When Sotto opened in 2011, it was a big deal for Los Angeles. Restaurateur Bill Chait's project with chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack got the kind of attention that only Chait can whip up. The pizza oven was flown in from Naples, along with a third-generation builder of pizza ovens; a wall had to be knocked out to get it into Sotto's home, in the bottom half of a Pico-Robertson duplex. Even The New York Times sent a critic. I didn't live in Los Angeles in 2011, but I damn sure heard about Sotto.
These days, L.A.'s excellent dining scene gets much of the recognition it's due, but just three years ago that kind of national exposure was a rarity. And it catapulted Samson and Pollack — who had worked side by side in a number of well-known L.A. restaurants and opened a lauded Orange County pizzeria together — into the sphere of Very Important Chefs.
Their food at Sotto has remained consistently excellent. But now Pollack has opened a quite different kind of Italian restaurant, across town in Silver Lake.
In fact, apart from the Italian inspiration, Alimento and Sotto are in some ways opposites. Where Sotto is rigorous in its adherence to Southern Italian practices, the food at Alimento is loosely based on the traditions of Northern Italy, influenced by the experiences and proclivities of a Southern California chef. Where Sotto was put together with a lot of fanfare and a fair amount of money, Pollack personally financed Alimento. It feels as if someone just walked into a small space and set up shop — which is, in fact, basically what happened. This is a neighborhood restaurant, the bare-bones, white-walled feel of it about as far from the handsome, dark moodiness of Sotto as you could imagine.
You might assume Silver Lake would be thrilled to have Pollack, given his talent and reputation, and given that the neighborhood is hungry to become a true dining destination. But the reaction has been decidedly mixed.
There's the controversial water fee: Pollack charges $1.50 per person for unlimited filtered sparkling or still water, donating half the proceeds to the Silver Lake Reservoir Conservancy. It's the type of small thing that causes big outrage. Beyond that, the space is loud, so loud that I seriously worry for the otological health of the waitstaff. “The stark design of the space doesn't match the rustic feel of the food,” a friend (and Silver Lake local) complained one evening.
“WHAT??” I shouted above the din.
There's a backstory to all this, which is that Pollack had to open by late June for permitting reasons, and things were a little rushed. The tables came with the space (though Pollack refinished them), and can be wobbly. The banquettes along the walls are pews from a nearby church that closed down — not the beautiful, wooden antique kind but the greenish-brownish, upholstered 1970s kind. That stark look is an aesthetic choice, but it's also the result of getting things done quickly and on a budget. Soundproofing, apparently, is on its way.
But the main complaint seems to be that Alimento is decidedly not Sotto.Yet, if that comparison weren't there, if Alimento were allowed to stand alone, it might have its own claim to glory.
For starters, there's a fantastic wine list, put together by Ryan Wenger, who also ran the wine program at the Hart and the Hunter. The wines of Italy share space with those of countries along and near its northern border — an Austrian grüner veltliner on tap, for instance, but also a crisp white from Croatia and dry rieslings from Germany. There's a section of the list titled “other,” where you'll find some of the most interesting rosés being served in town, including a Slovenian sparkling rosé, as well as the occasional orange wine.
And what of the food? Pollack veers from highly traditional dishes, such as a gorgeously decadent maccheroncini pasta with chicken livers and marsala, to playful takes on Americana, like his “pig in a blanket.” A fat hunk of mortadella is sandwiched between two layers of flaky spelt pastry, then brightened up with three kinds of tang: pickled mustard seeds, Italian sauerkraut and a melty cow's milk cheese called stracchinata. It's puckery and piggy and marvelous.
I'm not sure where the escolar crudo over a creamy puree of eggplant falls along the spectrum of tradition, but regardless we should be thankful it's here, its overlapping textures — the lightly acidic fish, the melting eggplant, a sprinkle of fennel pollen and breadcrumbs — as luxuriant as silk on silk.
There's a mackerel dish that pulls no punches, showcasing the oily fish in all its fishy glory, even ramping up that fishiness a tad with a sprinkle of botarga. It's undercut by white beans and green chiles, but this is the dish that will tell you once and for all if you really like mackerel.
Small plates and pastas make up the bulk of the menu, with a section at the end for platters. How could we resist a giant serving of bagna cauda, that anchovy-rich dipping sauce that's like a pungent fondue? It's served here with a soft egg, to ramp up the sauce's richness, and a cornucopia of raw and grilled vegetables. With its immense mountains of veggies and vat of bubbling fishy sauce, it's a bit overwhelming, fit more for a Roman feast than a table for two. I suggest you only order it if you're with a big group that likes to play with their food.
A platter that I might be able to gobble up all by myself is the whole grilled orata, the sweet, white-fleshed fish served over another of Pollack's lush purees, this time made with dried favas and sprinkled with a bright, mixed-bean salad. The fish is stuffed with Calabrian chiles and topped with a pesto made of almonds and sun-dried tomatoes. It's a beautiful dish, both on the plate and in the mouth.
There is one issue with the food, and it's not a small one. This food is deeply salty — not the kind of salt that rears itself on first or second bite (or, at least, not if you're a salt fiend, which I am) but the type of salt that makes everything taste good in one-bite increments but after which you find yourself needing two gallons of water to counter its effects. The consistently bold salting of everything on the menu (including the simple, lovely desserts) makes a full meal slightly hazardous to your tastebuds.
But salt-scorched tastebuds and pummeled eardrums aside, the main takeaway from a meal here is excitement. Excitement over watching a chef blossom into more than just a conduit for another culture; excitement at the chance to taste food that is fiercely personal. At Alimento, Pollack is blending the things he's learned through years of high-level Italian cooking with the spirit of the city and neighborhood he calls home. Whether his choosy neighbors will fully appreciate the effort remains to be seen.
See also: More photos from Alimento
ALIMENTO | Three stars | 1710 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake | (323) 928-2888 | alimentola.com | Sun. and Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 5:30-mid.; closed Mon. | Plates, $8-$17; platters $29-$42 | Beer and wine | Valet and street parking
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