Eating in LA, Winter 2014-15
Photos and article by Virginia Miller
Over the holidays, I returned twice to LA (years of recommends here), a region where I lived 12 years of my life and still have family. My recent cocktail/drink standouts are here and my latest food and dining reviews to follow.
On the disappointing front, though staying around the corner from The Pie Hole, I found the pastries and coffee drinks a let down but for the chicken ‘n’ cornbread savory pie ($3.75-6.75).
Though historically, I am a fan of Roy Choi’s restaurants (like A-Frame), his newest, POT, with its cold dining room, hit-and-miss dishes and service left a lot to be desired — same can be said for the rooftop bar, The Commissary. The one killer dish I tried was Beep Beep ($18), an umami-laden, spicy fried rice laced with fresh Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin).
BESTIA, Downtown LA
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, an old favorite of mine), 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 some of my favorite regions 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).
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. At Bestia, the staff know their food and drink. The bar staff are crafting impeccable cocktails created by LA bar great Julian Cox. More on the cocktails here.
Wood-fired, Neapolitan-inspired pizzas are a standout, namely a pizza laden with silky burrata cheese, San Marzano tomatoes, castelvetrano olives, oregano and fermented chilies. The pasta is also a showstopper, and as with all dishes here, doesn’t feel tired or typical. I adore cavatelli alla norcina ($29): fluffy ricotta dumplings, savory with house pork sausage, black truffles and Grana Padano cheese.
A hearty farro grain salad ($12) is marked by shaved heirloom cauliflower, pine nuts, avocado puree, pickled chili, mint and Montasio (a cheese from Northeast Italy). Grilled cuttlefish ($19) was another stunner, showing off the cuttlefish better than many restaurants have, served with chanterelle mushrooms and sprouting broccoli over kabocha squash puree, drizzled with aged balsamic and chili.
Dessert is pure goodness: creamy mascarpone rice pudding ($11) accompanied by winter fruit, in this case hachiya persimmon, as well as orange blossom pistachios and persimmon caramel.
ORSA & WINSTON, Downtown LA
As a fan of Josef Centeno’s restaurants (particularly Baco Mercat since it opened in 2012), I had to try his more upscale Orsa & Winston. In ethos and style, it’s understated as a space, majoring on the food and the wine knowledge. It is the kind of restaurant I hunted for in LA a decade ago and could barely find, common at home in SF where food is first before “scene” or design. But now there are a number of mid-range to upscale restaurants like this in LA where the humble (and in this case, cramped) surroundings belie the quality and creativity of food within.
Note that it’s a set menu only: $90 for 8-courses and $65 to add on wine pairings, or 5 courses for $65 with $40 wine pairings (there’s also a super omakase menu “chef’s table” — basically a counter overlooking the kitchen). Service is smart and knowledgeable on the wine front and the dishes flow out seamlessly, if a bit swiftly.
While not every course wowed (I tried the 8 course menu with wine pairings), a good 4 of them did — a high number in a tasting menu. And the rest were still good. An amuse bouche of a creamy, peanut butter-like mound of sesame yogurt is accented by beets, finger limes, salt and micro-flowers. This kind of whimsy with bright, bold flavor signifies Centeno’s style and the best moments at Orsa.
A vegetable dish based around crosnes, a tuber vegetable also known as Chinese artichoke, is a happy surprise. The earthy white root is highlighted by micro greens, gooseberries, tomato, maitake mushrooms and charred scallion creme fraiche, resulting in a vibrant and earthy dish.
Two more “wow” moments: Japanese sweet potato soup laden with lobster, pomegranate, creme fraiche and nori (seaweed). It is gorgeous paired with a surprising 2013 De Forville Piemonte Chardonnay from Italy with sour beer/fermented qualities. Also, satsuki rice was punctuated with decadent Santa Barbara uni in a geoduck chowder foam, Parmesan cream and a spritz of yuzu from an atomizer to tie the whole umami-rich dish together. One of the best moments is the bread course, in my case, milk bread focaccia paired with pickled radishes and smeared with smoked black cod tonnato or house butter.
FAITH & FLOWER, Downtown LA
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 past 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.
To eat, oxtail agnolotti ($17) is rightly a favorite, sweet and savory with bone marrow, Asian pear conserva and beef tendon chicharrones adding crunch across the top. I actually preferred a summery-rich handmade egg spaghetti ($15) laced with roasted corn and cherry tomatoes, the clincher being its miso butter base. A lunch standout is a rock shrimp roll ($15), recalling Maine lobster rolls on buttery brioche, laced with pickled onion and a smoked remoulade. Save room for the cookie board ($12), offering an array of fresh-baked cookies.
NIGHT + MARKET, West Hollywood & Silver Lake
Along with the likes of Kin Khao in SF and Pok Pok in Portland (and now also a NYC location), Night + Market offers authentic, vibrant Thai food in a hip setting that notably serves flavors and dishes not found on typical Thai menus across the US. These are the rare and wonderful flavors (with proper Thai heat) I miss from my months around Thailand, paired with a lovely list of wines, dominant on the Gruners and Rieslings that partner so well with heat. While I enjoyed dishes like a catfish tamale ($12) wrapped in a banana leaf, it’s khao kluk gapi (shrimp paste-seasoned rice – $13) that I adored: pungent, sweet and savory, as you toss candied pork, shredded egg, red onion, green mango, cilantro and bird eye chiles with the rice.
Other than a deafening dining room at the original WeHo (West Hollywood) location — despite being only half full — service is friendly even if food rushes out. Next time I would sit at the empty bar in the middle of the restaurant to avoid shouting to be heard by my dining companion across the table.
Yxta Cocina Mexicana (pronounced eeks’-tah) is a bustling, airy, modern Mexican restaurant that is ideal for lunch, a sister restaurant to Highland Park’s El Arco Iris. The details are done right here — handmade tortillas, Salmon Creek natural pork, Jidori free range chicken. Tequila and mezcal-based cocktails and the tacos (love their al pastor) are gourmet yet authentic, fresh and gratifying. In a city awash in incredible Mexican food for decades, it’s nice having quality mid-range options like Yxta.
Cheap Eats & Coffee
LAVENDER & HONEY ESPRESSO BAR, Pasadena
When I hit the road home from visiting family in OC, it’s worth stopping off at this Pasadena cafe, Lavender & Honey, for excellent coffee from Lift Coffee Roasters, and — jumping on the gourmet toast craze — delicious gourmet toast on rustic bread. Try Pasadena toast, covered in fresh, mashed avocados and dotted with red jalapenos, or specials like lemon sugar toast, tart with Meyer lemon marmalade and a dusting of powdered sugar.
DEMITASSE, Little Tokyo
I love friendly Demitasse in Little Tokyo. Besides housing a Japanese siphon coffee machine and serving quality espresso and barista coffee special drinks (oh, that bitter, smooth lavender hot chocolate topped with toasted, gourmet marshmallow!), they also sell Sugar Bloom Bakery goods, like a kimchi Spam musubi croissant recalling Korea and Hawaii in the form of French pastry.
MARUGAME MONZO, Little Tokyo
Though I can’t say it’s my favorite udon ever, Marugame Monzo transports me to Japan, particularly with a counter seat at the window watching kitchen staff form and cut noodles by hand. Hearty bowls of udon (generally $8-15) fare better on the traditional, broth side. I was far more excited about the Japanese-Italian touches and creative interpretations like uni cream udon.
But in actuality, I found the uni udon rather sickening after eating only 1/3 of the massive $15 bowl, rather like a drenched fettucine alfredo literally drowning and smothering the sea urchin. The noodles are comforting, however, showcased better in broth with delectable tempura shrimp or other meats.
KAZUNORI, Downtown LA
KazuNori, “The original hand roll bar” from Kazunori Nozawa (of popular Sugarfish) is Downtown LA’s hot new destination for affordable-fresh hand rolls (3 for $10.50, 4 for $13, 5 for $17.50 — note that you cannot get hand rolls to go, only cut rolls). Hand roll options are basic — cucumber, salmon, Bay scallops, blue crab, toro, yellowtail, lobster ($4-7 each) — and an orderly flow allows you to pop in to the wrap-around sushi bar (no tables) for a couple quick rolls and a Japanese beer. This is not notable sushi, to be sure, but the easy flow and affordable prices explain its immediate popularity and almost guarantee success for the additional locations they plan on opening.
ZEKE’S SMOKEHOUSE, Montrose
Zeke’s Smokehouse made for a sunny, pleasant brunch on the charming main street of Montrose. Their pulled pork is fall-apart goodness, particularly gratifying over massive hotcakes ($8.95) at breakfast, in bourbon maple syrup.
GRAND CENTRAL MARKET, Downtown LA
Much has written about the revival of downtown LA’s Grand Central Market and for good reason. Though quite different (and sans scenic water views) from SF’s Ferry Plaza Building, it recalls the revival of that historic building over a decade ago when local and tourists alike began flocking to the bustling space for all manner of food — and long lines.
Bypass the endless lines at Egg Slut and go for full blown authenticity and straight-from-Mexico goodness at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas where generous tacos and tortas fill you up for a few dollars. I also love Thai outpost Sticky Rice, particularly the daily changing specials, like beef and sticky rice, tasting just like it did in my months on the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai way back in 1999.
Try Wexler’s for bagels and lox or pastrami sandwiches, Press Brothers Juicery for a vegetable juice fix and G&B Coffee, whose friendly staff make the walk-up counter a pleasant experience even if the use of Canada’s 49th Parallel coffee doesn’t thrill me: it’s so soft and such a light roast, it’s almost masked in a cappuccino or macchiato. I prefer requesting coffee made with beans they offer from other roasters or house special drinks like hop-infused carbonated ice tea.