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Best meals of 2011

From takeout Compton BBQ to a feast in Spain, S. Irene Virbila selects her most memorable dining experiences of the year.

January 05, 2012|By S. Irene Virbila | Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic

Rivera in downtown Los Angeles. A couple of blocks from L.A. Live and its chain restaurants is Rivera, the distinguished Latin restaurant from French-trained, New Mexico-raised John Sedlar. I love sliding onto a seat at the bar or at the massive square communal table and ordering this and that from an eccentric and exciting menu that includes dishes from Mexico, Spain and Latin America. Sedlar is that rare chef whose cooking is incisive and sensual. His wild mushroom carpaccio, tortillas florales, kurobuta pork chop napped in black molé and puerco pibil (pork shoulder braised in banana leaf) all figured into a terrific fall meal. Rivera is always changing as Sedlar redefines the menu. The possibilities are almost endless, and each visit can be entirely different depending on which menu (or room) you choose. Lately, he's added dishes from St. Estèphe, his late, great modern New Mexico restaurant. Playa, his more casual L.A. restaurant, may be more lively, but for the best of Sedlar's cooking, for me, it's Rivera.

M.B. Post in Manhattan Beach. One of the most surprising openings of the year. Who knew that former Water Grill chef David LeFevre had this kind of gutsy global cooking in him? Breaking out of fine dining, he's having exuberant fun turning out vibrant small plates from the Mediterranean and Asia. Every night he adds handwritten specials to a menu that is already prodigiously ample. He's got house-baked breads — crumbly biscuits, shiny pretzels and grilled nan — salt-roasted beets in a beet green pesto dotted with pistachios, or "blistering" green beans with Thai basil, hot peppers and crispy pork bits. In late spring, I loved the couscous with feta, lavender and pomegranate and the grilled nectarines with whipped ricotta. And his sword squid grilled over white oak and presented on a bed of fat white beans. And his caramelized Vietnamese pork jowl with a green papaya and lime salad. Remember the film "Around the World in 80 Days"? This is the culinary equivalent, and the fact that it's in Manhattan Beach makes it all the sweeter. The only downside? The noise.

Soulful Turkish cuisine at Oleana in Boston. A rainy fall night at Oleana in Cambridge, and a table outside on a covered porch turned out to be one of the most memorable meals of the year. I'd been wanting to eat here for years, ever since I'd fallen in love with chef-owner Ana Sortun's cookbook "Spice." Her Turkish food beguiled me with its direct earthy flavors. She's made the cuisine very much her own with dishes like warm buttered hummus with basturma and tomato and her fabulous Sultan's Delight, tender tamarind-glazed beef and smoky eggplant purée dotted with pine nuts, the flavors magical together. The rain fell. We nibbled and talked, reveling in trout spanakopita, wild salmon wrapped in grape leaves with verjus butter and olives, and her flattened lemon chicken with za'tar and cheese pancakes. Turkish cuisine is too little known in this country, and I wanted one more hit. I got it the next day at Sofra, Sortun's Middle Eastern bakery and cafe, with a breakfast of Moroccan doughnuts and morning buns in an orange flower glaze.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

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