Pick Six: The Best Bites at L.A. Food & Wine

Downtown got even hotter this year with sizzling newcomers like the revamped Clifton’s

The Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival’s major commitment to Downtown L.A. makes more sense every single year. The festival, still a young buck that just concluded its fifth year of shenanigans this past weekend, is all about what’s now and what’s next. And year after year, more of what’s now and what’s next is Downtown.

Consider the outdoor stretch of Grand Avenue the festival takes over for its marquee events. The backdrop includes the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, where sharp new Patina executive chef Paul Lee dazzles with his tasting menus, where everything from Patina’s bread service to the exquisite Dover sole meuniere to the wine pairings to the cheese selections to the water sommelier (for real) exemplifies fine dining in a city that sometimes likes to pretend that it doesn’t need restaurants like this but is so lucky it has them.

This is, of course, down the street from the opening-next-month Broad contemporary art museum and former French Laundry chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth’s adjacent Otium. It’s safe to say that there’s never been a more highly anticipated restaurant from a fine-dining superstar who is also known for cooking Frito pie in Studio City.

If you decide to stroll about four blocks north of Otium on Grand Street, you’ll in a few weeks be able to eat at the new Downtown outpost of Manhattan Beach Asian-fusion wonderland Little Sister. That’s from Tin Vuong, a chef who lives in the San Gabriel Valley but whose empire includes both a Mexican restaurant and a steakhouse in Hermosa Beach and a pizza place in Culver City.

Is the L.A. dining scene so delicious because a lot of it makes such little sense? Probably. Anyway, Lee, Hollingsworth, and Vuong were among the talent who cooked at L.A. Food & Wine over the weekend.

Here are six memorable bites from Friday and Saturday.

Best Use of Produce/Points for Degree of Difficulty

Photograph by Jenni Hwang
Photograph by Jenni Hwang

Photograph by Jenni Hwang

Downtown’s reborn Clifton’s Brookdale megaplex will have multiple dining and nightlife venues, but the biggest draw is expected to be the relaunch of its storied cafeteria. Which is to say that we doubt anybody would have complained if chef Jason Fullilove—in charge of that cafeteria plus three other Clifton’s restaurants—served macaroni and cheese at L.A. Food and Wine. What he offered instead on Friday was an elaborate salad with saffron-pickled apple, shaved raw apple, avocado puree, California red walnuts, date pieces, red grapes, Petite Hearts on Fire microgreens, shaved celery, and baby lettuce. There will be a Waldorf Salad at Clifton’s, so Fullilove decided to make this dainty, carefully composed, food-fest riff on it. Given that Clifton’s will also include a restaurant with “market-driven, very modern cuisine” as well as the basement Shadowbox lounge where Fullilove will have fun with small plates, it makes sense to have a chef with range.

Best Pulled Pork from Two Guys Who Used to Run Kitchens for Thomas Keller

Photograph courtesy Barrel & Ashes
Photograph courtesy Barrel & Ashes

Timothy Hollingsworth will have plenty of time to rep Otium, and, actually, he recently did just that at a Petty Cash Arts District preview event. So on Saturday, he and former Bouchon chef de cuisine Rory Herrmann decided to rep Barrel & Ashes, their Studio City barbecue joint. Breaking down a whole pig to make luau-themed sliders paired with Julian Cox’s rum-and-coconut cocktails resulted in one of the most festive booths of the festival.

Best Reason to Get Sweaty

Photograph by Stephanie Parkinson
Photograph by Stefanie Parkinson

Tin Vuong and his Little Sister crew were perspiring and getting cameras steamy as they plated sizzling plates of Saigon lemongrass beef with vermicelli noodles, shrimp, and curried crispy pork skin on Friday. The effort and the spicy condiments and garnishes at the booth were appreciated by a crowd who took it upon themselves to embrace the heat.

Best Fish Straight from Japan

Photograph by Jenni Hwang
Photograph by Jenni Hwang

Joji Inoue recently took over as executive chef of Chaya Downtown (are you seeing a geographic pattern, yet?), and he’s going deep with his Japanese fish arsenal. At L.A. Food & Wine, he served tai snapper carpaccio with Japanese pickled-plum salt, yuzu jelly, and microgreens. It was an umami-rich but light bite ideal for a scorching Friday.

Best Dessert That Isn’t Really a Dessert

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival
Photograph courtesy David Spiegelman

It was Hot as Hades on Friday night. Hey, there’s a dude with green-mango sorbet cones! Wait, what? There’s also Dungeness crab, cardamom, and Vietnamese fish sauce inside? Even better. This was a handheld version of a popular Paul Lee dish at Patina, where classic French technique and funky Asian flavors hold hands every night.

Foie the Win

Photograph by Jenni Hwang
Photograph by Jenni Hwang

You can also call this one Best No-Brainer. California’s foie gras ban ended this year. People really like this stuff at food festivals, so chef Michael Ginor of Hudson Valley Foie Gras was a popular man on Saturday with his foie gras torchon sprinkled with caramelized white chocolate. Lots of revelers went back for seconds… and thirds and fourths. This kind of gluttony wasn’t illicit (unlike the whole-truffle-jacking we witnessed at the Patina Catering table that night) at all anymore, but it was still a lot of fun.