Big Fish Small Pond
He is the only contestant to win three of Food Network’s reality show competitions. And he competes again in this season’s Top Chef. But Phillip Frankland Lee’s biggest challenge may lie in Encino, where he is opening what he believes will be a world-class restaurant.
I want to put my hometown on the dining map,” Chef Phillip Frankland Lee emphatically states, when asked why he shuttered his high-end Scratch Bar restaurant in Beverly Hills and instead is opening in the Valley. But the well-known TV chef isn’t opting for the Valley’s “restaurant row”—the well-populated stretch between Studio City and Sherman Oaks. He has taken out a lease in Encino.
“A lot of chefs and restaurant buddies have told me I’m crazy and should be scared to open in Encino,” he says. “Although I may be a bit crazy , I’m definitely not scared.”
At 28, Phillip is fast becoming one of the most recognized chefs in the country—and he can thank his TV career for that. He will be a “cheftestant” on this season’s Top Chef, which premieres on Bravo in December. He has also appeared on and won Food Network’s Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen and Guy’s Grocery Games.
But behind the notoriety lies a serious pedigree. The bearded, tattooed culinary master is at the forefront of a generation of young chefs putting a personal stamp on innovative yet accessible cuisine. Among his accolades: He has been named in the Top 10 for “Best Young Chef in America” by San Pellegrino and as one of Zagat’s “30-under-30.” And he’s worked in prominent kitchens, including Los Angeles’ Hatfield’s and Providence.
Scratch|Bar & Kitchen, as it will now be called, marks Phillip’s second business venture in the Valley. His first, The Gadarene Swine, which opened just over a year ago, is an ambitious, creative, plant-based restaurant in Studio City. The Los Angeles Eater website listed it in “The Essential 38 Los Angeles Restaurants,” and it just received its first Zagat rating of 25 (rare for a new restaurant).
Chef Phillip, who recently moved with his wife and business partner/pastry chef, Margarita, to Sherman Oaks from West Hollywood, says he spent months looking all over Los Angeles for a location. His choice may surprise some.
Scratch|Bar, slated to open December 1 (Open Table began taking reservations in November), will occupy a second-floor space in a three-story, two-tone mini-mall on the Boulevard anchored by California Pizza Kitchen and Larsen’s Steakhouse. The location, which has a carousel out front, has experienced its share of problems over the past decade, including revolving tenants and an escalator that is often out of service.
Phillip admits the rents in Encino were a factor in his decision. “I could get a much better deal here. Rents are a fraction of what they are in Studio City,” he says.
Nostalgia helped seal the deal. “I grew up frequenting this shopping center with my parents and riding the carousel out front as a child … and then it wasn’t until seeing this little space that I fell in love,” he says. “It lent itself harmoniously to the concept I was aiming toward.”
TO THE GILLS Phillip stuffs a salmon with fennel and lemon before grilling.
VIEW FROM HERE Phillip and Margarita on the balcony outside their new restaurant. The couple, who met at Portola Middle School in Tarzana, came up with the Scratch|Bar concept together.
He continues, “Both my sets of parents still live in the Valley, and a lot of my guests at Swine live in and around Encino. It would be dumb of me to think anything in life is a sure shot, but I do like my odds and believe the demographic in and around Encino will support a concept such as this.”
Phillip says the Scratch|Bar concept was inspired by local sushi bars. “When I grew up in the Valley, I went to sushi bars all the time.”
There will be no waiters; cooks will take orders. “I want to take away the middle-man,” he explains. “The cook will come out and ask what you feel like eating … just like when you go home or to your grandma’s house and they ask what you want to eat.”
The only source of heat will come from a wood-burning oven with an open hearth that occupies the “kitchen” half of the restaurant. Twenty seats will line the concrete-topped bar facing the hearth; high tables (“so everyone can see the cooks”) will dot the rest of the small space. An adjacent area on one side of the eatery is allocated for cocktails.
The menu will include an eclectic selection of meat and fish, vegetables and starches. The cook will ask about ingredient preferences and offer various methods of preparation. Also offered: seven- to 25-course tasting menus, as well as beer, wine and specialty cocktails. And as she does at The Gadarene Swine, Margarita will create desserts.
Phillip’s #2, or “chef de cuisine,” at Scratch|Bar will be Jonathan Portela, who hails from the Michelin-starred Junoon restaurant in Manhattan. All ingredients will be made from scratch, including house-cured charcuterie and hand-pressed olive oil. Produce and meat will be sourced locally.
“It’s all about naturalism for me. I want beef to taste like beef and cauliflower to taste like cauliflower. I don’t like to cover everything up with thick sauces and tons of spices. I want to celebrate the ingredient.”
The question is whether a visionary chef like Phillip can lead the way in this suburb not regaled for fine dining—or really dining at all. The fact that the restaurant scene has not yet pushed into this enclave, just west of the 405, is somewhat puzzling since home prices in Encino have risen 10% in the last year compared to lower numbers in Studio City and Sherman Oaks.
Mark Stipkovich, VP of sales for Lawyers Title, explains that “the price increase in Encino is generally due to investor flippers who are driving up the market by dropping mega-mansions.”
He continues that although sales have risen, Encino buyers are generally older. And while there are first-time homebuyers in Encino, sales prices are generally in the $1.2 million-plus range, which “eliminates much of the young population.
“First-time buyers often come from the Westside seeking more value for their money and are looking in the $700,000 to $900,000 range … there’s much more inventory in Sherman Oaks and Studio City, which tends to be newer, updated and just more hip than Encino.”
Still Mark believes that restaurants can prosper in Encino. “If a good restaurant is built, it’ll pull various age demographics from all over the Valley and Los Angeles, and other restaurants may follow … kind of like ‘if he builds it, they will come’,” he quips.
KEY INGREDIENT A kale salad with salmon, cucumber and tomato. “We’ll just take something like a large whole salmon, stuff it and then grill it on the hearth. Then we’ll create various dishes with it, like this salad,” says Chef Phillip, explaining how Scratch|Bar will work.
John Aaroe Realtor Alan Taylor concurs with Mark but adds that it is difficult to find adequate restaurant space in Encino because of the way Ventura Boulevard is developed west of the 405—“It’s a tough stretch due to a lack of low-rise buildings, street-front space and parking.”
Rickey Gelb has lived in and around Encino for nearly 60 years—and with his company, The Gelb Group, owns buildings and leases properties throughout the Valley, many which have housed restaurants. He says he has seen countless restaurants in Encino seem to “take off in the first six months and then fall to zero due to raising prices, food inconsistency and poor service.”
Reflecting on the lack of street-front space, Rickey says, “Restaurants in the Valley very rarely do well on the second floor. The exceptions that I can remember are Larsen’s, CPK and Taj Mahal.” He adds: “Unless Scratch|Bar has something unique and has some type of following, it will be a rough road.”
Rafael Dumas, the chef/owner of the now shuttered Karma Bistro in Encino (Scratch|Bar is now located in that spot), still owns the four-year-old Karma Lounge in Koreatown. He says he did his “due diligence” researching what kind of restaurant would be unique. With a menu that consisted of small plates with a global influence, he received excellent reviews.
But after 15 months and a new baby, he felt that he couldn’t keep battling uphill. He recalls “an older crowd of people stuck in their ways” as one negative. Still he believes “Phillip will have a head start because of the press he receives and his notoriety.”
Kevin Khalili, CEO of the team behind Coral Tree Café and Red Room Food & Wine Bar in Encino, says they’ve discovered “many Encino residents commute outside the Valley for work and therefore tend to eat dinner on the Westside after work, due to proximity and rush hour.” The group nonetheless has found success in Encino due to brisk daytime business and take-out orders at Coral Tree, as well as a good evening crowd at Red Room.
The casual chain eatery Islands, however, moved from Encino to Sherman Oaks last year. Marketing director Amanda Cameron says the lease was up and the new development met all their criteria, plus it has free parking. She explains “both towns are terrific to do business in, but the Sherman Oaks area has much more residential living within walking distance.”
Before the Scratch|Bar announcement, there were encouraging signs of possible growth. Sweeney’s Ale House, from barman/restaurateur Ryan Sweeney, set up shop in Encino. He also owns The Woodman in Sherman Oaks, as well as eight other gastropubs and bars.
General manager Dustin Seavey says, “There was a big hole,” as far as where people could come eat and drink at night in Encino, so they “decided to take a risk.” So far, so good. He says Sweeney’s brings in a good evening crowd that ranges from ages 30 to 50s in the early evening and 20s to 30s later on.
Another recent opening: Sweet Lady Jane in the Encino Marketplace. CEO Daniel Mafrice says they chose Encino because they had a strong Valley customer base that had fueled the original Melrose location for 27 years. “We specifically chose the Caruso-owned property for the easy access to other Valley communities, ample parking and the vast amount of outdoor patio seating.”
Du-Par’s took over the space occupied by John O’Groats, which owner Paul Tyler closed after five years to concentrate on his family’s original West LA location of 30+ years.
“It was only natural for us to come back to Encino,” explains Du-Par’s owner, Biff Naylor, since Du-Par’s had been located at Petit Avenue and Ventura Boulevard for 30 years. “Now West Valley customers are stopping in Encino instead of driving to Studio City. We’re happy to be here—we’ve carved out a niche with a high-end, ‘old school’ style … and it works.”
Despite the trail of comings and goings, Phillip remains stalwart in his belief that he can make a difference. “I believe in our concept, and I believe in the city that I grew up in. The Valley never had great restaurants while I was growing up, and it’s very important to me to be a part of the solution, not the problem.”