TWO THOUSAND was a quiet year on the dining front, a year of few fireworks. Some great old standbys launched triumphant new spinoffs: Café Talesai in Beverly Hills, Restaurant Katsu in Studio City, Saladang Song right next door to the original Saladang in Pasadena. Talented chefs starting their own ventures made less than dazzling first impressions: Mako, Chadwick and Azia were among a quiet year’s quiet disappointments. No overriding trend swept the Southland, but an insistence on quality and organic produce, once confined to high-end restaurants and Northern California, has steadily been taking root in some young midrange restaurants: Pace in Laurel Canyon, Porta Via in Beverly Hills, Ammo in Hollywood.

Some of the best meals I had this year were undercut by bad service in its endlessly varied permutations. (Good service, on the other hand, tends to be invisible.) In a year of mostly mixed blessings, a few plates of food nevertheless managed to emblazon themselves in memory.


1. Hans Röckenwagner’s Röck was marred by an overly ambitious menu and memorably inattentive service. Still, I unabashedly yearn for the coconut, clam and coriander soup with sticky rice — a rich, spicy, intensely flavorful variation of the Thai tom ka gai, with broth the color of butter, plump little fresh clams, and snow-white rice of such a compelling pearly-sticky-melting texture that I can’t get it out of my mind. 13455 Maxella Ave., Marina del Rey; (310) 822-8979.

2. Another dining adventure sorely challenged by bad service took place at the newly remodeled Carnival. The must-have dish here is a plate-size nest of excellent hummus in which nestles deeply seasoned chopped lamb and pine nuts. Order it when you sit down as a starter for the table. 4356 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks; (818) 784-3469, (818) 784-3036.

3. I always relax at Ita-Cho, because I’m in such capable, good hands. I may not love every one of the small dishes on the menu, but each has definite virtues, and the best won’t leave you alone. For me, the siren song comes from big, extra-hot, beguilingly light chunks of Japanese eggplant in a sweet miso sauce. 7311 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 938-9009.

4. Claude Beltran at Cayo is a seriously good cook. Trout salad, grouper with haricots verts, rack of lamb on a bed of garbanzo beans — all of these hit home, so I’m almost ashamed to say that the dish I order every time is his simple, beautiful three-beet salad with goat cheese. It’s a classic of the genre, and a gratifyingly large serving (for beet lovers only!). And don’t miss pastry chef Merilee Atkinson’s desserts, especially a creamy buttermilk panna cotta served with apricot purée and fresh Persian mulberries on the thinnest crackly cookie — a brilliant balancing of sweet and tart, smooth and crunchy. 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; (626) 396-1800.

5. Le Saigon, the tiniest restaurant imaginable, is one of the few places on the Westside for good Vietnamese food. Pho, that curative rice-noodle soup, is terrific here. The clear broth is complex; beefy and scented with fresh herbs, it’s earthy and rich without being a bit oily. There is a choice of beef — meatballs, sliced, well-cooked or rare (I like the rare). Each bowl of pho comes generously scattered with scallions and herbs, and a side plate holds fresh lime and bean sprouts. Taste before you doctor your soup with the two hot sauces on the table — one of them is incendiary! 11611 Santa Monica Blvd.; (310) 312-2929.

6. I liked the corn-fritter appetizer so much at Café Talesai, I ordered a second plate for the table — and they were even better than the first. A standard Thai snack food, these chewy little fritters are mostly sweet corn, bound in a minimum of batter, fried until crisp, then drenched in a light, clear, salty-sweet sauce and topped with a cool cucumber salad. 9198 Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 271-9345.

7. When Katsu Michite opened his new Restaurant Katsu, he hired only sushi chefs who had formerly owned their own restaurants. The depth of expertise is subtle and pervasive. One order (two pieces) of live scallop sushi is probably the most deeply perfect item I ate all year. 11920 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 760-4585.

8. Ammo is proof that seasonal ingredients, farmers’-market produce and a mostly organic sensibility need not be confined to the higher echelons of fine dining. This fun, hip Hollywood canteen serves a pasta that will remind even the most jaded pasta eaters (like me) what’s so good about pasta: In the penne with roasted red and yellow tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, you can taste the hot sun in the sweet tomatoes, the fresh, sweet milk in the cheese. 1155 N. Highland Ave.; (323) 871-2666.

9. The Pig’s Memphis-style barbecue, slow-cooked pork shoulder that comes either “pulled” (in chunks) or chopped, is smoky, succulent, well-seasoned, a barbecue version of good carnitas. A hint: Stuff some of the “sweet” coleslaw into your chopped pork sandwich; the light creaminess and cool crunch of the fresh green cabbage set off the rich, spicy meat. 612 N. La Brea Ave.; (323) 935-1116.

10. Saladang Song, whose concrete-and-cut-steel architecture is a cross between Angkor Wat and Frank Lloyd Wright, offers traditional Thai cuisine characterized by full, loud, clear flavors. Salads, especially, are glorious, specifically the green-papaya salad, the eggplant-and-shrimp salad and the asparagus salad. But the simple, tender, juicy, insanely flavorful pork satay may just take the cake. 383 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 793-5200.

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