Pizza joints, many boasting wood-burning ovens, are popping up all over the Southland like chanterelles after a rainstorm. But they're not the only restaurants working with oak or almond wood. Some chefs at other restaurants are lucky enough to have wood-fired ovens in their kitchens. They're tricky to use, but once mastered can be a formidable tool. Cooking with fire is ancient, and I'm convinced we're hard-wired to find any dish cooked in a wood-burning oven just that much more delicious.
Ammo: This is the little restaurant that could. Starting out as a tiny cafe grafted onto a catering kitchen, it grew by stages to become a Hollywood fixture. Chefs have come and gone, yet owner and executive chef Amy Sweeney has retained her restaurant's soulful style. The wood-burning oven is central to that. Pizza is back on the menu now, but that oven does double duty, roasting chickens that are served up with fries and watercress salad, or braising barramundi with baby artichokes, cherry tomatoes, cannellini beans and olives.
1155 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 467-3293, http://www.ammocafe.com. Dishes, $13 to $29.
A.O.C.: Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne's wine bar may be better known for its charcuterie and cheese, just don't neglect to turn the menu to almost the last page for the night's selections of dishes from the wood-burning oven. I've always loved arroz negro (black rice) with squid and saffron aïoli and the clams with sherry and garlic toast. But now I've got to try the ricotta tartine with wild mushrooms and hazelnuts and the maccheroni with Sottocenere cheese and ahem, lardo (do I need to translate?). All soul-satisfying and warming on a blustery winter night.
8022 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 653-6359, http://www.aocwinebar.com. Dishes, $10 to $14.
Mezze: In addition to flatbreads topped with cauliflower and olives and feta or smoked sturgeon and lebne, Mezze chef Micah Wexler uses his wood-burning for more unusual dishes. He roasts Cornish hen with za'tar and serves it in its natural jus. But check this out: Fuerte avocado roasted in the skin, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, seasoned with aleppo pepper and finished with a white anchovy dressing. Or delicata squash from Santa Barbara roasted in the wood oven with spices and dates and garnished with butter, pomegranate molasses and toasted delicata seeds.
401 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-4103, http://www.mezzela.com. Dishes, $15 to $26.
Marché Moderne: You can't miss the wood-burning oven at Marché Moderne in Costa Mesa. It sits right up front and is used to cook Florent Marneau's tarte flambée (a thin-crusted Alsatian tart topped with ham, caramelized onion, crème fraîche and, in his version, cave-aged Gruyère). But the French chef is also using it right now to roast bone marrow. He serves it with toast, sauce Bordelaise, truffle butter and grilled asparagus. Calamari are cooked there with caper emulsion, lemon, parsley and garlic croutons. And he also roasts sea bass in the oven and presents it with a tarragon-clam sauce, chanterelle mushrooms and crushed fingerling potatoes.
3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 434-7900, http://www.marchemoderne.net. Tartes, $13 to $14; other dishes, $9 to $29.
Tierra Sur: Chef Todd Aarons from Tierra Sur, the Mediterranean kosher restaurant inside Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, doesn't have a wood-burning oven per se. But he does have a wood-burning grill with a fireplace in front of it. He has slow-cooked Rancho Gordo frijoles de olla (with epazote and dried chipotle) in a Dutch oven next to the coals in the fireplace. Sometimes too he'll make lamb à la ficelle in which a spice-rubbed roast dangles from a string in front of the fire. The string is twisted, and as it slowly untwists, the meat rotates.
3201 Camino del Sol, Oxnard; (805) 983-1560. Dishes, $10 to $52.