The Age of the Pop-Up Chef is upon us, so it’s not much of a surprise anymore when a chef decamps from their current kitchen and temporarily sets up shop behind another set of burners. Usually the culinary émigré uses the opportunity to cook their food their way; free from the bonds of overbearing investors and customers clamoring for the stupid biscuits that have gone from cult favorite to albatross. This is not the case with Food Republic favorite Micah Wexler.
Since closing down his superb Mezze, Wexler has set up shop inside Umamicatessen, that downtown LA depository of multiple restaurants under one roof. In the back corner, where a coffee shop once sat, you’ll now find The Residency, a small diner counter in which visiting chefs can serve up their goods without the constraints of a full-on restaurant. Wexler is the first chef to inhabit the space and instead of bringing his trademark pita and brisket, he’s playing with a much larger question: how do you cook an entire city?
The answer is “To Live and Dine in LA,” a pun on either the 2Pac song or the 1985 film. Every Thursday, Wexler picks a different element of Los Angeles and cooks a menu to fit the theme. Sometimes it’s a neighborhood, as evidenced by his recent Koreatown, Boyle Heights and Thai Town menus. Sometimes it’s an era — he’s delved into both the ’80s and “The Golden Age” of LA (classic dishes from the ’20s-’40s). Heck, sometimes it’s even just a concept. A few weeks ago, Wexler cooked The Beach, which sadly had to focus on all of the seafood-centered dishes that appear outside of the city because our water is too damn polluted to produce any edible seafood.
The amazing thing is that each menu serves as an edible lesson in the history of Los Angeles. At the recent Koreatown dinner, the meal started with a chopped liver dish from The Ambassador Hotel to reflect what K-Town used to be and ended with a coconut caramel flan to symbolize the growing Hispanic population that’s moved into the neighborhood. In between, the chef served classic Korean dishes like kimchijeon pancakes and a mixed grill of Korean BBQ with a smoked brisket that would make most of West Texas jealous. For Wexler, sharing LA’s past is part of the fun of the series. It’s supposed to be “a fun history lesson,” he tells the diners. “Not a boring shitty one.”
It’s an ambitious concept and, after nearly 10 weeks of sell-outs, a very successful one. While Grant Achatz is operating along the same lines at Next in Chicago, at least he gets a few months to stick with the same menu. Wexler is changing things up weekly, which seems like the perfect metaphor for LA: the most exciting thing in town is always just a new spin on something successful from the past.
“To Live and Dine in LA” runs through May 16th at The Residency inside Umamicatessan. $45 per person plus tax and tip.
Umamicatessen, 852 S. Broadway, 213-413-8626
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