On the somewhat barren corner of Broadway and Olympic, under a giant light-up sign for a next-door business advertising “hostess dancing,” sits Alma. Stepping into the restaurant — with its plain storefront and nondescript, hard-to-see signage, tucked between large, dirty-looking buildings and pay parking lots — is a little like coming across a small wooden box of grace and decorum in a post-apocalyptic world.
In fact, there's much about Alma that is a little fantastical, which feeds into various idealized visions of dining. Passionate diners fantasize about stumbling into that one tiny, out-of-the-way restaurant and discovering world-class food at neighborhood-café prices. And every chef I've ever known has talked about his or her dream restaurant, and the dream often goes like this: Small room. Just one or two other cooks. The brilliant food they've always wanted to serve without being thwarted by ignorant owners, the pressure of food costs, the tastes of an unenlightened public.
Alma is the fantasy-come-to-life of Ari Taymor, a 27-year-old chef from San Francisco, and Ashleigh Parsons, one of those service professionals who also just happens to have a master's degree from Harvard. The two are co-owners, and it's their presence that dominates Alma — Taymor's cerebral, nature-driven food on the menu, Parsons' sunny, thoughtful demeanor on the floor.
The space is minimalist and clean-feeling, with just 29 seats: a few tables lining one wall, one larger table in the front of the room and a handful of seats at the “chef's counter,” which looks directly into the small cooking area. It's hard to call it a kitchen, although that's what it is. This is a restaurant that feels very much as if someone just cleared out their loft apartment and started cooking.
Taymor cooked at Flour + Water in San Francisco, as well as Bar Tartine and La Chassagnette. When he came to L.A. in the fall of 2011, he was the chef at Salute Wine Bar in Santa Monica. Soon after, he launched Alma as a pop-up, first in Venice and then in Silver Lake, before settling downtown in June 2012.
Throughout those travels, his conceit has been to present highly conceptual food, using nature as the ultimate inspiration. Comparisons have been made to Copenhagen's Noma, widely touted as the best restaurant in the world. But while a tasting menu at Noma costs between $200 and $300 (depending on the exchange rate), a tasting menu at Alma costs $45. Plus, the tasting menu at Alma is only required on Tuesdays; the rest of the week you're more likely to order à la carte.
For all the comparisons to Noma, Taymor is not the next Rene Redzepi, the famous chef helming that kitchen. Not yet. For one thing, he's incredibly young, and his food sometimes can channel the arrogance of youth, the fallacy of ego over generosity.
Still, that's almost a given with chefs of great talent, at least at the beginning of their careers. And it's clear at Alma that we're looking at the beginning of something very exciting.
Taymor's dedication to precision is perhaps most noticeable with his salads, which are assembled with surgical attention. Most recently, a half-moon of goat cheese was smeared around the edge of a plate, then layered with melted leeks, then “bitter greens”: frisee, treviso, radicchio, castelfranco, arugula, lettuces and herbs. The starkness of the greens paired with the sweet onions and milky goat cheese played like a thoughtful, melodic ode to winter.
Taymor's best dishes all work that way, each exactingly selected component melding and harmonizing with the others, the flavors both unexpected and somehow predestined. He makes beignets with seaweed and tofu, a totally next-generation donut that is as fun to eat in its fried umami glory as it is tasty. Sablefish, lightly smoked and slick, comes on a plate with a tangle of apple and celery, sweet and vegetal and snappy and crunchy. A sunchoke soup, which is perhaps the one mainstay of the menu since the very first Alma pop-up, is poured over an egg yolk and a paste of smoked dates. The result is a silky, generous, surprising dish that seems like a musing on the earthy aspects of the color yellow.
And what of that youthful arrogance? There has been less of it on Alma's more recent menus. But only a few weeks back there were a few dishes that were simply too precious, or didn't taste as good as their cleverness might imply. Dungeness crab with “sourdough, citrus and malt vinegar” was a plate of scattered textures, the malt vinegar a powdered meringue, the sourdough an emulsion made of buttermilk and bread. Like everything Taymor produces, the dish was visually stunning, but the crab was too scarce and the other elements not particularly tasty, despite being awfully clever. An entree of “carrot, porcini, maitake, wild spinach,” was basically five salty baby carrots on a plate with a few greens and some maitake mushrooms — my assumption is that the porcini was in the butter coating the dish. I'm sure the carrots were expertly sourced, and coddled, and loved. In the end, though, a $16 plate of five tiny, salty carrots is a tough sell, and these specimens didn't achieve enough greatness to make the case.
After Alma's original pastry chef, San Song, left in September, Taymor took over desserts himself, with much success. A buttermilk cake, torn and strewn across a plate, accompanied by candied fennel and blood orange, is a dish of simple pleasure despite its tundra-like presentation.
Alma only recently got a liquor license and now is serving a small selection of beer and wine, alongside the fantastic house-made sodas dreamed up by beverage director Chris Yamashiro. The wines, beers and ciders are geared to the food, with lighter and more herbaceous reds and idiosyncratic whites. There's beer from Spain and Norway and nowhere expected, and rustic cider that feels exactly right with this food.
Taymor is young, he is extremely talented, and he's still figuring out what works and what doesn't. Which is why we're able to eat this food right now in this location, at this price. It's the beginning of something new, a gem for L.A. to stumble upon. What fun to watch and taste as Taymor refines his shine and becomes invaluable.
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ALMA | Three stars | 952 S. Broadway, dwntwn. | (213) 444-0984 | alma-la.com | Tues.-Sat., 6-10:30 p.m. | Entrees, $16-30 | Beer and wine | Paid lot parking nearby