Three New Restaurants Show Why Los Angeles Has Become America’s Top Food Town
by S. Irene Virbila
Ask any chef where to eat these days and the answer inevitably comes back: Los Angeles. The wave of interesting new restaurants just keeps coming. No surprise given the city’s long history as a culinary innovator. Here are just three from this season’s newcomers—one focused on hand-formed pasta, one on contemporary Middle Eastern food, another on vegetable dishes lusty enough to captivate even carnivores.
Venice: Pasta Passion
The focus of Chef Evan Funke’s new restaurant, Felix, is glorious handmade pasta. | PHOTO: ANNE FISHBEIN
In Venice, L.A.’s beachside Bohemia, pasta maker extraordinaire Evan Funke moves into the old Joe’s locale with his new project, Felix. “It’s Latin for luck,” says Funke. The focus of the restaurant is pasta, glorious handmade pasta.
And just so everyone knows what that means, Funke has installed his glassed-in pasta-making room right in the middle of the restaurant. Guests can watch him wield the long wooden mattarello (rolling pin) as he rolls out silky sheets of pasta. For the last decade, he’s been studying under master pasta makers from Bologna to Tokyo and is working on a documentary about pasta traditions in Italy set to debut later this year.
Dubbing himself a custodian of deeply rooted culinary traditions, Funke is all about presenting an authentic experience of Italy. That means the pasta dishes nearest and dearest to his heart. Cacio e pepe for sure, mezze maniche (“half sleeves”) all’amatriciana and all the pastas with Roman sauces he loves to eat himself when he’s in Italy.
That, in fact, is the only place he’ll sit down to eat a bowl of pasta. Oh, he’ll taste a noodle or two for quality control here, but wants to leave his culinary memory intact. Pizza, though, he plans on eating every day. To that end, he’s installed a wood-burning pizza oven at Felix and hired Andrew Naffziger from Pizzaiola in Oakland as his Chef de Cuisine. The two are on a mission to make their pizza without machines, mixing the dough by hand.
The idea behind Felix is “to cook as if California is its own region in Italy. We have the terroir and we have the farmers,” says Funke. Everything will be as local as possible. In the bar, Brandyn Tepper (previously at Hinoki & the Bird) will specialize in his own takes on classic Italian cocktails. The bar will also be pouring a big selection of amari and grappa. Who drinks grappa anymore? Time for a comeback.
Felix is slated to open this spring.
Los Feliz: The Two Saras
Sara Kramer and Sara Hymanson, the two chefs behind Grand Central Market’s wildly popular falafel stand, Madcapra, have just opened Kismet in L.A.’s Los Feliz district. This creative contemporary take on Middle Eastern cuisine is open all day, making it a magnet in the neighborhood for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks and convivial dinners.
Sara Kramer and Sara Hymanson, the two chefs behind Grand Central Market’s wildly popular falafel stand, Madcapra, have just opened Kismet in L.A.’s Los Feliz district. | PHOTO: JOSHUA WHITE
The menu encompasses dishes from all over the Middle East and North Africa and more. “We’re not a traditional restaurant,” Kramer is careful to say. “We’re looking at all these cuisines specifically through a Californian-American lens. That reflects who we are—young, untraditional people.”
Kismet in L.A.’s Los Feliz district presents a creative contemporary take on Middle Eastern cuisine. | PHOTO: JAKE LINDEMAN
For breakfast, they’re serving their version of shakshuka, the popular Israeli breakfast dish of eggs with stewed tomatoes and peppers along with kuku, a Middle Eastern-style frittata laced with spinach, barberries and, untraditionally, white beans. It’s hard to stop eating the Yemeni “flaky bread,” a butter-laminated, griddled flatbread which you can order savory (with a soft-boiled egg, labneh and tomato) or sweet (with labneh, preserved lemon and honey). And you must have the lemony chicken pine nut pies neatly wrapped in phyllo.
Everything, small or large, is meant to share. That includes clever freekeh fritters (a play on arancini made with the ancient grain), squid on the plancha and a vibrant Persian cucumber salad with rosewater labneh. What about falafel? For that you’ll have to go to Madcapra. Fans of Glasserie in Brooklyn will be thrilled to know that Kramer is bringing back the signature rabbit dish she created when she was chef (and Hymanson was sous chef) there. Prepared three ways—the legs confit in duck fat, the loin cooked on skewers and the belly and other bits simmered with chickpeas, it’s a feast for two to four that arrives at the table with that irresistible flaky bread, greens, tahini—and pickles.
Also on the team is pastry chef Meadow Ramsey who comes over from Sqirl, where she built the pastry program. Wine Director Roni Ginash, late of Domaine LA, focuses on small producers who work sustainably and she’s made some delicious picks. Oh, and besides wine, there’s a grapefruit anise-soju punch—and Turkish iced coffee. Kismet is another great spot on a block that already includes Bar Covell, McConnell’s Ice Cream and Go Get Em Tiger coffee.
Downtown Los Angeles: Vegetable Kingdom
Chef Josef Centeno dives into the star of P.Y.T.’s vegetable-focused menu: The salt-baked turnip wrapped in an hoja santa leaf and broken open table side. | PHOTO: DYLAN + JENI
Josef Centeno lives and works within a three or four block radius in Downtown L.A., where he can stroll from kitchen to kitchen of his restaurants Bäco Mercat, featuring his signature flatbread; Orsa & Winston, his high-end Japanese-Italian–inspired restaurant; Bar Amá, his take on the San Antonio, TX, food he grew up on; and the all-American Ledlow. Now he’s consigned Ledlow to the front of the space and installed the terrific new P.Y.T. in the back.
What’s in the name? “I just like the letters together, which could stand for ‘pretty young turnip,’ he says, laughing. And indeed a salt-baked turnip wrapped in an hoja santa leaf and broken open at the table is the star of P.Y.T.’s vegetable-focused menu.
It’s not as if Centeno has jumped on a trend. His first job in Texas at 17 was at a vegetarian hippie restaurant. In New York, he worked in French restaurants where vegetables were given great care. And at Manresa where he was Chef de Cuisine, [where vegetables] played an important part. “Vegetables have always been layered in my cooking,” he says. “And as I get older, I’m leaning more toward vegetables as the way I like to eat.”
A trip to the Baja resort, Rancho Pescadero, [is where] cooking from the garden kickstarted [his] idea for P.Y.T. [Once] in L.A., he began working more intensively with the school garden project, Lala Farms in Highland Park. That and thrice weekly trips to the farmers’ market provide him with an ever-changing palette of produce for the menu.
The result is gutsy vegetarian cooking that should please just about everybody. To get non-vegetarians in the door, he does offer one meat and fish dish a day. It could be skirt steak, a hefty pork chop, uni or bincho-roasted kampachi. Yet, the vegetable dishes can be so satisfying, the meat and fish are almost beside the point.
Josef Centeno’s chef’s salad is ten to 15 different raw and cooked ingredients straight from the farm. | PHOTO: DYLAN + JENI
You’ll always find that salt-crusted turnip, often with a shiso chimichurri, along with inventive pasta and rice dishes. The one plate I can’t stop thinking about: luscious roasted Japanese sweet potatoes slathered with nori butter made from Straus cream. Do order the luxurious chef’s salad, too, which is basically ten to 15 different raw and cooked ingredients straight from the farm. That could mean sugar snap peas, fennel, pea tendrils, red and black kale, beet greens, carrots, sunchokes (some cooked, some raw) and more in a walnut marigold dressing.
And in case you were worried, this vegetarian spot boasts a full bar with cocktails that play off the vegetable theme. Celery Margarita, anyone?