Once every four years, always on Feb. 29, the downtown L.A. restaurant Border Grill becomes for an evening a reprise of City Restaurant, the La Brea Avenue dining room that launched its chefs, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, to fame 25 years ago.
Milliken and Feniger had the most classical of backgrounds — they met on the line at the famously rigorous Chicago French restaurant Le Perroquet. But City was famous for a cosmopolitan menu including dishes from many culinary traditions. What they served, in the 1980s as well as the other night, were things like a ham-laced cockle and mussel stew, loosely based on a Portuguese cataplana; an Indian onion fritter sparked with toasted mustard seeds; and a sausage salad made with Chinese lap cheong and dressed as a Thai yum. The preparations weren't strictly traditional — the sausage salad included celery leaf as well as cilantro and was served skewered on a stick — but they were close enough.
FOR THE RECORD:
Counter Intelligence: In the March 10 edition of Saturday, a column about the evolution of Los Angeles cuisine referred to the move of Mexicali Taco & Co. as from a food truck to an Angeleno Heights storefront. Mexicali Taco & Co. started out as a street stand, and the neighborhood is spelled Angelino Heights. —
In the 1980s, while non-Angelenos may have assumed that Milliken and Feniger were impressing customers with their exoticisms, the truth was that the chefs assumed most of the people in the dining room had tasted these things in their original form. Not all of their customers had been to Thailand, Lisbon or India, but a lot of them had; if not, Thai Town, Little Tokyo and Little India were not far away. (As Jonathan Roberts' review in the old California magazine read, if you weren't sure what chrysanthemum leaves were supposed to taste like in a salad, you were supposed to pretend that you did.) City was the first restaurant of its type that actually looked like Los Angeles.
In 2012, this kind of diversity has become the default. When you ask Los Angeles chefs about their favorite restaurants today, they are far more likely to mention Jitlada, Guelaguetza and Din Tai Fung than they are Spago or Mélisse, and they tend to be at least as excited about yuzu zest and kalamansi lime as they are about lobster and truffles. At least as many food people this year have been talking about the move of Mexicali Taco & Co. from a truck to an Angeleno Heights storefront as have been talking about Wolfgang Puck's splendid new restaurant at Hotel Bel-Air.
The line between high and low cuisines has become blurred since the heyday of City. The barriers have become permeable. A conversation about the best Los Angeles fish cooks may include Michael Cimarusti of Providence, Hiro Urasawa of the great Beverly Hills kaiseki restaurant Urasawa and a guy named Ricky Piña who makes Baja-style fish tacos in a doorway near Sunset Junction. And although the engine room of cuisine remains in the kitchens of restaurants like Providence, Patina and Shanghai No. 1 Seafood, where teams of highly trained chefs bring a discipline to cooking that is among the better achievements of our civilization, it is impossible to understand food in Los Angeles without bringing into play underground restaurants and pop-ups, trucks and tables, and chefs whose engagements sometimes feel closer to club gigs than they do to real restaurants.
Part of this story is already known. When Ricardo Zarate's modest Peruvian restaurant in a working-class neighborhood is followed by a much fancier Peruvian restaurant south of Beverly Hills, the quality of the cooking and the ingredients is the same. In fact, it is for Mo-Chica, the lunch counter near USC, that Zarate was named one of the best new chefs in the country last year by Food & Wine. When Roy Choi left a high-paid job as an executive hotel chef to grill Korean tacos on a food truck, his cooking reached people in a way that it never could have at the Beverly Hilton. He too was honored by the magazine. When former l'Orangerie chef Ludovic Lefebvre, a protégé of revered French chefs Alain Passard and Pierre Gagnaire, became obsessed with American fried chicken during one of the runs of his pop-up restaurant LudoBites, he spun off a fried-chicken truck that often sees lines wrapping around the block.
We have seen something like this moment before: In Paris, in the massive recession of the 1990s, dozens of spectacularly trained young chefs, tired of turning out the same dishes meal after meal in expensive dining rooms filled with tourists, branched out into "bargain bistros"' in obscure parts of town, dining rooms where their friends could afford to eat, where they were not weighed down by conventional standards of luxury. (The bargain bistros were proving grounds for what are probably the most interesting restaurants in Paris at the moment, including l'Astrance, Le Comptoir and Chateaubriand.)
Los Angeles cuisine has matured into an allusive, ever-shifting mosaic, where a chef can go from refined French bistro cooking to tapas to global degustation to brunch and then to bistro cooking again; or from high-end California cuisine to bar burgers to modernist Asian dishes; or from haute cuisine to pizza to Malaysian satay without compromising either his or her food or vision.
In the 1980s as now, the question arose: If you were eating City Restaurant's spicy Thai duck curry, how was it different from the duck curry you could get at the Thai restaurant up the street? Short answer: It wasn't. As in the best restaurants in Thai Town, the curry was made from scratch, using then-rare ingredients like kaffir lime and fresh turmeric, and the ducks may well have come from the same farm. The grilled Japanese eggplant that was a major component of the dish was as fragrant and pudding-like as it would have been at a restaurant like Jitlada. It wasn't a riff on Thai duck curry, a fantasy on a theme of Thai duck curry or a chiefly re-imagining of Thai duck curry — it was a Thai duck curry, and a pretty good one.
But this is Los Angeles, where you hear a hundred different languages on the streets and smell the cooking of a thousand different food cultures, a city so diverse that the study of postmodern urbanism is often called the L.A. School for short, a city where it is possible not only to discover a new dish on an evening out but also an entirely new cuisine. A proper Thai duck curry from a non-Thai kitchen isn't just dinner, it's a statement: of respect, of discipline and of inclusion. It's the way Los Angeles — the best Los Angeles — looks at the world.