Inside Somni, José Andrés and Aitor Zabala’s “Dream” Tasting-Menu Counter in L.A.
“We have the space to realize anything we want,” Zabala says.
“We have 25 courses tonight,” Zabala says.
Cooks are busy doing prep for the $235-per-person tasting menu. Pig-tail curry buns are being assembled. Potatoes are being peeled and put through a Japanese mandolin. The potatoes will turn into croissants for a dish with lobster that’s inspired by suquet, a Catalan seafood stew. Caviar is being scooped out of tins and put into a box with truffles. The caviar will soak up the essence of the truffles for six hours before being served on wooden hands. It’s a caviar bump unlike any other.
Andrés, who’s spent a lot of time over the years thinking about different vessels for serving food, says that caviar is just the first item Somni will present on wooden hands. He also says he’s willing to bet money that somebody’s going to use one of the hands, which have movable fingers, for a marriage proposal in the near future.
Like so much of what’s happening at Somni, the wooden hands offer different narratives. They’re fun ways to serve food, of course, but they also reflect how Zabala and Andrés want Somni to be tactile. The hands are a reminder that, as Andrés says, “humanity has always eaten with our hands.”
Somni, which is nestled inside The Bazaar by José Andrés at the SLS Beverly Hills hotel, is a modernist restaurant that celebrates the past. It’s no doubt avant-garde, but it’s also traditional in a lot of ways. Somni, which means “dream” in Catalan, is influenced by Spain, but it’s also informed by being in California. And that’s just where the story starts.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Somni is that it’s lit. The room glows. Everything is brighter than Saam, the dark and sultry 40-seat tasting-menu restaurant that previously occupied this space. Somni’s light tones, its white marble and oak, are paired with a rainbow burst of color from the Bull, Cow and Stag head sculptures by Spanish pop surrealist artist Okuda San Miguel. Somni’s airy layout allows guests to stare deep into the open kitchen, which takes up what seems like 80 percent of this hidden restaurant within a restaurant.
“We’re playing in another league,” says Zabala, who’s added a fish tank, a dry-aging area and cooking stations to the kitchen. “Before, we were working in a beautiful corner. Now, we have the space to realize anything we want. Before, we have three people. Now, we have 15 people for ten customers. We have more people, but we have more work to do.”
There are Santa Barbara spot prawns inside Zabala’s fish tank. The heads will be cooked à la plancha before the prawns are smoked for a few minutes. It’s a process Zabala came up with after considering the difference between Santa Barbara spot prawns and Spanish prawns, which have softer heads and a “more pronounced flavor.” It’s also a process Zabala came up after considering that many of the best dishes require only a few ingredients.
“It’s very minimal,” Zabala says of the spot prawn dish. “Our cooking is clean, clear.”
Zabala also likes to be minimalist when it comes to describing his dishes. He’d rather have his customers eat and discover something new on their own instead of endure a five-minute dissertation about how their live scallop dish with smoky burrata cheese was created. The menu he gives guests at the end describes the pig-tail curry bun as simply “curry.” An uni and parmesan papyrus is called “egg.” Almond ice cream and chocolate croquant is “vienetta.”
Zabala and Andrés are both alums of El Bulli, so it’s no surprise that Ferran Adria’s pioneering modernist restaurant influenced the creation of Somni.
“I remember in El Bulli in the ’80s, we got these super expensive plates that were made out of marble,” Andrés says. “Man, every time one broke … it’s not like El Bulli ever worked for a profit, but if you break two, we don’t get paid that week because they were expensive like hell! From those days, the restaurant really became one of the most unique restaurants that spent time coming up with vessels for food, where the vessel was super important to the success of the dish.”
So Somni serves mole in rustic-looking bowls made with a mix of cement and stone. There’s a “snow bowl,” which resembles half of a snow globe and is refrigerated, that Zabala is using for mandarin ice cream with olive oil, confit mandarin skin, crema catalana, yogurt powder (which looks like snow, of course) and a big caramel snowflake on top. There’s a long, “really sexy” spoon, Zabala says, that allows you to dig deep into the custard and ice cream.
But before you start thinking that Somni owes all of its elaborate plating ideas to El Bulli, Andrés would like you to know that he’s also inspired by a trip he once took to Bed Bath & Beyond.
“When we began the first Minibar, because I didn’t have a lot of money for it, I bought everything on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond,” he says. “Fifty percent of my equipment came from Bed Bath & Beyond! I did it because it was super cheap, but they were perfect vessels for the food we were doing at the time. I remember for $5, I bought like 36 soap holders made out of glass. Blue. It was beautiful! They’re trying to get rid of it. So, shit, I paid like 15 cents each. That’s smart business. And on top of that, it’s different. I remember that we were serving cones in toothbrush holders, and they were perfect. Everybody was like, ‘Wow, who made these for you?’ Everything that surrounds you is a vessel to serve something.”
So for Andrés and Zabala, Somni is about remembering how you got here.
“Young people have a very big tendency to forget where they come from,” Andrés says, “It’s like today and tomorrow, but yesterday almost is forgotten. I don’t think that’s good. It’s good to remember yesterday.”
For Andrés, remembering yesterday can include how a potato dish, which was folded up like an Asian dumpling and served with Périgord truffle sauce, at El Bulli rocked his world. There are also memories of sushi and tempura dinners that remind him how great it can be to sit at a counter and watch chefs prepare food that you eat with your hands. But, as Zabala adds, remembering yesterday can also be about dining at nondescript bars in Spain and marveling at how simple food can give you the happiest and most complex feelings of all.
You can’t describe Somni, a restaurant with a juice pairing that involves infusing grape juice “with all the flavors and bouquets and colors and smells” of wines like chardonnay and pinot noir, as simple. But a lot of it comes from a simple place. That’s why many dishes at Somni are eaten with your hands.
“Fork and knives are the biggest lie, actually,” Andrés says. “Probably, forks and knives were created more to protect your food than to cut your chicken.”
Andrés gestures like he’s brandishing a fork and a knife,
“It’s like, ‘Don’t fucking touch this, it’s mine,’” he says. “Think about it.”
After we discuss a few things with Zabala, Andrés returns to the topic of using your hands during a meal.
“Let me put it this way: In this DNA of this menu, you want to make sure people don’t destroy the food in the process of eating it,” he says. “When you grab the bread, you’re not destroying it. You’re eating it, and it still looks delicate and photo-worthy. Forks and knives, they’ve been the biggest enemy of food in terms of beauty. Nothing is more beautiful than the food you eat from beginning to end almost looking the same way it was created. The caviar very much looks the same.”
Andrés, as great of a humanitarian as he is a chef, is wearing a blue T-shirt that says “We Are All Dreamers.” Somni, he will tweet later, is his and Zabala’s American Dream. It’s something they’ve been thinking about for years. Their lives would be simpler without it, Andrés says, but sometimes you have to rip up everything to keep things fresh.
Zabala shows me a binder packed with hundreds of ideas for dishes, complete with a “creativity log” for each idea. The binder is divided into sections for “product,” “equipment” and “technique.” There’s a station in Somni’s kitchen reserved for menu development. Both Zabala and Andrés are eager to discuss the possibility of the Michelin Guide returning to L.A. Somni is a culmination and also a beginning.
Somni, 465 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, 310-246-5543