Sunday, June 22, 2014

Edible gems

It was the Summer Solstice and our son's birthday. As a treat, we were going to have the nine-course tasting menu at Alma, named Best New Restaurant in America in 2013 by Bon Appetit magazine.

There was a film shoot on Broadway at Olympic, cameras and reflectors set up on the sidewalk, LAPD officers in their lime-green safety vests. "Back to the Future" was playing at the renovated United Artists Theatre at the Ace Hotel as part of L.A. Conservancy's Last Remaining Seats series, and the line snaked down the block.

We pulled into a parking lot clogged with tents, trailers, dollie-trucks, and a location manager with a radio on his hip stopped us. The lot was closed. "Do you know where else we can park?"

"You going to the show?"

"No, just to dinner." He suggested another lot nearby, and we pulled in to snag the very last space.

We scanned the block to find the restaurant, and realized it must be the unmarked space, faced with blonde wood, next to the Las Palmas Dance Club, and also steps away from the film shoot cluttering the sidewalk.

At the door to Alma, as though by magic, the very same location manager appeared. "Oh, you're going here, are you? You'll love the food," he said.

That's LA.

Just ask the guy parking trailers in the movie base camp where you should eat!

Nasturtium tarts
Alma is a tiny space, spare and simple, all white and clean wood inside. Talented Chef Ari Taymor is only 26 - the same age as our son. This is his first restaurant, and the risk he took to open it seems to be paying off.

It feels more like an art gallery or boutique than a restaurant, and when the first item on the ten-course tasting menu appeared, it served to reinforce that impression. Presented on a round of rough ceramic, three tiny tarts appeared, filled with a savory cream of pureed nasturtium and garnished with a petal. They looked like little jewels; you could wear one as a brooch.

They easily disappeared in three bites; the buttery pastry flaking delicately, the cream faintly peppery and herbal. Alma's menu is sourced from the restaurant's own garden, and offerings vary nightly based on what's been harvested.  Each course was paired with a two-ounce beverage selection - the tart with a crisp dry cider from Sonoma County.

Next appeared wee English muffins, topped with a schmear of goat cheese and smoked salmon, dabbed with caviar and sprigs of dill. This was paired with a blend of Altesse, Mondeuse, Chardonnay grapes from Bugey, France. It was like Sunday brunch in miniature.

A quick change-up came with the next snack - three umami-intense beignets of seaweed and tofu, served on a dab of lime-spiked aoli. They were piping hot and salty, and the lime was a great foil to the earthy taste of the seaweed.

The place was full and bustling. The late sun was just setting, shining gold into the room. As buses drove by on Broadway, the light would dim, then flash gold again as they passed. Motown tunes played on the speakers, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder.

The next course was Japanese sea bream with sour plum and succulents - I'm not sure what the succulents were. This course was paired with a malvasia bianca wine from Monterey.

Next came an offering that was among my favorites of the evening. Cool tomato bisque, with little seared cherry tomatoes. There was also a lobe of uni, or sea urchin roe, amid the tofu cream, with a crunchy crouton. The bisque was so delicious I wanted to lick the plate. It was served with a sparkling wine from the Savoie region of France.

Each offering was tiny, beautifully plated, like exquisite lapidary. One almost hesitated to disturb the composition on the plate. At times it felt a bit too precious - except it was so delicious, with the concentration of flavors and the quality of the ingredients. Although each course was tiny, satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment accumulated with each intense bite.

Small bites indeed!
The wine pairing for the next course came with a warning. And, indeed, the pale reddish wine looked unusual in the glass. Grignolino d'asti is a dry and tannic wine from the Piemonte region of Italy, and we were told it was meant to be a foil for the richness of the food.

Frozen duck liver with smoked maple, carrot and coffee granola is perhaps the most talked-about dish at Alma. The pale, gravel-like chips of nitrogen-flashed liver melt fattily on your tongue, and meld lushly with the sweet dark granola - it tasted almost chocolatey to me. A sip of the austere wine cleared away the fat so we could take another mouthful and be amazed again. "Some people say it tastes like breakfast," the waitress told us.

On again, this time to California bouillabaisse - mussels, squash, saffron and wild fennel, garnished with toasted quinoa, which gave it a wonderful crunch. It was served with a hearty beer-bread served with cultured butter. The wine was a delicate and fruity pinot gris from the Loire Valley.

Service was excellent and impeccably timed - the room was staffed by a team of perhaps six servers who knew exactly when to whisk away an empty glass, to lay a fresh fork or spoon in front of you.

Serious protein was next; grilled sweetbreads with peach, carrot and vadouvan - a French take on a curry from Pondicherry, India. Amazingly, the liver and mussels had me almost sated; the sweetbreads were almost too rich for me. I ate them slowly, loving the carrots and the caramelized fruitiness of the peach. This was paired with a Nebbiolo/Mourvedre/Syrah/Semillon blend from the Sierra foothills in California.

The final course was pigeon with beetroot, cherry, hazelnut and porcini. This was an amazing combination; the gamy tender meat of the breast went perfectly with the bright beetroot sauce, the woodsiness of the nut and mushrooms. The cherry note was echoed in the wine, a Nero D'Avola from Sicily. Wow!

A palate-cleanser of apricot sorbet with buttermilk foam, dusted with powdered popcorn was a welcome treat.

It was followed by the real dessert - fennel/licorice ice cream and chamomile panna cotta nestling in a sweet sorrel puree garnished with shards of sorrel meringue. This is called "frozen summer," and the young tattooed server proudly told us, "I made this one." It was served with a bright and fruity Mosel Riesling Auslese that sang on the tongue.

Completely satisfied, yet not over-stuffed, we wandered out onto Broadway. We felt dazzled by the tastes and sensations, the whole experience.

The little unassuming storefront of Alma, Best New American Restaurant of 2013
It's pricey, and it's not for those who are picky about their food. Though every note in our meal rang pure, reviews suggest Chef Taymor may still have a lot to learn.  But if you're adventurous and want to experience a truly unique meal by one of American's most creative new chefs, check out Alma at while it's still new and fresh.



The old Dining Room at the Ritz in San Francisco had a similar " tasting" option on the menu. Intense flavors and small portions yet we left very satisfied with the explosion of flavors we experienced. I believe one of the reasons there is such an obesity problem is the search for satisfaction.

Thanks for sharing.

scout said...

Masterful food writing, Glennis, on par with the most seasoned critic. I love your descriptions. Thank you!

Unknown said...

I love the adventures on which you embark.

dharmadigger said...

with a name like "soul" and pureed nasturtiums (as a start) this will be bookmarked! Thanks for the great write up.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

The food looks incredible. Love your writing about food and events in LA. Certainly makes me want to get on a plane.

Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

This is on my list of places to go! Beautifully written and photographed, as usual. What Scout said. You are masterful.