Stefan's at L.A. Farm: Every Star is Born From Chaos

Television talent competitions discover sweet voices like American Idol's Candice Glover. As she poured her heart and soul into my living room, I shuddered to think that the world might've never heard her sing were it not for this glittery platform.

Competitions can also foster cocky, brash firecrackers that send me running from the sparks, like Top Chef's Stefan Richter.


Of course, if your food is a blend of confidence and humility, like that same show's uber-talented stealth chef Brooke Williamson, I am the first in one to eat it up.

Richter had me licking his plates at former Drago, but, thanks to Top Chef, he was able to storm into established but culinarily crumbling restaurant L.A. Farm, raise the roof and make it his own.





The former entrance was like walking into a garden party, breezing onto a patio lined with comfy couches where you were warmed by tabletop fireplaces. Now, you enter from the side of the building into what looks like a make-shift production office. The echo from my footsteps in the cold, grey foyer interrupted someone, let's call her a hostess, sitting behind a desk at a computer monitor.

I checked in as if for an appointment, and she cheerfully led me on a déjà vu path that took me into the bar and through the old dining room. Like a once-bright career, I saw the fire pits outside in the distance.


The restaurant's rooms are cut up like a Picasso profile; there are so many glass doors and partitions and curtains that a diner searching for the bathroom looks like a clumsy mime wanting out of a box.

I was glad to have landed in the garden-ish dining room with soaring ceilings, where I would get an action shot of the kitchen.


Once seated, I turned the pages of the novel he's built into a menu. I weighed the scarcity of diners in the room against the abundance of food that had to be on hand to make all the dishes and feared they might not have enough stomachs. I lowered my head and crossed myself. Please don't let the waiter say "I recommend the fish" as his inner shifty voice says "we have a boatload and it's borderline spoiled".

Since I'd inevitably try every dish on Richter's menu, his $55 tasting menu would be a great start. Most restaurants restrict a fixed menu to an entire table, but our waiter slipped into the kitchen and successfully negotiated one for me while my fellow diners ordered plates willy-nilly.

The kitchen's flexibility and the effort from our waiter was a promising foreboding of a great experience. But soon after our order was taken, poof, our waiter's service emotionally checked out like a 1960's father. Although the food showed up well-prepared, the courses were dropped off like divorced children, by strangers, with no explanation as to the ingredients or the preparation. We dined like latch-key kids figuring life out on our own.

First up was Stefan's Gravlax with honey mustard dill sauce and watercress. Everything was right about this dish. The salmon is cured in-house, and the yellow sweet and tart sauce pulled me in like a hooker with a heart of gold. If I ever lose all my teeth I'll live on this buttery-soft salmon that dissolved in my mouth with a gentle mmmmmmmmm gumming.


I allowed the courses of my tasting menu to be interrupted by my dining companions dishes, too. I dived fork first in to their first plate, Duck & bacon schmaltz with toasted Jewish rye -- it was like a jar of "whore in church" -- everything bad in a good place. It was that vat of bacon drippings your grandmother kept adding-on to, for her entire life.


The smokey flavor hit my tongue at the same time the bacon fat started coating my mouth, and I imagined this was what kissing a heavy smoker tastes like at the exact moment he's having a heart attack from years of eating bacon fat.

With foie gras now illegal in California, this must be Stefan's answer for those too lazy to fly to Vegas. Just scoop a bunch of this and smear it on his really well-done toast and your government-induced fat withdrawal shakes should subside.

His hamachi and salmon sashimi with lime yuzu vinaigrette was the best East-meets-West merger since Bruce Lee married Linda. The hot peppers brightened the cold fish, probably like fiery Bruce making wild jujitsu-love to white-bred Linda. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa was the first to crown sushi with a sliver of jalapeno for me, and here Stefan shakes the cold fish awake with a similar spicy slap. I named it cevushi.


The Mushroom ravioli hovered onto my table like a flying saucer saying, Take me to your eater.


This perfectly al dente disc was stuffed with bounce-me-back-to-earthy mushrooms floating in a luxurious pool of creamy pecorino cheese sauce. Each bite was a chomp into a firm but fluffy pillow.

On television, Gordon Ramsay tasks every Kitchen Nightmare contestant to sear scallops because, in his words, it's a fucking nightmare.


This chef spanked the mollusk with a screeching hot skillet, achieving Ramsay scallop nirvana. The outside was as crispily bronzed as a tanned socialite, but once safely in my mouth it dissolved like an early morning good dream into sunrise. I was glad to see parsnips on the plate, the red-headed stepchild of root vegetables, brought up from the cellar. 

I would have liked the oven-roasted bone marrow as one of my courses but the chef wasn't feeling that generous, so my tasting menu came to a climax with the Chateau Briand. This dish reminded me of the meal my stout German mother cooked for hours, then served to me on our long, wooden farmhouse table after toiling in the fields all day -- if my mother were German, we lived on a farm, and any of us toiled.


The accompanying roasted parsnips were smuggled like immigrants into his luscious mashed potatoes, which he then peppered with delightfully decadent black truffles. The braised beef was as tender as a good coming-of-age film. I used the leftover good rye from the naughty schmaltz plate as a sponge to sop up the delicious sauce.

I've seen Richter have a blast on TV and he lets his hair down in the L.A. Farm kitchen with such abandon that it's now totally gone. His menu bounces from the sophisticated to playful -- like that ubiquitous line in personal ads: I can easily switch from blue jeans to a ballgown, which represents that well-rounded life everyone wants.

A menu's selection can flounce around like a Water Wiggle as long as the food is good. The more formal dishes of my tasting menu came out in tuxedos, and the items my companions ordered were what you grab when you get home from the shin dig and feed each other in bed, giggling. 

This side of the menu mashes his sense of humor with good flavors, like in his tiny, two-bite burgers named, Like a Big Mac.


Perhaps they're inspired by Big Mac -- the hoodwink moniker of a velvety smooth midget wrestler whose gimmick is to slather himself in melted cheese and jump onto a fluffy mat shaped like a soft burger bun. They went down easily in the first round.

We picked up these Mini corn dogs and clinked, toasting to this fun-food our table shared like a passed out quarterback at a party, giving everyone a chance to get some. Good times.

 

Richter hand-makes the sausages before coating them in the soon-to-be crunchy batter. The tangy mustard -- a taste of Germany in a bowl -- is dog-dippin' good and is also made in-house.

We came to the dessert portion of the show. Desserts can bring out the afterthought in a mediocre cook, or be the second coming of Christ, like what genius pastry chef Sherry Yard serves up on every plate.

I got served this middle-of-the-road quenelle of warm chocolate mousse that slid into place off a slippery slash of blackberry sauce. I wanted this dessert to gently glide me towards the end of my meal. Meals should end on a sweet and high note; in opera the audience should remember the singer's final aria.
 

Here, there wasn't enough sauce to include in each bite of mousse, and the rolled sticks tasted stale and seemed an afterthought -- like the chef was a mad costumer who pulled them out of his hair and jabbed then in before sending the dish onstage.   

For a tasting menu, I'd send out my sweetest star, the little freak who can tap dance while spinning plates. If only I could miniaturize myself and work the little curled up chocolate sticks like a stripper pole to earn extra cash.

I glance outside, see the once-welcoming flaming fire pits and I'm reminded how bad our service has been and how poorly our particular waiter represented Stefan. Stefan's entertaining enough to willingly dance barefoot over the flames while slinging his fabulous Goulash to appreciative customers. He's a smart businessman. But our waiter didn't have that same spark.


I believe waiters are the chef's agents. The 20% I leave is their commission and he didn't earn it. He did negotiate the solo-diner tasting menu deal, but then he barely stopped by our table.

When he delivered our gift from the chef, Richter's signature frozen lollipops, rather than take a sec and tell us more about them, he invited us to log onto YouTube from home and watch a video someone might have kinda uploaded. No, I pled with my eyes, tell us about it here, tell us now. Stefan would have probably acted it out in song.

Each lolli was unique; one blueberry, one lemon, all deliciously fun to eat. The outside was as luscious and creamy as licking babies, and when I reached the chewy center core it made me pause and reflect on what a nice dinner I'd had.  


I didn't just fall off the L.A. Farm turnip truck. I've eaten here often. His Truffle Pea Arancini is as good as Daniel Boulud's. His salads are perfectly dressed and back in the good ole' days, foie gras danced around on his menu like a prima ballerina.

I know what you did last summer, Stefan. Even the best TV shows have reruns, so here's his egg fantasy from last season's menu. In a nod to molecular gastronomy (anyone thinking that's a passé term needs to blast-chiller the fuck out), he baked polenta against the egg's inside shell. As you dug-in around, a lemony sauce popped like an egg yolk and hopped onto the spoon. The frise nest was functional and adorably tasty.


Just as I wish this dish were back, I hope Stefan cracks the whipped mousse and maintains the high standards that made his dream pop out of the television and materialize in this sometimes wonderful vision.

My recommendation is to reserve the ringside seats in the kitchen at Stefan's chef's table. Our waiter let us know this opportunity existed as we left. I looked around for a ham or a busboy to swing at the lord-help-me waiter but I'm trying to cut down on nitrates. I wanted to smack him for not letting us in on this sooner. An inside location is the perfect paring for a tasting menu. The best part of the remodel is the huge splashy kitchen, so sit in there and have the full show.

Stefan is the show's electric cord plugged into the restaurant's socket -- when he's gone, there's a noticeable power outage and static on the airwaves. It's easy to imagine the rooms as a vacant sound stage. The longest running productions keep all of the elements tight to avoid sporadic quality lapses. I hope he keeps the programming fresh and engaging, so I don't switch the channel.

Stefan's at L.A. Farm. 3000 Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90404. (310) 449-4000.

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