Propelled by the dot-com stock rush, San Francisco surfs on a tidal wave of martinis and rare Bordeaux. The kitchens of Chicago and Boston get hotter by the minute. And Vegas justly bills itself as America's latest eat-out mecca. Where does all this leave the City of Angels?Long famous for its short culinary attention span, Tinseltown is playing catch-up these days — at least according to the diffident buzz. With my friend John, a Brit who's a born-again Angeleno, I set off in search of the latest L.A. scene and cuisine. The result?Well, gourmet blockbusters may be thin on the ground, but no need to worry: the city still knows how to put on a show. Here, five days' worth of watching, tasting, and eavesdropping.
MONDAY NIGHT, SANTA MONICA: MÉLISSE
"She had very pretty teeth, but I'm not sure they were hers." This from the dangerously tanned Santa Monica matron in the next booth. Her husband is too busy discussing the anatomy of a Lexus to notice her—or his côte de boeuf. Above us, a Louis-je-ne-sais-quoi chandelier swings from a shallow cupola. Around us are stenciled walls the color of moldy lemon, ranks of louvered shutters, and a suburban garden fountain. Where are we?The Petit Trianon? This is Los Angeles making a leap for French luxury … and landing, looks-wise, as a Michelin-star wannabe somewhere on the outskirts of Zürich. The most stylish feature is the green neon exit sign. Not quite what I expected from Josiah Citrin, California's hipster surfer chef, ex of JiRaffe, who recently set up shop on this corner a dozen blocks from the ocean.
The sommelier is too busy decanting a $400 Napa Cab to feign regret at not having our $40 bottle in stock. Compensation arrives courtesy of two blondes in prim suits who tend to us with the studied enthusiasm of Four Seasons desk clerks. And the kitchen's generosity is without fault. Who wouldn't warm up to a chef who sends out not one but two adorable amuse-gueules—a little tomato tart and a chilled cucumber soup with a spoonful of crab?
Mélisse's food flourishes where the design flails, delivering an almost unsettlingly perfect illusion of an haute-rustic bastide in Provence. The hint of curry doesn't distract from the classic smoothness of the seafood velouté, poured around fat scallops. Two langoustines arrive perched on sprightly vegetables Provençale perfumed with basil pistou. The orange sauce on the sweetbreads is a touch cloying, but the seductively pink veal tenderloin is a triumph. And the huge cheese tray, plus the nectarine polenta with Pinot Noir syrup, would dazzle even the crustiest Michelin inspector.
TUESDAY NIGHT, WESTWOOD: MOJO
Hold the Austin Powers jokes. F.Y.I., mojo is a Latin marinade. It's also the perpetually mobbed restaurant at the W Los Angeles hotel, dishing up a Latin-fusion extravaganza in the footsteps of the Mondrian's Asia de Cuba. Outside: a traffic jam of UCLA seniors and new-media moguls wedged into their convertibles. Inside: lipstick-red banquettes, dark wood floors, and a mélange of cushions, sofas, and neon. Extras: grilled-chicken Valley gals, criminal lawyers barking sentencing precedents, and a Versace-clad Hong Kong heiress on a date with an Iranian Casanova-in-training.
We settle down to a catalogue of nuevo latino's greatest hits: ceviche, tingling with coconut and lime and presented in a coconut shell; smoked duck tamales; a trio of empanadas (chorizo, chicken, shrimp and corn). All are much better than average. The only serious miss is the misspelled "parpedelle" pasta in an uncomfortably sweet sauce billed as pozole. With a few of the bartender's Latin Lovers inside us, we don't mind. The lights dim, as if on cue. We order dessert under faint rays from the bar, backlit in Frederick's-of-Hollywood red. "When I shot Carlito's Way for Brian, I did this kind of tacky lighting," muses our dinner companion, Stephen.
We let that slide down with our mango sorbets, then stroll over to Eurochow, half Piet Mondrian's studio, half avant-garde ice palace, from celebrity restaurateur Mr. Chow. We blink in a high-vaulted bank building made over as a blindingly white see-and-be-seen restaurant. It's 11-ish, and unfortunately everyone has been seen: Antarctica is more crowded than this. We summon up fresh litchis and Chowetinis from our actress, er, waitress. She reads back our order like a soliloquy.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT, KOREATOWN: YONGSUSAN
A couple of miles west of downtown, we navigate through a cubical kimchi wonderland. Seoul aside, the source for the silkiest soon-dubu (unpressed tofu), tenderest kalbi (short ribs), and most slurpable naeng-myun (cold noodles) are these storefronts tucked into Koreatown's neon-lit mini-malls.
Tonight, we're sniffing out something a bit less populist. Korean friends have dispatched us to Yongsusan, L.A. outpost of the Seoul restaurant empire presided over by Mrs. San-Ock Choi. Our absentee hostess is famous for set banquets centered on mild, homey dishes from her native Kaesong, in North Korea. In the lobby, surrounded by Korean silicon-chip small talk and ladies with corsages, we can tell this isn't your average grill-your-own-ribs joint. A waitress ushers us into a private room flooded with relentlessly bright lights (so Seoul) and padded with faux damask (so L.A.). She glides in whenever we touch an electronic bell that chimes Für Elise. Our 16-dish feast unfolds like a Korean Cuisine 101, but what we most relish are the rare flavors of Kaesong. A salad plays shredded cucumber against jellyfish ribbons zapped with sharp mustard. Mung bean noodles come flecked with seaweed and tossed in wild sesame oil. The pièce de résistance is a whole stuffed cabbage kimchi, lightly fermented and almost alive with delicate pungency.
At the valet station, our car arrives, the radio babbling in a language that's decidedly not Korean: "Jeff, you're a total friggin' moron, dude. You mean you let her pull a no-show, mo-fo?"
We tip and channel-surf. "Erection problems?Call 877/SEX-IS-LIFE."
THURSDAY NIGHT, HOLLYWOOD: SUNSET ROOM
We dodge a van belching flames on Sunset. It's bound to be a hot, hot night. The temperature rises as we scramble for bills by the velvet rope of the Sunset Room, a restaurant-cum-club of the moment owned by dry cleaner—turned—producer Elie Samaha. A pay-in-advance valet station?Crowd control?Inside it's a dark and molten panorama of shirtsleeved execs and Asian girls with glittering navel rings. If there are celebs here, they're in disguise tonight. Wondering if Thursday was a mistake, we arrange ourselves around a booth in the large central space, which vaguely evokes Batista's Havana.
Masterminded by Claude Segal, late of Drai's, the Sunset Room zeroes in on food that's as eighties as the sea of sequined tops. Lobster dim sum in white wine beurre blanc, filaments of Peking duck in a forest of endive, sweet-and-sour tuna sashimi on cabbage slaw—the fusion fantasy from a 1986 Bon Appétit. The "warm chocolate molten cake" is another trip down memory lane. Perhaps Segal is cooking all this in earnest, but it sure feels like a remake—and a pretty tasty one at that.
Then there's the saga of getting out. No stylish escape routes here. "The black Maxima … ," yells the prepaid parker, "that'll be twenty-eight minutes. Wait there." You could break a leg shifting your weight. Whatever. Limp's the theme of the night: the Sunset Room is evidently due for a hip replacement.
FRIDAY NIGHT, BEVERLY HILLS: REIGN Laughter, table right. A very large man is bellowing, stomping his size 16 feet, shaking plaster off the walls. Our martinis tremble. The waitress laughs. Table left laughs. We all laugh. And that's before the punch line. The joker offers us a taste of his short ribs; we buy him a drink. Have we seen him somewhere before?Yeah … in Armageddon and There's Something About Mary.
It's nothing but an average night at Reign, a defiantly sleek Beverly Hills stage set owned by footballer Keyshawn Johnson. The mostly African-American crowd is so gorgeous that no one would notice if Puffy and Jennifer sauntered in. And the guys—mirrored sunglasses, gold chains, turned-up collars—out-glamour the barside posse of bare-backed, multi-ethnic divas.
Reign would be one of America's happiest restaurants even if the food were half as awesome. The Southern faves on the menu (Johnson's family recipes, natch) have been lightened up without sacrificing a touch of the soul. Glass bowls and trays bear the bounty: ribs wafting hickory smoke, fried chicken that squirts juice in our mouths, a nutmeg-spiked peach cobbler. And, for once, an opinionated waitress whom we trust—Darleen, a blond ingénue from South Carolina, with a senatorial command of Southern flavors.
Table right: "So this dude walks into a bar …"
Mélisse 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310/395-0881; dinner for two $110.
Mojo W Los Angeles, 930 Hilgard Ave., Westwood; 310/443-7820; dinner for two $78.
Eurochow 1099 Westwood Blvd., Westwood; 310/209-0066; drinks for two $11, dinner for two $110.
Yongsusan 950 S. Vermont Ave.; 213/388-3042; set banquets from $20 per person.
Sunset Room 1430 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; 323/463-0004; dinner for two $70.
Reign 180 N. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; 310/273-4463; dinner for two $83.