Chef Gary Menes is proud of his celery. “Super proud,” he says with a chuckle as he points out the impeccable bouquet of stalks and leaves jutting from a crumbly mound of soil. He’s wearing a wide-brim hat (“a necessity”) and asks me multiple times if I need one to protect my skin.
The sun is gaining strength as we stand in his ⅛-of-an-acre plot in Long Beach. Our shadows stretch across rows of chard interplanted with kale, beets, and carrots—winter vegetables butting up against young corn and bush beans. The sign at the entrance reads, “Gladys Avenue Urban Farm,” and the 20-plus varieties of produce planted there are the foundation of Menes’s menu at Le Comptoir.
The restaurant is a permanent version of what was once Menes’ peripatetic pop-up. Twice a night, from Tuesday to Saturday, he serves a six-course vegetable-driven tasting menu to just 10 guests. Both the dining area (essentially a counter) and the kitchen inhabit a nondescript sliver of the Hotel Normandie in Koreatown. On a recent visit, dinner began with a kale chip, teetering on a vintage glass cereal bowl above a quenelle of creme fraiche. The menu promised “something amusing” and so far it was spot on.
Who serves a kale chip in this setting? There are cooks with tweezers. The chef has The French Laundry on his resume. Yet a single, flawlessly crisped leaf set the tone.
Eighty to 90 percent of the vegetables served at Le Comptoir come from Menes’ farm, which he leases from Charlie Moore, a seafarer turned environmental activist who has become famous for his Ted Talks about the islands of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean. When Menes approached Moore about the idea of leasing his space to grow crops for his Los Angeles restaurant, Moore laughed. “He thought I was crazy,” Menes says, “but that’s why I have just 10 seats.”
Menes, who lives in Long Beach, is at the farm every day for one to four hours. His compost pile is piled high with decomposing fava stalks and coffee grounds. What looks like the femur of a cow is wedged precariously into a mulberry tree indicating that this is a farm that believes in biodynamic practices.
Menes credits French chef Alain Passard as an inspiration in his decision to focus on vegetables. Passard, who shocked all of Paris when he announced that he would only serve vegetables at his three-Michelin-starred L’Arpège, was able to maintain his reputation without using meat. “If you sneeze, you lose one star. If you go on vacation, you lose one star,” Menes says incredulously. “So for him to say I’m not serving meat anymore and still retain three Michelin stars…it’s incredible.”
At Le Comptoir, Menes’s “veggie and fruit” course serves as a pedestal for his daily harvest. On my visit, I counted 18 meticulously tweezered ingredients on the plate including celtuse, kohlrabi, tangerine, peas, pickled onion, and an unexpected bite of calamansi, a nod to the chef’s Filipino grandparents who still have a calamansi tree in their backyard. Elsewhere during the meal were purple pole beans, favas, charred scallions, and fraises de bois—an impossibly floral alpine strawberry that Menes cultivates in white, yellow, and red varieties.
Can you get foie gras and truffles at Le Comptoir? Sure you can (at a price). But such luxuries are not the point. Vegetables are Menes’ babies. “It kills me when I have to pull stuff out,” he says with a sigh before pointing out a perfect head of heart-shaped cabbage.
Le Comptoir, 3606 W. 6th St., Koreatown, reservations can be made online.