Your opinion of Saint Martha, a cramped new bistro in a Koreatown mini-mall, will probably correlate pretty closely with your view on steak and oyster tartare, the default signature dish. The tartare appears on the short menu under the heading Rawesome. It comes to the table flanked by two scorching-hot empanadas stuffed with molten bone marrow. A pair of sauces, tart sabayons, are presented one inside the other and look like a fried egg.
And while you may have tasted the combination of raw meat and raw seafood before — a raw beef-octopus dish is popular in the South Korean city of Gwangju — Saint Martha's surf 'n' turf is a little odd, the bits of oyster discernible mostly as a briny note almost lost among the bloody tang of the chopped steak and the crunch of minced pickles. The scarlet mound is almost a self-saucing mechanism, designed to maximize umami. I think I like it, but I change my mind every time I taste it. The dish is a shotgun marriage of opposites.
Saint Martha is a modern American restaurant in Koreatown, playing with vegan concepts but without a single vegan dish on the menu, functioning both as a date-night wine bar and a serious tasting-menu restaurant. It is also a kind of a small-plates place, but the menu divides neatly into appetizers and entrees. You can order any of the wines by the taste, the glass, the carafe or the bottle.
If you do the Koreatown food crawl, you've been in this mall before. It is also home to Hwal Uh Kwang Jang, a Korean sashimi dive known for its platters of live octopus, and Manna Bakery, where you go to get mocha buns. One of the first Thai restaurants in Los Angeles was here too — the owner had it double as a doughnut shop in case Thai food didn't take off. I think the Saint Martha space was most recently a Japanese ramen parlor with a vegetarian menu, although I also dimly remember a specialist in spicy Korean pork neck soup at one point. In mini-malls, Los Angeles works out its history in real time.
Saint Martha is the domain of Nick Erven, until recently chef of Tart in the Farmer's Daughter Hotel, and he likes keeping his customers on edge. When you walk into the dark, windowless room, you are unsure what a large picture of the Hindenburg disaster might be referring to until you realize that the restaurant's soundtrack includes an awful lot of Led Zeppelin; it's the same picture reproduced on the cover of the band's first album. The word "hipster" is traced out on one wall of the open kitchen in Bruce Nauman-like baby blue neon, and most of the kitchen crew is decked out in Dodgers caps and impressive relief-pitcher beards. The restaurant is named for the Catholic saint of cooks and maids. The menus are decorated with perfectly pious devotional pictures, and it is hard to tell whether they are ironic or sincere.
Erven's cooking tends toward playfulness, and you often don't know what is in front of you until you are halfway through a dish. A cube of lightly cured salmon may lean into a schmear of smoked goat cheese one night, on a plate with tart cucumber pickles and a couple of what the menu describes as "everything churros" flecked with seeds and bits of burnt onion. The plate reads as a deconstructed bagel with cream cheese, and it is delicious, especially the hot, liquid-center churros. The next night, you may encounter the same salmon with a dab of horseradish cream, a scattering of poppy seeds and a scoop of beet sorbet — the salmon becomes suddenly Russian.
A dish of pan-roasted snapper with greens and a bacon vinaigrette reveals itself as a take on a German potato salad. Chicken liver pâté looks like a scoop of chocolate ice cream, garnished with blueberries and a sweet hazelnut sauce, but tastes purely of the organ.
A brisket smoked over pecan wood for several hours and braised for several more, glazed with a dab of Chinese hoisin sauce and nestled into cut-up root vegetables, comes to the table looking like something you might encounter at an old-fashioned seder, but it has all the sensations of decent Texas barbecue.
I suspect Erven thinks of Saint Martha as an expanded wine bar, and the waiters tend to suggest the usual parade of share plates, but his style is precise and austere, and Saint Martha may function best as a pure tasting-menu restaurant: a series of quick, small-scale juxtapositions rather than of ecstatic communal dipping into a huge bowl of cabbages and charred Brussels sprouts in a murky brewer's yeast broth, or a whole trout with green goddess dressing. He favors the play of vegetables against strong doses of umami, the savory "fifth taste," which tend to show better over a few concentrated bites than over a big plate.
It is hard to imagine Saint Martha without its sommelier Mary Thompson, whose eccentric wine list is as much a part of the restaurant as Erven's cooking. With his dish of asparagus with uni butter and melting slivers of lardo, Thompson might suggest a glass of an unusual Garganega from Cantine Buglioni near Verona in northern Italy — the white wine's unusual, minty pungency is exactly what the dish needs to tie together sharp vegetable flavor and four-barreled umami assault. With braised pork belly, she brings out a glass of ink-black Saperavi from the republic of Georgia, whose distinct note of fresh celery stalk becomes almost another ingredient in the braise. If charred octopus with nutty koshihikari rice calls for a funky orange wine from eastern Friuli, or a Moroccan-spiced chicken thigh the chocolaty overtones of a Chinon, Thompson will let you know.
With Erven's barely sweet sesame cake with miso ice cream and compressed apples? Easy: a plummy fortified Rasteau from the southern Rhone near Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
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A modern American place in Koreatown that functions as a wine bar, tasting-menu restaurant and a small-plates place.
740 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 387-2300; saintmartharestaurant.com
Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking.
Small plates, $10-$15; larger plates, $20-$22. Tasting menu, $65 for five courses; $90 for seven courses.