Were we all pulling for Providence to be No. 1 again? No, we were not. We are as aware of the rules of drama as anyone, and not even the Phil Jackson-led Lakers were ever able to pull off four in a row. Meryl Streep doesn’t win an Oscar every time she is up for it. Michael Phelps didn’t win every race. But once again, without a food truck, a celebrity forager or much of a presence on TV, Providence embodies what a restaurant should aspire to be. Michael Cimarusti still operates within the context of a modernist seafood chef who embraces flavors from across the globe, but the fish he uses is increasingly local and sustainable — you’ll never see bluefin on his menu, but you do see local yellowtail, rockfish and mackerel, spot prawns from Santa Barbara, uni from a local diver, much of it acquired through the Dock to Dish program he helped to set up. (His most famous dish, the Ugly Bunch, is a composition of low-on-the-food-chain species such as uni and geoduck layered onto dense smoked cream and smothered in flowers.) And he is committed to local flavors — a tasting menu may include dumplings of fresh, briny clams wrapped in shaved daikon; tiny, crisp Wagyu beef spring rolls; and a limpid, persuasive bowl of pho made with squid. Providence menus taste of the season, but they also taste like Los Angeles, and in the end, that may be all you can ask. The dining room is lovely and unfussy, double height, lively but not loud; the wine list is appropriate to the cuisine. Is the fourth year at No. 1 anticlimactic? Think of it more as a dynasty.
David Schlosser, slicing abalone, puréeing wasabi root with a tool made from sandpaper-rough sharkskin, fussing over the placement of a sliver of jellied fish skin on an arrangement of sea bream sashimi, presides over his dining bar, fashioned from a single 400-year-old cypress trunk, with the intense concentration you find in the very best chefs. He pauses occasionally to explain the provenance of a smear of house-aged miso or to praise the farmer who grows his radishes. He is as excited about his yubeshi, a long-cured confection of walnut-stuffed citrus, as a 6-year-old might be about the bicycle leaning against the tree on Christmas morning. His marquee dishes include seared A5 Japanese beef and salmon hot-smoked over smoldering cherry bark, but the real pleasures at Shibumi may lie in the crunch of the lightly salted cucumbers stuffed with shiso leaf, the perfect ripeness of avocados with seaweed, and the earthiness of beets with fermented barley. Schlosser has willed creditable kappo ryori cooking into life in a corner of a downtown parking garage.
Sometimes I think Sang Yoon may be the most underachieving chef in America, a man who will spend a thousand hours developing a perfect dan dan mian and then dump it from his menu because he got bored, or tinker on his fermented XO sauce the way your cousin Gabe works on his old Corvette. If you catch him at an event serving little spoonfuls of whipped foie gras with granola or plates of a savory crab custard good enough to haunt your dreams, grab one fast — it may be the last time you ever get the chance to taste it. You could probably open a Michelin three-star restaurant serving just the dishes that never quite made it out of his test kitchen. It is beyond easy to underestimate the food at Lukshon — some people I know believe that it is basically there to accommodate the overflow from Yoon’s cheeseburger-centered pub Father’s Office a few yards north in the Helms Bakery complex. And Lukshon’s cuisine does occasionally feel like the PF Chang’s menu filtered through an haute-cuisine sensibility — lobster salad spiked with bánh mì pickles and served with a pig’s ear terrine on an exquisitely crisp version of a top-loading bun; a Burmese fermented tea leaf salad made with marcona almonds as well as crunchy beans, garnished with barely cooked prawns; or raw butterfish pushed toward Thailand with a dusting of blast-frozen coconut milk and crunchy-tart cells scraped out of a finger lime. Someday, Yoon may decide to streamline all this into a $150 tasting menu. Until then, it’s almost a bargain.
There may be no more profound statement of purpose in Los Angeles restaurants at the moment than Tony Esnault’s legumes de saison, a bowlful of beautifully turned vegetables — a dozen at least —steamed, roasted, sautéed, or left raw, tasting vibrantly of themselves, but combining into a fine, high pitch of season and place. Nobody spends this amount of time on a dish merely to have a vegetarian option on the menu. Spring is one of the loveliest restaurant spaces in Los Angeles: an old courtyard, dotted with pepper trees and high-end lawn furniture, under a century-old canopy of cast iron and glass. Esnault, whose early career was mostly spent with Alain Ducasse, comes to Spring from the Arts District bistro Church & State, also run by his wife and business partner, Yassmin Sarmadi. Spring is a serious restaurant, its flavors influenced by Provence and California, whose kitchen has achieved an almost fanatical level of execution. Esnault’s roast duck breast is aged and cooked slowly; the meat is as rich and delicate as the best sautéed foie gras. Earthy snails, wild-caught in Burgundy, are arranged into a lovely salad with a tiny dice of tomato and fennel, painted with a vivid green purée of garlic and herbs — as ethereal as snails could possibly be. His Provençal bourride is spectacular, a landscape of vegetables and seared fish dabbed with garlicky aioli, moistened with thick, saffron-infused fish soup. And at $24, the fixed-price lunch on the sun-washed courtyard is one of the great bargains downtown.
Taco María may be the most unlikely great restaurant in Southern California; a mall place, descended from a food truck, with a scattering of rough-hewn tables, a comfortable patio and piles of Mason jars. It would be easy to mistake Taco María for a genteel enchilada place instead of a restaurant with a $75 prix-fixe tasting menu and a young chef, Carlos Salgado, esteemed by some of the finest culinary minds in both California and Mexico. Salgado prepares what he calls “Chicano cuisine” — the food of a second-generation chef who cooked at fine-dining restaurants like Commis and Coi and returned home to reinterpret the flavors he’d grown up with. The aguachile, fine fat shrimp cured in a sharp broth of citrus and kombu seaweed, could pass for a course at Providence were it not for the chile heat; a scallop in its shell, briefly broiled under a sprinkling of buttery bread crumbs saturated in squid ink, is lovely. You don’t quite realize that a dish of seared jack mackerel with crisp bread crumbs, braised romaine lettuce and a runny 65-degree egg is a clever play on a Caesar salad until the flavors come together in your mouth. And if you do happen to run into a taco at dinner, it is likely to be made with almond-wood-smoked sturgeon and a tortilla made with an heirloom blue corn Salgado brings up from Atlacomulco, Mexico, and nixtamalizes himself.
When Wolfgang Puck relocated Spago from West Hollywood to Beverly Hills nearly 20 years ago, his mission was clear. It was time to scrub the casualness out of the restaurant that had more or less invented casual fine dining. The move worked: Puck has cornered the luxury market for so long now it is difficult to imagine who might be No. 2. And although an almost unimaginable number of people flow through the restaurant now, and it sells a lot of meat and potatoes, Puck, executive chef Lee Hefter and chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi manage to keep Spago relevant year after year in an environment where it is not enough to cook fish well, the fish must have meaning — whether it be a take on chirashi sushi served in a rustic crate or steamed loup de mer with a spot of shad-roe cream. So there is a wee shellfish corn dog in the parade of canapes, with the proper county-fair smack, tuna tartare in a tiny ice cream cone and a bacon-stuffed macaron that manages to miniaturize all the sensations of an Egg McMuffin. A bit of caviar on toast is spritzed with potato-chip foam; cut ripe tomatoes are served with a savory marshmallow; and a late season corn custard is blanketed with summer truffles. Like the elevated pizza, pasta and salad with which the restaurant originally made its reputation, Spago’s cooking flickers around the edges of memory and desire while never quite succumbing to them. And when your desires are more concrete, those meat and potatoes — grilled côte de boeuf with potatoes aligot — are awfully good.
The pho bánh mì is an elegant concept, especially in Los Angeles: beef simmered in broth scented with cinnamon and star anise, laid out on a length of baguette with a little broth for dipping. It’s a cross between two emblematic Vietnamese foods with a nod to L.A’.s own French dip, and I enjoy it wherever I find it. But when Cassia’s Bryant Ng featured the sandwich on his short-lived lunch menu, the form was the same but it might as well have been a different sandwich. The meat was soft and luscious, the anisey Vietnamese herbs fresh and vivid, and the baguette crisp and light. The broth served alongside it was sharp and fragrant, clear as consommé, but with a sharp acid edge. The line between Vietnamese and French cooking wasn’t just blurred, it was rendered nearly a matter of semantics — as it is with Ng’s lovely charcuterie plank, his signature pho pot-au-feu, and even his jellyfish salad, which tastes like some lovely mash-up between the Left Bank and Hanoi. Cassia, of course, is no sandwich shop — it is a busy, bustling megabistro loved for its clay-oven flatbreads with snails or chickpea curry, its grilled lobster with Vietnamese herbs and its versions of Singapore classics like seafood laksa or the coconut braised beef called rendang. There may not be an Instagram account in Santa Monica that hasn’t included at least one snap of the egg custard with uni. But Ng, trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, is claiming the essence of French cooking as his own: colonizing the colonizers at last.
If you follow Nancy Silverton on social media, you know that she seems to be everywhere at once — chef’s dinners in Nashville, grilling steaks in Panicale, darting between Singapore, Naples and Manhattan. Yet through some magic trick, she also seems to be behind the mozzarella bar at Osteria Mozza every time you come in, sprinkling Umbrian olive oil over a plate of that afternoon’s burrata. Mirrors — it must be mirrors. Silverton presides over the complex of restaurants at the corner of Melrose and Highland avenues. Pizzeria Mozza ranks among the best pizzerias in the United States — its crisp, risen, wood-fired pizzas are unlike any particular Italian style, but the crust is good enough to eat even without squash blossoms and burrata. The pizzeria has a newish subspecialty of whole roasted vegetables — if you see eggplant with tahini on the menu, don’t hesitate. Osteria Mozza goes from strength to strength, from the mostly Emilia-Romagna-style fresh pastas to rabbit with sausage, from the deep all-Italian wine list to Dahlia Narvaez’s suave desserts. Mozza2Go is the takeout arm, a counter with a small specialty in Puglia-style focaccia, among other things. Chi Spacca is an Italian meat restaurant, famous for mammoth steaks, slow-grilled tomahawk pork chops massaged with fennel pollen, and house-cured salumi. Any of the four restaurants could well make the 101 on its own; together they form an unassailable rampart of urban rustic cuisine. (The usual disclosure applies here: Silverton, who runs the complex under the distant supervision of Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali, is a family friend.)
If you are a fan, your alarm is already set for 10 a.m. on alternate Fridays, the time at which you need to be online to secure tickets for a table at Trois Mec. When the restaurant announced a program with guest chefs this fall, the seats were apparently filled in five seconds. But Ludovic Lefebvre is probably the buzziest chef in a city filled with buzzy chefs, the telegenic inventor of the pop-up restaurant and a veteran of the kitchens of Alain Passard and Marc Meneau; a chef capable of running grand kitchens who prefers to cook for 24 people at a time. Will the tasting menu include mustard crème brûlée, truffled grilled cheese sandwiches with charcoal ice cream, or cold smoked eel with white chocolate mashed potatoes? Or pork and cabbage? They just might. (You can specify a vegetarian menu if you wish; otherwise the menu is both constantly changing and set.) Trois Mec is shoehorned into a former pizza parlor; the counter seats have a perfect view of the kitchen. Trois Mec is the closest thing in the United States to the ecstatic improvisational cooking at Parisian bistronomy shrines such as Frenchie and Le Chateaubriand.
Los Angeles is blessed with a large contingent of fine sushi chefs, and it is possible to explore more styles of sushi here than in any city outside Japan. Advocates of Mori, Urasawa, Kiriko, Sushi Tsujita, Go’s Mart, Zo, Nozawa Bar and Matsuhisa believe that their favorite provides the ultimate sushi experience, and on a given day, you may agree. But the most transformative sushi meals I have had here have come from Hiroyuki Naruke at the omakase-only Q Sushi downtown, who seems to have the ability to distill all the wonders of nature into careful mouthfuls of rice, vinegar and fish. Naruke practices the deceptively plain tradition of 19th century-style edomae sushi, where a lovely piece of fresh seafood is only the beginning: His universe of pickling and curing and aging edges closer to a great charcuterie counter than to a raw-fish floor show, but subtly enough to be invisible to diners who may not be looking for it. Naruke shut his tiny, well-regarded Roppongi sushi bar when partners at a local law firm offered to set him up with this elegant downtown restaurant, and Los Angeles is the better for it. Q is not inexpensive, but the price of its fixed-priced omakase, the only meal served, is comparable to that of the other first-rate sushi restaurants in town.
Rustic Canyon is a relaxed wine bar in an unglamorous corner of Santa Monica. You could wander in on a Tuesday night, join the crowd drinking Chinon and Santa Maria Viognier, maybe get a handful of lavender-dusted almonds and some chicken wings, and never quite discover that it was a restaurant talked about all over the country. But if you should order the beets and berries, an insanely pleasurable mess with pistachios and purple quinoa that may have been the impetus for the current Things in a Bowl craze, or the toast with kimchi rillettes, or even the focaccia with beet molasses, you’ll be utterly convinced. Jeremy Fox might be the perfect Westside chef at the moment. His menu is a happy place for the paleos and the gluten-free, the hedonists and the vegetarians, those into both nose-to-tail and seed-to-stalk. He came into his prime as chef for a famous vegetarian restaurant attached to a Napa yoga studio, but he is beloved in Santa Monica for things like his pig’s ear salad with green goddess dressing, his fried Weiser Farms peewee potatoes with chicken gravy, and his green shellfish pozole, which zaps the deep earthiness of boiled hominy with an electric jolt of citrus and puréed green chiles. Zoe Nathan is no longer the pastry chef of record, but Jun Tan’s brown butter cakes and Valrhona chocolate tartes have rarely been cause for complaint.
Animal’s original lease, one hears, specified that the restaurant would serve non-kosher food. The kosher restaurants in the neighborhood didn’t want the competition. But Animal may be the most cheerfully non-kosher restaurant in the cosmos, slinging out melted p’tit Basque cheese with chorizo, pig’s ears with chile, pig’s head terrines with cornbread, and biscuits with foie gras and sausage gravy; fried quail-n-grits with slab bacon and fried Brussels sprouts with pancetta; rib-eyes with marrow butter and loco moco with Spam. It’s hard to think of a single dish here that might tempt the neighbors through the doors. But Animal is often the first place that the food tribe stops when they come into town — nobody understands a chef’s particular appetites like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who swamp tables with platters of veal brains with vadouvan, poutine with oxtail gravy, rabbit tonkatsu curry rice and rabbit larb as if with nearly murderous intent. Animal may have been ground zero for the bacon-on-everything thing, and although the craze may have subsided, they do still sell an awful lot of bacon chocolate crunch bars here.
Lucques isn’t quite a substitute for its regulars’ own dining rooms. It’s relaxed, hitting the sweet spot between fine dining and a casual patio meal, but it’s too pricey, and reservations are slightly too difficult. But if you are of a certain bent, it can be surprising how often you find yourself there in the course of a year, for film-industry dinners and small birthday parties out on the patio, long winy lunches, and dinners with visiting cookbook writers, who are often astonished at what the Lucques kitchen makes from mere words on a page. Suzanne Goin’s rustic Mediterranean style is occasionally labeled as simplistic, but her cooking is unusually detailed, her vegetables perfectly sourced, and her goal is to make each ingredient — duck confit with figs, tomato salad with watercress, lamb with eggplant — taste most fully of both the season and itself. If you have cooked out of Goin’s “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” (or have eaten family supper at Lucques on a Sunday), you know that behind her simplicity lies not just the expected California farmers market fixation, but also patience and extraordinary rigor. Caroline Styne’s lovely wine list is rich in rustic wines from both France and California.
Southern California, by and large, has never gone in much for the pleasures of the avant-garde table. The ingredients are too good to require much tweaking, and the variety of cultural flavors here is nearly infinite. We don’t look toward the lab here; we look toward Peru. But Michael Voltaggio has always been a technique-driven chef, a guy who knows his way around a rotovap, a centrifuge and a tank of liquid nitrogen. He constructs spheres out of watermelon that have the taste of a ripe tomato, turns potatoes into charcoal, and makes “Fritos” from scratch. He smears sauces on the side of bowls, and makes gnocchi out of slightly gelled egg yolks instead of potatoes. It sometimes feels as if you are at the bottom of the sea in his dimly lighted dining room, and the food isn’t likely to make you feel any more grounded. But Voltaggio has always had a sharp sense of the way disparate flavors might go together, and his hand is sure and light. If you are open-minded enough to consider a scoop of burnt-wood semifreddo with your fruit dessert, you will enjoy an evening at Ink.
Eating at Cut, the restaurant in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel designed by Getty Center architect Richard Meier, can occasionally feel as if you’re occupying a 1960s Frank Stella painting, a semicircle scribed with razor-straight architectural lines. There is a rhythm to a meal here that may or may not include a succession of canapes (that knish!), warm asparagus with a dripping fried egg, or a crab Louis that is about a dozen times better than the one you had the last time you were at Musso & Frank. The classic dish is a bone marrow flan that gives you all of the richness and flavor without the charnel house smell. A truffled lobster sometimes makes it to the table, or a lovely dish of curried Wagyu short ribs, or sole meunière. At which point it may occur to you that you’ve forgotten to order steak, which is, after all, the point of even a steakhouse under the guidance of Wolfgang Puck, Lee Hefter and Ari Rosenson. So you either kill yourselves with a USDA prime 35-day Nebraska sirloin, or — pro move! — you all split a tiny Japanese Wagyu steak from Miyazaki Prefecture that manages to combine every possible nuance of charred beef sweetness into a single magical bite.
Is it possible to have a bad time at République? By the time you have worked your way past the oysters and the cheeses on the way to the hostess stand and settled in at one of the long wooden tables, it is as if you have worked your way into a party just at the point where it is getting good. There are some bubbles — a pét-nat if you swing one way, Champagne if you swing another — a crisp bite of Margarita Manzke’s baguette with Normandie butter or the outrageously good toast with uni and soft-scrambled eggs, and maybe some tempura-fried green beans and okra tucked into a napkin. Vegetables pass through the wood oven. Snails are drenched in garlic butter and crowned with little pastry berets. There is sole meunière, honest roast chicken, and what at this point is the best steak-frites plate in town — République is a bistro on steroids. When the restaurant opened a couple of years ago, I’d assumed that it would mark Walter Manzke’s return to haute cuisine. I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong.
Bestia is too loud, my friends say, and it is true. The food is often oversalted. The exposed-brick room is bare. You have to reserve a month in advance. Everything is half-burnt. The bar makes its Old Fashioneds with lardo-infused bourbon. And you need to look fairly carefully at the menu to make sure that you haven’t accidentally ordered hearts or gizzards. I would argue that this is the house style — grilled squid, lobster toast, and mussels and clams that shriek with flavor: amped up with saffron, fennel and strong cheese; hit with preserved lemon or aged vinegar; and lavishly strewn with arugula, purslane, fresh chickpeas and herbs. The pastas, which tend to be handmade, rustic and cooked just short of al dente, may be tossed with tomato and fresh ricotta or with sea urchin and chiles. Ori Menashe’s brand of Italian cooking looks across the Mediterranean toward the Middle East instead of northward toward the continent — and he may be the only chef in town whose cucumber salad is as delicious as his pizza.
For the not insubstantial class of Silver Lakians who pay as much attention to the intricacies of culture as they do to Thai food, this is an interesting time in the life of Kris Yenbamroong. Because Night + Market Song has become the restaurant New Yorkers want to visit when they come in from out of town, new restaurants copy its menu, and Yenbamroong may show up in more national magazines than Ryan Gosling these days. He’s not the rebellious film student grilling pork collar and fermenting sausage next door to his parents’ restaurant anymore — he’s pretty much the face of Thai cooking in Los Angeles, and his fishy, spicy, bitter version of northern Thai street food is all anyone wants to eat. The menu is evenly split between crazy-pop takes on Thai classics — fried chicken thighs! — and the kind of things Thais themselves tend to enjoy after a long night of fun. Night + Market Song still looks like a rec room in a condo complex, you can still get jungle curries and strong-tasting fried meatballs made with pork liver and blood, and you can still find the kind of natural wines that tend to be sold out everywhere else. Are you going to order crispy rice salad, strip-club fried rice with weenie blossoms and Bangkok mall pasta anyway? Probably. But the knowledge that you could order the beef bile nam prik if you wanted to is sometimes all you need.
We all think we know what to expect from a great sushi meal in Los Angeles, a progression of fish and rice that runs from the vinegared dish at the beginning to the warm crab hand roll at the end. Dinner at Shunji, the playground of Shunji Nakao, is not that, although it is possible to get an all-sushi meal at lunch. The basic unit of consumption in the round dining room, built in the 1930s as a chili restaurant, is the omakase-like tasting menu, a lovely expression of the season. There may be a bit of vinegared jellyfish, a tiny sphere of monkfish liver, a tangle of sardines, a bowl of sesame tofu with a crumpled sheet of tofu skin. You may be served braided needlefish or what Nakao calls tomato tofu; or perhaps a dense mass of of raw squid, squid ink, sea urchin and black truffles, the quail egg on its surface like a vivid yellow eye. Nakao may pluck your sashimi from a sleek, metal attaché case that looks like it might contain nuclear codes instead of seafood. And the sushi is never less than perfect.
In a review of a long-closed Josef Centeno restaurant, I once suggested that he could spin probably at least four restaurants from the controlled chaos of the one: a cantina, a bistro, a modern izakaya and a tapas bar. To the surprise of no one, he turned out to have done precisely that: You could spend several evenings around the intersection of Fourth and Main streets bouncing from one of his restaurants to the next. Orsa & Winston is more or less the fine dining in that lineup, a tasting-menu restaurant that mostly but not entirely crosses the structures of Mediterranean cooking with the strictures of Japanese technique — agnolotti with geoduck in a seafood ramen broth, for example, or beef carpaccio presented as part of a shellfish sashimi plate, or a truffled omelet flavored with yuzu. Centeno is obsessed with detail: the tweezer-placed herbs, the drops of exotic oil, and the miniature, perfected scale. Menus change almost nightly.
When you chat with food people, gossiping, swapping restaurant tips, you may discover that Tokyo has taken the place of Paris in chefs’ imaginations, and that talk about Narisawa and Kikunoi has more or less replaced chatter about Le Chateaubriand and Taillevent. And the ideal of Japanese kaiseki, multi-course feasts designed to express the mood of a season, has quietly supplanted the more conventional French model in ambitious California restaurants. n/naka may be as close as we come to kaiseki in Los Angeles, and the tiny Westside bungalow is reserved out three months in advance. Niki Nakayama, whose background includes both local sushi bars and Japanese ryokan, has become a food-world celebrity in the last couple of years, as famous for the herbs and vegetables she grows in her own backyard as she is for the classical rigor with which she might address a classic dobin mushi or a sashimi arrangement. She is not strictly tied to tradition — she may serve foie gras with the eel, or spaghettini with abalone, pickled cod roe and truffles where a Kyoto chef would serve soba. There is always the option of a vegetarian, though not a vegan, kaiseki meal.
When I did a survey of Los Angeles Italian restaurants a decade or so ago, Vincenti was the obvious No. 1. Other kitchens were perhaps more skilled at winning attention, and the idea of market-driven, hyper-regional cooking, led by chefs such as Gianfranco Minuz and Vincenti’s own former chef Gino Angelini, was taking over from the notion of luxury Italian cuisine. Vincenti, of course, is descended from restaurant royalty — it is run by Maureen Vincenti, who once, with her late husband Mauro Vincenti, ran Rex, still probably the grandest U.S. Italian restaurant in history. But Nicola Mastronardi’s polished, masculine style wasn’t formulated in reaction to classic Italian cooking — it is classic, controlled Italian cooking, built around the kind of grilled seafood salads, wood-roasted meats, and handmade pastas that you hope to find every time you step into a restaurant in Puglia or the Marches. His food tastes like Italy. And while the wild, funky flavors of his supple fusilli with lamb ragu may come at you from a dozen different directions, they knit into a single, vibrant chord of sheep, tomato and salt — it’s a pasta that makes you wonder why some other Italian chefs in town even bother.
The first thing you notice at Baroo is the profusion of containers stacked on shelves by the kitchen, plastic bins and cloth-topped jars; clumps of fermenting pastes; pickling berries and vegetables that look less like tonight’s dinner ingredients than they do like an experimental lab. Fermentation is the direction food is going at the moment — at a recent dinner at Noma in Copenhagen, there wasn’t a single course that didn’t feature at least one fermented ingredient. Baroo is a modest storefront wedged between a 7-Eleven and a hair salon, with long communal tables and rec-room chairs. But Kwang Uh may be the most fermentation-forward chef in the United States, serving passion fruit kraut and fizzing tepache, kimchi fried rice seasoned with fermented pineapple and a salady take on bibimbap flavored with the fermented bean-chile paste called gochujang and a dusting of passion fruit powder. The most popular dish here may be a lumpy, herb-strewn gruel called noorook, sluiced with puréed beets and a variation of the koji mold used to make sake, and studded with nuts and grains you may never have come across outside the context of a health-food store. Noorook tastes like nothing you have ever eaten. But it does taste a little like the future.
When Michelin announced this year that it would be releasing a Washington, D.C., guide instead of returning to Los Angeles, my first thought was of Mélisse. Because while the local dining scene has become a postmodern mosaic of three-star food trucks and strip-mall Alain Passards, Mélisse, the land of the $145 tasting menu, has always been the kind of special-occasion restaurant Michelin likes, meriting two stars in the last Los Angeles guide. Mélisse isn’t precisely old-fashioned — chef Josiah Citrin is averse neither to spot prawns with celtuce nor Wagyu beef tartare, and modern Japanese touches have crept into his otherwise French cuisine — but the restaurant is furnished with the impressive flower arrangements and ironed tablecloths, foie gras torchons and caviar eggs that have become nearly extinct elsewhere in town. When you’re in the mood to be clobbered with truffles and drink good white Burgundy, Mélisse is an obvious place to go.
Chengdu Taste may be the most influential Chinese restaurant to open here in the last decade or so, inspiring thousands of fans, legions of imitators, and probably increased emigration from Sichuan. Before Chengdu Taste, the best local Sichuan restaurants tended to specialize in dan dan noodles, fried chicken with chile and twice-cooked pork; now people ask for mung bean jelly noodles, boiled fish with green pepper sauce (“numb-taste”), and cumin-crusted toothpick lamb, the last of which is a dish I believe was invented at the restaurant itself. Some of us have become used to drinking smoky plum juice with our meals (there still is no alcohol served). The cooking is light and clean but still quite spicy, flavored with a shop’s worth of fresh, dried, pickled and ground chiles, but the vivid, prickly scent of Sichuan peppercorn often comes to the front; the sensation is of numbness rather than of great heat. Even a month’s worth of visits won’t exhaust the menu here, but you will probably also want to try the tea-smoked duck, the pork steamed with rice flour, the numb-taste wonton and the beef with tofu pudding. You are destined to wait a long time for your table. You may as well make it worth your while.
“I am beginning to think,” says a friend, “that everyone who wants to cook Italian rice in Los Angeles be required to come to Officine Brera first." I have had decent risotto in Los Angeles, but she’s right: Angelo Auriana’s rice dishes are marvelous things: In his soaring converted warehouse near the once and future 6th Street Bridge, risotto Milanese, as creamy and subtle as it might be at a trattoria in the Navigli, becomes almost magical when you spoon in a bit of roasted bone marrow. The bassa padana, cooked with rope sausage and crumbly cotechino, may be even better: a real butcher’s risotto. The menu, inspired by the cooking found near the foggy banks of the Po River in northern Italy, is especially compelling in winter, with giant pork shanks, soft, winey slabs of braised beef shoulder, and piserei e faso, a dish of tiny flour dumplings cooked with beans. But what may be the best dish in the restaurant comes from seaside Genoa, and isn’t even on the menu — farinata, a thick, salty chickpea crepe blasted in the wood oven. It is exactly what you want to be snacking on when the first Negronis arrive.
In an L.A. dining scene that has caught the food world’s attention for its funky spaces and the erasure of boundaries between street food and fine dining, Otium is the most ambitious new restaurant in years. The grand glass-and-steel building was designed from the ground up by Osvaldo Maiozzi. It occupies an important promontory next to the Broad museum. And Timothy Hollingsworth, who comes to Otium from a dozen years at the French Laundry, is trying to do no less than reinvent the American restaurant — less as a center of avant-garde European cooking or the idealized regional cuisines cataloged by Edna Lewis and James Beard, but of American cooking as it is experienced in 2016: falafel and shawarma, ravioli and sashimi, tostadas and banana cream pie, executed with the care and precision you would expect from a superbly trained technician of haute cuisine. Otium has a lot of moving parts. On any given menu, Hollingsworth is juggling elements of a dozen cuisines. He likes smoke and brine, crispness and slipperiness, acidity and spice. But it does him no disservice to suggest that the project he is trying to pull off is a difficult one, that not every element is quite in place, and yet the potential is staggeringly high. We can only be glad that he decided to open such a restaurant, and that he decided to open it here.
To get to Saam you pass the woo girls in the SLS parking lot, thread your way through what looks like 75 birthday parties in Bazaar and turn right at the cotton candy machine. You will be in a small wooden dining room decorated with glassware and Italian tourist guides; the couples at the tables look like the woo girls’ parents. You will momentarily think you are in the wrong place. Saam and Bazaar make up the local playground of José Andrés, the most famous Spanish chef in America. Like his Minibar in Washington and his é in Las Vegas, Saam is a restaurant within a restaurant — the couture inner sanctum of Bazaar — serving luxurious tasting menus that both expand on and improve on the pleasures of the larger dining room outside. Last year, the meals revolved around dishes inspired by Ferran Adrià at the late elBulli on the Catalan coast; modernist cuisine rendered as nostalgia. This year the chef Aitor Zabala, a longtime veteran of elBulli itself, pushes the restaurant into a whimsical version of the culinary present — fewer encapsulations, less liquid nitrogen. And the execution is stunning, from baskets woven from strips of ripe avocado to bright tropical fish fashioned from Spanish mackerel and flower blossoms to stuffed mangosteen to soft asparagus spears impaled on whittled rosemary twigs.
Its crowded tables may make you yearn for the relative elbowroom of the Red Line at rush hour, but Zach Pollack’s Alimento is one of the better small Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, a place so fantastically popular that even TV stars content themselves with sitting at the bar. Pollack’s take on Northern Italian cooking is at least as idiosyncratic as the bands that play at the Satellite across the street — tortellini in brodo inverted into soup dumplings; pig in a blanket remade as mortadella finger sandwiches; the bitter Roman green puntarelle, traditionally dressed with anchovies, recast as Caesar salad. He boils calf’s tongue, slices it thinly and daubs it with puréed tuna — it may be the supplest vitello tonnato you will ever taste. You’re tempted to come back often just to see what Pollack may be up to next.
It is probably easier to find a great pork chop in Los Angeles than it has ever been, from the char siu pork chop at Jar to the fennel-crusted chop at Sotto, to the racket-size tomahawks at Chi Spacca. But the best pork chop in town is the one at Salt’s Cure in its new Hollywood digs: a full pound of sustainably raised Marin Sun Farms pork from Northern California, lightly marinated, and cooked slowly, so that the thin rim of fat crisps while the juices concentrate in the meat and the pork tastes intensely, gloriously of itself. It’s a pork chop, but it is also a tour de force.
“I’d been at my last restaurant for almost eight years,” a server confessed. “But I wanted to work with people who could cook a pork chop like that. I know that sounds superficial, but …”
When Salt’s Cure announced its move from its cramped West Hollywood storefront up to larger quarters up on Highland Avenue, a lot of the regulars weren’t quite sure what to think. The restaurant was democratic yet mysterious, with a level of cooking that could be called deeply sophisticated if you didn’t want one of the other regulars to punch you, but in important ways it felt more like a butcher’s counter than a restaurant. Chris Phelps and Zak Walters find superb meat and cook it plainly, putting up their own bacon and charcuterie, often seasoning with no more than salt, pepper, vinegar and herbs. The new, larger Salt’s Cure is very much a restaurant, with patio seating, cocktails, Miles Davis cuts on the sound system, but the abattoir vibe is still pretty much there: You dab hot, salty pretzel rolls with whipped lardo, pour a little Beaujolais into your glass and wonder whether you would rather splash $110 on the giant rib-eye featured on the chalkboard or settle — settle! — for what is only the best pork chop in town. The buttery, crisp-edged pancakes at the center of a Salt’s Cure brunch are uncommonly delicious — and are almost better at dinnertime when Phelps and Walters serve a short stack with their duck confit. Leave room for a slice of the grapefruit pie, like a Key lime pie with a different tang and a lingering bittersweet hint of peel that finishes the rich meal like a kiss.
Guerrilla Tacos will become a proper restaurant next summer, with an address in the Arts District, an actual kitchen and chairs. And although Wes Avila deserves the grandest of accommodations — he is one of the city’s most interesting culinary minds — it was hard not to be a little sad about the announcement. Guerrilla Tacos is perhaps the most vivid illustration of what is possible in Los Angeles, a chef who worked with the likes of Gary Menes, Walter Manzke and Alain Ducasse ditching the world of fine dining to make tacos in a truck: carnitas made from sustainable Cook Pigs Ranch pork, tostadas with the same Santa Barbara uni sushi chefs covet, swordfish tacos with peak-season Brentwood farmers market corn — even the occasional Perigord truffle quesadilla. It’s essentially a $115 tasting menu, except the ingredients are served on tortillas, the sauces are both fresher and better, lunch is maybe 10% of the price, and you eat it sitting on a curb. Will the new restaurant see a radical change in format? I’m guessing not. But until then, you can find Avila parked in front of the usual coffeehouses, tending sweet potato tacos and hamachi tostadas with wasabi sprouts.
If the last several years have taught us anything in Los Angeles, it is that a restaurant may exist as a concept as well as a physical space. So nobody was quite surprised when Alma, a demanding tasting-menu restaurant whose premature death downtown had just been mourned, took over the restaurant in West Hollywood’s Standard hotel. The surprise was the fact that Alma was such a natural hit, fun where the previous restaurant had been severe, loud instead of restrained, and a place to eat instead of a temple of cuisine. The seaweed-tofu beignets go down like sliders, raw cabbage with avocado and smoked almonds takes the place of Cobb salad, and blackened carrots with dandelion pesto are as popular as fries. Ari Taymor’s cooking is technical, digging deep flavors out of plants you have never once bought at Whole Foods, and dishes like crisp English muffins with uni and burrata and frozen foie gras with coffee granola occasionally seem too cute, but the effects are unfussy, direct and delicious.
You know we are in a different era when a restaurant like Pok Pok comes up as much in critiques of cultural appropriation as it does in discussions of food, as if the salty punch of the fish sauce chicken wings or the lovely sweet fragrance of the Chiang Mai-style khao soi noodles were wrenched out of context by chef Andy Ricker’s non-Asian heritage. You would not be wrong to consider Pok Pok a lifestyle brand, a carefully engineered import that pushes all the correct buttons of grit and authenticity. The restaurant’s worldview barely acknowledges L.A.’s Thai restaurant culture — its recipes are brought straight from Thailand, like a carefully wrapped souvenir. But Ricker’s gift is the ability to make Thai food seem new again, to take it out of that comfortable place in the suburban strip mall, and put it back into the roadside stands and rural villages of northern Thailand where Ricker spends much of the year; not just chile heat but acrid herbs, tons of citrus, the pong of dried fish and an almost total absence of mellowing oils. You could dismiss the supercrisp fried chicken thighs served with green chile paste, the garlic-rubbed boar collar or the spicy pork larb; and you could wonder why the restaurant’s most famous dishes, those fish sauce chicken wings and the cha ca La Vong, Hanoi-style catfish with dill, are both Vietnamese. But the fact remains: Pok Pok serves some of the most brilliant bar food in Los Angeles. After an ice-cold draft Singha or two, you’ll probably agree.
Esdras Ochoa became famous for the carne asada and vampiros he served at a late-night taco table; Mexicali Taco & Co., a more permanent iteration of the concept, has been a regular on this list. But Salazar is something else — a laissez-faire composition of tables, chairs and desert plants arranged around a gravel drinking area, and a former auto-body shop converted into a smoke-filled aquarium where Ochoa flips steaks and chops on his crank-operated Santa Maria-style grill. Ochoa’s carne asada is simple but perfect, grilled over blazing hot mesquite, chopped and stuffed into a flour tortilla. His marinated pork al pastor is sweet, slightly charred, with a bit of burnt pineapple. You can supplement the tacos with a cocktail of cold, wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, an anchovy-forward Caesar salad, or a gooey potato purée. Or treat Salazar as a steakhouse that leans toward strong flavors and organic, sustainable meat. Either way, you are going to want to try a Paloma cocktail, the Mexico City standard made with grapefruit and usually tequila but here with mezcal, which is keen and unusually refreshing.
A friend of mine once made it her life’s mission to taste every dish on Jitlada’s list of southern-Thai specials, a document that filled several dense, typewritten pages. As crab simmered with sataw beans followed frog legs with pumpkin, acacia omelets and curried fish kidneys, a lesser woman might have reverted to the comforts of coco mango salad and whole turmeric fish. And as soon as she’d finished her yearlong project, chef Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee slapped on another few dozen dishes, including fried silkworms with chile and the mysterious black-pepper chitlin. In the battle between an inventive Thai chef and an adventurous palate, the chef is going to win every time. Jitlada is that rarity: a popular restaurant as well-loved for its most challenging dishes as for its versions of Thai clichés.
Chef Chris “CJ” Jacobsen is in the early stages of empire-building at the moment, opening a restaurant in Chicago and cementing what seems to be a permanent presence on stand-and-stir TV. But his foraging-first restaurant Girasol seems to be doing just fine, zapping arrangements of peaches, burrata and crisped lentils with a touch of bracingly bitter wild mugwort; flavoring the inevitable hamachi sashimi with wild sorrel instead of citrus; saucing the grilled prawns with a mole made with 19 different mountain-picked herbs. Girasol’s knack may be less expressing L.A.’s cultural diversity than in layering the sunny fragrances of California onto the tropes of New American cooking.
When you are introducing friends to the universe of Korean cooking that lies beyond tabletop barbecue, you might take them to Ham Ji Park for ribs and pork neck soup, to Yongsusan for elegant North Korean dishes or to Jeonju for the city’s best bibimbap. Yet I always seem to end up taking friends to Soban, a sedate dining room near the southwestern edge of Koreatown. The splendid array of banchan, the small side dishes that typically appear before a Korean dinner, often approaches 20 dishes or more. The aromatic stewed short ribs are soft and fragrant, especially the spicy version, and I love the seafood casseroles that star mackerel or black cod. And the gooey raw crab, marinated in Soban’s own mild homemade soy sauce, is among the very best reasons to visit Koreatown, a sweetly caressing jolt of salt and umami that may be unlike anything you have ever tasted. If it is either an inducement or a detriment, Soban neither serves nor permits alcohol. You’ll just have to visit one of the dozens of Koreatown bars afterward instead.
Have you managed to land a place at Le Comptoir? Congratulations: There are only 10 seats at the tiny counter in the Hotel Normandie. And after you are led to your place at the counter — everybody in the restaurant sits at once — you will register no open flames, bubbling pots or cooking smells. Your dinner begins not with bread and butter but with a short lecture from chef Gary Menes on the structure of the menu. And when the meal finally begins, the wavelike rhythm of everyone being served the same course at the same time can be soothing, aggravate your OCD, or both. But Menes’ austere California-French cooking is mesmerizing, mostly based around vegetables from his Long Beach garden. Your meal will probably include an elaborate “veggie and fruit plate” that includes up to 30 different separately prepared plants; a poached egg served with profoundly sour bread; roasted squash; and a sourdough fritter with preserves. And you will get to know the taste of that small plot of land as intimately as you have known any patch of dirt, ever.
Did Church & State set the template for deep-downtown restaurants? It might have: a ground-level bistro on the ground floor of an old factory that brought string lights, expressive cocktails, and venison saddle to a block then better known for illicit commerce than for kitchens serving blanquette de volaille. When it is chilly outside, there may be cassoulet fortified with crunchy duck confit; in summer a creditable bouillabaisse. It is a splendid destination when you are in the mood for cheesy onion soup, tarte au celeri or a solid charcuterie board. Chef Tony Esnault is spending most of his time over at Spring now, and the menus may flirt a bit less with touches of white-tablecloth cuisine. In our heart of hearts, we always knew gratin de macaronis et fromage was just fancy mac ’n’ cheese. But when the coq au vin is right, you are not two blocks from the Los Angeles River: You are in a rough bouchon in Lyon, a smoky bistro in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, at the table of your best French friend’s mom. And there are profiteroles for dessert.
If you grew up in Los Angeles, your fondest memories of Chinatown may have been formed at the Far East Plaza, a narrow outdoor mall that has been holding down its block since the late 1970s. You may have tasted your first soup dumplings at Mandarin Deli, slurped pho at Pho 79, or taken home a bag of live Shanghai hairy crabs from Wing Hop Fung. Forty years later, those old places are gone. But under the direction of its manager George Yu, Far East Plaza has become the white-hot center of the new Chinatown food scene — if you go on a weekend afternoon, the line for the life-changing hot fried chicken at Howlin’ Ray’s may snake through the mall, around the stand selling panda backpacks and chirping toys, past the wonderful coffeehouse Endorffeine, the vegan-friendly ice cream shop Scoops and nearly all the way to Chego, Roy Choi’s takeout restaurant, whose rice bowls topped with Technicolor concoctions of rib-eye, tofu and pork belly, tossed with a rainbow of spicy sauces and more Asian vegetables than you could identify on a snap quiz, jump-started the revival in the Paleolithic era of 2012. Shaanxi-style Qin serves slippery Guilin noodles and Chinese pork sandwiches; the Taiwanese street-food restaurant Lao Tao opened in mid-September. Alvin Cailan, the auteur of Eggslut, started Ramen Champ upstairs and has Unit 120, which he operates as a restaurant incubator: Amboy sold pork belly on banana leaf out of its window until it was more or less replaced by Easy’s Burgers; Monday nights, see crunchy, dense Detroit-style pizza; and weekend evenings see Chad and Chase Valencia’s semi-permanent Lasa, a tasting-menu restaurant at the forefront of modern Filipino cuisine. (Is there a more influential Los Angeles seafood dish this year than Chad Valencia’s tangy quick-cured kinilaw? I’m not sure what it might be.) And if you’re feeling old-school, Kim Chuy has been slinging crisply fried leek cakes and Chiu Chow satay noodles for as long as anyone can remember.
The Factory Kitchen is louder than you remember it. It’s more crowded than you remember it. And for some reason, not quite everybody in the sprawling restaurant is plowing through baby-leek frittura or heaps of mandilli with almond pesto, but that may be just an optical illusion — the guy manipulating the delicate sheets of mandilli pasta over in a corner of the open kitchen seems to be the busiest man in the restaurant. Angelo Auriana’s first restaurant has been somewhat overlooked since he opened nearby Officine Brera last year — he darts between the two kitchens via what amounts to a secret passageway — but the bustling trattoria is as compelling as ever. The vaguely formal northern Italian dishes include Bergamo-influenced casonzei pasta with brown butter and sage, a beet casserole glazed with Asiago cheese, and an insanely fragrant roast pork belly seasoned in the style of porchetta. You are probably going to want the crisp, oozing focaccina di Recco, a kind of translucent Genoese version of a Lebanese borek stuffed with herbs and milky Crescenza cheese.
Did Los Angeles need a modern churrascaria, streamlined, grilled versions of Brazilian-style meat? It turned out that it did — ember-roasted sirloin cap with a crisp tangle of sugar-dusted fried onions, tri-tip with Béarnaise sauce, and skirt steak with puréed carrots. Quinn Hatfield dry-ages his meat for a length of time almost unthinkable in Brazil, where freshness is prized over tenderness and developed flavor, but the complex tartness of the meat here is profound. But as good as the bacon-wrapped chicken thighs, grilled trout with cabbage and applewood-smoked short rib can be, the vegetables can be even more compelling — salads of grilled melon with arugula or peaches with cucumber that could have come from the Ottolenghi playbook; fried mushrooms with garlic; and a creamy dish of cauliflower and millet painted with a sharp paste of walnut and basil. And Karen Hatfield may be the true star of the local pastry scene at the moment: The Hubble telescope has studied mysteries less profound than the crisp yet friable perfection of the rye crust on her chocolate pie.
Neal Fraser has been cooking in Los Angeles for more than 20 years now, and his followers have seen him glide through almost every genre of California cooking there is, from fusion to neo-Mediterranean to hot dogs. Redbird, built into the rectory of the deconsecrated St. Vibiana Cathedral, is a substantial place with solid farmers-market-driven cooking, world-cuisine touches that range from the Hong Kong XO sauce he serves with the aged duck to the Catalan romesco with the rib-eye, from lobster tostadas to soft-shell crab with Thai curry to jerk-spiced grilled lamb belly to a truly delicious dish of barbecued tofu. Fraser likes smoke, chiles and farmers-market vegetables; lingering tartness and mild funkiness; odd cross-cultural flavors like sumac, lemon grass and yuzu kosho; little crunchy things and lots of salt And more than at any Los Angeles restaurant since Rex or the first decade of Campanile, you feel as if you are part of something bigger than yourself, a hungry, chattering component of a grand pleasure machine.
I have to admit that some people don’t quite get La Casita Mexicana. The menu is plain, largely meat plates and refined antojitos, and the big, brightly colored dining room seems almost unrelated to the restaurant’s beginnings as a modest cenaduría. It is located in a stretch of Bell that to Westsiders might as well be outer space. The moles tend to be more suave than pungent; the cooking more pan-Mexican than regional, although it is strongly rooted in the flavors of Jalisco and Michoacan. But at some point during your meal you start to realize that you may be eating enchiladas, but they are wonderful enchiladas, made with thick, freshly made tortillas, saturated with an unusually delicious chile sauce, stuffed with earthy cotija cheese. There are beautiful braised beef shanks, lightly pungent house-dried cecinas, and crackly taquitos sauced with mole. You can get cactus-stuffed cheese wrapped in plantain leaves — queso Azteca — or lovely fish fillets dabbed with chile and cooked in corn husks. Some people wait all year for the special menus served around Christmas and during Lent. Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu have been working their mojo for a pretty long time. And afterward, you can have cafe de olla and flan. As you should.
Ray Garcia cooked for years in somber hotel kitchens, but in food circles he was probably best known for the wild, transgressive Mexican dishes he came up with at chef's events — his technique and his farmers-market fixations are high-end California French, but his palate is pure Eastside pocho. And Broken Spanish, probably the best restaurant within walking distance of Staples Center, is a statement restaurant; the flavors of the Mexican kitchen banged around until they bleed: tamales stuffed with lamb neck and chicken thighs enhanced with cockscombs, sweet potatoes cooked with pig tail and green beans sauced with ground grasshoppers. Garcia sous-vides giant, curling octopus tentacles with chorizo, transforms chicharrn into Mexican-spiced porchetta; and gift-wraps chile-soaked rabbit mixiotes in curls of cellophane. Nobody in Los Angeles, possibly anywhere, is cooking like this at the moment.
The best Italian dish I have tasted this year was probably the spaghetti alla norcina at Angelini Osteria; strands of thin, hand-cut pasta in a sauce that contained sausage and a shower of shaved summer truffles from Umbria. The pasta was on the menu to benefit quake victims in its birthplace of Norcia, one of the towns affected by the 2016 earthquake. And while pasta alla norcina is usually pretty good — Ori Menashe’s version may be the most popular pasta at Bestia — Angelini’s version was exceptional, concentrated yet suave, nicely al dente, with the tang of the cured meat, which usually dominates the dish, merely amplifying the deep, musky fragrance of the truffle: pure longing. Gino Angelini has been cooking in Los Angeles for so long, and in so many restaurants more ambitious, that even if you have spent dozens of happy evenings in this cheerful dining room eating tripe, tagliolini with lemon, or his grandmother’s green lasagna, it is sometimes easy to underestimate what a splendid cook he can be.
Do you even need to look at the menu at Connie and Ted’s by this point? Because even before you find a seat in Michael Cimarusti’s massive New England-style seafood complex, you already know that you’re going to be looking at chilled oysters, littlenecks and cold boiled shrimp; a cup of clam chowder — I suggest the clear, salty Rhode Island version; and salty, irresistibly fluffy Parker House rolls baked in a cast-iron pan. There are dense little clam fritters that expand to about 10 times their size in your already distended belly, the baked quahog concoctions called stuffies, and platters of crisp fried clams served either with or without their tender, juicy bellies. You will drink too much crisp white wine, fancy ale or Champagne. You may be contemplating a lobster roll or fish ’n’ chips, mac and cheese or onion rings, a blondie with ice cream or a bowl of Indian pudding as dense as a dwarf star. You will find it difficult to believe that you have eaten this much seafood. And you call an Uber to take you home.
Some chefs are notorious for their dazzling tricks with liquid nitrogen, their exacting technique or their new approach to long-forgotten grains. Suzanne Tracht is famous for her pot roast. And her deviled eggs. And her banana cream pie. If Gene Kelly danced through a time tunnel from 1953 into Jar, he would be able to have a tomato and onion salad, a broiled rib-eye with Béarnaise sauce, and a chocolate sundae for dessert; his martini would be bone-dry; and he could get a bowl of creamed corn if he wanted it. But Jar isn’t precisely retro — Tracht’s gift lies in her ability to reproduce the old tastes within a modern context, so that the sautéed pea tendrils with garlic make as much sense as the creamed spinach, the duck-fried rice as the mashed potatoes, and the char siu-style pork chop as the prime filet mignon.
When I am approached by a Frenchman with a certain look in his eye, I can usually predict the conversation that is about to ensue. He has heard of Ludovic Lefebvre, but was unable to land a reservation at Trois Mec. He visits Petit Trois instead, believing that it will have the same relationship to its sister restaurant that, say, Les Bouquinistes does to Guy Savoy. And he is dumbfounded that he is eating the same haricot salad, steak-frites and runny omelet that he could have eaten around the corner from his apartment. At this point, I feel obliged to remind him that he lives in Paris. Los Angeles is not Paris, and it is nice to have somebody make us a tomato tartine, a cheesy bowl of onion soup or a chicken leg showered with buttery brioche crumbs, especially at this marble counter in this beautifully lighted room. Ordinariness is kind of the point. The soft, rich Big Mec burger, awash in red wine demiglace instead of ketchup, is worth trying at least once. And the buttery, garlicky snails, from Lefebvre’s grandmother’s recipe, really may be the best in town.
The most impressive knife work I have ever seen may have been at Asanebo last year, a steamed Hokkaido hairy crab whose shell and legs had been scored with an intricate series of trap doors that made it possible to extract every gram of the sweet, delicate flesh. The tiny dish of chawan mushi with uni and a brunoise of fresh wasabi may be the most labor-intensive bite in the San Fernando Valley. Some of the more elaborate sashimi presentations could pass for opera sets. Asanebo, whose chef Tetsuya Nakao was among the original chefs at Matsuhisa (and whose brother runs Shunji out on the Westside), is a singular restaurant, not quite a sushi bar (although the sushi is excellent) and more elevated than an izakaya, unafraid to play with Western flavors, and equally unafraid to serve a course that includes raw octopus suckers cupping a single brined salmon egg each, tentacles carved into feathery chrysanthemums, and whitefish sliced into translucent petals dotted with plum sauce. All Asanebo asks from you is an open mind, plus rather a lot of money. In exchange, you spend an hour or so in an elevated state of being.
You may have noticed a distinct restaurant style in Venice over the last several years, with an emphasis on toasted bread and barely altered seasonal vegetables, charcuterie and roasted meats, extremely regional Italian preparations and the bittersweet smack of char. And the chef responsible is probably the Tasting Kitchen’s Casey Lane, whose restaurant after eight years still seems like an art collective that just happens to serve insanely detailed cocktails and light, clear, herb-smacked northern Italian food. Each evening’s menu is numbered with the day of service, the way a prisoner might mark the day of his sentence. But the Tasting Kitchen is less severe than it sounds — grilled pork neck, crisp-skinned flattened chicken with ’nduja, and spaghetti with bottarga follow their own logic. The sticky cider-marinated wings dusted with flaxseeds have become a Venice classic. And the wine list contains amphora wines from Foradori and old Trebbianos from Valentini alongside an eccentrically long roster of obscurish reds from Piedmont.
Adana may be a little hard to define. The small courses are mostly from the repertoire of Lebanese meze: stuffed grape leaves tender as pastry, slightly soured with green grape juice instead of vinegar; a version of the bread salad fattoush featuring purslane, crumbles of feta and cracker-crisp triangles of toasted pita; or roasted eggplant ground with tomatoes, garlic and peppers. The main courses lean toward Iran (try the chicken kebab, maybe with an airy, saffron-zapped shirin polo flavored with sweet orange peel and almonds). The menu is in English. The name of the restaurant is that of a now-Turkish city. The kitchen staff and the customers talk to one another in Armenian. The formal-ish dining room may remind you of an obscure Middle European resort. Yet Edward Khechemyan's cooking is lovely, most of the menu is friendly toward vegetarians, and the prices are absurdly low.
There are people who believe that Maude is L.A.’s best restaurant, and if you squint a little you can see what they mean. The restaurant belongs to Curtis Stone, who is pretty much everybody’s favorite food television personality, and its conceit — each month features a long tasting menu with a different star ingredient — indicates a seriousness of purpose. Reservations are difficult, but regulars consider monthly meals at Maude to be the culinary equivalent of season tickets to the ballet. It’s a nice place, just 25 seats, with mismatched silver and dishes that look as if they were plucked from your favorite grandmother’s breakfront. And when the featured ingredient plays into Stone’s sensibilities, the results can be lovely. Are you inferring that Maude is perhaps inconsistent? Probably so — there isn’t much even the most brilliant chef can do with 10 courses of avocados or squash. But it’s always something new.
Tom Colicchio’s original Craft in New York may have been the first 21st century restaurant in America, where both the modern sharing-plates menu and the hyper-informed casual style of service were born. It was the place where customers were first invited to experience the chaos and wonder of a chef visiting a friend. But what is casual in Manhattan may be pretty buttoned-down when it is transplanted to Los Angeles. And at the Century City restaurant, you are likely to see more ties than anywhere else on the Westside. The cooking continues to feature high-quality ingredients straightforwardly prepared: grilled fish, roast meats and a gardenful of roasted and sautéed farmers market vegetables.
Could Southern California’s most polished bistro be up two escalators in a mall, right by the Nordstrom? In important ways it is. Florent and Amelia Marneau’s restaurant isn’t the new sort of bistro, with three kinds of fermented turnips and nasturtium blossoms on everything, but the kind with bone marrow, foie gras and good coq au vin; sweetbreads with artichokes and sea trout with potatoes Lyonnaise; stinky cheeses and hot beignets; and inexpensive carafes of solid French wine. On some days, the three-course $26 lunch menu may be the only bargain you’ll find in South Coast Plaza.
We’ve all come to terms with the small-plates thing now, and with dusty eastern Mediterranean flavors, food-friendly wines, and the fact that a dinner out need not include giant slabs of animal. The first A.O.C. may have been slightly baffling when it opened, but if we’ve lived through a battle for L.A.’s restaurant soul, Suzanne Goin has won. It is hard even to remember a time when bacon-wrapped dates or fish with chermoula seemed odd. Goin’s Southern Mediterranean izakaya has occupied its expanded, neo-Moorish patio for only a few years, but it seems as if it has been there forever. Expect strong flavors, puddles of broth and extremely seasonal produce; lots of vegetables; and a list of lovely large share platters that will probably include whole roast fish, polenta with mushrooms and roast chicken with bread salad.
There has always been a dark vein of anarchy just beneath the surface in the South Bay. The gentle sea breezes nourished not just the Beach Boys but also the dystopian genius of Raymond Pettibon, Charles Bukowski and Thomas Pynchon. Little Sister is a happy, beachy restaurant with mayhem in its soul: Black Flag lyrics stenciled on its walls, gangsta rap pulsing on the sound system and a menu of Asian small eats tweaked toward the palette of fermented flavors, dried fish and gooey textures more common in the San Gabriel Valley than they are in Manhattan Beach. Tin Vuong’s menu: raw beef hand-chopped with pear and pine nuts in the manner of the Korean raw-beef dish yukhoe but spanked with Sichuan peppercorns like something out of Chengdu; fried “Balinese” meatballs that could have doubled as Lebanese kibbe; and pea shoots sautéed with dried scallops and chile in a fresh interpretation of a Hong Kong XO sauce. Could newer, slightly more ambitious Little Sister in downtown Los Angeles be a tad buzzier? Perhaps. Half the chefs in Los Angeles are hooked on the thick congee Vuong serves in the morning. And the fried lemongrass chicken tossed with chopped herbs and crisp bits of fried garlic is some of the best bar food in town.
Although Watts is at the center of what is sometimes called a food desert, Locol isn’t in an area completely devoid of options — a couple of small markets, a Chinese takeout and the Watts Coffee House are within a block or two. But Kogi’s Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, whose San Francisco restaurant Coi holds two Michelin stars, aim to do nothing less than revolutionize the system of fast food in America, to bring delicious, nourishing food into the areas that need it most. And Locol, the first of what is projected to be a national chain, has a loose skate park feel; fresh, healthful cooking for about the price of a drive-thru meal — not a replacement for fast food, but a better version of it using modernist chefs' tricks more often seen at places like Coi and Noma. The burgers and sandwiches are served on soft, griddled buns developed by Chad Robertson of the famous San Francisco bakery Tartine. The flat, bean-filled tacos are “foldies,” stuffed with carnitas or spicy barbecued turkey. The employees are nearly all from the immediate neighborhood. And you’d think that the involvement from high-profile chefs would result in a slick product, but the food feels handmade, inspired by the neighborhood rather than imposing itself on it. If the future of the food movement results in places like Locol, we may be in better shape than we’d thought.
There are other Sichuan noodle shops in the San Gabriel Valley, but there is nothing quite like the Chongqing-style noodle house Mian, opened by Tony Xu, the chef behind Chengdu Taste. The flavors are bright and clean, informed as much by the tart funkiness of Sichuan pickles as by pure chile heat, and the handmade noodles have an integrity and chew you might associate with good Italian pasta. The spicy beef noodle soup is excellent, easily as good as the renowned versions at No. 1 Noodle House in Rowland Heights or Dai Ho in Temple City, but the draw here is probably the zhajiangmian: noodles with a mean streak, a potent lashing of hot chile and oil, and laced with just enough numbing Sichuan peppercorn. The difference between the Chengdu zhajiangmian and the Chongqing zhajiangmian at Mian? The latter includes soft peas imported from Chongqing. And who wouldn’t want a handful of Chongqing peas?
If you are standing in line for a Kogi truck, you or a friend has determined the current location by looking up its webpage or its Twitter feed. You have committed to eating a cross-cultural mash-up of Mexican and Korean cooking: grilled short-rib tacos dressed with pungent fermented condiments; sweetly spicy blackjack quesadillas; Kogi dogs. You tacitly acknowledge Kogi’s professionalism: At most trucks, a 60-person line means that you’d be waiting until midnight. You may have tried Roy Choi’s other establishments — the rice bowls at Chego, the beachy Hawaiian food at A-Frame, the upscale restaurants in Koreatown’s Line Hotel — and you recognize that their DNA flows from this truck. Kogi is cheap, unbelievably delicious and unmistakably from Los Angeles, food that makes you feel plugged into the rhythms of the city just by eating it. The new-food-truck revolution in America had to come from somewhere, and it is the luck of all of us that it happened to start here.
I recently ran across an old article praising Grand Central Market as a place to buy Asian herbs, cow heads and tripe, and varieties of soured cream from all over Latin America. Those days have gone — in the market, as well as its corner of downtown, it is easier now to find a $95 bottle of mezcal than an honest handle of Smirnoff. If you are allergic to lines, you’ll probably want to avoid weekend mornings, when the queues wrap around one another like spokes on a dented wheel. Yet the market is still dynamic — the last year has seen the grilled-meat skewers at Bar Moruno and the handmade pasta at Knead join the fish stews at Bombo, the modernist falafel at Madcapra and the Thai-style chicken rice at Sticky Rice. DTLA Cheese may not be the largest cheese counter in Los Angeles, but it is among the most interesting, stuffed with an ever-changing selection of small-producer rounds from France and the northeast U.S., an encyclopedia of barnyard smells. Belcampo draws crowds for its wonderful cheeseburgers and for its butcher shop featuring grass-raised meat raised in the shadow of Mt. Shasta; Wexler’s Deli for its superb custom-smoked lox and pastrami; and Eggslut for its breakfast sandwiches. Owner Adele Yellin has managed to renovate the old market, a downtown fixture since 1917, without losing the splendid carnitas from Villa Moreliana, the dried chiles at Valeria’s or the gorditas from Roast to Go. There has been controversy. But people on both sides of the gentrification debate seem to agree on the Eggslut poached egg with potato purée.
The original Aburiya Raku is a loud, slightly grimy Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas’ Chinatown, as famous for its foie gras rice bowls and beef liver sashimi as it is for its fanatical following of chefs. The newish West Hollywood version feels less like Las Vegas than like Japan, all dark wood and private spaces, and an endless sake list. You order too much. And you are half-killed by the onslaught of food — tiny tempura-fried ice fish that look like French fries with eyes; crunchy asparagus wrapped in bacon; firm house-made tofu delicately fried and served in broth; and whole fish served first as sashimi and later fried, its crisp skeleton arching above a jumble of fried filets. You could make an entire meal here out of nothing but skewers of meat and fish cooked on the charcoal grill. And remember to ask for off-menu kamameshi, a wet Japanese pilaf cooked in a heavy iron pot, a dish that is simultaneously filling and refreshing, and a splendid way to conclude an Aburiya Raku meal.
We are in Curtis Stone land again, in an elegant redoubt of wood, soft light and stone that looks as if it could have been plucked out of a white-telephone drama from the 1930s. And we are once again in the world of reservation anxiety — tables in the butcher-centered restaurant aren’t especially hard to land, but the reservable dining room mandates a $95 16-bite tasting menu, plus whatever hefty supplement for Wagyu beef you are talked into by the waiter. You can supposedly drop by the bar or patio without a reservation and have a crack at pretty much anything on the menu — a la carte curls of smoked duck breast; hearts of palm with carbonated grapes; chanterelle ravioli in sharply flavored chile foam; charred creamed corn; or a combination plate of lamb roasted in a smoky, glassed-in fire pit. Can the parade get to be a bit much? Certainly. But Gwen is a Disneyland of meat.
When we first encountered Guelaguetza, it was a tiny Oaxacan restaurant stuffed into a space not much larger than the trunk of a Prius, and when you showed up in the afternoon, you could usually find current proprietor Bricia Lopez doing her algebra homework in a corner. These days, you could manage a decent game of soccer in the sprawling dining room, and Guelaguetza has become the center of Oaxacan life in Los Angeles, possibly as well-known for its music and its mezcal selection as for its enmoladas, its fragrant tamales and its pizza-size tlayudas smeared with lardy beans and sprinkled with handfuls of torn cheese. There are a lot of Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles now, and it is possible to debate the merits of the mole coloradito at one and the molotes at another, but Guelaguetza remains the most accomplished Oaxacan restaurant in the United States.
“I’m going to MB Post,” reads an email I seem to get a couple of times a month. “I know about the bacon cheddar biscuit, but what else shouldn’t I miss?” And sometimes it does seem as if, after a Michelin star, three restaurants and a solid five years as king of the South Bay restaurant scene, David LeFevre may still be best-known for a dish he learned from his mom when he was in junior high. But it really is a good biscuit. You’re probably going to want one before going onto the blistered green beans with Thai basil, the North African-spiced barbecued lamb belly and the softshell crab with grilled corn and avocado at the cheerful, beachy restaurant. MB Post is what happens when a gifted chef decides to have fun.
Perhaps you have grown weary of menus that feature spicy fried chicken, steamed pork buns and year-round charred Brussels sprout salads, mezcal cocktails and hoppy ales, and sticky toffee pudding for dessert. You’ve sat outside on a patio with a bottle of Trousseau Gris and a plate of veggie tempura. You’ve tasted Wagyu upon Wagyu, and ricocheted between restaurants whose small plates read Italian, Mexican, French, Indian and Thai, depending on what the chef decides to pair the chicken thighs with. You may have confronted one too many panna cottas, heaps of shell beans, or tombstone-size pork chops. But whatever every other restaurant like this is, Jason Quinn’s Santa Ana gastropub is what it should be. Did all the good new chefs in Orange County come from the world of food trucks? It is beginning to seem that way.
The bäco is an entirely invented flatbread, something like a gordita crossed with an Indian roti, stuffed with fried beef tongue, shrimp or jerk chicken, among other things, seasoned with the Andalusian tomato sauce salmorejo, Catalan salbitxada, or Tunisian harissa, mellowed with smoked aioli, horseradish yogurt or the Lebanese sour cream lebni. It’s like a street food from the world of fine dining, invented by a chef, Josef Centeno, whose sensibilities encompass falafel as well as vadouvan, both schnitzel and carnitas. You eat it like a taco. The bäco has the unique capability of expressing Los Angeles while simultaneously expressing the flavors of places halfway across the world; Indian or Middle Eastern or Spanish. Five years ago, when you managed to score a bäco, you’d put it on Facebook. Now you just order another round.
Sotto is not a pizzeria, I usually feel obligated to state, although it is hard to ignore the massive pizza oven insulated with Vesuvian soil, the occasional shout-outs to famous pizzaiolos in Naples and Caiazzo, and the undeniable appeal of the lovely, half-burnt pizzas with house-cured guanciale and what tastes like five bucks’ worth of fennel pollen. Steve Samson’s subterranean dining room could just as easily be called a meat restaurant — you’re going to want the fat rib-eye, the fennel-crusted pork chop, or whatever rabbits or shanks or other things he’s managed to pry out of Devil’s Gulch Ranch. Sotto is less innard-intensive than it used to be, and the emphasis sometimes seems to be more on the excellent cocktails than on the wine, but sometimes people forget just how good Samson’s southern Italian cooking continues to be: spicy clams with chickpeas and ’nduja, crisped octopus tentacles with potatoes in garlic broth, and spaghetti with squash blossoms, cherry tomatoes and crab. The cannoli continue to be the very best in Los Angeles.
If you find yourself braising chickpeas for your breakfast bowl, you can thank Sqirl. If you find yourself charring the bread for your avocado toast, you can thank Sqirl. If you have paid $12 for a jar of jam that indicated not just the variety of apricot but the name of the farmer and his irrigation practices, you can also thank Sqirl, which at times seems to function almost less as a breakfast-lunch restaurant than it does as a laboratory for the peculiar culinary practices that at the moment define L.A. — what you eat at Sqirl has a habit of leaking onto menus from coast to coast. There are other restaurants serving cauliflower hash, organic-rice bowls with sorrel and leafy tartines. Jessica Koslow is not the only chef who lacto-ferments chiles for hot sauce, prepares turmeric tonics, and finds a way to slip a poached egg onto almost everything. But when a long, lazy morning comes around, it is easy to find yourself slipping into the endless queue outside the tiny restaurant, feeling for a while like a real citizen of the town.
One part of the local Iranian community plumps for the big kebab parlors lining the stretch of Westwood called Tehrangeles; others prefer the raucous restaurants in Glendale or even the tiny kosher places in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. But the one restaurant almost everybody seems to agree on is Attari, a modest sandwich shop on a Westwood side street, a leafy patio that seems to reconstitute café life in Tehran circa 1975. An Attari sandwich is close to a perfect thing: a length of toasted French bread, a layer of beef tongue, a cutlet, or the vivid-green herb omelet kuku and a few spiced, supertart Iranian pickles. You’re probably going to want some of the eggplant, stewed down almost to a jam and served with a tangle of crisp onions, or possibly a bowl of the thick vegetable soup called osh. But if you’re here on a Friday afternoon, the obvious choice is ab-goosht: mashed chickpeas and simmered lamb served with a basket of lemony herbs, thin flatbread, and a cup of their essential juices to enjoy as a soup.
Nem nuong is among the profound pleasures of the Vietnamese table, charcoal-grilled pork wrapped into rice paper with slender spring rolls, marinated vegetables and herbs. Properly rolled nem nuong may display almost as many culinary sensations as exist on the earth: crispness and crunch, funk and clean acidity, freshness and umami, sweet and salt. Plus, they seem as if they’d be pretty healthful, although I haven’t seen the stats. And although you can find extremely good nem nuong at Summer Rolls and Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa in the San Gabriel Valley, there are even better ones at the original Brodard behind the Mall of Fortune in Little Saigon. This is not a secret — on weekends, there are two-hour lines. The nearby Brodard Chateau, from the same owners, is exactly like Brodard except that it occupies a Victorian mansion, the prices are about a third higher and you can reserve on OpenTable. Brodard Chateau is nem nuong-centric to the point that, even if you have ordered a clam salad, a plate of banh khot and a bowl of the delicious bun cha Hanoi, the waiter will stand patiently by the table until you tell him what kind of nem nuong you would like.
Park’s may no longer have the top end of the Korean barbecue scene quite to itself, and other fans have gravitated to the nearby specialty houses concentrating on pork, intestines or bulgogi. But the beyond-prime short ribs, beef tongue and rare-breed pork belly at Park’s are of the highest possible standard, the banchan are inventive and fresh, and the cold noodles called naengmyeon, the traditional finish to a barbecue meal, are tart and springy. Even things like stone-pot octopus, braised black cod and a simple kimchi jjigae have depths of flavor you may not expect. Park’s is a palace of do-it-yourself cookery where the waiters move like ninjas. It is probably beyond argument that Jenee Kim’s modernist restaurant is still the best place in Koreatown to eat Korean barbecue.
We have spent more than half a lifetime attending the restaurants of Celestino Drago and his brothers, and his masculine, user-friendly style of Italian cooking is as popular in his family’s restaurants in Pasadena and Sherman Oaks as it is in his own. Drago Centro is a downtown restaurant in the old tradition, with a warren of private dining rooms and waiters who know enough to nod understandingly when you say you’ve just gone gluten-free. The cooking of Drago and his longtime chef de cuisine Ian Gresik includes both handcrafted pasta — the handkerchief pasta with crab and the handmade spaghetti with Sicilian almond pesto are as grand as the skyscraper view from the dining room — and the meatier pleasures of steak, fish and venison.
When people think of southern Mediterranean food, they tend to think of the complex, spice-intensive dishes of Turkey and northern Africa. When Govind Armstrong cooks southern Mediterranean at Post & Beam, it is more like a cross between the Mediterranean and the American South, which means that the fried catfish comes with hummus, the baked salmon with cucumber yogurt, and the pork chop with a romesco sauce made with grilled peaches and pecans instead of red peppers and almonds — although the fried chicken, greens with ham hocks, and shrimp and grits lean more toward the classic versions. The handsome, modernist restaurant in the Baldwin Hills Plaza may be the most ambitious restaurant ever to open in the Crenshaw District. If you want to understand the power structure of South Los Angeles, you could do worse than to eavesdrop over smoked-salmon hash and a Bloody Mary after church on a Sunday afternoon.
Gjelina is a perfected idea of a certain Los Angeles, complete with relaxed outdoor seating around a fire pit, impossibly good-looking waiters, and an entire farmers market worth of perfect vegetables snatched smoking from the grill. The crisp, puffy pizzas are consistently good — I like the one with grilled radicchio and bacon. The pastas, some of them anyway, are made with whole local grains. The wide-ranging wine list makes natural-wine geeks ecstatic. And it’s a place where people whose idea of a perfect supper consists of chickpeas and yogurt happily coexist with mates who prefer grilled pork necks; curried squash enthusiasts with advocates of lamb ribs. Travis Lett understands us all.
If you plan your route carefully, you can probably arrange for Coni’Seafood to be on your way to the airport from almost anywhere. It’s convenient to the Forum and to the Hollywood Park Casino. And I mention this because some people I know are always trying to figure out excuses to visit Coni’Seafood, where it is pleasant to spend a long, lazy afternoon in the Sinaloa-style mariscos parlor eating smoked-marlin tacos, crunchy chicharrones de pescado, and the spicy shrimp ceviche called aguachile, moistened with a green jalapeño purèe. (There are a lot of shrimp dishes here: The camarones Culichi cooked with chiles and cheese is especially good; so, oddly enough, is the shrimp cucaracha, tiny, thin-shelled creatures that actually do resemble insects when they are deep-fried.) The star dish here is the pescado zarandeado, marinated snook from the Gulf of California grilled slowly over charcoal, a soft, beautifully caramelized fish big enough to take up most of the table.
The biggest story in barbecue over the last few years may well be its adoption by the artisanal food movement, powered less by cranky old pit pros than by mediagenic figures like Aaron Franklin or Adam Perry Lang. Long-smoked brisket is not just lunch at the moment, it’s a totem of authenticity. And I’m happy to eat at places like Maple Block or Barrel and Ashes, where the barbecue is really good, and you can wash it down with craft beer instead of strawberry pop. But the best barbecue in town still comes out of the battered steel pits down at the original Bludso’s in Compton: deeply smoked sausages, lovely chickens and brisket that sometimes seems to flow from plate to mouth more as kind of a beef-flavored plasma than it does as actual meat. Kevin Bludso is also behind a fancy barbecue restaurant up on North La Brea Avenue (also one in Melbourne, Australia, of all places), but Compton is the place to be when the urge for barbecue strikes.
Fideo is made with thin noodles, a bit like vermicelli, that are traditionally broken into manageable pieces and toasted in oil before being introduced to simmering broth. In Spain, fideo is basically an alternative form of paella. In Mexico and the Mexican diaspora, where it is synonymous with home cooking, it is more of a soup, but almost infinitely customizable, with almost any kind of chile, meat, vegetable or garnish a cook could imagine. When you settle into a booth at Colonia Publica, basically a bar with a large michelada selection, you are handed a checklist asking exactly what you would like to put into your basic bowl (which you can get vegetarian if you like): chicken, shrimp or smoked sausage; crunchy fried pork rinds or greasy crumbles of chorizo; mushrooms or queso fresco; chopped chiles or juicy pico de gallo — or possibly all of the above. Ricardo Diaz is known for the elaborate tacos and antojitos at places like Tacoteca, Cook’s Tortas and Bizarra Capital, but at the moment Colonia Publica, which he has positioned as a Mexican American answer to ramen, may be his most appealing restaurant of all.
The existence of Gwang Yang BBQ, the only American branch of a small Seoul-based chain, may at first seem a bit odd. It occupies a luxurious space in a ’60s Brutalist office complex that looks like something out of an early Cronenberg film. It uses only prime beef. It charges prices not much less than what you might expect to pay in a splashy American steakhouse. And it is devoted to the cult of bulgogi, which has a reputation as the poor relation of the Korean barbecue world, the one dish nobody is happy to see on the table at a cheap all-you-can-eat KBBQ joint. But the banchan at Gwang Yang are good: puffing pots of steamed egg, pickled radish stems and the like. The crisp kimchi pancakes are served on an arrangement of fresh ggaenip leaves, the pungent herb at the heart of Korean cuisine. The yukhoe, a kind of Korean steak tartare, is luxuriant and soft. The barbecued skirt steak, rib steak and kkot sal are fine. And then the Gangnam-style bulgogi arrives: big, garlicky sheets of beef that crumple and soften on the grill, scented with smoke, sesame and pear, dissolving like ice cream on your tongue. It may not be too late to snag another order for dessert.
Some people new to the Little Ethiopia scene sometimes maintain that the restaurants there are more or less alike. Most of the restaurants in the neighborhood do feature the same half-dozen dishes, buy their injera from the same bakery and serve their multi-course feasts on huge metal trays. Genet Agonafer’s Ethiopian bistro too serves fragrant raw-beef kitfo, gored gored and all manner of the stews called tibs, giant vegetarian platters and sauce-soaked fitfit. Sometimes I even prefer the raw-edged grooviness of the other restaurants on the strip. But then I remember the vibrancy of Agonafer’s puréed fava-bean foul, her crisp-skinned fried trout and her lamb cooked down with garlic. And her doro wot, a complex braise of chicken with berbere, cloves and goosefoot herb, among many other things, is as sticky and dense as any French chef’s demi-glace, so formidably solid that the chicken might as well be just another part of the sauce.
Garlic & Chives is less a traditional Vietnamese restaurant than it is a modern small-plates bistro, a Little Saigon take on an American izakaya as reinterpreted by its chef, Kristin Nguyen. A lot of the flavors on the small plates do tend to be pretty Vietnamese, from the slivers of banana blossom in the pomelo salad to the wispy egg rolls wrapped with salmon belly in rice-paper rolls; from the chewy curls of skin in the goat curry to the julienne of beef jerky in the green papaya salad, but Vietnamese standards like stewed pork belly or catfish in caramel sauce may be served with sticky rice blasted in cast-iron until it resembles a loosely rolled noodle — and there is even a version of the famous toothpick lamb from the San Gabriel Valley’s Chengdu Taste. Drifts of fried minced garlic, brown and crunchy as Grape Nuts, are scattered over everything but dessert.
Brillat-Savarin once wrote about a cook who said that he could put 50 hams into a crystal flask no bigger than his thumb. And I think about that flask sometimes, usually when I confront a bowl of Hakata-style ramen at Tsujita, a spinoff of a respected Tokyo ramen-ya, in its pungent broth of Kurobuta pork bones boiled almost to a point beyond reason — or even more so the tsukemen, chewy noodles served with a dipping sauce of that broth reduced several orders of magnitude beyond that. When a Tokyo friend said that he’d managed to drop 20 pounds just by cutting back on ramen, that was the ramen he’d been talking about. In the few years since the restaurant’s debut, there has been a ramen renaissance in Los Angeles, including several regional styles and Tsujita’s own Tokyo-style ramen at its annex just across Sawtelle, but its dense broth and weightless noodles are still the ones worth waiting in line for. Even the simmered egg, its yolk a vivid, reddish-yellow custard, is superb.
Some chefs create marvels with glimmering-fresh sea urchin, and others with top-rank Japanese beef. At Leona, Nyesha Arrington’s Venice bistro, I was once thunderstruck by a simple roasted squash. It had been presented in a manner that could have come out of a 17th century Dutch still life: upright, striped squashes stout as barrels, sprinkled with seeds and crinkly leaves. But Arrington left the skin on, which was surprisingly edible, and played up the stringy, seedy part that most of us scrape out by lacing it with tapioca and milky burrata cheese. There was a hint of vegetable aggression in the dish — she dared you to eat it whole — and in the end, a kind of revelation. She also makes her meatballs with beef heart, spikes her aligot with cauliflower, and tops her French fries with fried kale. At Leona, Arrington reveals herself as a traditional California chef with a sharp experimental streak. After dinner, it is pleasant to stroll down the next block and out to the end of Venice Pier.
I’d always thought the cream-dotted smoked steelhead roe dish at Son of a Gun tasted like deconstructed lox and cream cheese. Vinny Dotolo, who runs the restaurant with Jon Shook, told Lucky Peach that the inspiration was more bacon and eggs, which — with the touch of maple and the thin shards of pumpernickel toast — makes a certain amount of sense. Son of a Gun is Shook and Dotolo’s version of a Bob Seger-playing Florida fish shack on one of the lesser keys, a place you’d make a drive to for the fried-chicken sandwiches, smoked fish spread and shrimp sandwiches on white bread, peel-and-eat shrimp and a token plate of sweet baby back ribs. There’s an occasional touch of highbrow cooking here, yuzu kosho or foie gras or celtuce, but it’s probably just there to distract from the fact that fried alligator seems to have disappeared from the menu.
The restaurant is a gangsta’s paradise of tufted velvet, enamel and cut glass. The menu is as large and as lavishly illustrated as a stack of German fashion magazines. Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village, part of a small Shanghai-based restaurant chain, is ambitious in ways that probably haven’t occurred to most of its non-expat customers, who are happy enough with the splendid steamed chicken with scallion oil, smoked fish, lotus root stuffed with sticky rice and crocks of glazed Old Alley pork, which tastes like a rich, miraculous cross between pork belly and candy. But you’re really here for the crusty pan-fried soup dumplings called sheng jian bao. It’s OK. Everybody else here is eating sheng jian bao too. Afternoons feature mostly Cantonese dim sum, which is good enough but not really the point of the restaurant.
The Lebanese kitchen is the most cosmopolitan in the Middle East, the place where flavors from the Mediterranean and central Asia, Europe and the Levant come together into a lovely, multicultural cuisine. Local Lebanese restaurants such as Mantee, Sunnin, Alcazar and Carousel are well worth checking out, as are a half-dozen places in and around Anaheim. But it is Serge and Sossi Brady who have defined the local Lebanese-Armenian kitchen in Hollywood since at least the mid-1980s with their splendid array of the garlicky small dishes called mezze; roast chicken and barbecued quail, fried sardines and grilled sausages; Lebanese wine and house-made jallab. The photomurals of the Cedars of Lebanon have faded, but the cooking becomes more vibrant year after year. Try the crisp, rose-scented knafeh for dessert.
New Italian restaurants flash across the L.A. scene every year. Valentino is almost of a different world: dark and quiet, it is among the last of the great host-driven Italian restaurants, a place where some regulars have never seen a menu and the waiter’s job is to solidify abstract desire into fish and pasta and Vermentino. Valentino was the first in Los Angeles to serve white truffles, balsamic vinegar and radicchio, the first to fetishize great olive oil and the first to be as devoted to Italian wine as the French places were to Bordeaux — the list is extraordinary. If you are of an income and an inclination to command an ancient vintage of Barolo, you will find Valentino to be much as it ever was.
One of the San Gabriel Valley seafood palaces I visited this year had a top-tier banquet menu that cost $9,388, which may be a bargain price for a gently used Camry but is kind of a lot for a meal for 10. Dinner at Sea Harbour isn’t quite at that level, but it can be pretty expensive if your tastes run toward birds’ nests, live fish or dried sea cucumbers, crystal crabs, live prawns the size of plantains or geoduck. Its kitchen has long been considered the most serious in the San Gabriel Valley; the Hong Kong-American equivalent of a place like Spago. In the mornings, the dim sum is pretty much still the best in town, especially if you are open to things like fried chicken knees and scallop dumplings with fish roe alongside your barbecue pork buns and rice noodle rolls.
Could I be the wrong person to tell you about Sapp? Because as long as I’ve been going there, as many meals as I’ve eaten, I basically get the same thing: the funky, spicy, glowing compendium of beef broth, ground blood and offal called boat noodle soup, which may be my single favorite dish in Thai Town. I mean sometimes I get it without the offal on mornings when boiled liver just seems too much, and if I’m with someone else I make them get the jade noodles, tinted green with purèed spinach and tossed with Chinese barbecue, or the fragrant duck noodle soup. My kids grew up on the barbecued chicken. I’ll always ask if they happen to have the fried shrimp cakes — sometimes I get lucky — and often supplement the noodles with grilled Isaan sausage or an order of nam sod, a ground-pork salad spiked with slithery bits of pig’s ear and a generous shot of lime. What Sapp serves is Thai food cooked for people who eat Thai food every day.
If you want to understand Los Angeles in a single bite, you should probably escape that line at Pink’s and find your way down to the Mariscos Jalisco truck out in Boyle Heights. Order a taco dorado de camarones — you can get away with a simple “shrimp taco.” The taco will be fried crisp around the edges but slightly leathery toward its middle, moistened with a fresh chop of tomatoes and onions, with a bit of ripe avocado on the side. When you chomp into it, the sensation is of salt and corn and clean oil, a hint of spiciness, a bit of tartness from toasted cheese, and then the subtler crunch of well-handled shrimp. Raul Ortega has been making these tacos on this patch of street for decades; he lives in the complex just across the street. And along with Los Angeles, you are also tasting San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico, the Jalisco pilgrimage town where Ortega was raised, where these tacos are a specialty — and perhaps tasting a third place as well, because San Juan de los Lagos is nowhere near the shore. Cooking, like the places where it is found, is an endlessly mutable thing.
When you order a panucho, which is a split tortilla stuffed with black beans, fried crisp and drizzled with citrus, you will be presented with an orange habañero salsa, which is hot enough to make a whole classroom of third-graders cry. What you want to do, of course, is ask instead for the green habañero salsa, flecked with bits of charred skin, which is hot enough to make the first salsa seem like ketchup. Such is the way of Yucatecan cuisine. Chichén Itzá, a lunch counter in the La Paloma complex near USC, is the most serious Yucatecan restaurant in town, specializing in Mayan dishes like codzitos, egg-stuffed papadzules, and cochinita pibil that may have pre-dated Columbus, as well as modern Yucatecan dishes such as poc chuc and the Merida version of Lebanese kibbe. Wash it down with vivid-green drink made from the chaya leaf or the refreshingly tart agua fresca made from guanabana.
Los Angeles is home to a vast Indian community, and from Northridge to Artesia to Beverly Hills, you are rarely more than a few minutes’ drive from decent Indian food. So why do we end up so often at Mayura? Possibly because the restaurant, just a block from the studios in Culver City, is the only place in the Los Angeles area to specialize in the complex, largely vegetarian cooking of Kerala, and we are partial to the soft buttery smack of the cashew rice called venpongal, think the fermented-rice capsules called appam can be even more delicious with a curry than roti, kind of dig the baroque, cheesy variations on utthapam, and admire the restaurant’s maximum-coconut version of the vegetable stew avial. The dosas are pretty great too; the lunch buffets perhaps less so. Mayura has a separate kitchen preparing halal meat dishes in the north Indian mode, so if you’re craving tandoori chicken or Pakistani-style nehari instead of vada you’ll be fine.
The key to eating well in Koreatown is to decide in advance what you feel like eating and then go to a restaurant that specializes in that particular dish. Kobawoo House has a long menu, and you would be reasonably happy if you ordered the mung bean pancake, the potato pancake or the ginseng-stuffed game hen — Kobawoo is a first-rate place. The chewy, translucent acorn noodles tossed with vegetables and chile are good too. But the reason you are waiting 45 minutes for a table on a Tuesday is the bossam: a combination plate of boiled pork belly, turnip kimchi, sliced chiles and fermented tiny fish, which you transform into spicy cabbage-leaf bundles — sucker-punched with cloves of raw garlic if that’s your thing. There may be no better dish than bossam to accompany a cold bottle of soju.
Union serves what friends sometimes call Tuesday-night dinners, which is to say the kind of vaguely Italian meals that an ambitious person with an oversize cookbook collection and a strong farmer market habit might prepare for her book club when it was her turn to host: steamed mussels with guanciale; goat ricotta crostone with dates; or risotto with cherry tomatoes and basil. You can be sure that Bruce Kalman’s pasta is house-made, his Meyer lemons are house-cured, and the toasty nubs on his plates will usually turn out to be heritage grains. The great vegetables, you can take for granted. The touch of Italian soul, you cannot. The porchetta, the flavors of fennel and garlic ringing true, and the new potatoes roasted in pork fat are as nice as you suspect they might be.
Bellwether is a small, buzzy new-American bistro in a neighborhood that loves it. It is also, as the marketing people say, on trend. When you see the charred carrots, avocado hummus with fresh za’atar, charred octopus with preserved lemon, and meatballs baked with tomato and ricotta on the menu, you know that things like squid with romesco, hot-chicken sandwiches and tempura cauliflower with fish sauce vinaigrette will not be far behind. Are there barrel-aged cocktails? Wine on tap? Fried chicken night on Mondays? Do you even have to ask? But Ted Hopson, who spent years with Sang Yoon at Father’s Office and Lukshon, can really cook — even the steak fries turn out to be a two-day project. You can get a patty melt, or a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. Because Bellwether is the restaurant equivalent of that hot but awkward girl in the rom-com who ends up with the guy in the end.
The idea may have seemed heretical when it was whispered decades ago, but it has been proved over and again: Langer’s Delicatessen serves the best pastrami sandwich in America; dense and smoky, heavily peppered, steamed until it is tender and juicy, thickly hand-sliced, and gently layered onto crunchy-crusted double-baked rye. Smear on a bit of yellow mustard and it’s done: a masterpiece of the counterman’s art, the same since the restaurant opened in 1947. “Why did I specialize in pastrami?” the deli’s late patriarch Al Langer once asked. “Because it costs me a little less than corned beef.” We should all be so smart.
Phillip Frankland Lee is one of the most idiosyncratic chefs in a city filled with them, a proponent of ingredient-driven abstraction whose presentations sometimes resemble fourth-grade science projects and a proponent of tasting menus so long that it is easy to get the feeling he gets a little lost along the way. (Around course five, I sometimes start thinking about the 20-minute solos Jimmy Page would take in the middle of “Dazed and Confused,” the ones where the violin bows somehow appeared.) And in what is either Lee’s most brilliant or most random move yet, he closed his original Scratch Bar and his vegan restaurant Gadarene Swine and moved to a faceless Encino shopping mall — his house-made cheese and cured meats, and his rustic constructions of king crab with white gazpacho, lamb belly with currants and smelt in brioche are even more surreal in context.
If Guerrilla Tacos is Exhibit A, Rice Bar is Exhibit B, manned by Charles Olalia, who left his job as executive chef at Patina to open this seven-stool lunch counter downtown, a miniature palace of Spam and fried egg, pancit noodles, and homey Rice Krispies treats. The menu is mostly rice bowls, topped with things like crunchy dried anchovies, braised beef or sweet longanisa sausage, all throwbacks to Olalia’s Filipino childhood, garnished with the appropriate pickles, and prepared as carefully as you might expect from a chef who trained at the French Laundry and Guy Savoy. There is a mineral lusciousness to the beef, which happens to be served on heirloom Kalinga Unoy rice from the Philippines. That lovely, soft pork longanisa is made by Olalia himself — the sausage stuffer takes up a bit of real estate in the room. The line at lunch is long — almost everybody gets their food to go — but it moves fast, and there is more room to breathe in the late afternoon. After so many years of neglect, modernized Filipino cooking is finally coming into its own, and Olalia’s tiny counter has a lot to do with its renaissance.
Is Gjusta a bakery? Kind of. The charred, crunchy baguettes and best-in-city sourdough loaves dominate one end of the enormous marble counter, along with tarts, flatbreads, quiches and butter-saturated croissants. Is it a deli? Also yes: A few yards farther down are house-cured pastramis, pickles and hams, all manner of vegetable preparations, and an extensive array of house-smoked fish and their condiments. Someone will eventually notice your helplessness and assemble your lunch, acting more as a personal shopper than as a traditional counterperson. Are you a cucumber limeade person or more of a café con leche man? Do you want your lox on a bialy unadorned, fully loaded, or as part of a fish plate? Is the kitchen out of porchetta again? That gooey chicken Parm is you! If you haven’t been in a while, you will be glad to note that, finally, Gjusta has actual chairs.
How long is the line outside Lincoln on weekend mornings? Long enough that you are tempted to try all the things, the kouign-amann, the gravlax toast and the flower-strewn tartines, because you have seen them stream by you in such profusion that you end up getting two cortados because you know that you’re going to finish one by the time your creamy Parmesan eggs get to the table, and hell, maybe a ribbon-tied bag of buttery sea-salt caramels for the road. Lincoln is sort of the local center of Things in a Bowl, which include a breakfast bowl that has all the ingredients of an English fry-up under its thicket of baby kale leaves. From Pie 'n Burger through Marston’s and EuroPane, Pasadena has always been a good breakfast town, but it has never seen anything like Christine Moore’s vast renovated machine shop, a factory of good cheer.
When Kristen Trattner and Monica May flew into Nashville to see Cher a few years ago, they fell in love with Nashville hot chicken instead. And their Wednesday hot chicken dinners are wonderful — the carefully fried chicken is served on the requisite slice of white bread with Kool-Aid pickles, and practically incandesces with heat. There are homemade biscuits and bowls of coleslaw. Life is good. Nickel may attract more loft-dwellers than artists these days, there are leeks and fontina in scrambled eggs, and the pastries go beyond bacon-maple doughnuts now, but this is still deep downtown, a half-block from the infamous stretch of 5th Street that troubadours like Tom Waits used to sing about. Pancakes and thick-cut bacon, fried catfish and corn cakes, Lowrider Burgers and Hangover Helper — that’s why you go to the Nickel, which caters as much to the local street people as it does to the tax attorneys who roll in on skateboards.