21 April 2013

DINING AFTER 'SMART CASUAL' PART IV: If You Can't Stand the Heat (or the Meat), Don't Sit Near This Kitchen

Counter-side view of open kitchen with wood-burning grill @ Chi SPACCA. April 2013. Photo by author.
To pair with this month’s release of my book, SMART CASUAL: THE TRANSFORMATION OF GOURMET RESTAURANT STYLE IN AMERICA (University of Chicago Press), I reflect in a series of blog posts on “dining after SMART CASUAL.”  Recent encounters with new and notable restaurants in my home city of Los Angeles and media on food fads have got me thinking about how the trends I discuss in SMART CASUAL are faring….
"Santa Barbara Spot Prawns" sizzling on the flat-top grill in front of my place setting at the counter. Photo by author.
If Chi SPACCA had opened before I had finished writing Smart Casual--instead, it started taking reservations this February--it might have made a great poster child. It's an intensified version of nearly every trend in gourmet restaurant style I discuss. Open kitchen: check! Kitchen-side dining counter: check! Gourmet plays on traditional dishes that highlight the chef's creativity: vis-a-vis the "rustic Italian" genre, naturally! Nose-to-tail, locavore, sustainable, humanely raised, and house-made-product cuisine: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! And does it also feed the gourmet duality of ethical virtuosity and self-indulgence? No question.

For this latest restaurant addition to the corner of Highland and Melrose--filling up, Monopoly style, with the properties of Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich under the "Mozza" imprint--chef machers Nancy Silverton and Matt Molina got behind executive chef Chad Colby's panegyric to the finest in flesh and hearth. To my fiendish delight, they devised a very visceral way to deliver it.

"Tomahawk Pork Chop"--all 42 ounces--on the wood-burning grill, with arm included for scale. Photo by author.
Without question, Chi SPACCA is the blu-ray of open-kitchen dining. Up close and lurid. It's a tiny restaurant. There is a smattering of tables in the space but the real focus is a dining counter where six people can look directly--I mean, smoke-inhalation directly--over a wood-burning grill and a flat-top grill next to it and the cave of a wood-burning oven behind those. From time to time, the middle cook of three behind the counter takes logs of almond wood stacked under the oven and feeds the beast of a grill. Apparently, almond is mild enough to not interfere with foods' flavors. On a cooler side of the counter, another chef composes salads and paper-lined planks of house-made charcuterie. The source of the salumi and terrines, of which the restaurant is justifiably proud, is also, of course, on display: behind a glass-walled refrigerator next to the open oven. 

Single serving of the "Affettati Misti." Photo by author.
The scene of meat meets fire is enhanced by seductive bouts of seasoning and dressing cuts of meat and seafood in large platters or deep pans. When I say "meat," imagine the shapes and sizes of various United States. Look at the picture I posted of the "Tomahawk Pork Chop." I can tell you it's forty-two ounces, but you might not fully grasp the import of that until you compare it to the arm of the towering chef. I included it in my photo for scale.

I've eaten at many a kitchen-side dining counter. By far the majority puts the cooler action of plating dishes right in front of counter-sitting customers. Chi SPACCA has counter diners almost as close to the grills as the chefs, within catching distance of sparks from the fire flying up into the exhaust hood. The chefs and we practically shared the hood as if it were a large umbrella. 

At first, sitting at the counter feels surprisingly HOT. But one gets used to it and settles in as at a campfire. My spellbound experience of the meal in this position was pure hominid: drawn to flame. I'm not surprised that the original setup in this space was for cooking classes, where students could directly observe cooking over heat. Now, in restaurant form, the arrangement is engaging in a similar way. One can watch the cooks season and dress and cook the various cuts of meat and seafood and actually learn something. (Not everything one learns is pleasing, however. For example, I already know that the amount of cream that goes into restaurant mashed potatoes is heart-stopping. But facing the truth stirring in the pan in front of me was still a shock.)

"Beef & Bone Marrow Pie (serves two)" with velvety mashed potatoes. Photo by author.
The cuisine at Chi SPACCA represents the smart-casual trend of chefs appropriating traditional, regional cuisines, and then tweaking them. In this theater, the basic script is rustic Italian, but Colby departs freely from it. In a recent review in the Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com, 4-5-13), Jonathan Gold pointed out that the beef and bone marrow pie, which I ordered and pictured here, is reminiscent of Australian meat pies (not Italian), yet Colby's version is not exactly like the Australian classic, either. Chi SPACCA varies from tradition in many ways besides, including its creative offerings of salads. 

And then there is the portion sizes. Everything from the custom cuts, as in the "Tomahawk" chop, to the columnar bone rising from the center of the beef and bone marrow pie take the rustic Italian aesthetic and remake it as Flinstonian spectacle. This tendency toward the oversize cut reminds me of the gourmet duality I write about in Smart Casual. On the one hand, we are made to feel virtuous about the fact that the meat is humanely raised, from an organic farm, being thoroughly used (all parts of the animal) throughout the menu, and raised not too far away; on the other, we are happy to consume like Roman emperors.

On the menu of "Contorni" (sides): "Warm Squash Blossoms Ripiene--ricotta & tomato vinaigrette." Photo by author.
We can count on places like Chi SPACCA to give us the most gorgeous expressions of our ethical striving as well as our appetites.

I would be remiss in talking about Chi SPACCA's achievement in stoking these values if I didn't recognize the key role played by contrasting elements in its meat theater. Aesthetic success often relies on a play of contrasts. This is no less true of cuisine than the other arts. In Chi SPACCA's case, the meat would be meaningless without the gorgeous cornucopia of plant matter. Salads and vegetable sides are so stunning and lovingly prepared. Above is a picture of the side dish of warm squash blossoms that I ordered that I would like to remember to look at whenever I'm feeling down.

The two images below show my "Insalata Misticanza." Clearly, this mountain of salad is designed to stand up to the Jurassic chops. Mine was so wondrous on every layer that I had to include two photos of it: the first, of the salad as presented; the second, revealing the interior in a spectrum of colors, textures, and shapes. Let's face it: no pastoral dream is complete without flora and fauna.

"Insalata Misticanza--English Peas, Beets, Carrots, Asparagus & Spring Onions." Photo by author.
The "Insalata Misticanza" half-eaten, showing the many layers of wondrous color, texture, shape. Vibrant and delicious. Photo by author.

17 April 2013


"LOBSTER ROLL green curry, Thai basil" @ Hinoki & the Bird. March 2013. Photo by author.
To pair with this month’s release of my book, SMART CASUAL: THE TRANSFORMATION OF GOURMET RESTAURANT STYLE IN AMERICA (University of Chicago Press), I reflect in a series of blog posts on “dining after Smart Casual.”  Recent encounters with new and notable restaurants in my home city of Los Angeles and media on food fads have got me thinking about how the trends I discuss in SMART CASUAL are faring….

In “The Backlash Against Entrées Rages On” (Eater.com, 3-26-13), Hillary Dixler reports on the further erasure of main courses from trendsetting-restaurant menus and the latest flare-up in the controversy over it.

Those who’ve insisted on the superiority of the tapas-style all-small-plates format include chef Alex Stupak, Bloomberg critic Ryan Sutton and Esquire’s Tom Judot. Other chefs are mentioned as defenders of this position in practice, even if not on Twitter and the like. In the middle of the debate, there are those, such as Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold and Washington Post writer Tom Sietsema. They haven’t been particularly sanguine on the matter, but have still declared the death of the entrée a near fait accompli. Still standing up and fighting for the entrée, against the tide, we find current New York Times critic Pete Wells and former New York Times critic Frank Bruni.

My serving of "KALE Crispy and Raw, Curried Almonds, Pecorino, Red Wine Vinaigrette" @ Hinoki & the Bird. Photo by author.
On the debate that Dixler deflty describes, I have my own view: Notice that no chefs are on the side of the entrée and that the reasoning used by chefs is unique to them. They like small plates because they spur their own creativity and prevent them from getting bored. Witness a tweet Dixler quotes from chef Stupak in response to a question about whether or not his restaurant Empellon is serving entrees: “[N]o longer. I can’t stand them so I’m never cooking them again.” In another tweet quoted by Dixler, the chef stated that small plates “are more fun to work with then [sic] 6-8 ounces of clunky protein.” Apparently, chefs David Myers and Kuniko Yagi of the Los Angeles restaurant I recently visited, poetically named Hinoki & the Bird, agree. Their menu has no entrees but instead novel categories such as "Fun Bites" and "Inspiration."

Meanwhile, those who have strong feelings in the opposite direction, Wells and Bruni, make arguments that represent interests of diners that conflict with chefs’ desire for attention and creative development. They dare to suggest that they, as diners, would like to be satiated by a meal. They entertain the idea of being able, when dining, to relax. As Wells points out, small plates can create stress: “[J]ust as you realize how much you’re enjoying a dish [at a table for four], the person next to you has managed to stab the last forkful.” 

"Sambal Skate Wing" @ Hinoki & the Bird. Photo by author.
The extreme ends of this debate reveal a tug of wills between chefs and diners. Small plates, which arrive piecemeal in more informal situations and in a tight orchestrated succession in more ceremonious cases, constantly interrupt diners to pay attention to chefs. Entrées, in the old-school sense, buy the diner some time to ignore the chef, to put the chef in the background while the diner focuses on their company at the table or—god forbid—ponders matters unrelated to food.

This debate, the power of chefs it represents, is deeply relevant to the story I tell in Smart Casual. The rising economic and taste-making influence of star chefs has resulted in a wide variety of contemporary restaurant features from exhibition kitchens to the elaboration of tasting menus.

This latest kerfuffle over the death of the entrée shows that the power of chefs shows no sign of diminishing. It also reveals that, as with every imposition of will by one faction of a pluralistic society, there’s bound to be a counterpoint.

08 April 2013


Spago Beverly Hills, view of open kitchen from dining room. March 2013. Photo by author.
To pair with this month’s release of my book, SMART CASUAL: THE TRANSFORMATION OF GOURMET RESTAURANT STYLE IN AMERICA (University of Chicago Press), I reflect in a series of blog posts on “dining after SMART CASUAL.”  Recent encounters with new and notable restaurants in my home city of Los Angeles and media on food fads have got me thinking about how the trends I discuss in SMART CASUAL are faring….

Chef Wolfgang Puck’s original Spago on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles (1982-99) is one of the bedrock examples in my book of “smart-casual” dining. It represents every major transformation in gourmet restaurant style that I find paradigm changing.

Spago mixed elements of “fine” and “casual” dining and broke with the former’s Francophilia—upsetting the definition of fine dining. The original Spago had chairs that looked like they belonged outside on a deck, a provocation to formality. It dressed wait staff in pastel Oxford shirts and aprons, not suits. It put the kitchen proudly on display and spotlit the chefs, not hiding kitchen labor. Culinarily, Puck broke the mold by combining Italian, Chinese, and Japanese ingredients and techniques along with the expected French. In the early eighties, pastas and pizzas were highlights of the menu, and even these came with ingredients, such as smoked salmon and dill cream, not traditionally Italian. 

Tablescape with menu, prior to ordering. Photo by author.
Among the first of the Spagos built after the original Spago was Spago Beverly Hills. Opened in 1997, it was grander in scale and no longer stylistically provocative. But it stayed faithful, as did most of Puck’s subsequent ventures, to Spago’s originally edgy features. The open kitchen remained, albeit sonically buffered behind glass, and there continued to be multicultural touches on the menu, which eventually included dishes influenced by Puck’s Austrian childhood. Beyond that, the place didn’t see major changes for sixteen years.

So when Puck and company declared that Spago Beverly Hills would undergo a complete renovation in setting and menu, over three months starting July 2012, I considered the import. One thing was obvious: Puck and his dining group had assessed that Spago was losing relevance. Puck needed to salvage Spago’s reputation as one of America’s best restaurants and as a cornerstone of the Puck brand. He needed to look around, gauge Spago’s competition, and adapt or die.

What would the results show Puck and company thought needed updating? What would the changes say about Puck’s place in the field of top tables today? 

First course: "Chirashi Sushi": Blue Fin Tuna, Hamachi, Salmon Pearls, Sea Urchin. Photo by author.
The results I found when I dined at Spago this March were enlightening. A sign of their resilience over the last several decades, certain trends Spago helped foster in the first place were further advanced. Not only was the open kitchen behind glass still there. The pristine wall of clear glass in the new design gave an even clearer view of the kitchen. The obscuring overlays of colored glass in the previous design had vanished. 

Second course: Fusi Istriana Pasta with Maine Sweet Shrimp, Fava Beans, Preserved Lemon. Photo by author.
In terms of cuisine, I found the global culinary influences Puck helped proliferate in the 1980s, which his head chef Lee Hefter had continued, accentuated. In ingredients and presentations, the Japanese influence was most pronounced. My first course, “‘Chirashi Sushi’ Blue Fin Tuna, Hamachi, Salmon Pearls, Sea Urchin,” was an elegant version of a familiar Japanese dish served with Japanese-style accoutrements: pointed chopsticks next to an ice-filled round lacquer container set with a shallow rectangular wooden box for the fish and rice. My third course, “A-5 True Japanese ‘Wagyu’ Beef Filet Mignon (Saga Prefecture),” boasted the finest in Japanese ingredients. In keeping with Puck’s global sensibility, however, the steak came with a “bordelaise” sauce.

Third course: A-5 True Japanese Wagyu Beef Filet Mignon (Saga Prefecture). Photo by author.
Some elements of the Spago reboot, however, were a break with Spago’s past. The décor, unchanged in its essential architectural bones, sported a thoroughly remade skin. Its new look reminded me of other currently celebrated dining rooms—including Alinea in Chicago and Benu in San Francisco. In contrast to the folksy figurative paintings and colored glass accents that prevailed before the renovation, Spago’s new interior seemed in tune with a current style of minimalism. I noticed stark interior lines and a muted palette of browns, greys, blacks, and whites. The main dining room offset this simplicity on one side by a wall of all glass showing a neat grid of wine bottles. The opposite wall sparely dispersed black-and-white photographs mounted in light boxes. Adjacent to that was an open interior dining garden fit with a fireplace and a retractable roof. (The wall opposite that gave way to the aforementioned glass-encased open kitchen.)

Staff—some wearing severe black Nehru jackets and slacks, others charcoal vests and subdued off-white dress shirts—were in sync with their subdued and elegant surroundings. So was the menu, a modernistic exercise in tidy left-justified, sans serif one-liners that deferred to the white space of the page. 

Close-up view of the wagyu. Photo by author. Beyond delicious. Still craving it. A-5 is the highest grade.
Further in keeping with trends at top restaurants, I found a menu syntax I named in an earlier blog post (January 2009) as “menu minimalism.” This is a way of listing dishes so that only commas separate the components, and conjunctions—with, and—are dispensed with as unnecessary clutter. For example, to accompany my wagyu steak, I had something described as “Roasted Maitake Mushrooms, Yuzu Citrus, Spring Onions.” (I did find one place where Spago's new menu deviated slightly from this format--an errant with in my second course, "Fusi Istriana Pasta with Main Sweet Shrimp, Fava Beans, Preserved Lemon"--but this seemed accidental in context.) In the 2000s, the modular menu syntax became prevalent in experimental restaurants that could assume a clientele food-savvy enough to leave the details to the chef.

The division of Spago’s new menu by nontraditional terms for courses—namely, “one,” “two,” “three,” and “from the garden”—likewise struck me as an adaptation to the increasing tendency of trendsetting restaurants to get rid of entrées--or, in Spago's case, to pretend dishes on the menu with noticeably larger portions and higher prices aren't what we think they are. The pre-renovation Spago menu listed “main courses” outright.

"From the Garden" to accompany the third course: Roasted Maitake Mushrooms, Yuzu Citrus, Spring Onions. Photo by author.
It’s tempting to see the Spago redesign as a case of yet another aging, yet shrewd, rock star—who once led in the field—now staying current by picking off what the younger innovators are doing. But the reality isn’t so simple here. Even the newer traits I noticed in the design of Spago Beverly Hills have actually already appeared as parts of other Puck-owned restaurants, and well before this renovation.

The most comprehensive precursor to the Spago revision is Cut, a modern take on a steakhouse he opened in the same part of town in 2006. Cut had (and has) every one of the traits the new Spago traded its former glory for. And it had them before Alinea became the number-one US restaurant to watch and while Corey Lee of Benu fame was still chef de cuisine at The French Laundry. Was Cut an imitation of restaurants that opened before it? Perhaps. I can’t be absolutely certain of how much it owes to precedents outside the Puck group.

But one thing is clear: While Puck updated Spago to keep up with today’s best-restaurant Joneses, he has all along been one of those Joneses. Question: What is Puck's place in the field of gourmet restaurant style today? Answer: Chicken and egg.

01 April 2013


View of open kitchen from dining counter @Alma. Photo by author.
 To pair with this month’s release of my book, SMART CASUAL: THE TRANSFORMATION OF GOURMET RESTAURANT STYLE IN AMERICA (University of Chicago Press), I reflect in a series of blog posts on “dining after SMART CASUAL.”  Recent encounters with new and notable restaurants in my home city of Los Angeles and media on food fads have got me thinking about how the trends I discuss in SMART CASUAL are faring….

In a chapter on the rise of gourmet display kitchens, I note that the closer foodies have been able to get to chefs—physically and through personal attention and customized meals—the more they’ve prized kitchen-side dining. Prices have tended to agree. The chance to have a special menu at a “chef’s counter,” bar-style seating overlooking the kitchen, or at a “chef’s table,” adjacent to or inside the kitchen, has often sold for over $100 more per head than dinner elsewhere in the same place.

Eating around lately, I still find things where I left them in SMART CASUAL—but with a twist. Exhibition kitchens are now so ubiquitous—every new place I’ve been to this year features one—that new niches of open-kitchen dining are opening up. I find this especially in small start-ups run by ambitious, up-and-coming chefs. To wit: a couple of hours interacting with a rising star can be had for a lot less money.
Sweaweed & tofu beignet, yuzu kosho, lime @ Alma. Photo by author.
Consider my experience of Alma, a newcomer to downtown Los Angeles. Approaching from the street, I could already sense its warmth. The crate-like façade framed a wide rectangle of glass showing lights on tables inside. Inviting amid the dark and wizened high-rises of Broadway.

Inside Alma, an L-shaped dining room wrapped around an open kitchen, my relation to the kitchen at the counter was not just close in the physical sense. But that’s worth noting: About four feet to my right stood the refrigerator. Maybe twelve feet in front of me, the kitchen’s back wall. Between my seat and the wall weaved four cooks, including chef and co-owner Ari Taymor. They harvested the finishing touches for their dishes from glass jars of flowering herbs—sorrel, mustard, cilantro, and radish—which were almost close enough on the counter for me to smell. 

Spring onion and sunflower seed soup, burnt orange, flowering coriander @ Alma restaurant.  
Photo by author March 2013.

The cozy quarters themselves, however, weren’t as novel as the service performed there for the price. As soon as I began to peruse the menu, chef Taymor stepped around from behind the counter and began conspiring with me. Picking up on his willingness to indulge, I expressed a half-kidding desire to try everything from the first, small-bites section of the menu. Taymor, perhaps eager to show a game diner his range, took up the challenge.

For the $6 of just one item, he orchestrated a sampling of each in miniature. A parade of four “bites” flowed my way—one delivered by the chef himself, who again “broke the fourth wall” of the kitchen theater; others came from the equally warm general manager and co-owner, Ashleigh Parsons, and one of the other chefs. As the meal progressed—delightfully, by the way, including a savory seaweed and tofu beignet for dipping in a lively yuzu kosho and lime emulsion and a spring-onion and sunflower-seed soup accented by aromatic burnt orange and flowering coriander and topped with a “chicharon” made resourcefully of onion—I had the chance to converse, in slower moments of the Friday-night hustle, with Ashley and Ari.

Grass fed boulder valley beef, celery root, smoked potato, chanterelle @ Alma. Photo by author.
How is it that I was treated to such a personalized tour of a vanguard menu, accompanied by two glasses of boutique cider, and, after a 25% tip, wound up spending less than $100? I have had similar experiences for three times that.

Alma’s younger-leaning market might be a clue. The twenty- and thirty-something crowd I found at Alma might have lighter wallets than their parents. At the same time, their tastes have been shaped by the trends their forebears have cultivated over the last few decades. I am on the look out for more of Smart Casual’s children.