The bowl cut and Mohawk may be gone, but as long as there’s a leap year, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger will continue to revive CITY. The chefs ran their influential restaurant from 1985 – 1994 at 180 South La Brea Avenue, drawing flavors from across the globe. Every four years, and on February 29, the talented duo brings back favorite plates to present to modern Border Grill diners. Interest in CITY is especially high at the moment, as former Disney chief Michael Eisner, Noel Bright, Steve Cohen, and writer Jeff Greenstein (Desperate Housewives, Will & Grace, Friends) developing a sitcom that documents the women’s experiences at the restaurant.
On February 8, Mary Sue and Susan previewed some dishes from their dinner menu for a small group of staffers and writers, myself included. Their lieutenant for the night was Monique King, the Border Grill DTLA Executive Chef who actually got her professional start in the CITY kitchen, back in 1989. She worked in the pantry after graduating from Pitzer College.
Servers poured precursors to their non-alcoholic Border Grill coolers, including a lemon ginger tea with honey; and a spiced yogi tea with milk, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, and clove, honey.
A sampler included a version of a snack Feniger bought at an ashram on her first trip to India in 1981, Potato Bhujia. The spiced potato fritters sported cilantro, mint chutney, and tangy yogurt sauce. Chinese Sausage Salad arrived in a red onion shell, with grilled sausage tossed with red onion, celery leaves, chiles, garlic, and kaffir lime leaves. Fried Sage Leaves coated in poppy-studded rice flour and plated with tomato coulis dipping sauce, could become an addictive bar snack.
Feniger alluded to her time in France when presenting the next course, Sautéed Halibut Cheeks topped with a chunky sauce of tomato, sliced snow pea pods and Pernod, an anise-flavored French aperitif. She said cheeks are still an under-valued cut that approximates skate wing, but with a lower price point and a longer life span. They presented the tender white fish on homemade fettuccine.
After the meal, we spoke with Feniger and Milliken about their CITY days, beginning with the question:
How did you decide which dishes to revive?
Milliken: They’re our favorites. And our customers’ favorites.
Feniger: I guess when we looked at the whole menu, we picked out things we remember being everybody’s favorites. They were for sure our favorites, like the potato bhujia, the Chinese sausage salad. Those were definitely dishes that we both loved…And we wanted to trying and find the right balance between what fit and what we could handle in the kitchen for a night where we’re going to be sold out – we think – and do it in a kitchen that’s never done it before, could handle.
Milliken: It’s hard to contort into a restaurant for 24 hours.
Feniger: And be that busy. That’s challenging.
What did it feel like cooking these dishes again?
Milliken: You know, when I take a bite of the bhujia, or the red curry, or that pernod and tomato pea pod sauce, it immediately transports me to on the line at CITY restaurant, for sure. You’re too young to have ever eaten there.
Yeah, I wasn’t in Los Angeles at that point. What was the reason you ended up closing CITY?
Feniger: You know, we had been open for a long time. We had sort of gone through the riots, the fires…
Milliken: The recession.
Feniger: The recession and buying our partners out. Really, we needed to focus, and we both decided we should focus on Border Grill.
Milliken: And we had a buyer who wanted the location pretty badly. It was a very hard decision. It was not easy. It was like cutting off my arm.
What ended up taking the space?
Feniger: Sonora. The people who took the space moved out of this space.
Milliken: They moved into the CITY space, and five years later, we moved into their old space. It had been empty the whole five years.
Feniger: Sonora Café was down here. It was an old friend of ours. He was looking to move. He closed here and moved there. Literally five years later, this was empty, we came down here and it was a total switch of places, not intending to.
Do you see reviving any of these dishes beyond February 29?
Milliken: We’re going to do it every February 29…as long as I’m alive.
Feniger: Every leap year. We do it every leap year.
This year’s CITY dinner menu is available at Border Grill Downtown on February 29, from 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. The four-course prix fixe menu is $75 per person, and available a la carte in the Border Grill CANTINA. Call 213.486.5171 for reservations.