Smile’s di Alba – Where Focaccia is the Star

It’s quiet and peaceful walking around the Arts District on a Saturday morning. The only stores open are a few coffeehouses. Then by 10:30 a.m. the sidewalks become more alive with people strolling around with iPhones and cameras taking photos of the creative street art. Models pose near edgy graffiti in fashion designer clothing, and the Arts District Farmers Market starts setting up to open at 11 a.m.

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Partners Matt Kliegman, Carlos Quirarte and Melia Marden known for their The Smile restaurants in Manhattan, NY came out to Los Angeles and noticed that the Arts District didn’t have a healthy, Mediterranean-inspired quick, take-away cafe. Soon they found a space attached to the Shinola boutique (selling fashionable items created in Detroit) and hired Executive chef/partner Nina Clemente to make her rustic focaccia and creative fare.

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Chef Nina was born in Italy, and raised in New York City. On her first trip to a Los Angeles in 2007, she had a revelation at our farmer’s market. The colors, smells and variety of seasonal produce inspired her to begin cooking. First she cooked for friends, and then started catering, before working at the Curious Palette, Osteria Mozza and The Standard in LA.

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Her focaccia at The Smile’s di Alba (Alba translated from Italian to English is sunrise)
is sprinkled with rosemary, sage, and smoked salt. To be different and stand out among the other eateries in the area, Chef Nina makes open face focaccia sandwiches.
On the Saturday we dined, Nina wasn’t in the kitchen, however her lead cook Sam Schiffer was there and made us a few signature dishes.

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We sat outside at one of the tables and started with one of sous and pastry chef Zena Scharf’s fresh out of the oven cinnamon rolls. This is not made with chef Nina’s focaccia bread, but with brioche dough and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon, before topped with a vanilla bean mascarpone frosting that melts on top.

Since the focaccia bread is a standout, I ordered the avocado toast with fanned out slices of colorful cherry tomatoes, a confetti of chopped basil and bright red fresno chili slices. Biting into the focaccia, I detected a little too much black sumac salt on top, yet loved the flat oven-baked Italian style bread offering a similar texture to pizza dough. Chef Nina makes a gluten-free focaccia too. I ordered both to compare the taste, and found both extremely pleasing.

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Other brunch dishes on focaccia includes the savory classic b.e.c. sandwich (bacon, egg and cheese). Ingredients include hickory smoked bacon, soft scrambled eggs, fontina, and a peppery arugula with a squeeze of lemon. Another savory open face focaccia is layered with smoked salmon, hard boiled egg slices, and sprinkling of red onion, fresno chili, capers, dill and lemon gremolata.

For a sweeter open face, they spread a housemade ricotta on top of focaccia, and add sliced market strawberries and blueberries before drizzling a little honey.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of the ouvo en purgatorio served in a small black cast iron skillet. The baked eggs surrounded by spicy tomato sauce and topped with a chopped parsley and basil were undercooked and too runny for my liking. Served with a square of rustic focaccia to dip in the sauce, even the award winning focaccia didn’t salvage this dish.

Needing to sweeten things up, we ordered a bowl of healthy chia seeds with fresh berries, sliced bananas, a splash of coconut milk, spoonful of honey and crunchy granola. At the table next to us, we admired the focaccia french toast soaked in custard and topped with market fruit compote and maple syrup.

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Walking back inside, the glass display case was filled with savory and sweet take-away items that include gluten-free brownies and granola bars. With the artisan ice cream shop Salt & Straw next door, we bought a couple brownies and went next door to order a pint of Meyer Lemon Buttermilk with Blueberries ice cream to make brownie sundaes later in the day.

IMG_6754$ Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with breakfast served until 11:30 a.m. On Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Brunch is served on weekends until 2 p.m. 827 E. Third St. (213)620-6244.

This review was also published in the Beverly Press.

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