Nobody walks in Los Angeles. But by a series of dumb tourist moves and poor planning, I found myself wandering the streets of downtown LA one balmy weekend in June. Lo and behold, there was life—better yet, there was food.
The trip to LA was pleasure with purpose. One of my daughters had been studying in South America for five months. Her first stop back in the States was Los Angeles. I decided to meet her and spend the weekend there.
I don’t do trip planning. I’m lucky to book a flight and a room the day before I travel. Searching online for a hotel in Los Angeles confounded me. Hollywood? West Hollywood? Beverly Hills? Santa Monica? Culver City? I settled on downtown, which seemed central and familiar. I booked a room at the Standard Hotel. I had never heard of the place.
“Why would you stay in downtown LA?” my cousin from Encino asked. “There’s nothing there.”
If you want to spot the First Couple around Washington, head for the city’s counterpart to Spiaggia. That’s the Chicago hot spot where Barack and Michelle Obama chose to celebrate their historic victory four days after the election. It’s a high-priced ($28 appetizers) Italian restaurant with a drop-dead view of Lake Michigan.
Spiaggia’s closest local clone is probably Tosca (1112 F St., NW; 202-367-1990), with its creative house-made pastas and a wine list of lesser-known pours as well as big names from Piedmont in northern Italy. One thing’s missing: the stunning view.
For that, the Obamas will have to head to 2941 (2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church; 703-270-1500), where a landscaped lake and koi pond are the backdrop for Modern French fare and a wine list that’s one of the area’s best.
With its artisanal menu and emphasis on handcrafted everything, Blue Duck Tavern (1201 24th St., NW; 202-419-6755) is the local counterpart to Sepia, an Obama Chicago favorite with a farm-to-table sensibility. Both places serve Black Berkshire pork.
The Obamas are fans of Chicago celebrity chef Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo, so it seems likely they’d want to check out DC celeb chef José Andrés’s Oyamel (401 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-1005). Besides small plates such as grilled skirt steak with pickled cactus, it serves up grasshoppers. The President-elect, who wrote of eating grasshoppers in Dreams From My Father, may want to give them another try at Oyamel, where the critters are flash-fried and piled into a taco with shallots and tequila.
Instead of a photo album, CityZen chef Eric Ziebold is using his menu to document his summer travels. “I was going to go to Europe for the whole time,” he says about his original plans for the restaurant’s annual two-week August vacation. “But that’s a long time to go to France, especially with the value of the euro. So I started looking into North Africa—a friend of mine has a house in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia.”
First, though, he hit Puerto Rico for a three-day weekend with friends from high school. Ziebold passed his days in Piñones, just outside of San Juan, nibbling on bites from street vendors. He was particularly taken with the grilled pork belly brushed with barbecue sauce, which cost him a mere dollar. The CityZen BLT, which includes crispy shoat belly, is part of an $80 three-course tasting menu.
Ziebold did end up in the land of baguettes and Brie for a week and spent every morning at the market in Archachon, near the Bordeaux region. Rare finds in the United States, such as tête de veau and veal tongue were readily available, as was the silky pâté forestier, made from mushrooms.
Hottest Restaurant in Town
Six months after opening, David Chang’s Momofuku Ko is still the toughest reservation in town. The Virginia-native-turned-Manhattan-überchef offers a fixed-price, ten-course meal for $85 to a dozen anointed diners each night—blogs are devoted to getting a reservation at the Lower East Side restaurant. Chang likes his music loud (Guns n’ Roses) and his food inventive: silky Long Island–fluke sashimi with buttermilk miso; crisp deep-fried sous-vide short ribs; marvelous frozen shaved foie gras with pine-nut brittle.
Momofuku Ko, 163 First Ave.; 212-500-0831 for voice mail; momofuku.com for reservations.
The Maestro at Work
Fabio Trabocchi’s innovative Italian food was never quite at home in Maestro’s gilded dining room at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner. Last summer, the celebrated chef took off for SoHo’s Fiamma, where exposed brick and a sleek bar are a hipper backdrop for the likes of Wagyu beef—alternating bites of carpaccio-wrapped mozzarella with delicately mounded tartare—and rustic pastas such as the rich Le Marche lasagna. Fiamma is more casual than Trabocchi’s former digs, but New York pricing makes the tab about the same.
Fiamma, 206 Spring St.; 212-653-0100; brguestrestaurants.com. Three courses $85, five $105, seven $125.
Although Woodstock—the iconic 1969 festival for free-spirited hippies—passed me by, last weekend I witnessed a similarly monumental event with this era’s sustainability-loving foodies. Slow Food Nation, a conference held in San Francisco last weekend, predictably celebrated patronizing farmers’ markets and eating locally. But, with the tag line “Come to the Table,” organizers tried to quell critics—who expected the weekend to be a gathering of wealthy earth-bag-toting elite—by holding panel discussions that addressed our country’s food policies.
Ho Chi Minh City seemed so mellow that first night.
My teenage daughter, Rosie, and I had arrived after dark, tired but excited after three flights and a full day of travel. Her sister Anna, an exchange student in Vietnam, met us at the airport, where the three of us took a taxi to our downtown hotel, checked in and then hit the streets.
If, like me, you could care less about Brad and Angelina, but you’re star-struck by Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert--if Gourmet and Food and Wine are your guilty pleasures, not US Weekly—then the Gourmet Institute is worth a splurge (in both cash and calories). It’s an annual weekend-long event in New York put on by Gourmet magazine, featuring seminars with food writers and editors, cooking demos by chefs, and lots of tastes of food and wine—not to mention a meal with VIP treatment at one of three highly acclaimed NYC restaurants.
My mom—a talented cook who turns out some mean executions of Gourmet’s recipes—and I, a struggling novice cook who loves magazines and loves to eat—were among the 300-some attendees of the fourth annual Institute in October.
The weekend kicked off with a “gala” at Buddakan, a cavernous Asian-fusion hotspot in the meatpacking district. I was spotting foodie celebs left and right from the minute we entered, like chef and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio and Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl. We indulged in “heavy passed hors d’oeuvres”—including delicious edamame dumplings and standard spring rolls—and a stocked open bar. Grey Goose vodka, a sponsor of the Institute, was flowing throughout the weekend. We each even got a bottle to take home in our Oscar-worthy goodie bags. No wonder I had to wait for my 21st birthday to attend.
Manhattan during the holidays may be all crowded and touristy, but I still love it. A few weeks ago, while many tourists crammed into mediocre restaurants near the theater district, I made like a local and enjoyed meals with friends at some tiny, buzz-worthy downtown spots and only-in-Manhattan destinations.
Teeny storefront Italian restaurants are popping up all over the West Village. Dell’Anima—a collaboration between an ex-Babbo sommelier and a chef whose résumé includes stints at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin and Mario Batali’s Del Posto—is barely a month old. We started our meal with an order of bruschetta, which here is a make-your-own affair with a basket of grilled bread served with small bowls of toppings. We sampled all five of the selections—a deal at $15—including a spreadable hazelnut pesto; a “lily confit” of onions, shallots, and garlic; mostarda with plump raisins; creamy scrambled eggs; and chickpeas with preserved lemon. We wiped those little bowls clean. A rustic, comforting dish of pizzoccheri—wide, flat whole-wheat pasta—with sage, potato, Brussels sprouts, and fontina capped off a evening of delicious carbo-loading. Entrées $17 to $23.
Dell’Anima, 38 Eighth Ave. (at Jane St.); 212-366-6633; dellanima.com.
Back in August, chef Fabio Trabocchi left the country-clubby elegance at Maestro in the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner for New York’s SoHo, where he presides over the kitchen at the more casually chic Fiamma. Now that Trabocchi—and the crew of 12 he brought from Maestro—have had some time to adjust, how are New Yorkers taking to his mod-Italian artistry?
New York magazine’s Insatiable Critic (a.k.a. Gael Greene) calls the “movie-star handsome” chef’s cooking a “complex dazzle.” There’s “voluptuous” burrata, “with tomato, three ways, arranged like jewels” and “taste-stirring” Dover sole layered with olives, red pepper, and lemon zest. And yet. “At times a too-intense sauce sabotages an otherwise brilliant notion. . . . Roasted turbot with cipollini and housemade pancetta showily draped in thin slices of raw mushroom would be splendid rescued from the nuggety swamp it sits in.”
Meanwhile, New York food blog Grub Street deconstructs Trabocchi’s porchetta, “the most intensely rural and down-market of dishes.” Not in Trabocchi’s sous-vide-happy, fennel-pollen-sprinkling hands it’s not.
At the New York Times, Florence Fabricant gives Trabocchi a longer, biography-heavy profile. She calls his arrival at Fiamma “big news” and a “coup” for restaurateur Stephen Hanson. (His B.R. Guest restaurant group also owns more pedestrian spots like Ruby Foo’s and Dos Caminos.) Trabocchi, who is now a partner in Fiamma, tells Fabricant he’d always had his sights set on Manhattan; it was just a matter of the right time.
Atlanta doesn’t have the reputation for deliciously sinful Southern cooking that New Orleans boasts. Its cuisine is best known for...well, Georgia peaches. Sure, they’re wonderful (especially in summer) but a recent weekend trip revealed a dining destination where both upscale and low-key places serve up memorable meals with comforting Southern flair.
After a late Friday-night arrival, my ideal Saturday morning in Atlanta meant sleeping in and brunching at the Flying Biscuit. The colorful diner now has three locations within the city limits, but the slightly cramped Candler Park original is still everyone’s favorite (show up just about anytime and you’ll encounter lines). The tables turn fast, though, and the all-day breakfast options are worth the wait. There are inspired omelets, tofu scrambles, and oatmeal pancakes; all come with a light-as-air yet extremely buttery biscuits. Look beyond breakfast to try such tasty house specialties as the Love Cakes, savory pancakes made from black beans and cornmeal and topped with tangy tomatillo salsa. And no worries—they still come with a biscuit.
The Flying Biscuit, 1655 McLendon Ave., Atlanta; 404-687-8888; flyingbiscuit.com.