How do you know you’re in a serious restaurant at the moment — a place where the chef ferments his own turnips, keeps a copy of “Modernist Cuisine” by his bedside and dreams of visiting Spain’s Mugaritz restaurant?There will probably be a seaweed or two on any given plate, for the color, the crunch and the occasional spark of brininess, and bits of citrus zest will make it into places where you have never tasted citrus before. You will see at least one slow-poached egg, cooked to a perfect near-runniness at 63 degrees Celsius; top-shelf boutique greens that disappear long before you straggle into the farmers market on Wednesday morning; and a couple of flavors snagged from the bartender’s cache.
The presentation will be modern French, but the dishes may well be inspired by Italy, China and especially Japan, because Japanese (and New Nordic) cooking are what young chefs are crushing out on these days. You may go a few courses without seeing much in the way of meat, which is considered a little passé, and when you do it is apt to come in the form of an organ or an appendage. The wine will be both biodynamic and obscure; the beer list abbreviated, so that you do not mistake it for one of the gastropubs whose penchant for small plates and unusual flavors can sometimes be similar. If there is a chicory crisp in your chocolate ganache, chances are pretty good that you are in a place where the chef has a refined yet Etsy-ish approach to modern cuisine.
So when you walk up the stairs into Allumette, settle down at the table and order snacks to go along with a cocktail violently perfumed with sage, you have a pretty good idea where you are. The warm potato chips, five precisely, are topped with a tiny spoonful of yuzu-spiked crème fraîche each, a few salmon eggs and precisely angled garlic chives. Crisply fried oysters rest on a funky cream the menu identifies as kimchi ranch dressing and are sprinkled with vinegar-soaked slivers of Korean pear. The guinea hen eggs at the center of the Scotch eggs are lightly pickled and served with a pungent herb sauce halfway between an Italian salsa verde and an Argentine chimichurri.
Allumette occupies an odd spot for a fine-dining restaurant, across the street from a supermarket parking lot, in a space that used to belong, I think, to one of the better Salvadoran pupuserias in town. The last couple of restaurants at this address were OK, although it was hard to sit through a dinner without contemplating the possibility of dashing to the nearby Arizas truck for a plateful of chorizo tacos. Miles Thompson, the young chef at Allumette (and an alumnus of Nobu, Animal and Son of a Gun), ran his pop-up Vagrancy Project on off nights at Allston Yacht Club in this same space — and he moves through the restaurant with the lithe grace of an avant-metal guitar god.
You have left the world of kale salad far behind — left it behind for the pleasures of poached monkfish liver served with ponzu soured with the Japanese pickled apricot umeboshi and garnished with peeled sea grapes, a tart-sweet Caribbean fruit I admit I knew only from the splendid Derek Walcott poem of the same name. I’m not sure even Thompson, who is just 25, knows quite where his multi-layered conceptions are taking him, but it is going to be an interesting ride.
The idea here is more or less that you construct your own multi-course procession from the 15 or so dishes listed, and the weight of each course is helpfully indicated by the thickness of the circle marking each section on the menu. You might follow a salad of ripe heirloom tomatoes and soft-cooked egg with a sliver of crisp-skinned branzino on a bed of chewy tapioca scented with shellfish stock, and then with chile-hot seared prawns in their shells, neatly cleaved in two, served with griddled white peach. You might progress from a plate of garganelli with stewed eggplant and ricotta salata — the fresh pasta is severely undercooked here — to a gooey fritter of pig’s trotter with fennel and Angostura bitters, to delicious ricotta gnocchi given a wild licorice edge from anise hyssop. Too-stiff Sichuan pork dumplings, with a hint of numbing heat from Sichuan peppercorns, would probably have rated higher if I hadn’t had the spectacular Sichuan dumplings at Chengdu Taste in Alhambra the day before.
Sometimes there will be saddle of lamb, tied into a neat round with a thick, insulating layer of fat before it is popped into the oven and served dead-rare with burrata, a bit of unsweetened lemon curd and green strawberries, with chunks of the roasted fat alongside if you’re in that sort of mood.
The most popular dessert is probably that bitter-chocolate ganache with chicory, brioche-scented cream and a green-tea-flavored meringue, but it is the tart cheesecake mousse studded with globs of deliberately uncooked cookie dough that you are going to remember the next day. Is this the point where haute cuisine meets Cold Stone Creamery? Very well.
Talented young chef Miles Thompson takes adventurous diners on an exotic ride.
1320 Echo Park Ave., Echo Park, (213) 935-8787
Snacks, $5-$7; small dishes, $10-$20; larger dishes, $15-$20, up to $40 for two.
Open 6-10 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Street parking. (Nearby city lot on Echo Park Blvd., 1/2 block south of Sunset Boulevard.)
Potato chips with salmon roe and yuzu crème fraîche; ankimo with ponzu and sea grapes; branzino with shellfish tapioca; anise hyssop ricotta gnocchi; spicy prawns with white peach.