Lengths of sugarcane recline in a bright red tub on the bar at Xiomara on Melrose, ready to be juiced into the city’s best mojitos. Hunks of soft, yeasty bread—the sort that tastes so good dunked into black beans—sit in a basket on the table as Xiomara Ardolina patrols the dining room, checking on customers. During a quiet lunch, you can overhear her in the corner phoning the waitstaff to let them know their shifts. Her restaurant is in some ways a throwback, a spot that mixes gentle formality with the personal stamp of the proprietor. For years it served as L.A.’s foremost example of the nuevo latino style that swept the East Coast in the 1990s like a reggaeton hit. But those days are gone. Ardolina has a new direction.
This wouldn’t be the first time. Ardolina left Cuba as a child in the 1960s and in 1979 opened an Austrian-tinged, nouvelle-inspired joint in La Cañada called the Epicurean. In 1991, she debuted Xiomara Restaurant in Old Pasadena, where the kitchen dealt primarily in California cuisine. The plates were as big as hubcaps, the greens drizzled with raspberry vinegar, the chicken breast sliced and splayed. The menu changed a few years later with the arrival of Patrick Healy, a chef conversant in French provincial food at its most simmered and nourishing. Epic terrines and cassoulets were the order of the day. When Ardolina opened the second Xiomara near her Hancock Park home in 2003, she repositioned the venture, steering it toward the latitudes where she was born. Roast pork leg would arrive fittingly with juicy caramelized plantains, while Ardolina upgraded ropa vieja, a slow-cooked beef stew, by making it with duck and spooning it over manchego-spiked polenta.
These kinds of dishes remained respectful of their heritage without being tied to it, but Ardolina wanted to get out of the kitchen. Four months ago she brought in a new chef. Michael Reed, who trained at Sona and Osteria Mozza, can’t be faulted for knowing more about farmers’ market corn than Caribbean conch. He’s not reaching for Latin inspiration on the menu; the 27-year-old’s m.o. here is California bistro—efficient, produce driven, satisfyingly direct. Reed has talent, too, but his task isn’t easy: He’s essentially returning to a form that Xiomara has already visited, in a room that still looks more mission than modern. The floor is paved with earth-tone tiles. A black wrought-iron railing leads up to the balcony seating. A poster-size picture of the Havana Malecón hangs on the wall. Heightening the effect is the gorgeous Spanish revival exterior of the John C. Fremont branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, which anchors the block.
Though Xiomara is more modest than nearby multistarred destinations such as Providence or Hatfield’s, a decorum goes with the interior. This is not a restaurant where you will be screaming over the house music or have your plate plopped onto a food-stained mat. Tablecloths are pressed white cotton; the waitstaff wears ties and white shirts, and the menu asks that guests wear “proper attire.” A table of Hancock Park ladies discuss a fund-raiser while a large group of workers from one of the neighborhood soundstages orders mojitos. Patsy Cline sings in the background, the lilt of her voice drowning out the anxiously up-to-the-moment ticker tape of blog posts that the dining world has become. Xiomara doesn’t exist in that orbit. It’s comfortably timeless. About the only “new” thing at the restaurant is the chef.
Reed, an Oxnard native, got into cooking in high school. He was a long-distance runner. The night before a race, the team would gather. Someone would bring a video of legendary track star Steve Prefontaine, and Reed would haul in carb-heavy casseroles and trays of lasagna. It was a skill he honed as he continued running at UC Santa Barbara, where he realized he wanted to be a professional cook. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, he worked at what he describes as “churn-and-burn” joints in New Jersey before returning to California. When Ardolina began looking for a chef who could revamp the kitchen, she contacted her friend, Mozza chef Matt Molina, and he recommended Reed.
He was a smart choice. A cook who is unencumbered by airs, he’ll help himself to inspiration wherever he finds it. The crisp sweet potato croquettes that loll in a chile-coconut sauce are drawn from the domain of great bar food. Throughout, his cooking comes across as focused and intelligent, with plenty of polish and little flash. Hanger steak is exactly as it should be, a seared rare strip of juicy meat bolstered by a balsamic reduction and an arugula and shaved fennel salad. When he prepares a pork chop with tender slow-cooked onions and kale, the forthright pairing brings out something equally robust in the meat.
At times Reed seems unsure whether that quiet workmanship is enough. Mustard-glazed scallops accompanied by sautéed sweetbreads and brussels sprouts gain nothing from being deposited on schmears of vegetable puree. All you come away with from this busy presentation are overcooked scallops. His concentration can waver—and at curious junctures: The cheese in the lunchtime Cuban press sandwich, one of the few holdovers from the old menu, isn’t given time to melt, so the ooze factor is lacking. At times he also slips into produce-driven redundancy, as when he bathes the farmers’ market vegetable pasta and the seared salmon fillet in the same corn broth.
Indeed, if there is a trap in the California bistro style, it is that for all its integrity and lyrical undertow, its ubiquitous elements can be used indiscriminately—the crumbled goat cheese scattered randomly, the candied pecans tossed in wherever, the harissa aioli hosed around willy-nilly. Reed does a good job of keeping the distinctions, allowing the ingredients to retain their purpose. The zing of white anchovies playing off the sourdough croutons elevates the Caesar from the usual pro forma version. A creamy velouté of Jerusalem artichokes is a revelation. The soup’s ethereal lightness magnifies the earthy quality of the unsung root vegetable. Reed barely sears the pork belly, and what the dish gives up in intensity, it gains in resonance: The deep bands of pearly fat are as flavorful as lardo.
Reed becomes most interesting, however, when he counters the central tenet of California cuisine—that ingredients should be left as close as possible to their unsullied state. You’d have to go way back to figure out where that mandate began. When the style emerged in the 1970s, there was so much artifice in cooking that artlessness became the obvious antidote. It’s refreshing to see a chef whose regard for the individual components of a dish doesn’t prevent him from deploying a catalog of techniques. He’ll pipe crisp pork trimmings into raw baby squid, which he browns quickly and arranges sliced over an almond-laden romesco sauce. A main course of seared sea bass fillet is crowned with a quenelle of spaghetti squash and placed in a nutty broth made from squash seeds. Then, just before serving, Reed flash-fries strips of the belly that would otherwise be thrown away, creating a maritime form of cracklings. The effect is superb.
The restaurant has never been known for desserts, but the tropical-flavored sorbets left over from the previous menu remain a good way to end a meal. Another standby, the chocolate budin de pan, is dense, rich, and delicious, though this bread pudding is far from being the soufflé the menu describes. New additions are a warm sugar-dusted pound cake that rests atop a few spoonfuls of tart lemon curd. A diced persimmon compote delicately accents a scoop of trembling panna cotta. The list of after-dinner drinks is short, but the atmosphere actually invites one to relax with a snifter of Courvoisier.
It’s at such moments when Xiomara becomes fully realized. There’s nothing studied about the restaurant. Even something as old-fashioned as sipping a brandy seems completely appropriate here. Reed clearly hasn’t been given a mandate to reinvent California cuisine, but his cooking is pleasantly refined. He’s not one to slop it up. Do I miss the Cuban food? Sure, but I can still come to Xiomara and feel the pulse of authenticity that is absent in so many higher-end newcomers; this is a true owner-operated establishment. When Ardolina decided not to serve Cuban food here anymore, she cried. Her Pasadena restaurant was gone (it closed in 2007), and she was leaving behind the food that linked her to that distant boardwalk of Havana. She’s on to something new, or at least different, now. I hope she succeeds.
Photograph by Lisa Romerein