Downtown? Until very recently, if you asked someone to meet you for dinner there, it was roughly the equivalent of asking them to join you on the moon. I've met people who have never been within shouting distance of the area, even though they've lived in L.A. practically all their lives. Time to get over it, because downtown L.A. has blossomed into a bona fide destination with a growing roster of intriguing dining possibilities.
So much, in fact, is happening downtown, restaurant-wise, that it's difficult for a hardworking critic to keep up. For the first time in decades, the city's center offers a full array of places to eat at all price levels, with more opening all the time.
FOR THE RECORD:
Downtown dining: In the April 29 Food section, an article about downtown L.A.'s restaurant scene included an incorrect phone number for Wurstkuche restaurant. It is (213) 687-4444. —
Here are my favorites of the moment, most new, some old.
Sibling to Chaya Brasserie Beverly Hills (and Chaya Venice, as well as a San Francisco outpost), the new Chaya Downtown showcases chef Shigefumi Tachibe's East-West cooking in a restaurant with a grand outdoor terrace, a full sushi bar and a handsomely appointed dining room. The menu is very appealing, because it's so different from the other high-end restaurants in this part of town. Tachibe's got some delicious crudo (raw fish), a blood orange and beet salad with chèvre and dried figs, fresh grilled sardines with pearl barley and spring vegetables, miso-marinated white sea bass with rice galette and braised Kobe beef short ribs. The sommelier is on the case, and it all feels very sophisticated.
By the library
Practically next door, in the same complex on Flower Street across from the Central Library, is Celestino Drago's most ambitious restaurant yet, Drago Centro. His first restaurant downtown, it's quite the glamour queen, with an expansive bar, an outdoor terrace and a dining room with vaulted ceilings and black Venetian glass chandeliers. The view of the library and its garden is thrilling too.
Drago and chef Ian Gresik's cooking does the space proud, with beguiling pasta dishes, such as oxtail ravioli with celery root, paccheri with spot prawns and puttanesca, or pizzoccheri made with buckwheat flour. Main courses, which include an excellent bisteccaPiemontese for two, are well-executed but can't compete with the pasta. A bar menu offers salumi, baccalà mantecato (salt cod purée), chickpea fritters and other stuzzichini (little bites) to go with a glass of Prosecco or aperitivo.
A slew of Latin-themed restaurants have opened downtown, but the best of the bunch is John Sedlar's Rivera, where the chef is making an overdue comeback with his refined and inventive cooking. A long, narrow space with a communal table, banquettes and a smaller dining room with walls lined in custom tequila bottlings, Rivera is a short stroll from L.A. Live. Stop in for some stellar tequila and tortillas florales (freshly made tortillas with flowers and herbs pressed into their surface) and avocado butter, maybe a short rib tamale or duck confit in a beautifully poised Rioja sauce.
For thin-crusted Roman-style pizzas, head to Bottega Louie at 7th and Grand, a combination restaurant-bar-gourmet grocery and takeout with breathtakingly high ceilings and gilt-encrusted appointments. No reservations -- the place is huge -- for those pizzas, pasta, of course, and moderately priced entrees. Three thin Kurobuta pork chops with house-made chunky applesauce are just $14, sautéed chicken with artichokes and capers, $15. Dried pastas fare better than the clunky, too-rich ravioli. On the way out, you can pick up some Straus Family milk or cream, maybe a chocolate bar too.
Former Bastide chef Walter Manzke has gotten into French bistro food in a big way at Church & State in the former loading dock of the 1925 National Biscuit Co. Building. The place, backed by Cobras & Matadors' Stephen Arroyo, can feel like one night-long party, with piazza lights strung across the high ceilings, red leather bistro chairs and a bar serving trendy absinthe. And the food is terrific: Manzke makes his own charcuterie and changes the menu frequently to present his take on bistro classics such as escargots (each snail in its own porcelain dish topped with a flirty puff pastry crown), cassoulet (a different one each day), marinated herring and potato salad, house-cured salmon tart, and mussels steamed in white wine and served with a heap of pommes frites fried in lard for extra flavor. With most of the main courses less than $20, including a fine duck confit, small wonder the place is packed every night.
Wurst and fries
The quirky Wurstküche is a sausage lover's dream. The concept is simple: more than 20 different sausages (alligator and pork smoked andouille or duck and bacon with jalapeño, anyone?) on a soft bun with your choice of accompaniments (caramelized onions, sweet peppers and sauerkraut, for example), a bevy of mustards, a side of stubby Belgian fries. Now you've got your choice of two dozen or so draft beers, an additional dozen in bottles -- and, if one of the young owners is around, a built-in beer sommelier. Once you've got your brew -- and your sausage (in theory, eight minutes from the time it goes on the fire), head for the festive back room, which is outfitted with a long communal table, mismatched chairs and, when you're ready for another beer, a bar. It's open all through the afternoon and late into the night for a quick pick-me-up.
What downtown doesn't have its classic diners? We, of course, have the Original Pantry Cafe, L.A.'s favorite greasy spoon, which has kept the faith for 85 years. But now we also have the charming Nickel Diner in a properly funky neighborhood, a sweet update on a classic with period light fixtures, red Naugahyde seating and retro comfort food from chef Monica May.
Though it draws a crowd at breakfast (maple-glazed bacon doughnuts) and lunch (BLTs and pulled pork sandwiches), it's just opened for dinner. Get your bowl of chicken pozole garnished with tortilla strips and avocado, an order of crunchy onion rings, a gooey patty melt or a Nickel burger with brilliant skinny fries. But I'm for the pure comfort of a roast chicken stuffed with mushroom duxelles and perched on a classic bread stuffing with pan gravy. For dessert? Try pastry chef Charlena Fong's red velvet layer cake, "salt peanuts" cake or an haute version of the Hostess Ding Dong.
Wine bars don't come any sleeker than Corkbar at 12th and Grand. In a space with soaring ceilings, wine storage that reaches for the heights and a nifty, wraparound bar, tall tables, rock-hard stools and benches and a spacious outdoor terrace, Corkbar focuses on California wines. Not all of the staff is wine-savvy, so you're basically on your own, though the list does offer descriptions. It's also pricey: Only two of the wines by the glass cost less than $10.
The food is mostly snacks and sandwiches -- farmhouse Cheddar gougères (cheese puffs), mac 'n' cheese revved up with Pasilla chiles, grilled cheese or farmers market veggie sandwiches. Still, it's a nice place to hang, and it's open -- as they say -- "from 11:30 a.m." (That seems to translate to until midnight most weeknights and later on the weekends).
Seafood in style
Sushi Gen is still the best spot for sushi downtown, but there's almost always a wait. If you want to eat Japanese in a stylish setting, there's R23,which is holding its own after 16 years. But sushi is not the best item on the menu. Instead, go with the reliable crab salad, made with lump crab meat, or the delicious salmon skin salad, both in a perky dressing. Try the crunchy hot wasabi greens too, or the miso soup with clams. The grilled yellowtail collar is a must. Take your chopsticks and dig into the rich, moist flesh, caramelized at the edges -- it's a real treat. The loft-like setting, with its bare brick walls, Gauguin-esque paintings and Frank Gehry's cardboard chairs, is a plus too.
And last but not least, Water Grill is still the place downtown for impeccable chilled shellfish -- fresh Dungeness crab, Long Island cherrystone clams, oysters from all over, Mexican white shrimp. But also, be sure to take advantage of chef David LeFevre's thoughtful seafood cooking with global accents. Blue and Dungeness crab cake is almost as big as a baseball: Inside, pure lump crabmeat is dressed up with yogurt sauce and harissa. Bigeye tuna tartare comes with green papaya and a thrilling Thai heat.
Surf and turf is Santa Barbara spot prawn with lacquered pork cheek, while Maine diver scallops are paired with braised pork jowl embellished with cinnamon oil. Wild, but it works. Plus, the wine list is filled with labels that complement the seafood, and the service from white-jacketed waiters is among the best in town.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times