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L.A.'s new restaurants serve up a great year

Watch out, New York and San Francisco. This town has seen many impressive openings in 2011. Pizza. Omakase. Anticuchos. It's all here.

  • The Stark Bar is next to new restaurant Ray's at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The Stark Bar is next to new restaurant Ray's at the Los Angeles County… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Each year I keep a running log to track restaurants slated to open each month. When this January rolled around and I started my new list, I fully expected the pace of openings to slow to a trickle.

That hasn't happened. Instead, despite the curdled economy, L.A.'s restaurant scene this year has busted out with new energy and invention. And it continues to inspire the entire country. I can't tell you how many New Yorkers and even, gasp, San Franciscans have told me that Los Angeles is now their favorite eating town. It's about time we got some deserved attention.

Instead of treading the tried and true, L.A.'s restaurateurs and chefs are experimenting with the wild and crazy, with pop-ups, crossovers and new genres. This year's crop of new restaurants includes sandwich shops, noodle joints, izakaya, wine bars, far-flung cuisines, wood-burning-oven specialists, plenty of communal tables and oddball bar concepts. Diverse doesn't begin to describe what's happening now.

And it's not just taking place on the Westside, traditionally the no-brainer address for a successful restaurant. (Because, the thinking goes, who would drive east of La Cienega? Well, the two Mozzas, and Campanile before that, drilled a hole in that theory, thank you very much.) Restaurants and bars are popping up downtown, on the Eastside, along the Wilshire corridor and elsewhere like mushrooms after rain.

The big surprise has been the South Bay restaurant revival, with former Water Grill chef David LeFevre hitting his stride with a gutsy small-plates menu at Manhattan Beach's M.B. Post, which draws on influences from all over the globe. It's crowded. It's loud. It's beachy. And it has a terrific, well-priced wine list. Over at multilevel Strand House in Manhattan Beach, Neal Fraser (BLD, Grace) is consulting on a casual Mediterranean menu executed by Travis Lorton, formerly of Gjelina in Venice.

Even established restaurants have changed colors occasionally. We've seen French chef and food-show star Ludovic Lefebvre collaborate with Animal chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo in an all-foie-gras dinner designed to stick it to those who want to outlaw the traditional fattened duck or goose liver. Lefebvre remains the highest-profile pop-up chef, probably in the country, with sold-out tenures at various kitchens around town and a truck making the rounds with his fried chicken. He's even brought the Ludo truck to Vegas, but not to Place Concorde in Paris yet.

The Animal boys opened a second restaurant devoted to seafood called, for no good reason, Son of a Gun, and decorated it with old buoys and nautical stuff from Dotolo's grandfather's attic.

Roy Choi of Kogi truck fame came out of the cold (again) to open the brick-and-mortar A-Frame in an old Culver City IHOP. He's added a fire pit out back and a menu that includes beer-can chicken and kettle corn dosed with seaweed and hot pepper.

At the Helms Bakery complex, Sang Yoon of Father's Office went upscale with Lukshon, his sleek, lively Southeast Asian restaurant.

At the edge of Little Tokyo, a former Pizzeria Mozza chef, Bryant Ng, came up with the Spice Table, devoted to Singaporean and Vietnamese food.

A couple of blocks over, Lazy Ox Canteen's Michael Cardenas hired tattoo artists to cover the walls of Aburiya Toranoko, a modern izakaya with a skinny communal table running down the middle.

And Kris Yenbamroong, the young chef at WeHo's Talesai, added a pop-up called Night + Market inside the restaurant serving Thai street food on cheap enamel dishware.

Test Kitchen came and went. Ricardo Zarate, who, with that big smile, is everybody's favorite chef, finally got Picca open, a modern Peruvian tavern, with a boisterous crowd and punchy Peruvian cooking, including some killer ceviches and anticuchos along with quirky cocktails from mixologist Julian Cox. Meanwhile, Rivera's John Sedlar launched the more accessible Playa in the old Grace space on Beverly Boulevard with his smart take on Latin cuisine.

Pizzas with pizazz

Sotto, a rustic Italian trattoria from Steve Samson and Zach Pollack -- with a Neapolitan-style pizza, a wood-burning oven from the old country and a savvy Italian wine list -- moved in downstairs from Picca on Pico Boulevard, while in Los Feliz, Mother Dough is turning out the best margherita this side of Naples. This year, in fact for the first time, L.A. may outdo some cities in Italy in terms of number and quality of pizza places. I'd include Mother Dough, Sotto, Olio Pizzeria, Stella Rossa, Pizzeria il Fico and a new Pizzeria Mozza in Orange County in that company.

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