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The Sleeper Awards

In a world of overhyped restaurants, these veterans are quietly staying on top.

The hottest restaurant in town is invariably the newest. The reservations line was jammed even before the kitchen had a working stove. Such restaurants sizzle for a while--then, more often than not, they burn out. But others manage to endure after the hype ends. The truly great ones may even take a few years to reach their peak; they just keep turning out excellent food night after night, year in and year out, with or without the benefit of buzz. Here are the stories of a few of our favorite survivors.

LOS ANGELES

Joe's (1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; 310-399-5811)
THEN Some chefs hire consultants to help them develop trendy menus. Others simply go about the business of cooking, the way Joe Miller did when he opened his unassuming place on funky Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice eight years ago: He just stayed in the kitchen--preparing the most sophisticated kind of comfort food.

NOW Joe's is packed with food-savvy Angelinos. Miller's always here, tossing a three-hearts salad (palm, romaine and artichoke) with mustard vinaigrette, or dressing up a crisp, juicy chicken with ginger jus. He doesn't take weekends off, either--his brunches, a highlight of which is a potato hash studded with smoked salmon, are legendary.

Jozu (8360 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 323-655-5600)
THEN Jozu debuted in West Hollywood in 1996 to plenty of attention for Suzanne Tracht's clean-flavored Pacific Rim cooking. Then Tracht left, and the buzz dissipated.

NOW The restaurant's sublime, accessible brand of fusion has kept it an insider's favorite. Hisashi Yoshiara, the current chef, is a genius at bringing Asian accents to all-American ingredients--for example, he serves rib-eye with horseradish mashed potatoes and Szechwan teriyaki sauce. And owner Andy Nakano is a terrific host.

CHICAGO

Les Nomades (222 E. Ontario St.; 312-649-9010)
THEN When Roland and Mary Beth Liccioni bought Les Nomades in 1993, it was a tranquil (some said stuffy) private club in a brownstone off the Magnificent Mile. They opened it to the public three years later but left the refined atmosphere--the softly lit dining room and the jackets-for-gentlemen dress code--unchanged.

NOW Some Chicagoans still seem unsure whether nonmembers are welcome, but those in the know maintain that Liccioni is one of the city's best chefs. He likes playing an ingredient against itself; he might dress a feather-light wild mushroom terrine with a porcini sauce or serve roast rack of lamb and stuffed lamb loin side by side.

Erwin (2925 N. Halsted St.; 773-528-7200)
THEN Decorated with murals of Chicago scenes, Erwin came along seven years ago and turned out to be just the restaurant the residential Lakeview district needed.

NOW In fact, it's the restaurant every neighborhood needs. Chef Erwin Drechsler's contemporary-American menu is built on the best local ingredients. He serves a seared calf's liver with sweet onions that's so good even liver-haters love it, and he makes every element of his burger--garlic-infused and the best in town--by hand, even the bun.

SAN FRANCISCO

Campton Place (340 Stockton St.; 415-955-5555)
THEN This well-appointed hotel dining room launched in 1982 with local hero Bradley Ogden in the kitchen. Over the years, other star chefs--Todd Humphries and Jan Birnbaum--came along and then moved on.

NOW Campton Place is strong under Laurent Manrique, who looks back to the traditions of Southwestern France, where he was born, but makes room for skillful innovation as well. He serves his grandmother's poule au pot--chicken and vegetables poached until meltingly tender--with a shaving of truffles. And he contrasts cold poached foie gras, another classic, with grape chutney and tangy verjus.

Hawthorne Lane (22 Hawthorne St.; 415-777-9779)
THEN When Hawthorne Lane opened in 1995, San Francisco's SoMa district hadn't yet become the address that every dot-com aspired to. But people came here anyway for the updated American food of Anne and David Gingrass, fresh from their run at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio. Then, last year, two things happened: The Internet culture imploded, and Anne Gingrass struck out on her own.

NOW Anne's successor, Bridget Batson, shows all the grace and sophistication regular patrons expect. Proof: her velvety house-smoked sturgeon layered with green-pea pancakes and topped with pancetta, and the flaky black cod with a sweet miso glaze and a tart soy-lime vinaigrette. And Hawthorne Lane still has the best grown-up bar in town.

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS

The Blue Room (1 Kendall Square; 617-494-9034)
THEN After the Blue Room debuted in 1996, a small core of true believers (including Julia Child) began exclaiming about Steve Johnson's deft way of melding Asian flavors with Mediterranean cooking.

NOW The true believers watch newcomers to this spacious subterranean restaurant discover such classic Johnson dishes as wood-roasted chicken fragrant with Moroccan spices, and seared scallops glazed with potent, sweet hoisin and sesame seeds, and think, I told you so!

HOUSTON

River Oaks Grill (2630 Westheimer Rd.; 713-520-1738)
THEN Fine dining still meant Continental cuisine to many Americans 20 years ago: not the kind of food to get most critics excited but just the thing for this restaurant's well-heeled patrons, many of whom lived in the surrounding mansions of the River Oaks neighborhood.

NOW We're all supposed to know better, but the truth is that Continental cuisine can be superb when done right--as it is here. The oysters Rockefeller (spiked with Pernod and topped with spinach, bacon and a gratin of hollandaise) are addictive, and the grilled rack of lamb (served with sweet and bitter caramelized onions and radicchio) is world-class. The crackerjack waiters remember not just your name but your drink and how you like your meat cooked.

NEW YORK CITY

Montrachet (239 W. Broadway; 212-219-2777)
THEN A media darling when it was new in 1985, this early TriBeCa settler was as notable for its French cuisine, prepared by a steady stream of high-profile chefs (David Bouley, Debra Ponzek), as it was for the chance it afforded of sitting near Robert De Niro.

NOW The celebrities, and the celebrity chefs, have moved on, but Montrachet's food is as good as ever--maybe even better than ever. Harold Moore (formerly of Jean Georges, Mercer Kitchen and Daniel) has a supremely confident touch: He coats warm oysters with creamy Champagne sauce and adds a dollop of caviar; he encrusts sea bass with coriander and serves it in a silky tomato broth. The wine list is, as always, outstanding.

Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Ave.; 212-889-0905)
THEN Restaurateur Danny Meyer took a big risk when he introduced Eleven Madison and its sister restaurant next door, Tabla, within three weeks of each other. Both thrived, but Tabla, with its flashier interior and Indian-fusion menu, grabbed most of the attention.

NOW Is there such a thing as a positive backlash? If so, Eleven Madison is certainly enjoying one, as critics and other food-lovers repent for having slighted it in the early days. As well they should: Chef Kerry Heffernan has worked hard to make this a stellar spot for American-French cuisine. Beneath the large dining room's impossibly high-ceilings, customers can dig into Maine lobster with a sauce of tarragon cream, or luxurious côte de boeuf served with a crisp, buttery potato gratin and a rich red wine sauce. The pastry chef, Nicole Kaplan, is equally remarkable; her lemon-dessert tasting plate features one of the world's great lemon tarts.

I Trulli (122 E. 27th St.; 212-481-7372)
THEN Trend seekers perennially hunt for new areas to colonize. Around the time I Trulli moved in, six years ago, they designated the East 20s as the next destination. The area (affectionately known as Curry Hill for its concentration of Indian dives) never quite took off, though.

NOW I Trulli is a destination unto itself. The owners, having built up the restaurant's star wine list, went on to establish a wine bar next door, then a superb Italian wine shop across the street. All the while the kitchen has served inspired southern Italian cuisine without fanfare. Chef Mauro Mafrici turns out lightly charred calzones bursting with creamy mozzarella and chopped tomatoes, and whole bass roasted in the wood oven and served with mussels and clams in a wine broth. Diners can eat in the white-walled dining room, or, in warm weather, on the patio.

PHILADELPHIA

Nan (4000 Chestnut St.; 215-382-0818)
THEN At Frog restaurant in the 1970s, chef Kamol Phutlek combined the French classicism of his mentor, Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin, with the flavors of his native Thailand and became a leader of the fusion movement. Then, three years ago, he opened Nan in the unglamorous fringe area by the University of Pennsylvania.

NOW If the decor is bland (apart from the ornate pink-and-green ceiling), Phutlek's cooking is as remarkable as Perrier's. Phutlek's specialties are diverse: escargots wrapped in puff pastry and served with a beurre blanc; chicken mixed with shrimp and coated with creamy red curry spiked with basil. And the neighborhood may finally be coming around: Pod, a multimillion-dollar restaurant-lounge-sushi bar, opened nearby last fall.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Obelisk (2029 P St. NW; 202-872-1180)
THEN From the moment the first customers were admitted to the intimate mirrored dining room, in 1987, everyone involved--from the charming front-of-the-house staff to the talented chef, Peter Pastan--had perfect pitch.

NOW Washington has a number of restaurants that have aged gracefully, and this serene Italian outpost in hectic Dupont Circle may be the best of them. Pastan's small seasonal menu changes daily, but its high quality never does. His homemade pastas--ravioli filled with greens and slathered with anchovy butter, wide noodles studded with sautéed chanterelles--are light enough to leave plenty of room for such entrées as a pan-cooked halibut accompanied with cockles and sautéed baby artichokes.

-Kate Krader is a former senior food editor of  FOOD & WINE.

Published June 2001
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