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Three restaurant revamps we loved this year

Ben Schrader of Scratch Bar and Kitchen in Encino
Photograph: Courtesy Scratch Bar & Kitchen/Jakob N. Layman

It’s been a whirlwind year for new restaurants and dishes to try, but 2018 had even more newness up its sleeve than the onslaught of openings: Some of L.A.’s older, most notable spots hit the refresh button this year, sometimes flipping concepts entirely, sometimes adding as much as a new wing to their space.

It can be a struggle for restaurants to compete with exciting new restaurants and trends flooding the market, but chefs are also a restless breed: If they’re not holding themselves to the whims of the local dining scene, they’re often challenging themselves in a constant, personal one-up to push for better quality and guest experience. The result? Revamps that flipped the script and made us take note—or fall in love with a restaurant even more.

Maude

For three-or-so years, Maude’s tasting menu rotated monthly, each iteration focusing on a single ingredient. By the time Curtis Stone and his team flipped the concept in January of this year, they estimated they’d generated 1,000 unique dishes. And while there’s something appealing about the creative churn of a monthly menu focused on, say, something like peas or corn, we’re partial to the new and improved Maude.

Four times a year, Stone now whisks us to a wine region as close as Santa Cruz or as distant as his homeland of Australia to bring us truffle-topped lasagnas, peach-fermented spot prawns and goat-butter–warmed vegetables. In 2018, his team—and by proxy, diners—traveled through La Rioja, Spain; Burgundy, France; California’s Central Coast; and Piedmont, Italy. Each multicourse menu draws inspiration from a region’s terroir, traditions, crops and global influence, and of course its wine. Sommelier Andrey Tolmachyov designs three tiers of optional wine pairings for each menu, and while they’re a bit of a splurge, they’re central to the heart of the redesign. While next year’s regions are by and large a mystery, we know that the January-to-March menu will lead us into the heart of Western Australia—and it’s a menu we’re already stalking.

Mrs. Fish

Gone is the disco ball and the nightclub vibe; at Downtown’s new Mrs. Fish, the focus is finally on seafood. Those who made a pre-August trek to the subterranean spot below Perch might remember Mrs. Fish for its singles’ nights, the blue, purple and red lighting, and the live music, but those who visit now might not even recognize the place. The 5,500-gallon saltwater fish tank and the black-and-white checkered floor remain, but the space has transformed into more of a refined sushi den, decorated with a blend of Tokyo pop art and works from local Japanese makers, and along with the decor revamp, the food is better.

Kurobuta pork belly skewers with Japanese eggplant and spicy miso; steamed clams in a dashi-and-sake broth; and decadent uni pasta drenched in bonito flakes are just a few of the shareable plates that now supplement the sushi menu, which now includes an array of house rolls and classic rolls, plus nigiri and sashimi that’s available as either edo-style (straightforward preparation) or sosaku-style—which introduces a second ingredient to the fish, such as a sauce or an herb. Factor in the also-revamped selection of Japanese whiskey and, well, we think the new Mrs. Fish is coming along swimmingly.

Scratch Bar & Kitchen

It’s not that Phillip Frankland Lee’s tasting menu wasn’t already an experience worth having—it’s just that now, every meal there begins in an entirely new bar, complete with snacks that mirror courses to come. Unfortunately, to make space for that bar, the Top Chef star wound up scrapping his casual seafood shack, Frankland’s Crab & Co., but what he built in its place is a moody, low-lit cocktail bar that serves as a welcome introduction to his 15-ish–course menu. Each guest now receives three small cocktails—included in the tasting-menu price—and each drink is served with a corresponding bite to warm up the palate. Drinks siphon through steampunk-looking contraptions while the team enlightens you to some of the 20th-century influences on the new bar program.

If you thought Scratch Bar’s changes ended there, just wait until you reach the end of your meal. After dinner in the main dining room, you’ll make your way back into the bar for à la carte cocktails and wine, plus the optional menu from pastry chef Margarita Kallas-Lee, who’s devised an after-dinner handful of whimsical, “upside-down” desserts that invert the introductory bites you’d had at the start of your night. If you’d snacked on wild mushroom meringues with truffled chanterelle mousse and absinthe-cured foie gras, you might, at the evening’s end, wind up with some cardamom meringue with truffled caramel fudge. Needless to say, always opt for Kallas-Lee’s bar bites, and if you haven’t been back to Scratch Bar since this addition, now’s as good a time as any.

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