Chef Walter el Nagar has been a prolific presence in the Los Angeles food scene for many years, having worked the kitchens of Il Grano, Piccolo, and La Botte within his first few years here. Like most chefs, his dream was to open his own restaurant. He got close in 2014, when he partnered with Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman’s AdVantage Partners to open Barberia in DTLA; that project, unfortunately, fell through. More recently, the chef did a stint at Andrew Kirschner’s Santa Monica Yacht Club as opening chef last year and then landed as executive chef at Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon in the fall.
Throughout all this, el Nagar has always been eager to share his his creative culinary ideas with the people of Los Angeles, and he done so through a series of pop-ups he called Barbershop Ristorante. He started in 2012 with Mario Vollera, whom he met at Piccolo. Along the way, he’s picked up a business partner in Guido Zwicker; collaborated frequently with Aaron Ziegler, a chef with his own Bull & Dragon series of pop-ups; and is now mentoring a young chef named Hen Sagi, whom he met at Inn of the Seventh Ray.
Now in its 10th iteration, this milestone for Barbershop Ristorante and for el Nagar is a touch bittersweet, as it also acts as the chef’s Southern California swan song. When this pop-up wraps at the end of April, el Nagar will embark on an European cooking tour. After that, who knows? But el Nagar does not have plans to return to Los Angeles in the near future.
For this farewell LA tour, el Nagar has put his band back together. In the kitchen with him are Ziegler and Sagi. Vollera, now chef/owner of South End on Abbot Kinney, returns as host and sommelier. The venue is Service & Supply, an actual barber shop in Venice with an event space in the back, owned by Oscar Hermosillo, who has a few other shops and restaurants in the area, including Venice Beach Wines, Cerveteca (also in Culver City and DTLA), and Clutch.
Before the five-course tasting, el Nagar starts with an assortment of snacks, some of which would probably count as full-fledged courses on other restaurants’ tasting menus. In three plates, the chef takes diners around the world, with stops in Ethiopia with his kifto toast, Italy by way of Korea with a fermented Caesar salad, and back to California: The Prawns and Peas, with raw Santa Barbara ridgeback shrimp, fresh-shucked local peas, and a dollop of burrata swimming in a cool and verdant broth, was the clear winner amongst these starters, and also a contender for top dish of the night.
The formal dinner courses also highlight international flavors, starting with a ceviche de pescado served in a young coconut, but true to form, el Nagar tweaks the traditional preparation by using calamansi instead of lime, adding a Southeast Asian twist to the Mexican dish. The Body Glue, a playful name based on the mishearing of the French barigoule, is as delicious as it is beautiful on the plate, with the petals of artichoke flower fried until they resemble gold leaf topping the tender artichoke heart.
Of course, very few chefs have a 100% success rate, but even el Nagar’s near-misses are bold and interesting. His Exploded Xiaolongbao, pork jowls topped with sea urchin and Zhenjiang foam, doesn’t quite evoke Chinese flavors, but perhaps it is not meant to. The danger is that, with both uni and black vinegar, the dish can easily become too bitter. Fortunately, if the meat properly seasoned, which it generally is, everything still comes into balance.
An optional wine pairing is available with the tasting and contains interesting selections. For instance, a 2012 Kabaj Sivi Pinot from Slovenia looks almost like a rosé with its coppery tone, but is actually a pinot gris that has been fermented for a brief time with the skin of the grape. It is paired with the Body Glue but works well with some of the other dishes.
When asked how his time in LA will influence what he does going forward, the chef had this to say: “LA will play a big role during the European tour; imagine a menu with the main influences coming from Italy, Mexico, Korea, Japan, Peru, Ethiopia and Middle East.” He explains that even though those influences span the globe, he educated himself on all these cuisines here, by exploring the various ethnic communities in and around LA.
The final details of el Nagar’s forthcoming European tour has not been announced. What is know is that the tour will begin in Barcelona and end in Milan, with a definite stop in Ibiza. Also, Sagi will accompany el Nagar to Europe as his sous chef. Stay tuned for more information.
Barbershop Ristorante’s farewell pop-up runs every Tuesday and Wednesday through April 20, with two seatings each night: 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Dinners are $75 for four snacks and five courses. Optional wine pairing is available for $25. Go to the website for more information or to make a reservation.
Note: As with any restaurant or pop-up that strives to use fresh, local ingredients, the menu, as well as the wine pairings, may be subject to change.