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Dazzling the jaded foodies

(Scene 5) They're just in from New York, and you want to show them California at its best.

June 20, 2004|S. Irene Virbila

Take them to Spago in Beverly Hills, because whether the Gothamites admit it or not, they're hoping to see stars. Try to nab a table in the garden because it's incredibly pleasant and a way to flaunt the gorgeous climate. Spago has become such a cliche, it's easy to forget how spectacular the food can be under executive chef Lee Hefter. Wolfgang Puck steps in from time to time, but it's Hefter who leads the kitchen, inspiring the troops and often personally cooking for anyone who orders the tasting menu. He's restless and innovative, trying out ideas he's gleaned from travel in Asia and the Mediterranean. The scene is effervescent, with a crowd as eclectic as they come. And when executive pastry chef Sherry Yard sends out her arsenal of beautifully crafted desserts, it's fireworks.

A.O.C. is loud, and on the weekends it's almost impossible to get a reservation, but take what you can--any day. Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne (also of Lucques) don't miss a beat with the delicious small plates, housemade charcuterie and top-notch cheeses served at this chic Los Angeles wine bar. Slip in for an aperitif and Tuscan chicken liver crostini, a lovely little salad, "black rice" with squid from the wood-burning oven, tender lamb skewers with walnut tahini or a trio of perfectly a point cheeses. New York can't compete.

New Yorkers know Nobu, so Matsuhisa wouldn't be much of a novelty. Take them to Mori Sushi in West Los Angeles instead, and splurge on Morihiro Onodera's omakase (chef's choice) menu, a series of fascinating tastes. The seafood is impeccably fresh, and his wasabi is grated on the spot. He's such a fanatic that he hulls his own rice, just enough for each day, so it will retain as much flavor and moisture as possible. It should floor your guests to get such astonishing sushi in such a low-key, modest place with zero hype.

Sure, they've heard of the Chateau Marmont. Home away from home for actors, musicians, writers and New Yorkers, the 1920s hotel is a mere block off the Sunset Strip, but it feels like a country house hotel. Ask for a table in the romantic courtyard garden, where a bar is set up under a perfectly groomed palm tree. The food, from executive chef Mohammad Islam and pastry chef Malika Ameen, is a surprise for a hotel restaurant, fresh from the farmers market, simple and beautifully cooked: artichoke ravioli, crispy risotto cakes, coriander-crusted lamb chops with lemon spaetzle or maple-glazed duck breast and a terrific sticky toffee pudding with mascarpone sorbet.

Or surprise your guests with a drive to Saddle Peak Lodge in the Santa Monica Mountains. The old stone and timber hunting lodge has a kitschy charm, with its moose heads and hunting gear. Chef Warren Schwartz's menu, though, is smart and contemporary: buffalo tartar with whole-grain mustard aioli, cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crab with artichokes and smoked tomato sauce, roasted elk tenderloin with bacon-wrapped salsify.

Studio at Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach practically hangs off a cliff over the ocean. Few restaurants anywhere can boast a setting like this: Every table in the Craftsman-style "cottage" has a view. The food by executive chef James Boyce is ambitious, though unevenly executed. The raw materials are superb, everything from spiny Pacific lobster to European skate wing to line-caught turbot. Lunch outdoors on the weekend is entertaining too, as beach-goers troop by on the path to the cove below.

Water Grill in downtown Los Angeles reigns supreme for seafood. The raw bar is a dream, and the "fruits of the sea platter," with oysters, clams, mussels, Dungeness crab, Santa Barbara spot prawns and lobster, is a sumptuous bargain at $24 a person. The menu is always a surprise: Recently there was Alaskan halibut "t-bone," cooked on the bone with brown butter, capers and lemon flesh on top. Exquisite.

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