Small Plates. Do those two words make you bristle or perk up? Small plates seems to be the restaurant term of the century. Everyone has some less than large plates. I have a friend who will not go to any restaurant serving small plates. If she is tricked into going, she'll order a few dishes for herself, making clear that she will not be sharing. She feels panic-stricken with the parade of plates quickly flashing by, reaching, scooping, trying not to miss anything. She's afraid if she gets lost in a story and takes her eye off the table, she'll be left with nothing on her plate. Then at the end of the meal, she forks over large amounts of cash and is still hungry.
Personally, I'm a big fan of small plates because I like sampling lots of different flavors. I think it's social and fun to do with a group, but I do tire of seeing the same kale salads and brussels sprouts on every menu. Then there's tapas, which is really like a Spanish version of small plates, though you'll often get a nice cast iron skillet or some earthenware thrown in for good measure.
Smoke.Oil.Salt is doing its best to bring the fun to group dining and specifically Spanish tapas. The restaurant is on trendy Melrose in West Hollywood, automatically putting you in the cool zone, right below a piercing place if you want to double down on your hipster quotient for the evening. Walking into Smoke.Oil.Salt, your first smell is of the smokiness of the open grill, where you can actually sit at a counter and watch some of the dishes come together. Or you can walk past the exposed brick and bright red walls to a second, compact dining room and other small bar.
Music from the Clash was pumping at an aggressive level when my group sat down. We then discussed, for about the 10th time, why the new restaurants must be so loud. It did contribute to the high energy pulsing through the place, but it also limited the number of people I could speak to in my group of 6. I hate for the moral of the story to be, only dine with 4 people.
Soon enough the parade of plates, and skillets began. The grill was put to good use on many dishes, starting with some fresh peaches, doused with goat cheese and red frill salad, and even better still with wood-fire roasted eggplant that melted in your mouth, along with smoky red bell pepper, salt cured tuna and and marcona almonds. It was a nice play of textures.
We received our first cast iron skillet filled with a crunchy, caramelized broccoli and cauliflower. It was so good that I wondered if it still qualified as a vegetable with all the work it underwent to achieve this crunchy, robust flavor. Cod croquettes were crisp and fish-filled. A little too fishy for me, but the exterior was well done and the interior was light and airy.
Plates were passed on our man-made lazy susan and yes, I did feel like i had to pay attention so as not to miss anything, but fun was being had, many tastes were being explored, and I almost forgot I couldn't hear what anyone was saying. I missed most of the sea urchin flan, but consensus was that it was mostly flan and too light on the urchin. As far as flan goes, it was good, but I think the shrimp chili oil was the hero of the dish, spicing it to an appropriate level.
A duo of anchovies had special instructions to take a slice of each kind, along with an olive and marcona almond and bite into all at one time. Good? Oh yes, but you need to love salty flavors as much as I do.
They pulled the earthenware and grill out for the quail, which wasn't too easy to share, but the lentils, chickpeas and goat cheese stew was ripe for the savory spooning. Simply served pork cheeks dissolved in my mouth with little effort, and I put in a lot of effort into have this plate spend extra time in front of me. Seasoning and spices were conscious, but not overwhelming, though I will say that smokiness was the major taste of the evening, and that wasn't a problem for me.
Manila clams were oddly draped with nearly sheer serrano ham, but it ended up being a nice tapas two-fer. More smokiness arrived with the octopus, encapsulating the right balance of tenderness and bite.
The winner of the night for me was the gambes a la planxa. The large shrimp were well cooked, simply flavored and a great way to end the meal...until the desserts arrived.
I've never been much of a flan or custard fan. The texture is way off for me, but my dining companions were quite pleased with their Crema Catalana judging by their quickly emptied earthenware dishes. I can't say that I had to really be talked in to the homemade donut balls that were warm, lightly sugared and ready for dipping in the warm valhrona chocolate sauce. It took me right back to eating churros at 3am in Barcelona, dipping in that velvety chocolate.
Smoke.Oil.Salt delivers solid tapas in an energetic environment. It's good for a group, assuming you don't have serious matters to discuss, and you're comfortable sharing.
7274 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA