TO LIVE AND DINE IN L.A.
You can eat lunch in this town again.
BY CHRIS RUBIN AND
Critics love to knock Los Angeles. They deride its architecture, its relentless obsession with the superficial, its facile friendships, and more. But these days no one is knocking the food. Diversity is the buzzword of the decade, and chefs are finding endless inspiration for innovative and exciting cuisines in L.A.’s wildly diverse population. As befits a celebrity-obsessed town, chefs have become superstars among the new Hollywood royalty.
While sins of the flesh may be common in the City of Angels, here are the seven deadliest places for the palate.
A New Lease
In earthquake-addled Southern California, when you’re told the day before opening night that the building inspector hasn’t gotten around to “checking on things,” the dining experience can lose its appeal. But Josiah Citrin’s latest contribution to the scene, Mélisse, provides convenient amnesia.
Citrin, formerly at the popular JiRaffe, tries to prove that the local boy can make good twice by creating a menu that can only be described as a kaleidoscope of tastes. The diner must concentrate to get the most out of them.
If the challenge suits you, try the menu’s most elaborate item. Dishes such as the yellowfin tuna medallions with roasted shiitakes and baby bok choy with lemongrass scallion accents, or the roasted free-range chicken with sweet corn and fava bean ragout, are deceptively subtle at the outset. Concentrate harder. The same goes for appetizers such as the mille-feuille of ahi tuna tartare with 24-hour cooked tomatoes, fennel sauce, and tapenade, and desserts like the strawberry basil crepe with blood orange parfait in a zesty orange sauce. For the tongue that fears no trip, Mélisse’s crème brûlée of lavender and lemon is what you’ve been seeking. And seekers, as anyone knows, shall find.
Style and Subsistence
Asia de Cuba sounds like a rhyme out of Dr. Seuss. Not surprisingly, entering the terrace of the hip new eatery brings the famed author to mind. Diners are seated amid enormous ceramic pots with trees growing from them. What appears surreal becomes oddly integrated, in the same way that nothing seems out of place in the Doctor’s pages.
Sunset Boulevard’s Asia de Cuba, the hotel restaurant at Ian Schrager’s Mondrian, affords a panoramic view of the city below. Whether it’s the shade of the trees against the searing desert sun, breathing the clean elevated air versus that of the smog-eaters below, or a menu that is definitively exotic but curiously old-fashioned, Asia de Cuba is an unusual but well-rendered couplet.
Executive chef Richard Kaupp takes inspiration from the streets of Havana and infuses it with Eastern accents. The next wave, he maintains, is making food familial. He believes in communal dining, insisting that everyone at the table share. Along with the conviviality of Kaupp’s mission comes the fun in eating. Guests can start with the expansive rum bar or the specialty house drinks that forgo the froufrou for real taste and ingenuity. The innovative potables complement the appetizers such as calamari salad, a cornucopia of ingredients including chayote, hearts of palm, banana, chicory, and radicchio laced with a sesame orange dressing.
From there, a group of three might want to order two entrées to share, because these are heaping portions. The vibrant cobb salad “caribe” restores your faith in the salad, combining duck, manchego viejo (a Mexican cheese), avocado, Asian greens, bacon, mango, and papaya.
For something more luscious, sample the Szechuan peppercorn-crusted tuna with ginger boniato mash and citrus ponzu sauce. Again, a recipe like this one plays off itself well—there’s the tight sting of the seafood and fruit jus with the broader and deeper flavor of the boniato, which is best described as a yam with attitude.
Desserts follow the same rule and beg to be shared. The Coconut Invasion is so noteworthy that you will most likely remember Asia de Cuba for the thought you had the moment you tasted one of its seven layers.
In true Hollywood fashion, Crustacean comes with a subtitle: “Euro-Asian Cuisine.” While the owners—three generations of women—are Vietnamese, the subtitle makes an important distinction: This is not traditional Vietnamese cooking or even standard Asian fusion. It is Helene An’s unique vision.
An was reared in 1930s colonial Hanoi in an affluent family who employed three chefs—French, Vietnamese, and Chinese—from whom she learned to cook.
In her Beverly Hills restaurant, An has re-created her childhood home—in menu and in décor. All the furniture is either imported or reproduced. Stalks of bamboo shoot more than halfway up to the 45-foot ceiling. Teak chairs with gently curved backs surround the tables, and Vietnamese art adorns the walls.
Crustacean’s entrance takes diners past a dramatic floor-to-ceiling aquarium into the piano bar, which serves exotic cocktails, including a half-dozen “Asian martinis” created from the restaurant’s homemade rice wine. Another aquarium, this one 80 feet long and built into the floor, winds its way from the entrance to the main dining room.
Once seated, start with a light and crispy Vietnamese variation on spring rolls: rice paper filled with chopped chicken, black mushrooms, and vermicelli. The lemon-chili oil dipping sauce adds spice and heat.
Pho noodle soup has been simmered for hours. Squeeze in lime just before sipping, drop in fresh Asian basil leaves and sliced scallions, and stir plum or chili sauce to taste into this light chicken broth dressed up with cilantro, bean sprouts, and rice noodles. Or choose grilled calamari, marinated in an Asian basil and peanut sauce, with just the right chewy consistency.
Seafood is the best way to go for entrées, from lemongrass-scented Asian bouillabaisse and lobster in tamarind sauce to the roasted Dungeness crab with garlic sauce. This crustacean, the arrival of which is preceded by the bibbing of you and all your dining companions, features the claws and other bits stacked underneath the top of its shell, which the waitress lifts and sets aside. With claw crackers, it’s fairly easy to eat, and the tender, flavorful morsels are worth the effort and the mess. Another excellent choice is the charbroiled royal tiger prawns butterflied and served over the restaurant’s famous garlic noodles.
Asian restaurants often have nothing to offer when it comes to dessert, but Crustacean, with its fusion cuisine, has no problem venturing outside traditional Asian sweets. Its walnut cake is crafted as a cylinder with vertical chocolate stripes, a creamy concoction topped off with walnut shards suspended in chocolate.
Having eaten much of the meal with our fingers, we were grateful for the hot towels the waiter brought. The once pristine white tablecloth had been well splattered, a sign of our enjoyment.
Patina’s main dining room seems a bit cramped, given the international reputation of the restaurant and its chef-owner, Joachim Splichal, but its compact nature only enhances the buzz from the evening’s crowd. To its celebrity clientele, Patina is dinner as theater, people waiting to be entertained, even dazzled, by the food. Their expectations are met—and exceeded.
Patina has consistently ranked among the top five Los Angeles restaurants since it opened on Melrose in 1989 and, more often than not, has been awarded first place.
Allow him to create a menu for your table, and Splichal, born in Germany and trained in France, doesn’t disappoint. Each course brought two different items to our table, meant to be shared. Sommelier Christopher Meeske matched each course with sometimes unexpected and frequently impressive wines.