Spanish food has a problem in its American translation. It's not that we don't want to love it — we do. Certain aspects of the cuisine have even become annoyingly ubiquitous (small plates, anyone?). But the long, rollicking meal that stretches past midnight, which exists mostly as a series of snacks to fortify us for more wine ... we can't quite manage to achieve that in this work-obsessed country. Americans don't eat the way the Spanish eat, and we probably never will.
At a restaurant like Smoke.oil.salt, the new West Hollywood spot specializing in the food of Spain, diners order an avalanche of dishes all at once. In their native setting, these dishes would be consumed over many hours, but here, even if they're timed well, you end up with a table full of plates, or a series delivered quickly, one right after another is whisked away. The slow, meandering quality of this cuisine's natural pace gives way to the American need to stuff our faces — and the American restaurant's need to turn tables.
Despite this, Smoke.oil.salt chef (and Valencia native) Perfecto Rocher is valiantly trying to bring the experience of Spain, specifically Catalonia, to the brick space (under a tattoo parlor) on Melrose that used to be Evan Kleiman's Angeli Caffe.
Rocher has the right credentials for the project, certainly. He grew up cooking in Spain, followed by stints in London and the United States (most impressively at Manresa), an apprenticeship at El Bulli and head chef roles in L.A. at BLVD and Lazy Ox Canteen. Backed by Advantage Partners' Adam Fleischman (of Umami Burger fame) and producer Stephen Gelber, Rocher now is free to focus on bringing the flavors of his homeland to West Hollywood.
He does this from behind a grill at the back of the dining room — there's counter seating facing the chef and his grill if you're looking to gawk at the process. The two-room setup of the restaurant is simple, designwise, with brick walls and wood tables, and a few small, black-and-white photos of Dalí (of course) on the wall. For Fleischman in particular, who tends to open flashy restaurants, Smoke.oil.salt is downright subtle.
Despite our city's love of tapas, or at least their size and adaptability, there's little in the way of quality Spanish food in Los Angeles, and many of Rocher's dishes come as pure delight. His version of calçots — spring onions, served smoked over salbitxada, the thick sauce made with ground almonds and hazelnuts — is enough to throw you into a reverie for Catalan nights, even if you've never set foot in Europe.
You've had gazpacho, but have you ever had cherry gazpacho, as deep and purple-red as the lips of a wicked vixen, topped with lobster meat, caviar and a fried oyster? It's just as sweet and tart, just as unexpected, and just as delightful as it sounds. You've had grilled yellowtail collar, perhaps as part of a boozy Japanese meal, but have you had it under a Valencian picadeta sauce, spiked with anchovies and fresh herbs? You ought to.
Rocher puts his potatoes through a process that involves poaching, freezing and frying, which results in a golden crispy exterior and a firm but creamy center, layered with wisps of ham and peppered with chorizo, then topped with a fried egg. A heaping bowl of fried smelts is perhaps too generous — it would take a mob to eat this many small, fried fishies — but that's hardly a complaint.
There's nothing more dark and delicious on the menu than the cassoleta de fideua negra, small lengths of pasta in a morass of mellow squid ink, punctuated by clams and impossibly tender calamari. You'd also do well to delve into the callos — a honeycomb tripe stew with chorizo, chickpeas and warming comfort by the truckload.
Are there concessions to American appetites? Not many. Perhaps the pa amb tomaca is a little saucier than is traditional, its vinegar-laced tomato topping sopping off the sides of the toast and dribbling down your chin, but who cares? It's delicious. And the sea urchin flan with caviar and shrimp chili oil seems slightly out of place on this menu — a hyper-modern confection among time-honored dishes — but it's a fun diversion nonetheless.
Sommelier Naureen Zaim takes some risks with the booze here, and all for the best. For lovers of funk-laced ciders, of lesser-known Spanish wines, of sherries and even of dry rieslings, Smoke.oil.salt has you covered. Value is an issue, though: Many of the wines on the list are marked up far beyond the normal rate, and you get absolutely no price break when buying a bottle rather than going by the glass.
On Sunday nights — and Sundays only — the restaurant serves paella. For $45 per person, you get a couple of small plates, a dessert and paella to share. Generally there's a seafood version, a vegetarian version and a meat version, though you shouldn't be surprised if one of those has sold out.
It was on paella night that I experienced the most disappointment at Smoke.oil.salt. Service was slow and distracted, with managers standing around schmoozing while the room fell apart around them. A starlet in a backless dress had the place undone, the cooks peering out from the kitchen with giddy interest, the food going undelivered, the chef and managers too busy kissing cheeks to notice.
But the food, too, was an issue that night. A first course that promised olives, pickles, cheese and nuts was a small dish of olives with a few pieces of pickled cauliflower — no nuts or cheese, no explanation. And the paella, studded with rabbit, pork, artichoke and unshelled favas, lost me about three bites in. The rice, intensely perfumed with rosemary, had the right give and crunch where it met the pan, but the rabbit was dry and so full of teeny, tiny, shattered bones that eating it became a real chore. If leaving the favas in their shells is a tactic to avoid mealiness, it didn't succeed.
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Rocher grew up working in his grandfather's paella restaurant, and it may be that the tiny bones and the difficult vegetables have some claim to Valencian authenticity. I don't much care — here, it's a pain.
But such disappointments were the exception. The restaurant's most egregious flaw is inherent in its format. The parade of intense dishes is wonderful but can become too overwhelming, and feel too oily, when piled up to suit the American forced march to digestion. It had me wishing for time and space, for the luxury of enjoying the plates over four hours rather than one, for an evening to share them with multiple bottles of wine and multitudes of friends.
Can a flaw also point to the very best thing about a place? In this case, it most certainly can.
SMOKE.OIL.SALT | Three stars | 7274 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | (323) 930-7900 | smokeoilsalt.com | Tue.-Sun., 5:30-mid. | plates, $4 (for a small glass of gazpacho) to $125 (for a dry aged rib-eye for two) | Wine, beer and cider | Valet parking