The trippiest moment at Somni, the $235 tasting menu restaurant at the posh SLS Hotel Beverly Hills? It’s probably when Barcelona native Aitor Zabala, tattooed and lean with a look of concentration, serves a riff on the Catalonian classic pa amb tomàquet, or tomato-rubbed bread. What resembles crisp Melba toast turns out to be a slab of toasted meringue, whipped together from egg whites and clarified tomato water. Spread with tomato pulp, raw garlic, and a slug of Spanish olive oil, the home-spun combo is presented as an elaborate trompe l’oeil, one fashioned to spotlight the star ingredient.
Somni—the name means “dream” in Catalan—is the brainchild of José Andrés, the playful Spanish chef who built a restaurant empire serving whimsical tapas. It was Andrés who first introduced Angelenos to spherified olives at the Bazaar, which opened at the SLS in 2009. Andrés would later tap Zabala, an alum of Ferran Adrià’s legendary El Bulli, to oversee SAAM, the Bazaar’s smaller high-end dining room.
Now SAAM (stay with us here) has been reconceived as Somni: Ten seats wrapped around a crescent-shaped counter look onto a spotlighted kitchen humming with chefs. After a glass of flinty Prosecco, 20 or so courses arrive rapid-fire, most no more than a bite or two: a cheeky bump of truffle-marinated caviar served on a wooden mannequin hand; a dollop of black sesame butter folded in an origami shell of seaweed; a steamed cabbage leaf sandwiching fresh scallop and burrata tinted with basil oil and Sichuan peppercorn. Each plate is finely calibrated but packs a visceral wallop. Before you’re done marveling at a Santa Barbara spot prawn you’ve sucked down, a bun filled with stewed pig’s tail arrives, ready to be dunked in a pool of fragrant curry thickened with collagen.
A risk of molecular gastronomy in 2018 is how played out it can feel; its cerebral approach leans on novelty, and the novelty of, say, the Bazaar’s foie gras cotton candy can wear thin. But Somni’s wizardry is a leap forward, or at least another chapter in the modernist playbook. When dessert lands—arroz con leche inside a viola-scented dumpling skin—it’s assurance that Zabala has wrung new life from old tricks.