Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Last stop: Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a crazy town. For Olde Worlde Europeans like me, it needs to be seen to be believed. That sprrrrawwwwllll, sprawling out as far as the eye can see. Only mountains and oceans get in its way. The scene is stunning though: palm trees, clusters of skyscrapers in the haze, helicopters zipping from downtown to the beach cities, a backdrop of rugged mountains full of wildcats and coyotes and birds of prey.

The pollution didn't get to me too much, but you feel the dominance of the roads. The six lane roaring beast of West Sunset Boulevard is the central focal point for slacking 'hoods like Silver Lake and Echo Park, meaning an outside table at brunch comes with lots of hot metal ripping past at 40mph.

London's a sprawling city too, but it feels human scale - hundreds of small villages run into one another. There aren't too many parts of town that feel like no-man's land. In LA, each mini centre is miles away from the next, and you go through miles of nothingness to get from Central Hollywood to West Hollywood, or you go to complexes which exist in isolation of their surroundings.

This throws whole new dimensions into going out for a meal. First, you'll probably have to drive. Which means you'll probably need to find parking. And you won't want to pay for it. And you won't really want to drink, although driving is a bit easier at night. We purposefully stayed in Silver Lake, which proudly claims to be LA's most walkable neighbourhood, so that we didn't have to drive too far in the evenings, but you could easily see how much of an effort eating out might be.

Despite the endless driving, LA blew my mind and I'm going to have to find a way to live there at some point. Which is tricky when you work in politics and don't drive.

Dante Fried Chicken at Short Order
After tasting some Dante Fried Chicken at his book launch earlier in the year in London I was hell bent on having a full Dante meal when I was in his hometown. Dante works in Short Order - a upscale-ish, seasonal, locally sourced burger restaurant in the Farmer's Market complex (we're talking mammoth, with a mammoth car park to boot) in Central LA. On Wednesdays and weekend brunch he has a dish on the menu, usually involving his signature fried chicken - buttermilked, brined, and coated with more spices, herbs, seeds and nuts than you could ever imagine.

When we were there the Dante special was a fried chicken sandwich, served with an apricot crack glaze, topped with avocado. The batter was crisp and full of flavour, and the chicken was succulent as anything. We went a bit OTT on sides, ordering sweet potato fries, normal fries, and delicious griddled corn with avocado, feta, parsley and chilli- an excellent combination.

I have since acquired Dante's cookbook Ride or Fry, and it's blowing my mind. He calls his take on food as 'Transatlantic African Cuisine' with inspiration from his travels across the world, his Creole grandmother, life in multi-cultural LA. It's fun, exciting food - so track the book down, and if you'r ein LA - Wednesdays and weekend brunch over at Short Order.

On our first night in LA we were pooped. So I skipped up to Sunset to grab a take-away from Forage, a (posh) rotisserie joint serving up Ottolenghi-esque salads at the side. The clientelle fitted the deep-gentrification Silver Lake mould, all wealthy arty media metrosexuals (mostly men), mulling artfully over whether to go for heirloom tomatoes or kale, feta and breadcrumbs with their protein (chicken).

We opted for both, and some tasty beans, and a really good, yoghurty potato salad, and two very generous portions of chicken. All for $30, which is a lot less than you'd expect for somewhere so fresh, organic and on trend.

Cliff's Edge
Cliff's Edge is Silver Lake's destination California Cuisine restaurant, located behind an anonymous looking door (with valet attached, natch), then through a bar, and then, through the back, you're in a lovely covered, multi-level garden, with lots trees, the air filled with the chatter of well-heeled bohemian Angelanos. The menu is short, seasonal, local. We started with a Californian cheeseboard, followed up with delicious pork loin with beetroot and beans, and diver cough scallops with a fragrant carrot curry.

It was all about the desserts; namely a thick, cold, super sweet caramel custard served with a large butterscotch shortbread cookie. Oh, and topped with a dollop of mascarpone with honeycomb crumbled on it.

The most coma-inducing dessert I've had since Snickers Sundae back at Pitt Cue Co. It was probably our priciest meal of the trip, but top quality and deliciousness for it.

After a couple of really greasy, unhealthy days of eating, we had to go all Angelano and go out for a vegan Thai meal at Bulan, a neighbourhood staple in Silver Lake recommended to us by our airbnb host. Our host promised that even the most committed meat eaters would go away full and satisfied with their meal. After delicious summer rolls, I had a dish of raw spinach, onions, cucumber, cashews and tofu served on a sizzling hot plate with hot peanut sauce poured over it.

It was so so good, I can pretty much still taste it two months on.

A classic LA eat is the french dip sandwich: roast beef, typically, smothered with mustard, in a sub, halved and dipped in gravy. Cole's is said to be the best place for it, deep in the belly of LA's weird and wonderful Downtown district, which is as stale and corporate as Canary Wharf on one side, has some wonderful art deco markets and buildings in the middle, and slides down to (the beyond edgy) Skid Row on the other side. Cole's is on the border of the latter two, with neon sides and a 20s gangster vibe adding to the seediness.

We were there for a late midweek lunch, and the place had a Lynchian vibe, all empty but for a few eccentrics propping up the bar. We drank unlimited ice tea, and enjoyed our sandwiches and the atmosphere, but it didn't quite compare to the ox cheek french dip at Hawksmoor Spitalfields.

Millie's Cafe
Our final brunch was at Millie's Cafe, a bustling pavement cafe on West Sunset, and perfect for people watching in Silver Lake. All of your favourite LA characters were there: the feminist bloggers dissing Katy Perry prefixing every sentence with "I'd never say this online or in print", the tattooed session musician, the model/actress, the posh English guy like totally cracking the LA scene, the small dogs - lots of them.

I had the best breakfast in a long time - a huge portion of  scrambled eggs, with Creole turkey sausage, cheese, guac, salsa, sour cream, served with a corn muffing. Flipping incredible. The service was warm and welcoming - the restaurant's been open for almost a hundred years, and they know their craft.