I have recently been spending some time exploring Los Angeles.
My brother and sister-in-law live there, two of the 18 million or so folks who choose to call this sprawling megalopolis “home”. Like them, more than half of the city’s residents were not born in LA, and about 30% come from outside of the United States altogether. A unique gathering of humanity, representing over 140 countries and speaking 220 languages, which makes Los Angeles one of the greatest multicultural melting pots the world has ever seen.
It is also a town where anyone is more than welcome to join the party. Here in the global epicentre of the film and entertainment industry, anything is possible: fantasy can become real, money can talk, people can actually say things like “call me, let’s do lunch” and not be regarded as complete wankers, and no matter who you are – from cutesy prom-queen to Austrian weight-lifter – you can legitimately aspire to being the next international superstar.
In short, it is a place made of dreams and fairy-dust. Little wonder then that even “real life” in LA can sometimes seem completely over-the-top, if not downright fantastical. Spend a day or two here and you will almost certainly have a series of “LA Moments” so unexpectedly weird or wonderful they could only ever happen in this City of Angels.
Here are two of mine.
Boa in West Hollywood is a very LA kind of restaurant. It is huge, a stunningly designed carnival of glass, stone and polished wood, made up of a sexy bar, a cavernous dining area, and a leafy outdoor terrace. All three are permanently-packed with ritzy, tanned, bejewelled, and oh-so-cool looking people. Diners are tended to by a swarm of supremely gorgeous wait-staff, who constantly buzz about dishing out designer cocktails and massive steaks, followed by nose-bleed inducing bills at the end.
That said, while the place might be pure Hollywood glitz, the food is certainly not. The steaks are genuinely fabulous, the desserts are genuinely decadent, and the wine list is genuinely the size of a small phone directory. Although for me Boa’s gift to humanity is the starter of goat cheese baklava, a culinary creation so extraordinarily divine it ranks right up there in my “greatest things I have ever eaten” pantheon. I have been to Boa four times now, I have ordered it every time, and I have almost fainted in rapture on each occasion.
Anyway, it turns out that on my most recent visit to LA I was there at the same time as a friend who was visiting from Australia. He and his girlfriend were staying a block away from Boa, so we went there for dinner one evening, along with my brother and sister-in-law.
The signature starter on the Boa menu is billed as being “a classic Caesar salad, prepared table-side”. Although on account of my addiction to goat cheese baklava I had never been inclined to order this dish before. Now however, my friend’s girlfriend did. Shortly after a man appeared at our table, dressed in a charcoal suit and crisp white shirt, and with neatly cropped hair so he looked more like an office grunt than someone you’d find working in a restaurant. He had however, wheeled a huge trolley over to our table as well, on which was a massive wooden bowl surrounded by smaller bowls filled with various salad ingredients, and an assortment of bottles and jars and spice shakers. Clearly, our Caesar salad, to be prepared table-side, had arrived.
The man introduced himself as Luis, picked up two over-sized wooden spoons, made a small bow like he was about to begin a show, and then without further ado commenced salad preparations. First he spooned a hefty glob of anchovy paste into the bowl, next he tossed in some oil, egg yolks, a medley of spices and some finely diced chili, and then proceeded to beat the lot into a Caesar dressing.
Although when I say beat, I mean quite literally thrash mercilessly. That is, Luis wielded the wooden spoons he was holding like dangerous weapons, using them to attack the bowl so vigorously that he near broke out into a sweat. For almost five minutes straight he madly mixed and stirred and whisked, interspersed with ferocious two-spoon chopping motions, so that it seemed less like he was mixing a salad dressing, and more like he was dispensing a particularly brutal shiatsu massage.
By the end though, there can be no disputing that the dressing looked absolutely luscious, a rich and creamy foam frothing with thousands of little bubbles that glistened seductively in the light. I was half tempted to stick my finger into it for a taste, but before I could Luis had already begun to throw in the other ingredients – fresh lettuce, crisp croutons, parmesan shavings, and bits of chopped egg.
All of which he then started to throw around with much flourish, deftly tossed the salad into the air, again and again, yet somehow masterfully managing to ensure that it all fell back into the bowl perfectly, every time. When he was done, each individual leaf had magically been coated in just the right amount of dressing. Luis inspected his handiwork closely, made some small adjustments, and once fully satisfied with the end result he apportioned the salad onto our individual plates.
Through it all Luis had kept up a constant banter with the whole table. He had explained the process step-by-step (“with the dressing the key is to emulsify, emulsify, emulsify”), described the salad ingredients in painful detail (something about the parmesan being 15 years old, sourced specially from a cave in a remote Italian village), told us about himself, asked us questions, cracked jokes, and pumped up his product shamelessly (“I promise, this will be THE BEST Caesar salad you have ever had”).
All in all, it was a consummate and virtuoso performance, befitting of a seasoned entertainer. So much so that when he finally finished, we all clapped.
So how was it? Well, to be perfectly honest, it was a nice Caesar salad, but it was in the end just a Caesar salad. Not all that different from any other I’ve ever had, and certainly nothing to get too excited about. Although after all his efforts, no-one was going to tell Luis that. So when he returned to the table a few minutes later to check how we were going, everyone made suitable gushing noises and behaved like we had all just achieved the salad equivalent of Nirvana. Luis literally beamed with pride.
Although maybe we overdid it just a touch, because without warning he reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a slim silver case, and proceeded to whip round the table handing us each a printed card: “I am glad you like my salad, here is my business card”. A bit weird, don’t you think – I mean, when was the last time a waiter in a restaurant handed you his personal business card?
But that isn’t the half of it. Things then took a distinctly LA turn when I flipped over the card and read it. For there, underneath the crossed-knives logo of the Boa restaurant was Luis’ full name, printed in neat block letters, and underneath of that his official title: “Caesar Salad Specialist”.
Without being asked, he immediately launched into an explanation: “There are six of us at Boa who work the Caesar salad trolley, but only two of us are Caesar Salad Specialists. That means I only do Caesar salads – about 80 each day. I came here from Mexico and it took me three years to become a Caesar Salad Specialist, and now I make the best Caesar Salad in the world.”
WTF? Did this mean there were other assorted specialists lurking about the place we hadn’t yet met? Like perhaps a Steak Sommelier, an Egg Pudding Expert, or maybe even a Goat Cheese Guru? Not to mention that I couldn’t help but think about what the future held for Luis after another three years wielding the wooden spoons. Might he rise to become Director of Salad Operations, for example?
But of course I didn’t say anything. Instead I just politely pocketed Luis’ business card, and we all smiled back at him. Which must have given him the encouragement needed to deliver this clincher: “When I am not working at Boa, I am available to make Caesar salads at private events. Office parties, weddings, bar-mitzvahs – if you need me, you’ve got my card!”
He again beamed with pride at us all, took another mini-bow, and then left us for a nearby table of diners. Where, evidently, the 8.14pm Luis Salad Spectacular was due to begin.
For the rest of the night I just couldn’t stop chuckling. This fellow, God-bless him, was neither a waiter nor a kitchen-hand. Instead here we had found a hard-working Mexican migrant to the LA dream-machine, who had transformed himself into a bona-fide expert, in the field of Caesar salads. Available to perform at my son’s Bar-Mitzvah, of all things, should I so require. And to cap it all off, he had his very own Caesar Salad Specialist business card, to prove it.
Seriously, you couldn’t make this shit up if you tried.
As is evident from the foregoing, and as frequent readers of this blog would know, I am a committed carnivore. I believe that if God had meant us to be vegetarians, he/she would not have made animals out of meat.
Thus it was with some trepidation that I agreed to brunch at Café Gratitude, a place that has a few branches in LA, including one in Venice near where I was staying on a recent visit, and another in Larchmont, virtually next door to where my brother lives. You see, Café Gratitude is not only a 100% vegetarian eatery, but a totally vegan one, to boot. To me, the vegetarian equivalent of what Sarah Palin is to American politics: the lunatic fringe.
On entering, I immediately began to wish that I had the foresight to get a tattoo, or dreadlocks, or at least some visible piercings of the ears, lips, eyebrows or nose. At the very least, I could have dressed for the occasion, in robes or tie-dye, or strung some beads, crystals or energy-channelling amulets around my neck. But without any such accoutrement I stood out like a sore thumb – the “meat guy” dabbling for the first time in an alternative world he doesn’t really understand.
Still, I have to admit that all the food on the tables of other diners looked and smelled amazing, and the coffee looked really, really good. Plus, if I am to be fair to all the folks who were seated at surrounding tables, exotically “decorated” or not they all looked to be incredibly trim and healthy, and almost bursting with vitality. Which is certainly a whole lot more than can be said for your average (ie: obese and sweaty and track-suit wearing) McDonald’s aficionado. So I decided then and there to approach this vegan culinary adventure with positivity, and an open-mind.
A waitress wrapped in a white sarong sashayed over and handed out printed laminated menu cards. Each one was almost bigger than me. Who knew you could make so much food out of nothing but vegetables? Although what stood out most was not so much the variety of choice, but rather how each and every menu item was described in terms of a positive human attribute. So for example, the Indian-style mixed vegetable curry was not labelled “Curry”, but instead was “Humble”. Likewise there was “Warm-Hearted” (aka pesto polenta), “Magical” (the veggie burger), “Fulfilled” (the café salad), etc…
In the end, I decided on a kale salad, and a mixed berry smoothie, and an espresso. The waitress returned to take the order, and for my part it took all the energy I had not to burst out laughing as I placed it. Because it felt totally pretentious, bordering on idiotic, to look another human being in the eye and say: “I’d like a Pure, and to go with that a Blissful, and also an Awake, please.”
The waitress however seemed totally cool with it all, and after taking our order turned and faced the table. Her face looked extremely serious, and she rather dramatically pressed her hands together in front of her chest, let out a meditative sound of sorts, and then uttered something deeply profound, along the lines of: “Time flies over all us, but leaves its shadow behind”. Then she turned around and silently glided off, leaving me slightly confused as to what exactly one is supposed to do with these pearls of ex-tempore wisdom. Although as it turns out, not much – apparently offering a “thought of the day” is just another one of those New Age-ish things they do for fun at Café Gratitude.
That wasn’t the end of the show though. It continued when the waitress returned ten minutes later with our food. At which point she did not silently place it on the table in front of me, as most wait-staff are prone to do. Nor did she place it on the table and say something helpfully descriptive like: “here’s your smoothie and kale salad”. Nor did she even say something slightly weirder, like: “here’s the Blissful and Pure that you ordered”.
No, instead she turned the whole thing into a personal motivation session. That is to say, with a fair amount of pomp and ceremony she placed my salad and drink carefully in front of me while at the same time intoning, loudly enough for everyone sitting nearby to hear: “YOU ARE BLISSFUL. YOU ARE PURE”. And indeed, quite a few folks turned their heads to check out who the blissful and pure one was, at which point I felt pretty fucked-off. I mean, had I known about Café Gratitude’s “you are what you eat” approach, I almost certainly would have ordered the Fabulous, Divine and Majestic, instead.
But my descent into Feel-Good Veganism didn’t stop there. Having delivered the food and the accompanying missive, the waitress now simply hovered, waiting for me to respond. I had no choice but to eventually comply. So half closing my eyes (not meditatively, mind you, but out of sheer embarrassment) I slowly repeated back under my breath: “I am Blissful. I am Pure”. And then I crawled underneath the table, where I hid for the rest of the meal.
Actually, that last bit isn’t true, obviously. The food was (I confess) super yum, the coffee super good, the sun shone and the weather was warm. So once I got over the oddness factor, I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the meal, and when we left I felt not just full and satisfied, but like I had done something really good for my body, too.
Although I have absolutely no doubt that had I indeed crawled under the table, curled up into the foetal position, and remained there sucking my thumb all afternoon, no-one would have so much as batted an eyelid. On the contrary, there is even a distinct possibility some of the other patrons may have joined me. That’s the kind of “only in LA” place that Café Gratitude is.
You can’t help but marvel at the sheer bizarreness of Los Angeles a lot of the time. A city that at times can be so out of touch with reality that everyone seems like they are actually someone else.
Like the receptionist at my sister-in-law’s gym, who is actually an actress waiting for her big break; or the guy making coffee down the road from their apartment, who is actually a male-model between jobs; or the lady answering phones at my brother’s office, who is actually an aspiring screenwriter; or the bloke sitting at the next desk along who studied finance, but really wants to paint and direct documentaries.
Or like the waiter who isn’t even a waiter, but is actually a Caesar Salad Specialist cum performance artist. Or like even the most humble of mixed berry smoothies, which in the right Los Angeles hands can become a Blissful meditation on life, the universe, and everything.
How could anyone not love a place of such endlessly odd possibilities?