When the first AOC opened a decade ago, nobody quite knew what to make of the place, a wine bar near the original Farmers Market that seemed to specialize in cured meats, salads and lots of tiny dishes that reflected the flavors of coastal Italy and Provence, but also Spain and North Africa. We were younger then, and as much as we respected chef Suzanne Goin, who was moonlighting from her restaurant Lucques, neither harissa nor the herby marinade chermoula were quite in our vocabularies yet.
Plus this was the dawn of the small-plates thing, so nobody was quite sure what to order; whether the cheeses were supposed to come after dinner or as part of dinner; whether we were each supposed to order our own plate of bacon-wrapped dates or to surrender a communal order to the table. Bacon-wrapped dates! Who knew!
FOR THE RECORD:
AOC restaurant: In the June 1 Saturday section, a review of AOC Wine Bar and Restaurant gave an incorrect phone number. The correct number is (310) 859-9859. —
But we're all pretty familiar with the small-plates thing now, and with dusky eastern Mediterranean flavors and even with the biodynamic wines with their subtle but unmistakable hint of baby diaper on the nose. We have come to terms with the fact that a dinner out need not include giant slabs of animal. We have become accustomed to five-comma dish descriptions that do not include a single verb: pappardelle, asparagus, chanterelles, nettles, Parmesan — the thick pasta is a little clunky, but the dish is rather good, a focused taste of late spring. If we've lived through a battle for L.A.'s restaurant soul, Goin and her business partner and sommelier, Caroline Styne, have won.
Which brings us, I suppose, to the new AOC, a bigger, sleeker restaurant a mile or so west of the now-closed old place, occupying what used to be Il Covo, Orso and before that Joe Allen, a restaurant location deeply encoded in Angelenos' DNA. The old AOC was cramped — all bar. The new one is a high-ceilinged place wrapped around a handsome patio, with California-Spanish touches and a whiff of wood smoke, music slightly below the audible threshold and a buzzy crowd that seems equally divided between comfortable Westsiders and young West Hollywood chic.
AOC has been an institution for so long that it seems almost odd to drop into its new grown-up location, like running into a high school crush who has become a renowned oncologist. Ordering the same old bacon-wrapped dates feels a bit awkward. But then you settle in with a bowl of wood-oven clams with green garlic and a glass of Sancerre, and it seems like old times.
Is it still hard to land a table?
"You know how when a restaurant moves to a new location, regulars always claim they liked the last place better?" asked a waitress. "Nobody is saying that about AOC."
The charcuterie selection may seem dated in a year when the best new kitchens are curing their own meat — the lomo, coppa and speck, even as laid out with roasted grapes on the combination "vintner's plate," are not quite thrilling. There are better cheese selections in town.
But then you run into the "Spanish" fried chicken, crisp and rubbed with spice, served with garlicky romesco at night and with crunchy sweet-potato waffles at brunch; the pizza-like focaccia topped with things like baby broccoli and burrata or melted leeks with goat cheese; or a small fillet of seared barramundi with beets and yogurt; or the smoky bowl of clams baked with green garlic, olive oil and a splash of sherry wine, served with wedges of grilled bread that are barely sufficient to sop up the pungent broth.
If you've been to Lucques or Tavern, you know Goin's style: strong flavors, puddles of broth and extremely seasonal produce; slivers of lemon peel where other chefs tend to use zest; lots of olives, fennel, thyme, chiles and other hints of the Provencal palette even when the dish in question comes from elsewhere. At AOC, she does a moist, crackly skinned version of the famous wood-roasted chicken from Zuni in San Francisco, except where Judy Rogers makes her bread salad with greens and braised scallions, Goin's is spiked with braised fennel, chopped lemon peel and raw, green olives, a nod to Rogers but still definitely her own.
Where the new AOC parts definitively with the old is in its big platters, like the ones served at Lucques' family dinners, meant to be plunked in the middle of the table and shared by three or four people — that "Ode to Zuni" chicken with bread salad, whole grilled fish with tomato rice or meltingly soft lamb necks cooked to resemble a spicy Moroccan tagine. There is a surprising platter of crisp-skinned suckling pig cooked in the manner of the famous Balinese beach feast babi guling, flavored with lemon grass and dried shrimp, sprinkled with fried peanuts, served on a gooey bed of coconut rice, a dish that would be the marquee attraction at any Southeast Asian restaurant in town.
But you could be happy here ordering a heap of black rice and chewy farro tossed with pine nuts and raisins in a vaguely Catalan manner, or slightly undercooked cauliflower tossed with curry, or a lunchtime dish of soft, almost soupy polenta and spears of charred asparagus. When Goin zaps a Green Goddess dressing with green harissa, you are even happy to be eating salad.
An old flame is all grown up, and doing quite well.