Photo by Anne Fishbein
DIONYSUS: Have you ever felt a sudden lust for soup?
HERACLES: Soup! Zeus-a-mercy, yes. Ten thousand times.
—Aristophanes, The Frogs (405 B.C.)
The word restaurant comes from a sign above the door of the first European eating establishment, which declared, “Boulanger vends les restaurants magiques,” that is “Boulanger [the proprietor’s name] sells magic restoratives.” Opened in Paris (of course) in 1765, the establishment had only one item on the menu, which, by government decree, was soup. With this sign, the lowly curative took its place as a pioneer of the dining-out experience.
At elaborate meals of many courses, soup serves as the greeter: These are the flavors you might expect; this is the degree of spiciness; these are the leftovers of meats and vegetables you may encounter in the main dish, or within the sides. Soup can also provide a way to understand the people who have prepared it. Is it a multilayered concoction based on a long-simmered stock, or a quick, low-fat vegetable purée? Are the vegetables fresh from the garden, imported or frozen?
For many who grew up in my generation, the message conveyed when soup was served was one of convenience. Just open a can. Sure, I had one of those Old World grandmothers who made everything from scratch. But as circumstance would have it, I spent a much greater portion of my childhood with my other grandmother, the one who embraced Hamburger Helper and Shake ’n’ Bake, as well as reconstituted Tomato Bisque, Scotch Broth or Bean with Bacon and a side of Saltines. Good, in a red-and-white label kind of way, but too salty, too tinny, to sustain much long-term appeal.
And for a long time, that is what I thought of soup. It wasn’t until I started reconsidering my own way of cooking — collecting cookbooks, seeking out hard-to-find ingredients that I used just a bit of and then shoved the rest to the back of the fridge, or put away in the cabinet only to rot — that I decided to give soup another chance. “Real” cooks I knew made good use of all that stuff. All those chicken carcasses and beet greens, all that fish sauce and tomato paste, were pure gold waiting for the alchemy of the soup pot.
Soup is perhaps most satisfying on those gray afternoons when it, itself, is the meal. A little rice, a warm tortilla or a couple slices of bread, and soup. No distractions. There are plenty of places in L.A. to find such soup. Here are a few.
At Joan & Sisters, a storefront dive serving up Belizean specialties at Western Avenue near 37th Street, the hand-scrawled menu on the wall promises a variety of different soups on different days — though they may not actually be available. After trying and failing to get conch soup on several of the days it was supposed to be offered, I simply asked, “What soup do you have?” “Cow foot” was the reply. I ordered up a bowl.
Golf-ball size hunks of bone and flesh don’t so much float in a beef stock as displace it. Set amidst elbow noodles and scraps of potato, the cow gives the stock a sharp muskiness akin to aged cheese. There is so much bone in this soup that when refrigerated, it turns to jelly. Diners can pump up the spiciness of the soup with a habanero-infused cup of vinegar and chopped white onions, then cool down with several strips of fried plantains set atop a mound of coconut rice.
Over the sushi bar at Hama Sushi in Little Tokyo hangs an ink print of an enormous red snapper — 95.5 centimeters long and 14.5 kilograms, to be exact — caught near one of the islands off mainland Japan. At my request, the waitress squints at the accompanying Japanese characters and offers an approximate translation: She’s pretty sure it says, “The fish is 1,000 years old,” but it might say, “You only catch a fish like this once every thousand years.”
As it happened, the specials one night included red-snapper-head soup. Inspired by the wall hanging, I ordered some. The soup arrived in a large red lacquer bowl, â offsetting the red speckled fish head floating inside. I paused to consider its quivering, milky eyeball for just a moment before dipping in. At the slightest touch, the head broke into a dozen tender chunks — I don’t know how they managed to get it into the bowl in one piece. The clear broth had an appealing smoky flavor brightened by a scattering of scallions.
Hama’s red-snapper-head soup is significantly more substantial than a diminutive bowl of miso, but there’s still room for a few pieces of yellowtail, albacore or toro sushi, or a soft-shell crab, which most of the time is frozen and is just okay, but for a few weeks in the spring comes in fresh and is soft, moist and even lighter than tempura.
Tsarina in Sherman Oaks is a spotless, cheerful room with pale-pink walls and yellow cloth roses on the tables. The woman behind the long deli case wears a red-ruffled bib apron while serving up Russian delights from the matching red-ruffled deli trays — simple food, the setting seems to declare, doesn’t have to mean a dreary setting.
This point could not have been made more clearly than on a recent afternoon when a modern-day Lara walked in, long, lean, high-cheekboned and very blond in a snug fuchsia sweater and skintight Sergio Valentes. She proceeded to order, in Russian, an array of beets, meats and dumplings, as well as a quart of kharcho.
As she strode out with her feast, I decided to follow her lead, ordering a bowl of the kharcho, a Georgian tomato-broth soup made with rice and bits of lamb, and enough spice to heat up the bitterest winter night. (It may even cure a headache or two. A recent study by a couple of respected medical anthropologists found that the molecular element that provides the heat in chile peppers alleviates some headaches.) Tsarina’s kharcho is topped off with a soothing sprinkle of fresh cilantro and dill. A single order is enough for several generous bowls.
Pastis, an unpretentious candlelit neighborhood bistro, with pillow-lined banquettes and no entrée over $20, offers affordable comfort, as well as soup. The Pastis wine list includes a couple dozen decent reds under $30 a bottle, and the house merlot — nothing outstanding, but eminently quaffable — goes for a mere 20 bucks. It’s a fitting complement to the generous bowl of bouillabaisse, a fairly standard, perfectly cooked blend of mussels, white fish, shrimp, tiny clams and potato in a red fish broth, served with saffron mayonnaise and toasted French bread. If seafood is not your thing, try the French onion soup, a subtly sweet rendition, with the requisite coating of toast and bubbling Gruyère.
At Red Moon Cafe, a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant at the corner of Sawtelle and National boulevards in West L.A., the first scalding bite of the seafood soup is underwhelming, but the flavor creeps up on you. As the broth cools a bit and you come upon squid and shrimp, or scrape the meat out of a crab leg, a subtle nuttiness emerges. Bits of mushroom, thin ridged slices of carrot, cabbage leaves and strands of egg round out the ingredients in this filling and delicate concoction.
Not nearly so subtle is Red Moon’s flaming soup, which arrives in an aluminum bowl shaped like a bundt pan — a flame shoots out of the hollow center and keeps the contents hot tableside. This is Vietnamese sweet-and-sour soup with shrimp, pineapple, skinless quartered tomato and slices of a crispy green vegetable called bac ha, which tastes like a milder version of celery. You can order it as spicy as you like — and hotter is better, to take full advantage of the sweetness of the pineapple.
Ammo in Hollywood prides itself on using the freshest ingredients, which alone does not always guarantee success. The soup special one day, chicken with fennel and wild rice, offered an ample portion of chicken heaped with wild rice, but the fennel was cooked to flavorlessness. Same problem with the miso. Made with a few ribbons of noodle, some seaweed, carrots and tofu, it is the kind of healthy, bland concoction that could only appeal to the most weight-conscious, doing penance for the new year. But Ammo’s chili, which really is a soup, is worth coming back for: chunks of earthy acorn squash cooked to a sweet creaminess harmonize with dried chile pasillas and tender cannellini beans in a green tomatillo and tomato stock. For a buck more, the chef will add chicken.
These days, Water Grill in downtown L.A. is frequently referred to as the best seafood restaurant in Southern California. I rarely eat at fancy places, so I can’t confirm that, but this I do know: Everyone should experience it at least once. The problem is that dinner for two, even with the most inexpensive bottle of wine on the list, can easily set you back two bills. Still, there is a way to enjoy the splendors of Water Grill on a less expansive budget. Go for lunch. Sit at the bar. Order soup.
But first, get a cocktail. I recommend the negroni. In fact, I can say without reservation and with four years of intensive research to back me up, that Water Grill makes hands-down the best negroni in Los Angeles. The bartenders balance the fruitiness of the gin perfectly with the bitterness of the Campari and the sweetness of the vermouth. Even when served straight up, this negroni is so cold that miniature floes drift across the surface.
Best of all, Water Grill’s negroni comes with a slice of orange — the only proper garnish for this drink, which should never be served with lemon, lime or, heaven forbid, a cherry (yes, a well-regarded Los Angeles establishment once subjected me to this). A few sips of this bracing beverage and you will be primed for the lobster bisque.
The server arrives with the bowl and sets it down empty, save a jigger-size tower of well-seasoned lobster morsels balanced atop a slender crouton. He then produces a silver urn and deftly ladles the pumpkin-colored soup, releasing its briny steam. The bisque is creamy without being leaden, the lobster as fresh as if it had just been hauled from the sea.
Water Grill’s other soup, clam chowder, is somewhat heavier — a milky brew tinted the merest hint of pink and punctuated with bits of bacon. Tender mollusks share their shells with potato sliced into thin disks instead of the more standard cubes. These soups are so rich that half an order of either would be enough for all but the heartiest longshoreman.
If that Parisian soup-only decree of 1765 were in effect in Los Angeles today, there would be more than an ample supply.
Ammo, 1155 North Highland Ave., Hollywood; (323) 871-2666.
Hama Sushi, 347 E. Second St., downtown; (213) 680-3454.
Joan & Sisters, 3709 S. Western Ave.; (323) 735-8952.
Pastis, 8114 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 655-8822.
Red Moon Cafe, 11267 National Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 477-3177.
Tsarina, 14445 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 986-8889.
Water Grill, 544 S. Grand Ave., downtown; (213) 891-0900.