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Special Restaurant Issue | Tasting Menus

Civilization, at last

(Scene 1) Your brother has returned from a journey to Antarctica, craving great cuisine and culture. Where to experience civilization at its finest?

June 20, 2004|S. Irene Virbila

Craig Strong is doing stellar cooking at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena. The 33-year-old cooked for a while in Barcelona, and he weaves elements of Catalonia's vibrant Mediterranean cooking through his menus. The outdoor terrace overlooking the hotel gardens is one of the most serene and romantic spots around. Strong brings a fresh perspective to formal hotel dining with dishes such as crab salad in strawberry gazpacho, rabbit loin with tapenade or poussin with preserved lemons and picholine olives. He's a terrific pastry chef as well: Check out his warm almond and quince clafouti or toasted meringue with blood oranges and pistachio ice cream.

If the traveler is more in the mood for Italian, the choice is easy: the chef's extravagant tasting dinner at Valentino in Santa Monica, which has just introduced a three-course menu rustico as well. How could he not appreciate something like grilled cuttlefish from the Mediterranean on tiny green lentils, carciofi alla romana scented with wild mint or a caprese salad translated as an elegant vegetable terrine. And, of course, pasta--hand-rolled garganelle sauced with nuggets of octopus and San Marzano tomatoes or paccheri in a rabbit ragu. And no excuse is needed for a burnished Barbaresco from Angelo Gaja or a rare Dal Forno Valpolicella.

To catch up with the avant-garde, the place to go is Sona, where David and Michelle Myers aim for the extreme edge at their chic minimalist restaurant in West Hollywood. Some of the high-concept dishes work beautifully; others don't. Sona is very much a restaurant in progress, with a constantly evolving menu of ideas and global tastes. The two tasting menus are the best way to experience what the couple are doing. Save room for dessert: Michelle Myers is a talent who's not afraid to push the envelope. Think Persian mulberries, creme brulee tart and lime sorbet.

The traveler will be as hungry for classical music as he is for a good meal, so take him to a performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall and then to the new Patina to show him how far downtown L.A. has come since his last visit. The ocean menu here is a wonderful indulgence for someone who's been landlocked for months--beautiful diver scallop carpaccio, leek bisque with Kumamoto oysters and potato ice cream, and maple syrup-glazed black cod. Or if you are feeling particularly flush, reserve the chef's table and just let chef Theo Schoenegger cook.

The other downtown choice is Noe in the Omni hotel, where chef Robert Gadsby, who once worked with Thomas Keller at Checkers, has resurfaced. The restaurant has an outdoor terrace with a splendid view of skyscrapers and city lights. Gadsby does some of his best cooking when he's given a free hand. He'll send out a series of surprising small courses, which may include rabbit pot pie, Santa Barbara spot prawn "lollipops" or slow-cooked short rib "strudel" with peppered pineapple. Many dishes have a distinct Asian accent, so the chef sometimes sets the table with his collection of fine chopsticks.

Tim Goodell at Aubergine in Newport Beach is an original, and he doesn't get as much credit or exposure as he deserves. He's such a fanatic for detail that he insists on baking breads for the restaurant just as any two-star Michelin in France would do. His terrine de foie gras--put up in a French canning jar--is absolutely sumptuous. He's constantly seeking unusual seafood and superb raw materials. And he has a voluptuous cast to his imagination, when he slips a touch of Thailand or Morocco into a dish. The cheeses are wonderful and the desserts too, from pastry chef Shelly Register. Who could resist her apricot tarte Tatin or chocolate cream pie with Valrhona chocolate sorbet?

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