(Update: Simone is now CLOSED.)
There has been much interest and excitement surrounding the opening of Simone, Chef Jessica Largey’s new restaurant in L.A. Chef Largey (formerly of Providence and Michelin 3 Star Manresa (in Los Gatos, California)) has opened Simone (named after the singer Nina Simone) in the Arts District in Downtown L.A.
As stated on their website, Simone is a collaboration between Chef Largey, Managing Partner Bruno Bagbeni, and film director Joe Russo (Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War), and inspired by the 1920’s Art Deco movement. Indeed as you walk in, you feel like you’re being transported to a place from another era, classy and nostalgic.
Chef and her crew hard at work:
As we sat down, it was totally fitting that Postmodern Jukebox was being played through the speakers (a new, but retro take on modern classic songs through the lens of Big Band, Swing, and other song styles of yesteryear).
Unlike Chef Largey’s background in fine dining, Simone is currently ala carte, small plates and more casual, which seems to be the way to go in Southern California.
Burrata, Plum Confit, Nigella, Purslane, Mint:
Our server mentions that the focus of Simone is to be as local as possible, with farmers market-driven produce and ingredients. And in this case, the Burrata is from a well-known local company, Gioia Cheese Co., in El Monte, California (which some of our FTC’ers have posted about stopping by to pick up orders themselves from time-to-time).
This was generally balanced, but a touch sweet, the Gioia Burrata being very fresh and creamy, and I liked the herbaceous quality from the Purslane, Mint and Nigella Seeds.
The Grilled Focaccia Bread is from local specialst Bub and Grandma’s (as is their Sourdough), which isn’t a bad thing considering Bub and Grandma’s supplies Chi Spacca, Dune, Gwen, Sqirl, Wax Paper and a bunch of other restaurants around town.
However when one thinks of “Focaccia” there’s a certain connotation and expectation, and in this case, the Grilled Focaccia might as well have been a plain Baguette (tasting very similar), instead of the more airy, lighter, fluffier consistency in many excellent Focaccia around town.
Pole Beans, Urfa Chili Creme Fraiche, Purple Tomatillo, Almond:
These were delicious, light, delicate, soft, with enough of a savory infusion to satisfy. The Purple Tomatillo also adds a visually stunning element.
Avocado, Abalone Toast, Yuzu Cucumbers:
This is a very good Avocado Toast, but as @J_L points out the Abalone really felt non-existent. Abalone by itself isn’t very strong flavored (and depending on the preparation can have almost no flavor), so adding it to a creamy, crunchy Avocado Toast with Yuzu Cucumbers? The Abalone was a textural contrast at best.
It was a tasty Avocado Toast, but the Abalone (which is the most expensive ingredient in this dish) wasn’t the star. So if you’re paying ~$26 (including tax & tip & 4% surcharge), for a precious slice, you would hope the Abalone would shine more.
Charred Squash, Nectarine, Macadamia Salsa Macha:
Taking a bite…
INCREDIBLE! It’s smoky from the Charred Squash, creamy from the Celery Root Puree, there’s sweetness from the farmers market Nectarines, and then you have this Macadamia Salsa Macha, Chef Jessica Largey’s take on the unique Salsa Macha from Veracruz, Mexico, which adds this incredibly fragrant nutty aroma, not just from the Macadamia Nuts (which are present), but various Seeds and other Nuts. And you get this kick from the Housemade Chili Oil.
It is balanced, and truly World-Class, Michelin 3 Star in its flavor combination!
This is the type of flavor combinations we were hoping for in all of Simone’s dishes, but at least it finally appeared here.
Pork Meatballs, New Zealand Spinach, Parmesan Brodo:
The Pork Meatballs are less successful: There’s a nice crust on the outside, giving way to a savory, marinated mixture of Peads & Barnetts Ground Pork. This is all sitting in a Parmesan Brodo, which is Chef Largey’s take on Italian Wedding Soup, made with distilling down Chicken Bones and Stock and using the rinds of Parmesan Cheese to give it a more savory flavor.
It sounds great, but the end flavor combination is merely fine. It’s not bad at all, but after the Charred Squash, this felt like a letdown.
Hoja Santa Sturgeon, Roasted Corn, Blistered Shishitos:
I like Sturgeon normally, but on this visit, the Sturgeon tasted muddy, like uncleaned Catfish. It really ruined the rest of the dish. The actual Fish itself was moist, very firm, but tender and excellent in its cooking execution, which is what makes the dirt taste that much more tragic.
Desserts are prepared by Pastry Chef Nina Subhas, formerly of Roberta’s in New York.
Mezcal-Guava Sabayon, Almond Cake, Jujube, Hibiscus:
The Mezcal Guava Sabayon is lightly sweet, smooth and silky. It’s a touch too boozy for my tastes, but for those that love Mezcal, this should be a winner. The Frozen Hibiscus imparts a nice tartness and evokes eating a frozen version of the popular Mexican drink, Jamaica.
But the real winner is the Almond Cake, which is delicate, moist and redolent of Almonds. The Toasted Pecans reinforce a pleasing toasty, nutty quality in each bite.
We wanted to get a better feel for Simone and what it was trying to do, so we brought along some friends and stopped in for another visit.
Botta Secreta (Peach Aperitif, Rosé Vermouth, Orange & Grapefruit Oleo, Dry Vermouth, Peated Whisky, Lemon Juice & Orange Bitters):
Peach and Orange flavors were present, but the Peated Whisky dominated the drink.
Red Lentil Hummus, Smashed Cucumbers, Nasturtium:
Firstly, this didn’t really look like Red Lentil Hummus (perhaps they ran out?). Secondly, it tasted like a rustic, solid, fresh-made Hummus, which a few years ago might’ve been fine in L.A., but with places like Hummus Bar & Grill and especially Bavel, with its creative take on Hummus, served with piping hot, fresh, made-to-order airy Pitas, it makes Simone’s version of Hummus taste pedestrian by comparison.
It didn’t help that the Grilled Focaccia that comes with the dish is cold.
Grilled Brassicas Caesar, Torn Lemon Croutons:
Our server mentions that the Caesar is Chef Largey’s favorite dish (in general) and she finds creative ways to prepare a “Caesar Salad,” and it shows in this dish:
Grilled Broccolini and Arugula serve as the basis of this Caesar, lending an excellent smokiness to each bite. The Caesar Dressing is fantastic: There’s a gorgeous brininess from the Anchovies, but balanced by the creaminess, the light funkiness from the Parmesan, and the crunchy, tart Lemon Croutons.
Farro, Turmeric Pickled Ginger, Cashew Cream:
I love Farro usually. This Farro dish was a bit like a “Rice Bowl,” with Farro grains Pickled Ginger, Avocado, and Cashew Cream rounding out the dish. Mixing it all together, while the Farro exuded that slightly aromatic, toasted quality, it was just too tart. Perhaps too much Pickled Ginger, but the overall flavor was just OK, and tasted like a stereotypical “healthy bowl” one might expect to eat at a random spot on the Westside.
Ricotta Gnudi, Grated Tomato, Guanciale, Basil:
These Ricotta Gnudi are light and pillowy and delicate, essentially like Gnocchi, but made with Ricotta Cheese instead of Potato. The Tomato and Basil combination with the Ricotta Gnudi really make this taste like you’re eating a breadless version of Margherita Pizza.
However, one issue with the format of the menu (being sharable plates, instead of a tasting menu) appears here: There are seared bits of Guanciale hidden in the Tomato Sauce. I didn’t get any Guanciale in my bite (just pure random luck of the draw), but when 2 others at our table raved about the “porky bits,” I poked around the bowl and found a piece and tried that with the remaining bit of my Ricotta Gnudi and it was much better.
When eaten all together like that, it was fantastic.
One has to wonder if the larger format / sharable plates format is conducive to some of the flavor combinations Chef Largey is trying to go for.
Brown Butter Maitake Mushroom, Turnip, Shallot-Miso:
Thanks to the recommendation from @J_L, this was indeed a delicious dish. A wonderful earthiness, tender, perfectly cooked Maitake Mushrooms and the Brown Butter Sauce imparts that lush quality that only Butter can give.
Charred Squash, Nectarine, Macadamia Salsa Macha:
The one thing I did this time was purposely take my portion of the Charred Squash with a bit more of the Chili Oil (that you can see above).
Taking a bite: It still had that incredible blast of multiple flavors that all worked well together (the smoky, the sweet, the nutty aromatic, the creamy), however indeed it was way too spicy! I could see what @PorkyBelly @J_L experienced on their visits.
This is definitely an example of where this dish is better controlled via a tasting menu. Through sheer random luck on our 1st visit, I got my portion of this larger sharable dish with just enough Chili Oil (I didn’t even notice how much I was taking), which resulted in one of the best bites I’ve had this year, but on the 2nd visit by randomly scooping a bit more of the Chili Oil, it overpowered the dish.
Pork Collar, Baby Bok Choy, Braised Fresh Peanuts, Lovage:
Featuring Peads & Barnetts Pork Collar, this had a good pedigree for sourcing, but the end result is too chewy and fatty. Peads & Barnetts’ Pork Chops have been discussed on this board before (at Hatchet Hall), but for this Pork Collar, the high fat to lean meat ratio is too much, which is OK in something like Pork Belly, but for something grilled / seared, the result are bits of chewy fat with some tender (but also some dryish) portions of lean Pork meat.
The rest of the seasonings taste Chinese in nature, which is an interesting twist I suppose (like a Kung Pao Chicken), but it didn’t seem to match the Pork Collar very well.
Chocolate Ganache, Blackberries, Oat Milk:
This was very good: The Chocolate Ganache was deeply chocolately, velvety, and not too sweet. Adding in the sweet-tart from the Raspberry Puree, and then the nuttier Oat Milk Ice Cream gave it a delicious balance of flavors!
One minor quibble: While the menu said “Blackberries” (plural), the Dessert arrived with just 1 Blackberry. And the Blackberry actually enhanced the flavors quite a bit. Visually the singular Blackberry is beautiful and makes it a pretty dish, but for flavors and sharing, there should’ve been more than 1 Blackberry so that everyone could enjoy that flavor combination (again, it feels like a tasting menu, more focused individual portion format would be better).
Service was much improved during this 2nd visit compared to our 1st visit (where we had to signal to get our plates cleared, or to get drinks refilled). But make no mistake it’s very stereotypical “L.A. service”: Casual, relaxed and nowhere near the level of service you’d find at Michelin 2 or 3 star restaurants in S.F.
One note: It seems thanks to FTC and the discussions that @PorkyBelly @J_L and others had about the 4% surcharge during Grand Opening, the restaurant took the feedback already and has added this additional insert for checks going forward (nice job!):
In its current iteration and format, Simone bills itself as a relaxed, California produce-driven restaurant, with an emphasis on local ingredients. Stop me if you’ve heard that before. Note that there’s nothing wrong with that focus, it’s just that that definition feels like so many other places around L.A.
Can more than 1 restaurant of a certain focus exist in the same city? Of course. We have more than 1 Steakhouse. We have more than 1 Korean BBQ restaurant. And the list goes on.
I have high hopes for Simone and Chef Jessica Largey, but in arriving in L.A. with its current landscape, the current menu seems to speak with an all too familiar voice. And unfortunately at the top of that chorus we already have outstanding stalwarts like Chef Travis Lett and Gjelina and Gjusta.
Chef Lett and Gjelina’s constantly changing menu of local farmers market driven Vegetable dishes are so stunning in its execution that besides the Charred Squash dish (with the right amount of Chili Oil) at Simone, everything else paled in comparison. Gjeilina’s Roasted Purple Queen Beans, Cherry Tomato, Fresno, Basil & Dukkah, or the Heirloom Bean & Herb Stew, Freekeh, Crispy Shallot & Tomatillo Salsa, are still dishes I dream about and some of the Best Bites we’ve had in years (they are THAT good).
We can stop into Gjusta and grab something from their daily, rotating Market Salad case (e.g., Chickpea Salad with Green Chermoula Dressing, or a Cauliflower & Dandelion Salad) and the flavor explosion and combinations are like fireworks in your mouth (and better than most of the veggie dishes we’ve had at Simone so far).
As mentioned, the Red Lentil Hummus is OK, but in light of Bavel, Hummus Bar & Grill and other places locally, it pales in comparison.
It feels like the eventual Chef’s Table / Tasting Menu might help make Simone stand out from the competition and where we can really see Chef Largey’s cooking sing (with perfectly portioned flavors and ingredients so everyone gets a bit of all the intended tastes), and that’s something we’re awaiting with eager anticipation.
449 S Hewitt St.
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Tel: (424) 433-3000