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They're really in the weeds

March 24, 2004|Leslee Komaiko; Corie Brown

You almost need a field guide to your plate these days, the way Los Angeles chefs are going wild for undomesticated greens. Thanks to foragers and adventurous farmers, they're bringing ever more rustic ingredients to the table.

Michael Cimarusti, chef at Water Grill, gets miner's lettuce, a beautiful, pea-green miniature lily pad-like leaf, from a forager in Washington state who goes by the name Running Squirrel. And Bastide chef Alain Giraud recently scored some at the Santa Monica farmers market to use in a "teeny small salad on top of turbot."

When Cimarusti first started experimenting with the distinctive green, he looked to one of his favorite cookbooks, "Le Livre de Michel Bras" for inspiration. "Bras used a lot of wild ingredients from the Laguiole region of France," says Cimarusti.

"Since it has a very rustic, earthy flavor, miner's lettuce works best with things that are also sort of earthy. But it needs to be dressed in a bright way. The contrast between the earthy flavor of the greens and the brightness of a real acidic dressing highlights the flavor."

He offers a dish of Dutch white asparagus roasted in butter, strewn with a ragout of morel mushrooms, and topped with miner's lettuce dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, fleur de sel and ground pepper.

Farmer Rick Knoll of Knoll Farms in Brentwood discovered the culinary possibilities of fava leaves.

"I have this weird habit of walking through my garden and eating things as I go," he says. "One day I was looking at the [fava] plant and I stuck a leaf in my mouth and it was really nice and buttery. So I said, 'How come we aren't selling these things?' "

Joe Jack, chef at Luna Park, uses the leaves, which he says taste like "very sweet teeny fava beans," in a vibrant spring risotto or with grilled salmon.

Evan Kleiman, chef at Angeli Caffe, will soon feature tumbleweed on her menu. She brought seeds for agretti (OK, it's just a member of the tumbleweed family) from Italy, where it is used in everything from salads to frittatas, to see if it could be grown successfully locally. She gave the seed to John and Dede Thogmartin of Thogmartin Farm in Colton, who now provide her with harvested agretti. It resembles a grass and has a texture akin to seaweed.

The flavor, says Kleiman, is "similar to spinach but without the oxalic acid. It's a rounder, fuller flavor." Look for it at Angeli, blanched and tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, grated carrots and mozzarella, or sauteed and added to spaghetti or linguini.

-- Leslee Komaiko

Hot-crossed chefs

Restaurant gurus have been buzzing about the need for more high-end bakery-sandwich joints since Clementine opened last year in Century City to rave reviews and booming lunch business. Rushing to imitate its success, Patina's Joachim Splichal has been scouting locations in South Pasadena, while Sona's David and Michelle Myers have their eyes on a storefront across La Cienega Boulevard from their year-old restaurant. This summer Celestino Drago plans to welcome the public to Dolce Forno, his year-old Culver City bakery that now caters to restaurants.

But Josiah Citrin (Melisse) and Raphael Lunetta (JiRaffe) are the first to catch the wave with their joint venture Lemon Moon, a breakfast and lunch spot that opened last week in West Los Angeles.

With only 60 seats, the expectation is that most of the food made by Danny El Maleh, a Moroccan Japanese chef born in Israel who has been cooking at Melisse, will be ordered for delivery to media companies in the neighborhood. Kimberly Boyce, a former pastry chef at Campanile, creates the bakery-style sweets.

Lemon Moon, 12200 W. Olympic Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 442-9191.

-- Corie Brown

Small bites

* Border Grill Pasadena at Paseo Colorado has closed. "We thought that mall was going to be very exciting," says chef-owner Susan Feniger. "Unfortunately, we ended up being a weekend spot. I think we had a fair amount of loyal regulars, but just not enough of them."

* David Slatkin, opening chef at Citrine, is no longer at the Melrose Avenue restaurant. He has started a private catering business. "I just had my second child," says Slatkin. "This allows me not to work seven days a week, 15 hours a day." Taking over as chef de cuisine at Citrine is former sous chef Eric Ernest.

* Mix Restaurant opens next week in a West Hollywood Craftsman cottage with chef John Jackson, late of the Village Pub in Woodside, Calif.

Mix Restaurant, 1114 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 650-4649.

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