Southern California's always surprising restaurant scene was particularly inventive this past year, filled with fresh faces, new ideas and wonderful, spirited food. Restaurateurs are trying out new concepts, inventing genres and taking chances with design. And a new generation of chefs is opening up the kind of places they'd like to go to with their friends-- casual and fun, but still serious about food. Priced out of prime real estate, they've discovered Culver City, Hollywood and other unexpected neighborhoods, reconfiguring once-neglected areas as dining destinations. As a result, people are happily eating closer to home, and at the same time paying more attention to what is truly local. Eating out in L.A. has never felt so fresh and new.
FINE DINING WITH SIMPLICITY AND FOCUS
Ever since Eric Greenspan left his position as opening executive chef at the late Meson G in 2005, he's been planning to open his own place. A former executive chef at Patina, he didn't want anything too formal or stiff. In fact, he calls what he does at the Foundry on Melrose "fine dining for the everyday man." The restaurant is casual and lively, with an airy enclosed back garden outfitted with leather banquettes and a fireplace. Upfront, there's live music five nights a week, and soon a live webcam will capture the action in the kitchen. All this is fine and dandy, yet in terms of the cooking, Greenspan's technique, honed in the kitchens of David Bouley, Ferran Adria and Alain Ducasse in New York, has a new simplicity and focus. For one thing, the 32-year-old New Jersey native is working with a small menu to better reflect the seasons and whatever inspires him at the moment. It could be supple little raviolis with quail egg, fava beans and Parmesan foam; wild salmon with white asparagus and radishes in a Meyer lemon sauce; or braised pork belly paired with soft scrambled eggs. He's got a sweet little wine list and one of the best cheese selections in town too. His new place has charged him up, and his cooking is now more personal than anything he has previously done.
THE FOUNDRY ON MELROSE
7465 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, 323 651-0915
Rethinking favorites from around the world
At Gonpachi, a handsome new Japanese restaurant, a soba master works in a small glassed-in room. Using buckwheat flour he grinds himself, he kneads the blue-gray dough into a smooth ball. The next day he rolls it out like a bolt of cloth, and then, with a special knife, cuts it into fine strands. The square-cut noodles have a wonderfully firm texture and fresh flavor. They're best served chilled on a bamboo mat, with a dipping sauce dosed with grated daikon and a dab of wasabi. Or you can have them served with warm duck broth as a dipping sauce. Once you're done, a server will bring out a teapot containing the cooking water, which is filled with nourishing minerals and vitamins. You pour it into the dregs of the dipping sauce to make a soothing soup. Gonpachi, 134 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 659-8887. Soba dishes, $7.50 to $12.50.
Sal Marino, chef-owner of Il Grano in West Los Angeles, is smitten with crudo. In fact, he was the first in Los Angeles to adopt the Italian way of eating raw fish. With a glass of Pigato from Liguria or a Txakolina from the Spanish Basque country, his fantasia di crudo di mare is a perfect way to start a meal here. Next might be slivers of the dark red loin and pale belly of bluefin tuna on a slaw of celery root and daikon radish. Try the stunning Japanese octopus carpaccio with a raw scallop and bottarga of the sea (gray red mullet roe) and the earth (dehydrated egg yolk) shaved over. Here's a chef who's found his metier. Il Grano, 11359 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; (310) 477-7886. Fantasia di crudo di mare, $21. Catch, the new restaurant in Hotel Casa del Mar, has caught up to the crudo craze too, with a special section of the menu devoted to sushi and sashimi as well as Asian-accented crudo preparations such as shima aji (yellowjack) with ginger juice and mustard oil or kampachi with sea beans, aged soy and sherry. Catch Restaurant & Sushi Bar, Hotel Casa del Mar, 1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica; (310) 581-7714. Crudo, $6 to $20.
25lbs. Bluefin tuna crudo served at Il Grano per week
The wood-burning ovens at Pizzeria Mozza are fired up to 750 degrees, so that each of the hand-stretched pies comes out of the oven bubbly at the edges. It took months of research and working with the ovens for Nancy Silverton, the genie behind La Brea Bakery, to develop her distinctive dough. The 15 or so pizzas on the menu are terrific, but especially her squash-blossom pizza with a smear of tomato sauce. Once it comes out of the oven, Silverton finishes it with dollops of cool, creamy burrata cheese. Pizzeria Mozza, 641 N. Highland Ave.; (323) 297-0101. Squash blossom, tomato and burrata pizza, $15.