Table for Two
08.30.13 8:45 AM ET
America’s Best New Restaurant
by Andrew Knowlton
Ari Taymor has a knack for knocking on doors, and a talent for showing up unannounced at a restaurant’s service entrance. He’s not afraid to call a chef every day for a month to ask if he can come work for free.
In other words, he can be a royal pain in the butt. But it’s that won’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude that led him, at just 26 years old, to open Alma. The story of how this unassuming, 39-seat restaurant in Los Angeles became the restaurant of the year is, to put it in sports terms, like that of a minor-league baseball player who goes from batting .200 one year to hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth with two outs to win the World Series the next. Yes, it’s that unexpected.
Taymor grew up in Palo Alto, California, on a steady suburban diet of Food Network (he was partial to Good Eats and Iron Chef) and Taco Bell (his go-to order: two chalupas and a Crunchwrap Supreme). But it wasn’t until 2007, when he had a monumental, eye-opening meal of lamb leg à la ficelle at the legendary Chez Panisse, that food became more than entertainment and cheap fuel. From that point forward, Taymor wanted to cook.
That’s not to say that the road to Alma was linear. Along the way, he was fired from an externship at Lucques in Los Angeles, honed basic culinary skills at a community kitchen in Berkeley, and hunkered down at San Francisco’s Flour + Water, where he spent six months only making pasta. I’ve seen better résumés on The Hot 10. It was while working as an unpaid stagiaire at La Chassagnette, a country restaurant with its own garden in Arles, France, that Taymor adopted the techniques that became the foundation of his cooking style (not to mention where he became enamored with the idea of having a farm).
These varied experiences gave Taymor a vision for his own concept—and bolstered the tenacity required to pull it off. In February 2012, less than five years after that pivotal meal at Chez Panisse, he launched Alma as a pop-up in Venice, California.
What would soon become his trademarks—almost no butter, lots of vegetable stocks, and selections that changed nightly—shined in the three- and five-course tasting menus. It was an overnight success, but seeing as it was a pop-up, his success was over almost as soon. Taymor was about to take a job opening up someone else’s restaurant when he got a call about a permanent space in downtown L.A. He had 24 hours to decide his future. Taymor and his business partner, Ashleigh Parsons, signed the lease and opened Alma an unheard-of two weeks later.
The restaurant nearly failed. Some nights, no one came in. “I was terrified,” says Taymor. “I kept running out of money.”
To be completely honest, the first time I ate there, I had my own doubts about the place. Alma is situated in an area undergoing a cultural and culinary renaissance, but there are still pockets of seediness, like the bubble-gum-stained block on which Alma’s modern, wood-paneled façade stands out. Inside, you can feel its makeshift roots. It resembles a temporary gallery space more than a bona fide eating establishment (chalkboard wall; simple wood finishes; a long open kitchen where, behind bouquets of flowering herbs and tiles doubling as plates, Taymor and his merry band of cooks work all night, barely stopping to look up).
Could a restaurant stuck between a hostess bar and a former marijuana dispensary steal the top spot on this year’s list? By the time the seven-course, $90 tasting menu began, I looked at my wife and said, “This place has a chance.”
My change in attitude was thanks in part to the number of “snacks” diners received before the meal officially began. One after another they appeared: airy seaweed and tofu beignets, smoked salmon with house-made English muffins, sea-urchin toast with burrata and caviar, crispy pig ears with celery mayonnaise. With every bite, Alma was making me a believer. If Taymor could do that with finger food, I was happy to imagine what lay ahead.
The menu changes weekly, if not nightly, partly because of Taymor’s constant need to keep things fresh and seasonal, and partly because he never knows exactly what the restaurant’s half-acre garden, located near the beach in Venice, will yield that day. His food isn’t easy or expected. There’s no script or formula: His plating is refreshingly free-form, and he excels at pairing seemingly opposing flavors with stunning results. On paper, chilled artichoke soup with burnt avocado and succulents didn’t strike me as genius. It just sounded like cold soup. But after a few spoonfuls, all those ingredients—the grassy artichoke, charred avocado, and salty sea beans—became something way more than the sum of their parts. Every odd-sounding dish I tried—uni and cauliflower, crab with turnip and sea lettuces, 10-day dry-aged pigeon—initially had me scratching my head. But, like a song whose discordant chords flow into a harmonious chorus, the flavors united, almost by magic.
By the end of my meal, I was an Ari Taymor apostle. Despite his age and relative inexperience, this guy is cooking on a level I rarely see or taste. I eat out almost every night, so it takes a lot for me to get overly excited about a meal. But there I was, like a teenage boy on his first real date. At Alma, I’d experienced something special—that unique moment when potential meets skill and anything seems possible. I saw a star born.
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