99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Hollywood/East Hollywood

The Hungry Cat

photo by Anne Fishbein

In the past year, L.A. has been blessed with a number of great new seafood spots, while Providence continues to be one of the most impressive, seafood-driven fine dining establishments in the country. But we’re still hard up for forward-looking, fish-focused restaurants, places that rely on neither retro charm nor unattainable luxury. That’s where the Hungry Cat comes in. It’s a restaurant that has all the technique of a serious, classically trained chef (David Lentz) and all the creativity of our best New American cookery. Each night, you’ll find a bevy of thoughtfully composed fish preparations, more exciting than the simplicity of nostalgia and better prepared than you’re used to: a piece of char, crisp on the outside with a meltingly rare center, served over creamy celeriac with citrus, beluga lentils and hazelnuts; pastrami trout with beets and bitter greens, served with fresh-cooked naan; manila clams in a stew of merguez sausage with huge chunks of grilled bread slathered in harissa aioli. The raw bar is great, the cocktails are fun, and the place is generally a blast. But the real value here is a type of cooking that is bold, fanciful and masterly.

-- Besha Rodell

Pa Ord Noodle

photo by Anne Fishbein

If you somehow arrive at Pa Ord unaware that you’ve entered the grounds of a noodle specialist, surely you will gather as much from the four jars lining the restaurant’s counter, each filled with different types of noodles of varying lengths and thickness. Indeed, Pa Ord might be the best noodle-intensive shop in its Hollywood neighborhood, a place so focused on its specialty that you’ll be asked to refer to those numbered jars and specify which one you’d like to swim in your boat noodle soup’s murky, offal-intense broth. You can’t go wrong, really, with any of the jars; you also can’t go wrong choosing any other noodle dish on the menu. There’s the terrific yen ta fo (seafood noodle soup), for instance, or noodles with BBQ pork. Even the flat, wide noodles in a dish as seemingly routine as pad see ew are so lovely that some customers have been known to come back the next day for another round.

-- Tien Nguyen

Providence

photo by Anne Fishbein

While much of the attention given to Michael Cimarusti this year was for his new, much more casual seafood spot, Connie & Ted’s, Providence remains the chef’s crowning achievement. This is modern fine dining at its best: service that is formal but relaxed and engaged, a wine list to swoon over, cooking that is precise and elegant. Tasting menus here begin with a flurry of small bites — a Dark and Stormy in gelee form, which bursts on the tongue and channels the drink perfectly; a nasturtium leaf fashioned into a taco, holding delicate, raw scallops and puffed rice; a cracker made of salmon skin, served with a smoked salmon dip dotted with bright orange roe. From there you move on to anywhere from three to 16 courses, most of them quietly creative odes to the sea. It’s a dining room that’s regularly perfumed with black truffles, where waiters excavate Santa Barbara spot prawns from hot salt and plate them tableside, where a German-engineered cheese cart glides around silently — it’s a place for quiet decadence. If the theater of a full tasting menu is too spendy for you, many things are available à la carte at the cozy bar, where — unsurprisingly — some of the city’s most coddled and delicious cocktails are being served.

-- Besha Rodell

Spicy BBQ

photo by Anne Fishbein

All diehard Thai food lovers wind up at Spicy BBQ, because in this tiny restaurant they can get genuine Northern Thai dishes. Chef Nong goes to her native Chiang Mai to bring back ingredients that she can’t find here, among them the powder and paste needed for the aromatic Northern curry hunglay, a dish not widely available in Los Angeles. It’s made with pork belly and a raft of seasonings including pickled garlic, tamarind, dry Thai chiles, palm sugar, ginger and peanuts. You also must taste her khao soi, a soupy curry that crept over the Thai border from Burma. On the menu it’s called “Northern Thai egg noodle,” which doesn’t reveal that it contains chicken as well as both boiled and fried noodles. Other must-haves are Northern sausages, green papaya salad, crispy fish, larb and, if you really want to get into the cuisine, fiery serrano chile and ground-pork dips. The spicy jackfruit is amazing, too, if you can take the heat. And you mustn’t miss the namesake spicy BBQ pork. It’s sweet, crunchy and irresistible.

-- Barbara Hansen

Sqirl

photo by Anne Fishbein

In years to come, when people look back on the transformation of Virgil Avenue and wonder how it all began, the answer will be Sqirl. The spot that opened in 2012 as a coffee, toast and jam café has morphed into one of the most beloved restaurants in town — paving the way for a fantastic wine shop, a florist and an antiques store to open on the same block. More important to food lovers, it has ushered in an era of insanely good breakfast and lunch. Sqirl owner Jessica Koslow trained with one of the best chefs in the Southeast, but she decided to pour that knowledge into this small, funky café rather than a more traditional restaurant. The food here is stunning. Koslow serves rice bowls that will blow your mind, perked up with sorrel pesto, creamy feta and copious amounts of preserved Meyer lemon. Daily specials might range from tuna poke — a bowl of raw tuna spiked with yuzu, shiso from Sqirl’s garden and tuna-skin chicharrón — to handmade pastas, as good as any in town and for a fraction of the price. Koslow’s baking is remarkable, and her malva pudding cake is one of L.A.’s most craveable treats. The restaurant is not for the comfort-obsessed: The line is long, the seating is wobbly and sometimes hard to come by. The place can have the feel of a slightly out-of-control garden party. But for those willing to relax and go with it, there’s hardly a place in town that will reward you more lovingly.

-- Besha Rodell

Yai Restaurant

photo by Danny Liao

If you had time for only one Thai meal in Los Angeles, where should you go? A smart choice would be Yai Restaurant in Hollywood’s Thai Town. One of the oldest Thai restaurants in the city, it’s both authentic and reliable, offering everything from pad Thai to wild boar with green peppercorns, all of it cooked traditionally and decorated with pretty garnishes.  Yai’s version of roasted pork with Chinese broccoli is one of the best around. So is its waterfall beef salad, nam tok — the meat coated with crunchy, ground roasted rice and finished with zingy lime dressing. Then there’s hormok talay, a combination of seafood and egg served in a bulging bundle of foil, which you open at the top to reveal the steaming goodies inside. Catfish with house-made chile paste and crabmeat-fried rice are top choices, too; since the menu is almost endless, you can’t help but find something to suit your taste. Yai is barebones plain, but flavor counts for more than quaint decorations, and on that count it consistently delivers.

-- Barbara Hansen