Monday, September 29, 2014

What I've Learned About Grown Up Restaurants

Not too long ago my friend Shari and I ventured out to try Alma, a tiny 30-some seat tasting menu only dining room tucked next to a strip club on an up and coming hipster block in downtown LA. Named the 2013's best new (American) restaurant by Bon Appetit Magazine, Alma has gotten more than it's share of press, most of it centered on its young and inventive chef Ari Taymor (and a fair share about the restaurant's 15 year old aspiring chef Flynn McGarry -- yes he was working the night we dined).
Alma is an interesting restaurant full of unexpected combinations -- seaweed beignets, cod crudo with finger limes, or, as pictured above, uni and burrata on house-made english muffins. Taymor's (one of Food and Wine Magazine's best new chefs for 2014) hyper-local style of defying convention is unusual for LA. It's the kind of cooking coming out of Copenhagen or the bay area these days. This kitchen is daring. And daring can come with mis-steps. Each of the unheard of combinations brought to the table by friendly -- often direct from the kitchen staff -- servers sounded intriguing. I was anxious to try them. But I can't say they were all delicious. This is cerebral food best enjoyed with a moment to reflect over the first bite and contemplate the second.
The night we slipped in there was a group seated nearby that was so loud -- I mean sports bar playoff game loud -- it seemed crazily out of place. Everyone in our row of tables turned his/her head at the more alarming outbursts. But the noise persisted and I admit it did affect our enjoyment of the meal the chef offered up.
Finally when one of the cheerful chefs brought us a dish to taste and asked how everything was we admitted the noise was really disturbing. I know beyond tactfully asking the offending diners to try and hold it down a bit there isn't much a restaurant like Alma can really do. But I suddenly realized what separates the kickstarter funded, young chef flurry of inventiveness restaurants from grown up fine dining. The grown ups make amends -- send a coffee or glass of wine to the table -- a message of apology and shared distress between the front of house and the offended diners. Youthful Alma, once a downtown pop up and fairly new to it's home building, shrugs her shoulders and continues to sprinkle ground coffee (or ash marshmallows, or celtuce purée) where it has never been before.

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