The Best New, Rising Star, Young Gun, Freshest, Most BabyFaced Chef in America Award is a monster with a greedy hunger that can't be satiated. It won't be stopped or even slowed — it yearns for ever-younger, ever-newer blood. It is an integral part of the symbiotic relationship between restaurants and food media: Readers love Best New Anything stories, and there's no doubt this recognition creates business for the restaurants and chefs named. But there's a dark side to this roiling froth of accolades, including a group of chefs whose lives have been upended by so much attention so early in their budding careers.
One such chef is Ricardo Zarate, a guy who quietly opened a Peruvian food stall named Mo-Chica in Mercado La Paloma in 2009 and two years later was on the cover of Food & Wine, the recipient of its coveted Best New Chef award. In a world where these types of awards go overwhelmingly to white chefs and in which the food of immigrants is often only recognized when it's been co-opted by non-immigrants, Zarate's meteoric rise could only be seen as a good thing. Here was a guy cooking the food of his homeland — and cooking it with a raucous sense of inventiveness but also with precision and nuance. Within a couple of years, he had joined forces with some of the most prolific restaurateurs in town and had three restaurants spread across L.A. and in Santa Barbara. It felt head-spinning to watch from a distance; I can't imagine how it must have felt to be at the center of such a frenzied ascension.
As fast as Zarate's career took off, it crashed even quicker. In 2014, Mo-Chica — which had moved from its humble Mercado La Paloma birthplace to a bigger, flashier location downtown — closed its doors, and his projects with other investors either closed or removed his name from the masthead, so to speak. The reasons for Zarate's tumble from grace were different depending on whom you asked; the chef himself has since said that while several factors were involved (including the death of his brother), much of it had to do with all the attention he got from that Food & Wine award and the resultant responsibilities and pressure.
Three years later, Zarate is back with Rosaliné, a West Hollywood restaurant named for his mother. The scale of the place is more moderate than some of the huge, sprawling restaurants he headed before, and it feels more personal as a result. Windows in the front open onto Melrose Avenue, and the back half of the dining room is a glass-roofed greenhouse lined in white tile and festooned with hanging potted plants. All that tile makes for a rather shouty/deafening dining experience, but it sure looks pretty.
The talent that shot Zarate to success in the first place is on full display at Rosaliné, and fans of his past cooking will recognize the format and the flavors: so much to choose from, so much brightness, a deft mix of traditional Peruvian dishes and ingredients, and the vivid, fresh, meant-for-sharing aesthetic upon which L.A. dining thrives (an aesthetic that, it could be argued, Zarate had a hand in creating).
Here are the bracing ceviches, zapped with acid and tempered with creaminess, or sweetness, or a shot of umami, or all three of those things. Maybe it's sliced scallop daubed with uni, floating in leche de tigre, accompanied by a tiny pile of slivered garlic cooked to a jerky chew, or four lovely curls of sea bass from Ensenada bathed in a tamari-yuzu-walnut dressing, prickled with Amazonian charapita (often cited as the world's most expensive chili).
Zarate has always had an affinity for ingredients that turn flavors to maximum volume — for a while at Mo-Chica's second iteration this tendency had him relying on truffle oil and other questionable crutches – but at Rosaliné it's hard to fault the easy clout of feta cheese, used to punch up skewers of steaky beef heart, or yuzu, which shows up all over the menu and turns the expected lime notes in Peruvian food slightly upside down. Padron peppers get hit with miso and also a pile of shimmering, quivering bonito, and somehow the three aggressive flavors work in electrifying harmony. This is not food you can eat casually, without much thought; it demands your attention.
There are instances, though rare, where Zarate's penchant for that bam-bam-bam layering of flavors gets him in trouble. A causa that comes in a glass jar is meant to highlight eggplant, but the extra sweetness that pervades the layers of potato and avocado and eggplant overwhelms and distracts from the more subtle (and lovely) sweetness of the eggplant itself. The pancetta and sausage and fermented fish condiment bagoong that flavor the Peruvian paella border on salty, meaty overkill, even with fat prawns dotting the rice as well. The dish is decent, but it lacks the dynamic thrill of Zarate's other efforts.
If you're in the mood for rice, instead go for the arroz con mariscos, a dish that uses that piling on of similar elements to great effect. In this case, it's all manner of seafood in a creamy heap of rice bound by a sauce that tastes a lot like liquid sea urchin. The rice is soft and the dish is almost soupy, but to me there's nothing in this world more comforting than rice glop. All the better if it tastes like the soul of the ocean.
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Rosaliné was a long time in the making — I started getting "sneak preview" PR pitches a full year before the place opened its doors — and I'd like to think the delays were partly due to Zarate taking his time for once, making sure he wasn't rushing into another overwhelming situation. That's a nice fantasy, but it's more likely to have been regular city/buildout/licensing issues, and a few days before Rosaliné finally launched, Zarate opened another restaurant, a fast-casual joint in Hollywood called Mamacita. That's all good and well, but if I have one plea for Zarate, it's this: Don't push too hard. One restaurant as good as Rosaliné is far better than five you can't handle.
ROSALINÉ | Three stars | 8479 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood | (323) 297-9500 | rosalinela.com | Nightly, 6-11 p.m. | Small plates, $8-$22; large plates and family-style platters, $17-$95 | Full bar | Valet and street parking