Imagine being 27 years old and on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard when you find out that your relatively new restaurant in downtown L.A. has just been named by Bon Appetit the “Best New Restaurant in America 2013.” That’s precisely what happened to Chef Ari Taymor in August and his restaurant Alma is now on the lips of every food-obsessed person in the city (maybe even the country).
Being the wily person that I am, I immediately reacted to the news of Alma’s award with a jaunt over to OpenTable where I booked the earliest reservation I could: dinner for 4 on Saturday, September 7th at 9:15 PM.
The journey downtown is pretty easy from where we live now in Atwater Village. Hop on the 5, transfer to the 110 and boom, there you are. We met up with Mark and Diana an hour before dinner at a bar just down the street (the Broadway Bar) where the ladies–that would be Diana and I–had Old Fashioneds and the guys had Manhattans. I gently broached the subject that had been haunting me all day: to tasting menu or to not tasting menu. A note on the Alma website alarmed me because it said that the $90 tasting menu was not available after 9:30. With our reservation at 9:15, I was nervous we’d miss out and had to make our decision quickly. In fact, I’d texted Diana earlier in the day when I saw that to see if I should call the restaurant to inform them we’d want tasting menus and, after a heated exchange–not really, it was a friendly exchange–we decided to hold off until we got there.
Turns out: my instinct was correct, by the time we asked the waitress at Alma about the tasting menu, she told us they were no longer available. At this point, though, we were so hungry–9:15 is late for old people like us–that we didn’t care, we just wanted to dive right in. So we picked out a few snacks to try, a few appetizers, and then the entrees we each wanted. The waitress, who memorized our order and repeated it back to us impressively, suggested we double some of the snacks to have enough. We were ok with that.
Our first taste of Ari Taymor’s food was disarmingly simple: housemade bread with cultured butter.
The bread itself reminded me of the kind of bread you might eat in college; brown bread that your professor might make when he has you over to discuss Milton’s Areopagitica. The butter, though, was surprisingly complex, with the tangy aliveness you find in really good yogurt. Then came the beignets:
If Ari Taymor has a signature dish, this is it: seaweed and tofu beignets with yuzu kosho and lime.
It’s a dish that announces to the world: “I’m here! Now pay attention.” The idea of combining seaweed and tofu in a beignet might give the average person pause, but what’s so inspired here is the inevitability of the combination. The seaweed gives a hit of the sea, the tofu a hit of the land and then the yuzu kosho–which is a bitter condiment made with yuzu zest–gives the dish a sense of place; specifically, Japan. It’s a stunner of an opening number.
From there, each bite got better and better. This smoky eggplant dip with puffed onion was deceptively simple but probably difficult to make (for example: how do you, um, puff an onion?):
One of my favorite bites of the night: English mufin with uni, burrata, caviar and liquorice herbs.
There is so much that is remarkable about this dish. The decadence of the burrata up against the uni; the unifying salinity of the caviar and then, of course, the fact of the homemade English muffins. This is a dish that speaks for itself.
And that’s the thing about the food at Alma. Restaurants are so easily hyped, we sometimes fall into the trap of believing something is great because we’re told it’s great. Here, the food does all the talking and it’s very hard to argue with. Like this beef tartare in shaved celeriac which the chef hand-delivered to us as a gift:
Was it a gift because they’d sold out of their tasting menus and they felt bad? Or because I’d Tweeted, earlier, that I was so excited to go to Alma I “just couldn’t hide it”? (Alma Tweeted back that they’d have the Pointer Sisters playing when I walked through the door.) Anything’s possible. All I know is that this dish was a gift too: frozen duck liver with coffee granola.
That’s a dish that had us leaping out of our chairs with eyes popped open, saying: “Oh my God!” “Oh wow.” “Holy crap.” Think of chicken liver mousse and/or foie gras. Now imagine it frozen. That’s what we were reacting to: it was a stimulating liver experience.
But my favorite dish of all is the one with the fuzziest picture: young squash soup, mussels, red ale.
I asked the chef about it later (and the chef, it should be said, is what Escoffier might call “a heartthrob”) and he said it’s basically a base of onions and fennel, then a stock made with the squash skins and–the key ingredient–a sour Belgian ale that gives the soup its funky essence. It’s easily the best butternut squash soup I’ve ever had.
Next up, a cucumber salad made with so many exotic cucumbers, the woman who presented the plate started giggling as she listed them all. (I should mention here that Alma has its own farm and farmer in Venice Beach so many of these ingredients are grown specifically for the restaurant). This salad made a solid case for cucumbers grown to order:
The award for most stunning dish of the night goes to the halibut confit with cherry tomato, young ginger and fermented corn:
You wouldn’t know that was herring, when you first look at the white in that picture (it almost looks like mozzarella) but it is, indeed, a fish and the combination of those ingredients was both summery and oceanic. Like eating tomatoes and corn on the deck of a boat.
The picture at the top of this post is smoked salmon, summer squash, chevre, dill and caviar. I chose it as my lead picture because I think it really captures the artistry at work here at Alma; note the architecture of that plate. The swooping squash, the zigzag sauce squiggles: it’s like a Gehry building plopped on a Jackson Pollock painting.
At last, the entrees. I had the lavender roasted duck with corn, miso, chanterelle and blackberry:
It was a lovely plate of food, though we wondered (Diana ordered this too) why the breast skin wasn’t completely rendered and crisped? I guessed it was intentional, perhaps to offer a contrast to the crisper, darker meet at the other ends of the plate. Still, I loved the way the blackberry played off the duck meat and the sauce underneath was swoop-worthy.
Ari sent over another stunner of a dish, this one the vegetarian plate: eggplant, roasted lettuces, quinoa, black garlic.
I’m glad he did because, once again, you can see a great mind at work here as you scan the various components that make up this dish. It’s like a garden and a forest and a fairy tale all rolled up into one and it’s edible. It might be his most artistic dish.
Mark and Craig both had the dry aged rib-eye with allums and sunflower.
There was lots of happy nodding and grunting, so you know it had to be good.
Some restaurants pack such a wallop at dinner, they can get away with skimping on dessert. Not Alma. Check out this gorgeous plum and cream dessert that’s so warm and inviting and structural, I kind of want to live inside it:
And this chocolate and frozen menthol dessert quickly became Diana’s favorite dish of the night:
Imagine chocolate with the coldest, most bracing mint ice cream you can imagine…only the texture of the ice cream is more like astronaut ice cream because it’s made with liquid nitrogen. That’s what’s happening here.
You know, lately in life, I’ve been thinking a lot about talent. There are a lot of people who talk about the things they’re going to do, the things they’ve already done, and the things they’re currently working on that they can’t quite get off the ground. I find myself doing this all the time. “Well, I have this play I wrote in grad school, but I was never able to make it work dramatically.” Or: “I have an idea for a cookbook, but not sure I can really pull it off and it maybe already exists.”
What’s so exciting and invigorating about Alma is it’s a place where a genuinely talented person creates great work without fuss or fanfare. The room is spare, the location rather blah. But the food, oh the food. It’s all about the work, nothing else. If you want to know who Chef Ari Taymor is, don’t talk to him: look at a plate of his food. It’s all there.
So congratulations to him and everyone at Alma. If this is the best new restaurant in the country, America’s dining future looks bright indeed.