An entree of turnips and brown rice sounds vaguely like something you'd get for lunch at a very austere, vegan yoga retreat. It does not sound like the basis for a dish that's capable of stunning a pair of seasoned restaurant writers. Yet there I was with a fellow food writer, sitting in front of a plate of turnips and brown rice, slightly awestruck. Ten minutes later, we were still talking about it.
The restaurant is Allumette in Echo Park, which was until recently the Allston Yacht Club, and the dish was young chef Miles Thompson's musing on the end of winter and the coming warmth. Vinegar-roasted turnips, some still tasting earthy and vegetal, some giving off small bursts of bright acid, were scattered on a plate with stalks of grilled asparagus and a line of brown rice mixed with kohlrabi, black sugar, lime juice and black vanilla bean paste. Blackberries nestled among the other ingredients, and here and there the plate was slicked with a slightly bitter black sauce, an oil made from burnt star anise and pumpkin seeds. It was comforting and discombobulating and delicious. It made me consider the color black, as well as its relation to the idea of dirt, and spring rising from that dirt. It was an outrageous plate of food.
Allumette is born of the Vagrancy Project, a pop-up Thompson launched in February 2012. After hearing good things, Allston Yacht Club owners Charles Kelly and Bill DiDonna invited Thompson to bring the project to their restaurant in Echo Park two nights a week. They ended up being so taken with him that they decided to shut down and reopen with a whole new concept and Thompson in the kitchen full-time.
Allumette opened in late January with a face-lift and the requisite ambitious cocktail program. Still, this place feels very much like a low-key neighborhood restaurant. Its appearance does not reflect its ambition.
As for Thompson, he looks like he's about 16 and is, in fact, not that much older — he just turned 25. He began cooking at 13 at a catering company in New York state. He moved to L.A. in 2006 and, after trying his hand at acting, got a job at Nobu in 2008. He then went to work for Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, first at Animal and then at Son of a Gun. His last position at Son of a Gun was executive sous chef.
Thompson calls his concept for Allumette a "choose your own adventure–style tasting menu." The menu is divided into five sections, plus dessert: crudo, vegetable, seafood, pasta, meat and "for two," an interesting setup in which a dish is plated separately for two diners, each one the size of a full entree. Most dishes here are small plates, but this isn't casual rustic fare meant for sharing. My guess is that Thompson uses "tasting menu" to give you the idea of the type of food he's aiming for: cerebral, exacting, exciting, avant-garde. (The restaurant recently added an actual tasting menu option, five courses for $72 per person.)
Like those turnips, much of his food astonishes. In the crudo section, a shimaji dish with miso, blood orange and kiwi is bright and standard if you like fruit with your fish, but the live scallop tartar knocked me on my ass. Served with strawberries, black truffle and elderflower vinaigrette, it was so luminous and tart that it was like a fruit-and-seafood version of Sweet Tarts.
Szechuan pork dumplings, delicate and savory, sit in a black vinegar sauce with tarragon and come topped with fat salmon roe. Cavatelli with uni ragu and fromage noir is delicate and lovely, English peas and braised mushrooms giving it lightness and the distinct flavor of spring. It's a dish you might come across at one of the best restaurants in the world — making it frankly confounding in this average brown room with a pretty cocktail bar on a slightly sleazy strip in Echo Park.
There are things on this menu that throw you off guard in the best possible way. Sturgeon comes over a roasted round of delicata squash filled with a creamy puree of Tahitian squash. Around the plate is a smattering of huckleberries but also pickled juniper berries, so with each bite you aren't sure if you'll be getting fruit or juniper's weird, foresty perfume.
Thompson has a tendency to match textures rather than contrast them: The pop and gush of salmon roe paired with dumplings, a carrot salad that is a meditation on the concept of crunch and tang, that sturgeon and its fleshy squash counterpart. Usually this works. But the dish that was the biggest disappointment in my meals at Allumette was partly undone by its aesthetic of extreme mush. A whole sea bream is deboned and served with a cheese tortellini, a prawn and a ton of goop splashed across the plate. The goop is advertised as "sauce bouillabaisse and rouille," but it just smothered the fish and prawns. Everything on this plate was too soft for this much sauce.
Occasionally, all this inventiveness goes overboard and the results are just straight-up bizarre. The morcilla mousseline raviolo is a large, slightly gummy ravioli, which comes at the bottom of a plate full of salad greens with a large, cured scallop on top of it, caramelized anchovies and a brioche doughnut. The idea is that the ravioli releases a sea of dark, blood-flavored mousseline, and you use the doughnut to sop the bottom of the dish. But it comes across as a weird blood ravioli with disconnected fish components, a salad of sorts and a doughnut. It's almost more bizarre than it sounds.
Almost all of Thompson's dishes are in danger of this kind of overkill. There is a lot going on on these plates. Yet, more often than not, he miraculously manages to pull it all together.
The question is whether Thompson will learn to recognize which dishes achieve that brilliant harmony, their disparate flavors coming together to create a whole, and which dishes simply don't work. The editor in me wants to gently urge this young chef to be willing to kill his babies.
He could use a real pastry chef as well — his citrus curd with a tart rhubarb-lime gelée is like a mouthful of sunshine, but his other desserts seem almost childish compared with the savory food. Cheesecake mousse with cookie dough feels more like a Ben & Jerry's flavor gone awry than something at this level.
"He's a genius," owner Bill DiDonna sighed at my tableside one night, marveling at the new turnip dish while around us, servers put chairs up on tables even though a couple of tables were still sitting.
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DiDonna is right to be smitten, and while I suspect this can-do-no-wrong attitude is partly to blame for Allumette's confusing dishes, it's also nice to see a business owner give a young chef the space he needs to be as wildly creative as he wants to be. L.A. can only benefit from that. Because when he's on, Miles Thompson is making food that's slightly staggering in its inventiveness and quality. You can understand DiDonna's gushing. It tastes like the future.
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ALLUMETTE | 3 stars | 1320 Echo Park Ave., Echo Park | (213) 935-8787 | allumettela.com | Dinner: Tues.-Thurs., 6-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. | Small plates $8-$18, "for two" entrees $38-$40 | Full bar | Street parking