La Cienega continues to hold onto its restaurant row title with yet another culinary arrival on the busy boulevard. Scratch | Bar opened last summer near the Japanese mecca, Matsuhisa. LA native, Phillip Lee is the chef behind Scratch | Bar and what he's doing is something fairly unique to La Cienega. You're not going to find any similarities on the Stinkin' Rose menu. Lee learned his craft after spending time at Los Angeles restaurant hot spots' Hatfield's and Providence and Chicago's Alinea. Now he's bringing a unique style of cooking to his own place.
The dining room has a subtle Beverly Hills posh feel with dark wood, rich leather chairs and a glossy bar down the middle where on select nights, you can watch Lee cook right in front of you. It's a comfortable room, though not necessarily emblematic of the edgy cooking, but changes are in discussion.
The menu is divided into noshing items For the Table, Bites, Starters, Mains and Desserts. With all items currently priced at or under $21, it's a good value, but better still is one of the tasting menus that gives you a sampling of each section. The $45 menu is a good choice as you can choose 3 bites, 1 starter, 1 main and 1 dessert - definitely a good price for the dishes you'll receive.
Sometimes the sight of seeing shot glasses with things hanging from it can make my stomach turn, but when the waiter described the contents, I relaxed and followed instructions. Bite one was grabbing the contents hanging on the stick which included a soft green mussel with jalapeño and pickled onion. Step 2 was to shoot the sake and that was easier than any shot I've had in the past with the sweet limey citrus. Step 3 was digging for the sea urchin sitting on the bottom is a creamy avocado sauce. Wow, best shooter, ever.
Where to go from here, but might as well dehydrate some smelt and fry it up into a giant rice cracker. Trying to avoid the boring, basic fish cracker (ok, I've actually never had one, let alone seen one like this), Lee then ups the ante by placing said cracker on a mound of whipped beet mustard and bone marrow. I couldn't help but smile while eating this beautiful and delicious concoction.
Honey fried olives then appeared which were further stuffed with olives (yes, olives in olives) and creativity. Easy to eat and fun to pop and then guess whatever flavors you were tasting inside. Was that cheese? No, that's the liquid of the honey...right?
Even more fun was the presentation of the smoking goat's milk cheese. A mound of young goat cheese sat on some smoking hay with a glass terrine on top. The waiter lifted the lid for the grand reveal, and smell, which was woodsy and sweet. I slathered some of the unctuous cheese on the homemade sourdough and topped it with the pickled vegetables for yet another, wow, that's so cool, and unbelievably delicious, moment.
From the goat to the pig we traveled with a two week cured pig's head presented in patty form. Oh yes, it was nice and porky, but the strawberry colored beet mustard sauce tempered the taste and rounded out the dish nicely.
Thinking the genius must be wearing off by now and that we might get a slice of cold chicken next, we were again thrilled with a bone Marrow n' Sourdough dish. I do hope Lee's getting a large quantity discount on all the bone marrow he's using. He loves marrow, as do I, but he was always vexed with how to maximize flavor and runaway juices while cooking on the bone. He decide to replace the bone with homemade sourdough bread so as not to lose a drop of goodness. He then piles in shimeji mushrooms and caramelized and pickled onions. That's a robust piece of work.
THEN, came our main. Yeah, we hadn't gotten there yet. It was just a little hanger steak, but dang, that meat was tender and in need of very little chewing. It couldn't just come on a plate of potatoes, no, it came on a pillowy soft bed of whipped potato cream. Divine.
I'm assuming, like me, you're going to want a side of vegetables...in a box...made of potato noodles...and deep fried...and looking like, well, nothing you've ever had or made.
As if any dessert was really necessary at this point, we received a dense, dark chocolate and cayenne candy bar with a pool of verbeena, some chia seeds, mint and cookie crumbles. And to balance the chocolate, there was also caramel apple panna cotta. The panna cotta was dense and gelatinous and played nice counter to the sweet apple and potato chips rounding out the dish.
What can I say, but wow. I walked in with minimal expectations, and walking out a new fan of Phillip Lee and Scratch | Bar. The creativity, cost and quality were truly remarkable. I hope Lee has a long life on La Cienega's restaurant row.
Update: You can now dine on Scratch Bar just in their Encino location. La Cienega is now closed
16101 Ventura Boulevard, Encino