When I tell people I have a food blog, the subsequent question is always: So what is your favorite restaurant in Los Angeles?
Well, that is just not a fair question. I don’t think I have ever answered the question directly before, because there are just so many factors to weigh in deciding the “best” restaurant, and some places, you just can’t compare by the same standards.
Even if you divide it by cuisine. Take Korean restaurants, for example.
I am mad about Olympic Noodle’s fresh oyster kimchi, but I love Young King’s black bean noodles better than Olympic Noodle’s kalguksoo. I have such fond memories of late-night, cheap dining with my family at Hodori, but the food was terrible. Chin Go Gae has really amazing fried rice, and although their goat stew is acclaimed, the distinct gaminess of goat meat made me feel a bit sick afterward. I really like So Kong Dong’s soondubu, but I’m not always in the mood for that hot and spicy tofu stew.
So really. If I can’t even decide which is my favorite Korean restaurant, how can I decide my ultimate favorite one?
Not to mention the fact that I’m still heartily in the process of chomping through the myriads of awesome restaurants in the city. My Burp List is outdated and ever-changing.
But. I believe I came close to deciding on my favorite Los Angeles restaurant about a month ago. It was oh, so close.
It was still winter break at the time, so my friend Marilyn and I decided to preserve the holiday gluttony by trekking out west to a restaurant in Culver City that I have been eyeing for quite some time.
It’s called Lukshon—titled after the Yiddish word “lokshen” for “noodles.” It’s a sweet homage to owner and chef Sang Yoon’s surrogate Jewish grandmother. No wonder Sang Yoon is a passionate foodie! I think we all need some kind of Jewish grandma in our lives.
A word on Chef Sang Yoon. He’s known as the avante garde bad-ass chef in Los Angeles because apparently he revolutionized the “no substitution, no changes” restaurant policy that has spread across the culinary field in Los Angeles (and thoroughly pissed off Gordon Ramsay and Victoria Beckham).
At his first restaurant, Father’s Office (which is right next door to Lukshon), the customer isn’t always right. You want ketchup with your fries? Suck it. You want no dressing on your salad? No bun or cheese in your burger? Go to Cheesecake Factory!
The same iron-clad policy holds fast at Lukshon, except for the single permission of sriracha, because even Chef Sang Yoon knows that stuff is holy. But unless you have a severe allergy to something, just trust the chef. He knows best.
It offers different dining settings: omakase-style seats overlooking the kitchen, communal bar, plush cozy booths or outdoor patio. Since it was a mighty fine day, Marilyn and I opted to dine outdoors:
Despite the name, Lukshon isn’t a noodle house. It offers innovative hybrid dishes of all kinds of cuisines.
As much as I love classic, comfort food, when I dine out, I get the most pleasure out of ordering something exotic and different from what I would ordinarily cook at home.
But it turned out Lukshon isn’t entirely out of the ordinary, at least for me. It was a fun yet sophisticated play on familiar and foreign ingredients, techniques and combinations. You don’t really have to be all-out adventurous to enjoy Lukshon’s dishes. You just need to have a desire to be happy.
Very very happy. Oh man.
First of all, you get a whole chilled bottle of water, sparkling or flat. I thought that was a neat idea because then you can serve yourself water, and not have to wait for the server to refill your glass and interrupt your conversation.
Marilyn and I decided to share two entrees and an appetizer. We started out with a tea leaf salad:
Raw cabbage, crisp-fried chana dal, marcona almonds, peanuts, sesame seeds, dressed lightly in a tea leaf dressing.
I consider ordering a salad out a complete waste of money, time and stomach space. NOT THIS SALAD. It was, hands down, the best salad I’ve ever had the pleasure of crunching.
The cabbage was brilliantly crunchy and hydrating in its natural sweetness, each crispy strand coated with a dressing chockfull of umami flavors. And man, the kitchen was generous with the nuts and fried chickpeas! Every mouthful was loud and juicy.
Our second dish was the Shanghai matzo ball soup:
Yes, the famous Jewish matzo ball soup, bastardized with a Shanton-style consomme, a clarified broth stewed from beef, pork and chicken bones. The soup came with meatball-sized matzo balls, organic vegetables, white sesame, skin-on chicken pieces and schmaltz (chicken fat).
It was my first time trying matzo ball soup, and it was as unauthentic as can be. It was lovely though; I loved the intense broth with the velvety chicken fat and the savory matzo balls, but I didn’t care for the cooked carrots. Can’t stand cooked carrots.
Growing up in Singapore, I’ve had a lot of rendang, but the rendang I’ve tried is mostly made with beef and occasionally, lamb. And it was never this soupy. The rendang I know is a protein-rich dish thickly and densely coated with a paste-like gravy; it is complex in spices and tastes like carnivorous heaven.
Well, this one sure wasn’t like that at all. But you know what? It was wonderful all the same. The chicken pieces in there were plump and tender, practically falling off the bone. The pool of coconut curry was intense, creamy and fiery in a mellow way, if that’s the right way to describe it at all.
You know what it is? It’s pearly rice, steamed in coconut milk. And then formed into compact disks and deep-fried till the exterior is a fine golden coating, and the insides are all gooey and fragrant with coconut milk.
Okay, I’m back to no words now.
Dear God, when I go to heaven, can my heavenly kingdom be constructed from coconut rice cakes instead of bricks? Amen.
You should have seen us. We were grinning wide as a Cheshire cat as we munched and moaned over these coconut rice cakes. We glanced at each other, and started giggling at each other’s stupid expression, but we just couldn’t stop smiling with glee!
And then, too soon, these golden crunchies were gone.
“I’m so full,” Marilyn said.
”Me too.” I replied.
“You want to order another round of that crack?” I asked.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
And so we did. This time we ordered just the coconut rice cakes a la carte, which came with a sambal jam:
Sambal jam is another freaking fantastic concoction Chef Sang Yoon made up. That man is a genius. It’s sambal (Southeast Asian chili sauce) caramelized into a thick, onion-y and savory jam.
We chewed and crunched on our new set of coconut rice cakes and honestly, I think we could have ordered more. But we still had dessert ahead of us, so we resisted. Just barely.
The nice thing about Lukshon is that every patron gets a free “surprise” dessert. There is no dessert menu; the chef periodically creates a new dessert whenever creativity strikes, and what’s in season.
That afternoon’s surprise dessert was a pomegranate gelee and a home-baked fortune cookie:
Yummmm. I’m not a fan of fruity desserts so I thought the pomegranate gelee was good but not stellar.
The fortune cookie, however, puts every generic fortune cookie to bitter shame. It was feather-light, but one crunch and the brittle cracker releases a buttery fragrance into your tongue. It was outstanding. I wanted a bucket of them so I can pop them continuously into my mouth like popcorn.
So there it is. Lukshon, my almost favorite restaurant in Los Angeles. It’s a place I would eagerly return to, though it is certainly a blow to my bank account. That coconut rice cake was perfect, too perfect. It was downright addictive. It haunted my dreams and even now, just the thought of it tugs at my heartstrings.
Be still, my tummy. I shall return.
Question of the Day: Do you have a favorite restaurant?