By Bob Vickrey
Special to the Palisades News
Each year when Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold releases his list of “101 Best Restaurants” in Southern California, I realize that I may need to get out more often.
I’ve been to only a half-dozen restaurants that Gold chose for inclusion on his 2017 list, which makes me feel I’ve been living like a hermit in the witness protection program. Maybe it’s time to shed those metaphorical ankle restraints.
Our monthly lunch club fared even worse. We have eaten in just two of the restaurants on Gold’s list—Spago and Langer’s Delicatessen. Our original mission had been to visit some of the oldest and most famous restaurants in L.A., while food critics generally prefer to write about the trendiest spots and the hottest new chefs in town.
Before my retirement from the publishing business, I routinely visited many of the best restaurants in L.A. while entertaining authors and bookselling clients. Back then, someone else was picking up the tab for those pricey dinners.
But now that I’m once again making the big bucks writing newspaper columns (because everyone knows that’s where the real money is), I should visit a couple of Jonathan’s hot spots whose names I can barely pronounce. That’s evidently the secret code for high-style dining that will require a second mortgage.
And we all know a place designated “$$” is nothing more than “eating out,” while one marked $$$$ has moved you into the “Gwyneth Paltrow is sitting in the next booth” category.
In the early 1980s, the newly opened Spago was my favorite spot to enjoy some of the best food in town. I noticed it is still near the top of Gold’s list, which confirms that Wolfgang Puck wasn’t just a proverbial flash in the “Asian-fusion” pan. Usually, new restaurants in this city have about the same shelf life as yogurt.
I like the sound of Gold’s new numberone choice: Vespertine. The name has a rather elegant ring to it. But when I began reading about some of the exotic dishes the chef prepares that are disguised as artwork, I knew that I’d be venturing into uncharted territory there. How about mango wrapped in sunflower blossoms and wedged into a crack in a stone monolith? Shall we play “Find the food?”
While I admire a certain artistry in a chef ’s food preparation, I’ve never considered sunflowers or daffodils as members of any major food group, and have always found their presence “wedged” into my lobster bisque downright disconcerting.
Chef Jordan Kahn said he doesn’t really want you to know what you’re eating. So, let me get this straight: I don’t know where my dinner is hidden among the artifacts on the table, or what it is once I find it during this mysterious scavenger hunt? And here’s the kicker: Gold described the price of dinner at Vespertine as “stunning.”
I can just envision sharing my experience the following day with friends. When they ask what I had for dinner, I’d have to tell them, “If I knew precisely what my delicious meal was, I’d be happy to tell you, but I can divulge that it cost more than my first car.”
Then there’s another top-10 restaurant on Gold’s list where you need an advance ticket just to get through the front door. Trois Mec seats only 24 patrons and has become a tougher ticket than “Hamilton.” After reading the capsule comments, it appears that Chef Ludovic Lefebvre knows his way around a kitchen—and get this!—he will even let you know what you’re eating.
Since I’ve never really had much of a penchant for musicals, maybe Trois Mec might be a better ticket value than Hamilton, or, for that matter—Vespertine.
Once again there were no Pacific Palisades restaurants on the list, but I couldn’t help but notice the Rustic Canyon Restaurant Group scored well this time, landing two of their Santa Monica bistros in the top 11 spots. Cassia was listed at number eight, and Rustic Canyon on Wilshire Boulevard was number 11.
My friend Jamie is a big fan of Cassia and has promised we’ll have dinner there soon. She treated me to a birthday dinner last year at Rustic Canyon, which was absolutely spectacular, but the noise level there left my ears ringing as if I’d had a front-row seat at the Indy 500. She gently chided me later, “Welcome to big-time dining in L.A.”
To her credit, she was kind enough not to add, “You really need to get out more often!”
Bob Vickrey is a longtime Palisadian whose columns appear regularly in the News. He also writes for the Houston Chronicle and the Waco Tribune-Herald.