It’s hard to imagine more Los Angeles chefs and restaurateurs in a single room at any given time. That’s a testament to the enthusiasm that dineLA Restaurant Week has managed to generate in only its second year.
A crowd began to form on the sunny SLS patio at 10:30 AM. Dozens of chefs were on hand in chef’s whites, blacks (and other colors) including Susan Feniger (Street) and Mary Sue Millken (Feniger’s longtime partner in Ciudad and Border Grill), Jose Andres (of course), Taite Pearson (the new chef at Whist) Evan Kleiman (Angeli Caffe and host of “Good Food” on KCRW), Celestino Drago (Drago, Drago Centro, etc.), Jason Johnston (Dakota), Neal Fraser (Grace, BLD), Ben Ford (Ford’s Filling Station), Kerry Simon (Simon L.A.), Fred Eric (Tiara Café), Simon Dolinky (BLVD 16) and Monique King (Nine Thirty).
We were ushered inside the hotel so some of the key players could take the stage and explain the event’s importance. Mark Liberman, the head of L.A. INC. – The Convention and Visitors Bureau and dineLA’s governing body – acknowledged dineLA Director Carrie Kommers and began his intro. He said that for the second straight year, Restaurant Week offers “delicious food, food for every taste, offered at fair prices.” In 2008, over 100,000 diners visited 140 participating restaurants. This year, dineLA attracted over 170 restaurants covering a wide swath of “ethnic and geographic diversity.”
Liberman introduced Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who compared L.A. to world class dining cities like Buenos Aires and Barcelona. The Mayor hyped 2008, when L.A. attracted “2.6 million overnight visitors who spent $2.8 billion on food and drink.” For Restaurant Week, he urged diners to “Take your taste buds on a trip around the world.”
Host chef José Andrés said that when he came to the States in 1990, he was excited about New York’s restaurant week, which offered meals for $19.90. He reflected on his late teens, when he dreamt about being a chef. Andrés and his family used to visit great restaurants in Barcelona and revered French restaurants like Paul Bocuse. They’d make reservations for two or three people and sneak five or six family members into the restaurant. Some people would hide in the bathroom and they’d eat in shifts in order to be able to “experience the cuisine of the great chefs.” Andrés is participating in Restaurant Week in part to help inspire aspiring chefs and restaurateurs.
Evan Kleiman was the next person to speak. The L.A. native was excited about developments in the L.A. dining scene since she opened Angeli Caffe on Melrose in 1984. Restaurant Week comes at a notoriously slow time of the year for the restaurant industry, “when people are still sticking to their New Year’s resolutions.” Kleiman urged people to forgo their resolutions.
The press conference ended and Andrés called every chef onstage for a historic culinary photo op with Mayor Villaraigosa. Then attendees were unleashed on The Bazaar, Andrés’ stunning multi-faceted restaurant. The invite didn’t hint at a food-filled reception, so it was a nice surprise.
Andrés distributed shrimp individually skewered with squeezable vials of tomato juice, croqueta-like buñuelos filled with creamed cod, “Philly cheesesteaks” featuring air-filled bread layered with slices of torched beef, and plates of fresh-shaved Jamon Iberico.
Chilled chunks of Alaskan King crab were “canned” with raspberry vinegar.
Spoons of intensely flavored liquid olives were crowd pleasers.
To drink: wine and gin-spiked Cava sangria.
In the next room, a chef filled cones with two varieties of caviar: American paddlefish with cauliflower puree and salmon with dill cream cheese. The chef drizzled both with olive oil and sprinkled each with Maldon sea salt from England.
Finally, for dessert, Executive Pastry Chef Michael Gillet presented “Dragon’s Breath.” Gillet dipped a cylinder of caramelized popcorn in liquid nitrogen, dusted it with curry powder and instructed me to pop the corn in my mouth and chew. If you chew with your mouth closed and breathe, “smoke” shoots out your nostrils. Very dramatic, which was consistent with the event.