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Review: NoMad plants its flag in downtown Los Angeles

Review: NoMad plants its flag in downtown Los Angeles
The honey-glazed half duck at NoMad has dense, crackly skin which is at least half the joy of consuming it. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In a year swollen with new restaurants helmed by Chefs from Elsewhere, NoMad registered as one of the biggest and most auspicious entries of the great East Coast invasion of 2018. It marked the official Los Angeles debut of chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara, the team behind New York’s celebrated Eleven Madison Park. NoMad, which opened early last year, was their first restaurant outside of New York; since then they’ve seemed set on world domination — last fall, a new NoMad hotel and restaurant opened in the Park MGM in Las Vegas, and plans for another in London are in the works.

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The appeal of NoMad has always had as much to do with its grandiose setting as its truffle-intensive menu. (NoMad is both the name of the restaurant and the hotel it inhabits, run by the New York-based Sydell group that also operates the Line and Freehand hotels in Los Angeles.)

NoMad L.A. took over Giannini Place, a stately 1920s-era building at the corner of 7th and Olive streets that formerly housed the California headquarters of the Bank of Italy. The 12-story building languished vacant for decades in the Financial District, its elaborately carved bronze entry doors fading under the sun and taking on a quiet air of ruin. The nadir of the building was probably a few years ago, when a local publication named it one of downtown L.A.’s top eyesores.

Nobody’s calling Giannini Place an eyesore these days. Its lobby, now Nomad restaurant, features carefully preserved neoclassical elements — tall and ornate gilded ceilings, opulent marble columns that are slippery to the touch — complemented by plush, jewel-toned rugs and lounge seating. The dining room, a swank hothouse of dark purple velvet and floral furnishings, feels almost as dim and moody at 2 p.m. as it does at dinnertime.

Kanpachi ceviche is a popular dish at NoMad with chilled cubes of yellowtail, cured in fresh citrus and tossed with finely diced jalapeño.
Kanpachi ceviche is a popular dish at NoMad with chilled cubes of yellowtail, cured in fresh citrus and tossed with finely diced jalapeño. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

NoMad’s more novel design elements — the stuffed peacock perched in the middle of the dining room, the restrooms tucked into a massive underground bank vault — are balanced by the bland beauty of its resort-like amenities: its sun-washed rooftop bar and patio, and a coffee bar that appears as inspired by the regal cafes of Venice, Italy, as the cafes in Venice, California. You’ll find a full range of breakfast options here, from baklava croissants to pig confit breakfast burritos.

Executive chef Chris Flint oversees what can be understood as the signature NoMad menu: a hodgepodge of sophisticated takes on populist hits, grounded in the American-European kitchen vernacular, alongside dishes that hew closer to regional sensibilities. Changes, big and small, are a regular feature of the NoMad kitchen, with seasonal dishes and specials rotated in and out so frequently that I don’t think I saw the same menu twice over the course of two weeks.

The popular milk & honey dessert has milk ice cream, honey-oat shortbread and brittle.
The popular milk & honey dessert has milk ice cream, honey-oat shortbread and brittle. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

And so at NoMad L.A., you get something like the playful and distinctly Californian sea urchin tray service, which is designed to feel like caviar service and a beach-side taco party rolled into one. Creamy slivers of Santa Barbara uni, ready to be wrapped up in the fishy, coin-sized nori crepes, are served with an array of bright garnishes: tart gooseberry relish, salty bonito cream and pickled radishes. A single bite distills all the wonders of the Pacific into one fishy, funky, vinegary bite.

Plates that have been rightly inculcated into the NoMad canon include the mega-popular Kanpachi ceviche. The chilled, withered-looking slivers of yellowtail, cured in fresh citrus and tossed with finely diced jalapeño, melt right into the spicy, citrusy snap of the house marinade. There’s a terrific fava bean hummus — a silken, basil-scented mousse buoyed by the soft, buttery crunch of chopped pistachios. A bowl of fresh bucatini, supersaturated in uni-scented crème fraîche and topped with bonito crumbles, is extremely rich in every measurable way, and enormously satisfying.

The bucatini at NoMad is supersaturated in uni-scented crème fraîche and topped with bonito crumbles.
The bucatini at NoMad is supersaturated in uni-scented crème fraîche and topped with bonito crumbles. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The menu is not without potholes: A winter salad of chicories, apple, hazelnuts and Parmesan is a heavy, chewy slog. Nothing, not even slivers of fresh citrus and marinated radishes, can redeem a gooey, sullen clump of burrata. And a much-touted plate of grilled calamari, spackled thickly with fennel-heavy aioli, is dangerously reminiscent of a tartar sauce-deluged filet-o-fish sandwich.

Of course, there are the heavyweight prestige dishes, the famous $98 whole roasted chicken padded with a foie gras-laced brioche, a simple feat of culinary engineering that yields a preternaturally juicy chicken breast. On a recent visit, the dish was paired with a black truffle rice so intensely pungent and buttery, its perfume permeated everything else on the table. (Take note: The recent upholding of the foie gras ban in California is bringing the price of the whole roasted chicken down to a measly $62 — what that means for the dish’s popularity, and trademark succulence, is not yet known.)

Whole-roasted chicken and stuffing with tomato rice, scallions and crispy chicken skin.
Whole-roasted chicken and stuffing with tomato rice, scallions and crispy chicken skin. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

For my money, though, the roasted chicken isn’t a match for what might be the best thing on the NoMad L.A. menu: a honey-glazed half-duck whose dense, crackly skin is at least half the joy of consuming it. On the side is a drippy, marvelously rich fricassee of shredded duck served with za’atar-spiced roti and a satiny salsa verde: another improbable taco party at NoMad.

The roasted duck is a reliably good dish, and reliability is at least half of what makes the place work. There’s a pervading sense of continuity at NoMad, a feeling that some things will never change for as long as you keep coming: The cooking will be accomplished; the service will be peerless; the dishes will indeed be pricey.

The experience, on the whole, will be pleasant, if unexciting. And in some shape or form, there will be truffles.

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The NoMad Restaurant

Inside the NoMad Los Angeles, which took over Giannini Place, a stately 1920s-era building at the corner of 7th and Olive streets.
Inside the NoMad Los Angeles, which took over Giannini Place, a stately 1920s-era building at the corner of 7th and Olive streets. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The team behind New York’s celebrated Eleven Madison Park breathe new life into downtown Los Angeles’ historic Giannini Place.

LOCATION

649 S. Olive St., Los Angeles, (213) 358-0000, (213) 358-0000, thenomadhotel.com/los-angeles/dining.

PRICES

Small plates, $9-$19; larger plates $17-$48; family-style entrees $62-$64.

DETAILS

Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.

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RECOMMENDED DISHES

Kanpachi ceviche; bucatini; honey-glazed half duck; whole roasted chicken; milk & honey dessert.

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