Appetite: Spring weekend in Los Angeles yields intriguing tastes

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I recently returned to my old SoCal stomping grounds for yet another long weekend. This time I stayed at funky, restored motel, The Farmer’s Daughter, gazing over a pool filled with giant rubber duckies, the hotel’s birds greeting me each morning in the lobby. Colorful and quirky, the hotel (with welcoming, engaging staff) is a worthwhile home base, ideally located across the street from the original LA Farmers Market. You won’t find farmers here, rather, it’s a permanent, open air mall of food purveyors.

Though not always gourmet, a few newcomers add foodie cred to the market. However, I hope to never see the demise of old school diners, pie shops and vendors selling unnaturally bright red popcorn and the like – it’s a charming slice of LA history.

On the newer side of things, Short Cake is one of the top Farmers Market destinations. I spent every morning there, happily downing shakeratos ($5 – four shots of espresso shaken with ice and simple syrup) and cappuccinos from one of my favorites, Verve Coffee of Santa Cruz. SF local TCHO chocolate shows up in Short Cake’s mochas, while Amy Pressman’s baked goods are among the best in all of LA.

She trained at Spago with friend and partner Nancy Silverton (Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza). At Short Cake she crafts ridiculously good eats like a curry raisin scones or bacon-cheddar-three chili croissant bread pudding. I rarely repeat places, but this one was worth returning to for breakfast three days in a row.

Another pleasing return this trip? A sunny, playful lunch at Roy Choi’s A-Frame, which I reviewed soon after it opened last year and still find an affordable winner.

BIERBEISL, Beverly Hills

I’m a sucker for cuisines done well, particularly the less commonly seen like Scandinavian, Eastern European or Burmese. I don’t get enough Austrian food. The new BierBeisl, just off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (though not at all like Rodeo Drive – instead, it’s casual, spare and cozy), is one of the better Austrian restaurants around.

Starting with a cool BierBeisl carpaccio, thinly sliced pork roast is delicately doused in a Styrian Gold (Austrian pumpkin seed oil) vinaigrette – a unique, elegant starter. Assorted Austrian charcuterie ($18) and cheeses (add $10) are a brilliant example of the best to come out of the country, vivid with house spreads and rustic rye and pretzel breads.

There’s modern, fresh dishes like seared lamb loin with goat cheese polenta (the most expensive dish, a pricey $36), but I veer towards the traditional, like Vienna Schnitzel ($19-25 for pork, turkey or veal) garnished with lemon and lingonberries plus choice of side: potato salad, roasted parsley potatoes, fries, mixed green salad. House sausages from their sausage menu are a highlight, particularly a Swiss cheese-infused Käsekrainer ($10), lightly peppery and similar to a Polish sausage, while a traditional bratwurst with sauerkraut ($9) likewise satisfies.

Sausages come with a slice of rustic bread and dollops of tarragon mustard and fresh horseradish. The bratwurst is particularly zippy with the Radler Grapefruit: half Stiegl Goldbräu beer, half all-natural grapefruit soda ($6 for 10 oz.; $8 for 16.9 oz.)

Something unusual behind the bar? Reisetbauer Austrian Whisky. Yes, Austrian whisky – distilled in copper pot stills from malted barley, aged in Chardonnay and Trockenbeerenauslese oak wine casks. I appreciated the rogue, hearty spirit of this whisky, lively with chocolate, caramel, hazelnut, bread.

FORMOSA, West Hollywood

Formosa is a Hollywood classic bar/restaurant since 1925 with a storied past. There’s John Wayne’s regular booth which was extended a few feet to hold his long frame when he’d crash after a few drinks. Stars like Bette Davis or Dean Martin would take a cocktail break in between filming at the studios next door (once Pickford-Fairbanks Studio and now The Lot), connected to Formosa by underground walkways. Heavy on history and ghost stories of famed patrons whose photographs line the walls, Formosa has not been known for quality food or drink for years.

But this is not your mama’s Formosa. Though still slowly undergoing its transformation (including mischievous new menu offerings like a fried, spicy peanut butter sandwich), visiting the bar a few times in April I witnessed new bar manager Kate Grutman (previously at Sotto) refreshing the menu and bottle selection – not with fussy cocktails but with well-crafted, playful turns on the likes of a banana daiquiri, aka John Cazale ($10), the secret ingredient being a Fernet rinse, adding a minty, herbal layer. Her Bloody Mary twist is brilliant. Duck Down ($11) is Akvinta Vodka washed with duck confit, mixed with Vince’s original Formosa Bloody Mary mix, lime, Siracha hot sauce, and -- wait for it -- pickled gobo root (crisp, sweet, and earthy, it’s a member of the burdock root family). I tasted the washed vodka on its own: savory confit imparts a meaty, lush, joyously decadent spirit. It makes for a superior Bloody Mary.

Grutman upgrades dive bar favorites with quality ingredients, as with the Formosa Sour ($9), essentially an improved Midori Sour made from her house Midori liqueur: French honeydew, sugar, orange flower water and lychees with a hint of green food coloring to maintain the neon spirit of the junk food liqueur. Start with an aperitif of The Seven Year Itch ($10), referencing Marilyn Monroe’s potato chips and champagne scene in the film – they go one step further serving housemade chips with a cocktail of bubbles, Cynar, sugar, cherry liqueur and lemon. A perfect finish is Joan Crawford’s Chained ($9), essentially a Sherry Flip with Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Punt e Mes sweet vermouth, garnished with cinnamon. Creamy and savory, it’s dessert.

Grutman is clearly having fun with this menu – and drinking it is likewise a pleasure. Her grandfather was once a Formosa regular so she clearly maintains respect for the unique history of the place, studying old menus, celebrity clientele and films they made at the studios next door, which she’s naming cocktails after. Though there are minor updates happening throughout the building, the place retains its musty, classic Hollywood charm with dim lighting, red booths, rooftop bar, and circa 1930’s Chinese decor. You could still call it a dive but one where you don’t have to check taste at the door. I love witnessing one of the remnants of Old Hollywood reinvent itself while retaining its rich character, ready for more decades ahead.

LUKSHON by Sang Yoon, Culver City

Friends and fellow reviewers have found Lukshon http://www.lukshon.com/read uneven. In my experience, there were a couple brilliant dishes intermingled with a couple disappointments, though my overall meal was strong. I’d return.

The outdoor patio is a mellow alternative to a chic but cacophonous dining room. On a gorgeous LA night, the patio, fronted by a modern rock fireplace, becomes an urban respite.

Attentive, relaxed service made me immediately a fan of Lukshon, while a menu of single origin teas (from San Francisco’s special Red Blossom Tea Co.) and expertly-prepared cocktails confirm the restaurant’s “whole package” status. Asian twists on classic cocktails work, like a vividly tart Lukshon Sour ($11 – Michter’s Rye, lemon, tamarind, palm sugar, kumquats), a smoky Fujian Cure ($11 – Isle of Skye 8yr Scotch, lemon, galangal root, lapsang souchong black tea), or the savory, martini-spirited Formosa ($11): Ethereal gin, Lillet Blanc, atomized mizhiu tou (Taiwanese rice wine), and ginger pearl onions.

Green papaya salad ($9) was a less-than-pleasing version of the classic Thai salad, tasting oddly funky though ingredients were fresh. Chiang Mai curry noodles ($13) read as an enticing list of ingredients (coconut, chile, tumeric, lemongrass, chicken, prawn, yu choy, rice noodles), but came off a tad bland though still satisfying.

The kitchen excelled, however, with fantastic sweetbreads fried “orange chicken” style ($11) in a sweet-sour orange sauce, tender and tossed in scallion, ginger, and pickled lettuce. I’m dreaming of returning just for this dish. A side of yu choy ($7 – a Chinese vegetable), cooked in shaoxing wine and garlic with savory, aged ham is quite a pleasurable way to eat your greens. Short rib rendang ($17) is like the ultimate meatloaf, one cooked in malay spices, red chile lemongrass rempah (a spice paste), drizzled with coconut cream. Sigh.

A simple dessert of flan-like palm sugar caramel custard layered with rice krispies is a delicate finish, with a side of candy cap mushroom ice cream. Lukshon is trendy, yes, but talented chef Sang Yoon hints at the joys of California dining, where our dense Asian cultures and year-round, unparalleled produce combine with classic European cooking technique in inventive dishes.

ink.sack, West Hollywood

Top Chef star Michael Voltaggio smartly opened a sandwich shop half block from his casually hip fine dining restaurant ink., cheekily named ink.sack. Sandwiches come on the mini side at a cheap $4-7, though big enough that I’m unable to finish two. I wish all sandwich shops offered mini versions to vary tastes – and had staff as friendly as ink.sack’s.

Miso-cured albacore tuna is dubbed “spicy tuna” though I could have used more Sriracha mayo to make the sandwich actually spicy and offset a bit of dryness to the tuna. I delighted in sandwiches like The Jose Andres, aka “The Spanish Godfather”, a tribute to the man himself (of The Bazaar, one of my top LA restaurants), filled with Serrano ham, chorizo, and Manchego cheese. But my favorite is a twist on a Reuben with thinly shaved corned beef tongue, Swiss, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing.

EVELEIGH, West Hollywood

True: Eveleigh is the moneyed hipster’s hangout, from a bone marrow, charcuterie-heavy food menu to craft cocktails. But it stands out with a gorgeous setting off a trendy stretch of Sunset Boulevard and quality food and drink. You first pass through the front patio, green with trees and astro turf, into an open dining room with a center bar and ubiquitous fireplace, animal heads and book-lined, gastropub décor. The back of the restaurant is a huge patio covered in plastic with LA views. The space enchants, while my perch at the bar interfaced with busy, disengaged (but still professional, mannered) bartenders.

Though I’ve seen the like of these dishes countless times over the years, each one was well-executed and gratifying, whether bright crushed peas, mint, almonds, Arbequina olive oil and burrata cheese ($12) or a juicy, medium-rare Eveleigh burger (expensive at $19) topped with fontina cheese, pickles and tomato-chorizo relish.

Cocktails ($12) likewise are vivid, balanced and worth a stop on their own. Though, like a thousand cocktailian bars these days, they craft fine, spirituous classics, I’m most pleased with the farm fresh, seasonal side of the menu where they shine with fresh California ingredients and drinks like a Lucky Louie: rhum argicole, kumquats, star anise, ginger, fresh lime.

CURRYWURST, Mid-City West

I “heart” currywurst, that Berlin specialty of grilled dogs doused in German curry. Add chips (fries) if you wish. Currywurst, a few steps from my Farmers Daughter hotel base, is an affordable winner in the currywurst realm (like Berlin Currywurst in Silver Lake). With housemade sausages (my tops is the Hungarian pork) topped with satisfying curry (red German curry is akin to an amped-up, curry laden ketchup), friendly staff and cheap prices make this an ideal snack or lunch.

POUR VOUS, Mid-Wilshire

My bar disappointment this visit was Pour Vous, a sexy, French-influenced den with gorgeous décor, particularly a sunken, circular section with fireside seating. I thrilled to a French-heavy spirit menu highlighting Calvados, absinthe, Armagnac, Cognac. In theory, this could be a dream bar – an underdone concept I’d be thrilled to see well-executed. Maybe it is better early on a weeknight or depending on the bartender?

But on a Friday near midnight, it’s cacophonous, mobbed and irritating. The elegant space is dominated by well-dressed, middle-aged guys with young, blonde girlfriends (sporting breast implants, of course) with a pick-up scene of well-heeled 20-40-somethings on the prowl.

Though such a scene is always irritating (that cliché LA, Vegas, Miami feel), the clash of this crowd in such a romantic setting would be slightly lessened if drinks were excellent. At $14-15 a pop for many cocktails, they should be stellar.

Though it sounded amazing, a medicinally sweet, cloying Le Samourai ($14 – Armagnac, framboise, rhubarb, “umami”) was virtually undrinkable, while a Vadouvan Lassi ($15) could have been brilliant with rhum agricole, lime, coconut, falernum, Vadouvan curry and bitters, but ended up tasting like bland, minimally spiced milk on ice, the curry and the agricole lost in the milk. Tasting my friends’ drinks didn’t get me much further, while disengaged bartenders and a costly bill confirmed just how unsatisfying the entire experience was. I left convinced this is not so much a cocktail-spirits aficionado’s destination as a meat market dressed in pretty clothes.

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