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Lost Spirits Distillery tasting menu Fish or Flesh Los Angeles Arts District
Photograph: Jesse Hsu

Inside Fish or Flesh, the immersive new tasting menu from L.A.’s most insane distillery

Written by
Stephanie Breijo
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There are concrete jungles, and then there’s Lost Spirits Distillery. Last month, banana leaves and the sounds of cawing birds made their nest in a former parking lot in the Arts District, forming a lush temple to all-out weirdness, science-manipulated spirits, and one of the most batshit original tasting menus the city over—oh, and H.G. Wells’s classic morality tale on playing god.

Pull up a chair at the wooden banquet table and drape yourself in furs for a very Island of Doctor Moreau-inspired tea service, boozy macarons, and octopus served on swords: You’ve found Fish or Flesh, a weekend-only restaurant whose opulence is matched only by its founders’ unbridled creativity.

When a fire ripped through L.A.’s transportive, whimsical and at times eerie distillery tour last year, it threatened to shut down Lost Spirits’ rum, whiskey and brandy operation for 18 months; fortunately the kind of founders who’d turn a distillery’s cooling system into a boat ride for their paying visitors are also the kind of founders who’d already be working on a second location. A move came and went and the lauded and eccentric team began plotting—which is the correct word here—their new tasting room, one they could connect to their already-in-progress new lab and one that could be bigger and better than what came before.  

Lost Spirits launched a wild, boozy feast, Fish or Flesh

Welcome aboard L.A.’s most magical distillery tour (and its new 10-course tasting menu). http://bit.ly/2TtBkCT

Posted by Time Out Los Angeles on Friday, March 6, 2020

Think of the new Lost Spirits Distillery tour as a sibling rather than a sequel, says co-founder and CEO Bryan Davis, who isn’t sure exactly how much larger the new facilities are—“We’ve never been able to figure out the square footage on them because whenever you send out scouts, they never quite make it back”—but estimates the new Lost Spirits, now split into two buildings and a round-trip bus ride between them, is about 20 percent larger. And that’s including the faux jungle with 14 seats and a whirlwind tasting menu.

The distillery tram
Photograph: Jesse Hsu
A peek inside the lab
Photograph: Jesse Hsu

The funny thing about liquor licenses is that they are limited and difficult to attain, unless you happen to purchase a building, say, a defunct restaurant with a preexisting liquor license in the center of the Arts District, in which case you can obtain the space and retrofit its windows with large painted playing cards and use it as the starting point for a two-hour journey into liquid science (and, yes, a boat ride). 

But finding a chef for the food component proved harder than Davis and his partner in spirits, Joanne Haruta, could have ever imagined. “We kept interviewing chefs and most of them were just scared and would run away,” Davis says, “or they’d say, ‘Forget it, you people are nuts.’” But floating around Los Angeles was one Taylor Persh, and she knew how to fry cocktails. 

Chef Taylor Persh
Photograph: Jesse Hsu

A Kama Sutra-themed box of erotic sweets; a pig’s head carved by a knife made from bone; a mai tai doughnut that forms a ceramic tiki parrot’s “brain”: Glimpsing inside the mind of Persh is a wild ride, and a thing you can do at Fish or Flesh for $240 a person—up recently from the launch price of $190, and a bit steep, but for an entirely unique dinner and a tour of Lost Spirits in one.

Her two hours of courses—inspired by half a dozen rereads of The Island of Doctor Moreau—walk the line between animalism and civility, between discovery and conventionalism; they mirror the book’s whimsy and intrigue and terror at the thought of a man hybridizing humans and animals, and the question of what makes us human to begin with. As you salivate over Persh’s whole roast pig head, ceremoniously carried out on a wooden board and brutally carved by candlelight, you might begin to wonder that yourself.

The eclectic and electric Culinary Institute of America graduate and vet of the kitchens of Trois Mec, the Bazaar by José AndrésBestia and Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo has found her own space to create ten-or-so courses inspired by a natural utopia gone wrong—by all means, something she could only find in the like-minded Lost Spirits team.

The fried mai tai
Photograph: Jesse Hsu

After all, this is the distillery that not only began by building a peat-smoker pagoda and Japanese tea garden in an artichoke field in Monterey County on a whim, but also the one whose boundless creativity resulted in uncovering the science that can replicate the barrel aging process by using bright light. 

“It’s not easy to find people who believe in you and believe in all the crazy things that come out of your mouth; there’s a very select group of people who can understand what I’m talking about,” Persh says of Lost Spirits, adding, “I feel very lucky. I can’t believe people keep getting it. They walk into the dining room and say, ‘yes, we get it.’” 

Even if you don’t happen to be one of those guests, it’d be impossible not to appreciate the binchotan-grilled octopus tentacle skewered by a sword, or the unctuous eel salad sandwich as a tea snack, or the brandy Alexander cocktail disguised as a macaron, or the caviar balancing atop a delicate quail egg inside a sort of Fabergé egg, or the tingle on the tongue from the “exploding grape” filled with peated whiskey.

You don’t have to be a mad scientist—we’re talking about the Lost Spirits team here, not Doctor Moreau—in order to appreciate all of that.

Brandy Alexander macarons
Photograph: Jesse Hsu

Photograph: Jesse Hsu

Photograph: Jesse Hsu

Eggs and eggs: caviar atop a quail egg
Photograph: Jesse Hsu
Charred octopus tentacle
Photograph: Jesse Hsu
An eel tea sandwich
Photograph: Jesse Hsu
The exploding grape
Photograph: Jesse Hsu
The pig head as bites
Photograph: Jesse Hsu
The rabbit course, filled with saffron espuma
Photograph: Jesse Hsu
Erotic mignardises
Photograph: Jesse Hsu

Lost Spirits Distillery is located at 1200 E 5th St in the Arts District, offering distillery tours and tastings Friday to Sunday for $46. Fish or Flesh runs two tastings on Fridays and Sundays, and three on Saturdays, at $240 per guest, which includes a distillery tour and tasting. Tickets are available online.

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