Los Angeles by Tastes

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

-Julia Child

Hamachi Tostada at Animal

Hamachi Tostada at Animal

As I was researching restaurants for our weekend in Los Angeles, I found I was as overwhelmed as I was when researching dining options in San Francisco. There seemed to be no shortage of intriguing dining experiences. Originally, Trois Mec stood out as a must-at-least-attempt-to-get-reservations choice, but as I was practicing and preparing for the one shot I’d have at purchasing “tickets,” our evening took a different turn when a special screening of 20,000 Days on Earth – complete with a solo performance and Q+A with Nick Cave – was announced for the very same night and we decided to put our ticket purchasing efforts towards that.

I was really looking forward to trying Trois Mec, but Nick Cave will always trump anything else, so my first choice restaurant had to go by the wayside. One needs to have their priorities straight. Unfortunately, Trois Mec is only open Monday through Friday, and Friday night we had tickets for another Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert, so a multi-course tasting menu was out of the question.

The research would have to continue.

Because our tickets for the 20,000 Days on Earth screening were general admission, we knew we’d need to line-up early. The theater was across the street from our hotel, so with no commute to worry about we had a quick bite at our hotel bar and then walked over to the Egyptian Theater. After the screening and performance, we were feeling a bit peckish and amped up – although the latter may have just been me – so we went next door to Mel’s Drive-In, a replica of the original 1947 Mel’s famously used in American Graffiti. With its long history and close proximity it was a fun albeit somewhat cheesy way to end the evening complete with chocolate milk shakes, fries and a very sweet and earnest young man serving us.

The following evening, before the last Nick Cave show on my tour, I met back up with my friends Todd and Chester and we headed to Bestia for dinner. Located in the revitalized downtown Arts District, the drive there was a little disconcerting. Hip restaurants, bars, and galleries are opening up in this neighborhood, but all I could see were derelict buildings and hordes of homeless people roaming the streets. This neighborhood was definitely at a crossroads. On top of that, the traffic was horrible and we were running late even though we left some cushion in our travel time. Bestia has a strict fifteen-minute grace period, after which they reserve the right to give your reservation away. Knowing this, when it seemed like we might be a few minutes late we called them to let them know that we were indeed on our way and would be there any minute. All seemed good, but when we arrived two minutes late – seventeen minutes in total from our original reservation – they said they couldn’t seat us. The reason I know we were seventeen minutes late, and not sixteen or eighteen, is because the hostess made that number very clear to us as we tried to check in.

This was not a good first impression. Sure, they were busy, but we let them know we were in transit and we could see there were still some open tables. Finally, after going back and forth for another several minutes they reluctantly seated us, telling us what time we would need to vacate our seats by. Not a problem; we had some place to be. It seemed obvious that they felt they were doing us a huge favor by breaking all their rules.

Bestia – Italian for animal or beast – serves “multi-regional Italian” cuisine created by Chef Ori Menashe, who hails from the much-lauded Angelini Osteria, and works alongside his wife, pastry chef Genevieve Gergis. We ordered several dishes to share, and while the food was really very good the service continued to leave something to be desired. It’s not that it was bad, per se, but it was uptight and pretentious. Located in a renovated industrial warehouse, the restaurant was very artsy, hip, and informal, but the attitude of the staff made me feel like we were kids in a fancy white tablecloth restaurant that had never experienced fine dining.

Roasted Bone Marrow at Bestia

Roasted Bone Marrow at Bestia

If I can temporarily separate the service and the atmosphere from the food, I really enjoyed the meal and feel fortunate that my dining companions were very laid back. We ordered several antipasti plates to start. One of my favorites was the burrata with peaches, cherry tomatoes, pea tendrils, and mint; a beautiful blend of summertime favorite flavors. This was in sharp contrast to the roasted bone marrow served with spinach gnochhetti and aged balsamic, which was a savory, luscious, melt-in-your-mouth dish. A Neopolitan pizza with house-made lamb sausage (Chef Menashe has an extensive house-cured meats program in the restaurant) topped with tomatoes, ricotta, and arugula was very good, although we apparently didn’t cut the pizza correctly.

We ordered a few pasta dishes to share and all were superb. They ranged from Casarecce al Pomodoro, twisted semolina pasta with a simple tomato sauce with fresh ricotta and basil; Pistachio Pappardelle with a rich duck ragu; and my favorite of the evening, the savory Agnolotti all Vaccinara: little pasta pillows filled with braised oxtail, burro fuso, grana padano, pine nuts, and currants. I am a sucker for braised oxtail and it did not disappoint.

We didn’t have time or room for dessert and my overall impression left me in limbo. I had a great time, but it was more because of my dining companions than the restaurant. The food was great, but I’m not sure it was worth the patronizing tone we received from the staff. I don’t know if this snooty demeanor is directed by the ownership or just the staff we ran into that night, but unless the attitude lightens up I’d be hesitant to go back. There’s enough great food in LA to be able to be choosy. It works both ways, after all.

The following day, Craig and I met a friend of his for brunch at Joan’s on Third, where my friend Todd has worked for years. Joan’s is a family-run business that serves beautiful, fresh food that you can eat in, take out, or have catered for a special event. Walking into the bustling marketplace atmosphere all the delectable eye candy can be overwhelming, and making a decision about what to eat is not easy. Since this was brunch in LA, I opted for a delicious smoked salmon plate complete with vine-ripened tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and capers served with a bagel and cream cheese. Completely classic, and a perfect way to start the day.

Saturday night was our final night in the City of Angels, and since we had to forego our chance at trying out Trois Mec we decided to go to Animal, which is also owned by the same two chefs, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. Animal has received all sorts of acclaim since it opened in 2008, including several James Beard nominations and making #11 of Bon Appetit’s list of the The 20 Most Important Restaurants in America; a list focused on restaurants that “Define how we eat out. They’re the fearless spots that drive chefs to innovate, restaurateurs to imitate, and the rest of us to line up.” Shook and Dotolo met in culinary school in Florida, then moved to LA to work at some notable restaurants before starting their own catering company, something which got them noticed and landed them a TV show on The Food Network. From there they opened Animal with a nose-to-tail meat-centric menu focused on familiar comfort foods with a creative twist. “The two also changed the dining culture in LA,” writes Bon Appetit, “making food, not the scene, the centerpiece.”

Scottish Smoked Salmon Plate at Joan's on Third

Scottish Smoked Salmon Plate at Joan’s on Third

Like so many restaurants today, Animal’s menu is made up a variety of small plates meant for sharing. I’d read about some of the must-try dishes, but we decided to put our meal in the hands of our server, who seemed happy to oblige. He asked us if we were up for being adventurous and we gave him the thumbs up. He started us off with the hamachi tostada: a layered concoction of beautiful raw fish, avocado, crisp greens, and fried onions topped with colorful, edible flower petals. This was a light and refreshing start that was followed by the savory chicken liver toast that I’d been anxious to try. A little bit on the bready side for me, but the chicken liver was smooth, creamy, and decadent. The crispy pig ear with red chili, lime, maple, and a fried egg was the only dish that seemed potentially challenging, but it easily ended up being our favorite. It was a nice play of textures with the creaminess of the egg against the crispy pig ear, enhanced with the Asian-influenced lime and chili flavors.

Due to the season, corn played a key role in almost every restaurant I went to on this trip, and the corn dish that came out next was spectacular: mini corn cobs covered in a sophisticated version of a nacho cheese sauce. It was messy, decadent, and delicious, and I could have eaten this all night, although thank goodness I didn’t. Barbeque pork belly sliders with coleslaw were up next, and while quite good they were not particularly unique and after making it through the dish we were pretty full. Then a final main course came out: a giant smoked turkey leg. Besides the fact that we weren’t hungry, it was the one disappointment of the night. There was nothing wrong with it, really, but it was a lot of meat, a lot of effort, and just not that interesting coming on the heels of other dishes that had more intriguing flavors and textures.

Despite being full, I was torn as I was deciding between two of Animal’s signature desserts: tres leches or the bacon chocolate crunch bar. I think if it wasn’t for that turkey leg we’d have ordered both, but devouring two desserts seemed an impossible feat at this point, so we went with the lighter tres leches and ended the meal on a high note. The cake was light and moist, and what could be a bland dessert was flavorful and scrumptious. Nicely paired with a suggested dessert wine, it was a perfect end to the meal and to our trip.

Aside from the fact that Bestia and Animal really have the same name, the menus are completely different and shouldn’t be compared, but the experience at each can be. Bestia was all about hype and attitude, while Animal was relaxed and casual. The service at Animal was really friendly and we felt welcomed; at Bestia we were made to feel lucky to be on the premises. The food is a key reason why anyone dines out, but when you’re made to feel replaceable it doesn’t matter how good it is. The experience at Bestia was saved because of the good company I was in. The experience at Animal – even with a couple of underwhelming dishes – didn’t need saving.

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