Plat du Jour, December 5, 2012: Los Angeles and Plate Sharing
Having written about Los Angeles dining for a few years during the pop-up restaurant and food truck boom, it was great to visit the sprawling freeway-filled metropolis recently and see what the latest fads are in the continually changing city. Often in these parts, what is in vogue at 8 am is no longer what is most trendy by 8 pm. Pop-ups and food trucks certainly have burst their bubbles, though Kogi is still going strong and Ludo Lefebvre will soon be launching his 10th edition of LudoBites.
A few notes struck me most about concepts I had only briefly touched on before and were heavily emphasized while visiting new spots across the city and re-visiting a few perennial favorites. There were some great discoveries– an other worldly pain au chocolat from the tiny Proof Bakery in Atwater Village, to basic public knowledge– hey, did anybody know that the pizzas and butterscotch budino are terrific at Pizzeria Mozza?(!)
Interestingly, what struck me most in Los Angeles was the theme of an editorial,“Famished: Mine, All Mine” by Sara Deseran of San Francisco Magazine.
Deseran is tired of “pass-the-plate” style dining. In Los Angeles, that form of dining is heavily emphasized, encouraged, and often, necessary.I happen to be in the complete opposite camp from Ms. Deseran, mainly because it provides an opportunity to sample as many creations as possible from incredibly gifted chefs. Yes, while dining at Spago recently, it was a major pain to split a chirashi sushi platter of two slices of hamachi, two slices of Blue Fin tuna, a few salmon eggs, and a small lobe of Santa Barbara uni among five people, especially the highly sought after uni. Do you order five of these and not try Lee Hefter’s terrific pastas? Do you order two? Three? Do some people just try uni, while only two people sample the salmon eggs?
There are many, many reasons I support and advocate for sharing plates: it’s more exciting to sample various plates, it’s a lot less repetitive than just eating the same pumpkin agnolotti for your dinner, you can control what you eat more without just one large plate, you’ll be willing to try items you wouldn’t normally commit fully to (seriously, very few people want just the tofu or the two whole slabs of pork belly to themselves unless for a hangover brunch), it’s an interactive and convivial experience.
I understand the challenges too from sharing plates. First of all, you eat off your own “shareplate,” where multiple sauces and garnishes often perilously collide creating a three dish in one dish. You might want another bite or six of that dish you love, but no, you may not have them. You might have to share that figs dish even if you don’t like figs. Some dishes are so meticulously composed that once a bite is taken, a significant sensation or ingredient is already gone, so the rest of the table won’t get the dish’s full experience.
Then there is the worst problem of all, as best exhibited by the lack of organization and timing skill of the service staff at Culver City’s gastropub Waterloo & City. There, “shareplate” dining is essentially necessary because of the enormous size and heaviness of dishes. When every diner has their own “shareplate” and a parade of dishes crowd the center of the table, often the table gets over-saturated to the point you start putting the bread plates on the ground or the red wine leaves the table, only to be ignored by the service staff when glasses empty.
One fellow diner joining me at Pizzeria Mozza, who I had just met, was dead set on having the pizza “alla benno,” a fascinating combination of speck, pineapple, and jalapeno created by Nancy Silverton’s son. However, everyone else in the groups encourages sharing and wanted a slice of the “ala benno” too. And they wanted to sample pizzas with bagna cruda, pizzas with goat cheese and leeks, bruschette with white bean puree and aged balsamic vinegar, Brussels sprouts with prosciutto breadcrumbs, Nancy’s (gigantic) chopped salad– what do you do here with one rogue comrade? He acquiesced. He even got three of the six “alla benno” slices since others split a slice and felt bad for him.
Yes, even more extreme than splitting a plate, splitting a slice of pizza.
I’m guilty as charged in Deseren’s article as being one of those diners who will sometimes think about not inviting you as frequently to more ambitious or adventurous restaurants because you’re less apt to share or very picky about ingredients. It’s a fact, I can’t deny it. However, it’s all about the situation. Yes, if it’s a business dinner or an awkward first date, you probably don’t share plates. Or maybe you do to break the ice for the date? If somebody has been waiting all year for a certain dish, let them have it. We didn’t stop our tablemate from having the pizza “alla benno.”
Earlier this year I joined a Portland, Oregon resident for lunch at Grüner, home to one of the city’s foremost burgers. He had never tried it and been anticipating this burger for years. I arrived figuring the burger would be split and we’d try many of Grüner’s other exciting dishes since Grüner is far from a one-hit wonder. He stopped me in my tracks and politely said, I’m getting my own burger, sorry.
O.k., so no sharing meant we both had to have our own burger. Grüner indeed has a terrific burger. From the looks of other dishes, Grüner has many other terrific creations. I just didn’t get to taste them. Hence, my review of Grüner was very burger heavy (superb doughnuts for dessert).
Both sides of this sharing dilemma have many pros and cons. Ultimately, it’s about what works for the table with the situation and the restaurant. To me, the more tastes, the better. I’m always willing to split the burger and even the molten chocolate cake. Yet, it is obviously important to understand the interests of all at the table.
Many Los Angeles restaurants are advocating for this “pass-the-plate” dining through re-designing the size and style of menus. Both Son of a Gun and Ink blur the lines of courses by doing away with them formally altogether. Both have menus with roughly 20 items that are larger than small plates and much smaller than large plates. They are…plates.
At Son of a Gun, everyone wants to sample the shrimp toast sandwich and the lobster roll, but also explore the fascinating Texas redfish with hazelnuts and vadouvan, and the braised octopus salad with mirepoix and chili. At Ink, you want the Wagyu short rib, but must also try the beef tartare with sea bean chimichurri and corn porridge.
Pizzeria Mozza, Waterloo & City, even Spago– they all have formal courses on the menu, but sharing is really what is encouraged. Waterloo & City’s beef Wellington, charcuterie platters, and sticky toffee pudding are the highlights of dining there. I absolutely wouldn’t want any of these grand, rich dishes to myself. Or the bland Australian bass with gnocchi, artichokes, and bacon, or the atrocious pumpkin mousse with chocolate crust where the mousse has the consistency and flavor of unsweetened cream of wheat and the chocolate-less chocolate crust vaguely tastes like stale un-spiced gingerbread.
Many restaurants, from the slightly elder Gjelina and Rustic Canyon to the magnificent yearling Bäco Mercat have created menus where it is clear which plates are smaller and which are larger, but both sizes are intended for the table. All of these restaurants are putting tremendous care into mostly vegetable themed smaller plates, with meats and fish following in larger forms. At Rustic Canyon, you don’t just want the roasted chicken or the burger, even though they may both be the best renditions of their genres in Los Angeles. You also want the show-stopping roasted beets and farro with cherry tomatoes and the knockout fried cauliflower to go with some of the chicken.
At Bäco Mercat, Josef Centeno’s own invention, the bäco (a wild hybrid of gyro meets taco with a heavy emphasis on the sauce and accompaniments to the meat), is the centerpiece, but his blistered okra with tomato, mint, and basil, or Brussels sprouts “Caesar” style are obligatory too. And you don’t want to just try the sensational “Original Bäco” with pork and beef braised carnitas style, tied together with Salbitxada, the Catalan sauce based on tomatoes, almonds, and sherry vinegar. You also want “The Toron:” an imaginative corned beef hash creation of oxtail hash, pickles, cheddar cheese, and “taters.”
Are the bäcos main courses? Eh, not sure. Are the vegetable compositions sides or appetizers? Hard to say.
For all of these menus with blurred courses, the pivotal, pivotal component is the pacing and organization by the service staff. Otherwise, the blurred courses can be a blurry, hurried mess à la Waterloo & City.
Fortunately, menus are veering away from Waterloo & City’s nearly 50 item menu that echoes the dim sum emporium menus where you order “Number 45” and “Number 129.” Menus are now getting concise and focused with plates and formats geared towards…yes, sharing, like you would also do at the dim sum restaurnt. Bravissimo.
Two other notes from Los Angeles.
Pop-up restaurants might be fading, but now come, pop-up cafés in bakeries? Or are they bakery-cafés? Or are they two in one cafés? Out in Atwater Village, Proof Bakery and Cognoscenti Coffee co-exist. In Silver Lake, the brand new Squirl Café co-exists with G&B Coffee. For the latter, they are two entirely different enterprices in one shoebix sized room, where you can pay for and enjoy Squirl’s homemade jams, a pastry, and a cappuccino, all together. At Proof and Cognoscenti, you also order and pay together, then eat your Proof croissant with your superb Four Barrel espresso pulled by Cognoscenti.
Is it the two-in-one-café movement? Are they pop-up cafés that are permanent? Whatever it is, let’s keep it up with pastries and coffee of this caliber under one roof at one cash register.
Now, one quick side note to emphasize from the Spago review last week. Among the many faux pas by the service staff, the one question that really needs to be raised is white wine chilling at a behind the scenes chilling stand. At Spago, the servers never thought to go fetch the bottle even though glasses often went empty for sometimes near a half hour. Unacceptable. Plus, you don’t even know how much of the bottle is even left when you can’t see it.
Yes, space is taken up by the bottle chilling next to the table. It’s not a particularly attractive element to the room either.
However, if the service staff cannot be on top of the wine needs for a table, then that bottle must never leave the table’s sight. At least then, in a time of urgency, you can go get the bottle and take matters into your own hands when faced with an entire course of no wine pairing.
Lastly, not in Los Angeles, but involving a dining concept often associated with Los Angeles’ adoration of kale and sunchokes– Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas announced last week. the next three themes for their quarterly evolving “restaurant” Next in Chicago. The Bocuse d’Or Competition for which Achatz serves as an assistant coach, “The Hunt” involving motifs of blood and game, and most intriguing, “Vegan” are the trio of iterations coming up for Next.
It will be fascinating to see how vegan cuisine is portrayed by Next, knowing its connotation of tofu brochettes, kale and seaweed salad, and portobello burgers. Many chefs are showing that a carrot can be every bit the canvas for gastronomy as Wagyu beef and a Pee-Wee potato is as golden as foie gras.
Veganism is still a very new area that the culinary world has yet to really explore in depth. It is a vital area that needs to be looked at by chefs, for myriad reasons from its healthful benefits to sustainability to the fact that vegan dishes just might be more exciting sometimes than ones involving meat.
We’ll see what Next has in mind for vegan dining. Sharing plates, two in one cafes, blurring the lines of courses– oh, what could possibly be next in the evolution of traditional dining?