Wednesday night the Los Angeles Times celebrated the release of Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants at Union Station downtown. Chefs David LeFevre and Josef Centeno created the playlists for the evening, and as usual, the setting inside Union Station was beautiful and dramatic. Barman Tobin Shea of Redbird set us up with Thai Juleps made of JM Rhum Agricole, Arette Blanco Tequila, Thai Chile, Thai Basil, Pineapple Thai Basil Shrub, and Lemongrass. The drink had a bit of a kick to it, and yes, I do believe there was an entire shrub in my glass. Later we enjoyed the Cardinal Punch, which tasted more like a “brown liquor” drink than fruity punch. The drink included Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Lustau Brandy, Grand Poppy Bitters, Roasted Orange, Clove, Champagne, Lemon, and Orange Essence. Ink blew us away with a Bourbon and Mushroom Slushie. It was the most umami cocktail I have ever tried.
We started out with Vietnamese Sunbathing Prawns with Fresno Chiles, Garlic and Vietnamese Hot Sauce from Chef Bryant Ng’s Cassia, the people who brought us the much-missed Spice Table. They are also the people who taught me that I love jellyfish salad. Keeping on the light side, we enjoyed an Ice Jelly and asparagus wrapped with chicken from Szechuan Impression.
Jonathan Gold has touted Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s (Petit Trois and Trois Mec) escargot as being unrivaled in LA, and after going back for seconds of the rich, buttery snails, we have to agree. I was also pleased to finally figure out how to keep from pissing Ludo off when I want to take his picture. He has a cooking zone and a meet & greet zone. I am not referring to states of mind, but literal, geographical areas. If you approach him from the side of the table where no prep is happening, he will happily pose and chummily wrap an arm around whoever wants a picture with him. Just don’t fuck with Ludo when he is in the cooking zone.
While we are on the subject of the mecs, let me tell you that the Marinara-based Meatballs with Ricotta and Garlic Bread from Jon & Vinny’s were simple and perfectly executed, as simple food has to be. I believe I may have heard someone murmur something about “grandmother’s recipe,” but I can’t be sure. I have eaten beef heart before, but it was always begrudgingly. There is a dark, sinister gaminess to it that I have to willfully tolerate. Chef Naisha Arrington somehow exorcised the wickedness out of beef heart, leaving only the rich, delicious meat. I savored Leona’s Beef Heart Rolled Wonton and would have eaten more had her line not been so long.
Chef Ray Garcia (B.S. Taqueria, Broken Spanish) made a Mushroom & Garlic Taco w/Chile de Arbol that was so spicy it didn’t even bother with your taste buds; it just shot straight up your sinuses into your brain. I was very pleased to see Mariscos Jaliscos, whose fried pockets of shrimp with avocado drowned in salsa are so much more than tacos.
Republique served a stunning salted caramel chocolate cake. I will confess that I ate two pieces of that cake. Let me explain something before I go on. I have never considered myself to be a food critic or even a food writer. What I am is a food fan. And not a casual leave-during-the-fifth-inning fan. I am the giddy, drooling fan boy you might find at Comic Con. And I am a big fan of Lincoln. When people enter their restaurant in Pasadena, they enter with the reverence reserved for sacred ground. At Union Station I was seriously gushing over their Olive Oil Cake with Brown Butter Buttercream and their heavenly Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies. When I asked permission to take a slice of cake home to my husband, they wrapped up an entire cake for me! As I sailed out with my booty, people looked on with envy, and security didn’t even try to stop me.