THESE days it usually takes a minimum of half a million dollars to open even the smallest restaurant in Los Angeles. For a young chef dreaming of his or her own restaurant, doing it on the cheap means going for a small space in an under-serviced neighborhood, forgoing the edgy design and pricey PR firm, and doing most of the cooking -- and everything else -- yourself. As part of a growing movement of modest chef-owned neighborhood restaurants, the Park in Echo Park opened in March with a budget of $100,000. It may not be able to boast plush banquettes or water features, not to mention Christofle flatware or Riedel glasses -- but it makes up for it with pluck and a menu realistically priced for the times.
Chef Joshua Siegel, who hails from Boston and worked in San Francisco for the last 10 years, found a spot at Sunset Boulevard and Douglas Street that had previously done time as a casual Mexican restaurant. That meant the space already had a kitchen, a big advantage because Siegel didn't have to go through a lengthy permit process to build one. Parking wasn't an issue either. The previous restaurant didn't have any, so he wasn't required to provide the unrealistic number of spaces that has sent so many new restaurant projects in the city into lengthy delays.
Siegel and manager-maitre d' Ruth Kim got down and dirty, doing much of the cleaning, sanding and painting themselves. The exterior got a coat of Kermit the Frog green paint, the better to stand out as cars whiz by. They slapped black and white tiles on the floor, found an old street lamp (now the logo on their menu) and empty picture frames at the flea market to hang on the wall. The chairs are mismatched wooden ones set around basic wooden tables.
Decor tells the story
FOUR vintage wooden stools are screwed to the floor in the foyer along a narrow counter piled with cookbooks of the best pedigree -- "Sunday Suppers at Lucques," "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook," "Chez Panisse Café Cookbook," Deborah Madison's "The Greens Cookbook" -- a selection that gives you an idea of the menu's philosophy and direction. The servers are energetic and unflappable, setting the table, taking your order, fixing a wobbly tabletop, making coffee, answering the phone -- always nicely. Their senses of humor are a plus in the close quarters of this warm-blooded little restaurant.
Not every cook harbors the ambition to be the next Ferran Adrià (El Bulli) or Thomas Keller (French Laundry). Some would rather concentrate on feeding people delicious, affordable food than experimenting with molecular gastronomy.
Siegel seems like that kind of cook. He's got a nice little menu that's very approachable: nothing is over $15. And the choices on the one-page format alternate between familiar dishes that have been dressed up a little and a few more ambitious items. Weekends, he usually offers a couple of specials. He's been basically cooking the same menu since the Park opened in March but will introduce a new menu Aug. 13 after a vacation that begins this week. (Take heart, though, if you have your favorites. Not everything will cycle off the new menu.)
Siegel's fried calamari Sichuan-style are rounds the size of a wedding band, sweet and hot in a sesame soy glaze fired up with green chile paste. Another worthy appetizer is mini cornmeal pancakes topped with beautifully cooked little shrimp, a slick of chipotle butter and a rustic roasted tomato salsa and crowned with a filigree of Mexican crema. The look is messy, but the flavors are pretty great together.
Caesar salad has the note "anchovies by request," and they're firm, meaty salt-cured ones. The kitchen's ingredients -- those anchovies, the sirloin for the burger or the jidori half chicken -- have integrity. That's why a simple salad of wild arugula with lemon, good olive oil and shaved Parmesan is so tasty. On a gusty night, when we're seated outside in the minuscule patio framed with flimsy trellising, a bowl of New England clam chowder tastes just right. The flavors are big and bold. The broth has some depth, though I could wish for more clams.
THE PARK offers honest food at an honest price without a whiff of pretension. A "no reservations" policy (except for groups of six or more) means you can drop in on the spur of the moment, at least on weeknights. Weekends, it's packed. The no-corkage fee makes this already affordable place much more so, especially if you pick up a bottle at the closest real wine shop, Silverlake Wines. Note that the Park doesn't have a wine and beer license, and its only wineglasses are the stemless variety.
Though pasta is not this kitchen's strong suit, I'm less fond of the linguine with white clam sauce (too few clams for the amount of noodles) than the spaghetti with meatballs. This version may not beat out your Italian grandmother's, but it's decent enough. The Park burger may be the best $10 burger in town, made with ground sirloin, which means it has some flavor. They'll cook it to a true medium rare if you ask, and for a buck each, you can add bacon, or caramelized onions, homemade aioli and other condiments. I recommend the fries, too. Also, $15 gets you half a very large roasted jidori chicken fragrant with lemon. It's big enough to share if you're not beside yourself with hunger.
Vegetarian options include a delightful curry of mixed vegetables dosed with fresh-tasting spices and served with basmati rice, papadums (lentil crackers), chutney and a yogurt tamarind sauce. But the real standout is the grilled, coarse-grained polenta on asparagus spears with a deft Gorgonzola sauce and the same mushroom-cherry pepper ragout that accompanies the fine hanger steak.
The steak is a terrific buy at $14, considering that it's 8 ounces of meat and comes with mashed potatoes, buttery sugar snap peas and that earthy ragout. I couldn't believe the quality of the grilled wild salmon for just $1 more, perfectly cooked and dressed up with a salty rich Chinese black bean sauce, asparagus and some garlicky noodles.
At 9:30 or 10, people are still coming in while we're considering dessert. The Park smartly limits dessert choices to a few, and keeps them squarely in the comfort zone. The list includes a warm stone-fruit cobbler, a silky butterscotch tart that my group devours in seconds, and a tall block of chocolate cake so dark it's practically black.
Add in coffee from a press pot and you're set, ready to take in some music at one of the clubs along Sunset.
The Park Rating: * 1/2 Location: 1400 Sunset Blvd. (at Douglas Street), Echo Park, (213) 482-9209; www.thepark1400sunset.com. Ambience: Casual, funky Echo Park restaurant with a single dining room decorated with mismatched chairs and empty picture frames. The food is homey and moderately priced and the crowd mostly young and hungry. Service: Friendly and personable. Price: Appetizers, $4 to $10; pastas, $10 to $12; main courses, $10 to $15; sides, $4; desserts, $6. Best dishes: Fried calamari Sichuan-style, New England clam chowder, mini cornmeal pancakes with shrimp and chipotle butter, wild arugula salad, roast jidori half chicken, hanger steak, grilled wild salmon, grilled polenta and asparagus, the Park burger, stone-fruit cobbler, butterscotch tart. Wine list: Strictly BYOB; no corkage fee. Best table: One in the front window or on the patio in front. Details: Open for dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Also open for brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No alcohol other than BYOB. Street parking.