For much of the past decade, no country outside of America has had a greater impact on the global culinary scene than Spain. At the same time, there has been a surprising dearth of Spanish cuisine in California. Smoke Oil Salt brings some of that much-needed influence to the center of the city.
Everyone’s been calling it a tapas bar, but that’s not really what’s going on here. Yes, the menu proposes lots of small plates, but small plates don’t necessarily mean tapas. Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica is a tapas bar – and a darned good one. Smoke Oil Salt is equally authentic, but this place is more of a destination. The cooking is far more elaborate, which isn’t surprising given that the chef, Perfecto Rocher, formerly ran the kitchen at The Blvd inside the posh Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. He comes from Spain, from a family that has produced a long line of chefs.
He’s teamed here with Adam Fleischman, of Umami Burger fame, and Jason Berkowitz, formerly the general manager at Cube. There’s no sign advertising the restaurant from the street, unless you count the tattoo parlor sign that hangs above the door but actually serves as a beacon for someone else’s business upstairs. Every time I’ve been here, the place has been packed elbow-to-elbow. Fortunately, they do take reservations.
They’ve converted what was Angeli Caffe’s old wood-fired oven into a centerpiece wood-burning grill, from which the restaurant’s best dishes come: smoked and grilled octopus, lightly grilled scallops, perfectly charred skirt steak, an Iberico pork loin that looks almost like beef, and a whole grilled sea bass stuffed with fennel and preserved lemon. A young chef stokes the fire under the constant watchful eye of Rocher, who stands at the grill’s wraparound counter, meticulously inspecting and expediting every single dish before it’s delivered to a table.
It seems almost obligatory to begin with a plate of hand-sliced Iberico ham and a couple of pieces of Catalan tomato toast, two of Spain’s quintessential exports. The latter is a thick piece of toast rubbed first with garlic and second with a fresh tomato. The former is Spain’s most regal ham. Both dishes masquerade as ridiculously simple, but take one bite of either and a century’s worth of thought and tradition is immediately revealed.
The chef’s luxury leanings are further revealed in a sea urchin flan that arrives in a canning jar topped with caviar and chili oil. The flan tastes almost like salted, whipped caramel but with a distinctive savoriness that could only come from sea urchin. It is wonderfully decadent.
After enjoying the flan, I had high expectations for an almond sherry gazpacho with crab, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite succeed in that same way. The gazpacho is too sweet, too fluffy, too much like a dessert parfait – with crab in it.
Aside from a nice French chablis and an Alsatian riesling, the very concise wine list is joyously Spanish. Even if you don’t know anything about Spanish wines, it’s easy to get excited about the choices just by reading the menu. One Rioja is described as “aged five years before release (two in oak, three in bottle). Powerful yet supple, vanilla nose, with easy tannins, rich fruit and long finish.” Another is “smoky and dark, with long tannins and round mouthfeel.”
Happily, this isn’t merely wine-speak. The descriptions are spot-on and fun. “Did you write this stuff?” I ask a server who introduces herself as a sommelier.
“No, I didn’t” she says. “But I wish I had.”
Smoke Oil Salt
Where: 7274 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles
When: Dinner, Tuesdays-Sundays
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.