99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Culver City/Palms

A-Frame

photo by Anne Fishbein

Of all the restaurants and trucks operated by chef Roy Choi, A-Frame is in many ways the slickest, the most tarted up and trendy. But it also shows the breadth of Choi’s talents, which go far beyond Chego’s rice bowls and Kogi’s Korean tacos. Located in an old IHOP, the restaurant bills itself as a place to experience a “modern picnic,” and most of the food plays with that notion — this is an international feast, but a joyously laid-back one. Choi is having a lot of fun here: The fish tacos taste almost Middle Eastern, with spiced yogurt and tomato confit, while the lamb meatballs, marinated in sesame shoyu and served with salsa verde, have both Asian and Latin overtones. A “Vietnamese salad” comes as a huge pile of Bibb and Gem lettuces, shot through with copious amounts of fragrant leafy herbs, citrus and creamy hunks of avocado. The beer can chicken comes with both kimchi and two kinds of salsas; it’s one of the better juicy birds in town. Choi barges through international barriers yet nothing seems overwrought or muddled. Above all, he’s a chef who’s not afraid of flavor, and his willingness to simply smack us with that idea again and again is delightful.

-- Besha Rodell

Bucato

photo by Anne Fishbein

The newest culinary addition to the Helms Bakery complex, Bucato gives L.A. another option for stunning Italian food — and some of the most glorious pastas this city has ever seen. The restaurant’s roots go back to 2007, when chef Evan Funke studied for three months in Bologna under master pasta maker Alessandra Spisni. Bucato is the direct descendant of Funke’s Italian education, and in many ways a straightforward ode to Bologna’s food traditions. Aside from pasta, Funke’s menu features spuntini, which translates approximately to “snacks,” as well as vegetables, seafood and meat. Each of these sections holds its own pleasures: a delicate, lemony Dungeness crab crostino topped with lardo; a refined chicken cacciatore with its wild mushroom, herb and tomato components pulled apart and served artfully on the plate under a very good, woodfire-roasted bird; a live scallop crudo with a pert green-olive topping. You could eat a carb-free meal here and still be delighted. But really, a trip to Bucato without gorging on the delicate, gorgeous pastas is a wasted opportunity.

-- Besha Rodell

Lukshon

photo by Anne Fishbein

The modern Asian restaurant has been done so badly so often that it’s beyond refreshing to see it done well — in fact, it’s almost a revelation. Indeed, with Lukshon, chef/owner Sang Yoon has basically perfected the concept, as long as you’re willing to buy into his vision wholeheartedly. Located in the Helms Bakery complex next to his beer bar, Father’s Office, and across the way from his coming food hall/bakery project with Sherry Yard, Lukshon is one man’s singular vision of what a restaurant should be, and that man doesn’t really care if you concur or not. Thankfully, we fully concur. It’s hard to get in a visit without succumbing to longtime favorite dishes like the outstanding dan dan noodles, which sizzle with Sichuan peppercorns and pack a savory wallop of sesame and peanuts; or the gooey Chinese eggplant, slathered with fennel raita and tomato sambal. Raw fish dishes, such as fluke sashimi with black sesame oil, spicy avocado and pickled orange, or the gorgeous, glossy Hawaiian butterfish, cannot be oversold. The food is highly flavored, there are no substitutions or modifications, children are discouraged, and the wine list is built for food, not name recognition (it’s actually one of the best lists in the city if you’re willing to give yourself over to it, and incredibly well-priced to boot). Timid palates and sticklers for the customer-is-always-right mantra probably ought to stay away. That’s all right. More room for the rest of us.

-- Besha Rodell

n/naka

photo by Anne Fishbein

Niki Nakayama’s restaurant in Palms is a testament to one woman’s quiet quest: to bring the quiet, seasonal beauty of formal kaiseki dining to L.A. Many other restaurants play with the concept, but only n/naka is dedicated to following the formality of the art form and presenting it in such a respectful manner. Nakayama has recently given up the nine-course option, meaning you have to give yourself over to the whole $165 13-course tasting experience, but that’s not such a bad thing. Not when you’re presented with gorgeous plates of gleaming raw fish, each given a thoughtful garnish or accompaniment, or more creative dishes such as grilled blue shrimp coated with yuzu cream. The meal’s centerpiece is usually the part of the meal where Nakayama veers a little from tradition and shows her creativity: say, spaghettini with black abalone, pickled cod roe and truffles. At once comforting and exciting, it was one of the best things we ate all year. The quiet room and thoughtful service make this one of L.A.’s most exceptional dining experiences.

-- Besha Rodell