How is L.A.'s restaurant scene shaping up in 2017? Pretty darn well, it turns out. It's only August, but thus far there have been 10 restaurants worthy of a three- or four-star review in L.A. Weekly. From modern Mexican to incredible pastas to really hot chicken, here are our 10 best-reviewed restaurants of the year — so far.
I'm tempted to use some kind of Eurocentric comparison to sum up Verlaine, something along the lines of how chef Diego Hernández's talent for burnt peanut sauce is just as impressive as the skill of a chef who has mastered sauces with cream or butter at their core. But that would undercut the newness of this food and the history that came before it. If I need to tell you that Mexican flavors are capable of being just as complex and delicate and cerebral and pleasurable as French flavors, you're probably not the right audience for this restaurant. If you are excited at the prospect of our city's modern Mexican offerings getting more diverse and expansive and impressive, then you're in luck. Because although Verlaine still has its flaws, at his best Hernández delivers some of the most thrilling food I've eaten in L.A. this year.
Three stars; 8721 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood; (424) 288-4621, verlaine.la.
Where to begin? The menu is scrawled in marker on greasy brown paper bags. Most of the food is served in bowls, accompanied by rustic bread. It's BYOB. It has a phone number and a website, but neither is currently functional. The seating is almost entirely outdoors on the sidewalk, and yes, you will most likely have to suffer through a long wait for one of those tables. But of all the (many) new restaurants that use Israel as inspiration, Mh Zh captures the feel of a casual Israeli cafe the most honestly, in both its lackadaisical hipster vibe and its food.
Three stars; 3536 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake.
You could easily make a beautiful meal from Felix's antipasti section alone: delicately fried squash blossoms stuffed with fior di latte; a crudo of raw ridgeback prawns with a gloriously creamy texture; pork meatballs that have been quickly fried and burst with porky flavor. If the panzanella is available, you should absolutely order it, because it means chef Evan Funke has come across enough beautiful summer produce to create the perfect bright and snappy salad, set off by the grounding pleasure of crispy bread. But you're here for the pastas. Every table seems to have a plate of the pappardelle, which means Funke is often in the pasta room early in the evening rolling out rounds of dough and cutting the thick noodles, knowing he'll run out by mid-evening if he doesn't get ahead. Bathed in a mellow Bolognese, the pasta is practically silky, making the pappardelle of your past seem rough and clumsy by comparison.
Four stars; 1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (424) 387-8622, felixla.com.
It is the drinks that make Tsubaki so exciting. The food is good, but I could fall headlong into this sake list and stay there for far longer than is appropriate, given the setup. The list is thanks to sommelier Courtney Kaplan, who co-owns the restaurant with chef Charles Namba. Kaplan spent time working on the sommelier team at Bestia and also at the fantastic Hollywood wine shop Domaine L.A. Namba's menu at Tsubaki brings in elements from his European-style training — there's a foie gras terrine that's marinated in sake but is classically, deliciously French in every other way — but mainly, this is a menu more inspired by Namba's heritage than his fine-dining career. Much of the food is a simple celebration of the ingredients at hand.
Three stars; 1356 Allison Ave., Echo Park; (213) 900-4900, tsubakila.com.
Nothing is being reinvented at the Ponte, in the former Terrine space — there's a sense chef Scott Conant swept in, installed a menu of his standbys and left it mostly in the hands of a capable kitchen crew and an executive chef, Freddy Vargas, who knows those standbys incredibly well. I'm not complaining; these are pretty good standbys. Of course, there's the spaghetti pomodoro, the dish for which Conant is most famous. It's a thing of simple beauty, a swirling pile of al dente noodles and bright red sauce. And there's the creamy bowl of polenta topped with seasonal mushrooms, bacon and truffles. This food is decadent and elegant and very well executed. Most things are just as you would imagine they should be, and done exactly right. A pizza that combines the unapologetic stank of anchovies with the sweet sting of pickled Fresno chilies and the springtime freshness of squash blossoms is good — not the best in the city, certainly, but more than passable — but this pizza, in particular, is one of the great combinations of all time.
Three stars; 8265 W. Beverly Blvd., Beverly Grove; (323) 746-5130, thepontela.com.
P.Y.T. is in the former Pete’s Cafe space, which Josef Centeno took over in 2014 and opened as Ledlow. Late last year, he cleaved that space in two, leaving the northern corner of the building as Ledlow and turning the rest into P.Y.T. The restaurant isn’t entirely vegetarian or vegan, although the majority of the food is meat-free. When considering Centeno’s other restaurants, I’ve struggled with the question: Why wouldn’t you just go to Bäco Mercat? That seems especially relevant here, given all of the above — the vegetable dishes at Bäco are some of the best in town. But Centeno is doing something slightly different at P.Y.T., something that makes this newest venture relevant in its own right. Where all the food at Bäco — meat and meat-free — is aiming for maximum flavor and contrast and excitement, the food at P.Y.T. is more focused on the soul of the vegetable itself, and the best way to frame singular ingredients so they shine.
Three stars; 400 S. Main St., downtown; (213) 687-7015, pytlosangeles.com.
Part of the allure of Howlin' Ray's is undoubtedly the dare that lies at the end of its infamous, hours-long wait in line: How hot can you handle? There are six levels of heat, and anything above the third level, called "medium," is hot enough that it comes with a warning. "Do not touch your face after eating the chicken," the guy at the cash register warns if you order anything "hot" or higher: "You will burn your skin." Yet there's something about the sting of cayenne (as well as a ton of other kinds of peppers, including ghost peppers) that creates a similar endorphin rush to jumping into a freezing river or being initiated into Fight Club. Even if you order the "country" style chicken — that is, level one, no heat at all — you'll find that this is incredible chicken, with or without the heat: The way the skin shatters and gives way, the utterly perfect spicing of the batter, the way it's indistinguishable from the skin of the bird, the juicy flesh underneath, all goes to show that there are far worse things you could do than spend half a day with your fellow weirdos, waiting in line for chicken so good it's made us all lose our collective minds.
Three stars; 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 935-8399, howlinrays.com.
When I originally reviewed Alimento in September 2014, I could tell that chef Zach Pollack had created something special. But I also had a few complaints. The room was deafeningly loud, and the food was in some instances searingly salty. It certainly didn't strike me as one of the best restaurants in the city. Two and a half years later, however, Alimento can absolutely bear the weight of that distinction. The meals I've had more recently there have been head-spinningly, stunningly great, so much so that at first I wondered if I'd stumbled into a fluke of lucky ordering and high kitchen morale. But subsequent meals have had the same magical quality. The mortadella pig in a blanket and the escolar dishes have lost none of their shine, and newer menu additions live up to those early successes' precedent of greatness. There's a bracing, Italian-leaning Caesar salad that makes glorious use of white radicchio's natural bitterness and its compatibility with sharp cheese. Pastas remain flawless. The braised-lettuce bruschetta utilizes the creamy smoosh of burrata in a way you've never experienced, and that's saying something in a town overrun with burrata-on-toast variations. Is it still too loud? Possibly, though Pollack has made an effort to implement sound-absorbing solutions. Either way I didn't notice; I was too busy being thrilled by the food.
Four stars; 1710 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 928-2888, alimentola.com.
Sotto is one of those restaurants that I fear does not get the ongoing credit it deserves. And it deserves a whole lot of credit. Much was made of the Stefano Ferrara pizza oven when Sotto opened, and Sotto still turns out some of the best pizza in the city. That's no small feat — but there's much to laud in chef Steve Samson's nonpizza, hyper-regional Southern Italian cooking as well. He's quietly executing an exceedingly thoughtful range of vegetable antipasti, focusing less on unexpected flavors and more on the cooking method that best suits each individual ingredient, be it a marinated trumpet mushroom or a delicata squash. On the meaty opposite of the spectrum, a warm pork terrine pulls no punches in its loose, fatty funk. It's topped with a bracing citrus and fennel salad, which contrasts starkly with the terrine — you get lush fat and also opposing bright, palate-cleansing acid in each bite. Perhaps my favorite thing about Sotto is its wildly affordable wine list. In an era where the most casual restaurants often have very little below $60 by the bottle, a big portion of Sotto's list sits a good $15 to $20 cheaper than that, for wines that will delight you and also teach you things — things you wish you'd understood for years — about lesser-known Italian regions and producers.
Four stars; 9575 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 277-0210, sottorestaurant.com.
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Jordan Kahn's Destroyer follows a new set of rules that seem contradictory to the idea of success and longevity but might just be the future of restaurants: Pick an odd, out-of-the-way location with no parking; pare down your build-out to absolute basics; open on the days and at the times that suit you — ignore dinner and weekends altogether if you like. Cook whatever the hell you want. Kahn has always been known for his visually stunning food. That hasn’t changed here, despite the fact that Destroyer is basically a futuristic cafe where office workers come to get coffee and oatmeal. But the coffee is from San Francisco’s Coffee Manufactory, and the oatmeal comes raw and crunchy in a beautiful, white bowl with drifts of red currant, perfect for Instagram, as is just about everything here. In fact, Destroyer’s stark background, heavy, earthy ceramics and meticulously artful platings might make it the most Instagrammable restaurant in the known universe.
Three stars; 3578 Hayden Ave., Culver City; destroyer.la.