Review: Fiona showcases pie queen Nicole Rucker’s baking talents, and so much more
By Bill Addison
Jan 10, 2019 | 5:30 AM
Nicole Rucker dollops so much whipped cream atop her Key lime pie that the white billow hovers above it like a lazy cloud. Aesthetically and otherwise, this pie stands tall among the panorama of pastries on display at her new restaurant, Fiona. The tart juice of Citrus aurantifolia, which Floridians call Key lime and Californians know as Mexican lime, slashes through the pie’s condensed milk custard, creating a tension between sweet and sour akin to a compass needle reacting to an electromagnetic field. Rucker shuns sugar in whipped cream; she adds sour cream to push an opposite effect. A distinct and pleasant saltiness underscores her graham cracker crust, magnifying the pie’s layers of flavor in every bite.
The entirety is a feat of reinvention — not only in all its evident fine-tuning but also by managing to turn a ubiquitous Americana dessert into a showcase for Southern California citrus.
This won’t surprise those who know that Rucker reigns supreme among Los Angeles’ pie bakers. She built her mastery while working at Venice’s Gjelina Take Away and Gjusta earlier this decade. In 2012, she grand-slammed the KCRW-FM “Good Food” pie contest with four awards; a year later, she earned a blue ribbon at the annual National Pie Championships in Orlando, Fla. She left the Gj gigs in 2015 and became an owner at Cofax Coffee on Fairfax Avenue, where she directed her talents to doughnuts, in part to show that she didn’t intend to focus only on pies for the rest of her career.
And though no one would be chastised for treating the place like a pie shop, Fiona, as with so many of Los Angeles’ most compelling modern restaurants, intentionally skirts easy categorization.
It sits on the energized stretch of Fairfax where places like Canter’s Deli, Animal, Jon & Vinny’s and Diamond Bakery coexist as a model of Los Angeles’ culinary space-time continuum. Appropriately, the vibe at Fiona feels ageless: black-and-white patterned tiles, pine green accents around white walls and blond wood that gleams cheerily when the light courses through the front picture window. Its marble counter, crammed with pastries and desserts whose geometries and colors and warm fragrances trigger all the brain’s happiness compounds, is an instant citywide draw.
The baking by Rucker and her team weaves one narrative. The eclectic menus overseen by chef Shawn Pham tell another tale. He leaps from biscuits and gravy to an array of toast (but, pointedly, no avocado toast) at breakfast; tuna salad sandwich and a ginger-laced chicken and cabbage salad for lunch; and hamachi crudo, persimmon and burrata salad and hanger steak with Taleggio for dinner. How these two storylines interlace is what gives this restaurant its persuasive, unexpected intrigue.
During the day, customers order at the counter after peering at the baked goods. The constantly revolving lineup of pies has, in the current winter season, also included smooth lemon chess, fudgy chocolate chess, roasted peanut and honey, and an apple variation with a filling as dense as stewed compote. (The manuscript for Rucker’s forthcoming cookbook, “Dappled: Stories and Recipes for Fruit Lovers” and coming later this year, serves as her staff’s opening baking playbook. My mind is already skipping ahead to strawberries, apricots, cherries, plums, figs, all the peaches …)
I’m equally smitten with the cakes — an upside-down number with a layer of pureed dates and a snowfall of grated coconut, and a carrot cake with a cream cheese frosting nearly as weightless as the Key lime pie’s whipped cream. Beautifully crumbly blueberry scones, so packed with fruit that they resemble giant ink stains, offer relief for the winter doldrums. The blueberries come frozen this time of year from Pudwill Farms in Nipomo, north of Santa Barbara; Rucker bucks fresh fruit-only seasonality purism when the quality is so evident.
Rucker and Pham’s combined abilities bring fresh energy to a style of comfort food that, in its eclecticism and individualism, belongs to Los Angeles.
At Fiona, she also ably tackles bread baking. Round loaves, deep golden and handsomely craggy, line shelves behind the counter. The centerpiece is the straightforward country loaf, which Pham employs as the base for most of the toast varieties on the menu served during breakfast and lunch. Dahi toast rates as the early standout. A spin on a breakfast staple in some Indian and Indian American households, a thick slice of bread comes spread with spiced yogurt and then crowned with a tangled wreath of fried curry leaves speckled with mustard seeds. Each forkful (it’s too unwieldy to pick up) crackles and soothes in all the right proportions.
If Fiona immediately established an assured virtuosity with its bakery, the savory menus feel slightly more like works in progress. This early in the restaurant’s run, the dishes that appear both day and night reveal the most consistent finesse. The gingery, garlicky, sweet-spiced broth for Pham’s bò kho (Vietnamese beef stew) rekindles the senses whether it’s breakfast or dinner. His oversize pancakes pull from flavors in many directions: masa harina with mashed avocado and a mixed seed salsa seca for crunch; celery root pan-fried like a colossal latke and topped with a thatch of celery root remoulade and (optional but important) hunks of smoked trout; and, finest of all, a sweet potato pancake with umeboshi crème fraîche, chiles and hefty lardons that nearly (but don’t) tip the saltiness scale.
I felt pulled to visit Fiona mostly during the day. Dinnertime, when the restaurant switches to table service, exposed some hits and misses. Pluses: hamachi crudo in a spicy pool of pineapple, ginger and lime; roasted black cod cooked to melting precision and zinged with dill, turmeric, peanuts and onion. (This stunner hearkens to a signature Pham cooked at his Little Tokyo restaurant Simbal, which closed in 2017.) Minuses: chicken noodle miso soup that was abjectly bland, and a Taleggio sauce alongside grilled hanger steak that needed way more oomph, a particularly strange circumstance given that it’s such a strong cheese.
But I’m not giving up on a meal at any time of day at Fiona, especially because Rucker is talking about incorporating plated desserts into dinner service soon. Rucker and Pham’s combined abilities bring fresh energy to a style of comfort food that, in its eclecticism and individualism, belongs to Los Angeles. Any restaurant this young will of course mature, but Fiona strikes me as restaurant deliberately designed to evolve — with the seasons, with the friendship and creativity of its principal chefs and with the city itself.
Nicole Rucker’s first restaurant goes far beyond the stellar pies that brought her fame.
Please consider subscribing today to support stories like this one. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks. Already a subscriber? Your support makes our work possible. Thank you.