Sqirl is many things. It is a "hipster-chic Los Angeles restaurant" (New York Times). It is "kinda healthy, kinda decadent, and definitely delicious" (Bon Appetit). It is "ever-changing," "like a food-centric art project that has no end game other than to continue to evolve," serving "everything I want, on one plate, over and over again" (LA Weekly). It "epitomizes the transient nature of LA" (Bloomberg). It is "Instagram come to life, but instead of being twee, it's just totally delicious," it's at the forefront of "a new American breakfast revolution," and "is literally the neighborhood restaurant of my dreams." (Eater, Eater, Eater).
But it is also a real restaurant occupying a real space, bound to the same laws of physics as the rest of them. And so it is that the realities of operating in a 800-square-foot space in Silver Lake have made their mark on the cuisine of Sqirl's enterprising chef/owner Jessica Koslow. First, the site was, and still is, home to her jam company. She opened the Virgil Avenue space in 2011, liking its proximity to her home and its relatively cheap rent. And since she was only manufacturing jam, it didn't matter whether or not customers liked it. "It was on a street no one knew about, in a neighborhood no one cared about, and I thought it could just be a place where I could do my jam and have people come by for classes," Koslow says. (Incidentally, perhaps even more than any toast or breakfast bowl, it is this aspect of the Sqirl story that makes it such a perfect example of the current moment in LA dining. "I can really appreciate chefs now that are doing a similar thing, taking their money, buying a hole in the wall, and doing something they love," she says.)
More on those jams: Koslow is known for her wildly inventive combinations you can't get anywhere else. Think strawberry and rose geranium, blackberry and lemon verbena, or rhubarb and kumquat. But even with affordable space, only making artisanal jams wasn't working. "I realized if I kept doing a jam company it probably wouldn't work," she says. "The type of jams I make are really expensive, they're time-consuming, and you can't make enough. People balk at food prices; you can get a jam at Trader Joe's for three bucks. But you don't realize the labor, the quality of time, and also the quality of product and ingredients that go into it. It's not necessarily the most viable business."
"What can I do to make it actually craveable so people want to take a moment to come to the restaurant?"
In 2012, she added a cafe to the tiny space in collaboration with her friends from G&B Coffee, and from there "we grew as the customer base grew," with bold breakfast offerings that Koslow describes as brave by necessity. "For Sqirl, in a strip mall on a street corner that no one would really come to... if I wasn't very forward with my perspective, I don't think it would be around. You can get eggs Benedict down the street on Sunset. What can I do to make it actually craveable so people want to take a moment to come to the restaurant?"
Her "famed ricotta toast," as it's called on the menu, is instantly recognizable, both for its long tenure at Sqirl and its starring role in the Instagram feeds of Sqirl's many admirers. A thick-cut slice of "burnt" brioche, the toast is topped with a luxurious portion of house-made ricotta and a colorful pool of Koslow's jam. "My slice looks like a flag to a nation I'd gladly pledge allegiance," wrote Eater's restaurant editor Bill Addison when he reviewed Sqirl two years ago. While it's a natural showcase for her jam, Koslow admits the idea came after she found herself with an excess supply of ricotta from a different menu item. "I was thinking about my childhood. My family spent a lot of time at Katella Deli, a Jewish deli in Los Alamitos. I ate a lot of blintzes, I have a big sweet tooth... That's where it stemmed from."
When Koslow added the ricotta toast to her menu a few months after opening, "fancy toast" was not yet A Thing in Los Angeles. "I'm still surprised what a hit it is," she says, but her dish appeals to a city she describes as "early to bed, early to rise... the opposite of the city that doesn't sleep." Years later, the ricotta toast is still making the rounds on Instagram and through the dining room. A typical weekday might find Koslow serving 60 ricotta toasts — a number she says doubles on the weekends. Folks get them to share or as a standalone meal, and Koslow watches customers return time again specifically for the toast. That makes her happy.
"There are dishes from the beginning I'Il never be able to take off, and that's one of them," Koslow says. "I'll never take [the ricotta toast off], but it's representative of a different mindset or different time." Even so, Koslow says it's also an accurate reflection of the restaurant today. "It's always representative of this kid side of me that has a huge sweet tooth. And I still eat a bite of jam everyday... I don't think it will ever not reflect Sqirl. Out of all the iconic dishes at Sqirl — the sorrel rice bowl, the crispy rice salad, and that dish — that's the one that has jam on it!"
Below, the elements of the Sqirl ricotta toast:
1. The Bread
"It's funny because if you think about the 'fancy toast' movement, if you're going to use that word, you think about really fine breads — it's fermented dough, it's a rugbrød [Danish rye bread]. Those are breads that I know and use often for other toasts at the restaurant," Koslow says. Not so for the ricotta toast. "When you have a fermented dough or a rugbrød, the bread is such an integral part of that experience. But what I want is for you to experience the jam." The solution? "Really eggy" brioche. "It hit more of a note for me to use a pillowy bread where what's on top of it is the thing to think about."
The aesthetics of brioche appeal to Koslow, too: "It has that kid sensibility, which I love, [and] the challah sensibility, which is what I grew up with." It doesn't faze her when diners spot a ricotta toast on the pass and assume it's French toast. "It's meant to be a decadent treat."
Like every other component of the dish, the brioche is also an expression of the realities of Sqirl's size. "We do not make our brioche... we don't have the space." Koslow buys her brioche from FarmShop, a local company that lets her customize a bit. "It's a pullman loaf," she explains, "but they took the lid off so it pops up and mushrooms." The resulting look is unique, and "no one else has that in town." But the distinctive shape is more than good-looking (though being good-looking matters, to be sure). Cut in thick slices and toasted (more on that later), the brioche can hold up to the weight of the ricotta and jam.
2. The Ricotta
Every other day, Koslow and her head chef oversee the production of two ricotta batches, using organic milk from the Straus Family Creamery. "We don't skimp on any of the product that we use at the restaurant," Koslow says. "It's really fancy. It's expensive. It should be luxurious and decadent." She's talking about four gallons of milk and a gallon and a half of cream. "In the beginning we had our night crew doing it, and we could sense there was something happening that wasn't necessarily working out," says Koslow of the ricotta-making process. "It takes the finesse and eye of someone who really knows what they're doing. That's definitely something that is learned over time."
To hear Koslow describe the process makes it sound simple enough. "We basically cook the milk at a specific temperature [170 degrees] and we add citric acid to start that process. We strain off the whey — once it's strained off, we let that sit covered in cheesecloth. At that point, we start to bring cream back into the mixture to make it supple and nice."
It's that final texture where Koslow gets hung up. "The ricotta itself shouldn't be too loose or super wet. It's a very fine balance. If it's too loose it will be to easy to spread and get everywhere, but if it's too tight it will be really hard to spread over the bread."
3. The Jam
"We make about 35,000 jars of jam a year, that's why we close at 4 p.m.," Koslow says. The toast's jam is one and the same as the jam that gets jarred; it's part and parcel of that process. The jams available for the toast rotate seasonally, but the process for making each is basically the same. Fruit "is married with" organic, unrefined sugar and lemon juice. Then Koslow pours the mixture into a traditional copper jam pan ("always a 15-quart copper jam pan"). If there are any herbs, spices, or seasonings, Koslow adds them to a turkey stuffing bag and ties it to the side of the pot, "imparting, but not instilling it into the mixture."
Koslow cooks the mixture until it reduces by about half, and then she does a plate test: "You put a plate in the freezer, you put a dollop of the jam on the plate. The dollop should rise up like a mole with some body to it. You put it back in the freezer. And if you take it out, if you run your finger through the middle of it and it parts like the Red Sea and furrows like a brow where the tip of your finger is, then it's done."
Perhaps it's not surprising that even with so many jams, Koslow has favorite pairings for the ricotta toast. "The tart-er ones," she says. While strawberry seems to be the most popular "because that's what we know as the all-American jam," Koslow throws out the Santa Rosa plum with flowering thyme, apricot, and raspberry as personal favorites. "I think the ones that are less sweet are the way to go."
4. The Assembly
"We have a joke at Sqirl," says Koslow, "that how Subway employees might put 'sandwich artist' on their resume as a special skill; [we have] 'ricotta toast artists.' There's a real special way we put on the ricotta and the jam, but once you get that flow, it's pretty straightforward."
Here's how it goes: First, the brioche is cut into thick slices. "It's at least a one-inch cut so it doesn't get soggy and it stays thick. It's a fatty." Cutting thick slices also means on a normal weekday, Koslow will go through eight loaves a day at eight slices each.
Next comes a generous portion of unsalted, European cultured butter, which is kept melted and at the ready in a butter wheel. "It's the secret weapon of Sqirl," explains Koslow. "It means the butter is perfectly applied to each side." With both sides buttered, Koslow puts the slice into the press to toast it. The toasting takes no longer than 10 seconds, she estimates. "The butter heats up the outside and gets into the interior. Brioche is already buttery, so it heats up the butter in the bread. It melts in your mouth."
Next, a whopping half cup of ricotta. The strategy is to put the ricotta in the middle of the toast and then, using the back of a spoon, gently push it out toward the edges. "It should moat around the entire exterior of the bread. You shouldn't see too much of the crust." She compares it to bowling bumpers. "Basically, a full ricotta bumper around all of the jam."
Koslow then adds jam to the center, "one large spoonful," and "then you push that out with the back of your spoon as well." The finishing touches are a sprinkle of flaky Maldon salt and a squeeze of lemon to keep things bright.
Koslow thinks her staff can get the toast finished and ready for its close-up in one minute. "It's funny, when people first come into that station, they're really frustrated with themselves. I'm always sending it back and saying, 'I can't send it out looking like that.'" Koslow knows that the toast's visual appeal is helping tell her story, just as much as the toast's very aspects — its house-made ricotta, its fine jam — do. "Part of it is the aesthetic. You want it to look as beautiful as it can look."