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Travel Tip: Los Angeles' Latest Restaurant Openings

New offerings bring new excitement with menus and wine programs that range from traditional to cutting-edge

Harvey Steiman
Posted: October 29, 2012

Note: This is an excerpt of an article, "At The Top of Their Game," that originally appeared in the October 15, 2012 issue of Wine Spectator.

Los Angeles restaurants perfectly reflect a national trend that combines vibrant food with casual surroundings. It could be argued that Angelenos invented this, but that doesn't mean the city's restaurants are all alike. Two very different renditions of the French bistro-both with bakeries-and a trio of small-plates restaurants top a recent sampling of new or revised venues. Yet luxury dining still thrives, as proven by two of the most impressive venues in this report.

These restaurants represent a diverse cross-section of L.A. fine dining in both style and geography. What they all have in common, however, are exciting menu options and dining scenes.

BOUCHON BISTRO
235 N. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills, Calif.
Telephone: (310) 271-9910
Website: www.bouchonbistro.com
Open: Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $27-$38
Corkage: $25
Credit cards: All major

Some tables at the outdoor bar of Thomas Keller's Southern California outpost have a view of the front door of the iconic Spago, down North Cañon Drive. Clearly, there's more going on in Beverly Hills than expensive clothing shops. You can taste the excellent ingredients and admire the classic preparations at Bouchon Bistro, which shares the same posh building as Bouchon Bar and Bouchon Bakery downstairs. But don't expect the ambitious cuisine of Keller's flagships, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., or Per Se in New York. Instead, lunch here is a pitch-perfect evocation of a Parisian brasserie, offering toothsome rillettes of fresh and smoked salmon, perfectly cooked haricots verts, and an amazingly tender grilled hanger steak. The wine list, appropriately, focuses on bistro-worthy wines such as Cold Heaven Viognier Santa Ynez Valley 2010 ($42) and Jean-Louis Chave Sélection St.-Joseph Offerus 2007 ($65), but has a few trophies as well, including Peter Michael Les Pavots Knights Valley 2009 ($396).


INK
8360 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
Telephone: (323) 651-5866
Website: www.mvink.com
Open: Dinner, daily
Cost: Small plates $9-$26; tasting menus $85-$135
Corkage: $20
Credit cards: All major

When Michael Voltaggio strutted his modernist cuisine stuff to win television's Top Chef series in 2009, he was already making a name for himself at the formal Royce at the Langham. The surroundings could not be more different at Ink. Two kitchens open onto a cozy, 60-seat dining room, with no tablecloths in sight. The crowd is young and hip, the service friendly and knowledgeable.

Modernist touches are apparent on the plate, but they don't twist the food into unrecognizable shapes. A five-course tasting menu goes further afield with adventurous wine matches for $50, but in fact much of it looks downright homey. The textures and flavors can surprise and delight. A smear of Marcona almond butter adds a simple, dazzling counterpoint to thinly sliced La Quercia Berkshire ham. Mushroom chicharrón, the mushrooms impregnated into the pork rind, and whipped fish sauce enliven a crab-and-avocado dish. Add an accessible wine list that ranges from trendy whites such as Urki Getariako Txakolina 2010 ($54) to old-school reds such as Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2008 ($260), and this might be the most user-friendly avant-garde restaurant anywhere.


MAISON GIRAUD
1032 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades
Telephone: (310) 459-7561
Website: www.maison-giraud.com
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $18-$36
Corkage: $18
Credit cards: All major

Born and raised in Provence, Alain Giraud came to Los Angeles in 1988 bearing a résumé studded with some of the best-known restaurants in France. Before long he was chef de cuisine at Michel Richard's original Citrus, then Lavande, then Bastide, which launched in 2002 to great acclaim. But he wasn't modern enough for the restaurant's owner, and when they parted company in 2004 he started his own catering-and-consulting business.

After eight years of that, last year Giraud returned to restaurants, as chef-owner of the decidedly relaxed and neighborhood-y Maison Giraud, in the hilltop village of Pacific Palisades, just north of Santa Monica. It could almost be in the south of France. The ingredients of California lend themselves perfectly to the flavors of Provence, and the dishes that rank among the menu's stars include a soup au pistou, redolent of fresh basil; a crispy tomato-and-basil tart enlivened with a smear of tapenade; and loup de mer barigoule, the fish paired deftly with baby artichokes. Croissants and brioches, baked every morning for breakfast, draw an early, sleepy crowd.

The short wine list leans toward southern France, including L'Ostal Cazes Minervois 2008 ($40), and insider California Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Cabernets, such as Red Car The Fight Knockout! 2007 ($115).


N/NAKA
3455 S. Overland Ave., Los Angeles
Telephone: (310) 836-6252
Website: www.n-naka.com
Open: Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost: Tasting menus $110-$165
Corkage: $25
Credit cards: All major

Nondescript from the outside, this simple bungalow on busy Overland Avenue in Culver City houses a sanctuary of quiet, understated Japanese design and the cooking of Niki Nakayama. Her dishes can compare with the finest work of any chef you care to name—they are that good. In addition, sommelier Jeffery Stivers shows imagination in his uncannily spot-on wine pairings. The restaurant is open to diners by reservation only. L.A.-born Nakayama worked at Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles and for three years in Japan, learning kaiseki, the multicourse Japanese dining form that has inspired many of the chef's menus so popular in fine restaurants today. Sweet Maine lobster knuckle and tangy sea urchin from Santa Barbara contrast with creamy fresh tofu seasoned with sesame and green tea.The lightly crunchy, totally edible fried bones of pompano accompany a fillet of the fish in a dish with sweet-and-sour dashi. A chunk of baby bull's blood (a type of beet) from Nakayama's garden joins roasted carrots and a canelé of potato and leek in accompanying Angus beef rib eye, ponzu enlivening the jus.

The compact wine list has but 82 wines, including three delightfully appropriate Grenache Blancs (around $45) and reds such as Dominus Estate Napa Valley 2003 ($169). This makes Stivers' wine pairings a better option than picking one bottle for the series of small tastes, and he scores big with the $55 pairing option.


PLAYA
7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles
Telephone: (323) 933-5300
Website: www.playarivera.com
Open: Brunch, Saturday and Sunday; dinner, daily
Cost: Small plates $8-$18
Corkage: $20
Credit cards: All major

Start with Spanish tapas and add an L.A. vibe by incorporating some ingredients that go far afield from Spain, then complement that with drinks from up-to-the-minute mixologists and wines from anywhere that uses Spanish grape varieties. If Playa's concept sounds complicated, relax. What comes out of the kitchen goes right to the heart. Among the best choices are the maize cakes. Ever-changing options for topping these fresh tortillas include mojito-poached shrimp, burrata with salsa verde, and the decadently rich Bombay taj, which has pork belly confit, mango pickles and raita. Other star dishes include hueso, a roasted beef marrow bone with chimichurri, and the Thai tamalli, containing shrimp, lemongrass, mint and Thai chiles.

Benjamin Broidy, who put together the juicy list at Rivera (Sedlar's downtown restaurant), assembled a more informal selection here, but it still has tempting options such as Longoria Albariño Santa Ynez Valley 2009 ($48) and Quinta do Noval's dry Cedro do Noval Duriense 2007 ($50). In a setting filled with light, textures of rich wood, steel, concrete and leather add warmth to the modern design. The bar has its own separate dining area, and the kitchen opens onto the dining room, displaying circulating water baths for the sous-vide cooking. It's the kind of place that makes dining fun.


THE ROYCE AT THE LANGHAM
1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena
Telephone: (626) 585-6410
Website: www.roycela.com
Open: Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost: Entrées $37-$42; tasting menu $125
Corkage: $45
Credit cards: All major

Chef David Féau and sommelier Eric Espuny, two veterans of Los Angeles mainstay Patina, are both extraordinarily creative within a classic framework of French cuisine. Put them in a gorgeous setting overlooking the green grounds of the Langham, a true luxury hotel in Pasadena, and they can make magic. Féau's food freely employs modernist techniques, with smears, foams and creative trimming creating abstractions on the plate, and yet every bite glows with the purity and clarity of fresh, lovingly handled ingredients. Slow-braised and roasted rabbit meat rests on patches of ginger-infused mustard greens, chard and carrots. Olive oil-poached lobster, sweet and moist, plays off its earthy-citrusy stuffing of celery and grapefruit, a scatter of green beans adding color. Cherry blossoms and artichokes add a delicate cast to an appetizer of fresh albacore.

Twin glassed-in wine cellars at the entry display deep verticals of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and first-growth Bordeaux. Markups are steep, but not everything on the list of 750 selections requires a financial audit before purchase. One option is an older Bordeaux such as Château de Fieuzal Pessac-Léognan Rouge 2001 ($120). A half-bottle of Melville Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2009 ($45) served us well, and for the earlier courses, Espuny found excellent options by the glass.


WOLFGANG PUCK AT HOTEL BEL-AIR
701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles
Telephone: (800) 650-1842
Website: www.hotelbelair.com
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $38-$60
Corkage: $45
Credit cards: All major

Over the years, chefs have come and gone from the restaurant at the Hotel Bel-Air, but the dining space remains one of the most beautiful places to eat in Los Angeles. Surrounded by quiet, woodsy Stone Canyon, the clubby room, with its outdoor bar area and an enclosed patio, feels like a country restaurant. And yet it is less than a mile from Sunset Boulevard. When the Dorchester group reopened the hotel last year after an extensive two-year remodel, it turned over food operations to megachef Wolfgang Puck. Already an L.A. icon, Puck installed a menu that teems with ideas similar to those found in his other upscale restaurants, including Spago.

For my money, the restaurant is most distinctive at lunch. It's less elaborate and not quite so costly, and it feels more fun and creative. Offerings include a fried-egg sandwich made with Vermont cheddar, bacon and tomato-quince chutney on ciabatta, as well as a sashimi salad that pairs impeccable slices of Maine diver scallop, kampachi and albacore with golden beets, cucumber and peeled citrus wedges.

The wine list, assembled by food-and-beverage director Stéphane Lacroix (most recently general manager of Gilt in New York), offers 1,200 wines, including a deep assortment of mature Burgundy and classified-growth Bordeaux. There's also a prize bottle of Le Pin 1986 ($6,000). An impressive range of trophy California Cabernets includes verticals of Araujo, Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, and on through the alphabet to ZD Library Selection Reserve 1992 ($130).


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