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The 13 Best Restaurant Meals of 2013

It’s hard to follow-up the formidable dining year that was 2012, with its list of heavyweights including The French Laundry and Noma. Remember, there have been many, many tremendous films over the years since the 12th edition of the Oscars celebrating the films of 1939. That year’s Best Picture winner was “Gone With The Wind.” “The Wizard Of Oz” was also a nominee. Hollywood hasn’t had such a same year 1-2 punch since Gable and Garland. I don’t know if yours truly will have a year like 2012 with Keller and Redzepi. But we’re always trying.

Ramon Freixa, Madrid

Ramon Freixa, Madrid

2013 started strong and never let up even if no destination quite achieved the nearly impossible levels of excellence consistently reached by certain kitchens and dining rooms in Copenhagen and Yountville. This year ultimately was a debate between a dynamic Basque chef in Madrid and one of the emerging forces of the gastronomic world from his emerging on the grand scene flagship dining room in Mexico City. In between, we learned that Portugal knows how to cook far more than just salt cod. The best meals in New York aren’t always reliant on Michelin—or The New York Times—stars. Los Angeles is becoming a real force on the dining scene and not because of chefs who adore the media limelight (that’s for sure in one case). Hotel restaurants aren’t always “hotel restaurants.” (Well, they usually are, but this list has two entries from that category (!)). And the year’s funkiest, most thrilling meal took place in a near pitch black underground bunker—in our nation’s capital after an over four hour long wait.

Pujol's Green Squash Tamal

Pujol’s Green Squash Tamal

I guess in that spirit, I should write a four hour long article? I’ll give you a pass on that.

In a moment, we’ll unveil the year’s 13 best restaurant meals. (more…)


The 13 Bites That Defined 2013

What a year for eating. My first bites of the year were in a New Years Day early morning daze at Blue Star Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon (Valrhona Chocolate Crunch was the best amidst stiff competition. These were hands down the best doughnuts of a pretty doughnut-free year). If that’s how a year starts, then the eating surely will continue at a high caliber. Just with less cholesterol.

Belcanto's Skate "Jackson Pollack" and Its Inspiration

Belcanto’s Skate “Jackson Pollack” And Its Inspiration

We’ll break down the trends and analytical stuff in another category this week. This is about those thirteen bites that I still think about and remember almost every detail of. Sure, I could list thirteen bites alone from Pujol or Alma. That wouldn’t be very exiting, would it? Each one of these was an absolute masterpiece that reminded me why dining out can be so special.

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Cocktail of the Week: The “Saladito,” The Varnish, Los Angeles

The Varnish doesn’t have a signature cocktail.

You don’t need to when you’re arguably the most important cocktail bar of the decade or so old speakeasy- craft cocktail movement. It seems as if this hidden, but very well known Downtown Los Angeles and its chief mixologist Eric Alperin are to cocktail “best of” lists and awards what Meryl Streep is to the Oscars: they are always nominated and almost always win.

Things are no different again this year. The Varnish is one of four finalists for this week’s Tales of the Cocktail Awards in New Orleans (nobody ever drinks in that city…), in many ways the Oscars or James Beard Awards for the cocktail world. While the entire bar is up for World’s Best Cocktail Bar, Alperin is also one of four finalists for the premier American bartender.

"Saladito" on the right

“Saladito” on the right

With these expectations, wouldn’t you expect nothing short of drinking magnificence when you’re standing at The Varnish’s sparkling glass bottle backed bar or sitting snugly in one of the wood paneled vintage booths in the dark as night speakeasy room? You won’t be disappointed. The hype is fulfilled. At the same time, if you’re looking for the “wow factor” so in vogue these days (think The Bazaar, The Aviary, Booker & Dax…), this isn’t your place. Sip your high quality beverage and don’t be too loud. There aren’t any sideshow frills coming your way. Only the perfect Gin & Tonic, maybe with a slight evolution.

The background history and the quirks of The Varnish are very well documented. There might even be a Hollywood screenplay in the works about the rise of cocktails in America and the rise of Skid Row’s Sixth Street because of The Varnish (I’m only guessing about this).

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Restaurants: Hinoki & The Bird, Los Angeles

We can all learn a few lessons about taking a step back and re-inventing yourself from David Myers. It hasn’t been an easy road for such an immensely gifted chef. If ever there was an example of how a chef must be both a businessman and innovative entrepreneur in the hyper competitive restaurant world of today, here it is. With Myers’ latest opening of Hinoki & The Bird in February, the chef has once again proven his strength of executing a focused, detailed vision in the front and back of the house into one of Los Angeles’ premier dining experiences.

Perhaps the bird with Hinoki is a phoenix, rising high above the Century City office towers to tell diners across the vast traffic-clogged metropolitan landscape that Myers is back, folks. The Los Angeles restaurant of the moment is not a pop-up. It’s not a tricked-out truck. It’s here, with a head-scratching name, at the bottom of the most expensive condo building west of the Mississippi.

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Myers has teamed with a longtime protege of his Kuniko Yagi to craft this Silk Road inspired concept that really can’t be pigeon holed into a specific cuisine or style. The indoor-outdoor patio and cocktail fueled vibe certainly is pure Los Angeles. A dish of kale “crispy and raw” certainly fits in these parts. Chili crab toast with spicy cucumber veers towards Singapore, while pumpkin toast layered with goat cheese and an almost fruity miso jam borrows from the classic Malaysian street vendor dish. Sambal skate wing echoes Indonesia. Crispy marinated chicken wings would be right at home in a Shinjuku izakaya. Caramel braised pork belly follows the direction of claypot chicken from Vietnam, made famous by Charles Phan with his iconic dish at San Francisco’s The Slanted Door.

Lobster rolls? Clam chowder? Are we at Har-vuhd Yahd? No, this lobster roll is definitely not what you eat in the rough along the Maine coast and the chowder wouldn’t exactly be similar to what you’d find at Durgin Park.

What Myers and Yagi have created is a restaurant that invigorates assorted loose inspirations from all around Asia, prepared then with a serene Japanese aesthetic, and fully unafraid to borrow influences from anywhere in this country or the world. It’s a bold risk by Myers to not follow a clear path and he completely hits the mark spot on. Who really needs to be so specific when describing a restaurant? Even the menu descriptions are barely one step above vague. And yet, with all of the gorgeous diners accenting the suave surroundings inside the bustling room or the glittering outside covered patio, there is a wonderfully clear narrative leaving the kitchen. This is an intensely personal restaurant of Myers’, one that you knew would be the project to bring him to the top ring of this city’s dining scene again. (more…)


Plat du Jour: Tuesday April 16, 2013: How Do You Like Your Espresso & Major League Diets

On this spring Tuesday afternoon, we’ll give you an espresso jolt with this excellent and very thorough comparison of “Third Wave” espresso with the classic Italian espresso, courtesy of Erin Meister at Serious Eats.

Yours truly is a classic “Third Wave” coffee drinker, consuming one of these types of espressos each afternoon (or many more than one if away from San Francisco on assignment). Interestingly, my “local” cafe is really an Italian caffé of the sort where if you order an espresso, it’s meant to be a quick one minute shot and you’re out. I often describe this Italian espresso as “watery” and “meager,” so it greatly benefits from a dollop of steamed milk foam as a macchiato. Is the espresso on its really that bland and liquidy? Well, yes it is. It’s not meant to be swirled, sniffed, and examined from all angles like the “Third Wave” espressos.

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Is one of the espresso types better?

Absolutely. There is no debate that the “Third Wave” style is the superior product. The depth, the wood, citrus, and herbal notes, complete with its silky structure compared to the Italian’s water– this isn’t even a contest.

However, as the article so beautifully explains, there is a complete difference in the barista’s process, the beans used, and often even the machines that pull the shots and grind the beans. The most glaring reason for the “Third Wave” espresso’s superior body and complete flavor profile is usually because more of the beans are used, creating a much denser shot with a smoother, thicker texture.

It’s an art and a science to pulling espresso shots. For me, there really isn’t a question here of which I prefer, but I know many advocates for both sides. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. If you’re an espresso drinker, you already have a clear preference. (more…)


Plat du Jour Friday April 5, 2013: Would You Like To Make A Reservation For Your Reservation?

A few weeks have passed since the restaurant world’s hot button issue du jour revolved around the supposed “tyranny” of tasting menus, where the writer Corby Kummer accused chefs in the February Vanity Fair of killing the liberty in the ¡a la carte restaurant experience. It was an intriguing accusation and one many diners understood. Yes, we love to choose what we eat. Ultimately, it disappeared as most of us food writers advocate for the chefs to follow their creative license. If the chef wants a tasting menu, have a tasting menu. Nobody forces Spielberg to make a comedy for his next film or convinces Belichick when to blitz. They might listen, but they don’t have to (unless you’re the big boss of course).

Now the focus has shifted from what is on the plate to getting the opportunity to sample what is on the plate. Instead of talking about tasting menus, we’re wondering about how we can even get a table to experience the tasting menu.

The question about reservations in restaurants is certainly not a new one. For decades, restaurateurs and diners have debated this question with the never-ending vigor usually reserved for issues in the House and Senate. Should restaurant accept reservations? Should they accept some reservations? Should they be walk-in only? Should they have a call-ahead list? The list goes on. The real answer is by trial and error, each restaurant is unique and will find the “correct” reservation system over time, or they will have to shutter. That answer for Restaurant A will differ from Restaurant B. There are so many factors, from foot traffic to cuisine genre to size of restaurants that make it so there is no “correct” formula as much as we’d all love one.

It’s economics for the restaurants. It’s psychology, too. It’s sociology. It’s logic. It’s math. There might even be some astronomy thrown in too (nights with the full moon differ from nights with a quarter crescent…).

How many no-shows?

How many no-shows?

This constantly simmering question recently hit a boiling point when the (terrific might I add) Los Angeles restaurant Red Medicine started tweeting the names of no-shows on its Twitter feed. That’s right. A restaurant started going so far as to actually revealing the names of the diners who never showed up for their dinner reservations. The idea mainly is: “So, Frank Anderson and your party of 4 at 7:30 last night, what were you doing while we were losing money?” How do you feel now Frank? (more…)


The Bites of Los Angeles in Late Autumn

With winter lingering just a week away, it’s almost time to bid adieu to the fall. Of course, nothing speaks of the autumnal spirit of crisp winds and spectacular foliage than the 70 degree sunshine and swaying palm trees of a late November day in Los Angeles. Here now, on display the spectacular creativity of Los Angeles chefs. The bites might not seem very autumnal, but at least they’re seasonal. Get the “Running Leap” cocktail at the Hollywood Roosevelt’s Spare Room bar for actual autumn flavor (apples, maple, and fallen leaves).

Trev’s Bistro: Maple-Glazed Turkey with Dijon Gravy

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Of course, we must first start with yours truly’s Thanksgiving masterpiece. Now for a decade we’ve been using this excellent recipe leading to moist, even exciting turkeys. The maple butter, accented by beautiful marjoram notes, gets rubbed underneath the bird’s skin, one of the more unique experiences of a Thanksgiving morning. The Dijon gravy always ends up stealing the show.

Bäco Mercat: The “Original Bäco”

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Josef Centano’s gyro meets flatbread meets taco invention is lunch perfected. The namesake for his flat-out sensational Downtown restaurant is far from the only hit on the dynamic menu, heavy on the vegetable small plates. However, you’d be remiss to skip the “Original” that started it all. Tender, braised, not fatty cubes of pork and beef “carnitas” serve as the platform for what really sets this particular bäco apart– the Salbitxada sauce based on almonds and tomatoes. Don’t miss the “Toron” either with oxtail hash, pickles, and cheddar cheese, or the double mushroom “coca,” a Catalan pizza.

Bäco Mercat: Chocolate Peanut Butter Molden Cake with Fudge and Vanilla Semifreddo

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Seriously, how come it seems nobody has served a molten chocolate cake with peanut butter mixed in the liquid chocolate filling before, despite the millions of molten liquid center chocolate cakes at neighborhood bistros nationwide? Inspired one would think from a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, this is as exceptional as it sounds. The cake itself could actually use a tad bit more warmth. Usually these burn your mouth.

Canelé: Deep Dish Quiche Lorraine

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Corina Weibel’s powerhouse brunch reaches its pinnacle with this pitch-perfect, delicate slice of quiche. Studded with no shortage of ham hocks, everything from the quivering custard to the buttery, flaky crust is just how you imagine the perfect quiche in a small Alsace village should be. I never had a quiche in Strasbourg of this caliber.

Ink: BBQ Beef Short Rib/ Horseradish Tofu/ Carrot/ Tendon

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Michael Voltaggio’s tour de force Wagyu beef preparation is truly a work of art; visually and culinary speaking. Even the carrot is of a silky texture. The meat itself is poinsettia-red, looking like a well marbled filet ready for a sukiyaki cooking dunk in hot oil. Except, it’s already cooked, just perfectly rare. The pristine beef is ready for the grand stage, shared by the chicharrones- evoking, whispy horseradish tofu crisps.

Ink: Apple/ Caramel/ Walnut/ Burnt Wood Ice Cream

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Autumn’s official dessert and Voltaggio’s signature dessert. Something you’d expect at El Bulli, burnt wood (a taste sensation similar to maple) ice cream and nitro frozen burnt wood sabayon melt onto a crême caramel that doesn’t taste far from Pizzeria Mozza’s butterscotch budino base, with candied walnuts, dehydrated- peeled apples bursting with cider, and a maple streusel for a masterpiece of textures and fall comfort. Absolutely magnificent in every aspect, a clear master on display.

Maison Giraud: Pain au Chocolat

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In France, it’s the butter that’s the secret to a worthwhile pain au chocolat. You don’t want too much grease on your hands, but you do want the tan colored shards of the pastry. What they don’t do often enough in France is the chocolate part of the pastry, usually just a thin strand or two in the center. That is where Alain Giraud has lifted the pain au chocolat to another level. He doesn’t skimp on the chocolate spread. Oh, and the pastry choux is every bit on par of the ones at Pierre Hermé on Rue Bonaparte.

Pizzeria Mozza: Pizza with Coach Farm Goat Cheese, Leeks, Scallions, Garlic, and Bacon

Leeks, Goat Cheese, and Bacon Pizza on Right

Leeks, Goat Cheese, and Bacon Pizza on Right

Pick your favorite at Mozza–mine’s usually is the pie with rapini, anchovies, olives, cherry tomatoes, and chiles. It could also be one with a soft poached egg, guanciale, escarole, radicchio, and bagna cruda. Recently, I was blown away by the less salt-driven, calmer toppings combination with the creamy, almost smoky goat cheese, the crisp bacon nubs, and most importantly, velvety soft leeks. Leeks deserve more acclaim. Whatever pie you choose, it’s sure to have a pork product on it and Nancy Silverton’s superb charred crust that should be sold in bakeries.

Pizzeria Mozza: Butterscotch Budino with Maldon Sea Salt and Rosemary Pine Nut Cookies

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It’s startling to say with the superb pizzas, but the most memorable part of any meal at Pizzeria Mozza always is the dessert. That’s close to common knowledge now. The butterscotch budino by Dahlia Narvaez is possibly the city’s iconic dessert, mostly consisting of luscious caramel pudding, with a thin layer of caramel sauce, a dollop of whipped cream that helps cut the sauce’s sugary bite, and a crowning sprinkle of sea salt. Here, the salted caramel sensation of sweet and savory is an achievement that has been replicated the world over. I was just perusing a dessert menu for a well-known Portland, Oregon Italian restaurant. Their butterscotch budino even is credited to Pizzeria Mozza.The sensation continues with the petite cookies that you wish could be a dessert on their own. Make sure to also get the bittersweet chocolate tartufo with Narvaez’s other signature: olive oil gelato.

Proof Bakery: Canelé

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The classic Bordeaux region pastry in all its regal glory is on display at Atwater Village’s beloved, impossibly cute bakery. This version is just a touch more custardy on the interior, the beeswax exterior glaze a little sweeter, and the whole just a pinch more refined than most other renditions. Don’t pass up the Cognoscenti Coffee or the pain au chocolat either.

Ray’s & Stark Bar: Wood Roasted Sunchokes with Sunflower Seed Salsa

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Hey, why not let vegetables get their moment in the spotlight? It’s happening everywhere in L.A., from Gjelina in Venice to Bäco Mercat in Downtown. And in between at LACMA’s Joachim Splichal- Patina Group owned restaurant and bar, sunchokes get a gorgeous char, leading to a candy- like sweetness. The salsa verde is beautifully vibrant, aided by the crunch of the salsa. It’s a side dish in a starring role, making you forget the scruffy 1950’s inspired interior by Renzo Piano.

Son of a Gun: Shrimp Toast Sandwich with Herbs and Sriracha Mayo

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Almost everything from the brilliant minds of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (co-owners/ chefs of Animal) could be on this menu. New creations rock an evening at the nautical themed restaurant on West 3rd, including a Texas redfish with kabocha squash, vadouvan, and hazelnut, or a fascinating mash-up of smoked steelhead roe and maple cream, spread together on pumpernickel chips. However, it’s three classic sandwiches that you see on every table: the fried chicken sandwich, the lobster roll, and the most gallant of them all, the Southeast Asia street food favorite of spicy sriracha and tiny shrimp with mayonnaise gushing out of the buttery brioche slices.

Son of a Gun: Apple Pie with Date Ice Cream

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Apple pie is…apple pie, right? You know what to expect. Except this is a knockout version, singing with cinnamon and moist, vivid apples. The date ice cream actually is spiced heavily with mustard seed, a twist on the American dessert staple you’ve never seen and should see a lot more now.

Spago: Pumpkin Agnolotti with Amoretti, Sage, and Parmigiano Reggiano

Pumpkin Agnolotti, Amoretti, Sage, Parmigiano Reggiano

Pumpkin Agnolotti, Amoretti, Sage, Parmigiano Reggiano

Lee Hefter has a special gift with pastas…after all, “Spago” is an Italian term for spaghetti. A plate full of this Tootsie Roll- shaped dough might be aesthetically dull to the eyes with white sauce on yellow pasta on a tan plate. Fortunately, the pasta itself melts almost in the spoon, textbook precision to the pasta’s filling, tasting clearly of spiced pumpkin. Like all showstopping pastas, there is a certain textural “it” factor here that is impossible to describe, only achievable by the masters.

Spago: Bartlett Pear/ Black Mission Figs, Caramel Bourbon Pain Perdu, Vanilla- Maple Roasted Pear, 50 Bean Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream

"Bartlett Pear, Black Mission Figs": Caramel Bourbon Pain Perdu, Vanilla and Maple Roasted Pear, 50 Bean Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream

“Bartlett Pear, Black Mission Figs”: Caramel Bourbon Pain Perdu, Vanilla and Maple Roasted Pear, 50 Bean Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream

Hurry now to try Sherry Yard’s creations at Spago, worth a trip on their own. Most reflective of Yard’s baking prowess was this caramel and bourbon soaked pain perdu (Brioche French toast essentially), with a bottom layer of Bartlett pears and Black Mission figs. Then vanilla and maple roasted pear segments, and raspberries decorate outside the pain perdu centerpiece. How autumnal, how comforting, and yet, how new feeling the dessert is. Yard’s 50 bean Tahitian vanilla ice cream is back from the “old” Spago for the pain perdu and sure isn’t your run of the mill vanilla scoop, with pure vanilla resonating through every sample.

Sycamore Kitchen: Cherry Molasses Cookie

Cookie is Bottom Left

Cookie is Bottom Left

Having enjoyed Karen Hatfield’s desserts  several times at the excellent restaurant, Hatfields, she co-owns with husband Quinn ( I preferred the more homey, original bistro version on Beverly Blvd. compared to the grander, formal one now on Melrose), expectations were high for the new bakery- café on La Brea that displays her baked goods on their own. There is no let down here. How in the world do you choose? Sensational, pristine apple galettes or the spot on flourless chocolate brownies with a pinch of sea salt? Begin or end with the cookies, soft the way they should be, robust as one of her haute desserts at the restaurant. Dried cherries and molasses lead this cookie to open new doors of what the humble cookie can be.

Thomas Hills Organics (Paso Robles): Grilled Shrimp Skewers with Zucchini Noodles, Basil, Mint, Cilantro, Avocado, Strawberries, Watermelon, and Green Onion Relish

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As my dining partner mentioned, so this is what food really tastes like? So pure, so full of life. Every fruit bursting with juice. Every vegetable exuding precise ripeness. Every herb and spice shining on its own and contributing a vital sparkle to the group as a whole. I’ve never had a composed salad of this nature, everything that the Chez Panisse- Michael Pollan teams stand for. Except here, there is just a little more skip in each ingredient’s step than elsewhere, perhaps since Thomas Hill has its own farm. Or, they just have a magic touch with strawberries and mint. It’s a commanding, gentle display of virDon’t pass up the equally sublime smoked salmon sandwich with sriracha aioli, macerated onions, and sliced avocado on equally stand-out levain bread.

Waterloo & City: Sticky Toffee Pudding with Salted Caramel and Vanilla Ice Cream

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For the finale, what better way to end than with a classic rendition of that quintessential English dessert. Who needs the salted caramel of a butterscotch budino when you can just have a good ol’ plain sugar rush. Somehow, this Culver City gastropub always hits the right sticky toffee notes. Start with the wild boar terrine and do explore the excellent beer list. And, you’ll want one of these puddings on your own. Hold out and share with a partner. Do make sure to skip the chalky, unsweetened oatmeal tasting “pumpkin mousse” in a gingerbread- like chocolate crust.