French food had an awfully long run. And when I say long, I mean long: When upscale restaurants appeared in America close to 200 years ago, employing a French chef quickly became the way for a restaurateur to distinguish himself, and a menu of French food was all there was in fine dining for the majority of those 200 years. After all that time, one has to wonder: What place does French food have in our food culture now? How could its dominance have disappeared so very quickly? Now that the sharp turn has been made toward Italian and Mediterranean cooking, is there any room left in our hearts and our wallets for upscale French food?
These are the questions I grappled with when considering Spring, the new downtown restaurant from chef Tony Esnault and his wife and business partner, Yassmin Sarmadi. Esnault, who is French by birth, has seen the turn away from high-end, French-influenced cooking firsthand. He worked under Alain Ducasse in France and New York City, as well as at many other impressive kitchens in both countries. He was chef at Patina and then at Church & State, a position he still holds.
The less opulent bistro fare at Church & State (and at Petit Trois, which may be L.A.'s most relevant French restaurant right now) is perhaps more in line with the demands of the modern Los Angeles diner than the kind of cooking Esnault has practiced for the majority of his career. Spring, however, appears to be a call to arms, a rallying cry for the resurrection of nouvelle cuisine, upscale dining rooted in serious French technique.
It would be wrong to say the place feels old-fashioned, as that might indicate stuffiness and overly rich sauces, and Spring is anything but stuffy. But it does call to mind the exciting restaurant openings of New York City circa 2003, when food was moving in a more casual direction but still required civility and elegance to be taken seriously.
The 6,000-square-foot restaurant takes up the soaring atrium of the Douglas Building, and the room is stunningly beautiful in a softer, more refined way than the industrial-chic spaces we see so much of these days. A tinkling stone fountain anchors the glass-roofed room, which has a beige, white and mossy-green color scheme and is graced by trees strung with tiny lights. On one side, the large open kitchen shines with crisp steeliness, full of cooks in pressed whites, without a beard or tattoo in sight. No hip-hop blasts from the sound system, no “small plates meant for sharing” speech issues forth from the mouth of your server.
Spring may be named for the somewhat grotty street on which it sits, but the word also expresses a certain lightness about everything here, from the room to the food. Esnault has said that the South of France is a large influence on his cooking at Spring, and you can certainly taste the fresh, summery beauty of that part of the world in this menu. There's a silken corn soup that comes poured over a jumble of chanterelles and corn kernels. I've had similar soups that somehow packed more corn essence into the liquid, but this version is enchanting nonetheless.
There's a dish of composed fresh vegetables, each cooked to its perfect texture and arranged on the plate as if every sugar snap and tiny round of baby zucchini were a jewel in a elaborately colorful brooch. An appetizer of escargot Provençal is almost a warm salad, made up of delicately cooked tomato, fennel and persillade, with wild Burgundy snails imbued with just enough garlic placed atop the vegetables. It's a gorgeous dish, in conception and execution.
If technique is the backbone of this restaurant, there are instances where it lets Esnault down. Fish stew is a hard dish to get right if you're striving for perfection — overcooked fish is always a danger. Esnault avoids this with his bourride by precooking the sea bass and placing it at room temperature in its shallow bowl, over which the server pours hot, saffron-laced broth. Everything about this dish is so carefully planned, from the delicate but intense broth to the perfectly cooked potatoes and fennel dotting the bowl to the tiny, sweet pops of cherry tomato. But the fish's skin, having not seen a hot pan in quite a few minutes, remained chewy and ultimately was inedible.
Generally, however, Esnault is a worthy cheerleader for the kind of cooking it takes a career to master. How nice to have a piece of duck cooked exactly right, next to a line of geometrically arranged baby turnips and radishes that have seen the knife work of a real professional. How wonderful to have the sauce over that duck be glassy but not sticky, meaty but tart. Real sauce! No gimmicks! There's no faking such things.
If it's refreshing to taste a real demiglace again, to see vegetables lovingly and carefully cooked and plated with an artful eye, it is even more thrilling to experience desserts made with that same level of sophistication and skill. I love rustic desserts, too, but I'm perfectly capable of cooking them myself. A delicate crèmeux or an impossibly smooth chocolate ganache dolloped elegantly alongside honey lemon sorbet and an irresistibly nutty praline? I can't do that.
All of this is to say it's possible to have a lovely meal at Spring, and Esnault obviously has plenty to prove that wouldn't translate as well in a more casual setting. But I worry for the restaurant, which currently does not have the crush of customers it probably deserves. I worry that the food and the atmosphere that Esnault and Sarmadi are offering, while refreshingly different from much of what's new and fashionable, are not what downtown L.A. is pining for at this juncture. It must have been a massively expensive project — that gorgeous, gleaming kitchen, that impeccably designed dining room. Unless the city decides that a return to elegance and serious French dining is what we're missing, I fear that Spring will sink under the weight of its own costly ambition.
As much as I might wish otherwise, it's not my job to tell you what you should want. Spring delivers beautiful food in a beautiful setting, with an underpinning of technique that's uncommon these days. Whether or not that will translate to customers and longevity is another matter.
SPRING | Three stars | 257 S. Spring St., downtown | (213) 372-5189 | springlosangeles.com | Lunch: Tue.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner: Tue.-Fri., 6-10 p.m.; Sat., 5:30-10 p.m. | Entrees, $17-$32 | Full bar | Lot and street parking