Of all the restaurants your LA Travel Diva Examiner experienced in 2012, two that stand out as the best in show are Catalan in Rancho Mirage and Spoonful in Studio City. Miles apart in distance yet so close in excellence in food, service and ambience.
Perched along Rancho Mirage’s legendary Restaurant Row, Catalan, which opened in March dishes out food that is among the most interesting and authentic in the entire Palm Springs region.
Not surprisingly because of the name, Spain is Catalan’s theme, from the guitarist playing Spanish songs to the focus of the menu, which naturally includes Paella with monkfish, Laughing Bird shrimp, clams and chorizo.
But Chef Drew Davis—who owns the restaurant with his father, Mark Davis—doesn’t confine himself to the usual riffs of Iberian cuisine. Instead, he expands the idiom to Mediterranean, mainly Italian, and adds a focus on fresh and local. The result is the finest Branzino in the Desert, real Mediterranean sea bass flown in from Greece, served roasted whole and accompanied by a beet, fennel and red onion salad. It’s succulent, moist and flavorful. There’s no better word to describe it than terrific. His monkfish medallions wrapped with Serrano ham and served on spinach Catalan style with raisins and pinenuts is just as unusual and delicious.
Chef Davis, young as he might be, has a background that includes a long stint at the famed Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton, N.Y. He has the chops to pull off a tricky hybrid menu that includes such outside-the-box dishes as a monkfish liver starter (think foie gras with a strong taste of the sea) that was served the night we were there. He also adds interest to familiar dishes, such as veal Bolognese with sheep’s milk ricotta and braised short ribs with Manchego polenta.
Prices are moderate for such superb food, helped along by an innovative wine list that has 25 bottles of really pretty good wine for just $25 each. And for Desert early birds, the three-course pre-fixe dinner served between 4:30 and 5:30 for $21.95 may be the best deal in the entire Coachella Valley.
Catalan is located at 70-026 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, 780-770-9508. Try it next tim
Over the Hollywood Hills into Studio City, Spoonful sits off Ventura Boulevard in the former space once called Henry’s Hat. Rarely does L.A. get as genuine a neighborhood restaurant better than Frank Foley’s Southern-influenced Studio City local hang. Whether it’s whiskeys or draft beers at the bar or chef Victor Calderon’s delicious take on Southern cooking at a table (and there are communal tables too, appropriate for a restaurant where the hospitality vibe dominates), the food at this joint is exceptional.
Frank’s a Georgia boy who’s been hankering for the food he left back home since he arrived in town. So when Henry’s Hat went belly up, he pounced. Spoonful has only been open a few months and it’s already favored by a crowd that tends to be young (but not too young) and working in the “industry,” as they say in these parts.
The physical layout hasn’t changed. What has is the décor, now studded with hanging lamps made from spirits bottles and elaborate chandeliers, with a pressed tin ceiling and a vintage fainting couch or two. “It’s like Rhett Butler’s smoking lounge,” observed a server. And Southern-centric slogans are painted on the walls. A favorite: The South is the place where Macaroni & Cheese is a vegetable, chicken is fried and tomatoes are green.
Calderon’s cooking actually downplays the richness usually associated with Southern fare. Here, the creamy grits come under Cajun Gulf shrimp, the slow-roasted short ribs rest on sweet potato polenta and the pan seared red snapper arrives on a bed black-eyed pea succotash.
These are exceptional, but the appetizers—and the show-stopping pecan pie—may be even better. Fried green tomatoes are moist, crunchy and tangy; braised pork belly is lean, flavorful and comes with a most unusual peeled soft boiled egg with a delicate maple-flavored crust (what a wonderful variation on bacon and eggs this is); pulled pork sliders with four house-made barbecue sauces are authentic without being greasy. Frank’s considering offering a sampler plate of the best appetizers, and we should all encourage him to do so.
Spoonful’s terrific food and drink far are probably better than needs be. There aren’t many saloons around where you can get a perfectly made Sazerac into which a compressed ice ball the size of a decent snowball has been plunked and a pan-baked, nut-rich, not too sweet pecan pie.
Prices are moderate and there’s a 4-6 p.m. happy hour daily and another that starts at 10 p.m. until closing (both are great buys). Live blues and bluegrass music are planned. Spoonful is located at 3413 Cahuenga Boulevard West, directly across from LA Fitness, 323-512-4800.