Jonathan Gold's top 10 restaurant dishes of 2014

Beep Beep? It's on Jonathan Gold's top dishes of 2014. So is koi jello

2014 — I remember 2014. In Los Angeles, it was the year of peak steakhouse. It was a year of artisanal soda pop, $16 cheeseburgers and chef-ly barbecue. Tacos entered their Mannerist period. Cocktails largely supplanted wine, even in fine-dining restaurants. Kale, sea urchin, offal and poached eggs were still everywhere. We all found ourselves eating more vegetables. Critics moaned about the death of fine dining while $500 sushi dinners began to seem almost normal.

Can the year in all of its complexity be summarized in a list of 10 dishes? I'll give it a try.

Snails

In a new bistro, you can probably discover everything you want to know about a chef by his escargots. Great escargots are juicy, a little tender, distinctly of the soil. There may be no escargots in town better than the ones at the new Petit Trois: shells brimming with garlic, minced parsley and good melted butter. A separate charger holds snail tongs, which look a little like something you might see at the dentist's office, and pronged forks that are little bigger than toothpicks. The chef, Ludovic Lefebvre, is from Burgundy, and the recipe is his grandmother's. You would be well advised to squeegee out every last drop of garlicky butter with a scrap of your baguette. 718 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 468-8916, petittrois.com

Chicken liver crostone

Gentrification occasionally has its upsides. Among them is Alimento, a new Italian restaurant from Zach Pollock. Diners flock here for the bagna cauda and the inside-out tortellini in brodo, but Pollock's best dish may be his crostone: smooth, creamy chicken liver pâté spread out into a broad, shallow half-moon on a heavy Heath plate, flanked by hunks of grilled bread and a pungent, mustardy splash of plum jam. 1710 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 928-2888, www.alimentola.com

Chicken neck tacos

Chicken neck tacos? For the pescuezos, the deep-fried chicken necks, at the Santa Rita Jalisco truck, the skin is pushed up the shaft of the neck before frying, which gives the effect of a tanned, meaty cylinder surmounted by an Elizabethan collar of pure crunch: hidden bits of chewy meat and a corona of pure, fatty pleasure. Tear off a bit of meat, wrap it in a warm tortilla with a splash of the peppery tomato salsa and wash it down with a swig of the truck's sweet pineapple drink — at $2.25 for an order of four golden fried necks, it's the cheapest happiness in town. 3900 E. 1st St., East Los Angeles

Mackerel sushi

It has never been easier to blow half a month's rent on raw fish in Los Angeles, and the resurgence of serious sushi may have been the biggest Los Angeles restaurant story of 2014. But even among the flood of Hokkaido uni and dried sea cucumber ovaries, nothing stood out quite like Hiroyuki Naruke's austere edomae-style sushi at Q Sushi: plain-looking, accentuating the flavor of the fish rather than of the rice or condiments, a virtuoso performance of pickling and curing and aging. A set omakase meal is the only option at both dinner and lunch, but if you're lucky, you'll encounter Naruke's saba — a bit less vinegary than other mackerel sushi in town but with a rush of deep-sea minerality. 521 W. 7th St., Los Angeles, (213) 225-6285, qsushi.com

Lamb barbacoa

When you get in your car and drive to the odd neighborhood of industrial parks in which you find Aqui es Texcoco, you are not there for the Mexican craft beers, the promise of handmade pulque or the sturdy quesadillas. You are there for vast portions of lamb barbacoa, pit-roasted with agave leaves, chewy and gelatinous and touched with crunchy bits of char. You eat the lamb with stacks of hot tortillas, puddles of beans, freshly made guacamole and foam cups of consommé fashioned from the drippings of the lamb, served so hot that your flimsy plastic spoon is likely to curl up in its depths. 5850 S. Eastern Ave., Commerce, (323) 725-1429, www.aquiestexcoco.com

Paella

Like most proper paellas, Perfecto Rocher's Sunday-night creations at Smoke.Oil.Salt may take a bit of getting used to. The serving is no more than three or four grains thick, and the ingredients, maybe a handful of rabbit chunks and some favas, or artichokes and half a cup of lima beans, might strike people as rather austere. Like any decent paellero, Rocher values chewiness over dreamy softness, mountain herbs over the raw smack of saffron, the communal experience over the desires of an individual diner, and almost anything over soupiness. To the unknowledgeable, the crunchy bottom layer, the soccarat, deeply caramelized where it touches the pan, may signal carelessness instead of craft, but to the true believers — excuse us while we scrape the soccarat off the pan with a big metal spoon — Sundays cannot come often enough. 7274 W. Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 930-7900, www.smokeoilsalt.com

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For the Record

Jan 3. 1:49 p.m.: An earlier version of this post listed the incorrect street address for Smoke.Oil.Salt. The restaurant is at 7274 W. Melrose Ave.

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Pig blood soup

To be honest, the luu suk, pig blood soup with MSG sauce, is not the best dish at Night + Market Song. Almost everybody is going to be happier with Kris Yenbamroong's catfish larb, crispy rice salad or Burmese vegan curry. But the warm, red puddle, strewn with crunchy pork rinds and feathery Southeast Asian herbs, is both delicious and excellent as a statement of purpose, along with the waterbug sauce served with the fried chicken and the bitter jolt of beef bile in the hand-chopped larb. To eat the luu suk, you mix the herbs into the soup, scatter the pork rinds over the top and scoop up the mixture with balls of sticky rice. It is actually fairly mild, much less intimidating in flavor than it is in appearance. It may be the safest way in town to experience the flavor of culinary transgression. 3322 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 665-5899, nightmarketla.com

Koi jello

When you order koi jello at a Chinese restaurant, there are many things you might expect to see on your plate. None of them are likely to resemble the Henan specialty that goes by that name at Awu Delicious Food, the first North American outlet of a luxury restaurant chain based in the central Chinese city of Zhenzhou. The chilled concoction is made of jellied pigskin molded into the shape of a swimming fish, presented with rings of sliced pepper emerging from its mouth where a cartoonist would draw air bubbles and moistened with a salty, spicy sauce. You lever the slippery bits to your mouth with chopsticks — you will lose a few along the way — and slurp. Koi jello is oddly refreshing on a hot afternoon. 558 Las Tunas Drive, Arcadia, (626) 445-5588, awums.com

Beep Beep

Roy Choi is the current archetype of the L.A. chef, which is pretty good for a guy whose most famous dish is still a Korean taco served from a truck. But where you might expect his Pot to be a hipster joint, it is pretty close to being a regular Korean place, all soups and stews and kimchi fried rice, reimagined from the vantage of a Korean American rebelling against his Koreatown roots. The Beep Beep is the closest thing to a must-order here, more or less the mayonnaisey sushi-bar classic dynamite, spiked with chile and amplified with lots of fresh sea urchin, spackled over hot rice. It will give you the stamina you need to tackle a giant bowl of Redondo Beach or Boot Knocker. 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 368-3030, www.eatatpot.com

Mushroom chorizo

You should probably know that Taco María is not a taco stand, although it did start its life as a truck. O.C.-born Carlos Salgado, a veteran of highbrow kitchens in the Bay Area, practices what he calls "Chicano cuisine," which involves flower petals, sous-vide and tweezers but also the strong flavors and reliance on seasonal produce of fine Mexican cooking. The menu changes daily, but you will almost always find crocks of his vegetarian chorizo, made with spiced shiitake mushrooms instead of meat, topped with a crunchy new potato, a soft-poached egg and a drizzle of tart tomatillo sauce. Spectacular. 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 538-8444, www.tacomaria.com

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

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