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Counter Intelligence: Casual crazy vibe at Sycamore Kitchen

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When you are standing in line to order at Sycamore Kitchen, the new breakfast-lunch place in the La Brea design corridor, you are going to be distracted by the bakery counter, which stretches on for yards. Because in addition to the chocolate croissants and gluten-free muffins you might expect at a cafe in this part of town, there are all kinds of French pastries that you don't often see around here: the almond-scented brioche slice called bostock, and the puckered Breton butter pastry kouign amann, the blueberry financier, and walnut galettes that shatter into powder if you so much as look at them harshly. Other bakeries have cinnamon rolls. Sycamore Kitchen has cinnamon babka, a pastry so compelling that a "Seinfeld" subplot was devoted to it.

"Cinnamon takes a back seat to no babka," said Seinfeld. "People love cinnamon. It should be on tables at restaurants along with salt and pepper."

By the time you make it to the front of the order line, you may be so bewitched by the chewy peanut-coconut bars, the stacks of pecan sandies, and the tiny, chocolate-crusted pecan pies that you may have forgotten what you came into Sycamore Kitchen for in the first place, whether it was a cup of gazpacho swirled with crème fraîche and herbs, the only tuna-salad sandwich a civilized person might contemplate eating in Los Angeles, or a bottle of cold-brewed Stumptown coffee strong enough to be considered a banned substance in the Olympic Games. You will eventually stammer out an order, grab a number, and make your way out to one of the umbrella-shaded tables in the patio out in front, but you will probably be clutching three times as much dessert as you may really think advisable, and by the time your lunch arrives, you will have reduced most of it to crumbs.

The Sycamore Kitchen is the new breakfast-lunch project of Quinn and Karen Hatfield, proprietors of the estimable Hatfield's up on Melrose, which is to say it is the sandwich-shop offshoot of a restaurant with a Michelin star. At their marquee restaurant, you are always running into stray tentacles where you never thought tentacles should be, or Japanese fish neatly fitted into incongruous structures — the basic unit of consumption is the tasting menu, and it can take an awfully long time to get to Karen Hatfield's exquisite desserts. The Hatfields are not only modernists, they are perfectionists, and there is always the air of a recital about their meals.

But it turns out that obsessive perfectionism can work pretty well in informal cafes. David Chang, of New York's Momofuku, founded his empire on obsessively detailed bowls of ramen, and Torrisi, one of last year's most decorated Manhattan restaurants, basically made its reputation by serving the best turkey sandwiches in New York. In Los Angeles, Campanile was famous for its perfect sourdough loaves months before the restaurant itself opened, and Spago was conceived more or less as a pizzeria before Wolfgang Puck devoted himself to it full time.

So the Sycamore Kitchen turkey sandwich becomes almost more than a turkey sandwich, thick slices of nicely brined bird layered on dense housemade bread with thin slivers of just-ripe Camembert cheese, a few leaves of arugula, and a bit of cherry mostarda. (When you are served mostarda, candied fruit flavored sharply with mustard, with the bollito misto in an Italian restaurant, the single, scarlet cherry is always what you reach for first, so why not make mostarda with only cherries? It makes sense.) The BLT, made with dead-ripe tomatoes and bulked out with avocado, is enhanced with soft, oozing slices of braised pork belly, which give the sandwich a numbing, irresistible richness that resonates through every bite; the porkiest sandwich this side of Mozza-to-Go's porchetta panini. Even a chicken sandwich is given resonance with a bit of tart lemon jam that slices through the mayonnaise like a sharp knife.

There is bruschetta too, topped with things like homemade ricotta and a glowing mosaic of citrus fruits, or with cured salmon, a hit of grated egg yolk, and a hint of fragrant lemon peel under the crème fraîche. The salads are big ones with perfect greens and tiny sparks of things like hazelnuts, dates and blue cheese. A wholly nonsweet Chinese chicken salad, shredded cabbage vibrating with the flavors of ginger and rice vinegar, is studded with bits of slivered almond and crunchy grains of toasted rice for texture — Chinese chicken salad is a staple in this town, where it was reportedly invented, but this one is unlike any you've ever tasted. My kids hated it. I didn't.

I was probably most captivated by the little pail of potato chips you can order as a side, discs of pure crunch that broadcast the presence of good oil without being at all greasy, salted to a degree just on the gentle side of stinging, and taste of the very best potatoes.

The highlights of breakfast, should you bypass the bakery, include sandwiches of crumbled chorizo with scrambled eggs on toasted brioche, huge bowls of oniony pork-belly hash, and delicate buckwheat blintzes, scented with honey, topped with strawberries, and stuffed with barely sweetened ricotta cheese.

But you will probably end up with a Stumptown cappuccino. And if you get there before they sell out, you should also get the kouign amann, an unpronounceable sweet that is identified in the pastry case as "buttercup.'' Its manufacture requires a tricky bit of lamination that, as any ambitious home baker can tell you, usually leaves amateurs with sticky, liquid puddles of goo. Kouign amann is difficult to form — Sycamore Kitchen gathers the dough up into what resembles a half-formed Chinese dumpling — and its perfect caramelization requires enough sugar and expensive salted butter to send its glycemic index screaming into the red. You should be happy that somebody else cares enough to make it for you. You should be happy that they make it so well.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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