Michelin-Starred Chef Makes L.A. Debut with Giant Wood-Fired Paradise
Come to M.Georgina for Melissa Perello’s squid ink pita; stay for the coal-roasted pork loin.
There are stacks of wood on the edge of the open kitchen at M.Georgina, the gleaming restaurant that Melissa Perello just opened at the massive Row DTLA complex. This is the Los Angeles debut for Perello, the Michelin-starred chef behind San Francisco’s Frances and Octavia, and the wood is there for functionality but also as a statement.
“Wood is always something I’ve wanted to work with,” says Perello, who was named a 2004 Food & Wine Best New Chef when she was at San Francisco’s Charles Nob Hill. “I am a little bit of a pyromaniac.”
The chef laughs. She’s excited about the things she can do at M.Georgina, which is named after her paternal grandmother. This is a 4,500-square-foot space—the largest restaurant she’s ever had—that features a hearth and wood-burning oven, built by wood-fired specialist Jeremiah Thorndike Church of Ashland, Oregon.
Perello burns almond wood and olive wood at M.Georgina, and uses her oven to bake strikingly dark squid ink pita, which gets a pop of color from glowing orange trout roe. Entrées like black cod with creamed escarole are baked in the oven, as is a soul-warming vegetarian dish of erbette chard saag with romanesco. Excellent vegetable sides, like maitakes with butter beans and blistered peppers, are quickly cooked in the oven, too. For a Peads & Barnetts pork dish, Perello ties up wonderfully fatty pieces of salt-cured, spice-rubbed pork loin and hangs them above the coals in the hearth. A baked potato is started in the oven and finished directly on the hearth’s coals.
Perello’s also using her open-fire setup for seafood starters like a baked surf clam diavolo that has pieces of big surf clams, which have an almost geoduck-like texture, alongside pieces of littleneck clams. (One of the delightful things about the menu is that customers can order just one baked surf clam or oyster on the half-shell, if they want to taste a lot of different things.) She’s planning to add a hearth-grilled Flannery Beef rib eye to the menu in the near future.
Cooking over live fire, a feature of prominent L.A. restaurants like Hatchet Hall and Angler, is about imparting smoke and flavor. But Perello is primarily attracted to open fire because it’s “elemental.” It is, she says, “kind of just bringing things back down to the roots of it.”
Another bonus to having such a massive restaurant is that Perello can make many ingredients in-house. M.Georgina is making cheeses like ricotta salata, which is served in a stellar mafaldine with eggplant and tomato confit; the erbette chard saag substitutes housemade feta for paneer and features housemade yogurt. Perello says it’s important for her to find ways to use all the whey her restaurant is producing, which is why she's incorporated it into much of the menu.
Similarly, the chef uses parts of her surf clams to make an XO sauce. For the surf clam diavolo, she uses juices from steamed clams in an excellent Calabrian-chile bechamel.
Finding multiple uses for one thing is a key part of the M.Georgina ethos. For a sourdough ice cream, pastry chef Hannah Ziskin rips scraps of bread and steeps them in cream and milk before making her ice cream base. Ziskin, of course, is also thinking about different ways to use the restaurant’s oven for desserts that could include roasted fruit with some sort of sabayon.
“Once you pull the coals out at the end of the night, you’ve got some serious residual heat,” Perello says. “It holds over, and we’re planning to do some breads that get baked in the wood oven in the mornings before we re-fire. Hannah’s working on some test recipes right now.”
Perello originally had no interest in opening an L.A. restaurant, but she saw the potential at Row DTLA, where the dining options include the Smorgasburg food market, 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef Brandon Go’s Hayato, Kuniko Yagi’s Pikunico, and The Manufactory (where Chris Bianco is about to open Pizzeria Bianco in the space that was formerly home to Tartine Bianco).
“We were presented with a great opportunity,” Perello says. “As we started to consider it, we spent more time in Los Angeles. I just really realized how exciting the dining scene has become here, not just because of so many new chefs moving in but also some of the amazing chefs that are already here.”
She mentions Josef Centeno and Jeremy Fox, two chefs she used to work with in San Francisco. She’s also a fan of restaurants like Kismet, Bestia, and Bavel. Being in L.A. is a way to re-energize herself and find new inspiration.
“The produce markets in L.A., I’m not going to say they’re better or worse,” Perello says. “They’re definitely on par with the Bay Area, but they’re just different. The seasons are different. The variety is different. There are things you will never see in San Francisco, like passionfruit. So many different varieties of avocados that you don’t see in San Francisco. It felt like a new exciting challenge to push myself with.”
Perello will no doubt find all kinds of ways to cook fresh produce in her hearth and oven. It all comes back to the open fire at M.Georgina.
The first dish Perello developed for the restaurant was her squid ink pita. Squid ink is something she’s used at Frances (where she served squid ink spaghetti) and Octavia (where she has a signature squid ink noodle with bottarga). Given that she’s in a complex with Chris Bianco, she knew that she wasn’t going to do a pizza. But using her wood-burning oven for a pita made a lot of sense. The result is a squid ink pita that has smoked oyster aioli, pickled onions, and a dill garnish along with the resplendent trout roe. This dish, with its contrast of darkness and color, is beautiful. It’s also warm and soft and creamy and briny and a little smoky. It’s the perfect introduction to Perello’s cooking and her wood-fired desires.
M.Georgina is a dinner-only restaurant, but Perello plans to serve lunch at The Slip, an adjacent space she will open in 2020.
M.Georgina, 777 Alameda St., Los Angeles, 213-334-4113