Saint Martha – The Best Meal We Ever Had in a Strip Mall, and Quite Possibly, in all of Los Angeles.

Just the other day we ran across Joshua Lurie’s blog entry at DiscoverLosAngeles.com entitled, “The Best Non Korean Restaurants in Koreatown.” Jackpot. We had been looking for this information since we moved into the hood 3 years ago. Not that we don’t love Korean food; we do! But for our 11th wedding anniversary, we wanted something special.

Enter Saint Martha.  Highly rated, and easy walking distance so we could both drink, it seemed like the perfect spot for the occasion.  It did not disappoint.

As such, a great big THANK YOU goes out to Joshua Lurie for introducing us to Chef Nick Erven and Saint Martha.

And while we’re at it, a great big THANK YOU to Chef Erven and the entire staff at Saint Martha for quite possibly the best meal we have had in Los Angeles, in a strip mall or otherwise, and for helping make our 11th anniversary a memorable one.

When we saw the address, we immediately recognized the neighborhood, but could not for the life of us imagine where this restaurant was, specifically. As it turns out, it is in a dilapidated strip mall, a block from Ralph’s on Western Avenue, whose largest sign advertizes “DENTISTA” (we have passed it many times and never gave it a second glance).

But when we walked through the doors at Saint Martha, we were transported to a very different scene. The hostess greeted us warmly when we arrived, and promptly showed us to our table. Saint Martha is small (seats about 32), cozy but not crowded, and very comfortable with an open kitchen (there are even 6 bar seats where, on a slow night, you can interact with the kitchen). There are no windows, which means no distractions from the outside world.

Our server, Maria, arrived shortly, brought our menus, and proceeded to impress the hell out of us with her near encyclopedic knowledge of the food and the wine list. She described in great detail both the 5 and 7 Course Chef’s Pick Tasting Menus and chatted with us convivially about our wine options. All wines (with two exceptions which are served only by the bottle) are served by the taste (2 oz), glass, piché (approx. 2 glasses), and bottle.

As this was a celebration, we started with a piché of Broadbent, Loureiro, Trajadura & Arinto, Vinho Verde (Portugal, NV) Sparkling Wine. Technically not “real Champagne” but close enough for an 11 year anniversary ;).

The Amuse Bouche – Raw scallop

Before we could even make up our minds about the food, Maria returned with our amuse-bouche:  raw scallop with miso and ginger on a nori crisp (since it was unexpected and very appetizing, we ate them before we could really figure out all the ingredients).  They were gooey and delicious with the crisps adding a gentle crunch to the texture.  And coincidentally, they went perfectly with the Vinho Verde.

Amuse Bouche Scallop

It was rapidly becoming clear that we were in for a gastronomical treat.

As amazing as the Tasting Menus sounded, there were a few things on the a-la-carte menu that were emphatically on our “must try” list, so we opted to create our own tasting. And, after an extensive perusal of the menu, along with expert guidance from Maria, we finalized our choices.

Fortunately, the menu is very conducive to sharing. The plates on the left side of the menu are small, tapas-like portions, while the ones on the right are closer to entree size. We chose 4 from the left and 2 from the right for our celebration.  For a moment, we worried that it would be too much food, but quickly laughed off that possibility.

We didn’t specify which plates to bring when, leaving that choice to the chef.  And so began our dinner proper.

Course No. 1 – Hamachi crudo

Hamachi Crudo

Miso and soy sauce delicately flavored these four slices of fresh, raw  yellowtail.  Chopped raddishes and cilantro added color and subtle flavors, and what looked like Lilliputian popcorn provided a delicate crunch and smoky popcorn-ish flavor to round out the dish.

The stuff that looked like miniscule popcorn turns out to have been puffed sorghum.  Who knew?  And what a creative and fitting touch to an already superb dish.

If we had any complaint with this dish, it was that there just wasn’t enough. So good. . .we wanted more!! But there was plenty more to come, and by this point we were quite confident it would be special.

Again, by sheer coincidence, the vinho verde paired perfectly, adding a slight note of sweetness. So we polished it off.

And out came the bottle we’d ordered earlier: a Tempranillo from Avan Nacimiento, Ribera del Duero, Spain.  We’d drunk our share of Tempranillo in Argentina and Uruguay, and also in Ribera del Duero (albeit almost 10 years ago), so we knew more or less what to expect from this wine.  However, in the first sip, we were surprised at the intensity of the raspberry jam flavor.  This faded as the wine breathed, but remained a prominent note in this complex, fruity wine.

I’d forgotten that the Spanish put out a rounder, more subtle Tempranillo than their South American counterparts.  And whereas we generally prefer very bold and spicy wines, this was delicious and paired quite well with what came next.

Course No. 2 – Juniper Cured Salmon, Smoked Goat Cheese, homemade pickles and an Everything Bagel Churro.

Salmon, Goat Cheese & Bagel Churro

Yup, you read that right! Everything Bagel Churro!! As two former New Yorkers that have been on the hunt for really good bagels in L.A., we were intrigued. While it was actually a churro rather than a bagel, it was indeed “everything bagel” flavored. A bit of churro with a bit of salmon with a slice of pickle, topped with a schmear of smoked goat cheese . . . we were in heaven.

It was kind of like having our Sunday morning Ess-a-Bagel in New York, but without having to chew as hard.

Course No. 3 – Octopus with koshihikari rice, sauce nero, lardo and espelette.

Octopus

Sharyn sez:  The next dish was for me. Neither of us had any idea what koshihikari rice or espelette were, but it didn’t matter. They had me at octopus. I assumed I wouldn’t have to share this one, but I was wrong. For the man who never met an octopus he liked, Mike went along with me bite for bite. OK, who am I kidding? I had the two big pieces while he had only one, but I did have to eat fast. It was delicate and not chewy or rubbery. Each ingredient blended so well together that I was figuring that this was going to be the best one of the night.

Mike Sez:  I am not a fan of Octopus, but I always try it nonetheless.  The second best Octopus I ever had was in a small, traditional restaurant at the top of a mountain in a remote corner of an island off the Dalmatian coast. You have to order it a day in advance because they cook it for 16 hours over olive wood coals in ceramic pots.  Everyone else who had it raved about it, and I found it almost palatable.  The best octopus I ever had was at Saint Martha, and it was actually delicious.  I asked if it was prepared sous vide, because it was the only way I could think of to make octopus not rubbery.  But as it turns out, it’s just cooked for about 5 hours instead.  Bottom line: I still don’t like octopus, I just like this octopus.

Course No. 4 – Chicken liver mousse with mushroom, hazelnut praline, pickled blueberries and toast.

ChoppedLiver

What came out next was what the menu calls “Chicken liver mousse with mushroom, hazelnut praline, pickled blueberries and toast”. We call it “Grandma’s Chopped Liver on Steroids“. The velvety peanut-butter-like sauce blended perfectly with the classic flavor of “Grandma’s Chopped Liver”. These flavors in turn were offset beautifully by the sweetness and tartness of the pickled blueberries. The closest we can come to a  complaint here was that the toasts, while tasty, were a bit thin and delicate causing them to break on more than one occasion. But it’s a quibble at worst.

And on to the larger plates we went.

Course No. 5 – Whole roasted trout with beets, king trumpets and bone marrow

Trout

Course No. 6 – Braised Pork belly with black garlic porridge, almost 5 minute egg and a bunch of onions

Pork BellyThese two “courses” came out at the same time, which we found odd since each of the previous plates had come out on its own.  But we soon realized why this was.

As it turns out, these two very different dishes went remarkably well together. The nutty, salty fish with the colorful roasted beets acted almost as a side dish for the heartier, more flavorful pork belly, and the eggs accompanying the pork had the perfect texture to complement the more robust and sharper pork belly. If there was a problem with this dish, it would be that the pork was just a tad drier than one would think by just looking at it.

Dessert – Peanut butter granache, roasted grape ice cream, griddled pound cake & chocolate fueilletine

Dessert

That’s what the menu said.  What we would have called it:  “Frozen PB&J from hell, quite possibly with a grudge”.

We were pretty sated when asked if we had saved room for dessert.  Nonetheless, we responded with a resounding “YES”.

There were three options, but only this one sounded sufficiently tasty to justify dessert after a meal like that.

So imagine this:  You’re 12 years old, and during lunch period, you find that your mom gave you a PB&J, except instead of bread there was gourmet pound cake, instead of the Skippy, there was peanut butter granache, and instead of the smuckers grape jelly, there was roasted grape ice cream. Plus there was this awesome chocolate crumbly stuff on it.  That’s what this dessert was like.  And we didn’t even have to go to social studies afterwards!

We finished up our meal with a glass of Rare Wine Company Baltimore Rainwater Madiera, Island of Madiera (Portugal) Port.

A superb end to a superb meal.

Saint Martha

740 South Western Ave

Los Angeles, CA 90005

Saint Martha Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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