Roy Choi cannot help himself. Even the most straightforward project must be bound in meaning, wrapped up in philosophy, imbued with some sort of higher purpose. The dude is a bona fide food prophet, a weed-addled street crusader fighting for truth, justice and the Korean-American way.
So it makes sense that when he opened Commissary, on the second-story roof of the Line hotel in Koreatown, there would be a lot of chatter about the monumental meaning of the place. It was billed as Choi's ode to vegetables — quite a departure for the guy who made his name serving Korean tacos and "chubby pork belly" rice bowls. And then, somewhat incongruously, the man himself declared Commissary "a country club for the public." Actually, it's worth reading Choi's entire quote on the subject, posted on Instagram the day the restaurant opened. Here is but a snippet:
"From the streets to refrigerator rice bowls, to a restaurant with the aloha spirit and a mean-ass fried chicken, to a dream interlude in Jamaica, to challenging my Korean identity as a young immigrant, to bringing fruit and coffee to South Central, to now trying to make vegetables relevant to a new generation by just making them fun and challenging classicism in America by building a country club for the public. Welcome to Commissary."
Sheesh. That's heavy stuff. Like much of what Choi does, it's hard to tell if we should be struck with admiration and awe, or just plain confused. How much can a restaurant actually accomplish? Can a "public country club" teach a new generation to love vegetables? What does that even mean?
Or maybe a better question: Who cares? There's a lot to love about the place, regardless of how much we buy into (or understand) its philosophy. The space is a garden fantasy, an actual greenhouse built on the roof next to the pool and containing all the leafy magic of a butterfly house at the zoo but better, because here there are cocktails. The menus arrive in stamped-and-sent, yellowed envelopes looking like WWI-era love letters from across the Pacific but addressed to such luminaries as Kanye West and bearing the address of one of Choi's other restaurants. Inside the envelope are picture cards that serve as menus, a grid of illustrations depicting dishes or single ingredients. There are no dish descriptions, but the calming directive from Choi at the top of the menu reassures: "There are no words. I know, I know. Don't freak out. Trust the pictures."
For all the ambition of the space and all the fun of the picture-book menu, Commissary is not Choi's magnum opus. If you're looking for the soul of the chef, go downstairs to POT, the Korean funhouse of an eatery Choi opened back in the spring. Rather, Commissary is a very weird, very cool, conventional hotel restaurant.
Every hotel needs one: the restaurant where you can go for breakfast, lunch or dinner; where you can get a stiff drink and also a grilled cheese for the kiddies, or a burger and fries, or a continental breakfast in the morning. When POT opened, it was many things, but standard hotel restaurant was not one of them.
Commissary, on the other hand, does fulfill that function; it just does so in L.A. chic wood-nymph costume. The triumph here is in the details: the glass walls filtering sunlight through the palm fronds, those love-letter picture card menus. There are also very Choi-specific witticisms, like the fact that many of the drinks are served in plastic deli containers, the standard receptacle line cooks drink from while working. Choi is a master of clever minutiae, of sly jokes that make his restaurants delightful in unexpected ways.
Which is why it's so amusing that much of the actual food at Commissary is retro in its approach. There are deviled eggs and shrimp cocktail on this menu, neither of them much different from what you might have ordered at a hotel restaurant in the 1950s. There's a grilled cheese sandwich and a tuna melt, both delicious but neither idiosyncratic in any way. When Choi invoked the country club image, he wasn't kidding — much of this food could be found on the menu of just such an institution. Cobb salad, anyone?
That's not to say there isn't some far-out food here; there certainly is. Five sauces dominate the flavor profiles of many of the more creative dishes, and Choi uses those five — red, green, brown, yellow and rainbow — like a mix-and-match, paint-by-numbers tool, with varying degrees of success.
Radishes, which come crunchy and spry in a pool of garlic-intense green sauce, pop with freshness, as though they really were just pulled from the earth minutes earlier. There is no masking the peppery vegetal flavor of the radish, no apology for its assertive character.
Black bass, on the other hand, gets drowned out by its heavy brown sauce accompaniment, the fish's sweet oceanic aspects obliterated by the primal roar of chili and soy. Pert green peas heaped atop the dish help with balance, but not enough. Clams arrive in a sludge of different sauces, some herbal, some spicy, with added bacon. The taste is so salty and confusing that it's hard to discern the presence of clams at all. If you weren't actively pulling them from their shells, you might never know they were there.
But when Choi's sauces work, they really work. Corn on the cob grilled to a tasty char comes with creamy red goop that makes you wonder why elote has never been ramped up like this before. Similarly, charred carrots, brought to stunning sweetness by the natural caramelization, take on an addictive quality, thanks to the pool of feisty green sauce they sit in, and the drizzle of cooling yogurt. This may not be as much of a vegetable-driven restaurant as advertised, but the veggies are certainly the best part of it.
Like the downstairs lobby bar, the drinks here were created by star bartender Matthew Biancaniello, perhaps the only guy in town who could make a sweet drink using tomato and okra and have it work beautifully. I'm also a sucker for the White Fir cocktail, which blends fresh passionfruit with Calisaya, an herbal orange Italian liqueur. The wine list, too, has a lot of crossover with the list downstairs at POT, which is a good thing because both lists are weird and wonderful and perfectly suited to bold flavors.
I can actually see folding Commissary into the routine of my life, as a place to meet people for lunch when you want to impress with scenery and aren't familiar enough with your tablemates to know if they might want a mammoth steak or a simple salad or a bowl of eggplant swimming in curry sauce. The restaurant also would work as a particularly lovely setting for an afternoon cocktail and a plate of deviled eggs.
Would I go there when I'm looking to experience the very best of Roy Choi's cooking? Nope. But not everything the guy does needs to be gospel, even if he preaches as if it is.
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See also: Our photo gallery of Commissary
COMMISSARY | 3515 Wilshire Blvd., 2nd floor, Koreatown | (213) 368-3030 | eatatpot.com | Daily, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. | Entrees, $13-$30 | Full bar | Valet parking