2008 Top 15 Meals in Los Angeles

Best Food Of The Year

These bites inspired me more than any others over the past year.

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6. Three Forks Chop House – ClaremontJuly 13, 2008 [CLOSED]

Brothers Mark and Mick Bollinger, who own Candlelight Pavilion Fine Dining and Musical Theater in Claremont, were tired of driving all the way to Pasadena to get a good meal. On August 9, 2007, inspired by trips to their grandfather’s home in Three Forks, Montana, they did something about it, opening Three Forks Chop House in Claremont’s contemporary Packing House development. Every Sunday, Three Forks Executive Chef Eric Osley offers a three course, $45 Farmer’s Market Inspired Menu. It was worth the drive from L.A. to see how Chef Osley’s market-driven ethos was reflected on the plate.

First Course: duck prosciutto-wrapped Cavaillon melon, “super sweet” strawberries, grapefruit, thin-shaved Winchester Farms black pepper Gouda, watercress dressed with herbed vinaigrette, and two decorative ant trails of balsamic.

Three Forks’ steaks and chops are pairable with Specialty Salts, Inspired Rubs, and Pepper Blends. Chef Osley was nice enough to provide samples of each salt, including Jewel of the Ocean-Deep Ocean Salt from Japan, Murray River Salt Flakes from Australia and Fruit Wood Smoked Fleur de Sel from Hawaii. Of course a swift gust of wine blew all the salt off the napkin. It was totally predictable, and completely hilarious.

For our Second Course, Grilled King salmon was firm and moist, topped with charred tomato vinaigrette. The plate also featured pink-veined Swiss chard and large pearls of Israeli cous cous tossed with juicy heirloom cherry tomatoes and chilies.
The marinated flat iron steak was even better, a luscious cut of beef sporting a nice char and red onion marmalade, plated with truffled Parmesan potatoes (some of the best roasted potatoes ever), forest mushrooms and Madeira demi glace.

On the side, classic creamed baby spinach was rich but flavorful, the cream tinted green.
Chanterelles and oyster mushrooms were simply flavored with Sherry and garden herbs.
Wood fired corn with roasted chilies and avocado honey was a fluffy corn pudding with a nice browned crust, heat from the chilies and sweetness from the honey. Dessert was Fluffy White Stone Fruit Cake, layered, topped and plated with sweet market pluots, nectarines, peaches, rich vanilla butter cream and a decorative drizzle of powerfully sweet strawberry coulis.

Until recently, the small town in the Inland Empire was known primarily for the five Claremont Colleges. Thanks to the Bollingers and Chef Osley, Claremont now has another claim to fame.

7. Animal – Los AngelesJuly 17, 2008

Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are native Floridians who, until 2008, were best known for a short-lived Food Network series that chronicled their adventures as Hollywood caterers. Before that, they cooked in Beverly Hills at Chadwick, for high-profile chefs Ben Ford and Govind Armstrong. Now they’ve helped to re-ignite the Fairfax dining scene, an area clinging to its roots as an old-school Jewish community. The neighborhood is definitely changing. Given my initial experience at Animal, that may be a good thing.

The menu changes daily, based on market-driven ingredients. Happily, no matter what Shook and Dotolo source, almost every dish incorporates bacon, or at least pork. Grilled Romano beans were blistered and smoky, with some heat from red chilies, plated with lemon, pecorino shavings and house-made pancetta.
Shaved asparagus and poached egg were showered with Grana Padano and bacon vinaigrette, forming a compelling salad, made more interesting when the runny egg yolk was punctured.
Cubes of sushi-grade Raw Amberjack were tossed with sweet white peach and orange, mint and dime-sized cuts of spicy Serrano chile.
Crusty pork ribs were fairly tender, served with an interesting bread salad that combined croutons, rocket and heirloom yellow and red tomatoes.

Niman flat iron was the buttery char-grilled centerpiece of a magnificent entrée that combined Madeira, chanterelles, roasted potatoes, kernels of sweet corn and perfectly fried sweetbreads, crispy on the outside, delicate inside. The thick-cut pork chop was also expertly fried, paired with rich Anson Mills grits, but came with fatty slab bacon that ended up victimizing the long cooked greens.

For dessert, the Bacon chocolate crunch bar lived up to the hype, combining firm peanut-studded dark chocolate, outer layers of creamy milk chocolate and crisp, salty bacon bits and salt-and-pepper anglaise. White peach & blueberry crisp was excellent, topped with a dollop of whipped crème fraiche, with a crisp crown and hot, spreadable summer fruit.

Shook and Dotolo almost immediately began delivering some of the most assertive flavors in town. The duo played it safe with a couple dishes, but for the most part, they’re relentless. As a result, the L.A. dining scene is more interesting.

8. East LA Meets Napa – Los AngelesJuly 18, 2008

The third annual East LA Meets Napa event convened at Union Station to benefit AltaMed Health Services Corporation, which has been providing health care to minorities and economically disadvantaged Southern Californians since 1969. The organization started with a small free clinic. They now have 33 Southland facilities. Union Station is one of downtown’s great spaces, but even for that location, this was a special evening.

The Union Station courtyard was ringed with over 40 booths, including wines from more than 20 Latino-owned or –managed wineries. There was also food from lauded Latino chefs like Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of La Casita Mexicana, John Rivera Sedlar from Rivera and Octavio Becerra from palate food + wine in Glendale. Here are some of the highlights:

La Casita Mexicana
 chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu clearly run the most compelling Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. Two of their dishes incorporated puff pastry, which del Campo says is traditional in Mexico City. The first puff pastry sported minced jicama, which had some nice crunch, cinnamon and yerba buena (Mexican mint). I finally got a chance to experience La Casita Mexicana’s blackberry mole, a dish that has proved elusive on recent visits to the Bell restaurant. In this case, the subtly sweet mole blanketed white meat chicken and was sprinkled with sesame seeds. Martin del Campo’s third dish: tamales with masa mixed with huitlacoche (black corn fungus) and fresh corn kernels.

At Rivera Modern Latin Cuisine,
John Rivera Sedlar plans to combining ancient Mexican cuisine and molecular gastronomy. He offered cups of Donaji, an ancient Meso-American cocktail made with Mezcal and tequila, the rim of the fruit-filled glass lined with a mixture of salt, chile and finely chopped crickets. The taste of cricket was undetectable. Fresh blueberry, blackberry, lime, plum and herb were more pronounced.

Carneros Della Notte is a Carneros vineyard that harvests at night since the grapes are neutral at that time, it’s cooler, and the bugs are quiet. Their bottles have glow-in-the-dark labels. I received a pour of 2003 Pinot Noir. The owner said his Pinot Noir recently won a Pinot showdown, selected from a group of 250 different versions. After a sip, that was entirely believable. He also poured a taste of the Reserve, served surprisingly cool.

The “D” in D’s Delights stands for Daryl Galindo, who has worked with chocolate for about 30 years. He offered samples of six different chocolates, including habanero almond dark chocolate, which had some kick. This fundraiser had a wine focus, so Daryl encased Bordeaux in milk chocolate and Champagne cream in dark chocolate.

9. Spicy BBQ by Nong & Family – HollywoodJuly 27, 2008

Chiang Mai native Kanlaya “Nong” Sriyana opened her tiny Thai restaurant four years ago in an East Hollywood strip mall. Nong’s sister Noi runs a similar restaurant in Northridge called Top Thai, but the food isn’t quite as exciting as what you’ll find at Spicy BBQ. No offense, Noi.

Bypass the 42 seemingly standard dishes and flip to the back of the photo-filled menu, where the northern Thai dishes reside. Might as well play to a restaurant’s strengths.
Nong’s curry-soaked glass noodles are always staggeringly good, loaded with crunchy sheets of bamboo, purple eggplant, green Thai eggplant, green beans and cauliflower florets. Of course it was loaded with crispy nubs of fried garlic and whole chilies. The dish is available with chicken, pork or shrimp, but it pairs particularly well with plump shrimp. Nong combines cilantro, garlic, onion, mint and red chilies to form Fried Ground Pork Cakes. Nong bakes and deep-fries the patties, then tops them with crispy mint leaves and a shower of fried minced garlic. All her effort results in explosive, complex flavor. Her Northern Thai sausages are similarly outstanding, seasoned with plenty of lemongrass. The skins are blistered on the grill, with luscious, herbaceous interiors.

The restaurant has “spicy” in its name, so I expected some heat, but unlike the mouth-numbing Szechuan restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, this food was loaded with flavor that made the spice worthwhile. Spicy BBQ certainly deserves mention as one of L.A.’s top Thai restaurants.

10. Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen – Santa MonicaSeptember 4, 2008

Wine expert Josh Loeb named his restaurant for a nearby canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains. Rustic Canyon had a solid reputation under Chef Samir Mohajer, but when Evan Funke became executive chef in May, it rose to must-try meal status. Funke spent the previous 6 ½ years working for Wolfgang Puck, rising to the rank of sous chef at Spago before leaving earlier this year. Funke debuts a new menu on the first Thursday of each month, relying on sustainable ingredients cultivated within 1,000 miles of Santa Monica. My cousin and I were in luck, since it was Day One of the September menu.

Funke makes his pasta by hand daily using a pasta board he purchased on a spring foray to Italy. His terrific tortelli (stuffed egg pasta) were strewn with crispy bits of caramelized cauliflower and toasted shaved almonds. Cutting open each rectangle precipitated oozing cauliflower puree. A complimentary portion of sweet corn agnolotti, which just went off the menu, might have been even better.

Carlsbad mussels were supple, piled in a white wine, garlic and wild herb broth. Slabs of grilled dipping bread were like oversized croutons that soaked up the sauce to good effect. Seared diver scallops were caramelized on the outside and plated with explosively flavored, multi-colored cherry tomatoes, slivers of black and green olives and tangy capers.

Zoe Nathan is a rising pastry star. She and Loeb plan to partner on Huckleberry bakery and café in Santa Monica in the spring. In the meantime, her selection of House Made Cookies was varied and impressive, especially the silky lemon squares, melt-in-your-mouth shortbreads and airy apple galette with the caramelized base.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.