Like many higher-end restaurants, Eva is closed on Mondays. The restaurant's little outdoor patio overlooking Beverly Boulevard is vacant; its stunningly beautiful dining room, the gray walls lined with black-and-white Hans Gissinger prints, empty; the door at the rear, painted scarlet like that of a deconsecrated Episcopal church, closed. But lately the chefs at Eva have shut the doors on Tuesdays as well. Not to spend more time with family — that's Monday — but to pick weeds.
Weeds, as in the sort of stray greenery that grows along roadsides, near beaches, in the foothills of the local mountains, near greenhouses but not necessarily in them — unless the chefs in question ask the greenhouse owners to put the wild mustard greens and purslane and borage and nasturtiums into little pots and then take them home to Eva's kitchen, where they sit on the restaurant's pass. (How pretty.)
Because weeds are cool. They're the chef's answer to found art: free, gorgeous and tasty if you pick the right ones, and about as local as you can get. Fiat recession chic.
A few weeks ago, Eva chef-owner Mark Gold — bald head, red espadrilles — and his recently appointed chef de cuisine, Jacob Kear — straw hat, flip-flops — loaded themselves into an SUV, along with Dave Schlosser, a visiting chef friend of Kear's, and Danny Fernandez, who is just out of culinary school and the third man in Eva's tiny kitchen. They decamped from the restaurant to Oxnard: Through Hollywood and up the 101, out of the city to the horizontal fields of agricultural California. Which is not so very far away if you look for it.
“I was going through Noma withdrawal,” Kear says, referring to the Copenhagen restaurant that's the epicenter of Nordic cuisine and the kind of place where the chefs routinely wander about the Danish countryside, treasure-hunting for interesting weeds. Kear was lately chef de cuisine at Lukshon in Culver City, some time before that chef de cuisine at Tokyo's Tapas Molecular Bar, years before that a student at Pasadena's Cordon Bleu culinary school and way before that a Burbank-born, Japanese-American kid growing up in Kanagawa, Japan. This spring, before joining Eva, he staged for a month at Noma.
In Oxnard, they pull into the dirt before the low greenhouse of Fujii Growers Inc., operated by Dwight Fujii. Inside the building is a massive forest of green and red shiso, an herb mostly familiar from Japanese cuisine, but so popular now that it accounts for about 70 percent of Fujii's business.
But it's the plants outside the building that Kear is interested in: a forest of wild mustard forming a layer of green and bright yellow under the low marine layer. The mustard isn't native, says Fujii: The missionaries brought it over, and it went wild. (Didn't we all.)
The chefs wander between piles of wooden slats and sandy earth, picking mustard, flowering arugula, dandelion greens and chamomile. Kear kneels in the dirt like a little kid, picking and eating what he finds: wood sorrel (“it ups the acidity of a dish”) and chickweed (“it tastes like raw corn”).
Inside the greenhouse, Gold and Kear chat with Fujii about the pots segregated to one side of the shiso forest. Fujii has potted some of the wild greens for Kear: nasturtiums, very young plumes of celery, oxalis, lemon verbena, amaranth, filigrees of fennel like pale green lace. Some will go in the back of the restaurant; a few choice buckets will go on the chefs' stations in the kitchen.
As Kear eats his breakfast from the pots, Gold discusses which plants he'll take back to the restaurant — they'll trade out the empty pots and flats the following Tuesday when he drives back up to the farm.
Fujii also is Japanese-American. Fifteen years ago, he says, he grew mostly micro-greens and nursery transplants. Then he went to Japan, came back and started growing shiso instead.
He bends over some lush baby lettuces, cuts off a few leaves to taste, and then moves over to some “escapee” amaranth, saved from the rabbits outside. The movement away from uniform rows of microgreens, grown for and delivered to restaurants, isn't news to Fujii. “The foraging tradition goes way back in Japan,” he says.
It also has its roots in the tradition of French chef Michel Bras, who has been famously digging up plants in the French countryside for well over a decade. Closer to home, it traces to David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, Josiah Citrin of Mélisse in Santa Monica and pretty much everybody in the kitchen of Michael Cimarusti's Hollywood restaurant Providence, where the raw kombu-cured scallop tacos come wrapped in nasturtium leaves and the chefs bring in radish leaves and miner's lettuce picked on hikes.
Citrin credits his interest in weeds to a long-ago visit to the kitchens of French chef Marc Veyrat, who grew up nibbling on wild plants from the Alpine meadows along with his sheep.
Along with the French, the Japanese — including Kear's grandmother, who lives in rural Nagano, Japan, and took him foraging as a child — have been foraging for decades. Centuries. Longer, of course, if you consider that foraging is just a hip name for what hunter-gatherers have done since, well, the beginning.
Back in the car, Gold pulls out a dog-eared copy of Miles Irving's The Forager Handbook: A Guide to the Edible Plants of Britain (“same weeds, more or less”). Kear and Schlosser debate the merits of pickling the pods of the mustard greens now wrapped in paper and nestled next to the nasturtiums and tiny fennel plants.
They head south along PCH to a pit-stop lunch at Savory, Paul Shoemaker's Point Dume restaurant, and a detour to the beach so Kear can look near the sand for sea beans (“goes really well with seafood”). Kear brakes for elderflower bushes, then details a recipe for the syrup on the ride back to West Hollywood.
The next night, as diners pull up chairs and scan the menu by candlelight in the gathering dusk, they might look through the window into the semi-open kitchen: The chefs are movements of flashing white, and you can see arugula flowers, in buckets on the counter, against the glass.
Kear plates a dish of wild halibut, wrapped in cabbage leaves and topped with lemon verbena foam. He pulls off leaves from the box of nasturtiums that sits on the pass, the greenery like an oddly placed window box. Gold readies a bowlful of fennel soup: a small mound of diced raw spot prawn; a sprig or two of fennel leaves; toasted buckwheat scattered in the luxurious cream of the soup.
A minute later it's poured tableside, the lace of the fennel rising as the soup falls, like leaves atop a miniature pond. You lift your spoon. The nasturtium leaves sway in the pass. You feel as if you're in a garden that hasn't stopped growing.