For a "Top Chef" finalist, 36-year-old Stefan Richter comes out like a lamb at his new restaurant, Stefan's at L.A. Farm. He's not out to shock or provoke. He's out to cook food that's squarely within most people's comfort zones.
Good for him. Richter, after all, doesn't have a lot to prove. He's been there, done that as executive sous chef at the Bellagio in Vegas, chef at Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills and executive chef at Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara. He's no wannabe. He's been around and is more of a pragmatist in his cooking than a showoff. I'm sure he knows how to make a foam, but you won't find one here.
He's going for smart, contemporary cooking that everyone can relate to and flirting only occasionally with the cutting edge. It makes for pleasant but not necessarily exciting dining at this latest reincarnation of L.A. Farm (around since 1989). In this Santa Monica neighborhood, though, and particularly at this price point, that's already an achievement.
Some of the menu can seem ho-hum, but Richter's Finnish-German heritage influences a handful of dishes. And it's a strong card to play: These are the occasionally more daring dishes that stand out from the rest of his safer, though generally well-executed menu. Things like sliced pig's head with Champagne-chive vinaigrette, radishes and frisee, or a lovely cream of lentil soup garnished with rabbit loin.
Or how about the dainty sweetbread schnitzel that's one of his "bites" in the bar?
He stuffs ravioli with a celery root purée and serves it in a creamy sauce dotted with diced celery root, pancetta and sage leaves. It's rich and not exactly Italian, but delicious nevertheless.
He'll play pork cheeks braised with house-made caraway sausage against a silky beer-braised sauerkraut, with bready sauerkraut pretzel dumplings on the side. Earthy dishes like these have long been missing from the L.A. dining scene, I think because the perception is that Germanic food is heavy. Not necessarily so.
And if you must have a beet salad, the kitchen comes up with a decent enough version, almost a beet carpaccio with sliced green and gold beets, a topknot of baby greens and two perfect oval scoops of goat cheese mousse as a garnish.
There's beef carpaccio too, with an olive vinaigrette instead of the usual mustard sauce. It works. And for meat-and-potatoes types, he's got the classic steakhouse salad: a wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing and crispy bacon.
Setting the mood
It's heartening to see a chef who eschews the ubiquitous lazy soup offering of carrot purée, no dairy, in favor of a slurried potato soup with shreds of house-smoked salmon or that hearty cream of lentil.
At the Farm, which is in the Lantana office complex on Olympic Boulevard, he's cleared out the old furnishings and, without the help of a designer, given the restaurant (which he co-owns with Alex Winitsky, and which is not to be confused with the Farm of Beverly Hills) a more sophisticated contemporary look with color-soaked abstract paintings.
He's revived the atrium patio with fabric banners draped across the ceiling, leather sofas and fire pits in each corner. That's for the late-night noshing Richter envisions. But somehow at lunch it retains a bit of that office commissary feeling when everybody is digging into turkey burgers.
Waiters are on their game and no one yet has introduced themselves or obsequiously offered to take care of us for the night. Service is crisp and professional, which is a relief. You can just sit back and enjoy the evening without a hapless waiter intruding or asking how everything is every two minutes.
The crowd is a mix of industry insiders, office workers, foodies and just friends catching up and stopping in for a cocktail and some of the small bites Richter offers at $3 or $4 a pop. Some are great for sharing -- edamame with black sesame seeds, a bowl of pistachios glazed with different seasonings, hummus with little toasts for dipping. Even buttery "tater tots" with an egg cup of Ranch dressing. Others really are a single small bite, like the Kumamoto oyster with absinthe gelatin, or beef tartare with quail egg on griddled brioche.
Have them with drinks or order several to share as a first course before moving on to the mains. Richter has zeroed in on familiar dishes presented with an eye to what's fresh and in season. No worries. You'll get your full complement of vegetables with anything you order, and portions are not exactly on the small side.
The veal chop is a hefty one, its subtle flavor set off by a green peppercorn sauce and a cauliflower purée. It's a nice plate of food, but not all that exciting, a comment that would go for many of the main courses. I do like the pan-seared whitefish, expertly cooked and served on a ragout of those same stony green lentils with some parsnips for sweetness.
The chef must be into cheeks, because he's got beef cheeks on the menu as well as the aforementioned pork ones. This is a much plainer presentation, simply with polenta and the braising juices.
The wine list, though, needs a makeover. Right now it reads as if a distributor had been asked to put one together and just assembled a list of unloved and leftover bottles. Maybe L.A. Farm gets more of a cocktail crowd than a wine-obsessed one, but someone here should pay more attention to the wine.
For dessert, get the red wine lollipop, swirled in liquid nitrogen to freeze it, cold enough to have come straight from the North Pole and a delightful play of savory and sweet. And then maybe if you need one more bite, the mousse au chocolat -- not for the mousse, which for my taste is too sweet, but for the baumkuchen underneath. Pick up the thinly sliced cake and take a look: It's ringed like the growth of a tree, and that's exactly the way it's made, building up the layers one by one.
You can get crème brûlée or panna cotta everywhere, but not baumkuchen or a red wine lollipop.
Smart or just safe?
I'm hoping that as L.A. Farm gains more of a following, Richter will introduce some bolder dishes. But he's smart: He knows what he can do and seems determined not to get in over his head. He wants to make food that his audience wants, which is not necessarily the same as what he'd cook if given the opportunity to make anything at all.
In the end, for a "Top Chef" contestant challenged on the show to be ever more inventive, this may be playing it a bit too safe.
But his attitude seems to be that he doesn't have to prove anything. At 36, he's more interested in having a viable restaurant than in dazzling foodies. Right out of the starting blocks, he's been able to gauge what people want to eat, which may be exactly the kind of professionalism needed to succeed in this economic climate.