In the heart of downtown, just a stones throw away from the Financial District, lies the oldest building in LA, the Vibiana Cathedral. From the gorgeous architecture to the historical and cultural relevance, this building is a stand out. Next door, in the former rectory to the church is an immaculate restaurant that strives to not only provide superb, quality dishes, but pay homage to the history of the building and the cultures imbedded in Los Angeles.
Redbird LA was the dream of chef Neal Fraser and his wife, Amy. With an extensive background in the culinary world and making a name from himself through former restaurants Grace and BLD, as well as working with some of the most well known chefs of our generation including Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Checkers. Chef Fraser was generous enough to sit down with us and share some words of wisdom as well as his thoughtfully crafted, incredible menu.
Labeling Men: Tell us about yourself and how you got started cooking.
Neal Fraser: How I started cooking… I rode down an escalator one day and decided I wanted to be a chef and kind of stuck with it. I went to culinary school at CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in upstate New York. Most of my career I spent in New York, but I had a kid very young and wanted to be near her. What else?
Labeling Men: Did you grow up cooking with your family? Or just one day decided to be a chef?
Neal Fraser: Nope, my parents were terrible cooks, still are. My dad was a better cook than my mom, but he’s no longer around. So now my mom just kind of opens cans and eats fresh fruit; she’s a very simple eater.
Labeling Men: How did you start Redbird?
Neal Fraser: We - my wife and I - had a restaurant called Grace on Beverly Blvd. for a little over 8 years and had an opportunity to move it. So we saw the space and fell in love with it and decided we wanted to move. We sold it, thinking it would take us six months to open it, but it took about 6 years from start to finish to get the deal done, restaurant built up. We really love downtown and to us it’s a great opportunity to do something that was hopefully bigger than us. Being in a former Catholic cathedral is obviously a very iconic space anywhere in the world, but especially in Los Angeles where the oldest building is the one next door to you. Like, go to Boston and there are buildings from the 1500s and there’s not even like dirt from the 1500s in Los Angeles.
Labeling Men: That’s very true! (Laughs) So what was the inspiration behind your menu and the type of food you create?
Neal Fraser: I think we were trying to match the menu to the space. I think that we kind of had an idea of what it would look like as we started building it, and the menu kind of morphed as we grew into the space as and as it was designed. We had lots of ideas of things we didn’t want to do. I didn’t want it to be a small plates restaurant, I didn’t want to be a traditional restaurant. I wanted to do something kind of myriad of all these things where someone could come sit at the bar and have a cocktail and one dish and have that be the experience they have Redbird for. Some people come in and have a full meal. Some people share, some people don’t; we accommodate all of those things in the same breath because we want to be a restaurant that’s around for a long time. Maybe we aren’t the hottest, trendiest restaurant, but hopefully that will give us more staying power. We are attracting a lot of different people, not just people who want to eat at the latest, newest restaurant, but people who want to have lunch from City Hall, the police station, the FBI have lunch and servicing the area with a higher end option that doesn’t really exist [in downtown]. I mean, there are a couple of restaurants that are open for lunch that are higher end, $50 check.
Labeling Men: That’s awesome. Aside from catering different kinds of experiences, how would you describe the type of food?
Neal Fraser: I would say, if there is a food that is representational of Los Angeles, that is what I am trying to do. Angeleno food - not necessarily California cuisine - you know, what is indicative of Los Angeles. We have nods to, maybe not every culture in Los Angeles, because that would be impossible, but nods to Japanese food, nods to Korean food, nods to Mexican food, which I feel are the more dynamic cuisines in Los Angeles. Still keep digging into and finding new stuff to create a unique experience.
Labeling Men: So what is your favorite item on the menu currently?
Neal Fraser: Um, I don’t really know, that’s a hard question to answer. I really like the lamb belly. I really like the snapper crudo; I just think it’s simple, clean, approachable. Seems to work when it’s colder out, when it’s hot out.
Labeling Men: Do you change your menu with the seasons a lot?
Neal Fraser: We change it every day.
Labeling Men: Oh! (laughs) That’s amazing!
Neal Fraser: I mean not everything, but there are some things we can only get for a few days, suppliers that we only order from a few days a week and we may have their product for only two days, four days a week, depending on how much we get in and how much sells. So we are constantly moving things back and forth. Not to say we gut the menu every day, there are some things on the menu that have been there since we’ve opened and some things that change often.
Labeling Men: Awesome! What was the design inspiration behind the space?
Neal Fraser: I think that we wanted to pay homage to what the building is. It is the former rectory of the catholic cathedral and we wanted to have some modern things and some not so modern things. Neither Amy [his wife] or myself have been to Mexico City, but that’s kind of what we wanted to nod to, something that you would find in Mexico City. Dynamic but old, kind of off the street, we have a full dining outside but you’re not on the street. So if an ambulance blows by you’re not going to get dirt from the ambulance flying on to your food like a lot of outdoor cafés.
Labeling Men: It has a little more ambiance [laughs]. It’s absolutely beautiful. What has been your favorite meal that you have cooked, ever? Is there one dish that you count as a stand out that you always go back to?
Neal Fraser: I don’t think so, I am constantly evolving or try to. We always go back to the old bag of tricks and see what’s working and what’s not. Once in a while we will take a menu or an item that was on a menu twenty years ago and update it or not and put it back on the menu to see if people still enjoy it. Definitely not trying to reinvent the wheel. We just try to get great product in and treat it with reverence. You know, we’re not trying to have every dish be a modern gastronomical experience; there is something to be said about a good grilled piece of meat with some salt on it and have that be amazing.
Labeling Men: I love that. I mean there are some brilliant chefs that have done some creative things, but it’s nice to go back to the basics.
Neal Fraser: Exactly.
Labeling Men: Are there any chefs that you look up to or have been inspirations in your career?
Neal Fraser: Absolutely, the people that I have worked for and worked with. Probably my biggest influence is a guy by the name of Mark Galiani, who is unfortunately no longer with us. I really love Dan Barber and everything he does, he’s really smart and he really thinks about his food, a lot. I really like Sean Brock’s food, I love what John Besh is doing in New Orleans and I love the whole New Orleans food scene and what it represents. Being one of the only American cities with true food culture, it’s obviously pulled from French [food] but it’s become its own cuisine, which is amazing because the rest of the United States, I mean you could say New England has it’s own cuisine but its really boiled potatoes, seafood, and chowders, not very exciting. Where New Orleans and what Sean and John are doing, that’s really exciting. I definitely use a lot of those ingredients, we buy a lot from South Carolina, we try to cook stuff that’s somewhat homegrown, that’s not just taken off a menu that you could see in France and have it be representational of what’s in the United States as well.
Labeling Men: That’s great. What is the best meal that you have ever eaten that was not your own?
Neal Fraser: My best dining experience I’ve ever had was in a restaurant called Kitcho Arashiyama in a town outside of Kyoto called Arashiyama. I did a trade mission with the state of California about seven years ago and one of the perks of doing my trade mission was going out to one dinner - this was actually a lunch. So I took the bullet train to Kyoto from Tokyo to this restaurant and everything about it was just magnificent, the toilet paper, the wood on the floor…
Labeling Men: The real experience.
Neal Fraser: It was a real experience. One of the meals was just steamed rice; the rice was transferred into this basket that was red lacquer. The table we sat at was red lacquer like a piano, and the food was just exquisite. Every kind of weird ingredient I ever wanted to have, I had all in the same experience.
Labeling Men: Wow! What were some of the ingredients?
Neal Fraser: Um, blowfish we had in several courses. We had kind of a sashimi plate, we had some vegetables. I was there in I think it was February, that were only in season for a couple days a year that they served as a course, simply steamed and with salt. We had this one fish dish, I’m not sure what kind of fish it was, it was kind of like sable fish that was wrapped in some sort of banana leaf that that was formed in a clay pot and it was baked in the clay pot and they smashed the pot at the table. It was just a lot of unique things that I’d never had before. It was amazing.
Labeling Men: Have you tried to incorporate any of that before?
Neal Fraser: I think I have a Japanese sensibility on flavor, but there wasn’t one dish on the menu that I was like, “I have to bring that back.” I try not to do that, I like to riff on things but not verbatim-ly steal. Although I don’t think I’ve ever done anything original, everything I’ve done has probably been done before. I try to present good food that can be a milestone enough; you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel to have it be amazing.
Labeling Men: Definitely. Do you have any advice to young, aspiring chefs?
Neal Fraser: I give the same advise to everybody: find another job. Most people do not have the sensibilities to work in a restaurant, they just don’t. People just think it’s something that it’s not. When I went to culinary school, it was like plumber, electrician, and then chef was lower than that. For the amount of time you have to put into your profession to what you get paid, it’s still the lowest in the world to how many hours you work to what you get in return. And certainly, you have to be a glutton and patient.
Labeling Men: Well, you have definitely built a great place here. Tell us a little about the food we have here.
Neal Fraser: This is an heirloom tomato salad, we got some cheese in, an almond milk ricotta and it was terrible. So we were like, “What can we do?” So we wrung out a lot of the water and we cold smoked it. So it’s a smoked, vegan cheese. Most people think it’s cheese, like they don’t know it’s anything other than that. So we paired it with pine nut brittle and basil oil.
The Goat Gemelli, it was kind of one of those dishes we made about ten time until we got it right. It’s really a stand out dish because it’s gamey but it’s lean, it’s hot but not too hot. I think it’s got a lot of unique textures and flavors.
Chef Fraser leaves us to indulge in the mouthwatering dishes in front of us and put some final touches on our next course. Every dish, from start to finish was extraordinary with clean but complex flavors that invade the senses.
The heirloom salad was the perfect starter, with a variety of sweet red and orange tomatoes that were perfectly complemented by the vegan ricotta - which I am still in awe of the creativity behind that idea - and the pine nut brittle.
I am not as adventurous of an eater as I would like, so it was my first time to try goat, and thanks to Chef Fraser it will not be my last. The pasta was tender, the perfect al dente, and the combination of rapini, garlic bread crumbs, fresno chili was finished off with a poached egg. I’m still craving it as I write this now.
The next course, Rack of Red Wattle Pork includes spaetzle, Oregon hazelnuts, peach mostarda (to die for) and calvados blood sauce. The pork was perfectly cooked, and the dry rub was an outstanding touch with the exact amount of crispiness and flavor. However, my favorite part of this dish was the peach mostarda; it was such a clever but simple way to add a hint of sweetness.
Our dessert took me straight back to summer as a child with their version of the Creamsicle. With a nitrous vanilla anglaise that is hard on the outside and creamy in the middle, placed on top of a French sponge cake, tangerine granata, a little bit of chili powder, coconut gelee, and tangerines, there are a lot of moving parts that once are combined become the perfect, refreshing bite.
The entirety of the meal was finished off with two specialty cocktails handcrafted by mixologist Tobin Shea himself. He created two off-menu concoctions that were inspired and absolutely delightful. My favorite of the two is aptly named, The Woods, as it has an almost smoky quality yet remains refreshing. Combining two different types of Gin, French Vermouth, clarified lime juice and topped with a smoked rosemary sprig.
Our second cocktail has the working title of Thousand Oaks due to the specialty syrup created with dried rose petals, hibiscus, pink peppercorn, lemon zest, juniper berries and referred to as the thousand flavor syrup. The syrup is shaken with vodka, burr (French aperitif), lemon juice, seltzer water.
Redbird LA has now become one of our new favorite restaurants, from the stunning ambiance to the immaculate food, Chef Neal Fraser and his wife have created an instant LA classic.
114 E 2nd St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
By Mischa Teichgraeber
Photographs by Amelia Williams