What, I sometimes wonder, should a Los Angeles restaurant be? Does it need to reflect the city’s magnificent diversity, or will the occasional dash of Sriracha or snip of kimchi do? Will it find all of its produce in the better farmers markets? Should it try to invoke specific longings with G-funk soundtracks, summery vegetables and intricate hamburgers, or is it enough to plug into the hyper-amped howls of flavor currently popular in the local street food scene?
Is it enough to season sliced raw scallops with chiles spiked with local satsuma rind instead of Japanese yuzu; to tilt lamb meatballs towards Africa with fiery piri-piri sauce and yams; or to splash roasted duck breast with pastrami-spiced jus and crown it with tuiles fashioned from old-fashioned deli rye? Can you put Ethiopian injera on the buttery rutabaga casserole and an Italian-style gremolata on the French-style braised leeks? Or do there have to be tacos?
Native, Nyesha Arrington’s cramped, busy restaurant crammed into the former Santa Monica Yacht Club space, is devoted, at least in the abstract, to the idea of being Angeleno: a place where flavors from a dozen culinary traditions collide on a plate, tied together with exquisitely seasonal produce from the nearby Santa Monica farmers market, a list of funky natural wines and music that seems drawn from a KJLH playlist circa 1983.
If you squint, Native can seem a lot like a cruisy first-date pub that happens to serve tasty organic snacks — a function the place served in its last incarnation, as Andrew Kirschner’s SMYC. If you look away from the bar, Native leans almost towards fine dining, with bottles of Chablis on the tables, oysters with pastis-scented mignonette and crisp-skinned loup de mer with verjuice and batons of salsify. It is probably either. It is probably both.
Without anyone quite noticing, Arrington has become a force in Los Angeles cooking: a protégé of Josiah Citrin at Mélisse who drifted through an oddly vegetable-intensive year at Wilshire steakhouse and a turn on “Top Chef” before her brief, brilliant run as chef at the Venice restaurant Leona. After she left Leona, you heard nostalgic yearning for her skin-on dumpling squash with burrata and her roast-chicken terrine, the G-funk and the lazy seaside brunches. She was as attuned as any chef in the state to the anti-food-waste aesthetic of chefs like Massimo Bottura and Dan Barber, and she still seems to be on at least half of the chefs’ panels and colloquia in the city.
There are no tacos on her menu; at least not yet. That’s another kind of small-plates restaurant. But there are roasted beets dusted with pistachios and moistened with what tastes like vadouvan-flavored cream; a fat curl of crisped octopus tentacle with smoky, tangy yogurt and a handful of house-made corn nuts; and a mustardy, hand-chopped tartare, made with Wagyu beef, where the crunchiness comes not from the slivered pear you’d expect in a Korean yuk hwe but from sprouted seeds that have nearly the same texture. I loved the rabbit “sugo,” a tomato-rich dish, served with chewy spaetzle, that resembled a first-rate Tuscan cacciatore,
It is as difficult to categorize Arrington’s food as it is the chef herself, a young African-American woman, born and raised in L.A., whose love of cooking began in her Korean grandmother’s kitchen.
Arrington’s essays in culture don’t all work. The Korean-ish braised short ribs rolled into blintz-size dumplings, a carryover from Leona, are still pretty stodgy, and the pork chop glazed with the fermented Korean chile sauce gochujang is delicious but dry. I admire the effort required to transform the Cantonese takeout standard beef and broccoli into a modern dish — she uses hoisin and bone marrow! — although I’m thinking the bland, slippery sauce isn’t quite what she had in mind.
In my review of Leona a couple of years ago, I wrote that Arrington revealed herself as a traditional California chef with a sharp experimentalist streak; a cook who plunges into the farmers market, fills her crates and only then asks herself what she might do with all of the produce. Her style has matured and focused, but the emphasis is the same. She is a chef whose food tastes like L.A.
Chef Nyesha Arrington’s new project is a vegetable-forward project in Santa Monica
620 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 458-4427; eatnative.la.
Small plates $15-424; main courses $19-$30; vegetables $8-$12.
Dinner, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays to Thursdays, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; brunch, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.