Los Angeles is fevered with extraordinary restaurants right now. I wasn't dining there in the 1980s, when L.A. chefs helped steer the culinary revolution that changed the way our nation eats, but I can't imagine it was a more exciting time than this. And it isn't just California's fabled bounty. It's the freedom with which the chefs cook. They can look to any point on the globe—Italy, Asia, Latin America, the farm an hour's drive north—and find inspiration that will resonate with the city's cultural spirit. Best of all, these chefs have customers eager to support their autonomy.
I still have scads of eating to do in Southern California. Here, though, are three standouts from my recent feasting. A report from my three final L.A. meals will run on Monday.
Two bowls land on the table—one filled with beef tendon "chips" fried, puffed, and resembling chicharones, the other a smaller vessel of charred onion dip with a lush covering of herbs as a hat-tip to pho. Begin a meal with this snack at Animal and you know you've hit the mother lode of gastro-bro cooking. Actually, try rooting out a dish among the veal brains, pig's head, duck egg "toad in the hole," and smoked turkey leg that doesn't convey culinary machismo.
That's been the MO of chef-owners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo since they opened their 50-seat Mid-City restaurant in 2008. (Seafood-focused Son of a Gun, five minutes from the flagship, followed in 2011.) Animal's details have already become clichés among upstart restaurants across the nation: the lack of signage (look for the valet stand); the bare-bones atmosphere, like a pop-up no one bothered to evict; the menu of dishes so dense with exotic ingredients that the head pounds from studying it too hard.
But here's what keeps Shook and Dotolo at the top of the food chain: They workshop the hell out of their audacious creations until they make improbable sense. How else could a plate of plate of uni, cucumbers, fried cheese cubes, and sliced hard-boiled egg sprinkled with za'atar and salmon roe possibly work? The uni chums up to the egg, the cheese and the roe give each bite a salty lift, the za'atar's dried herbs forms an earthy bridge between the flavors, and the cucumber cleans the palate, readying it for the next mouthful. Ingenious. Signatures like the long-simmered and fried pig's ear with fried egg remain constant, but the dishes rotate enough to keep Shook and Dotolo—and their audience—engaged. A pile of fried rabbit legs over Charleston gold rice smothered in sour cream gravy had this Southerner hollering "Amen."
A shot of bourbon with that? Not happening. The restaurant instead puts forth a petite, elegant list of mostly French wines—white and red Burgundies and Loires, a couple Languedocs—that acts as the yin to the food's prodigious yang.
When Nancy Silverton becomes obsessed with a recipe, we all benefit. One of her recent fixations is focaccia di Recco, a variation on the flatbread that Silverton (virtuoso pastry chef and co-owner of the Mozza empire with Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich) first sampled on a visit to Liguria. This is not those thick Americanized squares so bouncy they could double as trampolines. This is a crackery marvel, golden as a Hollywood sunset and more delicate than pizza dough. A layer of aged, mozzarella-like stracchino gives each bite a salty nip.
And it's only a gateway pleasure at Chi Spacca (Italian for "cleaver"), the third restaurant in the Mozza complex on the corner of Melrose and Highland Avenues. Its chef, Chad Colby, is also obsessive: He's a culinary Quentin Tarantino, fanatical about butchery and masterful with meat. Alongside the focaccia, request the affettati misti, a board laden with Colby's astounding charcuterie—blocks of complex pâté, salamis dusted with fennel pollen, kerchiefs of speck ham.
That's the carnivorous warm-up. Come with a group to tackle the menu's centerpiece—the bistecca fiorentina, a monstrous 42-ounce T-bone sliced into crimson dominos that delivers every expression of charred, marbled beef one could hope for. (Three of us polished it off with unsettling ease. As well we should, given it cost $175.) Some vegetables might be a wise idea. Expect season-driven epiphanies like young fava beans lightly fried whole in their shells with the creamiest aioli on the side, or squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and sharpened with tomato vinaigrette.
Chi Spacca grew out of the space for Mozza's cooking school, when Colby would take over on Thursdays for "Salumi Night." It opened in February 2013 and has received plenty of love from media—with likely more on the way, as two other national food writers were randomly in the restaurant the night I was there. It still flies relatively under the radar, though, compared to the word of mouth that Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza generate. I would immediately put Chi Spacca on par with its siblings. My only complaint is that there aren't more of Silverton's celestial desserts available. I understand the desire to keep the focus on the meat, and to encourage carb allotments toward the focaccia that Silverton and Colby spent a year mastering. I can always mosey next door and angle for a seat at the osteria's bar if I'm in need of a strawberry crespelle.
I'm betting this 25-seat Beverly Hills jewel box would be an impossible reservation even if its chef-owner weren't a TV personality, though clearly that small detail helps fill seats. Aussie Curtis Stone hosts Bravo's Top Chef Masters and has headlined on plenty of other shows, including Around the World in 80 Plates and America's Next Great Restaurant. But before he moved to L.A. in 2006 to pursue stardom, Stone earned his cooking chops. In London, he survived working for Marco Pierre White long enough to become lead chef at White's Italian-themed Quo Vadis.
His life experiences coalesce at the stoves of Maude (named for his grandmother, not the seventies sitcom starring Bea Arthur, if you're old enough to remember that). Stone has challenged himself by structuring monthly-changing tasting menus—there are no a la carte options—around a single seasonal ingredient. He opened the restaurant in February exploring citrus. This month it's on to rhubarb, and in June he'll undertake morels.
I dined on April's menu featuring peas, and the nine-course meal was an understated tour de force. Many of the dishes were served on matronly plates etched with pastel flowers and curlicue vines. Nothing about the food was fusty, though. It began with a plate of burrata paired with a generous dollop of pesto made from four pea iterations—snow peas, snap peas, English peas, pea tendrils—and toast slicked with olive oil. The unfussy flavors entwined California and Italy and set the tone for the evening.
The pea's presence proved admirably subtle in many of the dishes. A bouillabaisse raviolo (which sounds gimmicky but didn't taste that way) used flour ground from freeze-dried peas that added more springtime color than overt flavor; it let the crab and shrimp mousse filling take the lead. The same flour appeared in pastry chef Vanessa Garcia's dessert, a cakey frangipane tart with a strawberry filling, sweet-tart tangerine sorbet, and a trailing pipe of tarragon cream.
The space, like the cooking, is refreshingly modest: white tile on one wall, mirrors and a turquoise leather banquette on the other, tastefully mismatched tables and chairs in between. Stone's tussled, dirty blond head can often be glimpsed through the corps of cooks in the kitchen, but the man stays as inconspicuous as possible so that the cooking stands on its own star power brilliantly.
Photography by Bill Addison