If you had to pick a theme among this year’s top restaurants, it probably wouldn’t be something as neatly defined as, say, vegetable-centric cooking or communal dining or refined tasting menus (although those genres are still going strong). The best word for it, I think, might be “personality”—the idea that great restaurants are the unique products of the people who cobble them together, reflecting their sincerest passions and perspectives in the process. In that way, 2018 was a heartening time for self-expression. Second-generation immigrants explored the cuisines they grew up on without feeling hemmed in by tradition. Boundaries were pushed on the plate and in the dining room, and the most daring concepts weren’t afraid to lean into their idiosyncrasies. Rewarding deliciousness in L.A. is a given, but true innovation? That’s what this city—and this year’s list—is all about.
With lush vines cascading from the ceiling and a roaring hearth at the kitchen’s center, there’s an energy that grips you from the moment you enter Bavel. That’s by design. Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis have been planning the follow-up to their blockbuster Bestia since the moment they sent out that restaurant’s first salumi plate. Their new outpost is a far-reaching homage to their familial roots (in Israel, as well as Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt) filtered through a lens that’s essentially and distinctly Californian. The cooking here is of a piece with the Middle Eastern renaissance sweeping through America’s dining capitals, but it also feels like something beyond—injected with bolder spices, brighter herbs, and more resonant blasts of char and salt. Nowhere is that elevation more clear than in Menashe’s otherworldly pita, the dough whipped with olive oil and fermented for three days. When the puff of hot bread arrives, ready to be wiped through silken hummus that Menashe caps with duck ’nduja, it may as well be accompanied by angelic choirs. The list of triumphs here is enough to induce giddiness: harissa-marinated prawns, flame-kissed mushrooms with stinging nettle sauce, lamb neck shawarma roasted until its juices seep into a raft of laffa bread below. Draining a last drop of Nero d’Avola while memories of Gergis’s desserts dance in your head (choosing between her licorice bonbon and walnut baklava is like picking a favorite child), you’ll saunter into the night convinced that the nearby banks of L.A.’s concrete floodway could stand in for those along the river Jordan. 500 Mateo St., Arts District.
Quick Bites | Designer: Studio UNLTD // Number of seats: 170 // Staff size: 122
Much ink has been spilled over David Chang’s inaugural L.A. restaurant, and for good reason. There may be no place in town more proficient at pinpointing the deepest, most subliminal appetites in the human brain and translating them in ways that are wholly unexpected. Who among us knew that sea urchin and fermented chickpeas made sense together, never mind were hauntingly craveable? The same could be said of the space, an industrial warehouse in northern Chinatown that resembles a muffler plant, only warm and comfortable inside. However, the most bewildering aspect of Majordomo is how easily it flits around in its self-imposed postcultural limbo. Where else exists a kitchen making its own kimchi and soybean paste while also slapping prime rib and horseradish tzatziki onto warm flatbread, or stuffing earthy Tennessee sausage in fat-fried green peppers? There are certain dishes that seem at least partly designed to piss off the haters—the $68 boiled chicken, served in the world’s most decadent stock, or the $10 fruit plate that’s just really great fruit—but that’s part and parcel with genre-bending cooking. Watching Chang and company pull off the high-wire act is the fun part. 1725 Naud St., Chinatown.
Quick Bites | Mural by David Choe // Dining Room Size: 4,660 Sq. Ft.// Designer: DesignAgency
José Andrés acolyte Aitor Zabala has quietly been one of the city’s most exciting cooks for years, but it wasn’t until March that he gained a proper stage—a dramatic ten-seat counter in the SLS Hotel—to showcase his surrealist vision. A student of Spain’s modernist cuisine movement, the Barcelona-born chef has a knack for manipulation: vivid Shigoku oyster aguachile arrives smothered in a rainbow of what appears to be fish roe (some are actually beads of vegetable juice); a picture-perfect croissant is in fact a roulade of fried potato, meant to be dunked indiscriminately into a foie gras “cappuccino.” Not every dish relies on sleight of hand. A roasted spot prawn is simply that: buttery-sweet flesh highlighted by a whiff of smoke from the embers. Besides the strawberry negroni encased in a candy shell, or the slice of margherita pizza floating on a meringue crust, most impressive is how effortlessly the two-hour production unfolds, as if dinner were directed by Alfonso Cuarón. It makes sense—after dropping the last dessert (a puffy matcha doughnut), Somni’s brigade of cooks steps back in unison to deliver a theatrical bow. SLS Hotel, 465 La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Grove.
Quick Bites | Designer: Juli Capella // Number of courses: 20+ // Cost: $235
L.A. doesn’t suffer from a lack of great Japanese food. But in complexity, finesse, and sheer ambition, there’s nothing that quite matches what Brandon Hayato Go is doing at his shoebox-size kaiseki restaurant at downtown’s ROW DTLA complex. Go, who grew up making hand rolls at his dad’s sushi restaurant in Seal Beach, is unambiguous in his aspirations; he spent time apprenticing at chef-owned establishments in Tokyo, intimate spots that specialize in seasonal traditional cooking and, more to the point, rack up Michelin stars as if they were participation trophies. Clad in a white jacket, the solemn-toned chef now saddles up behind his own sanded cedar counter and proceeds to blow minds, preparing dishes like a delicate fritter of corn and Hokkaido scallop or dashi-boiled rice with seared barracuda and peppery mitsuba stems. Each course hypnotizes in its own nuaced way: Steamed abalone might appear with cubes of umami-bomb abalone stock, while silky cured mackerel is nestled with sushi rice in a sheet of flame-toasted seaweed. Even a minimalist dessert—ripe peaches in sake jelly—shimmers with flavor. 1320 E. 7th St., Ste. 126, downtown.
Quick Bites |Number of seats: 7 // Number of courses: 10 // Cost: $200
Wes Avila could have cashed in. After years of running L.A.’s most celebrated taco truck, few realists would have faulted the ex-fine-dining chef if he had ditched his wheels to open a brick and mortar with pricey entrées and table service. But at his new low-slung corner spot downtown, the pride of Pico Rivera strips down the dining experience to its core tenets, a development for which we should all be eternally grateful. The cooking is as creative and resolutely accessible as it’s ever been; along with booths and chairs, there’s now a bar pouring bargain tiki cocktails that pack a punch. Avila can be found in the scrum of the kitchen most nights, finishing a glistening hamachi tostada with a brush of chile oil or fussing over smoky lamb kabobs he serves with tomato salad and flour tortillas on a plastic lunch tray (like most of the specials, they’re worth far more than the $10 he charges). The sweet-potato taco, now enshrined in the city’s food pantheon alongside the French dip, is just as brilliant, if not more so, when consumed under an actual roof. 2000 E. 7th St., Arts District.
Quick Bites | Number of taco fillings: ~8 // Micheladas: red or yellow // Size: 2,400 Sq. Ft.
Chocolate babka sticky buns. Half-sour pickles with avocado and furikake. Pastrami Crunchwrap Supreme. It’s likely none of these dishes existed before the arrival of Freedman’s, the reimagined delicatessen in Echo Park from Jonah and Amanda Freedman. This is Jewish cooking in the sense that Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” is a religious hymn, but that doesn’t mean your great aunt Myrtle flying in from Boca Raton wouldn’t also approve. The smoked fish is luxuriously oily, the seared mutton chop comes smeared with mint jelly, and the saucy, kraut-oozing Reuben on Diamond Bakery rye is the strongest threat to Langer’s hegemony in years. Of course, you go to Freedman’s for the room as well, a meticulous assemblage of rich woods, mismatched china, and floral Arts & Crafts wallpaper—equal parts Sid Caesar and Wes Anderson. At times it’s hard to tell where the nostalgia stops and the tongue-in-cheek begins. If that means chopped liver and an unironic Long Island iced tea at the bar, it’s worth parking your tokus for a few hours. Don’t leave without a slice of guava cheesecake, or at least a black-and-white cookie. 2619 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake.
Quick Bites | Bar snack: $5 hot dog // Wallpaper: Morris & Co. // Bagel types: plain and sesame
That infamous Supreme Court case about defining obscenity applies to neighborhood restaurants, too: We may not know their exact parameters, but we know one when we see it. Hippo, a former post office flipped into a buzzy Cal-Ital joint, is not only a neighborhood restaurant, it’s the genre in its highest form. The room is inviting and lively without reaching the decibels of a death metal concert. The cocktails are unfussy but interesting enough to hold your attention. The food is precisely what you want to eat on a Tuesday night: snappy wax beans in vinaigrette, first-rate tuna carpaccio, tagliatelle al ragù, and pork ribs that melt under the weight of a fork. None of this is surprising with two Mozza vets running the show, namely Matt Molina, who helms the kitchen, and David Rosoff, who stocks the wine list with unusual finds you’d still be comfortable gifting to your in-laws. Hippo is the sort of rustic-refined place that, a decade ago, would probably have opened in WeHo or Santa Monica; that it now feels at home on a humming stretch of Figueroa shows how far things have shifted. 5916 1/2 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park.
Quick Bites | Mural by: Eric Junker // Number of seats: 120 // Happy Hour: Tues.-Sun., 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
8. Ma’am Sir
Even before he opened Ma’am Sir in June, Charles Olalia had established himself at the vanguard of the city’s Filipino scene. But that was at Rice Bar, a 275-square-foot lunch counter in DTLA’s Jewelry District that made walk-in closets look palatial. The ex-Patina chef’s new home on Sunset, a party pad where portraits of Pinoy basketball players grace the walls and faux ivy dangles from the rafters, offers room to expound. Fried chicken thighs as plump and crunchy as the stuff at Jollibee come with schmaltzy gravy and a heap of sweet pickled papaya. The porky intensity of sisig, a sizzling hash made with bits of jowl and sweetbread, is barely restrained by a spritz of sour citrus. Olalia has a wonderful grasp of the tension at the center of Filipino cuisine, a tug-of-war between rendered fat and spiced vinegar, soothing coconut milk and the bass-note funk of shrimp paste. It’s even in a tumbler of mezcal cut with bitter-melon juice. Silver Lake might have twice as many restaurants as it needs, but this one feels vital. 4330 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake.
Quick Bites | Cuisine: Filipino comfort // Soundtrack: ’90s and ’00s R&B // Best-seller: longganisa burger
Scrub from your mind whatever bland imagery accompanies the word “porridge.” At her cheery restaurant, Minh Phan manages to fit more flavor into a single bowl of softened rice than most chefs do in an entire menu. Her tool kit is a freewheeling array of fermented pickles and spicy jams, fried shallots and raw herbs, savory broths and vivid sauces, with each garnish contrasting against comforting starch. The beignet-like strips of fried dough the menu bills as “puffs” are a real bonus, too, whether dipped in velvety yellow curry or sweetened condensed milk perfumed with jasmine. To hew only to the restaurant’s namesakes would be a shame, though—Phan’s cooking, at once experimental and eerily familiar, exudes a rare enthusiasm for seasonality, a quality fostered by the year or so she spent operating a pop-up a block from the Hollywood Farmers’ Market. If there’s any solace to be had after realizing a gorgeous salad of cucumbers and Satsuma mandarins in prickly ash dressing will disappear after winter, it’s knowing something equally delicious will replace it. 2801 Beverly Blvd., Historic Filipinotown.
Quick Bites | Ceramics by: Ann Elliott Cutting // Signage: None (yet) // Puff flavors: Naked or cardamom sugar
10. Alta Adams
In fast-developing West Adams, a community-minded restaurant is newsworthy, but there’s also something subtly revolutionary about what former Locol cook Keith Corbin is doing in the kitchen. Riffing on his grandmother’s recipes, the Watts native slips soy and miso paste into braised oxtail and spiced cashews into baked yams. Soft tangles of collard greens neatly tucked inside a single charred leaf are seasoned with peppery smoked oil and a lash of vinegar; a swirl of aerated sauce made from aged gouda crowns a regal bowl of mac and cheese. Hot sauce splashed onto skillet-fried chicken is pure pleasure, enhanced by a bourbon drink the bar tints with roasted peanuts and huckleberries. Soul food in this city is often synonymous with Styrofoam containers, yet the moody, low-lit room here, carved out of a transformed Spanish Revival building, is a lovely place to linger. Service is generous, even when it’s unsteady. Finish the night with a heroic wedge of coconut cake, the shaggy candied flakes clinging to vanilla buttercream, and hope more places like Alta Adams arrive soon. 5359 W. Adams Blvd., West Adams.
Quick Bites | Cuisine: California Soul Food // Number of seats: 110 // Mural by Aise Born
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