The most exciting food trend of 2017 isn't hot chicken or handmade pasta. Nor is it the arrival of restaurateurs from New York and San Francisco, who are showing up en masse to open L.A. outposts of their various empires. Those aren't the imports that are likely to solidify our dining reputation. What's truly exciting is the potential for Los Angeles to become America's capital of modern Mexican food.
The city has always been home to the most diverse Mexican cooking in the country, so it's unsurprising that the modern and high-end evolution that's taken place in Mexico in recent years would manifest here as well. That evolution is already well underway, with L.A. chefs such as Ray Garcia at Broken Spanish leading the charge. But now we're beginning to see some of Mexico's most respected chefs launch new projects in Los Angeles.
One of those chefs is Diego Hernández, whose restaurant Corazón de Tierra in Baja's Valle de Guadalupe has racked up admirers and accolades, including a ranking of No. 39 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America. In October, Hernández announced he would open a restaurant called Verlaine in the old Dominick's space in West Hollywood, which had closed in 2015 after a 67-year run. Hernández's arrival, it seemed, could only further the city's status as a capital of modern Mexican food.
It was surprising, then, that the chatter in the weeks after Verlaine's late-March opening was mainly negative. Readers wrote me emails saying the food was bad; friends reported disastrous service. On my initial visit in early June, I encountered overcooked meats and one of the worst cocktails I've been served in recent memory: It tasted a lot like Robitussin. The outdoor dining room is lovely (though I'm as sad as anyone about the loss of another historic L.A. restaurant), and some of the food was quite good, but something seemed off. Was Hernández struggling with the task of running operations in two countries?
A month later, Verlaine hasn't quite worked out all its kinks, but it is much closer to the restaurant it's obviously destined to become. And that restaurant is just as thrilling as we all hoped it would be.
For proof, look no further than the unassuming, dark red, oily liquid that comes alongside the ceviche of the day. The ceviche itself, generally made with Hiramasa yellowtail, is vibrantly fresh and lightly flavored with cilantro and lime. It comes with house-made tostadas on the side, and two ramekins, one with mayonnaise and one with that red stuff, a "matcha" sauce made from fried guajillo chilies and scorched peanuts. It has a dark smokiness, the edge-of-burnt peanuts presenting a radical kind of nuttiness. It isn't particularly spicy — it's the complex tang of the chili that comes through rather than its heat — but it is deeply savory, beautifully balanced and insanely delicious. It's also precise and deliberate, the work of a chef who knows how to tease out specific and delicate aspects of ingredients and have them work in a union so harmonious it seems predestined. Is it good on the ceviche? Sure. It would be good on just about anything.
If the matcha sauce is indicative of Hernández's ability to present beautifully intricate flavors, his grilled oysters showcase an opposite talent, one in which simplicity is king. These are just oysters, grilled in their shells with some butter and a touch of sage that you may not even notice. But they're somehow heightened and intensified, cooked so they're still briny but also creamy, the butter working to make them more decadent, the sage acting as a fragrant bridge between the dairy and the shellfish. It's easy to roast or grill an oyster in its shell; it's devastatingly hard to do it so the flesh is neither under- nor overcooked. Hernández does it perfectly.
The silkiness of that same Hiramasa yellowtail is heightened when served raw and layered over lush mayonnaise atop a tostada, its flavor enhanced by the slight perfume of cilantro flowers and ginger.
The vegetal bitterness of sorrel lightly punctuates a tamal made of masa that Hernández sources from Taco Maria in Costa Mesa, made from Mexican heirloom corn. After being mixed with sorrel and Swiss chard juices, as well as pork fat, the masa is strained through a sieve to give it a light, almost airy consistency, then poached in water. It's served enveloped in a mole amarillito and dusted with onion ash. The flavor of the masa and the ash and the mole is like three different kinds of duskiness, all of them intensely savory.
The ways in which Verlaine still struggles are mainly peripheral and logistical, but they aren't insignificant. It's hard to get a meal paced properly, especially if you order a lot of smaller plates rather than one appetizer and one entrée. (And it's advisable to go the small-plates route; the cooking problems I encountered — including dry chicken and overcooked fish — were entirely relegated to the entrées.) One night, when a server tried to deliver all at once six of the eight plates we'd ordered, we begged for mercy and a slowing of the flow. After that, it seemed as if the kitchen wanted to teach us a lesson, waiting 45 minutes after our initial plates were cleared before sending out the rest of our food. Integral ingredients advertised on the menu might be swapped out without warning or explanation, and servers range wildly in ability and demeanor.
Drinks were also an issue. In addition to my Robitussin experience, I found it odd that there wasn't one Mexican wine on the decently long list. Hernández and co. have insisted that this isn't a Mexican restaurant but rather a modern American restaurant with Mexican influence and flavors. Still, the chef made his name in Mexico's most famous wine region, and to neglect that region altogether seems strange.
Both the cocktails and the wine list are in the midst of a reboot, thanks to the recent hiring of beverage director John Neumueller, who previously worked at the Tasting Kitchen and Scopa. The new menu debuted last week, and there was a change in the quality of the drinks: a chartreuse swizzle made with mezcal that was both complex and refreshing; a tropical but grown-up Trinidad sour. Neumueller soon will open a new bar in the front of the property with more ambitious, produce-driven drinks. I'm also told the wine list will feature many more wines from the Valle de Guadalupe and that the issue has been as much about sourcing as anything else.
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It's tempting to use some kind of Eurocentric comparison to sum up Verlaine, something along the lines of how Hernández's talent for burnt peanut sauce is just as impressive as the skill of a chef who has mastered sauces with cream or butter at their core. But that would undercut the newness of this food and the history that came before it. If I need to tell you that Mexican flavors are capable of being just as complex and delicate and cerebral and pleasurable as French flavors, you're probably not the right audience for this restaurant. If you are excited at the prospect of our city's modern Mexican offerings getting more diverse and expansive and impressive, then you're in luck. Because although Verlaine still has its flaws, at his best Hernández delivers some of the most thrilling food I've eaten in L.A. this year.
VERLAINE | Three stars | 8721 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood | (424) 288-4621 | verlaine.la | Sun.-Thu., 6-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.-2 a.m. | Plates, $9-$34 | Full bar | Valet parking