Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Glow of the A-Frame
I've been dying to try A-Frame. Ever since it opened in November 2010 there's been some serious hype. And how could there not be? First off, it's a hip, new restaurant converted from an old IHOP building. You know the one. With the pointy triangular roof. Just thinking of it brought back memories of being in high school. Waiting, after a keg party on a Friday night, in the small town parking lot of that triangle-shaped IHOP for a bag of free fries from the kid my cousin was dating who worked there part-time. Oh, those were the days. And to think I'd be paying a visit to one of these retro structures in Los Angeles for a culinary experience by Chef Roy Choi. Yes. Here's where the second reason for the hype comes in. For those of you who don't know Roy Choi, here's a little Chef Choi 101. He was born in Seoul but was raised in Los Angeles. You know that food truck craze going on in LA? Well, he's the guy who really got that going. His KOGI TRUCK is a mobile landmark around these parts, serving up Korean BBQ Tacos. And they are pretty terrific. In 2010, Choi was named Best New Chef by Food and Wine Magazine and also in the spring opened his first restaurant, CHEGO, where they serve up what he calls "peasant food from the soul." In the fall, he opened A-Frame with David Reiss. I'd say Chef Choi had a pretty good 2010, wouldn't you?

So, of course I couldn't wait any longer. I decided to head to the Culver City-based A-Frame on a Saturday night around 7pm. The parking lot was packed. Luckily my dining companion and I found street parking fairly easily. We knew there would be some sort of a wait because they DO NOT take reservations. But I figured that the hype had settled a little. As I pulled open the door, there stood a wall of people, cocktails in hand, all looking Hollywood hipster gorgeous in the beautiful orange haze of light that filled the room. At that moment, I realized that my three month wait to try this place was going to take just a little longer. The smiling hostess quickly jotted down my name and told me that I might want to get a drink, "It's going to be at least an hour."  But it was ok. I was going to stick it out. The sweet mix of tunes and hopping bar scene was enough to make that hour fly by -- plus, I was starting to feel like even I looked pretty good in this dim light. Time for a drink. As recommended by the bartender, I ordered the Downtown 81 -- a tasty concoction of Rye, Benedictine, Apple, Lemon, and All Spice. A stiff little drink but certainly tasty. My dining companion opted for the Fine Print -- Aged Rum, Hibiscus, Falernum, Lime, and Orange Bitters. That, I must say, was spectacular. 

Once strangers, now friends, enjoying dinner
I was lucky to find a small corner in the waiting area to  stand and enjoy my cocktail. I grabbed the reasonably priced menu and began to pick out everything I wanted to try. I then noticed a message on the menu from the Chef. His intention was to create a place that not only reminded him of his youth, but also a place that was social, where you could eat and share. A type of modern picnic, reimagined. I could see where he was going with that. As I mentioned, the structure itself had already brought back a fond memory. Perhaps tonight was a time to rekindle more. 

We were about a half-hour into the wait when I began talking to the two girls sitting next to me. This was their first time here as well. One of them asked, "Did you know that when they seat you, you'll be paired with other people?" Oh, I responded. "You mean like a communal table?" "Sort of, but not really." Hmmm. What did she mean by that? Would my dining companion and I be separated by Yenta Roy Choi who would try to play matchmaker? Was the reimagined picnic, really reimagined speed-dating? I looked at my watch. 45 minutes in. Time for another drink. 
As I turned with my cocktail in hand, in walked Chef Roy Choi. His cool charisma made the room stop. Seriously. We all watched him checking in with the hostess station and then the kitchen and then back again. I think he could tell we'd been waiting a while based on the pile of empty cocktail glasses behind me and my newfound friends. He said hello and then kept on moving. I leaned back to my waiting companions, "so, will I at least be sitting with the person I came with?" The girls weren't sure. I took another sip. This adventure was certainly about to get more interesting.

Homey plates serve fries w/ kimchi sour cream
Over an hour in and the place was still packed. Choi passed us again. " guys are still waiting?" We smiled and nodded. We were ok, but he seemed concerned. "Hang on, I'll get you some snacks." The four of us looked at each other. Was Roy Choi worried about us? Did this Le Bernardin alum want to make sure WE were happy, even though there were hundreds of happy mouths he already fed? And within minutes.....three platters came rushing out of the kitchen -- 5-Grain Pan De Sal, Heirloom Pickles, and Hoison-chili glazed Ribs. We couldn't believe it. With all the accolades behind this innovative chef, I didn't realize "really nice guy" was on that list. We had already invested an hour and a half of wait time (with who knows how much longer to go) and he cared. He wanted us to begin the "modern picnic" while we waited. And so, my dining companion and I got to start this social dining experiment NOW...eating with our waiting companions, the people we didn't know an hour ago but would now become our friends even if just for this moment. 

I pulled some of the warm crusty 5-Grain bread and dipped it into the tastiest Plugra butter with sea salt. It was comforting. Next, I eyed the heirloom pickle plate. A very large array of pickled vegetables -- onions, carrots, etc. that were extremely flavorful, especially when dipped into the creamy tahini-like dip. A great finger-food starter and fun to share. Definitely the kind of dish you can't stop eating. Next was the Baby Back Ribs. The chili glaze added a nice little kick to these tasty ribs sprinkled with sesame. I longed for a bit more meat on the bone but the taste was enough to make me literally lick my fingers. Hey, it's a picnic right? At this point I realized that I stopped looking at my watch. I stopped updating Facebook. I stopped worrying about anything. I was just standing around in a crowded space, eating with my hands with a couple of strangers. And I was enjoying every moment of it.

A dessert big enough to share
Before we knew it, it was time. My dining companion and I were seated at a four top. The waitress told us that two other diners would be joining us. Social experiment Part 2... here we come. But I was excited for it. And so were the two diners who joined us. They too were new to the A-Frame experience and within a few minutes we dived into ordering food and learning about each other. Over tender Peruvian-style Beer Can Chicken and delicious purple Okinawan Sweet Potato Fries w/ Kimchi Sour Cream we not only enjoyed every bite of our food but also our conversation. By the end of our meal, we opted for two desserts -- the Pound-Cake Churros (to die for!) and the Thick-Ass Ice Cream Sandwich (Cinnamon Ice Cream Stuffed between Two Cherry Oatmeal Cookies). We felt like old friends. Even giving up the last bites to each other. In a time where we talk on the phone less and email more, keep things for ourselves and perhaps forget to share, Roy Choi has created a dining experience that may sound like a gimmick at first glance. But his concept and intentions are truly authentic. Within these trendy walls, is good old-fashioned heart -- not only in the memories a visit to his restaurant may conjure up but also the memories you will undoubtedly create while you dine with your newfound friends.

I wonder what they had for dinner

Note: When we received our bill, each party was given an old photograph. Not a quirky, savvy postcard advertising the name of the restaurant on the back. Nope. Just this one-of-a-kind photo. Probably taken in the 70's. Might be someone's parent or brother or sister or uncle or aunt. An unknown location. No explanation. Just a fond last impression of two more people that intersected my life at the A-Frame. 


1 comment:

  1. I love it. An apt description that even made the waiting sound fun! We're so glad we had you as tablemates!