If you wanted to know why Palate Food + Wine is the restaurant world’s favorite new place to eat in Los Angeles this fall, above even spots opened by such boldface names as Gordon Ramsay, Laurent Tourondel and Kazunori Nozawa, you could look at a single fish course served one evening in late September. The plate was neatly bisected by a whole mackerel, head on, of course, that had been seared at a high heat just long enough to blister the skin and cook the flesh to the point where it flaked easily off the bone, then flanked with a crumble of roasted pistachios sweetened with dates, flavored with olives and lightened with a few leaves of the herb purslane.
Somebody conspiratorial could point out that the dish plays into almost every currently fashionable food prejudice. The main element, mackerel, is one of those fish we’re all supposed to be eating right now. Low enough on the food chain that its flesh doesn’t concentrate toxins the way that swordfish and bluefin tend to, it’s rich in Omega-3, frankly strong-tasting, and its fishery is both small and sane: Mackerel is a connoisseur’s fish. The garnish, although it duplicates no established preparation, leans strongly Middle Eastern in both its flavors and its intent, and attentive farmers-market shoppers will have noticed that pistachios and dates were both particularly good this year, and that purslane was close to its peak toward the beginning of fall. (Later, following the market, Becerra changed things up with pine nuts, raisins and parsley.) The dish, simple and direct, was prepared without the advanced cooking techniques that Palate’s kitchen is fond of using, but every element had integrity in itself while adding to a grander effect. The conscious omnivore, who weighs each bite as if the future of the Earth might lie in the balance, could be forgiven for assuming the dish was meant strictly for her. The less-conscious omnivore may just conclude that the mackerel was very, very good.
Palate, the first solo project of Octavio Becerra, is an opium dream of a restaurant, a relaxed, butter-yellow space in Glendale’s car-dealer district, a dining room sprawling into a cocktail lounge, a wine bar, laboratories for curing meats and aging cheeses, and a well-curated wine shop stocked mostly with small-production bottles from Burgundy and the Rhône. (Reservations at the restaurant proper are difficult to come by, but you can almost always walk in and eat an identical meal at a communal table in one of the other parts of the complex, or just have a glass of wine and a plate of ham.) Becerra, who has been an object of local obsession since he and Fred Eric ran the eccentric restaurant in the nightclub Flaming Colossus more than 20 years ago, is probably best known as the Sancho Panza to the Quixote of Joachim Splichal, working in the kitchens at both Patina and Max au Triangle, opening Pinots in Sherman Oaks, the Napa Valley and Las Vegas and helping to develop the produce-oriented modern California style for which the octopus-like Patina group is known.
Palate, which occupies the ground floor of a huge wine-storage building, is intensely personal, and you sometimes get the feeling that an evening there is less like going out to dinner than it is like stopping by a friend’s house and having him show you some cool things he just picked up: lamb from the eccentric Sonoma farmer Don Watson; spiced duck cooked in a jar; butter churned from scratch; a one-off wild-boar prosciutto from a California supplier that stank of death in the nicest possible way.
The blog Eat Drink and Be Merry invoked David Lynch when it wrote about Palate, and there is a kind of Twin Peaks logic to the place, from the vaguely sinister arrangement of giant grapes that dominates the dining area to the expressionist lighting, the hanging carcasses in the glassed-in cheese-and-cured-meats room, and the red drapery concealing the walls of the backroom. You do half-expect a strangely accented dwarf to come out and explain the evening’s cheese selection. The owls are not what they seem.
The menu is tiny, and seems even shorter than it looks — most of the space on the slender document is taken up by charcuterie, pickles and cheese. There will always be the “porkfolio,” a concept borrowed from American Flatbreads, in which a wooden board is carpeted with prosciutti from both Friuli and Iowa; speck from Northern Italy; the odd scrap of house-made lardo; and a parade of salami. Becerra puts up a lot of things in Mason jars, stiff, unctuous pastes often enhanced with pure lard, and you should probably try one of those, too: a potted Berkshire pork spread with the roasty smack of good rillettes; potted chicken, like the Underwood spread that may have been a regular in your Partridge Family lunch box when you were young, only 10 times as good; or hacked salmon rillettes plumped out with herbs and the restaurant’s house-made butter. With the meats, you’ll need one of the pickles — cucumbers, sweet onions or a soft, ripe pickled peach that was one of the best things I tasted this year.
The wine list is the kind of thing wine geeks drool over — a New York friend I took to Palate texted me for two weeks straight about an old Geantet-Pansiot she was upset we didn’t get to try, and she was outraged when I told her that the restaurant had sold out of it. Because of the shop, the restaurant’s wine prices tend to be reasonable, basically retail plus $18, which means you can drink well even in the $30-to-$40 range. And several-dozen wines are available by the half-glass, the glass and the quarter-liter, occasionally including things that would ordinarily set you back several hundred dollars a bottle if you could find them — which you couldn’t.
Still, a certain kind of person, usually one looking for a square meal instead of a series of tastes, tends to hate Palate, from the parade of small plates that don’t always add up to a main course and the menu that seems to change every five minutes to the rock & roll that blasts after 10 p.m.Some people consider a dish of roasted beets with leeks to be amusing, an exact expression of the moment where late summer slumps into fall. Other people would rather have a steak or a burger, which Palate doesn’t tend to serve (though a Wagu rib eye was added to the menu recently). Customers proud of their post-Sideways drinking habits probably won’t get much love if they happen to order a perfectly good bottle of Hitching Post Pinot Noir — Steve Goldun is a startlingly inventive sommelier, but he can definitely be a little like that dude behind the counter in the indie record store who can’t believe you’re actually spending money for an Arctic Monkeys CD. Where some people are charmed by the papillote — vegetables steamed with herbs and olive oil in a bag — others find the conceit too precious, even though the process displays the sweet freshness of baby carrots, asparagus, onions, peppers, whatever’s in season, in a fairly spectacular way.
But I have rarely seen a chef as deft at getting out of the way of great ingredients as Becerra seems to be, and his best dishes are almost deceptively simple, arranged around an array of precisely seasonal produce: browned fennel with roasted grapes, for example, served with a small heap of simmered farro; or a summer preparation of scallops with corn, which brought out the subtle sweetness in both components. Shell beans of all sorts — cranberry beans, cannellini beans, lavender beans, scarlet runner beans — are simmered with a little marjoram and may show up with pork belly, duck, scallops or fish. Grits — not the fancy organic kind you get from the freezer case at gourmet stores, but honest stone-ground grits from Georgia — might be cooked with porcini and garlic, or placed beneath a fish soup to amplify the broth. Rare slices of rib steak or veal, for example, are coaxed to impossible juiciness, probably through the French vacuum-cooking method sous vide. A chicken breast, cooked for many hours at ultralow temperatures, still firm but bursting with flavor, is served under a sheet of what amounts to chicken-skin chicharrones — this may be the first chicken breast in history that I have preferred to pork belly, and the crisp, meltingly rich pork belly is always damned good.
I know Palate must have some good desserts — I’ve had a good chocolate pudding and a buttermilk panna cotta I think — but I’ve never been able to get past the cheese plate, which is among the most carefully composed in town.
Palate, 933 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 662-9463 or www.palatefoodwine.com. Mon.- Sat., 5-10 p.m. Full bar. Valet (and plentiful street) parking. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: porkfolio; potted poulet; salmon rillettes; pickled stone fruit; vegetable papillote; mackerel with pistachio; pork belly with grits, shell beans and Asian apples; cheese plate.