In the demimonde of post-aughts Los Angeles, where the value of a meal out may lie less in the dent it leaves on your Visa card than in the discomfort involved in obtaining a table, there are three levels of almost-restaurants, the phenomenon in which chefs and kitchens exist on separate, occasionally intersecting spheres.
The first set, of course, are the pop-ups, generally chefs inserting their cuisine and their menu into a restaurant ordinarily closed during the shifts in question, like jazz musicians doing residencies at nightclubs. LudoBites, or the chefs with weeks at Breadbar, or the Blue Owl, operating out of a Santa Barbara Thai restaurant after-hours, would be examples of this.
The next kind of almost-restaurant is the underground restaurant, something halfway between cooking and performance art, where you generally have to know someone to get a seat at the table — Wolvesmouth, and whatever the hell Roberto Cortez is doing, could be described as doing something like this.
And then there's the third set, which is kind of a restaurant and kind of not, as when Laurent Quenioux drifts into Starry Kitchen to cook for a couple of weekends, then disappears to leave the Tran family to scratch its crunchy tofu balls, or pretty much every time fusionist illusionist Gary Robins picks up a knife.
To get to Le Comptoir, the demi-restaurant from chef Gary Menes, you pull into a parking space on an empty stretch of the Fashion District, you tug open a side door of the darkened lunch spot Tiara, and you wonder if you've wandered into the wrong space, since it looks completely desolate, as if you've arrived 10 minutes before the cleaning crew. You may have found an email address someplace and tried to make a reservation, or you may have come across Menes' announcement of the restaurant on his Facebook page. A friend may have told you it was pretty good. You may remember Menes' work as the opening chef at Palate, his brief turn at Palihouse, his pop-up at Olive & Thyme, or his wonderful if short-lived Marché in Sherman Oaks, a restaurant that itself felt like a pop-up in the quarters of the old Max. Menes is a good chef, but longevity has never been his strong suit.
You walk through the deserted dining room, toward the counter that separates it from the open kitchen, and abruptly there is Menes, then three of his line cooks, then a kitchen's worth of ingredients that are unwrapped, taken out of their bins, put back into service. It is really better to reserve, you are told, although the Facebook page had encouraged walk-ins.
You pull up a stool to the counter. You are handed handwritten menus — a formality, because you will be served what the kitchen has prepared — and within a few seconds a glass of white Bordeaux is put down in front of you, then a plate of compressed melon, almost the texture of tuna sashimi, served like a ceviche with lime juice, a little olive oil and a spray of cilantro. The bread is sliced from big, blackened rustic loaves, a bit wet on the inside, which Menes has made using a starter he has nurtured for years. So far, so good.
There is a bowl of sweet potato soup next, poured from a metal pitcher over a composition of tart, pickled chanterelles and splashed with a little yogurt, and then what you would have to call Le Comptoir's signature dish, a black, cast-iron cocotte heated to almost glowing, greased with a few drops of oil, on which a freshly gathered egg from one of Menes' neighbors puffs and sizzles. You are given a disk of herbed butter to melt in the cocotte, and a handful of greens to saute. You may have seen this presentation once before, at the famous Noma in Copenhagen, where the superheated iron is brought to table resting on a smoldering pile of hay, the egg comes from a wild duck and the herbs that you saute are a kind of wild garlic called ramson, plucked that morning from a city park, but otherwise pretty much the same. Menes guesses what you are about to say, and he tells you about his year at the French Laundry, where Rene Redzepi, now the Noma chef, was also on the line, and Grant Achatz, now of Alinea, was chef du cuisine. A formidable crew.
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SHOW ME HOW
Behind the counter at Tiara, Menes heats a small pot of oil and begins to fry experimental doughnuts he's made from his bread starter, turning to his chefs for advice, and eventually tosses a perfect torus of dough with a bit of cinnamon sugar. He hands over a small slice. "If someone had made doughnuts in front of me without offering me a bite, I'd be furious,'' he says.
Was the sweet, roasted Tahitian squash next, served with pungent frills of wild mustard leaf and a spoonful of the Etruscan grain farro cooked to a vague, liquid pop? It must have been, although in its place the next time I came in were buds of curried cauliflower with Padrón peppers, ripe persimmons and a molten spoonful of grits. (Each dish seems to require at least a half-dozen preparations, and when the food is being cooked 18 inches from your stool, you're aware of every one of them.) There was a sort of steak constructed from short ribs cooked sous vide; at the next meal a lobe of chicken breast poached in whey, garnished with grapes and pickled shallots, and served with sheets of its own crunchy skin.
Before the dessert, Menes pulled out a plate of gooey cheese he'd made himself from organic cream and infused with truffles. The dessert itself involved a different kind of truffle, the chocolate kind, dunked in beignet dough and fried crisp, a dessert that was halfway between three-star cookery and a county fair stunt. It was good if you didn't think about it too hard, an ideal end to dinner at a restaurant I was not sure I would ever see again.
LE COMPTOIR AT TIARA CAFE | 127 E. Ninth St., dwntwn. | (424) 571-3536 | facebook.com/pages/ Le-Comptoir-at-TiaraCafe/262315170471537?sk=info; reserve at email@example.com | Open Thurs.-Sat., 6-10 p.m., at least through February | MC, V | Wine | Street parking | Prix-fixe dinner, food only, $46; wine pairing, $24