When Church & State owner Yassmin Sarmadi and former Patina executive chef Tony Esnault got to chatting at the March of Dimes charity event in Los Angeles last year, and then again at the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival, who knew that a new French restaurant would be the result? Yet that is the happy outcome of hanging out at fancy food events (it's good to know they can actually have a tangible purpose). Yesterday Sarmadi and Esnault confirmed that they've partnered in Spring, a French restaurant set to open next summer on the ground floor of the Douglas Building at the corner of Spring and Third Street in downtown Los Angeles.
Chatting at a wine bar next door to Church & State, Sarmadi's downtown French bistro, yesterday evening, the two discussed their plans for the restaurant — what they both describe as something that will be “between a bistro and fine dining.” And what at first seemed a somewhat unlikely partnership began to make a great deal of sense.
Sarmadi has been looking for the right place to open a second restaurant for some time; last year she almost took over the space across the street from Church & State. Esnault, who assumed the stoves at Patina three years ago after many years working for Alain Ducasse, made no secret even then (we interviewed him in 2009) of his eventual desire to open his own place. Spring will be the first restaurant at which Esnault is both chef and partner. (Joachim Splichal promoted from within, naming two-year veteran Charles Olalia as Patina's new chef de cuisine.)
Both Sarmadi and Esnault wanted a restaurant that focused on local produce, European techniques and traditions, and more creative, lighter cooking. Both also wanted that restaurant to be downtown, a part of the city that appeals to each as distinctly urban, with the kind of energy that probably is our city's closest to that of New York or Europe. (Esnault is French; Sarmadi's family is from Iran.) So when Sarmadi found the Douglas Building — not too far from Disney Hall and Esnault's old stomping grounds, from Sarmadi's first restaurant, from where they each live, from many new farmers markets and coffeehouses and bakeries, and from the convenient newspapermen and cops and loft dwellers who can populate a neighborhood restaurant — and the two started talking, Spring started to click into place. Sarmadi had initially imagined a Southern European-style restaurant, but as her discussions with Esnault continued, “It got refined more and more — literally — to French.”
Spring, it should be said, is named for the street address of the future restaurant. There is also, Sarmadi said, an actual spring that runs underneath the building. (Who knew?) And it is a very apt name for a project that will largely focus on seasonal produce and progressive menu ideas. (What does that mean? Sustainably sourced meats, more olive oil and less butter, a distinct emphasis on local vegetables, your French chef riding to work on his bicycle. You get the idea.)
Because when asked why he hasn't returned to New York, where he cooked for many years, or to his native Loire Valley, Esnault admitted it was largely because of our local produce. If you have eaten Esnault's food at Joachim Splichal's flagship restaurant any time over the last three years, this will not surprise you. The chef really, really likes vegetables, treating them with the kind of fabulous attention that other people, even classically trained French chefs who grew up in the French countryside, often do not.
So what exactly is between a French bistro and a fine dining restaurant? “You'll see,” was the only answer Sarmadi and Esnault would give. Repeatedly. OK, fine. They do not, understandably, wish to be pinned down by specifics this early, especially since a restaurant, a concept, a menu, a plan are all — and all should be — tremendously malleable. “I want to go back to the source, to the basics,” elaborated Esnault, sort of. Will there be tablecloths? No. Well, maybe.
What the two would say was that Spring would be definitely, traditionally, beautifully French, albeit in a somewhat undesignated genre. It will open first for dinner, then eventually for brunch and finally for lunch. Some folks will migrate from Church & State to the new restaurant, including current Church & State bartender Jonathan Navasartian and beverage director Sarah Clarke. Esnault, who did pastry for two years in Paris, will do his own pastry. The wine list will not be exclusively French, as it is at Church & State. And the location itself will be divided in two sections: the restaurant, which will have its own restaurant bar; and a bar and lounge, with its own menu.
As for what Esnault will be dreaming up in the kitchen, maybe start trailing the chef at local farmers markets. Just don't expect him to elaborate overly. Wait for the restaurant, like the rest of us.
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