Subversive locations, spare interiors, and small plates so dense with baroque ingredients that servers will soon need classes on Restaurants as a Second Language: At first take, Alma and Trois Mec share many traits.
The two are the most hyped among the ever-growing pack of Los Angeles restaurants specializing in tasting menus, which also includes Curtis Stone's Maude and Miles Thompson's Alumette. The appeal of restaurants that limit choices has been debated ad nauseam in the last couple years. I'm entirely middle-path on the subject: I have no problem with hours of eating, so long as I push back from the table satisfied. Regarding Alma and Trois Mec, I emerged from my meal at one of them more than content—elated. At the other, I left perplexed. The differences seemed reflective of where chefs Ari Taymor (Alma) and Ludo Lefebvre (Trois Mec) are in their respective careers.
Our willowy server sets down two plates with deep, round indentations. "We call it 'The Central Coast,'" she says. The mischief in her eye conveys a message: Don't worry about what's in it, just enjoy. The topographical reference becomes clear after the first mouthful. A fog covering of smoked halibut brandade gives way to a puree of Tetragon spinach bright in color and flavor. Cradled between this heaven and earth are Dungeness crab and a bit of caviar. It's the essence of California, and I immediately understand why chef Ari Taymor has received so many local and national raves. Then the meal slowly coasts downhill.
Taymor and co-owner Ashleigh Parsons opened Alma in June 2012 after months as a pop-up project. They found a space on a desolate but fascinating block of downtown LA. The restaurant's knotty wood façade stands in broad contrast to the weathered building next door, whose sign reads "Club Las Palmas Hostess Dancing." Shades diffuse the intense, early-evening light streaming into Alma's dining room, a Danish Modern tableau of white walls and dangling geometric fixtures.
I immediately understand why chef Ari Taymor has recieved so many local and national raves. Then the meal slowly coasts downhill.
Taymor worked at Bay Area restaurants like Flour + Water and Bar Tartine, and at garden-centric La Chassagnette in Arles, France, before settling in LA. He's young, 28 years old, and even in the breadth of one meal I could sense that as a chef he's in the throes of evolution—a culinary X-Man (super power: filtering New Nordic and haute French cuisines through a warm West Coast lens) still mastering his abilities.
An austere bowl of peas and morels scented with mint followed The Central Coast. It was an uplifting snapshot of early spring, and also a mission statement about Taymor's uncompromising approach to quality (he even works with a gardener who sells only to Alma). As the meal progressed, I never doubted the raw product; it was the execution I sometimes questioned. A small slab of halibut glowed green from a nasturtium sauce that tasted flat and grassy. A broth of young roots with shiitakes anchored an egg yolk slow-cooked at 148 degrees for an hour and ten minutes: Its presence gave the dish a texture that fell somewhere between creamy and gluey. I opted for the $55 drink pairings with the $95 menu, and the brothy egg yolk number suffered the most discordant coupling—a Junmei sake that came off like rubbing alcohol (and I'm often a fan of sake pairings).
Among the two most complex creations, one seduced and the other ambushed. Crumbled bits of frozen duck liver with smoked maple syrup and coffee granola was all modern wit, a pile of rubble and smoldering flavors that evoked breakfast around a dying campfire. But the main dessert—a white chocolate semifreddo spritzed with spruce oil—hid a palate-jarring gelee made from an aggressively hoppy IPA, which literally left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Departing, I thought back to the snacks that landed on the table before the main courses began. Delicate seaweed and tofu beignets, the standouts, were crowd favorites when Alma was in its early days and served an a la carte menu. He could have stuck with that format, but I can see Taymor is probably too zealous for lists of appetizers and entrees. I taste ambition in his food. It'll be fascinating to see what kind of chef he develops into even a year from now.
Like scoring seats to watch a rock god play an intimate venue, the effort to dine at Trois Mec pays off in every way. Anyone tracking the LA dining scene at all knows about this collaboration between three headliners—Ludo Lefebvre, Vinny Dotolo, and Jon Shook. Lefebvre was chef at Gallic luminaries like L'Orangerie and Bastide and then found his true métier staging sold-out pop-ups called LudoBites; he's one of the judges on The Taste alongside Nigella Lawson and Anthony Bourdain. Dotolo and Shook, two Florida boys, brought rockabilly edge to Southern California cooking at Animal and Son of a Gun. The duo councils on food and business matters at Trois Mec but Lefebvre runs the kitchen most nights. The restaurant hides in plain sight in a squat Hollywood strip mall, behind opaque glass and under a neon yellow sign for Raffallo's Pizza.
Diners need tickets for Trois Mec's five-course menu (which includes sweet and savory extras): They cost around $100 each and are available on troismec.com every other Friday at 8 a.m. PST, or through MasterCard's Priceless.com on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. Anyone serious about gaining entrance best be hovering over the keyboard; tickets can vanish in less than five minutes.
Two of us landed front-seat views at the counter overlooking Lefebvre and his corps in the open kitchen, which takes up about as much of the space as the 26-seat dining room. Straight away, a cook passed us earthen cups filled with buckwheat popcorn, which crunched and twanged like Grape Nuts crossed with salt and vinegar potato chips. Among the speedy succession of snacks was a square of garlic bread, an homage to the surroundings that recalled the yeasty, cheesy perfume that hangs in the air of every college town slice joint.
But any cutesy allusions disappeared with the first course—a lilting Dungeness crab ceviche dotted with citrus and snug beneath sheer avocado slices. Like the crab dish at Alma, the composition distilled the Golden State in a few dreamy bites.
But then the dinner grew more exhilarating. A grilled cabbage leaf accented with grated egg yolk and draped over smoked almond milk anglaise and miso flan has been a part of the menu for months. It's not particularly seasonal; the combinations sound random. It was genius, though—the ingredients conspired to bring out the sweetness in cabbage's personality, an intervention to coax out its highest potential. Equally sublime courses ensued: steamed striped bass gently buoyed by white asparagus, fried fennel fronds, and petals of yucca flowers; strips of beef punched up with smoked peanut butter, charred broccoli, and a shower of crisp shallot bits.
General manager Adam Vourvoulis compiled two French-leaning wine pairings, a $49 option and a $79 reserve upgrade, drawing on Chinons and Burgundies as well as more obscure varietals like Sylvaner and Savennières. We had one of each to compare, and both proved canny with the food. Vourvoulis also pours non-alcoholic pairings, made in-house with teas or juices pressed from the skins and pulp of local fruit.
What an event—the sure rhythms of the cooks and the staff, the obvious joy of the diners.
The finale: a shallow bowl of apple butter glossed with brie cream and toasted barley that straddled the line between pleasurably sweet yet intriguingly savory. What an event—the sure rhythms of the cooks and the staff, the obvious joy of the diners. Lefebvre (who turned 43 last week) was in the center of it, looking over shoulders, finishing plates, and flashing his TV-ready smile. I would worry that this scale of success might be fleeting, but the owners are plotting another restaurant next door called Petit Trois. Still, grab seats when you can. A venue this welcoming, with a stratospheric talent cooking like he's already proven himself (which he has), is rare. Rock on, Ludo.