This was the year when everybody was wrong about restaurants. According to last year's predictions, we were supposed to go crazy for Caribbean, bonkers about bistros serving homey French food and continue our love affair with regional American cuisine. But Cha Cha Cha is still the best Caribbean restaurant in town, a real French bistro has yet to make an appearance, and although the South has risen restaurant-wise and diners keep opening at a frightening pace, the Cajun craze is definitely on the wane.
But something happened this year. Something encouraging and delicious. The year's leading restaurants followed no trends and set no fashions--they were content to be unique. The best of them--Citrus, Champagne, Matsuhisa, Four Oaks, Tumbleweed--all marched out to their own tune. Each had a menu dependent on only one thing: the talent and inclinations of the chef/owner. And isn't it interesting, after all the Italian madness of the last few years, that when you think of good new Italian places that opened this year, only Fresco, Tuttobene and Angeli Trattoria come to mind?
Something else happened this year: For the first time, we began to really explore the ethnic diversity around us. We live in a city filled with an extraordinary number of authentically ethnic restaurants that do not condescend to the American palate. And for years we have been a little bit afraid to try them. That is begining to change. We have finally worked our way through what I call the "starter restaurants"--places that tone down the heat, turn down the garlic, leave out the innards and gently introduce us to all these new and exotic flavors. Now we are ready for the real thing.
You can see both these changes reflected in the lists below. As the year ends, I asked our reviewers to name two restaurants. First, I asked them to choose what they considered to be the best restaurant they had reviewed during the year. Most of their choices are more surprising than my own. Personally, I pick Citrus, for while other restaurants may be wonderful, this restaurant is pointing out a whole new direction for restaurants in Los Angeles. This is French food filtered through a California sensibility. It is light food, beautiful food, food that is unswervingly original. Despite occasional annoying waits at the door and the almost inevitable din, Citrus is a constant surprise and delight.
And, second, I asked them each to choose their favorite restaurant. I wrote about this myself a few weeks ago, so I won't repeat the details. But I think you'll find that our critics' choices are eclectic, numerous (few were content to stick with two), far-ranging and rarely predictable.
Sort of like restaurants in Los Angeles in 1987.
1--Everyone would like to predict the next trend in high-fashion dining, but as long as there are chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa around, that's going to be a chore. Who could ever imagine a kitchen like his?
Chef Nobu has taken a well-established form--sushi--and turned it topsy-turvy: hot sea urchin in an ice cream cone wrapper made from seaweed; scallops and flying-fish roe in an orange; pasta made from squid. Even his most derivative creations are graced with garlic or other Japanese anomalies. Japanese traditionalists may be outraged, but Los Angeles is delighted. Just drive by Matsuhisa on La Cienega any weekend and look at the lines. If Nobu bought out next-door Bistango, he'd probably fill the place on a Friday night.
2-- Genius may be the most overused word in the language at present, but, if it exists for a chef, it applies to John Sedlar. His Southwestern cuisine can be regarded as a great American art form and, as a chef, Sedlar has the eye of a Georgia O'Keeffe, the intellect of a J. Robert Oppenheimer and the imagination of a Navajo medicine man. I'm amazed every time I eat his food.
The last time I ate at St. Estephe in Manhattan Beach, Sedlar prepared a tick-tack-toe mosaic out of smoked salmon, capers, chopped egg and chopped onion, and a Peking duck crispier than I've ever had on either side of the Pacific. His signature dishes--the radicchio tacos, the salmon Painted Desert--still steal your breath, even though derivatives abound. If Sedlar's food ever gets put in a time capsule, bring me along for the ride.
1--In 1987, the kitchen at Antoine in Newport Beach, which had been organized by the famous French chef Jacques Maximin, was reorganized by the considerably less famous Gerard Vie, best known as the former chef to a former French prime minister. Fortunately, apart from some innocuous sauces based on celery or carrot juice, the more Vie changed Antoine the more it has remained the same. It is still Orange County's headquarters for old-fashioned French table luxury: flan of foie gras of unearthly richness and lightness, indescribably plush sauteed endives, exquisite apple ice served in a hollowed-out apple with cider sauce.