Jonathan Gold Reviews Starry Kitchen
Into the depths of California Plaza, crushed beneath giant towers, jammed into a space almost certainly configured for fast food, Starry Kitchen is as improbable as any restaurant in Los Angeles, an illegal backyard restaurant transformed into a pan-Asian office workers' canteen with validated parking. It is a place of Taiwanese pork chops and Malaysian chicken and deep-fried tofu balls whose weekly menu changes seem designed to deprive customers of whatever they happen to like best, whose job postings specify that no former Subway employees need apply, and whose penchant for genital humor is so pervasive that ball jokes may as well be the restaurant's reason for being.
When it was still an underground restaurant, it had the highest Yelp rating of any Asian restaurant in town. Is Starry Kitchen open for dinner? Sometimes! If you are in the habit of visiting food events, you probably have seen the Starry Kitchen staff stalking the grounds dressed as storm troopers or wookiees, or at least spotted co-owner Nguyen Tran rocking his banana suit.
It's hard to tell exactly what kind of niche Starry Kitchen has hacked out in the local food scene — after a year, the downtown space still feels like a squat — but it seems clear that it's going to be around for a while.
Still, even the most jaded observer of the transient world of mini malls, trucks and pop-ups was surprised this summer when Starry Kitchen announced its alliance with Laurent Quenioux, the French chef who has been cooking in Los Angeles since the mid-1980s, when he followed Joachim Splichal as the chef at Seventh Street Bistro downtown. But Quenioux is perhaps not the most orthodox of French chefs. At his Bistro K, tucked into a former funeral parlor in South Pasadena, he was as well-known for his ant eggs and his tamales as he was for his traditional preparations of game. At Bistro LQ, he made salsas out of begonia blossoms and garnished his dishes with roasted duck hearts the way other chefs do with parsley. But Bistro LQ is gone, with the Silver Lake wine bar Barbrix preparing to move into the space. Quenioux's consulting gig at Pasadena's Vertical is no doubt consuming, and we all look forward to the return of cassoulet weather, but the tastes of a Pasadena wine-bar crowd probably are too conservative for the things like sauerkraut sushi, or warm veal feet with anchovies, that are at the heart of Quenioux's repertory.
So there he is, LQ@SK, Sunday through Tuesday nights every other week, menus changing pretty much whenever he feels like it. And there they are, his faithful, having reserved well in advance through the Bistro LQ site, gripping bottles of Provencal rose, entry-level Bordeaux and New Zealand sauvignon blanc, brought from their cellars, or from the shelves of the wine shop Domaine L.A., whose proprietor Jill Bernheimer has designated wine pairings for Quenioux's menus. It is all very glamorous.
I ended up at LQ@SK on an evening where the restaurant had been block-booked by a group called the Gastronauts, a dining club whose members live for offal-intensive monthly dinners that may revolve around Palestinian roast lamb, or Isaan Thai dinners featuring spare parts. Quenioux, no stranger to odd meats, was cooking things unfamiliar even to him. Starry Kitchen has a pretty rudimentary kitchen, with no gas fittings, making certain preparations all but impossible. And this was a tough crowd — youngish, largely from the entertainment industry, but nearly as multicomplected as Los Angeles; people who had not only tasted duck hearts but knew the difference between good duck hearts and bad.
So when the skewers of sauteed lamb sweetbreads came out, they instantly disappeared from the communal platters of crushed peanuts on which they were resting, and I noticed that nobody pushed the roasted duck gizzards and duck hearts away from the endive salad. There was a raw plate of cod eggs, thinly sliced poached monkfish liver, tongues of local uni and a raw quail yolk buried in its shell under fat salmon eggs. The composition was marred only by chewy wisps of undercooked sea cucumber. (Sea cucumber should be served either raw or cooked into full submission.) A stack of bone marrow, calves' feet and rare, seared sea scallop tasted like a marine take on pieds et paquets, dominated by the softness and stickiness of the foot's developed gelatin.
But nobody quite knew what to do with the main course — a Provencal-style daube of beaver leg and bear tenderloin simmered with spices and lots of red wine. Bear meat (legally and humanely sourced, we were assured) is difficult to cook, with a lot of gooey fat that needs to be trimmed, but almost no marbling. The early editions of Joy of Cooking that addressed bear meat basically told cooks they were on their own. Quenioux served the bear as medallions.
Beaver is also pretty low in fat, and was served alongside in winey shreds, the texture of the Mexican stew tinga. If nobody had told you what you were eating, you would have assumed it was beef. If nobody had pointed out which meat was bear and which was beaver, you wouldn't have guessed. There was no wildness, no errant gaminess to the dish: It was a professionally made stew. And for that, I suppose, I was grateful.
Dessert was a vol au vent, a pastry case, filled with sweet pastry cream — and garnished with candied cockscombs, cooked to the consistency of rooster gummy bears, a dessert unlikely to show up on other local menus any time soon.
"You can tell that this dinner was planned by a woman,'' said Gastronaut Helen Springut, who had in fact planned the dinner. "Because it is probably the only way that beaver would ever come before cock."
Reserve for the next round of dinners at bistrolq.com/LQ/Insiders/List