Destination: California: Los Angeles
Downtown LA is not celebrated as a culinary destination, but there are exceptional pockets and Main Street, in the Old Bank District is one of them. It is here that acclaimed chef Josef Centeno opened Bäco Mercat in 2011, which has been immediately embraced as a must for foodies. The central ingredient (the bäco, a type of flatbread sandwich) is dressed up and transformed by a bold mix of flavors. Centeno opened Bar Amá in 2012, which has gotten a lot of attention, but Bäco Mercat is still the star.
“Why do these tomatoes, which are totally not in season right now taste better than any tomatoes we eat in New York in mid-summer?” my husband asked when presented with a beautiful plate of plump yellow and red heirlooms, tossed in delectable oil. The same question could be asked of nearly every plate of food that comes out of this special restaurant, part of the upscale Brentwood Country Mart.
Diners sit at rustic wooden tables on one side of the airy, bright space, while the other is taken up by a makeshift farmer’s market, with a bakery, charcuterie and butcher. It’s all a bit orchestrated (as much “farmshop” as Eataly, in New York, is Italian), but the super-seasonal menu and expertly prepared dishes are not to be mocked. Beet-cured ocean trout; grilled Burgundy snails with wild fennel; crisp pork belly with squash and Brussels sprout slaw; roasted pumpkin hummus: everything is locally sourced and simply prepared. Many of the dinner dishes are served family-style, contributing to the homey ambience. It’s also a great spot for breakfast or lunch when staying or touring in the area.
Run by the wonderfully named Vic Casanova, this cozy Italian gem would feel right at home in New York’s West Village. Casanova, who originally cooked in New York City, oversaw the kitchen of the Four Seasons Beverly Hills before opening this much-more casual eatery. The Italian menu is delicious and often-changing, depending on the chef’s whims. All the bread, pasta and pastries are homemade. Casanova grew up around New York’s Arthur Avenue, so the various pasta dishes are especially incredible. Reservations are key, though the ambience is so congenial that you won’t mind waiting for a spot when nursing a glass of wine. That list, too, has been hand-picked by Casanova. Dinner only.
Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen
This is what LA dining is all about: incredibly fresh organic produce (most of it sourced from the Santa Monica farmer’s market) impeccably prepared. I am still dreaming of the lightly fried tiny artichokes served over baby arugula. The artichoke leaves, fanned out liked flowers, were perfectly crisp, the hearts meaty with a zing of lemon and garlic. The menu, which changes monthly, might include sole meunière with chanterelles, brown butter, capers and preserved lemon; homemade pastas; or, for heartier fare, a Niman Ranch burger with fontina. Even simple sides are elevated to the sublime, like the baby broccoli brightened by shallots and local chilies.
Tar & Roses
Small rustic plates can be shared at the cute and trendy Tar & Roses in Santa Monica. With something for everyone, the menu is divided into snacks, small plates, veggies, large plates and T&R Suppers – 3-course meals served family-style for parties of four or more.
The Tasting Kitchen
The weekend brunch is famous at this Venice Beach restaurant, which was selected by food critic Alan Richman as one of the U.S.’s best in 2010. The menu is eclectic New American, with some Italian and French tossed in for good measure. If you don’t want to sit at the communal dining table, make a reservation for a table (though most enjoy being part of the Venice scene, which is chic, hip and fun).
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