The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson

THE ART OF
KEVIN BLYTHE SAMPSON

11/19/10

Feeding Frenzy - NYTimes.com

| November 18, 2010, 1:37 pm

The great Los Angeles nose-to-tail, farm-to-table, pop-up-supper-club, Twitter-feeding-food-truck, high-low gourmet revolution.

Unlike Los Angeles neighborhoods whose names resonate worldwide as metaphors for glamour or the good life, the one in which the Peruvian restaurant Mo-Chica is located has no particular mythology and, really, no distinct identity. People refer to it alternately as ‘‘south of downtown’’ or ‘‘near U.S.C.,’’ meaning the University of Southern California. And the approach to Mo-Chica doesn’t build confidence. You drive into a fenced lot, walk up to a squat orange building that looks as if it might house dental or car insurance offices and enter a space as vast as a hangar and as visually chaotic as a flea market.

Mo-Chica is against the far right wall. It’s a counter, more or less, with a menu board above it and plastic-covered tables scattered on the concrete floor in front. After you place your order, you’re given a number on a stick, which you plant like a flag on one of those tables. Looking up, you see scores of athletic jerseys hanging above a patch of concrete where they’re sold. In the opposite direction is an alcove with a bevy of untidily stacked computer equipment and a row of monitors: a technology repair shop, which also offers Internet access at hourly rates.

Bon appétit!

Then the food comes. And it’s dazzling, not just in its deftly balanced flavors but in its eye-tickling design. Mo-Chica’s rendition of causa, a Peruvian potato salad, has the vertical aspirations and multitiered majesty of elegant pastry: it’s a tall, rounded column banded in different colors. There’s the yellow of mashed potatoes, the pale green of avocado, the snowy white of crab.

A dish of ceviche is sectioned horizontally, dark corn nuts to the left, pale extra-large kernels of boiled corn to the right and, between them, cubes of sea bass, flecked with green and brightly glistening, thanks to the cilantro, lime juice and other ingredients that have turned the mildly flavored fish into a tart, herbaceous masterpiece. The sea bass itself has the meatiness and tenderness of premium-grade sushi, which makes sense. The chef Ricardo Zarate, a Peru native who opened Mo-Chica in June of last year, spent much of his career working in Japanese restaurants.

Uncommonly ambitious cooking in unconventionally blunt, humble, even improvised contexts: if a single theme captures the arc and essence of dining out in America right now, that’s it. And if you had to pick a single place to study and savor it, you could do no better than L.A., a city in unrivaled tune with the restaurant times. This is where food trucks, like the popular Flying Pig, with elaborately plated ethnic specialties — and with Twitter feeds that update their changing locations — roared to gastronomic acclaim before many other cities dispatched or embraced their own. Where Americans’ increasingly fetishistic obsession with the simple (or not so simple) hamburger takes especially creative, thoughtful form. And where you can enjoy some of the best ceviche of your life within a few dozen feet of someone getting his hard drive recovered.

Dining in L.A. has long had a more casual ethos than in other big cities, so it’s unsurprising that the city’s restaurant scene would become so emblematic in an era defined by casualness. L.A. got a head start. But the thoroughness with which it showcases so many compelling restaurant trends goes beyond its fluency in unfussy dining.

You could make the case that the farm-to-table craze, as represented in restaurants middlebrow and fancy, is the child, or maybe grandchild, of California cuisine, and you could just as easily argue that the craze yields its greatest dividends in California, whose growing season is 12 months long. L.A. isn’t the stereotyped salad capital of the country for nothing.

‘‘I don’t have to supplement with ingredients from other places,’’ says the chef Suzanne Goin, who opened her third Los Angeles restaurant, Tavern, with Caroline Styne, in Brentwood last year. (The two also own and operate Lucques, which has been around for 12 years, and A.O.C., which is almost eight years old.) ‘‘It’s a pretty profound difference. I worked in Boston and did the farmers’ market in Boston in the winter. It would be three things.’’ When I ate at Tavern a few months ago, I was struck by the cornucopia and quality of produce across the menu. The appetizers included a tomato tart with some of the sweetest, meatiest, least bitter eggplant I’ve ever tasted, and in a composition of burrata, prosciutto and roasted peaches, the peaches actually managed to steal the show. Possibly the best of the main courses that three friends and I tried was a summer squash gratin.

Sure, New York also has a bit of everything, or rather a lot of everything. But its crowdedness and competitiveness make it the Everest to L.A.’s Kilimanjaro: you practically need a Sherpa to tackle New York effectively, and you just might lose a digit or limb. L.A. is more reasonably scaled, with the newest, hottest restaurants less likely to book up a solid month in advance. When a friend and I dropped in — at the height of lunch hour, no less — to one of the four branches of Umami Burger, the cult favorite of the city’s ground-beef set, we were seated immediately, in
comfy chairs at a big table that could have accommodated four. In contrast, almost any mealtime visit to any location of New York’s Shake Shack involves a significant stretch of time — 20 minutes isn’t exceptional — on a serpentine line. That’s for counter service. At Umami, someone actually waits on you.

The Umami story demonstrates the enterprise and speed with which L.A.’s restaurateurs are tackling trends. When Adam Fleischman, its principal owner, opened the first Umami in Mid-Wilshire in January 2009, he was entering an arena brimming with competitors, each with fanatical adherents. There was Father’s Office, with its unyielding commandment that arugula and caramelized onions should dress every patty. There was 8 oz. Burger Bar, which permitted free will. And there was of course In-N-Out, less restaurant than fast-food franchise but perhaps the earliest architect of the bridge between McDonald’s and self-regarding gourmands.

Fleischman had a hook that sagely took into account the self-consciously erudite posturing of so many food enthusiasts today. ‘‘I wanted to do something with umami,’’ he says, referring to the so-called fifth taste (after sweet, salty, sour and bitter), which is vaguely described as ‘‘savoriness’’ and until recent years wasn’t universally accepted as an actual, definable trait. So each of the burgers at Umami is constructed with an emphasis on ingredients thought to be catalysts for umami. The caramelized onions on the signature burger are seasoned with star anise ‘‘because it’s an umami booster,’’ Fleischman says. The burger is also dressed with sautéed shiitake mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and oven-dried tomatoes, all thought to be umami bombs.

The formula worked quickly, and so did Fleischman: the fifth Umami Burger, in Studio City, is scheduled to open less than two years after the first. He envisions even more Umami branches but right now is diverting a fair share of his attention to the creation of a Neapolitan-style pizzeria, 800 Degrees, in Westwood. He projects a February opening, and hopes it will be the start of another chain. Serious pizza: that’s one of very few fads that L.A. still hasn’t done full justice to, though the city is home to one of the country’s most acclaimed artisanal pizzerias, Pizzeria Mozza, guided by Nancy Silverton, a veritable dough sorceress.

Whether it’s Umami’s burgers, Mozza’s individual-size pies or the fried chicken at KyoChon, a Korean chain whose expansion through L.A. preceded all the fried-chicken hullabaloo in many other cities, L.A. excels in particular at populist food and ethnic specialties that don’t cost a fortune. Although the city is often derided for a superficial fixation on physical beauty, its young restaurateurs and chefs are quick to trade away frippery and cosmetics and focus on the food.

Take the restaurant Animal, in Fairfax, which has concrete floors and hardwood benches, bringing to mind an indoor picnic. That minimalism meant that its proprietors, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, didn’t have to raise a ton of capital to open it in June 2008, and it helps them keep the prices for most dishes well under $20. Animal’s calling card isn’t high design or pampering but rather its unabashed exaltation of flesh, fat and offal — the restaurant revels in what is frequently termed nose-to-tail eating, another epicurean passion of the last few years. A recent menu trotted out pig tails, pig ear, head cheese and bone marrow. Chicken or duck liver appeared in three dishes, while bacon, pork belly or sausage either starred or played a cameo in triple that number, including one dessert.

The idea that the trappings of a dining room are negotiable is best expressed by the phenomenon of the pop-up restaurant, which installs itself temporarily in a space of someone else’s making and even moves from one location to another. L.A. over recent years has been home to one of the most raptly followed ones, LudoBites, which has had limited runs in a sequence of borrowed settings.

And since August, it has also been home to Test Kitchen, which essentially reverses the LudoBites dynamic. Rather than moving, it stays put, but its kitchen and dining room, which once belonged to a less adventurous enterprise called the Spark Woodfire Grill, play temporary host to limited-run engagements by chefs who are trying out recipes and dishes for restaurants that aren’t yet open, filling time between jobs or experimenting with fare not conventional enough for the menus at the restaurants where they work full-time. Like many pop-up restaurants, Test Kitchen maintains an air of secrecy, never announcing coming appearances too far in advance and often revealing the details of them gradually, in teasing bits and pieces. A mid-September dinner by Silverton and the chef Amy Pressman — who served meatball versions of various burgers that Pressman is planning (with input from Silverton) for a restaurant she will open next year — wasn’t fully acknowledged until hours before it began.

Like Mo-Chica, Test Kitchen isn’t the easiest place to find. The stretch of West Pico Boulevard that it’s on is a ‘‘no man’s land’’ between Beverly Hills and Beverlywood, says Bill Chait, one of its owners. ‘‘Beverly Hills Adjacent,’’ he adds, with a little laugh. And there’s no discernible sign for the restaurant, which is down a half flight of stairs from the sidewalk.

The dinner that two companions and I had there in early September was a preview of the kind of nouveau Vietnamese cooking that the chef Jordan Kahn would be doing at a restaurant to be called Red Medicine, whose opening had been delayed but was expected to happen in a matter of weeks. We sat down to seven straight courses of beef, including tongue that had been twisted, along with daikon radish and cassava, into the shape of a log; strip steak paired with melon and chlorophyll; and brisket dressed with Vietnamese caramel and green peanuts. It was an odd, thrilling night, in no small part because the artful cooking was being presented in a generically masculine space tailored to the burgers and chops once consumed there. This sort of incongruity, a component of so many of my best dining experiences cross-country over the last decade, was an L.A. leitmotif.

‘‘This city’s breaking loose,’’ Chait says. ‘‘I don’t want to be disrespectful of my fellow restaurateurs, but the days of the $5 million hotel restaurant have been completely supplanted by the Animal model — by the 2,000 square-foot restaurant that costs $500,000 or less to open.’’ He and another Test Kitchen owner, Brian Saltsburg, cite two examples: the Lazy Ox Canteen, a gastropub that opened downtown in late 2009, and the Tasting Kitchen, a trattoria in Venice that also came along last year.

The Tasting Kitchen moved into a space that had a dissonant Scandinavian design, and hasn’t done any sort of extensive remodeling. The L.A. restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote last December that it ‘‘feels more like a project art collective than a proper restaurant’’ and noted that the printed menus ‘‘look like the kinds of typed-on-carbon-paper menus you used to find in Roman trattorias.’’ What’s equally interesting is its location. Until recently, neither Venice nor Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which is the Tasting Kitchen’s address, was a big dining draw. Now Abbot Kinney has not only the Tasting Kitchen but also Gjelina, a madly popular Mediterranean restaurant. It also has a sobriquet used by people in the know. They call it ‘‘the A.K.’’

Indeed, the vibrancy of L.A.’s restaurant scene can be measured by its geographic spread. You can now eat well in Culver City and, as the Lazy Ox indicates, downtown, where I recently had an especially sumptuous dinner at WP24 by Wolfgang Puck. The setting wasn’t exactly humble: I was on the 24th floor of the new Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles hotel, in a sleek, darkly shimmering dining room with panoramic views. And the two-pound lobster with black bean dust, the lobster-packed spring rolls and the honey-glazed black cod came with the imprimatur of its celebrity chef, Puck, who opened the restaurant earlier this year. Its haute Chinese dishes wowed me much more than those at, say, Hakkasan in Miami Beach, a celebrated outpost of the world-renowned London restaurant.

The meal also reminded me that the serendipitous spirit of L.A. dining hasn’t entirely muscled out more traditionally opulent experiences. The Bazaar by José Andrés, a gaudy wonderland in the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, opened in late 2008 and gave the city a theater-cum-amusement park for molecular gastronomy with both a grandeur and popular appeal that most other avant-garde restaurants in America don’t have. Although the Bazaar hedges its bets by serving traditional Spanish cuisine as well, it remains an unusually bold attempt to make such curiosities as liquid olives and foie gras wrapped in cotton candy the chosen fare of diners who haven’t a clue who Ferran Adrià, the Spanish godfather of this kind of cooking, is.

But such extravagance is more the exception than the rule. L.A.’s culinary energies seem more concentrated on finding the right balance between traditional coddling and the relaxed, free-wheeling experience that more and more diners seek — and on rewriting the rules altogether. Along those lines my thoughts kept drifting back to Tavern. It’s a fundamentally upscale restaurant, and beautiful to boot, with a high, greenhouse-style ceiling over its main dining room and plush couches and love seats where banquettes might typically be. But its prosaic, epigrammatic name promises something approachable, and the restaurant all in all represents an articulate commentary on what the city, and the country, currently crave.

Before you get to the dining room, there’s a large, casual bar area that’s almost a restaurant of its own, with TV sets tuned to sports and a separate menu of French fries, onion rings, shrimp cocktail and the like. And in the more proper dining room, the tables, unclothed, are made of brushed aluminum that shows nicks and glass rings. While they glitter, they do so in a used, bruised fashion.

I liked that. It was as if all the diners before us had left behind etchings, like cave drawings, chronicling the good times they’d had. Besides which, I barely noticed these scars once the sweet corn soup with a smoky chipotle cream arrived. It was what mattered, and it was out of this world.

ESSENTIALS |  Los Angeles
Restaurants Animal 435 North Fairfax Avenue; (323) 782-9225; animalrestaurant.com; small plates $3 to $35. The Bazaar by José Andrés 465 South La Cienega Boulevard; (310) 246-5555; thebazaar.com; small plates $5 to $34. Father’s Office Multiple locations; fathersoffice.com; burgers $12. Flying Pig For locations, go to flyingpigtruck.com; small plates $3 to $6. Gjelina 1429 Abbot Kinney Boulevard; (310) 450-1429; gjelina.com; entrees $14 to $25. KyoChon Multiple locations; (213) 739-9292; wings from $5. The Lazy Ox Canteen 241 South San Pedro Street; (213) 626-5299; small plates $4 to $36. LudoBites Pop-up restaurant currently at Max Restaurant, 13355 Ventura Boulevard; ludobites.com; entrees $12 to $39. Mo-Chica 3655 South Grand Avenue; (213) 747-2141; mo-chica.com; entrees $10 to $13. Pizzeria Mozza 641 North Highland Avenue; (323) 297-0101; mozza-la.com; pizza $10 to $23. The Tasting Kitchen 1633 Abbot Kinney Boulevard; (310) 392-6644; thetastingkitchen.com; entrees $24 to $35. Tavern 11648 San Vicente Boulevard; (310) 806-6464; tavernla.com; entrees $24 to $39. Test Kitchen 9575 West Pico Boulevard; (310) 277-0133; testkitchenla.com; set menus from about $40. Umami Burger Multiple locations; umamiburger.com; burgers $9 to $11. WP24 by Wolfgang Puck 900 West Olympic Boulevard; (213) 743-8824; wolfgangpuck.com; set menus from $70.

Feeding Frenzy - NYTimes.com