In July, a bit of the Basque Country arrives in downtown Los Angeles in the form of a long-simmered chicken with Espelette pepper; green peppers stuffed with shallots, rice and cinnamon; and grilled duck breast with vine scraps and cherries. In a way, the European coastal region is, says Daniel Rose, a mirror image of Los Angeles, and he intends to showcase its similarities in flavor and culture when he opens Café Basque at the foot of downtown Hoxton Hotel.
This is the first West Coast restaurant for Michelin-starred chef Le Coucou, and only his second in the United States, as well as the first time the France-based chef will shape a restaurant around Basque cuisine.
“I’m addicted, in some ways, to this idea of bringing the French way to different places,” Rose said in an interview. “I think there are great cities in the world that have a huge amount of character, a huge diversity, that have a different way of seeing the world – and I find that absolutely exciting.”
Rose, born and raised in Illinois, left to study in France 24 years ago and never really left. The chef, passionate about the classics and the history of art, finished his studies in Paris, and wanting to stay in France, decided to devote himself to cooking by enrolling at the Institut Paul Bocuse.
From there he apprenticed and cooked through Brittany, southern France and other places – with a detour to Guatemala in 2004, where he cooked French cuisine with Central American ingredients for nearly two years at a swanky hotel on Lake Atitlán – then returned to Paris to open Spring, a runaway success of a market-driven 16-seat destination with a set menu in 2006. Reservations were filling up for months at a time. time. Le Figaro food critic Emmanuel Rubin visited a few weeks after Spring opened and wrote one of Rose’s favorite observations to date: that it was a restaurant that looked like life. “I don’t know how you can do better,” the chef said. “I found that very touching and it set the tone for everything we did from then on.”
Spring, which expanded in 2010 to a much larger location, closed in 2017. But since its rise to international fame, each Rose concept has focused on a different nuance of French cuisine, whether it can be gourmet, bistro, provincial or, in the case of his next Chicago restaurant – Le Select, which is due to open in late fall – a classic brasserie. Le Coucou, Rose’s first American restaurant, opened in New York in 2016 to immediate fanfare; enthusiasts are still raking in reservations for its ode to traditional high-end French cuisine and dishes resurrected from decades and even centuries past.
In Los Angeles, Basque cuisine simply made sense.
“I said to myself: ‘What is there in Basque cuisine that corresponds to Los Angeles?’ To me, California is defined by sunshine, in some ways,” he said. “There are a few places in France where there is a Cuisine du Soleil, [or] ‘sun kitchen.’ In my brain, it would be weird to cook things from Normandy in Southern California, but there are already natural places in France that have this Cuisine du Soleil tradition.
An example of this is Provençal cuisine, between Marseille and the Italian border, as it overlaps with Italian cuisine – cuisine readily available in LA
Most of Rose’s intended parallels between France and Los Angeles are in the Basque Country, or the French Basque Country, particularly along the coast: the surf culture and ingredients such as artichokes, almonds and olive oil inspired Rose, who also sees a familiarity in the prevalence of Espelette pepper and tomato in the French-Spanish Basque culinary crossover.
“That,” he said, “leads to the parallel of California and Mexico, the kind of cross-border cultural movement and diversity.”
While Café Basque will share some characteristics of Spanish Basque cuisine, including meats cooked over an open fire and a range of pintxos, French Basque cuisine is, Rose noted, special: a combination of traditional French techniques and recipes, but prepared very simply. It is neither Spanish Basque nor fluent French. “Basque cuisine is very different from what most people think of as French cuisine,” Rose said. “In some ways, it’s transnational. It requires a lot of finesse, but it’s very brutal.
Its new menu will rely on wood-fired cooking and the rustic technique, envisioning a range of traditional Basque dishes prepared with Californian ingredients: white beans in a broth of local vegetables; crab gratin caught on the Californian coast; redfish in Español, or classic Californian redfish roasted with garlic and lemon and tomatoes in green olive oil; and ttoro, a fish soup with squid and shellfish and local fish cooked a bit like a bouillabaisse.
The new restaurant will take up the entire ground floor of the Hoxton Hotel, exploiting the lobby bar, cafe and elegant brass-accented dining space once inhabited by Sibling Rival. Boka Restaurant Group operates both the dining space on the ground floor, as well as the rooftop, which now houses Stephanie Izard’s cabra. The hotel group is also teaming up with Rose for the next Le Select de Chicago, a kind of homecoming for the chef, who grew up in Chicago and returns, yes, to visit his family, but also because he just wanted to open a brewery. “A brasserie is a French restaurant of course, but that’s where commerce and cuisine meet, which sounds very Chicago to me,” he said.
When Rose visited downtown LA, he was struck by the neighborhood’s remaining Art Deco details and was also reminded of the hotels in Biarritz. For its own space, the Sibling Rival dining room featured a sort of modern restaurant-like setup with a long counter, which could lend itself to a laid-back, informal concept for Rose. Café Basque, he says, will be his most informal restaurant yet.
His role has changed in the nearly two decades since Spring opened, evolving from owner and head chef to director of international operations and chef-partner for several concepts, including La Bourse and La Vie à Paris. , which he transformed in April and May into Le Borscht and La Vie, serving Ukrainian cuisine with the help of displaced war refugees. His expanded duties mean more travel – France being the main home base for Rose, his wife and children – and overseeing hundreds of employees. Beginning in June, his new Los Angeles team will focus his cooking efforts in the Café Basque space, where Rose will cook himself and park in the fall, when he will begin rotating Chicago more frequently in his visits to his restaurants in Paris, Los Angeles and New York.
The chef reckons Café Basque will open at the end of July, possibly in phases, but will still offer something throughout the day, even in the form of more informal bites at the coffee stand at one end of the building, or at the bar and lounge: Basque cheesecake and other pastries, possibly with a coffee brûlée to wash it down. Breakfast and brunch may include ham fritters, French pies, sheep’s milk yoghurt, millet (traditional cornmeal porridge, served here with spinach, a little honey and oil olive) and a Basque version of a croque monsieur.
Rose said he hopes his first restaurant in Los Angeles conveys the more casual and laid-back emblems of dining in the Basque Country and Los Angeles.
“The food we always take very, very seriously. The danger is always that the food gets too serious,” he said. “In some ways, it’s like we’re trying to find the ultimate balance. Maybe it’s like the picture in the frame, you know? The painters were also choosing their frames – they decided what was around them was just as important.