Twenty-five years ago, Michael’s, the Santa Monica restaurant that helped jump-start California cuisine, was famous for the exotic sourcing of its ingredients. The birthplaces of many of those ingredients were listed right there on the menu. If the bacon was from Chicago, the shad roe from the Hudson, the sole from Spain, the lamb from New Zealand or the greens from the San Fernando Valley, the provenance was inescapable — especially when a healthy percentage was flown in from France. In the old California magazine during the late ’80s, in a less-charitable moment, I called it “Rand McNally cuisine.” Like everyone else at the time, I suppose I considered the specificity pretentious, even as I admired the tenacity of the restaurant owner, Michael McCarty, who not only shouldered tremendous air-freight charges but also farmed his own duck, quail and even foie gras when he couldn’t find product that he liked.
But yesterday afternoon, when I was glancing through Welcome to Michael’s, McCarty’s handsome new cookbook/memoir, it struck me that where 20 years ago, his sourcing had seemed foreign, even odd, most of the producers and growers he chats about in his book have names that a lot of food-obsessed people in Los Angeles probably recognize: farmers familiar from the Santa Monica Wednesday market; charcuterie artisans like Paul Bertolli from Fra’Mani in the Bay Area and La Española near the L.A. Harbor; fish wholesalers like Santa Monica Seafood; Niman Ranch pork; burrata imported all the way from Caseificio Gioia in Pico Rivera. The selection of meat and produce that was not too long ago the wonder of the restaurant world has become the foodstream that many of us dip into each day, the stuff with which we make our own family dinners and eat at much more modest restaurants. Really good food, even really good food in the style of Michael’s, is now within the reach of careful shoppers who frequent farmers markets and decent butchers’ counters, not just of wealthy fanatics who buy their pots at Dehellirin and think nothing of flying off to Taillevent for lunch.
The food movement sometimes known as “locavore” taps into this sense of abundance — the idea that in a world of infinite food choices, it doesn’t hurt to restrict them just a little. Locavores are as into organic fruit and sustainable agriculture as the next guy, but they also strive to eat mostly locally produced food, things grown and raised within their “foodshed,” an area typically extending 100 to 150 miles from their homes.
If you are in temperate California, locavore eating is pretty easy. Local avocados and peaches not only have a smaller carbon imprint, but almost certainly taste better than the ones flown in from Peru. (If you are in Maine or Wisconsin in February, you have to work a lot harder, and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik gave up after less than a week of trying to live on food grown within New York City.) There is a locavore pizzeria chain in Oregon and a locavore diner chain in Vermont — it’s not all morels and radicchio. If not for my weakness for Kentucky ham, I could probably be a locavore too. Still, the idea of locavore dining is more admired than actually practiced in Los Angeles, even at the restaurants where farmer-celebrities like Alex Weiser or the McGraths are treated with more awe than Matt Damon.
On Tuesday through Friday nights, Neal Fraser of Grace, the chic, perpetually booked restaurant equidistant from El Coyote and Fraser’s own BLD, serves what he calls Close to Home dinners, five-course, $70 tasting menus where 90 percent of the ingredients are sourced from within a 400-mile radius. In Milan, a 400-mile radius gets you pretty much everywhere in Italy, plus a healthy chunk of Switzerland, Austria and France. Most of France is contained within a 400-mile radius of Paris (you’ll have to give up on Biarritz or cheat 14 miles). In Southern California, which exhausted its fishing grounds and squeezed out its livestock years ago, 400 miles is on the respectable side, if not daring, and you have to admire Fraser for resisting, at least for these meals, the temptations of Spanish anchovies or Hudson Valley foie gras.
Grace’s Close to Home menu, at least in the early-autumn weeks toward the end of heirloom tomatoes and before the beginning of persimmons, did not necessarily bring out the restaurant at its best. Blocks of raw local albacore, as mushy as that fish tends to be when insufficiently seared at the edges, were slicked with a slippery ceviche of raw squid zapped with exotic peppers: an impeccable expression of a goo-on-goo aesthetic you may not share. It is hard to go wrong with crunchy, grilled, bacon-wrapped figs nestled into baked burrata — delicious, especially the house-cured bacon — but I couldn’t help wondering where they found locally grown pine nuts. The sweet, gamy tartness of grilled Sonoma lamb chops was brought out by a novel artichoke purée; the mild flavor of a tiny veal shank was overwhelmed by the lemon-peel smack of the classic Italian garnish gremolata sprinkled on it after braising. Good pear beignets — doughnuts are a house specialty — were a strong finish. And weird, wonderful California wine pairings are poured for an additional $45 per person.
Localish, well prepared for the most part and far more straightforward than the cooking we’ve grown to expect from Fraser, Close to Home seemed more dutiful than inspired. I kept thinking about the rest of the menu, especially the page of specials, and especially the wild-shot Scottish hare, which is one of my favorite meats, and perhaps the least-locavore plate of food imaginable in Los Angeles. A few nights later, I was back. The tooth-achingly rich Scottish hare served with a tiny, crisp blackberry pie; the giant, unctuous slab of braised rare-breed pork belly on black rice; the braised rabbit; the Angus beef tartare mounded atop a crouton that turned out to be a miniaturized grilled cheese sandwich saturated with truffles — all of it was classic Grace cooking, and California had almost nothing to do with it. Sometimes inspiration lies farther from home than we expect.
Grace, 7360 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 934-4400. ?Tues.–Thurs. & Sun. 6–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6–11 p.m. ?Five-course Close to Home menu served Tues.–Thurs. for $70; $115 with wine pairing. Full bar. Valet parking; ?difficult street parking. AE, MC, V. New American. $$$