Toward the bottom of the financial district and a few short blocks from Staples Center, Faith & Flower is the latest grand restaurant downtown, convenient for the dude-bros flowing from the Convention Center and elegant enough for first dates, a logical destination for a dozen oysters and a glass of Champagne but also for a glass of Tramp Stamp ale and a late-night mushroom burger.
The future of Los Angeles cuisine may be forged in food trucks and experimental cafes, but Faith & Flower is enormous; giant, double-height dining rooms marching up the block. It is also fairly ornate, encrusted with wainscoting and swank wallpaper, wall treatments involving dozens of hand mirrors, candles and tractor-sized chandeliers trailing miles of gold chain. The water glasses resemble cut-glass goblets, and the heavy-handled silverware is of a sort that has been out of fashion at least since the 1950s. My colleague Jenn suggested that Faith & Flower feels like the world's biggest Anthropologie store, and she is not far wrong.
The notion of an idealized big-spender past is continued in the oyster bar, the low lounge tables that make up most of the seating and the wonderful cocktail program, which includes barrel-aged concoctions, clarified milk punches and tart crustas inspired by 19th century bar manuals, which is the equivalent of a chef taking most of his recipes straight from Escoffier. The wine list doesn't quite serve the current craze for biodynamic and natural wines but does include some interesting small-producer bottles from California and Austria alongside the expected big-name reds.
Michael Hung, the chef, comes from Roland Passot's La Folie, which is possibly the most resolutely French of San Francisco's Michelin-starred restaurants, more obsessed with duck and snails than with foraged chickweed. And his kitchen's strengths, oddly enough, lie with what might be considered modern cocktail snacks, the food you might want to consider chasing with a Dark and Stormy phosphate or an abstracted Manhattan. At its best, Hung's cooking at Faith & Flower has the same technique-intensive Asian edge you find with Roy Choi, Sang Yoon and Bryant Ng.
So while his tiny, very French tarts of duck-liver mousse may come from the La Folie playbook, his deviled eggs feature yolks whirred with spicy kimchi. The terrific steak tartare is flavored with miso, black sesame and what tastes like seaweed, so it is less a celebration of raw flesh than an explosion of umami. The ceviche of kanpachi, amberjack, is diced, cured in ginger beer and served with warm, freshly made potato chips. Grilled longanisa sausage is served on a dribble of glaze made with reduced vinegar and blood, a preparation that references but transcends a Filipino turo turo classic. His crushed new potatoes are scented with the Sri Lankan curry vadouvan, and his braised lamb shoulder hints at Moroccan spice.
A bowl of thick handmade pasta tossed with chile, chunked lamb and cumin alludes to the flavors of China's Xinxiang region, but the suave texture of the braised meat and the subtlety of the sauce points more toward California than it does toward Uyghur barbecue. The clunkiness of the lamb noodles may bother you the first time you try them. The second time around, you wouldn't trade them for the finest pappardelle.
Still, Hung's cooking, at this point at least, may not be as consistent as it could be, his bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin juicy but bland, his oxtail agnolotti overfirm and acidic, his whole snapper roasted in seaweed beautiful but dry. He likes to sear his vegetables — grilled broccolini with anchovies; Blue Lake green beans with dried shrimp — but neither leaves them crisp-tender nor cooks them long enough to soften them and release their sugars. You can't really blame a head chef for his restaurant's Sunday brunches, but gravy-drenched bone-marrow waffles are almost as unappealing as they sound.
Is Faith & Flower redeemed by the charred, crisp carnitas pizza, whose tart salsa verde really does make the pizza seem like an antojitos platform in the school of the huarache? Will you be persuaded by pastry chef Indelisa Zarate's pistachio financier with cherries or dabs of Greek yogurt panna cotta with wild rice Rice Krispies? Is the house-fermented hot sauce with the littleneck clams enough? It is possible. And it is already impossible to imagine downtown without bartender Michael Lay's nutmeg-scented milk punch.
705 W. 9th St. (in the WaterMarke Tower), Los Angeles, (213) 239-0642, www.faithandflowerla.com
Small plates, $6-$24; pastas, $14-$17; vegetables, $6-$8; large-format dishes, $19-$52; desserts, $8.
Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; dinner, 5 to 11 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 5 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays; brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking on 9th Street.
Duck liver mousse tart; steak tartare; kanpachi ceviche; thick-cut wheat noodles with cumin and lamb; carnitas pizza.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times