When Jonathan Gold’s “99 Essential L.A. Restaurants” guide came out last week, I immediately tallied up how many I’d been to. Eleven: Border Grill, Bottega Louie, Casa Bianca, Euro Pane, Good Girl Dinette, Guelaguetza, Huarache Azteca, the Hungry Cat, Musso & Frank, the Oinkster and Waterloo & City.
Not bad for a cheapo and non-foodie. (I love good food, but I can also thoroughly enjoy a vending machine donut or five.) It doesn’t hurt that Jonathan Gold’s tastes veer toward cheap ethnic holes-in-the-wall. Waterloo & City, where we went for Nicole’s sister’s birthday, has plates of charcuterie that look like a painter’s palette. But Huarache Azteca has plastic forks and random vendors who wander through the eating area selling bootleg DVDs.
The other 88 restaurants make for a nice to-do list. But it’s harder than it looks. When we first read the list, we just started reminiscing about Guelaguetza, where we held “planning meetings” for our Oaxaca trip. So that’s where we ended up last Saturday, with Lori and Brett. The mole, as Jonathan Gold promised, was “as black as Dick Cheney’s heart” (but much more full of love).
Last night we went with Christine and Jody to Maximiliano, which apparently hasn’t reached “essential” status—it just opened—but got a shout-out in Gold’s write-up of the Oinkster, which has the same unpretentious chef. Maximiliano is definitely fancier—with its mosaic tile oven and walls painted to look like abstracted bean sprouts or rice noodles (or maybe spaghetti would make more sense). But it’s not too fancy: Its tag line is “Kinda old-school Italian” and you can get a big-enough-to-share pizza for $12.
Christine has this amazing ability to make demands with a big grin on her face. So they don’t do flights of beers? Well, could they? Shouldn’t there be more cream in the apple brown betty? But somehow everybody wins. The waiter/bartenders (we ate at the bar—apparently it’s good to have a reservation, which makes me uneasy about the future of Highland Park) seemed to enjoy their day a little more, and Christine got what she wanted.
We all did: eggplant pizza with big dollops of burrata and a bubbly crust; roasted fennel, which is the rare dish that tastes completely indulgent while making you feel vaguely like you just brushed your teeth; and a warm salad with squid and blood oranges.
2. why i’m not a chef or a drug addict
Every now and then I think about my eighth grade home ec teacher instructing us to add mandarin oranges to a salad. I was like, Gross! Fruit in a salad other than a fruit salad?! Now it seems like the weirder the shit you throw together, the more delicious it is. Roasted Brussels sprouts and bleu cheese on a raisin bagel? Bring it on!
I realize it’s probably not quite that easy. It’s more about types of flavors working well together than whether the ingredients are traditionally found in the same dish. To be a chef, you have to know chemistry and stuff. Still, doesn’t my Brussels sprouts bleu-cheese bagel sound kind of good? Kind of?
Okay, maybe stick to what Max (actually, I don’t think there’s a Maximiliano; there is an Andre Guerrero) has on the menu. Dessert was the aforementioned too-dry apple brown betty. But I pointed out to Christine that I’d never had apple brown betty before. Maybe it was supposed to taste like diet cobbler.
The cannolis made up for it, though. Jody, who grew up on Long Island and has tasted his share of great Italian food, declared these the real thing, though he thought they were a little heavy on the nutmeg.
“Are you sure that’s nutmeg?” I asked. I was distracted by the dusting of crushed pistachios and the sweet spoonful of heaven that is mascarpone* with chocolate chips.
“Definitely nutmeg,” Jody said. “We used to try to trip on it in college.”
“Really? I had no idea you could do that. Do you, like, snort it?”
“We just mixed it with a bunch of water and drank it. It didn’t work very well.”
I think I will continue taking my nutmeg in the form of my true drug of choice, cannoli.
*Spell check informs me that it’s not spelled “marscapone,” like the planet and the gangster. Spell check and I also struggled with cannoli and burrata, which tells you how often either of us writes about food and/or goes to Italy.