Three Secret Dinners
Hello Enthusiasts –
It has been too long. My apologies. It’s all this damn work.
But I couldn’t stay away any longer, because I have three secret dinners for you to try, and at least a couple of them won’t be around long. One is VERY temporary, one is moderately temporary, and one is permanent … but ‘secret’ in the sense that word hasn’t really gotten around about it. Well, none of them are “secret” – in fact, their chefs would very much like you to know about them – but they are certainly obscure.
Let’s start with the most temporary. As in, you better go this week. And that is the rebirth of the late, great Test Kitchen. For those who don’t know, Test Kitchen started as a concept between a few guys that went something like this: “we’re not gonna be able to open our restaurant for awhile so, until we do, let’s invite some chef friends of ours to do their own menus for one or two nights. And let’s create original cocktails each night to go with them.” Well, what started as a lark became a phenomenon. Chefs clamored to try new things out, customers loved the spontaneity, one-off nature of it, and the fact that they got Julian Cox of Rivera fame to help pair the cocktails didn’t hurt. (if you’re curious, I wrote about it a couple years back). But a) as you can imagine, it’s exhausting to run a restaurant like that – new supplies, staff, dishes, prices, everything, every night and b) they had to open the originally planned restaurant at SOME point (it became Ricardo Zarate’s Picca). And, the original Test Kitchen had the downside of being on the Westside. Boo.
But, they’re at it again. Except this time it’s thankfully Downtown. But just barely – it’s in a verrrrrry random location. Namely, off of 7th & Santa Fe (2121 7th Place for you mapping types). It’s sorta near Church & State, but really, it’s across 7th from Tony’s, for those of you who know Tony’s, and a little ways down Santa Fe. Which makes it cooler, in my book. One of those “where are we going, are you taking me somewhere to kill me?” places until you breathe a sigh of relief at the valet parking. Anyhoo, it will eventually be an Italian restaurant called Bestia, from Bill Chait (LA’s best restauranteur) and Ori Menashe, the chef from Angelini Osteria. Which, no doubt, will be visited by yours truly. But until then, you get Test Kitchen.
Oh, here’s what it looks like, at least outside (sorry it’s so small and there’s not one of the inside. Damn Internet. Blame Eater LA):
But safe to say, it’s what a place like this, in this location, should look like. Exposed brick. Urban cool. Comfortable but not stuffy.
Why should you hurry and make reservations this week, before it goes away? Well, I’m not going to explain it for all you who don’t know why this is significant but, for instance, Walter Manzke is previewing Republique on Wednesday. OK, OK – Republique is what is replacing Campanile (moment of silence) and Walter Manzke used to be with Church & State and, before that, Bastide. Also, they are previewing what Bestia will eventually be this week, so you could be the first to check that out. Neal Fraser is coming by on another day to preview what will eventually be his new restaurant inside the St. Vib’s space. See? Super cool. Plus, you’ll get amazing cocktails specially paired with every night’s menu. And, John Sedlar will be dropping by this week to work his Playa/Rivera magic, too.
Which brings me to Secret Dinner #2. For loyal readers of this little vanity project, you’ll remember that I have spoken the unspeakable in the past – namely, that I haven’t always loved Rivera with the fervor that I’m supposed to. It’s actually not about Rivera – I think Rivera is one of the best restaurants in Downtown. It’s really about the hype – I just got a little tired of Rivera being the ONLY restaurant that my scared-of-Downtown friends knew about. But now, I have to change my tune.
Ladies & gentlemen, I give you the Hallucination Dinner. John Sedlar, the chef & mastermind behind Rivera (and the awesome Playa, which was really the focus of the above-mentioned post) has always been intrigued by tequila. And he’s been tinkering for five years to create a tequila-oriented dinner that lived up to what he wanted it to be. Now, for those of you about to skip ahead because you’re thinking “ugh, I got drunk that one time in college on tequila and haven’t been able to drink it since”, let me stop you. I don’t really like tequila. I don’t miiiiiiiind it, but I don’t drink it by choice unless it’s in a margarita (preferably flaming, at El Compadre). And, as I’ve already said, I haven’t always worshiped at the altar of Rivera. But let me just tell you: this was one of the most (precious word alert) transporting dinners I’ve ever had.
This isn’t one of those blogs that goes course by course, accompanied by food porn pictures, but I have to describe at least some of this. The dinner starts with the most simple thing: a chilled shot of Patron Silver with four very different herbs and spices. You taste each one with the tequila, and it brings out such different and unexpected flavors. And from there, you’re off. Each course is a unique mix of flavors and textures. The fish course is (or at least was, when I had it) scallops and hamachi, which are two very different fish. But it was really cool to try each of them with that course’s tequila cocktail, and compare the flavor. The meat course is duck and lamb – two meats I don’t love, but in this case, were unbelievably tasty and not game-y. There are salads like you’ve never seen, crab served inside corn cones, and prickly pears that actually taste good. The dessert is a chocolate soup served with a coconut cloud. And wait until you try the passion fruit gel. And, of course, each dish (including the dessert) is paired with a very different tequila cocktail, created by either Sedlar himself or by some of the best mixologists in the City. At one point, he serves a tequila of which there are only 9 bottles left in the world, and he has all nine. I could go on and on, but I’ve simply never had a dinner like this. The juxtaposition of flavors, colors, and textures, with the perfectly paired cocktails was simply incredible.
And, I’m going to bet that this dinner has only gotten better since I had it (#humblebrag alert). You see, your loyal Enthusiast thought he was just going there with Mrs. Enthusiast and some friends to try out this new thing they were doing – ie, I knew that it was “new”, but I didn’t know how new until we walk in and my friend Mary, the General Manager, is waiting for us, clapping her hands together excitedly, and saying “I can’t believe it – you guys are the first ones ever to try this menu.” Uh, OK. No pressure. As Sedlar himself brings out each course, and everybody is kinda excitedly hovering, wanting to know how everything is. But that’s what was amazing – usually, the first nights are when things are a little rough around the edges. But this was incredible, and they had never actually served it to a customer before. They didn’t even start officially serving it until two months later (which is why I couldn’t write about it – and of course, now I’m two months even later getting to it). Anyway, now, I bet they’ve tweaked it even more and I bet it’s insane. Even Mrs. Enthusiast, who is among the pickier eaters in the universe, thought it was pretty incredible.
I can still see that furrowed brow of yours: “A tequila dinner? Not for me.” Stop. Just trust me, and go.
OK. On to #3. Except, the third Secret Dinner isn’t a secret at all. It’s an open, functioning restaurant. But I bet, of the three things in this post, it’s the one that the fewest of you know about. Earlier this year, I wrote about the emergence of 9th & Broadway as a corner that actually has some cool stuff going on around it. It’s not 7th & Grand yet, but it’s just got stuff going on. Well, count another entry in the sweepstakes, and this one pulls us a little farther south on Broadway, closer to Olympic. Next time you’re that way, instead of hitting Umamicatessen, keep walking and hit Alma. Alma is the quintessential little restaurant that could. I would not have known about it had a fellow Enthusiast not only told me about it but made reservations and invited us. So, OK. I’m always game. And, as loyal readers of this little vanity project know, I’m a sucker for a non-traditional location. Or, more articulately stated, I’m a sucker for pioneers and entrepreneurs who see the future and run towards it, with their commitment to quality firmly intact. And, I love places that are better than they have to be. And Alma is waaayyyy better than it has to be. It could be just a little hole in the wall. And, in some ways, it is a hole in the wall. Not in a bad way – it’s just small. I couldn’t find a picture of the inside, but here’s a picture of the outside, which kind of hints at its hole-in-the-wallness:
Anyway, so I find it, past the hostess bar next door and just before the pot shop on the other side. Guided by a white board with “Alma” written on it and an arrow pointing me into the restaurant. Certainly didn’t see the sign depicted in this picture. Just a few tables. Nice pictures on the wall, but no design to speak of. Great. Sure. I always like people who are trying their best and I’ll give these folks a shot.
Well. These folks certainly don’t need any allowances for funky location, lack of design, or anything else. For those who don’t know, Alma means “soul” in Spanish, and the food in this place has it in spades. The menu is not large – 12 items total, including desserts. But good god, is their food incredible. I’m going to give you a sampling that might have the unintended consequence of making you less interested, but you just have to believe that this food is Amazing, with a capital Amaze. Fried brussel sprouts. Oyster stew with fennel and potato. Cauliflower with lentil, sage, and dandelion. Roast duck with sauerkraut, shitake, and cabbage. We didn’t order – we just let them bring food out. Which is a great way to try stuff you might not normally order (ie, most of the menu items I just mentioned). And what happened? Well, you know when you put a bite of food in your mouth and it makes you pause and just sort of take a moment and you say out loud “man, that’s good!”? (or whatever your version of that is). I did that with literally every single menu item at Alma.
So here we are, sitting in a one room restaurant with maybe 12 tables at Broadway right before Olympic, of all places. And our dinner companion says “don’t you guys go to Farmer’s Markets a lot?” And the waiter says something like “yeah. We go to Torrance on Mondays, Venice on Tuesdays, Santa Monica on Wednesdays” and on and on. I ask how early they get there and he says “early as we can.” Meaning that you’re going to get some of the freshest farm-to-table food in Los Angeles at … Broadway, right before Olympic.
There’s a reason that Tasting Table called Alma’s chef, Ari Taymor, the most exciting chef in town. I’m pretty upbeat in general on this little blog thing, but I’m not usually prone to hyperbole. But in this case, I’m gonna say it: this is the best new restaurant in Downtown this year, and one of the top 5 restaurants overall. Not for decor. Not for ambience. Not for location. But for food – just great, creative, fresh, “oh my god this is good” food. You gotta try it.
Once again, my apologies for depriving you of this delectable knowledge for so long. Blame the people who pay the bills that actually allow me to eat at these establishments. But try all these places … before it’s too late. Just don’t tell anyone.
2121 7th Place (near 7th & Santa Fe)
Rivera, the Hallucination Dinner
1050 S. Flower St., at Olympic
213 749 1460
952 S. Broadway (just before Olympic)