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Los Angeles's Cultural Hot Spots

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© Ron Starr

An ever-expanding museum mile, a hyperactive restaurant scene and a wave of hotel openings have made Los Angeles a cultural capital.

In the 1920s, D. H. Lawrence didn’t mince his words in a letter to a friend: “Los A. is silly.” And though it was not his most inspired turn of phrase, the city seems never to have recovered. Endless sun, ribbons of concrete, mountains and sea obscured by an all-enveloping smog, air kisses, tans—Los Angeles sometimes gets a bad rap, especially among those who have no idea what they’re talking about!

Today L.A. is cool, fun, heady…and silly? Not really. These days, art blossoms everywhere, from the independent galleries in the Culver City Art District to the Museum of Contemporary Art, now directed by iconoclastic gallerist Jeffrey Deitch. Food is playful and plentiful, much of it feeding off the city’s patchwork of ethnic enclaves. Hotels, once set pieces of stucco and palm trees, are as sophisticated and exciting as the Los Angelenos who crowd their terraces and restaurants at night. “As the city continues to grow, it’s evolving its identity,” says L.A.-based architect Michael Maltzan, who recently designed Michael Ovitz’s massive mansion–turned–art museum of Dubuffets and Picassos. From caricature to cultural mecca, Los Angeles is more than ready to be taken seriously.

Eat Meets West

Traditionally, restaurant culture here has focused less on discovering the newest place than on uncovering the overlooked. A crop of new spots harness the past while reconfiguring the future. Nowhere is this more true than with Asian food. L.A.’s thriving Asian communities have mostly been concentrated in Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo and Thai Town. But the bright flavors and ingredient-driven philosophy of Asian food is being translated across the city.

At the highest level, literally and figuratively, is Wolfgang Puck’s 24th-floor WP24 (900 W. Olympic Blvd.; 213-743-8824; wolfgangpuck.com) at the Ritz-Carlton (see “Night Creatures,” next page). Another is Red Medicine (8400 Wilshire Blvd.; 323-651-5500; redmedicinela.com), which does Vietnamese fusion in Beverly Hills. Two friends who had worked under legendary California chef Michael Mina came up with the idea over late-night bowls of pho, and now they turn out smartly conceived dishes like sugarcane-cured ocean trout served with grapefruit and burnt chile, as well as cocktails like the #49 (Leblon Cachaça, rhubarb grenadine, lime and ginger ale served in a tall glass and garnished with orange peel and lavender).

In February, as a passing of the culinary trend torch, 42-year-old restaurateur Sang Yoon, of burger bar Father’s Office fame, opened Lukshon (3239 Helms Ave.; 310-202-6808; lukshon.com), a sleek 2,500-square-foot hot spot with pan-Asian cuisine like crispy coconut rice cakes with shallot chile jam, and Kurobuta pork ribs made with a spicy chicory-coffee barbecue sauce. Further proof of Asia’s ascendancy, and one of the most promising of L.A.’s new restaurant culture, is A-Frame (12565 Washington Blvd.; 310-398-770; aframela.com), the bricks-and-mortar spawn of Roy Choi, who first found fame with his Kogi Korean barbecue truck. (Take heart: The Kogi truck still rolls on. Check Twitter @KogiBBQ for its stops.) The casual setting—it’s a former IHOP!—belies Choi’s culinary ambitions. Fried chicken is served with radish kimchi. A delicious clam chowder is made with green curry, lemongrass, pancetta and coconut milk.

Even Michael Cardenas, who opened the popular Lazy Ox Canteen (241 S. San Pedro St.; 213-626-5299; lazyoxcanteen.com) in late 2009, is trying his hand at Japanese cuisine. Aburiya Toranoko (243 S. San Pedro St.; 213-621-9500; toranokola.com), opened next door to Lazy Ox in January, and Cardenas calls the space “Roppongi meets TriBeCa.” The exceptionally fresh sashimi is by Nobu Matsuhisa protégé Hisaharu Kawabe.

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