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Feb 4, 2010 05:21 PM

California Cuisine Boring (Spago, Lucques, Gjelina, Josie, Rustic Canyon, etc...)

I am loosely grouping all of these restaurants together but I think there is a farly common theme amongst these restaurants and their menus. Others that come to mind that also fit this mold are Eva and Sona. I've been to every one of these restaurants and most of them at least twice.

After my meal last night at Spago (3rd time) I think I may take these type of restaurants out my rotation. My SO and I both feel that we'd rather go to other places. I think we've had fine meals at many of these restaurants. Some have exceptional service. The cooking and execution is very well done - most proteins come out medium rare and fish are flaky and moist. We don't have any complaints about any of the food that has come out of the kitchen. Some great desserts have come out of these kitchens. The main issue we have is that there isn't anything that has ever stodd out to us at these type of restaurants. Nothing is memorable. The taste does not linger and I never ache or hunger for anything I've ever eaten at one of these types of restaurants. I know I am generalizing and grouping these restaurants fairly or unfairly.

On the other hand there are days I long for Park's BBQ, fish tacos at Tacos Bajas Ensenada, Dino's chicken, Ruen Pair, pizza from Vito's or Mozza, a great bowl of pasta, a big juicy steak from Cut or Mastro's, scallion pancakes from Earthen, dumplings from DTF, etc... I think what I'm trying to say is that California cooking is boring. Am I crazy?

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  1. One of the primary reasons that there has been such a powerful positive response to the cooking at Animal.

    2 Replies
      1. No, you're not crazy, and I tend to agree with you. Funny how the holes in the wall are usually the most memorable, and the food you crave more.

        Animal is awesome and very unique. There are lots of unique places, you just need to search them out, and not always follow the crowd, who's hooked on the latest trend.

        A lot of new & interesting places have popped up downtown and don't have that CaliMedFusion thing going on. Like Church & State, where I crave their pate, & bone marrow apps. Also some high end places like XIV & Bazaar, where they are trying to push the envelope to set them apart. Sometimes you just have to search out what you are really looking for.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Phurstluv

          Yes Animal is definitely on the short list for me as well. The only complaint I have is that they don't have the ribs with heriloom tomato salad as an appetizer and the ribs can only be ordered as an entree.

          I have heard good things about Church & State especially the pig ears so I'm going there tomorrow.

          For the amount of money you spend at the places I listed I'd much rather spend considerably less for more flavorful and memorable places.

        2. Interesting post.

          Are you able to make good food at home? For me, I can whip up some darn good food so when I do go out to the places like you mentioned the expectation of spectacular food, service, etc. is very high for me.

          Not to mention, eating out at these types of restaurants is expensive so it better be worth it!

          Looking at your list I would argue that Josie certainly has dishes that I find truly memorable. The tagine of short ribs, the seppia with merguez sausage and the chocolate bread pudding are all excellent and make me want to return. Josie is also the only restaurant where I have no problem ordering chicken which I typically find to be a boring menu selection.

          Regarding "Animal", I haven't been yet. I know their menu and the rave reviews the food gets.

          But, is their heavy use of decadent ingredients the only reason it's a memorable restaurant? Just curious...

          16 Replies
          1. re: vinosnob

            I think it's memorable because the food tastes wonderful without being part of cookie cutter mentality (and they offer good service without any pretense at all) and finally, their prices are within reason.

            1. re: Servorg

              Exactly. They have very unique offerings of simple, what my mom calls, Farm Food. And there isn't a bad thing on the menu. The chefs are also very approachable, and the staff is well trained & knowledgeable.

              1. re: Phurstluv

                Yup haven't had a bad thing on Animal's menu from quail fry, loco moco, ribs, hamachi app, pork n kimchee, etc...

                In fact I'd argue that many of the places I originally listed are much richer. For instance the short ribs I had at Spago had such a rich component, namely the sauce that I actually couldn't finish the dish. I'm no stranger to rich food love foie gras.

                The ability to be inventive and add flavor/ingredients to proteins and dishes that can be found on many menus sets Animal apart.

                1. re: js76wisco

                  Exactly. I would say that it's all those things plus, it's at a price point where you walk away feeling like you had a great meal and that it was worth every penny.

                  1. re: mollyomormon

                    And where else but Animal are they offering Shredded Pigs Ear with Chile, Lime and a Fried Egg? Besides being unique, it's ridiculously good!

                    I'm going for a 4th time tomorrow night. Foie Gras Loco Moco, Quail Egg, Spam, Hamburger anyone? (Oh and waiter, would you bring me a double order of Lipitor with that?)

                    1. re: Steve2 in LA

                      We're going for our 4th visit later this month. I just wish my coronary arteries could stand more frequent visits!

                      1. re: Servorg

                        I'm wicked jealous of both of you!!! We've only been twice, my birthday & then a month later for our anniversary. And we would happily go for V-day or that weekend, but we made reservations at Bouchon instead. I will be dreaming about the pork belly kimchi, tho, it's just so frickin' brilliant!

              2. re: Servorg

                With regards to Spago, I disagree that it is boring.

                This is from a lunch in October:

                Lunch at Spago is always a treat and the patio is just a lovely place to dine. I have said this numerous times, but having a tasting menu is the only way to order at Spago.

                I have also written that Spago is two restaurants under one roof or sky (we like the patio). You can go to Spago order one appetizer and one entree and call it quits. We have never done that and thanks to a top notch FOH team, I don’t even look at a menu.

                The tasting menu amuses do tend to be the same, but after that, the dishes are more seasonal and differ from one time to another.

                Some people go to Spago for the scene and to be seen. We go to Spago for the food. My suggestion would be to have a tasting menu and put your faith in a very capable front of the house staff plus a solid back of the house kitchen.

                Tuna tartar in a sesame cone

                Hamachi Ceviche with Heirloom Tomato Confit

                Smoked Trout Mousse, Salmon Eggs, Chives, Red Onion, Corn Blini

                Duck Liver Mousse, Pear Compote, Golden Raisin Tartlets

                Bruschetta, Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil Aioli

                Bacon En Croute

                Heirloom Tomato Sorbet, Tomato Carpaccio, Basil Oil

                Warm Crispy Baked Pig’s Ears, Gigantic Beans, Chanterelles, Balsamic, Mushroom Emulsion, Wild Arugula

                Pan Roasted Langoustine, Maryland Crab, Baby Leek Puree, Matsutake Mushrooms, Fresh Grated Yuzu

                White Corn Agnolotti, Shaved White Truffle

                Roasted Saddle of Sonoma Lamb, Blood sausage, Sweetbreads, Ragout of Porcini Mushrooms, Figs, Natural Jus


                Our choice – no dessert

                A lovely lunch on a warm, sunny afternoon.

                Pics here:

                From a dinner in July, 2008
                Notice the seasonality of the ingredients once the amuses portion of the meal concludes

                Signature dish of Spicy Tuna Tartar in a sesame tuile

                House-Smoked Salmon served on a Lemon herb Blini with Dill Crème Fraiche, Chives and Salmon Eggs

                Avocado Gratin tart with Iranian oscetra caviar

                Hamachi ceviche with Heirloom Tomatoes served in a Chinese spoon

                Toad in a hole – Brioche, Quail Egg, Black truffle, Black Truffle Mascarpone Emulsion

                Bacon en Croute – an old favorite

                Hama Hama Oyster with Avocado Gratin, Bernaise sauce with Caviar

                Uni and Thinly Sliced Santa Barbara Bay Scallops topped with Oscetra Caviar - this was one of the best dishes of the night of the night – perfect very thinly sliced scallops sashimi with fresh as fresh uni. I don’t remember the saucing, but it didn’t detract from the ingredients.

                Oysters surrounded by oyster liquor, mint chiffonade, Spanish olive oil and in the center of the plate a sorbet of Japanese cucumber – this was the first time Lee had made this dish and he said we were the first victims to try it. It was excellent – the sorbet was somewhat pungent, but the over-all effect was light and summery.

                Sautéed White Australian Asparagus on brioche, topped with a quail egg – sauce of morel mushrooms and bacon confit. The dish is first presented with just the asparagus and quail egg. The morel sauce is then spooned on tableside. This was another winner with the highlight being the sauce of morels and bacon mixing with the runny yolk.

                Santa Barbara Prawns, Charred Eggplant puree, Light Thai Red Curry topped with Microgreens – sometimes Lee has too heavy a hand with Thai spices, but this was subtle with a nice balance of flavors.

                Pan Roasted Black Bass, Sweet Corn, Little Neck Clams, Spanish Chorizo, Garlic/Potato puree with Basil Oil – the bass was cooked to perfection – crispy skin, tender flesh. The combination of corn, chorizo, clams and potato a huge nod to Spain

                Summer White Truffle , Sweet Corn Agnolotti, Mascarpone Cheese – I was surprised that the white truffle has as much flavor as it did as I was expecting blah based on earlier experiences.

                California Rabbit wrapped with bacon and stuffed with herbs, chorizo and brioche crumbs. On the side Braised Shoulder of Rabbit with Potato Gnocchi

                Sonoma Lamb, Fig and Onion Soubise, Porcini mushrooms, Maytag Blue Cheese sauce and Potato Emulsion – the Maytag sauce made this dish.

                Cheese plate

                Tustin Baracata – sheep’s milk, Piemonte, Italy
                Blanc de Blue du Ruzet, Goat’s Milk, perigord, France
                Mont Briac, Cow’s Milk, Avergne, France

                We were supposed to have a dessert course, but we called it off – I was definitely full.

                I think Spago is a definite must on someone’s list of fine dining restaurants in Los Angeles. But, for someone who lives here, I think the key is to not go often. The amuses tend to remain the same from one visit to the next and as a result becomes boring if you go often. There is no doubt that Lee and the kitchen delivers, that Laurent as AGM is a wonder and the patio is one of the most pleasant places to dine.

                Pics here:

                1. re: lizziee

                  It all sounds lovely to me; however, these are reviews from three months and a year and a half ago. And with the exception of the Avocado Gratin tart with Iranian ossetra, (the only thing that sounds original & intriguing, in a weird way) most of the plates have all been done at most of the fine dining places in LA.

                  1. re: Phurstluv

                    I think you and the original poster have a point in that there is something about taste, and there is a related (but not necessarily so) issue with seeking "unique" or avoiding "boring". Not meaning to debate you personally at all, but am just responding here.
                    I tend to care most about tatse and very often love things done for years, or done at many places. I might like Foie Loco Moco, but certainly love classicly prepared seared foie gras. I can't count the number of raves I've heard over Melisse's chicken though even I have never had it.
                    On the flipside, I think at Bazaar some of the offerings are more visually and intellectualy interesting than outright delicious. Though most of their menu accomplishes both. Josie's tagine of short-ribs is great. I don't know that they can be made better in some novel fashion, or that it detracts that they make them at a lot of places.
                    I'm with Lizzie and find Spago to hit the sweet spot of quality goods and technique, with enough twists, that all taste great. Is a three moth old menu/revue that old? Spago has consistently turned out that type of cuisine for 20 years. If you had a tasting menu today it would be stylistically identical.
                    I'd also say that in one respect Cal cuisine will alwys tend to be seen of as boring by some. It's a market based cuisine dependent on the good products typically available here. Part of it's strength is letting the ingredients and freshness show. There is definitely a possibility of too many flavors muddling this strenght. Not unlike anyone who appreciates Cut or Mastros (as the OP listed). The standout is the simple quality of the steak.

                    1. re: john gonzales

                      I get what you're saying, and agree somewhat.

                      Spago is definitely the flagship of California cuisine, and has been doing it brilliantly for decades now. And there's nothing wrong with Cali cuisine and all its wonderful fresh produce and ethnic influences.

                      But think of it this way. We have all had good hamburgers, and most of us can make excellent ones at home. And now, especially with the economy, all of these new places are popping up with fresh takes on the lowly burger, making their recipes or just style, different and exciting. Don't think it's impossible to do the same with Cali cuisine either, there just needs to be enough creativity out there start a new trend, like the Korean tacos.

                      1. re: Phurstluv

                        I definitely agree with you that I find myself choosing to spend my somewhat tightened dining out budget on more unique cuisines. I elect to do more of the Cal/market cuisine cooking at home, because I can make respectable approximations. I feel the same way about steaks, as I feel I can buy nice cuts and do them at home.
                        I think in general ethnic restaurants might be doing better than some of the standards. They're tasty, interesting, and not expensive.

                        1. re: john gonzales

                          So true. Steaks and burgers are always better at my house......except when I don't feel like or have the time for serious cooking.

                          And I agree too, we have such a bountiful selection of beautiful produce, it's not that hard to cook at home, since everything is so fresh, and you can pretty much find a farmers market on any given day, within a 30 square mile radius.

                          I regret that when I lived in Pasadena, we did not venture out more to the SGV for the plethora of Chinese restaurants. My DH is not a huge fan, so it's not what we go out for usually. But my new ethnic obsession is Korean food. And although we are further away, I plan on dragging him around K'town quite often.

                  2. re: lizziee

                    I had been to the old and original Spagos many times. And I gotta say - I didn't get it. Loved Chinois for years (still look forward to going there), but was never all that impressed with the old Spago's. But in the new location? With a new menu? I've had consistently terrific meals. Because of my initial impressions - each great meal at Spago's is always a bit of surprise. But it's very good. (I'm not crazy about the decor, however...) . Getting hungry just reading Lizziee's menu recollection (and I just ate! How does that happen?!!)

                    1. re: lizziee

                      I didn't read your whole post. It was a little long. But, the last time we ate at Spago (lunch) I was pleasantly surprised at how delicious was my seared salmon on lentil salad. It was cooked perfectly. I don't know where they bought their cherry tomatoes, but they were incredibly sweet. I tend think of it as just a fun celeb see and be seen restaurant. But they're definitely keeping up with the food scene.

                  3. re: vinosnob

                    We cook a decent amount at home so when we go out I feel similarly. I want exceptional food that is considerably better than what I can make at home. The food at these restaurants is obviously well cooked and executed but is it worth it at the price?

                    I'll give Josie another chance because my only visit was during restaurant week.

                  4. Save a few places we all could name, you could make the same statement regarding Italian restaurants in LA - the most boring, same old, same old, menus.
                    They really tend to give Italy a bad name!
                    But as to the original subject matter, won't have that problem with Animal, nor nearly all ethnic restaurants.
                    Part of the problem with high priced places is that the chefs feel they must include luxury ingredients to justify the prices, and less heat/flavor/etc. to placate the older palates who are the ones that keep the places going at all, and especially in this economy.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: carter

                      OMG - nail on the head!!!! You are sooo right about the Italian in this part of the state. Unfortunately for me, I grew up in a large southern italian area of CT, and will never be able to find the comparable tastes that I grew up with out here in these lame italian places!! Some are worthy, and many try, but the vast majority just do the same old same old boring linguine with checca, pizza pasta salad, etc......

                      And you're right that it's a balance the owners & chefs have to get between making original, tasty food, and using exotic ingredients to justify cost, and placating their most ardent customers.

                    2. For the record, Lee Hefter has added a global influence to the cuisine at Spago. To see his resume look here:


                      Lee and/or Thomas will do safe food for those who desire it, but if you are adventuresome, you will get Indian spicing, Thai spicing, Japanese influences, nods to Chinese cuisine, classical French saucing plus Spanish touches. I have had Pad Thai noodles, Red Curry, Ghee Brown Butter Poached Lobster with Raito, Scottish Smoked Pheasant, Rabbit, Pig’s ears, Venison and enough uni to “sink a ship.”. I have tasted every single type of mushroom available. This doesn’t even begin to outline the repertoire of dishes available at Spago. This also doesn’t sound safe or boring to me.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: lizziee

                        Do you remember when Ludo did the "spice road" dishes during his stint at L'orangerie. The regulars didn't seem to go for it.

                        1. re: john gonzales

                          Not only do I remember that but one of the best dishes I ever had in my life was at Bastide when Ludo did Lobster Vadouvan.