Finally, there is a fantastic tapas restaurant in LA. Split into two rooms with brick walls and dark furniture, smoke.oil.salt feels warm without being cramped: on one side, a chef’s counter circles around the stove; on the other side, a large communal table and a smaller wine bar gives the sense that it is all about community here, one where you may peer over at a fellow diner’s plate and strike up a conversation about what they’re eating, or ask a server for a wine recommendation and suddenly find yourself talking to the man who curated the wine list himself. But then again, tapas is all about community: share a bite here, a bite there, and the meal soon becomes a patchwork of (hopefully) great bites and even better company. The company is up to you, of course, but smoke.oil.salt fulfills its end of the bargain with food that is not only worth sharing, but also worth coming back for.
A cucumber gazpacho was an appropriate nod to the last few days of summer with its cool, smooth texture and a dollop of light cream; I have plans, already, to return for the winter iteration, an almond sherry variety with Dungeness crab. My favorite starter, though, has to be the pa amb tomaca, a Catalan tomato toast with housemade red and white sausage. A generous spread of pulpy tomato is enough to make this toast stellar on its own, but the sausage lends a more hearty layer and has a slight kick to it that offsets the tomatoes’ sweetness. And it could stop there—a few glasses of excellent wine and some starters at the bar is enough to win you over here.
Then again, you should definitely order more. The tender guatlles—quail—is perched atop a bowl of black lentils, chickpeas and a sea of spices, accompanied by some toasted bread to soak up the remaining liquid. It’s a tad comical at first, this small and naked bird that looks like a cartoon version of itself. But we forgot about that as we started to eat, particularly when the dollops of salty goat cheese happily landed on our spoon. It’s a fantastic dish, as is the cassoleta de fideu negra, which my Spanish dinner companion warned me about before we ordered. “It’s not something I would choose,” she said, explaining her disdain for squid ink. “But it’s very traditional, and you should get it.” I’m so happy I did. The squid ink pasta is more rice-like than anything else, and submerged in a deep pot of squid ink broth. There are mussels and shrimp swimming in there, too, along with chanterelle mushrooms and spoonfuls of honey aioli that sweeten each bite. Is it fishy? Hell yeah; there’s a lot of squid ink in there. But it’s the best kind of fishy, the kind that tastes more like the ocean air and less like clams that have been sitting on the kitchen counter for a day.
A Catalan custard is offered on the dessert menu, but best to go with something more in season, like the poached pears with goat-milk ice cream and a red wine reduction. Whatever you get, it will be perfect for sharing—which is exactly what smoke.oil.salt intended.
What to Eat: The pa amb tomaca I llangoisses ($11). The guatiles a la brassa I llentilles ($24). The cassoleta de fideua negra ($32).
What to Drink: “I tried something like 200 bottles of wine on my trip,” says Stephen Gelber, the managing partner of smoke.oil.salt and the restaurant’s wine curator. “This was the first one I tried, and the only one I couldn’t stop thinking about.” Gelber is talking about the 2013 Alvaro Palacios Camins del Priorat, a beautiful earthy blend that paired so well with our meal. A 2007 Rioja Reserva was fantastic as well, providing a brighter, more fruit-forward option; overall, the wine list is one of the best I’ve seen in a while.
Where to sit: There is a chef’s counter in the same room as the oven, and while it gives you great access to the action, you may also smell like smoke for a while afterwards. I sat at the bar in the other room, and had an equally personable and intimate experience—sans smoke.