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The perfect L.A. restaurant for out-of-town guests

Tasting Notes logo over citrus peels
Kishu and satsuma mandarins offered on the opening dessert menu at Lulu.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)
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How many folds does it take to make a Din Tai Fung soup dumpling? Plus a family dispute and the closure of Café Tropical; where to eat while holiday shopping; and how too many tourists might be harming the wine country of Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe. I’m Laurie Ochoa, general manager of L.A. Times Food, with this week’s Tasting Notes.

Lulu of a California restaurant

Spiced chickpea salad with roasted vegetables and radishes at Lulu restaurant inside L.A.'s Hammer Museum.
Spiced chickpea salad with roasted vegetables and radishes at Lulu restaurant inside L.A.’s Hammer Museum.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)

I was in the courtyard of the Hammer Museum recently, having lunch on a sunny afternoon at the restaurant Lulu while art tourists nearby happily swirled outside the galleries on spinning-top chairs designed by Thomas Heatherwick. It occurred to me as I ate a chickpea and roasted vegetable salad garnished with gorgeous sliced radishes — and sneaked a bite of a friend’s ricotta gnocchi — that I was in one of my favorite spots in all of Los Angeles.

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Not only is Lulu steps away from one of the world’s great museums — currently staging its biennial “Made in L.A.” exhibition — as well as the Billy Wilder Theater with one of our region’s most active film programs, it is home to the kitchen of David Tanis, a chef who embodies the spirit of California cuisine.

It’s not just that Tanis cooks with the seasons, as one would expect from the former chef of Chez Panisse — where he worked for years with Alice Waters, his partner behind the scenes at Lulu. Tanis has the confidence of a chef who trusts his ingredients, many of which come from our farmers markets (arguably the best in the world). He has little need for showy tricks or gilding a dish with luxury embellishments.

Fillmore, CA - September 29 2021: Chef David Tanis, at Kentor Canyon Farms
Lulu chef David Tanis at Kentor Canyon Farms in Fillmore in 2021.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

As our cooking columnist Ben Mims wrote in a 2021 feature not long before Lulu opened, Tanis’ food is made “with an eye toward color and capturing the beauty of the raw ingredient.”

That comes through in images I’ve captured over several meals during the two years Lulu has been open, along with a cooking intelligence that we all can learn from when we plate our food for dinners at home. Consider a disc of Sonoma goat cheese baked with bread crumbs and served with a handful of beautiful salad greens, a deceptively simple starter from the Chez Panisse playbook that requires a sure hand with the vinaigrette, excellent sourcing for the cheese and lettuces plus a simple presentation.

Sonoma baked goat cheese with salad greens at Lulu at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)

Or a lamb rack plated with roasted potatoes cut in half and a sprinkling of pomegranate seed and mint leaves.

Lamb rack with potatoes and pomegranate at Lulu inside the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)
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Desserts follow a similar pattern — a lozenge of cream beside a perfect brownie, a seasonal sorbet or maybe cardamom cake. For a time early on, the restaurant offered kishu and satsuma mandarins, presented as a fruit bowl so you could slip off the peels at the table over a cup of tea and conversation about the exhibition you’d just seen in the Hammer’s galleries.

Dessert at Lulu: sorbet, brownie and tea.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)

And in a city where $250 and even $400 tasting menus are no longer unusual, the $65 prix-fixe supper and $45 lunch at Lulu are a refreshing bit of civility. It’s true that with pricier menus you get many more courses than the three- and four-dish offerings at Lulu. But Tanis knows how to build a meal so you leave satisfied, happy and not too full.

Add a knowledgeable, kind wait staff overseen by Jesse McBride, who always has a wise and interesting wine suggestion and you have what might be the perfect L.A. restaurant to show off to visiting guests from out of town. They’ll eat well, they’ll see provocative art and when they experience the bounty of our seasonal foods they’ll understand why California is one of the best places in the world to live.

Too much of a good thing?

Natalia Badan, owner of Mogar Badan winery, known as the godmother of Baja's Valle de Guadalupe.
Natalia Badan, owner of Mogar Badan winery, known as the godmother of Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)
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“We are a farming community. Nature has its own rhythm,” Natalia Badan, the owner of Mogar Badan winery told Cindy Carcamo, who went to Baja’s Valle de Guadelupe to report on how water issues and too many wine tourists might be ruining the burgeoning wine country they’ve come to visit. Because these days it’s not just wine tasting and restaurants filling the valley but a thriving club scene as well.

“This urban nightlife is not compatible with agriculture,” said Badan, known as the godmother of Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe. “It’s disconnected from its environment. It breaks something.”

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18 folds and 21 grams

Xiao long bao, green beans, cucumbers and chocolate buns
Xiao long bao, green beans, cucumbers and chocolate buns from Din Tai Fung.
(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)

Many of us know the growing soup dumpling empire Din Tai Fung, where waits for a table at its Glendale and Arcadia locations can be more than an hour. But writer Clarissa Wei went to Taipei to report on the Taiwanese chain’s expansion with locations planned in New York and even Downtown Disney. “Each Din Tai Fung restaurant produces an average of 10,000 dumplings a day,” Wei writes. “It’s an operation that requires the manpower of roughly 30 chefs on rotation, all of whom are required to master the art of the perfect fold. ...Each dumpling has to follow an exact standard: 18 folds, 21 grams apiece. A seasoned chef should be able to fold an average of eight dumplings in one minute.”

Also ...

  • Looking for more suggestions for family and friends visiting over the holidays? Assistant Food Editor Danielle Dorsey has compiled recent reviews and news from our writers into a guide to the best places to eat and drink right now.
  • Columnist Jenn Harris put together a guide to the best places to eat while you’re doing your holiday shopping.
  • Noah Goldberg reports that a bitter family dispute is partly to blame for the sudden closure Friday of Silver Lake’s beloved Café Tropical, which for decades served the best guava-and-cheese pies as well as wonderfully crisp media noche sandwiches and strong cafe Cubanos.
  • And tickets are sold out to next week’s reveal party for Bill Addison‘s annual guide to the 101 Best L.A. Restaurants, but if you’re a subscriber you can check our website on Tuesday at about 8 p.m. when we will hit publish during the party with this year’s new list of honorees.
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