The Best Things I Ate in 2015

Branzino, Maré

Los Angeles has been a phenomenal place to eat for the duration of 2015. In fact, it’s been really hard to keep up with everything going on in all parts of the city, but what a great problem to have. Better food is available in more neighborhoods, helping raise the standard of dining out in all parts. Hopefully all parts, anyway. We do have our native Roy Choi, doing what he can to make sure such positive change reaches otherwise forgotten neighborhoods, with his and Daniel Patterson’s project, LocaL.

But for all the Fig & Olives of the see-and-be-seen L.A. dining scene, there have been some indisputable favorites of mine to rise to the top. I see 2015 as the year we’ve surpassed the huffing and puffing about authenticity and what that even means for all the history and diversity we have in this city. It’s been exciting to taste how we’ve moved beyond all that to a place and time where chefs can confidently make their mark using flavors from all over the world as their paintbrushes.

So read on, and get to it. 2016 is just around the corner:

Branzino at Maré
The experience at Eric Greenspan’s Maré should begin with crudité and include the shellfish course, wherein you choose your bivalve and broth – and after which you add pasta and raw egg to enjoy with your resulting stew. But the branzino, topped with fig-pomegranate sauce and pomegranate seeds, was perfectly prepared when I visited Maré and is something I would order again. Crispy, salty skin veiling a tender white flake. So good.

Kerala Seafood Curry, Sambar

Kerala Seafood Curry at Sambar
There are so many outstanding flavors and textures at Akasha Richmond’s Sambar, you won’t ever get bored eating at this Indian-inspired Culver City gem. My favorite, though, is the Kerala Seafood Curry with salmon, squid, mussels, shrimp, coconut broth with mustard seeds, curry leaves, ginger & cherry tomato poured over rice. Start off with a plate of crispy sev puri chaat, and you’re golden.

Though Culver City has lost out big time with the closing of Bucato, 2015 has been a great year for the neighborhood, especially with Hanjip across the street and Maple Block Meat Company.

Clam & Lardo Taco, B.S. Taqueria (photo: Dylan+Jeni)

Clam & Lardo Tacos and Churros at B.S. Taqueria
For the ultimate blast of umami in your meal at Ray Garcia’s B.S. Taqueria, order up a couple of clam and lardo tacos. It’s like wrapping rich, tender bites in a homemade blanket on the way to your mouth. Also great was the extra tender Birria, or goat, which also comes with tortillas that you wrap a bit of meat and sauce in. The flavors in this dish are all around luscious with a hint of sweet, but ultimately delightful. And the churros? They’re probably the best I’ve ever had. They’re small for maximum surface-to-center ratio, and they’re just incredibly airy and light. Drizzle them with a bit of the Chile de Arbol-Chocolate sauce and they’re heavenly. I get them every time.

Chile Relleno, Broken Spanish

Chile Relleno at Broken Spanish
There are many chile rellenos I’ve had that have been on the overwhelming side. If I were to blame that on my admittedly California-fied palate, there’d be no shame in that. But Broken Spanish‘s version with a Poblano chile stuffed with potato, kale, and lemon, all topped with soubise, is a tasty combination.

There are some more expensive Platos Principales dishes at Broken Spanish that earmark the restaurant as the higher end approach of the two, but I’m completely content with the dishes that are more middling on the menu. I do enjoy both B.S. Taqueria as well as Broken Spanish, and B.S. Taqueria is fast becoming a standby of mine whenever I’m meeting up with people in that area of Downtown L.A., which is happening more and more frequently. Viva la DTLA!

Wild Boar, Redbird

Wild Boar Tenderloin at Redbird
It’s hard to tell what, exactly, I liked the most at Redbird. It could’ve been the Wagyu tartare that I had a couple weeks ago, or the Lobster gnocchi sardi pasta that’s no longer on the menu.

While the restaurant’s namesake protein, the Veal Fraser, is certainly impressive, I’ve only eaten here as a two-top, so I’m going with the Wild Boar Tenderloin. It was so flavorful, tender and outright delicious. Then again, everything at Redbird is so finely tuned, I can expect that whatever I order here – including the awesome aromatic cocktails – will merely be a part of an exceptional dining experience in its entirety.

Bone Marrow w/Jam & Chinese Doughnuts

Bone Marrow with Chinese Doughnuts at Simbal Restaurant
I liked a lot of things at Shawn Pham’s Simbal, but when you’re in Metro L.A. and SGV breakfasts are primarily composed of dim sum, there’s that special something that can really get to you and the combination of bone marrow and you tiao, or Chinese donuts. It’s like a well executed marriage of Taiwanese breakfast and American meat butter. The sweetness of the jam offsets the richness of the bone marrow and doughnuts for some simply heavenly bites.

It was at Simbal I introduced bone marrow, bone luging, mezcal (< --B.S. Taqueria, actually) and Chinese donuts to my visiting friends from Wisconsin during their visit here, and it's pretty wonderful to see people from your Midwest past really enjoying Asian-inspired cooking that you know is nothing like they have at home.

Lobster Burrata Toast, SMYC

Lobster Burrata Toast and Carbonara at SMYC
My entire meal at Andrew Kirschner’s SMYC was so outstanding, I intended to write a whole post about it; alas, freelance assignments won out over the blog the last half of 2015. As far as favorites, though, it was hard to pick between the Carbonara (no longer on the menu) and the Lobster and Burrata Toast.

But the Toast, in my interpretation, is pretty much the epitome of Chef Kirschner’s personalized take on seafood prepared the Los Angeles way and at a level that no one since David Lentz of Hungry Cat has reached. Yes, we love the New England clam shack and that’s all fine and dandy, but the Lobster Burrata Toast is our Lobster roll. No, there’s no avocado on that – we invented that too, thank you very much – and in fact it’s that much better. Other toasts on the menu are available with other toppings, such as sardines, for posterity.

Laksa, Cassia

Grilled Spicy Lamb Breast, Laksa at Cassia
A confession of sorts: I’m glad that we have some semblence of Bryant Ng’s The Spice Table back; I’m pretty cranky that Cassia all the way out in Santa Monica. I’ve also yet to eat around the menu, but knowing the grilled lamb breast over the wood-fired oven and the Laksa are back are reason enough.

Talking with Bryant a couple months into Cassia’s opening, I learned that the dishes ordered most often were surprisingly the more traditional Southeast Asian ones. It should be interesting to see his cooking veer even closer to the origins of the flavors he was seeking to bring to the Westside. Cassia’s place in Santa Monica was an overwhelmingly smart business decision in that there’s nothing like this there.

Smoked Short Rib, Odys + Penelope

Short Rib at Odys and Penelope
This Applewood Smoked gem at Quinn & Karen Hatfields’ Odys + Penelope is a novelty of sorts, but for very good reasons. It’s as juicy and flavorful as the restaurant’s environment is filled with the fragrance of smoked wood. The smoke ring around the bone is perfect, revealing tender, barely sweet rib meat that falls right off the bone.

The interior of Odys + Penelope is such an inviting modern space that appeals to all the senses and it’s always a pleasure to dine there. The menu is trim but covers all the stops. And if you need a tip for starters, you’ll definitely want to go with their Creamy Cauliflower and Millet. It’s like velvet without the carbs, if you care about that sort of thing. (But if you’re reading this, you probably don’t.)

Pork Puff Pastry, Maru Santa Monica

Pork Puff Pastry at Maru Santa Monica
There are some interesting things going on at Jason Park’s French-Japanese Maru in Santa Monica, and they include sushi, unique seafood dishes as well as dry-aged steaks. The wet-aged as well as dry-aged steaks are invariably placed front and center, as you’ll be encouraged to participate in some of their impressive offerings-by-the-pound. But the dish I found most impressive was their Pork Puff Pastry, utilizing braised shoulder, broccoli spigarello and Emmentaler Swiss cheese, poured over with soy reduction. The pastry was perfectly flaky on the outside, a delight to dissect while revealing a buttery, slightly cheesy and tender, porky interior. A close second place? The pan-roasted Alaskan Black Cod with pomme purée, sautéed spinach and sweet onion velouté – perfect with a glass of Gewürztraminer.

Maine Lobster, ravioli nero, peas, beurre monté, The Strand House

Lobster Nero Ravioli at The Strand House
Where to start with the lobster ravioli nero, other than it combines the best ingredients you could possibly imagine into one dish? Lobster – check, housemade pasta – check, squid ink – check, peas (for that perfect hint of sweetness) – check, emulsified butter sauce – check. There’s nothing much more to say about that, but there is much to say about Greg Hozinsky’s cooking at The Strand House. Manhattan Beach locals sure know about it, but this place, along with David Lefevre’s empire of M.B. Post, Fishing With Dynamite and his new The Arthur J. steakhouse, rounds out the list of restaurants that make Manhattan Beach a dining destination.

Brisket and more, Maple Block Meat Company

Brisket at Maple Block Meat Company
Texas barbecue snobs in Los Angeles can rejoice, thanks to the coming of Maple Block Meat Company with Chef/Pitmaster Adam Cole. Their brisket is king, with its tender (but not too tender) texture and amazing flavor. It was equal parts smoke, salt and pepper – brisket in its purest form. And now, I’m no BBQ expert as I haven’t spent hardly any time in any of America’s BBQ cities, but I had the confirmation of a BBQ snob that indeed, this is probably the best Texas BBQ available in our great city. But you don’t have to ask us; you can ask Daniel Vaugh of the Texas Monthly.

Adam Perry Lang & pork ribs, Jimmy Kimmel Backlot

Adam Perry Lang Everything at Jimmy Kimmel Backlot
Please don’t be mad at me, but Adam Perry Lang‘s meats are available probably 2 – 3 weeks out of the entire year in Los Angeles in the Jimmy Kimmel Live! backlot. It’s through his meats that I’ve learned right here in L.A. what an art it is, and APL’s got books on this singular topic to prove it. The Master slings his incredible BBQ during the daytime for lunch hour, and people line up well in advance as he sells out every single time he opens. Beef ribs, pork ribs, brisket, prime rib, you name it. Adam Perry Lang’s BBQ is the best, and as a BBQ-deficient town, Los Angeles is 100% better for it. His meats are perfectly seasoned, perfectly smoked, always incredibly juicy with a char you can taste throughout.

When he’s here.

Kimchi Fried Rice, Hanjip

Kimchi Fried Rice at Hanjip
I could talk about the Tomahawk Chop at Chris Oh, Stephane Bombet & Francois Renaud’s new Hanjip in Culver City, but that might be too obvious. Yes, the Korean BBQ here is fantastic, complete with a server who grills your meat to perfection, and Culver City is all the better for not having to make the drive east should they not want to. As a Korean BBQ veteran willing to handcuff myself to a Korean friend to try all the stops in Koreatown, though, I found the most charm in the unusual meats and fishes available to ‘cue, like Hamachi Collar and Baby Octopus, as well as the little side dishes outside of the banchan. The Bone Marrow Corn Cheese with bonito. And the Kimchi in Brown Butter, which is only appropriate when the restauranteurs are French, right? It’s served up in a metal lunch box, ready for shaking except for the small fact that it kind of burns your hands if you try to do so, so you’ll just relegate to swishing your chopsticks through it, anyway. It’s still amazingly delicious.

Kimchi Fried Rice, Baroo

Kimchi Fried Rice at Baroo
I have had one dish at Baroo, helmed by Chef Kwang Uh, because I went alone, and I went only once recently. But now it’s on my bucket list to return, and with dining compatriots in tow so that I can really experience what’s going on on the menu. But that kimchi fried rice was one of the most uniquely delicious things I’ve tasted all year. When the chef uses basmati rice underneath a 63 degree egg and adds purple potato chips, roasted seaweed and pineapple-fermented kimchi, you really can’t help but wonder what is in store, next. The textures and tastes are an incredible spin on Korean dining, with ample room for vegan and vegetarians on the chalkboard menu. Just know that it’s just two guys, along with Matthew Kim, so they don’t have a dedicated cashier nor server. But it’s all worth it.

Agadashi Tofu, Aburiya Raku

Agadashi Tofu at Aburiya Raku
If I lived any closer to La Cienega at the WeHo/Beverly Hills latitude, my late-night eating would increase drastically in frequency and be monopolized by our Las Vegas import of Aburiya Raku. Everything is good, I think – I need to visit more often – but you mustn’t forget to order the tofu. I can’t even recommend any particular tofu over the other (there are 3 – Oyaji and Raku in addition to the Agadashi), but I loved the Agadashi, and I hear the Oyaji is the Raku with sauce. Both are spongier than the Agadashi. Honestly? They ran out of the Raku when I went at 10 pm on a Wednesday. More attempts shall be made. This tofu is so good, though, it’s like eating a blanket. In the best way. Does that make sense?

Maré
7465 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
323.592.3226

Sambar
9531 Culver Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
310.558.8800

B.S. Taqueria
514 W. 7th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014
213.622.3744

Broken Spanish
1050 S Flower Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015
213.749.1460

Redbird
114 E. Second Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
213.788.1191

Simbal
319 E 2nd St Suite 202
Los Angeles, CA 90012
213.626.0244

SMYC
620 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
310.587.3330

Cassia
1314 7th St
Santa Monica, CA 90401
310.393.6699

Odys + Penelope
127 S. La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
323.939.1033

Maru
12400 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
424.832.7118

The Strand House
117 Manhattan Beach Blvd
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
310.545.7470

Maple Block Meat Company
3973 Sepulveda Blvd
Culver City, CA 90230
310.313.6328

Adam Perry Lang at Jimmy Kimmel Backlot (pop-up closed)
6901 Hawthorne Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90028

Hanjip
3829 Main Street
Culver City, CA 90232
323.720.8804

Baroo
5706 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90038
323.819.4344

Aburiya Raku
521 N La Cienega Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90048
213.308.9393