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Bon Appétit: Winter 2021 Southern California restaurant reviews

Crispy rice cakes with grilled Spam from Mālama Pono in Sherman Oaks. Crispy rice cakes with grilled Spam from Mālama Pono in Sherman Oaks. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

Los Angeles & environs

Other locales: The Valleys | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

Soulmate, West Hollywood

Review by Elina Shatkin

Seafood paella from Soulmate in West Hollywood.

Seafood paella from Soulmate in West Hollywood. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

West Hollywood’s Soulmate debuted in late spring 2021 with a layout that’s perfect for the post-pandemic era. It’s hard to tell where the Spanish and Mediterranean restaurant’s vast patio ends and its indoor space begins. The whole place feels like a leafy, airy, ultra-swanky living room.

Executive Chef Rudy Lopez shines when he adds creative touches to seafood and seasonal California produce. Wrapped in Swiss chard, the striped bass on a bed of tabbouleh stands out thanks to an herb butter and avocado puree.

The salmon crudo strikes the perfect balance of sweetness and spice with pineapple ponzu and a jalapeño-inflected ají. A bright salsa verde elevates roast chicken.

Vegetarians will find options such as quinoa with charred eggplant; fire-roasted shishito peppers in a tart lime-and-cilantro sauce; and veggie fideuà, a dish similar to paella that replaces rice with vermicelli noodles and incorporates seasonal produce.

The tasting menu ($70 per person with a full-table commitment) offers most of its greatest hits, including the jamón Ibérico de Bellota, as well as generous portions of a couple of entrées.

When it comes to dessert, the Basque cheesecake crowned with fruit is the go-to option.

Best dishes: Salmon crudo, jamón Ibérico de Bellota, oven-roasted striped bass, Basque cheesecake.

Dinner prices: Starters, $8–$24; entrées, $18–$55; desserts, $12. (310) 734-7764.

The Valleys

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

Mālama Pono, Sherman Oaks

Review by Roger Grody

Duck confit from Mālama Pono in Sherman Oaks.

Duck confit from Mālama Pono in Sherman Oaks. | Photo by Vanessa Stump

Many people might associate Hawaiian food with their experiences at a lū‘au—dishes like kālua pig and lomi lomi salmon—but in the hands of celebrity chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, island cooking has taken an international detour. Mālama Pono may have a Hawaiian name (translation: “take care”), but its inspiration spans the Pacific, elevated by classical technique and imagination.

Mālama Pono’s Sherman Oaks storefront features banquettes with throw pillows, a faux olive tree, and contemporary lighting fixtures, while folding doors open the intimate space to a covered sidewalk patio. It is a smart-looking, unpretentious setting in which to enjoy the creative, culinarily diverse cooking of chef Mario A. Lopez.

Intriguing small plates include crispy rice cakes layered with uni, tuna, or grilled Spam, the latter topped with a swirl of nori aioli for a refined take on Hawai‘i’s beloved Spam musubi.

Vegetarians will appreciate golden beet–eggplant egg rolls or light-as-air tempura cauliflower tossed in chile-honey vinaigrette for a relatively guilt-free sweet-and-sour effect reminiscent of Chinese orange chicken.

Unexpected culinary influences appear in house-made garlic naan, totally addictive papas bravas (crispy fried potatoes) with garlic aioli and romesco sauce, and plump Maryland blue crab cakes accented with red pepper jelly.

For a true taste of the Islands, tender horseradish-crusted mahimahi arrives in a silky pineapple beurre blanc, while a quartet of scallops are treated with liliko‘i (passion fruit) sauce.

Even the Hawai‘i cult favorite loco moco (rice topped with hamburger and fried egg) is elevated at Mālama Pono with an artisanal pork patty and porcini gravy. For a cross-cultural dish, French bistro–worthy duck confit receives a Southeast Asian treatment—the tender fowl is accompanied by a Thai-inspired sauce and green papaya slaw.

Desserts include warm plantain French toast, inside-out yuzu cheesecake (in a jar), and a surprisingly light chocolate mousse “candy bar” with candied kumquat.

Best dishes: Tempura cauliflower, mahimahi with pineapple beurre blanc, Southeast Asian duck confit, chocolate mousse “candy bar.”

Dinner prices: Starters, $6–$16; entrées, $14–$34; desserts, $8–$10. (747) 264-1995.

Central Coast

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

Little Dom’s Seafood, Carpinteria

Review By Nancy Ransohoff

Cast-iron seared fish sandwich from Little Dom’s Seafood in Carpinteria.

Cast-iron seared fish sandwich from Little Dom's Seafood in Carpinteria. | Photo by Chuck Place

Don’t let the relaxed, surf-town vibe fool you—Carpinteria serves up some seriously good food. A case in point is the outstanding new Little Dom’s Seafood. Restaurateur Warner Ebbink and Executive Chef Brandon Boudet have opened several restaurants together, including the beloved Little Dom’s in Los Feliz. They seem to have another hit on their hands with this casually upscale spot that focuses equally well on fresh local seafood and Italian classics.

The indoor dining room has a warm, comfortable old-school feel, with its red leather booths, banquettes, wood paneling, and bar seating. There’s also plenty of outdoor seating at sidewalk tables and in the restaurant’s parklet.

If you come for breakfast (maybe pre-beach?), try the fluffy blueberry ricotta pancakes or the griddled brioche with sunny fried egg, sautéed greens, and fennel pollen hollandaise.

Lunch winners include the cast-iron–seared fish sandwich punched up with pickled tomato and Calabrese chile aioli.

At dinner, start with fresh oysters or Santa Barbara uni from the seafood bar, or share a perfectly blistered thin-crust pizza from the wood-burning oven.

Boudet lets local catch shine in dishes such as fish roasted in the wood-burning oven and fish piccata served with seasonal veggies from nearby farms. If you’re in more of an Italian mood, try the chicken Parmesan or cacio e pepe.

The not-to-be-missed meatballs can be had with spaghetti, in a sandwich on a toasted brioche bun, or on their own as a side dish with house-made sauce.

I’m smitten with the oven-roasted carrots with dukkah, also in the sides section. Pair it all with wines from the Central Coast and Italy, local beers, or riffs on classic Italian cocktails.

Worthy desserts include the sundae with house-made sweet cream gelato, Nutella hot fudge, whipped cream, and crushed almond biscotti.

The grab-and-go market at the back of the restaurant offers entrées, sandwiches, salads, snacks, fresh pasta and pizza dough, and wines by the bottle.

Best dishes: Blueberry ricotta pancakes, chicken Parmesan, oven-roasted carrots, cast-iron–seared fish sandwich, sundae.

Dinner prices: Starters, $11–$16; seafood bar, $13–market price; entrées, $11–$28; desserts, $2–$10. (805) 749-7400.

Inland Empire & the Desert

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Central Coast | Orange County | San Diego & Environs

Bar Cecil, Palm Springs

Review by Nick Rufca

Beaton burger, onion tart, and deviled eggs from Bar Cecil.

Beaton burger, onion tart, and deviled eggs from Bar Cecil. | Photo by Rob Andrew

After nearly a year of food deliveries, pickup orders, and chef-crafted cuisine haphazardly self-plated atop my coffee table, I watched with giddy anticipation as signage for the new Bar Cecil appeared within a nondescript Palm Springs shopping plaza. Bar Cecil officially opened in the spring, just as indoor dining restrictions were lifted. I was there as soon as I could secure my much-sought-after reservation.

When I arrived, the polite hostess swung open the gigantic double doors, revealing an impeccably designed interior that mixes cozy French-bistro vibes with relaxed California charm.

Between the inviting bar, where bartenders were pouring artful cocktails, and the welcoming patio filled with patrons happily digging into their dishes, I instantly recalled the many reasons why the joy of dining out will never be replicated within a takeout box. It felt good to be back.

The focused menu is large enough to build a shared, multicourse feast with a group, while also suited for a scaled-back meal for one saddled up to the bar. Either way, begin with the warm and pillowy Cecil’s Bread Rolls slathered with the accompanying date-and-sage butter.

Classic appetizers such as deviled eggs and fresh oysters deliver as expected, though I’m more a fan of the caramelized onion tart, which packs a wallop of flavors within a light and flaky crust.

A plate of steak frites arrives with a glistening cut of meat cooked perfectly to order surrounded by a heap of golden, peppery fries.

The juicy roasted chicken maintains its herbaceous, crackly skin, and the burger—served inside a whimsical box reminiscent of a fast-food restaurant—is heavenly.

A pasta dressed in a robust vodka sauce is among the worthy options for nonmeat eaters.

For dessert, I was won over by the raspberry-laden pavlova—an airy, creamy, meringue-based creation that, given all the hearty, rich dishes that came before it, is a smart, sweet finale.

Best dishes: Cecil’s Bread Rolls, caramelized onion tart, steak frites, Beaton Burger, conchiglioni alla vodka, Aniston’s Pavlova.

Dinner prices: Starters, $13–$27; entrées, $24–$44; desserts, $11–$12. (442) 332-3800.

Orange County

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | San Diego & Environs

Mayfield, San Juan Capistrano

Review by Miles Clements

Za'atar fried chicken from Mayfield in San Juan Capistrano.

Za'atar fried chicken from Mayfield in San Juan Capistrano. | Photo by Kevin Tackett

Stepping into Mayfield feels like a shot of summer no matter the season. The restaurant and market is a split-level stunner clad in warm wood and accented with pastel pops of blush pink and steely turquoise. Conversation swirls above the bar then flutters up to the second-story dining room before sneaking out to the verdant back patio. Diners throughout delight in Mayfield’s delicious, thoughtful blend of Levantine flavors and California cool.

Mayfield opened in 2020 as the pandemic was already unfolding. Almost by necessity, the restaurant carved out a section of its first-floor dining room for a small market. There’s curated kitchenware, natural wines, Mediterranean pantry essentials, and more. It’s a smart addition to a place that quickly became one of San Juan Capistrano’s all-day favorites.

The family-style restaurant indeed does it all: daytime brunch (consider the French toast dusted with sumac-rose sugar or the spicy shakshuka), supper club–style prix fixe dinner on Fridays and Saturdays, and à la carte dinner on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.

Start by sharing the cauliflower shawarma, a half head of spiced, charred cauliflower drizzled with sweet-tart pomegranate molasses and nutty tahini.

As unassuming as they may sound, Mayfield’s corn ribs are essential. The dish is a Levantine spin on elote: lengths of corn dusted with morita chile and sumac that are meant to be swiped through a dollop of lime leaf aioli.

The kampachi crudo is a fine representation of Mayfield’s California state of mind. The delicate slices of sumac-cured fish rest in a pool of cucumber, lemongrass, and buttermilk “gazpacho” with pickled chiles, citrus, and Thai basil. It’s a light prelude to the popular za’atar fried chicken served with ranch, harissa-spiked honey, and pickled vegetables.

Grilled dorade gets its zest from a chermoula made with spring garlic sourced from the nearby Ecology Center.

Dessert should unquestionably be sticky toffee pudding, a delicate date cake slicked with butterscotch sauce strikes just the right amount of sun-soaked sweetness.

Best dishes: Cauliflower shawarma, corn ribs, kampachi crudo, za’atar fried chicken, whole grilled dorade, sticky toffee pudding.

Dinner prices: Small plates, $12–$21; medium plates, $16–$22; large plates, $28–$135; desserts, $10–$12; supper club, $55 per person. (949) 218-5140.

San Diego & environs

Other locales: Los Angeles & Environs | The Valleys | Central Coast | Inland Empire & the Desert | Orange County

Callie, San Diego

Review By Candice Woo

Aleppo chicken from Callie in San Diego.

Aleppo chicken from Callie in San Diego. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Bringing destination dining to the city’s urban East Village neighborhood, Callie is a polished debut from hometown chef Travis Swikard, who spent a decade working for chef Daniel Boulud and who also counts chef Gavin Kaysen among his mentors. A hands-on chef, Swikard spends Saturday mornings picking up seafood from the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market.

The fresh catch is featured in many of Callie’s standout dishes, from pan con tomate topped with sea urchin and Ibérico ham to spot prawns with garlic and chile. Even the taramasalata, a traditional Greek dip, gets a San Diego spin with smoked local halibut roe.

Start with meze, or Mediterranean-style appetizers, that include a particularly silky and flavorful hummus topped with zhoug, a zingy Middle Eastern herb sauce, and smoky baba ghanoush seasoned with za’atar. They’re served with small rounds of pita bread, made in-house with Kamut flour and blasted in a hot oven.

Swikard is enamored with pasta-making, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of his seasonal pasta dishes, which have ranged from hearty squid ink bucatini spiked with Calabrian chiles to delicate filled pastas like stracciatella-stuffed agnolotti topped with summer squash and marjoram and dressed with lemon and olive oil.

Chicken, often a menu’s most snooze-inducing dish, is succulent and flavorful here. Marinated overnight with yogurt, garlic, and Syrian pepper, the Aleppo chicken is cooked over charcoal, glazed with coriander honey, and served with sumac pickles. Pair it with chilled broccolini with Meyer lemon tahini or crunchy carrot ribbons with burnt orange–habanero dressing and cashew dukkah.

Over the course of many meals, the only letdown has been Swikard’s interpretation of a Tunisian brik, deconstructed into a somewhat murky mélange of potatoes and tuna in a green harissa sauce with a disk of pastry floating on top.

The desserts provide a sunny ending for Callie’s standard-raising dining experience, from a just-sweet-enough Turkish rice pudding to seasonal fruit compositions such as a Eureka lemon pavlova with rose meringue, honey labneh, and pistachio halvah.

Best dishes: Hummus and baba ghanoush, any pasta, Aleppo chicken, rice pudding.

Dinner prices: Shared plates and starters, $12–$24; pasta and larger plates, $21–$34; desserts, $9–$13. (619) 255-9696.

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