Portion control taken to extremes
What you think about Cortez is going to depend in large part on what you think about crowds, and noise, and screechy jazz, about well-meaning servers who are slightly impatient with the idea of service, and about spending most of an hour leaning up against a shoe box-narrow windowsill waiting for a seat to open up.
If the idea of crashing a dinner party at the apartment of a friend of a friend sounds appealing, you’re probably going to have a good time here. If the idea sounds appalling, you are going to be miserable, and nothing I say about the saffron-tinged cauliflower with chopped green olives or the arugula-fennel salad with pickled sardines is going to change your mind.
There are times when it seems romantic to park three blocks away from an unmarked restaurant where the front of the house is run by a poet and expensive wine is served in juice glasses. There are times when you are glad the maitre d’ at Lucques knows your name. These moods tend not to overlap.
Cortez is the project of Marta Teegan and Robert Stelzner of Cookbook, a small, expensive grocery that is usually Exhibit A when locals start arguing about the gentrification of Echo Park. Some locals are appalled that their neighborhood includes a store where Rancho Gordo beans sell for five times the price of the pinto beans down the street. Others are delighted to buy Anson Mills polenta, June Taylor jams and sustainably raised beef without having to travel to Santa Monica. Again, it may be the tension that makes things exciting. Cortez, like Cookbook, is an enterprise whose customers are pretty much self-selecting -- if you belong here, you know who you are.
So it is not surprising just that Cortez, whose chef is Portland, Ore., expat Alex Westphal, is a small-plates restaurant but that the small plates tend to be things like roast delicata squash flavored with a bit of the cilantro-intensive North African herb blend chermoula, or damp braised greens moistened with the Lebanese sesame paste tahini; thin wedges of cumin-dusted flatbread flanking a tablespoonful or so of vinegar-moistened rabbit, or a bowl of pan-roasted Brussels sprouts tossed with chopped hazelnuts and apples sizzled down nearly to caramel. About half the dishes are vegetarian here, and you can be sure that the grilled bok choy slicked with pureed herbs will not harbor a hidden mince of ham.
But I believe that Cortez could be where the small-plates trend meets its Verdun, where the size of its portions, at least the non-vegan ones, makes the usual sort of small-plates sharing almost impossible, yet the way the menu is structured makes it impossible to order conventional starters and main courses. You are going to cut the two globes of merguez sausage neatly into halves, wrap your bit in a bandage-sized scrap of flatbread and hope that you have not taken more than your allotted half-teaspoonful of yogurt sauce. You are going to want the fish soup with saffron and fresh fennel, like a kind of baby bouillabaisse to yourself, but you will take your allotted spoonful and pass to the left.
By the time the other three people in your party have divided the grilled, cured pork loin, which really is salty and delicious, you will be left with half an ounce of meat and a few token segments of grapefruit. The crisp-edged round of seared Cana de Oveja , a creamy sheep cheese from southeast Spain, is reduced to a half Laughing Cow apiece with a well-dressed leaf of arugula.
The patatas bravas comes out to seven pinkie-sized wedges of roast potato and a small crock of intermingled garlic and creamy romesco sauces, and, while the effect is only slightly short of stunning, there is going to be a point when you realize that the potatoes are gone, your friends are scraping the sauce up with toothpicks and you have already powered through your bottle of Champagne-crisp Asturian cider.
Tiny portions are great in principle and on tasting menus, but there may be a reason so many of the regulars at Cortez fit nicely into skinny jeans. And by the time you finish ordering, you are going to have spent a shocking amount of money.
There are usually two options for dessert at Cortez, and you are going to get both of them: the pastry-cream-filled flaky pastry called gateau Basque and poached dates in a shallow pool of coffee boiled with enough cardamom to make all your fillings vibrate as one.
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An Echo Park eatery where small plates are taken to an extreme.
1356 Allison Ave., Echo Park, (213) 481-8015, restaurantcortez.com
Snacks, $6-$7; vegetables, $8; small plates, $9-$15; desserts, $5-$6
Noon to 3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. nightly; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Street parking only. Reservations not accepted.