“Any time you’re in a new market, you can’t just roll out exactly the same thing if it’s a living, breathing restaurant.”

By Andy Wang
Updated: June 17, 2019
Bonjwing Lee

The highly anticipated Los Angeles outpost of Angler will open at the Beverly Center on Wednesday, June 19, which means that L.A. will soon understand what chef Joshua Skenes means when he says he wants to “make something taste more like itself.”

Angler, which debuted in San Francisco last year and is now taking reservations for L.A., is a seafood-focused venture that’s known for cooking fresh local ingredients over embers in an expansive hearth. But even though Angler is a scalable restaurant with plans to open in Seattle and the potential of expanding to coastal cities around the world, Skenes wants the menu at each Angler to be a little different.

Like in San Francisco, Skenes will cook resplendent little abalone over open fire, but he’s amping up the flavor of the abalone in L.A.

“The cool thing about the fire for me has always been that it’s this constant exploration into new components and dishes,” Skenes says. “We’ll adjust one little thing and wind up creating a new technique, and that technique will yield a new component, and then that component will yield a new dish.”

In the case of the abalone that will be served at the Beverly Center, Skenes is taking “all of the trim,” including the abalone liver, and putting it into what he’s calling a “barbecue” sauce.

“Both the abalone and sauce wind up having this briny, smoky, sweet barbecue aroma to it [after being over the fire], which is pretty cool because it’s not like a heavy barbecue sauce or spice rub,” Skenes says. “It’s just the product itself.”

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The sauce also includes rendered wild-boar fat, caper juice, and an umami-rich “smoky elixir” (with fish scraps, bones, whole little fish, and mushrooms) that Skenes created about a decade ago at Saison, the San Francisco fine-dining restaurant where he became a 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef and later earned three Michelin stars. His Saison-born concoction is now the “base seasoning for everything” at Angler. Burning almond wood down to embers and then cooking only with the embers also “adds dimension to your food,” including a natural sweetness, Skenes says.

So much of Angler is about getting local seafood and then finding ways to optimize and intensify the ingredients. Another new dish Skenes is debuting at his 110-seat L.A. restaurant is grilled Pacific sheepshead from Southern California. Each order includes half a head, half a tail, a filet, and a sauce that’s made out of the remainder of the fish bones.

In L.A., Skenes will take Angler’s reserve caviar, wrap it in banana leaves, and then gently warm it by the fire. It’s a nod to a seaweed-wrapped caviar dish he came up with at Saison. The idea at Saison was to make something that was “built around eating caviar” and not just putting caviar in a dish. It was about enhancing the texture and taste of great caviar. Now that he’s in Southern California, Skenes is inspired by all the produce he’s seen, so he wants to showcase “the whole banana tree.” Beyond the banana leaf, he’s making a barbecue banana-peel butter for the caviar dish. The caviar will also come with grilled banana waffles.

“This dish is kind of engineered so the taste [of banana] doesn’t overpower the caviar,” Skenes says. “The mouthfeel of the butter and the caviar beads, and the aroma of the banana leaves and the banana waffles, work surprisingly well together. When you come up with these things, it’s not like the thought of something being unique crosses my mind. It’s nice to end up with something unique, but if the taste balance doesn’t work out right, we’re not going to do it.”

Another new menu item in L.A. involves slowly cooking a whole wild boar, which weighs around 30 to 40 pounds, over the embers until all the skin crackles. Each boar will come with “a plethora of lettuce and leaves and herbs” not unlike the kind of spread that accompanies a whole catfish in a Vietnamese restaurant. Skenes will also serve the boar with an entire pineapple that’s been cooked over the fire for six hours. Plus, there will be a vinegar-based dipping sauce “kind of like really great Eastern Carolina barbecue.”

This being L.A., I tell Skenes that the pineapple might make some guests think of al pastor. Customers might also see similarities between the wild boar and bo ssam.

“It doesn’t matter to me what you call it,” Skenes says. “It’s just delicious. When I cook food, I’m just looking at it from a taste-balance perspective. Is this is a satisfying dish? Does it give you nourishment? Does it tick the boxes in terms of taste balance, texture, mouthfeel, flavor, aroma, fragrance, salinity, sweetness, all those things?”

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On one level, what Skenes is saying is elemental. Of course that’s what good food should be like. But on another level, turning something into the best form of itself is a daunting task. And doing it differently in every city you have a restaurant increases the degree of difficulty.

Many other scalable restaurants are about making everything taste exactly the same in every location. Skenes obviously understands this, but he’s not interested in that route. Yes, the L.A. Angler will share elements and dishes (like raw-bar selections, scorpion fish, antelope tartare, whole pastured chicken, and the much buzzed-about radicchio with radicchio XO) with the San Francisco Angler, but Skenes wants each of his restaurants to forge its own path.

“The ethos is the same,” he says. “We want to cook a certain way with certain products, and that’s what the same. But any time you’re in a new market, you can’t just roll out exactly the same thing if it’s a living, breathing restaurant. This is still a restaurant. It’s not a fast-casual. It’s not an automated process.”

I ask Skenes if he anticipates more restaurant groups attempting something similar to Angler, in terms of opening multiple spots with the same name but menus that vary from city to city.

“I mean, if they want to,” Skenes says with a little laugh. “It doesn’t make it easier, that’s for sure. It definitely adds an element of difficulty. We could easily just open the same thing as San Francisco and serve the exact same stuff for the most part.”

But that would be boring for Skenes, who says he’s gotten offers to open Angler in locations from Hong Kong to Puerto Rico. He’s a chef who likes to celebrate the simple idea of getting something right out of the water and cooking it immediately, but he’ll never stop working on different ways to prepare and enhance seafood. He’s reserving the right to change his menu daily.

Skenes has been enamored with the bounty of ingredients he’s encountered in Southern California, including on the fruit trees at his in-laws’ backyard in Orange County. He’s thinking about the best ways to serve a fruit plate for dessert at L.A.’s Angler. If he determines the correct thing to do is just cut a certain fruit and serve it as is, he’ll do that. But he’s also considering things like poaching and stuffing jackfruit. Maybe he’ll fill a melon with melon sorbet to make it taste more like melon.

“It’s the same thing as the savory stuff,” Skenes says. “Find good product and try to make them taste more like themselves.”

Angler, 8500 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, 424-332-4082

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