The dude who opens the door for you at the Ace Hotel looks like he just stepped off the set of a Gus Van Sant movie. Longish hair, the mustache of a slick Spanish bullfighter, sparse tattoos and skinny jeans — here on the streets of downtown L.A., it's hard to know whether his heroin-chic look is actually chic and not heroin. You half expect him to ask you for change in return for his effort. But chic it is; even the doormen (and -women) at the Ace are hipper than you'll ever be.
If there’s a better pasta with sea urchin in town than the one here
The Ace, located in the old United Artists Theatre building, is mainly a reminder of the riches that lie behind the run-down old façades of downtown L.A. I haven't seen the actual guest rooms at the hotel, but those are almost beside the point. The multimillion-dollar renovation's true triumph is in the refurbishment of the breathtaking Spanish Gothic theater space, which is now a part of the hotel. How this element will integrate with the Ace is unclear, though it's already been used for dance performances and concerts.
Perhaps not quite as grand an achievement, albeit still noteworthy, is L.A. Chapter, the restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel, whose windows and brass bistro tables front the street like a trendy Parisian café that has muscled its way onto the bleak, concrete reality of Broadway. Inside, black-and-white tiled floors and mirrored walls further the slightly Frenchy feel, while seemingly random pencil sketches of celebrities and childlike beasties dot the white-painted walls. Similar to the groundbreaking Alma across the street, the Ace and L.A. Chapter are like bright flowers poking their heads up from the cracks in the pavement of this part of downtown, tender new growth in the process of blooming.
L.A. Chapter is a copy of sorts, the offshoot of a Brooklyn restaurant called Five Leaves. Five Leaves has a somewhat tragic history: Originally funded by Heath Ledger, the restaurant opened months after his death in 2008, with the involvement of his estate. The idea was always to combine New American food with Australian components, in a way that would reflect Ledger's Aussie roots and the Brooklyn life he lived.
That idea has trickled onto L.A. Chapter's menu as well. Five Leaves chef Ken Addington was heavily involved in the opening menu, and some dishes are lifted directly from the Brooklyn restaurant. But Micah Fields, an L.A. chef who most recently was at the Standard, is here as executive chef overseeing the daily operations.
Whatever combination of talent is on display at L.A. Chapter, it works. If there's a better pasta with sea urchin in town than the one here, I've yet to find it: squarish, long chitarra noodles, topped with gobs of uni and bathed in a savory tuna butter, are punctuated with slivers of red chile and shaved cauliflower. The chile perks up the flavor without overwhelming it, and the pasta is just firm enough to contrast with the soft sea urchin. The whole thing reaffirmed the value of a dish that many chefs are cooking but not nearly this well.
Much of the food takes a main component that's trendy but expected (rabbit, uni), does exactly what you might predict with that ingredient, and then twists the dish just enough to make it wholly original. Rabbit is stewed and served as a ragu over polenta-like creamy semolina, along with shiitake mushrooms. But it's the bright murmur of lemongrass that sets the dish apart, an unexpected but wholly welcome perfume that takes it from very good to great.
Duck, cooked beautifully and layered over crispy spätzle and fennel cashew cream, has the barest hint of a licorice rub — not enough to turn off a licorice hater, just enough to convey mystery.
A king salmon is seared hard on one side and left rare on the other. It's a good trick, one that leaves the fish melting. The accompaniment of figs, pecans, tzatziki and cucumbers would work well if it weren't for the fact that the cucumber is left in huge, overwhelming, unwieldy hunks.
The Australian elements come in mainly on the brunch menu, which is served every day. Here we find dishes that you might not recognize as Australian but are directly lifted from the cafés along Brunswick Street in Melbourne — avocado on toast, Moroccan scrambles. It's food that speaks more to the spirit of the way certain urbane Australians eat than to any particular ingredient or cultural touchstone.
The one thing that's on-the-nose Australian is the Five Leaves burger, which comes topped with grilled pineapple, beets and a fried egg. It's a ridiculously ungainly thing, too tall to fit in your mouth by about a half-foot. The pineapple is sweet, the beets laden with vinegar, and it feels more like a gimmick than a good idea. But the Australian hamburger has never appealed much to me. I'd much rather eat the lamb pho dip, a mash-up of a bánh mì, a French dip and pho. The sandwich comes on crusty French bread stacked with cold roast lamb, creamy rillettes, and a warm, deep anise-flavored consommé for dipping.
L.A. Chapter has a cocktail list worth perusing and a wine list that could expand by threefold and still seem brief.
The comfort level of the place is a little shaky — the tables are kind of a jumble, and the whole experience can feel more expensive than it should given the downsides.
And one downside in particular. Here's the problem with practically all restaurants as hip as L.A. Chapter: The service sucks.
In this instance, it's not an issue of too-cool-for-school waiters who operate as if you're just lucky to be there; rather, things tend to fall apart and no one notices.
That's not always the case: One evening, a woman with flowers tattooed on her shaved head provided the kind of smart, friendly, efficient service that is a hallmark of the most successful casual-dining experiences. Another night, dinner was a comedic farce, with entrees arriving before appetizers, then only one appetizer arriving and a 45-minute wait for the second, and on and on and on for hours, plus a botched check and a meal that stretched about an hour and a half past its expiration date. Another day, at lunch, everything was just plain slow.
I'm not sure if L.A. Chapter is understaffing the floor, or if servers are picked for their Portlandia looks rather than their actual skill, or what. I do know that the place could use the eagle eye of a good floor manager. If one already exists, I managed to miss that presence or influence when it was needed most.
But even in the midst of extreme dysfunction, even when I was tasting a dish that should have been on my table an hour earlier, the bright flavors and skillful cooking won me over again, like the hot guy who's late for a date but smiles so seductively when you answer the door that you forget why you were mad.
There's an element of L.A. Chapter and the Ace that's almost a parody of itself, so hip are the players, so careless the vibe: A restaurant where artful wall scribbles are a major design element, where the qualifications for a job seem to involve the potential to appear in an American Apparel ad.
Sound like fun? You're gonna love this place. Sound god-awful? The food might still bring you around.
L.A. CHAPTER | Three stars | 927 S. Broadway, dwntwn. | (213) 235-9660 | lachapter.com | Lunch Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; Sat. & Sun. 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; dinner nightly, 6-11 p.m. | Entrees, $17-$28 | Full bar | Valet parking