Around West LA in 10 Plates

Last week, I traveled down to sunny, sultry, sexy Los Angeles—land of very big dreams, very rich mice, very shiny black Range Rovers, and very good mini-lobster rolls. For a few glorious days, I lived the ASCTV (As Seen in a California Tourism Video) life—sun, sand ‘n surf, Disneyland, and random celebrity sightings included, but when I wasn’t lying by the pool or hiking to the Hollywood sign or wandering around the Venice Canals or just sitting on a bench at The Grove wishing Jason Statham would walk by shirtless on his way to Barney’s* (hey, a girl can dream), I was, of course, eating.

Los Angeles’ sheer bulk can be overwhelming, and every neighborhood nurtures culinary gems of its own, but while my original plan was to SEE AND EAT EVERYTHING IN THE CITY, I had to make some realistic adjustments once I arrived. Our hotel was in West Hollywood, and I’d decided against renting a car because I didn’t want to worry about parking or playing bumper cars with a Maserati (no small fear, considering I personally witnessed four auto collisions during the trip, all involving one or more cars worth more than the average single family home), and thus is born: Around West LA in 10 Plates. (Or as it was originally titled, 10 Plates Within Two Flip Flop Blisters’ Distance of the Sunset Marquis Hotel.)

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Pizzeria Mozza’s Egg, Guanciale, Escarole, Radicchio & Bagna Cauda Pizza

There are loads of acclaimed pizzerias in LA, but Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich’s Pizzeria Mozza kept recurring in recommendations, so my first night in the city, I walked down Melrose Avenue to North Highland to check out what the fuss was about. Sitting at the kitchen bar, sneaking peeks at a big guy in the corner whom I was pretty sure was director Kevin Smith, I nibbled the crunchy, spindly house breadsticks with a front row seat of the pizza crew’s goings-ons. Quickly and assuredly, but with utmost care (I’ve seen newborns handled less gently), a pizzaiolo stretched a ball of dough to its full potential to craft what was one of the best pizza crusts I’ve ever had—chewy, tender and cracker-crisp all at once, then spread it with silky bagna cauda, guanciale, escarole and radicchio, and slid it into the wood-fired oven. A few minutes later, he pulled the pizza out, dipped a dark brown egg into a clay dish of olive oil, and gently rubbed the egg around the center of the pizza to form a soft well to crack it into. After a few more minutes in the oven, it was served looking like this. Enough said. www.mozza-la.com

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Son of a Gun’s Lobster Roll

If Jon Shook and Vinny Doloto’s lobster roll is anything to go by, you should probably buy a ticket to their upcoming Feast Portland Sandwich Invitational event right now. No, right now! Chunks of tender, ruddy lobster bound by a silky lemon aioli and spooned into the hollow of a golden chunk of toasted brioche, then sprinkled with chives and topped with fragments of a house potato chip? Yes, it was like that. Along with sweet little Kusshi oysters with a cucumber ginger serrano mignonette and a dessert of frozen lime yogurt with graham crumble and a torched smear of meringue, it was my last LA lunch and brought new meaning to the term happy ending. sonofagunrestaurant.com

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Mezze’s Churros with Dark Chocolate Pudding and Baharat Cream

Sure, everyone has their go-to Middle Eastern restaurant, and not all falafel is created equal, but more often than not, the genre’s offerings are pretty straightforward regardless of where you go. Mezze was a trip down the rabbit hole, chef Micah Wexler’s menu threw out dishes like Hawseh risotto with lamb and burnt onion, wood oven-roasted Cornish game hen with zatar, and braised Moroccan chicken wings, while presenting familiar favorites in yet untasted ways—the tabouli was accented with fresh fava beans, sweet little green peas, toasted almonds, and bacon. The first section of the menu is dedicated to the restaurant’s inventive flatbreads—like the smoked sturgeon with sumac and lebne, or merquez sausage with tomato jam…our had roasted cauliflower, rich Moroccan olives, a dusting of briny feta and golden raisins. We reveled in the simple, slider-sized brisket shawarama—a miniature version layered with tender brisket, house pickles, and tangy amba. But it was the churros that I can’t stop thinking about. Golf ball-sized, fresh from the fryer, and rolled in cinnamon sugar, they seemed to melt in your mouth, and would have been unforgettable even without the dark chocolate pudding and baharat cream served alongside. mezzela.com

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Neveux Artisan Creamery’s Roasted Banana Ice Cream

Los Angeles is brimming with scoop shops I’m pretty sure all warrant making a special trip—Saffron & Rose, Sweet Rose Creamery, Scoops, Pazzo, Mateo’s and Carmela were all on my list. But I passed “artisan ice creamologist” Leo Neveux’s creamery on my way to Mozza pizzeria, and since it was completely unpopulated except for a lone scoopsman, I petitioned him to permit me to do something I’ve dreamt of my whole life—try everything in the case. He obliged, instantly making me a Neveux fan for life. The innovative flavors were all delicious, just reading the menu makes you melt faster than a double cone at high noon—rosemary butterscotch, rhubarb mint, pepper peach, blueberry chevré, cinnamon date tahini, chocolate grapefruit, coconut curry lemongrass…(somebody stop me!)—but it was perhaps the simplest that turned out to be The One. The roasted banana stole my stomach—thick, luscious and with a flavor so rich that it never dissipated, from first spoonful to licking the last drips off my thumb. It was fantastic alone, it was fantastic paired with the salted caramel, and they also serve it in bar form, dipped in very dark chocolate. The funniest part of this discovery? I don’t even like bananas. neveuxartisancreamery.com

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Night + Market’s Catfish Tamale

One balmy weekday evening, when we didn’t feel like straying too far from the hotel, we headed up to the famous/infamous Sunset Strip to explore the Thai stylings of chef Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market. According to the website, they’d been visited by none other than Noma’s René Redzepi a few weeks prior, and they had all-night happy hour on Wednesdays, both of which seemed very promising. Within the calm, spartan dining room, a visual mish-mash of brightly-hued walls and an obscure Asian movie playing silently on the bare eastern wall, we found elevated Thai street cuisine like fried pig tails, fermented pork sausage with raw cabbage, pork shoulder and belly slow-simmered with palm sugar, pickled ginger and fermented bamboo shoots, and a wondrous chile and herb-stuffed, banana-leaf baked catfish “tamale” that would grow hair on anyone’s chest. For dessert, we indulged in the sampler—a wedge of the restaurant’s mild and creamy flan-like Thai custard, a scoop of the coconut ice cream otherwise used to make ice cream sandwiches with grilled Texas toast, and a highly satisfying rendition of mango sticky rice. Our tastebuds didn’t stop vibrating for hours. www.nightmarketla.com

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I know, I know, not the most appetizing photograph...sorry.

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Il Pastaio’s Burrata Caprese

I stopped into this downtown Beverly Hills mainstay on a warm Friday night, entering the buzzing dining room via a patio as narrow, crowded and joyfully boisterous as the ones I remember from summer evenings in Florence. Seated between an entertaining local family who spent most of their dinner arguing about whether or not celebrity status was an asset when applying to UCLA and a frenetic producer who downed two dirty martinis before I even ordered, I went with the flow and channeled my inner dieting startlet with a Pellegrino and the Caprese salad. I opted for the burrata upgrade, expecting a moderate fix of my favorite cheese in the universe, but when the plate arrived, each fresh tomato slice was topped with no less than a quarter cup of cream-filled Italian mozzarella, and accented with a zesty roasted pepper relish and chiffonade of fresh basil. This revelatory Caprese, paired with a full basket of the warm house bread, meant I was so full from my pseudo-dieting starlet supper that I didn’t even buy anything at the nearby Vosges chocolate boutique afterwards. Which speaks volumes. www.giacominodrago.com

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Eveleigh’s Spelt Pancakes with Bay Leaf Maple Syrup and Roasted Apricots

Eveleigh sneaks up on you—one minute you’re strolling West Sunset Boulevard, watching fancy people get out of Lamborghinis in sky high Louboutin heels and head to one of the ubiquitous European-style café patios interspersed between the Armani and Nicole Miller boutiques, the next you’ve stumbled into a lovely little reclaimed wood-lined Portland-esque twilight zone. Eveleigh is what might happen if you merged Woodsman Tavern and Rontoms—part serious restaurant, part bustling hipster bar, part chill patio, all hip. Evidently they command quite the cocktail crowd, but we went for brunch on the back patio, a carefully-distressed, quietly fashionable, canvas-sheltered space with surprisingly expansive views. The menu had me at the spelt pancakes—a feathery, golden short stack doused in bay leaf maple syrup and topped with whipped honeycomb butter and roasted apricots. Because how else would you start the day? www.theeveleigh.com

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Liquid Juice Bar’s Green Manna Smoothie

Unless of course, you started the day like this, which I did most mornings. The perfect distance from the hotel, via a quiet, leisurely stroll through West Hollywood’s miniature Mediterranean palace-filled residential neighborhoods, this juice bar captured my wish-I-ate-healthier-but-I’m-so-weak heart. Specializing in fresh juices, smoothies and açaí bowls, the bar’s blends were intriguing and extremely well-engineered, but after trying quite a few, I committed to The Green Manna smoothie—a divine blend of goats milk yogurt, kale, spinach, fresh coconut meat, water and butter, honey and hemp protein, it was my daily dose of dietary virtue. I even occasionally went vegan and subbed avocado for the yogurt, yielding a creamy, completely guilt-free concoction that I then enjoyed outside at a sidewalk table overlooking the bubble gum pink Paul Smith store. At 8am. In a tank top. Because you know, you can do that in the first week of June in LA. liquidjuicebar.com

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ink.sack’s Cold Fried Chicken Sandwich

You can browse Ink chef Michael Voltaggios’ imposing “VOLT: ink” cookbook while you wait for a “Jose Andrés” sandwich (chorizo, lomo, Serrano ham and manchego) at Ink’s little brother—ink.sack, a tiny sandwich shack so causal it makes Portland’s Bunk look like a complex operation. Easily one of the best values of the trip was ink.sack’s $4 cold fried chicken sandwich—a soft, petite housemade bun straining at the seams with thick slices of cold fried chicken thighs, housemade ranch cheese, shredded lettuce and LA’s own Gindo’s Spice of Life hot sauce. Dessert was an equally agreeable value, the pineapple chile y limon—chile and lime-spiked chunks of terrifically sweet pineapple—is served in a humble plastic bag for a paltry $3. Unless you like to eat standing up, elbow to elbow with strangers (and don’t get me wrong, I do, especially in Paris), get your lunch packed to go in the shop’s signature black sack (neatly labeled with your name in silver ink) and find a park. mvink.com

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Picca’s Tomato Anticuchos With Burrata and Black Mint Pesto

No matter where I looked for LA dining advice, one word swam across my radar—Picca, Picca, Picca. We’re hardly strangers to excellent Peruvian cuisine here in Portland, but Picca was nonetheless a very unique experience. I sat at the kitchen bar, with only a thin glass partition separating me from the hot grills covered in sizzling anticuchos, everything from beef hearts with rocoto walnut sauce, to thick rounds of sweet potato glazed with honey and serrano chile sauce, to these gorgeous cherry tomato skewers, served gracefully charred, soft-skinned and tasting of smoke, topped with (yes, more) burrata and a black mint pesto. For one perfect moment, they teased your palate, filled you with happiness and longing, then disappeared…the perfect summer fling, really. And the delights just kept coming; chef Ricardo Zarate’s snow crab causas—savory yellow potato squares topped with cucumber, a mound of crab salad, huancaina sauce and avocado, then a sea bass tiradito—slices of buttery sea bass swimming in a bright lemon-kissed sauce and adorned with a scoop of sweet potato puree and theatrically-rippled fried sweet potato chips that yielded it the effect of an edible Philip Treacy creation. And for dessert, a magnificent vanilla bean pisco flan, served with one plump roasted strawberry. When I think back on the trip, this is the dinner that sums it all up—exotic and starry eyes-inducing, and yet approachable enough to make me wish I could put on my flip flops, fly back down and be a California girl once again. www.piccaperu.com

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*To buy a new shirt, of course.