Photos by Anne Fishbein
There was a lot of kissing going on at A.O.C. the other night. Couples at the bar, mostly. Nothing wrong with kissing, it's just that I'm not so used to seeing such PDA in L.A. Paris, along the Seine, yes. West Third Street in a noisy dining room, not so much. And it's not as if A.O.C. is an especially romantic place; it's a couple of high-ceilinged, parchment-colored rooms whose main design features are light fixtures that look like hanging, twinned lampshades and shelves filled with wine bottles. The room does have a kind of starkness found in small European train stations — and people kiss a lot in stations, with all that departing and returning. More likely, though, it has more to do with the happy, casual atmosphere, the sensuous food, the flawless (and discreet) service staff, and wine, wine, wine.
A.O.C. stands for Appellation d'Origin Cˆontrolée, the quality-control stamp issued to wine and dairy products in France — a quirky but catchy choice for Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne's second restaurant. (Their first is the top-rate, fine-dining establishment Lucques.) A.O.C. is a wine bar — with great food. Styne selected high-quality wines from small producers for reasonable prices — most bottles are between $30 and $50. Goin decided to serve only small plates. The two young restaurateurs, it appears, set out to create a relaxed, bustling kind of establishment where, unlike at Lucques, a person didn't need to make reservations a month in advance for prime-time dinner — in part, so that some of their friends, the ones who didn't have their lives spelled out for weeks in advance, could actually stop by and grab a bite to eat from time to time. Good idea, but A.O.C. has caught on like dynamite, and I had to reserve a week ahead for a 7:30 reservation on a weeknight. I stopped by a few other times and ate at the bar, but that nifty little ploy has already entered public consciousness, and empty stools are now about as numerous as pearls at an oyster bar. If a few of those couples, though, would just take their necking outside, maybe someone else could have a seat . . .
The owners of the restaurant contribute to this sort of free-floating goodwill and affection. When Styne greeted a table of diners and saw the wine they'd ordered, she sighed with marked fondness, "Oh, the Brown Zinfandel . . . " and gave the bottle an affectionate caress. Similarly, the menu is a list of dishes whose flavors and preparations Goin clearly fancies. There is probably nothing in the place that one or the other or both of the partners don't love. (Photos by Anne Fishbein)
Goin's food draws heavily on the Mediterranean palette and local farmers markets, Chez Panisse's perfected hominess, Campanile's heart and clarity of flavor, and her own earthy, rusticated sophistication and abilities, which to me are characterized by her joyously flagrant use of olive oil and her romesco sauce that's as smoky and gritty and nutty and vivid as Spain itself. All the food comes à la carte, in small, sharable plates, so diners have many choices. They can have just some wine and cheese, or add olives and cured meat. Or they can fashion their own dinner, their own tasting menu, as it were.
The long, skinny menu begins with one entire page devoted to cheese. The selection is European, with some especially good picks from Italy and Spain, all served at peak flavor. I loved the rosemary-scented sheep's milk, Romao of La Mancha; and the Vacherin from Franch-Comte that pooled on the platter in a thick, shiny, semi- liquid absolute apex of ripeness. And the Tipperary-made Crozier Blue is at once creamy and stinging — it's good enough to revive the rumor that the Irish originally taught the French the art of cheese making. A plate of accompaniments includes good black raisins and various dried-fruit compressions like quince paste and date cake, and a fig cake, candied pumpkin fruit and nuts. Melt-in-your-mouth foie gras countered by sweet-and-sour prunes was a triumph, but other items from the charcuterie listings disappointed. Pork rillettes — a sinfully rich substance traditionally made by cooking pork, pork fat and salt together for a minor infinity — were so bland and un-meaty that it tasted curiously like tuna, and I gave the rest of ours to the people next to us. Chicken liver smeared on crostini also didn't have its flavors up and running.
In fact, when the dishes were good, they were good mainly because of their size — small masterpieces of flavor, texture and complexity. This kind of presentation demands an intensity and focus not required of more traditional protein/veg/starch restaurant plates. This is the challenge Goin has created for herself, and while she most often rises to it with glory, some dishes lag.
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Here's what I loved: A thick-leaved salad of escarole and radicchio with torn bits of croutons and a thick lemon dressing — it's like a caesar with balls. A juicy octopus salad, its springy texture and taste of the sea amped by tiny bits of salty-sour preserved lemon. Lamb skewers virtually sputtering in a minty salsa verde with crumbs of salty feta cheese. White trumpet mushrooms sautéed with crisped bread crumbs. Cavolo nero cooked to a kind of transcendent, comforting softness.
Pork cheeks, however, though beautifully textured — falling apart in that long-cooked, loose, collagen-rich way — were peculiarly flavorless. And several other dishes, while expertly assembled and smartly conceived, called for salt.
I only made it to the dessert menu once and shared a great crusty-walled, moist-inside chocolate cake topped with mascarpone cheese made by pastry chef Kimberly Sklar: Not too sweet, it was intensity incarnate. Other times, I ended the meal with cheese, ordered as a plate, or in special preparations like the roasted dates served with grainy Parmesan and perfect bacon — warm, sweet, salty, pleasurably gritty . . . no wonder A.O.C.'s patrons are kissing fools.
A.O.C., 8022 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (323) 653-6359. Open for dinner seven nights. À la carte, $4-$16. Beer and wine. Valet parking. AE, DC, MC, V.