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Alma for Dinner

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Full post + photos here: http://oheithere.wordpress.com/2013/1...

It’s good to be Ari Taymor these days. You have your own critically-acclaimed restaurant in Downtown LA, praised in particular by Jonathan Gold, who named Alma one of his 101 Best Restaurants in LA + having one of his 10 best dishes of 2012. And now, you’re on the national stage, being named as THE Best New Restaurant in the entire country by Bon Appetit. All of this accomplished at the age of 27 (same as me!), armed with an impressive resume that includes the likes of Bar Tartine and Flour + Water in SF, as well as the pop-up that led to the current restaurant of the same name.

Alma had been high on my to-dine list for quite some time, and one day in early August I decided to just pull the trigger on OpenTable for a solo dinner, as a treat to myself for all the fine work I’ve accomplished (ha!). The process wasn’t very difficult – there were tables available online during prime hours for a weekday, and I was going to go at around their 6 pm opening anyways (plus I was a solo diner sitting at the bar). I was beginning to fear that LA diners might not appreciate dining of this caliber and execution, as the restaurant’s style always felt like it belonged more in SF in my opinion.

However, the Bon Appetit honor was released less than a week after I made my reservation, and the atmosphere during my dinner definitely reflected the restaurant as the sudden new hotness. I arrived at around 6:10 pm for my dinner, and the restaurant was already more than half full. By the end of my dinner, there were at least a dozen people waiting to be seated out front, most of them patiently waiting with a glass of wine in their hands, happy to have a chance to dine at a nationally-acclaimed restaurant.

The restaurant has an a la carte menu of roughly over a dozen of dishes, most of them on the smaller side. There is also a tasting menu available, which consists of 10 courses at $90. The latter is at a very reasonable price point in my opinion, as a similar restaurant in SF serving a tasting of this length would probably be closer to $150. Despite some of the a la carte-only dishes sounding very promising, I went with the tasting. Please note that after November 29, the restaurant plans to nix the a la carte option, and go to prix fixe only: 5 courses for $65, or a longer tasting menu for $110 (length not specified).

Snacks:
oyster with herbs
brown butter bearnaise with corn silk
seaweed & tofu beignet, yuzu kosho, lime
English muffin, uni, burrata, caviar, liquorice herbs

The tasting menu began with 4 snacks, 2 of which are available to order as a la carte. The fresh oyster came with an herb foam/mousse of sorts, and tasted quite…herbal. With the brown butter bearnaise, it was kind of interesting to see a sauce/condiment as the central component of a dish. But those 2 bites were just warm-up pitches. The seaweed and tofu beignet is probably the restaurant’s most well-known dish. It kind of looked like a darker version of the fried seaweed fish you’d find at Chinese restaurants, and it was heavier/thicker than I expected. But the acidic components of the yuzu kosho and the lime aioli worked well with the beignet’s creamy tofu filling. And you really can’t go wrong with a combination of uni + burrata + caviar on top of that housemade English muffin. Alma’s baked goods are really something.

“summer vegetables”

The first real course was this vegetable medley, which also included a corn fritter, in a “BBQ sauce” (that’s what they called it according to my notes). Simple and effective. This is just a dish that allows the ingredients to shine, most of which was picked from the restaurant’s own garden in Venice.

tomato, watermelon, black garlic, macadamia nut, epazote

Next up was this composed salad. The cubes you see are compressed watermelon, brushed with black garlic oil. Quite interesting. The highlight here was the fresh heirloom tomato – ridiculously sweet and juicy.

mackerel, plum, succulents

The same said about the heirloom tomato above can also be applied to the plum here, which was also presented here as a consomme. The consomme and actual pieces combined to give off a very…canned fruit type of flavor, and I meant that in the nicest way possible. What I’m trying to get across is that those plum bits were absolutely juicy and sweet, as if they were concentrated. Would’ve been great as a base for a dessert. As a result, the mackerel got lost in the dish. It was also not as briny as I like my mackerel.

chicken liver, smoked maple, coffee

This was an interesting take on the traditional chicken liver you’d find at Jewish delis. I didn’t mention it previously, but despite its reputation for being ingredient-driven, Alma is quite the “progressive” restaurant. Much of the kitchen’s repertoire involves such gadgetry and techniques (the liquid nitrogen was busted out frequently, in particular). This dish had the traditional flavors, but was presented as frozen crumbles, which melted into a creamy mousse as you ate it.

summer corn soup, vadouvan, nasturtium

And here is a soup, in the middle of a tasting menu. Meh, right? But wait just a minute – this was actually the best dish of the night, no joke. This summer corn soup, which also included the corn kernels, was just a good, hearty bowl of deliciousness. The vadouvan added plenty of depth, and the nasturtium ice cream acted as the cooling chaser (like a yogurt or raita) to counter the soup. A deceptively sophisticated dish.

housemade bread with cultured butter

During the soup course, this additional plate was brought out. What a great idea, as the bread was nice for dipping into the soup and sopping up the last drop, and it was a nice gesture. In fact, it appears that every diner who ordered the tasting menu received the bread as part of the course. Not sure if it was intended, or if the restaurant was kind (a couple of a la carte diners received an extra course as well). But the bread, hot upon arrival, man was it good. There was a beer & rye bread to the left, and a squid ink epi to the right, served with a wonderfully whipped cultured butter. Both were crusty, then soft, with each bite. More people should be talking about the bread at Alma.

roasted abalone, shellfish, zucchini

The shellfish here, besides abalone, were clams and mussels. They, along with zucchini and summer squash, were served with a “soup” (what they said), which I assume was made from the shellfish present here. Very mild, especially following the previously course.

“Tisane of Terroir”

The palate cleanser (oddly served before the main course) was an herbal tea infused with grapefruit and dashi. Had a weird sweet and savory flavor to it (along with the grapefruit’s bitter aftertaste).

dry aged rib-eye, alliums, sunflower

A straightforward dish, but well-executed. The 45-day aged ribeye was cooked to a perfect rare, and went well with the sunflower & onion puree. There was also onion done 3 ways here. Despite the 45-day age, the meat was actually rather mild, but at the same time quite meaty still.

watermelon & gin

Now to the desserts. We have a scoop each of watermelon and gin-flavored sorbet (though one of them might have been a semifreddo – sorry don’t remember). Those compressed watermelon cubes (sans black garlic oil, obviously) come back in play here, and the combination makes for a refreshing dessert.

“frozen summer”

This is a very ambitious dessert. The components here consisted of the vegetables from their garden, served as a chamomile semifreddo, sorrel sorbet, and other grassy goodness. It was indeed a green dessert. But while I appreciate the effort in this farm-to-table dessert, it was kind of like eating sweet wheatgrass ice cream. Nice try though.

I enjoyed my dinner at Alma. However, I would say that I appreciated and respected my meal more than truly loved it as is. Ingredients were served at the prime of their availability, and execution was in top form. But most of the dishes just didn’t wow me as much as I thought they would – I only just liked them (with the exceptions of the summer corn soup and breads). There was also the dilemma of the a la carte menu’s presence. I felt that some of the dishes and desserts there were more interesting by menu description (and from what I read on various blogs, that proved to be somewhat accurate). But I almost always go the tasting route when available – who am I to say that I know a restaurant’s best dishes and progression more than its own?

The restaurant itself isn’t very big, and that kitchen is just downright small for the number of chefs working in it. Decor was extremely simple, like a living room layout you’d find in IKEA catalogs. The interior was kind of dark after the sun set, but gave off a very homey feel, which I attribute to the IKEA look. The service was warm, but I think the increased business got to them with regards to the front of the house execution and timing. I would wait a few minutes for one course, and wait 20+ for the next. Also, not that I need the attention, but for those who really care, they do disappear at times. Some are short with the descriptions, while some are extremely details. Not a big deal at all, but just a FYI…

I think Alma is only going to get better as time passes. It feels as if they’re still trying to find their stride, as some things just don’t appear to be fully thought-out or composed. But the blueprint is there, and the talent is definitely there. The move to a tasting-only format should help with the menu’s focus, and I think that Taymor has a bright future ahead of him. For a while, it felt like a restaurant that was appreciated more by out-of-towners than the locals (see: Red Medicine). But with the recent honors, Alma definitely has the opportunity to attract more diners, and will do well to keep them coming back as they progress themselves.

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    1. I wish we had gotten the corn soup. We had the sunchoke soup, which was nice in theory but rather poorly executed.

      4 Replies
      1. re: ipsedixit

        Is that the one w/ the egg yolk? It looks interesting though - reminds me of a dish at Commis in Oakland (which Alma is fairly similar to IMO). But yeah, loved that corn soup.

        1. re: chrishei

          Yeah, it felt a bit greasy on the tongue but the biggest thing was that it was just vapid. Probably could've use some of your vadouvan.

            1. re: chrishei

              I really enjoyed, but I was there early in their life cycle. Many bumps in service and food, so I reserved (public) judgment, but one can definitely sense and feel the genius and creativity in the food and concept.

              I, for one, am glad that they are receiving so much public acclaim. I just hope it doesn't detract from what really matters to Taymor and his team.

      2. Was there last night. Started with a hiccup - got there at 9:45 - which was the reservation time. They seemed a little confused (but very friendly) up front. Eventually someone asked if we'd like to be seated at the counter. No, would rather have a table. That's going to be a 20 minute wait.

        They should have said something like "We're running behind, would you like to have a drink at the counter?"

        But that's not how it was phrased (they were quite young, perhaps not a lot of restaurant experience under the belt. In fact it didn't seem like anyone there was old enough to hold the moniker of G.M.)

        "How about we start at the counter and move to a table when it's ready?"

        "No, we can't do that."

        That kinda pissed me off. Just a little, because you can do that. Sometimes people don't realize that you have to accommodate the customer in some fashion. There is no place to wait, you just have to stand at the front door, or wander around the street - maybe go next door and hook up with a taxi dancer and kill your 20 minutes?

        Meanwhile, a, 2 topper was vacant from the moment we walked in. I pointed to that. "How about that?"

        "Oh, that's being seated." And other than us, we were the only couple left. Before I could make a decision another girl said "Come with me please" and sat us at the 2 top.

        Minor hiccup. And friendly all the way.

        Loved the food, loved the idea. The food itself has fine dining overtures in a very casual setting. VERY casual. Place was full (Friday night). Food came very quickly. There are usually 2 tasting menus - there were none that night (and the place will soon turn to ALL tasting menu - so that was odd).

        The oysters were so good - we got another order. (I can see myself going back and just getting 10 orders of those). Same with the uni in the mini-English muffin. I went with a date - we'd ordered 2 apps, 2 small plates and 2 entrees. Next time I'll probably get ALL the apps, 2 small plate, 2 entrees. Or maybe 3 small plates.

        My date LOVED the food "big flavors, so fresh" - which is certainly what they're after.

        The waitress raved about the ribeye. I enjoyed it, but was it knock-down dead one of the best beef dishes I ever put in m mouth? No. Good, not great.

        Great place. Great food. Great concept. Weird location (next to one of those dime-a-dance like places - a little creepy). Not unlike Coi in San Francisco - a Michelin 2 star restaurant in middle of strip joint heaven in North Beach. Culinary oasis in a funky part of town is part of the charm.

        Very young crowd - most seemed under 30. So encouraging that this generation enjoys and appreciates this food. Everyone who works there was young too. Made me feel like a proud parent!

        L.A. scores another strong hit! Highly recommended.

        1 Reply
        1. re: foodiemahoodie

          I think that they do try their best, but they're not really accustomed to the crowds. Will probably improve as time passes, but it's not as if they take themselves too seriously with regards to having a formal restaurant service. Like what you and I both mentioned, it's very SF-esque (although I'd argue Coi is a full-on formal restaurant).