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View of interior from the bar area
Nestled in an almost century-old Spanish Colonial building, Bar Chelou is a delicious and eccentric dinner option in Pasadena.
(Dino Kuznik / For The Times)

Thinking about romantic dining options in February? Our critic has 22 suggestions

Every couple’s idea of romance is different. Yours might include a white tablecloth and Champagne coupes, or crowding in together at a cramped bar for Detroit-style pizza. My partner and I enjoy those too, but for a special night out our first thought is usually sushi and sake.

These 22 restaurants, compiled from the most recently published edition of The Times’ 101 Best Restaurant in L.A., convey to me both “celebration” and “togetherness.” I include many of the expected fancier destinations, with an emphasis on quieter places conducive to conversation. Nothing is arguably more romantic than dining out in a setting where one can hear a tablemate without shouting.

I’ve also added a few unexpectedly amorous options: the place to share wondrous Korean soy-marinated raw crab, or sip some of L.A.’s most artfully crafted tiki drinks, or to treat the leading vegan in your life to mafaldine cacio e pepe and tempeh piccata.

A favorite annual plea from food writers: Rarely is Valentine’s Day an optimal night to experience a restaurant at its finest. Do we really need to tether an expression of love to one calendar date? Make the case to your someone for another evening in February, when scoring reservations will be easier and everyone’s mood will likely be far lighter.

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Shakshuka at Ammatoli
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)


Long Beach Middle Eastern $$
It’s been a joy to see Dima Habibeh’s Long Beach restaurant grow in size and ambition since its opening five years ago. An expansion last summer doubled the seating in her corner space downtown, adding a central bar hung with plants, a wood-burning oven, a counter to display breads and pastries, and more windows for abundant sunlight. In her food, Habibeh — born to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother and raised in Jordan — evinces her origins and beyond.

A few pleasant ubiquities like arugula and beet salad crop up on the menu, but more than ever her cooking leans into tradition-minded dishes. Among exemplary hummus and lemony tabbouleh in the mezze selection, look for more intricate options like fried kibbeh stuffed with herbed spinach, and salty, edge-of-funky grilled halloumi paired with watermelon. Larger plates are excellent for groups, or for leftovers. One standout: Palestinian musakhan, roast chicken and onions piled on flatbread that’s stained nearly purple with sumac. The dish was traditionally consumed in autumn — eaten by hand, composing bites of bread, chicken and onion — with ample olive oil to taste and assess the year’s first local pressings. It’s as satisfying for dinner as it is for brunch alongside a skillet full of saucy shakshuka. I don’t know of more consummate classical Levantine cooking in Southern California.
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Grilled pork chop with sauce
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Alta Adams

West Adams Southern $$
Some restaurants swap dishes on their menus so fast it’s hard to know what to recommend. Though chef and co-owner Keith Corbin keeps new ideas flowing through his kitchen, he has also reassuringly stayed the course with two pillars of his cooking. His lacy, crackling fried chicken has always been terrific, particularly with splotches of his vinegar-bright, Fresno chile-based hot sauce. And it’s hard to imagine dinner without the oxtails braised in miso and soy, served with rice to capture every drop of gravy. Sides of collards, mac and cheese and candied yam gratin? Yes, please. With each of its five years, Alta more deeply anchors itself in the West Adams community, beloved for its cheeky cocktail program (I’m here for the briny Ol’ Dirty Bastard martini), spirited staff and twinkling back patio. In a city short on excellent lunch options, note the fried chicken translates seamlessly to an ace sandwich stacked with pickles and hot sauce mayo.
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Ravioli di nonna
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Antico Nuovo

Larchmont Italian $$$
Late last year Chad Colby slid in a new addition to the short list of pastas he serves at his restaurant on the edge of Koreatown. Ten or so ridged tortelli share a plate, some perched on their sides and others looking as if they’ve been playfully tumbling around. Scoop one up and some toasty pine nuts roll onto the fork’s tines. You taste them first, and notice the eggy dough’s silken yield, and then the filling’s dominant flavors pervade: ricotta and lemon, soft and bright. If meals were written in sheet music, these would elicit whole note rests. Appreciating them demands a silent beat.

Opened in 2019, Antico Nuovo has steadily found its footing and its audience among the crush of fine-dining Italian restaurants in Los Angeles. It might just be the best of them now. Bold or tenuous, each of the pastas stands out with such distinct personalities; they are the meal’s holy center. Begin by swiping crisp, lofty hunks of focaccia through roughly pureed green chickpeas rich in garlic and olive oil, or go lighter with impeccable amberjack crudo. Whether you’re nearly full after spinach and tomato cannelloni, or move on to crisp-skinned roast chicken, or share a massive tomahawk steak in Marsala jus that recalls Colby’s days as Chi Spacca’s founding chef, prioritize dessert. The seasonal ice creams deserve their renown, and the kitchen has lately been fashioning pistachio and chocolate cannolis that rival those I’ve had in Sicily.
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Za'atar lamb chops with Swiss chard and James' cherry tomatoes salad
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)


West Hollywood Californian $$$
The description reads “Liberty duck breast, corn pudding, nectarine salsa and Santa Barbara pistachios,” and the late-summer flavors dripped with as much sunshine as the words evoked. That’s the gift of Suzanne Goin, who essentially codified an entire branch of L.A.’s dining culture. She distills the tastes of the California seasons, knowing when their glory is enough, or when they gain from ideas inspired by the cooking of North Africa, western Asia and the Mediterranean coasts of Europe. A few more recent flashes of inspiration, including yogurt-slicked green quinoa dumplings that pop on the tongue, have found their long-term place on the menu, though they’ll never compete with classics like the Parmesan-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, or the fried chicken drizzled with chile-cumin butter with a side of romesco aioli. The restaurant began two decades ago as a cramped wine bar, and co-owner Caroline Styne’s wine program has deepened in ways that fit its current standing as a modern institution. If the two A.O.C.s share little in common physically — West Hollywood has the beckoning patio; the tony decor for Brentwood seems rightly designed around its mesmerizing green and gold wallpaper — they are identical twins philosophically.
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Rainbow Trout from Bar Chelou
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Bar Chelou

Pasadena French $$
Housed in the same 98-year-old Spanish Colonial Revival complex as the Pasadena Playhouse, Bar Chelou brings welcome eccentricity and some accomplished cooking to the City of Roses. I remember Douglas Rankin’s modernist plates at the now-closed Bar Restaurant in Silver Lake, and I’m happy that he’s reunited at Bar Chelou with Raymond Morales, his pastry chef from that era. Grasp Rankin’s style in his bravura approach to vegetables. Not all of them purely shout “plant-based.” Snap peas arrive in anchovy cream under a shower of grated cured egg yolk and crumbled chistorra, a thin Basque sausage. The gist is “bacon bits and vitello tonnato meet up for a farmers market run.” The result is uncanny and delicious. A magnificent rainbow trout entree is presented sauced in twinned nouvelle cuisine squiggles of garlic-chive oil and pil pil (traditionally made by blending salt cod, garlic and olive oil) and served over rice pilaf caramelized in corn juice to achieve a ragged sort of crispness. For a finale: Morales’ lemon-chamomile semifreddo beautifully crowned with a rosette-shaped fritter. Kae Whalen, one of my favorite sommeliers in Southern California, shepherds diners through her natural-leaning, something-for-everyone wine list.

Read the full review of Bar Chelou.
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A selection of dishes from Baroo.
(Silvia Razgova)


Downtown L.A. Korean $$$
Los Angeles had never seen anything like the 16-seat restaurant that Kwang Uh began in a small Hollywood strip mall with childhood friend Matthew Kim in 2015. His food had an unbridled streak of originality: pastas and grain bowls wild with nuts, seeds, broths, pickles, kimchi and other fermented foods. The ingredients often slyly referenced classic Korean dishes and could fly in a million directions but then land with utter clarity. Uh met Mina Park, who became his wife and business partner, at the South Korean temple presided over by Jeong Kwan, the Zen nun made famous when she was featured on an episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table.” The immense complexities and ambitions of the food always gave the original Baroo an air of unpredictability: It had opened and closed in fits and starts and seemed to have finally ended its run in October 2018. Fans have waited years for the couple’s promise to resurrect the restaurant.

They fulfilled their vow in late summer in the form of a sedate, industrial-modernist space in downtown’s Arts District. The new Baroo looks and feels nothing like its predecessor. Mostly that’s a gain: Park runs an engaged, genial team as general manager, and Uh’s calm demeanor and ever-straight back can be viewed through the large kitchen window. The opening menu is $110 for seven courses. To balk at a tasting-menu format is to miss out on sweet, delicate skate fried in seaweed batter and cradled in leafy greens, and slices of charred pork-collar meat fanned over a sauce that riffs on kimchi jjigae … and other dishes, honed but still flaunting a hint of wildness, that trumpet the return of an exceptional culinary mind.

Read the full review of Baroo.
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Tuna bruschetta at Barsha
(Katrina Frederick / For The Times)


Hermosa Beach Californian Mediterranean $$
In the seemingly infinite multiverses of Los Angeles dining, the galaxy of North African cuisines feels comparatively underrepresented. Chef Lenora Marouani helps fill the void by embracing the flavors of Tunisia she gleans from her husband, Adnen, and his family. The couple run a wine bar and shop in Manhattan Beach; inklings of Tunisia’s sun-baked, headily spiced cooking flicker brightest through the Cal-Med menu at their Hermosa Beach restaurant. Preserved lemon and harissa light up tuna conserva, spread over crusty bread with mashed chickpeas. Lamb meatballs float atop Tunisian couscous (rolled to the size of small ball bearings) in tomato broth with a dollop of herbed labneh. Even buttermilk-soaked fried chicken, available only during Sunday brunch, reveals hints of tabil, the spice blend abundant in coriander and caraway. Star-shaped pendant lamps and genie bottles cast patterned shadows across the dining room in the evenings, setting the mood for a mellow cocktail of three vermouths and sherry called — what else? — A Night in Tunisia.
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Chocolate and rapsberry tart, soft egg in shell with caviar and duck leg confit at Bicyclette
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)


Pico-Robertson French $$$
Before opening République, Walter and Margarita Manzke both gained mastery in the French canon, including opening the restaurants Bouchée and L’Auberge up the coast in Carmel. At Bicyclette, which inhabits a handsomely tiled and wood-lined space below the couple’s tasting-menu restaurant Manzke, they complete the circle with a valentine to the ageless Parisian bistro. They may take American liberties with traditional dishes, but never in ways that would dishonor the soul of the cuisine. Cheese gougères dissolve like an illusion. Sausages veer from nutmeg-scented boudin blanc that springs against the fork to taut, elegantly spiced merguez. Broth for bouillabaisse distills into a piercing seafood liqueur. I watch the team of chefs as a blur of constant motion through a picture window next to the short bar, my preferred perch in the dining room. Do I love it there because Margarita’s jeweled, ruler-precise fruit tarts sit displayed on a counter a few feet away, nearly within arm’s reach? Yes, and Bicyclette’s bartenders are also fine conversationalists.
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Eggplant fillet and mushroom tart
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Crossroads Kitchen

Beverly Grove Vegan $$
Given Southern California’s agricultural riches, I seek out vegan restaurants that place as much importance on regional produce as on plant-based foods that mimic meat, dairy and eggs. Chef-owner Tal Ronnen’s Crossroads Kitchen models such balance. Plus, in the restaurant’s 10 years in Los Angeles they have managed to crack the code on meat-free dining that also carries a sense of occasion. Come to eat the seasons: Through the year, inspirations segue from artichoke and shaved asparagus tartare to a meditation on corn that includes chicharrón-like chips and roasted honeynut squash with pomegranate, yogurt and black garlic. Ground lion’s mane mushroom evokes the texture of short rib as a ravioli filling on the fall menu. The restaurant has grown to three locations that include Calabasas and Las Vegas. I will forever favor the clubby Melrose Avenue original that doubles as an entertainment industry hangout.
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Fish tartare tostada from Damian
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)


Downtown L.A. Mexican $$$
It began as Mexico City-based chef Enrique Olvera’s grandly announced entrance to the L.A. market, but Damian has settled into a restaurant that feels intentionally engaged with the city. In a region so rich in Mexican food culture, Damian’s leadership team, led by Jesús “Chuy” Cervantes, seems to ask through its cooking: What can we bring to the conversation? Answers come in such forms as salmon tostada spread with Sungold tomatoes and smoky, shatteringly crisp Chicatana ants (a luxury ingredient in Oaxaca and other regions of Mexico), and a masterpiece centered around a meaty bulb of celery root that has been nixtamalized, baked, then braised in garlic, lemon and butter. Brunch is a sleeper weekend destination: Go for the comforts of lamb birria and Korean-inspired fried chicken sheathed in a batter of rice and white corn flours. Day or night equally flatters the space. Housed in a former Arts District warehouse, the interior is mod and moody, and the lush terrace set among dilapidation is part art installation, part urban haven.

It’s important to mention Damian’s adjacent taqueria, Ditroit, hidden around back with an entrance down an alley, and the primacy of its extra-long fish flauta with a mulchy, piquant filling that evokes Baja’s smoked marlin tacos.

Read the full review of Damian.
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An 18-ounce rib-eye, with sides of German potatoes, broccolini, creamed corn and creamed spinach at Dear John's
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Dear John's

Culver City Steakhouse $$$
It was a Rat Pack-inspired farewell bash that turned into a Hitchcockian cliffhanger. Opened in 1962 by a pal of Frank Sinatra, so the story goes, Dear John’s was once a clubby hideaway for celebrities and other entertainment-industry types. Over the years the Culver City building changed hands and eventually fell into neglect. In 2019, two years before its scheduled demolition, power couple Hans and Patti Röckenwagner toured the space and felt called to resuscitate it. With partner Josiah Citrin, they landed on a hit: a 50-seat, time-capsule romp featuring tuxedoed servers; walls of portraits, abstracts and landscapes painted in the 1950s and ’60s; heavy-pour martinis; and Continental steakhouse classics that were far better than they needed to be. The lease extended through the pandemic, and neither owners nor customers wanted the party to end. Landlord negotiations this year appeared to stall. Finally, on May 31, on the day of what was supposed to be the restaurant’s final service, everyone involved reached an agreement. We have Dear John’s tableside Caesars, sand dabs and chicken parm that gushes like chicken Kiev for five more years. Another martini to celebrate, please.
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Lobster bisque roll from Found Oyster
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Found Oyster

East Hollywood Seafood $$
I tend to fixate on the wait at Found Oyster: The East Hollywood seafood bar is tiny, with just 20 seats inside and a handful of tables on the semi-enclosed sidewalk patio, and it does not take reservations. The staff is good about bringing out its concise, brainy wine list for sipping a glass as you idle in a designated outdoor area. If a lag time to sit is consistent, so is the food — which is why the place was designed as a neighborhood hangout but blossomed into a citywide destination. Count on small, crisply saline oysters to start. There will be porky chowder, and a lobster roll bathing in bisque, and peel-and-eat prawns smeared in spices and worth the mess. Fried clams and grilled salmon belly and local spot prawns appear at their peak seasons. Chef and co-owner Ari Kolender has concentrated on seafood his whole career. His style is precise but never fussy. I always leave understanding why everyone else wants to be here too.
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Pork jowl, red cabbage, serrano, cilantro, peanut, peach, amaranth from Here's Looking at You
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Here's Looking at You

Koreatown American $$
A reductive label like “global small plates plus brainy cocktails” doesn’t do justice to the improbable, thrilling hyphenates that chef Jonathan Whitener and bar director Danny Rubenstein pull off time and again. In Whitener’s hands, trust that a fluffy mound of duck liver drizzled with thick coconut caramel and jabbed, in the manner of a pincushion, with seaweed-dusted potato chips makes every kind of sense. Dishes like cavatelli and crab or shishitos perched over a bowl of tonnato dipping sauce have settled in as menu staples, but plenty of new ideas are flowing and it’s heartening to see the kitchen regain its pre-pandemic experimental groove. Few smiles can dissolve the day’s stresses like the one co-owner Lien Ta beams when customers walk through her door. Settle in with one of Rubenstein’s seasonal cocktails with great names (one example: Understood the Assignment, laced with watermelon-infused mezcal) or his all-weather, never-too-sweet Mai Tai.
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Caviar from Kato
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)


Downtown L.A. Taiwanese $$$$
Jon Yao’s cooking begins with nostalgia — for the Taiwanese American food made by his mother and grandmother, for his coming of age in the San Gabriel Valley. As the ornate mosaics of seafood and vegetables, punctuated occasionally by meat, roll out from his kitchen in courses, it’s evident how he transforms his sentimentality from the inside out. He’s a master technician who takes apart station wagons and reconstructs them as Bentley Continentals.

Those of us who have followed Yao’s career tend to refer to the airy, wood-and-concrete-lined space in Row DTLA as Kato 2.0, since the restaurant began as a bootstrap operation in a West L.A. strip mall in 2016. It’s been nearly two years since the move, an upgrade of outsize proportions, and every ambition that first landed Kato at the top of the 101 Best Restaurants list in 2019 has been more fully realized in spades. Yao’s longtime business partner, Nikki Reginaldo, leads a staff of servers with serious demeanors; she brings levity with wit and boss R&B playlists. Ryan Bailey came aboard in the new location as the third leader and the beverage guy. Between his 70-something-page wine list, including the city’s most trailblazing nonalcoholic drink program, and bar director Austin Hennelly’s alchemical, easy-sipping cocktails, I sometimes wish I could come solely to imbibe. But the food thrills. Look for the most unassuming presence by the stoves, and there’s Yao. His quietness hides his relentless creativity. He’s swapping out luxe Hokkaido scallops in plum reduction one week for lobster over buttery shrimp toast the next, using Sichuan pepper as brain teasers, making the rightful case for pig’s ears as delicacies, and offering a savory-sweet bao filled with salted egg yolk custard as a climax.

Dinner in the main dining room is $275 per person, with a slightly abridged $170 tasting menu of Kato classics at the bar that’s ideal for solo diners and usually includes a dish involving caviar, mussel liquor, smoked onion cream and a filling side of milk bread. It’s wonderful, but the main experience feels more refined, more driven, each time I visit. So much of our fine dining winks with signifiers of our culture — a sashimi plate here, a Mexican ingredient there — but Yao’s cuisine originates from an interior place. This is me, it says. And when we taste it, we understand: This is Los Angeles.

Read the full review of Kato 2.0.
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Escargot from Knife Pleat
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Knife Pleat

Costa Mesa French $$$$
Chef Tony Esnault and front-of-house whiz Yassmin Sarmadi, who are married, closed their Los Angeles restaurants Spring and Church & State in 2018 and 2019, respectively, to take up residence in the haute couture Penthouse wing of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza. The location fits their aims. Esnault orchestrates a scrupulous form of fine dining that’s vanishing in America. The cooking is high craftsmanship and the plating is art. You stare, as in a gallery, considering vegetable geometries and the deliberate white space between ovals of duck breast and pools of orange-perfumed reductions. Vitally, within the elaborate presentations, the ingredients taste of themselves. At its essence the food is a joy, making for a worthy special-occasion splurge, and the doting staff thaws some of the formalism. Lunch and afternoon tea options are equally punctilious and accordingly spendy. The most elegant, uplifting annual meal in Orange County, I can share from yearly experience, may be the spring dinner at Knife Pleat celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
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An overhead photo of four dishes
(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)


Santa Monica American $$$$
Josiah Citrin’s 14-seat sanctuary quietly saw major personnel changes over the last year. Chef de cuisine Ian Scaramuzza and wine director Matthew Luczy helped shape the haute cuisine tone of Mélisse in 2019 when it became a restaurant-within-a-restaurant sharing space with the larger, eponymous Citrin. Both have departed. Those roles reverted to longtime chef and partner Ken Takayama and to wine director Kaitlyn Harrah, who oversees beverages for both restaurants.

For diners, the transition will feel seamless: The experience remains the very definition of special-occasion dining. Bookended by one-bite sculptures served on gorgeous ceramics to start and finish, two-plus hours float by in a dance of veloutés and nages, uni and lobster, duck press theatrics and ganache tarts fashioned from Valrhona’s line of blond chocolate. Wine pairings aim to impress jaded oenophiles. The cost, beginning at $399 per person, rivals the price of our most opulent omakase counters. Records play on the top-notch stereo system. It was mostly 1970s and ’80s-era R&B during a recent dinner, and caviar just tastes better with Billy Ocean playing in the background.
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A bowl with confit duck leg and greens
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Orsa & Winston

Downtown L.A. Italian Japanese $$$$
Josef Centeno’s downtown restaurants numbered four before the pandemic; tiny tasting-menu workshop Orsa & Winston and next-door Tex-Mex haunt Bar Amá endure, and they both remain vital to Los Angeles dining. Orsa & Winston turned 10 this fall. While never abandoning its founding premise to entwine the cuisines of Japan and Italy, Centeno ceaselessly experiments with formats and dishes. Lately the menu is five courses for $125 per person, including a few small extras and an optional add-on — the citrusy rice porridge steeped in Parmesan cream and most often gilded with uni or abalone.

Chawanmushi with clams, gooseberries and caviar opened an early September dinner, highlighting the seemingly improbable combinations that Centeno pulls off time and again. After an entree of sturgeon paired winningly with huckleberries, the meal finished with a just-ripe pluot battered, fried and garnished with mascarpone cream and miso caramel. It put a bow on the Japanese-Italian themes while reminding me exactly where I was in the universe. Your meal likely will have wholly different ingredients, though you’ll catch the same imaginative throughlines that have kept Centeno’s creativity engaged for the last decade. The restaurant’s staff is smaller these days, which makes the place feel both more intimate and also somehow more romantic. Count on longtime server and sommelier Romain Racary to tell witty stories about the wines he’s pouring in his satiny Parisian accent.
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The thon et tomate at Pasjoli
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)


Santa Monica French $$$
Dave Beran’s Santa Monica haute bistro opened only six months before March 2020. Its two rooms, after shutdowns and months of sidewalk dining, still gleam like new. While sipping a cocktail made with persimmon puree or walnut milk, take in the hand-painted silk wallpaper depicting flowers swaying in a springtime breeze, the mossy-green velvet fabrics, the mix of marble, shiny woods and red brick. It’s one of the loveliest spaces in Southern California.

During the pandemic, Beran closed his tiny, cerebral tasting-menu restaurant, Dialogue, so he can be spied in Pasjoli’s open kitchen almost every night. As a chef he’s always been a precisionist brainiac, geeking out on laborious technique and symbolist presentations. The autumn season finds orange and brown micro-flora scattered like fall foliage over a buttery crab crêpe, and loamy duck rillettes in a tart shaped like a leaf and surrounded by black-green lettuces.

The food is evolving. Initially the restaurant aimed to re-create canonical Gallic dishes: steak tartare, a trembling onion tart that subbed for soupe a l’oignon, the gory and glamorous pressed duck that was, at first, tableside theater and now is prepared in the kitchen. Now there are dishes like a pork chop in a reduction sauce made from trotters and ham hocks and finished with a hazelnut vinaigrette, or gorgeously seared halibut over yuzu beurre blanc and a tumble of sautéed broccoli, spinach and pine nuts. It comes off as less controlled and more pleasure-centered. French is still the default shorthand for the cooking. “Beranaise” would be more accurate.
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Norwegian king crab from Providence
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)


Hollywood Seafood $$$$
Now in its 19th year, Providence is the paragon of sumptuous celebratory dining in Los Angeles. The key to its longevity lies in sustaining its sky-high standards, centered around Michael Cimarusti’s mastery of seafood, while investing in constant reinvention. In May, for example, the restaurant unveiled a remodeled interior with much-needed natural lighting and updated furniture that includes elegantly grained walnut tables. The walls have been layered in deep shades of blue and green. Those scenes in movies where characters plunge into a warm sea for a few moments of reprieve from the world? That’s how settling into the dining room feels now.

Cimarusti and his longtime chef de cuisine, Tristan Aitchison, make constant, restrained changes to their tasting menu. No one meal looks the same from night to night, but expect fish and crustaceans (caught mostly from American waters, though occasionally from Japan and elsewhere) served in vivid oils or buttery sauces with sculpted vegetables, all set down in lovely symmetries. It’s the extra touches that linger in the memory: the incredible sourdough boule using wheat from Tehachapi Grain Project; the pile-it-on luxe options of the restaurant’s famous uni egg as well as cocktails prepared tableside; and the city’s hands-down finest service team, led by Cimarusti’s co-owner, Donato Poto, who grasp the importance of human connection in such a rarefied setting. My sole wish here is for the return of Providence’s Friday lunch, a power scene that was like no other in L.A.
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The omakase appetizer plate at Shin Sushi
(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)

Shin Sushi

Encino Japanese $$$
Among the vast sushi options in the San Fernando Valley, I particularly admire Shin Sushi in Encino, an omakase experience honed to its essence. Chef-owner Taketoshi Azumi starts dinner with an appetizer plate of rotating seafood and vegetables that frequently includes a single sawagani — a tiny fried crab that defines crunch. Azumi is a smiling, calming figure behind the bar. He stands in its stage-right corner, always focused on the next task but bantering easily with the nightly handful of customers in English or Japanese. His wrist snaps twice, fast as a jolt on the chiropractor’s table, as he presses vinegared rice in his palm. He explains that, like his father, he practices Edomae sushi: He slightly ages much of the seafood, using dashi- or soy-based marinades. He doesn’t pad his nigiri with farmers market finds, vegan derivations, A5 Wagyu or truffle salt. But he has his signatures, including menegi (reed-thin Japanese chives) bundled with a band of nori and a finishing sprinkle of bonito flakes. Its stinging deliciousness doesn’t dim until after a couple spoonfuls of coffee jelly for dessert, and even then the chives linger in the mind.
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The signature marinated raw crab dish at Soban
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)


Koreatown Korean $$
Noodles in cooling broths and cloudy beef-bone soups; bossam feasts and plate-size seafood pancakes; sizzling dolsot bibimbap, sustaining stews and bars lit by neon and soju: Koreatown, our civic jewel, overwhelms with its hundreds of culinary possibilities. Jennifer Pak’s small, welcoming institution remains both a wonderful introduction to the community’s food culture and a place to return to again and again. Beyond the superior variety and quantity of banchan, three vital dishes keep Soban’s reputation intact year after year. Ganjang gejang, speckled raw crab bathed in soy-based marinade and dressed with green chiles and a sliced clove of garlic, reigns supreme. Extracting its musky, briny-sweet flesh is a full-sensory pleasure. Follow it with eundaegu jorim (gochujang-spiced braise of black cod and mu radish) or galbi jjim, its short ribs and root vegetables lacquered in a sauce that tastes of chile, garlic and dried jujubes grown on the family’s farm.
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Soriresu yakitori from Tsubaki
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)


Echo Park Japanese $$$
Courtney Kaplan and Charles Namba’s 32-seat Echo Park bastion brilliantly spans the divide between neighborhood izakaya and date-night restaurant. With each year I more appreciate Namba’s repertoire, honing two dozen or so raw, steamed, fried and grilled dishes with a native Angeleno’s knack for scouring the farmers markets. One week he’s searing skewers of duck breast that nearly smoke over binchotan and painting them with brandied cherry glaze. The weather turns and he composes a kabocha squash salad with soy-pickled enoki mushrooms and chicories. I can’t recall once skipping the mainstay chicken oysters dotted with yuzu kosho.

Between Tsubaki and the couple’s next-door bar, Ototo, Kaplan maintains the most enlightening and thrilling selection of sake on the West Coast. It too changes with the seasons, as brewers release effervescent nama sakes in the spring and fuller-bodied counterparts in the fall. On the plate and in the cup, the duo’s combined sense of experimentation makes the place (and those eating there) feel alive with possibility. Ever wondered where a food critic chooses to celebrate his own birthday? Here’s the answer.
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