Duck breast at Hinoki & The Bird (photo by Brad A. Johnson)
I recently took a short break from eating in OC to catch up with what’s been happening in Los Angeles. The food scene in L.A. is crazy right now. If you find yourself there, good luck with the traffic—I’d briefly forgotten how maddening it can be. But more importantly, here’s where I think you should eat.
David Myers, who owns Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, fell off the radar for a while after closing his flagship Sona three years ago. But having just opened a string of restaurants in Japan, the chef is back in L.A. with Hinoki & The Bird.
Myers has teamed with his former Sona chef Kuniko Yagi to create a restaurant that surreally blends futuristic Tokyo with California casual. Provocative, leggy hostesses wear men’s chambray shirts with no pants. Smoldering hinoki wood infuses the air every time someone orders the black cod. A green-curried lobster roll comes on a squid-ink bun. And beef tartar gets mixed with pickled jalapeños, a quail yolk, Parmesan threads and toasted sesame seeds.
Yes, Myers has reclaimed his position at the very top of L.A.’s cutting-edge food scene, but he also has serious competition from chefs Ari Taymor and Josef Centeno. It’s been two years since Centeno began wowing the adventurous downtown crowd with his multi-culti Bäco Mercat, and he’s showing no sign of fatigue. Centeno generates more ideas in a single day than most chefs come up with in six months. Fortunately, this week’s fried rabbit liver and quail legs will taste just as delicious as last week’s crispy surf clams with aleppo pepper and yuzu remoulade.
Meanwhile, Taymor has opened Alma in a tiny downtown gallery where he slathers toast with uni and burrata and tops it with caviar. He combines scallops with bacon, corn, roasted apricots and white miso. With merely 10 tables, Alma is understandably one of the most difficult reservations in town.
Venture to the eastern edge of downtown, to the warehouse district near the train tracks, and you’ll discover Bestia, which is the most important Italian restaurant to open in Los Angeles since Osteria Mozza in 2007. Chef Ori Menashe makes as many as 60 different types of salumi and cured meats. He raises his own yeast cultures for pizza dough, which he bakes in a wood-fired oven in the style of Naples. And the pastas – my favorite is the bucatini all’Amatriciana – are meticulously handcrafted and beautifully plated.
And what Bestia is to Italian, Night + Market is to Thai. Kris Yenbamroong’s restaurant on Sunset Boulevard weds the street food of Bangkok (where he went to graduate school) with the rural cooking of Chieng Rai in the north, where he still has family. Nobody else cooks Thai food like this in California. The grilled fatty hog collar is a salty, decadent revelation, and the moo sadoong (startled pig) is a glorious tossing of grilled pork with fish sauce, lime, lemongrass, basil and handful of birds-eye chilies.
Just a few years ago, Manhattan Beach was a culinary embarrassment. But over the past two years, its breezy, sun-soaked downtown has quickly evolved into a major player on the food scene. Most recently, Tim Hollingsworth, the former longtime chef at French Laundry in Napa Valley, now oversees Circa, where, along with chef Bryon Freeze, they’re pairing wood-grilled prawns with dates and harissa and charred octopus with chorizo and purple mustard. What’s more, the beverage directors here are Julian Cox, one of L.A.’s leading bartenders, and Josh Goldman, the former sommelier at Ink. Needless to say, nobody goes thirsty.
Just down the street from Circa is chef David LeFevre’s new Fishing With Dynamite, a sardine can-size, Restoration Hardware-styled fish shack that specializes in crab cakes, oysters and shellfish platters. Weekend reservations are booked at least two weeks in advance, and as word gets out, they’ll be even harder to come by.
And finally, three classic restaurants suddenly feel fresh again: A.O.C., Rustic Canyon and Spago. After more than a decade in Mid-City, A.O.C. has moved into a stunning indoor-outdoor space on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, which has clearly re-energized chef Suzanne Goin. She has the most uncanny knack for tossing random items from the farmers market into a bowl and making it seem like the best salad you’ve ever eaten. Every time. Thankfully, the kitchen still has its signature wood-fired oven, in which Goin still toasts her classic brioche topped with prosciutto, Gruyère and poached egg.
Chef Jeremy Fox, who rose to cult-leader status at Napa Valley’s Ubuntu before moving to L.A., was supposed to open a restaurant in Venice called Barnyard. But he jumped ship just days before that spot opened last year. He quietly turned up this spring at Rustic Canyon, where he’s joined forces with co-owner Zoe Nathan, who is a phenomenal pastry chef. Not surprisingly, Rustic Canyon is better now than ever, serving ethereal ricotta gnocchi in a luscious ham broth with big fat lima beans and sorrel. Fox is the Vegetable Whisperer, so don’t overlook simple-sounding things like “beets and berries” or “green beans and stone fruit.”
Still, the biggest comeback of all is Wolfgang Puck. The menu at his outdated flagship Spago hadn’t changed for more than a decade, leaving many people to wonder if the celebrity chef was still relevant. But then last fall, he shut it down, gutted it, rebuilt it and started fresh. The restaurant now sports a stunningly handsome, almost spa-like beige-on-beige schematic. He tapped longtime chef Lee Hefter and rising star Tetsu Yahagi to completely rewrite the menu. While they did bring back a few old standards, like the Hong Kong style snapper and the Wiener schnitzel, never mind those. Focus instead on the new chirashi sushi, the A-5 Japanese rib-eye from Miyazaki Prefecture, and the grilled rack of lamb with falafel macaroons, harissa aioli and cucumber-mint raita. Wolfgang Puck irrelevant? Ha! Not a chance.