In cooking, as in conversation, cleverness can be a great asset. The playfulness of taking a classic dish and flipping it on its head, or using the construct of one type of cuisine and imposing it on another, can be a fun way to feed people. Even the occasional food pun is acceptable now and then, as long as there's smart flavor to go along with the smart wordplay.
There was a time, a few years back, when cleverness seemed to dominate the New American food dialogue, and one of the voices at the forefront of that dialogue in L.A. was Ernesto Uchimura. He was the opening chef of Umami Burger, the chain built on ingenuity and wit, and the chef who launched Plan Check, where he came up with items such as kim-cheese. Uchimura's penchant for mashing up cuisines was reflective of the diversity of his heritage, which is Jewish and Argentine and Japanese and American.
At his new restaurant, Electric Owl in West Hollywood, you'll hear servers refer reverentially to Uchimura's days at Plan Check, telling customers, "He's the chef who invented ketchup leather." It's a fine distinction to be the guy who took America's favorite condiment and disguised it as a fruit rollup, and it helped turn Plan Check's burger into something of a cult item. But at Electric Owl, Uchimura takes a couple of baby steps away from that type of cleverness — dare I call it gimmickry? — toward cooking rooted in technique. In other words, there are no truffle oil burgers on the menu. In fact, there's no burger at all.
Electric Owl is on a plot of land that was once the location of a train depot, and the building — designed by prolific design firm Spacecraft — pays homage to that history with a vintage-inspired interior that feels like an old train station. Spacecraft designed the space for a different project, Gardner Junction, a restaurant that took years to launch and then stayed open for only a few months in 2015. While the interior of the restaurant is incredibly appealing, it's the bricked-in outdoor patio/bar that gets most of the action, especially on these early summer evenings. It's a space that is almost perfectly geared toward the West Hollywood after-work drinks crowd, and that crowd is taking full advantage.
I'm impressed that Uchimura has avoided falling too far into the gastropub realm, seeing as that's what he's known for. It also would likely be an extremely easy sell to the happy-hour crowd. As for that crowd, the first section of the menu is dedicated to a short list of pizzas, which I presume are the type of thing you'd eat at a bar after drinking too many yerba mate martinis (yes, that's really a thing; there's also a stevia margarita). The pizzas are fine but they're by far the least interesting thing to eat here.
The rest of the menu is far more ambitious. There's a lovely sweet pea salad with a tangy carrot romesco and creamy stracciatella cheese, and a young market lettuce salad with fruit and nuts and honey mustard, which is a touch too sweet but otherwise vibrant and fresh.
The vegetable section of the menu is perhaps where Uchimura shows the most prowess, using that culinary cleverness to great advantage. Creamed bitter greens are bound together by a rich béchamel made with goat milk, which gives it a wonderful barnyard tang that pairs beautifully with the stridently vegetal greens. It's one of those ingredient switcheroos that's so simple but also seems revolutionary. Grilled carrots, their sweetness and depth an unmistakable mark of market quality, have their meatiness ramped up by the addition of tamarind steak sauce, and ricotta salata and Fresno chili make the dish dynamic and bright.
There are a few handmade pastas, including a tagliatelle that borrows some of the original Umami burger's philosophy, in that it manages to pack multiple strains of umami into one bowl: dry-aged beef, tomato sugo, fried garlic and Parmesan. Smoked potato gnocchi with Dungeness crab, corn, brown butter and pink peppercorn reads like one of the menu's most reliable crowd pleasers but it falls flat in the bowl, the flavors and textures oddly unharmonious.
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Uchimura's affinity for playtime is still quite pronounced, and it mostly works in his favor. Cornbread becomes a crust on a roasted Alaskan halibut, and he doubles down on both the corn and the fish, adding shellfish butter and blackened rounds of corn to the dish. It works. He turns cacio e pepe — cheese and pepper, usually used as parlance for pasta made with those two ingredients — into ranch dressing for a dish of roasted potatoes with fried Italian herbs. There's "cucumber ice" under a king crab cocktail, and the cocktail is actually just a huge crab leg sliced open so the sweet meat is readily available. You can ignore the ice; it's pretty but doesn't do much for the crab. The ramekin of tabasco nuoc cham on the side is another exercise in intense umami and is fun and tasty, but the purist will find it overwhelms the crab meat.
Uchimura has always been a good cook, one who knows how to get exactly what he has in his mind onto the plate. For some chefs, that ability plus a tendency toward gimmickry can lead to witty food that never quite succeeds beyond its own punch lines. With Electric Owl, Uchimura proves he's capable of taking his talent and his cleverness and creating something just a little more serious.
ELECTRIC OWL | Two stars | 1451 N. Gardner St., West Hollywood | (323) 545-6565 | electricowl.la | Wed., Thu. & Sun., 4:20-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 6:30 p.m.-mid. | Plates, $8-$48 | Full bar | Lot and street parking