18 Dec Los Angeles: food capital of the US
I had 35 hours to spend in Los Angeles. Top of my restaurant list was the quirky fermentation-focussed restaurant, Baroo, in an East Hollywood mini-mall off Santa Monica Boulevard. When seen from across the parking lot, Baroo could easily be taken for a greasy-spoon café – not that they have such spots in LA. As is often across this star-spangled city, appearances fool, as in fact Baroo is one of the top 5 restaurants to open in the US in 2016, as chosen by Bon Appétit – the go-to magazine for the US food scene.
UPDATE 2019: Baroo closed in 2018 to be resurrected earlier this year by co-owner Kwang Uh and his partner Mina Park as Baroo Canteen inside the Union Swapmeet, the East Hollywood neighbourhood marketplace. Now I caught up with this news when I met Nancy Silverton of Osteria Mozza in West Hollywood while she was in London… so that is another restaurant to go to in LA!
Also at the top of my list was Trois Mecs, or the ‘three guys’ in English. I wanted to discover the French vibe in California since my best friend at school had married a Frenchman and moved to California. Not that I know where she is now. Tickets, yes ‘tickets’, for the Trois Mecs tasting menu are all clicked up as soon as they are released on a fortnightly basis.
While Baroo had no sign at all above its doors, Trois Mecs still had the sign up from the previous occupier – a take-away pizza joint. Written on the door was: ‘No more pizza. No public restrooms. Merci‘. More about Baroo and Trois Mecs later.
The Los Angeles fame game
Two things struck me when I visited Los Angeles this December: cool dudes wear black (and not psychedelic sportswear, like I’d thought) and they go everywhere by car.
I arrived wearing my colourful Desigual summer dress, bought in Peru, determined to walk and take public transport.
I quickly fell for the ease of ordering an Uber… no cash to bother about, US$4-5 for everywhere I went, and the liberty of knowing up front how much I was going to be charged. If WiFi was a problem, I dipped into a Starbucks. How I love living in the internet world.
Los Angeles has an upbeat vibe; a feeling of reaching for the skies; anything possible. I LOVED this. With 4 million people, the city is crammed with ambitious seekers of Hollywood fame… or at least fame in San Fernando Valley, the other side of Hollywood Hills, where most of the studios and the stars now live.
Everyone is at the fame game, from the museum attendant I talked to at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who wanted to be a stuntman, to the glamorous Italian model I went to dinner with, who was launching his career as an actor. Two different people took ME aside, asking, “You know, have you ever thought about doing voice overs?” Anyone want to be my agent?
Even my first taxi driver was an aspiring photographer and brother of the runner-up to Miss America… or so the story went. She lost out on the title because “I was too colourful”, the driver told me. Mm.
I had arrived in California a few weeks after marijuana had been legalised, which was the same day as the US elections. No one mentioned drugs to me, but they did talk about Trump – mainly in despair, apart from one taxi driver who said, “let’s just give him a chance”. I’m an ex-journalist so I’ve been taught to rely on taxi drivers for quotes.
Big Mec at Petit Trois
Now I never managed to get my ticket to eat at Trois Mecs so I went for the no-reservation Petit Trois, the little brother restaurant, also run by Ludovic Lefebvre, next door. It’s usually referred to as the ‘sister’ restaurant, but we’re talking about mecs here, or guys, so I have named it a brother restaurant.
When it opened in 2013, Ludovic was described by Pullitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Gold in the LA Times as the chef with “more experience in Michelin three-stars than every other chef in Los Angeles put together”.
The two other mecs are Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of another renowned LA restaurant, Animal. Guest chefs this autumn have included French-born, New York-famed celebrity restaurateur Daniel Boulud and James Lowe of Lyle’s – one of my favourite London restaurants.
Bar stools rule at Petit Trois. It’s very much inspired by the Parisian cafe… my neighbour was having an omelette with Boursin pepper cheese & chives while she flicked through some work papers.
I went for the Big Mec double cheese burger, served in a brioche bun, together with a Boston lettuce salad. The French rap music went perfectly with the moment… but then my French is not good enough to pick up on the explicit words.
“No WiFi,” I was told… “It would interfere with the music.” I liked their priorities. I left with a ham & pickle sandwich to eat for later… the baguette bread was SO good, despite its sweet taste, catering for the American lover of sugar.
As for the Trois Mecs, I got as far as the restrooms, shared with Petit Trois, and here’s a picture of the front door…
… irreverence is a sign of rebellion against the status quo. I like (peaceful) rebellion.
Baroo’s Kimchi Fried Rice
Baroo‘s awards don’t stop at one of the top 5 new restaurants in the US for 2016. The national Eater Awards granted Baroo the 2016 Food World Obsession Award and the Restaurant of the Year Award in Los Angeles. And Baroo’s Kimchi Fried Rice was named by Bon Appétit as the No 1 dish in the US in 2016.
The Kimchi Fried Rice is made with about a dozen different ingredients, including pineapple fermented kimchi (pickled cabbage), Amira basmati rice, 63° sous-vide egg (aka slow cooked), gremolata (Italian-inspired mix of lemon zest, parsley & garlic), pineapple jalapeño salsa, purple potato chips, roasted seaweed, toasted buckwheat & quinoa, and micro greens – all for US$9.
The chef behind Baroo is Korean-born Kwang Uh, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America and at the University of Gastronomic Sciences near Alba in Italy. Uh’s previous work experience has taken him to Daniel (of Daniel Boulud) in New York, Nobu Bahama, Quique Dacosta in Denia, Spain, and Noma in Copenhagen.
The restaurant’s design is simple. The focus is the food. There’s one shared table, bar stools at the bar & down one side wall, a menu on the blackboard, and shelves in one corner stacked with pots and jars of fermenting kombucha (fermented tea). I knew I was in the right place, though, as the black-dressed cool dudes were there.
I went for the lemon verbena kombucha as my ‘aperitif’ – very calming on the digestive system. I’m sure that if I started to drink kombucha on a regular basis it would stop me eating so much.
The dishes at Baroo are made to share. And for these leaning more towards Italian style, there’s homemade pasta with a ‘ragu style’ sauce. Like Gracias Madre, a Mexican restaurant that I visited on my last night in LA, Baroo is perfect for vegetarians and vegans.
Downtown Los Angeles
Now, I went to Baroo from Downtown LA. It took me 30 minutes by taxi. I learnt quickly in LA that distance never matters in this city; it’s the traffic that counts… and given that people don’t like to travel by public transport, it can get heavy.
In Beverley Hills, faces went blank when I said that I’d stayed Downtown. Personally, I don’t like chintzy Beverley Hills, where people live in pseudo-European mansions. I prefer the grittiness of Downton, an area that until recently was a no-go zone ruled by gangs.
I’d arrived on the shuttle bus from the airport, which took me to Union Station, built in the 1930s and a mix of Art Deco & Mission Revival styles. It was a building not to be missed. I wish I’d stopped for longer, but I was worried as I’d been told that it would be nye impossible to catch a taxi in the street and that it was too dark to walk to the ACE Hotel where I was staying.
The naysayers turned out to be wrong, and a couple of young ex-paratrooper guys – or at least that was their story, and everything in LA is a story – helped me to find the taxi rank. I had a spiritual conversation with them as we walked, about how help always arrives when needed. For me, they were like angels in the night.
The ACE Hotel
I loved the ACE Hotel. It’s hip. At the same time, you can shut the door of your room to silence, and look out across the LA Downtown skyline. (The blog feature image is taken from the lifts on my floor.) I bumped into a fashion film crew from London while I was there. It definitely must be THE place to stay.
In the morning, I just had time to stroll up to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, before setting off to Santa Monica and then on to Beverley Hills for a course. I passed plenty of homeless, and plenty of buildings being redeveloped and stores selling Mexican wedding outfits.
When I stopped off in a corner store to buy a bottle of water, everyone else was trying their luck with lottery tickets, or satisfying their hunger with fried food kept warm in a glass display by the counter. When Downtown goes up market, which it is already, I wonder where these people will live.
On the way up, I walked through Grand Central Market. It’s worth a visit, to have a coffee, get a bite for lunch. As an aside from Downtown LA, I was told that the best farmers’ market in Los Angeles is at Larchmont. I was later to go to the Original Farmers’ Market near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I didn’t stay long; I was put off by the I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas music and the tacky mall feel.
Continuing up Broadway and then across 3 blocks, grey, urban Downtown LA suddenly turns into high-rise, modern office blocks, while maids emerge from the swish apartment blocks to take out the dogs for a walk. I am not a Walt Disney fan, but the Concert Hall was spectacular.
On the way back to the hotel, I went through Pershing Square, previously called Plaza Abajas when LA was part of Mexico, until, in 1848, the Americans kicked them out. That kind of explains why everything downtown is bilingual English and Spanish.
I would have liked to have stopped off at the Bradbury Building, the oldest commercial building in LA, and featured in films such as Blade Runner and The Artist, but time did not permit. With the temperature now rising to about 16°degrees and at 9am, I walked back to the hotel to get my bags and leave for Santa Monica.
Santa Monica by train
To get to Santa Monica from Downtown, I walked from the ACE Hotel to 7th Street/Metro Center train station for the 50-minute journey, passing by the University of Southern California campus, to arrive directly by the Santa Monica pier.
I loved the train… most Los Angeles residents didn’t even know there was one.
At Santa Monica, I signed up for a hot yoga class at Hot Yoga 8 – well worth it, with the sweaty heat helping to open up the muscles, or at least that was how it was for me. I was slightly worried about exercising with all those sweaty bodies around, but Hot Yoga 8 says that 99.98% of harmful bacteria are killed by the ultra-violet light used.
I followed this with a meal at health food restaurant True Food Kitchen, where they served me espresso with a slice of lemon peel to take out the bitterness. A useful tip. My word California is perfect for vegans and vegetarians.
“Did you see the pier,” everyone asked me afterwards. I never quite got what was so interesting about the pier, or the seafront. At 11 in the morning, the main frequenters were people sleeping rough. I kept on thinking how I would prefer to be on the Pacific coastline at Miraflores in Peru, even though the Lima coastline was shrouded by permanent grey skies.
In Santa Monica, I would have made an exception to stay at the Shutters on the Beach Hotel. I prefer, though, to spend top dollar on top restaurants rather than top hotels, even though Baroo and Petit Trois didn’t break the bank.
The creative LA types told me that people in the know go further north up the coast to Malibu or further south to Laguna Beach. Venice is hip, but they told me that West Hollywood was hipper.
So with so many people telling me that West Hollywood was the place to go – and not Beverley Hills – I spent my last night in West Hollywood, at The Standard Hollywood Hotel. It’s so hip here that there’s even a girl sitting in a glass box behind reception. Art? I hope they have guys now and again. Download The Standard app, and if you book after 3pm on the same day, you get a special price, on any room available. The hotel has a swimming pool, but the sound insulation between the rooms was not that good and my room overlooked Sunset Boulevard.
More towards Beverley Hills, I was recommended two more expensive options, the Hotel Avalon, where Marilyn Monroe used to stay, and the Hotel Sixty. [UPDATE 2020: 1 Hotel West Hollywood – a “nature inspired retreat” – is my kind of hotel
LA County Museum of Art
I’ve always contended that food is about culture, and so is art. With that in mind, I paid a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – a short taxi ride from West Hollywood. I wanted to track down some North American Indian art, but all they had was Mexican. To be true, Mexico is part of North America. I was keen to do this as the hippy-dippy types in LA often referred to the rituals of the Indians. The Indian culture lives on, but not necessarily in the museums.
Gracias Madre – Mexican
The Mexican border is just a couple of hours’ drive away from Los Angeles, and hispanics make up nearly half of LA residents. LA is famed for its Mexican cuisine, as well as for its Asian cuisine. To sample the Mexican cuisine, I stayed in West Hollywood, and was invited by some friends to dine at Gracias Madre. It wasn’t on my list, but I liked this place. Big courtyard with heaters, good music, good organic, ‘plant-based’ food and excellent margritas. Much of the food comes from the owners’ Be Love Farm. The owners are also working on preserving old varieties of corn – a Mexican staple – at their farm. ‘Welcome to a seat at love’s table’… so California, so love it.
They also have 62 types of tequila and 54 types of mezcal.
Other good places to eat in LA
Ink – ‘New American’ restaurant open only in the evening (Beverley Grove)
Animal – New American restaurant specialising in offal & other meat dishes, not always open at lunchtime (Beverley Grove)
A.O.C. – French-Californian wine bar (Beverly Grove)
Son of A Gun – a fish restaurant known for its lobster roll (Beverly Grove)
Squirl – an organic restaurant serving breakfast & lunch (East Hollywood)
Night + Market – Northern Thai cuisine (West Hollywood)
Chego, a Korean-Mexican restaurant by Seoul-born, LA-raised Roy Choi, one of the greats of the LA dining scene and founders of the food truck movement (China Town)
Restaurants to add since my visit
Bestia – Italian-style restaurant in the Arts District, aka Downtown.
Kreation Organic Juicery – branches all over the city… for those who want to ‘cleanse’.
Osteria Mozza – Italian restaurant in West Hollywood.