“We had to unpack a lot of Etsy boxes,” says one of the servers at the Exchange, a new Israeli-style restaurant inside downtown’s new Freehand Hotel. She’s pointing to a bright orange knitted coaster, on top of which are placed vintage gold-rimmed water glasses.
“Those sauces are really important,” she adds, referring to two small ceramic bowls inside a centerpiece dish. She’s right. The zhoug and harissa shouldn’t be ignored.
After reciting her very extensive knowledge of the menu, she removes the forks and knives from mini floral pouches and scurries off to put in the order. A young man with shoulder-length hair who looks as if he's in a band glides past, holding high a silver tray of extra large, perfectly square ice cubes.
The details such as silverware pouches, floor-to-ceiling wood panelling, floral patterns and bright-colored knitted coasters seem, individually, like kitschy throwbacks to the 1970s. But as a whole, it all comes to together as something altogether fresh.
Perhaps the coolest thing, though, is that the Commercial Exchange Building — which now houses the Freehand hostel-style hotel — has been revived by the Sydell Group (known for the NoMad in New York and the Line in Koreatown) after sitting empty for years. Built in 1924, the building housed the Owl Drug Company; Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, had his publishing headquarters there.
Gabe Orta and Elad Zvi, who head the bar and restaurant, brought local chef Alex Chang to Israel as part of the process of creating the menu. Orta and Zvi are the team behind Bar Lab, famous for their James Beard Award–nominated Broken Shaker Bar at Miami's Freehand Hotel. They plan to open another bar on the roof of the Los Angeles Freehand. It goes without saying that the bar program here is strong. And surprisingly, the food is no afterthought.
As a hotel eatery, the Exchange is conveniently open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's one of the few places in L.A. to serve Jerusalem bagels, the skinny, oblong kind that Zvi grew up eating in Israel. The lunch and dinner menus begin with salatim, a list of Middle Eastern–inspired small plates, such as hummus with Syrian pepper, labneh with grilled vegetables and grated tomato with tahini and basil. Though lunch transitions into sandwiches, the dinner menu offers impressive large plates such as grilled whole fish, peel-and-eat ridgeback prawns with dijonnaise, lamb kebabs and pargiyot (translates to “baby chicken”) kebabs with carrot mole and yogurt.
Despite its Eastern Mediterranean focus, the restaurant describes its cuisine as highlighting different Los Angeles flavors. This is most obvious in Chang's dishes like a black sesame avocado salad with white peaches and aged feta, and a memorable burnt eggplant dish topped with pickled cherries, fresh mint and a dusting of bonito flakes.
The dessert menu is concise, with four very different options. The almond milk custard with strawberry granita, rhubarb and rose geranium is as tempting as the dark chocolate cake with confit cherries and mahleb sorbet.
On a recent weeknight, the restaurant was lively. The adjacent lobby bar, Rudolph's Bar and Tea, was packed with guests gearing up to watch a live band perform. Zvi, who seemed to know everyone, was mingling around the room. For such a new establishment, it already seemed like an institution in the making.
416 W. Eighth St., downtown; (213) 395-9531, freehandhotels.com.