By Jonathan Gold
Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
February 9, 2013
Le Ka is one of those difficult places to figure out, not because the cooking isn't good — it is, very — but because in the narrative of Le Ka, food seems like such a secondary thing. To get to the restaurant, you leave your car with a valet in an underground garage, hike back up the ramp (the elevator goes nowhere near where you want to be) and walk around the corner, passing two or three false entrances you may try to access, finally ending up in a dim vestibule that is far grander than you may imagine it to be.
If you are of one mind, you may be led to one of the sofas on the firelit patio, where you will sip Champagne and nibble around the edges of a roasted Brussels sprout salad; if of another, you will nurse a Vieux Carre at the bar. An unusual number of pizzas sail out of the wood oven for a place that is not remotely a pizza restaurant — "flatbreads or pizza, the way you wish to call them," says the menu. Should you care to experiment, you may find that the model with roasted pork shoulder, Chinese bean sauce and caramelized onions is heavy but not altogether bad. (Le Ka is owned by the family that owns the pan-Asian Wokano chain among other things. Fusion is the thing that they do.)
The menu lists $90, 32-ounce rib-eyes for the Financial District players, and bottles of Vosne-Romanée to go with them. The music tends toward the kind of electronica heard in expensive hotel lobbies. You don't even have to ask about the monumental Art Deco fixtures, the forest of glowing Edison bulbs or the availability of craft cocktails. The lighting is beautiful, and so are you.
There is a name for restaurants like this. They are called lounges.
But the chef is Rémi Lauvand, a Périgord native who cooked for years at famous French restaurants in New York and Washington, and who opened Rivera and Citrus at Social in Los Angeles and was chef at the well-regarded Miro in Santa Barbara and Café Pierre in Manhattan Beach. (He practically defines the word "peripatetic.")
Lauvand has a reputation as a chef skilled in both classic French technique and modernist cuisine, which means that his classic bisque of musquee de Provence, a kind of French pumpkin, is blanketed in half an inch of sweet chestnut foam. The thin slices of the dried pork sausage soppressata, made on the premises, have a subtle animal presence you rarely find in the store-bought kind. The orange lobes of fresh Santa Barbara sea urchin roe are served on rice porridge as they are at both Red Medicine and Spago, but here the warm congee is spiked with a bit of stewed oxtail, which pushes the preparation away from Asia toward the South of France.
And when you notice the list of cheese and charcuterie scrawled on glass outside the open kitchen, the jars of duck rillettes and the menu presence of marrow, tongue, belly and trotter, you may suspect that the kitchen may have more on its mind than romaine salad and fried oyster sliders. The wine list, although it has its share of the usual suspects, is focused on rustic, organic French country wines, like Rostaing's Vassal de Puech Noble or Pithon's Cuvee Laïs from Languedoc, which has the suave intensity of liquid cheese. It may come as a surprise to the crowd on the patio engrossed in their Negronis, their albacore crudo and their double-cooked fries, but Le Ka is a modern French bistro trapped in the body of a nightclub. If you pause to argue, I will snag your share of Lauvand's gooey fried pig's trotters and encroach on the fromage de tête.
So here are fat, black snails nestled with puréed parsley and a bit of sweet garlic custard, and that same garlic flan sharing a plate with split and broiled marrow bones. French chefs often adore a style of pasta in which overcooked noodles serve more as thickeners than as a foodstuff in their own right, but Lavaund's cavatelli, like tiny, elongated dumplings, are kind of delicious that way, subsumed into a creamy stew of rabbit, beech mushrooms and mustard that tastes like a country version of lapin à la moutarde.
The waiters are perhaps fonder than I am of the merguez, spicy Moroccan sausage served with a mash of the cooked tomato salad mechouia — the slightly underflavored links are good enough, but better Middle Eastern sausage is easy enough to find in Los Angeles. The pork short ribs are just sticky. And the wild boar albondigas are silly: meatballs zapped with smoked paprika, doused in over-reduced tomato sauce and strapped into their iron serving dish with cinctures of melted manchego cheese. If Applebee's ever decided to branch out into tapas, this might be what you'd expect.
The larger plates — as has become standard practice in Los Angeles restaurants, appetizers and main courses have become extinct — are also best when they are most French: sliced, rare hanger steak, bavette, almost as dense as liver; rabbit leg braised with leeks and tomatoes; moist, flaky black cod with on a rich mound of braised oxtail. (Lavaund likes to braise.) The braised pork belly, brushed with Chinese vinegar and briefly crisped, may sound like an Asian dish, especially served as it is in a shallow puddle of congee, but the herbs again steer it toward France.
At Citrus at Social, aside from the stunning French fries cooked in clarified butter, Lavaund's best-known dish was probably his duckless faux gras. This year, with now-banned foie gras harder to obtain in California than Mendocino's finest, the faux gras is suddenly compelling, a slab of chicken livers, emulsified with what I imagine is sweet butter, that resembles the fattened duck liver more closely than almost anything else in town, especially when you spread it on a slice of warm, house-baked bread.
Le Ka may look light a night club, but, in truth, it's a French bistro
800 W. 6th St., Suite 100, Los Angeles, (213) 688-3000, lekarestaurant.com
Small plates, $7-17; pizza, $14-$16; large plates, $14-$25; desserts, $8-$9
11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. to midnight Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
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