In 2009, New York wunderkind David Chang famously referred to California cuisine as “figs on a plate.” It was a call to creativity but also a jab at the type of cooking that reveres produce and simplicity above all else, which takes the “let the ingredients speak for themselves” mantra to extremes.
Chang's quote came to mind while dining at Cortez, the new, tiny Echo Park restaurant opened by Marta Teegen and Robert Stelzner, who also own Cookbook.
A small jewel box of a store located a few blocks from the restaurant, Cookbook has been selling pristine produce and a small selection of prepared foods made from that produce since August 2010. Teegen has a background in farming, and her meticulous sourcing is at the heart of all of Cookbook's offerings.
Cortez, which opened in mid-October, echoes Cookbook in its Lilliputian dimensions and its devotion to the ingredients-first school of thought.
Teegen and Stelzner have brought on chef Alex Westphal, who connected with them at Cookbook over shared food philosophies during trips to Los Angeles from Portland, Ore. He moved here from Portland to open Cortez.
The tiny brick storefront was once a tire shop, but now it looks as if it's never been anything but adorable. In some ways it's almost laughable, this room with its two communal tables, 28 seats, one woolly beast's pelt on the wall for decoration, a clientele of gorgeously aging hipsters and a menu of Brussels sprouts with hazelnuts.
It's a parody of 2012 and of everything Chang was deriding in his figs-on-a-plate comment, except for the fact that … well, what Cortez is putting on the plate is damn delicious.
Take the seared Caña de Oveja, a bloomy-rind sheep's milk cheese from Spain, served with salad greens. This is exactly what it says it is: a piece of cheese on a plate with some greens (and all dishes at Cortez are small plates — of course).
But what a piece of cheese. The sear gives it an orange-ish crust, brittle and delicate and almost lacy in the mouth, with a touch of everything that's good about the edge of a very good grilled cheese sandwich. The crust gives way to a creamy, funky center, a little soft and a little solid, generous and sharp against the ultrafresh, bitter salad greens.
And that's how it goes at Cortez: A base ingredient, selected for its freshness and high quality, is paired with one or two other components for an outcome that's simple and often startlingly good.
The sweetness of roasted delicata squash is grounded by the high, nutty tang of tahini and the smoky whisper of the spice mix za'atar. It's a generous, almost decadent dish, and also just some slices of squash on a plate.
Line-caught Pacific snapper, so fresh its sweet, white flesh practically swims down your gullet, gets a perfect golden sear, a forkful of minerally turnip greens and a dousing of chermoula — dark green, pert and tasting of photosynthesis. Pork loin, cured in Spanish paprika, is contrasted by a riotous, juicy jumble of orange and grapefruit segments.
You'll order the rabbit escabeche for the prospect of rabbit meat that has been somehow pickled, but you'll mainly be blown away by the quality of the field greens tossed with the tender, piquant meat, and the crunch of the accompanying watermelon radishes. You'll ponder the $10 price tag on a diminutive mound of farro with shaved fennel, soft sheep feta and walnuts, and consider for a minute that this is like something you could get to go from Cookbook, where it probably would cost at least half as much. But the nutty, creamy, crunchy joy of it will seduce you, and you'll decide you don't really care — there's at least $10 worth of pleasure on that plate.
There's a grilled flatbread that may actually be Cortez's crowning glory. Cooked to order, it's served at brunch slathered in avocado honey for a treat so straightforward in its pleasure it will take you back to childhood — soft, warm, fresh bread with burny, toasty grilled bits covered in just enough good honey — yum.
That bread also plays an important role in Cortez's most substantial dish: juicy, burgerlike patties of merguez sausage served with yogurt sauce, arugula and pickled turnips, wrapped in warm flatbread.
There are places where Cortez's approach misses the mark, where the reliance on only one or two ingredients means that if any one of those components is just a teeny bit off, either in flavor or execution, everything goes awry.
Bavette steak — a fancy word for flank steak — is cooked too rare for that fibrous cut, and all the meaty flavor gets lost in the arduous task of chewing … and chewing … and chewing.
A dish of turnips served with braised greens one evening piled one bitter, medicinal flavor on top of another, the kitchen having failed to bring out the sweetness that's possible in roasted turnips. The whole dish had a hint of aspirin about it.
Pacing also can be an issue. These 28 seats are typically full, but waits are rarely too long because the small plates and elbow-to-elbow dining means meals come out quickly and usually are eaten in less than an hour. But when ordering seven or eight plates, it would be nice for the kitchen to pace them a little more slowly so that everything doesn't end up on the table all at once. It made no difference when I asked for dishes to be coursed out — the whole meal came in a flurry within 10 minutes anyway.
Ah, but all was forgiven when, later, dessert arrived — a slice of Basque cake, a flaky, sweet, eggy vanilla and butter confection that disappeared in seconds. At brunch, a persimmon pudding also is offered for dessert, and I hope they make it available on the dinner menu as well.
The drinks list is short and idiosyncratic, with a lot of high-acid, food-friendly wines. There are some truly fun selections, like a sparking Vouvray and a low-alcohol, off-dry Austrian cider that was perfect for brunch.
Owners, servers and hosts are all exuberantly friendly, another factor that saves the place from accusations of being too trendy or pretentious.
I've already heard grumblings through the grapevine about Cortez's simplicity, its seared-fish-on-a-plate ethos. But there's a real place for cooking like this, under very specific circumstances. It can't be too pompous. The produce must be immaculate. Great thought must be given to contrast and balance.
At Cortez, all of these elements come together beautifully to give the cuisine of figs on a plate (or flatbread on a plate, or beautiful greens with one sharp, creamy, perfectly seared piece of cheese on a plate) one more reason to be celebrated.
CORTEZ | 1365 Allison Ave., Echo Park | (213) 481-8015 | restaurantcortez.com | Daily, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. | Wine and beer served | Street parking