LOS ANGELES will always have its celebrity hangouts, restaurants more attuned to the star wattage in the dining room than the food on the plate. But away from the glare of popping flash bulbs, a younger generation of chefs is quietly fashioning a new culinary vocabulary, one that combines classic European techniques with a distinctly Southern California vernacular with accents of taco trucks, mini-mall sushi and a 12-month growing season
It started with Lucques (8474 Melrose Avenue; 323-655-6277; www.lucques.com), a French-Californian restaurant that opened in a converted carriage house in 1998. It turns 10 this month, but the cooking still feels like a revelation.
Under the tutelage of its chef and co-owner, Suzanne Goin, humble dishes are refined without being fussy. A pork chop has unexpected layers of flavor, perhaps because of the crumbled chiles de árbol in the brine. Her famed grilled cheese is made from Gruyère, country bread and caramelized shallots.
The restaurant now anchors a nameless neighborhood that is emerging as the culinary heart of Los Angeles, a two-mile-long swath of busy boulevards and 1920s stucco bungalows sandwiched between the seedy bars of West Hollywood and the estates of Hancock Park. Old furniture stores have been replaced by cool boutiques and, in the last two years, a number of low-key but buzz-worthy restaurants. There’s even a Sunday farmers’ market on Melrose Place, the same tree-lined street where Oscar de la Renta and Alexander McQueen recently opened.
So forget marquee names like Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay. In this part of town, the real stars are on the menu.
The restaurant to watch is also the easiest to miss. From the street, Hatfield’s (7458 Beverly Boulevard; 323-935-2977; www.hatfieldsrestaurant.com) could be mistaken for a boutique or a home, a tiny stucco building obscured by a boxy gray awning. But inside, the austere room is filled with couples in good jeans rubbernecking at the artfully composed dishes.
Opened two years ago, the restaurant is a family affair: husband Quinn Hatfield, 36, runs the kitchen, and Karen Hatfield, 32, is both pastry chef and manager. The intimate dining room is sparsely furnished with crisp tablecloths and whitewashed walls.
The menu is just as unassuming, but one starter when I visited sounded too clever for its own good: the quote-unquote croque-madame ($18). Instead of the classic French ham and cheese sandwich, cool slices of hamachi were layered with salty prosciutto and buttery toasted brioche, topped with a quail egg fried sunny-side up. A tangy beurre blanc replaced the standard béchamel.
It was flawless, a complex play of textures, temperatures and international references.
The rest of the menu was just as playful. The warm crab salad ($18) was wrapped in a buckwheat crepe, and the charred octopus ($14) was offset by candied orange and braised salsify.
This was food as inventive and elegant as you’ll find in any international capital, whether New York, Paris or Barcelona. And now it has found a home in sunny, informal Los Angeles, where you can share a bottle of blaufränkisch from a screw-top bottle with the hum of traffic on Beverly Boulevard in the background.
The kitchen is so skilled that even the buttermilk-steamed chicken breast ($29) transcended its strange-sounding preparation. Mr. Hatfield cooked the breast sous-vide, turning what’s often a bland and dry piece of poultry into something rich and flavorful. With sunchokes, zucchini coulis and a thin but satisfyingly crunchy sheet of chicken skin, it was a clever and decidedly Angeleno twist on southern fried chicken.
For such a trim city, Los Angeles loves a calorie-rich morning and on any given day you’ll find the bed-head crowd squinting in the sun at BLD (7450 Beverly Boulevard; 323-930-9744; www.bldrestaurant.com), a lively restaurant separated from Hatfield’s by a storefront psychic.
Short for Breakfast Lunch Dinner, BLD serves cosmopolitan comfort food in heroic portions. More than that, it’s an heir to the city’s great coffee shops like Ships and Ben Frank’s, casual places where you could linger over a meal at any hour of the day. The difference is that BLD has soaring flower arrangements, a hand-cranked Berkel slicer and some two dozen artisanal cheeses on the menu.
On a recent Thursday morning, the sidewalk tables were packed with stylishly mussed 20-somethings, nursing platters of ricotta blueberry pancakes with farmers’ market fruit ($13) and scooping up huevos rancheros with fresh tortillas ($10).
I went all-out and devoured the Ode to Butterfield’s ($16), eggs Benedict with cabernet sauvignon hollandaise and slices of seared flatiron steak on top of a homemade English muffin, a pile of crispy home fries spiked with hunks of chorizo on the side.
BLD is the second restaurant of Neal Fraser, 38, the chef and owner of Grace, a more elegant restaurant two blocks away. BLD might be casual, but it’s no less stylish, especially at night when an eclectic cross-section from the neighborhood congregates at the bar, and conversation ricochets across the concrete floor of the warehouselike dining room.
The nighttime menu is fearless, careening from a satisfying hemp seed crusted tofu salad with mizuna and shisito peppers ($12), to tater tot raclette (fried potato dumplings stuffed with cheese and crispy bits of charcuterie ($9), to braised short ribs with stone-ground polenta and horseradish gremolata ($30).
But the kitchen’s confidence was perhaps best displayed by the Cuban sandwich ($18), a generous heap of shredded pork, porchetta, spicy pickles and melted Gruyère spilling out from toasted ciabatta. It’s Havana by way of Italy, France and South Carolina, an unorthodox but succulent fusion that calls California home.
It might be only a year old, but Osteria Mozza (6602 Melrose Avenue; 323-297-0100; www.mozza-la.com) has already gained a huge following for its seamless service and sublime burrata, a cheese so creamy that it liquefies on the plate. Indeed, reservations at this white-hot Italian restaurant — a joint venture of Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich — are nearly impossible to snag.
If you can’t call a month in advance, you can still grab a stool at the marble-topped mozzarella bar and watch Ms. Silverton, dressed in her signature Marni and gray apron, assemble a dozen mozzarella dishes: with roasted asparagus, hazelnuts and guaniciale in spring ($16), with peaches, almonds and speck in summer ($15), or with radicchio, spiced walnuts, honey and fried rosemary in fall ($15). The cheese might be Apulian, but the garnishes are culled from California’s farmers’ markets.
Mozza occupies a prominent corner at Highland and Melrose Avenues, but it turns an almost silent face to the street, the darkened windows revealing little. It makes the entry that much more theatrical: swing open the heavy door and you step into what feels like a clubby library blown up to twice its original size, with dark woods, handsome lamps and high shelves filled with a villa’s worth of wines.
This isn’t the first time Ms. Silverton has redefined Los Angeles food. In the 1980s, she was the pastry chef at Spago, and brought sweets to a new level of whimsy. Then in the 1990s, she opened La Brea Bakery and introduced the city to the pleasures of serious bread.
At Mozza, she makes 20-plus pasta dishes that aren’t for the timid: calf’s brain ravioli with sage and lemon ($18), maltagliati with duck ragù ($18), gnocchi with wild boar ragù ($19).
But the one that stole the show was the ricotta and egg raviolo ($18). It is a single ravioli, bigger than a music CD, filled with fresh ricotta and a whole egg that poaches slightly while cooking. When you slice into it, the filling spills out and mixes with the brown butter drizzled on top.
It’s not too messy to share, but it’s so delicious I fought to keep mine to myself.
French restaurants are no stranger to Los Angeles, but until Comme Ça came along last October, the city couldn’t claim a brasserie of its own. Unlike other period pieces that work hard to evoke 19th-century France — like Balthazar in New York City and Bouchon in Napa Valley — Comme Ça (8479 Melrose Avenue; 323-782-1178; www.commecarestaurant.com) channels sunny Southern California, from the Ben Sherman shirts on the waiters to the modern, black-and-white room that becomes flooded with afternoon sun.
Opened by 33-year-old David Myers, the celebrated chef of Sona, Comme Ça’s menu reads like classic brasserie fare: soup a l’oignon gratinée ($9), coq au vin ($24) and steak frites ($28).
But the kitchen has a light touch, and the food tastes unexpectedly bright while staying true to a rich Gallic palette. So mussels ($16), are simmered in Pernod, and the mustardy steak tartare ($24), is chopped so finely the meat dissolves in every bite. Even the madeleines, made with lavender-infused butter, have an aromatic airiness.
Comme Ça is open until midnight on weekends, unusually late for this serious a restaurant. That may explain the boisterous and trendy Los Angeles crowds who flock there nightly: sinewy men in V-neck T-shirts, ladies of a certain age who keep their sunglasses on inside, leggy women in short shorts.
It’s the same crowd you might spot at glitzier, style-conscious restaurants. But now, even the most fashionable Angelenos will go out of their way to eat at a restaurant where the food is the real attraction
6 months ago