Church & State feels like summer all year round. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
To say that I eat out a lot would be something of an understatement. The question I'm always asked, of course, is what is my favorite restaurant? That's understandable, but it's also basically unanswerable. Because the answer depends on whether I'm in the mood for something simple or something sublime, pasta or sushi, a quick bite or a piece of restaurant theater.
And though I rank restaurants according to a star system, that doesn't necessarily predict where I'll want to eat on any given night. Stars reflect a restaurant's ambitions and how well it fulfills them. A great hamburger or pizza joint is certainly something to celebrate for doing one thing perfectly. But neither can be compared to a top restaurant with a highly trained staff putting out an ambitious menu made with the very best ingredients and executed with skill. The most stars go to the restaurants where everything comes together, where the food, service, ambience, imagination and technique add up to something more than the sum of its parts.
But that doesn't mean those are the restaurants I remember most when I look back over the year's dining. For me, a memorable meal means more than just the number of stars. There's always something serendipitous about a great meal and, in a way, perhaps unrepeatable. After a memorable experience, I come away feeling I've enjoyed something more than just good cooking.
So with that in mind, here are the meals that stand out most from the last year, whether or not they were the most highly rated.
Latin cuisine in full flower at Rivera, downtown L.A.
We all have our secret pleasures. Sometimes it's a late-night tongue or carnitas taco eaten with salsa dribbling down your chin while standing in the pool of light next to a taco truck. L.A. is full of such spots for Mexican food. But something more elevated is hard to find. That's why dinner at Rivera is such a treat. At this casually elegant spot, John Rivera Sedlar weaves bright Latin flavors together to create irresistible dishes. I can't stay away from the warm tortillas florales imprinted with flowers and herbs, or the "dog's snout" salsa that will leave your nose running from the chile quotient. I love his Spanish-inflected duck confit in a puddle of Rioja sauce fired with Cascabel chiles and the pork shoulder braised in a banana leaf until it's so tender you can literally cut it with a spoon. It's sumptuous and down to earth at the same time, both wildly inventive and delicious.
Rivera Restaurant, 1050 S. Flower St., Los Angeles; (213) 749-1460; www.riverarestaurant.com. Starters, $10 to $14 (though jamon ibérico de bellota is $44); larger plates, $18 to $29.
Learning more about flavor at Jitlada, Hollywood
Another rare pleasure: slipping into Jitlada on a weekday night and asking "Jazz" Singsanong, who owns the Thai restaurant with her brother Tui, to choose a menu. In the best possible scenario, she'll disappear into the kitchen to cook up some dishes from Pak Panang, the southern Thai village where she grew up. And when she's cooking, she doesn't pull any punches. Have a pitcher of water and some beer at the ready for the fire-breathing jungle curry of pork, little round green eggplants and green peppercorns on the stem. Raw blue crab salad is fiery too, cooled only slightly with green papaya and lime. I've developed a taste for fried shallots as well, scattered over string beans in a sweet-hot sauce or entirely covering a whole sea bass stained with turmeric. With each bite, I learn so much about spice combinations and the magic they can make with the right firepower.
Jitlada, 5233 1/2 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 663-3104; Jitlada restaurant; Appetizers, soups and salads, $4.95 to $12.95; main courses, $7.95 to $21.95; noodle dishes, $7.95 to $12.95; southern Thai dishes, $6.95 to $24.95.
The sense of celebration at Church & State, downtown L.A.
Some restaurants are so solemn you can fall asleep before the first course. Not Church & State. The surrounding streets may look shut down for the night, but at this French bistro, the party never stops. It's loud and boisterous and feels like summer all year round, with piazza lights strung across the high ceiling. I go for the oysters, for the excellent house-made charcuterie served on giant boards made by the chef himself. Walter Manzke is a refugee from fine dining, here cooking retro-bistro food. His escargots are witty and delicious, served in individual ramekins topped with a puff pastry hat. And I can never go away without ordering the thin-crusted tart blanketed in leeks, lemon crème fraîche and smoked salmon. And the frites? They're fried in lard, which makes all the difference.
Church & State, 1850 Industrial St., Los Angeles; (213) 405-1434; www.churchandstatebistro.com. Oysters, $26 a dozen; charcuterie plate, $14; hors d'oeuvres, $3 to $14; salads, $9 to $11; main courses, $11 to $26; sides, $6; cheese selection, $12 to $18; desserts, $7 to $8.