At Kismet in Los Angeles, Sara Kramer, Sarah Hymanson and their cooks sculpt small plates and large-format dishes from California produce and Levantine energy.
Many Eastern Mediterranean food traditions sprang up at nodes along early trade routes where kaleidoscopic ingredient diversity and swirling cultural influences often passed through a single meal. Kramer and Hymanson’s menus embody this merchant bounty; they present each diner with a set of modular building blocks from which to assemble a vibrant, multicomponent feast.
Food and drink at Kismet arrive at the table in a colorful collage of small bowls, plates, glasses and platters. While highly Instagrammable, this approach represents more than a purely aesthetic choice; building meals from distinct but compatible pieces plays on some of the deepest chemical rules of deliciousness.
We often talk about flavor-pairing in the same language as fashion, but food is more fickle than clothing. There are tons of ways to build complementary and clashing pieces into an outfit, but there is no way to wear a jacket that will transform a cotton shirt into wool. When two foods are combined in a single bite, their chemical essences collide, mushing together to form a completely new alloy. Lemon plus garlic is not a linear equation; the presence of lemon transforms the fundamental tastes and smells that garlic has to offer.
This means that nothing is actually “finished” in the kitchen. After cooks are done cooking, every choice that a diner makes — finishing a conversation while hot broth continues to cook the ingredients in a soup, choosing sparkling over still water, leaving a garnish untouched until the final bite — can transmute the fundamental elements of a dish. The fact that every patron is a potential alchemist leads many restaurants to prescribe precise directions for consumption through their plating style or the server’s table-side instructions.
But Kismet doesn’t dictate a perfect sequence of bites, tell you how to swipe sauce or recommend that you eat anything in exactly 37 seconds. Allowing diners to explore an open world rather than locking their journey onto rigid rails takes confidence and a lot of planning. Here is how Kismet creates a vast, edible landscape within one of their signature dishes, Rabbit for Two.
Sauces and condiments
Culture and strain labneh, grind and age zhoug, blend tahini and pickle vegetables.
Kramer, Hymanson and their crew begin laying the foundation for the feast at least a week before you walk in the door, by culturing their own labneh from a mixture of organic milk and cream. They jump-start the process by adding kefir grains, tiny pearls of sticky carbohydrates spun together by microbes, to create cavernous minicities in which dozens of types of bacteria and yeast can thrive. When hydrated, these dormant civilizations wake up and kick into action. Millions of microscopic factories refine energy and generate building materials from the nutrient-rich dairy mixture, leaving behind traces of fragrant aroma and plenty of tangy acid.
After the acid shepherds loose milk proteins into tight, curdled flocks over several days of fermentation, Kramer and Hymanson hang the thickened cream in cheesecloth for a couple of days to drain water away, concentrating the soft blobs of protein and fat into a dense, creamy mass. The Kismet cooks whip salt into the labneh to yield a finished product that tastes like creme fraiche went to graduate school.
Cultured sauces benefit from age to give their tiny internal laborers time to work, but many unfermented condiments also benefit from a long repose to give their chemistry room to breathe. When first prepared, the Kismet red zhoug houses a Jackson Pollock splatter of essential oils and enzymes donated by a secret blend of spices ground together with garlic. Over days or weeks of refrigeration, the sauce ripens and matures as thorny aromas drift away, enzymes cut and trim sharp edges into smooth contours and soft nests of carbs convince bitter compounds to sink down into oblivion. Kismet’s lemony tahini follows a similar arc, though Kramer and Hymanson limit its maturation to a few days to protect the delicate fats in the sesame seeds from becoming rancid and fishy.
A menagerie of pickles bridges the gap between these worlds. Kramer and Hymanson preserve crispy vegetables and fruit by either inviting microbial guests to revel in salty brine or leaving produce to ponder preservation alone, drowned in seasoned vinegar.
Butcher rabbit, cook legs in duck fat. Simmer bellies and trimmings in stew. Marinate loins and grill on skewers with squash.
Every “ultimate” roast turkey recipe published within striking range of Thanksgiving aims to crack the cold-fusion problem of cooking fundamentally different parts (thighs, breast, wings) simultaneously in an oven. Kramer and Hymanson start with whole rabbits, but rather than tilting at the impossible windmill of a perfectly prepared whole animal, they carefully separate the legs, bellies and loins to three different destinies.
They salt the legs prior to a long, slow confit for several hours in duck fat. This fatty process doesn’t necessarily tenderize the meat more than any other slow, well-executed cooking method, but it does open a channel for capturing and broadcasting aromas. When a Kismet cook warms and coats the fat-slathered legs with a lichen-thick layer of toasted coriander combined with sesame and nigella seeds, the surface of the meat buzzes with high-fidelity fragrance.
The bellies, along with any other succulent bits trimmed from the rest of the rabbit, swim in a long-simmered stew of onions, tomatoes, chickpeas and a turmeric-heavy version of hawaij, a Yemeni spice blend. The flame-colored pigments in the tomatoes and turmeric thrive in oil, but rather than a Technicolor oil slick sitting on top of a watery stew, the starch from the cooked chickpeas grapples everything together, yielding a glowing sunset color and a light chowder texture.
Kramer and Hymanson marinate the rabbit loins with a mixture similar to the spices in the stew, swapping paprika for tomato as a rouge companion to the yellow curcumin in the turmeric-y hawaij. The loins contain more delicate, slender muscle cells than the rest of the animal, so the Kismet kitchen skewers them every morning and grills them just before plating. Since the leaner parts of the rabbit have less fat to offer, olive oil in the marinade takes the responsibility for harboring the bright red and yellow spice pigments. Together, the stew and the kebobs present the guest with a brilliant diptych, two distinct angles from which to appreciate the facets of a complex flavor profile.
Prepare bread dough. Freeze. Griddle until golden brown.
Butter-gluten relations fall on a continuum. On one end, there are spongy brioche and similar enriched cakes that allow fat to intermingle in a homogenous manner with the rest of the dough; on the other end of the span are aggressively laminated croissants and puff pastries with sheets of dough completely separated by discrete layers of fat. Kramer and Hymanson’s “flaky bread” sits just left of the highly laminated end of the spectrum.
The Kismet crew rolls a well-kneaded, rested and chilled dough into thin sheets before smearing it with tempered butter. They fold the dough in on itself to make a long, narrow belt and then roll the belt into a tight, snail-shell spiral. After chilling, they flatten the spiral into a compressed round and freeze the finished dough.
Kramer and Hymanson find that cooking the dough on a hot surface straight from frozen yields a medium-rare texture, transforming small, natural irregularities into splinteringly crisp flakes on the outside and pockets of moist, gooey butter bread in the center. Compared to the stodgy austerity of a croissant, Kismet’s flaky bread is a glutenous block party.
Kramer, Hymanson and their cooks synchronize all of these elements to land at the same time, adding final flourishes of charred lemons with vinaigrette-splashed seasonal greens and torn herbs just before landing on the table. At that point, the diner takes the reins
Squeezing lemon on the confited rabbit leg immobilizes sulfurous compounds on the surface of the meat, making it taste less gamey. On the other hand, eating the meat straight allows the combined nutty funk of duck and rabbit to shine without interference. While both the tahini and labneh contain plenty of creamy fat to sequester the pleasant chemical burn of the red zhoug, the dairy protein in the labneh snatches certain aromas out of the air to deliver a unique spice fingerprint to our noses. A coriander seed that sneaks onto a piece of flaky bread will amplify the citrusy tune first played by lemon juice three bites earlier. Our brains tune out consistent stimuli, so we can time a customized break from the comforting turmeric hum of the stew with one bite of fresh mint, pickled vegetable or crisp lettuce when we are ready to reset our sensory circuits and dive back in with the zeal of a first-timer.
Many American diners may experience the flavors of freekeh or black lime for the first time at a place like Kismet, but allowing an interlocking set of vivacious, plant-heavy dishes to act as garnishes and sidecars to each other is a more valuable addition to the American restaurant landscape than any one novel ingredient could be.