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Dinner in Los Angeles

Where singular chefs shape distinctive evenings

Harvey Steiman
Posted: May 5, 2003

 
Helen (left) and Elizabeth An serve Vietnamese food in Beverly Hills style at Crustacean, where whole crab is the popular order.
 
 
  The Classics:  
 
  • Patina
  •  
     
  • Chinois on Main
  •  
     
  • Matsuhisa
  •  
     
  • Valentino
  •  
     
  • L'Orangerie
  •  
     
      The Challengers:  
     
  • Bastide
  •  
     
  • Josie
  •  
     
  • Alex
  •  
     
  • Angelini Osteria
  •  
     
  • Crustacean
  •  
     
  • Il Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi
  •  
     
      Also:  
     
      Star Tables
    Reviewing the best restaurants in Los Angeles
     
     
      Doing Lunch in L.A.
    Perfect places to indluge in the middle of the day
     
     
      Moveable Feasts
    Los Angeles' top chefs have exported their cuisines and concepts around the world
     
     
      To Sleep With Angels
    From Golden Age to cutting edge, L.A. accommodates all tastes
     
     
      There's No Business Like Wine Business
    Westside L.A. shops feature a great cast of estates from California and beyond
     
     
      Power Couple
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    Delivering an eclectic mix of cuisines and personalities, these restaurants hit the mark with exceptional food, serious wine lists, stylish surroundings and top-notch service. Within the categories of Classics and Challengers, restaurants are listed in the order of Harvey Steiman's preference. All accept major credit cards unless otherwise noted.

    The Classics

    Patina
    5955 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
    Telephone (323) 467-1108
    Open Lunch, Friday; dinner, nightly
    Cost Entrées $29 to $35; menus $68 to $80
    Grand Award

    I've never had a better meal in Los Angeles than the absolutely perfect one I enjoyed at Patina in December. Every element of every dish sang of its own flavors and textures, yet harmonized beautifully with everything else. Service glided like a Balanchine ballet.

    After a total revamp in 2000, this converted apartment building finally looks like one of America's best restaurants, the high-ceilinged dining room resplendent with opulent Italian pearlwood, deep brown leather and understated fabric-covered walls. Elegant details include a waterfall burbling on the patio.

    Chef de cuisine Eric Greenspan, formerly of Union Pacific and Bouley in New York and El Bulli in Spain, moved up from sous chef in October. He reflects chef-owner Joachim Splichal's trademark flair for heady sauces and refined textures, lifting workaday ingredients such as potatoes and beets to Olympian heights. Even odd-sounding combinations taste right. Arctic char, the pink sea trout, finds an unexpected match with roasted beets of various colors. Impeccably roasted sweet spiny lobster contrasts perfectly with Puy lentils and baby spinach that tastes just-picked.

    Three dozen choices, all in ideal condition, crowd the cheese cart. Pastry chef Thomas Gérard, recently of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, makes magic with desserts, including a mille-feuille so delicate, a fork sinks through it without scattering flakes.

    The wine cellar houses 1,600 choices, including more than 300 Burgundies, 200 Bordeaux, 100 Rhônes and 200 collectible California reds, with plenty of offbeat and temptingly priced options. The bottle-walled display cellar has a dining table, but why hole up in there? Patina delivers the luxe dining experience Los Angeles has long dreamed of.

    Chinois on Main
    2709 Main St., Santa Monica
    Telephone (310) 392-3038
    Open Lunch, Wednesday to Friday; dinner, nightly
    Cost Entrées $14 to $36

    Now in its 20th year, Wolfgang Puck's exuberant take on Chinese cuisine has settled into an assuredness and a consistency that make it better than ever. The ingredients are impeccable, the techniques skillfully applied, the presentations mouthwatering. Chinois could rank as a first-class Chinese restaurant.

    But it's more than that. From the beginning, Puck and his chefs have felt free to invigorate their Chinese menu with elements of Japanese and Western cuisines. One classic is whole catfish, wok-fried on the bone, head intact, juicy and habit-forming, the (Japanese) ponzu sauce adding a unique touch. Cilantro (aka Chinese parsley) vinaigrette anoints grilled Mongolian lamb chops. The menu's purely Chinese dishes include sweet and moist steamed seafood dumplings and stir-fried Shanghai lobster, dripping with garlic sauce and wearing a garland of fried spinach leaves, worth the inevitable spatters on clothes.

    The open kitchen (a Puck trademark) and the bistro atmosphere come with a wine list of more than 450 selections. You can drink Ramey Chardonnay, Ramonet Chassagne-Monrachet, Bründlmayer Riesling, Williams Selyem Pinot Noir or Château Latour (1966, no less); the list is remarkably similar to Spago's. If only more Chinese restaurants had such cellars.

    Matsuhisa
    129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills
    Telephone (310) 659-9639
    Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, nightly
    Cost Entrées $12 to $30; menus $70 to $120

    Compared with Nobu Matsuhisa's sleek, modern restaurants in New York, Tokyo, London and Aspen, the original is louder and livelier and decidedly more casual. Tables are barely 6 inches apart, so you can't help but catch the details of the movie deal the guys to your right are making over sushi rolls, compare your menu with the one served to the two Japanese businessmen to your left, or smile as the 4-year-old at another table blows out a candle on her birthday goblet of coconut ice cream.

    The succession of ethereal, elegant dishes on the omakase menus can be utterly breathtaking. On a recent visit, the mid-priced ($95) menu included a swoon-inducing sake-marinated Chilean sea bass topped with seared foie gras and sautéed whole fresh shiitake mushrooms. Brilliant sushi arrived with freshly grated wasabi and a bowl of lobster miso soup. Diced caramelized pear added a wonderful touch to a superb cheesecake of sweet, fresh chèvre.

    An encyclopedic â la carte menu offers classic sushi and innovations introduced by Matsuhisa, such as the spider roll (made with soft shell crab) and a whole page of creative dishes like the ones on the omakase menu.

    Matsuhisa lists about 125 wines in an unkempt book. Many are ordinary, but gems like Albert Pic & Fils Chablis Premier Cru 1990, Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Alsace Grand Cru Saering 1998 and a few classic California Cabernets make it worth poring over.

    Valentino
    3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica
    Telephone (310) 829-4313
    Open Lunch, Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
    Cost Entrées $20 to $35; menus $75
    Grand Award

    Valentino, now 30 years old, continues its reign as one of the best Italian restaurants in the United States. But good as it was on my most recent visit, I've had better meals there.

    Spugnette with prosciutto, peas and mascarpone tasted like someone's Italian grandma made it, even if pennette with semi-dried tomatoes and bufala mozzarella lacked a little something, perhaps because the tomatoes were out of season. Sweet, perfectly grilled Santa Barbara prawns couldn't have been better. Quail with porcini was especially soul-satisfying (though it arrived overcooked and had to be redone).

    The staggering wine list (3,200 selections) can hold up dinner for hours while you drool over page after page of legendary wines, cult favorites and hundreds of adventuresome possibilities.

    Because they know me here, a colleague dined anonymously at the same time I did. We had virtually identical experiences, proving that Valentino does not play favorites.

    The best approach is to leave everything up to owner-host Piero Selvaggio, whose passion is to create menus for his guests and introduce them to unusual (and often Italian) wines. Have a conversation, mention any wishes or dislikes, and perhaps specify a price ceiling. Then let Valentino show you how it's done.

    L'Orangerie
    903 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles
    Telephone (310) 652-9770
    Open Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
    Cost Entrées $29 to $58; menus $135
    Best of Award of Excellence

    This grande dame of L.A. French restaurants offers a stunning setting and a serious wine list. Local friends think of L'Orangerie when they want a formal dining experience for special occasions. It is that. It could be more.

    Chef Christophe Émé, who arrived last fall, is the latest in a parade of Frenchmen to man the stoves. Don't expect cutting-edge cuisine. Except for a first course of leeks poached in chicken broth and dressed with mushrooms and duck jus, everything on my December visit was rich, rich, rich.

    "Baked" gnocchi came fried crisp. Bouillabaisse broth served with rouget was finished with tons of butter, like a sauce. Dessert soufflés, accompanied by cream sauces and ice cream, didn't taste as spectacular as they looked.

    The wine list has venerable 1970, 1978 and 1982 Bordeaux and big-name California Cabernets. L'Orangerie gets points for steering me to a $57 Savigny-lès-Beaune red instead of the $70 and $80 California Pinot Noirs I asked about.

    The Challengers

    Bastide
    8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles
    Telephone (323) 651-0426
    Open Lunch and dinner, Monday to Friday
    Cost Menus $60 to $90

    Two 75-year-old olive trees spread their limbs over Bastide's walled courtyard. The restaurant opened only last November (the olive trees were transplanted from Northern California), but it is trying hard to look, feel and taste like it's been there forever. Sometimes it succeeds, as when a veal daube melts on the tongue, its meat essence, herbs and olives mingling in the senses. The heady perfume transports me to the south of France.

    Owner Joe Pytka, a director of TV commercials and a regular at most of L.A.'s top restaurants, met chef Alain Giraud in 1999. The Provence-born chef was No. 2 to Michel Richard at Citrus for almost 15 years. The local press breathlessly chronicled innumerable delays before the pair finally got Bastide running.

    Maybe it was because of that pressure, but on a mid-December visit, the staff huffed and puffed to achieve classic French service, lacking that sense of serenity that comes from experience.

    Giraud gets intense flavor into his dishes. Soupe de poisson, its heady broth redolent of rockfish and saffron, is presented with flair, ladled over a mound of Israeli couscous, shellfish and, curiously, Parmesan cheese. It's delicious. But John Dory arrived overcooked. Desserts, except for lavender ice cream, do not thrill.

    Sommelier Christophe Rolland, who came to Bastide from Michelin three-star Auberge de l'Ile in France, has assembled a dazzling all-French list, heavy on big-ticket collectibles but also strong in the $50 to $100 range, which includes bottlings such as Fernand Pillot Chassagne-Montrachet 1998 at $65 and Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 1995 for $98. The by-the-glass list has plenty of smart choices, such as Jogu't Chinon 1999 at $7 and Château Talbot St.-Julien 1996 at $18. However, unlike many L.A. restaurants, Bastide prohibits guests from bringing their own wines.

    Giraud's conservative, homey food needs to make peace with Pytka's aim to create something like a three-star experience. If it does, and the serving staff settles into a groove, Bastide will be something special.

    Josie
    2424 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica
    Telephone (310) 581-9888
    Open Dinner, Monday to Saturday
    Cost Entrées $20 to $34
    Award of Excellence

    Josie LeBalch knows her way around a kitchen. She grew up in her family's French restaurant in the San Fernando Valley and ran the show at California notables Saddle Peak Lodge and Remi. At Josie, her seasonal menus show a flair for bold flavors and a knack with game.

    One highlight of the winter menu was Texas wild boar served over flageolets accompanied by a towering mound of fried rapini, an addictive treatment for the thin, sweet-bitter Italian broccoli. An appetizer matched two sweet scallops with a skewer of moist cuttlefish over Puy lentils mixed with a few slices of merguez. Pappardelle with rabbit could have come from a Tuscan farmhouse.

    With 250 entries, the wine list reflects a real commitment. Offbeat choices like Havens Albariño strike a good balance with big-name California Cabernets such as Colgin and Phelps Insignia. A nice list of half-bottles yields the likes of Fèvre Chablis 1999. A glassed-in wine cabinet dominates the passageway between the back room, which has a comfortable bar, and the airy front room, where LeBalch and her staff operate in a small, open kitchen. You could call this a great neighborhood restaurant, if there were a neighborhood around it, but the setting makes it feel more like an oasis in the suburbs.

    Alex
    6703 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
    Telephone (323) 933-5233
    Open Lunch, Wednesday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
    Cost Entrées $29, menus $60
    Award of Excellence

    Riding the wave of new French restaurants in Los Angeles, British-born Alex Scrimgeour opened Alex in 2002 in the location where 20 years earlier Michel Richard brought his fresh approach in French cooking to Southern California with Citrus. A glass wall separates the kitchen from the dining room, darker and quieter than it was in the party days of Citrus.

    Scrimgeour calibrates flavors and textures, cleanly executed and carefully presented. Often, a single flavor adds a little extra personality to the main ingredient, as when mignonette sauce for Kumamoto oysters gets a few shavings of fresh horseradish. Anchovy butter enlivens grilled langoustine. The 150-selection wine list, while not terribly adventurous, has some fine choices, especially in offbeat varieties. French wines predominate.

    The chef may be conservative, but his restaurant is not stuffy. With easy chairs huddled around a crackling fireplace in the bar, and nicely separated tables, it's a welcoming place to dine.

    Angelini Osteria
    7313 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles
    Telephone (323) 297-0070
    Open Lunch, Tuesday to Friday; dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
    Cost Entrées $16 to $30

    Gino Angelini's food evokes Italy. He came to Los Angeles from Emilia-Romagna in 1995 to cook at Rex Il Ristorante, and later, Vincenti, before opening his own trattoria in a nondescript storefront. It's crowded, happily loud, the food served simply.

    Although the cheese plate was ice-cold, one can forgive the shortcoming after tasting a special antipasto of perfectly sautéed skate over spanking-fresh radicchio. The sauce on strozzapreti, an oddly shaped pasta, melded cannelli, calamari and tomato in a chorus that could stand up and sing. Baby lamb chops scottadito were intensely marinated, smokily charred on the surface, pink and incredibly juicy inside and perfectly set off by a bed of young arugula leaves. Even desserts are special, rare for Italian restaurants.

    The wine list has about 120 choices, including some distinguished Tuscan reds, most at non-frightening prices. Drink well, skip the cheese and go home happy.

    Crustacean
    9646 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
    Telephone (310) 205-8990
    Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
    Cost Entrées $18 to $39
    Award of Excellence

    The crowds at this fancy Beverly Hills restaurant pay big bucks for whole crab and noodles, but when the platter arrives and you savor one piece after another, the garlicky sauce dribbling down your fingers, the tab seems less of an issue.

    There may be storefront restaurants in Los Angeles with better Vietnamese food (and lower prices) but they don't have Crustacean's wine list or its setting. The list offers about 300 thoughtful selections; Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2000 might have been made for my 2-pound Dungeness crab, the green mango salad that preceded it and the garlic noodles that accompanied it. The dining room is a faithful replica of the colonial-era mansion in Vietnam owned by Crustacean proprietors the An family. An eight-sided balcony surrounds the main dining room and a koi-filled stream runs under a Plexiglas floor through the bar, where a jazz group plays.

    The whole crab is the big draw here, and it is addictive. There are less costly choices on the extensive menu, however. Freshly cooked squid makes a perfect complement to a gorgeous green papaya salad garnished with Thai basil and lemongrass vinaigrette. Steamed mushroom dumplings couldn't be more delicate. Big, loud and lively, Crustacean feels like a nonstop party, with food and wine worth staying for.

    Il Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi
    114 W. Channel Road, Santa Monica
    Telephone (310) 573-1660
    Open Dinner, nightly
    Cost Entrées $16 to $35

    Waves crash on the beach a few yards from this cottage hiding behind a leafy pergola just off the Pacific Coast Highway. It might be a trattoria in a Tuscan seaside village. Instead this comfortable little restaurant has served almost as a club for the Malibu crowd since it opened in 1990. Only recently has it begun to register on the L.A. dining scene.

    In his small, open kitchen, Giorgio Baldi turns out distinctive pastas with sauces that burrow deep into the soul, baking impeccably fresh spigola (a white sea bass) and grilling langostino simply. I might walk the 3-mile length of Santa Monica Beach for another bite of his ricotta cheesecake. There's a menu, but the regulars don't bother with it, and neither did we, instead choosing from the waiter's enthusiastic recitation.

    Prices are high for a casual trattoria, but the food tastes so authentically Italian, it's worth it. The wine list has more than 300 selections, most Italian and most topping $100, even with standard double-retail markups.


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