Years in the Making, Simone Is Now the Hottest Restaurant in the U.S.
(Bloomberg) -- Imagine a neon lilac lake on an alien moon.
That’s what the pool of liquid in the bottom of a bowl of pole beans looks like at Simone in Los Angeles, the most anticipated restaurant of the year in that city. Nothing about the shade of the sauce suggests something you could find in nature, but it’s 100 percent purple tomatillo and one of the most distinctive—and Instagramable—dishes at Simone.
Yet it’s not even the best one.
In a city full of cooks who obsess over sourcing, Simone’s chef-partner Jessica Largey has emerged as a produce sourcing expert. The 32-year-old haunts the city’s farmer’s markets almost daily. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, she plunders Santa Monica’s Arizona Avenue market, often making an additional stop at the one on Pico Boulevard; Sundays, she goes to the vaunted Hollywood location. “I’ve always had a love affair with vegetables and fruits,” says Largey, who grew up in Ventura County, surrounded by orange and avocado groves. For her, farmers market shopping isn’t just a job prerequisite; it’s a ritual that helps center her in an adopted hometown.
On a recent Saturday after a visit to the Arizona Avenue market, I spot the following crammed in Largey’s car: melons, tomatoes, nasturtiums, wild arugula, grapefruits, three types of basil, edible flowers called Bachelor’s Buttons, and the last of the season’s figs. “Only one carful—a light day,” she says.
Simone’s debut was anxiously awaited by food lovers around the country. Largey spent six years working for David Kinch at the three-Michelin-star Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., winning the 2015 James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star award. That same year, the late veteran L.A. general manager Bruno Bagbeni approached her about moving to L.A. to open a restaurant. He already had Hollywood director Joe Russo, whose credits include Avengers: Infinity War, on board. “Bagbeni and I had become very close friends,” Russo says. “A few years ago, I said to him: ‘If you ever find the right chef, let me know, and we’ll open a restaurant.’ And he found Jessica.” (Bagbeni passed away unexpectedly, shortly after Simone opened.)
Largey wasn’t sure the project was a good idea. She likes Los Angeles, having grown up less than 60 miles away. L.A. wasn’t the problem. Her mental health was. “At Manresa, I didn’t have the tools to take care of myself,” she says. She had worked hard and risen fast, and didn’t feel equipped to handle the pressure of success, which led to depression and anxiety. So she initially declined Bagbeni’s offer: “I needed time to focus on my mental health and figure out who I was as a chef.”
Bagbeni and Russo agreed to give her the time off she needed, and Largey eventually agreed. In spring 2016, they announced Simone. (The delay embodies a trend whereby current chefs, such as Missy Robbins, willingly take time off between projects; Robbins waited more than two years to open Lilia in Brooklyn.)
Simone’s unofficial opening dinner took place in mid-September, with a guest list that included Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Joel McHale (a partner), and others in Russo’s Hollywood orbit. The space was once a photography studio; the gleaming glassed-in kitchen had been a darkroom. (Russo declines to disclose the cost of turning the space into a restaurant.)
You enter through Duello, the bar run by Scottish-born Iaian McPherson. He conceived of the cocktail menu as an illustrated history of the Arts District, charting the neighborhood’s evolution from sleepy vineyard to citrus powerhouse to creative enclave. With each page of maximalist cocktails reflecting a different era, it’s worth arriving at Simone early just to have a drink; many of them aren’t available in the dining room. One such cocktail is the New Order, a clarified tequila-and-mezcal milk punch, flavored with the aromatic pandan leaf, and served under a tall, glass dome filled with Palo Santo incense.
An elaborately tiled hallway links Duello to Simone. The 75-seat dining room has a compact walnut chef’s counter looking into the kitchen, where Largey and her team work in calm, organized synchronicity. “It’s an incredible feeling, not having to answer to anybody,” Largey says. That sense of autonomy gives her “a lot of power to control my own sense of stress and emotions.”
Simone is named after Nina Simone—Largey is a huge jazz fan—but the name has twofold relevance. Simone means “one who listens,” and that’s what Largey has been trying to do for the past three years. As the head of a team, her priorities have changed. Whereas she used to put pressure on herself to excel, “I now want people to feel respected as employees and to create a positive space in my own mind and at work.” Largey closes the restaurant on Mondays, in part to ensure that her cooks and managers work no more than five days a week. For the first time in her career, she says, “I’m close to having that schedule regularly myself.”
When it arrives in its electric aubergine glory, the pole bean dish looks like nothing I’ve ever been served. Like most purple vegetables, purple tomatillos turn green when you cook them; by roasting them hard and fast, then hanging them in cheesecloth, Largey can extract a viscous, violet sauce. The beans are dried and rehydrated according to an old-timey Southern preservation technique (delightfully) called leather britches, and they resemble a burgundy-and-yellow bundle of sticks that forms a dam against the purple pool. Urfa-spiced crème fraîche underneath and toasted almonds on top book-end the chewy beans. Those three elements together would be good, but when you realize that the tomatillo sauce actually has the vicious acidity of warheads, a clearer picture of Largey’s gift for flavor construction emerges.
Sometimes this talent is expressed in a comic book Pow!, as in the tomatillo dish, or my favorite, a late-September set of charred squash and nectarine hugging the curve of celery root puree. This isn’t just any squash; it was specially grown in a bag to restrict its size, forcing the vegetable to concentrate its flavor. On top: ferocious salsa macha made with five different chiles, a sixth pickled one, and buttery macadamia nuts instead of the usual peanuts.
Other plates take a subtler approach as they glide through Southern California’s micro-seasons. Innuendos of sarsaparilla float off white sturgeon wrapped in hoja santa leaves in the fall; mellow green garlic and floral yuzu accompany that same sustainably raised fish in winter.
It’s the kind of dish that has led to the occasional criticism that Largey’s flavors might be too delicate for an L.A. crowd reared on bold flavors. I disagree. What’s so nice about eating at Simone is the variety: A powerhouse dish can follow a whisperer and vice-versa.
Take, for instance, a bowl of burrata with bubblegum-pink puree of confit plums and onions. The garnish, a smattering of onion-y black nigella seeds, calls back to the undercover alliums in the puree. Largey drops hints, like breadcrumbs along a forest path. They’re there, if you know where to look.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.