The rectangular block on the table before us looks as though it's made from pink marble. It's actually a slab of salt. Sitting atop the slab is a glistening white substance that looks like the flesh of a lychee but is, in fact, Santa Barbara spot prawn tartare, topped with a fine dice of cantaloupe, tiny purple flowers and crumbled shrimp chips. A thick puree of melons flavored with burnt orange comes alongside, poured into sake glasses. "The salt imbues the prawns the longer it sits, so this is a dish with a time frame," the waitress purrs as she leaves the table.
To look at this dish, and, yes, to taste it — the prawns mellow and creamy in their raw, alive-two-minutes-ago diced state, the melon adding just a touch of summery sweetness, the soup a cooling counterbalance — we might be at one of America's temples of modern dining. The dish is theatrical and gorgeous and utterly fussed over, from conception through plating and delivery.
But this is no $150 tasting-menu affair. Rather, it's a tiny restaurant with no windows in a strip mall in Koreatown. And the food is anything but Korean.
Saint Martha — named for the patron saint of cooks and servants — joins the ranks of small, ambitious restaurants that open with little fanfare and even less money. In L.A., the most successful of these probably is Alma. On the other end of the success spectrum is Allumette, which closed in June after 18 months serving cutting-edge food in Echo Park. A burger and beer joint has taken its place.
But what Alma, Allumette and now Saint Martha prove is that young chefs with enough ambition can deliver exciting, progressive food without the cost and trappings of fine dining. Why grind away in someone else's kitchen for years when you can just set up shop and go for it?
It's a risky game to play, and one that asks diners to give up the comfort and consistency practically guaranteed by the old guard for a more affordable, and often more flawed, experience. But when it works, the thrill of discovering brilliance in an unlikely place can be electrifying.
The young chef in this case is 31-year-old Nick Erven, who worked at Mess Hall in Los Feliz and has been running the kitchen at Tart in the Farmer's Daughter Hotel, across Fairfax from the Original Farmers Market. Jim Hustead and Ellen and Peter Picataggio, who also own the hotel, are partners with Erven in this venture.
Erven's background is mainly in fine dining. He credits chef Seth Greenburg, with whom he worked for many years at the Penthouse at the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica, as his main influence and mentor. That French-influenced training sets the foundation for Erven's cooking, though his food at Saint Martha is playful above all else.
Saint Martha is located on Western Avenue, at the south edge of Koreatown, behind a heavy wooden door in a run-down strip mall. "The rent is cheap," a guy who turns out to be Hustead explains to me one evening, with a giddy, look-what-we're-getting-away-with tone.
The cozy, low-lit room is decorated with classic oil paintings that make you look twice: The woman sitting in 19th-century portrait pose has an intricate neck tattoo creeping down her décolletage. A neon sign above the open kitchen reads "hipster," and the heavily tattooed Erven sports a trucker hat as he works under that sign, as if to put an exclamation point on the proclamation. A bearded sous chef works by his side.
All of this establishes Saint Martha as a place that doesn't view itself too earnestly. Yet the food — small plates for sharing, don't you know? — is one part whimsy and two parts dead serious.
That goes for the wine list as well: Sommelier Mary Thompson has built an extraordinary roster that veers from the Loire to Baja to Lebanon to Texas, making it very difficult to walk in with your heart set on something safe and boring. Give yourself over to the freewheeling fun of the list — everything is available by the taste, glass, carafe and bottle — and you're in for a good time. (Incidentally, I spent days trying to figure out where I had previously seen Thompson before realizing, upon reading her bio, that she had waited on me at Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro in New York City a decade ago. She delivers the type of genial service that makes her face pleasantly memorable.)
Erven's food is often theatrical — he makes Doritos out of seaweed and pairs them with avocado mousse. It's a riff on guac and chips, but then he adds sea urchin tataki and hearts of palm. Each chip rises from its own little composed pile of urchin and mousse, and each mouthful is a creamy umami bomb.
Chicken liver mousse comes sitting in a pool of hazelnut praline, and the whole dish walks a fine line between savory and sweet, a little bit Nutella, a little bit ... well, pulverized liver. It shouldn't work but it does, the decadence of the endeavor somehow trumping its oddity.
There's an oyster and steak tartare, the mineral tang of both raw beef and raw oysters multiplying in your mouth. The bone marrow beignets on the side are a little silly but fun nonetheless.
Like many young chefs who just go with their heart, no holds barred, Erven sometimes finds himself in over his head. Grilled Mediterranean sardines would have been an absolute standout, served with trout roe and vibrant green succulents, had the sardines not been half raw ... and I mean actually raw on one side.
Meanwhile, our waitress described in loving detail the 14 hours it took to cook the smoked brisket, one dish on Erven's menu that does nod to the surrounding Korean culture: The meat comes under a blanket of spicy hoisin and delicate lettuce greens. But while the fat was marvelous, the rest of the meat was dry.
A raw-milk panna cotta with tomato dashi and hunks of fresh tomato, too, was better in theory than practice. The components didn't gel, and some elements seemed bland (the tomato chunks needing salt, the panna cotta a tad too benign) while others (the tomato dashi) overwhelmed.
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While service itself is outstanding, getting a reservation at this place was slapstick comedy involving five phone calls, all of which garnered a promise of a return call that never materialized. It turns out I was speaking to an answering service the whole time, and when I finally got through to the restaurant, they had heard nothing of my attempts. Book online or walk in — the phone in this case is futile.
Even after all that, and despite the intermittent blunders in the kitchen, Saint Martha is fully capable of charming its way into your heart. There's an exuberance here, a youthful energy that never quite veers into brattiness or posturing. Erven and Co. are here to have a good time, to drink some good wine, and to play with our expectations. It's a good game — I'm all in.
See also: Our photo gallery of Saint Martha
SAINT MARTHA | 740 S. Western Ave., Koreatown | (213) 387-2300 | saintmartharestaurant.com | Tue.-Sun., 5-11 p.m. | Plates, $8-$24 | Beer, wine and sake | Free lot parking