It’s 11am in Hayden Tract, a burgeoning development in Los Angeles’ Culver City neighbourhood. An industrial zone up until the 1980s, the area’s low-slung warehouses have since been converted into eccentric, avant-garde buildings, which today house all manner of startups and creative agencies. It’s amid this futuristic cityscape that I find Destroyer, an aptly named café and disruptor of convention.
The dish sitting in front of me is a Noma-esque fantasyscape in a hand-hewn bowl, festooned with white shavings that resemble bonito flakes and dotted with wisps of edible greenery. From the menu projected on the wall of the whitewashed dining room, I discern that it’s an inspired combination of chicken confit, Yukon Gold potatoes, aged cheese and yuzu. I take a bite – it’s savoury, unctuous and maybe a little smoky, with citrus notes that cut through the satisfying richness of it all. It’s certainly creative – ground-breaking, even. And technically, it’s brunch. I shake my head, thinking, “We’ve come a long way from eggs Benedict.”
The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain famously dissed brunch in his seminal book Kitchen Confidential back in 2000, calling it a “cynical way of unloading leftovers and charging three times as much as you ordinarily charge for breakfast”. But that was a different time in our culinary evolution, when brunch was the meal chefs didn’t take seriously, and where young urbanites would nurse hangovers with mimosas, assorted pork products and sugary carbs. And while as recently as a few years ago the late-morning meal was a topic of derision, it has become a proving ground for the future of dining – especially in LA, where the better brunch boom was born due to several reasons.
First of all, there’s the itinerant, sometimes-working, sometimes-not rhythm of Hollywood talent with a penchant for dining at odd hours. While brunch may chiefly be a weekend pursuit in other cities, in LA, the moneyed and hungry can often be found dining en masse before noon on a Wednesday. And then there were the chefs who embraced the farm-to-table movement with abandon and found ways of working the state’s seasonal bounty into every meal: English peas, swirling Escher-esque romanesco cauliflower, micro greens and nasturtiums at the first hint of spring. California’s year-round growing climate and bountiful produce certainly have a way of forcing a chef’s hand. Add to this the lower rent of emerging neighbourhoods like Silverlake and Culver City amid the LA sprawl and you have a lower-risk proposition for experimental brunch cuisine.
“While as recently as a few years ago the late-morning meal was a topic of derision, it has since become a proving ground for the future of dining – especially in sunny LA”
This late-morning culinary renaissance crystallised some five years ago at Sqirl in Silverlake, the original pusher of ricotta toast – thick slices of eggy brioche toasted just so, slathered with house-made ricotta and seasonal jam with novel flavours such as blood orange and hibiscus; and seascape strawberry and rose geranium. The dish has since sparked hundreds of imitators around the world, and Sqirl is now on the shortlist of quintessential dining spots in the city.
Its original claim to fame aside, Sqirl has continued with a culinary creativity that goes far beyond the standard chef-diner compact. The restaurant’s bare-bones aesthetic takes a back seat to the gastronomic stars of the show: a crispy rice bowl made with sorrel pesto, watermelon radish and preserved lemon, or a platter of house-smoked whitefish served with lacto-fermented pickles and Danish rye bread.
Beyond that, owner Jessica Koslow further underscores her culinary ethos with pop-up takeovers helmed by some of the best chefs in the world, all of whom strut their stuff with brunch. This recently included chef Gabriela Cámara, the mastermind behind Mexico City’s popular restaurant, Contramar. In this instance, the special menu featured dishes combining the best of both chefs’ culinary creations, such as eggs with crispy potatoes, chorizo, fermented red chilli and pickled cactus, as well as smoked tomato aguachile (spicy ceviche) served with pickled shrimp and a sweet potato chip.
Similarly food-first and equally inventive, Destroyer is helmed by Jordan Kahn, who has worked under Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se fame and whose work in the kitchen embodies full-on creativity, expressed through pristine ingredients and exacting technique. It opened a year and a half ago and remains the pinnacle of brunch in LA.
“When we started putting together the plan for Destroyer, we looked at the community we were serving,” says Kahn. “Nearby is Apple, Beats by Dre, Nike, a litany of private creative production houses and the office of [Oscar-winning] director Alejandro Iñárritu.” That’s a potentially tough crowd of some talented people with globally discerning taste, and Kahn knew he had to meet them at their level: “If they’re all bringing their A-game and pushing their genre’s boundary, then we need to do the same with ours,” Kahn adds.
And so, when you see oatmeal on the menu at Destroyer, it’s not your typical porridge with fresh berries and maple syrup. Rather, it’s a trio of rolled, sprouted and steel-cut oats, cold-cooked and topped with a frozen disk of Icelandic skyr yoghurt, reduced birch sap syrup and melilotus (a type of clover containing coumarin, a cinnamon-like organic compound favoured by molecular gastronomists). It’s a familiar dish made in an entirely new way, just like the chicken confit I devoured earlier.
The following week, I meet a friend at another restaurant, République, which is housed in Charlie Chaplin’s former studio in La Brea. We arrive at around 11am on a Tuesday, but the line is already 40 people deep, snaking from the high-ceilinged dining room out onto the patio. The menu here is a freewheeling survey of the mashup of cultural influences distinct to LA: a shakshouka dish made with Brussels sprouts, the spice blend za’atar and fried egg is California meets North Africa; pupusas (thick corn tortillas) made with squash blossoms and Oaxaca cheese pay homage to the city’s Latin American influences; and ricotta toast is slathered with citrus from Arnett Farms, studded with local pistachios and drizzled with sage honey.
“The idea of a hip, farm-to-table, chef-driven brunch place is something that’s new, at least to LA,” says Walter Manzke, who runs the James Beard-nominated restaurant along with his wife Margarita (they also run a restaurant empire in the latter’s hometown of Manila). He credits the popularity of the restaurant’s internationally influenced dishes to the culinary diversity of a city that’s home to two Little Tokyos, a Chinatown, a Thai Town, a Filipino town and other ethnic enclaves. “LA has this super diverse culture… and we also have incredible fruits and vegetables to work with,” he says.
This spirit of experimentation is also apparent in newer restaurants like Triniti, which opened in Echo Park late last year. I stop by late one morning as East Side hipsters tap away at laptops and sip on black sesame cappuccinos. I eye the granola bars in the bakery case but opt instead for something savoury: ricotta gnudi (dumplings) and labneh (strained yogurt) blanketed by an undulating, Frank Gehry-like layer of thinly sliced zucchini, as well as a white bean stew topped with a vivid thatch of watercress. On a basic level, the dishes are fortifying. On a theoretical level, they’re imaginative yet entirely sensible, like the best of culinary inventions.
Owner Joseph Geiskopf, a protégé of Kahn’s, stresses that this is food not to be fussed over. After years of working in fine-dining spots trying to prove his skills, Geiskopf saw a place like this as being liberating. “Tasting menus are about submission. As a diner, you’re submitting to the chef and the restaurant. As a chef, you’re submitting to this strict idea of how people dine in a restaurant,” he says.
“Brunch is the place to break free of culinary conventions, both high and low”
But here, he’s living a dream, and diners are too. And brunch is the place to break free of culinary conventions, both high and low. “We have coffee, but we’re not a coffee shop. We’re more of a bistro-ish, all-day type of thing,” he explains. “At the end of the day we’re just cooking food that people want to eat, at the time they want to eat it.” Geiskopf’s casual attitude towards nomenclature might be predictive of something more: the notion that we may soon outgrow the label of brunch altogether, along with all its associations. But for now, the term still enjoys wide currency.
Case in point: when Top Chef alum Nyesha Arrington opened Native in Santa Monica this year, her brunch menu featured food that broke the standard brunch rules: latkes (potato pancakes) were studded with kimchi and omelettes were filled with local burrata cheese. Yes, there’s a Bloody Mary on the drinks list, but it’s spiked with soy and gochujang (Korean sweet-spicy chilli paste) – a toast to both Arrington’s Korean heritage and to the LA urbanites craving a tipple that’s part boozy, part foodie.
You could call these innovative dishes any number of things, including brunch, but that really doesn’t do them justice. So, for now, let’s just call them delicious.
– PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATTHEW SCOTT
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This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine