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Yes, the restaurant business is tough, but don’t ignore these bursts of creativity

An elevated take on pho from chef Duyen Ha, who made a two-night appearance at Debbie Lee's pop-up Joseon in Silver Lake.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)
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How chefs adapt, the best eating in Las Vegas, a Cake Boss dessert crawl, Beyond Meat struggles, plus, why Gordon Ramsay is jealous of “The Bear’s” Carmy. And is it OK to pick fruit from someone else’s tree? I’m Laurie Ochoa, general manager of L.A. Times Food, with this week’s Tasting Notes.

Flexing their creative muscles

Wagyu beef tartare with Asian pear, salted egg yolk, perilla and seaweed cracker. Nov 2023 at chef Debbie Lee's Joseon.
Wagyu beef tartare with Asian pear, salted egg yolk, perilla and seaweed cracker served in November at chef Debbie Lee’s Joseon.

As dire as things seem lately in the restaurant business (read Stephanie Breijo‘s recent report on what Southern California restaurateurs are going through), we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Los Angeles still attracts some of the most creative and dedicated chefs bringing new ideas and broadening the scope of fine and casual dining.

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Consider Debbie Lee, who began cooking in French restaurants (San Francisco’s La Folie, Los Angeles’ Le Dome) but in an ever shape-shifting career has cooked in food trucks and a kiosk at the Americana in Glendale, made a name with her style of Korean gastropub food, founded a meal delivery service, wrote a cookbook (“Seoultown Kitchen”) and found her place in the high-stakes world of chef competition shows. In 2009 she was the first Asian contestant on “The Next Food Network Star,” she’s competed on “Chopped All-Stars” and last year she was runner-up on “Morimoto’s Sushi Master.”

Lately, you will find Lee at Joseon, an elegant tasting menu pop up that emerged last year in the Silver Lake space vacated by Ricardo Zarate‘s Causita. Her idea is to present a modern version of the royal court cuisine served during Korea’s long Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). At the same time, she’s working hard to make her menus accessible by pricing her seven-course plus dessert menu at $99 and offering a five-course plus dessert menu for $79.

I had a chance to try one of her tasting menus in November and loved the flavors and textures of the food (mandu filled with ginger-pork rillette; Wagyu beef tartare with Asian pear, salted egg yolk, perilla and a crisp seaweed cracker).

Lee’s recently introduced a new seasonal menu, which I haven’t tried yet because this week and last week she was hosting two guest chefs for AAPI Heritage Month: Dara Yu, the youngest chef to win Gordon Ramsay’s “MasterChef,” and Duyen Ha, who has worked in France at Alain Passard‘s Arpège, Mauro Colagreco’s Mirazur and Grégory Marchand‘s Frenchie then went on to found her own wine brand, Bondle, which started out as specializing in magnum bottles and has evolved into a kind of curated wine department store — a distribution label for innovative winemakers in France, including many women, looking to expand their reach into the U.S.

At Joseon this week, Ha blended her French fine-dining training with some of the traditional dishes of her Vietnamese heritage. One of the most impressive dishes was her elevated take on pho, which had an intense broth with oxtail and brisket, fragrant with Thai and lemon basil, and served wide, silky handmade rice noodles.

“I really wanted to do this to help the next generation of women,” Lee says of hosting Yu and Ha. “When I was starting out in the kitchen we didn’t have that option — I was the only female in the kitchen.”

Chef Debbie Lee, left, and guest chef Duyen Ha at the pop-up restaurant Joseon in Silver Lake.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)
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Lee is also working on her next project, Yi Cha, a follow up to the gastropub food she first pioneered out of her Ahn-Joo food truck. The Highland Park restaurant, which should open sometime this year, is just one more way Lee is pivoting and adapting to a changing restaurant landscape.

Vegas, baby . . .

The first airplane ride I ever took was to Las Vegas — so that I could watch my mother marry my stepfather. The first restaurant meal I ate without parental supervision was also in Las Vegas, at the original MGM Grand (now the Horseshoe Las Vegas) when I was 11 or 12 years old. My sister and I were given permission to take ourselves to lunch and I’m pretty sure I ordered a club sandwich. Its triple-decker architecture (extra toast for extra crunch!) and jaunty triangular pieces, brazenly arranged to show off its inside layers, would have seemed pretty sophisticated to me at the time.

Back then, the all-you-can-eat buffet was king; today, the buffet is just part of a huge spectrum of dining choices for Vegas visitors. Restaurant critic Bill Addison and many others credit Wolfgang Puck with sparking the star chef era in Las Vegas when he opened his second Spago in 1992 at the Forum Shops at Caesars. (It’s now at the Bellagio.) These days, the appearance of world-class chefs in Las Vegas is so common that the organizers of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants chose Wynn Las Vegas as the site of this year’s awards ceremony on June 5. Taking advantage of all that concentrated chef power, Wynn decided to put on its own food festival, Revelry, with plenty of L.A. chefs appearing at “The Feast,” a walk-around tasting experience on June 8, and a masterclass and tasting June 7 with Yakitoriguy.

Partly in anticipation of the arrival of so many of the world’s great chefs, Addison, along with food columnist Jenn Harris and deputy food editor Betty Hallock undertook an epic search for the best places to eat in Las Vegas — part of a larger series of stories on planning your next Vegas trip. They came up with 47 essential Vegas restaurants, ranging from the $500, 12-seat omakase at Ito in the Fontainebleu to late-night Tacos El Gordo. Addison says the most underrated fine-dining spot is Marc Vetri‘s 56th-floor restaurant Vetri Cucina in Palms Casino Resort. And there’s no shortage of Peking ducks at Vegas’ many high-end Chinese restaurants, including the lauded Wing Lei at Wynn.

But if it’s the abundance of a great fine-dining buffet you crave, Hallock says Seafood Spectacular at the Buffet at Wynn, with its 60-pound Wagyu beef “steamship” and never-ending crab legs, has taken the buffet crown from Bacchanal at Caesars Palace.

Dessert crawl with the Cake Boss

"Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro with the banana cream pie at Cut by Wolfgang Puck at the Venetian in Las Vegas.
(Hannah Rushton / For The Times)

During her Las Vegas research, Jenn Harris spent time in the orbit of Buddy Valastro, aka Cake Boss. The reality TV star has an outpost of his family’s Carlo’s Bakery at the Venetian Resort. The two of them embarked on a food crawl focused solely on dessert. Over spoonfuls of Dominique Ansel’s key lime pie at Caesars Palace and many more sweets, Valastro shares stories with Harris about his growing empire of bakeries and cake vending machines. All told, they go through 20,000 pounds of cake batter a day.

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  • Cindy Carcamo reports that Orange County’s John Wayne Airport is making big investments in its food choices for travelers in the coming months with more than a dozen new places — including locally founded spots Chaupain Bakery, Left Coast Brewing and Wahoo’s.
  • Why is real-life chef Gordon Ramsay jealous of fictional chef Carmy from “The Bear”? Matt Brennan, our deputy editor for entertainment and arts, did a quick Q&A with the reality TV star for our Screen Gab newsletter.
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  • And when is it OK to pick fruit from someone else’s tree? More than 800 readers answered the question.
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