The Little Door – Seasons of Plenty
I shouldn’t be surprised that our local farmers’ markets have been a motley feast for the senses lately – it happens every year, after all. But there’s something about Technicolor herbal bouquets, gargantuan beets, arugula flowers and cherries by the bucketful that surprises me every time. Yes, in California we are well in the throes of fresh produce bounty.
Nicolas Peter, chef of The Little Door thrives on this spring and summer abundance, referring to it as “the season of the plentiful.” In fact, he spends every Wednesday and Saturday morning at the Santa Monica markets, whose farmers’ fare help determine his menus that change approximately every six weeks.
“It’s important that I’m in sync with the seasons,” he says. “All my menus are related directly to the vegetables and fruits that are growing at the time.” The Little Door’s produce has been purchased from Farmers’ markets ever since the restaurant opened nine years ago, and Peter hasn’t tired of shopping yet. “For me, (going to the market) is a joy. I am always a pretty happy guy, but really, the market is a fun place,” he says. And it’s not difficult to sense that joy for food, and respect for those who grow it, in everything served at the enchanting Mediterranean-style restaurant. The selections at The Little Door are vibrant, and the fruits and vegetables – mostly organic and all pesticide-free – are used innovatively at times, traditionally at others, and generally in a way that simply seem right.
On a recent Sunday evening, while listening to Natasha Atlas, Spanish guitar and other world music in the background, I proposed a question regarding starters to my witty, gracious server: the almond-crusted baked goat cheese and trio of roasted beets ($14) or the warm roasted-garlic and pine nut tart ($12)? He didn’t hesitate to recommend the latter. A rich smooth puree of roasted garlic, cream, parmesan and pine nuts baked in a pastry tart, it was delicious and memorable. Quite different, and also satisfying, was the sizeable “mezze” ($16) appetizer, which included hummus, baba ganoush, beautiful roasted beets and delightfully light spanikopita. The main course on offer included a seven vegetable couscous with harissa and onion confit ($28); roasted chicken breast with garlic, oregano, lemon risotto and baby purple artichokes ($28); and pesto-crusted ahi tuna and tomato coulis ($32). After I decided on seafood, our server (always there at the right moment and never more) helped me choose the European monk fish “tajine” ($32), a Moroccan concoction of garbanzo beans, tomatoes, onions, olives, sautéed zucchini and a hint of lemon on couscous over a lightly meaty monkfish. An abundantly flavorful dish, it was hearty and warming. With fruits in full swing now, the best time to sample them at The Little Door is during the dessert course. Coconut cheesecake (a popular favorite), flourless chocolate cake, vanilla crème brulee and lemon meringue tart all beckoned to me. But the strawberry rhubarb tart ($9) proved a fine choice, served with vanilla ice cream and a dollop of freshly whipped cream so good that I could have eaten it solo. The strawberry sweetness nicely balanced the rhubarb’s tartness, and its crust had that beautiful home-kitchen kind of taste.
It makes perfect sense that much of the food I tried here had just a short journey to my plate – from the fields to the farmers’ market to Chef Nicolas ‘s bags to his kitchen to my plate; there was nothing tired about it. It’s not a stretch to imagine that each item, whether baby artichoke or sugar snap pea, was mindfully chosen. And it’s obvious that the farmers’ markets provide rich inspiration for Chef Nicolas Peter and his menus. In fact, he says the markets help drive him to do what he does: “you just want to cook!” he enthuses. And we’re so glad you do Nicolas. We’re so glad you do.
By Susan Derby
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