Photograph by Andrea Bricco
Walking into Cooks County for the first time, you’ll feel like you’re on familiar turf: The busboy wears a striped butcher’s apron, the blackboard lists wines that are drinking well, and the concrete floor appears functional rather than fashionable, while the logo on the menu—weathered, slightly splotchy—looks as if it were applied by a worn rubber stamp. Perhaps it’s all part of a trend that puts authenticity before pretension, but here they take it further than most. You want produce-centric food? Hell, Cooks County names 41 farmers at the bottom of its menu. The bar stools, made from old metal tractor seats, push the agrarian theme home.
A partnership between restaurateur couple Claudio and Adria Blotta and chef couple Daniel Mattern and Roxana Jullapat, Cooks County is both market driven and market tested. In an age when farmers have hashtags and followers, getting aggie is hardly cutting edge, but the place is inspiring: Working with great raw materials is a big responsibility, one that this restaurant takes quite seriously. Few ventures are as wholesome and almost quaintly well intended—“Cardoons are part of the thistle family,” a waitress lets me know one night when I order a fried batch—and fewer still are so focused on expressing their culinary sensibility through the bounty of the fields.
Mattern and Jullapat have been knocking around L.A. kitchens for more than a decade. Their shared stints at Campanile, Lucques, and A.O.C. (in addition to a solo one for Jullapat at the original Bastide) preceded a move to Ammo, where Mattern headed the kitchen and Jullapat made the pastries. Claudio and Adria Blotta met at Campanile, where he was a manager turned partner and she was a waitress. For their first restaurant together, the Blottas launched the somewhat confusing (and now shuttered) La Terza—a 3rd Street hotel dining room where Gino Angelini oversaw the food, Jason Travi was the chef, and Nancy Silverton kind of did desserts. Barbrix, their Silver Lake hangout, has fared far better, bringing in a nightly crowd that knows its primitivo from its blaufränkisch. To create Cooks County, the four nabbed the space on Beverly Boulevard that briefly held Bistro LQ and for many years the beloved Mimosa. At lunch, when the broad windows filter the sun, the room’s austere decor—exposed rafters, air ducts, and lightbulbs, with plain white walls—has the atmosphere of an atelier.
We’re so accustomed to hearing chefs and publicists use phrases like “only the freshest seasonal ingredients” that it’s easy to tune out the subject. (What, you don’t scour the bins where the wilted, bruised stuff is stacked?) But strange as it may sound, constructing a menu around the most flavorful fruits and vegetables demands the utmost commitment from a chef. It takes a lot of effort just to get those elements to the kitchen and a whole lot of skill to know how to harness the produce without mucking it up. Mattern brilliantly assumes that charge. With the celery root salad, he’s a gifted matchmaker, using a mustard dressing to unite the earthiness of the root vegetable slaw and the vibrancy of skin-on Pink Lady slices. It’s as if the recipe were lifted from an Elizabeth David paean to France and given a farmers’ market twist. Equally wonderful are those fried cardoons, which arrive in cocoons of a gossamer Parmesan-laced batter and with a ramekin of aioli. Combining the robust and the ethereal, they are graced with a hint of fried sage.
If there is a theoretical undercurrent to Mattern’s wide-ranging technique, it is to provide what each ingredient requires and nothing more. You can sense the range in something as subtle as steamed clams in a broth thick with white beans and blanched garlic; the crosshatched grilled bread bobbing on the side is ideal for sopping up the hearty sauce. More classico are thick ribbons of hand-cut tagliatelle smothered in a short rib ragù and draped with dandelion greens. Nosing closer to the Middle East, Mattern gives a Levantine shading to a braised chicken leg, accenting it with roasted cauliflower and lashings of cumin, citrus zest, and ground green olives. At other times his style is deeply American. Grill-scored, butterflied Idaho trout sits on a mound of pureed celery root, a dish so reminiscent of the uncluttered manly cooking found in a WASP fishing camp, it would make Ralph Lauren weep.
Mattern’s pork loin practically purrs on a helping of wide-bore polenta integrale and is finished with a slice of Duroc bacon, with its notes of brown sugar and applewood smoke. You need only taste the dish to understand that he is more than capable of casting an eye over heritage breeds in search of flavor. Yet time and time again, it is what’s pickled rather than what’s plucked that seems to reflect the soulful core of his cooking. He turns the usual equation—meat + vegetables—on its head and can make the protein seem like the garnish.
As good as the grilled yellowtail is in a buttermilk bun, it’s the strands of spicy cabbage and the accompanying house-pickled cauliflower florets that elevate the lunchtime sandwich. In a salad of simple lettuces, he adds a few discs of radish, a few squirts of lemon to accent the delicate butter leaf lettuce without overwhelming it. With the minimalist appetizer of shaved fennel, he lets the sliced Schaner Farms blood oranges bring out the contrast with a tangy pop. The grilled Delta asparagus compresses it all into one pitch-perfect composition. The diameter of a quarter, the sweet spears are thick enough that they can be cooked over fire without mushing up; scoops of creamy ricotta serve as a backdrop for the mix of Trufflebert Farm hazelnuts, garlic, lemon zest, and hazelnut oil pounded with a mortar and pestle. The dish—with its tonal control of the elements—is exquisite. Here the modern vegetable-oriented style has been shaken free of its folksiness, and we are left in an affecting place where talent has done justice to its source of inspiration.
Still, Cooks County has its lapses. Factoring the cost of complimentary bread into the prices would be an improvement on primly charging $3 for some slices. And I’ve had a waitress ask how I’d like my confit duck leg cooked—a moot point for a vittle that’s spent several hours simmering in fat. But most surprising is how the kitchen goes into a tailspin as the orders rain down—a fairly basic failing for such an experienced crew. The celery root puree loses its romance when instead of a ladled helping, it is a splat delivered by a frantic cook. I’ve had pea shoots dripping with butter—when slammed, the kitchen shovels spoonfuls of them into the pans—under a piece of roasted salmon bearing a shaky dribble of aioli that could pass for a Pollock parody.
What never seems to waver are Jullapat’s offerings. The way she extends the rigor of the house style through baking is one of Cooks County’s delights. With the same curiosity Mattern has, she explores grains other than wheat, using chickpea flour to make a vegetarian pancake with spicy carrot salad, toasted almonds, and cumin yogurt that’s a magnificent dish to share. Jullapat transforms spelt flour into a pretzel snack that she presents with mustard dipping sauce (call me old-fashioned, but I miss the shiny finish of lye on the pretzel’s brown curves), and—channeling her exploration into the realm of desserts—transforms rice flour into fritters that are shot through with rose water. She seems to dismiss altogether the flourishes many pastry chefs indulge in. The deep roast of a graham cracker crust might be as far as she’ll go to impose herself on a creation, relying instead on the force of simplicity.
Terrific fruit only heightens the effect. Big, juicy Ruby Red grapefruit segments give the layers of coconut sponge cake and dollops of lemon curd and Devonshire cream something to go up against. Presented in a glass coupe, the kind Aunt Myrna would serve canned fruit cocktail in, it’s an almost thrilling dish that is playfully nostalgic and forward thinking at the same time. In my favorite dessert, a tangelo custard pie, Jullapat captures a sense of downright innocence, the folded whipped cream loosening up the carefully sourced citrus. It’s like the ultimate Orangesicle, powerful enough to transport you from the room full of smart phones and skinny jeans into a timeless domain.
8009 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles
Best Dishes: Celery root rémoulade; grilled Delta asparagus with toasted hazelnut vinaigrette; fried cardoons; braised chicken with fregola sarda, green olives, and preserved lemon; hazelnut brown butter cake; tangelo custard pie
Drinks: Interesting wine list and craft beers
Noise Level: Moderate
Kid Friendliness: Fine, if they eat their veggies
Price Range: $3 (bread) to $23 (duck breast)
Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30-2:30. Dinner: Mon.-Thu., 6-11; Fri.-Sat., 6-12; Sun., 6-10. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10-3
Parking: Street only
Reservations: Recommended for dinner
Credit Cards: All major