If you were to make up an imaginary restaurant, embodying all the various obsessions of L.A.'s nerdiest food nerds, it might look something like Baroo. We in L.A. love to find a gem of a place hidden —without a sign! — in a crappy strip mall. We're infatuated with Korean food, with health food, with chefs who trained at Noma, with things pickled and things fermented. There's an almost L.A.-meets-Portlandia humor to how many boxes Baroo checks. We are helpless to resist the charms of this tiny oddity of a restaurant.
If there's anyone to giggle at in this scenario, it is undoubtedly the swooning fans of Baroo (in other words, me) and not Baroo itself. Part of what's so irresistible and endearing about the place is the sincerity with which its owners run their business. They say the word "baroo" refers to the bowl from which monks eat — one of the only objects a monk is allowed to possess — and there is indeed something ascetic about the setup and the intentions of the two men who run the restaurant.
Located on the decidedly unglamorous stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard just east of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Baroo's plain storefront quietly unfolded into existence in mid-August. There's no sign, and the room is tiny and sparse: white walls, a communal table, a counter from which you order, a few stools along another counter against the wall, a blackboard menu and some shelving in back holding jars of things in various stages of fermentation.
Aside from the austere beauty of the room's practical objects, the only decoration is a few Nordic and Korean cookbooks and a framed print of these words: "Where do these meals come from? I don't deserve them with my own virtue. Putting down all the desires of my mind, regarding this offering as medicine to keep our bodies, we get it to complete the task of enlightenment."
Those are the words of owner Kwang Uh, and they were written in 2013, when he was a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Northern Italy. They're from an essay in which he mused about food snobbery and karma. In it, he took himself to task for having worshipped Michelin-starred chefs, for being a food snob when so many people go hungry and for many other thorny self-perceived faults. Prior to his time at the university, Uh had a fascinating career trajectory, filled with stints at impressive restaurants such as Daniel and Nobu. More recently, he's staged at Noma and other world-famous restaurants in Europe. Originally from Seoul, Uh opened Baroo with his friend Matthew Kim, who is also from South Korea and who landed in L.A. thanks to a job with a Korean company.
The two men are the restaurant's only employees, and they both work insanely long hours, seven days a week, making complex, beautiful, stylized food for about $9 to $15 a plate. I have no idea if Baroo is a workable business, if it's sustainable financially or viable psychologically in the long term for its owners. They tend to get a little overwhelmed if there are more than a few customers at once, though it's hard to see how they'll survive without a decent rate of customer traffic. Uh calls it a "free-style experimental kitchen" and explains on his website, "To serve food with respect and love to nature and people, we try to use local, sustainable and organic ingredients with wit, open mind, free spirit and fermentation as much as possible."
What does that mean, exactly? It means composed plates of handmade pasta ribbons that support a kaleidoscope of celery and celeriac: thinly pureed celeriac, pickled julienned celery, crispy chips made from celeriac, a dusky powder they call "celery ash." The dish takes one flavor profile and layers it over itself with multiple variations in texture and technique. The result is lightly fruity and creamy and utterly beguiling.
There are a lot of grains being put to use, including a few dishes with Job's tears, which you may have seen sold as Chinese pearl barley. They're best here in the dish called noorook, which also has farro and kamut, and is mixed with roasted koji beet cream, concentrated kombu dashi, seeds, nuts, finger lime and rose onion pickle. Like much of the food here, it is hearty but light, thick with umami and plainly delicious.
Many dishes are vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. But there are a few meaty pleasures, including the option to add slab bacon to a fermented pineapple–heavy kimchi fried rice, as well as another handmade pasta dish with a hearty oxtail ragu and puffed tendon that dissolves on your tongue in a fatty crackle. Don't be fooled by the word "faux" that Uh puts on his menu ahead of the oxtail — this is not fake meat, it's just a slightly confusing indicator that the ragu is a little unorthodox, like much of what's here.
In some cases, there is a lot going on. The bibim salad has a slightly sticky base of oat, quinoa and bulgur, topped with a rainbow of veggies cut into ribbons: fennel, celery, asparagus and baby radish. Then come the toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, a dressing made from gochujang and San Marzano tomatoes, and garnishes of herbs coulis, passion-fruit powder, baby kale and Asian pear. When your tastebuds are being pulled in so many directions, some of the meditative quality of the food can get lost. But for the most part, this dizzying array of colors and flavors works to stimulate your mind and palate.
To drink, there are a number of flavored kombuchas that have a powerful vinegary kick and to which I've become mildly addicted, particularly the elderflower version. For dessert, you can have a small, expertly made shortbread cookie or a passion-fruit tart that's piled with matcha yuzu chiffon and elderflower meringue. It's almost too overwrought — I might have preferred just the tart passion-fruit curd with the buttery crust — but the whole thing is so expertly made that it's hard to fault.
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The other meaning of "baroo," as defined by Urban Dictionary, is the inquisitive look a dog gives you when it tilts its head cutely to one side; that canine "huh?" head swivel that can also mean, "Are you gonna give me a treat or what?" The monk's bowl is a nice symbol for this place, but I prefer to refer to this alternate meaning of its name when thinking of Baroo. It is slightly confusing, but it is undoubtedly a treat. A weird, exceptionally personal, only-in-L.A. kind of treat. Is there any better kind?
BAROO | Three stars | 5706 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | (323) 819-4344 | baroola.strikingly.com | Daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. | Plates, $9-$15 | No alcohol | Lot parking