We all have particular ideas of what a porridge restaurant might look like, whether a Hong Kong-style congee shop like Delicious Corner in Monterey Park or a Taiwanese porridge hall like Lu's Garden in San Gabriel, Atlacatl and its list of Salvadoran atoles, the Koreatown pumpkin-porridge specialist Bon Juk or Veronica's Kitchen in Inglewood, with its Nigerian fufu menu.
My idea of a good Sunday morning is a copy of The Times and a bowl of the chicken jok at Siam Sunset in Thai Town. It used to be the steel-cut oatmeal with maple syrup bourbon pecans at Square One in Hollywood. I can imagine restaurants built around South Indian upma, South African mealie pap or even Tibetan tsampa. I consider myself open-minded when it comes to porridge.
But I never anticipated a spot like Porridge and Puffs, the semi-elegant restaurant that takes over the lunch counter Field Trip a few nights a week. The porridge is prepared with the obsessive care that the hairy-chested kitchens devote to charcuterie and is served in flights as if rare vintages of Montrachet. It is easy to laugh at the idea of a porridge-intensive restaurant until you taste a spoonful of the rice porridge with pickles and jam: an arrangement of herbs, fermented mustard greens and a spoonful of a sharp, lemongrass-infused chile condiment as dazzling in its complexity as anything coming out of the most famous kitchens in town.
If you frequent the Sunday morning Hollywood farmers market, you may have run across Field Trip this fall, Minh Phan's modern brunch place just past the eastern end of the prepared-food stalls on Selma Avenue, already known for some of the best coffee and pastries in Hollywood. (It opens at 6:30 a.m. on Sundays to feed the market's farmers and vendors.) Pastry chef Sarah Lange should be better known for her bacony scones and her wonderful maple-glazed pretzels stuffed with breakfast sausage. Her soft English muffins are the basis for the Croque Monster, a gooey, béchamel-rich cross between eggs Benedict and a croque monsieur. You can get a frittata, or eggs and toast or proper eggs meurette, poached in red wine, served unconventionally with pickles and crunchy rice cakes, like the kind you get with the spicy tuna at Koi. If it is feeling more like lunch, there are wonderful bánh mì made with five-spice-roasted organic chicken, house-made Vietnamese pickles and fresh featherweight baguettes imported from the San Gabriel Valley.
Porridge and Puffs is Phan's permanent pop-up inside Field Trip, which in turn is a permanent pop-up inside the Farmers Kitchen, owned by Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA), the entity that runs the Hollywood farmers market. All of the produce, by design, comes from the farmers market. (The menus don't list farmers — if they did, they would be as thick as airport paperbacks.) Field Trip and Porridge and Puffs don't have much overlap, but Phan's vegetable-forward emphasis, scattering of edible flower petals and extreme seasonality is pretty much the same in each. If it were possible to hand-knit a restaurant from organic wool and put it up for sale on Etsy, it would probably be a lot like Porridge and Puffs. Every dish, every gnarled wisp of pottery, every garnish looks like something pulled from a Pinterest board.
Dinner out in Los Angeles is starting to look different this year, evolved past the tyranny of appetizer-entrée-dessert and even the forced camaraderie of small plates to a kind of potluck approach: an array of shared vegetable dishes at the beginning followed by a main course that may or may not be shared. The structure of a meal now may be closer to the Middle Eastern mezze-plus-protein paradigm than to last year's tapas-like model.
And dinner at Phan's restaurant, designed to flatter the produce of the farmers market, also tends to start with vegetables, perhaps shredded cabbage zapped with the Vietnamese herb rau ram; sautéed dandelion greens jolted with salt and chile, strewn with strands of bright-yellow onions pickled with turmeric; or slivered candy-stripe beets with snips of lemon basil, toasted sesame oil and pungent pickled green peppercorns still on their branch. Last week, there was a salad of sliced guava and Asian pear sharply flavored with clove, and a plate of roasted kohlrabi wedges with marigold petals, sesame seeds and a scoop of delicate, mousse-like sesame cream. Vegans eat very well here.
And then comes the porridge, either in big bowls or flights of three small bowls, semi-thick, made with heirloom rice from Koda Farms, flavored with braised short ribs, lacto-fermented mustard greens and pickled pears, with seared diver scallops, a riff on Hong Kong XO sauce made with chiles and chewy dried shrimp, and butter flavored with Sichuan peppercorns, or roasted squashes spiked with braised winter melon and the tiny, chewy mochi dumplings you sometimes see in Japanese stews. One porridge, made with black rice, leans vaguely Vietnamese, simmered with ham stock and garnished with crisp shallots and a kind of pork roulade stuffed with minced shiitake mushrooms and shiso. Sweet, cold oatmeal enriched with rye and the Ethiopian grain teff, served with toasted hazelnuts and a splash of cream, could serve as dessert.
Where Hong Kong restaurants serve their congee with the long savory crullers you tiao, Phan makes what she calls puffs — stretchy rice-flour beignets, not unlike pillow-shaped versions of the fried sesame balls you find on dim sum carts — to dip into her porridge. If you ask nicely, you can get some with a little condensed milk or coffee cream for dessert. They go nicely with the strong drip coffee served in big tin cups.
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Porridge and Puffs at Field Trip
If it were possible to hand-knit a restaurant from organic wool and put it up for sale on Etsy, it would probably be a lot like Porridge and Puffs.
1555 Vine St., No. 119 (actually on the southwest corner of Selma Avenue and Morningside Court), Hollywood, (323) 467-7600, fieldtripLA.com
Porridge, $9-$18; vegetables, $6-$7; puffs, $5-$6.50.
Porridge and Puffs is open 5:30 to 10 p.m. Thurdays to Saturdays; Field Trip is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Street parking.