Ari Taymor, the chef-owner of Alma, has been in Martha's Vineyard this week, the same week he learned that the downtown L.A. restaurant topped Bon Appetit magazine's list of 10 Best New Restaurants in America.
"It's been quite a shock for me," says Taymor, contacted by phone during his one week off. The 27-year-old worked at Flour + Water and Bar Tartine in San Francisco before eventually launching Alma -- what started as a pop-up in Venice. "I never expected or planned any of this. Even going through the whole process -- there were photos taken [by the magazine] -- I didn't know exactly what was going on. For Best New Chef, Bon Appetit's best new restaurants, the Beard awards, I felt we were just too small, too off-the-radar."
But plenty of critics have homed in on Taymor's cooking, which he describes as "personal cooking, based on memories, emotions or experiences that turn into something delicious." That might be his seaweed and tofu beignets with yuzu kosho and lime, tuna conserva with pole beans and gypsy peppers, or lavender roasted duck with corn, miso, chanterelles and blackberries -- the menu changes daily.
The 39-seat restaurant opened in an abandoned storefront on Broadway last year. Taymor says not pushing out a long-term resident was important to him. "I've seen it happen in Oakland and San Francisco; one of the things I don't love about opening a restaurant would be to see a sixth-generation-run business go."
The restaurant currently receives 8% to 10% of its produce from a grower Taymor has teamed with in Venice, Courtney Guerra. "I love her herbs, fresh menthol, lime balm, verbena," Taymor says. "And wild cucumbers, these West Indian spicy gherkins, haricots verts the size of your pinky, it's unbelievable how tender. We use the green beans the day they're off the vine.
"It would be ideal to be completely self-sustainable, to determine what you grow, the size. If something's not quite working we can discover why a vegetable’s not working, the way the flavor progresses.... a more intimate level of detail with produce."
Now Taymor says he's trying to work out a deal with an Arts District building that could provide 40,000 square feet of rooftop garden space to grow vegetables for the restaurant as well as for classes for elementary and high school students. "We would love to be able to grow tomatoes and squash."
As for the restaurant, "I really love the size of it and it allows me to be present and gives me the ability to touch every plate. We really just want to focus on making ours the best restaurant it can be and really refine our service and food and continue to develop our style. It’s just about being able to tell our story.
"We're looking pretty busy when we get back. But until I see people in the restaurant I’m always nervous."
952 S. Broadway Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 244-1422, www.alma-la.com.