Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Some Thoughts on the 99 Essential LA Restaurants

Last week, the LA Weekly, a free weekly paper handed out here in Los Angeles, published food critic Jonathan Gold’s annual “99 Essential L.A. Restaurants” list. (Actually, due to a mistake, it turned out to be the 105 essential restaurants.) You can find the complete list here:

Mr. Gold is a long time Los Angeles food journalist and critic. In 2007 he became the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for his insightful writing about the Los Angeles restaurant scene. His reviews cover everything from the most expensive to the small ethnic restaurants that are usually ignored by many food critics and the public.

This yearly list is like the Food Bible to me and I use it constantly throughout the year to decide on places we want to eat. I can’t even begin to tell you how many restaurants I’ve discovered through Gold’s list. (Just last night we ate at Chang’s Garden after Gold recommended a place to find the best sea cucumber in town. It is now one of our favorite Chinese restaurants along with Chung King. Both are on Gold’s list. And the sea cucumber with shrimp eggs was delicious!)

Unlike other reviewers, food or otherwise, I find myself agreeing with Gold almost all the time. But at first, when I read this new list, I found myself disappointed over a few of his deletions from past list and what I felt was a major new restaurant that was missing. Once I thought more about the deletions, I had to agree though. For example, I love Chef Eric Greenspan at the Foundry on Melrose. The man is a joyfully boisterous presence while dining in his restaurant. So I was majorly pissed when I saw the Gold had cut his restaurant for this new list. But on reflection, I have to admit that the last couple meals I’ve had there have been missing that spark that made him so great even a year ago. Greenspan has been remodeling the restaurant to be more of a bar/club up front, with the main dining area now on the outside back patio. With his attention redirected towards making this work, perhaps his food is suffering. I don’t know, but he needs to put his full attention back on his food and maybe he can get back on that list next year.

I was also unhappy to see Philippe the Original taken off the list only because it’s a Los Angeles institution. Philippe’s claims to be the originator of the French Dip sandwich and there isn’t a day when people aren’t crowded in front of the counter to order those sandwiches. But again, I thought about it and realized that I had eaten a few weeks ago at the reopened Cole’s, a restaurant that also claims to have originated the French Dip and I had liked their sandwich better than Philippe’s. (It had something to do with the bun.) And I also realized that a lot of other Los Angeles institutions aren’t on the list, such as Canter’s Deli and Pinks Hot Dogs. But I realized that as much as I’m glad that these restaurants are there, they aren’t really essential and I just have to let it go. Besides, for LA institutions, he does have Langer’s on the list for those who need a major sandwich fix, and Musso & Frank’s, where I just had one of the best prime ribs I’ve ever eaten anywhere.

So, the only thing that I majorly disagree with Gold about is the snub of Chef Jose Andres’s The Bazaar ( I’ve eaten there three or four times now and have not only had some of the most delicious meals I’ve had in LA recently, but I’ve also had a hell of a lot of fun eating those meals. The restaurant is designed by Philippe Starck, who is known for his outrageous, crazy designs and he went all out on this restaurant, creating a space that feels like you have fallen down a rabbit hole into Wonderland, with different dining rooms for different moods, a bar with television sets built into the table tops and a separate dessert room that feels like a spun sugar hallucination.

I asked Gold about this and he answered that he loved Andres’ food and had no problem with referring to people in Washington DC to his restaurant there, but he just felt that The Bazaar was too much of a gimmick. Now, I understand what he’s saying. I have fun at the restaurant, but eventually the whole Wonderland, amusement park ambience is going to get stale. When it does, the restaurant had better have the food to fall back on to keep the customers coming. And that’s where I disagree with Gold. I think the restaurant will easily be able to fall back on that food. It’s amazing and I haven’t had a bad dish in the place. I love the little foie gras pops wrapped in cotton candy, the chicken fritters, the modern molecular olive orbs, and the potato tortilla “new way”. Even if the crazy ambience of the place wasn’t there, I would be returning often just for the wonderful food.

So, if you’re in LA, look at Gold’s list and don’t be afraid to visit any of those restaurants, but I would make the list 106 and add The Bazaar to it. I think it’s one of the three best restaurants in Los Angeles. (Melisse and Providence being the other two.)


I have just a quick note about the LA County Fair. I went this last weekend to try out the new deep fried foods that make an appearance this year. There wasn’t a lot. I was hoping for the Deep Fried Butter that had shown up at the Texas State Fair, but the only new fried item I could find was a thing called a Zucchini Weeni. This was a hot dog, shoved into a hollowed out zucchini and then covered with batter and deep fried. It’s sort of like a corn dog with a serving of vegetables added. This sounded like a great idea to me, but once I ordered it, I realized the thing was a failure. The hot dog was still raw and cold in the center and the zucchini was practically raw. Frying the batter to a golden brown just didn’t give the contents enough time to cook properly. Perhaps they should cook the hot dog and then put it into a blanched zucchini and then fry the whole thing. That might work, but for now, if you’re going to the Fair, I’d give this item a big pass.

Much more successful were the bacon-jalapeno poppers I found at one of the Mexican food stands. The jalapeno is stuffed with cream cheese and then wrapped in bacon. Instead of frying, the whole thing is popped onto a grill until the bacon is well-done and crispy. These things were delicious and I could have sat there all day and eaten them. Look out for them. You won’t regret it.

The only other item of notice that I found was at the main Dr. Bob’s ice cream shack by the animal petting zoo. Dr. Bob’s is considered by many (including Jonathan Gold) to be the best ice cream in Los Angeles. I don’t know if I’d call it the best (I would vote for Milk), but it’s damned good. This year he had a Soy Sauce Ice Cream on the menu and I couldn’t resist trying it. It turned out to be really good. It was mostly vanilla with just a hint of soy and a very slight saltiness that complemented the sweetness beautifully. I wish they would package this flavor so I could pick it up regularly at my local Gelson’s, it was that good.

I’ll be visiting the Fair a couple more time before the end of the month, so if I discover anything else, I’ll be sure to report on it.


Skip and I stumbled into a restaurant in Santa Monica the other day before the free Patti Smith concert on the Pier. It’s called The Yard ( It’s been around for awhile now, but while we were walking by, we noticed a sign out front announcing that their new chef was Chris “CJ” Jacobson from Top Chef. He was the real tall, handsome guy that had survived testicular cancer. So, in we went. And we really enjoyed it. CJ is still tweaking the menu and getting the restaurant itself in shape before the big announcement of his arrival is made, but his modern gastropub fare was very good and I’m looking forward to seeing where he’s going to take this seaside bar in the near future. I especially enjoyed his Tenerelli Farms Peaches with Buratta and the Roasted Artichoke Risotto with pine nuts, lemon and mint. Give him a year and he just may show up on Jonathan Gold’s Essential restaurant list for 2010.


Melisse ( is one of Los Angeles’ best and most expensive restaurants. For some reason that I can’t think of, I had never eaten there. I’ve gone to most of the other expensive fine dining establishments in LA a number of times, but I just never made it to Santa Monica to try Melisse out.

That all changed a few weeks ago when the restaurant offered a special 10-course dinner to celebrate their tenth anniversary. What I ended up eating there became the best meal I’ve ever had in Los Angeles. Better than Spago. Better than Providence. Better than The Bazaar.

Skip and I both went out and bought some new clothes to wear and I’m glad we did. We arrived to the elegant, French-style room in slacks and coats (sans ties) and felt comfortable with what we were wearing. Unfortunately, the illusion was shattered by other diners wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops, but such is the way of life in Los Angeles these days.

The meal became a 14 course meal after adding in all the amuse bouches and special desserts. We also got the wine pairing, which was supposed to be nine wines, but became eleven when the sommelier got enthusiastic, something I will never complain about. Everything was wonderful and the wine pairing was about the best and most complete that I have ever experienced at any restaurant anywhere. A few notable choices:

1) Mandarin Tomato Soup, Tomato Tartare & Sorbet

Almost surreal in color, this dish was so delicious that I would go back to Melisse simply to eat this over and over. It was ultimate taste of what tomatoes can be.

It was paired with: Italy, Fruili, Scarpetta, Pinot Grigio, Colli Orientali dei Fruili, 2008

A gorgeous wine that was not heavy on the fruit. It was definitely a food wine and was perfect for bringing out the flavors of the tomatoes.

2) Sweet White Corn Ravioli, Summer Truffle Sauce

Sweet, earthy and so amazing I was left speechless temporarily after eating it.

It was paired with: Spain, Rias Baixas, Pablo Padin, Albarino, Segrel, 2005

Skip thought this was the wine find of the evening. The nose smelled of rotten lettuce, although the sommelier corrected me with “rotten runny cheese”. It sounds unpleasant, but wasn’t at all. It went brilliantly with the truffles in the sauce. Most Albarinos are citrus-y, with a nose of orange in particular. But Pablo Padin doesn’t play by the rules when he created this wine, which is highly sought after. It was fantastic.

3) Wild Loup de Mer, Coco Beans, Shellfish, Bouillabaisse

Loup de Mer is an incredibly flaky and tasty fish. It was served skin-on in a seafood stock with squid and coco beans, which were subtly sweet and flavorful. It was a wonderful dish that defines what fine dining should be about.

It was paired with: France, Loire, Huet, Vouvray Sec, Le Mont, 2006

This is one of the best high quality French Chenin Blanc wines. The mineral and floral qualities went perfect with the fish dish.

But just in case, the sommelier also poured us: France, Loire, Breton, Chinon, Les Picasses, 2004

Skip thought this vegetive, pleasant red wine with a nose like tomato leaves was perfect with the fish. I loved it, but preferred the white wine.

4) Reblochon Tart, Honey-Pepper Gastrique
This was the cheese course, served between the savory dishes and the sweet dessert dishes. I love this cheese and serving it in a tart with the peppered honey made me love it even more.

It was paired with: Hungary, Kiralyudvar, Tokaji Furmint Sec, , 2006

The only Tokaj we’ve ever had were dessert wines. This one was only slightly sweet with lots of herbal and spice flavors. It was perfect with the cheese.

5) Chocolate Soufflé, Banana Mousse, Chocolate Sorbet

This was the first of three dessert courses. I am not a chocolate fan, preferring fruit desserts over chocolate any day. Except this day. The waiter brought out huge hypodermic needles and injected more chocolate into the soufflé. I was so damned good. The banana mousse perfectly tempered the chocolate. I was shocked at how much I loved this.

It was paired with: Portugal, D'Oliveira, Madeira, Boston Bual, 1995

Skip and I both prefer Madeira over Port and think it pairs better with chocolate. This had a slight smoky quality to it. It was perfect.

Melisse is easily up there as one of the top restaurants in LA. It’s a beautiful room with impeccable service. I can’t think of a restaurant here that is more perfect for a special event. If you’re looking for the best gastronomical experience that LA has to offer, this is the place.