After the success of his Peruvian pop-up, ONCE, James Beard nominee Ricardo Zarate didn’t sit idle. He was busy cooking in the kitchen of smoke.oil.salt. with chef Brian Gregg.
Restaurateurs Adam Fleischman and Stephen Gelber recently selected Zarate to be the Executive Consulting Chef at smoke.oil.salt.
Gregg and Zarate have created a new three tapas “happy hour” special for $19. Pair them with a glass of Spanish wine, sparking cava, fruity sangria or kalimotxo, (a Spanish cocktail made with equal parts red wine and a cola-based soft drink) for $7 during 5:30 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
I brought my friend Carole with me to watch Zarate and Gregg in action and enjoy some of their tapas. We ordered a glass of Spanish sparkling wine before sharing the crispy frito chicken with serrano ham and a lovely, slightly spicy red brava sauce.
Next, two grilled scallops on a pea puree arrived adorned with crunchy hazelnuts and a tangy lemon aioli. Our third tapas was Pintxo de Iberico, a toasted sourdough bread layered with a slightly smoky, unpasteurized sheep’s milk, and delicious Iberico ham.
The atmosphere was lively with friends meeting up to enjoy after-work cocktails and tapas before moving on to dinner.
Zarate and Gregg have also collaborated on new Sunday Brunch menu. This time I brought my husband with me to sample some of the new creative toasts they serve as part of Sunday brunch fare.
The bread used for the toast dishes comes from a Basque bakery in Hawthorne, known to have the some of the best Basque sourdough bread in the world. “It’s the same bread that Musso and Frank serves,” Gregg said.
The decor in this dining room on the bar side of the restaurant ia a tomato red wall with interesting cat and music artwork. The bar has four high stools and two lower ones where guests sit and savor the Spanish flavors from Gelber’s extensive wine collection with a few tapas and toasts. Gelber stores over 130 bottles of wines, sparkling cavas, and sherries representing every region of Spain. He also selects 30 wines by the glass to be served with brunch and dinner.
Looking over the two page menu, we started with shaved Brussels sprouts and kale molded into a dome and mixed with sliced Medjool dates, pea puree, chopped candied walnuts and a light pimenton vinaigrette. Pimenton is Spanish paprika, an essential ingredient in Spanish cooking. The first toast we ordered was Crostini con Angos made with four different mushrooms and sherry-braised cipolini onions, served cold, which surprised us at first, yet we enjoyed every mouthful.
Another toast we tried was a Spanish twist on eggs Benedict. The serrano Benedicto is made with charred Basque bread and layered with Hollandaise aioli, thin slices of serrano bacon (a deeper color and richer in flavor than American bacon), and two poached eggs. It’s served warm, and as I cut the toast in half, the bright yellow yolk flowed over the layers of ingredients. The flavors transported me to a cafe along the grand La Rambla, in Barcelona.
What would brunch be without potatoes? These talented chefs make crispy potatoes with a brava sauce topped with a chorizo salsa and aioli. Gregg said preparing the potatoes is a laborious process. “We first rinse them in cold water, then boil them, and then fry them twice to keep them soft and creamy inside, yet crisp on the outside,” he said.
The Torrija is a Spanish-style French toast that is far less sweet than traditional French toast. The sweetness comes only from the natural sugars from the mixed berries on top. Even the vanilla bean whipped cream with a dash of mint oil is subtle.
Another toast favorite is the soft scrambled eggs with uni (sea urchin) on the Basque toast with oven blistered tomatoes and a dash of chili oil. The uni makes this dish especially decadent and very satisfying, and it pairs wonderfully with a grapefruit essence sangria.
They serve carafes of bottomless Spanish cocktails or the friendly servers will happily refill your glass of cava during brunch.
For dessert, try the brazo gitano made with rolled sponge cake, dulce de leche and a passion fruit curd.
Before leaving I asked Zarate how long will he be at smoke.oil.salt. “I’ll be here for a while until I get my own brick and mortar. Maybe until March 2016.” he said. Until then, come into smoke.oil.salt. to have two esteemed chefs prepare authentic Spanish fare that will excite your tastebuds.
Zarate just released his cookbook, “The Fire of Peru: Stories From My Peruvian Kitchen,” highlighting many of his modern Peruvian dishes, reflecting a dash of Japanese, Chinese and European influences.
Open for dinner nightly from 5:30 to 12 a.m. Brunch is served on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. $$ 7274 Melrose Ave. (323)930-7900.
This article was featured in the November 19, 2015 Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News.