What's the point of a pop-up restaurant? It's a bit strange to think that several years into a dining movement that has given chefs greater creative and entrepreneurial freedom than ever before, the answer to that question is still pretty nebulous. Ostensibly, the goal is to open up a full restaurant. But pop-ups, by nature, are noncommittal and opening a restaurant is, well, akin to mortgaging a house or raising an especially needy child -- one who's responsible for serving a few hundred people food every night.
What I'm saying, I think, is that there's a reason why almost no pop-up restaurant in Los Angeles has yet to bridge the gap into becoming a full-fledged, fully licensed, open-every-damn-day type of place. There's a massive amount of work, time and money involved. All of which are precious commodities for chefs who have decided to, borrowing a term from Sarah Palin's playbook, "go rogue."
And yet Alma, the brainchild of chef Ari Taymor, sous chef Derrick de Jesus and beverage director Chris Yamashiro, has managed to do it. Only six months after launching the Alma pop-up at Venice's Flake Café, this ensemble of budding restaurateurs has opened a small space near Broadway and Olympic, in the heart of downtown's up-and-coming Broadway Theater district, that's entirely their own.
Granted, it's a humble space, one that sort of resembles an art gallery on opening day -- sparse decor, a few rows of track lighting, some paintings scattered along the walls. There are fewer than a dozen tables, an open kitchen with some stools for counter dining, and a host station/DJ booth with a stack of dusty vinyl nearby.
Taymor became known during his run at Fluke for simple, produce-centric California cooking, an aesthetic honed by time spent working at Bay Area restaurants such as Flour + Water and Plate Shop. At the newest permanent iteration of Alma, the streamlined kitchen has reached a new level of confidence -- the pop-up's tasting menu has been traded in for a tightly curated selection of à la carte dishes that rarely fields a disappointment. Even in an age when chefs are known to check in with local farmers more often than with their significant others, the staff at Alma exudes a rare harmony with the Southland's best produce and growers (the fact that Yamashiro used to help manage Maggie's Farm in Long Beach doesn't hurt).
The summer sweet corn soup, infused with the earthy aroma of vadouvan, embodies pure comfort, but it's set off by a clever twist: a scoop of nasturtium ice cream, which melts into a rich herbaceous slick; and a tiny pile of wispy cornsilk, fried until it gives off the aroma of grilled corn. There are some delightful beignets made with squash blossoms, a starter that Taymor has riffed on for several months, dusted with burnt citrus zest and a drizzle of lime juice.
One evening there was an elegantly plated "California cassoulet," a play on the hearty French favorite, scattered with thick slices of garlic sausage, smoked duck breast that had been aged for days, roasted plums, chanterelles and Japanese eggplant, with a black garlic sauce spread under it all like a vial of spilled ink. A dish of both raw and cooked halibut paired with torched avocado was a bit of a miss, save for an exquisite tomatillo-enhanced broth.
The most impressive dish, though, and the thing that makes Alma one of the most exciting new restaurants in town, was a summer salad of juicy canteloupe, sprinkled with the lightest touch of sea salt. On top were flash-pickled curls of raw zucchini, wax beans, and a handful of wild arugula. Dollops of creme fraiche, sorrel pureé and crushed hazelnut were layered underneath. Saying it tasted of summer wouldn't do it justice -- it tasted like a very specific summer, one spent walking through a melon patch in the high afternoon heat, with the aroma of vegetation and over-ripe fruit rising in waves.
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Things look even brighter for Alma in the near future. New pastry chef Sam Song, formerly of New York's Bouchon, was working his first shift on the line during our most recent visit. His dessert of mint meringue with honeydew and sorrel ice cream was impeccable for an opening day's work.
A beer and wine list is in the works, but Yamashiro's house-made sodas, which feature flavors like plum and vanilla or sweet cucumber, serve as a pleasant substitute. Chef de Jesus, who grew up in the Latin-Asian cross-culture of Alhambra, is set to debut a lunch menu inspired by his Angeleno roots. The transformation of Alma is already impressive enough to warrant an immediate visit, but the real fun will be watching this ambitious project continue its upward climb. 952 S. Broadway, L.A., 213-444-0984, www.alma-la.com
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