BACK FOR SECONDS
A critic's most memorable dining experiences of 2009
S. Irene Virbila goes near and far to recount those occasions when the moment and the meal came together in a beautiful way.
Church & State feels like summer all year round. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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.
The open-handed generosity at Eva Restaurant, Los Angeles
Sometimes when you go out, you just want to eat. You don't want to pore over a lengthy menu with wordy descriptions of every dish. Sunday night at Eva, in the interest of creating the neighborhood restaurant he envisions, Mark Gold offers a three-course family-style menu for $35, including wine. And believe me, it's not skimpy on either count. What fun to simply take a seat and be served. The menu changes every week, but here's what I had: Little Gem lettuce in green goddess dressing, a warm vinegary potato salad with a platter piled high with juicy fried chicken. Then that night, a second main course of beef brisket braised in red wine heaped with blue lake green beans. And for dessert, a warm bread-and-butter pudding laced with caramel sauce. Simple and satisfying and served up with the generosity of spirit that makes Gold's idea of a restaurant so winning.
Eva Restaurant, 7458 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 634-0700; www.evaretaurantla.com. Dinner appetizers, $10 to $17; main courses, $16 to $24; cheese selection, $14; sides and desserts, $7. Sunday dinner, $35 per person, including wine.
The sense of season and place at Petersham Nurseries Café outside London
I'd read about this restaurant on pastry chef Shuna Fish Lydon's blog "Eggbeater," so when I was in London I made a point of going, not realizing it's an hour outside the city (but well worth the train ride). In warm weather, you eat outside, but in late fall when I was there, lunch is served in a greenhouse with a dirt floor furnished with antique metal and slate-topped garden tables, flowering plants and eccentric objets. I loved the funky, relaxed setting with waiters in Wellies. Each dish was a perfect expression of the ingredients and the season, whether it was salt cod carpaccio, dressed up in frilly purple basil, chile peppers and pinwheels of lemon drizzled with gold-green olive oil or fazzoletti (handkerchief pasta) sauced in a little butter, Gorgonzola and walnuts. Osso buco got me excited in the dish again, and even something as ubiquitous as panna cotta seemed new again in Skye Gyngell's rendition, the fragile cream garnished with pomegranate seeds and honey. Now if only I could have taken home some antique glass cloches for the garden . . .
Petersham Nurseries Cafe, Church Lane (off Petersham Road), Richmond (Surrey), United Kingdom; www.petershamnurseries.com. By reservation only up to one month in advance, 011-44-020-8605-3627. Open at lunch only Wednesday to Sunday. Weekend à la carte first courses, $19 to $23; main courses, $31 to $40; desserts, $12. Weekdays, three-course prix fixe menu, $55; two courses, $48.