Critic’s Choice: The chef as gardener

Playa restaurant review
At Playa’s “maize station,” wildflower pedals are pressed into tortillas.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic

How does your garden grow? That’s a question that can be posed to a number of restaurants around town. And I’m not just talking old olive oil cans sprouting Genovese basil or flat-leaf Italian parsley. Restaurants are adding giant pots or raised beds wherever they have space. Some are putting in edible landscaping more as poetic ambience than working garden. But others are more ambitious, growing a good portion of the produce and herbs used in their kitchens. And why not? We’ve got sun. We’ve got space. And we’ve also, it turns out, got rooftops.


John Sedlar, the chef-philosopher behind Rivera and Playa, seemingly never runs out of ideas. His latest? Playa’s cielo verde (green sky), a rooftop garden accessed by ladder where he can grow hard-to-find Latin produce for his coastal Latin menu. With the help of chef de cuisine Kevin Luzande and his kitchen team, plants are germinated from seed and eventually transferred to futuristic-looking 6-foot towers punched out with 28 pockets for growing the plants. (Think giant strawberry pots.) The 35 compact towers are drip-irrigated and now completely covered in cascading greenery. (And, incidentally, surviving the heat nicely.) What does Sedlar’s garden grow? Heirloom tomatoes and tomatillos, of course, black garbanzos, all sorts of chiles, edible flowers and micro greens, epazote, hoja santa, Mexican tarragon, Aztec spinach and more. You can see a photo of the garden on Playa’s website (and in a video here) and stop into the restaurant to enjoy its benefits.

7360 Beverly Blvd. (near Stanley Avenue), Los Angeles, (323) 933-5300, Dishes, $9 to $17.


The Royce at the Langham

How can a chef look out on the extensive grounds of the Langham hotel in Pasadena every day and not dream of growing vegetables and herbs for the kitchen? French chef David Féau, who presides over the Royce restaurant at the Langham, finally got his wish for a garden this year, and the time he spends tending his plants has become the highlight of his day. This first season, he’s growing every herb he could wish for, plus lemon verbena, lemongrass, lemon thyme and more for the restaurant’s tisanes served at the end of a meal. Because the entire Langham property is now organic, he’s been able to start another project: a snail farm. The snails here are petit gris, the same ones so prized in Burgundy, and they’re fed on tender greens from the garden. Next year he plans to plant even more vegetables and herbs, also more citrus trees and at some point get into beekeeping. The hotel is planting more lavender too. I can almost taste that honey.

1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena, (626) 585-6410, Appetizers, $21 to $24; main courses, $37 to $45; six-course tasting menu, $125.

Heirloom LA


Matt Poley and Tara Maxey have not only one of the best farm-to-table catering companies around, they also have one of the top food trucks in L.A. Wonder where to find them? They’re parked outside Silverlake Wine most Mondays during the store’s weekly wine tastings. The duo is so committed to sustainability, it supplies its food truck with disposable plates made from fallen palm leaves. And at Heirloom LA’s new headquarters in Eagle Rock, Poley and Maxey put in a series of raised beds, where they’re currently growing lemon cucumbers, cardamon, finger limes, yuzu, purple runner beans, black zucchini and all types of heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and chiles. Can’t wait to see a summer trifle made with those golden strawberries. It’s a work in progress and will change as the two discover what works and what doesn’t. Dream crops? Citrus and avocado. “There’s nothing more fulfilling than gleaning through our garden boxes to elicit inspiration and add ripe finesse and vibrance to our food,” says Maxey.

4126 Verdugo Road (near York Boulevard), Los Angeles, (855) 456-6652, Food truck prices, $4 to $15.

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