While spending a much-needed winter break filled with family, friends and relaxation, I made it a point to visit some great restaurants in my hometown of Los Angeles. Between some hole-in-the-walls in Chinatown, the always-trendy West L.A. and upscale Beverly Hills, the most fascinating place I tried was a small, high-end restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.
On a mostly deserted street, besides several seemingly vagrant men and a small taco stand, the place called “the best new restaurant in America” by Bon AppÃ©tit Magazine sits contiguous to a hostess bar. Alma is a young restaurant – it has only been open 11 months, yet has received enormous praise from some of the biggest names in the culinary world. I had to see what all the hype was about and if Alma really deserved it.
Only one dish – the beignets – stood out to me at all, and I have had most of the dishes done better at other restaurants. Thinking back on the meal, I believe there is a bigger issue at hand than my mediocre meal; we need to question our society’s newfound obsession with the “farm to table” and “local-only ingredients” approach to cooking as a whole.
Alma has only 39 seats and encourages reservations at least a month in advance. With a small bar, a few tables, a small wine refrigerator, white walls and a shelf with some napkins and books on it, the interior is pretty bland. But that’s okay – that’s the trend these days, and really, I don’t mind anyway. Let the food speak for itself.
Alma offers only two options, a five- or nine-course tasting menu, for $65 and $110 respectively. Initially, I find this a tough sell for most diners. The menu changes almost daily due to Alma’s commitment to using only the finest local ingredients. Ari Taymor, the chef and owner, has partnered with a woman who lives in Venice Beach and has a half-acre garden exclusively for Alma. Do with that what you will … I find it slightly pretentious.
I opted for the five-course tasting, which begins with a few “snacks” as they call them, before the first course. We were served English muffins with smoked salmon, seaweed and tofu beignets and sea-urchin toast with caviar for snacks. The best dish of the whole meal ended up being the beignets, but that was the only dish I was really impressed with. The first course was a beet and nut salad followed by an artichoke soup. Next, some protein – chicken over a root vegetable purÃ©e then another chicken dish with assorted fruit. (They were nice enough to change my dessert course to a cheese course since I do not eat sweets).
Granted Alma is still a young restaurant, and chef Traymor is not much older – but it’s pretentiousness in what it serves and how it serves it does not bode well for future success. Alma’s lack of creativity and odd combinations of flavors seemingly for oddity’s sake were so glaringly obvious to me that it is clear chef Traymor has a long way to go before he and Alma deserve the praise they are receiving.
Additionally, while there is something to be said for celebrating the variety of locally grown food, doing so does not automatically mean the food is interesting, complementary or creative. I am not advocating for the neglect of what is fresh and locally available to a chef since oftentimes those ingredients taste better than flying in produce from halfway around the world.
However, having worked in a two Michelin-starred restaurant for four years, I can tell you that the careful sourcing of ingredients (from wherever is best) and, more importantly, knowledge of menu construction and flavor implementation, is what separate the good chefs from the ones who become revered.
I urge you as diners to question the glorification of local-only cooking and the motives of the chef behind it. Is it is more of a cop-out for being judged on acceptance of process rather than end result? Is there true inspiration and dedication to these ingredients they base their restaurant and “philosophy” around? I feel these are tough questions we should be asking many chefs today.
– By Ethan Samuels
Photo by Ethan Samuels