At Kali in Los Angeles, California Cuisine Without the Pretension


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Beet tartar from Kali has become a signature item.

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Rachel Jacobson

The theory of creative limitation states that by proposing constraints upon a project or an idea, one gains the freedom to become more creative within those constraints. In the case of Kali, a restaurant in the Larchmont neighborhood of Los Angeles that opened in January, that limit is the border that divides California from the rest of the country. Within that fortunate constraint, the partners Kevin Meehan and Drew Langley have constructed a world as colorful, complex and wild as the Golden State itself.

The two met in 2001 at L’Orangerie in Hollywood, where Mr. Meehan cooked in the kitchen under Ludovic Lefebvre; Mr. Langley was the sommelier. Their collaboration, conveyed through a tasting menu with optional pairings, is composed of complements and layering. For instance, one evening, a supple prawn crudo with dehydrated lemon peel and nasturtium was accompanied by a bright, acidic malvasia from Santa Ynez. In the same menu, half of a charred avocado, bathed in sunny olive oil and dusted with ash, was joined with an assyrtiko from Greece, a grape whose growth in volcanic ash mirrored the dish’s earthen quality, but whose creaminess also matched the dish’s weight.

Much of the food at Kali is built on the pure flavors packed into California ingredients, which Mr. Meehan amplifies with his classically French and modern techniques. “I believe every meal should be served with bread,” he said. “Even Jesus was into bread.” The warm, sweet, downy bread at Kali — served in a compact loaf alongside main dishes — is made with honey and buttermilk, a byproduct of the restaurant’s house-made butter. (The butter’s base is Straus cream, from a beloved Marin County dairy.)

Ducks, which are seasoned overnight with lavender and salt before being seared and served with vibrant, nearly tropical-tasting carrots, are from Sonoma County Poultry where a fourth-generation duck farmer raises the birds, a Pekin breed called Liberty Ducks, without hormones or commercial feeds.

Too often, California-style restaurants lean on invocations of Chez Panisse or a pithy mantra. But in a world where avocado toast, kombucha and wheat berries have become overused signifiers, Kali infuses them once more with meaning that skirts preciousness in favor of seriously beautiful food.

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