Strip malls—and tiny restaurants wedged into strip malls—are nothing new in Koreatown. Except when the restaurant isn't Korean. At Saint Martha, a small restaurant boasting new American cuisine and a massive wine list, Koreatown is acknowledged in the vibe, not the food. After entering through a deep red door, diners are met with an open kitchen, defaced oil paintings and Tupac. It's an unusual mix, but one that is trying to encapsulate the young clientele of K-town. At first glance, a rendering of Goya's La Maja Vestida graces the wall; look closer, and you'll see that all the artwork here has been altered in one way or another with drawn-on glasses or a ripped corner. "We're trying to match the cool atmosphere that K-town has going on," explained our waiter. While it works in some aspects (we couldn't stop talking about all the great music played during dinner), the food is all over the place. Chef Nick Erven, who is also head chef at TART, is doing a lot of fun things in that open kitchen of his—but sometimes, it seemed more effort was spent on how the dishes looked instead of how they tasted.
The kitchen staff certainly wanted to please. An amuse-bouche came out "on the house" (and yes, everyone else in the room got one as well) in the form of shredded duck on a hoja santa leaf. It was a gorgeous bite, and the hoisin-infused sauce drizzled over the meat brought a familiar comfort food feel to this delicate starter. Unfortunately, the starter that we actually ordered—a chicken liver mousse—was so far off the mark that we left most of it untouched. Visually, the dish is an unappetizing mix of varying degrees of muddy brown, between the mousse, the mushrooms, the puddle of pureed hazelnuts and the toast. The mousse itself was grainy and left a bitter aftertaste that lingered even when followed by multiple sips of wine—it was as though Erven was going for an of-the-earth experience, but got a little too close to the forest floor. There was better success with the brassicas, a bowl of cabbage and broccoli and cauliflower that was earthy and flavorful. A poached egg sits on top; when broken and mixed into the accompanying broth made from brewer's yeast, it creates a lovely thick sauce that perfectly complements the assortment of vegetables. The one curiosity: There is a lot of broth with nowhere to go. True, a piece of bread is placed in the bowl to help soak up the liquid, but once all the brassicas are devoured, a hefty portion of not-quite-soup remains. The addition of some kind of grain (barley, or maybe quinoa) might have fleshed it out a bit more.
My favorite dish of the night, by far, was the sauteed spot prawns, mostly because of the unexpected hit of spiciness found in its curry sauce. Two large prawns are presented in all of their shelled, antennaed glory (while the meat of the shellfish is delicious, I may have splattered both myself and anyone in a ten-foot radius while trying to dismantle the seafood), with a spray of herbs and edible flowers lying on top. Below, a mound of Cream of Wheat is rimmed by almond-red curry broth packing a surprising heat. I thought that, with this dish, Erven best demonstrated what Saint Martha is trying to go for: creativity (it's been a while since I had Cream of Wheat at a restaurant), comfort and a focus on California cuisine with subtle elements borrowed from elsewhere.
"Get the brisket," advised our waitress, and so we got the brisket, a pecan wood smoked variation with hoisin sauce and root vegetables. The meat was certainly cooked well, and pulled away easily into tender bites that everyone at the table loved, while the vegetables tasted mostly of the pool of sauce they sat in. That's not necessarily a bad thing—it's just that they seemed to serve as more of a decoration than anything else. But decoration is what Saint Martha does well, serving up plates of beautiful food that looks at once cool and gourmet (OK, except for that mousse). Our dessert was no exception: roasted Rieger peaches, a slab of raw honey and wild flower honey ice cream sat atop a slice of almond genoise (Genovese cake), surrounded by sesame seeds. Was it good? Yes, definitely—but more of the focus was on presentation. As much as I loved the vibe of Saint Martha, it seemed, at times, to be trying too hard. On our way out the door, we were offered a freshly baked cookie as a parting gift, and I thought, "How lovely." But the cookie was dry and bland, and I left feeling as if I'd just stepped off a roller coaster of expectations that, more often than not, ended in letdowns.
What to Eat: The sautéed spot prawns ($22). The smoked brisket ($19). The roasted Rieger peaches ($10).
What to Drink: The one area of Saint Martha that remained solid and enjoyable throughout was the wine. The wine list is 50+ strong and broken up by category: sparkling, white, sake & sherry, and red. General Manager and sommelier Mary Thompson, who curated the wine menu, is a strong presence in the room, floating by tables to check on the state of diners' glasses and offer her knowledgeable input. Our waitress, too, was exceptional at helping us figure out what to drink. Wines are offered by the taste, glass, piché or bottle, and she started us off with a glass of Vinho Verde from Portugal ($6), a crisp, sparkling varietal to ease us into our meal. Other picks—a bold Château Haut-Lariveau Bordeaux ($7/taste) for the red wine-lover and a dry Dr. Weins-Prum ($5/taste) for the fan of white—were excellent pairings as well. Could you come here for a night of wine, exploring the menu with a taste here and a glass there? The setting might be a little odd for such an evening, but the list—and quality of wines—is certainly up to par.
Where to Sit: The term "shoebox" has been used thus far to describe Saint Martha—an accurate description, given that there are only around 40 seats, including a chef's counter, to choose from. Wherever you sit, you'll be guaranteed an intimate experience, between Thompson's one-on-one interactions and the occasional visit from chef Erven.
Conversation Piece: The restaurant is named after the patron saint of cooks and servants; you can find her ethereal portrait on the cover of the menu.