Sqirl Review: Jessica Koslow's Tiny Restaurant Is Serving Some of the Best Food in L.A.
PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEINStrawberry almond financier
The photo, posted on Twitter, might be a still life; the accompanying tweet, a statement of belief: "Green garbanzo hummus, runny egg, yogurt cheese, beets. Everything I want." The picture shows the dish arranged artfully on a beautiful wooden board, a long slice of toasted bread resting alongside the deep purple beets and the sunny orbs of soft egg. Posted by Jessica Koslow, the owner of Sqirl, the tweet is a siren song; resistance is futile.
I'm out the door, in my car, heading to Virgil Avenue. "Everything I want." It often seems that, more than anyone else in town, Koslow has figured out how to make that happen — Sqirl has everything I want, on one plate, over and over again.
Like what? Like a bowl of Kokuho Rose brown rice with sorrel pesto, preserved Meyer lemon, black radish, French sheep feta and a silken poached egg, amped up subtly at the edges with hot sauce. The lemon is so assertive as to make me pucker, the feta generously creamy, the hearty rice intensely nutty and comforting. The combination has the effect of a song lyric or a line of poetry that's so resonant, you think to yourself: I should have written that. I should have come up with this dish. I should be making this for my family for breakfast — if only I had the time/talent/imagination.
Sqirl, which opened in late 2012, has this effect on many people, a kind of awe at the luck of having stumbled upon the place, or the sheer good fortune to live within walking distance of its location on the East Hollywood/Silver Lake border. "I have been waiting for years for something like this to open in this neighborhood," a guy in front of me in line said one day, shaking his head in wonder.
That was back in Sqirl's early days, when the storefront and kitchen still felt like a makeshift food stall, a tiny slot of a space where you lined up and ordered, then fought for seating on rickety blue plastic chairs in the small space next to the building loosely termed a patio. Upturned wooden crates served as tables. People wondered why their friends were raving about that janky-looking café that served not much more than coffee and toast.
Sqirl is barely less makeshift these days, though the inside has been redone and opened up. Its interior now could be referred to as an actual dining room, albeit a compact one, the main seating being a communal table with about 10 stools. The patio has acquired bistro tables, and more outdoor seating is in the works.
The toast remains. But ah, what toast! Brioche with chocolate ganache, nut butter and fleur de sel; toast with kale, tomatillo puree, hot sauce and a fried egg.
And yet, if Sqirl is ever to become a full-fledged restaurant with all the comforts that entails, that day is a long time away. On a Saturday at noon, your wait in line for even a simple coffee drink can easily stretch to 30 minutes, after which you may hover on the sidewalk hoping for one of the coveted outdoor tables to open up. It's a lot to put up with. But even then — even, for me, on the day when I forgot to order my kid his hot chocolate on the first go-round and had to get back in that eternal line a second time — the food was worth it.
Without knowing Koslow's story, you might wonder how some of the most forward-thinking yet soulful food in L.A. is coming out of this literal hole-in-the-wall. Now 32, Koslow first became known in L.A. in 2011 as a purveyor of jams and preserves, which she sold at farmers markets around town, also under the name Sqirl. But before that, there was a culinary journey and education that explains a lot about how Sqirl came to be.
It's a journey that started in Atlanta, after a meal at Bacchanalia, a restaurant that has long been considered the best restaurant in Atlanta, and one of the best in the Southeast. It's the type of place where cooks in bright whites labor in a glassed-in kitchen with machinelike precision, where tweezers are used to create plates of stunning beauty (often made using produce from chef Anne Quatrano's own family farm), where service is still a valued art, where millionaires come to celebrate milestones.
When Koslow, a Long Beach native who had recently moved to Atlanta, ate there in the fall of 2005, she was so taken with the experience that she emailed Quatrano, asking if there was any way she might spend time in her restaurant, learning her craft. Quatrano offered to meet with her the following day and, after a brief conversation, Koslow found herself employed at one of the most prestigious restaurants in the country. She had never cooked professionally before.
Koslow spent most of her year at Bacchanalia working on pastry, which explains the amazing quality of the baked goods at Sqirl: moist upside-down cake with tart rhubarb and berries; dense but delicate almond financiers; the malva pudding cake that has become an absolute addiction, its center all buttery sweet goo, its edges lacquered sugar crust.
During that time and also during a later stint, Quatrano moved Koslow around her other restaurants as well — she learned high-end service, she learned to make pasta, and she learned to cook on the line.
And now, through Sqirl, that knowledge is leaking out, filtered through Koslow's very specific, homespun sensibility. The list of specials might contain up to three handmade pastas on any given day — you might find a Tahitian squash–and-ricotta-filled tortelli with chanterelles and fried sage, as good as any pasta in town and for half the price. Or perhaps you'll order a tuna poke — a bowl of cubed, raw tuna spiked with yuzu, shiso from Sqirl's garden and tuna-skin chicharrón. It's the most refreshing yet fortifying lunch imaginable.
The reverence for produce that makes Sqirl's preserves so astonishing (and they are astonishing) also makes the café's vegetable-driven dishes remarkable. The sunchoke hash is as warming and decadent as it sounds, while a cumin-rich shredded carrot pancake, served over greens with a yogurt sauce, is sweet and soothing, a dish that tastes of both health and comfort — not an easy trick.
Sqirl is ever-changing. The aforementioned dining room expansion was part of a mini renovation that happened concurrently with local wine guru Lou Amdur's Lou's Wine and Provisions moving in next door (it is open now, though it's a bare-bones operation at the time of this writing). Koslow eventually would like to open for dinner, though whether that's possible in this location is debatable (no parking, no liquor license). For now, Sqirl will germinate, like a food-centric art project that has no end game other than to continue to evolve.
Is the seating plush and comfortable? No. Is the line at times interminable, do the water glasses (which you have to procure and fill yourself) often run out, and will you perhaps have to stand on the sidewalk and hope for a table to open up? Yes. Is this young woman and her team turning out some of the most thoughtful, satisfying, beautifully executed food in town? Yes. And that's what it comes down to, or should. Who cares what time of day it is — why is breakfast any less worthy than dinner? Who cares about the setting? Can only upscale restaurants actually touch your life, or have real influence on the way a city eats? Not in L.A.
Koslow is cooking with skill and passion, and she has managed to give us something amazing in the process. But almost more importantly, she's cooking with heart. Which is, over and over again, everything we could possibly want.
SQIRL | Four stars | 720 N. Virgil Ave., E. Hlywd. | (323) 284-8147 | sqirlla.com | Mon.-Fri., 6:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. | No alcohol | Street parking
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