If I could create the perfect lunch spot, it would have the following:
Fresh and flavorful ingredients
A gourmet approach to the food – in concept and execution
An affordable price-point (under $14, with lots of options somewhere around $5-$10)
Prime real estate – walking distance to cute shops…and close to a Barneys
A talented, yet humble chef who is recognized for his skills, as well as his charm
Needless to say, this is a tall order. So, I was surprised to discover that something like this actually exists, when I was invited to a tasting at Cabbage Patch in the 90210.
At 2 PM, this place was packed worse than the 4 train on my daily commute to Manhattan once upon a time – but it smelled a whole lot better.
I tried a variety of menu offerings and quite a few of them made a strong impression. The French lentils were unexpectedly yummy. Cumin has a distinctive punch that usually KO’s me on the first bite, but the creaminess of the avocado created a nice balance of flavors. The yam wedges and breaded mozzarella were crispy, not greasy; which is what a lot of fast-paced lunch spots get wrong when they fry. There’s no faster way to my heart, than with moist chicken (is that bad?). I’m not sure why so many people suck the life out of chicken when they cook it, but Cabbage Patch clearly does no such thing–their pan roasted jidori chicken was really good.
The true star of this meal, though, was the slaw. It’s not of your average variety–this slaw is not milky, goopy, or gross in any way. Nor is it too bitter, sweet, soggy or stiff–it was just right.
I was so excited about my food, that I bombarded poor Chef Samir Mohajer with an onslaught of questions. Here’s the dish on our convo:
BATF: You were born in Iran, but raised in West L.A. How did this influence the flavors you bring to your dishes?
SM: I think more than the flavors, you see it in the style. Like in Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cooking, there are a lot of fresh elements on a plate. Even if you have a hot dish, there’s a cold element with it–a salad or an herb. As far as flavor profiles go, there are not many items here [that are inspired by Middle Eastern flavors]. We do use a lot of spices. You taste a lot of cumin, like in our French Lentils (cilantro, cumin, avocado, lime juice). There is definitely an influence from other countries, but I wouldn’t call it ethnic–more Californian.
BATF: What is your first memory of cooking?
SM: I have a lot of childhood memories. We had these family friends who were, like, my grandparents’ age. They had a bakery and they would bake everything in-house–Persian sweets like Baklava and all kinds of cookies and treats. I have really fond memories of being at their house visiting them and being happy because there was always food around. My parents worked, so I was left home a lot. My mom would par-cook things for me, and after a certain age, I was able to finish them off and feed myself–which happened a lot starting around 8 or 9 years old.
BATF: Why call your restaurants Cabbage Patch?
SM: It’s named after the dance. I figured that one day I would celebrate the success of this place with the dance. I pictured myself doing the dance. Plus, it has that farm-fresh connotation. When you think of a cabbage patch, you think of fresh produce.
BATF: You’ve only been open for about a year and a half now, and you are about to open your third location in Downtown L.A. Where do you want to be next year at this time?
SM: Hopefully working on a fourth or fifth location. Hopefully on the West Side because I grew up in Santa Monica and West L.A. I would love to do Santa Monica, Brentwood, or the Pacific Palisades.
BATF: How will Downtown be different from (or the same as) Cabbage Patch BH or in Playa Vista?
SM: The menus at our locations are slightly different. Beverly Hills is our original location, and we did this particular menu because it is a very fast-paced lunch spot. Space is an issue in Playa Vista, so we have a limited menu. We offer a lot of salads and sandwiches over there. In Downtown L.A., we have a huge kitchen, so we are going to add more items onto the menu–for example, we’re going to add an all-natural free range chicken, rotisserie style. With that, will come a bunch of other options–like bringing more of an evening crowd. Hopefully, Downtown will be a commissary kitchen for us; where we can find smaller spaces and use the main space to distribute our product out to our other kitchens.
BATF: Your ingredients are incredibly fresh. How do you manage to keep the cost so reasonable? (Thank you for that, by the way).
SM: We’re not paying for a managers, floral decorations and things like that. Those are the costs a lot of high-end restaurants incur, so they have to charge more for those products. I was skeptical until I got into this space and did this concept. We were able to keep it at these prices. I have a really good relationship with the farmers I shop from–they look after me. I’ve been shopping at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market for at least ten years now and they’re all very supportive. The ones I have relationships with know that this is my first business and they’re really trying to help out. I have a great guy who gets me produce from other places, too, so we’re constantly looking for deals. There’s a place called Foods in Season in Washington State, that always has wild fish, wild mushrooms, etc. Right now, wild salmon is in season and it’s totally affordable. I just got six whole wild salmon that were delivered–they were caught yesterday and they’re here today.
BATF: Because most of your produce is seasonal and from local farmers, how often do you change your menu?
SM: It gets tweaked every three to four months. We thought we could keep it seasonal by changing quite a bit of every three to four months, but dealing with the lunch crowd, you realize that people want what they [usually get] everyday. It’s very different from a dinner restaurant, where the chef makes what he wants and the people who come either like it or they don’t.
BATF: Is that something you discovered when you opened up Cabbage Patch?
SM: Yeah. I hadn’t done much lunch service, since most of my background is in upscale, fine dining restaurants, which is a whole different operation.
BATF: Well, you seem to be doing something right. This place is packed.
SM: Thank God. I’ve got a lot of great help. I’m blessed with that. Most of the guys in the kitchen were line cooks at really high-end restaurants. They’re not sandwich and salad makers; they’ve worked fish stations and grill stations at high-volume, high-end restaurants. It helps them in how they approach the food. We have a very gourmet approach to the food, as far as the prep and the set-up.
BATF: What is your favorite dish on the menu?
SM: The burger. Definitely.
BATF: What do you like to eat when you are not at one of your restaurants?
SM: Tacos! There’s a truck a block away from my house in West L.A. It’s called Ruben’s. He parks on Santa Monica Blvd. and Westgate from 7pm until 2-3am. $1 tacos. It’s really good. The meat is on the vertical broiler right there, he slices it off, crisps it up on the flattop, adds little corn tortillas, and horchata–I love that too. I do the Al Pastor taco. It’s very tasty.
Chef Mohajer is so masterful at bringing out the flavors in his own dishes, that I would probably try any taco he suggested. The proof is in the pudding–er, slaw–so you MUST try his recipe below. His recipes for watermelon and wild arugula salad, as well as French lentils are also pretty delish.
Let us know what you think!
Cabbage Patch Slaw Recipe:
The dressing should be made first and the salad dressed to taste; any remaining dressing can be saved for another use. Servings: About 12 side salad portions
1 teaspoon paprika
1 pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 cup toasted peanuts
1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano
1 1/2 cup peanut oil 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup Champagne vinegar
1/2 cup honey
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a blender, mix together the herbs, spices, honey, mustard, peanuts, and vinegar. Drizzle in the oils slowly, until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper, as needed.
1 large head of Savoy cabbage, shredded thinly with a knife or a mandolin
1 medium head of radicchio, shredded thinly with a knife or a mandolin
1/2 of a large jicama, shredded thinly with a knife or a mandolin
1/2 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup toasted peanuts, roughly chopped
In a large bowl, mix together the cabbage, radicchio, jicama and cilantro. Toss with dressing (to taste), season with salt and pepper (also to taste) and garnish with toasted peanuts. Divide between bowls and serve immediately.