A critic’s most memorable dining experiences of 2009

Church & State feels like summer all year round.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Restaurant Critic

To say that I eat out a lot would be something of an understatement. The question I’m always asked, of course, is what is my favorite restaurant? That’s understandable, but it’s also basically unanswerable. Because the answer depends on whether I’m in the mood for something simple or something sublime, pasta or sushi, a quick bite or a piece of restaurant theater.

And though I rank restaurants according to a star system, that doesn’t necessarily predict where I’ll want to eat on any given night. Stars reflect a restaurant’s ambitions and how well it fulfills them. A great hamburger or pizza joint is certainly something to celebrate for doing one thing perfectly. But neither can be compared to a top restaurant with a highly trained staff putting out an ambitious menu made with the very best ingredients and executed with skill. The most stars go to the restaurants where everything comes together, where the food, service, ambience, imagination and technique add up to something more than the sum of its parts.

But that doesn’t mean those are the restaurants I remember most when I look back over the year’s dining. For me, a memorable meal means more than just the number of stars. There’s always something serendipitous about a great meal and, in a way, perhaps unrepeatable. After a memorable experience, I come away feeling I’ve enjoyed something more than just good cooking.

So with that in mind, here are the meals that stand out most from the last year, whether or not they were the most highly rated.

Latin cuisine in full flower at Rivera, downtown L.A.

We all have our secret pleasures. Sometimes it’s a late-night tongue or carnitas taco eaten with salsa dribbling down your chin while standing in the pool of light next to a taco truck. L.A. is full of such spots for Mexican food. But something more elevated is hard to find. That’s why dinner at Rivera is such a treat. At this casually elegant spot, John Rivera Sedlar weaves bright Latin flavors together to create irresistible dishes. I can’t stay away from the warm tortillas florales imprinted with flowers and herbs, or the “dog’s snout” salsa that will leave your nose running from the chile quotient. I love his Spanish-inflected duck confit in a puddle of Rioja sauce fired with Cascabel chiles and the pork shoulder braised in a banana leaf until it’s so tender you can literally cut it with a spoon. It’s sumptuous and down to earth at the same time, both wildly inventive and delicious.

Rivera Restaurant, 1050 S. Flower St., Los Angeles; (213) 749-1460; Starters, $10 to $14 (though jamon ibérico de bellota is $44); larger plates, $18 to $29.

Learning more about flavor at Jitlada, Hollywood

Another rare pleasure: slipping into Jitlada on a weekday night and asking “Jazz” Singsanong, who owns the Thai restaurant with her brother Tui, to choose a menu. In the best possible scenario, she’ll disappear into the kitchen to cook up some dishes from Pak Panang, the southern Thai village where she grew up. And when she’s cooking, she doesn’t pull any punches. Have a pitcher of water and some beer at the ready for the fire-breathing jungle curry of pork, little round green eggplants and green peppercorns on the stem. Raw blue crab salad is fiery too, cooled only slightly with green papaya and lime. I’ve developed a taste for fried shallots as well, scattered over string beans in a sweet-hot sauce or entirely covering a whole sea bass stained with turmeric. With each bite, I learn so much about spice combinations and the magic they can make with the right firepower.

Jitlada, 5233 1/2 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 663-3104; Jitlada restaurant; Appetizers, soups and salads, $4.95 to $12.95; main courses, $7.95 to $21.95; noodle dishes, $7.95 to $12.95; southern Thai dishes, $6.95 to $24.95.

The sense of celebration at Church & State, downtown L.A.

Some restaurants are so solemn you can fall asleep before the first course. Not Church & State. The surrounding streets may look shut down for the night, but at this French bistro, the party never stops. It’s loud and boisterous and feels like summer all year round, with piazza lights strung across the high ceiling. I go for the oysters, for the excellent house-made charcuterie served on giant boards made by the chef himself. Walter Manzke is a refugee from fine dining, here cooking retro-bistro food. His escargots are witty and delicious, served in individual ramekins topped with a puff pastry hat. And I can never go away without ordering the thin-crusted tart blanketed in leeks, lemon crème fraîche and smoked salmon. And the frites? They’re fried in lard, which makes all the difference.

Church & State, 1850 Industrial St., Los Angeles; (213) 405-1434; Oysters, $26 a dozen; charcuterie plate, $14; hors d’oeuvres, $3 to $14; salads, $9 to $11; main courses, $11 to $26; sides, $6; cheese selection, $12 to $18; desserts, $7 to $8.

The open-handed generosity at Eva Restaurant, Los Angeles

Sometimes when you go out, you just want to eat. You don’t want to pore over a lengthy menu with wordy descriptions of every dish. Sunday night at Eva, in the interest of creating the neighborhood restaurant he envisions, Mark Gold offers a three-course family-style menu for $35, including wine. And believe me, it’s not skimpy on either count. What fun to simply take a seat and be served. The menu changes every week, but here’s what I had: Little Gem lettuce in green goddess dressing, a warm vinegary potato salad with a platter piled high with juicy fried chicken. Then that night, a second main course of beef brisket braised in red wine heaped with blue lake green beans. And for dessert, a warm bread-and-butter pudding laced with caramel sauce. Simple and satisfying and served up with the generosity of spirit that makes Gold’s idea of a restaurant so winning.

Eva Restaurant, 7458 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 634-0700; Dinner appetizers, $10 to $17; main courses, $16 to $24; cheese selection, $14; sides and desserts, $7. Sunday dinner, $35 per person, including wine.

The sense of season and place at Petersham Nurseries Café outside London

I’d read about this restaurant on pastry chef Shuna Fish Lydon’s blog “Eggbeater,” so when I was in London I made a point of going, not realizing it’s an hour outside the city (but well worth the train ride). In warm weather, you eat outside, but in late fall when I was there, lunch is served in a greenhouse with a dirt floor furnished with antique metal and slate-topped garden tables, flowering plants and eccentric objets. I loved the funky, relaxed setting with waiters in Wellies. Each dish was a perfect expression of the ingredients and the season, whether it was salt cod carpaccio, dressed up in frilly purple basil, chile peppers and pinwheels of lemon drizzled with gold-green olive oil or fazzoletti (handkerchief pasta) sauced in a little butter, Gorgonzola and walnuts. Osso buco got me excited in the dish again, and even something as ubiquitous as panna cotta seemed new again in Skye Gyngell’s rendition, the fragile cream garnished with pomegranate seeds and honey. Now if only I could have taken home some antique glass cloches for the garden . . .

Petersham Nurseries Cafe, Church Lane (off Petersham Road), Richmond (Surrey), United Kingdom; By reservation only up to one month in advance, 011-44-020-8605-3627. Open at lunch only Wednesday to Sunday. Weekend à la carte first courses, $19 to $23; main courses, $31 to $40; desserts, $12. Weekdays, three-course prix fixe menu, $55; two courses, $48.

The lesson of simplicity at Osteria Mozza’s Mozzarella Bar, Los Angeles

When the valet at Osteria Mozza asks if you have a reservation, fib and say yes, and then wait for a seat at the mozzarella bar. That’s where Nancy Silverton does her mozzarella magic, creating a small menu within a menu, all based on mozzarella and burrata. You can eat just that or order from the rest of the menu too. But here, you’ll get an antipasti lesson just watching her work. Usually, she has balls of burrata straight from Puglia, gathered into a knot at the top. She sets it on a bed of flattened braised leeks doused in startling green olive oil. The cheese is so fresh milk flows out when you cut into it. A bite of that cheese and then a bite of the 1 1/2 -inch-thick toast soaked in that same vivid oil calls up Apulia for me, just as her bufala mozzarella draped with salt-cured anchovies, each piece of cheese sitting on a thin slice of perfumed Meyer lemon, conjures the Amalfi Coast.

Osteria Mozza, 6602 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 297-0100; Antipasti, $12 to $16; mozzarella bar items, $14 to $24; pasta dishes, $17 to $19; mains, $26 to $58. Pasta tasting menu, $69.

The sense of magic at Saam at the Bazaar by José Andrés

Inside the Bazaar by José Andrés, behind the circus the bar has become, is a quiet oasis called Saam, a restaurant within a restaurant open just three nights a week and by reservation only. The menu served to at most 30 guests is prix fixe, $95 for 22 small courses, some of them merely a bite and every one a delightful surprise. I never knew what was coming -- salty beet “tumbleweed,” a miniature cone that’s filled with avocado mousse, nori purée and yellowfin tuna tartare or spherical olives flavored with squid ink. Best trick: a teardrop of sugar hardened around a drop of olive oil à la El Bulli (like many of the dishes). Dinner at Saam is an intriguing bit of theater, and I relished every bite.

Saam at the Bazaar by José Andrés, SLS Hotel, 465 S. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 246-5545; Thursday to Saturday by reservation only, $95 prix fixe per person.

The pure expression of place and tradition at Ristorante Cacciatori, Piedmont, Italy

This fall I had an extraordinary meal at Ristorante Cacciatori in the hills outside Acqui Terme in Piedmont. It’s not really a restaurant in the typical sense. Instead of presenting a menu, Massimo Milano or his father, Giancarlo, will talk to you about what you’d like to eat based on the ingredients they have that day, and they’re always very local. There’s always artisanal salame and dimpled focaccia from the wood-burning oven, carne cruda, raw Piedmontese veal, pearly pink and draped on the plate like a handkerchief with little pools of olive oil in the folds. It’s fabulous. And the pasta is always tajarin, hand-cut tagliolini, that night served in a wild hare sauce so dark it looked like mud. What a fascinating, deep taste, and a beautiful match with Barolo! Then came partridge braised on top of the wood-burning stove, each bite absolutely delicious. I felt very lucky to be at table here again, savoring such soulful food and wine that comes straight from the land.

Ristorante Cacciatori, via Moreno, 30, Cartosio; 011-39-0144-40123; Closed all day Thursday and Friday at lunch. By reservation only. Dinner, food only, about $70 per person.

The comfort and ease at Gjelina, Venice

I’d suggested the locale for a friend’s birthday lunch: Gjelina, even though I hadn’t been back since I’d reviewed it. No worries. Chef Travis Lett came through with flying colors. And even though our unruly group was slow getting organized -- presents, Champagne, toasts, etc., our waiter never hurried the group to order and just let the lunch unfurl. He patiently took the drink orders, bringing out wineglasses and share plates. When the pizzas -- hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with beet greens and Taleggio cheese and guanciale with bufala mozzarella, green olives -- arrived, they were just as thin-crusted and wonderful as I remember. The nectarine, burrata and prosciutto salad and the one of escarole and sunchokes with preserved lemon and smoked almonds were too. With sun and blue sky overhead, a bit of a breeze, this felt like the California-Mediterranean ideal. Shhh, I want to say, let’s just keep it a secret, shall we?

Gjelina, 1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 450-1429; Vegetable dishes, $8; salads, $9; pizzas, $13 to $16; other plates, $10 to $25; desserts, $3 to $10.

The style and steak at Cut, Beverly Hills

Steakhouses come in all guises, from budget to bloated extravaganzas, but for me, where else besides Cut can you get such superb beef, precisely cooked, in a sleek all-white room designed by Getty architect Richard Meier? And when we’re talking Wagyu beef, they have both the real thing imported from various prefectures in Japan and American Wagyu brought to your table before it is cooked, the better to appreciate its heavy marbling close-up. I actually prefer the American Wagyu, especially the New York sirloin from Snake River Farms in Idaho. It’s not as soft as the Japanese Wagyu but still has plenty of marvelous flavor. And instead of the usual boring steakhouse fare, you can start with warm veal tongue with salsa verde or a bowl of Austrian oxtail bouillon with bone marrow dumplings. Sides are just as innovative, and as for Sherry Yard’s desserts, well, you’ll just have to find room. You can’t pass up her bruléed banana cream pie, can you? Cut is sophisticated, yes. Glamorous too. It’s also very much the splurge. And if star-gazing is on your mind, this is where you’re almost guaranteed to spot a very famous someone or two.

Cut, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 276-8500; Salads and starters, $17 to $28; steaks, $47 to $160; other mains, $34 to $70; sides, $12 and up.

A last thought: Breakfast at Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Sicily

If I could, I’d have breakfast at Caffè Sicilia in Noto every day of my life. Caffè Sicilia is, of course, the famed caffè in Sicily where Corrado Assenza and his brother Carlo produce world-renowned gelato and granita. Believe me, you don’t know either if you haven’t tasted them here. It’s not just the incomparable texture but also the exquisite quality of the ingredients that go into the ice creams and ices. In warm weather, which is much of the year, breakfast is a tender, buttery brioche and a bowl of almond granita made from the fragrant local almonds. The ice is so fine-textured it looks like a bowl of snow sitting there on the table. You tear off a piece of brioche and use it to scoop up some of the icy granita between sips of espresso. Heaven.

Caffè Sicilia, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 125, Noto (Sicily); 011-39-0931-835-013; caffe.sicilia@fastwebnet.itgjelina. Breakfast about $6.

Note: This list doesn’t include restaurants that haven’t been reviewed yet, even if they may have opened in 2009.