LA Review: Faith & Flower

We eat with our eyes. This is confirmed at lunchtime at Faith & Flower.

First come the deviled eggs. The filling is tinted orange from kimchi paste. The eggs are speckled with black sesame seeds. These aren’t colors and textures I’m used to seeing in my eggs, but the artistry is spectacular. I can already taste them before I take a bite. There’s a slight pickle effect, a spiciness, a tickle in the throat.

A dozen freshly shucked oysters arrive, resting in a bowl of shaved ice. The simplicity is stunning: the sparkle of the ice, the pearly shimmer of the shells, a lemon. I can taste the freshness before I touch anything.

Agnolotti are equally pornographic. Pasta wrappers bulge with oxtail as they bathe in a nage of bone marrow and tangerine. They are topped with the most angelic chicharrones — if chicharrones can indeed be called angelic. They are wispy and light, like cirrus clouds hovering above the plate. I can feel the melted bone fat on my lips. I can taste the tangerine in my throat. I can feel the pasta between my teeth. And I haven’t yet taken a bite. My mind is salivating, racing, anticipating.

And when my tongue finally catches up, the synchronicity of my senses is confirmed. The eggs, the oysters, the pasta, it all tastes as delicious as it looks.

We eat with our eyes. This is confirmed yet again when I return for dinner, because unfortunately at dinner, the lights are dimmed so low that nobody can see what they’re eating.

A plate of duck liver tartlets arrives (never mind the nuance of that statement), and in the darkness they look like nothing more than little blobs of brown.

A bowl of kanpachi ceviche arrives, and it looks like a blob of beige.

A dish of steak tartare with miso foam and a dish of warm beets with smoked goat cheese arrive at the same time, and everyone strains to determine which is which. Neither looks very appetizing with the lights turned off.

Everyone squints and sniffs. “You smell that?”

“What’s this?”

“What’s what?”

“You talkin’ to me?”

Finally, someone pulls a flashlight from her purse and casts a blinding flare across the table.

“Oh, that’s the beef tartare, over there!”

Fortunately, everything at dinner is almost as delicious as it is at lunch, only the mind doesn’t race when it can’t see the chef’s artistry. The tongue doesn’t wag. The satisfaction is somewhat diminished but not erased completely.

Fortunately, there is some overlap between lunch and dinner menus, so I return for lunch again to re-sample some things I tasted for dinner, so I can see what I missed.

That kanpachi is stark in its simplicity, but it turns out to be not merely a blob. The supple flesh is speckled with the tiniest possible chives. And the Dungeness crab toast is not just crab smeared on a piece of toast, as I believed the night before. It’s a mosiac of green and white, of fresh lump crabmeat, avocado and jicama … and, as I can now clearly see, pickled sea beans.

The hand-cut noodles are much prettier than I would have imagined, too. They are dense and chewy and substantial, crooked squiggles cloaked with a ragu of cumin-scented lamb. But it’s not a ragu in the expected sense. It’s more souplike, more fragrant, more, well, pretty. Topped with chili threads and cilantro.

The young chef at the helm is Michael Hung, a transplant from San Francisco, where he cooked at the extremely hushed and chi-chi La Folie, as well as Jardiniere. His spirited multicultural flavors build on what was already happening here, but with a fresh, new voice: green beans, faintly burned on one side yet gently cooked, so they’re still brilliantly green and crunchy, brushed with dark soy and topped with a breadcrumb-like topping made from dried shrimp.

Perfectly cooked lobster sits in a puddle of cold, grassy, dark green gazpacho. This cooking feels immediately at home in Los Angeles.

Faith & Flower opened in March at the corner of Ninth and Flower, bringing a welcome glitz and glamor to downtown. The owners also operate a restaurant in Monterey called 1833, which they opened two or three years ago, pulling fresh young talent from San Francisco then, too.

Several oversized chandeliers look as if they might have been salvaged from one of L.A.’s grand old Broadway theaters, or perhaps a long-abandoned hotel ballroom. Crystal swag pendants dangle in rows between the chandeliers. Peacocks strut across wallpaper. Leather booths and a long velvet banquette line either side of the long, slender dining room, which is capped by French doors. Sheer curtains let the sun shine through at lunchtime.

The tables are set with extra-heavy, almost medieval water goblets. The sturdy silverware looks like it might have come from an old Southern estate. The tufted ceramic coffee cups remind me of “Alice in Wonderland.” I’m pleasantly creeped out by an abstract clown painting that hangs near the restrooms.

Make no mistake, though: For all the niceties and fussiness, Faith & Flower is wonderfully casual. Waiters wear denim and bow ties. The tables forgo cloths. David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen sing at the top of their lungs yet still struggle to be heard over the lively din.

The biggest difference between lunch and dinner — aside from being able to see your food — is that at dinnertime the kitchen serves more family-style dishes like whole snapper roasted in seaweed or a pound and a half rib-eye grilled over mesquite, or a fat stump of pork loin wrapped in bacon, all meant for sharing, all excellent.

And there seem to be more desserts at dinner, too. There’s something called a s’mores ice cream sandwich that is neither quite s’mores nor an ice cream sandwich. It’s meant to be disassembled and eaten in layers, mixing and matching the various components as they get randomly scooped by your spoon. This is pure heaven: chocolate, something squishy, marshmallow-y, a hint of smoke, a cookie, a fresh strawberry, chocolate sprinkles.

The flavors listed on the dessert menu are mere hints of what might transpire. Rarely is anything quite what I’m expecting. “Blackberry” turns out to be a garnish that resembles a fruit rollup. Classic flavors – pistachio and cherry, chocolate and marshmallow, apricot and almonds – come together in surprising new ways. And they are gorgeous. If only you could see them.

If you dine at lunch, you can. But if you come at dinner, you’ll have to squint and trust your imagination.

Faith & Flower
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 705 W. Ninth Street, L.A.
Hours: Lunch, Mondays – Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner, Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 p.m.-midnight. Brunch, Saturdays and Sundays, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Don’t miss: Deviled eggs, lobster gazpacho, hand-cut noodles with cumin lamb, mesquite-grilled steak, oxtail agnolotti, s’mores sandwich
Best place to sit: Booths, or the far end of the banquette, offer a slight reprieve from the cacophony of the bar area in the front, where the music blares more loudly.
About the noise: It can get very loud, especially at dinner when the bar scene gears up.
County health inspection: A
Cost: Lunch/brunch, small plates, $4-$16; large plates, $12-$24; desserts, $6-$12. Dinner, small plates, $6-$18; large plates, $14-$59; desserts, $8-12
Phone: 213-239-0642
Online: faithandflowerla.com

What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambiance and service

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Register. (Website for Los Angeles Register is down; link might be broken.) To view more of my work for the Orange County Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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