I Think I Like Los Angeles (…Food)

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Steve Martin in L.A. Story
I have been trying to enjoy Los Angeles. Or at least dismantle my aversion to it. It all started in January when my L.A.-based friend, who knows I’ll find any excuse to decline a visit—impromptu family reunion, cardiac arrest—gave me two robust months’ notice for her 40th birthday party. I was going whether I liked it or not. And besides the two-plus hours of stop-and-start maniacal traffic, I think L.A. finally broke me.

We had a splendid meal at Hinoki & the Bird in Century City (get the beef tartare and the lobster roll) and saw Neil Patrick Harris (cuter in person) and Christina Hendricks (she should avoid bow ties) dining together with their husbands.

The next night I approached the 40th birthday party like a sociology experiment. My friend quickly disappeared into the crowd at the artsy house in Silver Lake, her celebratory tinsel headband bobbing by every so often. Unless I wanted to talk to the bartender-slash-actor all night (which I did, considerably), these Angelenos and I were going to take a compatibility test. First I talked to an entertaining septuagenarian named Frank who was from my hometown of Milwaukee; he quizzed me on archaic cribbage lingo to see if I had the stuff (I didn’t). Then I talked to an affable screenwriter who had also written my friend’s Ok Cupid profile; we discussed the hijinks surrounding my fractured ankle at length (I was in a Stormtrooper-like walking boot that was hard to miss). Finally, I chatted with a woman who practices reiki (transferring healing energy through the palms); no editorial comment needed. Not to be outdone, we somehow ended up at a Goth after-party where I’m pretty sure the guy who usually gets cast as the serial killer on Law & Order was hitting on me. At 3am, we made a beeline to a taco truck and my friend unknowingly ate a habanero pepper. It was a pretty fun night.

The second visit to Los Angeles, just three months later, was actually my idea—but mainly out of culinary desperation. After seeing great progress in the San Diego food scene over the last few years, and puffing up my chest to friends that we were finally claiming territory on the culinary map, the bubble burst, at least for now. Innovative concepts are folding under the constant siren call for cheap and monotonous food. We surely have more gastropubs than London, cheeseburgers every which way, and don’t get me started on that tired-ass revival of meatballs.

So back to L.A I went for inspiration. The impetus for the trip was a one-night-only dinner highlighting the food of David Nayfeld, a former sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, who had just moved back to the West Coast in anticipation of opening his own place. The collaboration at Ink with Top Chef Season 6 winner Michael Voltaggio would show what he could do.

I arrived the night before and my friend and I headed to Son of a Gun (sister restaurant of Animal). Best dish: creamy and spicy linguine with clams and uni; it should be twice the size and delivered to my home on a regular basis. Worst dish: a $14 plate of shaved carrots. Luckily the tequila cocktail with crushed almonds and rose essence made it better (I know, it sounds odd, but trust). Apparently the fried chicken sandwich has a following? Meh. If you’re going down that road, opt for the perfectly crisp French fries with malt vinegar aioli (which taps right into my heroin-like addiction to salt and vinegar chips).

For lunch the next day I drove myself downtown to Bäco Mercat. It was very “Exit Through the Gift Shop” at the car park.

Rosé at Bäco Mercat
The server recommended Rosé to go with their bold and saucy creations. Righty-o.

Japanese eggplant salad at Bäco Mercat
Many people recommended the roasted Japanese eggplant with sliced cucumbers, pickles, radish, red onion, mint and an inventive dressing of cipollini onion mixed with feta and poblano peppers. Mental note to attempt a poor replication of this at home.

Hamachi crudo at Bäco Mercat
Hamachi crudo with caviar, chile, avocado, and hash brown

"The Original" at Bäco Mercat
“The Original” bäco (Chef Josef Centeno’s doughy flatbread invention) filled with pork and beef carnitas and a tangy salbitxada (tomato-almond) sauce

That night at Ink we were celebrating. My friend had gotten a generous promotion and I had found street parking without a valet. Come to think of it, I had found street parking the night before too. It’s like the L.A. gods were purposely seducing me.

Dueling apps: Kimchi cracklin’ with banchan-style vegetables and black sesame mayo (Chef Nayfeld) and crispy trout skin stuffed with creamy trout and garnished with smoked cotton candy (Chef Voltaggio)

Not pictured: “Squid and onion imitating each other” with porcini and onion-bonito broth (Voltaggio)

Artichokes and turmeric-pickled cauliflower and heirloom carrots (Nayfeld). This might have been my favorite dish. I even ate the carrots, and I hate cooked carrots. Chef Nayfeld, if you’re reading this, what is in that delicious broth??

It’s about this time that we notice a young and dapper diner to our right with perfect Rick Astley hair (welcome to my adolescence). The man we assume is his father is actually his agent (of course), and we start discussing our affection for the vegetables and broth, as well as our love of Chino Farm in San Diego. Turns out the young man is 14-year-old prodigy chef Flynn McGarry, and—note to the young ladies—is more of a gentleman than most 40-year-olds I know. Tickets are now available for his July 10th pop-up at BierBeisl in Beverly Hills. Keep an eye out for this guy.

Smoked halibut cheeks, cauliflower, and uni nage (Voltaggio)

Summer beans, corned veal tongue, roasted sweetbread, veal rack, summer savory (Nayfeld)

Apricot, basil, mascarpone, pistachio (Nayfeld)

Chocolate, cherry cola, raw milk (Voltaggio)

On my way out of town, I popped into Gjelina in Venice and snagged a seat at the bar just before a stretch limo pulled up with VIP (Very Important Posers), who somehow didn’t have a reservation and all six of them occupied otherwise available bar seats drinking to-go coffee the entire time I was there. San Diego, have I forsaken you?

Gjelina is known for incredibly fresh and seasonal ingredients and my meal did not disappoint. The burrata and stone fruit salad is a popular item, here with nectarines, prosciutto, and arugula.

Lamb chops with rapini pesto, harissa, and roasted garlic. You can bet I ate these with my hands.

Then I dialed my iPod to Enya and did some braking down the 405, because this little piggy was going all the way home.

Jun. 19 2013 |
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