Old Friends, Great Flavors
Grateful for a welcome yet too-short trip to L.A. for work, I whizzed around the city in my rental car seeking out the latest burger joint, the best fish taco and new chefs on the scene. I had one (mostly) free night before I headed back to the Midwest, so I decided to check out more than a few restaurants I’d heard about.
I started at 10-year-old Lucques. I had worked with Chef Suzanne Goin in the past at various food and wine events and was eager to get a taste of one of her restaurants. She is also behind L.A.’s A.O.C. and Tavern. Lucques happens to be one of the most cozy and charming places that I have ever seen. In fact, it was an old coach house in its former life. I sat in the corner, at the bar, and enjoyed the L.A. scene.
I started with Sweet Corn Soup with Roasted Pompanos and Toasted Pepitas. In keeping with the menu, it was fresh and light. I also ordered the Jamon Serrano and Butter Sandwich from the bar menu. It was simple: a tasty baguette with airy butter lightly spread on it, fluffy clouds of thinly sliced Serrano ham piled on top and served open-faced. From Lucques, I walked down the block to the new-ish Red O, opened by Chicago-based chef, Rick Bayless.
(Lucques, 8474 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 323-655-6277, www.lucques.com)
I walked up to the doorman of a very L.A.-esque Rick Bayless-style restaurant – a definite departure from his Chicago-based restaurants. I headed inside and sat at the very crowded bar in this very crowded restaurant, which was near its very crowded outdoor area, which led to a very crowded tequila lounge. Needless to say, L.A. has welcomed Chef Bayless. I ordered the Blue Shrimp Tostadita with Mojo de Ajo, Avocado and Jicama Chips. It was a tasty shrimp dish that was a riff on a mini tostada with slices of jicama that were cut into chip shapes as the base. Along with that I added the Duck Taquito with Tomato-Arbol Chile Sauce; I shared these mini flash fried duck tacos with my neighbor. I liked that the flavor of the duck didn’t get lost in the taco, and the sauce it was sitting in complemented it perfectly. I left Red O and headed to Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza.
(Red O, 8155 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 323-655-5009, www.redorestaurant.com)
On a recommendation from the manager at Lucques, I sat at Osteria Mozza’s Mozzarella Bar. I was under strict ordering orders and I stuck to them. I started with the Scamorza Panini with Mole Salame and Spicy Cherry Peppers. This was a smaller version of a panini, and its few but carefully chosen ingredients burst with the paired flavors of smoked mozzarella (scamorza) and pickled peppers. The unique thing about this sandwich was that they took an ultra-thin slice of salami and pressed it into the panini as they sandwiched it together, so there was some in the middle and some pressed into the bread on top – I had never seen a panini prepared like that before, but I loved it! In addition to the panini, I ordered the Burrata with Leeks Vinaigrette and Mustard Breadcrumbs. This came off of the mozzarella bar menu and was presented as two thinly sliced pieces of melted leeks across the plate with a little ball of split burrata on top and some mustardy breadcrumbs on top of that (pictured at the top of this blog posting). Again, a simple set of delicious ingredients shining bright. I headed out of Osteria Mozza and down to Little Tokyo to try the Lazy Ox Canteen, a place that was recommended to me twice that day.
(Osteria Mozza, 6602 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 323-297-0101, www.mozza-la.com)
I walked into the Lazy Ox and just felt cool. To me, it is kind of like The Spotted Pig of the West Coast…without the five and a half hour wait (okay, I’m exaggerating). They have a very diverse menu focusing on seasonal cuisine prepared with a global sensibility. I sat at a table and quickly overheard the conversation at the table next to me. They were talking about Shake Shack, my favorite burger place in NYC. My mouth was watering, but I digress… I ordered the Grilled Green Cabbage with Coriander Leaf, Almond and Salbitxada, a chimichurri-like sauce. It was a quarter head of white cabbage that had to have been blanched or roasted (or both) and finished on the grill, with salbtxada sauce spooned over the top, and it was one of the best and most interesting dishes I have tasted in a long time. I also ordered the Lamb Neck Hash with Fried Jidori Egg and Pickled Mint Onions, a little hockey puck of tender pulled meat browned on both sides served with a fried egg over the top. From Lazy Ox, nearly ready to crash, I headed over to Chego before they closed.
(Lazy Ox Canteen, 241 South San Pedro Street, Los Angeles, CA, 213-626-5299, www.lazyoxcanteen.com)
Building on the success and popularity of their many Kogi Trucks, the peeps behind this food truck fad have put down roots in the Culver City area of L.A. Chego – which means “The Best!” or a phrase Koreans use when they taste something so good, it just makes them say “CHEGO!” – is located in a little strip mall off of Overland Avenue. It’s an unfussy place: clean, with stools, very green and pork belly to be had for all. I arrived and quickly reunited with one of the owners, a past fellow chef turned Korean food truck/restaurant owner from the Four Seasons Hotel where I had worked. We sat, chit-chatted and ate until we could not eat anymore. I started with the 3pm Meatballs. Wittily named for the time of day they are made, these fantastic nuggets with tofu are Korean-fried with shaved green onions, sesame and served over a polenta patty. I also ordered the Buttered Kimchi Chow Bowl and added some pork belly to that, on the recommendation of the owner. It contained a fried egg, red chili tofu, edamame, gaenip, garlic soy jus, chicharrones and furikake. It was pretty intense – and by intense I mean bold flavors – and by bold flavors I mean amazing – and by amazing I mean I want it again. I was told it is even better cold the next day, but unfortunately I was staying at a hotel and leaving the next morning. Sure enough, I woke up craving it. I’ll tell you what: I cannot wait to go back to Chego.
(Chego, 3300 Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 310-287-0331, www.eatchego.com)
So with a rather full belly, new friends from neighborhing tables and some inspiring dishes to savor in my mind, I returned to Chicago. Where should I eat on my next trip to LA? You tell me!
*To note: while a food crawl might sound a bit gluttonous, I respected the food I was served. Where possible, I ordered smaller portions; if I met a neighboring table, I let them try my food. Sure, there were some leftovers here and there since I was essentially sampling the fare, but not much went back to the kitchen. And I’m looking forward to the opportunity to come back with family and friends to enjoy a full meal – and have already recommended these restaurants to others.
Andrew “Kappy” Kaplan loves food. A professionally trained chef, these days you’ll find him on the road talking up kids and cooking as Director of Yum-o! and keeping special projects running smoothly for Rach, all the while taking a bite here and a bite there as he samples and shares local flavor from across the country, from taco trucks to fancier finds. See what’s On Kappy’s Plate!