FOR THE FUN OF IT

In a city full of nov­elty fac­tor, LA’S culi­nary scene is no ex­cep­tion – whimsy, cre­ativ­ity, and the weird and won­der­ful are all cel­e­brated on the plate. Cather­ine Mc­gre­gor eats her way through this beau­ti­fully chaotic land of la la.

Dish - Everyday Dish - - Con­tents - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy — CATHER­INE MC­GRE­GOR

A culi­nary tour of the City of An­gels – Los An­ge­les.

Here’s the prob­lem with Los An­ge­les: it’s too big. The streets are too wide and far too long. Meet­ing some­one on Sepul­veda Boule­vard? Best spec­ify whether you mean the beach end or the one in the San Fer­nando Val­ley, al­most 70 kilo­me­tres away. City blocks are gar­gan­tuan; what looks from the map like a 10-minute walk turns out to be a 30-minute slog in the blaz­ing Cal­i­for­nian heat. Traf­fic is... well, you know about the traf­fic.

So let’s start small, at a restau­rant that rep­re­sents so much of what makes Los An­ge­les eat­ing interesting. Tucked into a cor­ner of the his­toric Ho­tel Nor­mandie in Kore­atown, Le Comp­toir is truly pint-sized: think of the coolest lit­tle bar you know, then think smaller. There’s a stove-less kitchen (all the cook­ing is done on hot plates), one long counter – Le Comp­toir means “the counter” in French – and 10 stools. That’s it. Given the lim­i­ta­tions, or per­haps be­cause of them, the food at Le Comp­toir is ex­traor­di­nary.

Over eight ex­quis­ite cour­ses, chef/owner Gary Denes show­cases the best of lo­cal pro­duce, much of it grown on his own or­ganic farm in Long Beach, south Los An­ge­les. There’s a meat course on of­fer, for a sup­ple­ment, but vegeta­bles take pride of place here. The “veg­gie and fruit plate” (when it comes to nam­ing dishes, Denes is some­thing of a min­i­mal­ist) in­cludes around 15 dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents, some cooked, some raw, some fer­mented. The flavours are bright and clear, each el­e­ment tast­ing ut­terly of it­self.

The next day I’m still think­ing about the things I ate at Le Comp­toir. Many of the vegeta­bles – wa­ter­melon radishes, al­bino beets, dragon tongue beans – had been to­tally new to me. And that’s not unusual.

In this cre­ative, free­wheel­ing city, the quest for nov­elty seems never-end­ing. Sud­denly I see un­fa­mil­iar in­gre­di­ents ev­ery­where I look. At Scoops, the pi­o­neer­ing gourmet ice cream joint in East Hol­ly­wood, their ba­nana pecan flavour is made with mak­ge­olli, a Korean un­fil­tered rice wine. At Prov­i­dence, the crit­i­cally ac­claimed and un­abashedly fancy seafood restau­rant, the salmon is served with mat­su­take (a sought-after Ja­panese mush­room), cala­mansi (a Filipino cit­rus), and kelp. And at the Walker Inn, a semise­cret cock­tail bar around the cor­ner from Le Comp­toir, the “Big Sur” cock­tail tastes like a walk in the for­est over­look­ing that stretch of Cal­i­for­nian coast­line, thanks to a base note of Dou­glas fir-in­fused eau de vie.

Los An­ge­les is the most cos­mopoli­tan city in Amer­ica, with around 40 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion born over­seas, so the pro­lif­er­a­tion of in­ter­na­tional in­gre­di­ents make sense. But what about all those cu­ri­ous vegeta­bles? The an­swer has its roots (no pun in­tended) in the era of free love.

“There’s still a very hippy- es­que at­ti­tude among a lot of farm­ers here – they’re happy to grow things for you on a small scale,” the Aus­tralian-born, La-based celebrity chef Cur­tis Stone tells me. What’s more, “Cal­i­for­nia has un­be­liev­able grow­ing con­di­tions be­cause of all the mi­cro­cli­mates that ex­ist here”. The up­shot? “The pro­duce you can buy in Los An­ge­les is amaz­ing. It’s the best in the world.”

And what bet­ter way to de­clare your love for lo­cal pro­duce than a restau­rant where a sin­gle vegetable or fruit is the fo­cus. At Maude, Stone’s first Los An­ge­les restau­rant – he’s re­cently opened another, Gwen, where meat is the fo­cus – he takes one hero in­gre­di­ent and de­signs a tast­ing menu around it. At the end of the month, he starts all over again with a dif­fer­ent one. When we speak he is in the midst of de­vel­op­ing wal­nut recipes; the cur­rent month is all about beet­root.

With a 10-course menu, he needs to be cre­ative – sim­ply grat­ing a beet­root, juic­ing it, or turn­ing it into a sor­bet won’t do. One dish uses wafer thin slices of golden beet to wrap up tiny pack­ages of Mar­cona al­monds, saf­fron, and ‘nduja, the spicy Cal­abrian sausage. Another fea­tures de­hy­drated beet “leather” en­clos­ing a dol­lop of horse­rad­ish ice cream and Siberian caviar.

In­ti­mate and in­tensely per­sonal, Maude couldn’t be fur­ther from the glitzy seen-andbe-seen restau­rants many of us as­sume to be the Los An­ge­les norm. But what about that other LA cliché – the gluten-free, dairy-free, off-menu-or­der­ing fuss­bud­get?

“My ex­pe­ri­ence has been quite the op­po­site,” says Stone. “I find LA din­ers to be re­ally open. I mean, we have a restau­rant where you don’t even get to see the menu be­fore you sit down, and we’ve been booked out for three and a half years.”

That’s not to sug­gest the picky, healthob­sessed An­ge­leno stereo­type doesn’t have some ba­sis in re­al­ity. Here in the per­pet­u­ally sunny birth­place of the body beau­ti­ful, sal­ads of all kinds are a city-wide fix­a­tion (try the justly fa­mous Chi­nese chicken salad at West Hol­ly­wood celeb hang­out Joan’s on Third), and ve­gan, veg­e­tar­ian and mac­ro­bi­otic restau­rants abound.

For the full up­scale-hippy ex­pe­ri­ence, check out Cafe Grat­i­tude, where dishes are named things like “Open-hearted” – buck­wheat pan­cakes with cashew co­conut whipped but­ter – and “Lib­er­ated”, a raw pad Thai made with kelp noo­dles and al­mond sauce. There are five Cafe Grat­i­tudes in Los An­ge­les, in­clud­ing the Arts Dis­trict, the rapidly re­gen­er­at­ing neigh­bour­hood just south of down­town.

Once known mainly for cheap stu­dio space and home­less tent en­camp­ments, the Arts Dis­trict to­day boasts an ar­ray of craft brew­eries, gourmet cof­fee shops and smallscale stores. While it’s more walk­a­ble than many parts of LA, the dis­tances be­tween the interesting bits can be large, with lots of trekking past fea­ture­less fac­to­ries to get there. The so­lu­tion: two wheels.

In this cre­ative, free­wheel­ing city, the quest for nov­elty seems never-end­ing. Sud­denly I see un­fa­mil­iar in­gre­di­ents ev­ery­where I look.

I joined a tour or­gan­ised by cafe and bi­cy­cle store The Wheel­house, high­light­ing some of the many bars that have sprung up in the neigh­bour­hood in re­cent years.

At Res­i­dent, a back­yard-style bar where food is served from a clas­si­cally Cal­i­for­nian Airstream trailer, I tried a House Mule, made with Our Los An­ge­les Vodka (yes, that’s the name) and lo­cally pro­duced Liq­uid Al­chemist gin­ger syrup. At the Arts Dis­trict Brew­ing Com­pany, a brew bar/com­mu­nity hub with ping-pong ta­bles and free movie nights, I slaked my thirst with an ice- cold glass of Dandy Lion, one of their in-house, sai­son-style beers. Fritzi Coop, pur­vey­ors of su­perb fried and ro­tis­serie chicken, do the bar snacks.

Tempt­ing as those wings looked, I couldn’t risk spoil­ing my ap­petite. We were on our way to the Hauser Wirth gallery, not to take in the con­tem­po­rary art – though that’s well worth it – but to eat at its restau­rant, Manuela. Here the menu is in­spired equally by chef Wes Whit­sall’s Texas child­hood and the su­perb pro­duce of his adopted Cal­i­for­nian home.

Dishes like hush­pup­pies and dev­illed eggs are clas­sics of South­ern cook­ing, but at Manuela their rich­ness is bal­anced by abun­dant sal­ads and plat­ters of house-pick­led vegeta­bles, many of them straight from the on-site gar­den. Another selling point: Manuela serves both elk and an­te­lope, if those are meats on your bucket list.

Home base for my stay was Kore­atown, Los An­ge­les’ most densely pop­u­lated dis­trict and one that has only re­cently be­come a tourist draw. It might not be the loveli­est part of the city, but what it lacks in aes­thet­ics it makes up for in bril­liant places to eat. It goes with­out say­ing that Kore­atown boasts a plethora of ex­cel­lent Korean restau­rants, plus cute cafes of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from pat­bingsu (shaved ice, of­ten served with a sweet red bean top­ping) to Dragon’s Breath, candy-coloured ce­real puffs snap-frozen in liq­uid ni­tro­gen.

But there’s more to Kore­atown cui­sine than Korean food. Apart from the afore­men­tioned La Comp­toir, try his­toric Cas­sell’s for fan­tas­tic ham­burg­ers, and Com­mis­sary, the glasshouse restau­rant on the roof of The Line ho­tel, for sea­sonal mod­ern Amer­i­can cook­ing in one of the most beau­ti­ful set­tings around.

Head straight down Nor­mandie Av­enue from The Line and you come to Gue­laguetza, the widely lauded restau­rant which cel­e­brates the food of Oax­aca, Mex­ico’s culi­nary cap­i­tal. Founded 24 years ago by the Lopez fam­ily, Gue­laguetza (say it “gela-getza”) is now run by the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion who have given the restau­rant a cool makeover with­out sac­ri­fic­ing its hard-fought culi­nary rep­u­ta­tion.

The meat-heavy menu in­cludes house­made chorizo; cecina, or chilli-mar­i­nated pork; and a semi-dried beef dish known as tesajo. But the star of the show is un­doubt­edly their mole, that unc­tu­ous, spicy sauce for chicken or pork. Don’t go past the tar-black, cin­na­mon and choco­late-in­fused mole ne­gro, which is so good they sell it to take away.

I couldn’t leave with­out a jar, nor with­out try­ing the cha­pu­lines, tiny grasshop­pers stir-fried with salt and pep­per. I ad­mit I took some con­vinc­ing. The per­fect bar snack, they told me; a taste of pre-his­panic Mex­ico that dou­bles as the world’s most sus­tain­able pro­tein source, they said. Down the hatch.

And it was there, in a cosy fam­ily restau­rant some­where inside this vast and un­know­able me­trop­o­lis, that I re­alised that small re­ally is beau­ti­ful. And very, very crunchy.

… I couldn’t leave with­out try­ing the cha­pu­lines tiny grasshop­pers, stir-fried with salt and pep­per. I ad­mit I took some con­vinc­ing …

Com­mis­sary, the glasshouse restau­rant on the roof of LA’S The Line ho­tel.

THESE PAGES: ( Far left, mid­dle and top right) Manuela restau­rant’s menu is in­spired by chef Wes Whit­sall’s Texas child­hood and the pro­duce of his adopted Cal­i­for­nian home – many of its sal­ads and plat­ters of house-pick­led vegeta­bles come straight from the on-site gar­den; (bot­tom right) the Lopez fam­ily have run Mex­i­can restau­rant Gue­laguetza for 24 years.

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