When you walk into Kali, maybe at the end of a short stroll from the Paramount lot down the street, one of the first things you see, perhaps even before you have registered the dining counter or the kitchen, is the giant grinning pig’s head behind glass. It’s not the only thing in that refrigerator, of course – there are hanging salamis and other evidence of an active meat program – but that head is especially prominent, hairless but otherwise intact, a corner of its lip raised in what comes across less as a snarl than a sitcom smirk.
“A gluten-free studio lunch?’’ it seems to say. “Doing the Paleo thing? Vegan much lately?’’
If you have never been to Kali, if what you are thinking about is the lovely Swedish-modern dining room, the grapefruit kombucha or the wheat berry risotto everyone seems to be talking about, you may wonder if you have wandered into the wrong place.
Kevin Meehan has been cooking in Los Angeles since the early 1990s, first under the young Ludo Lefebvre at L’Orangerie, then at places like Bastide, Patina and Café Pinot. He spent a few years running Kali as an underground pop-up around Los Angeles — it was the elegant one, not one of the nutso operations likely to spring raw bison liver on you — before opening the permanent restaurant with Drew Langley, who used to run the wine program at Providence.
If you squint, you could probably see Kali as part of a backlash against the willfully eclectic small plates restaurants that have dominated Los Angeles dining for the last decade. You will be ordering appetizers and entrees. There is a cocktail list, but you will be drinking wine. The cooking may glancingly reference menus from Copenhagen and Tokyo, but nearly all of it is recognizable as locavore California-French, even if it is hardly what you’d find at Spring or Lucques. And the servers actually find it odd when you ask if it might be OK to split a plate of the asparagus tips with puffed duck skin or they catch you passing around the beet tartar.
Meehan’s cooking tends to be detailed, focused around California produce, and arranged with the precision of a Zen garden. When there are ridgeback prawns, tiny, crisp creatures trapped in the Santa Barbara Channel, they may be lightly marinated, arranged with segments of citrus, nasturtium petals, dots of foam, those nasturtium leaves that look like tiny lily pads, and halved kumquats topped with domes of jelly. When you get uni toast, the sea urchin is ice cold and the bread piping hot. A certain percentage of dishes are likely to be garnished with duck eggs, burnt onion or garlic ash, shaved vegetables, chopped pistachio nuts and the mustard frill greens that look like the tribal barbed-wire thing your older brother may have gotten tattooed around his biceps in 1993, and sometimes all at once.
The avocado salad is novel: halved avocados from the grower J&J Farm, brushed with honey, briefly seared on their cut sides without cooking them through. They are sprinkled with that ash, buried under greens, scattered with transparent slices of radish and carrot, and crowned with those oily pistachios — a rich, nourishing dish that can be enjoyed even by people whose diets prohibit almost everything.
The wheat berry “risotto’’ is interesting too: grain cooked with an umami-rich fermented-garlic broth instead of meat stock, topped with a thin, crisp, black garlic-infused disk of toasted cheese from Fiscalini in the Central Valley (you may know its cloth-bound cheddar), masquerading as a Northern Italian frico.
But Meehan’s cooking, I suspect, may be better suited for the rigors of a tasting (or modern tapas) menu than it is for what strives to be a more or less classic restaurant, and the kind of flourishes that make sense on a micro-scale are often just short of annoying when they make it onto larger plates. A sliver of pork loin, cooked sous vide and then seared, balances on a single gnocchi and a burnt wedge of peach. It is glazed with chopped pistachio oil and a bit of citrus zest, and served under a frieze of those mustard frills. The effect of hot and cool, tangy and meaty, bitter and sweet is nice, splendid even. But there are four of these identical compositions on a plate. And by the time you get to your third, you may wish you had ordered something, anything else – it’s the culinary equivalent of that guy in the apartment next door who won’t stop playing the new Kanye jam.
A bit of black cod on a bed of fresh peas with almond, white chocolate and a blanket of uncooked pea tendrils is nice for about four bites; thick-cut duck breast with blackened carrots and honey is charming for maybe six. Either would be fine as a small plate, but sometimes even a great track may not work as an extended remix.
The wine list is good – I’ve been enjoying the Summer of Riesling pop-up list – and Langley is apt to come over with a suggestion for a glass of Syrah if he thinks it might go better with the lamb. The improbable masterpiece of a dessert – meringue-enriched gelato with salted yolk grated over it at table – is something you have to try at least once.
But that pig’s head? Unlike the gun Chekhov hung on the wall in Act 1, it never shows up again.
Locavore California-French cooking from two fine-dining veterans
5722 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 871-4160, www.kalirestaurant.com.
Appetizers $12-$14; entrees $32-$36; tasting menu $65 (or $95 with wine pairings); desserts $10-$13.
Lunch Mon.-Fri., noon to 2 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Sat., 6 to 10 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
Beet tartar; wheat berry “risotto’’; duck breast with carrots and lavender; meringue gelato.
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