Dec
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

Faith & Flower -

Faith & Flower – sipping a Harry Winston

The Best (& Less Than) LA Cocktails 2014

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Melrose Umbrella Co.

Melrose Umbrella Co.

A few weeks ago, I returned to LA (past years of recommends here), a region where I spent 12 years of my life and still have family — where I used to frequent music venues and continue to dig into its endless (vastly spread out) food enclaves.

Drink research is easier to manage. For a city that has vastly improved in terms of quality cocktails in recent years, it’s still not exactly overflowing with dream drink destinations as many of my favorite cities in the world are. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of standouts, but I find it pretty easy to keep up on the notable newcomers each year.

Sassafras in Hollywood

Sassafras in Hollywood

Let’s get the not-so-stellar out of the way. My recent returns have yielded a number of spots that fall into underwhelming or decent — and sometimes even bad — categories. Sassafras in Hollywood charms with live Dixieland-meets-soul bands playing from a balcony overlooking a bar that is decidedly Disney-ified New Orleans under a sprawling faux oak tree with interior walls painted to look like an old Southern mansion. Enter this “house” and linger over a drink on vintage furniture. The cocktails are fine – of the simple ginger beer or soda or basic classics kind – but they have definitely improved from what they were when they first opened. The place is more about the kitsch and invigorating-but-deafening live music, although beware: you won’t be able to speak a word to your friends right next to you when bands are playing.

Melrose Umbrella Co.

Melrose Umbrella Co.

Melrose Umbrella Company, open since January in Fairfax, is absolutely beautiful. They win big points in my book for being decidedly chill and not obnoxious, even on a weekend, which can be hard to come by in LA. Unfortunately, drinks can be unbalanced as with a far too sour (and you’re talking to the queen of sour who can’t stand too-sweet cocktails) Romance Without Pressure ($14), a mix of Oxley gin, passion fruit, cucumber and grapefruit — a hint of simple syrup would have let the flavors sing instead of the whole thing coming of as puckeringly sour and flat. Twig & Berries ($12) fared much better in terms of balance, however, with a vibrant garden mix of muddled red grapes, red and orange bell pepper and lemon with Dos Armadillo Reposado Tequila, perked up with little heat from Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur.

The Commissary at the Line Hotel

The Commissary at the Line Hotel

Worst service award goes to The Commissary, upstairs from Roy Choi’s new POT restaurant at the Line Hotel (more on POT in my next LA dining article). I was eager to see what Matthew Biancaniello, who created the menu, has been up to since the 2011 days when he first impressed me as one of LA’s real standout bartenders at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, realizing it wouldn’t be the same without him behind the bar (he’s been doing these intriguing pop-ups). Though the garden atrium setting next to the pool on the Line Hotel rooftop could be seen as “magical” from some angles, the experience is also a bit odd, while serving cocktails in plastic tubs (to take poolside) is not merely odd but annoying.

Cocktails in a plastic tub at The Commissary

Cocktails in a plastic tub at The Commissary

Far worse were female bartenders who acted disinterested to downright rude with the women among us yet fake-friendly with the men.

The cocktails ($13)? They tended towards herbaceous and garden-fresh as one would expect with Biancello recipes (like passion fruit and Calisaya liqueur in a White Fir), but in the case of a Gin & Juice, it was frustrating to pay $12 for basic well gin (City of London) mixed with one juice in a plastic tub, even if earthy-fresh beet juice and gin is tasty. With literally no other components – and without being a more complex gin like St. George Terroir or the like — it felt like a case of one of those little-effort cocktails that costs the same as labor-intensive cocktails.

And now for the 3 standout new-ish bars, 2 of them in restaurants and all 3 of them in Downtown LA, which as far as I’m concerned has become one of the very best parts of LA for food and drinks lovers:

BAR JACKALOPE inside SEVEN GRAND

Bar Jackalope

Bar Jackalope

After my recent mind-blowing travels around Japan, I more than appreciate the concept and inspiration behind Bar Jackalope, opened in January and hidden in the back of Seven Grand (one of the first better cocktail bars that opened in 2007 after years of hunting for quality cocktail spots in LA – it’s way too mobbed for me to bother going any more but it was one of the early signs of change in LA).

Bypass the noise of Seven Grand (although you’ll still hear its live bands through the wall in Bar Jackalope) and ring the back doorbell in the hallway. Despite the speakeasy nature of such a set up, Jackalope is not pretentious and the intimate bar is blessedly mellow and chill, like the great (and often tiny) Japanese bars. In fact, what the doorbell and regulation does is exactly what it needs to do, which is keep the space intimate and relaxed.

Bar Jackalope's cozy few tables

Bar Jackalope’s cozy few tables

One key difference from countless incredible bars in Japan is certainly the whisk(e)y selection, although it is still a broad and in-depth selection, covering all whisk(e)y categories from American to Scotch. But as those of us who have traveled around Japan know, the bottles available behind so many of the best bars in Japan are unreal, rare and shockingly affordable — bottles we would never see elsewhere or if we did, would be at a huge premium for a taste. So for those of us who “have tasted it all” or have extensive whisk(e)y selections at home, it can be disappointing to pay a lot for a dram that is not that rare.

View from my LA loft rooftop (thanks, AirBnB)

View from my LA loft rooftop (thanks, AirBnB)

But the plus is that Jackalope’s attentive staff are very helpful with recommendations, there are options by smaller pours, allowing people to create flights or taste a few — and there is a cigar porch, another very welcome aspect. Besides whiskies, there are three basic cocktails only: The Highball, which is ubiquitous everywhere in Japan (and served beautifully here), an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.

All black leather, dark woods, mounted jackalope heads and candlelight, this place is wins high marks for seeking to bring a touch of Japan to the US.

FAITH & FLOWER

Faith & Flower cocktails

Faith & Flower cocktails

Coastal Luxury Management (CLM) — the group behind Los Angeles Food & Wine, Pebble Beach Food & Wine and my Monterey favorite, Restaurant 1833 — opened Faith & Flower this Spring. It’s one of the more striking dining rooms in LA (a city with plenty of striking dining rooms): lush with greens, leather booths, velvet, crystal chandeliers, feather fans and, as at 1833 in Monterey, absinthe and amaro carts.

F&F's bar

F&F’s bar

Chef Michael Hung came from San Francisco’s La Folie and Michael Lay moved from bar manager at 1833 to oversee the program here. His cocktails ($10-14) are a key draw at Faith & Flower and some of the most refined in LA, whether a perfect English Milk Punch (Jerry Thomas’ 1862 recipe, utilizing the fantastic Smith & Cross rum, among other spirits, for added funk and complexity) or a classic Adonis cocktail from Harry Craddock’s 1933 recipe, layered with Fino sherry, Royal Combier orange liqueur, house orange bitters, angelica root tincture and subtly bitter, aromatic Bigalette China-China Amer.

F&F's

F&F menus arrive in specially designed books & vintage books

The Harry Winston cocktail is a favorite and one of the best showcases for Japanese blended whiskey I’ve tasted in a cocktail in any city (including Tokyo and Kyoto!). The whisky is combined with King’s Ginger liqueur, kuro sato (an Okinawan black sugar) and house teapot bitters (various herbs and spices), garnished with a flamed orange twist. It’s bracing and elegant, bold and balanced.

While you can savor the drinks over lunch or dinner in F&F’s gorgeous dining room, there is a separate bar area that is first come, first served along the long, inviting bar housing an excellent and wide-ranging spirits selection.

Faith & Flower's dining room

Faith & Flower’s dining room

BESTIA

Bestia's bar

Bestia’s bar

Bestia has been at the top of every kind of restaurant list since it opened in 2012 and is still one of the hardest reservations to secure in town. Despite almost deafening noise when the place is full, I found the bar (first come, first served, though I’d recommend getting there before they open) not overwhelmingly loud, with the full menu available.

Bestia — from chef Ori Menashe (former chef de cuisine at the wonderful Angelini Osteria), his pastry chef wife Genvieve Gergis and restaurateur Bill Chait — succeeds on all fronts in what can easily be a tired category: modern Italian. The food and the wine list (thanks to wine director Maxwell Leer) are all impeccable and I found not a misstep anywhere (note: the wine list has a section just for Riesling, God bless ‘em. There is also a strong list of whites from my favorites like Croatia, Slovenia, Loire Valley, Austria, Hungary, as well as reds from Italy, France, Spain. I loved a dry 2013 Falkenstein Spatlese — $16 a glass — from Mosel, Germany).

Bestia cocktails

Bestia cocktails

Likewise, service is attentive and servers are far more knowledgeable than many an LA hotspot. Though I am used to servers who know their wines and cuisine (and are often sommelier level) here at home, that is not the average server in a destination Los Angeles restaurant. Here, the staff know their food and drink. The bar staff are crafting impeccable cocktails created by LA bar great Julian Cox. Thankfully, execution follows suit and the many drinks I tasted have that all-important sense of balance — and are delicious. In fact, I was most impressed by these cocktails over most LA offerings namely because of a sense of harmony and sophistication.

A twist on a classic Toronto

A twist on a classic Toronto

Our adept bartender served us off-menu twists on a Toronto cocktail and and one of my all time favorite cocktails for nearly a decade, an Old Pal (bartender’s choice drinks are $13).

On menu (Cox’s recipes), I was impressed with the refreshing yet complex layers of Buena Alli ($14), mixing blanco tequila, espadin mezcal, lemon, quince jam, orgeat, bergamot bitters and seltzer. The Vermonster ($14) was another elegant standout, served up, martini-esque with Barr Hill gin, Dolin Blanc vermouth, Strega, orange bitters and a fig leaf as garnish. If only Bestia wasn’t so hard to get into, this would be one of my top LA hangouts for food and drink.

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Jun
15
2012

Wandering Traveler

Unique, bright pork carpaccio at LA’s delightful new BierBeisl

Spring Weekend in LOS ANGELES

View from above over Farmer’s Daughter pool

I recently returned to my old stomping grounds of So. Cal. for yet another long weekend. This time I stayed at funky, restored motel, The Farmer’s Daughter, gazing over a pool filled with giant rubber duckies, the hotel’s birds greeting me each morning in the lobby. Colorful and quirky, the hotel (with welcoming, engaging staff) is a worthwhile home base, ideally located across the street from the original LA Farmers Market. You won’t find farmers here, rather, it’s a permanent, open air mall of food purveyors.

The fab Short Cake in the original LA Farmers Market

Though not always gourmet, a few newcomers add foodie cred to the market. However, I hope to never see the demise of old school diners, pie shops and vendors selling unnaturally bright red popcorn and the like – it’s a charming slice of LA history.

Returning to A-Frame for lunch & horchata cocktail

On the newer side of things, Short Cake is one of the top Farmers Market destinations. I spent every morning there, happily downing shakeratos ($5 – four shots of espresso shaken with ice and simple syrup) and cappuccinos from one of my favorites, Verve Coffee of Santa Cruz. SF local TCHO chocolate shows up in Short Cake’s mochas, while Amy Pressman’s baked goods are among the best in all of LA.

The ever-winning A-Frame

She trained at Spago with friend and partner Nancy Silverton (Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza). At Short Cake she crafts ridiculously good eats like a curry raisin scones or bacon-cheddar-three chili croissant bread pudding. I rarely repeat places, but this one was worth returning to for breakfast three days in a row.

Another pleasing return this trip? A sunny, playful lunch at Roy Choi’s A-Frame, which I reviewed soon after it opened last year and still find an affordable winner.

BIERBEISL, Beverly Hills

Austrian cheese platter

I’m a sucker for cuisines done well, particularly the less commonly seen like Scandinavian, Eastern European or Burmese. I don’t get enough Austrian food. The new BierBeisl, just off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (though not at all like Rodeo Drive – instead, it’s casual, spare and cozy), is one of the better Austrian restaurants around.

Starting with a cool BierBeisl carpaccio, thinly sliced pork roast is delicately doused in a Styrian Gold (Austrian pumpkin seed oil) vinaigrette – a unique, elegant starter. Assorted Austrian charcuterie ($18) and cheeses (add $10) are a brilliant example of the best to come out of the country, vivid with house spreads and rustic rye and pretzel breads.

Sausage platters

There’s modern, fresh dishes like seared lamb loin with goat cheese polenta (the most expensive dish, a pricey $36), but I veer towards the traditional, like Vienna Schnitzel ($19-25 for pork, turkey or veal) garnished with lemon and lingonberries plus choice of side: potato salad, roasted parsley potatoes, fries, mixed green salad. House sausages from their sausage menu are a highlight, particularly a Swiss cheese-infused Käsekrainer ($10), lightly peppery and similar to a Polish sausage, while a traditional bratwurst with sauerkraut ($9) likewise satisfies.

Refreshing Radler Grapefruit

Sausages come with a slice of rustic bread and dollops of tarragon mustard and fresh horseradish. The bratwurst is particularly zippy with the Radler Grapefruit: half Stiegl Goldbräu beer, half all-natural grapefruit soda ($6 for 10 oz.; $8 for 16.9 oz.)

Something unusual behind the bar? Reisetbauer Austrian Whisky. Yes, Austrian whisky – distilled in copper pot stills from malted barley, aged in Chardonnay and Trockenbeerenauslese oak wine casks. I appreciated the rogue, hearty spirit of this whisky, lively with chocolate, caramel, hazelnut, bread.

FORMOSA, West Hollywood

Hollywood classic: Formosa

Formosa is a Hollywood classic bar/restaurant since 1925 with a storied past. There’s John Wayne’s regular booth which was extended a few feet to hold his long frame when he’d crash after a few drinks. Stars like Bette Davis or Dean Martin would take a cocktail break in between filming at the studios next door (once Pickford-Fairbanks Studio and now The Lot), connected to Formosa by underground walkways. Heavy on history and ghost stories of famed patrons whose photographs line the walls, Formosa has not been known for quality food or drink for years.

Formosa’s booths have held stars for decades

But this is not your mama’s Formosa. Though still slowly undergoing its transformation (including mischievous new menu offerings like a fried, spicy peanut butter sandwich), visiting the bar a few times in April I witnessed new bar manager Kate Grutman (previously at Sotto) refreshing the menu and bottle selection – not with fussy cocktails but with well-crafted, playful turns on the likes of a banana daiquiri, aka John Cazale ($10), the secret ingredient being a Fernet rinse, adding a minty, herbal layer. Her Bloody Mary twist is brilliant. Duck Down ($11) is Akvinta Vodka washed with duck confit, mixed with Vince’s original Formosa Bloody Mary mix, lime, Siracha hot sauce, and (wait for it) pickled gobo root (crisp, sweet and earthy, it’s a member of the burdock root family). Tasting the washed vodka on its own, savory confit imparts a meaty, lush, joyously decadent spirit. It makes for a superior Bloody Mary.

Grutman upgrades dive bar favorites with quality ingredients, as with the Formosa Sour ($9), essentially an improved Midori Sour made from her house Midori liqueur: French honeydew, sugar, orange flower water and lychees with a hint of green food coloring to maintain the neon spirit of the junk food liqueur. Start with an aperitif of The Seven Year Itch ($10), referencing Marilyn Monroe’s potato chips and champagne scene in the film – they go one step further serving housemade chips with a cocktail of bubbles, Cynar, sugar, cherry liqueur and lemon. A perfect finish is Joan Crawford’s Chained ($9), essentially a Sherry Flip with Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Punt e Mes sweet vermouth, garnished with cinnamon. Creamy and savory, it’s dessert.

Banana Daiquiri unlike what you’ve had before, the John Cazale

Grutman is clearly having fun with this menu – and drinking it is likewise a pleasure. Her grandfather was once a Formosa regular so she clearly maintains respect for the unique history of the place, studying old menus, celebrity clientele and films they made at the studios next door, which she’s naming cocktails after. Though there are minor updates happening throughout the building, the place retains its musty, classic Hollywood charm with dim lighting, red booths, rooftop bar, and circa 1930’s Chinese decor. You could still call it a dive but one where you don’t have to check taste at the door. I love witnessing one of the remnants of Old Hollywood reinvent itself while retaining its rich character, ready for more decades ahead.

LUKSHON by Sang Yoon, Culver City

Lukshon’s welcoming patio

Friends and fellow reviewers have found Lukshon uneven. In my experience, there were a couple brilliant dishes intermingled with a couple disappointments, though my overall meal was strong. I’d return.

The outdoor patio is a mellow alternative to a chic but cacophonous dining room. On a gorgeous LA night, the patio, fronted by a modern rock fireplace, becomes an urban respite.

Oh, those sweetbreads!

Attentive, relaxed service made me immediately a fan of Lukshon, while a menu of single origin teas (from San Francisco’s special Red Blossom Tea Co.) and expertly-prepared cocktails confirm the restaurant’s “whole package” status. Asian twists on classic cocktails work, like a vividly tart Lukshon Sour ($11 – Michter’s Rye, lemon, tamarind, palm sugar, kumquats), a smoky Fujian Cure ($11 – Isle of Skye 8yr Scotch, lemon, galangal root, lapsang souchong black tea), or the savory, martini-spirited Formosa ($11): Ethereal gin, Lillet Blanc, atomized mizhiu tou (Taiwanese rice wine), and ginger pearl onions.

Savory short rib rendang

Green papaya salad ($9) was a less-than-pleasing version of the classic Thai salad, tasting oddly funky though ingredients were fresh. Chiang Mai curry noodles ($13) read as an enticing list of ingredients (coconut, chile, tumeric, lemongrass, chicken, prawn, yu choy, rice noodles), but came off a tad bland though still satisfying.

The kitchen excelled, however, with fantastic sweetbreads fried “orange chicken” style ($11) in a sweet/sour orange sauce, tender and tossed in scallion, ginger, and pickled lettuce. I’m dreaming of returning just for this dish. A side of yu choy ($7 – a Chinese vegetable), cooked in shaoxing wine and garlic with savory, aged ham is quite a pleasurable way to eat your greens. Short rib rendang ($17) is like the ultimate meatloaf, one cooked in malay spices, red chile lemongrass rempah (a spice paste), drizzled with coconut cream. Sigh.

Yu Choy

A simple dessert of flan-like palm sugar caramel custard layered with rice krispies is a delicate finish, with a side of candy cap mushroom ice cream. Lukshon is trendy, yes, but talented chef  Sang Yoon hints at the joys of California dining, where our dense Asian cultures and year-round, unparalleled produce combine with classic European cooking technique in inventive dishes.

ink.sack, West Hollywood

ink.sack

Top Chef star Michael Voltaggio smartly opened a sandwich shop half block from his casually hip fine dining restaurant ink., cheekily named ink.sack. Sandwiches come on the mini side at a cheap $4-7, though big enough that I’m unable to finish two. I wish all sandwich shops offered mini versions to vary tastes – and had staff as friendly as ink.sack’s.

Corned beef tongue Reuben

Miso-cured albacore tuna is dubbed “spicy tuna” though I could have used more Sriracha mayo to make the sandwich actually spicy and offset a bit of dryness to the tuna. I delighted in sandwiches like The Jose Andres, aka “The Spanish Godfather”, a tribute to the man himself (of The Bazaar, one of my top LA restaurants), filled with Serrano ham, chorizo, and Manchego cheese. But my favorite is a twist on a Reuben with thinly shaved corned beef tongue, Swiss, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing.

Eveleigh’s Lucky Louie with fresh kumquats

EVELEIGH, West Hollywood

Breezy front patio at Eveleigh

True: Eveleigh is the moneyed hipster’s hangout, from a bone marrow, charcuterie-heavy food menu to craft cocktails. But it stands out with a gorgeous setting off a trendy stretch of Sunset Boulevard and quality food and drink. You first pass through the front patio, green with trees and astro turf, into an open dining room with a center bar and ubiquitous fireplace, animal heads and book-lined, gastropub décor. The back of the restaurant is a huge patio covered in plastic with LA views. The space enchants, while my perch at the bar interfaced with busy, disengaged (but still professional, mannered) bartenders.

Funky lighting over Eveleigh bar

Though I’ve seen the like of these dishes countless times over the years, each one was well-executed and gratifying, whether bright crushed peas, mint, almonds, Arbequina olive oil and burrata cheese ($12) or a juicy, medium-rare Eveleigh burger (expensive at $19) topped with fontina cheese, pickles and tomato-chorizo relish.

Cocktails ($12) likewise are vivid, balanced and worth a stop on their own. Though, like a thousand cocktailian bars these days, they craft fine, spirituous classics, I’m most pleased with the farm fresh, seasonal side of the menu where they shine with fresh California ingredients and drinks like a Lucky Louie: rhum argicole, kumquats, star anise, ginger, fresh lime.

CURRYWURST, Mid-City West

Yum… currywurst

I “heart” currywurst, that Berlin specialty of grilled dogs doused in German curry. Add chips (fries) if you wish. Currywurst, a few steps from my Farmers Daughter hotel base, is an affordable winner in the currywurst realm (like Berlin Currywurst in Silver Lake). With housemade sausages (my tops is the Hungarian pork) topped with satisfying curry (red German curry is akin to an amped-up, curry laden ketchup), friendly staff and cheap prices make this an ideal snack or lunch.

POUR VOUS, Mid-Wilshire

My bar disappointment this visit was Pour Vous, a sexy, French-influenced den with gorgeous décor, particularly a sunken, circular section with fireside seating. I thrilled to a French-heavy spirit menu highlighting Calvados, absinthe, Armagnac, Cognac. In theory, this could be a dream bar – an underdone concept I’d be thrilled to see well-executed. Maybe it is better early on a weeknight or depending on the bartender?

Farmer’s Daughter pool with rubber duckies

But on a Friday near midnight, it’s cacophonous, mobbed and irritating. The elegant space is dominated by well-dressed, middle-aged guys with young, blonde girlfriends (sporting breast implants, of course) with a pick-up scene of well-heeled 20-40-somethings on the prowl.

Though such a scene is always irritating (that cliché LA, Vegas, Miami feel), the clash of this crowd in such a romantic setting would be slightly lessened if drinks were excellent. At $14-15 a pop for many cocktails, they should be stellar.

Simple but comfy rooms at Farmer’s Daughter

Though it sounded amazing, a medicinally sweet, cloying Le Samourai ($14 – Armagnac, framboise, rhubarb, “umami”) was virtually undrinkable, while a Vadouvan Lassi ($15) could have been brilliant with rhum agricole, lime, coconut, falernum, Vadouvan curry and bitters, but ended up tasting like bland, minimally spiced milk on ice, the curry and the agricole lost in the milk. Tasting my friends’ drinks didn’t get me much further, while disengaged bartenders and a costly bill confirmed just how unsatisfying the entire experience was. I left convinced this is not so much a cocktail/spirits aficionado’s destination as a meat market dressed in pretty clothes.

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Mar
15
2012

Wandering Traveler

Maki sushi-like presentation of Peruvian causas at Picca in Culver City

The Latest in LA FOOD

Spending nearly half my life in Southern California, I continue to explore LA’s best foods, often miles – and hours – apart. My latest return, staying in a modern, neutrel-toned suite with retro spirit at the new, peaceful respite of Hotel Wilshire, yielded more edible hits (and a miss).

Last issue I explored more LA cocktail havens. This issue it’s all about food, from brand new spots to a few classics.

BACO MERCAT, Downtown LA

Baco’s own soda pop

Of my recent LA travels, Baco Mercat was one of the more gratifying (and fun) meals. In a historic building downtown, Baco exists in a narrow space with high, airy ceilings. The casual restaurant feels almost cafe-like with a bar and unique menu concept. A “baco” is essentially a sandwich of pita bread (chewy inside, crispy outside) overflowing with fillings like oxtail hash or beef tongue schnitzel.

My server pointed me to “The Original“: pork belly and beef carnitas in an almond-chile-garlic-based salbitxada sauce (a Catalan recipe). The meat is tender, as one would expect, and the sauce nutty and spicy. Only an excess of greens throws of the sandwich.

Baco’s Original Baco sandwich

I was surprised to prefer the vegetarian offering, “The Fava Fritter“, lined with falafel, feta cheese and poblano peppers, in a Spanish, tomato and bread-based salmorejo cream. Baco also offers a few coca (flatbreads), and plenty of mini sides and salads, like a spicy green papaya, cabbage, lime salad ($6).

Playful Baco decor

Other highlights? Banana cream cannoli (desserts $7 each) enlivened by cardamom and butterscotch. Playful cocktails like gin-pop! made of their house Baco soda pop, gin, bitters, ginger. Sweet and sour house sodas like black mint (I wish the celery soda tasted more of celery). They also serve the already popular new Handsome Coffee (and sell their beans), started by three former Intelligentsia guys.

FUNDAMENTAL LA, Westwood

Dreamy vanilla cream soda

New Fundamental LA (opened last summer) easily vies for LA’s best sandwiches. In a spare space lined with communal tables., everyone orders the early crowd favorite: a chicken torta ($9) laced with tomatillo salsa, cotija cheese, crema, pickled jalapenos and guacamole.

But I fell in love with their take on one of the best sandwiches in existence, the Cubano. Their Cuban torta ($11) is pig happiness with pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and further decadence with a fried egg and pickled jalapenos. Soft yet crispy bolillo bread makes it, each part of the sandwich in perfect harmony.

Fundamental’s Cuban Torta

Sandwiches rotate with further joys like meatloaf on brioche ($11) layered with celery root puree, pickled cabbage, and, to seal the deal, fried brussels sprouts. For dinner they offer a variety of small and large plates in addition to sandwiches.

Warm potato salad is one of the better I’ve had lately ($4). Yes, its warm, accented by hickory smoked bacon, eggs, creme fraiche, excellent with chunky blue cheese.

Though they offer fun beers, like The Alchemist/Ninkasi/Stone More Brown Than Black IPA, Fundamental’s must-order drink is their Vanilla Cream Soda ($3). Dreamy and creamy, it is easily the best cream soda I’ve had.

PICCA, West Los Angeles

My favorite dish at Picca: Locro de Quinoa

LA has a winner in Picca, a new-ish Peruvian restaurant. It is, hands down, the best Peruvian I’ve had in LA, and that includes Mo-Chica. Last issue, I wrote about LA cocktails, some of the most fun being at Picca, from a menu by Julian Cox.

Picca with Sotto below

One of my favorite Peruvian dishes, causas (basically a soft potato mound garnished with ingredients), come in a variety of renditions. They arrive small, looking every bit like maki (sushi rolls). I was taken with a spicy yellowtail causa ($7) dotted with spicy mayo, green onions and wasabi tobiko, as well as a shrimp causa ($6) with pickled cucumbers and yuzu kosho guacamole. Then there’s skewers (anticucho) such as juicy, grilled scallops ($9) given a kick from aji amarillio aioli and wasabi peas, or anticucho corazon ($8), tender beef hearts in creamy rocoto pepper walnut sauce.

Scallop anticuchos

Tiraditos are another favorite of mine, essentially sashimi-like platters of fresh, raw fish in South American sauces. Picca’s thinly-sliced seabass tiradito ($13) is simple and pure: pristine fish doused in soy, lemon and sesame oil with a dollop of sweet potato puree.

Pork rib crostini: sweet potato puree, feta cheese, salsa criolla

My top entree was not one I expected to fall in love with: Locro de Quinoa ($13), described as quinoa pumpkin stew. It’s far better than it sounds. Parmesan cheese, crispy tomato (yes, crispy), fresh corn, and a fried egg crown this bowl of comfort. Finishing one, I immediately craved another.

SOTTO, West Los Angeles

Grilled pork meatballs over snap peas, Pecorino, bitter greens

Last issue, I wrote about the delightful Kate Grutman and her cocktails at Sotto. Thankfully, Sotto’s food is no slouch and rounds out the experience. Of course, we’ve seen dozens of these Neapolitan pizza, gourmet Italian venues line the streets of San Francisco in past years. Sotto is not exactly revolutionary, but there aren’t (yet) many like it in LA with a couple exceptional bites worth noting.

A hefty chunk of rustic house wheat bread is the sort of bread I’m used to at home and can be ordered with olive oil or burratta cheese, but I recommend fatty, satisfying lardo pestato ($7) slathered on a slice. They do a fine Neapolitan pizza but not the best, and certainly no Pizzeria Mozza if you’re talking LA pizza.

 Better than it looks: squid ink fusilli

What I found more exciting was their pasta. Sure I’ve had squid ink pasta many a time, but their squid ink fusilli lunghi ($16) is chewy, dark noodles enlivened with pistachios, mint and bottaraga (Italian salted, cured fish roe) – a brighter, more vibrant version than typical one-note squid ink pasta dishes.

I’ve heard complaints about distracted service – the place is continuously mobbed (I was pleased to find my nearby dining companion to be actress Maya Rudolph). But sitting at the bar I was well-taken care of. It’s the best perch from which to sip rare Italian amari and savor Italian pork meatballs.

MEZZE, Mid-City West

Mezze’s atrium and olive tree

Mezze‘s open, airy dining room with a pristine, white kitchen within view welcomes immediately. Under a glass-ceiling, an olive tree stands in the center, evoking a Mediterranean garden patio. Drinks include a handful of cocktails, well-selected wines and beers, including a few limited edition bottles from the OC’s Bruery, and a robustly red house cherry coke ($6).

Chef Micah Wexler was just nominated for a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year. He works deftly with Mediterranean food keeping it light, flavorful and gourmet without being fussy. An array of colorful beets ($12) is playfully contrasted by crunchy, fried chickpeas, while dollops of sheep’s milk yogurt add creamy sensuality. An exemplary beet dish.

Excellent beet dish

An Arabian classic shakshouka ($13) is a heartwarming bowl of eggs, onions, tomatoes, and in this case, sweetbreads, with yogurt and pita to scoop up the stew-like dish. Egyptian Rebel fries ($13) are crowd pleasing, reminiscent of Canadian poutine, the fries covered in heirloom beans, beef brisket, Syrian cheese. Wood-fired Merguez flatbread ($14) is crispy thin dotted with fontina cheese and tomato jam, gently spicy with aleppo pepper.

Wexler indeed shows “rising star” promise, and I would gladly return for more.

SON OF A GUN, Mid-City West

Pretty if unexciting Son of a Gun cocktails

Son of a Gun was a royal letdown. I should have known. The can-do-no-wrong chef duo of Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo already won LA over with their uber-popular Animal restaurant, which I found overhyped when dining there at the beginning of 2010. I should have learned my lesson, but staying at Hotel Wilshire merely a mile away, the New England-influenced seafood menu and charming fishing decor propelled me there regardless of my hesitations.

After braving the annoying no reservations policy and an early line pre-opening to then sit at a noisy communal table, unable to hear my friends, I found my server knew nothing about their cocktails ($8-12). It should have been a warning to stick with wine from their celebrated menu and sommelier. But cocktails looked good, running the standard classics from a Boulevardier to an Aviation. But execution was flat, signified by the modern classic Penicillin, which here tasted watered down, lacking in Scotch or ginger punch.

Miniscule bits of burrata & uni

To add insult to injury, we all left feeling ripped off – a problem I rarely complain of, though I eat out at good 10 times a week. I usually prefer small plates both to sample more and finding greater creativity than in a traditional meat and veg entree format. At Son of a Gun, “small” plates is an understatement.

Delicious but small shrimp toast sandwich

A mini-lobster roll with lemon aioli sounds like a steal at $7, but in two bites, it’s done. Shrimp toast sandwich ($11) is utterly delicious,  saucy with Sriracha mayo, but is the smallest $11 sandwich I’ve ever seen. Even a tiny scoop of pimento cheese with chips is $10.

Their popular fried chicken sandwich ($11) loaded with spicy B&B pickle slaw, is the one “normal-sized” sandwich, but is an obvious rip-off of the supreme Bakesale Betty’s fried chicken sandwich, which was around years before… and is superior.

Mini lobster rolls

Don’t expect any better by ordering higher-priced plates. An unexciting alligator schnitzel ($18) or insanely miniscule and odd uni, burrata, radicchio “entree” ($19), even a refreshing finish of frozen lime yogurt with graham cracker crumble and toasted meringue ($6), were all quite small. Four of us left hungry and annoyed, $200 later. Dropping $100 per couple with drinks is understandable, but rarely do I get so little for that at a casual restaurant.

Next time Jon and Vinny open another restaurant, I’ll know what to do.

KOBAWOO HOUSE, Koreatown

Bossam pork platter

Korean food in LA… you hear so much about it. The hype is warranted on volume of restaurants and food options alone. I can’t say I’ve yet had a Korean meal in LA that blows others way out of the water, but please do tell me where I must go.

On my latest visit, I was perfectly content at Kobawoo House, a family style dining room lined with wood and communal tables. Be forewarned: there’s a wait even on a weekday at lunchtime (thankfully, Bourbon Street Cafe – below – is next door so you can grab a coffee while you wait).

Delicious seafood pajeon

Seafood pajeon is a giant pancake of goodness, laden with octopus, squid, scallions and the like. Definitely up there in terms of great pajeon – and the size of a two to three person pizza. Their popular bossam ($15.99 small, $24.99 large) is tender pork steamed in a variety of spices with lettuce leaves and different ingredients to wrap it all up in. This is interactive food at its best. Miso stew is a soybean paste stew that arrives so boiling hot, it wasn’t till near the meal’s end I was able to take a (still hot) satisfying slurp.

Kobawoo is an ideal place to fill up for less (the Renaissance Man and I could not finish all we ordered for $35) with a group of friends or family on quality Korean food.

Snacks & Desserts

BULGARINI GELATO, Culver City & Altadena

Down a desolate walkway next to a grocery store: LA’s best gelato

LA isn’t the ice cream city SF is. Though I enjoy LA’s Scoops and Pazzo Gelato, you won’t find the shining equivalent of Humphry Slocumbe, Bi-Rite or even Mitchell’s here. But LA does have Bulgarini Gelato.

Leo Bulgarini’s obsession for perfection shines best in his nut gelatos. A Roman native, Bulgarini and his Pasadena-born wife, Elizabeth, hunted for the best ingredients for two years in Italy, studied two months with a third-generation Sicilian gelato master, then on to Milan to perfect their gelato-making skills.

Their Sicilian pistachio is unlike any other. Same goes for Kona macadamia nut. And Mandorla Sicilian almond. It tastes as if Bulgarini uses double the amount of nuts anyone else does, allowing for a nutty intensity greater than in even the best of pistachio ice cream. Macadamia nut is my favorite but taste each if you can.

Bulgarini’s lucious gelato

Sourcing coffee from Naples, cocoa from Santo Domingo, and hazelnuts from Oregon, quality is evident in these expensive gelatos. I liked other flavors, like Florentine chocolate with salt, but prefer general flavors at any of the aforementioned SF shops.

However, each of Bulgarini’s nut gelatos are better than any I’ve had throughout Italy or the US. A glorious excess of nuts takes on a textured but creamy body. Perfection.

SIMPLE THINGS SANDWICH & PIE SHOP, Mid-City West

Welcoming Simple Things

Mini-pies ($2.50 each, plus small $5.50 or full size $20) aren’t life changing at Simple Things Sandwich & Pie Shop, but they are fun, particularly key lime. There’s other baked goods and daily-changing sandwiches, salads and soups. The bright white and grey space is accented by yellow lamps, as cheery as the friendly servers. It’s a worthy sweets stop when on 3rd Street, with a far smaller selection but a more peaceful setting than always-mobbed Joan’s down the block.

TAMARIND AVE. DELI, Hollywood
There’s Jersey-style deli sandwiches, including pastrami, brisket and salumi, at Tamarind Ave. Deli, tucked off a non-descript Hollywood street. But that’s not worth going out of your way for. Rather, the joy is an impressive collection of classic, old-timey American sodas lining the walls of this charming, little take-out spot.

FONUTS, Mid-City West
I must admit I’d rather have a traditional donut than what the new Fonuts is calling (rather cheesily) “faux donuts”. But if I think of them as baked donut cakes, they are quite good. Crowd-pleasers include maple bacon and strawberry buttermilk.

Coffee & Juice

Sodas at Tamarind Ave. Deli

Coffee favorites in LA this time around? Bourbon Street Cafe in Koreatown with its Asia-meets-New Orleans-meets-third wave coffee offerings, from siphon to pour-over.

In Mid-City West (near West Hollywood), Commissary prepares coffee right, featuring three different beans from small coffee brands, including our own excellent Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. I enjoyed a cup made with Victrola beans from Seattle (while at Commissary, don’t forget to pop into fabulous butcher shop Lindy & Grundy next door).

Commissary coffee

Spring for Coffee is a closet-sized shop in Downtown LA selling some of the West Coast’s best coffee beans, more than half of them from SF (from Blue Bottle to Ritual). They make a proper cappuccino and espresso, too.

On the juice tip, Sustain Juicery, a tiny shop downtown in LA’s garment district, is expensive ($7 each) – as any quality juice shop is – blending refreshing, bright winners like the classic green: kale, spinach, apple, celery, cucumber, parsley.

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Mar
01
2012

Wandering Traveler

At Hollywood’s Library Bar, a custom cocktail of Basil Hayden bourbon,  plump cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, and lemon

THE LATEST in LA COCKTAILS

Cocktails at Cana Rum Bar

After years of hunting, the day finally came when I could find proper cocktails in LA, even if it was years behind NY or SF. I’ve covered LA cocktail bars in recent years as the quality has rapidly grown, with my latest visit yielding the most consistent drinks yet.Their cocktail renaissance is coming into its own, even if a local bartender at one of LA’s best bars bragged to me of “doing something really different” at his next cocktail competition with a more bitter profile vs. the sweet cocktails “everyone does”. Having judged numerous cocktail contests, I am glad that SF’s competition recipe standard has long been unique, bitter, herbaceous, spirituous or the like, veering away from too sweet. Sweet cocktails still may be preferred across much of LA’s expansive metropolis, but hopefully his statement means another taste standard is about to shift in the City of Angels.

Next Door Lounge’s romantic, comfortable space

There were a few letdowns, like Next Door Lounge in Hollywood, which is a fantastic space: roomy, mellow, old world, with comfy leather couches, friendly service, and classic Powell and Loy movies playing on a big screen. I absolutely loved the environment which it made it even more disappointing in sampling four expensive drinks ($12-14) to find them unbalanced and generally unappetizing.

Italian & Peruvian Pleasures

SOTTO, West Los Angeles

A bright Il Cavallo Bianco

My favorite bartender and drinks this visit were Kate Grutman’s at Sotto. She exudes style and panache, while keeping customer service and comfort foremost. In a spacious building housing Picca Peruvian Cantina upstairs, Sotto’s low ceilings and buzzy vibe are the backdrop for Neapolitan pizzas and Italian pleasures like sardines or house lardo on toast (my Sotto food review next issue).

Both restaurants opened just under a year ago with menus created and bars managed by Julian Cox, well known for his cocktail menu at Rivera in downtown LA. He poured rare Italian amari from Sotto’s vibrant collection, while Kate served cocktails exhibiting restraint, balance, and sheer drinkability. At Sotto, amaro is king and in cocktails is given a range of interpretations.

Smart & Fennel cocktail at Sotto

I particularly adored Kate’s off-menu creation of Junipero gin, Suze, house sage and parsley bitters, Angostura bitters, and vermouth infused with pineapple and thyme. The drink hit all the right herbaceous, bitter, aromatic notes, shining as an aperitif or dinner accompaniment.

More amaro fun was had with a Carroll Gardens, typically made with rye, amaro, and maraschino liqueur. Instead, Kate used Averna, maraschino liqueur, and Cocchi for a bitter brightness. Menu stand-outs include a spiced Amaro Daiquiri: Fall Redux (rhum agricole, lime, Averna, allspice dram), a subtle, soft Smart & Fennel (London dry gin, lemon, house bitter orange marmalade, fennel-scented egg, fennel frond), a boozy but elegant Bicycle Thief (Scotch, Holland gin, vermouth, West Indian orange bitters), and a vivid Il Cavallo Bianco (reposado tequila, pineapple/thyme-infused dry vermouth, Cocchi, grapefruit peel).

Julian Cox behind the bar at Sotto

PICCA, West Los Angeles

Zarate’s Tomahawk # 15 (L); Slumdog Chamomillionaire (R)

Upstairs from Sotto is the bustling Picca (my food review next issue). While impeccable Peruvian food is reason to visit, the bar is a destination on its own for South of the Border spirits. Mezcal, tequila, pisco and cachaca are showcased here. There are infusion shots ($6), like pisco with coconut, pineapple or Concord grapes, or mezcal with rocoto pepper.

Cocktails are once again by Julian Cox, while the friendly bartending crew exhibit a love for the spirits they work with. After two visits, my top drink is Zarate’s Tomahawk # 15 ($12). It utilizes my beloved mezcal, infusing it with rocoto peppers, shaken with lemon juice, agave, and huacatay (Peruvian black mint), topping it with a soft cucumber foam. Heat, citrus tart, pepper, smoke and silky sweet weave into a balanced whole.

Boots with Fur – pisco done Tiki-style

Boots with Fur ($12) shows off Italia-varietal pisco in a Tiki-inspired drink. Brightly spiced with bonded apple brandy, lime, and ginger, orgeat and falernum offer texture and nuttiness. It’s served over crushed ice in a copper mug, the most playful presentation on the menu. Texture rules in Avocado Project ($12), blending fresh avocado with the excellent Banks 5 Island white rum, lime, agave, ascorbic acid for balance, and a bit of salt for a sweet, salty, vegetal imbibement.

View from Picca’s upstairs dining perch

A bartender said actress Frida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) was just in days before and they served her their Slumdog Chamomillionaire ($11). Subtle Quebranta pisco earthiness  marries well with red grape cardamom black pepper coulis, balanced by lemon and evaporated cane sugar. Picca’s bar menu is as lively and vivid as its food.

Rum & Cigar Havens

CANA RUM BAR, Downtown

Cana’s bar

Cana Rum Bar transports. Yes, you need a membership to enter, but it’s merely $20 for a whole year. I find this seemingly pretentious charge at the door actually keeps out “riff raff” (allow me to digress for a moment and explain my apparent snobbery. By riff raff, I mean vodka tonic partiers who ruin the setting at some of the more craft cocktail bars. There’s

Angostura Fizz

nothing more frustrating for those of us who really care about quality and a relaxed space to imbibe than to have that space overrun by those uninterested in craft and there to get drunk – they can do so at any of the hundreds of bars and clubs around that cater to exactly that crowd. There’s far less quality cocktail havens than party dens, so even more reason we pine for a few civilized spots in which to savor a well-made drink and conversation).

Though I would normally find a membership fee pretentious, at this price – and most importantly, knowing mainstream LA clientele – I am grateful they are doing it. Don’t worry: the place is sans attitude. Mellow on my visit with roaring patio fireplace, embracing glow and cozy booths, they make many a night a party with funky DJs and celebrations like Bob Marley birthday.

Cana’s glowing patio with fireplace

General Manager Allan Katz knows his rum… and his cocktails. Though not an encyclopedic Smuggler’s Cove rum menu, rum geeks will delight in a well-curated menu grouped by island and continent. There are also tasting flights and cigar pairings.

I’m delighted with cocktails like Tennessee Isle ($12) made with Prichard’s Fine Rum, overripe mango-infused absinthe (subtle), and coconut Peychaud’s bitters.

Cozy corner booth at Cana

Their menu describes it best: “This is what a Sazerac would taste like if the wicked witch of the west overtook Kansas and sent Tennessee to the Caribbean via flying monkey.”

On the low alcohol front is a Trader Vic recipe adapted by bartender Danielle, an Angostura Fizz ($13): a full shot of bitters with house pomegranate reduction, lemon, cream. It’s a bitter, frothy, elegant beauty. An Actual Apple Martini ($12) changes the game for a typically dreadful drink using apple-infused Plymouth and Death’s Door gins, Pommeau de Normandie (a marriage of Calvados and fresh apple juice), Dolin Dry Vermouth, and Bitter Truth Creole Bitters. No fake green apple pucker here.

In keeping with Cana’s vibe, the drinks are refined yet entirely approachable.

LA DESCARGA, Hollywood

La Descarga’s retro signage

La Descarga is mobbed when live burlesque and Cuban jazz are scheduled, while bartenders in the main bar seemed disinterested and “too cool” to engage. But in an open air back room (appears to be closed but is vented around the ceiling), I encountered two delightful bartenders who knew their rum. Only a couple basic cocktails are served in this room, otherwise, it’s straight rum and cigars. I truly appreciate that you can bring your own cigar or purchase one from their selection. In the main bar, I made my usual off-menu request and was served a Mr. Boston classic, the Chet Baker cocktail (named after the musician), using Zacapa 23 rum, Punt e Mes, Angostura bitters, honey.

Though I slipped away for live jazz in the body-to-body main room, Renaissance Man and I were more than content to linger in the cigar room over rum and a cigars, savoring La Descarga’s musty, Old World ambiance.

La Descarga’s 1930’s era Havana main bar

I was delighted with each rum pour selected by back room bartenders:

– A light brown Martinique agricole (French West Indies rhum made from sugar cane juice vs. molasses): lovely Clement Rhum Vieux exudes minerality with apple brandy and fig notes.
Vascaya 21yr Cuban-style rum from Dominican Republic has whispers of vanilla cream soda.
– Pot-stilled beauty Plantation 1990 from Guyana is earthy, even slightly smoky, alongside vanilla and soft spice.

La Descarga evokes Old World Havana: divey, dim, a little run down. Despite the beautiful Hollywood crowd, this is not merely a hipster haven but a true rum bar.

Note: make a reservation (email via their site).

Along Hollywood Blvd.

LIBRARY BAR, Hollywood

Best cocktail: Controlada

Returning to Library Bar in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel confirms thoughts in my review last year: creative, farmers market cocktails remain impeccable, some of the best LA has to offer, but I missed the higher level of service given by Matt Biancaniello in prior visits. Clientele was as frustrating as before, asking for basic, vodka tonic-type cocktails or coffee, packing out the intimate, chic bar the longer we were there, turning it into a pick-up scene.

Despite these downsides, a full farmers market spread and bartender creations (be aware: there is no menu) resulted in more winning drinks. Simple and sweet, Barsol Pisco was perky with mint, agave, lime, and grapefruit.

Pisco, mint, lime, grapefruit

Mezcal mixed happily with jalapeno heat, herbaceous thyme, and agave for gentle sweetness. Another creation of Basil Hayden bourbon with plump cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, and lemon, defined “garden fresh”.

The best cocktail of the night was bartender Chris Hughes’ Controlada (he also provided best service of the night). Hughes blends five chiles with two of my top agave spirits: Del Maguey’s Chichicapa mezcal and Fortaleza Blanco tequila. Additionally, he adds ginger lemon honey, arbol chile-infused St. Germain elderflower liqueur, red and yellow peppers. It may sound like too many ingredients but balance is spot on. Spice, color and brightness shine, while the overall effect is vivacious and refreshing.

Just be ready for a NYC-priced bill of about $16 per cocktail at the end.

WOOD & VINE, Hollywood

Wood & Vine’s patio

Packed crowds mar the scene at  Wood & Vine – I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way for it. But if you’re in the area and on a mild LA night, Wood & Vine’s back patio and laid back staff are inviting.

Late night happy hours keep prices low and though there are only a few cocktails, there’s a solid spirits and beer selection and classic drinks like a Bee’s Knees or classic Daiquiri.

Their own creations vary in quality, from a Millennium, surprisingly delightful with softly bitter Cocchi, gin, and white creme de cacao, to a Kentucky Cashmere, with dominant spice from chai vanilla-infused bourbon, Jelinek Fernet, and chocolate chili bitters, which ultimately felt off balance.

DRINKS WITH A VIEW

Mesmerizing view of LA surrounds Hotel Wilshire’s rooftop bar

HOTEL WILSHIRE ROOFTOP BAR, Mid-City West

Refreshing cocktails on the Wilshire rooftop

Staying at the new boutique Hotel Wilshire was a welcome respite from busy LA streets.

Spending each sunset on their rooftop bar by the pool was a pleasure.

Surrounded by LA hills and high rises, it’s a gorgeous urban view and peaceful place from which to take in rosy-pink LA sunsets.

The drinks menu is fairly basic but there is care in the details. They make their own ginger beer, which is delicious on its own 0r makesa vivid Dark & Stormy, garnished with candied ginger.

Also of note, the hotel’s restaurant chef is Eric Greenspan of Next Iron Chef fame.

And you can’t beat that view.

A classic gin martini at Hollywood’s historic Musso & Frank Grill

CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

MUSSO & FRANK, Hollywood

Much has been said about Musso & Frank over the years. As LA’s oldest restaurant since 1919, it’s famous for grey-haired bartenders who make a mean martini, and for serving Hollywood’s elite through the decades, from Greta Garbo to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This is not haven of cocktail perfection or experimentation. Thankfully. When I want an adorable, older bartender and a stiff gin martini the old school way, this is LA’s best.

Dining room bar

Delightful bartenders

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Mar
15
2011

Wandering Traveler

Chef's Roasted Nuts & Mainland Cocktail at Roy Choi's A-Frame

LOS ANGELES

A-Frame's converted IHOP

My January jaunt to LA yielded a number of discoveries from mediocre to delightful – here’s a rundown:

Latest & Hottest

A-FRAME, Culver City – I hit A-Frame, Roy Choi’s (of Kogi Korean taco truck fame) latest restaurant, just a few weeks after it opened. How could I not love the converted IHOP with a-frame shape and outdoor patio punctuated with bright color and firepits? They had me immediately. The under $20 menu helped, as did personable service. Add in some solid cocktails, and I’m as happy as a clam.

Kitchen fries made from 3 kinds of yam/sweet potatoes

While every dish does not wow, the price is right and most of all, Choi clearly has fun with his menus, as do you eating his food. Snacks are the likes of chef’s roasted nuts ($5), a Japanese trail mix of sorts, with shredded beef jerky added in for good measure. Kitchen fries ($6) are so much more than fries. A few kinds of spud, from purple Okinawan sweet potato to Korean sweet potato, are fried lightly, then dusted with sea salt. Dipped in a midly spicy kimchi sour cream, there is no better accompaniment to drinks like the light, silky Mainland ($10) with pisco, lilikoi (passion fruit), lime, egg white, cayenne.

Island farmer’s market salad ($7) is no throwaway: a huge portion, it’s a mountain of greens sparked by shaved Maui onions, tofu, fried garlic, seasonal fruit and a ginger shoyu vinaigrette. Clam chowder ($9) is really an Asian cream soup with coconut milk, green curry, lemongrass, pancetta, and toasted sourdough toasts. Delicious.

Cornbread Chicken Salad

But the best dish of all? Warm cornbread & chicken salad ($8). The cornbread sits toasted and warm, piled high with shredded chicken, Italian sausage ragoût, covered in a tart salsa verde (green tomatillos) and pickled red onion. This is comfort food I craved but wouldn’t have dreamed up.

At this point, there’s no room left for fried apple pie ($6) with Southern Comfort caramel and cheddar ice cream… but you’ll find a way.

Tuscan Kale Salad

GJELINA, VeniceGjelina is among the better meals I’ve ever had in LA. In spite of an annoying no reservations policy given the crowds and obnoxious din all day long, the food is of high quality in ingredients and preparation… very Bay Area in its approach, the artisan pizza and appetizer thing has been well overdone in SF. But in LA it has not and Gjelina rivals Pizzeria Mozza in its food. If you can get a table in the tiny garden out back, take it. That, and the mini-room towards in the back, are the only spots where you can hear your own voice.

Butterscotch Pot de Creme

Try not to fall in love with caramelized fennel & fennel salami pizza ($15). Tomato confit adds a sweet contrast to the herbal, meat slant. A beautiful pie. Pure ingredients illuminate a sandwich like tuna conserva salad ($13) with roasted pepper, arugula & caper aioli. A salad ($9) of Tuscan kale, radish, fennel, and ricotta salata topped with breadcrumbs exemplifies how pleasurable eating your greens can be.

I’ve had a few Butterscotch Pot de Crèmes ($8) in my day, but I couldn’t help releasing a sigh of delight with the first silky bite of Gjelina‘s. Ultra-salty with salted caramel, a dollop of crème fraiche adds texture.

Waterloo & City

WATERLOO & CITY, Culver City – One of the hotspots in LA right now, and on top ten lists for best new opening of 2010, incessant crowds and an unimpressive space are downsides. But Waterloo & City has a staff that manages to make you feel taken care of in the midst of the bustle. Food and drink isn’t life-changing, by any means, but it’s solid fare in a casual setting: a gourmet pub with LA flair.

Cocktails work, like Honey Bear ($10): Maker’s Mark, Barenjager honey liqueur, orange bitters, orange twist. Simple veggie sides ($6) are among the strongest items I tried here, including broccolini in garlic and chili oil, and greens tossed with ricotta salata and radishes.

Tongue & Carrot Terrine

Indian butter chicken pizza ($14) was not near as exciting as it sounded, definitely needing more murgh makhani sauce.  Fettuccine ($18) in a Thai red curry lobster sauce did nicely with lime but a couple of the mussels tasted funky.

The winning dish by far is a well-crafted Smoked Tongue & Carrot Terrine ($12) with sweet & sour chilies and a robust mustard. Made me wish I tried more of their terrines, trotters, pates.

Cheap Eats

NY steak taco plate

TLAPAZOLA, West LATlapazola surprised me. It’s a humble, mid-range Mexican spot in West LA (with a second location in Venice). Our server was sweet and attentive, exhibiting a clear love for Tlapazola‘s cuisine.

With Oaxacan roots, their moles are lovely (black, yellow, or pumpkin seed), while their NY steak taco plate ($16) is unexpectedly perfect: tender, meaty beef with rice, black beans, molcajete sauce. Fish special entrees (in my case, mahi mahi with a subtle tomato ginger sauce at $20) are hefty slices of fish over veggies, cooked expertly if not overwhelmingly memorable.

Tlapazola (L); Ron Chata (R)

I was particularly impressed with their cocktails, which I didn’t even come here for. I heard they had a broad tequila selection (they do), but cocktails are shockingly creative. There’s a tiny bar with no seating at the front of the restaurant, hardly a showcase for their winning drinks.

Ron-Chata ($9) is creamy with Whalers white rum, Kraken spiced rum, and Tres Leches triple-cream liqueur. A house cinnamon syrup adds spice, fruity notes come from prickly pear puree, and a caramelized walnut offers contrasting crunch.

Tlapazola ($10), the house drink, is made with Joya azul mezcal reposado, agave nectar, lime juice and old fashioned bitters. Cilantro layers it with an herbal tinge, while their own black mole adds heat, texture and meatiness. Further intrigue comes from a spritz of Pechuga mezcal mist, a favorite mezcal from Del Maguey.

I only regret not being able to try more Tlapazola cocktails.

Mo-chica Ceviche

MO-CHICA, Downtown – I’ve heard much hype from trusted sources like Jonathan Gold calling Mo-chica the best Peruvian in LA. That may be true, but I haven’t found Peruvian to be particularly strong in LA generally speaking. The plus of this humble eatery in a downtown LA’s Mercado La Paloma is its cheap prices, particularly for the quality.

Dan Tana's classic neon sign

But there were let-downs. Causas ($5), mashed Peruvian potatoes and vegetables shaped in a  circle, and, in this case, topped with crab meat, are among my favorite Peruvian dishes. But I’ve had a far superior version at La Mar here in SF many a time, though granted for double the price. The crab causa at Mo-chica was cold, a little bland, the crabmeat tasting slightly fishy.

Ceviche del Dia, or ceviche of the day (market price), was certainly stronger and a great deal, in large or small sizes (fish varies). My top dish was an unexpected one: Aji De Gallina ($10), shredded chicken in a spicy yellow sauce of aji amarillo chilies, walnuts and bread. Served with a side of rice, it’s filling, comforting and tastes better with each bite.

Old School

DAN TANA’S, Beverly Hills/West Hollywood – Ultimately, I can’t recommend you go to Dan Tana’s, classic Hollywood though it may be.

Dan Tana's

You know how much I adore old school Italian ala NY/Jersey-style. This place has that spirit in spades with movie-star clientele, cheeky hosts and bartenders to boot. But $24 for a plate of spaghetti or $31 for veal parmigiana?  I can get food just as good for half the price at dozens of other places. The fact that George Clooney et. al. have menu items named after them as regulars is far from a good reason to pay that much.

That being said, Clooney’s veal cutlet Milanese ($29) is lemon-y, caper goodness, and that hefty, cheesy lasagna ($27!) is beyond comforting. It’s got Rat Pack written all over it, and I even enjoyed being squeezed into a tiny corner booth. But I’d never pay those prices again for basic American-Italian food.

Fountain Coffee Room menu

FOUNTAIN COFFEE ROOM, Beverly Hills – Legendary and gorgeous Beverly Hills Hotel, is classic Beverly Hills in a pink/green, 1960’s tropical motif, lined with palm trees. Head downstairs inside to tiny Fountain Coffee Room. The food is merely a few steps above diner food at Beverly Hills prices. Not worth a detour. But the waitresses have sass and the counter-only view makes for interactive eating. A decent Belgian waffle and corned beef plate were no match for the highlight: Fresh Orange Freeze ($6.75). For the same price as a glass of OJ, this fresh-squeezed juice is blended with yogurt, reminiscent of a grown-up, fresher version of Orange Julius.

Snacks

At the counter of Fountain Coffee Room

LEMONADE, VeniceLemonade is an ideal cafe with buffet-style, build-your-own salads, sandwiches  and heartwarming sides and entrees, like braised short ribs or beef stroganoff. What I came for was the lemonade. Daily specials give you multiple options and lemonades are thankfully tart. Two specials I tried were Pomegranate Tarragon and Cucumber Mint, the former, sweet and juicy, the latter spa-like and refreshing.

COMPARTES CHOCOLATIER, Brentwood – The best local chocolates I’ve had from LA, Compartes creates gorgeous dark chocolate truffles and bars, including the apricot & shichimi 7-spice chocolate bar ($8), and truffles like Smoked Salt, Peanut Butter, Pink Peppercorn & Raspberry, which were the three best out of the many I recently tried.

Driving in Beverly Hills

EL CAPITAN SODA FOUNTAIN, Hollywood – Touristy and kiddie-central, there is no reason to go to the El Capitan Soda Fountain except for ice cream from Bakersfield’s legendary Dewar’s. When attending a wurlitzer concert at El Capitan, then back in Hollywood a couple nights later, I indulged both times in a Peppermint Freeze ($6-6.95 for three sizes; Dewar’s peppermint ice cream and 7-up). It’s a bright and minty guilty pleasure.

SUSINA BAKERY, Beverly Blvd. – I actually was disappointed in Susina Bakery, a cafe I’d heard under-the-radar raves about. Despite a welcoming Parisian cafe vibe and fine chocolate selection, pastries and coffee were mediocre and not at all worth going out of one’s way for.

KING’S ROAD CAFE, Beverly Blvd. - The coffee at King’s Road Cafe is no third wave beauty nor even old school robust, but this constantly busy cafe is better than the rest in the area if you happen to be on Beverly Boulevard. Otherwise, it’s not noteworthy.

 

Caramelized Fennel & Fennel Salami Pizza at Gjelina

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Mar
01
2011

Wandering Traveler

Library Bar at Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Los Angeles

Last Tango in Modena: strawberry & aged balsamic in gin w/ St. Germain foam

Not to be confused with downtown LA’s Library Bar (a pleasantly casual, book-lined hang-out, though not memorable on the drink front), the Library Bar, hidden in the back of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel‘s lobby, makes about the best cocktails I’ve ever had in LA (alongside the New York classicism of The Varnish and molecular creativity of The Bazaar). And that hasn’t always been the most rewarding search over the years.

A surprising respite off the jarring, touristy Hollywood Boulevard across from Grauman’s Chinese Theater, it’s a one-bartender show on any given night. This means you will wait for a drink, but it is worth it.

A farmers’ market spread of fruits, herbs and vegetables, selected daily, hints at the delights in store. There’s no menu. Tell bartender, Matt Biancaniello, your preferences or mood, trusting him to concoct a winner. And he will.

Though I love faux zebra bar stools and chairs, paired with sultry, brown leather couches in the mellow room. The one sour note is common in my experience at LA bars: the clientele.

Daily farmers market spread

Only one of a handful of people that night seemed to actually be any kind of cocktail appreciator. And he was driving home the point fairly loudly to the girls he was trying to flirt with. These women asked for a vodka tonic or some variation thereof… I couldn’t help but wish that these types would go to any of the hundreds of bars nearby that would happily serve them just such a flavorless drink, leaving this a quiet haven for cocktail aficionados and adventurous palates.

Rum, allspice dram, winter citrus

But it’s to Biancaniello’s credit that he cheerfully asked these women questions, pushing their boundaries using various herbs and white rum or gin instead of vodka. Stretching them a bit, but not too far, he did what a great bartender should do: educate and enlighten, without talking down to.

For those with expanded taste, delights await. Tastes run savory with vegetables or spices, lush with foams or house-infused liqueurs, tart with an array of citrus. As Biancaniello will say, he’s clearly inspired by the likes of Scott Beattie. If not reaching that level of artistry, he pursues it.

On my visit, Biancaniello made cocktails with white raspberries and sage, or hops-infused gin. After asking for something savory and different, I was a little disappointed to get a drink with gin and strawberries, Last Tango in Modena (which Jonathan Gold calls one of the best cocktails in LA as of 3/3). It was expertly made, though not my favorite of the night. Hendricks gin gave it a cucumber crispness, married with strawberries, topped with St. Germain foam, brown with a sweet, 25yr balsamic vinegar. I have had the aged vinegar and strawberry combo before, from drinks to ice cream, though this was certainly a superior version.

Kentucky Bubble Bath

He mixed rum with California’s Winter bounty: blood oranges, Meyer lemons and satsumas. St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram imparted a Wintery spice. A crisped orange slice exhibited a Beattie-like touch.

I especially took to Kentucky Bubble Bath, a bourbon cocktail (Bulleit, in this case), brightened with lemon. Gently floral with house lavender syrup (hence the bubble bath), Cynar artichoke liqueur adds a layer of gentle bitterness.

Cocktail lovers should make a beeline for this bar whenever they’re in LA. It’s not typical for that city, or anywhere, really. The skillful, one-man-show, California farmers market bounty, and intimate setting (minus a bit of clientele douchebaggery) make it a drink destination.

But please, if you want a vodka tonic, just go to the perfectly nice-looking bar at the front of the hotel instead.

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Jan
01
2011

Wandering Traveler

LOS ANGELES

My last jaunt to LA yielded a few spots I thought you should know about:

OLD PLACE, Agoura Hills – Take to the winding roads of Agoura Hills where happening upon Old Place feels like a mirage in the wild West. The smell of BBQ lures you in, while a rustic wood porch makes you want to pull out a banjo and ‘set a spell’.

The Old Place in Agoura Hills

This restaurant is a surprise in any part of LA. Rustic yet current, it’s like stepping into another dimension, a Bonanza-like LA where Hoss or Little Jo might ride up any minute for beef stew or blue corn meal flapjacks yet the clientele is youthful and hip. As for the food, I can’t vouch yet (they are open for dinner and a popular brunch), as I lingered in the rustic chic wine bar next door. But I can say I was enchanted amidst the dry brush and quiet of winding Agoura Hills.

Mole Negro

MOLES LA TIA, East LA – Never mind the sketchy area when a slew of lovingly prepared Oaxacan moles await at the humbly wonderful Moles La Tia. The gracious staff brought me a few additional moles to taste as I couldn’t possibly eat all the dishes I wanted to.

Moles la Tia

Passion fruit mole is brightly piquant without being sweet. Coffee mole is earthy and lush. Get blissfully lost in the mole menu, but if you haven’t had Chef Rocio Camacho’s Mole Negro, or Oaxacan Ancestran Black Mole over quail ($15), do not delay.  Dark as the night, layered and complex, you’ll taste something different in every bite, all the while singing Camacho’s praises. 

El Tepayec

EL TEPAYEC, East LA - The famed Hollenbeck Burrito is something you should try once in your life, giant enough to feed a few, overflowing with rice, beans, tons of pork and what feels like an entire avocado. But the real appeal at El Tepayec is the world worn, charming 1970’s diner, the adorable, elderly doorman (yes, even on a weekday this place has a line), and the Mexican curios lining the walls. Locals swarm the brown-toned dining room. At the take-out window (with side patio ideal for a quick bite), I’ve heard men order two Hollenbeck burritos… each.

PORTO BAKERY, Burbank – This swarming Burbank bakery operates like a massive, chandelier-laced cafeteria doling out Cubano sandwiches and box-upon-box of cakes and sweets to go. Cuban families and nearby film and TV studio workers pack the place out for lunch. Understandable, considering most sandwiches were under $5.

Porto's baked goods

I filled a box with pastries from Porto’s, impressed that unlike most gourmet bakeries these days, most items are under $1. That’s right: for the same sized pastry I pay $3-4 for elsewhere, I paid 75 cents. The owners’ heritage is Cuban so I avoided the French or Americanized pastries and went for unusual items like Guava & Cheese Strudel, Mango Empanadas, or Chorizo Pie. Fruity, tart, flaky… each was a delight. And less than $5 for a number of them.

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Apr
15
2010

Wandering Traveler

JOSE ANDRES’ THE BAZAAR
LOS ANGELES

Truly “The Ultimate Gin & Tonic” ($18): w/ your choice of gin (Distillery N. 209, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Hendrick’s) & Tonic (Fever Tree or Stirrings), loaded w/ edible flowers

I’ve been privileged to savor the wonder that is molecular gastronomy done right, whether it be at Alinea, Baume or even the creativity of Coi. In visiting The Bazaar at the SLS Beverly Hills Hotel, I arrived with tempered expectations but left wowed. From DC/Spanish chef genius, Jose Andres, the meal is a wonderland of inventiveness that never commits the cardinal sin of molecular cooking: all style, no substance (or flavor).

Popping-fresh in your mouth are liquid balls of tomato & mozzarella w/ a drizzle of basil in “Not Your Everyday Caprese” ($12)

One after another, his stellar (if tiny) dishes parade out, adding up to a big bill, though each item may only cost around $10. As opposed to astronomical, fixed price tasting menus at all other molecular restaurants, one of many things I love about The Bazaar is that you order a la carte, even in the bar, as much or as little as you wish. If I lived nearby, I’d try a new bite or two regularly, eventually working my way through the entire menu. This is now my all-around favorite LA restaurant.

Cotton Candy Foie Gras ($5) dissolves to a foie center

The space is stunning, Alice-in-Wonderland eclectic but with a classy bent. It could easily be gimmicky, but it works – and I appreciate getting a ‘show’ in setting as well as food for my money. Moving from the general dining room, through a chic bar to the museum-like dessert area, is all part of a drama that works…

For a cocktail hound like  myself, one of the many joys here is that cocktails are equally inventive: whether it’s a margarita with salt foam instead of a rim (I wish all margaritas could be this balanced: salt permeates, but never dominates, every part) or a liquid nitrogen caipirinha prepared tableside, you’ll experience classic cocktails in ways you’ve never had them before.

Brussels Sprouts ($8) w/ lemon puree, apricots, grapes & lemon air/foam

There is a menu of “traditional” Spanish tapas, including a top-notch Spanish meat and cheese selection, but I stuck to “modern” tapas as this is what you can’t get elsewhere.

Since half the joy here is the work of art inherent in each course, I will let my photos do the talking, urging you to dream of what intense flavors and unexpected tastes could surprise from each plate. Better yet, make sure you visit next time you’re in LA, whether for a couple bites or a full evening extravaganza… bring a sense of adventure and wonder.

Margarita w/ salt foam & Manhattan w/ liquid cherry sphere ($16)

Light Sweet Potato Chips ($10) w/ Star Anise/Tamarind Yogurt

The Bazaar’s striking space melds modern playful w/ LA elegance

Japanese Tacos ($10) melt w/ the sweetness of grilled eel, shiso, cucumber, wasabi w/ the added crisp of chicharonnes on top

Possibly my favorite bite of all: “Philly Cheesesteak” ($8) reinterpreted as an airy bread dissolving in your mouth to a hot, oozing white cheddar fondue center w/ Wagyu beef over the top

Liquid Nitrogen Caipirinha prepared tableside from a roving cart was served as a frozen glass of ultra-boozy cachaca w/ lime & edible flowers, dissipating on the tongue

Foreground: brilliant Cesar Salad ($8) rendition as sushi-like roll w/ quail egg on top; Background: Watermelon Yellowtail Nigiri ($12) w/ fresh wasabi, jalapeno, red wine, soy

Soft steamed buns hold King Crab w/ pickled cucumbers ($18 for 3)

Dessert is a mix-and-match extravaganza of choices like bonbons (earl grey, rice crispy), to pate de fruit (saffron w/ edible paper), cookies, pastries, candy (lime fizzy rocks, caramelized sunflower seeds); some fared better than others but the stand-out, besides pate de fruit, was dessert entree ($12): Nitro Coconut Floating Island in passion fruit & vanilla

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