Gday, LA- AOC

Flying from Sydney to LA is a curious stumble across timezones, in which you can easily stare down three dinners and a lumpy breakfast in the course of 15 hours.

This time the Hungry One and I are off on a palate cleanser of a trip, wedged between emptying our house and fleeing our jobs, and the prospect of being returned to Sydney to do something we never wanted to do, again.

Like many journeys, this one starts at an airport. So on a Thursday night we find ourselves hugging my mother on the curb of Sydney international terminal and soon after cursing our efficiency as we discover we’ve marooned ourselves on the wrong side of customs to the Dank St Depot outpost- our planned destination for a first dinner.

Instead it’s a glass of red, some dips and excitement while surrounded by the gleaming lights of duty free. Then another glass of red on the plane. A mottled and squishy lamb casserole in a foil tin and a Stillnox as a chaser. Then seven hours of wafting pinks and greens on the inside of my lids. A lazy pick at an elasticised omelette and a fruit salad comprised mostly of grapes. Then suddenly it’s supposed to be 6pm and we’re in LA.

The air is thick with suspended crud and bitingly cold for summer. Where I come from 18 degrees does not a summer’s eve make. In a ridiculous looking rented Chrysler we head straight for West Hollywood. We might not know what time it really is. We might not know why the air smells like rancid chewing gum. But we do know where we’re heading for our third dinner in 24 hours. And we’re hoping it’s going to be good.

AOC is the baby sister restaurant of Lucques and has been open since 2002. The menu is the canny work of chef Suzanne Goin, who’s got a James Beard award and some serious cred to her name. AOC is smart, both in aesthetics and approach. It’s also 300 metres walk from our hotel. We like that, too.

Part wine bar, part restaurant, AOC instantly feels like it’s the kind of place that could easily become a regular; if you could deal with living in LA.

The winelist is welcomingly long, with around 50 options by the glass. Many of those are cheerfully portioned into carafes which provide two generous pours. One for you and one for me. Or sometimes, just two for me. The Hungry One is also pretty delighted when he discovers that for a wine bar there’s also a wheat beer list that trails on like the start of a promising plot.

The food is all about small plates which are designed so you can share and squabble over the best bits. We’re sold by the sight of two subheadings on the menu.

Charcuterie. And then; ‘from the wood-burning oven’.

You had me at Hello.

The Hungry One’s eyes light up further when out comes dense sourdough on a paddle with a complimentary tapenade of chipotle, garlic, tomato and onion. It’s a pretty aggressive rumble of flavours. This is a no girly dip. This tapenade makes you sit up and take notice.

When it comes to the charcuterie the pork rillettes and chicken liver parfait are both made in house. It’s hard to go past rilletes anywhere. Here they come on a wooden board the size of a book with some sourdough that’s taken a sprint through the fire. The shredded meat is swaddled with enough fat to make it pillow soft, yet keep its inherent porkiness. With it are cornichons and some chubby rounds of lightly pickled onion.

Upstairs in their courtyard lined with banquettes, it feels a little like a grown up’s treehouse. Yet despite the radiators that are gleaming above, it’s still pretty darn chilly on this supposed summer’s eve.

Luckily there’s enough red wine to keep our spirits warm and some pretty intriguing combinations of fruit and savoury to keep the sentiments light and bright. In one of these pairings slivers of apple are folded through a salad of arugula (rocket :))and sheets of smokey speck. The apple bringing sweetness and crunch as a supporting cast member to the salt and pepper of the rest.

Another of the salads sees golden and burgundy beets cuddling up with ears of endive and lozenges of candied kumquat. It’s an absolute cracker of a combination with the unsung runt of the citrus family giving out a kooky little kick. This is a grown up salad that pretty impressively balances a line between sweet and bitter.

Later, after talk of life administration and how in heavens I’m going to manage with my gumby feet to learn to surf wanes we turn to what is marching out of the wood burning fire. It’s rustic and honest, with a touch of London’s St John in some of the presentation.

Clams with sherry and garlic toast leave a little pond of nutty, buttery juices where clams that have lost their shells play a tasty game of fish out of water. Pork cheeks are paired with black beans and radish- the crunch and pepper of the radish give punch to the slippery meat and dense frijoles beans. Both dishes have a smokiness to their sauces that drives you back to the bread to chase down the last.

It’s a surprisingly long menu that also includes subheadings for fish and meat dishes, cheeses, salads and vegetable sides. Depending on your mood it could be a very Italian, Mexican or French tipped meal. We dip and skip from continent to continent and wind up in a pretty contented place.

To round it all out a shared portion of sheep milk cheesecake, with cherries and brandy snaps manages to be both light and dense, sweet and tangy. Who says you can’t be everything to everyone?

It reminds me in a way of my at-home breakfast of sheeps yogurt, cherries and muesli. It’s stonkingly good.

In the middle of the smog, somewhere suspended between winter and summer and before we jump over the border to spend a week in Baja, AOC manages to make us completely feel at home.

When you find yourself away, without real jobs or bearings for the first time in a long time, it’s no mean feat.

When it comes to the first real dinner on a trip, I don’t think I could really ask for much else.

8022 West 3rd Street, Los Angeles

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