How and why we chose our restaurant of the year

Last Sunday, in print and online, The Times announced Minh Phan’s new Phenakite Project as this year’s Restaurant of the Year. It started as a trial pop-up last September at Second Home, a Hollywood property originally designed by famed architect Paul R. Williams; it currently operates as a “co-working complex”, but that phrase doesn’t really communicate its botanical garden decor and modern aesthetic.

In November, as Phan’s beloved Porridge and Puffs remained closed amid the pandemic, Phenakite settled down for a weekly residency at Second Home. Phan tends to describe the experience as ‘Angeleno’ – a more formal expression of her wide, heartwarming style of cooking that, reflecting the city she calls home, does not convey any dominant culture. His is a kitchen with delicious ideas. The 10-course menu costs $ 159 per person (including tip): the courses follow the black sesame vichyssoise; dill crab cake accompanied by a brilliant mochi stuffed with pork; braised short rib; and abalone porridge, each dish with pickles, savory jams and vegetable garnishes that send the flavors and taste of a specific place and season.

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Phan – caring about her community, constantly participating in fundraising partnerships, always striving to create ever more supportive environments for her staff – is a force for good in Los Angeles. It’s heartwarming to see her food colleagues celebrate her moment on social media.

A few friends and a few readers, however, expressed surprise: “You picked a restaurant of the year after the last 15 months in this industry? Aren’t all the businesses that survived – that fed people during a disaster and kept their jobs (and hopefully made their safety a priority) – deserve some sort of reward? “

Yes… and it’s also an award that comes with recent precedent. It started in 2017 in conjunction with the first LA Times Food Bowl, a month-long festival created by The Times. Jonathan Gold presented two new awards at the events: Restaurant of the Year and the Gold Award. The latter was “to be given to a Californian chef [or restaurant] every year, ”Gold wrote,“ with the idea of ​​honoring culinary excellence and expanding the notion of what Southern California cuisine could be like. The award celebrates intelligence and innovation, brilliance and sensitivity to aesthetics, culture and the environment. “

Wolfgang Puck was its first recipient. This year Laurie Ochoa, Gold’s wife and associate editor of the Times Entertainment and Arts team, named Oaxacan restaurant and Los Angeles institution Guelaguetza as the Gold Award winner.

Locol, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s collaboration in Watts which reinvented the fast food genre (and has since closed), was the first to be named Restaurant of the Year. Gold named Carlos Salgado’s visionary Taco Maria in Costa Mesa the second winner in 2018 before Gold passed away later that year. The Food team gave the honor to Ori Menashe and Geneviève Gergis’ arts district hit Bavel in 2019. Last year Patricia Escárcega and I agreed that Orsa & Winston deserved the nod given the extraordinary leadership shown by chef-owner Josef Centeno at the onset of COVID-19 and how he maintained excellence in a changing landscape. This summer the LA Times Food Bowl returns in June and July (see below).

To think about a restaurant of the year during a global disaster, even as California regains its momentum, I looked at the original thesis that Gold had put forward in his article on Locol: “An ideal candidate for a kitchen delicious – that’s a no-brainer – but a sense of purpose, a place in her community and the ability to move the conversation forward, not just in Los Angeles but around the world. Its leaders must honor diversity, but not at the expense of focus; health, but not at the expense of flavor; and sustainability, but not at the expense of complexity. It should look like LA “

Chef Minh Phan in his Phenakite restaurant, located on the Second Home campus in Hollywood.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Phenakite is the restaurant that came to my mind when I read these words. It hasn’t been in business for a year yet, of course, and it has extremely limited seating. But Phan’s cuisine there is unlike anything else – a light show of flavors that somehow leaves you calm and tastes like nowhere other than Southern California. Phan and his team (chefs serve as well as cooks) radiate the kind of genuine cuteness that leaves you feeling a little more reconnected to the world, and maybe to yourself.

On a Friday evening in March, Laurie Ochoa, Acting Editor-in-Chief Alice Short and I huddled together at a table at Phenakite. We’ve spooned the fluffy black sesame soup tossed with fermented plums, lemon verbena oil and shiso; we admired a citrus Albariño from Field Theory in Lodi. Phan arrived with the fifth dish, setting the fig leaves on fire with a blowtorch, then placing the lid back on the dish to let the herbal aromas penetrate.

The whole meal warmed us up. Laurie and Alice felt what I was feeling. The choice was clear.

Los Angeles Times Food Bowl Returns

Los Angeles Times Food Bowl returns in June with a series of events and celebrations (some will be in person, others virtual). Events include festive meals at Phenakite and Guelaguetza, a panel on women in food led by Jenn Harris, and, in commemoration of June 19, an exploration of black foods moderated by Donovan X. Ramsey, newly arrived Times reporter.

– “In the past two months, three fantastic cookbooks that contextualize what it means to cook Chinese dishes from a second generation perspective have been published,” writes Ben Mims. Check them.

– In the latest installment of our “What We Are” video series, Jenn harris highlights the cauliflower-based shawarma variant (and ready to hammer with tahini, toum, hot sauce and pickles) at Mayfield in San Juan Capistrano.

Lucas Kwan Peterson makes a catering recommendation: cold cereals.

– As Los Angeles County residents experience the yellow reopening level, Stephanie Breijo reports on dining room expansions and renovations and menu redesign that restaurants have been planning over the past few months.

Cauliflower Shawarma

Mayfield Cauliflower Shawarma in San Juan Capistrano.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

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