I love Deluxe in spite of myself. Despite reason, despite my better judgment, despite being committed body and soul to the war against California Cuisine -- that limping, wrongheaded, disastrous blight on the soul of American cookery -- and throwing myself into the breach every time a California-style restaurant pops up on my side of the Rocky Mountains, despite all this, I love Deluxe.
I get a little breathless when I talk about the place, a little hot under the collar from the sense of the forbidden in my unnatural attraction to it. If I weren't me and Deluxe was just another place -- wasn't Capulet to my Montague, the vanguard of my enemy's strength -- I would be here every weekend, kicking back in the rear of the room, soaking in my lust and watching the world go by. I would be a regular among regulars, the house coming to know my favorite table, learning exactly how I like my lamb, my filet, and what I prefer off the single-page wine list filled with well-chosen, interesting bottles that make it seem so much deeper than it is.
The kitchen does a small plate of masa-fried oyster shooters, with perfect, golden-brown oyster meat shelled and served in a pho spoon over a sweet tomato-lime salsa fresca, topped with a blazing, smoked jalapeño aioli. The dish is so ridiculously Californian -- the head-on collision of Mexican, Asian, American coastal and French influences, the simple yet innovative plating -- that it's almost a parody, a page stolen out of the Jonathan Waxman/Jeremiah Tower playbook. All it needs is a dot of wasabi and it's 1989 all over again. But the dish is also so ridiculously good that it seems less like a robbery than a pitch-perfect homage to the original brilliance of California Cuisine before it was overrun by talentless hacks with their artisan goat-cheese salads and nasty, grill-fired veggie-wrap sandwiches soaked with hundred-year-old balsamic.
Here's how much I love Deluxe: Those shooters come in six spoons arranged in a circle on a plain white plate, and I'd gone through five of them before I hit the one bad one in the bunch -- an oyster so big that I cut it in half rather than tipping the spoon back and swallowing it whole. As soon as I started chewing the first half, I knew it was bad, knew I was going to suffer -- maybe a little, maybe a lot -- and knew there was nothing I could do. And after a brief moment of highly personal arithmetic -- trying to guesstimate my own intestinal fortitude, my tolerance for bad shellfish built up over the years, and just how how ill one dubious oyster, flash-fried, could possibly make me -- I ate the other half anyway. Why? Because when you eat fugu (poison blowfish) or roast Vietnamese field mice or shrimp cocktails off the street in Juarez or oysters in Denver, sometimes you have to just challenge the odds. I don't bungee-jump. I don't skydive. I don't even ski. Eating is my extreme sport.
And that night, of course, I was sick. Not badly -- just a bit of a sour tummy demanding medicinal applications of Mister James Beam's finest while the befouled temple that is my body sent in the digestive shock troops. And as I was lying there, all I could think about was how good those other five oysters had been. How the five good ones had made anything I suffered from the sixth totally worth it. Every restaurant, no matter how careful, can serve a bad oyster now and then, and all oyster eaters will eventually get one -- that's just the risk you take when eating something as ugly as an oyster. And all that night, while I was thinking about how good those oysters were, I was thinking about how I couldn't wait to go back to Deluxe.
I wasn't always in love with this place. When it opened last year, it was boring, slow, clumsy and putting out plates that seemed derivative at best, and at worst, thumb-fingered knock-offs of the work being done by bad California Cuisine imitators -- even if Moore did prefer to call his fare "modern American." A couple of small plates showed glimmers of potential buried beneath piles of gimpy moves and overblown expectations, but that wasn't enough for me. And from the look of the joint back then, it wasn't enough for other diners, either. Weekends were slow. Weeknights were downright lonely. The first time I ate there, I was one of only three customers. There were more cooks in the kitchen than diners on the floor.
"At the beginning, I was making exit plans," chef/owner Dylan Moore now admits. "I was wondering how much I could sell my stove for."
And this from a guy who -- like me with the oysters -- had said screw it to the numbers and decided to take a chance on a cuisine that was twenty years past its peak on the day he lit up the burners, because he thought something great could come of the gamble. Moore and his wife, Kristen Tait, had bought the space at 30 South Broadway five years ago, back when it still held Cafe Evangeline, and just sat on it while they continued to run their popular nearby store, Decade. "We've always known that we wanted to open this restaurant," Moore says. "We were just waiting for the right circumstances."
And when those circumstances came along -- when Evangeline closed and the space went dark -- Moore locked himself inside and went to work. He did the entire refit himself: He laid the leopard-print carpet and every tile on the floor, built the banquettes with his own hands, designed the open kitchen with its copper-topped bar. "It was weird," he says. "It was a trip. I hadn't been in a kitchen in ten years. Hadn't put on a chef's coat in ten years. It was so scary, all that time. And all of a sudden, I'm opening a restaurant in a week. People are calling me Œchef.' I didn't know if I could do it."
He'd certainly done it before. Moore wasn't just some shlub who'd read a couple of books and watched too much Food Network, but a pro who'd done his time on the front lines of the revolution while it was happening. He'd trained under Tower (or, more accurately, under Tower's cadre of underbosses who were probably more talented, anyhow) at every hot San Francisco address in the late '80s and early '90s: Stars, Stars Cafe, the short-lived Speedo 690, MacArthur Park. He was there when all of American cuisine was going through a wrenching paradigm shift fired by Tower's ruthless brand of celebrity self-promotion and the cooking that he and Jonathan Waxman and Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters and even our own Mel Master were doing in kitchens in S.F., Los Angeles and New York. This was a man who took his inspiration from the source, not from second-, third- and fourth-hand reinterpretations of what California Cuisine had meant to the restaurant world.
In this industry, trends and fads go cannibal at the least excuse, eating their young like crazy, growing fat and insipid on their own incestuous imitators. But Moore had something going for him even better than his history on the coast: He'd walked at the right time, turning his back on the life ten years ago, before the worst of the sins started being committed in Waters's and Tower's names. He'd come out clean, with a purity of influence that isn't just rare, but pretty much non-existent.
From the beginning, that clarity showed in Deluxe's menu -- an untainted artifact from back in the day, when California Cuisine was the hottest thing going. But his ten years' absence from the line also showed in his moves. In those first stumbling months, it was like Moore was cooking with mittens on, struggling along on crutches, desperately fighting to get his groove back. Rather than sell his stove, Moore kept trying.
But it was worth every day of struggle, because now he's cooking at the level that such a menu demands in order to be anything but a snooze. And he's not only got my attention, he's turned my prejudiced affections in his favor.
That menu includes a dish that might have been on a Chez Panisse prix fixe fifteen years ago: grilled salmon mounted over a warm white-bean salad, dressed with baby spinach greens and a roasted red-pepper aioli. For the past year, Moore has been nudging and tweaking and tinkering with this dish -- getting reaccustomed to the high-end grilling that was such a pillar of the California food revolution, stripping away all the flaws and unnecessary flavors -- until, today, it is a perfect example of the form.
During several visits last month -- hours spent sprawled along the banquette seats, or crouched at the copper bar watching Moore and sous Sean Beede (a Johnson & Wales veteran who exploded another lovingly held prejudice of mine, this one against C-school grads) work, listening to the hot jazz on the sound system and the electric buzz of full house after full house behind me -- I cemented my admiration for Deluxe's turnaround and the chef's second act. I fell in love as I ate grilled swordfish with cilantro pesto and an avocado salsa that might as well have been a poke in the ribs to all those cooks who never made it out of the Bay Area scene, and barbecued short ribs in Chinese five-spice hoisin stacked like a pile of Lincoln Logs on the plate, a dish that grew out of the L.A. line cook's impish urge to watch Beverly Hills ingenues in thousand-dollar dresses try to eat with their fingers without messing up their manicures. (Why do you think the open kitchen was invented, anyway? You don't really think it was because the cooks wanted diners to see them?)
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Not having a manicure to worry about, I tore into the ribs. The meat was beautifully tender, just peeling off the bone, the sauce a smoggy-sweet charred glaze with that 10 percent Asian backbite that was such a hallmark of the '80s flavor. I also devoured simple, flash-fried rock shrimp served like popcorn in a bowl with just a little remoulade and a squeeze of lemon, and garlic-spiked chicken and ginger dumplings swimming in a broth made of chile heat and smoke. Deluxe has offered crab cakes as a special since the day the place opened; on a night I finally showed up early enough to wrap my teeth around the last available order, I found them a bit too daintily presented (four mini-cakes on a white plate daubed with a Nagel smear of thick basil aioli) but incredibly rich and tasty, and topped with that inescapable dot of salsa fresca without which no Californian dish is complete.
Another night found me lurking in a back corner, guarding a plate of ravioli in sage brown butter sauce drizzled with a bittersweet balsamic vinegar reduction. The odd-sized ravioli, which came lined up across the plate rather than in a pile, were lumpily stuffed with goat cheese and pumpkin crema so that each bite offered a different ratio of pumpkin to cheese to sage to sauce to whatever, and though the balance of flavors was always different, it was also somehow always right. There's nothing more '80s than garlic mashed potatoes, and Moore had those spuds mounded up beneath a grilled beef filet, presented without fanfare. Even though it was the most expensive dish on the menu, it was still a bargain.
So at Deluxe, you get '80s food at close to '80s prices, cooked by a guy who might as well have been locked away in a time capsule for the last two decades. It's amazing, and tickles that streak of retro renegade in me. Service is the one area where this place occasionally falls flat -- with a lot of posing and mugging for tips by the staff, who often seem totally incapable of the basic mechanics of waitering, like remembering the specials or what it was I'd actually ordered while they were pushing their menu favorites or another top-shelf martini. But I can look past that, if only because the service almost completes the scene, offering a frighteningly accurate depiction of the worst L.A.-waiter stereotypes. There were nights at Deluxe when I was surprised no one tried to slip a copy of his head shot and resumé in with my bill.
In the end, a lot of nasty things were done in the name of California Cuisine, and those responsible will pay dearly when they find themselves banging out spinach wraps and vegan salsa for all eternity down on the devil's hot line. But Dylan Moore has nothing to fear. With Deluxe, he's made it easy to love again.