IF YOU WANT to get a reading on the times in which we live, going to a restaurant isn’t a bad place to start. You can usually find clues about trends and tastes and our economic mood. But the best restaurants of 2017? They’re all over the map, ranging from a tasting menu hideaway above 3rd Street Promenade to a sidewalk spot serving soulful Israeli small plates. If there’s a common thread, it’s that each is defined by some undiluted obsession. It’s what anchors Evan Funke’s focus on hand-crafted pasta, and what led two former food writers to crowd-fund their dream café. It informs an other-worldly experience in Culver City and fueled a celebrated Peruvian chef’s comeback in West Hollywood. Does that mean you have to be a little crazy to open a great restaurant here? Probably. But madness is a fair tradeoff if it produces the sort of captivating moments that made dining out over the past year such a joy.
10. Mh Zh
THE ARTY CROWDS spilling onto the sidewalk near Sunset Junction aren’t waiting for a gallery opening. They’re standing in line for Conor Shemtov’s plucky Israeli cooking at Mh Zh (pronounced MAH-ZEH), a minuscule corner space where the menu is scrawled on paper bags, hummus is crowned with a smattering of pickled vegetables, and soothing mayocoba bean stew is ladled into metal bowls. Dinner can require patience. The staff is often stretched skeleton thin, there are no reservations, and sitting atop a milk crate at a wobbly sidewalk table as trucks thunder by is not for the faint of heart. But the reward is soulful, bargain-priced small plates, like lamb ragú perked with pickled beet stems atop a lush bed of tahini, or crunchy flash-roasted potatoes that need only a squeeze of charred lemon and rosemary to charm. A mind-altering wedge of caramelized cabbage isn’t quite street fare, but it serves as proof that exciting food in L.A. is still often found in the most unexpected places. (3536 Sunset Blvd. Silver Lake)
9. Cosa Buona
AT ZACH POLLACK’S revisionist neighborhood joint, no one will judge you if you dunk the crust from your Neapolitan pizza in ranch dressing. The chef of Alimento, who used to limit himself to ingredients sourced from south of Rome during his tenure at West L.A.’s Sotto, has embraced a world of mozzarella sticks, sauce-oozing chicken Parmesan, and hot wings tossed with housemade Buffalo sauce at his Echo Park pizzeria, and the result is unabashed fun. Puckery orange wine from Emilia-Romagna shares space with Chianti wrapped in reed baskets. Voices rising to a rowdy pitch, couples squeeze into leather booths on a Wednesday to gorge on fork-tender meatballs (best in town), buttery scampi, and spicy fried potatoes diavola. But mainly they pile in to load up on pizza with chewy, bubbly edges and pepperoni that curl into tiny cups after a ride through the blazing oven. Imagine the slice at Chuck E. Cheese’s you ate for your tenth birthday, engineered by the city’s finest pizzaiolo. (2100 W. Sunset Blvd. Echo Park)
THE SUNLIGHT-DAPPLED patio at Botanica has served as backdrop for an untold number of fabulous Instagram posts. You could probably spend hours people-watching at the aspirational all-day restaurant and marketplace that Heather Sperling and Emily Fiffer opened in a remodeled Silver Lake liquor store, but better to focus on the vibrant, produce-driven artistry happening in the kitchen. Like that stylish party-throwing friend who also happens to be an amazing cook, the two food-writing veterans excel at creating dishes that are both effortless and craveable. Soft-roasted kuri squash, luxuriant in brown butter and fried sage, arrives boosted with a dollop of burrata and a nest of lemony chicories. Ground lamb kabobs seasoned with Aleppo pepper ballast a salad of sharp raw herbs, but it’s the perky sumac yogurt that steals the show. A slim percentage of us have the leisure time (or budget) to linger over an Aperol spritz and soft-scrambled eggs with caramelized leeks each morning, but at Botanica that lifestyle feels nearly within reach. (1620 Silver Lake Blvd. Silver Lake)
THE LIGHTING IS subtle and the mood is lively, especially when you add a tall Bellicose Warrior cocktail to the mix, ají amarillo pepper getting in on the group hug among kümmel liqueur, pisco, and curaçao. A few years ago Ricardo Zarate lost his four restaurants in one short span, but the versatile Lima native is back, injecting an L.A. edge into Peru’s layered culinary traditions. You can slather butter laced with rocoto pepper onto the firm-crusted pan andino, a bread made with quinoa (an Andean birthright). Enhanced with slivered lap cheong sausage, the chaufa paella is powered by Philippine fish sauce to create a great tribute to fried rice. A jumble of shimeji and cubed portobello mushrooms, bathed in charred tomato ponzu, becomes a suave vegetarian ceviche; a ground walnut-and-feta salsa accentuates the street-corner roots of beef heart anticucho. To spy Zarate near the entrance grilling yuzu koshu shrimp on the flat-top plancha over oak embers is to witness an artist in the intimacy of creation. (8479 Melrose Ave. West Hollywood)
HOUSED IN A DRAMATIC glass-and- steel building designed by starchitect Eric Owen Moss, Jordan Kahn’s avant-garde tasting menu project elicited broad reactions from critics, and for good reason: Meals cost a small fortune ($250 per person), last up to four hours, and involve dishes that don’t always look like food (at least as we know it). The ambition can sometimes feel distracting, but the concept is revelatory in how it engages your senses and blurs the line between dinner and art. Kahn is treading through unexplored territory, and he knows how to raise eyebrows. A sprig of the root vegetable salsify is roasted until unrecognizable and coated in black garlic, a combination that evokes the scent of a dense forest. Served in a black earthenware sphere, velvety rice porridge harmonizes salty trout roe and sweet yuzu jam. Buttery poached crab, tiled with a fragrant layer of fresh allspice leaves, conceals an egg yolk that erupts near the final bite. Vespertine isn’t for everyone, but as an experience it has no equal. (3599 Hayden Ave. Culver City)
LOCATED IN THE city’s original 1900s produce market, Steve and Dina Samson’s restaurant sits near the bustle of the Fashion District’s Santee Alley. Massive warehouse windows look onto olive trees and a bocce court from a depot-size room adorned with murals and featuring a busy open kitchen that focuses on the legendary Bolognese cooking of northern Italy. The operatic feel of the space is fitting for a local chef exploring his culinary roots: Growing up in Tarzana, Samson developed his fondness for the capital of Emilia-Romagna during summer visits to his grandparents, and the key to this region’s cooking is hearty simplicity. Belly-on pork chops are rubbed with rosemary salt, butter-seared sage rounds out the dandelion greens tossed with freshly shaped squares of maltagliati pasta, the veal chop al petronio is freighted with prosciutto and Parmesan, and whole orata is slowly crisped over an almondwood fire. A stripe of balsamic brightens the pristine fior di latte gelato on a warm night as the city hums outside. (1124 San Julian St. Downtown)
THE RELAXED CALIFORNIA-by-way-of-the-Levant aesthetic that Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson have captured at their Los Feliz café feels so essentially L.A., it’s hard to imagine the two chefs rose to prominence cooking in the gloomy confines of Brooklyn. Their light- filled, blond-wood space might resemble a modernist design magazine brought to life, but it’s the duo’s thoughtful, calibrated compositions that shine brightest. Whipped labneh is subtly perfumed with rosewater, lending a floral whiff to curls of salted Persian cucumber dusted with za’atar; tahini slipped under flaky spanakopita-like hand pies contributes a nutty bass note. There’s savory roasted broccoli toast— which sounds like a joke until you try it—and a cumin-heavy shakshouka garnished with sprigs of parsley. The “Turkish-ish” breakfast, a kaleidoscopic spread of silky dips and crunchy pickles served with sesame-scattered barbari bread, appears on half the tables each morning, a nice foil to the coffee with ground cardamom. Kismet, in all its polished glory, operates with a swagger other restaurants can only envy. (4648 Hollywood Blvd. Los Feliz)
DOCKED ALONG ABBOT KINNEY like a battleship, Travis Lett’s Brutalist izakaya doesn’t exactly beckon with its weathered, black-clad exterior. Inside, dark stools huddle around a tight open kitchen where co-chefs Erika Aoki and Pedro Aquino sear skewers of miso-glazed pork cheek over binchotan charcoal. The Colonel Kurtz of Venice cooking, Lett spent years immersing himself in the nuances of traditional Japanese cooking from Tokyo to Okinawa’s southern islands. At MTN (as in “mountain”), nearly everything is made in-house, from umeboshi (pickled plums) to tofu to the firm buckwheat noodles filling a bowl of kombu-shiitake ramen. It’s all filtered through California terroir. A tangly sea- weed salad is sourced from Big Sur; bronze- bottomed gyoza skins are folded around ground pork from Peads and Barnetts north of San Diego. The combined effect is an uncompromising homage to two distinct places. Those addictively funky koji-fermented tsukemono sourced from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market weeks prior taste like nowhere else but this corner of Venice.
EVAN FUNKE EARNED his reputation for pasta zealotry while helming the now-closed Bucato in Culver City, but it wasn’t until his trattoria opened on Abbott Kinney that the bearded, barrel-chested chef found a suitably boisterous home for his fundamentalist brand of noodle craft. At the center of the clubby, floral-print dining room sits a glassed-in room where cooks flatten sheets of dough with long wood spindles. That’s the place the alchemy occurs: Chewy twists of trofie are painted with vibrant pesto Genovese, tonnarelli is sharpened with black pepper and pecorino, and fudgy orecchiette comes tossed with sausage sugo and melted bitter greens. The rush that hits once you tear into Funke’s piping hot sfincione bread, a rosemary-scented cloud slicked with good olive oil, doesn’t let up until you’ve sauntered back into the cool Venice air, abuzz from the devilish marsala-infused tiramisu and a shot of grappa that the bar mellows with chamomile honey. Felix, at its most exuberant, feels as much like an Italian fever dream as a restaurant. (1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd. Venice)
IN AN 18-SEAT RESTAURANT dominated by a wood counter, there’s bound to be some interaction between diners and kitchen staff. But the real conversation at Dialogue is between your expectations and how chef Dave Beran tweaks them. Shortly after moving from Chicago, Alinea’s former chef de cuisine set up shop in a compact storage space above an ice cream store on the 3rd Street Promenade. There’s just one option here: a sprawling tasting menu that will set you back at least two C-notes. If that sounds daunting, the 36-year-old chef quickly earns your trust. Tempering the haute with the homesteaded, the opulent with the bracingly simple, Beran and his crew rejigger expectations of what a tasting menu can be. The tempo isn’t hurried, but no moment passes unconsidered. And though tasting menus are often serious affairs, the fine-dining veteran works in some refreshing humor—soupe à l’oignon is a broth-filled, Gruyère-crusted doughnut hole accompanied by a rosemary candle. He’s also patient: That’s house-fermented vinegar cutting through the short rib stock that glazes the roasted blackberry Thermidor (a single berry lavished as if it were Maine lobster). Beran preserves plums in koji, draping them in veils of freshly made soy skin yuba for an effect that intensifies the fruit’s succulence. When, halfway through, the squab breast with foie-finished sauce is followed by bitter chocolate with salted cherry blossoms, it snaps your taste buds to attention. Red wines will arrive before whites, and there’ll be plum sake, too. Working your way downstairs to the promenade after you leave the tiny space, you’ll feel as though you’ve made your way through an entire season in roughly 20 plates. (1315 3rd St. Promenade, Santa Monica)
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