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The Top 10 Best New Restaurants of 2012

Cooks County
1

Cooks County

8009 Beverly Boulevard
Beverly Grove
cookscountyrestaurant.com

Finding inspiration in the tight swirl of cabbage, the dimple of a carrot, and the  fuzz of a peach, chef Daniel Mattern has an  almost euphoric appreciation for what the soil can give forth. He and his partner, pastry chef Roxana Jullapat, worked at Campanile and Lucques  before teaming up with Barbrix owners Claudio and Adria Blotta to create this barnyard-spare space, where veggies are as much the stars as heritage breeds or line-caught fish. Poised at the stove in an open kitchen fronted by a row of antique metal tractor seats, he’s a chef of rigorous restraint. In place of affect he strives for a deceptive simplicity, bringing out the goodness inherent in the vegetable. There’s never one ingredient too many, and that takes mastery. Mattern accompanies spears of thick San Joaquin Delta asparagus with a pestle-pounded mix of hazelnuts, garlic, and lemon zest that showcases their herbal intensity. Cubes of charred McGrath Family Farm squash in the sautéed farro counterbalance the butterflied squab with sherry-scented giblet stock. He uses pan-wilted purslane to add zing to the Morro Bay swordfish that arrives with chickpeas, almonds, and saffron aioli. Jullapat manifests the same understated control in her desserts, like when she jazzes up layers of coconut sponge cake, lemon curd, and Devonshire cream with Ruby Red grapefruit segments. It’s gourmet all right, but nothing is forced. As a food runner leaves the kitchen with stacked plates, Mattern reads a freshly pegged order, adjusts his baseball cap, and turns back to the grill.

 

Cooks County
2

The Parish

840 S. Spring St. 
Downtown
theparishla.com

 

What with the silver punch bowl at happy hour, the Victorian wallpaper, and a suspenders-clad bartender slinging gin gimlets at a streamline bar, food could easily have been an afterthought downtown at the Parish. Instead chef Casey Lane (he also heads the more sedate Tasting Kitchen in Venice) gains by having to fight for attention in the rocking room, imbuing hearty booze-friendly offerings with subtle poetry. He uses a side salad of celery and big-leaf parsley to parry the richness of the wood-grilled marrowbones he serves with country bread. For the oyster poutine Lane leaves the skin on the fries, gracing the bivalves that sit atop the pewter bowl with a wicked combo of gravy and sauce gribiche. Most lyrical of all are the vegetables. After soaking up the cooking juices and melted anchovy butter beneath a grilled salmon, shards of shaved sunchoke make for one powerful bite.

 

Cooks County
3

Bierbeisl

9669 South Santa Monica
Beverly Hills
bierbeisl-la.com

 

Austrian culture isn’t known for stinting; it’s a realm in which gilt-embellished ballrooms are endlessly invoked and matters can quickly go from waltz to schmaltz. Not at BierBeisl. Sporting taps of Steigl beer and bare wood tables, the airy Beverly Hills cubbyhole is where Bernhard Mairinger tosses sentimentality aside and walks the Ringstrasse of Viennese tradition. Sure, there are schnitzels—damn fine ones, with helpings of mustardy fingerlings. But the 28-year-old is more interested in using a modern vocabulary to honor the singularity of his homeland’s cuisine. An herb-intensive salad takes on unexpected boldness when sharpened with Grüner Veltliner vinegar. Poached in milk, then dressed with ribbons of onion and a dusting of nutmeg, the weisswurst are as subtle and complex as they are comforting. Even the touristy Sacher torte, with its cloud of preserved apricots, is more about ingredients than any grand heritage.

 

Cooks County
4

Tar & Roses

602 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica
tarandroses.com

 

Long, narrow, and moodily dark, Tar & Roses feels like a railroad apartment would if it had a pricey Berkel meat slicer on the counter and a barkeep who poured plummy Barolo. Andrew Kirschner, who grew up in Santa Monica, has created a spot where the idea of local and seasonal eating is given an Italian overlay and presented family style by a kitchen obsessed with the nuances of the open flame. Brushing the ricotta gnocchi with lemon-infused oil and speckling them with bread crumbs lends the dumplings a whole new dimension, while the lamb shank, encrusted with chopped thyme and bay leaf and cooked over almond wood, delivers a primal kick. The ember-roasted pea pods, finished with big-flake Maldon sea salt, may be the dish of the year. Still, desserts like arborio rice pudding with passion fruit caramel are just off-kilter enough to make an impact after some mighty eating.

Cooks County
5

Baco Mercat

408 South Main Street
Downtown
bacomercat.com

 

Josef Centeno is such a culinary border crosser that he had to come up with his own lingo to describe the dishes. Bäco stands for the restaurant’s signature puffy wraps, which reach their crescendo filled with the beef tongue schnitzel he hits with a dab of blazing harissa. Then there’s cocä, the crisp flatbread he freights with things like guanciale and a fried egg (a dish he named the Salty Jowl). Despite piling bold flavor upon bold flavor—something he did at Lazy Ox as well—Centeno achieves piercing clarity in a high-ceilinged room that’s been furnished with Eames-style office chairs and Edison lights. Rarely emerging from the kitchen, he lets the precision of his food carry the show. Celery root julienne dressed with ravigote vinaigrette underpins the sear of scallops, but it’s the feta-poblano crumble and the lick of salmorejo, a bread-and-tomato cream, on the golf ball-size fava fritters that make this a wrap like no other.

Cooks County
6

Superba Snack Bar

533 Rose Avenue
Venice
superbasnackbar.com

 

Given to wearing newsboy caps and the sort of work shirts preferred by short order cooks, Jason Neroni grew up skateboarding in Orange County before toiling in Alain Ducasse’s boot camp. Now helming a light-filled corner of Venice’s Rose Avenue, he’s a chef with a style that’s at once easygoing and uncompromising. A tender cauliflower wedge heaped with a gremolata of basil, orange peel, and olives might lead to a big scoop of the city’s definitive chicken liver mousse. Most extraordinary of all, though, are the pastas. The flavors of the wakame spaghettini, twirled into a nest and draped with uni lobes, have an oceanic depth. With the smoked bucatini carbonara, the bite of durum is the only contrast needed to unite the pancetta, black pepper, and egg yolk that cling to the tubes. Unless you can add a guitar and a campfire, you can’t improve on the deconstructed s’mores.

Cooks County
7

Mercado

1416 4th Street
Santa Monica
mercadosantamonica.com

 

Añejos of the week are scrawled on the wraparound mirrors; conversations from communal tables bounce off the white subway tiles that sheathe the walls. If Mercado reads like a gastropub, it’s only because Jesse Gomez and chef Jose Acevedo are toying with notions of authenticity. Shouldn’t corn this good—charred and sprinkled with chile piquin and queso cotija—come from a sidewalk stand? So you thought mom-and-pop shops in East L.A. had the lock on fantastic spit-roasted al pastor? Try it here, loaded on a hot tortilla with melted Oaxaca cheese. Gomez, who grew up in his grandparents’ Highland Park restaurant, and Acevedo, a son of Guanajuato, Mexico, help us negotiate the rapids between tradition and modernity. The cactus paddle strips bathed in a chile negro-spiked broth have the touch of a homely stew about them, and there’s something equally inspired in how Acevedo breaks form with the carnitas, serving them as a great chunk of braised pork and using house-pickled cauliflower florets to cut the richness.

Cooks County
8

Shunji

12244 West Pico Boulevard
West Los Angeles
shunji-ns.com

Occupying the compact digs of an old Mr. Cecil’s Ribs, Shunji Nakao looks over his quirky Westside fiefdom the way a Brunello Cucinelli model peers from the hills of Umbria. Long a counterman at Studio City’s Asanebo before opening, then closing, Shunji’s on Melrose, he’s given to doing things his way. Order the sushi bar standby saba, or mackerel, and he’s invariably out. The sweet omelette-like tamago won’t fly, either. But stick with it. On the right night you might be offered kohada, the rare marinated gizzard shad whose silvery skin shimmers as if the fish has been plucked straight from the current. Because on the other side of the stern sushi master routine is a generous soul who wants you to experience how smoked ikura, or salmon eggs, spark off the crisp nori and who practically coos as you slurp the dashi-flecked juices of braised root vegetables. He may even accept a Sapporo as thanks for the pristine tempura-battered Hama Hama oysters that have all the power of a Puget Sound squall.

Cooks County
9

Maison Giraud

1032 Swathmore Avenue
Pacific Palisades
maison-giraud.com

 

The photographs in the minimalist dining room are of chef Alain Giraud as a child; the Pagnolesque counter where Noubar Yessayan’s pastries are sold recalls the ones Giraud huddled beside as a boy growing up in France. If there’s a wisp of nostalgia to Maison Giraud, maybe it’s because the stubbly-faced chef has worked his way back to a starting point. He did Cal-French at Citrus, haute French at Bastide, operatic French at Lavande and Anisette. Now, in the shadow of the Pacific Palisades farmers’ market, he’s focusing on a rustic ideal embodied in the vapor that rises from a gleaming, basil-laced pistou soup. Here a breakfast omelette holds steaming, garlicky ratatouille; at lunch le steak comes as it must, with charred shallots and frites. Gorgeously to the point, the roasted chicken is plated with a lemon-brightened jus and a bouquet of haricots verts that evoke the core simplicity of classic French provincial fare.

Cooks County
10

Alma

952 South Broadway
Downtown
alma-la.com

 

After headlining a run of pop-ups, 27-year-old Ari Taymor claimed a former kabob spot on the raggedy end of Broadway, a burlap bag doubling as signage and window dressing. The prices are modest; the curiosity is rampant. Corn and bacon beignets are jolted by a salt of burned citrus peel. Spatula-flattened roasted fingerlings are just right for heaping with smoked onion crème fraîche and sustainable caviar (a mere $6). Taymor is ever ready to whip things into a foam, but he’s also comfortable letting us appreciate the miracle of small things: the way house-cultured butter complements warm miso-buckwheat rolls or a brown butter hollandaise enriches braised grass-fed beef. Just hope that he’s offering black sesame panna cotta with smoked date on the night you go. Pop-ups are great, but balancing inspiration with consistency and routine—these are the quiet changes that occur when a chef signs a lease.