Fred Eric is the house madman of Los Angeles cooking, the screaming id, the chef who has been most likely to succeed since the 1980s. He worked with Joachim Splichal at the dawn of the hypertechnical era of Los Angeles cuisine, ran what were arguably the first of the new line of lounge restaurants with Octavio Becerra, and was possibly the first chef to incorporate Vietnamese and Mexican and Korean and Japanese flavors and structures in the manner that later became the ubiquitous local small-plates cuisine.
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Frosted: A minicupcake
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Cutting edge: Fred Eric works the slicer.
His Olive was the first of L.A.’s velvet-rope restaurants; his grungy-elegant Vida made concrete some of the Asian-accented pop riffs and tropes that are still echoing through local restaurant menus; his coffee shop Fred 62 (he’s just a minority partner at the moment) is still delighting club kids and pissing off the squares after more than a decade. His investors tend to be rock managers and the punk-rock aristocracy instead of the usual coterie of attorneys and dentists, and his clientele tends toward the kinds of rich bohos who didn’t mind spending their dining dollars on appetizers impaled on miniature grappling hooks.
I’ve known Eric for almost 20 years now — if you run in certain circles, it is impossible not to know him — and he has always come up with a density of ideas that makes it almost impossible to comb the brilliant from the cockamamie: recipe coloring books; punk-rock karaoke; framed Mike Roy portraits; baroquely constructed vodka/fruit-juice shooters as appetizers; tamales that look like bondage implements; design-your-own Asian noodles; anal-themed porn shoots in the dining room; and something called the Tacone, that was briefly fought over by half of the high-profile chefs in town. When you saw foie gras corn dogs at a charity benefit, you knew Eric had to be somehow involved. When you saw intricately designed vegan dishes in a diner, Eric may have had something to do with it too.
He has had his hands in so many projects at so many different ends of the food spectrum that it can be difficult to sort the successes (the insanely popular Liberty Grill is essentially an Eric restaurant with adult supervision) from the failures (the Airstream Diner; the converted Eagle Rock movie hall that ended up as a church rather than as his dream palace of food). And although Tiara Cafe, the eclectic Fashion District restaurant cum organic market, may be the most Fredatarian of anything he’s ever done — an enormous pink cavern dripping with Seussian lichen sculptures and sporting a secret toy museum on the mezzanine; a girlie pleasure dome jacked up with three kinds of steroids; a menu that reads like one from Musso & Frank Grill rewritten by a thousand-person game of telephone — few outside the neighborhood took notice.
But a few weeks ago, at the Taste of the Nation benefit for Meals on Wheels, a vast outdoor food event in downtown Culver City, Eric popped up as a contestant in an onstage bout of Iron Chef, matched against Top Chef finalist Antonia Lofaso (chef of West Hollywood’s Foxtail), in a 30-minute cooking duel judged by Angeli’s Evan Kleiman, Iron Chef stalwart Cat Cora, Wahoo’s Fish Tacos founder Wing Lam and me.
Portable cooktops gleamed. Exotic produce tumbled from boxes. Hundreds of spectators took a few minutes off from scarfing chicken-liver mousse and bits of roasted pig and settled into rickety chairs facing the stage. And Lofaso, after raising her hands over her head to acknowledge the crowd, somehow brought her chef’s knife down into Eric’s hand, where it plunged almost to the bone.
It was not an intentional move, at least no more intentional than the Celtic knee that found its way into Lamar Odom’s groin in game five of the NBA finals, but while Eric went to get taped up, Lofaso set to work on her competition dish, sautéing mushrooms, pan-roasting duck. After 15 minutes had passed, Eric strode to the front of the stage, stripped out of his street clothes to reveal a Lakers uniform underneath, and announced that he was going to prepare a raw-food dish with the provided juicer. “Eat it raw,” he said.
The crowd groaned; Eric seemed doomed. Lofaso appeared to be almost done cooking, and her food smelled great. Eric, tossing poblanos and habaneros into the juicer like so many carrots, had barely started, and what was coming out of his machine looked like sludgy wheatgrass juice. But when the buzzer sounded, and the first plates were put in front of us, Lofaso’s fresh spring rolls turned out to be the sort of thing you can find at any Asian small-plates café in Los Angeles, competently assembled but without a special spark. Eric brought out one of the most beautiful composed salads I have ever tasted, small lettuces and bright vegetables and willowy stalks of wild asparagus arranged into a rustic still-life, a Cornell Box of a salad held together by a brilliantly spicy lime-chile vinaigrette. He had literally spotted his opponent 15 minutes and competed with one arm behind his back, and he still won a unanimous decision. I thought it was probably time to revisit Tiara, which I hadn’t been by since it finally opened for dinner several months ago.
Eric’s Asian-tinged, pan-Mediterranean menu is still painted in 17 shades of farmers-market salad. There are bubbly, skateboard-shaped lengths of flatbread served with curried squash, preserved lemons and harissa, and a selection of “Freshwiches,” rice-paper rolls stuffed with spice-tinged “Thai” cobb salad, with grilled tuna and vegetables, or with shrimp, mangoes and Granny Smith apples. Low-carb and fat-free, Freshwiches are big with the perpetually fasting fashionistas that make up a big part of the clientele. A Cuban-style pressed sandwich is made with smoked duck and house-pickled cucumbers, and noodle dishes come both vegan and not — I suspect there is no system of culinary belief the kitchen cannot accommodate. You won’t find fried potatoes, but you will find crunchy sticks of chick-pea fritters that have all the sensations of a French fry. Eric’s famous corn dogs have been redubbed “hush puppies” and carry payloads of rabbit and Creole andouille sausage instead of wieners.
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There are brawny, crusted little pizzas now, topped with things like burrata and heirloom-pig La Quercia pancetta, roasted eggplant and seitan, or goat cheese and chopped herbs. Eric is even presenting actual main courses now that Tiara is open for dinner, and his take on the Japanese trencherman’s classic of katsu with curry rice — made with crisply fried pounded chicken instead of pork, house-made curry instead of the packaged stuff, and a spicy tonkatsu sauce — is wonderful.
As at all of Eric’s restaurants, consistency is sometimes a problem. You may get a beautifully medium-rare skirt steak at the same time your mother-in-law across the table is getting one cooked to leather; the burrata on the pizzette may be a lovely, fluffy cloud of cheese or a sodden, watery mass. A forkful of food can be transcendently beautiful or not. The odds are with you, but it’s still a dice game. Still, at least it’s a dice game with tiny, exquisitely frosted cupcakes for dessert, and a meal that tastes like L.A.
Tiara Cafe, 127 E. Ninth St., dwntwn., (213) 623-3663. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Beer, wine, sake and champagne only. Validated lot parking next door. All major credit cards. Recommended dishes: pizzette with La Quercia pancetta; smoked duck media noche; chicken “yaki katzu”; minicupcakes.