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Chewed up, spit out

Times Staff Writer

The evening began in Hollywood Bowl traffic, heading to the apartment of a woman who works for one of those Conde Nast-owned foodie magazines. (In order to protect her identity, I will not name the publication. OK, it’s Bon Appetit.)

We had 9 p.m. dinner reservations at this extremely new restaurant in Venice called Amuse. Amuse is on Main Street, in a house that used to be a bunch of other restaurants, including a 24-hour place called Van Gogh’s Ear, which has to be the most offensive name for an eatery, ever, when you think about it. Possibly The Artist Who Was Mentally Ill and Savaged Himself With a Knife Because He Couldn’t Sell His Paintings and Oh By the Way They Didn’t Have SSRIs in Those Days Brasserie would be worse. But I don’t think anyone would name a restaurant that.

She, the foodie, is living in L.A. after some serious foodie living in New York. I had a bad feeling about what was coming: She had moved here from Manhattan, and she would therefore assess Los Angeles in terms of Manhattan. And Los Angeles, in most cases, would not do well. Worse, I was dreading the moment when she told me how much L.A. amazed her, in that perceptibly patronizing tone visiting dignitaries from the West must use when they drop in on Third World countries. And yet, I am trying to be less judgmental these days (even though, for the record, my rate of accuracy on prejudging people remains a robust 78%). And Citizens of Los Angeles, I have unhappy news: She finds our cuisines somewhat underwhelming, generally, and in certain, more unfortunate cases (I am now obligated to cite the Cuban sandwich commonly referred to as the “medianoche”), Los Angeles has betrayed an unseemly, philistine striving.

Good and great Citizens, I was no match for her. She is a foodie living in her foodie world of competitive eating and appraising, as is her right. In point of fact I froze, which sometimes happens when I’m confronted by someone who has moved to Los Angeles and finds the facilities here curious and/or uncouth.

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There is, of course, the obvious response: L.A. has it all, but our version of everything is contained in a much wider swath of ungainly traffic and sprawl. This is the very point of L.A., what makes it both alienating and surprising all at once.

I wanted to explain that L.A. probably did have -- no, certainly had -- great and available medianoches, quite possibly in abundance, but it might require her to MapQuest her way to Lancaster or Long Beach. Here in what we refer to as Los Angeles (and how do you say this without sounding like a blowhard?) the cultures of the world aren’t neatly organized into equally accessible and themed ethnic neighborhoods that one might be able to visit via air-conditioned tram, say, leaving hourly, between 4 and 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

What I should have said was this: “I am just a white person of modest multicultural means. I own a copy of the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ soundtrack, but I have no earthly clue where to find a freaking medianoche.”

At Amuse, there was a wait when we arrived, and no bar. As I said, the restaurant is in a house, and the seating is upstairs, which makes the experience of being shown to your table a little like following a Realtor into somebody’s master bedroom. I had the flat iron steak. She had a melange of the “little plates.” She knew about the chef, who is not yet 30, a rising star. It was why we were here, ostensibly. The bill came to $80, without booze, which in the world of affordable nouvelle dining qualifies as tolerable, I have found.

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What followed, after dinner, shall hereafter be referred to as The Ride Home. It was during The Ride Home, from Venice to Hollywood, that the reputations of various Los Angeles food items and eateries were either called into question or besmirched outright.

Good and Great Citizens, the medianoche was just the tipping point. Makers of the Los Angeles chili dog, the Los Angeles hamburger, the Los Angeles French fry, none of you fared particularly well during The Ride Home. We cycled perfunctorily through the obvious haunts -- Roscoe’s Chicken ‘n’ Waffles, In-N-Out, Pink’s and the Apple Pan, and on the other side of things Patina and Musso & Frank (bad lighting marred things in the latter case, evidently).

I listened. In a few cases I agreed. She was right, sometimes famous places are just famous, gone lazy with time, even as the lines still form. Had she been a native, I might have said this aloud. But during The Ride Home these places became symbols, like Van Gogh’s ear (the actual ear, not the cafe). They became a connection to a place, however flawed or inauthentic that connection happened to be.

“Try the tuna,” I said, in defense of the Apple Pan. Extra pickles. Extra olives. But I did not tell her that last part. Some of us have lived here a long time. Others are visitors, and someday they will leave.

Paul Brownfield can be contacted at paul.brownfield@latimes.com.


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