I am a California girl living in both New York City and Los Angeles. I moved to NY after attending a six week course for restaurateurs at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Every weekend I would travel down to the city where I would explore the museums, art galleries and theater but most important the amazing assortment of restaurants. Great restaurants were something that I felt was always missing in LA, until recently. I know that I am not alone with this opinion of LA.
Michel Richard, the French patissier and now Washington, DC's finest chef and restaurateur, (Citronelle, Centrale), left Los Angeles for the East Coast because he felt that people just did have an understanding or appreciation for food and wine. (Well, they never really were gourmets in Washington until recently. I think there are more steak houses per square mile in our nations's capitol than anything else, but that will be for another blog.)
Attracted by the power and glamour of the city, Michel moved to Los Angeles in 1977. He opened his own patisserie, Michel Richard, to instant success. After cooking for his friends who inspired him such as the late, great Jean Louis Palladin. Michel was the first to bring "nouvelle cuisine" to the land of health.
I visited Washington, DC last week and dined for the first time at Richard's Citronelle in the Latham Hotel. It was truly one of the greatest dining experience I have ever had in Washington or anywhere for that matter. I created a tasting menu with the help of the ever so charming chef. The dinner began with the Caviar penguin, ossetra caviar, sitting on top of a light as air cauliflower mousse and served with toasted brioche bread and terrific buckwheat blini's. I chose Michel's signature entree, dinner entree, short ribs, braised for 72 hours with a raisin and peppercorn sauce. Desserts, Michel's specialty were exceptional. In between I chose wonderful tastes of some of Citronelle's classic dishes, the lobster burger and the tuna napolean "nicoise" (a nicoise salad composed and served as a napoleon.
I always loved his brasserie, Centrale, where James Beard award winning chef Cedric Maupillier helms the kitchen. You can go to Centrale and order the same wonderful lobster burger that you will find at Citronelle, but here they will be served with the most delicious French fries outside of France, (Take that, you Washingtonian French haters!), all in a fun and upbeat atmosphere.
When Michel left the glitz of Hollywood for the power and politics of DC, there was a big hole left for dining in LA. It has thankfully been filled by some pretty exceptional chefs and restaurants. There was the invasion of Tuscan dining starting with Il Giardino, where I once managed the front of the house. It spawned Giorgio Baldi of Il Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi (I have seen everybody in Hollywood twirling spaghetti around their forks at this little gem by the sea, among them Tom Cruise, who is a regular, Steven Spielberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, Madonna, Seal and Rihanna, politicians including President Bill Clinton, our former Mayor Reardon and soccer star David Beckham), Agostino Scandri initially the owner of Toscana, and now Ago, (another star studded trattoria whose investors include Robert De Niro and Harvey Weinstein) and Madeo and Locanda Veneta. I can't forget to mention Piero Selvaggio of Valentino, and the Drago brothers who own many of LA's most successful Italian eateries
One of the most famous LA chef and restaurateur is of course Wolfgang Puck who started at Ma Maison and then went on to open Spago along with wife and designer Barbara Lazaroff. Spago gave birth to Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton of Campanile and La Brea Bakery fame and the later of Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza, Suzanne Goin and Carolyn Styne of Lucques, A.O.C. and now Brentwood's Tavern in the old Hamburger Hamlet space. (How dare they invade Little Italy West...there are seven Italian restaurants all within a three mile radius!) Tavern has a wonderful take-away section and a bakery that is French to the core meaning an abundance of butter in the traditional croissants and cinnamon monkey bread, a favorite of mine. They also bake artisanal breads which are served in the dining room along with more of that sinfully creamy butter or olive oil if you ask nice.
Last night I dined at one of LA's newest restaurant, Gjelina in Venice. That was the most difficult reservation to obtain. All summer long, I tried to get a seat at this rustic Mediterranean restaurant on Abbot Kinney. Travis Letts is the young chef/owner who took advantage of the wood-burning oven that he inherited from the previous restaurant, using it to make pizza's and other Italian inspired items on his interesting menu.
We ordered the two best pizzas that our waiter recommended, the gruyere, carmelized onion, fromage blanc and arrugula pizza and the hen of the woods mushrooms, beet greens and taleggio pizza. I guess I am spoiled by pizza I have had at Mozza and at many eateries in NYC. The pizza's were good, but I wasn't overwhelmed. We had a refreshing salad consisting of rocket greens, honey crisp apple, pomegranate, endive and fiscalini cheddar, fresh burrata wrapped in prosciutto and served on a bed of grilled treviso lettuce and grilled pears. We also enjoyed the crispy duck leg confit with pan roasted brussels sprouts, turnips, mustard and balsamic and thr lentils with spicy lamb sausage and escarole.
The wine list leaves something to be desired, so we brought our own, because the $20 dollar a bottle corkage seemed quite reasonable. It is also a very noisy restaurant, so if you really want to have a conversation, I suggest that you request a table in their lovely garden.
I have one problem with Gjelina, it stems from the warning written on the front of the menu which reads, "changes or modifications to the items on the menu are politely refused." This is LA and everybody seems to be one diet or another. In fact, a good friend of mine who joined us last night is a vegan and asked if they could just refrain from adding the cheese on the few dishes he wanted to try. The waiter's response was that the chef has taken a lot of time creating his dishes and will not deviate from them at all.
I have dined in restaurants all over the world and have never encountered a restaurant that didn't want to make sure that the customer left feeling satisfied and with the desire to return again, not at Gjelina. My friend will never go back to Gjelina, because he left hungry! Frankly, most of Hollywood looks hungry and too thin, but again, this is a whole new topic!!
Los Angeles may never be a food town like New York, but we have made great strides, and hopefully, regardless of the economy, it will only continue to get better.