Critic's Choice: Fresh lunch ideas

Traffic being the way it is, getting to lunch, having lunch and getting back to where you started can shave hours off the day. In an increasingly harried world, having lunch out (instead of at your desk or in your car) every once in a while has become something very special. But how many times can you go to Langer's for pastrami or Comme Ca for a burger? Here are a few fresh ideas for lunch.

Café Livre At the unprepossessing Café Livre in Culver City, lunch could start with some charcuterie or homemade soup (several kinds, including French onion). But why not try something more unusual, like a Tunisian brik, a turnover made with thin, crisp pastry stuffed with egg, tuna and capers? Squirt on some of chef-owner Farid Zadi's fiery green harissa. I'm angling for a duck confit sandwich with twice-cooked fries next time I go; the confit was already sold out by the time I got there. The chef's tagine (chicken, vegetable, beef or lamb) with couscous is tremendous — a wonderful tomato-tinged broth with chickpeas, potatoes, turnips and more to spoon over a bowl of fluffy couscous grains. He makes his own mahogany-red harissa sauce too — so good I was tempted to put the squirt bottle in my bag. But didn't.

9626 Venice Blvd., Culver City, (310) 842-9078, Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. Takeout and catering. Lunch items, $12 to $18.

Cooks County The new Cooks County on Beverly Boulevard is now doing lunch. Chef Dan Mattern always has a soup, maybe oyster mushroom with leeks or roasted squash soup with pepitas. His steamed mussels come with pea tendrils and pickled chile. Main courses include a couple of salads and a handmade pasta (how about strozzapreti with chanterelles?) I had a fabulous grilled cheese sandwich with apples one day. The burger is pretty great too, with white cheddar. And the desserts from Roxana Jullapat are worth an expedition all on their own, especially her hazelnut brown butter cake with caramel crème anglaise. Nothing on the menu is set in stone. It changes nearly every day, depending on what's available seasonally. Wines by the glass are chosen by Claudio Blotta, who also owns Barbrix in Silverlake.

Cooks County, 8009 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 653-8009, Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Lunch items, $7 to $16.

Milo & Olive Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan are busy colonizing Santa Monica with Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry and Sweet Rose Creamery. Now they've opened a small bakery and pizzeria near 26th Street, which is bringing in the crowds for wood-fired pizzas, fresh salads and Mediterranean small plates. Nathan makes the pizza dough. Chef Evan Funke plays with the toppings using locally produced mozzarella, vegetables from the farmers market and carefully sourced meats. Ever tried a butternut squash pizza with mozzarella, sage, brown butter and a farm egg? You can here. Nearby at lunchtime? Stop in for crostini topped with sheep's milk ricotta, winter vegetable minestrone or grilled sausages with Anson Mills grits. And, of course, dessert. Or even better, be a mensch and take some lemon pound cake or mini apple tarts back to the workplace to soothe frazzled co-workers.

2723 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 453-6776, Lunch from 11 a.m. daily. Lunch (and dinner) items, $8 to $20. Pastries, $2.50 to $4.50.

The Playground Remember the Lime Truck, winner of Season 2 of "The Great Food Truck Race" on Food Network? Well, it has gone brick-and-mortar with the Playground. Chef-owner Jason Quinn has snared a cool corner spot in downtown Santa Ana, installed a long bar, tall communal tables and a blackboard that lists the craft beers. And make no mistake, this is a craft beer-focused restaurant. The lunch menu is small — just a handful of items. As the menu explains, "Lunch isn't like dinner at the Playground. Frankly we can't make and keep enough fresh food to engage in noon-time gastronomic debauchery and still have stuff ready for dinner. Instead, we'll serve a limited menu." That could be lovely baby Brussels sprouts, Italian wedding soup and a hefty meatloaf sandwich, with something entirely different the next day. One regular, though, is the tall and juicy Playground Burger, well worth a detour for lunch. Playground is also open for brunch on Sundays, and that's a much larger menu.

220 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, (714) 560-4444, Lunch noon to 3 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays. Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lunch items, $7 to $14.

Maison Giraud French chef Alain Giraud finally got his bistro Maison Giraud open in November. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner — and making all the breads, pastries and charcuterie — is no small feat. The croissants and breads are so in demand they're often gone before the morning is over. With tables on a sidewalk terrace, Maison Giraud is a pleasant spot for lunch on a warm winter day. The chef makes a wonderful soupe au pistou (farmers market vegetable soup) and a classique jambon beurre (ham and butter) sandwich on house-baked baguette or that lovely Provençal sandwich pan bagnat. Other choices include cold jumbo prawns with citrus sauce, salade niçoise or a more formal main course, such as grilled salmon or rib-eye steak. Don't leave without doing some shopping in Madame Giraud's little shop next door where you can pick up Provençal tablecloths, serving bowls and other lovely household items from the South of France.

1032 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades, (310) 459-7561, Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m Mondays to Fridays.

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