(Photo by Jeff Heilman)
Arriving mid-morning from New York, I went straight from LAX to nearby El Segundo in South Bay to start my five-day immersion into L.A.’s globe-spanning food scene. Locals call El Segundo “Mayberry” for its neighborly vibe. The El Segundo Brewery Company even makes a Mayberry IPA. Rolling along Main Street, my driver twice passed by the GPS address for the restaurant. “Must be that strip mall,” I told him, and it was. Exceptional dining in unassuming and unlikely locations would be the dominant theme of my visit.
Set back in a corner, Jame Enoteca (241 Main Street, El Segundo. Tel: 310-648-8554. www.eatjame.com) and its Michelin-minted wunderkind chef is a textbook example. If pasta doesn’t sex you up, the décor of this bright 24-seat space (more outside) is a libidinous start. One wall is covered with a photo of a young Claudia Cardinale twirling spaghetti into her mouth. Another entices with “Feed me pasta and tell me I’m pretty” in pink neon.
For Angelenos and co-owners Jackson Kalb and Melissa Saka, pasta is pure amore. Over signature dishes such as scarpinocc, braised beef cheeks tucked into pasta slippers with brown butter, sage and saba, Chef Kalb, shared his remarkable culinary journey.
While bedridden with mono at 11, weeks of watching The Food Network fired his desire to cook. At 12, he launched a home-based catering business. “I once served a well-off couple cold penne with vodka sauce and overcooked lamb chops swirled with mint jelly,” recalled Kalb with a laugh. “I had little idea of what I was doing.”
His determination got him noticed, however, leading to a high school apprenticeship at celebrated L.A. chef Josiah Citrin’s two Michelin-starred Mélisse in Santa Monica. At 17, he worked at all-time Michelin king Joël Robuchon’s eponymous three Michelin-starred atelier at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. While at Cornell’s renowned hospitality school, he staged at Grant Achatz’s singular Alinea in Chicago and interned at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café in NYC. His first job was a two-year “boot camp” in systems management at the Manhattan Beach location of national chain Houston’s.
Then, “feeling stifled,” he went on a four-month “vagabond” tour of Italy, learning about and cooking pasta along the way. “For me, pasta is comfort food, and it became the canvas for my creativity,” said Kalb, who collaborated with his partner Melissa Saka, herself a restaurant veteran, on the concept. Built on hand-rolled pastas, Jame (their first names conjoined) Enoteca became a hit soon after opening in June 2018.
The Cal-Italian menu both honors and reinvents Italian tradition. While nonnas would recognize the capellini with 36-hour tomato sauce, they’d be surprised by the creamy stracciatella cheese topping and the squid ink bavette. California accents include serrano chilies, along with Golden State tomatoes and olive oil.
Nods to L.A.’s “culinary melting pot” include the buttermilk fried chicken, kale salad with sweet and spicy almond vinaigrette, and Thai-inspired crispy risotto. All this talent and innovation tucked away in a strip mall.
Hand-painted by an artist friend, L.A.-themed tributes on the restroom walls include culinary legends Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck, “Pasta La Vista, Baby!,” and the Hollywood sign. One gourmandish-looking character I did not recognize: “That’s L.A. Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold,” said Saka. “He passed away last summer, just after we opened.”