Thursday 13 June, 2013

Umami ‘Residency:’ Micah Wexler Serves Up Dead Chefs

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Micah Wexler is one of my favorite Los Angeles chefs, just as much today as at his underregarded, now-shuttered restaurant Mezze. What sets him apart isn't easy to delineate, but in an era where personal image and presentation flash are priorities for most chefs, Wexler has a way of putting a personal stamp on dishes without distracting from the main objective: feeding the customer well. When you eat with him you are thinking neither about his James Beard Foundation nomination nor his appearance cooking against Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America, but only about the food. His plates frequently show an instinct for balancing product and technique and letting your tastebuds do the praising. Dishes typically offer a surprising twist not hinted at on the menu. You can tell he's put in a fair amount of thought, without belaboring the point in the end product.

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Micah talks, Mike listens.

And even in his "residencies" at Umamicatessen downtown (the multi-counter space converted one area to a guest-chef bar a few months ago), Wexler is going deeper-concept than most might. Earlier this Spring, he made a series of meals celebrating LA's diverse culture. This month through the summer, he's continuing with a list of one-night-only tributes to deceased chefs, in no particular order, who influenced the culture.

Most of the chefs are of recent vintage--Santi Santamaria passed little more than a year ago, and Bernard Loiseau famously killed himself in 2003 after his restaurant ratings dropped. But tonight, Wexler is preparing a much older menu, inspired by one of the first known cookbooks ever, that of Maestro Martino.

Martino de Rossi was arguably the first "celebrity chef" of Western civilization, cooking around what is now Italy in the 1400s (eventually at the Vatican) and writing one of the oldest surviving cookbooks.

Tonight's menu--which I was able to preview last night, alongside several of my favorite fellow freeloaders--feels so modern and current, it's hard to believe the original recipes might be 600 years old. But, though I couldn't hear much of Wexler's explanations last night, he insisted any modernization was minor.

Certainly in five simple courses it represents well several fundamental Italian traditions: first a sort of crudo salad of delicately smoked mackerel with zucchini and robust fennel; next a rich chicken-based soup that Wexler referred to as a proto-stracciatella, studded with bits of bread, a dusting of saffron and some fresh fava beans; next, a bowl of soft handmade pasta with fresh arugula pesto, hearty and bracing at the same time. Then comes a main attraction which was not a bit hard to imagine on a Rennaissance-era board: a suckling pig, deboned and restuffed with some offal, roasted and cut porchetta-style, then plated under a reduction and sprinkling of more very fresh dill and other herbs. A simple, softly sweet almond tart finishes the meal.

Wexler's collaborator Mike Kassar offers some apt wine pairings.

MORE ABOUT MAESTRO MARTINO

If you can't make it tonight, you may still want to consider some of his future Thursdays: After Santamaria comes Gilbert Le Coze, original chef of Le Bernardin; Loiseau; 19th century Japanese kaiseki legend Mansuke Nadaya; Jean-Louis Palladin; New York soul food icon Sylvia Woods; Sichuan-Japanese chef Chen Kenmin and finally, California's own Julia Child.

Quite a stretch for oneĀ  chef to handle in a season. I guess Micah likes a challenge.

Umamicatessen: The Residency