Opaline: The Sound of One Hand Cooking
It’s rare that a new restaurant -- especially a smart, urbane, sophisticated, upscale new restaurant -- is actually designed to be calm, restful, and a possible refuge from L.A.‘s traffic and noise and chronic, insoluble busyness. But without any sacrifice of chic or style, Opaline, on Beverly Boulevard, is exactly that -- a place where people can actually have a conversation or, more radical, hear themselves think.
The corner room, with its swoop of windows, is full of warm grays, matte black, ivory, and horizontal wood that’s Japanese in its tasteful spareness. A graceful floor-to-ceiling hourglass thing -- part light fixture, part sculpture, made of translucent polymer ribbons -- centers the room like a bright, static fountain. Opaline is also sleek and precise in all the small appointments, from the woven place mats to the classy glassware and sturdy, stylish white china. The tables are well-spaced, and the acoustics are perfect. Low-key jazz -- Dave Brubeck, Capitol-era Frank S. -- plays in the background. You can hear your companions and, if you‘re so inclined, even eavesdrop. During one lull at our table the other night, we heard a neighbor say, “This is so fabulous. If I could cook like this, I’d never leave the house.”
We craned to see what dish he was referring to, but couldn‘t. Never mind. We felt much the same about the food we were eating.
Opaline’s executive chef, David Lentz, came to Los Angeles from Las Vegas‘ China Grill. He did some consulting, and worked at Campanile, until he teamed up with Opaline’s owner, David Rosoff. After a year of planning and remodeling, Opaline opened two months ago and became so busy so quickly that Lentz and his kitchen staff had to go straight into full production mode and work out the kinks as they went along. I first stopped in when the place was a month old and found the service smooth and friendly, and the food full of excellent ideas that didn‘t quite jell. Roasted-cauliflower soup with a poached oyster was good but for a strange, sweet mustiness. Lovely line-caught cod did not relate to other elements on its plate -- fennel, hazelnuts, anchovy picada. And while Moroccan spiced braised pork is a great idea -- a pork tagine! -- and while the meat had been slow-cooked to a melting texture and condensed meatiness, smartly paired with a quince puree, the pork itself had not been properly preheated and was cold and congealed within.
A month later, on a return visit, two things became clear: 1) Lentz had pulled things together with a sure and near-miraculous swiftness, and 2) Los Angeles is very lucky to have him. His cooking is earthy and robust but also capable of subtlety, taking its cues from both the African and the European shores of the Mediterranean. He has affinities for certain ingredients -- in this menu, for quince, hazelnuts, chestnuts, watercress, honey, figs, cured meat -- and uses them repeatedly, in different guises, to create through-lines in his menu and an overall integrity.
Candidates for our neighbor’s mystery fabulous dish include an endive salad in white chestnut honey and small brown crumbles of chestnuts themselves, lending a haunting forest perfume. And a thick crepe -- well, more a plump square blintz -- filled with fun-to-chew shredded rabbit confit salted with Serrano ham, then set in a reduction sauce with whole mustard grains, sliced chanterelles and bits of squeaky green leek. If the lemon- and olive-oil-marinated poached-albacore confit isn‘t quite as stunning -- it looks like a pile of canned tuna on a tortilla chip -- it does have a lovely, clear flavor that’s intensified by a black chopped-olive aioli, with a scattering of capers.
Of course, our enthusiastic neighbor might have been talking about an entree -- the Moroccan pork, perhaps, heated to perfection. Or a big, well-marbled, wildly tasty aged rib-eye (a steak that‘s not for anyone squeamish about fat). Mondays are cassoulet night at Opaline; the night we were there, Lentz made a chicken cassoulet, a dense, rich, many-pleasured dish, as comforting as a roaring fire and a big quilt. The recommended wine, a light red, was a perfect match and very reasonably priced.
Desserts, inventive without being precious, were very strong. Hazelnuts, which previously appeared in a crab salad and with the cod, reappeared in a hazelnut butter cake that comes with caramel ice cream, creme anglaise and -- a bit of genius -- a sprinkling of fleur de sel. Here is a cook who deeply understands the mix of salty and sweet. The cardamom-spiced honey cake is even better; it’s more moist and dense, and the fromage blanc ice cream is less sweet, the house-made orange-and-cranberries marmalade a tart, smart garnish. One expects bread pudding to be heavy, but the fig bread pudding melts in your mouth -- except for the chewy, dark bits of fig. Only by contrast does the apple, pear and quince crisp (quince again!) seem, well, ordinary.
Leaving the restaurant, we paused in the den, inhaled the fragrance of big white lilies, sneaked a few candied pecans from bowls on the table, and had a mad thought of sitting down and having a whole other Opaline experience -- the small dishes and drinks one. We decided to delay indulging that particular desire. Given the evidence -- the gliding service, the pretty rooms, Lentz‘s intelligent and hearty cooking -- Opaline will be around for a long time to come.
Opaline, 7450 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 857-6725. Open Mon.--Fri. 11:30 a.m.--2:30 p.m. and Mon.--Sat. 5:30 --11:30 p.m. Entrees $16--$23. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, DC, MC, V.
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