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Minh Phan’s Phenakite is our Restaurant of the Year

The paragons previously named as Los Angeles Times Restaurant of the Year — Locol, Taco Maria, Bavel and Orsa & Winston — came with some name recognition, usually from gales of deserved good press or a tenured standing in the community.

But you may not have yet heard of the 2021 recipient, Phenakite, an ambitious and quietly radical fine-dining project conceived in the eye of the pandemic’s storm.

Chef Minh Phan
Chef Minh Phan at her fine-dining restaurant, Phenakite.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

You might know its creator, Minh Phan: She’s the chef and owner of Porridge + Puffs in Historic Filipinotown and a bedrock of the L.A. food industry. Phan’s standing among her peers stems from both her cooking (soothing, but also sneakily pyrotechnic in its use of pickles, savory jams and other acidic blasts) and her leadership. Joining forces with organizations including Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement, Food Forward, SEE-LA and Miry’s List, she jumps in to feed seniors and residents of underserved neighborhoods. She thinks out loud in interviews about how to create more sustainable work environments for her and her staff.

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Last summer, she was offered a standing residency at Second Home, an unusually beautiful workshare space in a garden setting in Hollywood. Groundbreaking L.A. architect Paul R. Williams designed the curving, Modernist central building as a community center in 1963. On the weekends Phan serves guests in the complex’s courtyard — a twinkling backdrop of generously spaced, kidney-shaped tables among lush greenery and strung lights.

While Porridge + Puffs (tiny, communal and with no outdoor space) remains temporarily closed, Phenakite gets all of Phan’s energy. The framework is a 10-course tasting menu, though the uplifting mood is as important as the meal. When it comes to how people care professionally for others in restaurants, the English language fails us. I’ve never taken to the word “hospitality”: Enunciating it feels like chewing on a lump of gray steak and a jagged potato chip at the same time. It doesn’t convey the warmth and intuition of its most skillful practitioners. However it’s best expressed, the spirit of kindness animates Phenakite. Team members — including chefs Connie Sum and Bronwen Kinzler-Britton and recent college grad Ben Amandes — cook the food and then serve it themselves in synchronized rhythms. Every gesture is gracious. They embody welcome.

A dish from Phenakite
Intermezzo dance party, served between the main courses, features pickled celtuce, gooseberries, spicy fermented plum gelee, Champagne-dashi gelee, kosho-coconut air, nasturtium petals, rose geranium petals, California wasabi oil and a whiff of woodruff.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

What is the cuisine exactly? A label seems stifling. If you’ve had Phan’s food before, inspired occasionally by her family’s Vietnamese recipes but shaped mostly by her own culinary narrative, the food here is a larger backdrop for the way she has used porridge as a canvas. Don’t look to the menu for answers. A dish description like “black sesame vichyssoise, rambutan, fermented green figs, Mindy’s Buddha’s hands, lemon verbena oil, ume-rose crisp, rose geraniums, baby shiso” is more of an ingredient poem than a vehicle for insight.

You’ll have to trust me when I say that it’s some of the freshest, smartest and most heartfelt cooking in Los Angeles and go experience it for yourself.

At Guelaguetza, the flavors of Oaxaca are essential elements of Los Angeles cuisine.

Yes, there is porridge — a delicious variation that involves abalone — but the real heart of the evening is the moment when Phan comes to the table and sets up a swordfish course for each guest. Fig leaves charred with a blowtorch come into play, but what really matters is her presence. Her eyes dance and crinkle at the corners while she chats; you know she is smiling behind her mask. You feel connection, and your whole body remembers that restaurants are about so much more than consumption. And maybe, like me, you relax and feel hopeful in a way you haven’t for some time.

In an era when the whole world has been reminded of how swiftly and painfully life can change, this experimental feat affirms that dining remains a vitalizing force in our city. Phenakite is Restaurant of the Year.

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As part of the 2021 Los Angeles Times Food Bowl events, The Times will celebrate Restaurant of the Year winner Phenakite with a prix-fixe dinner at the restaurant on July 9 at 7 p.m. On July 11, there will be an award presentation and bento box brunch from 1-4 p.m. For information, go to lafoodbowl.com/roy/


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