Melissa Perello likes to joke that she’d request a loaded baked potato as her final meal. At M. Georgina, Perello’s elegant 2-month-old restaurant in Row DTLA, she rescues the spud from the gloppy excesses of the chophouse playbook and turns it into something you’ll remember for its grace.
Perello roasts a fist-size russet in a wood-burning oven and finishes it in the coals of the kitchen’s hearth. The potato’s jacket blackens and crisps; its insides turn fluffy. It arrives at the table slashed open and sidled up to a mound of sour cream. The garnishes are always changing: snipped chives and whatever appropriate herbs Perello might have on hand, with duck cracklings or crunchy guanciale scattered over top. Customers often ask for cheese. Perello obliges with nutty Fiscalini cheddar from Modesto.
You could eat the potato solo at the bar with a salad and a glass of white Burgundy and feel deeply sated. It’s also a welcome side dish alongside almost any entree: a handsome platter of duck (sliced breast and whole leg) dressed with charred mandarin slices and tiny mustard greens, or baked cod over creamed escarole, or a multitextured reinterpretation of chard saag.
Perello and her grounded, uplifting California cooking are new to Los Angeles. She made her name in San Francisco, first in sky-high haute cuisine (Charles Nob Hill, Fifth Floor) and then with her two successful fine-casual restaurants, Frances and Octavia. Though she continues to run the pair, she moved to L.A. over a year ago with Robert Wright, her husband and business partner.
Her style — micro-seasonal, with Italian leanings and occasional subtle nods to other cuisines — meshes seamlessly with the city’s dining ecology. Sometimes Angelenos bristle at chefs from elsewhere, but this is cooking that already feels of the place.
The debut of M. Georgina, named for Perello’s paternal grandmother, comes at a pivotal moment for the still-developing Row complex. Tartine Bianco and Alameda Supper Club, the restaurants in the flagship 40,000-square-foot Manufactory, closed in December after 11 months, leaving a hole in the development’s dining options.
The Manufactory’s intimidating size might have been a factor in its demise; at 4,500 square feet, Perello’s restaurant is hardly small, but the dining room’s L-shape creates a feeling of intimacy. Pale woods catch buttery light. Earth tones in ceramics displayed on shelves offset the cold concrete walls.
The front-and-center element of fire gives the cooking here a literal and spiritual smolder that differentiates it from Perello’s previous efforts. I’ve enjoyed meals at Frances and Octavia; I’m keenest on M. Georgina.
Every dinner could start with a few clams Diavolo — minced littlenecks baked in their shells, bound in a bechamel lit up with Calabrian chiles. The effect is a cross between spicy clams Casino and Rhode Island stuffies. The clam is one of four extra-small, seafood-focused starters: a few mussels dotted with chorizo oil; smooth-shelled Chelsea gem oysters, sold individually, covered in pickled kohlrabi; kampachi tartare tossed among segments of grapefruit-like oro blanco, with guajillo chiles that dye the citrus juices crimson.
A heartier appetizer of roasted maitakes jumbled with butter beans, feta and pickled ramps is an earthy prelude to entrees perfumed with the hearth’s campfire aromas. The duck for two, subtly smoky and rich in textural contrasts, is particularly excellent winter sustenance.
Perello’s cooking compels without resorting to pyrotechnics. The only thing on the menu that even approximates a gimmick is the grilled pita tinted black with squid ink. (The idea is a riff off of cold squid ink noodles, a signature at Frances.) There is trout roe for pop and smoked oyster aioli for dipping.
But honestly, I’m far more thrilled by the crusty levain bread the restaurant bakes. It arrives hot with salted cultured butter. I inhale one slice and save another to swipe through the spice-riddled nectar at the base of the chard saag, or to catch the last of the bright salsa verde spattered over slices of grilled Wagyu coulotte.
There are carb gratifications beyond the baked potato. Perello currently favors pastas with ruffles, their squiggly edges perfect for ensnaring winter’s heartier sauces. Gorgonzola dolce, pickled treviso and candied walnuts coat trailing strands of mafaldine; the combination turns the dish a soft pink. (For a cheering surge of color, order it with the chicory salad rendered in fall-foliage pastels.) An early menu matched bell-shaped campanelle with lamb ragout; its flavors fell flat, but the dish was later tweaked with cotechino, a pork sausage that’s meant to be long-simmered, and the fine-tuning clicks.
The staff mirrors the food in its warmth. This is a corps of pros, unobtrusive, articulate and always up for a discussion around wine. (Think whites from Loire and reds from Burgundy; I drink my share of orange wine, but there are better choices for Perello’s subtle food.)
Lately they have been nudging diners toward the $75-per-person tasting menu option. It isn’t a starchy coursed affair but a whirl of eight or nine dishes served family-style. Most will be smaller portions plucked from the menu, augmented by a few on-the-fly surprises: roasted carrots over whipped cow’s milk feta, hamachi collar grilled so the fat melts and intensifies the pockets of flesh. Two of pastry chef Hannah Ziskin’s desserts appear — perhaps the bracing lime posset (an old English sweet, similar to citrus curd, regaining traction stateside) or a wedge of custardy chocolate tart jeweled with preserved lemon, pistachio and tiny pipes of tarragon meringue.
The tasting menu is an easy, sit-back-and-let-someone-else-make-the-decisions introduction to the restaurant. The baked potato at the bar — with a scoop of Ziskin’s sourdough ice cream with salty croutons for dessert — will do the trick too. Wherever your appetite lands, Perello is a chef to know.
The Row, as a dining destination, has some laidback choices (Pikunico for fried chicken, Rappahannock Oyster Bar), seven-seat Hayato for luxury kaiseki and of course the weekly Smorgasburg festival on Sundays. The complex needed a middle-ground beacon — sophisticated but not too fancy, with food that simply leaves you feeling happy.
In M. Georgina, I think the Row finally has its anchor.
Location: 777 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles (Row DTLA), (213) 334-4113, mgeorgina.com
Prices: Small appetizers $3.50-$9, larger starters $13-$18, entrees $24-$54, desserts $11-$12.
Details: Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Recommended dishes: Clam Diavolo, roasted maitakes, mafaldine with gorgonzola and treviso, duck for two, coal-roasted potato, chocolate crémeux, sourdough ice cream.