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Letter From the Editor Vol.56

Los Angeles, Take Two

January 14, 2010

As we continued to eat our way from San Diego to Malibu, we got another look at the ever-evolving California dining scene. Comfort food still reigns supreme in Los Angeles, as in the rest of the country, but fine dining continues to have a strong foothold, unlike the rest of the country.

In the realm of comfort food, we encountered a number of chefs serving rustic Italian cuisine in a variety of settings. In San Diego, Cucina Urbana (formerly Laurel) is the ultimate example of adjusting your restaurant concept to survive in this economy. Owner Tracy Borkum, General Manager Ben Kephart, and Chef Joe Magnanelli turned what could have been a failing special occasion restaurant into an opportunity to rebrand as a casual Italian hot spot. Now, the place is packed and the food, with nothing over $20, is still top-notch. Read our Switching A Restaurant Concept interview with Ben and Joe to learn more about how they did it.

Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton’s Mozza is the model of success for rustic Italian in So. Cal., if not all of California. Their chef de cuisine, Matt Molina, offers a range of expertly house-made pastas and classic dishes that are impeccably executed, like crisp and light squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta. Following suit, 2003 Rising Star Chef David Myers has gotten into the pizza business with Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa. Chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack put their heart and soul into their simple and satisfying pastas, house-made bresaola, and artisanal pizzas (which we think is some of the best around).

Comfort food is also finding its way into fine dining settings. At the more upscale Mar’sel in Ranchos Palos Verdes, Chef Michael Fiorello prepares food that is also rustic at heart (like roasted autumn vegetables and roasted branzino), but elegantly presented to fit the upscale environment. While we understand diners flock to comfort food, we applaud those chefs that go the extra mile to make comfort food that has eye appeal!

We caught up with Chef Suzanne Goin, who continues to be a force to be reckoned within the LA dining scene (check out our video interview with her) with now three restaurants in her growing empire. Goin’s latest restaurant, Tavern, fits the trend towards casual with a bakery upfront and the ultimate in comfort dishes—we fawned over her creamy, gooey kabocha squash gratin. A natural follow up to Goin's rustic dishes are Pastry Chef Breanna Varela’s seasonally-driven desserts, like Pumpkin Coup with Chocolate Ice Cream and Spiced Pepita Brittle.

Although comfort and casual may be the big trend right now, fine dining is far from dead in LA. The business at Wolfgang Puck and Lee Hefter’s Spago, Tinsel Town’s classic high-end restaurant, is as bustling as ever—a nod to Chef de Cuisine Thomas Boyce’s inspired and sophisticated food and Pastry Chef Sherry Yard’s forever comforting and elegant desserts. The Puck-Hefter team has also found success in a re-imagined, high-end steakhouse, Cut, where Chef de Cuisine Ari Rosenson breathes new life into steakhouse classics, think bone marrow flan with mushroom marmalade. Pastry Chef Nicole Lindsay's Carrot and Black Currant Baked Alaska and Butterscotch Pudding fit the setting with a note of nostalgia.

In the über-casual beach town of Venice, Joe’s is a fine dining experience in an upscale but comfortable environment. Chef de Cuisine Kristopher Tominaga’s delicate touch is underscored in his simple and elegant compositions as well as in his flavor pairings. Delicacy isn't what Chef Jon Sedlar is going for at Rivera, where the chef uses what he calls “spiceology” to insert thought provoking political messages in his presentations. Check it out in our latest On the Plate feature.

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro is the new kid in town. Chef de Cuisine Rory Herrmann cooks classic French bistro food with lavish touches, like lentils with a soft poached egg and bordelaise sauce topped with a generous portion of foie gras mousse. Pastry Chef Scott Wheatfill’s desserts are all about spot-on execution of classic desserts like Crème Caramel. And Sommelier Alex Weil specializes in traditional pairings to complement the food and satisfy the palate, but went outside the box with a bottle-fermented Belgian-style dark ale pairing with the poached egg dish.

A number of the most successful and exciting high-end restaurants that are thriving in Los Angeles are associated with equally lux hotels. At Gordon Ramsay at the London, Chef de Cuisine Andy Cook impressed us with decadent dishes like Hamachi with Caviar, Pickled Ginger, Lemon Oil, and King Crab Beignet. At Studio in the luxurious Montage Hotel, Chef Craig Strong does double duty as the chef and pastry chef; his pastry skills were made apparent with a complex trio of Toasted Meringue with Banana Fritter and Passion Fruit-Banana Sorbet. Pastry Chef Nathaniel Reid at the St. Regis Dana Point wowed us with an impressive scale of competition-worthy treats, from bon bons and bread to plated desserts.

José Andrés’ The Bazaar in the SLS Hotel is the hottest fine dining spot in LA, and is as much about the experience as it is about the high concept food and cocktails. Check out Mixologist Lucas Paya’s technique for a Liquid Nitrogen Caipirinha, which they prepare tableside on rolling carts. And for more on the vibrant, growing LA mixology scene check out our feature The Downtown (R)Evolution of the LA Mixology Scene.

We also encountered a number of wine-friendly food and chef-sommelier teams who work closely together. At Charlie’s Malibu in Malibu, Chef David Linwell and Sommelier Caitlin Stansbury are a lively duo who work together to match the food and wine’s textures. Likewise at Vertical in Pasadena, Chef Doug Weston and Sommelier David Haskell both have precision palates and let the food and wine play off each other to elevate the whole dining experience.

2006 New York Rising Star Chef Makoto Okuwa has migrated across the country to Manhattan Beach, where he opened Sashi. He serves soulful Japanese cuisine that keeps his diners—and us—yearning for more. And he’s taken on a talented pastry chef, Kei Hasegawa, who makes some of the most amazingly delicate macaroons we've tasted to date.

Asian-inspired cuisine is nothing new in LA, but there is a new batch of young chefs serving up an eclectic version. Chef Andrew Kirschner, a Govind Armstrong protégé now at Wilshire, served us a Southeast Asian-style whole Thai snapper with Japanese soba noodles. At Cache, Chef Nyesha Arrington prepares a funky Alaskan King Crab with the unlikely combination of avocado, persimmon, and yuzu vinaigrette.

Next, we're off to Northern California to scout the next group of San Francisco and Bay Area Rising Stars. We'll be in Washington, DC this spring, so please reach out and give us your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists we should check out.

As always, we love hearing from you! Be sure to become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook and follow me on Twitter to keep up with where I’m going and what I’m eating.

Cheers!
Antoinette Bruno
Editor-in-Chief

 

 


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