qirl's founder and chef, Jessica Koslow, has decocted the ethos of her marvelous restaurant into her first cookbook, Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking. I've never seen a book that evokes the whole portrait of a restaurant quite like this one does — the feel of it, as well as cooking, the ingredients, and even the clientele. You sit at a rickety little table outside amid the Silver Lake art/industry crowd that throngs the place daily, and have excellent coffee with maybe a sumptuous slab of toast piled with ricotta and fancy jam, as the never-ending traffic on Virgil whizzes past. So much that is good about Los Angeles, and about California, is gathered up into this book, along with a few things worth questioning.
My husband Oliver thought that Sqirl, which is just about a mile or so from where I live, was too expensive to last in our obscure little Los Angeles neighborhood. But I knew it would: I bet him a bitcoin after our first visit that the tiny new place would still be thriving in a year. That was five years or so ago. This certainty was the immediate result of my first breakfast there — a soft, thick slice of toasted brioche with a sharply dressed little salad and an egg on top. I took care as I ate not to squash the delicate bread with its crisp buttery crust. It was monumentally delicious, and in a new way, as many have testified since: fresh, bright, and rich all at once. (I lost my winnings almost immediately, alas, in a wishful bet on Scottish Independence.)
Koslow is from Long Beach, some thirty miles to the south of Los Angeles, as coincidentally am I. Her polyglot approach to cooking is thus both familiar and delightful to me. There’s fantastic Mexican, Salvadoran, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, and Middle Eastern food in our hometown and environs, much of it found in slightly divey little places reminiscent of Sqirl. The native of Southern California also learns to cook with the French and Italian flavors and techniques that became standard issue here in the 1970s and ‘80s. Specialty markets and rare produce abound. All these influences turn up at Sqirl with charming flourishes, from the simply seared fish with sorrel pesto to the rosemary-scented chicken kofte to the crab fried rice, flavored with kumquat.
The book is handsomely produced, as much art book as cookbook. Along with all the gorgeously plated shots and fine procedural photos, there are a number of In Crowd photographs of Sqirl's clientele. I found the latter jarring at first; you would never see photographs of, I don't know, Warren Beatty eating a salad in the Four Seasons cookbook, in days of yore. But here are beautiful actors like Busy Philipps and Nicole LaLiberte; Sam Stewart, the son of the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, eating a massive piece of toast beside the caption "sweet dreams are made of this"; local art-royalty ceramicist Peter Shire. It’s all terribly groovy. In a pleasant surprise, Koslow's staff are introduced most lovingly of all. A chef named Patch persuades her to use local, sustainably farmed sturgeon instead of cod for fish and chips, and the brown rice horchata at last passes muster with David Prado, head of the night crew, who is a native of Tecuala. There are photos of Meadow Ramsey "on quiche patrol," sliding two massive pies into the oven, and Tonye Dunn, in a striped navy flour-dusted apron, "means biscuits."
The book’s epigraph is from local restaurateur and radio personality Evan Kleiman, who enjoys cookbooks as a way of "learning about the cookbook author through their food and voice." I read cookbooks the same way, first as memoir — the record of a mind and sensibility — and only later as how-to guides. Without professional equipment (commercial-grade burners and ovens, especially) there is rarely much chance of achieving restaurant results at home. But a great restaurant cookbook like this one offers all sorts of fascinating ideas and techniques that you can fold into your home repertoire.
Before you jump in, there are two things you should know about this fresh, locavore, healthy, breezy style of California cooking. One is that much of it takes centuries to make. The other is that despite a certain kind of relaxed and soulful healthfulness that has become — fairly or not — Sqirl's hallmark, quite a lot of it is chock-full of butter, sugar, and crème fraîche, which may offer up a mild shock to some.
he idea that Los Angeles is a beautiful, sunny, carefree, and dumb paradise of produce is the myth of New York, and there is about as much truth to it as there is to the commonly held idea of New York as arrogant of its intellect and in love with its own depression. Things are infinitely more complicated than this Annie Hall Fallacy would have us believe. The best New Jersey tomatoes are generally better than the best California ones, delicious as the latter can be, and people everywhere have their own bizarre preoccupations. One cliché is undeniable, though: We Angelenos most certainly wolf down our avocado toast. It’s our most basic breakfast, I think, a no-makeup proposition. So that was my first crack at a Koslow recipe, because I love avocado toast and make it at home all the time. My own method is as follows: Saute bread in olive oil. Mash some decent avocado on there. Salt, pepper, heaven.
Now let it be stipulated that it takes approximately seven hundred times as long to make Sqirl avocado toast. You have to start the day before, by pickling carrots. Even though I had my reservations about so much sugar in the brine, I followed the recipe to the letter — and they are damn scrumptious carrots, with or without toasts, or avocado, or anything. We ate the leftover ones straight from the jar, aside from the few I shredded into a fantastic green salad. If you would like to make your own crème fraîche for the avocado toast while you're at it, the night before, Koslow explains how. (That was a bridge too far for me, and I left that part to Alta Dena Dairy.)
So morning or afternoon or early evening comes and you're ready for avocado toast à la Sqirl. Koslow is winningly sympathetic to the problem of toast. (Toasters, it must be said, really are generally terrible. Hot spots, weird patterns and you can't get a very thick piece into even the bagel-friendly type.) She suggests using a toaster oven, or a sauté pan. Okay so now you've got your toast, already buttered. Lay upon it a thick foundation of crème fraîche previously seasoned with finely minced shallots, lemon juice, and salt. Thin slices of avocado are fanned across the pillowy surface of the melting cream, followed by a lush tangled pile of slippery pickled carrot strips, a plenteous shower of a za'atar-like mixture of sumac, white sesame seeds and dried oregano, a few fine ringlets of scallion, and "a pinch of fleur de sel" to finish. Very pretty.
None of us could believe how good it was. I made it myself and yet was confounded by the luscious complexity of the finished dish. Floored, even. "The discovery of a new dish is more beneficial to humanity than the discovery of a new star," Brillat-Savarin said, and I won't argue. Part of the fantasy, then, is real; this vision-of-California avocado toast will blow your wiglet sky high. But, like a model wearing "natural look" makeup or Joshua Bell in a baseball cap effortlessly tossing off J.S. Bach’s "Chaconne," while it may look nonchalant and offhand, so much complex work and imagination went into producing that casual perfection.
This strikes me as the central paradox of Sqirl: If we like the looks of this working-class neighborhood and the talented young chef who works here, if it seems "downtown" and "urban" and relaxed, that’s a narrative that the culture imposes on her work from the outside. What you see when you cook from Koslow’s book, and what you see when you hang around "Virgil Village," as Sqirl’s weird little neighborhood is technically called, won’t quite tally with that elegantly careless image. Sqirl is among the best examples I’ve seen of the new (and welcome) style of redevelopment in the world’s capital cities, where care has been taken to create an elegant space that fits into a humble neighborhood, and locals can patronize the place somewhat comfortably. But that unpretentious vibe is the product of great toil. Even the story of the book’s cover design is a testament to the difficulty of producing exactly the right impression of simplicity and freshness. The main reality of this book, I would say, is this very hard-working perfectionist native of California who loves her craft and the place and the people all around her with a really kind of maniacal love.
The plum upside-down cake was my second try, and it had mostly been wolfed down by my sweets-loving husband by the end of the next day. That thing has got three sticks of butter and a cup and a half of sugar in it, so if Oliver gets gout tomorrow I will know who to blame. (Oliver! That's who, it's not Jessica Koslow's fault that he has no self-control.) The cake is quite easy to make with a stand mixer, and would be a handsome gift to bring to a party. Koslow had an early stint as a pastry chef, and this recipe represents the sort of classic California-inflected baking you might expect to learn from, say, Alice Waters. If you don't have a mixer your arm will probably fall off from creaming the butter and sugar to the degree specified. (One note, make sure to remove the cake after ten minutes or so out of the oven; I left mine in the pan too long and the crumb collapsed a bit too much for my liking, though Oliver, drunk on butter, never noticed a thing.)
For a final test, I chose a more complicated meal: braised duck legs with dill-flavored spaetzle and sauerkraut cooked with mustard. I bought dry-aged duck legs from that august Temple of Meat known as Gwen, on Sunset, where they have a cover charge and there is a bouncer who decides whether or not to let you in to "experience" the meat (jk, but it is so precious and beautiful and so expensive); I also bought fresh duck legs from McCall's on Hillhurst in Los Feliz.
What a palaver! Though we'd been promised relief from the hot weather it turned out to be a really hot day, hotter and hotter, and here I was endlessly searing duck legs. The fresh ones took a thousand years to crisp and render; the dry-aged ones went relatively quickly. Into the oven they went for the braise. The braising of the sauerkraut is a relatively simple matter, but the spaetzle, lord help me, are INSANE. They are like tiny dumplings, and you have to boil a huge pot of water and then put the (crazily rich!) batter that is full of Gruyère and cream and dill into a colander and as you squash it through, little blobs fall into the water and then float up, and they come out like pasta, kind of. Then, believe it or not, you have to brown them a bit in some more butter. I was in such a state of limpness and exhaustion by the time I'd managed it all, there was a mountain of washing up and by the time we all sat down to eat in the sweltering kitchen I was totally mortified and sweating and thinking bah! never again no WAY could this possibly be OH MY GOD I WOULD DEVOUR THIS MEAL IN THE FLAMING DEPTHS OF HELL. So if winter ever comes again, I strongly advise getting a bunch of people to help you make and eat this, and go for the dry-aged duck if you can find it.
There’s a fantastical disconnect in California and indeed, in all Western culture, between the hedonistic and the healthy, along with all our prejudices against overweight, against overindulgence, and, conversely, against puritanism and anhedonia. We Want It All, I suppose, against all reason. If I cavil a bit at the idea of Sqirl as "California Cooking," that is largely because many of us can’t bolt down such rich, complicated food while maintaining even a vague approximation of the Southern California beach bod. But in this fun, luxurious book, Koslow ultimately transcends all such prejudices and paradoxes with her inclusivity and love of California’s rich fields, its crowded streets and bustling kitchens, and of its people, whether they are farmers or movie stars, in a manner that is as innovative and pleasurable as the food she serves.
Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles.
Images Reprinted with permission from Everything I Want to Eat Copyright © 2016 by Jessica Koslow. Photos copyright © 2016 Claire Cottrell, Jaime Beechum & Nacho Alegre. Published by Abrams.