A lot of chefs in Los Angeles are associated with a favorite ingredient in ways that seem fairly indelible. It is hard to imagine Walter Manzke without his pig's ear, Nancy Silverton without her bread or Suzanne Goin without her short ribs. The lineage goes back at least as far as John Sedlar and tamales, Jonathan Waxman and roast chicken, and Wolfgang Puck and pizza.
But until I visited Acabar, the grand neo-Moroccan lounge-restaurant in the space long occupied by Dar Maghreb, I had rarely seen a chef rub up against an ingredient with quite as much passion as Octavio Becerra shows a simple can of sardines.
They are good sardines, caught off the north coast of Spain, although closer to the ones you pick up at a European deli than to the vintage sardines you took back in your luggage the last time you visited Cannes. Becerra, the Joachim Splichal protégé who had such a good run at Palate Food and Wine, drizzles the oil on grilled bread, making a fairly fishy version of fettunta. He chops the fish slightly, and puts it back in the can with a pinch of a tangy chopped herb blend, kind of a chermoula. To the side of the can is one tiny dish of soft butter and another of coarse salt. A small bowl holds a lemony herb salad, heavy on the mint.
You are instructed to make little sardine toasts for yourself, buttering the bread, spooning on fish and chermoula, salting, layering on leaves of salad. And the flavors are vivid, almost vibrating between the funk of the fish oil and the brightness of the herbs — sardines in a can, but so much more.
Acabar, it is clear, is not Dar Maghreb. There are blues singers and trance DJs instead of belly dancers, chartreuse swizzles instead of mint tea, and blistered shishito peppers instead of marinated carrots. You will find hints of cumin and coriander in practically everything, unexpected smears of hummus or harissa, and allusions to everything the eastern Mediterranean has to offer. But there is nothing on Becerra's menu that you'd find in one of Paula Wolfert's cookbooks, and there is an almost willful avoidance of the sort of updated tagines and couscous dishes you might expect to find in a restaurant that looks so much like a grand salon in Marrakech.
Where a concoction of crisp duck, pickled cherries and puréed eggplant might seem like something Becerra would tuck into warka dough for a new-wave bestila, he piles it onto a flatbread with Asian herbs as a kind of Chinese-Arab pizza. Salmon cured to resemble the Armenian meat basturma is served with fried potato latke balls and crème fraîche, and ends up tasting a lot like lox, bagels and cream cheese. A whole sea bass that might be stewed in a tagine in the Moroccan manner or even fried crisp and served with tahini and crunchy pita, as it would be in Lebanon, is deep-fried and served with a Hong Kong dose of soy, chile and Asian vegetables. I have no idea what the David Chang-style steamed bun with pork belly and kumquats is doing on the menu, nor the chicken satay, nor the arancini with pickled walnuts, nor the crunchy shrimp toast served with Thai herbs, Vietnamese fish sauce and fried quail eggs, although I like them all well enough.
"I love that shrimp toast," a waiter confesses. "It reminds me of my favorite sushi at Koi, the one on those crispy things of rice."
It would probably be unseemly for a cocktail-intensive restaurant even to pretend to identify with a strictly halal cuisine, but it surely says something that the most Moroccan flavor at the restaurant may come from the delicious if simple white wine from Ouled Thaleb, from native Faranah grapes grown in vineyards just outside Casablanca.
But this isn't Rabat, it's Hollywood. That sweet couple at the next banquette who look a bit like Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher actually are Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher. You really did just overhear men trying to pick up a supermodel in six different languages, none of which seem to be her native Estonian. And while you get the feeling that Becerra and his chef de cuisine, Kevin Luzande, aren't trying to rewrite the book of Los Angeles cookery here, they are doing light, amusing food, well-enough prepared, in a fairly spectacular setting of Moorish arches, elaborate tile and good booze.
So there is the "porn bread," an oozing cylinder fortified with cheddar and bacon, which the waiter eases from the length of galvanized water pipe in which it was baked; and toasted bread layered with sheep ricotta, persimmons and honey; seared scallops with puréed cauliflower and brown butter; and Jerusalem artichokes baked with strong, melty Raclette cheese and garnished with surprisingly delicious smoked grapes.
Big spenders may go for the giant seafood plateau, but if you just want oysters, there are oysters, Kusshis and Shigokus and Fanny Bays, a bit warm perhaps, that come with three separate, Middle Eastern-spiced mignonette sauces that you will forget to use. The halibut ceviche with slivers of Asian pear is nice, served with just enough tongues of Santa Barbara uni to keep things interesting.
There is also bluefin tuna tartare, the presence of which is unconscionable on an otherwise progressive menu. Am I going to suggest you get another can of sardines instead? You know me too well.
Longtime Los Angeles chef Octavio Becerra doing light, amusing food, well-enough prepared, in a fairly spectacular setting.
1510 N. Stanley Ave., Hollywood, (323) 876-1400, acabar-la.com
Raw bar, $13-$110; small plates, $6-$17; main course platters for two and more, $46-$110.
Open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Occasional live music.