Downtown Los Angeles has finally become the center of a city. When I lived in my loft in The Brewery back in the 1990′s, the word was that building development would transform the heart of Los Angeles, if there is a “heart” of Los Angeles.
As writer and literary lady Dorothy Parker stated way back during Hollywood’s golden years: “Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city.”
It wasn’t hip to live in downtown when I lived in The Brewery lofts. But I was an artist that liked to paint on big oversized canvases, and I needed a creative studio where I could drip paint on the floor. Since then I lived in a few more downtown lofts, eventually moving away— once to live in Santa Fe, then New Orleans, and then again to raise my children in a quaint Santa Monica neighborhood, on the sunny side of the 405 freeway.
Los Angeles is a place I’ve learned to love. The scattered hodgepodge of neighborhoods once made me feel melancholy. A lifetime of memories echoed off one boulevard and bounced down another, fragments of my life left in the cracks of asphalt like broken glass, revealing fault lines of memory. But I’ve always loved Los Angeles for its Thai food restaurants, its beaches, its melting pot of cultures. With experience of other cities, I began to look at the city differently. Despite all my reasons why I left Los Angeles, I came back to rediscover it, and downtown won my heart over again. Graffiti art was unusually beautiful in rainbows of spray paint, signs in a myriad of languages on storefronts: in Chinese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Spanish. Nearby in Echo Park, the Mexican panaderias were filled with display cases of tres leches cakes and pan dulce. Olvera Street, its own historic microcosm of original Los Angeles, offered churros, hot from the hands of the churro vendor; those long cinnamon sugared donuts reminding me of summery days in Griffith Park as a young girl.
The Brewery loft days were wonderful when I was in cooking school and engaged to a chef/photographer. We had a fabulous kitchen built out with professional equipment. We cooked, we went wine tasting in Santa Barbara, we created menus, we fed friends, we entertained. He worked on the line at Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago. I’d call him before the end of his shift to ask him to bring home some of that delicious pasta with the garlic cloves. He was gone most of the time in the kitchen, and I was left alone in the loft, painting, reading, and dreaming of my next meal.
Downtown Los Angeles was barren for the most part. Homeless people pushed their rattling shopping carts down the deserted streets. Everything was industrial and warehouses were like huge concrete fortresses. Aside from our wonderful kitchen, it was like living in a giant garage. I longed for a little house, something cozy, with nature and green, a garden. After discussing where we’d like to go, we took a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico and decided to move there. We left our urban downtown loft life behind. I didn’t miss it. Under the New Mexican sun, we ate marvelous Southwestern food: blue corn tamales, green chiles, posole, roasted corn. But we barely cooked for anyone. We lived in a small adobe, sipped mezcal and drank Negro Modelo beers. I walked my dog when the daylight melted into deep blue at dusk. But soon we grew apart under the big blue sky, under the enormous blanket of stars. I walked the mesa alone with my dog, Teva sandals dusty with reddish dirt, toes and feet tanned with the strap marks, shoulders sunburned, the ground brambled with sage and brush, out in the open space of nature. I was twenty-something and didn’t know what I wanted. I thought about where I came from, the city of angels, the streets of noir films and old Hollywood, so far away. I’d have to go back. I called off the wedding and we separated. He went to live in San Francisco, I went to find another loft in Downtown Los Angeles.
I was single in Downtown Los Angeles. And I was hungry.
Most of the time I ate out alone. I roamed around to find a good restaurant. It would be lovely to share meals with someone who enjoyed food like I did, I thought. I wished. But I didn’t mind dining alone, and sometimes I preferred it. It was with a book in one hand and a fork or chopsticks in another that I set out to dine and discover new places to eat. There were flaky half-hearted invitations from “friends” that mentioned “getting together for dinner sometime,” which followed by being “penciled in” for dinner “maybe in a few weeks,” which never happened at all. In my big brick walled loft, nary an invite. I got used to dining with a book. This was before my days of motherhood and children to care for, before I had to make school lunches in the mornings and dinner for the kids at night. What a luxury to dine with just a book, no worries about time and schedules.
One went to Chinatown for the pleasures of Yang Chow, dim sum at Empress Pavilion, Little Tokyo for a bowl of ramen or a set meal at Teishokuya of Tokyo. A short drive East brought you into Boyle Heights for fresh handmade tortillas and authentic Mexican cooking at La Serenata di Garibaldi, with owner Jose Rodriguez taking your order, way before anyone knew about his marvelous restaurant. My favorite dish was the vegetable enchiladas in cilantro cream sauce. The overflowing display baskets of mangoes were a cornucopia at Bi-Rite market, and Mexican taco stands offered plenty. There was Philippe’s French Dip, and The Pantry, and a few Vietnamese pho restaurants. But now, it’s finally happened after all these years. Downtown Los Angeles has restaurants and nightlife.
Church & State
It was last summer that I first went to Church & State, but I remember it like yesterday. I never wrote a blog post about it as I didn’t want to reveal myself through blog posts of such dinners. Evidence that I had dinner with another man would most likely be revealed, and at the time I was living with my partner of six years. I fell so madly in love so suddenly. It was difficult that I had to hide it, I couldn’t write about it. Previous posts were stilted as I omitted the presence of my darling man, now simply named “Darling” of course. My writing was suffocated by leaving out the heart of it. I even recall editing some photos where you could see his reflection in the glass or the metal curve of a spoon. How it broke my heart to remove him from my writing and photographs. He was part of the dining experience. He was why I was eating at that restaurant. It was our budding romance that I could no longer stand to conceal. I remember taking a few photographs of our meal, but I can’t find them. Lost in a hidden folder or erased. As discreet as I was about that beautiful meal at Church & State in photos and blog post journaling, the memory stays with me always. I think of that dinner as Valentine’s Day approaches, remembering fondly the moment we walked into the restaurant. I was surprised to see this glorious bistro emerge on a street that I once knew as deserted. It was like a mirage.
The dinner we shared at Church & State was possibly one of the most romantic dinners I’ve ever had. The ambiance of the interior was beautiful with the light changing from late afternoon into evening, A glitter of wine glasses on tables, candles, lights strung above the dining area, waiters darting through with plates among the clamor of diners. Everything was sparkling, glittering. We were seated at small table for two. I was used to highchairs and interrupted conversation, tending to young children at dinner. But there we were, the two of us, together. I was nervous and excited, flushed with love and anticipation.
The waitress brought my champagne flute of Kir Royale, a platter of toasted bread with goat cheese and lavender honey, picholine olives, and crusty sourdough with butter. He ordered a manly drink, something like an Old Fashioned set in front of him in a glass tumbler. I felt alive, buzzing with all of the pleasure. His eyes captivated me, but I looked away, shy. I watched the bubbles rise in my glass. I put an olive in my mouth, biting into the soft flesh of it, salty and wonderfully oily. He spread goat cheese and honey upon some bread for me. The creamy bites of cheese on bread mingled with the sweetness of honey. We were hungry after an afternoon in our hotel room, only having had scones and tea earlier in the day. The lightness of the champagne, his hand in mine upon the table, I was percolating with happiness.
Moments I will never forget.
As our dinner was served at a slow pace, we lingered and took our time in tasting everything. The flaky crust of the caramelized onion tart scattered upon the plate, nearly finished, spears of buttery asparagus nibbled spear after spear. Lentils, carrots, gratin of macaroni in Mornay sauce. Warm sourdough baguette slices with French butter. He ordered everything vegetarian, because back then I was a vegetarian. The macaroni gratin filled us with its rich sauce. Plenty of bread with butter and cheese. Now that I’ve eaten all sorts of things I’d never had before, like foie gras, Scottish pigeon, oxtail, and ceviche, I’d like to go back to Church & State to expand my taste buds.
After the voluptuous meal, the waitress arrived to the table with the sample platter of desserts. We chose the crème brûlée which arrived in a porcelain bowl. Sensuality overcame us in small tastes; the cream and egg decadently emulsifying in our mouths, spoonfuls of vanilla custard, the black flecks of vanilla bean.
CHURCH & STATE, 1850 INDUSTRIAL ST., #100, LOS ANGELES, CA 90021
The open loft space of Ktchn105 reminded me right away of my loft at The Brewery. It had a welcoming charm and felt like you were walking into someone’s home. In a sense, we were. It’s underground, casual, and very Downtown Los Angeles.
Felix G. Barron IV is the chef and owner of KTCHN 105, a pop-up kitchen of sorts. He creates masterful dishes, and, like me, he loves to create with eggs. I remember the dinner was quite delicious with homemade tasting dishes full of flavor, texture, and care.
Two soups in one bowl, leek with watercress. We shared this, slowly eating it spoonful by spoonful. Creamy, flavorful, comforting. Then the ravioli followed, arriving in a sauce of pea puree. The photos of the soup and the ravioli look so similar, but the flavors are distinctly different. I recall the pea puree adding another dimension to the ravioli, and I loved the sage in the ricotta. Nothing was overpowered by salt or seasoning either. In every bite I tasted balance and the freshness of the produce.
The ravioli, filled with sage ricotta, was enhanced with the texture of a soft egg (again, the egg) and pea puree, shaved radishes and parmesan cheese. I loved the egg added into the ravioli dish. Parmesan was the perfect salty taste in the otherwise smooth and creamy dish.
The one dish I truly enjoyed was grits with chorizo and shirred egg. It was simple, topped with chives and served with baguette on the side. We had two main courses after the other dishes, and mine was a vegetarian affair that was served a la Wellington. Portobello Vegetarian Wellington: Portobello Mushroom, Quinoa, Amaranth, Soybean, Green Beans, wrapped in Puff Pastry, served with Kale and a White Wine Butter.
Hearty, earthy. I was incredibly full after the pastry stuffed with rich portobello mushroom and vegetables.
Darling had the Pecan Crusted Ahi, and I remember the tower of it looking so elegant, but we noticed it was missing its sauce. Chef Felix was very gracious about it and had the dish removed from the bill. Chef Felix had his sisters dining there that night, and we struck up a conversation with them at our neighboring table. We enjoyed dessert after, a chocolate creation with whipped cream, and a little cookie sandwich with strawberry jam.
The chef changes the menu and the dinners are only scheduled on Thursdays and Fridays, in a series. The weekend brunches, however, are supposed to be the thing they do best. Cooking classes and such are also offered out of their kitchen. There is an outdoor patio which is used during the brunch service.
And Ktchn105′s Chef Felix Barron loves making brunch. He loves eggs and he does it with delicious grace. I was happy for that, as I am an egg lover too. The shirred egg dish still in my memory from many months ago, I would love to try his brunch and appreciate more of his cooking.
Rivera‘s DineLA offered menu had a Latin/Russian flair, if you can imagine that. Chef John Rivera Sedlar decided to create a special menu to celebrate the 20th anniversary of perestroika and his invitation to Moscow 20 years ago to cook a Latin/Russian menu in honor of glasnost. Curious.
We sat at a large communal table rather than a table for two. Darling had a drink ready for me when I met him at Rivera— he ordered the Donaji cocktail: Del Maguey San Luis del Rio mezcal, lime juice, lemon juice, orange juice, agave nectar, lime, pomegranate seeds, lemon leaf, chapulin salt.
The menu had several appetizers: Zakuski Troika: Borscht, Piroshki, and Vodka Cured Salmon, Jamon Serrano with Frisée Salad, Poached Jidori Egg, and Jerez Vinaigrette, and Tortillas Florales with Saffron Mussels.
We ordered Zakuski Troika: Borscht, Piroshki, and Vodka Cured Salmon— the salmon was buttery and melted in my mouth. Borscht was delicious and easy to drink down. I liked the way it was served in a shot glass. I forgot to stir the cream at the bottom into the borscht, and did it halfway through drinking it. The piroshki was as tasty as can be.
Then a palate cleanser or entremet of Blood Orange Ice with Russian Vodka.
The entree selections were Chicken KGB, Seared White Sea Bass Feijoada with Frijoles Negros and Chilied Asian Pear Salsa, and a Stacked Enchilada of Portobellos, Caramelized Shallots, and Garlic Goat Cheese Sauce.
We also liked the Chile Guero Relleno tempura fried and stuffed with Crab, Corn, Soy, Ginger, and Scallions. What’s not to like about tempura stuffed chile relleno?
The Stacked Enchilada appealed, and it wasn’t bad, but I was taken with the Flan de Elote which arrived in a little boat of a corn husk.
The Ensalada Semana Santa: Beets, Blood orange, Garbanzos, Moorish spices, and Pistachio Dust.
I don’t usually drink cocktails, but my drink was delicious. The mezcal and the chapulin salt combination was smoky and spicy. It was a change from wine and I was sipping the drink throughout the meal.
Dessert was Chocolate Eggs Fabergé or Butterscotch Budino with Spanish Peanuts and Mezcal Creme, or Brazilian Baba Cachaça with Meyer Lemon Ricotta Mousse and Pineapple Compote.
Of course, we can’t resist a Butterscotch Budino.
I had been wanting to try Rivera for some time, especially since Darling recreated a dish for me that he had there— Summer Shrimp with Watermelon, Cucumber and Corn in Mojito Dressing. The DineLA special Russian-themed menu was interesting, but I had hoped to try more of Rivera’s Latin dishes. Somehow, the Russian/Latin combinations did work well together.
We had some black tea after dinner with our dessert. The butterscotch budino was creamy and subtle, and not at all similar to the richness of the butterscotch budino we had at Mozza. Rivera’s budino was understated, just a mellow hint of caramel mingled with cream.
It was becoming late in the evening. The restaurant was still fairly full with diners at every table, and we lingered with our tea and dessert. Darling had a bad headache throughout the meal, so we didn’t talk much. He was in a mood when I arrived and I tried to cheer him by just sitting silently and taking in the meal itself. It’s really the best way I find to manage dining with someone who’s an angel enough to treat me to such a wonderful dinner, knowing they aren’t in the best of moods, and doing so anyway. I like being quiet with him, so it’s not an uncomfortable quiet, but the kind of being together that comes with understanding and caring for one another. I had hoped the tea and the butterscotch budino might do some good.
There are many more restaurants to discover in Downtown Los Angeles, but Rivera definitely piqued my interest to repeat and try more of Chef Sedlar’s artful cuisine.
RIVERA RESTAURANT, 1050 S. Flower St., Downtown Los Angeles, CA 90015
Dining in Downtown Los Angeles is alive with many new restaurants to discover. It’s taken so long for Los Angeles to grow up, but with all the renovated historical buildings and new development as well, it’s a city to explore, full of gourmet possibility.