Chefs come and chefs go. Some don't change a thing. Others don't quite fit in. But sometimes a new chef can bring a breath of fresh air to a tired menu or contribute a whole new spirit to a place.
Ammo, the little restaurant that could, on Highland Avenue just north of Santa Monica Boulevard, is enjoying an extraordinary moment where all of the stars seem aligned in its favor. Much of it has to do with the new chef, Daniel Mattern, and his deeply satisfying cooking.
He was just a kid, really, when he worked with Suzanne Goin at Campanile. And when she left to open Lucques in 1996, he went with her. He helped open A.O.C. as well. Then came a sojourn in Portland, Ore., one of the West's great food cities, at the highly regarded Clarklewis restaurant, where Casey Lane, now chef at the Tasting Kitchen in Venice, was his sous chef.
Back in L.A. at long last, Mattern has found a home at Ammo. His wife, Roxana Jullapat, just joined him as pastry chef, a sign that the laidback 14-year-old Hollywood restaurant is a good fit for this itinerant chef. If Mattern was a chef in search of a restaurant, Ammo, owned by founder Amy Sweeney and general manager Benedikt "Benny" Bohm, was just as much in search of a chef with the right sensibility for this spirited restaurant.
If I had to characterize the restaurant with just one adjective, I'd choose "civilized." Ammo is one of the very few restaurants where everything works together to create a seamless experience — the food, the unpretentious industrial design, the easy, understated service, the sophisticated music, the alluring wines. If I want to enjoy a great meal with friends, over the last few months, Ammo has become my go-to restaurant.
The menu is small, but Mattern changes it often, so even if you've been there the week before, you'll always find a few new enticing and hyper-seasonal dishes. His cooking has a relaxed assurance that's pure California. He doesn't try too hard or strain for effect, instead letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Like a painter who works with a characteristic palette, Mattern puts down his flavors side by side, working texture and color into his compositions in a way that seems natural and effortless.
An appetizer of squash blossoms with the slender baby zucchini still attached and fried in a light batter is all lacy crunch. Stuffed with creamy goat cheese, the blossoms wake up with a dab of palest aioli so satiny and suffused with gentle green garlic flavor, I want to lick it right off my finger. Fresh Monterey Bay squid, cut in rings and braised in red wine, with chickpeas and a little of that aioli too, combines earth and sea in every bite.
Salads almost vibrate with flavor, the greens are so fresh and the dressings so poised on the edge of tart. You could start with fat asparagus roasted in the wood-burning oven in a composition of creamy white burrata, emerald mache leaves and a scattering of hazelnuts. Endive and watercress sparkle in a salad with tangerine segments, sweet Medjool dates and pistachios. For a green salad, butter lettuce in a Meyer lemon and tarragon cream adorned with sugar snap peas and a few stalks of asparagus makes a vivid entrance.
Depending on what's come in that day, you might find a big bowl of glossy black mussels steamed in white wine and new garlic with handfuls of English peas and saffron threads. If you see it, jump on it: The combination is just wonderful.
Is everybody enjoying their food as much as we are? If the passing of plates is any evidence, then yes, very much yes.
Pastas are a good bet too, when you can find supple ravioli stuffed with ricotta and fava beans on a plate strewn with wild nettles and walnuts. Sometimes, there's lasagna too, most recently fresh pasta layered with sweet white corn and cheese with a little gently smoked ham, and topped with a sprinkling of coarse bread crumbs.
Buckwheat fettuccine with fontina from Val d'Aosta and oyster mushrooms, though, is too bland. And I'd have to say that pizza is not the kitchen's strong suit either. They're fine, just not that compelling. Maybe it's the crust, which doesn't have much flavor, considering it's baked in a wood-burning oven. Toppings are oddball too. Smoked mozzarella would have been better on its own than paired with a tomato sauce, for example.
Fortunately, this is one restaurant where main courses are as uncompromising and delicious as the first courses. Take wood-roasted hen — half a bird, with a big slab of Swiss chard bread pudding, basically a stuffing cooked outside the bird, served with a delightful relish of sultana raisins and toasted pine nuts. In a way, it's a riff on Judy Rodgers' roast chicken with Tuscan bread salad at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. This is comfort food at its best.
And that's the spirit of so much of the food at Ammo, whether it's flatiron steak with skinny grilled asparagus, wilted radicchio and a touch of aged balsamic vinegar or the terrific braised lamb osso buco with Bloomsdale heirloom spinach, white beans and tapenade. Among my favorites: sumptuous thick grilled pork chop with grilled bacon and a punchy mustard served with a creamy spring onion and potato gratin.
One recent innovation is Ammo's Sunday night roast dinner, each week a $32 three-course prix fixe menu based around a roast from the wood-burning oven. I went the first week when the menu was Little Gem salad with beets, avocado and feta followed by spring lamb with braised garlic, peas and mint, and, for dessert, a heavenly strawberry fool with buttermilk sherbet and shortbread hearts. Vegetarians and vegans, take a note: They'll make a menu you can eat too.
Jullapat, who has worked at Campanile, Lucques and A.O.C., and at Bastide with Alain Giraud, follows the same philosophy: top-notch ingredients and a small menu that changes often. How I loved that silken strawberry fool and her dreamy Key lime cheesecake. Almost as much as her pain d'amandes with the season's first cherries. Think cinnamon bun with almond paste, chopped almonds, cinnamon and some softly whipped cream on the side, a dessert that could easily go from dinner to brunch, and does.
Benny Bohm is one of the best front-of-the-house professionals in L.A. He has a grace and presence that's very welcoming and comfortable. Bohm also curates the wines — and the music, and both are notable for their eclectic choices. His wine list may not be the biggest in town, but what gems he uncovers — a gorgeous minerally Priorat white called Odysseus from Viñedos de Ithaca or Evening Land Vineyards' soft lush Pinot Noir from Oregon made by Dominique Lafon from Burgundy's Comte Lafon domaine.
The crowd is as eclectic as the wines or music. That's no accident. Ammo has cultivated its audience over the years. It started out as a little takeout spot for the post-production businesses in the neighborhood. I remember finding excuses to drive by and pick up a sandwich or one of their blueberry smoothies. The food was fresh, mostly organic and unpretentious.
Over the years, it has evolved, but it's not so serious that it isn't fun. I don't usually drop names or make a note of whom I see in restaurants, but when Mick Jagger is sitting almost unnoticed in one of the booths, that says a lot. Nobody makes a fuss.
In fact, at night, unless you know where you're going, it's hard to spot the place in the dark. Daytime is another matter, and the vibe is completely different, more workaday, less relaxed, a spot to grab a bite before going back to work.
Ammo is worth a trip, but only if your idea of a good restaurant has more to do with the quality of the food, music and wine than groveling waiters or gold faucets in the ladies room.
For us, Ammo shines just the way it is.
Rating: three stars
Location: 1155 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 467-3293; http://www.ammocafe.com.
Price: Dinner starters, $9 to $15; pasta, $15 to $16; pizza, $14 to $16; main courses, $18 to $30; sides, $5 to $8; dessert, $8. Sunday night roast dinner, $32 per person. Corkage fee, $15.
Details: Open for dinner Monday to Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. Lunch is served Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $6.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.