City of Gold: Intrepid Dining Tips from Food Critic Jonathan Gold

Pulitzer Prize-winning insatiably curious eater and Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, star of the new documentary City of Gold, shares how dining out is one of the best ways to discover a city, whether traveling or in your hometown.

Jonathan Gold

Finding a city’s hidden gem eateries — be it a dusty food truck with incredible fried fish tacos or a counter spot in a dingy strip mall slinging life-changing pho — is far more than an Instagrammable form of epicurean off-roading. It awakens us to the oft-underappreciated mosaic of cuisines and cultures that make up our cities’ landscapes.

For Jonathan Gold, longtime food critic at the L.A. Times and star of a documentary on this very subject, dining out has always been about uncovering culinary treasures — a quest that started in his early 20s with a mission to try every hole-in-the-wall restaurant and ethnic street vendor on a 15-mile stretch of LA’s Pico Boulevard.

Last month while in Chicago promoting the release of City of Gold, he caught up with OpenTable for a little Intrepid Dining: 101. From scouting foreign-language message boards for restaurant tips to eating at (literally) every Indonesian noodle house, he shared advice on how to discover — or perhaps re-discover — a city’s culture through its food.

Was there a certain cuisine or experience when you were starting out that sparked your curiosity?

I did this thing right after college when I was bored out of my mind working as a proofreader at a law newspaper – I decided to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard. It was at the time of the wars in Central America, so there was a lot of new immigration there and a lot of new places, from street vendors to tiny little restaurants.

I’d grown up in LA and driven down this street before thinking those restaurants were monolithically Mexican because everything was in Spanish. And then you start going from door to door and you go, wait a second, this one’s Guatemalan, this one’s Nicaraguan, this one’s from El Salvador, this one’s from Mexico but it’s Jalisco, and this one’s also Mexican but it’s Sinaloa so the food is completely different. Then you do it a little more and you see which ones have big city or European influences because their menus are more continental.

It wasn’t even the actual basic things being served. It was just the knowledge that this wasn’t monolithic, that what had seemed like one big thing turned out to be this mosaic — an endless, tessellated grid of culture. And it was so good.

What’s your strategy for finding under-the-radar restaurants?

I do it a million different ways. I will go down certain streets and eat at every single restaurant. I’ll spend hours on message boards in foreign languages with Google translate, like Weibo, the Chinese Facebook. I also find that going to a restaurant that looks like the center of a community probably means what you’ll find there will be pretty good. It may not be the absolute best one. But then what I’ll do is eat at all of the Indonesian noodle houses to tell you which one is the best one.

How long does that usually take you?

Sometimes that takes quite awhile, other times not so much. I tend to try to spread them out, but there always comes a time where it will be six places in a weekend.

Is there anything that would make you skip a place? Your strategy seems to be to try pretty much everything.

Yeah, well (laughs), I don’t like being bored. One kind of restaurant I tend not go to is actually lounge restaurants. I find the food tends to be really subsidiary to what else is going on there. Or if I’m looking at an Italian restaurant and it has exactly the same menu that every other Italian restaurant has, there’s no point in going there.

Jonathan Gold

For the average diner experiencing a certain cuisine for the first time, how should they set themselves up for a successful meal? Continue Reading

Farm to Glass: Why Sommeliers + Wine Directors Love Grower Champagne (and You Will, Too)

Grower Champagne

Small is big. These days it seems you can’t shake a stick — reclaimed from the fallen branch of your backyard tree — without hitting a thoughtfully crafted, local product. Online marketplaces like Etsy allow artists and artisans to create and sell their wares in limited batches. In the U.S., microbreweries are popping up at record rates while drinkers are eschewing macrobrewery offerings for the more uncommon beers in their own neighborhoods. At local farmers markets, we talk with the folks who grow our favorite apple, and we’re on a first-name basis with the cow that produces our milk. (Kidding about that last one, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, right?)

The same is happening in France’s Champagne region. Grape growers, many who once sold the entirety of their grapes to large Champagne houses (think Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot, among others) are now keeping all or a portion of their harvest to create their own wholly interesting, beautifully complex sparkling wines. Referred to as “grower Champagne,” it’s not a new practice, but it’s one that has gained popularity in recent years as consumers actively seek out a more artisanal product. There’s no need to wait for New Year’s Eve or your next big life milestone to raise a glass. Sommeliers and wine directors from some of the country’s top restaurants tell us: there’s so much to celebrate about grower Champagne.

Edouard Bourgeois, Sommelier, Ca Boulud, New York, New York
“When I started at Café Boulud, the wine list didn’t differentiate between grower Champagne and Champagne from houses. Being from this region of France, I felt it was important to promote the Champagne growers by showcasing them in their own category. (The difference between the two is simple, by the way: grower Champagnes are made by a producer who grows their own grapes and vinifies them into Champagne. They control the process from A to Z. On the other hand, Champagne houses are producers who own their land but buy grapes to feed their production.) I am constantly searching for the obscure, hidden gem wines to feature on my list, and there are many in Champagne with great personalities and a real sense of terroir.” Make a reservation at Café Boulud.

Grower Champagne

Alicia Kemper, General Manager and Wine Director, fundamental LA, Los Angeles, California
“I chose to include grower Champagne because I appreciate the pureness and thoughtfulness of the wine. These winemakers could easily sell their grapes to the big houses for more money, but instead, they choose to make something extremely complicated that could all be compromised due to unfortunate weather. Champagne from the big houses often lacks in many ways, whereas most grower Champagnes over-deliver, not only in taste but in quality and terroir as well.

My favorite grape in Champagne in Pinot Meunier. A lot of people would disagree, however, when it is done right, it is out of this world! I have one Pinot Meunier dominant wine on my list: Christophe Mignon (who comes from a long line of farmers in Le-Mesnil and makes wine that is super fresh, minerally, and has amazing texture).

Aside from the Mignon and Meunier, the Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus is just next-level delicious. It is from a single vineyard and doesn’t have a drop of dosage, so the terroir really shines through. After being left on its lees for nearly a year, it undergoes battonage, which gives it richness and that oh-so-lovely texture.

In terms of pairings, I love pairing Champagne with something fried or weighty — especially burgers. A lot of times people are like ‘Whaaaat?’ but then they taste them together, and often, their minds are blown.” Make a reservation at fundamental LA.

Grower Champagne

Jackson Rohrbaugh, Assistant Wine Director, Canlis, Seattle, Washington
“We love grower Champagne at Canlis because there is a closer connection between the personality of the grower and the wine in the glass. Single vineyard wines take this concept to its fullest expression. The Jérôme Prévost La Closerie “Fac-Simile,” a Pinot Meunier rosé from the village of Gueux, is one of our most treasured bottles. It provides a refreshing, fruitful palate cleanse alongside chef Brady Williams’s Barley Porridge with geoduck and green strawberry.” Make a reservation at Canlis.

Grower Champagne

Melanie Kaman, Director of Wine & Beverage, Addison, San Diego, California
“For grower Champagne, what I have found is the products are more organic, they’re anywhere from a third to half the price of the large Maisons, and they’re a lot better quality. They’re smaller production, they’re really well made, and you’re supporting local. Even if it’s not local California or local New York, you’re supporting a family of growers, not a conglomerate. You’re getting these beautiful, finely crafted, small-production Champagnes for a lower price, and, in my opinion, a better quality than some of the large houses.

We have a beautiful tasting menu with 10 or 12 courses, and we feature a dish in a caviar tin; it’s a smoked salmon rillette, and it’s topped with golden Osetra caviar from Galilee Farms in Israel, served with a warm brioche toast on the side. I always pair it with Champagne. One of my favorites recently has been Paul Bara, their Brut Rosé, and then I also really like the 2007 Gaston Chiquet Brut.” Make a reservation at Addison.

Grower Champagne

Thomas Pastuszak, Wine Director, The Nomad, New York, New York
“Grower Champagne continues to be one of the most exciting categories of wine in the world: we’re talking about producers in the Champagne region who farm their family-owned land conscientiously and meticulously, grow incredible grapes from noble terroirs, and create their own, unique expressions of their villages through the wines they are making. It’s now taken on a site-specific excitement that wine lovers only used to be able to find in places like Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, or the Mosel, and these Champagnes are some of the most incredible food wines, whether to start the meal or to finish it. At NoMad, we regularly recommend drinking a variety of styles and producers throughout our guests’ meal: the grower Champagne category lets us do that and create some amazing pairings with chef Humm’s cuisine.” Make a reservation at The NoMad.

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Bon Anniversaire! Iconic French Restaurant L’Auberge Chez François Celebrates 40 Years

L’Auberge Chez François Celebrates 40 Years

The restaurant business is a high turnover industry. Celebrating a 10-year anniversary is rare. Against all odds, L’Auberge Chez François in Great Falls, Virginia, is toasting 40 delicious years of serving memorable Alsatian accented gastronomy, which has thrilled everyone from American presidents and foreign dignitaries to couples commemorating a special anniversary and families marking major milestones.

Their stunning success story begins in Washington, D.C. For more than two decades, Chez François thrived just a short distance from the White House. For many diners, it was their first taste of French cuisine. “People didn’t even drink wine when he started,” says his son, Jacques Haeringer, who started working in the restaurant when he was 11 and took over as chef and co-owner when his father passed away in 2010. “Girls would drink Coke and the boys would have coffee.”

L’Auberge Chez François Celebrates 40 Years

When the building the restaurant was housed in was sold in 1975, chef-owner Franҫois Haeringer decided to uproot the concept and move it 45 minutes outside the city to the bucolic hamlet of Great Falls. His attorney and accountant thought the idea was bordering on lunacy. “They said it was too high risk,” remembers Haeringer. “They said Great Falls was too far away. ‘If you drive another mile, you’ll fall off the edge.’ My father went over, kicked the wall, and said, ‘I’m doing it anyway.’”

L’Auberge Chez François Celebrates 40 Years

The senior Haeringer poured the family’s savings into completely making over an old property and adding a full kitchen, wine cellar, and parking lot. Ultimately, it was transformed into a picturesque French country inn, which inspired the new name, L’Auberge Chez François (It debuted on April 20, 1976, with François leading the kitchen and Jacques as the chef de cuisine). “With Dad and I, it was old bull, young bull,” says Haeringer. “It was a strength of the business because we bounced things off each other.”

L’Auberge Chez François Celebrates 40 YearsContinue Reading

10 Things We Learned at the 2016 Cherry Bombe Jubilee

OpenTable had the privilege of being a sponsor of the 2016 Cherry Bombe Jubilee held yesterday at Manhattan’s Highline Hotel. Culinary legends, journalists, small business owners, and more gathered to listen, learn, and get inspired by the past and excited for the future of women in food. Here are 10 takeaways, ICYMI.

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Make soup. The Hemsley sisters of UK catering company Hemsley + Hemsley are huge soup and bone broth advocates. “This should be the first things kids learn to make.”

“Get a job in a kitchen; it makes you a better boss.” Amanda Hess had the privilege of working in a completely civilized kitchen under Jodi Adams, but subsequent gigs weren’t quite as heavenly, and she was inspired to lead based on lessons learned at the former.

Looking for the next big thing in food (or any industry)? Look for white space. Find out what’s missing and fill the void.

Don’t get too judge-y about non-organic labels. A lot of farmers aren’t growing certified organic because they simply cannot afford to lose an entire crop to disease or pests. Their profit margins are already perilously thin; according to the USDA, most farmers make less than $80,000. That’s not much money for folks who need to be a chemist, a scientist, and a mechanic in order to manage their farms.

Mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, is prevalent in the culinary industry. This is due, in large part, to the overwhelming demands of the job. Only 3.5% of respondents to a survey on ChefswithIssues.com indicated that their mental health issues are NOT tied to the profession. If you’re suffering, you can visit the site (founded by foodista Kat Kinsman) for support and resources.

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A restaurant owner will always hire a woman as a chef – if she’s the owner. Back in the day (the day being 1982), female chefs were a rarity – and even more so if they weren’t chef-owners of their own restaurants. The critic Mimi Sheraton counted just one who was a hired gun at the time. Things have shifted, but there’s still quite a way to go.Continue Reading