“We rented an apartment for a while. Now we’re getting a home,” says Phillip Frankland Lee.
That “home” is a small storefront on the second floor of an Encino strip mall that will serve as the latest iteration of Scratch Bar & Kitchen, which the chef owns with his wife, pastry chef Margarita Lee. The “apartment” he’s referring to is the concept’s previous Beverly Hills location, where the Lees ran Scratch for two and a half years before departing back in July due to lease issues.
While the break was not without controversy and some seriously strange occurrences—namely, the Lees’ former partner re-opening the restaurant and helming the kitchen himself—the chef is ready to move on. “I’m not even going to comment on any of that,” he says.
More in line with Lee’s original vision for Scratch Bar & Kitchen, the new space, opening tonight, is intimate—there’s a 16-seat bar that wraps around an open kitchen where a wood-burning oven holds court, plus enough tables to seat 14. Lee says this set up was precisely what he was looking for: a room that would be conducive to the kind of chef-to-customer communication that fuels the dining experience he’s trying to offer.
There will be no servers at Scratch. Instead, the chefs will run the tables, allowing for a more personalized experience and, yes, even some customization. While he doesn’t fault other chefs for taking a hard-lined approach to the dishes they serve, Lee himself doesn’t subscribe to all-modifications-will-be-politely-declined ethos. “I just want to make people happy,” he says. “I always thought, if they don’t like onions, why do they have to eat them?”
Allowing guests to substitute, he believes, is a good conversion technique, too. “What if I was able to talk to them, and course them into just giving them a try? That’s how I think you make a change: you make people comfortable and then introduce something.” Seven-to-25-course tasting menus (ranging from $40 to $120) are also available.
The menu, which Lee and his chef de cuisine Jonathan Portela (formerly of New York’s Eleven Madison Park and Junoon) were still putting the final touches on as of yesterday, will expand what was offered at the previous location. Locally sourced meat, fish, and seasonal vegetables will be the focus with everything from olive oil to brioche buns made from, well, scratch.
While Lee has always served housemade soft cheeses, for his new venture, he’s also adding hard-aged cheeses that he made himself at Stepladder Ranch in San Luis Obispo, including a particularly delicious rind-ripened, Humbolt Fog-like cheese made from goat milk and cow cream. All the cheeses, five in total at the moment, can be plated with house-cured charcuterie and smoked fish selections.
Still, despite all the gourmet going on here, Lee says it’s not the foodies he’s after, but rather people who tend to frequent chain restaurants, which are ever present in the San Fernando Valley. An Encino native, who still eats at California Pizza Kitchen (which happens to be housed in the same strip mall as Scratch) twice a week, the chef is on a mission to bring “forward-thinking food” to his former neighborhood.
“Growing up over here, I’ve actually never been employed in the Valley—I’ve always had to go over the hill to work,” says Lee. “The idea was go over the hill, learn how to cook, come back, and try to build my hometown.”
But Encino is just the beginning if Lee, who will be a contestant on the upcoming season of Top Chef, has it his way, and his long-term objectives are lofty. Ultimately, he would like to transform the very idea of what a chain restaurant is, turning Scratch Bar and his plant based concept The Gadarene Swine into household names; the 28-year-old’s goal is to own 100 “world-class restaurants” by the time he’s 50, supplanting popular national standbys, like Chili’s and Olive Garden.
“Scratch Bar is a philosophy. One of my cooks has a ‘Scratch Life’ tattoo. It’s a different way of thinking,” he says.
Scratch Bar & Kitchen, 16101 Ventura Blvd., Suite 255, Encino, 818-646-6085