View photographs in the “10 Best Dishes of 2008” slideshow.
There is an exquisite rite built around the eating of fugu in Japan, heightened by danger and flavored with death, although restaurant blowfish may be safer than restaurant steak. But whatever Japanese blowfish may be, Korean blowfish is the opposite: abundant, hearty and fairly reasonably priced, and served as the centerpiece of an evening’s drinking rather than as a refined, somewhat boring plate of what might as well be a mild sort of flounder. It is a pleasant thing, to sit around a seething tabletop cauldron of bok jiri at the Korean blowfish-specialty restaurant Dae Bok, sipping black-raspberry wine, spooning brick-red broth and vegetables into your bowl, fishing out meaty pieces of blowfish that slip right off the curious V-shaped bones. Cooked as a jiri — soupy stew — blowfish is a meaty, slippery fish that may remind you of succulent frog’s legs. When you’re almost finished with the pot of jiri, the waitress reappears to mix the dregs with rice, chopped vegetables and a little oil, and leaves it to fry into a crisp-bottomed porridge of joy. 2010 James M. Wood Blvd., L.A., (213) 386-6660.
Duck à l’orange
Anisette may be almost too perfect, absinthe bottles rising to heaven behind the zinc bar, upper walls tinted nicotine yellow, all worn tile floors, dented tin ceilings, imperfect mirrors — like an awkwardly narrow space in a distant arrondissement. Anisette is the demesne of Alain Giraud, a shaggy, bearish Frenchman who would probably look like a chef even if he were wearing a hockey jersey. And at Anisette, Giraud isn’t presenting a modern interpretation of French cooking, a fantasy of French cooking, or riffs on the theme of French cooking — this is regular French cooking as designed by an amazingly skilled French chef. When you see something on the menu you think your grandmother might have enjoyed, whether it be pâté with a red-wine aspic, onion soup or floating island, this is probably the place to try it. And then there’s the Wednesday-night duck à l’orange, a crackly-skinned bird whose powerfully scented sauce, amplified with dark caramel, may lead you to wonder why this dish has been out of fashion for the past 30 years. 225 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-3200 or www.anisettebrasserie.com.
Eva Solo–Brewed Coffee
In certain circles, it was hard to avoid the topic of Third Wave coffee this year, coffee sold not just by brand name (Yuban) or national origin (Starbucks Guatemalan) but like wine as the produce of specific farmers: organic and shade-grown and Fair Trade sure, but from estates like El Socorro in Guatemala and La Lainez in El Salvador, as distinct from one another as Burgundy is from Rioja. But to actually taste the differences between these artisanal coffees, you need a careful roast and an extraction method that respects the winy acidity of the beans. La Mill, the high-end coffeehouse that put a wicked spin onto the subject of Silver Lake gentrification, may serve a menu of Michael Cimarusti–designed sandwiches and salads, Adrian Vazquez’s molecular gastronomy–inspired desserts and Eton Tsuno’s baroque espresso drinks, but the heart of the operation is the careful brewing of its exquisit light-roast coffees. When you order that aged Sumatran peaberry brewed in an Eva Solo, a willowy carafe encased in tight, zippered neoprene, like a fitted wetsuit on a supermodel, there is clear, limpid coffee in your cup, tart, smelling rather more of fruits and flowers than of whatever it is you are drinking at Peet’s. 1636 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 663-4441 or www.lamillcoffee.com.
Animal is probably the first restaurant to raise Boy Food to the level of a genuine cuisine — a farmers market–intensive version of Boy Food, but animated by the hardcore personal vision of chefs Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook. The operating principle at Animal is neither the aggressive clams-in-ham philosophy of so much avant-garde cooking nor the Rabelaisian head-to-tail approach, but pleasure — not least of which is a simple, howlingly good plate of crisp, assertively salted fried hominy, chewy beneath its crunch, seasoned simply with a squirt of lime, with the hot-corn smack of fresh tortillas, hot grits or posole, like a plate of CornNuts that has gone through media training. 435 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (323) 782-9225 or www.animalrestaurant.com.
Vegetables en Papillote
The problem with getting attached to a dish at Palate Food + Wine, Octavio Becerra’s sprawling restaurant/wine bar, is that it is unlikely to be on the menu the next time you come in, plums replaced with dates, shell beans replaced with string beans, the grand cycle of seasons rotating through plates of mackerel, pork belly and free-range veal. He lives and dies with the farmers market, that guy. But whatever the time of year, there is always the papillote — vegetables roasted with herbs and olive oil in a bag, which brings out the sweet freshness of baby carrots, asparagus, onions, peppers, whatever’s in season, in a straightforward, spectacular way. 933 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 662-9463 or www.palatefoodwine.com.
Roasted-Root-Vegetable Shepherd’s Pie
Are we getting all Conscious Omnivore this year? Because although I’ve eaten my share of Evan Funke’s diver-harvested whatever and slow-roasted whosit at Rustic Canyon when I’ve been lucky enough to snag a reservation, what sticks out seems to be a plate of crisp, garlicky Jerusalem artichokes so good that I spent weeks trying to duplicate it at home, and a roasted-root-vegetable shepherd’s pie — a rustic creation of tubers, roots and rhizomes blanketed with buttery mashed potatoes — that couldn’t have been better if it were made with wild hare or French blood sausage rather than roasted turnips and parsnips, and I don’t think there is a higher compliment I can pay. Marie Antoinette, a noted carnivore who nonetheless once attended a ball with potato flowers in her hair, would have approved. 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393-7050 or www.rusticcanyonwinebar.com.
Los Angeles is blessed with what must be the highest concentration of Oaxacan restaurants outside the motherland, and every Angeleno who cares about such things has an opinion of his favorite moles, fiendishly complex sauces made with pantries full of herbs, chiles and sweet spices, burnt bread and chocolate, nuts and seeds and fruits. Oaxaca has seven famous varieties, most of which are as available in certain neighborhoods here as cheeseburgers. But the new Moles La Tia, a homely, elegant dining room in the Maravilla neighborhood of East Los Angeles, bumps moles to a different level, inflecting them with such things as coffee and passion fruit, serving mole Poblano, a white wedding mole, a Michoacan-style machamantales and southern-Mexican pepian in addition to the traditional Oaxacan varieties, and paying nearly as much attention to the veal, shrimp or grilled pork that the mole happens to be blanketing as it does to the sauce itself. If you’ve ever wanted to try ink-black Oaxacan mole on roasted quail instead of reboiled chicken, this is the place. 4619 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., L.A., (323) 263-7842 or or www.moleslatia.com.
Although Southern California has long been one of the richest agricultural regions on Earth, until recently, our bounty has tended to come in the form of avocados and citrus rather than in meat; in nuts and salad greens instead of seafood, at least since the collapse of the tuna, sardine and mackerel fisheries. But no less an authority than Alain Ducasse says our local spot prawns might be the best shrimp in the world. There is very decent baby abalone grown near Santa Barbara now. And in your strolls through the Santa Monica or Hollywood farmers markets, you may have bumped into the stands from Carlsbad Aquaculture, a company sustainably raising superb scallops, mussels and abalone in a clean lagoon north of San Diego. Best of all are the Luna oysters: a hint of cucumber, a rush of sweet brine, a bit of crispness, a worthy local entrant into the bivalve pantheon. Santa Monica Farmers Market, Wednesdays and Saturdays at Arizona Ave. and 2nd St., www.smgov.net, and Hollywood Farmers Market, Sundays at Ivar Ave. and Selma Ave., www.farmernet.com.
The kitchen at Vermont, a Los Feliz bistro nearing its 10th anniversary, is currently under the control of renegade Frenchman Laurent Quenioux, a chef as hard to pin down as the first chanterelles in spring. And his cassoulet is the real thing: creamy tarbais beans walloped with garlic, and garnished with first-quality house-made duck confit, braised pork belly and even garlickier Toulouse sausage, the perfect dish to combat January chill. By spring, you may even be hungry again. 1714 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, (323) 661-6163 or www.vermontrestaurantonline.
Northern New Jersey may have nearly as many styles of hot dog as it does congressional districts: Italian hot dogs, Texas wieners, chili dogs, dirty-water dogs, and styles whose fame doesn’t extend much past their township. First among these is the Ripper, a sturdy frankfurter plunged into boiling oil until the casing explodes, the skin blackens and the suddenly crunchy sausage becomes riddled with deep crevasses along its length. Fab’s is practically a hot dog museum, a reputable destination for Chicago dogs, L.A. street dogs, New Mexico dogs with roasted green chiles and a kind of slaw-laden dog rare outside northern West Virginia, but I suspect half of its customers may be unaware that the stand even serves anything but the Ripper, all heat and crunch, the swim through the hot oil boiling down and reducing the garlicky juices until they reach the syrupy intensity of a doggy demiglace. 6747 Tampa Ave., Reseda, (818) 344-4336 or www.fabhotdog.com.