With the shape of a mule’s ear and crinkles worthy of an elephant‘s hide, the dusky blue-black vegetable aptly nicknamed dinosaur kale seems unlikely to inspire passion. And yet this ancient Tuscan member of the cabbage family, known in its homeland as lacinato or cavalo nero, is the newest in a long line of field greens — think arugula, think rapini — that have demonstrated the culinary irresistability of rude simplicity when masked by an Italian accent. In the year since small bundles of the dark leaf first began appearing in fancy produce markets, I have found myself craving its pleasantly bitter bite: at once rich and astringent, with hints of sour apples and exotic spices like coriander seed mixing with the long cool note of chlorophyll.
To be sure, rough-textured greens have historically provoked desire out of all proportion to their looks. As the first new growth after months of frost or drought, even the bitterest, like dandelion, brought the literal promise of new blood: blood cleansed with scurvy-fighting vitamins, digestions reawakened that had been dulled for months with salt meat and dried fruit, dispirited appetites resurrected. In Baja, 18th-century Jesuits observed the local tribesmen on their knees, biting off the leafy tops of the amaranth that turned fields emerald after the monsoon rains, and thought them uncivilized in their grazing. But the churchmen were forgetting that Lent, with its meatless diet coming just as greens emerged in the spring, accomplished the same cleansing purpose with far more effort and less joy.
Local chefs are by no means immune to the power of green. Of those mentioned by farmers-market dealers as avid buyers of exotic leaves, Suzanne Goin of Lucques was the most rhapsodic. ”We use cavalo nero a lot,“ she explained on the phone one recent afternoon. You can cook it for a long time, and it almost becomes sweet. We’ve done it stewed with a pork chop and sweet potatoes,” a dish she describes as “Southern with a weird Italian twist. We also use dandelion greens a lot, turnip tops, beet greens.” Goin‘s passion is personal as well as professional. “At the end of service you know, you kind of get hungry but you’re sick of food — it‘s the sad thing about cooking professionally — but a plate of sauteed rapini just with garlic and chiles. It’s so satisfying.”
Lucques, which occupies Harold Lloyd‘s former carriage house, is an evocative setting in which to turn over a new leaf. The gray stone of the central fireplace that dominates the front of the restaurant and the gray trunks of the trees on the patio beyond the long glass wall at the rear gave me the sense of entering a sleek and sumptuous cabin in a still somewhat wintry wood. The colors of spring, however, sprouted everywhere on the menu. Intensely sweet pea shoots curled around yellow strands of saffron-flavored noodles as a first course. To paraphrase Goin, it was as if the classic Italian pasta paglia e fieno (straw and hay), a combination of yellow and green noodles and fresh peas, had been given a Pan-Pacific twist.
Similarly at dessert, the ribbons of mint, which floated like electric-green seaweed at the base of an alabaster square of panna cotta, served not only as a visual accent but as a palate cleanser between the luxuriously simple sweetness of the vanilla-flavored pudding and the simply luxurious sweetness of its citrus-caramel sauce. For leaf lovers, however, the evening’s high point was the stuffed pasta entree: innocent half-moons filled, like children‘s confetti eggs, with a surprising tangle of dark, assertive greens: cavalo nero, dandelion and turnip.
“We chop them really finely,” Goin explains, “and saute them all separately, really gently, in olive oil with shallots and garlic and actually a tiny bit of butter. Then we mix them all together. They all have different flavors and textures. The cavalo nero is a little bit rough, but cooking it, it really melts down and becomes almost luscious. The dandelion greens are grassy, earthy.”
Like many experiences of nature, this one improves by having been encountered in comfort. The sauce, more of a light coat than a hearty layer, is made of pureed ricotta thinned with creme fraiche (Goin calls it “our fake fromage blanc”) and embroidered with walnuts and Romano. It’s a little like hiding a wolf in the Easter basket. The sweet mildness of the sauce, encountered first, makes the greens within seem even wilder, even fresher. And the night, as well.
8474 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. (323) 655-6277. Open for lunch Tuesday–Saturday, and for dinner Tuesday–Sunday. Entrees $18–$29. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.