In a city infamous for vehicle-induced madness, it's hard to categorize any one location as the "worst" when it comes to traffic or parking. But Saturday evening at the entrance to the Original Farmers Market and Grove parking lots has got to be a top-10 contender. Certainly there are a million places I'd rather be, a hundred restaurants I could think of patronizing, that wouldn't require vehicular torture at this extreme.
Difficulty in parking and access may well have been what doomed Short Order, the upscale burger restaurant that previously sat in the semi-outdoor, two-story space at the outer corner of the Original Farmers Market. There are plenty of eating establishments in these parts, both at the Grove and the Farmers Market, that do just fine, but they peddle in a somewhat different trade from what Short Order seemed to be aiming for.
Likewise, the tourists, mall-goers and seekers of nostalgia who pack most of those gridlocked vehicles are a different breed from the diners I'd assume might be interested in Moruno, the new restaurant that's taken over the Short Order space. There's nothing easy about Moruno. I can't succinctly even tell you what kind of restaurant it is. It's hard to park, it's an odd location, the food is somewhat undefinable. I still think you should go there. Even on a Saturday night.
My first taste of Moruno came last summer in the form of a care package at my office containing a bottle of vermouth. It's not uncommon for new restaurants or bars or brands to send out goody boxes to the media, full of branded stuff meant to tempt us to provide coverage, to create a sense of intrigue and goodwill, or (for the cynics among you) to act on the suspicion that everyone is for sale and people like goody boxes. My policy on these things is generally to ignore them and shuttle them to the office "free" table, but I'll admit that I was intrigued by the long, slim bottle of vermouth sent by Moruno. I adore vermouth, both as a mixer and — when it's good — as an aperitif over ice, but I've found most American versions too heavily flavored with botanicals, too perfume-driven. But the white vermouth delivered by Moruno's clever PR team was none of those things. It was balanced, herbaceous and exactly bitter enough.
That was back when Moruno was operating only as a takeout window, serving sandwiches and morunos, the skewered, spiced, grilled meats that are ubiquitous in southern Spain. In the year since, the takeout window has closed, and there were reports that the upstairs space would become a vermouth bar — then the restaurant itself opened in February. The project is driven by David Rosoff and Chris Feldmeier, both of whom worked at Mozza, Rosoff as a general manager and Feldmeier as chef de cuisine at the Osteria.
It's Rosoff — in collaboration with Steve Clifton, a brewer and winemaker at Palmina Wines in Lompoc — who was responsible for that delicious vermouth, which you can now get on draft at Moruno (the restaurant's dedicated vermouth bar has yet to materialize, though it's still in the works, in an upstairs space adjacent to the small seating area). But Feldmeier's menu likely will be the most exciting aspect of Moruno, even when a bar for nerdy vermouth lovers does come about.
The menu takes its influence broadly from southern Spain, but it's not concerned in any way with the pseudo-tapas we've come to expect from Spanish food in America. The rest of the world's historic culinary interactions with Spain, particularly those of the Moorish, Middle Eastern and North African variety, are on full display here. And so, while the format — small plates, somewhat international influences — sounds familiar, the food itself is refreshingly distinctive.
I could eat a 100 percent vegetarian meal here and be totally satisfied. A wedge of roasted butternut squash is dense and fudgy with vegetal sweetness, set off with what's listed on the menu as dukkah but is actually kind of deconstructed dukkah; the word, which usually refers to a mix of spices and nuts, means "to pound," referencing the method used to make the stuff. Here the spices are mixed with whole roasted cashews and a flurry of sesame seeds, making for a dish whose mouthfuls are half sweet flesh and half two kinds of crunch, two kinds of nuttiness. This isn't a concoction where the creativity comes in by way of clever contrasts; rather, the accompaniments and cooking method are there to amplify the squash's original attributes.
Vegetable dish of the year, though, probably goes to the rotisserie cabbage served with pickled-mushroom yogurt. It comes blackened on the outside and soft on the inside, the leaves melting into a juicy wonder of funk and vegetal sweetness.
Fish and meat dishes can be equally rewarding. The esqueixada, a Catalan salad of salt cod, tomatoes and onions marinated in vinegar, is juicy and summery and puckery and lives up to its nickname of Catalan ceviche. There's a simple whole fish a la plancha that's as lovely as any in town, and the squid stuffed with a forcemeat made from squid is more delicious and elegant than it sounds. The morunos come as chicken or lamb, and you can get them one of three ways: on their own, in a sandwich or over rice studded with lentils. All of them are good, though I liked the rice bowl version best. But they also are one of the least exciting things to eat here, and I'd be likely to allot my stomach space to something more thrilling.
The butternut squash, the salt cod and the cabbage are all done in ways you've likely never encountered before unless you've eaten extensively and internationally — certainly never in Los Angeles. Add to that list the tripe, which here is stewed and then grilled, so it ends up crisp and chewy and unlike any tripe I've ever had. In truth, some of the pieces were grilled so hard they were fully black. I'm not sure whether Feldmeier is aiming for this burnt quality, but I do know I preferred eating the pieces that were a little less done.
The element of surprise carries over to the wine list, which is chock-full of interesting and affordable finds, mainly from Spain and France, and also to the dessert menu, which is overseen by Mozza pastry chef (and recent Best Pastry Chef James Beard Award winner) Dahlia Narvaez. If you think you're sick of chocolate desserts, I dare you to dislike the chocolate sesame tart here, which comes under drifts of halvah. It is glorious.
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Even as I sat inside, protected from the scrum of cars and stores, I wished Moruno were somewhere else. The seats upstairs are comfy enough, but the downstairs dining room feels a little like you're eating in a breezeway under someone's garage. It's a weird space all around, a jewel of a restaurant occupying two small spaces that jut out on the corner of one of the worst parking lots in L.A. It's still worth the hassle, which is saying quite a lot. And for those of us who just can't face the pain of mall parking, they're opening an outpost any minute at Grand Central Market downtown.
MORUNO | Original Farmers Market, 6333 W. Third St., Beverly Grove | (323) 372-1251 | morunola.com | Mon.-Sat., noon-11 p.m.;Sun., noon-10 p.m. | Plates: $5-$28 | Full bar | (Infuriating) lot parking