My favourite restaurants in Los Angeles

After a year in LA and plenty of brunches, lunches and dinners out on the town, I thought I’d share with you my favourite restaurants in my new adopted home city.

These are restaurants I go to frequently. They’re not upmarket or temples of fine dining but casual, neighbourhood joints I like to return to again and again because they offer great food, friendly service and a fun atmosphere at a price that even a freelance journalist can afford on a regular basis.

There are plenty of other amazing restaurants in the city and this is not intended as a definitive guide to eating out in LA. These are (in alphabetical order) a few of the restaurants I’ve personally come to love. I hope you like them too.

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BarbrixBarbrix, Silver Lake
I wish every neighbourhood had a restaurant like Barbrix. It’s a relaxed and casual place with charming hospitality, a smart wine list that won’t break the bank, and a menu of excellent small plates inspired by the flavours of the Mediterranean. I’ve come here for hangover curing brunch with bottomless $5 mimosas and fried chicken sandwiches; a bottle of Nebbiolo with cheese and charcuterie at the bar; and romantic dinners on the patio with a delicious selection of sharing plates ranging from smoked trout crostini with mascarpone, pickled red onion and lemon; pork and ricotta meatballs in tomato sauce; or one of the excellent fresh pastas ( a favourite is the pappardelle ragu with variations of duck, veal or wild boar). I love Barbrix because it’s the perfect venue for any occasion.

Barbrix
2442 Hyperion Avenue, Silver Lake
+1-323-662-2442
barbrix.com
@barbrix

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BestiaBestia, Downtown
Housed in a former warehouse in the Arts District, Bestia is one of LA’s most celebrated restaurants and for good reason: it’s the kind of place where you can sit for hours and eat everything off the menu and not have a single bad dish. Chef Ori Menashe serves up his clever and delicious interpretation of Italian food, including a hefty dose of offal, with things like grilled lamb heart and pan-roasted chicken gizzards. He makes pretty much everything in house and his charcuterie and sourdough bread are some of the best in LA. He also makes his own pasta, with at least 10 different varieties on the menu, ranging from squid ink to pistachio, saffron and stinging nettle. The wine list is equally interesting, with lots of unusual and natural wines. Bestia brings together smart yet rustic food, a sophisticated drinks list and a vibrant atmosphere. What more could you possibly ask for in a restaurant?

Bestia
2121 East 7th Place, Downtown
+1-213-514-5724
bestiala.com
@bestiaDTLA

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FigaroFigaro Bistrot, Los Feliz
The Louis Vuitton ad starring Madonna was shot at this local bistro, which is a little piece of Paris in the heart of LA and where I go when I need a dose of European lifestyle. The Parisian fin de siècle décor, with a zinc bar and red banquettes, and small tables on the pavement outside transport you straight to the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It is the ideal place for people watching and spotting the odd celebrity trying to look normal. I’ve spent whole afternoons here over a few carafes of rosé. The menu of classical French fare doesn’t mess around: think croque monsieur; salad Niçoise; escargots; moules frites; and coq au vin, while croissants, pains au chocolat, baguettes and macarons are baked fresh each morning in the adjoining bakery. Je l’adore.

Figaro Bistrot
1802 N. Vermont Avenue, Los Feliz
+1-323-662-1587
figarobistrot.com

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GjelinaGjelina, Venice
This is not a restaurant for indecisive people as everything on the menu sounds amazing – and it is. The thin-crusted pizzas from the wood-burning oven are what Gjelina is most famous for but they’re not your usual pepperoni or Margherita and offer inventive California style combinations like nettles, garlic confit, chilli, Fontina and Parmesan; or cherry tomato, squash blossom and burrata. But there’s more: the kitchen’s creative genius embraces farm-fresh ingredients, with a sublime selection of vegetable dishes – like roasted white aubergine with walnut, sumac and cumin goat yogurt; or crispy purple potatoes with lemon aioli, pickled red onion, dill and horseradish – and bigger plates like crispy Mary duck confit, brown butter, haricot verts, smoked almond and sherry. The queue to get in can be long but it’s always worth the wait.

Gjelina
1429 Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice
+1-310-450-1429
gjelina.com
@Gjelina

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Malinu FarmMalibu Farm, Malibu
Located on the edge of Malibu Pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this is where I go when I need to get away from it all and feel like I’m “on vacation”. The simple café menu has a focus on local and organic ingredients fresh from the farm. I’ve only ever come here for brunch when the menu includes the fried egg sandwich on toasted sourdough with bacon, rocket and baby potatoes; the multigrain pancakes with bacon bits and maple syrup; or the farm scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and ricotta. The vibe is relaxed and bohemian, both elegant and rustic bringing a sense of country living to the beach. It’s not cheap at $20 a head for breakfast but the food is good, the view is even better and the feeling of being on holiday is priceless.

Malibu Farm
23000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu
+1-310-456-1112
malibu-farm.com
@Malibufarm

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SageSage Organic Bistro, Echo Park
A year ago, when I was still living in London, I never would have dreamed that one of my favourite places to eat at could ever be a vegan restaurant – even one that’s co-owned by actor Woody Harrelson. Maybe they put something in the water here in LA but I genuinely love Sage Bistro and come here about once a week for my fix of kale, quinoa and dairy free ice cream. They have salads, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, pastas and tacos and none of it is boring or bland. I love the goatless Greek salad with massaged kale, quinoa, carrots, cucumbers, spicy cabbage, tomatoes, onion, avocado, apple, kalamata olives and raw dill cheese and cashew alfredo; and their banana split with Kindkreme vegan ice cream seriously rocks my world. Don’t judge me man, vegan food can be awesome.

Sage Organic Bistro
1700 Sunset Boulevard, Echo Park
+1-213-989-1718
sageveganbistro.com
@SageVegan

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TerroniTerroni, Beverly and Downtown
The best Italian fare my food loving Italian friends from San Francisco have had since moving to California a decade ago, Terroni serves hands down the best (and possibly the only authentic) Neapolitan pizza in LA. Crispy and thin it is comes as a standard Margherita or with imaginative toppings like the Polentona with fontina, speck and pinenuts; or the C’t Mang, a white pizza with mozzarella, gorgonzola, fresh pears, walnuts and honey. There are plates of San Daniele prosciutto or cured duck with vegetables and burrata; divine fried zucchini flowers stuffed with herbed ricotta; and a fabulous array of home made pastas. The wine list is indulgent and not cheap but the sommelier has on more than one occasion let us have a glass of something that’s usually only served by the bottle.

Terroni
7605 Beverly Boulevard, Beverly; and 802 S Spring Street, Downtown
+1-323-954-0300
terroni.com

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Chef Profile: Dominique Crenn

This is an extract from an article I wrote for the first US edition of FOUR – The World’s Best Food Magazine. You can read the full version by visiting four-magazine.com.

On Dominique Crenn’s right forearm is a tattoo of a young girl gazing up at a winged piglet swooping past her flowing hair. “Pigs can fly,” the chef explains, giving the proverb a French twist. “It’s a reminder that you can do anything you want in life. Anything is possible.”

Dominique – beautiful, tall, and slender, with pixie-like hair, large, dark eyes rimmed in kohl, and a natural feminine elegance about her – is sitting in the dining room of her San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Since opening the space in 2011, she has become synonymous with her innovative and deeply personal style of modernist cuisine, which has not only won her numerous accolades, including Iron Chef USA, Esquire and Eater’s Chef of the Year, but has also seen her become the first and only woman in the USA to be awarded two Michelin stars.

Dominique’s food is a personal rendition of her memories and feelings, her love of nature, and her consciousness of the environment. Imaginative, fiercely seasonal, and sustainable, her tasting menus are a showcase for her creativity, which takes diners on an unapologetically emotional journey through flavors, textures, and scents. “We think of an experience, a memory or emotion, and try to recreate that with our food,” she says.

Walk in the Forest A case in point is her signature dish, ‘Walking Deep Inside The Woods.’ Inspired by childhood walks through the forest with her father, it comprises a lightly burnt pine meringue, edible soil made from basil and pumpernickel, a variety of wild mushrooms – sautéed, puréed, pickled, and dehydrated – as well as hazelnut praline and foraged herbs. Through robust, yet delicate, flavors and textures, the artistic plate evokes the sense of the forest, its dampness, earthiness, and sweetness, transporting the diner deep into the woods. “It’s sweet and savory, that’s what life is about,” she adds.

Growing up in France, Dominique was raised between the “luxury of Versailles” and the “ruralness of Brittany” by her adoptive parents, who introduced her to the joys of fine food at a very young age. While her mother taught her the secrets of rustic home cooking, her father, a prominent politician, took her to some of the country’s top restaurants when dining out with his best friend, Albert Coquil, a famous French food critic. “I had my first tasting menu when I was eight or nine years old and I loved it,” she recalls. “I decided then that I wanted to be a chef.”

After graduating from university in Paris with a degree in economics and international business, Dominique moved to the USA in 1988 to follow her dream away from the ‘old school’ ways of French kitchens. She first trained at the Stars restaurant under the tutelage of celebrated San Francisco chef, Jeremiah Tower, whom she credits with making her the chef she is today. “His philosophy was very much in line with what I thought a kitchen should be. He was about sourcing the best ingredients and creativity but also about involving his team in the process.”

Following stints at restaurants including Campton Place, 2223 Restaurant, the Park Hyatt Grill, and becoming executive chef at Yoyo Bistro at the Miyako Hotel, she moved to Indonesia in 1997, to become the country’s first female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel Jakarta, where she headed up an all-female brigade. However, after less than a year, her stay was cut short by the country’s political unrest.

Dominique returned to California in 1998, working at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach for eight years, and then at Abode in Santa Monica, before returning to San Francisco in 2007 to head up Luce at the InterContinental Hotel, where she gained her first Michelin star in 2009. Although she had the freedom to cook her own food, pushing boundaries by combining classic European ideas with modern techniques, she felt that her hands were tied in the corporate environment of a hotel restaurant.

The decision to go out on her own came after a life changing moment in 2009, when a freak accident nearly ended Dominique’s life. “I fell in my bathtub and almost sliced through a main artery in my leg,” she reveals. It was then that she got her tattoo and really started to take her career into her own hands. “I decided to open my own place, a place that would be more than just a restaurant. It would be my house, my living room, a place where I wouldn’t do what was expected, but where I would do my thing.”

She opened Atelier Crenn as a homage to her father, who passed away in 1999. Modeled on the studio he painted in and showing some of his works on the walls, it is a workshop of the culinary arts, a modest, homely space where diners come to share the chef’s personal creative expression. The restaurant is small and intimate, seating just 40 people, with a formal yet relaxed atmosphere, no tablecloths and an open door into the recently renovated kitchen. Her cuisine, entitled Poetic Culinaria as her menus are written like poems, brings together the ethos of farm-to-table cooking, as she works directly with her producers, as well as international influences inspired by her travels, and contemporary cooking methods, which have seen her food described as molecular gastronomy. “I hate that term,” she snubs, however, refusing to be pigeonholed. “I don’t believe in perfection, I believe in evolution and with that in mind I have to embrace new techniques. But I’m not a molecular chef.”

Molecular or not, Dominique’s inventive menus tell stories and a dinner at Atelier Crenn is nothing less than a truly memorable experience. Throughout the night, she racefully moves in between kitchen and dining room, greeting customers and guiding them through the journey of her menus, which comprise a parade of beautiful, tiny dishes that not only please the eye and entice the palate, but also provoke the mind.

As a woman who has succeeded in a very male-dominated industry, Dominique is unsure why there aren’t more female chefs cooking at her level. “There are some amazingly talented female chefs in this country, who are much better cooks than me,” she says. “But I don’t know why they haven’t gone the way I have gone.” She adds that chefs of a certain status have a responsibility to encourage women in the kitchen. “But I have to be careful, because I don’t want to be drawn into the gender bias. I don’t want people to look at me as female or male; I just want them to appreciate what I do.”

Looking ahead, Dominique is hoping to publish her first book, which “won’t be just another coffee table book with pretty pictures, but something that will raise issues and inspire dialogue.” She softly hints at a project on the East Coast as well as a second San Francisco restaurant, a space that will bring together the community, “that’ll be a restaurant but not a restaurant, a home but not a home, with croissants, cocktails, art, books, music—something that has never been done before.”

With so much happening, however, Dominique remains grounded and focused on keeping Atelier Crenn constantly evolving. The final question remains: Will she make history as the first woman outside Europe to gain three Michelin stars? “I think it’s possible,” she smiles, looking at her tattoo.

Follow Dominique on Twitter @dominiquecrenn and @ateliercrenn

LA Restaurant Review: ChocoChicken

This is an extract from a posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

Chicken close up 2Cheese and wine. Bacon and eggs. Strawberries and cream. Chocolate and chicken. (What?!?) There are certain food combinations that simply roll off the tongue. They go hand in hand and complement each other to perfection.

Chocolate and chicken isn’t one of them. Or so you’d think.

Chocolate fried chicken is in fact the signature dish of a new restaurant in Los Angeles. ChocoChicken opened after much hype and anticipation last month in Downtown.  It is the latest venture from Advantage Restaurant Partners’ Adam Fleischman, the founder of the Umami Burger chain, who has teamed up with self-taught cook and entertainment producer Keith Previte, and film and television producer Sean Robins for the project.

It was Robins, who first came up with the idea during a trip to San Francisco, when (clearly horribly hungover) he was craving mole and fried chicken at the same time. He thought: “Why not put the two together?”

Fast forward to June 2014, and the first ChocoChicken opened its doors, with a second location set to launch in Santa Monica later this year, and a third planned for New York in 2015. The trio expects to have eight outlets by 2016.

So what’s the deal with ChocoChicken?

CB close up 2The star of the menu is, of course, the chocolate fried chicken. Made from organic Jidori chicken (a mixed-breed domestic free-range chicken known for its robust flavour), it is soaked in brine for 36 hours, before being coated in a crust of 62% bittersweet chocolate and a secret mixture of 20 spices.

But that’s not where the chocolate-theme ends. There’s also a fried chicken sandwich on a chocolate bun and sides including white chocolate mashed potatoes (infused with white chocolate butter) and duck fat fries dusted with chocolate seasoning, while sauces include the homemade chocolate ketchup.

Desserts made exclusively for ChocoChicken include s’mores whoopee pies from Cake Monkey and ice cream from L.A. Creamery. There’s a full bar serving signature cocktails, including the Choco Colada with Coco Real, Crème de Cacao and chocolate bitters.

So does chocolate fried chicken work? The answer is: kind of.

Some of it is great. Like the smell: As you walk into the restaurant you get a big whiff of sweet and savoury aromas, which are instantly intoxicating.  And the chicken is delicious. It’s perfectly fried, crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. The coating is dark, almost burnt brown in colour, peppered with the ChocoChicken seasoning, which is in no way too chocolaty or overpowering but leaves just a hint of dark chocolate, a little chilli kick, and a lingering sweet maple flavour. It’s crispy, spicy, warm and comforting, just like fried chicken should be.

The white chocolate mash doesn’t work. It’s heavy, stodgy, dense, overly buttery and way too sweet. But, as the chef informed when I admitted that I wasn’t a fan, it’s still very much a work in progress.

Other sides are better: biscuits are buttery and flaky, the salad, coleslaw and cup of raw crudité are fresh and crunchy and the duck fat fries are moreish. And the chocolate ketchup is great: umami-rich, it tastes a bit like HP sauce with a spoonful of cocoa powder mixed in.

But despite it all being good, there’s something missing.

Venue1The interior of the 120-seat restaurant is industrial: high ceilings, wood panelling and a pressed tin along the walls and the bar. It’s a bit soulless and lacking in atmosphere and service was overly attentive, almost intrusive.

Altogether ChocoChicken is original and the food is perfectly fine. But despite its image the whole place just lacks the je ne sais quoi, fun factor it promises and it isn’t nearly as innovative as the pre-opening hype suggested.

It may be chocolate infused but it’s still just fried chicken. The novelty wears off almost instantly and after dining here, my chef-friend and I were both left with a distinct sense of “so what?”

Is it better than your average fried chicken shop? Of course. But would I go back? Unless I have a crazy hangover that makes me crave fried chicken and chocolate, probably not.

ChocoChicken
403 W. 12th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90015
Tel: +1 213-403-1786
chocochicken.com
@EatChocoChicken