These five hot spots get top billing for their stellar food, ambience, and service
by Janice Wald Henderson
Begun in earnest with Michael McCarty's Michael's in 1979 and Wolfgang Puck's Spago in 1982, Los Angeles' restaurant scene is now truly sophisticated, trendsetting, and mature, spanning everything from downtown hot spots big on pig (such as The Gorbals and the Lazy Ox Canteen) to beachy eateries cooler than the ocean breeze (think Gjelina and the Tasting Kitchen). And when the aromas from food trucks like Korean-Mex Kogi BBQ blast down the city's streets, crowds follow. Burgers still rule, especially at Umami's three locales. But the hardest reservation to score is at Ludo Lefebvre's LudoBites, which, alas, exists only in pop-up form. Fortunately, my picks for the best new restaurants are already mainstays, and they won't vanish overnight. Plus, several highly anticipated arrivals could jostle onto this list pretty quickly, especially Red Medicine. Its turn may come, but in the meantime, these newbies are the best in the West right now.
Hatfield's was an instant hit at its 2006 opening, but the teensy space cramped both its guests' comfort and the chefs' cooking style. In 2010, the husband-and-wife team of Quinn and Karen Hatfield moved the restaurant to bigger quarters with an exhibition kitchen, on trendy Melrose, and everything changed for the better. The understated room puts the spotlight on Quinn Hatfield's food. And he now has the elbow room and staff to up the ante. His modern American dishes are as sophisticated as his guests, who come to dine among (rather than ogle) fellow well-heeled patrons. Nearly everyone begins dinner with "Croque Madame," yellowtail sashimi and prosciutto topped with a sunny-side-up quail egg on grilled brioche. Date-and mint-crusted lamb, with roasted heirloom root vegetables and fava beans, is another fave. Elaborate prix-fixe menus show the chef at his most inventive, and they're a deal at just $59 a person. Be prepared to fight over which Karen Hatfield dessert to share: cinnamon-swirl brioche pudding with maple syrup ice cream, or sugar and spice beignets with chocolate fondue and a preserved ginger milkshake shot. (6703 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; 323-935-2977; Hatfieldsrestaurant.com)
Everyone should have a friendly neighborhood restaurant as polished as Savory. This shopping center gem shines in many ways. How lovely to park your own car and skip an $8 valet. To be greeted with genuine warmth, and to be spared servers pushing pricey bottled water. In this intimate eatery, it's all about Paul Shoemaker's cooking. (Even the bar is set for diners.) The chef has serious cred; he worked with Michael Cimarusti at top-notch Water Grill and Providence. Now he's cooking food usually found in fancier settings at loftier prices. The menu is small, but the dedication to primo ingredients is huge. Figs, served in a remarkable salad with prosciutto and burrata, are grown across the street. Steamed black mussels are wild, hand-harvested in Maine. They're as sensual as oysters and taste scrumptiously of the sea. Shoemaker cooks his beef and chicken sous-vide, and his boneless short rib is meltingly tender, with a wonderful pan-seared crust. Desserts-like chocolate-brioche bread pudding with a crisp sugar cookie and toasted pistachio-studded homemade vanilla ice cream-are delicious. Savory fans include Malibu movie stars, surfer dudes, and foodies from all over. And everyone, from bartenders to guests, bonds over the joys of this cuisine. (29169 Heathercliff Rd., Malibu; 310-589-8997; Savorymalibu.com)
Newly anointed star chef Scott Conant says he's so committed to this Scarpetta (one of five nationwide), he moved his family here. Although having a peripatetic chef often means that a restaurant's menu suffers, Conant swayed me with pivotal dishes at his new Beverly Hills spot. Actually, the stromboli did the job. Rolled with artisanal salami and smoked mozzarella, this freshly baked bread could break the will of Los Angeles' staunchest size 0's. Condiments like Mascarpone butter, which tastes as good as it sounds, gild the lily. In fact, Mascarpone butter slathered on stromboli is nirvana redefined. Overall, Conant's cuisine is like puff pastry: It takes lots of work to achieve its multiple layers. Farro, toasted almonds, and spiced croutons elevate roasted pumpkin soup purée to otherworldly heights. House-made spaghetti with tomato and basil grows yummier with every buttery bite. And delicate ravioli arrives quivering, ready to burst its duck and foie gras filling at the prick of a fork. Don't skip dessert; warm chocolate cake, made with Italy's amazing Amedei chocolate, is Puccini for the taste buds. By the way, glam locals, not tourists, fill this Montage Beverly Hills hotel restaurant. The modern room of dark woods and leather and the alfresco dining with manicured park views are draws, but ultimately, the food is the lure. (225 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills; 310-860-7970; ScarpettaBeverlyHills.com)
Named for a London Tube line, Waterloo & City is unlike any other L.A. gastropub. Executive chef and partner Brendan Collins worked at Michelin-starred restaurants like London's Le Gavroche and Santa Monica's Mélisse before he cooked edgier French fare at The Hall at Palihouse in West Hollywood. Waterloo & City feels very personal, as if Collins were paying homage to hometown pubs, yet using French technique and California flair to make staid British dishes as lively as Hollywood premieres. House-made charcuterie, like rabbit and pistachio terrine with soused peaches, is a must-order. Chicken tweaked with Indian spices and slow-braised beef short ribs with Stilton enliven crispy pizzas. Some dishes, like fried pork belly and lobster with hand-rolled pasta, elicit audible OMGs. Winter means rib-sticking dishes like honey roast pork shank with truffle vegetable broth. But it's the truly special special-of-the-day, chicken potpie, with a towering flaky crust, that could float even a Londoner's boat. That and the good prices, generous portions, and bargain wine list. Silver-haired foodies dine early, on the patio, avoiding the din inside. Too bad, because recycled church pews, vintage photos, and antique mirrors make the interior space so cozy. (12517 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City; 310-391-4222; Waterlooandcity.com)
Order the duck. No matter how full you get on pork belly bao buns and prawn toast first. The "Peking style" whole roasted duckling may be pricey, but it's priceless-such crispy skin, what pillowy bao. This is Wolfgang Puck's and managing partner and executive corporate chef Lee Hefter's take on the Chinese bird. Like every dish here, it's creative Chinese food for Californians who want every flavor and color to pop and who are obsessed with freshness, demanding that even the most basic sauce be house-made. Menu items-such as Shanghai noodles with slow-cooked oxtail, or a Kobe beef cheeks hot pot-may taste rich, but never oily. Downtown lawyers and finance-world CEOs adore this place; so do dressed-up suburbanites, who dine on weekends. The youngest devotees hang in the buzzy lounge, eyeing each other while savoring sake and dim sum. Everyone enjoys the commanding city views from floor-to-ceiling windows-WP24 is named for its 24th-floor perch at the Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles. The restaurant feels very grown-up; its urbane decor would work in Manhattan. (900 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles; 213-743-8824; WP24.com)
Los Angeles-based writer Janice Wald Henderson has penned countless articles on dining around the world but is often happiest writing about restaurants in her longtime adopted hometown. She is also the author of The New Cuisine of Hawaii and White Chocolate, as well as the culinary editor of CruiseMates.
Photos: Karyn R. Millet (Scarpetta); Todd Porter and Diane Cu (Hatfield's); and Michael Prince (Waterloo & City)
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