During the Renaissance, there must have been some curmudgeon who, looking upon another resplendent painting detailing the Crucifixion, complained, "Yes, yes, all this naturalistic, lifelike classicism is well and good, but how I long for something different."
There's no doubt American food is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. We've come out of the dark ages of TV dinners, Jell-O salads and faux-French pretension and entered a golden age of whole-animal cookery and market-driven seasonality. Instead of canned fruit and Miracle Whip, we have local stone fruit and burrata. Instead of pallid greens smothered in sweet dressing, we have a multitude of tasteful kale salads. Kale salads as far as the eye can see. So. Many. Kale. Salads.
One of the great benefits of this renaissance is that now you can get your fill of pork-cheek fritters and blackberry crumble in almost any neighborhood of Los Angeles. Little Osaka is the latest 'hood to benefit from this development, with the opening of Flores, a modern American, small-plates restaurant, smack in the midst of one of America's best noodle districts. Owned by Amal Flores, the restaurant takes up residence in the space that used to be Sawtelle Kitchen.
Flores renovated and built out the space himself. (He has a bit of history with the building: His father, a sculptor, showed work there in the 1960s, when the space was a gallery.) The white-bricked and wooden-walled room is bathed in golden light, anchored by a semicircular marble chef's counter. Outside, a fire burns in what looks like an oversized birdcage in the middle of the patio. It's a good-looking restaurant.
The chefs are a husband-and-wife team, Angela Hernandez and Rob Lawson. Both worked at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York before moving to L.A., where she cooked at Bazaar and he at the Hotel Bel-Air.
With pedigrees like that, it's a little surprising that the menu at Flores reads so much like every other small-plates place in town. There are Southern, Asian and Italian accents — mussels with curry, deviled eggs with crunchy slivers of fried pig's ears as garnish. It would barely be a new American restaurant these days without hanger steak and roast chicken, and Flores delivers both of these, as well as sides of mac-and-cheese and broccolini with chili and garlic. At lunch, you can get a crispy, smooshy eggplant sandwich, or a BLT made with huge slabs of rosy tomato and crumbly bits of pork belly. Sandwiches play an important role on the dinner menu as well, with choices including meatball and soft-shell crab.
All in all, the execution at Flores is far better than at many of its counterparts. Kanpachi ceviche comes with familiar Thai flavors or coconut and lime, but the soft perfume of the young Thai coconut and the addition of grapefruit to the mix, as well as the cool freshness of the raw fish, make for a subtle and alluring dish. Flores' kale salad is one of the best around, presented as an assertive Caesar, the creamy anchovy and sharp cheese of the dressing standing up to kale's rugged texture.
Rounds of crimson nectarine are paired with the deeper red of beets and perked up with citrus and sumac. A grilled squid salad sets the bounce of the seafood against black olives, lemon and purple potatoes the vivid color of Sesame Street's Count Von Count.
A special of handmade pasta with a sweet corn sauce is light and summery, while a lamb ragu over pasta takes a heartier, more autumnal tone, punctuated by olives and mint and black pepper ricotta. These are not easy things to get right, and Flores does just that.
There's no lack of technique on display: The skin on a filet of striped bass is as crisp and perfectly salted as a potato chip, served with pops of tomato, capers to liven it up and cauliflower to ground the fish's sweet flesh. Toothsome ham hock cozies up with rich, creamy chicken liver for a terrine that's basically the yin/yang symbol of pâtés, the ham hock providing the textured smoky base to the lush, silken liver.
In many ways it's because of the obvious technical proficiency at Flores that I longed for something a little more original. Surely, with all of their talent, these chefs have more to show us than food that looks like what 100 other places in town are serving. And while pastry chef Cesar Bermudez Cifuentes' blackberry cobbler is perfectly lovely, it too is incredibly familiar. Another dessert features a bowl of peaches, cut up, with a slick of hard-to-get-at caramel and a scoop of ice cream. It was delicious, because peaches are delicious, yet so simple it borders on silly.
At some restaurants, the feeling is that the chefs are putting out the food of the moment because that's exactly what they're capable of — finding what's popular and executing it well. But sometimes that's not the case. Sometimes it seems as if the potential for creativity and originality is there, and it's just on hold for some reason.
Hernandez and Lawson execute the food of the moment flawlessly. And it's quite possible that the dining public simply expects beets and burrata on every menu. After all, this is not a Flores-specific problem — much of L.A. seems to be slave to this eerily repetitive repertoire. Delivering commonplace but high-quality California cuisine is likely a sound business model. But I sense that there's more to these chefs, and I'd love to see what would happen if they really let loose, or became a little more focused, or gave us something that wasn't quite so familiar. I'm not asking for Bazaar-like theatrics, but I believe they could sing some originals that might compete with this menu of covers.
As it stands, Little Osaka now is home to one of the better examples of casual, modern-American dining to have popped up over the past few months. Flores may even be a great illustration of the new American food renaissance, a symbol of how far we've come in the past 30 years. And I suspect the diners eating happily at Flores are delighted to have such an attractive, friendly and genuinely impressive restaurant appear in the midst of this bustling neighborhood.
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FLORES | Two stars | 2024 Sawtelle Blvd., W.L.A. | (424) 273-6469 | floreslosangeles.com | Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; nightly 5:30-10:45 p.m.; brunch, Sat.-Sun., 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. | Entrees, $15-$24 | Beer and wine served | Valet and street parking