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Los Angeles Dining Renaissance

Stellar new restaurants signal a delicious comeback

John Mariani
Posted: April 19, 2001

 
Above: The lounge at Los Angeles' new Linq.
 
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Los Angeles Dining Renaissance

Stellar new restaurants signal a delicious comeback

By John Mariani

It may seem strange to speak of a renaissance in a city whose "Golden Age of Dining" ended only a decade ago. But that's exactly what's happening in the Los Angeles restaurant scene. After an extended slowdown, it is showing its old spark. There's a new seriousness about town that makes one wonder -- might Los Angeles once again become the buzz of the culinary world?

Only a year ago, in an article entitled "The State of the Plate," the Los Angeles Times asked prominent local restaurateurs why the red-hot Los Angeles dining scene of the 1980s had sputtered out in the '90s, with only "a few Big Names spinning off as many moderately priced restaurants as they can, with culinary goals to match."

Still, over the past year I have dined amazingly well in Los Angeles, at new restaurants where young chefs are creating real excitement. Under the direction of chef Peter Keating, Los Feliz is a bright American newcomer in its namesake neighborhood. Hiro Nishimura is doing wonderful sushi at his eponymous restaurant in Hollywood. Celestino Drago has opened a first-rate Tuscan steak house in West Hollywood, and Harrison Ford's son Benjamin has been getting good reviews at Chadwick's in Beverly Hills, where he's both owner and chef. The illustrious Alain Giraud, formerly chef at Lavande, has just opened Bastide, on Melrose Place. In Brentwood, 22-year-old Brooke Williamson is doing terrific work at the new Zax.

But of all the noteworthy newcomers, three stand out for their dedication to food first, dazzle second. Melisse (French for "lemon balm"), in Santa Monica, has gotten the most attention. The restaurant is the very personal expression of chef and owner Josiah Citrin, a Los Angeles native. After training in France, Citrin came home to cook at Puck's Chinois on Main and Splichal's Patina before partnering with Raphael Lunetta to open the casual, acclaimed JiRaffe (which Lunetta still runs) in Santa Monica. But it was always Citrin's dream to open a deluxe restaurant, and with a loan from his in-laws, Melisse was born. "I knew the problems of opening such a restaurant in Los Angeles," says Citrin, "but the stock market was at its peak when we opened [in July of 1999], and we took off pretty fast."

Citrin's menu is grounded in the organic ingredients he gathers from the Santa Monica Farmer's Market, and he is one of those rare Los Angeles restaurateurs who actually cooks in his restaurant every day. He flies in the face of those who whine that locals won't pay out, offering $38 main courses and tasting menus priced between $48 and $75. Melisse is even open for lunch Wednesday through Friday, when most of Los Angeles' better restaurants are closed for want of business.

Five months ago, Citrin brought in sommelier Jeffrey Stivers from Cicada to create a world-class wine list. "My predecessor was a Pinot Noir nut," says Stivers. "Great wines, but the list needed more international selections. There were literally no wines from the Loire, and I bolstered the Rhône and Provence bottlings, which are highly complementary to Josiah's cooking." Today, the list is up to about 800 labels. It's very strong in Champagnes and sparkling wines, Cabernets and California Chardonnays, with a bunch of Meritage wines, and as Stivers indicates, an increasing number of regional French wines, including Michel Chapoutier's '95 Hermitage La Sizeranne ($120), Domaine Zind-Humbrecht's '98 Gewürztraminer Heimbourg ($90), and Comte Lafond's '95 Sancerre Grand Cuvée ($62). There are scores of excellent choices under $35, too.

Following in Melisse's footsteps, Starwood Hotels aimed haute when, last fall, it opened Encore in the new St. Regis Hotel in Century City. A semicircular sweep of a dining room looks out over an enchanting, tree-lined pool. Table appointments, from linens to wineglasses, are first class, and the wine list grows in stature each month.

Bringing in French chef Bruno Davaillon, previously of London's illustrious La Tante Claire, sealed management's commitment to serious cuisine, albeit in an admirably light, Southern California style. Davaillon executes dishes with the formidable finesse that is still the mark of rigorous French training. He never betrays the main idea behind a dish.

Thus, an amuse-bouche of tuna carpaccio had just the right amount of beet vinaigrette and watermelon radish to enhance the fish's flavor. A single roasted langoustine bedded on sensuously soft eggplant caviar was barely tinged with the scent of tarragon. Of the main courses, I highly recommend seared scallops with a delectable cauliflower mousseline and beet essence, or the superb Scottish roe deer with a squash puree and a pepper sauce.

For something more casual than either Encore or Melisse, try Linq. The dining room, with an 85-foot-long wall of marble strips and a waterfall under a glass-enclosed atrium, is cannily configured to maximize opportunities for people-watching. The place is all cool lacquered tones of gray, black marble, silver and burnished ebony. Two huge mirrors encourage narcissistic preening.

Owner Mario Oliver, who moves smoothly through this mix, knows his clientele well. Meeting him, you quickly learn he's an ex-boyfriend of Monaco's Princess Stephanie. Linq gets its nightly share of celebrities, from Rod Stewart to Monica Lewinsky, but Oliver allows them their comfort zones. Most importantly, he insists that Linq be a food destination, which should keep him in business when all the trendoids have migrated to newer hot spots.

For this, he has chef André Guerrero, Philippines-born and UCLA-bred, whose multiethnic approach respects essential flavors, favoring taste and texture over style. Most chefs who mix food cultures botch things by trying to use too many ingredients on one plate. Instead, Guerrero balances traditional flavors with Southern California nuances. His Thai curry noodles with green coconut curry and chicken is a good example; it's a dish that can cause a feeding frenzy at any table that orders it. The soy-mirin-glazed Chilean seabass with wasabi mashed potatoes brings all the lush, creamy quality of that fish to the fore. For dessert, go with the walnut and banana tart with malted-milk sauce.

I like the sensibility of Linq's wine list -- a straightforward roster of 200 selections, with 25 likable wines by the glass and plenty of good bottlings under $35. Oliver's French background shows in the strong representation from Bordeaux -- four vintages of Lynch-Bages and three each of Pichon-Longueville-Lalande (including magnums) and Haut-Brion. "We have a lot of Europeans who come here for the French wines," says Oliver, "and a lot of Californians are very interested in them, too." California Cabernets and Chardonnays are well-represented by labels such as Paradigm and Paul Hobbs, but Pinot Noir is given only a respectable nod.

There is concern in the Los Angeles restaurant community that the faltering American economy may curdle the current gastronomic revival. But for now, with restaurants like these, the high standards and inspiration to do better and grow into something finer are definitely in place.

John Mariani's new book is Dictionary of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman Books).


For the complete article, please see the April 30, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 154. (
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Melisse
1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica
Telephone (310) 395-0881
Open Lunch, Wednesday to Friday, noon to 2 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Friday, 6 to 10 p.m., Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Cost Lunch, entrées $16 to $21, prix fixe $40; dinner, entrées $25 to $38, prix fixe 5-course meal, $58, vegetarian $48, prix fixe 7-course meal, $75
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner's Club

Encore
The St. Regis Hotel, 2055 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles
Telephone (310) 277-6111
Open Breakfast, daily, 7 to 11 a.m.; lunch, daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, daily, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Cost Lunch, entrées $18 to $25, prix fixe $28; dinner, entrées $25 to $33
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner's Club

Linq
8338 W. Third St., Los Angeles
Telephone (323) 655-4555
Open Daily, 6 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
Cost dinner, entrées $12 to $28
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner's Club

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