Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times (m19oinpd20120322095207/600 )
We all understand what a modernist restaurant is in 2012, from the reverse encapsulations, to the liquid nitrogen, to the skinless chicken breasts as soft as butter. We have been well-versed in the future, even if most of us have never tasted that kind of food.
But in California, where the taste of a Cara Cara orange straight from the tree will always eclipse the flashier pleasures made possible by a packet of xanthan gum, the cooking in a contemporary restaurant is often based on something else entirely: seasonal, well-sourced produce presented in a way that lets its virtues shine through undisturbed. New York chef David Chang once dismissed the style as "figs on a plate," but as Californians know, there is nothing wrong with a plate of figs. You could enrobe them in caramelized honey gelatin or encase them in clay with tonka beans, but the right fig is fine on its own.
In its way, Cooks County, the new restaurant from chef Daniel Mattern and pastry chef Roxana Jullapat, may seem more of the moment than a place like Ink, which is engaged in the restless mutation that modernism needs to survive. The former Bistro LQ space has a warm, woody vibe, enhanced by exposed rafters and sprays of dried grass that look as if they were lifted from a natural history museum diorama and a much-revised list of wines scrawled on a board. It feels like a wine bar but functions more as a restaurant, with actual appetizers and main courses. The list of farmers at the bottom of the menu rolls on as long as the credits at the end of a Spielberg movie; regulars at Fig, Lucques, Rustic Canyon and Lou will have no problem identifying the provenance of the vegetables.
Mattern and Jullapat, Campanile veterans who most recently were in charge of the kitchen at Ammo, operate in the tradition of Los Angeles pan-Mediterranean cooking, sometimes called urban rustic cuisine — you may recognize a cioppino-inflected version of Mark Peel's grilled-seafood soup — although the occasional sharp North African edge seems all their own. (The brunch dish of fried eggs with chewy fried chickpeas and Mattern's harissa is spectacular.) The rustic wines, most sold by both the bottle and the glass, are supervised by Claudio Blotta, who also started his local career at Campanile before moving on through La Terza and Barbrix (which he also owns). It's the kind of list with more Bonardas than Cabs.
If you are the kind of person who stops by a farmers market once or twice a week, seeks out pastured chickens and sometimes daydreams about selling jars of lemon curd on Etsy, the food at Cooks County is going to seem pretty familiar. I've had the experience of preparing a meal of sautéed sprouting broccoli and pasta with nettles and Parmesan before I went out for the evening, and encountering essentially the same dish at Cooks County a half-hour later. Mattern's cooking incorporates not just the seasons but also the microseasons of Southern California produce so that you can tell the moment green garlic gives way to sweet spring onions by the garnish on the steamed clams. When English peas start to appear in the stalls, they also pop up here, perhaps with rosy slices of Paso Robles spring lamb. The advent of the first spring favas means both roasted whole pods with garlic and leaves sautéed as greens.
If the finger-thick asparagus from the Sacramento Delta is in season, you may see it over the course of a week simply roasted and served with ricotta, hazelnuts and a touch of lemon zest; sliced thin and tossed into a custard on a savory breakfast brioche; and tossed with tagliatelle and crunchy bits of pancetta in a springtime take on carbonara, crowned with a runny poached egg. You can judge the seriousness of a certain kind of Los Angeles restaurant not just from the date on which it begins to serve asparagus but also by when it shifts from thin to thick.
It's not a particular dish you fall in love with at Cooks County — it's a sensibility. So if the roasted beets appear one week with tangerines and arugula, the next with grapefruit and avocado, and the next with a Tunisian-tinged layering of blood oranges, honey, pistachios and mint, the play of the root's mellow sweetness and the acidic sweetness of the citrus shines through. The slithery presence of twisty strozzapreti pasta anchors both a spring sauce of green garlic and chanterelles and a wintery pork Bolognese. Roast pork loin may rest on turnips, buckwheat or a bed of white-corn polenta that tastes uncannily like grits, but it is likely to come with a thick slab of grilled bacon. The grilled lamb's tongue/poached egg salad is eternal, except when it isn't. Jullapat's bread — dense loaves baked in cast-iron dutch ovens — is pretty wonderful, and you see it a lot here, usually brushed with olive oil, grilled and served with the steamed clams or the fish soup but also served plain, with good butter, as a $3 appetizer.