Name of restaurant: Saint Martha
Chef: Nick Erven, who can sometimes be found wearing a Pabst Blue Ribbon hat behind the chef's counter under a glowing neon sign that reads "hipster." He's also the co-owner along with Jim Hustead and Ellen and Peter Picataggio, the team behind the Farmer's Daughter Hotel and its restaurant Tart. Erven also helms the kitchen at Tart and was recently chef at Mess Hall in Los Feliz.
Concept: A 38-seat restaurant tucked into a Koreatown strip mall with a red door and no windows. Behind the chef's counter, Erven is highlighting seasonal ingredients and presenting them in a playful way. Think asparagus with fried oysters, pickled egg whites, deviled egg puree, caviar, chile threads and black bread crumbs served on oversize ceramic dinnerware, or the lightly smoked salmon with watercress-yogurt emulsion, pickled cippolini and brioche that comes in a dome full of smoke. To sip, sommelier Mary Thompson's beverage program boasts more than 50 wines by the taste, glass, bottle or piche (small carafe). The menu features an illustration of Saint Martha, the patron saint of cooks and servants, and gothic paintings, some procured at the Rose Bowl flea market, line the walls.
What dish represents the restaurant, and why? The Santa Barbara spot prawn tartare with market melons, burnt orange oil and pink salt. The prawns are plucked live out of the fridge and chopped into a firm, jelly-like tartare topped with slivers of radish, flowers, broken pieces of shrimp chips and a brunoise of cantaloupe. It's served on a block of pale pink Himalayan salt with shot glasses of pureed cold melon soup. The longer the tartare sits on the block, the saltier the bite. Erven is showcasing his freshest ingredients, using plating to develop his flavors with the equivalent of a sly, culinary wink.
Runners-up? Pecan wood-smoked brisket with hoisin, tiny lettuce and root vegetables. The meat, smoked for 14 hours, is served in two large chunks that fall away into tender shreds when you dig in with a fork. The bits of glossy fat, glazed in the sweet hoisin barbecue sauce, are not to be discarded. It's the slightest hint of the Korean BBQ your friend may have expected when you told her where the restaurant was located.
Who's at the next table? A well-dressed couple on their first date, giddy over the presentation of the spot prawn tartare and a group of four foodies in the corner excitedly snapping pictures of each dish. Around 9 p.m., what looks like a Korean pop group, all dressed in sideways-turned hats, white shirts and sneakers all not-so-discreetly throw out their cigarettes before stepping through the door.
Appropriate for: An intimate dinner date at the chef's counter or a leisurely meal at one of the small tables in the dining room with friends who can appreciate and afford a glass of the 1983 Cos d’Estournel St. Estephe Bordeaux.
Uh-oh: Don't plan on a quick dinner, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how much time you have. When this small spot starts to fill up, the kitchen can get backed up. But you don't have to worry about refilling a meter. There's a free lot full of parking just outside the door.
Service: Your wine and water glasses are never empty.
What are you drinking? A dry, crisp glass of the Badenhorst Family Wines Cinsault-Shiraz "Secateurs" rosé from Swartland, South Africa.
740 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (213)387-2300, www.saintmartharestaurant.com.
Twitter: @Jenn_HarrisCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times