Don't get it twisted – Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles already has a pretty serious food scene. They've got a Subway, a Wetzel's Pretzels and a Starbucks (not to mention the full service “Traxx” restaurant). So don't go thinking that serving food in a train station is all that special. Unless of course that food is being prepared by James Beard Award winners and nominees like Rick Bayless, Nobu Matsuhisa, Jeremy Fox, Michael Cimarusti and Karen Hatfield. Then it's special. Really special.
Such was the case with Friday night's “All Tracks Lead to L.A.” event, where the James Beard Foundation threw a Taste America dinner party for a few hundred close friends (who were willing to pay $185 per person) and turned the original 1939 Grand Concourse at Union Station into a full-on banquet hall where the spotlight was on the ever-growing breadth of the Los Angeles food scene.
It all started off in the courtyard, where the transportation theme of the evening was set into motion as traditional passed apps were swapped out for food trucks. Forget tiny canapés, because these trucks were slinging the good stuff. Mariscos Jalisco served up Baja shrimp tacos, Let's Be Frank was passing out their fancy grass-fed hot dogs. Komodo and The Grilled Cheese Truck got in on the action, too. It was the equivalent of trick-or-treating and finding the houses that give out full size candy bars – assuming you're also used to trick-or-treating with unlimited beer from The Bruery. If indie rock cover band Black Crystal Wolf Kids played a few more sets and a couple more food trucks showed up, guests could easily have been satisfied with this as the main event. That wasn't the case, though.
The real action started around 8 p.m., when everyone took their rightful places inside the concourse. When Nobu is plating the starter, you know it's a going to be a good night. His Maine lobster ceviche ended up being closer to a New Age Greek salad with crunchy quinoa, Japanese cucumbers, heirloom cherry tomatoes and enough sliced red onions to take down Athens (y'know, if they were weaponized). A good light way to start and a stark contrast to the next course, which was Rustic Canyon chef Jeremy Fox's salt cod tonnato oozing over fried fingerling potatoes with romesco and scallions balancing out the plate. After the dinner, Fox mentioned that the cooking conditions weren't ideal – these Chef Masters of the Universe were forced to cook in a parking lot, after all. But his dish was well-received nonetheless. Now that's the mark of a good chef.
The seafood parade continued with Michael Cimarusti of Providence and Connie & Ted's. His sea scallops were amazing and a good lesson for young chefs: add black truffle butter to anything and you've got a winner. The same can be said of a good mole, as was the case with Rick Bayless's Colorado lamb chop on top of a deceptively complex black mole. The layers of flavor kept going deeper and deeper like a mine shaft elevator. By the time guests got to Karen Hatfield's (Hatfield's, Sycamore Kitchen) lemon meringue tartlet, just about every corner of LA's varied culinary landscape was covered from Asian to Hispanic, Fine Dining to Farm-to-Table — also Wine to More Wine. The only thing missing was somebody making a fancy burger rolled in a 60-second Neapolitan pizza with Zankou's garlic sauce on the side.
High-priced food events may be multiplying faster than water-soaked Mogwai, but when the level of chefs reaches this caliber and the setting happens to be inside an iconic Los Angeles landmark, who's going to complain? Okay, fine. I suppose the manager at Wetzel's Pretzels might not be too happy. But that guy's got anger issues anyway.
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