At this point, it's hard to imagine Californian and Mediterranean cuisines without tomatoes. But that was the case until the tomato plant was discovered in Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, and from there it disseminated to the rest of the Americas and the Mediterranean. In some climates, New Jersey, say, the tomato season is short. Not so in Southern California. We'll be enjoying our heirlooms and beefsteaks well into November. Right now, the season is at its height, and tomatoes play star roles on menus, from the BLT to haute cuisine.
Sal Marino, chef and owner of Il Grano, has a thing for tomatoes. Every year he plants dozens of heirloom varieties in his backyard to use in his annual tomato tasting menu. This year the five-course prix fixe menu starts with a chilled heirloom gazpacho, moves onto a classic caprese made with mozzarella imported from Naples, then to burrata ravioli in an heirloom and basil sauce. The main course is grilled Oregon albacore with summer long beans, basil emulsion and, of course, more of those heirloom tomatoes. Just to see all the shapes and colors is a thrill. Dessert is a tomato sorbet.
11359 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-7886. Tomato tasting menu (minimum two people), $45 per person.
This is my idea of a great tomato dish: A grilled cheese sandwich made with three aged cheeses—24-month-old Comté de Jura, 26-month-Beemster Grand Cru and 18-month King Cut Gruyère served with a heady tomato soup. This French bistro tucked into OC's South Coast Plaza has always had well-curated cheeses. And French chef/owner Florent Marneau stays attuned to the seasons, which means that right now the menu also features the "Salade de tomatoes heirloom" he's been making since 2008. Picture gorgeous tomatoes in a tarragon and tomato vinaigrette plated with Di Stefano burrata and a flurry of arugula.
South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 434-7900. Heirloom tomato salad, $14; Between Grilled Cheese & Croque Monsieur, with tomato soup, $18.
You can always count on Suzanne Goin for a market-driven menu at Lucques. And when tomatoes are in season, she's changing out dishes frequently — and she uses tomatoes for so much more than salads. I love the idea of her tender ricotta dumplings in a gentle yellow tomato confit with lots of farmers market vegetables and a swirl of basil-scented pistou. She'll roast fish with Romano beans and cherry tomatoes, and serve a beefy hanger steak with crushed fingerlings and more of those intensely sweet cherry tomatoes — and a dreamy smoked tomato butter. Can't get in? Eat at the bar.
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8474 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (323) 655-6277. Ricotta dumplings in yellow tomato confit, $18; market fish or hanger steak with cherry tomatoes, $32.