To Live and Dine in L.A.

I’m still in a bit of shock from my long weekend in Los Angeles last month. Shock from the mediocre meals I had. Shock from spending hours navigating the filth and rubble of downtown L.A., and shock from how I was sold a bill of goods describing how a “downtown Renaissance” was going on there. Something is going on all right — every block seems beset by either new construction or a condo conversion — but the progress has been glacial since last we visited a few years ago, and don’t hold your breath if you expect it to look like mid-town Manhattan (or even downtown Seattle) anytime soon.

On the plus side, there’s many a nook and cranny amongst the vacant buildings where someone is trying to sell something other than ultra-cheap everything. But L.A. is still the only big city in America where you can walk a quarter mile in any direction and not see any commercial life whatsoever, other than the types of goods and services that appeal to people who like to sit around on cheap plastic chairs all day long. The last time urban America depressed me this much was when I got lost driving around the south Bronx in the late Eighties. (Cue: Bonfire of the Vanities.)

Before we itemize our list of disappointments, a little background is in order. I’ve been visiting Los Angeles (and by L.A. we mean downtown proper as well as Santa Monica, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the beach towns) on a semi-regular basis since 1982. I’ve been eating in Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants since then (first at Spago, then at Chinois on Main, Granité in Malibu straight through to the opening of CUT in Beverly Hills a decade ago), and also at the Too Hot Tamales girls’ restaurants since 1991 — when we first heard of their Cal-Latin-American-fusion breakthrough cuisine at CITY. We’re huge fans of everything from the Grand Central Market to the Fairfax Farmer’s Market, and usually don’t leave without whipping by Koreatown for some dolsot bimbimbap, or Langer’s for a few pounds of pastrami to sustain us on our way home. We remember when Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton set the baking world on fire with Campanile in the late 90s,, and were wolfing down Monterey Park dim sum, and packing Pink’s Hot Dogs for the four hour drive back to Las Vegas, decades before anyone heard of Yelp, or thought about photographing their food.

One thing that did not disappoint was the Ace Hotel on South Broadway, just around the block from the Staples Center. The Ace is hipster central in these parts — creative hat-wear was in full bloom on the weekend we stayed — but the simple, DIY-vibe and  environmentally-friendly rooms were well-appointed,  comfortable, and the perfect expression of the modern, urban hotel. We didn’t try the restaurant, but the coffee bar made a good cappuccino, and offers a nice selection of pretentious teas that satisfy the Millennial penchant for paying far too much attention to simple beverages.

Good luck finding a decent place to eat at this end of downtown, however. Aside from the always-open Original Pantry Cafe, an Umami Burger outlet, and the huge and wildly popular Bottega Louie (nice decor, good French pastries, boring Italian menu), you can look forward to block after long city block of urban nothingness:

Connoisseurs of bombed out buildings and thrift shops will be in hog heaven; hungry people will not.

Hungry you will be, but food you will not find for blocks on end. When you do find it, in the form of two new, celebrated joints at the north end of town, expect to be underwhelmed.

Our first meal took place at the recently opened Otium (above) adjacent to the also just opened Broad (pronounced “Brode”) Museum. Both the museum and the restaurant are housed in spectacular structures. The difference is, things get better when you step inside the Broad (and experience its eclectic and interesting collection), but worse once you plunge into Otium’s food, which is anything but. Is Otium odious? Not really, but it is derivative and predictable.  The brunch menu lists every cliché in the book, from smoked salmon to duck hash to kale and quinoa — all of it serviceable, none of it inspired enough to merit a return visit.

The question has to be asked: Is this what they’re teaching in chef school these days? Or does all of this food get cooked in some industrial kitchen in Brooklyn, ready to be shipped out in sous vide bags to every so-called gastropub-y restaurant in the country? As soon as I saw the menu, riven with such Millennial-safe selections as “country ciabatta” and avocado toast, I wanted to hit the exits. But our dining companions had traveled some distance to meet us there, so stuck we were. None of the food at Otium is as good as it thinks it is, which makes it just fine for the aging culture vultures and Yelpers who want to believe they’re having an eating experience to match the art next door.

At first, we were feeling a lot more charitable towards Otium than the above paragraph indicates. Our small plate array of cured hamachi, (barely) smoked salmon, Hangtown Fry, jerk chicken, crispy potatoes, and the aforementioned avocado toast, did their job in sating our appetites, but weren’t anything we haven’t been eating in Las Vegas for years now, and in SoCal for decades. Then we saw the dinner menu (Big Eye Tuna! Agnolotti! Whipped Lardo! Smoked Everything!) and realized Otium was as much a something-for-everyone operation as a Cheesecake Factory. It also occurred to us that Puck should sue for plagiarism and patent infringement.

On the plus side, Wine Director Elizabeth Heuttinger’s list is everything the food is not: personal, thoughtful, and pleasantly off-beat. Reading it alongside the menu felt like listening to a be-bop jazz riff while digesting bubble gum pablum.

But you can’t judge a food scene based upon one brunch, which is why we walked about a half mile down the hill to Redbird (above) for dinner. Both of are located in culinary No Man’s Land, which might explain all the praise the local press has lavished upon them. But if any food writers looked up from their wishful thinking and star gazing (Was that Vince Vaughn? I heard Benifer(sic) loves this place!), they might notice that chicken pot pie, day boat scallops and cavatelli are about as original as a Charlie Sheen sitcom.

Pan-fried soft shell crab sounded somewhat original — paired with asparagus mint, Thai basil and red curry — but those advertised accents were notable mainly by their absence. Hopes were raised again by some house-made porchetta di testa, that was every bit as toothsome as it was attractive. Sadly, it turned out, that headcheese was the highlight of the meal. We opted for the $76 suckling pig over the $96 veal chop, and what appeared was a an dried-out hip joint, finished in a deep fryer, pocked with scorch marks, each bite after bland bite a blackened bit of circumstantial evidence indicting  the kitchen for biting off more than it could chew. The advertised “molé amarillo sauce” was distinguished mainly by its ability to appear on the plate but not on the palate. Some vertical dessert-in-a-jar thing they threw at us was a disaster, and could’ve come straight from a Hof’s Hut.

The whole point of Redbird appears to be elevating classics like rack of lamb, scallops and (“Aged Liberty Farms”) duck by surrounding them with seasonal produce and cross-cultural accents. In other words, what Spago was doing in 1992. I’m sure Vince Vaughn and his posse were most impressed.
After two failed attempts at a memorable meal from two “modern” restaurants, we decided to go old school for our last dinner in town, and traipsed over to Santa Monica for a visit with old friend Piero Selvaggio (pictured above) at Valentino. Selvaggio may be one of the last of the great ones  — a proud and sophisticated owner of a host-driven restaurant — but he and Chef Tommaso Tarantino have kept pace with the times. Valentino’s cuisine is no less fork-droppingly delicious than it’s always been, but I detected a lighter touch with the pastas, and a little more Sicilian flair in items like his shrimp-stuffed calamari in an oregano brodetto, and Sicilian stuffed rabbit (conigilo) with a hint of chocolate in a rich, wine-friendly sauce. And if there’s a better red wine risotto in America — this one made with radicchio and buffalo blue cheese — I have yet to try it. Selvaggio excels because he does one thing well — hew to the flavors of authentic Italian cooking. He has been around so long (44 years) that Los Angelenos probably take him and his ristorante for granted. They may but we don’t. A meal at Valentino is a must for lovers of the real deal in Italian food and wine, and one of the tastiest experiences — Italian or otherwise — you can have on the West Coast.
Doing one thing well was a thought that kept running through my mind as we were headed out of town. It’s what separates a Valentino from all the also-rans, and why delis like the venerable Langer’s, or the much newer but excellent Wexler’s (photo above) thrive. It’s why we love hitting the dim sum at Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant in Rosemead:
Top 10 Chinese Restaurants(Photo by Alex Farnum, and no, that isn’t ELV with the chopsticks)
….or grabbing an iconic French dip at Philippe The Original French Dipped Sandwiches:
This is what we come to L.A. for, not a rehash of fusion food on something-for-everyone menus. We especially don’t travel four hours by car to get food that’s done just as well, if not better, in Las Vegas and dozens of other cities in America. In this way are these new chefs — Neal Fraser (Redbird) and Tim Hollingsworth (Otium) missing the point. They may be opening shiny new places to great fanfare, but they’re not doing anything personal and they’re not doing anything new. What they’re doing is food to please their investors, and it’s all a little sad.
Am I being overly harsh? I don’t think so, especially when you consider this work-in-progress that is downtown Los Angeles has barely changed in half a decade, while other cities like Washington D.C., Chicago, and Portland have been in full bloom. After all this time (and by “all this time” we mean the last half century) it remains the red-headed step-child of urban America: an under-performing shell of its former self, driven to the brink of oblivion by 60 years of love for automobiles, freeways and cookie-cutter suburbia. We were full of hope and appetite as we saw the skyline looming ahead of us a few weeks ago, but after three days in L.A., we think our next visit will be straight to Olvera Street for some tacos, or straight to Philippe’s or Wexler’s for a  sandwich.


29 thoughts on “To Live and Dine in L.A.

  1. Brilliant, and astute. Funny how the LA vibe seems to be about how all great things begin there, including food renaissance movements, but when it comes down to where the cheese binds, the best places to eat include Du-Par’s, Philippe’s, Pacific Dining Car, and Musso and Frank.

  2. Thanks for your insights & the “heads up” on Odium! Your credentials sound solid. We visited downtown ourselves yesterday (for the exquisite Q omakase you missed, also KURA in Hollywood). You nailed it. A long week-too short time to get a read. A culinary friend just did the San Gabriel Valley in same time). Yes, your favorites are the best of LA (Valentino, Langer’s, Sun Harbour though we go to Rowland Heights, etc). So are 30 years or older (Brent’s Deli, marino, Caffe Roma, Quelaquezta, Melisse, etc.) The dismaying trend you missed: lovable “legends like the Rose Cafe changing ownership and “gentrified” beyond recognition. At the same time, 30 year-old Versailles dipped and came back, and with interesting specials — but no way to tell without experiencing. One major error: Venerable Exec Chef Neal Fraser (Muse, BLD, etc) is a highly respected chef and activist in the food community for decades… hardly new… but I admit the only time I’ve eaten his food is at events and when paying, only the appetizer course. $$$
    Finally, no one ever accused the Angeleno foodies of being intelligent… though we are getting better.

  3. p.s. the “trend” is that white tablecloth chefs can’t make it without going “casual” from roy choi to Eric Greenspan with his grilled cheese sandwiches, to Neal fraser with his Fritzi’s hot dogs to Wolfgang at telson’s to Suzanne going at Larder (though $$$$)etc.

  4. Kind of weird you didn’t hit Bestia, isn’t that the standard bearer for DTLA joints?

    And concur on Wexler’s, that place is killer! Probably one of the more enjoyable meals I’ve had in LA in sometime.

  5. Seriously, McKinnon….Pacific Dining Car, Musso & Frank and DuPars? Study up some more about the LA food scene. Those places you mentioned are mediocre, with Musso & Frank being the best of those 3.

    Didn’t hear anything about Maude, Trois Mec, n/naka, nor Wolf.

    You went to Downtown LA and didn’t stop by Bestia, The Factory Kitchen, or the ever so popular and reasonably priced Maccheroni Republic?

    Dim Sum at Sea Harbour? To many of us, it’s no longer the best dim sum in town. Try Elite or Lunasia.

    You need another trip to LA. You missed some bright spots, particulary in the forms of taco trucks, ramen shops, Sichuan restaurants, and Korean fried chicken joints.

  6. BTW, Valentino’s 40th Anniversary 40-course tasting with 23 wine pairing a few years back. Disastrous.

  7. John, I feel like there is some disconnect here between the Downtown Los Angeles that I and many critics around the country know and love and the DTLA you experienced. If you genuinely did not enjoy it, that’s your opinion and it is totally valid, but part of me feels like something was missed to elicit such a reaction from you. I know of few places anywhere with such a vibrant, sophisticated, diverse, and lauded culinary and cultural scene as LA. Please email me next time you’re here and I’d love to give you an insider’s tour of my home and (hopefully) sway your opinion. Or, at the very least, buy you a drink and talk about it some more.

  8. John,

    Farley Elliott here from Eater LA. I’ve tried reaching out via email and social media — I’d like to formally request that you cease using the above uncredited Otium photo from Eater, with you neither received permission to use nor have paid for.

  9. This fool thinks he knows where to eat, hell anyone who watches Guy Fieri Triple D shows will know of better places to eat than this fool.

    Here’s the deal, with a bunch of new restaurants in and around downtown, he only goes to two of the ‘biggest name chef’s restaurants. Funny thing is, there’s a place across the street from RedBird called Badmaash, a seriously new take on Indian food rooted in it’s history and moved forward to something new.

    He didn’t go to Bestia, most likely he doesn’t know about it, or really how to use Yelp. LMAO if he did, he’d see the ton of restaurants around to try.

    Anyways, he thinks he’s hot shit, you know, he has a food blog! LMAO get the fuck out of here with your weak ass shit and stick to writing about the Las Vegas food buffets, we know that’s we will find you if we go to Las Vegas, anyways I got real work to do, unlike you. Peace out fuckboi!

  10. I’d love to exchange notes with you on the LA culinary scene.

    Maybe over a cappucino at the Ace Hotel? I’ve heard good things about that place…

  11. Your palate needs to retire. You and your blog are gaudy and sorely out of fashion. Bottega Louie seriously? We’re in year 2016 here pops.

  12. ELV responds: We are gruntled that some think our “credentials sound solid,” and deeply offended (to the point of perhaps ordering a second bottle of grand cru Burgundy tonight) by being referred to as “pops.”
    To those who take intelligent issue with our opinions we say: Thank you for the insight and tips on where to go the next time we are in SoCal. These are the types of comments (and disagreements) we look forward to on this web site.
    To those who call us out on our “weak ass shit” we can only surmise that you wouldn’t know a great restaurant if it bit you on the ass.

  13. Thanks for your honest appraisal, John. I have come to appreciate LA’s food scene, but somewhat agree with you while agreeing with commenters that you missed some bright spots here. Question: Where should an LA person eat in Vegas if they only have two days there? I’m heading to Vegas first week of August with the wife and want a contrast from L.A.’s scene and style. Thanks for any recs!

  14. I live in downtown LA, and I also think, for the money, that Redbird is alright. Unless you get the tomahawk steak, that was a pretty special hunk of meat. Missing Bestia, though, or SQRL or Baco Mercat or Q or Broken Spanish or even freaking Guisados was a mistake. Restaurants downtown are fairly clustered, and the Ace is outside the 7th street stretch of great restaurants.

    In general, LA is an ugly, mismanaged disaster that is also a place of hidden wonders, which makes it very hard for tourists and a gem for locals. So, stay home. Or visit. Whatever. Hope your next trip downtown in 5 years finds it more Manhattan like. We just got our bike sharing service today and a street car is due in 2020.

  15. This guy is a paid for shill, hyping the Ace & their cappuccinos?? That place’s roof food programe includes 5 items, one being boxed milk duds. I mean their margaritas are of the premixed machine variety! … Other highlights include the Original Pantry, an abomination by any standard, and Umami burger??? WTHeck!!! I think your pretext for liking a restaurant is if their PR budget was high enough to attract RFPs from aspiring food writers, and only those which comped your hotel rooms and meals. Your provenance in LA food expertise eschews an eighties era glamour overbite that reverberated all the way to a Vegas franchise, lest you never would have noticed those industry legends in the first place. You, like your review, are showing your age. Try harder, dig deeper and for god sake people don’t tell him what he missed… He’s likely to come back with a Las Vegas plastic yard high cup full of Ace margarita and upchuck it all over the dozen culinary treasures (within walking distance) he neglected this last go round.

  16. Wow the Internet trolls came out in force!

    John I arrive in LV tomorrow for a week of the thrilling relaxation and dining/drinking scene that only LV provides.

    Yonaka and Carson Kitchen and Ferraro’s are on the menu for starters.

    Thanks again for all you do to keep LV food lovers educated and entertained.

  17. Doug, so anyone who comments on this piece and provides recommendations and insight are instantly considered “trolls” because we are not regular followers of this blog? Says a lot about your character. At least John acknowledged those of us who provided useful information without resorting to calling us names.

  18. For starters:

    Howlin Ray’s
    Marugame Monzo
    Little Sister
    Gwang Yang
    Dai Ho
    Beijing Pie House (lamb pancake and house pie)
    Luv2Eat Thai
    Gjusta (prime rib butcher)


  19. TOMORROW: John Curtas reviews Las Vegas’ hippest new hotels; finds the Wynn and Aria to be serviceable, but not quite up to par with timeless classics like the Golden Nugget and Excalibur.

  20. Sklar-I was talking about Shane, Daniel, and Cfitchy. Their comments are rude/profane/infantile. Your comments are insightful and polite. Sorry. I used to be a principal at a baseball blog, and the way that the Internet “empowers” people like these folks to come here and spew profanity and nonsense is depressing. This site usually is pretty immune to this. I find John’s commentary to be extremely on the money–though I do not agree 100% of the time, and he is also hilarious, iconoclastic, and interesting as hell.

  21. These comments are priceless – good read. I read the LA Eater piece, another glorious work! It sounds like a pouty child taking their ball and going home after losing a basketball game at the park. They are upset by Curtas’s opinion, yet offer very little in the way of a rebuttal.

  22. Everyone shilling for Bestia…it’s not all that, and if that’s the shining example of great food then everything Curtas said about downtown LA is valid.

    Badmaash also very average. Broken Spanish good. Cocktail scene downtown is first rate.

    You always know when you’re dealing with Angeleno snowflakes by their reaction if you, god forbid, critique any aspect of their precious city. When the truth is the culinary scene doesn’t hold a candle to Chicago, SF, or LA

  23. I completely agree with the lack of fine-dining near DTLA, I was so disappointed on my last trip.

    I visit DTLA to get my ethnic fix: La Indiana Tamales, Mama’s Lu; then a quick trip to Bronzed Aussie for some of the greatest meat pies ever.

  24. Did you do any research before coming to LA or did you just rely on PR invites and places you remember from visiting decades ago? LA isn’t the easiest place to explore because of sprawl and chef turnover, but you didn’t even try. I’m glad you didn’t have a good time.

  25. ELV responds: Busted! Nick is SO right. We NEVER do ANY research before we visit another city. From Strasbourg to Vancouver to Tokyo (and the entire continental U.S.A. in between) all we EVER do is fish for p.r. invitations and THEN go to where they tell us to so we can eat for free. When that doesn’t work, we aimlessly wander around a city and look for restaurants that look like they might be impressed by who we are. Then we walk in and say “Do you know who I am?” before agreeing to eat their food.
    And gosh, we had NO IDEA Los Angeles was a sprawled out place. THANKS, NICK! Without Yelpers like you, how would we ever know what we are doing?

  26. I’m an Angelino and love Sea Harbor and most of the other restaurants you’ve pointed out as your favorites; everyone here knows the best foods are in their respective areas (Korean BBQ in Koreatown, Chinese food in Monterey Park, Mexican food well, everywhere) and we particularly avoid all the hipster places. We’re a city of regional (and by that I mean the entire world) flavors and special, one-of-a-kind tastes (Tito’s Tacos, anyone?). Breakfast at S&W, a burrito from Taco Miendo, dim-sum at Sea Harbor, Hawaiian at Rutts, the Hinano Burger, and Thai anywhere in east Hollywood… these are where the real delicacies are to be found.

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