When I’m in New York, I have simple rules that make life a lot easier: namely, never go anywhere involving the words “East” “upper”, or “shared”. The first ensures that when crossing from West 45th, where I live, I will be stuck in a taxi whose idea of a short cut is going via Missouri. The second always entails getting on the wrong subway train that is going in the opposite direction, while the third means . . . well, I’ve never found out, because anything involving another person’s plans inevitably involves missing the start of the movie, failing to find seats at the bar, or arguing over whose turn it is to pay the Uber.
In LA, I have just one rule: don’t go anywhere – at least, don’t go anywhere further than three miles away if you want to be back home this side of Christmas. And so, when my dear friend and brilliant food PR Bradley Tuck (could anyone’s name ever be better suited to his job?) suggested going to Silver Lake for brunch, the words struck me with horror. Anything with a metal in its title is never a good sign and screams distance – Australia’s Gold Coast, the Ironback Mountains of Collabria (prone to avalanches). Coupled with the word “lakes”, this could mean only one thing. Canada.
There was more to come: the restaurant is called Cliff’s Edge, which added fuel to the fire. Not only were we going to Canada, we were all going to die!
Thanks to Google Maps, I discovered that Silver Lake is only four miles from where I live and, at just a mile out of my comfort zone, I decided to risk all. Armed with my hiking boots, hip flask and ice pick (one can never be too careful heading east), Bradley enthused about the restaurant that, since it opened in June 2004, has garnered praise from critics, locals and its fair share of celebrity diners.
The huge outside space, shaded by foliage and created around a 60 year old Ficus tree at its heart does not disappoint. It’s hard to reconcile the blandness of the typical LA road that leads one to this place of magical, yet unostentatious splendour. Interior designer and urban developer Dana Hollister (one of three co-owners) has created a soulful space of colour, warmth and inviting elegance. The Ficus feels both like a shrine and an impartial observer: comfortable and happy in the shared joy it perceives all around (I love trees).
And joy it is. Champagne arrives in a carafe I mistakenly assume is a very unusual glass (over-enthusiasm for champagne at brunch is one of my many gastric faults). Then, when the champagne is poured into a large wine glass, I learn from Bradley that this is, in fact, the proper way to serve it, rather than in a flute or coupe. It is, after all, a wine, and needs to be swirled and aired just like any other. I decide that I need another carafe, just to make sure.
The oysters that accompany the champagne are the small, delicate kind, not the over-sized elephant ears that make me heave and think I am eating my nether bodily parts. They are beautifully chilled and in no need of the Tabasco sauce with which I normally suffocate oysters to disguise the often algae smell of those that have spent too long in transit.
My only bugbear in the US is that the oyster is loosened from its shell by the kitchen. I have no idea if this is because Americans are lazy, but when I lived in Paris, part of the pleasure of oyster eating was participating in the process: scooping the flesh with a tiny fork, enjoying that last rubbery break as it left its home; the anticipation of the next part of its journey as it heads towards your mouth (I feel another oyster feast coming on).
There are very few things I don’t eat or cook, but I am really bad at desserts (because I don’t have a sweet tooth, I have no interest in them) and eggs. The only time I get to eat eggs is when somebody else cooks them, and there is just something about the timing of brunch that makes eggs acceptable. I can’t eat them at breakfast, not least because I can’t stomach anything more than two cups of tea before 10am (who needs to look at a chicken foetus before you’re fully awake?); and I don’t want eggs at dinner because I’m not four years old. But give me 11am to 1pm, and I’ll down foetuses for Britain.
What I especially love about my goat’s cheese omelette is that the cherry tomatoes are on the side. So many omelettes are ruined by tomatoes being thrown into the mix, making the dish a river of thinned blood coursing through yellow flesh struggling against the tide. We discuss tomatoes and I learn that Bradley, like me, is not a fan of tomato juice; however, we draw the line at Bloody Marys, and Vartan Abgaryan (who used to be the chef at Cliff’s Edge) has one that looks perfect.
My request when ordering a Bloody Mary is always “Easy on the tomato juice”. I think that no matter what you add tomato juice to, it just ends up tasting like tomato juice, holding everything else hostage: it’s the kidnapper of all liquids.
I also learn from Vartan how to stop chicken tasting like anything other than chicken. No matter how I cook it – salt, lemon, barbecue sauce – it just tastes the same. I’m not going to give away his secrets, partly because when I move on to the Cotes de Rhone, I suffer a memory lapse. But if you want to sample his food, he now heads up the kitchen at 71Above, Downtown LA’s extraordinary new venture in the city’s tallest building.
The Corsican red I was hoping to try is unavailable, but Corsican co-owner Pierre Casanova (I so want to come back with that surname in my next life) enthuses about his country’s liquid assets. Pierre exudes energy and gratitude for the surroundings and a profession he clearly loves. I give him a smattering of my best French, and, after the red wine, I discover I am fluent in Russian, too. Again.
My hike over, but ice pick still intact, I return from Canada along the blandness of another LA highway, dreaming of oysters, champagne, and the knowledge that no experience beats the pleasure of eclectic surroundings, lovingly prepared food, the company of Bacchus and the laughter that grows from sharing.
You see? Sometimes, it’s good to share. Just not on New York’s Upper East Side.