Can a person fall in love with a drink? I thought I had met my match after trying The Wallace's Early Ace—so much so that I had to dedicate an award to the heavenly pistachio cocktail. Such was the case with the rest of this year's Critic's Picks, a list featuring restaurants and bars that left a lasting impression. My favorite new places include a casual wine bar in Burbank, an ice cream truck that made its move to the better coast, and a video arcade that doubles as a cocktail bar. Here is the full list of Critic's Picks—and why each one should be on your radar, too.
RECOMMENDED: 2014 Food & Drink Awards
What began as a crafty dessert stand selling crème caramel and bread pudding at farmers' markets around LA has grown into a solid sweets shop in Sherman Oaks, where Crème Caramel LA founder Kristine de la Cruz is developing a steady following. One taste of the traditional Filipino-influenced ube upside-down pie and you'll understand why her desserts sold out at Coachella. Creamy, rich and delightfully indulgent, the sweet purple yam creation is enough to make you drive over the hill during rush hour. It's just that good.
Sometimes you don't realize what's missing until it arrives and you think, "Why was this never here before?" Such is the case with EightyTwo, a barcade in the Downtown Arts District from childhood friends Scott Davids and Noah Sutcliffe. This is where you go to indulge in over 40 classic games ("Ms. Pac-Man," "Super Mario") before heading to the bar for a phenomenal cocktail, like the nOOb that tastes like summer in a jar, or the P.O.W. made with LAMILL coffee. Prefer a beer? EightyTwo sports a great list, including 10 draft brews as well as a few bottles and cans—like Miller High Life, which is exactly what you need when beating your high score on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
As a bartender, one of the most crucial missteps you can make when experimenting with a cocktail is not drinking your creation from start to finish. A lot can happen in the time it takes from that first sip to the bottom of the glass: ice dilutes the alcohol, flavor profiles change. At The Wallace, head bartender Holly Zack has created the Early Ace, a rarity in that the very last sip is just as compelling as the first. This Damrak gin-based libation is topped with an incredible pistachio foam that continues to dissolve into the cocktail with each sip, conveying a sweet and nutty undertone throughout its entirety. Translation? Ordering it is a no-brainer.
Is it a living room or a classroom? A bar or a scene from Jumanji? It's hard to tell at Apartment A, the first event space from consulting group Cocktail Academy. Founded by Matthew Landes, Brandyn Tepper and Max Kestenbaum, Cocktail Academy is not only taking craft cocktails to the masses, but teaching us how it's done by hosting lessons on mezcal, pairing intimate pop-up dinners with boozy concoctions, and doing it all in one of the coolest spaces Downtown. We love the homey feel to the place—a random collection of coaches and chairs scattered beneath hanging plants and exposed brick walls—and we love Cocktail Academy for coming up with such a kickass idea.
Between the top-notch vino and engaging staff, this Magnolia Park gem is just the boîte to awaken your palate. The atmosphere is pure merriment, without even an ounce of pretension. It's also a solid locals hang, where you'll find wine lovers sampling bold reds and crisp whites as they nibble on cheese plates and lamb meatballs. If you can't tell a Bordeaux from a Malbec, Luna Vine is a great place to start: the bartenders are happy to educate, choosing from their extensive bottles from around the world while letting you decide how you really feel about the glass in front of you.
There are a number of reasons to visit Olio's latest outpost at Grand Central Market, but "pizza" for breakfast? Hear me out. Among the fantastic savory pies available—the Margherita Plus with to-die-for burrata, or the heavenly Wild Mushroom & Crisp Proscuitto—the breakfast danish just might be one of the best things on the menu. Pizza dough is brushed with sugar, then filled with vanilla-infused ricotta and a topping of fresh berries, all of which quickly caramelize after a flash in the wood fire oven. Pair with a coffee from G&B and it's all part of a (relatively) complete breakfast.
Opening a restaurant is always a gamble, but one without a permanent chef? That's just ballsy. At Fifty Seven, the kitchen is all about change. For three months, a Chef in Residence will take over the restaurant, showcasing his or her talents and experimenting with new dishes. Then, just like that, another chef will take his or her place. The first chef—David Nayfeld, formerly with Eleven Madison Park—has already proven that he can command a kitchen despite a deadline, turning out beautiful dishes like lamb loin cooked to perfection and an ethereal plate of La Tur. The next chef has big shoes to fill, but we're already excited for Fifty Seven's second act.
When we found out Van Leuween Artisan Ice Cream was coming to LA, our office momentarily imploded. Founded in New York, the ice cream truck (a brick-and-mortar shop is coming in the fall) uses the finest ingredients to make star quality ice cream in rotating flavors, like pistachio, earl grey tea, espresso and mint chip. Their latest addition, vegan ice cream, flips the stereotype of lackluster dairy-free ice cream on its head—here, the use of raw cocoa butter makes it creamy and rich. The Van Leeuwen truck can be found on Abbot Kinney throughout the week, as well as Little Tokyo and in front of the LACMA.
Can a restaurant be tall, dark and handsome? Because that’s what Acabar is—a fairytale prince with epaulettes draped over his broad shoulders, ready to whisk you away on his Arabian horse. With its massive gold doors, sweeping painted ceilings and seductive lighting, Acabar enchants with expertly curated ambiance. In any other restaurant, the decor might not work—it runs the risk of being too much. But here, somehow, grandeur doesn't mean gaudy. It has made one of the most impressive statements in restaurant design this past year, and there's nothing you can do but embrace it in all of its opulence.
There are a number of incredible carb-heavy items at The Factory Kitchen, an Italian eatery Downtown, but the focaccina just might be one of the best things I've eaten this year. There are a few versions offered, although the tradizionale with crescenza pooled in the middle and a splash of olive oil is all you need to appreciate what is happening. Crisp on the outside, soft and buttery on the inside, it's a million times better than any bread basket placed on your table. The pasta is exceptional, too, and made in-house. That's all the reason you need to throw your diet out the window.