Downtown? Until very recently, if you asked someone to meet you for dinner there, it was roughly the equivalent of asking them to join you on the moon. I've met people who have never been within shouting distance of the area, even though they've lived in L.A. practically all their lives. Time to get over it, because downtown L.A. has blossomed into a bona fide destination with a growing roster of intriguing dining possibilities.
So much, in fact, is happening downtown, restaurant-wise, that it's difficult for a hardworking critic to keep up. For the first time in decades, the city's center offers a full array of places to eat at all price levels, with more opening all the time.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 08, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Downtown dining: In the April 29 Food section, an article about downtown L.A.'s restaurant scene included an incorrect phone number for Wurstkuche restaurant. It is (213) 687-4444.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 13, 2009 Home Edition Food Part E Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Downtown dining: An April 29 article about downtown L.A.'s restaurant scene included an incorrect phone number for Wurstkuche restaurant. It is (213) 687-4444.
Here are my favorites of the moment, most new, some old.
Sibling to Chaya Brasserie Beverly Hills (and Chaya Venice, as well as a San Francisco outpost), the new Chaya Downtown showcases chef Shigefumi Tachibe's East-West cooking in a restaurant with a grand outdoor terrace, a full sushi bar and a handsomely appointed dining room. The menu is very appealing, because it's so different from the other high-end restaurants in this part of town. Tachibe's got some delicious crudo (raw fish), a blood orange and beet salad with chevre and dried figs, fresh grilled sardines with pearl barley and spring vegetables, miso-marinated white sea bass with rice galette and braised Kobe beef short ribs. The sommelier is on the case, and it all feels very sophisticated.
By the library
Practically next door, in the same complex on Flower Street across from the Central Library, is Celestino Drago's most ambitious restaurant yet, Drago Centro. His first restaurant downtown, it's quite the glamour queen, with an expansive bar, an outdoor terrace and a dining room with vaulted ceilings and black Venetian glass chandeliers. The view of the library and its garden is thrilling too.
Drago and chef Ian Gresik's cooking does the space proud, with beguiling pasta dishes, such as oxtail ravioli with celery root, paccheri with spot prawns and puttanesca, or pizzoccheri made with buckwheat flour. Main courses, which include an excellent bistecca Piemontese for two, are well-executed but can't compete with the pasta. A bar menu offers salumi, baccala mantecato (salt cod puree), chickpea fritters and other stuzzichini (little bites) to go with a glass of Prosecco or aperitivo.
A slew of Latin-themed restaurants have opened downtown, but the best of the bunch is John Sedlar's Rivera, where the chef is making an overdue comeback with his refined and inventive cooking. A long, narrow space with a communal table, banquettes and a smaller dining room with walls lined in custom tequila bottlings, Rivera is a short stroll from L.A. Live. Stop in for some stellar tequila and tortillas florales (freshly made tortillas with flowers and herbs pressed into their surface) and avocado butter, maybe a short rib tamale or duck confit in a beautifully poised Rioja sauce.
For thin-crusted Roman-style pizzas, head to Bottega Louie at 7th and Grand, a combination restaurant-bar-gourmet grocery and takeout with breathtakingly high ceilings and gilt-encrusted appointments. No reservations -- the place is huge -- for those pizzas, pasta, of course, and moderately priced entrees. Three thin Kurobuta pork chops with house-made chunky applesauce are just $14, sauteed chicken with artichokes and capers, $15. Dried pastas fare better than the clunky, too-rich ravioli. On the way out, you can pick up some Straus Family milk or cream, maybe a chocolate bar too.
Former Bastide chef Walter Manzke has gotten into French bistro food in a big way at Church & State in the former loading dock of the 1925 National Biscuit Co. Building. The place, backed by Cobras & Matadors' Stephen Arroyo, can feel like one night-long party, with piazza lights strung across the high ceilings, red leather bistro chairs and a bar serving trendy absinthe. And the food is terrific: Manzke makes his own charcuterie and changes the menu frequently to present his take on bistro classics such as escargots (each snail in its own porcelain dish topped with a flirty puff pastry crown), cassoulet (a different one each day), marinated herring and potato salad, house-cured salmon tart, and mussels steamed in white wine and served with a heap of pommes frites fried in lard for extra flavor. With most of the main courses less than $20, including a fine duck confit, small wonder the place is packed every night.
Wurst and fries