If there's been one particular fuel that's driven L.A.'s restaurant scene in 2016, it's pressing, outsized ambition. It takes a ton of ambition to open any restaurant, but this year our chefs and restaurateurs seemed to reach higher, push themselves further and create restaurants that hummed with the aspirations of some very talented people. There was the outsized extravagance of Gwen, built to hold Curtis Stone's meatiest ambitions. The soaring grandeur of 71Above, and its obvious aim of becoming a jewel in the city's dining scene. The quiet determination of Shibumi chef David Schlosser, who looked to bring a different facet of Japanese cooking to L.A. With these restaurants and many others, Los Angeles proved once again in 2016 that it's up to the task of maintaining its newfound respect in the culinary world, and can easily retain the title of America's most interesting dining scene. —Besha Rodell
At Kali, the newish restaurant on Melrose from former Patina chef Kevin Meehan and former Providence wine director Drew Langley, there is no shortage of beautiful things to feed your iPhone: an artfully assembled crudo speckled with edible flowers and dried citrus, for instance, or a dense quenelle of chocolate cremeux decorated with sprigs of mint. It might come as a surprise, then, that the most brilliant dish at Kali is also the downright ugliest. Meehan cooks down dark brown wheat berries until they reach the toothsome texture of Italian carnaroli rice. Atop the wheat berries sits a crunchy wafer, tinted black by garlic that the kitchen ferments in-house but looking a lot like burnt cheese. This is risotto — a fantastic one at that — in a beggar's disguise. To roll out another cliché: Looks aren't everything.
Part of the restaurant's conceit is that it features only ingredients sourced from California. As you'd imagine from a kitchen whose boundaries lie at the state line, Kali's roster of dishes changes often. If you were to judge it from your Instagram feed alone, Meehan's cooking would seem more avant-garde than it actually is — much of the food here aims for comfort rather than shock. A bowl of potato agnolotti with ridgeback prawns swims in creamy shellfish stock that's as decadent as any New England chowder. Grilled pork loin is paired with tart, celery-apple puree and the pencil-thin root vegetable salsify, which is roasted and then coated in ash to resemble tiny, tangled branches. It's a bizarre-looking forestscape that tastes both bleak and bright, conjuring the moment after a spring rainstorm.
It's tempting to find a label that applies to Meehan and Langley's very personal project — the laid-back neighborhood gem, the freewheeling chef's counter, or maybe the ambitious temple of haute cuisine — but it's probably more accurate to simply call it a well-polished restaurant. 5722 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. (323) 871-4160, kalirestaurant.com. —Garrett Snyder
If you have spent any amount of time eating in L.A.'s small but robust Little Ethiopia neighborhood, you might be familiar with the cooking of Tenagne Belachew, a matronly grandmother from a small town in northern Ethiopia. She's cooked in the community for more than a decade, at Little Ethiopia stalwarts Rahel and Marathon. Over the years Belachew has attracted something akin to a cult following among local diners, and when she arrives at your table at Lalibela, brandishing a sizzling platter of derek tibs (butter-sauteed cubes of beef flecked with herbs), you'll understand why her new restaurant already has amassed a roomful of dinner regulars. Lalibela serves many of the Ethiopian staples common everywhere, but its delicate, subtly spiced details set it apart. There are crispy, house-made sambusas, triangle-shaped pastries filled with lentils and onions and paired with a swipe of bright green jalapeño sauce. A deeply entrancing version of Ethiopia's national dish, doro wot, is a dark, formidable stew fortified with poached chicken and hardboiled eggs; it easily could be mistaken for a soul-stirring variation of Oaxacan mole. Lalibela is the type of family-run jewel you might dream about encountering, a place where recipes are passed down through several generations, and the grandmother in the kitchen tends to pots that have been simmering for days. 1025 S. Fairfax Ave., Fairfax. (323) 965-1025, lalibelala.com. —G.S.
8. Howlin Ray's
Howlin Ray's, the food truck–turned–brick-and-mortar, is a bona fide food phenomenon. The line begins at least 30 minutes before the doors open, and grows steadily over the day, snaking around Chinatown's Far East Plaza to sometimes ridiculous lengths. Why? Even compared with the hot-chicken stalwarts of Nashville, Howlin Ray's is turning out some serious yardbird: The devilishly spicy skin — we recommend the "hot" spice level — is crunchy and well-seasoned, while the meat inside remains exceptionally moist. In traditional style, each piece of chicken is accompanied by a few thick-cut pickles and a slice of white bread to soak up the spicy juices. You can add a basket of "hot fries" — crinkle-cut fries tossed in spices — or a rotating market side, such as a tangy cucumber and dill salad. Even better might be the two-fisted fried chicken sandwich, constructed with coleslaw, pickles and tangy "comeback sauce" on a toasted bun.
There's some truth to the idea that hot chicken is just a trend right now, and that's why Howlin Ray's is so very popular, but there's something else at play here: Every day, chef-owner Johnny Ray Zone is there, plating every single piece of chicken, making sure it comes out correct. You can taste that kind of dedication, and it tastes very good. Howlin Ray's, 727 N. Broadway, #128, Chinatown. howlinrays.com. —G.S. & B.R.
Above all, Salazar is a triumph of atmosphere. Walking through the gates into the garden dining area from the somewhat grotty intersection of Fletcher Drive and Ripple Drive is like stepping through a portal into a desert fantasy. It's not too slick — the muted pastel chairs look as though they were pulled from a 1980s high school cafeteria, the sandy dirt underfoot gives everything a slightly dusty vibe — but it is beautifully laid out and designed.
Chef Esdras Ochoa takes his inspiration from Sonora, Mexico: The tacos come on freshly grilled, slightly stretchy flour tortillas, and you can taste the smoke of the grill on the meats; dribble the very good house-made hot sauce over them, and they make for an exceedingly satisfying few bites of food. The carne asada has a garlic char, the al pastor a hint of pineapple sweetness. Every now and then, a restaurant can rise above the sum of its parts and be perfectly suited for its exact moment in time. Right now, in Los Angeles, Salazar is that restaurant. 2490 Fletcher Drive, Frogtown. salazarla.com. —B.R.
71Above, located on the 71st floor of the US Bank Tower, is attempting to be a landmark restaurant for Los Angeles. Its name is rendered in marble and metal on the floor at its entrance, the ceiling is decorated with hexagonal sculptural forms, the waiters have the suave formality of first-class airline stewards. The dining room circles the inner perimeter of the building, so no matter where you're sitting you're in range of the floor-to-ceiling windows, beyond which Los Angeles spreads out in all its twinkling glory 71 floors below.
In the kitchen is Vartan Abgaryan, who came to 71Above from a stint at Cliff's Edge in Silver Lake, where he raised the quality of the food considerably. Abgaryan's cooking never seemed quite right at the neighborhood-centric Cliff's Edge — it was too pretty, too formal for that sprawling space. At 71Above, his penchant for high-end drama on the plate is much more at home. You can have oysters poached in Champagne and topped with uni and caviar, or a standard but luxurious steak tartare. An old-school foie gras terrine shares menu space with a decidedly modern parsnip dish, roasted in duck fat and served whole on the plate surrounded by dollops of strained yogurt and date puree. 71Above excels at presenting a menu that might appeal to old-school and new-school luxury tastes alike. In this era of "casual" $200 meals, there's a lot to be said for a place that manages to feel truly special. 633 W. Fifth St., downtown. (213) 712-2683, 71above.com. —B.R.
At Erven, former Saint Martha chef Nick Erven is proving that limitations only spur creativity. Omnivorous chefs making plant-based cuisine is perhaps the year's biggest trend (Erven's website calls it "coincidentally vegan"), but Erven makes a particularly compelling case for eschewing meat, pulling from ingredients flavors and textures that you didn't know they had.
The all-day restaurant serves creative pastries and juices and a bunch of salads during the day, but the nighttime menu is where the real thrills lie. Kale cavatelli comes in a stunningly bright "tom yum gravy," along with squash, hen of the woods mushrooms and pears. Soft, wobbly tofu is paired with lightly charred Brussels sprouts and doused in a pickled-garlic ponzu sauce. This chef loves acid, and uses it to great effect. Even on a chickpea fritter turned dark with black garlic, the flavor that really sets the dish ablaze is the yuzu that dances at its edges. Add a fun wine list and service that is sometimes pitch-perfect, and you've got a restaurant that could very well act as the poster child for this new, thrilling era of plant-focused eateries. 514-516 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 260-2255, ervenrestaurant.com. —B.R.
4. Here's Looking at You
Here's Looking at You, like an increasing number of compelling places to eat in Koreatown, is not a Korean restaurant. It's the brainchild of two Animal veterans — Jonathan Whitener, the former chef de cuisine, and Lien Ta, a former manager — who met working under Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. If you followed Whitener's inventive cooking at Animal, it seemed inevitable that the chef would eventually split off to headline his own project.
As with most modern restaurants, there are the usual gripes regarding noise, but for the most part Here's Looking at You is a wonderfully lively place — compact and intimate, bustling with the energy of a room filled with young, good-looking people. No matter what time you arrive for dinner, nearly everyone in the room will be nursing a cocktail. You should follow suit. The bar program by Allan Katz and Danielle Crouch (formerly of Caña Rum Bar) is further proof that the most exciting cocktails in L.A. are found in restaurants as often as they are in bars.
If you're familiar with the food served at Animal, it's easy to see the Dotolo-Shook fingerprints on Whitener's cerebral, postcultural cooking: an easy fluency in mashing together international flavors, a flair for turning lowbrow into highbrow, a penchant for balancing richness with judicious splashes of acid. But Whitener's style is distinct, too; his food has a lighter, more subdued touch, with less of that smash-mouth decadence that defines many of Animal's greatest hits. His ground brisket tartare, crowned with egg yolk, toasted chili powder, shaved turnips and sprigs of watercress, is so ethereal it turns a dish associated with luxuriousness into something that feels downright healthful. As with many of his dishes at Animal, Whitener shows a keen understanding of textures, especially when it comes to his gorgeously complex salads. A plate of Little Gem hearts dressed with a sort of five-spice ranch was pure crunch, speckled with crumbled blue cheese and flecks of dehydrated Chinese sausage pulverized to resemble garlicky bacon bits.
Though not without its idiosyncrasies, Here's Looking at You is overflowing with as much raw creative potential as any restaurant in the city. 3901 W. Sixth St., Koreatown, (213) 568-3573, hereslookingatyoula.com. —G.S.
Jordan Kahn's new restaurant is a far cry from his most recent project — the much-missed Red Medicine — in almost every way. Where that was a big, flashy, trendy restaurant, this is a sparse place with most of its seating outdoors, where you order from a counter and take a number to your table. Where Red Medicine was on a prominent corner in Beverly Hills, Destroyer is in an almost completely inaccessible, out-of-the-way part of Culver City (parking is ... impossible). Red Medicine was one of the only ambitious restaurants in town to attempt serious late-night cooking; Destroyer isn't even open for dinner. What hasn't changed is Kahn's modern-artist's eye for presentation, his sense of drama on the plate and on the tongue, and his penchant for making incredibly delicious food. In fact, if anything his food has become more delicious at the same time as it's become more casual.
Much of the food is built on the premise of layers of flavors, and often those layers are literal. In the case of his chicken confit, everything comes in a wide bowl under a blanket of charred cabbage leaves and a flurry of cheese. The bottom layer is a mix of yogurt and hazelnuts, and the meaty, oily chicken (oily in the best way possible) combines with the cabbage funk and the luxury of dairy and the nuttiness of the hazelnuts for a dish that's just straight-up delicious, as well as being thrilling on a creative level. Cauliflower soup is a layering of white upon white upon white: a warm, thick creamy soup (made without the benefit of actual cream) is poured into a large cream-colored heavy ceramic bowl over more cauliflower, puffed rice and almond bits. Beef tartare, bound by smoked egg cream, comes under a blanket of perfectly arranged radishes, with sprigs of dill at the edge placed in such a way so as to make the perfect Instagram photo. It tastes pretty swell, too. That's where Kahn's style hasn't changed, and perhaps has only gotten better. 3578 Hayden Ave, Culver City. destroyer.la. —B.R.
Gwen, the new Hollywood restaurant from chef Curtis Stone and his brother, Luke Stone, is an establishment that is striving for greatness in so many ways that it's a little head-spinning. It's a meat importer, a butcher shop, a cocktail bar, a chophouse of sorts and a return to serious glitzy Hollywood dining the likes of which we haven't seen in decades. Unlike Stone's other restaurant, the exceedingly intimate Maude, Gwen is large and brash, with one of the most breathtaking dining rooms in the city. Where Maude trades in delicate luxury, Stone's rallying cry here is "primitive elegance."
The nightly prix fixe is more like an insanely over-the-top picnic than a formal meal. Courses come in great flurries of dishes, all served on little plates that spread across your table like puzzle pieces. You will see easily 20 or more dishes cross your table by the end of the evening, and many of those dishes are stunning. If you want to forgo the pricy prix fixe, you can order à la carte at one of the two bars. One of the most memorable meals of my year was eaten at the upstairs bar, where a friend and I split a Blackmore Farms wagyu rib-eye and reveled in the glamour of the place and the beauty of that steak.
Gwen is a monument to one guy's glorious, meaty Hollywood dream. It's a beautiful (albeit expensive) dream, from the butcher counter to the room to the delicate vintage glassware to the food, which is cooked with talent and love. 6600 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 946-7513, gwenla.com. —B.R.
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Chef David Schlosser is presenting a singular vision at Shibumi, and if you get on his wavelength, this place can seem like entering an alternate dimension. While working in Japan, Schlosser realized that America's understanding of Japanese cuisine is limited by our obsession with sushi, and there is a whole other world of dining that hasn't yet made the leap across the Pacific. Shibumi is his effort to right that situation, in a dark and strange little restaurant on Hill Street downtown.
If there's a defining element to Schlosser's cooking, and Shibumi in general, it is simplicity. The chef wants you to taste the ingredients — really taste them — so much so that eating here can be like discovering the elemental truth of foods you thought you knew well. There's a focus on texture rarely seen in Western cooking, which can be revelatory or disconcerting, depending on the dish and on your personal tolerance for viscosity. Cold seafood dishes are designed to highlight the fish above all else, but Schlosser adds elements that reinforce the silkiness and freshness of a Japanese sea bream, for instance, by contrasting it with the barely-there crunch of a ginger bud, its delicate floral flavor shimmering at the edge of your consciousness.
Grilled pork and beef are presented so simply but are of such high quality and have been cooked so well that you're forced to ponder the elemental wonder of deeply flavored flesh and fat, its animal funk and tang. I did not fork over the $52 for four ounces of Wagyu rib cap, but I did not need to. The $28 California strip, served with bracing but creamy fresh wasabi, offered the best bites of beef I've had in months, maybe years.
Shibumi is the result of one chef's years-long quest come to fruition, a singular focus on bringing something precious carefully across an ocean and laying it in front of us on polished vintage cypress. 815 S. Hill St., downtown. (213) 265-7923, shibumidtla.com. —B.R.