Stairway to heaven? This new bistro just might be it

In the early evenings at Camphor, sunlight streams through the covered windows and casts long shadows across its floors. Nearly every surface in the dining room has been painted white; Walls and ceilings and countertops add sparkle in a burst of brightness. The staff moved calmly through the space, passing a golden sculpture resembling a gate near the entrance and taking on the color of the tranquil sky at sunset.

At this hour, the restaurant offers the dreamlike feel of a cinematic afterlife waiting area.

A waiter in a white dining room with a dark blue counter

Camphor’s food court.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Beef sandwiches in Camphor.

Beef sandwiches in Camphor.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

The effect sets a suitable tone for cooking. Although chefs Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George look to France for basic menu inspiration, the retrofit is modernism and an interventionist use of spice-pull dishes like beef tartare and grilled chicken out of any conventional sense of place or time. Down a narrow alleyway, behind the opulent facade of a four-story red-brick Art District building, Boonthanakit and George create a realm of their own. This is the cooking pub of the mind.

The two met a few years ago while cooking at Blue by Alain Ducasse in Bangkok, and the mere mention of Ducasse’s name can suggest some key words that also apply to Camphor: luxury, imagination, engineering , global taste. Before moving to Thailand, Boonthanakit worked as a pastry chef in the very kitchen he now co-leads; space was once the place of Mei Lin’s short-lived existence.

Cyrus Batchan, whose No.8 hotel conglomerate is behind the luxury cocktail bar Lock & Key in Koreatown, has partnered with Lin on Nightshade and last year reached out to Boonthanakit: Would he like to create something? fresh in the vacant position? The answer is yes, but with the addition of George, a native of Kerala, India, with years of fine dining experience in Hong Kong and Doha, Qatar. George has never been to Los Angeles, but Boothanakit knows their style will match no matter where in the world they are cooking together.

Among the many snacks to start a meal, one offers a particularly convincing opening: tiny fried shrimp, shells and all, buried in a variation of the South Indian milagai podi (also known as the South Indian dish milagai podi). called “gunpowder spice”) charred with black pepper and seasoned with citrus curry leaves. Its satisfying crunch creates sparks throughout the taste buds. It also complements bar manager Andrew Paniagua’s bar, herbal-based cocktails – especially the gin-based complex Trocadéro with a hint of absinthe, cucumber and celery.

A bowl of small shrimp and spices

Appetizer “gunpowder” baby shrimp in Camphor.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

A portion of sizzling bread accompanied by a smooth emulsion of Époisses and butter. Depending on the maturity of the Époisses, the spread can be reminiscent of a light Brie or deliver the kind of funk that almost makes your brows happy. As you alternate between the seasoned shrimp and crispy sourdough topped with washed cheese, the Camphor aesthetic begins to take notice.

Boothanakit and George are able to transform familiar dishes of European restaurants into exciting new spaces. While tinkering with new ideas for beef tartare, they started combining it with herb tempura fries. Place a lightly crumpled basil or shiso leaf in the palm of your hand and use a spatula to coat some chopped round steaks topped with a light, dashi-spiced mayo. You may catch the crack of stray capers or the licorice smell of tarragon. I use a fork more than my hands, but I appreciate the creative elegance of the presentation.

Barbajuan is a snack or appetizer of fried ravioli, often stuffed with chard and ricotta, popular throughout the French Riviera. Here, the kitchen team arranges fried bundles in an oval shape reminiscent of abalone and Dungeness crab filling; On the side is the most tender aioli and, oddly but rewarding, a handful of candy-red teardrop-shaped Peruvian sweet peppers. Comfort mussels cooked in white wine with pieces of bacon after an act of patting: Cooks have removed the bivalves from their shells.

Boonthanakit semi-jokingly used the word “boring” to describe the effort he and George invested in their match. It starts by cutting off the chicken breast while also cutting the bird’s skin length in half. They soak that part and turn the chicken thighs into truffle mousse; involves stacking the elements into a cylindrical shape, then poaching and finally drying the transformed bird and placing it in the thyme-scented sauce of jus and vin jaune before taking it to the table.

Chicken with a side of vegetables at Camphor.

Chicken with a side of vegetables at Camphor.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

The technique involved reminds me of the sumptuous stuffed chicken Lincoln Carson once served at Bon Temps — another Arts District restaurant that, like Nightshade, was an early, heartbreaking victim of the pandemic. This version has a slight contrast in texture. When I concentrate, I can follow the light, sweet scent of garam masala that perfumes the food like a pheromone. It stamps complex recipes with the common brand of chefs’ individualism.

Initially, Boonthanakit and George announced that the food at Camphor would be a fusion of French and Indian cuisine; they have retreated from the confines of that framework, but a side dish called “lentils & lamb” is still a testament to the route they could have taken.

It’s basically a high-tech dal: lentils simmered in a smoky broth made from sheep’s neck bones with ginger, garlic and spices that George brought back from Kerala, one of the regions that grows black pepper, cardamom and spices. important spices in the world. A clear note of roasted cumin runs through the dish, covered with green lentil foam ornately garnished with cream. Rich and light and deep, dal is my favorite thing the restaurant serves.

The plate "lentils & lamb" at Camphor is served in two bowls.

“Lentils & Lamb” in Camphor.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

If chefs free themselves from any geographical notions in their cooking, they also don’t see any real sense of seasonality. Beautifully shredded beef tenderloin in pepper sauce, a tang of scallops and pasta, boiled lobster tails topped with Cognac biscuits: It all forms a permanent culinary sensation, of Camphor as one. cocoon of infatuation. Clearly, dining here requires an investment: Chicken, for example, costs $40 a dish; you’ll want to add a $16 lentil & lamb portion and another $16 for asparagus, which comes out in the spring and has lasted into the summer months. The bearnaise spoon above is a textbook.

Before leaving for Thailand, Boonthanakit made a splash with his artful, cold desserts at Nightshade. I see and feel the connection between then and now most of his creation revolves around kiwi. He soaked the fruit in cardamom syrup until it had a candy-like consistency. On top is a frozen platter made of green apple and lemon tea, with textures made of charcoal and coconut that mimic the shape of a kiwi sliced ​​in the middle. It’s vegan, otherworldly food and a perfectly appropriate finale.

Everyone in the restaurant dining room

Camphor’s dining room was packed with dinner reservations.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

If you’ve listened to the following sweet sensation of Camphor, you may well have finished the last sip of a luxury cruiser Chablis or Pommard that dapper maître d’ Kalani Lau helped you choose. He’s worked for years at Santa Monica’s Capo, which has a wine binder as thick as a Reuben sandwich, so he knows his stuff.

An ultimate luxury? A server will probably pass a cart full of liqueurs to sip on after dinner. If Batchan is in a restaurant, he can come and tell you about his personal accumulated collection of chartreuse – herbal spirits, whose recipes total more than 100 ingredients, so Carthusian monks made it in the 16th century. The taste of green chartreuse has no landing point: It flies from anise to summer herbs, from sweet to bitter, and back again. It will take you back to the outside world that is instantly calm and engaging. That way, it ends the meal in Camphor like a Boonthanakit dessert.

Kiwi and mint frozen desserts at Camphor.

Kiwi and mint frozen desserts at Camphor.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)


923 E. 3rd St., #109, Los Angeles, (213) 626-8888,

Price: Snacks $10-$12, appetizers $19-$32, electricity $30-$72, dessert $10-$20

Details: Open Sunday, Monday and Wednesday from 5-10pm, Thursday to Saturday 5-11pm Full bar. Parking lot.

Recommended dishes: “gunpowder” juvenile shrimp, bread with Époisses butter, beef tartare, chicken, lentils & lamb, kiwi dessert, macaroons with Meyer lemon ice, bread pudding Stairway to heaven? This new bistro just might be it

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