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The year in food: changing tastes

When it comes to restaurants, there's something new on the menu. Think rock 'n' roll, not rock-star chefs.

December 27, 2009|By Jonathan Gold

If you are to believe the glossy food magazines, the American restaurant of the year is Bazaar, an overdecorated Beverly Hills hotel restaurant that blends avant-garde Spanish cooking, gaudy French design and old-fashioned American showmanship into a kind-of Cirque du Soleil of food -- a place where it is nearly impossible to figure out where the dining room ends and the gift shop begins.

Bazaar is a place where olives are liquid and puffs of cotton candy have fattened goose liver at their core; it is a screaming, postmodern critique of an overheated consumer moment that at the moment seems very far away.

Yes, the economy tanked. But there have been more high-profile Los Angeles restaurant openings in the last year or so than we saw in the previous five. There's Rivera, featuring the modern Mexican cuisine of John Sedlar; the opulent Italian restaurant Drago Centro; the zillion-dollar bistro Bouchon in Beverly Hills; the mammoth Bottega Louie in the former Brooks Brothers store downtown; and the dozen-odd restaurants in the L.A. Live complex, among others. Tony cocktail bars like Tar Pit, Copa d'Oro, the Roger Room and the Varnish now seem so well-integrated into the fabric of the city that it is hard to remember that none of them existed a year ago.

Culinary trends are fine. I'm as ready as the next food writer to proclaim pig's trotter the new pork belly, or to predict the ascendance of vadouvan, fingerling potatoes and violet liqueur. But in 2009, something truly new was going on that may fundamentally change the way we look at restaurants. But you had to look for it.

It could be found in a barren parking lot in Rosemead, where 600 people shivered in the cold, glancing at their iPhones and awaiting the arrival of a food truck bearing Korean tacos and kimchi quesadillas. Kogi, whose chef came to the universe of food trucks after years leading the kitchens at the Beverly Hilton, broadcasts its location on Twitter, causing immense crowds to materialize in otherwise deserted locations, inspiring dozens of knockoff trucks.

It could be found at a recent gathering of four dozen strangers in a loft for the one-time appearance of an underground vegan chef. And at the Culver City art gallery that became the white-hot center of haute cuisine for a couple of weeks when Ludovic Lefebvre, a protege of three-star French chefs Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard, and former chef at Bastide and l'Orangerie, opened Ludobites as a pop-up restaurant, also publicized on Twitter. Lefevbre's dishes include foie gras beignets, sashimi with sushi-rice ice cream and cod smeared with a complex mole sauce he was taught to make by a food blogger's mom.

An Eastside gathering of street vendors, forced from their spot by the complaints of nearby brick-and-mortar businesses, scattered all over Boyle Heights. But they're still findable. When you check the Twitter feeds, you learn not only what chalupa masters will be where on a Thursday night, but what kind of tamales might be on the menu and whether they are serving their delicious walnut atole. They're not just tacos -- they're tacos that tweet. In the next few years, the scrawny kid hunched over his Android may become as important to the success of a restaurant as the chef.

While nobody was paying attention, food quietly assumed the place in youth culture that used to be occupied by rock 'n' roll -- individual, fierce and intensely political, communal yet congenial to aesthetic extremes: embracing veganism or learning to butcher a cow; eating tofu or head cheese, bean sprouts or pigs' ears. I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing about another celebrity potato farmer or rock-star butcher, about 15-year-old cheddar or 150-year-old Madeira. And I am not alone.

Jonathan Gold is the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer for the LA Weekly.

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