99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Downtown

Alma

photo by Anne Fishbein

Since Bon Appetit named Alma the best new restaurant in America, a few things have changed. Where it used to be fairly easy to get a seat, it’s now damn near impossible, and while the offerings used to be à la carte, it’s now tasting menu only, with $65 and $110 options. What hasn’t changed is Ari Taymor’s approach to cooking, a kind of naturalist modernism that hinges on simple platings of unexpected ingredient combinations. The young chef takes his cues from the seasons, from the restaurant’s garden, and from his own inspiration, which is at once both restrained and wildly creative. A celery root soup, served in heavy earth-tone pottery, comes with whipped lardo, apple and pine. Young turnips served alongside slow-roasted beef exhibit a wildly floral vegetal funk. First-of-the-season asparagus comes with smoky breadcrumbs and grapefruit, topped with an orange orb: a cured egg yolk. This may be one of the most pared-back eateries in the country serving only a tasting menu — Taymor and his business partner, Ashleigh Parsons, famously opened the restaurant on the gloomy end of Broadway downtown two weeks after signing the lease, and the space still feels as if they just walked in off the street into a blank space and started cooking. But it’s that feeling in part that makes Alma so special, the sense that you’ve stumbled onto something makeshift and wonderful.

-- Besha Rodell

Bäco Mercat

photo by Anne Fishbein

To the question “If you had one meal to eat in L.A., where would you go?” we often find ourselves answering, simply, Bäco Mercat. It’s the follow-up question that proves more difficult: “Bäco Mercat … what kind of food do they serve?” The best answer might be “Centenian,” a cuisine specific to Josef Centeno, Bäco’s chef and owner. But that’s hardly helpful. Centeno is a whiz at taking international influences and turning them into something wholly his own: a little bit Spanish, a little bit Middle Eastern, a little bit Mexican, very Californian. The bäco, which could otherwise be called a Centenian sandwich, is kind of like a taco but bigger, kind of like a flatbread but thicker and chewier, and filled with beef and pork carnitas and a Catalan sauce called salbitxada made from nuts and red pepper. Centeno should win an award for his dedicated efforts to elevate vegetables: Half of Bäco’s menu is dedicated to Centenian vegetable creations, each one a quiet triumph. Japanese eggplant comes as tender as pudding, set against the cooling snap of cucumber, with creamy feta and cipollini vinaigrette for added contrast. Sunchokes are showered with tarragon, dusted with dukkah and tossed with buttered croutons. Centeno runs two other restaurants around the corner but Bäco remains the shining example of the Centenian genre, a restaurant so original it is quite unexplainable. But you don’t need to understand — just go. You won’t regret it.

-- Besha Rodell

photo by Anne Fishbein

Bestia

Even early on a Sunday night, the bar at Bestia is three deep with people angling for a seat, and the chance of landing a table with no reservation is slim to none. A year and a half after opening, Bill Chait’s project with chef Ori Menashe and Menashe’s wife/pastry chef, Genevieve Gergis, still could be mistaken for a hot, young newcomer. It’s definitely the O.G. of our new crop of modern, Northern Italian–influenced restaurants. There are many reasons for the crowds. The open, brick-walled space remains a shining example of the possibilities of the industrial building as a restaurant, and feels all the more enticing because it’s tucked down a dark street in the most desolate corner of the Arts District. The cocktails, by Julian Cox, are made with the highest level of professionalism and care. But mainly, the hoards of people are here, still, for Menashe’s cooking: gorgeous pastas, outstanding charcuterie and smaller bites that pull absolutely no punches. Try tearing your attention from a mellow, smoky mackerel crostino with burrata, or the pan-roasted chicken gizzards with beets, a dish that has been on the menu almost since day one (and with good reason). Gergis’ desserts don’t disappoint, either — the woman understands salt, which is a sadly uncommon trait for a pastry chef.

-- Besha Rodell

Chichén Itzá

photo by Anne Fishbein

No wonder the line is always long at Chichén Itzá. Tucked into the back of Mercado La Paloma downtown, it’s as authentic an outpost of Yucatecan cuisine as you can find in L.A. The menu posted behind the counter where you order reflects a fascinating blend of cultures — Mayan, Spanish and Lebanese. Don’t miss Lebanese kibi, made with cracked wheat and beef patties fried so crisp they crackle in your mouth. Spanish paella is a regular special. You also can get achiote-marinated pork or chicken, which in Yucatán would be cooked underground, an indigenous technique adapted to what the health code here allows. There’s no skimping on hard-to-find ingredients. Chef-owner Gilberto Cetina grows his own sour oranges, which are required for authentic flavor. He also has a constant supply of the Mayan super green called chaya.  It’s blended into a long, cool drink, agua de chaya. It’s also part of the egg-and-squash-seed tamal called brazo de reina. The good news is, you can grow chaya yourself — Cetina sells the plants. You also can buy house-made habanero salsa, which is so hot that the tall bottles served with meals must last forever. If you’re immune to that sort of pain, you can sign up for Chichén Itzá’s annual habanero-eating contest. And if you really love the food, you can cook it yourself. Everything you need to know is in the cookbook Sabores Yucatecos, written by Cetina, his son, Gilberto Jr., and Katharine A. Díaz; it’s on sale at the restaurant.

-- Barbara Hansen

Church & State

photo by Anne Fishbein

Long before the grungy factory quadrant of downtown became hip, Church & State was drawing food lovers there to dine on outstanding versions of classic dishes, turned out by a series of exceptional chefs. Since Tony Esnault — Loire Valley native, Patina alum, protégé of Alain Ducasse — took over the stoves, the food at this French bistro, always very good, has gotten even better. Esnault has a light touch and a phenomenal mastery of technique, whether he’s making a bouillabaisse, a delicate dish of farmers market vegetables (the man loves vegetables), an Alsatian tart or a towering holiday croquembouche. The wine list is excellent, the breads are from nearby Bread Lounge, and the setting — exposed loft ceiling, open kitchen, strung-up sparkly lights, French scrawled on wall-mounted chalkboards — will make you swear that you’re in a Parisian temple to bistronomie, not a few miles down from San Julian’s skid row. Watch the chefs playing in the tiny kitchen. Don’t forget to order the marrow bone and the escargot.

-- Amy Scattergood

Daikokuya

photo by Danny Liao

Since Daikokuya opened in a happily grungy, permanently crowded shop in Little Tokyo, there has been a ramen renaissance in L.A. Which means that there are now, circa 2014, plenty of ramen shops in this city, many of which make technically superior bowls of ramen. But that hasn’t made the original any less fun — or any less insanely crowded. It’s still decorated like a kitschy version of early–20th century Tokyo ramen shops. The servers still yell at you in Japanese, the bowls of tonkotsu still arrive steaming hot and loaded with excellent chashu, the donburi bowls are still just as good as the ramen, and the plates of gyoza are still some of the best in town. Purists might debate the relative superiority of other noodles on Sawtelle Boulevard or the broth at some place in Torrance, but there’s still no place more enjoyable to slurp a bowl anywhere in town.

-- Amy Scattergood

Guerrilla Tacos

photo by Garrett Snyder

If the thought of having a fine taco alongside a fine cappuccino has never occurred to you, surely it will now: Wes Avila and Tanya Mueller usually park their Guerrilla Tacos truck curbside outside Handsome Coffee Roasters in downtown’s Arts District or Cognoscenti Coffee’s Culver City shop. After stints in various fine-dining establishments in the city, including Church and State and Le Comptoir, Avila left behind those whites for this blue taco truck, where the emphasis is not so much farm-to-table as it is farm-to-truck. Thus it’s not a surprise that the market-driven menu will change with the season; given Avila’s talents, it’s perhaps not a surprise, either, that no matter what the ingredients, his tacos are consistently some of the most excellent in the city. Recently, you could have had a taco with charred octopus, pistachios, Cara Cara oranges and a fiery arbol chile, or one with roasted romanesco, purple cauliflower, Medjool dates and almond chili. Occasionally, there will be terrific treats on the menu like a tostada topped with uni and kombu dashi. This is fine dining, indeed.

-- Tien Nguyen

Marugame Monzo

photo by Anne Fishbein

Fatter than ramen, heartier than soba, udon is one of America’s least-fetishized Japanese noodles. But at Marugame Monzo, udon is the star of the show. Handmade by chefs in an open kitchen, it’s carefully cut and batched as diners happily slurp the finished product from a bar facing the action. More than 20 varieties are on offer. For a noodle joint, this is a sleeker, more upscale spot, and much of the menu is dedicated to itameshi, the Italian-Japanese fusion that’s currently all the rage in Japan. You could go for the udon carbonara, an insanely rich and smoky dish, which pays homage to the eggy delight of the Italian version but also obviously serves the emperor of Japanese cuisine: umami. You could make a pilgrimage to try the uni cream udon, which has already become a cult dish. But Monzo’s real value is in its traditional udon dishes: The noodles are just firm enough, the dashi is comforting and pure, and the grated daikon, scallion and wispy bonito add texture and allure. Don’t forget the Jidori egg.

-- Besha Rodell

Mo-Chica

photo by Anne Fishbein

Many Angelenos miss chef Ricardo Zarate’s original Mo-Chica, which was not much more than a stall in a South Central food court. Discovering Zarate’s dazzling Peruvian cuisine in such a location felt like stumbling upon a treasure. There’s a little less of that notion in the downtown iteration of Mo-Chica, which is nearly 2 years old. In fact, where the original felt like elevated cooking in a street-food setting, the graffiti-blasted walls and high-designed street-food theme can feel a little forced here. Still, the food is as compelling as ever. Zarate’s large menu spans bright ceviches, hearty stews and original creations, such as a quinoa risotto that’s rich with mushrooms and savory with deep green parsley oil. Hard-to-find Peruvian specialties, like paiche (a huge Amazonian fish) and alpaca, are used to great effect here, the alpaca coming as a warming stew topped with a fried organic egg. Like any downtown hot spot worth its salt, Mo-Chica has a killer cocktail list, which matches the brightness of the cooking. We may long for the original, but the new version is a lively and incredibly fun beast all its own.

-- Besha Rodell

Orsa & Winston

photo by Anne Fishbein

With Orsa & Winston, Josef Centeno takes a step back toward his high-end roots and a step forward into a new era of tasting menus, one more playful and less stuffy than its predecessors. Centeno is billing Orsa & Winston’s lineup of dishes as Japanese/Italian omakase. You choose the length, from a filling, family-style four-course option to the insane, 20-plus-course “super omakase.” Either way, you’re likely to begin with a shot glass of savory panna cotta — perhaps flavored with fennel pollen, or a sweet fall squash. It’s a lovely beginning that sets the tone for an evening here. While the food at Centeno’s other restaurants, Bäco Mercat and Bar Amá, often bowls you over with flavor from the outset, Orsa & Winston shows what the chef is capable of when that exuberance is tempered just a little. Both the Japanese and Italian influences are subtle, more inspiration than straightforward guidance. Yuzu makes its citrusy tang known throughout the menu, while a course of milk-bread focaccia, which comes in soft, generous rolls served with testa and umami-rich black cod tonnato, feels like the heart of the meal. Orsa & Winston is a fine example of an excellent chef’s imagination and divine guidance taken to a glorious extreme, where raucous music and very good wine and all the inspirational fodder absorbed over a career of cooking are allowed to run wild. It’s a fascinating step toward a new generation’s model for fine dining.

-- Besha Rodell

Philippe the Original

photo by Anne Fishbein

Quite a few places in town might make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time, but very few take you quite so far back as Philippe the Original, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2008 and has hardly changed in those 106 years. At the long deli counter, women carve hunks of moist lamb straight from the bone, then cram it into sandwiches made of crusty French bread dipped in pan juices. Lines of customers snake through the tables; when it’s your turn in front, you could get a beef or turkey sandwich as well, but the lamb is where it’s at, especially double-dipped and with the addition of blue cheese. Order a bright fuchsia pickled egg and a glass of lemonade, then wind your way though the massive, worn wooden dining room, its floors covered in sawdust, to find a seat. The history and tradition of Philippe’s is awfully charming, and the time-travel aspect is pretty delightful. But what it really comes down to is this: Seriously, this is a damn good sandwich.

-- Besha Rodell

Rivera

photo by Anne Fishbein

In the five years since John Sedlar opened Rivera, the restaurant has sometimes seemed less an ode to pan-Latin cooking than a kind of evolving art installation. Of course, it’s both, not least because Sedlar’s works of art have always been on his plates anyway. As other restaurants come and go (including Sedlar’s own Playa, some dishes from which have happily been assimilated into Rivera’s menu), it has become a mainstay of Los Angeles cuisine. At Rivera — both the chef’s middle name and his mother’s family name — there are still the flower tortillas, the duck enfrijolada, the sous-vide pork wrapped in banana leaf in the manner of the Yucatán. There are the bottles of mezcal, the tequila chairs, the agave-field-to-cocktail-bar drinks. There are the spice stencils on the plate like edible graffiti. Most nights, there’s Sedlar, too, immaculate in chef’s whites, which increasingly match his hair. He’ll probably stop by, maybe tell you about the art on the walls as well as the plates, maybe treat you to a story culled from his decades of cooking in Los Angeles, maybe point you toward your very own tequila chair — and call you a cab home if necessary.

-- Amy Scattergood

Sushi Gen

photo by Garrett Snyder

There’s a lot of world-class sushi in Los Angeles, much of it exceedingly expensive and therefore basically out of reach for most of us. Who can afford to throw down $200 or more per person for an evening of rarefied raw fish? Not many. But what we can afford, and where we’re therefore most likely to get our fill of super-fresh sashimi, is Sushi Gen. The perpetually packed Little Tokyo standby has some insanely affordable options, such as a sashimi dinner for $26, which comes with a side of tempura and offers a huge platter of buttery yellowtail, melting toro, firm snappy squid and more. You can get a full tray of uni for dinner, with a side of sashimi, for $39. There’s always a wait but it’s never too insanely long, as the service is quick and you know your role when you’re here: Get in, get fed and get out so the next guy can take advantage of the sushi soul of Little Tokyo.

-- Besha Rodell