A bite of what L.A.'s craving

Times Staff Writer

THE dishes sail around the table in a blur of motion, weaving back and forth as one person and then another urges a taste of octopus salad or rustic pate de campagne. Did you get the crab apple mostarda that goes with it? Is that your Albarina in that glass? Are you ready for a sip of the Vacqueyras? Here, try the prosciutto.

Five of us are happily ensconced at a table at A.O.C., a chic new Los Angeles "wine and food bar" from Lucques owners Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne.

The idea of sharing a series of small plates isn't new -- remember grazing? But A.O.C. is the right restaurant at the right moment. The place is an instant hit and on any given night, it's humming with the energy of such well-loved places as L'Ami Louis in Paris. The wine flows. The little dishes just keep coming, and somehow people are eating more and more adventurously than usual. The problem is nobody wants to leave.

Back at Lucques, people in the know have always stopped by after 10 p.m. to have a quick bite at the bar. There are moments when a glass of interesting wine, a trio of perfect cheeses, a bowl of olives and some crusty bread sound more inviting than a full-fledged meal.

That's the idea behind A.O.C. The name stands for Appellation d'Origine Controllee, the French system that designates geographic place names for wines and certain foods, such as cheeses. It's an apt name for a restaurant that serves up farmhouse cheeses, charcuterie, handcrafted wines by the glass and carafe, and much more.

The concept is one Goin and Styne have been working out over several years and the long gestation shows. At just over 3 months old, A.O.C.'s kitchen under Goin, her former Lucques sous chef Julie Robles and David Mattern performs as if it's been around for years.

Designer Barbara Barry has stripped the old L.A. Trattoria on happening 3rd Street down to its bones to create a smart, informal setting. Though she's brilliantly reconfigured the space to include two dining rooms, two bars with seating, and a rooftop patio, the stark monochrome decor and the flat lighting makes the place feel as if it's underwater. But the scene is so full of life, it overcomes any minor quibble.

The banquettes and sleek tailored green leather booths are comfortable perches for tables of four or more who already have reservations. Walk-ins can slip onto one of the butter-soft leather barstools at the wine bar in front of the cruvinet that keeps 25 whites and 25 reds on tap, so to speak. Or, wait for one of the seats at the charcuterie bar facing a glass-fronted refrigerator full of coppa, jamon, chorizo and the selection of cheeses airing on the counter.

Before everything comes a basket of thin shards of toasted, country bread. They're sort of Mediterranean chips to dip in a gutsy red puree that tastes of chile and smoke. An assortment of meaty purple and black olives spell out the menu's Mediterranean theme.

A bite of this, a bite of that

A few narrow strips of paper stapled together list the dishes, which usually are supplemented by a couple of specials. The idea is to mix and match from the various categories -- charcuterie, salads, fish, meat, "from the woodburning oven," and "and ... " (for sides and such).

Tabletop real estate is precious, so it's a good idea to order in flights of three or four, just so you'll have somewhere to put the plates.

Rosy slices of lomo (cured pork loin) and two kinds of chorizo speckled with paprika are arranged on a white porcelain slab with the precision of a Cubist still life. Translucent pink speck, an Italian ham from the mountains, makes a pretty composition with emerald arugula leaves and a fan of sliced apples.

A.O.C.'s French charcuterie chef, David Gregoire, is busy making pates and terrines, rillettes and rillons for his charcuterie platter.

He arrived a few weeks ago and is testing the waters to see what Angelenos will like. Are they going to go for tripe a la mode de Caen? That I don't know, but I'll definitely cast a vote for his plump boudin noir with its rich, almost Oriental spicing or his boudin blanc, a fine-textured sausage made with veal, chicken and cream, served with a crock of sharp Dijon mustard.

When my Italian friend Roberta bit into one of the chicken liver crostini, she opened her eyes wide. The thin toasts smeared with chicken liver paste have a gorgeous truly Tuscan flavor and are topped with curls of crisped pancetta. That baby octopus salad juiced up with Moroccan preserved lemon tastes straight from the Mediterranean.

Salads are a delight too. Tiny farmers market beets with tangerine segments and mint leaves is an inspired combination of flavors. So is a salad Goin has just put on the menu: endive with sauteed, almost caramelized pears and incredibly fragrant hazelnuts. The vinaigrette has some crushed pear in it too, so that every bite carries the taste of the fruit.

I would never have ordered "devil's chicken thighs" if the waiter hadn't pointed it out. They're marinated in vermouth, slathered in mustard and covered with a blanket of breadcrumbs, all of which gives the chicken a sharp jolt of flavor. Grilled quail is a much daintier dish. The bird (there's just one) is juicy and good, wonderful with a salad of barley studded with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds.

The lamb skewers are a perfect late-night snack, charred and sizzling, strewn with crumbled feta and paired with a vivid salsa verde, or green sauce.

Dishes from the woodburning oven are among my favorites. Salt cod appears in a sumptuous salt cod and potato gratin oozing bechamel. For a Spanish twist, there's a cazuela of tiny clams with chickpeas and chorizo. And a small cast-iron skillet holds arroz negro, rice stained a deep blue-black with squid ink, and topped with tender baby squid and a dollop of garlicky saffron aioli. It's not paella. It's better. I can't keep my fork away from this dish and nobody else can either. I've had only one clinker: cauliflower with curry and red vinegar.

Friendly scene

The format makes A.O.C. an informal and truly convivial place. It's not unusual to see tables passing carafes or glasses of wines back and forth, or offering tips on what to order. It's the kind of place where a perfect stranger seated next to you at the bar might insist on giving you the last of his prosciutto. Why? Because it's the best he's ever had in this country. And he happens to live in Rome.

Cheeses are unusually well-chosen and because they're an integral part of the menu, A.O.C. can offer them at room temperature, not refrigerator-cold as they do at so many restaurants. How many times have you been offered ramao la mancha, a Spanish sheep's milk cheese enrobed in wild rosemary, or strachitund val taleggio, a natural blue from Italy? Not many, I would venture. On a couple of occasions, though, the portions (five cheeses for $20) seemed a bit skimpy for the price.

When and if you get around to it, desserts are waiting. One night there was an adorable miniature croquembouche that perfectly suited the festive mood.

Sometimes there's a killer lemon tart with a wonderful silky texture or a date-and-nut tart that's a terrific update of pecan pie. Less rich is a lovely Italian-inspired semifreddo that tastes like frozen nougat. That, like everything else here, is something different.

Everyone I've taken to A.O.C. has fallen hard for the place. It's thrilling to know you can get something completely delicious to eat well past 10 p.m., when most kitchens in this huge cosmopolitan city are ready to close up shop. A.O.C., in a spirit of public service, is also open seven nights a week. Needless to say, this ravishing newcomer is a very welcome addition to the dining scene.

*

A.O.C.

Rating: ***

Location: 8022 W. 3rd St., West Hollywood; (323) 653-6359.

Ambience: Chic, informal restaurant with a menu of small dishes to share, seating at two bars, tables or sleek leather booths, and a small rooftop patio upstairs.

Service: Informed and friendly; just the right tone for this informal spot.

Price: Charcuterie, $8 to $16; salads, $8; fish and meat, $8 to $12; sides, $7 to $12; cheeses, $5 each, or three for $14 and five for $20; desserts, $7.

Best dishes: Chicken liver crostini, charcuterie plate, endive and pear salad, black rice, gratin of salt cod and potatoes, lamb skewers with feta and salsa verde, cheese plates, boudins noirs and blancs, clams with chickpeas and chorizo.

Wine list: Intelligently organized, with notes that encourage trying something new. Corkage, $25.

Best table: One of the roomy leather booths in the second room, or a seat at the charcuterie bar.

Details: Open for dinner Monday through Friday, 6 to 11 p.m., Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m., and Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wine and beer only. Valet parking $4.50.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday March 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction A.O.C. review -- The name of a wine was misspelled in the review of A.O.C. restaurant in Wednesday's Food section. It is Albarino, not Albarina. For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 12, 2003 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction A.O.C. review -- The name of a wine was misspelled in the review of A.O.C. restaurant in last week's Food section. It is Albarino, not Albarina.
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