The phone in my hotel room rings. An urgent voice from the restaurant downstairs asks where I am. Dinner is about to start.
My booking is for Somni, an ultra-modern, 10-seat dining room in the Philippe Starck-designed SLS Hotel Beverly Hills on La Cienega Boulevard. As I scurry down – shadowed by the French designer’s quirky flair every step of the way – it feels more like I’m running late for a show than a meal.
There’s a red carpet to run first (this is Los Angeles, after all), which ushers guests from the hotel lobby across a porte cochère, past a virtual doorman –another cute Tinsel Town touch – to The Bazaar, a sprawling dining marketplace from celebrity Spanish-American chef José Andrés.
Tucked away at the back is Somni (Catalan for dream). But before the curtain goes up on dinner, guests are seated in a separate salon where they get a taste of the culinary extravaganza to come. Three exquisitely crafted amuse-bouche are almost too artful to eat: a delicate flower of raspberry and wasabi; a praline the spitting image of an almond shell; and brittle smoked potato crisp finely cut in the shape of an oak tree.
Inside the restaurant, any doubt we’re in for something special evaporates. The wan minimalist decor is like a blank canvas, save the wall art of harlequin-coloured animal heads, mounted like hunting trophies. The 10 of us perch around a curved oak counter in front of “the exhibition kitchen” (the kitchen proper is in the shadows beyond).
Before us are twin islands where dishes are plated up by at least as many chefs and cooks as diners, their movements seemingly in perfect sync. Hidden among them is Aitor Zabala, the bespectacled Catalan chef in charge of the kitchen. It’s just how he wants it: everyone playing their part equally.
There are 23 courses to be consumed and they land in quick succession. Each is little more than a mouthful or two, but painfully beautiful, and fiendishly playful.
Highlights include edible cocktails (hoja santa leaf with mezcal and strawberry negroni), sculpted crackers (a cartoonish porcini mushroom, a beet crisp with gazpacho, and a cow-shaped wafer atop a gorgonzola and apple dessert) and dishes that deceive, such as a pizza margherita slice that is more airy and sweet than crusty and savoury.
Nothing disappoints. Nor does the occasion, which is worth savouring, too, and not just for the sheer Willy Wonka wildness of the three-hour dining experience. I am doing something you haven’t been able to do in LA for a decade – dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant (or, in the case of Somni, two-starred).
And not just at one restaurant, but several.
To give this hiatus perspective, the last time Michelin was in this city, Obama was eyeing up the White House, Arnold Schwarzenegger was “governator” of California and the global economy was on its knees. In fact, Michelin blamed “the economic environment” for its decision to “temporarily suspend” LA’s city restaurant guide, which lasted just two editions – 2008 and 2009.
This year, the familiar red bible is back, with a vengeance. The inaugural California-wide guide dishes out stars to 90 restaurants the length and breadth of the Golden State (with seven establishments receiving three stars, 14 two and 69 one each).
For LA, The Michelin Guide California is a big deal, throwing the spotlight back onto the city’s dining scene. Two dozen restaurants scored Michelin stars: 18 of them one star (“worth a stop”, in Michelin parlance), six, two (“worth a detour”). Only San Francisco garnered more, with 38 stars. But LA’s northern rival has enjoyed its own city guide every year since 2007 whereas LA is starting afresh.
I’m more free: you do strange specials that six months ago wouldn’t have worked, but now people want to try everything.
— Andy Doubrava, Rustic Canyon
Consider, too, that LA was basically scolded for not getting food at the time of Michelin’s exit 10 years ago. “The people in Los Angeles are not real foodies,” the former Michelin Guide director Jean-Luc Naret was quoted as saying. “They are not too interested in eating well but just in who goes to which restaurant and where they sit.”
“Legendary quote, legendary,” observes Jeffrey Merrihue, who runs Xtreme Foodies, an online community of local food experts, as well as Heroic Deli & Wine Bar on Santa Monica Boulevard. “To some extent Naret was right,” he says. “At the time there was no fine dining. There was no Vespertine, no Somni, no Dialogue either.”
LA gets it now. “The Michelin Guide is good for the city,” Zabala says, pointing to it’s power to attract diners – and chefs – from across the globe.
Dave Beran is one such chef. He was lured to LA a few years ago to be a part of what he saw as “LA’s emerging food scene”, opening the 18-seater Dialogue in Santa Monica. “It’s a better dining scene now,” Beran says. Doubtless, his presence has helped make it so – he comes with enormous raps, as well as experience, from his time at fêted Chicago diners Alinea and Next.
A cosy space secreted away in a brightly lit food court, Dialogue is one of a handful of restaurants recommended by local foodies. It may be because it’s an uncommon dining experience for LA – as is Somni and, from all accounts, Jordan Kahn’s “futuristic” Vespertine in Culver City and Niki Nakayama’s n/naka, on Overland Avenue.
Beran sets out to challenge his guests with a 21-course themed tasting menu that is like a journey spanning the seasons. My journey takes place indoors, a sense of cosy comfort enhanced by warming spices in a fermented cauliflower dish and the smokiness of Beran’s beef tartare and his coffee date truffle.
“We want to draw you in, make you feel a certain way, then take you out again,” Beran says. “The only way to do this is to have jarring moments.”
Dinner is certainly a roller coaster, with courses designed to comfort, confront, and confuse: there’s a hint of spring on a sunny winter’s day (persimmon with a blast of menthol) followed by spring in summer months to come (wild nasturtium flower and sour cherries). “This is that weird moment where you have two ingredients that should never exist together that exist right now,” Beran explains.
Celebrity chef Curtis Stone’s much-celebrated Maude is another modern establishment with a themed menu that has found favour with Michelin inspectors. During my visit, the menu applauds California’s Sonoma wine region – there’s a gorgeous broccoli and quail egg with hojicha green tea paired with 2015’s A Tribute to Grace grenache from Dry Creek Valley, and a duck, artichoke and blood orange with a 2013 Pax Syrah Griffin’s Lair from Sonoma Coast.
I’m fortunate to sample the culinary craft of new head chef Chris Flint, ex-chef de cuisine at New York’s three Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park. Flint’s caviar and cured egg yolk tells me Stone has picked a winner.
The expat Australian is understandably stoked that his upmarket Beverly Hills restaurant has scored a star, likening the gong to winning a premiership. “It doesn’t come down to one game but all the little things you do across a season,” Stone says.
It’s a goal he has worked towards since opening in 2014, in the hope Michelin would come back to the city. He’s been vocal for the guide’s return, having cut his teeth in Michelin-starred restaurants in London (Marco Pierre White’s Mirabelle and Grill Room at the Hotel Café Royal). “Our lives revolved around Michelin in many ways,” he says.
Andy Doubrava, who moved to LA in 2015 and now runs the kitchen at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica agrees, saying “Michelin was always the goal” in New York City.
The one-star Rustic Canyon is renowned for its market-driven menu, embracing the bountiful produce on LA’s doorstep. When I visit, the menu includes JJ’s Lone Daughter Ranch avocado with beets and boysenberries, and Aaron’s watercress served with a wonderful tomato and stone fruit dish.
Upmarket contemporary rates highly in The Michelin Guide California but there’s a skew to Japanese establishments, many of them specialising in sushi. Ten of the 24 starred LA restaurants are Japanese, as are half of the eateries with two stars (n/naka, Urasawa and Sushi Ginza Onodera).
At Q, in Downtown LA, sushi master Hiroyuki Naruke works the knife with an artist’s skill to produce glistening mouthfuls of red and black snapper, Bluefin tuna and striped jack. “This is undebatably the most authentic Japanese sushi,” offers a regular at the counter. Michelin obviously agrees.
Over in West LA, Mori Sushi has also won Michelin acclaim, despite its uninviting exterior. Once through the door, however, the decor is bright and minimalist and chef Maru Nagano shines with his homemade tofu, seven-piece kaiseki plate (including house-smoked tuna takuan) and four separate serves of sushi featuring 16 kinds of fish.
The handover in 2011 from sushi master Morihiro Onodera to his apprentice, Nagano, has done nothing to dull Mori Sushi’s radiance. The restaurant has retained its star from a decade ago, one of only four LA restaurants to do so.
Providence, a swank seafood restaurant on Melrose Avenue, is another to have held onto its two stars from a decade earlier. “We are beyond happy,” says Donato Poto, who co-owns the business with chef Michael Cimarusti. “We’ve had to be two stars every single day for 10 years.”
Poto reckons the restaurant has improved over that time. A stunning, sweetish geoduck, box crab and caviar leaves me in no mood to argue.
Predictably, the Michelin selection has its critics – some perceive a lack of ethnic representation in a city that is celebrated for its cultural diversity. Others questioned whether a city like LA needs Michelin’s endorsement at all – although chefs at starred restaurants beg to differ. “Michelin has made a difference not just on the weekend but across the whole week,” says Poto.
“I’m more free [to take risks]” Rustic Canyon’s Andy Doubrava says of his rating. “You do strange specials that six months ago wouldn’t have worked, but now people want to try everything.”
It’s this kind of thinking the industry believes will see standards continue to lift across the city. Curtis Stone, for one, makes no bones about the fact he’s after a second star and, while he’s about it, a star for his second restaurant, Gwen Butcher Shop & Restaurant.
Back at Somni, stage show over, Zabala is of a similar mind. His American dream – an immigrant making good – is coming true. Does that dream include a third star? “Yes. It would be very nice.”
The writer stayed as a guest of SLS Hotel Beverley Hills and dined courtesy of Los Angeles Tourism and Santa Monica Travel & Tourism.
NEED TO KNOW
For details of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Los Angeles, go to guide.michelin.com/us/en/california
SLS Hotel, 465 S La Cienega Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Tel + 1 310 247-0400. Rates from $US349 ($510) a night. To book, go to marriot.com