MAYBE you went straight from the office to the concert at REDCAT or Disney Hall. Maybe you burned a lot of energy on the dance floor. Maybe the late movie triggered a conversation so intense that it's still going. For whatever reason, it's midnight and you're famished.
Do you dare invite your friends over for a late-night bite? Take a mental inventory. There's that lovely bottle of wine tucked away from your last trip to wine country -- that's a good start. But the fridge is bare except for the basics -- eggs, a little yogurt, some ground beef, some cheese and mushrooms. And in the cupboard? The usual pantry staples -- macaroni, spices, garlic and shallots.
Relax. Supper's in the bag. According to chefs around town known for their late-night menus, a midnight nosh isn't about complicated flavors or showboating. What satisfies are simple, fun dishes done well.
What do people want to eat late at night?
"I'm not sure you can pick something specifically for late night," says Jean-Pierre Bosc of Cafe des Artistes and Mimosa. "For some people, it's the meal you take when you've done something different that day. To me, it's another meal. Because of the way I work, I have dinner and wine and it's midnight."
So Bosc's late-night menu at Cafe des Artistes has something for every circadian rhythm: a grilled hanger steak, a couple of salads, a few pastas, French onion soup.
Late-night diners' cravings vary widely, agrees Christopher Blobaum of the new Santa Monica restaurant Wilshire -- a full meal, just dessert or an appetizer-sized snack with a nightcap.
At Augustine's, a jazz, blues and gospel supper club in Leimert Park, owner Dale Baker says of his customers: "They think they're just going to have appetizers, then the people next to them order the blackened salmon or the jambalaya or the peach cobbler and it looks and smells good -- and it's a domino effect." At Boe, the restaurant at the Crescent Hotel in Beverly Hills, "most people want something savory late at night," says co-executive chef Erik Ritter.
But when they're cooking for themselves after hours, chefs say, they always keep it simple.
"We look in the fridge and we're always able to cook something from nothing," says Bosc.
"Mac 'n' cheese is a perfect example. Everybody has a piece of cheese in the refrigerator. You only need two or three ingredients." Bosc's macaroni and cheese is tender on the inside with a cheesy crust on top; each spoonful of firm-tender pasta is surrounded by soft, creamy curds. He spikes the dish with a bit of prosciutto.
Cheese is popular way after dark. Many restaurants offer cheese plates on bar and late-night menus, and several of the chefs we spoke to said their late-night snack choice was cheese and a glass of wine. At Boe, Ritter says quesadillas and cheesy dips are popular with folks lounging in front of the fireplace for a few drinks.
But salads and seafood are in demand too. And, like most hotel chefs, Ritter tries to accommodate time-zone-challenged travelers by honoring requests for menu items at whatever time of day the diner craves them. So one of Boe's appetizers, mini curry burgers, sneaks into the late-night lineup from time to time.
These bite-sized babies make a delicious, super-easy supper. Assemble the elements before you go out -- cumin-spiced ground beef, a simple yogurt sauce, store-bought chutney, some pita bread -- and quickly cook up a batch when you get home. In less than 10 minutes, you'll have a plate piled high with tiny burgers that hit all the right notes: savory, sweet, hearty and smooth.
When chef David Lentz set out to create a restaurant, one of the things he had in mind was his own late-night supper. "I always wished there was a place I could stop by and get a beer and a glass of Champagne and some oysters," he says. You can do that at the raw bar at Hungry Cat, Lentz's Hollywood restaurant where not only fresh oysters but also oyster stew and plates of peel-your-own shrimp are popular.
"You want food that's fun, that doesn't take itself too seriously, that you can mix and match. We try to put together less fancy stuff, the kind of food that's accessible -- but still keeping integrity and using the best ingredients," Lentz says. And taking the time to do the simplest thing correctly makes a big difference, he adds. That principle applies to the home cook too.
Eggs are a natural for late night, Lentz says. For one thing, they're a comfort food -- and besides, he adds, "at our house, we never have anything else in the refrigerator anyway."
But forget omelets. "An omelet has to be perfect or it's really not that good," Lentz says. So unless you've it down pat, make a frittata instead. It's more forgiving -- and more flexible.
"A frittata's just easier to cook. We do them for staff meals right before service. You can wrap it up and it's good a few hours later. Or you can eat it cold. You could make one late at night and have leftovers for lunch the next day."
Lentz's frittata is made with mushrooms -- any mix of wild and domestic will do -- and a generous dose of thinly sliced shallots and garlic. Once you've sliced the mushrooms and shallots, it comes together and cooks in minutes. Pecorino cheese and a bit of creme fraiche provide just enough body to hold the eggs and vegetables in a rustic pie shape.
Cut into wedges and served with a glass of white wine, it's just the thing -- homey enough to soothe the soul after the bright lights and big deals of the day, sophisticated enough to send your guests home feeling beautifully taken care of.