Before Neal Fraser decided he wanted to cook, he could barely boil water and make top ramen. Today, the chef and restaurateur, together with wife and business partner Amy Knoll Fraser, runs several acclaimed eateries, including BLD, Fritzi Dog, and Redbird, where we visit on this occasion.
Previously, Fraser had spent most of his time at his much-acclaimed restaurant Grace. It closed in 2010 with plans to reopen downtown—Redbird followed instead, a highly anticipated opening after years of Vibiana being renovated by Fraser together with Amy. Planning for the restaurant began in 2008, but, as Fraser tells us, a lot changed by the time it finally opened to the public. “Both Amy and myself are kind of of the same mindset that everything is site-specific. We could’ve written the menu three years before we opened and still not have done it, because the space has to work with the menu.”
Fraser shows me around the stunning downtown cathedral that today is a multi-functional event space and home to Redbird, one of the city’s most praised restaurants. “Our original design had water features, a glass ceiling, we wanted to open up all the arches. But once we got an engineer here, he said, ‘We can’t really take these out, it would ruin the integrity of the building.’”
When we visit, an employee is grilling oranges studded with cloves on a recently installed outdoor grill. It’s a decidedly rustic sight, and we sit down and quietly admire the historic space so lovingly done up. We’re in the outdoor courtyard, which, with its exposed beams, arched glass windows, and plentiful sunlight, feels like an extravagant little hideaway for Angelenos. The decor is smartly done, furniture the stuff of mid-century-modern dreams—woods, leathers, coppers. It’s the kind of place Don Draper would sit in, ruminating on the stresses of New York life while flanked by the sunny dispositions of those ever-charming Californians.
So with such an iconic space, does the menu’s development mirror the aesthetics? Fraser tells us, “When you’re given such a blank space, it’s beautiful. How can you accent it? It’s like a peacock and adding, like, a colorful hat. It already has beautiful feathers. We wanted to pay homage to it.”
Not that the food is lacking in presentation. The aged Liberty Farms duck arrives, dramatically but perfectly cooked medium rare, the skin left on for a touch of velvety richness, and small cubes of pickled pear accompany the orange-tinged kimchi rice, with a deeply savory XO sauce. It’s a beautiful plate, delicious, and speaks to Fraser’s modesty. He speaks on the challenges of running a 140-seat restaurant while remaining creative in the kitchen, “I try to the best of my ability to create a Los Angeles restaurant that represents the constituents of Los Angeles.”
With a city as diverse as ours, it’s a tough test. Fraser openly admits it can be difficult to pay homage to ethnic food while still remaining accessible. “We do a crab soup that has a Southeast Asian palate. There’s some funk, some dry shrimp. It’s spicy, but you know, it’s not Jitlada spicy.”
And as Fraser says, he and Amy wanted a place where the food is “inclusive without being boring, you know? It’s our hope that this restaurant will be around for a long time.” If the food we’ve eaten so far is any indication, he shouldn’t have any troubles.
Among the other dishes Fraser serves up are a head cheese served atop a fig mustardo-smeared rye crisp. Though headcheese isn’t the most appetizing of food names, it’s tasty—the fig mustardo imparting a subtle sweetness that goes well with the tender, meaty heft of the head cheese. We also try the New Zealand snapper crudo, beautifully dressed with a golden drizzle of California olive oil and intensely fragrant yuzu kosho and Meyer lemon. The yuzu kosho, a zesty Japanese blend of salt-cured yuzu citrus and chili peppers, beautifully accents the soft, supple quality of the fish.
Fraser goes on to tell us, mastering the art of interesting, compelling dishes and being timeless is a hard thing to do. “I didn’t want to be the trendiest, hottest flavors of today. Like, you know, the churros con leche of restaurants. You’ve gotta be careful about that shit. You can’t get stale.”
Redbird may not be the leading hashtag on Instagram, but Neal Fraser’s plans for Vibiana are growing. We’re given a tour of the space, and quaint rooms not yet renovated hint at the ever-expanding role of the venue. From a private kitchen space an investor chipped in for, where Neal will cook for smaller parties, to a patio being finished up on the day we visit—there’s a lot going on.
“I’m trying to keep my eyes open and keep learning, keep evolving. We’re always kind of trying to push it a little bit.”
It’s clear Fraser has put a lot of thought into his establishments, Redbird, and Vibiana’s ever-expanding space. We look forward to him “pushing it” even further, for many more years to come.
114 E 2nd St., LA 90012