It had been thirty years since I had lived in Los Angeles. I had been back a couple of times, but never spent any considerable time there and when I was there, food wasn't a major reason for being there. In recent years, though, the city had become more prominent on my food radar.
Even back when I lived there, L.A. Was a great city for ethnic cuisines, especially those from Asia and Mexico. With Hollywood and all it's wealth and fame, a ritzy fine dining scene had always been present, but the restaurants had always struck me as too expensive, too boring and too much about the scene. While there had always been a few restaurants that sounded interesting like Spago, Matsuhisa, and a few others, there were not enough of them to draw me back – until now. I spent four nights in Los Angeles packing in as many interesting and different culinary experiences as I could and I just touched the surface of what is available. While it may not have happened over night, I can affirm that Los Angeles has arrived as a major, world-class food city with a culinary life as exciting as anywhere in the United States right now.
My first stop was the legendary Urasawa on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. A restaurant not for the faint of wallet, it is transcendent. A small, intimate, brightly lit room filled with Hiro-san's counter and decorated with his own ice sculptures and flower arrangements, it is a place where the cares of the outside world are generally left behind. Every detail is important at Urasawa. Starting with a kaiseki progression of seasonal composed dishes made with impeccable product including the freshest seafood from Japan and elsewhere, true Kobe beef, gold leaf, caviar and more, all served on exquisite Japanese pottery and then moving on to astoundingly good sushi, my meal was as fine a Japanese meal as I've ever had and an incredible experience all around. Aside from the extreme, but justifiable cost, the only issue I have with the restaurant is that bluefin tuna remains prominent on the typical kaiseki experience. In fact, Urasawa has the reputation for serving some of the finest bluefin anywhere. That fact almost made me avoid the place as I am quite concerned about the near term extinction possibility of this magnificent fish. I love eating it, but would like my sons and their children to be able to enjoy it down the road in the hope that somehow the species can be saved and thrive enough to be consumed again without worry or guilt. I determined that I would go anyway, but not eat the bluefin. When I made my reservation I answered “no bluefin, please,” when asked if there were any things I could not or would not eat. I was curious to see if a restaurant so renowned for that fish, would still be worth the tariff without it. Though I longed for the beautiful O-toro and Chu-toro served to the other diners, the truth is, my meal was simply stunning and totally satisfying even without bluefin. With exquisite service, pleasant conversation from Hiro-San and the other guests, a wonderful Japanese aesthetic and epiphanic food, Urasawa was a restaurant to remember and a sensational way to begin my culinary visit to Los Angeles.
The next morning, I met my culinary tour guide, Russell Wong of the blog The Food and I, when he met me at my hotel, the ever-reliable, warm and comfortable Kimpton Hotel Palomar in Westwood. I had been acquainted virtually with Russell via eGullet.org since about 2004. A big fan of the L.A. Culinary scene, Russell quickly volunteered to guide me once he knew I was planning a trip. Our first stop was the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Steering me towards some of the more interesting vendors at the market in between introducing me to various area chefs and culinary people, Russell proved to be an outstanding guide and a great friend. The market itself, visited on a perfect blue sky day (imagine that!), was a delight at this time of year to this easterner. Filled with various citrus, nuts, wonderful tomatoes, persimmons and much more, I felt like a kid in a candy store, needing to restrain myself to buying only things that could keep and that I could carry back home. One of the more special stands was that of a farm that grows and sells Australian finger limes. A delightful fruit, that I would subsequently encounter in two of the best meals of the trip, I bought a box to take home. I could have bought so much more!
From the market we headed downtown, passing by a myriad of restaurants, one more interesting than the next. After a quick stop on Wilshire to check out the status of Red Medicine, Jordan Kahn's Vietnamese inspired restaurant (I had hoped that it would be open in time for my visit, but alas, not), we headed toward Highland & Melrose to lunch at Pizzeria Mozza. I had heard from a number of reliable sources that the pizze were superb. While some of the other dishes such as the tiny and over-fried arrancine were forgettable, the pizze most certainly were not. The crusts were ethereally light, crunchy and delicious, while supporting superb toppings. We shared two pizze, one with squash blossoms and angelic burrata and another with bacon, guanciale, salame and devilish hot, fennel sausage, tomato and mozzarella. Both were exquisite. I would have loved to try more, but our appetites were waning and we wanted to leave room for dessert. I went with a trio of two gelati (olive oil – I love Mario Batali's olive oil gelato at Otto in NYC - and Pignoli and rice) and a dark chocolate sorbet, while Russell opted for their renowned Butterscotch Budino.
We stepped out of Pizzeria Mozza and Russell wanted to show me the nearby Hatfield's, a beautiful room with a very tempting menu. Prior to lunch we debated which we would dine at. Pizzeria Mozza won because I was simply more curious to try their vaunted pizze, but Hatfield's looked to have been a wonderful choice as well. From Hatfield's we hoofed a short distance to Domaine L.A., a wonderful little wine shop, where owner Jill Bernheimer helped me pick out a couple of interesting California wines to bring to an underground dinner party the next night. In the process, Russell and I became their “Customers of the Day!”
Just short of comatose, Russell dropped me off at my hotel to rejuvenate for the evening. Our theme for the evening would be Spanish. We started at Bazaar by Jose Andres at the SLS Hotel on La Cienega. Having been to a number of Jose Andres' restaurants in Washington, D.C., including the inimitable minibar, I was very curious to check it out. When I asked Jose on Twitter what the difference was between Bazaar and minibar, he responded somewhat cryptically, “Bazaar is Bazaar and minibar is minibar.” Though both restaurants serve some of the same dishes, I did not really understand his reply until I stepped into Bazaar. Yes, some of the food is the same with a number of dishes developed at minibar found on the menu at Bazaar, but the restaurants are completely different experiences. The scene at Bazaar is reminiscent of something out of Alice in Wonderland. It is both elegant and wild, stretching over a considerable expanse of hotel real estate with two different main dining rooms (one emphasizing more traditional Spanish fare and the other more whimsical modern, creative cuisine from the minds of Andres and his team at Think.Food.Group.), a bar area with one long communal table and a number of smaller tables located in various nooks and crannies and a fantastical dessert area set amongst an unusual shop in which one can by a wild variety of products. Russell and I had cocktails (I had a "Liquid Cherry" Manhattan with an encapsulated cherry while Russell had the "Magic" Mojito with cotton candy) and shared a few snacks including a wonderful version of the Catalan classic, “pa amb tomaquet;” a platter of silky Spanish jamones including Serrano, Iberico and de Bellota; and perfect chicken croquetas. As Jose wrote, minibar is minibar and Bazaar is Bazaar, but Bizaare is also bizarre, but in the most wonderful way.
We continued our noche de España with a drive over to Test Kitchen, a restaurant designed to host an unending array of special dinners put on by Los Angeles area and other chefs, as a way to do something different or showcase an upcoming restaurant opening. On this evening we dined on 20 different tapas prepared by Chefs Walter Manzke (formerly of Church & State) and the Valencian Perfecto Rocher. These also had wine pairings associated with them as well as a number of cocktails available. Given the nature of this busy restaurant including an unfamiliar kitchen and an unfamiliar service staff, the fact that this ambitious undertaking was as good as it was, was impressive. That isn't to say that it provided a great or even good example of tapas. The quality and execution varied wildly with some of the earlier dishes quite tasty, while others, like the soft and crustless fideus, would have been better unserved. I was impressed that they served Spanish head on red prawns, but unfortunately and predictably, they were no where near the size or quality that one might find in Palamos or Denia. Then again, those prawns would likely have made the meal financially prohibitive, if they could even have been had. The food may not have been executed with the quality for which I might have hoped, but the dishes were strong conceptually. Had this been a smaller venue, a less ambitious project (20 preparations is 20 preparations even when they are small ones) or they had more time than the two days they did to make it work, it likely would have been much more successful as a meal. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to watch the concept of Test Kitchen in action.
One can't go to a major or even more minor American city today without finding examples of the cocktail renaissance that has been going on in this country for the last 10 years or so. Los Angeles is no exception. I got to experience a wonderful example following the tapas dinner, when we headed to The Library Bar at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel across Hollywood Boulevard from Graumann's Chinese Theater. I had met Matt Biancaniello earlier that day, when he was shopping at the Santa Monica Farmers Market for a variety of fresh produce to use in his mixological creations. He left the market with various chillies, tomatoes, herbs, finger limes, other fruit and even emu eggs. I sampled (literally) a few of his marvelous creations including an "Umami Manhattan" that paired his own candy cap mushroom infused Basil Hayden's bourbon with Cynar and Carpano, a "Nutty Monk" with Benedictine, walnut oil, fresh meyer lemon and cacao nibs and another called a "Mexican Last Word" with cilantro infused gin, Luxardo maraschino liquer, lime juice, green Chartreuse on top of which he misted ghost pepper infused reposado tequila spray to give the drink a special bite. Biancaniello uses only fresh juices, herbs, vegetables and fruit in all his cocktail creations. While he likes to play and create on the go for anyone who is interested, his instincts are very good and thus so are his cocktails.
I needed to sample the ethnic side of culinary Los Angeles and chose Monte Alban, a small Oaxacan restaurant located on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A. Heading towards Santa Monica. The fresh guacamole, molote (deep fried corn meal stuffed with marinated potatoes and chorizo and topped with beans, lettuce, cheese and salsa), memela (thick corn tortilla topped with black bean paste, cheese, salsa and cesina (pork)) and Oaxacan mole negro with chicken more than hit the spot. While possibly available in NYC, good Oaxacan cooking or other Mexican sub-cuisines like this is not easily found there. The mole, in particular, was superb with deep, rich and complex flavors and only a hint of sweetness. I returned for breakfast on my way to the airport and had a typical Oaxacan “festival” breakfast of higaditos. Reminiscent of a good matzoh ball soup with matzoh, the dish. consisted of a rich chicken broth with a large clump of scrambled eggs with chicken, tomato, onions, saffron and chillies along with a rich red chili salsa on top. The steaming, fresh corn tortillas welcomed a side of the salsa for dipping and eating. A large cup of Oaxacan hot chocolate with milk completed the meal and satisfied me all the way home.
The food scene of Los Angeles is not just about restaurants. The food truck revolution really took off here with the Korean/Mexican fusion Kogi truck being one of the earliest examples to achieve significant notoriety. Unfortunately, I did not get to experience any examples of that, but I did get to experience the Wolve's Den, a private, underground dinner party put on periodically by a very talented young chef, Craig Thornton. Thornton, who goes by the moniker Wolvesmouth on Twitter and facebook is the former personal chef to Nicholas Cage and his family. He left that post this past spring to concentrate on doing these multi-course tasting dinners for twelve people. Recently featured in the L.A. Weekly Squid Ink Blog with an interview, these dinners have become a sensation and difficult to reserve. Set in an apartment in the Arts district of the resurgent downtown L.A., Thornton's dinner was a sheer delight. His cooking was personal, creative, often brilliant and never less than delicious. The dinner party format made for a great social occasion as well. Amongst the other diners were Tomo another physician food blogger and John Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the chef-owners of the popular and critically acclaimed restaurant, Animal (unfortunately I didn't get to try Animal on this trip even though it was on my short list). Dotolo and Shook are currently in the process of opening a second restaurant in L.A. This one, they say, will be different than Animal and more reflective of their Florida upbringing.
Ultra-luxe fine dining is thankfully not dead in L.A. Michael Cimarusti's Providence, now five years old, was one of the very first restaurants that brought L.A. to my attention. Sitting through a special tasting menu at lunch on Friday (the only day they open for lunch) provided a parade of glorious dish after glorious dish, including a dish of fresh Alaskan king crab paired with vanilla foam, veal jus and black truffles. Prior to cooking the still-living king crab was brought to our table by suave Providence host and co-owner Donato Poto for our inspection and admiration. The impressive specimen went back to a noble end. The meal finished with several spectacular desserts by Pastry whiz, Adrian Vasquez. Alas, for Providence and Los Angeles, Vasquez will be leaving the restaurant at the end of the year to join his wife in Boston, where she had been offered a position to good to pass up.
Another Los Angeles phenomenon is the pop-up restaurant. No one has garnered more attention or been more successful at it than Chef Ludo Lefebvre who along with his wife Krissy have created Ludobites, a succession of dining engagements at a variety of locations. Now finishing its sixth iteration, LudoBites 6.0 took place at a small restaurant (Max) in the San Fernando Valley in Sherman Oaks just outside of L.A. Each version of LudoBites is completely different than the others. This one featured Asian flavors. While not every dish hit the mark, a few including some of the desserts such as the Crème fraiche panna cotta with caramel and caviar and the Warm carrot cake with coconut, Thai curry, mango sorbet and kaffir lime oil were absolutely brilliant. Coupled with wonderful company, it made a very enjoyable evening.
I ate extremely well in my too brief time in L.A., but there was still so much I couldn't get to, high end restaurants, food trucks, and entire ethnic genres. Amongst other things, I missed places like Jitlada, the fiery Southern Thai restaurant considered by many to be the best in the city and one of the finest in the country; Mo-chica, the critically-acclaimed South-east L.A. Peruvian; Melisse, Josiah Citron's Michelin 2 star French; Huckleberry for a legendary breakfast; any number of Korean fried chicken places; JTYH for Shanxi knife-cut noodles and dumplings and so many more. With the variety and quality of food available in L.A. right now, the city should be on everybody's food radar.