Dining in Los Angeles blurs the line between formality and informality without sacrificing a whit of culinary creativity, devotion to high quality ingredients or the chance to drink some good wines with the food. At least that’s true at my favorite restaurants, whether the bill makes a big dent in my wallet or a small one. Los Angeles hookups favorite restaurants take advantage of the elements that make L.A. special for food-and-wine lovers. Southern California’s mild weather invites patio dining. Menus rely on the proximity of local farms for great raw ingredients. Chefs’ innovations are inspired by the town’s easy acceptance of A ian and Mediterranean cooking. Wine lists often snag some of the state’s rarer finds. My list of personal favorites includes some decidedly casual restaurants, where I can find a warm welcome and food with big personality without spending a fortune, and some big-deal restaurants, where inventive chefs deliver refined plates that push the boundaries of fine cuisine’. The majority of my choices, however, give the option of scaling up or down, allowing me to indulge in multiple courses of elaborate creations for the whole evening, or to just order a dish or two-even create a meal of appetizers-drink some great wine and be out in an hour. At heart, Los Angeles is not a formal city. At none of these restaurants will a man feel uncomfortable jacketless and in an opencollar shirt. The city has the easvgoing-yet-Iuxurious approach down welL Geographically, Los Angeles sprawls; it can take hours to cross the city by car. Fortunately, most of the best restaurants lie on the Westside, which includes Beverly Hills and West Hollywood in a swath that runs from downtown westward, to Santa Monica. You can find good restaurants in San Fernando Valley, Pasadena and Orange County, but as is the case anywhere else, the best tend to collect where there is a ready clientele. Convenient to the wealthy enclaves of Bel Air, Brentwood and Holmby Hills, the Westside is the L.A. equivalent of Manhattan to New York’s boroughs, Paris to its environs, San Francisco to its suburbs. It is home to nine of the dozen restaurants on my list. L.A.’s downtown, much of it downscale only 10 years ago, continues a revitalization that today includes the stunning Frank Gehrydesigned WaIt Disney Concert Hall and a forest of luxurious new apartment buildings. Destination restaurants are blossoming there too, and several make my list. A further indication of how good LA’s restaurant scene has become is that more than half of the restaurants on my list opened their doors just this decade. In a place where being new is almost as important as being good, that’s saying a lot. No one knows the value of innovation quite so well as Wolf gang Puck. LA’s most famous chef has been inventing genres since he opened SPAGO in West Hollywood in 1982 and traded in his chef’s toque for a baseball cap to signify the restaurant’s casual A dessert of profiteroles as serve nature. Serving creative pizzas and melding stylish modernism of this trailbla American, Italian and Asian ingredients and ideas as if they had always belonged together, Puck paved the path for what we now know as California cuisine. Chinois on Main, where he introduced Asian-American fusion in 1983, is still going strong. Other Puck restaurants came and went over the years, but all were fun while they lasted. Anyone remember the long-gone Granita, overlooking the ocean” in Malibu, or Eureka, an early brewpub? Lee Hefter has kept the food vibrant at Spago since it moved in 1997 from funky West Hollywood to upscale Beverly Hills. There are some Spago regulars who never explore the menu past the famous smoked salmon pizza and the Cantonese-style roast duck, but I always start with the sashimi, as good as any sushi bar’s, and then look to see what Hefter and his crew have come up with lately. On my last visit, it was pan-roasted king salmon fillet with eggplant-shallot masala, cilantro-mint raita and Indian spices, a phenomenal balance of flavors with the fish. A list of 850 wines bristles with lesser-known California wineries and discoveries from around the world, and pricing is not excessive. No one makes dessert taste quite so perfect as pastry chef Sherry Yard. Even the mignardises, or small bites of sweets, are memorable, including Yard’s tiny, soft and creamy caramels. In 2006, Puck redefined another genre with CUT, which ranks among the best of the new, chef-driven steak houses sweeping the country (see “The New American Steak House,” Aug. 31, 2007). The open kitchen and the clean lines, shiny hardwood floors and white walls of the bright dining room, designed by architect Richard Meier, feel more like an indoor veranda than the clubby interior of a typical American steak house. The entree choices include several types of beef delivered with no frills, including insanely rich, true Kobe from Japan, but also feature whole fish and other options. The appetizers and side dishes show what a creative chef can bring to a classic steak house. The ever-changing fiveway appetizer plate is a must-order; in one instance, burrata and prosciutto dressed a first course of figs. In a side dish, a sunnysideup egg was cut into creamed spinach. The wine lists at Spago and Cut don’t bowl you over with deep verticals, but they vary widely enough to include some blueribbon options and even some older California wines not available in many other places. A who’s who of California Chardonnay, Burgundy whites, Austrian whites, Rhones and Syrahs typify the Spago offerings, and 1997 California Cabernets, including Dalla Valle, Harlan and Caymus Special Selection, cap Cut’s steak-friendly list. For something more elaborate, I could turn to Melisse in Santa Monica, where chef [osiah Citrin honors the modern wing of French cuisine, or to Patina, ]oachim Splichal’s Grand Award winner at Disney Hall. (XIV, from San Francisco chef Michael Mina, opened too late for review for this story.) But for me, the nod goes to two of L.A.’s most adventurous chefs. At SONA, David Myers gears his hypermodern cooking to dovetail with the Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine list, which exceeds 2,000 options. The otherwise downscale stretch of La Cienega Boulevard belies the elegance and sophistication of the restaurant’s cool interior, and of the food. Myers uses foams, emulsions, gels and other artistic touches but doesn’t overdo them. He ranges far and wide for ingredients, and his plates look stunning. But what really matters is how subtle and fine everything tastes, and how it cozies up to great wines. Trust sommelier Mark Mendoza to make great pairings. I especially like what Myers does with vegetables and herbs. He smokes eggplant to make a puree; dresses roasted beets with candied Meyer lemon peel; sneaks a kaffir lime leaf into a lobster emulsion. His wife, Michelle, brings a similar outside-the-box approach to desserts, often slipping in a haunting chile-hot or savory note into her sweets. Michael Cimarusti brings a similarly modern perspective to sustainable seafood at PROVIDENCE, which occupies the old Patina space on a remote, anonymous block of Melrose Avenue. He frames the sweet natural flavor of halibut with a delicate basil crust and tomato compote studded with tiny fried clams. But he also knows when to keep it simple, as when he cooks Santa Barbara spot prawns by burying them in hot salt. During my visit, a waiter deftly carved them tableside and drizzled on a peppery Spanish olive oil as a final touch. The plates always look like they’re ready for an art book. Providence’s wine list of 400 includes easy-on-the-checkbook options such as fresh Spanish whites and Australian Rieslings, whil
e some blue-chip white Burgundies and California Chardonnays can put a serious uptick on the credit card balance. Three more fish restaurants that reflect L.A.’s cultural mix rank among my favorites: one a traditional American seafood house, another a phenomenal sushi bar and the last a family-owned restaurant that dresses up fish with spicy Mexican flavors. At WATER GRI LL, the club by downtown restaurant where Providence’s Cimarusti first came to prominence, chef David LeFevre takes the traditional American seafood house up several levels. Tile floors, vaulted ceilings, polished wood paneling and brass rails-not to mention an impressive display of seafood on ice-present a classy picture. LeFevre upgrades classic fish house fare, filling his sensational crab cakes with both blue and Dungeness crab and very little breading, serving them with harissa to spice it up and lime-yogurtcucumber sauce to cool things off. He echoes the creamy texture of bigeye tuna with green tea-flavored noodles and sets it off with a citrusy sauce. Dishes like these, plus a smart, 800-selection wine list, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner with plenty of offbeat picks to consider alongside the classic choices, would make this the best fish restaurant in town in most other American cities. I could happily eat sushi daily, and in a city where sushi bars dot the landscape as coffee shops once did, I could have easily filled my list of favorite L.A. restaurants with a dozen sushi bars, or turned to some ofL.A.’s ground breaking Japanese fusion restaurants. Nobu Matsuhisa, who launched his far-flung restaurant empire from Beverly Hills, now has three restaurants here. Hokusai ranks among the best of the Asian fusion restaurants he inspired, but nothing can compare with URASAWA. To eat at this hidden-away, 18- seat sushi bar, you must ride a private elevator to the second floor of a Beverly Hills shopping mall and pay $300 for Hiro Urasawa to craft 20 to 30 tiny courses for you. Imagine having a three-star chef personally prepare your dinner before your eyes. It’s easy to forget how a great practitioner of this Japanese specialty can take your breath away with ‘Simplicity, quality and sheer artistry. Urasawa worked with Masa Takayama here when the space was the legendary Ginza Sushiko, before Takayama moved to New York in 2004. Urasawa might start you off with eight or 10 appetizers, such as a golf ball-sized serving of hairy crab from Hokkaido, delicately flavored with a yuzulike citrus; or nuggets of sweet shrimp and diced matsutake mushroom suspended in a silky egg custard, topped with caviar and a fragile square of gold foil. A block of carved ice serves as a plate for sashimi artfully rolled into a rose shape, the fish a revelation for its clarity of flavor and impeccable texture. Slices of toro tuna cook on a hot stone set before you. Then comes a succession of nigiri sushi, with the recommendation to eat each one within 10 seconds of its delivery for the best effect. Poles apart from the Beverly Hills exclusivity of Urasawa, LA SERENATA DE GARIBALDI occupies a stucco building in Boyle Heights, east of downtown. The family-owned restaurant extends a welcome as generous as the portions and celebrates the diversity of California seafood with brilliant sauces and preparations from south of the border. Chef-owner Jose Rodriguez’s vivid, clean flavors emphasize the unmistakable taste of spanking-fresh fish and shrimp, and preparations favor olive oil over lard. You can choose how you want your fish prepared. Grilled and served with pico de gallo, olive oil and lime? In a fresh sauce: spinach, cilantro, chipotle or garlic? Oaxacan style, with chunks of vegetables and a zap of chile de arbol? Then there are Rodriguez’s creations, such as salmon bathed in salsa verde with a serious chile kick and served over squash. Don’t forget to start with sopes, thick corn cakes topped with shredded beef in a peppy guajillo sauce. Neither Urasawa nor Serenata lists more than two dozen wines, but the choices transcend the usual options found at Japanese or Mexican restaurants. Serenata offers some good mid-priced bottles, including Duval-Leroy Champagne NY, a repeat visitor to the Wine Spectator Top 100. Urasawa focuses on high-ticket white Burgundies and Champagnes, but you can always bring your own, or indulge in a fine sake.
ood Italian restaurants abound in Los Angeles, probably because the informality of the cuisine and emphasis on freshness fit completely with local preferences. The up-to-the-minute ideas at Drago, the crudo at Il Grano, the old-school vibe at Madeo, and the soulful roasts at Vincenti have serious fans, but my three choices represent very different aspects of Italy, and of Los Angeles itself. One is a true Italian trattoria, a style prevalent in L.A., and the only restaurant on this list in the hip Melrose Avenue-Beverly Boulevard-Third Street restaurant district that emerged in the 1990s on the Westside. Another restaurant not only has unusually fine Italian food but represents something more, with both a bar dedicated to mozzarella and a pizzeria next door that rates among America’s best. The third has been around for three decades and offers one of the world’s great wine cellars. At ANGELINI OSTERIA, on Beverly Boulevard, Gino Angelini serves traditional Tuscan trattoria food, such as downhome pastas and a great rendition of bistecca alla Fiorentina, to diners who rub shoulders at closely spaced tables. Calamari retains its creamy texture inside its crunchy fried shell in a fritto misto that includes fennel and lemon slices. Duck ragu cooked to a heady essence makes a great foil for pappardelle, and the freshness and simple vitality of whole branzino is a reminder of how comfortably the Italian approach to seafood fits in California. The compact wine list often has some nice surprises on it, including good Chianti and Brunello from the mid-1990s. Prices are moderate. The cozy space vibrates with spirited conversations. A few blocks from Providence stands the two-year-old OSTERIA MOZZA, the partnership of local heroine Nancy Silverton and New York stars Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich. You can book a table in the main part of the restaurant for upscale Italian cuisine, or take a seat at the mozzarella bar where, from behind the counter, Silverton dolls up plates of great fresh mozzarella with savory garnishes. Next door, at Pizzeria Mozza, the woodburning brick oven provides the final touch to pizzas that taste like classics even though you probably never had these particular combinations elsewhere: I swoon over the version with wild nettles, salame and cacio di Roma cheese. Fennel sausage with cream (and no cheese), anyone? Osteria’s wine list bulges with mature Barolo, Barbaresco and Tuscan classics, perfect for chef Matt Molina’s gentle updatings of traditional Italian dishes such as maccheroni alla chitarra with guanciale and tomato, striped bass Livornese, and beefbrasato with polenta. Silverton being a peerless baker, this is one Italian restaurant where you want to save room for dessert. I favor the torta della nonna, a ricotta pie with pine nuts and several different honeys. At VALENTI NO in Santa Monica, owner-host Piero Selvaggio can match his kitchen’s refined specialties with apt choices from the far corners of Italy off his Grand Award-winning wine list. The list, numbering more than 2,500 labels, overflows with insider favorites from every region on the boot, and if Selvaggio is in the house, he can reach into the cellar to find a whole meal’s worth of unexpected wine hits. The list also addresses California and the rest of the world impressively. Or you can get a glass to go with a bowl of spaghetti at the casual wine bar out front. In recent years, the kitchen at Valentino has had its ups and downs due to a succession of chefs, but it seems to have found its footing again with chef Tomasso Tarantino. After working under Luciano Pellegrino at Valentino Las Vegas until 2007, Tarantino spent six months in Sicily immersing himself in Selvaggio’s native cuisine. On a recent visit, the Sicilian dishes sparkled with freshness and delicacy. Creations such as thinly sliced eggplant with olives and lemon, tuna with blood oranges, and spaghetti in red chile pepper oil with tiny onions won me over anew.
For Chinese food, which L.A. has always done well, I could have gone with any number of bustling Hong Kong- or Shanghai-style restaurants east of downtown, where fish and shellfish swim in big tanks until you order. But none of them so much as pays lip service to wine. At YUJEAN KANG’S in Pasadena’s Old Town, inventive, deftly prepared Chinese cuisine meets a surprisingly savvy wine list, and for me that tips the balance. On a recent visit, a remarkably tender stir-fry of silken squash and chicken brought out the best in a dry, minerally, seven-year-old Stony Hill Riesling, one of the unsung heroes of Napa Valley and hard to find anywhere. Kang’s operates out of a modest storefront, and on Saturday nights it does a resounding takeout business, which can slow down the dine-in service early in the evening. But it’s worth the trip to be reminded of how smoothly wine and Chinese food can coexist. French restaurants are conspicuously absent from my list of favorite L.A. restaurants, One of the newest lights in l.A.’s dining firmame although not because L.A. lacks good ones. Aside from the aforementioned Melisse, you won’t find a better evocation of a classic French brasserie anywhere in America than Comme Ca, opened last year by Myers ofSona. I have been impressed with Christophe Erne’s modem touches at Ortolan and with Michel Richard’s return to L.A. with Citrus at Social. Bastide at times has looked as if it might challenge the best French restaurants in the United States, but multimillionaire owner [oe Pytka keeps changing chefs and revamping the place. At this writing it is closed, awaiting another remodel. (Bastide's first chef, Alain Giraud, recently opened Anisette, a French brasserie in Santa Monica.) So for now it's clear that French cuisine peaked here in the 1970s, when several now-defunct French restaurants dominated the finedining scene. That group included Ma Maison, where Puck made his name as a fancy French chef; Le Dome (now the site of a BLT Steak); l'Ermitage; and L'Orangerie, the last of this group to go, in 2006. In a telling changeover, Nobu Los Angeles recently opened on the site of L'Orangerie, but the turning point actually came much earlier. When Puck got into a dispute with Ma Maison's owner and left, in 1981, to start Spago, he turned L.A. dining in a whole new direction. Puck's mix of casual and sophisticated elements has become the most prevalent style of L.A. dining today. The model makes a fetish of market-fresh ingredients and clear-eyed preparations, lifting the idea of neighborhood cafes to an art form. Suzanne Goin has three fine examples: her glorified wine bar on Third Street, A.O.c.; her husband's pared-down seafood cafe in Hollywood, the Hungry Cat; and her flagship, the casually elegant Lucques on Melrose. At his similarly refined but comfortable ]oe’s in Venice, ]oseph Miller is making great unpretentious dishes. Meanwhile, Eric Greenspan, once executive chef of Patina, upgrades good neighborhood fare with unexpected balances at the Foundry on Melrose. At CRAFT LOS ANGELES, however, New York chef Tom Colicchio does them one better. His food starts with the same local-local-local idea and opens it up into something even more vibrant. This outpost of his original Craft in New York occupies a low-rise, modem, freestanding building set among the tall, anonymous structures of Century City. Chef Matthew Accarino’s unflagging devotion to ingredients is·apparent in the a la carte menu, which lists dozens of dishes based on what’s best and freshest in the market. That leaves it up to us to make dinner out of one or two dishes, or to expand it into a tasting menu. I love that flexibility. An example of Craft’s creative approach is the salad of baby romaine, tender and sweet as butter lettuce, with whole fresh anchovies fried in a light batter and scattered on top. It’s a knockout. Fifteen or 20 vegetable dishes offer a veritable farmers’ market tour. Pastas compare with those of the best Italian restaurants in L.A. The wine list of 400 selections focuses on discoveries from Austria to Australia, including some nice verticals. Despite his New York roots, Colicchio gets what L.A. dining is all about: a menu full of great choices that focus like a laser on ingredients, presentations that rely on color and freshness rather than architectural structure, and a friendly wine list. The view gazes upon greenery-you can see the sky from your table-and service is buttoned-up but still relaxed. There was a time when dining in L.A. seemed derivative. It was either trying to outdo its intrastate rival San Francisco or make dining glamorous in a kind of Hollywood version of New York or Paris. Today, it has a style all its own, good enough to attract outsiders. In addition to Colicchio, empire-building chefs such as Mina, Batali, Gordon Ramsay, Jose Andres and Laurent Tourondel (of BLT Steak) are currently wooing Los Angeles diners. As long as they can deliver the relaxed but elegant food and wine experience that makes L.A. special, they can count on me as a patron.