The Millennial Keeping Fine Dining Alive in L.A.

Wonho Frank Lee
71Above may serve some of the most refined food in L.A., but don’t call chef Vartan Abgaryan pretentious—he thinks Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme is the second greatest creation after the hamburger.

Chef Vartan Abgaryan knows he’s swimming against the tide with his fine-dining restaurant. He understands that L.A. is a city where the buzziest restaurants serve family-style meals and punch you in the mouth with bold, unexpected flavors.

But with his perch 950 feet above the ground, atop downtown’s U.S. Bank Tower, Abgaryan also realizes that he has the rare opportunity to elevate things in a city that’s only getting more casual. So 71Above, the restaurant Abgaryan opened with Emil Eyvazoff last July, showcases classic technique, premium ingredients, elegant plating and the kind of precision and restraint that stands out in a city full of palate-numbing dishes. 

In some ways, Abgaryan might not seem so different from your typical millennial L.A. chef. The 35-year-old loves Thai food and thinks that Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme “is the second greatest creation after the hamburger.” He wears designer sneakers when he’s working the line. He’s inspired by the creativity of veteran L.A. chefs like Ray Garcia, Jeremy Fox and Josef Centeno. And Abgaryan, who moved to Hollywood from Armenia at age nine and shared a two-bedroom apartment with his parents, grandparents, brother and sister, has the immigrant-family storyline that drives so much of the L.A. food world. But now he’s got his own story to tell, through his refined dishes.

“People force L.A. to be something when it doesn’t necessarily have to be that,” Abgaryan says. “I get it. L.A. is multicultural, it’s diverse, it’s relaxed-atmosphere. Food is very powerful; flavors are not mild. It’s different than eating in New York, Chicago or San Francisco. But it doesn’t mean you always have to force L.A. into a niche of being sort of the small, struggling, mom-and-pop, corner-store-type of restaurant and street food. There’s so much more.”

So if L.A. food is largely about crossing boundaries, why not try to raise the ceiling while others are jackhammering the floor?

“I look at it as: if I go out to eat, I go out to eat,” Abgaryan says. “If I go out to dine, I go out to dine. It’s two completely different things. Sometimes, you want to go out to dine and feel special and have a special night.”

At 71Above, your special night offers views that thrill. Depending on where you sit, you might see the Hollywood sign, Beverly Hills, the beach in multiple directions, downtown skyscrapers, Orange County and maybe even the fireworks at Disneyland. Chances are, a police helicopter will fly by, and the pilot will wave at you.

The contents of your plate, however, is the main attraction. Abgaryan is still an L.A. chef who makes fun and delicious food. He’s doing the fine-dining thing, but there aren’t tablecloths because that would be “too stuffy.” He’s weaving in Mexican and Asian and Middle Eastern flavors because mashups are what happen naturally in the kitchen. (Armenia, of course, is full of families who fled the country to escape genocide and then returned with recipes from other cultures. Abgaryan’s grandparents, for example, went to Greece). He’s cooking hyper-seasonal food, and he knows that a perk of running a busy restaurant—one that serves 300 people at least three courses a night—is being able to buy the best ingredients in large quantities, allowing him to do things like pickle fifty pounds of ramps.

Here are five dishes we recently enjoyed at 71Above.

Oyster

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Abgaryan poaches Fat Bastard or Shigoku oysters and tops them with a purposefully over-the-top combination of uni, caviar and béarnaise sauce.

“There was a point in my life when I was very fat and would eat a whole loaf of sourdough dipped in béarnaise sauce,” he says. “It was my snack at night. It’s one of the greatest things. I love tarragon. I have to restrain myself. Armenians tend to love tarragon.”

Meanwhile, Abgaryan, who went to culinary school in Las Vegas and cooked at the Vegas outpost of Lutèce, has one big regret.

“I never got to work for a great chef,” he says. “I never got to work at one of those amazing restaurants.” But he found inspiration by reading through the 500 cookbooks he has at home, and he remembers eating Thomas Keller’s famous “oysters and pearls” at The French Laundry and realizing that it lived up to the hype. These experiences led Abgaryan to create a signature dish that deserves to be in the same stratosphere as Keller’s oysters or Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s egg caviar. The oysters at 71Above, served two on a plate, are briny, creamy, ultra-luxurious bliss. Many guests order extra. Not surprisingly, this is one of two dishes Abgaryan says he will always keep on the menu.

Farm Egg

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“It’s a breakfast burrito, full-blown,” Agbarayan says of this dish with chorizo and crispy potato. “This dish started as, ‘OK, this is fine dining. We have to have an egg dish.’”

Abgaryan says he “really wanted a plate to look like a fried egg with everything else hidden underneath it,” so he put a yolk inside a potato-and-raclette-cheese fritter that resembles an egg white. Add in some chorizo bolognese and a cilantro emulsion, and it really does taste like Mexican breakfast for dinner. This is the second of two dishes that Abgaryan says will always be on the menu.

Octopus

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Abgaryan describes this dish as octopus “in the style of chicharrón.” (He thinks the chicharrón at Broken Spanish in downtown L.A. is the “greatest pork dish ever.”)

“We braise the octopus first,” Abgaryan says. “We start with a dry-roast process, and then it starts cooking in its own liquid. And then we take it out, and we slowly fry it.” The octopus is then coated with a barbecue sauce made with peach jam instead of molasses. This sauce was inspired by a sauce from L.A. barbecue master Adam Perry Lang. For the “chicharrón-style” seasoning, Abgaryan uses Middle Eastern spices such as sumac and aleppo pepper instead of Mexican spices.

“It still gives you that characteristic sourness you want,” says Abgaryan, who also plates the octopus with labneh and avocado “to bridge things together” in a dish that’s kind of Middle Eastern and kind of Mexican and absolutely L.A.

White Asparagus

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“I’m a huge of fan of very classic, traditional flavors,” says Abgaryan, whose seasonal white asparagus dish is a riff on asparagus served with bacon and fish. Many of 71Above’s dishes are collaborations between Abgaryan and his staff.

“We always start with vegetables and build from there,” he says.

Chef-de-cuisine Jon Butler, who checks out farmers’ markets for the restaurant, found some European white asparagus, and sous chef Javi Lopez suggested making an XO sauce to serve alongside it. Abgaryan went to Chinatown’s Far East Plaza and found some dried shrimp and dried scallops for the sauce. Instead of the traditional Chinese ham, 71Above’s XO sauce has bacon and Chinese sausage.

“I always say to my staff, ‘I don’t want anything to be exactly something else,’” Abgaryan says. “You have to incorporate ingredients that are not specific to one culture.”

Scallop

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“It’s basically a take on chowder,” Abgaryan says. “We wanted to keep the dish without pork, without any meat product. The potato sauce is basically a chowder. Of course, it’s refined: At the last minute, we season it with bonito to give it a smokier flavor profile.”

The scallop is served with pickled ramps, and the dish also gets a little funk from ramp-top kimchi made by sous chef Susan Yoon. Abgaryan smiles when he recalls his e-mails to produce purveyor Foods in Season.

“They had 50-something pounds of ramps left,” he says. “Our response was, ‘We’ll take it all.’ I love the luxury of having a restaurant that can afford to buy things a certain way.”

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