When Cliff's Edge marked its 10th anniversary back in June, some serious star power showed up to celebrate with the Silver Lake mainstay. Apart from chef Vartan Abgaryan, the anniversary dinner had courses cooked by Nancy Silverton, Walter Manzke, Jeremy Fox and Sherry Yard. It's a lineup you'd be hard-pressed to find at a high-wattage celebrity food festival, let alone a celebration of a neighborhood restaurant.
The truth is that Cliff's Edge should be far more than a neighborhood restaurant, if only greater Los Angeles (and not just its celebrity chefs) would take notice.
It's not that the place gets no attention at all. In fact, it shows up predictably on various lists and round-ups. If you were to Google “best patios,” “best oyster nights” or “cocktail pop-up” along with the words “Los Angeles,” Cliff's Edge would no doubt make an appearance in your search results.
The restaurant's gorgeous, sprawling outdoor space, anchored by a giant tree, feels like a magical fairyland treehouse, decked out with twinkling lights and cushions upholstered in exotic materials. There's a dollar oyster night on Thursday nights from 6-7 p.m., which has taken on the feel of a weekly neighborhood party. And star bartender Matthew Biancaniello's cocktail pop-ups are a rite of passage for cocktail geeks who wish to revel in a bar blooming with edible flora.
What hasn’t garnered as much attention is the regular nightly menu of chef Abgaryan, who came to Cliff’s Edge two years ago from Public Kitchen and Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel. Abgaryan had run a number of new American kitchens in California, but his formative training was at Le Cordon Bleu and the famed New York restaurant Lutèce, both of which made him adept in classic French food.
At Cliff’s Edge, that French training is the basis for everything Abgaryan sends out of the kitchen. It can perhaps best be seen in his practically perfect chicken liver terrine, which you scoop from a jar topped with port gelée, its rosy rich creaminess given proper contrast by the grainy mustard and preserved kumquats on the plate. This particular dish has had a place on the menu since day one of Abgaryan’s tenure, and has always been impressive. In other areas, the chef and restaurant have grown over the past two years, and almost all for the better.
In some ways, Abgaryan is working against the vibe of this restaurant, which is relentlessly casual. The tables can be wobbly and the service, while friendly and knowledgable, is often harried. Abgaryan’s food is composed above all else — the chef focuses as much on visual beauty as on taste, and it can come as a surprise in this setting to find yourself presented with a plate of feta gnudi with charred and braised leeks, not in a jumbled bowl but as a modernist canvas, components sprawled across the plate, flavors intense.
Oysters with uni and caviar get tiny green fronds holding mauve chive flowers, the mouthful of saline sweetness as decadent to look at as it is to eat.
There are times when this penchant for good looks trumps everything else, to the detriment of the dish. An early-summer salad of watermelon and feta was presented like a chess grid, with cubes of tomato, watermelon and feta making up the board. It was gorgeous, but the giant hunks of feta overwhelmed unless carefully portioned out by the diner to match the fruit — a task that was possible but tiresome.
Meanwhile, one of the kitchen’s mainstay dishes, a plate of peas and morels, is also one of its most visually appealing, a swoosh of pea puree nestled against whole peas and Parmesan cream and morel mushrooms. It comes as a bit of a disappointment, then, when the dish tastes a little less thrilling than it looks. It’s not bad in any way, it’s just kind of ordinary, though you might not notice after having been swept off your feet by its handsome presentation.
More often, though, the plates deliver on their promise, as with a tender curl of octopus served with compressed peach and mustard seeds, crispy at the edges and brightened by a lemon aioli. It’s a dish that used to be overwhelmingly salty back in Abgaryan’s early days at the restaurant but is now given its flavor by tiny herbs, the sting of red onion and the charred meatiness of the octopus itself.
A duck breast comes cooked to a gorgeous medium, its skin expertly rendered and crusted with the dried spice zest of za’atar, paired with slightly pickled plums that have then been roasted. Everything on this plate — the candy-striped beets, the ramp greens, the duck jus — looks great. But it’s obvious the components are here because they taste good as well as look stunning.
For a long time, the wine list lagged far behind the rest of the endeavor, offering predictable choices from huge producers. But in the last year, the selection has morphed into one of the best in the neighborhood, offering Champagne from lesser-known producers, interesting varietals and — perhaps best of all — incredibly good value.
The wine was really the last piece in a puzzle, the final ingredient that Cliff’s Edge needed to rise to its potential as a destination restaurant. It might have an excellent oyster night, a beautiful patio and a truly remarkable cocktail pop-up, but it also has an extremely talented chef and, now, a wine list that fits right in.
Some restaurants are born great, some grow into their greatness. Cliff’s Edge has done both.