A server in a fitted jacket stands at our table at Angler, a 3-month-old luxury seafood restaurant in the Beverly Center, leaning over a small wooden cart. His object of focus is a palm-sized banana pancake — flavored with ripe banana but also other banana iterations, including a powder made by drying the fruit above the blazes in the kitchen’s massive hearth. He smears butter infused with barbecued banana peels over the flapjack. The taste of banana has now blasted into the fourth spatial dimension. Then he reaches for the caviar.
The California white sturgeon roe, cured in barbecue salt, is $69 per ounce. We’re in the hedonism zone, though honestly that’s not an insane price for quality caviar. The server spoons a few inky, heaping tablespoons over the pancake and then instructs me to eat it by hand; butter seeps between my fingers as I lift it up. Smokiness winds among the sweet and salty flavors. The pancake squishes silkily; the caviar pops. This is a ridiculous thing to eat. I’m so happy.
Welcome to the domain of chef and restaurateur Joshua Skenes, Los Angeles edition. Skenes built his reputation over the last decade at San Francisco’s Saison, one of the country’s most extravagant tasting-menu restaurants. He polished some themes in the kitchen that have come to define his overarching aesthetic: a focus on sustainable seafood, highlighting less-common marine life (sea cucumber was a favored ingredient during my first meal there in 2014), and also an obsession with wood fire, with the intensified textures and flavors he can seemingly coax from any food transformed over flames and embers. He does love to express excess through caviar. For a while at Saison he served great blobs of the stuff spilling over biscuits split and still steaming. It was pretty amazing.
Last year, Skenes opened the first Angler along San Francisco’s panoramic Embarcadero, billing it as a more casual, à la carte spinoff of Saison that is resolute in its emphasis on environmentally sound sources of seafood. It’s more laid-back by Skenes-ian standards, certainly, but lunch entrees still run $21 to $48. In April Skenes ceded operations of Saison to Laurent Gras, who had already taken over as chef, to focus on Angler and other projects.
Which brings us to the fortresslike Beverly Center, where the second Angler arrived in June. First point of business: The restaurant is not visible from the street. Enter the mall at the La Cienega Boulevard entrance near Macy’s or risk wandering aimlessly through the parking structure; valet while dining is free.
The isolated location turns out to be apt. L.A.’s Angler exists in its own netherworld, a butterfly beautiful and tight in its own cocoon. Under the daily direction of executive chef Dameon Evers, the kitchen yields success after success. There is no pleasure quite like beautifully presented seafood, when the ideal firmness and sweetness of every fish or mollusk or crustacean has been individually considered, the most flattering preparations for each of them mastered. That’s happening here. The menu is concise and meant to be ordered family-style: half a dozen raw bar items, a few salads, six designed-for-a-group mains, several vegetable sides.
To leave full, with modest consumption of alcohol, you’ll probably spend around $150 per person — more if you baller out on caviar (plan on 1 ounce per pancake) or $240 worth of uni set over a jewelry box-sized slab of browned butter and tamari-soaked “liquid toast.”
Diners willing to spend the money likely will walk away impressed by the dishes they choose. I’m less confident about the universal enjoyment of the setting. It’s a mood: fishing lodge by way of David Lynch. Taxidermy, thick firewood paneling, stacks of wood, aquariums with sea creatures awaiting their fate (one massive king crab, tagged at $128 per pound, has been nicknamed “Shelley”). Low lighting casts tapering shadows throughout the cloistered space: The air somehow feels charged with portent. I sit in the dining room, staring at the arcane-looking drying herbs hung around the open kitchen and the hearth’s leaping flames and think: Is some sort of mystery dinner theater about to begin?
Skenes’ signature 1980s soundtrack only makes things trippier. Not just the Hall and Oates we’re all still hearing on restaurants’ subscription music services: Huey Lewis and the News, Dexys Midnight Runners, Billy Ocean. During dinners I often drift into a Gen X trance; afterward I dream of people I haven’t seen since high school.
No starter better matches the twilight atmosphere than a radicchio salad that gained infamy in San Francisco: It comes out as a nearly full head, its red-veined foliage glossy with a dressing made from tougher outer leaves, garlic and shallots that grill slowly on the hearth for two days (a variation on a theme for sauces throughout much of Skene’s ethos) and then further cooked with honey and vinegar made from radicchio. Cut through the salad and it bleeds; the bottom of the plate looks like surgical aftermath.
Servers bring bibs — thick white cloth napkins with tasteful silver clips on a chain — and help affix them around your neck as you navigate this affair. This grand gesture takes everyone I bring to Angler by surprise. It’s another twist in the restaurant’s plot: The suited servers carry a certain formality. One senses hierarchy — captains watching subordinate waiters from the room’s dark corners. At the table everyone brings warmth to their tasks.
Wine director Peter Carrillo provides exceptional guidance. He turned me on to a bottle of white burgundy, a 2014 Domaine Douhairet-Porcheret “Les Duresses,” whose buttery, sneakily spicy flavors sync lyrically with so many of Angler’s dishes: sea bream ceviche, marinated in a Skenesian concoction of brewed seaweed and fish scraps and capped with two plantain chips; harissa-slicked spot prawns, cooked so precisely that each bite snaps; a smaller, more reasonably priced box crab served cracked with utensils and drawn butter (and bibs), needing nothing more.
For mains, gravitate to whole poached marble fish, its texture like a denser sole and served with its skeleton fried to a crisp for nibbling; and, moving away from the sea, a whole, gorgeously blistered roast chicken. Fill out the meal with carbs: phyllo-thin sheets of potatoes layered, grilled, basted in butter and paired with a sauce often using cheeses from Sonoma’s Cowgirl Creamery; an impeccable tray of Parker House rolls. The sundae with campfire-scented caramel brings closure to the sweet-and-smoky motif — or you could always order more caviar with banana pancakes.
Occasional shoppers must surely drift spontaneously into Angler, but my sense is that food-obsessed tourists and locals plan meals here based on Skene’s reputation. It’s lively on weekends, sparer during the weekdays. It’s easy enough to book a prime-time reservation most nights.
Beyond the “Twin Peaks” vibe, then, maybe what I sense in the ether at Angler are questions: Will Los Angeles embrace an upscale seafood restaurant with a fugue-state design scheme? Is Skenes’ renown enough to fill seats? Will diners even be able to find the place? Priciness considered, I’m cheering for Angler. But I do love a good mystery.
Recommended: caviar on banana pancake, radicchio salad, sea bream ceviche, poached marble fish, caramel sundae.
Prices: Most raw bar dishes $16-$20, salads $14-$18, family-style entrees $32-$76, desserts $14-$17.
Details: Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Wheelchair accessible.