99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Beverly Hills

Matsuhisa

photo by Anne Fishbein

Once upon a time, Nobu Matsuhisa was a young Japanese cook who moved to Peru and then to Alaska (where his first American restaurant burned down), only to come to Los Angeles, get discovered by a movie star and become one of the most famous chefs in the world. If this sounds more like a parable than an origin story, it kind of is. It’s also true, and the restaurant where you can still tangibly feel the chef’s personal history is not his fish museum on the sea in Malibu but his original Matsuhisa, which he opened in 1987. Despite the chef’s threats to close it, Matsuhisa remains — a small, unpretentious, downright cozy joint where you can order classic Nobu dishes (tiradito, black cod with miso), along with predictably wonderful sushi, tempura, kushiyaki and donburi bowls. You’ll see more movie stars and beautiful people eating uni shooters at Nobu Malibu — or Nobu Beijing or Milan or Dubai or Moscow or Monte Carlo or Hong Kong or … right — but part of the enormous pleasure of Matsuhisa is that not only won’t you see them (probably), but that it’s not the point. Instead, think about the young chef working over a fish in an Anchorage kitchen almost 40 years ago, and imagine what it took for him to get here.

-- Amy Scattergood

Red Medicine

photo by Anne Fishbein

At Red Medicine, the sentiment remains but the inspiration has changed. After three years, chef Jordan Kahn has thrown out his original conceit, a Vietnamese theme, and his food now serves only one god: the divine guidance of Jordan Kahn. He’s foraging a lot these days, perhaps more seriously than any other well-known chef in town, but the wow factor remains his gorgeous platings and flavor combinations. You might, for instance, get a combination of trout roe and lemon curd, served in a glass bowl that looks more suited for a goldfish than your dinner, with raw snap peas and an “ice” made from snap pea shells. Or Dungeness crab, seasoned with an emulsion made from its shell, wrapped in lettuce, grilled over charcoal, with fermented garlic paste, passion fruit and spicy herbs. It’s texturally confusing, highly interactive and outrageously delicious. Kahn remains one of the most exciting pastry chefs in town, with a flair for drama and surprise. The trendy room and offbeat service barely make sense with all this high-concept food, but if an adventure on the plate is what you’re in the mood for, Red Medicine’s oddities are absolutely worth abiding.

-- Besha Rodell

Spago

photo by Anne Fishbein

More than a year after its massive revamp, Spago has fully settled into its new look and feel. The Beverly Hills restaurant that launched Wolfgang Puck’s empire remains one of L.A.’s most iconic dining experiences, and the sleek white-and-black dining room and glassed-in patio with its twinkling lights have never felt so vibrant. The best seats in the house might be at the cocktail tables, which sit between the patio and the dining room and afford an outstanding view of the action on all sides (it also feels fantastically luxurious just to drop into Spago casually for dinner without a reservation, which you don’t need for these seats). Chef Lee Hefter and chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi are presenting a menu that straddles the line between tradition and invention, fulfilling the wishes of a diner wanting a dry aged steak with Bordelaise or the type who might wish for a grilled lamb rack with falafel macaroons and harissa aioli. There are also clever twists on of-the-moment dishes, such as burrata and prosciutto that’s served with roasted persimmon rather than beets or tomatoes, and spherified basil “caviar.” For the movie stars you’re likely to encounter, for the incredible wine list and, yes, especially for the food, there’s still no place like it.

-- Besha Rodell