Stefan’s at LA Farm

For those of you who watched Season 5 of Top Chef, not only will you recognize this cocky bigger-than-life character who lost to Josea in the finals, but will probably also have a strong opinion about him.  Stefan Richter, the Finnish born and German raised chef who made a lasting impact on viewers, has joined his Top Chef alumns in opening up shop in the LA restaurant scene. Last summer he took over the LA Farm space and vamped up the interior.

For those of you who have been to LA Farm, I’m sure you’ve wondered at least once or twice, why on earth somebody decided to build a restaurant there in the middle of absolutely nothing on the most deserted section of Olympic Boulevard.  Although that still remains a mystery, once you make it inside, the beautifully redone atrium patio with leather banquettes and firepits on all 4 corners of the room will make you forget all of that.

Most Top Chef fans will agree that despite his abrasive and in-your-face attitude, Stefan was the more talented of the finalists and probably deserved to win.  It’s not just his impressive resume which include stints at the Bellagio in Vegas, Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills, the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, and his own catering service that give him the upper hand, but he clearly demonstrated superior skills and innovative dishes compared to his competitors.  At his new restaurant where he is very hands on in every part of the operation, you’ll not only get a taste for his food, but also a taste for his loud personality.  He really is just like you saw him on TV, and you’ll still either love him or hate him.

His new menu features items that stick to the basics that Angelenos love like steak frites, veal chop and seafood risotto, and he throws in the occasional twist with sliced pig’s head and pork cheeks.  However, what initially lured me to his restaurant was the small plates menu.   All items are $3-6 each, and everything sounded delicious and fun.

Classic deviled egg with Osetra caviar was surprisingly delicious.  I’m not a big fan of deviled eggs since it’s not the type of dish to ever wow anybody, but we ordered it at the urging of our server.  The subdued acidity and whipped creamy texture of the yolk mixture was delightful, enhanced by the clean saline finish of the caviar.

The Cali crudo, a tuna and halibut carpaccio with lime vinaigrette and cilantro microgreens, was also a winner.  The fresh slices of fish were superbly tender, and dressed with an aromatic and fruity olive oil.

The french onion soup with Gruyere crostini was too cute for words.  It’s hard to tell from the photograph, but these white porcelain soup ramekins were about the size of a nectarine.  Despite its petite size, each bowl was packed so full of flavor and content that it didn’t seem like I was having a mini portion.  The concentrated rich broth was overflowing with sweet caramelized onions, and the crostini had just the right amount of gooey Gruyere cheese to make me happy.  A lot of restaurants offer soup cappuccinos and warm soup shots, but this was the first time that I saw french onion soup being offered in a miniaturized portion.  I can’t even count the number of times that I had to forego ordering french onion soup because I didn’t want to fill up on a whole portion and not be able to eat anything else.  I fell in love with Stefan’s mini soupe a l’oignon for this reason- a mini portion with mega flavor.

We ordered one dish from the regular menu and all of a sudden it seemed gigantic in contrast to all of our other small dishes.  The smoked rabbit salad with pears, fried parsnips and house cured artichokes in a thyme vinaigrette was a well rounded dish.  The succulent and tender  rabbit was the best part of the dish, and I loved the crunchy deep fried parsnips bits, but the salad greens were limp and soggy from too much dressing.

Sonoma foie gras with cracked white pepper, smoked salt and griddled brioche was one hell of a sinful bite of pure fatty goodness.  These half-dollar sized treasures were so decadent, that its buttery and rich flavor was almost too much for me to handle.  At $3 a piece, it’s hard not to get a whole dozen of these tasty morsels.

Sweetbread schnitzel with warm potato salad reflected Stefan’s German upbringing.  The sweetbreads were a little on the gamey side, but the tartness and acidity of the chopped cornichons in the potato salad balanced it out perfectly.  The salad was absolutely divine and made in true German style.

Truffle arancini with lemon aioli was my favorite small plate of the evening.  Arancini, which are Sicilian deep fried rice balls, means ‘little oranges’ in Italian for its similarity in color and shape.  The rice filling in these arancini balls tasted just like the exquisite white truffle risotto that I cooked at home recently (in my previous blog entry).  The warm delectable rice balls were deep fried to a perfect crunchy exterior.  I could have easily eaten another 10 of these.

Although there were many tempting choices for dessert, we had to try the  mousse au chocolat with baumkuchen, more so to try the house made baumkuchen.  I love baumkuchen, and I usually buy it at department stores in Japan where it’s a very popular dessert.  This German ‘king of desserts’, whose name means ‘tree cake’ because of the many thin ring layers that it has, is usually baked around a round spit to make a large ring shaped structure.  The one at Stefan’s was a flat horizontally layered cake that was baked in a pastry pan.  I was hoping for a nice thick cut of the traditional ring shaped version, and was disappointed when they served me an ultra thin cut of flat cake that was brittle and dry.    The dark chocolate mousse was a bit too rich for my palate, and we couldn’t finish it off.

I absolutely adored the lollipop trio dessert for its concept, appearance and taste.  The photo below of the lovely trio is  one of my favorite food photos that I’ve ever taken. Each lollipop had a sweet and rich chocolate center that was surrounded by liquid nitrogen frozen ice cream.  The flavors of the evening from left to right were: passion fruit vanilla, eggnog with cranberry sauce, and red wine chocolate.   Although all three were outstanding, my favorite pick was the passion fruit vanilla for its smooth vanilla flavor and passion fruit tartness.  These lollipops were not only delicious and flavorful, but also exhilarating and fun to suck on.  Just looking at these cute stick desserts made me smile, and I regressed to childhood as we all giggled and laughed.

After our wonderful dinner we took a tour of the bustling open kitchen.  The comforting aroma of freshly baked breads from the pastry station in the back corner and the sizzling sounds of meat on the grill filled the air as we took in the intense energy emanating from the kitchen.

We followed our noses to the pastry station and congregrated around the chef who was in the middle of preparing 2 desserts.  The German cheesecake with fresh berries looked fascinating.

We also discovered the culprit of what gave off the tantalizing aroma that originally lured us to the pastry station.  Buchteln with maple pecan ice cream and crème anglaise was being assembled for an order in the firepit lounge.  Buchteln are sweet Austrian dumplings made of yeast dough and baked in a pan in tight clusters.  Each batch is freshly baked to order and dusted with powdered sugar during plating.

Our persistence in hanging around the pastry station paid off, for we got to sample the freshly baked buchteln (or maybe he gave it to us to make us drooling dimwits go away).  These warm pillowy delights, with a slight dusting of powdered sugar, were quite amazing on their own- I couldn’t even imagine how good the whole compiled dessert would be.

Once we returned to our seats, Stefan joined us for a couple of drinks and a lipsynching marathon to the rocking 80′s mix that was playing in the restaurant.   His signature song, Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, came on at the height of our trip back to memory lane.  You can hear this song when you log on to the restaurant website.  Stefan chuckled as he told us that Steve Perry contacted him to ask why this song was on the website, and that Perry was coming to LA Farm for dinner the following week.

I went for a second visit last night and had a few other items off the small plates menu.  Since this was an impromptu late night visit to Stefan’s, I didn’t bring my camera.  I hope my words will be enough to convince you to try these wonderful tapas items at Stefan’s.  The beef tartare with poached quail egg was superb, although the accompanying breadsticks were a bit on the chewy side.  Tiny burger sliders called ‘Like a Big Mac’ with caramelized onions, cheese and lettuce ribbons, were tender and juicy.  They didn’t taste like Big Macs at all, but they were still just as satisfying even at these super mini sized portions.  Kumamoto oysters with green absinthe jello and a tart fennel vinaigrette were amazingly refreshing.  Parmesan truffle mousse with warm porcini crisps were oozing with wonderful truffle essence.  There was an extra drizzle of white truffle oil on the mousse that sent my truffle loving dining companion to truffle ecstasy.  The white mousse was so rich that it almost tasted like truffle butter.  A small portion of this was definitely enough though, as the intense salt content of it made me gulp down a gallon of water before bedtime.  Roasted California pistachios came in 4 flavors of tomato, guacamole, chile and garlic.  Apparently this is one of Stefan’s favorite items, as he finished off our entire bowl when he came over to hang out with us.

Stefan told us that he had just bought 2 other restaurants, one on Montana and one in Culver City.  At that time he couldn’t tell us where, as it was still an industry secret, but a recent press release revealed that he took over the old Cynthia’s on the Corner space on Montana and 15th.  Opening is planned for next week as Stefan’s on Montana.  As for the Culver City location?  We’ll soon find out.  Although I have yet to try his formal dinner menu at LA Farm, I really enjoyed the small plates concept.  Everything that we had was spectacular, and it was really fun to be able to sample an array of small delectable delights for an even smaller price.

Stefan’s at LA Farm

3000 Olympic Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90404-5073
(310) 449-4000

Random trivia:  Did you know that a man named George Smith invented the lollipop in 1908 to make it easier and less messier to eat hard candy?  He named this ‘hard candy on a stick’ after his favorite race horse named Lolly Pop.