Few restaurants come with a mission statement. At Palate, in Glendale, diners receive a file folder that is wine list, menu, and manifesto in one. Inside this dossier is a page summing up not just the food but the kitchen’s culinary philosophy: “Cuisine that is simple and sophisticated, robust and nuanced, infused with a Mediterranean sensibility and made with the best local + artisanal ingredients.” Praise is given for the sustainable practices of the coffee purveyor, and there’s some blather about the “conscientious growers and winemakers” and what amounts to an ad for the Natura water system, which eliminates “impurities + bacteria while retaining healthy, thirst-quenching minerals.” I’m all for clean water, but bacteria is an odd bogeyman for a restaurant that is an artisanal showcase. Everything from the spring of the bread to the alcohol of the wine to the zing of the Belgian beer to the veining of the Roaring Forties blue cheese depends on one form or another of the stuff.
I am being unnecessarily harsh about a page most people probably don’t even notice, but that’s because Palate puts me on the defensive. I don’t know how else to describe it. The restaurant is so tilted to our better nature—it’s environmentally aware, artisanally inclined, and sports not one but three communal tables—that I have found myself wary, even prickly. The more a place proclaims its purity, the less I trust it. The notion that industrialized food is inherently evil and artisanal food is unsullied is trite and self-serving. The word artisanal, which is used to signify craftsmanship and individuality, has been pushed ever closer to the domain of marketing, its folksy trappings a way of gussying up hard-nosed business. After all, Quiznos sells artisanal loaves.
Palate is the first venture of Octavio Becerra, the longtime right hand of Joachim Splichal at the Patina Group. Becerra met Splichal in 1983, when the young German chef, freshly arrived in L.A., was working at the Regency Club and came to do a guest stint at the Cadillac Café, a quirky joint on La Cienega that Becerra managed. Becerra trained at Splichal’s groundbreaking if short-lived Max au Triangle. He was there when Patina opened on Melrose in 1989. He launched Pinot Bistro in Studio City in 1992. As the Patina Group gained in stature, putting restaurants in high-rise lobbies (801 South Figueroa), performance halls (L.A.’s Walt Disney and the O.C.’s Segerstrom), and simulated cities (Downtown Disney), Becerra was instrumental in starting many of the company’s outposts. He left in 2005.
When you’ve helped create the Patina Group, you know a thing or two about positioning a restaurant. Which is why when I walked into Palate and encountered its preachy spiel, its jeans-clad waiters, its farmstead cheese flights, my guard went up. Was this the evocation of something deeply felt, or was I witnessing merely the discipline of a pro who could stay on message? Were the intentions behind this operation the real thing, or were they the real real thing, that region where ideals are co-opted and abused with nothing but profit in mind?
Set on the ground floor of an old Bekins building among the car dealers of Brand Boulevard, Palate took over the space formerly occupied by Cinnabar, an ambitious pan-Asian restaurant that folded a few years ago. It’s an unlikely location for a restaurant, and not just because of the immediate surroundings. Though Glendale is lent drama by the steepness of the Verdugo Mountains, the city motors at its own mild-mannered speed. The Armenian eateries give the town a cosmopolitan air, but it is undeniably suburban. Glendale is in the position Culver City was a decade ago: gastronomically uncharted. Planting the artisanal flag here could have easily come off as precious, yet the feat has been achieved with what one might call Glendalian understatement. The building looks like the cousin of the old Masonic Temple across the street from the Americana at Brand. The lettering on the glass door is discreet. If it weren’t for the valet, you’d barely know a restaurant existed inside.
For the most part, the interior is as low-key as the address. The bar is welcoming; the high ceiling and white color scheme have a contemporary feel. However, a pair of giant fiberglass triumphal cups overflowing with massive plastic grapes dwarf everything else in the dining room. They broadcast Palate’s wine theme—and then some. Below these urns the tables are squished and the sight lines constrained. Even the open kitchen, where you can see a tatted Becerra expediting courses, is robbed by those vessels of whatever animating power it could provide. I think the fuchsia lighting that spreads over the ceiling at night is some sort of allusion to grape juice, too. The back room down the main corridor doubles as a communal dining area and a wine store, where you can buy bottles to drink at the restaurant or take home. But it doesn’t work as either: With empty bins sitting beside grand crus, the store appears random and unfinished; the space not only is a Siberia but has the temperature to prove it.
For a restaurant centered on wine, Palate has a problem integrating that element into the proceedings. The selection, including a gutsy Beaune 1er Cru from Roland Thévenin and a superb Eitelsbacher Spätlese, is stupendous and overseen with a keen appreciation by Steve Goldun. But at times the food comes off as secondary to the wine. In the aforementioned dossier/menu, page after page spell out the wines. The dishes, meanwhile, are listed on a narrow strip of paper that aims for simplicity but only confuses. Half of it is taken up with cold cuts, some preserved meats served in small jars, and their accompanying pickles. The other half lists what constitute appetizers and main courses, with no demarcation between them. It’s informal; it’s also hard to tell whether you’re at a relaxed restaurant or an ambitious wine bar. Highlighting this point are the desserts, which are phoned in. The chocolate pudding is sometimes runny, the quality of the fruit crumble equally unreliable. The emphasis is on the excellent cheese selection.
Despite such missteps, Becerra’s cooking has a clarifying effect. The flavors can be full, and a professional efficiency marks the whole. Those potted appetizers, for example (the authoritative salmon rillette is the best), take pressure off the kitchen because they can be prepared ahead of time. Such efficiency provides a hidden kind of luxury, enabling the kitchen to put its effort into what counts most. The modest portions help Palate keep its prices reasonable, with entrées topping out at $19, and while the presentations may have a bucolic look—herb flecked and direct—the sauces are individual, often carrying the note of long simmering.
Indeed, Becerra’s style is characterized by a careful attention to detail that is in keeping with the artisanal theme. The zucchini flowers stuffed with farmstead cheese are impossibly crisp in their batter. The head and tendrils of Channel Islands squid arrive in a jumble with blanched garlic slices and a sizzling splash of vinegar. The stone-ground grits from the Logan Turnpike Mill pop in the mouth, and unlike so many other grits, they are allowed to shine by being garnished with sautéed porcini alone.
When an item lacks Becerra’s tonal touch, it tends to be because the approach is too complicated. The chilled butter lettuce soup is all wrong. The dish—traditionally something that made use of an overabundant crop—hints of farmhouse thrift. At Palate it is poured tableside into a bowl holding a scoop of crème fraîche and a slab of bacon. Thin and acrid, the soup is underwhelming, and the bacon, fine as it might be, has nothing to do with what it garnishes. The grand manner in which the soup is assembled before the customer is pretentious. All a $6 soup has to do is be good. The chicken suffers the same fate. It has been marinated in buttermilk, then poached in one of those prophylactic bags—a technique known as sous vide. The result is a preparation whose gelatinous texture can only be likened to avian Jell-O.
Still, with those dishes cordoned off, the menu is safe for exploration. I love to mash the shell beans into the accompanying sauce of the lean and tender roasted lamb. The pork belly, its fat luscious enough to be deemed profound, is a phenomenal rendition whose essential earthiness is accentuated by romano beans and sliced peaches and plums tossed in a pan. When the vegetable papillote is opened, it breathes a thyme-laden scent grounded by a trace of stellar olive oil.
Today there’s a glut of restaurants whose celebrity chefs try to deflect attention from their frequent absence by highlighting a farm or craftsperson. They hope for integrity by association. Palate isn’t one of them. Becerra became an expert in the world of big, disembodied restaurants, a world in which chefs are brands and every opening is a concept. His impulse on leaving was to open a small place that cures its own meats and churns its own butter. OK, so he got a little carried away. Where Becerra has convinced me that Palate is about passion more than positioning is in a shared commitment that cannot be faked: the knowledgeable waitstaff, the burned-out look of the cooks on the line, and ultimately the sight of Becerra touring the dining room with dish towels flying from his apron strings. He’s thrilled, and why wouldn’t he be? After 25 years of opening restaurants, he has finally opened his own.
Photograph by Jessica Boone