Le Ka could have been built as a set. It could be a backdrop for a meet-cute moment in one of those crappy romantic comedies we all wish Ryan Gosling still made, a perfect location for the Real Housewives to stage a fight, a platonic ideal of “exciting new downtown hot spot.”
There's the soundtrack, a playlist that seems to exist only in restaurants like this, a collection of sounds that could be sold under the title “downtown hot spot,” that smooth, ambient beat that repeats over and over and makes you feel as though you've stepped into a Bacardi commercial.
There's the decor, the open kitchen, the glittering bar with neon yellow back-lit liquor bottles, the soaring ceilings, the filament light fixtures, the white-on-black tables and chairs. For all its ubiquity, it's a model that still works and somehow remains on this side of total cliché. It feels exciting and familiar all at once.
What's actually exciting about Le Ka, though, is the chef. Remi Lauvand has a fantastic culinary history, starting on the Orient Express. The French native then went to New York, where he eventually worked under Daniel Boulud as executive sous chef at Le Cirque in the late '80s. In the '90s he was the executive chef at Montrachet, where he received three stars from Ruth Reichl at The New York Times.
Lauvand has been in L.A. since 2000, working at restaurants like Citrus and Café Pierre in Manhattan Beach, as well as consulting on the opening menu at Rivera.
Marcus and Michael Kwan, who also own Wokano, opened the place in September, with Lauvand in the kitchen. The name Le Ka is supposed to represent the melding of cultures that the Kwans hope to represent on the menu: It combines the French article “le” with a spin on their Chinese surname that also means “family.”
Located as it is in the downtown financial district, you can tell Le Ka has set its sights on the expense-account crowd — the business diners and young professionals out for a good time. And that's exactly the crowd it's getting: most nights, American and Japanese businessmen and attractive, white-collar types.
You sense just looking at the menu that this may be a restaurant that's trying to do too much, trying to be too many things for too many people: cheese, charcuterie, pizza (“or flatbread, the way you wish to call them,” according to the menu), small plates, large plates, $90 steak for two, raw oysters, sliders, pasta, Thai curry mussels, Spanish calamari, octopus with kimchi, uni with oxtail and congee.
I'd like to say that in Lauvand's capable hands, this schizophrenic approach works, that each dish comes into its own, allowing you to have whatever meal you wandered in the door vaguely hoping for, be it far-out Asian, steak and potatoes, or classic French. But that's not quite the case.
Which is a pity, because when Lauvand is on, he's really on. His chicken liver “faux gras,” despite the cheesy name, is one of the best chicken liver mousses in town, rich and tangy and creamy, topped with a clear, quivering quince gelée. It comes with a spiced bread, like a dense gingerbread, which almost overpowers the mousse, but you can slather it instead onto the regular sourdough and miss nothing.
Other items from the charcuterie section of the menu are also uniformly great, especially the pig trotter, which is fried in small, delicate patties.
Some dishes take on the classics, but with a serious twist. Escargot has all the usual garlic and butter but arrives in a cast-iron cocotte with fat gnocchi, soft on the inside with a gentle sear on the exterior. They're a great foil for the tender snails, providing all the more surface area to soak up the garlicky goodness.
Lauvand's Santa Barbara uni with oxtail and congee is one of the coolest things I've eaten in a while. It's a dish that shouldn't work but absolutely does: The gingery hot porridge with a topping of deep, rich, almost sweet oxtail would be good enough on its own. But then the couple of bites that include sea urchin explode with a creamy funk. Somehow no one component overwhelms the others; it all just comes together — the oddest, most delicious surf and turf ever.
There are traces of Lauvand's classic French training on this menu, as in a dish of sweetbreads with wild mushrooms. Yet in this dish, the old-school style, where the sweetbreads are soaked and blanched and then pressed before searing, doesn't do much for their texture. There's nothing wrong with preparing them this way, but it robs the offal of its creamy center and makes it a little tedious to get through a plate of them.
When the oxtail shows up again under a beautifully cooked piece of black cod, I wondered if the dish would be too rich. It isn't — until you cut into the potato croquettes, which spill cheese from their guts. That's when the dish goes over the top of good and into too much. It's a trick of plating more appropriate for another era (the '80s or '90s). I'd rather have something bright to bring this dish together.
And I can't help but think that some of the less impressive dishes here are simply a product of a kitchen and chef spread too thin by having to provide all things to all people — a menu that's too large and disparate in its aspirations. I know in my heart that Lauvand knows damn well how to cook a rabbit. Yet, on the night I had it, the rabbit was dried out rather than falling apart in braised glory.
There's also a real service issue at Le Ka. One night we'd been at our table for only 35 minutes, and were a third done with our fantastic bottle of Savagnin from the Jura region, by the time all of our food — three courses — had been dumped on the table. Another night, with a sparsely seated dining room, we were treated to the longest tableside monologue I've ever heard, as well as the boldest upselling attempts (“I really recommend the fried chicken as an appetizer. No? OK. You know that fried chicken would make a great transition from that appetizer to the entree you ordered. No? How about a side of mushrooms with your bone marrow then? No? You sure you don't want to try that fried chicken?”). After that, we were left for outrageous stretches of time with no water, no food, no drinks, not much of anything. The guy did return at one point to deliver a horoscope joke, bada-bing style, as if to say, “I'd rather be doing stand-up. No, really.” He didn't bother to clear our dishes after the punch line. The meal took more than three hours.
Le Ka is a restaurant that is useful for many things: The cocktails are good, the vibe is right. You could have your own meet-cute at this bar, or a good first date at least. The wine list, put together by Donny Sullivan and overseen by Diane Clemenhagen, is impressive without being overwhelming. If you're entertaining a group of international businessmen, all with expensive tastes but different desires, everyone should be able to find something to their liking on this menu — just hope they also like verbose waiters. But I get the feeling that a slightly more focused menu or a slightly smaller venue would put Lauvand's talents in a better light.
LE KA | 2 stars | 800 W. Sixth St., dwntwn. | (213) 688-3000 | Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; happy hour, Mon.-Fri., 3-7 p.m.; dinner, daily 5-11 p.m.; late night, Mon.-Sat., 11 p.m.-2 a.m., Sun. 11 p.m.-mid. | Reservations accepted | Full bar | $7 valet parking