When chef Marcel Vigneron announced he would be opening his first restaurant, it seemed a bit cliché (and confusing) for the Top Chef alum, a guy who made a name for himself as a molecular gastronomer, to describe the food at his new place as "rustic," "farm fresh" and "made from locally sourced ingredients." Fans of Vigneron’s short-lived molecular gastronomical SyFy series Quantum Kitchen might be disappointed at first glance by the menu at Wolf: burnt carrots, beets and citrus, baby kale, braised beef cheeks, roast chicken and Brussels sprouts read like menu déjà vu.
But what comes out of the kitchen at Wolf is far from boring. Those “burnt” carrots arrive beautifully plated around dollops of fluffy white pillows. At any other restaurant in town, the pillows might be globs of burrata. But here they are delicate, melt-in-your-mouth clouds of coconut espuma (er, foam), a tropical touch that hints at the passion fruit sauce resting underneath. The plate is scattered with oxalis and tarragon leaves, little piles of chopped macadamia nuts and baby coconut. Wolf's nose-to-tail “zero-waste cooking” philosophy explains why the carrot stems are still attached and more carrot greens are sprinkled on top. It could also explain why there are sandy bits crunching between your teeth.
For a chef who is TV-famous and has worked at such glitzy places as the Bazaar in Beverly Hills, Vigneron's Wolf is pleasantly down-to-earth. Located on one of the slightly grungier blocks of Melrose Avenue, the space is sophisticated yet simple. With two large Spanish barn chandeliers and a blue-tiled bar, the decor matches the way Vigneron has described the food — rustic yet refined. A long booth with bohemian pillows lines one wall, while tables are laid out spaciously throughout the room. It feels like the kind of restaurant where people go, again and again, for the food. If you’re seated in the right place, you can see Vigneron in the kitchen, focused and holding an immersion blender.
The host, who is perched out front of the restaurant, greets you after you've interrupted a friendly conversation between him and the valet attendant. The welcome is warm and attentive, a style of service that continues until you leave. For such a new restaurant, the staff is impressively seasoned.
Though the menu hints at tropical themes, the culinary throughline is simply whatever Vigneron has found inspiration from while living in LA. In this case, the use of coconut and lemongrass stems from his time spent eating in East Hollywood's Thai Town. The Thai Hi-Five cocktail made with gin, raw coconut oil and house lemongrass soda shows potential but comes out a bit too sweet.
The sous-vide "roast chicken" — brined for 24 hours — serves as a good argument that chicken breast should never be cooked by any other method. The chicken is plated on some smears of celery root purée and accompanied by escarole drenched in bagna cauda and charred cippolini onions — and might seem one-note if it weren't for the pickled salsify that brightens the whole thing. Vegetables such as broccoli "polonaise" sprinkled with hard-cooked egg, croutons and cherry tomatoes are equally straightforward
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The dessert menu is small but strong. Order the blueberry soufflé and the server dollops a cold scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. It melts through the delicate crust into the fluffy center.
At 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night, guests are still trickling into the dining room. Clearly, Los Angeles has yet to discover Wolf. But Wolf has the potential to become a hard place to get into. When Vigneron combines his modernist tendencies with the first-rate produce L.A. is known for, the results can be worth the hype.
Wolf, 7661 Melrose Ave., Fairfax; (323) 424-7735, wolfdiningla.com