|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.|