When tasked to write about a most coffee-focused restaurant experience in Los Angeles, one name immediately springs to mind: Chef Gary Menes and his pop up concept Le Comptoir. That’s not to say there aren’t several excellent dining & coffee experiences to be in had in LA; it’s just that I’ve personally seen Mr. Menes surround himself with roasters and baristas, soaking up every every aspect of coffee culture. On a misty morning in Virgil Village Menes can be found sitting at the G&B counter discussing brew techniques with Kyle Glanville. On a dark winter evening, Menes can be found at coffee events like Nick Cho’s talk for the Kalita North American Tour at Cognoscenti Coffee’s new Culver City shop. He takes this stuff seriously.
Le Comptoir often changes its physical location — the website, for example, lists where the dining room is “currently located”. When it was downtown at Tiara Café, Menes developed a bond with Handsome Coffee. Menes has become known as the chef who loves to works with baristas in his kitchen not only to advise him on coffee, but to become part of his kitchen team. Justin Carleton, Jesse Scarantino, and more recently Chris Owens have all worked at Le Comptoir. Now when Menes wants to geek out on coffee, check ratios, or get advice from a trained coffee professional, he has many friends to call and often an accomplished barista in house. For the culmination of a Le Comptoir coffee experience, guests can watch the chef himself prepare his favorite current offerings, brewed on a Kalita Wave.
Menes’ culinary journey began in the mid-90s in the kitchen of Joachim Splichal. He went on to cook at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, Melisse, and The French Laundry and returned to Southern California to helm the kitchens at Firefly, Palate Food + Wine, and Marche. Now at Le Comptoir, Menes makes up his own rules. Le Comptoir is open only three nights a week, and offers a 6pm and an 8pm seating a counter that seats just twelve. It has become, in my estimation, one of the most sought after reservations in Southern California, combining delicious inventive food, gracious service, and a unique private supper club setting.
I’m lucky, then, that Mr. Menes was so gracious and giving of his time with me, allowing me to tag along with him on a Wednesday morning ingredient trip at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Our next stop was Intelligentsia Venice for an espresso and pour over, plus lots more conversation. Talking to Menes about coffee reveals his passion for every aspect of the coffee world. The discussion ranged from his original pilgrimage to the only Southern California Starbucks location in the 80s to the first time he tasted a geisha made in a Clover at Groundworks. Menes shared his coffee journey, independent spirit, and why coffee and doughnuts is the perfect end to an elegant meal at Le Comtpoir.
Julie Wolfson: How did your love for coffee get sparked?
Gary Menes: When we were opening Palate Food + Wine, we had Lamill as one of our purveyors, so I started digging that style, a little lighter. I liked the whole scene. Then Intelligentsia showed up. I realized I knew nothing. I did a coffee training class with Chris Owens and Nick Griffith. That’s when I met Kyle Glanville. That led me to becoming friends with these guys. In fact, on Twitter I now have more friends that are coffee people that I do chefs. Any type of coffee question, I can tweet to at least five of the most well known coffee minds in California, if not the United States.
What do you ask them in your tweets?
Ratios. I was hung up on this ratio because I was trying the new Kalita, so I texted Nick Griffith, Kyle Glanville, Michael Phillips, Tyler Wells and Chris Owens and I got all of these different ratios back. Just thinking I am asking a friend a questions, and I thought, holy shit, some of the greatest coffee minds in los Angeles have just given me their recipes and their breakdowns of what they thought the steep time should be and everything. I talk to Yeekai Lim of Cognoscenti Coffee twice a day. We have developed a friendship. I find him to be one of the great minds in coffee in Southern California. He is super well respected by all of the guys I mentioned.
What brew method are you currently using at Le Comptoir?
I started using the Kalita about 8 months ago. Justin Carleton gave it to me. He said, ‘If you like the V60, you try this.’ I tried it out while we were at Tiara and was sold. It comes out tea-like, but the extraction is still intense. It sits on the grounds longer and you get a better extraction. At the restaurant I heat water with induction. I put on a kettle and heat it up to about 206 and I bring it to the stand. I grind super fresh beans to order. This week I have three coffees. I have a Panama Geisha Esmerelda from Trystero in Atwater Village. Greg Thomas is awesome, so passionate. I have the Ethiopia Yukro from Heart in Portland. It’s beautiful. Then I am serving a Four Barrel from Kenya. I only have three services a week and I serve about 7 to 10 coffees a night. So I only get a chance to serve coffee about thirty times in a week.
Have you applied any of the things you learned about coffee to food preparation and vice versa?
My precision with food translates over to being precision driven in coffee, especially coming from French Laundry where everything is recipe’d. We use grams as a unit of measurement as opposed to pounds or ounces. We don’t use volume measurements. I have four different scales. I have a borrowed Mahlkonig K30 grinder from Michael Phillips. There are some pieces that are missing, but I jimmied it so it works. So I get to practice my espresso at home. I have such good friends that are in the business that I utilize just the best beans.
How did the Le Comptoir concept come about?
Being in business for myself, I can realize my dream almost like the concept we talked about from seed to cup or from seed to plate. Le Comptoir is a photograph of who I am right now: what I like to eat, how I like to eat, the amount of courses, and the types of cooking techniques, to the types of coffee that I want to be served, to the type of coffee methods that I am employing.
Eventually I’d like to have a small French style bistro that serves coffee but with the French names. To get a macchiato in France you have to call it a noisette. I’d have that on the menu, café au lait and things like that. It would be coffee driven. The food at the café would be 5 or 6 items – all hand-crafted including my sourdough donuts- like are on the Le Comptoir menu right now. If you order a sourdough donut it will take about ten minutes. I’ll start the sourdough donut and drop it in the fryer as we make your pour over. I have my own 19 year old sourdough starter. Dessert at Le Comptoir is donuts with coffee right now.
Why has coffee preparation become so important to you?
It’s been a twenty-year journey. I have a lot of baristas that gravitate towards me and I to them. We both have the need to learn something that is highly technical. It’s very passionate and it is very personal.
Le Comptoir reservation requests can me made through their website.
Julie Wolfson is a contributor to Cool Hunting, CBS Los Angeles, Tasting Table, and numerous other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.