Cover Feature Food & Wine Restaurant Review

Old School Versus New

Join us, as we review L.A.’s most successful restaurants and check in on the new guys.

VALENTINO

Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica is a true Los Angeles classic. Operating since 1972, they continue to impress serving classic fresh Italian cuisine to the Los Angeles elite. This year, they welcomed a new chef who is making his mark with his Sardinian cuisine. Valentino is also famous for it’s 1000+ bottle wine collection and has won awards for both its wine and cuisine.

A delightful man named Piero Selvaggio, who is originally from Sicily and came over to the states when he was 18, runs the restaurant. He worked in the restaurant business for his uncle while attaining his degree in Romance Languages. At age 26, he was given the opportunity to open Valentino with a partner and has been going strong ever since. He has embraced the California lifestyle and seems to be living the American dream. He stays fit and attractive by playing tennis everyday, has a beautiful young wife and is best friends with Wolfgang Puck. He feels that running a restaurant is like putting on theatrical performance every night for your guests and says that his success can be attributed to a steady string of great performances. In addition to Valentino in Santa Monica, he has expanded the brand into Las Vegas and Houston. He travels frequently between his locations but considers Los Angeles his home base.

Nicola Chessa is the new Executive Chef and he’s originally from Sardinia. Chef Nicola is quite gifted and is putting out some ingenious cuisine. He came up in Italy and landed in this country in 1998. After working in Houston and D.C., he hooked up with Piero and the Valentino Restaurant Group in 2003, when he was hired to be the sous chef at Valentino Las Vegas. He has quickly moved through the ranks and is now — like Piero — splitting his time and work duties between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

The wine collection at Valentino is truly spectacular and consistantly award winning. At one point, Piero lost his entire collection in the Northridge earthquake but he was undeterred and has rebuilt it better than ever. There’s even a remarkable wine room that you must check out and is perfect for your private dining needs.

LUCQUES

Suzanne Goin is one very busy woman — raising three children and running three restaurants is her current life’s work. Suzanne is knee-deep in the restaurant business, because she owns three restaurants with Caroline Styne (Lucques, A.O.C, and Tavern) and she helps at her husband’s two restaurants. (The Hungry Cat in Los Angeles and in Santa Barbara) But with her solid chef’s pedigree, including her James Beard award, she is thriving.

Wild Salmon Salad by Suzanne Goin

However, as we might expect, she does worry about balance, and has pangs of guilt about neglecting her restaurants, while raising her children. Happily, she has a ton of support. Both she and her husband have family nearby, and she even has a fish purveyor who sits with the kids.

We asked Suzanne what the key to her success has been, and she told us that from the beginning she and partner wanted, “to open a restaurant that we would want to go to,” and to create a place that felt warm, comfortable and inviting. A.O.C. was created from Caroline’s love of wine, and their shared fondness for food, and especially cheese.

We talked about sourcing great food, and she said that produce is no problem in Los Angeles. It is easy to secure food that is local, organic and from a farm. There are several farms in the area, from North County San Diego to Santa Barbara, from which to choose. She gets great local chicken from Jidori Chicken, but has to go beyond the state to secure lamb from Colorado, and pork from Iowa.

Suzanne knows how much she has been blessed and is always eager to give back. She is participating in President Obama’s ‘Chefs Move to Schools’ program, and has enlisted the help of her crew of sous-chefs to meet the time commitment. They’ll be working at the Breed Street Elementary School in the Boyle Heights area of East L.A., where they’ll be helping the younger generation learn about cooking, food, flavor and how to feed themselves right.

CAMPANILE

Mark Peel has been in the food business for a long time. He came up with the likes of Wolfgang Puck but unlike Wolfgang, he had chosen to keep his focus on only one restaurant, Campanile, but has since branched out with Culver City sandwich joint, The Point, and cocktail haven, The Tar Pit. He’s also the cofounder of his former wife’s bakery business, La Brea Bakery. We caught up to him while he was on his way to the farmers market in Santa Monica on a Wednesday. He does a market menu where he decides what to serve based on what looks best at the market that day. He actually calls the menu into the restaurant from the market and they type it out so it’s ready upon his return and for that night’s meal.

Mark Peel

Mark’s an affable character and has a youthful spirit. He seems to really enjoy his craft. That day at the farmers market he was looking forward to procuring peaches, nectarines and, fresh tomatoes! We got to talk about sourcing meats and produce. Mark buys whole lambs from Sonoma but told us about buying meat at county fairs. Both Orange County and Los Angeles County have county fairs where kids in 4H clubs sell their livestock. This is truly the most loved animal you can consume — as Mark says, “they practically sleep with their livestock”.

When prompted to give his thoughts on the notion of community, Mark replies that all restaurants are local restaurants. Given that most of his business comes from the Hancock Park community — he really doesn’t expect residents of Brentwood to make their way over to his area. He thinks that the best thing you can do to reach out in your own community is to organize a block party. He calls it an “overlooked catalyst” where people are drawn out of their homes and into the lives and hearts of their neighbors. He gives back to various charities including the American Cancer Society and Meals on Wheels and does smaller individual giving such as working with high school students who show an interest in working with food.

MICHAELS

Michael McCarty says that he’s got “spectacular clientele” on both coasts. He is living a charmed life as the executive chef and proprietor of Michael’s restaurant in both Santa Monica and New York. He’s been at it for 31 years and his restaurants have been a breeding ground for some of our city’s best chefs including LAX Magazine favorite Mark Peel.

Michael’s Santa Monica

When he started at age 25 in 1979, the food scene in Los Angeles was a much different place. There was no local or sustainable movement and there was not the plethora of farmers markets that we have today. Back then, upscale restaurants were serving previously frozen lobster from Australia with a piece of previously frozen beef. Michael set out to create a modern American restaurant. There were very few Americans in the fine dining space as it was dominated by the French. After growing up in a family who loved to entertain with great food, Michael went on to earn various degrees in hospitality and culinary arts in Paris.

His restaurant was an instant success, in part due to the pairing of fresh California cuisine with French cooking techniques. He was then, and continues to be a huge supporter of the arts. The walls of his restaurant are adorned with art by David Hockney, Jasper Johns and Michael’s lovely wife, Kim McCarty. His first staff uniforms were designed by a then little known designer, Ralph Lauren, who created the preppy look to fit in with the indoor/outdoor layout and the new style of cuisine.

Thirty odd years ago, when Michael McCarty started his restaurant, he ended up creating a blueprint for success. These days he and his wife split their time between the restaurant and winery in Santa Monica and Malibu respectively, and their restaurant in New York. We can’t think of a better way to tee up a wonderful life.

WATER GRILL

The Water Grill in downtown Los Angeles has been a staple for the power lunch for ages. You’ll see suit clad lawyers acting important as they slurp on delicious oysters. The kitchen has been run by Charlie Trotter alum, David Lefevre, for the past six years and sadly, he is leaving to pursue his own venture. But fear not, the Water Grill has been around for twenty years and in those twenty years they’ve had only four executive chefs and have an extensive search and vetting process to find the best talent.

The Lobster Roll from Water Grill

Chef Lefevre says that the success of the restaurant has been due to putting “product first”, being guided by strong morals and exceeding expectations. It’s a great company filled with good people and David was excited to continue the tradition of serving exquisitely prepared seafood. He also feels that a successful restaurant must have great leadership without any complacency and a solid foundation of ethics.

The best item to order when you go to the Water Grill for lunch is the Lobster Sandwich. It’s enormous, hearty and delicious with huge chunks of lobster and big fat French fries. The chowder is also a good lunch option. For dinner, you must start with oysters and bubbly. They have a solid selection of oysters on the half shell including options from Prince Edward Island, Canada to Baja, California to New Zealand. Browse through their award winning wine list to find the perfect complement. You cannot go wrong if you go with the Salmon for dinner. It is served on a polenta cake with a poached egg on top and is totally delicious, really well done. The raw bar is loads of fun if you’re looking for a light snack and cocktails. You can order the Iced Shellfish Platter that includes oysters, crab (king and Dungeness), mussels, shrimp, lobster and sea urchin. A perfect party starter.

DAN TANAS

Dan Tana’s is a charming place with a “Cheers”-like atmosphere and a significant Hollywood draw. We had our most star struck moment when legendary director and actor, Clint Eastwood, sat at the booth next to ours and was promptly chatted up by actor Ryan Phillippe. Most of the staff have been there for years including, Mike, the bartender, who has been there for 43 years and is just as surly as ever. Sadly, long term Maître d’, Craig Susser, has left to pursue his own opportunity but, fear not, as he has simply moved up the street and we are now left in the capable hands of Christian Kneedler.

The draw at Dan Tana’s is the crowd, the steak and the martinis. The steak will make you feel like a lion as you tear into the incredibly delicious beef. It’s moist and perfectly prepared. After washing it down with a couple of stiff martinis, you’ll be feeling as cool as the movie star seated next to you. Dishes are served à la carte at Dan Tanas and the portions are huge. You’ll want to share if you are on any sort of calorie-restricted diet.

The decor is old school Italian with deep red booths and checkered table clothes. The staff, which seems to be entirely male, dresses in formal attire but the guests are generally welcome as the come. It’s a great spot for people watching and, as Christian says, nearly every night there is a WTF moment that leaves you scratching your head with appreciation for whatever normalcy you have in your life.

Christian says it’s one of the most successful restaurants in the history of L.A. and that they are basically busy every night. He feels the key to their success has been consistency with great service and great food every night. They have stayed the same since opening and still use the same purveyors as they did back then. The chef, Neno, has been there for 22 years and the dining room continues to be one of the most entertaining places in Hollywood without any actual entertainment.

ENGINE CO. NO. 28

Set in a beautifully restored 1912 downtown Los Angeles firehouse
is Engine Co. No. 28 — the restaurant. It’s another downtown power lunch hot spot that is popular with the lawyers. The building is a draw in itself but the food will keep you coming back for more.

The atmosphere is very white collar — the perfect place to mingle with lawyers and finance types over lunch or a martini at the end of the day. The interior design and architecture features include a two story mahogany bar, deep-seated mahogany booths, pressed tin ceilings and brick floors. With that crowd and that interior you’ll be feeling like an extra in a legal thriller.

Engine Co No. 28

But the restaurant also has an air of casual elegance most notably in the dishes. American comfort food is their specialty and the best sellers include hamburgers and meatloaf served with mashed potatoes and spinach. They have a really fun gourmet burger menu that includes the Engine Co. No. 28 Heart-Attack involving outrageous portions of cheddar cheese, onion rings, bacon and barbeque sauce…maybe it can just be a once a year treat…to share.

They have also started serving breakfast including favorites like Engine Co. Huevos Rancheros and a 8 oz. Dry-Aged New York Steak Eggs Benedict. While they have plenty of options that will force you to move the belt buckle out a notch, there are also a number of healthy options if you are craving fruit for breakfast or a salad for lunch. Meet after work to mingle at the bar and explore their cocktail and wine lists then take advantage of the complimentary shuttle service to and from local theaters, entertainment venues, and even local hotels.

KOI

Koi restaurant in West Hollywood has been around for eight years and continues to be one of the most fun and delicious restaurants in town. The food could stand on it’s own but part of the fun of eating at Koi is the people watching and the Hollywood scene it draws. Koi is the type of place where you’ll want to take some time with your appearance as you will be given many once overs. It is very much a “see and be seen” type of place filled self-important Hollywood types, wanna-be starlets and general scenesters. The night that we were there, the one and only, Diana Ross was celebrating her birthday.

Besides from wanting to catch the who, what and where goings on in the dining room, the food and cocktails are quite pleasing. The very famous Crispy Rice topped with Spicy Tuna is consistently amazing and should be ordered by all. If you are vegan, then it can be prepared with mushrooms and is just as good. The Roasted Shishito Bisque — made from the Shishido pepper — was super-duper amazing and smoky with a bit of a bite. One new addition to the menu, which was revamped last year, is a Japanese/Italian Kobe Beef Carpaccio. It is incredibly light and delicious and was served with peaches and heirloom tomatoes.

The cocktails are quite inventive and very enjoyable. There are a variety of martinis with fun flavors such as cantaloupe, tangerine and lychee. There is also a saketini, which mixes Kettle One Vodka, Kimoto Sake and cucumbers if you are wanting something a bit less sweet.

If sugar is what you are after then the desserts will not disappoint. The Flourless Molten Chocolate Volcano Cake will silence a noisy table as you drift off into chocolate bliss. Keep in mind that you’ll have about 100 sets of eyes on you as you depart the restaurant so you may want to share and/or practice sucking in.

ANIMAL

We had heard about the guys who run Animal, that they were young and had generated a solid buzz with their attitude and food. We got a chance to get to know Jon Shook and discuss their ascent into star chef status. Jon was quick to remind us that he and Vinny Dotolo didn’t have success overnight and that at times they had been homeless or couch-surfed while picking up work in the 11 years they have been cooking together. Since the opening of Animal they have garnered loads of press and industry awards. They were written up in The New Yorker earlier this year, which helped introduce them to a whole different caliber of diner demographics. They are now on their way to opening up their — yet unnamed — second restaurant, which will not be too far away from the first and current location on Fairfax. The new spot is located on West 3rd Street near Joan’s on Third in between Orlando and Sweetzer.

Jonny insists that L.A. is one of the hottest food towns in the country right now, with industry leaders such as Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio and Rick Bayless all opening up Los Angeles outposts. He eagerly tells me why and sums it up with two words: produce and publicity. Los Angeles has unbridled access to quality produce and, with it’s proximity to the television networks, the city allows a pathway to the national stage and has the most “Top Chef” alumni in the country.

Jonny and Vinny try to give back to the community as much as they can. They spread themselves as far and as wide as possible. Their favorite non-profit to support is the TS Alliance and every year they participate in the Comedy for a Cure event. They also maintain tight bonds and a kinship with fellow local chefs including their first L.A. employer, Ben Ford. They also “allow” one intern at a time to help learn the craft.

They continue to give back with their support of the local food community and from buying all local produce. They visit the farmers markets throughout town but find California a difficult place to source beef. Unfortunately, it’s too hot and land is too expensive for cattle so they end up sourcing their beef out of Iowa. They also encounter some pretty odd supply chain management issues considering that they go through 60 pounds of pig ears each week. You can imagine the logistical nightmare of that sourcing task.

SASHI

Executive Chef and Partner of Sashi, Chef Makoto Okuwa, says his philosophy in life and in the kitchen stems from a Japanese saying Seishin-seij which means “with ones whole heart and soul and to do with the best intentions”. Sashi Sushi is a really fun and interesting restaurant in the heart of Manhattan Beach in the same building complex as the Shade Hotel. Their sushi is fantastic.

Interior of Sashi in Manhattan Beach

It’s an exciting time at Sashi as they have recently started serving Kindai Bluefin Tuna — a farm raised, supposed-to-be-sustainable fish. As you should know, our fish population in the ocean is rapidly depleting and it’s no longer appropriate to not consider the environmental costs of your sushi habit. Kindai Bluefin Tuna is said to be as delicious as regular bluefin without the worry of pulling fish from the ocean. Chef Makoto says about the Kindai, “Providing Kindai is all about conservation. While there is no sustainable option, there is a way to still provide the luxurious Bluefin Tuna flavors with helping conserve and build back up the endangered wild population. Also as a chef, the flavor is so great, so pure. In my opinion, it’s better that wild Bluefin Tuna.”

Sashi opened it’s doors in August of 2008 — scary time to be opening up a restaurant, but they have fared well. Their loyal Manhattan Beach clientele enjoy dishes prepared with extraordinary hand-picked ingredients created by Chef Makoto. You may know of Chef Makoto if you’re a fan of “Iron Chef” and he’s also a protégé of renowned culinary expert, Morimoto.

The décor at Sashi is modern with dark colors and lots of billowing fabric. The lighting is fairly dark and the dress code is more L.A. than Manhattan Beach and includes a generally beautiful crowd. You may be able to smuggle in a baby but not suitable for large groups of children.

XINO

Xino is a fun, new, hot spot at the recently opened, Santa Monica Place. We joined them for lunch and got to know all about their background and cuisine. Xino is owned by Chris Yeo, who has found success in the bay area and in the south with his Straits Café line of restaurants. He’s also got a popular dim sum restaurant in San Jose called Sino, which was the springboard for Xino in Santa Monica. Yeo has successfully brought upscale Chinese and dim sum to the Westside of Los Angeles.

Dim Sum at Xino

Simply put, the food is delicious. The interior is sleek and modern and the design is a long space with the bar at one end, the patio over looking Broadway at the other end with the dining room in between. There is a wall of booths and the most popular dining and drinking area tends to be the patio. There are also cabanas available on the patio.

The food to order is the dim sum, which is really authentic to what you would get in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They also offer late night dim sum, as they stay open until 2AM on Thursday through Saturday. Some other great food options are the Ox Tail if you’re into heavier fare or Maine Lobster and Prawn Pot Stickers as a starter.

They have a popular cocktail and sake menu, which includes a Lycee Martini or a flight of Sake. In our flight we enjoyed Momokawa Silver from SakeOne and Moonstone Coconut and Plum, which were delightful accompaniments to the dim sum. The Lycee Martini is a steal for only $5 during happy hour. They have happy hour Monday through Friday from 4PM- 7PM and again from 11PM – 2AM on Thursday through Saturday.

SONOMA WINE GARDEN

Sonoma Wine Garden is the most popular hot spot of all the new restaurants to open at Santa Monica Place. The success caught them off guard as they expected more business for sister restaurant, Ozumo. They had major stress upon opening and found themselves short staffed and undertrained. They didn’t even have enough plates, napkins or silverware for the masses of guests who flooded their doors.

The patio at Sonoma Wine Garden

After a whirlwind opening they have hit their stride and are now better prepared for their ongoing popularity. The new manager is from Spago and things are expected to run more smoothly. The reason why it has been such a hit is that it’s a fantastic space where you can taste a variety of wines from the Enomatic wine distributer while you sit at the edge of Santa Monica with outdoor views of the ocean and the pier.

The scene is good-looking, successful Westside types who are enthusiastic about having a fun place to consume alcohol in a location that is close to home. The food and wine can get spendy so it’s better to go when you’re flush with cash. The staff is super friendly and seems like a good group of happy-go-lucky, college coeds. It can seem a little bit meat market-ish but with the chance of actually meeting someone interesting. The patio section of the restaurant is the place to be and it can get chilly out there so dress accordingly. They do have heating lamps and blankets.

It’s really a great place to go to sit on the patio, enjoy wine and munch on small plates including the Cheese and Charcuterie Tasting Plate, which is perfect to start.

XANDROS

Xandros has recently opened in the restaurant row section of La Cienega. It’s the first restaurant on La Cienega that has a patio open to La Cienega. There was a lot of municipal hoop-jumping but it is worth the effort. The restaurant was started by Adam Kariotoglou and has a very fashionable group of investors behind it.

Inside Xandros on La Cienega

Kariotoglou has opened, operated and then sold a variety of restaurants including the Romios restaurant chain. His rag to riches story includes starting as the dishwashing and making his way up to the restaurateur. Now, he’s poured his heart and soul into opening up Xandros, an upscale Greek restaurant with a huge menu and an even larger space. The restaurant takes up 7500 square feet of prime La Cienega real estate and every night is a party. There are hot belly-dancers performing, a hoppin’ bar and patio and a vast assortment of delicious food and wine options.

The Xandros menu uses organic and fresh ingredients based on traditional Greek recipes. We enjoyed freshly made hummus and baba ganoush, a really interesting salad with watermelon, feta, basil and heirloom tomatoes and grilled langoustine. While dining, we were entertained first by our dancing waitress and then a belly-dancing babe twirled in and stole the show. The wine selections and desserts were both spectacular. It’s definitely worth checking out the latest addition to restaurant row.

CAFE WAS

Ivan Kane has enjoyed huge success with his popular burlesque show, Forty Deuce. He really was the one that put burlesque on the map. Café Was is a trip. It’s located in a new mall structure surrounded by big corporate retail chains at the corner of Vine and Sunset in Hollywood. However, once you walk through their doors you are transported somewhere very unfamiliar. The box shaped room features various nooks and crannies, antique style furnishings, a stairway to nowhere and deep red booths facing a grand piano in the center of the room.

Burlesque at Cafe Was

While Café Was does focus on the food, Kane’s history of live entertainment inspired him to start doing burlesque again. Thursdays are a hot night at Café Was with his latest burlesque show — Superfly Burlesque, think old school, groovy hits playing while babes perform their sexy moves. Friday night takes you back to the original, Forty Deuce. Watch the classic that inspired legions of imitations and got suburban moms learning to pop and lock. And on Saturday, enjoy music producer, JT Rotem, on the piano. He plays mellow tunes with his jazz quartet.

If you’re more interested in food than entertainment, then you can enjoy quality options in food and cocktails. There’s nothing like washing down Steak Frites with an absinthe cocktail. The menu is French based and this bohemian café is a perfect spot for dinner and a show.

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