Suzanne Goin profile
Condé Nast Traveler China
Photographer: Gina Sabatella
I’ve experienced perfection a few times dining in Los Angeles. I’m talking about the trifecta of ingredients, flavor and execution—when they come together in a way that makes you question what you’ve been eating all along. The first bite of the bacon-wrapped, parmesan-encrusted dates at AOC was one of those moments for me.
California cuisine has certain characteristics—light, fresh and seasonal are definitive. Consider the immaculate climate for growing fruits and vegetables; the sprawling land available for happy, pasture-raised animals. Part of the beauty of the food here is its reflection of a lifestyle that is healthy and hearty. Specifically in Los Angeles, the style has culminated into an idyllic representation of joie de vivre.
While Chef Alice Waters was at the forefront of California cuisine when she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California in 1971, it was Wolfgang Puck who galvanized the Los Angeles scene a few years later when he came on at Ma Maison. It was a sexy, glamorous scene sparkling with movie stars—a departure from the rigid fine dining institutions that ruled the city previously. It all coincided with the nouvelle cuisine movement that was happening in Paris, which emphasized light, delicate dishes and elegant presentation. A protégé of both Chez Panisse and Ma Maison – not to mention L’Orangerie, Arpege in Paris and Campanile – Suzanne Goin is the toast of the town. Not only a brilliant chef, but also a prolific restaurateur—she owns AOC, Lucques, Tavern and multiple outposts of The Larder with her business partner and sommelier Caroline Styne. It’s no wonder she was excited to take a step out of her day-to-day and go on a foodie adventure with me in her native Los Angeles.
Suzanne Goin meets me Downtown, the newest site of LA’s culinary pulse. Grand Central Market is buzzing with casual businessmen discussing deals over reuben sandwiches at standing tables; fashionable young urban professionals pondering, pizza or pad thai; blue-collar workers in line for tacos al pastor (spit-grilled pork). Among the options for Mexican food alone, it’s impossible to choose. Irresistible aromas of all kinds of international fare waft throughout the made-over industrial space.
We have lunch at the white brick counter at Wexler’s Deli, Micah Wexler’s place where they handcraft and house cure and smoke their meats and fish. The MacArthur Park sandwich – pastrami, coleslaw, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing between thin slices of heavenly rye bread – is one of those perfect foods. Goin is also enthusiastic about the everything bagel with cream cheese and lox. Although low-key beautiful, Goin is recognizable with her signature tight ponytail, tall Parisienne-esque elegance and easy smile. A guy behind the counter offers us – her – a slice of the corned beef, so succulent and delicious.
Afterwards, we take a few steps to the next stall, McConnell’s Ice Cream. Goin grabs a salted caramel chip ice cream sandwich and I choose a chocolate malt milkshake. We trade and taste as we walk through the market, which is noticeably calmer after the passing of the 12 o’clock lunch hour. She hopes to check out Mark Peel’s new fast-fish stand, Bombo, but it’s still under construction. Hip hop music flows from Eggslut, which started as a food truck soulfully slinging gourmet egg sandwiches, but now calls Grand Central Market home.
Belcampo Meat Co. is a full-service butcher shop with tattooed, rainbow-haired girls working behind the counter—such an accurate representation of the hybridized culture going on in Downtown LA. Other market vendors boast fresh produce, cases of dried seafood, even cheap jewelry. This is juxtaposed with spots like G&B, a coffee bar serving a delicately curated selection of coffee, espresso and tea from around the world to hip pedestrians who have contributed to the renaissance here. Downtown’s transformation from a seedy underbelly into a gentrified urban destination was a long time coming. “I just can’t believe how it really happened. I always loved the idea. I was a little skeptical just because I’ve grown up here and because I’ve seen it not happen for so long. So seeing this [develop] in such a real way is nice,” she rattles off in her rapid-fire way of speaking. She switches between a demureness that matches her effortless, polished looks, and an electric, childlike intensity that I’m sure catalyzed this empire she’s continually building.
Just a twenty-minute drive takes us to the quintessentially cool Beverly Grove neighborhood. We duck into Heath Ceramics, a place loved by women Goin calls hippie moms. It’s a common lifestyle that upper middle class women in Los Angeles subscribe to—Goin’s own friends and peers. She herself is more of a Francophile, but she has an appreciation for the modern-earthy Californian aesthetic that Heath embodies.
The large, airy space showcases timeless ceramic tableware as its main feature. Goin shows me the pieces she owns at home (though for her restaurants she says she prefers a white plate). I caress the smooth surfaces of the austere bowls, all in fine, muted colors. At $64, the deep serving bowl she loves is expensive; a white version etched with Camellia flowers is $280. Everything is impeccably crafted right in California. Some limited-edition pieces are made in the inhouse studio, visible from the salesfloor. We admire a charcoal and gold throw made by Faribault Woolen Mill Co., an old American heritage brand. Naturally, what Goin gravitates to today: Duralex Gigogne Tumblers, made in France. For her kids’ juice, she says. She has three young children, two of which are twins. She also picks up a bag of Good Mix by Valerie Confections and Commune Design. They are clusters of almonds, pumpkin seeds, light brown sugar, bittersweet chocolate, honey, cocoa powder, vanilla paste, sea salt, canola oil and cocoa nibs—a sweet surprise gift for me that I later devour within days.
We zip up to Sunset and Vine – one of Hollywood’s most bustling intersections – where her husband, David Lentz has a place tucked away in a hidden courtyard of a big complex. The Hungry Cat is a seafood house and raw bar conceived by a native of Maryland—a place where they take their Chesapeake Bay seafood very seriously. “The first time I went back east to meet his family there was a bag of crabs and peel-and-eat shrimp on the kitchen table,” Goin recalls. That casualness is apparent in Lentz’s small restaurant. “The goal was [to] cook what [he] cooks when we have people over. And he makes amazing cocktails.”
Out in the beer garden everyone seems to know Goin. The hostess introduces herself to her boss’ wife with pleasure. Goin runs into a friend and they hug. Her husband shows up; his cool, reserved demeanor complements her energetic spirit. He suggests a Witte-Kind cocktail (Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon, ginger, Ommegang Witte beer). One of his charismatic young bartenders also brings samplings of the signature Greyhound Proper (Plymouth gin, grapefruit and candied grapefruit), the Re-Animator (Wilder gin, Kina L’Avion D’Or, kumquat and lemon absinthe) and the Disco Nap (Arette silver tequila, blood orange, manzanilla sherry and cinnamon). The Hungry Cat’s cocktail program is driven by seasonal farmers’ market ingredients—a style that Lentz pioneered ten years ago when he opened his doors to Hollywood Hills residents who had been waiting for a place just like this. It was years before the street was swarmed by patrons of his newer commercial neighbors: the Arclight Cinema and the W Hotel.
When we leave The Hungry Cat, Goin bumps into a longtime customer of hers and he praises the lunch he had at AOC a few days before.
For the tenth anniversary of AOC, Goin moved the restaurant from its quaint Third Street location down the street to a legendary space once occupied by Orso. Goin and her partner, Caroline Styne – who is here today dressed to the nines (she confesses to being the clotheshorse of the duo) – recall their fascination with the place back when Orso was an iconic Hollywood power lunch spot. Christiaan Rollich – the head mixologist for all of their restaurants – is tattooed and bearded, with the same easy smile as Goin.
AOC started out as a wine bar with small plates but the elegant new space makes it feel like a bonafide fine restaurant, and it is. Quickly, Spanish fried chicken with romesco aioli and chili-cumin butter comes out; the dark golden morsels are crisp before they melt in my mouth. Goin chooses the Hocus Pocus Syrah for me. A friend of hers became a sommelier, met a winemaker and fell in love; this wine is a product of that love story. We also taste a Lang & Reed Chenin Blanc—Lang & Reed being an overwhelming customer favorite, and cherished so much by Goin and her husband that they chose it for their wedding.
Focaccia with baby broccoli, bagna cauda, cipollini and burrata follows and it’s possibly the best thing I eat all day. There is a rustic feel to the food here, especially when the Farmer’s Lunch plate arrives with winter vegetables, muhammara, chickpea puree, burrata and housemade grilled toast. I ask Goin what is her most perfect dish to eat. “Farro and black rice sautéed together [with] currants and pine nuts, spigarello, and then baby broccoli and cavolo nero.” She orders it off the menu, calling it the triple threat. The server knows just what she’s talking about. Once I have a taste, I realize the importance and vitality of simple, high-quality ingredients and just how they define California cuisine.
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