When we last sang the praises of 40 restaurants three years ago, passionate readers wrote, phoned and faxed to tell us the places we overlooked (their favorites, of course) and those we overrated (our picks, natch). Well, get ready to pass the salt, everyone, because Southern California's Top 40 is back. To compile it, I've feasted my way from Alhambra to Ventura, sampling the work of exciting new chefs and keeping tabs on oldies but goodies. That's a lot of miles--not to mention calories--but who's counting? Especially when it adds 16 newcomers to the hit parade. So here, in alphabetical order and with a few favorite dishes for good measure, are my picks for 1996.
To sample the full range of the Lebanese menu at Al Amir, come for dinner with lots of friends. You'll want to order at least a dozen of the mezzeh, the Middle Eastern version of antipasti, enough to cover the table in a mosaic of little dishes, each one more enticing than the last. Start with slender stuffed grape leaves tart with lemon, smoky baba ghannouj and rich hummus, little flatbreads spread with tangy cheese or a fragrant carpet of dried thyme, sesame seeds and sumac. Then try kibbeh, delicious deep-fried ovoids of minced spiced lamb and bulgur, or crisp quails in roasted garlic sauce. The wine to drink is Cha^teau Musar, a lush red from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. You can stop with mezzeh or continue with a skewer of lamb, chicken or spicy lamb sausage. But go easy. You shouldn't miss the crisp, freshly made baklava (walnut or pistachio) to enjoy with tiny cups of sludgy, sweet Middle Eastern coffee.
5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 931-8740. Entrees, $11.95 to $17.95.
Considering Alto Palato's elegant setting and the authentic cooking, there's not a better Italian restaurant in town for the price. The kitchen excels at thin-crusted, Roman-style pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven, an array of hearty antipasti and, best of all, classic pastas. These are the kind you want to eat every day: penne alla puttanesca, linguine with seafood or, my new favorite, the lusty penne with venison sausage. Don't forget to ask about specials, often homey dishes like a Jewish-Roman soup of skate wing, tomatoes and broken spaghetti or a roast chicken stuffed with potatoes, garlic and wild fennel. Wine lovers can drink better than ever now, too: Wine prices have been lowered up to 30%, making a good bottle quite affordable. The gelati, especially the chocolate hazelnut and pistachio, are the real thing. And no other local restaurant makes a more correct espresso or cappuccino.
755 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 657-9271. Entrees, $13.95 to $19.50.
Arnie Morton's of Chicago
The only things to order at Arnie Morton's are steak, steak and steak. And they are superb: prime, grain-fed Midwestern beef, well-aged and incredibly flavorful. Particularly worth the cholesterol splurge is the chain's best steak, the 48-ounce Porterhouse for two. Cooked in a 1,000-degree broiler, your gorgeous hunk of meat will almost never be overdone. At Arnie Morton's, rare means rare, that is, a "blue," cool center; medium-rare means a red, warm center. Slide into one of the booths and head off the waiter's frenzied recitation of the menu by saying you already know what you want: sliced tomato and onion salad, that Porterhouse for two--charred and medium-rare, an order of hash browns or potato skins and the steamed asparagus. The wine list is a compendium of top Bordeaux and California Cabernets at prices to match.
435 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 246-1501. Also at 1661 W. Sunflower Ave., South Coast Village, Santa Ana; (714) 444-4834. Entrees, $19.95 to $29.95.
The cooking by Tim Goodell and his wife, Liza, at this tiny, spare Newport Beach restaurant just keeps getting better and better. Aubergine's French-California menu, which changes weekly, is gutsy and interesting, filled with dishes such as tartare of bigeye tuna with avocado and cucumber water and braised pigs trotter-and-oxtail ravioli with chanterelles and cabbage-wrapped foie gras in a faintly sweet Sauterne and thyme vinaigrette. When's the last time you've seen braised veal cheeks with black truffle oil and root vegetables on a menu? Goodell, who smokes his own sturgeon and serves it in a Champagne sauce with morel mushrooms, has recently become obsessed with making bread, too. "He gets up in the middle of the night to tend his starter and his doughs, just like a new baby," Liza laughs. Add $24 to the price of the six-course tasting menu, and a different wine will be paired with each course. Desserts are marvelous, especially the molten chocolate souffle cake with prune and Armagnac ice cream.
508 29th St., Newport Beach; (714) 723.4150. Entrees, $15.50 to $19.50; four-course tasting menu, $32; six-course tasting menu, $48.