Alma: Best New Restaurant in America 2013

Bon Appetit named Los Angeles' Alma Restaurant the best in the US this year.  The best.  The best new restaurant in the country is right here in downtown LA, or at least so Bon Appetit says. How can you walk into the best restaurant in the country and not expect great, no the best, things? Would there be an individual hand woven chair for my purse like many high end Michelin restaurants have?  Would there be six white gloved waiters attending to my every need, request and desire?  Would the food be more unique than the hand foraged fare of Copenhagen's Noma (previously named best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino)?  It was hard not to have these thoughts run through my mind as I went to dine at Alma.

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Finding Alma was not my best experience.  I drove past it several times, before realizing it's the tiny spot next to the building promoting "hostess dancing."  It's on a dark stretch of street on a less than active block of Broadway, near Olympic.  The interior is sparse with a clean wood floor, single drop white lights hanging in a line with an open kitchen on one side and tables lined up across and in front.  It's kind of like eating in someone's big kitchen.

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Service was friendly, casual.  No purse chair.  No white gloves.  White shirts only. I was sat at the bar, an arm's length from the cooking chefs. Luckily I'm always happy with a seat this close to the action, but I wasn't asked if it was ok, and I had made these reservations months in advance. 6:15 was the only available time back then, but oddly I saw empty tables all night.

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My dining companion and I ate at Alma on one of the final nights when there was still an option to order à la carte.  They have now moved to an obligatory tasting menu, which enables them to fully utilize all the ingredients they gather for the evening's meal.  The day's dishes were printed on a yellow lined sheet of paper.  It was a line up of curious fruits, vegetables and proteins in formations I've rarely seen.

The young 28 year old chef Ari Taymor has his produce grown exclusively for him by a garden in Venice, though he's looking for a place closer to his downtown restaurant.  I do love that this garden fresh farm to table fare is becoming more of the norm in Los Angeles.

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Seaweed & tofu beignet, yuzu kosho, lime was a salty ball of dough.  I love salt, but there was a fairly heavy hand throughout.  It was interesting, but the strongest flavor was the salt, and the rest folded a bit too subtly under the dough.

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English muffin, uni, burrata, caviar, licorice herbs was another compilation I hadn't seen before, and this time, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the grouping.  The tiny warm muffins balanced the oceanic uni and tiny beads of caviar with the creamy, rich burrata. I would have eaten another 5 of those.

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A flattened date and egg yolk sat alone in a ceramic bowl before a sunchoke puree was poured over to nearly submerge the duo.  Breaking into it was warm and earthy, but sorry to say, not that memorable during or after.

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Sweetbreads had interesting company with savory pig trotters, warm carrot and light peach. The different textures worked well together and I enjoyed playing with the soft fruit and chewy pork.

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Continuing in the pork department, we received a succulent Mulefoot pig, braised for 18 hours into a soft and soulful main dish, further complemented by more unique ingredients from the garden and forest - porcini, persimmon, and turnip. Decadent.

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We sampled one of the recommended desserts called a sunchoke split which again played with textures with marshmallow, meringue and ice cream, only to leave me confused on the intent of the mostly savory dish.

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Was my dinner at Alma bad?  No.  Was it the best in the US for 2103?  No.  Not for me. Many people have raved about this place and there's definitely some good reasons. Young chef Ari Taymor is getting outside and sourcing some really fresh ingredients. He's not afraid of mixing items that may have never sat beside each other before. Sometimes those combinations hit, sometimes they don't. The meal was fairly inexpensive given the quality of product, but there's now an obligatory tasting menu of 5 course for $65 and a longer tasting menu for $110 - still a decent deal for the shorter menu. Should you go? Everyone seems to think so, but you might not want to keep any accolades in mind.  Just go see what fresh, inventive fare Ari is cooking up in his minimalist space downtown.

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