As of last night, Ari Taymor has converted the offerings at his downtown restaurant Alma to solely a 9-course tasting menu, a rigidity that allows the chef to work more intimately with his exclusive farmer and forager, Courtney Guerra. But not to worry, folks: the first evening of the new format proved that the change is simply a reworking of previous menus.
The seaweed and tofu beignets are still there, along with the frozen duck liver that is head-scratchingly sweet and creamy with maple puree and coffee granola. Various edible flowers still line the open kitchen, and Taymor can still be seen squinting at a sprig of dill as he rolls it through his fingers, searching for the perfect branch to tweeze onto an amuse bouche. Really, the only change is going to be the amount of produce that is supplied by Guerra's garden, which currently yields 30% of the restaurant's fruit and vegetables.
Alma has gotten a lot of press as of late, which was dubbed "Best New Restaurant" by Bon Appetit. Taymor was also kinged "Best New Chef" by Food and Wine magazine, while a glowing recommendation from the LA Times' Jonathan Gold completes the trifecta. This is the type of restaurant that chefs go to when they want to hear whisperings from their muse and bears resemblance to notable Bay Area restaurants Baume and Saison in its plating, abundant use of microherbs, and ulta-fresh proteins.
But be forewarned: this food isn't for everybody.
Subtlety is the word. There's no richness to be found here - in fact, some nights the only butter used will be the cultured version that accompanies your bread. Some may consider the courses to be underseasoned, and indeed herbs and flowers take the place of standard salts and peppers. Sauces often add more texture than flavor, and lamb saddle is prepared with neither rub nor marinade.
About that lamb: it's delivered to diners raw and recalls the texture and taste of maguro. Most diners will return the plate unfinished, and admittedly this disregard for the public palate may not be Taymor's smartest move within the tasting menu-only format.
But all that aside, there's no denying that the food is above par. Taymor's progressive approach to flavor pairings is one of the few success stories in a city of chefs throwing together arbitrary ingredients and hoping for the best. Blood orange helps to bring out the natural ocean flavor of a gently-cured mackeral. Liquorice herbs give fresh uni a dark, soulful touch against a light burrata. Malt smooths the contrast of beets and hazelnuts in a fantastic seasonal salad.
Taymor practices what he preaches about creating nostalgia and painting images through his food: a soup of morels, peas, and snails takes me back to romps through my childhood backyard with its dewy, earthy aroma. Is his menu like what your mother prepare make back home? Not in the slightest. But the sum of its parts is doubtlessly 'homey'.
A current trend among the courses, which always reflect Taymor's recent interests, is the use of typically-alcoholic flavors in the dishes. Beer flavors the rye bread, sake lees is turned into a sorbet, and hops are used in a white chocolate dessert.
Pacing has always been a bit sleepy at Alma, with past iterations of the 9-course menu taking 3 1/2 hours. Looking into the harried open kitchen, one gets the sense that they could really use another man behind the counter. But if you're one of the few who can appreciate the chef's esoteric approach to food, there will be plenty to ponder on between plates.
952 S Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90015