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.

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