In 2017 my favorite meal in LA was at Scratch|Bar.
In 2019 my favorite meal in LA was at Sushi|Bar.
In 2021 my favorite meal in LA so far was at Pasta|Bar.
Now, I’m tempted to think that my pandemic brain is simply starved for creative cuisine and long-winded tasting menus filled with indecipherable ingredients. But there’s just something about the magic behind Phillip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee that keeps drawing me into the bowels of Encino to experience something that no one else in Los Angeles is even close to achieving.
This is the omakase pasta experience and this is different.
When you arrive at the Encino Place strip mall, complete with ground floor carousel, California Pizza Kitchen, and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, you’re struck at how average and normal and everyday America this all feels. Waltzing up to the second floor, you search for a restaurant that appears to not exist. There are locked doors, blacked out windows, and barely a sign to alert you that you’re in the right place. Only a doorbell beckons you into these hallowed restaurant grounds.
But nothing about dining at the Lee’s restaurants is normal.
Whether you’re experimenting at Scratch|Bar, being wowed at Sushi|Bar, or testing out the now revamped Pasta|Bar, you’re first brought into a salon where you’re corralled with your dining compatriots and given a tease to whet your appetite. The show commences with some startling blood orange prosecco followed by a mushroom-infused cannolo and a potato custard that’s dressed with sunchokes and caviar. I loved it. It was a good start.
Part of the experience of the Lee’s restaurants is to catch you off guard. First-timers might expect this small parlor to be where you dine, but it merely hides the labyrinthine space between all three outlets as you’re ushered into a food temple where chefs are hand-pulling fresh, warm mozzarella that is destined for your plate.
The word ‘omakase’ is Japanese and roughly means that you’ll leave it up to the chef to serve you whatever they please. The Lees seem to live by this concept at all their restaurants as you definitely don’t have a choice in what you’re ordering and it’s definitely for the best.
Leaving the small salon, you’re shuffled to another room and seated at a bar that’s designed for 8-10 people, is divided by Covid glass barriers, and provides an intimate relationship with chefs and sommeliers. The Lees entire aesthetic screams apothecary, as kitchens and chemistry labs meld into one giant mouthwatering experiment. This isn’t a stuffy tasting menu and you’re encouraged to ask questions.
The meal starts with Kallas-Lee’s warm, crackling sourdough that might just be the best bread in Los Angeles. It's not really a secret anymore, but Kallas-Lee is one of the city's top bakers and is responsible for many of the mesmerizing concoctions that land in front of you.
After doing the impossible and not eating the entire loaf, the show is handed over to the team’s new lead, Chef Nathan Tauer, whose chaotic tattoo sleaves conjure the artistic explosion to come with the food. Tauer previously worked his own magic at culinary standouts Petit Crenn, Coi, and Bouchon, and brings a unique flair to the Lees already innovative cuisine.
Be aware, not every plate of the dozen or so dishes contain a pasta portion, but there will be a lot of pasta, and you won’t be disappointed by its presentation. You’ll also leave full.
The first knockout is the team’s version of a caprese, which combines market driven tomatoes alongside a smattering of quinoa and mini mozzarella balls that leave you wanting so much more. This is followed by freshly caught albacore sashimi doused in yuzu and black lime to cleanse your palate of any impurities.
After warming up your stomach, the able chefs traipse between pasta, fish, and meat dishes that charm, amaze, and leave you awe-struck. The cavatelli with grilled lobster offers the perfect al dente bite while the Australian A-5 wagyu simply dissolves on your tongue.
Your head is continuously whipsawed between squid ink garganelli, dry aged duck breast served with creamy black garlic, and Hokkaido scallops showered with an onion stock that blows minds.
If there are any misses, they’re small. The Sunflower Agnolotti, while by far the most visually stunning serving, lacked a punch that every other course seemed to possess. Not bad, but the visuals outperformed the taste – almost as if a pungent ingredient had been left out.
The meal concludes as it started, with more one-of-a-kind delights from Kallas-Lee. First, a goat milk mousse surrounded by a basil and Meyer lemon granita, and doused with olive oil that freshens your palate, smooths your tongue, and baffles the senses that this combination works as well as it does. Just when you think you can’t eat another bite, the finisher forces your stomach to make room. A brioche donut that is perfectly crisped on the outside, soft and pillowy in the middle, and sits atop an orange blossom whipped cream that would be criminal not to devour.
Keep in mind, this tasting course will change as ingredients come in and out of season. But in a city where menus are copied and trends are recirculated, you’ll find something refreshing every time you come back to eat, and you’ll be all but guaranteed to find something unexpected.
I have my own theories as to why this trio of restaurants is so often overlooked. Part of it is the lingering preconceived notions over Frankland Lee’s off-putting stint on Top Chef. Another reason is that the Michelin Guide shockingly snubbed them in 2019. Most likely, it’s because they’re in Encino – which is a shame. Because if there was ever a dining experience worth trekking to, it’s this one.