For some time, it seemed as though L.A.’s culinary scene had departed from the hallowed dining temples helmed by the likes of Wolfgang Puck, and moved into egg-white frittata territory favored by the city’s health-conscious hordes. Then, in June 2005, chef Michael Cimarusti opened Providence a stone’s throw from Paramount Pictures. Now, in a city entranced by casual, high-concept restaurants in the mold of Roy Choi’s Commissary, Cimarusti’s pristine seafood sanctuary—ranked by Jonathan Gold as the best restaurant for the past two years—proves that white table cloths still have staying power in Southern California.
“I only know how to do one thing: cook,” says the James Beard-nominated chef. “I didn’t think much about the future and the restaurant’s influence; I just felt like Providence is where I wanted to go next. It was a great location and I was hopeful that it would all work out.”
As the restaurant approaches its 10-year anniversary, it’s clear that Cimarusti has created a true food-world landmark in L.A.—one where adventurous diners can expect to be thrilled by the likes of spiny lobster ravioli, wild John Dory with black truffles, and Santa Barbara spot prawns. For Cimarusti, the purity of the seafood is of utmost importance.
I didn’t think much about the future and the restaurant’s influence; I just felt like Providence is where I wanted to go next.
It’s fortunate, then, that he didn’t let an uninspired stint washing dishes at the age of 15 seal his fate. “I hated it, but I always cooked and food was such a big part of my life growing up, so I decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America,” he says. A slew of storied kitchens followed: An American Place and Le Cirque in New York; L’Arpége in Paris; and the original Spago and Water Grill in L.A..
Still, it’s childhood summers on Rhode Island—eating up fried clam bellies, chowder, and clam cakes—that left the most profound imprint on Cimarusti’s cooking. In fact, his love for the seafood shack spawned Providence’s casual West Hollywood sibling, Connie and Ted’s. His Italian grandmother, who made from-scratch pasta, bread, and chocolate, also gave Cimarusti early insight into the importance of quality. “She would fry up polpettini to hold us over until the big meal was ready,” he recalls.
Cimarusti cites those memories as his inspiration to work hard and never compromise. “I think you have to evolve, but there are certain elements that need to be constant, like the integrity of the ingredients and level of service,” he says. “It’s like a band. When they put out a great album, they have to follow up with something that reminds you why you were attracted to them in the first place, otherwise there won’t be longevity.”
This summer, Cimarusti will look to the future with a new venture, Cape Seafood and Provisions. The shop, stocked with goods such as smoked bluefish dip, is aimed at “discerning cooks who want sustainable, pristine fish,” he says. “Maybe I’ll just stop working at the restaurant and sell seafood all day.”
That would certainly cause an uproar. Almost a decade later, Providence remains a fixture. From uni blanketed in eggs, to a French-meets-Asian sea bass, Cimarusti recounts the greatest hits that stand out from 10 years of constantly evolving menus.
Salt-Roasted Spot Prawns
Spot prawns are notoriously tricky. They are really only at their best when they are live, and the moment they die, they deteriorate. Since there’s such a limited window, I had to figure out the fastest and simplest way to properly cook them, getting them from the tank we maintain in the kitchen to the table. So, we roast our Santa Barbara spot prawns in salt at 500 degrees for a few minutes, carve them tableside, and serve with lemon and olive oil. (Photo: Bonjwing Lee)
For one reason or another, a lot of people have issues with uni. Sometimes they haven’t even tasted it and they’ve sworn it off. But this is the kind of dish that turns people onto it because the flavors surrounding the uni—a warm egg yolk, a simple champagne beurre blanc, brioche croutons—are comforting and familiar. It’s popular, and we’ve had it on the menu for seven or eight years. (Photo: Yelp)
The Ugly Bunch
I had to do a cooking demo in Japan and ended up making a soy-milk panna cotta with seafood on top. When I got back to the States, I changed the format a little and came up with this version. It’s like a smoked-fish panna cotta with abalone braising liquid, and on top it has abalone, geoduck, razor clams, sea urchin, and various herbs. Despite its name, it’s a beautiful looking dish. (Photo courtesy Providence)
Squid with Pig’s Ears and Piquillo
I had dinner in Chicago with my uncle who is Taiwanese. We went to his favorite Chinese restaurant and I asked him to order a bunch of things we wouldn’t otherwise have. One of them was a spicy pig’s-ear salad with peanut and spicy sesame oil. I’d never had it before, and I loved the texture and flavor. Between that and a trip I took to Spain after Water Grill, where I saw all these crazy things going on, I was inspired to make this. It was on the menu we opened with, and I think it was the first real dish I created that sounded odd on paper but that guests responded well to. (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Spot Prawn Tartare with American Caviar
Live spot prawns—except from November to February when they are out of season—are the envy of any chef who comes to California and doesn’t work here, because there are so few places to get them. When we put them on our first menu we called them “jewels” because they are translucent, and when you chop them up finely they sparkle like jewels. It’s a dish I still pull out for guests who have enjoyed it in the past. (Photo: KevinEats)
Striped Bass with Turnip, Nori, and Brown Butter
Striped bass is one of the best fish in the world. This is a quintessential dish for me because it brings together the French and Asian influences I like most. The turnips and brown butter represent French flavors, while the nori is Japanese. It’s simple and has great acidity, but ultimately, it’s about presenting a piece of properly cooked fish to our guests. (Photo: Yelp)
Wild King Salmon with Parsnip Puree, King Trumpets, and Wasabi
If anyone had told me I’d be using wasabi peas from a packet on my food, I’d tell them they were crazy. Then I tried it. I wanted to do something with king salmon, but without the skin. For texture, one of the chefs suggested crusting it with crushed up wasabi peas. As chefs, we often put strict parameters around our food, but I had an aha moment with this and realized I could be a little more playful and a have a little more fun. This was pretty damn good, so I put it on the menu. (Photo courtesy Providence)
Squid and Chorizo
We’ve served the squid and chorizo as an amuse bouche on and off for eight years. The squid is scored and blanched, then skewered into a pinwheel shape, and we add a piece of chorizo made by a small producer here in Southern California. We always send one over if you’re having the tasting menu, but it’s something fun that our guests love, so some of them request five or six. (Photo courtesy Providence)
Halibut with Burdock and Shiso
This dish was one of those rare moments where everything just came together simply. I was accustomed to seeing burdock and shiso together in raw form, but this brought them together cooked, and it works really well. Halibut wasn’t always my favorite fish. It can be dry, non-descript, and a little watery. The way we cooked this Alaskan halibut beautifully changed my opinion. We started brining it first, then drying it, so the brining helped remove the water and intensify the flavor. (Photo courtesy Providence)
Nasturtium Leaf Tacos
Scallops are one of my favorite things. At first, I was going to just marinate them in kombu and serve it like a tartare, but then I added pickled California capers—which are actually nasturtium pods—and sushi rice from Mori Onodera. We wrap it in a nasturtium leaf, so it looks like a taco—a simple, delicious green shell. We serve it to every guest. (Photo courtesy Providence)