Cigar Aficionado

J Restaurant & Lounge, California

Cigar-friendly pioneer counts on the rebirth of downtown Los Angeles.

If the dreams of the Los Angeles political establishment come true, the city's downtown will become a vibrant, residential and commercial zone with its own tax base, nightlife, culture and ethos. Essentially, the city is trying to create -- or re-create -- a neighborhood.

"The South Park district provides a unique opportunity for high-density housing near the core of Los Angeles," reads a development study of one area by Calthorpe Associates. "The area is anchored by Staples Center and the Los Angeles Convention Center and lies just south of downtown."

If the dreams come true, J Restaurant and Lounge will not only be well positioned, the large cigar-friendly destination will have been partly responsible for leading the resurrection of the urban zone. Light rail runs through the South Park neighborhood, but from few significant starting points. An impressive number of residential buildings are popping up around J. One day, J might be a great neighborhood restaurant. Right now, it's a destination. The neo-industrial interior is bare, but warm and inviting.

"This is definitely a development deal," explained Sergio Dovarro, the restaurant's managing partner. "It's part of the downtown renaissance. Some say I saved it from the wrecking ball." For 37 years, the building was a music club known as Little J's. Today it's an ambitious 25,000-square-foot establishment with a huge patio in back that Dovarro calls "the largest venue to open in the area since the Staples Center opened."

Dovarro, a native Angeleno born to Cuban parents, is an industrial engineer by training, an entertainment executive by trade and a real estate investor by daring. So opening a restaurant made perfect sense.

"I consider myself a professional diner," Dovarro joked one recent, chilly night.

His vision is supported by executive chef Ryan McKay, formerly sous chef at L'Orangerie in L.A., and by sommelier Frederic Hemon, also formerly of L'Orangerie, where he was sommelier and assistant maìtre d'. Hemon has created a wine list that includes some very hard-to-get-elsewhere wines, including a 2000 Hochar Chateau Musar from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Dining, whether you're a professional or not, is a pleasure at J. We could not pass up the four-cheese macaroni and cheese with shaved black truffles as an appetizer, though it was listed as a main course. The "shavings" of black truffle were more like small disks of Italian luxury. We paired the dish with a Caesar salad. The rest of the meal was a risotto special featuring scallops in citrus and braised beef short ribs with crispy shallot rings and horseradish mashed potatoes. (My only recommendation would be that the short ribs be exclusively English cut.) The dessert list is appealing: the chocolate truffle cake was a little dry, but flavorful. Finding that they were out of the pecan tart, I asked for a taste of the dessert's pairing, a barolo gelato. Three full scoops were delivered. Good thing too. Unusual. Unique. Delicious.

The bar

The next course at J is a cigar. The humidor is on the second floor, next to the long bar and just inside the patio that serves as the smoking lounge. It boasts a relatively limited selection that, the management assures, will grow. (For some reason, perhaps just aesthetic, J's Web site presents an image of a Cuban Montecristo.) Choose from one of a trio of Arturo Fuente Hemingways: the Short Story, Signature or Classic. They also have La Gloria Cubana Corona Gordas, Dunhill Romanas and The Griffin's.

What J Restaurant and Lounge offers now is a good place to visit before or after an event at the Staples Center, just three blocks away. J also offers the hope that Los Angeles will achieve a place among America's great cities by forming around a core that most citizens of the world would recognize as a real city, a city that would live by day and by night and not rely almost exclusively on the car.

Dream on and take another puff.

Alejandro Benes lives, writes and kayaks in Southern California.

Photos by Corey

J Restaurant & Lounge
1119 South Olive Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Phone: 213-746-7746

Lunch: Monday -- Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday -- Saturday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Late-night menu -- Until last call
Brunch -- Coming soon