as unexpected and delightful as it sounds. The wine program, overseen by co-owner Stephen Gelber, takes some risks, and all for the best. For lovers of funk-laced ciders, lesser-known Spanish wines, sherries and even dry rieslings, Smoke.oil.salt has you covered. 7274 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. (323) 930-7900, www.smokeoilsalt.com.
It's hard to come away from Cadet, the new restaurant from owner Jeff Weinstein and chef Kris Tominaga (formerly of the Hart and the Hunter), without smelling like wood smoke. That's because so much of what comes out of the kitchen is cooked over an open, wood-fired grill, and the scent of the fire permeates everything in the place. It's worth the woody perfume you'll get to eat here. Tominaga shows much of the same talent for elegant balance as he did with Southern food at the Hart and the Hunter, though here he uses a more European jumping-off point. Tartines start things off, with toppings such as smoked mussels with roasted peppers, and avocado with olives smoked over the fire. Entrees come with a kind of Euro-banchan: thick sourdough crepe, horseradish butter, carrot salad, wood-roasted tomato and more. Into this you fold your wood-grilled steak, or luscious, ember-roasted black cod, and the entire meal becomes a delicious, interactive game. 2518 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 828-3300, cadetsm.com.
8. Saint Martha
Saint Martha, named for the patron saint of cooks and servants, joins the ranks of small, ambitious restaurants that open with little fanfare and even less money. The whimsical space behind a heavy wooden door in a run-down strip mall in Koreatown is decorated with classic oil paintings that make you look twice: The woman sitting in a 19th-century portrait pose has an intricate neck tattoo creeping down her décolletage; a neon sign above the open kitchen reads "hipster." All of this establishes Saint Martha as a place that doesn't view itself too earnestly. Yet the food — small plates for sharing, don't you know? — is one part whimsy and two parts dead serious. Chef Nick Erven's food is often theatrical: He makes "Doritos" from seaweed and pairs them with uni mousse; an oyster and steak tartare delivers the mineral tang of both raw beef and raw oysters multiplying in your mouth. There's an exuberance here, a youthful energy that never quite veers into brattiness or posturing. Erven and Co. are here to have a good time, to drink some good wine and to play with our expectations. It's a good game. 740 S. Western Ave., Koreatown. (213) 387-2300, saintmartharestaurant.com.
Zach Pollack's new Silver Lake Italian joint masquerades as a small neighborhood hangout, but really there's more than enough ambition on the menu at Alimento to qualify it as a destination. The chef, who gained renown as one half of the culinary team at Sotto, traveled extensively in Northern Italy to prepare for his first solo venture (both as chef and restaurateur), and the research shows. Pollack veers from highly traditional dishes, such as a gorgeously decadent maccheroncini pasta with chicken livers and marsala, to playful takes on Americana, such as his "pig in a blanket," a fat hunk of mortadella sandwiched between two layers of flaky spelt pastry, then brightened up with three kinds of tang: pickled mustard seeds, Italian sauerkraut and a melty cow's milk cheese called stracchinata. The space is spare, the wine list is great, and there are some truly standout things to eat from this kitchen. Would that all neighborhood hangouts were this accomplished. 1710 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 928-2888, alimentola.com.
6. Szechuan Impression
The Sichuan options just keep getting better in the San Gabriel Valley, and this year we really lucked out with Szechuan Impression. Lynn Liu and Kelly Xiao, the restaurant's young owners, have very specific aims: They hope to bring the food that people grew up eating in the southwestern Chinese province to this corner of the southwestern United States, with an updated feel to appeal to younger diners. Chef Tony Lai, whom they've brought in to run the kitchen, is in L.A. after running upscale hotel kitchens in Chengdu. Plenty here will set your mouth and heart ablaze, in the true Sichuan style, but there's also nostalgia and subtlety at play, much more than you'd typically find on a menu with these origins. If you love heat, or even just extremity, many dishes will blow your palate out in a blaze of masochistic gratification, such as the boiled fish in red chili, or the "old-school hot pot starch noodle." More interesting are the dishes that rely less on the urgent sting of overpowering flavors, or pair those flavors with quieter pleasures. The fish with green pepper shows the famous Sichuan peppercorn's intensely aromatic side. If this is just the first wave of a new Sichuan influx, all the better. 1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 283-4622, szechuanimpressionalhambra.com.
5. Wexler's Deli
From just about the day Wexler's opened, L.A.'s food obsessives started asking the question: Is this now the best pastrami sandwich in town? In light of our city's devotion to Langer's, the question seemed to be heresy, yet it isn't unreasonable. At its best, the pastrami at Wexler's rivals any in this city or any other: deeply rich, slightly smoky, sweet at its edges with a prickle of pepper and clove. The deli, located in a stand in Grand Central Market, is highly traditional, an old-school Jewish deli, pure and simple. Chef Micah Wexler smokes his own fish and cures his own pastrami, makes his own pickles and generally obsesses over the quality of every last detail. There may be no better outcome of all that obsessing than Wexler's lox: Slick, supple and delicate, the cured salmon tastes like a rushing mountain river in the same way an ultra-fresh oyster tastes like the soul of the ocean. 317 S. Broadway, dwntwn. No phone, wexlersdeli.com.
Roy Choi's restaurant on the ground floor of Koreatown's Line Hotel is a triumph of Korean youth culture in all its glory. From the overt weed-smoking theme to the throwback cocktails (Long Island iced tea on tap, anyone?) to the pun-filled menu, Choi presents us with a smart, delicious take on a modern Korean restaurant. And who would have known that kimchi fried rice goes so well with weird white wines from the Jura? POT is one of the clearest examples of our culinary landscape's most exciting modern developments: the children of immigrants stepping up and telling their own stories, ones that haven't been part of the conversation until recently. In that sense, eating at POT is a chance to experience culture unfolding and changing, right there on the table before you. 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown. (213) 368-3030, eatatpot.com.
3. Night + Market Song
The second iteration of Kris Yenbamroong's groundbreaking Thai restaurant is just as compelling as the first, maybe even more so. You get the feeling that the Silver Lake location, and the freedom it entails, has allowed the chef to create a restaurant that represents him more fully, both the side that meticulously re-creates the dishes of Northern Thailand and the side that wants a big, fried-chicken sandwich. Much attention has been given to the pork blood and MSG dipping soup, but the less ostentatious dishes, such as the gorgeous catfish "tamale," or the rich and decadent kao soi, are where the fun is. The bright room, occasionally lackadaisical service and overt hipster vibe are a turnoff for some. But to me, the accurate reflection of Yenbamroong's personality in restaurant form makes it all the more lovable. 3322 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 665-5899, nightmarketsong.com.
2. Petit Trois
Ludo Lefebvre has made a career taking his classical French training and turning it on its head. He's delivered some of the most creative food L.A. has ever seen, in the past at his Ludobites pop-up and now at Trois Mec. But the restaurant he decided to open next door to Trois Mec is as classic as it comes — straightforward French bar food, which you eat perched on stools at the bar or counter, crammed in among the other guests. What makes Petit Trois so special? The fact that Lefebvre has perfected these simple dishes so thoroughly, they are somehow better than the thing they aim to honor. It's been said many times, but it's true: Petit Trois serves the best omelet in the known universe, but it also serves escargot and croque monsieur and steak frites that are simply stunning in their decadence and perfection. Vive la France! 718 N. Highland Ave., Hlywd. (323) 468-8916, petittrois.com.
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What do you get when you mix a celebrity chef, a Beverly Hills location and a huge international fan base? Not what you'd expect. Curtis Stone's first foray into restaurant ownership is ambitious, there's no denying it, but it's ambitious in all the right ways. Small ways. The intimate room is both sleek and cozy, the black tiled walls contrasting cleverly with the vintage vases and tableware (Maude is named after Stone's grandmother, and the look of the place are her tastes mixed with his). The concept is clever: Each month, the chef focuses on one seasonal ingredient and presents that ingredient as a nine- to 10-course tasting menu. A monthly ingredient of honor might become burdensome and repetitive in a lesser chef's hands, but Stone is a man who understands balance. Throughout the meal, the flavor of the month is amplified and then subdued, in places used as the main attraction and in others as a subtle garnish. The wine program, run by sommelier Ben Aviram, is quite delightful, and the wine-pairing option is a bargain. As is the food, which generally rings in at around $100 per person, service included. If you can get a seat: Maude has fast become the toughest reservation in town. And for very good reason. 212 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 859-3418, mauderestaurant.com.