AT A RECENT DINNER PARTY I MET A FRENCH COUPLE WHO’D RECENTLY MOVED FROM PARIS TO BEVERLY HILLS, A CULINARY WASTELAND. OUT OF A COMBINATION OF PITY AND PRIDE, I COMPILED A LIST OF FAVORITES, FOCUSSING PRIMARILY ON RESTAURANTS EAST OF THE 405. I THOUGHT I’D SHARE IT WITH YOU, DEAR EATERS.
Caroline and Luc, Bonjour,
The food scene in L.A. has changed enormously in the forty years we’ve been here and it now rivals New York and Paris. The proliferation of farmer’s markets, the emphasis on great ingredients, healthier eating, and an increased sophistication about food has given birth to a crop of young, talented chefs, who, like Yves Camdeborde and his bistronomistes, are applying the skills they honed at places like the French Laundry, Patina and Spago to create dishes inspired by the food their grandmothers cooked be it Vietnamese (SIMBAL) or Tex-Mex (BAR AMA). You also don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to eat very well in L.A. Most of the downtown restaurants, which cater to a young, hip crowd, are affordable and fun. The biggest curse in noise. The prevailing myth that young people like deafeningly loud restaurants keeps us away from some of the better places like BESTIA. Our solution is to go for lunch, when you can enjoy your seafood risotto and have a conversation at the same time.
Unlike Paris, L.A. has large ethnic populations (Korean, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, South and Central American), many of whom choose to live immersed in the culture they know, they language they speak, the food they prefer.
Koreatown is huge and somewhat insular with a wide range of restaurants specializing in particular dishes such as Korean barbecue or bibimbap or cold, black kudzu noodles.
The San Gabriel Valley which starts at downtown and stretches 60 miles east along the 10 Freeway is home to hundreds of Chinese and other Asian restaurants. There is a wide variety of Chinese — Sechuan, Cantonese, Hong Kong seafood, Taiwanese, Uigar — which are cooking for the émigrés from those provinces. They act surprised and welcoming when we show up. These are the best Chinese restaurants in L.A. And the cheapest by far. Would you be interested in an excursion some night to one of these places? Bring a big group? Order lots of dishes.
In Hollywood, there is Thai Town. There are two Thai, Vietnamese, or Cambodian places per block and a lot of them are terrific.
You may find living here strange at first since L.A. is a horizontal city. You live in your car, not on the Metro. But with proper guidance, you will be pleasantly surprised by the food. Forget Beverly Hills. Except for Spago, the food is mediocre and expensive.
HOLLYWOOD and WEST HOLLYWOOD
REPUBLIQUE (La Brea near 6th) Brasserie atmosphere. Walter Manzke is the chef/owner along with his wife who’s an excellent pastry chef. Noisy at night. Ask for a table in the back room. But the food — everything from oysters to roast chicken — is well prepared. Great for lunch with tartines, soups, quiches, great hamburgers.
SYCAMORE KITCHEN (La Brea between 1st and 2nd) Wonderful for breakfast and lunch. Lovely outdoor area as well as inside tables. Karen Hatfield is the chef/owner. Great salads, sandwiches, soups, and the best pastry in town. Also, this stretch of La Brea is wonderful for trendy shopping.
NONG LA (La Brea just south of Beverly Blvd) Recently opened. Casual but cool. Delicious pho, clam salad, spring rolls, made with organic ingredients. Wine and beer as well.
SALT’S CURE (Highland between Lexington and Santa Monica) Zach and Chris are two American chefs who source everything — meat, produce, wine — from California. They make perfectly executed, uncomplicated food — best duck confit in the city, best pork chop, best onglet. Smaller menu at lunch, sandwiches, salads, etc.
MARKET PROVISIONS (Beverly Blvd near Crescent Heights) Casual but handsome restaurant with an excellent, eclectic wine list. The food, California cuisine with Italian touches such as house-made salumi and a variety of pastas is consistently good and well-priced. Claudio, the owner, knows his wines and his wide-ranging and eclectic list focuses on wines in the $30-50 range.
PETTY CASH (Beverly Blvd near Martel) Walter (Republique) Manzke’s take on Mexican street food, but raised to new heights by superb ingredients and crafted dishes. If you sit at the bar, sipping a perfect margarita, you can watch them making the ceviches to order. It’s hard to resist ordering the grilled octopus taco every time or the hamachi crudo. I go for lunch. The menu is the same at dinner, but the ambience — deafening.
JON AND VINNIE’S (Fairfax across from Canter’s Deli) These restauranteurs have several places around town, including Ludovic Lefebvre’s hateful Trois Mec. This charming and cheerful trattoria is strong on salads and pastas. Don’t order the pizzas. But be warned — lunch is lovely; dinner, noisy.
MOZZA RESTAURANTS (Highland and Melrose) Jointly owned by Nancy Silverton (La Brea Bakery) and Mario Batali.
MOZZA PIZZERIA serves arguably the best pizza in the city, although this red-walled restaurant with its high ceilings, perfectly-trained waitstaff and superb Italian wine list is not your everyday pizzeria. Go for a late lunch and sit at the pizza bar where you can watch them assemble your pizza bianca or tre formaggi and slip it into the wood-fired oven.
OSTERIA MOZZA is right next door. Only open for dinner and quite a bit more serious, the Osteria’s focus is northern Italian. Perfectly executed pastas. Try the calf brain ravioli. Nancy mans the mozzarella bar.
CHI SPACCA (just west of the Osteria) means “He who wields the cleaver” in Italian. It’s the coziest and most romantic of the three. Everything is either grilled or baked in the 800º pizza oven and although they excel with meat, there is also excellent branzino and a kind of cheese pastry which is worth a side trip.
SUSHI IKE (Gower and Hollywood Blvd) Make sure the owner, Rick, is behind the sushi bar and tell him your a friend of mine. I eat there every week. Rick’s fish is superb. In addition to classic sushi, he concocts some very interesting dishes. Order omakase and put yourself in Rick’s capable hands until you’re ready to cry “Basta!!”
SUSHI GARI. (East Town building at Argyle and Hollywood) Sensei Gari has three restaurants in New York and the sushi at each is the same. Gari’s fish is perfect and each variety is enhanced by an unexpected seasoning or ingredient. The restaurant is beautiful. The dishes like little edible jewelry. The prices, high.
JITLADA (Harvard and Sunset) Arguably (by Jonathan Gold) the best Thai restaurant in the U.S. A brother and sister took over this long-standing place around eight years ago. The food is complex and flavorful, beautiful prepared and presented, with some very hot dishes.
SAMANLUANG NOODLE COMPANY (Kingsley and Hollywood Blvd.) Open till 4AM every day. I’ve been going here for twenty years. Wonderful Thai/Vietnamese food. Great Thai iced coffee but no alcohol. Cash only. Most expensive dish is $8,
SILVER LAKE RAMEN (Sunset and Silver Lake Blvd) Located in a strip mall and almost always crowded. The young chef simmers pork bones for 16 hours to make his stock, although there is also vegetarian fare. Fantastic ramen plus succulent fried chicken and dumplings.
KUSH (Sunset near Elysian Park) A tiny sake and beer bar, owned by the same people who own Silver Lake Ramen. Yakitori plus good salads and all kinds of odd and interesting bites.
Josef Centeno is the chef/owner of four restaurants on the intersection of Main Street and 4th. The reason we invested in Bäco, Bar Ama and Orsa&Winston is because we believe Josef is the most inventive, gifted and generous chef in L.A.
BACO MERCAT, his signature restaurant, is deceptively casual with a bevy of market-driven dishes — salads, cocas (small thin-crested pizzas) and Josef’s invention The Bäco, a cross between a soft taco and pita wrapped around oxtail hash or fried fish or vegetables. Moderately priced, excellent, casual service. Stay for dessert.
LEDLOWS, which looks like an upscale brasserie, is Josef’s American bistro. Inventive and changing menu. Order the smoked trout if it’s available. Brunch is a must. Best croissant in town. Try the grits with white cheese and coddled eggs.
BAR AMA is across Main and down 4th Street. Josef is from southwest Texas and AMA is his take on Tex/Mex food. Great ceviches, fried tacos, queso, as well as roasted goat and braised shoulder of lamb. If you like mescal and tequila, you’re in the right place.
ORSA&WINSTON, just next door, is Josef’s high-end restaurant with only 32 seats. If you like tasting menus, this is the best in town at the best price. Depending on the season, you’ll swoon over sushi rice risotto with uni and pecorino, seared albacore, duck breast, and a medley of vegetable dishes. Interesting and unusual wine list.
FACTORY KITCHEN (Factory Place off of Alameda) Noisy at dinner, but lovely for lunch, located close to the Arts District with it’s galleries and boutiques. I think this is the best Italian restaurant in the city. Fresh and lively food, perfect salads, breads, pastas. Pricey but well-chosen italian wines.
SIMBAL (San Pedro and 2nd) Park off San Pedro in the bank building parking structure. Bit tricky to find, but the place is jazzy , industrial modern with a wooden tables and an open kitchen. Sean Pham, the chef/owner, whose background is Vietnamese, is classically trained but moved to Ho Chi Minh City for five years to master the cuisine. His does versions of Vietnamese dishes, such as a deconstructed bahn mi salad, Thai snapper, glass noodles with baby squid, fabulous spare ribs, bone marrow, etc., etc., etcs. Lovely wines, mostly rieslings, Austrian gruners and whites from the Alto Adige.
SUSH GEN (Honda Plaza, 2nd and Alameda) Very basic, very good sushi. Sit at the sushi bar.
PHILLIPES (Alameda and Ord) The oldest restaurant in L.A. Wait in line at lunch for double dipped sandwiches of pork, lamb, or beef with cole slaw or macaroni salad and fresh-squeezed lemonade. The place is a time-warp, right in the heart of Chinatown.
That should get you started. I’ve left out the West side, which I frequent a lot less. Apologies to VERSAILLES, GJELINA and 8 DUDLEY. When you want Chinese, let me know and we’ll either meet you there or point you in the right direction.
A toute a l’heure.