Towne Food & Drink: Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles, California

Looks, as they say, can be deceiving. A quick glance at Towne Restaurant at the base of the WaterMarke Tower in gentrified South Park near the LA Live entertainment complex could lead one to think that this posh eatery was simply another expense account venue where business travelers can rack up hefty tabs while knocking back Stoli Elit Vodka in a frozen rocks glass. Order one of the requisite rib eye steaks to go with that drink and you'd be a walking cliché in a pinstripe suit. If you think Towne is that kind of place, you'd be right.

However, take a peek behind the 2 story-high curtain and you'll spy a band of playful wizards making mischief and magic while playing with your food and drinks. It quickly becomes evident that Towne isn't the place you thought it would be.

Desserts practically come first at Towne because as soon as you cross the portal, there to greet you is a delectable display of desserts designed to destroy any diet. The first world foodie dilemma here is which tantalizing treat to get before the starter shows up. A display equivalent to a pastry junkie's Tiffany & Co. jewelry case is set up at the entrance and beautifully boasts Key Lime, PB&J, Pistachio and Strawberry Macarons. There are also Blueberry Cheesecake, S'mores and Strawberry Tomato Donuts. They make their own "Pop Tarts" and "Twinkies" too.

Vodka is the focal spirit at Towne. The restaurant's vodka freezer is practically the U.N. of premium vodkas with choices from Croatia's Akvinta to USA's Caprock and Jewel of Russia to France's Fair quinoa vodka. When served in a cradle of concave ice that's at the bottom of the rocks glass, every bit of that premium vodka shines without being watered down. 

Towne's Clean Martini may be all salad bar on top, but it's party time down below. Chopin, blanc vermouth, cucumber and dill are the "clean" behind this crisp, smooth martini. It's like a trip to a boozy day-spa. 

However straightforward the bar program designed by Jason Bran seems at first glance, Towne's whimsical touch reaches behind the expansive bar as well. The Towne Kool-Aid Pitcher is a nostalgic nod to the 70s and beyond; in fact, all of Towne's featured cocktails pay homage to a specific decade or decades. To sweeten this grown-up version of Kool-Aid with a kick, the beverage is mixed table side and includes Tanqueray Vodka, lime and the Towne Kool-Aid packet which is standard Kool-Aid cut with powdered Campari. Oh yeah!!

Let's linger for a moment in those carefree days of yesteryear and tipple away on Jason Bran's CoCo Punch. This ubersweet cocktail treat is most definitely for those boozers who love their drinks strong and sugary. Fortified with Jim Beam, Cocoa Pebbles marinated cereal milk and crowned with nutmeg and Cocoa Pebbles, it's like having liquid breakfast at the local dive bar that opens up at 6am. It can be fun once in a while.

One thing about Towne, you won't be waiting long for something yummy to nom, like the house made pretzel bread. This artisan delight is served with the perfect mustard. After a few bites, these nibbles become absolutely addictive and you simply won't be able to stop eating them but you should because there is a veritable cornucopia of engaging edibles that await on the bill of fare 

Towne's starters seem to emphasize veggies from the Simple Salad to its hearty Tuscan Kale Chop Salad. But the most enticing option was definitely the Kampachi "Tacos". This fusion play on Mexican and Japanese cuisines is probably the most elegant taco I've had in a while. 

It is a small taco, almost mockingly small with the micro greens garnish virtually dwarfing it, but the flavors are big and more than makes up for its size. The diminutive hard shell encases creamy Kampachi, the hijiki sea vegetable, creme fraiche and radish resulting in a pleasant mouthfeel where the crunchy shell and meltingly tender filling create a toothsome bite.

Whenever I see "shared" plates on a menu nowadays, I reflexively roll my eyes and become hypercritical of the presentation. It has become trendy to describe any app as a "shared" plate, and, more often than not, the dish is difficult to divvy up. This is not the case with the perfectly shareable Lobster "Mac". Each order arrives in a small cast iron pan with exactly eight self-contained portions. The Lobster "Mac" is basically a pasta cup filled with luscious lobster and enrobed with velvety cheese. It's simply lobster-tastic! 

It may not be foie gras but the Chicken Liver Popcorn is a tasty little snack that is as delightful as the mini pail it comes in. The liver flavor is successfully dampened by the variety of seasonings in the batter while enhanced by the herby za'atar yogurt dipping sauce. The liver nuggets have a sturdy crust and distinctly Middle Eastern flavor.

Another Mediterranean influenced shared plate was the Wood Grilled Octopus. It came highly recommended and was an easy choice since a good grilled octopus is always welcome at the table. Although appealing visually, the octopus itself fell short in texture with a sort of mealy feel to it instead of a more firm chewiness. The flavor was a miss as well and tasted a bit muddled with tomato and smokiness. 

When the Seared Dayboat Scallops arrived, its simple exquisiteness was clear. Every component of the dish was as fresh as can be and distinct as a day boat: a bull's eye of bok choy, paper thin pickled radish, frothy coconut broth, fresh sweet figs from owner Armen Shirvanian's garden and, of course, the plump, silky scallops. Every mouthful was a joy to savor and designed to linger in the mouth like an oceanic memory. This was bliss in a bowl, truly. 

Bone marrow and matzo ball soup may not be the most obvious of team-ups but that's why this soup seemed so strangely beguiling. The bone marrow itself is worked into the matzo ball hence Bone Marrow Matzo Ball Soup. Punctuated with shiitake mushrooms, the matzo ball is doused with rich, steaming beef consommé, table side by the server. Matzo ball soup was never this unctuous or satisfying.

This magical whimsical meal continued with a shared plate of Lobster Smokey "Pig in a Blanket". Was it a rich man's "pig in a blanket" or just an approachable way to indulge in lobster? Who cares. These pastry bites of crustacean are fun to eat and definitely shareable, that is, if you're willing to share them.

Towne offers a strong selection of inventive pasta plates from Tagliatelle with Braised Rabbit and Minted Peas to White Bean Ravioli with Smoked Ham Hock Broth and Swiss Chard, but the one I lusted after was the Spaghetti Crab and Sea Urchin. This luscious pile of thick spaghetti strands intertwined with bits of sweet crab and coated by briny urchin was near perfection. Every aspect of it was pure pleasure from its layers of sea flavors to the pasta's ideal al dente texture. This pasta alone justifies a return visit to Towne. 

As far as I'm concerned, the Crispy Pork Shank for 2 was the epic plate of the evening. (In reality, this hog could feed four.) The pork shank is when Towne's top toque Ryan Morrison shines with the best of them. 

Accompanied by sweet & sour cabbage, whole grain mustard spätzle and mustard jus, the sweetness of this slow-cooked then flash-fried pork shank powers through. But what really elevates this decadent dish are its textures. The shank's exterior is as crispy as crackling, and the succulent flesh is as moist and tender as cooked to perfection pulled pork. Towne's Crispy Pork Shank for 2 will rank as one of the top pig plates in Los Angeles if Chef Morrison can keep its quality consistent. It is a huge portion. In fact, the one my table got was considered on the small side. This is fine because it's just as delicious the next day. Leftovers make great pulled pork sammies!

If it is humanly possible to eat a dessert course after the carnage, then it is highly recommended that you once again turn back the clock and enjoy some reinterpreted treats from your wonder years. Peanut Butter Crunch Bars, Bag of Donuts, Push Pops, Twinkies, Pop Tarts and a whole slew of sweets await. 

The Push Pops are Towne's version of the classic Push Ups ice cream pops. Pastry Chef Tamara Davis jumped into the sandbox and created an updated version of these frozen treats with unique and unforgettable flavors like Ginger Caramel and Raspberry Thyme sorbet as well as standards like Coffee and Vanilla.

Chef Davis successfully concocted a very luxurious, pillowy Twinkie with your choice of Chocolate Mint, Original Banana or Red Velvet, each topped with an ornate band of dark chocolate. 

And don't forget the Pop Tarts. Blueberry and Dulce de Leche are the flavors available for your trip down memory lane. These are very fancy Pop Tarts where popular culture and high level pastry making collide.

All you need is a glass of milk to wash it all down. Just make sure your Towne mixologist isn't spiking it with Russian Standard Platinum.

(Special thanks to Grub Street NY for the list of banned food writing words. You made this review a lot easier and funner to write. For that I am forever grateful.) 

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