With the proliferation of celebrity chefs and colossally hyped restaurants, modern diners have a lot on their plates. Here, we talk to a top toque on the verge of second-chance stardom, learn what Parisians like to have for dessert, and generally find out what's on the menu in 2013.
By Michael Kaplan • Photographs by Sam Polcer
HINOKI & THE BIRD looks too posh to be anyone’s idea of a comeback bid. Situated at the foot of The Century, the Los Angeles condo tower where Candy Spelling famously maintains a $47 million penthouse, the restaurant features a sunken dining room accented with its namesake wood—hinoki, a fragrant maple used to frame the best Japanese onsen. Waiters deliver platters of charcoal-smoked short ribs and black cod to Hollywood heavyweights and food world cognoscenti. Diners on a recent night include über-chef Thomas Keller, “MasterChef” judge Joe Bastianich and GoodFellas producer Irwin Winkler. Sucking down Kumamoto oysters at the bar, a Malibu dentist brags that he has tasted everything on the menu. Since the restaurant opened in January, its Asian-with-a-twist fare and A-list ambience have made it one of the hottest spots in town.
David Myers has been here before. Solidly built and sporting a knot of silky black hair, the charismatic 39-year-old chef moves about his restaurant with practiced ease. Having inspected a platter of raw scallops with grapefruit and lime leaf, he swoops out to banter with high-profile guests, then makes laps around the kitchen while waving a smoking sheet of hinoki, just to keep everyone psyched. There is, though, an undeniable edge to his exuberance, an artfully suppressed anxiety.
The fact is, this popular, well-conceived restaurant represents for Myers something of a second act, or even a second chance. In 2002, the much-celebrated haute California tasting menu at his eatery Sona placed him firmly in the Next Big Thing category. After his work there earned him a star in the first L.A. Michelin guide, in 2007, Myers began assembling his empire. In rapid succession, he opened a chain of pastry shops, a lauded brasserie and a pizzeria.
By the end of 2009, however, a series of bad business decisions and excessive expansion had caused his bakeries to go under and his Swiss financiers to pull out of Sona’s management company. In what must have been a crushing blow, Sona went into Chapter 11 and much of its meticulously curated wine cellar was sold. In May 2010, the restaurant shut its doors for the last time. While Myers still ran the tony West Hollywood brasserie Comme Ça and a superior trattoria called Pizzeria Ortica in Orange County (and later opened a string of Sola pastry shops in Tokyo and a second Comme Ça in Las Vegas), none of these enterprises delivered the ambitious dishes that he required to rise to the status of superchef. “I need the challenge” is how he puts it now. “If I don’t have the challenge, I’m not into it.”
With Hinoki & the Bird, Myers is very much into it. The question is: Will others share his enthusiasm? “People look at me and they want to know if this guy still has it,” he says, sitting at a table on the restaurant’s back patio, munching perfectly grilled Scottish salmon just before the start of dinner service. “Maybe they wonder if I was a flash in the pan. It’s been three years since Sona.”
So it is that, bankrolled by the Related Companies—developer of Manhattan’s Time Warner Center, the home of blue-chip dining destinations Per Se and Masa—Myers has entered what he sees as a do-or-die career phase. And he has done so while taking the kinds of risks that would cause many chefs to get their whites in a twist. “I was beyond nervous opening this restaurant,” he says. “I’d ask myself if people would eat skate wing on the bone with spicy sambal sauce. I questioned things 20 times and lost sleep over them. Then I’d hit the road and run for five or six miles. I’d exhaust myself and quiet my mind.”
A couple of months before opening Hinoki & the Bird, Myers visited Southeast Asia for a final blast of inspiration. Ho Chi Minh City, which he toured by motorcycle, was a highlight. “I hit 12 restaurants a day,” he says. “I went to a place with nothing but 15 variations on goat curry and ate goat with a delicate braise on the best baguette I’ve ever had. There was pig blood soup with raw egg. Pho at 6 o’clock in the morning. You’d be riding in the streets with these crazy throngs where there are just two rules: Go, and don’t die.”
While Myers might be applying the latter mandate to the launch of Hinoki & the Bird, he’s surely not planning to serve pig blood soup to his Hollywood clientele, right? He laughs. “The trick is to bring back the experiences that captivated me. Then I make them exciting for people in the U.S.,” he says. “Maybe it’s doing pho without the broth or changing up the marinade on the skate wing. Or capturing the scent of hinoki and the artisanal craft of Japan. I weave those experiences into the dishes here.”
So far, despite Myers’ trepidation, or maybe because of it, things seem to be working. Highlights of his new menu include searingly spicy chili crab toast, glistening panels of marinated tuna supporting a sprightly lemongrass salad, and savory steak tartare spruced up with pickled jalapeños and a perfect quail egg. The garrulous dentist at the bar reveals that he was a regular at Sona and actually likes Hinoki better. Vaunted L.A. Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold writes, “In Singapore, locals would ride a half hour on the subway to experience a grilled skate wing like the one Myers serves here.” To top things off, the chef has regained his treasured wine cellar.
Even as Myers acknowledges that he might have another restaurant concept in mind and a cookbook brewing, he won’t yet declare his current operation an unqualified success. “Things are going great. People are liking the food,” he says. “But not a day goes by that I don’t worry that the other shoe is going to drop.” With this, he looks out into his dining room, which is packed with appreciative customers. “I never expected it to be like this,” he says. “Not so early on.”