Photos by Eduard DuarteI’m not looking forward to it, but I plan to sit down and have a good cry when peach season ends. It’s been a few years since I’ve tasted peaches, or stone fruit of any kind—nectarines, cherries, apricots—as vibrant as what the farmers have given us this year. So until that dreaded deadline arrives, I’ll be holding court as often as possible at Ammo in Hollywood, desperately clinging to the last vestiges of summer, savoring freshly picked peaches and tree-ripened nectarines, appropriately tart apricots and cherries just sour enough to pucker my cheeks and make me smile at the same time—all of which Ammo’s chef tosses together with a few wispy greens, shaved speck and sometimes even a fig. And I’ll be reaching for another spoonful of nectarine and blackberry cobbler (technically, more of a crumble), so hot it scalds my lips but so good that I keep doing it over and over again…
Ammo welcomed two new toques just in time for peach season: executive chef Daniel Matternand pastry chef Roxana Jullapat, a duo who’s cooked their way through some of L.A.’s top kitchens: Campanile, La Brea Bakery, AOC, Lucques, Bastide. They moved to Portland for a while and operated a restaurant together there, but they recently moved back to L.A. That’s good news for SoCal because the pair has completely revitalized this classic café. Ammo’s been around for a decade—and I’m finally able to say I truly enjoy this restaurant’s food.
I’ve always liked the industrial-chic vibe, and I appreciate the indirect lighting that casts a flattering amber glow on the wood-paneled walls behind tall banquettes. I respect the design decision (more likely a budgetary one) to leave the duct work exposed, along with water pipes that zigzag along the ceiling. I like the carefree attitude that says, “Yes, our floors are cement, cracked and uneven, but so what?”
And loud? Yes, though not raucously so. Every time there’s a lull in the conversation, upbeat rock ’n‘ roll from the likes of Coldplay, Radiohead or Moby can suddenly be heard before it fades out again as conversation resumes. The sophisticated crowd behaves like adults, which means that I never have to raise my voice to order another round of drinks. This is exactly the sort of restaurant that every neighborhood needs and deserves. I really like it here.
And while the staff is always cheerful and charming, I get the feeling they’re stretched beyond their limits most nights. Waiters disappear for 20 minutes at a time—and it’s not just one waiter; it’s the entire lot. Gone. Poof! Nary a server in the house. How’s this possible? I picture the entire crew in the alley unloading a lettuce truck, but I’ll presume there’s a better explanation, that maybe it’s nothing more than a matter of controlled understaffing, of not wanting to dilute the tip pool for the few loyal servers who stuck by the restaurant during its recent, leaner times. Which I can fully understand. But still.
I complain about this to The Redhead dining with me. She shakes her curly locks and laughs. “Look how much wine the waiter just poured into your glass,” she says about an earthy Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “It’s filled to the rim! You’ve got absolutely nothing to complain about.” And she’s got a point. The wine-by-the-glass portions are extremely generous. (Watch, now that I’ve said it, they’ll shrink.) The wine list is short and unpretentious—perfectly acceptable for a quaint neighborhood restaurant. This isn’t the sort of place where wine snobs gather to debate the merits of cult Grüner Veltliners. I’ve noticed several customers lugging their own grocery-store wines—which I’m guessing has less to do with the wine list and more to do with the pocketbook. The staff doesn’t seem to mind.
Over the course of five times thus far this summer, I’ve watched the restaurant gradually transform from sleepy to bustling. I suspect the recent uptick has everything to do with Mattern and Jullapat.
Mattern takes full advantage of the kitchen’s wood-burning oven and produces what is probably L.A.’s best roasted chicken. It emerges from the hearth with its skin crackly and scented with smoke. On one visit, he’s serving the hen with a savory bread pudding (my favorite thus far), while on another the bird nests in a tangled bed of purslane (known to gardeners as menacing pigweed), along with fresh, bright green chickpeas and an apricot chutney.
Like the chefs who came before him, Mattern also uses the wood-burning oven to bake pizzas. They’re decent enough, just as they’ve always been, but not exactly great. My favorite is the one with smoked mozzarella and roasted tomato sauce scented with rosemary instead of basil. I’m still waiting for the new chef to introduce a better crust.
On the tail end of fava season, Mattern was serving the beans, simply buttered, atop a wonderful ricotta ravioli. And while the waiters
insist that Ammo’s pastas are meant as entrees, I think the ravioli portion works better as an appetizer. The Bolognese could go either way: thick ribbons of hand-cut tagliatelle, the perfect resistance between the teeth, the pasta gently streaked, not dripping, with sauce.
Although this isn’t really a fish restaurant, I have enjoyed a nice sea bass wrapped in pancetta, served with shell beans and blistered cherry tomatoes. Like sunshine on a spoon, it’s the tomatoes, not the fish, that make this dish work. And the same can be said for the accompanying sides served with the flat iron steak. In general, flat iron simply isn’t a good cut of meat. It’s become popular because it’s cheap and usually tender. The real star of the steak? Fat king oyster mushrooms and a bright salsa verde served alongside.
There’s a really good pork chop tattooed with perfect grill marks served atop a puddle of rich, creamy polenta, with a couple of figs melting on either side. I wish I had ordered the chop medium-rare because it arrived well-done—my fault for not making that request. Ah, well, no matter. I’ll just chew a little bit harder. At this point in the meal, I’m already thinking about dessert.
Roxana Jullapat is a shiny new star in the pastry world. I have yet to find a dessert that isn’t excellent. It saddened me when she took the marshmallow-topped chocolate bread pudding off the menu, so I’m praying that she brings it back. Meanwhile, her repertoire consists mostly of fruit desserts—old-fashioned, grandma-in-an-apron sort of dishes served bubbling hot from the oven, filling the air with nose-tingling aromas of nectarine cobblers, peach melbas and cherry pies. Except they’re better than grandma’s. The peaches elicit quivers. The cherries trigger goose bumps. And the blueberries make me want to jump up and hug the nearest old lady in the room. So, yes, I’ll be sad when the peaches and the cherries and everything else that’s great about summer are gone. But I also can’t wait to see what Jullapat and Mattern have up their sleeves for fall.
1155 N. Highland Ave., L.A., 323.871.2666
HOURS Lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11:30am–2:30pm. Dinner, Mon.–Thurs., 6pm–10pm; ???Fri. and Sat., 5:30pm–11pm. Sunday brunch, 10am–2:30pm.
WHO’S THERE At lunch: low-key studio execs, not-yet-famous screenwriters and guys with mohawks. At dinner: Hancock Park-adjacent social climbers, first-daters and the occasional new mom with an all-terrain stroller in tow.
WHEN TO GO It’s fairly quiet mid-week but weekends are bustling. Sunday nights, there’s a family-style roast menu (which doesn’t necessarily mean meat).
ABOUT THE BAR The cucumber-mint Martini is the best in its class.
ABOUT THE NOISE Loud but tame and highly tolerable.
WHAT IT COSTS Lunch: starters, $4–$13; sandwiches and pizza, $13–$16; entrees, $16–$26; desserts, $9. Dinner: starters, ???$9–$15; pasta and pizza, $14–$17; entrees, $19–$29; desserts, $9. Corkage, $15.
What the stars mean:
0 = Poor, unacceptable
* = Fair, some noteworthy qualities
** = Good, above average
*** = Very good, well above norm
**** = Excellent, among the area’s best
***** = Extraordinary in every detail